Sunday, December 31, 2006

The real Santa Claus!

“Merciful, wise and fearless” is how the Coptic Synexarion describes St. Nicholas, the 3rd century bishop of Myra. He was persecuted and imprisoned during the reign of Diocletian and Maximian. Later during the reign of Constantine I, he was present at the Council of Nicaea in 325. Though many miracles have been attributed to the saint, he is best known for the anonymous gifts he gave to those in need. The most famous story is that of the merchant who lost all his wealth. He had there daughters and no money to give them as dowry. So on a cold Christmas night, St. Nicholas took a small bag of gold coins and threw it into the merchant’s house through an open window. The first daughter was married off. Next year, he left a similar gift for the second daughter. Now the merchant wanted to know who his benefactor was, and so on the third Christmas night he decides to stay awake and find out. And the rest, as they say, is history.

He is known by various names in different cultures. I call him ‘Christmas Father’. In Kerala he is also called ‘Christmas Appachan’ and ‘Christmas Appoopan’. In different parts of the world, many local beliefs have been assimilated into the story of St. Nicholas. And time, politics and commerce too have taken their toll. After the protestant reformation in Europe, there was a conscious attempt to purge all extra-biblical traditions. The reformers had a particular dislike for saints and St. Nicholas was no exception. Some even went so far as to ban Christmas. But of course, everybody knows you can’t ban Christmas. And you can’t have Christmas without Christmas Father. So stories were invented about the North Pole, and reindeer and elves in an attempt to avoid any talk of saints.

Back then, in that part of the world, belief in saints was not considered 'politically correct'. Today, in most of the western world, religious belief is itself beginning to be considered politically incorrect. There is a misperception that one must not express religious beliefs in public. This inevitably leads to the flawed conclusion that if we must continue to celebrate Christmas as a public festival, it should be decoupled from the underlying religious beliefs regarding the Nativity. Sadly, Christmas is under siege once again.

The reindeer and sleigh and elves and Mrs. Claus are just stories. And the guy at the mall with the red suit and the mask is not the real Santa, he’s just pretending. But kids, if some presumptuous grown-up know-it-all ever tells you that Santa is just a fictional character, tell them about the real St. Nicholas.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

A dog's life, liberty and the persuit of happiness.

It’s almost past midnight. I lock my PC and leave the office with a friend. When we reach my place, I get out of my friend's car and walk towards my gate on a well lit alley. I notice a dog coming in my direction. A second later it starts barking. Maybe it has spotted a cat or something. I slowly walk forward. Then over the next couple of seconds it is joined by a dozen or so dogs and the whole pack coming straight at me. I turn around and walk away. First slowly, then briskly as the dogs came closer, making sure not to panic and run because I remember someone telling me that would not be a smart thing to do. Finally managed to go around the block and sneak into the house from the other side. The dogs followed me almost half the way and then decided to let go after they'd made sure that the interloper had learned his lesson.

Not everybody is as lucky. Every day hundreds of people are bitten by stray dogs in Bangalore. Yet the law allows packs of stray dogs to freely roam the streets. Apparently, the so-called animal rights activists believe that the dogs' right to life, liberty and happiness takes precedence over that of the ordinary citizen.

Investing in Charity

There was this time, however, when I did actually give some money to a young woman carrying a baby in one hand. But before you get me wrong here, let me make it clear that my generosity was not prompted by the presence of the child. It had more to do with the (presumably de-fanged) cobra she held in the other hand.

Common as they may be in this part of the world, cobra carrying alms seekers are not only people you need to be wary of. For a more practical list of warning signs read this article in the Motley Fool. There are some interesting links there to more articles on 'Foolanthropy'. With the two richest men on the planet giving away almost all their wealth, the idea of charity as an investment is definitely in.

The association between charity and investment is not new though. Tradition has it that the apostle St.Thomas, an architect by profession, was commissioned by King Gondophares to build a palace. The apostle instead gave away all the money to the poor and was promptly imprisoned for it by an angry king. But the apostle was soon released when the king's deceased brother appeared in a dream and described the wonderful palace that had been built for them in paradise.

A palace in paradise or a world free from hunger, achieving the objectives of an investment in charity requires that it be accorded the same seriousness as any other investment.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Lucky Scrooge

Lucky Uncle Scrooge (Fred's uncle, though it would be just as true for Donald's or anybody else's uncle for that matter). He didn't live in Bangalore. Because if he did, the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future would all have visited him on the same night. And I say this because I know from experience.

Earlier today I was in Tippasandra, treating myself to an ice cream after lunch when this gentleman walked up to me asking for alms. He was followed by two children, one about 9 or 10 and the other in his early teens. As usual, I refused. Definitely don't want to encourage begging and particularly so if it involves children. After a few requests, the man left. But the 9 year old didn't. He stood there with his partially stretched out hand. And I still had the ice cream in mine. Certainly not a comfortable position to be in. For a second there I wasn't sure what to do. Should I just give him some change and get back to my ice cream. Or should I stick to my stand. Still not sure if it was the right thing to do, but I chose the latter. The child stood there for some more time. As he finally left, there was this look in his eyes. Despair, disgust, anger, frustration, pain. Or maybe it was just my imagination. Not really sure what. But it won't be easy to forget.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

On Character

Here is another story.

Story goes like this. Chakochan and his girlfriend Lillykutty are on a romantic cruise in the Lakshwadep Islands. They are software engineers working in Bangalore so they have lots of money to spend. And they know that spending strengthens the economy so they are just doing their patriotic duty. Suddenly a big storm comes up and sinks the ship. Next morning Lillykutty finds herself washed ashore on a lonely beach. She gets up, looks around, and realizes she is marooned on an isolated island. Some time later she comes across two other survivors from the wreak, an old man and a sailor. The sailor is an experienced seaman but he is not a member of the ships crew. Together they find a battered life raft on the other side of the island. The sailor takes a look at it and concludes that it is damaged but he can fix it. Later on in the day Lillykutty, notices some movement on a nearby island. She is very happy when she realizes that there are some survivors on the other island and one of them appears to be our own Chakochan. She can’t wait to be with him again. So she goes to the sailor and requests him to fix the raft. The sailor tells her that he will repair the raft if she will sleep with him tonight. She is disgusted and walks away. But still desperate to get to Chakochan, she goes to the old man and asks him for advice. The old man replies “Follow your heart”. She goes away. Next day we see that the raft is repaired. They all get in the raft and go to the other island. Chackochan and Lillykutty hug each other. She then tells him what happened. He is angry and calls off their relationship. She is heartbroken. Seeing this, a mutual friend of theirs comes up and proposes to her. They live happily ever after.

Now get your friends to rate the 5 characters in the story on a scale of 1 to 5 on the basis of their character. Who is good? Who is bad?

Saturday, November 04, 2006

The Logic of Loss

Try this exercise with your team.

It starts with a story about a lady, a shopkeeper and a panwala. The lady walks into a shoe shop. Looks around. Tries on a few models. Finally decides to buy one that costs Rs.12. She goes to the check-out counter and hands a 20 rupee note to the shopkeeper. The shopkeeper does not have change. So he goes to the panwala across the street who happens to be his friend and asks him if he has change for the 20 rupees. Luckily the panwala has change. So the shopkeeper gives the 20 note to the panwala and gets 20 one rupee coins. He returns to the shop. Hand over the pair of shoes and the balance of Rs.8 to the lady. Lady leaves. Some more business happens. Half an hour later, the panwala comes to the shop and tells him that the 20 rupee note was a fake. He wants his money back. Since they are friends, the shopkeeper trusts the panwala to be telling the truth and gives him a genuine 20 rupee note in exchange for the fake.

Now, the question is: How much money did the shopkeeper loose? Simple arithmetic. You have 1 minute to think it over after which each person would have to give his answer to the group. See what happens.

PS: As you may have noticed, the story in the above example happened a long time ago.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

At Coorg and the Monastery

And then on Saturday night we went to Coorg for a team building exercise. Stayed for two days at the club Mahindra resort. Food was good, though I wouldn’t say it was great. Same goes for the activities that we had to do during the day. The pre-dinner booze party, however, was particularly conductive to the aforementioned objective. Three bottles of Smirnoff, fifteen guys. Dinner was great.

Visited the Tibetan monastery on the way back. Impressive wall paintings. We were just in time for the afternoon prayers. The music was otherworldly, with huge drums, conches, 8 ft long trumpets, around a hundred monks chanting prayers and the fragrance of incense in the air. But we almost got thrown out for making too much noise in one of the temples.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

KRZR craze

After working like crazy for the last year and a half, the Motorola KRZR aka K1 is finally out in the market. Whoever named it sure got it right. Brings to mind the time when Omesh, senior Manoj, G Srini and I sat up till 4 am to release a new feature. And the daily conference calls that Rajeev, Yogesh, Shreyas and I used to have with teams in far away places like Vladivostok, Turin, Hyderabad, Jaguariuna, Libertyville and Nizhny Novgorod. Different timezones, cultures, accents - it was indeed crazy and a good learning experience. And fun too. Still remember the Italian Peugeot ad Ivano sent me, the one in which there is this guy who gets an elephant to sit on his Ambassador to change its shape. Like I said, Crazy!

And so last friday we had a poolside team dinner to celebrate the sucess at the the Gateway on Recedency road. The chicken kabab there is just superb.

For those who are not into all this, K1 is the blue flip phone with the reflective front.
Peugeot is a French car manufacturer. Ambassador is a common car in India, now out of production.
Vladivostok is on the eastern end of Russia near somewhere close to Japan. Turin in Italy is famous for Shroud of Turin kept in the royal chapel of the Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist. Hyderabad is of course famous for the Charminar and the biryani. Jaguariúna is in the state of São Paulo in Brazil. Libertyville is a village outside Chicago. And Nizhny Novgorod is on the banks of the Volga in Russia. Hope to see these distant lands some day.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Safety first

As usual, I didn’t have any work to do that I wanted to do. So I decided to drop in for a safety and first-aid training open for everyone at the office. Again, as usual, yours truly walk in 15 minutes late. I had a vague notion that safety and first-aid were important matters and so I was rather embarrassed to be late for such an important training. It was only after I sat down in one of the back benches that I realized that apart the people arranging the event, there was only one other person in the class. Over time, a few others joined in but the turnout was rather disappointing for a facility with more than 3000 people. Considering that we were taught interesting things like CPR (and we even got to practice on a mannequin) I was surprised to see so few people turning up. Its true, software engineers have got their priorities all wrong. Of course it is not totally impossible that maybe everybody else already knows all this. Or perhaps they are really busy with more important things like fixing bugs and attending meetings.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Mission Accomplished

It was 11:30 when I finished going thru all the group mail. Lazily picked up the phone and called the PPF agent. She says she has to leave the post office before 12. I put down the phone and rush to the bank. Pull out the money. Saw Anup in the lift lobby, got him to drop me off at the PO on his bike. 11:50. Thanks buddy :) couldn’t have made it without you. I walk into the PO happy to find the agent waiting at the counter.

Transactions done, I walk to Claypot hoping to get an Onasadhya. No luck, shutters down. Walk to Suswadh. Onasadhya Ready. Stuffed myself with food. Even got a chance to explain Paal Ada to a German saipu who asked, "What is this?" raising the small disposable plastic cup like a glass of champagne. Some mallu techie had brought him and some madamas along. Angane oru Onam koodie kazhinju...

PS: Some PPF tips.
1. Deposit money thru a PPF agent. They will do all the paperwork and give you half of the 1% commission they get. At least they do here in Bangalore.
2. From the 6th year onwards you can withdraw some of the money from the account. Withdraw 70k and deposit it back again. You can now claim tax benefits under Section 80C for the 70k.
3. Put all your 70k in the account before April 5th if you can to maximize interest earned.
4. Start a PPF account early in life. That way you can withdraw it early too.
Don't wait for the taxman. If you are a 3 year old, get your dad to start an account for you. That way you will have enough cash to pay your way thru college by the time you are 18. Add to that a free high interest yielding tax free account for life without having to worry about lock in periods.
5. The government is free to revise the interest rate. So there is always a small amount of risk involved.

Monday, September 04, 2006

The P in PPF don’t stand for Procrastination.

I didn’t put money in my PPF account today.

So what? Do it tomorrow or the day after tomorrow. Hope I do it tomorrow. Cause if I don’t it’ll cost me a few hundred rupees. How? Interest for a given month is calculated on the lowest amount in the account between the 5th and last day of the month. If I don’t put it in by the 5th ie tomorrow, I loose the interest for this month. And 4.5%pa minus taxes that I get from the bank wont take away much of the pain of loosing this months tax free 8%pa. After taxes that works out to a 0.67% loss.

If I care so much about this 0.67%, why did I not do this today? If fact, not on the 1st itself? Why the procrastination? May be it’s because I’m too lazy to go to the post office. May be it has to do with a certain people aversion that keep me from calling up the PPF agent. Maybe I’m afraid that my math is wrong and putting money into PPF at this time is not such a good idea. Maybe this search for a root cause to procrastination is actually a search for an excuse to procrastinate having to deal with it.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Just moved.

Just moved in to Blogger from my old blog page at Pitas, Below, I've migrated the few posts I had on Pitas to Blogger.

I had started the Pitas account way back in March 2001 during my third sem at MACE and put a link to it on my homepage on Geocities. Back then, blogging was still in its infancy, Blogger wasn't even on the scene and I had a lot to study for university exams. So I forgot all about my newly created blog.

Three years later, during my second year of M.Tech at CUSAT , I thought of revamping my Geocities homepage. That’s when I noticed the link to Pitas and I thought, "Why not ditch the static homepage and start blogging?" In the intervening three years, blogging had become hugely popular and Geocities was almost history.

Then, my internship went on to become a job. Amidst 14 hour days and steep learning curves, blogging was put on the back burner once again. Now, a year later, I finally have more time on my hands, and plan to start blogging once again. And I hope to continue blogging; atleast till the next killer app comes along.