Tuesday, December 30, 2008

UNCLE, Uncle, uncle...

"Uncle - Kitta poriya ? Uncle Chocolate tharuvaaru !!!" - sounded the voice of my colleague. She was pointing at me and talking to her baby girl. There was a small voice in my head, that echoed like that background voice in the popular hair dye ad , "UNCLE, Uncle uncle...". When did this transition happen - the shift from "Anna" (elder brother) to "Mama" (Uncle)? Ever since I was a child, I had always been an "Anna". Of course, the elder kids would call me by name. But to all the younger ones, I was introduced as "Anna". Over the past year (or even more), there has been a transition from "Anna" to "Mama".

I'll not forget this particular instance that occurred a few months back. We were having a company get-together and many of my colleagues had brought their families along. I was trying to play with one of my Colleague's Kids. I stretched my hands towards the kid and called out, "Anna-kitta variyaa?". My colleague was sitting nearby tending to his other kid. From that seated position, he just lifted his head, looked at me with a slightly amused-cum-mocking look and said "Anna-vaa?" :)

I realize that it's not only me. I've seen many other guys who are about the same age as me, react in a similar way. On a more serious note, of course, all of us accept that we're getting older. In fact, we rarely bother about it (We're not that old, yet). But on a lighter vein, hearing someone introduce us as an 'uncle' give a slight prick :) One of my friends has taken to signing his name as 'Youth' in his personal mails to friends :)

Nowadays, age (or 'youthfulness') is a regular way of teasing others. The younger guys in our group will call themselves 'kids' and tease the older ones as grandpas, while the older guys will pretend that the younger ones are not old 'enough' to understand certain things :). But as soon as a guy marries, this equation will automatically change. He will then become the 'Big uncle' or the 'Grandpa' of the group, even if he is much younger than the rest of us.

We are going through a transitional period of our lives - We're getting older and moving out of the college (or fresh out of college) mentality; settling down in our respective careers; seeing so many fresh baby faces around in our workplace (against whom we seem older); hairlines receding (this is a very important one); and slowly each one is entering into marital relationships. I guess, all these are making us want to hold on to the image of "youth", a little longer.

I would like to revisit this post when I make the next transition - from being an 'Uncle' to a 'Thatha' / 'Grandpa'. I wonder how it'll be then :)

Sunday, December 21, 2008


Last week, the outgoing US president Bush paid a visit to Iraq. While there were elaborate security measures to protect the president from terrorist attacks, no one expected him to be hit by a shoe. This act of defiance by an Iraqi reporter has caught the world's attention for the past few days. This is not something seen so often in the news. While Bush has brushed it off, the reporter has been arrested, allegedly beaten and made to apologize. The shoes were also destroyed. Now, almost after a week, I read these lines in the newspaper,

"A new run of 15,000 pairs, destined for Iraq, went into production on Thursday, he said. A British distributor has asked to become the Baydan Shoe Co.’s European sales representative, with a first order of 95,000 pairs, and a U.S. company has placed an order for 18,000 pairs. Four distributors are competing to represent the company in Iraq, where Baydan sold 19,000 pairs of this model for about $40 each last year.

Five thousand posters advertising the shoes, on their way to the Middle East and Turkey, proclaim “Goodbye Bush, Welcome Democracy” in Turkish, English and Arabic."

Ever since the reporter threw his shoes at the president, they have become quite popular. A shoe maker from Turkey, Ramazan Baydan, claims to be maker of those shoes. The result - he's now flooded with orders from around the world for that model of shoes. The shoe's sudden popularity or that the president's unpopularity is proving to be a gold rush for this cobbler.

Strange world ... :)

Here's the news article : ‘Bush shoe’ gives a Turk firm footing

Stuff, Stuff and more stuff...

70 million computer mice, 60 million motherboards, 2 million square meters of wooden flooring, billions of plastic/glass/wooden beads, 15 billion buttons, 200 million yards of zippers, 8 billion pairs of socks, 300 million ties, 3 billion toothbrushes ...

What is this list? This is a teeny tiny portion of the stuff churned out by Chinese factories in a year. Are these the total production figures for the entire country? Again, the answer is a big 'NO'. This is just the amount of stuff churned out by a single factory or a single small city in China. For example, the electronics company 'Logitech' has a manufacturing base in the Chinese city of Suzhou. It produces approximately 70 million computer mice per year and supplies under its own brand as well as under other brands like 'Dell'. 'Acer' etc. Almost every single molecule of any product that we use everyday is from these huge Chinese factories. We're now buying things because they're being produced and are available in the market, rather than things being produced because they're needed for our life.

Over the past 3 decades, China has taken up mass manufacturing at a scale not imagined by anyone before. There are millions of factories across China churning out products by the billions. Most of us would not have heard of any of these companies as most of these products are sold under popular home brands of the respective countries. This is in contrast to the development model of the Japanese or the South Koreans who, over the years, have built up a popular brand image and value. While the world would blindly trust a product from a popular company in Japan / Korea, we would think twice before purchasing a product marketed directly as "Made in China". But in all probability, the entire product floated by the Japanese / Koreans would've been manufactured in China.

The massive scale of production in the Chinese territory, the ways & means of sourcing the raw materials to meet this production scale and the consequences of such massive production & dumping of products, while awe inspiring, also makes me uncomfortable and uneasy.For example, the Chinese city of Zhangjiagang is like the 'wooden workshop of the world' producing all sorts of stuff like plywood, wooden flooring, furniture etc. Seeing the effects of large scale deforestation on the Chinese forests, the government banned the felling of natural forests in the country. As a result, the wooden industry turned to the outside world for wood supply. Currently, China is said to be the largest importer of wood and a sizable percent of it is supposed to be illegal. Millions and Millions of acres of rain forests are being destroyed illegally and the wood is sent to the Chinese factories to be made into furniture to be sold to the affluent of the world. Forests of Africa, South America, Indonesia etc are rapidly diminishing due to this illegal trade.

The Chinese have a majority market share in almost every single product that you can imagine. There is a region in China,specializing in fake oil paintings that we see in hotels, shops and other public places. This place churns out thousands of fake Mona lisa, Marlyn Monroe and even Bush. There are huge markets selling plant herbs, animals parts and even human placentas to be used in traditional medicines.

The output of every product is in the Billions. I'm personally not in favor of this model of development which has produced millions of workers working around 100 hours a week, on the same monotonous job in an assembly line, for an extremely low wage. Some argue that this is better than the wretched life that these people would be living, if not for such factories. But I'm not comfortable with that thought. This model has produced millions of workers with steady, but low wages on one hand and a handful of rich factory owners, managers and industrialists on the other. The cities become divided into sections of huge overcrowded workers, interspersed with affluent homes and apartments.

This type of mass production is also building up clutter in this world. Everywhere we see huge warehouse style shops in our places such as Saravana stores or Big Bazaar in India or the ones like Walmart or target in the US. They have huge mounds of stuff at dirt cheap prices, all mass produced in such factories in China. We see people buying stuff by the cart loads. Most do not even care if they really need these items. They're just cheap and attractive. I see a huge glut of materials among the affluent of the world. Each one has something like 2 televisions, 3 mobile phones, 2 laptops, 2 cars, 10 bags, 20 pens and 5 bundles of paper. The concept of buying just one of any item seems to be vanishing. Here in US, I don't think I can buy a single pen or just 10 sheets of paper. I have to buy a pack of 10 pens or a whole bundle of paper.

The mass output of such factories have not yet covered the entire humanity. Imagine what will happen if the entire human population starts living like this. The production which is already in the billions would shoot up into the Trillions, Zillions or Pillions (I don't know what such huge numbers are called). Where are we going to get the resources for these? What will be ecological footprint of these operations? How are we going to dispose the waste products? I don't think, this mindless obsession for filling up our lives with endless cheap material possessions, augurs well for this planet.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

A billion Lives

Mankind is a warring animal. Ever since man evolved from primates (possibly even before that), he/she has been involved in some kind of conflict. Archeologists have even speculated about the possible conflicts between Homo sapiens and Neanderthals in which we, the homo sapiens triumphed. Until the last few hundred years, these conflicts were mostly local and affected only a particular section of the world. But as man advanced technologically, so did his reach across the planet. Conflicts started becoming global and have now reached a point of threatening the very existence of our species.

The last century saw two global wars - wars that affected almost every part of earth; wars born out of greed for money, power and resources; wars conducted without any respect for human lives. The aftermath of the wars rewrote the political, economic and the social landscape of the planet. New countries were born; Peace blossomed in some regions, while more bloody wars were fought. How has the world fared after its epic battles? What has been happening in the different parts of the world? 'A Billion Lives' - a book by Jan Egeland provides a view of the world's most troubled spots as seen through the eyes of its author - a former undersecretary general for the United nations.

Jan has lived on the front lines of UN operations under Kofi Annan. He has also worked with the Norwegian Ministry. Through these posts he has traveled to many of the most dangerous and troubled spots on earth, has held talks with the most ruthless rebel/government leaders and has arranged humanitarian relief efforts in those areas. In his book, he takes us on a journey through the civil wars and disasters in Colombia, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, Indonesia and Darfur. He describes in detail, the background of the conflict or the disasters in each region and walks us through the progress made in each place. He provides an insight into the minds of the dictators, rebel leaders and other warring factions.

All the places (except Indonesia where he assists the Tsunami victims) described in the book have been ravaged in mindless, unnecessary wars. Whatever be the history, economy, geography or religion of the place, one thing is common - Wars have served no purpose and have been waged without purpose. End of the day, people suffer. Most importantly, the young children, women, old people - all the vulnerable sections suffer the most. Most of the rebels fighting decade long wars do not seem to have any particular agenda. They really do not know what they're fighting for and why. And most of them are headed by paranoid maniacs who are perpetually afraid of their lives and ruthlessly kill anyone and everyone.

While the UN has carried out numerous relief programs, it has not been able to successfully prevent the ruthless genocides, unless approved by the Security council and the majority of nations. A full approval by the security council is very difficult as one or other permanent members invariably vetoes the proposals. For example, China has consistently refused to back any proposal to pressurize Sudan to stop the Darfur Genocide. Jan describes his helplessness towards the Darfur Atrocity - "The one thing the women beg of me - protection & security - is the only thing we cannot as UN humanitarian workers give them".

In many cases, I felt nauseated reading about the cruelty (the word is just not strong enough) of these so called Militias/rebels/governments/terrorists. He talks about the 20 year long fighting that has been raging on in Uganda. "The Northern part of the country is in the hands of a rebel group called 'Lord's resistance Army' which has kidnapped more than 20,000 children, who have been brutalized, tortured and raped while being forced to join this self-styled army and attack their own villages and families in a forgotten war".

In every scenario, Jan describes the frustrating way in which the peace talks seem to be progressing slowly over the years only to be suddenly broken and everything returning to square one, resulting in a fresh wave of violence, killings and sufferings. He has tried to finish his account in an optimistic note. He has cited statistical evidence that conflicts have reduced around the world. For example, there were 10 unfolding genocides in 1989, while there was just one in 2006. But somehow, these accounts leaves the reader with a big question about our species - Can we ever learn to live in peace and harmony? In the past 10,000 years, I've not seen any evidence of that being possible. The recent conflicts are so huge in scale affecting millions of lives. Millions of children have been abused, tortured and forced to torture others. Entire generations are being bred on violence which would effectively be creating socially retarded psychopaths, accustomed to killings and insensitive to suffering. I fear this generation. We can see some encouraging examples of some of the conflict zones successfully returning to peaceful ways. I just hope that at some point, our species comes to its senses before we ruthlessly destroy ourselves.

From the perspective of a book, this is a really good one. Jan has clearly portrayed the conflict zones and has powerfully expressed his feelings of anger, sadness, frustration and in some cases relief and happiness. The book gives us a good idea of the intricacies of international affairs, the key players and the way the game is played across the world.