Sunday, December 6, 2009







Run Time: 109 min.


Here is a fine example of movie-making: no dazzling special effects, no breath-taking locales and yet... you have a contender for the Picture of the Year. Director Jason Reitman presents a well-timed study of a corporate downsizer and consummate frequent traveler, finely portrayed by George Clooney in top form.

Ryan Bingham loves to fly and has a rather disagreeable job: he fires people on behalf of corporations that are downsizing. He is a decent, charming and sharp man who has embraced whole-heartedly a world of material perks. He carries with him his badges of honor: elite frequent flyer cards, exclusive frequent guest cards with hotels, special privilege cards with car rentals and so on. He has spent 322 days in the last year traveling and 43 “miserable” days at home in Omaha, Nebraska. His only goal in life is to be the seventh person in the world to log 10 million frequent flyer miles. While being pampered by every travel loyalty program on the road, he has nothing real to hold on to. In fact, his empty one-bedroom apartment is quite symbolic of his personal life: clean, cold and bare.

We meet up with Ryan (George Clooney) when he is encountering 3 significant changes in his life. His boss (Jason Bateman) has hired a young upstart protégé Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick) who wants to improve efficiency via teleconferencing and threatens to permanently ground Ryan and his counterparts. Ryan has met a simpatico traveler, Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga) who seems to offer a meaningful connection to Ryan, one that he has never experienced before. Finally, Ryan’s sister is getting married and wants him to attend the wedding in northern Wisconsin with the siblings that he barely knows.

At his boss’s insistence, Ryan begins a road-trip with Natalie to show her why his job is a little more personal than a scripted workflow for firing employees, oops, letting them go. Along the way, Alex intersects itineraries with Ryan to spend time together. We follow Ryan as he reluctantly acknowledges the loneliness and emptiness of his life while Natalie discovers that there is a lot more to business transactions than she knows from her education. All the places in the film are familiar. Most of these are office buildings and hotels. There is no effort made to hide the hotel locations. For example, the signs for the Columbus Hampton Inn is clearly visible. These are places we have been to and we cannot help but relate to the events.

Clooney is nothing short of excellent as he embodies his character and manages to be funny, confident yet vulnerable and deserving of sympathy. The two female characters are presented as a brilliant study in contrast. Vera Farmiga displays excellent chemistry with Clooney as she presents a very assertive yet smooth business woman who has learned a lot from her experiences and is comfortable with her recalibrated expectations. Anna Kendrick as Natalie is a revelation. She presents Natalie as a bright, naive young manager who has a lot to learn but has an undeniably bright future. Reitman avoids the trap of making this character a stereotype and allows her to hold her own against the other two, more formidable leads.

This cannot be pegged as a comedy even though it has many funny moments. Reitman has captured the sad bitter truth about layoffs and the timing of this release could not be more appropriate. It is important to note that with a couple of exceptions of known actors, every person being fired in the film is someone recently laid off in real life. The excerpts in the film are a portion of hours of footage acquired by film-makers by getting reactions to job losses by real people. Some of these are heart-wrenching.

Having attended some networking group meetings with people looking for jobs, the phrase “up in the air” strikes a chord. In corporate-speak, a job-seeker is referred to as “having landed” when they find a job. In perspective, I suppose anyone looking for a job is still up in the air. If you stay through the credits, it is revealed that the title song is written by a recent job-seeker and offered to Reitman for use in his film. Reitman has become one of my favorite directors with this follow-up to Juno and Thank You for Smoking.

This is an masterful character study of a familiar corporate executive who is easy to relate to primarily because he doesn’t belong to any one place. When asked, more than 30,000 feet off the ground, where he is from, Ryan’s response is insightful: “I’m from here.”

Download this: “This land is your land” by Sharon Jones; “Up in the Air” by Kevin Renick

Thursday, September 17, 2009



“Universal Healthcare” – You are either for it or against it. It seems that there is no middle ground on this one. If there is one issue that touches all Americans regardless of social, financial or demographic differences, it is healthcare; given the current environment, everyone has an opinion on this. So here’s my two cents: if I have to choose between universal healthcare and what we have today, I choose universal healthcare.

I don’t necessarily believe that universal healthcare is the best alternative out there but I see enough merit in it to select it over the current system we have. If you have a few minutes, I would like to share my understanding of universal healthcare, socialized medicine, pros and cons, healthcare in other countries and some financial statistics.

What is universal healthcare? It is a system under which all participants (citizens and legal residents) are provided with a uniform coverage of healthcare. This is usually funded by taxes and usually managed by a government program. The participants are free to seek enhanced healthcare of their choice at their own expense. The US is the only developed country in the world that does not provide its citizens with a universal healthcare program.

What, then, is socialized medicine? When a government provides universal healthcare as the only healthcare option, it is referred to as socialized medicine. Under universal healthcare, hospitals, doctors, pharmaceutical companies and health workers can remain independent and for-profit, if they wish. Under socialized medicine, the entire healthcare industry is a part of the government. I don’t think that the US will ever be in such a situation because of the current private ownership of every element in the system.

Pros of universal healthcare:

  • The biggest plus is that one will always have healthcare coverage regardless of job loss or change and the level of healthcare will not change.
  • A singular system will have lower cost and overhead than a complex system of multiple health insurance providers. The costs of such a singular/public system are less than private. A larger pool affords better negotiation of rates for drugs and services.
  • Typically countries with any kind of universal healthcare spend less than what the US spends on healthcare as a percentage of GDP.
  • Currently consumers pay for emergency services provided (by law) to uninsured patients. This means that you, as an insured American, pay for the uninsured ones. Under universal healthcare, no one goes without insurance and one pays in form of taxes. This would bring down the expenses for those already carrying insurance. (This is not forced taxation - think of taxes going towards roads, schools, infrastructure, etc.)
  • One will be able to choose one’s doctor. If you do not feel comfortable with one doctor, you can move on to someone else. There is no in or out of network (and no penalties).
  • Businesses, especially small businesses, do not have to be burdened by high costs of healthcare for their employees (which they currently bear because they do not have a large pool to negotiate lower costs).
  • Doctors and service providers will have to deal with just one insurance claim form and would see lower overhead burdens.
  • The 48 million or so Americans that are uninsured today will get coverage. (A 2002 study indicates that about 18,000 Americans die each year due to lack of insurance.) Not to mention, a large number of already insured Americans will see improvement in their coverage.
  • Currently, there is an increased use of emergency rooms by uninsured and Medicaid type of insured patients simply because they do not have access to primary care. This can be totally eliminated and make emergency rooms more effective.
  • One major plus which gets overlooked is the security afforded by continuous healthcare coverage. If one does not have to stress about how one’s health will be cared for in case of job loss/change or retirement or accident then one’s quality of life is greatly improved (at least in my case).

Cons of universal healthcare:

  • The biggest drawback that is cited pertains to the implementation of universal healthcare – long waits to get care, waitlists to get specialized medical treatments. (Canadians claim having to wait a month to see a specialist.)
  • The other big issue is that the government would be in charge. Think of Medicare/Medicaid and Social Security where experts predict these programs running out of funds in the near future. How can we expect the bastion of bloated bureaucracy to manage this system efficiently? (A fair point, but one must note that Medicare/Medicaid’s overhead is one-tenth of that of private insurance. Also, the programs are also bearing the brunt of selective rejection by private insurance providers.)
  • Universal healthcare will eliminate competition in the marketplace. Competition breeds innovation and growth. That is the reason why pharmaceuticals is one of the fastest growing industries in the US. There is the possibility of holding back new breakthroughs since the government would want to share the breakthrough and thereby reducing profitability. (The government currently controls the US biomedical research funding and the world’s greatest scientists are competing for it.)
  • There could be a huge incremental tax burden levied on Americans to fund this system and this might reduce one’s take-home pay. (But keep in mind that currently, almost 60% of the healthcare system is funded by tax monies: Medicare, Medicaid, the VA, public employees’ coverage, elected officials, military, etc.)

Healthcare in the US and in other countries:

US healthcare is, broadly speaking, a private system with the following characteristics:

  • health insurance is voluntary
  • premiums are linked to risk, not income
  • quality and extent of care is largely determined by insurance providers rather than care-givers
  • private health insurance covers most of the medical costs
  • a large amount of (costly) legal activity related to the technicalities created by insurance providers
  • health insurance is typically linked to job which also makes the job market inefficient (one would not quit one’s job without finding another and in doing so, the performance deteriorates.)

This is unusual, to say the least. Most developed countries have some form of government policy which provides its citizens with basic healthcare. In UK, Canada and Spain, healthcare costs are paid for by the government. In Austria, Belgium, France, Germany and Netherlands, there is a form of social insurance in place: insurance is mandatory but premiums are tied to income (rather than risk) by law. One can consider this a form of taxation. In these countries, the percentage of the population without coverage is near-zero to zero. In the US, the world’s richest economy, it is shocking to note that about 15 percent of the population has no insurance coverage of any kind!

Expensive: The US healthcare costs a third more (per person) than its closest rival, Switzerland, and about twice what most European countries spend. Consider this, the Medicare/Medicaid program spends more per person than the British government does but the British government still manages to provide free healthcare for everyone. When you factor in the cost of healthcare to government employees and tax-breaks to private providers, the US government spending on healthcare per person is the highest in the world.

Administrative costs: The estimate for the administrative costs of the US healthcare system exceeds $1000 per person. This includes all the taxes, premiums and out-of-pocket expenses. In comparison, Canada spends around $307 per person and delivers much better health outcomes (in terms of life expectancy and “healthy life” expectancy – a statistic that compares a healthy long life to a long life plagued with disability).

Innovation: All is not bad about the US healthcare system, though. An open market system breeds innovation since profits are certain and plentiful for those introducing superior treatments/medicines. So far, the US has always been at the forefront of most innovations in healthcare.

Quality: True to its open-market nature, the quality of healthcare is generally in line with the cost. If one can afford to pay for it, one has the best care in the world available, top-notch and very effective. However, for those who cannot afford it, the quality of bare minimum care is suspect.

How much money are we talking about?

For most of my professional life, I have worked in Finance and have dealt with numbers and profitability and such. So when it came to this issue, I researched the financials a little bit from public sources and the numbers I uncovered are staggering. To get an order of magnitude, I looked up the 5 largest (publicly listed) health insurance companies and their basic financial performance over a 5 year span. On an average, these 5 companies generate revenues of about $160 billion per year!


Let’s assume that out of the 250 million Americans that are insured, about 50 million are covered by Medicare/Medicaid. Also assume that the top 5 companies cover about 80% of the balance. This means that the top 5 companies are covering about 160 million individuals. Each one of these individuals are paying $1000 per year to the insurance companies before they pay their share of the medical and drug costs later on. A household of four pays $4000 each year to the insurance companies.

The insurance companies also take $12 billion each year out of the system as profit. This does not go back into research or such; this is pure profit that belongs to the owners and investors. Here is my argument for universal healthcare managed by the government. If it is inefficient to the extent of about 10-12 billion dollars a year then universal healthcare is not any more expensive than the current private system. I am not even considering any savings in overhead, bonuses and reduced entertainment expenses (dinners, promotions, courting business partners, etc.).

This is a very rough and rudimentary analysis but you may start thinking about some of the questions that have popped up in your mind now.

The bottom-line (for me, at least) is this: I don’t think that universal healthcare is the best solution but I do like having continuous coverage and uniform healthcare for the rest of my life. I hope that we will not be taxed a flat rate on income, but rather a fixed percentage up to a certain income level and then it cuts off after that. I think that could be acceptable to most.

To the handful of you who read this, what I think is not important. But it is important that you inform/educate yourself and form your own opinion on this matter. And, by the way, you better have an opinion because any form of change will affect you.

Sources: Among others, I have gathered information from the following: U.S. Department of Health & Human Services; The Undercover Economist by Tim Harford;;; (National Coalition on Health Care).

Wednesday, July 29, 2009



Director: MARC WEBB




Run Time: 95 min.


“You should know up front this is not a love story.”

- Narrator (beginning scene)

Nonetheless, this is still a story about love, falling in and out. This remarkably funny and delightful movie serves almost as a video journal of one young man’s love affair with what he perceives to be “the one”. Wonderfully acted, beautifully filmed and very smartly written, this is certainly one of the more rewarding features this summer.

Tom Hansen (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a would-be architect turned sappy greeting card writer who still believes in once-in-a-lifetime kind of magical, destined love. Summer Finn (Zooey Deschanel), the fresh off the plane from Michigan new secretary of Tom’s boss, does not share this belief but they have plenty in common to hit it off right away. After all, they both love The Smiths. That is Day 1. Since the movie does not unfold in sequence, you have already seen Day 488 (or such) before you visit Day 1. The movie winds backward and forward in between the 500 days observing the events mostly from Tom’s perspective. Some may find this slightly distracting but consider this, who can remember the past (especially relationships) in sequence? I tend to hop in between the good moments and the painful ones, starting from what I remember most.

The story covers the entire span of emotions for Tom from the gentle tugs of the first meeting to the swelling tides of initial reciprocations of affection, to riding the wave of everlasting endearment, to toppling from that wave at the first crack in the relationship, to the rip-tide that pulls him under as the relationship appears to be beyond salvage. While we see the events unfold from Tom’s perspective, the movie remains honest in portraying the characters in a balanced view. Tom, while sappy, is a bright young man who can be charming and witty. Summer is a beautiful, confident, smart and independent woman of today who is always scrupulously honest with him. She is sincere in her affections and does not want to see anyone else but does not want to ever marry.

Zooey plays her part perfectly and makes us wish there are more like Summer around. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who has earned a lot of credibility since Brick, succeeds in presenting Tom as a very likeable, hopeful romantic that we want to root for. Tom is in love with Summer from the moment he lays eyes on her; in fact, he is in love with the idea of Summer. Since we see Summer from Tom’s eyes, she remains a bit of an enigma for a good portion of the film. But being in love, I suppose Tom remembers her as he wants to remember her. It takes an insightful nudge from his pre-teen sister for Tom to really start seeing Summer as she is. It is interesting to see Tom observe the very same things that he found terribly endearing at one point and find them annoying. I suppose we have all been there.

Director Marc Webber, making his feature debut, references several sources: a little Bergman, a little Fellini, some black and white, some animation, The Graduate as well as his previous expertise in music videos. But this is not a criticism: it takes a special art form to combine all these different influences and concoct a marvelous, pleasing mix. An added feather in his cap is the fact that he has presented the city of Los Angeles in such a different and endearing manner that it will serve as a reference for future films set in L.A. The architectural tour that Tom gives Summer gives us a whole new perspective on downtown L.A.

The biggest thing going for this film is its script, written in a semi-autobiographical tone by Neustadter and Weber. Neustadter is from Margate, NJ and now resides in L.A. According to the website’s biography, he loves sad British pop and the movie, The Graduate. Not surprising, after seeing the movie. The duo is rightly named on Variety’s list of “10 Writers to Watch”.

Download this: Us by Regina Spektor, There is a light that never goes out by The Smiths, She’s got you high by Mumm-Ra, Sweet Disposition by The Temper Trap… oh heck! just download the entire soundtrack.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009







Run Time: 97 min.


Why do I like this sci-fi movie so much? It does not have a particularly mind-boggling story or have over-the-top visual effects or a totally fantastic view of a future time. Perhaps that is the precise reason why I like this little indie flick (shot in 33 days with a budget of $5M). It remains faithful to the classic science fiction genre, where the focus is on thought-provoking fiction usually set in a future environment rather than mind-numbing explosions and ray-guns. Not that there aren’t any special effects; in fact, the visual rendition of the moon station and lunar rover trips are truly impressive.

The movie begins with astronaut Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) nearing the completion of his 3-year contract with Lunar Industries to mine on the far side of the moon for Helium-3. Set in the near future, Earth has solved its energy and climate crisis by using Helium-3 as their primary source of clean energy. Sam is on a base set up on the moon and is the sole employee responsible for mining. He is further isolated by a broken satellite which has restricted live communications with Earth. Taped messages are all that can be exchanged at present and Sam is eager to reunite with his wife Tess and 3-year old daughter, Eve. His only companion on the desolate station is a super-computer “GERTY” (perfectly voiced by a dead-pan Kevin Spacey).

Suddenly his health starts to deteriorate and leads to a near-fatal accident on a routine drive in a lunar rover. Sam wakes up back at the base in the infirmary with no recollection of how he got there. He senses a presence on the station which looks eerily similar. With Gerty providing evasive answers, Sam is fighting the clock to find out the truth before the company “support crew” arrives.

The director is obviously influenced by several gems of the Sci-fi genre and pays homage to “2001: A Space Odyssey”, “Solaris” and “Blade Runner”. Gerty certainly, and almost immediately, brings to mind another super-computer HAL (from 2001: A Space Odyssey) and sets an ominous tone for things to come. Kevin Spacey’s intentionally flat unemotional tone is clearly based on voice of HAL and serves beautifully in setting up the tone for events to come.

This movie could not hold its own without the solid portrayal of Sam Bell by Sam Rockwell. It is an enormously difficult task to play a solitary character on the screen (Rockwell hardly has anyone else on the screen to play off of) and yet engage the audience enough to gain credibility, sympathy and ultimately, getting them to root for you. Sam Rockwell does a remarkable job in achieving this. The special effects are not overshadowing but very effective. I like how the space-suits and vehicles are not brand spanking new but carry the blemishes of regular wear and tear. The station where Sam lives is futuristic but purely functional, with no super-sleek designs or excessive gadgetry around. After all, Sam is just a blue-collar worker who happens to be on the other side of the moon.

A little side note: while he has earned his due credit entirely on his own, trivia fans might enjoy knowing that director Duncan Jones is the son of a rather famous father, David, who goes by the last name Bowie. I might point out that nowhere in the press kit will you find this reference. Duncan Jones’ debut is promising enough to suggest that he can leave his mark on film-making with similar efforts down the road.

Sunday, July 5, 2009



Director: Sam Mendes

Cast: John Krasinski, Maya Rudolph,Jeff Daniels, Catherine O'Hara, Allison Janney, Jim Gaffigan

Screenplay: Dave Eggers & Vendela Vida

Music: Alexi Murdoch

Run Time: 97 min.


A strange but wonderful trip in search of a place to call home. A perfectly enjoyable ride with a feel-good touch.

Burt and Verona are the kind of couple that we would like to know. They are both in their 30s, interesting, quirky and are gainfully employed; he sells insurance to insurance companies while she is an illustrator for medical publications. They are expecting their first child in 3 months and have just discovered that Burt’s self-absorbed parents have decided to move to Antwerp for 3 years. The only reason they have been living in Colorado is to be close to the grandparents-to-be when the baby arrives. And thus begins an unchartered trip in the search of a place (and a lifestyle) to call home.

Their journey takes them from Colorado to Phoenix, AZ to Madison, WI to Montreal (Canada) to Miami, FL. Along the way we meet some colorful characters as we observe Burt and Verona’s perceptions about their friends and happiness. It begins with Verona’s friend Lily (Allison Janney in a deliciously shocking performance) whose politically incorrect language is an embarrassment to her children but has no effect on her alcoholic husband. We spend a brief tender moment with Verona’s sister before they jet off to Wisconsin to meet Burt’s “cousin” Ellen (Maggie Gyllenhall in a terrific supporting role) who now goes by “LN” and has taken up a free-spirit, post-feminist lifestyle with her husband. Things are not looking too good so far…

The next stop is Montreal which seems more promising as they meet their friends whose seemingly perfect life offers hope till they bare their wounds. A family tragedy then summons the couple to Miami where Burt’s brother needs their help. Amidst this crisis, Burt and Verona see the simple but elegant solution to their dilemma and head on to what will be their home.

Both Krasinski and Rudolph have achieved a remarkable breakthrough as they make Burt and Verona not only believable but very likeable and individuals that most people can relate to. They both have their TV images that precede them, him as Jim from The Office and her as the comedienne from Saturday Night Live. In Burt and Verona, director Sam Mendes has found an almost perfect spousal relationship in an unmarried couple after introducing us to various dysfunctional, misanthropic marriages in his previous works (American Beauty and Revolutionary Road). Mendes continues to prove himself extremely capable with scripts dealing with the human condition. The soundtrack is excellent showcasing Alexi Murdoch along with some gems from The Velvet Underground and Bob Dylan.

The script is written by Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida, who are novelists and essayists and a real-life couple with kids. I enjoyed Eggers’ “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius” (recommended reading) and can see his touch in this script. All in all, this is definitely a ride worth taking, especially for the company you will keep during the two hours.

Download this: Wait by Alexi Murdoch

Worth noting: This movie is one of the first films to adopt green film-making initiatives during production. Efforts to decrease CO2 emissions include recycling bins on locations, use of washable cutlery and crockery instead of disposables as well as vehicles with biodiesel fuel. Even the credits in the movie use the environment-friendly format popularized by and adopted by this blog (white letters on black).

Tuesday, June 9, 2009




Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream by A. Duany, E. Plater-Zyberk, and J. Speck

Consider this – why do so many people (a disproportionately large number of suburbanites) go to Disney World?  Is it for the rides?  According to one Disney architect, the average visitor spends only 3 percent of his time on rides or at shows.  The remaining time is spent enjoying the precise commodity that people so sorely lack in their suburban hometowns: pleasant, pedestrian-friendly, public space and the sociability it engenders. (page 63)

This fascinating and hugely informative book explains the phenomenon of suburban sprawl and the consequences that arise from it.  For a subject that is generally perceived as dull and boring, the authors have presented a deeply engaging and a surprisingly easy read.  There are numerous photographs throughout the book that illustrate the different types of development.  In addition, the authors have scattered intriguing factoids throughout the book such as:

  • The average American household takes 13 car trips a day.
  • Traffic gets worse – not better – when roads are widened.
  • One purpose of parallel parked cars in cities is to create a protective barrier for pedestrians.
  • Inner city residents subsidize utility costs for suburban dwellers as they pay the same price for fewer pipelines.

Mainly, the book focuses on the two different types of urban growth: the traditional neighborhood and the suburban sprawl.  The traditional neighborhood is an organic development represented by radial pockets (neighborhoods) of mixed use, pedestrian friendly communities of diverse population. It would stand free as a village and then grouped into towns and cities.  It remains the most prevalent form of habitation outside of the US.  Suburban sprawl , which is now the standard North American pattern of growth, is an idealized artificial system that has isolated pods dedicated to single use such as office parks, shopping malls and residential clusters.  While it is an outgrowth of modern problem solving: a system for living, it is not sustainable and is not healthy growth. Even at relatively low population densities, sprawl tends not to pay for itself financially and consumes land at an alarming rate, while producing insurmountable traffic problems and exacerbating social inequity and isolation.

For me personally, the book has served as an articulation of my preference of city living over living in the suburbs.  I enjoy the little living space we have in center city Philadelphia with an almost non-existent yard.  My 18 month-old son plays with his friends in the playgrounds that are within a few minutes of us and I do not have the need for a lawn mower.  We avail of the multitude of restaurants around us and often walk back from the local market with groceries.  Now that I no longer work in the city, I use my car to commute to work (against traffic) while my better half has logged about 5k miles in the last 3 years.

There is an interesting observation in this book about alienation as a result of the new development model.  Take a look at the older schools, convenience stores or general stores and now compare them to their recent counterparts.  Most of the older structures were designed so that you could walk up to them and conduct your business.  Almost all the recent structures are islands insulated by parking areas that are twice the built-up area.  One HAS to drive up to these in order to conduct any business and a pedestrian would have to risk venturing through the maze of cars in order to access the business.  (I am a little biased here since the only accident in which I have been injured has been in a parking lot as I was walking to my car.)  It’s almost as if there is a deliberate attempt to cut off all spontaneous interaction and turn incidental shopping into a planned mission.

A few years ago, my job was transferred to Boca Raton, FL and I was asked to consider moving there.  I was provided with an apartment for a 6 month period in one of the developments there.  There was a strip mall with some coffee shops and other stores across the street on which the development was located.  We discovered that in order to cross the 6 lanes of traffic and get to the mall (which was about 150 yards or less away), we needed to get in the car and drive because there was no sidewalk and no crosswalk for pedestrian traffic!  Interestingly, even if you crossed the street to the mall, the distance to the closest store through the parking lot was another 100 yards or so.  Eventually, we didn’t move to FL and I sought another job.

The book expertly analyzes the cause for our current circumstance and offers solutions towards a sustainable authentic urban development which fosters a much-coveted sense of community that old towns offered.  While a portion of the solution lies with policy changes at the government level (e.g..  relaxing single use zoning so that you can have coffee shops and grocery stores among housing developments), there are changes recommended at the regional, local and individual level. 

The biggest contribution that you can make is to inform yourself about the concepts laid out in this book and perhaps, just perhaps, it will change your outlook.  That, in itself, is a wonderful beginning.

The cities will be part of the country; I shall live 30 miles from my office in one direction, under a pine tree; my secretary will live 30 miles away from it too, in the other direction, under another pine tree. We shall both have our own car.

We shall use up tires, wear out road surfaces and gears, consume oil and gasoline.  All of which will necessitate a great deal of work… enough for all.

  - Le Corbusier, The Radiant City (1967)

Tuesday, May 5, 2009


As we complete a 3-week trip to the banyan city, I felt it would be worthwhile listing some of the things that stand out. Obviously the overall trip will always be fondly remembered since one gets to visit with family and loved ones. As these visits get fewer over the years, these memories are cherished more. But, in particular, I have focused on the changes I have seen in the eateries and development over the years. My perception was somewhat tempered by the ungodly temperatures we encountered in the burning April of 2009. (Sorry if this note is a little heavy-handed towards the end.)


To put it mildly, Baroda has seen a LOT of development and construction activity is rampant. Lots of malls have cropped up, as well as several restaurants. For me, some of the existing restaurants were new as I had not visited them in the years past. Most of the rickshaws have switched over to CNG (natural gas) from petrol and is a good sign.

Centre Square is one mall that has opened on Sarabhai road, next to the old Sarabhai Chemicals plant. It is a very nice facility with central air (a welcome respite on several hot days) and wonderfully clean public restrooms (yes, toilet paper available as well!). Some nice stores to keep you occupied including a very modern looking restaurant called Mantra on the top floor. There’s a Papa John’s pizza joint at the ground level. Across from Centre Square is another mall called Vadodara Central next to a super-store chain called Spencer’s. Both are quite nice.

Also a new Wal-Mart type store called More Mega Store has opened in Lal Baug and is a good one stop shop for daily needs, and then some. We also found a grocery shop called Mahalaxmi in Alkapuri that caters to NRI needs including baby food, cereal and pancake mixes. Worked out well for Meru.

Crosswords still remains the leading bookstore in town, we always find a few things to pick up there.

Eateries that are new in the last 3 years (or at least were new to me) as well as some of the old reliables:
· Copper Chimney – the chain from Bombay has opened a franchise in Baroda and is well worth a visit.
· Moti Mahal – another chain that has opened a branch in Baroda, excellent Butter Chicken.
· Peshawri (in Welcomgroup) – pretty much a replica of Bukhara in Delhi serving northwestern cuisine: tandoor cooking, no cutlery. Excellent food!
· Sankalp and Woodland – get your South Indian Idli-Dosa fix. Woodland also has good chaat.
· Daawat – a surprise discovery with very tasty vegetarian food.
· The Chocolate Room – just opened while we were there. The name says it all!
· Varietea – another coffee shop that opened during our visit. Very good.
· Chung Faa – best Indian Chinese in Baroda for over two decades.
· Lazeez – authentic mughlai food; biryani to die for.
· Frigtemp – the original fast food joint in Baroda, 30+ years old.
· San’s Sizzlers – just try it
I am sure I am missing quite a few places that we didn’t get to try out.


Overall, the costs have been rising and you will notice that the deals are getting less attractive. I suspect, in a few years, deals might be few and far between. But such is life, I suppose.

Traffic continues to grow at a reckless pace and construction leads to even more congested (I didn’t think it was possible) streets.

One restaurant that we looked forward to visiting, Melange in Alkapuri, has sadly closed and in its place, a new “Italian” chain has opened a branch, Little Italy. Good ambience but deserves a pass. Not so good Italian food and only vegetarian, I don’t think so.

Another restaurant (that should have closed but didn’t) that we gave a second try on this trip, Machhu Pichhu, disappointed us yet again and when we polled our friends, there was consensus on this verdict. It’s a shame since the ambience is quite nice.

Customer service can be spotty. Restaurants are excellent in general but in other stores it varies. For example, we spent a good amount of money at Optical Palace on several pairs of glasses. When two pairs (lower priced ones of the lot) didn’t have the right lenses and caused severe discomfort, they gave us the runaround instead of trying to retain a long time customer for future business. Trying to get some shirts exchanged (wrong sizes) was difficult at first, even though the incorrect sizes were provided by them!


There are two issues that I feel I must point out here and unfortunately my note will have to adopt a sadder tone. While everything listed above is mostly “fun and games”, this section is more serious and fairly alarming.

Civic sense: Actually, a lack thereof is what I am referring to. It has always amazed me how a society can just keep moving forward with an absolute disregard towards any sense of order and discipline. Allow me to explain. I have been visiting India roughly every other year since 1999. On EACH of my visits, I have had someone drive (in the opposite direction) towards my car, almost hit me and then question me why I am not paying attention to them! This does not happen once every visit but several times. I might point out that I am following the traffic rules and am driving in my lane. I cannot count the number of times I have seen people driving in the opposite direction; no, I am not referring to the shoulder side of the road but by the median!

A prime example is from this visit. We were returning from the More mega store and I followed the directions posted that took me to a one-way road and a railroad crossing. As I am crossing the railroad tracks, a car comes in the wrong direction and tries to squeeze past me. I roll down my window and say to him, “Excuse me! This is a one-way street and you are in the opposite direction.” He looks me right in the eye and says, not unkindly, “In India there is no such thing as one-way!”

I have seen this at every level: people cutting in line at grocery stores and elsewhere, running red lights, in public transport and even at the boarding gate for Lufthansa in Mumbai airport! By the time the gate agent announces that families with children can board first, there is a massive rush towards the gate and the agents helplessly let them in since everyone refuses to listen to the instructions. Ironically, this same lot behaves quite differently at the connecting flight in Frankfurt.

This is a mindset that has prevailed in the Indian society since... forever, it seems. At any traffic junction, you will find a deluge of vehicles inching forward slowly as the police personnel try in vain to keep the traffic flowing in sequence. There is no respect for the laws or for that matter, the police. As a result, there is utter chaos on the streets and driving is a very stressful and somewhat dangerous task here. There are near-misses at every corner. Nicks and dents are very common occurrences.

I think that this will be the single largest impediment to growth in coming years. As the growth rate stabilizes, the inefficiencies in the system will become more evident. The time and resource it takes to move goods/services from Point A to Point B is unbelievable. I am told that Indians will change and adapt but I find it very hard to believe that one fine day, everyone will start maintaining order. This is a mindset that is deeply ingrained and is not likely to change anytime soon.

Poverty: Last, but certainly not the least, is the issue of widespread disparity between the haves and the have-nots. Over the past decade, I have noted with pride the progress I have seen during each trip. Stores improve, the buildings improve, newer vehicles start showing up, etc. But sadly, the one that has not changed (in fact, it may have increased a little) is the number of beggars on each block.. Over the past decade, each time I visit India, I see large numbers of children (and adults) begging for the basic necessities – food, clothing and shelter.

While it is hard each time, this trip it was even more so because we now have Meru, our 16 month old son, with us and many of the children begging are close to his age. It just breaks my heart to see them and not do enough for them. After all, it is just plain dumb luck that Meru was born in a well-to-do household and is in more comfortable surroundings than these kids. On several occasions this trip, my wife broke into tears upon seeing this little kids that have been hardened beyond their years by their circumstances.

We try to help in whatever little way we can but it is temporary and doesn’t make a lasting difference. I do not have an answer for this problem but I feel that this issue needs to be a priority for a government that is overseeing such a steady growth in its economy. After all, certain basic amenities viz. food and education must be provided to these children for them to avail any opportunities in life. We came across a couple of charities that are addressing this issue but they are limited in number and their resources are strained.

What is more concerning is the attitude of the rest of the society towards the poor. The constant exposure to this poverty has almost made them immune and insensitive towards the plight. One can only hope that, at some point of time, this issue stops getting ignored and there can be some light at the end of the tunnel.