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Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell: Book Review

January 25, 2009 1 comment

I’m not a big Malcolm Gladwell fan but after I saw everybody and their Mom reading Outliers, I picked it up at the Borders on 4th and King in San Francisco. Here’s the two word review: Read It. 

But in more detail:

Outliers describes, not with a lot of hard data and scientific rigor but instead with several anecdotes, analogies and light discussion of existing research why some people are outrageously successful (the so-called outliers) while most of humanity is not. I figured that the book would be a detailed discussion surrounding the circumstances behind the rise of Gates, Joy, the Google guys (who aren’t mentioned at all) and other people *I* consider to be outliers. However, the book describes things as myriad as the Asian excellence in Math versus American children of similar status, why Korean Air crashed more planes until 1999, why the culture of honor makes Southerners more angry than people from the American NorthEast, etc. 

The higher-level thesis – that success isn’t a deterministic event but a combination of hard work, pluck, lucky breaks, cultural legacies and random circumstances – is argued mostly convincingly in a breezy fun-to-read fashion. Now, a lot of this is OBVIOUS. No one gets there alone and my Mom taught me that when I was six years old. Most Indian people inherently recognize the value of familial bonds and the role of the community in the success of individuals. When I reflect upon my meager successes, I can easily trace back all the folks that helped me along the way as I journeyed from a small sleepy town in India to dazzling San Francisco over a decade’s worth of breathing time. The pivotal moment in my life occurred when my Dad – a parent as loving as any other but not necessarily the most hands-on guy in the world – decided that I’d pursue my undergraduate studies in the United States, financial burden to our family be damned. 

It was a sore topic for my mother, who acquiesced grudgingly and just let me take my SATs. My father gave me the gift of opportunity and the rest, as they say, is history. 

So the book, if nothing else, will serve as a nice reminder of where you’ve come from and how the rugged individualism we so cherish in the US is so much bullshit, at least when viewed in black and white terms. Some of the parts of the book – for example, the fact that the Chinese farming culture of rice paddies is inextricably tied to their excellence in math – sound and probably are hooey. Gladwell blames the American summer vacation and the lack thereof in China for superior Math skills. Well, guess what, fella? Us Indos are probably right up there in terms of math skill and I remember my lazy ass sitting around for 3 months every year. And I was doing advanced trig well before tenth grade came around. Gladwell, of course, presents no counterpoints, which is why I have to ignore the whole math chapter. 

Even if you doubt the analysis, there’s a lot of fun trivia and historical context which you’ll enjoy. So once again: read it.

Categories: life

Stay tuned for my post on Rio

January 14, 2009 1 comment
Corcovado, Rio de JaneiroImage by svenwerk via Flickr
Image by svenwerk via Flickr

I’ve gotten a couple of stray requests about writing up our juvenile hijinks in Rio – please stay tuned! I’m absolutely going to be working on it and will have it to you shortly. In other news, I’m considering buying a Dahon bike but have 2-3 coworkers trying to persuade me otherwise.

Categories: life

My time in Sao Paulo, Brazil

January 12, 2009 8 comments

This is a personal account of my time spent in Sao Paulo, Brazil. I’d been saving it for a Brazil travelogue that I of course want to write and publish for a small amount of money; but then I realized that my writing skills are subpar, my work takes up a lot of time and in general I’m too ADD-riddled to write anything long form. So here you are:

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We almost didn’t make it. Sitting in Los Angeles airport at the American Airlines “rebooking” counter at 1am on December 22nd, I wondered aloud how our magical trip had gotten fucked so quickly out of the gate. We’d missed our connection from LA to San Juan (yes, I’m well aware that that’s actually in Puerto Rico but it was a leg of our trip on the way to Brazil) and were trying to make sense of our impending nightmare.

As a longshot, we asked the nice feisty black lady with the extra-long pink fingernails and ginormous Starbucks cup if we could simply skip our San Juan leg and fly straight to Sao Paulo. Coz, you know, when you pay 2000 dollars for a ticket, you want to visit *fewer* places than originally intended. She agreed, but this is what our flights looked like:

San Francisco –> Los Angeles (overnight layover) + Los Angeles –> San Diego + San Diego –> Dallas + Dallas –> Sao Paulo.

Foto Noturna Edificio Tim - São Paulo - Brasil
Image by Julio Mejías via Flickr

Without going into the particulars, let’s just suffice it to say that 35+ hours spent in airports, airplanes and motels is a royal pain in the ass. So we get off in Sao Paulo on December 23rd at 1pm and walked into an industrial-looking, busy airport. The first thing that strikes you when you walk around normal Brazilians is their (by alternate turns) funny and sexy Portuguese – just ask a Brazilian woman to pronounce “Rio de Janeiro” and you’ll find it incredibly sexy. Then ask her to go off on a random rant and you’ll want to jump off a bridge.

We walk out of the airport into the sweltering heat – its summer, bitches! I notice that even a concrete second world jungle like Sao Paulo is incredibly green; if you’ve ever stepped into the shithole environs around Bombay International airport, you’ll find Sao Paulo a welcome relief. After a few minutes of trying to find the airport shuttle, we’re approached by a cabbie who senses dumb fuck Americans ambling about and wants to close in before the other vultures get a fair crack. Since the cab cost is 90 reais and the same we’d pay for the airport shuttle, we relent and pile our shit into the Peugeot. I ride shotgun with my cheapo Exilim pointed out the window.

It’s only been about two minutes in the car until Edouardo Souza yells out “Pirikeeeeta”, a Portuguese word that we’re unfamiliar with. When we display our stupidity, he lets go of the steering wheel for five terrifying seconds and gesticulates that he’s referring to, ahem, female anatomical parts. A nervous laugh issues from the back of the car as P and V grasp the particulars of the situation. I mean, we’ve all been to Vegas and what not but we’re just getting used to the idea of lewd behavior from a cabbie we don’t quite understand.

Edouardo takes the laugh as a sign of approval and explains to us in broken English that “pirikeeeeta” is faaar more important to him than water and air. My nerdy Stanford friend in the back isn’t horrified but mildly asks the motorista if he is married, what with the cheesy wedding band prominently displayed on a meaty digit. “Sim, Sim”, he asserts (yes, yes). He then stares at the woman in the next car over and compliments her “melancia” (melons). I’m not uncomfortable yet but am slowly getting there.

Sensing that this vein of jokes while delightful has played itself out, Edouardo asks us where we’re from. I proffer “San Francisco” and he tries to assess whether I’m straight or gay (a frequent occurrence in Brazil) simply because I live 2 miles from the Castro district. His pea-sized brain suddenly tired of this line of inquiry, he brightly exclaims:

“MADONNA!”

Madonna on the festival in Coachella in 2006
Image via Wikipedia

And now in a quasi-Italian singsong manner: “Madonna the best! The best!”

Not wanting to burst the man’s bubble by discussing the finer nuances of shitty American pop, we murmur a gentle assent. He then quizzically throws out the words “New Jersey” to see what reaction we have. Since I don’t know how to say “Armpit of America” in Portuguese, I simply repeat after him, “Yes, yes, New Jersey!”.

Greatly encouraged by my unalloyed willingness to just roll over, Edourdo now loudly yells “Bon Jovi! Bon Jovi the best!”

This may have been the point when I simply tuned out and rode in silence until we got to Avenida Paulista and our hotel – Maksoud Plaza. As we pulled up, Edouardo Souza’s inner Italian proclaimed – “Frank Sinatra, Madonna, Bon Jovi, Maksoud Plaza, the best!”

I should have known better than to take his word for it.

I wasn’t alive during the seventies, but in 1979 Maksoud Plaza was possibly an interesting hotel to spend a night. Now its just a way to remind yourself how depressing the 70s must have been. The inside of the hotel is a garish, screaming collision of every color known to mankind. There’s a buffet/cafe/bakery that sits off to one side in the lobby. It is buffeted by a small pool which for some reason sits in front of a giant LCD screen playing Brazilian soaps. For good measure, the hotel staff threw in a horrendously colorful Christmas tree with creepy ornaments on one side.

As if making a silent excuse for its obvious lack of good taste, a scale model of the Maksoud Plaza sits towards the center of the expansive lobby. The slowly yellowing label reads “Maksoud Plaza, 1979” so we can be assured that this particular eyesore was built by another generation of Brazilians.

My friend V asks the concierge about a good “churrascaria“. With the knowing look of someone about to score a commission, she busts out a flyer for “Vente Harregano”, which we are informed is “the best!”. I am really getting sick of Brazilians’ callous use of superlatives at this point, but I relent when she mentions that the restaurant sends a van to the hotel to pick up guests.

Nice! I’m thinking of a classy evening spent in style as the restaurant sends over a masculine town car. We can smoke cigars after dinner and go to The Skye Bar for a beautiful rooftop view of town, I think to myself.

Count me dismayed, then, when at 830pm I step outside to see a large airport shuttle-like van, painted in a particularly nasty gold color with a giant “Vente Harregano” logo on the sides. The meat van has arrived to pick up the fat Americans. I’m just glad I didn’t have a big fucking camera slung around my neck – I’d be forever destined to tourist hell.

So we pile in like the good sports we are and arrive at Vente Harregano.

A churrascaria – if you’ve never been to one – is explicitly designed to make vegetarians throw up out of disgust and serious carnivores salivate out of visceral anticipation. You make a great pretense of munching on the salad bar’s offerings and then graduate onto the meat, which is brought around on skewers by waiters who are more persuasive than insurance agents. Hell, the table you sit on usually has a diagram of a cow with all the different parts marked on it – rumpsteak being the one that inspires the most jokes. Personally, I had a quiet Crayola moment and wished I could paint the cow’s ass in brown and its shoulders bright purple.

Two hours and several caipirinhas later, we’re stuffed to the gills and completely hammered. I start making noises about Skye Bar in the posh Unique hotel and how we’re really too drunk to hail a cab. Praz quips like the hustler he thinks he is, “Why not just take the van?”

And so it came to pass that at 1130pm, as fashionable Paulistas stand in line outside the elevator that took them to the Skye Bar at the Unique Hotel, three drunk gringos pull up in a giant Vente Harregano meat van. The moment is soured further by the fact that the driver of the van puts out a two step red staircase to allow the gringos to get out of the van. Simply hopping out would be slightly masculine, so we pass in favor of stepping out daintily like a bunch of parlor ladies.

Praz, in his drunken exuberance yells, “Well, this looks badass!!”, drawing looks of extreme disgust from the Paulistas ahead of us in line.

A few minutes later, we we’re ushered into the Skye Bar.

Alisson at Skye Bar
Image by heather via Flickr

The Skye is a beautiful space packed with gorgeous Brazilians. The open air roof is filled with cool, dark corners exclusively reserved for makeout action and manly umbrellas with stylish red lighting. Since it’s our first night out, we’re a bit shy about approaching strangers and are content to make the following observations about Brazilian nightlife:

  • Brazen making out is highly encouraged and nothing to bat eyebrows about. Americans look prudish in comparison.
  • Brazilians smoke a hell of a lot more than their American counterparts and nobody gives a rat’s ass about secondhand smoke in bars.
  • As is well known about Latin America, the men can be aggressive and the women can be strangely receptive to aggression.

As the reader can tell by this neat bulleted list, the gringos are not the life of the party that night. But the vino does flow freely until 330am and we stumble into the hotel room at 4am. Part of me wants to bum rush the ugly Christmas tree and watch it totter and fall with a deafening crash.

We now recollect that we have a flight to catch at 6am and juvenile Praz insists on ordering room service while playing “I See Your Dirty Face” at the loudest possible decibel level.

Sigh.

The trip has only just begun and I’m already tired. On to Foz de Iguacu! That, however, will be the topic of a different post.

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My Brazil Itinerary

January 3, 2009 5 comments

Here is my Brazil itinerary. I am posting it because when we were planning our trip a lack of good, simple, one-weekish itineraries was hard to find. You can thank me later 🙂

Background: This itinerary is most suitable for those who have less than 10 days to spend in Brazil. Ideally, you should enjoy the club/bar scene inordinately more so than other cultural pursuits (museum visits, theatrical performances, etc.) to derive max value out of this list:

Day One, 1pm: Land in Sao Paulo Airport. 

Day One, 230pm: Check into Maksoud Plaza Hotel on Avenue Paulista in Sao Paulo. I honestly CANNOT recommend it unless you have a weird fondness for the 70s. 

Day One, 7pm: Dinner at Vente Harregano Churrascaria. The food is fantastic and costs 80 reais. We got carried away with the drinks and ended up dropping 75 dollars US (yikes!) on dinner each. The funniest thing is that the restaurant will send a van to your hotel to chauffeur you to dinner. So basically even though you drop 80 dollars, you can’t be a high roller whilst stepping out of a meat van with a giant logo on the side. LOL. 

Day One, 11pm: Headed to the Skye Bar at the Unique Hotel in Jardim Paulista. I picked it because it came highly recommended by the NYTimes Travel section. The Skye bar is FANTASTIC! The views of the city are pretty damn nice and the weather was wonderful. We ordered expensive-ish drinks (10 dollars US each). Our entry into the bar/hotel was less than suave, given that we got there by convincing the meat van to drop us off. Great story, though. 

Day Two, 7am: Fly to Foz de Iguacu, home of the wonderful Iguacu waterfalls. Waking up at 5am to catch the flight was a royal bitch, of course. 

Day Two, 9am: Get on a flight to Foz de Iguacu, home of the Iguacu waterfalls. 

Day Two, 1pm: Visit the falls and realize that there are very few (or nearly none, actually) American tourists at the falls. The 500 dollar plane ticket starts to not look like the smartest idea. 

Day Three, 10am: Get back on a flight to Rio

Day Three, 2pm: Check into Copacabana Premier hotel in Rio in the Copacabana district. The hotel concierges speak English which is a joy and a relief. 

Day Three: Realize that nobody is around on Christmas day. Spend the afternoon drinking caipirinhas. 

Day Four, 10am: Do a full day city tour of Rio. Visit Christo Redentor, the famous chapel and Pao de Acucar. 

Day Four, 11pm: Head to Club 00 in Leblon. Pay 20 dollars US as cover and remark once again that Brazil is NOT cheap at all. Not at all, even if you are used to San Francisco prices. 

Day Five, 6am: Return home from Club 00. A long night filled with booze and cigars and great hip hop top 40 shit courtesy of the DJ. 

Day Five, 11am: Pack up and get ready for a trip to Buzios. 

Day Five, 1pm: End up at Rio airport to rent a car since all other rental shops were sold out. The lack of planning is evident once again. 

Day Five, 2pm: Head out for Buzios. We don’t speak the language and have never driven in Rio, so this is a bit foolhardy to be kind. Hell, we don’t even have cellphones or a calling card. 

Day Five, 6pm: Get to Buzios after getting lost a couple of times courtesy of shitty GPS directions. 

Day Five, 7pm; Check into Bon Bini resort at Buzios, drink a coffee and head out for dinner. 

Day Five, 8pm: Walk in Rua das Pedras. This street is highly upscale and is bursting at the seams with extremely attractive Brazilian people. Think Santa Monica, I guess, for lack of a better comparison. 

Day Five 830pm: Walk into Patio Havana. Fantastic food, good mojitos and Cuban cigars to boot. The bill is 400 reais at the end of the night – fuck. 

Day Five 11pm: Bribe our way into Anexo Lounge. 

Day Five 1am: Be a little bit miffed that even kids our age who went to private schools speak zero English. What the fuck? Some of these guys claimed to have flown in from Brasilia on a chartered jet. 

Day Five, 4am: Head back to the hotel.

Day Six, noon: Head to Geriba Beach. Fantastic beach, very clean, lots of attractive people and the weather was nice.

Day Six, 3pm: Leave for Rio. Back in Rio by 530pm this time given the lack of mishaps.

Day Six: 6pm: Check back into Copacabana Premier.

Day Six: Roll into Mud Bug, a local watering hole in Copa. Also try Shenanigans, a popular tourist bar (Irish, of course) and change our minds given that it was dead.

Day Seven: A day finally spent in Rio hanging out and just taking in the city. The weather is nice and the beach is packed. Head to the beach and visit Barra da Tijuca and Ipanema beaches. Make headway through the beach reads.

Day Seven evening: Watch a Bossa Nova show in Vinicius bar in Ipanema. Excellent music.

Day Eight: Try to take a chopper ride up to Christo Redentor. Fail miserably on account of logistical mishaps. Take a bus to the Christo train base and find that the place has turned into a COMPLETE TOURIST ZOO. We abandon the idea and cab it back to the hotel.

Day Eight, 10pm: Head to Baronnetti in Ipanema. The club is jumping but unfortunately plays techno which I’m not a big fan of. My fedora is a HUGE HIT, much to my pleasure.

Day Nine, 5am: Find a cab and head back to Copacabana. Eventful, fun night, nuff said.

Day Nine, 11am: Wake up, shower, pack a bit, head to the beach and hang on Copa beach for a few hours. Beers on the beach along with a bunch of other tourists.

Day Nine: 6pm: Pick up last set of Cuban cigars. My friend P haggles and we pay 40 reais a pop. Our most expensive acquisition but these are Cohibas after all.

Day Nine, 9pm: Start drinking at the hotel bar. 2 rounds of Caipivodkas get the night going.

Day Nine, 1030pm: Pick up 3 champagne bottles and head over to the beach. Copa is a ZOO at this point and everybody is dressed in white.

Day Nine, 11pm: We pop our champagne bottles and start drinking out of each, no glass. Ghetto but fun.

Day Nine, 1115pm: Run into a couple of American girls on the beach. They’re cool and we spend the rest of the night with them at the beach.

Day Ten, 330am: Happy new year! The place is still jumping but we’re dead tired. Head back to the hotel room.

Day Ten, 2pm: Get on a flight to Sao Paulo, followed by a flight to JFK, followed by a flight to SFO (don’t ask).

Day Eleven, 2pm (PST): Get home!!!

Categories: life Tags: ,

Back from Brazil

January 3, 2009 Leave a comment

I may have failed to mention this on my blog but I ran off to Brazil for 10 days or so. Just got back 30 minutes ago and am proudly proclaiming the fact that I’ve returned in one piece.

My liver, on the other hand, is 2 caipirinhas away from giving out. 

I’ll try to document my experiences as best as possible in these pages over the next few posts. Also, I’d like to state immediately that Cuban cigars are a solid way to ring in in the new year 🙂

Categories: life