A Jan Koum anecdote

I never met Jan Koum during my 8 years in Yahoo. I met Brian Acton during his days with Yahoo! Shopping (or was it Yahoo! Finance?) There’s a funny anecdote I remember about Jan though.

The year was 1999. Squarely in the middle of the dot-com boom days.

Yahoo’s offices were in 3420 Central Expressway, Santa Clara.

The cafeteria used to serve catered food, partially subsidized by Yahoo. The food wasn’t great, it wasn’t bad either.

One day, somebody discovered a bandaid in one of the dishes. It was promptly reported and pilloried on devel-random@.

A few hours later, an innocuous email was posted by Jan Koum. It read thus:

Has somebody seen my bandaid? I’ve grown quite attached  to it and I miss it dearly.

Congrats Jan and Brian!

 

The original model of western education

Pic courtesy thelaughingstork.com

Pic courtesy thelaughingstork.com

A history professor from Colorado State University (Jonathan Rees) wrote a hysterical anti-MOOC rant (The MOOC racket) in Slate 6 weeks ago. As I pored through the comments and mined 12 super-interesting perspectives, captured on the TechSangam blog) – 12 MOOC perspectives you may not have heard of. Not directly relevant to the MOOC debate but still very educational, commenter Zarko provides a satirical history of the original model of western education.

I’d submit that your 90% of college students are there for the frat parties.

Our model of the university is a relic of a bygone age. Universities were formed as a way of keeping the dissolute sons of nobility out from under foot until they got old enough to take responsibility for oppressing the peasants. In order to perpetuate the university, they needed teachers, so they also educated the clergy – people who were expected to spend their entire lives cloistered in the insular university/church world.

Secular intellectuals joined the clergy over time, but this fundamental structure didn’t change until very recently. You went to Harvard because you were brilliant or because daddy was rich. It made little sense for other people to go to a university because they lacked the intellectual firepower to spend a life in academia and the family connections to get a job at daddy’s firm.

The advent of mass popular college education completely disrupts this model. Suddenly we have an influx of people who don’t particularly need to spend piles of money and the early years of their youth studying Ancient Etruscan Pottery, but who are forced to do so in order to get a “not a complete flake” checkmark on their resume.

Which is silly. We live in an age where the root material of knowledge is freely available to virtually anyone. All colleges do is perform a certification of that knowledge – and they do so at ridiculous expense in both time and money. Why does a doctor or a lawyer need an undergraduate degree? If you took the entering freshman class of a place like Harvard and simply dumped them straight into Harvard Law, you’d get the same quality of lawyers – they wouldn’t learn anything in undergraduate that they didn’t already know that is actually necessary for a law degree.

The writing is on the wall for such places. The future of education will contain a small number of ‘Harvards’ to educate the sons of privilege, and a large mass of cheap education delivered outside the conventional campus model.

 

Hale naayi-ge hosa tricksu kalisa bahudu – ondu chikka storyu

Pic courtesy sourceforge.net

Pic courtesy sourceforge.net

English translation of title: You CAN teach an old dog new tricks – one small story!

A few months ago, I finally enrolled for a Kannada Learning class. 4 1/2 years after moving to Bangalore, the time had finally arrived. 4 weekends (8 classes  2 hours each) conducted in the apartment common room – it couldn’t be more convenient. Highly recommend the class taught by the Kannada Learning School – an algorithmic and pattern-based approach to teaching Kannada.

Somewhat similar to the ‘graduating’ speech in English Vinglish, our teacher (Sangamesh) asked everyone to write a few sentences about our experience or any random story. So I (obviously) picked the most random aspect of my life – running. Here you go and I’m addressing ‘my Kannada friends’ here 🙂

You’ll see an occasional English noun — one Kannadifies it by merely appending “u”.

Nanage maataDi ishta-agutti-de. innu nanage bare tumba ishta-agutti-de. Hale naayi-ge hosa tricksu kalisa bahudu – ondu chikka story-u.

Nanna prathama ippattu erudu varsha tumba asthma aagittu. Olage ondu savara ombattu nooru tombattu aaru, naanu ardha marathon oDide. Aaru varsha mele, naanu sampoorna marathon oDide. Varege eega, naanu hadinaidu marathons-u oDide mattu eeginadinagaLu hattirakke taru erudu savara kilometers-u shoes illade oDittaidini.

I’ll be surprised if you didn’t find the above strange. One example of the strangeness (from literal translation) is “varege eega” — I am starting that sentence with “Till now”..

 

What does it take to float like a butterfly?

Pic via Muhammad Ali's Facebook Page

Pic via Muhammad Ali’s Facebook Page

Q: What does it take to float like a butterfly?

A: [Randy Smith on Facebook] It is a humble and meek beginning as a caterpillar. Then one must willingly submit to the transformation process in the cocoon. And finally now it must break free of it’s constraints in the cocoon to become the butterfly it was meant to be. This is an arduous journey that requires patience while we submit to God’s miraculous work on us and plan for us to fly high.

 

The Zoo-enslaved Panther’s Ritual Dance

Pic courtesy vanwageningen.net

Pic courtesy vanwageningen.net

I forget where I found the extract below. But it instantly transported me to the last trip to Mysore Zoo – the description couldn’t be more spot-on.

The desperation of a life in captivity is perhaps conveyed best in Rainer Maria Rilke’s poem “The Panther”: As the animal “paces in cramped circles, over and over,” he seems to perform “a ritual dance around a center / in which a mighty will stands paralyzed.” Unlike the dogs in the Seligman experiment, the panther displays his paralysis not by lying still, but by constantly moving. Just like the helpless dogs, however, he cannot see past his confinement: “It seems to him there are / a thousand bars; and behind the bars, no world.” Whether the bars are real or metaphorical, when one has no control, it is as if nothing exists beyond the pain of this loss.

The full text of The Panther below:

His vision, from the constantly passing bars,
has grown so weary that it cannot hold
anything else. It seems to him there are
a thousand bars; and behind the bars, no world.

As he paces in cramped circles, over and over,
the movement of his powerful soft strides
is like a ritual dance around a center
in which a mighty will stands paralyzed.

Only at times, the curtain of the pupils
lifts, quietly. An image enters in,
rushes down through the tensed, arrested muscles,
plunges into the heart and is gone.

Backstory on John D. Rockefeller’s First Public Donation

John D. Rockefeller (Pic courtesy storiesofusa.com)

My most inspired Kindle purchase in 2012 (for a ‘princely’ sum of $1.99) was The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda. Last night I learnt that John D. Rockefeller’s first meeting with Swami Vivekananda (as recorded in Madame Verdier’s journey in New Discoveries) served as a trigger to the former’s first ever donation for public good – wow! The Rockefeller Foundation is celebrating its centennial this year. Below is the fascinating story as recounted by Madame Emma Calvé to Madame Drinette Verdier.

Mr. X, in whose home Swamiji was staying in Chicago, was a partner or an associate in some business with John D. Rockefeller. Many times John D. heard his friends talking about this extraordinary and wonderful Hindu monk who was staying with them, and many times he had been invited to meet Swamiji but, for one reason or another, always refused. At that time Rockefeller was not yet at the peak of his fortune, but was already powerful and strong-willed, very difficult to handle and a hard man to advise.

But one day, although he did not want to meet Swamiji, he was pushed to it by an impulse and went directly to the house of his friends, brushing aside the butler who opened the door and saying that he wanted to see the Hindu monk.

The butler ushered him into the living room, and, not waiting to be announced, Rockefeller entered into Swamiji’s adjoining study and was much surprised, I presume, to see Swamiji behind his writing table not even lifting his eyes to see who had entered.

Swami Vivekananda (Pic courtesy jnanajyoti.com)

After a while, as with Calvé, Swamiji told Rockefeller much of his past that was not known to any but himself, and made him understand that the money he had already  accumulated was not his, that he was only a channel and that his duty was to do good to the world — that God had given him all his wealth in order that he might have an opportunity to help and do good to people.

Rockefeller was annoyed that anyone dared to talk to him that way and tell him what to do. He left the room in irritation, not even saying goodbye. But about a week after, again without being announced, he entered Swamiji’s study and, finding him the same as before, threw on his desk a paper which told of his plans to donate an enormous sum of money toward the financing of a public institution.

“Well, there you are”, he said. “You must be satisfied now, and you can thank me for it.”

Swamiji didn’t even lift his eyes, did not move. Then taking the paper, he quietly read it, saying: “It is for you to thank me”. That was all. This was Rockefeller’s first large donation to the public welfare.

 

 

 

Finally… Australia to acknowledge that Aborigines were there earlier

An Aboriginal Didgeridoo player (Pic courtesy didjshop.com)

Eleven years ago, my wife and I made our first (and so far only) trip to Australia. A two-week trip spent largely in the Melbourne area and two days in Sydney. Australia lived up to its promise of a vast beautiful country — beaches, mountains, countryside, the works. The pleasure of walking around downtown Melbourne was enhanced by the numerous stops at coffee shops to enjoy “flat whites” (a guaranteed hit for the desi coffee palate).

Two days in Sydney was never going to be enough so hopping into a tourist bus seemed like a good idea on day 1.. and it sure was. It was one of those buses with pre-recorded audio snippets being played out between (and at) various points of interest. The “Say what?” moment came soon enough when the tour guide referred to the Aborigines as “occupiers.”

Hmm… “occupied”. As in, residents of the land eons before the first European settlers came to Australia. At least the Americans didn’t have the impunity to refer to the American Indians as “occupiers” [Related: how the West was lost].

Imagine my surprise when I came across an article on Impunity Watch (Syracuse University Law School’s interactive journal) which starts with..

For the first time in 224 years, Australia is voting on a Constitutional amendment that will recognize Aborigines as the first people of the country.  Similar to Native Americans, British settlers displaced the Aborigines and they have suffered racism and discrimination ever since.  The new changes will finally bring an end to all state-sponsored racism.

Better late than never. Bravo Australia!

Comparing Aborigines with the settlers…

After the Aborigines were dislocated from their land, their lifestyle, health, and equality decreased dramatically.  According to News One, Aborigines are one of the poorest, unhealthiest, and most-disadvantaged people with an average lifespan of 17 years shorter than other Australians.  Furthermore, they have endured racism and discrimination from the beginning.

Gradual progression towards Aborigines rights.. including an official apology from a sitting Prime Minister – wow!

Aborigines did not even receive “citizen standing” until 1967 in Australia, according to the New Zealand Herald.  That was the first time that Aboriginal people were included in the census, and that referendum passed with 90% support.  However, since then, only 8 out of 44 proposed amendments relating to the advancement of Aborigines have succeeded.

The country has progressed slowly in supporting the Aboriginal people.  Other historical movements include the 1992 decision that gave native title to Aborigines over traditional lands.  Then, in 2008, former Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd finally delivered an official apology on behalf of the nation, according to The New Zealand Herald.

It might finally all happen next year.

Overall, the 300 page report said that some kind of recognition should be given to the Aboriginal peoples as the first inhabitants of Australia.  They should have some recognition within the body of the constitution.  Leaders hope that the referendum will be passed before elections in 2013.

Original article link – Australia to eliminate state-sanctioned discrimination of Aborigines.

Coffee Cups at Foodys Bangalore

These days I’ve been getting my daily coffee fix at Foody’s on Nanjappa Road, Shantinagar (off Double Road). It’s right opposite the quirky and charming Jaaga, which has been serving as my office for the past two months. Don’t let “right opposite” fool you – one still needs to cross the formidable Double Road twice and need to deal with two directions of traffic. Some day I’ll post a video so you can fully appreciate the ordeal.

But the coffee is always worth the ordeal. A strong authentic South Indian filter kaapi for Rs. 7! You can get a stronger brew at no extra charge. So far I’ve resisted the temptation for the stronger brew for fear that I might like it. At Rs. 7/pop, I could probably sip a cup every hour and not feel a twinge of guilt. But do I?

No sir. Strange as it may sound, I’m becoming quite disciplined in life. Rhythm and predictability have now become “good words” in my vocabulary. My first Foody’s coffee is at 8:30am – park car -> walk to Foodys -> buy coupon -> drink coffee -> cross road to Jaaga -> start my workday. My second Foody’s coffee is between 10:30am and 11am. That’s it – two coffees.

On some Thursdays (when my morning speed training run has been rather intense), I need two coffees at the 10:30am break. A few weeks ago, I noticed something weird when I got my second back-to-back cup. Can you spot what’s different between the two cups in Picture #1?

Pic #1: What’s different between the two cups? (besides full vs. empty)

If you can’t make out any differences, have a look at this next picture – both cups are empty.

Pic #2: Both cups now empty. What’s different?

If you still haven’t figured out, here’s a slightly different view of the two empty cups.

Pic #3: left side cup unchanged, right side rotated 90 degrees

Comment away 🙂

Why language matters in India

Pic: courtesy upenn.edu

A few weeks ago we went roller skate shopping for our older son. We avoided all the fancy sports outlet chains (who only stock skates with    integrated shoes – such a scam!) After visiting a few mom-and-pop stores we went to the store where we would eventually make our purchase.

Our family was conversing amongst us in English and we were talking to the two store clerks in Hindi. The other customers were also talking to the clerks in Hindi. At some point, I noticed that the store clerks were conversing in Telugu (my mother tongue).

It was finally our turn at the checkout counter. In an inspired moment, I asked her (in Telugu), “If I talk in Telugu, will you give me a discount?”

For a few seconds, she had a look one normally reserves for aliens… and then she gushed “Oh! You are from Andhra!”

She continued (in Telugu of course) “After an entire day of customers trooping in and out, many annoying ones at that, to hear you suddenly talk in Telugu it took our day’s tiredness away. Of course I’ll give you a discount. Normally it would be 10% but since you are speaking Telugu it is 15%!”

I could have been Sunil Singh (from Bihar) or David Abraham (from Chennai) but I had spoken in Telugu. That was the key connector . She may not be this harried every weekend and might not give an extra discount to every Telugu speaking customer but would definitely feel similarly connected.

Replace Telugu with French, Bangalore with New York and similar stories are probably playing out throughout the world. Language matters in India. Also in the rest of the world.

 

Searching for Clara W. Huling – a digital archeology dig

Clara Myrtle Grey Bird (1900-1988), photo taken in 1917. No relation to “Clara Huling” but most relevant Google Images ‘period’ match

When my second batch of friends arrived a few months ago, the most interesting book was The Complete Works of O. Henry. O Henry, which happens to be the pen name of William Sydney Porter was an American writer (from the late nineteenth century era) who mostly wrote short stories, stories known for their wit, wordplay, and clever endings.

I’m yet to read the hefty omnibus that I’ve been recently reunited with. The book bears my tell-tale calligraphic signature. Right below is scrawled “April 1995” which means it was from my Chicago years.

In faded black ink, higher up on the same page, a clearly feminine flourish had rendered the following:

Clara W. Huling

4434 Volta Place N.W.

Washington DC

1938

 Wow. Fifty-seven years after Clara W Huling’s purchase, this book had made its way from Washington DC to Chicago. Three years later, the book traveled to the Western California coast – first to Mountain View, then Sunnyvale, Santa Clara, back to Sunnyvale for five years before spending nearly 4 years in ‘solitary confinement’ (in my cousin’s attic in South San Jose). Then it traveled by air (in a suitcase) ferried by my kind brother-in-law to Chennai. The final leg of its journey (Chennai to Bangalore) was facilitated by my friend and ex-colleague Sathish.

I had in my possession the closest thing to a rare edition. Getting more specific, it’s a Deluxe Edition from Garden City Publishing Company and it was published in 1937. The copyright lines suggest that this book was originally published by Doubleday, Doran & Company, Inc. in 1899.

Armed with a modern search engine, I began my search for “clara huling”. Top matches are from ancestry.com and names.whitepages.com but this esoteric match (a 1875 ruling Clara N. Huling v. Robert Bennett) from Lycoming-Northampton County PA Archives Court caught my attention – The final determination is that Bennett (aged 67) is a lunatic. Clara N. Huling is listed in the court documents as his daughter so let’s estimate her age in 1875 to be 40. If she had survived until 1938, she would have been 103. Not implausible but what’s highly unlikely is her buying a small-print edition of O. Henry at that age. Moreover, this daughter of Michael Bennett was Clara N Huling, not Clara W Huling.

Digging into the ancestry.com and whitepages.com listings seemed like “too much hay” so I did some address searching using Zillow and Trulia.

According to Zillow the house was built in 1931 and it’s a condo. Trulia disagrees slightly – pegging the built-year at 1933 and calling it a townhouse. They seem to agree on other attributes – lot size of 3,242 sqft and size of 2,320 sqft. The current owners (Llyod and Mardan Zand) bought the house from Jason and Mariana Zand in Nov 2002. Sadly the prior sales history is missing on both Zillow and Trulia. This DC-area Blockshopper page has an aerial map and some more information – though none relevant for my archeology dig.

I returned to Whitepages and Ancestry.com but the trail went cold. Or maybe this post wants to be read now.

Closing Note: Washington DC area friends & acquaintances, if you find yourself in the Washington-Foxhall area (specifically the Foxhall Village historic district), feel free to walk over to 4434 Volta Place and relate this story. If anyone locates a descendent of Clara W Huling and if they are interested in retrieving a bibliographic family heirloom, they can leave a comment on this post. 🙂