Tuesday, May 31, 2011

How to run a successful Indian restaurant (Part Three: Website)

This is the third part in a series on how to run a successful Indian restaurant. The three parts address:

  1. Look and feel: the ambience of a restaurant
  2. Seating and staff: providing great service
  3. Website: most of your customers will find you online

These are written from the perspective of the consumer: what works and what does not. Nothing here is Earth-shattering or difficult to implement, but having seen many restaurants that do it incorrectly, I thought a set of tips to restaurant owners might help.

Rule #1: No Flash.
No compromises: you need zero Flash.

In case you don't know, Flash is the fancy animation thing that you see as an intro on many restaurant websites. The alternative is words and pictures. You want words and pictures, not movies and music.


Flash doesn't play on cell phones, which is half of your online audience. People are more likely to look up prospective restaurants while shopping in a mall, while at a friend's place, or on the drive. Also, flash websites are bigger, and slower to load. Your page needs to load in less than one second. If you have flash, that won't be true for most of your users, and users on mobile won't be able to see anything on your page.

Your customers don't want a video extravaganza: they want words. No flash.

Rule #2: No music
This is a corollary of rule 1. Customers don't visit restaurant websites to be entertained. Page load times increase quickly with music. Forget the music.

So, what's left: words!

Rule #3: Name, Address, Telephone and Hours
When I am hungry, I want four things from a restaurant: who they are, where they are, are they open, and how can I talk to a human (order in advance, or book a table). This needs to go on the main page. You could have these four things on a webpage, and nothing else, and it will be better than most restaurant websites out there.

If you're an overachiever from a good engineering college, read on. But at this point, you're done, and can stop. Congratulations! Leave me a note, and I'll come by for dinner.

Rule #4: Small, movable map
A link to a Google Maps is a great idea.  Don't take a picture from Google, include the full movable map as an embed. See how on the previous link you can move and pan the map? Customers love that.

Rule #5: Text menu
Resist the urge to put a full PDF of your menu. Very few customers will read these like a book: most likely they are looking for a specific dish and its price. PDFs are difficult to read on phones and slow connections. Words are what you want: Name of dish, description, and price.

Extra credit: Links to online reviews
In case you've already got all the above, customers love links to online review sites like Yelp. It saves new customers the hassle of looking at Yelp themselves.

Book review: AIDS Sutra

I just finished reading a collection of short articles about the occurrence of AIDS in India. The book is called "AIDS Sutra, Untold Stories from India". The contributors are well-known authors and journalists, and each writes about the disease from one perspective of their choice. The articles are meant to give the reader a better understanding of the scope of the problem, some insight into the root causes, and perhaps some clues about the solution.

The book gives strong reasons why the AIDS epidemic in India is largely a cultural problem. Most women contract the virus through their spouses, who kept their status a secret. Women cannot ensure that their fiancé is not HIV positive. In the traditional Indian arranged marriage, a woman has no rights, and the relationship between husband and wife is asymmetric. Men, on the other hand, contract it most through paid, unprotected sexual encounters, when they are unaware of the risk.

There are a few articles that talk about gay men, and the intense societal pressures they face. The gender inequality hurts these people the most: their families often disown them, and there is no understanding of the harm caused by the rejection. Indian society isn't prepared to give any measure of equality to gays and lesbians: we ignore their presence, sweep them under the carpet and the problems fester.

Illiteracy shows up often into the stories. Women who didn't know about HIV till their husbands infected them. Women and men who didn't know about birth control. Women who weren't educated, and were thus incapable of living independently and thus fell to prostitution when times got bad. Women who weren't educated and were hustled into prostitution.

Law enforcement is often mentioned: all in negative light. The police extract protection money, rough up people who are too destitute to protect themselves, and enforce laws of their choosing.

Sex and HIV is a taboo topic. Most of my friends feel uncomfortable discussing it, even around friends. I don't blame them: I'd feel uncomfortable discussing it with many of them. That's part of the problem. We create more babies than any other country but are embarrassed and scared to speak about the process. Parents can't instil any meaningful values about sex if they are ashamed to hear the words mentioned. Parents hope that ignorance will keep children safe. In practice, children get conflicting, incorrect information from their friends, and engage in rash behaviour because they didn't know any better.

I'm sure I lost half my audience due to the title. To the rest of you, go read the book, it will open your eyes.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Microsoft's purchase of Skype Part Two

Now that the dust has settled on the Microsoft-Skype deal, and we've had some pundits explain how this is great for Skype, even if the price is too high, here are my predictions if Skype is still a Microsoft division in one year.

1. Skype will lose market share over the next year. Currently, it is the dominant video chat program on computers, and the competitors are far behind. In a year, it will continue to be dominant but competitors will catch up. Rationale: the merged company won't be as nimble as before, and will waste time adjusting to Microsoft technologies while Facetime and Google Talk soak the newcomers.

2. Skype's mobile support will get worse, especially in comparison with its competitors. Rationale: Merging with Microsoft means aligning with Microsoft powerhouses: Windows and Office. The Windows Mobile tie-in is the closest, and I expect a raft of features for Windows Mobile while Android and iPhone are sidelined.

3. Skype will lose large deployments to competing technologies. Rationale: A relatively small company that is beating large ISPs is an exciting David-vs-Goliath news story. The same team inside a lumbering platforms giant is scary, because now you might be expected to follow their "vision".

4. Apple will review the Skype iPhone app a lot more closely next time it is submitted. iPhone customers will be shocked. Pundits will denounce Apple. Android fans will denounce Apple. Apple fans will defend Apple's stand. Somebody might even mail Steve. Rationale: Apple didn't see Skype as a competitor yet.

5. Skype will tie in with Xbox. Rationale: It is the obvious thing: it allows for video conferencing the living-room with mobile and desktop.

It will be fun to revisit this in an year to see how well I've done.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Kurt Vonnegut, "Slaughterhouse Five"

I read Kurt Vonnegut's book, "The Slaughterhouse Five" recently. The book deals with the insanity of war, in a manner similar to the movie "Apocalypse Now".

In case you haven't read Kurt Vonnegut, it is difficult to explain the writing style. It jumps around a lot between time and topics. After the first chapter, the book has no logical beginning or end. Since this was my first Vonnegut book, the writing style was jarring. The first few pages were tough, I wasn't certain if I wanted to continue reading. I felt that the book was over-hyped, and a ten-year old could write better connected prose. While reading on, I realised that the book was not insane, but brilliant. It dealt with the brutality and futility of war, in a way that linear prose probably never could. At the end, I was left with a deep appreciation of Kurt Vonnegut, and the urge to read other books by him.

I'm fascinated by books about war. At one end of the spectrum, we're fixated on war. Many books, movies, computer games are about war, about killing others, and they're celebrated in modern culture. At the same time, we make such a big deal about killing any single human, about how morally reprehensible a murderer is. I'm also amazed at how easily people can be led to war. I was in the US during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. I was shocked as cafes and bars showed footage of bombs being dropped on cities, while customers cheered on. The entire scene was surreal, like out of a dream, and I am still not sure I witnessed it. It is difficult to write a logical book about war, because war isn't logical. During war, a soldier is asked to suspend logic, and obey commands. Without such discipline, no army can function. The best depiction of war comes from fiction: where war is neither glorified, nor debased. It is shown in all its insanity, and the reader is left to make up his mind.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

How to run a successful Indian restaurant (Part Two: Seating and Staff)

This is the second part in a series on how to run a successful Indian restaurant. The three parts address:

  1. Look and feel: the ambience of a restaurant
  2. Seating and staff: providing great service
  3. Website: most of your customers will find you online

These are written from the perspective of the consumer: what works and what does not. Nothing here is Earth-shattering or difficult to implement, but having seen many restaurants that do it incorrectly, I thought a set of tips to restaurant owners might help.

Rule #1. Have a fixed waiting list.
Many Indian restaurants get this wrong, and the only successful ones are the kind that get this right, so listen up. In this day and age, it is inexcusable to be clueless about a waiting list. Yet, many restaurants have no organisation skills. The result is a messy waiting area, and every customer is told to wait 20-25 minutes. The result is queue-cutting and frustration for well-behaved customers, and early seating for aggressive, loud customers.

The easiest way to get organised is to maintain a clean sheet of paper on which you write down the name of the person, how many seats he wants, and his cell phone number. Most people carry a mobile phone. Tell the person you will call them when you have a table ready. Allow them to walk about and do other things, especially if the wait will be longer than fifteen minutes. This is especially true if you are in a mall where your customers can get something done while waiting. When you have a free table, the previous customers have left and you are turning it around (changing the tablecloth, clearing the dishes), call the person and let them know their table is ready, and will be held for ten minutes. That's all it takes, and your customers will love you for it.

It is easy to roughly estimate the time any customer will wait. First, you measure the number of customers who leave during any fifteen minutes. Say ten people leave every fifteen minutes. That's a churn of roughly 40 people an hour. If there are eight people in line ahead of the current customer, his wait time will be 8 / 40 hours, or roughly 12 minutes. If you measure this on a few weekdays and weekends, you will find that the churn is roughly constant for a restaurant. The churn varies greatly by time of day, if you get more customers at 12:30 than at 11:30, adjust your estimates. Customers love realistic estimates. The advantage of this method is once you get good at estimates, you don't even need to call people up: they'll know your estimates are good, and they'll show up right on time. Plus, rather than waiting around, they'll walk about, building a healthy appetite.

Rule #2: Comfortable seating
This should be obvious, but many places go the cheap route. I've been to restaurants where a table or two have cheap plastic chairs that cost $15 at Walmart. Avoid the urge to go cheap. Your customers will be sitting there for about 45 minutes, and if they aren't comfortable, they won't enjoy the food, and they won't return. Get comfortable chairs, and comfortable tables. Get a few of your friends, covering a variety of body shapes and sizes, and have them sit on the chairs for about an hour, while they read a book. Stand back to see their reaction, and you'll immediately notice if something is wrong with your seating arrangement. Once you are reasonably confident, try the setup yourself for an hour. You'll notice if the table is too close to the chairs, if your knee jams into the table.

Testing your own chairs routinely is also a great idea. Chairs shake at the joints, the cushions come loose, and generally need maintenance. My favourite restaurant proudly said in its menu, "the owners of this establishment eat here". In addition to inspiring confidence about the food, it also said volumes about their seating. Good restaurants are as comfortable as your dining room.

Rule #3: Don't save good tables for later
Many restaurants seat early customers on crappy tables: near the bathroom, near the kitchen door. The intention is to insure against large crowds later, but the effect is to devalue the customer. If a customer is sitting on a crappy table while the entire restaurant is empty, he'll feel like a chump. Value every customer. Give them the best service you can offer. If all tables are taken, and the only table is the crappy table, apologise for it, and allow the customer to wait. Plus, if the table is so crappy, you probably need to eliminate it.

Rule #4: Uniforms are good
Uniforms make it easy to tell who works at a restaurant, and who is a customer. In addition to making a place look organised, clean uniforms inspire confidence. You don't need to spend much money: clean white shirts and clean black pants work perfectly. Keep many spares in the back, so waiters can survive tables with messy kids. If you can spend money, thick cotton uniforms also protect against hot spills, make average-looking waiters look handsome/beautiful, and many online websites give a great deal for bulk purchases. Everyone, including the cashier, should wear identical uniforms.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

How to run a successful Indian restaurant (Part One: Look and feel)

This is the first part in a series on how to run a successful Indian restaurant. The three parts address:

  1. Look and feel: the ambience of a restaurant
  2. Seating and staff: providing great service
  3. Website: most of your customers will find you online

These are written from the perspective of the consumer: what works and what does not. Nothing here is Earth-shattering or difficult to implement, but having seen many restaurants that do it incorrectly, I thought a set of tips to restaurant owners might help. All the examples of failures are from real places in the US.

Rule#1. Avoid Random Decorations
 Many Indian restaurants confuse ambiance with looking "Indian". They throw together rough odds and ends that are associated with India. This is an acute problem in the West, where Indian restaurants distinguish themselves by draping red chunris (thin silk scarves) and assorted pictures of India on the wall. The hope is to look distinctive and ethnic, and with the help of a real designer, it can be impressive. But without professional help, it looks disorganized and cheap. If you have no money, leave the walls empty. If you are on a tight budget, get the walls painted in sedate light colors. Throwing random junk on the walls drives customers away.

Failure case: Place with garish wall colors and bad lighting, which was dubbed "Chandni Bar" by college students.

Rule #2. Avoid Religious Iconography
An extension of Rule#1 is overdoing religious iconography. You might be the sole moral beings in this desolate area.  But professing your faith with ten pictures, metal sculptures, and constantly lit incense is not a great idea. For one, it sets the wrong tone for people who might not care for your religion. Remember, your customers are at a restaurant, not a temple. Also, pictures of random half-naked babas kills the appetite. If you must profess your religion, keep it down to one or two good-looking pictures from mythology.

Failure case: Place with framed pictures and books of a baba recently caught in a sex scandal.
Failure case #2: Place with life-size bronze statue of Hanuman with incense nearby.

Rule #3. Clear, Simple, Menu
When designing a menu: keep it small and easy to hold. Nothing bigger than an A4 sheet of paper: preferably laminated. Use one font and one color. Don't go overboard with font types just because your word processor has a hundred fonts. The menu is a place for you to list your food, not to display artistic talent. Let the food speak for itself. Pictures are fine, but only if they will resemble your food, and only if the overall menu size will be tame. A small descriptive text is usually good for the non-Indians who won't know what they're ordering. If you cater to a largely non-Indian clientèle, a small set of suggestions at the bottom of the menu ("For the chicken lovers: ...") will be excellent.  If you have any dirty menu, throw it away. Customers look at dirty menus and imagine a rat-infested kitchen.

Failure case: Place with a 15" wide menu that opens on the short edge, making the fully opened menu wider than the table.

Rule #4.Quiet, or Soft, Neutral Music
Many restaurants play loud, current Bollywood music. A loud restaurant makes people talk louder, and at the end of the meal, they're hoarse and tired. Also, Bollywood doesn't produce great songs all year round. Current music is likely to be poor in quality. If you are on a budget, skip music altogether. Most customers will be glad to be spared the auditory assault. Investing in sound-absorbing ceiling is a great idea: it lets customers have conversation at a reasonable volume without making the place loud. If you must play music, stick to classical Indian music which is well appreciated by Indians and non-Indians alike. If you must play Bollywood, classic Bollywood tunes are often nicer than newer ones. And keep that volume down.

Failure case: Place with loud Govinda music. Drives away customers. Drives customers insane.

Rule #5. Value Customers' Time
Some restaurants in the Bay Area have television screens with advertisements running. This is a terrible idea: you're already selling food to these customers! Don't waste their time with pointless advertising. I've seen pamphlets of babas, yoga courses and other nonsense advertised. Spare the urge to turn your restaurant into a village square. If you must have pamphlets to support local events, keep them in a small corner near the cashier. Customers can grab one without the advertising drawing attention to itself.

Failure case: Place with leaflet for fake baba kept on every table, between the tablecloth and a glass sheet. I had to fight the urge to scribble "FRAUD" on the leaflet.

With these simple tips, you can turn your restaurant from a place of ill repute to a highly sought-after dinner destination.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Everybody loves a good drought

I'm reading through a book called Everybody Loves a Good Drought by Palagummi Sainath. It has a view of real poverty in India, gathered over years of living in the areas where poverty is worst. It has some moving stories of how simple mismanagement has far-reaching effects, until the situation is hopeless. The book looks at poverty from a variety of angles: health, education, and shows where the problems lie. While reading the health section, I was reminded of a video of roadside dentists in Jaipur, India (warning, unsuitable for the faint of heart). Having seen plenty of quacks in India, it was a jarring reminder of the lack of good public health.

The book is aptly named: many people gain from poverty in India, which is one reason why poverty is so well entrenched. There are parallels with the caste system, which is being milked for political interest, and thus is becoming a permanent fixture of Indian life. Poverty, too, has become a political tool: useful for keeping certain segments firmly in control. There's much to be gained from poverty: direct aid is given to poor districts, and poor people being illiterate have no way of enforcing their rights.

The core problems are not that difficult to solve, except that we run into the usual issues:
  1. People will deny the problem exists. Indian journalists can be hushed up. Foreign journalists are ignored by calling them muck-rakers and India haters. This is also the case for awareness by Indian citizens. The young are hushed by calling them immature. The illiterate ones are easy to ignore and they don't get any visibility. College students are ignored because they are idealists. People who emigrate are ignored because they are Westernized. There's never a good time to point to a social problem.
  2. Even after the problem is identified, the authority responsible for solving it will ignore responsibility. The scene that comes to mind is from the recent movie "Peepli Live" where the core matter shuttles between government offices. Nobody is willing to accept responsibility and do something constructive while everyone is happy to assert their power when their interest is at stake. In India, every policeman I ever met was happy to order me around. But when they were needed: during a theft, or to control a situation, they'd look the other way and ask me to go elsewhere. This is pervasive.
At this point, it is important to increase awareness of how bad things are. It is imperative to have a clear picture of Indian poverty, so we can stay focused on the key causes. Palagummi's book does exactly this: it provides a crisp view of Indian poverty. The articles go into the causes of poverty, and how little it will take to change some of the worst problems. The book walks the reader through India's poorest districts and leaves him with a better understanding of Indian poverty.

    Tuesday, May 10, 2011

    Microsoft's purchase of Skype

    Microsoft is buying Skype for a whopping $8 billion dollars. This is an insane valuation for a company that isn't profitable, and has no clear path towards profitability. Skype's technology is good: peer-to-peer (p2p) communication for voice traffic, and some impressive firewall evasion logic.  But it isn't worth $8b. Microsoft is buying Skype users. The hope is that a majority of these users will remain and use the Microsoft version of Skype. Perhaps these users will want to buy Windows Mobile 7 phones rather than iPhone or Android and Xbox rather than the Wii2.

    I'm skeptical about this acquisition. Microsoft botched the Hotmail acquisition pretty badly. They fell behind on many web features that Yahoo Mail and Google Mail added, and they have never caught up. Back in the early days of web mail, there were a large number of new accounts being created everyday. Existing users weren't worth much unless you had a clear path to entice new users. Hotmail failed at this entirely, most new users went to the faster, better-looking Yahoo Mail. When Gmail came around, many people jumped again, because Gmail provided a bigger inbox and a much better interface. Changing email addresses is very painful: people have to circulate a new address and keep monitoring the old address for a while. Despite these hurdles, both Yahoo Mail and Gmail were compelling enough for Hotmail users to switch. Unless Skype continues to be innovative, people will switch.

    Skype is a lot easier to move from: I suspect Skype contacts lists are much smaller than Facebook contact lists by an order of magnitude.  I have fifty or so Facebook contacts, but only four real Skype contacts. I could switch away from Skype in an evening. And I will.

    Microsoft has a history of poor cross-platform support. Skype worked well for me because of a good Linux client. After the acquisition, both the Linux and MacOS clients will rot away, and the newest features will only be available on Windows. This is just a guess, and Microsoft's product lineup supports this belief. Skype's existing Android client is shoddy, and I doubt it will improve with Microsoft's leadership.

    Finally, I am skeptical about Skype's ability to innovate under Microsoft. Many products have tried this (Flight Simulator, Bungie), and the results have been dismal. If Skype isn't getting any better, and perhaps getting worse, I should start looking for alternatives right away.

    Luckily, Google has compelling video and voice chat and it works perfectly on Linux, Android, Mac and Windows.

    (Disclaimer: I am a Google employee, but my bosses didn't pay me to write this.)
    Image courtesy: mjomark on Reddit.

    Monday, May 09, 2011

    Movies distort reality

    Scene 1. "Hacker" is breaking into the computer systems. He struggles for a while, and then finds the giant "password over-ride" button. Phew. He's through.

    Scene 2. The big hero is being chased by some crooks. He enters a department store, and he's still being followed. He finally evades them by crashing through a giant glass window, which smashes into tiny bits, and he runs away, unharmed.

    Scene 3. Car chase. Two good guys are in the car being chased. Around a bend, the driver hints to the passenger, and the passenger opens his door, and tumbles out of the car. Unhurt.

    Scene 4. Mathematician is so smart, he can add ten-digit numbers mentally. He has a giant blackboard filled with arcane mathematics. His personal life is a disaster (if he is married). He often talks about stuff nobody understands. He knows whom the serial killer is going to murder next.

    Scene 5. Chinese fighter Mr. Lee is fighting Mr. Yan. They've got sharp knives, and swords. They're punching madly. They're waving these sharp swords wildly. Sometimes they're flying on bamboo trees. Nobody gets hurt. There are two possible consequences: 1. Person will die a quick, painless death. 2. Person will run away unhurt, to fight another day.

    Scene 6. Hero gets shot on his hand. His fingers are hurt, but with a simple cloth bandage, he is fine. He feels no pain, and in a few scenes his bandaged hand is good enough to hold a shotgun.  A scene later it is good enough to fire the shotgun, accurately.

    You know it is false

    Of course we know movies aren't real. We know that if your fingers get shot, the mangled hand is going to swell up like a balloon. It will hurt like mad, and even for people who can ignore pain, the hand is not structurally sound to hold anything. Definitely not a heavy shotgun. That's because shotguns are heavy. And it takes some pressure to squeeze the trigger, the kind that a mangled hand cannot physically provide. If human fingers take a bullet hit, head on, there is bound to be grotesque damage to the bone.

    There is some artistic license that film-makers get, and I don't deny that. Films would be boring if they didn't enhance life, or inject some well-meaning lie. Goldilocks is fun because there are three giant bears, eating porridge. Take away the porridge, their house, and the family structure of the bear household, and all you have is a hungry girl with questionable ethics. But nobody would use Goldilocks to shape their notion of truth.

    Being a computer scientist, I'm doubly hit. Movies portray computer science and scientists as socially awkward geniuses. Most people, having never seen a computer scientist in the wild, know no better. To the uninformed human, I'm either a character from the Matrix: a hacker capable of superhuman feats who wears all black leather, or a chump lacking social graces. But I probably know whom the serial killer is going to murder next, right?

    Physicists are often portrayed wearing lab coats, for no apparent reason. They usually have white hair too, and are nearly always white men. People studying Chemistry are shown causing explosions, when most of Chemistry has nothing to do with explosions.  Studying Chemistry generally leads to sedate, non-explosive jobs. There can be real characters, but what we get are distorted, single-dimensional caricatures.

    Harm to Society

    There is definite harm in keeping such fantasies in our head. I am reminded of a statement by John Keegan, where he talks of the damage a single bullet causes. He is a military historian, and he was talking about how we perceive guns as fairly surgical weapons, when in reality they are hideously brutal.
    In his book, "A History of Warfare", Keegan said that he was shocked when he first saw the extent of damage a single bullet can create. Not knowing the carnage a gun can cause is bad enough, but having fanciful ideas about the bullet wound being a surgical hole is even worse. This is the main problem: If we aren't careful, films distort our view of reality.

    The case of people jumping out of a moving car is even worse. People seem to believe that they can casually tumble out of a moving car (sometimes at speeds higher than 60kmph) and walk away unhurt. On one episode of World's Wildest Police Videos, I saw something incredible. In this show, actual TV footage from police cameras is shown, to persuade the viewers that crime doesn't pay. On the video that I watched, the cops were in hot pursuit of some criminals.  During the chase, the suspect leapt out of the car, while the car was going at some neck-breaking speed. Needless to say, he suffered multiple fractures, and had to be rushed to emergency medical care. Looking at the footage, it was clear he wanted to leap out: he was not pushed. Why would any sane person tumble out of a car going 80kmph? Either he was clinically insane, or had watched a movie too many. This is also the case with trying to crash through glass. It is difficult to break a glass door just by running through it, and if you do, you are likely to cut yourself in many places rather than calmly running away.  The material used in movie special effects is not glass and is designed to shatter into little bits.

    Luckily, Indian action scenes have gone full circle, and are in the domain of the laughable.

    If the only perception of Computer Science, Mathematics, Physics and Chemistry is what you get from the films, then clearly you aren't going to enter one of them. The hero isn't the guy in the lab coat. Clearly, if you want to be surrounded by  attractive girls, you're better off without the lab coat. You'd never want to be a Mathematician, since these are shown as losers who cannot get a date, cannot even dress well, and have all the social graces of a lamp-post. I'm glad my ideas about Math came from books about real mathematicians rather than washed out actors with poor dress sense.

    Sunday, May 08, 2011

    Nani Palkhiwala: We, the Nation, The Lost Decades

    I recently read Nani Palkhiwala's book, "We, the Nation, The Lost Decades". It is a collection of articles and transcripts of talks. These are all commentaries on Indian society, law, legislative process and similar concerns. I recommend the book strongly.

    After reading the book, I was struck by two things:
    1. How much the problems today resemble the problems from the 1980s.  The core issues have stayed unchanged.  The problems of a corrupt Legislative branch, the danger of an unbiased Executive and an unbiased Judiciary, and the lack of education being the root cause of poor candidates being elected as representatives.  These have been problems for many years.
    2. Many outstanding individuals noticed these problems, and tried to spread awareness about these issues, even when problems began.  Nani Palkhiwala was completely accurate in his assessment of the Ayodhya tangle, and he wrote in prominent newspapers expressing his viewpoint.  The issues persisted despite these outstanding individuals: probably because the people in charge were willfully ignorant and put their petty concerns over the good of society. Nani Palkhiwala wasn't the only person spreading awareness either: many other people noticed these issues and spread the word.
    The articles in the book make me pessimistic: if the problems were noticed by such outstanding individuals, and yet we haven't solved them in the last thirty years, what chance do we have of solving them now?  Forty years ago, outstanding individuals chose to serve the public as lawyers, as judges, as administrators.  Some of them were driven by idealism, and others by lack of other opportunities. Today, the same individual has other options: employment in private firms is more lucrative and inviting.  Idealism is on the wane: among people in my generation, the three branches of government are seen as dead-end professions. I can't think of a single person in my school, college or university who aimed to become a lawyer, or a policeman.  The armed forces are the only exception to this: many friends of mine wanted to serve the nation. Apart from the armed forces, a government job is seen as a stagnant profession, where merit is optional, and where you are unlikely to find any job satisfaction.

    In case you'd like to learn more about Modern Indian history, the History of the  Indian Republic (Wikipedia) is a superb introduction.  If you are interested in more detail, Ramchandran Guha's, "India After Gandhi" is the best book on the topic.

    (Image courtesy Wikipedia)

    Thursday, May 05, 2011

    Cargo cult Quantum Theory

    Nobody does it better than this guy:

    I love the use of quantum physics and photos and electrons in that video.  The sad thing is that I know people who actually listen to this nonsense, and think it is of great significance.

    This reminded me of a wonderful article called Cargo Cult Science by Richard Feynman.  During the second World War, a couple of Pacific Islands had been hastily colonized and militarized by the Asian and Western powers.  The people on these islands had been living a primitive life: with little or no contact with Western science.  So when they saw aircrafts, guns, bombs, they were amazed.  To these people, it appeared to be magical how some airstrips would get periodic food drops.  In an attempt to copy Western advancements, these people built airstrips out of bamboo, with fake control towers made of wood.  Of course, the aircrafts with supplies never landed at these fake airstrips.  This phenomenon is called a Cargo Cult, where a person copies the external appearance of something without any real understanding.

    Deepak Chopra reminds me of these Pacific Islanders.  They see the benefit of technology, and want to imitate it, but they completely miss the point.  Using fancy language and words from Quantum Theory without understanding the issues is exactly like the Pacific Islanders who build fake airstrips out of bamboo, and wonder why real aircrafts carry supplies never land.

    Wednesday, May 04, 2011

    The Verdict

    We watched another classic movie, "The Verdict". Paul Newman stars as a lawyer, who is down on his luck, and who suddenly grows a conscience.

    It is a beautiful portrayal of how the justice system can fail despite the best efforts of people.  Paul Newman plays the part wonderfully: he is despondent at the beginning, unable to get his career started again.  As the movie proceeds, you realize that he isn't exactly down on his luck, that he has been given the short end of the stick by the "system".

    The entire story is riveting: in one way you know that the good guys should win in the end, but it keeps you engaged and guessing.  You can see that Newman is trying really hard, and that he is facing long odds.  Through the movie, you're left wondering if he will succeed, and what will tip the scales.

    The Verdict is directed by Sidney Lumet, who also directed the superb drama in "12 Angry Men".  Both movies are fairly thought-provoking, and both are about the legal system.

    Another thing that set "The Verdict" apart was the ending.  Recent movies have focussed on one-sided endings with no margin for subtlety.  In complete contrast, the ending of "The Verdict" was subtle and nuanced, and it allowed the entire movie to shine.  Despite its name, and despite being a courtroom drama, the movie was never about the final decision.

    What a bunch of bullshit!

    We came across a flyer for Inner Engineering while having dinner today.  It was typical pseudo-scientific bullshit coupled in the garb of science and of course yoga.

    Listen to their front runner talk about the significance of a lingam.  He uses a lot of scientific terminology: and explains very little.  The entire explanation is demeaning to a person's intelligence.

    These pseudo-science spouting babas has always been with us.  The surprising thing is how they are tolerated in educated company.  The rise of this nonsense is a serious threat.  This kind of nonsense cheapens real science, it muddies the water between science and bullshit.

    Such nonsense has no space in an educated society.  We can't speak of building an educated, literate world on one hand, and tolerate such pseudo-scientific nonsense on another.  Time spent chasing such pseudo-science is an utter waste of time.