Saturday, October 16, 2010

Wide Angle 44 - Eli Scruggs

Iiiits Johnny...back with the promised third WA this weekend – celebrating the birth of my daughter. This one is different from the usual beat. Who is Eli Scruggs? Well, he is a character in the famous serial “Desperate Housewives” who really struck chord within and coagulated random related thoughts inside me into a mission statement for life. Before we go any further – yes I have begun watching Desperate Housewives or DH (came across it because only 2-3 channels work on my TV here) though this is a series from some earlier season. Ok, so let the brickbats come – he watches DH – how gay is he (I do agree to that argument, after Karan Johar, I am the second Indian man who is saying he watches the serial publicly, but I am very much straight) – folks, but this serial is enjoyed by many men as well because it is a very well made, tightly scripted, fast paced and illuminating story. If you don’t watch it, please do, you will like it, especially after I describe the Eli Scruggs episode and what I have learnt from that here.
A short background – the serial is about 5 housewives who are desperate (off with your dirty thoughts – they are desperate for freedom, happiness, comfort, love and many intangible things). They live in suburban America in a town called Fairview on a street called Wysteria Lane. The lead characters are awesome women - Susan Myer (Terri Hatcher – plays the fumbling, always falling in and out of love housewife), her beau Mike, Bree (an upright, fastidious, old fashioned wife who is also a great organizer and cook), Lynette (mother of 4-5 children, always in control and strong woman, excellent mother and wife) married to Tom, Katherine (friend of them all, a deputy of Bree and divorced from abusive husband), Edie (sexy blonde who flirts and steals others’ husbands but very tough character) and finally Gabrielle (Gaby – this is played by Eva Longoria - the lady who posed with Aishwarya Rai at Cannes – she is an ex model and is very straight forward and brutally honest with everyone).
The episode with Eli Scruggs is my favourite. The story of DH is told by Mary Alice who committed suicide and is also a friend of the women above. Eli Scruggs is the handy man on Wysteria Lane who does jobs of fixing things on Wysteria Lane example a broken tap, drainage, roof tiles or anything else. At the beginning of the episode, Eli is fixing the roof of Susan’s house and declares to all that it is his last job since he is going to retire. That is when he suffers a heart attack and dies. Through the episode, every lady mentioned above remembers difficult moments from their lives when Eli stepped and with a gentle nudge, helped them get through their vulnerable times.
It begins with Gaby, she remembers the time her husband Carlos forces her to move to the suburb – she has been a famous model and used to a happening life and being pampered. She finds the suburban life boring and says that to every woman. All the ladies visit her house for a chat. Gaby makes a dramatic entry and goes off about her modelling life and how boring the suburb is. The others leave unhappy and from then on, Gaby is not invited for any events. That is when Eli shows up to fix something and gently advises her that she would need friends to survive in life and potential friends won’t admire her for showing off. Gaby humbly goes to the ladies bridge afternoon and apologizes and asks for friendship. She joins the group from then on.
Lynette remembers the time she has had her fourth baby. She is still working and is struggling with the baby and trying to match the demands of her work. During one such afternoon, she has just returned from shopping and is talking to her boss on phone and explaining things to him and she enters her house – forgetting the baby in the car. Eli walks in with the baby and hands it over to Lynette. He gently tells her that he understands that she is very stressed in life right now with the job and baby and so it is natural that the baby got left outside. At that moment, Lynette realizes that she is trying to hold on to her job when her real priority is her baby. She silently thanks Eli for the help.
Bree remembers the time she is with her earlier husband and decides to write a book of her recipes. She pens down a few of them, when her husband sees them he chides her saying why would she need to do something so stupid and who would want to read such a book. Eli is working under the sink on the drainage. Bree is disappointed and throws the recipes away in the dust bin. The next scene is when her husband is now dead and she is sitting alone and forlorn. That is when Eli walks in, gives his condolences and hands over her recipes to her saying he has preserved them for when she would need them and says he thinks she might need them now. Bree discovers the strength within herself and moves on. Eventually, Bree opens a successful catering company and publishes a book with her old fashioned recipes.
Edie remembers the time Eli is working in the bathroom and overhears the conversation she is having with her husband where she wants sex and he charges her with being too demanding. The scene cuts to two years later when Edie’s husband has moved out since he realizes he is gay. Eli walks in to fix something to a devastated Edie. He comforts her and points out that so beautiful is she that she could hold on a gay man with her for two years. He gently kisses her hand and they end up sleeping together but that brings the confidence back in Edie.
Susan remembers the time one of her boyfriends leaves and she is sitting on the door ledge crying. That is when Eli comes and sits next to her and tells her that he really admires her. Eli says, “All my life, I have been wondering what love is and kept away from it thinking that I might get hurt. I look at you and see the courage with which you look for love and keep trying for the perfect love. Hats off to you.” Susan cries on his shoulder but she is over the hump.
Finally, Mary Alice who is narrating this story tells her memory. This is when Eli who has first moved in to Wysteria Lane and is trying to set up shop. He asks Mary Alice for a job, she looks at his torn shoe and asks him to fix her vase. That is Eli’s first job on the street from which he grows and becomes prosperous. Eli walks in to Mary’s house on the day she kills herself, she is sitting with her back to him and asks him to keep the vase he had fixed for her. She is speaking weird but Eli doesn’t realize that she is so troubled. He goes away with the vase. After a while, a big crowd has gathered around Mary’s house since she has killed herself. Away from everyone in a corner is Eli who is sitting in his car and crying. That is when he resolves that he will help anyone in need and not let something like this happen again. The episode ends with Bree and friends near Eli’s grave. When they are leaving, Bree notices a flower out of place on his grave, she goes back and fixes it and says, “This is how Eli would have liked it”.

My take:
So what did I learn? Simple, there are moments in everyone’s lives when they are in trouble because of circumstances and are extremely vulnerable. Such times could come to anyone. Depending on the intensity, people may come out of the state of mind or sink further. Wouldn’t it be nice to have an Eli Scruggs around who would gently show the way. More often than not, people need that pat on the back saying “I know you can do it” and they are on their way. Sometimes they need more tangible help. This is what I have decided for myself then – I will help anyone who comes to me with all the efforts the same way I would make for myself. A small phone call here, a little mail there may really change someone’s life. This what I have learnt the hard way when I needed help and I was hearing closed doors. I found my Eli Scruggs and survived. I intend to do the same for others. If nothing, it will earn you good karma. That always helps. Isn’t that what God is about? After all, if your car is stuck on the highway, a simple mechanic who comes and solves the problem seems like God to you. Let us all try to be Eli Scruggs to people we know – this will not only help us with the “duas”, but also make the world a better place.

Abhijit Kothiwale

Meanings of Indian words (for my non Indian readers):
Dua – blessings or request of happiness to god for a certain person who has helped you
Karan Johar – A very successful director/producer from Bollywood who is rumoured to be gay
Aishwarya Rai – the most gorgeous lady in Bollywood, former Miss World

Wide Angle 43 - SuperFreakonomics

Most of the educated but “non-Chetan Bhagat” reading junta has heard of the book “Freakonomics”. At least I have heard a few talk about it i.e. how it is cool and that they plan to read it someday. This Wide Angle is meant to introduce you to the Freakonomics series by a quick delve into the second part of the series “SuperFreakonomics” which I read last week. I hope to arouse your curiosity enough to have you all pick up the books and read them. The books are not only enlightening, they are highly entertaining as well. For those of you have read it, hope you enjoyed it.
The Freakonomics (FS) series is a product of thought of Stephen Levitt who is an economist at the University of Chicago. He is famous in the Economists’ world as a “rogue” economist. The reason is that since the day he gave his first dissertation, he has produced work which does not have any “unifying theme”. Economists typically weave their discourse around a theme or a theory and tend to stand for an idea or a collection of ideas that drive their narrative. Levitt has no such theme. Stephen Dubner is a journalist for the New York Times who got interested in Levitt’s work and wrote columns about him. The two got together and wrote down a collection of the theories all completely unrelated to each other and produced the book called “Freakonomics”. Their publisher was very sceptical about printing it but when published the book was a runaway success and made FS a household name.
A quick glance into FS before we move to today’s topic i.e. SuperFreakonomics (SFS). The opening story of FS sets the tone for the interesting reading that is the two books. It is an “a-ha” moment for whoever reads it. Basically, there was a path breaking case in the US called Roe vs Wade that was ruled on by the Supreme Court in 1973. The court basically settled in favour of women’s right to abortion thus paving the way for removing the restrictions put by many states on abortion. The story then moves to the state of crime in the US which was very bad through the 70s and 80s with everyone predicting the demise of society if the rate of crime increased that way. Suddenly, after the mid 90s, the crime rate dropped significantly. Experts were puzzled with this and started figuring out why this was so – different reasons were put out – increased prosperity due to the economic boom, increased policing, educational incentives but nothing could entirely explain the crime rate drop. What FS proposed was simple – after Roe vs Wade, many poor girls who would have to give birth to unwanted kids who they could not support adequately could now abort them. That meant less kids growing up in poverty and thus lesser criminals. Essentially – the kids who would eventually turn criminals were just not born. Simple but amazing.
SFS is an extension on the FS book. They talk about completely unrelated things but each very interesting and complete in its own way. The chapters are “How is a street prostitute like a department-store Santa”, “Why should suicide bombers buy life insurance?”, “Unbelievable stories about apathy and altruism”, “The fix is in – and it’s cheap and simple”, “What Al Gore and Mount Pinatubo have in common?” and the epilogue “Monkeys are people too”. I will write few lines about what is in each chapter and leave it that – you all can read the book for more.

Chapter on Prostitutes:
The message here is about the economics of prostitution. Street prostitutes are poor, addicts and vulnerable to arrests and violence from customers. About 100 years ago, there was a famous brothel called the Everleigh Club in South Chicago which housed the priciest and most skilled prostitutes. The speciality of this place was that the women could be highly wise and well read, make wine, give massages and did anything in bed. The Everleigh club was extremely successfully and popular for many years until it was closed down under political pressure for “moral” reasons. The wages of prostitutes that were so high suddenly dropped after the World War 2 primarily because of women’s lib as per the book. The sex that was so rare before which drove people to prostitutes and made them pricey started to be freely available from girlfriends that made the market a buyer’s market. However, on the one hand where there are street prostitutes, SFS tells the story of a very successful prostitute called Allie who quit a corporate job to start this one woman business and over the years discovered that she could up her price from $350 to $550 in one week and still keep her clientele but work less. She finally quit after making lot of money and went into real estate during the boom of 2007. After the bust of the market, she is studying to become an economist due to the first hand practical experience she has got.

Chapter on suicide bombers:
Amongst many things about suicide bombers, an economist called K.Anders Ericsson is helping authorities trace down terrorists based on data on banking and financial transactions. For example, a terrorist who plans to commit suicide bombing does not buy life insurance because insurance companies don’t pay for suicidal deaths. The modelling that Ericsson has put in place has narrowed suspects down to fraction percent points of the data size and it keeps getting better. One interesting fact is at the beginning of the chapter where they write about babies in Southeastern Uganda who if born in May next year would be likely to have visual, hearing or learning disabilities as adults. Three years from now, May would be safe, but the problem would be in April. The same pattern has been identified in Michigan, USA, a baby born in Michigan might carry a greater risk with a May birth than in Uganda – the reason is simple – the month of Ramadan. According to the study, babies that are in utero during the month of Ramadan have greater possibility of these disabilities, why Michigan – because it has a significantly high Muslim population and has longer days during summer than Uganda.

Chapter on Apathy and Altruism:
This chapter talks on the much talked about altruistic tendencies of human beings. Studies conducted with various combinations like having two players and one having to pay another under different circumstances and incentives produce fascinating results that confirm that human beings are naturally altruistic. There was however a rogue economist named John List who overturned Nobel winning studies proving altruism by demonstrating that when conducted unsupervised, the same experiments produced opposite results. People were much more selfish when they knew no one was watching them i.e. they tailored their behaviour to altruism subconsciously when they knew the experiment was being monitored.

Cheap and simple fixes:
This is one of the most interesting chapters, confirms my beliefs as well. The solution to extremely unsolvable and difficult problems is very cheap and simple. During the mid nineteenth century, there was a prevalent disease in the European hospitals called puerperal fever, perfectly healthy women came in for delivery and died within hours with a strange fever. This disease ranged across class and health divide. Interestingly, women who delivered at home never caught the disease. The reason was found by Dr. Semmelweiss who figured out that the germs of the disease originated in dead bodies and the doctors who worked on dead bodies before the delivery transmitted them to the mothers who had no resistance against them. The cure was simple – doctors had to wash their hands with disinfectant before going for the delivery. Another instance is about deaths that happened in the US in the 1950s because of accidents involving motorists. The problem was so huge that there were campaigns against owning cars till the time Robert Macnamara (who later became the Secretary of State during the Vietnam war and was responsible for escalating it) found a simple solution that solved the problem – the seat belt.
The authors suggest a simple solution for checking the devastating hurricanes that visit Florida and the South of US before summers. These happen because of the surface of the sea getting heated up and causing convective currents in the air that causes turbulence and thus creates a hurricane. Once created, the hurricanes cannot be stopped. The solution designed by a scientist Nathan and his friends is simple – a big cylindrical ring that would simply push the warm water below and make the cold water rise up this cooling the surface down and not letting the hurricane develop at all. The most expensive such float would cost only $100,000. No one has bought and implemented this yet but they are hoping that they would.

Chapter on Al Gore:
Similar to the previous chapter, a small company called Intellectual Ventures (IV) has devised a simple solution for Global Warming which is extremely outrageous so no one will implement it. It is basically global cooling. Mount Pinatubo erupted in 1991 and scientists observed that the temperature world over went down by a couple of degrees. The point is that big volcanoes push huge amounts of sulphur dioxide (SO2) into the stratosphere. Instead of quickly returning to earth there, the sulphur dioxide absorbs stratospheric water vapour and forms an aerosol cloud that circulates rapidly, blanketing most of the globe. This if done on a large scale would decrease ozone, diffuse sunlight and produce a drop in global temperature.
IV’s idea is to create a huge pipe that would reach the stratosphere supported by strategically placed balloons at different heights that would pump SO2 at the poles where most of the warming hurts thus cooling that area. Revolutionary idea which if tried out could transform the world – of course, no one will.

Monkeys are people too:
This is the final chapter and also very interesting. Two Harvard economists Keith Chen and Venkat Laxminarayan devised an experiment through which they induced commerce in monkeys called capuchins. They were taught to value a set of chips which brought them bananas or a treat. Pretty soon, the capuchins had learnt that this was something to hold on to and thus started taking rational decisions example opting for good behaviour if it won them the chips. After a while, the female capuchin in the group exchanged sex with a male when the male offered her a couple of chips. The experiment was stopped by the authorities because they feared that introducing money to the primates might damage their social structure – weren’t they right.

This article is kind of disjointed and maybe boring but the theory of FS is about finding and applying economics to normal life and trying to understand it better too. I strongly suggest you read these books – they are very good fun.

Wide Angle 42 - Flip side - Western media coverage of the CWG preparation and Games

In WA 41, I waxed eloquent about the execution abilities of our people. I believe that was all well and true and justified. Let me balance that out with showing the other side of the coin. I do pride myself in being an equal opportunity offender so today I will offend our anna-datas. I was waiting for the games to finish successfully before writing about this. I believe the controversy about our preparedness broke in the media here with the toilet photos from BBC and Fenell’s “escalation”. At that point, I was looking at this whole thing rather amusedly since I knew the mess was going to happen. However, the sustained coverage from that point onwards in the media and the tone adopted confirmed a few things to me. I am not going to write any opinion in this piece, will just state what was reported. What I was doing during that time was comparing the news I watched, the web sites I read of the English and Australian newspapers with the Indian news sites and live feeds from NDTV, IBNLive etc. What I will present down here is a brief on what I found. Please form your own conclusions, the only thing I’d like to say is that it is akin to the zamindar of the village who is slowly going bankrupt and who cannot stomach the fact that the kid of the poor peasant who was indentured to him is now a doctor and has set up a hospital in his village and is doing well. We have our task cut out like I said earlier.

I believe the muck hit the fan around the 26th when the famous photos came out. At that point, there was convergence of the news between India and here. However, Sky news went two steps further and showed 2 year old kids apparently being made to “work” on the site. Also, there were trips to slums around Delhi and the usual comparison. Of course, the reporters were having a field day with the collapsing roof, the bridge and the security concern with the bogus security sting by that Aussie reporter. I distinctly remember a very repulsing interview that the anchor in the studio did with a lady in Delhi from some Australian channel asking how the conditions were. The body language of the lady was appalling – there was rolling of the eyes, the disbelief that the games were being held here, statements like “And you know about the bridge that collapsed, the roof that collapsed, almost audible sigh..”. The entire tone was that the games were going to be cancelled.

Next couple of days:
That was when Sheila Dikshit mobilized many cleaners and the whole cleanup started. Over the next two-three days, positive news started coming out in the Indian media. However for the next 4-5 days, the media here was showing the same toilet, soiled bedsheet and the collected rain water pictures again and again whenever the news of CWG was being aired. The stories went from “Oh how can they pull it off, it is such a huge task for Delhi” Fennel and Hooper’s daily negative comments to the Australian OC head’s comments that “The games shouldn’t have been awarded to India” (this one was incidentally repeated as a headline every half hour). When the army engineers came and started rebuilding the bridge, it was shown here that India has deployed the army to bring the entire games on track. Through the week, there were no pictures of the fabulous stadia, the games village with its awesome rooms etc. There was added focus on the athletes who were dropping out as well.

On the eve of the athletes departure:
This was the funniest part. Around the end of that week was when athletes from Wales, Scotland, England started leaving for India. The entire atmosphere created was that the athletes were going off on a war. I saw interviews of quite a few (4-5 through the day whenever I saw news) athletes who were leaving for India on the airports. The questions were “Do you have any concerns about going to Delhi”, “What do you think about the cleanliness, do you think it will be safe”, “Do you think Delhi should have been awarded the games, the Australian OC chairman said they shouldn’t have been, what do you think”, “Do you think the federation has taken a right decision by deciding to send you”. To their credit, the athletes gave extremely diplomatic answers to all questions. On one day, I saw them interviewing the Chef-de-mission of the English squad in Delhi who was asked how the conditions were, he said they were good etc. Then the bit was cut and the only part that was played was “Well, the facilities are not Five star as promised but three star, but we will manage”.

After the opening ceremony:
Things did turn around after the ceremony, when news were better, Sky however just banished the news off the channel until one Indian official in the Games Village came down with Dengue. That ran as a ticker below the screen “First case of Dengue reported in Delhi”. Then some silence. When the swimmers got ill, another ticker and news that said “Unhygienic water in the swimming pools makes 50 athletes ill”. This ran for a whole day.

During the games:
By and large there was no news, however, I saw one or two tickers about umpiring judgements etc. The next big story was on the athletics stadium not being ready on time. Again the same thing about “Looks difficult, don’t know how they will fix it”. To their credit, BBC was much better, they had good and bad stories and blogs and tweets from correspondents in Delhi. There were lot of comments on empty seats, ticketing problems and monkey and langurs and of course the noise in the stadiums.

The closing ceremony was barely mentioned on Sky while BBC wrote gloriously about it. The whole feeling was of course of “India pulled it off”. Any report was qualified with “There were problems and it was thought the games wouldn’t happen but they were able to get it together in the end”.

You folks are free to figure out what you want from this. Just a small story to underscore the point – me and my son (Vedant) were visiting the rail museum in Swindon where it was “Thomas” day. This being a paid event that cost £7 per entry, there were not many desis around. A balloon lady was making different shapes out of balloons. She would only hand the finished balloon to a kid if he answered her question correct. We were one desi father and son amongst many locals. We did not get many answers right and Vedant was about to get weepy. That’s when she asked the colour of a character and after many wrong attempts by all, Vedant answered “Yellow” which was the correct answer. Obviously Vedant got the balloon, he was very happy and smiling, I was smiling and looked around, all the parents were looking at us with a murderous “Who are they and how did they win” look in their eyes (I could see contempt in their eyes – must be my imagination). We walked away from there since the mission was accomplished. Enjoy.