Thursday, December 31, 2009

3 Idiots

Watching 3 Idiots was a bitter-sweet experience which is probably an unusual reaction to a movie that tries for the most part to tickle your funny bone. It took me back to my own engineering college days in India, the experience of having let off steam after cooking for more than two years the ultimate pressure cooker that is the process of preparing for the entrance tests to get into one of these colleges.

A lot of kids (myself included) checked out of system completely - we bided our time until graduation and tried to get by applying ourselves as little as possible. After all the work it took to get in there, the education we were being offered was underwhelming to say the least. Many of us were not even interested in becoming engineers but had been goaded there by a combination of societal and parental pressures and had no idea what to do next. In the best case, we would go through the motions on auto-pilot, keeping our heads above the water and find ourselves gainfully employed at twenty two. In a sense, the whole business of competing for and getting into engineering college had killed our capacity to dream bigger more bolder dreams.

So many memories come back watching this movie - the hazing rituals, the nicknames that people acquire that have the ability to capture their essence of who they are in a word or a phrase, a learning focused on cram and recall instead of independent, creative thinking and then the psychotic professors. 3 Idiots covers much of that familiar ground.The bare bones story-line is entirely credible though you have to make the necessary discounts for the bravura Bollywood flourishes. It is also advisable not get too finicky about minor details such as why a man in his 40s is chosen to play the part of a teenager or if a vaccum cleaner can in a pinch become part of a midwife's emergency toolkit - such persnicketiness is not the ideal way to savor a Bollywood flick.

I was reminded of the suicides on our campus while I was a student there. The first time it happened, our class went into a state of shock, our seniors had seen it before and took it much more stoically. By the time of the final semester, we were to the point, where we counted ourselves lucky if the kid who had decided to end their life was not someone we were close to.

Back in the day, I have worried about hyper-competitive room-mates whose lives (literally and figuratively) rode on their performance in exams, campus interviews, GREs, GMATs, CATs and such. Then there were the great white hopes from impoverished families who had the dreams and aspirations of several generations riding on them - potrayed in the movie by the character of Raju Rastogi. If you have known one of them, you come to have a much keener appreciation for D.H Lawrence's Rocking Horse Winner.

The movie also brought back many happy memories - the anti-establishment kids we goaded and dared to needle professors we all hated, the brutally funny things we said about each other and about those who "taught" us, friendships that turned out to be life-changing and  romances that did or did not end up in fairy tale marriages. The final meeting between Chatur (the flatulent nerd with the personality of a sun-tanning gecko) and Rancho (sensitive alpha-geek with a burning desire to learn and far above the fray to need to compete - the kind of kid you never forget) is so reminiscent of the one-upmanship games that get played on Facebook walls and mailing list updates.

A lot of my former classmates still carry yardsticks from undergrad days to measure the worth of their peers. There is more than a little schadenfreude to see the class topper married to a senior who everyone knew was gay - the girl was so busy studying, she never got or read the memo. There is also awe and envy about kids on the fringe - the ones who failed to distinguish themselves in any way whatsoever - were no more than scenery on campus for four years - the "idiots" by this movie's definition,  but are now extremely successful.

Then there is the big, fat layer of mediocrity where many of us find ourselves today. Some are comfortable because they expected no better and then there are those who cannot imagine how they ended up where they are - they were destined for much better given their ranks, grades and other quantitative measures of success. To that end, the relentless point proving and point scoring - I am less mediocre than you, I make more than you, my house is bigger than yours, my cars are fancier than yours, I travel further and more often than you do, I look younger than you do, I am happier than you, my children and my spouse are better than yours.

In a movie, you can have that all end at one reunion after ten years in Ladakh - the winner gets the last laugh and the loser leaves chastised. In real life, it never really ends and it ceases to be funny after a while. Back to the 3 Idiots - would definitely recommend watching it. Aamir Khan (age notwithstanding) gives a superb performance and the rest of the crew is not half bad either.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

List Of Ten


List of the past years' best and worst are inevitable around the end of December. When it becomes the business of revisiting the first decade of a new millennium, the lists turn even more ubiquitous and voluminous. Of the many that I have read in the last few weeks, this list of ten from The Atlantic is my favorite.

I don't entirely agree that all of the ideas are American but they most likely found fertile ground in this country to blossom and were definitive of the decade. Numero Uno :  Everything is Free (or It Should Be) is clearly a big theme of the decade and it is not only Gawker Media and Huffington Post  that have "found fortunes in aggregating and repackaging free news".

Further afield from the likes of Gawker and HuffPost, are rag-pickers of all stripes making a living  from ferreting out content from free on-line sources that they can rehash, recycle, repackage and sell as compilations web or print. Since a book in print still enjoys cachet with folks who write, those with the marketing smarts and business savvy are able to turn this to their advantage. In return for credit to the author (a bio, a permalink and a token of appreciation), they assume the rights to what they will do with the content. The author (or garbage generator to keep the narrative in synch with rag-pickers) may find this a fair trade (or not) depending on the reach and size of their on-line audience.

If only two people including their mother had read a piece of writing now on its way to  being in a book, they figure it's not such a terrible deal. The rag-picker has a vested interest in making that book sell and for their trouble, they get to keep most if not all of the proceeds.There is certainly a lot of effort that must go into the selection process given the sheer volume of content that is out there so it can be argued they are only being compensated for their work.  

The right to free that is increasingly becoming implicit can cut both ways depending on which side of the equation you find yourself in and sometimes it is impossible to be certain of the side or to know if you are winning or losing in the deal.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Symboitic Perspective


Reading this line in a Seed Magazine article "Human beings are not really individuals; they’re communities of organisms” makes we want to believe that this is entirely true. It would explain all of the irrational, out-of-character or plain idiotic things I have done and will in all likelihood continue to do in my life. A flotilla of organisms sending out conflicting chemical impulses all the time can only be the cause of trouble:

The difference between our interaction with harmful and helpful bacteria, she says, is not so much like separate languages as it is a change in tone: “It’s the difference between an argument and a civil conversation.” We are in constant communication with our microbes, and the messages are broadcast throughout the human body.

To that end, I lack the will power to resist chocolate and need to devise complicated ways of hiding the box of macadamia cookies that a friend gifts me. It's got to be those harmful bacteria I am carrying in my gut - bacteria with whom it is impossible to have "a civil conversation" with. It would be instructive to understand what's inside one's microbiome :

Much like a genetic profile, a person’s microbiome can be seen as a sort of natural identification tag. As David Relman, a microbiologist at Stanford University, puts it, “It’s a biometric — a signature of who you are and your life experience.”

Monday, December 28, 2009

Head First 2D Geometry


If you are looking for a book that shows you fun and real-life applications of 2D geometry while explaining its concepts lucidly, then Head First 2D Geometry by Lisa Fallow and Dawn Griffiths is definitely for you. There is not one thing about this book that is dull or boring - the words most frequently associated with a traditional geometry textbook.

Starting from the most basic concepts of straight lines and angles all the way up to regular polygons, each chapter approaches the topic being covered in the context of a real life problem that can be solved successfully by applying geometry. This format makes the book particularly useful to those who want to understand how and where geometry and everyday life intersect. Often this connection is very hard to make while reading a text book with the goal of preparing for a test.

Finally this is a book a student can read and learn from independently at their own pace, absorbing the material and trying the exercises in their own style. The conversational tone of the book, the real-world relevance of the problems being solved, take the fear factor out of learning geometry. I would highly recommend this book for kids who are a few to several grade levels ahead in math ability and also to students who need to master this subject as part of their regular school curriculum.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Happily Unmarried

When a couple of  talented desi guys come together and dream up an idea that is uniquely and authentically Indian, pair it with a great design sensibility, you have have something like Happily Unmarried. I follow the start-up activity in India and long to see desi ingenuity meet design and  technology in ways that have a distinctly Indian flavor.

All too often, the ideas I run across are borrowed from the West, with some vernacular thrown in to desi-fy it so to speak. Then ten other companies riff on the same cloned theme with minor variations. In the end, none of them stand apart from a crowd and or have any kind of Indian signature. Happily Unmarried is  very happy departure from the formula around a concept that is not "inspired" or "cloned" and could only come from India.

Recently, I had a chance to chat with Rajat Tuli, one of the duo behind Happily Unmarried.

Me :  What was the moment of Zen that prompted you guys to come up with Happily Unmarried ?
Rajat : It was more an idea which evolved over time, based on our own experiences we realized that in our family oriented country there is nothing which targets the young.This made us quit our dull jobs and start to identify things which we could sell to people like us.And we are still evolving, getting into more categories.Oh its a lot of fun. 

Me : Is your store and idea too cool for the aam junta or does everyone get it easily ?
Rajat : Sometimes it is a little tough to explain to people what happily unmarried really means( try doing it in Hindi)but that apart the products are all well designed, they have an Indian sensibility most importantly they are things you use everyday. So the web is increasing. Initially we were only in the big metros but now we are even selling in Agra, Jammu, Coimbatore and other cities which one thinks are outside the cool zone. 

Me:  What are your social media outreach efforts like ?
Rajat : We have not done anything to promote the brand, thankfully the products keep getting picked up by magazines, we have been featured a few times on television but our best publicity is through word of mouth.There is also a sizable presence on Facebook now.

Me : How do you come up with the design ideas for your very unique products ?
Rajat : We actually identify products of mass consumption and then we try to inject in them a dose of irreverence and fun, there is a team of designers and a lot of effort goes into each product. 

Me : Does buying the Happily Unmarried brand supposed to say something about the buyer ?
Rajat : Yes, that she has a sense of humour,has a good taste,is going to make her Boy friend/husband/ dad very happy.

Me: If you could choose three tags to describe what your brand is all about what would they be ?
Rajat : Fun,Indian,Quirky

Me : What are the next big plans for Happily Unmarried ?
Rajat : Many, but the one I can speak about is a pub.The first HU bar and kitchen is being build even as I write this. Everything from the chair to the napkin is being designed by us.

Me : Would you consider taking on a serious social issue in India and put your creative spin on it to create a product that becomes a conversation piece ?
Rajat : Yes, we do sometimes. But since our tag line and with a name like Happily Unmarried we are morally bound to not be committed to a product, idea or cause for long.

Me : Did you face any unique challenges getting your business going ?
Rajat : Yes, lots when we started we would tell people we want to design funny products with Indian sensibilities, people said we would run out of ideas after 10. We have over a 100 now and ideas for may be 200 more. Ofcourse there were also minor issues like having no money to start the business with etc etc 

Me : Are the morality police (Ram Sena et al) keeping close tabs on you ?
Rajat : No, they have no reason to and even if they do we do not care.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Directions From Home

Learned about the Shanti spa at San Miguel, Mexico by way of Mexicowoods. India is recreated many different ways all around America - temples, restaurants, grocery stories,ethnic clothes and jewelry stores and more. They always look out of place no matter what their location - walking into desi restaurant in a strip mall where nothing else has the remotest connection to India is always unsettling. So is finding oneself inside what is made to resemble a temple after walking through the doors of an office building.
It takes a while to get oriented though sometimes the setting is little too incongruous for this to happen. Food (possibly the closest connection to home) is re-purposed in strange ways to cater to local tastes. By when you get directions to the place on your GPS unit or Mapquest, there is little left to salvage the "authentic" desi vibe about the whole deal.

The directions to Shanti, the Indian spa in Mexico, makes a desi feel at home right away. Everything about it is approximate and imprecise - you have to follow a set of landmarks to get there. That seems much closer home than I anything I have seen north of the border.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Celebrating Holidays


Every Christmas is a little different with and for J. The year she was born, we took her to the mall to get the de rigueur picture with Santa and she bawled the whole time. That picture has a scared J sitting on the lap of a disgruntled Santa. A lot has changed since then. When she was too young to notice the holiday season, Christmas meant very little to her.

Over the last couple of years, J has been agitating to have some kind of celebration during the holiday season. Having celebrated Diwali a few months prior is not quite cutting it. She wants to celebrate something along with everyone else - it does not even have to be Christmas. Even the tree and presents are optional as far as J is concerned. The only thing that matters is the timing of the celebration.

J feels like when she has her festivals no one shares in with her unlike Christmas which almost everyone is a part of. To her being American and celebrating a festival of some kind over the winter holidays has turned synonymous. We've talked about this a bit and it turns out that the peer pressure is mounting as she grows older. Everyone in class will be bursting at the seams with elaborate accounts of what they did over the holidays. J does not want to be the one left out with nothing to say for herself. This time of year, lack of conformity is far more painful than it is at any other time - it has her feeling anxious. To J's credit, she is very much her own person almost all the time and does not have any pressing need to be like anyone else. But the holiday season is more than even she seems to have capacity for.

Last evening, I sat her down and explained to her the importance of being true to oneself - indeed knowing who that was and what that person was all about. I told her about my non-Hindu friends in India who felt left out of the big Hindu festivals and celebrated their holidays in relative isolation - an experience that parallels her own in America. I have not been in their shoes and don't know what it feels like - but J does and I realize it is not easy at all.

I told her, what I have learned from observing those friends is that the more confident they were about their identity, the better they have fared in their adult lives. It takes tremendous strength of character to be an ethnic and religious minority and still negotiate successfully in the social and cultural context. Yet, those who do it successfully are the ones who thrive best.

I explained to J the importance of feeling confident despite being different and this is not just about celebrating a holiday (or not). If you take the path of least resistance and fit in, you will find yourself needing to make many more compromises all your life to continue to fit in - increasingly you will lose your sense of self. A time will come when you would no longer know who you are because you have turned yourself into what most people expect you to be.

Next year when you go back to school, I said to her,  it would be much more challenging to tell your friends "I don't have a holiday to celebrate in December but I had a great time doing other fun stuff over the winter break" and take interest in what they share about their holidays. The easier thing would be to put up a Christmas tree and have Santa bring in the presents. That would give you exactly the same things to talk about as the other kids.

J went to sleep with what I hope was food for thought. Time will tell if what I told her helped or hurt her. The one thing I do know, I was being true to myself and consistent with what I believe in. The hope is, that will be of value to J and help her find direction.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Of Bots, Spiders and Scrapers

In Chapter 1 of his book Webbots, Spiders and Screen Scrapers A Guide to Developing Internet Agents with PHP/CURL, Michael Schrenk says :

"To be successful with webbots, you need to stop thinking like other Internet users. Namely, you need to stop thinking about the Internet in terms of a browser viewing one website at a time. This will be difficult, because we've all become dependent on browsers. While you can do a variety of things with a browser, you also pay a price for that versatility - browsers need to be sufficiently generic to be useful in a wide variety of circumstances. Webbots, on the other hand can be programmed for specific tasks and can perform those tasks with perfection."

That really captures the essence of what this book is about. Schrenk targets two very different audiences - one is the webbot developer who has a variety of projects to play with and learn the tools in the context of the different applications. The other is the business leader who is eager to develop an unique on-line strategy to gain competitive advantage and realizes that it needs to be a lot more than having on-line presence.

As a consultant, I find myself needing to roll up my sleeves and do actual development on occasion - even if only as a proof of concept. On a more regulare basis, I need to help my clients define the best use of technology to achieve their organizational goals which more often than not includes doing better than their competition.

I found this book very useful in understanding what webbots, spiders and scrapers are good for. It was easy to see how it can free up time from tedious tasks and  open up opportunities that we have not even thought about. Schrenk gives the reader in a head start in terms of how to starting thinking about a webbot project. If the reader keeps in mind his advice about stop thinking like other Internet users, they would soon find themselves coming up with ideas of their own. The possibilities are myriad. For those who have the ability and inclination to try out some of their ideas, Schrenk includes a wealth of resources in the book and there is yet more on his website.

Whether you are a developer , a business leader or have a function that is neither of them, you will find this book valuable. In the least it will help you think about the true potential of the internet and about ways to tap it.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Saying It Best

I guess it must be a common experience and it has happened to me a few times. Say you are gathered with friends at dinner having a good conversation. There is something you try to share - several times and each time you fail to be heard. Just as you start to speak, so does another person and the audience favors them over you - you miss your chance just by a little bit.

You get your turn another time but you and the conversation have moved on to other things by then. There is that small nagging feeling of dissatisfaction you are left with for having tried to say something no matter how trivial and not being able to have it heard. You may even wonder why nature conspired against that thing you wanted to say - it wasn't terribly special or important any way. That would be the prosaic way of describing it and then there is the superlative, heart-stoppingly beautiful Jane Hirshfield way  in her poem ALL EVENING, EACH TIME I STARTED TO SAY IT:

It suddenly seemed to me the kind of thought,
not large, on which a life might turn.
There are many such: unheard, unspoken.
Their blind eyes open and close,
the almost audible valves of their hearts.
But all evening, each time I started to say it,
something would interrupt, the moment would pass.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Dandelions and Orchids

J is for the most part a sweet natured child but there have been times when she disappears somewhere (emotionally) where is hard for me to reach her. To me, an episode like that calls into question the strength of our bond, the merits of my parenting philosophy and if we have what it takes to be truly tested in difficult times. My first instinct in those situations has been to panic first and think later - a bad habit I find hard to break. I refuse to let J hide away behind those large, dreamy eyes that can at once be so eloquent and distant.

We we talk about it is until I believe I have unearthed whatever  may have prompted her to withdraw in the first place. The more sensitive the child, the harder for the parent to strike the right chord - be warm and approachable without being too intrusive, build character without being too regimental, to protect while showing them how to protect themselves, to be their friend without dissolving some of the boundaries that a parent must preserve in order to be a successful parent, be emotionally supportive without smothering with solicitude - the list goes on.

Time and again, I have seen parents veering off too far one way or the other to the detriment of their children. While I may not make the mistakes that I seen made, I am very likely going to make some of my own. I would be grateful to be a "good enough" mother and even that seems like a pretty daunting goal. Reading this wonderful article in The Atlantic about "
orchid children" made me wonder if J is more dandelion or orchid or some flower that's in between the two. If I knew the answer would I nurture her any different.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Intellect And Consumption

Reading a comment on this article about rejection reducing IQ levels, made me wish that the commentator had written a comprehensive essay on the themes touched upon in the comments. Despite the political slant in the observations, it makes for very interesting reading. Specially loved the concluding remark :

And if , by some magic, an average American's IQ can be raised by, say, 10-25 points - this economy will simply collapse because much of it is based on artificially manufactured needs and wants supported by massive marketing and advertising budgets of corporations.

A few weeks ago, I happened to have a couple of hours to occupy after dropping J off at a birthday party. There was some grocery shopping to be done but it would not take as long as I my wait time was. So, I wandered into a newly opened home decor store in the area to browse around and see if I could find a replacement for my down at the heel frying pan. The parking lot was full, the store was swarming with holiday shoppers and business appeared to be brisk. I looked at some of the price tags and wondered how any of it made sense in the current economic climate.

All around me homes have For Sale signs, the job market continues to be tough - former co-workers desperate to find employment after being laid off are working at half of what they used to make, liquidations sales have become so commonplace that they no longer provoke any surprise. That a pricey home decor store is able to thrive in such difficult times is a puzzle to say the least.


Likewise, the nicer restaurants in the neighborhood are are busy as ever judging from their parking lots at least - maybe the regular patrons are relatively untouched by the recession. In all there is little evidence that the pattern of consumption is driven by real life circumstances or even tempered by it. Maybe upping everyone's IQ by 20-25 points as this commentator suggests would cause that alignment to happen.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Single Subject Simpleton

Aaron Triaster has a delightful article on being a stay at home father. I could see my ever so misunderstood self portrayed perfectly here :

The common misconception of childless, alcohol-imbibing party guests and cyber-ether baby-haters alike is that parents blabber constantly out of some arrogance or indulgent desire to show off their great kids and their perfect parenthood. Nothing could be further from the truth. We parents have so little now; the children have taken so much. We just have nothing left to say. We sometimes hear ourselves and know how we must sound to others, and we feel great shame. Our children have broken us and turned us into single-subject simpletons. They've accomplished this feat in what is supposed to be the prime of our intellectual life.

J is the center of my universe and I have a hard time recalling who I was before I became her mother, what I did to occupy my time and what my most pressing concerns were. How one little person can displace my entire life before they arrived, is a puzzle I have yet to solve. Indeed the coming of J into my life has turned me into a "single-subject simpleton" as Traister puts it. It takes concerted effort to keep a social conversation J-free so to speak. Each time I am able to pull it off, it seems like an achievement.

Sustaining a social conversation with folks who don't yet have kids is pretty daunting - it becomes very important they we share atleast a few other common interests. A child however, is a great leveler - I can have a conversation with just about any parent and it does not matter that we have absolutely nothing except parenthood in common.

Needless to say this can be the undoing of a new relationship. The question is to be or not to be my post-J self (which is apparently the only self I have any awareness or recollection of) so I am upfront about who I really am. Like the author, I am acutely conscious of the fact that child-free adults are underwhelmed by us parents who constant blather about kids and would want to avoid us like they would a soiled diaper.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Life Log

The comments on this Techcrunch article about LIFEmee are not very kind. The idea of publishing your whole life on-line to "passionately strive towards your hopes and dreams while helping you monitor all aspects of your life" is clearly a hard one to sell. If you spend all that time online you don't get a chance to "live" the life in question. That and the lack of separation between public and private spaces does seem to deter the would be user somewhat.

However, there can be some interesting applications if enough people do sign up. Say I dream to achieve a specific goal ten years out and I have a certain profile (background, qualifications and a life experiences). If there is enough historical data, LIFEmee may be able to predict with high degree of accuracy if one such as myself will be able to achieve what I want to by when I want to.

This is not a lot different from those retirement planning calculators that analyze the customers goals versus their current financial situation to give them a plan to reach where they want to when to want to. You move some of the input drivers around to get a very different read on the output. Instead of discrete numeric data, something like LIFEmee would be dealing with somewhat more fuzzy and intangible.

Maybe it could advise an user on the probability of being successful in their long term goals and what if other alternative targets they could be more likely to hit. Assistance could also come in the form of informing the user what others did to get where they did. Obviously, the quality, quantity and completeness of data would determine how accurate they could be - needless to say, users would need to be truthful in entering and updating their information over time.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Zombies

What the author describes as the American Zombie could be found just as easily in any other developed /developing country where consumerism is the predominant force in people's lives. They do what they do in order to feed the consumption habit. The picture John Place paints is sad, scary and true. While not every person fits the zombie bill, significant numbers of them do. Significant enough to warrant the large marketing budgets companies have to push their goods and services.

Reading this article reminds me of a former ad agency guy I once met who had this moral awakening in his 40s that prompted him to change his profession. He said he found it very hard to make peace with his conscience when he got paid for getting people to buy by playing mind games on them. Apparently when success in your day job involves being good at pushing people's buttons, it becomes very hard to succeed in interpersonal relationships. He was never sure at what point he stopped being genuine and started becoming manipulative.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Innovation In India

This NYT story by Vikas Bajaj on anxiety over the slow pace of innovation in India covers all the usual suspects - bureaucracy, corruption, years of stifling central planning, restrictive import tariffs, emphasis rote learning when it comes to eduction and general risk aversion. With all of that innovation is reduced to mere "jugaad" - the formal term is probably "denial driven innovation".

One contributing factor the author neglects to mention is that desis are blessed with high degree of tolerance and the natural ability to accept status quo as karma for the most part. We are not a people given to shaking things up as a matter of course, indeed a lot of us have never had a pressing need to do so.

Innovation and entrepreneurship in India is probably the highest among those communities who experienced upheaval at the time of India gaining Independence. They came in through the western border and fanned around, rooting where conditions were most hospitable. Many left Indian shores to seek their fortunes abroad. These communities  continue to be among the wealthiest and possessed of the greatest spirit of enterprise.

Perhaps they always had the wherewithal to do all of the things they did but adversity became the impetus that pushed them to an entirely different level of resourcefulness. On the east of the border, where families were uprooted from Bangladesh and headed to Kolkata and its vicinities, the story unfolded quite differently for a variety of reasons but that is a whole different topic of discussion.

For the vast majority of educated, middle class Indians, the would be innovators of this century, there has been little need to stick out their necks and take big risks or try something drastically because their survival depended on it. As resources shrink rapidly, the burgeoning population will be forced out of its comfort zone whether they like it or not. To that end, the reliance of a variety of "jugaad" and engagement in multifarious "dhanda" will increasingly become a way of life. It is the knee jerk response ( and not always a harmful one) to the need to do more with less.

Innovation (disruptive and otherwise) will likely happen as a subsequent phase in this process of evolution. It would be unreasonable to expect a Silicon Valley style startup incubation ecosystem in Bangalore but that does not mean innovation will not happen in India - it will just be of a very different flavor and like the taste of "curry" it would take some getting used to specially for those in the Western world. Many examples of such enterprise abound already.

It is just as Iqbal Quadir puts it while discussing the use of mobile phones to transfer money in India and Philippines :

Thus, when technologies—no matter where or why they were invented—are applied to diverse contexts, they provide a foundation for previously undreamed-of permutations and combinations. 

The numbers turn phenomenally large when one talks about India. We have more than our fair share of problems but in each of them, the enterprise-minded would see opportunity when permuted and combined with technology.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Violet Chrysanthemums

This was the third day since that terrible headache started and Sheila was weary waiting for it to fade away on its own. Early this morning she had woken up with a dream about Zubin. He was getting off a bus at the intersection she could see from her house. He carried a small suitcase that looked well-traveled. In his other hand he held a huge bunch of violet chrysanthemums. He looked lean and energetic as he strode up the street to her.

Next she saw both of them in the middle of a lawn, Zubin holding her in a warm embrace. In real life, they had never so much as held hands. She was saying to him "What's wrong Zubin, why have you lost so much weight ?". "Have I really ? Maybe because I have cancer" he replied. She felt the tears come to her eyes, her throat choking with pain. He kissed her on the face only like a very dear friend could. His touch was tender, warm and protective but there was nothing remotely sensual about it. He handed her the flowers.

She wondered about the flowers, Zubin was never the kind to bring flowers, in the twenty odd years that they had known each other, he never had. He believed in showing up and being there for her and doing whatever it took. Then she saw them in a hotel room. He had started to unpack, she was dressed as if it to go out to dinner. "Where to you want to go ?" she asked. "I have to tell you in my condition, I cannot eat any kind of starch - it makes me dangerously ill" Zubin said.

She held him close and felt his tall, emaciated frame. The more he tried to make it a happy reunion, the more she wanted to cry. Then suddenly the dream ended and she woke up with a really nasty throat ache. Glancing at the clock on her bedside table, she realized that it would be the middle of a workday for Zubin at Ankara. Calling him would not be a good idea. She tried to compose a semi-coherent email but failed even after five attempts. What exactly was she supposed to write ? She went about her morning, worried about her strange dream and about Zubin. At some point, she decided to look up the symbolism of flower colors.

For centuries, purple has been known as a regal color, connoting dignity, pride and success. So pretty plum blossoms are an obvious choice when a friend gets a new job or any time congratulations are in order. But rumor has it that purple can also signify love at first sight, so send that special someone violets or purple roses when you want to show you care.

Like pink, lavender represents grace and femininity, but it’s more refined, more sophisticated and elegant. Pretty lavender blooms are perfect for mommies-to-be; tiny wild asters can say "thank you" or "happy birthday"; lilac-colored roses tell her you still think she’s beautiful, even after all these years.

As with everything that had to do with Zubin, there was so much ambiguity in the color of the flowers. Then there was the flower itself which supposedly represents the essence of fidelity. She would have to wait for Zubin to contact her and in the meanwhile all she could do is to pray for him to safe and well. Yes and happy with the life he had - a life that did not and would not intersect with hers.

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Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Status

Read this interesting article on the psychology of social status. Both observations and conclusions seem to make sense but the author does not clarify whether status (high or low) is as it is perceived by the individual or as they are appear to be in the eyes of the world.

Status is inherently relative. A high in a one social milieu could end up ranking low in another. Would that then increase their propensity for negative low-status behavior ? Also if status is achieved or conferred for reasons other than material success what might an interaction between two high status individuals look like if their status is based on account of very different things. Who decides the relative status of these two individuals ?

Apparently, low-status behavior can be remedied : Finally, in an experiment with both high- and low-SES college students, Henry demonstrated that boosting people’s sense of self-worth diminished aggressive tendencies amongst low-status individuals.

The boosting of self-worth seems to be an integral part of elementary school curriculum but bullies are a still a problem. Maybe if self-worth boosting was limited to the target population it may have helped. With everyone undergoing a status elevation, the difference between high and low does not disappear - instead you now have to deal with the problem of everyone feeling special and entitled.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Understanding And Listening

If management lessons from a super-prime, niche restaurant are transferable to more mainstream businesses, this HBS case study might make a compelling case for allowing some operational inefficiencies to persist for the business to thrive. Even it were not possible, there is much to ponder over the elBulli success story. Per chef Ferran AdriĆ 's "Creativity comes first; then comes the customer". Not exactly the same thought, but a riff in similar vein is Seth Godin's advise on choosing the right customer and knowing who to turn down.

Very often vendors will bend over backwards, meet patently absurd demands from the client, over-commit and under-deliver and everything else that goes with an engagement (and later a relationship) from hell. The problem is exactly as Godin puts it : Marketers rarely think about choosing customers... like a sailor on shore leave, we're not so picky. Huge mistake.

AdriĆ  has probably taken Godin's idea of being selective about customers to an extreme and has been able to do so because of the business he is in. Clearly it is no recipe for universal sucess but there is much to be said for "the distinction between understanding and listening to customers" - something most business can profit from learning to do well.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Mastery Over Performance

J is yet to show any interest in video games lesser still in owning any of them. I have to admit that I am curious as a non-gaming parent to understand what if anything she is missing out because of her nonchalance about something that her peers find so very compelling. I watch kids J's age and older immersed in their video games appearing to be completely disconnected from the here and now. Their skill levels are often remarkable (at least from my perspective). Even if I played one of those games for years, I would not be able to equal the performance levels that some of these kids have achieved.

That said, I have wondered how J might fare given her relative lack of exposure - and more importantly if that lack matters. Reading this excellent blog post on the what gaming can and cannot do for a child was most enlightening to me. I am big believer in the virtue of persistence and hard work and will never pass up an opportunity to reinforce that message with J. 

Being smart and quick, I tell her, will only take you so far. If you want to be a serious contender and be in it for the long haul you have to put forth the effort and never grow complacent. Whereas talent carries no guarantees of success, there is direct correlation between degree of effort and the resulting outcome. By when I have reached this part of my harangue, J knows that a recap of the hare and tortoise fable is not far behind and if not the well-known Edison quote. I absolutely love how this blogger puts it :

While a performance orientation improves motivation for easy challenges, it drastically reduces it for difficult ones. And since most work worth doing is difficult, it is the mastery orientation that is correlated with academic and professional success, as well as self-esteem and long-term happiness.

In childhood, it is remarkably easy to instill one orientation or the other. It all comes down to the type of praise you receive. If you perform well on a task and are told, "Wow, you must be smart!" it teaches you to value your skill, and thus fosters a performance orientation. But if instead you are told, "Wow, you must have worked hard!" it teaches you to value your effort and thus fosters a mastery orientation.

This is great parenting lesson and one that I will do well to remind myself of.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Social Media Marketing Book

Dan Zarrella's The Social Media Marketing Book is a quick and effective way to get familiar with all that constitutes social media today. While all of the information in the book is ready available on-line, asking the questions that will lead up to the answers sought is much more challenging specially if you are relatively new to social media marketing. This book has it all packaged neatly and saves you all the time and effort needed to collect the information.

Even when Zarrella covers familiar ground, he has fresh perspective or relatively unknown stories to share. For instance in the chapter on posting protocol for blogs, he writes about Mashable's success with the "God List" and emphasizes the importance of sticking to one topic within a blog post. Readers who are familiar with social media or even use it for the marketing efforts, will find things they may not have known.

Each chapter ends with a Takeaway Tips sections which I found very useful. The social networking chapter covers a lot of ground in a short space potentially leaving some readers with more questions than answers. Hyper-local applications such as Foursquare are not mentioned though Second Life is. The key considerations for marketing organizations looking to running a social media campaign are well answered in Chapter 10 - Strategy, Tactics and Practice. The chapter on measuring campaign success deals with metrics in  generic terms and not a lot will translate directly to your specific business - but it is a very good starting point.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Transient Web

This Jeff Jarvis essay on the future of the web is a must read. He says :

Twitter is to web pages what web pages are to old media. Our experience of information is once again about to become fragmented and dispersed.

His observation is spot on. If Twitter, Wave and the like become the where information, news, data and commentary gathers and disseminates from, all other on-line media will become increasingly irrelevant. On the worthlessness of SEO techniques that this would lead to, he quotes Paul Gillin :

That’s because search is turning social and our search results are becoming personalized, thus we don’t all share the same search results and it becomes tougher to manage them through SEO. Put these factors together – the social stream – and relationships matter more than pages (but then, they always have).

Once knowledge becomes relationship and connection driven, the egalitarian culture of knowledge acquisition and sharing that the web helped foster would likely come to an end.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Samarkand And Dylan

I don't know anything about the Blues genre and very little about Bob Dylan's music. The last time, I read about Central Asia was in the high school history text book. With qualifications like that, I would be exactly the kind of reader who would not get an article on Central Asian current affairs explained using lyrics from a Dylan song.

I found the idea  fascinating specially in the context of my complete ignorance on all aspects of the topic. Bravely, I plunged into reading the article and was pleasantly surprised by how most of it made sense. Loved the way two very unfamiliar things came together to create something that is accessible to readers of all stripes.

The sophisticated variety who know enough about the topics the author discusses, have critiqued the essay on its technical merits but for the lowest common denominator (such as myself), this is a painless introduction to something that would have been far out of reach otherwise.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Between The Assassinations

Having loved Aravind Adiga's White Tiger, it was a great deal of anticipation that I started reading Between The Assassinations. I am sad to report that my disappointment is complete. Each story is hard to read, the characters are two dimensional. Denouements simply don't happen and when they do the reader does not sense closure. The book reads like a writer's notebook of character sketches and work in progress story ideas - not a bad thing in itself as long as expectations are managed correctly. Billed as outtakes of White Tiger, this would have been very interesting but the reader is set up to expect a brand new book with a come-hither title no less.

I labored from one story to the next hoping to see some of the White Tiger magic once again but sadly that does not happen. I have recommended the White Tiger to both my Indian friends who are not big fiction readers and non-Indian ones who are (or not) but are looking to read something authentically Indian. Both kinds of folks have loved the book for its gritty charm - quite unlike some of my other recommendations (specially to non-desis) like Anita Desai, R.K Narayan or Raja Rao.

Adiga tries grit (relentlessly I might add) once again in Between The Assassinations but it does not end up having nearly the same effect. I was worn out by the all too predictable plots, the done to death cliches of social and religious tensions and the general lack of spark about the writing itself. The title seemed to suggest that Adiga will take a stab at tracing the change to the social, economic and political climate between the two assassinations (Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi) through a set of short stories. That simply is not true.
Talk about truth in marketing.

I am not willing to give up on Adiga quite yet - he has too much raw talent for that. In contemporary writing about India and Indians by desis, dominated by cringe inducing faux exocitism , Adiga had come in like a whiff of fresh air with White Tiger. We need him to write more, explore India and the Indian psyche in ways that he has not done yet. I would however scale back my expectations on his next book and hope he will manage to equal or better the White Tiger.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Uses Of Adversity

I have by now lost count of the Tiger Woods mistresses that keep coming out of the woodwork at a steady clip. It is hard enough to tell them apart anyway. Lately, there is nothing I can read on-line without being interrupted by news, satire, analysis and commentary of the early morning fire hydrant episode - because there is no schadenfreude quite like watching a celeb suddenly topple off their pedestal. It becomes a spectator sport and its not over until the fat lady sings.

But two things stood out of the crowd.
One is a campaign by Accenture. The pop up ad where I saw this, had Woods squatting on the green, getting drenched in rain - a creature of circumstance weathering the physical and metaphysical storms of life if you will. The lesson learned from this whole episode per Accenture :

High performers turn periods of uncertainty to their advantage by fully integrating a risk-management programme, which serves not only as a defensive tactic but also as an offensive weapon. Accenture identifies steps that can help you use risk management for competitive advantage.

I won't even begin to parse all that in light on the fire hydrant related adversities the protagonist is facing at this time.

The other one was about the sky-rocketing sales of a physics book that was found in the car Woods was in at the time of the fire hydrant incident. It is not for nothing that Shakespeare spoke of sweetness in adversity :

Sweet are the uses of adversity,
Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous,
Wears yet a precious jewel in his head;
And this our life, exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in every thing.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Empowering Patients

I always get sticker shock when I see an EOB (explanation of benefits) from my medical insurance provider and can't help thinking about those who have no insurance. The numbers are bizarre to say the least - seven minutes of a doctor's time and some a routine blood test was billed at over five hundred dollars by the doctor's office the last time I saw one of these. To call this a rip-off seems like an understatement. Whatever the underlying reasons for these numbers to be as ridiculously high as they are, there has to be a better, smarter way to get the job done at a cost that is reasonable.

Reading this
NYT article on how one engineer repurposed a cell-phone to work as a microscope gives me hope. It should not be in the too distant future that people can run basic tests from home using low-cost kits that can be hooked up to a cellphone. Potentially, they can patten match their readings against the public domain databases and understand their condition.

Thanks for the abundance of medical information online, people are already much better educated and informed about their condition than they had the ability to be in the pre-internet days. Having the tools for running diagnostic tests at home will only make this better. A patient can in the future consult with a doctor, fully armed with the data points needed to make a prognosis. What currently takes several visits and tests can happen over a single consultation. Besides the cost and time savings, the empowerment of the patient this would provide is of considerable value.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

List Making

Even when Umberto Eco talks about something as mundane as a list, he can give the reader enough to ponder over for days. The interview makes for fascinating reading as does anything written by Eco.
SPIEGEL: Why do we waste so much time trying to complete things that can't be realistically completed?
Eco: We have a limit, a very discouraging, humiliating limit: death. That's why we like all the things that we assume have no limits and, therefore, no end. It's a way of escaping thoughts about death. We like lists because we don't want to die.
It would be hard to look at to-do or shopping lists the same again after reading this. Of Google Eco has this to say :
Google makes a list, but the minute I look at my Google-generated list, it has already changed. These lists can be dangerous -- not for old people like me, who have acquired their knowledge in another way, but for young people, for whom Google is a tragedy. Schools ought to teach the high art of how to be discriminating.
There is something reactionary and hidebound in not wanting children to grow too dependent on Google and learn to source information from other sources the more painful, old fashioned way. I am guilty of doing this myself. Weaning kids off Google is difficult because it so dramatically simplifies their lives. Spending a few minutes doing a search on their topic is all takes kids to get their job done. As a parent who grew up before the internet happened, it is probably natural to worry about a child's absolute dependence on Internet search fearing that it can kill intellectual curiosity and make a young person flat out lazy.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Friends With Benefits - A Social Media Marketing Handbook

Traditional businesses are still trying to grasp what the expanding universe of social media means for them, their marketing and PR efforts. While there is consensus around the imperative to be a part of it, decision makers in these organizations find themselves struggling for guidance when they try to put a social media strategy together. If they do end up trying the "social media thing" the results are often either underwhelming or unmeasurable stymieing the way forward to trying a different, more informed approach to it.

The single biggest question for marketing organizations is what is the risk of getting it wrong. What if their campaign fails to generate the positive buzz and turns to a marketeers worst nightmare - the social networks get control of the story in an unfavorable way and decide to digg and stumble it right into the Hall Of Shame. There is a sense that the social media can be cruel, unforgiving and even somewhat whimsical. Unless your recipe is exactly right, you could be in trouble. No one wants to become a case study for what not to do with social media.

With all that, there is a pressing need for a guidebook on navigating through the vast and confusing social media space. Friends With Benefits - A Social Media Marketing Handbook is just such a book and it does an outstanding job of being the expert voice without miring the reader in the minutiae of geek-speak. The authors Darren Barefoot and Julie Szabo, cover a lot of ground in 300 pages. The book is a comprehensive compendium on the tools of the trade, implementing an effective social media campaign, excellent case studies of both successes and failures, what the future holds for this medium and of course lessons learned.

For those who have up to now remained on the fringes of social networking, reading this book is their chance to come up speed quickly and regain lost ground. Yet, there is a lot someone who is conversant with social media can learn from it as well. Having consulted with marketing organizations of large companies for a few years now, I see the value of Friends With Benefits from an education and awareness standpoint - the essential first step to utilizing the medium effectively.

This is great addition to bookshelves of foot soldiers in marketing organizations (specially in large companies) but distilling the learnings from it into a business case to pitch to senior management would still pose a challenge if the audience is not particularly web technology savvy and social media aware (as is often the case). I would love to see a book by the authors that addresses this need.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Incentives For Loyalty

Love the idea of Sprize. While many stores offer to match their own prices (if lowered in within a certain window of time of after the purchase) or against their competitors, the idea of crediting the difference to your account automatically is an enhancement that would be a hit with customers. It eliminates the hassle of keeping an eye for price reductions - often people will forget all about their purchase the minute they hit the submit button on the web or step out of the store. Sprize levels the playingfield by giving the non-savvy shopper the same incentives as the adept bargain hunter. This is great news for those of us who are never able to take advantage of Black Friday, Cyber Monday and the like

It would be nice if other stores took a cue from Gap and went one step further. Instead of inundating a customer's physical and electronic mail boxes with largely irrelevant and time insensitive rewards, discounts and coupons they could have everything applied to the account automatically. So if you are eligible for that 25% off coupon, the next time you are at the store the cashier would automatically take the deduction for you - or borrowing from the Sprize idea give you the option to credit your account with the amount of deduction you chose not to take.

Loyalty programs designed to make a customer's life easier while saving them money would likely garner much better response than one that takes a lot of work from a customer before it saves them some money.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Loneliness Virus

Read this story on Live Science about loneliness being like a virus that spreads and found myself wondering if I have seen any evidence of this in my surroundings. Folks that I know who do not care to socialize much (or at all) are friends with like minded people. They would cringe at the thought of hanging out those who are unlike them.

The part that did not register with me right away was the contagious aspect of loneliness. Say Person A is lonely and naturally gravitates toward Person B who is also a loner. The pair becomes lonelier together as they feed off of each other's sense of isolation. What are the chances of Person A (or B) reaching out to Person C who is highly social and outgoing and transferring the loneliness virus to them. Suddenly Person C turns introverted and withdraws social contact.

That scenario does not make as much sense at first. The phenomenon is explained thusly :


Over time, lonely individuals become lonelier and transmit such feelings to others before severing ties. "People with few friends are more likely to become lonelier over time, which then makes it less likely that they will attract or try to form new social ties," they write. Such friendless individuals ended up on the outskirts of their social networks.

Now, that is quite fascinating to consider. In inverse of this scenario would be a lonely person coming into contact with an very friendly individual and being infected by the social virus. They may remain on the fringes of this new person's vibrant social network, but the energy emanating from this large, dynamic and friendly organism could be enough to ease the loneliness a little. Wonder if the antidote to loneliness would be then to latch on to the networks of those who are not quite as lonely and hope the salutary effects transmit over.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Featured Loser

I found this story about Facebook monitoring users with low or no wall activity and prompting their friends to write on their wall, somewhat disturbing. I have a FB account for my blog but not one for my real self. I find the constant connection and interaction with hundreds of friends and acquaintances very suffocating. If my real self did have FB profile, it would probably not see much wall or any activity for that matter. One sided communication can last only so long - after a while folks would simply stop poking me and writing on my wall. With that, I would be a prime candidate for FB's Featured Loser program.

FB assumes that a person's social standing is directly proportional to the volume of activity on their wall. What if the person is on FB simply because everyone else in their social circle is but they are not into social networking at all. Making them feel like a loser is not likely to get them excited about a medium they are lukewarm about to begin with. Upping activity and usage stats is all fine and dandy but this is probably not the smartest way to go about the job.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Shazam

Read about Shazam - a tune identification application on Slate the other day and have been thinking about all kinds of uses for it. The way the technology works seems to lend itself to a variety of other uses.

One thought that crossed my mind was to use the cellphone as a stethoscope that would match sounds against a database of healthy and unhealthy sounds so the user gets a sense of what if anything is wrong with them even without having seen a doctor. Putting diagnostic tools in the hands of the consumer of health care services could be both helpful and empowering.

Wildlife enthusiasts could obviously benefit from Shazam as could someone with a car problem. Instead of taking their clunker to a car repair shop they could have Shazam listen to the wheeze, grunt, rattle or shake and give them skinny on what might be ailing their vehicle. Identifying an animal or bird by the sounds they make would likewise become a simple pattern match.

You are probably only limited by your imagination when finding ways to put technology like this to good use.