Saturday, July 30, 2011


When in Kodaikanal (see my earlier post, On the road to Kodaikanal) be sure to take some warm clothing. The first is that it is a hill station, at a height of 7,200 feet. Which means that evenings are almost always guaranteed to be pleasant, if not outright chilly. Winters are colder to be sure. If it rains, and there are lots of that around, it is going to get cold. So there - carry warm clothing. Layers of clothing is the way to go; that way you can remove one layer without freezing your bones.

Among the different places to stay in Kodaikanal, the most well-known choice is The Carlton. We however stayed at The Fern Creek, a new addition to Kodaikanal. It is a small, boutique place, with seven swiss tents equipped with all the luxuries you would want in a swiss tent, including a faux-fireplace heater, Tata Sky digital cable, a bathroom that's better than what you find at many 5-star hotels, and so on. The property is not that big, spread over 1.5 acres, but with lots of greenery.

Shot in the evening, this is one of my favorite shots from Kodaikanal. The shoots from the branches make it look like a perfectly haunted tree, right out of a b-grade horror flick. It is also a setting in which the imagination finds a most fertile setting for its ruminations. It is no surprise that authors like Ruskin Bond have chosen to live all their lives in a hill-station, where the grass is green and the scenery pretty (to paraphrase a well-known song...).

This is a shot of a Kodai road as seen from inside the window of a car. It was drizzling outside, the windshield had raindrops streaking across the glass, and the wiper was not very effective, which is why the photo has this weird Photoshopped look about it. I chose this photo because I don't have another photo of these roads that looks as green and picturesque. The small cottage just off the road lends a nice touch to the picture.

Pine Forest view. Where countless Tamil, south Indian, and Hindi movies have been shot. Of stars running around these trees singing songs. Or forlorn heroines clutching trees and lamenting the loss of their loved one. Of lust-crazed baddies chasing rain-soaked-sari-clad heroines or starlets running for dear life and liberty and more. Or... you get the picture. The place looks a lot different with a busload or two of tourists attempting the same, well... almost the same.

Every time I see misty mountains, I take my camera and try and capture the multi-layered look, silhouetted look, like in the photos below. Lots and lots of mountains all over, behind each other, in the foreground, in the background, near and far - you do need an overcast day to get the best effect, though I did get a similar effect in the middle of the day, in the Zion National Park (Utah).

What works for mountains can also work for trees, high up in the mountains, on a misty, foggy, cloudy day.

What is a visit to a hill-station without sampling the local, supposedly organic honey.

When you are as high as in Kodaikanal (you can be high even on the plains, but that's not the high that I am talking about here), the clouds quite often are at the same level as you are. So for once you can claim to be walking with your head in the clouds and be speaking in a very literal sense.

This is a shot that could look even better with an ultra-wide angle lens. And yes, with lots of Photoshop tweaks. I did neither. The Canon EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS SLR Lens that I have does not go beyond 29 or 30mm. This vista would really open up with a wider lens, like the Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L USM Ultra Wide Angle Zoom Lens for Canon SLR Cameras (on a full-frame sensor mind you), or better still, the Canon EF-S 10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 USM SLR Lens for EOS Digital SLRs will do just fine even when mounted on a dSLR with an APS-C sensors.

I shot this and the next few photos from Coaker's Walk (see how this path looked like in 1900). Coaker's Walk is a kilometer pedestrian walk that runs "along the edge of steep slopes on the southern side of Kodai". While the views on a clear sunny day are supposed to be stunning, the vista even on a cloudy, misty, drizzly day is no less spectacular.

One advantage of going in the winter months, or in the months after the monsoon, is that you have several small streams that form and result in several small waterfalls forming - you don't get to see these in the summer months.

And this is a most magical scene. I could not believe it when I first saw it - clouds moving over the horizon, climbing over these peaks, and then flowing downwards, as if weighed down by the water they were carrying, and after having made it beyond the peak, they lost strength and sank under their own weight.

Once upon a time, the tagline, "Your Only Resort In Kodaikanal", may have been true, but not any more I think.

In a place with such incredible beauty, it is jarring to the senses to come across a building as indescribably ugly as this one. The building is ugly. A huge block of concrete planted amidst this picturesque place. The paint color is uglier. And to top it all, look at the white appendage to the right of the building. All this seems to be the result of a careful exercise intended to remove all traces of beauty and aesthetics from the structure. That they were successful is painfully evident to the eye.

A milestone. Did I mention I photograph these?

Pillar Rocks
Among the must-visit sights in Kodaikanal. It is "8 kilometres (5.0 mi) from the bus-stand, is a set of three giant rock pillars which stand 122 metres (400 ft) high.[40] Managed by the Tamil Nadu Forest Department, The viewpoint can be crowded but is not commercialized. There is an excellent public garden adjacent to the viewpoint." [from Kodaikanal - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia]
Now, I must add the following: "can be crowded" is a very subjective statement. The fact is that while there is a reasonably large parking lot outside the viewpoint, it can get crowded pretty quickly. Some of the locals were mentioning that peak tourist season, which is pretty much all the summer months, can result in tourist buses and vehicles having to park half a kilometer away from the viewpoint. The viewpoint itself is not very large, and even a dozen people can result in an almost claustrophobic feeling. Each tourist bus can disgorge 50 people, or more. So what do you do? Either go during an off-peak season, like November, or go early in the day, before 9AM. Either way, try and be at this beautiful spot before the throngs of tourists trek their way to this viewpoint.

Raindrops keep falling on my windshield. And what good are raindrops on your windshield if you don't capture them for posterity.

© 2011, Abhinav Agarwal. All rights reserved.

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother
Amy Chua's 'Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother' (Kindle ebook link, link, my user review on

4 stars
“Your brain is annoying me”
Tiger mother battles her and for her offspring. Both win, sort of.
Engrossing though at times highly-strung first-person account of a mother raising her children - with sweat, tears, all.

Just what exactly was the fuss all about? After reading Amy Chua's article in the Wall Street Journal, which incredibly enough, attracted close to nine thousand comments(!!!), I was expecting some sort of an in-the-face cultural diatribe against the American (or Western) style of parenting, mated to an unalloyed gloating in the superiority of the "Chinese" style of parenting. But that is not it. At all. As the daughter of Chinese immigrant parents, the author  is appreciative of the freedoms that America has provided, and has immersed herself in the American experience (she is also married to a Jewish American).  "But most of me feels tremendous gratitude for the freedom and creative opportunity that America has given me."

The book does excoriate the permissive American style of parenting, and those criticisms are not altogether without merit. No one would seriously take offence at someone criticizing the often lax, hands-off nature of parenting, American or otherwise, that nonetheless ends up with children growing up in a weltering pool of mediocrity, snickering at world-class achievements while still secretly envying them. Parents grant children freedom in the name of giving them "space", the children still grow up to resent their parents. But this is also a tale of angst, defeat, and often enough of a tension-filled atmosphere in the house of the Chuas.

This is the story of Amy Chua, professor of Law at Yale University, telling in the first-person, the story of her two children - Sophia and Lulu - and of her attempts at instilling in them values of hard work. No, make that relentless hard work. This is the story of how her two children were trained to become brilliant pianists and violinists; Sophia, the elder, performed at the Carnegie Hall; Lulu, the younger one, was called a "gifted violinist", and the mostly overwrought, highly-strung style of parenting that Amy Chua brought to bear upon her children. All well-meaning, and the love she has for her children cannot be doubted, but a highly-strung environment nonetheless could be found in their house. This is also partly the behind-the-scenes story of her American Jewish husband, who seems to have been a calming influence on the stormy waters that Amy brings to the table, so to say, and to mix metaphors.

Since enough has been written about the book - by the author, reviewers, critics, and more, after some thinking, not a whole lot mind you, I think at least some of the criticism leveled against the author draws not so much from the merits of the book or its story as much as from a resentment, to put it one way, against the author's assertions of parenting superiority over the American style of parenting. Those criticisms tend to ignore the very clear over-the-top style of writing, where it is obvious that the author is exaggerating, and not to be taken seriously. In case the reader forgets that, there are intermittent reminders.

By the time Sophia was three, she was reading Sartre, doing simple set theory, and could write one hundred Chinese characters. (Jed’s translation: She recognized the words “No Exit,” could draw two overlapping circles, and okay maybe on the Chinese characters.)

As a side note, Amy Chua gave up a Wall Street career in law to teach at Yale. Why?
At the all-night drafting sessions with investment bankers, while everyone else was popping veins over the minutiae of some multibillion-dollar deal, I’d find my mind drifting to thoughts of dinner, and I just couldn’t get myself to care about whether the sentence should be prefaced by “To the best of the Company’s knowledge.” Any statement contained in a document incorporated or deemed to be incorporated by reference herein shall be deemed to be modified or superseded for purposes of this Offering Circular to the extent that a statement contained herein, or in any other subsequently filed document that also is incorporated by reference herein, modifies or supersedes such a statement.
The second reason behind the hailstorm of criticisms and judgments against the book and more so against the author would be that the author is what I could call an example of a successful immigrant family that has embraced the American dream of making it big on the back of hard work and perseverance - the same traits that were extolled in America for so long and can be credited for the nation's rise to economic greatness in the twentieth century. As close to a successful experiment in social heterogeneity as may be expected. She is the daughter of an immigrant Chinese family, she herself is a successful academic, a published author, her husband is a successful doctor, and a Jew - so that is a culturally heterogenous family you have there, the children are successful in their endeavors. The elder daughter performed at the Carnegie Hall, no mean feat that.
As I watched American parents slathering praise on their kids for the lowest of tasks - drawing a squiggle or waving a stick - I came to see that Chinese parents have two things over their Western counterparts: (1) higher dreams for their children, and (2) higher regard for their children in the sense of knowing how much they can take.
These two reasons, in my opinion, make so many of the Americans criticizing the author feel uncomfortable - because it reminds them that hard work is a sine-qua-non for success in this world. Because the culture of hard work is actually one of the defining traits of the American nation, one that it has been known for in the world. Because somewhere down the line America  chose to abandon the virtue of hard work, the Protestant work ethic, for the more profitable pursuit of prosperity via the easy route - witness the surge in interest in Wall Street and the economic catastrophe in 2008.

To be sure, there is much that most could find wrong in Amy Chua's parenting style. Sure. But I suspect most criticisms do not draw from that pool of indignation. Much of the mud hurled comes from the fire of envy.

And does Amy Chua have the all-knowing smirk-like attitude to her writing? No. Not really. She is quite self-aware actually. Self-deprecating too. But with a tart tongue too. Sample these: "Thank goodness I’m a lucky person, because all my life I’ve made important decisions for the wrong reasons." Or "This took me aback. No one had ever accused me of trying to keep things fun."

And finally, what is it about Amy's brain that so annoyed her daughter Lulu?
“Imagine that you’re a rag doll,” Mr. Shugart would tell Lulu. “Floppy and relaxed, and not a care in the world. You’re so relaxed your arm feels heavy from its own weight.... Let gravity do all the work.... Good, Lulu, good.” “RELAX!” I screamed at home. “Mr. Shugart said RAG DOLL!” I always tried my best to reinforce Mr. Shugart’s points, but things were tough with Lulu, because my very presence made her edgy and irritable. Once, in the middle of a practice session she burst out, “Stop it, Mommy. Just stop it.” “Lulu, I didn’t say anything,” I replied. “I didn't say one word.” “Your brain is annoying me,” Lulu said. “I know what you’re thinking.”

Some final excerpts on the Chinese versus the American style of parenting gleaned from the book:
I’ve thought long and hard about how Chinese parents can get away with what they do. I think there are three big differences between the Chinese and Western parental mind-sets. First, I’ve noticed that Western parents are extremely anxious about their children’s self-esteem.

In other words, Western parents are concerned about their children’s psyches. Chinese parents aren't  They assume strength, not fragility, and as a result they behave very differently.

Third, Chinese parents believe that they know what is best for their children and therefore override all of their children’s own desires and preferences.

Western parents worry a lot about their children’s self-esteem. But as a parent, one of the worst things you can do for your child’s self-esteem is to let them give up. On the flip side, there’s nothing better for building confidence than learning you can do something you thought you couldn't.

What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you’re good at it. To get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their preferences. This often requires fortitude on the part of the parents because the child will resist; things are always hardest at the beginning, which is where Western parents tend to give up. But if done properly, the Chinese strategy produces a virtuous circle. Tenacious practice, practice, practice is crucial for excellence; rote repetition is underrated in America. Once a child starts to excel at something - whether it’s math, piano, pitching, or ballet - he or she gets praise, admiration, and satisfaction. This builds confidence and makes the once not-fun activity fun. This in turn makes it easier for the parent to get the child to work even more.

In Disney movies, the ‘good daughter’ always has to have a breakdown and realize that life is not all about following rules and winning prizes, and then take off her clothes and run into the ocean or something like that. But that’s just Disney’s way of appealing to all the people who never win any prizes. Winning prizes gives you opportunities, and that’s freedom—not running into the ocean.”

Amy Chua's article in the Wall Street Journal

Kindle Excerpt

© 2011, Abhinav Agarwal. All rights reserved.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Idiots on roads - 7

This photo sends a chill down my spine whenever I look at it. So I choose not to look at it, mostly. I spotted these mangled remains of the car in 2004, while on Bannerghatta Road on some shopping errand. What got the goosebumps to bump up was seeing that the front of the car had been so completely mangled up, like it had been run through some giant pounding machine. I can only imagine with dread the accident that would have caused a sturdy car like the Ambassador (Wikipedia link) to be so crushed and mangled. And what about the driver and occupants? Chances of anyone surviving such a horrific accident are slim, to say the least.

So who are the idiots here? Knowing how accidents happen on Indian roads, one can surmise the possible candidates:
  • Speeding. By someone.
  • Drunk driving.
  • Driving on the wrong side of the road.
  • Running an intersection at high speed. This crash looks more like a side impact, judging by the second photo, so a severe side-swipe cannot be ruled out.
  • Driver falling asleep.
  • Slippery road conditions.
  • Mechanical failure.
  • Animals on road, causing the driver to lose control or hit an animal that sends the car careening out of control.
Take your pick. There may or may not have been an idiot here, but chances that one or more were indeed involved.

The light brown facade in the background is that of an apartment complex - Mantri Paradise I believe. There is a "Fabmall" department store also visible in the background. The chain went bust a few years ago, and was bought over by the Aditya Birla Group and rebranded as "More".

View Larger Map

© 2011, Abhinav Agarwal. All rights reserved.

Amazon Kindle Big Deal Sale

A few weeks back Amazon had a "Sunshine Deals" (see my blog post, Amazon Kindle Sunshine Deals) on hundreds of ebooks at prices as low as $0.99, $1.99, and $2.99. That deal ended on June 15, 2011.

It seems that must have been a success, because Amazon is back with a "Big Deals" sale on over 900 Kindle ebooks, at low prices, for $0.99, $1.99, $2.99, and $3.99. This sale ends in less than a week from now, on July 27, 2011. On most of the ebooks on offer, the prices are available at a steep discount off their regular ebook prices, and several clock in a 90% discount when compared with their hardcover or paperback list prices.
These are ebooks, so you can read them with a Kindle (The 6" wi-fi-only device, with 3G connectivity,  the larger Kindle DX, or the newest one that includes special offers) reading device, or via a Kindle app, available on a variety of devices like the Windows PC, Mac, iPhone, Android, etc...

You can browse the bestseller's list, Editors' picks, those at $0.99, at $1.99, at $2.99, and at $3.99.

From the Business & Investing section, I could spot several interesting titles:
The highly popular book that grew out of an HBR article, Competing on Analytics: The New Science of Winning, and its sequel, Analytics at Work: Smarter Decisions, Better Results; the original tome on the Balanced Scorecard methodology, The Balanced Scorecard: Translating Strategy into Action; Congress MP and one-time UN official Shashi Tharoor's The Elephant, The Tiger, And the Cell Phone: Reflections on India - the Emerging 21st-Century Power; marketing guru and serial blogger Seth Godin's Unleashing the SUPER Ideavirus; management guru John Kotter's A Sense of Urgency, Buy-In: Saving Your Good Idea from Getting Shot Down, and The Heart of Change: Real-Life Stories of How People Change Their Organizations; Vijay Govindarajan and Chris Timble's The Other Side of Innovation: Solving the Execution Challenge (Harvard Business Review); psychologist and Harvard professor Howard Gardner's Five Minds for the Future; management guru and the propounder of the theory of 'disruptive innovations' Clayton Christensen's The Innovator's Solution: Creating and Sustaining Successful Growth; Groundswell, Expanded and Revised Edition: Winning in a World Transformed by Social Technologies; a book for aspiring management consultants - Lords of Strategy: The Secret Intellectual History of the New Corporate World; the blockbuster bestseller on time management, by Stephen Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

© 2011, Abhinav Agarwal. All rights reserved.