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.

The sinister plan behind daylight savings time (the one that they dont wan’t you to know)

If you live in Europe, you would have noticed that Daylight Saving Time (DST) started last Sunday and the clocks moved forward by an hour. Well, not all of them – only the super intelligent electronic clocks moved forward on their own. If you still have some old-fashioned analog clocks, they were blissfully unaware of this phenomenon till you reached up to them, dislodged them momentarily from their hanging place and turned a small knob of some kind. That circular motion moved a cylinder helically around its axis, which turned the arms of the clock to display the proper time.

Of course, all the above was true if you were aware of the fact that DST started yesterday.It is possible that hundreds of people were blissfully unaware of this (much like the clunky analog clocks) and only realized this fact when they missed an appointment, a plane or a soccer game. The whooshing sound made by that mysterious missing hour in the day, as it rushes past you, is a puzzling sensation. Having experienced it a few years back when we moved to Europe, I can vouch for it.

But why does this happen? Why should we move our clocks forward an hour in Spring and move them back an hour in the Autumn? You can blame it on William Willett an Englishman, who was one of the first and most vociferous supporters of DST back in early 1900s. He argued that it saves energy, promotes outdoor leisure activity in the evening, reduces crime etc.  Many people are in favour of this, the most obvious choices being retailers, outdoor sports enthusiasts etc. But in reality, the most enthusiastic supporters of this concept are sleepwalkers. The extra hour of sunlight helps those early owls to ‘see’ better as they embark on their sleep walking rituals. This enables them to reach the altar of Hypnos (the god of sleep) bright and early and be among the first ones to collect the juiciest dreams being doled out, before Morpheus (the god of dreams) barges in. It is a widely known fact that Morpheus does not own an electronic clock and does not read newspapers, thus is never on time anyway. 

And of course, there are the opponents to DST. They argue that actual energy savings are inconclusive, it disrupts morning activities, causes people to lose sleep and is generally a hassle. I am firmly in their corner. The most obvious opponents of DST are burglars. The added extra hour of sunlight robs them of the opportunity to rob other people of their precious belongings. Because of their nature of work, the burglars cannot afford to be too vociferous, so they tend to keep it quiet and grudgingly live with this inconvenience. The only time their voices are heard is around springtime when some dumb burglars, who do not own an electronic clock (much like our man Morpheus), land up at their robbing rendezvous an hour earlier than planned and are pummeled unconscious by the puzzled homeowners who have sat there wondering why can’t they get sleep and why have the burglars arrived early today?

All this conjecture is fine, but we seem to be digressing from the point of this post. What is the real reason for DST? Let me get back to that ….

DST was not introduced because of all this hullaballoo about saving energy etc. This was an idea thought up by clock manufacturers to boost their sales, after the famous ‘Clock depression’ that prevailed through the 19th century. Many theories exist about why the ‘Clock depression’ happened. The foremost being that in the 19th century people were generally starting to come to the conclusion that time and space are an illusion and the time for clocks had passed. So to keep track of an illusionary thing, no one was buying real clocks. Another reason doing the rounds was that clocks, with their incessant sound of ‘tick-tock, tick-tock’ were the prime cause of untimely insanity among the masses. So doctors started prescribing patients to get rid of their clocks and put sun-dials inside their houses instead. But once people put a sun-dial inside the house, it did not show the time of the day as it did not get any sun. So it further reaffirmed the first belief that time is really an illusion, and the vicious circle continued.

Once people had a clock, there was no need for them to replace it. It just stayed nailed to the wall, tick-tocking away. Typically the clock didn’t break or start smelling after a few years, so the clock manufacturers had little repeat business. But all of this changed when Mr Willett,  a builder by day and a clock manufacturer by night, came up a with cunning plan. This nefarious plan rested on two arms.

  • Firstly, we should artificially change the time a couple of times of year. He figured if it is given a scientific sounding acronym like DST, which has the word ‘saving’ in it, people will think it is of paramount importance and will agree to follow it.
  • Secondly, he introduced a new global design standard for clocks. The new standard ruled that the knob which you need to turn to change the time would now be placed at the back of the clock, and not on the side. And the hole or the hook by which the clock is hung to the nail on the wall, should be made inconceivably small and be hidden away in an unreachable place so that it is practically impossible for you to hang the clock back on the wall, once you have taken it off.

Both these standards were passed unanimously in the annual horological conference of 1907 and have worked like a charm since then. Every year, millions of people try to change the time on their clocks around spring and autumn. Having successfully fiddled with the small knob and changed the time, they are then unable to hang the clock back properly on the nail where it was originally stationed. The imperfect alignment of the nail and the hole, induces the Newtonian laws of gravity and causes the clock to fall to the ground, spectacularly smashing it to smithereens and giving people a small glimpse of what ‘Big Bang’ would have been like. The guilty man (another statistically proven fact – it is always the man who performs this annual ritual) then looks to redeem his honour in front of his family by buying another clock and hammering a new nail. The vicious circle continues and the clock manufacturers continue to rake in the moolah.

I was one of the people who fell prey to this ancient nefarious plan and smashed our clock last sunday. On my twitter feed, I read about this exact accident being repeated in places around the globe. The otherwise pristine streets of Zürich were riddled with broken clocks being thrown out of their windows by the disgruntled owners. All this was celebrated by the clock manufactures at their lavish parties at the glitzy ski resort of St. Moritz. 

The clock makers have made billions out of this annual ritual and are now the secret owners of the many of the largest holding companies in the world. One of the lesser chronicled sagas of global business is the economic rise of the clock manufactures in the 20th century. The following graph shows the rise in fortunes of the clockmakers since these momentous changes were introduced.

 

Apple, never the one to lose out on a business opportunity, has quickly recognized this and is said to be working on an iClock. Since they yet do not own the patents for the clock design passed in 1907, the iClock will have some cunning features to overcome the issues faced by folks like you and me.

  • To honour Steve Jobs, it will be surrounded by a black rubber casing (like his turtleneck sweaters) to cushion the inevitable falls
  • The user will be able to circumvent the knob and change the time via an app (though the app will only run on the iPad 5, which you will need to buy separately)
  • The entire back side of the clock will be a giant black hole, which will be backward compatible with any nails or walls manufactured since 1907

All the clock-breakers and Apple fans the world over have hailed this revolutionary move and crowds have already started thronging outside Apple stores, waiting to get their hands on the iClock.

The clock makers on the other hand, are reportedly building a new super telescope so that they can spot Darth Vader’s ‘Death Star’ in the far reaches of the galaxy. They hope to convince him to use the dark side of the force to make sure that Apple’s plan does not work and the clocks still continue to fall and break around DST. 

Who will win, only time will tell. Till then, leave those clocks alone and enjoy the extra hour of sunshine and the beautiful spring weather.

Change your perspective or get S.T.U.N.N.E.D

All of us are on a journey through life. If you belong to the ‘fatalistic’ school, you believe that it will get you to that place that you deserve or destined to be. If you subscribe to the opposite school, then you believe you are in a constant state of tussle with the nature to shape your journey the way you want it – speed, direction, path, and destination. Who succeeds in the end – the jury is still out on this one.

One of the smaller sub-journeys that many of us take in our lifetime is a ‘Plane journey’. That journey is completely a fatalistic experience. You are bound to land up where the pilot wants to go, or rather as dictated by the airline schedule. You can’t do a thing to change it. Some of us take too many of them – as depicted by the numb, robotic and number obsessed character played by George Clooney in ‘Up in the Air’. I am not one of them, neither do I wish for anyone to be in that situation. To have your name on a plane is nice, but there are easier ways of achieving that rather than sit in a plane 300 days a year…… there I go meandering again. Getting back on track…..

I do dabble in aviation once in a while.  Wow – that sounded exotic! Like I pilot my own private plane or helicopter or something like that. Personally I would opt for either the Gravitube or the ‘Beam me up Scotty’ means of transport, if they existed. But since we are only in 2011 and at least a trillion years away from either of them, I choose the more mundane option. I pick an airline, pay the ticket price, sit back, enjoy a book and collect loyalty points (which are never redeemed).

Travelling back from US to Europe a couple of weeks back, zipping through time zones, the S.T.U.N bug hit me. This bug called S.T.U.N (Sleepless Traveller nUmbed by moNotony), is rumoured to live in a secret chamber designed into every airline seat in the world. There are many tell tale signs that the seat you are sitting on is teeming with S.T.U.N.s. These can range from the fact that the a/c vent above your seat can either be set to blast you continuously with frigid air that can drive even a polar bear away or completely off – no mid way setting possible. Another could be that the ‘lamp’ button on your seat controls the lights of a fellow passenger sitting 30 rows away on the seat 42D. Your unending quest to try to switch on your light by continually pressing the button in every conceivable position, pressure, frequency etc has put the passenger on 42D in either a state of frantic rage or a blissful hypnotic stupor. The sure shot sign is the presence of strange pieces of small white calciferous bits in the seat pocket in front of you. You probably mistook them for small crumbs of nuts that the airline attendant failed to clean, but in reality are the remaining pieces of bone of the last passenger that was devoured by the S.T.U.N bug. Rumor has it that the bug has been deliberately planted by the airline companies. Apparently, the passengers bitten by this bug, in their state of paranoia and desperation, contribute vastly to the airline’s coffers by buying vast amounts of useless items from the duty free catalogue. If you have ever bought something from an airline duty free catalogue – blame it on the S.T.U.N bug.

Anyway, the bug bit me. While I skillfully managed to avoid the last described fate, but there I was – wide awake and trying out all the exercises recommended by the airline booklet to keep the blood circulation in my legs going. I got up to take a small stroll and reached the back of the aisle. Standing there, the following image presented itself in front my eyes. A pretty normal sight, people glued to the TV screens, struggling to make out the details of the movie on the washed out, tiny screen while straining to hear the dialogue on the ineffective airline headphones.  While some of them may have been genuinely enjoying the movies, probably many of them were unknowingly sinking deeper into the traps set for them by the S.T.U.N bugs.

Just that brief respite of being away from the S.T.U.Nning seat brought a sense of normalcy, not experienced in the last 4 hrs. Suddenly a realization hit me. Isn’t this small, unimportant incident so similar to situations that affront us often? Many a times, when people are stuck with a problem or an issue – they will often keep trying the limited number of ways that they can immediately ‘see’ from their point of view. And there will often come a point when each of these ways will be exhausted and the problem will be declared ‘too difficult to solve’ or ‘each of the ways of solving the issue as useless’. I remember talking to one of my team members about this, who was in the same situation about a project, and was unable to solve the issue at hand. Talking to the person, it became clear that by repeating the same old tried and trusted methods, the issue was becoming like quicksand and pulling that person deeper into it. So very typical …

What people don’t do enough of is the following –

  • Stop repeating the same old, time tested methods
  • Take a breather and step back for a minute
  • Ask for an opinion of a colleague, a friend or someone else
  • Change the environment in which you have been trying to solve the problem. Small stuff like move away from your office or desk, call for a meeting in an unusual place like the office lawn etc. It’s surprising how often these small things make a world of difference
  • Basically, try to look at the issue from a different perspective

It is human nature to think that one probably has all the answers and the solutions. Einstein famously said – “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”. I fully agree with him (even though he meant it differently and was trying to prove a different point). There is far too little time on our hands to waste on doing the same thing over and over again.

That little moment of realization was another reaffirmation of the fact that your point of reference, changes how you perceive a given situation and how you act on it. Before I took that small walk till the end of the aisle, my vantage point was my seat; a couple of feet away from the flickering screen. All I could think about was which movie to watch to fill the time till I land. Suddenly being away from the seat and be able to see the ‘bigger picture’ (so to speak), got my mind working on an altogether different plane.

So next time your umpteenth crack at a problem has failed – stop. Stand up, clear your head and try a different vantage point. If all else fails, take the BA flight that I was on, go stand at the end of the aisle and you might see the issue or the world around you differently. And while you are at it, please apologize to the passenger on seat 42D, for he still might be there in a state of stupor.

The death of a giant

 

I saw a giant die today.

Giants have a unique way of their own. They come into the world with a bang. Everyone notices their arrival. People look upto them in awe. When they flex their muscle, others run for cover. They forge their own path. More often than not, they trample over others who stand in their way. Occasionally it is on purpose, as the giant sees the others as a minor obstacle which needs to be brushed aside like a fly. Most often they don’t even notice the ones trampled, for they are not in their line of sight. The hapless ones were merrily going their own way, till they realized too late that the giant had also chosen to take the path they were on. As the giant marches on, it collect accolades and occasionally brickbats. Many a times they can get drunk in their own success, and not even notice that another bigger, stronger giant is on their path.

And then, after a while …. they die.

They get crushed by a bigger, newer giant on the block. Their death is often more spectacular and feted than their birth. It is always like a supernova. A brilliant flash of light, thundering explosions that can be heard and felt light years away. And as they die, they take many others with them.

As they fall to the ground, they don’t pass away quickly. They lie there and whimper, struggle and prolong their agony. They attract vultures and on lookers by the truckload. The vultures peck away and the parts that they find the juiciest and the tastiest. As the vultures come and go, they leave behind a giant, which is little smaller, uglier, disfigured, more hapless. The vultures go and pass on the message about the waiting feast to others of their clan. Till the time only a skeleton remains, with some rotting body parts that no one, not even the vultures wish to partake of. Then it’s over. People talk sympathetically about the giant for a while, then it is forgotten, relegated to myths and memories.

I saw a giant die today.

It wasn’t a person. It was a name that many people would have heard of – ‘Borders’. They are, or rather were, 6one of the biggest names in the book selling business, at least in the english speaking part of the world.

And the way I discovered it was as much a shock as the news of them going away. Walking down Broadway in NY, from battery park upto Manhattan downtown, we spotted the familiar black and white sign of Borders from a distance. The pace of the kids quickened, fuelled by the possibility of laying their hands on some more of their favorite books. As we inched closer, it seemed strange that their was no activity around the huge doors. On reaching the front  doors, we were greeted by a dusty porch, peeled carpets and paint and huge signs proclaiming ‘Prime retail space for lease’. We, being tourists in NY with a million things to see and do, raised our eyebrows and carried on.

Later, after spending an afternoon at the iconic Central park, we headed into the Lincoln center. Everyone was cheered by another sight of the Borders sign. As we climbed the escalator and reached the first floor, I was shocked to see huge, ugly black and yellow signs – ‘Going out of business. Everything 20 – 40% off’.

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To see these signs pasted all over the glass walls, which otherwise would be adorned with the posters of books, was like being hit by a heatwave, when you are expecting a gentle, soothing spring breeze. I looked at my wife,  we both stared back at each other puzzled. We gingerly stepped inside to witness signs of chaos. Books piled up in unruly stacks, hundreds of people jostling to get their hands on a bargain. Huge red signs proclaiming the death of a giant. Instead of the nice soothing piped music, the sound system was continually blaring announcements about warning people to not to sit on the ground and read, as it was a fire and safety hazard.

Where one would normally find friendly helpful staff who would go out of their way to suggest books and help you discover new books, there was no one in sight. Every info counter was a deserted mess with strewn papers, packaging and computer screens displaying a blank white screen or a message about no network available. Much like small ghost towns. With great difficulty I was able to track down a staff member to inquire about the whereabouts of a specific kids book. I was greeted by a steely eyed, grim faced girl, who pointed to a far corner and asked me to go search myself. The far corner, the erstwhile kids section was a deserted place. The bright and colourful covers of kids books seemed glaringly out of place among the carnage that surrounded them.

Catching another rare staff member later for her help in searching in the catalog, the explanation emerged. She explained that Borders was now owned by a liquidator. They had no access to the catalog and it was just a matter of time before all this would be gone. There was genuine remorse and tiredness in that face. Whether that feeling came from having repeated that answer to a hundred customers, pain of losing her job or a sense of loss due to passing away of a place where books were respected, I’ll never know. What was clear to see were the remains of the giant. It’s skeleton in the form of empty shelves, the discarded bits in the form of unwanted books, crushed mints and sweets packages near the checkout counter and bargain shoppers rummaging in the piles for a succulent morsel.

While this does reflect on me being not completely in touch with going-ons in the world, but I could sense a wormhole open up in the fabric of space-time. As we walked around the bookshop trying to look for books, I couldn’t help but wonder – Am I nothing more than a vulture, scavanging on juicy bits of a dying giant. Are the discounted books piling up in my basket, small bits of the giant. Did I at some point in time, inadvertentently play a part in it’s demise? Or the giant that I could see dying in front of me, was not Borders, but the printed book.  Will all physical bookshops soon meet the same fate, and did Borders fail to reinvent itself in a world of publishing and book retailing that is or has chaged radically?
Lots of questions, and very little answers. What’s even more ironic is that this piece is being typed on a tablet. One of the reasons for buying it was to being able to occasionally read magazines and books on it. So maybe that was my part in it’s downfall. But does  that mean that one should stop evolving and not foster progress and new approaches?

As one would expect, there are no right or wrong answers here. And an issue like these can be argued equally passionately both ways. All i know is that I watched a giant die, and it certainly wasn’t pretty.

The subtle art of getting ready for a vacation

We all go for vacations. Some of less, some more often. This modern age has burnt it into our mindset that that holidays are a mighty important part of our lives. And as with anything else, the human race has this uncanny ability to master skills and arts that were hitherto alien to it. Darwin, if  he were alive today would surely agree with me.

For the sake of conjencture, let’s take a simple example : the widely practised art of vegetating during holidays. The ancient man was hopelessly lacking in this skill, and would not have been caught dead vegetating. On the other hands, if he was caught vegetating in a jungle by a  beast, he would be dead in an instant. Anyway, the important part is that we have perfected this skill over the centuries and now practise it at  the first given opportunity. Some experts say that  the romans were the first to propogate the virtues of vegetating by indulging  in their famous orgies, but i think it is a safe bet to say that that no vegetables ever saw the inside of an orgie hall. Another school considers the politicians the world over as the real masters of vegetating. The jury is still out on this one.

Throw a cursory glance around any beach resort and you will see hundreds of otherwise frantically active men and women, lying face down, waiting for nirvana to arrive in the form of the hapless steward who has been assigned the unenviable task of patrolling the beach and satisfy the most primitive of all human needs – alcoholic beverages. This steward has undoubtedly mastered the art of being able to conduct numerous rounds, but expertly avoiding the areas where the thirtiest or the greediest tourists are to be found. But there is a also a high likelyhood that he will encounter the battle and sunhardened tourist, who has developed the knack of being able to distinguish the sound of the steward’s footsteps from the one of the fellow tourist. And to add to the steward’s misery, this tourist has also mastered the art of raising his hand just at the right angle at the appropriate moment so as to catch the steward’s eye but spend the least amount of energy in doing so.

But we are digressing here a bit. The topic here is how to get ready for a vacation, so let’s get back to that shall we?

First things first – You got to know where you are going. By saying this I don’t mean that there are people who land up at the airport abd wonder ….”hmmm …. so where should we go. Sydney, Paris or New york?” But there are many folks who would block their holidays in their calendars, but not have a clue till a week before the d-day where they will actually land up. Such folks are of paramount importance to the sustenance of travel agents and the airlines. Their desperation to find suitable vacation spot means that the travel agent can usually sell the drabbest location, the crappiest room and he most inconvenient flight to them at a ridiculous price.  All under the fancy name of ‘Last minute specials’. And having done so, he or she can then use that mark-up to ensure that his/her vacation is spent at the ritziest resort, while the ‘last minute special’ customer rots in a room with broken air conditioning.

Now once you know where you are going well in advance, the next step is to get ready for the trip. To be able to do so well, you need to be able to hone your delegation skills. Yes, as strange as this corporate euphemism may sound in the context of a holiday, it’s applicability is unquestioned. If your spouse happens to be supremely organized with a list of items to take on every trip, special bags for the odds and ends neatly ready, clothes predetermined and segregated week in advance (like my wifey), pls delegate the getting ready part to him/her. But the subtlety here lies in the art of keeping yourself (seemingly) busy, while he/she is doing the heavy lifting. There are many activities that you can indulge in, which will safely give off this impression. These can range from trying to find the perfect restaurant for the perfect dinner. You have to be able to convey the message that this restaurant that you are hunting for is the hidden gem and completely different from the other tourist traps that you otherwise might get sucked into. Another sure-fire cover is the research for the most romantic of the spots where you can watch the sunset over the ocean while enjoying a bottle of the local wine. Such activities and pretexts can and will not be refuted by a sensible partner, and will ensure that your energy is conserved for the beach.

The next logical activity that you then need to engage in is the act of announcing to people that you are now actually leaving for the holiday. In today’s world there are many ways  of doing so. These range from a message on your facebook wall announcing your vacation location accompanied by an exotic looking photograph of the best beach or mountain resort that you can find over the internet.  The other more obvious ones are an out of office message on your email or voice mail. But as in all things, you can forge your own way. One the best alternatives is to convince your wife and kids that a 10 min walk to the railway station to catch the train to the airport is an important part of the vacation warm-up. Then you need to ensure that you provide your kids with trolleys to pull that make the maximum amount of noise when pulled on  the road. This will ensure that all your neighbours will be attracted by the ruckus your kids are creating on the otherwise balmy and lazy afternoon. For additional special effects you can have the kids wave back to them as they look out irritably from their windows. If you really want to be mean, you can have them sing a made up song describing the wonders of the holiday location that you are going to. This will ensure that your vacation date and venue is indelibly marked in the neighbour’s memories and will give them a topic to talk about while you enjoy your holidays. Though with this tactic, you need bring some souvenirs back for them, to ensure you are invited back to their garden parties. The 20 francs of the taxi fare you saved by walking to the station can then be spent in buying refrigerator magnets for them which they will cherish forever.

Now with all this effort that you have taken to get ready for the vacation, make sure you enjoy it. Do take your wife to that mythical sunset spot, turn off your blackberry, vegetate on the beach as much as you can, do not go to tourist trap restaurants with menus translated into 15 languages. And whole you are at it, keep a look out for that steward on the beach. Chances are he has has somehow read this post and is even more determined to avoid you now.

Enjoy your summer!

An ode to the exclamation mark ‘!’

The poor old exclamation mark is probably the most misused and exploited of all the punctuation marks that the English language has bestowed upon us. Just the sheer form that it comes in lends itself to the ruthless exploitation it is subjected to.  How can one resist that temptation to end a sentence that will otherwise go unnoticed, by this little thingy which is the closest relative in the English language to a ‘jack in the box’ – a line jumping out a hole. It is bound to attract attention. It screams – look at me, love me or hate me but you can’t ignore me.

In spite if it being so ubiquitous in nature, what attracted my attention to our very own J.I.B (Jack In the Box – as i will choose to refer to our little friend, the exclamation mark, in this piece) was a word in a book i recently started reading. This book ‘About a boy‘ from Nick Hornby who is also the author of the quirky ‘High Fidelity‘, contains a word which epitomizes the effect of the exclamation mark. The word is  – ‘S.P.A.T !’ …. see the effect of our friend , the J.I.B. It instantaneously transforms the otherwise meaningless word to the equivalent of a 60 meter electronic flashing billboard screaming at you on a desert highway. All for a fraction of its cost, trouble and carbon footprint. This word in the book is an acronym for a Single parents association or some such banal meeting that the protagonist of the book is going to. Why was the ‘!’ meaninglessly appended to the end of the acronym is anyone’s guess. But it ensures tremendous recall value, while no-so-subtly accentuating the frivolity of the meeting’s purpose.

One other famous misuse that springs to mind immediately is –  ‘WHAM!’ the now defunct pop group from the 80’s whose success was completely down to the successful inclusion of ‘!’ in their name. Now that WHAM! is no more, look where the lack of an exclamation mark in George Michael’s name has led him to. He is now reduced to drawing audiences to his concerts with a misleading promise of  an orchestral performance and then proceeds to torture them with his yodeling. He doesn’t let go of them till they are sing out in unison – “Wake me up, before you go-go! … “

In literature, the addition of our friend the J.I.B, at the end of the one-line review blurbs usually found on the back covers of the books, has tremendous commercial value and is responsible for the sustaining of the lavish lifestyles of many authors. More the number of sentences that end with the !’, the more subliminal messages that are passed on to the casual reader – This is book is of profound importance and impact. Miss the chance to read this book at your own peril…etc…etc. How else can one explain the success of millions of self-help books that are sold the world over, whose back and front pages are splattered with the ‘!’.

Stephen Hawking (by no means a self help book author) was told by his publishers – any equation that he includes in his seminal work – ‘A brief history of time’ , will cut the sales by half. What his publishers did not tell him was that inclusion of a ‘!’ in the title or on the back page will more than cover up for the loss of sales because of that one damn equation. Maybe his publishers should have consulted ‘WHAM!’

In politics as well, it has served great value over the years. George Bush & Silvio Berloscuni are two prime examples of leaders whose election to office was lubricated by the generous use of ‘!’ in their campaigns, speeches and actions.


We bow to your power – the great J.I.B, the great uplifter of the mundane and the harbinger of promised excitement. We vow to continue to unabashedly abuse your power. Till such time that the Oxford dictionary bans your usage and Microsoft word’s spell check starts to draw squiggly red lines under you – your followers will continue to grow and prosper. Amen!

Stuff That futurE shouLd brinG (STELG) #4 : No more coins

We truly live in a world of extremes. One hand millions are made or lost in a nano second thanks to commodities, foreign exchange or equity trading done by a banker over a supercomputer. One the other hand one still need to be tied down to heavy bits of nickel/brass/copper alloys to be able to pay for a service or a product. Take a quick look at an average wallet or purse, there is a large compartment that is still dedicated to carrying coins. Coins? … The most ancient form of physical monetary exchange, still being dragged around and used in 2011.

When most of the money today exists in bits & bytes in our bank accounts, its astonishing how often these round bits of metal stop you in your tracks. Think of how many times you have stood in front of a parking meter, fumbling for that exact and almost always elusive combination of coins that will satisfy the metallic beast with an insatiable appetite of coins. Or at a kiosk trying to pay for that bar of chocolate where the amount is magic number which is too small to be paid by a credit card, but large enough to exhaust all the coins in your wallet but still leave you 5 cents short, and in effect without that bar of chocolate. This magic number which one is almost invariably short in exact change, is also called the Higgs Boson number (cousin of the elusive particle by the same name that scientists are lusting after).

The most infuriating experience being, when you land in a foreign country and receive a handful of coins back as change after you pay for coffee or a small item. Serendipity will invariably ensure that every possible denomination of coins is represented in that handful. Each one will be a different shape and the number written in a different illegible font hidden among flowery designs. And if this happens to be a coin from an arabic country, you might as well forget trying to decipher the value of that coin – as happened to me in the recent trip to Turkey. There is no way of knowing if that handful is enough to pay for your taxi ride or half a cup of turkish tea from a roadside vendor.

No sane person today can offer a credible explanation as to why coins are still needed. Everything can be paid for electronically, virtually or if you were to ask some Indian politicians – in mind.

The super efficient swiss realized the uselessness of coins long back and introduced a Cash card, which you can load up from an ATM and use it as a replacement of coins for small payments. But in their perennial quest for perfection, they forgot to ask the retailers if they would be willing to accept payment via these cash cards. So now most people carry a cash card in their pocket, which they cannot use for payments. The banks have now realized this foll and are moving away from this Cash chip/card. But as irony would have it, they forgot to inform their customers … thus the cycle continues and coins continue to thrive.

I predict that within the next 15 – 20 years, coins will be eradicated as a form of monetary payment. People wallets will be thinner and lighter, with no ugly bulges from the back of suit trousers and jeans, thanks to wallets loaded with coins. They will purely be of novelty value for collectors, means of historical education aids for kids or for political memorial purposes. I for that matter am willing to go a step further and propose bio-metric recognition like retina or fingerprint scans as the only means of payment, thus eliminating the need for even carrying credit cards and banknotes completely. This will effectively eliminate many of frauds but perhaps will inspire new schemes of identity or body snatchers. But as they say vice always follows virtue.

Abraham lincoln on a memorial coin - clearly not pleased with my idea and looking the other way. Image from wikipedia