Tipping Point


Disclaimer: This post has nothing to do with Malcolm Gladwell and his book – Tipping Point, which is a fantastic read btw.

Its been a long long long time since I’ve written anything – really this space is an apology of a blog in that sense.

I do have an excuse to offer though. Actually a string of excuses – the first being that I don’t have a job and went through a major phase of depression, then I got married and lately I’ve been spending time with a critically ill family member in a hospital instead of honeymooning.

Between all of this, I’ve had plenty of time (what else does one do in hospitals and beauty parlours anyway?) to introspect and more interesting observe my own behaviour during these tumultuous times.

I find that dealing with a crisis if you’re an overall efficient person isn’t very difficult. All it requires is a clear head, a larger than normal supply of patience, access to money and someone loving who will take care of you while you take care of other things.

Its the little things though that happen throughout that is truly exhausting. It didn’t matter so much for example, that I had to find 16 people to donate blood at a short notice or find ways to deal with extreme cultural shocks. It bothered me terribly though – that my favourite hair brush vanished for three whole days. It drove me to tears when I couldn’t find bathroom slippers in order to go pee when I had Mehendi on my hands.

I’m not sure what explains the complete strangeness of this behaviour – but on a completely non-original note I think I can say I’ve discovered my own Tipping Point. I hate it when I am expected to ‘be there’ and ‘take care’  — and the little things aren’t in order. Clearly working to resolve a large crisis (emotional or physical) brings out the best of ‘responsibility’ in me, but perhaps that process is so alien to me that I compensate by stressing out about the small things. Human nature or peculiar to me?

Or I love my HAIR BRUSH. And oh, I love my husband – he found it. 🙂

At any rate here are somethings to ask yourself during crisis management:

1. Are you being irrational about the little things?

2. Are you doing too much on your own?

3. Are you being a little unfair to those who are in support roles with you?

If you’re answering yes to any of these things – do what I did. Recognise that you have a problem. Find out what your tipping point is. Meditate for a bit. Change what gets you to that point. Get on with crisis management.

Oh um eh….I wear a bra…


By now you know all about this, but just in case you don’t, here is a link you could read. If you, however, do not like links and don’t look up things on the net that you read about – then here is a summary:

There is a meme going around Facebook. A lot of women, (me included) received an e-mail (forwarded), from other girl friends we know — suggesting that we change our status messages to a one word colour that reflects the bra we’re currently wearing.

Why? Because it might be a fun, silly, puzzling-to-men thing to do and also raise awareness about breast cancer along the way. How? One version of the story is that smart men will track down the mail and see that breast cancer figures in the mail – another version is that the mail originated from a breast cancer awareness organization.

A lot of my friends (and apparently a lot of women) did as the e-mail suggested. I counted twenty plus colourful status messages ranging from fawn, pink, white to multi-coloured. Mine said “black” for the record. A while later I started seeing e-mails going back and forth; several which objected to this entire exercise. I like summarizing things – so in summary there were two kinds of responses a) Don’t–  this is stupid/embarrassing etc, and b) Don’t do this – I’m worried this trivializes the entire breast cancer cause.

I’m terribly worried by the latter. This opinion is both stupid, embarrassing and frankly many times worse than ‘trivializing’. Here is why:

1. It is stupid because it betrays a fear about discussing a ‘private matter’. There is nothing really private about a bra colour. In any sense. Men are privy to the vast variety of leopard prints on bras in some of the biggest malls in this country. They are also privy to the cheap, and equally designer, replicas in road side shops. Besides, nobody forced anyone into sharing the colour of their bra. What is so troublesome about seeing a bra colour openly shared? Nothing.

What is troublesome, to these sorts of people, is that so many women spontaneously shared their bra colours (I have no doubt many lied – but a fair share must have been genuine too; at any rate the truthful or fictitious nature of the color is quite irrelevant) and GASP many of them were ‘committed’ or even ‘married’. Now, I don’t know about you, but I think this is quite close to being stupid.

2. Let’s talk about embarrassment. Clearly women who voluntarily shared this information were quite unashamed. If they were embarrassed they probably would never have done it. These women also already knew about breast cancer and felt obligated (morally) to pass the information on. We’ll discuss if Facebook memes are necessarily the best mechanism to do this, in a bit.

Now, I can’t see, why I (or anyone else) should be embarrassed about passing information about breast cancer. As a matter of fact – I would feel very embarrassed if I didn’t. Clearly embarrassment goes a long way. To my mind, if people could be embarrassed into reading (which does not automatically translate into knowing/remembering or internalizing) about breast cancer, let there be more embarrassment.

3. Trivializing the issue. This the big one. This is where all the activists and gender warriors stand up wag their fingers at you. “This is all very well… but won’t men just guffaw silently about bra colours and boobs and not really give breast cancer the concern it deserves? Besides, breast cancer is a serious issue – not a joke about bras and colours, right? Wrong. Wrong because there is a huge framing problem going on here. It is poor logic. If I say I am against capital punishment is that the same thing as me saying that I believe ‘all crime should go unpunished’?

Will men silently guffaw? Sure. Many will, some definitely will. But that is not the point. Let’s go back to the question I asked in point number 2. Are Facebook memes a good way to spread awareness? Depends of how you define the objective. The objective, I think, of the meme was to raise awareness about the existence of breast cancer. Awareness is, to me,  planting a thought. Waving a word in someone’s face. If I scream “BOOBS” and get three men to pay attention and manage to say three lines about breast cancer after – what is the likely outcome?

One scenario is – the man derives some happiness from the word ‘boobs’ and moves on. Scenario 2 – The man remembers about the boobs but also about breast cancer. He has a busy day – but when he casually surfs the net, he looks it up. Maybe he has daughters who he discusses the issue with, maybe he asks his partner.

Scenario 3 – Maybe the chap does nothing other than repeat this “silly story” to another guy, who then tells some other guy…. information spreads. One of those guys is from scenario 2.

So we have a lot of lousy and different outcomes – but some positive ones too. Are the positive outcomes worth it? You decide. What are the losses? Some guys, who wouldn’t have cared either way, still don’t – they occupy the same spot on the indifference curve. Some guys act as carriers of the message. Positive outcome. Some guys, who might not have cared, (if not for the meme) actually read about it. Positive Outcome. Is the breast cancer cause doing any worse than it was in the absence of the meme? You pick.

I also said that response two (the accusation  of trivializing) does some damage. How?

One of the best things about the internet is that information is easily accessible. It doesn’t cost me more than two clicks to read about breast cancer – right now. This is the magic of hyper linked documents. The power of a social media tool (like Facebook) and a meme on it, is that it, adds personal credibility. I get a message from a friend, I read it. Even if it is a meme. Then there is the hope to leverage huge numbers. Most critically – the internet is fun.

In school, I hated statistical classes, because the information was in boring histograms and I had to draw to scale on printed graph paper. There was no undo button if I made a mistake. The cost of drawing that graph and making an error was astronomically high in that context. I had to use an eraser and hope that all the rubbing wouldn’t tear my graph paper. In college, I discovered infographics, beautiful non-histogram ways to understand statistical data. And I could create my own (on excel back then) and make as many mistakes as I wanted – because I could ‘undo’. How did I start enjoying a subject I hated? It was made fun.

Surely, there can be no better way to attract attention to a deserving cause, than by making ‘awareness’ fun? If someone wanted to get people to look up ‘breast cancer’, by mentioning coloured bras because it is fun, how is that a bad outcome?

Here is a real bad outcome – by diluting the enthusiasm to share important information and getting minds to look up ‘breast cancer’ – you’re actually hurting the cause. Time and time again I meet people in the social sector – who like occupying the high ground by using this word ‘trivialize’.

Here is how to trivialize a genuinely good idea —

The internet using population has quick and easy access to information. The meme architect has a hook that catches the eye, a free mechanism to do the networking and a social media tool to add credibility — and what do you do? You worry about bad outcomes because you think people will misunderstand.Worse still, you air those views.

Some timid people out there, who would have liked to be a part of this information chain, have now opted out because your raised doubts. In the words of Steven E Landsburg — you have polluted the communal stream of information that had clear positive spillover effects. If you don’t like Economics — this means there are now fewer people to influence more people. Now that is a bad outcome.

I would not worry so much about people’s understanding. People are genuinely rational. Also, despite my description of men, many are not as awful as one likes to believe and are happy to learn and even help.

So what colour is your bra? 🙂

PS: This is not to say that there aren’t better ways to raise awareness. Neither am I saying that different questions and issues cannot be raised. Cultural sensibilities, prices, attitudes, aspirations and a bunch of other things are extraordinarily important. I’m not entirely sure if breast cancer is a women’s issue alone or if getting men involved is enough.

The point is – you can’t attack an attempt to raise awareness by saying “you aren’t saying all there is to be said on the subject”. Of course not. If the bra meme gets people interested in breast cancer – the internet is a great place to learn, about the weightier and by no means inconsequential issues, in this arena — and breastcancer.org is an excellent place to begin.

Monopolizing TED


This post is an opinion. It is important that I state this upfront given the probability that its likely to be taken badly. This post is an opinion. Re-Stated. Opinion. Period.

Lately, I’ve become a big fan of saying things ‘upfront’ along with becoming a fan of ‘staying in the loop’, ‘re-defining impact’, ‘being on the same page’ and the like, but all that is a story for a different day.

TEDIndia is happening. TED has been ‘happening’, in a better way – for longer. Years ago, when TED found me – I spent several days downloading mp4 (s) to my Ipod. Qualitatively, what made the videos/talks different, was the fact that they celebrated the ‘small fry’, voices that haven’t been heard before.

Now take a look at the TEDIndia’s speakers list.

If you work with development in India – almost all those names are familiar to you. Where are the new ideas? Where is the innovation? A huge percentage of the potential speakers represent the ‘social enterprise’ space, there are also the ‘microfinance guys’, the ‘development economists’ and all then some more.

Some of these guys have done great work in the past. They’ve shaped the development space into what it currently is. They’ve also run out of ideas. Not to mention the ‘legendary-ness” of Usha Uthup.

Clearly, many of these people are established ‘greats’ with good reason. They’re excellent speakers and ,yes, maybe those of in this niche ‘development’ sector do know them – but this is about Global Recognition (with G and R in CAPITALS).

I beg to differ – clearly this is about fund raising and hobnobbing. Nothing wrong with that, just state it upfront.

So here’s my quibble — the idea was for TED bring ‘inspired’ thinking to the rest of us. On this front, TEDIndia – well you’ve failed me.

PS: This post, of course, has nothing to do with the fact that boss(es) are also on the speakers list. 😛

Edutainment?


A friend who works with ‘Education’ (as we in the third sector often like to put it) once told me ” In India its difficult enough to obtain an education without having to worry about its quality too”.

I like to believe in the potential of private enterprise to do do wonders for education, professor James Tooley’s new book – the beautiful tree, does a great job of pointing how this might be plausible with primary education.

I’m also a long seasoned advocate of the Friedman argument that the Government has no business being in business. In India there is no business quite as complicated (both on the regulatory scenario front and on the potential impact front) as the business of higher education.

The argument against the utility of certification and regulatory roadblocks to offering and receiving higher education more common sense than anything else.

Sadly though, when one takes sides one often (and I am guilty of this in more ways than one) — one forgets to account for the losers in the short-run. Take the ICFAI mess in the cities of Hyderabad and Jaipur for instance.

So what can you do, as a student – while the rest of us sit and pontificate about the merits and demerits of who should be in the business of education or who shouldn’t?

Take a look at this article which suggests that students’ check the following four things before committing a good year or more of their lives to an ‘institution’ –

a. Is the Institution awarding the degree, either a valid University or Deemed to be University? If yes, is it operating within its authorized jurisdiction?

b. Does the course/ programme have the approval of the relevant professional council?

c. Does the institution have valid accreditation?

d. Is the institution awarding the degree a member of the Association of Indian Universities?

I recommend everyone who is contemplating any sort of higher education (in India) read this piece thouroughly!

As the author points out towards the end:

“…it is important that students know the regulatory environment in the field of higher education in India. Knowing the legal requirements and taking reasonable care in these matters can help the youth of this country avoid losing money and precious years to well marketed, money-oriented educational business empires. It is certainly better to be careful than to be sorry!”

Because


There was a point in my life when I was a fan of ’causes’. Not the Facebook app.

Friends would remember me as someone of strong opinions, strong ideals… as someone convinced of themselves. Wholly. Fully given to a set of beliefs and someone who always wore the same lens through which she saw the world.

Now I’m a different person – I ask why, how, do those numbers stack up?

A couple of years ago when an activist organization sent me an e-mail about the ‘evil’ of big corporations — I would do pass it around to everyone I knew and all those who happened to be on my contact list by accident.

Today I chanced upon another one of those e-mails (usually deleted these days without even a glance) and it caused me to ponder just how sensationalist and non-rigourous it was and consequently how sensationalist and non-rigourous by extension I must have been. 

There is nothing very surprising about this in itself. People grow up. Intelligence arrives as do wisdom teeth.

This particular mail I got had to do with the formerly christened Swine Flu now — now known by its more austere name the H1N1 virus.  This e-mail originated from a group of ‘concerned citizens’, whose sworn mission is to oppose large corporate entities they regularly blame for damaginf the environment, perpetuating hunger in the third world, sustaining child soldiers and now also causing Swine Flu. 

If you are like me, you already smell a rat, or a pig — as the case might be. To be anti-corporate entities for economic reasons, labour rights and so on is understandable. But to connect them to Swine Flue is an example of hijacking am event to strengthen the case of cause without any established causality.

Sample these statements from the e-mail I received – wait, forge the statements, here is the title “The Truth About Swine Flu”; did you know there was a lie involved? I didn’t. Insinuation number 1.                                                                    

Now to the statements — No-one yet knows whether swine flu will become a global pandemic, but it is becoming clear where it came from – most likely a giant pig factory farm run by an American multinational corporation in Veracruz, Mexico.” Notice, GIANT AMERICAN MULTINATIONAL CORPORATION —  advocacy communications at its best.

“These factory farms are disgusting and dangerous, and they’re rapidly multiplying.” – Incidentally, bolds are all as they are in the e-mail. Notice, DISGUSTING and DANGEROUS – also rapidly multiplying; here is my question – links, footnotes, data?

The World Health Organization (WHO) and the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) must investigate and develop regulations for these farms to protect global health.” Global health of course, is merely a function of regulating pig farms. Snort. 

“Big agrobusiness will try to obstruct and scuttle any attempts at reform” , ahem, substantiate?! 

If we reach 200,000 signatures we will deliver it to the WHO in Geneva with a herd of cardboard pigs. For every 1000 petition signatures we will add a pig to the herd” (italics my own) – This is how seriosuly we want to take global health and swine flu – not policy, not a serious study of what ‘regulations’ might work – but cardboard pigs, sure. Bring ’em on!

“Smithfield itself has already been fined $12.6m and is currently under another federal investigation in the US for toxic environmental damage from pig excrement lakes.”…a combination of increased global meat consumption and a powerful industry motivated by profit…”, and yet because there is a market for pork apparently there isn’t enough regulation! Snort. 

Swine Flu, let me state, is something that calls for serious research and action. However, what it does not call for, is hijacking of its intrinsic importance by an anti-profit, anti-corporations bandwagon that does little else than hollar about regulations and practise strategic communication games to get ints finger on the world’s issues-pie. 

Sheesh.

Wanted: A Transformative Experience


I’m going through a crisis of faith – the non-religious kind.

The ‘drafts’ section of my e-mail is overflowing with links to new jobs. I’ve even been gifted a new set of paints and a sketch-book. I was advised to use my lay-off as a break, find some time to ‘unwind’, do what I feel like…. but that is the problem.

I feel stretched, uninspired even to apply, tired to read, my ears are buzzing with music that sounds no more different from set of discordant clangs.

How does one find that single transformative experience? A little tranquility, a little less panic, a little noice, some wind, some space, a burrow, freedom? Its been eons since I’ve done anything even remotely creative, carefree, happy and just me. In fact I’ve forgotten what that ever felt like.

In two weeks I’ll be starting with a new place, a new set of bosses, a new house (not home), more brokers, bank accounts….

This is what I have been reduced to – a rag doll who hammers away at a silly machine all day with a plastic smile. And this is what I have reduced this space to — (once creative and even fun) just another scrap of digital papering to record my irrational miseries.

The 29C Effect


BusEveryday in the morning I wake up at 07:00 a.m to the constant beeping of my cellphone. I then press ‘snooze’ and get back under my sheet.

I do this at least three times on average and end up waking up at 07:30 a.m. I then rush through a bath, put on a thoroughly unmatched Kurta over ancient jeans and walk through a mini-swamp, a pile of stones, huge piles of cow-dung and some lousy construction to reach the famous ECR road.

By this time it is usually exactly 08:20 a.m.

At this point I slowly melt into the motley bunch of fisher women, harried mothers’ with school bags and children in tow, men looking for casual labour, the day-shift call center executive and the proverbial IT kid. We all then compete with each other to stuff ourselves into already over crowded share-autos.

Share autos are just larger three wheelers with open sides that make up for the fact that they are not quite large enough.

Once I succeed at getting into one of these I make my honking journey across ECR to Thiruvanmiyur bus stand. This entire painful routine usually ends up guaranteeing me a seat in my all-time favourite bus – the 29C AC special.

The AC specials are ultra-modern ‘low-floor, high-seat, music-blaring, air-conditioned, automated-swinging-door, uniformed conductor and polite driver’ specials. They are lovely.  They are also white with huge advertisements painted in bold colours across them. And there are just two leaving every hour.

I have a favourite seat, its in the back half of the bus. Second from the front, near the windows that the 29C occupants can see out of but that people on the road can’t see through. I wait to pay the conductor my 23 rupees and then listen to my iPod till I get to Sterling road.

The 29C community is a small bunch of people. A retired army officer who does strategic consulting at some shady Nungambakkam firm, a real well meaning middle-aged aunty who has a bad leg and requests an unscheduled stop at the Chola Sheraton, the three college girls who talk about the ‘worst lectures’ ever who get off at Stella and the quirky young chap with a stubble like Abhishek Bacchan — carrying a pink bag and reading a book on fashion design.

We see each other every day. Some of us smile, some of us even say good morning. Most of us know we are in this bus together sharing a journey. We wait together when our beloved bus is later and express surprise if even one us misses a day in the week. The 29C effect calmed me, prepared me for office and battles of the day, made me belong to a bunch of comfort-seeking yet poor members of the ‘middle-class’.

From 6th of March i will cease to be a part of these people’s lives and their stories. I will never know if the effeminate guy won his art competition, if the aunty managed to get her sons to fix the fuse, if the girls managed to bunk their classes or if the tired wage worker managed to save up to recharge his phone to tell his son in Perambur that he now uses an AC bus.

Another two days and the inexplicably comforting 29C effect will be history. No wait, it will go on to write histories that no one will ever read.  I will no longer be a character on its stage. Stop the bus, I want to get off…

The Business of Being Lonely


lonely-1I need a new place to go to and if people didn’t hire-by-the-blog I would say more. All through this trauma I’ve felt a cold updraft blowing up my neck.

I’m surrounded by people who say they care. “Don’t worry”,  “come on, you know you’re talented”, “why should you have any trouble finding a job”, “its not your fault”, “don’t be silly girl, you are so bright” – the constant refrain.

It rings in my ears, swims around in my brain and I still can’t deal with it.

They call me and mail me because they’re concerned… “I can’t believe this has happened to you”, “there must be something wrong with people where you work”, “the organization must have a history”, “maybe you just don’t fit”, “this is how the sector works” and the king of all kind words is this one – “Its all for the larger good” ….. SIGH.

And I get tired. Writing the same old applications, back to square one from six months ago.

The trouble is this is not what I want to hear.

I don’t want to be told I am good, the hell with it – I know I am, or rather was, good at what I did. I certainly know I was better than most average people.

I know, for example, that I added value, made things efficient and I poured my heart into it just like Howard Schultz did. Maybe not at the same scale, but certainly I tried. He ended up with Star Bucks. Look at where I am… don’t even have enough of a bank balance for a blessed burnt coffee from a lousy Barista down the road.

Its not even that its recession, that my firm ran out of money or even that ‘losing the job’ perse that matters.

Some part of me felt (and knew, albeit wrongly) all through life  that anything I gave a fair shot to would end up being a success.

I’ve been schooled to believe that the bright come out first, and that in my case, in most instances — laziness got in between. So how am I here now? At this juncture – out without a job like so many others (but not quite like them), too late to go back to grad school, missed the bus on all scholarships and with little hope or faith that I will land another job anytime soon.

Welcome to the business of being lonely. This is how it feels to have landed a great job, worked hard and then be thrown out. This is what it feels like to be honest and put in effort and then become a pawn in an entirely new game you never knew the sophisticated souls around you were playing.

The business of being lonely is characterized by a strong sense of anger (mostly self-directed), a large dose of disappointment, a reality-check cum slap-in-face (choose what you prefer), a huge looming sense of disillusionment and the need to hear the right thing from people around and be totally disappointed on that front too.

People make it their business to sympathize – but its in the business of being lonely where the little things start to hurt. The fact that others around you earn, have busy lives which they expect you to understand because after all you were once there yourself, the fact that well meaning others will constantly tell you that its not a big deal – and just because you don’t mope decide that you are so strong that making jokes about it wont hurt either.

The business of being lonely is big business. Its so big it will swamp you in its enormity, it will dwarf all other concerns, zap your energy and make others impatient with you.

It is after all efficient, who has the time for emotions – the world is pragmatic and if I don’t pull up my non-existent socks someone else will walk away with the Gucci boots.

Where are we headed?


Its raining and it doesn’t stop.

I trudge and wade through streets flooded with brown water –  the television and newspapers are also flooded with news of Mumbai’s latest horror story, the burning domes of the Taj, lost lives at Leopold and the people whose lives were lost on a shooting spree in a police vehicle.

Seems almost surreal, like something out of a good new age cinema film – only we can’t just walk out of the cinema hall and applaud the good screenplay.

So, while I trudged out in the pouring rain two incidents came back to me in ‘TechniColour’.  a Diwali shopping venture at Sarojini Nagar and the bomb blast that followed – the panic, the flames and the desire to be extraordinarily cowardly and run.

Cut- to a different country – an upscale furnished apartment in Washington and the news of some six plus bombs in Ahmadabad. Me trying to figure out what was going wrong with India – desperately searching for Indian news channels on television, calling friends and reaching an annoying beeping sound every single time.

I didn’t lose anybody either time, and not this time either. But I do lose a little of myself every time. Why kill? Why bomb? Why derail an entire system, a city and an entire people?

A little bit of myself goes cold – with fear, with revulsion and with the thought that we all just took another giant step backwards – we went from civilized negotiation to fist fights, from speeches to squeezing life out of throats and perhaps just witnessed the start of yet another violent uprising against a particular people.

What is there to be said? Resilience only goes so far.

Persistent Questions


Some questions require critical thinking to answer. Such questions are by definition rigorous- a rigorous question requires answers that are beyond a hypothesis.

Then we have yet another class of questions- questions that are like nagging doubts – these cannot be answered fully and most likely suffer from having failed to become what is popularly known as a Fermi problem.

A Fermi problem is a question so designed that it generates a well judged proximate response. Elsewhere, in this blog – I have discussed how proximates are good enough to make decisions. Anyhow, what (Enrico) Fermi was good at and what Fermi problems are meant to do is to test how strong a set of assumptions are and how they bear out without the availability of much data.

I see this happening around me all the time, a good project manager has to in some sense answer Fermi problems everyday.

Why don’t people follow procedures when they have been explicitly laid out? Why don’t households opt for credit schemes which are to their obvious advantage? Why don’t risk-sharing designs work on the ground the way they do in development economic models? Is money supply endogenous? Will Lehman cause the next great depression? Why does income and saving vary across groups to which discrimination models don’t apply?

The great art to project management is unlearning the science of sufficient assumptions, it is to accept constant refinement and probably much more.