Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Diabolic Clock and Facebook

Since the day advanced an hour a few weeks ago, both J and I are struggling to be up and about on time. My alarm clock is neither obnoxiously loud  nor persistent so there is not much I get by way of help either. Things could be very different if I owned a Tyrant alarm clock that would dial random numbers from my phone's address book if I refused to heed the alarm in three minutes. That could get almost anyone bolting out of bed. While the idea is still a concept, it would be probably be among the cleverest if not most diabolic ways to wake someone up.

A robo-call to the ex sounds like the lowest anyone can sink in embarassment quoitent but that is probably no worse that having Facebook display private email addresses - particularly when you account is dual use - business and personal. The lesson learned from all of this is that private is only private until some code fix turns it completly public. It is still probably safest not to have any information out there that would embarass you with your mother or your boss.

Empathy Enhancement

Against my better judgment, I emailed T several weeks after our "date" asking him a simple question "What made you fall off the face of the earth ?" More than anything, this was curiosity about human nature. It was all too apparent to me that he and I would not work out for the long haul.Even so, no one wants to believe that they have no judgment of character and in inter-personal relationships are completely unable to read what the other party is signaling. It hurts our self-esteem. T wrote back and this is what he had to say for himself :
No, you have not misunderstood things. I was wrong to break off contact with you, and I should have handled it better. Soon after our date (which was wonderful) I realized that because of distance and other things we would not have a long term relationship. I also knew that if we dated even a couple of times, I would not be able to restrain my desire for you. I thought it would be wrong to start dating, then maybe get too involved, then break up with you. I apologize that I just cut off communications, but I thought it would be best.
If this Livescience article is to be believed, men like T could benefit greatly from a shot of empathy enhancing nasal spray. They would be able to handle things better and be more pro-active than reactive when it came to relationships.In this situation, T might have been over-reacting about hurting my feelings when in fact, I was not liable to be hurt at all. Had I not asked, I would have never known. It would have been one of those unresolved relationship questions that make it to agony aunt columns and prompt books such as He Is Not That Into You. Truth is apparently stranger than fiction.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Meeting By The Creek

After a long hibernation in the realm of singleness, I ventured out to meet someone recently. Introduced by a well meaning friend who thought we might be good together, I decided there could be worse ways to spend a Monday evening than answering a phone call from T. He turned out to be a great conversationalist and in a little while, I forgot that we were different in every way possible - color, culture, religion, profession, education, life experience and even politics. Yet, as I talked with T each evening for the rest of the week, there was more and more we found to like about each other. We were amazed that this was even possible and thanked the mutual friend who had got us connected.Then on a Saturday we actually met.

The chemistry was just as great as the mental connection - this was the stuff that made for perfect relationships - in the text book but never in real life. It was exciting to be with T but when we were quiet together it was an incredibly peaceful feeling. Before he left, T told me "You are a wonderful in many ways but what I like best is your honesty - I know what I see is what I will get. That is completely unique in my experience. I don't know any other woman I can say that about". I don't recall a man paying me a compliment that touched me quite as deeply. We parted ways, making plans to meet again the next weekend. Following well established dating game precedent, T did not call back the day after and I decided to end it promptly while the acquaintance was still new. It was time to wake up from a dream and get on with the day to day.

For a week, I felt like I was in my teens again - flirting, being silly and saying things that neither of us meant with any kind of seriousness. Yet because we had that spontaneous mental and physical spark, even the facetious became imbued with some deeper meaning. I believed T when he told me that I was unlike anyone he had met - we all want to believe we are special, enigmatic and unique. In such knowledge lies our salvation. If not, we would be mere cogs in an infinite wheel, with no reason or larger purpose to our lives; nothing to make us count and be of value to the world. To be told what we hold to be true about ourselves by someone we feel attracted to is the best kind of affirmation though it can be dangerously close to narcissism. T had invested a week of his life, giving this connection he had formed with me everything he had and that's all he was able to offer.

Short, intense, vibrant and beautiful - the stuff of great memories. We may remember that week and the Saturday when we met in a park, sat side by side on a rock and watched the minnows make ripples in a lazy creek. The sun had slanted just a little to make the water glitter, the breeze made my hair caress his face and allowed him to whisper into my ear. Everything was a little too perfect. T is a dating artist par excellence and I am an ingĂ©nue at best in this arena -  a match made in heaven. I was able to whet his jaded appetite and that brought out the best in him. I am sure he will go on to make many more conquests and add to his collection of relationship memories. In time, the names and faces of the women he has been with will blur, the details of the time he spend with them smudge around the edges. Sadly for him, despite all that magic that he is able to make, he may still be alone just as he has been for over two decades now since his last serious relationship.

Years from now I might remember T sending me a A.E. Housman poem and my response to him the form of my favorite Yeats - and that was merely day two. T offered profusely as only someone like him can and I received with intensity that is probably characteristic of me. In our hearts we knew it to be over even before our date was. "I guess this will be one of the many random things that have happened in my life" I told him. "You can blog about it" he laughed. And so here I am. This one is for you, T.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Fiverr

Some of the things that $5 can buy are pretty interesting - specially the silly ideas. Notably, people are cashing in on the on-line reputation and following. This is about putting those hundred thousand followers on Twitter to work, gaming the web reputation system or getting a some feedback on a dating profile and more.

For every $5 the seller earns from the buyer, Fiverr keeps $1.Users can make requests for services or order ones that are on offer.The concept of Fiverr is neat enough but the marketplace of ideas that it is helping create, is neater. It takes the notion of being able to purchase everything for $5 a few steps ahead of an on-line  Dollar Store.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Recess Coach

Just when you think you've heard all there was to say about modern childhood, along comes something new - a recess coach. Kids cannot be counted on to either behave well on their own or respect the authority figures in school. Enter the recess coach to enforce compliance. Who ever thought this up first has got to be a genius.

Here is yet another example of adult intervention to solve problems they helped created for kids. When we decide to structure our childrens' time to the point that they have no room left in their lives to be fancy-free and run wild like we did as kids, we stunt their emotional and social development. They may come out the other side of childhood with a lot of extra curricular accomplishments but without have experienced some of the simplest joys of being a child.

If I want J to go out and play in the evenings, I have to make phone calls to parents to see if anyone's child is available to play. Used to in my time, that a bunch of kids would come knocking at the door asking me to come out and play. We would go around the neighborhood, collecting our buddies and head for the nearby park or even someone's backyard. There was no order or structure to our games and definitely no adult supervision. We did have our bullies and pushovers but can't recall even one instance where it became necessary for an adult to come in and resolve conflict. Unless someone got hurt accidentally, there was never a need for adult involvement.

J's generation will grow up never having experienced this. Instead they will have play dates and now recess coaches to help them socialize with their peers.I can't begin to count in how many ways this is a bad idea for the children. If only we would leave them alone and let them be the way nature intended for kids to be, life would be so much better.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Engineer Barbie

Since J has never been interested in Barbies, I have not worried about the baleful influence of this doll on my daughter's body image. With computer engineer Barbie being the career of the next doll in the series, things may change. In her new incarnation, Barbie will be both impossibly beautiful and smart - pushing the level of unrealism about her to a new high.

As long as little girls treat her as no different than any other toy they have, there is no harm done in amping up her perfection. But Barbie has unfortunately long held the reputation of being a bad influence on young girls. So giving geeks a turn under the spotlight by way of Barbie is probably not going to help their case much - it may actually have the opposite result. Their smarts will now need to come packaged like this doll for them to be considered sexy, attractive geeks.
Since style wins over substance when it comes to Barbie, the chances of  the comp sci Barbie propelling  pretty girls with no interest in math and science, into this profession might be minimal. If they already look like Barbie, they've got nothing else to aspire for.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Wordia

A word can sometimes be imbued with so much personal context that it could well mean different things to different people - that may be the idea behind Wordia. The creators describe their mission thusly :

Over the years we’ve tried many ways to improve our grasp of the English language. We’ve listened, jotted and scribbled down words that have excited, confused and challenged us. wordia.com is our way of improving our own vocabulary and in the process, discovering what words mean to other people. Like most people, we’re interested in what other think and feel.

Some pretty bland words have come to acquire deep significance in my life

Likewise - When P expressed his feelings for me after a few years of trying, I felt both touched and tongue tied and all I was able to come up with was "likewise" to suggest the feelings were mutual. Since then using this word is has been a little difficult - like P owned it and it were consecrated to that moment from long ago.

Precious - I have associated this word with J for as long as I have been a mother. No the two are so entwined that I cannot think of them as apart or return the word to its original meaning of context.

Attempt - A word with more than one bad memory - attempting questions on tests I was not prepared for during my under-grad years, attempting to save a marriage that could not be, attempting to stay strong when I felt more than ready to give up. I still find it hard to associate this word with anything positive

Forgive - A word I grapple to fully understand. What does to forgive really mean ? Does it apply the same way in all situations ? Are all transgressions by those who matter in your life candidates for forgiveness. There is possibly no other word that confuses me quite as much as this one.

Dream - Possibly my favorite word. A placeholder for things that might be even if they have not so far. Waking up from a pleasant dream and remembering vividly while completely awake is such a wonderful feeling. I am in the here and now and yet so far removed that nothing can touch me. It is a short-lived and magical time.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Curiosity


This interesting post by Scott Adams on the nature and purpose of curiosity made me think about how I have experienced it - both in being curious about someone or having them be curious about me. Adams says :

If someone asks personal questions about your past, your plans, your likes and dislikes, that is an unambiguous sign of attraction. If someone tries to steer you into the bedroom without some conspicuous data gathering, that is a sign of simple horniness.

That is definitely true in my experience. Sometimes, curiosity has grown over time or at least remained unabated. It was like they wanted to be there with me, experience everything I was going through - from the mundane to the exceptional. 

Then there has been curiosity borne out of a jealousy or a sense of competitiveness - something Adams does not discuss in his post. This is the kind of curiosity most people would find repelling but the same need to know the many insignificant details of your life when coming from a lover, could be most desirable. 

Finally there is idle curiosity - coming from someone acting out of boredom or lack of etiquette or both.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Data Wrangling


Until a few months ago, a big part of my day job involved data acquisition for analytics and statistical modeling. The math nerds got to have all the fun, while folks like myself toiled for weeks and months to gather the virtually un-gatherable and implement "repeatable" processes that could introduce some method to the madness. After a six months of trying to stabilize the process by which data would be sourced, cleaned and prepared for use, we had to give up on attaining the nirvana state of data availability near real time, all the time with guaranteed quality.

I can see why there may be viable a marketplace for buying and selling data. Data accquisition when done in-house can become an all consuming job. When you cannot trust the interim repositories where data is aggregated, you need to return to source for each of them. What starts of looking like a reasonable amount of work soon blossoms into this hydra headed monster that simply cannot be reined in. I would gladly trade all the pain and pointlessless of attempting to get it right and keeping it that way over time, for a per per use model for buying good, clean, ready to use data.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Trying Green


To use this amazingly cool CD spindle bagel holder, I am nearly tempted to empty out the one I have at home and buy some bagels while. The only problem is the plastic - food grade or not, I try very hard for J and I not to eat food I cook out of plastic containers.Not nearly as utilitarian but, Offbeat Earth has some very artistic ideas on reusing books. A CD spindle idea turns something headed for trash into something you can carry your lunch in. The book reuse ideas as pretty as they are are a pitiful way to get rid of a book.

While I reuse and recycle things around the house as a matter of course - it was the way we were raised in India. I could not waste wantonly even if I wanted to. Then there is the over-zealous J unplugging everything in sight because she has learned in school that it saves electricity to do so.With the weather bouncing between warm and chilly, I am tempted to keep the thermostat set slightly higher but J will point out that I can stay warm if  I "dressed in layers" and used a "bunch of blankets" - just as she does. Talk about leading by example. Her withering disapproval about wasting energy, is enough to make me contrite about wanting to dress comfortably in cool weather. If there is water leaking for five seconds from an unattended faucet, J will swoop down to shut it.

I have to run the CD spindle and the book reuse ideas by her and see how she reacts.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Publish And Perish


A married couple, an incontinent cat and a mistress don't normally make for a riveting story but in Publish and Perish by James Hynes, they most certainly do. This is the cast of characters in the first story - Queen of the Jungle. It involves marital power struggle, tenure track politics in academia, infidelity and the supernatural. Yes, and there is the cat with a bladder problem that holds the plot elements in balance. Hynes is able to take this somewhat improbable mix of ingredients and whip up something that reads really fast and well. I had to finish reading the story before I could do anything else and it's been a while since that has happened to me. The two other novellas are based on the theme of "tenure and terror" as well.

I found it interesting that Haynes was able to take a cast of characters who are not immediately recognizable to readers such as myself who are not in academia, throw some witchcraft into their already unaccessible lives and still be able to get the reader's attention. Oddly, Publish and Perish reminded me of Barbara Pym's Quartet in Autumn - a book that I count among my all time favorites. While there are no obvious similiarties between the two, I might have sensed a connection because both authors (in very different ways) take the ordinary and turn into something strangely unique.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Foxes And Hedgehogs

I have blogged about the dearth of enthralling works of fiction or non-fiction despite the mind boggling number of publications these days. A lot of people have things to say and they are all clamoring to be heard. Only a couple of problems - no one is really saying anything astonishingly new and too many are not even saying what they have to say exceptionally well.

Then there are those who publish online - applying the rule of a million monkeys at as many keyboards, it is easy enough to find essays, opinion and commentary that is very well crafted. It may be the only one piece of writing in someone's voluminous output, but it is good enough to hold it's own among the best. If one knows where to look and what to seek, it is not too hard to find a lot of writing that is of high quality and being produced by non-writers. This article by Ben McIntrye considers how the information torrent that the internet is, impacts our way of thinking. He writes :

In 1953, when the internet was not even a technological twinkle in the eye, the philosopher Isaiah Berlin famously divided thinkers into two categories: the hedgehog and the fox: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”

Hedgehog writers, argued Berlin, see the world through the prism of a single overriding idea, whereas foxes dart hither and thither, gathering inspiration from the widest variety of experiences and sources. Marx, Nietzsche and Plato were hedgehogs; Aristotle, Shakespeare and Berlin himself were foxes.

Today, feasting on the anarchic, ubiquitous, limitless and uncontrolled information cornucopia that is the web, we are all foxes. We browse and scavenge thoughts and influences, picking up what we want, discarding the rest, collecting, linking, hunting and gathering our information, social life and entertainment. 

With the foxes far outnumbering the hedgehogs in the world today, it is probably getting harder and harder to find a book that takes one idea takes it to its full, logical conclusion.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Open Government

Having spent the majority of my life in India, I am no stranger to the slow, lumbering and mostly ineffective machinery of government bureaucracy. With computers making their way into the system, there was some improvement but not nearly enough to make the experience of interacting with a government agency less painful than having root canal work done.

When I came to America, one of the first things I had to do was to get a SSN card followed shortly by a visit to the DMV for a drivers license. My experience as a customer, at both these agencies was not unlike what I might have expected in India. I realized that the challenges faced by the largest democracy in the world and those faced by the most evolved one were not so different after all - at least from the vantage point of a customer.

In his book Imagining India, Nandan Nilekani devotes a couple of chapters to changes electronification has brought to the hulking government machinery in urban and rural India. He sees the future of the country in large part, determined by the success of these efforts. In India, projects like the eChoupal and Question Box are impressive not only because of their simplicity and effectiveness but in their ability to pave the way for the future. They set a high bar for innovation and entrepreneurship - and the people completely deserve it.

Being a big fan of open source technology and empowering end users to create their own applications within the constraints of well articulated enterprise architecture, I was curious to see how that might translate for government agencies. Open Government Edited by Daniel Lathrop and Laurel Ruma tries to answer how technology can be used by the American government so it works better for its citizens and increase their participation. A lot of the ideas in the book translate very easily to any democracy in the world.

In chapter one, Mathew Burton proposes starting a Peace Corps for programmers. A key factor in Burton's mind, for such an initiative to attract the best development talent would be to set a time limit after which they could return to their lives and careers outside the government. That and the freedom to fail and innovate while on the job would make a huge difference in the customer experience with government systems and contain cost.

Tim O'Reilly explains what Government 2.0 can be and the benefits of "implicit participation". He cites, the rise of Google Maps as the predomination application in that space due to Google's decision to make their API public which resulted in a wide variety of mash-ups. A very similar idea is the "holy cow machine" envisioned by Health and Human Services CTO Todd Park. This idea was prompted by an Atul Gawande article in  the New Yorker that showed how the highest cost of health-care in McAllen, Texas also had the worst outcomes. Todd wants to build a service that would allow every city to see the correlations between cost and outcomes in health-care.

Beth Simone Noveck makes a case for open and collaborative democracy. She advocates dividing a large policy problem into smaller parts and distributing it to be worked on by a community of volunteers. She cites as an example, the workforce that made Mozilla Firefox possible and continues to make it one of the most popular browsers. Taking the same approach to solve for policy issues would result in faster, better outcomes with the additional benefit of increased legitimacy than what the government enjoys.

Carlo Daffara and Jesus M.Gonzalez-Barhona explain the many benefits of using FLOSS (free/libre/open source software) in government but also discuss the pitfalls to be aware of. While it may provide independence form suppliers, ability to customize and make the internals of any application available for public scrutiny, there are many things that could go wrong as well. One important caveat they point out is the lack of previous cases to learn from or an established set of best practices for government applications.

And that is a very small sampling of the wonderfully thought provoking ideas and the wide range of perspectives in Open Government. I would highly recommend this book to anyone who is curious about how democracy and technology confluence today and where things are headed in the future.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Chance Remark


I met a group of former co-workers for lunch a few days ago. The group was diverse in many ways besides ethnicity and cultural background. We had among us those who were  young and still single, older and suddenly single, married for two decades and those who were in relationships that Facebook would categorize as "It's Complicated"

While we were waiting for our lunch, conversation turned to L's long time girlfriend who is yet to come into an engagement ring and has been prodding him to challenge the status quo. M made a comment mainly directed to L that stayed stuck in my head. "You should always choose your spouse with the greatest care. Any amount of time you need to make a decision is fair. After all, that is the only relationship in your life where you even have the ability to choose. You get the parents, family and siblings without your input or consent and its the same with your children. Your spouse is the only person you have the power to choose." M is married now but it took him a very long time to decide who he would choose to marry.

Clearly, his thoughts resonated with everyone around the table - and particularly with L who must have felt vindicated in his commitment phobia. Anyone who has dated for any length of time is all too familiar with hold-outs. These are the people who bring a lot to the table and have equally high (often deeply unrealistic) expectations from their partner. Like M, they want to choose with utmost care and deliberation. They refuse to rush or be rushed into a lifetime commitment against their will.

It does not matter if the process is emotionally (and sometimes even physically) debilitating. They will go on looking for this ideal partner for years and decades if so required - they refuse to end up with someone in an accident of fate.

That would explain the western world view of arranged marriages and the disenchantment with this system among the liberated and progressive minded in the east.Like their western counterparts, they have started to believe in the myth of being free agents when it comes to selecting a spouse. They honestly believe that their steadfast refusal to make a decision is an exercise of free will and it is critically important to have this ability if one wishes to choose wisely and well.

It seems to me that the more time anyone has spent discarding what and who does not work for them, the harder it is for them to exercise this supposed "free will" when time comes to make a choice. They have whittled down their options to just one - the last one standing by the process of elimination and not as a consequence of them being the chosen one.

This was obviously the wrong kind of crowd for me to say anything about the wonders of surrender and resignation, let alone suggest that if everything else in our life was pre-ordained or completely random, there is no logical reason for the spouse to be the solitary exception. We go through our lives with imperfect parents, siblings and kids that we did not get to choose and can suffer disproportionately due to the spouse that  we did get to select. Maybe there is something to be said for the lack of choice after all.
 
I held my peace and enjoyed the exceptional Caribbean Chicken Salad instead.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Micromanufacturing


Got caught up with Clive Thompson's blog recently and particularly enjoyed reading his thoughts on what he calls the Micromanufacturing Revolution. I have been reading Ellen Ruppel Shell's book Cheap The High Cost of Discount Culture where the author makes an impassioned case against the death spiral created when retailers out-discount each other to everyone's detriment - including that of the penny-pinching consumers'. 

Along with everything else that is nice about the burgeoning micromanfacturing trend, it is also relatively immune to the forces of discounting undress duress. If everything a seller makes is bespoke and the buyer has the both the discernment and the budget to chose it over the deeply discounted, mass-produced offerings of big box stores, chances are that the seller can ask and get what they believe their creation is worth. 

If more and more people become sellers, it might even be possible to trade using a barter system.Micro-financiers could step in to help those who have everything else it takes to get a micro manufacturing business going except for the seed money to begin their venture.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Book Nirvana

B is in the digital printing business and when we met recently, he was talking about how marketing budgets for print ads have shrunk with the bulk of the action moving to social media outlets these days. I asked him about the the idea of printing books on demand that gets tossed around - if he thought there was a future for print shops like his in that line of work. He was not sure how popular that model of book buying would get and how soon.

With conversation turning to books and the many ways to read them today, I wondered if it were possible in a print on demand scenario to excerpt out portions of several books and make it the book the buyer would actually read in its entirety - an idea not unlike buying one song at a time from the iTunes store rather than a full album. This is specially relevant for non-fiction books.

More often than not, I find myself skimming through many chapters that are of little interest to me, until I find one that I like enough to read in full. In a 300 plus page book, I may be interested in only 50. If I could have a book that excerpted these 50 pages for me, allowed me to add material from ten other books on the same subject so I ended up with a book that exactly met my needs and interests, that would be ever so perfect.

It seems like the model would help less established authors if a book seller offers suggestions on other books that may be of interest based on what I choose to excerpt from my each of selected books. A second order benefit may be for one such as myself - which could be just about any book buyer, to go ahead and plow back into the system their custom books for other readers to buy or browse through.

B agreed that it was a neat idea but probably hard to implement because of the financial implications to the author, publisher and even the buyer of the book. He did not even want to hazard any guesses on what it meant for intellectual property, copyright and such. I guess it won't be any time soon that I can mash up ten books of my choice to print out a volume that I will enjoy reading from page one to page three hundred.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Two Birds

When we had a big snow storm some weeks ago, a pair of birds found shelter in our balcony. There is an old grape vine and pine cone wreathe that has seen better days and a small "bird feeder" I had made many months ago by of nailing an empty coconut shell to the railing. The sunflower seeds in the feeder have been around for a while with no takers. My friends tell me that not every bird eats sunflower seeds and maybe the ones that live in the woods nearby don't.

At any rate, that day these two birds found shelter in the wreathe and food in the feeder making me and J very happy. We had given up on ever having birds feed out of our improvised bird feeder. As depressing as it is to be snowed in all weekend, the birds made it much less so. For those two days, they became our connection to the world outside as they went back and forth between the woods and the balcony.

Watching them had me thinking about "shelters" I have sought in times of distress and what in normal circumstances would have been unthinkable became quite acceptable in that situation. Many years ago, I spent a month and a half in someone's stone cold attic. After the storm passed, the birds did not come back very much. I never had returned to the house with the attic that had given me a second chance in life. Like the birds, I turned to the woods where I belonged, where I could be free even if not always comfortable.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Eko

Techcrunch has this wonderful article about Eko - an Indian startup that does one thing, does it with elegant simplicity ; most importantly uses technology and entrepreneurship to help rural Indians - the people who for the most part get left out on the darkest fringes of the digital divide. The author Sarah Lucy explains the concept behind Eko :

There are a few SMS-based bank applications in India, but Eko differs because the phone isn’t just another channel for the account—it is the account. You make payments and transfer money simply by dialing numbers. It’s so simple, you don’t even need to understand SMS to use it.

It’s an ingenious offering that doesn’t try to be everything to everyone. It aims squarely at the unbanked—some 60% of India’s huge population. For now, Eko is focusing on the 1,000 kilometer corridor between Delhi and Bihar. 

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Disambiguation

When it comes to infidelity there can sometimes be shades of gray. To that extent, can unresolved ambiguity be better than the starkly black and white is the question that comes to mind reading this article about text messages being the new lipstick on the collar. All relationships are not build equal so neither to do they have equal resilience and ability to recover from a breach of trust.

But when infidelity is completely disambiguated and reduced to a time-stamped message (voice or text), it has got to be challenging even for the most rock solid of relationships. There is no room to invent an excuse for the erring partner, pretend that is it all unsubstantiated rumor, reduce the degree of omission - maybe one's own jealousy playing tricks. There is no room for imagination, readjustment and in the process rapprochement.

The finality of the digital evidence may be simply too strong to fight against.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Past Fifty


In an IT shop full of young people fresh out of college and management in their mid to late thirties, someone in their fifties does not fit in very comfortably. I tend to observe what works and what does not for this demographic for very selfish reasons. Unless, I am able to retire before I am that old, I will at some point need to be part of a workforce whose average age is twenty years less than mine. The pace of social and cultural change driven by ever newer technology will make for a generation gulf rather than a gap by that time. The little that a fifty five year old has in common with a twenty five year old today, may entirely disappear by then. If anything, the challenges will be far greater.

I have learned a few things from the fifty plus set in the workplace. If they happen to be consultants with a wide variety of experience, their acceptability tends to be a lot better. They are able to remain relevant instead of becoming obsolete - they are respected for the perspectives and lessons they bring from success and failures of the past. Someone who has worked forever in the same company may be valued for their deeply entrenched knowledge that could only be acquired over the years but as soon as management does an infrastructure rebuild (as is inevitable), their value plummets.

Ability to learn from younger people, take an interest in what they think is cool is very helpful. Respecting them for their nimbleness of thought and action is critical. I have seen some who act like they are victims of a cruel system that is designed to make their lives miserable - that they are being unfairly treated because of their age.  This attitude invariably results in bad outcomes. Some people of that age come across to the younger set as very positive role models and even parent figures. This is possibly the best thing that can happen.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Ennui


If there was one thing MJ was the the absolute master of, it was the art of surprise. After a hiatus of over three months since their meeting in Manhattan, he sent Sheila a text message one evening that said "I can't stop thinking about you". She had to ascribe some truth to that, because scarcely a day passed without her thinking about him. Relationships were nothing if they were not reciprocal.

While chatting with her friend Zubin one afternoon, she mentioned MJ to him. Zubin wondered why anyone would persist as long as MJ had and yet not want to progress in the relationship. "He likes keeping it fresh, new and exciting for one thing - it's always fun talking to him no matter how long we've not been in touch. We'll connect where we left off - effortlessly. Then there is the matter of relationship ennui". Sheila explained.

"What do you mean - relationship ennui ?" Zubin asked.

"Well, MJ has been with more women than he can remember. In the early years, his relationships were driven almost entirely by the need and desire for physical intimacy. If someone caught his fancy, he would pursue her until he had worn out her resistance. After some short-lived but great sex, he was ready to move on. He was too bored to stay. Some time after turning thirty, something changed for him. That is also the time, he first met me"

"Tell me more, Shell. This is getting curiouser and curiouser" Zubin teased.

"He was beginning to see, that it did not take a lot of work to get a woman to succumb to him physically. More often than not, they were looking for a short term fling themselves and had little interest in him beyond his body. He actually felt a little cheated and exploited. So what had in the early years, felt like a conquest was beginning to feel a lot less so. He did not have to chase as hard and he never experienced the satisfaction of a good conquest. If wanted a woman, he could have her without having to fight for it. That became way too boring. He had to do something different to break the ennui"

"What about the sheltered, protected and conservative women ? They would not be available and he'd have to wage a war of attrition as you say he likes to" Zubin wondered.

"But that kind of woman is not his type - he feels repulsed by them almost. So anyway, when he met me he had decided that I was worth pursuing because it would be a lot of fun to get me emotionally involved with him when every rational instinct in me told me to desist if not flee. He could tell right away that I did not sense any long-term potential in him. It became a challenge for him to get me to change my mind. Yet he never had any intent of getting serious himself - he just wanted to see my emotional response to him once I really began to harbor hopes for a future with him. That would definitely give him the kind of thrill he was missing in his life" Sheila explained.

"What he had not counted upon was getting his own feelings hurt in the process. In order to reach someone's heart you have to let go and become a little vulnerable - at least pretend to be. Over time, the fine line between real and make believe gets blurred. Whenever that happened, MJ would fall off the face of the earth and return only when he felt like he was in control of the relationship and his own feelings" she continued.

"So did he win or lose with you ?"

"He defines winning as having the me fall helplessly in love with him, dream about a future together and act completely out of character because I am in this altered state of mind. While none of that happened, I did grow fond of him after a fashion and he of me." Shiela laughed.

"Where do you guys go from here ?"

"MJ will likely look for other prospects worthy of his time and attention. Women who find him physically attractive and are not shy to show it. He will tempt them but never really give in because going all the way is not fun for him - instead he will delay his gratification and theirs. This is a game that he has played so long that everything has become routine and predictable so the only way he can keep it lively is to introduce new twists and turns."

"Every once in a while, he will try to reach me. In time, he will give up because trying too hard is a sign of emotional weakness and he would never allow himself that - he is too proud to let a woman drag him down that far. He'll work his sixteen hour days to blunt the pain and pretend that he has no time to miss me for feel sorry for throwing away his chances of having a life with someone he really liked"

"What a sad, twisted, miserable son of a bitch"

"I would entirely agree" Sheila said.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Quick Fixes

Any ideas on fixing pothole problems always grabs my attention. Anyone who has spent time in the 80s and 90s in Kolkata when the metro project was gestating knows a few things about potholes. Tyler Cowen cites the example of a German municipality short on funds, selling the rights to fixing pot-holes to the public in return for the ability to put a text of their choice on the pothole they fixed.

At first that seems like a good idea - except for the visual pollution of unco-ordinated text all over the road. A small price to pay if the alternative was for someone to break a limb or two stumbling into a pothole in the dark not to mention the wear and tear on vehicles and the bone rattling experience of being a aboard one of them. To me, just about anything that fixes a pothole seems like a wonderful idea.

Then I read the comments on the article. By when I was done, I wasn't sure if unfixed potholes were quite as terrible a thing as I had thought. The creative thinking in some of the ideas on how to game the pot-hole fixing scheme was quite amazing.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Past Perfect


Sheila had finished cleaning up her cubicle and her computer. The mailbox was done except for personal folder which was always the last thing she looked at when moving from one gig to the next. A professional nomad, Sheila had mastered the fine art of leaving one job and arriving at another to the point it was nearly stress-free.

There was this mail from a couple of years ago when she had started working here with no subject line. The flash flood of memories stormed in the moment she opened it and she regretted it right away. This was possibly the worst time to revisit the past - specially one that has seemed so perfect and attainable.

Chetan - Got your message. Glad to know you made it back safe despite the stormy weather. Thank you so much for coming to see me, for the memorable weekend and delightful company. I'd love to see you again.

Take care,
Sheila.

Hey Sheila,

I enjoyed the time we spent together very much as well. Let me summarize,

1. The meeting and brief walk through the mall.
2. The meeting continued and a long walk through the park.
3. The lunch your favorite Greek restaurant.
4. The drive to "the quaint little town" an hour south.
5. The walk through the downtown.
6. The quirky chai place.
7. The skating rink.
8. The liberty wall.
9. The pizza dinner.
10.The opening act of the guitar concert.
11.Meeting the musician.
12.The final act and you moving to the music.
13.The beers.
14.The ice cream and a half.
15.The search for my car.
16.The retrieval of car.
17.The quest for gas and its quenching.
18.The drive back to your city.
19.The call that turned me back to stay back in your city.
20.The Sunday morning meeting.
21.The conversations on the couch.
22.The last minute breakfast.
23.The new hair-do.
24.The platonic hug - :)
25.The bid well till next time.

Whew..that was a lot of different things. Glad we could make it happen.

Chetan.

Chetan - Lovely summary ! Being that God is in the details...

1. The meeting and brief walk through the mall.
My first impression is "This does not feel wrong". That would be a first in my life. Funny how we both hate shopping but met at a mall and you scored your first point holding the door open for me at Nordstrom.


2. The meeting continued and a long walk through the park.
Feeling of peace and well-being despite myself. The conversation flows effortlessly. This does not feel like our first ever meeting. I notice the unusual red and orange berries on the trees - have not taken in nature's small bounties in a long time. You said berriferous or something like that.

3. The lunch your favorite Greek restaurant.
After you declined to go to my favorite sushi place. Wondered what the sight of freshly rolled fish may have done to the quality of conversation or your ability to keep down your food. Did not get a chance to find out. Maybe next time.

4. The drive to "the quaint little town" an hour south.
Listened to a little bit of something by Coldplay on a warm afternoon. That priceless look on your face when I described the sales pitch some guys have made to me trying to sell themselves as "desirable" husband material.

5. The walk through the downtown.
The unsuccessful quest for the new age look complete with a Free Tibet tee.

6. The quirky chai place.
Notice the kids having fun from the window but can't see the one of kind burger joint that you try to show me. The incredible timing of me needing my evening chai fix and finding just the perfect place for it.

7. The skating rink.
Never watched a sport that close. Felt acutely aware of my missing athletic genes. I could as well be a different genus and species from those boys in the rink.

8. The liberty wall.
Chetan refuses to write "Chetan was here". My Kanada skills fails me but could you have said "Chetan ivaga bandidare" or whatever it is that "Chetan was here" translates to in your language.

9. The pizza dinner.
The beer that I thought may be spiked and refused to share :) I really wanted one of my own.

10.The opening act of the guitar concert.
Amazing what passion can do to a humble acoustic guitar

11.Meeting the musician.
I thought she exuded joy from every pore of her being - did you feel that too ?

12.The final act and you moving to the music.
The "one last encores". You have a left foot and a half - a little better than my two . Did you notice I hear better in one ear than the other ?

13.The beers.
Felt like a juvenile delinquent being asked to produce ID.

14.The ice cream and a half.
Back home these pistachio flavored things sometimes come in an unappetizing shade of green. Notice the Zen about you as you talk to the towing guy and work on the ice-cream in tandem. Am duly impressed and what's best you did not even try.

15.The search for my car.
For a moment I think I have met someone more directionally challenged than I am. The pleasure was short-lived. We sadly discover that your car was towed away for not being  parked right . Ouch !

16.The retrieval of car.
The talk of divine retribution with the cab driver - strange how conversations can go with perfect strangers. The twist in the tale of a wonderful evening - meeting the conman back at the towing place who signs the receipt for cash in pencil.

17.The quest for gas and its quenching.
Blind leading the blind to a closed gas station.

18.The drive back to my city.
I think about the day and am filled with a quiet kind of happiness, wonder if every thing meant nearly the same to both of us. Yet I coil up some with angst - maybe trepidation. Not sure why though.

19.The call that turned me back to stay back in your city.
Did not know that but thanks for staying.

20.The Sunday morning meeting
Liked seeing you as I might on an ordinary morning. It was not a date anymore.

21.The conversations on the couch.
Being called the cud chewing bovine and having my fingers and toes checked out. I draw a line at my teeth though. You put your foot on display and I am not sure if "impressive" is an appropriate and acceptable reaction to it.

22.The last minute breakfast.
I am beginning to think you are a nice guy.

23.The new hair-do.
Thanks to having something besides dental floss to do it with. Liked that you wanted to see me with my hair swept back.

24.The platonic hug - :)
A bone-crushing one though :)

25.The bid well till next time.
The quarter of a full hug qualifying the sum to be referred to in plural.

-Sheila.

Odd Placements


Here I was reading this article about how one day we getting broadband would be as easy as flipping a light switch. My physics is a little rusty so the implementation details of this technology did not fully register with me. But before I could get too carried away by this vision of a wonderful future where broadband beam wherever a light bulb did, a rude awakening came in the form of a Google Ad which said:

Comcast Internet - $19.99/Mo For 6Mo. Free Wireless Modem. No Contract ; $25 Back!

It would be hard to imagine a more ill-conceived spot for the Comcast offering. Talk about a rude jolt back into the here and now. Just out of curiosity, I browsed around the website to see if ads were more meaningfully placed on the other articles.

There was this plug for the local pest control service on an article devoted to studying the habits of insects and patterns in their movements using DNA bar-coding. On a deep-sea robot article was an ad for Chevy Vehicles.

This reminded me of the dot-com boom days when recruiters would latch on to specific keywords on resumes and hound people to consider job opportunities that did not fit their profile even at a grazing tangent. There were a ton of jobs, a relatively short list of keywords and many recruiters. Every once in a while, some connections would be come out right even if the majority misfired completely. Maybe its not a lot different with ad words.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Alien Habitat


One afternoon she was in the office, the next day she was gone - or had been let go rather. In the few weeks that we had worked together, her disengagement from the team had become all too evident - she continued to reinforce her status of an outsider by making constant references to past projects and places of employment. This is probably just as damaging in the workplace situation as talking about past relationships is on the first date.

Over the years, I have found teams to resemble ecosystems - there is a lot of variety in terms of personality types, talent, work style and more. Yet together they define a certain type of culture - open, friendly, withdrawn, competitive, deliberate, spontaneous etc. When a new person comes on board, it works best if they have a neutral energy level almost - they are able to find the flow in their surroundings and go with it quite effortlessly. Then there are those who have the ability to tease the best out of the ecosystem. Both types are make this alien habitat they are thrown comfortable enough for them to survive (and often thrive).

And finally like her, there are those who can't seem to open their mouth without causing trouble for themselves. They (along with onlookers such as myself) are astounded by how little it takes for them to cause waves. It is like dropping a marshland creature in a desert and expecting it to make it. So it was with her - she had the right credentials, did well on the interview and came with decent references. From what we could tell, she was competent as well. The team had not spent enough time with her to understand if she was right for their habitat.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Silence

There are words in your silence
that travels like geese in formation
There is a pattern I recognize
and one that is new.
There are so many moods and
colors to silence. We have shared
those much more than we have
laughter or words.
I know now the signature stillness,
the anticipatory hiatus when you
wait for me to call. Then there is
the slow swirl of deliberate quiet
ever so edgy and dangerous as
things hang in balance ready to
snap.
I sense a taut, eagerness to let
the words flow unbridled held
back by silent yowls of restraint.
Our connection flatlines.

Libra Earrings

The signs of impending decay in marriage can sometimes come within months of having exchanged vows - it had in mine. R (my ex) was a very attentive man. He would  notice what I wore, how I did my hair and remember the smell of my perfume. In the early days, I found this rather charming. Then one day as I was combing my hair to tie it back he asked "Is that your favorite earring ? You seem to wear it a lot". I said it was. "Was it a gift from someone ?" I said it it was not. I had bought it years ago. "Isn't it the sign of Libra ?" I said it was. "Why do you wear the sign of Libra ?" It was neither his sun sign nor mine.

That was also the first time I withheld the whole truth from him. I told him I liked the design which just happened to be the sign for Libra - it was cheap costume jewelry anyway. R could tell there was more to those earrings and that I was not willing to share.That incident as trivial as it was, made for the first fracture of many others in our marriage. I realized R wanted to own me in my entirety and a past that did not include him could have no room in my life -it would need to be expunged. He would wear me out with his probing, until my most beautiful and precious memories turned raw and hurt. Unconsciously, it steeled my resolve to hold on to and hide away things I may have otherwise forgotten.

Libra was P's sun sign. I had bought those earrings the day I got a letter from him that said "It's a balmy day here in Bombay and I was listening to the mixed tape you gave me before I left. The music is so beautiful and soothing. It brought back many memories."

This was before the time of email and we wrote letters to each other instead. It would be impossible for me to explain to R or anyone else, how I felt when I read that particular line  How after light rain that evening, the skies had been sparkling blue and I went out to town with friends and the whole world seemed happy just like me.

And then in a shop window, I saw a pair of earrings that magically completed the orb that connected P and I in our thoughts. I have them to this day and wear them when I want to remember what it felt to be in love for the first time and experience what would make no sense to anyone else.In a cruel twist of fate perhaps, I have R to thank for this.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Forgiveness In Dream


Last night, I had a dream about P again. Months and sometimes years go by between dreams and each time I think this will be the last time. I see him sitting in a crowded public place - perhaps an airport departure lounge. He is talking to someone (I seem to know this person) and when I look at P, his face lights up with a big smile - a smile I would recognize anywhere, it is what had the power to brighten the saddest day - it is still just as radiant.

P is a shadow of his former self. He looks worn out. As he walks over to me, I notice he  limping a little. I ask him about it and he mentions a recent injury. I ask him why his face looks like he is in pain and he says it is a tooth and the medication is starting to wear off. I notice he is wearing a ring with a bright green stone - P was never the kind of guy who would wear any kind of jewelry except perhaps a wedding band. I don't ask him about it.

He takes me somewhere that looks like a residential area in a big city. There are tall buildings everywhere. He hands me a bowl of food and asks me to eat - he tells me that he has cooked it himself. The food is lovely -  it reminds me of prasad you eat at a temple after prayers have been offered. We talk about a lot different things but the past does not come up. We appear to be trying friendship - something we had never done before.

From the time P and I had first met as teenagers, it had been a romantic interest. He struggled for years to articulate his feelings and I waited for the day when he would be ready. I want to see the food as a peace offering - P's way of undoing what he had meant when he said nearly fifteen years ago - "I hope you fall in love with someone just as difficult as you are and then you'll know how much I have hurt". It is not as if I had not hurt along with him but I did not say it.

Then the dream is over and always I am no closer to closure than I was so many years ago. I still don't know if I have been forgiven. I wake up and pray for P to be happy where ever he is and for him to be at peace with himself and me.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Humanoid Barbies

There was a colorful brochure from a popular cosmetics store in my mailbox the other day. I often save these for J's art and craft projects - the colorful images on glossy paper are just perfect for collage.

Flipping through the pages, I was struck by how extreme the photoshopping job on the faces of the models was. With every last trace of imperfection removed, the faces did not look human anymore and there was something oddly unsettling - even repelling about that look. A woman may want to look beautiful, perfect her flawed skin, discover the elixir of youth and more but I am not sure she wants to resemble one of those humanoid Barbies.

It seems like the line that separates flawless from unnatural is frequently crossed these days because there is technology to enable it. From the cover pages of glossies and brochureware of all kinds, stare out women (more frequently than men) who resemble lifeless mannequins with big smiles plastered on their mouths. If anything it is hard to relate to these conjured up creatures at any level. You have to wonder if they are actually able to help whatever it is they are put out there to peddle to the consumer, being  that they primarily provoke an uncanny valley reaction.

Friday, March 05, 2010

Eco Friendly Programming

I received a note from J's school a few weeks ago with instructions to go on a certain website where kids can practice taking a computerized test - a skill they will need to have learned before the upcoming assessment tests. When I went there and realized that I would need to download a 50 MB application that would then launch the sample tests, I completely forgot to gripe about the school's insistence on communicating everything in printed paper instead of  email -even the face of steep budget cuts this year, that has not changed.

Surely, it is possible to write a lighter weight application or better still deliver the material on the web directly.Each time, I download something for work or personal use I can't but help wonder about the huge footprints of the executable files. When and how did things get so out of hand ? And these are fairly simple applications - I am just the average PC user with fairly limited needs.

Just because processing power and memory is cheap, folks have apparently dispensed with making any effort to prevent code bloat. Back in the day, you had to keep things under control simply there was no horsepower to support  anything giganormous. Maybe it's time that programmers were provided incentives to be eco-friendly.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Effortless Grace

Reading Seth Godin's post Sprezzatura brought memories of a former manager M. A room full of people with different ideas, agendas and roles would be talk at each other not even noticing that M had come and gone from the room. Twenty minutes later, she would have the distillation of everything that she had heard including ideas of her own in a neat one page visual. Her ability to grasp any given problem no matter how far removed from her domain and expertize was nothing short of spectacular but what was even more impressive was her the ability to translate.

From the ill-formed and half-baked to the cohesive and brilliant - it did not matter what kind of idea it was, in M's hands they would come out shining like smooth, polished pebbles. Then there was the little business of putting it all together visually so that the team and her management was able to see things the same way and come way with identical understanding. She made it look completely effortless and never aimed to dazzle - the very epitome of sprezzatura.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

The Blue Notebook

I am not sure why I decided to read The Blue Notebook by James A. Levine given the subject matter. It is the story of a child prostitute named Batuk who escapes from the here and now of her life by writing in a blue notebook. She is a story-teller and dreamer at heart and no matter how sordid and horrifying the reality of her life, she dreams on steadfastly and is able to find oblivion at least for a while in her notebook.

That was possibly the idea that made me gravitate toward the book. Levine's graphic descriptions of the brutal sexual abuse the child is subjected to made it impossible for me to read the story. Time after time, I had to skip several pages before I was able to find something I could actually bear to read. It is a book I will not be able to forget - not because of  it had exceptional literary merit but for my visceral reaction to it.

It seemed to me that the author in the process of feeling empathy for his character, was not longer able to maintain the aesthetic distance from his story. In as such, the reader feels like they are being dragged through the cesspool and the character of Batuk turns two dimensional from that perspective. A reader may expect to feel pained for Batuk but instead find themselves like the author hurting along with her. In all, a very unsual reading experience.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Connecting

A variation Kevin Bacon game is frequently used in team building, ice breaking exercises. Each person has to find something in common with two others so that the whole group is connected to each other through a set of links. Having played it a few times in the past and once recently, I thought about how it helped me. Where it was a struggle to come up with a thing each in common with two team members, it signaled to me that I would need to make an extra effort to reach out and gain trust or credibility and generally come across as personable.

It would require quite a bit of work to get to the point where we could be having casual banter, non-work conversation around the water-cooler and better still appreciate each other's sense of humor. Where the connections came about quickly and with a number of people, the inter-personal relationships were probably at a better level. Sometimes it has also revealed which connections were not worth the investment of time and effort because the returns would be minimal.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Google Coder

In another life, I was a programmer and a pretty mediocre one. However, having learned from people who really knew what they were doing, I have appreciation for and do recognize good code when I see it. It is a lot like not having the talent to be a become a musician but enough training to be an aficionado.

This article on how to hire good programmers (and weed out the fakes, liars and duds) attracted an assortment of interesting comments. One of them is by a self-professed "Google" coder and I am completely able to relate to his perspective.Often, I find myself in a position where I need something quick and dirty built as a proof of concept for something I am trying to pitch to a client. There is no one in the IT shop that is willing or able to help out. The red tape is enough to strangulate.

Under the circumstances, I have sought out open source software that met my needs and cobbled together something which a lot of help from Google advance search. On an unrelated note - I just don't get Bing - nothing seems to make sense when I type in a search term. The results are so far off the mark that I don't know where to go from there. But I digress. The fact is that my crudely constructed demo apps do end up working reasonably well and gets the job done.

Every once in a while, someone will like it enough to want to keep it around until IT is able to replace the functionality it provides with something enterprise standard. Often that never ends up happening because the cost of doing stuff the "right" way is a little too high and budgets simply don't allow such luxuries these days.

When I look at it from short term standpoint, it seems like a competent Google "coder" like the commentator Steve or myself get the job done quickly even if not in the best way possible. If the better, alternative way is so hard and expensive that no one wants to take it on, it begs the question what is "good" worth.

Obsolescence is inevitable in this line of work. Whether you throw the best architecture and design talent at something and create a high class product or get someone who can Google search their way around to standing something up that works, both will be replaced by something better soon enough. There is a lot to be said for standards in systems and process, one version of truth when it comes to data but that is hardly the reality on the ground in large IT shops.

Over the years, I have tried to encourage business customers with some inclination for technology to try and be self sufficient. If their problem calls for a bicycle there is really no need to build a space shuttle. More often than not they can rig up a bicycle by themselves - Google is their friend too.