Sunday, November 15, 2009


It's a long way back from Bangalore, so new friends turned travel companions are always welcome. Row 36 on British Air 118 was inhabited by fellow TEDsters, all of us headed for Heathrow. From left to right, it's Francis de los Reyes III, associate professor at North Carolina, Ashish Patra, student at Penn and the microbial fuel cell expert from earlier posts, and Anthony Vipin Das, ophthalmologist and founder of REPOrT, which has helped 20,000 kids in rural areas see better or again.

Like I said, amazing group of people. Of course, you should never trust the guy with the camera, as he's likely to catch you at your most glamorous.

After the stopover in London--bangers and eggs with a couple Guinness to wash it down--it was on to Boston, where I had two days of seminars to conduct at Digitas. Great people, and a lot of enthusiasm for the subject matter. I'll probably be back, which is fine with me, as there's a delightful place two blocks down that serves excellent lobster mac'n'cheese (yes, part of my re-entry is seeking out comfort food).

After Boston, Louisville, KY was the destination for yet another client. Unfortunately, after getting up at 2:30 to catch a 5:20 to Cincinnati, the flight to Loo-ville was delayed, and I never got to the meeting, calling in from the airport instead. A couple of long hours later, I was back on the plane to Chicago, then headed for San Jose.

And I'm still adjusting. I think I'm roughly on Newfoundland time. I sleep through dinner and get up at four. All worth it, though.

And it's not over yet. Subscribe, bookmark, or add the blog to your RSS feed. Karen, Mad Dog and I are leaving in ten days for Thanxgiving in LA, then two weeks later we start our holiday in SE Asia. More to come...

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Bangalore, Conclusion

Dancing with India

It wasn't over with the bus ride. Three dozen TEDsters clustered around the entry to building 14 and partied until 3 in the morning. We even got several Infosys interns and some security folks involved.

BTW, the choreographer on this one is the guy from Penn who spends his spare time noodling around with microbial fuel cells.

Sorry about the lighting.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

TED Parties Part II

At the closing party, I stepped off the bus and saw this. Apparently it was the Queen's palace. TED can throw a party.

Forgive me if I forgot about the camera at this point and got silly with a bunch of people who hadn't had a drink in two days.

I did capture some of the bus ride home, though. There were about 45 minutes of this.

Final Notes on Infosys

For all their sterility, they really did a lovely job--food, accommodations, friendly staff, etc. And there's nothing quite like enjoying beans, sausages, tomatoes, eggs and really good tea at 8 am from an open air dining room overlooking a lush, tropical canopy dotted with objects from the future.

I can see why the British moved in.

Still, there's something odd about a place that specifies where it's acceptable to have a cycling accident. And warns pedestrians about it.

TED Talks

If you're wondering why I haven't posted anything about the main stage itself, there are a number of reasons:

1. I'm way too immersed.

2. TED takes better pictures than I do, and I watched a lot of the presentations from the simulcast lounge, which means I'd be taking pictures of TV screens.

3. You can view the real thing soon at the TED site; just search for India or individual names. My descriptions cannot do them justice.

Anyway, my favorites:

Hans Rosling on when the per capita income of China and India will match that of the West.
Devdutt Pattanaik on subjective reality.
Banny Banerjee on design and the process behind the low-cost infant incubator bag.
Sunitha Krishnan on the battle against sexual slavery.
Anupam Mishra on smart water management.
Charles Anderson on what I can only describe as the process of science.
Ryan Lobo on storytelling through still photography.

And my favorite of all (though this was highly debated):

Shekhar Kapur on story. He could have gone on forever for all I cared.

Really. Make a list and watch them. They're 18 minutes long, and much more nutritional than anything on TV.

TED Parties Part I

By the time I got there the rain was coming down in dog and cat format. No worries. You just have to stand in it to get a beer.

Inside the pavilion, however, the collective body heat of hundreds of TEDsters simultaneously dried and fluffed, even if there was a permanent press. Especially around the food.

Oh, the food. I think I ate my weight in Murgh Makhani. And Rogan Josh. And Dal Sabzi.

Ran into a few friends, too. Gary White of spotted me from across the room. Jay Walker and his wife Eileen said hi. And Nilofer Merchant asked me to pass along her thanks to Duarte for helping craft her TED University presentation.

But it's the Fellows, the next generation of TED, who always impress me the most. Mostly in their thirties, they're all starting ventures--not to make money, but to save the world.

Worker-owned production in Africa (as opposed to the Chinese model, ironically), public service film making focused on educating the poor to reduce disease, pregnancy and violence against women, automotive engineering as a means of technology transfer and ecological innovation--each is representative of what's to come.

And it makes me feel awfully far behind.


So yeah. I've been delinquent. TED is pretty consuming, but I'm back in Bangalore now and promise to post a few more updates soon. Look for them over the weekend.

After the aromatherapy adventure, I headed for the Royal Orchid Hotel, specified by TED as the location of the welcoming party. Problem was, it was the wrong hotel. It's sister location is "out by the dam; you'll love it."

This is part of the ride out there. Driving by Anush. Music by Bill Laswell and Jah Wobble.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Adventures in Mysore

TED is a packed schedule. From 8 in the morning until 10 pm or later, there's something going on. I did, however, have the chance to slip away Wednesday afternoon, so I thought I'd go check out the palace, then regroup with a TED offsite party at the local Royal Orchid Hotel. Silly me.

Getting off the campus is itself problematic. I inquired at the TED info desk, who sent me to the Infosys travel center, who called a taxi and sent me to Gate 2, where I waited for half an hour. Not that the cab wasn't there--due to security he had to park away from the gate where we couldn't see each other. It worked out eventually, though.

Except for the fact that by the time we made it into Mysore, 10 km away, in the usual traffic, the palace was closed. I tried to snag a few photos, but was alternately told to back away from the gate and asked if I'd like to buy some pot--really good pot, I was assured, "not like the stuff you get in US."

So yeah, everything was working out great at this point, and I still had two hours to kill before meeting up with the TEDsters. Someone did let me know that Wednesdays were tariff-free days in the spice market, so I headed that direction to see what could be seen (or bought).

Mysore traffic is nearly as bad as Bangalore's, with the addition of more round-abouts that move in the opposite direction I'm used to. Crossing the street can take upwards of five minutes, with a swirling mass of humanity meeting in the middle of the intersection, along with stray motorcycles, ox-drawn carts and the occasional goat. Almost every round-about comes equipped with a statue of Gandhi as well.

Beyond the crossings lies a stratified sidewalk scene: bikes on the curb, thousands of people passing each other on half the sidewalk, street hawkers with their wares laid out on blankets on the other half, and storefronts piled with everything you have no intention of buying.

The main streets are mostly composed of fabric shops and food stalls, with the occasional restaurant. And they're a maze; you can never really know if you're going in the right direction. Nearly instantly, you become the target white guy.

And thus I met Sura, who looked to be about 17. He spoke rather good English, was studying aromatherapy from his uncle, wanted to move to Chicago, enjoyed McDonalds and also knew a little Japanese. Thirty seconds later, the questions started:

You like India? When did you arrive? When do you leave? Where are you from? What do you do? You have a wife? Kids? You like Indian food? How do you like Mysore? Did you see the palace? It's closed now. You should come back in the morning. I'll take you. Did you know that there's no tariffs on goods in the market today? You can come with me if you want--I'm going to my aunt's house--and maybe you can see her make incense? You like incense? She sells hers to the Body Shop in America.

Well, why not?

Sura led me about five blocks away from the palace, making a left into an alley and then a right onto a back street. I couldn't find it again if I tried, and given the way I was being regarded I'm not sure many Westerners have ever found it to begin with. This is where everything you need for daily living can be found: shoes, bike repair, household items, cricket jerseys. Kids jump rope in the street while their older siblings polish their autorickshaws. There's also a cow on every corner, often dictating the traffic pattern.

Past the butcher's, where meat (presumably not cow) is being dried in the open air, stands a large stone passage. It's clearly older and better built than anything else in the neighborhood.

"This is the old market," Sura informed me. Indeed.

Unlike the shops outside, which mainly offered cheap rip-offs of Western clothes and clearly substandard toilet paper, the stalls here were awash in produce--shallots, potatoes, chili peppers, bananas, garlic, carrots and at least a dozen things I didn't recognize. The stone floors were clean, the people were friendly, and it smelled great.

There was more than just produce, too. Spice and rice bins lined the side stalls, and dedicated bindi dye purveyors (always women) metered out grams of fine powder you know you'd never be able to wash off, no matter how hard you scrubbed.

Through the market, out the back, around another jog and Sura pointed to an outdoor bench holding a thousand or two incense sticks. "My aunt made these today."

Sure enough, across the narrow street, a door was open and a woman sat on the floor, rolling balls of paste onto bamboo sticks.

"Come in," beckoned Sura.

The space was cramped. Past the small room--maybe 5x5--in which the woman sat, rolling incense, stood the aromatherapist, Sura's uncle.

"Hello," he greeted me in nearly accent-free English. "Please come in." What followed was a tutorial in incense-making, from the bamboo to the charcoal and pulp base mixture, to the soaking, the drying and, finally, the application of scents. "She rolls 6,000 of these a day," he said.

The mind reels. 6,000, every day, on the floor, in a 5x5 space.

"Come. Sit." Okay, then.

The room contained two benches, facing each other. I took one, and Mujeeb the smaller, next to a table containing about twenty vials of oils. He handed me a sheet containing descriptions of each: "Every oil has a different purpose, and is different for man and woman." I, however, got to try them all. I am thus now very relaxed, very sexy, eczema-free, mosquito-repellent and ready to be given away at my marriage.

Of course, they were all for sale. He asked me to write down what I'd like to purchase, and I selected two. Mujeeb, however, was running a buy-two-get-three-at-normal-price sale, so I ended up with another one that either removes crow's feet or is good for weight loss, I can't remember which. Business transactions are also always handled over a cup of hot chai, which was delicious (and no, I'm not worried--I've been drinking coffee and tea since I've been here and boiled water is fine).

When it was time to go, Sura called his brother Mola, who owns an autorickshaw. And good thing. Not only would I have not found my way out of the neighborhood, I never would have found my way to the hotel. Awesome ride, by the way. If you even need a lift in Mysore, I've got his number.

Notes on the Infosys Campus

Starfleet Academy exists, and it is located in Mysore.

No joke. Between the hyper-modern buildings and the strangely anachronistic and geographically displaced Vatican replica and Italian villa, the campus is a vision of prosperity plunked down in the middle of anything but.

Same goes for the 10,000 interns here: diversity is welcomed, ideas and perspectives are openly discussed, and everyone walks around with a communicator. There's no smoking, drinking, gambling, playing loud music or walking on the grass. And yes, there are uniforms: black pants and light shirts for the men, saris for the women. I don't think it's policy as much as culture, but the result is visually arresting, especially when the day begins and ends.

There are other uniforms as well. A small army of mowers, planters, sweepers, insect wranglers, sidewalk polishers and topiary psychologists maintains an eden-level ecosphere, while countless facilities and commissary personnel provide three hots and a cot to the thousands of people here.

There's also a literal small army. Vehicles are swept for undercarriage bombs and all luggage is x-rayed on the way in. Bands of armed guards--weapons out--patrol every street and building. Outdoor hall monitors in blue and white nurse-like uniforms stand every two hundred yards, waiting for someone to spit out their gum or make a rude gesture. And captains, commanders and generalissimo-types survey their domain. No pictures, please.

Also, no maps. TED had provided every guest a campus map to help them get around, but it was deemed a security risk and they were confiscated. The result is several thousand attendees all walking around asking each other where lunch is. Amusing, but possibly less than efficient.

I asked why this was--I ended up having dinner with one of Infosys's founder's sons. Simple, he said: Infosys is an island in India, and it's in the news a lot, which makes it a target. We tend to think of terrorism in large-scale, thousands-of-casualty terms. Here, smaller devices like car bombs are the norm, and it only takes one for everyone to have a very bad day.

But no one seems to mind the security. Or the 10-foot wall topped with razor wire that surrounds them. Or that there's no easy way into the city (more on this later). They're just happy to be here.
This, by the way, is what rush hour looks like.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

TED Fellows

The Fellows Program is aimed at the next generation of TEDsters--up-and-comers with great ideas on the brink of changing the world. Their presentations were amazing--even though they only had three minutes to tell their stories.

Tom Rielly is the perfect moderator, too, drawing hilarious connections between the various topics: mango-washing macaques and twitter, slow food and microbial fuel cells.

Speaking of microbial fuel cells, here's a sample of what I mean by on the brink of changing the world: Ashish Patra is in his first year at Penn. He spent last summer improving on the work of researchers who employ microbes feeding on waste to generate fresh water and electricity. Like, a 250% improvement in power generation, and using lower-cost and sustainable materials in the process.

Ideas like this are rife: a few others that caught my attention:

Question Box. Ever wonder what we did before Google? Yeah, most of the world doesn't have a Google. But they could have a low-tech, low bandwidth mechanism to ask questions in their native language and get an answer.

CellBazaar: Want to sell your crop/catch/craft but don't have a computer and don't speak English? CellBazaar is the mobile answer to eBay+Priceline+Craigslist.

Incubator Bag: More infants than you want to think about die every year due to an inability to keep them warm. In the developed world, incubators largely solve this problem, but they're costly and require electricity--not always guaranteed other places. The incubator bag uses a wax polymer insert that can be heated in water to keep the kids warm for hours at a time.

Then there was the final presentation, which posited the question, "Were ancient civilizations just as crappy as ours, and do we only not know that because they didn't have facebook and twitter?" In other words, do we glorify past civilizations because we have no record of how much time they wasted paying attention to celebrities and gossip? Hilarious.

Oh. I got to hold the stage, too. After the Fellows finished, I spent an hour presenting on presentations. Kinda meta. Got great feedback and made some very interesting new friends.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Road to Mysore

Let me first say this: I will never again complain about traffic in the Bay Area.

There was a traffic jam getting out of the bus station, despite there being an office clearly labeled "Traffic Control Booth." In all fairness, however, the lights were turned off and the blinds were closed, which should have been a warning sign.

The traffic jam continued for roughly the next 30 km.

I met another American on the bus who'd been in the country for five years. He explained that Indian traffic should be considered a metaphor for the country's history in general: India has roughly 850 million people, dozens of religions and scores of languages--everyone's trying to get somewhere, somehow, on something. That I witnessed no accidents or fatalities seems to indicate there's maybe something to this.

As one gets farther away from the city center, things become less organized. Someone is carving out a living in every space and way imaginable. They sell flowers or fruit or used bicycle tires. Along stretches of road women were literally sweeping the middle of the highway, buses and scooters whizzing past them.

Occasionally--or more--one passes a temple. I know practically nothing about Indian religion, except that there's a lot of it and, judging by the locked gates and scaffolds, most of it is closed or under construction. It's also integrated more or less like any town in America, in that one passes a variety of shrines, temples or mosques only a few blocks from each other.

Then something like this reminds you that the Puritans never effectively settled this region and maybe a little more pageantry could be in order back home.

At one point we passed an enormous billboard advertising "Fast Food Vegetarian - 1 km." Because the bus was a TED charter, and we'd been on the road for two-and-a-half hours (covering 65 km in that time), the driver made a stop. Always good to have someone available to order for the group. And the coffee was outstanding.

Finally, we arrived, four hours and 100 km after we left. For the conversion-challenged, that averages to about 15 miles an hour. A shower never felt so good.

So now it begins...

Monday, November 2, 2009


My cousins in Kent taught me the rules (if not how to properly wield a cricket bat) when I was eleven, which comes in handy when chatting up the manager in the bar. Best line yet, again in perfect English: "This guy sucks as a batter. He's got no balls."

Bangalore, Part III

Cubbon Park falls somewhere on the scale between place of national pride and a handy location for people to sleep at 11:00 in the morning. Half the grounds are meticulously maintained, including the fountains and pavilions, by scores of workers weeding the grass by hand and maintaining the sidewalks by means of thatch brushes. (What counts for a sidewalk, however, is clearly under disputation, as three sides of a square are kempt while the fourth is completely

abandoned.) The other half of the park is overrun by packs of feral yet friendly dogs and security officers who won't let you take a picture of anything. Plants? Yeah, don't photograph those. Building closed because it's Monday? Off limits. You guys? "We don't like photos." Still, it's a nice place to avoid death by traffic as most of the paths are restricted to pedestrians. The center of the park butts up against the Attara Kacheri, or High Court. Lovely building, but

as most things are, at least on Mondays, closed to the public. This includes the Karnataka Chitrakala Parishath, or visual arts museum, and the Visvesvaraya Industrial and Technical Museum. I'll try to stop back here on the return from Mysore.

Fortunately, the Indian Air and Space Program are displayed on the lawn, and no one cares if you take pictures of those.

Bangalore, Part II

Took myself for a walk around to orient. That took longer than I thought. The guidebook is useless and even Google Maps is suspect. Plus, all the street names are in Kannada. Additionally, all the rumors of deadly traffic are completely founded (those cars aren't stopped; I just have a high-speed camera). All streets are like this all the time. Crossing is best attempted in groups (if group weight > autorickshaw, proceed).

Also, some things really are global. Like that I won't eat McD's anywhere.

Bangalore, Part I

Arrived 3:05 am local time Monday morning (subtract 13:30 if you're on PDT; I think it's now -12:30 for PST--this could screw up some things), found a driver and headed south 30 km to Bangalore. British rules driving, except that everyone occupies two lanes at once. Passing is a negotiation conducted through a combination of lights and horns, but it's done with what I'm starting to understand as a thorough Indian politeness.

Also, everyone speaks English. Really good English. The cabbies here are easier to understand than those in NYC, and friendlier, too. Also, everyone has a relative in the states, and wants to know how Detroit/Seattle/Miami are this time of year.

Staying at St. Mark's Hotel in central Bangalore. Great place. The entire staff already knows my name. Slept for about three hours, got up and had breakfast. The omelet bar is complemented by a masala dosa bar, and it was delicious. I'm trying to rely on eating smart/local, and avoiding the continental fare offered (where'd that milk come from? is it milk? also, the ham and cheese slices look untouched; best to leave them that way).

Sunday, November 1, 2009

No Shit

> "Ladies and gentlemen, we regret to inform you that all the lavatories
> on the aircraft have ceased functioning. The captain has contacted
> ground staff and regrets to inform you that service will not be
> possible while the plane is in flight."