Amidst the dark and grey shades increasingly engulfing, invading and piercing deeper and deeper, let me try to enjoy the little smiles, genuine greens, and the gentle breeze. Oh! Creator! If you don't exist, my vain!
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Saturday, September 13, 2014

Is it worth to have iPhone 6?


I was not very excited when my cousin brought me an iPhone couple of years back. Only when others looked at my phone with awe and admiration that I realized that the petite,  pretty device is something that stands above among a range of cell phones available with people.  They praised my phone and narrated its features and said it can store lakhs of applications for everyday use. Yes, I used the phone and important applications. But let me confess that this phone is not worth its money though it can satisfy one’s urge to own a globally sought after and widely hyped gadget.

This write-up is not for those brand conscious, trendy people, but for those who would like to have their phone cost-effective, reasonably durable and easily serviceable. 

Why I say that it is not worth to have an iPhone?

First:  The cost of the iPhone is exorbitantly high. I am sure all the techno-entrepreneurs would agree with me that the retail price is highly disproportionate to the cost of its hardware and software and all related expenses. I know they spend hefty amounts for marketing and advertising.  I was amazed to see some of the leading vernacular dailies in India carried multi-column articles in their editorial pages (not in the business pages) about the benefits of the new iPhone. They never thought a national calamity (flood in Jammu & Kashmir or many other larger public issues) be given priority over the launch of a mobile phone! One can’t blame the media or the marketing companies. India is a country with 880 million mobile subscriptions (second in the world), though half of them have no bank accounts! Ultimately money matters honey!

Second: Do you want to spend such a hefty sum for a product lasting just 18 months? Why I say this? Your costly mobile phone will become an ‘ordinary’ one within that period. The technology changes, software changes, applications changes. After a few months, you can’t update your phone with latest software and applications. They say ‘it is not compatible’! You can continue to use it for basic services for a few more years. But, for that you can get a phone costing less than Rs 1500 (less than US $25) which has internet and many other utilities.

Third:  I faced several issues with the phone within a few months. (I don’t want to generalize this because I haven’t attempted for any corroboration from others). I could see a bunch of employees in their stores who are totally uninterested to respond to the customers who carried their cellphones to the store with complaints. After several minutes of waiting they irritatingly direct us to meet the service personnel, who won’t have the patience to listen. He would rudely ‘request’ you to leave the phone there and come back after a week or fortnight. And the service charge? I am leaving it to you to guess!

Fourth: I faced problems with its charger all along. It won’t work properly in some plug points (especially in the trains and also in a few airport points). It won’t work if the charger is not tightly fitted in the plug. These are all fine. But most chargers will become useless within a few months of its use. And, after about 18 months of purchase you go to the authorized stores to buy a charger and the first comment from the sales guy would be, ‘Oh! Old model’. He will make you a ‘second class customer’ instantly. Then you tend to request, and they demonstrate before you that they are frantically searching for one in the showroom. Then they would tell you: ‘Out of stock’, ‘Check in other stores’ or ‘Check for the local ones in the city market’. You go and buy a cheaper ‘duplicate’ from the city market which either won’t work properly or would get damaged in no time. This is true for most spare parts as well.

Fifth:  I faced issues with signals too. When the person sitting next to me who is subscribed to same telecom service provider but in a different device has better signals, my phone will totally ‘ignore’ the signals if they are of poor quality. If I spend a few minutes in a ‘blind spot’ where there is no signal and then immediately move to an area where there is good signal, the phone takes several minutes to detect the signal. Many times I had to switch to airplane mode and back to retrieve the signal manually when the phone remained without detecting signals.

Sixth:  The strength of the battery depletes faster within a few months after the purchase.  Even when we don’t use the phone for data services or any other entertainment services, its battery would deplete faster.

Seventh: iPhone is very fragile than many other high-end phones in the market. A very mild impact results in cracked screen. The authorized shop will charge a hefty sum to replace it. I should appreciate their well-researched warranty period. Believe me, most people would face trouble immediately after the last day of the warranty. What timing!

Eighth: You heard a lot of sermon from the salesman about the prospects of upgrading when you first bought it. But many will agree with me when I say that upgrading is never an easy process and if you approach the service personnel, they will simply direct you to have a look at the new model!

Ninth: You can’t blame the manufacturer of a low-end mobile you bought from the city market for the heat it generates on your ears while using. But after spending huge sum, if your ear is getting heated within a few minutes of your call, then there is something wrong with the iPhone! I haven’t experienced this. But this was shared by a friend of mine.

Tenth: The Company proclaims that their products can be serviced globally. But try to go with a complaint in a country other than the country you purchased, you will find how difficult it would be.

The above facts may be true for many other high-end phones as well. In a technology driven world where changes happen every second, the urge to try something new is perfectly justified. Companies thrive on the inevitable technology replacement necessity created by companies themselves for their products to be in perennial demand.

Still I would encourage you to buy the new iPhone 6 if you are a big fan of apple products. You can be above the rest by holding one.  

(Disclaimer:I don't deny that  iPhone has many advantages over other phones. Above facts are based on my personal experience and need not be generalized)

Views are personal                           © Sibichen K Mathew

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Save your heart: Answers to some Frequently Asked Questions

Though all of us are aware that health is wealth, we tend to indulge ourselves to feed our appetite for a luxurious lifestyle at the cost of our well-being.  Invariably, for most, following questions would linger in mind sooner or later.

Will I get diseases like high levels of Blood pressure (BP), Cholesterol, diabetes etc.?
Are heart ailments hereditary?
How can I prevent heart diseases?
Is it true that one cannot stop the medicines for BP etc. even after the levels are fine?
Are there any side effects if there is prolonged use of drugs?
Is there any non-invasive treatment as an alternative to angioplasty or bypass surgery?
Should I stick to vegetarian diet?
How much alcohol I can take?


We read varied responses to such questions in books and in the media. Most of us have formed our own opinions on the above. However, it would be interesting and insightful if we get a response from an expert for the above questions.

Meet here Dr Somalaram Venkatesh MD, DM, Interventional Cardiologist who is also the head of Cardiac Cath Lab at Fortis Hospitals, Bangalore. He is an alumnus of the prestigious Post Graduate Institute (PGIMER), Chandigarh, India. He has been a topper and gold medallist for his post graduate examinations. He has worked as consultant and unit chief in various hospitals including Kasturba Medical College, Mangalore and performed more than 10000 primary and complex coronary angioplasties and procedures.

Cyber Diary had a very fruitful interaction with Dr. Venkatesh, who is not only an exceptionally skilled Interventional Cardiologist but also a very pleasant, gentle, articulate and creative person.
Please see below some of the important information and opinions he shared.

Are Indians more prone to heart ailments compared to people from other countries, especially those from the west?

One can divide heart diseases into two broad categories: First is the Coronary heart disease: i.e., the disease of the coronary arteries. This is due to the deposition of cholesterol within the wall of the arteries of the heart which in turn can lead to heart attacks etc. The second category includes congenital diseases (eg. hole in the heart, blue baby etc), valvular heart disease and diseases of the electrical system of the heart. These are largely independent of ethnic factors though environmental factors, access to appropriate healthcare etc. can aggravate the condition.

There are several studies on the link between Coronary heart disease (CHD) and ethnic background of people across the world. Studies have been conducted in India and elsewhere on the people of Indian origin to examine this. Despite accounting for dietary and other cultural differences, it was found that people from the Indian subcontinent are more prone to CHD and there are reports of high incidence.  In fact, statistics indicate that Indians have about four times higher tendency than Caucasian, six to seven times higher tendency than the Chinese and twenty times higher tendency than Japanese to develop CHD.

In South Asians, the disease tends to appear a decade earlier than Caucasians, more often multiple blocks are found. Heart attacks occur in younger age and the likelihood of South Asians dying of a heart attack is nearly twice that of a comparable Caucasian patient.  And another disturbing fact: South Asians tend to respond poorly to bypass surgery than the white counterparts!

There is an underlying genetic tendency for Indians to develop pre-diabetes and diabetes as compared to other ethnic groups. A significant part of risk of developing CHD is related to this factor.

Am I at risk if I have a family history of cardiac problems?

India is currently riding on the upsurge of an epidemic of diabetes and CHD. While popular notion is that these diseases are lifestyle related, one cannot reject the possibility of an underlying genetic predisposition. One can't quantify the contribution of individual factors but an incisive analysis can throw following insights:

a. Exposure to and unrestricted emulation of  'western' lifestyle has triggered CHD. Similar lifestyles in western and now Indian populations have led to a far higher prevalence of CHD in India than western countries, so obviously there is an underlying genetic susceptibility.
b. We have been carrying the purported genetic risk since our civilization existed. Why should the CHD epidemic explode now? The economic boom starting 1990s and the consequent lifestyle changes seem to have brought in high prevalence of CHD in our society.

Hence, both lifestyle and heredity seem to play important and complementary role in the surge in CHD cases.

Should I become a vegetarian to save my heart?

There is no doubt that a vegetarian diet is healthier. Meat consumption has skyrocketed in the recent years. Per se there is nothing to say that meat consumption is harmful if certain precautions are taken:

a. Avoid excess of red meat. Lean portions of red meat, white meat such as poultry (without skin and avoiding leg pieces) and fish can be taken moderately.

b. Healthy cooking practices. Most people know about using less oil and the right type.

c. Avoid excess carbohydrates: since we are prone to developing abdominal obesity and diabetes - both of which can bring on CHD, curtailing carbs may be an important key.

d. Physical activity – this is the most important lifestyle change if one wishes to have a few dietetic liberties

Is it true that once on a tablet for hypertension, it is for life and should not be stopped?

This is a popular but incorrect notion.

If a patient has high BP, that will remain for the rest of his life. This is applicable for most patients. If such patients start taking BP medications, BP will come under control. If the patient stops the medication, BP will come back again. This is misinterpreted as patient becoming 'habituated' to BP medicine. It's almost like saying that a man has become habituated to food because if he stops food his hunger comes back!

A small percentage of patients however, have BP which is either due to bad lifestyle or due to an underlying medical disorder such as hormonal problem or kidney disease. Some of these patients could keep their BP permanently under control by taking care of the lifestyle issues or if the concerned medical disorder is treated properly. Such patients can definitely stop taking medicines. However, once the BP medicine is stopped, lifestyle management should continue and also BP should be regularly monitored.

What are the side effects of prolonged use of drugs for high BP?


Most BP medicines today have no long term side effects or cumulative toxicity and are safe for prolonged use. Side effects, if any, will come to light soon after starting the medicines in most cases. If one medicine does not suit a patient, it could be stopped and a different medicine started. It is rare for a patient to have side effects for more than one or two drugs. Usually a good solution can be found among the thirty-odd choices from anti-hypertensive drugs

Is continued use of statins for high cholesterol levels harmless? Statins have been linked to decreased heart muscle function and increased risk of stroke, along with other serious side effects. What is your view?

This is a very important question.

Over decades now statins have been shown to reduce risk of heart attacks and strokes in patients with and without heart disease and in patients with and without risk factors. Perhaps no other group of medicines have been shown to have such a preventive effect across different types of patient profiles.
As most drugs, statins too have side effects. Notable ones are injury to liver and muscle. People who known to have liver and muscle side effects are not prescribed statins.

There are some other adverse effects attributed to long term statin use. Prominent among them are neurological changes especially memory loss, increased stroke risk and of late a concern about diabetes onset in patients on statins. It has not been proven conclusively that the statins exert the memory loss or increased strokes, so I personally think these are non-issues. The real concern is the new-onset diabetes in patients who are not having diabetes when put on statins. As we know diabetes is a serious problem that can potentially have multiple effects on heart, brain, kidney etc.

Experts however argue that the protection offered by statins is far greater than the risk of new-onset diabetes. For example, if a thousand patients are put on long term statins, about 35 to 40 persons will be protected against heart attacks and strokes whereas only 5 to 6 persons may develop diabetes. At the same time, scientifically it is not possible to know whether the patients who develop are the ones who are also protected. This is still a question that is being discussed and researched. At the level of practitioners, the consensus is that statin therapy is beneficial across groups and should be continued despite these few concerns.

There are many advertisements from practitioners of allopathic and non-allopathic streams about non-invasive techniques as alternatives for angioplasty and bypass surgeries. Is it safe to depend on such treatments?

Suffice it to say that there is no credible alternative therapy to standard treatment of coronary heart disease. Scientifically determined treatment includes medicines or angioplasty or bypass surgery or combinations thereof. Practitioners of alternative medical systems such chelation, magnetic therapy etc are totally unscientific and some of them can be said to be indulging in fraudulent therapy. The temptation to avoid surgery is dangerous because lifesaving surgery is delayed or refused when patients believe in alternative treatment systems.

Some practitioners of allopathic medicines also promise that, with their treatment, surgery can be totally avoided. While a number of patients of CHD can be treated with medicines and without surgery, to dogmatically deny surgery to EVERY patient is risking some lives and is wrong
What are your tips for the people below 35 to prevent any lifestyle related heart disorders? What are your suggestions to the parents of teenage children on the lifestyle formation for them?

Even the hearts of young children have been shown to have cholesterol deposits. In India, we know that young people are affected with heart attacks and some are dying prematurely. So, young people should not think that they are not susceptible for heart attacks.

Sensible eating, regular physical activities/exercise, avoiding tobacco use of all types, avoiding excess alcohol drinking, maintaining ideal body weight are some of the things that young individuals can practice.

There is a tendency to cook separate food for the adults and patients in the house. They feed unhealthy food (fatty food or food cooked with excess butter, ghee, or oil) with impunity to the young ones in the family with the thought that they are kids and are not at risk.

Historically, we see that as the physical activity is getting more and more limited, the incidence of heart disease is going up. The current generation of children have the least physical exercise of all times in history. In addition if they also take unhealthy food, which unfortunately is available in abundance now, the chances that they will develop heart disease at even younger age than what we see today. Parents of today's children should inculcate good healthy habits right from the childhood.

What are your suggestions to those who are already on drugs for hypertension or high cholesterol levels for many years?

They should undergo periodic medical checks to monitor BP and cholesterol levels. Doctors need to monitor the results for side effects of drugs, complications of consistently higher levels of  BP or cholesterol on other organs such as kidney and to monitor for development of new diseases like diabetes, heart disease etc.

How much alcohol is good or bad for a person?


Western studies have shown that 21 units of alcohol per week for men and 14 units per week for women is safe as far as the heart is concerned.

Units can be calculated by formula:
Units= Quantity (ml) X alcohol percentage by volume divided by 1000.
Eg. If someone has 3 large drinks of whiskey of 45% ABV (alcohol by volume) then the units are calulated as follows:
units = 180 X 45 divided by 1000 = 8.1 units.
We do not have similar studies in Indians but given that build and  body weight of Indians are less than that of caucasians, a lesser quantity should be recommended.

I must caution that if a patient has alcohol related liver damage (cirrhosis) or heart muscle weakness (alcoholic cardiomyopathy), even a single drop should be avoided.

Dr Venkatesh is currently at Fortis Hospitals, Bangalore (+91 80 66214444). He can also be contacted through his e-Mail:  drvenkateshs (gmail). He writes occasionally in his blog.

Views are personal                                 © Sibichen K Mathew

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Thursday, September 4, 2014

Teachers for the out-of-school children

When someone mentions the word ‘Teacher’, we know that the person is referring to a school or college teacher or a person who takes tuition!

We forget about those dedicated persons who teach but are not ‘teachers’!

When someone mentions the word ‘student’, we often conclude that the person is referring to someone who is trying to learn something to earn a degree/qualification and is part of an institutional structure. 

We forget about thousands of underprivileged kids who are outside the formal educational system but yearn for knowledge for a living.

Meet here a team of persons who have devoted their life for schooling the non-school going children. ‘Bal Utsav’, the NGO led by Ramesh Balasundaram and Binu Ramesh is bringing in educational revolution among the children of construction workers, slum dwellers and labourers in the city of Bangalore and elsewhere. 

Padmini, Binu and Ramesh

Let us hear from Mr Ramesh Balasundaram about his unique mission in teaching.

What was your inspiration (incident/person/experience/ or anything else) in taking up the field of teaching non-school going children?

The year was 2010 and there was a lot of celebration about the Right to Education Act (RTE). It was surprising to know that Out of School Children even existed, because everyone we knew was in school. Even our maids’ children were in school and every second road had a school.

When we took a focussed study to understand what the RTE was all about is when we realised that elephant in the room that nobody was talking about - Out of School Children and Children Who Drop Out of schools.

Can you brief us about the nature of different teaching work undertook/ being undertaken by you and team?

We have identified the top contributors to out of school children and built interventions around each of them.
Children from Urban Slums - Museum School, Bangalore 
Children in Construction Sites - Schools working from within Construction Sites
Children From Tribes - Schools set up inside various Tribal communities.

According to you, what is right or wrong with our present formal educational system?

There is a clear demand & supply issue. Resulting in the possibility of seeing parents wait overnight to seek admission in schools for their wards. Since supply is an issue - obviously there is little or no effort to understand quality.

The issue that is plaguing the system though - is for parents, teacher and schools to understand the purpose of education. While learning to read and write is an outcome of schooling it is not the purpose of it. If each parent and teacher could understand the purpose of education the schools today will be a different place.(At all Bal Utsav schools the purposed of education is to facilitate the mental, physical and spiritual growth of the child)

Most of the children fear schooling/syllabus/exams etc. Famous sociologist Ivan Illich went to the extent of arguing for deschooling society. What do you say about the perception that school is an inevitable EVIL for children?

While schools have their own role and are meant to be learning spaces for children, (as homes are not designed for learning in children) the fact that the purpose is not established is exactly like playing a game of football with great facilities, coaches, best of merchandise but no goal post to be seen. This results in children not knowing what they are expected to do, parents ensuring that the children reach the ground wearing the best of merchandise and teachers/schools ensuring that the children are always on the ground and learning to play a game (without understanding the goal) in the absence of a goal post. 

Can you narrate any incident (one or more) that motivated you or deeply touched you or disturbed you or delighted you, while you were teaching children?

The sight of joy in every child when they discover something is worth everything. If the focus is on enabling the child to discover himself/herself - the child is totally interested in the task at hand. Wants to be in school everyday and reaches a stage when they don't want to go home/let go off what they are working upon as they are totally interested in what they do. This  joy that we see in the children's faces that we work with is what helps us and every person in the team to keep going. 
This journey of discovery, even once saw us witness a child who wanted to vein school that day inspire of seeing her own mom being rushed to the ICU after an accident, earlier that day.

What role you see for the educated and employed youth in teaching the non-school going children in India? 

The youth need to understand the critical role that teachers play and choose two of the most critical roles that define our tomorrows - that of Teachers and Politicians. Instead of treating the role of teachers as someone who couldn't get placed because of their inability we need to have hordes of young learners, take to teaching. The only way we are going to have a better tomorrow is if our youth take to teaching both children in schools and those who are pout of schools. To fill this gap, we at Bal Utsav have recently started a Teacher training program that exclusively focusses on churning out High Quality teachers who are inspired to teach and are not here because they didn't have any other job to do.

You can read more about the above initiative in one of my earlier blogs. Click to read: My mid-day break with pearls from the slum

A student and also a teacher: Meet a few youngsters who have taken the road less traveled

Can anyone be a teacher? Can a student be a teacher? Yes, it needs only a little bit of empathy towards others that can propel the teacher within you! 

Let me introduce you to a few teachers who are students. 

Shashank who is from Chintamani near Bangalore, is the Campus Ambasaddor at iCare Group and Co-Founder at Sahasradeepa-‘YOU’th  for a brighter India. He is a student of Acharya Institute of Technology.

Shashank along with his friends Shrinidhi, Ramya, Surendra,Shrutika, Manohar and Naveen started what they call ‘smart classes’ (providing education through presentations and videos) for students from the villages.
Shashank and team in action

In the beginning of their fourth semester, they did a brain storming on how to bridge the gap between the standards of education of rural and urban students. They started with a small step.  They loaded their laptops with all materials required for the students from the rural schools and started visiting each school. They conducted several sessions for students from class 1 to class 8. They focussed on following subjects/areas.

•        Introduction to Computers.
•        Introduction to typing, paint, MS Word.etc.
•        Videos of rhymes
•        Videos of cartoons.
•        Videos on wild life.
•        Videos on Science.
•        Videos on image recognition.
•        Videos on skill testing.
•        Videos on memory testing.
•        Videos of kids around the globe.
•        Introduction to internet and its usage.
•        Google earth.
•        Realizing their hidden potential.
•        Importance of education in their life.
•        Counselling the girls(women empowerment).

•        Rights of children.

Student Nalini Reddy in the Sahasradeepa project

Student Govardhan teaching students
Student Hemika Reddy with her students

They initiated to projects (Vidyadeepa and Sahasradeepa to impart quality education. They tied up with govt schools in a bid to incorporate the smart class-room model in those schools which are often deprived of basic teaching equipments. 

Modern day tools like laptops, internet etc will be used to give the kids a better visualisation of their syllabus and more importantly, to bring the fun element back in learning.

(You can contact iCare Group at theicaregroup {})

Kavya Atreya

See my interview with Ms Kavya Atreya, who taught students from government schools while she herself was a college student:

 1. What was your inspiration in using your time for teaching?

Frankly I dont know what my inspiration was. But I always loved children and spending time with them. It started at home when I was teaching my brother who was 4 years younger to me and I loved it. I got an opportunity and grabbed it with both my hands.

2. Can you tell about the nature of different teaching work undertook/ being undertaken by you?

I have taught for 2 years being a part of a NGO called VSEI. First  year at shivanhalli school teaching kids below 7th grade English through different interactive and playful activities and second  year in a government school near NR Colony teaching kids art. We helped them to perform a play on Mahatma Gandhi and showcased it to their parents and friends. Thanks to my aunt who introduced me to these lovely children and it was a wonderful experience.

3.According to you, what is right or wrong with our present formal educational system?

I have studied in India and completed BE and right now doing my masters in the USA. So have seen how the education system is in both the countries. All I noticed was that in India there  is very unhealthy competition among the students these days putting the children under lot of pressure. Emphasis should be on learning than getting good marks.

4. Can you narrate any incident (one or more) that delighted you while you were teaching children?

Best moment would be the excitement on the children’s face whenever I had meetings with them. They would be eagerly waiting for me to be with them on Saturdays. We were so attached to those kids and the entire program was a wonderful experience

It is your turn now! 

Views are personal                           © Sibichen K Mathew

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A man who left the commissioner’s chair to become a school teacher

He had a brilliant educational career. He got into the government service at a young age. He didn't stop with that. He wrote the prestigious Civil Services Examination, one of the toughest recruitment tests in the country and came out with flying colors. He was allotted the Indian Revenue Service (IRS). He started his career as an Assistant Commissioner of Income Tax and elevated as Deputy Commissioner, Additional Commissioner, and Commissioner of Income Tax. He was a good tax investigator, finance wizard, efficient administrator and an avid cricket lover. While he was successfully performing his role as the Appellate Commissioner at Ahmadabad region, he decided to call it a day and resigned from the Service. He flew back to Punkunnam, a village near Trichur in Kerala. The first priority was to look after his mother. The second priority was to do something worthwhile for the society. 

He started his career as a teacher by teaching a few students in the neighborhood who were weak in English language and couldn't afford to go for costly tuition. He converted a hall in his house exclusively for the students. They sat on the floor and listened to the teacher who taught them not only English and General Knowledge but also several learning strategies in a very interesting and innovative manner.  He charged nothing from the poor students and very nominal amount from those who can afford, that too just to make them aware of the value of the classes. He also started helping the students of the government schools (where most students from the economically backward sections of the community study) and became a trainer for teachers of the schools run by Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan in the district. 

Oh! I forgot to tell his name. He is Shri K P Karunakaran. 

He proved that anyone can become a teacher if they so desire to make a change in the new generation and in society. 

Do you want to know more about him, his ideas, his work and his philosophy? Read the following interview: 

Why did you leave the career as a high profile tax administrator and started teaching the students in your village? 

I believe that every career or profession is important and satisfying if you are sincere in that. At one point of time, after putting several years in government, I thought it worthwhile to spend my time in an area where I can be more productive and creative in society. 

I got into teaching because it can be the most rewarding experience. In fact, it is said, “a nation is built in the classrooms.”  Teaching the young ones, the next generation, is a nation building activity.

What is so unique about your style of teaching? How did children like that?

I teach children to think and attempt to sharpen their communication skills. Freed from the millstone of syllabus around my neck, I get a chance to improvise and innovate. Sometimes, I am surprised to see how children (adults too) think alike. How to make children think out of the box is my challenge. How to let their imagination run riot?  I devised a few exercises for that. I found it really worked in them. They were very enthusiastic. 

When children are so bored with the workload in the school, would there be sincere cooperation from the students when you try to impart the same, though in a different way? 

What schools do is monitoring the students. Monitoring is easy to do and it has negative connotations. The journey from monitoring to mentoring is a big challenge. Most of the schools don’t know how to   mentor the students. Teaching is all about  making students effective learners. 

My USP is this: I try to give students what they don’t get at school or at home. At home, teaching is an endless race to finish homework or prepare for the exams and often completing mindless projects. Where parents get time to groom their kids? And they too have deadlines to meet.

What is wrong with the attitudes and teaching style of most teachers and the approaches in many schools? 

There are excellent teachers. The students adore them. There are teachers who can make children eat out of the palm of their hands. Unfortunately, we have a large number of incompetent teachers. They are paid measly sums and the workload is very heavy. The bane of our educational system is that it is not able to attract the best talents to the schools. The problem is compounded by the fact that 90% of our teachers are women. Since they are burdened with familial duties, even the inspired don’t get as much time as they want to read and innovate. Ideation suffers!

Most teachers prefer to follow a set pattern rather mechanically irrespective of the purpose behind a particular syllabus/ subject. Don’t you think that very few teachers make students think creatively and intuitively? 

Most schools don’t have a well defined leadership development programme for the students. How many schools have a thinking class? The moment we open the text books, our thinking process is reduced into a frame work which inhibits free thinking. Can we take our children to the sublime level of boundary less thinking or thinking without boundaries? I have started conducting one day workshops for teachers. So far I have conducted six such workshops. The main thrust is to look at things anew.

Do you think we need to have a radical reorganization of the present system of schooling? Otherwise, can we think of promoting home schooling in a large scale? 

We cannot do without schooling. Home schooling is good only for improving one’s knowledge. A school goes much beyond that. A good school develops cognitive abilities of students. Besides, it gives invaluable inputs to them in social skills and develops their emotional intelligence. The rudiments of leadership skills and team building spirit are learned in schools. Sathya Nadella revealed, in an interview, that he got his earliest leadership lessons from the captain of his school cricket team. So schools are here to stay. How to infuse more life into them is the question. Teaching is all about  making students effective learners.

It is a fact that people are born with different abilities. The social and economic environment in the early life also influences the children. Therefore, there could be students with different abilities and skills in a class. But the nature of teaching, the syllabus, the examination and the evaluation are the same for every student irrespective of the ability of the students. Don’t you think this is unfair? 

What I dislike most about our teachers is that they don’t understand children with Learning Disabilities. It is very sad not even 1% of our teachers are exposed to remedial measures that are available.( This is not an exaggeration. It is an understatement!) The school managements are also equally at fault. Of course, some parents don’t accept the fact that their children have learning difficulties. What disturbs me so much is the cruelty meted out to these children by the ‘apostles’ of our educational system. Mind you, around 10 % of our students have LD in one form or the   other. Their cries are not heard. Their self-image gets a beating all the time. They go around bruised and battered by their parents, peers and teachers. “Tare Zameen Pur”, the Amir Khan film did make an impact. Now it is forgotten!

Is there any problem in the way the teachers are trained? 

The syllabus for the teacher training courses in many developing countries are outdated. For example, the syllabus of the B.Ed and M. Ed courses in India are out dated. There is a bit of psychology and other latest topics in the syllabus of some universities. But the sad fact is that there are no qualified or competent hands to do justice to these topics. There is practically no proper long term in-service training once they are in the teaching profession. 

You worked with many students who are having learning difficulties. What inspired you to focus on them? How was your experience?

I had a student (Dinesh name changed) studying in 8th standard. He spoke excellent English, a rarity in this part of Kerala. But Dinesh misspelled many words. Initially, I thought it was a prank. Only later, I came to know that he was dyslexic. This was my first brush with dyslexia. I took Dinesh to a special educator. I also trained under him. This motivated me to do MSc Psychology. Dinesh is doing engineering in Tamil Nadu. He won prizes in elocution. He still keeps in touch with me. I am very grateful to the Almighty for giving me an opportunity to have made some impact ton someone.

What touched me most was an interaction with a child with global learning difficulties. Surprisingly, he was reasonably good at maths. When I told him that he was good at maths, he gave me a beaming smile. On an impulse I asked him,” Who have praised you?” The reply shook me to the core. The boy, studying in the sixth class, answered, “This is the first time somebody is praising me.” Praise doesn't cost anything! I am yet to find a child who is not interested in learning.

Can you share with the readers, any simple technique you followed to make your class interesting? 

There are many exercises depending upon the subject and level of the students. I can share one simple exercise I successfully experimented. 

                                                           John Has a Box
This is an exercise to observe how children form associated ideas. It is also an exercise to observe how we all think alike.  An example of conditioned thinking. Also, a realization of limits in our thinking.
 The teacher will give the following instructions to the students.
“John has a box. Now you are to form ideas connecting John and the box. You can write as many ideas as you can. It can be anything. Which is possible or not possible? Funny ideas also can be written. Write freely whatever thoughts come to your mind. There is no right or wrong answer. Simply try to link John and box.”
Note Carefully
 The teacher should not  give  any hints or any clues. No further elaboration. They should not put thoughts into the children. It is for the children to make connections. Don’t give any examples--- you know, you can write about how John uses the box, who gave the box to John, the shape or size of the box, etc. Just leave the children alone. Let them make the connections. 
Just go round and see what children are writing.  Don’t make any comments. Be totally non-committal. Soon children will run out of ideas. 
So after ten minutes, tell them to close their eyes for a minute or two and to visualize John and the box. Tell them to clearly see John and box. Tell them they are going to experience the power of visualization. Ask them to open their eyes and continue writing for another 5-10 minutes. Invariably, they will get fresh ideas.
Now the teachers can collect the answers and discuss what they wrote. It is important that the teachers don’t make fun of any ideas. Remember, there is no right or wrong answer. 
Ask the children to write a story.
If this cannot be done in one period, the story writing can be taken in some other period. It is important not to rush the children.
Suggestion.  For better appreciation of this test the teachers can themselves do the exercise first before giving it to the children. They can observe their thought patterns.
After noting down their ideas, the teachers can write a story about ‘John has a box’. They should not take more than 15 minutes to write the story .
Only after doing the exercise the teachers should read the comments in the next page.

Ask them how they visualized John? What is his age?
You will be surprised many children would have considered John as someone below 20 years. Most of them would have thought John as a boy.  No one would visualize John as a grandfather and the box as a family heirloom!  Again John is not a teacher or a father, or a fifty year old man! Why? We are all conditioned to think in a similar way! 
It would be a good learning exercise to all to see how the children visualized the box.
How many ideas were common?
The story part.
 I am giving below an unedited version of a story written by a sixth standard student. The student is referring to John as a 103 year old man after I had discussion with them. No child in my class thought John an old man. The story was written in about twenty minutes.
 John Has A Box.
John is 103 years old great grandfather. He and his big family went to a tour. He lost his way and reached in a cave. He saw a small lantern with light. It was blinking slightly. When he bent his body to take the box, his spectacles fell down. He thought that he will first take the lantern and then only spectacles. He is a retired police officer. So he has some cunny ideas, even he lost his way. He took the lantern and started to search his specs. While searching he saw a blue box. He opened it and saw copper, silver, golden jewelleries. The box was made of wood. In house there were so many boxes like this. But this is a special box. It was talking. It was a magic and mysterious box. The cave was haunted. It was dark. Both of them talked to each other. John spoke about his family. The box spoke about the haunted cave. John was afraid when he heard about the haunted cave. It was night now. They slept and woke up in next day. When John woke up he is now in his house. You didn’t understand what happened? This all were his dream.

Can you suggest a few books for teachers and parents who deal with children who are slow learners? 

Following are some of the several books in this area. (Click the links to know more)

The Gift of Dyslexia—Ronald D. Davis
Teaching through the Heart- Action plan for better teaching  Meera Ravi (a psychologist at Bangalore)
What Did You Ask at School Today? A Handbook of child learning  Kamala V Mukunda  ( She runs a school at Bangalore- Centre For Learning)
To Sir, With Love   E.R Braithwaite  A most inspiring novel on teaching 

Those who would like to contact Mr K P Karuanakaran  may mail him at karunakp_123 []

Saturday, August 30, 2014

A new world order and a global war in the 21st century? The predictions by George Friedman

Some of us love predictions. People tap a variety of sources to get to know about their future. Some seek the help of Tarot card readers. Some go to the Astrologers who interpret the horoscopes. Some look at your palm and reveal the past and predict the future. There are a few who approach numerologists. In southern India people rush to see the ‘naadi palm leaves’ where everything about them is written.  Some are eager to find about the prospects of their business, some would like to know the problems of a property purchase. There are many who want to know about a perfect match. One can see many road side experts who predict your future with the help of the parrots!  There are even ‘online love calculators’ that predict whether your lover would ditch you and if yes when! So, everyone is in search of the answers about the future. At least here, the science and medicine have failed miserably!

Just like one is eager to know about one’s future, some of us might be interested in knowing about the future of the world!  May be that prompted me to pick up this book from the airport vendor: ‘The next hundred years: A forecast for the 21st century’ written by George Friedman (published in 2009). About the author a few words: He is the founder of STARTFOR, a leading private intelligence and forecasting company located in Texas. He is considered as a leading expert in geo-political intelligence. He is the author of many books. He was an academician for over 20 years before joining the business sector.

Now, about the book: The book is about his predictions about the world in the 21st century! The attempt was to explain where, how and why future wars will erupt and they will be fought. He also wrote extensively which nations will gain and lose economic and political power.

Many wrote books predicting the future of the world. There are many non-fictions and movies that ‘predicted’ new technology and lifestyle. George Orwell created a disturbing picture of the future in his novel ‘1984’ published in 1949. ‘Future Shock’ by Alvin Toffler (1970) warned of a society that would suffer from what he called the ‘Information overload’ that would result in isolation, depression, and impermanence and transiency in relationships. Friedman’s work was more direct. It focused exclusively on predicting the future.

George Friedman never claims he had a crystal ball. His task was to try to see the order underneath the disorder of history. His attempt was to ‘anticipate what events, trends, and technology that order will bring forth’.

According to him the inherent power coupled with its geographic position makes the United States the pivotal actor of the 21st century. He said, there will be coalitions trying to contain and control the United States. And the United States will act preemptively to prevent an effective coalition from forming. The twenty-first century will see even more war than the twentieth century, but less catastrophic. He predicted that Russia, though try to reassert power, will collapse.

Friedman did not consider China as a threat either. He said China is inherently unstable. Its political economic environment is marred with inefficiency and corruption. He expects three countries to become powerful and assertive over the next few decades. They are Japan, Turkey and Poland. He considered Turkey as a stable platform in the midst of chaos. He said that Germany is declined and Poland would emerge as an important player to face the Russians. The relationships among United States, Japan, Turkey and Poland will greatly affect the 21st century which ultimately would lead to the next global war.

He predicted that, by 2050 advanced industrial countries will be losing population at a dramatic rate. There will be a shrinking population even in underdeveloped countries. United States will depend on Mexicans to migrate there for labor. By 2080, the author expects a serious confrontation between US and an increasingly powerful and assertive Mexico. (One can’t imagine that now!)

Basing his arguments on his ‘geopolitical forecasting’, he has stated that ‘it is possible to think about large numbers of human beings, linked together through natural human bonds, constrained by geography, acting in certain ways’. He says in the book that the twenty-first century will be extraordinary and it will see a new global power astride the world. ‘European Age has ended and the North American Age has begun’! He argues that United States is only at the beginning of its power and the 21st century will be the American century.

Freidman has predicted that China does not represent a geopolitical fault line and it will have far greater internal problems and therefore little time for foreign policy adventures. His prediction about Russia is stronger. He said its military will collapse shortly after 2020. By 2040 the relationship between US and China will grow closer as a defense against the emergence of Japan.

What about India? The author says that India will help Tibet break free! He wrote about the 2040s:

 “ The United States will have had a long relationship with India, dating back to the US-jihadist war of the early twenty-first century. While India, internally divided, will not have managed to become a global economic power, it will be a regional power of some importance. India will be disturbed by the entry of the Muslim Turks into the Arabian Sea, and will fear further Turkish expansion into the Indian Ocean itself. India’s interests will align with those of the Americans, and so the United States will find itself in the same position in the Indian Ocean as in the Pacific."
Then, George Friedman continues to write about the preparation for war, the world war, the golden decade of 2060s, US-Mexico relationships etc. Describing them in detail would amount to injustice to the author as every writer wants his book to be bought and read by people rather than leaking the contents and predictions to everyone around freely!

So let me stop my review here. But a few points as conclusion:

It is very difficult to believe what he says especially about the emergence of countries like Mexico and its potential to become a challenge for the US. There is no mention of the status of many other emerging countries that will play a crucial role in the new world order in 21st century, apart from Japan, Turkey and Poland. The power and influence of countries like India have been underestimated: May be as he said, ‘common sense almost always betray us’.

He, though an advocate of geopolitical forecasting, has caught in the web of rigidity established for centuries by the notion of ‘pure’ economists that actors (players) are rational beings and every individual is driven by self-interest. He has equated the nations in the same way. I feel that there cannot be any basis for a theoretical assumption that leaders, leadership strategies, and leadership goals are based on scientific, logical and rational decisions by the actors in society and politics. By giving a view that ‘geopolitics is about broad impersonal forces that constrain nations and compel them to act in certain ways’, the author also fell into the trap of ‘invisible hand’ phenomenon of the rational economists.

In spite of all its limitations, the book is an interesting read for not only political scientists and specialists in international relations, but also for anyone who is eager to know about the future of the world. Just like someone goes to a new astrologer after realizing much later that the earlier one gave incorrect predictions, we can keep exploring every prediction, prophecy and claim about the future. It is good fun. Those who are blessed to see the entire 21st century can verify the predictions themselves. Most of us won’t be alive to witness the fulfilment of these predictions! But at least we can visualize a world where we may not going to be there!

You can order the book HERE  

Views are personal                                         © Sibichen K Mathew
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