Friendship, Facebook and Diwali!

‘Facebook is a great tool to keep in touch with many friends at once,’ I said to an old pal who was expressing discontent that nowadays people have time to post several updates a day but none for a personal call. How’s this as a pitch for Facebook: In touch with many, close to none! Clearly, a shared medium cannot serve the same needs as a close personal friendship. Sure, your friends list is over 100, but how many close friendships do you have? Do you feel the closeness during a Facebook interaction? As a tool we like and appreciate what Facebook can do, but is it making us reluctant to engage in personal contact which requires more time and emotional effort?

The rate of technological change and its effect on society has been brisk in the last two decades. I grew up in Mumbai of the 1980s. There were no computers and no cell phones near where I grew up.  In fact, my family had no telephone at all until I was  in my teens. Calling a friend meant standing under his balcony and shouting out his name until he shouted back  his status update. This was a daily ritual during the summer vacations. Discussions about the day’s plans were often carried out between three kids, two in their respective balconies and one on the ground. Through the usual sports and pastimes for kids at that age, a close camaraderie developed and it got us through the teens and into college. Hostel(dorm) friends were just as close or even closer due to a common living environment and the shared stresses of academic life.  Cack sessions, or face-to-face chats, lasted all night some nights and covered every issue inconsequential or not.

Today we are all grown up, most of us are married, and almost all of us are scattered across the globe, away from the neighbourhood where we grew up. Making close local friends in the new places we move to every so often, is not easy even for the most social amongst us. No worries, Facebook to the rescue. Facebook allows us to know where our lost friends are, and for those of us who actively post updates, also what they are doing, reading or even thinking. But is it the same as the interactions we had when we locked shoulders before a competitive match or ate together in the hostel mess? Is there a communal feeling of being in this together, with shared hopes and aspirations? Do we even know what our friends’ hopes and aspirations are anymore? Are we contributing to their success and sharing their joys? Is clicking “Like” in response to their accomplishments enough? Does a comment of condolence in response to our grief give us the perk that our neurobiology demands from our support network? Where is the “hug tight” button?

Today’s youngsters are no doubt more comfortable with the online nature of their social network, yet technological change is leaving evolutionary biology far behind and leading to increasingly isolated lives with nothing but the immediate family, if that, to provide the support that we need. Even where a healthy supportive family does exist, relying on only family for emotional support seems to me a one-legged stool. Even though the strongest leg is still attached, there is no balance.

It is the eve of Diwali, a bright, joyous and noisy festival in India, and I feel a nostalgic craving for the close presence of family and friends whose support I count on and who likewise, count on me. Wish you a Happy Diwali and hope that your New Year will be full of close friendships! A good way to start: Visit, Call and Write to people this Diwali weekend. Unless, of course, what you really want is to post a wish on Facebook and be done with it.

Contributed on a contemplative day by Sanjay, a social guy with over one hundred Facebook friends.

About Child Rights and You

(The following is based on personal research, notes from a volunteer conference and conversations with CRY staff, but this is not an official CRY document)

Every person is moved, to however small an extent, by the plight of the deprived, and if shown a simple way to express it, would definitely do so. And when many individuals do it, it works out to a lot. Enough to make a difference in children’s lives.

Rippan Kapur (1954-94), Founder, Child Rights and You.

CRY-logo.gifChild Rights and You (CRY) is an organization working to improve the lives of underprivileged children in India. It has positively impacted the lives of over 1.5 million children across 18 Indian states. CRY is one of the biggest and oldest children’s organizations in India, yet this number is a small fraction of the number of children that need help. The statistics are grim and I won’t list them here, but to put this number in context, consider that 60 million children in India do not go to school and 23 million are being exploited as child laborers.

So, what is CRY doing to solve some of these problems?

CRY’s approach is to be an enabler rather than an implementer. It funds and supports projects run by development organizations working within the communities where children need help. CRY takes a rights based approach to children’s welfare – the right to survival, the right to protection, the right to development and the right to participation – in short, the right to a childhood. It works on the realization that lasting change will come from addressing the root causes that keep children hungry, illiterate, exploited and abused. Causes like gender, caste, livelihoods and displacement.  You can read more on the CRY website: Who we are?What we do? and How are we different?

How is CRY different from other children’s organizations?

First, I should say that the scope of work needed in India is so large that there is room for many organizations to tackle the problems from different directions. They all deserve our support. That said, there are a few key differences between CRY and some other volunteer driven US-based organizations. One is that CRY is staffed by about 180 development professionals, who are experts in their areas, are trained at institutes like the Tata Institute for Social Sciences and have a background in Social Service. They use their experience and training to mentor and support the projects in addition to just funding them. A second difference is that CRY raises half of their operating funds within India. This is significant if you consider that the operating revenues exceeded Rs. 50 crores (US $11 million) in 2007-8. I recently found out that my father contributed to CRY when I was a small kid growing up in India. I feel it  is a sign of credibility that an organization has continued to get so much local support. I also feel that the philosophy of catalyzing change from within a community along with a holistic Child Rights approach has a better chance at succeeding in bringing about sustained improvement.

I cannot and probably should not try to cover it all here. So here is an article (A Touch of Heroism) about CRY’s early history which talks about the difficult early years and the founder’s vision. An academic paper about CRY is this somewhat dated case study from 1997. If you are interested in the projects that CRY supports, you can see them categorized by state at Projects we support.

Update 11/12/2012: The first two links above are now broken and I could not find these documents online easily. The projects link does work, and if you like what you see, please help me raise funds here. Many thanks for your support.

What I can do, I must do.

Rippan Kapur

On moving to a wireless-N router

To  N o’ not to N: That is the question.

Omlet, Sysadmin of Denmark (Apologies…)

418yvKOv9gL._SL500_AA280_Motivated by the trouble I am having with my ancient wireless router, which at this point requires one reboot a day, I decided to look into buying a new router. 802.11n seems like the natural choice. At Micro-center I came across this Linksys box (WRT160NL) which in addition to wireless-N also has a USB port where you can connect, say an external hard drive. With some luck, the hard drive becomes a NAS (Network attached storage) and you can then access the drive’s data all across your LAN. With 802.11n typical throughput of 100+ Mbps you can, for example, wirelessly stream Hi Def video to your home theater PC. Neat, but will I have to reboot the new router once a day too?

For advice, I turned to an old friend Prateek, who several months ago had told me that he had solved the Reboot problem by flashing his router’s pre-existing condition (erasing the original firmware) and installing some open-source linux based router specific operating system. I asked Prateek what he thought of the above router and asked if DD-WRT would work for me. His reply contains enough good information to inspire this post for the benefit of those also considering the upgrade to N.


I have a Buffalo Technology WHR-G125 which is a Wireless-G router and supports WPA2 encryption. I bought it for $25 more than a year ago.

This morning when I updated the firmware from the site, I saw their support for USB in the upcoming release (it’s present in the latest patch as well).  So I got an idea about USB support in the router.

The router you mentioned seems to have a lot of good features. But going with a Wireless-N router right now has two limitations/problems:

  1. The Wireless-N standard is still not completely ratified by the standards body. It’s still in the draft state for almost 4+ years now (a lot of tussle between the vendors for various features they want to support/drop). The final version might have a few changes which might be different from the draft version. In that case the existing N-routers may not be fully compatible. Of course some of the changes can  be taken care of with a new software patch.
  2. You will need to upgrade your wireless adapters in your laptops, desktops, an iPod/iPhone to get the benefits of wireless-N technology. The wireless adapter in your home LAN with the oldest wireless technology becomes the common denominator.

There are studies done which show that having a wireless-B adapter in a LAN full of wireless-G devices decreases wireless speed considerably for all the devices/adapters. I think same would be true with a wireless-G device in a group of wireless-N devices.

I think going with the wireless-N technology, you will be paying a premium on things which are have still not matured enough. But if you have enough dough(money!) to spend on these things, then go for it!!

On the other hand you might find a wireless-G router which supports USB. Linksys has one wireless-G router with USB support Linksys WRTSL54GS.

More info here:

These days most of the router vendors are supporting Linux-based software on their devices. Buffalo Tech offers all their new routers with the DD-WRT software loaded. Linksys is doing the same with their own Linux flavor. But then they have to publish all their changes to the Linux OS to everyone due to GPL rules, so I guess eventually those changes would show up in the DD-WRT software as well.

If you want to find out if a router is supported by the DD-WRT software, you can enter the router model name here:

Once you know the router is supported, it’s very easy to do. There is a whole wiki for that:

BTW, there is another linux-based flavor for the router firmware: It seems DD-WRT is based on the linux kernel 2.4.X and OpenWRT is based on linux kernel 2.6.X.



Tom, our early adopter, chimes in over email:

I have been use N for years.

N is really dual channel G. N will down shift to G if it detects it is interfering with G clients.  It will try and find two open channels.

The Apple Inc N will auto switch between N and G  and/or between 2.4 and 5 GHz unless you lock it down.  I have two N routers, I lock one @ 5GHz and  one @ 2.4GHz. The one running @ 2.4 GHz will auto switch between N and G.  Windows, Mac’s and iPhones all work, life is good.

The only thing that screws thing up are old wireless phones that are not WiFi friendly.

By the way, auto update on the Apple computer auto downloads the software and firmware for the router, then auto updates the router from the computer. J



One final point I should add is that upgrading to N is unlikely to improve your internet connection speed. Those are limited more by your ISP than by your router. For example, my Comcast “High Speed Internet” clocks in at about 9 Mbps/3 Mbps (Upload/Download). This is well within the capabilities of 802.11g which has a typical throughput of 19 Mbps. So going to N will do nothing to improve my internet speed (even if I move to FIOS optical fiber, which we just got wired for) But N will improve the data rate within the local network (like HD video streaming, file transfers etc.). Most people however, including myself, rarely do these things wirelessly. Apple’s iPod/Touch and iPhone are still on -G too.

So then, will I get a new router? Probably soon but when I do it will not be because I need N, but because of my old router’s problems (Alas, it is not compatible with DD-WRT!)

Hope, Despair and Action…

Fresh data shows that greenhouse gas emissions between 2000 and 2007 increased far more rapidly than expected. We are basically looking now at a future climate that is beyond anything that we’ve considered seriously in climate policy.  – IPCC


Don't worry, he is not an endangered species. But some frogs and the tropical rainforests they live in are.

The relentless environmental degradation going on in the world today  makes for grim reading – melting permafrost, receding glaciers, disappearing habitats,  rising acidity in the oceans, baby birds being fed plastic trash, species being driven to extinction, cancer epidemics due to increasing chemical pollution, continuing deforestation, raging wildfires, and the like. Public and private apathy towards these issues are enough to make even optimists gloomy about the fate of our planet. Things are so bad and most experts in the field are so pessimistic that I can’t help feeling a tinge of sadness when I look at small kids these days. I wonder what kind of a world are we going to leave behind for them. Is it Game Over! for us humans? Is Collapse inevitable?

My own environmental record is dismal. I live in Boston where I burn a thousand dollars worth of natural gas every year to heat my home. Add more gas for a heated indoor tennis club. I run through too many tennis shoes, racquet strings and buckets full of tennis balls (more on these in a later post.) Living in a suburb, I am forced to drive everywhere and clock up over 10,000 miles in a year. I fly twice a year, sometimes across the world. I own two TVs and two computers. Just a few years ago, when I had exactly zero TVs, I would I have shot myself for this.

Yet amidst the despair, there are a few signs of hope. The global economic recession is forcing every company and every individual to reconsider their consumption and even their lifestyles. Many companies are investing in energy efficient lighting, better insulation for heating and air conditioning and turning to wind and solar energy. They are turning off their computers at night and setting double-sided printing to default. We have an American president who acknowledges the crisis and at the moment is at least saying all the right things. His energy plan is a step in the right direction, and the carbon cap system if passed, will finally make even the reluctant corporations take notice. The responsibility though still lies with all of us – the ultimate consumers.

In spite of my many environmental crimes, I do also ride a bicycle to work in good weather. I hang-dry my clothes and take a cold shower on most days. I eat mostly vegetarian food, buy certified humane animal products, use a programmable thermostat, strictly avoid disposable products and those with excessive packaging, use canvas grocery bags and recycle every thing I can. My trash bin is less than a foot tall, about the same size as the one my parents use in Mumbai. I only buy high quality products that last a long time and are hopefully also made with less worker and environmental exploitation. I carry a handkerchief and use wash-cloths to avoid using paper-towels.

All of the above things, by the way, are not just good for the environment, they are also good for Sanjay Inc.’s bottom line. I estimate that bike commuting saved me over $250 last year in gas and car maintenance. Hang drying clothes saves energy, but it also reduces wear and tear and the need for ironing. Cold showers boost the immune system and also ensure that I don’t shower longer than necessary, thereby saving water, energy and time. Vegetarian food typically costs less, spoils slower and will very likely save on health care costs later in life. Higher quality products may cost more initially but save money eventually by lasting longer. Being cheap is good for the environment!

But this should not just be about the bottom line. It is when I see children and imagine their future, that I feel the weight of our responsibility towards life beyond our own lifetimes.  Neglect and denial are no longer an option. We must all become environmentalists. The time for action is now!

Those of us who enjoy wilderness sports, at least the non-motorized ones like hiking, follow a strict environmental ethic: Leave no trace. We may never be able to fully implement that in our daily lives, but we must commit to trying.


(if you read this far, you obviously care. Please add a comment if you have an idea for the aspiring environmentalists.)

Bombay Dreams!

mumbai8Dr. Radhakrishnan said: It takes a village to raise a child. I was raised by the city of Mumbai – the glorious city of Mumbai. From the way I make tea and speak Hindi to my attitude towards Muslims and minorities, I am a product of Aamchi Mumbai. Mumbaikars are generally open-minded, progressive and tolerant of multiple ideologies. Hindus and Muslims (not to mention half a dozen other religions) live, work and commute shoulder to shoulder in this overcrowded city in spite of the occasional incidents  of group violence that mar a traditionally business-oriented multi-ethnic cosmopolitan culture. Almost always these incidents are triggered by selfish politicians hungry for a vote-bank and woefully low on morals. In Mumbai these things are shrugged off. Life and work must go on.

Mumbai has been the target of four major terrorist attacks since 1993. The latest heartbreak in Mumbai led to this editorial by Suketu Mehta in the New York Times:

The terrorists’ message was clear: Stay away from Mumbai or you will get killed. But the best answer to the terrorists is to dream bigger, make even more money, and visit Mumbai more than ever. …

In other cities, if there’s an explosion, people run away from it. In Mumbai, people run toward it — to help. …

If the rest of the world wants to help, it should run toward the explosion. It should fly to Mumbai, and spend money. Where else are you going to be safe? New York? London? Madrid? So I’m booking flights to Mumbai. I’m going to go get a beer at the Leopold, stroll over to the Taj for samosas at the Sea Lounge, and watch a Bollywood movie at the Metro. Stimulus doesn’t have to be just economic.

It does not take much to make me nostalgic about the city. Even after all these years, every time I go into Boston’s South Station on the commuter rail, a part of me imagines that I am rolling into Churchgate station, and I am flooded with old memories — Eros Cinema, sev puri on the street, the line of yellow cabs, the crashing waves on Marine Drive. The pleasant memories are soon replaced with a painful longing as I wake myself out of my dreams. I have half a mind to book a flight to Mumbai and do everything that Mehta suggests. If you’ve read his book, Maximum City, you may recall the sentence, “When I moved to New York, I missed Bombay like an organ of my body.”

In the years since I left, Mumbai has continued to evolve – it’s now even more crowded, even more polluted and even more noisy. Yet hundreds of thousands still flock to it every year. The city takes them all in and makes them its own. This openness makes it a soft target for terrorists. How easy was it for the terrorists to get in and start their mindless mayhem! I can almost imagine the betrayed look in the moist eyes of a naive city asking in an injured voice, Why?

As the Indian Government and concerned people everywhere agonize over the appropriate response to this atrocity, I believe the solution lies not in India but in Pakistan. Pakistani leadership and the Pakistani people must take responsibility for the actions of their youth and the gangsters they give refuge to. The true deterrent to terrorism must come from within – these acts must be condemned by the same people who the terrorists are claiming to be fighting for. Ordinary Pakistanis are as much to blame as their leaders for the attitude of tolerance towards fundamentalism and the politics of hatred. The choice for Pakistan is stark -it can choose to remain a failed state perpetually in a state of war with its neighbours or choose a path of   social and economic progress.  Pakistani leadership must evolve and demonstrate the maturity to lead the country out of a morass of fundamentalist ideology. The world must act determinedly and unitedly towards facilitating a new Pakistan.

I hope Mumbai’s freshest wounds are not forgotten.

Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish: Steve Jobs

Your work is to find your work and then with all your heart give yourself to it.

The Buddha

SteveJobsA friend just sent a link to the video of Steve Jobs’ commencement speech at Stanford in 2005. Although I had read it before, I found it well worth the while to see the video and reflect on his stories one more time. In fact, a periodical reminder to read this may not be such a bad idea.

A curious anecdote I’d read about Jobs — A designer friend of his made a shirt for him – a black turtleneck full sleeved T-shirt.  He liked it so much, he bought a lifetime supply. He says he now does not need to think about what he’s  going to wear.


I am honored to be with you today at your commencement from one of the finest universities in the world. I never graduated from college. Truth be told, this is the closest I’ve ever gotten to a college graduation. Today I want to tell you three stories from my life. That’s it. No big deal. Just three stories.

The first story is about connecting the dots.

I dropped out of Reed College after the first 6 months, but then stayed around as a drop-in for another 18 months or so before I really quit. So why did I drop out?

It started before I was born. My biological mother was a young, unwed college graduate student, and she decided to put me up for adoption. She felt very strongly that I should be adopted by college graduates, so everything was all set for me to be adopted at birth by a lawyer and his wife. Except that when I popped out they decided at the last minute that they really wanted a girl. So my parents, who were on a waiting list, got a call in the middle of the night asking: “We have an unexpected baby boy; do you want him?” They said: “Of course.” My biological mother later found out that my mother had never graduated from college and that my father had never graduated from high school. She refused to sign the final adoption papers. She only relented a few months later when my parents promised that I would someday go to college.

And 17 years later I did go to college. But I naively chose a college that was almost as expensive as Stanford, and all of my working-class parents’ savings were being spent on my college tuition. After six months, I couldn’t see the value in it. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life and no idea how college was going to help me figure it out. And here I was spending all of the money my parents had saved their entire life. So I decided to drop out and trust that it would all work out OK. It was pretty scary at the time, but looking back it was one of the best decisions I ever made. The minute I dropped out I could stop taking the required classes that didn’t interest me, and begin dropping in on the ones that looked interesting.

It wasn’t all romantic. I didn’t have a dorm room, so I slept on the floor in friends’ rooms, I returned coke bottles for the 5¢ deposits to buy food with, and I would walk the 7 miles across town every Sunday night to get one good meal a week at the Hare Krishna temple. I loved it. And much of what I stumbled into by following my curiosity and intuition turned out to be priceless later on. Let me give you one example:

Reed College at that time offered perhaps the best calligraphy instruction in the country. Throughout the campus every poster, every label on every drawer, was beautifully hand calligraphed. Because I had dropped out and didn’t have to take the normal classes, I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this. I learned about serif and san serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture, and I found it fascinating.

None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But ten years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography. If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts. And since Windows just copied the Mac, its likely that no personal computer would have them. If I had never dropped out, I would have never dropped in on this calligraphy class, and personal computers might not have the wonderful typography that they do. Of course it was impossible to connect the dots looking forward when I was in college. But it was very, very clear looking backwards ten years later.

Again, you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.

My second story is about love and loss.

I was lucky — I found what I loved to do early in life. Woz and I started Apple in my parents garage when I was 20. We worked hard, and in 10 years Apple had grown from just the two of us in a garage into a $2 billion company with over 4000 employees. We had just released our finest creation — the Macintosh — a year earlier, and I had just turned 30. And then I got fired. How can you get fired from a company you started? Well, as Apple grew we hired someone who I thought was very talented to run the company with me, and for the first year or so things went well. But then our visions of the future began to diverge and eventually we had a falling out. When we did, our Board of Directors sided with him. So at 30 I was out. And very publicly out. What had been the focus of my entire adult life was gone, and it was devastating.

I really didn’t know what to do for a few months. I felt that I had let the previous generation of entrepreneurs down – that I had dropped the baton as it was being passed to me. I met with David Packard and Bob Noyce and tried to apologize for screwing up so badly. I was a very public failure, and I even thought about running away from the valley. But something slowly began to dawn on me — I still loved what I did. The turn of events at Apple had not changed that one bit. I had been rejected, but I was still in love. And so I decided to start over.

I didn’t see it then, but it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life.

During the next five years, I started a company named NeXT, another company named Pixar, and fell in love with an amazing woman who would become my wife. Pixar went on to create the worlds first computer animated feature film, Toy Story, and is now the most successful animation studio in the world. In a remarkable turn of events, Apple bought NeXT, I returned to Apple, and the technology we developed at NeXT is at the heart of Apple’s current renaissance. And Laurene and I have a wonderful family together.

I’m pretty sure none of this would have happened if I hadn’t been fired from Apple. It was awful tasting medicine, but I guess the patient needed it. Sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick. Don’t lose faith. I’m convinced that the only thing that kept me going was that I loved what I did. You’ve got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don’t settle.

My third story is about death.

When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: “If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.” It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” And whenever the answer has been “No” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.

Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.

About a year ago I was diagnosed with cancer. I had a scan at 7:30 in the morning, and it clearly showed a tumor on my pancreas. I didn’t even know what a pancreas was. The doctors told me this was almost certainly a type of cancer that is incurable, and that I should expect to live no longer than three to six months. My doctor advised me to go home and get my affairs in order, which is doctor’s code for prepare to die. It means to try to tell your kids everything you thought you’d have the next 10 years to tell them in just a few months. It means to make sure everything is buttoned up so that it will be as easy as possible for your family. It means to say your goodbyes.

I lived with that diagnosis all day. Later that evening I had a biopsy, where they stuck an endoscope down my throat, through my stomach and into my intestines, put a needle into my pancreas and got a few cells from the tumor. I was sedated, but my wife, who was there, told me that when they viewed the cells under a microscope the doctors started crying because it turned out to be a very rare form of pancreatic cancer that is curable with surgery. I had the surgery and I’m fine now.

This was the closest I’ve been to facing death, and I hope its the closest I get for a few more decades. Having lived through it, I can now say this to you with a bit more certainty than when death was a useful but purely intellectual concept:

No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true.

Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.

When I was young, there was an amazing publication called The Whole Earth Catalog, which was one of the bibles of my generation. It was created by a fellow named Stewart Brand not far from here in Menlo Park, and he brought it to life with his poetic touch. This was in the late 1960’s, before personal computers and desktop publishing, so it was all made with typewriters, scissors, and polaroid cameras. It was sort of like Google in paperback form, 35 years before Google came along: it was idealistic, and overflowing with neat tools and great notions.

Stewart and his team put out several issues of The Whole Earth Catalog, and then when it had run its course, they put out a final issue. It was the mid-1970s, and I was your age. On the back cover of their final issue was a photograph of an early morning country road, the kind you might find yourself hitchhiking on if you were so adventurous. Beneath it were the words: “Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.” It was their farewell message as they signed off. Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish. And I have always wished that for myself. And now, as you graduate to begin anew, I wish that for you.

Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.

Thank you all very much.


Speaking of looking back, as GM heads for either bankruptcy or a bailout, I’m reminded of the job offer I had from them almost ten years ago. I declined it even though the pay was higher than my other offers. When I called the GM hiring manager to tell him of my decision, he laughed at me and said I must be silly. The decision wasn’t easy at the time – I had many good friends in the area – but looking back it seems to have been a good one. There were two reasons that guided my choice: one, I did not like the idea of working on contract – I felt it was not the way to build a career – and two, I found the car-centric culture in Detroit somewhat alien to my nature — ten miles away, was “right there” in Detroit-speak, everybody seemed to love cars and driving and there was no public transportation system to speak of (and still isn’t). Now, living in Boston, I still (reluctantly) have to drive to work, but there is public transportation and overall this city seems to be a much better fit.

There is one other decision I made about ten years ago, that may have significantly affected my life since. As I was graduating from IIT with a Bachelors degree, I had scholarships from Umich, Cornell and CMU among others and an admit (without funding) from Stanford. At that time – at the age of 20 with a middle class Indian background – taking the risk of going to a prohibitively expensive school without funding  was almost out of the question, and so I decided to go to Umich without much debate. In fact, I don’t even remember it being much of a decision, actually – it was the natural choice. What I did not know at the time however, was that Stanford routinely accepts students without funding, and the majority of them are able to get funding within the first term. Even if I had known this fact then, I am not certain I would have taken the financial risk. I also do not know in what way my life would be different, if I had gone to Stanford instead. But I do know, that if I had to advise that 20 year old based on my experience today, I would have encouraged him to take more risk with his life. As it turned out, many years after I had made my choice, there came an Intern in my research group who was faced with exactly the same decision (same two schools, believe it or not!) This time around, Stanford won! And he did not have much trouble with the funding. Go Ash!

So then the question is, what would the Sanjay ten years from now like to tell the Sanjay of today?

Obey your thirst!

On my last trip to India, an uncle noticed the calibration on my Nalgene water bottle and asked me if I measure the amount of water I drink. My aunt and I instinctively laughed, and I said no, I didn’t. Many athletes however do, and that is one of the reasons why the bottle is calibrated. Long distance runners, for example, are given guidelines about water consumption both before, during and after the run.

Here’s a general rule of thumb for fluid consumption during your runs: You should take in 6 to 8 ounces of fluid every 20 minutes during your runs. During longer workouts (90 minutes or more), some of your fluid intake should include a sports drink (like Gatorade) to replace lost sodium and other minerals (electrolytes).

The problem with these rules of thumb of course is that the rate of fluid lost during exercise depends on a number of factors, among them, level of exertion, temperature and humidity in the environment, body size, weight and composition, etc. Drinking should somehow correlate with the fluid lost, and so most coaches acknowledge that these are only rough guidelines. The implicit belief behind the existence of these guidelines though is that the body’s thirst response is not adequate to satisfy its fluid needs.

A person’s physiological drive for fluid intake during exercise is perceived through ‘thirst mechanisms’ and it has long been known that when given ad libitum access to fluid, and thus drink voluntarily, that these mechanisms compel people to drink at a rate that replaces approximately one-half of their fluid losses and at best two-thirds (Pitts and Consolazio, 1944; Hubbard et al., 1984). The concept that thirst during exercise does not drive people to take in fluid at the rate of fluid loss is termed ‘voluntary dehydration’.

Fluid and fuel intake during exercise

EDWARD F. COYLE, The Human Performance Laboratory, Department of Kinesiology and Health Education, The University of Texas at Austin, Austin, TX 78712, USA. Journal of Sports Sciences, 2004, 22, 39–55.

Indeed, I have heard several athletes and hikers say that you must keep hydrating and not wait till you are thirsty, because by the time you are thirsty, it’s too late. The opposite argument, in favor of drinking in response to thirst, is made in The Science of Sport blog. These guys incidentally have studied at the institute headed by Tim Noakes, who first recognized the problem of Hyponatremia caused by excessive drinking.

In 1965 John Greenleaf did a study on four well-trained men to examine how much water they would ingest during exercise in the heat. The title was “Voluntary dehydration in man” and is the first reference to the finding that when given ad libitum access to fluids—that is, when we drink to thirst—humans do not replace 100% of their weight losses. The reality of the situation is that humans (and mammals) have very well-developed and successful mechanisms in place to help conserve and maintain their fluid balance. The body is not concerned about body weight but rather the concentration of body fluids —otherwise known as the osmolality, and here is how it works.

Incredibly small increases (1%) above the resting value (280-300) first will trigger the release of anti-diuretic hormone or ADH. Its job is to keep you from losing any more water in the urine. It has a profound effect so that even small amounts of ADH produce a maximal effect—that is, it is not possible for you to produce any less urine. Next, if ADH does not do the trick, as is the case when you are exercising and sweating, your thirst kicks in. Again, this occurs at a very marginal (4% or less) elevation of the osmolality. The effect is that we seek fluid, drink, and some time later the fluid gets in to the blood and dilutes it back down below the thirst threshold. This cycle continues indefinitely until you stop excreting fluid (i.e., sweating) and restore your osmolality once and for all.

So in fact humans have a very acute sense of when it is important to drink fluid, and it does not take much to stimulate us to seek water. Thirst is a very deep-seated physiological desire for water, and it has been shown again and again in lab studies to effectively defend the osmolality. …

When you drink to thirst, you optimize your fluid intake, and by that we mean your thirst will always keep you from drinking too much or too little. There is such a thing as both of those, but drinking to thirst will always prevent you from straying too far in one direction or the other.

Fluid intake, dehydration and exercise: Part IV

The American College of Sports Medicine discussed this issue at a Roundtable on Hydration and Physical Activity in Boston in Dec. 2003. The consensus opinion published in 2005 is probably a good reference on what the experts agree on. Some of the questions asked and their consensus:

Are we unintentionally encouraging athletes to over-drink? How much fluid should an athlete consume each day? Under what circumstances does dehydration negatively affect health and performance? What are the best recommendations for fluid, electrolyte, and carbohydrate replacement before, during, and after exercise? Does dehydration contribute to collapse during and after exercise? Does dehydration contribute to the genesis of exertional heat stroke? How does exercise-related hyponatremia develop? and finally, How is hyponatremia best prevented?

Athletes often dehydrate involuntarily during exercise. Thus, during intense physical activity and environmental stress, fluid losses commonly exceed replacement, resulting in an acute fluid deficit.
i.Level of evidence: A (Evidence scale going from A – highest to D – marginal)
ii.References: Rehrer and Burke [29], Maughan et al. [30], Adolph [12]

Athletes involved in long-duration activities should attempt to replace sweat losses during activity, but should not exceed the volume of sweat lost during the activity. The minimum fluid replacement goal during most activities is to limit fluid deficits to less than 2% of baseline, euhydrated body weight.
i.Level of evidence: B
ii.Reference: Cheuvront et al. [5]

General prescriptive guidelines for fluid and electrolyte replacement practices for athletes are not meaningful across or even within sports due to considerable variability in the sweat losses of athlete and sports-specific differences in the factors that influence fluid intake during exercise. Education messages should encourage athletes to recognize their individual needs based on sweat losses and to target issues that influence fluid intake during activity, For example, opportunities to drink, availability of fluids, and the culture and rules of the sport can all influence intake and these factors should be taken into account when designing fluid and electrolyte replacement regimens.

American College of Sports Medicine Roundtable on Hydration and Physical Activity: Consensus Statements

Their suggestion to gauge fluid needs based on sweat losses is difficult to implement in practice because measuring sweat losses is impossible during a race and even estimation is made complicated due to changing humidity.

My own personal experience (note, this is a sample size of one) is that I get thirsty within the first two miles of running even in pleasant conditions. Since that is about 15-20 minutes at the most, I find it hard to believe that it is already too late. Drinking too little or drinking too much both make me uncomfortable. I carry a bottle almost everywhere I go, even if I am only at my office desk, so thirst rarely goes unpunished. In some vigorous tennis games I feel that I drink a little too much in response to a parched throat after a particularly vigorous rally, and it causes a bloated feeling. On a recent 50 mile bike ride on a pleasant day (60-70F) over about 4 hours I basically drank only to thirst – mainly water and a little gatorade – with some oatmeal bars and bananas for food and felt fine at the end. One thing that surprised me was how quickly the food would disappear in my stomach. After eating till i was full at a rest stop, within minutes on the bike, I would wish I had eaten one more bar or one more banana. Was my hunger response at the rest stop not adequate – or conversely, how was the hunger response that quick after eating? On a long, cold, two day hike up Mt. Whitney, I made myself extremely uncomfortable on the second day by carrying only Gatorade and no water (I was using a Camelbak and no water bottles). I’d want to drink but gag on the gatorade instead. I swore to always carry water or diluted gatorade after that experience.

How much gatorade (or sports drink) you need is also addressed in most of these references I linked above. The consensus seems to be that its good to ingest 30-60gm of carbohydrate in a beverage per hour of extended exercise because it is rapidly converted to blood glucose and thereby improves performance. As for electrolyte balance, it appears that gatorade helps a bit in offsetting salt lost in sweat, but the most important thing in maintaining electrolyte balance is to not drink too much or too little.

Over a Trillion and Counting…

Don’t Panic!

Inscribed in large friendly letters on the cover of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

BBC News

Until Sept. 2008 the National Debt Clock in New York had enough digits to measure US Debt Levels. The debt has now crossed the $10 trillion point. Plans are afoot to add two more digits to allow for up to $1 quadrillion. Image Courtesy: BBC News

Last week, a gun was held to our head and we handed over the key to Mr. Paulson. It appears now that $700 billion is not enough, as many had predicted. Global credit markets are still without confidence and remain frozen. Countries across the world are scrambling to reassure their financial systems but with little success. Now the Fed allegedly is going to try a new idea – almost take over the commercial paper market and lend money directly to businesses. More taxpayer money at risk, but for our own good of course.

The ‘really big number’ the treasury came up with, 700 billion dollars, is somewhere between $2000 and 5000 from every US household. Much bigger numbers are now making the rounds. The biggest I have heard so far is 60 trillion dollars. This is estimated to be the size of the Credit Default Swaps market. Nobody really knows the exact amount for sure. $60 trillion is more than the GDP of the entire world and yet the size of the market is unknown and it is almost completely unregulated. Go figure!

Warren Buffet called speculative derivatives financial weapons of mass destruction. The most amusing quote I heard last week was also from Buffet, ‘Its only when the tide goes out that you find out who’s been swimming naked.’ It appears that they all were.

As we now head into a free fall, who should be held responsible? One tragic murder-suicide has been reported even as I write this. Is it the home owners who got in over their means, the agents who sold them their balloon mortgages, the math geniuses who packaged these risky mortgages into gold plated securities, the broker-dealers who marketed them, the traders who bought these, Fannie and Freddie who guaranteed them on the taxpayer’s buck, the Fed, SEC and the politicians who failed to regulate them, the financial lobby that fights all attempts at control, the financial press that was caught napping, who, who let the dogs out?

I have known several really smart people who entered the world of finance from various other fields. In most cases, the lure was more money. When in good humour, I’ve asked them, partially in jest, what value they thought they were adding to society? I am still looking for the answer. Some said that they helped keep the markets efficient. That begs the question, how many investment bankers do we need to keep the markets efficient? From my perspective the purpose of a financial market is to put capital to use in implementing the best ideas. The more efficiently this can be done the better. By efficiently I mean with as little overhead as possible, rather than the meaning associated with the ‘efficient market hypothesis’. So then, how much should these people expect to get paid? Whatever they are paid is overhead, because it is money that is not going to productive capital use. How much math helps with efficiency and at what point does the math create a “weapon of mass destruction”? What role does psychology play? How much regulation should be imposed on these jokers? The conditions attached to the revised bailout bill address none of these questions.

When the dust settles, I would like to see some of these doctorates in physics, math and engineering get back to the fields they had chosen when money was not the only carrot they were chasing. There are pressing challenges in science and engineering that could use their sophisticated math skills and will unambiguously add value to the world. In the meantime, like it says on the US Dollar Bill, “In God We Trust.”

There are 10^11 stars in the galaxy. That used to be a huge number. But it’s only a hundred billion. It’s less than the national deficit! We used to call them astronomical numbers. Now we should call them economical numbers.

Richard Feynman
US educator & physicist (1918 – 1988

Note: This is easy to confuse, but the national deficit is different from the National Debt. Debt is an accumulated flow of deficits. The deficit for the 2009 fiscal year is now projected to be $482 billion or roughly 3.3% of GDP.

Melting Permafrost and Climate Change

The question was, ‘How worried should we be?’ The answer was another question, ‘How lucky do you feel?’

Elizabeth Kolbert, in her book, Field Notes from a Catastrophe, quoting a recent British Q&A about Climate Change.

Permafrost is, by definition, any piece of soil that remains frozen for two years or longer. Approximately 20% of the earth’s landmass is covered with permafrost today.

Map Source: Brown, et. al. 1998, National Snow and Ice Data Cente.

Permafrost acts as a giant storage unit for carbon. Here is how, in brief. Above the permafrost is a thin active layer that thaws in summer and can thus support plant life.  When plants die they don’t decompose completely because temperatures in the Arctic are very low. New plants grow on top of half-rotted old plants. When these plants die the same thing happens all over again, and eventually through a process known as cryoturbation, this organic matter is pushed down into the permafrost, where it can sit for thousands of years. Siberian permafrost, for example, is estimated to contain the remains of a lush grassland teeming with plants and wildlife that was frozen 40,000 years ago. One of the dangers of rising temperatures due to global climate change is that this storage process can start to run in reverse. Scientists are reporting that over the last 30 years, permafrost temperatures across the world have shown a significant warming trend. As permafrost melts, the stored organic material can begin to break down thus releasing carbon dioxide and methane, a short lived but much more potent greenhouse gas (it has 20 times the heat trapping capacity of C02). This is already reported to be happening in Siberia, where an annually increasing amount of methane is being released by an array of lakes and wetlands.

Estimates of the amount of carbon trapped in the world’s permafrost ranged between 400 to 800 billion metric tonnes until recently. A just concluded three year international study published in Bioscience, doubles that estimate to 1500 billion tonnes. ”This is equivalent to twice the current amount of CO2 in the world’s atmosphere,” says co-author CSIRO’s Dr Pep Canadell.

Involving collaboration between scientists from Australia, Russia, the US, the UK, Canada and Europe the three-year study concluded that accounting for carbon stored deep in the permafrost more than doubles – to more than 1500 billion tonnes – previous estimates of the world’s high-latitude carbon inventory.

With temperatures in the higher latitudes estimated to rise by as much as eight degrees by the end of this century, the world could experience a major melt of large tracts of permafrost in Canada, Russia, Alaska, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Greenland.

The thawing of permafrost with warming occurs both gradually and catastrophically, exposing organic C (carbon) to microbial decomposition. Other aspects of ecosystem dynamics can be altered by climate change along with thawing permafrost, such as growing season length, plant growth rates and species composition, and ecosystem energy exchange. However, these processes do not appear to be able to compensate for C release from thawing permafrost, making it likely that the net effect of widespread permafrost thawing will be a positive feedback to a warming climate.

Vulnerability of Permafrost Carbon to Climate Change: Implications for the Global Carbon Cycle, BioScience (September 2008)

Better – On becoming a positive deviant

“Better is possible. It does not take genius. It takes diligence. It takes moral clarity. It takes ingenuity. And above all, it takes a willingness to try.”

Atul Gawande (Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance)

Atul Gawande is a surgeon, an associate professor at the Harvard Medical School and a staff writer for the New Yorker. Gawande has a talent for delving into the various nuances of a particular problem in a comprehensive yet engaging manner.  Better contains essays on simple issues like Washing hands where he talks about the difficulties involved in this seemingly simple act that a doctor is required to perform, and also on more complex issues like medical malpractice where he gives the doctor’s, the patient’s as well as the general community’s perspective . Each topic is dealt with thoughtfully and without oversimplification. A very engaging read.

In this piece I want to summarize his Afterword. These are suggestions for becoming what he calls a positive deviant. These were meant for medical graduates but I feel they are general enough for almost everyone.

1. Ask an unscripted question.
Make a connection with patients, treat them like people rather than as parts of the machine you work in. This suggestion came from a favorite essay by Paul Auster.

2. Don’t Complain.
Don’t start a cycle of negative thoughts and actions which will just dampen everyone’s spirits and will not solve anything.

3. Count Something.
Measure performance by counting. The only requirement is that you count something that is interesting to you. Then you will learn something interesting.

4. Write Something.
Choose an audience and write something. Don’t underestimate the effect of your contribution however modest. Writing lets you step back and think through a problem before offering your reflections to an audience, even a small one. Moreover by writing, you make yourself part of a larger world and declare a willingness to contribute something meaningful to it.

5. Change.
Find something new to try, something to change. Count how often you succeed and how often you fail. Write about it. Ask people what they think. See if you can keep the conversation going.