Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Shall not cease...

"We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive at where we started and know the place for the first time."

- T.S. Eliot

Monday, November 13, 2006

The frog encounter and other strange happenings

It was a strange but pointless morning. The frog only completed the picture.

I was traveling and staying in this nice hotel on a hill. Feeling guilty about dinner the night before, I was up at 5 am trying to get some exercise. I stepped outside the building. It was raining, not hard, but enough to make me shiver. I kicked myself for venturing outside the cozy comfort of the hotel bed. I had to walk around the pool to get to the gym, which was encased in glass all around. There was a lone guy running on a treadmill inside. Inspired, I stepped in and started running myself. I saw this guy up the speed on his treadmill. Once. Twice. He kept going and going till he was running at breackneck speed. After about 30 minutes of such high-speed running, he stopped abruptly and walked out. Couple of minutes and I heard a splash. He was in the pool now, and he did lap after lap after lap without missing a beat. Mind you, it was raining, still dark, really cold, and not a soul in sight. He kept at till I completed by relatively benign workout and walked back. Strange.

I tried to get back into the building. The nearest door was locked. Walked across to the side, climbed up the stairs and tried that door. Locked. Weird. Walked back down and across the pool again, where Mr. Superman was still at his workout by the way, and found yet another door. This had a slot for the hotel card. Slipped it in and saw a green light. At last. Which is when the frog made its move. There was this tiny little ugly frog sitting on the door. I was close enough to watch him watch me. For some reason, he twitched his head, let out a croak, and lunged at me. I was petrified. I'm not the flexible kind, but thankfully, at that moment, I found it in me to bend over backwards, Matrix style, and let the frog fly over me. Phew! That was close.

A while later, I was walking to the breakfast area, and I heard some splashing in the pool. I knew who it was.

Did I mention it was a strange but pointless morning?

Friday, July 28, 2006

Detroit's nightmare

Say what you want, but you need guts to do this. Check out the Tesla Roadster.

Say you want to build an electric vehicle. Who would you make it for? The green class, the fuel economy class, the i-hate-oil-companies class? Most EV makers go for the low-risk option. Tesla being Tesla, and Elon Musk (the guy who is making a rocket-building startup come alive, quite successfully) being the one backing it up, what else should we expect? A damn powerful road-hugging environment friendly competitor for the Porche Carrera, no less. If executives in Detroit aren't sweating, they should be.

Writer's illusion

I didn't think I could write anything interesting almost till I was in college. I've always been a voracious reader, something I need to be thankful to my brother for. But I had no illusions about my writing, or speaking, for that matter.

I remember it was in my eleventh standard that my English teacher seemed to have some extra attention reserved for me. I didn't do anything exceptional in class, and certainly wasn't the only student participating in elocution contests and such. For some reason, Mr. Singaraj picked me to edit the school magazine (or annual day digest or something like that). I contributed my own article too, which was kind of plagiarized from some source about the origin of chewing gum, and cats eyes! No, I'm not kidding. He also nominated me to compere the sports day function. I remember I blustered through the day in all my nervousness, a la Navjot Sidhu, cheered all the way by my classmates, some of whom, funnily enough, were envious that I got to do the compering. The envy was partially because I got to do the compering along with the hottest female teacher in the depraved-boys-only school.

I posed the question to Mr. Singaraj one day. Why me? Of all people.

He said he read my English exam answer sheets, and he loved my writing style. Well, at that point, I didn't know I had a writing style. But I was completely bowled over. I would prepare meticulously for every other exam, but for English, I would just read the chapters/poems/books/short stories and try to remember them. In the exam, I would do an elaborate critical review of the work/event/characters, and try to answer specific questions in that context - as a reviewer. Why? I don't know. It just was interesting to me and I enjoyed doing it. To this day, I have to thank Mr Singaraj for making me realize that writing was something I enjoyed doing. I started writing my personal diary, a journal of things happening in my life. Sometimes, I would attempt short stories, usually inspired by stuff I had seen or read.

In college, we had an English Literary Society, which was comprised of people who couldn't or wouldn't speak the native language. I was a geeky, gawky, dork then and of course I would never venture to speak to the girls in the club, which was kind of mandatory to be part of the "in" crowd. But I would discuss my reading interests in elaborate detail with my friends, one of whom, an ELS member, decided that I had a decent vocabulary. So he would pull me aside whenever there was an ELS contest on. I was least interested in crossword puzzles, but given the constraints, I could come up with the answer many times. Word spread a little bit and I became an invitation-only member in the club.

Somewhere along the way, there was a college magazine of some sort that I contributed an article to. I set myself a challenge. I wanted to write about nothing. There was no story, no genuine thread, no characters, nothing in it. And it had to be original. I did end up writing it, and it got published to mixed reactions - one well read girl in my class said it was an utter waste of time, some junior girls told me that they liked it a lot, friends were generally encouraging, but I was supremely happy about it. In my own mind, I had arrived as a writer.

I wrote articles. Long emails. Some short stories. Now the blog. And I built up this impression that I indeed am a good writer.

Recently, I read The Elements of Style. If you have any aspirations about writing in English, read this book. Then there was this essay by Paul Graham. Boy, am I an amateur or what. I have been doing all the things that typical beginning writers do.

On the bright side, my writing has improved after I started writing this blog. I am constrained by time to use a certain economy of words to say what I want to say.

So, here's to breaking the illusion. That I can write. And write well at that.

Friday, June 09, 2006

The art of Marketing

First, I never really understood what marketing means. In my mind, it was this distasteful mix of sales and advertizing and spin and gambling. No surprise that this quarter's graduate level Marketing class in my MBA was a revelation. A great professor notwithstanding, the big "Aha!" for me was that marketing has little to do with sales or advertizing. They are just spokes in a giant wheel of adoption cranked by sub-conscious emotions and/or pure economics, plain and simple. In other words, a marketer needs to work with two things - buyer's psychology, and econometrics - to predict how a firm could/should sell its product.

Sounds fairly simple, doesn't it? Well, not quite. Marketing has more art to it than science. You could play with your data any number of ways and come up with a different conclusion each time. You could analyze consumer behavior for days on end and predict the wrong thing (think New Coke). I think of myself as a fairly right-brained individual, with more creative juice than the regular engineer. But, I learned, a decade of engineering training does certain things to you. You approach analytical problems through a certain filter, looking for that needle in the haystack, that underlying thread that can explain the anomaly you are seeing. Well, that works only in science. Its like asking how much salt is needed for something thats cooking. The typical cook, atleast the ones I know, instruct me to add "what makes sense". How in the world do I know what makes sense. Tell me exactly how many handfuls or spoonfuls or granules of the darn thing I need to throw in. Nope. Sorry. Not deterministic. Just add what makes sense. Thats when I turn the stove off and throw my hands up in the air.

Marketing is sort of like that. Nebulous. Sneaky. I notice that the data does different things to different people. Some just dive in and play around in Excel and come up with graphs and tables, then try to explain what they are seeing. Some just sit back and think, and think, and think, then suggest something completely out of the box that flushes all the stuff the left-brainers did so far down the drain. I just pore over the data, wide-eyed, repeatedly, franctically, till something clicks. Then I dive in and rush through the train of thought and flesh it out in excruciating detail, often realizing at the end that I made some fairly simplistic assumptions along the way.

But hey, thats marketing for you. For all the data you can find and play with, at the end, all you can rely on is what the gut feels. Precisely.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

What's wrong with the picture?

See this picture in machlee's photoblog.

It didn't strike me at first. Average Indian male. In a public bus. Then I remembered how I got to see this picture. Through some people who choose to take a stand. Ask questions, uncomfortable ones. Make some noise. Blank noise. What an incredible idea!

If you haven't figured it out, here's the low-down. This picture was indeed shot in a public bus. By someone who is a complete stranger to this man. What makes this picture detestable is where the man's eyes are. For the simple reason that the someone who shot this picture is a woman.


Friday, May 19, 2006

The old rickshaw man

I haven't ridden in cycle rickshaws much. Tongas, may be on the odd occasion while visiting a remote small town. Rickshaws I dont remember.

A friend tells me that she rode a rickshaw to school pretty much her entire schooling life. She has fond memories of the old man who took her to school and back, everyday, in sun and in rain, through potholes and inclines, for more than 12 years. She says she loves him like a father. And she means it. Something about that simple relationship moves me.

Just like this story from Annie. This line says it all, me thinks.
The old man called out to me. “Kahaan tak jaogi, bitiya (How much further, little daughter)?”

A simple matter of time

I am doing a hundred different things. Playing Frizbee. Playing the violin. A fairly rigorous MBA program. A hectic fulltime job that takes up more than its fair share on any given day. A social circle comprised of friends in the area. A preschooler that loves to talk. A 3-month old who is learning to demand attention. Maintaining the cars. Paying the bills. Doing stuff around the house (very rarely these days). Reading books. Talking to people. Keeping tabs on technology. Blogging. Reading blogs. Staying in touch with family, old friends, new friends. Jamming on wild start-up ideas with friends. Dispensing advice. You can see how things can get a little too crazy sometimes.

Was talking to a mentor at work this morning. He mentions something that I realize I have been doing kind of intuitively myself these days. Lets say something that needs to be done comes up. The brain gets to work right away. Prioritizing. Sizing it up. Categorizing it into a matrix: +Urgent +Important, +Urgent -Important, -Urgent +Important, -Urgent -Important. ++ gets all the attention. +- gets immediate quick and dirty response or none at all (depending on various factors, including how likely it is that the person will yell at me). -+ slides till death do us part. i.e. till it moves into ++. -- slides forever.

Some people use PDAs to do this. Some people use a notebook. Some people just remember everything. For a while, I've been using a mindmapping software called freemind. I'm not extraordinarily meticulous about it like the PDA types. I use it as a check-and-balance to assess how I'm doing at least once a day. It helps prevent things from falling through the cracks.

My problem is two-fold. One. I like to do things I'm passionate about first. Sometimes there are things in ++ that I dont feel passionate about. Kind of unfortunate. Like taxes, for which my passion level is zero. Zilch. Someone I know said that he picks up the task he hates the most from his TO DO list and does that first. That way, when he gets to the end of the day, the fun stuff is all that is left. Sounds promising enough. I just need to wrap my mind around it.

Second. I simply can't say 'No'. I have this nice guy syndrome, not that there is anything wrong with that. Though nice guys dont always finish last, you burn both credibility and efficiency in the bargain. Curiously, I find it easier to say no to some people than others. The art of saying 'No' when it matters is something I need to master.

Sigh! Gotto get back to stuff I hate. Meeting time. Ugh!

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Rethinking writing - Writely.com

Here's the first of my thought-bubbles on web-based-collaboration-apps, or simply put, web 2.0, to use a much abused cliche, sites.

I signed up for a Writely account a few days before Google somehow came to know that I did and bought them out. Don't make the mistake of thinking that Writely is simply a browser-based replacement for the ubiquitous word processor of our time. Honestly, Writely doesn't have many of the so-called advanced features that big M's killer app does.

But it has a surprisingly nimble and responsive interface. If you're one of the skeptics that think a browser-based app can never replace a standalone app, try this one. Writely is extremely responsive, more so than Gmail, heck more so than Outlook, that a few minutes of playing with it convinces me that there is something here. A tangible, perceptible, seemingly tiny shift. Inspite of using the same keyboard. Typing the same thoughts. The paradigm has changed.

Working on a server can change the game. A little bit. I can invite someone to watch me write. I can invite someone to write for me. Write with me. Edit with me. Let me be the first to coin this crappy verb - co-write. In fact, I can invite more than one someone to co-write with me. The changes are reflected instantly, almost like desktop sharing, but much more efficiently. I can instantly see a world of browser-based presentations, spreadsheets, this and that. Google probably saw this coming and promptly bought Writely for small change.

Web-based-collaboration-apps. Ugh! Co-write wins, hands down.