Foreigners in India

There has been a lot of press about outsourcing and its impact on cities in India. In fact, its very common these days to find foreigners on the streets of major Indian cities. And these folks are not tourists, but people who live and work in these Indian cities.

When I come across such articles, I am reminded of a hugely successfully Tamil film (starring Rajnikanth) in which a comedian by name Janakaraj, portrays a tea shop owner who pretends to know English. In one scene, a foreigner (a white in this case) walks up to the tea shop. All excited, Janakaraj brushes aside his friends and says “Saar, I will tell you ever thing that is in this shop saar…we have tea, bun, vadai …”. The man turns to him and says in the local dialect, “Oru single chaya, rendu masaal vada”.

Don’t be surprised if this happens some time in the not too distant future in Chennai!!

More than what you want to know about Home Water Heaters

Has the water heater in your home stopped working? If yes, trust me, “I feel your pain”. Read on, this can be useful to you. If not, read on anyway, your water heater bust might just be around the corner.

The water heater at home simply stopped working one fine morning. I didn’t quite realize that this had happened until I was half way through my shower and noticed that there was no sign of hot water. I grew up in Madras (now Chennai in India) where it is hot and humid all through the year. One of the positives of this awful climate, is that you never had to care for hot water. Growing up there I had become so used to having cold showers that I continued not using hot water even in winter after I had moved up to Kharagpur (in the eastern part of India). So when the water heater stopped working it wasn’t exactly too difficult for me to continue my normal life without hot water. Besides, my wife and kids are travelling in India and as long as I got the water heater fixed or replaced by the time they return, I was in good shape. So I decided that I was going to research the “water heater vertical” and explore the market a little. I also sought the help of my lab partner from college to see if he still had his magic touch. No luck, unfortunately. My wife who was terrified at the thought of not having access to hot water on her return that she sent me daily emails to check on the status.

My first step was to visit the water heater which by the way, is installed in the garage in most houses in the SF bay area. Its a cyclindrical piece about 4-5 feet in height, installed on raised platform. On my first visit, I merely looked at it carefully and turned a few knobs hoping that I might miraculously get it to work again. No luck. There were a few notes on it about how to “light” it etc. I decided not to take a chance. There was a flyer right next to it from a company named Water Heaters Only. After close examination, I noticed that the water heater brand said “State Industries”. So I now had two sources to call for help. Being a web-addict, I promptly “googled” water heaters and gathered a couple more leads on possible sources of help. My wife shot an email to the local home owners blast email list and got a couple more pieces of advices. (Off the 50+ registrants on the list only two responded. One neighbor provided some tricks on how to get it to start working again, another referred us to Water Heaters Only. In any casr, here is the scoop (while it is still fresh in memory)on what I eventually ended up doing.

  • Water Heaters Only: This company is a contractor who resells Rheem, a particular brand of water heaters. They quoted me $920 for parts, labor, installation etc. They never mentioned anything about requiring an approval from the city. (the city inspectors are supposed to pay a visit and ensure that the installation was good to meet standards/codes etc.)
  • Allied Plumbing: Similar to Water Heaters Only, except that they deal with Bradford-White brand of Water Heaters. They quoted me $820 all inclusive after visiting our garage. They were honest enough to inform me that city permits/clearance is required and if they took care of it, it would cost an additional $100. (In short, I knew after these two discussions that I am looking at $800+ on this endeavor!).
  • State Industries: Given that they are the incumbent, I decided before hand that I had some leverage to negotiate a deal. Unfortunately, they didn’t quite seem to care. (In fact, the guy from Water Heaters Only told me that they used to install State Industries Water Heaters at one time, and that they actually went bankrupt and they had too many support problems!). They gave me a quote of $875 without a visit. I had to mentally add a margin for some additional $$ because these folks had not visited
  • Home Depot: Another friend of mine had informed me about Home Depot as an option. On visiting the website I noticed that they had a “Free Inspection“. I promptly signed up for one since they promised a response within 24 hours. 48 hours went by and I didn’t even receive an email acknowledgement! Given that I had three other options and my time was running out (family will be back soon!), I called up the 800 number listed on Home Depot’s website. I was promptly informed that the website was incorrect and that they don’t provide any free inspection!! They howver offered to pass me on to a “sales specialist” who could potentially give me a quote! After some interrogation, my lucky number was $739.08. I figured this was my lowest quote, the heater brand was GE, plus maybe another $100 suprise additional charges since they had not visited my garage as yet. So I went ahead and ordered the purchase and installation. On the scheduled time the expert appeared, took at look at it and said there would be additional charges of $280!! I had taken half a day off of work, I had mentally prepared my self for a $800 to $900 hit, so I figured I had to go ahead anyway. I called Home Depot and they feigned innocence pointing to the contracting company that was delivering the service. Understandably, the contractor in turn pointed fingers at Home Depot. After negotiations, the contractor agreed to bring it down from $280 to $200. Totally frustrated, I agreed.

The water heater at home, thankfully has been replaced now. It cost me $900. (I downgraded from a 12 year warranty to 9 year warranty 50G GE Water heater). Its working well so far.

Some Additional Tips:

Your serial number on the water heater should read something like A90**** (the 90 refers to the year when it was first installed. In short if this is over 10 years, you need to replace the heater (or atleast that was the pat response from all the vendors/contractors). Most of the folks who visited my garage site, didn’t even bother to see if they could fix the existing heater. It was blanket “this needs to be replaced. Tough luck” feedback.

If you find water at the base, ie., around the water heater. It means there has been a leak due and it is probably one more reason to replace the existing heater with a new one.

Water heater salesman suck or there is simply way too much sales of water heaters. In other words, I got the feeling that they don’t really care if you buy or not. I never got a follow on call from any of the folks I approached. So its a sellers market.

In summary, my advice: Get the best deal you can and move on, don’t sweat, you need the hot water.

Arundhati Roy’s talk in the Bay Area

Arundhati Roy is clearly a crowd puller, especially in the bay area. By the time I got to know about the talk at UC Berkeley on 18, August 2004, the event was already sold out despite the $21 cost per ticket. However, I had the privilege of watching the recording of her talk on Booktv (C-Span II). (I think this was a talk she delivered in San Francisco and not the one at Berkeley). The event lasted about a 100 minutes in all including the speech and the Q&A.

Overall, the content of her speech was interesting and engaging. She read her speech from written text and her responses during the Q&A session were not necessarily as impressive or as insightful as her speech. Her strength clearly lies in writing than in speaking. She is brilliant in word play and has the ability to draw interesting parallels that most people can relate to. Some of the points I recall from the speech (I am writing this from memory and not from notes. Note taking is not my strength, unfortunately!):

  • Terrorisim is the privitization of war! (I thought this was a nice way to present the idea)
  • Extending her view that George Bush and John Kerry are not very different she drew an interesting parallel about two soaps (ivory coast and one other name I can’t remember) both being products from P&G. “You’ll have Bush without Bush if Kerry were elected”. She said a similar situation exists in India –while she described the BJP as blatantly fascist, she said the Congress party’s policies are not very different on most issues.
  • The people of a country pay the price for the mistakes of their Govt. In Afghanistan, the people suffered because of the US attack instigated by the Taliban; In Iraq the people suffered because the US chose to get rid of Saddam; likewise the US people suffered the 9/11 attack because of the US govts policy in the middle east. The difference she pointed out was that barring the US where we have a democratically elected President (or so to speak as she pointed out tongue-in-cheek) the others are oppressive regimes. In short, people have been forced to suffer for no fault of theirs. The US population on the other hand, needs to feel responsible for its predicament and can’t entirely blame its govt.
  • She described Call Centers as an extension of racism. “Sure they are better off because of these jobs, but requiring people to work odd hours, pretend to be somebody they aren’t (Rosy , Roxanne etc.), and speak with a fake accents, is a form of racism!”.
  • When asked about the US, she said she admires Americans and thinks that because the people here are far more well off than the rest of the world, the Americans can mobilize and make a difference to humanity as a whole by influencing the role of Govt. and the military establishment than people any other part of the world.
  • She talked about the role of Big Media (how Afghanistan no longer gets press, and soon the same will happen to Iraq, The World Social Forum event held in Mumbai in Jan 2004 got no coverage whatsoever in the mainstream media in India despite the huge turnout. btw, if you care to learn more about this vist the Independent Media Center etc.), the questionable motivation behind several NGOs (their source of funds etc.).
  • On Iraq, she thought the US should withdraw and repatriate (and pay in $) the loss. She referred to the “thugerry of Cheney, Rumsfled and Wolfowitz” At one point, prior to saying something controversial she said, “If I have to go to jail, I would rather go to jail in India than here in the US”
  • “Sarkar” (govt in hindi) and “public” (“this is now a hindi word used extensively to refer to the people”) — she referred to these at various points in the speech. She said that it was important that everyone understand that sarkar is the servant of the public and are not kings! She described her moving experience of an entire village in the Narmada destroyed by its own people. Apparently, the people in this village were forcibly relocated by the Govt. to less than acceptable new housing in a different area in return for destroying their existing homes.
  • She dodged a question about more fiction writing by her or simply forgot to respond to it because the “mc” combined too many questions together.

Immediately following Ms. Roy’s speech, one of the folks on the stage innocently said to the camera man, “Can we find out from the camera man if its ok if we did it on the table!” (he was referring to the fact that Ms. Roy was back on the chair after the speech and if it might be ok for her to answer questions while she is seated!” (the guy was embarrassed as soon as the crowd was roaring with laughter at the snafu!).

Overall, I enjoyed the C-Span telecast. Besides, I can’t complain having saved myself a painful drive in traffic, plus the certain frustration of finding parking in Berkeley, and the $21 entry fee.

A Few Interesting Links

Like everyone else who has email access, I often get emails from friends with interesting links. Here are a few that I found worth checking out.

  • The Political Compass (if you want to know where in the political spectrum you stand personally, there is a quiz on this site which takes about 5 minutes to complete)
  • An interesting view about the movie Farenheit 9/11 (the author has a very different take on the movie)
  • Hindi Film Music over the web (from 2..0 pm to 4.00 pm PST) from UAE
  • Article on outsourcing’s impact on Chennai, a city in India. (This article is really long, in fact too long in my opinion, but a good one nevertheless).

NBC’s Coverage of the Olympics

It is great that there is atleast some coverage of the Olympics here in the United States, thanks to NBC. But I wish the network would instruct its commentators to try and be objective. Is that too much to ask for? Unfortunately, their role seems to be to “b… and moan” when the US athletes are loosing out to other countries, and rave about them when they perform well. For example, when the Romanian gymansts were performing the commentators were saying, “Oh, that was bad, the judges should take away atleast one full point…yadayadayada”. On the other hand, when an American athlete falters, “Oh, she has been down with viral infection, she has been exhausted by the heat etc. etc”

Part of what makes America so unique is the wonderful ethnic mix available here. This means, there are several immigrants here in the US, who have lived a better part of their life in more difficult conditions in developing and significantly poorer nations. Thus, when one of these immigrants see an athlete from their country of origin, perform exceptionally well, deep down they appreciate it more than anyone else. They are filled with admiration and pride, that someone from their country of origin can perform so well on a world stage despite the extreme lack of resources in that country. In these circumstances, its extremely painful to hear biased, one-sided commentary. Forget about lavish praise, at a minimum, our commentators should at least recognize good performance independent of the athlete’s country of origin.

An athlete from a poorer nation performing well at the Olympics deserves all the credit and praise for his/her performance because it is commendable that they are excelling despite the lack of resources available to them when compared to say an athlete from a developed nation like the US. But our commentators can’t seem to appreciate this. Perhaps, some ethnic diversity in the commentary team might help?

Unfortunately, the commentary during the previous Olympics was no different. So if you want to watch the Olympics here in the US, learn to put up with this. Or explore one of the satellite channels, maybe there is another broadcast available that is more fair or atleast less-biased.

Trash leads on Desi Newspaper Websites

Have you seen the kind of articles that appear on leading Indian newspaper websites? I only hope they are not publishing the same articles on their print copies. Economic Times and Times of India websites have front page articles/links with titles such as:

This is only a brief sample of the kind of trash these newpapers constantly put up on their websites. With access to modern technology, its obvious they are tracking hits and simplying feeding anything that drives traffic. Thankfully, the Hindustan Times and few others, for the most part, have remained relatively restrained and not indulged in such gimmicks. I hope sense will prevail same day and the madness over web traffic will give way to more sensible web content.

Book Review: The IIT-ians

Book: The IIT-ians — The Story of a Remarkable Indian Institution and How its Alumni are Reshaping the World
Author: Sandipan Deb

I loved my days at IIT and care deeply about my alma mater, IIT Kharagpur. So the first book on IITs, authored by a fellow KGP-graduate, was automatically of great interest to me. The book has over 350+ pages and thirty-four chapters. Many of the anecdotes described in the book, and the hearsay (of which there are plenty in the book) are largely based in IIT Kharagpur. If you are an IIT Kharagpur gradute from the early to mid 80s and are in the mood for some serious nostalgia this book is a safe bet. Of the thirty-four chapters in the book, I found the one covering the author’s long car ride with Desh Deshpande and Prof Subra Suresh the most interesting. Towards the end of the book, the author offers some valuable recommendations for improving the IITs and highlights the competition from China –both of which are useful for policy makers and influencers (like the alumni) alike. There is no doubt that the IITs are one of India’s great achievements, and I want to commend the author for being the first person to publish a book on IITs.

The book offers a perfect “nostalgia trip” for those interested in one. At the same time, the book also has several shortcomings. There is constant ranting and raving about IIT and how great IIT-ians are throughout the book. While this might be acceptable to the reader who is an IIT graduate (though personally, I thought it was a huge overkill), I am not convinced about the non-IITian. I suspect that most would give up quite early on in the process of reading this book.

Given the authors background, the book definitely has a strong journalistic style, that is, reporting style to it. The book is full of “he said so, she said so”. In fact, a handful of individuals have been quoted endlessly throughout the book. One chapter is completely dedicated to a bilious outpouring by one alumni! There are others which capture long emails from friends of the author.

The author, despite being married to an IIT woman seems to have done little research to find out if there are any woman IIT-ians who have become hugely successful. Instead, he chose an easy option and described his meeting with a woman friend from IIT KGP and wrote a chapter about it. After 50 years of IITs, so much for the woman IIT-ian’s perspective. (No offense to the woman IIT-ian mentioned, who I understand was very popular in her times at KGP). It would have been a lot more purposeful had the author done the required research to identify a woman IIT-ian who has had significant success in her career.

“If I had another chance I would spend a lot less time in class,” the second topper from 1986 batch IIT Delhi apparently said. “I learnt very little in class,” said another. Throughout the book, there is an obvious glorification of not focusing on academics, and of this being portrayed as cool. This sends a completely wrong message to new entrants to the IIT system. Besides, there is a “Profs suck, while students are smart” message throughout the book. My personal view is that some Profs were good while some were mediocre. This is common in most institutions. A detailed discussion with one or more IIT grads who are currently successful Profs to gather their insights on this topic and what can be done to improve the system, would have been far more helpful than repeated criticism of IIT faculty, their motivations in clamping down on students, and so on.

“A lot of people just copied in the exams and got through.” This quote attributed to Purnendu Chatterjee (PC) was outright insulting. Firstly, I am surprised that PC even said this. Besides, even if he did, I am surprised that the author did not exercise some editorial restraint and refrain from mentioning this, because it is insulting to thousands of IIT-ians the world over and it is simply untrue.

Finally, the author says he was approached by the publisher and agreed to write the book primarily because he was an IIT-ian and he writes for a living. With the hype about IITs catching on, especially with the CBS show, articles in the media, etc. perhaps the publisher thought that this was a good time to grab the infamous “first mover” advantage of the dotcom days. Unfortunately, the result is a book trying to ride on the hype, with a generous mix of nostalgia that will appeal to die-hard IIT-ians, but still falling short in effectively showcasing India’s best technical institution.