Fasting on Christmas

Well, today is Christmas. It is a joyous occasion, filled with good food, company of friends and relatives, gifts and all the good things in life. Us Americans are going to perhaps overdo it, buying more toys than we can afford and eating more than is good for us. So, I am going to propose a fast.

Now, you may call me a killjoy but hear me out first. I am not proposing a starvation diet. I am suggesting that we give up one food that we like. This is not a new or novel concept. Many cultures around the world have this notion. People may give up eating mangoes or sweets or milk for a period of time as a penance for pleasures enjoyed in years past or as a part of a pilgrimage. For some, it is a religious experience and adhering to it continues that experience.

What food should we give up? Well, as long as we are giving something up (even if for just a few days), we should give up something unhealthy. I would like to propose Corn Syrup and its alter-ego High Fructose Corn Syrup. Many of you might be wondering what the heck corn syrup is and how to give up something you don't eat. Well, next time you are in the grocery store, read the ingredients list of your favorite packaged foods and you would be surprised how much corn syrup you are eating. It is in ketchup, sausages, bread, pasta sauce, vanilla extract, ice cream and just about everything else. As a matter of fact, about 90% of the foods in a grocery store have corn syrup in them!

But I am not trying to be a killjoy. I hate corn syrup. It doesn't add flavor (actually, it takes away), adds unneeded calories and many scientists think that it may even be a contributing factor to the recent increase in obesity. But I also realize that zero-tolerance towards corn syrup would make our lives very hard. So, here is a compromise:

Give up things that have corn syrup listed in the first 3 ingredients. It would force you to eat better foods and more flavorful too.

Who knows, maybe by next Christmas, you would be ready to give up corn syrup completely...


Necessity of voting

In the last 200 years, the world has undergone many changes. One of the more fundamental ones is the change in structure of the governments worldwide. There was a time when almost all governments derived their power from the "divine right" of the king or queen to rule over the masses. This meant that God had given the right to govern to the local monarch, who in turn had given the authority to the various government office holders. Today, most countries enjoy democracy. So, what does democracy mean?

The way I see it, democracy turns the old world order on its head. Rather than the king or queen having the divine right to rule, the masses have the divine right to choose the rulers. So, in contrast to the kings, the Presidents get their right to rule from the people and not from some God. In essence, all of the machinery of governance is owned by, operated for the benefit of, and with the consent of the general public. But how do you find out what the people want and need?

That is where we run into problems. While people vote for their representatives at all levels of government (members of parliament and mayors and members of city, state and national government), they also want some direct say. This leads to referendums and other such "direct" actions. But even then, the needs/wants of the general population may be elusive. That is because the entire population does not go and vote (You Australians are perhaps the only exception).

Now, it is very easy to condemn such "avoiders" and say things such as "People have died so that you could have the right to vote". But see things from the non-voters' perspective as well - They see no reason to vote when their vote does not lead to a better outcome. All it does is add to the frustration of this life. And who wants more aggravation? Not me!

But there is another perspective. It is going to take some time to go through so please bear with me...

Thomas Jefferson, a really sharp guy, said "We in America do not have government by the majority. We have government by the majority who participate". This is a very important distinction. Since we were kids, we have learnt how to optimize. We learn which routes are shorter. Which stores have better candy. What is easier to ask for from parents. Another thing we have learned is how to focus our energies on tactics that yield the best reward. For example, if your parents would never negotiate on spinach, why waste your time whining about spinach when you can eagerly eat your spinach and ask to be excused from broccoli (which you hate even more)? Similarly, when you are selling girl scout cookies, hit the houses where you are confident for a sale and if your quota is done, you don't need to go to the low-yield households!

Politicians are devoted to similar optimizations today. They know that 50% of the electorate is going to show up and vote. Also, there are only 2 parties (Republicans and Democrats) who have enough money and machinery to have a realistic chance at winning just about any election at any level. So, in order to win an election, a candidate needs to ensure that 51% of those who show up vote for him/her. In order to do that, 25% of the public must be exhorted to ensure that they are registered to vote and show up to the polling booth on election day and vote for their guy. Guess what? Most candidates pick a topic that most of the public is not even aware of, paint their opposition as minions of the devil and rile up their group/gang/ghetto to go and vote in their favor! The big "silent majority" that is struggling to build a nice life is completely and purposefully alienated so that they don't come and spoil the system.

Well, it is about time the "silent majority" asserted itself. Why? Well, while you were sleeping, the extremists on both sides have hijacked your country and banned civil discourse and compromise. We have politicians who strut around like peacocks and behave worse than the French kings and we all know what happened to them! I am not saying that you are going to see a sea change if you vote this November. But once the politicians realize that 70%, 80% or even 90% of the public is showing up at the polls, they would have to cater not only to their cohort, they would have to keep this silent majority happy too.

Of course, some of you are going to say "Both Democrats and Republicans have ignored me, why should I vote for either of them". Well, then don't! If you are in California, chances are that Libertarians and Greens both have candidates for every office. Other states may or may not be as tolerant to deviant views. Vote for them. Maybe that would scare the Republicans and Democrats.

About time this business as usual came to an end...


Why General Motors cannot sell me a car

Many of us have been hearing how the rising employee costs are hurting General Motors and preventing them from becoming competitive in the marketplace. Many talk about the lavish pensions and healthcare guarantees that the UAW (United Auto Workers) has managed to blackmail GM into. Every now and then, various self-appointed pundits (like myself) talk about GM ditching their pension plans.

But let us look at reality for a moment. GM has created most of its problems itself. There was the EV1 disaster when GM, despite loud protests by its own customers, refused to let people continue to drive the EV1 that they had come to love. As recently as 2005, GM pooh-poohed the utility of hybrid cars, letting Toyota become the thought leader. Then there is the whole SUV mania. Despite rising gasoline costs, GM has continued to focus on gas-guzzling behemoths.

I am a car owner and driver. From my previous post, you would come to know that I have an 18-year old Toyota MR2. I love this car. It gives good gas mileage and is a nice peppy car. But I also need to replace it as it ages and gets louder. Recently, I heard about Saturn Sky, a new 2-seater model from GM. I decided to check out its specifications and compare.

Guess what? This 2007 car cannot match my 1988 car! The fuel efficiency is worse, the turning radius is more (imagine that for a sports car) and almost everything else comes out behind the 1988 MR2. Now imagine if you were in USSR and your 1965 Lada worked better than the 1985 Lada. What would you say? I bet you would say "Well, that is the way it is." But luckily for us, we are not in USSR. We are in the very cradle of capitalism. We are in the most competitive automobile market. And if GM cannot compete with a car that came out 19 years ago, they might as well pack up their stuff and call it quits.

My prediction is that before too long the federal government would try to give GM a subsidy. When that happens, remember that this is the same company that once said "No true blue American would ever buy a Japanese car". And make sure your elected representatives don't steal your tax money to prop up a defunct car company.

Happy driving...


Open letter to President George W Bush

Dear Mr Bush,
Let me start by saying that I never voted for you. In 2000, I rooted for Gore and dutifully voted for him. In 2004, I felt that John Kerry was an idiot but nonetheless held my nose and voted for him. Yet, I am writing this letter to help rather than hurt you. You see, I cannot afford to pray for your failure because my country cannot afford another 2+ years of disasters.

There are basically 3 areas that I want to talk to you about.

1. Terrorism
Terror has been used by many factions for many centuries. But the terrorist activities succeed only when the fear seeps into the general populace. That is why when Britain was fighting Germany almost alone in 1940 and London was being bombed by the Blitz, the British did not let fear overrule their sanity and, in the end, they came out ahead. It is high time that we stopped getting spooked by our own shadows and bring some sort of normalcy to our lives.

2. Middle East
At the end of the day, every person on this planet wants the same things - food in the belly, clothes on the back, roof over the head and a bright future for the next generation. When our actions or those of our allies cause these basic goals to be stolen from the general public, they tend to get angry at us. And why shouldn't they? After all, we are a large target and we seem to have some really unsavory "friends" in the Middle East. To compound our problems further, while we are stuck in both Iraq and Afghanistan, we are rattling our sabers at Iran. Perhaps we need to take a step back and understand that we cannot simply march into other people's countries and demand that they do things the way we want them to do.

3. Economy
No matter how well you do abroad, our economy needs some TLC as well. Our economy is both hot and cold simultaneously. On one hand, the number of millionaires is going up while on the other hand there is a dearth of jobs for the young people in this country. Schools and colleges that were once almost free are now charging an arm and a leg! There is a lot of uncertainty about the future and then our government is busy slashing taxes on everyone except those that earn through the sweat of their brow!
Mr Bush, your party claims that it and not the "other party" is the true friend of the working people. But the working people are less interested in stem cells, abortion and gun control laws and more interested in putting food on the table and giving their kids a better life. In your zeal to chase terrorists in the Middle East please don't forget that the American public hired you as the CEO of USA and the American growth and prosperity is critical to how you would be remembered. I hope that your name is not considered a synonym for Herbert Hoover.

With warm regards...


Guide to the Indian caste system

Whenever you use the word "caste", people only think of the Indian society. True, India is quite (in)famous for its caste system but it is not the only part of the world where people are judged simply by their birth. But, due to many having asked me how the caste system works, this article is devoted to the Indian system...

The Indian caste system has four major castes which, in decreasing order of importance, are: Brahmin (priests), Kshatriya (warriors), Vaishya (business people) and Shudra (workers). Within each caste are sub-castes and within that are sub-sub-castes. For example, Agrawals are a sub-caste of Vaishyas and are further subdivided into Beesa and Dassa. Each sub-sub-caste is an insular world when it comes to marriage and strong family connections. Each caste has a protected job that only the members of that caste are allowed to do. If a person of cobbler caste wants to get into farming, both the cobbler and farmer groups would get extremely unhappy with him. In the old days, serious infractions could cause you to be kicked out of your caste. This, for those who weren't independently wealthy, was a death sentence. They not only couldn't join in the various social events, they could lose their only livelihood!

You can think of the Indian caste system as an extended version of the European guild system. As long as you stayed within the boundaries sketched out by tradition, you would be fine. You could even prosper as long as you knew "your place" in the society. This is not too different from the way Blacks were treated in USA after emancipation. For example, a millionaire weaver could be a lord in his group and lord over the lower castes but when interacting with the higher castes, he better show the proper humility or else he could be considered "too uppity" and find himself on the wrong side of some very powerful people.

Through most of history, each sub-sub-caste has lived in a microcosm of their own. Therefore, not only do they have limited connection to other castes in ordinary lives, they continuously reinforce the boundaries of the caste system. Even today, it is easy to spot people of different castes by their names and often by their choice of words in normal conversation and their style of pronunciation. You can think of My Fair Lady and the dialect-reinforced caste system of England.

However, things are changing in India. In large cities, caste matters less every day. Many people are realizing that they can defy the caste system without any consequences. I would like to think that some of my ancestors (especially Sri Prakasa and Bhagwan Das) had a hand in undermining the power of the conservatives. But the caste system is still a reality for the majority in India and even for a large segment of Americans of Indian origin! It is disheartening to see how people are still so enamored with their particular caste.

And then there is the political side to this all. Many governments, in an attempt to apportion the resources in an "equitable" manner, have steered India away from a caste-less society by making various opportunities available on the basis of caste. But that is discussion for another day...


Modest proposal for immigration reform

Immigration is on everyone's mind. Some support it, others believe that the immigration taps should be closed off because the United States are getting full. Still others say that as US is a nation of immigrants, stopping the inflow goes against the very nature of our country.

While most agree that illegal immigration should be stopped (violation of laws, high incidence of death, support of underground economy etc.), what should the overarching goal of immigration policy be is not at all clear. Amongst immigration supporters, there is dissonance over whether poor, illiterate but hard-working Hispanics be allowed or not. Should the immigrants be chosen by national origin, technical skills, money to invest or some other process?

I would like to offer a new approach. I propose that taxpayers be the deciders. The process would be really simple. Every year, when taxpayers file their tax returns, the IRS shall issue an "Immigration Coupon" to every adult tax filer who is a US citizen and pays net income taxes. Every person who applies for immigration would have to submit a certain number of these coupons. People receiving these coupons can either use it for a close friend, gift it to some charity or a university, sell to the highest bidder or simply destroy it, thus preventing its use.

This would mean that instead of influencing the government to change the criterion for picking immigrants, the public would be responsible for their own coupons and everyone can have their own policy on what to do about immigrants.

Could be fun...


Yearnings of an MR2 owner

I drive a Toyota MR2, a genuine Mark I built in 1988. I got it in 1994 with 30,000 miles on it and since then I have added another 107,000 miles. The car is a beauty. It is small, low to the ground, light in weight and an overmatched engine that delivers 145 horses (108 kW). It has a pair of cute pop-up headlights and exactly 2 seats, one for the driver and one for the passenger. I love my car. It is fun to drive, easy to park (okay, not easy to locate because it is lower, slimmer and shorter than just about anything else) and it gives great gas mileage (30 miles to the US gallon or 12.75 km/l or 7.84 litres per 100 km).

But, after 18 years of constant use (and a little misuse), it needs to be replaced. No, not right away but soon. I have been on the lookout for a new car for some time. My requirements are simple -- a two seater, simple, not too many frills, with an extra oomph for the engine and easy on the gas. But it seems that Toyota overdid themselves all those years ago and there still isn't anything that can be considered an heir to the MR2. I am hoping to find something that gives 40 - 50mpg, has about 140hp and weighs less than 2500 pounds.

In 1998, gasoline was about $1.20 per gallon, now it is roughly $3.30 per gallon. So, you would think that the American public would be clamouring for such a vehicle. But, it seems that everyone is looking for a "house on wheels". These SUVs on the road are basically small houses! You can watch movies, play video games, have 20 cupholders to keep your coffee, seats that adjust in myriad ways, heating and cooling to go from Alaska in January to Death Valley in June and an engine powerful enough to tow two horses, a boat and a mobile home!

Please, Toyota, give me a car that is thrifty to buy, thrifty to operate and has a pep to it. Oh and please make it a two-seater so that I can pretend that I am still single...




Human history is a history of movement. Our ancestors migrated out of Africa, establishing themselves on 6 of the 7 continents. Our ancestors and their cousins conquered almost all available lands on Earth, from the frigid Arctic to boiling Sahara and everything inbetween.

Why did humans spread? Well, I am sure some did it out of sheer adventure but for most it was a matter of opportunity. Back when our ancestors were hunter-gatherers, the seasonal migration of "food on hooves" - deer, antelopes, mammoths, gnus etc as well as availability of fruits, nuts, mushrooms, berries and other edible leaves and roots drove the seasonal migration. But as these peoples discovered other food sources or means of comfort or just better places to live, they followed other migration paths. When natural resources shrank in supply, humans were forced to migrate in search of these resources. Discovery of unmolested, unutilized lands surely caused new waves of migration.

Even after all but Antarctica was inhabited, migration continued. Within Europe, many tribes moved from place to place seeking better opportunities in terms of food, shelter, political power and protection from real and imagined enemies. Speakers of proto-Indo-European language spread out from the Caspian sea, pushing against and merging with many other populations including the Basque. Migration has been an important aspect of our history right to the present day. There is a continuous movement of people from villages to cities, from country to country, chasing opportunities or escaping dead-ends. During times of prosperity, a city or country attracts migrants from other places while during times of poverty, it supplies immigrants to other loci of prosperity.

Within my own ancestory, in the last 10 generations, people have moved from city to city trying to exploit the opportunities presented or have stayed in the city of their birth hoping to take advantage of the social and political networks.

So, why such a high immigration rate to USA? Well, through most of American history, the government has felt the need to attract immigrants. And the events unfolding in Europe provided large numbers of people trying to escape persecution, war, famine, disease or sheer lack of opportunity. I would personally put the share of the last reason upwards of 99%. Another set of immigrants were the slaves from Africa who were brought to improve the economic yield of various endevours such as farming. In the mid- to late-1800s, a third set of immigrants arrived on the scene - Chinese workers willing to work hard on construction of railroad. From the response to the third set, it is obvious that the US govt and a majority of the public saw the US as a European society, not as a global melting pot.

In the 1960s, the govt changed direction once again and started admitting large numbers of people from everywhere. One of the major groups who took advantage of this new policy were skilled professionals, especially engineers, doctors and nurses, from Asia. The US economy had been galloping at a high rate and there was an acute need for such people. Ofcourse, the immigrants usually do not come alone. They come with spouses and children and soon want to reunite with their parents and siblings. There is demand for other elements from their culture which leads to immigration of priests, musicians, chefs and other such people.

US, because of its sizeable population from every country, province and city in the world, makes it easier to immigrate. Britain, being the largest colonial power, sowed the seeds of English language in many countries. Knowledge of English language further eases immigration to USA. The biggest factor though is the worldwide marketing. The American economy, though mature, is still growing at a good pace. This means that American companies need more skilled professionals than what is available at home. Therefore, we try to attract such people from across the globe. But if you are a skilled professional in say India or Brazil where the economy is growing faster still, why would you want to leave everything and come to USA? Because, as the marketers would tell you, you have freedom and money and opportunity and all your dreams would come true. This messsage has permeated the globe so well that to someone looking to make a fresh start, USA is at the top of a very short list of potential destinations.

In contrast, today there are many people in USA who believe that immigration needs to be drastically curtailed. Yes, it is possible but remember, it is not going to be easy. The last 100 years have seen a massive influx of people to USA and they have contributed heavily towards the economic growth of this country. We have also attracted a large amount of capital and thus this symbiotic relationship between talent, capital and enterpreneurship has propelled USA to be an economic superpower. If the immigration of skilled people is curtailed, what would happen to the capital inflows? Perhaps some other country (or group of countries) would become the new economic magnet and the talent and capital would flow there instead.

Others believe that it is only illegal migration that is bad and should be ratcheted down. Towards this goal, the US government is spending a fortune in stopping the flow of "illegals", primarily through the Mexico border. But I believe that this too is a failed idea. You cannot market the American Dream to the engineers in Egypt and doctors in Ghana without also marketing to the hardworking manual laborers in Mexico. Sure, we want to accept only the "creme de la creme" of the world but it is not so simple.

Why are we in such dire need of skilled workers? Well, one reason is that we, as a society, do not want to invest in education. We are telling our kids that if they want to be a doctor, either be lucky enough to have your parents pay for your decade-long education or graduate with $200,000 in debt. If we don't have enough doctors, we would import them from some other country where the state pays for the education and the doctor arrives here fully trained and debt-free!

The flip-side of the question is: Why do we need so many unskilled workers? Well, we are a fairly wasteful society. And at the same time, we are addicted to cheap prices. We don't want one pair of great shoes that would last a lifetime. We want 10 pairs of shoes and don't mind if they wear out in a year as long as they are really cheap. Therefore, there is a need for unskilled and semi-skilled workers and the budget to pay them is really small. The only group that is keen on getting such jobs is people who are in the country illegally and cannot be employed legally. If tomorrow, by some miracle, we grant legal status on everyone and ensure that there is not a single person in USA illegally, we can expect to see a dramatic rise in the costs of many labor-intensive tasks. While we may have our moral reservations about illegal immigration, we need to understand what we are going to do when cheap labor disappears.

What do you think?


Bullfight in Madrid

Recently, I was in Madrid on vacation. Despite my reservations, I was cajoled into going to a bullfight. I have always maintained that bullfights are barbaric (though I am a carnivore...). Lacking any knowledge of Spanish (except for a few tourist words and phrases), I was lucky to receive a booklet (with our tickets) which explained the process of a bullfight in 5 languages. And my neighbors on both sides were unlucky to have a decent knowledge of English language...

After seeing the entire bullfight process (6 bullfights in total), I have reached a different conclusion - Bullfights are barbaric not because a bull gets killed but because the entire process is about slaughter. The bull doesn't stand a chance. Let me explain:

First, the torero (matador) enters the ring with 3 assistants. Then, the bull enters. He is very energetic and a dangerous 1100+ pound animal at this stage. The torero and his assistants make the bull run around the ring before a horseman on a fully padded horse shows up to lance the bull in the nape. Then, either the torero or his assistants stick 3 pairs of barbs in the bull's nape. These steps are not without danger but after being lanced, the bull strength is being sapped through blood loss. Then, the matador uses his cape to make the bull charge again and again till it is time to finish the game. The matador thrusts a sword into the same nape wound and usually, the bull falls a few seconds later. Then the bull is dragged off by a team of horses.

While many may feel that it is exciting (and certainly many do by the crowds at the bullring), I felt that it was just stylized slaughter. It would be much more fun to watch if the bull had a chance to live to fight another day. My vision goes something like this:

Skip the horseman. There is no challenge. Next, make the matador and his assistants stay within the central circle (often they would run out into narrow wooden slits made in the side walls to escape the charging bull). If they go out of the central circle, they are out of the game. Also, if they lose their cape (it happened twice when I watched), out they go. I believe these changes would make for a more exciting match. Yes, the match would also get more dangerous but then again, this is not a game for the cowards. The flow would definitely change but it would also be more relevant for the era we live in.

Just some food for thought...


The two nation theory

Back in the early 1940s, when the cause of Indian independence was gaining strength, the "Two Nation Theory" was proposed. The premise of the theory was simple and succinct -- the Hindus and Muslims living in the then British India were always segregated communities and thus Muslim-majority enclaves must be formed if the otherwise minority is to survive the inevitable massacre at the hands of the Hindus.

The upshot of this theory and the Indian independence in 1947 was that the British India was split into 3 contiguous landmass - India, West Pakistan (now Pakistan) and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). The ensuing confusion, lawlessness and general chaos led to the death of 1 million (or more) in various riots as well as atrocities committed on the various refugee groups. Large amounts of property was summarily destroyed in an orgy of wanton destruction. Amongst the more gruesome activities, entire train-loads of refugees were massacred.

I am writing to show you how this theory was patently wrong then and how it is being undermined today.

Firstly, the Hindus and Muslims were not as segregated as the theory suggested. Most Muslims in India were not imports but converts. Many handicrafts in India were the exclusive province of one sub-sub-sub-caste confined to a small geographical location. When such groups decided to convert (at various times), that skill went over the Muslim side but the demand remained where it always did. For example, Varanasi is full of Muslim weavers who make very exquisite sarees that are traditionally worn by Hindu women. Many of the decorations for temples are Muslim-made as well. Muslim also had no problem borrowing money from Hindu moneylenders.

Another hotspot of Hindu-Muslim interaction is Muradabad where various brass, silver (and these days silverplated) items are made. Most of the artisans are Muslim but the consumption is universal. This city is responsible for exports worth $1 Billion a year!

These Hindu-Muslim links were not only economic in nature but also spiritual. Kabir was a famous spiritualist who rejected the Hindu-Muslim divide and till date has followers in both religions. But he is only one of many hundred spiritualists that are revered by followers of both religions. And while rare, Hindus and Muslims have married across the religion line as well with many Moghul kings (all Muslim) marrying Rajput princesses (all Hindus) in an attempt to shore up their kingdom.

While mass conversions (usually Hindu to Muslim) were common while various Muslim dynasties ruled over India and made Hindus pay more taxes, many families saw only some of the members convert to Islam. Such "split families" are common across India. So, the notion that there is no interaction and no common community of Hindus and Muslims comes under a cloud.

Even back in 1940s, it was obvious to many that the two-nation theory was nothing less than bunkum. Unfortunately, this theory grew legs so long and large that 1947 was etched into the brains of many refugees as they tried to move to either Pakistan or India. Surprisingly, at the end of the partition, there were more Muslims in India than in Pakistan. Sri Prakasa related an interesting story that happened when he was the Indian High Commissioner (aka Ambassador) to Pakistan. Some Muslims appeared at his office demanding help to go back "home" to Varanasi (which is in India), Sri Prakasa's hometown. When he replied that Pakistan was their home after the partition, these men grew very agitated. The initial fiction of two-nation theory did not survive the bout with reality and these men realized that their lives were intertwined with Varanasi and not Lahore!

Within 20 years of partition, the residents of then East Pakistan felt supressed under the rule of West Pakistan and in 1971, they separated to form Bangladesh. They felt that while West Pakistan was also a Muslim-majority state, their Bengali culture was a bigger defining attribute than their religion!

Sadly, the three counties still suffer from grinding poverty in many parts. Yet their fears have led to massive investments in the military and wars. Parvez Musharraf, the current dictator of Pakistan, was a little boy at the time of partition and many of his family members were massacred as they moved from India to Pakistan. At that time itself, he pledged to become a member of the military and protect his family. Unfortunately, too many people are more interested in "protecting" than in realizing that such suspicion is not helping matters one bit. These three countries are tied together by history and geography. The sooner they realize that they need to co-operate to improve their own lots, the sooner this festering wound can start to heal.


American Healthcare

American healthcare has lately been in the news quite often. Why? Well, for one, people are feeling the pinch of rising costs of healthcare. For those with insurance, co-pay and deductibles are going up while the insurance rates are also going up. Many employers are no longer provideing free health insurance, expecting the employees to pony up anywhere from 10% to 50% of the premium. For those without insurance, life is full of stress because of the amazingly high costs of medicines and doctor visits, not to mention surgical procedures. Employers too are feeling the heat from insurance companies as they attempt to trim costs, especially towards retiree healthcare.

Many Americans are coming up with clever methods to reduce their costs. Many in the northern states are visiting Canada for a weekend of fun and a bagful of medication for their chronic conditions, from diabetes supplies to heart pills. Many others are going on medical-tourism, getting elective and not-so-elective surgeries done in Poland, India, China, Thailand and Mexico. All these developments beg the question - Is our system broken?

Critics of the American system of healthcare often point out that Americans spend far more money than any other developed nation without the commensurate benefit in the form of higher life expectancy and better quality of health. Is it a fair statistic? As tempting as these statistics might be, I don't think that they are fair. Life expectancy is a complex measure derived from a lifetime of choices and decisions. We Americans lead, by and large, sedentary lives and are exposed to far more mental stresses than most other people. While medicine definitely has a role to play, life expectancy is more about lifestyle choices than medicine.

The supporters of our system of healthcare are quick to point out that Americans lead in innovations in medicine, surgery, therapy and if you were to be involved in a major accident, your survival is best in the US. All of this might be true but it still does not answer the fundamental question - Is our mechanism for healthcare delivery broken?

The American system has evolved over many decades, with many features and nuances that are unique to this country. The American psyche is quite allergic to government-run and government-mandated systems even though we interact with them on a daily, even hourly basis. Our electricity, gas, water, cable-TV, sewage, garbage collection and roads are all either supplied directly by the federal, state or local government or through government-sanctioned monopolies. The healthcare system also has a veneer of private enterprise even though many of the hospitals are funded by state or local governments and most hospitals are run with federal monies. In addition, many millions get health insurance from Medicare or Medicaid, both federal government programs.

My personal frustration with the healthcare system is the un-needed complexity and disincentives built into the system. For example, each health insurance company (and there are hundreds of them) has their own codes and forms for the doctor to fill out for reimbursement. Because of this lack of uniformity, errors in billing are common and require quite a bit of extra work on part of the doctors, nurses and ancillary staff. In addition, each health insurance plan has its own list of covered services which is another minefield that the medical staff, not to mention the patient, has to negotiate. The upshot is that payments take a long time, require many iterations of attention from the insurance company, the provider and the patient and in general waste a lot of productive hours, which get paid out of the higher medical costs.

The disincentives are even worse. Most insurance plans allocate a fixed amount of money for each patient to pay the providers for regular care. As the providers have an incentive to do the least amount of tests and spend the least amount of time and thus save money, the real loser is the patient and his/her health! Insurance companies pay large sums for treating diseases such as cancer but prevention takes a backseat. Many insurance plans don't even cover vaccinations!

What can we do to improve the situation?

Well, there are a lot of things that we can do. We can definitely try to compel the health insurance companies to get together and unify their codes and forms. This would reduce inadvertant billing errors which eat up a lot of time, effort, money and energy.

But, a bigger issue is, what is the society's response to the healthcare situation in the big picture? General Motors has been in the news lately for its very high healthcare costs that are helping it shrink. Toyota overtook GM as the world's largest automaker. Are the American companies and the American society going to go that way?

So, dear reader, ponder on the questions while I try to formulate how a single-payer system can be to our benefit.


Laws and loopholes

Let me tell you a story. Long time back in India, there was a king who was a devout follower of Brahma (one of the original Gods in Hinduism, along with Vishnu and Shiva; rest are avatars of these three). The king once prayed to Brahma for such a long time that Brahma appeared in front of him and asked him what he wanted. The king said "I want to be immortal". Brahma said "Sorry, but that is not possible. Only Gods can be immortal. You are a human being. I can grant you long life but not immortality". Hearing this, the king though long and hard and said "Okay. I would like that neither man nor beast can kill me". Brahma said "Ok".
"I cannot be killed during the day or night."
"I cannot be killed indoors or outdoors."
"Neither on ground nor in the air." (As you can see, he was anticipating air travel)
"Neither by missile nor by melee weapon." (In Sanskrit, there are two words for weapons - astra and shastra - differentiated by whether they are held while in use, such as a dagger, or thrown to use, such as darts)

The king was happy. But soon, he became cruel and started abusing his populace. And given the boon of near-immortality, he was simply unbeatable. When things came to a boil, Vishnu decided that he had to do something (Vishnu's role in Hindu mythology is quite central. His job is to keep the world in order by periodically restoring the balance between good and evil).

So, Vishnu came on earth in the avatar of Narasimha, a man-lion hybrid (Nara = man + Simha/Singha = lion). He grabbed the king and went and sat in the courtyard and lay the king on his lap such that no part of the king was touching the ground and at dusk, ripped the king apart with his long fingernails. Thus the king was killed by neither man nor beast, neither indoors nor outdoors, neither on ground nor in the air, neither during the day nor during the night and finally neither by held nor thrown weapon.

So, as you can see, the king might have figured out a loophole to become immortal, but Vishnu figured out a loophole within that.

The take-home lesson that I see in this story is that the more complicated the law, the easier it is to find loopholes. Therefore, I would like to see laws written in simple language. Our tax laws are as clear as mud and often we see people take advantage of loopholes. Then there are other laws that are so complicated that people don't even know when they are violating them. We should make laws simple to read and understand.

Something to ponder...


5 major mistakes in software projects and how to avoid them

1. Feature Creep
As any software project manager knows, customers cannot stop asking for more. At the same time, most customers don't think of software as "concrete" so they think that all changes are possible, unlike houses or machinery. Therefore, they don't think that the deadline needs to change when adding scope so it is imperative to communicate the cost of extra features, either in time or manpower. Of course, it is important not to confuse clarification of features (very useful) with new features.

2. Buzz in the trenches
It is human nature to be optimistic. People dwell on the positive more than on the negative. When facing a roadblock, it is common for leaders and managers to hope that everything would work out quickly and hence project only the rosiest of scenarios. It is fairly common for managers to assign a fixed number of hours to solving a roadblock when the source of the error hasn't been ascertained! But for the overall manager, this is usually a prelude to disaster. The overall manager must keep an eye and an ear on the people in the trenches to make sure that deep-seated problems are not being sugarcoated till it is too late.

3. Tools
Vendors will happily sell you tools that you never use. On the other hand, really good tools can dramatically improve the return on effort. Therefore, a good manager pays attention to the tools being used and helps in the adoption of tools that make a positive difference. Go for tools that you can play with and test out not with some toy scenarios but with the actual problems that you are facing. The best tools are those that get worked to death. Shelfware is your enemy, eating up your budget and your people's time.

4. Consultants
Consultants can be godsent in a lot of projects. Unfortunately, they are rarely used well. That is why consultants and contractors have such a bad reputation. Remember, the onus is on the client to make the best use of a consultant. There should be a clear start condition, a clear end condition and what exactly the consultant is expected to do. Measuring progress via daily updates, preferably in writing, helps clients ensure that the consultants are worth the money being spent on them. I have often seen contractors working for the same client for years and getting paid a lot more than the employees. Such environments can breed resentments of epic proportions. Also, often the client is left in a lurch when the contractor moves on to some other project. Therefore, knowledge transfer should not be an afterthought, it should be an ongoing process.

5. Stability
A successful software project ends with the customer getting what (s)he needed and wanted. Usually, this requires frequent feedback from the customer, thus risking feature creep. However, it also means that the customer's expectations are grounded in reality. The single most important mechanism for eliciting feedback is to show the customer the software built so far. This is only possible if there is a stable and usable build from the recent past. But the collaborative nature of software development goes beyond just the customer. Developers, quality assurance people, technical writers and other such members of the team are also needed to provide feedback. If every build is usable, it is easier to provide feedback and improve the software. Thus, in my opinion, a daily stable build is necessary for project success.

I have been in software all my professional life so I don't know how much these pointers would help non-software people but you are welcome to it...


Difference between education and wisdom

Here is a story that I heard long time back:

There once was a king who had a very able advisor. This advisor was well educated in all matters, both earthly and spiritual. The king relied heavily on the priest in running the kingdom. Once, the king noticed that the advisor was quite unhappy. The king asked him why. The advisor replied with a deep sigh "Dear Sir, my son is a very well educated man. He is an excellent student and has excelled me in all aspects of education. But he is an idiot and an utter fool."

The king was completely shocked! He couldn't imagine someone beating his advisor in all educational aspects and yet not be the smartest man on eath! So, he said to his advisor "Sir, you have been invaluable in the matters of my kingdom for many years. Perhaps your son is not as dumb as you are fearing. Why don't you tell him to meet me tomorrow and perhaps I can find him a good position in my administration." The advisor was happy to hear such a remark and promised that he would send his son the next day.

The next day, as the son was entering the throne room, the king removed a ring from his finger and hid it in his fist and said "What do I have in my fist?" The son was very well educated in the arts of prediction and said "It is round in shape". The king said "Yes".

"It is made of gold."

"It has a circular hole in the middle."

The advisor's son thought hard and said "Dear Sir, you have a millstone in your fist."

Sadly, the ranks of our "leaders" is full of "millstone-in-the-fist" wisdom...


5 Republican Myths

1. Republicans are against taxes
Yes, it is true that Republicans like to cut taxes. It goes hand-in-hand with their theory that a smaller government is a better government. However, their targets for tax cuts are interesting. They are keener to cut taxes on multi-million dollar inheritances than on wages. Ordinary Americans, whose income is primarily derived from wages, do not benefit from cuts in taxes on capital gains and dividends. Accounts that allow Americans to save money tax-free, such as 401(k) and Roth IRA have curious limits on them, such as phasing out Roth IRA contributions once you start making $100,000. Social Security taxes have gone from 4% in 1967 to 15% today. Just imagine, dividend income of millions is taxed at 15% but wage income of $80,000 is first taxed at 15.4% for Social Security and Medicare taxes and then taxed at income tax rates that can go upto 31%. Reality: Republican are against taxes only if they impact the rich.

2. Republicans are for states’ rights
For years, many Republicans have supported conservative initiatives in state legislatures as a strike for states’ rights. But when 9 states, including Arizona and California made medicinal use of marijuana legal, these same Republicans rushed to ensure that these changes in state statutes were ineffective. The current administration is looking for ways to penalize doctors who, in their considered opinion, find medicinal marijuana to be useful. John Ashcroft, the ex-Attorney General, battled Oregon over Oregon’s assisted suicide law that has been passed by the citizenry twice and once by the Oregon legislature. Reality: Republicans support states’ rights only if they are conservative.

3. Republicans are for smaller governments
Ronald Reagan, a president who was elected in 1980 under the banner of smaller government, left the presidency in 1989 with one more department, Department of Veteran Affairs, than when he arrived. Budgets had ballooned during his tenure and his successor, George Bush Sr., did not stem the tide. Now, George Bush Jr. has managed to create yet another department, Department of Homeland Security, and has increased the federal government payroll by literally hundreds of thousands of employees. The proposed 2007 budget comes in at a staggering $2.77 Trillion! Reality: Republicans like large governments just as everyone else.

4. Republicans have strong moral values
Let us see, Ronald Reagan was on his second wife (divorced from the first), Bob Dole is on his second wife (divorced from the first), Newt Gingrich is divorced from two wives, as is Rush Limbaugh, G. Gordon Liddy is a convicted felon and Oliver North sold weapons to Iran. Bob Livingston had to resign his seat in the House of Representatives after it became clear that he had affairs for the last 33 years! Bill Bennett has run up gambling losses of $8 million. Dan Quayle got to serve in Indiana National Guard while less well-connected boys of his age died in Vietnam. Jack Abramoff scandal is ensnaring lots of Republicans. Today's news headlines talks about how mine safety has been abandoned by the Bush government while putting on the ole' somber poker face when miners have died in Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Reality: Republicans are as fallible as the rest of us.

5. Republicans are fiscally responsible
When Ronald Reagan got elected in 1980, the annual budget deficit was $90 Billion and the debt ceiling (the total amount of money the federal government could borrow) was less than $1 Trillion. In the 12 years under Reagan and Bush Sr., deficits ballooned, reaching $300 Billion and the debt ceiling was raised again and again. Luckily, Clinton’s presidency saw not only a reduction in deficit but for the first time since the Eisenhower administration, the US government actually bought back the debt. But Bush Jr., after inheriting a budget surplus, has put us back in financial quagmire. Debt ceiling is now at $7 Trillion. Reality: Republicans are fiscally irresponsible.

These 5 myths have been bandied about again and again to beat up on the Democrats. Now, the Democrats are not any better than the Republicans but the holier-than-thou of the Republicans gets on my nerves...


How to keep family heirlooms

My maternal grandfather's mother came from a very wealthy family. Her father was the "king" of Nashipur, basically a landowner with lots of land. When she got married to my great-grandfather, she came in a very ornate palanquin ornamented with, amongst other things, ivory accents. My grandfather was quite attached to that palanquin, perhaps due to the fact that both his parents passed away when he was a teenager. Anyways, many years down the road, a collector of Indian artifacts, Raja Dinkar Kelkar, found out that this palanquin was with my grandfather. Being a true collector, he pestered my grandfather to give him this palanquin so that he can put it in his museum. Mr. Kelkar felt that such a palanquin is part of Indian history and more people should be able to see it. My grandfather refused.

As a result, I have dim memories of that palanquin sitting in a corner of my grandfather's gigantic house. As it sat there over the years, termite got the better of it and some 30 years ago, it was sent to the trash-heap, never to be seen again.

Many years later, my mother told me about Mr. Kelkar and his trip to my grandfather and ever since, I have wondered what would have happened if that palanquin was sitting not in my grandfather's home but in Pune at the Kelkar museum. Perhaps I could appreciate its beauty and boast to my friends that my ancestors once owned and used this particular palanquin.

But it is not to be. Therefore, at times it is better to let go and still have access to the heirlooms than to mistreat them and lose them forever.

Just food for thought...


The American Dream

The new world was discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1492. At that time, most of the large old world societies were highly stratified. Caste system was prevalent in India, China, Europe and Middle East. The accident of one’s birth dictated the opportunities one would get, in terms of education, choice of jobs, physical mobility and social circles. People who had the misfortune of being born in the wrong stratum would usually have to reconcile to the limited choices, if any, they had.

For example, if you were born in Europe and wanted to be a weaver, you had to join the weaving guild in your area. You had to follow the rules and regulations of the guild and if the guild made Fridays a mandatory day off, you really had no choice but to take Fridays off. If the guild required that you only work with cotton, you only worked with cotton. Discovery of new materials or new techniques was very upsetting to the hierarchy. Similarly, your religion was also a discriminating factor. If you were a Catholic in Anglican England or a Huguenot in Catholic France, be prepared to be persecuted. Similarly if you were a Muslim or a Jew just about anywhere in Europe, you were a convenient scapegoat for the ruling classes.

The new world was also populated by people organized into large societies that had a caste system. But a unique situation occurred in what is now the east coast and Midwest of USA. The natives living there were either forced off their lands or were killed off by the European settlers or died out due to lack of resistance to European diseases. Thus, an opportunity presented itself where people escaping the rules in Europe could get a second chance on life.

Mind you, these opportunities did not present themselves equally to all people. The primary beneficiaries of this need for new people were people from England, France and Germany. They were either escaping religious persecution, such as the Quakers, or escaping economic depravation.

Back in Europe, the lords inhabiting the Frankish areas divided up the lands between all their sons. As a result, the sons had an incentive in staying on their father’s property. However, in England, the eldest son usually got everything or close to it. So, the latter sons may have the benefit of education and upbringing, but usually didn’t have anything in terms of property to live off of. The New World gave these men an excellent opportunity to put their education to good use.

As a result of these historical accidents, the New World became a land of opportunity, not just economic opportunity but also religious and social and other opportunities that did not have enough fertile grounds back in the old country. Immigrants coming from Europe saw America as the place where they could be free of artificial restraints and truly blossom. The enthusiasm was infectious and many took advantage of the unclaimed lands all over the place to create their own paradise. Many succeeded and many failed but this thought process was already getting codified as “The American Dream.”

Now, initially, these opportunities were only available to select few people. Discrimination and segregation were rife. However, because of the very nature of the colonies, people were far more willing to compromise than they would have in the old world. In the new world, people had to be much more self-reliant and independent than they could be in their hometowns. If you were trying to claim a piece of land out in the western parts of the colonies, you had to be a farmer, a blacksmith, a mason, a tailor and everything else all rolled into one. These people recognized the hard work of each other, even if they came from different lands and spoke different languages.

Some 300 years after Columbus, a new country emerged, breaking off from the English empire. This country, United States of America, was created by some very well educated yet self-reliant people, including Franklin, Washington, Adams, and Jefferson etc. In an attempt to do away with old methods of governance, they tried to give democracy a chance. In addition, they tried to codify the behavior of the government, in an attempt to prevent a repeat of despotic rule. These men, while firmly rooted in reality, were fairly idealistic. They put words like “All men are created equal” in the Declaration of Independence while slavery was still prevalent. As one can see from the energy and zeal of these founding fathers, the American Dream was already a part of the consciousness.

As any observer could plainly see, equality of opportunity was still not a reality. Blacks were still slaves in most of the new country, the natives were still being persecuted and pushed off the lands that they had lived on all their lives, and the developing hierarchy was eager to put down any challengers. Yet, changes were afoot.

The first elections in the new country in 1788 invited White men who had immovable property, i.e. land, to vote. Within a generation, poorer White men were actively participating in the process. Abolitionists were gaining strength, seeking to do away with slavery. The ensuing civil war changed the character of this country again, when many volunteers from all over America and even Europe served both sides. The Irish, fleeing the potato famine back home, made this country their home and despite facing discrimination and other such obstacles, survived and prospered. Germans came in many streams as their homeland became the theatre of many wars.

The ongoing turmoil in Europe saw many more immigrants adding to the population and to the character of this country. As people realized that the old shackles of Europe no longer bound them, they blossomed into a new innovative, creative and hardworking force. Mind you, these were the same people but on new fertile soil. Yes, segregation was still the rule of the day but the dream, of being able to accomplish anything that you set your mind and heart to, was alive and well. It is this dream that propelled the Civil Rights marchers to undo the wrongs in this country. Martin Luther King Jr., in a stoke of genius, prefaced the biggest speech of his life with "I have a dream". And it is this dream that today causes people to think up innovative ways of alleviating world hunger, poverty and wars.

Over the years, United States has seen many more waves of immigrants, people fleeing various wars in Europe, communism in Asia, massacres in Africa and various groups of adventurers. The American society has become more tolerant in fits and starts. Yes, there have been some very ugly chapters to its name, from murderous exploitation of Blacks to internment of people of Japanese origin to McCarthy era witch-hunts of suspected Communists. But this same society has also abolished slavery, ended racial segregation and given women the right to vote and equality in the workplace.

Today, the American dream lives on in the hearts and minds of those who feel unfettered in their quest for success, whatever be their definition. It is this dream, the very foundation of the American experience, which truly defines this society. Over time, many immigrant groups, once shunned, have become an integral part of the mainstream. And this integration has not happened due to heroic events, it has happened due to the embracing of and recognition of the American Dream.

Now, one might say, this dream is as old as humanity itself and is thriving in all parts of the world. Yes, dreamers have always been an integral part of the human society, but as societies have evolved and codified, they have also fossilized, instinctively shunning changes. As for the latter, yes, societies have borrowed from each other and grown. Yet, one can see how unprepared many societies have been of change. For example, Britain reformed its higher education in the 1950s to give talented students from poorer classes a chance. However, many of these “deeply-accented” graduates found that their paths were limited not by their financial means or family backgrounds but by their accent. Therefore, many ended up immigrating to USA and contributing to its society. India is still in the throes of the caste system. Yet, both these societies are transforming themselves and embracing changes. There definitely are far more opportunities in China and India today than there were just a decade back. However, the instinctive embrace of innovation and adventure that exists in USA is seldom seen anywhere else. This drive to dream and to strive to fulfill the dream has been inculcated in this society to such an extent that every successful person feels compelled to pay homage to the dream. Every day, you see people who have created a company or become an accomplished artist or any other field of endeavor laud their dream and their struggle to achieve the dream.

That, in my opinion, is the essence of the American society. Sure, most people never strive to achieve their dream; many don’t even know what they want. But they all know that there is a dream somewhere with their name on it.