Monday, September 29, 2014


Narendra Modi's birthday was a couple weeks back. I knew this because it was also the week that the president of China, Xi Jinping, visited India for business/diplomacy. The plan was to celebrate with the China team in Ahmedabad, where Modi's team greeted and took them around the city.

To prepare, Ahmedabad was cleaned up in a big way. Hundreds of AMC workers in neon bibs showed up on the streets daily for a week up to the event, sweeping and cleaning. Way more AMC guys than I'd ever seen before, they just seemed to come out of the woodwork. It wasn't clear whether they were the regular AMC cleanup team that has never shown up for the job, or whether they had brought in extra dudes. Potholes got filled, driving and walking lanes got painted, plants lined the streets. Tons of fun and cheesy signs welcoming the President were put up everywhere, I loved the two hands where the one for Anandiben was clearly a man's hand:

The cleanup work only happened along the planned route that the China + India contingent would take during their visit. This is an old trick that Modi and now Anandiben uses: they drive around Ahmedabad, and wherever they go things get fixed as people opportunistically save their jobs. I always thought it would make sense to send fake CM vehicles around the city constantly.  It was clear that this was an effort to make a good impression on Xi and China, to show off Ahmedabad as an example of "India Shining". And in true India Shining fashion, a shiny veneer was sufficient.

I was going to just let this pass as an amusing event, but the day before the visit I noticed a new level to the "cleanup". AMC rolled out miles of a green tarp material along the roads, basically putting a curtain over any unseemly sights. This included the Tekra, the slum area next to my house:

I felt outraged by the tarp, it's why I decided to write this post. It's one thing to create a facade by cleaning up some pre-selected streets, but to delete people and their homes from the view? Isn't the Tekra the most real thing Xi could see about India? I felt upset about it mostly because of the psychological damage I supposed it would have on Tekra residents. If I were them, I would be pissed that Modi is embarrassed about the way I live and would rather pretend that I don't exist. Even the whole idea of strategic cleanup, what message does that subtly send to your people? Maybe Modi figured that since this is basically what China does with foreign visitors, they would expect the same treatment? I wasn't sure if locals were as upset as I was about this, maybe I was over-reacting?

On the day of the visit, I got stuck in Vadaj where they had blocked traffic for an hour to let the Modi and China teams pass through. This is a typical occurrence. Even when the CM drives through the Ahmedabad streets, they close everything off kilometers in all directions. In front of our apartment on Ashram Road, they had kids in their school uniforms standing at arms length apart alternating China and India flags. I thought it was pretty lame, and some of the kids were passing out standing in the heat for hours:

I wonder whether Modi chose to have the China team land in Ahmedabad rather than Delhi because it would be easier (or the only possible way) to have this level of control over the environment. In one sense, you can't blame him and it's what you'd want if you were an Indian citizen. But the whole thing felt inauthentic and contrived. Politics.

Thursday, September 25, 2014


I am stressed out. Stress has been building up in my life seriously in the last year, but I was in denial about it until just recently. Since I diagnosed myself as suffering from stress it has gotten me to reflect quite a bit on it. Stress plays out for a person in two ways, physically and mentally.


Physical Stress

Starting about a year ago I started experiencing upper back and neck pain. It would most noticeably appear during meditation and in the mornings when I woke up. I initially interpreted it narrowly as being due to those activities; around the same time as the pain showed up I had stepped up to two hours a day of meditation, so perhaps the pain was due to the additional sitting. Also I was not feeling comfortable on my bed, the mattress was sitting uneven against the metal rail base, perhaps I wasn't getting proper back support at night. Anji had suggested that I was stressed, but I told her I didn't feel stressed and I don't get stressed. It was an ego thing.

My theory of a purely physical problem continued to be my truth until a few weeks ago. I was sitting in meditation and it suddenly hit me that the back pain had a mental component. Almost immediately the acknowledgement of that reality changed the physical manifestation of the stress. I no longer felt stiff back waking up in the mornings (so it wasn't the bed). I started feeling the back and neck pain during both morning and evening meditation (before it was just evening, which was consistent with my theory that it was due to extra sitting). After the aha moment I felt quite silly. For some reason I had spent a year telling myself that this pain was qualitatively different from the sensations I observe all the time in meditation. It wasn't a sankara, it was a purely physical condition due to my bed being screwed up. Acknowledging the mental component of my stress immediately changed the nature of it.


Mental Stress

Since the aha moment I have been observing the mental side of my stress. I read up on why/how mental stress manifests physically. Essentially mental stress causes the muscles in your neck and back to involuntarily contract. That repeated contraction closes and even damages blood vessels in that area and restricts blood flow. The pain is due to lack of blood flow because your muscles are not relaxed.

After I realized my stress was mental, it was easy to pinpoint the real cause. Work has been tremendously busy in the last year and especially in the last 6 months. All the cliches of getting buried by your startup showed up in a big way. Every day is jam packed, back to back to back meeting or task or unexpected issue with hardly a free moment to take a breath. There are two areas of the company that I have been taking on additional burden, fundraising and dealing with fundamental technical issues. Both have presented what at times feels like insurmountable challenges, and since I'm the only one that can do them, I feel alone on an island with them. Our telephony systems have been churning from one disaster to another for a year and it has taken a massive effort to keep things from blowing up. We recently added SMS alerts when lines need to be watched or restarted. It is a huge stress looking at your phone and seeing the 15 times the system has generated a fault. These alerts even come in the middle of the night, I've gotten scared of keeping my phone on. With fundraising, negotiation is a grueling process which is time consuming and mentally draining. In particular I find working with legal documents so difficult, you are scrutinizing every sentence to try to decode someone's intention. You feel defensive and threatened and scarce.

In the mornings, I frequently wake up anxious as my mind turns onto the million things I need to accomplish that day. I am constantly thinking about things to do, even when I sit. I can't turn off my mind from thinking about work. Multitasking, sometimes in the mornings I feel numbness in my face as I try to do email while debugging while helping Aartiben prepare food. I feel overwhelmed. Sometimes I'm at work doing something that requires deep concentration like debugging, but I'm rushing to get it done because the whole time I'm nervous that someone or something is going to interrupt me and take my attention away. Every day I feel like I'm racing against the clock to finish the day's work. One of the major sources of stress and anxiety is that I always feel that there isn't enough time. It makes every decision heavy and deliberate and burdensome. I feel like I'm walking up a mountain trail that keeps getting steeper and steeper. Things seem to keep piling up on top of itself, and no matter how fast I work the pile keeps growing.

Compounding the stress is a feeling of lonliness. When there's the tallest pile of shit on me, I feel the most alone. During those times I feel most seperated from my friends and family.


Coping With Stress

I felt like the last month or so I've suffered a lot mentally dealing with the challenges at work. It has taken a toll on me mentally and physically. I've picked up a few things along the way to help me cope. The fundamental breakthrough was acknowledging that I was stressed, that changed the nature of it from a mysterious physical phenomena to a mental dynamic that I have to see myself through.

I was super inspired by this talk by David Brooks on depth of character. He argues that a life chasing after happiness is ultimately shallow. The mark we should be aiming for is beyond happiness, it's depth or holiness. Among the ways to cultivate depth of character is to suffer and to struggle internally. People often name times of adversity, not times of joy, as turning points in life. The times where you really had to dig deep and discover what you are made of. Those times come in the midst of intense suffering. So embrace suffering as a teacher and an opportunity to build depth. There's no way around, you have to go through.

Awakin gatherings have been great group therapy for me. The last several circles I've shared about my stress. The other week I shared that there are a few simple things I realized help with my stress. First was to breathe. I observed that the times I felt anxiety set in, my breathing turned shallow. So I started deliberately taking deep breaths during those times to get the oxygen flowing and it has helped tremendously. Second was to listen to music, especially light and uplifting stuff. I have gotten away from music recently because it messes with my meditation, choosing instead to listen to podcasts when I'm at the gym or classical when I'm at work. But the other day I happened to put on Sid Sriram while on the treadmill and just hearing his voice took me to another place. It was so uplifting, it made me feel human after a long time. I realized that part of the stress comes from feeling mechanical, listening to talking heads and having no spontaneity. Music introduces freshness and humanness and brought me back from feeling like a robot. The last tip I shared was to recognize small victories. I realized that when we are facing technical problems at work, when even a small thing goes right, it feels like a huge weight has been lifted. Makes me feel like it's just a matter of turning the corner and things will be better.

At another Awakin Prakash shared something that stayed with me, a lesson he learned from a spiritual teacher: when we feel tension, that is a signal that the ego is strong in us. We are tense because we feel that we are the Doer. In reality we are all just instruments of the Law of Nature.

The one time in my routine where I still feel totally free of symptoms of stress is when I'm pumping iron at the gym. My back pain melts away, I'm not dealing with anyone, I'm doing something I love and is good for me, I can take my mind off of everything. It's my last refuge.

I know what I need to do to continue to deal with my stress. I am burned out, I need to get away and unplug and untangle. I need to get more help at work and directly tackle the big problems.

I look forward to reading this post years or even months from now when I probably won't be able to relate at all to what I'm going through in the moment. Knowing the impermanence of this experience doesn't make the suffering go away, but it helps detach and put it in perspective.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Patel Academy

My nieces Sonia and Sarina (ages 11 and 7) sometimes record videos with questions on topics they are curious about and send them to their masis, masas, mamas, and mamis for answers. Sort of like a family-powered, demand-driven Khan Academy. Patel Academy. Recently they sent me and Jay a question about how FaceTime works:

They are very cute, I especially loved Sonia's articulate enthusiasm and Sarina as she avoided getting slapped in the face. I took the question up because it was interesting, I knew the answer, and thought it would be fun to make the video and delight the girls. I wanted to do something Khan Academy style because the response required a diagram to explain properly. I eventually settled on screen capturing an animated powerpoint, which gave me all the control I needed and perhaps better graphics than drawing on a tab. It was also way easier to set up than a screen-captured stencil and tab:

The video was a big hit with the girls. Sejal and Sanjay were also thrilled, and so was I! I believe Sal Khan got started with his videos in much the same way, making them for young family members. I could see why it was so engaging. It took me a while to do the pixel graphic, but most of the time was taken up recording the voice-over. I tried to make it perfect, since a video lasts forever. I stubbornly didn't script it out, so did about 30 takes before I got it decent. But the whole time I was totally energized and excited to do it. It's fun to think about how to simplify complex topics, fun to produce videos, and most of all fun to think of and feel love for my nieces. They came back with this response and follow-up questions:

This was vintage Sejal, who with Sanjay sent back such sweet and heartfelt notes of praise and gratitude. I was grateful too for the opportunity to be part of the game and feel close and connected to the girls even though I'm so far away. For my responses I did one each for Sonia and Sarina's questions, who asked about what the Internet's "pipes" were and how computers work with 1's and 0s:

Video used like this is an outstanding way to learn and engage. It takes thoughtful effort to record a video response and even the question. Both sides are engaged deeply as they organize their thoughts to record something with quality for the other. It was good fun learning and re-learning (CS61C flashbacks when explaining opcodes!).

I think a great model for growing Khan Academy (if they haven't already done this) is to decentralize the video production and empower TedX-style Khan Academies like Patel Academy. I would have loved some peer-review of my videos and suggestions to improve. If Khan Academy is really to scale, the only way is to birth a million local informal KhanX Academies amongst social groups large and small. Also it's great if the student, not just the teacher, record so the learning is demand-driven and the student's engagement is stepped up by creating, not just consuming.

Imagine, even, if the students turned around and started producing their own instructional videos to keep the chain going!

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Driving Delight

Over the last year or so, the most pleasant experience I've had living in India has been that of becoming a licensed driver, and more recently, a car owner. There are many aspects of daily life in India that, put mildly, are a challenge, but I've been delighted by the experience of being a driver with my own car.

I've already written about how driving has subtly but profoundly improved my day-to-day life. In short, I feel more independent, and free of the sometimes harsh often tedious transactions associated with riding rickshaws or public transportation. Now I sit in my nice clean new air conditioned Maruti Suzuki Wagon-R, which has transformed getting around from hassle to something like enjoyment. 

Since I've started driving, I have also discovered the secret world of delightful facilities and services that come with driving a car, and more specifically, being a car owner. I've come to believe that car ownership is one aspect of Indian life that matches the convenience, reliability, and modernity of the US, and in some aspects beats the US.

Buying my car itself was relatively hassle-free. It was just like it would be in the States, I showed up to a local dealership one day, saw what they had, bargained off of clearly written rates that checked out, and bought the car the next day. There was one hitch in the experience that the car I bought got sold before the salesman submitted the paperwork, and I had the T.I.I. sirens going off in my head, but it got rectified in a pretty satisfactory way. The on-the-road ("out-the-door") price included insurance and maintenance, and there were no hidden fees. Very straight-forward. Even dealing with the RTO for registration and license plates was more or less straightforward. The RTO (Indian DMV) sent me an SMS to show up for a license plate appointment, which was facilitated by the dealer that even helped me reschedule. At the RTO I didn't have to bribe anyone (though one guy tricked me out of Rs.100 by saying I had to pay a penalty for rescheduling), and my license plate came as advertised. I had to wait about 2 hours, but that was what I was told would happen so my expectations were properly set. They fit it professionally and I was on my way.

My car is great. I had my eye on Wagon-R for a while because it looks just like my long-time car at home, Suzi, which was also made by Suzuki. My Wagon-R is named Laila. Anji came up with the name and Aum approved it. Laila is a joy to drive, she is fully loaded with power features, and smells great thanks to my little "perfume" (air freshener). I can plug in my iPod and listen to rap on Indian roads, which I will probably never get tired of. But usually I have the radio off so I can concentrate. There's nothing like having a new car. And since Maruti Wagon-R's have great reputations, I have no worries about it maintenance wise.

Probably my favorite aspect of driving a car is going to the petrol (gas) station. This is one of the rare arenas where India beats the US in customer experience. In an Indian petrol station, it's full service. You pull in and an attendant directs you to a pump. There is almost never a line. Then the attendant asks you how much to fill, you pay him, as a matter of protocol he requests you to check the meter to make sure it's zeroed out, and then starts pumping. Meanwhile you're just chilling in your car and the attendant squeegees your windshield. The attendant is almost always friendly and *never* hassles you about change. In fact, you can reliably break large notes with them, pretty much the only place you can do so in Indian life.

I recently took the Gujarat Express Way from Ahmedabad to Nadiad, and another time to Baroda. The freeway was clean and besides super aggressive drivers that make moves that literally pay no regard to other drivers' lives, cutting people off and squeezing you behind trucks for no reason, it felt just like I was on I-80 going from Sacramento to Mountain View. Even better because there's very little traffic. The toll tax is clearly written on a sign and the booth attendants give you a scannable receipt that they beep through when you exit the freeway. There are lots of signs to direct you, even in Ahmedabad city the signs are super helpful and between them and asking strangers you can get anywhere pretty much stress-free. Roads in the city are also not bad; despite negative reputation of the state government I routinely see potholes one week disappear the next.

I ordered pleather seat covers for my car, since Ba insisted we have them and it seems every Gujarati blindly assumes that you must have seat covers or else it's barbaric. The guy I ordered from sent the installers to my house one evening. It was a team of four young dudes that showed up like X-Men. I expected a crusty old man on a bike that would take 4 hours to do the work, but these young bucks attacked my car like true pros and got the job done within 30 minutes. In India, seat covers form-fit and require unbolting and removing the seats to install. These kids worked like a true team and did a fantastic job. The seats looked great. Like with petrol stations, this was one of those rare times in Indian life where what you got from a customer experience standpoint was way beyond what you expected your money would buy. The customer was delighted.

I broke loose my rearview mirror driving the wrong way of a one-way street (I regret it, wasn't my choice, and won't do it again), and was a bit worried about how hard it would be to get it fixed. Where are the Maruti service centers? Will they hassle me or make me do something with my insurance? Will it take forever or be expensive? Turns out I was apprehensive for no reason. The service center was in Naranpura close to Ba's house, and even it had useful signs from the main road to guide me there. The dude at the service center quickly took a look at the mirror, drove the car behind, and within 5 minutes returned with the electric mechanism working perfectly. He had also put into place a part of the plastic case that had slightly dislodged, which I had forgotten to mention. He had me sign a slip and that was it. No charge! I told him this was great customer service, and I love being a Maruti owner.

The promise and potential of consumerism/customer experience in India functioning at a world-class level is on display in the arena of car ownership. Way on the other end of the spectrum is consumer banking, which is the shittiest thing ever. But that's for another post.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Corruption Is The Root

During the last Indian election the Aam Aadmi party shook things up and offered many people hope of working for a corruption-free India. I wasn't following the elections very closely, but from what I gathered, AAP's platform was that corruption may not be India's only problem, but it is the first problem because it is at the root of many others. It is the mother of all systemic problems in India.

It's possible to understand "corruption is everywhere" in the abstract and even in the mundane in Indian daily life. For example traffic cops take small bribes and hassle you for no reason all the time. But I had a real epiphany about how corruption colors everything about life here while I was at the RTO getting my car's license plates.

I've written about how doing most things in India, like opening a bank account or getting an Internet connection or registering for an exam or getting your license plates, is full of protocol. There is paperwork everywhere and it is nerve wracking because people will nitpick your paperwork and find any reason to reject it. You are missing this document, this document must be notarized, your signature doesn't match, your signature isn't signed across the photo, your photo isn't passport sized, you made a correction in the date but can't cross-sign dates, I've heard it all. In the US paperwork is a formality; in India people make livelihoods out of pushing papers, so it's all scrutinized to an obnoxious level.

I realized that when you have these very rigid almost ritualistic protocols to do everyday stuff, it requires a gatekeeper to check your work. And as a gatekeeper you can stop folks from getting what they want. And if you have the power to stop, you have the power to be fed. So why is Indian life so full of annoying paperwork and processes that often reject you out of stupid technicalities? Because that provides a pretense for someone to take a bride.

If AAP's vision comes to fruition and corruption is eradicated from Indian society, the annoying ritualized protocols will also fade away. If there is no opportunity to be greased, why am I keeping this gate so tightly?