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Showing posts from April, 2019

Building Robots

Great Wired story about the need for robotic automation in the construction industry. Lot of interesting insights

By comparing the cost and time spent on human-built walls to walls built by robots, we found that as the level of complexity increases, automation pays off. Additionally, in the robot-built walls, architects, designers, engineers, and contractors had more flexibility to make late-stage adjustments without greatly increasing costs or causing delays. 

The future of architecture enabled by such automation could create structures we could have had built before. The height of perfection would be when robots could build an average person a home that looks like it were designed by Zaha Hadid. I like imagining a world in which a city's skyline would have the vibrancy and diversity of beautiful land-forms.

Airbnb Stories

Yet another cautionary tale about the chaotic gig economy. Part of the standard Airbnb check-in process will now include a sweep for hidden surveillance devices. There will be apps for this specific purpose in no time that will allow the guest to gather evidence and report the infractions. Once that issue is solved, there will no doubt be others - there are plenty of horror stories around

The whole system is based on the premise that most people will do the right thing most of the time - guests and hosts. While that be a fundamentally sound premise, things start to get wonky as the numbers climb and the processes that once worked begin to fail. And the companies in question try not to solve the problems until a critical mass is achieved. Easier to apologize and return to business as usual as Facebook has demonstrated time and again. The players in the gig economy have to find a way to make this work despite all the bad press swirling around.

New Collar

Could not agree more with the idea of mashing up vocation and academics. College is no talisman for success in future life no matter how well-known the brand. Kids need to have learned skills that they can ply in the job market no matter what their college diploma. The more disconnected the education from what makes money in the real world, the bigger the chasm for the freshly minted college graduate. Many parents myself included simply cannot take that leap of faith and encourage their kids to take such a "unconventional" path. We hold on to the idea of a college diploma as being something sacrosanct without which our kids would be hobbled for life. 

As responsible parents we need to enable them to launch into the world fully functional. As the author points out, this idea may be out of touch with the times and there are kids who really cannot get a lot of their college education. If they are already working adult jobs while still in high-school, the case for college as step…

Checkout Line

I was waiting my turn at the grocery checkout line yesterday when the woman ahead of me got curious about some of my purchases and wanted to know how I would use them to cook. As we chatted the people behind me listened in too. For a moment I felt like I was giving an impromptu cooking lesson connecting with strangers through sauces and spices they were not familiar with. The cashier when she rung up my items asked a couple of questions too. Just one person acting on their natural curiosity, deciding to ask a stranger a question lead to some social interaction that would have otherwise not occurred. I learned for instance, some brands of cat food can smell and taste very good even to humans.

The woman who asked me about the gochujang sauce I had bought may experiment with it next time and if it went well, venture even further afield into unfamiliar cuisines. In ethnic grocery stores, I often see what the locals are buying and just follow their example. Language barriers make it harder …

Cobbler's Son

I met a high school history teacher recently who is married to a math one. From what I could tell they were both the kind of teachers kids would love - able to make their subjects engaging and relevant. It was interesting to hear that their own struggles with raising three kids who are now sixteen and older, are not too different from those of the rest of us. 

Being part of the school system where they come into contact with hundreds of kids every day, and being educators themselves does help as much as one would expect. He talked about his youngest son being checked out into the world of video gaming and how the computerization of school work is working against his own kids. They take every short cut they can, don't read real books, don't aspire to really learn - his youngest had not a book in all of the past year - and so on. 

If I did not know what he and his wife did for a living, none of this would come as any surprise. Almost every parent has the same problem in some varia…

Evil Exams

Interesting and sad read on an unique manifestation of exam anxiety. The depth of despair is clear: 

The exam season is a highly stressful time for students because failing the tests means having to stay in school another year to retake them. Each year, the pressure from these tests are so high that last year some students even wrote, on the comment section of the Ministry of Education and Culture's Instagram account, that the tests made them want to die

The use of exams to pass/fail kids or sort them on a scale to determine their eventual fate, classify them as gifted or not are all inherently stressful exercises for kids and the parents. Yet when a large population has to be processed for decision making there is no other economical and standardized way that would appear somewhat equitable. What we gain in illusion of equity we lose in the quality of outcomes. The larger the throughput of the system, the worse the outcomes and also the opportunity for the privileged few to game …

Doing Right

Such a wonderful and heart-warming idea to pack unused food to take home for kids in need. My sensitivity to food and water waste is stronger than ever. In the past, it was derived from having seen hunger up-close and having suffered from water scarcity personally. It touched a raw nerve to see a running faucet no one was using and I rushed to turn it off. 

Lately, it has been about my own footprint on earth and asking the question what gives me the right to consume -if I had earned it through my own efforts.This thinking has made me reluctant to buy any more than I need of anything; be grateful for the warm shower and the well-stocked pantry. It helps never to take these things for granted - the bigger problems in life appear adjusted to their appropriate size and weight on such a scale. They become much easier to deal with.

Two Friends

Two events occurred this past month. A good friend turned a year older and she continues to be happily single on most days. The other one lost her husband to a serious illness. She has a kid a few years younger than mine. Both women were my classmates and at such different places in their lives that it is hard to imagine we once had a lot more in common than our age. I thought about the last time we were all together - so many years ago. Our hopes and dreams in life had been a lot closer back then even though we were very different people. We all wanted to grow up, be independent and begin our lives separate from our parents. The future was fuzzy and unknown - we could only see as far as the next step and sometimes not even that. 

Both of my friends have followed their real passions and are very happy doing what they do for a living. Yet the passage of time has carved them into entities completely unlike each other and unlike me. And we all continue to diverge even further as defining …

Fading Coolness

Interesting article about why start-ups are not cool anymore. The reasons are varied but the start-ups ideas are not that cool either. Mostly derivative of ideas that have succeeded before or it is an Uber-for or a Netflix-for something else. Stephen Harrison in the Atlantic article, writes: 

While the Austrian American economist Joseph Schumpeter is best known for his 1942 paper describing his theory of “creative destruction,” the process of disrupting existing industries through business innovation or technological change, few people know about another prediction he made: He believed that innovation would gradually become an embedded process within large corporations. In many ways, Schumpeter predicted the internal innovation hubs of corporate giants like Amazon and SAP. With incumbents making innovation part of their established routines, he theorized, they would gradually squeeze out the traditional entrepreneur.

There may be another factor at play that is working against the tradit…

Measuring Waste

Love the idea of having food waste quantified for accountability and possible action. Reading this reminded me of the documentary True Cost about the true cost of cheap, street fashion. Despite what we may know about this issue, buying ethical is not always possible. As this article says:

Recently, I stared myself down in a dressing room mirror, unable to justify spending $270 on an ethically made dress. As much as I wanted to buy it, I couldn’t afford to, so I sulked back to H&M to try to find a consolation prize. The five women who I interviewed about their shopping habits all confirmed that their “loyalty” to brands like The Gap, H&M, and Primark boils down to pricing and the difficulty of finding ethical brands that fit their budget

Many can relate to this. My own solution to the problem is to buy as little as possible and hang on to what I have as long as possible. This means, short-lived fashion is never on the menu for me. I may admire it from afar but I would never spend…

The Bag

As a rite of passage into adult life and independent womanhood, I asked J if she may like a basic Kate Spade bag. I never had one but have always considered them chic and classy - just perfect for a young lady on her first job interview. As we talked about this we realized it left us both feeling sad.  Much in the same way that watching Robin Williams in Dead Poet's Society is now a sad experience. It is one of our favorite movies tinged with a stain that just can't go away. I have not been able to watch Parts Unknown since the passing of Anthony Bourdain. 

What started as conversation about buying a bag ended up being about mental health and how its easy to be astounded when someone takes their life but sometimes impossible to know they experienced so much pain or were in desperate for help. A few years ago, a kid that J knew committed suicide. No one saw it coming, the kids that were closest to him felt guilty about not knowing - not being there for him. Those who were only a…

Venvy

Have never used Venmo but learned a new word reading this story. It seems like social media of all stripes have the default setting of "enable voyeurism" and this meets user expectations for the most part. 

There are hoops to jump through to gain some illusion of privacy. Real privacy is simply not possible in an environment where the likes of Facebook leave passwords in plaintext for years and think nothing about it. Clearly impact to users is not a priority - they need to better spend their resources learning how best to control the minds of those who spend time on their assets. The venvy situation is a very curious one. 

After Facebook and Instagram no surprise that the logical next step in the culture of over-sharing would be to show the world how and where you spend your money. Maybe we fundamentally crave the village mode of living where everyone was in everyone's business and there was no real notion of privacy. There was no way to feel alone as no one was truly ind…

Hygge

Good learning about a new word I read somewhere today. Hygge seems to be the way people would live if their world was still as simple as it once used to be. For instance, it reminded me of the sunny winter days of my childhood when we spread out our cotton quilts in the balcony to soak up the warmth. After lunch, I would spread out a thick mat on the floor of the balcony and cocoon into the toasty quilt. There is nothing in the world for me as hygge as those preparing for those naps. 

Over the years, I have tried to re-create that slice of childhood and found it to be an impossible task. India of my childhood is ancient history. I would not know where to find the place where I could doze off to sleep lulled by the sounds of sparrows chirping, the occasional breeze rustling the leaves of the pipal tree undisturbed by any man-made sounds. 

My life was far from perfect back then but in that hour that I napped, every trouble took flight and I experienced a perfect peace. In my home here, th…

Election Tourism

There is almost nothing the jugaad-minded desi cannot monetize. The election jamboree is apparently the next tourist attraction. If things cannot change for the better, might as well make some money along the way. 

Given a lemon the enterprising desi will not rest at making lemonade out of it, they will do better and produce a limoncello cake out of and sell it to the very person who handed them the lemon in the first place. Got to give credit where it is due. The value proposition of the desi election tourism is explained thusly:

While our tourists get to see the largest democracy in action and sometimes, ride with politicians in their jeeps or experience flower showers, the politicians also appreciate having foreigners in their rallies.” Election Tourism offers various packages across India(‘Northeast Egalitarianism’, ‘Maharashtra Political Tour’, the ‘Liberal Government of Gujarat’ which is honestly WTF and LOL at the same time).

It is unlikely that Manish Sharma, chairman of Election…

Lost Words and Food

Loved this long essay on Urdu, India and more. The author's beautiful prose made me want to read some of her other writing including this one about Dalit food and its omission from India cuisine. Deepak cites some creative cooking as in these passages:

“We couldn’t afford oil, so we would grind peanuts and use them to cook,” says Shahu Patole, the author of  Anna He Apoornabrahma, a book that chronicles the food cultures of the Mang and Mahar communities in Marathwada from 1950 to 1972. “I still do this.”

Shahu writes about the keen inventiveness of his community: Bee larvae plucked from walls, and faashi, the epiglottis of the goat—both delicacies. A dish made from the dill easily foraged in the village was common, as were onions toasted on an open grill, and chutneys made from fat chilies pounded into a fiery slush with salt.

Given that both sides of my family were refugees to India at the time of partition, this notion of creativity and thrift aimed at using every single bit of a …

Priced Right

Reading this article about algorithmic price fixing made me check my Saved For Later list of items on Amazon yet again. I keep an eye on this list to see if Amazon is going to ever try to bait me with a the price that is exactly what I would be willing to pay. There are some categories where my returns have have been way more frequent than others - possibly signaling interest but inability to find what I like at a price that I like. Indeed, I have been notified of price drops on almost everything that sits in that list but it has never been good enough to trigger a purchase. 

Just as Amazon wants to learn me and the millions of other customers they have, we have a right to engage in this kind of staring contest to learn their AI and ideally get it to do what we want. If we ceased to be paranoid and stopped engaging algorithms in ways that we can, the outcomes could be much worse. Amazon was routinely offering me rewards to deliver what I had purchased on  a delayed schedule. These were…

Flowing Data

One of my favorite ways to waste my time is looking at these beautiful, fluid charts in Flowing Data. The questions they try to answer eclectic and always interesting for a geek like me. I can see how for some, these investigations could be pointless - nothing can be materially accomplished by knowing these stories the data is telling. Yet, there is something special about bringing social sciences, culture and analysis together to get a sense of humankind to the extent possible. 

I particularly love the analysis of the ingredients from cuisines from around the world. Recently, I was reading about the cuisine of Reunion Island, where cultures overlaid and bled into each other to create a particularly unique taste palate. It was interesting to see the analysis from Flowing Data on ingredients use in this context. If the cuisine of any cultural melting pot is analyzed in a time-lapse format, it would be interesting to what external factors and events impacted the ebb and tide of specific …

Gifted by Nikita Lalwani

I started read Gifted by Nikita Lalwani unsure what to expect beyond immigrant angst abroad - a tale told by many with few redeeming qualities of good literature. Lalwani tells a compelling story, her words land with a sort of blunt force, there is no glossing over ugliness but no self-pity either. 

Her characters and not merely brown and conflicted in Britain. While they are a product of their cultural roots and upbringing, their struggles are universal that being brown has little to do with. One passage from the book that I particularly loved was Lalwani's description of the over-zealous father, Mahesh. This man had only ever pushed his mathematically gifted daughter to excel academically. Lalwani talks of his mental state when he realizes what a distance he has unwittingly put between himself and his daughter Rumi. Sherene is his wife.

He had left Sherene sleeping on the right-hand side of the bed and gone to stand outside Rumi’s room, watching her sleep through the crack in the …

Helping Teens

Interesting read from Pew Research Center on the challenges of being a teen in America. The last four years with J have been a roller-coaster and I was fortunate to have an even-keeled kid that was largely focused on what is next in her life. But I have heard stories about the struggles the article talks about. Some of my closest friends have very bright kids that as they say "not ready to launch" go to college for a variety of reasons. 

The parents appear to be doing all the right things, they genuinely care about the kid and yet something in the ecosystem proves to be so destabilizing that nothing works anymore. It's almost like there is this mystery magic switch if triggered on time can really turn things around. But it seems impossible to find in that crazy period of a kid's life that high school tends to be. If things had moved by an hour or an inch the outcomes could be totally different. So the adults at their wits end trying to balance and re-balance the equat…

Familiar Places

J's favorite restaurant in town is a tiny hole in the wall place on a side street with a ton of pot-holes. The place is always full but the owners know us well and try to get us our favorite table located behind a glass wall. They also know her order which has not changed in the last several years. The food is fresh and consistent in quality - no surprises ever. I like the place but I would much rather try new things, places we have not been and unfamiliar cuisine. The joy of being a regular is deeply tied to comfort and predictability. Every bit of the experience is about the familiar rituals. Even the smallest deviations take away from it and leave the person feeling robbed of what they most value. 

Such was our experience the last time we had dinner here. Under new management, they have made several improvements but the quality of the food remains just as good as before. The service is more efficient but J missed seeing the faces she has grown familiar with and not having to nam…

Joy of Photography

I used to be decent with the camera once but rarely take pictures anymore. The joy has been wiped out of it in degrees - first with digital cameras and then with smartphones. The posts on this forum suggest this is a common problem. When traveling, I don't bother with taking pictures of places or the scenery because I only need to Google for much better quality ones in mind boggling numbers. There seems no need to add to the clutter unless I have a truly exceptional perspective. If I wanted to remember the places I have seen, searching online is easier than rummaging through the clutter of my phone.

My last worthy subject was J as a child. It was indeed an unique perspective with no alternate sources that told its story. I cherish those pictures unlike any other. Once she was old enough to take a decent selfie, there seemed to be little value in my efforts. In her "self-portraits" J was able to be who she was at that point in time. Those pictures were expressive in a way …

Lunch Hour

I meet my friend T for lunch after four years and we both live in the same town. We had almost no contact during this time. We have plenty in common and have lots to talk about and yet we don't try harder to stay in touch. Almost every woman I am friends with fits this profile - they are unfailingly there for me in my time of need but can be totally unavailable on ordinary days. I told T she made me feel like a rescue project that could not be dropped until the job was done - she saw me out of my crisis and then checked out for years. She has been through more than one crisis of her own since I last saw her and it made me sad that I did not come to mind, that she did not want to reach out to me. 

Made me wonder if I was too removed from her way of life to be any use when she was truly distressed. Even today when she told me about the tumultuous past two years, I did have trouble relating. The circumstances in my life where I have received valuable counsel from T were much more pede…

The Story of EHR

Death by a thousand clicks is a very long and sad read. EHR implementation tragedy the article describes has all the markings of a giant integration project gone horribly wrong. 

Rather than an electronic ecosystem of information, the nation’s thousands of EHRs largely remain a sprawling, disconnected patchwork. Moreover, the effort has handcuffed health providers to technology they mostly can’t stand and has enriched and empowered the $13-billion-a-year industry that sells it.

As it typical in such situations, the vendors who need to inter-operate ping-pong blame and patch the most glaring defects as expediently as they can.The result is the unholy mess that is described here

What worries the doctor most is the ease with which diligent, well-meaning physicians can make serious medical errors. She noted that the average ER doc will make 4,000 mouse clicks over the course of a shift, and that the odds of doing anything 4,000 times without an error is small. “The interfaces are just so con…

Frictionless Returns

Nice article on the future of delivery robots and how it may change consumer behavior. The author says

If the arrival of automated delivery robots could lower the effort to sell or return goods to the minimal amount it now takes to buy them, users might exchange products through a new kind of logistical network that would make the process of acquiring and trading physical objects as frictionless as that of downloading and deleting digital files. Users might trade products among themselves through new kinds of logistical networks — a kind of peer-to-peer sharing for physical objects.

I have very little use for a mall already and grocery shopping is the only thing that still requires a trip to the physical store. For many years I arranged by life in a way that I could pack my belongings into the trunk of an SUV and be on my way. Anything more than that was too much. That continues to be my ideal footprint of existence. Maybe in the future it will become an achievable reality for many.

The …

Servant Economy

Uber for X is indeed another way to describe a servant economy as this Atlantic article points out. Madrigal points out to what ails the idea of Uber for X in general

The basic economics of moving human beings and stuff around the physical world at the touch of a button is not an obviously profitable enterprise. 

An unkind summary, then, of the past half decade of the consumer internet: Venture capitalists have subsidized the creation of platforms for low-paying work that deliver on-demand servant services to rich people, while subjecting all parties to increased surveillance.

As with any servant service, when the market is inundated with providers, it becomes a race to the bottom with the consumer demanding the lowest price possible. The conditions become ripe for the servants to seek other job options. And as they gain upward mobility and flee the the servant service market, the consumer has to pay more for less. Comes a time when the convenience gained is not matched by the cost of se…

Estranged by Movies

The comment about movies in this Guardian article could apply to a lot of other things

Movies have been more like a secret vice, the first and most invasive of the technologies that have progressively estranged us from one another. 

I grew up in small-town India in pre-internet times and my escape of choice was reading. I was completely indiscriminate and would read just about anything. Read first and judge later (if at all). It was just great to have an escape into the world of an unfamiliar cast of characters that came along with a book. There were plenty of other kids like me - sometimes we shared the love of the same book and talked about it. As we grew older, our tastes started to diverge, for some of us the love of reading became a relic of childhood. By our twenties, what we read often "estranged us from one another" instead of creating moments of intense bonding as it once did.

I knew of a lot of avid readers in college who were fundamentally lonely people. They had a m…

Passage of Time

A bit of long read on the need to reclaim time, but there are some interesting insights

Time has also become completely disconnected from the very celestial bodies clocks were first developed to track. Can you look at the time and know where the sun is without looking for it, or when the moon will rise tonight and what phase it will be in? Probably not. Time now is a measurement of chronological distance to work or a meeting, the imminence of waking or the imperative of sleep.
That is, clock-time no longer measures our temporal relationship to nature, but instead regulates our daily activities in relationship to capitalism. Clocks tell us when we need to go to work, when it’s time for lunch, when we need to wake up, when we really should go to sleep. We don’t do those things when we want to, we do them when others have determined they should be done. Those others aren’t the sun, stars, planets and moon of the pagan and animist worlds, but the bosses, the owners, the managers, and the ba…

Magic Spell for Bad Days

I wish I had known this wonderful hack when J was younger and came home "pouty". Though these events were relatively infrequent, they could take up all the air in the room for as long as the episode lasted. The remedy described here is almost a hundred percent sure to work if used on a child of the right age:
I made Alex run around and get a glass of water, a pen and two pieces of paper. I asked him to draw the moon (with as much realistic detail as possible) on one piece of paper and tape it on the wall. On the other piece, I made him write as many bad words (including swears!) as he could while I timed him, then crumple it up and put it in the glass of water. While the paper disintegrated, he had to tell me what had gone wrong that day. He told me about a misunderstanding with his teacher, and then I made him spin around five times while listening to Led Zeppelin’s ‘The Ocean.’
I am in awe of parents who are so creative and are able to take unpleasant situations like the one…

Wired House

Must have missed this news from almost a year ago about Amazon making it possible to buy smart homes. Was not enough to have Dash buttons, Alexa and video doorbells, now they want to be pre-fabricated into the house before you even buy it. This is way 1984 and given the pace of encroachment it won't be surprising if in a few years you could not even build a house from scratch and not have it be smart. 

The drywall, plumbing, blinds, doors, and windows could all be wired to improve the quality of your life. While that may be a road too far, it might be useful if the guts of your house could speak to you and tell you where problems were before they became expensive repair projects. Like a house health diagnostic solution. There are water leaking monitors out there for a while now but it could be extended to other things.

Keurig for Ice-Cream

On-demand ice-cream sounds like absolute heaven. The contraption is described thusly:

Much like pod-based coffee machines, the LG Snow White will use special pods. It will then be able to create a variety of frozen desserts including but not limited to ice cream, gelato, sorbets, and even frozen yogurt.

If this vision became affordable reality, it would become possible to indulge in ice-cream as a bite-sized treat (as it is meant to be) instead of going through as big a tub as you can lay your hands on - all in one go. Not that everyone has a portion control problem with ice-cream but it is indeed a real challenge for many. While ice-cream makers abound in the market, the portion size, ease of creation and variety seem to be the most compelling features of Snow White.There are other guilty pleasures in life that could become more benign if similarly controlled for serving size.