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Showing posts from January, 2010

Life Lessons And Books

To paraphrase a cliche, some books like people come into our life for a reason, season or lifetime. They are like connections that will happen if and only when they are supposed to. A line from a volume of poetry that you were going to return unread, something that jumps at you while browsing through a random pop-psychology book selling at a Dollar Store or even a the words out of a character's mouth in a work of fiction or a movie - they can all become imbued with the deepest significance in our lives depending on timing. At a time when I struggled with having to stand up in defiance to someone who was close to me and hurt me relentlessly, I recalled a line from the Kathamrita :

“One should hiss to bad persons to frighten them away, so that they may not harm you later on. One must not inject poison into them and injure them."

Some years later, I would  read The Road Less Traveled where the author talks about anger and the reason to regulate and have the ability to direct it in…

Lessons In Serendipity

Every once in a while an old Bollywood number will come to mind - songs last heard in the 80s and 90s and never since. It is easy enough to find them on You Tube and indulge in a bit of nostalgia. J's reaction to this music is both amusing and instructive to watch. She is learning Hindustani vocal music so the language is not completely unfamiliar to her but understanding the meaning of lyrics is way beyond her.

She will hum along and improvise some dance moves to go with the music if she finds it  "dance-able"  but the picturization and the choreography of the songs always have her doubled up with laughter. She simply cannot stop. "What on earth are these people doing ?" she will ask when she is able to catch a breath.  This is specially true for the older Bollywood movies before the song and dance routines had acquired the MTV look and feel about them. She will want to know the meaning of the words - and in trying to paraphrase I struggle not to lose everythin…

Catcher In the Rye

Reading about J.D Salinger's death, brought back memories of the time when I got my first opportunity to read Catcher in the Rye and just as quickly lost it. I was twelve then and was visiting with Uncle D and his family. In my sleepy little town, his bookshelf was the best stocked library I could have access to. His tastes were eclectic and he always made great recommendations. On this particular evening he asked me "Didn't you just have your twelfth birthday ?" and I said it had been a week ago.

"Great. No time like now for you to read Catcher in the Rye" he said handing me a well-worn paperback copy of the book. Even before I could flip through it, his sister scooped it out of my hands reprimanding Uncle D as she did so. "Do you have no better sense, D than to give a child this young Catcher in the Rye to read ?" she asked him.

Now Uncle D's sister visited them sometimes and was a formidable woman in every way. She had several master's …

Being Everything

Though I don't own anything Apple, I love the design aesthetics of their products just like many other folks. My Mac-loving co-workers waste no time in buying the latest Apple toy and I am guessing it will be no different with the iPad. So it should not be too long before I get the chance to gawk at one. Despite everything that this device is trying to be, most reviewers seem to see it as a chunkier iPod Touch, listing the many missing features as they gripe.

Anyone who bides their time and does not give into gadget lust is likely to save some money and get a more complete product. Reading the comments on tech blogs has been fun. One woman argues that the iPad is unlikely to be a hit with female Mac-fans because the look of the thing reminds her of a feminine hygiene product. The over-size bezel is not a crowd pleaser either and I can see why. In some ways, this is reminiscent of the over-hyped Windows releases where reality and hype don't quite converge.

Baby Data

Given my line of work plus my natural affinity for it, I tend to drool over data and can even get obsessive about analyzing it. With that said, I am very glad that data is not part of my life outside work. Reading this Wired story about parents collecting all manner of data on their kids using high-tech tools and toys, I felt thankful it was not nearly as easy as clicking a button on the iPhone to collect data on J when she was an infant.

The sacred division between work and life would have been completely obliterated. Needless to say, it would have been a bad thing for both her and I. Instead of being there to enjoy her babyhood, I might have been engrossed in data capture and analysis. Largely for this reason, I did not videotape J when she was a baby - selfishly I wanted to savor those magic moments through my own eyes and preserve them in memory. To record did not seem nearly as important as enjoying the present. For parents like me, the article closes with some wise words of cauti…

Inkpop

Here is how Inkpop bills itself : inkpop is an online community that connects up-and-coming authors with talent spotters and publishing professionals in the teen market. Each month, HarperCollins editors read inkpop's most popular submissions in hopes of discovering the next big thing in teen lit. The best inkpop writers have the potential to land every author's dream: a publishing contract.

Being that the talent scouts are looking for the next big teen-lit phenom and anyone older than thirteen is welcome, this could be a great place for middle and high-school students to post their work - even if they were class assignments.As a gathering place for the literature minded it would be a great way to meet new people and form meaningful friendships. For some kids this may be a welcome alternative to MySpace and other youth-centric social networking options.

The spin on the garden variety voting system to identify the most popular works, is the idea of a Trendsetter - something tha…

Twenty Nine Words

In exactly twenty nine words
is messaged a heart's desire.
Twenty Nine is important in
some ways - it is the day after
the first time ever,
the year of lost love,
the year of new birth,
the day in the fifth month
of meeting one who said
"I like what I see" and
wrapped her in an embrace,
that touched the soul.
Day of the ninth month
when she said to him
"Stay with me tonight"
but watched him leave.
Day of the twelfth month
and he wished the her
the best for the year ahead.
So many twenty nines and one life,
so many moments to treasure
and bury.
Only twenty nine words
to ask if her heart could meet his.

Overshare

Some weeks ago, a woman tweeted about the death of her two year old and got a ton of grief from her followers instead of the emotional support she was possibly seeking. The comments on this story depict the wide range of positions people hold on the issue. The overwhelming consensus being that she was criminally negligent and should have been spending her time watching the child rather than tweeting. But what really upset folks was the fact she tweeted right after the crisis with a "please pray" message.

Social media etiquette is still in the early stages of evolution and people are still figuring out the role it plays in their lives. The very notion of privacy is in upheaval. We are in a world where one can have several thousand friends and followers on-line with whom they share (and frequently overshare) their lives with. Until this tragedy happened this woman would have been considered socially adept and well connected but it took a few minutes to change all that.

I know …

Lost Charm

In his book Falling Of the Map, Pico Iyer writes "When we chose a place to visit, the way a country carries itself and markets itself - the way it knows itself, really - is everything. We flee certain resorts not just because they are touristed but more because they have begun to see themselves through tourists' eyes, to amend themselves to tourists' needs, to carry themselves in capital letters : because in short,  they have simplified themselves into their sense of what a foreigner wants."

He goes on to say that Vietnam "still has the bashful charm of a naturally alluring girl stepping out into bright sunlight after years of dark seclusion"

I could not help drawing a parallel between Iyer's examination of what makes a destination more or less attractive to what makes a person more or less interesting to a potential partner. "Touristed" might translate to having had multiple relationships in the process of trying to find "the one". …

Inspirational Teacher

My grade school classmates have had me on their mailing list for a while. Most of the members are like me - silent receivers of communication who rarely if ever have anything to say to the group. An active but vocal minority have kept this list going for as long as they have.

Recently, one guy K commented in reference to an on going conversation about how much they owe to that one teacher who made the most lasting impression. In his case it was Mrs. P (who would have guessed). He wrote "If she had not kept nagging at me for my sloppy grammar and spelling I would never be where I am today".

When we were in our early teens, I remember K making remarks about Mrs. P that were decidedly tasteless. She was tall and slim ; wore silk or chiffon saris that flattered her shape but in a dignified way. Her makeup was always understated as was her perfume. Mrs. P was one of my style icons growing up and I hated it when K and his buddies said the things they did about her. Apparently with a…

Just Rice

Not to be unnecessarily difficult here, but reading this essay on rice by Jhumpa Lahiri in The New Yorker do beg the questions why and when. First the why - why is this description of preparing pulao so terribly significant when it does not transcend the prosaic to become something larger than a grain (or bowl) of rice.

Given Sugar, Given Salt by Jane Hirshfield comes to mind as do some Odes to food by Pablo Neruda. Closer home (since Lahiri prefers to stick with all things Bengali), there is Sukanto Bhattacharya who wrote :"khudhar rajoye prithibi goddomoy, purnimar chand jeno jholshano ruti" translated very beautifully by Rini Bhattacharya Mehta as :

In the regime of hunger, the earth belongs to prose,
The full moon burns like a loaf of bread.


Now that is a way of looking at food a little differently. I recognize that Neruda, Hirshfield and Bhattacharya are poets and Lahiri is not but what a poet can do with verse, a competent writer should be able to do with prose. Basical…

Sistas And Brethren

Several months ago, I met C a desi man in his early 40s. Since the acquaintance had come about through work, we knew little beyond the other's name and job function. One evening, I had to scuttle from a meeting to pick up J from after-school care. That was when C became aware I was a parent. Soon after he moved on to a different job. In the interim we became aware of each other's single parent status - his two boys lived with their mother.

As we were very clearly not each other's type it was easy for us to get over the initial discomfort that results from our marital status situation to become friendly acquaintances with somewhat  similar challenges. A few weeks into his new job, he called me one day to see if I was up for lunch midway between his workplace and mine. We chatted about work (his and mine) for a bit and then conversation drifted to kids and from there to ex-spouses.
This was the first time I was hearing about his divorce. He had married an Indian woman born and…

Questionable Results

The completely diveregent search results for the same term on Google and Bing would leave the average user confused. They would be forced to pick which provider to trust and that can be fairly subjective. In the context of their use, one or the other may have yielded the more relevant results but that is clearly no indicator of their efficacy or trustworthiness in general. John Battelle has the declining quality of search results among his predictions of 2010.

7. Traditional search results will deteriorate to the point that folks begin to question search's validity as a service. This does not mean people will stop using search - habits do not die that quickly and search will continue to have significant utility. But we are in the midst of a significant transition in search - as I've recently written, we are asking far more complicated questions of search, ones that search is simply not set up to answer. This incongruence is not really fair to blame on search, but so it goes. Ad…

Pointillist Memoir

Taking a years worth of Tweets and converting them into a book has a really poetic name now thanks to Clive Thompson. He refers to it as a pointillist memoir. A better more suitable description would be harder to come by. In the end, the nirvana of all things posted, tweeted or otherwise published on-line is still the good old fashioned book. 

A writer of any stripe still does not feel like one unless they have a real book out there that readers are (hopefully) buying to read. Blogs have been turned to books and it is only fair that tweets get their turn now. Since Facebook status updates have already been converted to art, a coffee table book should not be too far behind. Away messages and status updates can easily make it to a book of quotes.

Even with the internet being so widely available and the ease of publishing (and reading) anything you want on-line, it is no small wonder that a book continues to be venerated as much as it does. This should be heartening news to those in the pu…

Cultural Hegemon

Read two very different articles that touched the theme of popular culture. One tries to fathom Western obsession over Japanese culture and the other titled The End of Influence discusses how American influence on global cultural trends and memes is declining as the country goes deeper into debt. The authors argue, as money goes out the door, so does Hollywood's ability to be the definitive purveyor of cultural narrative :

Hollywood no longer has an inherited, built-in meganarrative -- the presentation of life in modernity in all its weird and quotidian forms: How women walk and speak, houses, murder, seduction, sex, kitchens, raising children, "making it," excursions, courtrooms, shopping centers, schools, hospitals, universities, and office buildings -- the world, perhaps of your future.

In the Boing Boing article, Lisa Katamaya quotes W. David Marx who explains the fascination with "weird" Japan thusly :

"Japan often feels like a hyperextended high-tech ve…

Created Memories

Photoshoping has traditionally had a negative connotation - not unlike airbrushing models on glossy magazines to make them impossible perfect and plastic. In this discussion on the cultural impact of photoshopping, it is described as a neologism :

The term is sometimes used with a derogatory intent by artists to refer to images that have been retouched instead of originally produced. A common issue amongst users of all skill levels is the ability to avoid in one's work what is referred to as "the Photoshop look" (although such an issue is intrinsic to many graphics programs).

This heart-rending Mashable story about one man's request for someone with photoshop skills to remove the oxygen cannula out of a picture of him with his deceased mother who had been suffering from cancer, makes one think of photoshopping in an entirely different light. There are moments in life, that we can no longer relive or make perfect - specially it involved a loved one who is no longer aliv…

Cleaning Brush or Mother

This news story about some orphaned hedgehogs adopting a cleaning brush as their mother is perfect for an illustrated children's book. If I had any skills at sketching cleaning brushes and hedgehogs I might have given it a shot on Storybird. Kids would love the cute factor but there is also a deeper lesson in love, loss and attachment. A chid's favorite stuffed animal or blanket is a lot like this cleaning brush. Children love to use things that belong to their mothers - it is a way for them to be close to her,  feel her presence when she is away.

Toxic Parents

In this DNA article, Geetanjali Jhala covers a very important but rarely discussed facet of desi social life - that of adult children trying to cope with parents with whom they simply don't get along. Indeed, sometimes the coexistence is so stressful that it feels like a punishment  that has no end in sight. The protagonist in Jhala's article is a divorced woman in Mumbai who is unable to make a new relationship work out despite having every desire to do so. The real reason turns out to her difficult relationship with her father with whom she has moved in after her divorce.

Many people who seek help for dysfunctional behaviour find it hard to acknowledge that their parents may be the cause, and that the only remedy may be to move out or even cut themselves off completely."It's in the course of therapy that they realise the depth of their resentment towards their parents," says psychologist Varkha Chulani. "This is buried beneath layers of guilt, because we ar…

Hiss Not Bite

Nothing breaks the magic spell of child's innocence quite as hard as disillusionment with the behavior of an adult - specially one they loved and even considered a role model. This happened with J recently and I had contributed to the situation somewhat tangentially.

If there was one thing I could single that I love the most about J, it would be her sincerity. No matter what the task, she will apply herself to it with enthusiasm and do the best she can. She is also very accommodating of people and circumstances that come into play in the process of doing her work. Whereas another person may get peeved or angry, she will simply work around the issue or the person. Being well-liked is important to J so she will avoid a being unpleasant even when provoked quite a bit. While all of those are good qualities to have, sometimes it can become too much of a good thing. There is a point of inflection where being tolerant starts to look like weakness and being considerate equals being a push…

Advice Giving

I often seek advice from people and try to have my sample set be as diverse as possible. It gives me a chance to hear all sides (hopefully) of the story before making any decision. This has usually worked out well for me and I learn more about the people who are offering their two cents on the problem at hand. Read this interesting post on the economics of advice at Marginal Revolution and liked this line in particular : The advice-giving mode mobilizes insights which otherwise remain dormant, perhaps for fear of falsification or ridicule or of actually influencing people.

That would explain why I have heard the most profound thoughts from those I least expected to hear them from and have been proportionately disappointed by the facile arguments of those I thought could do much better than that. Indeed the best advice can come from the most unexpected quarters. Back in India, our illiterate domestic help of many years, had more wisdom to offer than a lot of highly educated people arou…

Avatar

Watched Avatar in 3D this past weekend and was quite bedazzled by the technology. The story and the movie itself did not impress nearly as much. It seemed like the re-enactment of America's history with an alternate ending on a far away planet in the future. We have a Pochahontas in Neytiri who by falling in love with the enemy drags a great calamity to the doorstep of her people. However, things end a lot more happily for the Na'vi people on Pandora than they did for the Native Americans - an act of cinematic expiation almost.

The way history may have been idea is wonderful in concept but the execution is deeply flawed at best. Bestowing the human-like inhabitants on Pandora with tails made me wonder why that was necessary - given the all too obvious parallels. Was Cameron trying to imply a less evolved life-form with deficient brains to match - a combination responsible for the fate that befalls them. In as such, is it not a slap on the face of native, indigenous populations …

Common Sense Challenge

Egregious is the only word that comes to mind reading this NYT story about Walmart and
H & M slashing their unsold clothes before throwing them away to make sure no one gets to use them. Forget about being a good corporate citizen or giving back to the community, this even flies in the face of common sense.

If they have no use for it and will trash clothes (that armies of underpaid, over-worked workers in third world sweat-shops had helped produce), it would seem logical that they would give it away to anyone who could use it. Clearly the solution is not nearly as obvious.

There is certain maliciousness about this thing - it is as if they don't care as much about the losses as they do about frustrating would-be free-loaders that refused to buy that stuff even at 90% mark-downs. The idea is perhaps to teach them a lesson on the consequences of not buying when they had a chance to. If they set such a precedent, penny pinching customers might wait it out until they can get their …

Wakefulness To Slumber

Having had a companion for a short period in my life and known long, empty stretches of singleness before and after, I understand what Vicki Iovine's means when she says "how desperate I clearly am to distract myself from the frightening journey from wakefulness to slumber".

The day starts at the crack of dawn with every minute fully accounted for. If anything slips by a minute or and inch, the ripples of imbalance spread through the day. Like two cogs in a wheel ( I would say dancers, were it not that I had two left feet) J and I try to work in concert , get the out the door and into the world to do what we must. I earn a living, she gets a schooling. My 9-5 is a blur of  balancing fragile egos, conflicting and often confusing demands on my time while getting work done. Then when it's all over,  I go pick J up, catch up on her day, have dinner get some time to read , write and relax with J. 

The house turns absolutely silent once J is tucked into bed. I can hear the l…

Paperless or Green

Every time I see someone add to their signature line something along the lines of  "Please do not print this email unless you need to. Save the planet", I wonder how much more it was in electronic transmission and storage cost to send those emails out complete with there bright green logo in rich text format.

Were the math worked out would it help the planet more for these green folk to stop the "friendly reminders" and have the recipients do their worst and print the email. I reuse paper always but don't see the point of such cautionary notes. Being paperless as it turns out is not the ultimate green act.

The mind has inbuilt biases that incline us to think that what's new, light, and quiet must be less burdensome than what is old, heavy and noisy, so it's easy to feel green by reading off a screen. But being green often turns out to require rigorous thought and well-collected information, not trusting intuition.

Dr Devdutt Pattanaik

A lot has been written by children of FOB parents about their coming of age in the west while being brown and sometimes Hindu. Unfortunately, I have found little if any practical use for it. Much of this genre of writing is about the consequences of omissions, mistakes, short-sightedness and such on the part of the FOB parent. While it is great to know what not to do for and to our children born in the west, what we really need is help to get it right.

For me, that help came in the way of a website I ran into some time ago. It belongs to Dr. Devdutt Pattanaik who among other things is Chief Belief Officer for the Future Group. Browsing through the articles on his website, I found the thought process and style of writing that would resonate with any young person who is curious about Hinduism irrespective of where they are born or raised. For a parent, there is a lot to learn too - understanding the underpinnings of Hindu mythology and more importantly how to introduce children to it.

Fine Math

Reading this article on the bizarre math for calculating traffic fines in Finland, I could help wondering how such a system might work out in other countries if they could even get to the point of implementing it. It is hard to imagine how the citizenry is not up in arms protesting the inequity - specially those who are hit the hardest by it. As it turns out an overwhelming majority think it is quite okay. When a culture and a people have such an high bar for egalitarianism, it would probably reflect in all areas of civic society making them a great role model for other societies. In considering Finland as a blue print for American society, Robert G. Kaiser writes :

In the end I concluded that Finnish society could not serve as a blueprint for the United States. National differences matter. Ours is a society driven by money, blessed by huge private philanthropy, cursed by endemic corruption and saddled with deep mistrust of government and other public institutions. Finns have none of t…

Make Electronics

Reading Charles Platt's Make: Electronics took me back to my engineering school days and had me wishing that I had read this book back then instead of now. Platt makes clear the translation from science and technology into real world applications - a connection textbooks focused on a specific topic don't always try to make.The book makes an excellent primer for those who will end up studying the subject in a lot more detail for four years (or more). In about 300 pages, the reader would have grasped most of the essentials that will stand them in good stead no matter what they intend to do next.

For a reader curious about electronics only to the point that it helps her to try some DIY projects, this book goes a considerable distance beyond fostering that casual acquaintance. If you are a student who will study electronics as as engineering discipline, Platt's coverage that runs the gamut from the science fundamentals to the cautionary notes when trying to build a circuit will…

Above The Fold

Some places I have worked, the usability experts have sworn by keeping all content above the fold. It was one of those golden rules that simply could not be violated. Entire websites were designed (or re-designed) with this goal in mind and often the end product was an eyesore. Yet all the content that mattered was above the fold just as the experts had decreed.

I had long wondered about this conundrum. Read an article recently that does an amazing job of explaining why this happens and also why this whole "over the fold" business is more than a little over-rated. Specially loved the design tips the author provides to encourage scrolling. 

Goes to prove that becoming dogmatic about anything including technology is not a good idea. It simply closes the door to fresh, new ways of thinking and forces a certain type of solution for all problems irrespective of the fit.

Mishti Doi

When my parents were visiting with us a few months ago, my mother told J a Bengali folk tale in which Mishti Doi plays a very critical role. Indeed, the protagonist finds this particular delicacy so irresistible that he forgets some important promises and thus the story.

Now, ever since J heard about the indescribable delights of Mishti Doi and it's ability to induce momentary lapse of reason, she has been clamoring to taste it. My mishti making skills are non-existent and in the backwaters where I live, there is no way I could buy her some from a desi (Bangladeshi more likely) store.

The craving for this unseen, untasted and yet supremely tempting treat has grown manifold since Grandma left and I am left with the daunting  task of producing it somehow. I figured it would not be too difficult to find a recipe and give it a shot - what's the worst someone (even if that person was me) could so with yogurt, sugar and cream anyway.

So I looked up some recipes and among the first t…

Measy

I have almost always depended on geeks at my workplace to help me find the right gadget and I don't need a whole lot to keep me functional. Mostly they have been happy to help but occasionally they have expressed frustration at my inability to articulate a tech spec. My point is why do I need a geek if I can do that myself ?

Measy is ideal for people like myself who can describe what they are looking for without being able to get to specifics. There is way too much technology out there for the average person to keep up with - specially when they come inside of gadgets with a mind-boggling array of functions. Having an online need to product translator is a wonderful thing.

I test drove the site answering the questions for finding a digital camera and liked the results. All questions are in simple English that pose no challenge to comprehension. The only other thing I may have liked is a few more options - or maybe my criteria narrowed the field to one.

2010

One way to start a day, a year and decade

New Year's Day--
everything is in blossom!
I feel about average. 


- Kobayashi Issa

Or others ways also in haiku but little more uplifting even if not quite as perfect.

Or perhaps to start the year resolving to take the leap the faith, take those last few steps.

This bridge will only take you halfway there
To those mysterious lands you long to see:
Through gypsy camps and swirling Arab fairs
And moonlit woods where unicorns run free.
So come and walk awhile with me and share
The twisting trails and wondrous worlds I've known.
But this bridge will only take you halfway there-
The last few steps you'll have to take alone. 


– Shel Silverstein

Or be thankful for the small blessings and little miracles that happen from day to day.

A very happy New Year to you !