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Showing posts from November, 2009

On A Taut Leash

Recently I got some interesting relationship advice from a pretty unlikely source. H and I went to grade school together and he is among the few childhood friends that I am still in touch with. When I decided to marry R (my ex), H's reaction was one of honest puzzlement - WTF more likely. However, he held his peace figuring that things that don't in the normal course of life make any sense do in marriage. He was at time in a "quasi-serious relationship" but not quite "ready for prime-time" as in for the responsibilities that go with marriage. It was not a situation I found particularly easy to comprehend but as an old buddy, I wished him well with whatever he had going on.

A few years later when H was good and ready and had finally found the woman he wanted to marry, I had a reaction very similar to his would-be bride and just like him, said nothing about it. He seemed genuinely happy to be with her and I hated to be the one to dampen his enthusiasm. Maybe …

Fearless Flyer

I love flipping through (and even reading) Trader Joe's Fearless Flyers. There is no other piece of unsolicited mail that I even bother with. When you consider the cost of acquiring mailing lists, scrubbing them, segmenting the consumer population, matching the names back to internal databases, setting up a marketing campaign, glossy print, postage and all - the numbers add up quickly.

After all that is done, the average recipient of these materials tosses them into trash without a second thought. The Fearless Flyer on the other hand, is printed on really cheap paper, it is anything but flashy and is takes no trouble to target messaging by way personalization.

Yet there is something about the Flyer that makes me want to read about products I have not considered buying before. Even if I don't buy, I am at least aware of what is available - a good enough engagement metric by most counts. Occassionally, the reading has translated into an actual purchase - which is exactly the kind …

Apostrophes

I am grammar challenged in general and haven't quite figured the use of apostrophes and it is not for the want of trying. Anytime I see someone use a semicolon in what appears to be in the right context, I am very impressed. I figure if I have survived thus far without getting apostrophes right, I'll be okay with this handicap for the rest of my life. When I saw this excellent visual on the correct use of the apostrophe by Mathew Inman of The Oatmeal, I wondered if there was a chance that I could learn too.

I managed to keep up with Inman for the first couple of rules but starting losing him right around the fourth or fifth. Clearly, this is not one of those "a picture is worth a thousand words" things - I am just not wired in a way that will allow apostrophe (or grammar) rules to sink in.

Skipping over to the end, I was delighted to find advise that I could actually put to good use : When in doubt, don't use an apostrophe. That pretty much, sums up my strategy wi…

Part Liberated Woman

An expat desi friend and I were discussing what it means to return to India when you have cobbled together a life in a foreign country no matter how flawed and imperfect. We have both spent over a decade outside India and have kids who were born abroad and have spent very little time back home. Returning "home" is something a lot of new immigrants like L and myself think about. We want very much for that to be an option because a full assimilation into our country of domicile is likely never going to happen. L has visited India more often than I have and has a much better pulse on what's going on there.

For me the strongest drag force working against my desire to return home is my experience of life as a woman in India. I neither want to live that suffocatingly sheltered existence myself nor subject J to it. The freedom, independence and safety I have had in here in suburban America was not even something I knew I could expect to have in India. I never knew what it felt t…

The Alchemy Of Desire

The first few pages of Tarun Tejpal's The Alchemy Of Desire, read beautifully. I stayed up late one night, mesmerized by the story that promised to unfold ever so perfectly. Tejpal's language is a delight to read. Hundred pages in, I wondered if Tejpal may have lost his way for a bit but would find it back soon. Instead, the increasing sprawl of the story and the ever expanding cast of characters leaves the reader bewildered. Tejpal had a wonderful story to tell even if he had limited it to exploring the role of Kama (lust) and Prema (love) in marriage and relationships - a narrative that is universally relevant.

The narrator and the his wife Fiza (Fizz) have a relationship that is intense and unconventional enough to stand independent of everything else that this book tries to be about. Tejpal did not have to write a novel of mythic proportions and fall short. He does an outstanding job of telling the story of a marriage and a grand passion gone sour. As a reader, I wished he …

Sita And Hearbreak

Finally got around to watching Sita Sings the Blues. Whether you are Hindu or not, familiar with any one of the many versions of Ramayan or not, you can connect with this film. Nina Paley makes the story of Sita and Rama (in that order) her own. She is not trying to interpret or retell the "original" story but rather projecting herself on Sita's character and discovering parallels between the end of her marriage and that of Ram and Sita.

The idea of introducing Annette Hanshaw's blues to hold the story together is a beautiful one. The sadness and pain of heartbreak is universal. Like one of the shadow puppet narrators in film says if a woman throws herself at a man who is clearly rejecting her, that is not unconditional love but her fault for not knowing the man is not worth the trouble. Yet, women have loved in the face of unfaithfulness, rejection, abuse and more. They have a hard time believing that their feelings are not reciprocated, that they have invested their…

The Jazz Baroness

The Jazz Baroness is a fascinating story at many levels - of a woman far ahead of her times, of an unconventional relationship, of the highs and lows in the life of a profoundly gifted musician - and much more. Director Hannah Rothschild, the grand-niece of Pannonica Rothschild (Nica) - the Jazz Baroness, pieces together the story of Nica and Thelonius Monk, the jazz pianist and composer. They make the most unlikely pair. He grew up on a humble farm in Rocky Mountain, North Carolina, she in European mansions where the kings, queens and heads of state were frequent guests.

Yet when Nica hears Monk's recording of 'Round Midnight for the first time, something about the music moves her enough to leave her family and her way of life behind to become his muse. She was married with children at the time. Music was the force that brought these two people who inhabited very different worlds, together. In a time when racial discrimination and segregation were a way of life, Nica flout…

Infomavore

Learned a new word today - informavore.The term informavore characterizes an organism that consumes information. It is meant to be a description of human behavior in modern information society, in comparison to omnivore, as a description of humans consuming food.

It is a long winded article and I found it hard to stay engaged to the end. That said, there are some very interesting ideas in it that are worth pondering. For instance, the author suggests that in the future our brains will be in a cloud - what is important to us will not be self-determined but will be a function of what the community deems important. The fact that we don't make an effort to relegate the business of holding what is significant in our lives to Facebook and blogs instead of keeping that information in our heads is a telling sign according to Schirrmacher.

Then there is the idea that there is not enough brains to hold and process the information that is being spewed online and that Darwinism will determine h…

Interactions

Love the concept of Ideapaint - the ability to make turn any surface into a dry erase board. For parents with toddlers who at the age when the want to draw and color ever anything their hands can reach, this would be such a blessing. There is almost a throwback quality to this very modern product. Like our ancestors who drew on the walls of their caves, we could be recording our lives on the large expanses of painted white-board in our homes, offices and schools. We might find ourselves interacting with family, classmates and co-workers in completely novel and different ways.

While on the topic of new ways of interacting, Foursquare comes to mind. Spending some time watching the messages scroll down the screen is a fascinating experience. The flurry of activity is overwhelming. The creators of the site ask users to think of Foursquare as an "urban mix tape". Make your own, share it with friends and strangers in your neighborhood. That is just the beginning you find out as y…

Ideavirus

In his book Unleashing The Ideavirus, Seth Godin writes :
Fact is, the first 100 years of our country’s history were about who could build the biggest, most efficient farm. And the second century focused on the race to build factories. Welcome to the third century, folks. The third century is about ideas.Alas, nobody has a clue how to build a farm for ideas, or even a factory for ideas. We recognize that ideas are driving the economy, ideas are making people rich and most important, ideas are changing the world. Even though we’re clueless about how to best organize the production of ideas, one thing is clear: if you can get people to accept and embrace and adore and cherish your ideas, you win. You win financially, you gain power and you change the world in which we live. He goes on to describe the viral nature of ideas and how to disseminate them to gain the most value. As wonderful as ideas might be, for a century to be fueled solely on them instead of more tangible things like farms…

Universal Authorship

Seed Magazine has this article on society moving from universal readership to universal authorship and what that may mean. One statistic the authors uses to makes their case is that by 2013, 100% of the world's population with will authors in some kind of media. At first glance that seems like too much too soon. There are countless people out there today who have access to every form on-line publishing, are perfectly capable of publishing content should they want to but are not authors. They just don't care to publish their ideas and opinions to the world - it is not important or interesting to them.

There is no reason why this kind of person in the next four years will suddenly morph into an author. Likewise, the legions of illiterates in the world will not likely become Twitter savvy in short order. That said, it the statistic is confusing. The other points the article makes are good ones - the degree of influence and the pace of social change and revolution even that burgeo…

Grade School Musicals

I used to be ashamed to admit that I found it very hard to sit through the musicals put up by kids of any grade at J's school. It is an ordeal with few peers specially when being expected as a parent to cheer the kids for their efforts. Be it a kindergarten performance or one by the fifth graders, the results are always below par. Even with J performing, I find it impossible to work up any enthusiasm about the whole thing and long to get it over with and head home. I have shared with much trepidation how I felt about these things with other parents. Most have pointed out that I should scale down my expectations because this is no professional performance - the kids and the music instructor do the best they can given the time and resources they have available. Interestingly enough talent is not mentioned at all.

While I am not expecting a Broadway Kids experience, I would love for the children to be able to hold a tune, keep beat and show some signs of life while on stage. Clearly, …

Change Of Heart

I read (and really liked) Atlas Shrugged as a callow teenager. Liked it so much in fact that it became one of my favorite books at the time. Subsequently I read all of her other books and stopped with Anthem. My devotion to her writing and ideology ebbed a little with each book and disappeared entirely by the last one. All this happened over a two year period. I have never returned to Rand since then and find my one time devotion cringe-worthy.

This review by Adam Kirsh in the NYT - Ayn Rand's Revenge does an excellent job of explaining what makes her tick.

Rand’s particular intellectual contribution, the thing that makes her so popular and so American, is the way she managed to mass market elitism — to convince so many people, especially young people, that they could be geniuses without being in any concrete way distinguished. Or, rather, that they could distinguish themselves by the ardor of their commitment to Rand’s teaching. The very form of her novels makes the same point: t…

Outsider

T and I go back a long way. Recently we were chatting about the role of organized religion in our lives and how we both find it hard to participate in it. I am Hindu, T is not and we both have the same challenges relating to the role of religion in our lives. I have always felt awkward at religious ceremonious at a temple and try to go there when nothing is going on so I can just spend some quiet time in front of the deity without having to go through the motions of a puja.

Now that we are both parents, we feel additionally challenged in trying to get our children connected to religion as we feel we must. J used to love going to the temple but after a few times of having participated in an actual puja, she is starting not to enjoy the experience. Whether or not that is on account of my attitude, I definitely blame myself for this change in J. There must be a subliminal sense of guilt about my inability to commune with my co-religionists because I would love nothing more than for J to a…

Terror In Mumbai

Watching Dan Reed's documentary Terror In Mumbai is a deeply disturbing experience for anyone who has a home in India. The unique "360 degree" view of terrorism that this movie affords is very instructive for global audiences - both who have encountered similar attacks in their own countries and those who have been spared thus far. Unless people and governments understand the terrorist psyche, they would never be able to put up a credible defense against it.

As an Indian, what I found most horrifying was the absolute dysfunctionality of the Mumbai police and the government apparatus as a whole. To the rest of India (of which I am a part), Mumbai epitomizes what is best about the country. We have been led to believe that this city and its denizens are a completely different breed - unlike anything you have seen in the rest of the country, that they have a system that actually works, when put to the test they are able to rise to the occasion. In many ways, Mumbai is what th…

Jane Or Carrie

No matter what the proportion of fact and fiction in Becoming Jane, it is a good story told well. What was true in Jane Austen's time is (with accommodation for the world we live in) true even today making the movie social commentary and not merely historical fiction. Even today, a woman may want to marry for love and even find a man who fits the bill but in the end she might settle for someone who is conventional, acceptable and safe. If marriage is not really her thing, she may choose to remain single. In either case, she will never forget the grand passion or romance of her life and indeed those memories may become her source of inner strength to cope with the mundane-ness of her life. Sometimes a relationship that does not reach fruition as in marriage may be a lot more significant than one which does.

The best love stories are not about the living happily ever after. Instead, it is about having found and then lost (often forever) the one who could have in theory been perfecti…

Waxidermy

Discovering new music has never been as easy or as difficult as it is these days. Both data (music) and meta-data(anything written about the music) are abundant and accessible but sifting and sorting through it is no trivial undertaking. Waxidermy is like a breath of fresh air in this over-crowded space. It was fun browsing around, reading the notes about the music.

If the sampling of Indian music they have is any representation of the "wholesomeness" of the collection, then it is definitely lacking. One assumes that the creators of the website went with what appealed to them - a criteria as good as any other when there is so much to choose from. Waxidermy is possibly an example of a website that works not because the content is the best or the most exceptional but because it is build with the spirit of making the process of discovering it fun.

Test Of Time

There are some universal truths in all disciplines - even in the fluid and evolving world of information technology there are principles that do stand the test of time. The sooner one learns them the better because sloppy habits are easy to acquire and very hard to lose. A programmer is well served to learn good, elegant programming style from the get go, testers devise ways to automate as much testing as possible while aiming for maximum coverage, a designer or architect must know to use patterns, build reusable frameworks and components and a project manager must stay on top of metrics earned value or otherwise, convert risk and issue resolution into a lessons learned inventory that can be used on the next project.

No matter what technology platform being employed or business problem being solved, these are things that do not change and make the difference between a failed or successful implementation.

Over the past year, I have had the opportunity to revisit all the lessons from t…

Narcissism

The worship of "Me" has been a constant in J's life thus far. From the daycare center to elementary school to after-school care, teachers and caregivers make sure kids are not lacking in self-worth. The way they go about it is to tell them they are special and can be everything and anything they want to be. Being realistic is not part of the deal because in this perfect world there are no limits, hard work is optional and can be substituted entirely by great attitude and chutzpah.

Praise is as lavish and it is constant and often for things that don't seem genuinely deserving of it. Teaching humility is something the parent must do at home to counter the effects of constant "positive reinforcement" going on outside and it is a lesson that needs to be repeated very often. In this Newsweek article Raina Kelley writes about the "Narcissism Epidemic" and there is no better way to describe this phenomenon.

The message that I took away from this article i…

Right To Internet

I have read a lot of good things about Finland in the past so the news that it will the first country to make broadband internet a legal right is only another in a sizable list. After the initial awe wears off, you have to wonder what such a right may do for the citizenry.

Folks who tend to be paranoid about government intervention in their lives, might see a Trojan Horse in this. Yet others who don't care for the constant connectivity and instant access to information may actually resent broadband being thrust on them - Elton John has wanted to close the internet down. Along with broadband may come some big-brother-esque oversight. Hopefully the vast majority will just be glad to have broadband be a legal right. One Indian blogger writes in reaction to this story :

Presently we are unable to visualize a similar law in India, even in the next 10 years. A country’s 100% population should have proper education to make use of internet first, after which such laws can be thought about.…

Feeling Space

The "feelSpace belt" mentioned this Wired article can be a wonderful training tool for people like me who have severe direction retardation. Like the subject of the experiment, I might start seeing the map of hallways and cubicle farms in office buildings in my dreams, know to tell south and east apart while awake - skills I have never possessed. Apparently, the brain gets re-mapped and can sense direction even without the belt. The author asks :

Can our senses be modified ? Expanded ? Given the right prosthetics, could we feel electromagnetic fields or hear ultrasound ? The answers to these questions, according to researchers at a handful of labs around the world, appear to be yes.

If the results of these mashed-up or augmented senses are anything like the feelSpace belt, it would definitely have a great deal of value to some.

Unretractable

One evening recently, feeling totally worn-out and jaded, I said to J "I can't do this much longer. Things don't seem to getting any better". Just as soon as the words were out of mouth, I regretted the pessimism and negativity in them - the two character traits that go totally against the grain of J's nature.

She said promptly "Mommy, never talk like that. Always remember there is a sun shining over your head". She made a cone with her two arms to show me how this figurative sun was shining its light on me. Later that day, I read a poem by Jane Hirshfield titled Optimism, which J would have loved if she were able to understand.

More and more I have come to admire resilience.
Not the simple resistance of a pillow, whose foam returns over and over to the same shape, but the sinuous tenacity of a tree: finding the light newly blocked on one side,
it turns in another.
A blind intelligence, true.
But out of such persistence arose turtles, rivers, mitochondria, …

Dumb Toys

Read this really insightful article on dumb toys making smarter kids. The author describes the huge improvements in his son's math and reading abilities on account of his addiction to Pokemon cards. I have no first hand experience with this being that J dislikes all things Pokemon. As the author points out Disney is yet to do Snow White or Cinderella trading cards. Even if they existed, it would be interesting to see if little girls were even interested in them. Po Bronson says

"Our son taught me an extremely valuable lesson. When it comes to kids, we often bring moralistic bias to their interests. There’s a pervasive tendency in our society to label things as either good for children or bad for children. Cultivating children’s natural intrinsic motivation requires abandoning all judgment of good and bad content. Society has a long list of subjects that we’ve determined they should learn. "

Observing

A friend and I were chatting a few days ago about the how kids act one way when being observed by their parents and in another way in their absence. As much as we would like to know how our children think, feel and act we become an interference by the very act of observation. This is a lot like Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle. Read this beautiful passage on the phenomenon of the observer influencing (and therefore changing) the nature of the observed :

There are three components to every manifestation: the observer, the observed and the context or environment of the observation. There are three together represent an intention that is desired to be expressed to be both experienced and observed and it is though the observation that experience is had. This phenomenon of the illusion of a separate observer and an observed also gives rise to an inherent duality. In this regard, duality is an inescapable phenomenon of Creation.

In the context of our conv…

Hard Work

Having information freely and universally is an idea that is still taking some getting used specially for those who are from a time before this happened. The co-founder of Flickr, CaterniaFake'stake on hard work is a telling example of the shift in thinking this necessitates.

I particularly like the part about seeing patterns and putting oneself in the right place where information is flowing freely. Nothing is more critical to success in the information technology business. In most poor to mediocre IT shops, hard-workers are available in abundance but few if any consider "Seeing patterns. Seeing things as they are rather than how you want them to be. Being able to read what people want. Putting yourself in the right place where information is flowing freely and interesting new juxtapositions can be seen." as Fake advocates.In not looking for patterns or worse not recognizing them, these hard-workers don't see their efforts result in better outcomes, a superior produ…

Essays On Math

Recently I read two essays on math. Two very different perspectives - one by PhD in literature , Mark Slouka and the other by a mathematician , Paul Lockhart. The former considers the consequences of math and science trumping frivolous subjects like literature in our education system. The later laments the way math is taught in schools. Both perspectives stand on their own are excellent on their own merits when you read them together, the convergences are fascinating. Slouka says :

The humanities, done right, are the crucible within which our evolving notions of what it means to be fully human are put to the test; they teach us, incrementally, endlessly, not what to do but how to be.

Lockhart says of math present day math education :

In fact, if I had to design a mechanism for the express purpose of destroying a child’s natural
curiosity and love of pattern-making, I couldn’t possibly do as good a job as is currently beingdone— I simply wouldn’t have the imagination to come up with the k…

Ideal Lunch

J has just come out of her sandwich for school lunch phase. It was a good time for me even if it lasted all of two weeks. For that entire period, I did not have to find the answer to the dread question "What do I pack for J's lunch ?" and what a blessing that was. But now, I have to use what little imagination I have to conjure up lunches that taste good even when cold, do not overwhelm J and most importantly get eaten at school. One lunch too many has come home untouched and been served as dinner in the last three years.

I am in love with the Bento Box lunch ideas and think each is as much a work of art as it is a delight to the taste buds. However, that is my opinion and not J's. As far as she is concerned, a lunch menu for a school day, needs to be as simple as possible. A sandwich, a bowl of rice and beans, a bowl of salad, a bowl of boiled broccoli and so on. Milk and fruit is for snack. Variety must be avoided at all costs. J does not deal well with having to …

Snake Oil

Nothing can get a bunch of geeks venting like a post titled IT Snake Oil or the story of the marketing pitches that totally failed to deliver what was promised. Some of the criticism is probably too harsh. AI has delivered a good deal even if not to the extent imagined. ERP systems have not always been bad news. It is possible to get a decent implementation in a small, mid-sized company where management is invested in doing things the right way instead of taking short cuts and employing band-aid instead of real solutions. Snake oil also comes in other forms in the IT business.

Pricey consultants will be brought in to study process and system inefficiencies and come up with a proposal that fix everything that is wrong or broke. It looks great on paper but no one knows how to give the thing some legs so it can actually walk the talk. The client gets a bunch of colorful documentation for their money, with competitor analysis and measurements against industry benchmarks thrown in for good…

Storytelling

I have Trinidadian friends and love their food. That is the extent of what I know about the culture. While browsing around the public library recently, the cover of Lime Tree Can't Bear Orange caught my eye. The phrase which forms the title of the book has a close cousin in my own language - Bengali. Also the cover image of the lotuses in the lake fringed by palm trees must have invoked memories of Bengal countryside. Hit by an unexpected bout of nostalgia, I decided to check the book out. I was only able to skim through it after reading the first chapter which ends with a graphic account of the protagonist's rape by her uncle right after she attains puberty. Maybe it was the brutality of the description but it turned me off the story immediately.

It reminded me of the other book I had attempted to read recently - A Happy Marriage by Raphel Yglesias. Chapter One was a thing of remarkable beauty and I had great hopes of this being one of those books that I would remember for a l…

Memories In Smell

Sorting through the clothes in her carry-on luggage as she unpacked, Sheila could smell MJ's cologne. How would one define it she wondered as she held up the lavender silk top close to her nose trying to memorize every last detail of that perfume - the musk, the citrus and then everything she could not identify. This smell was the end of their five year acquaintance, quasi relationship that was finally not meant to be. It was not a smell she recognized. It was also different from what she had smelt on him the last time they had met - yes, she did remember that too as improbable as that was.

These would be hardest things to forget - touch was tactile and the first to fade out, sound was next. She had erased all his text and voice mail messages from her phone. His number was gone from her address book. The close to five hundred emails exchanged over the last five years posed a very different problem - she could not bring herself to delete them all in one fell swoop yet there was no o…