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Showing posts from May, 2019

Being Smart

This article mentions some very sensible use of technology aimed at farmers in Africa. The commonsense quotient of each example is amazingly high compared to anything we read about in the world of "innovation" more locally in America. 
These are real problems needing to be solved, not a solution smacked on a problem that did not exist until the founder informed us of its existence. It takes no imagination or particular expertise to understand the business case for The Widim Pump for instance
The Widim Pump, made by a Dakar firm called Nano Air, is a box controlled by SMS messages that a farmer sends to manage his irrigation system.
The savings are substantial, even for poor peasant families, says Oumar Basse, a 27-year-old engineer and the company's co-founder.
"There's no more need for the farmer to walk several kilometers every day or use up fuel or hire someone to monitor the pumps. 
"He can switch on the water or turn off the supply using his mobile phone.&q…

Baby Talk

Nice article on the value of using big vocabulary words with kids. I do it instinctively whenever I talk to a child. If it was their first exposure to a word I am using and they do not understand, I see them trying hard to stay in the conversation using context clues. Even without a full understanding they are able to engage. From my limited experience, it seems that they enjoy being spoken to as if they were adults and there was not need to pulverize their word diet into baby talk. 

After a while, they try to mimic the same way of talking - acting equal and grown-up. I have saved baby talk for the littlest ones - not quite able to communicate beyond coos, gurgles and smiles. They seem to appreciate the exaggerated gestures and big tonal inflections that go with such talk. If you can break into impromptu song and dance even better. The level of animation in the speech is what gets their attention- that and repeating sounds that make them giggle.

Fumblecore

Interesting article on the future of gaming. Fumblecore are games that are impossible to win. Instead of the the absurd set up of bear driving car and trying to catch fish, may make sense to simulate more real-life problems with no solutions. They abound in our personal and professional lives - and we often consult friends and family on them. Often the advice converges allowing you to formulate a response to the problem that aligns with the crowd's wisdom. Yet there are times, when no two people are agreed on resolution leaving you more confused than ever.

This is the ideal "fumblecore" to gamify situations people run into in their daily lives. Each fail may give the player a new idea they can mull over. They will not need to frustrate and alienate just about everyone they know rehashing their issue over and over. After a dozen fails, it may become evident that the problem lies not in the situation they find themselves in but in one of the series of events that lead them …

Bad Blood

I read Bad Blood in a couple of days - it is breathtaking stuff. Much to learn from the story for just about anyone - this has all the makings of an epic. These lines towards the end of the book summarize how Holmes got as far as she did and will likely make a comeback too

..watching her confidently walk the audience through her sleek slide show helped crystallize for me how she’d gotten this far: she was an amazing saleswoman. She never once stumbled or lost her train of thought. She wielded both engineering and laboratory lingo effortlessly and she showed seemingly heartfelt emotion when she spoke of sparing babies in the NICU from blood transfusions. Like her idol Steve Jobs, she emitted a reality distortion field that forced people to momentarily suspend disbelief.

Jobs was only peddling a phone or some portable music. Even if the worst happened, it would hardly kill a person. Incorrect results from a blood test could easily do that. Carreyrou makes this point in his epilogue:

Hyping…

Rotten Things

While tossing out a rotten potato from my pantry that was making a nasty stink, it occurred to me that it only takes one such potato in the workplace for it to turn from healthy to unbearable. Poor leadership is often accompanied by a pervasive atmosphere of mistrust and fear. 

Bring to this environment middle-aged, mid-career people saddled with responsibilities of children, mortgage, aging parents, healthcare needs and more, you have the makings of a place where the stench from the rotten potato permeates everywhere.

You remove the source of the problem and it may be too late already. I had to eventually lose a few more questionable potatoes from the pantry and clean up after to clear the air. Sometimes it turns out that the whole bag needs to go - within the next few days. The parallels to the toxic workplace and a bag of potatoes are numerous and fascinating.

Giving Credit

Interesting reading on Ars about invisibility cloaks as used by ancient Romans. I found this assessment by a modern physicist a bit arrogant

"I doubt that the builders of structures in that era intentionally designed their buildings to be earthquake resistant, or even that they were able to unconsciously evolve their designs over time to make them more secure—the time scales seem too short. I could imagine, however, that there might be a sort of 'natural selection' that occurred, where megastructures built with inadvertent earthquake cloaking might have survived longer than their counterparts, allowing us to see their remains now."

Recorded history is not complete, accurate or unbiased. Who is to say that the ancients did not have a good understanding of wave propagation, mechanics and material science. Maybe they had the opportunity to ponder long and hard about phenomenon in the natural world, arrive at logical conclusions that they could extrapolate in different way…

Three Souls

Loved reading this poem by Denver Buston about three people waiting to board a bus - specially how it ends:


It takes the three some time to board the bus what with the flames and water and ice But when they finally climb the stairs and take their seats the driver doesn't even notice that none of them has paid because he is tortured by visions and is wondering if the man who got off at the last stop was really being mauled to death by wild dogs.I have no idea what the poet had in mind when he wrote this. To me it was about watching a fellow human in a crisis they are oblivious to. And yet, being constrained by our circumstances so badly that we cannot act, certainly not on time. I was thinking of a young lady I know who exhibited all signs of being in a relationship where the man was indifferent to her at every level. I watched her overextend and over-invest herself for the longest time and yet said nothing. I felt lack of confidence and proper standing in advising another woman on…

Closed Captions

I can't remember the last time I watched a movie without closed captions. Matter of fact, if there are no captions, I would go find something else to watch. Assumed this is what everyone does but never wondered why.  This article summarizes the results of a survey that asked people the reasons why. Lot of interesting insights including this one:

it as paranoid and obsessive-compulsive behaviour of “postmodern completists” as facilitated by new technological possibilities. 

I seem to follow the action on the screen better with close captions acting as an assist to following the dialog even if in English. I presume that is because it is my second language and in a sense I mentally classify it as "foreign". I do not like looking at captions when the movie is an Indian language I understand. The quality of the translation becomes very distracting after a point. With English captions seem to make the most sense. I have the same words I hear appearing on the screen creating some…

Fighting Irrelevance

If people were to routinely live to be over  a hundred, society would need to adapt in many ways as this article points out. Aging and irrelevance often go together. The primary bread-winner and authoritarian patriarch finds himself without status when he can no longer get himself to the bathroom without help. But the loss of status and relevance happens in degrees as people are unable to adjust to their age and phase in life. 

If a woman who once ran a large and successful business can bring herself to be the primary care-giver of her grandchildren without missing a beat, she may well elevate her status within the family. Her accomplishments in business did not offer benefits to a bawling three year old in a stand-off with a sibling over a toy. In her new role, she may be able to use her master negotiator skills to bring peace between the two and move the day along for all concerned. Knowing that grandma is in charge, the parents of these kids can focus on their professional and marit…

Contingent Education

This Atlantic story about how adjuncts are being treated in American colleges makes for a depressing read. They too have fallen victim to the gig economy 

Nowhere has the up-classing of contingency work gone farther, ironically, than in one of the most educated and (back in the day) secure sectors of the workforce: college teachers. In 1969, almost 80 percent of college faculty members were tenure or tenure track. Today, the numbers have essentially flipped, with two-thirds of faculty now non-tenure and half of those working only part-time, often with several different teaching jobs.

The marketing machines that are these colleges are likely spending the bulk of their resources to "sell" the brand to prospective applicants and their parents. This is no different than any other retailer with goods too peddle. The rising cost of college tuition is going to pay for priorities that don't align with giving students the best possible education. To that end, college is becoming a …

Faking Data

Interesting story about how women balance their need for help with managing their pregnancy and protecting their privacy

Women who did use the apps found ways to obscure their identity, using a system of aliases and throwaway email addresses or only recording scraps of information without giving away the full picture of their health.

One woman who said she had miscarried while tracking her pregnancy said she stopped using the app, and started using another, for fear the information could be misused by health-care providers to prioritize other patients. She said she also hated being reminded of her loss.

It's heart-warming to learn that people are learning how to beat the system while continuing to derive value from it. The line between being useful and being blatantly intrusive that businesses routinely cross these days, can be clarified by customers themselves. Once intrusion becomes unprofitable, it will die a natural death.

Crossing Lines

I had opportunity to attend Easter service at church with a dear friend this year. Neither of us is able to identify with the ritualistic aspects of our own religions, and rarely go to our places of worship. Consequently, our kids have a very tentative relationship with this very important part of their cultural roots. It is a problem we both acknowledge but have long struggled to remedy.

However, when we have on occasion, crossed over to the other's side and gone to a temple or church together, suddenly it seems to become easier to participate in the very rituals that we have no strong affinity to. Not belonging precludes the expectation to conform to accepted standards or come in with a level of familiarity. The person "from the tradition" functions in the role of a guide and is absolved from their own need to immerse.

I was made to feel very welcome at the church just as S has been at temples we have been to. The liberation that comes with being an outsider almost makes…

Weighing Grief

Have been reading Emily Dickinson recently and can't have enough. Particularly loved these lines from her poem I Measure Every Grief I Meet

I measure every Grief I meet
With narrow, probing, eyes –
I wonder if It weighs like Mine –
Or has an Easier size.

I wonder if They bore it long –
Or did it just begin –
I could not tell the Date of Mine –
It feels so old a pain –

Perhaps grief turns into source of strength when we believe ours was old and heavy - more than most. So we seek assurances that it has exceptional qualities that justify the depths of our pain. Reading this reminded me of a woman I once worked with- a single mom with more than her fair share of struggles but remarkably vivacious. T was an inspiration to me always - taught me to deal better with my own problems; not make them bigger than they needed to be.

She lost her only son in a car accident - she was with him at the time and survived. I met her again a good decade after this event and she had miraculously regained some of …

Dark Ages

Was not sure how to react or respond to reading this article, particularly the excerpt below:

The legal definition of involuntary manslaughter is negligently causing the death of another person. In fact, a New York woman named Jennifer Jorgensen was charged with manslaughter in 2008 after getting into a car accident while eight months pregnant. Her baby was delivered via emergency C-section but died five days later, and Jorgensen spent three years in prison for manslaughter before her conviction was overturned.

The woman gets in an accident, loses her new born in the process and does prison time for three years as punishment. The loss of her child was not enough punishment already and she needed more? It's hard to think of a more inhumane way to treat a mother who has just lost her baby. And yet there is no legal or ethical quandary in disposing off of human embryos in fertility clinics. Suddenly the rules of engagement are very different. It's as if a woman's body and soul …

Bait and Switch

I had an interesting bait and switch experience recently. It started when I was randomly asked if I may want something that sounded like it may have potential. The offer came from a person who I do not trust or respect. But to decline just on those grounds felt like an amateur move. Learning to survive in a snake-pit is a life skill a person my age should likely have. With those considerations in mind, I said Yes. My heart was definitely not in it and I don't have the world's best poker face. In subsequent days, I was asked a few more times if I was sure I wanted this thing. 

Each time, it took even more effort to work up the enthusiasm for this thing but I soldiered along. I hoped that I said all the right words, the right way the right time but clearly such was not the case. A few more days later, the person told me they had decided to put this thing on ice for the near-term. I met this news with a mixture of relief and disbelief. 

Relief because in my heart the answer was alw…

Unlike Us

I met a refugee mother and daughter pair recently. First displaced from their home country, struggling in a neighboring one that took them in but did not make it easy to live or work and finally coming to America. 

Having heard stories of the struggles my grandparents had to endure as refugees, I was quick to draw comparisons and concluded that these women had it relatively easy. I found myself of thinking "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." where refugees and displaced people are like "unhappy families". Their struggles can vary so widely that even a shared background does not automatically garner empathy. Such is indeed the case with unhappy marriages - the sadness is as pervasive as it is isolating.

I am sure this mother and daughter have fought very hard to be where they are today - everything is about context and vantage point. Just because they put on brave and smiling faces, wear nice clothes and do their nails does …

Childhood Dreams

Loved these bedrooms inspired by the designs made by kids. Each one has its own distinct signature and no two bedrooms look similar. Preserving the creative energy of childhood into adulthood is very rarely possible. Most people grow up and mostly lose that which was unique about their ideas. The ones that don't become artists and other creative types. I have often thought it would be great to bring kids into the workplace to conduct systematic resets in how adults with field experience think about problems they need to solve. We may have solutions that are breath of fresh air just as these bedrooms are. Like the author says:

If you want to see what the average American considers a dream home, just turn on HGTV right now. You’ll see a family walking through an open concept, decorated with a couple of repainted vintage pieces from Joanna Gaines and some subway tile in the kitchen backsplash. Make your way to the bedroom and it’s literally a bed in a room–the boldest statement is the…

Picture Perfect

I have been struggling with my lack of excitement of the first ever picture of the black-hole which recently whipped up the media into a frenzy. The layperson's explanation of what was done to produce the image was so over-simplified that it was lame. It was akin to saying if you are staring at the pixelated image of a dog's face and you see a pixel of certain color you can approximately guess what the colors of the surrounding pixels might be based on the location of the first pixel. That is sort of what was done to produce the said picture of the black-hole. Maybe the way this was all explained for the benefit of the stupid average person with no more than tenth grade level physics and math, made it sound like not a very big deal. There was the insinuation that any deeper explanation would be above our pay-grade - the presumption of limited mental abilities.
But again, say the pundits made an effort to explain the math in a way that was understandable to the average person, w…

Time Out

Recently I spent a few days in log cabin in the mountains.  Except for the low roar of a stream that meandered through the woods, all was absolutely quiet. Sitting by the window, I watched the play of light and shade on the rapids and the curves etched on the rocks by the water. As my inner pace slowed down, the rush of everyday faded, I found myself gravitating towards books from a much slower time - 1950s and prior in hardcover. For a moment I was able to imagine living a very different sort of life than I do today, doing things that I may have never considered a possibility. 

It was time to return soon and the spell broke as soon as I was home and back to my routine. If it were possible to take a time-out for a month maybe six and slow down until it you see every detail in your surroundings, feel the wind, sun and rain with real intensity, maybe you end up discovering what you were actually meant to do with your life. I have tried to read Walden before but could not get through it -…

Moving Forward

A dear friend who has more than a fair share of experience with grief, shared this TED Talk with me. The theme is about moving forward not moving on with grief. Very insightful for those of us who have been fortunate (thus far) not have experienced what Nora NcInerny has but know people in our lives who have. It helps us better understand those whom we love and yet often feel challenged to support emotionally. 
Listening to her made me think about events in our lives that trigger intense and protracted periods of stress - much like grief does. They fundamentally alter who we are. There is never a full recovery or reset to the prior state. It takes a while for you to get comfortable with what you have become. Friends and family often struggle to relate to this altered persona that they neither knew nor loved. When guilt meets obligation for them to continue to remain in your life, everything begins to crumble. Only similarly broken and misshapen people can come close to understanding yo…

Stoned Ape

Read this article about the Stoned Ape Theory and wondered if that was true then put on a diet of psilocybin mushrooms the average monkey could become human too. If true that is amazing and humbling - so much for what it takes to be human. I like this excerpt from a 1774 essay on how we come to be human and no magic shrooms were insinuated

As in the womb we receive our original constitution, form, and every thing essential to our being, which we carry along with us into the light, and which greatly affect the succeeding periods of our life; so our temper and condition in the future life will depend on the conduct we have observed, and the character we have formed, in the present state. We are here in miniature, what we shall be at full length hereafter. The first rude sketch or outlines of reason and virtue must be drawn at present, to be afterwards enlarged to the stature and beauty of angels.

Pad Man

Finally got around to watching Pad Man - it is an amazing story of a man who refused give up a cause he cared for, set against the backdrop of rural India. The protagonist is the kind of desi man that the sisters hope and dream would come into their lives one day. He actually understands what being a man is really about - the very antithesis of toxic masculinity. It does not diminish him in any way to help and empower women - even when met with insult and ridicule for his efforts. Ironically, the very women he wishes to help are not always willing or able to support him.

He transcends the constrains of the environment he was raised in and is able to bring others along through his undying dedication to his mission. We see how one man's love for his wife meets his creative genius leading him on a path to help millions of women. While the social innovation part of the story is extremely inspiring, this movie is no less about how to be a real man and a husband in the ideal of a sacrame…

Writing Poetry

Recently I heard an interview on NPR with a poet who talked about what it took to become one. He likened it to going for soccer practice. You did it every day for years and at some point became a good soccer player. He emphasized the need for knowing the rules of poetry same as you cannot randomly kick a ball and pretend you are playing soccer. He talked about the economy of words and being able to convey a gamut of emotions tightly. The art and craft of writing poetry is about bringing love and effort together. 

His words will stay with me because I do occasionally kick words around much in the manner of a kid kicking a ball in the dirt dreaming they may be one day be Messi or Ronaldo.  Seamus Heaney  is one of the poets I have always idolized and every line in his poems have the qualities of the classic minimal jewelry. Not an extra curve or facet anywhere - only distilled beauty. Read this one again recently to be dazzled by the mastery as always

Polder by Seamus Heaney
Paris Review I…

Giver's Paradise

Read this beautiful parable by Bibhutibhusan Bandopadhyay on the karma of giving. In under 1500 words, the author takes us through the complex nature of charitable giving and how intent can cloud and even negate any good accrued from it. It reminded me of this other article I read recently about the harm being done by philanthropy where one of the authors of the book Winner Take All is cited thusly:

Giridharadas offers a stinging jeremiad. In his view, we live in an age that enables the rich to keep more and more of their gains, many of them ill-gotten. Then we flatter them for money and advice. “Today’s elite may be among the more socially concerned elites in history,” he writes. “But it is also, by the cold logic of numbers, among the more predatory in history.”

Maybe the mega rich of today are seeking their entry into the Giver's Paradise just as Karnasen was in Bandhopadhyay's story written in 1932. And Yamaraja may give them credit for very little if any of their myriad cha…

Three Colors

I wrote these lines in trying to create a memory of a particularly sad feeling. In the moment it seemed to convey the pathos but revisiting after days, much of the affect seems to have faded.

Two oceans of pain between us
Yours cobalt and mine ultramarine
Sadness froths where they meet
White foam begging for one love 

The change of feeling associated with the words, reminded me of the Azar Nasifi quote from Reading Lolita in Tehran

You get a strange feeling when you're about to leave a place, I told him, like you'll not only miss the people you love but you'll miss the person you are now at this time and this place, because you'll never be this way ever again

There was not much to miss in this case but what had become the past was that strange feeling that prompted these words, the person I was at the moment I wrote them and the mental place I inhabited at the time that is now gone never to return quite the same way. 

Beneficiaries of Chance

This beautiful love letter written by Carl Sagan's widow serves as inspiration for how the most significant relationships in life should be treated - a chance meeting in the infinite cosmos that is a miracle to cherish every day

Every single moment that we were alive and we were together was miraculous-not miraculous in the sense of inexplicable or supernatural. We knew we were beneficiaries of chance. . . . That pure chance could be so generous and so kind. . . . That we could find each other, as Carl wrote so beautifully in Cosmos, you know, in the vastness of space and the immensity of time.

I remember watching Carl Sagan's show on TV as a kid growing up in India. He made the universe seem like something the regular person could approach without being completely intimidated. The spiral galaxy had come to our living room. Kids like me around the world could immerse in the magic and the mystery that they knew nothing about until then. 

While the details from those shows have lon…

Parenting and Partners

Of the four parenting styles this paper refers to, I likely fit the third one which is described thusly:

Authoritative parents are both demanding and responsive. "They monitor and impart clear standards for their children's conduct. They are assertive, but not intrusive and restrictive. Their disciplinary methods are supportive, rather than punitive. They want their children to be assertive as well as socially responsible, and self-regulated as well as cooperative" (Baumrind, 1991, p. 62).
What I have learned from observing other parents and looking inward, is appearance and reality can be far apart. Most of us may wish to be authoritative but the temperament of the kid/s we are raising will greatly challenge our ability to live up to this ideal. When there are multiple children in the family, adjusting style to fit the needs of each one will end up confusing all of the kids and enable bad behavior and breed resentment along the way. 
Kids like to see parents are treating t…

Audimeter

Loved reading this story about the first audience measurement device for radio

“At first glance a sample of 200 Audimeters may seem rather small, but it must be kept in mind that each of these remarkable instruments produces, in the course of a year, an amount of information approximately equal to that which could be obtained from about 500,000 coincidental telephone calls!” Nielsen wrote.

Today, to gain an understanding of the customer, companies try listen in to everything they say with smart speaker, monitor what goes on in their homes, how they drive their cars never mind the mundane business of watching their every online move. 

The volume of data all of this produces is hundreds of orders of magnitude bigger than what the Audimeters ever did. So if the volume of data was proportional to the intelligence that could be derived from it, I wonder what the appropriate expectations would be for today if back this was possible:

"NRI clients are now receiving figures which reveal, fo…

India Ink

Reading about this innovation coming out of Delhi is very heartwarming - this is desi jugaad at its very best.

Chakr Technologies is trying to save the air around New Delhi by capturing the particulate matter burping out of diesel generators and turning them into useful products. Their signature innovation, the Chakr Shield, captures 90% of the particulate matter emitted from diesel generators and converts it into material that can be used for commercial products, such as paint and ink.

Reminds me of the many whacky ideas I have heard over the years from creative desis. Adversity makes us a particularly prolific people when it comes to ideas to make lemonade given lemons in life. Sadly, not every idea comes to fruition like this one - it takes blood, sweat and tears to do that. Shooting the breeze with friends over chai is not nearly enough.

Unique Consultant

While looking for a freelance writer for a small gig I am helping out with, ran into this interesting ad on Craigslist - Online Dating Profile Consultant whose services were advertised thusly:

Finding the best words to make sure you’re “right swiped” by your perfect match is no easy task. In the (vastly) growing world of Online Dating, it is absolutely imperative that you do find the best way to express that you’re just looking for someone fun who shares your love for dogs, Netflix, and Chipotle.
Much like the business world, online dating is staggeringly competitive. Your dating profile is essentially your resume. The only thing you have that sets you apart from the other 3.2 MILLION social networking singles is your word. Your first impression will be the one, the only, the 100% deciding factor in determining whether you will be “right swiped” or left.

And they go on some more after that. All very fascinating stuff. The price point hits a sweet spot I think - not so low that it seems r…

Watched Work

This story about real-time monitoring of people in the workplace sounds like truly hellish.

"If performance targets are being fine-tuned by AI and your progress towards them being measured by AI, that will only multiply the pressure," said labor and globalization professor Ursula Huws of the University of Hertfordshire. "People are deemed not to be working if they take their hands off the keyboard for five minutes. But they could be thinking, and that doesn’t get measured. What is this doing for innovation, which needs creative workers?"

I am sure it would not be too hard to program a bot that clicks way at the computer following a recipe while the worker plays Bejewled on their phone. This is all around creepy, counter-productive and an idea with not a single redeeming value. Yet, it is being used quite a bit. For some people, it may be just impossible to function knowing that their every keystroke is being measured and monitored. 

This is not a lot different than ha…