Monday, November 30, 2009

On A Taut Leash

Recently I got some interesting relationship advice from a pretty unlikely source. H and I went to grade school together and he is among the few childhood friends that I am still in touch with. When I decided to marry R (my ex), H's reaction was one of honest puzzlement - WTF more likely. However, he held his peace figuring that things that don't in the normal course of life make any sense do in marriage. He was at time in a "quasi-serious relationship" but not quite "ready for prime-time" as in for the responsibilities that go with marriage. It was not a situation I found particularly easy to comprehend but as an old buddy, I wished him well with whatever he had going on.

A few years later when H was good and ready and had finally found the woman he wanted to marry, I had a reaction
very similar to his would-be bride and just like him, said nothing about it. He seemed genuinely happy to be with her and I hated to be the one to dampen his enthusiasm. Maybe he has changed over the years, maybe he likes this kind of woman now I reasoned.

So here we are many years later. I have been divorced for a while. H was deeply disappointed but not particularly shocked when it happened given his initial reaction to R. His marriage in his own words is a "mutually beneficial and largely peaceful co-existence". They have both decided to tough it out in the best interest of the children and their families - live under the same roof in two different universes that rarely if ever intersect.

H will often exhort me to find a man and get my life back on track and I have to tell him to get off my case and stop being my mother. Recently, I asked him what advice he had for me given the state of his own marriage, my failed one and his long acquaintance with me.


The question was "How do I know someone will work out for me ?". What H had to say on the subject over the course of a few emails was very interesting.

"Sadly, there is no magic formula that I can hand out. In hindsight, I seemed to have gone into a state of trance when I decided to marry the woman who is now my wife. If I was thinking rationally, I would have not done what I did. I have come to believe that connections between people such as in marriage are pre-ordained and every defense mechanism we build to keep us out of harm's way will come undone and push us in the path of this person. Thereafter, we are merely puppets in the hand of Fate.Sometimes we end up okay, sometimes we don't. You just have to take your chances and hope for the best."

"How absolutely encouraging, H !" I wrote back.

"But I do have some advice for women who want to marry. Unless she is able to reel the man in (before marriage) and keep him on a taut (do note the use of the word taut as opposed to tight) leash thereafter, there is little hope for her to marry or remain married well. In my own example, my wife was able to reel me in (and hence we got married) but she has failed to do the rest.

So while we are "technically" married, it is not the kind of relationship either of us had in mind when we exchanged our vows. A woman is always ill-served to lose control in a relationship or marriage and let the man call the shots - that always ends badly. I have to say here that very few women are adept at the fine art of keeping their men on a taut leash."


"So you are saying that I need to be a more equal partner in the relationship ?" I wrote

"Absolutely. There is no other way for you or any other woman. When my daughter comes of age, that is exactly what I will tell her too. Of course, you don't want to come across as a Virago - but you must set the rules of engagement and make sure he plays by them at all times. You concede an inch and he will take a mile and what is worse it will set a bad precedent for all time to come. You would have a set forces in motion that then cannot be controlled. Women are always tempted to concede in order to make quick gains - they end up winning the battle and losing the war.

Getting married is the easy part, making it really work out is much harder. Now, my mother is a woman who knows how to keep the reins in her own hands without chipping away my father's self-worth. I wish my wife had the good sense to learn a few things from her."


I have known H's folks since I was a kid. His father was a serious somewhat dour-faced man. He worked very long hours and said very little to us(H's friends) on the rare occassions that he actually met us. We for our part, did our best to stay out of his way. His mother, a housewife, always looked happy and upbeat - there was a certain peacefulness about her that was hard to miss. Despite the very different temperaments, they looked very comfortable and content together. Maybe H has a point about the taut leash and maybe he should get his mother to write up a how-to book on the subject.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Fearless Flyer

I love flipping through (and even reading) Trader Joe's Fearless Flyers. There is no other piece of unsolicited mail that I even bother with. When you consider the cost of acquiring mailing lists, scrubbing them, segmenting the consumer population, matching the names back to internal databases, setting up a marketing campaign, glossy print, postage and all - the numbers add up quickly.

After all that is done, the average recipient of these materials tosses them into trash without a second thought. The Fearless Flyer on the other hand, is printed on really cheap paper, it is anything but flashy and is takes no trouble to target messaging by way personalization.

Yet there is something about the Flyer that makes me want to read about products I have not considered buying before. Even if I don't buy, I am at least aware of what is available - a good enough engagement metric by most counts. Occassionally, the reading has translated into an actual purchase - which is exactly the kind of conversion marketeers want to see happen.

Being that the fans of the Fearless Flyer abound, I am not a demographic anomaly. Obviously they are doing something right with it. You have to wonder what makes the Flyer (and
by extension Trader Joe's) tick at a time when the consumer is innundated by slick narrowly targeted ads online and offline.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Apostrophes

I am grammar challenged in general and haven't quite figured the use of apostrophes and it is not for the want of trying. Anytime I see someone use a semicolon in what appears to be in the right context, I am very impressed. I figure if I have survived thus far without getting apostrophes right, I'll be okay with this handicap for the rest of my life. When I saw this excellent visual on the correct use of the apostrophe by Mathew Inman of The Oatmeal, I wondered if there was a chance that I could learn too.

I managed to keep up with Inman for the first couple of rules but starting losing him right around the fourth or fifth. Clearly, this is not one of those "a picture is worth a thousand words" things - I am just not wired in a way that will allow apostrophe (or grammar) rules to sink in.

Skipping over to the end, I was delighted to find advise that I could actually put to good use : When in doubt, don't use an apostrophe. That pretty much, sums up my strategy with them anyway. Looks like I have a workable solution and as they say don't fix what's not broken.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Part Liberated Woman

An expat desi friend and I were discussing what it means to return to India when you have cobbled together a life in a foreign country no matter how flawed and imperfect. We have both spent over a decade outside India and have kids who were born abroad and have spent very little time back home. Returning "home" is something a lot of new immigrants like L and myself think about. We want very much for that to be an option because a full assimilation into our country of domicile is likely never going to happen. L has visited India more often than I have and has a much better pulse on what's going on there.

For me the strongest drag force working against my desire to return home is my experience of life as a woman in India. I neither want to live that suffocatingly sheltered existence myself nor subject J to it. The freedom, independence and safety I have had in here in suburban America was not even something I knew I could expect to have in India. I never knew what it felt to be treated as person first and woman after that.


I would hate for J's world-view to be shaped by a society that puts her gender before her and have that influence the most significant decisions in her life.
I don't see the point of living inside the sanitized confines of a gated community so one does not have to deal with any of the "unpleasantness". That life would be a poor proxy of the Indian experience - J could end up being even more confused about her identity than she will be growing up in America.

L was not sure that my concerns were particularly valid in present day India and I was quick to chalk that up to India Shining Kool-Aid drinking. According to L, the current societal view of the gender allows for more nuance than the Sita or Slut that I was familiar with from my time and it was hardly fair to pass judgment without experiencing the transformation for myself.

Apparently, everything that was true from six or seven years ago (the last time I lived and worked in India) is null and void now. As much as I would like to believe that, I have seem little evidence of this seismic shift that L talks about, in print and on-line media and lesser still in the attitudes of the brethren who have arrived here very recently.

To have to believe that the magic will be evident upon setting foot in India is a giant leap of faith I find really hard to make. That said, it does not help to read about
harassment of women in India who are in research and academia being more norm than exception.

If that is the fate of researchers and academics, chances are that the average woman will fare only much worse. When I read the comments by women on this post on their own experiences of harassment, I feel even less hopeful about what the future holds for women in India.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

The Alchemy Of Desire

The first few pages of Tarun Tejpal's The Alchemy Of Desire, read beautifully. I stayed up late one night, mesmerized by the story that promised to unfold ever so perfectly. Tejpal's language is a delight to read. Hundred pages in, I wondered if Tejpal may have lost his way for a bit but would find it back soon. Instead, the increasing sprawl of the story and the ever expanding cast of characters leaves the reader bewildered. Tejpal had a wonderful story to tell even if he had limited it to exploring the role of Kama (lust) and Prema (love) in marriage and relationships - a narrative that is universally relevant.

The narrator and the his wife Fiza (Fizz) have a relationship that is intense and unconventional enough to stand independent of everything else that this book tries to be about. Tejpal did not have to write a novel of mythic proportions and fall short. He does an outstanding job of telling the story of a marriage and a grand passion gone sour. As a reader, I wished he had edited out everything extraneous to the main theme and given us a book I could enjoy completely and count among my favorites.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Sita And Hearbreak

Finally got around to watching Sita Sings the Blues. Whether you are Hindu or not, familiar with any one of the many versions of Ramayan or not, you can connect with this film. Nina Paley makes the story of Sita and Rama (in that order) her own. She is not trying to interpret or retell the "original" story but rather projecting herself on Sita's character and discovering parallels between the end of her marriage and that of Ram and Sita.

The idea of introducing Annette Hanshaw's blues to hold the story together is a beautiful one. The sadness and pain of heartbreak is universal. Like one of the shadow puppet narrators in film says if a woman throws herself at a man who is clearly rejecting her, that is not unconditional love but her fault for not knowing the man is not worth the trouble. Yet, women have loved in the face of unfaithfulness, rejection, abuse and more. They have a hard time believing that their feelings are not reciprocated, that they have invested their love and emotions in the wrong place.

Sita's life could be interpreted by some as one of a woman who loved completely and unconditionally but the object of devotions was not a man who deserved what she had to offer. When a woman is dumped, irrespective of the specific circumstances ;leading up to this event, she views herself as grievously wronged and the pain is as Paley describes like a fire that can completely burn her life or fuel something new. Like Sita, she might want to return to the womb and start over. It is wonderful to see the story of Sita interpreted in way that is so accessible to everyone. True to her belief :
My first concern is Art, and Art has no life if people can’t share it, Nina Paley has given new life to something with limited reach and appeal.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Jazz Baroness

The Jazz Baroness is a fascinating story at many levels - of a woman far ahead of her times, of an unconventional relationship, of the highs and lows in the life of a profoundly gifted musician - and much more. Director Hannah Rothschild, the grand-niece of Pannonica Rothschild (Nica) - the Jazz Baroness, pieces together the story of Nica and Thelonius Monk, the jazz pianist and composer. They make the most unlikely pair. He grew up on a humble farm in Rocky Mountain, North Carolina, she in European mansions where the kings, queens and heads of state were frequent guests.

Yet when Nica hears Monk's recording of 'Round Midnight for the first time, something about the music moves her enough to leave her family and her way of life behind to become his muse. She was married with children at the time. Music was the force that brought these two people who inhabited very different worlds, together. In a time when racial discrimination and segregation were a way of life, Nica flouted every convention by becoming Monk's constant companion and surrounding herself with many other black musicians. The relationship was that much more unusual in that it stayed platonic. Monk remained married to his wife Nellie who in turn accepted Nica's presence in his life.

Nica's story is inspirational in many ways but to the modern woman who likes to think of herself as liberated and independent, she gives her reason to revalute her understanding of those concepts. Pannonica Rothschild was able to reinvent herself in ways that must have taken a great deal of courage specially in her time - not many "feminists" could hold a candle to her even today.

This movie debuts tonight on HBO2, Wed Nov 25 at 8pm.
Additional HBO2 playdates
: Mon. Nov. 29 (8:00 a.m.), Tues. Nov. 30 (3:00 p.m.), Thurs. Dec. 3 (6:30 p.m.), Fri. Dec. 11 (7:45 a.m.), Wed. Dec. 16 (1:30 p.m.)


Monday, November 23, 2009

Infomavore

Learned a new word today - informavore. The term informavore characterizes an organism that consumes information. It is meant to be a description of human behavior in modern information society, in comparison to omnivore, as a description of humans consuming food.

It is a long winded article and I found it hard to stay engaged to the end. That said, there are some very interesting ideas in it that are worth pondering. For instance, the author suggests that in the future our brains will be in a cloud - what is important to us will not be self-determined but will be a function of what the community deems important. The fact that we don't make an effort to relegate the business of holding what is significant in our lives to Facebook and blogs instead of keeping that information in our heads is a telling sign according to Schirrmacher.

Then there is the idea that there is not enough brains to hold and process the information that is being spewed online and that Darwinism will determine how we will deal with information overload, what will survive and what will perish.
Definitely worth reading despite the length.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Interactions

Love the concept of Ideapaint - the ability to make turn any surface into a dry erase board. For parents with toddlers who at the age when the want to draw and color ever anything their hands can reach, this would be such a blessing. There is almost a throwback quality to this very modern product. Like our ancestors who drew on the walls of their caves, we could be recording our lives on the large expanses of painted white-board in our homes, offices and schools. We might find ourselves interacting with family, classmates and co-workers in completely novel and different ways.

While on the topic of new ways of interacting, Foursquare comes to mind. Spending some time watching the messages scroll down the screen is a fascinating experience. The flurry of activity is overwhelming. The creators of the site ask users to think of Foursquare as an "urban mix tape". Make your own, share it with friends and strangers in your neighborhood. That is just the beginning you find out as you read the Learn More section. This is hyper-local interaction on steroids and a lot like Twitter you either get it and want in or don't and sit out.

Ideapaint and Foursquare - two very interesting and different takes on urban interaction.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Ideavirus

In his book Unleashing The Ideavirus, Seth Godin writes :

Fact is, the first 100 years of our country’s history were about who could build the biggest, most efficient farm. And the second century focused on the race to build factories. Welcome to the third century, folks. The third century is about ideas.

Alas, nobody has a clue how to build a farm for ideas, or even a factory for ideas. We recognize that ideas are driving the economy, ideas are making people rich and most important, ideas are changing the world. Even though we’re clueless about how to best organize the production of ideas, one thing is clear: if you can get people to accept and embrace and adore and cherish your ideas, you win. You win financially, you gain power and you change the world in which we live.

He goes on to describe the viral nature of ideas and how to disseminate them to gain the most value. As wonderful as ideas might be, for a century to be fueled solely on them instead of more tangible things like farms and factories feel somewhat disconcerting. Is the modern world all vaporware that has no underlying substance ?

Also, all kinds of bad outcomes could result from "It seemed like a good idea at the time" type of "ideavirus". Since there can never be consensus on good versus bad ideas, things of questionable value could spread through our networked society very rapidly with potential to harm everyone that it touches. In this context the term "virus" is of particular interest because it's effects are almost always malefic.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Universal Authorship

Seed Magazine has this article on society moving from universal readership to universal authorship and what that may mean. One statistic the authors uses to makes their case is that by 2013, 100% of the world's population with will authors in some kind of media. At first glance that seems like too much too soon. There are countless people out there today who have access to every form on-line publishing, are perfectly capable of publishing content should they want to but are not authors. They just don't care to publish their ideas and opinions to the world - it is not important or interesting to them.

There is no reason why this kind of person in the next four years will suddenly morph into an author. Likewise, the legions of illiterates in the world will not likely become Twitter savvy in short order. That said, it the statistic is confusing. The other points the article makes are good ones - the degree of influence and the pace of social change and revolution even that burgeoning number of published authors will bring are definitely phenomena to watch for.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Grade School Musicals

I used to be ashamed to admit that I found it very hard to sit through the musicals put up by kids of any grade at J's school. It is an ordeal with few peers specially when being expected as a parent to cheer the kids for their efforts. Be it a kindergarten performance or one by the fifth graders, the results are always below par. Even with J performing, I find it impossible to work up any enthusiasm about the whole thing and long to get it over with and head home. I have shared with much trepidation how I felt about these things with other parents. Most have pointed out that I should scale down my expectations because this is no professional performance - the kids and the music instructor do the best they can given the time and resources they have available. Interestingly enough talent is not mentioned at all.

While I am not expecting a Broadway Kids experience, I would love for the children to be able to hold a tune, keep beat and show some signs of life while on stage. Clearly, that is quite a ways away from a 'professional performance" and yet it is too much to ask for. Reading this
old article published in Washington Post about this topic gave me some new insights. I don't know anything about the quality of music produced by high-schoolers and am willing to believe that it is a lot better than what I have seen at the elementary school across the street.

The author is absolutely right about the blandness of the music the kids sing and play. I have tried to look up that stuff on You Tube and never found it. In this day and age, that is quite a feat for a piece of published music. The schools must scrape the bottom of the barrel with great deliberation to select these compositions. Maybe that also explains the lackluster attitude of the performers - it is just not the kind of music that they enjoy performing.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Change Of Heart

I read (and really liked) Atlas Shrugged as a callow teenager. Liked it so much in fact that it became one of my favorite books at the time. Subsequently I read all of her other books and stopped with Anthem. My devotion to her writing and ideology ebbed a little with each book and disappeared entirely by the last one. All this happened over a two year period. I have never returned to Rand since then and find my one time devotion cringe-worthy.

This review by Adam Kirsh in the NYT - Ayn Rand's Revenge does an excellent job of explaining what makes her tick.

Rand’s particular intellectual contribution, the thing that makes her so popular and so American, is the way she managed to mass market elitism — to convince so many people, especially young people, that they could be geniuses without being in any concrete way distinguished. Or, rather, that they could distinguish themselves by the ardor of their commitment to Rand’s teaching. The very form of her novels makes the same point: they are as cartoonish and sexed-up as any best seller, yet they are constantly suggesting that the reader who appreciates them is one of the elect.

I could not agree more from my own example. Love the phrase "mass market elitism" - that captures the essence of Rand's writing. Once I outgrew my insecurities, saw something of the world beyond the narrow confines of the small town I grew up in and acquired a sense of self, I found her writing very hard to like. I had not until now correlated the two things and always puzzled over the dramatic change of heart.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Outsider

T and I go back a long way. Recently we were chatting about the role of organized religion in our lives and how we both find it hard to participate in it. I am Hindu, T is not and we both have the same challenges relating to the role of religion in our lives. I have always felt awkward at religious ceremonious at a temple and try to go there when nothing is going on so I can just spend some quiet time in front of the deity without having to go through the motions of a puja.

Now that we are both parents, we feel additionally challenged in trying to get our children connected to religion as we feel we must. J used to love going to the temple but after a few times of having participated in an actual puja, she is starting not to enjoy the experience. Whether or not that is on account of my attitude, I definitely blame myself for this change in J. There must be a subliminal sense of guilt about my inability to commune with my co-religionists because I would love nothing more than for J to able to do so.

I have always been awe of those who are conversant with rituals and participate in them with a great deal of enthusiasm. They seem to have something that is tantalizing within reach for me and yet I will never have what they do. It was surprising to hear T talk about the very same feelings. Apparently, it does not matter what the nature of your religion - polytheistic (like mine) or monotheistic (like T's), not being able to take part in it's organized aspects leaves one feeling unfulfilled and even like an outsider. I hope J fares better and different than I have though I am not sure how that might even be possible.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Terror In Mumbai

Watching Dan Reed's documentary Terror In Mumbai is a deeply disturbing experience for anyone who has a home in India. The unique "360 degree" view of terrorism that this movie affords is very instructive for global audiences - both who have encountered similar attacks in their own countries and those who have been spared thus far. Unless people and governments understand the terrorist psyche, they would never be able to put up a credible defense against it.

As an Indian, what I found most horrifying was the absolute dysfunctionality of the Mumbai police and the government apparatus as a whole. To the rest of India (of which I am a part), Mumbai epitomizes what is best about the country. We have been led to believe that this city and its denizens are a completely different breed - unlike anything you have seen in the rest of the country, that they have a system that actually works, when put to the test they are able to rise to the occasion. In many ways, Mumbai is what the rest of India aspires to be.

It is therefore, impossible to describe the sense of disbelief I experienced watching ten men hold all of Mumbai hostage, the police force running away from where innocents were being slaughtered instead of protecting them, their antiquated firearms and their obvious lack of preparedness, fitness or training for the task at hand. If this is the state of affairs in Mumbai, you don't even want to imagine how such an attack might have played out any other city in India and that is a chilling realization for Indians both home and abroad.

The leader of this attack lets us know that the events on November 26th 2008 in Mumbai are a trailer to the real movie. If the Indian government is not able to up its game very, very significantly, not a lot of Indians may be around to watch the movie if and when that happens. This is the country we call home - logically, emotionally or both. What Reed shows us happening in that "home" in a time of crisis, flies completely in the face its definition - : a familiar or usual setting : congenial environment.

This movie is reminder of the absolute vulnerability of the average person who is not able to count on anything beyond their own wits, the help of their loved ones and kindness of strangers when they become victims of a terrorist attack. That the people of Mumbai have bounced and go about their lives as if it were business as usual is a testament to their indomitable spirit. The rest of us Indians have the choice of living in fear every day (which is probably the logical thing to do) or do what the Mumbaikars have done and hope we are not put to such a test in our own backyard and fare even worse than Mumbai did.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Jane Or Carrie

No matter what the proportion of fact and fiction in Becoming Jane, it is a good story told well. What was true in Jane Austen's time is (with accommodation for the world we live in) true even today making the movie social commentary and not merely historical fiction. Even today, a woman may want to marry for love and even find a man who fits the bill but in the end she might settle for someone who is conventional, acceptable and safe. If marriage is not really her thing, she may choose to remain single. In either case, she will never forget the grand passion or romance of her life and indeed those memories may become her source of inner strength to cope with the mundane-ness of her life. Sometimes a relationship that does not reach fruition as in marriage may be a lot more significant than one which does.

The best love stories are not about the living happily ever after. Instead, it is about having found and then lost (often forever) the one who could have in theory been perfection incarnate. The movie explores all of these theme from a woman's perspective - themes that are hardly irrelevant for the modern day woman. A much more modern slant on love and romance might be Sex In The City.

Like Austen, Bradshaw is an "authoress" but they have little else in common - at first glance. In Jane Austen's time a reading of Tom Jones was bold and suggestive enough, Carrie Bradshaw and friends for all their candid talk about sex might actually miss the provocation because of it's relative subtlety. Unlike Austen, these ladies are in not women beholden to society, family or any man. They live the life they choose to and without apology. Yet, relationships with men are the central theme of their lives just like it was in Austen's time.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Waxidermy

Discovering new music has never been as easy or as difficult as it is these days. Both data (music) and meta-data(anything written about the music) are abundant and accessible but sifting and sorting through it is no trivial undertaking. Waxidermy is like a breath of fresh air in this over-crowded space. It was fun browsing around, reading the notes about the music.

If the sampling of Indian music they have is any representation of the "wholesomeness" of the collection, then it is definitely lacking. One assumes that the creators of the website went with what appealed to them - a criteria as good as any other when there is so much to choose from. Waxidermy is possibly an example of a website that works not because the content is the best or the most exceptional but because it is build with the spirit of making the process of discovering it fun.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Test Of Time

There are some universal truths in all disciplines - even in the fluid and evolving world of information technology there are principles that do stand the test of time. The sooner one learns them the better because sloppy habits are easy to acquire and very hard to lose. A programmer is well served to learn good, elegant programming style from the get go, testers devise ways to automate as much testing as possible while aiming for maximum coverage, a designer or architect must know to use patterns, build reusable frameworks and components and a project manager must stay on top of metrics earned value or otherwise, convert risk and issue resolution into a lessons learned inventory that can be used on the next project.

No matter what technology platform being employed or business problem being solved, these are things that do not change and make the difference between a failed or successful implementation.


Over the past year, I have had the opportunity to revisit all the lessons from the early days of my career when I was a programmer. Lacking both the temperament and the desire to pull myself out of mediocrity, I found other things to do. However, having worked with people who had both the passion and the ability to be among the best, I learned enough about the discipline to have discernment. What was true ten years ago, is true even today only the mistakes have become a lot more expensive.

I am dealing with a vendor who is trying to integrate between a client's application and a third party product for which they are the preferred service partners. Given their credentials, the price tag is high.
Our implementation is no different from many others that they have done before. The roster of clients they have worked with is lengthy and impressive. You would think with all their diverse experience they would have by now built a framework into which a new project could fit in with minimal effort and that they would be able to estimate size and scope of work quite easily. Common sense would dictate that they would want to reach that level of maturity. Not only would their development cycles shrink, they would also be able to bring on more clients.

As is turns out, none of that is true. Instead of being this well-oiled machine that they should have been by now, they scramble to cobble together infrastructure for the new project, without putting much thought into long term maintenance and stability. They force the client to lock down every last requirement at the earliest date so they can scope and schedule the work assuming all is set in stone. Any revision from that point on is a change of scope that only needs to be budgeted separately but will also play havoc with the schedule. Very quickly, the stress levels on both sides mounts to unhealthy levels, the vendor starts missing delivery dates by wide margins and ties to pin the blame on business requirements - one of the most blatantly abused and minimally understood terms in my line of work.


Ten years ago, when there was not nearly the same diversity of offerings in the packaged solution space, the same set of problems could have killed an implementation and it is no different today. It is still just as important for every member of the team to learn to do their respective job the right way. Lessons learned must become part of a team's DNA and not a time to do lunch while reminiscing over the high and low points of the project just "completed". One weak link in a team's chain can be a huge drag force on it but when you have several of these, the chances of success are almost non-existent.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Narcissism

The worship of "Me" has been a constant in J's life thus far. From the daycare center to elementary school to after-school care, teachers and caregivers make sure kids are not lacking in self-worth. The way they go about it is to tell them they are special and can be everything and anything they want to be. Being realistic is not part of the deal because in this perfect world there are no limits, hard work is optional and can be substituted entirely by great attitude and chutzpah.

Praise is as lavish and it is constant and often for things that don't seem genuinely deserving of it. Teaching humility is something the parent must do at home to counter the effects of constant "positive reinforcement" going on outside and it is a lesson that needs to be repeated very often. In
this Newsweek article Raina Kelley writes about the "Narcissism Epidemic" and there is no better way to describe this phenomenon.

The message that I took away from this article is
"Treating the whole world as if it works for you doesn't suggest you're special, it means you're an ass." Any time the self-adulation gets out of hand, this is exactly what the kid needs to hear. Humility is to narcissism is as bitter is to sweet. The child will most likely reject it at first but as Kelley points out : Such values may seem quaint, maybe even self-defeating, to those of us who think we're special, but trust me: it gets easier with practice.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Right To Internet

I have read a lot of good things about Finland in the past so the news that it will the first country to make broadband internet a legal right is only another in a sizable list. After the initial awe wears off, you have to wonder what such a right may do for the citizenry.

Folks who tend to be paranoid about government intervention in their lives, might see a Trojan Horse in this. Yet others who don't care for the constant connectivity and instant access to information may actually resent broadband being thrust on them - Elton John has wanted to close the internet down. Along with broadband may come some big-brother-esque oversight. Hopefully the vast majority will just be glad to have broadband be a legal right. One Indian blogger writes in reaction to this story :

Presently we are unable to visualize a similar law in India, even in the next 10 years. A country’s 100% population should have proper education to make use of internet first, after which such laws can be thought about. Amen!

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Feeling Space

The "feelSpace belt" mentioned this Wired article can be a wonderful training tool for people like me who have severe direction retardation. Like the subject of the experiment, I might start seeing the map of hallways and cubicle farms in office buildings in my dreams, know to tell south and east apart while awake - skills I have never possessed. Apparently, the brain gets re-mapped and can sense direction even without the belt. The author asks :

Can our senses be modified ? Expanded ? Given the right prosthetics, could we feel electromagnetic fields or hear ultrasound ? The answers to these questions, according to researchers at a handful of labs around the world, appear to be yes.

If the results of these mashed-up or augmented senses are anything like the feelSpace belt, it would definitely have a great deal of value to some.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Unretractable

One evening recently, feeling totally worn-out and jaded, I said to J "I can't do this much longer. Things don't seem to getting any better". Just as soon as the words were out of mouth, I regretted the pessimism and negativity in them - the two character traits that go totally against the grain of J's nature.

She said promptly "Mommy, never talk like that. Always remember there is a sun shining over your head". She made a cone with her two arms to show me how this figurative sun was shining its light on me. Later that day, I read a poem by Jane Hirshfield titled Optimism, which J would have loved if she were able to understand.

More and more I have come to admire resilience.
Not the simple resistance of a pillow, whose foam returns over and over to the same shape, but the sinuous tenacity of a tree: finding the light newly blocked on one side,
it turns in another.
A blind intelligence, true.
But out of such persistence arose turtles, rivers, mitochondria, figs--all this resinous, unretractable earth.

Regrets are unretractable too - words that you say carelessly. In that instant of feeling tired and defeated, I let J see how I looked like while feeling vulnerable. It may be the moment she remembers over the many others when I came through as strong and calm. As much as I wanted to, I could not undo that mainly because it defined the truth of the moment. Yet in time, I may learn to acquire the "sinuous tenacity of a tree"

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Dumb Toys

Read this really insightful article on dumb toys making smarter kids. The author describes the huge improvements in his son's math and reading abilities on account of his addiction to Pokemon cards. I have no first hand experience with this being that J dislikes all things Pokemon. As the author points out Disney is yet to do Snow White or Cinderella trading cards. Even if they existed, it would be interesting to see if little girls were even interested in them. Po Bronson says

"Our son taught me an extremely valuable lesson. When it comes to kids, we often bring moralistic bias to their interests. There’s a pervasive tendency in our society to label things as either good for children or bad for children. Cultivating children’s natural intrinsic motivation requires abandoning all judgment of good and bad content. Society has a long list of subjects that we’ve determined they should learn. "

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Observing

A friend and I were chatting a few days ago about the how kids act one way when being observed by their parents and in another way in their absence. As much as we would like to know how our children think, feel and act we become an interference by the very act of observation. This is a lot like Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle. Read this beautiful passage on the phenomenon of the observer influencing (and therefore changing) the nature of the observed :

There are three components to every manifestation: the observer, the observed and the context or environment of the observation. There are three together represent an intention that is desired to be expressed to be both experienced and observed and it is though the observation that experience is had. This phenomenon of the illusion of a separate observer and an observed also gives rise to an inherent duality. In this regard, duality is an inescapable phenomenon of Creation.

In the context of our conversation the observer and the observed are interchangeably the parent and the child. The environment of observation may be a child's room, the school, the childcare center, a friend's home or a playground. The parent is often desirous of expressing love, protection and concern. The child may seek among a lot of other things attention or affection or both. Being that their roles are fluid and interchangeable make their interaction as the observer-observed pair even more complex than the duality that is inherent in nature.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Hard Work

Having information freely and universally is an idea that is still taking some getting used specially for those who are from a time before this happened. The co-founder of Flickr, Caternia Fake's take on hard work is a telling example of the shift in thinking this necessitates.

I particularly like the part about seeing patterns and putting oneself in the right place where information is flowing freely. Nothing is more critical to success in the information technology business. In most poor to mediocre IT shops, hard-workers are available in abundance but few if any consider "Seeing patterns. Seeing things as they are rather than how you want them to be. Being able to read what people want. Putting yourself in the right place where information is flowing freely and interesting new juxtapositions can be seen." as Fake advocates.In not looking for patterns or worse not recognizing them, these hard-workers don't see their efforts result in better outcomes, a superior product or service.

This is not merely about working smart but being present and aware at all times. That is hard work too but not in the traditional sense of the term. Being able to make the connections between ideas that don't naturally confluence requires vision and insight which are far rarer traits than raw skills or knowledge even. It used to be that a select few in organizations and society as a whole were expected to be "visionaries". The rest were destined to muddle along and hope they would end up okay. With information becoming free and ubiquitous, it no longer takes a special kind of prescience to detect patterns and the cost of failing to do so is significantly higher.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Essays On Math

Recently I read two essays on math. Two very different perspectives - one by PhD in literature , Mark Slouka and the other by a mathematician , Paul Lockhart. The former considers the consequences of math and science trumping frivolous subjects like literature in our education system. The later laments the way math is taught in schools. Both perspectives stand on their own are excellent on their own merits when you read them together, the convergences are fascinating. Slouka says :

The humanities, done right, are the crucible within which our evolving notions of what it means to be fully human are put to the test; they teach us, incrementally, endlessly, not what to do but how to be.

Lockhart says of math present day math education :

In fact, if I had to design a mechanism for the express purpose of destroying a child’s natural
curiosity and love of pattern-making, I couldn’t possibly do as good a job as is currently being done— I simply wouldn’t have the imagination to come up with the kind of senseless, soul- crushing ideas that constitute contemporary mathematics education.

Neither art nor math is winning when they treated as fundamentally different things, meant to serve different objectives. If they did converge as Lockhart suggests - because math is an art form too - then they may both benefit. He quotes G.H Hardy :

A mathematician, like a painter or poet, is a maker of patterns. If his patterns are more permanent than theirs, it is because they are made with ideas.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Ideal Lunch

J has just come out of her sandwich for school lunch phase. It was a good time for me even if it lasted all of two weeks. For that entire period, I did not have to find the answer to the dread question "What do I pack for J's lunch ?" and what a blessing that was. But now, I have to use what little imagination I have to conjure up lunches that taste good even when cold, do not overwhelm J and most importantly get eaten at school. One lunch too many has come home untouched and been served as dinner in the last three years.

I am in love with the Bento Box lunch ideas and think each is as much a work of art as it is a delight to the taste buds. However, that is my opinion and not J's. As far as she is concerned, a lunch menu for a school day, needs to be as simple as possible. A sandwich, a bowl of rice and beans, a bowl of salad, a bowl of boiled broccoli and so on. Milk and fruit is for snack. Variety must be avoided at all costs. J does not deal well with having to prioritize among several things.

That makes Bento Box idea quite unsuitable. Yet the small portions and the bright colors would make it appealing to her. The trick is to balance the contradictions in a way that J will enjoy her lunch and look forward to it the next day. I am sure parents elsewhere have already solved for this problem and so I continue to browse around hoping to find the answer
.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Snake Oil

Nothing can get a bunch of geeks venting like a post titled IT Snake Oil or the story of the marketing pitches that totally failed to deliver what was promised. Some of the criticism is probably too harsh. AI has delivered a good deal even if not to the extent imagined. ERP systems have not always been bad news. It is possible to get a decent implementation in a small, mid-sized company where management is invested in doing things the right way instead of taking short cuts and employing band-aid instead of real solutions. Snake oil also comes in other forms in the IT business.

Pricey consultants will be brought in to study process and system inefficiencies and come up with a proposal that fix everything that is wrong or broke. It looks great on paper but no one knows how to give the thing some legs so it can actually walk the talk. The client gets a bunch of colorful documentation for their money, with competitor analysis and measurements against industry benchmarks thrown in for good measure.

Management has some numbers it can bandy about with confidence. The consultants leave, their proposal gathers dust after a few attempts to implement their suggestions fail. The old timers in the company say they would have told management the exact same things and for free but no one bothers to ask them. They also know that the problems are such that they cannot be solved unless you do over everything which is virtually impossible. Often they turn out to be right.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Storytelling

I have Trinidadian friends and love their food. That is the extent of what I know about the culture. While browsing around the public library recently, the cover of Lime Tree Can't Bear Orange caught my eye. The phrase which forms the title of the book has a close cousin in my own language - Bengali. Also the cover image of the lotuses in the lake fringed by palm trees must have invoked memories of Bengal countryside. Hit by an unexpected bout of nostalgia, I decided to check the book out. I was only able to skim through it after reading the first chapter which ends with a graphic account of the protagonist's rape by her uncle right after she attains puberty. Maybe it was the brutality of the description but it turned me off the story immediately.

It reminded me of the other book I had attempted to read recently -
A Happy Marriage by Raphel Yglesias. Chapter One was a thing of remarkable beauty and I had great hopes of this being one of those books that I would remember for a long time. Yet in taking us to the tragic denouement in the very next chapter and then going back and forth between past and present, the joy of discovering an unfolding story was gone completely. Very quickly the book became an assault in the senses. I could not bear being yanked from courtship to terminal cancer time after time. It was a good story gone to waste because of how the author had decided to tell it, as far as I was concerned. And so is the case with Amanda Smyth's Lime Tree Can't Bear Orange.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Memories In Smell

Sorting through the clothes in her carry-on luggage as she unpacked, Sheila could smell MJ's cologne. How would one define it she wondered as she held up the lavender silk top close to her nose trying to memorize every last detail of that perfume - the musk, the citrus and then everything she could not identify. This smell was the end of their five year acquaintance, quasi relationship that was finally not meant to be. It was not a smell she recognized. It was also different from what she had smelt on him the last time they had met - yes, she did remember that too as improbable as that was.

These would be hardest things to forget - touch was tactile and the first to fade out, sound was next. She had erased all his text and voice mail messages from her phone. His number was gone from her address book. The close to five hundred emails exchanged over the last five years posed a very different problem - she could not bring herself to delete them all in one fell swoop yet there was no other way to do it. They would be there to pain her for some more yet until after reading and re-reading their poignancy had finally blunted. She would be covering memories and the pain that went along with them with the nacre of forced oblivion.

MJ would be associated with Times Square at the crack of dawn and that 40th floor room in her Manhattan hotel at twilight. They always knew they belonged together and yet being together was the hardest thing to do. He wanted their emotional connection to be much stronger than the physical one, she did not want to grow that close because she knew MJ had potential to hurt her like none other. He dared her to make a leap of faith, she resisted by reigning in her feelings for him the best she could. Being close enough but not too close turned out to be impossible.The two meetings that served as book-ends to their strange relationship. It was about having found that person with whom it was absolutely effortless to communicate, having shared a connection that was hard to explain given how little time they had spent together and finally there was this amazing physical chemistry.

Yet over the course of an hour, it had all unraveled with a finality that was brutal. From being the woman who had once been unable to resist him physically, she had become the one who defined the boundaries and made him feel vulnerable. She was fully in control. The years had treated them very differently. Sheila had become much more poised and self-assured. She was in a good place career-wise with a clear path to do even better things. MJ had stepped out of his comfort zone to try something high risk and high reward. The combination was taking a toll on him - it showed in how much he had aged, his diminished energy level, his inability to focus on her - on their relationship (or an approximation of it).

He called her "jaan" effortlessly but there was none that life spark in his kisses or his embrace that had once startled and electrified her. He was like a man who had been hungry to the point of starvation but upon being offered a feast felt like retching. Each time he came close to real emotional involvement, he would take time to cool off - avoid contacting her for days until he was more in control of his feelings. In person that evening in her hotel room, he splashed water on himself each time he came close to giving in to his physical desire for her. They both agreed that sex could wait if they were really serious, that it made sense to get married first because there was no reason to delay what was a logical conclusion to their feelings for each other.

The one time that evening she actually kissed him back with some passion, he said "I have to go now, jaan" managing to avoid her lips on his mouth. "Why ?" she asked. "Because I need to be in the right frame of mind to be able to work later tonight. My clients in Singapore will expect me to available at 9:00 p.m EST". he explained. "And ?" Sheila asked. "I am not sure I will be able to stop" he explained. "With me that should be the least for your concerns. I will go only thus far and no further" Sheila laughed. "I am not so sure about myself". MJ smiled. And before she knew it, he had put his jacket back one and was at the door ready to leave.

"MJ, if you leave now, this will be the last time you see me" Sheila called out after him, her voice tinged with sadness and hurt at the same time. "Of course, I'll see you again. This is your punishment for constantly changing your mind about me" he replied with characteristic chutzpah. In another time she would have found that endearing. Tonight she was not even remotely impressed. Ten minutes later, she realized that the idol of Ganesha she had brought for him as gift was still lying on her nightstand. When she called him, he was already in the subway on his way home. Given her schedule, she would not have a chance to meet him before she left the day after.

Always the one to see portents, the hand of fate and divine interventions in her life, Sheila had determined that forces of nature were working against her desire to be with MJ. After five years of going back and forth she had finally found resolution she had sought - the answer to the question that had vexed her the whole time What does God want me to do about MJ. Even if it was not the answer she had wanted to hear, Ganesha had spoken at last. It was now her job to make peace with it.

Catching a few bars of the song I Hate Myself For Loving You, that evening on her way home, Sheila was torn between the urge to laugh out loud at the coincidence and cry until she had no energy left to hurt.


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