Archive for category US

Small town politics in the USA …

Coppell Parade

I wanted to write something about democracy the day after Independence Day in the US and what came to mind was a posting I made on Facebook a couple of months ago during local election season and the reaction that resulted from it – see the string in its entirety below (except for some expletive-laden comments by, strangely enough, a couple of women, which the moderator deleted).

To give this some context, one of my American friends recently remarked to me that small town elections here tend to be the nastiest since, unlike in State or National elections, the candidates are well-known to the populace and any criticism is taken personally.  Example: people can call Obama and Bush and kinds of names and attribute to them actions that they may or may not have been responsible for and it is highly unlikely anyone will even bat an eyelid, leave alone come after you in person.  But try the same about someone running for City Council or Mayor in a small town, and all hell could break loose!

Finally, I cannot conclude without commenting one aspect of elections – voter turnout.  A small town election, despite all the noise by rabid supporters on either side, could result in a turn out of less than 10% (and less than 5% for run-off elections).  This is not necessarily because the voters are apathetic to the process – in my opinion, it is just a message from the majority of the electorate that “life is pretty good  and we are pretty satisfied with the status-quo and we really don’t care who wins”.  So to get at least their base to turn out, politicians have to portray a situation which implies that if they are not elected, the sky will fall down and the world as we know it will come to an end – so they resort to a host of negative ads and messages that increases the nastiness – and possibly demotivates many who don’t think they have a dog in the fight to come out to the polls.

 

Given that every politician who gets elected at any level (from local to national) engages in questionable tactics (including the current Mayor in the last election), I find it somewhat hypocritical for people (especially politicians) to pile onto Burrows for his (supposed) fake endorsements. (I think it would have been smarter for him to claim that he was endorsed by George W. Bush, a fact which no one could have verified one way or another!).

Anyway, Burrows’ only prior claim to fame was that he ran against me for the President of Coppell Republican Club and lost last year. However, the exposure he is getting in this forum of over a 1000 people will probably turn him into a minor celebrity and he will get the name recognition that he was missing earlier. Imagine, if you knew neither candidate personally and you were standing in the election booth having to pick between Yingling (whose name sounds vaguely foreign) and Burrows (whose name sounds solidly American) which one would you pick? Just due to this xenophobia among a large section of our community (remember the fate of Akula and Guduru?), the supposed underdog might end up prevailing on election day.

Sometimes ignoring your unknown opponent might be a better tactic than trying to publicly tear him down ….

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  • Michelle LaFountain Be advised that Nancy Yingling is NOT tearing down her opponent. She has not said anything about his tactics, his letters, or his fake endorsements. 
    Those of us who are aware of his tactics, letters and fake endorsements are the ones making the voters aware of his deceit. Not Nancy. So do not say anything like that again unless you have proof of her saying such things (and I am quite certain you don’t). 

    AND enough already with the comments about her last name, the origins of her last name and the solidly American sound of the candidate who is practicing deceit. 

    Any comments that considered demeaning, racist, or untrue are grounds to be banned from this group. 
    This is your only warning.
  • Venky Venkatraman Michelle – I am one of those who has endorsed Nancy – I have not said that she is the one attacking Burrows – but others are. As far as being a “racist” is concerned – that is pretty laughable since I am a “foreigner” with a “weird” name myself – so your statement makes no sense. Either this is a forum where political posts are allowed or they are not. And if it is allowed, you cannot censor one side and promote the other. And when you allow political debate, you should expect that there will be some controversial postings.
  • Michelle LaFountain It appeared to me that your last statement “Sometimes ignoring your unknown opponent might be a better tactic than trying to publicly tear him down ….” sounds like you are saying that she is publicly trying to tear him down.
    May 9 at 2:24pm · Edited · Like · 1
  • Michelle LaFountain and we are not attacking Burrows, we are stating confirmed truths about his untruths. that is not an attack, it is stating truth.
  • Venky Venkatraman Being in touch with Nancy, I believe her approach has been to focus on her merits (which appear to be substantial) and indeed “ignore” the opponent. I know Burrows as well and I have no doubt what you are stating is the truth. My point is that it may be unnecessary or may be even counterproductive to do so.
  • Michelle LaFountain except for the voters who only have his infamous letter as their only information……
  • Venky Venkatraman Nobody takes those type of letters seriously – all such campaign letters go straight from my post box to the recycle bin.
    May 9 at 2:33pm · Edited · Like · 1
  • Michelle LaFountain You may not take his letters seriously, but low information voters who only know what someone sends them MAY believe it. Kind of like the commercial where the charming idiot says “they can’t put it on the Internet if it is not true”. 
    Out here
  • Venky Venkatraman You make a valid point. Sure both strategies (“ignore” or “fight back”) have their pros and cons and are situation dependent. I am just a commentator in this matter – not a strategy advisor for either side. Hopefully you can see the perspective I was coming from when I wrote this posting.
  • Scott Spray Venky, are you suggesting that Akula or Guduru lost because of their ethnicity? Seems that you are painting with a very broad brush and assuming if a minority candidate loses, those that voted for their opponents are xenophobes or racist. 

    That’s like the Obama supporters that claim those that oppose him or his policies are racist.
  • Venky Venkatraman Scott – good to hear from you after quite awhile – hope you are doing well. With respect to your comment, I never said that EVERYONE who did not vote them were racists (some might have just thought they were idiots!) but based on comments I heard from some that “if this Indian guy wins, we will move out of Coppell” suggests that there might be quite a few around. Given that a bunch of white people voted for me to serve as President of CRC last year, I can hardly say (nor would I ever suggest or imply) that everyone in Coppell is a racist. Right?
  • Amy Schuh Venky, if a voter makes charges of out-right lying, its not hypocrisy.
  • Scott Asplund Venky, if a voter makes charges of out-right lying, its not hypocrisy.
    Karen Selbo Hunt Mr. Venkatraman, 
    I normally do not post on Facebook. However, since you personally call me out AND did not agree to communicate in another way – I feel a need. 
    I know we have met, but I do not think you know me. I beg to differ in your assumption “Given that every politician who gets elected at any level (from local to national) engages in questionable tactics (including the current Mayor in the last election)”. 
    I believe there are good solid candidates and elected officials that refuse to engage in “questionable tactics”. They concentrate on their personal credentials and refuse to drop to negative campaigning. I am offended that you would make such a blanket statement and, specifically include me in that category.
  • Venky Venkatraman Karen – you sent an EMail via CRC asking for my EMail id – I responded via CRC that you were already connected to me on FB and could reach me, privately, via DIRECT MESSAGING (which is as good as EMail) – so your statement “did not agree to communicate in another way” is not true. With respect to including you in the “blanket statement” – that was based on the report during the last election that some illegal signs supporting you were put out on the night before the election (which was even reported in the local newspaper). And I know for a fact that your opponent (Marcia, I believe) who I met in person right after the election was pretty upset about it but told me that she did not want to dispute the results since she just wanted to move on. So although it appears you are doing a good job as the Mayor, you, unfortunately, cannot change facts from the past.
  • Karen Selbo Hunt Like I said….I do not “do” facebook
  • Venky Venkatraman OK – Karen – I guess you mean you will “post” on FB but do not “message” on FB – but since I really like you, I will EMail you with my phone number and you can either call or EMail and clarify this issue, if you desire.
  • Karen Selbo Hunt No one, including you, ever asked me about the origin of those signs ….but I had nothing to do with those signs. Do not know who put them out, whether the person or persons were “for me” or “against me trying to make a problem”. 
    I personally would have never endorsed or allowed those signs to be put out because the statement on the signs was not true. 
    Facts are facts….but half truths are still half true.
  • Venky Venkatraman I did not realize neither the Citizen’s Advocate or Marcia questioned you directly about the signs. I believe what you are stating now but by the same token, Burrows can claim that Matt, Bennett, Huffines and Bush all endorsed him but they appear to have “forgot” they did – so it is not his fault! Then may be we should just take his word as well and let him be?
  • Jennifer Jenkins Braafladt I have known Karen Selbo Hunt for 15 years and I believe that she is not only an amazing woman of character, but also a great example of an ethical politician.
  • Bennett Ratliff Venky, for the record, I have endorsed Nancy Yingling for City Council and I have NOT ever endorsed Mr. Burrows.  Do not imply or otherwise infer that I may have done otherwise.  Thank you.
    Venky Venkatraman Et tu, Bennett? Now if George W. Bush also clarifies/withdraws his endorsement, then Burrows will be really cooked!
  • Bennett Ratliff Venky, are you trying to imply that I may have “withdrawn” some prior endorsement that is patently untrue.  I have know and supposed Nancy Yingling since before she filed for office and any implication otherwise is not accurate.
    Venky Venkatraman Alright, Bennett, take it easy, that was in jest. I know for a fact that none of the mentioned individuals (including yourself) EVER endorsed him.
  • Venky Venkatraman The point of my post is that he appears to have little going for him and so he is doing what he needs to do try and win – otherwise why even bother to run. I hope this is the last word on this topic. Thanks!
  • Venky Venkatraman Interesting choice of words, Tara. I might need some guidance from the moderator on the use of expletives in this forum before I can respond to your colorful comment suitably.
  • Cherie Spears Walker This is most certainly NOT the last word on this subject, Venky Venkatraman. Having “little going for you” is no reason to dream up endorsements. I have two emails from Don Huffine’s office specifically stating that Thomas Burrows does not have his endorsement and had been advised/reminded of that fact. Do you not really know any of these people whom you are talking about? You surely don’t know our mayor or you would not be making such absurd statements and accusations.
    May 13 at 8:16pm · Edited · Like · 2
  • Venky Venkatraman Actually, I do know most of the people that I am talking about. I have had a private email exchange with Karen Selbo Hunt about my reference to her and so I am not revisiting that matter. Finally, the election is over and the fat lady has sung and the protagonists have long taken their signs and gone home – so I would think it is time for the rest of us to move on as well.
  • Venky Venkatraman I don’t know you and you don’t know me – so let’s not make this personal – thanks!

Juror #11 wonders about the efficacy of the Jury system

Like most US citizens, I get the occasional Summons to attend Jury Duty and that usually involves going down to Court house and then being sent home with a “Thanks for being willing to serve” and a promise of a $6 check being mailed to you for showing up. 

However, a few weeks ago, it was different.  I sat in the main jury room (along with around 500 people) where the numbers were called out and this time there was a lot of cases and my number was picked.  I was instructed to go to the 191st Civil District Court (presided over by Judge Gena Slaughter, a relatively young lady who told us later that she had 4 and 5 year old children) on the 7th floor of the same building.

                                                                                    Judge Gena Slaughter

About 75 or so of us lined up outside the 191st Court and we were shepherded into the Court room in batches by the bailiff.  I got assigned to the seat at the left most back corner of the court.  “Good” – I thought to myself, since it appeared I would be the least likely to get noticed and picked – and began to plan the rest of my day.  Others in the jury pool, from their expressions, seemed be hoping for the same outcome (given that was a Monday and Judge Slaughter had just told us the trial could go on till the following Monday!).

Turned out there were 3 lawyers and a Pro Se (that is, a self representing individual) in the court room.  Each of them then conducted a voir dire, that is, a process to find out more about the potential jurors.  The lawyers / pro se eventually got to me and I recalled being addressed as Mr. V.  “Another good sign”, I thought.  “They can’t even pronounce my name, I should be out of here shortly”.   However, some other questions seemed to suggest that they might be getting interested in me.  They asked about my Electrical Engineering qualification, my IT experience, international travel and most interestingly my knowledge of water borne diseases such as cholera.

Afterwards we all trooped out into the lobby and waited for what seemed like an eternity.  I did some reading and took a short nap.  We were then called back into the Court room where Judge Gena Slaughter started announcing the names of the 12 jurors who were going to be picked.  I was half listening since I was pretty confident of not being on the list when she called out for Juror #11 and it sounded like my name.  I stood up, Judge Slaughter apologized for mangling my name.  I told her she was close enough – and I was officially Juror #11 and I had to take my place on one of the jury chairs.  The feeling was like the opposite of winning the lottery! 

The judge gave us the jury instructions regarding dos and don’ts and the hearing then commenced immediately. 

The case involved a company called Global Water Group (the plaintiff, a Water Purification company) who was suing another one called Force (the Pro Se, a one man Sewage treatment company) and another company (EMS, a pipeline services company) and its former CEO.

The details are of the case are not what I am looking to focus on in this blog entry – so I will explain it, with apologies to those involved for whom this was serious business, in the manner I did to my daughters Sakshi and Smrithi (13 and 11 respectively) after the trial was over.  Here goes:

“There was this guy who knew how to really purify dirty water (like what might be found next to corpses in Iraq) and convert it into pure water (better than Avian!), who we will from hereon refer to as the Pure Water guy.  Then there was this guy who knew how to take sewage and convert it into liquid that could be disposed off without messing the environment BUT could not be drunk by humans, who we will from hereon refer to as the Shit Water guy.  Pure Water guy then hired Shit Water guy and made him part of his company.  Both of them then went together and tried very hard to get some business in a place called Mejedia in Rumania, to take over and run their Municipal Sewage and Water systems and this (and other similar) business MIGHT have earned them profits of around $54 million.  Pure Water guy spent a lot of money trying to get this business but Rumania being a very corrupt country, it was difficult to get business without bribing people and so after sometime, Pure Water guy gave up.  Then Shit Water guy secretly started to try to get this business on his own without telling Pure Water guy, using Pure Water guy’s PowerPoints, contacts, etc.  Shit Water guy managed to reach an agreement in Rumania but needed $1.5 million Bond money to get the contract.  Shit Water guy’s finance partner went and asked his friend from Verline (from hereon referred to as Old guy) for a loan of $1.5 million.  Old guy did not have the money but managed to find a few Board members at EMS (from hereon referred to as Rich guys) who agreed to give the loan.  For this, Old guy and Shit Water guy signed a Promissory note.  Shit Water guy then sent this Bond money to his partner in Rumania (hereon referred to as the Foreign Crook guy) who put this money in a bank account, where it was meant to stay for 3 months after which time it was supposed to be returned to Rich guys along with an interest of 15%.  The money stayed in the bank account for 2 months after which the Foreign Crook guy made it disappear!  When Old Guy found this out, he panicked – he told Rich Guys that their money was gone – EMS CEO (on behalf of Rich Guys) put pressure on Old Guy to compensate for the loss.  Old Guy went to Shit Water guy to get the money from him. But Shit Water guy was broke and had no money.  So he gave all his patents to Old Guy who in turn gave it to EMS along with his patents.  And then EMS tried to get into the Water business to try and make money and recover the lost $1.5 million.  And then Pure Water guy found out all this was going on behind his back and the shit then really hit the ceiling (so to speak)!  Pure Water guy wrote Shit Water guy a nasty Email scaring the day lights out of him and gave him a lot of conditions to meet – and if he did not, Pure Water guy would “send him to jail”.   Shit Water guy complied with all the conditions for fear of being sued.  He stopped making any further attempts to do business in Rumania and transferred whatever agreement he had reached to Pure Water guy and made written apologies to all and sundry, confessing to everything and asking all his contacts in Rumania to do business with the Pure Water guy instead of him.  However, given the corruption in Rumania, Pure Water guy still could not get any business there.  EMS tried to use the patents that they got from Shit Water guy and tried to start a new Water business (in other countries like Mexico but not in Rumania) but failed to close one single deal and so did not make a single dollar in this new business. 

To cut a long story short, Old Guy died of natural causes and so Pure Water Guy sued Shit Water guy and EMS claiming that he was owed damages of around $50 million due to the actions of the Shit Water guy and EMS (who Pure Water guy alleged were involved in a “conspiracy”) but Judge Slaughter dismissed the suit without any jury deliberation since she determined that Pure Water guy did not establish that he suffered any loss/damage and no one had made any money from the Rumanian adventure (basically agreeing with EMS’s attorney that the whole thing was just a “cow pile” for everyone involved)”. 

Now here comes my impression of the whole process, especially vis-à-vis the jury system.

 First of all, the parties had been going at it in front of this same judge since 2008 while the jurors were those who got “accidentally” (and mostly unwillingly) pulled into this matter for a relatively brief period.  Although I, with my Engineering/IT/International background, could easily understand this whole matter (and in fact made 64 pages of notes during the trial which I later sent to the judge), I could tell that many of the jurors were quite disinterested and not comprehending any of the detailed technical issues that all parties were bringing up (with some of the jurors just doodling in their note pads).  Although we were not allowed to discuss the case till we called upon to do so (which never happened), stray remarks (like “I like that lawyer, he reminds me of Matlock”, “I am waiting for the Pro Se to cross examine himself – that will be fun!”, etc) gave me the impression that if we had actually deliberated on this case, it would have been a sham with just a few of us having really paid attention to any of the testimony (and more importantly, understood what was presented).  I would like to think that I could have swayed most of the jurors (with whom I established a good rapport during lunch time and while walking out to the train) and help arrive at the “right” decision – but then I might have ended becoming a de-facto judge!  

Bottom line – after this experience, I strongly believe that parties in a dispute looking for a jury to decide their fate, are essentially rolling the dice – they might get lucky and win the lottery even they were completely wrong – on the other hand, they might lose big, even though they might be completely on the right side of the law!  

I for one would any day prefer to have my fate determined by a learned, UNBIASED judge – and hope and pray that my fate will never be in the hands of a bunch of random, unqualified strangers!! 

What about you?  Feel free to comment here – I would really like to hear your thoughts – especially if you vehemently disagree with my opinions!

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What’s in a name?

 Dale Carnegie

When I a young kid in India listening to the cricket commentary on radio, we had some commentators who would totally butcher some English names. For example, a famous cricketer from England was referred to by some commentators as “Iron Bottom” (instead of Ian Botham!). I used to consider these commentators plain lazy for not making the minimum effort to learn to pronounce the names of all the cricketers correctly.

Fast forward to several decades later and I am sitting in an audience where my daughter Sakshi (along with a bunch of kids of Indian origin) was receiving an award for being on the Junior Honor Roll and the kid making the announcement managed to mangle almost every single non-English sounding name.

It took some amount of persuasion on my part before the Principal of CMSE, Laura Springer, would take this issue of mispronunciation of names, seriously enough to agree to try and educate the children as to the importance, especially in today’s globalized work place, of taking the trouble to learn the correct pronunciation of “foreign” names.

Given that it was an American, Dale Carnegie, who wrote in his book “How to win friends and influence people” that among the “Six ways to make people like you” one was to “Remember that a person’s name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language.”, it is indeed surprising as to why 76 years later American kids would not make the minimum effort to at least get the names of their classmates right.

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An Indian perspective after watching “Waiting for Superman”

The following post was published by the Coppell Gifted Association at:

http://coppellgifted.org/2011/05/01/members-corner-an-indian-perspective-after-watching-waiting-for-superman/

What led me to see this movie was the catchy title – Superman comics were highly popular in India when I was growing up and my brothers and I used to have endless debates as to who was stronger, Superman, the Phantom or Tarzan and which one we needed on our side to win any battle!  So I could definitely relate to an African-American school administrator who grew up in the projects talking about, as a child, “Waiting for Superman” to come and save the broken school system in his neighborhood and then being heart broken when he was told by his mother that Superman was not real!  The gist of the movie is that it is you and I who need to do our bit to fix the US school system – Superman is not going to show up to do this job!!

The sentence that resonates for me is a statement made in the movie that “till the 70s, the USA had the best public school system in the world” and on the screen flashed pictures of all the luminaries in all walks of life that had graduated from the public school system and all the great strides made in the US in the fields of science, math and engineering during that period.

The next thing that struck me, which is something that I mentioned in my review of “2 million minutes” (scenes from which were used in this movie), is the fact that in those days, only around the top 20% of the students graduating from High School went on to college (to become CEOs, doctors, engineers, etc), the next 40% went on to vocational schools (to get jobs as computer operators, etc) and the bottom 40% just went to good jobs in manufacturing, services, etc.  (This is exactly what we in India thought was a great thing – that kids who had no interest in higher learning were not being forced to go to college just to collect a piece of paper to improve their job prospects).

The problem is that the US economy (which is now tied way more tightly into the global economy) is no longer the same.  High unemployment on the one hand exists side by side with lack of qualified employees to fill hundreds of thousands of jobs available in areas like high tech (a point made in this movie).

The film also makes the point that when Nixon opened the door to China in the 70s, American businesses were salivating over the prospect of being able to sell every Chinese a toothbrush (for example), which meant American businesses could sell a billion additional toothbrushes, not realizing that, in due course, it would be the Chinese who would be selling toothbrushes to the US putting US manufacturers out of business!

The film focuses on the worst performing public schools in the US and the (lack of) prospects for children graduating (or dropping) out of such schools.  Also, the whole idea of the lottery system to assign children to better schools (with the children, sitting at the lottery drawing, watching with devastated faces as if their world had come to an end at such an early age, when they did not get picked) seemed like a travesty to me.  Why not just have some kind of entrance test where the children at least get a sense (which might influence their entire outlook on life) that they can get somewhere due to their own efforts and abilities rather than pure luck?

Looking at this topic from the perspective of someone who grew up in India, when I look at these (so-called) worst schools, almost every one of them looks better than some of the (what we considered) “better” schools in India.  For example, the school I went to from KG to 6th grade was located on top of a busy railway station with heavy and noisy traffic just outside of the school gates.  And yet, this was a “better” school for which my father stood in line overnight to get me admission there because it was run by Christian missionaries who had a reputation for imparting a solid education (meaning it had great teachers) and strict discipline (including corporal punishment, administered even by the Principal or the Head Master, in special circumstances!).

And there were schools on top of movie theaters, schools with broken windows and hardly any facilities for learning, etc and yet students from these schools have made it big both in India and, in fact, many have come to the US and done well here as well.

So how come US students (with access to comparably much better facilities even in their “worst” schools compared to their Indian counterparts) not fare better than Indian students coming from schools with practically no facilities?

In my opinion, the answer is just two factors – “Great Teachers” and “Strong Families”. 

Motivated students (with parents) who believed that only education could pull them out from their poor and lower middle class life style (example: I grew up in an apartment with just one single room and a kitchen with parents and 4 siblings sharing this space resulting in all the kids having a burning desire to learn, succeed and reach a better standard of living, which we all accomplished).  So when I see the so-called “poor” people in the US (depicted in this movie), probably living on Government dole, having relatively nice apartments, driving decent cars and with no shortage of basics like food, it makes me wonder what would motivate kids from such families to stay in school and get a decent education, especially if the family is broken, with no tradition of higher learning.

 When it comes to the topic of having great teachers, what strikes me in this movie is the implication (which could be an overgeneralization) that in the US, Teacher’s Unions have such a stranglehold over the system that even an innovative administrator like Michelle Rhee (trying to reform the DC school system) is not able to push through a reasonable scheme that will reward better performing teachers (while not even threatening the jobs of poor performing teachers).

 In India, teachers (whatever they are teaching) are supposed to be treated with utmost reverence (because of the Indian tradition which teaches, in the order of respect, it is “Mata, Pita, Guru, Daivam” – meaning “Mother, Father, Teacher, God”), that is, teachers are supposed to be respected more than even God!  And correspondingly, it is expected that for teachers (for whom earning money should be their lowest priority), nothing should be more important than sending out learned kids into the world.

 From what I saw in this movie, the implication that many (but this again could be an overgeneralization) teachers in the US are just like any other vested interest protecting their rights and jobs with scant regard for the quality of education they are providing to their students and having least interest in the future prospects of their students.

Themovie’s main thrust appears to be that till the matter of eliminating poor teachers and rewarding the good ones is addressed, however much money is poured into school education by the US Government (where a lot more money is available to expend compared to relatively impoverished places like India), nothing substantial is going to change. 

However, to conclude on an optimistic note, the movie depicts several people who are cognizant of the problems facing the school system in the US and who are coming up with innovative solutions (like the Kipp schools) and, in my opinion, in due course, sufficient course corrections will take place making most US schools once more the citadels of learning (accessible to children, from all strata of society, who are motivated to learn) that would again become be the envy of the world.

 

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“2 Million Minutes” – Movie Review

The following post was published by the Coppell Gifted Association at:

http://coppellgifted.org/2011/03/14/2-million-minutes-review/

After watching all 3 videos – the first being the final movie – the other two, detailed versions of the scene in India and China which serve as input to the final movie, a couple of things came to mind right away. 

First of all, growing up in India and going to school there (where everyone was expected to go to college, whether one had any interest in higher education or not, making most colleges just degree mills), my impression of US schools were that they provided enough vocational oriented education that only the cream of the crop actually needed to go to college – all others would get reasonably high paying jobs with just a high school education. 

Fast forward to 1984 when I first set foot on US soil and visited relatives in Akron, Ohio (long time settled in the US at that time) during the Thanksgiving holiday.  Over the weekend, the lady of the house told me that “Indians were way smarter than Americans”.  My immediate response was “Aren’t you now an American?”  The problem I saw with her reasoning was that she was comparing Indians in America (who were mostly those who had come here to pursue higher education and were essentially the cream of the crop) with the local gas station attendant types (who had only graduated high school) – obviously not an apples to apples comparison! 

Between 1984 and now, to my knowledge, I do not believe American schools have deteriorated that rapidly but they may have stayed pretty much unchanged, that is, providing students an “all round education” (as the American kids in this movie say) which meant that academics were only one of the many things in which the students were expected to expend their time during their tenure in school. 

The difference now is that times have changed.  Manufacturing jobs of the past, for which a high school education would suffice to make a good living, are fast disappearing in the US.  Service jobs that have replaced them do not result in equivalent compensation and these too get outsourced every day.  And someone with just a high school education might end up with little prospects. 

But despite all this, the average American High School is definitely vastly superior to an Indian (and possibly Chinese) school in terms of facilities, funding, etc.  What the movie has done is to compare a public school in Indiana (and schools of that standard would be available to most US residents, except those living in impoverished areas like inner-cities) with an elite school in India (and possibly China), the type of school which is available to a very small sliver of the Indian (and possibly Chinese) population.

 If you look at it in terms of numbers, in my estimation, less than 10% of the population of India (which would be around 110 million people) would have an opportunity to go to schools of the caliber represented in the movie while the remaining 1.1 billion people only have mediocre to substandard schooling available to them.  But then there are plenty of manufacturing and menial type jobs now available in India and China (which do not require higher education) to cater to this segment of the population .

In contrast, I would say that 90% of the US population (which would be around 270 million) would have the opportunity to schools which are not too different from the Indiana school depicted in this movie. These students would always have an opportunity to go on to a reasonable college education (since these school have all the facilities like excellent libraries, labs, etc), if academics were sufficiently emphasized during their school years.

To conclude, I would state that the average American student still has way better schooling facilities and opportunities to get a quality education compared to Indian or Chinese students – it is just that the curriculum has to be retooled to adapt to changing times (which I believe is already taking place).  In due course, America with its dynamic and diverse population will eventually out-compete both China and India. 

So, in my opinion, the dire predictions of this movie regarding the competitiveness of American students compared to their Indian and Chinese counterparts are way off the mark.

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What I learnt from coaching a Destination Imagination team ….

 

Mockingbird Elementary takes third place in Regional Destination ImagiNation® Tournament

Mockingbird Elementary takes third place in Regional Destination

Bottom row, l-r, Shreya Vurimi, Ellie Manning Middle row, l-r, Meara Isenberg, Rhianna McFarlen, Sakshi Venkatraman Back row, l-r, Principal, Pam Mitchell, Mrudul Tummala, Coach, Venky Venkatraman

Earlier this year, I coached my 5th grade daughter’s school’s Destination ImagiNation team.

In a nutshell, Destination ImagiNation (http://www.destinationimagination.org/) is a non-profit organization that provides educational programs for students to learn and experience creativity, teamwork and problem solving and then compete against one another.

There were 6 kids in my team, 3 or Indian origin (including my daughter) and 3 whites.  Of these 5 were girls and one was a boy.

All the kids were from the Gifted program – so all of them were pretty bright.

Right from the outset, I saw some interesting dynamics in the team that I could easily correlate to the adult world.  Following are my observations:

  1. It is always to tough to get a group of bright individuals (all of whom think they have the “right” answer to work together)
  2. Indians born in India (and especially if South Indian) are quite submissive and will not speak up easily even when they know the subject
  3. Indians born in the US (like my daughter) have no problem being assertive!
  4. Whites are typically more assertive, even when they are unprepared and do not know the subject
  5. Indians tend to work well together but will not produce any original ideas
  6. Whites come up with real imaginative ideas but many times will not follow through
  7. All of them are equally likely to go to management and try to get their colleagues fired!

I could probably add a whole bunch of other such observations to this list but then I am might end up wandering further and further into politically incorrect areas!

However, my point is that to effectively manage a group of individuals, “profiling” each individual according to their ethnic and national background might be unavoidable.  (Growing up in Bombay, India, I know that Punjabis have different charteristics from Tamils, Bengalis from Telugus, Marwaris from Biharis, etc – so I can make this assetion from personal experience).

And, in this case, I can make this claim with some confidence because my team which was formed pretty late, just practicing for a couple of hours every week, one day a week, for 8 weeks, was able to finish 3rd in the Regional Competition, competing against veteran teams who had practiced for months and competed for years.  And I have to give myself some credit for getting this team from forming, storming and norming to performing!

In conclusion, I can say with some conviction that the more perceptive a “profiler” you are, the better manager you likely to be!

Agree or vehemently disagree, I would like to know!!

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The Universal Appeal of Avatar …

Avatar - the movie

Avatar - the movie

Yesterday was not a good day for James Cameron.  His highest grossing, block buster movie, Avatar, was beaten to the Oscars by his ex-wife’s movie, The Hurt Locker.  As Jay Leno had predicted, he will get see these Oscars only on Wednesday evenings and every other weekend!

Last year’s big Oscar winner Slumdog Millionaire brought a gritty piece of India to the world audience. Avatar (meaning “reincarnation” in Sanskrit), on the other hand, is based on a concept of having multiple births (which is familiar to most Indians), a word that has now been adopted into the English language.

The best known Avatars for Hindus are those of Vishnu (the God of Maintenance) whose 10 Avatars (known as Dasavatars, see below) include well known ones like Rama and Krishna.

10 Avatars of Vishnu (dasavataram)

10 Avatars of Vishnu (dasavataram)

 

 

Ever since I saw the movie Avatar (in 3D), I have been pondering about the rationale for the popularity of this movie (other than the obvious entertainment value) all over the world.

One could understand its universal appeal because of the fantastic special effects but more than that, I believe everyone read into the movie whatever they wanted to, based on their own cultural values and political beliefs.

For example, the environmentalists could see this as promoting their cause of conservation.

Devout Hindus could see this as affirmation of their beliefs.  For example, an uncle of mine related the following story after seeing the movie.

The transfer of soul from one body to the other (Parakaya Pravesam) is not new to the Hindu thoughts. Adi Sankara was involved in an intelectual argument (known as Tharkasastra) with Mandana Misra at Varanasi (Benaras). Mandana Misra was a married person and an erudite scholar in Meemamsa,a science of Vedanta. He was on self immolation bid in his last stage of life,covered in a heap of rice husk,just lighted at the bottom.The fire was gradually spreading from the bottom when the argument was proceeding. At one stage when he found that he could not win over Adi Sankara in argument, said that Adisankara was an unmarried Sanyasi and that he had no experience as a Grahastha (married person) to argue on grahasth’s life. At the sametime the king of Benaras had just passed away and his body was lying in state.Adi Sankara left his own body and entered the dead king’s body.When the queen was delighted to see the king alive,Adi Sankara told her the true story to her surprise. It was just to qualify himself as a Grahastha he had performed the act and discussed with her certain relevant topics and then re-entered his own body and continued his arguments with Mandana Mishra,who was immensely pleased with Adi Sankara’s efforts to emphasize on the truth and conceded his defeat.So goes the story.

And so why would be a movie such as this be popular among Muslims (or some other religious or ethnic group) for whom the concept of reincarnation is as alien as the residents of the planet Pandora in the movie?

Well, the movie depicts a situation where natives armed with rudimentary weapons, by relying on just their religious faith and ancient culture, could defeat a mighty invading, colonial army trying to occupy their land.

Would not the movie not then inspire the Taliban (and others of their ilk) to believe that they would one day get the better of the forces that had “invaded” their land?

And the following news item (available through various media outlets) from last month seems to confirm that this theory may have some legs:

http://artsyspot.com/palestinian-avatar-demonstrations/

So if I was Mullah Omar watching this movie from my hideout somewhere in Pakistan, James Cameron would certainly inspire me to continue my struggle against the “infidel” powers who have invaded and occupied my land! 

And I would definitely have been rooting for Avatar to win against The Hurt Locker!!

26/11 v/s 9/11

VT Station (now CST Station), Bombay

VT Station (now CST Station), Bombay

Taj Mahal Hotel, Bombay

Taj Mahal Hotel, Bombay

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Last week I was in Bombay exactly 1 year after the terrorist attacks of a year ago (26/11).  I made it a point to visit VT station and the Taj Mahal Hotel (site of two of the terrorist attacks).

VT station was its normal, bustling self.  The only signs that anything untoward had happened there was that there was one armed military person behind a stack of bags at one entrance, a few other armed policeman loitering around and strangely enough a bunch of metal detectors at the various entrance and exit points which hardly anyone bothered to walk through.  No signs any bullet holes or any indication of any kind of memorial to those 50 odd people who had been killed at this location last November.

The Taj Mahal Hotel (across from the Gateway of India monument) looked exactly the same as it did prior to the terrorist attack of last year which had left several sections of the hotel on fire.  The only changes that I saw was the side walk around the Taj was cordoned off and at the main entrance, one had to go through a metal detector and bags were also scanned separately.  On walking around inside, I met a Commander Ramamurthy who told me that he was a consultant to the Taj (presumably on security matters).  I asked him about any memorial that might be present to remember those dozens of people who had died in the terrorist attack.  He directed me towards the Golden Dragon restaurant where most of the killings had taken place and to the adjacent area where some of the terrorists had been killed.  However on going to these locations, I could not find a single indication of bullet holes or more importantly any memorial to the tragedy that had taken place at this hotel.

Bottom line – after the terrorist attack of 26/11/2008, people in Bombay had just cleaned up and resumed business as usual at all the locations that had been hit.  India had not invaded Pakistan to capture or kill the terrorists (who are clearly based out of there) and so no war had resulted which could have thrown the whole region into a turmoil.  But despite this, no further overseas based attacks had taken place a year since 26/11 either because security in Indian cities had been improved so much or just sheer luck or that Pakistan itself was now in turmoil with the home grown terrorist creating havoc there or a combination of all of these.

Compare that to the attacks on NY City of 9/11/2001.   Eight years later, the site where the World Trade Center stood is still a hole in the ground as competing interests (including politicians, lawyers, builders and victims’ groups) compete with each other to decide what exactly to build at that location.  The place has been given a new name (Ground Zero) and a grand memorial is planned to be located there to honor the victims / heroes that died there on that day.  Afghanistan was invaded to eliminate Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda but after more than 8 years of war involving more loss of thousands of US lives and billions of dollars in expense, this mission has yet to be accomplished.

Bottom line – the mark that the terrorists made on NY City continues to be there for all to see.

So why has 9/11 had such a different impact than 26/11?

In my opinion following are the reasons:

  • India has been used to terrorist attacks and mass deaths due to the same and so 26/11 quickly became just another blip in history while for the US, which considered itself fairly immune to overseas terrorist attacks in recent times, 9/11 was a seriously, unexpected shock
  • India was in no position to invade Pakistan (since it is a country possessing nuclear weapons) while Afghanistan had no such weapons to defend itself against a US invasion
  • Indian people have not yet developed the individualistic mentality of those in the US and the Indian Government was no compulsion to listen to bunch of people’s opinions as to when to rebuild and how to memorialize those who died in the attacks and so could swiftly move to restore normalcy

So while India has apparently brushed itself from 26/11 and moved on (for better or for worse), the US continues to wallow in the aftermath of 9/11 having failed to rebuild the edifice that was destroyed and getting mired in an unending overseas conflict.

So in which instance did the terrorists win?  The answer, at least in the short term, appears to be obvious …..

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