Navin Kabra, whom we have interviewed earlier, attended TEDxMumbai and constantly updated his Google Buzz with live updates. We present here the updates for all those who wants to know what happened at TEDxMumbai. It’s a long detailed post about the event, but relevant. Trust it’s useful. 🙂
I attended TEDxMumbai today, and what follows is a “live” blog of the event, an ‘aankhoN dekha haal‘ as it happened. Each section captures my quick thoughts about one talk while I was listening to the talk. So, the writing might not be as well-thought-out as I’d like it to be. Think of this more like the live cricket commentary during the match, rather than the column that appears in the newspapers the next day.
It started out badly with the first bunch of talks disappointing, but it got much better as the day wore on, and by the end I was glad I came, not just for the talks, but also for the great group of people in the audience.
Viren Rasquinha – What sports in India needs
- Viren Rasquinha who runs a sports training academy (with Leander Paes and Geeth Sethi, I think) for top athletes (medal contenders). Viren’s main pitch: we have lots of world class raw talent; where we lack is the support: doctors, nutritionists, physios, etc. And money for hiring the best support staff. And he would like every Indian to donate – even small amounts like Rs.10 would be good enough.
- Leander Paes getting a bronze medal at Atlanta Olympics was the first individual medal for India. Much tinier nations get many more medals (and this is developing nations, not rich ones.)
- Sanjay Kolte – one of the country’s premier medal hopes in boxing, was not practicing for 3 months. Because he had some stomach problems. And the doctor at the training camp was giving him “desi treatments“…
- M C Mary Kom – comes from a family which struggled to get a full square meal per day. But won 3 medals. Got married. Got pregnant. Took a 2 year sabbatical. Then came back to win a 4th medal. That’s the kind of talent we have.
- The best support and training staff are outside the country. But, one month overseas training trip for a world-class athlete costs about Rs. 7.5L. We need to put in that kind of money.
Overall: Far too much of this talk is pretty much an ad for his company, and the supposed “idea worth spreading” is “1 million Indians should donate Rs. 10 each”. Not very useful…
Daniel Carroll – Curing cancer with just a change in diet
- Daniel Carroll giving a ridiculous talk about how you can reverse terminal cancer in 6 days by just changing your diet. (Something called the Rave Diet.)
- Sounds like a job for James Randi. Also, they just claimed that diabetes can be reversed through change in diet. This is clearly stupid.
- No proof offered for these completely ridiculous claims other than a couple of anecdotes.
Overall: A completely random conspiracy theorist.
Anupam Kher looks like himself in real life too (unlike some other actors I’ve seen up close). And he’s really funny.
His uncle used to say that he should read editorials in newspapers. Because that’s how you learn good English. (Same is true for me – my mother asked me to read editorials of newspapers. Later, in IIT, it was believed that reading P.G. Wodehouse would help you crack the GRE.)
- He was never scared of making an ass of himself. (Reason for success.)
- From a very ordinary background, but did not give up dream of making it big. (Reason for success.)
- Failure is the best thing that can happen to you.
- There is a very good person in you, and there is a pretentious person in you. Be the former. Don’t try to impress people. Be yourself.
Overall: Funny, nice message, but ultimately nothing that I haven’t heard many times before.
Varun, Lead user interaction designer for ClearTrip. He’s going to talk about changing how people think of travel bookings.
- I love ClearTrip’s user interface, and usability, so looking forward for this talk (inspite of the fact that this is a product pitch (is this even allowed under TEDx guidelines?)
- He’s showing “Small World”, a new interface they are developing where you just specify where you want to go and you get information about everything about that place you might interested in.
- In a single page, you get airfares, hotel info, currency and exchange rates, map with points of interest and tourist destinations, weather information, history, etc.
- This is an ultimate mashup, getting data from 10 different sources and putting it all in one page.
- There’s a page that gives you the cheapest airfare to this destination for all the days of an entire month! How lovely.
Overall: Was interesting to watch, but was clearly a sponsor’s pitch, which I thought was completely against TEDx guidelines!
Update: Hrush, founder of ClearTrip points out that short demos of new technologies by sponsors are indeed allowed under TEDx guidelines. He is right, I was wrong. As can be gathered from the rest of my comments about this presentation, I clearly loved the Small World concept.
TEDxMumbai has invited 5 students, who have great ideas. They will not be giving talks, but audience is encouraged to interact with them during the breaks. That’s a good idea.
Another good idea: The name tag that each person is wearing asks them to not only put their name on it, but also to list three topics in which they are interested. This is very useful.
Raghunath is CEO of GMR Varalakshmi foundation, CSR arm of GMR group. Was an IIM-A Prof.
- He’s going to talk about why Indians are the way they are. He says that he doesn’t really like the idea of pointing out our deficiencies in a public forum, but it is good to look at ourselves in a mirror every once in a while.
- He’s giving an overview of the Prisoner’s Dilemma. I completely agree with him that this is an important game theoretical construct that can be used to understand humans. Everybody should understand how the prisoner’s dilemma applies in everything we do in our lives.
- (In fact, Pune people please note: Vikas Kumar gives a 2 hour talk on how to apply game theory in your everyday life, from your marriage to your work place. And he’ll happily give this talk to anybody who wants to arrange it in their group/company. Might be a good idea to take him up on the offer.)
- One aspect of Indians as a people that we have low trustworthiness (and forcing us all into the “betray” side of the prisoner’s dilemma.) We are privately smart and publicly dumb.
- We are too fatalistic. We believe that things will not be better, and me doing anything is not going to change it.
- We are too intelligent for our own good. We are very smart at getting our immediate personal benefit. He’s making this statement based on his experience with Indian students vs international students. e.g. he asks students, if you go to a new city that you’re never going to visit, how much do you tip? The percentage drop in Indians’ tips are much higher than the drop in tip for international students. Hence, the “smart” Indian ends up saving more money, but produces a bad public image for Indians all over the world.
- We have a reluctance to penalize wrong conduct in others! We focus more on our convenience.
- We mistake talk for action. We love to discuss problems, but don’t want to do anything.
- Our sense of self-worth is only massaged if only we have the authority to break rules.
- We have a propensity to look for loopholes.
- All of the above statements can be explained using the prisoners dilemma. We are all choosing the “betray” option, because we don’t really expect the other guy to stay silent.
- We need to ask ourselves whether we do such things too, and then break the vicious cycle.
Overall: Entertaining, insightful as far as Prisoner’s Dilemma and our own weaknesses are concerned. But no real solutions offered.
Kishore Rithe: Saving Tigers == Saving People
Kishore is the president of the Satpuda foundation. They are working on saving tigers (and no, they have nothing to do with the Aircel ad campaign.)
- How does saving tigers make any difference to my life?
- One tiger needs to eat one chital/sambar/gaur every four days. So we need that much of a population of herbivores. Each of those herbivores needs a variety of flora as per its body weight to survive. And this flora (plants, trees, etc) needs insects for cross pollination. And all of these need rivers, perennial rivers, with water in them.
- So, to save a tiger, you need to save the entire ecosystem.
- So, if you succeed in saving a tiger, you are saving the entire forest. So, the tiger is just a symbol for the whole forest you are supposed to be saving.
- Beginning of 20th century, we had 200 million Indians, 40 thousand tigers. Now, tiger population down to 3% of that, and Indians up 400%.
- Can we survive without forests, rivers, and the right climate?!
- Satpuda foundation: started with saving tigers, moved to saving the forest, now up to saving surrounding villages. All need to survive to keep the tigers alive.
- Now working towards replicating this model – across the entire 1,25,000 sq. km. of the Satpuda area – 15 districts in MP, Maharashtra, Chattisgarh. Home to 300 tigers, source of 300 rivers, and supports 3 crore humans (livelihood, food, health, shelter, comfort.)
- Strategy to tackle these issues: education, research, conservation planning & modelling, consultations, advocacy, etc.
- Action (by Satpuda foundation): Through education, create an army of tribal kids who believe in this cause, and convince their parents.
- Action (by Satpuda foundation): Generate alternative employment to unemployed people who cut forest trees for their livelihood.
- Action (by YOU!): You city dwellers can help. Use IT to create training programs for the tribals. Or help villagers sell their products in the city.
## Steven Baker – my journey as a Bollywood extra
“Bollywood Gora” – actor/writer/academic. Started his Bollywood journey with Biwi No. 1. And he was hooked.
Entertaining talk about life as a gora Bollywood extra, but no idea worth spreading yet… so tuning out and checking my email…
#Interlude: Nice TED video of someone explaining what exactly it is that a music conductor does. Very informative and entertaining at the same time. Basically he’s talking about the conducting style of 6 great music conductors of the 20th century, and in those he find lessons for all leaders. How to really lead. Worth checking out. See:
The Indus Script – the script of the Indus valley civilization
- The Indus valley civilization did have a writing system, which we haven’t cracked yet, so it remains a mystery. The heiroglypics of Egypt were finally deciphered with the help of the Rosetta stone (google it yourself if you’re interested, I’m too lazy), but no such breakthrough has happened in for the Indus script.
- The script is found on seals, miniature tablets, jewellery, and a bunch of other things. So it was probably a fairly sophisticated writing system.
- It’s about 400 different symbols, mostly pictorial (fish, animal, stick figures, etc.)
- Different types of writing systems need different numbers of characters. Logographic writing (e.g.each symbol is an independent word, like Chinese) needs thousands of characters. Logo-syllabic (where each symbol stands for a word, but you can use these to compose other multi-syllable sounds, like Sumerian, Egyptian) needs about 400 to 900 symbols. Syllabic systems (like devanagari?) need about 40 to 200 symbols. And alphabetic systems (e.g. English) need less than 40.
- This indicates that the Indus script was probably logo-syllabic. Which means that the symbol stands for one word/thing, but just one syllable of that word is used, and you can combine syllables (symbols) to get complex sounds.
- Direction seems to be right-to-left, or anti-clockwise (as guessed by cramping of symbols on the left in some writing)
- The average number of signs in any piece found is 5. The longest single line is 14 signs, and the longest piece of text is 26 signs over 3 lines.
- Now she’s talking about a fresh approach to deciphering the Indus script. Some interesting analysis that I’m skipping. She generally thinks that latest data mining techniques and statistical data analysis techniques can be used to analyze the Indus script. This includes a very interesting “conditional entropy” analysis which pretty much proves that the Indus script is a “natural language” (as opposed to just random collection of pictures or symbols.)
Overall: Fascinating and interesting. In my opinion, the idea worth spreading is: “If you find this problem interesting, please jump in. Maybe you can provide the breakthrough that helps decipher this language…”
Ganesh Devy – on Languages
- Animals can only communicate about what is present right here, right now. Only humans can communicate about the past and about things yet to come, or distant things. This is because of language.
- Why do languages die?
- Some languages die because they are over-structured (too difficult to learn/master – e.g. Latin).
- Note: language / knowledge is not necessarily related to writing. Ramanujan(?) used to say that everybody in India knows the Mahabharat because nobody reads it.
- In the 1962 census, the people of India listed 1652 different languages. In the 1971 census, it was decided to list only those languages spoken by at least 10,000 people. This reduced the number of languages to 101. Currently, 96% of Indians speak just 4% of our languages, and the remaining 96% languages are spoken by just 4%. This number was 46% in the 1961 census.
- Education has now been made a right, but speakers of all these “other” languages are forced to learn in a language in that is not their mother tongue. This is provably a sub-optimal way of education.
- If our leaders speak only 1 or 2 languages, will they be able to reflect the aspirations of all the speakers of all the other languages?
- Point is this: Every language is a unique world view. Do not kill it.
- I don’t really see what we are supposed to do about this… Problem 1: No call to action. Problem 2: Talk wasn’t as insightful as it could have been. There is lots of fascinating stuff that could be said about the influence of language on us, but this talk did none of it.
Overall: I think this talk significantly less impactful than the its potential
Dhanashree Pandit-Rai – on Indian Music
- (Sorry. But there is just no way I am going to be able to do justice to this talk through words alone. You should find the video and listen to it.)
- She started by taking a western jingle (“Do I see a welcome in your smile … the warm world of Nescafe”) and then with a very minor change, with an insertion of some Indian notes, it sounded so India. Lovely.
- The musical notes are the same, so why is it that some music sounds Chinese, some sounds Japanese and some sounds Indian?
- She took a Tchaikovsky composition and hummed it in Hindustani classical style. What happened? The notes got stretched, and played around with… So what is “Indian” in those notes? What’s the essense? That’s what she’s going to try to explain.
- She explained the concept of a “Khatka” – which I cannot blog about because it has to be heard. But fascinating.
- Now “murki”. A cluster of notes near each other. Like a western trill, but more pronounced. And ever better, a cluster of murkis. A murki is great to give “coquettishness”. Nakhras.
- Next: “Andolan”. Can’t explain in a text medium.
- Next the “gama”. The thing that classical musicians do, with what seems like “shaking of vocal chords”, and which causes the “regular” folks to turn off the radio. It’s actually a whole bunch of “shadow” notes added to the main notes, resulting in a 3-D effect. She explained very nicely why that was so cool.
- Indian music is completely improvisatory. So any music form that can use improvisations (e.g. jazz) can be greatly enhanced by Indian music. She sang “Summertime” and added Indian music interludes – and it sounded so good.
- And she also had a lovely explanation of what are Ragas and their importance, and how they map to Bollywood songs. I will not reproduce it here, because I won’t be able to do justice to it.
Overall: Brilliant. Easily the best talk so far. Makes me feel like learning Indian classical music.
TED Video shown of: How Bacteria Talk
Bonnie Bassler discovered that bacteria “talk” to each other, using a chemical language that lets them coordinate defense and mount attacks. The find has stunning implications for medicine, industry — and our understanding of ourselves.
Very interesting talk: Bonnie Bassler on how bacteria “talk”
Lakshmi Tripathi – Transgender issues
Since childhood Lakshmi was different – sexually. Always feminine, “he” was teased all through, and learnt to ignore everyone. And he liked men, rather than women. And life was about hiding his sexuality. And he did not want to be a hypocrite. Wanted to be open about it.
- Met Ashok Row Kavi, the only well-known openly gay person, and from that meeting got confidence to come out in the open as a homosexual. Started a dance academy. People accepted her art but never her sexuality. This changed, suddenly, when she came on the silver screen.
- Sabina was the “brother” of one of her models, and was also similarly transsexual. She gave Sabina a job. Sabina introduced her to the ‘hijra’ community. Before this, Lakshmi used to hate ‘hijras’. Because of the way they ‘normally’ act. But got interested in the ‘hijra’ culture. So she approached the ‘hijra’ community and asked to join them. She was thrilled to be accepted into the culture.
- She was a dance bar girl for almost 5 years. Loved dancing all night. And making the dumb men pay large tips.
- Sabina and Lakshmi started Asia’s first transgender organization (Asia Pacific Transgender Network). Other organizations followed, and later, they started ‘hijra’ advocacy, and started working towards making the government change policies regarding ‘hijras’, and they are succeeding. Lakshmi got invited to the UN as a part of a task force for transgender issues.
- Here is her point: she is lucky to have led a good life, inspite of the major drawback of being a transgendered person in India. The rest of the community is not so lucky. In spite of the fact that they have existed, officially, in our community and culture forever. We condition all children to either be a man or a woman. Those who do not fit in either of these boxes are forced to, or shunned.
- The most terrible poverty is the feeling of being unloved. When you decide not to surrender, that is strength. We need to give more people this strength. Behind every hijra’s smile are tales of innumerable hardships they have suffered.
Overall: If there is one idea that needs spreading, it is this. Far too many of us make life far to difficult for transgendered persons. Unnecessarily. I only wish this talk had more specific information on what you and I can do.
Zubin Pastakia – The Cinemas Project
Another presentation whose essence cannot be captured by words alone.
- Walking one day, Zubin stumbled upon a random single-screen cinema, Moti Theatre, and decided to take a look. Being jobless in those days, he ended up spending 3 days there taking photographs. This resulted in the Cinemas Project which is essentially his photographs of a whole bunch of different aspects of single screen cinemas.
- His presentation was just a collection of these photographs, and a little bit of his commentary about what these photographs mean. I found the photographs strangely engrossing. They speak of a different world, that we once lived in, but we no longer go to, because of the sterilized multiplex experience that is more convenient. The remind you, simultaneously, of the old glory of these places when they were the ultimate entertainment destinations, and of the current decline.
- Mainly, these photographs made me think of this – there is beauty everywhere. I walk past single-screen cinemas without giving them a second thought. And by contrast, Zubin loved them enough to spend a lifetime photographing them and creating a presentation worthy of a TEDx. Beauty, and “interestingness” comes from seeing things with a different eye.
Overall: I have no idea why, but I really liked this presentation. Can’t guarantee that everybody will see it the same way, though.
Rahul and Matthias – Dharavi
- The world worries that as population grows out of control, we’ll become a planet of slums. And the suggested solution is that we should be come a planet of high-rises and skyscrapers. But this is not a solution. It will be an urban planning nightmare – especially transport will become a huge problem.
- Koliwada village in Dharavi is not really a slum. It’s an old village, and it still retains its village structure. So it is important to recognize such things, and not think of everything as a slum. Now Dharavi is being redeveloped, and will be replaced by a high-rise. But there isn’t really enough clarity on what exactly is being redeveloped.
- Dharavi was a marshland when people first started living there. So it wasn’t even officially “land”. And that has resulted in a very different structure for homes in Dharavi. A typical structure has all: home, storehouse, workshop, kiln and drying facility. Work and home in one place. This structure gives Dharavi a uniqueness, and is also a reason for its economics. Might be useful to look at this in more detail, instead of simply giving up and building a high-rise.
- Post-war Tokyo also was more or less a slum. People did not have places to stay. But, government decided to not focus on building homes. Instead, they built infrastructure and factories, and just provided some financial help for people to build their own homes. And this has resulted in an interesting urban structure. Mini-villages in all localities – inspite of the fact that Tokyo is a “developed nation” city. Every locality has its own set of shops (unlike urban centers in other developed nations.) Very Dharavi like, in a structural sense.
- They ended with a brilliant photograph which looked like a “regular” middle-class neighborhood in Bombay; but it was actually a photoshopped image with the left half from Dharavi and the right half from Tokyo. No-one in the audience realized that they were two different cities.
- Idea worth spreading: people (artisans) living and working in the same space is a better way to structure a high-population-density city. Reduces “commuting” and hence reduces transportation problems.
- Parting Thought: “User Generated City” – People in Dharavi bootstrapped a thriving urban center. Need to recreate this in other places.
Overall: Insightful and interesting talk. Worth checking out.
Cara Eastcott – “The Running Game” (Poetry Performance)
Ok. I am one of those philistines who does not appreciate most poetry. It requires me to stress my brain too much before I understand what it is trying to say. Only Ghalib is good enough to warrant that much effort. Others, please excuse me.
This TEDx talk is one of those performances. I don’t have the energy to try to figure it out.
The hallway conversations
While (as can be expected in any conference) the talk-quality was hit-or-miss, in one aspect TEDxMumbai has been a complete success for me. The quality of the people attending is great. I’ve been forcing myself to walk up to random strangers, introduce myself, and start a conversation. And in each and every case so far, I’m glad to have talked to that person.
Let me repeat: every conversation I’ve had so far here has been with an interesting person. This has never happened to me in any conference, unconference, barcamp, blogcamp, or in general any get-together before.
Examples: I met a guy from RangDe.org, the microfinance organization, which has disbursed 1cr+ worth of loans (in the Rs. 2000 to 10,000 range), and which has a loan default rate of less than 1%. I met a guy who builds machinery for power metallurgy industry, who is going to introduce me to some potential customers for my startup. I met an account manager from Google, who’s going to help me to help an NGO in Pune that is having problems with their Google Adwords account. I met the CEO of an Indian product company that builds a business intelligence product, mostly for the Indian market, and has a very interesting approach to the technology. I met Sasha Mirchandani, of Mumbai Angels, and updated him about what we are doing with the Pune Angels Network. (I also met a bunch of people I already knew, (and a couple of Pune people that I did not know) but I don’t need a TEDx to meet them, so not talking about them.)
And it’s not yet over. I expect to meet a whole bunch of people after I finish this update, shut down my laptop and spend a couple of hours talking to the stragglers before I head home to Pune.
Taking a bus from and back to Pune, waking up at 5am, spending a whole day away from work and family – the people attending TEDxMumbai made it worth it.