How to dress for a business setting

(from someone who has learned the hard way).

I’ve dressed up and dressed down more than I care to remember. In an earlier part of my life, I was in an academic environment. I was pretty much a blue-collar scientist: my collars would literally have been blue from the Coomassie Brilliant Blue stain I used to stain proteins (had I worn collared shirts, that is).

Maybe you’ve seen TV or print ads with sharp scientists in spotless white-coats in high-tech labs pipetting blue samples into gels ? My lab coat would probably make a National Register of Antiquities. Most days, the t-shirts with mad scientist witticisms picked up at scientific meetings smelled of organic compounds such as phenol and chloroform. The jeans I wore had distinctive holes from acid-washing glassware. My well-worn sneakers reeked from all the chemicals we worked on and spilled on the lab-floors. In my lab-life. If I ever wore a collared shirt and tucked it in for work, I would get greeted with snide comments like:  “why are you dressed up today? Are you getting married?”

You can imagine how like a fish-out-water I felt once I was expected to actually dress like a presentable human.

For the benefit of those thinking about making a transition to a corporate environment, I’d like to provide some pointers (primarily geared towards men).

The suit: You will soon be able to judge an office-goer by the quality of the suit he (or she) wears as well as the rest of us do, but until then, go with someone who actually wears suits for your first suit purchase so that you don’t buy something which looks a tent from The Sword of Tipu Sultan. Some of the Jordanian suits are well-crafted, but remember that a Giorgio Amman isn’t the same as a Giorgio Armani. As a guideline, if the trousers and the jacket are of the same color, you’re fine. If they’re different colors you’re also fine since you can call the jacket a “sport-coat.” Don’t make the mistake of wearing a jacket and trousers which are close but not the same exact color.

The dress-shirt: Hair-shirts are inappropriate for most corporate environments. Invest wisely in a couple of nicely-fitting dress shirts. Do not wear an intricate ‘check shirt’ which is as visually appealing as a line graph created in MS Excel. Wear a conservative shirt without logos or words unless you are interviewing to be a bouncer.

A word about collars: collars are usually sufficient to keep dogs and office-goers subjugated. I personally prefer the spread collar since it is a known fact that it exudes corporate confidence. You may not know what you’re talking about, but everyone will acknowledge that you are a pundit if you wear a French-collar shirt. Finally, unless you have a personal valet or extra fingers on the back of your hand, make sure you’ve got the cuff-links assembled before you show up for work.

The tie: Don’t wear ties with distracting designs such as Escher motifs, animals, or anatomical parts. Make sure your tie goes well with your shirt and your suit. Also don’t wrap it around your neck like a scarf from a Mithun Chakraborty dance-routine – actually tie it into a knot.  I like the fat Windsor knot, which goes especially well with the spread collar.

Shoes and accessories: As a rule, if the shoes are uncomfortable and sound like falling pots and pans when you walk, they are suitable for work. They should also be made of the hide of an animal and be of the Italian made-in-China variety. Make sure your shoes go well with the rest of your ensemble especially your belt (which shouldn’t wrap around your torso multiple times like a snake). Don’t carry a purse if you’re a man.

General appearance: Ladies, don’t dress like you’re going to a wedding or to the beach. The color of your face should match that of your neck. Make sure your eyebrows are visible unless you’ve recently undergone chemotherapy. Avoid using fragrances which attract honeybees.

Gentleman, don’t dress like you’re going to a kabbadi akhara or to pick up a random stranger from a disco. No lungis. Hair should not be protruding from visible body orifices. If you can’t shave, dress one pay scale above what you normally do. Use deodorant.

Final thoughts: Copy those who you admire shamelessly.

© Text, 2010-2012, Anirban

Does the “Indian superbug” bug you?

A research paper entitled “Emergence of a new antibiotic resistance mechanism in India, Pakistan, and the UK: a molecular, biological, and epidemiological study” published by Karthikeyan K Kumarasamy et al in Lancet Infectious Diseases has generated an enormous amount of controversy over the last 48 hours. The article has resulted in an staggering media uproar in India primarily based on certain recommendations presented in the conclusions section. The authorities have also issued a Clarification on this matter, something I’m at least not aware of any government ever doing in the aftermath of a single peer-reviewed biomedical publication. (Incidentally, it is a minor point, but the Clarification misstates the name of the journal as Lancet when it was published in Lancet Infectious Diseases, a sister publication).

The summary of the manuscript is here and has been discussed in accessible terms by Maryn McKenna. A number of concerns have been voiced in various outlets and I’m discussing some here.

1) The first concern is that the naming of the plasmid enzyme as New Delhi metallo-β lactamase and the gene as blaNMD-1 are malicious. However, this type of strain designation is not uncommon in microbiology. In fact, the location where the strain is most likely to have originated is quite often used. For example, the most common metallo-β-lactamase enzyme (which confers resistance to antibiotics) in clinical isolates is the VIM-2 β-lactamase named after Verona in Italy where it was first isolated. Incidentally, Italy did not lodge a formal complaint anywhere (as far as I know) after it was discovered. I’ll discuss why India chose to do so when I get to the third concern.

Additionally, there are other diseases and pathogens named after locations as diverse as Marburg, Germany; Ebola, Congo; and even the Rocky Mountains in the US. No one ever blinked as far as I know.

Now, some information on the history of the NMD-1 strain is warranted. The first case using this designation was discovered in the middle of 2009 in an article published later in December. In other words, the strain was named a year to six months before the Lancet Infectious Diseases paper at the center of the current storm came out.

In the earlier article, the case history of the first patient harboring a bacterial strain with NMD-1 was provided.

In November 2007, [the patient] traveled to India and on 5 December was hospitalized in Ludhiana, Punjab, with a large gluteal abscess. In December 2007, he was admitted to a hospital in New Delhi, where he was again operated on and where he developed a decubital ulcer. On 8 January 2008 he was referred to Örebro, Sweden. During his stay in New Delhi he received amoxicillin (amoxicilline)-clavulanic acid, metronidazole, amikacin, and gatifloxacin (all of them parenterally). Clinical isolate K. pneumoniae 05-506 was derived from a urinary culture on 9 January 2008.

It is this clinical isolate that bore the plasmid with the infamous NMD-1 strain. While it is formally possible that the patient picked up the infection during his flight back to Sweden, knowing what we know about the bacteria that harbor it and how it spreads nosocomially in susceptible patients during operative stages, it is very likely that it was picked up during the patient’s operation and hospital stay in December 2007 in New Delhi because the patient simply had not had an operation after that date in any other location. In light of this information the hue-and-cry over the naming is overblown.

2) The second concern is about a potential conflict-of-interest. This has been treated as a revelation by sections of the media. The lead author received a travel grant from Wyeth. Another author holds shares of some major pharmaceutical companies. This was not not unearthered through any investigative reporting; in the interest of full disclosure, this information was mentioned in the actual research paper itself (as is customary practice for all biomedical journals):

KK has received a travel grant from Wyeth. DML has received conference support from numerous pharmaceutical companies, and also holds shares in AstraZeneca, Merck, Pfizer, Dechra, and GlaxoSmithKline, and, as Enduring Attorney, manages further holdings in GlaxoSmithKline and Eco Animal Health. All other authors declare that they have no conflicts of interest… Our work was funded by EU grant LSHM-CT-2005-018705 and WellcomeTrust grant 084627/Z/08.

Obtaining travel money or external seed money does NOT preclude an author from publishing work. All papers at major scientific journals go through a rigorous peer-review process regardless of funding source. What this means is that two or more anonymous, independent scientific experts review the manuscript prior to consideration for publication. I’ll be the first to admit that this process isn’t perfect. But over 130 years, it is the process that scientists have stuck with. The due peer-review process happened for the Lancet Infectious Diseases article too.

What those screaming about “conflict-of-interest” are really implying is there is an  occurrence of a gross ethical violation that may be tantamount to the falsification of data. This is a serious unsubstantiated allegation and were those harping loudly to say this directly, they would probably face libel charges in a court of law. An easier way to get around that is to dispute the conclusions which is what the government has done by putting out the release.

What you may not know is the fact is that often the most successful scientists in medicine and biomedical research are those with stakes in companies and startups or those who receive grant-money from pharmaceutical companies. What about those that work for pharmaceutical companies? Should they be banned from ever publishing? Many of us would be out of jobs if that ever came to pass.

As an anecdote I’ll mention that at any cancer meeting, almost all the presenters mention funding sources and startups they are associated with for the sake of full disclosure. Those outside of science may be uncomfortable with this approach, but it is not sufficient to single out a particular paper in a field where it  is a common occurrence.

3) The third concern is that the conclusions will harm India’s economy. The most vehement arguments are against the final conclusion of the paper which is stated below:

Several of the UK source patients had undergone elective, including cosmetic, surgery while visiting India or Pakistan. India also provides cosmetic surgery for other Europeans and Americans, and blaNDM-1 will likely spread worldwide.

This is what it is all about, folks! This is the center of the acrimonious debate and is stated directly in the accompanying news-feature too. This is the line that UK media outlets are seizing to call for a moratorium on medical tourism and that their counterparts in India are quashing as biased. The underlying concern is that were medical tourism to get reduced then the Indian economy would get impacted. This is a valid economic concern, but irrelevant to the scientific argument regarding the concern that surgical practices might be unsafe.

With respect to this concern I agree, at least in part, with the government clarification and the viewpoint in the Indian media. The size and scale of testing (44 isolates in Chennai, 26 in Haryana, 37 in the UK, and 73 in other sites in India and Pakistan) does not warrant avoidance of all surgical treatments in India – a country of over one billion people. And the fact that some major media outlets are portraying surgery in India as unsafe is disconcerting.

However,why is a single interpretation in the discussion section being used to question the credibility of the results of the entire study? In my opinion, the proper procedure for damage control in the light of the warning sign that the paper presents is to exert caution and to heighten surveillance. Make sure the doomsday scenario doesn’t happen. So often we’ve seen wounded nationalist pride and blame-shifting, and the potential it has to turn ugly . When SARS first erupted, in order to save its economy, China hid reports so that it could deny the severity of the outbreak – an action that ended up endangering countless lives and devastating the economies of a number of East Asian countries.

By drawing the analogy I am not implying that this is what is going to happen with the NDM-1 strain. What I am saying is that I, you, or anyone else cannot claim to know the severity of a possible outbreak should it happen.  Before accepting or denying the threat possibilities shouldn’t we first try to do a proper risk assessment?

For exceptional commentary on additional points related to the unnecessary outrage, I highly recommend reading Sakshi’s and Bongopondit’s responses to some of the other relevant concerns.

Disclaimer: These are my personal views and do not necessarily represent the position of my current or former employers. I am not a physician and do not profess to offer any medical advice here. If you feel you are suffering from an infectious disease ,seek immediate medical attention.

Made-for-you products for desis

After the resounding success of the Soul-purifying Deodorant, Vedic Dentistry, and Extrasolar Astrology – products every desi needs, I’ve decided to launch a new line of on-demand products guaranteed to make your life simpler. Not that I would personally use any of these, but I’m hoping that you need them.

1) Personalized College Rankings

College and university administrators like to dig up rankings that show their academic institutions in the most favorable light. Prominently displayed on websites, these rankings serve as an enticing bait for prospective students. Fortunately, the media is only happy to oblige.  As a result, you can always find a college ranking that lists your college in a position favorable compared to others.

The problem with the current scenario is that if you a student of a lesser-known academic institution such as the Mahipal Institute of Technology, you might end up spending hours on web search engines trying to find a ranking that boasts about the position of your very own MIT.

Superior Academic AnalyticsTM now obviates the need to search at all! For a nominal fee, we will create a customized-ranking tailored to your specific college or department needs. Our rankings will be uploaded to a professional-looking website which will be easily accessible from search engines.

Remember that while inflated rankings may not get you your next job at McKinsey and Company, it will allow your immediate relatives to show neighbors that you’ve done well in life. And what is the point in getting an education if  it doesn’t fuel (as the popular ad mentions) neighbor’s envy and owner’s pride?

2) Credit Card Voucher Generator

Business expense reports giving you the blues? Can’t find that one receipt for the champagne and caviar lunch you had using the corporate credit card at the Ritz-Carlton? Or just interested in milking your company’s travel budget by submitting false expense bills while you’re supposed to be meeting clients?

ComPayer TechnologiesTM now offers you the perfect solution. Customized credit card vouchers on heat-sensitive paper or personalized voucher letterhead. You provide the amount and then sit back and relax while our experts take care of the rest.

We can also charge your corporate credit card for fictitious amounts to our constituent companies based in the Cayman Islands. If you find a competitor who does your billing for you for a better commission, let us know. We have a price-matching guarantee. Also check with our Exchange Division for your foreign currency needs.

3) Personalized Accessories On-demand.

Business isn’t as much about giving the consumer a choice, as it is about giving him or her a perception of a choice. In an earlier marketing primer, I’ve provided ideas on how to create a market for existing products, inferior ones, and completely unnecessary ones. My consultancy named An American CompanyTM will show you how to make sure that you have a ready customer-base with guidance on how to personalize accessories.

If you’re part of a company which has created a skin-cream, we will help you market it in Western countries as a tanning lotion and in South Asian ones as a fairness cream. In fact, we even recommend that you use the same appealing adjectives: “glowing,” “fresh,” and “young” in both markets.

Not convinced yet? Here is another case study. A company in the entertainment business had a sports film which they wanted to launch across South Asia. We advised the company to tailor the DVD to have alternate endings to same finale depending on whether the target was a Pakistani or an Indian cricket fan.

But we don’t just stop there. Another problem facing companies is that of products which are too successful in solving problems. These products help no one by evaporating markets. An American CompanyTM will guide you in making sure your business model never becomes irrelevant. For example, we recently advised a manufacturer of dental ceramics to invest in R&D leading to dental fillings made of hard sugar candy. We also advised an organization of orthopedic surgeons to hedge their bets against improved arthritis drugs by investing in Voodoo-dolls and by backing the Chinese makers of uncomfortable shoes.

If you’re a recent management graduate who would like to work for us, please drop us your resume. Remember that everyone wants to work for An American CompanyTM. We recreate ourselves to help you recreate yourself too!

© Text, 2010-2012, Anirban

The Neuroshopping Network: direct-to-mind marketing

In a future presented in Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report, crime is prevented by catching would-be criminals before they commit the act. The process used in the science-fiction story, neuroimaging, works by detecting activity in different parts of the brain. As you might have guessed, the different physicals regions of the brain are more active than others during specific activities. These differences  can be observed through brain scans.

There are many types of scans which are being heralded in crime detection. Some can indicate which individuals have a greater tendency to exhibit certain behaviors, such as the tendency to become aggressive. There needs to be additional studies before we can even consider using brain scans regularly for new purposes because there isn’t a clear idea about how scans correlate with criminal actions. We also know from common sense that simply because someone can be aggressive doesn’t mean that he or she is going to be a criminal. Consequently, the promise of these tools is currently greater than the utility.

fMRI brain scan

If you follow the news carefully, you may have noticed a recent firestorm of controversy over whether functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), one of the most powerful techniques of neuroimaging, can be used as better lie detectors. Results are inconclusive so far and favor not using the technique, but the debate will not abate anytime soon.

Still, the remarkable power of neuroimaging is undeniable. A research article published last week in the prestigious American journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences used fMRI to record brain activity of speakers and listeners during the act of verbal communication. The article found something called neural coupling occurring during active communication. In simple terms,  brain scans showed that the listener’s brain activity mirrors that the brain activity of the speaker. Detectable neural coupling happens only when the listener understands the speaker. So, if you’re speaking in Bangla, I can act like I don’t understand a word you’re saying, but my brain will leave tell-tale signs of my bluff. Will this be useful for crime detection? Maybe not right now. For one, my guess is that we don’t really know what happens if the listener concentrates on not paying attention to the speaker.

Now, let us switch gears and focus on a corporate setting. Suppose you’re a customer given the choice between an established soft drink and a new one being tested prior to product launch. Companies now rely on focus groups, surveys, and other tests to try to gauge customer preference. These do the job, but are notoriously unreliable.

But what if you didn’t need to verbally respond? What if the company could detect your preference for their drink or a competitor’s advertisement by scanning your brain? In addition, what if the company knew exactly which part of the brain the product appealed to and could make it even more irresistible? Companies wouldn’t need full-scale roll-outs or even smaller pilot projects to determine if they had a customer-base.

That is the goal of neuromarketing and it is being heralded as the next big advance in marketing. In theory, through neuromarketing it should be possible to tailor-design products so that a customer is compelled to buy it (and in case of food products consume in large quantities). Quite a fearful thought, but I doubt that will worry shareholders of the companies as their profits soar.

Let us now break down the central requirements for successful neuromarketing. The key steps are finding out which parts of the brain are involved in making the purchasing decision by observing subjects,  feeding this data into a computer to generate a mapping template, and successfully predicting the likelihood that a naive subject will make a purchase solely by comparing his or her brain scan.

A few years ago, a landmark research study published in Neuron entitled “Neural Predictors of Purchases” showed that at least the underlying assumptions of neuromarketing are not outlandish. In those series of experiments, researchers found, quite amazingly, that there are distinct brain circuits involved in the act of shopping.

In other words, different parts of the brain get activated when you consider buying an item and during the actual purchase. And we should be able to know without asking you just by scanning your brain. At least for the data used in the study, the model is predictive. What that also means is that with a sophisticated fMRI machine it may be possible to make an informed guess about whether or not you’re likely to buy something way before you do. No need for you to be polite or to lie. Just sit back while the companies ask your brain and let your mind do the talking!

But why should we stop there? After all, a customer does need to leave the sofa, go to a computer or a brick-and-mortar shop and make a purchase. There are just too many opportunities for the customer to change his or her mind before the actual transaction is made.

There is a way to get around customer indecision, lethargy, and changes in preference and although it requires a leap in science and technology, it is definitely within the realm of the possible. I propose to call it neuroshopping and here it how it goes:

You are sitting in your living room wearing an iShop helmet device with sensors monitoring synaptic activity in various parts of your brain. These signals are being fed into a computer that has access to your bank account information. You’re watching products flash by in 3D on the Neuroshopping Network. As soon as brain scans show that you’re interested in purchasing a product, a computer makes an automatic purchase on your behalf.

Perhaps, you repent later and you return some of your purchases, but if you’re anything like I am, you’re too lazy to return even the items you don’t need or can’t afford. The company makes a profit because it has connected directly to your impulses and has reduced marketing to the simplest essence – telling you that you need something and getting you to purchase instantaneously without giving you a chance to rationalize or second-guess your decision. (Bye bye Amazon.com).

Quite honestly, as I mentioned earlier, a major stumbling block right now is the technology. A decent fMRI machine costs around one million dollars per Tesla. It also requires dedicated staff to run and costs in the hundreds of thousands of dollars every year to operate.

I was trained as a scientist, not as an engineer. But I do know a little bit about the short history of personal computers. I’ll wait for those with the “know-how” to make it happen. I keep thinking to myself: give it some time. Technology always gets cheaper.

The bottom-line is that one day that you will impulsively spend even more than you do now. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Image courtesy of Erik1980 and licensed under GDFL by the creator. If you also have time take a look at this interesting one-paragraph short story by Surekha Pillai.

© Text, 2010-2012

How to pronounce Hindu Bengali names

“Hi, can I speak to an Arabian?”

“Excuse me?”

“Hi, I’m trying to reach an Arabian.”

“Well, I’m sorry to disappoint you, but I am an Indian.”

“No, I mean is this the phone of Mr. An-arabian er… I’m not even going to try to pronounce your last name.”

“Ah, if you’re looking for Anirban, then yes. This is Anirban speaking.”

“Hi, I’m Betty calling about an exciting offer for a Visa credit card that will let you transfer balances from high-interest rate accounts.”

“Uhm about the offer. Well, you may very well be batty, but I’ll still decline. I already have more credit cards than I know what to do with.”

_________________

Sigh! I guess if this call had originated from a call-center in India, it probably would have been worse. Of course, I’d be able to tell from the fake accent. On the bright side that would have provided me an opportunity to immediately launch an insult-laden tirade in Hindi.

Granted, the spelling isn’t intuitive. Bengalis pronounce Anirban as On-ear-bahn and “Anirban” is neither fully Sanskritized nor Bengalified. But I’m so used to variants that are acceptable that I don’t mind anymore. North Indian friends have called me Aneer-bon. In North America, I’ll take that any day. I’ve been called many other things out here such as Aniraban, which makes me cringe, since I’m not really like the infamous mythical ruler of Lanka (well, there is nothing if there is no hope).

But seriously, how hard is it to pronounce Anirban? No, seriously. Compared to being called an Arabian, I’ll take Awnir-bahn or A-near-ban any day (not that there is anything wrong with being an Arabian if it is by birth or er… choice).

First, our names get mangled. Then to add insult to injury, we find out that there is an NFL team from Cincinnati called the Beng-uhls. For crying out loud, where do you get the gall? It isn’t West Bangle or Royal Ben-gull Tiger. Please, it is Ben-gaul and we are Bengollys or Bengolese (if you need to rhyme it with Congolese).

I’ve heard many horror stories about slaughtered Bengali names. For example, a North American was once visiting the ashram of a sage in West Bengal. The name of the mystic, Swami Nandanananda is a mouthful even by desi standards, but I’d break it down into Nandan and ananda and say it slowly. The North American devotee tried pronouncing it “Nandanandanandanandananda…” and went into an infinite loop. Or so I’ve heard. Don’t quote me.

Okay, I made it up.

Granted that Bengalis with Hindu names have a much easier time fitting in than some of our South Indian compatriots, but I’m still be hard pressed to find a Bengali in North America who hasn’t shortened his “good name” or gone with his nickname like good old Gogol in Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake. Is it our fault that our parents put so much effort into finding involved names from obscure Sanskrit texts?

As for me, for now I’m going with Ani.

© Text, 2010-2012

You know you’re part of the Indian middle-class when…

(Because we all just love stereotypes).

  1. Your national element is Indium (In), very malleable and soft, but not useful for building long-lasting structures.
  2. You find it normal for random people to get close on buses, but find the idea that two potential life-partners be allowed to talk unsupervised before being thrust into wedlock, preposterous.
  3. You expect your children to win dance, music, spelling, and math competitions every year, but don’t pay as much attention to finding out if they are really of sound mind and body.
  4. You prefer actors in mythological shows who have prominent vaccination scars on their forearms.
  5. Your prefer Bombay Sapphire gin for your martini over Beefeater not because it tastes better, because you don’t like the name of the latter.
  6. You work for Tata Wiprosys or know someone who does.
  7. You need the Supreme Court to judge whether or not two consenting adults have the right to live together outside of marriage, but are pretty sure that cheap fuel is a birthright enshrined in the Indian Constitution.
  8. You frown upon those who buy “made in India” clothing in India, but not those who buy the same products  abroad.
  9. You know that when a government official is asking for chai-paani he or she is not curious if you brought your hot-water bottle.
  10. You use the same word for a type of dal and species of deer which likes grass more than dal.
  11. The memsahibs in your country have given way to another officious class – the memosahibs.
  12. You translate “mild” to what most Westerners would likely consider Dante’s Inferno on the “spicy-scale”.
  13. You avoid whole-grain bread, because you prefer white over wheat(ish).
  14. You would consider purchasing a soft-drink from a vending machine, but only if the coin was inserted for you by a vendor wearing a uniform and a soft baseball cap.
  15. You feel India needs a “baby” vegetable such as “baby lady’s finger” because the Americans have the “baby carrot” and the Chinese have the “baby corn”.

Disclaimer: I’ve posted many of these thoughts on Twitter.

© Text, 2010-2012, Anirban