Saturday, May 31, 2008

Forgotten To Play

As a teenager, I never tired of babies and children. I could spend the whole day playing with and entertaining them and be ready for more the next day. Having a family with a young kid visiting our home was the best treat I could have. It was around the same time that I felt my earliest longings to have a child of my own. There was this groundswell of tenderness and love for children that I wanted to shower on my own - I could hardly wait for motherhood.

J came along many years later and my life circumstances were very different from what they had been in my teens. I was now the sole provider for this child I had given birth to, the marriage had gone kaput and I was living in a foreign country trying to make it all work out for the two of us. Somewhere in the muddle of things, I lost my ability to play with a child tirelessly as I was once able to. Here I was mother of a child as I had always wanted to be and in some ways I felt I was not doing half the job I was able to do back when I was an adolescent.

Back then, it never took any effort to play with a child - it came to me naturally when I was around one. With J, it seems like heaven and earth must move to me to be in that frame of mind when I can just play with her and do nothing else and not grow restless or tired. I see mothers around me who do a stellar job and it makes me feel that much worse.

It is not as if these women have fairytale lives. They are able to cope with life's challenges and still retain the childlike in them - something I have obviously failed to do. While trying to salvage what I could of the wreckage of my life when my marriage ended, I must have overlooked what would become very important for J - her mother's ability to be a child with her. I must have lost that somewhere and don't know how to find it again. To know that I did have it once and that other children have enjoyed the tenderly maternal in me in a way J never has and likely never will is lacerating.

Friday, May 30, 2008

SocialSpark

I learned about SocialSpark recently and had an opportunity to chat for a bit with the company's CEO Ted Murphy and learn more about the concept of being sponsored to produce content for your blog.

HC: I'll start with the most obvious question - Why SocialSpark ?
TM:That's a broad question but I will try to answer.
TM:There was a need in the market for a service that allowed advertisers and bloggers to more efficiently and effectively connect.


HC: Does this offer the blogger and/or the advertiser something that an AdSense type service does not ?
TM:Yes. Adsense is purely display advertising with no real connection between the advertiser, the blogger and the product or service. SocialSpark is all about sponsorship. Bloggers create sponsored content on behalf of the advertiser or have the advertiser sponsor their blog. The relationship is more intimate and each party selects the other.


HC: What kind of bloggers would find a paying market for their content through SocialSpark ?
TM:We see all sorts of bloggers making money. From mommy bloggers to “dogs that blog”. SocialSpark advertisers aggregate campaigns on blogs, so it isn’t so much about traffic as it is about quality and topic.


HC: How do you see the content of blogs evolve in terms of the freedom of expression that bloggers enjoy in the largely non-monetized world of today ?
TM:I believe it is imperative to keep that freedom, that is what makes blogs so great. We don’t allow advertisers to stipulate tone, so each sponsored post is free to be in the uncensored voice of the author. If it’s not authentic it won’t work in the long term.


HC: Do you think a venture like SocialSpark was made possible because blogs are creating huge quantities of content where none existed before ? Or in other words would you call SocialSpark a business fueled by blogging ?
TM:I believe we have a bit of co-dependancy. We could not exist with the content bloggers create, but at that same time we help them create more content. We find that bloggers that participate in our marketplace blog more often and generally spend more time building their audience.


HC: Could you describe a typical blogger-advertiser relationship in SocialSpark and how the larger marketplace benefits from it ?
TM:I am not sure if there is a “typical relationship” but I will try to explain how it works on a high level. An advertiser creates a profile in SocialSpark, then searches SocialSpark for bloggers that meet their particular criteria. Let’s say I am looking for entertainment bloggers. I would build a “blog roll” of entertainment bloggers by looking at each blog and adding them to my list. I would then create an “Opportunity” in our marketplace targeted at that list of entertainment blogger. Think of an Opportunity like a listing on eBay. If you are a blogger on that blog roll or meet other criteria the advertiser may set you can choose to take that Opportunity.


HC: You mentioned that the blogger is sponsored to create content by the advertiser. Does the content then reside on the advertiser’s site ?
TM:No. That content is on the bloggers own blog.


HC: How does the advertiser benefit from the content they sponsored ?
TM:It helps generate buzz by people reading the post, it generates clicks by people clicking on links and it is syndicated through rss and social search sites.


HC: So the content would like a plug for a product/service that the advertiser provides ?
TM:not really a plug, generally more a review of a site or product. It all has to be fully disclosed.
http://socialspark.com/code_of_ethics

HC: How do you see SocialSpark evolve as the blogging medium does ? For instance how would this business model work with Twitter ?
TM:It would work in much of the same way. We plan to bring socialspark to twitter in the near future.


HC: What are the bloggers who are not part of the SocialSpark network missing other than the opportunity to make some money for their content ?
TM:I would say the biggest thing is additional traffic and exposure. We have a great community and they use socialspark to discover new blogs.


HC: It was great chatting with you ! One last question - What are some of the other interesting opportunities like SocialSpark you see coming the way of bloggers in the near future ?
TM:I think bloggers will have lots of opportunities to creatively monetize their blogs in the future. Bloggers will continue getting more and more attention from mainstream advertisers, allowing more individuals to take their blogging more seriously. I think that is a good thing for everyone.Thank you for your time. Have a great night!

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Songs About Aggravations

I am a habitual misplacer of things and my memory is like a sieve. It takes a sizeable rock of an experience to be retained. I always thought of this as an aggravation and then I heard Lorraine Feather - she sings about them and makes the whole annoying business of losing your keys quite delightful.

I was listening to her songs on the way to J's music lesson. Needless to say, I was running just a little late thanks to bad planning earlier in the morning - it is a malaise closely related to constantly misplacing. Her choice of themes combined with the comedic element of her lyrics and the crystalline purity of her voice made me think about the importance of perspective in life.

Listening to "We Appreciate Your Patience" ,a song about being on permanent hold with a with a non-human appreciating our patience with call centers makes you smile at a very familiar annoyance.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Oddly Happy

An unconventional mix of circumstances makes for the happiest country in the world. John Carlin's article begins with what would have otherwise been a catastrophic catalog of woes except that it is not:

Highest birth rate in Europe + highest divorce rate + highest percentage of women working outside the home = the best country in the world in which to live. There has to be something wrong with this equation. Put those three factors together - loads of children, broken homes, absent mothers - and what you have, surely, is a recipe for misery and social chaos.

Research shows that you don't have to live in a tropical paradise to be happy and money can't necessarily buy it. Even if you don't live in a particularly happy country, you can pursue happiness on your own - it is "understandable, obtainable and teachable" requiring 15 hours and equaling one 1 credit.

John Carlin concludes his essay on Iceland with words of wisdom for the rest of us :

Partly by dint of travel, partly by accident, Iceland, we agreed, was a melting pot that had contrived to combine humanity's better qualities, offering a lesson for the rest of the world on how to live sensibly and cheerfully, free from cant and prejudice and taboo.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Mommy 2.0

When I first started checking out the offerings of the children’s' section of public libraries a few years ago, I found there were books about every conceivable life situation that a child could possibly need help coping with.

Divorce, death, religious and cultural differences, bi-racial families, moving and a new school, same sex marriage, a sibling coming along after a long hiatus - you name it and there was a picture book that explained the deal in simple terms. With more and more Mommies going under the knife to get a new and improved look, there is Mommy 2.0 - A new picture book about plastic surgery aims to explain why mom is getting a flatter tummy and a 'prettier' nose.

The goal of the book is laudable no doubt - it aims to answer questions kids have about their mother's new appearance and the process leading up to it. But as the article points out, there is a downside too. It quotes child psychiatrist Elizabeth Berger, author of "Raising Kids With Character," :

Then there are the body image issues raised by cosmetic surgery—especially for daughters. Berger worries that kids will think their own body parts must need "fixing" too. The surgery on a nose, for example, may "convey to the child that the child's nose, which always seemed OK, might be perceived by Mommy or by somebody as unacceptable," she says.

While that's a legitimate concern, I'm wondering about the title of the book itself - Mommy 2.0 That makes Mommy some kind of bot/widget/gizmo that needs versioning up to remain viable. There is a whole bunch of serious negative connotations to that - as Mommy Barbie-fies herself, she looses her humanity as well. That is definitely the wrong message to convey to any kid - male or female.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Weird Indicators

Rising hemlines and length of beards, women's hairstyles are among strange economic indicators. Saw articles on a couple more in the NYT recently. The sale of lipstick and number of crime tipster calls. While the former may help the bottom lines of Sephora, Estee Lauder et al, the later is definitely far more helpful - the proverbial silver-lining to the clouds of hard times.

For the uninitiated, it might be a good time to start stockpiling canned food when they see a combinations of bad signs like empty Costco parking lots, few cars on the road during rush hour and too many women with short hairstyles. Seeing Porches on the Wal-Mark parking lots, coworkers taking "staycations" instead of vacations, not being able to find parking any time of day at the neighborhood Taco Bell, SUV drivers going at less than 50 miles per hour on the freeway seem to tell a similar story too.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Listing It All

Lists are good for many things not the least as a recap of the what you need to know when time is short. Listanity has a wide variety of themes so there should be something there for everyone. You learn by the way that "There are two types of Internet users, those that use RSS and those that don't. " If you are a listmaniac and get all of your lists by a RSS feed, you are probably getting the best bang for the buck as far as your infotainment needs.

As you browse through the lists on Listanity you quickly realize that no list is complete no matter how it is described - "Top XX lists, collection of, best of, resources, greatest, hottest.." The list of comments following it will inevitably have recommendations and point out the misses. To that end, allowing listmania to grow uncontrolled could be a problem because there is no definitive uber-list that wraps it all up neatly - an idea key to list making and list seeking.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Birdsong Recitative

J, I suspect is beginning to understand the uses of technology. On our way back from the pool this past weekend we heard an unusual birdsong coming from the nearby woods and wondered what bird that might be. J said "We can record the sound and look it up. Then you'll know which bird it matches with". Made sense and I was not surprised to see that just such a thing existed in the market.

It is interesting how kids growing up in a time of immersive and interactive technology are able to make such effortless connections between real world problems and technology solutions. In my day, for the want of options a child may have imagined a magical bird whose enchanting song made you want to follow it until it lead you to its fairytale world.

J had a fairly robust imagination as a pre-schooler before homework routinely included projects that had to be researched on the web. It seems that the flight of fancy was cut short a little too abruptly and the moon no longer dines on stars to make a starless night.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Star Jumper

I have tried J to get interested in the imaginary, whimsical and the fantastical in reading and otherwise. Sometimes we make up stories as a game, adding to each other's plots until the results are quite crazy. My efforts to send the protagonist through a door that leads to a magic kingdom or have Aladdin come upon his cave is always countered by J's unyielding realism.

The characters are yanked right out, set straight and put on their way on a more mundane and believable course. I give up in the end not quite able to fathom my practical little Virgo who does not have one shred of my love for the imaginary and improbable. She has no yen for the girly stuff either when it comes to reading. She'll tires of the goody two-shoes and the divas equally and very quickly.

Now a story like Star Jumper - Journal of a Cardboard Genius by Frank Asch is something she can enjoy. After she finished reading it recently, I asked her to tell me about it - what the story is about, what she like and disliked. This is a "review" of sorts in J's words.

The story is about Alex and his little brother Jonathan. Jonathan really annoys Alex and Alex wants to get away from him. Wherever that Alex goes, Jonathan always follows him. Peter Pan sewed it back for her when Wendy lost her shadow but Jonathan does the opposite - he tries to cover Alex's shadow with his own body. Alex finds a way that he could get away from him - by building a spaceship.

He first made a plan and it took him about twenty minutes but he could have done it faster if Jonathan wasn't bugging him. The only time that Alex has peace is at school. At school he stares at the girl in front of him named Zoe Breen. He works on the calculations for his space ship in class. Zoe asks him what it is and he tells her it is a little math for extra credit. He finds the materials for the spaceship in the attic.

After dinner he builds it and at night he tries it out. When he goes into space he goes on a spacewalk but on his way back he hits another planet. He thought about it and he told himself he was missing a part. He wondered if there was anything strange on the planet. He then came back home.

What I like : When Zoe called from the phonebook, she asked if Alex he wanted to watch the Mummies’ Curse. He wondered if anyone else from their class would be there and if they would think he was on a date and tease him. He brought Jonathan along. How he made the spaceship. Everything the space ship needed was already in his own house. He recycled and did not have to buy anything.

What I did not like : The way Jonathan bugged Alex. The pictures of Jonathan in the book do not express his behavior and how he really acts.

Even with all that information, I am no closer to understanding why J likes what she does. This sounds like science fiction and does not jive with her need for "real" and yet somehow it works. She also liked Caitlin's Holiday when she read it a while ago - a story about a girl and her talking doll. Maybe it is all about what J finds believable or possible and what she does not. At any rate, I will keep trying get her excited about genies in bottles and magic faraway trees.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Reskinned World

Being able to alter one's view of reality at will would offer the much needed escape from it. A better option (at least at first glance) than psychotropic drugs. When we are all behind our rose colored glasses, feeling happy and peaceful about the world around us, we are likely to advance the cause of both collectively.

The only problem seems to be that the ugliness of "reality" would become unbearable after having re-skinned it accordingly to our preferences. We have never want to get off such a wonderful visual drug. Were it possible to implant a device so our brains would register only what we wanted it to, or better still reprogram us genetically so we never had to see the world for what it "really" is. This almost makes the concept of "Maya" comprehensible.

We should also be able to time travel after a fashion if we choose to re-skin our world to our favorite period in history or perhaps fast forward to a place and time that exists only in science fiction. The hacker types would presumably work on ways to hijack our personal paradises while spammers imposed theirs on ours. One person's hell could be another's heaven.

As with a lot of technology advances that seem likely in the near future, my only wish is to be dead and gone before any of this comes to pass. The internet and cell phone is about all I can take and still manage to keep my wits about me. Your mileage may vary.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Spreading Wealth

Though IHT thought it fit to write a story on the theme of unequal success in India, it is really quite unnecessary. The contrast being drawn is between a telecom tycoon and a flower seller trying to peddle her wares at traffic signals. Sure, this mode of commerce is uniquely Indian but the contrast in wealth is most definitely not. If IHT were to likewise contrast the life of a pan-handler in inner city Mississippi with that of Rupert Murdoch the effect would be identical.

The same story can transfer across the globe - to any place of where free enterprise is allowed to thrive, corruption is either low grade and pervasive or big ticket and in high places and the survival of a democratic form of government depends on head count and not on the prosperity of individuals or the ability of leaders to deliver on their electoral promises. Singling out India to highlight inequitable distribution of wealth is gratuitous and like they say those living in glass houses should know better than to throw stones. By the way they go on, one would think mainstream Western media is the biggest advocate of Soviet-style socialism.

For a country independent for only sixty years and less than twenty years into its first open market system foray, India has not done so shabbily. This is not to say it does not have many significant issues that indeed appear insurmountable at times. Even so, if being pegged against countries that have enjoyed freedom and the pursuit of happiness for a much longer time not to mention one millionth of the challenges that India has to deal with, it is only fair that credit be is given where it is due.

True, wealth has not percolated as far and as deep as it should have and the process is irksomely slow. But for those of us who have spent our lives in India, the effects of change are undeniable within large swaths of the population. The country has a very long way to go bring the fruits of economic success to its poorest and most marginalized but the same can be said even for the most powerful country in the world.

I never really got the point of this type of reporting on India.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Uses Of Simplicity

Seeing the world in a grain of sand has physical and metaphysical implications as this slide show proves. Whatever the perspective, a grain of sand is not as inconsequential as it may seem. Similarly when watermelon is carved to look like a blossom , or butter to look like a diety, they like the grain of sand transcend the limitations of their identity. Nothing is as simple as it seems Joel Spolsky notes . He cites the example of the many complications that can come into play with a simple file read and write operation. He says :

Something as simple as copying a file is full of perils. What if the first argument is a directory? What if the second argument is a file? What if a file with the same name already exists in the destination? What if you don't have write permission?


What if the copy fails in the middle? What if the destination is on a remote machine which is available, but which requires authentication to continue? What if the files are large and the link is slow and you need to show a progress indicator? What if the transfer speed slows down to almost zero... when do you give up and return an error message?

As fascinating as it is to watch a broccoli carved to resemble a poodle or discover the hidden universe in a grain of sand, sometimes it's nice to be able to rush headlong without paying any attention to possible complications that may come along the way. We might get a memorable or regretable romantic enocunter, an unplanned vacation or a software application from hell.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Eating Too Much

I am as miffed as the next desi at India being blamed for the global food crisis. The punditry is right in asking "Why do Americans think they deserve to eat more than Indians?" That would be like asking why does aristocracy get offended by the ostentatious nouveau riche.

Unfortunately the bar for "flashiness" in this case is dangerously low - the Indians have had their hand slapped by Big Brother for going ahead and eating a full meal. We have apparently made news by eating food produced in our own country, purchased with our own currency. The implication is somehow that we should have been mindful of our lowly station in the world and known better than to "start demanding better nutrition and better food".

After the more deserving people have had the best portions and the bulk of it, us desis should be grateful to scrape and survive on the left-overs. Instead, flush with money from a booming economy we have gone and flouted long established tradition and rules of engagement. How dare we improve our diets to the point that there is pressure to keep food inside India ?

No wonder Condi Rice feels the need to look at that element of the problem. She might as well have issued an edict for all desis to go on a crash diet effective immediately to ease up some of that "pressure" so food could start flowing West to end up half-eaten in trash bins and dumpsters. What else is she to do with these upstart Indians who insist on eating their meals ?

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Mammoni

Watching this series on Italian men in the 30s and 40s who still live with their mothers, made me think how bad habits if continued long enough and in large numbers can take on the mantle of "tradition" and "culture". I've seen a few Bengali Mammonis in my own family. Men who stayed on and on with their often widowed and impoverished mothers. In return for a portion of their paycheck, these women waited hand and foot on their over-grown boys just like the Italian mothers do in the feature though its not clear if any money changes hands.

These women were glorified housekeepers who would never enjoy superannuation. When the sons finally got married, the brought home the wives to live with their mother. Nothing changed in the domestic situation except that the mother now had more kids to look after. Her domestic responsibilities increased as did her age. Came a point when she could no longer do what had come to be expected of her and the suddenly she became the evil mother-in-law who was showing her true colors after her son got married. It was clearly lost on her children that she was suffering from chronic fatigue and just wanted to be left alone.

The parting of ways came after much bitterness and acrimony. The sons bought their own houses and moved out with their fledgling families. The mother was left behind to be by herself as she desired. Somehow that did not work out either. She felt hurt and betrayed. Was she not entitled to getting something back for so many years of service. A phone call, a weekend visit in the least but much more really.

Everyone complained about being too busy to give her the time and attention she wanted. They were exasperated with her. What did she want anyway ? She hated it when we lived with her and she hates it now that we are gone. Maybe they should have gone a long time ago and allowed her an opportunity to forge a meaningful life of her own that was not defined by doing chores for grown up children.

In my neck of the woods, the Mammonis have typically been bad news for everyone but specially for their mothers. That may be different in Italy and if so it would be interesting to understand why.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Vindaloo And Lassi

This post on the consequences of the rising power of the Indian Rupee is a lot of content for the average person to digest. What is more, it does not give you the two-three sentence summary in English that someone like me can take away and possibly mull over.

I am quite bedeviled by the detail and the lack of a conclusion which is probably because the story is still unfolding. That said, I did find a little nugget of a metaphor explaining the risk of over-heating by the economy by large capital inflows. The author says :

just like a strong vindaloo without the de-rigueur mango lassi accompaniment a rising currency produces its own kind of dyspeptic discomfort

You have to be a Desi to attest to the truthiness of that example and if you are economics challenged like myself you will also wonder if the central bank's market stabilization scheme the author refers to further along in his article is the mango lassi to the vindaloo perpetrated by the plummeting dollar.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Staying Home

ABC News profiles a 21 year old girl from India who is happy in Mumbai and would not trade her life for anything. She scores bonus points for not knowing who Brad Pitt is. Nisha Mehta is neither an anomaly nor does she represent her generation or the state of present day India as seen through the eyes of a 21 year old.

Back in my day when I was 21, India was a very different place - there was not a plethora of career options. The only sure bets were medicine and engineering and it was no walk in the park making it to a decent school. The kids who could not keep their nose to the grindstone and get an education that would translate to a job had very limited options at home. America looked far more promising in comparison.

It took a student visa to get their foot in the door and anything was possible after that. Today the average kid has choices that never existed in India before. They are not compelled to step outside their comfort zone for a good life. Also, the whole "idea of America" and moved to their backyards. They don't need to travel to experience any of it. Needless to say, the absurdly difficult immigration laws have proved the greatest disincentive of all.

Who in their right mind would want to waste the best years of their lives waiting for a Green Card far away from family and familiar culture when they could have been doing much better staying right at home. There are more flexible continuing education options than ever before, job opportunities abound for those who are motivated to succeed professionally.

To someone who has grown up in India and never lived for a significant period of time anywhere else, the many things that ail India is an intrinsic part of their socio-cultural experience. Just like you cannot graft out the most annoying traits of your family members and still have them be your family; they don't consider making over India the only way they can get along with her. They have accepted it as part of the package - flawed, imperfect and yet comfortingly familiar.

There will be some whining and complaining but they'll still remain together. And when an outsider asks them if they would rather be elsewhere, the answer is likely to be "No" because the negatives distinctly outweigh the positives today specially when there is not a direct comparison point.

As in my time, there are 21 year olds even today who queue up outside the American Consulate from the wee hours hoping to get their student visa approved but they are probably not counting on being able to make America their home given the vagaries of the immigration process. They might give it a shot but they may move to a more immigrant friendly country and best of all they may head home to dream up the next start-up.

These are heady times in India and its not surprising that young people feel like they could achieve everything they want right at home - confidence and prosperity are correlated. Whether that will prove to be yet another case of irrational exuberance ending with a large bubble bursting, only time will tell. In the meanwhile, Brad Pitt notwithstanding, America has done quite a bit to become an unattractive destination for young talent from India.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Rain And Sun

Like many people, I think Aishwarya Rai is picture perfect but like many others I am almost always underwhelmed by her acting. Two exceptions to that would be Raincoat and Bride and Prejudice. Love and marriage are the main themes of both but that's the only thing they have in common unless one counts the refreshing Rai performances.

Raincoat is possibly film-noir. The incessant rain makes for a dark and gloomy ambience in which the story unfolds. Two old lovers meet somewhat by chance one afternoon, talk about the past and where they are in life now. Both pretend that they are happy - she in her marriage, he with how well his business is doing. The truth about their lives comes out in the end. The story is told with deliberate slowness and it draws you in. You become a fly on the wall observing the two navigate their perilous way through a maze of half-truths and white lies.

Bride and Prejudice is an unapologetic Bollywood musical with a little bit of Broadway thrown in for good measure. Rai works her way through song, dance, pathos and drama with grace and a light touch - most importantly she seems to be having a good time. The colors are bright, the music loud and everyone and their grandmother breaks into a song and dance routine at the slightest provocation. Night is to Raincoat as day is to Bride.

Except for the name Will Darcy nothing else seemed familiar from Jane Austen's book that provided inspiration for this movie. Maybe it does not really matter. One assumes Chadha wanted the rest of the world to get a taste of mainstream Bollywood fare - a familiar story told in English merely helped her get her audience interested in her offering.

For those of us who dismiss Rai as a perfectly expressionless doll, both of these movies could be a nice surprise.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

In The Motherhood

While checking my nearly defunct hotmail account, saw this series culled from real life experiences of mothers on the MSN portal. Even allowing for quite a bit of hyperbole it is fun to watch. This mommyhood confabulation roller-coaster is described thusly :

In The MotherHood is the first scripted Web series by moms, for moms and about moms. Conceived by Suave and Sprint, the story will be written in part by YOU, based on your funny, comical and no-holds-barred experiences of motherhood.

Colicky babies, toppling toddlers, terrible-two tantrums, kindergartners uttering obscenities (during parent-teacher conferences, of course) — the comedies of motherhood never seem to end!

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Executive Shoe Shine

As a child, my mother taught me how to recalibrate when I felt proud of myself or thought I was better than the rest of them. She would point to the little ants that marched in their relentless single files around the kitchen in summertime and say "Do you think any one of them is better, smarter, prettier, more talented or richer than the rest ?" When I thought about it I knew it was impossible to tell them apart let alone judge singular attributes.

"Just remember that's how all of humankind appears to someone who is looking down upon the Earth from very high above. We are only so many ants milling away with nothing so remarkable about anyone that they would stand out in the grand scheme of things. Whenever you lose your humility think about the ants and being one of them" she would say.

It is a lesson that has stood me in good stead to this day though I must admit I have often slipped and imagined myself to be this spectacular ant quite unlike any other and in as such deserving of a lot more attention from my Maker than the "rest of them". But the recalibration lesson does kick in soon thereafter and sets the measure straight.

Reading the poem Executive Shoe Shine by Mary Jo Salter made me smile and think about the Master of Universe ants I see around me who have "the silver snail of a cell-phone earpiece hooked to his ear hangs on his every word" and therefore make the rest of us wonder "Could he strike us a deal with the weather ?". This could almost be a poem about Sherman McCoy.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Gas For Food

I was at the farmer's market for vegetables and fruit when J spied the big bin or corn and clamored for me to buy some. There were pathetic looking ears of corn, about one fourth their usual size then there was sticker shock of the price. That much for plain old corn ?

I told J we'll make to with the frozen corn we still have left in the fridge and give the fresh corn a shot some other time. She was a little disappointed but recovered quickly after getting a sample of Camembert cheese to taste. Near the checkout line there were freshly baked chocolate cookie samples which was only more help.

Later in the evening I was reading about the DYI ethanol pump in Wired magazine. A sugar based backyard fuel pump sound like a good idea until the price of sugar goes the way of corn with everyone making their own backyard ethanol. Those sample cookies would be the first to disappear and then dessert would become and unbelievable luxury.

Using garbage as the starting product might be far more sustainable. Turning perfectly edible food into fuel to run a car seems extremely wrong-headed to folks like me who were born and raised in developing countries. We know if there is any food there is always more than one mouth waiting to be fed. It makes sense to address that need before filling up a gas tank.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Cube Stuff

I don’t care for cubicle decoration though personalization done tastefully and in moderation can be quite nice. Being that both taste and moderation are subjective qualities I keep my space completely anonymous and steer clear of trouble.

The last thing I need is being dissected over my cubicle choices though not making any may be bad thing too. At the end of the day there is no trace of me left. Maybe that’s my unconscious way of not putting down roots anywhere. While sterile workplaces are fine, I do like a nice laptop bag and some interesting supplies.

So it’s nice to discover, computer bags for women that look
chic and practical – a welcome departure from having to choose between ugly or ridiculous.

Useful to be able to highlight and underscore passages from favorite books without marring the books themselves with the
transparent PostIt - I haven't seen these in around though.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Lego Robot

Using Lego-like roBlocks to build robots sounds much more fun than assembling circuits on breadboards and then writing assembly language programs to make stuff work - that's all we had back in the day. It will be wonderful to have these for sale with open source hardware and software. That could give everyone a fair shot at getting in touch with their inner geek. For those of us who went through engineering school quite cluelessly, this may be what it takes to finally "get" the concepts that we never did in four years there. Clearly, there would be a need for cook books to get folks started on their maiden Lego robot projects and it obviously makes a great educational tool for kids.

Schweikardt said that children who were around 8 years old could start playing with the blocks and make simple robots with them. Older children would start understanding how the blocks worked together to form the entire robot.


The simple logic behind the functions of the robot should help the children enhance their lateral thinking skills. According to a Carnegie Mellon press release, the blocks can also be reprogrammed to perform slightly different tasks from what they were originally designed to do. For example, the five logic blocks known as “and,” “or,” “not,” “nand,” and “xor,” enable children to improve how their robots react to different stimuli

Friday, May 09, 2008

Wildflower Bouquet

Little things J does remind my why I am grateful for motherhood. Some mornings she feeds me one heart shaped cereal “Because I love you” – just a small token to remind me of her affection. In the evening when I go to pick her up from after-school care, she comes running across the field, her face shining bright. Some days, she has in her hand a clump of wild flowers she has gathered for me. I am not sure where and how I can preserve these treasures from heaven.

She puts them in a glass of water and sets it on the window-sill of my room. I can imagine myself in my twilight years thinking back about this time fondly. I would see the gap toothed smile on her face as she hands me the flowers “I gathered specially for Mommy” – I would see her green floral printed skirt with sea green top, tired at day’s end and so relieved to see me. Like a wave through a sea of green she comes rushing headlong into my awaiting arms. I pick her up, she wraps her arms around my neck - that moment is always perfect.

This is the time of day we both look forward to equally – the day’s battles are done and buglers of fate play the beating retreat. We have to brace up for whatever the next day might bring and the next mostly without end. Yes, sometimes we pause and take a break but there is a certain monotony to our lives that a beach trip or a brief holiday does not completely break. The daily grind is assured of our return to it - there is no real escape.

In my dreams I reinvent myself - turn somewhat reckless maybe, give myself a new life and a new country to call home, pace the days much slower. In my dreams, J rushes to me with a bouquet of wildflowers in her hand, the arc of her smile brighter than the sun shining in her hair. In my dream that moment lasts forever or maybe I want it to.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Made For Music

S was no more than ten when I first met her. In our little town she was a musical prodigy. Trained in Hindustani classical music she could hold her own in almost any genre. Our fathers were co-workers and we had been invited to their home for dinner and she had performed for us. I had listened mesmerized. I thought she could give the leading playback singers of Bollywood a run for their money even at that young age.

Then I wondered if I was just being a toad in a pond who had never seen world - I was in the final year of college then. Maybe in the "real" world out there, talent like S's was commonplace. Despite my lack on confidence in my own judgment I sensed S was destined for greatness.

There was something special about her - not every kid with a lovely singing voice had such fierce dedication and sense of purpose. When she sang, it was as if the world around her had dissolved - she was transformed into the music she was creating. It was an unique experience listening to her in her living room with just our families in audience. I could see her performing on a concert stage someday with people queuing up for tickets - I felt very lucky.

It was vindicating today when I happened to see a feature on S in a leading Indian newspaper. Indeed she has arrived on the music scene and her star is on the ascent. I still treasure the cassette she had given us with some of her songs recorded on it. There were other kids I knew back then who I thought had a great deal of potential and I am hopeful of being proven right about them too. Maybe us toads in the pond are able to recognize extraordinary caliber just as well as the worldly-wise. At any rate it is a wonderful feeling to have been right.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Pig In Mud

I have as little knowledge of cricket as I do of pig slaughtering - the themes that two books I am reading now open with. The former is The Match by Romesh Guneskera and the later is The Konkans by Tony D'Souza. Guneskera is overwhelming me with minutiae of locale and theme to the point I am losing sight of his story. The characters are disappearing on me like random people do in crowded bazaars. I am not sure which one I am supposed to keep in sight so I get to the end. He has my poor head spinning already and I'm likley to drop out mid-book.

D'Souza starts with this fantastic account about two men, the narrators uncles who arrive in Chicago from Konkan in India and decide they need to slaughter a pig to celebrate the feast of St. Francis Xavier the family's patron saint. The characters are sketched in bold colors as the story unfolds at a bracing pace. The smell of dukrajemas (a Konkani pork curry) and all too frequent flash backs to Chikmaglur do not distract or parochialize. Instead they form an authentic backdrop in which D'Souza spins his yarn masterfully.

When it comes to using exotic locales in storytelling there are tinkers like Guneskera and others and the real mechanics like D'Souza who know to use it a tell a story that transcends its setting. I am struggling for the right cricketing idiom for Guneskera’s book but it would be along the lines of leaving a movie at intermission to find something else to do. For anyone who likes being told a good story D’Souza’s will make them as happy as a pig in mud.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Hear And Now

Hear and Now is the kind of movie to be blown away by and also remember wistfully. It can be about and mean different things to different people. I saw in it a story of a couple deeply in love -a marriage based on a profound level of communication that needs no words. Paul and Sally Taylor have been deaf all their lives and are married to each other. At sixty five, they get the gift of hearing by a cochlear implant.

The movie documents the anticipation before the operation, the event itself and life with sound in it. Irene Taylor Brodsky portrays the myriad of complex emotions that her parents Paul and Sally experience with great sensitivity and like any well made movie, makes it look effortless.

For the first time in their long marriage, Sally falls behind Paul when she is not able to match his pace with being able to hear well with the cochlear implant. It makes her anxious and even depressed at times. The world that they had shared together seems to have fallen apart. Paul is leaving her out in savoring aural experiences. Paul is not nearly as competitive and is happy to wait for her to catch up.

As much as they like being able to hear for the first time in their lives, the initial euphoria soon gives way to a desire to return to the old and familiar ways and retreat to the absolute silence they were used to. The pressure to hear all the time and everywhere is simply overwhelming. Paul expects nothing from this operation and is delighted to have what he has recieved. Sally is upset at herself for wanting more out of her new found ability to hear and is frustrated that she cannot become a hearing person fast enough.

Their relationship struggles because of this fundamental difference in their outlook - something that obviously became evident only when this life changing event occurred. It seems as if Sally had always been conscious of her handicap and longed to remedy it but Paul never thought of himself quite like her.

To me this is also a story about the power of acceptance in life and feeling grateful for the gifts we either take for granted or have granted to us in an unexpected act of largesse. After a year of ups and downs, Paul and Sally manage to find a comfortable pace that they can walk together. After the challenges, their relationship is even stronger for their new ability to communicate by the sound of laughter and tears. An absolutely must-watch movie !

Monday, May 05, 2008

Self Help

This column by Oliver Burkeman at Guardian is a succinct summary of what ails the bulk of self-help books. The few times I've picked up one, I've felt more distressed than helped or as Burkeman notes felt "kicked" rather than "nudged" to fix what's broken in my life. The one thing about advice of any kind is that it is credible and inspiring only when the advisor has done in their life exactly as they preach and has found it effective.

This is not unlike a parent teaching their child right and wrong. You can make the best speech and the most convincing argument for your case but if you haven't walked the talk, chances are the child will tune you out. The problem with the self-help genre is two-fold. The nudges outweigh the kicks so vast swathes of the population cannot relate . They drown the reader in platitudes as they prescribe their one size fits all cure-all. An
article in Salon describes the self-help industry as follows :

...the self-help industry is a modern boondoggle and annoyance -- more disturbing than, but akin to, that damn noise the kids call music these days. It's a waste of money, it saps folks of their gumption, and no one can prove it works

The most fundamental flaw in the rationale of the self-help genre is that for a few dollars anyone could get a genie in a bottle who could magically make everything right for them. This is like expecting to graduate Med school only by reviewing a set of CliffNotes.


Ms M, my mentor from high school days swore by the power of biographies. She believed it was the best source of inspiration and guidance for our own lives - these were companion volumes to the unfolding story of your own life. You read them over and over again and learned new things each time. These books were like maps you took on a road trip but they were not teleportation devices that whisked you to your destination effortlessly.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Eco-Therapy

The local newspaper has a flyer in the mailbox every other week. Most of the space is devoted to grocery coupons and celebrity gossip but the part that I always check out is the weird news section. That's where I learned about ecopsychology and by extension ecotherapy. This is for and about people whose passion for being green and eco-friendly is making them sick from worry about doing harm to the planet. Fascinating and scary when you think about what happens when a well intentioned message is repeated so many times that it causes in hysteria.

This reminds me of my friend Shree who went into depression in her early teens over the income inequality and poverty in India. Just like it is impossible to remain unaware of climate crisis and global warming in this day and age, there is no way a middle class kid could grow up in India and not see how the underprivileged live their lives.

The adults thought it was just one of those adolescent hormone things that would run its course and all would be well. That did not quite happen and no one knows exactly how to make her happy without eliminating poverty. Maybe she needed something like ecotherapy twenty years ago. Instead everyone settled for labeling her "highly odd".

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Getting IT Wrong

I must have dealt with way too many IT Scoundrels because there is not one scenario in this article that is unfamiliar. The picture from the other side of the fence is no rosier.

You have no idea if the project will even be funded but you embark on a vendor and product discovery process. If you are big fish these guys will be vying for your business. They will bend over backwards to demo the product, answer questions, demo again, answer yet more questions, estimate the scope of work and so forth. The process has no end because the project in concept state. But you don't level with these guys you bring in to do their little dog and pony shows. You pretend like you have a solid plan and are rearing to go.

You want answers to two questions "How much ?" and "How long ?". Fair enough – it is your time and money after all. Could you perhaps describe what you are undertaking to build ? But that is where the cookie crumbles. You can't quite articulate it but do seek parity with your competition while retaining your essential differentiation. That's what you seek at a super high level - there are as it turns out no levels below that. Aren't such things called castles in the air ?

So the how long and how much questions just cannot be answered – there are not enough data points. As you press and browbeat them into submission, they throw a number out there mainly based on gut and hope for the best. The results needless to say are not pretty.

Everyone agrees on the need for a robust engagement model but no one really takes the trouble to define it. You sign on boiler-plate contract and service level agreement documents that do not take the nuances of your specific situation into consideration. You figure sourcing that has the figured out already. As the relationship develops the misses become painfully evident. One or both of the parties suffer royally as a result.

Finally and perhaps most fascinatingly no matter how many times you have got it wrong in the past, the chances of getting it right the next time around are slim to none. It seems to me that that there is no dearth of "scoundrels" in the technology business who get to do as they please largely unchecked. Maybe it is in the nature of the technology business to make scoundrels out of the best of us - surely our mothers didn't teach us to behave the way we do.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Exuberant Affirmation

This must be my lucky time of year for getting parenting wisdom from those who were raised in the Eastern world but are now raising their children in the West. This time it comes from a Korean mother of twin kindergarteners. She grew up in Seoul and came to the States as an undergrad and went on to complete that, a related masters and finally an MBA. She's been in the workforce for about six years now and has this interesting observation.

In her culture it is normal for parents not to praise their children for a job well done. So if she scored a 90%, her father merely acknowledged it. For a 95% or a 100% he might he less perfunctory in doing so. Her parents would never tell her that she had done a great job and they were very proud of her. This is completely in line with what I have experienced growing up in India. As a student you are expected to deliver excellent grades as a matter of course. That is business as usual. It's only when you fail that parents get involved and give you the kind of attention you really don't want.

K contends that our culture's refusal to affirm kids lavishly has a downside. Right from her undergrad days in the States, she noticed a significant difference between Asian and Caucasian students in the style and substance of their presentations. A lot of the Asians would have unbeatable content but their delivery lacked confidence and panache. With the Caucasians often the reverse was true.


She believes this has everything to do with the how their parents treated their achievements since childhood. According to her the exuberant affirmation that the Asian kids never received made all the difference – despite their considerable talent and ability, their self-worth remained somewhat lacking. The Caucasians won hands down in that area.

I have to agree with K’s analysis and think have taken the middle ground here. I never praise J for the outcome of her work but do compliment the tenacity, the focus or the desire to learn that helped her achieve that outcome. Whether my efforts will make J the confident and outgoing young person that K longed to be in her undergrad days only time will tell.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Purple Crayon

I have known my neighbor Lindsay for over a year now and have known her to being prone to mood swings. She can go from being kind, polite and thoughtful to abrasive and outright rude. Since the only reason we know each other is that our kids are in the same grade and play together, I've always ignored her behavior - that way the kids don't have to be caught in the friction between two adults that has nothing to do with them. I am sure I have my bad days too - I must have looked through her, been cold and aloof because I had things on my mind. There is always a great excuse for less than perfect behavior. But what happened today was interesting enough to provoke this post.

My level of retardation when it comes to cars is quite unparalleled and I am deeply ashamed of myself. I had a very dumb question about mine that I thought Lindsay's boyfriend Jared could easily answer and set my mind to rest. He has this really beat up car that he loves tinkering with. Since I don't know how stuff works, I can work myself to some high levels of anxiety over imaginary things. I've gone into the dealership in the past and come out looking like a prize idiot. I decide I'll save myself the trouble and embarrasment. So I walk over, knock on her door. Jared answers. Lindsay is in the kitchen washing up after dinner.

I apologize for showing up suddenly like that. I explain to them the problem at hand. Jared nods sagely. Lindsay is smoldering with rage. She tells me that I have to figure things out myself and go to a service station if I need help. She keeps repeating " You can do this yourself. You don't need help". This is the same woman who has showed up at my door with medicines and Kool-Aid for J just hearing that she had fever, invited her over to impromptu fondu parties, fed her lunch and dinner more times than I can count.


Her body language and words form a heady cocktail of anger, mockery and indignation. I am not sure what is causing such a strong reaction. I am ready to leave concerned about how far south things will head. Just then, Jared volunteers to walk up to my car and take a look. I can tell she is infuriated but she does not say anything as we walk out the door. Jared tells me all is well with my car and explains his reasoning patiently. It makes perfect sense. I am glad he took the time to help me and I thank him.

Back home, I wonder about Lindsay - was it PMS, an argument with Jared, a horrible day at work, the kids driving her batty or some combination thereof. It could very well be but there was a strong subtext to all that as well - something impossible to miss. She was telling me that I had no right to a free ride. I couldn't just walk in the door and borrow a man when I needed help without putting forth the effort to form and be in a relationship of my own.

She had earned that right and it came at a large cost - both material and emotional. They have been together for a long time now and Lindsay knows a life together may never become possible. He is too comfortable to have the comfort of a home and a wife without any of the responsibility. She is willing to go along with this arrangement because her need for intimacy and companionship is so overwhelming. She was telling me to go get my own and not borrow - not unlike our kids telling each other "This is my purple crayon. You need to get your own".