rants

Trust

Often, people will exalt the glory of modern times by citing the marvelous technological progress we have made. Not only has it made life very convenient, technology can be used to save the Earth. For example, we now have paperless banking and bills and what not. This can be used to save trees.

I disagree.

Technology that is used to increase convenience for us without a consideration for justice is fundamentally a tool of violence. If we save time by using a blender to make our frappe instead of doing it manually, some person in China slaves away for hours at a terrible pay and in awful conditions to make that happen. Energy is conserved. We cannot save it without someone else picking up the slack.

This is my application for a visa to a first-world nation.

IMG_0609

The whole application procedure is online we save so much paper that way, except that there is so little trust left in the world that they ask for your entire life history in order to allow you to travel in their country for 3 weeks. I remember visa applications in my earlier and technologically backward days where paper was being wasted left right and center. You had to submit your passport and maybe 3-4 pages of documentation. It used to take a lot longer because the embassy would do the work of verifying your papers. Now, all they want is money and your entire life on paper. So it is faster. But it is faster because the time that is saved is offset by the amount we lean on nature. It takes a lot more paper and a lot more money which is essentially effort we have expended in our (almost certainly exploitative) employment. So the technological “progress” has done nothing. It has caused us to expend more natural resources and lull ourselves into a belief that things have got easier. This is nothing but confusion.

Progress.

Progress will come when we learn to trust each other. The road to progress for our generation is inward. That is where the solutions lie. As long as we seek progress outside of ourselves, we will cause more devastation than ever.

I realize that this is basically a rant. I am excited for my travels but honestly, the price that the Earth is paying for our adventures is starting to become prohibitively expensive.

 

Perform or Die

A slight shift in gear. Today, I want to talk about a previous lifetime. I had just graduated from an undergraduate program in computer engineering and was floundering in terms of next steps. It seems odd to me that when we are not engaged in studies or profession we experience the sensation of floundering even though actually, we are on perfectly stable ground. In fact, one can argue that life in the absence of professional engagement is as stable as it can possibly be. When one is employed, one is traveling on the rather rocky boat of performance ratings, HR appraisals, scalability into other roles, availability of positions and overall company strategy. Yet, this volatile situation of employment is what we call stability. It earns us money after all and without money, we can’t take vacations from employment. If you want to see real floundering, listen to this leaked termination interview from the legendary Tata Consultancy Services company.

If you ignored that and are reading on (or if they deleted the clip), the sound clip contains some sort of HR manager (I imagine) explaining to a female employee (I hope she’s female) that she “will not be able to continue” after 30 days. He then explains how it will all be handled and what kind of compensation they will offer her etc. He also adds that she can ask him questions if she has any. Probably shouldn’t have done that. She takes him up on the offer. That is when the floundering begins. He flails desperately, pulls out obscure corporate jargon like “reasons you can correlate” and “parameters” and some of the terms that make up the rocky corporate boat I talked about earlier. The shocking fact is revealed that the lady has worked for TCS for nine years. She defends her performance ratings and offers what I thought is some really good advice about how to conduct exit interviews. At this point, the HR manager is all but drowning in his own little pond and then (the Bollywood moment), you hear another voice. A surer, more confident voice. Also female. Who basically tells this lady the truth, finally. The truth being that that they retained their best people according to performance ratings and she didn’t make the cut and they are not at liberty to discuss any more specifics. Thank God for complete, cold honesty.

“Where do I sign?” says the baffled employee.

Now, it is achingly enticing to create a martyr out of this lady who is getting fired and brand the management as evil. After all, she worked honestly for nine years and got some reasonable ratings all the while trying to live her life so why should she be cut? She’s a victim. Maybe, but that’s not important. There is only one difference between the employee and the managers. They have embraced the corporate TCS value system and she has not. That’s it. Other stories about morality are valid but not practical.

So, is practicality and reverence for numbers the TCS corporate value system? From the testimony of the more confident female manager in the interview, it seems that’s how TCS is run. Stone cold practicality for the sake of profit. Perform or die. Those who embrace the profit motive unabashedly will be seen as competent and those who question it or seem hesitant are gradually marginalized. Which is why, If I were managing the guy who is conducting the exit interview, I’d have a serious conversation with him and probably drop him a C rating for the current appraisal period. The way to get ahead is to fall in line and look sharp while you do it. Ok, so we agree. TCS is run on a system that values performance as the most important thing. Everything else being secondary but still important. Fine. If you are a youngster who is about to sign on to a job at TCS, Infosys and other clone companies, here is what you can expect. You are agreeing to compete to obtain the best financial outcomes. Everything else is secondary. Being a team player, a nice person, having professional etiquette, whatever else. Its all in the service of getting results.

Not really.

Back to my previous lifetime. After some floundering, I accepted a job with TCS and went to Kerala to attend their training program. At the end of three months, they gave me a Top Performer’s Award. A week after that, I quit.

Wait, what? A management hired for the choice purpose of promoting competence could not retain a person who according to their own evaluation, was among the most competent people to enter the company. How? Why? The reason I eventually quit is because I ran into a roadblock with what they call the MATC, the Management Allocation Task Committee. An organization of spectacular rigidity with a militaristic adherence to policy. They refused to let me work in the branch office of my choice just because someone at another branch deemed me more suited to work there. And they had already made their allocations, sorry. Please reorganize your life so we don’t have to reorganize out spreadsheets. The reason I say “eventually” is because the training program was basically a series of red flags. A military colonel was hired to run it. Ok. Maybe he understands that civilians expect different kind of leadership. No, he didn’t. One day they searched all our hotel rooms and removed irons and hair dryers from our closets because the wiring was not strong enough to take the voltage and it was policy that we had to use the hotel ironing services. Breach of privacy? Completely unethical and borderline illegal? They didn’t care. By the time the thing with the MATC happened, I was already through.

I don’t see the corporate management at TCS as evil. I see it as corrupt, lazy and incompetent. Corrupt, because they do not uphold their own value system of promoting competence and results. Lazy because they adhere blindly to policy bringing no discretion, flexibility or intelligence to the decision making process despite years of experience and/or MBA degrees. Incompetent because they apply an outdated, defunct pyramid structure that is only superficially different from feudal fiefdoms in the Middle Ages or British colonial systems for administering the Raj. So, that is what you are actually signing on to when you join one of these behemoth corporate enterprises. You are signing on to an apparent commitment to competition and results oriented atmosphere all the while being administered by an outdated system of evaluation and managed by lazy, corrupt people who do not themselves bring to the table a zest for results, efficiency and innovation and merely lean the way they have to to keep the boat steady. In effect, you are signing on to nothing. There is no value system other than a sycophantic zeal to please your superiors and basically do whatever it takes.

Why this crisis of management? I have no idea. I can’t say because I quit after three months. Here is what I can say. If you are signing a corporate agreement of employment, please do your homework. Talk to people. Know what you are getting into. Ask yourself if that is the type of thing you want to get into. If you are a fresh graduate engineer then like me, I’m sure you received no education in ethics, meditation or strategy. Please use the Internet, personal role models and literature to develop a practice of personal reflection. Know that not having a job for a while is perfectly fine. Getting laid off is not a big deal, just like flunking an exam is not a big deal. It says nothing about your innate worth or chances of survival. All it says is that you failed to embrace an arbitrary value system. If you can’t find a job that satisfies your personal value system (this is highly highly unlikely btw in this global economy), start your own company. Propound your own theory for how the world should work. Ponder whether profit is really what we need. Does efficiency trump all? If you are the lady in the exit interview, I wish you the best. Thank you for standing up for yourself and asking questions without being rude or aggressive. You are now a personal role model for me. I know you will move on to better things.

Mocha, Hyderabad

I drove (actually pillion rode) across a promising looking converted-bungalow in Banjara Hills painted a calming blue in those hip incomplete brush strokes. “Mocha” declared the board as I rubbernecked, temporarily ignoring the story my friend was telling me through his visor. It had been a while I went to a decent coffee lounge.

Landed up there one fine weathered night with an old friend and walked into totally a my kind of place. Odd assortments of furniture scattered in every room, bright painted walls with large Nizami style mirrors. cloth curtains in plain colors draped casually across wrought iron window grills. The conversion of the bungalow was perhaps deliberately partial so that the place still had the coziness and familiarity of a drawing room. Past the rooms into an equally inviting courtyard. Cloth canopies softly lit by paper lamps hanging from generous trees. With these surrounding, the weekend ahead of me and the re-union with an old buddy I sat myself down on an extravagant looking couch for an evening belonging to what some would call the good life.

I wish I could go on with my accolades about the way the place been set up, rather cleverly left intentionally chaotically upset. But the discussion now must turn to how the management at the cafe trails way way behind the design of the interior spaces. They have fallen prey, as many Indian joints with pretensions often do, to the economics of the short term. Let down number 1: forcing us to buy overpriced mineral water. There is not a thing that I can think of that is as singularly annoying and cheap as this tactic to make an extra buck. We ordered an apple mint Sheesha. Another commonly occurring annoyance now presented itself. The price was something different from what was listed on the menu that had been graphically designed to match the ambiance. We got past the incident by a “ok whatever, just bring it please.” Apparently, buying a dubiously priced Sheesha (Rs 245) doesnt cut it. The waiter pestered us with regularity with “Sir, can I get you a bottle of water?” “Something else to drink?”. So, to get rid of him we acquiesced reluctantly.

My friend and I had a great time, which is possible by virtue of the mise-en-scène if you completely ignore the diligent efforts of the staff at Mocha to royally screw your evening.

Not having learned from previous experience I went there again this afternoon with a friend to muscle my way past the 4 o clock haze with some coffee. This visit was a fiasco. Again, after pondering for hours and discussing the finer culinary qualities of mint we decided what kind of caffeine we were going to choose only to be told by a guy who was half tuned out that it was not available. This rare variety of caffeinated beverage that we had had the nerve to demand; you will be surprised to know, was tea. Anyway, tenaciously, plan B was put into place and we ordered something else. Again forced to buy the mineral water. Then, my friend took a liking to the baked beans and asked if he could have a more generous helping. The waiter came back saying that it will have to be charged but the good part was that he would also get a lot of other useless crap with it that he hadnt asked for in the first place. We said never mind. The french fries that accompanied the dish could be counted on your fingertips and astonishingly, so could the baked beans. 49 to be exact. The french fries seemed like they had been picked off of a plate belonging to someone who had left a half hour ago. It was just awful. Then the bill was asked for, and it arrived what seemed like hours later with a mysterious “Berry Blast” added to it charged at Rs 185. Now, neither my friend nor I are in the habit of stirring 3-methyl-glucoaminiccyanide masquerading as berry extract into ice water and sipping it thoughtfully. So we said we hadnt had it. They then removed it without resistance … or explanation.

Having paid the bill I headed over to the manager to explain to him that though he was hell-bent on having me not return to the place I insisted on coming back because I liked the look and feel of the place so much so if he could stop being a total bitch about Rs 3.50 worth of baked beans then I was indeed happy to forget everything and return next week when my other best buddy gets into town so I can get his sanctimonious ass to do some Sheesha. The manager nodded that he will try his best. So, folks, with mind-boggling persistence, I will go back next week. Wish me luck.

Digesting Dubyaspeak

As Bushisms pile up, Dubya seems to want to finish his term in spectacular form. Latest offering being the man’s take on the food crisis, which cuts across all-o-that scientific doo-daa and analytical mumbo-jumbo. The matter you see is simply this. Some other people somewhere are eating all the food so theres not enough for everybody else. (This is of the “some other people somewhere are letting too much smoke into the air and the icebergs are gonna melt coz of them” vintage).

Well, I be damned.

After hours of deliberation and deep thought about this cerebral assertion I present the following rejoinder, with the help of the magnificent Sir Bill Bryson. He says in a n-times-readable column in the New York Times:

“I recently read that the average American eats 17.8 pounds — 17.8 pounds! — of pretzels every year. And that, remember, is the average. Somebody somewhere is eating most of my share as well.”

So there. You’re it dummy. And quit with all the farting.

This comes mind you, from the leader of a nation battling a historic obesity epidemic. Never mind that the assertion is completely absurd and just plain wrong, never mind that it is the most mind-bogglingly infuriating incident of double standards, In fact, the speaker probably actually thought he was making perfect sense. What enrages me is the audacity to imply that the some other people somewhere do not deserve to demand better and more food. That ordering a double whopper with extra cheese and the large fries is a privilege (actually, whoppers are gross) reserved for Americans.

When you start getting wealth, you start demanding better nutrition and better food.

Sacrilegiously, lets look at facts and figures. (Source: FAO Stats, http://www.fao.org/corp/statistics.html)

Nothing much, just two tables, minimal cognitive load is the key remember.

Food Consumption by Group in 1000Tonnes – India

Food Consumption by Group in 1000Tonnes – USA

Now. We eat more cereals (not Frosted Flakes). Population of India =

1,129,866,154

. Population of the USA =

301,139,947

So, 3.75 times the people are eating 5 times the amount of cereal. Unreasonable I agree. But somehow, they are only eating 1/7th the amount of meat (whoppers I suppose), drinking only 0.913 times the amount of milk, using 1.28 times the vegetable oil and only 1.23 times the sugar. By weight, a country almost 4 times as populous consumes only 1.6 times the amount of food. In 2003, an average Indian consumed 2440 calories a day as compared to 3770 for an American (not surprising what with the pretzels).

But here’s the thing, an American eats 25 times the amount of meat compared to an Indian. 25!! So if I eat a kebab, Mrs. Doubtfire will level me in style by gobbling up the hind legs of a sheep.

Astonishingly, India imports only 1/4th as much food as the US by weight. Talk about self sufficiency. So, we may like 5 rotis with ghee for dinner but we find that we don’t have to destroy the agricultural landscape of a minor Latin American country for the treat.

Consumption is of various kinds. Here’s how. The US military has an energy budget equal to Nigeria. And most of it is used to install trackers on camels in Afghanistan. But what do I know.

Now if you’ll excuse me its time for my bi-hourly snack. And then I must prepare a stellar introduction for my “Vote Bill Bryson for President” speech to the nation.

Variously Frustrating and Shabby

Splash a comment here if you think the VFS website for US visa applications is the most frustrating thing that ever came out of the basement of a New Delhi IT start up. It doesn’t even qualify for the beta release of a full industrial strength website. It is more akin to something a groggy high school geek will hand in for his term-end project. A project, that might sneak a B if the professor was having a good day.

Of course, it doesn’t fully work on Firefox but we will let this one go because by current standards, this is a requirement of Herculean proportions. There are text boxes where they ask you to enter a list of all professional organizations you belong to, interestingly in these text boxes, commas or newlines arent allowed. There are other text boxes where there are arbitrary character limits. Educational institution is limited to some ridiculously low number so for the record I study at Arizona State Un. Apparently, instead of using intelligent error checking, VFS IT folks would rather just encumber the user with all kinds of annoying restrictions on the input. “Hey, if they can’t enter it, it’ll never show up!”  How are you supposed to enter a list without using commas or newlines, I went for spaces but now it looks like mumbo-jumbo.  But look at the bright side, a programmer at VFS now gets to play solitaire instead of writing code to parse a list separated by commas. There is a screen that has a list of all the forms you need to fill – this should typically be the first thing you see. But no, the only way to get to this screen is by pressing a button after you fill out the entire first form to their annoyingly restricted satisfaction (“Please enter only alphabets in Q. 17″…. ummm ok, English, Greek, Morse Code … ). There is not a single link to that crucially important screen.

Best part being if you write to them for support, you first get a lame ass disclaimer to the effect of “Please note that visa decisions are the exclusive jurisdiction of US Consulate, VFS does not blah blah blah…” …. its like dude, I just wanna know where to put my home address.

I wonder if the Embassy consciously decided that immigrants didnt deserve user friendliness or that they pulled off the miraculous task of amassing the most jaded group of programmers in a country that is bursting at the seams with software engineering talent. Who are these people, who in this day and age cannot get a form straight. Hey if some juniors of mine from my school back in Delhi are reading this, can you please head over and teach these bozos some HTML. and if they can get through that, maybe some basic principles of website design (like really basic of the “Must Use Hyperlinks” category). honestly.

to top it all they are pompously termed VFS GLOBAL. The only thing global about it are the collective frustrations of visa applicants all over the world.