Things that just continue to evade you

I don’t know about most of you, but there are loads of thing that continue to evade me. As much as I try to catch them, they whizz past me making a whooshing sound. If I were to make a list, even a quarter of it would be longer than ‘War and Peace’. (BTW … Peace is another thing that evades the world today. But that’s a topic for the newspapers of the world to write about)
Ok, coming back to my list.

This picture, that I recently saw in a magazine reminded me of one of those things. Actually it is a skill, and the lack of it gas been reaffirmed over the last couple of weekends – An utterly evident inability to get a coal barbecue going! What would I give to get a roaring BBQ like this one going –

Anything at all.

I have tried every trick in the book, on Weber grill company’s website, every type of coal, lighting fluid, kindling and brand of matchsticks available in every supermarket. Every nook and corner in the garden has been experimented with to shade or expose the grill to or from sun, wind, shadows, birds, bees or pollen in the air. I have even tried changing the chemical composition of the air surrounding my house. But nothing has worked. To get a BBQ dinner ready for 7 in the evening, I have to get started at 9 in the morning. But come dinnertime, there is one pathetic little piece of coal weakly glowing in the corner of the grill while I am caked in soot and surrounded by heaps of meat and veggies beautifully marinated with the choices seasonings and a bunch of friends rumbling stomachs standing around grumbling with empty plates in their hands, staring at me.

After a few hours and many beers, one of them will usually come over and yank the tongs out of my hands. And in less than 10 seconds, there will be a roaring fire and that empty grill top will be groaning under the weight of meat and veggies sizzling away to glory.

When the same thing happened last weekend, I quietly slipped away and tried to hide my face in the latest copy of ‘The New Yorker’ (which for the life of me, I still don’t remember why did I subscribe to). There another picture stared at me. This one ….


In one swift stroke, this brutally swept aside every other item on my list and perched itself right on top.

At first I thought this was a joke. But no, this magical thing really exists. Apparently here’s how it works – You can order a big stack of DVDs, run through them on your expensive HD blu-ray player and 4K TV, and a few hours later, you will emerge a connoisseur of fine art! As simple as that.

Really?

It’s mindboggling that there are organisations that spend their time making stuff like this.  And more importantly people are willing to spend their money on this?

As I continue devote every Sunday evening for the rest of my life trying to get that BBQ going, I will stay happy and content in my ignorance of why does Monalisa’s smirk make it the best painting ever made.

Dylan said “Don’t criticise what you don’t understand.” While I fully agree with this philosophy, I will make an exception for this one. I have bigger fish to fry … or rather, grill.

Have a great spring.

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Something has been lost

Dear someone of great importance who has lost something of terrible significance. You will be glad to know that all your recruits are immersed diligently in the search for that IT. And they are earnestly following your three commandments.

  1. Be relentlessly dedicated: Any free time one gets must be devoted to this search. And if one ignores the other things might seem of more importance (like your work, interests or family), the reward maybe higher.
  2. Remain Inconspicuous: One must conduct this search in such a way that no one raises as eyebrow should they discover that you are searching for IT.
  3. Focus the search area: Once must search for the IT in one place and that one place only. If you are found searching elsewhere, you will be out of this race.

Somehow the IT seems to have remained elusive so far, but that should not be a cause of concern to you. Anywhere one looks, everyone can be found immersed in the search.

All over the world, a typical day now roughly looks like this. Millions of people start their day and immediately begin the search. They are at it while walking, waiting for their train or the bus, while travelling, while eating, sitting in their office/home or doing any of the mundane things that life demands. When something or someone interrupts them, they look up with a grudging sigh, give that interruption an evil eye, reluctantly abandon their search to quickly deal with that irritating interruption, and get back to the search. This interruption could be any of these things –their train or bus arriving, which is also filled with people also engaged in the search. Or when someone talks to them or while walking, they bump into someone who is also conducting that search unaware of his or her surrounding. Or when they drop the food they are eating while conducting the search. The list of these interruptions is endless, so I will not bore you with the details.

And that one place that you asked everyone to look for IT, is still the same – those little Glowing Rectangular Screens that you have given to everyone.

But can I ask you why is so hard to find that IT? Inspite of everyone continuously staring into these Glowing Rectangular Screens (which we mere humans call smartphones), this IT has still not been found. Do you think this search will ever be successful?

Maybe you have not really lost anything, and are just fooling us. Maybe this IT was something that was ours all along, which you wanted. And with this search that you deceived us into conducting for you, is nothing else but a way for you to take that IT from us.

I think I now know what this IT is – this is our time, our intelligence and our ability to harness it fruitfully elsewhere. And looks like you have succeeded in your venture.

I hope that we can somehow abandon this search, and take back what rightfully belongs to us. It’s going to be hard, but I know we will.

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The chronicle of bytensteins and outsourced guardian angels

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. I am sure you have heard or have said this in an all-knowing way a few times. But as they say the proof of the pudding is in eating it. I learnt the meaning of this and almost ate humble pie last night, but was saved miraculously by the wonderful new age business invention – outsourcing.

I am making it sound so dire, but it wasn’t anything dangerous like driving off the cliff or electrocuting myself (though my wife can certainly attest to the fact that i have come close to latter a few times thanks to my ineptness in dealing with electrical wiring – another case of little knowledge). It was certainly not a danger of a physical kind, but more related to the modern-day phenomena of preserving our memories in the digital world (if you are to believe some futurologist like Mr Kurzweil, very soon we will be living our lives only in the digital realm- but don’t we already?)

Ok enough tomfoolery, time to get to the point -here’s what transpired. Most of us have fancy mega-pixel cameras, we click away constantly, swoon over the results and share or preserve them online on numerous photo sharing sites available today. But i live life on the edge, firmly believe in my computer skills &  refuse to use the free options. So i went ahead and registered my own private domain name, set up a fancy software with password protected access to leave out unwanted snoopers, funky slide shows and a gazillion options. All good so far then, my friends and family (only the ones with access – remember) happily get a friendly automated email every time new photos of our kids, holidays etc are uploaded. Everyone is happy and the digital phototrain rumbles on.

But looks like Elektra (the ancient Greek goddess of computer software) had some other ideas. She ordered some bytensteins (the rogue grown up computer bits and long-lost cousins of Frankenstein) to wreak havoc. Try what i may, but i cannot upload any new photos. The bytensteins running amok as digital werewolves, block all my efforts. Convinced to outdo them, i roll up sleeves, put on an expression somewhere between the arrogant smirk of Steve Jobs and the dumb geeky smile of Bill Gates and reach deep under the hood of the admin options of my website. As the bytensteins lure me deeper, i realize that i may be losing my way. Prudence tells me not to delve deeper, but i battle on gamely. A few ignorant clicks, and suddenly the screen is inundated with thousands of lines of text – informing me that thanks to the last option i chose, every single one of them photos and directories has been deleted! All that existed now was a big ‘Nothing, Nada, Nil’.

I sit there flabbergasted with my jaw touching the floor, with a hopeless expression on my face (the one similar to the bowlers’ face when Sehwag is on song). Thousands of photos, hours of work of choosing them, years of memories – is now relegated to the virtual trashcans. I could almost hear the high fives of the bytensteins. While i am not the kinds to give up easily, even I knew this in now beyond my limited computer skills (as i have just painfully learnt in the last few minutes). I mull all possible options. The only option that looks feasible is now is to send a SOS to the invisible lifesavers in the form of the tech-support helpdesk. Now is the chance to test their claims. But i suddenly remember, that there is a small catch here. I had very politely declined to sign up for their priority support option and chose not to pay $40 a year for instant assistance for a problem that i may never have. But now i have one on my hand – and a big one at that.

I gingerly type my email request, trying to walk the thin line between expressing confidence in their ability and not showing my desperation. I click ‘Send’, and watch it disappear into the netherworld of the great internet. As i shut the lid of my laptop, i am praying to all the 65 million Indian gods and a few global ones as well (after all i am a global citizen). I pray that some kindred soul will take mercy and bother to help out a non-priority support request. As i opened my mailbox the next morning, i find out to my delight that someone did, and my website is restored to all its digital glory. The world is not ruled only by greedy capitalists and there is still hope for us half informed, self-professed computer experts. So thank you Viktor Tait (the helpful support agent) for bringing order and sanity back in my digital life.

But hang on Viktor, chances are your real name could very well be Venkataraman, Vikramaditya or Venugopal. And there is a very high chance that while you are very good at helping out folks like me, your real computer skills are probably being underutilized in that 10,000 people helpdesk. I fully realize that this offshoring wave has created millions of jobs globally, but it also must have surely lured many wannabe Zuckerbergs into a false sense of comfort of taking home a steady income stream, forget about their dreams of creating the next big thing and answer a continuous barrage of calls or emails day in and day out, while sitting in a cheerily decorated warehouse in a small town in India, Philippines or Taiwan.

So this goes out to all the Viktors of the world who might have a great idea lurking in their minds. I hope that you find your real calling and go on to create something big. And while that is happening, I need to figure out a way of uploading new photos on my website and helping India win the cricket world cup … Amen!

What if news media only reported good news?

Pick up a newspaper, a current affairs magazine, watch a TV news bulletin or listen to the news on radio (does anyone still listen to radio news?), there is one omnipresent thread … majority of the news coverage is about disasters, mishaps, accidents, economic busts, wrongdoings, scandals : basically all that’s wrong with the world. If the media is to be believed, everything is going south. Here’s a case in point : the annual round-up of 2010 as published by ‘The Economist’ : Out of 40 odd events they mention, only 2 refer to ‘positive’ news! … see for yourself.

If Martians or other sensible beings out there in the universe are tracking the events of planets around them looking for new worlds to invade and colonize, thanks to all this disaster (& in equal measure disastrous) reporting, they will surely leave Earth to its miseries. While avoiding Earth’s alien domination is certainly a good thing, but i wonder if our current road is the best route to that goal. In Douglas Adams’ ‘Hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy’ after many years of meticulous research and beer drinking,  Ford Prefect – the friendly earth reporter from the great publishing corporations of Ursa Minor, described earth simply as “Mostly harmless”. If he were to be around today, inspired by the current news coverage, he will surely change the listing to “Mostly harmful”.

Before we begin to answer or argue the validity of the question “What if news media only reported good news?“, credit must be given where it is due. This question was put forward by my lovely wife. Now this was no minor, passable conversation – This was a customary ‘after movie discussion’ –  a type that often occurs between adults across the world just when they have finished watching a movie at home on a friday evening, when the kids are sleeping, the credits of the movie are rolling accompanied to a muted indescribable song, both of them are nestled comfortably in the large leather couch, too lazy to clear the wine glasses or find the remote to switch off the TV. Such discussions, which often meander around critiques, praise, questions about the story, actors’/director’s abilities are indispensable triggers which keep the Bollywood machinery humming (and ensuring guaranteed jobs for cleaners).

The movie in question was ‘ Peepli Live‘. One of the new breed of ‘Intelligent Bollywood movies’ that are in vogue these days – a dark comedy regarding a nationally televised live coverage of an attempted (rather threatened) suicide by a poor farmer set in an obscure Indian village. While this story is nothing new in India – thousands of such suicides have happened – but the movie depicts how this (non)event captures the imagination of the country fuelled by the media houses looking to boost their popularity ratings.

Anyway, this muse is not about the movie, it is about the news which was being covered – a rather unpleasant event about the possible loss of a human life. But since the world is more interested in hearing about vice rather than virtue, it is expected that such events are the ones which will continue to make headlines round the world. If newspapers were to do otherwise, people will get bored to death, seeing happy faces, only news about accomplishments and successes on the front page. But since I am too chicken to start a newspaper, magazine or a website dedicated only to success stories, i will remain happy without my daily newspaper subscription and agree with Earl Warren (an ex chief justice of America) who once famously said – “I always turn to the sports section first.  The sports section records people’s accomplishments; the front page nothing but man’s failures”

Here’s to a 2011 that beings a world filled with more success and happiness rather than disasters.

… then why are they telling us?

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“But dad … then why are they telling us?” said the 4 yr. old boy. An innocent remark, but a profoundly important one.

So let’s put this into context and start again. This remark was in a small story narrated by our very good Swiss/Greek couple friend over a cup of cappuccino, home-made plum schnapps and Greek candied fruit mixed with yoghurt.

Here is the setting: Last night, my friend and his 4 yr. old son are watching TV in their fantastic little house overlooking the best part of the Swiss Alps, and a news report about some extremely heavy snow in China comes on the TV.

Son – “Dad, Where is China?”

Dad – “Son, It is very, very far away from Switzerland – halfway around the world”

Son – “If it so far away, then why are they telling us about snowfall there?”

Dad – “mmmm…….” (No answer that will make sense to a 4 yr. old)

Now… think about this for a moment, for a 4 yr. old, it makes no difference whatsoever what happens in a place called China (at least not yet), why does he have to be told about snowfall there – there is more than enough of it in Switzerland!

And I cannot agree with him more, this is information overload of the highest order. Information is all around us today – beaming over fiber-optic cables, over satellites, TV, radio, internet, smartphones, signboards, newspapers, blogs (like this one J). Can we make sense of all this information? Does it make us any wiser? Are we just addicted to information, like an addiction to drugs? Do we have to check the online status of our friends every minute? The exact standing of our portfolio (which we convinced over selves is invested for the long run) over our iPhone while waiting at a traffic light? Do I have to watch a continuous coverage over Sky news of a ‘breaking story’ about a cat stuck in a tree in small town outside Ipswich? Nassim Nicholas Taleb said in his fantastic book Fooled by Randomness “I don’t read newspapers for the news (just for the gossip). The best filter to know if the news matters is if you hear it in cafes, restaurants… or parties. If a piece of information is important, it will find you – you don’t have to go looking for it!”

So next time you are told a galactically important piece of information that you could have lived without – put on the thinking hat of a 4 yr. old and ask the question – “Why are you telling me that?” … Say it clearly, but remember to say it nicely.