Monthly Archives: September 2013

India for a Second Time

lotus

(After meditating inside the Lotus Temple in Delhi, a beautiful structure built by people of the Bahai faith but free/open to people of all orientations for prayer and meditation.)

A common dilemma when scoping international travel is whether to travel to a new place or re-visit a place you’ve already been. Early on in my life, my passport alarmingly unwrinkled, I prioritized the new — fewer days in each country, more countries. More recently, I prioritized the old — more days in countries I’ve already been to (e.g. Switzerland, Japan, Chile). These days, I am feeling slightly more interested in travel novelty. Of course, unless you’re a full-time traveler, why you end up in one place or another is a function of many criteria, such as where your work demands take you. But the broader idea of where you are on the novelty/familiarity continuum is an important one and plays out in my life across all dimensions (work, friends, relationships, travel, food, etc.). I think pretty actively about the extent to which I turn on the novelty spigot in any particular dimension.

This past week, I visited India for the second time, and while work brought me there (keynote speech), I in part agreed to do it because I wanted to have a second go-around as a tourist in this massive, complex, important country. I wanted more depth. India in 2006 kicked my ass. I had some great moments — riding in the back of a rickshaw for the first time in Bombay with a blog reader who was hosting me; going to a Bollywood film with a different blog reader; seeing India Gate in Delhi; seeing first hand the remarkable entrepreneurial energy and optimism of the Indian people that persists today. But gosh, the poverty was so in my face, so ubiquitous, so loud, that it overpowered all my experiences, and when I think back to the memories I have of that trip, the visuals that predominate are naked kids playing in huge piles of trash on the side of the road, stray dogs everywhere, diaherrea, Air India’s definition of airplane seats. These were reasonable reactions, I think, given it was my first time, and it was two weeks at the end of a long six week Asia adventure.

On this trip, I spent only a couple days on tourism activity (so I had more energy) and was steeled to the India realities. I spent a day in Delhi and a day in Agra. In Delhi, I visited and meditated in the Lotus Temple and attended the Kingdom of Dreams Jhumproo show in Gurgaon. In Agra, I visited the Taj Mahal and Red Fort. All told, I enjoyed it.

This time around, I noticed India’s beauty more often. I don’t mean this in some vague travel guidebook sort of way (“the culture is beautiful”). I mean that several times I had a very specific reaction to something that caught my eye as beautiful. For example, I noticed the saris (dresses) the women were wearing. The saris were truly beautiful. I noticed how most transport trucks were painted front to pack in rainbow colors. Imagine if the big trucks that lumber up and down the U.S. highway corridors were each wrapped in technicolor paintings or artistic graffiti of flowers. At the Kingdom of Dreams show in Guragon, I noticed the big bold costumes, and how good random people’s voices were as they belted out Hindi tunes from the seats.

The Taj Mahal was beautiful too, of course. But it’s the #1 tourist attraction in all of Asia (outside of Thailand sex tourism). Your expectations are so high and the actual experience of visiting it is so affected by the thousands of other people gawking at it next to you, that subtle perceptions of beauty are not exactly in the cards. Rather: Get in, take photos, look at the incredible marble carvings done by hand, and then get out, all without someone pick pocketing you.

While I noticed beauty more this time, it’s not like the poverty disappeared in my seven year absence. One weird but reliable litmus test I came up with a while ago for “you know you’re in a poor country when…”: on the drive from the airport to your hotel, how many random piles of rubble do you see on the sides of the road? Abandoned construction and demolition activity is pervasive throughout the developing world. India is no exception to the rubble rule. But rubble is the least of the attractions/problems on the side of the roads in India. You name it, India’s got it. Want to see people taking a shit? Just look out your car window. Pumping the ground for water? Yup. Burning trash? Of course. Sleeping in tents? Sure. Beggars with their arm cut off, holding out a cup? Certainly.

There are hundreds of millions of poor people in India. I wonder how much better-off Indians talk about it, or even notice it. When I asked my guide about poverty in Agra, he told me that many of the beggars are actually not poor, but rather professionalized beggars. Replace “many” with “some” and I’d agree. But he seem on the whole unmoved by it all. He grew up in Agra. He’s been there his whole life. He’s never been outside the country. It is what it is for him. We are all fish in water when in our own countries and cultures.

One lesson from this trip is the value in spending targeted money to make certain complexity go away. In 2006, I tried to take the train from Delhi to Agra. But when I arrived at the train station, I entered a scene that resembled an unruly drunk crowd at a Mike Tyson Las Vegas fight. The decrepit station packed with people as far as the eye could see, with no one queueing whatsoever to speak with the agents, ridiculous smells, and touts surrounding me, following my every step, pitching me on a rickshaw ride or pulling at my pockets or trying to get me to buy some stupid pin with the India flag on it, leaving me so confused and exasperated that I left the train station and vowed to walk aimlessly in Delhi for as long as it would take for the touts to give up and leave me alone. This time around, an air conditioned car pulled up my to hotel, a car that featured cold water bottles and towelettes, and over the seven hours of roundtrip driving I listened to several of my favorite podcasts and dozed off peacefully. An English speaking guide met me in Agra, hopped in the car, and took me around the sights. And the whole day cost me roughly $315 USD.

From the safe confines of the car for many hours, I had plenty of time to contemplate the traffic around me. The traffic situation in Delhi is a mess, though not as bad as in some places, like Jakarta. Cars don’t drive in lanes. Enough roads in the city/country do not have lane markers that no one seems to have internalized the helpfulness of staying in place as opposed to drifting across the full width of the highway. In the book Traffic, I recall reading that when people change lanes they think they’re optimizing for their own speed, but it rarely turns out that way, and all the lane changing causes slower overall speed on the roads for everyone. Amusingly, most trucks in the India on the back bumper contain the words “Blow Horn” — encouraging other cars to honk their horn to alert them to their proximity as they drift around. At least the honking in India tends to be practical; in China, where car honking is maddening, I think it’s more habitual than anything.

Three other random points: 1) Last time, it was only at the end of my visit that I realized that Indians rock their head side-to-side to indicate acceptance, agreement. I thought everyone was mocking me. This time, I knew exactly what was happening! 2) As in China, everything in India is wildly overstaffed. The medium sized hotel gym had four people staffed there, trying to be helpful, when I was the only person there. It’s like this all over. 3) Russ Roberts’ must-subscribe podcast recently had a conversation with noted economist Jagdish Bhagwati on the India economy. Ignore Bhagwati’s LOL-worthy self-regard (“this article I wrote would be what would be cited if were to win a Nobel prize”) and there are some interesting nuggets on the pro-trade, free market reforms he claims led to Indian economic growth in the 90’s, and some of the current reversing policies that may be responsible for the recent slowdown.

Finally, a thank you to all the Indian business leaders and HR managers I met the first part of the week. An extremely impressive group, and left me optimistic about the future of India. I’ll be back.

Disrupting the Diploma

I worked with Reid Hoffman (and Greg Beato) on a long essay titled: Disrupting the Diploma: How updating the communication device known as a “diploma” will help students acquire the right skills and help companies hire the right talent. We take on the under discussed topic of credentialing, and how credentialing as a platform will improve higher education.

Excerpt:

In the same way that trailblazers like Coursera and Udacity are making instruction faster, cheaper, and more effective, we should also make certification faster, cheaper, and more effective too.

To do this, we need to apply new technologies to the primary tool of traditional certification, the diploma. We need to take what now exists as a dumb, static document and turn it into a richer, updateable, more connected record of a person’s skills, expertise, and experience. And then we need to take that record and make it part of a fully networked certification platform.

Once we make this leap, certification can play a more active role in helping the higher education system clearly convey to students what skills and competencies they should pursue if their primary objective is to optimize their economic futures.

And:

Imagine an online document that’s iterative like a LinkedIn profile (and might even be part of the LinkedIn profile), but is administered by some master service that verifies the authenticity of its components. While you’d be the creator and primary keeper of this profile, you wouldn’t actually be able to add certifications yourself. Instead, this master service would do so, verifying information with the certification issuers, at your request, after you successfully completed a given curriculum.

Over time, this dynamic, networked diploma will contain an increasing number of icons or badges symbolizing specific certifications. It could also link to transcripts, test scores, and work examples from these curricula, and even evaluations from instructors, classmates, internship supervisors, and others who have interacted with you in your educational pursuits.

Ultimately the various certificates you earn could be bundled into higher-value certifications. If you earn five certificates in the realm of computer science, you might receive an icon or badge that symbolizes this higher level of experience and expertise. In this way, you could eventually assemble portfolios that reflect a similar breadth of experiences that you get when you pursue a traditional four-year degree.

For students, the more modularized approach to instruction embodied in such diplomas would have immediate benefits. Traditional four-year degrees maximize tuition costs, because they only award certification for lengthy courses of study that require substantial capital investments. A more modularized system would move beyond this all-or-nothing approach. Instead of taking general education classes for two years and then dropping out and ending up with little to show for their efforts except two years of debt, students could make smaller investments — in money and time — to acquire specific credentials.

Number of Job Openings Go Up; Actual Hiring Not So Much

Peter Orszag very succinctly addresses the following riddle:

Over the past three years, the number of job openings has risen almost 50 percent, but actual hiring has gone up by less than 5 percent. Companies are advertising a lot more jobs, in other words, but not filling them.

He describes three possible explanations. First, there could be a skills mismatch:

One possibility is that there is a mismatch between the work that companies need done and the skills that workers have. As Peter Newland of Barclays Plc has said, “We believe that this divergence between openings and hiring is consistent with our view that some of the loss of employment during the recession was structural, rather than purely cyclical, in nature.”

Second, the long term unemployed may not be willing to return to the job market for lower wages. Companies aren’t willing to pay enough to attract them:

A second explanation is that employers are offering jobs at wages that are too low to attract good applicants. Alan Krueger…believes this to be an important piece of the puzzle. He argues that the unemployment rate for those just recently out of work has now returned to roughly pre-crisis levels, and that people who have been out of the labor force for an extended period are exerting little downward pressure on wage rates. This combination means that, although the long-term unemployed still face a tough road ahead because they are essentially on the margins of the labor market, pressure is growing for higher wages for everyone else.

Or third, perhaps there’s an increasingly robust “internal” labor market at big companies:

A variety of other indicators — including fewer people moving to take new jobs — suggests that companies are often filling openings from within. Many nonetheless advertise such positions externally, which would boost the job-offer rate in the data. The survey counts only jobs filled from outside a company in its statistics on hiring, so the increase in job-offer rates for this reason would not correspond to an increase in hiring rates.

Thanks to Tyler Cowen for the link, whose post is titled Are we seeing skills mismatch after all?

Left-Handedness With a Touch of Righty

A few years ago, I wrote a post titled Damn It Feels Good to Be a Lefty, in which I described life as an oppressed left-handed person in a right-handed world.

In a recent New Yorker blog post titled Are Left-Handed People Smarter? Maria Konivka does a nice job summarizing the history of research on the various contradictory studies about whether lefties enjoy cognitive advantages. It does seem so:

But a growing body of research suggests another, broader benefit: a boost in a specific kind of creativity—namely, divergent thinking, or the ability to generate new ideas from a single principle quickly and effectively. In one demonstration, researchers found that the more marked the left-handed preference in a group of males, the better they were at tests of divergent thought. (The demonstration was led by the very Coren who had originally argued for the left-handers’ increased susceptibility to mental illness.) Left-handers were more adept, for instance, at combining two common objects in novel ways to form a third—for example, using a pole and a tin can to make a birdhouse. They also excelled at grouping lists of words into as many alternate categories as possible. Another recent study has demonstrated an increased cognitive flexibility among the ambidextrous and the left-handed—and lefties have been found to be over-represented among architectsmusicians, and art and music students (as compared to those studying science).

Part of the explanation for this creative edge may lie in the greater connectivity of the left-handed brain. In a meta-analysis of forty-three studies, the neurologist Naomi Driesen and the cognitive neuroscientist Naftali Raz concluded that the corpus callosum—the bundle of fibers that connects the brain’s hemispheres—was slightly but significantly larger in left-handers than in right-handers. The explanation could also be a much more prosaic one: in 1989, a group of Connecticut College psychologists suggested that the creativity boost was a result of the environment, since left-handers had to constantly improvise to deal with a world designed for right-handers. In a 2013 review of research into handedness and cognition, a group of psychologists found that the main predictor of cognitive performance wasn’t whether an individual was left-handed or right-handed, but rather how strongly they preferred one hand over another. Strongly handed individuals, both right and left, were at a slight disadvantage compared to those who occupied the middle ground—both the ambidextrous and the left-handed who, through years of practice, had been forced to develop their non-dominant right hand. In those less clear-cut cases, the brain’s hemispheres interacted more and overall performance improved, indicating there may something to left-handed brains being pushed in a way that a right-handed one never is.

The bolded text most intrigued me. While I identify as left-handed because I write lefty, eat lefty, and brush my teeth lefty (among other things), I also do a number of things righty. In all sports, my right arm is the strong arm. Randomly, I use scissors with my right hand.

Growing up, I was told I was a “sit down lefty” — as if that were a type of lefty, someone who is left handed when sitting, but right handed when standing. In fact, I think what happened is that I was born left handed, and through instruction and social pressure, I took on some activities with my right hand. My grandmother, upon seeing me incline to my left hand as a baby, supposedly told my parents that they should train me to use my right hand, and my parents agreed. In The New Yorker post, I learned that historically lefties were stereotyped as especially wicked and prone to committing criminal acts, so perhaps my grandmother’s stance was influenced from a previous era. More practically, since we already had right handed baseball gloves lying around for the rest of the family, my parents rationally figured it’d be easier for everyone if I were right handed at sports. I was taught to throw right and shoot a ball right, and the rest is history.

So I am not ambidextruousness in the sense I am equally strong with both hands. In fact, my natural leftyness combined with socially-taught rightyness has resulted in me lacking a decisively strong hand altogether. Maybe this explains my poor motor skills. For example, I’m not good at tying knots or getting keys off of keychains or similar types of activities.

But per the New Yorker post, perhaps being forced to develop my non-dominant hand has led to some unique cognitive strengths. What’s more, being lefty in school-related activities (like writing) caused me to have some social experiences that perhaps made me stronger. I have a distinct memory in grammar school asking the teacher if there was a left handed desk to use (there were only desks attached to chairs for righties) and having to walk down the hallway, grab the spare lefty desk, and bring it back into the classroom, as everyone watched. The chair was old and the table rusty. I felt like an outsider. I could have used more experiences like that growing up — feeling like an outsider.

Meanwhile, as an adult, being left-handed has had only social benefit. The enthusiasm with which lefties talk to one another about their left-handedness is fascinating. I’ve signed copies of my books at dozens of tables to probably more than a thousand people now, and without exception, at every signing, someone notices me holding the pen with my left hand and excitedly says they’re left handed, too. I look up, make eye contact with the person, and we have a moment. “Strength in numbers,” I say every time, “We gotta stick together.”

(Thanks to Amy Batchelor for the link.)