Saturday, July 28, 2012

Reader Type

J picked today's theme for us to write about. To reflect on these two quotes.
"Readers may be divided into four classes:
1) Sponges, who absorb all that they read and return it in nearly the same state, only a little dirtied.
2) Sand-glasses, who retain nothing and are content to get through a book for the sake of getting through the time.
3) Strain-bags, who retain merely the dregs of what they read.
4) Mogul diamonds, equally rare and valuable, who profit by what they read, and enable others to profit by it also”     
-Samuel Coleridge
"Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking."  
-Albert Einstein
I have at different times been a reader of all four stripes Coleridge talks about. 
A Sponge when the book was an interesting and fast paced read with very little food for thought. I may have paused at a turn of phrase or two but not nearly long enough to absorb.
A definite sand glass when needing to plow through a book that everyone is talking about and I have no real interest in. The idea is to make sure it is checked of my Read list and move on.
The strain bag is a harder one. This would be in response to books that are either too big or complex and do not leave the reader with an overall impression. Instead, you retain the parts that were the heaviest.
Mogul diamond when on rare occasion I have recommended a book I love deeply to someone else and they have come back and told me they were so glad that they read it. These would be off the beaten track books, the ones the do not make it to the bestseller lists and remain largely obscure. Running into them is happenstance and finding someone to share it with even more so.
And finally, guilty as charged as far as lazy habits of thinking and I read too much. DB would like to correct that by getting me into running.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Scarless

An old scarless wound
twelve years in the healing,
lost its sting this morning.
The summer day balm to the soul.
My life's  orb a surprise
rainbow in the evening sky.
Holding the family close, 
I counted my blessings.


Poems that J wrote

Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Country of my Nostalgia

Home is and will always be India for me - at least that is what I tell myself. DB assures me I am delusional to think that and I can ever merge seamlessly after so many years of being away. That nostalgia is easy to indulge in from a distance and reality will be too jarring to stomach. He says, I would be better served to allow emotional roots to spread where my physical roots have for a while -  reconcile with having those from my native land severed.

When I read articles like this about the life of women in India, I understand why my longing for India has been limited to the idyllic days of my early childhood growing up in a semi rural places where the community looked out for the safety of all children.My home spread into my neighbors' yards and beyond the into the small neighborhood. We ran free and wild until dusk all summer - I long for those days because they have not existed in my life since. The longing for India is for the country of my childhood and not that of my youth - a place and time where I never felt safe. When I long for for home, I blot out all parts of my experience there that were unpleasant and romanticize what is left to  airbrushed perfection far removed from reality.

I do not want to remember that once childhood had past, my parents turned hyper vigilant about my safety, my freedom disappeared forever and the presence of a protective male figure became a constant in my life. I learned equality went only so far, that I would never again experience the exhilarating abandon of my childhood running across a paddy field, the wind in my face, racing with my friends to the reach the horizon.

There was something so special and magical about that freedom, that I was willing to give up the comfort of all things familiar, a much easier (not to mention protected) life to come live in the other end of the world and start from zero. I feel an immense sense of sadness overcome me- for all those girls in India who must choose between risking such horrific abuse to pursue their right to freedom or living in a gilded cage (like I once did) - safe and enslaved.


Today, my daughter J and I begin tag teaming. Here is her take on India and Nostalgia.

 

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

A Different Database Primer

Seven Databases in Seven Weeks takes the reader through Redis, Neo4J, CouchDB, MongoDB, HBase, Riak, and Postgres. Though this is a sampling platter focused primarily on NoSQL databases (Postgres being the exception), the information packed in each chapter requires the reader to be fully engaged and participative in the learning process. The material is not suitable for those without a strong technical background - the occasional dabbler like myself will find themselves drinking from a fire-hose. 
If my goal was to start working in these databases right after reading the book, I would be disappointed - not because the material is lacking but because I lack the required background. That said, I learned enough about to understand what business problems each was best set up to solve and that was a great outcome for me. The challenge would be to convince a client to try something non-traditional because NoSQL was a better solution for their problem. Then there would be the question of easy access to the talent pool to actually do the work.
If you had each of these databases successfully installed and running on your machine and the desire to learn, you could make it through all the exercises in seven weeks. I am going to assume that a reader who did that would be very well set up to use these databases on live projects.
The best thing this book does, is to bring awareness around the distinct flavors of NoSQL databases (unlike SQL databases, they are not variants of the same standard) and help clarify the differences between them.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Eating with Fingers

Reading this article about Oprah's Indian debut reminded me of the when Slumdog Millionaire was released. Any number co-workers wanted to know if the depiction of India in that movie was realistic and if people really lived "like that". I give locals wide latitude since they have not had reason or opportunity to understand other cultures -  it stands to reason that they have a very limited world view. That was the first and possibly the only movie they have seen set in India.

Their media consumption while copious does not enable a better understanding of world history and geography. That said, I humored the endless stream of Slumdog questions tried to educate them about India the best I could. The author's disappointment with Oprah stems from holding her to a higher standard - well traveled, informed and articulate does not always translate to cultural awareness and sensitivity. Besides she has to cater to the population that makes her the success that she is.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Value of Pause

Nice article on the value of waiting instead of rushing even when time is of the essence. I have learned this lesson the hard way in my life. During my eight years as a single mother, I did not consider stopping or even pausing was an option. To that end, I did not take any time off from work unless there was an urgent need and the only vacations we had were around a long weekend. I wonder how many more years I could have continued like that before I completely broke down.
When DB and I got married, the first thing he forced me to do was to pause. Come home from work and pause to freshen up and drink a cup of tea. On a weekend pause to sleep in, on a weeknight pause from cooking dinner - the list was endless. I resented being told to change and have my long established routine interrupted by so many "unproductive" pauses.
I fought tooth and nail to have it my way and he refused to back down. I am glad to report that DB prevailed in the end. In the last two years, I have learned to slow down, pause and even come to a full stop. He made me take a three month break to consider what I really wanted out my career and find a job I would love at least for a while.
Each pause short or long has proved to be of immense value. I learned to go from making snap decisions to mulling over what something would mean for me some years out. Emotionally, I went from living out of suitcase to settling into a home where I had a closet of my own. I am no longer terrified of unpacking my suitcase and be unprepared to make a quick move. What I have "lost" in alacrity I think may have gained in tranquility. I learned there are very few things in my life where time is really of the essence. As long as I keep my commitments at work and in personal life there is nothing that cannot wait for due consideration.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Failing to Inspire

When I shared the news of Marissa Mayer becoming CEO of Yahoo with J, I was hoping to illustrate a couple of things -  that women can break the glass ceiling in the technology business and reaching a career pinnacle does  not have to be incompatible with motherhood and family life. What I had failed to factor in, is the obsolescence of Yahoo for kids of J's generation. It is an "old people" website as far as J is concerned and that being the case, the impact of the Mayer news was significantly diminished. I would not be surprised if the exact opposite of what I had wanted to achieve happened. J probably took away that a woman still can't land the sweetest gigs in technology. I don't think she is old enough to understand that it being hired into that position while pregnant is a pretty big deal even if the job is at an "old people" company. 

So much for trying find a positive female role model to inspire a tween.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Perspective

A poem J sent to a well known children's magazine has been accepted for publication. She wrote this soon after DB and I got married and was in large part an outpouring of pain - she was having a hard time adjusting to a new way of life and the presence of a man in our home. We were talking today about how pain produces some of the best writing and J said "Then I will never be a writer - I haven't known as much pain as most people"

I thought that was an interesting observation being that J has actually gone through quite some upheaval in the last  ten years of her life. It turns out that she met a girl L, at her dance camp whose parents have been divorced twice and remarried. She has to divide time between two blended families and deal with adults being uncontrollably angry a lot of the time. She has clearly shared quite a bit about her life with J.

It was only a few weeks ago that J was complaining how she always had a schedule and there was not enough free, unstructured time in her day - and how we were not being fair to her as parents. The benchmark was some kids she knows who have no plan for the summer and can do as they please all they long. They also get to stay home all summer since the mothers don't go to work.

Held to that standard, DB and I were tyrants. It was interesting to see how the experience of doing something outside her comfort zone and meeting a group of kids she would not have otherwise met, has resulted in some serious recalibration. I don't know if she will get what I thought she might out of this particular camp, but I am glad it has given her new perspective.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Hybrid Education

I have been watching the progress online education has been making in the last several years and feel optimistic it will be a viable complement to brick and mortar education by when J is ready for college. That said, I am always eager to hear what the punditry has to say on the topic.
Not sure where to place my bet exactly, but I do believe that the rising cost of brick and mortar institutions will force even the most deserving students to go online. They will be the force that levels the playing field. If an institution does not lower its selection criteria for the program that will be delivered online, there is no reason why it would not be viewed at par with the classroom version.
The other factor to consider is the freedom online education allows the student. They could be apprenticing in their field of work and become better prepared for the job once they graduate. An online student's gap year would not have to be a net loss in education. If the market accepts an online graduate the same as their brick and mortar counterpart, it would the first choice for many students - including those who do not lack the means to pay for four years of college.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

To Converse

Those of us who were adults before the internet and wireless devices became woven into the basic fabric of our lives, have experienced the slow change in how people converse with each other. Increasingly no one has the undivided attention of the party they are conversing with - the devices and the steady beat of new information pulsing through them have everyone in their thrall. 
This FT article on the lost art of conversation  talks about the writer's experience at a workshop on "“How to have a conversation”. Turns out that there is no easy answer to the question. The observations participants make about "what has changed" are very interesting. The two I could most relate to - The Blackberry is the third person in conversations between two people ;  Google and Wikipedia have made it impossible to have a good old fashioned argument.
There was value in having an argument back and forth on a subject that neither party had complete knowledge of. You got to use common sense, knowledge of related subjects, general awareness of the world around you and learned the art of debate. Today disputes never go that far, Wikipedia will settle it for you in under thirty seconds and that topic is no longer available for discussion.

The only exception to the rule appears to be conversations about human relationships where there is no established authority on validity of feelings and emotions. So it is still possible for a group of women to dissect their love lives - share stories and understand their own experience in the context of the group's collective experience. The dearth of impersonal topics to chat about has made over-sharing private information almost essential in the interests of furthering a conversation. It is only in a such a social ecosystem that something like Facebook can work.
The fact that every question having one correct answer has been answered and is available a click away has shrunk the pool of conversation topics to a hopelessly narrow set of choices. There is not enough material available for us to master the art of conversation.

Monday, July 16, 2012

The Value of Likes

Having consulted with clients on useful social media KPIs,  I am all too familiar with the tendency to look on the number of Facebook Likes as the most tangible measure of success. For one thing, it is quick metric to share up and down the food chain. No one knows exactly what a Like is good for but assume if there are large numbers of Likes, it has to mean something good and positive. They must be doing something right to be Liked that much.

Based on such blind faith in the power of being well Liked, clients expend a disproportionate amount of energy trying to bump up those numbers at the cost of ignoring what might really matter. As this BBC article points out, the Likes can be generated by bots with malicious intent. The analyst now has the the task of flagging the fake Likes from the "real" ones.

After all that is done, the question that still remains to be answered is - are the Likes representative of engagement with and advocacy for the brand ? If that cannot be measured or ascertained, maybe it is time to move on from the Likes to what can actually help answer that question.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Bridge Book

I have been looking for the perfect book to bridge J's journey from childhood to adolescence. The books I read when I was about her age were the ones I first tried to get her interested in. It turns out they don't quite resonate with her. The generation gap has become a gigantic gulf since we started living our lives in internet years - our age adjusted world views are so far apart that I could be  a character from her history text book.
Then this summer, I got her A Tree Grows in Brooklyn from the library. She approached it tentatively  (as she usually does when I suggest that she read something) but after about twenty pages, she was completely hooked. She can now be found at all places at all times reading the book. If J is not to be seen or heard for some time, she is reading the book. This is exactly what I had looked for in the book that will help her make the physical and emotional transition she is making. She goes into middle school this fall - yet another of many changes she will experience in the next few years. 
Next on my list are The Lord of the Flies, Sense and Sensibility,The Time Machine and The Good Earth. It will be interesting to see which of these books will have her mesmerized like A Tree Grows in Brooklyn has. To me, all of these books satisfy Italo Calvino's definition of a classic and if so, they should transcend time and cultural differences. And I can't wait for her to be ready to read one of my favorite books of all time A Prayer for Owen Meany. And in time Possession by A.S Byatt - but I am getting way ahead of myself.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Amazon and Local Retail

I was out to lunch with some co-workers yesterday afternoon. The restaurant we went to is located in the hippest part of town - a place that had been open farmland until a few years ago. There are some nice stores in the area and folks were complaining about how frustrating it was to come shop here on a weekend - the roads were crazy busy and parking was a nightmare. This is the demographic that will be thrilled if Amazon's same day delivery model proves to be a success. I hate going out to shop myself and and don't mind waiting for a few days for something to be shipped to me if that saves me a trip to the mall. Amazon's current offering works just fine for people like me. But those that need the instant gratification of bringing the thing home as soon as they have paid for it have much to look forward to with what Amazon is trying to do. 
The sub title of the article reads, "How Amazon’s ambitious new push for same-day delivery will destroy local retail" I am wondering if there is not anything local retail can do to adapt to the Amazon strategy. A physically smaller store to be a show room rather than a retail outlet, highly personalized incentives to buy in store, an offbeat shopping experience (like WhichWich's take on selling sandwiches) come to mind.
On the Amazon end of things, does same day delivery mean, they can now take care of my grocery list - milk, fresh fruit and vegetables included ? Now, that is something a harried mom with less than stellar planning skills would love - calling in a last minute grocery list from work to be there at the door by when I come home would be quite awesome. I see an opportunity for partnerships between Amazon and local produce suppliers for something like this to work out. With Amazon's help, the sellers at our local farmer's market could now take on Walmart and such.

The other question is : would there be reason for other online retailers to make same day delivery part of their plans - and how they will entice the customer if they are not able to do that. It will likely be the choice between buying cheaper and waiting longer or a paying a little premium for same day delivery.
Finally, Amazon being successful would open up a ton of consulting opportunities in data analytics and behavioral econometrics within the retail domain. I hate resorting to cliches but just by tweaking with the delivery time, Amazon is looking to stir up all kinds of disruption in retail. But I am not sure if that is all gloom and doom for brick and mortar stores. In the best case scenario, this could trigger a virtuous cycle of innovation that truly benefits the customer - obviously those that cannot innovate fast enough will be hurt in this whole process.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Grammar

I read Grammar by Tony Hoagland many years ago and it was interesting to revisit the lines that I loved then to see how more poignance the years had added to them.
we've all tried to start a fire,
and one day maybe it will blaze up on its own.
In the meantime, she is the one today among us
most able to bear the idea of her own beauty,
and when we see it, what we do is natural:
we take our burned hands
out of our pockets,
and clap.
Back then I had appreciated the context of Maxine returning after a weekend with her boyfriend. Reading this today made me think  about some other ways a woman can be emanating the "perfume of fermenting joy". A grandmother basking in the sun with her grandkids, the loves and grand passions of her life behind her, a life well lived, many dreams fulfilled - that should smell like "fermenting joy" too.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Meander

An errant breeze veers
a little off center as two rivers
rush to join at the mouth.
They turn gently away from
where they will turn one.
The waves break against
each other, cobalt against ivory
until their fury is spent. The 
meander embraces the breeze.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Dumbest Generation

Much to late to the party but I finally got around to reading Mark Bauerlein's The Dumbest Generation. My workplace is predominantly thirty and under and Bauerlein advocates not trusting anyone in that age group - presumably their dumbness makes them a little dangerous. In my experience, the fundamental difference between "them" and the rest of us lies in how we get our information and how we process it. I don't know about them being spectacularly stupid - their ability to navigate the online world effortlessly is an asset in our line of work. I learn about nifty productivity tools and applications from them all the time. That said, my interaction tends to be fairly one dimensional so I was curious to see what Bauerlein had to say.
For a book with such a provocative topic and such a lot of good material to use for a thesis, I was amazed at how hard it is to read it. I was looking for a well thought out essay. This book makes abrupt jumps between statement, references, quotes, statistics and opinion. I tried hard to keep up with any idea I could latch on to and see it through a progression and conclusion. Sadly that just does not happen in this book. The same themes are visited over and over again, new data is trotted out to support every variation of the same theme - i.e  being constantly connected and online is has a dumbing down effect. It is almost as if the author is not confident of the position he is taking and trying to inundate us with data to convince us he is right. No argument is complete without making the case for the other side. Isn't there something to be said for information democracy or the efficiencies associated with being able to do so much online ? What about the case for the optimum level of online engagement ?

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Tranquility Emergency

Reading this Pico Iyer piece on cathedrals and their role in our lives, took me back fifteen years to the last time I had the privilege of listening to a monk discourse on the relevance of the Bhagwad Gita in our modern world - our daily lives.  A large number of devotees had gathered there that afternoon to listen to him. Having arrived there very early, I had the opportunity to sit down and enjoy the tranquility of the ashram along with a few others scattered around in the large hall. 
Iyer says of Saint Patrick's cathedral in NYC :
It was the frame that gave everything else definition. Ever since, I’ve made it my practice to step into that great thronged space whenever I return to the city, to remind myself of what is real, what is lasting, before giving myself to everything that isn’t. A chapel is the deepest silence we can absorb, unless we stay in a cloister. A chapel is where we allow ourselves to be broken open as if we were children again, trembling at home before our parents.
There is a stark pureness to the quality of that silence he describes - one that nobody wishes to desecrate. Instead you try to calm the inner turmoil of thoughts that you can now hear as noise - you wish that "deepest silence"  would magically permeate you. 

Monday, July 09, 2012

Rooting for Age

I joined DB and J this weekend to watch the Wimbledon final matches. Unlike them I don't follow tennis (or any other sport for that matter) and have no strong allegiances to teams or individuals. So when I came in midway through the women's finals, I saw it as a contest between the experience of age and the exuberance of youth. I wanted Serena Williams to win because I am able to identify more with the mellowness of age than I am with youthful exuberance - I remembered a time many years ago when I rooted for Steffi Graf against her much more seasoned opponents - the triumph of youth over age was a vicarious victory at the time, and one I was not always able to achieve in my own life. For two days in a row experience trounced all that is unstoppable and indomitable about youth. I felt sorry for both young people - defeat is never easy and youth certainly does not cushion the landing. I am not a sports fan and understand nothing of the psychology - but I wondered if people root for who they do in sports for some form of subliminal validation. That certainly explains me rooting for Williams and Federer while tearing up at Andy Murray's emotional speech.

Sunday, July 08, 2012

Tiny Island

Standing in line waiting my turn can be a very calming experience if I am not racing the clock. Such was the case this past 4th of July when we stood in line for a ride on the hot air balloon and at local park. Children were devising impromptu games everywhere along the serpentine queue. Adults milled around the crowd, chatting with friends and neighbors who were also there waiting. I took my time to people watch -  a great way to kill time when electronic devices cannot distract. The half a dozen desi families were easy to spot in this largely homogenous crowd. Most had very young children and some had visiting family from India.  They either kept to themselves or interacted with the other desi family they had come with. I am by now used to the fact that desis avoid making eye contact with another desi they have not met before. Family from India is another matter - they will happily strike up a conversation with any desi unless they are steered away from doing so. 
We seem to like living on our island with the few just like ourselves for company. I noticed that there were two young desi couples who seemed to inhabit an inland ever tinier and more isolated  (if that is even possible). It did not take too long to figure that they were 2nd generation desis. They seemed to be navigating this invisible chasm that separated them from desis like myself (and those families from back home) and the local population they grew up with. By marrying desis just like themselves they had made their allegiance known - assimilation only went so far. I would imagine having a non-desi spouse may make them part of a larger social group. They had in a sense carved out a small part of the desi island - there was no room there for anyone who had not shared their exact life experience. It was sad to watch them navigate their strollers, be the American part of themselves from within their tiny island existence. I am sure this happens across the immigrant diaspora with the 2nd generation but my vantage point is limited to the desis.