Time Cards and Status Reports

August 22, 2014

One of the things that thoroughly shocked me on my first full-time job was this concept of Time Cards where you would have to account for the time spent during the week (sometimes even the day). This was complete antithesis of how I did things till that point : spending time as I liked (not that it was always good. I decided once to experiment with the datastructures course by skipping all assignments and trying to get through based on exams alone. Needless to say, I scraped with a C-). This sudden change was hard to adjust. So whenever I had the opportunity, I made absolute mockery of such reports. Sometimes to the point of just avoiding a conversation with HR. I felt this is basically a sign of mistrust in organizations. Over time, I got to places that made me view these positively and I do play well with them. But the old habit sometimes returns. Here is a sequence of such mocking reports I posted that I thought you might enjoy (anonymized to protect identities and such):

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Reporting remote office A: Today, I had a really greasy giant burger and spent mostly pondering on the next useful-but-not-the-most-urgent-or-important thing for my structured procrastination. The burger digestion is chugging along nicely. It should be done by dinner time. I just threw the burger box in the bin. It landed quite nicely in the bin.
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It is getting cold and dark outside remote office A. I was feeling thirsty and went to the mini-kitchen but could not find any of the reusable water bottles here like back in the HQ. I felt guilty for a while but picked the other bottle anyway. It struck me then that bottled water does not carry nutritional information usually but I had to be fit. I googled ‘calories in water’ and ‘calories in ‘Fresh Spring’ water’. Both fortunately indicated it was 0. I drank the water, discarded the bottle and returned to my desk. I pondered further on how useful this habit of checking nutritional information is if everyone followed it. 
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Looks like a slow day thus far back in the HQ. Things here in the remote office A are happening though. I walked along the streets this morning with no respect for the pedestrian lights or the oncoming cars. I get to the building and well, what do you know .. no valet parking!! I twitched and quickly got to the company floor to avoid further disappointments. I saw that my boss got here too this morning and I quickly had to pretend to be doing some deep technical work. I contributed some thoughts to the systems programming using bash discussions. While checking various websites that had nothing to do with work, I occasionally threw in quick phrases ‘come on perforce’, ‘damn you C++’, ‘this shit needs to be fixed’ so that my coworkers were sure I was working on something really challenging. Pretending to do work is hard because I noticed you end up doing work pretty soon. I plan to take breaks to avoid the phenomenon of work creeping onto my time. I will post how it goes later on.
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Today I was burdened with further pretending as the boss was still here. But he left later in the day for the HQ so I was relieved and continued slacking off at good pace. I even munched on ‘SENSIBLE FOODS Crunched Peanuts’ snack to celebrate. Each seed was exquisitely dried and salted just the right amount. It struck me then how these little details matter. I quickly verified if I added the 2 bucks I spent at the YourGreen store yesterday to buy ‘Colgate Optic White’ travel-sized toothpaste to the work-trip reimbursement claim. The paste might even outlast my trip. I figured integrity is very important in these matters. So I decided to leave it in one of HQ restrooms if the outlasts the trip. This will be my last report for this week since I will be busy this weekend adding more items to my reimbursement claim.
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Solitude, Independence and such

August 17, 2014

Its been more than a year since I wrote anything on the blog. I was too frustrated after that episode, I guess. But over the last year I made a decision that was quite unlike my usual self. And I think it had a really positive influence. So I thought I will just write it down as notes for anyone who thinks like me. I have always enjoyed spending time alone since childhood. My idea of an awesome life had been always to live like a hermit doing things alone. The thing itself did not matter at all: it ranged from being a shepherd to being the president of a country. I just wanted to do it all alone. I treated having to ask help or needing to hangout in a group as a weakness and told others the same. Sure, I joined forces with others for a cause but never worked towards building bonds beyond that cause itself. I did deliver very nice lines at various places of work about team work and how one person could do only so much but I never applied that in personal life. That mercenary attitude stuck with me for long and I think it worked really well for me in many ways. I never had trouble giving up job or a course or a place that did not appeal to me or making ruthless choices when I had to. Life, in India while hopping cities and in US, played very well with that too. As humble as I wanted to be, the chest-thumping guy inside was always going ‘you did it all by yourself man .. from the dusty streets of your village to these fancy cities. you can go the distance. stay awesome like this.’. I almost settled on a plan to buy a ranch or a farmhouse, buy cattle or horses or something and live that hermit life. 

Then, my dad got hit by a nasty brain-stroke (right after I wrote that last post I think). He was the ultimate life-hacker and a hero for me. He was fiercely independent and yet made friends everywhere he went. All of his friends looked at him as a person who could fix any problem, pull them out of any trouble no matter how bad things were. And when he came down partially paralyzed with this, not only did it hit him but it hit me really hard. Till I landed in India after I got the news I was thinking what I would say to him: ‘You are infallible. Look at us, we are lions. This can not bring you down, let’s pick us ourselves up now’. I was probably telling that more to myself actually. But the moment I landed and saw him in tears for the first time in decades I could not say anything except give him some support to walk. Before I spent more time with him, I met my long-time friend and a psychologist in the making, Bona. She really drilled sense back into me. It often takes such a major shake up to realize you are being a total jackass. It was the first time l looked back to realize that it would be impossible for anyone to claim that they did something all by themselves. Whether I acknowledged it or not, there were people whom I heavily I relied on. And in most cases, they did not expect acknowledgement and probably just cared a tiny bit about me and wanted me to succeed. I learned a lot of lessons on that trip as I talked to my dad about how he felt as he recovered. His confidence would one moment be at the top and he would do a few pushups or squats, the next moment one of his limbs would give in and he would be in tears. I would just listen to him and help him doing the next set of exercises. And it felt fine. He was no less a hero, he just needed help at that moment. And in week I was able to see him walk and felt really proud how he pulled it off. And that’s when it struck me that there will be times like this for everyone and taking help is not a shame always. Its only human. A thing as obvious as that did not strike me earlier at all.

As dad recovered, I was still learning lessons on this. Most of them were from that same friend of mine. Bona and I have some similarities but are really diametrically opposite on many things. I go by logic/reason, don’t trust people until I have a reason to, am a heavy critic of faith etc. She has this amazing intuition and an advocate of ‘unconditional positive regard’ for people, whoever they are. Of course she is religious as well. As odd as it seemed this opposing viewpoint was precisely what sparked our conversations and made me realize how often she made total sense. I always thought if a girl would shake me out of my solitary animal mode, it would be a girl who was from engineering/science and so good at it that I cant stay away from her. I threw all those things out of my head and went with what heart said. I decided if I ever wanted to break out of the hermit model it would be for someone who was able to make me a better person this way. So we got in to a relationship. After that I really gave her a hard time with all my rants, ramblings and criticism on everything. It is beyond me how she manages to stay at peace AND be that calming influence on me. It did really help that she already liked me but I never saw someone so patient at dealing with me. I can be a total jerk when arguments take off. We talk about everything ranging from statements-of-jackass-ranjeeth like ‘crying is unpardonable’, ‘marriage is yoke for a man’ to feminism to religion etc. Needless to say, she succeeded in making me saner more often than not. Recently, she started this ‘painting a day’ series which was a lesson in consistency for me. Things are positively getting better for me and I could not help wondering: things were great when I was operating in the solitary/independent mode but could they have been greater with someone to share the journey with. They just might be. As usual to me, the logical answer is ‘results still pending but looking good’. Bona’s intuition will say a resounding ‘yes’. And I hope with all sincerity that it is so. 

Tale of Two Kinds of Books

January 19, 2013

During early new year and the vacation before that, I had a tough time enjoying anything other than the little work I managed to get done . Then it slowly improved. Here is how it happened.

Few months ago, before the vacation, I began reading a lot of non-technical books on various topics like history, arab spring, religion etc. The authors of these were highly educated. But almost all of them had selective amnesia. Each would claim objectivity in the foreword and then proceed to glorify one side and demonize the other. The Arab narrative would go like: ‘Our invasions brought architecture and science to Andalusia while the crusaders brought death and destruction’. Israeli narrative would be ‘We made this godforsaken desert bloom amidst savages’ and so on till the information age. When you superimpose those black and white views you look at an abyss of darkness : hate, narcissism and bigotry majestically chronicled. Even if you choose one side, there is no escaping the depression caused by the vileness of the other and extremities of your own. After it has shocked me enough, it made me a very bitter person. I ranted against anything remotely religious or sectarian, I was not sure about believing any news/opinion at all, I felt like burning those books to express my anger, I probably hated many things about humanity .. I dont think I was more disturbed on a non-personal issue ever.

Then, somehow a book on urban engineering led me to a series of books that were basically a history of both ancient and modern engineering. These books stated merely numbers, procedures, scale and impact. It took me through the stories of the Interstate Highway System of US that shaped its destiny, the Statfjord oil field that effectively ran the motor of the world, Japan’s Bullet train system, Ferdinand de Lesseps who connected half the world with Suez Canal and lost half his men and fortune trying to build the Panama Canal, Norman Borlaug whose efforts saved more lives in the third world than any philanthropic organization did and so on. These are glowing tributes to our ability to build and fix things, courage and thought. And they are not in books, not in our imagination .. but in front of us .. still working. They ‘connect the world’ in the true sense. No matter from which side you view these, it is hard to find anything that is depressing in these. They are sources of pure joy. It surprises me that science, logic and technology etc. are usually associated with lack of any emotional aspect to them and yet they result in such fulfillment and sense of purpose. Anyway, that calmed me down a lot. I still work the same amount but I worry much less.

It does bother me that burning a revered ‘holy’ book causes the world to go in flames while the most reviled products of science, nukes, proved to be the best peace-keepers we ever had. I does not bother me in the ‘I hate this shit’ way but in the ‘We need to fix this shit soon’ way. I struggle to explain people when they ask me what I think ‘value’ is. Hopefully, you will find the story useful.

Caltrain Stories

September 8, 2012

Back home, I always used to think of the experience on public transport vehicles like a bus or train as a strong indicator of the culture and tastes in the surrounding region. I was mostly right, beginning from the loathing of Hindi in TN to the MC/BC gaalis in Noida, the behavior of people in this vehicles was a true mirror of many aspects of the societies around. When you talk directly to people, the basic sense of decency takes over and you rarely have a bad experience. But you never see what the true picture is. Its not always bad but it would only be visible when people can simply merge into the ‘public’ and no personal responsibility whatsoever exists. In many ways that was colorful actually, making it exciting to travel on these vehicles. In California, however, public transport is not the primary mode. And since I cant drive anything other than  a bicycle and a ripstick, I usually take Caltrain for longer commute. On these trains, no such excitement exists. Its partly because its the Silicon Valley : people are glued to their palm-sized glowing screens or working on their laptops en-route to work or back or (at best) speaking to another friend on phone about plans for the next Friday or the new hot start-up. So stories are rare but I did run into some experiences on trains and train-stations here which were thought provoking. I record them here more as a reminder to myself.

‘The poor in a rich society’: So one day, I was at the Menlo Park caltrain station, a homeless guy (a decent name for a bum) approached me. He was an elderly man with glasses and a grey beard which made him look like a profound thinker who enjoyed great wealth earlier and somehow ran into some ill-fate. He asked ‘could you spare me some change sir’. Influenced by his sympathy-evoking appearance, I gave him a 2 dollar bill (much more than typical ‘change’). His tone after that was really surprising to me. He took the money like someone who had the right to it and went on to say ‘You know, many of the youngsters here are anguished when I ask money. They are pained!!’. I was already puzzled but more was coming : ‘You know, the poor in a rich society are not so poor unlike ..’  (an awkward pause and a stare into my eyes) .. the poor in India’. ‘You see, I have 60 dollars with me now. It could last me a while if I ate at McDonald’s but I want to eat some good food and it costs money.’  It was hard not to show my feelings on my face because I do eat at McDonald’s once in a while. I wanted to give him 10 more bucks and say ‘Here sir, I value my hard-earned money but my pride does not come in the way eating what I can afford, so I can spare you some more money’. But by that time he sensed it probably and walked way quickly. I did not want to assume that his pride was with out a some virtue to reinforce it, but his inability to deal with the reality was quite shocking.

A similar incident that left me with quite opposite feeling happened during my first week in San Francisco. I was looking for a place to stay in the nearby city Oakland, a much maligned area in the press and in general public due to high Afro-american population and crime-rate (an implied correlation, although nobody explicitly states it). But since rents were cheap, I decided to give it a shot anyway. Talking to many of the people there who were almost implying ‘come live here, this is our home. why would we want this place to be a crime-filled area?’, I was confused. While returning,  it was quite late in the night and I was in a very lonely underground train station and was struggling with the ticketing machine (being a first-time user). A heavy well-built (you can guess the remaining attributes) man was approaching. I was sh**-scared but was still trying to make the ticket machine work. He stopped right beside me and took my card saying ‘I got this, man .. I got this’. Not only, he made it work and returned me the ticket and card but also showed me how to use it with tips. I thanked him and was walking back with a lot of relief. He called me again and said ‘Can I ask you one small favor, brother!! I need a dollar to get to the city’. (The city usually means San Francisco around here). Obviously, I gave him a dollar very happily. Contrasting the stereotypes (Menlo Park is the classic ‘civilized’ area with loads of venture capitalists camping there) and the realities was a lesson to me. There was not much talk in either case, but what people implied via their actions spoke volumes.

‘As long as you understand that English’: On yet another ocassion, I biked to the station and was waiting for my train. I saw a train on the platform but it was not mine and I was taking a breath. So there was this lady who was running towards the train door with her bike. The way these doors work is that if a ticket collector sees someone rushing she can stop them from closing. I was expecting that to happen but somehow it did not. I don’t  know the cause, but the lady was literally a foot away from getting in and the door closed. She was so anguished that she let out a a scream that went on on for over 5 seconds I think and started kicking the door. A bunch of kids made fun of her, she gave up on the door and chased the kids on her bike. I was quite amused and was feeling bad for her and then something struck me:  I was waiting on the wrong platform and my train had almost approached. As reality struck, I raced towards the underpass that took me to the other platform. Usually, bikes are supposed to go to a special bike compartment which was at the far end from me. But in the back-drop of the experience minutes ago, I just entered some random compartment with my bike. The ticket collector looked at me like a crazy guy and said ‘Alright, you are in the wrong car but I will allow you to stay on-board provided you get down at the next station and get into the right car’.  Still trying to catch my breath, I gave the classic Indian head-nod that confuses people here. They never figure out if its a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’. So this time with slight irritation she repeated the instructions. Now I was irritated and said ‘I understood what you said, I was short on time so I had to get in. I will move to the bike car at the next station’. She shrugged, gave me a condescending look and said ‘As long as you understand that English’. I was saying ‘Listen lady ..’. She was too angered by that time and turned away without listening to me. This place works like a clock. You better not mess with the order around here.

The Special Child: On the return train of the same trip, I took great care to enter the bike car and settled down on one a seat beside a kid who was about 14. He started talking to me about fairly random things. I responded and we were having a fairly decent conversation. Although it was random topics he was very coherent. Then he suddenly went off ‘I went to this birthday party of my friend and I ate all the pancakes .. haa haaa’ and broke into a laughter that was so loud and continuous that it turned everyone’s heads in the compartment. His dad who was on the seat facing both of us said ‘shh .. Don’t laugh like that Sammy!!’ with a look of embarrassment. It was then I realized that the kid was a special child. But what deeply disturbed me was the reaction of his dad. As long as I was talking to kid, he looked normal but probably was praying that his kid acts ‘normal’. When the kid broke into laughter, he was visibly embarrassed at the exposure. It was like a carefully built image suddenly broken for him. From that point on, even as I kept talking as I would with a normal child I could clearly see the father’s discomfort. He somehow made me feel that me talking to the kid was an act of sympathy which was making things only worse for him (the dad). On the other hand, I was till that point concerned because the kid was not happy so far but suddenly there was this unbridled sense of joy in him. The fact that he was mentally younger than 14 mean that he was just a happy child recollecting a good memory. I haven’t been around a lot of special children but that incident made me realize that while the kids need the therapies and conditioning, our expectations out of them need conditioning too. I can sympathize with the parents who are constantly trying to make them ‘normal’ and ‘fit in’. The whole affair sucks.

So those are some stories. I get too little time to recollect or write these days. So excuse any incoherence :) !!

Christmas .. counting the blessings !!

December 24, 2011

For over the last few years, my Christmas routine was to go to my village and celebrate it with my parents and my ever so pretty niece at the little church nearby at Bodhan. This time I cant do that, so I thought I will just recollect the memories and count the blessings.

The journey along the unlit road: To me, Christmas’ specialty is that we welcome the day right at midnight of 24th Dec which is different from how we enjoy other Indian festivals like Ugadi or Deepavali. For the lack of any transport at that hour, we pick an auto at 10:30 in the night and start off on a 15km journey in the chilling December cold. The auto guy Afsar, a Muslim by religion, has a persistent calendar entry for this in his mind and never forgets to call and tell that he is gonna be there on time (even before we ask him for a ride). As the auto motors along the unlit road, my Dad,  Afsar and I start a discussion on the current hot political topic and then come to a conclusion that we cant do much about it (yes, it happens every year and we never learn). All the while my Mom switches between dropping in her two-cents on the topic, coaxing me to be away from the cold wind and protecting my niece’s cheeks from the cold breeze (I actually think she gets prettier as the cold breeze gives her cheeks a tinge of pink :)). The usually modest-looking church wears a spectacular look on this night with those colored lights, glittering X-mas tree and a ceremonial mood all around. It amuses me that although no one says so, each family splits up in to three units, the men, women and children .. and sit separately as long as the prayer goes on.

Children and God:  The children usually lose the luxury of sitting on the benches on busy days as there are too many adults but it works very well for them anyway as they all want to form their own group. The beauty of this festival is in how much it revolves around children. Last year, they got gifts from all over the world from unknown benefactors. I usually sit with them on the floor rather than occupy the benches which are reserved for the elders. I forget that I am over 28 now but most of the kids are still nice enough to use ‘Anna’ instead of ‘Uncle’ .. pretty nice feeling that. The entire mood changes my  priorities on what I should pray for from the entity called God. My thoughts run from things like Atheism/If I am really religious or agnostic or atheistic/If me praying makes sense etc/If I am being a complete jackass in thinking like that in a church. Then I see the cute kid who tugs on my shirt to make some space for her. She does not care about all the crap that is going on in my head. She simply wants to enjoy the new dress, sing and dance with her friends and wait for the gifts and cake. With that I ditch all that crap in my head and simply conclude that I should think of God as a supreme scientific being who probably chose evolution etc. as his methods of going about creation. If anything we should try and be very scientific, productive and rational like him and that is a way of knowing if at all he exists or not. Its like in under 15 min I have rediscovered my own theory of religion which I frame every year and forget over the next 12 months. That gives me peace and I again get back to this world. Then, instead of asking for money and other stuff, I usually end up asking for the ability to make this world better over the next year, be more productive and smart, come back again to see these children and their innocent faces knowing that I have made things better for them. Yeah, the mood that makes me think of productive work as a form of worship, as a license to exist and enjoy the beauty of the creation of supreme scientific being also makes kinda feel altruistic.

The community get-together: The prayer itself is actually a semi-religious affair which has a dose of general wisdom as well religious stuff getting delivered. I talked about Vatican’s respect for local cultures and how they take the path of least disruption with rituals etc. So I don’t feel very odd or as if we practice a very different religion. In fact, the priest usually includes a ton of local problems in his regular prayer which is pretty amazing. (last time, the prayers even included a plea for a speedier solution to Telangana problem so that everyone could get back to work).  The part after the mass is what I guess everyone looks forward to. This is the phase where families do not rush home after the roughly 1.5 hr long prayer and instead brave the cold, gather around the small bon fires in front of the church, meet each other and exchange warm wishes. This is the part where everyone gets a 1-1 meeting with the priest (‘Father’ is more common word and I dislike having to use priest for him actually). This is where I meet my school teachers (the school is right beside the church) to seek their blessings, or my Mom comes to know of my cousin’s marriage and migration to Australia, or my Dad plans a friends get-together for the new year. This is where I get to meet distant and close aunts. cousins, nephews and pretty much everyone I care about in the entire parish. This is also precisely when calls from every corner of the world start coming in from distant sons/daughters to their parents. This is the part without which Xmas would be incomplete for me. This year I will miss that feeling. But at least my Dad will proudly speak of how he makes a skype call to me every evening, uses facebook/gmail/maps and will use the line ‘maa vaaadu states lo unnadu’. And of course, I am gonna call him right at that time :).

Counting the blessings: By the time the get-together is done, my niece will have had more than her share of cakes, and will be fast asleep with her head on my shoulder. We would wake up Afsar and offer him some tea and cake. We return with great memories. We seldom sleep before its 4:00 am or so, just recollecting how the year has been. It always feels that year has been good when I sit with them and think about it. This year I have already done that exercise with them on skype and in fact this year has been better by any objective standards as well. So here is the list (I am going with the top 5 chronologically, with a bit of detail on each) :

1. Built something : Professionally there was a lot of improvement. I contributed to a real product at Microsoft and the code will see light this time. Its gonna be my first such project and I feel good about it. Of course, I left Microsoft. If someone were to a write history of Computer Science,it would be incomplete without a chapter on M$, good or evil .. does not really matter. It feels good be associated with them. I worked closely with Nokia as well. They are still ‘the’ phone company for me. Hope they will come out well.

2. G$ and FB : Two of the biggest blessings have been being able to get offers from Google, Mountain View and Facebook, Palo Alto which are almost universally considered as the big two in tech. currently. Google was a long-time dream come true because it had so much aura around it, I admired it like hell because all the smart and cool kids from my college days went there. I fumbled with their interviews so many times that I began doubting myself. This year I got an offer to be at the root of all their awesomeness i.e Mountain View which made me feel pretty confident. Probably I carried that confidence in to Facebook interview and did well. It was a heartbreak to have to choose between Google and Facebook ( and another personal goal, see blessing 3). Google was the place I always loved for technical excellence, but the latest coding champions and cool kids (who did well at things like ICPC, topcoder) seemed to hold Facebook as the place to be. In short, Facebook seemed what Google was when I left college. They also gave me my first trip outside India for the interview. A solitary walk then along the corridors of the great Stanford University suddenly made me realize that I am not too old to seek a retirement job and since I knew by that time that I would mostly make it to fb, I made up my mind even before I got back to India. I chose the riskier path with the hope that what does not destroy me will make me stronger.

3. Civils : There was another little blessing but which was as big as the above for me. My Dad always wanted to see me as a collector. My constantly shifting priorities never allowed me to focus on it. But this year I managed to get through the Civil Services Examination – Prelims and that too with little preparation. It suddenly made me realize that I don’t have much time to explore this other path which could be very impact-making one. After some weeks of confusion, I decided not to get carried away by that result (which could have been serendipitous given that the pattern this year seemed to favor Engineering students). The other reason was the humbling experience I got from the visit to Facebook and Stanford. Its still a long way before I can claim that I am a great engineer. But the awesome initial phase at fb convinces me that I am on the right path.

4. (No) Marriage  and NRI-tag : I luckily escaped getting married last year by a thin margin and consciously avoided it during this year. It turned out an awesome choice because without it 2 and 3 would have been very tough to do. Also, I met some pretty good girls, went to theater/acting auditions, spent more time with kids from my village and did my bit  in their job-hunt. All of this would have been harder with a wife who would take a lot of the time away. I even enraged a few friends for suggesting that marriage is an impediment to the creative and productive abilities of men and that they should prolong the bachelor phase as far as they can. Avoiding those curious relatives is still a pain though. Now its more tricky since I, to quote a relative, ‘moved to the states’. I think Andhra folks are obsessed with the NRI-tag. I dislike the needless emphasis they put on this.  Nevertheless, I feel good about moving here with a full-time job without the cushion of having an American Masters degree or the luxury of being an IITian. But, the sudden rise in my value in the groom-market is indicative of the prejudice that the typical parent has. If the girls think this way too, then God save them.

5. Computer literate family :  After my decision to ditch the civils path, my Dad took the technology angle pretty seriously and began using it fairly aggressively. Hope it catches on well with the rest of the village folks. I wish to see a village full of technology consumers changing the whole landscape of the region. If that happens, the next gen might as well start companies by the time they are 20. Right now Mom and Dad use computers well despite the fact that neither of them went beyond Intermediate. My niece is already using it. She stood ‘First in Class’ this month. It makes me feel proud that she actually flashes her badge with pride. It pretty much looks like the one I used to wear when I was at the same school. Boy, am I proud of her :).

There are many other  things .. too many to count : A few good friends got married or engaged, some had adorable kids, I made a ton of new friends, joined an awesome group at fb, came to terms with the American life pretty soon (sooner than I got used to the urban life in India). So here go the thanks for all those blessings. I hope I will be blessed with the ability to make the world a better place this year as well and hopefully I will be able to go home next year and see those children and the little community again. My new church is the The Church Of The Nativity at Menlo Park. Innocence of children and celebratory spirit are universal. So I hope to have a good time tomorrow. Happy Christmas Everyone !!

Learning new stuff ..

December 19, 2011

I cant think of a better title for now, so please make do with it.

After my last post and a recent argument surrounding one of my random cribs on facebook, I realized that I have lost the luxury of neutrality in making statements about companies (particularly if they are my current/past employers or their competitors ever since I joined Microsoft last year). To save myself  from any accusations of bias and such bullshit, here is a disclaimer : I don’t love/like any company  above my own judgement. I am not brand ambassador of my employer and of course the usual jargon which effectively means I am too small a fish to be taken seriously. So if you feel agitated/hurt that I am running a campaign against your dearest firm please take a chill pill and let me be.

So basically, nearly 2 months have passed since I joined fb. I am done with the initial crash course that goes by the name bootcamp. I picked something to work on. Its new area for me and I am pretty enthusiastic about it. The office also moved to a new place Menlo Park from Palo Alto. It gives me  mixed feelings because I grew up thinking Palo Alto is the place of elite intellectuals where all the major computer stuff gets done. Looks like the industry is out-growing the place.

My other learnings mostly on tech. are going on quite well. I wont write a thesis on the new stuff that I am learning. That is all in the textbooks. The changing views are what I intend to write about before it changes to something else. In my last post I noted how the social fabric (or the lack of it) here drove the innovation in products/automation. But of late, I am taking note of the role of marketing and PR in creating artificial demand for things. For instance, I have struggled to put the tablet I bought for any good use. Every task that I do on it seems better done on a computer or can also be done on a mobile. Reading is supposedly the major use case, but then I did not find it very exciting and in sunlight or bright conditions its a goner (its not kindle). Now, after the creating the market for this new stuff like docking stations etc. have come up to convert them to ape laptops at will. So if I stretch it too far, it is effectively this : a cool thing called iphone succeeded, they stitched some copies of it to make another device and told people that its awesome. People think it is, even if it did not seem to do anything more. Before people realize it, incremental stuff is added to make it sound like it is really indispensable. May be I will find good use of the tablet soon, but so far it seems a unnecessary device pushed by clever marketing.

Next, at least in the valley, I am surprised how people get emotional about tech. companies almost to the point of getting into fights. I had to take pains to explain to a colleague why I think Apple’s UX sucks. People cant take a statement as a matter of taste. Usually the extent of usage/adoption is used  as ‘objective evidence’. This is the same as saying Windows is most kick-ass OS ever built. For services like search where we have no benchmarking this is worse. That reminds that my post on fb was  about Google. While I will always love G$’s love of algorithms and geekiness, its been an awakening of late to see G+ promotion creeping into my mailbox, my search results getting messed up (for instance although some of my friends are less active on G+ their profile shows up as first result), my mail area getting more and more cluttered with ads and the umpteen number of accounts that are linked to the email address. I have never cared about this earlier because it does not cost me a penny. No company has ever provided so much cool stuff for free ever. But alas, a recent discussion with a researcher made me realize that attention(and time) is the new currency and I should protect it with all my life. So for what its worth, I decided to guard myself against any catastrophic changes in G$’s intentions / priorities. So I am making a few changes like reaching out to wikipedia directly for most searches (which is what I end up reading most of the time anyway .. apparently bing is getting a better but I doubt if I am going to make it an alternative anytime soon. ), using the ad-free zoho mail more and slowly rebasing my web accounts to another email account. Again I don’t think G$ is any worse or better than any modern corporate nor do I believe that they should do social-service instead of seeking profits. It just gives me a kick to delude myself that I am running away from the greedy companies. I know they will get me anyway, but the running part is enough fun to give it a shot.

Btw, if you have benefited from wikipedia please donate some of the spare money to them. The same goes for wikileaks who have come up with an awesome campaign here.

In the west .. inspirations and confusions

December 3, 2011

Its been more than 1.5 months since I landed in the US. I hardly get to time to blog now. Hopefully this will lead me to embrace micro-blogging better.  The nature of the transition is such that I have so much to write about my own changing perspectives now, but each next wave quickly buries the old one. But here is what I can recall :

Facebook: I have never had a more motivating time in my entire technical career than my bootcamp experience at fb. The speed at which things happen are amazing. It can be intimidating but once you make changes that impact over half a billion people in your first week, you will learn not to be afraid. I cant describe how awesome it is, but among friends if you wanna know, do ask me.  People are smart here .. that part is probably true for many companies. But people are also very hungry here, not as much for money or anything else as much as they are just for a sense of achievement. I could not expect to see that in a corporate company. After being here, I am convinced that despite the monetary angle, I am at a place that is trying to solve some real problems in the world and is accelerating the adoption of computing worldwide (particularly in the 3rd world), changing the way we connect and producers connect to their consumers .. All the jargon is beyond me, but I would say there is an incentive for people in staying on fb, because that is how they will enable us to solve the problems. And as we do, people get a lot of benefits from that solution. However, the critical factor I think is that people should realize the importance of fb being able to reflect the truth and not spurious information. Here, a great deal of effort goes in to enabling privacy and keeping the integrity of the data. I think people should actively use privacy controls and be true to themselves online. That is the only way the world will head towards a better information infrastructure. Engineering wise, facebook has done so much more that I ever imagined before I joined here. Every algorithm text book talked about large N and I have always wondered when I will face a situation where the N and the algorithms I use will begin to really matter. At facebook, the N is beyond your imagination. It makes ‘holy shit!!’ ring in your head. Everything you studied will suddenly become so relevant unlike at other places. Its a revelation. In hindsight, the decision to choose fb’s impact-making and risky path over the safety and superior experience of Google seems to be giving me at least an instantaneous pleasure.

California’s Diversity: I had a fairly tough time in deciding if I should come here when I initially decided to join Google at their Mountain View office. I already had a major transition trying to fit in to the urban lifestyle in India itself. And without even a distant relative here, I expected it would be much harder for me to to adjust here. But California (and San Francisco, in particular) would make the most conservative persons feel comfortable here. Staying with my good friends Sachin Rawat and Vardhman Jain really helped. The state has very diverse population (and smart, thanks to the activity in the valley and the universities), people generally are accepted for what they are and really there is no racist bullshit anywhere in this region. I did not feel home-sick or felt like alien even once, which is pretty amazing given how much criticism US takes. I am sure its not this way in all of US, but this place has treated me pretty well. The food is great. The Indian food joints in SF are run mostly by Pakistanis and boy do they serve good food? They are way better than the americanized Indian food that Indian-Indian joints serve. And the tea is free!! You got to admire them a lot for this. Speaking of which, being a vegan here seems far easier than doing the same in India .. just my opinion and dont forget that I eat three times a day at the fb-cafetaria.

The cost of Human Touch: That seems pretty high here. And in a way some of the products seem to be borne out of the expensiveness of human intervention. People dont ask directions here, they use maps on their phones. I was amazed to see a 60 yr old lady with an iphone ( my first reaction : I would rarely see this happening in India) in a BART train. After 5 minutes of fiddling with the phone with shaking hands, she very hesitantly asked does this train go to Powell (again my first reaction : I would rarely see such hesitation in India). I dont know if too much technology made people this way here, but it has both positives and negatives. I remember another incident when I was trying to help a Stanford student who lost his bag in the train but each time I made an SOS all, I would reach an IVR system that would take details. Its a system that does not understand humans make SOS calls. It drove me crazy. Its a sad commentary on the state of affairs that elderly people choose to spend hours in front of slot-machines at Las Vegas wasting their pension money rather than teach their grand-kids some wisdom on life. I feel the East vrs West dilemma when I see such things.

Environmental Issues: Despite all the rhetoric at home I found that people here do put a good deal of effort here to lower the footprint but they just seem to have hit a consumption level that it is not possible to get it down anytime sooner. But cities like Menlo Park, Palo Alto are much greener than an average Indian town and people use bicycles a lot for local commute. If public transport was any better, it would have been embraced well too. Menlo Park, my new home after a month at San Franciscon, is an awesome place. A little town with lot of greenery, calm roads, a vibrant but small downtown does not evoke lot of interest. But the place has great history .. Edison was here all through his productive years, It is home to SRI the grand-daddy of my first company Sarnoff and now fb will be here. Calm town that is good at what matters. It suits my mindset very well. And the fact that Palo Alto, the city that holds my dream university Stanford is right beside. I hope I will be able to go there more regularly and someday get at least a small degree from the the great place in my name.

My plans: After seeing the amazing people here who start companies and create jobs by the time they are 20, change the world at a scale that their user-base overtakes all but few countries in size, I felt humbled. I think, just as an engineer, I have so much to learn. My focus for the next few years is gonna be building solid technical expertise and building good products. Only then I plan to think of newer problems or how I can use technology to solve problems, back home or here.  I am shelving my social-change dreams at least for the time-being and plan to invest more of time in technology. I hope that will enable me to become a real problem-solver and not remain as a distressed soul torn by the social problems he sees and just cribs about it  or just gives insights (well sometimes, I do point out solutions but never managed to solve the problems in a big way). I have experienced the power of technology firsthand after pushing my parents to learn to use computers ( I had to put only a small amount of effort, despite the fact that neither of them studied beyond 10th standard in Telugu medium). They feel so empowered and explore things like they are kids. I think I have found the tool to fix some issues that haunted me ever since I was exposed to the digital/information divide. I know how to use it. But I am not a master. My efforts will be towards that mastery.

Whoa .. that’s long. But I had to record these before I am swamped by more thoughts.

Over to Indifference : Escaping from the T-turmoil

October 10, 2011

A Troubled Conscience: Due to plans of career switch, I was staying full-time at my home in the remote corner of Nizamabad, in Northern Telangana, for the last month. I love the land like my own life. I am pained at how the Telangana movement has been hijacked by the goons who claim to be running the movement. Innocent folk of the region buying their lies is a painful bonus. These are the people to whom I preached with intense passion, about five years back, that this movement is legitimate and is key for progress of the region. Now they ask me questions in confused tone and find myself with a troubled conscience. Here is a sample of the bundle of contradictions that people here have to deal with :

1. Their kids have not gone to school for close to a month. But promises of a bright future come from people without a degree. ‘Itla aite etlane baapu?’ (How come, sir?) is the question that leaves me baffled. The so-called ‘professor’ Kodanda Ram asks all educational institutions to stop operating.
2. State Employees do not want to work but want salaries. They are ‘working’ for a nobler cause. People wonder how they get free money and for what ‘work’. The competent and passionate worker sits at home with fear, the incompetent and unmotivated one believes ‘to go on strike’ is his right. Both are paid for the non-work, though.
3. Youth find themselves unemployed and see every scope of enterprise and employment being blocked. ‘A bright future beckons’ the local pink-gangster screams. I cant answer the college kid who asks me ‘Is it true that hiring is on hold in Hyd’. This is a touchy issue for me. I even put a brave face telling them ‘nothing hinders a competent person’. I never sounded more shallow.
4. Local merchants, theaters, schools have to contribute funds to the local ‘JAC’/’TRS’ while NOT running. Gangsters have a kinder mode of operation : at least they allow you to create value before asking protection money for not looting it. Joint Atrocities Committee and Telangana Rowdy Samiti are more apt names for these groups. And of course wine-shops and other entertainment sources are exempt from non-operation. Jana-Shakti era redux.
5. A person questions the sense and reason in the method and gets labelled as a ‘Telangana Drohi’. He is made to publicly apologize to the ‘peaceful’ protestors at the point of threats. A voluntary ‘Gandhian Movement’ for you.
6. At a by-election rally (for Banswada constituency), the leader of the pink-goons, KCR, speaks : ‘Seemandhra people of Banswada should cooperate with our candidate’. For context, he was referring to a group of villages (including mine) where people have not known another land for over a century. Its an orchestration of class-divide which leaves most of us confused as to what this movement is about. The classes here are determined based on arbitrary whims of self-declared T-leaders.
7. ‘Velama Dora KCR Zindabad’ screams a lunatic bringing in another flavor to the confusion. Nizamabad, traditionally a strong-hold of backward classes gets a rude jolt when this angle is brought forward. The burden of caste is the bonus our holy traditions gave us. Not special to this problem, but hell, its not helping.
8. The recommended channels ‘T-news’ and ‘hmtv’ harp on ‘Seemandhra Kutra, Seemandhra Channels’ etc. Then they applaud the support of ‘Seemandhra Settlers’ for the movement. Talk of a way to incite hatred. Everyone from the state government, central government, channels, neutral parties .. actually anyone who disagrees with the TRS (and the JAC which is its puppet) is a born-enemy of Telangana.
9. A non-TRS contestant is hounded by the pink-clad goons while campaigning. People wonder why there is an ‘election’ if choice is non-existent.

.. the list is endless. I dont want to go to double digits. As it is, this is ammunition to the Samaikya Andhra fanatics who latch on to everything available to discredit the underlying cause of this movement. But I had to write this to expose way the TRS-goons have hijacked this movement.

Defense of the Indefensible: As a person who at least tries to be rational I cant put up a defense or even be apologetic. Now there will be tons of guys who will dig in to each of the above points and present thousand arguments on how its justice/payback/sacrifice etc. Most of them turn out to be the likes of a jobless youth hell-bent of blaming the system (they need to look at scores of T-guys in the silicon valley and try to be more competent), or an unpublished writer who could not produce a decent work in his native language but wants to harp on suppression of culture (they need to look at Dasarathi and Suravaram Pratapa Reddy and come up with a decent work to celebrate the T-culture) or the uninformed white-collar worker who is high on the revolution-drug in his AC-room (they need to use common sense or study a bit of history or economics or sociology) or the misguided communist who is still dreaming of collectivist utopia (they just need to get real and get a real job, probably). Whatever some might feel at my stereotyping, I did it on purpose to rudely present reality to defenders of this dastardly and retarded nonsense. It will anger a lot of genuine T-wellwishers. I am one too, and one with pride. I apologize to the this class if they are hurt. But the immutable facts are, well, immutable. A is A :

1. A political problem is brought into private lives of individuals at the point of gun, without their sanction and they are forced to fight for one political faction. Any dissenter is manhandled, beaten or threatened into submission. All this, despite clear political mandate being given to them and despite the T-legislators having a near-choking power in the legislature. Goondagiri cant get more open than this. The illusion of a non-violent movement is soon to disappear.
2. The problem is painted as a life-and-death one, precisely when life is actually flowing into the veins of this region. People are being asked to be non-productive and incompetent in a fast-moving age by telling them that a mere political demarcation will end all their problems. People who dared to question the assumption or ask for a road-map are automatically T-drohis.
3. The movement is being run at the point of gun by the TRS, under the garb of JAC, using blackmail, extortion, pull and corrupt state machinery which acts with political interests. They make exorbitant and irrational promises with the sole goal of coaxing people to their side.
4. In the entire span of recent movement, NOTHING came good for the region, except a sickeningly dark image at the national level. One has to hear what the non-telugus in Hyd have to say about the region, its work-ethic, its culture and of course, the leadership. This weakened the prospects of the formation of new state rather than helping it.
5. Most opposition to the formation of T, is because of KCR/TRS who have clearly conveyed to other stakeholders that apart from political demarcation, the formation of T means a right to loot and convert it in to a private estate of theirs.

Indifference is bliss: I dislike ending my rants without suggesting a solution. But this one has got to be an exception. I am tired of listing down solutions. Because simply nobody cares or dares to speak against these goons. To do so and still be a friend of T is impossible according to them. In many ways these guys have become unconstitutional dictators of this land. All this, when our constitution permits a hard-core Samaikya Andhra supporter to have right to live in the heart of Telangana. Oh, well .. what I am smoking to talk of rights here!!Whether this land moves ahead or sinks to the levels of yesterday’s Bihar or even lower .. I really no longer care. Indifference is the only escape for my conscience. Let their guns and muscle rule the minds of people. I have made peace with it. If a populace chooses to be unthinking, uncourageous and irrational then they do deserve what they get. I have decided to pay the price for my own indifference by silently shedding a tear for my homeland. Or did I outline a solution? For myself, if not for the problem?

Remembering the Master …

May 2, 2010

A few days back a colleague from US happened to visit Adobe’s Noida office. Although I don’t directly work with him, we had a small friendship built due to his interest in cricket (the updates of which frequently spill in to official status reports) and my interest in world culture. He was strikingly different from the stereotyped American. We had a good exchange views of things from ‘educating children the right way’ to Obama’s Nobel prize (Its surprising to see how so many Americans dislike George ‘War’ Bush). And when our guest goes back he surprises with his invocation of Tagore’s Gitanjali (‘Old and New’ here) to put across how he felt. That began a burst of rumination. Tagore’s life was one of the first biographies I read as it was one of our Telugu texts. It is hard for any child not to empathize with his early childhood travails and it was hilarious to read. But as he grows up you see that he was a man lifted from the age of The Renaissance and gift-wrapped to India to begin its own renaissance. The amount of Tagore’s creative output and the span of his work render any explicit glorification of his skills totally unnecessary. After all, he is perhaps the only person to write the national anthems of two countries !!

However, Tagore’s finest quality and the one that is often less acknowledged is his perspective on the cultural and spiritual diversity of the world. That is what made him the bridge between the West and East. The western world was jolted in to a sudden realization of the mystic beauty of Indian culture and the sentiments of the people of India through his magnum-opus ‘Gitanjali’. The spirituality, serenity and charm of his poems were an awakening to the west that was lost in the beauty of its own poets and never realized what was beyond its boundaries. Tagore cut across them, and in a span of less than a year. And the rest as they say, is history … from Einstein to the belligerent Chinese Communists everyone wanted to hear him!!

Tagore

Vishwa Kavi

Demonstrating Oriental beauty to the west was only half of the job, however. Tagore’s wisdom is reflected in the way he did not allow himself to be carried away by the patriotic fervor that swept most of his contemporaries totally justifying his title Universal Poet. Even amidst the horrendous British oppression he maintained his vehement opposition of unbridled nationalism while he got the right message across to the British by rejecting the knighthood. Here we see another great quality of Tagore. Despite his socio-political activism and his influence on people he kept away from active politics for most part. Even when he had to express his displeasure with the nationalists’ boycott of foreign goods he chose his favorite way to do that : ‘Ghare Baire‘ (The Home and the World) is one of the most thought-provoking novels ever written. The protagonist Nikhil’s struggle is that of Tagore himself. This is where I can empathize with his feelings. Even after 80 years of its writing this novel is relevant even today.  As a witness to the astonishing disparities that tear my heart between the chrome-coated office buildings and my sleepy little village, I ask myself .. why do we still have walls around us? And why do we fail to respect each other? . Do we need more painful lessons before we realize that ‘home’ is really all the world?. Tagore would have been pained to see that of all lands his ‘Shonar Bangla’ failed to embrace his ideals. I wonder why this novel is never made a part of our readings since it so strongly (and correctly) emphasizes the need to have a balanced view of the world.

The third and a not-so enduring contribution of Tagore is on the education front. As many of his deeds were, this was also inspired by his appreciation of the merits of the west and the east. Visva-Bharati stands as a failing testimony to his efforts. A little know fact is that his multi-cultural educational efforts inspired similar efforts at a number of places in the world. Its a pity that it did not take off well. A man of such intelligence could not have been wrong in judging the effectiveness of his methodology. Probably some day, we will see its revival again.  Our education today is driven by a mad rush to get to the top lacking even a semblance of balance, there is no time to teach the worth of human qualities like compassion, no time to stop and appreciate the beauty of even the smallest gifts of creation.  Even arts like dancing, painting and poetry are being forced upon children so that they can become better ‘all-rounders‘ than others. Fear of being left-behind in the race drives our pursuits and not the intellectual-curiosity from within .  I wonder if this was the world that Tagore dreamed of : where the mind can be without fear. I shudder to think of what is to come and I fervently wish Gurudev was here to guide us once again :

Wither the heaven of freedom, Gurudev? Tired, I am, waiting for that time of the brave.
All your brethren abandoned reason, thought and action.
Tirelessly strive, they did, to raise a thousand walls to split the nation.
All hope seems now lost. Darkness sweeps the land from the hills to the coast.
Mind filled with fear, heart desperate for truth .. I join my hands in a silent prayer,
Pleading with fervor, for the second coming of you, my Master!!
Awaken your country once again, Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore!!

We have a constitution?

January 24, 2010

I was wondering, as 26th Jan approaches : How many times have we heard those ‘pursuit of happiness‘ lines from the US Declaration of Independence? I always wonder how some of us, Indians, remember those lines and almost none from our own constitution. You could attribute it to the pervasiveness of the former or the over-exposure of our generation to Hollywood movies or even to the rise of capitalism as the overwhelmingly dominant economic policy. Earlier, I used to disagree. Perhaps, some kind of an attraction-quotient that is missing in our constitution .. may be the formation of sentences or may be the ideas put forth therein. Imagine the rock-star voice of Barack Obama proclaiming those immortal words on equality, life, liberty again and I am sure most of us would listen with awe, admiring the flamboyance and we can’t help thinking ‘Yeah!! the great American Spirit and look how they went ahead’. I always thought may be our constitution isn’t so appealing .. until I realized that was not so true. If you are in doubt, check the preamble out again .. boy, our folks can write great too!! (check out the full versions here). I took the pain of reading through a good bit of it. And several of my misconceptions were cleared when I read it with an open mind. The following stuff particularly caught my mind :

to develop scientific temper, humanism, spirit of inquiry and reform‘ and ‘to strive towards excellence in all spheres of individual and collective activity, so that the nation constantly rises to higher levels of endeavor and achievement

are two of our fundamental duties!! Yeah, I know all of us wrote that as an answer to Social Studies questions as kids!! But now I think ‘OMG .. If only, they had be put that on the top of everything and made it heard everyday, we would have been speeding like a photon’.  Back at the time when our constitution was written.. for a country that was lost in a thousand superstitious beliefs, dogmatic practices and plagued by umpteen number of cheating god-men ..  getting out of such rut, with the ruthlessness reflected in those two lines above, was probably the most important thing. However the architects of our constitution chose to lay (a well intended) emphasis on socialism,  justice,  equality etc. I suspect that may have been misunderstood as a license to follow a drag-down-everybody-if-you-cant-go-higher approach among our public. Along with those recipes for non-productivity called non-cooperation, bandhs and hartals which we imported from the freedom struggle, India’s socialistic leanings might have hurt her in a way the architects of our constitution did not expect them to.

I am not denouncing socialism(or any ‘ism’ for that matter) or the practices that it has allowed to creep in to our society. But of late, I am pissed off  seeing how common sense does not prevail when people fighting for their so called demands. Recently, Hyderabad came to a stand-still because students went on a bandh (and for 3 days in row) .. And I thought  students were supposed to study hard, be productive, do great things and, more than anything, are supposed to be ideal citizens. And they ignore their fundamental duties, spread panic on roads like anarchist groups, break and burn stuff that was the result of another man’s hard toil, intimidate people who dare to offer to work .. far from being productive, they were actually counter-productive and hampered others’ right to be creative. And if that is how well we embrace the teachings of our constitution, no wonder the words from it are never in our memories.

Don’t get me wrong. I am fully for political activism among students. In fact, I encourage it a lot. But such an activism should never devolve in to anarchist attitude that paralyzes the society. No one has a right to hamper the productivity of anyone else. More so, in case of students, who are actually relying on public money for cheap education and haven’t given anything back to the society yet. Refusing to attend lectures and write exams is to throw the tax payers’ money down the drain. Unfortunately, this bandh and hartal plague has found its way deep in to our veins. I remember an instance recently when some Japanese employees registered their ‘protest’ by working an additional hour. And our folks here take the opposite route under the name ‘Pen Down’ or whatever .. teachers who should be inculcating a metronomic work-ethic and discipline, civil servants who should put public convenience above anything else, doctors who should be jumping at the smallest opportunity to save a life .. all refusing to do what is probably their highest obligation (moral, monetary or otherwise) to the society.. what a waste!!

I wonder if we are a country horribly gone wrong, thinking that the only way to make our voice heard is to trouble others and refuse to do justice to our productive abilities (not to mention the society which help us in acquiring those abilities)!! It might work in a world like the one in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged (although, the rebellion there is for a completely different (probably anti-socialist) reason.). There are always people hungrier than us, willing to work harder and longer than us in this world!!. May be we forgot the dragon that works like a clock and is right beside us!! I am waiting for a day when our SC declares any kind of bandh as unconstitutional and punishable under law. Perhaps we should make the same Ayn Rand’s books as supplementary texts in our curriculum  and brainwash ourselves day-in day-out till we realize that, even in a socialist state, we do not deserve to ask anything from the society (leave alone paralyzing it) until we give it something back .. THAT is true socialism .. for me!!


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