31 May 2009

The seduction of cooking

I was chopping onions for the Mushroom Biryani and crying buckets. My tear glands are always on red alert, ready to spill into a gushing torrent however small the stimuli. At the end though I was fortunate to have yet another meal where I had the satisfaction of eating something delicious, simple and savory. But for me the cooking itself is not quite so much exciting as the chopping of the ingredients.

Let's start with the onions. You can't really chop onions the same way for all dishes. Sometimes I like slices (like for my Biryani), finely chopped when I am making salsa, in giant blocks for barbeques, or rings for salads. I like the process of methodically peeling and chopping them the right size for every dish. And I extend this curtsey to all my ingredients. For upma, I like my ginger finely chopped, for masala chai its grated and for paneer jal frazee it's in julienne. One afternoon I was chopping a rather unwieldy cabbage for my grandmother who was horrified that I was not cutting it to one-tenth of a mm of the size that she had requested. So, this OCD runs in the family. Phew, relief!

I also like arranging my chopped vegetables into distinct piles. It's rather ironic that I take care to keep their personalities in tact when on my plate everything usually gets blended into a soggy mess; whose complete sensory enjoyment lies in eating with my fingers.

My lone partner in this activity is a Global 9 inch chef knife recommended by the quixotic Anthony Bourdain in his book Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly. I love this beauty. The slim handle and the light blade make chopping vegetables a seductive experience. Keeping the knife in shape is a tough task though. One of my sweetest moments packing up in Seattle was discovering the receipt for the knife that allowed me a free sharpening. It was like finding 5 dollars in your pocket!

I can't wait to be back in my own kitchen with a knife I adore and working with ingredients that I grow. Umm... delicious! I can already smell the mint.

25 May 2009

"No man is an island"

A ramble.

This oft repeated phrase came to mind this week as we were given news of our extension to stay in London for a couple of weeks more. My parents also used this phrase frequently when they wanted to convey (to me) the importance of getting married which is rather ironic because my career and life are slowly moving towards community-centric activities. But, I digress.

We are a small team out here to learn how the parent corp works and a motley crew we are of moms, wives, husbands and dog-lovers. Perhaps the hardest thing for the team has been to give up their social life. Its been a difficult journey and today for some reason I finally felt their pain and loneliness. Being away from your stable life is hard enough but to not know when you'll return to that stability or how you will manage the vagaries of next few weeks while still being away is hard.

It is my observation, not original by any stretch, that as Humans we feed off the energy of the people and environment around us. So when we are are surrounded by people or climate that are cheerful we reflect that emotion in our hearts. When the world we inhabit, or in our workplace is filled with longing, depression and frustrations, we imbibe those emotions and carry it on ourselves. The default setting seems to be to mirror the world around us in emotional footprints. But if you have the self power and will; as the Vedantic philosophy suggests, you detach yourself from the world and do not allow the world to distract your inner Self so you can ride in an ocean of calmness while a violent storm rages outside.

For me this is a contradiction. I feel an energy and connection to all people and animals. I live off that energy especially on those relationships that give me positive 'love' energy and cannot imagine not feeling that connection. Detaching from that energy just doesn't make sense; I don't even know how I would go about doing it. This energy I feed off isn't a one way road either. There is give and take. I share in some one's joy and like a nuclear reaction that happiness is broken into smaller particles that moves along the human chain that I encounter for the next few days. I feel some one's sadness and my "happiness" battery begins to discharge as I hope that by feeling their sadness I can help them fill up with a bit of my saved happiness.

Megha's theory of living? I don't think so. It's a WIP: Work in Progress! Its just that in recent times I have become more cognizant of my mirror work and can now sense when I am truly sad vs just reflecting some one's else discomfort. I feel much more intensely but sometimes I can take charge of the emotions. But as blogpost "Evils of living in my head" indicates I am quite far off in controlling those emotions that bubble and froth inside me. That's when the whole feeding off really helps. I need to touch base with a person or thing that gladdens my heart: sitting by a beautiful river with an arching weeping willow, a run or meeting a friend who doesn't need words to convey empathy.

Life is strange. What I would thought would be a circumstances that would propel me towards being a closed person has made me a lot more open and honest. I hope I don't forget these lessons!

19 May 2009

ARGs : a new fundraising tool

I had the privilege recently of opening my email to the message "ARGs - what do they mean to you?" My funny bone immediately spotted that if I were to add an H after the G it would pretty nicely sum up my day so far. Argh! Quite early in the email ARG was expanded to mean Alternate Reality Game and I was intrigued. Not so much because I participate in computer games that simulate alternate realities but more because it was in the lunch hour and I had nothing better to do. Quite possibly the very reason you are reading this blog!

What are ARGs? Alternate reality games are ahem., not games. Well, they are games but they involve the participation of a community of gamers using lots of different technologies like mobile, internet, media and various platforms supported on those technologies like blogs, twitter, facebook, youtube etc. They can be used for marketing, awareness, education and fundraising or whatever you fancy you wanted to use it for.

How? One of the first ARGs was 'The Beast' designed to drum up interest for Steven Spielberg's movie, Artificial Intelligence. To read more about it visit this wikipedia page. Briefly, it was a 12 week plot spun around three entry points (rabbit holes in ARG-speak) in order to solve a mystery. Clues were spread across websites, blogs, phone numbers and puzzles. Once you were pumped up about the mystery, the marketers bet you would like to see the movie. I can't comment on what happened next because I didn't play the beast and I slept through AI.

I work for a biomedical charity and volunteer for education- centric charity so my ears perked up when one of the possible uses for ARGs was in charities and universities. Indiana University used an ARG called Skeleton Chase last year ( nice review here ) to introduce freshmen to healthy habits that they hoped, would last a lifetime. The mystery was tied into students performing physical activities and as the weeks wore on, it encouraged group activities. I suppose it's a bit early to know if these students did indeed make some lifetime healthy habits but you are beginning to get the drift?

There are two charities that have used ARGs. For awareness, the British Red Cross launched Traces of Hope. The plot revolved around an Ugandan teenager searching for his mother in a civil war. The idea was to increase awareness about the tragedies civilians face in the midst of strife and displacement due to civil wars that they had no hand in. For fundraising, Cancer Research UK, had an ARG called Operation: Sleeper Cell. Basically, you had to solve a puzzle in a grid and in order to release more people from the grid to help you solve the puzzle you had to donate money. They were able to raise £3,500 this way. I saw the number and started to do the math.

Marathon running is one of the fundraising events that I have directly participated in and trained others to do. It requires dedication and time, plus the occasional physical strength. Overall, it works wonders with the runners self esteem but running 26.2 miles to not every one's cup of tea. In contrast ARGs require usage of technology that is in hand ,to collectively solve a problem, all of which you could do from your couch. It has the potential also to encourage youngsters to donate: who may not necessarily think much about putting 20 bucks on a game as compared to a similar donation for some one's marathon endeavour. But ARGs require time and dedication. For e.g., the creators of Operation: Sleeper Cell were a pack of 20 volunteers who spend 8 months of their spare time to create the game. So the execution of this concept is still in its infancy. Nevertheless, I am pumped. Its like a treasure hunt on a global scale with the additional perks of raising awareness and fundraising. Sounds a bit too cool to be true, yeah?

Its a bit early to comment how successful this technology would eventually be or even in which area it would have the biggest impact. But, looking at the way people lap up wiis and Nintendo, I think it's a promising technology and if the amount of time and effort to make one could be reduced i.e., it became more practical, it would be handy for any charity to use as a fundraiser and awareness tool.

The Economist has a nice summary on ARGs.
Here's a link to a Q and A at a recent conference where one of the creators of Operation: Sleeper Cell was quizzed.

10 May 2009

The evils of living in your head

I have been having a lot of me time recently. Some of it has been pleasantly meditative, a lot of it has been doing laundry and some of it has been spent wallowing in self pity. I am, as a general rule quite positive and optimistic, but, that machine breaks down sometimes.

Take this weekend for example. I spent a lot of time talking to my family, had a wonderful breakfast thanks to S who has simply been the most superb friend for the last few months -- an ode to her in a later post--then, we sauntered about in Covent Garden indulging in some window shopping therapy and I ended the day with drinks with a buddy from work. Quite busy you might think but I went to bed all cross about the way life has treated me and got up in the morning half dreaming of a violent physical act on another person. I am not a big fan of violence ; the extent of my bad wishes for people who piss me off oscillates between wishing them a cold water shower and a flat tire. So, this rather disturbing image was a nightmare to get up into. I have been getting some help for all the trauma of previous year and one of things my healer suggested was to treat myself with empathy. But, I'm thinking, how can I empathize with this homicidal thought?! yikes.

Exercise, I thought, would help dispel this image which got more graphic and disturbing as the morning progressed. So I set out on a long walk. For a while my mind got distracted with the thought - what if someone else is thinking about me this way, right at this time? Gosh, I hope I have never hurt someone so bad that they wish I was dead. Self pity then came back online and I was once again obsessing about how unfairly I have been treated and I didn't deserve what I got. Clearly, walking was not going to help. So I climbed into a train to treat myself to some Indian food and packed myself a magazine to keep my overactive brain in order. A few articles about displaced Sri Lankans, Pakistanis, Burmese and pictures of suffering people restored my rational mind a bit: in comparison to these people my problems were indeed idiotic and trivial. So much suffering in the world...

I got off the train and was walking with this thought in my head when I noticed a couple walking ahead, hand in hand, clearly enjoying the day and buzzing along in cozy togetherness. The self pity thoughts came back faster than a bullet train. Why me? Arrgh? I wish I has been smarter about my choices. How screwed up am I to have deserved such a relationship? so on and on... this was a losing battle.

There isn't a story or Astro inspired rule of life in this ramble. All I know is that after some food and some more walking the images subsided and I am only left with anger. Self pity has gone on a long hike, I hope and now I am tapping the anger out of my system. Its been a good journey , nay recovery, since the first post and yet, it seems that on some days...yuck!

2 May 2009

India's Report Card - ASER 2008 II

Disclaimer: None of the information reported here is original, except for the ranking table which I compiled for my amusement and some musings under point 4.

**MUST READ** If you are short on time I would recommend reading pages 13 - 28 for comments from the people who designed, executed and analyzed ASER 2008. Also handy are pages 50-53 for a summary of findings and page 61 for India stats. Note - these numbers are based on the pdf page number rather than what is written in the Table of Contents in the report.

Findings I found interesting:

  1. Overall enrollment is up to 95.7% i.e., this percentage of 6-14yr olds are in some form of elementary school. That means that the number of kids registered to attend school has increased but it's fairly obvious that just getting a child to school is not enough; we need to be able to keep her there and educate her. Still, there is some consolation in the fact that schools are more accessible than they were in the past. A primary school is located within 1 Km radius of habitation for 92.5% villages. 67.1% villages have a government middle school while 33.8% have a government secondary school.
  2. Overall, the learning levels in India are either stagnating or declining (page 61). This varies considerably over states but if one were to consider that SSA was rolled out by the central government as a plan to fix primary school education all over the country, it would appear that the scheme has delivered (enrollment is up; schools are accessible) but not accomplished (learning is down) its stated aim. For example the percentage of children in between standards 1-8 who read a story was 43.6% in 2005 and 41% in 2008. Similarly in Maths, the percentage of children who were able to do long number division was 30.9% in 2005 vs 27.9% in 2008.
  3. Children are increasingly attending private schools - 16.4% in 2005 vs 22.5% in 2008. This trend varies significantly between states with Himachal Pradesh and Kerala having the highest numbers. Interestingly, overall enrollment in private school doesn't correlate that well with increased learning levels for states like Chattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh (MP). In fact, MP has the same level of private school enrollment as Tamil Nadu (15%) and yet they are on either side of the spectra as far as learning outcomes are observed (Table 1).
  4. Madhya Pradesh and Chattisgarh are states with the most significant improvements in learning outcomes. From Table 1 it would appear that MP has beat Kerala as the most 'well read' state. What was shocking to me was the poor learning levels in Tamil Nadu, the first state to introduce midday meal schemes and with high educational inputs. Surprisingly, of the BiMaROU (Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Orissa and Uttar Pradesh) states only UP is doing worse than Karnataka and just based on my perhaps skewed perception of economic development I would consider Karnataka more developed than them. In the same league is Gujrat, another state praised for its rapid economic development under the Modi government yet, their learning indicators are dismal. All this would suggest that since educational strength doesn't match up with a State's economic development we are going to see huge migrations as more educated youth move to where the industry and jobs are.

Table 1 - Ranking order of Indian States based on 2008 values for reading and maths.

India's Report Card: ASER 2008 - I

Summary of effort and methodology.

Since 2005, Pratham, an NGO in India has been facilitating the publication of Annual Status of Education Report (ASER, असर in hindi). This independent survey tries to capture the current status of education of India's rural children. The sheer size of their enterprise is impressive. This year alone 16,198 villages were covered with a total sampling of about 700,000 children between the ages of 3 - 16 all across the country. A complete provisional report can be found here. It's 208 pages long and crammed with information that every education and policy statistician would love to analyze.

The parameters looked at are very simple - can our children read and do math? An overly simplified gist of the testing procedure is this: for reading they progress from alphabets, to 2 letter words, sentences and finally comprehension; for math, it starts with identification of digits, higher numbers and then performing mathematical functions such as subtraction, multiplication and division of progressively larger numbers.

Standardized tests have been created for each state so that children are evaluated in the language they are taught. For a flow chart on the testing procedure please go to page 41 of the report. Sample tests and volunteer sheets have been included in the Appendix. From what I can gather the ASER report mobilizes a large number of volunteers who are provided with a 4 day training and one day refresher before they are sent out to the field. From their acknowledgment it is clear that this mobilization has been across various sectors of the society which in itself is something to be proud of, I think. For the sheer scale of this effort, a standardized effort is key for data generation and, this year they have gone back to re-check 2-4 villages in each district to make sure the data was captured correctly.

ASER has consistently followed the same questioning methodology for the past 3 reports so it's interesting to compare the trends across states and districts. Although, they do caution against reading trends across the years in a single district due to their sampling methodology. Each year they also include a new parameter that can further give insight into the lives of our rural children. In ASER 2007 there was a section on testing children's English language skills while in ASER 2008 they have looked at infrastructure available in the village and household of the child such as TV, phone, electricity, PDS, Post Office etc. It adds an invaluable economic layer on top of the education metrics they present.

ASER 2008 has covered 564 districts out of the total 583. In each district 600 households ( 20 households in 30 villages) were randomly selected. They predict this yields more than 1,000 children per district. The villages themselves are randomly selected: 10 have been retained from 06, 10 from 07 and 10 new have been added. Children are tested on Sunday, when they are expected to be at home. Their survey methodology is quite interesting and a more detailed explanation can be found in the report itself.

To view a break up of numbers statewise and look at prettily colored pictures of India based on educational metrics please visit the ASER centre. In my next post I will present a data table with combined rankings for the results in 2008.

Please note that this effort is my own humble initiative to understand the state of our education and is not a rigorous academic discussion on either the methodology or outcome. I do not have the right training to pontificate on either; but, I do have the curiousity to find out how our children are doing!