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Showing posts from June, 2009

Tracing Roots

The idea of tracing back one's ancestors to 60,000 years ago is a fascinating one. This is a research in progress at National Geographic. To participate the first step involves purchasing a kit that allows the participant to send back a check swab for DNA analysis. Your anonymity is guaranteed. The success of the project clearly depends on the size and diversity of the database and it seems with a kit priced at $100 + that may be the biggest obstacle on the way to success.

In the exhaustive list of FAQs, I did not find one that asks how this project could be viable if the only way to get data were to be people willing and able to spend $100 to trace their ancestry. I would imagine there is large amounts of existing data - collected at low or no cost to the participant.

Now that it exists, this the monetization opportunity by appealing to the curiosity of the those who don't mind paying as much as they would need to in order to satiate it. This is a lot like paying for a seat o…

Shouting Fire

HBO's Shouting Fire is a collection of stories about Free Speech under attack in America held together by the narrative of Martin Garbus, the film-maker's father who is also a First Amendment attorney. One of the most powerful moments in the film comes when Garbusexplains that the protecting people's freedom of speech requires protecting that of those who hate you and can potentially cause you harm. It drives home the point about true freedom being absolute rather than relative - the only kind of that is worth fighting for.

The stories come from across the political spectrum which proves that voices of dissent are not safe no matter what side of the ideological divide they come from. There is Lebanese-American Debbie Almontaser who is attacked because of a convoluted association some people found between her and an offensive tee shirt, a young man named Chase Harper who is suspended from his high school because he wore a tee shirt proclaiming homosexuality to be shameful.In…

A Poem By Eeva Kipli

Read a beautiful, short poem by Finnish poet Eeva Kipli :

When sorrow fades
Come the memories,
And each of them
Hurts uniquely.

I wonder what comes at the cusp of fading sorrow and the rising swell of memories. I know I have felt strangely numb, it feels as if time is tied by a tourniquet. You seek respite and want it to loosen - for things to start flowing once more. Then after memories have been relieved in full-color, they recede too. Finally, there comes a time when there is room left behind by departed sorrow and memory - a place of stark emptiness that nothing seems to fill.

Talent And Effort

If what I have seen within my own extended family is part of a broader trend, I would agree completely with the author of the book Talent Is Overrated. I have quite a few relatives with quirky, sometimes eccentric personalities and one or more serious talents. Almost all of them were too lazy or complacent to apply themselves, put the hard-work necessary to achieve anything remarkable from those natural gifts. Most if not all of them were openly disdainful of those of us who were not nearly as brilliant but persevered to achieve whatever it was we wanted to. It was as if hard-work was the exclusive domain of the dim-witted and we were wearing our badge of feeble-mindedness by being so hard-working.

As it turns out, the more "average" of the lot who put in the relentless hours of "deliberate practice" the author refers to, ended up faring better than the extremely talented. That said, I am big believer in the virtue of hard-work. While one cannot control the amount o…

For The Kids

Reading about this scientific study that proves that staying married for the sake of the kids does not always result in the desired outcome for the children, is vindication for parents who have decided to go solo. Several years ago when my marriage turned into this cesspool of anger, conflict and bitterness, leaving with J seemed like the best option. We have had more than our fair share of challenges as direct consequence of that decision but J has not lacked peace and quiet in the house.

In high conflict households, children go about their lives with a sense of rudderlessness. They have no one to take direction from or look up to, no one who is always emotionally available to address their problems. Some marriages take a lot of work to keep them viable - when spouses need to invest disproportionately into their relationship, their ability to attend to the needs of the children suffers. Single parent households have no such distractions and this often works out to the child's adva…

Love Potion

Interesting experiment on the science and chemistry of love - in which a man takes an MRI to check if and how he loves his wife. The author who becomes guinea pig for scientists working in the field, asks readers to consider some implications of this research:

If love is simply chemicals, doesn't that change its meaning? And how soon before we create a scientifically valid love potion? (Already under study, by the way.) What about a love vaccine to help us from falling for the wrong person? And if you have to rely on chemical enhancements, do you get an asterisk next to your name in the book of love, like Barry Bonds?

All of that sounds straight out of science fiction though it could not hurt to be inoculated against falling in love with the wrong person - what a lot of time, energy and emotions saved and spared that would be ! According to the article, the odds are already stacked against us by nature - In a cruel twist of bioengineering, the romantic craving actually gets more in…

Interesting Times

Nice article on the the future of educational institutes as the hub of scientific research and technology innovation. The author points out :

While there are advanced capabilities that remain available only on campus, that boundary is rapidly receding. This moment is akin to the turn of the last century, when philanthropists funded the spread of libraries to provide community access to the kinds of collections that had previously been available only to institutions and wealthy individuals. Fab labs are like libraries for a new kind of literacy, the reading and writing of objects rather than books. Instead of building a few big labs, it’s now possible to build a network of many more-accessible smaller labs that can be used for technical empowerment, training, incubation, and invention.
That is nothing short of fascinating. Today's children would probably have access to such labs by when they are adults. Besides the mind-boggling array possibilities that opens up for them, there is al…

Love And Intellect

Thanks to a power-outage, I had watched about a fourth of Hitchcock's Spellbound in my teens before the screen went dark. They were showing the movie on television. I had meant to check out the rest of it at some point and it happened a few weeks ago when I came upon a copy at the public library. It has been nearly that long since I read some of the writings of Freud. My general recollection of the experience is comparable to the kind that reading Kafka's Metamorphosis left in it's wake. Visceral but not particularly pleasant.

As much as I admire Kafka as a writer, I find it very hard to read his writing because of its profoundly depressing quality. I pretty much never returned to Freud after the initial encounter. One quote by the character of Dr Brulov, a psychoanalyst in Spellbound "We both know that the mind of a woman in love is operating on the lowest level of intellect" got my attention. I don't know how a man's brain operates when he is in love,…

Book Scanning

It's no big news that Google does some really cool stuff - be it getting goats to graze on their lawns instead of using a lawn-mower or rigging up some kind of infra-red contraption to scan books without opening them. While most of us may not be able to get goats to graze in our backyards, we would all find plenty of use for a portable camera book scanner.

First it was e-publishing and Kindle that was threatening the survival of the old fashioned book but with such a device, every customer browsing in a bookstore could mean lost revenue instead of a potential sale. Yet in every innovation that promises to be the death of the old way, there is often hidden opportunity waiting to be discovered and monetized. Inside a book-scanner there may be ways to generate buzz for goods and services relevant to text being scanned - and that is just the most obvious idea. It would only be a matter of time before much better ones came along.

An Outside View

I have read way too much about Wendy Doniger to be read her books about Hinduism objectively. Up until reading this post in Marginal Revolution about the need to ask a non-Hindu about Hinduism, I was not particularly inclined to read anything by Doniger. Maybe there is something to be said of an outsider's view of a religion. While that view, may be completely unacceptable to the believers of the religion it could be helpful in other ways.

In an extreme oversimplification, if Doniger can be taken to represent the a certain culture and ethnicity, her views could serve as a proxy for their view of Hindus and Hinduism. Having this external cultural perspective on something as personal as religion can be instructive even if it is not agreeable. Instead we have a lot of earnest people who believe passionately about ensuring the facts present are right, and agonize over the accuracy of the interpretation.

If we could instead view the material as a creative writing and not assign to it any…

Happy Learning

I am yet to be convinced of the benefits of video games for children unless they happen to be of the mind-calming variety ( I did not know that they even existed until hearing a story on NPR about the genre). There is enough stress and excitement in a modern day kid's day to need an additional surge by way of a fast paced on-screen game.

I'd much rather they expend the energy in a physical sport. If their minds need a work-out there are many time-tested ways to do that as well - strategy games, logic puzzles, creative DIY projects come to mind. Littlebits sounds like the happy medium between off-line and online world for learning while having fun. As the technology matures, it can only become more accessible and hopefully easy enough for young kids to work with.

Doing Free Right

Recently while researching a technology solution for a client, I came across a vendor who touted their application as "commercial open source". That oxymoron (to my mind at least) had me stumped at first. After reading round a little, I realized that the chassis and the platform they had used to build their product was open-source but the solution they had developed using it was proprietary. So, all of the code would would not be freely available plus you would need to pay a licensing fee to use their product.

Compared to the purely commercial applications in the same space, their pricing was attractive but there was not a great deal of track-record to go by either. With the rising number of offerings in the open-source arena, anyone with a good idea and the perseverance to bring it to fruition can do so at little to no cost and that sounds wonderful in theory. While many are attempting to do just this not every enterprise hits pay dirt. This article in Techdirt titled Free G…

Doodle Bar

The idea of a doodle bar is both simple and clever as the best ideas often are. This would be heaven to those prone to doodling and might introduce its joys even to those who are not. Per one of the creators of the concept, Serge Seidlitz "The aim is to make The DoodleBar into a walk-in, constantly evolving work of art, created as a collaboration between all those who visit,"

The idea of a collaborative art projects is not new - SITO has been around for years. Then there are sites like Haiku For You that take an idea submitted by a visitor and turn it into an illustrated Haiku. A more controlled art experiment with twelve artists working together on a themed quilt can result is some beautiful creations.

Doodle Bar is almost a throwback to a time when the walls of a cave served as a canvas to chronicle events of life big and small - in that it is a little different from other contemporary collaborative art projects.

Intangible Possessions

A friend was asking me a few days ago what I do for backing up my digital pictures. He is considering a couple of commercial service providers who will back up images with multiple redundancy. Obviously, pictures equal memories and are incredibly valuable. My friend has a toddler so the picture-taking is non-stop. I know having been through that phase with J.

I don't do anything for backup I said and he expressed both surprise and concern at that. The pictures I like very much, I print and put in a physical album. The rest are all over the place. I don't find myself feeling attached to digital images. They are special only when they tangible. Obviously, there is a limit to how much I can turn "tangible" or would even consider worthwhile to do so. This essay on the the transient nature of digital collections in The Morning News deals with just this idea. The author says :

Old formats ooze historical significance; new ones are deleted with a tap.

Just that makes digital m…

Baby Strollers

J's days on the stroller ended a while ago but I still remember the first time I put her on one. She'd start to cry almost immediately because the stroller faced away from me. I would need to step in front and show her I was around for her to stop. In a few months she grew more comfortable but there was still some residual anxiety. I would peer down at her from the the window on the canopy, she would smile a little, gesture excitedly and want me to carry her.

As soon as I felt comfortable, I stopped using the stroller and carried her in a backpack slung in front of me. She would fall asleep in minutes. It was a remarkable change in behavior and so it is easy for me to believe this study that suggests children can feel emotionally impoverished if they are placed in strollers that face away from the mother. It made a huge difference for me as well to have her sleeping and close to me - maybe there is an element of emotional impoverishment for the mother too.

Boys Left Behind

While the author does not explain why the current education system is not serving boys well (if at all), the numbers she presents are concerning. She argues that No Child Left Behind equals All Boys Left Behind. This WSJ article on the same topic has some insights into why this may be happening :

The lifestyles and habits that worked so well for men in more dangerous times may not be working so well for them in the information age. In every age from the caves right on through the second World War, it worked for men to take big risks, have short attention spans and be driven by ego. These days, those things are more likely to get in the way of doing a good job. Hunting wild boar and hunting through Wikipedia require a different set of skills.

That makes a great deal of sense in a workplace situation and can possibly be tied to a the process of learning even at the grade school level. Taking big-risks, short attention spans and being driven by ego don't seem to be the most valuable c…

Old Benchmark

Divorce has made me stronger in more ways than I can count and for the most part, I am grateful for the opportunity (however difficult it has been) to become a more self-assured, independent and confident person than I had been before. But I envy any woman of my age, who has been married anywhere between ten to fifteen years, never needed to seek and find approval of her physical appearance from random men. She can relax, put on a few pounds were she so inclined, not worry about how she stacked up against twenty year olds who were also in the same meat market as herself. As the years pass, I become increasingly unwilling to be viewed as commodity whose value is determined almost entirely by the packaging. I want to believe I am a lot more than that. I will freely admit being far more superficial back in the day - if a guy did not make my pulse race, he was not attractive enough to make the grade. Today, I am interested in a man's mind, his integrity and the generosity of his spirit…

Trapped By Trash

While explaining why we are where are with garbage in space, columnist Johann Hari writes :

This wall of garbage orbiting us all seems like a symbol of the great dilemmas facing humanity in the twenty-first century. We have become capable of the most stunning technological breakthroughs – but we are sabotaging them by proving ourselves incapable of the most basic forms of self-restraint. At the moment of victory, we regress. The achievements of our frontal lobes are undermined by the backwardness of our adrenal glands.

He is exactly right in that observation. He closes his article with a statement and a question :

Individuals restrain themselves all the time; why can’t we do it collectively?

I don't know if I could agree that individuals restrain themselves all the time. For the most part, people act out of fear of consequences when they are acting alone as individuals. True restraint would require them to act in the same way even when no one was looking, there were no societal norm…

Divided House

Back in my school days, history lessons taught us how the people of India have always lacked unity allowing foreign invaders to divide, conquer and rule over us for hundreds of years. Our teacher's favorite line used to be "History is important because it helps us learn from mistakes we made in our past so we know not to repeat them" She almost always ended her lesson on that note and would encourage us to find ways to apply lessons from Indian history in our daily lives.

I remembered the wisdom of Mrs. G recently when a client I work for, floated an RFP out to a few Indian vendors along with some near-shore ones in Mexico and Canada. The responses that came back were interesting and educative. The Canadian company did not offer any significant cost advantage over a local development shop but they tried to make up for it by going the extra mile to please. Even before we had asked for it, they came back with design and prototype demos to show us what to expect and of cours…

Bookstore Customers

This article of the seven types of bookstore customers though a rambling rant is quite amusing and I could not help trying to see which type best described me. While could not find a fit among the seven types , a hybrid of a few of those types may be what I am. The Trufan sub-type under the Seeker category would be any writer's dream come true. They are described thusly :

Trufans.“I want the new book by Author X.” And sure, I’ll try to help you with that. The Trufan ignores three salient points: 1. the author may not have a new book; 2. despite ads or reviews or internet rumors, the author’s new book may not be coming out for another 3 months, or 6 months, or a year (or ever); & 3. the author may in fact be dead.

I have been guilty of being a Time Suck both at book stores and at libraries.Per the author, Time Sucks are those "who want help, and personal recommendations, and plot synopses and books just like their favorite author’s but not their favorite author’s because th…

Reading And Remembering

I have always wondered about children's books like A Very Hungry Caterpillar or The Mixed Up Chameleon (both by Eric Carle) and how they are are able to make such a deep and lasting impression on kids. Is it the simplicity of their theme, the lovely illustrations in all colors of the rainbow or is it something else that results in the impact. This Newsweek article on Eric Carle's life and it's influence on what he wrote could have some of those answers. Maybe going through very painful (and therefore trans-formative) life experiences gives writers that unique edge that cannot be matched by those who have not had comparably difficult circumstances.

So while cute, easy and well-illustrated children's books are a dime a dozen, a select few become iconic classics like Caterpillar.It seems the same rules apply for writers who write for adults too. When I think about authors who I admire most - almost each has been very intimately acquainted with pain and suffering. Then the…

Homelessness

There is almost no news to hear, see or read these days that is not sombre. You build a certain level of resistance against it over time but this story on the plight of homeless people in America broke through it. I have grown up in a country where the homeless are out in the open and impossible to ignore. For the most part, no one does anything about them and life just goes on - for them and the rest of us. While there is a lot to be anxious about in India but the average person with an education, a job and a home to live is not worried about becoming homeless.

What is different about the American homelessness story is that a "regular" person with an all the trappings of a "normal" and "functional" life can suddenly find themselves homeless. Once they are there, the barrier to re-entering the ranks for "regular" people who have homes becomes very high. It seems like this terrifying line which once crossed can be forever. Simple things like going…

Sundae Inspiration

I don't know what it feels like to have a father check out on their child and act like she does not exist. That is the position R (my ex) has adopted with J. When she was younger, she would ask when she might have "a" father like the other kids. She did not seem overly concerned about it having to be R, but someone needed to fulfill that role in her life. Over time, she had developed a protective layer of indifference to help her from being hurt over his absence - disappointment over not having her wish for a father figure fulfilled.

I often tell J that I am the luckiest Mommy in the world because I have her. She wonders how it is that she could be so incredibly precious to me and mean nothing at all to her father who saw her last when she was four months old. How does he not want to know about her, talk to her or see what she looks like. If she was as precious and special as I claimed she was, would her father not be a little more interested in her. It just does not add …

Alternative Medicine

It is heartening to read that alternative medicine is going mainstream in America in that insurance companies are willing to pay for such treatment. My personal experience with the medical system in this country has been mixed at best and I try to stay away from it as far as possible. Then one hears the horror stories from those who have loved ones suffering from serious ailments - along with the predominant themes of out of control medical expenses, there is also the one of managing the symptoms without root cause analysis or complete cure.

To me the later is the terrifying part - it feels like once you fall into the system, you can't always come out of it. It is not surprising that people will seek a better, less expensive way to deal with their illnesses - one with a finite end point in terms of time, treatment and money spent. Considering all this in light of the fact that about 60% of the bankruptcies in America are a consequence of medical bills makes you really wary about …

Failed Innovation

Micheal Mandel blames where America is today on the failed promise of innovation in this Business Week article. Among the several indicators he cites that point to the lack of innovation is this really telling one :

The final piece of evidence is the financial crisis itself. After the 2001 tech bust, trillions of dollars flowed into the U.S.—but most of it went into government bonds and housing rather than into innovative sectors of the economy. While subprime mortgages boomed, venture capital investments have more or less stagnated since 2001, with few tech startups going public.

A lot of readers blame the paucity in innovation on the intellectual property litigation. While it's contribution cannot be denied, many would argue it is important to have the checks and balances in place so IP gets the protection it deserves. It does not help that that countries with lax or unenforced IP laws have not been the hotbed of innovation because it weakens the litigation argument somewhat.

Havin…

Learning On Autopilot

I run into a bunch of desi kids (and parents) each week at J's music classes and each time I am amazed by the few things that they have in common. To begin with, they appear to be highly compliant - working diligently on their Kumon homework while waiting for their music lesson to begin or reading a book with such great concentration that one wonders if it only for pleasure. Right after music lesson, these kids will fan out to go to other activities - tennis, swimming, karate to name a few.

They usually come geared for the next thing on the calendar. They all look pretty serious for their age - even with a room full of 6-10 year olds, there is absolutely no noise or chaos. It is not as if their parents are monitoring them - the kids are pretty self-regulated. If their music lessons are any indication, they go through the motions of "learning" whatever it is their parents want them to on auto-pilot. They practice enough to have the tunes right, are well-prepared for tests …

Synthetic Food

In his book In Defense Of Food , Micheal Pollan recommends not eating anything that our great grandmothers or great great grandmothers would not recognize to be food. That makes for good, common-sense, relatively easy to follow advise. I have recalled it while grocery shopping ever since I read the book. Following it seriously is a whole different thing.

The molecular gastronomy people on the other hand have created the first completely synthetic food. They have a worthy cause too :

"If you use pure compounds, you open up billions and billions of new possibilities,” Mr This said. “It's like a painter using primary colours or a musician composing note by note.” He says compound cooking will enthral our taste buds — or, rather, our trigeminal nerve — and help to end food shortages and rural poverty because farmers could increase profitability by “fractioning their vegetables”.
I was listening to a story on NPR recently on the unraveling of Punjab's Green Revolution. I imagine…

One Foul Job Ad

I have been following a thread on Immigration Voice for the last couple of days. It concerns a company posting an ad on Dice saying that the client is open to H1-B applicants as long as they are not Indians. No sugar coating there - those were the exact words used on the posting. Needless to say, there was a huge outcry over it and before the end of the day, the poor cog in the wheel sod who had posted the ad at the behest of the end client had been fired by his employer. Dice had pulled the ad off their site even before that had happened. At the time of this writing, the "end client" who had actually asked for non-Indian applicants only had not been touched by any of this.

The fact that stands out most prominently, at least in my mind, is that the company that posted the job ad on Dice is Indian owned and the recruiter in question is desi as as well. This is both a telling sign of the times as well as an example of abysmal depths companies like Abstar will sink to make a fe…

The Manga Guide to Statistics

The Manga Guide to Statistics is a great way to introduce the subject to a young person who is math-smart but is not innately passionate about the subject and even those who are math-wary. A lot of bright kids don't enjoy math as much as they enjoy reading because they are not able to tie back math skills to real life experience.

Whereas, they realize that reading opens up whole new worlds of ideas and experiences, they are not quite able to see how the ability to solve challenging geometry riders enriches their lives. This disconnect is often hard to solve for, specially if the kid is an advance level reader. After a while, they tune out of math because the sense of empowerment they achieve by way of reading is far greater than being able to work out math problems based on a set of rules - once they have achieved proficiency at problem solving they are bored.

The Manga guide uses simple examples from a kid's everyday life to introduce concepts in statistics. In doing so, it is…

Smile Pinki

HBO's Smile Pinki is the kind of movie that leaves you with a smile in your heart. It follows the efforts of a hospital to provide free cleft lip and palate surgery to the poor. One such patient is five year old Pinki, who could have had her radiant smile hidden behind her cleft lip forever. Her life is transformed when Pankaj, a social worker for the hospital, who travels from village to village to find children with cleft lips and palates, meets her father.

The parents worry about what the operation entails and if their children may be safe. A big part of Pankaj's job is to work soothe the anxious parents so they actually bring their children into the hospital. The surgery is beyond a miracle for these families who would have never been able to afford it. The children go from being stigmatized and isolated, to having a real childhood - they return to schools they had dropped out of, work and play like the rest of the kids.

In the developed world and also in the more affluent…

Colors In America

The response of two readers to Hua Hsu's article in The Atlantic The End of White America ? do a great job of explaining the assimilation experience of immigrants in America.

One reader Claude B. Fischer writes :

"Hsu gets it wrong by focusing on the cultural froth, like music, food and clothes. The real story, at the deeper level, is how much and how quickly the children of immigrants from many continents apart come to adopt WASP culture ..."

He goes on to cite the facets of WASP culture that have universal appeal to immigrants of all stripes. Marrying for love, the pursuit of personal success. He calls it "the culture of personal expression and personal salvation, material achievement, voluntarism in social matters, and egalitarianism"

Another reader Ryan Karerat who is Indian American, writes :

"There may be no "white culture" but white people still dictate our societal norms. To become a cultural elite in America, one has to whiten him-or herself…