Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Quid Pro Quo

Arati Pandya Singh in this Little India article echoes the sentiment of many a desi who have their names routinely mauled and slaughtered beyond recognition in the West. My first name is more pronounceable than the last and I always encourage people to not even try to say my full name. First name is all I go by.

It used to cause some discomfort when at conference calls in the workplace, when a bunch of us would be introduced by the meeting organizer to those on the phone. Whereas, everyone else got referred to by their full names, I was only a first name. It was as if I was missing an appendage that everyone else had. And this is the fate of many a desi. Rarely if ever does anyone trouble to take on the challenging last name let alone get it right. Rarely if ever does a desi insist on it.

There must be something to do with pecking order in the organization, that I don't get to be a part of (for better or worse) being a consultant, and ability of the locals to pronounce a desi's name in full. I have noticed that desi brothers and sisters in corner offices, irrespective of how convoluted their names, always have their full names pronounced reasonably well. No one bothers with such niceties when it comes to desis lower down in the totem pole - and there are of course a whole lot more of those.

Like Arati Pandya Singh I have been wowed by customer service reps from India with pleasing American accents who can spell my name without any help and can pronounce it right the very first time. Unlike her, I have trouble dealing with anyone who is trying to sell me something and is not able to say my name correctly. If desi call center workers can get accent trained to interact with Western customers, quid pro quo would require that their western counterparts get a primer on pronouncing ethnic names and know to tell a male and female name apart. I have firmly but politely told many a telemarketer that I will be glad continue the conversation when they are able to pronounce my name correctly.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Dream By Dawn

After a very long time, I dreamt of P early last morning. So real and lifelike was the dream that I had trouble orienting to my real world after I woke up. It is said that dreams of dawn come true. As beautiful as this one was, it is so completely improbable that will not meet reality even at a grazing tangent. Yet once, it might have been and I did not want it - now that it cannot be, I wonder what if. More than ten years ago, P disappeared like pebble into the depths of an immense lake. At the time, there was not much to see or feel. The ripples on the lake were gentle, graceful and dignified just like everything about P was. 

We had each taken a separate branch on our fork of the road not knowing then how far apart that would cause us to diverge over time. What is more there would be no way to connect once - only for old time's sake. I have more than a few things to tell my precious yet castaway pebble that were either not said or worse said all wrong in the callowness of youth. Not that they would mean anything to today, or undo what was done then. 

I like to believe that P had something left to say as well and so these recurring dreams - everyone once in a great while, seeming to bear great significance and always a thing of incomparable beauty that shines like bright sun on the cloudiest of my days. Writing this on my blog feels a lot like floating the earthern lamp that devotees set afloat on the Ganga for their wish to come true.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Lifestream Aggregation

Mashable has this great post on social media how-tos for everyone and everything. Taking a quick look through the possibilities started to make my head hurt. Clearly, there is way too much going on to keep up with. Yes, you can do two hundred things with Google Maps to enhance the quality of your life online and so can you with Delicious, Facebook, Twitter et al. The point is how much is too much and how much is enough to get by without becoming socially inept or even irrelevant. Mark Drapeau offers some words of wisdom :
There aren’t any secrets. You get out what you put in. Work hard, add value, and don’t rest on your laurels. Note what’s happening in the news, and in life. Always evolve; adapt to your environment. Embrace trial-and-error and a spirit of lethal generosity. Take risks. Be surprising. Be awesome.
Also, how many lifestream aggregators does anyone need ? There are atleast twenty ways you can go about it and they are unequal in coverage. Until a leader emerges, you would probably have to leave your lifestream unmanaged and unaggregated or use several aggregators to get what you really need.

Thrilling as it is to be an early adopter and kick the tires of new technology, it would be a lot easier on your sanity to come back in a few years and see how everything has shaken out. With new social media startups popping up fast and furious around the world, it may be a good idea to hold on to that
first born for just a little longer.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Branding Hope and Dream

Interesting discussion on brand mania and what it is all about. To quote Debbie Millman, a branding consultant:
When we covet a brand, we covet the feeling that that we hope that brand will produce as a result. Most people believe that brands are the promise of an experience. I believe that brands are a projection of our hopes and dreams and fantasies about who we are and what we want people to believe.
Later in the interview she talks about how some brands have stayed on with her because those products marked some rite of passage in her life. While I am not able to relate to brands are a projection of our hopes and dreams and fantasies about who we are and what we want people to believe, I can understand this.

How can you view your hopes, dreams and fantasies through a Prada bag or a Burberry coat if thousands of others use the exact same vehicles to project theirs. It would be the hopes, dreams and fantasises of the masses that you would be acting out not yours. It would mean then that you have none of your own. Surely, that must not be how the brand fanatics of the world want to be perceived by the rest of us whose aspirations don't require a designer label to be expressed.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Telling A Story

The neighborhood I have lived the last four year boasts of some pretty tacky Christmas decorations. While they can be an eye-sore specially past the end of January, they do help spread holiday cheer this time of year. The lights remind of Diwali at home which is likewise often garishly over the top.

This year things are rather subdued. Lots of homes have no lights at all. A wreath on the door is about all they have for the holidays. Maybe it is a sign of the times - the parking lot at work was pretty full the week of Christmas and those at work acted like it was business as usual. This is a lot different from what I have seen in the past. Attendance starts to thin in the second half of December and by the week of Christmas almost no one is around. The few stragglers that do come in are elsewhere in their minds.


J has not asked for a Christmas tree this year either. Thanks to some ethnic diversity in her class lately, she has figured out that everyone does not celebrate Christmas and therefore does not have to have a tree in their home. The presents, cookies and candies are definitely very desirable and she would not mind them at all. Christmas has turned secular and in the process more accessible to her and I am glad for it.

Before she returns to school after winter-break and all the kids compare notes on who got what for Christmas, I wanted to leave J with some food for thought so she can cope with not having a laundry list of stuff she can talk about. I told her the story of The Gift of the Magi one night at bedtime - what better way to reinforce the theme of love and sacrifice without which the act of giving and receiving gifts is entirely meaningless. I hope it will stand J in good stead.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Haphazard Multitasking

Multitasking comes to women almost magically when they first become mothers. Without that essential survival skill, neither baby nor mother would make it past babyhood. The skill is honed further with the birth of the next kids until the woman is able to the feed one, diaper the next, get the laundry started, answer the phone, catch her favorite soap and cook dinner all at the same time and not miss a beat.

While our modern lives may have complicated a mother's routine some, it has also afforded many simplifications to it. As a result, she may not be multitasking any more than her forbears going back thousands of years. With that, I am a little skeptical about all the
gloom and doom around the fate of multitaskers - there need to be some qualifications to preface this outlook.

When the goal of multitasking (as is often the case in workplaces) is to make up for poor planning and non-existent management, then stress is inevitable. The problem therefore is not with multitasking itself but with everything that it is trying to compensate for. The mother working through her domestic chores as she takes care of her young children, has a plan for the day which will need to adapt based on what emergencies the kids perpetrate on her any given day. She also has a clear endgame - complete chores and tuck kids in for the night.

The same is not true for the office worker who is given constantly conflicting directions by her management, is expected to deliver without having the authority to make any decisions, pitch in for non-performing co-workers - the list is endless. Needless to say she cannot plan that tasks she will need to multiplex and there is never a clear finish line - both plan and goal are moving targets. When she is expected to solve such fundamental problems by being an adept multitasker nothing good can come out of it either for her or for the organization.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Le Cirque : A Table In Heaven

There is almost always two sides to any good story and making of an exclusive restaurant is no different. We have heard about Le Cirque from Ruth Reichl's Garlic and Sapphires. Now, HBO's documentary Le Cirque : A Table In Heaven offers an intimate view from the other side. You see the tremendous performance pressure the management and staff are under to be rated favorably by an reputed food critic. A small error or omission in the complex choreography that defines a customer's dining experience can result in a highly damaging review - it can undo very quickly what it took millions of dollars, untold amount of sweat and toil to build.

Sirio Maccioni, the founder of Le Cirque struggles to protect his own vision of the restaurant when they close in 2004 to re-open two years later. His three sons have ideas that will make the new establishment much more competitive and attract younger clientele. Their father can the biggest asset for Le Cirque and impediment to changes they would like to bring.

The friction between generations, the lack of common purpose and direction causes much aggravation for staff and management alike. The results make their way in subtle ways to a customer's table. The question ultimately is whether there is a classic definition of gourmet that can stand the test of time, if a formula for success from the past be transferred verbatim to a new generation.

Le Cirque's story is that of the classic struggle of a once successful business trying to reinvent itself to remain relevant in a changing world full of younger, more diverse customers without losing its unique value proposition.


Premieres Monday, December 29 at 8pm. Here is a trailer for the movie.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Global Villages and Privacy

The closing line of this NYT article on leaving a digital trail behind us, quotes Thomas W. Malone, director of the M.I.T. Center for Collective Intelligence quotes as saying :
“For most of human history, people have lived in small tribes where everything they did was known by everyone they knew,” Dr. Malone said. “In some sense we’re becoming a global village. Privacy may turn out to have become an anomaly.”
How true ! Indeed the concept of privacy is so new that it still needs to be explained to our our parents and grandparents. It was only when the real villages had ceased to be the hubs of society and the global digital village had come to take its place, that the concept of privacy came to exist. To the professor's point, there will be little room or need for privacy once the global village mimics the social patterns of the real villages - it will at that point become an anomaly.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Keeping It Simple

A while back I had read this short story titled Quant in which a Wall Street in which the mind of a developer of trading strategies is so valuable that his firm will do anything to stop him from leaving. To say more, would be to give the plot away but suffice it to say that the story was part of the Wall Street Noir collection.

It is stories like this and the movies based on it that have for the longest time perpetrated the myth of the math and statistical geniuses who get to be the masters of the universe because of their vastly superior intelligence. They live in their ivory towers inside iridescent bubbles that we can all watch in awe but cannot touch. The rest of us, must repose our faith in their ability to best manage our hard earned money; for left to our own devices we'd sink without a trace in the turbulent seas of finance and investing like a ton of bricks.

Recent events have proved that these so-called geniuses were playing ducks and drakes with people's retirement savings. They did not understand the exotic instruments they had created any better than the rest of us - at least from what proof there is to see of such understanding. Clearly, the rumors of their razor sharp brains and absolutely mastery of numbers must have been a tad exaggerated. This article on math whizzes throwing their lot with data mining is rather disturbing. If they exhibited a similar lack of competence and substituted what was missing with impenetrable hubris a la Wall Street, a lot of bad decisions would be made with equally painful consequences for those whose data is being quarried willy-nilly.

It almost always a really bad idea when what you are doing is so arcane that you cannot distill it for the understanding for the average person with a functional level of intelligence. After all Richard Feynman wrote Six Easy Pieces and Stephen Hawking wrote A Brief History of Time. Millions of regular people around the world read these books and got a good sense of what was being talked about. Surely, it cannot be any harder to describe to a layperson what exactly a quant does.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Cat Dancers

A film about dancers whose are an exotic-tiger entertainment act is not the most accessible one to a general audience including the animal lovers. Cat Dancers is such a story and yet it completely transcends its niche and leave you with a memorable experience. You learn about the lives of a very unusual trio of entertainers Joy Holiday, Roy Holiday and Chuck Lizza and the big wild cats that they love like their own children. The three also form a ménage à trois. Ron has this to say about their unconventional relationship :

"I think the human race is very archaic. They need labels - which is very, very sad. When Chuck came into our life, the intimacy that we had spiritually...made us three of the most unique people."

The story could be about love in many forms - a human being's capacity to love animals filially, an animal's near-human ability to reciprocate human affection, and the acceptance and indeed celebration of bi-sexual and extra-marital love. It could also be a parable that exemplifies the old adage of leave good enough alone. Each wild cat that was introduced into their entertainment act was about taking the risk a notch higher, giving the audience an even more visceral thrill. The end comes with two of the three dying at the pinnacle of their career and ironically the instrument is what made that height of success possible.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Recognizing Peace

There is so much to learn and ponder over in the His Holiness The Dalai Lama's talk on Peace and Prosperity recording by National Geographic. There are some words of wisdom that make a deeper impact than the rest because they happen to strike closer home. For me, that was The Dalai Lama's explanation of what separates non-violence from violence and how motivation for a certain action is what ultimately determines whether or not it can be called violent.

The examples he cited were a mother disciplining her child in a harsh tone or a genuinely caring teacher doing so with a student. In both cases, the actions would appear outwardly violent without actually being so. The motivation stems from love, concern and a desire to do good for the person towards whom the apparent violence is directed. According to His Holiness that disqualifies the act from being one of violence. On the contrary he says the use of guile, charm or bribery to serve some questionable ulterior motive while appearing peaceful outwardly is in truth an act of violence even when there are no outward signs of it.

Hearing these words, helped me understand why I never experienced peace and tranquility when I was married though we never once had an argument. There was this simmering undercurrent of unspoken words, unexpressed emotions that ran through our home which made it impossible to feel at peace there. Yet there was never any outward sign of disquiet - it was easy to get lulled into a false sense of well-being, it was easier still to give others the impression that we were a very happy couple. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Now, that J and I are on are own, every morning on a school-day is fraught with tension, bustle and commotion. I am running around like a tornado trying to get J out on time to catch the school bus. My child has many endearing qualities but the ability to comprehend the passage of time is not one is she is blessed with.

So I am hurrying her up with her shower, finishing breakfast, putting on her clothes and doing her hair even as I try to pack a lunch and snack that will meet with her approval on that particular day. There is much anxiety, shouting and sometimes even tears to get through this ordeal. The day begins with the absolute absence of peace. I used to wonder how it is then that my home feels so tranquil - even after starting on such a melodramatic note each day. I believe that I have my answer now.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Participation In Poetry

Found this article on the lack of relevance of poetry to the "consumer" ( the would be buyer of a volume of poetry) and some ideas on correcting this problem. The culprits are numerous - the self-absorption of poets who write for themselves and not for their readers, lack of positive energy in most poetry and then (surprisingly to me at least ) the MFA programs. It quotes John Barr who suggests that the lack of audience participation in the creation of poetry is causing the genre stagnation :

“If you look at drama in Shakespeare’s day, or the novel in the last century, or the movie today, it suggests that an art enters its golden age when it is addressed to and energized by the general audiences of its time.”

Such apparently has not been the case with poetry the efforts of Poetry In Motion et al notwithstanding. It seems to me that poetry is more easily accessible, widely dispersed and democratized than ever. I am not sure if I am convinced that there is a lack of poetry being addressed to and energized by the general audiences of its time.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Necessity and Invention

While we learn the phrase "necessity is the mother of invention" as children, its not until much later that we appreciate what it is all about. The phrase came to mind while reading this article on the use of unused cellphone airtime as a form of digital currency in Africa. If only roll-over minutes could be traded for goods and services in America.

Back in India domestic help resort to
missed calls to communicate with their employers. It could be to notify them of a delayed arrival or absence. To know more details, the employer would need to call back at no cost to the domestic help - incoming calls on cell phones are free in India.

In other situations, the number of missed calls, or the number of rings before hanging up could be a pre-defined code between the caller and the callee - no one ends up paying anything and yet a message is fully communicated. This is another example of necessity spurring creativity if not outright invention.

As for the cell phone operators, they will just need some out-of-the-box thinking marketing geniuses to come with a way to monetize the huge missed call opportunity just like unused airtime has been turned to currency.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Half Baked Logic

This BBC article based on scientific research suggests that romantic comedy fans are likely to to fare badly in the realm of relationships. The argument goes as follows :
The problem is that while most of us know that the idea of a perfect relationship is unrealistic, some of us are still more influenced by media portrayals than we realise

Dr Bjarne Holmes
Heriot Watt University
Is it possible perhaps that the fans of romantic comedy find escape from the imperfections and aggravations of real relationships in these movies. Maybe it is a good thing to have this safety valve because the alternative might involve growing depressed or resentful over their real-life situation.

Extending the same half-baked logic it can be argued that Disney animation movies render kids unfit for the real world which are clearly no replication of the land of fantasy and fairytale. If a child can parse magic from reality and be none the worse for it, should normal adults be given equal credit.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Andaz Apna Apna

For the longest time I've meant to watch Andaz Apna Apna (AAA) because of everything I have read about it . AAA has a cultish, iconic status among desi movie buffs who understand Hindi. Fourteen years too late, I did watch it a few days ago and wondered why someone would recommend watching it once a week - once was more than enough for me.

Comedy is one of my favorite genres and I know good Hindi. With that combination, I should have figured out the deal about AAA but unfortunately it did not register with me. Maybe I lack the requisite knowledge and interest in Bollywood trivia it takes to "get" AAA. Now,
Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron was a movie to remember not so much for the sheer heights of absurdity that it reached but for the finesse with which it was done.

Like Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron, AAA attempts satire as well but misses out almost completely on subtlety unless you count the numerous self references to Bollywood cliches and characters. Without any real substance or original storyline, that tactic grows old pretty soon and there is not much to look forward to.

Past half-time, watching AAA is like drinking a can of soda many hours after the fizz has died. The characters have repeated themselves several times over by then. You are left with the two Khans gyrating through their two-dimensional characters, the leading ladies vying with each other at being the most doltish while the villains hang around like random fillers with borrowed lines and ideas. Though everyone in the movie delivers some really funny lines and you do get a few laughs out of it, AAA is no Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Winding Back

A few days ago J asked me what games I played when I was her age. Answering her question took me back to a place in time that I am have grown so unfamiliar with that I often stumbled and even lost my way. I started to describe to her how I spent afternoons of my school holidays in the shade of a young papaya tree making things with clay collected from place where the tap in the garden leaked making it all slushy and muddy. 

Sometimes, I would stack playing cards all afternoon in elaborate formations and my back ached with the effort. In the evenings my friends and I would race through the paddy field behind my house - often we had no destination and ran for the sheer pleasure of it. I stated the basic facts accurately enough but my description of things lacked something - liveliness perhaps. I could sense that I was not being able to express to J how those days had really been, how I had truly felt and who I was then.

Time blurs memories until you no longer feel sure of your unquestioned ownership of them. Rainer Maria Rilke has a beautiful poem titled Childhood that describes this feeling perfectly :
And became as lonely as a sheperd
and as overburdened by vast distances,
and summoned and stirred as from far away,
and slowly, like a long new thread,
introduced into that picture-sequence
where now having to go on bewilders us. 

Monday, December 15, 2008

Apple Cake

Neither J nor I are particularly fond of apples and yet we've had a small bag of them lying around the house for days. I take one to work and bring it back uneaten and return it to the bag to try again another day. Finally, in desperation this past Sunday, I decided to do something with the apples. After looking around Epicurious with J for apple cake recipes which we found too complicated, I settled for something that looked simple enough for a very novice baker like myself with J as the assistant.

For the first time today, I was able to get a cake out of the oven that looked and tasted like one. I could not help making some minor tweaks to the ingredients - instead of cinnamon, I used the same quantity of allspice, clove and nutmeg powders mixed together. The walnuts were replaced by chopped almonds and pecans. Since there were five ripe apples in the mix and a whole bunch of sugar, I added a little kosher salt to dampen the cloying sweetness.

J was very pleased with herself for taking me through the steps and getting a decent looking and tasting cake for her efforts. The moral of the day's baking story is to start simple with the humblest of ingredients and very modest ambitions, get a good and willing helper to keep you on track. Finally, send a prayer up to heaven for good luck as you set your cake to bake.

If you suffer from a compulsion to improvise, limit yourself to modifying some of the supporting
ingredients and not the main ones . I believe a combination of all that led to success with the apple cake made from scratch at that. When you think about it, this how-to is not that different from what it takes to achieve success in any challenging endeavor in life.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Smater Phones

I've gone into meetings feeling like a character from the Flintstones around a room-full of folks with slick smartphones. My trusty Motorola Razr is over three years old and very unsmart. According to this WSJ article, if I continue to lug around my Inspirion any longer and not invest in a nice smartphone - the device de jour, I would really retreat to the dark ages. 

Being that I am texting challenged to the point that I respond to SMS via email and cannot work without a big screen and keyboard, I would love to see some enhancements to smartphones so folks like me are able to able to take the plunge and chuck our laptop or god forbid the more pre-historic desktop - tower and all. A retractable and fold-able monitor would be most useful and a virtual keyboard can only help. With just those two enhancements, the usability of a phone as a computer would greatly improve. 

Saturday, December 13, 2008

How To Be A Geek Goddess

I have to admit the title How to be a Geek Goddess by Christina Tynan-Wood had me a little apprehensive. I did not want to be advised against using the CD drive as a cup-holder, the futility of finding the "any" button on a keyboard or a step by step guide to using teh internets. While there is a bit of cuteness going on in the book every now and again, overall it is an useful addition to the book shelf of those who approach technology with some trepidation. 

The idea of a book on technology geared towards women is a nice one. Women do have a different slant on technology and their relationship to it ; rarely do books speak to them in a tone of voice they can comfortably relate to. Geek Goddess tries to fill this void. Being a mom, I liked the chapter which focuses on how to keep kids out of harms way - there is a lot of good information and commonsense advise.

Hyperlinks are scattered throughout the book as reference to websites on the subject at hand. While useful, that information can naturally become obsolete quickly. It is one thing to become a Geek Goddess and quite another to remain one. Tynan-Wood should definitely consider one or more sequels to keep the freshly minted Geek Goddesses up to speed on technology that changes very rapidly. My one peeve about the book is the font and content layout which made for difficult reading. 

Friday, December 12, 2008

Fact And Fiction

Read a nice article that tries to tackle the question of the future of science fiction and if it will even survive. The argument goes as follows :

..it is going to be even harder for science fiction writers to predict the technological developments which will transform our lives. Science fiction, claim the doomsayers, is dead - or, if not dead, in terminal decline.

Sci-fi is not my thing and I have read precious little of it - The Time Machine, The Left Hand of Darkness and Yargo are the only three I can remember having enjoyed. I heard about Repo ! on NPR recently and thought idea of organ repossession in the event of failing to pay the installments was particularly poignant these days. Yet, most of the punditry were dead wrong about the financial meltdown that is unfolding around us today, even a year ago - they just did not see it coming. Why then is it such a bad thing that sci-fi did not see the transistor coming and all the changes it brought in its wake ?

If the unthinkable did happen and homes can get repossessed why not organs. Only in sci-fi can your transplanted kidney go they way of your foreclosed home but there is no reason to believe fact will not catch up or even get ahead of fiction. It is much like Ursula K Le Guin's response to the question posed by Marcus Chown's article :

The distinction between science fiction and realism was never as clear as the genre snobs wanted it to be. I rejoice to think that both terms are already largely historical; they are moulds from which literature is breaking free, as it always does, to find new forms.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Pricing And Cat Herding

Loved reading this thoughtful post on right-pricing the iApp. The parable the prefaces that post is priceless. Among a bunch of other things, I learned the word abandonware. Andy Finnell makes his case against $0.99 iApp thusly :
There will be an iPhone app bust. The current prices simply aren’t sustainable. Either developers will crash out of the market when they discover they can’t make a living off their current prices, or the gold rush developers will lose interest and leave when they realize they can’t make a quick buck off the store. The developers left standing will be the ones who set reasonable prices for their applications.

I’m willing to put my money where my mouth is. I currently have an iPhone app in development, and when it comes out, I will price it $9.99 or higher.
Knowing nothing about the marketplace or the potential pool of iApp customers, I am wondering if there may not be a spot for an officially appointed or better yet, a self-styled evaluator and cat-herder of iApps who could cause the most promising apps to bubble up to the top. This would separate signal from noise well enough for the best of breed apps to make it even at $0.99 a pop.

Either that or a wsiwyg app builder that allows the most technology challenged among iPhone users to turn out their own apps - there has got to be money made from creating such an editor. Short of those options, it would be hard for the Little Timmys of the world to retire on the proceeds from their iApps.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Online Scrapbook

I used to love scrapbooking and have had a few different ones in my life. Since J came along, all I have had time for is to collect the memorable scraps to put together in a book someday in the future. It's been seven years since I started putting aside J related memorabilia but a scrapbook is yet to happen. Seeing this really neat online scrapbook maker inspires hope - maybe that project can actually see light of day.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Worst Calls

The 10 Worst Predictions of 2008 are rather amusing to read and recall. I guess schadenfreude is the word I am looking for. The common person gets their comeuppance each time the punditry gets it all wrong - and the mistakes come fast and furious. The fear of $200 gallon oil mongered by the Goldman Sachs analyst was not a lot different from the panic some of my desi acquaintances got into a few months ago, when the price of rice kept rising like it would not stop.

Some advised me to start hoarding what I could in whatever space I have in my apartment, others suggested that I ask my folks in India to visit with as many bags of rice as their baggage limit would allow. Yet others went on to say, our rice-eating days were numbered and we should prepare to change our dietary habits to survive in the post-rice world. It seems as if the only difference between the regular guy and the experts is chutzpah.

Monday, December 08, 2008

The White Tiger

I read Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger this past weekend and absolutely loved it. The literary scene these days is dominated by one or two hit wonders - heavy-weights with real oeuvres to their credit are a thing of the past . With that, it has become increasingly harder to come by fiction that holds your attention and actually offers a refreshingly take on the human condition. Adiga offers generous portions of both in this book, his debut novel.

The bar for a desi author writing about India when being read by a desi reader is automatically set higher because the reader knows the score. Adiga's India and Indians are entirely believable which is more than what can be said about a lot of other books of this genre - namely contenders for the Great Indian Novel mantle.

Adiga is not subtle in taking on everything that defines India and telling it like it is - be it the mind boggling number of deities, secularism, marriage, family, casteism, bureaucracy, corruption, lawlessness, entrepreneurship, outsourcing - you name it, Balram Halwai has an opinion and more often than not it is not a politically correct one. Adiga's is a robust counterpoint to all the "India Shining" rhetoric and is one that would find favor with anyone who is skeptical about that "shine".

As a desi born and raised in India, some of the most memorable parts of The White Tiger include Balram's dread of indoor geckos, the concept of a half-baked person, the Rooster Coop and the Indian concept of entrepreneurship. Then are are gems of wisdom scattered through the book like this one :
One fact about India is that you can take almost anything you hear about the country from the prime minister and turn it upside down and then you will have the truth about that thing.
Per Balram there are legions of half-baked people in India who end up the way they do because they never get an opportunity to complete their schooling. What's more, it takes such half-baked clay to make entrepreneurs.
- all these ideas, half formed and half digested and half correct, mix up with other half cooked ideas in your head, and I guess these half-formed ideas bugger one another and make more half-formed ideas, and this is what you act and live with
I have not come across a better explanation of what ails our semi-literate and neo-literates masses.

I know a lot of desis including myself who are absolutely terrified of the indoor gecko - it is an irrational fear that just cannot be explained to those who do not have it. It is not surprising therefore that several desi writers have featured the gecko in their stories about India - in fact the description of a domestic scene would ring incomplete and untrue without one or more of them on the walls. That a close encounter with a gecko might alter the course of Balram's life is quite plausible.

As for his theory about Rooster Coop of Indian society - which is possibly the highest point of the novel, you must read the book. I would not be able do justice to Adiga's priceless metaphor in a blog post. In summary, this a book you don't want to miss and it reads at a terrific pace I might add.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

FOB Mom

I am mom and got off the boat a little while ago. Even with that, I fully qualify for the FOB mom label. Today I found a blog just for people like me written by their kids - My Mom Is A Fob. They also have a place for the the FOB dad.We parents are apparently a niche of our very own and offer plenty by way of amusement to our bewildered children.

I imagine in time J and her Asian friends will write about their parents FOB foibles - I know I have plenty. I can see hows her exasperated "Mommy...."s can become a rich source of material. Not a week goes by when I don't do something that makes my seven year old roll her eyes in disbelief. Who knows, maybe my eccentricities have to do with being a FOB mom as well. The bloggers have a handy definition of FOB which with some minor adjustments for desi behavior who translate over quite nicely to define the Indian FOB

FOB stands for “fresh off the boat,” and is a term often used to describe Asian immigrants
who just aren’t quite on track with American culture. You know, if your family still eats Peking duck instead of turkey on Thanksgiving, owns a giant cleaver, and takes 20 more napkins than you need at KFC? That’s fob status — and for the record, we aren’t ashamed. My drawer at home is full of silverware… from Chipotle. My mother taught me everything I know.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Feeling Solitary

If the 21st century's making you feel miserable, there are at least seven reasons why. The article cites a study which shows a lot of people have one one they can confide in - further along there are references to yet more studies and depressing ones at that. David Wong has it exactly right when he talks about the demise of mass media contributing to the overwhelming din of dissenting voices. He says :

There effectively is no "mass media" any more so, where before we disagreed because we saw the same news and interpreted it differently, now we disagree because we're seeing completely different freaking news. When we can't even agree on the basic facts, the differences become irreconcilable. That constant feeling of being at bitter odds with the rest of the world brings with it a tension that just builds and builds.

In the pre-internet days, I remember having read the same article in a print magazine or newspaper that many of my friends and acquaintances had as well. We did have the same version of facts at our disposal to argue over. So while we might disagree on all counts over the issue at hand, we atleast agreed on what the issue was. Even that agreement is no longer possible with so many voices in the fray and as a result we are that much more solitary.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Mall Music

Listening to holiday music in shopping malls always makes me wistful for the year gone by - makes me pause to think about how much and how little things have changed in my world since the last time it was this season. Nothing signals the passage of time quite as poignantly as the sound music that is associated with holidays or festivals - back home in India, it used to be the listening to Mahalaya on the radio.

Then sometimes, I might walk into a store and hear a popular number from the 80s or 90s playing; making me share a smile with a stranger who like me is thinking how it the song does not fit with the here and now, or maybe we both have some pleasant even if different memories associated with that music.

While I have noticed there is something different about mall and elevator music, I did not know that there was music specially composed for such places.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Cake In Mug

I can't bake to save my life because following any recipe requires more discipline than I have. Improvisation, short-cuts and baking I have found do not go together unless perhaps if you are a professional. This recipe for a making a cake in a mug looks very promising even with my non-existent baking talents. For one thing, there is no oven involved in the "baking" which in itself is a huge reduction in complexity. When you add to that the ability to stir together everything in a coffee mug, you figure your problem has been greatly reduced in size as well. Most importantly though, throwing out a mug-full of chocolaty goo from a failed baking experiment beats having to do the same with a baking tray full of charred brownies with a baleful J looking on.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Picking A Gift

I got to know H's mom by way of ballet lessons J and H took a couple of years ago. We've become friends since - she is one of the few desis I know in my little town that I like well enough to socialize with. A few days ago it was her wedding anniversary and that was coincidentally also the day I pick J & H after their lesson on the way home from work - she drops them off in the afternoon. I don't know her well enough to pick the perfect gift for her and her husband and yet I did not want to show up without one. This is the kind of relationship where you need to mull over a gift that is both appropriate and gracious - its not something that comes to you naturally.

Thanks to poor planning and a busy day at work, I was not able to make it to the store to pick up something - so I had nothing to give them. Within minutes of my reaching there with the kids, two other couples dropped by with surprise cakes, cards and flowers for H's parents. It made for a happy, almost festive atmosphere. Since H and her parents were supposed to go out to dinner, I had made haste to drop her off as soon as I could. However, with unexpected company those plans changed to ordering food so we could all have dinner together. It was much too late for me to stay, so I excused myself (and with great difficulty I might add).

The whole sequence of events that evening left me feeling unusually stressed. I wondered about how socially inept I had managed to look around friends and strangers, about how your personal circumstances can never be an excuse for how you present yourself publicly. H's parents are really nice people and will in no way be offended that I neglected to bring them a "gift" on their anniversary. They might have even been taken aback if I had shown up with one.

The rules of engagement are well established for one married couple wishing another on the wedding anniversary, for singles of a certain vintage it might be a little more nuanced. When you have been married before and are single now, it seems immensely hard to strike the right note - the genuineness of your happiness for someone else's thriving marriage is somewhat inherently suspect and so it is essential to have a light touch. Yet you may not be so "light" that you appear aloof or even flippant. The occasion must be treated with the gravitas it deserves without turning so serious that you appear downcast contemplating your own marital situation (read the lack of one). It was hard for me to decide on a gift that conveyed the warmth of my feelings toward H's parents and stood exactly midway between formal and effusive.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Left Behind

This WSJ article on SL widowhood makes for fascinating reading. Cyber relationships spilling over into real life used to be one thing but with SL the two worlds can remain distinctly apart and yet cause equal or more damage to the real world relationship. The conclusion of the article says it all :

Sitting alone in the living room in front of the television, Mrs. Hoogestraat says she worries it will be years before her husband realizes that he's traded his real life for a pixilated fantasy existence, one that doesn't include her.

"Basically, the other person is widowed," she says. "This other life is so wonderful; it's better than real life. Nobody gets fat, nobody gets gray. The person that's left can't compete with that."

Monday, December 01, 2008

Creative Reading

In working with a number of talented graphic designers in the last couple of years over the course of different consulting engagements, I have often marveled at their unique way of framing the otherwise ordinary. They are good with language and visual art obviously but just the combination of the two without creativity would not make them successful. While excellence in language and art can be taught (at least to some extent) the same is probably not true of creativity.

Reading this list of books that inspired some well-known graphic designers made me think about my own reactions to reading some in the list that I have. The list is an unusual one to begin with - very few of the best known or most frequently listed books feature in it. But what I find even more interesting is the reaction of these very creative people to these books. It would be worth working through this list just to see if reading might stimulate creativity where none existed before.