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.

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

Stuff That futurE shouLd brinG (STELG) #3 : A ghost writer

Having dipped my feet into the cold water of blogging a few months back, I have gone through the classic cycle of :

  • enthusiasm (wow – I am writer now! Though am i the only one who ready my posts inspite of slowly growing list of followers?)
  • delight (of converting my thoughts into a digital form that are sent out into the vortex of the world-wide web to see if someone else out there with the same thoughts)
  • pat yourself on your back (When you get a comment or a ‘like’. But since it takes all sort of people to make the world, occasionally I also get brickbats on some of the ideas and posts the i publish. One of my last posts about where i directed some light-hearted pun towards some cricket players was one of them)
  • horror (what the heck did i just publish?)
  • anxiety (What to write about next – this ranges between bursting with ideas at a given point in time to staring at blank glowing rectangular screen waiting for inspiration to hit)

So a few days back, a thought struck me – Wouldn’t it be nice if someone or something could prod or help you to writing your blog posts? It sure wouldn’t be bad, i must say.  Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to walk away from the arduous task of having to think up ideas, structure my thoughts and then play with the beautiful medium that is (elastic) words to express them. I wouldn’t mind a helpful prop-up once in a while. Afterall, i juggle many balls in the air all the time – work, family, cricket(watching and coaching), music, keeping fit, reading. I just added another one to it recently – blogging. And since trying to find a better way of doing things is ingrained into my DNA, I want to make sure that each of them works pristinely (though my wife perhaps will have a different opinion about my work-life balance)

So i sincerely hope that a STELG comes along and :

  1. Reads my mind and provides me with a shortlisted set of ideas that i could write about
  2. Helps my get those words out faster – this task of clackety tapping a keyboard while simultaneously thinking, structuring, trying to keep a straight back while sitting, sipping my tea and adjusting the level of music on my wonderful Cadence Amayas, can almost qualify me to a Guinness book of world record entry
  3. Does away automatically with all those squiggly lines under the mis-spelt words. (I would love to outsource this kind of mind numbing typo correcting tasks – like i can do at work by sending it to some helpful souls sitting in another country :-)
  4. Proof read my post and offer grammatical suggestions and even automatically correct the simple ones (Please do not suggest that horrible approach to grammar correction that microsoft word takes)
  5. Recycle stuff, parts, ideas, tags etc from my old posts – Many a times thoughts are expressed around a similar set of topics probably visited in an earlier post. It is a tedious task to type up the same tags, heading, links etc repeatedly.

So WordPress, Blogger or any of you blog providers out there – are you listening? Hopefully some of you will have these soon and your stock would move up in my eyes.

An impression of a blogger, wondering whether to set forth or not. Image via Wikipedia

Stuff That futurE shouLd brinG (STELG) #2 : Real holiday price comparison sites

You want holidays to be easy, relaxing and fun. But sometimes the way to book a holiday can be anything but! I just finished booking one. When i started off on the process, i figured it will be an easy task . Simply give your dates to a price comparison site, who thanks to millions of dollars of investments & funding poured into them, will do the leg work and get you the best possible deal. This expectation is not unwarranted after all. TV, newspapers & the web are teeming with their ads, all screaming & promising you the moon.

The first one I used (the number 1 as per their claim) took my request and promised me the proverbial moon, complete with a picture of pretty airhostess that you could stare at, while the site worked its magic. A second later, 12 different pop-ups opened across my screen, each one of them for the other websites that it was comparing the prices from. It was a virtual explosion of all snazzy flashing pop-ups, deals, free flights, dirt cheap rooms in the best luxury hotels, free car rentals et all. It was almost like that pretty airhostesss had spilled the nice gin & tonic that you were expecting to be served, all over your face and had suddenly revealed her true form, which is actually a three-headed vampire ant queen . Now wait a minute – I asked for you, the great commercial price leach &  provider of solace to us digital deal seekers, to give me a solution; not 12 more questions in response to my query. I am not a travel agent, who is trained to expertly seek out the lowest price from a jumble of different price & travel options shown in 12 different formats and currencies. By the time I located an itinerary that looked good to me and proceeded to do the booking, suddenly the price jumped up 20% …. hmm interesting ploy.

So one STELG that i would love to see is REAL price comparison sites for holidays. I am almost making it sound like that I am perpetually booking holidays. I would like to but as life would have it – I can’t. But when I try to book one, it ought to be easy.  Here is a possible list of features I would like to see :

  • Get a real price, not an ‘starting from’ advertised price, which is more like a trapdoor trying to lure you in. Do what you have to do, even if that means employing quantum physics principles, or getting Harry Potter to wave his magic wand to get the user out of the deathly hallows of continuous back & forth searching
  • Look for options. One simple example could be locations. For instance, I was looking for a holiday in southern Turkey. I have never been there before and i only know of a couple of places. Get me options, you have a huge database of possible holiday locations. Use the variables that i have just fed in, which should give you a treasure trove of information on what kind of place i am expecting, what i might be looking for etc.
  • Realize that I can wait. Yes, in today’s internet world speed is king. Google has perfected the art of displaying results as you type. Most people really cannot fathom the difference between 0.0067 seconds or 0.1 seconds to complete the search. If a few milliseconds can get you more breathing time to cook up a better result, please do it. It’s good to slow down once in a while
  • Don’t up sell for the sake of it. Does it really make sense to try to give me an option of a renting a private beach with its own helipad, when all i asked for a beach cottage with a sea view. Slightly different price ranges, don’t you think?
  • Add some form of intelligence, artificial or otherwise. I can fully appreciate that Europe to US is a long flight. When you can see that i am travelling with two kids, i am certainly not going to choose a flight whose flight time is 23 hours, where in 9 hrs is the flying time and 14 hrs is the waiting time in London, with the added pleasure of changing airports
  • And finally … no annoying pop-ups please. We are in 2011. Pop-ups were a neat technology trick when they were invented. Much like the digital watch with a built-in alarm. Time has moved on
Since we have to wait till an option like the ones described above comes along, I am going to use that time wisely by fixing a nice Gin & tonic. But i better do that myself and keep it away from that airhostess lurking behind the pop-ups, trying to spill my drink.

My Gin & tonic, hidden from the evil airhostess. Image via gintonicworld.com

Stuff That futurE shouLd brinG (STELG) #1 – Plaque resistant teeth

Hey Charles Darwin, where are you? I scoured over your seminal book – ‘The evolution of species’ and found no reference to something that should sit at the apex of the next wave of Human development.  – Plaque resistant teeth.

The human race has suffered from the MTAWTY (My Teeth Are Whiter Than Yours) syndrome since millenniums. The quest for plaque removing secrets and white teeth has been the root cause of many famous conquests & battles, including Waterloo (you have to believe this – check the facts here). But inspite of millions of sacrificed lives and years of evolution behind us, human race still suffers inexorably from tiny bacteria which drive many men & women to excrutiating pain and numerous dentists to vast riches. And it is fair to point out, that it really only us the human beings who suffer from such frailities. The mighty lions and crocodiles, who rip apart huge animals with their jaws, never have to worry about the mind numbing ritual of brushing, flossing & mouthwash. The crocodiles just sit their with their mouth open, a little birdy does the job of cleaning its teeth while collecting his daily lunch quota. How perfectly nice. (Whether this is true or just anecdotal is still being debated. But what the heck, I would like to believe in it)

But we, the human beings have to trudge off to the dentist every now and then. Then sit there in scary looking chairs, with our jaws stretched open in all types of contorted positions while hundreds of precision instruments like water jets, minute suction pumps etc clank about our teeth and gums trying to remove plaque that shouldn’t be there in the first place. These sessions usually cost a fortune, but the end of it all, the dentist will pick up a dangerously looking crooked hook or instrument and start scraping away at your teeth. Every scrape ends up microns away from reducing your gums to a bloody mess. When inquired, why does he  have to revert to this technique, of which a butcher will be proud of. The answer is : “This is still the most effective was of removing the difficult parts”. The primitiveness of the whole thing is biblical. What’s even more ironic is not just the fact that one has to repeat this ordeal every few months, but with your each visit, you notice that your invoices are getting fatter & the size of the diamond on the dentist’s finger keeps getting bigger.

So the first Stuff That futurE shouLd brinG (STELG) is man’s ability to grow plaque resistant teeth. The teeth should be able to distinguish between plaque & chocolate. Chocolate should cling to teeth, thus increasing the time that you can enjoy the taste, but plaque is simply rejected. Even if some rogue plaque articles manage to bribe the chocolate molecules to have them stick to the teeth, there should be micro plaque eating soldiers unleashed by the tongue the eliminate them for good. Even if it does not come naturally to human beings, human teeth cells could be crossed with teflon cells. This will ensure that all plaque will simply just slip off.

But we are not there yet. And i have been happily munching away on the exquisite 75% Ecuador Cocoa Lindt dark chocolate, while writing this. So i better run off to do the inane dental hygiene routine, otherwise i will be adding handsomely to my dentist’s new diamond ring.  But while i do that, a question for you to ponder – Which is the happier crocodile of the two?

image from mjmbooks.com

image from timeonline.info

Stuff That futurE shouLd brinG (STELG) – If future is coming



I recall seeing a science fiction movie as a kid. The movie depicted the world as it might be in 2010 or whereabouts. It had all the clichés that we associate with the future : flying cars, robots as household helpers, a hopelessly polluted world, people daily commuting to Mars for work by private space shuttles, everyone wearing pointy, golden coloured costumes, compressed food palettes that miraculously turn into a scrumptious pizza or roast chicken when treated for 10 seconds in machines that are a funkier version of today’s microwave ovens. It is 2011 now, but none of these things are around. With the notable exception of flying cars. What? You haven’t seen them yet? James Bond has had one since 1960. Closer still, my son has hundreds of them. Ok, back to the topic at hand. Chances are the same producer is busy making another film that will depict the world as it will be in 2300. It will surely stretch our imagination and show new wonders that will amaze and eventually evade us. On second thoughts, maybe he/she should get in touch with Mr Kurzweil and take a reality check. 

But the trouble with science fiction is that no-one seems to talk, care or think about mundane day-to-day things that surely need changing or evolving (some of them drastically). I can live with my current car, which doesn’t fly. But what I can’t live with is continue to having to endure the torturous visits to my dentist (I must admit she is nice, but don’t tell my wife!) where my I have to keep my jaws stretched open in all types of contorted positions while hundreds of precision instruments like water jets, minute suction pumps etc clank about my teeth and gums trying to remove plaque that shouldn’t be there in the first place.

I cannot create a new improved line of dentistry. But I consider myself to be more of a thinker (being very ambitious, I am thinking on the lines of Bertrand Russell crossed with Woody Allen) rather than an inventor or a scientist. So I, the unfortunate victim of today’s primitive dental techniques, hereby commit to starting a new line of posts where I would like to muse about Stuff That futurE shouLd brinG (STELG). Maybe this (thanks to mine and hopefully some of the reader’s ideas) will eventually morph into a veritable treasure trove of ideas about new stuff that future should bring. Now these may start off with rants about stuff, services, things, products that are broken, badly designed, half-thought through and need to be redesigned completely. Or it could just be something that doesn’t exist today and absolutely must exist tomorrow to make the future worthwhile. Or a wild wish that is lurking somewhere in the mind, waiting to find an outlet. The focus might be on things around us that seem irrelevant or too obvious for science fiction to think about, though i am sure occasionally things like flying cars will also make an appearance.

I am convinced that if I keep up with it, the ideas will evolve on the scales of imagination, importance, usability and maybe wackiness. We can then patent these ideas and sell them for millions of dollars (or whichever currency is the strongest at that time) by publishing them in swanky book with a bright & shiny jacket and quotes from important sounding people! You may scoff at it for it not being a new idea, but it is surely worth a shot. If nothing else, it should make fun reading years down the line. Remember “Hope springs eternal”

So the first one to follow soon…

Singularity – Who wants it ?

So what are the odds? You start off the day by visiting the doctor to take an allergy shot for a very convenient modern medical malady – allergic reaction to pollen spread by the birch trees. Ironically, this most ancient form of spreading life devised by nature, threatens the life of the modern-day man. Okay that’s stretching it a bit, but it does cause mild discomfort to thousands to people round the world, who rush to the swanky clinics of their doctors to alleviate the medical industry from the deep wounds inflicted upon it by the financial crisis (another modern malady).

While you are it, you spend your time at the waiting room, discovering the solitary english magazine hidden among the plethora of german language gibberish about celebrities, fashion, cookery, travel and luxury lifestyle. This magazine happens to be the latest issue of ‘Time’ in which the main story is about the possibility of life on earth achieving ‘Singularity’. This according to Mr Kurzweil, the world’s foremost expert on this topic, is a point in time during the evolution of life on earth, when technological computing power will overtake the combined intelligence of all human beings on this earth. At this point in time, computers will have the ability to create technological advances without the need of messy and dumb intervention from carbon based life forms – us Humans. He also goes on the predict that this will happen around 2045. The fact that this calculation is done on a today’s computer, using yesterday’s data makes it immensely questionable to my mind. Plus, combine it with the fact that the Mayans predicted that the world will end anyway in 2012, makes all this postulating pointless anyway.

Well … when and if  this happens nothing will be impossible – instant gratification will be the norm. If the computers allow it (who knows what they will be up to then) it will be possible to create medicines that reverse the ageing process. Even a 2 millisecond old baby computer at that time will know that it is just a simple act of replenishing the Telomeres at the end of every DNA strand, which are lost or depleted as a result of cell reproduction. Child’s play isn’t it? And it took the stupid humans their whole evolution history of some million years to figure it out!

Minor discomforts like allergic reaction to pollen will be so passé. You could be banished to milleniums of aimless loitering in the bitfields (data warehouses on Mars) for even mentioning such a stupid medical disorder (the word ‘disease‘ would have been deleted from the official Oxford dictionary).  The technological breakthroughs of today like the funky Apple iPad, will be displayed in the Museum of Ancient art in the section ‘Doofus inventions of stone age years’ next to the Casio digital watches, battery operated can openers and Flat screen 3-D TVs. The singularity thought movement even predicts that humans could merge with machines to become super intelligent Cyborgs who could live forever. It may look like a cross between Arnold Schwarzenegger (Terminator), Marvin the paranoid Android (Hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy) and Keanu reeves (Matrix). My only hope is that they don’t get the characteristics mixed up and we don’t end up with the depression and boredom of Marvin, the intelligence of Arnold and deadpan expression of  Keanu. It certainly won’t make for an interesting stablemate.

Another possibility might be that you could have machines that conjure up anything that you think about or imagine. Hey, but i don’t need to wait for 2045 for that, i have it today! Here are a couple of proofs of that.

  1. While coming out of the clinic, i picked up a brochure from an electronic store housed in the same building, which on its front page was screaming about some fantastic price for a LED television. As i entered the elevator and looked up, there were two guys in front of me, breathlessly lugging the exact same model
  2. I walked out towards the tram stop and on seeing an ad about Dubai, my mind wandered towards a couple who had just moved here from Dubai. Lo and behold, 10 seconds later, the lady in question was walking towards me. I stopped and shook her hand and did some small talk. She was right there in flesh and blood – i wasn’t imagining her
  3. My taste buds signaled to my brain, a desire for a chewing gum. I slipped my hand into my jacket pocket, there lurking there was a single stick of gum, brought and forgotten a millennium ago

Mr Kurzweil, thanks for your predictions. I am a big fan of the future and minor futurologist myself, but what you are asking me to wait for another 34 years, i have it right here right now, my all important piece of grey matter sitting squarely in my skull.

So all of you Singularity seekers, don’t fret and spend millions of dollars on research, drop me a line and i shall show you the path. But for all the instant gratification you seek, be a little patient. You see, the cricket world cup is currently on, and the immense powers of my brain are focussed on helping India win the world cup … Amen!

Statue of Confucius on Chongming Island in Sha...

Confucius - praying for Singularity and India's victory in the world cup. Image via Wikipedia