The last few Obiden hours…

As we approach January 20th, I can’t stop thinking of that November day in 2012, when I sat in a classroom in India, with my phone smuggled (Yes, cell phones were prohibited in classrooms) watching the presidential election results. As President Obama crossed the 270 mark, I high-fived my buddy sitting next to me, taking everyone by surprise and accidentally drawing attention to the smuggled phone! What happened later is not relevant to this story…

With just a few more hours left in office, I ask myself about how President Obama’s term has impacted me, both as a person and professionally. Over the past 3 years, I’ve lived in states like Georgia, where you will very likely hear Obama being blamed for everything, and California, where people would undoubtedly vote for him if he ran again! From traveling extensively in the US for the past few years and meeting new people, if there is one thing I can confidently mention, it is that I’ve seen most companies and employees do better every passing year. If there is one thing I’ve been most inspired by Obama for, it is for the exemplary orator he is. When I hear people mention President Obama as the wackiest president ever, I cannot agree more! From his curiosity in the scientific side of things, to how he lightens tense situations with his humor, to the humility he displays while responding to critics, I will miss following his activities as president. So, Thank you, President Obama, for your 8 years of high service to America, and to the world.

However, personally for me, more inspiring than his, is the story of Vice President Joe Biden. Losing his wife and infant daughter in a car accident, being a single father for five years, and four decades later, losing his son to brain cancer, yet amidst so many tragedies, never wavering in his commitment to work, service, and loved ones is what anyone can learn from. Stories like his help put life in perspective, and truly appreciate even the simplest things that life offers us 🙂

So to Obiden and Jobama, for one last time, here’s to your incredible journey together!

Advertisements

You were impossible. Then, a miracle happened!

Often times we see people dejected and question their existence; be it having failed an exam, or an interview, death of a loved one or whatever! Sometimes, they take suicidal decisions, of whom one was my own grandparent. On the other hand, there is no person who hasn’t heard atleast once that “life is precious”. For me, this word “precious” is too cloudy and diplomatic! Ofcourse there are many religious discourses to this topic, but after some thinking on facts and probabilities, I decided to put a scientific color to it. We all trust numbers, right 🙂

So, let’s become scientists and start from first principles; making some reasonable assumptions and putting them all together to make it seem scientific. Here we go!

Firstly, you are a product of your parents meeting. What are the odds? Let’s assume your parents had an arranged marriage, like mine did.  Let’s say your Dad had 10 trustable sources who brought him proposals and on an average each source would have brought 1 proposal each year that could have resulted in a marriage. Assuming this happened when your Dad was 26 through 31 (I stop at 31 because my Dad got married at 31!), that totals 50 possible girls who could have been your Dad’s wife. So, the chances of your Dad marrying your Mom was 1 in 50.

That was just the beginning, now things get interesting!  Biology class! Each sperm and each egg produced is genetically unique due to the process of meiosis. So, you are the result of the fusion of A PARTICULAR sperm with A PARTICULAR egg. A fertile woman has 100,000 viable eggs on an average. A man produces about 12 trillion sperm in his reproductive lifetime. Let’s say only half of them are relevant to our calculation, since the sperms created after the female hits menopause do not count. So, the probability of one sperm containing one half of you hitting an egg containing another half of you is

1 in (100,000 X 4 trillion) = 1 in 6 X 1017

Wait, there’s more!

Your existence on planet earth is due to this utterly undeniable chain of events:  every one of your ancestors lived to reproductive age, all the way down the evolution line. Not only the first Homo sapiens to Homo erectus and Homo habilis, but all the way back to the first single-celled organism. You would’ve surely been impossible if this 4 billion year lineage of life broke somewhere.

Ok, if you think that’s too much, to keep it simple, let’s just deal with the human lineage. Say humans and humanoids have been around for 3 million years and a generation lasted 100 years. This number is another huge assumption, but anyway! That is 30,000 generations. Over the course of all human existence, likelihood of any one human to survive childhood and live to reproductive age is 50:50. Then what would be the chance of your particular lineage to have remained unbroken for these 30,000 years?

So, the chance of every one of your ancestors reproducing successfully is 1 in 230,000 which is nearly 1 in 109,000

But let’s think deeper. There is more to this!

Remember the sperm-egg meeting argument? The right sperm had to meet the right egg even in case of your grandparents. Otherwise, they would’ve been different people and so would their children, who would have their children that wouldn’t be you! This is also true of great grand parents and their parents and so on. If even ONCE the wrong sperm met the wrong egg, you wouldn’t be here online, reading this article. Instead it would possibly have been your cousin who was never ever really born.

That means in your lineage, the chance of exactly the right ancestor being created that would end up creating you is 1 in 1200 trillion, or say 1 in 1000 trillion. Now that is accounted for all 30,000 generations.

Now it is 1 in (6 X 1017)30,000 = nearly 1 in 102,640,000

That is a 10 followed by 2,640,000 zeroes! A number so big that it will take a 500 page book to write it. So, now, to get the total probability, combining all these chances,

102,640,000  X 109,000 X 50 = 5 X 102,649,001

So, probability of you existing at all is nearly 1 in 102,649,000

In fancier terms, it is equal to the probability of 2 million people – the entire population of Dubai – each to play a game of dice with a trillion-sided dice. They roll the dice and all of them come up with the exact same number. So mind boggling that it seems impossible, right?!

Yes, now think of it as the odds of you being born, and it has happened. This brings light to the infinitely many direct connections we have to every single event in the history of the universe, without which we wouldn’t happen! And that is where science meets spirituality.

“Miracle” is a word to describe an even so unlikely as to be almost impossible. Now by that definition, isn’t each one of us a miracle? Isn’t this something to celebrate and be thankful for?

When our warriors fell…

Few weeks ago, I was driving to Jackson, Tennessee. Just another silent journey through the woods, until I saw a spectacle! Hundreds on both sides of the road with American flags formed a human chain as if they were welcoming the President. This went on for five miles till the city of Canton, where two fire trucks made a giant arch. To my right, was a gate that said “Georgia National Cemetery”, a stage with a family seated on it, and a giant picture of Lance Corporal Wells. It immediately occurred to me that this 21 year-old Atlanta boy was one of four marines killed in the Chattanooga shootings a couple weeks ago! As I went on, I saw a few more thousand people on both sides of the road.

Ever since I came to the United States, I am impressed by the expression of honor and gratitude citizens directly show to their servicemen. Here’s a thoughtful picture I took at the Arlington National Cemetary in Washington DC.

906035_10204643630673220_489734385119776233_o

Arizona State University had an ROTC unit on campus where I saw civilians walk up to cadets to say “Thank you for your service to our nation”. But to see thousands come from across the state to Canton and support the family of one slain serviceman whom they never knew before captured my attention and triggered contemplation about my country’s servicemen. My words here are not to compare two nations or cultures, but I truly believe there is much good for us to learn from this observation.

For more than 3 million Indian servicemen and women, government policies like One Rank One Pension are definitely in honor of their bravery that we show as a nation. However, the values of respect and gratitude at a more humane personal level is what I am talking of. Language, religion and culture make India diverse; sometimes even divides us. But when that soldier goes to the border, in him his fellow warriors and the enemy do not see any caste or state; they see India. Even in normal civilian life, a veteran from our own city is seen as India’s brave son. Clearly, our servicemen have the highest ability of national integration that perhaps many internal policies put together may not be able to achieve.

It delights us as Indians to know that India has the largest volunteer army in the world. The Indian Army’s High Altitude Warfare School is an elite training centers in the world that trained US Special Forces before their deployment in Afghanistan. India controls the world’s highest battlefield, the Siachen glacier at 5000 meters above mean sea level. The highest altitude bridge in the world, the Bailey bridge was built by the Indian Army. After India’s victory in the 1971 war against Pakistan, it took 93,000 prisoners of war into custody, highest number in world history after WW2. Standing up to it’s humanitarian values, India conducted the biggest civilian rescue operation in the world using helicopters in Operation Rahat during the Uttarakhand floods of 2013. In 2015, our forces played a diligent role in Yemen rescuing thousands of Indians and hundreds of foreign nationals, keeping each of them well fed even during those tough rescue missions. India responded within minutes of the Nepal earthquake and our forces rescued our own and even other stranded nationals.

A foreigner rescued by an Indian army officer doesn’t see the officer by name, or by the language he speaks nor will he remember it. There is but one identity that he will see and remember for his lifetime, the tricolor on his sleeve. He returns and narrates the incident to his countrymen, saying “Indian officer” and “India saved me”. Some Governments and religious Gurus may have led our nation down once or more, but never our brave men and women in uniform. Not once!

Some countries predetermine and push kids to join the forces to keep it young and strong. In India, anyone in the forces has opted for it voluntarily, despite our constitution mandating every citizen to attend to a call of duty. In probably the largest exploitation the world has ever seen, we experienced the tyranny of foreign rule and loot that brought us from a nation that controlled 30% of the world economy when the British arrived to just 2% when they left. Part of this can be owed to our tradition of “whole world is one family” and universal tolerance.  For modern India to be a beacon of the same ancient values, we must but maintain strength or we will revisit our own history soon.

Being the best is the only option a military man has. For us, being second best may mean a delayed promotion. For him, being second best implies surrendering the fates of a billion people. While he eats dry bread at 11,000 ft, we sip warm coffee in our homes; while he hasn’t seen his daughter for months, we stroll ours in the park; while he isn’t sure to see tomorrow’s sunrise, we worry about tomorrow’s promotion; while his son spends sleepless nights, our’s sleeps in his mother’s lap. Nobody has forced him to serve, he does it out of love and devotion to his motherland. The purest form of love, one he has even resolved to die for. Three million servicemen in uniform equals at least three million stories of bravery, and not to forget the sacrifice of those three million spouses and children. So do they deserve more respect, attention and gratitude from an individual Indian than they get? Yes, they do.

A little extra I took from Arizona State: The marriage of knowledge.

Walking down a town as I look at brands around me, my brain attempts to link them to where they come from, what they represent. “McD”: American burgers, “Taco Bell”: Mexican food, “Panda Express”: Chinese, “Adidas”: German, “Toyota”: Japanese, “Samsung”: Korean…! Eventually, this got boring and evolved into a more challenging one: “Find a globally known Indian brand”. Except stuff found in Indian grocery stores, I found no brand born out of India. Why? I asked! Scarce resources? No. Money? No. People? No. Finally I arrived at a reason that made sense: The very way we teach our kids to see knowledge as separate chunks.

I came to the United States to study electrical engineering. For the first time, I was in a campus that taught almost everything known to mankind. This made me curious about other colleges than engineering. I decided to ‘sit-in’ in a few other classes to find out. Ran the risk of being kicked out of class, but was worth it; Nothing to lose! Started this with a 7 am advertisement management class in the school of business. It was incredible! The immense learning opportunity made me want to scale up. Soon my schedule filled up with more ‘sit-in’ classes than ones I paid for. By now, my regular engineering classes, a job and the ‘sit-in’ classes kept me packed from 7 am to 8 pm, and I loved it! My loop of knowledge was gradually being closed as I understood the deep connection between disciplines.

In design thinking classes, I realized the need of symmetry and asymmetry to control aesthetic sense in technological products. The connection of minimalism in design with philosophy and religion intrigued me. In applied music classes, I understood how restaurants influence cravings with interior music, and the effect of tune combinations on extended human emotions.  Consumer psychology classes taught me the motive behind Target’s attractive return policy that triggers impulsive buying behavior; and how Walmart makes more money by shuffling merchandise locations within their stores. Through other classes, I recognized how the red theme in food product advertisement by KFC, McDonald’s, Coca-Cola etc. increases a desire among viewers to have it; how Amazon uses psychology with mathematics to predict and present one’s next purchase; how conservatism and liberalism influence the effects of law and policy making. I saw how the next century would be a design dominated world influenced by founding philosophies of Apple and Nest, just as the last was a technology dominated one. And much more!

As I listened to those lectures, I could easily bundle design, philosophy, economic, business concepts in a way that has a profound influence in my performance as an engineer. Generally, science is seen as a thing for the brightest, commerce for the next and arts for the rest or the creative. Being in the science stream since high school, I felt teachers subject us to a mental divide. Any desire by a science student to gain detailed understanding of other disciplines would be seen as a ‘distraction’ by the status quo. By the time I graduated, most of us were ignorant in all areas of study but our own. Worse, also developed a repulsion against them. This divide, I believe, is the biggest impediment to the growth of the Indian economy.

I wouldn’t call America the land of innovators; This is a land of great managers, who recognize the power of inclusion arising out of combination of knowledge streams in right amounts.This helps create products and services that build a vibrant economy. Without this attitude, it would’ve been impossible to retain the best scientific minds most of which are Asian and European. Historically, ignoring any one area has led to the downfall of companies and societies that once were the world’s greatest. Kodak, once a world leader in cameras met its end innovating in film cameras and not strategizing for the digital revolution. Sony is less preferred now than was in the last decade despite  its great technological innovation because it fell back on marketing and diversification.

In India, Ayurveda traditionally meant freshly prepared natural medicine that had little or no side-effects. That failed to reach the world because necessary drug packaging was long ignored. The world is oblivious to the true essence of yoga due to a shortfall of marketing. Handicraft and cottage industries remain unknown even within India not due to lack of quality, but poor or no branding or advertising. Because we live in a knowledge based world and have ignored the oneness of different areas, we make lackluster products that all know are great but nobody likes to buy. Worldwide, we have seen companies do wonders by bringing together totally unrelated disciplines. Toyota is well known for its leanness, a trait brought from Japanese philosophy and lifestyle. Steve Jobs changed the world by transferring his spiritual realization into technological design.

Great things happen when we unite all knowledge and every professional has at least a remote idea of avenues other than his own. The moment we cocoon ourselves to a certain discipline, we become slaves of those in others. Of all, this realization is my greatest gift from Arizona State University.

An Uber acquaintance in Columbus

8 June 2015
Columbus, Ohio

This week, I travelled to Columbus. A beautiful flat city in the Midwest that reminded me of Phoenix, except the lush green grass instead of the beige sand, typical American countryside feel. After dinner, my friend and I were heading back by Uber. For the first time in a while, we were greeted by an accurate pronunciation of our Indian names by this south-Asian Uber driver. He began in Urdu, we replied in Hindi.

We got talking about where we are from, what we do. He was a soft-spoken man indeed. Originally from Pakistan, he owns a gas station here in Columbus and drives Uber for fun. Quite naturally, we entered into a cricket conversation about favorite players, then into politics and the disputes between our two countries. He showered words of praise for the thriving functional democracy in India compared to the government in Pakistan. He asked me what brought me here, to which I replied and asked him the same. The dialogue that followed is my motivation for this post.

“How long have you been here in the U.S. for? I asked.

“About 22 years” said he.

“Cool! Did you come here as a student?”

“Oh no! Haha, that’s a funny story! You told me you are an electrical engineer. That’s when I was reminded of my story. My cousin was an electrical engineer too. He had a 5 year business visa to the US that he never used. When there were 3 months remaining on it, he gave me his passport and told me to see if I could make use of it.”

“How? Is a Pakistani passport transferable?”

“No No, back then, the US didn’t print photos on visas and Pakistan pasted photos on passports. So, I removed his photo and pasted mine in its place. That’s how I came here; with his name and my face!”

“Did you not feel you would be in trouble if they found that out when you entered here?” I asked.

“Yea, I was a little nervous, but then even if I got caught, what would they do to me at max? Perhaps put me in a detention center for a few months or years. They would treat me well in there and deport me back home at their own expense. I had nothing to lose, so I decided to do it!”

“So you lived here illegally from then till now?”

“Well, I was illegal for a while, and I worked in a store. There was this young American girl who kept visiting the store. I treated her well and got married to her 3 months later. 6 months after that, I got my green card.”

“Okay, did you take her to Pakistan after that?”

“Ah no! I divorced her a few months after I got my permanent green card and the paperwork. Now I have a real Pakistani wife and kids. Married the American girl just for the green card.”

“Did she know that?” I questioned.

“Haha Nope! Not until we got divorced!”

Whilst this entire conversation, 20 minutes of my journey passed unnoticed! Before getting off at my hotel, I asked him one final question,

“How do you feel about all this that you did?”

“Maybe I did cheat a little, but I do not feel sorry about it” he replied.

With this I got off and he drove away. I narrated this in our exact words because any commentary would easily make it look like prejudice, which it is not. I would have written about this even if it was an Indian. However, this time I leave the commentary to you!!

Went for a degree. Brought back a lesson

17 May 2015
Phoenix, Arizona

Last week, I travelled to Phoenix, sure to bring back great memories from my graduation. The friends that I meet, the parties that I go to! Life has her own surprises; I bring back something more profound that opened my eyes to the greatest lesson of this trip.

My American friend teaches English to refugees in the Phoenix area. Curious to know more about who they are, their lives and learn what they have been through, I accompanied her to one such family. In that house lived Razia, along with her three daughters Jamila, Masooda and Tahmina.

After the initial round of greetings, Razia asked me if I was from ‘Hindustan’. I said yes, and as I greeted Jamila and Masooda, I realized they were hearing impaired. They greeted me through sign language that my friend interpreted to me. As we settled, Razia pulled away the cloth on a tea table that was in front of us and there were atleast 10 types of Afghan sweets and condiments, apple juice and Afghan chai for us! Razia speaks Dari but knows some Hindi. Sipping the aromatic tea and curious to know what brought them to the US, I asked her what happened.  What she told me changed the rest of my trip.

She took me to her days in Afghanistan a decade ago, where she lived with her family. Her husband was an honest, perseverant man who worked for the Afghan government. Their life was a humble middle class one, lived with dignity and honor. Then terror broke loose and the Taliban took over Kabul. The militant group took all government workers captive and beheaded all of them. The light of Razia’s family, her husband was one of them. I can never forget that moment when she gestured her thumb across her neck and said “maar daala”.

Till today, I have only seen or read such accounts in the news, sitting in the comforts of a free democratic nation. For the first time in my life, I listened and saw firsthand accounts of those subjected to it. I continued to listen to her… She, along with her daughters fled to New Delhi, India that gave them protective political asylum. Her daughters went to school in India; Tahmina graduated as a pharmacist from Delhi University. The doctors she worked with lauded her professionalism and recommended that she go to medical school.

6 years later, they moved under asylum to the United States, where they continue to live. When she finished talking, I was stalled in a cloud of speechlessness. I looked at the food they offered us, and her two young daughters chatting joyously with my friend with their sign language. There was so much joy in their house, shine in their eyes, hope in their speech, and grace in their hospitality that I would never been able to even guess that they had been through so much if I hadn’t asked her.

My thoughts shifted to my friends, and saw the “first world problems” we complain about! I got stuck in a maze of contrasts. I saw justice in nature. We, being blessed with so much do not see and appreciate it; whereas people like Razia and so many more, despite having gone through so much pain, forge ahead fearlessly appreciating the good things they have.  To me these are people with unprecedented strength, far more than any person or government can even begin to imagine. Given an opportunity, they are born to convert any poison into medicine!

Onboard my flight back, I asked myself for the most cherished moment of my entire trip. My options were
1) The moment I received my graduate degree that I worked so hard to get
2) The best wishes and happiness I got from my friends and family
3) The lesson of gratitude, grace, hope, optimism and relentless perseverance I learnt from an hour with these new Afghan friends.
With absolutely no doubt, it was 3! All the rest seemed so tiny and worldly.

To my countrymen, the next time you look at those lions on your passport or the tricolor, let it remind you of the ultimate freedom we have and our obligation to create opportunity for others. The freedom that we call a right is indeed a privilege for millions of others in the world. As we complain about the small imperfections in our lives, billions of others pray to have the very life we live.

The enigma of ‘Reduce, Reuse and Recycle’!

4 years and I’m back blogging! Got immersed in life, and almost killed my writing habits; hope I don’t do it too bad in this one!

Earth Day. Big people yell big words like reduce, reuse, recycle and quote several reports, bar graphs, pie charts, this and that and what not!

This got me thinking on a personal level; memories took me back to my village childhood days in India. I define my parents as minimalists. They never buy stuff that they don’t need. If my parents throw away anything as “trash”, we could be 100% sure it couldn’t be recycled anymore! As kids, me and my sister were always instructed to take great care of belongings so that they lasted long. Today, thinking about this, my mature mind draws that these were nothing but ‘reduce’, ’reuse’ and ‘recycle’ taught practically. My parents were not pundits in environment science, but they infused it in their childrens’ lives.

As a kid, I remember my mom carefully storing away clothes I was getting big for, so that they could be used by my little sister a few years later. When it got small for her, it was given to someone, to whose child even those used pair of clothes were a luxury. If it was unwearable at all, mom would tear it apart to use it as a floor mop. When it was unfit for even that, she would shred and dump it into the compost pit in our farm to make manure.

My sister used the same school textbooks as I did, and they still remain safe in my closet at home. I got my first computer in 2001; it was a used one my dad bought for me to learn to use a computer. It was a 256 MB RAM, Win 95 desktop. My dad proclaimed that computer “great enough for me and my sister to use, and bad enough to not be worried if we broke it!”

In India, majority consider fuel efficiency #1 factor while making vehicle purchase decisions and public transports run full at most times. I was taught to turn off lights, fans and computers from my days in Indian classrooms to Indian offices. At home, I was discouraged to use the washing machine at less than full load, so I hand-washed my clothes when there were just a couple of them. I was always told to shut the refrigerator door as soon as possible, and to turn off the engine at red lights. All our kitchen waste went to the compost pit, and polythene bags from grocery stores were saved to be reused as trash bags. Old newspapers and hard plastic waste was sold to a local recycle or “scrap” dealer for money.

Ask any kid in India and it will have lived in a lifestyle very similar to this. This is how most families in the 600,000+ villages and cities of India live the mantra of ‘reduce, reuse and recycle’ silently. They are not environment experts, nor would they understand any analyses or charts regarding it. However, I believe they contribute more to the cause than the well-dressed gentlemen who hold world summits on climate change. In my case, and in the case of most middle class families, austerity is not out of poverty, but is out of a consciousness to prevent financial leakage that occurs from wasting resources. The habit of ‘saving’ has thus always been a part of our culture.

In most work places here in the US, people do not shut down their computers. “Ctrl+L” or sleep is as far as it goes; lights and monitors stay on 24X7. There is more than one car per any house and more often than not, there is but one person in any car on the road. A nation is built by people and people are built by lifestyles. Now when developed nations practice such a lifestyle and still slam developing nations with words like ‘reduce’, ’reuse’, ’recycle’, ’carbon footprint’ etc, I wonder if I missed any part of the story!!!