Monday, November 30, 2009

thought for today

SAS Newsletter: "Whatever the unpleasantness of circumstances, however disagreeable the conduct of others, you must learn to receive them with a perfect calm and without any disturbing reaction. These things are the test of equality. It is easy to be calm and equal when things go well and people and circumstances are pleasant; it is when they are the opposite that the completeness of the calm, peace, equality can be tested, reinforced, made perfect.

- Sri Aurobindo [SABCL, 23:662-63]"

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Pankaj Mishra

He writes on the significance of 9.11 in India.

ON the evening of Sept. 11, 2001, I hurried through a dark apple orchard to the nearest television in this Himalayan village. My landlord opened his door reluctantly, and then appeared unmoved by the news I had just received by phone. I struggled to explain the enormity of what was happening, the significance of New York, the iconic status of the World Trade Center — to no avail. It was time for his evening prayers; the television could not be turned on.

I did not witness the horrific sights of 9/11 until three days later. Since then, cable television and even broadband Internet have arrived in Mashobra and in my own home. Now the world’s manifold atrocities are always available for brisk inspection on India’s many 24-hour news channels. Indeed, the brutal terrorist assault on Mumbai that killed 163 people a year ago was immediately proclaimed as India’s own 9/11 by the country’s young TV anchors, who seem to model themselves on Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly. Yet, on the first anniversary of “26/11,” it seems as remote as 9/11 to the inhabitants of this village.

There is no great mystery behind this indifference, which is distinct from callousness. India, where most people still depend on agriculture for a living, has just suffered one of its most serious droughts in decades. The outlook for winter crops is bleak; many farmers have committed suicide in recent months, adding to the epidemic of rural suicides over the last few years.

Politically, too, India has lurched from one crisis to another in the last year. Prudent financial regulation saved India from the worst effects of the worldwide economic recession. But the rage of people who feel themselves not only left behind but victimized by corporate-driven and urban-oriented economic growth has erupted into violence; the Indian government has called for an all-out war against the Maoist insurgent groups that now administer large parts of central India. Anti-India insurgencies in Kashmir and the northeast continue to simmer, exacting a little-reported but high daily toll.

Geopolitically, India’s room to maneuver has shrunk since the Mumbai attacks. Last November, middle-class nationalist fury, though initially directed at inept Indian authorities, settled on Pakistan, where the attacks were partly planned and financed. The writer Shashi Tharoor described “India’s leaders and strategic thinkers” as watching Israel’s assault on Gaza last winter with “empathy,” and wondering “why can’t we do the same?” One hopes Mr. Tharoor, who has since become India’s junior foreign minister, is today more aware of why India can’t do a Gaza or Lebanon on its nuclear-armed neighbor.

As Western anxiety about nuclear-armed Pakistan’s stability deepens, India can barely afford aggressive rhetoric, let alone military retaliation, against its longtime foe. Pakistan remains vital to Western campaigns against Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Aware of its strategic importance, Pakistan has been in no hurry to accede to India’s demands to prosecute those it holds responsible for the Mumbai massacre. (One hopes the charges filed against seven radicals on Wednesday mark a real change.) Islamabad has also upped the rhetorical ante by accusing India of backing the violent secessionist movement in Baluchistan, in western Pakistan.

India’s seeming impotence enrages those in the new right-wing news media who are eager to commemorate 26/11, and to make that ersatz shorthand signify India’s unavenged humiliation and shame. Prabhu Chawla, the editor of India Today, the country’s leading newsmagazine, expressed the frustration of many middle-class nationalists: “India, divided by politics, doesn’t know what to do with its enemy or with its much-mauled nationalist soul. We are as clueless as we were on that dreadful November night one year ago.”

That may be true, but in a country where 400 million live without electricity, it isn’t easy to manufacture, or sustain, a national consensus. In any case, things are not as bad as the pundits make out. The lone surviving Mumbai killer is already on trial; his accomplices are being gradually apprehended. There have been no major retaliatory attacks against Muslims. There are stirrings of a civic, even political, consciousness among rich Indians who, until the Mumbai massacre, were largely unaffected by our frequent terrorist bombings.

India may have been passive after the Mumbai attacks. But India has not launched wars against either abstract nouns or actual countries that it has no hope of winning or even disengaging from. Another major terrorist assault on our large and chaotic cities is very probable, but it is unlikely to have the sort of effect that 9/11 had on America.

This is largely because many Indians still live with a sense of permanent crisis, of a world out of joint, where violence can be contained but never fully prevented, and where human action quickly reveals its tragic limits. The fatalism I sense in my village may be the consolation of the weak, of those powerless to shape the world to their ends. But it also provides a built-in check against the arrogance of power — and the hubris that has made America’s response to 9/11 so disastrously counterproductive.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Duba Dubai!

Jim Crane talks about some ridiculous projects Dubai has created.

You underestimate Dubai at your own risk. Its concoctions look ridiculous to rational-minded people. It is difficult to believe the city can succeed. But it does. Over and over, for decades, Dubai has humiliated its naysayers.

This time, though, Dubai's mistake could inflict lasting damage. The projects behind the city's debts may have been flights of fancy – artificial islands larger than Hong Kong, water-sucking golf courses, and an amusement zone bigger than Orlando – but the debts behind them are not. The damage could take years to live down.

Dubai, with all of its excess, is the biggest thing to happen in the Arab world for 700 years. Its rise is part of an eastward shift in the Middle East's centre of gravity, from the old Mediterranean capitals to the brash new ones on the Gulf. Dubai's success is important for the region, and for the rest of us who would like to see more stability in this roiled part of the world, where the conflicts often spill into our streets.

Egypt, with its unemployed masses, could make use of Dubai's incentives for foreign investment. Syria might adopt its free trade ways. Iraq and Israel could use a dose of its religious tolerance. And the Gulf neighbours might streamline their bureaucracies as Dubai has.

Of course, Dubai also offers examples of what not to do. The emirate's abusive in-sourcing of labour, already commonplace across the Gulf, is deeply in need of reform. And in real estate, one hopes Dubai's crash has taught admirers what not to copy.

The emirate's rise has also come at the expense of the environment. Dubaians, with their monster 4x4s and chilled swimming pools, are the world's most prolific polluters.

Dubai's miscalculation this week could see its Gulf leadership passed to rivals in neighbouring Abu Dhabi or in Doha, in nearby Qatar. These more conservative cities are underpinned by energy earnings and don't need to take Dubai-style risks.

Right now, Dubai is still the most important service centre in a growing region. Sheikh Mohammed and his small team of advisers need to put things right to stay there.

Jim Krane is the author of Dubai: The Story of the World's Fastest City

Michael Wesch from KSU on how to teach

Meg Taylor forwarded this article to me, that is so relevant. We need to change our teaching from recalling information to learning tools to be able to be knowledge producers.

Here is the complete article.

From Knowledgable to Knowledge-able: Learning in New Media Environments
Posted January 7th, 2009 by Michael Wesch , Kansas State University
Tags: Essays,Teaching and Technology,anthropology,Assessment,information revolution,multimedia,participatory learning,Web 2.0
2 Comments | 16520 Page Views

Most university classrooms have gone through a massive transformation in the past ten years. I'm not talking about the numerous initiatives for multiple plasma screens, moveable chairs, round tables, or digital whiteboards. The change is visually more subtle, yet potentially much more transformative. As I recently wrote in a Britannica Online Forum:
There is something in the air, and it is nothing less than the digital artifacts of over one billion people and computers networked together collectively producing over 2,000 gigabytes of new information per second. While most of our classrooms were built under the assumption that information is scarce and hard to find, nearly the entire body of human knowledge now flows through and around these rooms in one form or another, ready to be accessed by laptops, cellphones, and iPods. Classrooms built to re-enforce the top-down authoritative knowledge of the teacher are now enveloped by a cloud of ubiquitous digital information where knowledge is made, not found, and authority is continuously negotiated through discussion and participation.1
This new media environment can be enormously disruptive to our current teaching methods and philosophies. As we increasingly move toward an environment of instant and infinite information, it becomes less important for students to know, memorize, or recall information, and more important for them to be able to find, sort, analyze, share, discuss, critique, and create information. They need to move from being simply knowledgeable to being knowledge-able.

The sheer quantity of information now permeating our environment is astounding, but more importantly, networked digital information is also qualitatively different than information in other forms. It has the potential to be created, managed, read, critiqued, and organized very differently than information on paper and to take forms that we have not yet even imagined. To understand the true potentials of this “information revolution” on higher education, we need to look beyond the framework of “information.” For at the base of this “information revolution” are new ways of relating to one another, new forms of discourse, new ways of interacting, new kinds of groups, and new ways of sharing, trading, and collaborating. Wikis, blogs, tagging, social networking and other developments that fall under the “Web 2.0” buzz are especially promising in this regard because they are inspired by a spirit of interactivity, participation, and collaboration. It is this “spirit” of Web 2.0 which is important to education. The technology is secondary. This is a social revolution, not a technological one, and its most revolutionary aspect may be the ways in which it empowers us to rethink education and the teacher-student relationship in an almost limitless variety of ways.

Physical, Social, and Cognitive Structures Working Against Us
But there are many structures working against us. Our physical structures were built prior to an age of infinite information, our social structures formed to serve different purposes than those needed now, and the cognitive structures we have developed along the way now struggle to grapple with the emerging possibilities.

The physical structures are easiest to see, and are on prominent display in any large “state of the art” classroom. Rows of fixed chairs often face a stage or podium housing a computer from which the professor controls at least 786,432 points of light on a massive screen. Stadium seating, sound-absorbing panels and other acoustic technologies are designed to draw maximum attention to the professor at the front of the room. The “message” of this environment is that to learn is to acquire information, that information is scarce and hard to find (that's why you have to come to this room to get it), that you should trust authority for good information, and that good information is beyond discussion (that's why the chairs don't move or turn toward one another). In short, it tells students to trust authority and follow along.

This is a message that very few faculty could agree with, and in fact some may use the room to launch spirited attacks against it. But the content of such talks are overshadowed by the ongoing hour-to-hour and day-to-day practice of sitting and listening to authority for information and then regurgitating that information on exams.

Many faculty may hope to subvert the system, but a variety of social structures work against them. Radical experiments in teaching carry no guarantees and even fewer rewards in most tenure and promotion systems, even if they are successful. In many cases faculty are required to assess their students in a standardized way to fulfill requirements for the curriculum. Nothing is easier to assess than information recall on multiple-choice exams, and the concise and “objective” numbers satisfy committee members busy with their own teaching and research.

Even in situations in which a spirit of exploration and freedom exist, where faculty are free to experiment to work beyond physical and social constraints, our cognitive habits often get in the way. Marshall McLuhan called it “the rear-view mirror effect,” noting that “We see the world through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future.”2

Most of our assumptions about information are based on characteristics of information on paper. On paper we thought of information as a “thing” with a material form, and we created elaborate hierarchies to classify each piece of information in its own logical place. But as David Weinberger and Clay Shirky have demonstrated, networked digital information is fundamentally different than information on paper.3 And each digital innovation seems to shake us free from yet another assumption we once took for granted.

Even something as simple as the hyperlink taught us that information can be in more than one place at one time, challenging our traditional space-time based notions of information as a “thing” that has to be “in a place.” Google began harnessing the links and revolutionized our research with powerful machine-assisted searching.

Blogging came along and taught us that anybody can be a creator of information. Suddenly anybody can create a blog in a matter of seconds. And people have responded. Technorati now reports that there are over 133 million blogs, almost 133 million more than there were just five years ago. YouTube and other video sharing sites have sparked similar widespread participation in the production of video. Over 10,000 hours of video are uploaded to the web everyday. In the past six months more material has been uploaded to YouTube than all of the content ever aired on major network television. While such media beg for participation, our lecture halls are still sending the message, “follow along.”

Wikipedia has taught us yet another lesson, that a networked information environment allows people to work together in new ways to create information that can rival (and even surpass) the content of experts by almost any measure. The message of Wikipedia is not “trust authority” but “explore authority.” Authorized information is not beyond discussion on Wikipedia, information is authorized through discussion, and this discussion is available for the world to see and even participate in. This culture of discussion and participation is now available on any website with the emerging “second layer” of the web through applications like Diigo which allow you to add notes and tags to any website anywhere.

Sports, Sex and the Case of Caster Semeya

Ariel Levy has an indepth piece on the confusion regarding South African runner Caster Semeya's gender.

hen people in South Africa say “Limpopo,” they mean the middle of nowhere. They are referring to the northernmost province of the country, along the border with Botswana, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique, where few people have cars or running water or opportunities for greatness. The members of the Moletjie Athletics Club, who live throughout the area in villages of small brick houses and mud-and-dung huts, have high hopes nonetheless.

One day in late September, twenty teen-age athletes gathered for practice on a dirt road in front of Rametlwana Lower Primary School, after walking half an hour through yellow cornfields from their homes, to meet their coach, Jeremiah Mokaba. The school’s track is not graded, and donkeys and goats kept walking across it to graze on the new grass that was sprouting as the South African winter gave way to spring. “During the rainy season, we can’t train,” said Mokaba, a short man wearing a brown corduroy jacket with a golden Zion Christian Church pin on the lapel. “We have nowhere to go inside.”

For cross-country, Mokaba and his co-coach, Phineas Sako, train their runners in the miles of bush that spread out behind the track, toward the mountains in the distance. The land is webbed with brambles, and the thorns are a serious problem for the athletes, who train barefoot. “They run on loose stones, scraping them, making a wound, making a scar,” Sako, a tall, bald man with rheumy eyes and a big gap between his two front teeth, said. “We can’t stop and say we don’t have running shoes, because we don’t have money. The parents don’t have money. So what must we do? We just go on.”

The athletes and their coaches apologized for not having a clubhouse in which to serve tea. They didn’t like talking out in the wind and the dust. There was music playing down the road at a brick-front bar, and chickens squawking in people’s front yards, where they are kept in enclosures made out of tree branches. “The most disadvantaged rural area,” Sako said, laughing a little and stretching his arms out wide. “That is where you are.”

The fastest runner in the club now is a seventeen-year-old named Andrew who recently became the district champion in the fifteen-hundred-metre event. The average monthly income for black Africans in Limpopo—more than ninety-seven per cent of the local population—is less than a thousand rand per month, roughly a hundred and thirty-five dollars. (For white residents, who make up two per cent of the population, it is more than four times that amount.) “I think I will go to the Olympics,” Andrew said, with conviction.

Joyce, a tiny girl in a pink sweater who is eighteen but looked much younger, was similarly optimistic. “I want to be the world champion,” she said, her voice so soft it was almost a whisper. “I will be the world champion. I want to participate in athletics and have a scholarship. Caster is making me proud. She won. She put our club on the map.”

Caster Semenya, the current world champion in the eight hundred metres, was a member of the Moletjie Athletics Club until a year ago. She was born in Ga-Masehlong, a village about fifteen miles from the track, and she was, Coach Sako said, “a natural.” Even before Semenya left Limpopo for college, in Pretoria, she had won a gold medal in her event at the 2008 Commonwealth Youth Games, in Pune, India, with a time of 2:04, eleven seconds behind the senior world record set by the Czech runner Jarmila Kratochvílová in 1983. “I used to tell Caster that she must try her level best,” Sako said. “By performing the best, maybe good guys with big stomachs full of money will see her and then help her with schooling and the likes. That is the motivation.” He added, “And she always tried her level best.” Semenya won another gold medal in July, in Mauritius, at the African Junior Athletics Championships, lowering her time by a remarkable seven and a half seconds, to come in at 1:56.72. This beat the South African record for that event, held by Zola Budd, and qualified Semenya for her first senior competition, the 2009 World Championships, in Berlin.

Semenya won the eight-hundred-metre title by nearly two and a half seconds, finishing in 1:55.45. After the first lap of the race, she cruised past her competitors like a machine. She has a powerful stride and remarkable efficiency of movement: in footage of the World Championships, you can see the other runners thrashing behind her, but her trunk stays still, even as she is pumping her muscle-bound arms up and down. Her win looks effortless, inevitable. “Even when we were training, I used to pair her with the males,” Sako told me. “I feel like she was too powerful for ladies.” It was a stunning victory for Semenya, for the Moletjie Athletics Club, and for South Africa.

After the race, Semenya told reporters, “Oh, man, I don’t know what to say. It’s pretty good to win a gold medal and bring it home.” (Her voice is surprising. As Semenya’s father, Jacob, has put it, “If you speak to her on the telephone, you might mistake her for a man.”) She continued, “I didn’t know I could win that race, but for the first time in my life the experience, the World Championships . . .” She broke into a grin. “I couldn’t believe it, man.”

Hard to go back

NYT's reports on the experience of some Indian's educated here and in Europe that go back to India and their experiences.

NEW DELHI — When 7-year-old Shiva Ayyadurai left Mumbai with his family nearly 40 years ago, he promised himself he would return to India someday to help his country.

Mr. Ayyadurai, now 45, moved from Boston to New Delhi hoping to make good on that promise. An entrepreneur and lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, with a fistful of American degrees, he was the first recruit of an ambitious government program to lure talented scientists of the so-called desi diaspora back to their homeland.

“It seemed perfect,” he said recently of the job opportunity.

It wasn’t.

As Mr. Ayyadurai sees it now, his Western business education met India’s notoriously inefficient, opaque government, and things went downhill from there. Within weeks, he and his boss were at loggerheads. Last month, his job offer was withdrawn. Mr. Ayyadurai has moved back to Boston.

In recent years, Mother India has welcomed back tens of thousands of former emigrants and their offspring. When he visited the United States this week, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh personally extended an invitation “to all Indian-Americans and nonresident Indians who wish to return home.” But, like Mr. Ayyadurai, many Indians who spent most of their lives in North America and Europe are finding they can’t go home again.

About 100,000 “returnees” will move from the United States to India in the next five years, estimates Vivek Wadhwa, a research associate at Harvard University who has studied the topic. These repats, as they are known, are drawn by India’s booming economic growth, the chance to wrestle with complex problems and the opportunity to learn more about their heritage. They are joining multinational companies, starting new businesses and even becoming part of India’s sleepy government bureaucracy.

But a study by Mr. Wadhwa and other academics found that 34 percent of repats found it difficult to return to India — compared to just 13 percent of Indian immigrants who found it difficult to settle in the United States. The repats complained about traffic, lack of infrastructure, bureaucracy and pollution.

For many returnees the cultural ties and chance to do good that drew them back are overshadowed by workplace cultures that feel unexpectedly foreign, and can be frustrating. Sometimes returnees discover that they share more in their attitudes and perspectives with other Americans or with the British than with other Indians. Some stay just a few months, some return to the West after a few years.

Returnees run into trouble when they “look Indian but think American,” said Anjali Bansal, managing partner in India for Spencer Stuart, the global executive search firm. People expect them to know the country because of how they look, but they may not be familiar with the way things run, she said. Similarly, when things don’t operate the way they do in the United States or Britain, the repats sometimes complain.

“India can seem to have a fairly ambiguous and chaotic way of working, but it works,” Ms. Bansal said. “I’ve heard people say things like ‘It is so inefficient or it is so unprofessional.’ ” She said it was more constructive to just accept customs as being different.

Sometimes, the better fit for a job in India is an expatriate who has experience working in emerging markets, rather than someone born in India who has only worked in the United States, she said.

While several Indian-origin authors have penned soul-searching tomes about their return to India, and dozens of business books exist for Western expatriates trying to do business here, the guidelines for the returning Indian manager or entrepreneur are still being drawn.

“Some very simple practices that you often take for granted, such as being ethical in day to day situations, or believing in the rule of law in everyday behavior, are surprisingly absent in many situations,” said Raju Narisetti, who was born in Hyderabad and returned to India in 2006 to found a business newspaper called Mint, which is now the country’s second-biggest business paper by readership.

He said he left earlier than he expected because of a “troubling nexus” of business, politics and publishing that he called “draining on body and soul.” He returned to the United States this year to join The Washington Post.

There are no shortcuts to spending lots of time working in the country, returnees say. “There are so many things that are tricky about doing business in India that it takes years to figure it out,” said Sanjay Kamlani, the co-chief executive of Pangea3, a legal outsourcing firm with offices in New York and Mumbai. Mr. Kamlani was born in Miami, where his parents emigrated from Mumbai, but he has started two businesses with Indian operations.

Friday, November 27, 2009


Tara Pope writes about how people with food issues have a lot of problems during the holidays.

For Thanksgiving dinner, what side dish would you prefer to accompany your turkey — a serving of well-marinated conflict over how much or how little you eat, or some nice, fresh criticism of your cooking skills?

As families gather around the country this week to celebrate Thanksgiving, many of them are bracing for the intense emotions of the holiday meal. The combination of food and family often brings out longstanding tensions, criticism and battles for control. Simple issues like cooking with butter or asking for seconds are fraught with family conflict and commentary.

“If we had an audiotape of a lot of families talking together, you would hear so much chatter about what other people are eating, who gained weight, who lost weight, who’s eating like a bird, who’s having seconds,” notes Cynthia M. Bulik, director of the eating disorders program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Dr. Bulik told the story of a patient whose mother scolded her for not eating her homemade cookies. “You don’t like my cookies?” she asked. As a result, the daughter relented and took a cookie. But when she then reached for a second, her mother scolded her again. “Do you really think you need another one?” she asked her.

When your spouse is your business partner

Interesting to learn how different personality types interact.

November 27, 2009, 9:12 am When Your Spouse Is Your Business Partner
If you have to be a little crazy to be an entrepreneur, going into business with your spouse must represent a special kind of lunacy. My husband, Chris, and I have been business partners for more than six years. In that time we’ve started two businesses, sold one of them, had two kids and gotten more or less used to the daily roller coaster ride of entrepreneurial life.

Chris and I had a meeting of the business minds early on. We met back in 2000 at a wireless service provider where we were both working. Chris had just sold his share of a machine shop to his partner, and I had come skulking back to the “old economy” after two whirlwind years at dot-com ventures in Seattle. The job market was tight, and we were both hired for our experience, tenacity and M.B.A.s. When we announced our engagement a couple of years later, one of our co-workers said, “You two are nuts if you don’t start a business together.”

We became business partners about four months after our wedding. In many ways, our partnership works for the same reason that any business partnership does — we have complementary strengths and skills. His are sales and negotiation; mine are marketing and analysis. Chris is the consummate people person, while I don’t mind sitting alone and reading through contracts.

Underlying these different skill sets are two very different work styles. Chris has the focus and intensity of a laser beam, while I tend more toward a scattershot approach. Either method can be effective, but failure to understand — and respect — different work styles can be a major cause of stress, resentment and fractured communication in any relationship.

A small business is, well, small. You can’t exactly hide. Working with your business partner, then going home with him or her every night brings a level of closeness that most couples never encounter. Here are a few tips:

Understand your spouse’s work style
Several years ago, as part of the marketing department at a large public company, I participated in a team-building exercise based on the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator theory of personality type. The most valuable part of the workshop was learning my co-workers’ personality types. We had badges with the four-letter acronym for our type (I’m an INTP) stuck on the outside of our cubicles for weeks afterward. Every time I glanced at a badge underneath a co-worker’s name I’d think to myself, “Now I understand why that person drives me crazy.”

Understanding your spouse’s personality traits and work style can help you avoid the tendency to take things personally. If Chris focuses his laser on my work product, I don’t have to get defensive. If I’m tackling what appear to be too many projects at once, Chris doesn’t feel the need to pipe in with unsolicited direction. We know how the other guy works and appreciate that our differing approaches help make our partnership successful.

Set the ground rules for failure
Part of being an entrepreneur is learning from your mistakes. As George Naddaff, founder of Boston Chicken, once said, “No business, no problems. No problems, no business. Problems are opportunities for solutions.”

Chris and I know that we’re not going to be in complete agreement on every issue. We state our case to each other, sometimes forcefully, but at the end of the day someone’s going to have to give ground. We allow each other to experiment with some of the low-risk decisions — a new concept for a networking event, direct-marketing campaign or referral arrangement. If it works, we celebrate. If not, we don’t play the blame game.

Learn how to shut it off
One of the enormous perks associated with being in business with your spouse is the support that you’re able to give each other. I see many business owners — yes, they are usually male — whose spouses aren’t on board with their entrepreneurial endeavors. It’s not unusual for clients to seek our firm’s assistance in selling their business for the sole reason that their spouse has given them an ultimatum: It’s the business or me.

One of the downsides of being in business with your spouse is that the line between work and home doesn’t get blurred, it gets obliterated. After six years, Chris and I are still terrible at shutting off business after hours. Some of our best discussions are over morning coffee, on weekends, or at night after our kids are in bed. While it’s great that we can run our business 24/7 if need be, we’re aware that the shoptalk can become all-consuming. In the end, we know our priorities. We love our business, but we love each other more.

Are you and your spouse business partners? What are you finding to be the perks and pitfalls of running a business together? Any suggestions?

Edible School Yard

Cool ideas by Maira Kalman about thanksgiving and eating locally and creating an edible schoolyard. Beautiful

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Time to move back to Pakistan..

Mohsin Hamid writes that now is the time to be in Pakistan with the government finally taking on the Taliban.

My wife Zahra and I recently decided to move back to Pakistan. Many friends in London seem puzzled by our decision. That is understandable. Pakistan plays a recurring role as villain in the horror sub-industry within the news business. It is, we are constantly told, a place where car bombs go off in crowded markets, beheadings get recorded in grainy video, and nuclear weapons are assembled in frightening proximity to violent extremists.

August 14 is Pakistan's independence day. This year it also marked the birth of our daughter, Dina. (It was a close thing. Nineteen hours later and she would have been born on India's independence day. For a novelist, the symbolism would have been considerably more tricky. Fortunately Dina was in no mood to dally.)

Childbirth changed my perception of my wife. She was now the bloodied special forces soldier who had fought and risked everything for our family. I was the supportive spouse tasked with cheering her victory, celebrating her homecoming, and easing her convalescence. So I gave her a respectful few hours before suggesting that we uproot our lives and move across continents to a city thousands of miles away.

If we were waiting for a sign from the universe that now was the time to return to our native Lahore, I told her, then Dina's arrival was surely it.

Zahra regarded me steadily from her hospital bed. She said she was unaware that we had been waiting for such a sign. I promptly agreed to her suggestion that we defer the conversation for a month.

This period allowed me to reflect. London had been good to me. I arrived from New York shortly after my 30th birthday, intending to stay one year. Eight years on, I was still here. I met my wife in London (at a party in Maida Vale, to be precise). I wrote and published my second novel in London. I had my first child in London. London had given me friends, family, and – after two decades of part-time fiction-writing – the ability to make a living from prose.

Like many Bush-era self-exiles from the United States, I found that London combined much of what first attracted me to New York with a freedom America seemed to have lost in the paranoid years after 9/11. The international border at Heathrow felt more permeable than the one at JFK; the London broadsheets were more open to dissenting voices and more resistant to patriotic self-censorship than newspapers in the US; and the naturalisation process in the land of Buckingham Palace was – much to my surprise – considerably less tortuous than in the land of the Statue of Liberty.

Of course the UK had problems. Race relations was one. As a Pakistani friend who had also arrived here from America once pointed out to me: Dude, in this place we are the African-Americans. Another was the strange support for institutionalised aristocracies – including, to my mind, such related phenomena as the monarchy, a tax system of unequal benefits for the "non-domiciled" resident rich, and an economic model dependent on a financial services industry whose participants privatise the profits of risks borne publicly.

All in all, however, the UK was a home in which I thrived, and London was a wonderful and quite amazing city.

But my heart remained stubbornly Pakistani. I wore a green wig to the Twenty20 world cup final at Lord's last summer. And although I left Lahore at 18 to study abroad, the city of my birth never lost its grip on me. I continued to go there often, usually for two- or three- month-long trips every year and a couple of year-long stays each decade.

Above all, I never believed in the role Pakistan plays as a villain on news shows. The Pakistan I knew was the out-of-character Pakistan, Pakistan without its makeup and plastic fangs, a working actor with worn-out shoes, a close family, and a hearty laugh.

Yes, these are troubled times for the country. Friends of mine in Lahore tell me their children have not gone to school in three weeks because of fears of a Beslan-style terrorist atrocity. The university where my sister teaches has been installing shatterproof window film. Hundreds of people have been killed in attacks on Pakistan's cities since the army launched its operation in Waziristan last month.

But there is reason to be hopeful. After a long history of backing religious militants, the state and army may finally be getting serious about taking them on. Swat was successfully wrested from Taliban control this summer. The Waziristan offensive is said to be proceeding well. Pakistani public opinion has hardened against the extremists, and at the same time an increasingly independent media and judiciary are amplifying popular demands for a redistribution of resources to the poor. It is possible that out of the current uncertainty and bloodshed a more equitable and tolerant Pakistan will be born.

So when, a month after Dina's arrival, Zahra and I again discussed Pakistan, we decided to go. Given the peripatetic nature of my life so far, I don't know how long we'll stay there. Maybe a year, maybe 10, maybe for ever.

But I do know this. When it comes to where we think Pakistan is heading, we are voting with our feet.

Dinner at the Obamas for the Singhs

More images here.

Monday, November 23, 2009

SAS Newsletter

SAS Newsletter: "What is the best attitude? Is it an attitude of intervention or an attitude of non-interference? Which is better?
Ah, that's just it, to intervene you must be sure that you are right; you must be sure that your vision of things is superior, preferable or truer than the vision of the other person or people. Then it is always wiser not to intervene - people intervene without rhyme or reason, simply because they are in the habit of giving their opinion to others.
Even when you have the vision of the true thing, it is very rarely wise to intervene. It only becomes indispensable when someone wants to do something which will necessarily lead to a catastrophe. Even then, intervention is not always very effective.
In fact, intervention is justified only when you are absolutely sure that you have the vision of truth. Not only that, but also a clear vision of the consequences. To intervene in someone else's actions, one must be a prophet - a prophet. And a prophet with total goodness and compassion. One must even have the vision of the consequences that the intervention will have in the destiny of the other person. People are always giving each other advice: 'Do this, don't do that.' I see it: they have no idea how much confusion they create, how they increase confusion and disorder. And sometimes they impair the normal development of the individual.

- The Mother [CWMCE, 10:237]"

Progressive Education

Here is a blog by The Robert Parker School Principal. Here is an article by a parent from the same school.

by Sarah Firisen

I have spent a lot of time recently thinking about corporate innovation; how to define it, how to inspire ideation and how companies can move forward in their implementation of ideas. And the more I read and think about innovation, the more I realize that something far greater is at stake here than just the ability of US companies to create new product lines and services during a recession. I want to make the case that there is a fundamental, philosophical problem with the US education system, and that if the current educational trends for most of the children in the US aren’t addressed, then the ability for this country to generate innovative scientists, politicians and business leaders out of future generations will be drastically undermined. The extent to which this is a valid concern was highlighted in the recent Newsweek-Intel Global Innovation Survey and its companion article.

Some of my basic premises are drawn from Daniel Pink’s A Whole New Mind and Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat, both of which I thoroughly recommend. My premises are as follows:

A combination of technological advances and globalization have increased outsourcing and automation of tasks to the point where soon, any rule-based, linear thinking business activity that can be outsourced to a computer process or to another country will be. Countries, like China and India, have highly educated populations who are increasingly able and willing to perform the white-collar jobs of Americans and Europeans at a fraction of the cost, and these are only the most recently successful recipients of outsourcing, other countries are quickly catching up. Technological advances have meant that the outsourcing of this work can often be seamless and transparent to the end-user. In addition, time-differences enable companies to have a 24-hour workforce without paying anyone overtime to work a night shift.

When I’ve suggested to friends in the accounting field that this is precisely the kind of very left-brained, linear field that is in danger they have touted the constantly changing accounting rules as evidence that there are aspects of this field, audit for example, that will always be safe from total automation. To these people I have only one thing to say: TurboTax. Personal income tax laws change every year and all this means is that Intuit, who make TurboTax get to sell a new version of the software every year. This is still better value, for most people, than paying an accountant.

The real opportunity the US has to continue to be a dominant economic force in the new economy lies with its proven track record for inventiveness and innovation. This NPR story is very illustrative of my point; while almost all of the components of Apple’s iPhone are made and assembled in Asia, the lion’s share of the profit from each sale remains in the US, “[Apple] gets as much as half the profit for every gadget it sells. That's because Apple creates and designs things -- that's where the real money is. And the best jobs.”

Invention and innovation involve a combination of left-brained and right-brained skills; while a factual understanding of the concepts involved are usually necessary, they are almost never sufficient, there is always an element of pure creativity involved. This argument is outlined in the 2008 New Yorker piece, The Eureka Hunt which discusses the work being done in creative cognition at Northwestern University by Mark Jung-Beeman, a cognitive neuroscientist. For my purposes at least, the work illustrates the vital role played by both hemispheres of the brain in moments of “insight” solutions to problems. The essence of innovation is the creation of solutions to problems, even if they are problems that most people didn’t realize they had, therefore innovation and invention require a combination of left-brained and right-brained skills and activities.

Daniel Pink posits that there are six right-brained directed “senses” which are essential to the kinds of creativity and innovation which are going to be increasingly necessary going forward into the 21st century. These are: design, story, symphony, play, empathy and meaning.

According to Pink, design is a high-concept skill that is difficult to outsource and to automate. Looking at the increasingly large field of Smartphones, surely one of the major distinctions that an iPhone holds is great design. There is a reason that the Museum of Modern Art has multiple Apple products in its Architecture and Design collection. Good design isn’t merely about aesthetics, it informs the whole product.

Story/narrative, is how the human mind best understands and translates the world. Stories are how we pass down our histories and our culture. Pink quotes cognitive scientist Roger C. Schank, “Humans are not ideally set up to understand logic; they are ideally set up to understand stories.”
Symphony, as defined in The Whole Mind is, I think, what is really involved in Mark Jung-Beeman’s “insight solutions to problems.” It’s the ability to make cognitive connections, see patterns, to synthesize. It is really the defining aspect of right-brained thinking: seeing the woods and not just the trees.

Empathy, the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes is part of the essence of what makes us human. Firms like Zappos have embraced the notion of empathy and fully integrated it into their business process. Customer service representatives are allowed, actually encouraged, to go above and beyond, both in time and effort in order to empathize with customers; they have imposed an “ethos of live human connection on the chilly, anonymous bazaar of the Internet.”

Play/humor/fun are increasingly being recognized as necessary components in human cognition. The website posits that “fun is the easiest way to change people’s behaviour for the better.” Southwest Airlines, one of the world’s most profitable airlines, has integrated the idea of fun as part of its core commitment to customers, ”it just goes to show that time really does fly when you’re having fun!”

The final “sense” described in A Whole Mind, is meaning. The claim is that what truly motivates people is not money (once basic needs have been fulfilled), but rather a sense of purpose. Again, this is a mantra embraced by Zappos and Southwest both of which encourage employees to feel that they are part of something bigger than corporate profit and rather are part of an almost spiritual mission to make the world a better place.

Over the last few decades the American (and I’m sure many European) education system’s response to the “threat” from globalization and the diminishing math skills of students next to those from India, China, etc, has been to focus more and more on rote memorization of facts and standardized tests - left-brained activities, usually at the expense of recess, music and art programs and social studies - right-brained activities.

This trend has only be accelerated and deepened by the No Child Left Behind act (NCLB). A frequent criticism of the act is that it encourages teachers to focus on teaching a narrow, clearly measurable set of skills at the expense of a deeper, integrated, more organic understanding of a subject; they “teach to the test.” It also encourages schools to narrow their curriculum to focus on math and English language skills at the expense of art, music, social studies, foreign languages, physical education and recess. And if this wasn’t bad enough in and of itself, our math skills aren’t even increasing as a country, we’re actually falling more behind. According to the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, “U.S. children have made less academic progress since NCLB came into effect than in the preceding period, and the achievement gap has not narrowed as significantly.” -

The conclusion I draw from these premises is that not only are we not educating our children to be creative, innovative, inventive leaders for the 21st century, we are not even improving our ability to compete in traditional left-brained-based activities with other countries. When it comes to educating our children, we not encouraging creativity we are actively discouraging it, devaluing it. Children start kindergarten or preschool as creative little people who love to learn and to explore the world around them. And slowly, but surely, this is driven out of them wherever, whenever possible by our education system. Play, rather than being a way to let their imaginations take flight, to explore limitless possibilities, is a waste of valuable school time. Suddenly there’s no room for dress-up in kindergarten and 5 year olds are getting stressed because they have so much homework to do. Why do 5 year olds, or 6 and 7 year olds, for that matter have any homework?

My children, aged 6 and 9 go to a local, small independent school, the Robert C. Parker School, that I really believe is educating the whole child and truly teaching the combination of left-brained/right-brained skills that are needed and are going to be increasingly valuable in the future. Only now, when she is in fourth grade, does my daughter get any kind of regular homework, and then only about 20 minutes approximately twice a week. The school has an integrated curriculum which weaves common themes through reading, math, music, art, social studies, Spanish and science; truly teaching whole brained learning. The school is a safe learning environment which encourages the children to become academic risk takers, “Genuine knowledge is rooted in children’s experiences of work and play. Building on previous experiences, children learn by making connections. We encourage independence of thought, emphasizing critical thinking and problem solving while teaching basic skills and competencies.” -

My children’s school does not participate in New York State standardized testing, except for New York State Regent's exams in preparation for high school, and multiple-choice tests are never part of the evaluation process. Graduating children thrive in whatever high school they end up at, always reporting back that they feel completely prepared in math and science and often excel at research and writing tasks compared to their peers. Teaching a child the best way to score high on a multiple-choice test teaches just that, it doesn’t teach critical thinking, it doesn’t encourage creativity, it absolutely precludes the development of higher order thinking skills, whole mind thinking, the kind of thinking that will be increasingly necessary in the new economy.

When considered in the light of the New Yorker piece and Mark Jung-Beeman’s work, perhaps the most egregious part of the decimation of a young child’s school day in the service of standardized test taking competence, and after school downtime by homework, is the minimizing of play. To extrapolate from The Eureka Hunt, if times of relaxation, meditation, and activities which lead to a general down-shifting in mental gears, allow the right-side of the brain to make the connections necessary for intellectual breakthroughs, then by depriving of our children of recess, dress-up, play for play sakes, we also deprive them of the time for right-brained connections to be made around the facts they are learning all day. And at an even more basic level, we are teaching them that learning isn’t fun, that education is a chore and we’re gradually drumming out of them all the curiosity and eagerness to learn and explore that they have when they first start school.

Schools are increasingly minimizing play and fun. Returning to Daniel Pink's six “senses”, by focusing more on the components of language arts that can be tested, schools focus less and less on creative writing, narrative. By compartmentalizing subjects into testable units, children lose the sense of symphony; they are learning Spanish as one subject, language arts as another, history as another. For the most part, schools do not have an integrated curriculum in the way that my children’s school does, so the connections between subjects are not highlighted and explored. A large component of my children’s math education is pattern recognition. If you only teach a child rote memorization of multiplication tables then they will only be able to multiply as far as they’ve memorized. However, if you teach them to recognize the patterns behind multiplication then their ability to extrapolate is limitless.

The case for how design is being banished from our children’s skill sets as art and music classes disappear is, perhaps, the easiest to make. I would hope that any school would focus on the importance of teaching meaning and empathy, but I do doubt whether an increasing determination to raise test scores at any cost on the part of schools and individual teachers really allow these important skills their due.

There seems to be a fundamental disconnect between the skills that are increasingly being valued in the workplace and beyond and how we are educating our children from kindergarten up. Why is this? And what will it take to realign our education system to teach to the whole child and to cultivate the whole mind? I don’t claim to have an answer to this question, but I do know that it’s a valid question and one that needs to be addressed quickly and forcefully if we want our children to compete and be successful in this new world and economy. I just know that I am grateful that my children love going to school each day and are getting an education that encourages independent thought, emphasizes critical thinking and problem solving. I just wish that this kind of education was available to every child and I don’t know how we hope to continue to be at the forefront of innovation if it isn’t.

thanks to 3 q D for the artilce.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Broken Embraces

This Pedro Almovodar movie is about death, memory, jealousy and a lot of feelings of guilt. Its quite heavy and depressing to watch.

Independent reviews it here.

After a run of world-class films that began 10 years ago with All about My Mother, Pedro Almodóvar has slightly taken his foot off the pedal here.
There is much to admire in the silky editing and kaleidoscopic narrative of this movie-inflected melodrama, though having set up its plot beautifully in the first hour the film somehow muffs the resolution of its multiple intrigues. Echoing Bad Education, it concerns a blind screenwriter, Harry Caine (Lluís Homar), who's hiding from his former identity as film-maker Mateo Blanco. Flashing back to the early 1990s we find Blanco involved in a passionate affair with Lena (Penélope Cruz), herself balancing a double identity as a humble PA and an aspiring actress – she will star in Blanco's new movie "Girls and Suitcases", itself a reworking of Almodóvar's Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. It's pleasant to get lost in this maze of doubles and duplicates, and to spot other movies in its densely allusive texture. Yet it's never truly exciting or affecting, and it doesn't take the emotional risks of, say, Talk to Her. Almodóvar shares with Alfred Hitchcock a natural obsession with movies and loves to quote them, which is fine as far as it goes; but the complexity of its plotting is not answered by a comparable sophistication of feeling. The director is toying with us, he knows it, and he knows we know it. This isn't a dud, it's just a small disappointment.

New Museum in Bowery

This new space in Manhattan is a welcome addition to the cultural landscape of Chinatown. I particulary enjoyed the exhibit of Nikhil Chopra.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Chinua Achebe

Chinua Achebe says Africans should tell their own stories.

The celebrated Nigerian author Chinua Achebe is to advise Penguin on a new series of books which aims to publish the very best in African writing.

Achebe's own short story collection, Girls at War, will be one of six inaugural books in the Penguin African Writers series, which launches this August and will also include Ngugi wa Thiong'o's Weep Not, Child, about the effects of the Mau Mau war on the ordinary people of Kenya, and the second novel by Zimbabwean Dambudzo Marechera.

"The last 500 years of European contact with Africa produced a body of literature that presented Africa in a very bad light and now the time has come for Africans to tell their own stories," said Achebe, author of the classics Things Fall Apart and Anthills of the Savannah. "Africa is not simple – often people want to simplify it, generalise it, stereotype its people, but Africa is very complex."

Achebe hopes the series will bring new energy to African literature, and will help it reach a wider audience. "This is really what I personally want to see – writers from all over Africa contributing to a definition of themselves, writing ourselves and our stories into history," he said. "One of the greatest things literature does is allow us to imagine; to identify with situations and people who live in completely different circumstances, in countries all over the world. Through this series, the creative exploration of those issues and experiences that are unique to the African consciousness will be given a platform, not only throughout Africa, but also beyond its shores."

Achebe, winner of the 2007 Man Booker international prize, was the original series editor of the Heinemann African Writers series, set up in 1962; he worked on the list for its first decade. The new series, which will be published by Penguin South Africa, will include some of the best of the Heinemann titles as well as new voices from across the African continent.

Achebe's own contribution to the launch list, Girls at War, was first published in 1972 and includes three stories set during the Biafran war. Marechera, who won the Guardian fiction prize for the short story collection The House of Hunger, is on the list for his second novel, Black Sunlight, about a photographer travelling across a war-battered Zimbabwe. It was initially banned in Zimbabwe following publication in 1980.

Guyana-born Karen King-Aribisala's Hangman's Game, which centres on the story of a young Guyanese woman writing an historical novel about the 1823 Demerara slave rebellion, sits alongside Neighbours: The Story of Murder by Mozambican Lilia Momple, which details a South African conspiracy to destabilise Mozambique and how it tragically affects the lives of ordinary people. Cote d'Ivoirian Veronique Tadjo's novel As the Crow Flies, a mosaic of 20th-century life, is the final title for the launch list.

"Storytelling is a creative component of human experience, and in order to share our experiences with the world, we as Africans need to recognise the importance of our own stories," said Achebe. "I am honoured to join Penguin in inviting young and upcoming writers to accept the challenge passed down by celebrated African authors of earlier decades and to continue to explore, confront and question the realities of life in Africa through their work; challenging Africa's people to lift her to her rightful place among the nations of the world."

Penguin also announced today that it would be establishing a new literary prize for African writers, which will offer the authors of previously unpublished works in both fiction and non-fiction the opportunity to win R50,000 (£3,800) and a contract with Penguin South Africa.

Zadie Smith

Zadie Smith writes in the Guardian about writing Essay as opposed to novels.

Why do novelists write essays? Most publishers would rather have a novel. Bookshops don't know where to put them. It's a rare reader who seeks them out with any sense of urgency. Still, in recent months Jonathan Safran Foer, Margaret Drabble, Chinua Achebe and Michael Chabon, among others, have published essays, and so this month will I. And though I think I know why I wrote mine, I wonder why they wrote theirs, and whether we all mean the same thing by the word "essay", and what an essay is, exactly, these days. The noun has an unstable history, shape-shifting over the centuries in its little corner of the OED.

Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays
by Zadie Smith
320pp,Hamish Hamilton,£20Buy Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays at the Guardian bookshopFor Samuel Johnson in 1755 it is: "A loose sally of the mind; an irregular undigested piece; not a regularly and orderly composition." And if this looks to us like one of Johnson's lexical eccentricities, we're chastened to find Joseph Addison, of all people, in agreement ("The wildness of these compositions that go by the name of essays") and behind them both three centuries of vaguely negative connotation. Beginning in the 1500s an essay is: the action or process of trying or testing; a sample, an example; a rehearsal; an attempt or endeavour; a trying to do something; a rough copy; a first draft. Not until the mid 19th century does it take on its familiar, neutral ring: "a composition more or less elaborate in style, though limited in range." Which is it, though, that attracts novelists – the comforts of limit or the freedom of irregularity?

A new book by the American novelist-essayist David Shields (to be published here by Hamish Hamilton early next year) makes the case for irregularity. In Reality Hunger: A Manifesto Shields argues passionately for the superiority of the messy real – of what we might call "truthiness" – over the careful creations of novelists, and other artists, who work with artificial and imagined narratives. For Shields it is exactly what is tentative, unmade and unpolished in the essay form that is important. He finds the crafted novel, with its neat design and completist attitude, to be a dull and generic thing, too artificial to deal effectively with what is already an "unbearably artificial world". He recommends instead that artists break "ever larger chunks of 'reality' into their work", via quotation, appropriation, prose poems, the collage novel . . . in short, the revenge of the real, by any means necessary. And conventional structure be damned. To make the point, Reality Hunger is itself without obvious authorial structure, piecing its arguments together by way of scattered aphorisms and quotation, an engaging form of bricolage. It's a tribute to Shields's skill that we remain unsure whether the entire manifesto is not in effect "built" rather than written, the sum of many broken pieces of the real simply shored up and left to vibrate against each other in significant arrangement. The result is thrilling to read, even if you disagree with much of it, as I do.

A deliberate polemic, it sets what one could be forgiven for thinking were two perfectly companionable instincts – the fictional and non-fictional – at war with each other. Shields likes to say such things as "Story seems to say everything happens for a reason, and I want to say No, it doesn't"; to which I want to say, "Bad story does that, yes, but surely good story exists, too". Anyway, there's a pleasure to be had reading and internally fighting with Shields's provocations, especially if you happen to be a novelist who writes essays (or a reader who enjoys both). The pages are filled with anti-fiction fighting talk: "The creators of characters, in the traditional sense, no longer manage to offer us anything more than puppets in which they themselves have ceased to believe." And: "All the best stories are true." And: "The world exists. Why recreate it?" It's tempting to chalk this up to one author's personal disappointments with the novel as a form (Shields hasn't written a novel since the early 90s), but in expressing his novel-nausea so frankly he hopes to show that he is not alone in having such feelings – and my sense is that he's right.

An excited American writing student gave me a proof copy of the book, and during a recent semester spent teaching I met many students equally enthused by Shields's ideas. Of course, it's easy to be cynical about this kind of student enthusiasm. Generally speaking, there are few things more exciting to a certain kind of writing student than the news that the imaginative novel is dead (with all its vulgar, sentimental, "bourgeois" – and hard to think up – plots, characters and dialogue). When your imagination fails you it's a relief to hear that it need no longer be part of a novelist's job description. But if "cui bono?" is a reasonable question to ask of writing students who may fear fiction is beyond them, who benefits when it is the novelists themselves who are grave-dancing?

I ask because Reality Hunger comes with "advance praise" from an impressive clutch of imaginative writers – Jonathan Lethem, Geoff Dyer, Tim Parks, Charles D'Ambrosio and Rick Moody, among others – all apparently eager to commit literary hara-kiri. Most striking is the response of John Coetzee, worth quoting in full: "A manifesto on behalf of a rising generation of writers and artists, a 'Make It New' for a new century, an all-out assault on tired generic conventions, particularly those that define the well-made novel. Drawing upon a wide range of sources both familiar and unfamiliar, David Shields takes us on an engaging and exhilarating intellectual journey. I enjoyed Reality Hunger immensely and found myself cheering Shields on. I, too, am sick of the well-made novel with its plot and its characters and its settings. I, too, am drawn to literature as (as Shields puts it) 'a form of thinking, consciousness, wisdom-seeking'. I, too, like novels that don't look like novels."

Coetzee is one of our finest novelists, and one whose nausea with the novel's form grows more evident with each publication. First-person journals, the wholesale importation of the autobiographical, philosophical allegory and the novel disguised as public lecture – he has used all these to circumvent the "well-made novel", that rather low form of literary activity that even as relatively un-neurotic a novelist as EM Forster found himself defining with a sigh: "Yes – oh dear, yes – the novel tells a story." But while aesthetic and ethical objections to the "well-made novel" are not difficult to understand, we should be careful not to let old literary pieties be replaced with new ones. This easy dismissal of well-made novels deserves a second look. In the first place, "well-made novel" seems to me to be a kind of Platonic bogeyman, existing everywhere in an ideal realm but in few spots on this earth. Reality Hunger wants us to believe that this taste for "novels that don't look like novels" is in some way unusual, the mark of a refined literary palate.

But even the most conventional account of our literary "canon" reveals the history of the novel to be simultaneously a history of nonconformity. For as readers we have loved and celebrated not some hazy general idea of the novel but rather the peculiar works of individual imaginations. Even in those familiar lists of "great novels", classics of the genre, and so on, it's hard to find a single "well-made" novel among them, if by well-made we mean something like "evenly shaped, regular, predictable and elegantly designed". Is War and Peace, with its huge tracts of undigested essay, absurd plotting and obscene length, a well-made novel? Is The Trial? And those neat Victorian novels we're now expected casually to revile – is it not only from a distance, and in the memory, that they look as neat as they do? Which of them is truly "well made"? Jane Eyre seemed hysterical and lopsided to its earliest readers; we now think of Middlemarch as the ultimate "proper" novel, forgetting how eccentric and strange it looked on publication, with its unwieldy and unfeminine scientific preoccupations and moral structure borrowed from Spinoza. In our classic novels there always remains something odd, unruly, as distinctly weird as Hardy's Little Father Time. Novels that don't look like novels? When it comes to the canon – to steal a line from Lorrie Moore – novels like that are the only novels here. And though it may well be the case that the pale copies of such books to be found in bookshops today are generic and conventional and make the delicate reader nauseous, is the fault really to be found with imagined narrative itself? Will the "lyrical essay", as Shields calls it, be the answer to the novel's problems? Is the very idea of plot, character and setting in the novel to be abandoned, no longer fit for our new purposes, and all ground ceded to the coolly superior, aphoristic essay?

In these arguments the new received wisdom is that all plots are "conventional" and all characters sentimental and bourgeois, and all settings bad theatrical backdrops, wooden and painted. Such objections are, I think, sincere responses to the experience of reading bad novels, and I don't doubt the sincerity of Shields or Coetzee or any writer who responds strongly to Reality Hunger as a manifesto. A bad novel is both an aesthetic and ethical affront to its readers, because it traduces reality, and does indeed make you hunger for a kind of writing that seems to speak truth directly. But I also feel, as someone who just finished a book of more or less lyrical essays, that underneath some of these high-minded objections, and complementary to them, there is another, deeper, psychological motivation, about which it is more difficult to be honest. In "The Modern Essay" Virginia Woolf is more astute on the subject, and far more frank. "There is no room for the impurities of literature in an essay," she writes. "The essay must be pure – pure like water or pure like wine, but pure from dullness, deadness, and deposits of extraneous matter." Well, yes, that's just it. An essay, she writes, "can be polished till every atom of its surface shines" – yes, that's it, again. There is a certain kind of writer – quite often male but by no means exclusively so – who has a fundamental hunger for purity, and for perfection, and this type will always hold the essay form in high esteem. Because essays hold out the possibility of something like perfection.

Novels, by contrast, are idiosyncratic, uneven, embarrassing, and quite frequently nausea-inducing – especially if you happen to have written one yourself. Within the confines of an essay or – even better! – an aphorism, you can be the writer you dream of being. No word out of place, no tell-tale weak spots (dialogue, the convincing representation of other people, plot), no absences, no lack. I think it's the limits of the essay, and of the real, that truly attract fiction writers. In the confined space of an essay you have the possibility of being wise, of making your case, of appearing to see deeply into things – although the thing you're generally looking into is the self. "Other people", that mainstay of what Shields calls the "moribund conventional novel", have a habit of receding to a point of non-existence in the "lyrical essay".

These are all satisfactions the practice of writing novels is most unlikely to provide for you. Perfect essays abound in this world – almost every one of Joan Didion's fits the category. Perfect novels, as we all know, are rarer than Halley's comet. And so, for a writer, composing an essay instead of a novel is like turning from staring into a filthy, unfathomable puddle to looking through a clear glass windowpane. How perfectly it fits the frame! How little draught passes through! And naturally writers who feel a strong sense of nausea towards their own fiction are even more likely to feel it when reading the fiction of their peers. It's hard to read a novel with any pleasure when you can see all the phoney cogs turning. I'm willing to bet that the great majority of proofs sent to novelists by other novelists barely get read beyond the first two pages. ("The Corrections" writes Shields, in aphorism no 560, "I couldn't read that book if my life depended on it. It might be a 'good' novel or it might be a 'bad' novel, but something has happened to my imagination, which can no longer yield to the earnest embrace of novelistic form.") Tired of the rusty workings of one's own imagination, it's easy to tire of the wearisome vibrancy of other people's, and from there it's a short skip and a jump to giving up on the novel entirely.

Except, except. Then something remarkable comes into your hands. Not very often – no more or less often now than in the 1930s, or the 1890s or the 1750s – but every now and then, you read something wonderful. (Despite all the dull talk of the death of literature, the rate of great novels has always been and will always be roughly the same. By my reckoning, about 10 per decade. Although behind them are dozens of very good novels, for which this reader, at least, is grateful.) Every now and then a writer renews your faith. I'm looking around my desk at this moment for books that have had this effect on me in the not-too-distant past: Bathroom and Television by Jean-Philippe Toussaint, Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli, Number9Dream by David Mitchell, Hilary Mantel's An Experiment in Love, Dennis Cooper's My Loose Thread, The Piano Teacher by Elfriede Jelinek, the collected short stories of JG Ballard.

Some people are not condemned to the generic by their use of plot and setting and character. Some people are in fact freed by precisely these things. Whether what they write is disappointingly "well made" I can't say; certainly there is something a little queer about them all, though that queerness comes not from an excess of the real but from the abundance of their own imaginative gifts. "There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion," wrote Francis Bacon in his essay "Of Beauty". Well said. This year Ballard's stories in particular have been a revelation to me, being at once well made, full of the supposedly contemptible components – plot, setting, character – and yet irreducibly strange in proportion. It's a marvel how implacably and consistently weird he managed to be despite appearing to use all the normal tools at the disposal of any English short-story writer. All in all there is something a little shaming in reading Ballard: you have to face the fact that there exist writers with such fresh imaginations they can't write five pages without stumbling on an alternate world.

When our own imaginations dry up – when, like Coetzee, we seem to have retreated, however spectacularly, to a cannibalisation of the autobiographical – it's easy to cease believing in the existence of another kind of writing. But it does exist. And there's no need to give up on the imaginative novel; we just need to hope for better examples. (In Coetzee's oeuvre, of course, we have better examples. The fully imagined artistry of novels such as The Life and Times of Michael K and Disgrace offer their readers distinct pleasures, not easily dismissed, and not easily found in those impressive but rather anaemic later works, the essayistic and self-referential Diary of a Bad Year and Summertime.) It may be that this idea of the importation of "more reality" is exactly the call to arms a young writer somewhere at her desk needs at this moment, but for this writer at this desk, the argument feels ontologically dubious. When I turned from my own dirty pond to a clear window, I can't say that I felt myself, in essence, being more "truthy" in essay than I am in fiction. Writing is always a highly stylised and artificial act, and there is something distinctly American and puritan about expecting it to be otherwise. I call on Woolf again as witness for the defence. "Literal truth-telling," she writes, "is out of place in an essay." Yes, that's it again. The literal truth is something you expect, or hope for, in a news article. But an essay is an act of imagination, even if it is a piece of memoir. It is, or should be, "a form of thinking, consciousness, wisdom-seeking", but it still takes quite as much art as fiction. Good non-fiction is as designed and artificial as any fairy story. Oddly, this is a thesis Reality Hunger readily agrees with: in its winding way it ends up defining the essay as imaginative at its core, and Shields wants to encourage its imaginative qualities – it seems to be only in the novel that the imagination must be condemned. It's a strange argument, but I guess the conventional form so many imaginative novels take has been enough to give fictional imagination itself a bad name.

For myself, I know, now that I've finished them, that I wrote my own essays out of exactly the kind of novel-nausea Shields describes. I was oppressed by a run-of-the-mill version of that narrative scepticism Kafka expresses so well in one line in "Description of a Struggle": "But then? No then." Simply put, my imagination had run dry, and I couldn't seem to bring myself to write the necessary "and then, and then" which sits at the heart of all imagined narratives. When you're in this state – commonly called "writer's block" – the very idea of fiction turns sour. But in a strange circular effect, it has been the experience of writing essays that has renewed my enthusiasm for the things fiction does that nothing else can. Writing essays on Kafka, on Nabokov, on George Eliot, on Zora Neale Hurston, I was newly humbled and excited by the artificial and the fully imagined. The title of the book, Changing My Mind, is meant to refer to the effect great fiction like this always seems to have on me. I once thought, for example, that I didn't want ever to read another lengthy novel about family life – and then I read The Corrections. That book gave something to me I could never get from an aphoristic personal essay about the nature of art (I think that "something" might be "a convincing imitation of multiple consciousnesses", otherwise known as "other people"). And vice versa. I don't think I'm alone in that feeling. As general readers, who thankfully do not have to live within the strict terms of manifestos, we are fortunate not to have to choose once and for all between two forms that offer us quite different, and equally valuable, experiences of writing.

The last essay in my book considers the work of David Foster Wallace, a writer as gifted in fiction as in essay. I can't offer a better example of a writer whose novel-nausea was acutely developed, whose philosophical objections to the form were serious and sustained, and yet who had the cojones and the sheer talent to write them anyway. Like all great fiction writers he is hard for other writers to read because his natural ability is so evident it makes you nauseous by turn. But that's fiction for you: it taunts you with the spectre of what you cannot do yourself. Meanwhile, the essay teases you with the possibility of perfection, of a known and comprehensible task that can be contained and polished till it shines. For the reader who cares above all for perfection, there are many sophisticated, beautiful and aphoristic side roads in literature that will lead you safely away from the vulgarity of novels with their plots and characters and settings. Off the top of my head: David Markson's Reader's Block, Peter Handke's The Weight of the World, Raymond Queneau's Exercises in Style, Georges Perec's Species of Spaces and Other Pieces and Kafka's own Blue Octavo Notebooks . . .

But after you have raged at the impossible artificiality of storytelling, once you have shouted, with Kafka, "But then? No then", well, maybe you will find yourself returning to the crossroads of "And then, and then", if only to see what's going on down there. Because there is a still a little magic left in that ancient formula, a little of what Werner Herzog, talking recently of the value of fiction, described as "ecstatic truth". And every now and again some very imaginative writer is sure to make that "And then" worth your while.

Shauna Singh Baldwin

Sikh Chic has an interesting interview with SSB.

Shauna Singh Baldwin: Writing Through Tears

An Interview and a Book Review by ROSALIA SCALIA

A powerful literary voice rising from North America but echoing worldwide, Shauna Singh Baldwin gives us widely diverse characters who enable us to understand the similarities we all share. Her novel, What the Body Remembers, published in 2000, won the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best Book, and her second novel, The Tiger Claw, published in 2004, was nominated for the Giller Prize. Baldwin's second short story collection, We Are Not in Pakistan, has recently been released. Her first story collection, titled English Lessons and Other Stories, depicts the struggles of immigrant Sikhs. It won the Friends of American Writers Prize.

Shauna and her husband, who live in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, U.S.A., own Safe House - a spy-themed restaurant.


Rosalia Scalia [RS]: Sikh men usually take the common last name Singh (lion) and Sikh women usually take the common name Kaur (princess). How did you come to have Singh as part of your name?

Shauna Singh Baldwin [SSB]: I lost my family name when I married out of community, and wanted to retain a connection to my heritage. I am no princess and wasn't being treated as one (smiles), so it didn't seem as if Kaur fit. I took Singh to make myself feel more like a lion. As the guru intended, it reminds me daily that I should be courageous not only for myself but for others.

RS: Was there a lot of family angst when you married a non-Sikh, non-Indian man?

SSB: Not angst, anger and hurt. I was a reluctant rebel. I had expected an arranged marriage, but didn't find the men my family chose appealing, and wanted to stay in Canada. I also didn't want children, and unfortunately the arranged marriage system is just not set up to accommodate such a choice for a young woman. (I'm not decrying the institution - it's a godsend for men and women who don't enjoy internet and pub-dating. It spares you personal rejection and pressure to become a sexual being in your teens.) Soon after that, I decided to follow my heart. Which meant renouncing the support of many family members and friends, and learning the culture and traditions of an Irish-American family.

RS: You are one of the few Sikh-American or South Asian writers who write Western women characters with compassion. This was especially remarkable and poignant in the title story in English Lessons. The Indian wife in that story shows tremendous anger toward the American Green Card wife who continues to call, long after the man has left her; the Western woman whom the Indian wife hates so much is obviously feeling a lot of pain. Could you talk about that story?

SSB: Thank you - I'm so glad you felt the pain of both women. The story came from my experiences as an ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher, at first for people in my own community. It was about being a Sikh in the late '80s, when Sikh men in Punjab were automatically labeled terrorists and targeted by the Indian police. An already difficult situation became more so for immigrants who were just trying to get by.

Baljit in "English Lessons" is doubly preyed upon. And comparing India and the USA, finds she really hasn't come to a better place. I admire her for making the best of a bad situation. She's angry at the Green Card wife, because it's so much easier to blame the person who is distant, rather than to direct her anger toward her husband, where it belongs. Both women - the Green Card wife and the Indian wife - are used.

Recently, in real life (or should I say, surreal life?), I met an Indo-American woman abandoned in the new country after thirty years of marriage and three children. She is constantly being told by her husband's new "wife" - "My husband didn't choose you!" As if choice or the lack of it excuses their common husband his bigamy.

RS: It seems as if every woman in English Lessons is an "adjustable woman", not just the characters in the story, "Nothing Must Spoil This Visit", where the term appears, but all of them.

SSB: Funny you say that - I nearly named the whole collection "Adjustable Women".

RS: It seems that Indian culture fosters conformity.

SSB: No, Indian culture does not foster conformity - individuals who exert power demand and enforce conformity. Please let's not forgive ourselves so easily. Let's not do the usual nice little dance around the fact that individuals - not systems, not cultures - foster conformity. Individuals assert power, and others go along with it because of economics. And if the price is high enough, a man or woman acquiesces.

Women at similar socio-economic levels, pay similar prices whether we are chopping wood in the developing world or living in a McMansion in the developed world. Economics motivates our choices, especially when children must be considered. Justice and economics are thought of at family level, because women are considered property - by individuals, not by a culture. In every situation, we need to ask the price of a woman's nonconformity - and across societies. And then we need to work to reduce it.

RS: How has your background in business influenced or informed your characters?

SSB: I think economics - power and money - is built into motivation. Desire is the life-blood of story, and economics drives not only characters but people in real life. How is power used? Follow the money and it often becomes clearer. For instance, I hear so often that women are passive, after all, why don't they leave in certain circumstances? But those logical decisions are based on economics, whether a Hillary Clinton makes them or a woman suffering from domestic violence in a developing country. People are not stupid. If we follow the economic logic and look at all factors that go into decision making, we find women make sensible decisions, not only for their own sakes, but for the security and well-being of their children.

In business, we use a lot of either/or thinking - I win/you lose. It works for a few. But to make it work for many, we need to toss the either/or language and fall in love again with the word "and" - I win AND you win.

RS: Give an example?

SSB: Carol Gilligan tells [i] how she was researching boys and girls' decision making and discussed the Aesop fable in which a homeless porcupine moves into a mole hole. The porcupine starts to move around, pricking all the moles. And Aesop's moral is that you should know your guest before you invite him in. But Gilligan asked the children to decide: what should be done about the porcupine?

The boys said: throw the porcupine out - the hole belongs to the mole, they said. The girls said: find a blanket to cover it so it can't hurt the moles and then they can all have shelter.

The girls' decision-making goal was to accommodate all needs. Theirs is the logic of the future. Linkage and connection, interdependent relationships and interrelationships. Unless we - meaning both men and women - begin to think in ways traditionally denigrated as feminine logic, our planet and our species won't last much longer.

RS: In What the Body Remembers, you explore the institution of polygamy. Tell us how it came about and what you think of it?

SSB: My friends and I sometimes joke that any wife who works in or outside the home, whether living in the West or the East, could do with a wife. We say, Wouldn't it be wonderful if we all had wives - someone rotating around us, intuiting our every need before it is expressed, taking care of activity scheduling, meal planning, travel arrangements, disaster prevention great and small?

But joking apart: in societies that have social security (which means Western "developed" societies) when a man wants a second wife, he negates his agreement with his first wife, and then the state essentially becomes the first wife's husband. The state becomes responsible if she loses a job, if she remains unemployed, if the children go hungry. In old age, even if remarried, she receives benefits from the state. Widows too, receive pension benefits from the state.

Not so in the developing world, even today. Men and women in countries like India still have no social insurance. There's no disability care, no Medicare, no Medicaid, no Provincial HIP. And there are no IRAs, no CPP, no RRSPs. The public health system is in an abysmal state. All you have is your family - the clan, the tribe. Which means that power in most non-Western countries rests with the traditional breadwinners/property owners - men.

Polygamy in the ruling classes was instituted for peacemaking alliances. It spread to upper classes so indigent women and war widows would find benefactors, men generous enough to take them in. Over time, this institution set up for the purpose of helping women turned exploitive.

It was banned in India in 1956 for Hindus and Sikhs (though it's still legal for Muslims). It has been banned in many countries, but it's still happening - in the US, as of 1997, the New York Times estimated 60,000 women were living in polygamy.

In a story, I'm interested not in the institution, but in the way social and economic power is used and felt by characters who find themselves within it.

RS: What the Body Remembers is about the Partition.

SSB: Yes, a horrific event that occurred in August 1947 along with India's independence from Britain. Five million people died (in both India and the then newly-carved Pakistan) and 17 million were displaced in their own country. To this day "Happy Independence Day" remains unspoken in so many Punjabi and Bengali families - they mourn those who paid for Independence. And there are no official memorials yet, in either India or Pakistan.

RS: Did you cry while writing that book?

SSB: It seemed I had a faucet inside. But I kept a note pinned to my desk as my talisman - a quote from Toni Morrison, "You only have to write it, they had to live it".

RS: How do you come to a story?

SSB: Usually, I start from a voice. Someone is bothering me, saying, "Tell my story!" or just talking. Sometimes, I get an image or a dream. If the image or dream keeps coming back, I need to explore the story by writing.

RS: There aren't many women Sikh writers. Why?

SSB: Several Sikh women write in Punjabi, but not enough have been published, and of those published, few have been translated into English.

Do you mean why haven't there been more Sikh women writers? For many Sikh families, fortunes had to be rebuilt after Partition. My grandmother and mother's generation did not have the time, the money or husbands kind enough to say, "Oh, are you going away for four-five months to write, leaving our children behind? No problem, I'll look after them", Even today most of us are super busy making three meals a day, working in fields and/or offices, and looking after husbands and children.

And writing is an elitist sport. One needs time to write, and patronage (otherwise known as money). Patrons like the Canada Council, awards from the CBC and The Writers Union of Canada, several grant donors and writer's residencies have given me support and encouragement.

But as for women Sikh writers in English: we're getting to it - we've begun!

RS: Has being involved in your husband's spy-themed restaurant inspired any of your work?

SSB: Certainly. It was at the Safe House that I heard the tale that became The Tiger Claw. A customer and only true secret agent we know, Gaston Vandermeerssche, was writing a memoir of his leadership role in the Dutch underground, Gaston's War. Gaston sent me information about Noor Inayat Khan. I was horrified by the orientalism and male fantasy with which her story had been told. Noor was a radio operator and a nurse, but had been portrayed as a flighty oriental woman who was either oversexed or enigmatic. I felt her story needed to be retold from her point of view. So I traveled to Europe to find out more about her and read many books about WWII. And I wrote as a Sufi Muslim, which was Noor's religion. That meant suppressing the Hindu aspects of my faith, Sikhism.

Middle School chronicles

Middle School is a dress rehersal for life