Sunday, August 31, 2008

Last Resort Education

A very touching article by an instructor who teaches at a college of last resort. He is at the basement of the ivory tower feeling pain and considering the merits of making college education available universally. To wit, he says :

The colleges and the students and I are bobbing up and down in a great wave of societal forces—social optimism on a large scale, the sense of college as both a universal right and a need, financial necessity on the part of the colleges and the students alike, the desire to maintain high academic standards while admitting marginal students—that have coalesced into a mini-tsunami of difficulty.


Continuing education especially for those who have been in the workforce for a long time without a college education and now looking to remedy a historical omission must be a terribly difficult thing. The author cites the example of Mrs. L who has no idea what a hyper-link is what it can to do help her. "She was preserved in the amber of 1990, struggling with the basic syntax of the World Wide Web."


Clearly, one such as Mrs. L does not belong with the SMS, Twitter and Facebook happy bunch. Such a pairing is about as useful is hitching an ox-cart to power a Bugati. Everyone in the arrangement feels the pain. Professor X concludes his case most eloquently :

They’ve all seen The Wizard of Oz. Some have caught it multiple times. So we work with the old warhorse of a quest narrative. The farmhands’ early conversation illustrates foreshadowing. The witch melts at the climax. Theme? Hands fly up. Everybody knows that one—perhaps all too well. Dorothy learns that she can do anything she puts her mind to and that all the tools she needs to succeed are already within her. I skip the denouement: the intellectually ambitious scarecrow proudly mangles the Pythagorean theorem and is awarded a questionable diploma in a dreamland far removed from reality. That’s art holding up a mirror all too closely to our own poignant scholarly endeavors.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Self Destructing Message

Absolutely love the idea of the Self-Destructing Message. I could think of a bunch of uses for it as I tested it myself.

1. Say you have the compelling need to be absolutely obnoxious with someone by way of email but know from past experience that after your rage dies down you tend to regret what you wrote. You have made sworn enemies out of lifelong friends because you let rage get the better of you. And yet obnoxious you absolutely must be. A message that allows you to let off the steam but disappear right afterwards is the perfect solution.

2. You know your best friend's spouse is cheating on them and hate to be the bearer of bad news. However, you have a sense of moral responsibility. This could be your medium of communication. The online version of burn after reading. You've said what you had to anonymously but they can't hold on to the evidence forever or worse trace it back to you.

3.You in that phase of a relationship when your significant other is perfection incarnate, you have never been happier, had better sex or conversation (before, during and after) in your whole life. This is the real deal or so you think. Now, at times like this people are known to say and write things that they want to kick themselves for later. The recipient has the life-long ability to gloat over your mush and feel good about themselves while you look like a prize idiot. A self-destructing message could help you channel your exuberance (irrational or otherwise) without fear of it haunting you for posterity.

Many more practical applications abound for this thing.

Of course, the fine folks over at Spiffy would need to do their content over a bit to make this work. There can't be anything about the message that suggests its self-destructive character because that would defeat its purpose entirely. In fact to be successful in any of the above scenarios and more, nothing about it should give away its provenance. What you get now is this with a subject line of Self-Destructing Message :

A friend (or foe?) sent you a self-destructing message.

You have one chance to read it.

Click this link to view message:

http://www.destructingmessage.com/msg.php?k=q6ax09f1ai

-------------------------------------
Service of www.spiffy.net
Note: Message may be deleted if not viewed within 90 days.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Seven Dollar Lunch

For as long as I can remember, my closest friends have had little in common with me be it their circumstances in life, aspirations, faith or passions. As it turns out, when there are almost no conflicts of interest, a real friendship is easy to nurture. That said, I have rarely befriended a co-worker though some relationships have come close simply because the differences between us greatly outweighed the common job description. It also helped that these individuals have extremely generous spirits.

Going out to lunch with Cheryl (not her real name) on her last day at the job served as a great reminder for who I should continue to avoid in interpersonal relationships. Cheryl and I have the same role at work. Whereas, she has always confined her job to its description, I have enjoyed expanding the scope to learn and contribute in many more ways that I am required to. As a result, her workday turned more and more tedious and she decided to move on. I have been largely happy.

In personal life, we are much more different than we are in the workplace. She is a few years older than I and married her boyfriend of three years a few months ago. There had been a string of other short and long term relationships that turned out to be wrong. She is relieved to have found the right person at the long last. The biological clock is reverberating in her head but they have not been married long enough to be ready to start a family.

The other and perhaps more important factor is that her husband makes less than she does but they live big. She once told me that they would not be able to afford that lifestyle if they had children - one or both of them would have to earn more. I know things about her that I would not want to know about a co-worker but sometimes it is hard to wall off someone who wants to talk and share.


So at lunch that afternoon, Cheryl and I had this conversation that resembled the sparring of two fencers. She asked me if I dated. I said I did not believe in dating. It was a waste of time. She asked me if my marriage ended because it was arranged. I replied that "arrangement" had no bearing on the "ending". If two people decide to get married for the right reasons and at the right time in their lives, there is no harm in it being arranged - in fact it is the better option and can lead to a far more clear headed decision without emotions clouding judgment. She looked at me like I had lost my mind to say what I had said.

She spouted all the standard wisdom on why dating is essential to getting to know someone. I had to tell her about my encounters with married men who had taken to "looking" out of boredom after marrying women they had dated for years; the amount of time spent with someone does not correlate to how well you will get to know them. Human beings are inherently complex and you will know exactly how much they want you to and no more. Why spend time hoping that you will be able to stretch that window and get to look deeper into their souls. You either feel comfortable from the get go or just never do.

Cheryl argued that all men are not alike and I said while that is true, sustaining a "long term relationship" with most of them takes a lot of time and energy and I would rather expend it on raising my child. While her childhood is very short-lived every bit of effort I put into nurturing her will be well rewarded, I cannot say the same about the relationships I invest my time and emotions into - there are absolutely no guarantees.

By when we headed out, I had said that I already got what was most important to me seven years ago. Having J makes my life 99% complete but would be great to have what is missing. Cheryl described her plans for her first wedding anniversary in very elaborate detail. For every mention of J, there were three references of Cheryl's husband. It was like being back in kindergarten going "my purple crayon is cooler than your green water bottle". In the end we felt about even. I had said my piece and she had said hers, jabbing at the other's voids and vulnerabilities in the process. We were all smiles at each other, wishing each other the best now that we would likely never meet again.

I have not had a lunch time conversation leave such a horrible taste in my mouth in a very long time. It was a cheap meal but an expensive way to learn how people can bring out the worst in each other when they realize their attempt at friendship has completely failed.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

iPhone Apps

I'd love to have an iPhone but don't have one and so though I know there are plenty of them, I don't keep up with the latest iPhone Apps. But reading about Carticipate makes me consider the rapidly growing divide between those who have an iPhone and those that don't. Unless we switch our cellphones, folks like me will be left behind in the dark side while the rest have access to a whole new world on a slick little touch screen device and it will make all the difference.

This is clearly a device that has as much (if not more) cultural impact as it does on technology. Upgrading to a smartphone (iPhone or otherwise) will increasingly not be about choice - clinging on to the plain old cell phone in this day and age is the equivalent of using DOS in the new millennium.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Social Media

Very informative article on how social media is being used in the corporate world. Though each of the 35 examples cited vary in approach there seem to be some common themes - entertainment and online forums frequented by users who act like "fans" are among them.

Social media is one of those things that gets tossed around a lot in meetings by corner office types. CIOs would love to see it used and frequently challenge their direct and indirect reports to find out how to harness the power of this medium to serve their specific business domain, not to mention leap frog the competition.

Often, that can be quite a tall order. While it is easy enough to do a Facebook variant and generate some buzz in the marketplace, the real challenge is to take a tried and tested business model and use social media as its growth engine. Unfortunately, there is not a play-book to do that just yet. The author says :


Some are likely to generate more discussions with the company while others might result better connections between customers. Some will fade away over the next 6-12 months while others will continue to grow and evolve.

While any or all of those outcomes are nice, what businesses would really like to see happen is a better and more durable connection between customers and their product or service.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Oneness

I could not help considering the irony of the sight that greeted me at the fitness center in my community when I went there last evening.

There were a couple of somber looking desi bros and two Chinese kids and then there was me. The TV was tuned to TV One Live - everyone was watching the DNC being telecast live. For a minute, I wondered if I was still in my neighborhood - where had everyone disappeared.

On most days, I feel like a dot of color in an expanse of white where I live. I have grown used to parents of white kids in J's class being unfailing polite and unflinchingly distant at the same time, having cashiers the grocery stores greet everyone else but look through sub-continental people like we did not quite exist. I figure, since I am here in this country on my own free will I have no excuse to whine about the parochial attitudes of my neighbors. I am always free to leave if I cannot stomach being reminded that I am a minority and don't really belong.

A couple of African American anchors were ruminating on what this historical event meant for their community and America overall. The desi bros were taking it all in with due seriousness as they went through their treadmill and weights routine. The Chinese kids were paying attention too. Here we were in a bunch of immigrants gathered about a TV sharing a moment of great significance in a country that has either been our home for a while, or became so by accident of birth. The sharing became so much more poignant because no one said anything but there was a sudden sense of oneness that comes from being thrown together by chance.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Parenting Tip

This Indra Nooyi profile on WSJ has an unexpected little treasure, a good parenting tip on building your child's critical thinking abilities.

Around the family dinner table in Madras, India, Ms. Nooyi's mother used to challenge her and her sister to describe what they would do to "change the world" if they were elected prime minister, or to another post.

Then her mother would evaluate the answers to determine which of her daughters to support. "I can't tell you how hard my sister and I competed to earn her vote!" Ms. Nooyi recalled.

Now that she is CEO, maybe Ms Nooyi will put her childhood lesson to good use in finding a way to make something "green" and healthy out of Pepsi's flagship drink.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Book and Film

Like this author, I have often felt cheated out of my happy memories of reading a really good book by watching a movie based on it. Its like ruining a perfectly cooked dinner by cooking it some more - sometimes it just pays off to leave good enough alone. I have to make a conscious effort to not get the curiosity to know how the story translated in cinema get the better of me. In general, if the movie gets to me sooner than I can get to the book, chances are it will forever remain unread and unenjoyed - the loss is all mine. Even though I don't get mad at those who skip reading the book and head directly to the movie, I can relate to David Barnett when he says :

Can there be anything worse than lovingly engaging with a couple of hundred thousand words of prose over perhaps two or three weeks, drinking in the author's dialogue and descriptions, creating your own vision of the work in the privacy of your head, only to have every man and his dog (special offer on Tuesdays at your local Odeon) blast your intellectual ownership of the book out of the water after spending 90 minutes slobbing out in front of a cinema screen?

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Winning with J

J likes to know when I will be coming from late from work. Even with grandma at home with her these days, she likes to see me back at the "regular" time each evening. Some days, I miscalculate how soon I can be home and realize I am running well behind schedule once I'm on the road. It upsets J that I did not call ahead and let her know I was going to be delayed. After having repeated this mistake a few times, I told her one Friday morning that I was going to meeting a friend for coffee after work that evening and would be home around 7:00 p.m.

"You were not supposed to tell me that in the morning" she protested loudly.

"Why not ? I thought you liked knowing when I would be late" I asked surprised.

"But not in the morning. Now, I am going to be sad all day that you will be late. You need to call me just when you know that you will be late" she explained sounding really hurt. I was left fumbling for something to say in my defense.

"You need to call me when you leave from work to meet your friend and call me again when you are ready to come home" she added.

Needless to say, I forgot to do both that evening. But knowing J, I would not have scored any points even if I had done her bidding. She'd have just come with some another condition of satisfaction and a different rule to follow go forward. I tease her sometimes that she must have been my mother-in-law in a previous life because only they have such difficult and dynamic rules of engagement that the daughter-in-law can never conform to satisfactorily.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Multitasking

Read this somewhat long ramble in The Atlantic Monthly by Walter Kirn on why multi-tasking is not for humans and will almost always result in multi-quitting. He makes some good points :

This is the great irony of multitasking—that its overall goal, getting more done in less time, turns out to be chimerical. In reality, multitasking slows our thinking. It forces us to chop competing tasks into pieces, set them in different piles, then hunt for the pile we’re interested in, pick up its pieces, review the rules for putting the pieces back together, and then attempt to do so, often quite awkwardly. (Fact, and one more reason the bubble will pop: A brain attempting to perform two tasks simultaneously will, because of all the back-and-forth stress, exhibit a substantial lag in information processing.)

A lot of job descriptions routine list the "ability to multi-task" as a desirable if not necessary trait to be successful in that role in "a fast-paced environment" where an individual will be expected "work with limited direction or supervision". When you subtract the business-ese from all that what you are left with is a very badly managed organization where chaos, mayhem and fire-fighting constitute business as usual.

In order to survive in such an unhealthy atmosphere you will need to be constantly juggling conflicting priorities and somehow to reach an unmarked goal that will continue to morph with time. Maybe if everyone would focus on one thing at a time and quit multi-tasking, things may actually change for the better.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Upcycling

Learned a new word today ( by way of Schimmel Art via LivePaths) - Upcycling which is defined thusly :

Upcycling is the practice of taking something that is disposable and transforming it into something of greater use or value.

Going by that definition, J and I could have done a few upcycling projects of our own. A recent one involved making a bookshelf with the cardboard packaging of the 3-pack Silk SoyMilk we get from Sams Club. We stacked 3-4 of these boxes together, stapled them together along the edges and covered it all over with J's "old" art work like a decoupage. The resulting shelf looks pretty nice and turned out to be a great way to reduce her clutter. That would be "taking something that is disposable and transforming it into something of greater use or value"

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Checking In

I have always been prone to being checked in on in relationships long after they had ended. When I was younger, I will admit, I found it rather flattering to get an email or a phone call from a guy I struggled to remember two years after I had parted ways with.

He will explain that I had been on his mind for a bit or found an old email from me while clearing his overflowing inbox that triggered a recollection so is he calling calling to check in on me. There is always an disingenuous explanation for the bolt from the blue email or phone call and they don't wait for me to ask for it. Questions like Had I missed him ? Was I was someone now ? will follow in short order. I will try to be as vague and evasive as possible. So he will try another couple of times to get an accurate read on my status. Then he will go away for a year or so only to ping me yet again. This has been a recurring theme in my life.


Among the many odd experiences is one guy that my parents introduced me to the the dog days of arranging a match for me. The dude in question had an email address along with a PO Box number in which to receive matrimonial correspondence. So, emails were exchanged and he got on my wrong side almost instantly. We had yet to exchange pictures and he did not even know my real name and he had infuriated me with his attitude.

Yet he emailed relentlessly, and when I was aggravated enough I would reply in the meanest way I possibly could. At some point before I got married, the mails stopped. I figured that was the last I would hear from M and it was not a minute too soon. M is the kind of guy that gives all desi dudes a bad name - God know they don't need any more bad PR. Though he is obnoxiousness personified, he believes beyond reasonable doubt that he is God's best gift to womankind and only a feeble minded moron like myself would reject him.

He resurfaced for the first time a year after I had separated. He was contrite about his behavior and was checking in to see if I was doing well. He still didn't know my name. I must have by this time become the feeble minded moron he once suspected I was because I wrote back and actually told him that my marriage was over. After some gloating and a few more mails (unanswered this time) he disappeared. Since then, I am on his schedule for check ins. The event happens every other year and lasts a few days. I know much more than I need to about him and he still does not know my name.

I haven't yet fathomed why he writes knowing my responses will be rude and nasty. I think I know why I reply - he is my shadow punching bag. Whatever his motivations, M is not the only one. Over the years, several others have taken to checking in on my love life (or the lack of it) every once in a while. Everyone seems to follow a schedule or maybe that is nature working. At any rate, annual and bi-annual check-ins are most common.

Some to tell me that they are glad that I am single (and so are they) so perhaps they should check in sometimes just because. Yet others, call after a couple of years since we broke up to let me know they are engaged to be married but would love to meet sometime for old times sake. Bring the fiancée along for good measure I add. Irrespective of their own relationship status, all of them want to know (with some variation ) how I manage to stay "so single" and for "so long" and what I was doing to challenge the status quo.

There could many many theories to explain this odd behavior I seem to provoke time and again and I have one too. When I was younger, I loved the attention too much to think clearly. Now, that I am able to, I figure I must be a really odd specimen that these guys are convinced will do something off the charts weird with her life and they want to be in the know. What we have going on here is a bizarre mix of schedenfreud and duh with a lifetime pass to the Coney Island Circus Sideshow. I am not complaining though, after all when life gives you lemons your best bet is to save the receipts as Stephen Colbert says.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Books About India

With every Desi writer and their brother writing a tome about India’s short and long term fate with the conclusions ranging from over the top optimistic to absolutely dire, the average reader (Desi and otherwise) must view the slew of books on this subject with some consternation not to mention confusion. All opinions, conjectures and projections are not equal and certainly not everyone has the same qualifications to be dispensing the wisdom, foresight and commentary on the future and fortunes of India that they do.

Mira Kamdar brings a whiff of fresh air into this over-crowded genre with her book Planet India. She tempers her enthusiasm for everything there is to be excited about in India with the right measures of sobriety and caution. She shows us the potential and opportunities that lay ahead of the country and its people but never fails to draw attention to the numerous impediments along the way or as this Businessweek article reports – we’ve already hit the wall.

Her writing is factual and objective ; the content well researched. There is a lot of fresh information and insights even for a native born Desi who has spend most of their adult life in India - a rarity for books in this segment that aim at aiding a “discovery” of modern India by non-Indians while insulting the understanding and awareness of its natives.


Unlike a lot of book-about-India writers, Kamdar does not come off as having recycled old news paper editorials and magazine articles in the name of yet another tome about India. But most importantly, she “gets” India and cares about what does or does not happen to this country. Having said that, it is commendable that she is able to remain detached from her subject matter yet present her case in such an engaging and compassionate tone.

I would highly recommend Kamdar’s book to anyone who has enjoyed reading Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City and Ronhinton Mistry’s Fine Balance. Between the three we have viewed India through a composite lens of fact and fiction, dipped into the past, taken stock of the present and tried to glimpse into the future. I would love recommendations for books on a couple of themes that I have not read about yet – applying lessons learned from India’s history to solve today’s problems and to better prepared for the future; opportunities and challenges for India’s rich spiritual heritage in a time when consumerism reigns supreme.

Monday, August 18, 2008

In His Sights

Reading The Secrets of Storytelling : Why We Love a Good Yarn made me think about a of book I read recently. It is a "true story" so it does not fit the categorization of "yarn" the article concentrates on. However, it is a case of truth being stranger than fiction and therefore just as fascinating as the best yarn - though in the context of this book disturbing and terrifying would be far more apt than "fascinating". The true story in this book does what the article suggests yarns may do : "act as “flight simulators” for social life" albeit only for a certain aspect of it.

The book I mention, should be essential reading for any woman who is old enough to be in a relationship whether or not she is in one. In His Sights by Kate Brennan is "a true story of love and obsession", of an educated, confident and intelligent woman who is stalked by a former lover for over a decade with her stalker continuing to be large to this day. It is the story of one woman's relatively normal life spinning completely out of control because of one man.

She lets the reader into the mind of this man, his past, his many demons and what makes him do what he does to her. More importantly, she shows us how in intimate relationships that end very badly, there are many ominous signs that should serve as warning from the very beginning but the victim ignores their gut until its too late. Hindsight is almost always 20/20.


There is always the recurring theme of "If I had known or understood then what I do now, my life could have been completely different". There is remorse and regret for having missed the obvious indications, for not having the prescience to see what the future held. Then there is the part played by the victim in precipitating this situation, the one who is relentlessly stalked. Brennan traces the the long, torturous path that leads them to the perpetrator.

It is as if their life experiences work conspire against them in a way that will inevitably lead them to such dangerous and deviant men. She contends that women like her have grown up being subjected so much abuse and cruelty from men in their families (fathers and brothers mainly) that their thresholds for tolerating bad behavior from men (which in later life is primarily their lovers and husbands) is abnormally high. They don't realize that they are in an emotionally abusive and destructive relationship until it is too late and much damage has already been done. The first step to breaking the pattern is obviously to recognize it.


Brennan identifies her problem perfectly when she says :

The pattern is clear : I pick men who are attracted by my strength and who then try to wring it out of me.

She lists the characteristics of her stalker - red flags that any woman would ignore to her peril :

He was wooing fast and furious. He was unfaithful and ultimately did not bother to hide it. He used my past against me. He used cruelty to control me. He was so good at lying to himself, he lost track of what was real - if, that is, he ever knew.

She talks about the many things she has lost in life as a result of having been in this relationship in the context of her paranoia about being followed and watched:

Perhaps this has nothing to do with Paul. It's quite possible, but what I'm left with is always the same : he has bled the assumption of innocent coincidence right out of my life. His final gift to me is a life of not knowing, not ever knowing for sure.

It does not take a stalker to transform a woman's attitude towards her life and love permanently and irreversibly. She can never view things with the innocence she had before a bad relationship. She carries many deep emotional scars into the next and the next one and often there are many of them before she is able to find one she can safely sink anchor in.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Metrosexuals and Duds

Reading this article in Discover magazine on female starling being duped by pollutants to mate with duds made me chuckle. Wonder if the same factors are at play (give or take some) with human females and metro-sexual males - the kind of man who is in touch with his feminine side and not ashamed of it. Women seem to think this kind of man is a far superior mate than the alpha male neantherdal who looks incredibly crude in comparison to the somewhat estrogenized members of his species. Stacey Pressman sums up her issues with metro-sexuals quite succinctly in this ESPN article :

I really hope I'm not alone in this. And I hope the rest of the country is just as starved for a resurgence of masculinity. Mind you, this is not a call for a return to Bill Romanowski-brand, loincloth barbarism. But there is something to be said for masculine vigor, verve and fortitude, and maybe even a little endearing fashion cluelessness -- all traits that have been placed on pop culture's endangered species list recently.

Until masculinity is reinvigorated and no longer mistaken for brute force barbarism and general uncouthness, the modern woman is destined to gravitate towards metro-sexuals over "real" men only to discover like the starlings in this article that they are "duds" . And by the way, the ability to make babies is not proof of non-dudness - after all, humans are supposed to be a lot for evolved as a species than starlings.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Abre los ojos

I watched Abre los ojos by Alejandro Amenábar recently and have not seen Vanilla Sky which is apparently inspired by this movie. The story is a complex mix of fact and fiction, dream and illusion; how what we desire in life is often very far away from what we end up getting even after having the received the gift of exercising free will as the hero César does in Amenábar's movie. He is allowed to select the cast of characters in his life, where and how he will live it and yet he ends up in pretty shabby shape. He feels just as (if not more) trapped in his circumstances than the rest of us.

He is often able to see the future, but does not heed warnings when he should or even recognize them for what they are. Likewise there are lessons from his past that come back to him when he needs them most but he lacks the clarity of vision to learn what he must from them. While César's story belongs squarely in the realm of science fiction, there are a lot of parallels between his life and ours. Like him,we have our judgment clouded by fear and anger, we are trapped by what we wish but lack the power to change or choose what we wish for. We get our second and third chances but end up making new mistakes even if don't repeat the old ones.

Watching Abre los ojos is like solving a gigantic jigsaw puzzle with a treasure hunt element thrown in but is also quite a moving experience. It brings home the sobering realization that we are not the victims of a life scripted by an unseen, unknown hand. Were we allowed to make up our own we would not fare any better - there are just too many forks along the road, too many temptations to give in to the moment without thinking through the consequences.

Friday, August 15, 2008

When J Grows Up

Every once is a while someone will ask J casually what she wants to be when she grows up. She could say anything and it wouldn't matter - it's just one of those things grown ups ask kids. Yet J grows concerned about such queries and asks me what I think she should do or become when she grows up. This is a very difficult question to answer for a couple of reasons.

First, I am not in a line of work that I have a great deal of passion for. I just wandered over to where I am today, picked up some decent skills along the way and am reasonably viable in the job market. When I add all that up along with my education, I know I can offer little to no guidance to J from my own experience. I would hate for her to go through life feeling like a cog in a wheel like I often do.

Second and far more importantly, I haven't the foggiest idea of what the career options would be for young people fifteen to twenty years out. It seems to me that we came of age in far more predictable times than J's generation would; the pace of change was much slower and its consequences not as transformational as it will be in time to come. It was possible for our elders to show us a road map of sorts even if the proliferation of technology has made large chunks of it useless today.

I have been reading Bill McKibben's book , Enough : Staying Human in an Engineered Age in which he discusses the many dangers posed to the human race by unrestrained growth in germline engineering, nanotechnology and artificial intelligence. While McKibben's tone is fearful, cautionary, frequently pessimistic and he advocates that we go only thus far and no further in scientific and technological advancements, I could not help thinking about the unlimited possibilities in careers of the future. I wonder if I would even comprehend what J and her peers do for a living a couple of decades from now.

So instead of pretending to know any answers, I advise J to not make any decisions until much later and wait to see what opportunities present themselves to her generation. In the meanwhile, I do my bit to understand the changes that I will never be part of so I can help J navigate her course to an education and career destination that is rewarding and fulfilling to her.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Childhood

In this book The Disappearance of Childhood, Neil Portman talks about the seminal events in history that shaped the very concept of childhood. The invention of moveable type, the proliferation of printed material and books followed by ability to read separating grown-ups from children was one such event. Postman argues that childhood is a relatively new concept and since it is not humankind's natural state adults are still learning the rules of engagement and not always doing so hot.

With popular culture taking over our lives, adults are forcing the enchantment of children's lives and making them aware of the adult world ahead of time. Conversely, adults are turning childish - in effect childhood as it was first conceived and indeed "manufactured" in now disappearing. This sentiment is echoed by Katharine Mieszkowski in her Salon article which she ends with words of wisdom which parents would ignore to their own peril :

There is this feeling that if I don't do everything that I can for my child I'm cheaping out on my kid, and I'm not giving them all the advantages. Underpinning this is a huge amount of economic anxiety. We're incredibly fearful that for the next generation things are going to be a lot tougher, in a seriously competitive, not very rewarding global marketplace. Question before you make any purchase whether what you're doing is to assuage your angst, guilt and fear, and if it's actually going to make a material difference for your child.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Business Requirements Blah

Any rant that is titled Business Requirements are Bullshit has my undivided attention right away. Coming from a programming and testing background into project management, business architecture and stopping for a bit to try everything in between, I carry more baggage than most people. Having said that, I do believe the traditional process of gathering requirements is dead on arrival in today's world. Also, a business analyst cannot be just that i.e. a business analyst - they have to be comfortable wearing many hats and speaking different languages.

The Monte Carlo simulating finance types and the Ajaxing programmer dudes are two different animals who can barely tolerate each other. The business analyst must broker a relationship between the two that is mutually beneficial and respectful. To that extent, the business requirement document cannot be a prescriptive artifact set in PMI or actually ITIL/ITSM stone.

It must morph to take on whatever form it must to be able to speak intelligently to everyone who provides input to it and all those who will consume it to build applications. There is need of course for record keeping and logging all the decisions made along the way that finally led to the requirements being what they are but that is a separate entity and is not a true "business requirement document".


I have used the approach I have described very successfully on several client engagements. It is also useful to take into account the level of design savvy of your development team. Chances are, with a cheap operation all they can do is code exactly as specified. In such situations it behooves the business analyst to play the system architect/designer role (at best) or corral the necessary inputs from the experts (at worst) thereby obviating the need for the development team to use their imagination. Again, I speak from experience when I say I have found this blend of business and system requirements very effective in getting a high quality output from a B or even C team of developers.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Query And Response

Every once in a while, I get an interesting query from a reader. Case in point is this little gem :

Hi heart-crossings,

I bumped onto your blog while looking for a trustable, well-established desi-dating site and ended up reading the blog "a girlfriend's field guide to dating desi dudes". Anyways, I wanted to know if there is such a website available where one can actually meet desis? Any inputs would be appreciated!

Thanks,
R.

I wrote back as quickly as I possibly could with what "inputs" I could muster :

From my experience,"trustable" and "desi-dating site" don't go together. The bulk of the dudes online are married and looking or just looking with absolutely no end in view. Both do what they do so that can get laid with no strings attached - they will tell girls they want to get married right away so she doesn't resist getting intimate with them. If you are male and fit one of these categories you could have a ball - not sure what the deal is for the rest of the guys - I haven't seen any till now. If you are a woman then you'll want to refer to the field guide you've already read. At any rate, good luck with dating desis :)

Monday, August 11, 2008

The Children of the Agape Choir

HBO's We Are Together : The Children of the Agape Choir is a touching story about rising above adversity with the help of music, faith and community. As the AIDS epidemic in Africa continues to decimate the adults, orphaned children are left behind - to fend for themselves, to make something out of their lives with the woefully little they have. It is a story of the many secondary victims of AIDS who are not infected by the virus but suffer terribly all the same.

The documentary follows Slindile Moya's family for three years. She is part of the children's choir at the Agape Child Care Center - an orphanage for kids like her who have lost their parents to AIDS. They soar above the narrow confines of their lives, and their troubles with their beautiful music. Their dream is to perform in England and raise money for the orphanage.


That dream is thwarted, many tragedies big and small follow until they finally them have their moment in the sun. They get to perform on stage in New York with Paul Simon and Alicia Keys. The orphanage that had been gutted by fire is rebuilt, the children come out stronger from their long journey through adversity.

Even as the children grow up in these difficult circumstances, their carefree, childlike side often takes over but before long they turn serious. They have a far keener sense of purpose that most children would have at that age - the tender and fragile of childhood is quickly replaced by a hardy resilience which is heartbreaking to see.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Tied With A Rope

I heard Blue Kite by Stephen Goss played by guitarist Xuefei Yang on the way to work a couple of days ago. The music creates a lovely atmosphere - the experience of watching a blue kite fluttering in the breeze. As I listened, I remembered helping J to fly her first kite a couple of months ago and wished she could have been in the car with me - I made a note get her to listen. And so we did this weekend, she liked it but was not quite as struck by its minimalist loveliness as I was. Maybe she did not see that blue kite, hear the tug of the twine and the rush of the wind. It was just a piece of good music.

Later in the morning, I was listening to a Beethoven piece when J said " I have heard that before". When I asked her if she remembered it all the way to the end, she commented "You are trying to tie me with a rope just like that poem - you are not supposed to. I just like that music". I had to smile at the connection she had made between the
Billy Collins poem I had read to her a few days ago and my interest in her ability to appreciate music. As with poetry, music has always been for me mostly about enjoyment and rarely if ever about comprehension. I gather its no different with J.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

The Deathly Hallows

I have been a fan of JK Rowling ever since Harry Potter happened. Having read all but the 7th book of the series, reading The Deathly Hallows had been long overdue. I wish I had let it remain an omission so I could have remembered the fantastic treat the series had been thus far. Even after starting off on a high note as Rowling did with her Sorcerer's Stone, she had managed to build on the excitement and anticipation with each book that followed it. The pace of the stories never flagged, the characters added value to the plot instead of distracting from it by their sheer numbers.

Unfortunately, things haven't quite ended well. Rowling seems to have lost her magic touch with The Deathly Hallows - it is as if she forced her self to write this book contrived, rambling plot and all when all the other books read like the stories told themselves and she merely played the scribe. The effortless quality of her prose is completely missing in the 7th book - sometimes I have a hard time believing it was written by Rowling.

Maybe she needed more time to conjure the crowning glory of the series, maybe she should have left it unfinished because it was far more perfect that way than it is now and what's worse another sequel will likely not undo the damage. Rowling has essentially taken away from her final Potter book almost everything that made them so special. I won't go into a litany of what ails the book, many other have done an outstanding job of it. In short, I am a deeply disappointed Harry Potter fan - especially because I waited this long to enjoy the treat without having succumbed to the temptation of reading any spoilers or having someone tell me what the story was.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Innumeracy

In his article The Innumeracy of Intellectuals, Chad Orzel argues for granting greater respect to those who understand the finer points of string theory, Fermat's last theorem and such other arcana even if they can't tell Beethoven apart from Bach. He says this about the consequences of such disregard :

This has real consequences for society, and not just in the usual “without math, we won’t be able to maintain our technical edge, and the Chinese will crush us in a few years” sense. You don’t need to look past the front section of the paper. Our economy is teetering because people can’t hack the math needed to understand how big a loan they can afford. We’re not talking about vector calculus or analytical geometry here — we’re mired in an economic crisis because millions of our citizens can’t do arithmetic. And that state of affairs has come about in no small part because the people running the academy these days have no personal appreciation of math, and thus no qualms about coddling innumeracy.

Coming from a culture where excellence in math and science is valued disproportionately higher than anything "artsy", I had to wonder about the consequences of groveling at the altar of numeracy form my vantage point. It has not appear to have served well in far as making the average desi's life richer with aesthetic sensibility to balance their math and science abilities. Instead we are faced with a steady erosion of tradition and culture with the bulk of our energies focussed away from it. The slow and nuanced in our lives has given way to the fast, brash and furious. Maybe there is a need for balance - an equal regard for arts and science with equal credit being awarded for fluency.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Extreme Beauty

I was familiar with some offbeat to downright weird beauty treatments but using a fish tank for pedicure is in its own league - maybe the snake-massage would fit in there as well. There may be many others as well. Makes you wonder at the extremes of self-improvement women can go to. Read this article about Botoxed brides that discusses this theme. Alice Wingall says :

As wedding season approaches, another crop of brides is currently immersed in a torturous process of self-improvement. It is hardly breaking news that women face daily pressure to look good, but most of the time this pressure is a background hum: mildly annoying for some, extremely so for others, but a hum, nonetheless. Then a woman decides to get married. A day looms on which she knows that she will be photographed, videotaped and scrutinised by everyone present. A slight paranoia ensues. And into this window of insecurity marauds an entire industry intent on feeding off the natural desire to look your best. That background hum increases in pitch and intensity, until it is a screaming chorus of, "But will your nail varnish match the flowers?"

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Remembering The Dead

I lost a loved one late last year and have yet to admit it to myself - I have always coped with loss by going and remaining in denial until enough time has elapsed, until the wound is no longer raw. I often remember the winter afternoons I spent at my grand uncle's ramshackle old house in Kolkata. The house like him, was a relic from the past that feels a little out of place in a fast paced modern world. My grand-uncle was the old-fashioned bhadralok with the kind of refinement that is hard to come by these days.

I remember his words of wisdom leavened with generous amounts of humor, the love and affection I enjoyed, how he had the domestic help dash to his favorite mishti store down the street to buy an assortment of everything I liked. It was his pleasure to treat me to my favorite food and see me enjoy it. Then there were the old, crumbly paperbacks in his ancient mahogany book shelves. My first introduction to Emile Zola, Andre Gide and Albert Camus and many others happened here. The Bengali volumes remained out of reach to me given my unfamiliarity with the written language.

There were other treasures on the book shelves too - antique porcelain, fountain pens, black and white photographs from his many trips around India and Swiss watches over fifty years old. I could have had any or all of them if I had wanted - but they felt right where they were. He had possibly one of the last rotary telephones in the city. In his house, time had stopped still. No matter what happened in the world outside, it was one place that remained unchanged from my childhood - my perfect sanctuary.

For many months, I have thought about him - wondered why it was so hard for me to call him when he was on his deathbed. I guess I started to be in denial when I realized his life was ebbing away - that I would never see him again. In my mind, I wanted to preserve the last happy memory I had of meeting him when he was much healthier. I wanted to pretend that the decay was not happening and he never died but merely went away. Yet, I have mourned in my own fashion, silently and without tears. Today, I read a poem that he might have read to me :

Do not stand at my grave and weep;

I am not there. I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow.
I am the diamond glints on snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain.
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning's hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry;
I am not there. I did not die.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Citizen Programmer

I started as programmer after engineering school and realized a couple of things fairly quickly

a) I was not cut out to be a "robust" programmer by which I mean the kind who get the innards of technology well enough to not be overwhelmed by the changing flavors and skins that layer it. More importantly the kind who are good enough at what they do to last decades and get paid enough to have a decent quality of life

b) I figured the future was headed in the direction of the "citizen" programmer - i.e. anyone who used a computer would have low-tech, user-friendly tools available to them that helped translate their needs (productivity and business tools) into widgets they could access as needed. With little practice they would be able to plug and play such widgets like so many Lego blocks. Programming would be de-mystified big time and put the average techie like me out of commission rapidly and only the best of breed would survive to create increasingly sophisticated tools for the citizenry. However, I would have many working years and financial responsibilities still left when technology matured to that level.

With that epiphany, I quickly abandoned the programming gig and hopped on to things that I thought I could get well enough to tide me through my retirement. Time will tell if I hitched my wagon to the right star but if Iceberg is any indication of what lies ahead in the world of Web 3.0, I have clearly unhitched it from the wrong one.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Rats, Wives and Sinking Ships

Often commentary on news even if almost ludicrous is a lot more entertaining the news itself. In this case, it was one about hedge fund managers having their marriages in jeopardy because of the credit crunch. The article reports the results of its survey thusly :

One out of ten is worried that their own spouse may be considering a divorce, which could cost respondents as much as $2 million.

“Historically during a financial downturn the divorce rate amongst high earners has increased,” Sandra Davis, the head of Mishcon’s family law practice, told DealBook.

By when Barbara Ellen of the Guardian puts her spin on this story it becomes a whole different kettle of fish and a much rowdier one at that.

So, no cash, no trophy wife. It's a simple enough psychosexual equation. Cold yes, but only as cold as the one that makes it clear to the trophy wife that she will be unceremoniously dumped, Trump-style, for a new hottie if she commits the crimes of becoming fat, old or Ivana (the patron saint of failed trophy wives). In short, in the land of the deal, the fleeing rat-wives have a point - what does love have to do with it?

You wonder if along with the slump, the marital woes will spread from Wall Street to Main Street.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Reading Poetry

In his introduction to Poetry 180, Billy Collins quotes a teenage girl who says "Whenever I read a modern poem, it's like my brother has his foot on the back of my neck in the swimming pool". He goes on to say that this book was "inspired by the desire to remove poetry far from such scenes of torment".

The first poem in the book is Introduction To Poetry by Billy Collins and he captures the essence of what is wrong with how poetry is most often read and attempted to be appreciated.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author's name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Foundlings

Foundlings is a long (and growing) catalog of interesting things people have found inside books. The two most memorable things I have found in borrowed books are a pencil sketch of a warrior and receipt for a hotel room in a non-English language. The sketch was lovely and I saved it in what used to be my scrapbook then.

The receipt had got me wondering who lived in that room, if they had read the book while they were there. If they had a companion and so on. The book had traveled far away from the public library down the road from me and had returned with a memorabilia from the trip.

There are many kinds of foundlings out there including a blog directory - a literary website providing links to literary sites, writer’s and poet’s personal sites, podcasts, and lit-blogs. You can find there the literature about deserts - a converse of Robinsonade or desert island fiction perhaps.

Friday, August 01, 2008

Hipster

I was not sure of the exact definition of the word hipster - except in reference to an article of clothing. I could not have asked for a more succinct explanation than this.

An artificial appropriation of different styles from different eras, the hipster represents the end of Western civilization – a culture lost in the superficiality of its past and unable to create any new meaning. Not only is it unsustainable, it is suicidal. While previous youth movements have challenged the dysfunction and decadence of their elders, today we have the “hipster” – a youth subculture that mirrors the doomed shallowness of mainstream society.

It is a great article about the malaise of cultural vacuity that spreads beyond the West, invading public and private spaces alike. Being cool and hip is no longer about "being" anything at all. It is no longer about a state of mind or a world-view but about acquiring the accouterments associated with that culture. Like a stage prop, there is nothing behind the facade of "cool'.