Friday, October 31, 2008

Digital PR

Great summary of the gotchas of digital PR and SEO. The one I like best is :

Embrace the social, not the drive by. Some PR agencies have been able to fully embrace these shifts at their core, and not only become successfully involved with online communities but have been instrumental at facilitating PR’s role in the various online channels such as social networking, blogs and search. These agencies are best prepared to represent brands in a win-win situation over those firms that skim social media with drive by pitching and promotion tactics and without a full understanding of the medium.

Easier said than done mainly because the medium is evolving so rapidly. The rules of the game change the minute you have it all defined. Often you are lucky to even have the same game. By when old media has finally has it figured out, the circus has usually left town. Nevertheless, this article is full of good advise.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Ambient Technology

For those of us who have been around for long enough to remember a time where information was not easy to either pull (time consuming) or have pushed( interruptive and intrusive) , it is amazing to consider both methods of information deployment (even before the push mechanism has run its course or exhausted its full potentail) are now reaching obsolensce and the new deal is ambient technology which is described thusy :

For some it's the status of their portfolio, or the health of an aging parent. Others want to know if their friends are online, the upcoming weather, the score of a game, if the fish are biting, or if there's heavy traffic on their drive home. These are examples of information that is neither worthy of interrupt (push), nor worthy of investing time (pull). This type of information should be glanceable, like a clock or barometer. We call this ambient information..

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Reading Poetry

Found this presentation that analyzes the meaning of some of very popular Seamus Heaney poems. I can't decide if I love Personal Helicon any more than I did before now that I have its underlying meaning explained and have its provenance traced back to figures from Greek Mythology. In his article Why Read Poetry ? Kenneth Lyen gets its exactly right. He says :

Poetry is a bit like music. Something draws you to it. You just enjoy it. No need to find out why it affects you. And no need to analyse it. The very act of analysis can either enhance your enjoyment or destroy it. For me, when I studied music academically, it ruined the pleasure of listening to it. The same with poetry. I don’t like to dissect my poems too much. I like to read them aloud in a relaxed state of mind, and allow their meaning to waft over me.

He goes on to list excerpts from some of his favorite poetry and I find myself nodding in agreement. Apparently, the punditry call these easy to love and appreciate pieces "pop poetry". Not unlike music or art - anything that appeals to the untrained, everyday person is generally considered infra dig.

The connoisseurs stay away from that stuff to lavish their praise and attention on more obscure and inaccessible works. However, it is the common, every day person who cares passionately about "pop" poetry, music or art that gives it is enduring quality, it is the reason the creators of these works survive the test of time. If it had been up to the experts, most of them would have never found their place in the sun.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Thoughts On Fidelity

"I never worry about things I can't affect, and with fidelity . . . that is between Barack and me, and if somebody can come between us, we didn't have much to begin with." Michelle Obama, Ebony, March 2006

That definitely offers food for thought. The impulse to stray or to seek more fulfilling companionship outside of marriage comes from a variety of sources and the provocations are as diverse as humankind itself. However, as Michelle Obama says if there is something truly substantial between two people, an outsider will not be able to create a wedge between them.

Her words were on my mind when I offered my two cents to a friend struggling to come to terms with her husband's infidelity :

If you forgive this man and take him back, it may be going down a slippery slope specially because you have young daughters and you will be their female role model. While you may think you are doing what is in their best interest, not standing up for yourself and claiming collateral damage for how you have been hurt is not the way to do it. Whatever the circumstances leading up to the definitive event where he had been unfaithful to you for the first time, a man with any real love and respect for you would have told you at once and accepted the consequences. Clearly, he has failed that test.

You are likely not feeling your strongest at this time. The road ahead with your girls and yourself is all unknown and mostly scary. You will want to cling to anything that offers hope of a return to normalcy which includes taking him back. This is therefore the worst time to make that decision. You will be negotiating out of fear and not out of strength.

Five years later after the girls are older and able to fend for themselves, when the immediacy of now has faded along with the wounds if you still feel like you must forgive him and give this marriage another shot do it by all means. That would prove that you have between you something stronger than one act of infidelity no matter how close to home. That would be a good decision - since you would have seen the worst of being alone and would be headed on a path where being single was no longer the end of the world. You would be in a position of strength then.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Scrawny Tree

Families can be complicated organisms from what I have seen from the vantage point of my own extended one. Both my parents have a number of siblings and more cousins than anyone can keep track of. The family trees are dense and highly branched. Yet all my life my immediate family has felt somewhat alone, cut off from the trunk like we were a felled log cast to the side.

For the most part it has been okay because I prefer to do my own thing and don’t necessarily crave company. But it does get difficult at times – specially when J wants to know about her cousins, uncles and aunts and highlights how little I know about any of them - also how unacquainted they are with us. I realize I have not met some of these people in ten years or more and don’t even miss them that much. I’ve been that left-behind log for so long that I have grown quite used to it. Other forms of vegetation has grown around me in the form of friends, acquaintances, neighbors and co-workers.

While I have been able to adapt myself to the environment I was thrown into, J wants what she does not have. She hungers for a large, leafy tree with spreading branches to be a part of - she needs to feel the tug of roots that go deep. J has the most idealistic views about family and I am sure getting to know mine would prove quite deflating. No one is perfect, we don’t always play for the same team, we rarely agree about anything and all branches of the tree are not equal.

Branches,twigs and leaves are falling by the wayside, the tree is shrinking rapidly. Unlike our grandparents and their parents, families are much smaller and take much longer to get started. People are zealous about their space and protecting it. J’s generation has very few siblings – all they have is second and third cousins who have never met. In time, there will not be much of the tree left except in its poor cyber substitute in Orkut and the like. We will all need to learn to get by without the shady canopy that was once taken for granted. I guess I am lucky in that I have the most experience in surviving having been among the first to have been cast off.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Innovation In India

When you title an article India is over-hyped as an innovation hub you can count on some sharp division in the opinions of the commentators. Being that people tend to agree and disagree with that assessment with equal passion, I am a little surprised that the comments did not generate into naming calling and a whole scale slanging match.

Bernard Lunn's article
on the same subject is far more informative and balanced. He makes a great point about why the kind of innovation that is happening in India is not considered to be "innovation" in the manner of Google or eBay

Today’s successful (meaning currently lucrative) innovation in India tends to be at the process and business level. These companies use technology extensively, they are technology driven and enabled, but the technology innovation is more incremental than disruptive and still uses lower cost labor as a core advantage.

He goes on to say :

Many people would not see these as innovation. They are not seen as classic “killer apps” and disruptive innovation along the lines of eBay or Google. In this view, truly great innovation should be totally independent of the cheap labor advantage or market localization.

There is no reason this type of innovation cannot come from India but also no reason that it should; the innovation spark is totally location independent today

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Bollywood Bellwether

If you think of Bollywood's portrayal of women in India as a bellwether of societal attitudes towards them, then a couple of movies are worth considering. The first is Saas Bahu Aur Sensex and the other is Welcome to Sajjanpur. In the first movie, the gossipy, saas-bahu soap addicted kitty party ladies find their groove in the Indian stock market.

Set against a backdrop of modern day India complete with call centers, housing colonies, baristas, cable networks and mall-rats, the women in the story go back and forth between the old world and new with a dexterity that is patently desi. There is no contradiction in clinging to out-moded and often discredited values of an antiquated past while rushing headlong to embrace what is new and hip.

Shyam Benegal takes this inherently desi ability to live effortlessly in dichotomy, to a whole different level with Welcome to Sajjanpur. While this is not your typical Benegal fare, it is everything you have come to expect from someone of his caliber. He takes the hyperbole and paradoxes that are organic to desi existense to the extreme degree of unrealistic with some Bollywood style flourishes thrown in for good measure. In being able to deliver on such lies the charm of the movie.

While most of the female characters in Benegal's movie are shown to be living in the dark ages of an uber-chauvinistic society, there are some pretty remarkable exceptions to the rule. The hero, a romantic, wannabe social activist and writer culls the material for his book from his experience as a the letter writer for the illiterate residents of his village.

He encounters a gamut of characters including the progressive firebrand who will be his wife, as he plies his trade - he is the tie that binds the old with the new. Only in India can people with mindsets separated by several thousand years live congenially in the same place and time. This is what makes possible the concept of these two movies.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Teaching To Eat

A large crate of ripe pomegranates caught my eye at the grocery store last evening. On both sides of the crate, tucked into sleeves were a bunch of pamphlets illustrating how to peel and eat a pomegranate.It had a child taking us through the paces presumably to cue prospective adult customers that eating fresh pomegranate does not require a PhD. Since when had humans become so dumb that they needed a how-to on peeling fruit. I thought this was a skill we had learned a while back. Maybe evolution taking us backward instead of forward.

We probably have marketing and ad agency whiz kids , who are determined to sell to us at the cost of undermining our intelligence, to thank for this. Even crows are better than us - they are able to operate vending machines, cross the road at the right traffic singal and enlist the help of pass cars to crack open nuts for them.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Impact and Inevitability

Read this article on the inevitability in storytelling and Italo Calvino. He says :

We live in an unending rainfall of images. The most powerful media transform the world into images and multiply it by means of the phantasmagoric play of mirrors. These are images 
stripped of the inner inevitability that ought to mark every image as form and as meaning, as a claim on the attention and as a source of possible meanings. 

Love the idea of the hailstorm of images and words stripped of their inner inevitability to help me understand how it is that we live in a time when there is surfeit of both and yet very little meaning that can be derived of either.

Coincidentally (and in a totally different context), read another article via Delanceyplace which posits that explanations rob events of their emotional impact.

studies show that the mere act of explaining an unpleasant event can help defang it. ... But just as explanations ameliorate the impact of unpleasant events, so too do they ameliorate the impact of pleasant events.

There is a huge element of explanation involved in the confetti of words and images that we are constantly showered with. With that both inner meaning and emotional impact is lost.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Natural Paintings

Found these extraordinary images via Mefi of faces and bodies used as canvass with natural elements to embellish and decorate. Each picture rivals the best in art and fashion of the "civilized" world. So delicately twined to nature, it is hard to separate art from real life, man-made from the natural. There is possibly no better to represent what oneness with nature is all about. What's best is these human paintings are so unusual and unique that they would be tough to enhance digitally.

While it is easy to inspired by these beautiful people and their exquisite art, it is impossible to recreate the effect in a world outsider theirs. Even little urban children with all their natural creativity still intact (a long shot given their proximity to popular culture) cannot come near close. Maybe there is no ornament quite as stunning as absolute innocence. So while the Omo Valley people and other like them who still live in and with nature will look magical, the rest of us who try to imitate them will end up being sorry caricatures.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008


If you are borderline hypochondriac then Fitbit will make sure you go the whole nine yards of obsessive compulsiveness about how your body is doing. At first the device sounds like a pedometer on steroids but considering you go to sleep with it and have it beam up data about your body, it is also an idea that can grow exponentially. Why stop at calorie counting and number of REMs per night, why not run a dialy set of diagnostic checks on everything else that's going on inside as well - after all you don't know you are supposed to worry about something that you don't know about.

I say, bring it on and lets start keeping track of the every functioning organ in our bodies and then some. Let's baseline ourself as we would have been with our "factory settings" intact and be alerted when our stats being to go awry. What is a new idea these days without a spot of social media thrown in for good measure. To wit :
You can login to the Fitbit website to see even more detailed data and also participate in collaborative fitness goals with friends, family and co-workers. Hook this puppy up to Twitter and we'll be tweeting our co-operative health and fitness.

Monday, October 20, 2008

A Good Yarn

It is generally known and accepted that everyone loves a good story specially when it told well but this article discusses the science behind our love for a good yarn. Here is how Raymond A. Mar, assistant professor of psychology at York University in Toronto defines a good story :

But the best stories—those retold through generations and translated into other languages—do more than simply present a believable picture. These tales captivate their audience, whose emotions can be inextricably tied to those of the story’s characters. Such immersion is a state psychologists call “narrative transport.”

A lot of coming of age or otherwise autobiographical stories would be appealing and memorable for reasons the professor describes. Translated to my own little world, that may have something to do with J's vociferous rejection of stories with characters she either cannot relate to or with characters who do and say things she finds unacceptable. The "narrative transport" just does not happen. The question of a "believable picture" is critical to her as well. That eliminates most fairy tales and Harry Potter like fantasies. Oddly, science fiction is quite acceptable - maybe because her generation is growing up around so much change, churn and innovation in technology. What she had not seen a couple of years ago, is now part of her daily life.

Anthropologists note that storytelling could have also persisted in human culture because it promotes social cohesion among groups and serves as a valuable method to pass on knowledge to future generations. But some psychologists are starting to believe that stories have an important effect on individuals as well—the imaginary world may serve as a proving ground for vital social skills.

This need is met by a slew of coping and survival themed books when the experience is shared like a story instead of taking the form of wisdom that is preached to the reader from on high. Might explain why I hate self-help book but like first person accounts by those who have been through a challenging life situation and come out of it better, stronger and wiser. They have valuable stories to tell - modern day parables that the rest of us can learn from.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Far Or Fast

While browsing in the public library, my mother saw this line in a book that she quoted to me on our drive home "If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together" - it is an African proverb. It is obviously a very profound thought and tells a lot about the power of communities - possibly the context in which it was referred to in the book that she had been reading. But for both of us it has a very deep and layered meaning.

My mother has lived and grown in a far from perfect marriage for the sake of the greater good, believing always in the power of time to redeem, heal and transform the most difficult life situations. What she has done is not unique in her generation. Many women have done even more and their patience and fortitude have paid rich dividends in the end. They have all gone far and gone the distance together.

I on the other hand, had no time to waste, for things to turn around, to try and make a bad marriage work out in the end. This is a generational shift, I think. Women of my generation are not as likely as our mothers to keep persevering against the odds of a difficult marriage; covering their hurt and pain like an oyster does a grain of sand into a pearl if only to blunt its edge.

I had to have my house in order right away because there was so much I wanted to do with my time and energy. I had no desire to drain it away on one man in hopes of him someday becoming who I wanted to spend my life with. I had seen my mothers' generation do it, had seen how it sapped the vital energy of these women who were willing to give up everything so they could keep the family together and I had seen them succeed.

Yet, it was not a price I was willing to pay. I did not think it was worth the sacrifice - I had to go fast and decided to go alone. As it turns out I have been able to go faster without the dead weight of a bad marriage dragging me down but I have not gone quite as far as I would have liked.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Regained Jobs

Reading this NYT article on the effect on rising oil prices on globalization made me wonder what adjustments Tom Friedman would make to his case for the flat world given this new development. While technology workers can continue to be impacted (negatively is a lot of cases) by the flattening, any line of work that requires the physical movement for goods from A to B might not. The article cites a report by the Canadian investment bank CIBC World Markets :

“The cost of moving goods, not the cost of tariffs, is the largest barrier to global trade today,” the report concluded, and as a result “has effectively offset all the trade liberalization efforts of the last three decades.”

Perhaps things will come full circle for all those jobs that got offshored because oil was cheap enough to make it worthwhile to seek out far flung destinations that afforded lower manufacturing costs. But by when the jobs do return home, the workers who once did them would have been long gone and the skills they once had grown rusty (at best) or forgotten (at worst). So you could have a made locally product that is not nearly of the quality consumers had come to expect.

But a trend toward regionalization would not necessarily benefit the United States, economists caution. Not only has it lost some of its manufacturing base and skills over the past quarter-century, and experienced a decline in consumer confidence as part of the current slowdown, but it is also far from the economies that have become the most dynamic in the world, those of Asia.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Pass And Speak One Another

I only had to write about Shakespeare and the million typing monkeys before I ran into something by way of Mefi that goes on forever and reads like the ravings of a sociopathic lunatic but every once in a while there is a flash of good reason and commonsense. It's up to the reader to have the patience to dreg through the loggorhoea and find those.

This is not the first time that someone's long personal ad which is more rant than bio has gone viral on the web . Check the classified ads section on page 14 for an illuminating contrast between a man's and a female's perspective on what each seeks and does not find. Reading the two side by side reminded me of my favorite quote by Henry Wadworth Longfellow

Ships that pass in the night and speak each other in passing;
Only a signal shown and a distant voice in the darkness;
So on the ocean of life we pass and speak one another, 13
Only a look and a voice; then darkness again and a silence.

There is a common theme that connects them. In each case, the poster seems to have had some ugly experieneces that makes it impossible for them to believe in the inherent goodness of human beings. And so, the long list of disqualifiers, the longer list of must haves and can't stands. They earnestly believe that someone who has been vetted by their demanding acceptance criteria will be not be a mistake, that they will have weeded out anyone who could hurt them in a relationship. You sense the deep seated loneliness, inabilty to trust, anxiety, desperation and yes they sound like they should be seeking an instution instead of a life partner.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Endless News

Having lived without a television in the house for over four years now, my tolerance for it is close to non-existent. There are all the usually cited reasons I don't like TV at home but reading this article on the convergence between Chinese and American economies gave me one that is very important that I had not really thought about. 24/7 news is a big part of television and I positively hate it. Now, I know why. Ted Koppel of Discovery Channel, says :

My analogy [of 24/7 news] is it's rather like standing 2 feet away from a railroad track and watching the trains go by. And, boy, you're close and it's exciting and there's a lot of energy and you really feel as though you're on top of it, but you can't for the life of you see what's going on. And if you really want to know what's going on, you've got to step back 10 feet, 20 feet, 50 feet, sometimes half a mile, so that you can see the locomotive and the caboose and everything that is in between.

I would add that I feel clobbered by the noise and the pressure of non-stop information, analysis and spin. Not to mention that fact that the volume of bad news overwhelms the good - there is something horribly negative about that. There is never the pause or peace needed to gain perspective let alone independent understanding - the experts always weigh in before you have had a chance to process information you have seen and heard. You live in fear that the opinions you come to hold might well actually those of others who enjoy the abundance of airtime to force their world view on you - often unawares.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Tween Music

A couple of J's friends were over for the afternoon recently and I got a crash course in what's cool in the music scene for tweens. The older girl is a rising 4th grader and was my censor. When her younger sister asked for me to look a certain number by Fergie on YouTube, she would point out that it would be inappropriate for J. They would back and forth on the age appropriateness of a few other songs until one could be found. The other singer they wanted was Taylor Swift. Swift apparently is more kid-friendly than Fergie. Given the kind of music, I am guessing Swift is less of a mainstreet tween favorite than Fergie is.

Needless to say, I had not been aware of the existence of either until these kids told me about them. J I am sure will be all caught up once she has her iPod and is in the mix of things swapping songs with her friends. It used to be mixed tapes in my day. Ten years ago, I lived as paying guest with a family in Kolkata. They had two kids - a seven year old girl and a ten year old boy. I remember having been introduced to Aqua, Mr President and Ricky Martin by them. Their favorite songs were Lambada, Barbie Doll, Coco Jambo and Livin' La Vi Da Loca.

I still remember the songs because of the catchy beats and of course the continuous playing of the tapes in my room - their favorite place to dance. It was reassuring to see that the standards of moral depravity have not plummeted that much as far as tween music. Barbie Doll has innuendo-laden lyrics that will probably not register with most tweens. Fergie may throw in a potty word every once in a while and even suffer a few wardrobe malfunctions while she is as it, but net-net the tween back home ten years ago was at about the same place as J and her friends are at here and now. As a bonus some of today's tweens love The Beatles thanks to the movie Across The Universe.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Ego Tripping

On the way back home after a very tiring Monday at work, I caught the tail end of an interview with poet Nikki Giovanni on NPR. She had just been asked to name her favorite poem and when she replied Ego Tripping, the interviewer requested her to read it. It was an exhilarating experience listening to her say :

I am so hip even my errors are correct
I sailed west to reach east and had to round off
the earth as I went
The hair from my head thinned and gold was laid
across three continents

I am so perfect so divine so ethereal so surreal
I cannot be comprehended except by my permission

I mean...I...can fly
like a bird in the sky...

What a perfect end to a day when my last hour long meeting of the day had been about two alpha males trying to one up each other even as they took turns being condescending towards me. While I did hold my ground to the bitter end and they did back off, the whole process took a lot out of me. Until a few minutes before Giovanni came on air with

I am so perfect so divine so ethereal so surreal
I cannot be comprehended except by my permission

I was feeling anything but divine, ethereal or surreal. The spunk and pizazz of her lines gave me the much needed boost of energy to end my day on a high note.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Beaming Up

Any desi born and raised in India would know that anything that is worth stealing (or not) can and will be stolen in India unless you take steps to prevent such theft. Small wonder then that it would be a desi company that comes up with an idea to deter cell-phone theft. Who else but a desi to could concieve such a thing. While I can't imagine that the solution they propose is hacker-safe or fool-proof, some of the reader comments on the article are pretty amazing :

yes, it’s a beta wiretapping system. The Indian government is trying to plant these phones throughout the United States, so that they can monitor your consumer behavior, then advertise you to no end. These damn sovereign wealth funds are trying to infiltrate our capital markets, our research Institutions, and the upper uschelons of government.

Some days ago one of a friend was showing us her brand new flashdrive with some ungodly number of gigs on it. A neighbor had bought it for her on his trip to China. We all looked at it with undisguised gadget lust when she joked that there may be a tracking device hidden inside it that was beaming back data from the drive back to severs in China. It would not be long before the Chinese had access to the world's data and become the lord and master of it. I thought at the time she must be off the charts paranoid to even think such a thing. I guess she is not alone.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Broken Masters

These days you can't tune in to the news without hearing about the credit crisis and all manner of pump and faucet metaphors to describe the lack of liquidity in the markets. By the time this is over clueless folks like myself will have gotten educated despite ourselves - they are really dumbing this stuff down to the third grade level so none of us are left wondering about what's going on. The editor of Seed Magazine describes what is really responsible for all this - i.e. broken trust. He concludes his article thusly :

PS. One way to think of the financial markets right now is that instead of being populated by rational agents, they're full of people with borderline personality disorder.

Is it possible perhaps the financial markets had always been full of people with full-blown personality disorders who imagine themselves to be the Masters of the Universe in the manner of the fictional Sherman McCoy ? Maybe that is exactly why things are so royally messed up.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Ghost Writing

I always thought it was okay for someone to be a ghost-writer for the money as long as they also wrote for themselves - sometimes following one's passion however doggedly just does not pay the bills. Christine Larson reports in her NYT article that ghost writing is one of the best careers of 2008. She talks about the commonly held notion about its practitioners :

Doing something people regard as art — writing — for cash, and in someone else’s voice, seems suspect in a world where we’re exhorted to pursue our passions and express our true selves.

Larson, a ghost-writer herself also tells us what such a profession is good for :

SOMETIMES, suspending your own ego isn’t such a bad thing: Compromise in the work world can bring compensation, too — beyond the kind that pays the bills. Ghostwriting has let me climb inside other people’s lives and forced me to respect choices I wouldn’t have made myself.

I’ve learned to listen more carefully, and to never, ever assume that I know how people feel. These skills improve my work when I’m writing under my own byline, too. So I’m skeptical when I hear sunny exhortations urging workaday slobs like me to chase our dreams and to forgo (or condense) the evils of the office and all its compromises.

In the end, ghost-writing does not seem that different from other kind of work. You could be at the lower-rungs of the corporate totem pole with great ideas that you present after a lot of back-breaking analysis. The higher-ups merely distill its essence and pitch the idea as their own, to the powers that be. They go on to win the kudos and promotions while you get assigned to yet another challenging assignment they could pluck when it is ripe and ready. That does not sound a lot different from ghost-writing - only a loss less rewarding professionally and financially.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Drag, Drop and Develop

The proliferation of open source software and widgets has made it very easy for the assorted non-IT folk to whip up their side of the desk applications after having struggled in vain to get time (money) and attention from their IT departments. It does not help that high-end COTS tools are so hellishly expensive that snagging a license from the corporate pool requires a business case, series of approvals and cutting through untold reams of red tape. It is not as if the average business user is chomping at the bit to indulge in a spot of geekery alongside their day job. More often than not, they are pushed to the edge of despair and desperation when they decide to take matters into their own hands. 

Used to be that beating IT at the own game was easier said than done but increasingly that is not true. With RAD and Drag and Drop tools, the barrier to entry into the world of the programming geek has dropped sharply. It can be argued that the code a tool would produce would be vastly inferior in quality (and maintainability) to what an experienced programmer could write - at least given the state of current technology.

When I first evaluated a BPM tool for a client about six years ago, my sense was that technology would mature enough at some point to make most routine programming skills redundant - a view I am glad to see is shared by some. How long it would take to achieve that state of nirvana in which someone in the business by sketching out a workflow and clicking a few buttons can have an application that realizes that workflow with real data and user interactions is hard to tell but it is definitely not impossible. 

Just like stereolithography makes it possible for anyone with an AutoCAD drawing to bring their concept of design to life and not need to take it to a factory have a prototype manufactured for them, likewise BPM in concert with RAD and D&D tools can empower the average business user who does not have the time or the money to invest in a large IT operation. 

Paralleling the example from the manufacturing industry, the non-IT user can run a proof of concept with these tools and when the solution needs implementing on a large scale they can engage the services of an IT shop. Programmers obviously have quite a different perspective on these tools and the promise they hold. This article on the future of programming and innovation discusses the impressive list of things one can do visually in the future - each of them has been a core programming discipline in the past. Patricia Seybold writes :

At NIWeek, the R&D team offered a sneak peak into the future of LabView as a system diagram cum graphical programming environment. They are adding multiple layers of abstraction, the ability to monitor and simulate process flows, the ability to see interrelationships among system components that are interacting with one another, and much, much more. One way to think of LabView in the future is as a design and simulation tool. You’ll be able to design complex systems, model and simulate complex systems, monitor and test actual physical systems, and make adjustments to them based on your real-time measurements and simulations.

And, best of all, our kids and grandkids—at least those who have had experience using LabView in the form of LEGO Mindstorms NXT or in the classroom, will already know how to design and model their worlds!

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Disruptive Learning

Learned a new phrase today - disruptive innovation and how that would impact the classrooms of the future. Here is how the article describes it :

A disruptive innovation is not a breakthrough improvement. Instead of sustaining the leading companies' place in the original market, it disrupts that trajectory by offering a product or service that actually is not as good as that which companies are already selling. Because it is not as good as the existing product or service, the customers in the original market cannot use it. Instead, the disruptive innovation extends its benefits to people who, for one reason or another, are unable to consume the original product -- so-called nonconsumers.

Disruptive innovations tend to be simpler and more affordable than existing products. This feature allows them to take root in simple, undemanding applications within a new market or arena of competition. Little by little, disruptions predictably improve. At some point, disruptive innovations become good enough to handle more complicated problems -- and then they take over and supplant the old way of doing things.

While the article focuses on the role of technology is creating such disruptions in the classroom, to "supplant the old way of doing things" but when it comes to education there can be drivers other than technology. It could be a maverick teacher who challenges the establishment and have technology enable her ability to do so. The Accelerated Reading program comes to mind as I write this. There the mix of the right intent, incentives and technology and yet the typical implementation in the classroom leaves much to be desired. Reading a Harry Potter book and taking quiz on the story could earn a kid up to 40 points depending on grade level whereas the unabridged Jules Verne novel notches up only a 20 at the same grade level.

The calibration is wrong in more ways that I care to catalog but the most glaring glitch is the fact that the Potter books have been made into movies that the average kid has watched many times over. How hard is it to wing the quiz just skimming through the book. The incentive is right but applied to the wrong thing can result in more negative than positive outcomes.

Kids will learn to cut corners to reading in this case and they will not develop an appreciation for literature that has stood the test of time. Instead of becoming prolific readers as the program doubtless aims, they would become proficient test takers with no abiding love for the literary. So no matter how disruptive a technology is put into play, in the wrong hands the results will be iffy at best and disappointing at worst.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Meat Market

My site stats often lead to interesting reads around the web and even occasional inspiration for a post. Here is something I ran into recently : Desi Dating a Meat Market in which the author writes of her challenges in finding a desi man to date (maybe marry ?)

With each guy I talked to, I felt that there was always another woman there that they would rather be taking to and spending time with. It's that whole mentality that there's always something better out there. It was hard getting a guys attention and getting them to remember me without being too aggressive.

She is describing a scene at a Netip conference but it could very well be any other place where a bunch of single desis have congregated socially. The boys have come to expect nothing short of "super-model gorgeous" when it comes to a girls they will date. Whether these liaisons will lead to marriage is a whole different question - often a question they have little interest in to begin. I suspect quite often dating does not lead to matrimony - which would explain the large number of very attractive women in the dating pool and equally generous number of regular looking women who are married.

The prospects of a desi girl who is reasonably attractive but not in the league of stunningly beautiful have the worst of all worlds when they decide they can (or must) find someone to marry by way of dating. If the desi guy is halfway presentable, can string a couple of coherent sentences together and manage to hold a decent job he won't "give her the time of day" because he has many better looking women to choose from. There are no "super-model gorgeous" desi males in the desi dating pool so the girls just can't afford to be super selective.

So the "good looking" or "fairly attractive" desi girls will not having desi boys beating a path to her doorstep to take her out on a date. Arranged marriage is a definitely an option to consider and if not, she might want to wait for an act of God to connect her to the man she was meant to spend the rest of her life with. An abiding faith in fairytales and romanctic chick-flicks goes a long way in making the wait bearable.

Now, if these gorgeous desi women are looking to get hitched, chances are that they will be disappointed too. Thanks to their looks, they will continue to be very popular and eagerly sought out in the dating pool but be considered largely unsuitable for matrimony. While they may not lack for dates, the wedding mandap may be some ways away.

There is I believe a happy medium - a desi woman who is not too abrasive but just a little pushy so she is able to wrest a desi man's attention from everyone else who is competing for it, hot enough to date but not too hot to marry and bring home to Mommy, independent enough to not turn into a clingy appendage of her husband but not his equal or better, talented enough to show off to his family and friends but not so talented that it wins her praise and accolades from the world outside. It is a delicately balanced concoction of attributes that gives a desi woman the winning edge in the meat market.

I wish I had words of wisdom for this sister but I sadly do not.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Super 30

Two words come to mind watching Chris Mitchell's film Super 30 - sadhana and samudra manthan. He traces the lives of the students who come from impoverished, rural backgrounds in Bihar but dream of making it to IIT by way of the Ramanujan School of Mathematics and then Super 30. There are many participants in the sadhana - the students from remote villages in Bihar who aspire to catapult past the limitations of their life's circumstances - birth in a backward caste family, poverty and lack of access to good education.

They believe they have what it takes to make it to the most elite institutions of learning in India and are willing to work as hard as it takes for them to get there. Then there is Anand, the math teacher who as a youngster missed the opportunity to study in Cambridge because his family was too poor to be able to afford it and his messianic efforts to bring such opportunities to the thirty most deserving students whose backgrounds are similar to his own.

To the selected thirty he offers free tuition, board and lodging as he prepares them for the all important IIT entrance exams.
Anand is not your run-of-the-mill IIT coach - instead he embodies the ancient Gurukul tradition which requires a teacher to give their very best and expect nothing in return. Through his own example, he is able to harness the talent and energy of his young, impressionable students to a single-minded focus on their goal.

The race to make it to the IITs is brutally difficult because there are far too many qualifying candidates for too few seats. As a result, the entrance tests are designed to be able to eliminate as many as possible. When a young person from the backwaters of Bihar does make it to an IIT and from there to the potential of unlimited opportunity, it is like they were reborn to a whole new life. It changes them and the communities they come from permanently - in short it is a life-changing event.

Anand has devised therefore a very difficult process to select the thirty who he is confident will be able to crack the exam. His process is akin to the Pauranic samudra mathan - through successive tests, he churns through the ocean of aspirants to select the few that will make it to the Super 30. And that is just the beginning for a long journey. While he is able to get them admission to the IITs, these students still have plenty of challenges left to overcome. They will need to compete with the privileged, English-medium educated students from IITs and "lesser" institutions for career and higher education opportunities.

The story of Super 30 is a testament to the power of determination to succeed. Both student and teacher have to survive extraordinary hardships to realize their dreams. That such an endeavor should take root and survive in Bihar, a state reputed to be one of the most law-less and violence prone in India, should gives Indians elsewhere much hope and inspiration. Anand's story is worth telling not because of its exceptional success but for the means he uses to achieve it. Chris Mitchell's is a sensitive, intimate and genuine portrait of this exceptional endeavor to use the "power of education to remake lives and communities"

The film will be showing in the HBO-SAIFF festival in New York on 23rdOctober, and then in Washington at the Indian Visions Film Festival, 23-26 November.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Smart Desi Defined

I am always eager to learn a desi bro's perspective on anything that he may deign to have one on. While I am frequently disappointed for my troubles, every once in a while, someone will say something that is will make me stop and think. Case in point is this observation by SivaKumar Nadarajah over at Sasural :

In my opinion, majority of Desi techies who work for companies in the US, could still only be classified as Poor Desis. You still haven’t reached the threshold to be called ‘Rich’, unless you own your company and make more than a half a million dollars a year. The savings you have is not sufficient for you to be called ‘Rich’ and is not enough to go back and live like a ‘king’. The moment you start your normal life in India, the reality will strike you.

But here are some exceptions. These are the ones whom I classify as ‘Smart Desis’.

There were few folks who came to the US hell bent on the decision of going back at any cost. They never bought a house in the US. Never bought a new car. Never thought about ‘exploring’ the US, never bought into the idea of ‘American way of living’, and on top of that, they never bought anything new. They did smart decisions to invest their savings in real estate in India, bought multiple properties in India, rented them and made sure they had a steady income in addition to what they would earn when they go back. Now they, of course can go back and live like ‘kings’. Not me.

He concludes his post with some serious food for thought for every desi who has (or has not) thought of returning to India :

So my point is, poor Desi techies, like me, cannot go back at this moment. Rich Desis will never go back. Smart Desis can go back, and most probably will go back. So if you are a poor Desi, who is struggling to make a decision, then the first thing you should do is to become a Smart Desi. But there is a catch. If you become super Smart, there is a possibility that you could become a Rich Desi. Rich Desis never go back. Never!

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Reading Poerty

Once each year, I have been signing up to be "mystery reader" in J's class. The teacher sends home a sign up sheet several and parents indicate several alternative dates that might work for them. After a few days, you get assigned your date and time. Performance anxiety usually strikes me the night before. I am wondering how I must conduct myself given my non-existent skills as a reader or story-teller so I can make a half-decent impression on the kids and not be a complete embarrassment to J.

You have to remember these kids are used to having best-selling authors of children's literature come do readings at school every once in a while. The illustrators among them will show them how they create the art work that goes in their books. While I imagine every mystery reading parent does not measure up to these high professional standards, not everyone is as read-aloud challenged as I am. Yet, I love the company of kids and this is by far the easiest way for me to spend some time with them. 

Each year, I find myself being just a little bit more nervous because the kids are older and wiser than they were a year ago. A few days ago, it was my turn again and I decided to read a few poems from Shel Silverstein's Where The Sidewalk Ends. It turned out to be the best book choice I have made so far. A lot of the kids had read this book and even had a few favorites. It was utterly gratifying to have them ask me to read "one more" each time I thought I was done. 

I went into J's class room full of trepidation. J eyed me a little self-consciously from the far end of the room - unlike the rest of the class that had gathered around me, she remained at some distance. By the time I had read the fourth or fifth poem, she walked over to me to help find out a poem that some of her friends were clamoring for. She was just as animated as the rest of the class.

There must be something about that happy place where poetry about growing up and humor meet that can delight any child. Fortunately, there is enough by way of substance in it to obviate the need for a great reader. I left the class knowing the kids had enjoyed their time with me - it was the perfect way to end a week marked up an assortment of adult worries and concerns.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Divine Wisdom

My friend F is has gone from being indifferent about religion (all including her own) to becoming deeply involved in hers. The transformation happened within the last couple of years. While I am not sure under what circumstances this happened, but I am only too aware of the manifestations. We don't meet socially any more because any spare time she has, she prefers to spend deepening her religious immersion.

We have not met in months but she expects me to drop everything when she is finally able to do lunch. But that is not what this is all about. I get a mail from her at around 9:15 a.m each morning that has a thought for the day borrowed from
DailyOM, a short prayer and a verse from her holy book. figure she takes some trouble to kit this thing together each day so maybe I should read it and I do try.

I am not offended to read a prayer or verse that is not from my religion but I almost view her daily religious onslaught as covert proselytism that is not a very pleasant thing to think about. Ofcourse, there are ways to deal with it. I can block her email address (which is her work address) or filter her messages out based on keywords. To do such a thing would be to reject what is most important to her and in effect reject her as well.

I still think (or at least want to think) of her as a friend. I want to be respectful towards her religious beliefs and honor the best traditions of my own. I would not be much of a Hindu if I was not able to embrace religious thoughts foreign to my own and learn something from it as well. It seems like F is challenging me each day and each day I am failing.

I usually delete her mails unread. On the rare occasions that I do read, I find myself unable to learn or accept anything. The question is then, what role is F's daily dose playing in my life and why is it bothering me to the point where I want to write about it and get it out of my system.

Recently, there was a round of lay offs in F's business unit while she was out on vacation (I did not know that she was). The mails had not been coming in each day and I was growing concerned. By the end of the week, I wrote F and asked her what was going on and why she was not sending out her mails anymore - I missed them. It turned out that she was fine and the mails were back again. I find myself appreciating them more than I ever did before.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Destination Bangalore

I was watching a documentary titled Destination Bangalore a few days ago in which the filmmaker John Kerns profiles a diverse group of people in trying to understand the social and cultural impacts of outsourcing. "It features interviews with journalists, sociologists, students, entrepreneurs, political leaders, storeowners and artists in an effort to cast a wide net in search for answers". There is a general lack of cohesion and conclusiveness to his efforts be it by design or by accident. At any rate, as a viewer you don't come away knowing too many answers. That said, there were a few interesting perspectives to be gleaned.

Historian and sociologist Ram Guha explains why an information technology driven economy is marginalizing older family members. Whereas an old farmer used to be well respected and valued in the community for a lifetime of experience in farming, the average IT workers have nothing to learn from parents and grandparents and so they are being increasingly discarded, left behind in old age homes. The wisdom of the elderly is no longer serving them or their progeny as well as it once used to.

Bijayini Satpathy, the renowned Odissi dancer associated with Nrityagram talks about how the the pursuit of the arts is suffering because the dragnet of easy money is luring a complete generation of young people towards call centers and the like. As a result, someone who has the temperament of an artist and could have accomplished a great deal if they had gone that route, is wasting their talent and energy as a call-center worker. It is as much the individual's loss to be the wrong profession as it is society's.

The young entrepreneurs and IT workers featured in the film, repeated the cliches about the optimum blend of eastern and western values and unlimited opportunity that India has to offer today. Unlike Satpathy or Guha they uniformly lacked depth of perspective to make sense of what is happening around them or the vision to see what the future might hold for them.

While it is great that the Indian youth of today is bullish about the country's and their own prospects , that they are willing and able to take risks that would have been unthinkable even one generation ago, it would be heartening to see it tempered by a few reality checks along the way. Clearly, unlike
Sramana Mitra who talks about the death of outsourcing in India they are not expecting the party to end any time soon.

The youth interviewed had precious little to offer by way of
thoughtful consideration of the many challenges in the way of leading a rich and fulfilling life while being part of a system that extracts such a steep price for material success. That should come as no surprise - after all sobriety and full-on partying don't usually go together.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Golden Silence

R (my ex) and I were very proud of the fact that unlike most couples, we never had an argument or raised our voices no matter what difference of opinion we had. Instead of screaming at each other, we would sit companionably together and talk through the issue at hand - and what a lot of talking that was ! By when we were done, the original problem would have blossomed into a rash of several others hitherto unknown ones making it fertile ground for many other such "meaningful conversations" as we would call these episodes.

So, the discussions and deliberations would continue ad nauseum until I was ready to scream if only to make this insanity stop and solve at least one thing. Needless to say, the distance between us widened at a devastating pace but we never stopped talking about the issues at hand and God knows there was no lack of them. All that talking opened up vulnerabilities in both of us that we would have been prudent not to show each other so early into the marriage.

To the bitter end, we were able to discourse on the many themes of our marital discord "intelligently" and "dispassionately". Among the many things that were or went wrong with my marriage - talking indefatigably through our troubles was by far the most significant. To that end, I can relate to the wisdom of this article which posits that you need to stay quiet to improve your marriage. I know for a fact talking does not help so maybe the silence could.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

The Bright Side

While the pundits are blaming novel and little understood financial instruments for the economy going to hell in a hand basket, Sudhir Venkatesh finds the oldest profession in the world benefiting from these hard times.This must be the silver lining to the proverbial cloud - there are several others too who are doing well too. For a more detailed consideration of the bright side of things , this article by Micheal Lewis makes for interesting reading. No matter how eager you are to be on the winning side , your chances are not too bright if you are the little guy.