Monday, May 31, 2010

Changing Pace

This blog has been a big part of my life for the last five years. Besides giving me the opportunity to connect with a number of interesting people and share my thoughts and ideas with them, it has been a form of daily meditation for me. No matter what the day threw my way, I made a very deliberate effort to find a little quiet time to write.The process of thinking about what to write and then the act of writing itself worked as an antidote to aggravations big and small.
Five and half years ago, when I started Heartcrossings both my personal and professional lives left a lot to be desired for. The only real happiness I had was in being J's mother. While that was often enough to make me forget what I did not have, I sorely needed a third place to call my own and shape in the likeness of my dreams. This blog has been where there were no limits or constraints and that was absolutely exhilarating - it is the reason I have been able to nurture it for as long and as much as I have.
A lot has changed since then. Professionally, I have found my niche and am happy with where am today and can be in the future. The idea of being a single mother transitioned from being a handicap to being a source of strength. The most recent change in has been my marriage to a wonderful man whom I will refer to as DB. As we build our new life together  and work on J getting comfortable with having a father in her life, I will need to take time and energy away from my favorite third place of over five years. I will continue to write here but not as frequently and I may also take a different very direction with my blog.
I hope all of you who read this blog will continue to check in every once in a while.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

The Immortals

I tried to read Amit Chaudhuri's The Immortals and my head hurt from the sheer volume of confusion in the story. Maybe I don't know to read fiction anymore or maybe this is Chaudhuri trying to pull off a Rushdie on his readers. At any rate, the harder I tried to keep up with the ballooning cast of characters and the incoherent storyline the more resoundingly I failed. The last book I read by Chaudhuri was The Strange and Sublime Address. I don't recall being wowed but it was certainly not a difficult book to read. I was able to stay with the plot and the story flowed smoothly.
Whatever it is that the author has attempted to do with The Immortals, it makes for impossible reading. Yet, the central theme of the story is a one that would draw a reader in - who wins the war between materialism and art. The characters are sketched deftly - it is easy to visualize Apurba Sengupta as the successful executive, Mallika, his wife as the woman who chooses to give up her art in order to be a the kind of wife someone like Apurba needs. Shyamji the guru who straddles the worlds of Shastriya Sangeet (classical music) and the lighter Bollywood fare is a character the reader can understand. Then there is the character of Nirmalya the son of Apurba and Mallika who is a drifter is far as his choice to opt-out of the privileged lifestyle that is his lot. It seems like there are way too many peripheral characters - it is challenging for the reader to keep up with them or understand how they contribute to the story. Sometimes, the din they create is enough to drown the key players in the story.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Lean Kaizen Amulet

I had the fascinating experience of being part of a Lean/Kaizen event recently where the facilitator bulldozed a group of fifty people over the course of a week to create a workplan for a couple of months. The idea was for these folks to head off as five different teams to work in concert on delivering the first piece of functionality in a large, complex product.
The traditional waterfall method of software delivery has fallen to as much discredit and ridicule as it has because there was nothing to show for the project team's efforts until the very end and the world could have changed completely by then. More often than not by when strategy and vision got translated to reality, it bore very little resemblance to what  the powers that be had in mind - not to mention that the market and competition had transformed enough to make the product obsolete. Then there was the whole business of scope bloat, cost and time overruns.
Lean/Agile is supposed to fix all that and help teams to recover from their mistakes quickly as they continue to deliver their minimal marketable features at the end of each iteration. Sounds beautiful in theory except that the devil is in the details. In the session I went through, the project teams had a lot of inter-dependencies and could not realistically be free-agents that churned out widgets every other week. There were key architecture decisions that had to be made which impacted everybody. Understanding of the full scope of the work and thrashing out the details was therefore critical to success.
Yet, the facilitator kept emphasizing the importance of not getting too far out into the future because change was inevitable. Defer decisions until as late as possible was his mantra. Some of the senior developers were clearly not on board with the idea but had to go along with what the "expert" advocated. At the end of the week, all the artifacts that were to come out of the workshop were ready and to that end the leadership team touted the session as a magnificent success.
There were two or three "open questions" on the table that could depending on resolution trash nearly everything that was accomplished over the week. Our Lean/Kaizen guru minimized the impact that they may have because as far as he was concerned this was "Mission Accomplished" - an we all know how that turned out.
After having worked Agile for years now, time after time I have seen projects turn into tain-wrecks because there was never enough time to get design and architecture right. If you have the foundation laid and a solid blueprint, it is possible that you construct a high-rise in small chunks and stop at a logical point when time or money run out. You have the basis on which to build and know what the end game is.
To expect to work on the foundation and blueprint "iteratively" as you build goes against commonsense and yet that is what the so-called Lean/Agile experts advocate IT shops to do and even more amazingly management buys into this and gets into Kumbaya mode. Just because stuff is not being done in the much derided "traditional waterfall" method is no guarantee of success. We can move Kanban cards on Heijunka boards till the cows come home and will still not have a high quality product to show for it. It never ceases to amaze me how the a process has come to be like a magic charm for success. This is no different than reposing faith on an amulet to cure a disease instead of trusting the advice of a trained medical professional.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Maximum Pain Point

A few years ago, a marketing guy I worked with tried to explain to me how the theory of maximum pain applies in retail pricing. Being that both subject areas are largely unfamiliar to me, I was not able to appreciate the finer details of the explanation I was given but I came away with a rudimentary understanding of the concept.

If two parties are involved in any kind of transaction with one being the position to gain at the cost of the other's pain, there is a threshold beyond which increasing the pain to increase gain no longer works. For the would be gainer, it is important to know how far to go and when to stop so they can turn in the most profit. Even if how I interpreted what my co-worker told me completely wrong, I found good use for this potentially fallacious theory elsewhere.
To that end, I believe the woes of employment based immigrants in America is  related to the notion of maximum pain. Depending on where your home country is you will have different levels of tolerance. Make an young professional from Sweden wait five years from an US Green Card, the chances are they will just return home - that amount of time would go over their maximum pain point. It stands to reason therefore that wait times for permanent residency vary dramatically by "country of chargeability"

Now, with someone from India that number may compute to ten or fifteen years or even more - God knows we are a very patient and infinitely tolerant people with a deep seated aversion to making any unnecessary waves. So, it makes sense to allow the process take just that long to complete. Maybe the the characteristics of the total population from a certain country waiting in line contributes to what that magic final number will end up being.

My sense is whatever the math, it results is a fantastically high number for the desis of the world and hence the mind numbing wait times without any light at the end of the tunnel. That would also explain why the movement of dates, the availability of visa numbers and other such inherently quantitative data simply cannot be solved using regular math.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Relationship Stalemate

My friend K has been in the single and mingling state for a bit now. The last time we chatted, she told me about someone who was "at least 90%" right for her. Before I could get too excited about it she added "but it's not going anywhere - hasn't for months". When I asked her why so she explained she was also only 90% right for him and for this man that was not good enough. He refused to "settle" no matter how long it took him to find exactly what he was looking for. "So you are saying that he acknowledges that you are 90% of what he is looking for and yet that does not close the deal ?" I asked incredulously and K confirmed my understanding of the situation to be correct.
As we talked some more, it turned out that the offending 10% that had put their relationship in stalemate mode and even threatened to end it had to do with the one thing that was non-negotiable for both of them . Whatever it was ( I thought it imprudent to probe for any detail), K was one side of the issue and the man was on the other - there was no middle ground where they could meet. And without having this sticking point resolved, movement forward was impossible.
I asked her if this perhaps a way for one (if not both of them) to avoid closure because it was too scary to be seriously committed and God forbid get married. "You know, I have asked myself that very question. I don't think that's the case for me. I feel irritated that he is so stubborn about something that is not so very important in the first place. He can easily come around to accepting what I want and not have lost that much. Instead, he wants to let everything go over it. That's stupid" she said with more than a tinge of anger in her voice.
I wondered if that was not exactly how the man felt as well - she was stupid to let it all go over something relatively trivial. I asked her if she was ready to move on and K replied that was hard because when you come to 90% of all you desire finding equal or better is virtually impossible. "What's the deal with him ?" I asked. "Looking around and I hope he keeps looking until hell freezes over" she replied.
It seemed to me that they both took perverse pleasure in impeding the other's ability to move on and yet did nothing to bring their own relationship to fruition. Knowing K the little that I do, I know she will be over him very quickly if she met someone new that interested and excited her. The problem appeared to be that this 90% guy had made that quite difficult for her and was causing her much aggravation. I had to tell K that this resembled a staring contest to me - each waiting for the other to blink, settling on a balance of power that favored them over the other person. Could ability to trust be an issue perhaps ? "Maybe" she admitted. They have both been through some pretty rough relationships in the past.
Since she was looking for some friendly advise on the situation at hand I suggested she ask this guy what if it took him another ten years to find that elusive 100% he is looking for today only to discover that he does not care about the 10% which has become a huge show stopper between them. As for her, I encouraged to her move on in sober earnest and get over all this percentage nonsense as soon as possible. There are many "right" people for any one person. To choose one over the other is not "settling" but being wise and prudent. It demonstrates the ability to recognize a kindred spirit - just as flawed and imperfect as we are ourselves. I hope she will be in a place of peace and happiness instead of being in a state of limbo where she is right now - believing as she does that some day the man will have the sense to see that 90% is good enough and want to spend life the rest of his life with her.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Language Barrier

I couple who are friends of my parents are visiting their son and daughter-in-law in the US. The gentleman was kind enough to mail me a present for J that my parents had sent with him. One would imagine, it would be a fairly simple matter for me to call him and say thank you. I called the number from which he had called me when he first reached here and it was answered by a young woman with a distinct Bengali accent. Without further ado, I introduced myself in Bengali. Clearly, that was a very dumb move. The woman was grievously offended and asked "What did you say ?" in a decidedly rude tone of voice. I figured this was the daughter-in-law. Duly chastised, I reintroduced myself and in English this time and hoped for the best. At this point, the woman said "I don't know who you are" and hung up on me.
She had not allowed me the opportunity to say that I was looking to speak to her father-in-law Mr D. There is no other way I know to reach him now. He won't know that I had try to reach him.I tossed out the package in which J's gift was mailed so I don't have a postal address to mail him a thank you note. He does not have an email address. So here I am stuck with an unsaid thank you like a fish bone in my throat. It is hard to speculate what the relationship dynamics are between the woman and her in-laws but as an outsider I am stuck coming across as uncultured and ungrateful. I can't help thinking that I may have fared better if I had not launched into a conversation in Bengali - that may have been my undoing and it's too late to make amends.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Terror Of Anonymity


An essay titled The End of Solitude by William Deresiewicz is one of my favorites. Each time I read it, there is something new to ponder over. I have blogged about certain themes he discusses in it. In my most recent reading, I found myself thinking about  Deresiewicz's analysis on how connectivity and creativity converge at the our modern desire for visibility at some level. "The great contemporary terror is anonymity". If you search someone's name online and nothing comes up, it is as if this person does not exist. Whether or not that is terrifying for the person being sought, it is certainty disquieting for the seeker. I find the author's characterization of MySpace particularly easy to relate to :
"The MySpace page, with its shrieking typography and clamorous imagery, has replaced the journal and the letter as a way of creating and communicating one's sense of self. The suggestion is not only that such communication is to be made to the world at large rather than to oneself or one's intimates, or graphically rather than verbally, or performatively rather than narratively or analytically, but also that it can be made completely. Today's young people seem to feel that they can make themselves fully known to one another. They seem to lack a sense of their own depths, and of the value of keeping them hidden."
As the mother of a tween, I am naturally apprehensive about how J (when her time comes) will choose to communicate who she is to the world at large. It may no longer be MySpace then, but whatever replaces it is unlikely to any less "performative" or invasive .

Monday, May 24, 2010

Divafication


Waiting my turn at the community microwave at work a few days ago, I leafed through the pages of an old Newsweek. A line in an article on the pre-mature diva-fication of little girls made me pause. The author quotes a mother  :
"My daughter is 8, and she's like, so into this stuff it's unbelievable," says Anna Solomon, a Brooklyn social worker. "From the clothes to the hair to the nails, school is like No. 10 on the list of priorities."
No matter how hard you try to pin the blame on media and society at large , the problem clearly lies with the parent and not with the child who has placed education number 10 in their list of priorities.I know mothers who take their kindergärtners out to get pedicures and manicure to say nothing of professional hair styling on a regular basis. The kids are not begging their parents for any of this. They are quite happy being kids. It is the parent that is not allowing them to do so.
It seems that it is the vanity of the parents (and maybe their own lack of satisfaction with their physical appearance and/or social status) that nudges them toward diva-fication of their children. Over time the situation spins out of control. A few years down the line, the kid will throw a fit if their hair is not styled right and their French manicure is lacking in quality - they are merely being creatures of habit. If the parent had taken a detour from the diva route and got the child interested in other things - education, art, sports, music - come to mind but a slew of other wholesome options exist as well, they would have ended up having entirely different set of priorities. 
It is a pity that authors of such articles don't take the trouble to make the responsible party feel like they have a big part in the problem and have the ability to fix it even as the tween pageants dominate prime time television. Instead we have this ludicrous hand-wringing on behalf of parents who don't deserve any of the commiseration.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Flashback

Flashbacks are strangely inexplicable things. The memories of an incredibly difficult time from the past can come to me in the happiest of times for reasons I would never expect. Parallels that don't mean anything at all, can ruin a moment of joy. It takes a concerted effort to force myself from then to now, shake off the the weight of baggage I thought had been shed many years ago.

When this happened recently, I tried a slightly different approach than I have in the past. Instead of self-recrimination and regret for ruining now for then, I allowed myself to slide a little more into deja vu until I was able to find a place in the past where I had been similarly happy. It turned out to be a easier transition to make - suddenly the dread flashback was not a debilitating thing that could not be dealt with, instead it help me return to where I wanted to be - now.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Third Place

My mother taught me the importance of gratitude for what has been blessed with in life as early as I was able to appreciate what that meant. She has always been the kind of person that will confront their own negativity and not give up until they have overcome it. She is a source of energy that replenishes itself and gives generously to those who wish to draw form it.  Any time I am feeling low, I just need to call and talk to her for bit and I experience a world of difference. How she does this without draining her own reserves of strength and optimism, I don't know but it is something I have always depended on.
J takes after my mother in temperament and it takes a lot to get her down. But when on occassion she does feel bummed out, it is well beyond my capacity to get her to snap out of it. As she grows older, I find her seeking refuge in books - she loves reading and reads voraciously. Sometimes, I might suggest a movie she may enjoy watching and that could be her escape too. It is a trait she shares with me. The best way to let J work through her mood, I have found is to let her finish what she is reading or watching. She is in her third place with the cast of characters in her book or movie forming the social community. She comes out of it happier and at peace with herself.
I realize I have to build my own reserves to play in J's life the role my mother has played in mine. While having one's own sanctuary is a wonderful thing and I am grateful she has hers, there is something special about being able to connect to a loved one and feel emotionally rejuvenated in the process.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Prediction Snare

Predicting the future with data is usually considered a science unless stars or planets are involved in the mix and we are talking astrology. Art, science or something in between, the very idea of Facebook being able to predict from your on-line behavior who you might date a few weeks out is creepy.
Facebook seems to have a complicated relationship with the user's data privacy to begin with and now this. The more I read about this stuff, the gladder I am to be and remain off the grid as far as social networking is concerned. Clearly, there are businesses that would love to see this model work for obvious reasons as the article points out :
This kind of predictive capacity could be used for some pretty creepy targeted advertising opportunities: flower delivery, restaurant reservations, advice books, sexual products of various sorts

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Diary of a Wimpy Kid


I chose Diary of a Wimpy Kid for J to read a couple of years ago, just after reading a few random pages from it. We both loved it - I got to read it only after J was done reading it about five times over. So when the book was made into a movie, J and I had to watch it. I liked the opening credits - it brought the book to life. The key characters were cast well enough.
And that's about all that was to like about the movie for anyone who has read the book and came in with expectations. The film adaptation takes out the best parts of the story and replaces it with random stuff that is an unnecessary and it is unappealing. There was enough and excellent material in the book to make a movie so this slicing, dicing and splicing did not make a whole lot of sense. 
What was appealing about this book to an adult reader was that the characters were entirely believable.Geoff Heffley is possessed of more pizazz, wit and intelligence than the average fifth grader, it makes sense when you consider he does not quite fit in and that his sense of humor is too mature for his peers.The movie has entirely Hollywoodized all that. Kids are dripping precocity to the point, the hero is no longer quite as special as he comes across in the book. In fact, the movie takes away from his character and leaves him being just another kid who is struggling to fit. Anyone whose read the book knows for a fact that is not what his character is about.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Imagining India

Reading Nandan Nilekani's Imagining India is like have dinner at a lavish Indian wedding. Each course is tempting, rich and flavorful but with so much to choose from, even a diner with keenest appetite is unable to justice to the complete repast. Such was my experience with Nilekani's book. He covers an unbelievable amount of ground in a three hundred something page book and attempts to tackle the hydra headed monster that the task of understanding India is. There is historical perspective, the concerns of the present and the ideas that will shape the future.
Nilekani's tone is pragmatic, empathetic and even keeled. He does not subscribe either to the India Shining rhetoric or any of the doomsday prophesying. In Nilekani's view, the truth lies somewhere in between those extreme world views and the purpose of Imagining India is to get the reader to think about the many variables and forces at play that will determine where that truth might end up being. Whether you are from India or spent most of your life there or are an outsider who is curious about that country, you would find a lot to learn and ponder over reading this book.
The extensive glossary is invaluable for readers who want to revisit topics they found particularly interesting. It can also serve as a jumping off point for additional reading. I read about this book a couple of years ago and it has been on my to-read list ever since. Two years is usually enough time for a book about anything to become irrelevant and obsolete these days. It is one of the reasons, I wait a while before I read anything that is hyped a great deal. It is to Nilekani's credit that his ideas are completely apropos even now. I would highly recommend Imagining India to anyone who wants to read an exceptionally well researched, articulate and thought-provoking book about India.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Lost Girls

Read this Interesting observation on why the more affluent and educated families in India are more likely to have fewer daughters. This is something I had heard anecdotally from a friend in India who is involved in the production of social awareness documentaries. Whereas he just stated it as a matter of fact, here is an explanation of the phenomenon :

..wealthier and more educated women face this same imperative to have boys as uneducated poor women — but they have smaller families, thus increasing the felt urgency of each birth. In a family that expects to have seven children, the birth of a girl is a disappointment; in a family that anticipates only two or three children, it is a tragedy.

The article mentions advertisement for ultrasound in India “pay 5,000 rupees today and save 500,000 rupees tomorrow.” that I don't recall ever having seen - but it is entirely possible that they exist. The argument is therefore development in a country with deep seated gender bias and discrimination can actually hurt women instead of helping them. In conclusion the author says :

In the short and medium terms, the resulting clashes between modern capabilities and old prejudices can make some aspects of life worse before they make them better.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Colored In Dress

Being able to color the fabric of your dress would be a gift for the artistically inclined. They can given free reign to their imagination and create something truly unique. The idea behind this is to allow women to match their party dress to their accessories, complexion, or even the occasion. A template with lighter outlines and more diversity in the textile coloring inks would give women even wider creative latitude.

The paint by numbers like this dress in this article while cute, is not likely to be nearly as satisfying. Being able to pick a dress, create the fabric and then color it would be as close to the ideal shopping experience as it gets for those who don't always like what they can pick off the shelf.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Chocolate and Boxes

Having been part of IT organizations in a diverse mix of American companies for close to ten years now, I have seen a representative sampling of the “benefits” of indiscriminate outsourcing, In my experience, the only shops who have their information technology act together are staffed almost entirely by local programming talent with most of them being full time employees rather than contractors. The contractors that these shops do have on board, tend to be senior level and expensive. Clearly, they are not participating in the race to the bottom economics that is the driver for most outsourcing decisions and are thriving despite that.

Most importantly, they have a workforce that enjoys the work they are doing, take pride in it, feel a strong sense of ownership of the work product and are happy to stay on with the company. For an outsider such as myself, the difference in project outcomes is quite remarkable. I always tell clients looking to add contract staff for a project that they will get exactly the talent they pay for.

Even if they looking to shop in India, top quality talent is expensive. When the math is all done, an A player based in India may actually turn out to be more expensive than someone of similar caliber that is local. If you pay for cheap the quality of work will reflect it – does not matter what the geographical location. The chances of a client being able to vet a local candidate to their satisfaction is always higher than taking a chance with someone they have never seen. Then there is the matter of face recognition and reputation – things that are easier to establish and validate locally than remotely.

Yet there are instances where outsourcing works out very well. It seems the trick is to do just enough - not too much (and lose edge in strategy and innovation) and not too little (and keep the organization mired in operational inefficiency). In this article the author Michael Bean gives a great example of outsourcing done right - a lesson than any IT shop would do well to learn.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Coveting

Having coveted diamonds in the past and an iPhone now, reading this Guardian story on how chemicals involved in the manufacture of the Apple devices makes me wonder about the nature coveting in general. To gratify the impulse of some, many must suffer untold miseries - blood diamonds or n-hexane iPhones, it is not that different in the end.
Once you become aware of the what goes into creating the object of your desire, you have one of two ways to possess it - have it weigh on your conscience but feel incapable of resisting the urge to possess or agree to feel nonchalant about another's suffering and a little less human in the process.
I remember feeling this way about wearing glass bangles in my teens. As much as I loved them, I could not in good conscience buy or wear them. Yet, I did own several dozen, brightly colored glass bangles, succumbed to occasional temptation to buy something that caught my fancy. It was always a difficult experience always wearing them. I did not submit to the desire for diamonds.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Safe Place


This observation about the nature of blogosphere seems to explain why I have found it very hard to follow some of the better known blogs out there. 
Just as nature abhors a vacuum, the blogosphere abhors a neutral and nonpartisan blog. For whatever reasons, cultural or historical, participants expect partisanship. They want to know if you’re with them or against them; the dedicated communities at various blogs can be pretty defensive of their space, and sometimes stream like lemmings through the aether to attack a blogger that they perceive as threatening.
While the material in the blogs I try to follow is worth reading, the space in which the writing and the exchange of ideas is talking place, as the author points out is quite a hostile one. I find that the ambiance does not encourage me to return too often - I content myself with reading short excerpts of the posts via Google Reader. That way, I remain in safe, neutral ground and enjoy the content without the strident (and all too often one-dimensional commentary). Extending the analogy to the functioning of democracy as the article does, it is easy to see how people may choose to remain in their respective safe places and not participate in the democratic process.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Seeing Change

Miss W was one of J's first care-givers at the daycare center when we moved here over five years ago. Day care was still a new idea for J at the time as she had spend most of her time at home with my parents. Miss W made the transition easier than anything I had dared to hope to for and we became good friends. J and I have attended Buddhist prayer meetings with her, had her over to our place for dinner, been over to hers for lunch. She introduced me to Japanese food I would have never known to try on my own. Her warm smile and the sparkle in her eyes were her most attractive features and they made her more than just another pretty young woman.
J and I were ran into Miss W after nearly five years a few days ago. We were shopping at the same store. I kept looking at this woman with three kids in tow - she looked ever so familiar and yet I was not able to put a name to the face. When I finally connected it to W, I asked J to walk over and ask her if she was Miss W. And so she did and indeed it was Miss W who is now Mrs A. I recalled having met her husband back in the day when he was her boyfriend. She was just as happy to see J and I as I was to connect with her again.
The meeting left me wondering about the passage of time and the changes it brings to our lives. Mrs A is nothing like that wonderfully vibrant Miss W, I once knew. Three kids later, she looks completely worn out. "I won't have any more kids. Three is enough" she tells me in right after saying hello. I had trouble comprehending they were all her kids - the change was a little too dramatic to process.
From her vantage point, time would almost appear to have stood still for me. J is a third grader and I am five years older but other than that nothing has changed significantly about my life. Fleetingly, she may have wanted to return to that carefree time of being a young, free and in love without repsonsibilities. For a minute, I must admit I wished the winds of change had touched me too - even if not in the same way as it had touched W.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Captive Audience

Waiting in a car dealership for a couple of hours with a supremely bored eight year old in tow while your vehicle is being serviced is not fun. In fact, it is the farthest possible thing from fun. Add to that an advertised free WiFi connection that does not work and finally a TV tuned permanently to some kind of food channel. Everyone around me is trying not to look at the luscious  food porn that is streaming relentlessly in our range of vision.
One woman is making an effort to have a conversation on her cell phone, another is trying to read (as are J and I). A couple of guys are latched to their laptops and iPhones but the food porn is well beyond our collective ability to resist. By when this woman reached the climactic stages of preparing eggs in a basket (a decadent recipe calling for eggs, shredded potato, butter, maple syrup, provolone cheese and prosciutto) we were all looking up to watch - nearly enraptured by the vision.
This Frederick Kaufman essay discusses the remarkable parallels between these two businesses that at first glance would appear to have little in common.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Passage Of Time

It is interesting to listen to the non-work sidebar conversations that take place when a bunch of people arrive for a meeting before the organizer does. A few weeks ago, I caught a couple snippets as we waited for time to pass. One woman was telling her neighbor that ever since she got herself a smartphone - the device is no longer "just a phone".
Her addiction to it is evident. She is typing away on it furiously at all times and when she is not, her eyes are glued on the screen checking stuff out completely indifferent to those around her. She went to to say she could not imagine life without it because it would be no different than missing a limb. When the iPhone was first released, a lot of people I know felt pretty passionately about it and were quick to get one for themselves but even they stopped short of likening it to a body part. Two guys compared the apps they had installed on their iPhones and the discussions were not unlike those between J and her buddies about who owns what cool toys - and I am speaking of a few years ago. At eight, even J's friends are too cool to inventory their toys. The smartphone seemed to have caused regression to infantilism for these folks. It was a fascinating thing to observe.
The group across the aisle from me were having a conversation about women and meeting their expectations on Valentines Day. One married guy said that he quit doing anything at all because he could not keep upping the ante year after year. His wife knows not to expect anything and he does not feel pressured to out-do himself each year. Then they turned to the solitary bachelor in the group and asked him if he would ever marry to which he responded "Sure, if she will marry me".
While the phone and Valentines Day conversations were amusing, this one turned out to be the thought provoking one. This guy is dating someone in her very early twenties. The woman has the advantage of youth on her side and can be selective about who she marries - so it is only natural that she is not closing the deal with him. Ten or twenty years out, that would no longer be the case. The same guy would probably string her along, unwilling to commit. The balance shifts in favor of the man over the woman. The passage of time can be a force to reckon with sometimes.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Talking Perfection


A few months ago, I ran into a girl I went to high school with at the mall. I was amazed that she was even able to recognize me after all these years. Once she told me who she was, I was able to as well but would have not done so otherwise. Her son is a year younger than J and was there along with her husband. After introductions were made, we found a place to sit and chat while the husband watched the kids.
She and I were acquaintances at best back then and the passage of time had certainly not done anything to either of us to be able to turn that to real friendship. Since she is plugged and connected via Facebook, Orkut and the like, she brought me up to speed on our former classmates - who lived and worked where, who they were married to, how many kids they had and more. We exchanged emails and phone number and promised to stay in touch.
One evening, a few days ago she called me and I have to admit I was surprised. The status update had already happened - she knew my co-ordinates and about my marital status. I did not think there was anything else about me that she may find worth knowing about. Surely, it must have been passed around on the grapevine by now and the network was just as well-informed as she was. I had assumed they had collectively moved on to others who were still not on the radar.
After some talk about the weather, she launched into the topic of the day. For close to two hours, I was regaled with anecdotes about her prodigiously gifted seven year old. It seemed to me that the stories grew more and more embellished as she rolled along. At first he was reading five years ahead of his grade level, then he was trilingual and then he learned new languages all by himself, was a science and math whiz, played several musical instruments, wise beyond belief - and much more. There was no end to the child's innate perfection. It is completely possible that all that she had to say about her son is true - I have had the good fortune of knowing several exceptionally wonderful children myself. I could however sense an undertone to this recitative.
The day we had met, she kept telling me how lucky I was to have the courage to leave R (my ex) and strike out on my own. Not every woman in the same situation could do that. I happened to tell her how for over a year of my marriage I deluded myself and people close to me that I was incredibly happy, living with a man who was beyond perfect for me.
I was just lucky to have an epiphany before it was too late. Any time I see a woman gushing about how incredibly happy she is with her man, I feel a twinge of anxiety because I know how that ended up for me. The best marriages tend to be understated - there is not a lot of exhibitionism or playing to the gallery. The couple exudes a sense of peace and belonging together. They would very likely not make a spectacle of their marital bliss like I once did and like I see many do.
Notably, she made no mention of husband or marriage but focused obsessively on her son for two whole hours she was on the phone. If she was trying to prove that she had won the mommy sweepstakes, she did not have to try so hard. I am perfectly willing to believe that there are the most amazing kids in the world and there is no reason why she and her husband could not have given birth to one. While it makes them very lucky, it is also a big responsibility because that amount of talent is not easy to harness guide and in a positive direction.
If I could have given her a piece of advise, I might have told her not to obsesses over the perfection of her child to the point he believed that the love of his mother was contingent on his ability to meet or exceed her expectations. There was not one funny or cute baby story she had to share - everything was about exceptional intelligence and achievement. Even the most perfect child cannot become recompense for a less than satisfactory marriage - the two are different things and cannot be used to offset the effects of each other. I got the sense that she was deeply disappointed for not getting the reaction from me that she had hoped for - one of jealousy or incredulity. If I know anything about human nature, I will not hear from her again.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Mother's Day

Each Mother's Day, J has made me a gift of some kind - usually a hand-made card and some objet d'art to accompany it. In her pre-school days, these productions were supervised and indeed orchestrated by the instructors at daycare - the importance of the day was impressed upon the kids and J never felt like she had quite done justice to the love she felt for me. To that end, I would receive many tokens of affection for a week preceding and days following Mother's Day. 

As much as I cherish them all and feel humbled to be loved as much as I am, I always thought it was particularly wrong to get children to feel like they had to do something to demonstrate their feelings for their mother (and father). J is now eight and a veteran of Mother's Day gift making and gift giving. Even with all that experience she is never sure she is able to translate her feelings well and that leaves her somewhat anxious and disappointed. When I tell her, all I need is a big hug, she is not convinced that is enough to mark the momentous nature of Mother's Day. 

Then there are friends who start to call and leave messages wishing me Happy Mother's Day. Each year, I feel socially awkward because I was not the first to wish. Not every mother I know calls me and I never end up calling them either. It is amazing how much angst a Hallmark holiday can create.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Gravy Train

One of the most commonplace workplace complaints is about A doing the work B is too lazy, incompetent, unwilling or some combination thereof to do. It would be tolerable if it ended at that even if A was not officially expected to do any of this and instead B was. But rarely if ever is the story that simple. Someone higher up (C) that both A and B report to will make it seem it it was really A's job to begin with and that B was expected merely to provide direction and commentary. B's deficiencies end up working as their advantage.

In effect, C is implying that B is supervising A's work. The ineffective and incompetent peer is being at least symbolically promoted over the deserving one. Unless A challenges this narrative and refuses to have reality spoken out loud and acknowledged, that becomes the official version. In six months, B will get promoted over A for having provided leadership. The obvious irony of the situation would have escaped everyone except A.

I used to imagine that this kind of problem is the exclusive preserve of full time employees and that consultants were somehow immune to it. Recently, I had that notion dispelled. When I became a threat to an expensive consultant's gravy train, he acted like a B with me being the A and our common client being C. I also used to imagine that silly stuff like this did not bother me and I left work behind at the parking lot - that I found out was not entirely true either.

Friday, May 07, 2010

Being Free

It starts with seeing a face, a certain light of smile and a tenor of voice that speaks of an inexplicable, unknown connection. It is an attraction strong enough to overcome that inner voice of caution that urges you to resist, to desist. You feel it the first time and every time.This is a charge that does not fade over time, it only grows stronger. This person is not your type in more ways than you can count. It is the relationship you get into fully prepared to be hurt and also know it will lead absolutely nowhere.

And yet, against your better judgment you allow your heart and soul into it, sometime rushing headlong in a state of euphoria or slowly, dreamlike almost unaware of what is happening to you. The magic lasts for a while and then suddenly the spell is broken, you begin to hurt past the threshold of pain. Your preparedness for disappointment is not nearly enough for what comes when the end comes as it inevitably must. You remain in denial as you try to cope, regain the life you had before you met this person. You ask yourself why you allowed this to happen knowing fully well such would be the consequences.

You want to gouge out the best and worst memories of your time together because echoing emptiness is better than searing pain. It is your debt of karma that must be paid. You suffer until there is nothing left to burn and turn to ash. One day you realize your atonement is over and you are finally free. You see that face again and this time that charge is simply not there. The same tilt in a smile and a tenor of voice but it no longer resonates with you. That is when you know you are truly over.

You can sit down and have a coffee together, chat about life and work, shake hands and leave promising to catch up another time fully knowing you never will - there will be no urge to do so. When you walk out on the street and see their form melting into the crowds, and feel no stab of pain in your heart, you know that you are free at last. You can feel the wind in your hair, notice the wildflowers eeking out a life in the cracks of the sidewalk - you know what it is to feel alive again - specially when you have no debts left to pay.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Twitdress

I have no idea who Imogen Heap is but she is definitely with the program as far as her Twitter-savvy. A Twitdress that streams tweets in real-time to her dress."images tweeted with the hashtag #twitdress supposedly appeared in real-time on a small screen she was wearing." Having then displayed on the dress itself would have wowed people a lot more but Heap deserves kudos just for the concept.
The Mobile Behavior article says "Not only is this an instance of the "Internet of Things" i.e. connecting an object to the web, it's a great example of portable technology being used to connect people and share experiences in real-time." This is the kind of technology that makes room for those who are creative and artistic though not necessarily geeks - creating fertile ground for unusual ideas to germinate and thrive.

In the past, it was not nearly as simple to be creative and a geek at the same time. The opportunities to bring the two inherently different faculties of the mind together in meaningful did not exist. The niche art forms of geeks did to translate over so well with the rest of the population. With technology getting more widely dispersed and adopted across the population, these niches can grow to genres that can hold their own among well established art-forms.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Lost Wallets

Lost wallets are apparently their own literary genre - according this Slate article. The author has an interesting hypothesis on why stories such as this have come to prominence in the age of the web :

In the past, these kinds of oddities occasionally became national news, but they generally stayed local and were eventually forgotten. Within the cloistered little villages of local media, every return of a long-lost wallet could stand unchallenged as a breathtakingly singular event. But in age of the Web, these lesser miracles are now aggregated, archived, and searchable. With a little persistence, you can spend a whole afternoon reading long-lost-wallet stories. But the more long-lost-wallet stories you read—the further your perspective zooms out from that of the people actually living them—the more you see the themes and details repeating themselves.
An otherwise odd or trivial things when aggregated, archived and rendered searchable become imbued with significance that is quite different from what they possessed in isolation. This is not only true about lost wallets but every other long tail phenomenon that is able to carve out its genre or sub-genre.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Data Grab


J and her friend B had a Build A Bear gift card each to redeem so us moms took them over to the store the first Saturday after the holiday season when the weather was nice. This was my first time at Build A Bear and I came away fascinated by the experience. The idea is customers will pay for the experience and the stage craft of the store and return for more. The hooks and inducements certainly seemed to be doing the trick. There are many repeat customers and first timers are certainly tempted to return.
You select the "bear" you want to build, take it to the stuffing station and have it stuffed to your liking (soft or firm or in-between) but the neatest trick is the heart you get to thrown into it for free with a cute wish making ceremony that appeared to be hit with the girls. You wash the bear, outfit it , get a birth certificate made and check out.
The birth certificate stage is the data collection point - a kid could virtually give all their demographic data away in less than ten clicks if the adult accompanying them is not mindful of what is going on. It just would not occur to a child that they don't need to provide the any of the information being requested or pretend to be an Albanian great grand-mother. The brilliance of the strategy is undeniable.

Again at the time of check out, the cashier will ask to verify physical and email address. Then there is a slew of slick brochure-ware to entice the customer to go on- line at and bring their creation to life, play games and such. It reminded me of lines from a poem we learned as kids 

"Will you walk into my parlour?"
Said the spider to the fly;
"'Tis the prettiest little parlour
That ever you did spy.
The way into my parlour
Is up a winding stair;
And I have many curious things
To show you when you're there."
"Oh, no, no," said the little fly;
"To ask me is in vain;
For who goes up your winding stair
Can ne'er come down again."

The bear workshop is the parlor and the marketing strategists are the spiders trapping their hapless child-fly victims in mind boggling numbers. No matter how hard and expensive it was to work up this recipe, it is certainly paying rich dividends. Having been on both the data acquisition and analysis side of things to help with behavior based marketing for several years now, I find it easy to see the huge value of the data that Build A Bear is collecting. What bothered me most was that the party giving up their information was not even informed enough of the consequences of what they were giving away.

Monday, May 03, 2010

Creating Memories

There are special memories from childhood and youth that I want to share with J but cannot translate their signifance for me to her. For instance, there was the time when I first heard the song Jodi Kichu Amare Shudhao by Debabrata Biswas and a long time after than when I first understood the lyrics. So many ways and reasons to love the same piece of music. 

When I play that song for J, she grows wisful for reasons she cannot understand or explain yet. "Sometimes I feel that way when I listen to beautiful music" she says. It is how I used to feel once and still do. That and other music will mean entirely different things to us, evoke entirely different memories ten or twenty years out. It makes me happy to know that some of them will be the ones we made together - mother and child.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Escape Hatch

Instead of drinking, binging or shopping Sheila found a full season DVD set of Gossip Girl, ideal for shutting her brain down for several hours. The characters and their convoluted lives served as the perfect escape. A bowl of strawberry yogurt with fresh blueberries and chopped walnuts was Sheila's version of the large tub of ice-cream that often keeps solitary movie watchers company. She wondered what about this series made it perfect for tuning out of her own life for a bit. 

As much as she wanted to get over MJ, it was still easier for her to brood over him than not, obsess instead of let go. She had said to Vibha one day "If you have this kind of connection with someone, it feels easier to hack off a limb than let go of it". Many characters in Gossip Girl seemed to have a problem like her and suffered for it. While nothing else about the series remotely resembled her own life, the off and on relationship she and MJ had shared for years became easier to understand through these characters. 


A short beep on her phone announced an email from Vibha.

Shell - Read this article earlier and thought of you. This part in particular

Obsessing about something you don’t have makes you unconsciously brood about what you lack, totally dismissing the present value in your life. Your urgency about getting what you want shouts at the Universe that you don’t care about—or appreciate—anything else. This act of dismissal creates a dark vacuum of energy, one that nobody wants to support or even be around, and the Universe has the same response. Instead of generating the results you long for, our paradoxical intent becomes a black hole of obsessive longing, destroying any positive outcomes that may come your way.

- Vibs

Sheila wrote back :

Vibs - Thanks for sending that. You know that your life has sunk to a whole new low when it takes characters from a soap opera and a pop-psychologist to help you understand what you're doing wrong and how you can fix it :) Never thought I'd live to see this day but again never thought I would subject myself to one such as MJ.

Take care,
Shell.

Just as she was getting ready to head out to work, Vibha's reply came :

Look at the bright side - you are getting the help you need even if the sources are not what you'd like them to be. Stop being a snob and accept the help the Universe is sending your way :)

Saturday, May 01, 2010

Getting Desis


Every once in a while an non-desi co-worker has asked me to corroborate something they had heard from another desi. The matter in question more often than not has to do with desi culture, Hinduism (which is frequently referred to as the Hindi religion whereas the language Hindi is called Hindu) and of course the perennial favorites - curry, bindi, caste system, dowry and arranged marriages.

In the early days, I would be bewildered when called upon to opine on matters that until that minute I had no opinion on. Depending on their source and the particular ax the desi in question had to grind, their information ranged from incomplete to incorrect to decidedly bizarre. So I would take it upon myself to set the record straight to the best of my ability and the reaction would  range between surprise and suspicion. For the most part, I was concerned about my professional credibility and did not want my views on say the meaning of Karma to imperil that because it was at complete odds with what this person had been told by another desi.
Over time, I have found a better way to deal with the situation. If the issue at hand is the best way to cook palak paneer (because the directions they were given by another desi resulted in an unmitigated disaster), I don't hesitate to share what I know. However, when it comes to more controversial issues like caste, right-wing politics or the dowry system, I try to refer them to a book on the subject preferably by a difficult to reader authors like Nirad Chaudhuri, Salman Rushdie or Gurucharan Das. I figure that should keep them occupied and confused for a while. I also have created canned responses to FAQs that have included the likes of:
Is Monsoon Wedding a good depiction of how Indians get married ?
What is the difference between the Hindi and the Hindu religion ?
How real is the depiction of poverty in Slumdog Millionaire ?
What are the main castes in India ?
What do you think of The Namesake ?
What can I eat in an Indian restaurant that is not curry ?
Do all Indian live in joint families ?
Are all Indian women demure and submissive ?

What is the religious significance of the the dot on the forehead ?

Is it true that you can tell a person's caste from their name ?
Recently, I got a couple of questions that were both fun and different from anything I have had to respond to before. This guy wanted a list of interesting cuss words in Hindi with their approximate English translations and a list of slick gangster movies from Bollywood. That tells me the man has evolved past the Curry, Slumdog and Namesake stage and is ready to "get" India and desis. If only, I would come across more of this variety.