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Saturday, October 17, 2015

The report card of the millennium

A few weeks ago, on September 25 2015, the world sat down and reviewed its 15-year performance report. This was done with some fanfare, not in the least because the coolest pope in history attended, but the discussion did not receive as much attention as it deserves. Shouldn't the world be talking about this more? How did we do on the promises we had made? Did we meet our targets, did we miss them by a whisker or a mile? The discussions emerging from the UN Sustainable Development summit remind me of the days when I was part of one of the most organised workplaces possible - a consulting company. The same wordy discourses on strengths and 'development needs' which, if someone wanted to simplify them, could be said like this: There are three things you did well last year. There are four things you absolute suck at and you need to get better at them fast if you want to survive. Get to it. And this is how I'd like to simplify the world's 15-year report card:

In September 2000, the world's leaders got together and adopted the "Millennium Development Goals", also called the MDGs, which were time-bound, quantified targets to address the inequity and injustice in the world. There were 8 goals in total, each broken down into targets and indicators. For example, the slightly lofty-sounding Goal 1 -"To Eradicate Extreme Hunger and Poverty", had two targets and five indicators:

Target 1: Halve, between 1990 and 2015, the proportion of people whose income is less than $1 a day.
Indicators (World Bank ratios):
1. Proportion of population below $1 (1993 PPP) per day
2. Poverty gap ratio [incidence x depth of poverty]
3. Share of poorest quintile in national consumption

Target 2: Halve, between 1990 and 2015, the proportion of people who suffer from hunger.
Indicators (UNICEF, WHO and FAO ratios:
4. Prevalence of underweight children under five years of age
5. Proportion of population below minimum level of dietary energy consumption

...and so on for the remaining 7 goals. This internationally agreed framework of 8 goals, complemented by 18 targets and 48 technical indicators was going to address poverty, hunger, disease, lack of adequate shelter, and exclusion-while promoting gender equality, education, and environmental sustainability. They included basic human rights-the rights of each person on the planet to health, education, shelter, and security.

Cut to September 2015, and to my original question: how did we do? We did well in some goals, messed up others. While the proportion of people living under $1.25 PPP a day is lower than it was, the proportion of women dying in childbirth remains unacceptably high and 6 million children are still dying before reaching their fifth birthday. As the MDG dream drew its last breath, it gave birth to MDG 2.0, with bigger and more numerous arms and legs. The SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals) are 17 goals with 169 targets. They are more ambitious and they have greater world consensus. We're now going to have NO ONE living under $1.25 a day by the time we arrive in 2030, we're going to have no one dying of AIDS, and we're going to do all this while taking care of the planet.

The infographic below summarizes our performance on the first six MDGs and their evolution into the first five SDGs.

Next: MDGs 7 and 8 and SDGs 6 through 17.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Working out of Bombay cafes

So here's my new project: I'm going to scout locations in Bombay (with Bandra as the epicenter of the search) where you can sit and work productively. I'll work out of cafes, restaurants and libraries, and evaluate them on the basis of five criteria:
Birdsong Cafe
  • General ambiance - how bright, airy and cheerful is it, does it have comfortable tables, chairs
  • WiFi quality
  • Staff philosophy of I'll-leave-you-in-peace-until-you-need-me
  • Quality of food and coffee
  • Productivity, or average % completion of my To-Do-List for the day
I'm very aware that all the metrics in this analysis are subjective and prone to inconsistency, but it's better than what is out there - Zomato doesn't have a filter for "suitable for working", and the small handful of existing blogs on this subject are even more subjective. 

Here is my first cut of the evaluation. Places reviewed so far:
  1. The Bagel Shop, Bandra W
  2. Taj Mahal Tea House, St. John Baptist Road, Bandra W
  3. Birdsong Cafe
  4. Bru World Cafe, Pali Hilll
Please send me your recommendations for places you'd like me to try. On my wishlist currently (some of these are places I love, but haven't experienced from a workplace perspective):
  1. Colaba Social and Parel Social
  2. Theobroma
  3. Saltwater cafe
  4. Serpis wildside cafe
  5. Candies
  6. Sassy Spoon
  7. Bru World Cafe, St  John Baptist Road

Sunday, June 21, 2015

A "healthy" lifestyle is a moving target

A couple of weeks ago I stumbled into the keto* jungle: read dozens of scientific papers for and against, wolfed through a hundred threads on Reddit, and decided I was ready. Ten days into the diet, still unsure about how good an idea it has been, I read that Audrey Hepburn lived a long and productive while indulging a pasta obsession - two big plates of spaghetti and ketchup every day. That is probably 200 grams of carbs daily (Keto-ers stay under 20)! Gah, what if carbs aren’t the enemy? I worry that my goal to be fit enough to run half marathons into my dotage is a chimera.It is dependent on many sub-goals, all of which keep shifting. I have nightmares about a wise, handsome physician shaking his head over 70-year old me, saying – lady, if only you had taken more care in your 30s, your bones might have been healthier! Sigh.

In general, this generation is believed to be the healthiest that humans have ever been. And yet, there is so much to worry about. We’re living longer, more active lives, but we also get chronic illnesses far earlier.We're more aware, understand diets/exercise regimens better and have the money to indulge in them.  But we’re also more obese, more prone to getting type II diabetes and less likely to be shocked at thirty year olds getting diagnosed with hypertension. The reasons for our doom are also entrenched in our good fortune (we all know what they are, but let me quickly run through them): easy access to processed food, fulfilling careers that leave no time for exercise, wonderful entertainment options which keep us glued to devices. It’s easy to conclude that people who worked with their hands and ate simpler food easily lived healthier lives, and we’re all going to get coronaries in the next decade.

It doesn’t need to be that simple (or that grim): we can use the advantages of this century to win this round too. And here’s when I finally come to the point of the post after all the rambling – how great is it to turn the technology that keeps us sedentary into the very thing that keeps us healthy? Long before my brother gifted me the Fitbit, long before I saw RemedySocial, I have been interested in measuring health indicators. I recently found a diary entry from the year 2000, which lists my weight, blood biochemistry parameters and says that I can run 5 km in 26 minutes. It is amusing, but I don’t need those notebooks anymore. It has become easier to keep track of your health in this decade.

I've recently learned about RemedySocial, a brainchild of Dr. Purav Gandhi and team, who have developed an algorithm to assess a person's risk of contracting 14 major diseases through an online assessment. The platform gives you a score, compares it to others with similar demographics, and gives you advice on the specific health indicators you should start tracking. He puts it well: “Our health is undeniably a downward curve, but we can change its slope! We can make the curve flatter by making early interventions. Good genes don’t last forever.” I took the assessment which took slightly longer the promised five minutes, but I was expecting that. The detailed report that came through was impressive. My short term wellness scores were good (yayy!) but my long term health risk scores were, well, interesting. I might have underestimated the health risks that I face given my life style choices and family history. The platform suggested targeted lab tests and health tips that I needed to follow – just the food that my data obsessed brain needs.

I’m suddenly noticing a spate of health-related apps; what this one does may not be unique. But I’m happy to recommend them because their approach is fresh and fun, and I was amazed at the sheer number of insights the algorithm was able to extract. It doesn’t matter what health tracker you use, as long as you use one.While I continue to think that perfect health will remain a moving target, it might not a bad idea for us to keep moving in its general direction, to be more aware of our own bodies, and to take control of how healthy our own future selves will be.

Disclaimer: Dr. Purav Gandhi, the founder of RemedySocial, is an ex-colleague and a friend, and this blogpost is partly motivated by my hope to make his venture better known. All the views above, however, are my own.

*Keto is a diet philosophy that says the human body functions more efficiently if it uses fats rather than carbs as primary fuel, but that’s all I’m saying. More on keto in another post

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