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!

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

Memories or a few dollars ?

So what would you rather have – Memories or a few dollars more ? … Here’s what i mean

Pick up a book to read. The touch of the book’s cover sends electrical impulses rushing through your nerves, which excites neurons in the brains and an image springs to your mind. A crisp day in October, you are standing in one of the most beautiful places on this earth. A quaint shop located at the edge of a mystical village, set on sun-kissed plateau high in the mountains, where time stands still. Houses are made of massive stone blocks and mortar, beautifully hand decorated with local motifs, carved wooden doors more than 300 yrs old. Streets are paved with cobblestones. To get to the next town, you either trek down a winding mountain path for 45 minutes or wait for a bus that runs every hour. Just round the corner is a cafe, you can smell a freshly baked chocolate cake – which on this cold day, will be heavenly with a frothy cappuccino while you excitedly leaf through your new book.

Or does the book conjures up memories of you sitting huddled in front of your GRS, late at night. Searching frantically through multiple websites or comparing prices from a hundred sellers on amazon, and then waiting for days or weeks for the book to arrive? Or worse … none at all.

I don’t know about you, i unabashedly prefer the first memory.

That was exactly what i experienced a couple of evenings back when i picked up a book for a bed time story for my son. The book in question is a simple but beautiful children’s book called ‘The Snowstorm’ by Selina Chönz & Alois Carigiet. Coincidently the book is set and was bought in the same village described above – Guarda, in the Engadine region of Switzerland, where the hero of the book, a boy called Ursli, supposedly lived.

'Snowstorm' by Selina Chönz & Alois Carigiet

So the original question again – the memories of having acquired an object or an experience in a special place  are exactly that – special. Rather than saving 7 dollars (or Swiss francs) by ordering this book over the internet. Then in a giant warehouse someone unceremoniously lumps the book into a cardboard packet, ticks a box on a checklist, pastes a barcode with your customer code printed across it and moves on to the next ‘special delivery’. Surely a cheaper way, but so much more dull. And saving 7 dollars, won’t exactly make you a millionaire, will it?

Just thinking of the fantastic time that we had over there, makes me want to go back there. Maybe we go back there in Spring. Till then, a taste of that beautiful place.

A typical house in Guarda, Engadine Switzerland. Behind it is the shop where the book was bought

local motifs painted on house, Guarda, Engadine Switzerland

local motifs painted on house

Guarda, in the distance set on the edge of a mountain

Many thanks to our wonderful swiss-greek couple friend who introduced our kids to the other Ursli book. If you have kids, buy this book for them. And while you are at it, encourage them to gather some experiences that they will remember for times to come.

What a busy sunday morning !

When god created Sunday mornings, he was probably thinking of the following :

  1. freshly baked croissants
  2. waking up late (if your kids allow you this luxury)
  3. nice music like Bap Kennedy, Joan Baez or Gordon Lightfoot (my wife does not agree to the last musical choice though)
  4. spend as much time in pyjamas
  5. read ‘The Economist’ from cover to cover
  6. possibly write a new blog post

 

Surely not this :

That is a busy flight schedule !

For a small quaint swiss town to be subjected to this kind of torture is surely uncalled for. 6 or 7 airplanes simultaneously crossing over our otherwise restricted airspace, further adding to the global warming to which I had such a remarkable solution yesterday. What has the world come to? and where are all these people off to anyway? If anyone of  you were in these planes and saw a guy with a long zoom lens in pjs clicking away to glory, drop me a line. We have something to talk about.

Now let me go back to the sunday grind.

airports – grimly efficient and effectively grim

I am sitting here at my gate at the zurich airport, waiting for the wonderfully prim, proper and fresh looking airport staff (even at 2145 in the night) to announce departure of my flight to Delhi. Having finished the intriguing ‘The name of the rose’ by Umberto Eco, and too lazy to make the effort of starting ‘Kafka at the shore’ by Murakami, I start to look around me. Inspite of having frequented this place umpteen times, I cannot help but admire the grim efficiency on display around me – strong bold lines, stark colour schemes, vast empty places, shiny granite, inviting lounges with wafting aromas of freshly brewed coffe, hundreds of comfortable seats set in ramrod straight lines, perfectly arranged alluring mounds of chocolates at the Sprungli shops, and the airport music – which for all the effort that has gone into it selection – is now starting to irritate me.

It all adds up to an image of perfect order, customary of the Swiss. But is it a little too perfect? Being an Indian and having frequented many of the Indian airports, I miss that bit of life, atmosphere and drama that epitomises India – frantic announcements being made for the elusive Mr Gupta who is keeping the whole flight to Jallandar waiting because he decided to cuddle up on a bench and catch forty winks, the rookie counter clerk who has managed to lock himself out of the check-in system and cannot log in because his supervisor has gone for a 5 min break which has now extended to 30 mins, the single coffee machine attendant who is struggling to serve the 100 desparate coffee seekers but can still keep a radiant smile on his face inspite of that damned machine which keeps shutting down on him, kids running amok playing hide and seek, the earnest young airport attendants always eager to help the elderly – the list is endless . And how can one forget the ubiquitous Indian ‘policewallah’, hundreds of them are present everywhere you turn your head, resplendent in their crushed and somewhat soiled uniforms, the glorious pot belly and that constant itch in the unmentionables that he religiously attends to in public view of hundreds of hapless passengers that he is sworn to protect – but from what, even he does not know!

Suddenly I snap back into reality, a crystal clear announcement announces the departure of the flight, all waiting passengers line up in an orderly fashion, a plastic smile and a programmed ‘enjoy your flight’ later, I am on my way to the aircraft. A few hours later I will be in Delhi at the spanking new terminal 3 – which for all it modern design and amenities – will surely greet me with some of the sights mentioned above. I am sure at that point in time I will long for the cold efficiency of it’s Swiss counterpart … Or will I?

Maybe so, may be not – such are the follies of the human heart.

… then why are they telling us?

why

“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.

All’s well that ends well

So the 2010 Delhi Commonwealth games finished a few days ago. But chances are that many of you did not care or even know about it. No … you are not living on Mars, many of you could be either European/American, for whom the word ‘Commonwealth’ does not ring a bell or many of you couldn’t be bothered about spending your precious time following a sporting activity that is considered to be among the 10 largest sporting events in the world, but probably has little practical significance in the ‘bigger picture’ (at least that’s what some people think)

But me, the perennial skeptic, does not belong to the above camp. For the following 7 galactically important reasons, the games held a lot value:

1. They created common WEALTH – Yes they did, and loads of it … so what if it was only for the organizers! How can we overlook the fact that anyone at a reasonably important post in the organizing committee/s would have seen their personal networth increase handsomely. Some estimate that spending for the Commonwealth Games overran the original estimate of $500 million nine-fold. Do the math yourself and wonder where a lot of that $4.5 Billion went

2. They increased GDP/standard of living for many Indians – Thanks to all the kickbacks that thousands of people received, many families will have spanking new cars, apartments, LED televisions etc. In the time of the current recession it matters! All that money spent of spiffing up public places that nobody was going to visit, paper projects that never saw the light of day and will eventually get reported as handsome profits for many companies (some non-existent). How can one argue against improving the living conditions of people in a country where many live on $2 a day?

3. They reduced unemployment – Thousands of workers were hired to make and then dig-up the same roads, lay and re-lay pavement stones, paint broken walls. I happened to be in Delhi during July. On visiting Rajiv Chowk (one of the most important locations of Delhi) I witnessed dozens of workers snoozing in the shade of trees waiting for inspiration to repair the roads they dug up last week. Then hundreds must have been hired as a last ditch effort in the last few weeks to help the poor overworked souls. Obama – take note, here’s a tip on how to reduce America’s unemployment

4. New heights of luxury were created – Who in the world can boast of  $80 rolls of toilet paper (Kimberley-Clark: did you miss a massive opportunity here?), $61 soap dispensers and $125 first-aid kits. You cannot even partake of such luxuries at the Ritz Carlton

5. New architectural grounds were broken:

China gave the world this  …. 

India gave us this ……

Now put your hand on your heart and tell me, which one of these will end up heralding the new era in architecture and design?

6: India emerged as a sporting giant – India stood second in the medal tally, beating the mighty sporting nations of Tonga, Bangladesh and Cayman Islands. Come the next summer Olympics – China and America will be trembling in their ranks.

7. It brought mankind closer to nature – .. or was it the other way round? For hundreds of urbanite sportsmen who were not conversant with the glorious Indian fauna, this was their chance to get close and personal with it. Don’t trust me? … read it here

But …. as the saying goes – ‘All’s well that ends well’. These were minor hiccups, compared to what in the end turned out to be hugely successful games . They did have some truly momentous sporting occasions, the spotlight shone on India & performances of Indian athletes in areas like Shooting, Hockey, Women’s 4 x 400m relay will go a long way in reviving interest in sports other than the omnipresent Cricket. It wasn’t really all that bad … was it?

So world … look at the brighter side and bring on the Indian hosted Olympics!