Half Baked

There are no advertisements in the paper. No online banners or television commercials. News of the cooking class that is held on the second floor of the old walkup on the corner of Maple and Elm spreads only by word of mouth.

Even those who frequent the butcher’s on the ground floor have no knowledge of its existence, despite the fact that the staircase leading to the second floor is right by the glass case filled with pink and glistening chops.

Dozens of people are in and out of the shop everyday but none has ever wondered why there are stairs in the middle of a butcher’s shop. In fact, they never even glance at it, acting almost like it isn’t even there.

***

Clancy Collins, on that particular Tuesday morning, was in a foul mood. She had been woken by a phone call from her mother, who had casually mentioned that Mrs. Simmons hadn’t seen her at church the previous Sunday. What exactly had she been so busy doing that she couldn’t spare an hour for the Lord? Mrs. Collins had mused, her pseudo-subtlety grating on Clancy’s nerves.

Clancy loved Bascombe but, in a town of only a couple of hundred people, privacy had no meaning. She had never been particularly religious but her mother was a Believer, one of those who believed in a deity that was more personal assistant than god.

If you were going to insist on believing in something, why couldn’t you just believe in being as good a person as you could be? Clancy didn’t hold with cryptic messages in century old books – they left far too many things open to interpretation. People tended to take advantage of open-endedness; people like her mother who felt no guilt in tweaking the commandments to suit her needs and, it seemed, to drive Clancy out of her mind.

“Milk, eggs, chicken sausages,” Clancy muttered to herself as she slammed her front door and pounded down the stairs. “Maybe a steak for dinner?”

Pushing open the door to the butcher’s, Clancy cursed the tinkling bell that heralded her entry. She had immediately recognized the blue-tinged wisps and cloud of a decade old Chanel that meant Mrs. Simmons was around.

Perhaps if she edged very quietly…“You’re looking very well Clancy dear,” she heard from behind her. Bugger.

“Very chipper,” Mrs. Simmons continued. “When I didn’t see you at church I could only assume you were unwell but it seems you’re feeling just fine despite ignoring Our Lord.”

Clancy backed up slowly as Mrs. Simmon’s accusing finger advanced, stumbling as the wall behind her gave way to an opening. Mrs. Simmons was enjoying the sound of her own voice and as she bent to examine a rather fine rack of lamb, Clancy turned and bolted up the staircase. Funny, she had never noticed it before.

She’d apologize to George later, Clancy thought to herself as she climbed the stairs to what she could only assume were the butcher’s private quarters. Turning the corner on the landing however, brought her into an airy room. Clancy had entered from the back; in front of her were six wide counters, each equipped with a stovetop, a large two-handled pot, several jars and a large tray of utensils.

Standing behind each counter was a person. Or at least, what Clancy could only assume were people. The woman at the counter nearest to her had her long flaxen her pulled up in a bun to reveal strangely pointed ears. And was it imagination or did the elderly gentleman turning to talk to the man behind him have a pig’s snout for a nose?

At the front of the room, standing between an industrial sized oven and the largest charcoal burning clay oven she’d ever seen, was a man. He was sucking furiously on the limp cigarette dangling from his mouth, his long, rather matted hair curling beneath his ears.

Clancy was about to speak when he seemed to notice her and grinned. Momentarily floored by his gleaming white teeth, Clancy flushed; she’d never seen eyes that green.

“Fix your eyes on Jesus…the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross”. Clancy frowned as the odd thought flashed through her mind.

The man was still beaming at her. “Hallo, here for the class?” he asked.

“Er, no I don’t think so. I’m sorry to intrude, I was just trying to get away…”

“From Mrs. Simmons, yes.”

How on earth could he have known that? Clancy frowned.

“I’m Jesus,” he continued, pronouncing it ‘hey-seus’. “I teach this cooking class. Stay and create with us. If nothing else it’ll give you a way to kill the time until she leaves.”

Before Clancy could respond, he had turned to respond to a question about the excessive use of guilt and it’s advantages. Clancy couldn’t help herself; she wandered to the nearest empty counter and peered at the introductory sheet.

Welcome faithless comrade! We know it can be tough. Faith is a big, abstract word and sometimes, you just need something to hold on to. Everyone’s got a special recipe. Get started with the questions below to create the perfect blend for YOU!

1. Where do you stand on guilt and how would you like to fund it?
2. Would you like a belief in the universe as a huge, beneficent organism or something a bit more complex to really impress with?
3. Don’t be afraid to be different – how would you like Wednesday as a sacred day?

As Clancy watched, a lady with translucent skin at the counter next to hers poured the bubbling contents of her pot into a clear plexiglass box, and using a long-handled pizza peel placed it inside the clay oven.

“You can’t have a half-baked religion,” explained Jesus, who had noticed her staring. “Things get dangerous when people get something that’s not done cooking; they have this nasty habit of trying to finish it themselves.”

More Than Simple Philanthropy: 5 Reasons Impact Investing Is Not For You

Want to make money while helping the people around you? Well, who doesn’t? Funds that promise to put money to work for the good of society are growing fast and impact investing is the hot new buzzword to throw around.

Impact investing is a form of socially responsible investing, in which investments are made into companies, organizations, and funds with the intention to generate measurable social and environmental impact alongside a financial return.

According to Vineet Rai, Managing Director of social impact fund Aavishkaar, impact investing is one of the hardest areas to venture into. “Attitude is key,” says Mr. Rai, explaining that those focused either on making a profit or changing the world in a day would do well to stay away.

“Impact investing requires catalytic entrepreneurs who have the drive to challenge social dogmas,” says Mr. Rai. “In this field you’re focusing on creating jobs, introducing products or services in difficult areas and targeting low income people.

Those simply interested in philanthropy may find that impact investing requires more of an entrepreneurial drive than they imagined. According to Mr. Rai, large firms such as Unilever can make far more of a difference in terms of social betterment, simply because they work on a much larger scale than social impact organizations like Aavishkaar. However, corporate social responsibility (CSR) and impact investing have two very different end goals.

Larger firms may focus on helping artisan handicraft makers via CSR. Those working in impact investing would instead focus on helping those artisans become the owners of their business. In that sense then, says Mr. Rai, impact investing can be much harder than simply working a corporate job.

For example, in 2007 Aavishkaar invested 25 lakhs in Vaatsalya, which pioneered the idea of asset light hospitals, something no commercial investor was interested in at that time. Today, Vaatsalya has 15 hospitals and has raised $25 odd million. Similarly, Aavishkaar has also invested in Milk Mantra, the first investment in dairy in Orissa, and Mera Doctor which focuses on providing medical services to low income people in Uttar Pradesh.

Mr. Rai used to work in forestry until he realized he was looking to do more with his time.

“I had a degree in forestry so I was possibly the worst candidate for a venture capital position,” he explains. “I didn’t have any experience so I just started my own venture capital.” And considering he will have raised nearly $200 million by next year, impact investing seems to have suited Mr. Rai well.

In keeping with Mr. Rai’s advice then, here are five reasons not to go into impact investing.

1) You feel passionately about an idea:

We get it. You have been frothing at the mouth and feel a need to eliminate poverty, save women from being exploited and bring healthcare to all. Passion is good. It will help you muster up the courage to quit that well-paying job and get your friends, family and fools to invest in your idea.

But only passion is fleeting. Once the flames sputter do you have the gumption to fight all the familiar problems that entrepreneurs face? Hiring a team, raising follow-up funds, mundane paperwork and multiple initial ideas failing are common situations to find yourself in. If you lack entrepreneurial chops might as well go back to that comfy desk job right now.

2) Seeking a $357 million SKS Microfinance type IPO:

If you want to become a social entrepreneur because you want to make a pot of money, and are hoping for a big exit, you might want to think twice.

First of all, not all ideas make money: there are quite a few social enterprises that are not for profit, and the ones that are for profit aren’t always swimming in cash.

Remember that impact comes before investing and that profits, though vital for the survival of an organization, never come at the cost of impact.

3) Corporate life has left you jaded:

Ever hear of that corporate big shot who made millions and also attained peace of mind? Me neither. If all you are is frustrated, impact investing is probably not for you.

However, if you’ve given the corporate life a shot and put away a fair amount of savings, perhaps you’re ready for new, more meaningful challengees.

But keep in mind that becoming a social entrepreneur may not replace your need to substitute corporate drudgery with a challenging and meaningful second career. Most of your time will be spent trying to convince various stakeholders to invest, without corporate resources at your disposal.

4) You want to give back to society:

Founding a social enterprise is not the same giving to charity or volunteering your time. Unlike traditional entrepreneurship where it is easy to find a co-founder or two, social entrepreneurship is different. Most ideas are born in isolation, and unlike selling an e-commerce idea, finding a founder who will share the same vision is no mean feat.

Social entrepreneurs are a rare breed: most of them will give up family, friends, money: face ridicule, criticism, bankruptcy and still give up their dream. Unfortunately, an urge to give back to society is not all it takes to become a successful social entrepreneur.

5) You’re suffering from a mid-life crisis and now everything bores you:

Do not consider becoming a social entrepreneur if you haven’t done your due diligence. You might want to consider fixing the situation at work first before thinking of social entrepreneurship as a career. Or consider becoming an employee of a social enterprise before starting up on your own.

If you’ve read this far and still feel that impact investing is the right move for you, keep in mind that the social entrepreneurship eco-system in India is still in its nascent stages and there are two significant obstacles to be overcome.

First, to boost investments, entrepreneurs require strong support from s regulatory and financial perspective. In countries such as the United States, information about critical regulations is easily available. Comparatively, in India it is a very tough process for someone to enter this arena and make a significant difference.

Second, more is required on the research and development front. To drive research and development, the majority of the support in the form of funding, mentorship and ease of regulation needs to come from the government. Until this happens, investors cannot bear the risk to fund high-potential enterprises within this area.

Should Snapchat have rejected Facebook’s $3 bn offer?

As even the most transient users of social networks know, photographs are the fuel on which these networks run.

Snapchat is a mobile app service that allows users to send photos and videos to a controlled list of recipients. Users can set a time limit for how long recipients can view their Snaps – between 1 and 10 seconds – after which they will be hidden from the recipient’s device and deleted from the Snapchat server.

As pointed out in an excellent analysis from blogger Benedict Evans, Snapchat claims to process around 350 million photo uploads per day (as of September), the same rate reported for Facebook, which is probably why Mark Zuckerberg reportedly offered Snapchat founders Evan Spiegel and Bobby Murphy $3 billion for the service.

You’d think that a company that has no revenue and certainly no profit would jump at the offer. But Snapchat’s founders clearly think the service is worth far more, because they promptly refused the offer. And they may be right – if Snapchat has 350 million daily photo uploads today, imagine what it could have in three years.

What is $3 billion in market value today? Twitter’s recent IPO can help us to come up with revenue analogs that may help put the question into context. We can then estimate how much top line Snapchat will have to earn to grow into its valuation at its current levels.

We begin with Twitter.

Twitter

Twitter, in the trailing 12 months leading to its final private quarter, had a revenue of $534.5 million. Twitter filed to go public at $26 per share. Using a fully diluted share count of 705,098,594, Twitter valued itself at $18.3 billion. The company opened instead at $45.10, valuing the firm at $31.8 billion.

Comparing those figures to Twitter’s top line, the company valued itself at 34.2 times its trailing 12 month’s revenue. The market valued Twitter at $31.8 billion, instead, or 59.5 times its trailing revenue.

We can now turn to Snapchat, and see where it will have to be if and when it goes public.

Snapchat

Younger technology companies are less focused on revenue than more mature firms in the market category. Therefore, the following comparison may be a bit unfair. However, we are simply using this as a tentative basis of comparison, as Snapchat’s valuation implies that it will eventually earn big time revenues.

Given that investors are willing to value Snapchat in the 10-figure range, comparing its metrics in this way to Twitter isn’t too mean.

For instance, Facebook valued Snapchat at $3 billion. According to techcrunch, Twitter’s value-to-revenue ratio was 34.2. This implies that Snapchat’s revenue deficit is at $87.7 million.

What value is there in calculating revenue deficit? Essentially, it shows how much progress the company has to make to be worth a money-losing valuation.

Investors that are betting on Snapchat are making one of two assumptions. First, that someone will either be stupid enough or scared enough to buy Snapchat for a valuation multiple of at least two. Or, that Snapchat is a killer business, and that it will best and blow past the above revenue ranges.

Scoff at the Snapchat valuations that are being tossed around and you will be told that there are so many ways for Snapchat to monetize. But Snapchat deletes the information that it could use to target advertisements (or so they say).

So is Snapchat really worth these crazy high numbers? It’s hard to say. At the moment, it doesn’t really seem like it. Clearly, its founders value Snapchat’s unknown potential far more than the proffered $3 billion.

This sounds like a familiar situation. Way back when in 2006, Mark Zuckerbeg too thought his company was worth far more than the $1 billion that Yahoo had then offered him, and he was right. Snapchat may be going down the same success path but at a time when new top rated apps sprout up each day, Snapchat’s wait-and-see approach may be one they will regret.

Everything You Want to Know About the Lightest Tablet in the World

Apple just announced its latest offering, the iPad Air. And while the new tablet may not come in gold or have a fingerprint sensor, its superpower lies in its near negligible weight.

While Apple’s tablet got its annual upgrade last year, it was nothing compared to the near complete re-haul that is the iPad Air. The iPad is now super skinny, with a batch of significant improvements that’ll carry it through the next year. Here’s what you need to know.

Design
Design has always been Apple’s forte and this latest offering doesn’t fall short. At first glance, there isn’t too much different about the Air. There’s a brushed metal backing, a power switch and volume buttons on one side and that lighting port and speaker grilles on the bottom. A new addition comes in the form of the new dual-mics at the top.

The Air is about 20% thinner than its predecessor but the most noticeable difference is the weight. As its name implies, the iPad Air is impressively light, clocking in at only about one pound (as compared to the previous 1.4).

Naturally, iOS 7 looks great on that Retina display. And with a new A7 processor chip, apps and the like all boot up in an instant.

The Inside
Inside, the iPad Air runs a new A7 system chip. For reference, this is the same 64-bit chip populating the iPhone 5S. According to Apple, the new chip means that, when compared to the original, the Air offers eight times faster CPU performance and 72 times faster graphics.

The new chip also introduces support for 64-bit architecture. Additionally, the CPU features an underlying improvement in architecture.

So what’s the takeaway here? The Air is noticeably faster and, despite the major cuts in width and weight, boasts the same 10 hours of battery life as before.

Last but not least, the iPad Air has Wi-Fi with MIMO that’s twice as fast as before and those dual built-in microphones we mentioned earlier that will help improve audio quality.

Camera
The iPad, even in this new light avatar, is nevertheless unwieldy when it comes to taking photographs.

The Air’s camera is still the same 5 megapixels. However, the 1.2 megapixel 720p FaceTime camera has been upgraded to a camera that can shoot in Full HD 1920 x 1080 resolution.

On the software front, free and redesigned versions of core Apple apps, iPhoto, iMovie, Keynote, GarageBand etc., have been reworked for iOS 7 and the iPad. Apple also announced that the software updates it releases on a regular cycle will now be free.

The Air is set to be released in a number of countries starting November 1 and will be available in space gray and black, and silver and white. Prices start at $499 (that’s about 30613 rupees at the current exchange rate) for a 16GB Wi-Fi version, with the cellular model coming in at $629 (about 38589 rupees).

BBM vs WhatsApp: Battle of the Messengers

WhatsApp has made hay playing the newly cross-platform BBM while BlackBerry kept its popular messenger service, BBM, bundled with its devices. But, with the latter finally making the messenger available on Apple’s iOS and Android-backed devices, many might be wondering if WhatsApp will be able to hold on to its massive headstart. After all, more than 10 million downloads within 24 hours of BBM being launched for non-BlackBerry handsets cannot be ignored.

When Business Standard pitted the two applications against each other on various features, it appeared a close battle for supremacy was inevitable.

Set-up

WhatsApp creates an account on the basis of your phone number, while BBM uses alpha-numeric keys called pins. The former’s process is easy, as you don’t have to remember passwords while shifting to a new device. It just sends a verification SMS to your number and the app scans for it.

For friends whose numbers you already have in your address book, this works out very well — WhatsApp automatically tells them you are on WhatsApp too. On the downside, this means you have to give out your phone number to add a new friend. Also, you must pop your SIM card into a new device when switching to set up WhatsApp. This can be a hassle if you are using a secondary phone or temporary SIM.

BBM’s set-up doesn’t require you to input your number. Unlike WhatsApp, you have to start building up your BBM contact list from scratch. But while switching devices, you can back up your contact list to the cloud and then remotely restore it on a new device.

Contact management

It’s important to remember that adding a WhatsApp contact doesn’t just mean you need someone’s phone number; you also need them in your device’s address book. This means, you don’t get to choose who you want on your WhatsApp contact list — a reason for many users to stay away from this service.

However, WhatsApp has a full contact-blocking mechanism in place, like BBM. Of course, since the contact you decide to block has your phone number, a quick follow up on the other side over SMS or even voice calling is likely. But WhatsApp does have a way to mark contacts as favourites for easy access — a feature missing from BBM.

So far as adding contacts is concerned, BBM’s cryptic pins could be a hassle, but that’s not the only way to do it. There also are barcode scanning and straight email invites that are quite easy.

Neither service has a tag system to organise contacts into, say, work and personal groups, though both offer group chats.

Text chat

The core of both experiences is text messaging. Both provide typing and delivery receipts, though in slightly different ways. On WhatsApp, a tick mark next to your message means it has been delivered to the server while a second one means the sender has received it — that doesn’t necessarily mean the receiver has read it. BBM, on the other hand, ticks off when your message is sent to the server, a ‘D’ mark when it is delivered to the receiver and an ‘R’ when the receiver has seen it.

Though WhatsApp lets you know at the top when the user was last active, strictly speaking, only BBM has read receipts.

BBM also has a few extras tied in. Conversations can be copy pasted elsewhere and emailed. Depending on the kind of conversations you have, these could be features you might prefer to skip. But for many, it will come in handy.

File sharing

WhatsApp only shares pictures and video files, while BBM allows users to swap any file type. Both platforms can send contacts and location, too. BBM also allows groups of people to share images, but no other file type. On the upside, group pictures on BBM have robust caption, comment, and upvoting mechanisms.

Group chat

Both BBM and WhatsApp support group chats, but BBM’s offering is decidedly richer. Both allow sharing of images to a group, but, curiously, BBM groups don’t support video, location, or contact sharing. On the other hand, WhatsApp maintains file-sharing parity with one-on-one chat. But BBM makes up for the discrepancy with shared to-do lists and events, plus a much more fleshed-out user interface for accessing all that content. Groups on BBM can also host multiple separate conversations which is great for larger groups.

The real clincher for group chat on BBM are the channels. These allow users to anonymously subscribe to channels that broadcast all kinds of content. Direct chat can be enabled between channel owners and followers, too, which is good for promoting engagement and handling, such as giveaways or “office hours”.

Channel owners get metrics on traffic and a web interface for publishing updates — perfect for brand owners looking to reach new demographics. Though channels won’t be available on Android or iOS versions at launch, these should be arriving shortly after.

Voice and video chat

Both WhatsApp and BBM support the sending of audio snippets recorded directly from the device. WhatsApp certainly wins in its implementation of voice notes, but that’s trumped quite quickly by BBM Voice.

The quality of real-time VoIP on BBM is fantastic. Also, despite having a very snappy-looking push-to-talk implementation, voice notes sent cross-platform on WhatsApp were a little on the laggy side.

Though you can share video files back and forth on WhatsApp, there’s no live video chat. Again, BBM wins with stable video chat, and the newer addition of screen sharing.

Blackberry maintains that both these services will be offered free to Android and iOS users.

Emoticons and personalisation

BBM comes with 90 core emoticons. WhatsApp blows that out of the water with 189; and, many users might attest, a conversation that isn’t punctuated by numerous facial expressions is sorely lacking.

BBM also enjoys a few other points of personalisation that you won’t find on WhatsApp. For one, there’s the classic PING action — to give your friends a little nudge when they’re being slow to reply. WhatsApp, however, lets you swap in custom wallpapers for your chat windows which is a nice touch.

Status and profile

Both BBM and WhatsApp have profile structures that support custom status messages and profile pictures. The former scores for a busy icon option, and optional updates for what music you’re listening to in the native music player. BBM profiles can also be linked to apps, providing practical functions like updating your status with your latest Foursquare check-in. WhatsApp has an impressive selection of preset status messages, but that’s about it.

Bottom line

Both messengers have their own set of scoring features and a few flaws that these make up for. Assuming the iOS and Android versions keep feature parity, it might be safe to say BBM could edge past WhatsApp.

WhatsApp has had the time to polish its user interface, build a strong installed base and start implementing a mostly-complete feature set, but service is still sketchy and lacking in forward-thinking features.

The only real challenge BBM might face is being consistent with its service to convince the users already comfortable with other platforms to give BBM a shot.

Social Media and the Changing Face of Global Health Care

There’s a lot of rubbish on the Internet. Sometimes, maybe all a mobile phone is good for is watching an endless loop of Nyan cat, but people and organizations the world over are putting rapidly evolving technology to better use — they’re using it to save lives.

Health care, with the advent of newer and better technology, is rapidly changing. Digital technologies are leading us toward a potential revolution in public health, which will enable people to live healthier lives and make better treatment decisions. For example, there are a variety of websites and apps for tracking diet and exercise, pedometers, accelerometers, and heart-rate monitors. Digital tools offer self-awareness, a way to turn action into change and to do it scientifically, rigorously, methodically. To do it in a way it’s never been done before — with data.

WHO? YEAH, THEM, TOO

The World Health Organization (WHO) is one of the main advocates of using social media to manage global health crises.

WHO’s seminal social media event took place during the Japanese tsunami and the ensuing radiation crisis of 2011. When monitoring social media, WHO began to notice a trend — people were drinking antiseptic medicines containing iodine, which they believed would protect them from the effects of the radiation. Using their Facebook and Twitter pages, WHO, which has a separate social media team for exactly this purpose, were able to warn people against self-medicating, thus saving hundreds of lives.

Similarly, when WHO’s social media team revealed that people had switched from pure iodine to large amounts of seaweed and salt to protect against radiation, they rapidly sent out tweets, such as “Just like salt, #seaweed doesn’t have enough #iodine to protect you from #radiation & takes too long to absorb #globalhealth #japan.”

WHO now gets nearly 6,000 new followers on Twitter per week and about the same number on Facebook per month. These new followers and fans use social media to easily pass on essential information that WHO provides, as well as ask follow up questions about it. Thus, via social media, everyday people are now WHO’s public health ambassadors.

MEANWHILE, IN AFRICA

HP, along with partners Positive Innovation for the Next Generation (PING),Clinton Health Access Initiative (CHAI), and mobile network provider MASCOM have been helping fight malaria in Africa.

On average, by standard procedure, it can take three to four weeks to send a list of sick patients to a district health clinic and then to the Ministry of Health of a respective country. In turn, using mobile phones to report outbreaks of widespread diseases like malaria has reduced response time from four weeks to three minutes — the time it takes to send one text message. This means that almost immediately, the government can not only warn people in the area of the outbreak, but also dispatch essential provisions such as bed nets.

Similarly, health care workers in Botswana have been trained to use mobile devices to collect malaria data and report outbreaks to authorities. The collected data is then plotted on a geo-tagged map, providing health workers context for their responses.

The key goal for health care providers is to partner with the government and other organizations, ensuring that health care workers are able to effectively implement technology, rather than just provide access to it and allow people to use it as they will.

HP and CHAI have also started working with Kenya’s Ministry of Health and are in talks with Mozambique’s government to continue their expansion. Kenya’s government is already using the platform to track the spread of 11 diseases, including malaria. Botswana’s government hopes to add another 16 diseases in the near future, starting with multidrug resistant tuberculosis. Additionally, PING plans to develop a game-like mobile phone tutorial, to ease the training of new health workers.

AS FOR THE FUTURE

The take home point is that social media is now more mainstream and widespread than ever before. People rely more and more on Twitter and Facebook for their news but more importantly, through citizen journalism, they rely on other people.

As impressive as the current results are, the ideas are still simple — everyday technology being introduced in new places and used in new ways. There are however no limits to what technology can achieve. Currently in the works are mechanical exoskeletons, made by Ekso Bionics, that will enable people with major paralysis and spinal cord injuries to walk again. But there’s more — in the future we may be looking at an entirely digital nervous system. Nearly invisible wireless sensors on your body could continually monitor your vital signs, bandages would not just protect your wounds but watch them for signs of infection. Even the bathroom mirror would be able to calculate your heart rate, blood pressure, and oxygen levels.

In the early 90’s, nobody would have believed how much we have achieved with the Internet today. With the proper tools, fundamental aspects of society can be completely transformed in extremely short periods of time and that time for health care is now.

Flowers for Now

Harriet sighed and drummed her fingers on the steering wheel, as she peered up at the traffic light again. It was still red, like it had been for the past fifteen minutes. She looked around uncertainly, a bead of sweat tracing its way down her neck.

 

Hers was the only car on the narrow main street. God, she hated small towns. They were so insular, so content. Small towns for small people; she had read that somewhere and it had stuck. If she didn’t find her way back to the highway soon, she’d be stuck here for the night and that wasn’t a possibility she was prepared to accept.

 

This traffic light was definitely broken, she decided, switching into first. Besides, it’s not like there was anyone around to catch her breaking the light. Easing her foot off the brake, she let the car coast as her mind wandered two weeks into the past. The fight had been the worst they’d ever had and she’d come home from the corner grocery to find Joel’s suitcase gone from the closet, along with most of his clothes. He hadn’t even bothered to leave her a note.

 

Her mother, upon hearing the news had muttered something about the ineffable game of life, before returning to her knitting. As far as Harriet could tell, the only game her life could be was an obscure and complex variant of poker in a pitch-dark room, with blank cards, for infinite stakes, with a Dealer who wouldn’t tell you the rules, and who smiled all the time.

 

As she turned left before a sign that informed her she was leaving Pleasantville and wished her a lovely day, with five exclamation points (the sure sign of an insane mind), Harriet found herself smelling the unmistakable smell of goat. It was so strong she could practically touch it.

 

It was a zoo. Johnson’s Wonderful World of Animals, as the hand-painted sign proclaimed. Before she had even realized she was making the decision, Harriet had pulled over and was walking toward the entrance. The zoo was, unsurprisingly, empty. So empty in fact that a stray tumbleweed wouldn’t have gone amiss. What was with small towns and heavy silences, Harriet wondered as she peered in at a couple of monkeys who lay languidly in their patch of sun.

 

“Harriet doesn’t much like people,” said a voice behind her.

 

Spinning around, an acid reply at the ready, Harriet found herself facing a tall man with a shock of strawberry blonde hair. His eyes were a deep navy and were trained on her face.

 

“Excuse me?”

 

He pointed to the nearest monkey: “Harriet, our only female. She’s pretty shy. Here, though, this might help,” he continued, holding out a handful of boiled nuts.

 

“No thanks, the way my day’s going, she’ll probably mistake my fingers for those nuts,” Harriet said, turning away from him. But not before she had noticed that his eyes crinkled when he smiled. Her nana had always said that crinkles were the way to tell a real smile from a forced one.

 

She could feel his gaze on the back of her neck and immediately reached up to loosen her waist length hair from its bun.

 

“You know, I have a surefire remedy for a bad day,” he said, coming forward to stand beside her. As he spoke, he fed the monkeys who had lined up to greet him, and Harriet noticed his fingers were long, with square tips. His tanned, densely veined arms spoke of long days in the sun and lots to do. They were reassuring somehow, far more real than Joel’s pale, restless fingers.

 

She snapped out of her reverie when she realized he was looking at her questioningly. She hadn’t heard a word he’d said.

 

“I’m sorry, I was a thousand miles away,” she said, shooting him a quick smile as an apology.

 

He was still looking at her and the directness of his gaze made her cheeks hot.

 

“I was introducing myself and explaining about my remedy, but perhaps it’s better to show rather than tell,” he said with a grin of his own. “Although I’ve been told you shouldn’t hope to kiss someone whose name you don’t know, so I’ll repeat the part where I told you my name was Matthew.”

 

“And you think you’re going to kiss me do you?” responded Harriet, flirting despite herself.

 

“Well, I think I have a shot, at least,” Matthew said. Harriet fought to stop the corners of her mouth lifting into a smile. His easy confidence and the kindness in his eyes made her lightheaded.

 

“Come on,” he continued, spinning her around and leading her to a large glass structure. It had been hot outside but the heat inside the building was solid. Harriet was immediately flushed but it was the beauty of the place that really took her breath away.

 

Plants covered every surface and ivy climbed the walls, the heat making the air shimmer in hues of green. Neon hued flowers dotted the viridescent scene and blue-winged butterflies spun lazily, as if drunk on the beauty of their environment.

 

“I had no idea you could have this sort of tropical plant life in Ohio,” said Harriet, looking around awestruck.

 

“I like it because it helps me remember that, when you least expect it, life can show you something beautiful,” Matt said, handing her an orchid, his fingers brushing hers; a silent question, an invitation to a better place.

 

Harriet paused. Here was something unexpected indeed. Here was a man who was smiling at her, his eyebrows bunched slightly together in a way that was already familiar, and she was happy. It was just a little spark. A tiny, spark of potential happiness, hesitant to come out into the open, but there it was.

 

And he had given her a flower. Scared and feeling slightly selfish, Harriet wondered how much more he had to give. For right now though, she decided, a flower was enough.

Bitcoin: A Primer

If you’ve been following the news at all, chances are you’ve come across headlines discussing Silk Road. If you’re like most people, chances are you skipped right over it – Miley Cyrus ripping on the US government was far more enticing.

Last week, the FBI took down Silk Road, an underground online marketplace that many people used for drug-related and other illegal activities. In the process, they froze over 26,000 Bitcoins that were being held for customers as they made their transactions. Needless to say, people are not pleased.

Bitcoin, first introduced in 2009, has recently started gaining traction. With the Silk Road controversy raging hard, here’s a primer on the digital currency that may be the new way to conduct transactions online.

What is Bitcoin?

The origin of Bitcoin has been attributed to a pseudonymous developer known only as “Satoshi Nakamoto”, who called it a peer-to-peer, electronic cash system.

Bitcoin is a purely digital currency, which means it has no tangible notes or coins. It’s completely decentralised, which means that there is no central authority, only a network of contributors and freedom enthusiasts.

Why is the advantage of using Bitcoin over other, traditional forms of payment?

Let’s say that, for whatever reason, you need to transfer a sum of money to an individual online. Let’s also say that you don’t possess a bank account – according to the Wall Street Journal, close to half of India’s 1.2 billion population don’t – or you do not wish to reveal your financial identity in executing a particular transaction. When dealing with traditional currencies, this would be a serious impediment to your transaction.

That’s where Bitcoin comes in. All you need is an internet connection, and you can complete the transaction using Bitcoin. Also, it’s completely and totally anonymous.

Currently, there is a huge demand for buying bitcoins anonymously due to ever-increasing government regulations, private agency intrusions and discrimination against alternative currencies.

Okay. You’ve got my attention. So how does Bitcoin work?

To put it simply, Bitcoin works a lot like email. Download a Bitcoin wallet, which will generate your unique Bitcoin address (essentially an alphanumeric key that will be the only means to identify you). You can disclose this address to your friends so that they can pay you or vice versa.

Bitcoins are kept in a digital wallet which you can keep in your computer, or on a website online, which will manage and secure your wallet for you.

What’s more, you can use Bitcoin software on top of Tor to prevent anyone from tracking your IP address – total anonymity guaranteed.

I don’t really understand. Can you walk me through how to buy Bitcoins?

The closest thing Bitcoin has to an industry leader is Mt. Gox, a Japanese website that acts as a real-money exchange between bitcoins and more established currencies.

To use the Mt. Gox exchange you have to submit photo ID and proof of residency before you can create an account. Once you have signed up for an account you will be able to wire money directly into the exchange’s bank account. You then need to create an “Ask” or “Buy” order and buy the appropriate amount of Bitcoin (BTC) at the current exchange rate.

Another alternative is using a website such as BlockChain, which offers a simple three-step, anonymous way to begin trading in bitcoins. All you need to get started is an email address and password of your choice. Once you create a free Wallet with BlockChain, you receive your Bitcoin address (the alphanumeric code mentioned above). You can then click the “deposit with cash” button and enter the amount you wish to buy.

However, remember to always be cautious when dealing with online exchanges.

You can also mine bitcoins. Mining, or generating, is the process of adding transaction records to Bitcoin’s public ledger of past transactions. Unless you have some pretty intense computer skills, this isn’t easy or recommended.

Okay but what can I buy with Bitcoins? Can I convert them back into tangible cash?

You can send Bitcoins to a person, buy goods on sites like BitcoinstoreFoodler or Bitcoinwireless, or donate to non-profit foundations who accept it, such as Wikileaks, P2P Foundation, Operation Anonymous etc.

Another way to spend bitcoins is to exchange them for gold, another investment. One important thing to keep in mind: It’s hard to convince someone who has never heard of Bitcoin before to accept it as payment.

In the short term then, the value of bitcoins isn’t driven in any way by the actual use of Bitcoin in trade. It’s driven by speculators who see it as an investment that’s going to rise in value.

Can you convert bitcoins back into cash? Technically, yes. If you can find someone to conduct an in-person transfer with, you can send them your bitcoins while they give you cold hard cash.

If you can’t arrange an in-person exchange however, you’ll need a bank account. And if you’re okay with using a bank account, well why get bitcoins involved in the first place if you aren’t a Bitcoin speculator?

The concept of Bitcoins still sounds awesome. Why aren’t more people using them?

Well, unless you’re a technolibertarian or a Bitcoin opportunist, the appeal of Bitcoin is still revealing itself.

The problem with Bitcoin comes down to why Silk Road was shut down. Complete anonymity under the guise of privacy just doesn’t work, because people take advantage of it to conduct illegal transactions.

There’s also a whole host of other issues – it’s easy to shut down (as exemplified by Silk Road) and widely deflationary (because there is a fixed supply of bitcoins, a lot of people can’t get their hands on it).

It’s also highly volatile (in 2013 itself it was valued at $8 to 1 Bitcoin and as of October 8, the Mt. Gox exchange rate was about $137 a Bitcoin). Your two bitcoins might be enough to buy a cheap laptop today and maybe just a box of cookies the next. Not to mention that most people don’t have much faith in a payment system started by an anonymous hacker.

There’s also one rather glaringly obvious challenge – how do you buy enough bitcoins to make it a stable, usable currency? Unless bitcoins are issued and simply handed out, people will need to buy them. With money. See the problem? It defeats the purpose.

So I just read this entire article for nothing?

Well, no. For one thing, you’re a lot more knowledgeable about bitcoins.

Further, it’s hard to completely dismiss anything that has garnered such a rapid following. Silk Road, just one of many websites that use bitcoins, had 957,079 registered users who did 1.2 million transactions between February of 2011 and July of 2013.

Undoubtedly, there are still a number of obstacles to overcome before Bitcoin really catches on. For innovative entrepreneurs however, opportunities abound.

Will Oyster revolutionise e-reading?

Those who think fondly of ye olde video rental stores are few and far between. With the advent of Netflix, video rental chains like Blockbuster and its comrades were soon forgotten. So too in the world of books – sales of “real” books have been limping along for a while now, with many wondering how long they can soldier on.

With the recent double whammy launches of Oyster Books (essentially Netflix for books) and Amazon’s Kindle Matchbook program (which bundles every book bought from Amazon.com since the early 1990s with that title’s e-version), we have to wonder: are we just begging for the end of the printed word?

According to one estimate from the LA Times, the total revenue generated from eBook sales in the U.S. topped $3 billion in 2012, which equates to a 44% jump from the year before. Meanwhile, across the pond, eBook sales in the UK quietly turned in a record year, leaping 134% from 2011 to 2012.

Evidence of the rapidly growing popularity of e-books is not hard to come by and Oyster is cashing in. While e-Readers and digital books are hardly in short supply, Oyster wants to create the first, real dedicated subscription service for books, while offering the same kind of personalized, social content discovery one has come to expect from Netflix and Amazon.

Oyster’s model is straightforward. For a monthly fee of $9.95, subscribers get access to a library of 100,000 titles, with offerings from big name publishers such as HarperCollins, Melville House, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and Workman. From there, members can peruse its library, check out recommendations from its Editorial Staff if in need of some guidance and be off and reading with a few quick taps.

Much like Netflix, Oyster allows readers to peruse its library by genre and title, while offering suggestions on what’s getting buzz in the news. As with most recommendation services, the more active you are within the app, the more you read, the better its recommendations become.

There are two main concerns being raised.

First, how is Oyster structuring its deals with publishers? Are publishers or authors being paid every time their book is selected or is the content being paid for up-front? The answer here isn’t clear just yet.

Second, is Oyster really impinging on bookstores’ territory? Not necessarily. If a bookstore’s business is books, it doesn’t automatically mean that everyone else whose business is books is a competitor.

It’s entirely possible that Oyster, currently only available for the iPhone, will simply provide a complementary service, since it’s strengths don’t really overlap with those of brick and mortar stores. For example, in regard to stores, there is physical ownership and front-listed print books, whereas Oyster model focuses on paid, back-listed, ebooks. From that perspective then, Oyster proves more of a threat to independent used book stores, which also focus on inexpensive, back-listed, pre-owned books.

The key advantage that Oyster has though is that it has homed in on the smartphone market. While most would assume that readers prefer tablets (or anything with a bigger screen) when they read, Oyster is counting on the fact that, unlike tablets, people always have their phones with them.

One thing to keep in mind though, is that Oyster is simply a rental service. Your monthly subscription buys you access to as many books as you can read in a month and nothing more. You don’t own any of the books you read.

While old-school bibliophiles can perhaps breathe a sigh of relief that bookstores are safe (for now), Oyster undoubtedly presents an interesting new option for those with more flexible reading predilections.

Is the Right to Education a reality for India’s children?

India is home to 19% of the world’s children.  What this means is that India has the world’s largest number of youngsters, which is largely beneficial, especially as compared to countries like China, which has an ageing population.

The not-so-good news is that India also has one-third of the world’s illiterate population. It’s not as though literacy levels have not increased, but rather that the rate of the increase is rapidly slowing. For example, while total literacy growth from 1991 to 2001 was 12.6%, it has declined to 9.21%.

To combat this worrisome trend, the Indian government proposed the Right to Free and Compulsory Education (RTE) Act, making education a fundamental right of every child in the age group of 6 to 14. Unsurprisingly, the reality is very different.

There are 5 main components that the Act puts forth:
  • In India, every child is entitled to free and compulsory full-time elementary education (first to eighth grade) as facilitated by the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act. This means elementary education of satisfactory and equitable quality in a formal school run with certain essential standards
  • Parents of children covered under RTE are not liable to pay for school fees, uniforms, textbooks, mid-day meals, transportation, etc. until the elementary education is complete.
  • If a child has not managed to secure admission in a school according to age, it will be government’s responsibility to get the child admitted in an age-appropriate class. Schools will have to organize training sessions to allow such a child to catch up with others.
  • No child shall be held back (failed) or expelled until the completion of elementary education.
  • Not following the RTE rules can invite a penalty of Rs 25000.

While the RTE is a ground breaking piece of legislation, the first in the world that puts the responsibility of ensuring student enrollment, attendance and completion of elementary education on the Government., recent surveys by the State Commission for Protection of Child Rights and UNICEF show that the state of education has not improved much since 2009, when the act was first proposed.

According to Tarun Cherukuri, City Director for Delhi for Teach For India, there is always a lag to be expected between de jure interventions and de facto outcomes.

“To expect laws to change citizen and public servant behaviour overnight is not realistic,” he says. “ There has been considerable progress in education inputs over the last decade due to efforts like SSA and RTE – pupil-teacher ratios have fallen over 20 percent (from 47.4 to 39.8), fractions of schools with toilets and electricity has more than doubled etc. These are all non-trivial achievements of the state system.”

Schools that have understood the remedial teaching process are unable to act accordingly due to the inappropriate student-teacher ratio.

“The ideal class for the remedial teaching process is of 30 students,” Sangeeta Shrivastva, principal of Kandivali Education Society Schools told DNA. Thus, when the strength of a class varies from 60 to 80 students, it is difficult to provide remedial teaching those who are not up to the set expectations of a class.

“The [RTE] Act does not do enough justice to enable marginal improvements in quality and foster creative solutions within the larger system,” continues Cherukuri. “By making a clear choice for access through the concept of neighbourhood schools, the Act has virtually sealed the door on drawing benefits from economies of scale within schooling systems.”

It seems to be an unassailable fact that the RTE Act appears, on paper at least, to be an ideal solution to the problems of education in India. However, its implementation too has been faulty.

Although state education departments and local education authorities are responsible for monitoring the implementation of the Act, this responsibility doesn’t seem to have been taken seriously.

“There are no special audit mechanisms like in the case of NREGA,” says Cherukuri. “This accountability mechanism is weak in almost all states and judicial activism through PILs has been the common and reasonably successful recourse.”

Another rather glaring flaw is the “no failure” policy that the Act attempts to implement. What the Act attempts to do is implement a Comprehensive Curriculum Evaluation (CCE), to ensure that tests are not be the singular measure of a child’s progress during an academic year.

“Students are supposed to be tested through multiple formats – presentations, projects, public performances etc,” explains Mr. Cherukuri.”However, because CCE is not understood properly by officials in many schools, children are constantly passed to higher grade levels, regardless of whether or not they are prepared for that higher level of work. “Most schools use CCE as a medium to excuse themselves from pursuing rigorous work with their children. Most children glide through the system without achieving any significant learning outcomes,” says Mr. Cherukuri, who says he is in favour of CCE, at least in principle.

Further, campaigners claim that children from poor families are often pulled out of school by their parents, who need them to work.

“State and National child rights commissions have been working actively with governments to reduce the percentage of children out of school and [involved] in child labour,” says Cherukuri. “The reality is that there is still a long way to go to achieve 100 percent enrollment and ensure retention within school for at least 8 years of schooling.”

Passing a bill is one easy thing to do. What is seems to be the key in ensuring this Act is successful, is to make parents, particularly in rural areas, aware of the benefits of education and to encourage them to send their children to school.
Like many attempted social changes in India, this too has to start at the community level, requires a widespread change of an age-old mindset and must make people at the helm of affairs accountable.