Friday, February 29, 2008

Backyard Glaciers

If you have a big enough backyard you and the conditions are right you could be making glaciers in it not to mention doing good things for the environment while you are at it.

BACK in the 13th century, when news of Genghis Khan and his marauding Mongol hordes reached what is now northern Pakistan, the people there came up with an unlikely means of keeping them out. According to local legend, villagers blocked the mountain passes by simply growing glaciers across them.

Whether or not these stories are true, the art of glacier growing - also known as glacial grafting - has been practiced for centuries in the mountains of the Hindu Kush and Karakorum ranges. It was developed as a way to improve water supplies to villages in valleys where glacial melt water tended to run out before the end of the growing season.

That is an interesting piece of history trivia that you never most likely never learned at school. History such as this would be so much easier to remember and love. Who cares about the date of Genghis Khan's invasion if you are have the ancient glacier-making formula down and get to know something about the magical Kalash tribe.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Copy And Paste

I've had my online profile on dating site copied and pasted by a guy and my resume "borrowed" shamelessly by someone I thought was a friend. My initial reaction was one of puzzlement, surprise and even anger - someone just stole "my" thought process and commoditized "me". Why would they want to be me when they were them ?

How can replicating a slice of my personality (as in the dating profile) or many years of my professional career help those who were distinctly different from me in both areas ? When I thought about it some more, I realized I must be commoditzable enough for them to be able to do so. I was no better than a factory manufactured widget and just as easily reproducible. In the end, no one would know the difference. That being the case, the hand-wringing is entirely pointless.

If someone is truly exceptional in their professional or personal lives, copying their profile or resume would not make any sense. Their uniqueness would be the best deterrent against plagiarism. Imagine, a small time violinist deciding to draw "inspiration" from Itzhak Perlman's resume to take his career to the next level. It would be impossible and knowing that he would not borrow. He'd seek out someone who was at a professional level that he considered attainable.

Likewise with a online dating profile, if your worldview and interests are truly exceptional, the prospective borrower would not find any useful material in it to steal from. It is the unusual turn of phrase, the quirky humor that is often the most tempting (and easiest) to lift. There are like tasty hors d'Ĺ“uvres that whet the readers appetite for the main course. It sparks enough interest to initiate contact and a first date perhaps. Unaccompanied by a satisfying repast, it will go no further than that. The main course in the real person behind the quick wit and humor - their hilarious tag-line in twenty words or less.

Maybe a good dating profile can hold its own, capture the interest of the right person even without such flourishes. It is a matter of substance over style. Genuine substance can be much more captivating than a interesting style. I figured I lacked that in both areas and as a result got plagiarized. If I want to make myself copy-safe, I need to work on what is missing in me.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Internet And Religion

Nicholas Carr begins his essay The amorality of Web 2.o with the line : From the start, the World Wide Web has been a vessel of quasi-religious longing.

He ends with the closing arguments for why amoral

Like it or not, Web 2.0, like Web 1.0, is amoral. It's a set of technologies - a machine, not a Machine - that alters the forms and economics of production and consumption. It doesn't care whether its consequences are good or bad. It doesn't care whether it brings us to a higher consciousness or a lower one. It doesn't care whether it burnishes our culture or dulls it. It doesn't care whether it leads us into a golden age or a dark one. So let's can the millenialist rhetoric and see the thing for what it is, not what we wish it would be.

This was written a few years ago and has been provoking comments to this day ! That is probably the best endorsement for Carr's case - three years is a very long time on the internet.

I don't know if I'd go as far as The Church of Google but when you try to explain to your six year old that there was a time when there was no Google and answers to all questions known to man could not be found in a dozen key strokes or less, you get the feeling that you are trying to explain absolute darkness to someone who has never seen anything but light.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Honey Trappers

The sound of "honey trapper" has a wholesome, folksy ring. You'd expect a person engaged in this line of work to be outdoors, setting quaint traps for bees as they collect honey. Nothing could be further from the truth. As it turns out, honey trapping is for those who don't mind hanging out at bars and nightclubs in the evenings to snare cheating partners and spouses. Being outdoorsy is not a required qualification and it comes recommended as a second career.

Under the vacancies section of their Web site, the detective service is on the look-out for

"confident, bubbly, outgoing men and women with an ability to think on their feet."Becoming a honey trapper demands reliability, honesty and accuracy, it says, and because most of the trapping takes place outside office hours, it can offer "an ideal second career."

This is a little different from the old fashioned detective agency checking out if someone's suspicion about their partner's fidelity is well founded. Honey trapping is a much more differentiated and personalized service. The additional incentive of engaging a honey trapper has to be the deterrent effect. Someone who has been "honey-trapped" once is likely to turn wary and mistrustful in their next encounter.

The cost of cheating opportunity becomes that much higher. It might just make more sense to revive the dying marriage or relationship instead. It is interesting how the frailties of human character create niche service industries.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Memory And Oblivion

I watched Bridge on the River Kwai twenty or more years after I had read the book. The story had made a deep impact back and I that thought (at least at the time) the impressions were indelible as well. Watching the movie, I realized how little I remembered - everything was new and unexpected once again except for one thing. The Colonel Bogey March theme was the surprise connection between the past and the present.

They use to play this among other march music during morning assembly at school. I must have heard it several hundred times in my school life and was able to recognize it at once. I had the strangest dreams in the nights following the return of the Colonel Bogey March theme in my life. A lot of them involved classmates I have not thought about in all these years. For a few days it was like having gone back in time with all the experiences from the years in between.

While so many forgotten fragments of my childhood returned to me vividly, the book and the story itself remained forgotten. It was like I had never even read it. I thought it was rather strange that the mundane should be easier to recall after such a long time than one of the best books I had read in my childhood. Maybe such are the effects of the passage of time and the unequal struggle of memory against oblivion.

lasts longer than it seems as do difficult times. The best times of my life seem to have passed in a heartbeat - the happiest memories seemed to be a distilled essence of that time rather than time itself with its many charming distractions. It is possible to remember the past differently than it had actually been. If mice can be made to forget they must fear cats, you only wonder what can be possible next.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Unbeaten Path

Your frame of reference when you try to find something often limits the range of possibilities. A simple example would be a search on Google. Lets' say I am looking for an eggplant recipe .Logically those would be the keywords I enter in my search.

I would then have results that match my query. I would most likely never know about a
travel and food blog that might have provided unconventional inspiration for an eggplant dish. It may be been unlike anything that shows up handily on a Google search. When I find do it accidentally, I realize my search criteria was not able to connect me to what I sought - infact I had no idea what I was looking for until I had actually found it.

You never know how to seek out what you don't know to look for. Sometimes serendipitous connections do happen. But more often than not, problems seek solutions along the beaten path and end up with mediocre outcomes. The idea of
Innocentive seems to make those connections happen more organically and lead seekers of innovative ideas to unusual solvers.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Underage Obamaphilia

I have a pint sized Obamaphile (or should that be Obama-bhakta – bhakta in Sanskrit means devotee - in deference to her Indian roots ?) in the household. These days, he is included in J’s morning prayers which is a honor normally reserved for things and people closest to her heart. She has been following his fortunes in the primaries for a while now and has managed suck me into it as well. Obamaphilia is quite contagious as it turns out. Thanks to my daughter, I keep an eye on CNN for the latest on Obama because J’s need for information on him is insatiable.

The latest tidbit on him can delight her as much as a Fun Dip – her very favorite candy. I figure it’s a much healthier option given her cavities. But I truly outdid myself on the night of the Wisconsin primary when I stayed up long enough to know the results so I could tell J first thing next morning. Seeing that big smile on her face when she woke up to the news of his victory made it all worthwhile.

Then came the debate in Austin. J had her evening’s schedule planned around it. Homework was done in a heartbeat and so was dinner. At 7:30 she was ready with her snack, pillows and blanket to watch the show on my laptop. For the first time in the last four years that we have not have a TV at home, she made me feel guilty it. My decision not to buy a TV after the old one broke during our move, is hurting her experience of following the first Presidential Election campaign of her life.

Obamamania has done what the combined inducements of PBS, Discovery, Cartoon Network (and I will grudingly admit Netflix) failed to do. I asked her a few days ago if the timing of the debate coincided with weekend her play date which one she would pick. “The debate of course” she replied. “Why ?” I asked incredulously. “Because it is so interesting. Play dates are all the same” she explained like it should have been self-evident to me.

And it is not only debates she likes. She has had me dig up old Obama speeches from YouTube. The man just has to talk and J is all mesmerized. She sits transfixed and watches him like she were in a hypnotic trance. So when I read op-eds about how the whole Obama movement is like a cult (Amway meets Deepak Chopra I guess) and how his rock star like charisma is comparable to the fan following enjoyed by Hannah Montana, Britney Spears and the like, I see some merit in that argument.

Like many kids her age, J used to love Hannah Montana but post-Obama she has decided “I like the songs, but it's boring when she talks. I love the way Obama talks” As improbable as it seems, in a match up between Hannah Montana and Barack Obama, the later wins hands down even with a six year old. Talk about multi-generational appeal – it does not get any better than this.

This man could make a full-blown case of Beatlemania look like a mild rash. I am really curious to know if the Senator has an ardent fan base comprised of first graders or if J is this profoundly crazy kid who got drawn into a tidal wave that was not really meant to touch her generation. I hear of other Barack supporters in her class. Apparently there is a certain amount of political awareness even among 6-7 year olds.

The neighborhood demographics being what they are, it is no surprise that McCain and Huckabee lack even name recognition among the kids. There are Hillary or Barack supporters only in Mrs. L’s classroom.. The rest don’t know and don’t care – I could easily sympathize with that sentiment. But for J, that would have described me as well. Of the Hilary supporters J commented “They don’t even know why they are supporting her. If they knew about Barack they would not”.

Now that remark brought on a huge anxiety attack – the last thing I want is for J to go off on an Obama prostelyzation spree during recess instead of playing. I am not sure if it will help but I have asked her in no uncertain terms, to stay away from making any public comments about her support for Obama and refrain from expressing any political views whatsoever. It just does not seem right for a six year old to do so -and needless to say, it automatically implicates the parent. If J talks about why she rates Obama higher than Hillary, it is most likely going to be viewed as my world view imposed on hers and even tasteless brainwashing.

I would be hard pressed to explain that it is just the other way around. I am not the Obama-bhakta in this situation and have been enlisted into a fanclub by a very determined six year old. That story would be really hard to sell. I think Obama makes a fine speech and do like the message of hope and change that he brings to the masses. The fact that he has a whole new generation of people galvanized to action in grassroots political activism is wonderful too.

Because of J, I have become much more immersed in what is going on in American politics than I would have been of my own free will. I have been apolitical for as long as I can remember; have never cast a vote in my life and will most likely never do so. Unfortunately for me, I have a child who is chomping at the bit to go listen to Obama in person and regretting that she is not old enough to cast her vote for him. Wild horses could not stop her from volunteering in his campaign if she was the right age and I am not sure how this all came to be. I was most certainly not to blame.

So we watched the debate in Texas. J feel asleep in the middle and woke up disgruntled the next morning because she had missed more than half of it. She admitted she did not understand the discussion and wanted me to explain what they were talking about. She had me play the recording on the NYT site and help her make sense of things that I never imagined I would have to discuss with a six year old.

J gives me a keen appreciation for the immensely powerful thing that the Obama juggernaut is and I hope he puts this amazing groundswell of energy to good use. I am probably too cynical to believe in messiahs or miracle workers; too pessimistic to view the war-cries of “Yes, we can” as anything more than slick electioneering. But young people believe in revolutions and sometimes their faith is borne out. It would be a terrible shame if after so much hope being held out, they are let down and disappointed. Should that happen it will bring in its wake disenchantment that may never wear off.

As for me, I can't wait for this to be over so J can go back to being the kid that loved High School Musical and waited for all week for Friday to come along so she could have a play date with Alexis. Life would return to normal – maybe in Obama-speak that would be “business-as-usual” and not the change that he exhorts everyone to be and participate in. Until then I will have to cope with J chanting “Go Obama” the best I can.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Small Innovations

On a hot summer's day, I always miss the fresh sugar cane juice that was so easily available in India. The vendors had hand cranked equipment and served the juice in a grimy looking glass that had seen better days. If they had disposable cups your concerns about hygiene were alleviated some but you stayed away from the crushed ice because the water was of unknown provenance.

You drank your tepid sugar cane juice from a flimsy plastic cup on a sweltering summer day thinking what a difference that ice could have made to your experience. So while a glass of fresh sugar cane juice is the most refreshing drink on a hot day, you did not enjoy it as much as you could have.

It warms my heart to read about Cane-o-la. This sugar cane juice maker may not qualify to be low-tech innovation but bringing just a bit of equipment and organization to bear upon something fairly mundane is not exactly hi-tech either. Whatever its place, this is just the kind of innovation that bridges the traditional and modern ways of life in India.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Quinnapoxet - Two Readings

Thus goes the third and final stanza of Stanley Kunitz's Quinnapoxet

I had nothing to say to her.
But for him who walked behind her
in his dark worsted suit,
with his face averted
as if to hide a scald,
deep in his other life,
I touched my forehead
with my swollen thumb
and spalyed my fingers out -
in deaf-mute country
the sign for father

Gregory Orr in his book Stanley Kunitz: An Introduction to the Poetry explains it as follows :

In the poem "Quinnapoxer," Kunitz takes his stand in relation to the figures of his two parents. He rejects the mother and makes a gesture of communion toward the father. For the first time, Kunitz overtly links the key image of the wound (here a "burn/scald" to the father and thus to the father's suicide.

in his dark worsted suit
with his face averted
as if to hide a scald

I am sure he is right and it also adds up in the context of the first two stanzas. But there could be another way of reading these lines in isolation from their context.

The woman could be the mother of the poet's children, the man in the dark worsted suit the new man in her life playing Daddy to kids that are not his own. The poet making a sign for father may be a way of expressing longing for fatherhood, pain of separation and an appeal even be allowed to be who he is. He has nothing to say to the woman who is no longer in his life. He does have something to ask of the man playing father but he is uncomfortable making eye contact with the real Dad.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Turning Home

It was raining when Sheila got ready to leave Vibha’s on Sunday afternoon. Vibha insisted on packing her a something to eat for dinner so she would not have to cook after reaching home. For the road there was a big sandwich, an apple and a bottle of water. “You’ve become your mother" Sheila joked as her friend fussed over her comfort just as Mrs. Shah had done when the girls were younger and hung out at Vibha’s on the weekends fuelled by an endless stream of steaming hot chai and spicy snacks. “ I guess its in the genes. I can’t seem to help myself” Vibha laughed as they hugged goodbye. “Stay in touch and I’ll see you again at the baby shower if not sooner” Sheila said ducking into the car quickly to avoid getting drenched.

She absently fiddled with the radio knob trying to tune into a station that did not play those mushy soft-rock tracks she absolutely detested. She was thinking about the two versions of Vibha’s life that she had become privy too quite unexpectedly. The frantic email that read like she was on the edge of despair, hopeless about the future and deeply concerned about her husband’s fidelity - and so the fate of their marriage.

Then there was the poised and confident sounding woman who she had spend a couple of days with . Each version was equally credible but the “reality” of Vibha probably lay somewhere in between the two. Having given up on the radio, she switched on the CD player. It was the Shafqat Ali Khan Sufi music album Jayant had given her a couple of years ago. Jayant had been her only relationship where marriage had looked like a distinct possibility.

He was five years older with a personality type that could be best described as un-Sheila. They shared a love for literature and music and very little besides that. He was the one with an MFA and a former journalist but she was the better read and politically aware of the two. Conversely, she had many years of investment banking experience given her line of work but he had a really good pulse on the stock market.

As a hobby, he bought a house on the cheap, lived in it even as he rennovated it and sold it for a profit. This was a hobby that consumed all of his spare time. He took great pride in being able to fix most things without professional help. Someday, he wanted to quit his "boring ass" day job and become a realtor full-time.

Relationships had always been an afterthought – the filler between a trip to Home Depot and finishing up the dry wall. Sheila found it easy to trust him and that made up for the lack of combustible spark in their relationship – at least to her. She did not mind being on speaker phone talking while be put up new cabinets in the kitchen or worked on the plumbing.

It was a great deal more natural than having someone like MJ calling her past midnight to “feel really close to you” – the sound of his unapologetically lustful voice gave her goosebumps. Getting off the phone an hour later left her feeling empty and vulnerable at the same time. Discussing the color of kitchen tiles with Jayant on a lazy Sunday morning made her feel safe in a way she had rarely felt with any man who had come into her life.

She had been single for more than a year when she met Jayant and yearned for closeness that he either did not sense or perhaps chose to ignore. While they were both anxious about not rushing into things their approach to “getting there” differed widely. She needed to sense the connection right away to even consider going any further. He was willing to wait for a long time to feel anything special. He would settle for pleasant without seeking spectacular.

Despite the incongruence of their expectations, they enjoyed each other’s company as two very good friends might and neither was willing to give that up. It frustrated her that they were not able to make a seamless transition from casual to meaningful conversation without feeling pressured to make some kind of serious commitment to each other that they both would feel obliged to honor against their better judgment.

Listening to the words of the Ish Kamal song, took her back to the day they were driving back to her apartment one evening and Jayant was humming along. She remembered saying to him “Remember you once said, desis smell of curry all the time. Do I do too ?” He replied “ Right now you don’t. But then you haven’t been cooking in those clothes. You smell quite nice actually”.

“You like it ?” she asked. “Yeah” he answered and returned to the song. She said something about how the same perfume or spices smelled quite different depending on the individual’s metabolism, mood and energy level. Maybe the aroma of chicken vindaloo on her skin smelt like Faubourg by Hermes. To verify her theory, Jayant smelt her coat and then her wrist. “It is very different” he agreed.

“Give me your hand” he said and smelt her wrist once more as if to confirm the difference. This time, his touch was different and she could feel his lips and nose brushing her skin. Then he let go. They chatted about the afternoon they had spent wandering about in a charming little town midway between his place and hers. It was getting dark outside and the music had stopped playing when he said “Let me smell that perfume on your wrist again”. She held it close to his face and felt the warmth of his breath on her skin. There was a certain restlessness about his touch. “It’s a beautiful smell. Very heady” he commented and he let go almost reluctantly

After dinner at her place that evening, they relaxed on her couch – she cross-legged and he with his feet propped up on the ottoman. She thought it made for a cozy domestic scene except that they sat at opposite ends. He had dated last over six months ago – maybe his need for closeness was not nearly as strong as hers she thought. Maybe this was his way of “getting there” slowly.

It was close to midnight when finally he got up to leave. After he had put his coat on he took her by surprise saying “Come give me a hug”. He held her in a warm embrace for a long time. They were both silent. Sheila asked softly “What are you thinking ?” and Jayant replied “I am thinking if I should kiss you” . She buried her face in his coat and felt his cheek resting against her head. “I should really go now, its getting late” he said as he unlocked the front door. She watched the tail lights if his car fade into the darkness before turning indoors.

The rain had stopped and twilight was gathering outside. She felt a little hungry and remembered the sandwich Vibha had packed for her. She decided to stop for gas and stretch her legs for a bit. There were a couple of text messages from Arun. One of them “Hey Sheila – You will get official word from Vaishali but keep next Saturday free for the Meet & Greet Arun do that she’s going to have around 7 ish at her place. Ciao” The other had his number for her to call back.

Back on the road, she was able to pick up a jazz station on the radio. Along with the last song on the Shafqat Ali Khan CD, thoughts of Jayant faded as well. She found herself drawing a parallel between Vibha’s two realties and her own. There was Jayant and there was MJ – two dramatically different men she had at different points in her life been in relationships with. Despite how contrary it seemed, it was true that she had cared for both and it had not felt wrong in any way. The “real” Sheila was probably the woman who had remained friends with Arun through the systole-diastole of love and loss. Maybe the reality of every person is the sum of all those parts of them that remain constant through their life’s ebb and tide.


Tuesday, February 19, 2008

American Education Abroad

Thanks to the sequence of unplanned events that were set in motion over fifteen years ago, my dream of going to graduate school still remains that - a dream. My friends don't fail to remind me that I could still do it, work on a program part-time, get a degree online and so forth. To me none of that is the real deal. I have always wanted to go back to school full-time, to be a student and nothing else and it is safe to say my time has passed.

Reading this NYT story about American universities setting up campuses abroad, I wondered what it might have been to have access to these in India when I was getting ready to go to college. Families like mine who have believe in keeping their daughters near them until they are married would have loved it. If the cost is significantly lower, it would be a huge blessing for meritorious students who lack the means to travel and live abroad.

While this is like the proverbial mountain moving to the Mahomet, you wonder what it all means in the long run ? Does a Harvard campus in Shanghai or Mumbai equal the "real" Harvard experience in Cambridge, MA ? Maybe it would the second best option after the real deal and hopefully a lot better than getting a degree online. For some reason this reminds me of a book I read some time ago - Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster

In order to maximize profits, many corporations looked for ways to cut corners: they began to use cheaper materials, outsource production to developing nations (while falsely claiming that their goods were made in Western Europe) and replace hand craftsmanship with assembly-line production. Classic goods meant to last for years gave way, increasingly, to trendy items with a short shelf life; cheaper lines (featuring lower-priced items like T-shirts and cosmetic cases) were introduced as well.

“The luxury industry has changed the way people dress,” she writes. “It has realigned our economic class system. It has changed the way we interact with others. It has become part of our social fabric. To achieve this, it has sacrificed its integrity, undermined its products, tarnished its history and hoodwinked its consumers. In order to make luxury ‘accessible,’ tycoons have stripped away all that has made it special.

“Luxury has lost its luster.”

What is true about how luxury lost its luster by way of democratization and cutting corners could easily become true about high quality education. To balance that loss, universities might come up with an uber-premium variation of their brand that is available only stateside and to a very select few.

The shops in Emirates, China, Singapore and India may end up being no better than a cheaper, mass-produced version of the real thing - much like the fashion industry. It would be interesting to see if these universities publish a caveat-emptor for the benefit of those who walk all starry eyed into their local Cornell campus in Asia and expect to come out with an education and recognition at par with their peers in the American campus.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Immortal Pets

A modern day cat blessed with a rich owner could have nine lives or more. Then the family feline can be passed down the generations. Today's Macavity could be doing much more than making a fakir stare at his defiance of gravity

He's broken every human law, he breaks the law of gravity.
His powers of levitation would make a fakir stare.

When fact and fiction get so close to each other, the cusp generation people are left to fend for themselves as far as being able to accept the new realities of their time. For those of us who did not grow up seeing cloned pets all around them, this can be a challenging transition. Some will end up taking such and other developments in stride, waiting eagerly for fact to overtake fiction. The rest will resist their understanding of the natural order being so fundamentally challenged.

Not being a sci-fi reader leaves you at obvious disadvantage as you have no idea of what to expect next.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Unreal Test

Adam Shephard's test of the American Dream is nothing like my own except for one common factor - the reassuring presence of a safety blanket. Poverty and desperation cannot be simulated neither can someone from an affluent, educated background presume to be able to think and act like those who have not had those advantages. My recent post about different consumption patterns as seen from the vantage point of a grocery store checkout line is a riff on this theme.

When I decided to leave my ex and end a marriage that was self-destructing at an alarming rate, I had plan no for the future. J was about a month old. I had quit my job and gained over thirty pounds in weight. Instead of following conventional wisdom about appropriate next steps in my situation I was determined to experiment and make the best of the mess my life had turned into. I stayed home in India with J for a year and tried to loose the stubborn thirty pounds the best I could - it was the one goal that kept me form sliding into full blown depression. I persisted in looking for work in the States at a time when wave upon wave of Indian IT professionals were returning to India after being laid off from their jobs.

I found work in Bangalore but I had not given up on my goal of getting back to the US and raising my child in an environment where my marital situation would not become a social handicap for her. The opportunity came in the form of a two week business trip. One thing followed the other and in a few months I was working in America like I had wanted to. The next step was to bring J to live with me. Like Shephard, I had the credit card equivalent in my back pocket using which would signal the end of my "project"– I would go back home. I put away all of the money I had in an account for J that could not be touched because her future depended on it.

So I was forcing myself to start from scratch, scrimping and saving so I could give J the life she deserved. My goals were more ambitious than an apartment, a car and $2500 in saving at the end of the year but the underlying framework was not a lot different from Shephard's. I had education, ability to find work, good health (by God's grace), some savings, parents who were fully able to support me and J for the rest of our lives even if I never went back to work. I was simulating starting from zero of my own free will. There were no compulsions at all.

When people commend my courage and determination, or congratulate me on making it all work out despite the odds, I am compelled to say that a lot of that is not true and the praise mostly undeserved. Trying out a challenging experiment may need an adventurous spirit, it definitely does not take a whole lot of character or grit to turn in crisis to the escape hatch which is always ready and waiting. Whenever the chips have been down, I have found solace in knowing I don't have to do anything that I am doing, it is just a choice I made and that there is always home.

The encomiums belong to people who have no options, nowhere to turn to, have sunk so low that sinking any lower is no longer possible. Even with the odds stacked that heavily against them, they are able to rise and make a success of their lives. They are the heroes and should be writing about their experiences to be inspiration for others in similarly desperate situations. People like me and Shephard are pretenders. Our experimental experiences don't count for much - most of it is untranslatable to the lives and worlds of those who need to battle unbelievable odds without the benefit of a safety blanket. To posit otherwise is an insult to them.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Awed and Bedazzled

When I became a teenager in the 80s the standards of beauty were not nearly as unattainable as they are now. There was the stuffed, padded and white-washed Bollywood star beautiful that no one seriously considered a benchmark – they were them and we were us and the twain was not meant to meet. The sari clad models on the cover of the Indian glossies (which were the only kind that were easily available at time) looked quite real.

Even so confidence in physical appearance was not easy to come by or keep for an adolescent girl. Beauty potions both home made and over the counter were extremely popular. When girls came of age, they were stacked up against cousins, friends and neighbors mainly based on their looks. There was always this one girl in everyone’s acquaintance who was considered the paragon of beauty – every one else merely a distant also-ran.

This girl was placed on a pedestal and made to believe she was destined for greatness by way of marriage to a very successful (and handsome) man. The other girls in her vicinity looked up to her in awe and admiration even as they nursed a feeble hope of landing a reasonable catch in the marriage market. Apsara-in-waiting depending on her family was also pushed to excel in academics and extra-curricular activities.

The gawkers were not match for this formidable beauty plus brains combination but they did struggle (mostly in vain) to catch up. Surprisingly enough it was not because they seriously lacked in either area. What they did not have was a healthy self-esteem. While, everyone and their grandmother was promoting and marketing the Apsara brand, there was no chorus line signing the praises of the hapless gawker . The lack of attention and appreciation fed her insecurities and she never shone as bright as she could otherwise have. She came to accept that she was plain and somewhat obtuse just as everyone else around her did. I was a gawker once.

I might have remained a gawker for life but for a few lucky things that happened to me. My mother had been a gawker in her time and had somehow managed to become the most charming and sophisticated woman I know. She said to me once “At sixteen everyone is beautiful – that is the way youth is supposed to be. Many will remain charming in their twenties as well, some to their thirties. We all owe it to nature’s bounty. To remain youthful and attractive at forty and older takes nurture, strength of character, discipline and confidence. It has nothing to do with physical appearance. Very few last that long and that’s what counts”

She taught me a woman’s beauty had the least to with her body and the most to do with her mind. That an attractive mind paired with a healthy body scores over mere physical beauty. I learned what it took to stand out in a crowd, as opposed to being just another pretty face. She would say “If you run with the herd, you will look like one of the herd. No one will remember you. Can you tell one beauty pageant contestant from the other after they have all paraded away ? They are all strikingly beautiful girls and yet very little sets them apart. To stand apart from the crowd, you have to have a mind that is able to think deeply and unconventionally. Your mind is what is reflected in your external appearance. Always think and be different. Never try to fit in. Create you own style”

My father particularly disliked a certain popular Bollywood actress and as luck would have it, she had the starring role in most movies back in the day. You could not go past a magazine cover or hoarding without seeing her blown-up images. He would say testily “Beauty is all about advertisement. If they keep telling you someone is beautiful and splash her pictures all over the place, in time she becomes the standard of beauty by which everyone else is measured. You could just as easily take any random woman, make her up like a doll, put up posters of her wherever possible and she will become the new standard of beauty. It has everything to do with a good marketing campaign and nothing to do with reality” He had seen this actress at an airport on a business trip and thought she looked “extremely ordinary”

Thanks to my parents, I learned to focus on the things that do count in the long run – physical fitness, a curious mind that is always eager to learn and developing a distinctive personal style that has nothing to do with fashion trends. The Apsara in our family still has a pretty face but that is about all she has left. The real world does not have the ever present cheerleaders that she was used to in her teens. Without the constant adulation her self worth has faded away. She was a bright girl with many talents but her drive to accomplish was only as strong as the applause she received in return – she never pursued a dream of her own. She continues to play Apsara on a stage long after the audience has left; I have been able to come out of the wings enjoy dinner, conversation and a life with them.

Teenaged girls today have to contend with far greater pressures than the garden variety Apsara of yesteryears. The standards of beauty and physical perfection are far more impossible to attain. We live in times when Tyra Banks looks like a Barbie come to life – conveying the message that being Barbie perfect is humanly possible; even so, the bar in inhumanly high for most girls. Everyone is on candid camera all the time. Both perfection and imperfection is amplified in proportion to the number of pictures they have of themselves online. My daughter at six is already conscious of her appearance and has a stated preference for “cute” clothes over functional ones. She giggles with her friends about having boobies like the big girls and is quite smitten by Hannah Montana.

I tell her what my mother told me at thirteen about thinking and being different. I tell her what I have learnt from my own experience being a gawker. My efforts have paid off in small ways – my child likes to eat healthy, will gladly wear generic clothes that I have embellished with a little embroidery and is an ever eager learner. She enjoys what makes her different from her peers. I know that I will have to reinforce the message about contentment and confidence being the real keys to beauty many times over specially during her teens. I would know I have done a good job when she is over fifty and walks into a room, heads turn to look at her instead of the much younger and “prettier” women - my mother is able to do that at close to sixty . That is a long way to have come for a gawker.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Retail Therapy

I was at Wal-Mart a few days ago waiting in the regular check-out line with a little over twenty things. It's been a very long time since I stood here - I don't usually have more than ten things in my cart. So anyways, J and I prepared ourselves for a long wait. A family of four was ahead of us. The woman had her cart filled to capacity and was cheerfully estimating the total to be in the late two hundreds. The man appeared to be her boyfriend and she was trying hard to engage him in a meaningless but "cheery" conversation. She might as well have been talking to a wall.

He was clearly not interested in what she was saying and eyed the never ending stream of items on the belt with growing concern and unmistakable irritation. In the five or ten minutes that I stood there waiting, I learnt that her son with his father for the weekend, the rest of the family was her two girls and their dad (the silent man). "Lend me a hand, Daddy" she said to him as he set yet more tins of fruit, vegetables, tuna and beans on the belt. The solitary bunch of bananas was the only fresh thing in a mountain of processed food. The total worked out to be $325 and the man paid up most grudgingly.

She continued her cheerful prattle to offset his visible glumness. The situation felt tense. Even J noticed and commented on how mad he looked when we got out. I felt sad for the woman, the kids and the man who picked up the grocery shopping tab. Earlier in the evening, a well-heeled man was ahead of me in the check-out line at the farmer's market. His shopping had included among a bunch of fresh produce - olive oil, shrimp, angel hair pasta, fresh basil, artisan bread, mozzarella cheese, a small bunch of flowers and nice bottle of wine. I would guess he was having company for dinner.

His total was over a hundred dollars and clearly it was not a big deal of money for him. I saw him drive off in a vintage Mustang and that just made sense. I have been working in the IT group of my client's marketing team and found myself thinking in terms of customer segments as I considered the contrast in how these two individuals shopped. The woman was in her early twenties, pretty and over-weight; most likely not the breadwinner of the family - she may not even be working. The man was probably late 40s, athletic, making good money and spending it far more judiciously.

Two very different consumption styles, level of income and I would guess education. I wondered if they came into the store in different frames of mind as well - the woman with the view of getting as much grocery as she could on her partner's payday and the man celebrating an happy occasion in an intimate setting - maybe that had something to do with the outcome as this article says:

The researchers concluded sadness can trigger a chain of emotions leading to extravagant tendencies. Sadness leads people to become more focused on themselves, causing the person to feel that they and their possessions are worth little. That feeling increases willingness to pay more — presumably to feel better about themselves.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Six Degrees

Nice article on the value of marketing the influentials with the aim for turning it into a viral campaign. The central theme of this argument which is in complete contradiction of Malcolm Gladwell's Tipping Point theory :

Cascades require word-of-mouth effects, so you need to build a six-degrees effect into an ad campaign; but since you can never know which person is going to spark the fire, you should aim the ad at as broad a market as possible--and not waste money chasing "important" people.

No wonder Time magazine named "You" person of the year.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008


I was reading this SciAm article on the complex causes of weight gain and then read about Col-Pop which is possibly the most non-complex way to gain it and gain it fast. This could be a great idea to extend to lunch boxes for school going kids. I'm already thinking lassi in the drink section and kichdi in the food.

A snap on condiment jar (as one commentator suggests) for a dash of achar and you have a full Indian meal on the go. Now if hot can stay hot and cold at least cool this would be the killer app in the lunch box space - even better than the Bento Box which I have eyed with great longing upto now. I hope the South Koreans take this wonderful innovation to the next level.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Driving The Bus

Beginning an RFP process driven purely by business requirements is like being in the market for a new car knowing no more about what you are looking for beyond “I want a new car”. You could be car-shopping for a very long time and be deeply disillusioned by your purchase when you do end up making it (if ever)

Doing functional requirements is like specifying the features you want in this imaginary car. It will pare down the list of options some but chances are most automakers provide the same set of standard equipment give or take a few in the same price range. So you are down from 10,000 to about a 100 possible options.

It’s still too large a pool to make an intelligent and timely purchase decision. Analogously, you float the RFP out with "implementation agnostic" business requirements, get a bunch of bids with every vendor claiming to be the very silver bullet your organization seeks. You spend hours stacking them every which way to make sense of what you are dealing with, do feature to feature compares, cost to feature ratios and other equally mind numbing exercises but come no closer to conclusion.

You bring them (product vendors) in to test drive what they have to offer. While the pres-sales techs are busy pulping your brains with information overload, the smooth talking sales types are schmoozing with your business partner who by the way will be writing the check. So bang in the middle of this product/vendor evaluation hell, your customer walks over and solemnizes a shotgun wedding that hooks the screaming and protesting IT crew up with a vendor they(the business) think is the best fit for their needs.

It would be too simplistic to blame the business for doing what they so routinely do. Needless to say these coerced unions are generally expensive and very short-lived. Soon we are all back shopping for “a new car”. If only people would bring their car shopping lessons to bear upon the technology business. Back in the Web –3.0 days it behooved the geeks to keep the innards the technology under wraps from the business customers and get to understand what they wanted done. It was just not realistic to bring them up to speed on such arcana as the best CORBA implementation in the market.

Once their need was known (like it is even possible) the IT team would retire to the dungeons, scheme and plot with uber-geek types who never meet the customer because there was not a language that both sides understood. At the end of all this IT would come up with a summary of implementation options. It was a long drawn out and painful process.

Business grew impatient (and who can blame them), changed their minds many times over and finally there was the aforementioned shotgun wedding. This is an antiquated engagement model that is completely unsuited for today's world. We live in the time of Web 2.0 where it is finally possible to let the non-geeks drive the bus to wherever it is they want to go.

The role of IT can be limited to making the ride comfortable and carry them over the speed bumps smoothly. To extend the car shopping analogy, get them excited about the possibilities that exist out there, be the subject matter expert who can weigh in authoritatively on why a Volvo may meet their needs better than a BMW, be their concierge but don’t tell them you will come back in a couple of months to let them know where they could go shop and charge them several hundred grand in consulting hours to do so. That is an insult to their intelligence.

Unfortunately this is just the kind of behavior I have seen repeated in most of my consulting engagements. I get all fired up about this marketing director who is very tech-savvy and can articulate his needs to the point where in the car shopping analogy he has said described the Mazda Miata he wants in the level of detail of an used car ad. It makes my job really simple and I love that. Now that I know my customer I could present an option that is just as compelling only far more scalable for a little bit extra. It could be an easy sell and the geeks would be chortling in glee at the opportunity to cut their teeth on sexy technology.

A win-win you might think but not really. My management does not share my enthusiasm for this technology-aware business partner. They impress upon me the importance of clear delineation of roles and responsibilities. "They" (the business) are in the problem space and all they need to do is define it. "We" (IT) are in the solution space and must figure out what will work best for them.

The way I look at it, the more responsibilities are shared without undermining final accountability the better it is for everyone immediately involved as well as the organization. One plus that comes to mind right away is you no longer have visions of being skewered like kebab when you see an invite to a "Stakeholder Review" in your inbox.

You(IT) and your business customer play different roles at different times of the project cycle with the common goal of getting to a stable, scalable cost effective solution. Not that I am a big fan of Microsoft, but I can’t wait for Popfly like products to invade every domain of enterprise technology – this has been long overdue. It's about time we let the owner drive their own car instead of being chauffeured to where they never asked to go in the first place.

Monday, February 11, 2008

At Vibha's

The house was was dark except for the living room. Sheila could see a flickering television screen through the window. Vibha answered the door right away. "Come in" she said as if they had met last only a week ago. It was a tastefully furnished home without any ostentation. The smell of spices wafted in from the kitchen. Setting the cake on the dining table, Sheila followed Vibha into the kitchen "Smells lovely. What are you cooking ?" she asked. "Nothing much. It's chicken dhansak and rice"

She was on her third glass of wine while Vibha sipped her OJ. "So why did this guy keep calling you if you wouldn't answer the phone ?" Vibha asked puzzled. Sheila was recounting her recent experience involving a man in his late fifties who had once interviewed her on the phone. She had not accepted the job, but the man kept calling her from a private number and never left a message.

The first couple of times she had answered but then she stopped. He called as early as 6:00 a.m. and as late ten in the night. Every once in a while he would email her to say Hi and want to set up time to chat. In exasperation, Sheila asked him to call her one evening just to see what he wanted.

The man just wanted to talk because he found her so engaging. Would she mind chatting with him every once in a while ? He wanted to discuss politics, art, culture, business and music. He was a wonderful conversationalist and a very attentive listener. Sheila did not dislike talking with him but wondered why she must indulge this married man with two college going kids ? He was willing to help and advise her about anything he was able to - investing, buying a home, car stuff and the like. "Talking to you is like talking to a very good friend from the past who you have not met in a long time" he would say to her.

"And what is wrong with that, Shell ? Sounds perfectly innocent to me. Just a lonely middle aged guy needing a friend to talk to sometimes. It's not like he asked to sleep with you. Maybe he was just a tad infatuated but he does sound quite harmless" Vibha asked curiously.

"He made me feel like an entertainer at best like an escort at worst - maybe it was something in between but quite distasteful all the same. Yes, he did not want anything inappropriate but he was demanding that I make time for him in my life just because he wanted it. I never said that I wanted to get to know him socially. You are married Vibs, you can tell what it might be like to be in his wife's shoes. Would you like it if Gaurav was desperate to befriend a woman even if platonically ? You know like out of the blue after interviewing her for a job on the phone which she does not take. Wouldn't you want to know why ? " Sheila asked

Vibha smiled softly "I think I would know what that felt like. Gaurav loves female company but he is not really interested in sleeping around - that would be much too complicated for him. He'd find you very interesting and I won't be surprised at all if he called you sometimes just to say hello and chat for a bit - just like this older man" she said

"Would you expect him to tell you about it ?" Sheila asked

" I could but I don't think it would be useful. In a marriage you need to let the other party let you into their space at their pace and in their style. There will be parts of his life that I won't know about and I suppose its the other way around. For instance, I would not tell him about the mail I sent you. So its only fair that he does not tell him when he called Ramya while driving back home and chatted with her for a whole hour. I could be a petulant wife and ask questions but would it change anything ?" Vibha replied as she got up to serve dinner.

"Are you comfortable being in a marriage where you have parts of yourself blocked out from each other ? Does that not build a wall between the two if you ?" Sheila asked.

"I have found it more useful to become aware of what I do not know about Gaurav than to ferret out what he chooses not to share. It helps me keep my dignity. I also understand what his needs are and if I can fulfill any of them. Ramya for instance is the girl he went to college with. She is a professional dancer now and travels around the world with her troupe. Gaurav and her may have been in a relationship briefly but she's been through many men since then. I've met her a few times. She visited us here for a few days. I've just walked away from their conversations and found something else to do. Gaurav thought I was rude and I told him I don't find her interesting enough to spend a whole weekend with. Since he does, he should keep her company. But I was an excellent hostess. I made sure I took very good care of her while she was here. I made sure she felt welome to come back. She may be here next month" Vibha said as she refilled Sheila's glass of water.

"You mean you made sure neither of them assumed you were jealous" Sheila asked

"You could say that. I guess the key is to rise above the situation. It may start with trying to prove to your partner that you do not feel threatened but in time you should truly grow indifferent. The feeling of security does not come magically. I've had to work hard on myself to get there. I don't mean this in a way that you are no longer interested in the marriage but that you have tuned out all the external noise. Take another helping of the raita" Vibha said

"So how has it worked out ? The dhansak is phenomenal by the way. Give me the recipe before I leave" Sheila said

" Thanks. It's my grandmother's recipe. I don't know how to answer that honestly. I think Gaurav and I are at very different places as far as what we have learned from life. I know for a fact he does not share my world view on the things we've been talking about - he would not know to look for what parts of my life are not visible to him. Instead he will react with anger and resentment when he finds out by accident" Vibha said

" Vibs, you are wise beyond your years. I don't blame him for not being there yet - maybe he'll catch up in time" Sheila said with a laugh.

"One lives in hope. Hey, its time for the Black Forest" she said with a wan smile

"And what happens if he never really makes it ? How long will you wait for him to catch up ?" Sheila asked

"Only time can tell. Making a marriage truly work demands the patience of Job. Otherwise it is quickly reduced to a meangingless co-existense. Some will just carry on just out of inertia, others will get restless and walk away. Its best if both have a lot of patience but it is mandatory for at least one of the two to have it. Its too early to tell which if either of us is Job. Umm.. the cake is delicious. Thanks so much for bringing it !" Vibha replied.



Sunday, February 10, 2008

Vocal Terror

This article on "vocal terror" reads like a despatch from the "Ministry of Fear". Should this ever come to pass we would need to rethink our notion of trust. You hear the voice of a loved one on the phone and can't be sure its really them until they answer the security question correctly.

Yet long after conversations have been hi-jacked by rouge technology, we might have our music left to keep unspolit. So on a bad day, when we are not sure if that soothing voice on the phone is our grandmother's or some hacker's clever attempt to con us, we can still rely on the Radetzky March to lift our spirits, or Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto to bring life back to your broken leg.

Saturday, February 09, 2008


If one replaces Rome with America in this line from Robert Wright's Nonzero, history seems to have fast forwared to the present :

When a civilization such as Rome dominates its neighbors, it typically possesses some sort of cultural edge: better weapons, say, or better economic organization. Yet this dominance is hard to maintain precisely because these valuable memes [ideas] tend naturally to spread beyond its borders, empowering its rivals

Except for the conventional weapons, the neigbors across the pond must not find it too hard to catch up with everything that made America the formidable forerunner. If history is any indicator, the fall of America from its position of preeminence may not deal a deathly blow to progress in the rest of the world. Wright says :

No one [world] culture is in charge, so no one culture controls the memes (though some try in vain). This decentralization makes epic social setbacks of reliably limited duration; the system is 'fault-tolerant' as computer engineers say. While Europe fell into its slough of despond, Byzantium and southern China stayed standing, India had ups and downs, and the newborn Islamic civilization flourished.

These cultures performed two key services: inventing neat new things that would eventually spread to Europe (the spinning wheel probably arose somewhere in the Orient); and conserving useful old things that were now scarce in Europe (the astrolabe, a Greek invention, came to Europe via Islam, as did [navigational] astronomy.) To an observer in Italy or France in AD 650, it might have seemed as if there was a ... 'total system failure'-but from a global perspective, there was no cause for alarm.

This seems to be the case for socio-cultural de-coupling theory

Friday, February 08, 2008

A Nostalgist's Map of America

The best poetry is like looking through a kaleidoscope. The world always looks different through and each time is a delightful surprise. I love these lines by Agha Shahid Ali because I can read and savor them so many ways. This could be about love, friendship, nostalgia, illness or death depending on what I want it to be and mean to me.

I love the way the words flow like they we were a stream coursing gently over smooth, shiny rocks with metaphors glinting like specks of sunlight. I could pick a handful from anywhere and it would be the same clear water. The images conjured up by the "disguised climate of Southern California", "rain from distance drenched arms" or "the eavesdropping willows" commingle as rain drops do when falling upon a river.

A Nostalgist's Map of America

by Agha Shahid Ali

I kept speaking to you
after I hung up, my voice the quickest
mail, a cracked disc with many endings,

each false: One: "I live in Evanescence
(I had to build it, for America
was without one). All is safe here with me.
come to my street, disguised in the climate

of Southern California. Surprise
me when I open the door. Unload skies
of rain from distance drenched arms." Or this:
"Here in Evanescence (which I found - though

not in Pennsylvania - after I last
wrote), the eavesdropping willows write brief notes
on grass, then hide them in shadows of trunks.
I'd love to see you. Come as you are."

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Automatic 2nd Date

With retail excesses of Valentine's Day all around, it is the perfect time to do a plug for a book which focuses on the 2nd date. Anyone who has been out on a string of first dates and had nothing follow thereafter will appreciate the emphasis on the second. So without further ado, over to Victorya Rogers on her book The Automatic 2nd Date

Dating for any single woman involves plenty anxiety. Dating as a single mom takes the anxiety to a whole other level. After all you can’t just freely run out and date anyone, anywhere or anytime you want because you have precious children at home depending on you. And you have to REALLY pay attention to WHO your date is because your children’s lives will be equally affected by your choice in a new mate.

So what are you to do? Here are some dating tips for single moms, as well as for any single woman looking for your next great date who just turn out to be your ideal mate. I hope these tips from my latest book THE AUTOMATIC 2nd DATE help take the nerves out of being back the dating circuit.

Victorya Michaels Rogers, Author, Dating Coach

I had a couple of questions for her :

Q: Your new book offers a unique dating approach. Why focus so much on getting a 2nd date?
VICTORYA: If you can’t get past the first date, you won’t be booking a honeymoon anytime soon. The sad thing is ladies who would really be great catches are just blowing it and scaring their dates away by making silly, careless mistakes on their first dates—like talking too much, obsessing on exes, talking about marriage, calling the guy before or after the first date. If they just tweak a few of their dating behaviors, they can transform their dating life without changing who they are! If these secrets become a habit, you can stop stressing about first dates and focus on your man and deciding if HE is the great catch and worth your time. When you do that, 2nd dates become automatic.

Q: You say every woman has an internal “Male GPS.” What is it and how do you use it?
VICTORYA: Available men are everywhere -- at the drive-thru, at work, at school, at church, at restaurants, at the mall, the gas station, sporting events, etc. You just have to know what you’re looking for and believe he exists. The Male GPS –male global positioning satellite—is in your mind. Your mind is an extremely powerful instrument that is always working and wants to be right!

When you think about something enough, amazingly it seems to begin appearing everywhere you go. Let’s talk cars as an example. If you want that new blue Honda SUV, of course you believe it exists and it’s on your mind so it suddenly stands out every time one drives by. Just like thinking of your next car, think about what kind of guy you want.

The key to finding your next 1st date begins with your mind. You can instantly turn on your internal MALE GPS by figuring out specifically what you’re looking for in a guy, visualizing a man with those traits and believing he exists.

Q. Do you have a website or blog with any of these tips for our audience to check out?
VICTORYA: Yes, my website has a lot of additional tips and advice for single moms! Check it out-- it’s You can also order my books learn about my coaching program. I hope I have encouraged you and helped you see that dating does NOT have to be overwhelming, scary and stressful.

In fact, believe it or not, you can actually enjoy the process if you take the time to find out what you REALLY want in a man, sharpen your dating skills and protect your little ones hearts by NOT introducing them to dates until you KNOW this is a serious, potentially permanent relationship. There is so much information I’d love to impart to you to make dating less anxiety filled, so feel free to visit my site anytime and/or check out my books Finding a Man Worth Keeping and The Automatic 2nd Date.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Dropping Fractions

Interesting news story on why fractions along with long division are obsolete and don't need to be taught in schools. Decimals are very cool and more state of the art the good professor argues but I can't imagine a child slicing their birthday cake into .833 portions.

So much easier to say 1/12 and have it visualized and understood. It makes more sense to start with a fraction so the kid gets the idea and then convert it to a decimal and explain how the two are the same. Adding a 12.5 and 3.2 is mechanical but understanding those numbers as a whole plus a part is what really counts conceptually. Once the concerpt is understood, doing the math mentally, by hand on paper or using a calculator becomes a matter of preference. Someone old school like myself would pick mental math as far as possible.

Penn State mathematician Andrews says he believes DeTurck's ideas will "unfortunately" gain traction because of the misguided belief that math education can somehow be made easy:
"Math is hard. The idea that somehow we're going to make math just fun is just a dream."

I could not agree more. There is a happy medium between presenting math as a difficult subject and turning it into drone work delinked from conceptual understanding. If a teacher finds explaining fractions too challenging, it is time to stop teaching and learn how to make it easy for a child to grasp.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Frustrated Swearing

My former client W came to mind when I read this report on how swearing at work boost team spirit and morale. We were a group of six who frequently collocated for several hours everyday in a big conference room. W joined us when she could and swore like a sailor as the drama of the day unfolded. When the team was new, most of us chucked along hesitantly at her colorful language. After a while, she found a comprador in K who speciailized in double entendres.

The stress levels were extremely high and I have to admit because of the two potty-mouths the atmosphere grew much more convivial, we relaxed and at times laughed until our sides hurt. Shit continued to flow downwards, management made absurd decisions that reduced us to a hobbling pace from a bracing spirnt that we had managed to achieve with a great deal difficulty. We all hated Monday mornings with a passion. K constantly dreamt of "calling in rich" after winning the lottery.

The quality of our worklife never improved but our feelings of victimness and slow cooking in a pressure cooker eased a good deal because of W's endless stream of swear words and K's dangerously off color jokes. While it was a great stress buster for the non-participants among us, I am not sure how much it helped either W or K.

Monday, February 04, 2008


I watched Sybil a few days ago and the shocked numbness is yet to wear off. Sally Field's performance is stunning to the point where it she is Sybil to the viewer and not just playing her character. Some of the scenes are so painful to watch that I just closed my eyes and muted the sound until enough time had passed.

Whatever the truth of the story, it makes you ponder about multiple personality disorder. In Sybil's case it was apparently her way of coping with horrific sexual abuse she had been subjected to as a child with her mother being her perpetrator. The mangitude of the disorder was proportional to the intensity of her suffering but doesn't everyone have several personalities to a certain extent ?

The cheating partner has one face as a spouse and a parent at home. They may be someone totally different with their lover. Both of these personas would have little in common with who they are at the workplace. Don't we find ourselves suprised at times by the behavior of someone we thought we knew very well - something they do just does not fit the pattern ?

The two-faced mother-in-law whose behavior with her daughter-in-law changes like day and night depending on whether her son is present or not, the unpopular kid in school who is famous on MySpace - their avatar accquires all the characteristics of the person they are not in "real" life - are examples among many others.

Normal people go about their lives slipping in and out of the different roles they play in the world but never think they need to go into therapy to have the different personalities that support these roles to be reconciled into one. Maybe it is all an order of magnitude thing and a fine line seperates order from disorder.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Staying Dry

Somethings are best when not wet - like a toothbrush, a park bench or a bunch of herbs. Things that we can and have done without but would be nice to have - the kind of innovative conviniences that are easy to get used to. Then there is this brilliantly designed website that makes you consider the store's garden variety of appliances in a whole new light.

Back in the day when I was a programmer, I would have given an arm and leg to be on the tech team that made this possible. The closest I got to doing anything "cool" was to be a junior developer on a game development team with an anal rententive technical lead. I never had what it took to reach his exacting standards but thanks to him, I cringe at the sight of inelegant code to this day and can recognize a job well done when I see it. I guess he managed to teach me art appreciation even if he failed to make an artist out me.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Toilet Manners

Recently during happy hour one of my co-workers was wondering about the proper etiquette when you are in a bathroom stall ready to flush and the party across the wall is engaged in what appears to be a very meaningful cell phone conversation. Do you flush the toilet and give away the whereabouts of your neighbor or wait until they are done ?

The question weighing on his mind was what conversation was so important that it could not wait until after taking a leak. Naturally, this lead to talk about how long to wait and what if inappropriate sounds were emanated and heard by the party on the other side of the phone. Would it not be embarrassing for the party with bowel movement challenges to have their plight broadcast via cell phone ? Did people no longer have a right to some measure of privacy in a public restroom as they answered nature’s call ?

Such are the conundrums of the modern world. Time was when you retired to a secluded spot in the woods to do your business undisturbed by man or beast (hopefully). This conversation reminded me of my roommates in college. We shared a room and a bathroom in our junior year. She always turned deathly silent once she got in the toilet.

She refused to respond to urgent queries like "Where did you keep the iron ?" or "Have you seen my physics notes ?" even if you pounded desperately on the bathroom door to get her attention. Over time I realized that she was serious about silence while in the toilet - it was almost like she had never been there or did not have body functions like the rest of us. You never heard the flush less other sounds associated with such functions. She drowned them all by turning a tap on at full force to fill an empty bucket. When she came out she had also had a bath and was smelling of Dreamflower talc.

I had to wonder how someone like her would cope with the many outrages of etiquette in public restrooms. As for my co-worker I suggested that he send his query to Miss Manners - surely he was not alone in his public restroom dilemna.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Happy Deja Vu

While it may have been a serendiptious discovery, deep brain stimulation to revive memories could be the most beautiful gift one could have. Imagine going into to a spa and having the best moments of your life recalled in their original splendor for a whole hour. With some effort it may also be possible to kill the memories you've struggled to forget but have never been able to.

I was watching Prozac Nation a few days ago and the protagonist Elizabeth says “Seems like everyone’s doctor is dealing this stuff now. Sometimes it feels like we’re all living in a Prozac nation… the United States of Depression.”

Her resistance towards her therapist and disdain for therapy itself is perfectly understandable - she is way too smart to need being analyzed or being told what is wrong with her. Her doctor does not have anything new to tell or teach her - she is only empowered to prescribe Prozac to provide her the "breathing space" she will need while she resolves her problems on her own. The promise of deep brain stimulation seems far less onerous, a better crutch to lean on to make the much needed breathing space.