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The Existential Crisis Phenomenon

Time flies! Busy Day! I hear these statements a lot. I have also wondered as how I can spend days, weeks, months and yet have the overwhelming feeling that I have done nothing special. In the recent past, I have found solace in order. I have a schedule that I have tried to keep up (for the most part). I set myself up to only do things I absolutely cared about at this point and I go about my day taking care of business one at a time. While, this approach has kept me busy doing thing I have wanted to do it also has given birth to a nagging line of thought. It is exactly like a fly that is in your house. It does not bother me for the most part, but when it does start buzzing near me it drives me nuts. May be this is the existential crisis phenomenon! So just like that just to bring some purpose back in life and to get the nagging thought away from my head I signed up for a half marathon. 13.1 miles. The race is in 12 weeks. Over the course of the next twelve weeks let us see how we get going. I think I probably will write a post to cover the progress for the week, If something memorable happens I will share that too.

The importance of Kindness

Some time ago, my dad was conned in a bus ride back from work. A crook picked his pocket while another distracted him with a story that he saw money fall out from my Dad’s bag. He only had a photo copy of his drivers license and a few spare change for the bus fare so no major harm done there. My dad was sure not thrilled and he was quite angry with himself for letting his guard down and trusting the word of a stranger. The thing is my father grew up in a small town, every body knew every body and they talked about every thing. So his natural instinct is to trust people. He would usually tell people his life story the fifth minute he met someone. We have always made fun of his for being so easy going and like-able but this was different he was sort of blaming himself for being nice in today’s world. No matter what we said, he refused to believe it was sheer bad luck and decided to be more selective in his company and choice of words. Though at times i had wished he had shown better judgement in his company, i absolutely did not like it when he became a grumpy version of himself. I thought that he would get over the incident over time, but he was pretty shaken up and refused to give up his grouchy self.

Two weeks later he received a call from an unknown number. My dad being his new self refused to answer the phone from the unknown number, but three or four rings later my mother picked up the phone. The call was for my dad from a person in Sankari (45 minutes away from home). He was a trucker and he had found my dad’s wallet near the bus stand. Apparently the crooks had thrown the wallet away finding nothing worthwhile in it. The guy had come upon the wallet lying in the ground and upon finding the emergency contact details safely stashed in the wallet he called the number to tell us that he had found the wallet. He said he was currently on his way to another town and he told us that he could either ship the wallet over post or hold on to it and deliver to him the next week when he was back in town. My dad of course did not trust a word he said, he even had a theory that the crooks were trying to con him again as they were not happy with what they got the first time. I think he managed to say that since there was nothing of use there he did not particularly care about the missing wallet. My mother started to give my dad a hard time for putting his own details in the emergency contact card details. yeah! right.

Three days later, we received a package and inside was the missing wallet. The trucker had sent it to the address on the license copy and along with it a note to my dad. Translated it read something like this. Dear sir, I know one can go through some bad experiences in life, but do not let these stray incidents affect your trust in humanity. Hope this reaches you and makes you feel better. My dad immediately called him back, thanked him and even offered to reimburse the cost to send the package. The stranger refused and just asked my dad to not let go of his goodness that easily. Now i don’t know if he had tears of happiness or if he was just overcome with emotion. But he was smiling for sure and now does like to claim that he knew that good things would eventually happen to him. yeah! right.

A couple of crooks and a gentleman taught me a valuable lesson that day. The importance of Kindness. Sure courage, loyalty, intelligence are all virtues that assist one in the quest for perfection, but kindness and loyalty are what makes you a better human.

There is an app for that

So every company is at promoting the buzzwords Digital, Mobility, Analytics, Cloud to employees and customers alike. The place i work at is also seeing a digital revolution and the upper management has asked us to come up with innovative mobile apps that disrupt the regular lives. I do understand the smart phone has changed our lives forever. Call me old school, but i still like to put some trust in my memory and self over an app to do things. Now a couple of my colleagues (let us call them 1 and 2) i believe have sold their souls to the smart phone. They claim that their phone has the potential to do every single thing that i can think of. Oh come on that is stretch for sure right, you cannot have an app for every single thing you like to do in your day to day life. Like what says 2. I did not want to give them easy wins so i told them not to reel of apps that i had used up to the point and i also asked them to ignore the broad categories of apps under news, photography, social media, life style, weather etc . 1 & 2 still seemed pretty confident that they would find an app for anything i threw at them.

Since we were having the conversation at a pub, I asked how about an app to find out about beers? “Untappd” says 2. 2 tells me about the app that allows one to track and rate beers tasted. The app then generates a recommendation list based on your likes and also lists the pubs nearby that sell the drink you want. Wow, as i take in the details i see the metro bus pull over at the corner of the street. I knew that there was an app to track the bus schedules but then the bus just groaned as it went over one of the numerous potholes in the city. I bet you there cannot be an app to track pot holes in the city said I. There is one for that says 1 after a few seconds on his phone. This time i am shocked Really? who builds an app for that? The city of Houston does beams 1.

I clearly had underestimated the Digital warriors. I was unable to think of anything at that point and struggling to come up with new ideas. Seeing my predicament 1 & 2 decided to intervene. They decided to take several creative liberties to make the search more challenging. Let us see if there are apps to rack places where i have… begins 2. oh No, I knew where this was going. Yup…says 1 before i could respond. I meant….begins 2. Yup for that one as well says 1. I sat dumbfounded. why would you know about these i ask? why not? asks 1.

2 pulls out an website that lists the weirdest apps ever built. He reads out as 1 finishes up his beer

  • An app to block out the Kardashians content from appearing on your browser.
  • An app to tell if the picture that you just took was that of an hot dog?
  • An app that allows you type using only four words ****, yes, no, you.
  • An app that allows you to type only with 1000 simple words.
  • An app that allows you to pop pimples on the phone screen.
  • An app that tells you when to go pee when you are watching a movie.

The evening was definitely not going the way i intended, i surely was toast. For an IT engineer i was so not embracing technology to the extent others were. It sort of popped the bubble for me and i let a volley of cuss words.

And yeah i now know that There is an app for that too.

P.S The apps that i absolutely love and use are Good Reads, Weather – Go Run, Run Keeper, Black Player, Spotify, and YouTube.

Demonetization Thoughts

On November 8th 2016, the prime minister of India announced on National TV that the 500 and 1000 rupee notes were demonetized effective midnight. The PM announced that the people had until Dec 31 to exchange the old notes. Post Dec 31 the people could exchange them at the specified RBI branches. The government believed that this step would help curb counterfeit currency that fed terrorist activities and fight corruption by bringing black money hoarders to book. He asked the people of India to put up with the difficulty for a 50 days, and to view this as a step towards a new India. People obliged, everyone felt this step was in the right direction. None of the major opposition parties questioned this move as they would be seen as aiding the evils that plagued our society. As the days progressed the practical realities hit home. Banks and ATM’s started running out of cash, people started complaining about the need to endure long lines to get money, news reports showed the impact on small businesses and cash based merchants. The government and the RBI announced a slew of measures to counter the realities. Rules were introduced, changed, revoked every single day. As the end of the year approached, it became clear that the challenges would last for more than the 50 day period. The opposition parties started to hound the ruling party holding it responsible for the manner in which the whole process was handed. The ruling party and its supporters blamed the opposition for raking up anti national sentiments and for not supporting the noble cause.

While I do understand that such a large scale undertaking would definitely throw up challenges, I was mildly shocked by certain media reports that highlighted the problems common man had to face especially in the rural areas. As I started talking about the demonetization process with my friends I realized that people were really divided about the benefits, and the picture was not as rosy as the ruling party was trying to project. I tried to understand the numbers that ratified the decision and wanted to understand if this was all worth it. I do have to admit I am neither a economist nor a social policy maker, but I do believe my education and work experiences have taught me enough to put trust in my critical thinking ability. I am not anti-National, and i do want to see corruption free India. I am also ready to suffer long lines for the greater good but please do help me get answers to a few questions I have.

Fight Counterfeit Currency and Sponsored Terrorism:
It is generally accepted in India that most terrorist activities that happen in India are initiated by folks outside the border. The 500 and 1000 rupee note were apparently the most commonly counterfeited and used by anti-social elements to spread the reach of evil. I do not have any information to counter this claim so I will accept this on the word of our PM and national security adviser. It is true by making the (Specified Bank Notes) SBN invalid, we did cripple their financial resources. But unless major security features were introduced in the newer currency, what stops these hoodlums from resorting to counterfeiting again? Would stringer IT audits, and enhanced scrutiny on all financial transactions not help address this problem?

Fight Black Money and Corruption:
One of the major talking points in the news media and social media circles when the PM took oath in 2014 was his stance against corruption. People voted the UPA regime out after numerous reports of scams (2G, Coal, Augusta Westerland, etc.). The PM represented an incorruptible image and does lead a lifestyle that a common man loves to see in a leader. So it should be no surprise when he calls out corruption as one of the major problems that plagues India today. The Income Tax department has published the details of the returns processed for the year 2014-2015. The reports indicate that only 3.65 Crore of the 1.25 Billion Indians have filed tax returns for the year. That is a meagre 3%, so in theory the rest are potential black money hoarders. But taking in account the Indian economic pyramid, and the stats provided by department of labor (surveys– Ref Table 2.4) only about 20% of the population earn income for their households, and from the same paper the number of people performing agriculture based jobs is pegged at 49%. The agriculture based jobs have heavy tax rebates, and for all practical purposes cannot be considered as black money hoarders. (Ref Farmer suicides, news about failed crops). These numbers do indicate that there could be a number of workers who have earned income yet not reported income or paid taxes. Table 1.2 Range of salary incomeshows that roughly 50 Lakh people have declared an income over 5 Lakhs and hence are liable to pay tax. That makes it 0.5% of the population. The largest black money hoarders would probably be the ones who are in the system and enjoy the loopholes in the law rather than the remote few who are yet to be in the system. The tax payable for the 2014-2015 year was 4.5 Lakh crores, so unless the demonetization move causes the reported number to increase drastically the whole exercise might not be as successful as one thinks.

Another factor that indicates problems with this argument is the number of SBN currency notes returned to the RBI. As per the RBI report around 16.9 Lakh crores worth currency was in circulation as of November 2016 and 86% of the currency was in the SBN denomination. That represents about 14.8 Lakh crores. While RBI has not yet officially announced how much currency has been turned in, there have been unconfirmed media reports that put the figure at 15.2 Lakh crores. If this was true, then the amount of money returned to the RBI is only slightly more than what the  RBI states was in circulation before. The same report does state that only 60% of the currency was in banks, and considering the amount of Indians who do not have a bank account, the amount recovered is truly low. Where are the crores and the lakhs of Black Money that we were all expecting to be turned in? Yes there reports of raids in multiple places, news reports of currency recovered, but none of them were the magical figures that were predicted. Again, while I don’t think India does not have black money but I do know now for sure that it was not stashed under mattresses or roof top tiles as films show.

Cashless Economy and Digital India:
India is primarily a cash based economy. Even in urban India where food worlds, more and reliance markets have plopped up, the store at the street corner always seem to do brisk business. Markets (Sandhai, Farmers Markets) play a pivotal role in the economic model of India. The prices are low, and more often not there is minimal operating cost involved and households buy things as required on a Day to Day basis. This is evidently proven by the currency in circulation. The RBI report does state that 14.8 Lakh crores was the worth of currency in SBN as of November 2016. So the Demonetization move meant that the RBI should have looked to replenish the currency in circulation with other denomination notes at the earliest. It would have been highly illogical for anyone to make up the 86% cash by printing lower denomination notes (100’s or even 500s) within the specified timeline (50 days from the start) so the focus was to look to print 2000 rupee notes to make up the worth. This would probably explain as why banks were not able to provide for lower denomination alternatives when people turned up in troves for exchanging old notes. Example( A bank in Tamil Nadu received 1.6 Crore worth money from RBI for the demonetization. 1 crore was in the 2000 Rupee denomination the remaining 6 Lakhs were in the lower denomination notes). The fact that the SBN represented 86% of the currency in circulation does indicate that these notes were the preferred instruments for all cash based trade in India. The lack of lower denomination notes directly influenced reduced spending as consumers started either buying things in bulk or started buying from stores where they could use their credit cards. A family member had to close her shop for a few days as she did not have enough lower denomination notes to run her business. These small time merchants seem to be the ones worst affected by the move not the supposedly multi millionaire tax scammers or black money hoarders. The cash in circulation number reported by the RBI dropped by 48% since March 2016. Thereby truly defining a cash-less economy.

The government advocated the people to  embrace electronic transfers, e-Payments, e-wallets, digital transactions and has been trying to promote the Image of a digital India. Sure, several western countries have developed a digital system that minimizes the use of cash in day to day life. In the US, I do use my credit card at grocery stores, parks, movie rental boxes, shopping centers and even parking lots. It is extremely convenient, carries no service charge, helps me track all my transactions and makes me less worried about being mugged. The country has laws in place for data privacy and the banks systems are geared to detect frauds and cyber security attacks. True none of the systems in place are 100% fool proof, but the point is there is a lot of systems in place that helps or promotes cashless transactions. In India, definitely the past few years has seen a spurt in the usage reports of online payments and e-wallets, but these still remain confined to the cities and the private national banks. Co-operative banks, public sector banks still have miles to go before they enable digital transactions for all customers. The service charge on these digital transactions (2%) do not really help as well. The small time merchants I described earlier can afford to offer low prices because of their low operation costs and day to day transactions. Are we expecting them to up their investment and move to a digital system? Are the banks built to allow the same flexibility the cash based system allows? If not we just brought their livelihood to a halt. I think it is great the government has come up with payment modes such as BHIM and UPI, it is a bit concerning to see how government advocating third party systems such as PayTM and Jio Money. Unless there are at least clearly defined laws on the nature of data they can access and minimal rules in place that protect the interest of the consumer it would be extremely difficult to get a majority of the population to trust in these systems.

The System:
A new narrative that has been gaining traction is that now the cash is all back in the system the government can put in good use of the money. That is the most absurd thing that I have ever heard, the money deposited in the banks are the people’s (exchanged for other denomination notes). The money was already in the system, because the source of the money is known, it was just that the money was not deposited in a bank account. Surely, a little bit of common sense will help see the difference. How can the government claim this for their use? The SBN were declared invalid as a financial instrument so how or what would these notes be used for? Banks are seen as custodians of wealth. They don’t own my money. My deposits in the banks are mine and the banks are liable to give me back the deposits when I want them. How or what gives a democratic elected government the right to set limits on the money I can withdraw from my own account? Is there any draconian law that allows them to do this?

It must be the left-liberal in me that makes me question the oppression of liberty and stand up for others. While I try to defend actions with numbers and logic, people can throw my arguments to sink just based on pure emotion. While emotion is not bad it can sufficiently cloud your thought to be biased (True for me as well!) I do wish I find the strength and patience to help others see reason, but in the mean time if you think of me as the struggling liberal so be it.

Random Thoughts

Let us just say that some things trouble me. I cannot understand the father who says his son was punished for 20 minutes of action when he raped a girl. I feel helpless when I read about doctors in Syria have to plead for the bombing to stop. I dread the days when Nadal and Federer stop playing tennis. I feel gutted when India fails to win anything in the biggest sporting event and fellow Indians dismiss the athletes effort with pomp. I feel absolute emptiness when people keep complaining about luxuries that they cannot afford. The thirties have not been what I expected, the has been a tinge of emotion in everything. When I was younger I probably had a lot of avenues to let off steam, and found ways to ignore the problem as well. But as I have aged, It is difficult to get over the pain and anger. The fact that nobody cares is extremely frustrating. Is empathy not a virtue anymore? Will we ever learn to be content? Will I learn to live life free from pain, misery, anger, hatred and most importantly free from me?

Being Human

Albert Einstein once said ” I have no special talent, but I am passionately curios”.  I am no Einstein, but do feel a need to understand how things work. I was certainly not born this way, but over time I started to understand the importance of knowing how things work.  The pursuit of knowledge marked the beginning of an exciting phase in my life. I began reading a lot, began observing things keenly, began building a repository of movies I liked to watch. In short I started building datasets around me and spent hours improving the quality of data I had. The more data I processed, the more I started to question the status quo. I did not want to be the master, but I wanted to be a student who never stops learning. Surprisingly I did not find many people who believed in the Intellectual pursuit. I either got weird looks or was labelled a rebel for doing things in my way. Ultimately, I found it endearing to read about something new than having conversation with people who did not care.
Knowledge makes things objective, you try to attribute all things to reason, principles or science. While I cannot explain things using differential equations or describe laws of physics in detail, I learnt to attribute things to general theories.  I was awestruck by the fact that while some where pushing the limits of knowledge on biology, physics, robotics, computer technology several others chose to categorize these achievements as “work of mad scientists” and continue to live their lives. Most of them seemed to be interested about a new movie, interested in the private lives of actors and actresses but did not care about groundbreaking achievements in science. The amazement turned to frustration and despair over time as people started to question the value of being intellectual. The despair drove me to new avenues and I spent hours thinking how could someone not care?
A chance encounter with a gentleman set me up on the philosophical high road. Philosophy gave me context or a understanding of why certain folks behaved in a specific way. I expanded my reading to include works from some famous Indian philosophers and also started to observe people. I tried to empathize and see things from a different perspective. I began to understand their school of thought and quickly learnt to categorize these behaviors and move on. Kabir Das and Tagore works taught me the importance of Wisdom over knowledge, power of reason over beliefs and the beauty of poetry. Swami Vivekananda  works highlighted the importance of Hinduism, Vedas and yoga but also taught us the universal acceptance and the need for tolerance. Chanakya sheds light on the importance of social welfare, and shows how collective good can affect society in a positive manner. Their thoughts, words were based on Dharma (definition: rules that maintain the stability and the harmony of the universe) and repeatedly stressed the importance of righteousness and ethics. Their works break the barriers of religion and are deeply spiritual in nature. I realized that science and spirituality are two sides of the same coin, they help us find answers to questions that one side cannot answer.
Recently, a tragedy befell my family. A mother lost her son and her husband in a tragic twist of fate. As I spoke to her I realized that no amount of knowledge or philosophy could comfort a grieving mother and wife.  My helplessness translated to minutes of silence, and sat listening as she poured her heart out.  It was one of the toughest conversation I have ever had. I know that she will find answers over time, will be able to put the memories behind her and fight one. Until then she does not require a priest nor a scientist, All she needs is someone who has a good human side. A shoulder to cry on, a brother to support her.

The one about Hobbies

Most Indian parents that I talk to nowadays have the same complaint “the z generation spends too much time on their play stations and IPads and do not value life outside the digital world”. Our conversations always begin with the ” when I was a kid” punch line but as the conversation drifts towards “Now” most find enough reasons to explain their lifestyle Stress, Work, Family, Age.I grew up in a small town. I did not own a motor cycle until I was in my 12th grade. I had to bike to school, the games I played were on the street, and on makeshift playgrounds. I was completely unaware of any technological innovations and did not care about anything save the evening game of cricket. Most people my age will be able to relate the above sentiment. Our lifestyle made us work for things. Today, Technology has made shopping easier, outdoor sports has given way to video games and smart phone apps. As we fell in line with the lifestyle, we have done everything in our power to make life comfortable for us and our family. Smartphones, Lazyboys have all added on to our level of comfort. While most of us have seen the hard life, our kids grow up with such luxuries. They will probably not understand how we survived without smartphones, Ipads or play stations. But surely they should be able to understand that there is life outside the digital world if we show them.

I am not advocating a dictatorial regime, and a ban on technology I just want the kids to get used to both sides of life. The smartphones, Ipads all are very successful in keeping us occupied for longer periods of time. The games on these gadgets have countless levels and keep you rooted to the spot. But we all do lose our interest once we hit a bottle neck or when we are done with the game. We get bored. I did not have any of the gadgets to play with as a kid and I do not remember saying that I am Bored. Never! I always seemed to do things that kept me interested and focused. I realized that I did have Hobbies.  For many, hobbies are one among the many details you fill up while creating a page on the social network websites. The most common answers are ” listening to music”, “watching movies”, “playing cricket”. I cannot judge but I do believe that If you do any of these activities to keep you occupied for a short while then I hope you do understand that they are pastimes and not hobbies. Hobbies make you passionate about something and the passion drives you to the next step. Pushing yourself to do the next step is the most exhilarating feeling you can ever know and will sure inspire your kids at least.  I picked up the art of stamp collecting from my aunt. She used to subscribe first day covers from the post, collect stamps from envelopes or letters that came to our home and to her office. We found ways to take stamps from the covers without tearing them off. [cut the portion out and soak them in water]. That’s how we built the collection. I still do remember her stare when I suggested that we buy stamps from the store to complete a collection on the stamp stock book. The early experience did teach me that Hobbies make you feel occupied, arouse your interest.  With time, new friends came in, and new interests popped up and now the only two acts that have stuck is sports and reading. I took up Tennis after moving to Houston and quickly realized a couple of things.
First: Roger Federer is truly a genius, there is no way anyone can hit shots that kiss the lines all the time. Second: Tennis is a bloody tough sport that is physically and emotionally draining. My reading was mostly limited to science fiction and action thrillers with a few classics [abridged versions] thrown in once a while. A couple of interactions with real GEMS turned out to be an eye opener. Dickens, Dumas, Capote, Forster, Rand became voices I heard and felt. Sidney Sheldon became a nobody and Tolkien became GOD. The hours I spent surfing the net for nothing turned to hours I spent on the net trying to sharpen my skills in Tennis, and scourging different genres and authors and most important finding the next book.  As my interest in these activities grew, I became more passionate about doing well in things. The passion you show will slowly draw in your family too, then sports, time outside the digital world will happen automatically. I started talking about the authors I loved to people and I was pleasantly surprised to find other people in my own office who had same interests. I never had any conversations with these folks before! The biggest surprise was that my family encouraged me. My wife helps me change racquet over grips, she watches tennis matches, and cheers me on as I play. My daughter now hits a smoking forehand back to me with her beach ball!Hobbies require time, money and above all your interest. With time I am pretty sure that your weekends and days will always give you more time for you to do things you love.  Sports will no longer be a pastime and no longer a reason for your wife to shout at. Teach your kid a hobby and there you go you have given her a way of life! Now come on Diya let us work on that backhand!.

Cheers.