Friday, February 28, 2014

Purposeless Length

So good to see Clive Thompson writing again. Collision Detection has been one of my favorite blogs to read for years and I was sorry to see him slow down almost to a stop for a couple of years. In this essay about 18th century books and smartphone screens, he talks about the mandatory 300+ page length of modern day non-fiction books. 


If you’re going to charge someone $25 for a hardcover nonfiction book and do it via industrial publishing, you have to make the customers feel they’re getting $25 worth, which means the book has to be loooooong … even if the author does not possess an argument requiring 300 pages. (Thus we find so many books that are really just magazine articles gasified to fill the container.)

I could not agree more. Maybe one in twenty five non-fiction books I read has a thesis that justifies its length. Between the blurb, introduction and conclusion, the time strapped reader can get all they need from the book. The remaining 200+ pages is the gasification Thompson is talking about. A serialized essay would be a much better way to go. Each edition would stand on it's own and the sum of them all would tell a larger story. 

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Meditation

Often on weekends, I am the first to wake up and come into the kitchen. A plan for the day starts to form as the coffee kicks in - starting out nebulous and then shaping into something real. Last Sunday, I found myself making a batch of muffins. While they baked I unloaded the dishwasher and for a good twenty minutes my mind was nearly empty. The aroma of cinnamon and nutmeg filled the kitchen, I noticed that the coffee was weak and the silence complete - no birdsong no barking dog next door. 

I don't know if this counts as mindfulness but it was deeply relaxing - putting the dishes away, cleaning the counter top and not needing to have a plan. But the feeling of stillness inside reminded me of lines from a William Blake poem that I first read in high school 
To see a world in a grain of sand 
And a Heaven in a wild flower, 
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand 
And Eternity in an hour.
Later in the morning when J woke up she was surprised by what was for breakfast. I made her happy in a small and unexpected way. Later we baked a second batch of muffins together - a relaxing time for both of us. The day may have shaped up very differently if I had not been able to get that quiet early morning time to myself, unhurried to accomplish anything particular.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Presentism

Lot of great ideas and thoughts in this article about what should we be worrying about. One that stood out for me was about presentism by Noga Arikha

I worry about the prospect of collective amnesia.
While access to information has never been so universal as it is now — thanks to the Internet — the total sum of knowledge of anything beyond the present seems to be dwindling among those people who came of age with the Internet. Anything beyond 1945, if then, is a messy, remote landscape; the centuries melt into each other in an insignificant magma. Famous names are flickers on a screen, their dates irrelevant, their epochs dusty. Everything is equalized.
This rings so true when I think about how J is learning history in school and her general awareness of the history. Everything she could possibly want to know about is just a click away. The grandeur or the significance of a historical event does not afford it any special recognition in what a search result about it may yield. There are no markers to indicate that a certain event is worth pausing and pondering over. And the present is all consuming. In the deluge of information each day generates, it is easy to forget all about the last year never mind the last century or beyond. 

Timescale is a hard concept to grasp if it is measured by or corelated to the amount of available information. The last year could easily overwhelm all of what can be searched about a century in the past. 

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Created Chance

Reading this line in an article about what we make algorithms do for us today made me think about serendipity. As one of the commentators noted the writer is referring to predictive modeling and not an alogorthirm

The leading dating sites use mathematical formulae and computations to sort their users’ profiles into pairs, and let the magic take its probabilistically predicted course.

It does not have to be that way. A good "algorithm" backed by user preferences and data can create and gamify serendipitous encounters. So boy does not need to meet girl the staged, managed and artificial way. Instead he can encounter the ideal person in the manner that he chooses and she likes as well. A host of service providers could help orchestrate this event and monetize it as they go along. A win-win for everyone. Boy bumps into girl at coffee shop, offers to re-fill her coffee, says all the things she says she'd love to hear on the first "date" and everyone goes home happy.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Walk and Write

Among my best childhood memories growing up in semi-rural India was being able to walk everywhere including school and taking the train when going on a vacation. Reading a couple of very unrelated articles took me way back in time. One is about shoes that buzz to tell you when you need to turn left or right and the other about Amrtrak offering an in-train writer's residency

Lost while walking to a new place is all too familiar for me where I grew up in India - the narrow lanes and bylanes leading to someone's house got so confusing that had to ask for directions to some place I could recognize. Not sure these shoes would so help in that scenario. Though in a more planned and organized space it would be very useful. The Amtrak residency for writers sounds great though you have to wonder if they can nurture let alone sustain it gives their financial woes. This is like asking for tiramisu for dessert when there is no money to put a basic meal on the table.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Calling A Spade

Every conversation with clients and co-workers in the last several days has involved some references to the Whatsapp deal. Mostly folks are plain puzzled. Many want to believe the math made sense and there is some grand design that they are simply failing to see. Some are trying to hard to explain why this is a good move for Facebook. Others are calling it a big mistake. Almost no one is on the fence on this one - eventually you need to pick your side. If you are in the technology business, you have to have an opinion on something of such unfathomable scale. 

For reasons I don't fully understand, the level of schadenfreude around it seems very high - across the board. Irrespective of their position people want to see this turn out to be a really bad decision for Facebook. Depending on the person, it would vindicate them for different reasons. When the news of the deal broke, the "expert" commentary had starting out being ambivalent. The Whatsapp outage within days of it appeared to have emboldened people to come out and say how they really feel. And then I read this today -  comparing this to the bursting of the dot com bubble. 

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Place to Hide

When I discovered Postsecret many years ago, I thought it was a beautiful idea - to allow people to share their secrets creatively and anonymously. The use of a postcard to do this gave it a certain timeless appeal. The demographic Whisper and Secret are targeting would have likely never heard of Postsecret but it is the same idea minus the postcard and right there they have a big problem

Kids today live in an always on and hyper connected state. In the fishbowl of social media, there is little room to hide or keep secrets. Those are basic human needs and have existed forever. The invasion on our right to privacy is making it increasingly hard to fulfil them. Unlike us, our kids do not have the choice of completely opting out of social media. Participation is hardly optional when your homework is posted on Facebook, projects are uploaded to YouTube that the group uses Hangout to collaborate on them.

It makes sense that Secret and Whisper should exist but by not adopting the Postsecret model they are fundamentally not doing what they say they are - allowing a place to share a secret anonymously - give these young people an out they so desperately need.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Retrograde Lessons

I wanted to share this piece full of gender stereotypes and political incorrectness with J but hesitate because I don't know how the message will be received. There is a lot here that cannot be taken seriously and bits that I don't agree with at all. But there are a couple of ideas that are reasonable. If the thesis was framed in a gender neutral way it would be much easier to discuss with my daughter. 

What Patton is advocating smart young ladies do is equally applicable to smart young men. They would both be well advised to seek out partners for themselves while still in college for all of the reasons she has cited. Not every man is happy to be in an intellectually non-stimulating relationship or is motivated solely by the youth and appearance of his prospective partner. It is also a very bad idea to suggest that women use sex as a form of currency to advance their agenda - marriage in this case.

There is value in young people finding a good match early and beginning their lives together sooner than later. You have a ton more energy to raise babies in your twenties than you do in your thirties and forties. It is a easier to shape, form and grow together as a couple before the single habits die hard. What seems a huge compromise later in life is an easy adjustment when you are younger. There are many valid reasons to marry early.

By making this all about women needing men to fulfill their life's purpose Patton reduces what may have otherwise been a coherent thesis to a chapter out of the The Rules book. I once knew a very bright young lady who swore by this book and got married to what would be called a great catch. So the rules worked out just as advertised. Unfortunately the marriage was not quite the fairy tale one might assume it might be when a woman's husband is Mr. Right. 

I fear Patton's myopic view of the world and half baked thesis (despite having some merit) will similarly fail to close the deal for the smart young ladies she aims to help.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Smart Digital Footprint

As a parent struggling to find balance between a child's right to freedom and privacy and their need to focus amid digital distraction, I agree that schools have a role to play in teaching effective use of the internet. The noise of social media is here to stay and our kids must be productive while drowning in it. From my experience and that of other parents I know, efforts we make at home are often viewed as stifling. We don't get the social ecosystem in which our kids live or the demands it makes on them. We preach to them an ideal and therefore unattainable state. Our credibility in minimal because we are not a product of this system - we came into it much later in life. Needless to say, our level of engagement with it is nothing like that of our kids.

I particularly like the idea that creating a smart digital footprint should be one of the goals of social media engagement for students. Instead of filtering their access to distracting and harmful content, the focus can and should be changed to how can you make the system work to your advantage. Instead of curating a series of perfect moments to tell an alternate history of your life on Instagram maybe there is a way to own the narrative in a constructive yet truthful way. I am trying to teach J to be social media savvy without being slave to its demands and can definitely use a lot of help.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Discovery

This article on the value of negative emotions makes for interesting reading. Particularly the study on people who tend to suppress thoughts

Subjects also completed a measure of their tendency to suppress thoughts. The researchers found that those who restrained their thinking more often had stronger stress responses to the cues than did those who suppressed their thoughts less frequently.

This seems consistent with my own experience. For about ten years I tried not to think about the elephant in the room - where was my life headed. It was a difficult question to answer, I controlled almost none of variables involved and most importantly to answer that question I would need to answer why I was where I was. The thin veneer of tranquility in my life would dissolve very quickly if I let myself dwell on any of that. 

I did better than suppress. I submerged every possible "negative" and "distracting" thought in the endless cycle of work. There was no empty space in the day in which to think. Every waking minute was spoken for - there was always more stuff to be done than I ever had time for. 

At some point, nature forces empty space in which you are made to think. I experienced that briefly and it was deeply unsettling. But with my escape hatch closed for the time being, I had to answer why I was where I was. Self discovery can be a lot like plowing a long untended garden over-run by weeds. It is a ways to go before you can plant your flowers.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Day Dreaming

Nice article on the need for libraries, reading and day-dreaming- the three things that were integral to my own childhood but I struggle to build into J's life in the same organic way. The public library is across the street from our home so we do go there a lot, J reads but not nearly as much as I would like. But the biggest miss by far is the day dreaming. There is too little time in the day when she is not busy and yet untethered from her electronics - the quality of time needed to indulge in daydreaming. 

I could not agree more with Gaiman on the value of reading fiction - specially for kids

Fiction has two uses. Firstly, it's a gateway drug to reading. The drive to know what happens next, to want to turn the page, the need to keep going, even if it's hard, because someone's in trouble and you have to know how it's all going to end … that's a very real drive. And it forces you to learn new words, to think new thoughts, to keep going. To discover that reading per se is pleasurable. Once you learn that, you're on the road to reading everything. And reading is key.

And Gaiman also called out the error of my ways - something I will now remedy

Do not discourage children from reading because you feel they are reading the wrong thing. Fiction you do not like is a route to other books you may prefer. And not everyone has the same taste as you.
Well-meaning adults can easily destroy a child's love of reading: stop them reading what they enjoy, or give them worthy-but-dull books that you like, the 21st-century equivalents of Victorian "improving" literature. You'll wind up with a generation convinced that reading is uncool and worse, unpleasant.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Corrosion

Nothing corrodes a relationship quite like a series of small disappointments. Each one by itself does not amount to much but the sum of the parts builds a certain force of destruction. There is the fine line between being a mind reader (which most of us are not) and being able to pick up subtle cues from the other person and act on them at the right time. A delayed apology for instance is worse than neglecting to make one at all. Requiring the aggrieved party to state their case at a painful level of detail before amends are made only serves to hurt them more. There is both the right time and the right way to course correct.

Thomas Hardy said "The sudden disappointment of a hope leaves a scar which the ultimate fulfillment of that hope never entirely removes" This is so much truer of the hopes one has from a loved one often in-articulated but with a latent expectation of fulfillment all the same. So they may do a hundred other things right but fail to fulfill that one thing much hoped for. Rationally, one would expect to let go of the disappointment and rejoice over all that was done right. It was interesting to read this article which explains why the obviously rational choice does not always get made


Usually it is assumed that people who value happiness are able to hold on to positive feelings and may be resilient, if not immune, to the negative effects of disappointing experiences. But this may not always be the case, according to the findings of a recent study. Under certain circumstances, valuing happiness may be self-defeating and result in disappointment, depending upon how people evaluate their progress toward that goal

And for those of us carrying bad relationship baggage from the past a simple disappointment can feel like a deep betrayal. A symptom I am very familiar with but did not fully understand.

They misinterpret the anxiety signals that occur with - or immediately before - feelings of disappointment. Instead of a mere signal of imminent change, the sudden rise in anxiety, though relatively minor, seems to signal disaster. The resulting surge of adrenalin amplifies the disappointment and makes it seem like trust-destroying betrayal.



Sunday, February 16, 2014

Undoing

I was up late last night not able to sleep. The moon on a thick blanket of snow outside flooded light up the windows through the blinds. Nature is in a sense unchanging. There have been many nights like this one in the past, some I was not present to see or feel and others where I was. Last night was place of quiet, silent despair that simply could not be shared. The night would pass in time and by light of day things would be different. But as lay awake, I was thinking about the power of words to wound unintentionally - last night I was the wounded. 

Yet many times in the past, I have said things without thinking consequence and have caused pain to others. The sudden drop in the temperature of a happy conversation, the look in someone's eyes that told me that I had hurt and it would stay with them for a while. Indeed they had learned something new about me at that instant that would change our relationship just a little bit. There is no undoing that with love. In fact an act of kindness might only exacerbate the damage. So how does one undo, turn time's arrow backward and past where that mistake was made.

 And for the one that was hurt, can they rinse the emotion they attached to words that were said to them - consider the words on their own merit outside a prejudiced framework. I tried that approach with the question that was causing me all this grief and realized that it even made sense to ask that question based on some history. And that was exactly the source of my pain - the words had merely opened up wounds before they had time to heal.