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Showing posts from December, 2009

3 Idiots

Watching 3 Idiots was a bitter-sweet experience which is probably an unusual reaction to a movie that tries for the most part to tickle your funny bone. It took me back to my own engineering college days in India, the experience of having let off steam after cooking for more than two years the ultimate pressure cooker that is the process of preparing for the entrance tests to get into one of these colleges.

A lot of kids (myself included) checked out of system completely - we bided our time until graduation and tried to get by applying ourselves as little as possible. After all the work it took to get in there, the education we were being offered was underwhelming to say the least. Many of us were not even interested in becoming engineers but had been goaded there by a combination of societal and parental pressures and had no idea what to do next. In the best case, we would go through the motions on auto-pilot, keeping our heads above the water and find ourselves gainfully employed at…

List Of Ten

List of the past years' best and worst are inevitable around the end of December. When it becomes the business of revisiting the first decade of a new millennium, the lists turn even more ubiquitous and voluminous. Of the many that I have read in the last few weeks, this list of ten from The Atlantic is my favorite.

I don't entirely agree that all of the ideas are American but they most likely found fertile ground in this country to blossom and were definitive of the decade. Numero Uno :  Everything is Free (or It Should Be) is clearly a big theme of the decade and it is not only Gawker Media and Huffington Post  that have "found fortunes in aggregating and repackaging free news".

Further afield from the likes of Gawker and HuffPost, are rag-pickers of all stripes making a living  from ferreting out content from free on-line sources that they can rehash, recycle, repackage and sell as compilations web or print. Since a book in print still enjoys cachet with folks who w…

Symboitic Perspective

Reading this line in a Seed Magazine article"Human beings are not really individuals; they’re communities of organisms” makes we want to believe that this is entirely true. It would explain all of the irrational, out-of-character or plain idiotic things I have done and will in all likelihood continue to do in my life. A flotilla of organisms sending out conflicting chemical impulses all the time can only be the cause of trouble:

The difference between our interaction with harmful and helpful bacteria, she says, is not so much like separate languages as it is a change in tone: “It’s the difference between an argument and a civil conversation.” We are in constant communication with our microbes, and the messages are broadcast throughout the human body.

To that end, I lack the will power to resist chocolate and need to devise complicated ways of hiding the box of macadamia cookies that a friend gifts me. It's got to be those harmful bacteria I am carrying in my gut - bacteria with…

Head First 2D Geometry

If you are looking for a book that shows you fun and real-life applications of 2D geometry while explaining its concepts lucidly, then Head First 2D Geometry by Lisa Fallow and Dawn Griffiths is definitely for you. There is not one thing about this book that is dull or boring - the words most frequently associated with a traditional geometry textbook.

Starting from the most basic concepts of straight lines and angles all the way up to regular polygons, each chapter approaches the topic being covered in the context of a real life problem that can be solved successfully by applying geometry. This format makes the book particularly useful to those who want to understand how and where geometry and everyday life intersect. Often this connection is very hard to make while reading a text book with the goal of preparing for a test.

Finally this is a book a student can read and learn from independently at their own pace, absorbing the material and trying the exercises in their own style. The con…

Happily Unmarried

When a couple of  talented desi guys come together and dream up an idea that is uniquely and authentically Indian, pair it with a great design sensibility, you have have something like Happily Unmarried. I follow the start-up activity in India and long to see desi ingenuity meet design and  technology in ways that have a distinctly Indian flavor.

All too often, the ideas I run across are borrowed from the West, with some vernacular thrown in to desi-fy it so to speak. Then ten other companies riff on the same cloned theme with minor variations. In the end, none of them stand apart from a crowd and or have any kind of Indian signature. Happily Unmarried is  very happy departure from the formula around a concept that is not "inspired" or "cloned" and could only come from India.

Recently, I had a chance to chat with Rajat Tuli, one of the duo behind Happily Unmarried.

Me :  What was the moment of Zen that prompted you guys to come up with Happily Unmarried ?
Rajat : It …

Directions From Home

Learned about the Shanti spa at San Miguel, Mexico by way of Mexicowoods. India is recreated many different ways all around America - temples, restaurants, grocery stories,ethnic clothes and jewelry stores and more. They always look out of place no matter what their location - walking into desi restaurant in a strip mall where nothing else has the remotest connection to India is always unsettling. So is finding oneself inside what is made to resemble a temple after walking through the doors of an office building.
It takes a while to get oriented though sometimes the setting is little too incongruous for this to happen. Food (possibly the closest connection to home) is re-purposed in strange ways to cater to local tastes. By when you get directions to the place on your GPS unit or Mapquest, there is little left to salvage the "authentic" desi vibe about the whole deal.

The directions to Shanti, the Indian spa in Mexico, makes a desi feel at home right away. Everything about it …

Celebrating Holidays

Every Christmas is a little different with and for J. The year she was born, we took her to the mall to get the de rigueur picture with Santa and she bawled the whole time. That picture has a scared J sitting on the lap of a disgruntled Santa. A lot has changed since then. When she was too young to notice the holiday season, Christmas meant very little to her.

Over the last couple of years, J has been agitating to have some kind of celebration during the holiday season. Having celebrated Diwali a few months prior is not quite cutting it. She wants to celebrate something along with everyone else - it does not even have to be Christmas. Even the tree and presents are optional as far as J is concerned. The only thing that matters is the timing of the celebration.

J feels like when she has her festivals no one shares in with her unlike Christmas which almost everyone is a part of. To her being American and celebrating a festival of some kind over the winter holidays has turned synonymous.…

Of Bots, Spiders and Scrapers

In Chapter 1 of his book Webbots, Spiders and Screen Scrapers A Guide to Developing Internet Agents with PHP/CURL, Michael Schrenk says :

"To be successful with webbots, you need to stop thinking like other Internet users. Namely, you need to stop thinking about the Internet in terms of a browser viewing one website at a time. This will be difficult, because we've all become dependent on browsers. While you can do a variety of things with a browser, you also pay a price for that versatility - browsers need to be sufficiently generic to be useful in a wide variety of circumstances. Webbots, on the other hand can be programmed for specific tasks and can perform those tasks with perfection."

That really captures the essence of what this book is about. Schrenk targets two very different audiences - one is the webbot developer who has a variety of projects to play with and learn the tools in the context of the different applications. The other is the business leader who is eag…

Saying It Best

I guess it must be a common experience and it has happened to me a few times. Say you are gathered with friends at dinner having a good conversation. There is something you try to share - several times and each time you fail to be heard. Just as you start to speak, so does another person and the audience favors them over you - you miss your chance just by a little bit.

You get your turn another time but you and the conversation have moved on to other things by then. There is that small nagging feeling of dissatisfaction you are left with for having tried to say something no matter how trivial and not being able to have it heard. You may even wonder why nature conspired against that thing you wanted to say - it wasn't terribly special or important any way. That would be the prosaic way of describing it and then there is the superlative, heart-stoppingly beautiful Jane Hirshfield way  in her poem ALL EVENING, EACH TIME I STARTED TO SAY IT:

It suddenly seemed to me the kind of thought,

Dandelions and Orchids

J is for the most part a sweet natured child but there have been times when she disappears somewhere (emotionally) where is hard for me to reach her. To me, an episode like that calls into question the strength of our bond, the merits of my parenting philosophy and if we have what it takes to be truly tested in difficult times. My first instinct in those situations has been to panic first and think later - a bad habit I find hard to break. I refuse to let J hide away behind those large, dreamy eyes that can at once be so eloquent and distant.

We we talk about it is until I believe I have unearthed whatever  may have prompted her to withdraw in the first place. The more sensitive the child, the harder for the parent to strike the right chord - be warm and approachable without being too intrusive, build character without being too regimental, to protect while showing them how to protect themselves, to be their friend without dissolving some of the boundaries that a parent must preserve…

Intellect And Consumption

Reading a comment on this article about rejection reducing IQ levels, made me wish that the commentator had written a comprehensive essay on the themes touched upon in the comments. Despite the political slant in the observations, it makes for very interesting reading. Specially loved the concluding remark :

And if , by some magic, an average American's IQ can be raised by, say, 10-25 points - this economy will simply collapse because much of it is based on artificially manufactured needs and wants supported by massive marketing and advertising budgets of corporations.

A few weeks ago, I happened to have a couple of hours to occupy after dropping J off at a birthday party. There was some grocery shopping to be done but it would not take as long as I my wait time was. So, I wandered into a newly opened home decor store in the area to browse around and see if I could find a replacement for my down at the heel frying pan. The parking lot was full, the store was swarming with holiday sh…

Single Subject Simpleton

Aaron Triaster has a delightful article on being a stay at home father. I could see my ever so misunderstood self portrayed perfectly here :

The common misconception of childless, alcohol-imbibing party guests and cyber-ether baby-haters alike is that parents blabber constantly out of some arrogance or indulgent desire to show off their great kids and their perfect parenthood. Nothing could be further from the truth. We parents have so little now; the children have taken so much. We just have nothing left to say. We sometimes hear ourselves and know how we must sound to others, and we feel great shame. Our children have broken us and turned us into single-subject simpletons. They've accomplished this feat in what is supposed to be the prime of our intellectual life.

J is the center of my universe and I have a hard time recalling who I was before I became her mother, what I did to occupy my time and what my most pressing concerns were. How one little person can displace my entire li…

Life Log

The comments on this Techcrunch article about LIFEmee are not very kind. The idea of publishing your whole life on-line to "passionately strive towards your hopes and dreams while helping you monitor all aspects of your life" is clearly a hard one to sell. If you spend all that time online you don't get a chance to "live" the life in question. That and the lack of separation between public and private spaces does seem to deter the would be user somewhat.

However, there can be some interesting applications if enough people do sign up. Say I dream to achieve a specific goal ten years out and I have a certain profile (background, qualifications and a life experiences). If there is enough historical data, LIFEmee may be able to predict with high degree of accuracy if one such as myself will be able to achieve what I want to by when I want to.

This is not a lot different from those retirement planning calculators that analyze the customers goals versus their current…

Zombies

What the author describes as the American Zombie could be found just as easily in any other developed /developing country where consumerism is the predominant force in people's lives. They do what they do in order to feed the consumption habit. The picture John Place paints is sad, scary and true. While not every person fits the zombie bill, significant numbers of them do. Significant enough to warrant the large marketing budgets companies have to push their goods and services.

Reading this article reminds me of a former ad agency guy I once met who had this moral awakening in his 40s that prompted him to change his profession. He said he found it very hard to make peace with his conscience when he got paid for getting people to buy by playing mind games on them. Apparently when success in your day job involves being good at pushing people's buttons, it becomes very hard to succeed in interpersonal relationships. He was never sure at what point he stopped being genuine and star…

Innovation In India

This NYT story by Vikas Bajaj on anxiety over the slow pace of innovation in India covers all the usual suspects - bureaucracy, corruption, years of stifling central planning, restrictive import tariffs, emphasis rote learning when it comes to eduction and general risk aversion. With all of that innovation is reduced to mere "jugaad" - the formal term is probably "denial driven innovation".

One contributing factor the author neglects to mention is that desis are blessed with high degree of tolerance and the natural ability to accept status quo as karma for the most part. We are not a people given to shaking things up as a matter of course, indeed a lot of us have never had a pressing need to do so.

Innovation and entrepreneurship in India is probably the highest among those communities who experienced upheaval at the time of India gaining Independence. They came in through the western border and fanned around, rooting where conditions were most hospitable. Many lef…

Violet Chrysanthemums

This was the third day since that terrible headache started and Sheila was weary waiting for it to fade away on its own. Early this morning she had woken up with a dream about Zubin. He was getting off a bus at the intersection she could see from her house. He carried a small suitcase that looked well-traveled. In his other hand he held a huge bunch of violet chrysanthemums. He looked lean and energetic as he strode up the street to her.

Next she saw both of them in the middle of a lawn, Zubin holding her in a warm embrace. In real life, they had never so much as held hands. She was saying to him "What's wrong Zubin, why have you lost so much weight ?". "Have I really ? Maybe because I have cancer" he replied. She felt the tears come to her eyes, her throat choking with pain. He kissed her on the face only like a very dear friend could. His touch was tender, warm and protective but there was nothing remotely sensual about it. He handed her the flowers.

She wonde…

Status

Read this interesting article on the psychology of social status. Both observations and conclusions seem to make sense but the author does not clarify whether status (high or low) is as it is perceived by the individual or as they are appear to be in the eyes of the world.

Status is inherently relative. A high in a one social milieu could end up ranking low in another. Would that then increase their propensity for negative low-status behavior ? Also if status is achieved or conferred for reasons other than material success what might an interaction between two high status individuals look like if their status is based on account of very different things. Who decides the relative status of these two individuals ?

Apparently, low-status behavior can be remedied : Finally, in an experiment with both high- and low-SES college students, Henry demonstrated that boosting people’s sense of self-worth diminished aggressive tendencies amongst low-status individuals.

The boosting of self-worth s…

Understanding And Listening

If management lessons from a super-prime, niche restaurant are transferable to more mainstream businesses, this HBS case study might make a compelling case for allowing some operational inefficiencies to persist for the business to thrive. Even it were not possible, there is much to ponder over the elBulli success story. Per chef Ferran AdriĆ 's "Creativity comes first; then comes the customer". Not exactly the same thought, but a riff in similar vein is Seth Godin's advise on choosing the right customer and knowing who to turn down.

Very often vendors will bend over backwards, meet patently absurd demands from the client, over-commit and under-deliver and everything else that goes with an engagement (and later a relationship) from hell. The problem is exactly as Godin puts it : Marketers rarely think about choosing customers... like a sailor on shore leave, we're not so picky. Huge mistake.

AdriĆ  has probably taken Godin's idea of being selective about custom…

Mastery Over Performance

J is yet to show any interest in video games lesser still in owning any of them. I have to admit that I am curious as a non-gaming parent to understand what if anything she is missing out because of her nonchalance about something that her peers find so very compelling. I watch kids J's age and older immersed in their video games appearing to be completely disconnected from the here and now. Their skill levels are often remarkable (at least from my perspective). Even if I played one of those games for years, I would not be able to equal the performance levels that some of these kids have achieved.

That said, I have wondered how J might fare given her relative lack of exposure - and more importantly if that lack matters. Reading this excellent blog post on the what gaming can and cannot do for a child was most enlightening to me. I am big believer in the virtue of persistence and hard work and will never pass up an opportunity to reinforce that message with J. 

Being smart and quick…

The Social Media Marketing Book

Dan Zarrella's The Social Media Marketing Book is a quick and effective way to get familiar with all that constitutes social media today. While all of the information in the book is ready available on-line, asking the questions that will lead up to the answers sought is much more challenging specially if you are relatively new to social media marketing. This book has it all packaged neatly and saves you all the time and effort needed to collect the information.

Even when Zarrella covers familiar ground, he has fresh perspective or relatively unknown stories to share. For instance in the chapter on posting protocol for blogs, he writes about Mashable's success with the "God List" and emphasizes the importance of sticking to one topic within a blog post. Readers who are familiar with social media or even use it for the marketing efforts, will find things they may not have known.

Each chapter ends with a Takeaway Tips sections which I found very useful. The social netwo…

Transient Web

This Jeff Jarvis essay on the future of the web is a must read. He says :

Twitter is to web pages what web pages are to old media. Our experience of information is once again about to become fragmented and dispersed.

His observation is spot on. If Twitter, Wave and the like become the where information, news, data and commentary gathers and disseminates from, all other on-line media will become increasingly irrelevant. On the worthlessness of SEO techniques that this would lead to, he quotes Paul Gillin :

That’s because search is turning social and our search results are becoming personalized, thus we don’t all share the same search results and it becomes tougher to manage them through SEO. Put these factors together – the social stream – and relationships matter more than pages (but then, they always have).

Once knowledge becomes relationship and connection driven, the egalitarian culture of knowledge acquisition and sharing that the web helped foster would likely come to an end.

Samarkand And Dylan

I don't know anything about the Blues genre and very little about Bob Dylan's music. The last time, I read about Central Asia was in the high school history text book. With qualifications like that, I would be exactly the kind of reader who would not get an article on Central Asian current affairs explained using lyrics from a Dylan song.

I found the idea  fascinating specially in the context of my complete ignorance on all aspects of the topic. Bravely, I plunged into reading the article and was pleasantly surprised by how most of it made sense. Loved the way two very unfamiliar things came together to create something that is accessible to readers of all stripes.

The sophisticated variety who know enough about the topics the author discusses, have critiqued the essay on its technical merits but for the lowest common denominator (such as myself), this is a painless introduction to something that would have been far out of reach otherwise.

Between The Assassinations

Having loved Aravind Adiga's White Tiger, it was a great deal of anticipation that I started reading Between The Assassinations. I am sad to report that my disappointment is complete. Each story is hard to read, the characters are two dimensional. Denouements simply don't happen and when they do the reader does not sense closure. The book reads like a writer's notebook of character sketches and work in progress story ideas - not a bad thing in itself as long as expectations are managed correctly. Billed as outtakes of White Tiger, this would have been very interesting but the reader is set up to expect a brand new book with a come-hither title no less.

I labored from one story to the next hoping to see some of the White Tiger magic once again but sadly that does not happen. I have recommended the White Tiger to both my Indian friends who are not big fiction readers and non-Indian ones who are (or not) but are looking to read something authentically Indian. Both kinds of fol…

Uses Of Adversity

I have by now lost count of the Tiger Woods mistresses that keep coming out of the woodwork at a steady clip. It is hard enough to tell them apart anyway. Lately, there is nothing I can read on-line without being interrupted by news, satire, analysis and commentary of the early morning fire hydrant episode - because there is no schadenfreude quite like watching a celeb suddenly topple off their pedestal. It becomes a spectator sport and its not over until the fat lady sings.

But two things stood out of the crowd. One is a campaign by Accenture. The pop up ad where I saw this, had Woods squatting on the green, getting drenched in rain - a creature of circumstance weathering the physical and metaphysical storms of life if you will. The lesson learned from this whole episode per Accenture :

High performers turn periods of uncertainty to their advantage by fully integrating a risk-management programme, which serves not only as a defensive tactic but also as an offensive weapon. Accenture id…

Empowering Patients

I always get sticker shock when I see an EOB (explanation of benefits) from my medical insurance provider and can't help thinking about those who have no insurance. The numbers are bizarre to say the least - seven minutes of a doctor's time and some a routine blood test was billed at over five hundred dollars by the doctor's office the last time I saw one of these. To call this a rip-off seems like an understatement. Whatever the underlying reasons for these numbers to be as ridiculously high as they are, there has to be a better, smarter way to get the job done at a cost that is reasonable.

Reading this NYT article on how one engineer repurposed a cell-phone to work as a microscope gives me hope. It should not be in the too distant future that people can run basic tests from home using low-cost kits that can be hooked up to a cellphone. Potentially, they can patten match their readings against the public domain databases and understand their condition.

Thanks for the abund…

List Making

Even when Umberto Eco talks about something as mundane as a list, he can give the reader enough to ponder over for days. The interview makes for fascinating reading as does anything written by Eco.
SPIEGEL: Why do we waste so much time trying to complete things that can't be realistically completed? Eco: We have a limit, a very discouraging, humiliating limit: death. That's why we like all the things that we assume have no limits and, therefore, no end. It's a way of escaping thoughts about death. We like lists because we don't want to die. It would be hard to look at to-do or shopping lists the same again after reading this. Of Google Eco has this to say :
Google makes a list, but the minute I look at my Google-generated list, it has already changed. These lists can be dangerous -- not for old people like me, who have acquired their knowledge in another way, but for young people, for whom Google is a tragedy. Schools ought to teach the high art of how to be discriminatin…

Friends With Benefits - A Social Media Marketing Handbook

Traditional businesses are still trying to grasp what the expanding universe of social media means for them, their marketing and PR efforts. While there is consensus around the imperative to be a part of it, decision makers in these organizations find themselves struggling for guidance when they try to put a social media strategy together. If they do end up trying the "social media thing" the results are often either underwhelming or unmeasurable stymieing the way forward to trying a different, more informed approach to it.

The single biggest question for marketing organizations is what is the risk of getting it wrong. What if their campaign fails to generate the positive buzz and turns to a marketeers worst nightmare - the social networks get control of the story in an unfavorable way and decide to digg and stumble it right into the Hall Of Shame. There is a sense that the social media can be cruel, unforgiving and even somewhat whimsical. Unless your recipe is exactly right…

Incentives For Loyalty

Love the idea of Sprize. While many stores offer to match their own prices (if lowered in within a certain window of time of after the purchase) or against their competitors, the idea of crediting the difference to your account automatically is an enhancement that would be a hit with customers. It eliminates the hassle of keeping an eye for price reductions - often people will forget all about their purchase the minute they hit the submit button on the web or step out of the store. Sprize levels the playingfield by giving the non-savvy shopper the same incentives as the adept bargain hunter. This is great news for those of us who are never able to take advantage of Black Friday, Cyber Monday and the like

It would be nice if other stores took a cue from Gap and went one step further. Instead of inundating a customer's physical and electronic mail boxes with largely irrelevant and time insensitive rewards, discounts and coupons they could have everything applied to the account automa…

Loneliness Virus

Read this story on Live Science about loneliness being like a virus that spreads and found myself wondering if I have seen any evidence of this in my surroundings. Folks that I know who do not care to socialize much (or at all) are friends with like minded people. They would cringe at the thought of hanging out those who are unlike them.

The part that did not register with me right away was the contagious aspect of loneliness. Say Person A is lonely and naturally gravitates toward Person B who is also a loner. The pair becomes lonelier together as they feed off of each other's sense of isolation. What are the chances of Person A (or B) reaching out to Person C who is highly social and outgoing and transferring the loneliness virus to them. Suddenly Person C turns introverted and withdraws social contact.

That scenario does not make as much sense at first. The phenomenon is explained thusly :

Over time, lonely individuals become lonelier and transmit such feelings to others before sev…

Featured Loser

I found this story about Facebook monitoring users with low or no wall activity and prompting their friends to write on their wall, somewhat disturbing. I have a FB account for my blog but not one for my real self. I find the constant connection and interaction with hundreds of friends and acquaintances very suffocating. If my real self did have FB profile, it would probably not see much wall or any activity for that matter. One sided communication can last only so long - after a while folks would simply stop poking me and writing on my wall. With that, I would be a prime candidate for FB's Featured Loser program.

FB assumes that a person's social standing is directly proportional to the volume of activity on their wall. What if the person is on FB simply because everyone else in their social circle is but they are not into social networking at all. Making them feel like a loser is not likely to get them excited about a medium they are lukewarm about to begin with. Upping acti…

Shazam

Read about Shazam - a tune identification application on Slate the other day and have been thinking about all kinds of uses for it. The way the technology works seems to lend itself to a variety of other uses.

One thought that crossed my mind was to use the cellphone as a stethoscope that would match sounds against a database of healthy and unhealthy sounds so the user gets a sense of what if anything is wrong with them even without having seen a doctor. Putting diagnostic tools in the hands of the consumer of health care services could be both helpful and empowering.

Wildlife enthusiasts could obviously benefit from Shazam as could someone with a car problem. Instead of taking their clunker to a car repair shop they could have Shazam listen to the wheeze, grunt, rattle or shake and give them skinny on what might be ailing their vehicle. Identifying an animal or bird by the sounds they make would likewise become a simple pattern match.

You are probably only limited by your imagination w…