Saturday, June 14, 2008

Going into Hibernation

Dear Readers (I'm sure that there are some out there!),

Apologies for not being able to post any entry for a while. Things are going a little crazy at my end and will continue this way for quite some time. I'm now being forced to go into hibernation and I feel helpless. But given that "nothing is permanent" you can expect me to be back within your lifetimes (for sure). Till that time, Adios Amigo!

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Malaysia, Truly Asia!

Even a very brief trip to Malaysia (like the 4 day one I just had) will drive home the point that it is truly Asia. Singapore surely is very close.

Firstly, the blend of people forming Malaysia's core is very heterogeneous. There are Yellows, Browns, and Malays (not sure where they fall but definitely not in the first two). This itself takes care of the diversity issue. India may be the king of all in terms of diversity of cultures and languages, but its not possible to entirely conjure up the image of Asia by measuring the length and breadth of our beloved nation.

Secondly, you really get to witness the Asian hospitality. People are genuinely friendly and they convey it with their smiles. I agree that in a 5-star hotel everyone is trained to show their teeth to the guest, but its not very difficult to make out an artificial smile to a natural one. I personally was able to feel the warmth in at least 90% of the smiles I received.

Thirdly, it represents the power house Asia is bound to become. It is greatly progressive as you can see a lot of Muslim women in the work force with their customary scarf. The infrastructure is very well done (with Kuala Lumpur airport being one of the finest in the world) even though Malaysia is not known for academic excellence or great scientific brains. It can only be the shear will of the people and their mutual respect for each other that can lead to such advancement in a primarily Islamic country.

Unfortunately, one keeps hearing stories about the discrimination that the ethnic Indians and Chinese (and there are a lot of them there) face in Malaysia. This can be the single most important hurdle in the progress of the country. Hatred always make people pay through their noses and this is something the rulers there will have to keep in mind.

Given this experience, I've decided to take a 10-day vacation to Malaysia whenever possible. Best idea is to rent a car, keep wandering and savor the delight Malaysia is.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Business Travel at its finest!

Well well......finally I'm going to a lovely resort in Kauntan, Malaysia on BUSINESS! When I heard that its going to be Hyatt, I instantly went online and since then I've been dreaming about the place. After I looked at the outdoor shot, I went to my wardrobe to check the condition of my swimsuit. It was in tatters. Without any further adieu, I took tremendous pains to visit a sports shop (strangely a very rare thing in Bangalore actually) and bought a brand new swimsuit. Its time that I treat my "land"sick-ness by soaking myself in the sea for as long as possible.

Unfortunately, its not going to be very long. My trip will last for 4 days and I'll be back in Bangalore on May 1. However, that's how business travel should be. Actual fun and height of your importance comes from the fact that people are willing to fly you off long distances for short meetings. You should ideally be spending much less time at work than in air. But to the misery of senior executives, they are given company jets so that they have an alternative (sometimes main) office on air.

I beg to differ from people who think highly of long trips to US/Europe and feel happy about it. I see many IT companies using "on-site" assignments to keep people longer on their rolls. I can only term these trips as "slave labour in ghettos" and especially when it comes to US, I get sick to my bones.

Time to think about some fish crackers, roti canai, satay, and nasi lemak!

Saturday, April 19, 2008

The 10 days that were!

This is the second time that I've been through the 10 day grind. It always has the characteristic of being challenging (to the point of being hellish) and great fun at the same time. At the end of it, you come out feeling wonderful and thanking the stars that you actually did it. First time it happened was last year during my business trip to Brussels. I took 10 days off and visited 7 cities in Western Europe (Amsterdam, Paris, Rome, Naples, Venice, Vienna and Berlin; see pics here), all by myself . If it sounds fun then it indeed was, but try doing that alone with an Indian salary in pocket and a Lonely Planet in hand. This time it was a life changing trip to Chennai!

I had heard a lot about Vipassana Meditation technique in recent past. Like a religion, it has followers in the tycoons and the planktons of this world. I had been looking for someone to teach me meditation for some time (I am stressed out like million others and have no shame in accepting it & trying to find a solution). I experimented with the Art of Living's 3-day paid course in my college days but could never appreciate the quasi-religious aspect it brings in. The fact that Vipassana was completely free of cost for a 10 day long residential course but has managed to thrive globally sounded very appealing to me. Then seeing its effects on my boss (whom I highly respect and admire) who is always calm in midst of chaos (he at least handles 10 times more than I do) was good enough to commit a significant chunk of my vacations this year and head to nearest full service center (i.e. Chennai).

I boarded the morning train from Bangalore to Chennai, met a close friend for lunch and with reasonable difficulty managed to take an auto to the center. The center, also called "Dhamma Setu" is located around 10 kms from Chennai Airport on the opposite side of civilization (after the course I was wondering if we are civilized at all). In the true tradition of Chennai autowalahs, the guy ripped me off (Rs.300 for some 20 kms) and there was nothing I could do other than question his piety (he showed all signs from tilak to rudraksh) point blank and make him feel a little guilty.

As soon as you enter the center, the feeling of tranquility sets in. It is like an oasis in the desert outside. You then head to the dining hall for registration. Outside is a BIG board with the code of discipline you are supposed to follow. Its a long list with numerous rules which you must internalize. Then you fill up a "new" student form and have a brief interview with an "old" student who tries to grill you on how many rules you actually remember. The basic idea is to check if this new ignorant enthusiast has what it takes to complete the whole thing. Of course everyone utters an emphatic Yes and they believe you unless you are a real loser when it comes to human interactions. You are then supposed to deposit all your valuable stuff in the lockers and head to your allotted room. To my surprise, the rooms were really great and clean. Much better than our dormitory in college. Due to Chennai heat, not many people opted to come and so luckily I got a the double room to myself (which I generally prefer).

Later you are served a light meal (really light) and briefed about what you can expect during the next 10 days. They make a good attempt but as I realized, nothing can prepare you for that. Later you are given a little more gyaan and your vow of silence comes into effect. For th next 9 days, you are not supposed to talk in any language (including sign) to fellow meditators. You can only talk to center staff (all are volunteers actually) or your teacher. This seems tough but I again realized that this become least of your worries (actually bliss) later on during the course.

Now the course. Let me give you an idea of the time table. Only close rival seems to what people go through in a military training

4 am : Wake up
4:30 - 6:30 am : Meditate
6:30 - 8:00 am : Breakfast and Rest
8:00 - 11:00 am : Meditate
11:00 am - 1:00 pm : Lunch and Rest
1:00 - 5:00 pm : Meditate
5:00 - 6:00 pm : Snack and Rest
6:00 - 9:00 pm : Meditate and listen to Discourse
9:30 pm : Sleep

As you can realize, you have 12 working hours a day and you are supposed to follow this very seriously. The last proper meal of the day is at 11 am and at 5 pm you only get a banana and little puffed rice. So basically you are hungry to almost hungry throughout the day. It is difficult for initial couple of days. Later you loose the craving and become very comfortable with this actually.

The Cleansing Process

I would say that the entire thing is a cleansing process where you are trying to clear up all the physical and mental (specially) garbage you have been collecting since time immemorial. The first three days are specially painful. Before they can teach you the main technique of Vipassana, they introduce you to the technique of Aana-Pana meditation. You are supposed to observe your natural breath with all your concentration. And this is the time when reality strikes! At my office entrance there is a quote from Geeta which goes something like this - "Mind is obstinate and turbulent. To control it is more difficult than controlling the wind". It just appeared so true. With hours of practice, it was still almost impossible to keep the focus for a minute's time. The idea here is to completely unsettle the mind and make it do what it doesn't want to - Focus. You can feel the mind playing games with you. It throws all your past deep hidden memories in quick succession and ventures unchecked into the future. And given that you are also fighting hunger and body pain at the same time, the whole thing doesn't seem very pleasant. This is also the time when most people leave the course mid way. The reactions of mind and body are too overwhelming for the weak at heart. But the idea is to keep breathing..........

Once the three day hurdle is over your mind is much calmer as its mutiny has been suppressed. No communication is also a key factor in achieving this tranquility. It's a feeling that I had never in life before. But later you realize that its only one of the "firsts" that you witnessed. By now you are ready to learn the technique the Vipassana. From respiration, you turn your attention to the entire body. The idea here is to try to feel the different sensations you are experiencing (there are sensations in every part of your body all the time whether you are aware of it or not). You start with experiencing the very gross sensations initially and that itself is a revelation. Your mind progressively gets trained and sharper to pick up the subtle sensations at some parts of the body. Some people can feel the energy flow from head to toes and back within the 10 day period. However, this is no competition. Everybody's mind is differently equipped and time taken for these experiences vary from people to people. The idea is to train you to the extent that you can continue to practice in the right fashion and get benefited overtime.

Vipassana is very different from any of the techniques I've heard about or tried in the past. It is completely free from any religion, sectarianism, and mysticism. Your mind and body is at the center of the process rather than a deity or a verbalization. It is a process of self discovery. The technique was discovered by Gautam Buddha where he clearly understood the connection of body and mind and how to use it to free yourself from the shackles of the habits which got formed without your knowledge and control. At the core of it is the concept of Impermanence. You might understand at an intellectual level that nothing lasts forever but every time we come across any situation/object, we automatically label it as pleasant or unpleasant. There is a long drawn process involved in this labeling exercise and with time if mind is left unchecked, the sensations of craving and aversion grow stronger and becomes addictive. We all suffer from this kind of addiction to varying degrees. Vipassana helps you to experience this impermanence through body sensations and how you can be equanimous towards both pleasant and unpleasant ones. If you can maintain this equanimity, the mind automatically starts getting rid of its old habits and you start looking at things more objectively. After all, the literal meaning of Vipassana is seeing things as they are, not as you would like them to be.

Another big thing you end up learning that only you are the cause of your own misery and happiness. How many times one feels that someone else caused misery to him/her and end up becoming more miserable? How many times one feels that the only source of happiness is to be able to please someone? Slowly you realize that its your responsibility to create a positive environment around yourself so that everyone who comes in contact with you is left with that calmness and you end up feeling satisfied.

There are some annoyances and discomforts that one has to go through these 10 days. My choice of timing and place was not completely wise. Going to Chennai in this weather was a bad idea. Because the facilities are very basic in nature, you have to make do with fans which don't really help. During meditation the fans disturb you and its an oven without them. Although, with time you stop reacting to the heat but it takes time. The practice of Adithana is the most feared and uncomfortable out of everything you experience. Three times a day during meditation hours, you sit in a posture most comfortable to you. Then you promise yourself that you won't open your legs, hands, and eyes for the next one hour. Boy, that HURTS! You can feel the heat circulating throughout your legs. Initially even 30 mins is a nightmare but by the end of the course I could do that without much discomfort. At times you reach a state when the pain completely disappears because after all its all in the mind and you have managed to cut through it.

Coming back to pleasant experiences, the staff at the center(s) are a great bunch of people. Only old students can serve during the course and they do a marvelous job at it. Its a completely voluntary thing to do and they receive nothing in return. They will keep up with you even when you are trying to act tough. The technique has slowly transformed them into loving and compassionate beings who find it very difficult to feel ill about anyone very quickly. When you have achieved the state that the technique is pushing you towards, all your feelings of animosity and hatred towards others melt away (think Buddha). The best part of the course are the evening discourses by Guruji, Acharya S.N.Goenka. We get to see him only on TV but he still connects with you. Having practiced and taught this technique for past 50 odd years, he seems to know exactly whats going on in your head. His style of story telling and explaining the nuances of the training is very refreshing and enjoyable. You cannot help generating a massive amount of respect for him and all the people involved to spread this movement and trying to make the world a better place to live in. A world free of any communal and ill feelings. A world where every being is respected and loved unconditionally.

Thank you for reading this ultra long post. I could go on and on about what I experienced and still won't be able to communicate in writing or orally. You will have to go there and experience it yourself. The only thing it demands is your time and dedication. The only money you need to spend is for the travel to and from the center nearest to you. I would strongly recommend you to make this investment in yourself. If you stay there for 10 days (and not run away in the middle) and still feel unsatisfied with what you learnt and experienced, please send me your travel receipts. I'll send you a cheque of an equivalent amount.

Be Happy. Be peaceful.

Friday, April 18, 2008

The Vulgar Financial People

Firstly, let me explain the long silence. I recently attended the 10-day Vipassana Meditation Course in Chennai where you literally have to live the life of a monk and not utter a word. It was fantastic and I still have the hangover. Will be writing about it in detail shortly.

Now coming back to the outrageous blog title. Well I wanted to be a little soft but there is a difference between understanding anything at an intellectual level and at an experiential level. It is much easier to be compassionate and level headed when you are trying to intellectually debate something. You try to put yourself in everyone's shoe and patiently list out pros and cons of their thinking. But when you get your hands burnt, the first reaction is to burn everything in sight (Dawood Ibrahim and Tiger Memon took it a little far by trying to burn down Bombay). My agony and disrespect for people involved in financial markets is reaching its zenith now.

The best part of this entire affair is that in the entire process almost nothing of any tangible value gets generated. Everything is dependent on speculations which people learn rather quickly to generate. Everybody seems to be a self made expert in the field. A B.Com. graduate speaks with the same flair as someone with a Ph.D. All the news readers and correspondents on the 24-hours business news channels talk in supreme confidence masking their extremely shallow knowledge by make up and beautiful prose. People with an IQ less than 100 (I personally have nothing against them!) keep getting richer and richer. And one day, it all comes down melting away years of wealth generated by legitimate sweat and illegitimate blood. No one has any clue!

Someone I know works as a "Wealth Manager" in a leading bank. According to her, they spend a pile of money on informants who keep supplying leads on how to reallocate the portfolio almost every 15 mins. This helps them to be on top of things. I then asked her the obvious question "Did you know on Friday that Black Monday is coming?". No surprises when she shamelessly said "NO. What can we do if the market crashes?". How convenient! Rake in all the bonus when the market is inflated and you have no contribution to it (stories of bonuses in crores are commonplace). But when things go wrong, just wash of your hands and move on.

I made the mistake of believing such morons from a "reputed" investment house. They assigned a wealth manager to me. I out of misplaced trust and complete ignorance handed over a sizable chunk of money and gave them a free hand to go and multiply it. Somehow there was some misunderstanding and they chose a factor << 1 for multiplication. Before I realized, more than half of the principle had evaporated. It took me sometime to come back to senses when I severed the relationship, reclaimed the dregs and started to learn things on my own. Even if I never learn and keep making losses, it would be more comforting than losing it from the hands of incompetent blokes.

If only I had enough money, I would have airdropped "Fooled by Randomness" by Nicholas Nassim Taleb over all areas heavily infested by financial pests (like Dalal Street, Nariman Point, Gujarat etc.). It's fine to be stupid. Almost everyone behaves that way at many points in their lives. But if you have made stupidity and chaos your profession, it's not a bad idea to know a little more about it. Atleast it will help you to keep the biggest hole on your face shut for better.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Are things getting better?

Well it seems like they are if this article in Mint by S.Mitra Kalita is to be believed.

At the onset, this one also seemed like a silly idea like many others from the autocratic monarchy that rules IITs. But something really drastic was needed to bring back the people to lounges, TV room, canteen, football field, gaali fights, and all other things that make men out of boys (and of course women out of girls). And "LAN Ban" was drastic by any measures. It was like choking someone out of air because one's mind tend to get so addicted to that information pollution floating around. Generally bitter medicines work more effectively.

I had already left when this happened. But I do feel the pain responsible for this regulation, the pain that kids went through initially and the joy that this promises to bring. Let me hope that it works this time, that students and teachers can trust each other once again. My fingers are crossed. Amen!

The Art of Presenting

Have you ever wondered Why Business People speak like idiots? or Why most PowerPoint presentations suck? If yes, then read on.

The answer is not very straightforward but some hints can be located in the books by the same name. I personally have been very interested to figure out how to avoid death by PowerPoint. Strangely enough, not many people are aware of the simple fact that a good presentation will not just be appreciated by the audience (whose deafening cries during pathetic presentations indeed fall on deaf ears) but will also result in higher visibility with upper management and faster career growth for presenters. If only people can realize that they are questioning the basic intelligence and skills of their audience by reading through enormous matter in their slides, situation will improve drastically.

I would consider myself fortunate enough that within a couple of months of my professional life I came across Garr Reynolds. An ex-Apple design executive and currently a Professor in an Osaka University, he was invited to give a talk on Effective Presentations at our office. I still cannot get over with that one-hour presentation. We were showed around 300 slides (as per Garr at the end of the talk) which is still difficult to believe. His narrative captured my imagination and probably of everyone present in the hall. It was one of the most impacting presentations I ever sat through and since then I'm obsessed to improve upon my presentation skills.

Garr maintains a website called Presentation Zen. Apparently, it is one of the most visited presentation design websites in the world. It features his blog and tonnes of advice on how to communicate well. Based on the recommendations I purchased a few books (like Beyond Bullet Points, Presenting to Win, and Show me the numbers) which really made me look at how I was doing things and how I can do them better. However, the books published so far mulled on how to DO things better but not essentially on how to THINK better. Given that presenting is at least if not more an art and not only science, there has to be an element of creativity, philosophy and spiritualism to it. That's where Garr's new book (suitably titled Presentation Zen) fills in the gap. The moment I heard about its launch, the order was placed online. And I was not disappointed. Besides being very beautiful aesthetically, making it a pleasure to read, it works! It is not only about how to prepare better, design better, and deliver better. It is also about how the whole process can be thought through more holistically and how you can look for inspiration in the most unusual places (eg. comics, martial arts etc.). It also enlists numerous resources online which can help you with the content.

So if you are looking for some good advice and inspiration, buy this book. If Rs.1250 is a little too much for you, at least visit PZ website along with the ones like Duarte Design, TED, SlideShare and get enlightened.