Are you trying to be smart ?

Surely you have heard this phrase before. Most probably when you are trying to pull a fast one, aiming for those perfect last words to show how witty you are really are, trying to be arrogant, or ‘cool’ … or often when you have just a staggeringly stupid act. Usually when one hears these words, the irony is lost on most people. No you were not trying to be smart – you were just being yourself or you really had to prove a point. The reasons usually don’t matter.

But what if you were actually, really smart? And someone came and told you nonchalantly – ‘It’s ok to be smart!’ What would your reaction be – ‘Are you trying to be smart or are you just a plain old chauvinist?’ And is this comment driven by your jealousy because your grey cells aren’t really as grey as the one who you are trying to put down? (At least this is one situation where a shade of grey is better than being black and white) . Again … the reasons usually don’t matter.

But what matters is that there are millions kids out there who are being told this exact thing – ‘It’s ok to be smart!’ This phrase stopped me in my tracks. It was emblazoned in large friendly letters on an educational toy(called brain quest) that we had picked up for our kids during our summer vacation in USA.

Admittedly, it is a reasonably good educational aid with interesting questions, put together in an easily referenced and digestible format to build up the kids’ general knowledge. We have had fun with it and it has been handy on a few long road trips….. but what a way to advertise it! It’s like telling kids – don’t fret, it’s alright if you are more intelligent than the others. If you know more than your friends, no need to feel the odd one out. Your knowledge will not be considered unnatural. You are not a mutant or a nerd and you will not be persecuted. And to top it all, a picture of a small boy wearing large geeky glasses rounds up the message. The message is really complete.

Isn’t it the whole point of school – to learn, to experiment, to grow your knowledge? Talking to a an american friend, a ratification emerged. It seems like the general level of interest in real knowledge is indeed diminishing among a majority of school students. Kids who know more than others are usually made fun of and considered ‘nerds’. All kinds of euphemisms are drawn up and hurled at them. Regardless of this situation, it does seem a fairly convoluted way to promote intelligence and knowledge.

This holds universal truth that extraordinary ability usually stands out and is most often lauded, or in a minority of cases is scoffed at. (Just thinking of this brings Howard Roark from ‘The Fountainhead’ to mind). Imagine telling Einstein this – ‘It’s ok Albert, we don’t really mind you being so brainy. We know why your hair are always standing up. Just trying being quite when you are around people, and don’t think up answers to the scientific mysteries on a daily basis’ .

But the point is – ‘It is really ok to be Smart!’ … you don’t need to justify it or hide it. While we will continue to use ‘brian quest’, but every time I will pick it up in the future, this question will jump up at me again. And my answer will be .. ‘Oh really. thanks for the tip!’

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.

Do you speak English?

Q: “Do you speak English?”

Probable Answer : “Yes i do, but I rather not”

How often have you heard or asked this now ubiquitous question? So many times that you do not raise an eyebrow when you are asked this question, you just come out with a pre-programmed, polite ‘Yes, of course’ and shoot away. I have been living in Switzerland for more than 5 years, and during the first couple of years (thanks to my non-existent German knowledge) unabashedly used this question thousands of times. But after two years, the Swiss took out a referendum with the topic ‘Brijesh should learn German’. All the supermarket & railway employees working in my hometown (whom i had tormented with this question) approved it in a blink of an eyelid. Thus I was went down the path of taking a crash course in German, after which my propensity to ask this question has reduced by the same factor that the Indian cricket teams ability to play well in overseas matches has increased (which, given our respective past ineptness in both these situations is quite an achievement)

But today, I was asked this question (almost like a celestial plotted revenge) and it literally stopped me in my tracks. It came from such an unexpected source that irony of the situation was staggering. I had the pleasure of calling up the Indian embassy in Switzerland to clarify some details about a passport renewal question. Now, they have copious amounts of information on their sometimes quite helpful, sometimes infuriating website. So whether i really needed to call them to clarify is opens up a debate about the web designer’s ability to present all the information logically or my inability to comprehend that information. Anyway … so I call them, after navigating through a million options, i manage to convince the recorded voice on the telephone that she cannot answer my queries and I really need to talk to a human being. The phone rings (for what seems like an eternity to me), and a lady picks up the phone with a polite, slightly Indian accented “Good afternoon Indian Embassy”.

On hearing these words, a sudden wave of nationalism floods over me, and i break out in Hindi trying to explain what i want to know. As I finish my sentence, there is silence on the phone. Puzzled, I say “Hello” … the same voice answers back “Hello sir, Do you speak English?” I instinctively start to repeat my question in English, but something tells me to stop. Hang on a minute … I am calling the Indian Embassy here. They represent India in this country. The least that I can expect is to be able to talk in my national language … is that asking for too much? The critics among you will immediately retort back that there are close to 16 officially recognized languages in India. But for crying out loud, you expect to be able to converse in the official language of your country when dealing with your country’s embassy. A few weeks back, I had the opportunity to deal with the Turkish embassy to apply for a visa. You will be damned to find any other language spoken or written there except Turkish.

But of course, as I noted in a post a few days back, we Indians are different and (i think) almost take pride in not communicating in Hindi. Ok, maybe I am being too hard here, that lady could have been from anywhere in Eastern or Southern India, where Hindi is not that prevalent. But for god’s sake, as the first contact point for anyone calling the embassy … is this acceptable?

Thanks to experiences like this, i can completely empathize with people in India, who bemoan the passing away of out national image & culture. Do we show our nationalism only by observing the national holidays as a day off, dressing up in an Indian dress for a phot opp on a festival or by getting worked up over the India-Pakistan issue? Isn’t the ability to communicate in a common official language the lowest common denominator of nationalism?

Maybe I am just plain wrong or brewing up a storm in a chai-cup. Though I hope I can make my case again on Saturday after India has won the Cricket world cup. At that time, when a wave of euphoria and nationalism is sweeping over the nation, the time might be right to take up this issue again. But chances are no-one will be listening then, as everyone will be busy celebrating . (…… by drinking Aussie beer???)

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.

What if news media only reported good news?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Were they ever enemies?

This was the first phrase that popped into my head when I saw this now ubiquitous message proclaiming to the world on facebook that ‘X’ and ‘Y’ are now friends. Chances are most of you reading this have a facebook account (who doesn’t these days … huh?) and seen this super-friendly message a trillion times. So why is there a need to write about it? Since the question is purely rhetorical, we will let it pass for now.

I cannot help but wonder that thanks to facebook, before they became ‘friends’, were they ever enemies? And why is this important for me to know that someone whose existence I am only reminded of when I read of his/her latest exploits like ‘just had 3 tequila shots straight up…yohooo!‘ and I see a grainy, barely recognizable picture taken in a dimly lit bar and uploaded from his/her uber-cool mobile gadget, has now become friends with another person, whose existence i was blissfully unaware of before now and of whom I will probably never hear again? … and to top it all what is there to ‘like’ about it? (I wish some of these sites have an ‘unlike’ button)

Now don’t get me wrong and report me to Mark Zuckerberg. I do love this modern day invention from the bottom of my heart (okay this was a little over the top). I have been able to find some folks with whom I had been out of touch for a long time, and I have even been guilty of sharing some photos occasionally. As with all of these modern day social media inventions, this one also comes with it’s own set of ironies. The best one I have heard of recently is about someone who ‘tricked’ her friends into wishing her a happy birthday on FB second time in 3 months, by just changing her birthday in her profile. The same people who had wished her 3 months back, got a reminder and robotically went to her wall (what a cool name for something that does not even exist in real life) and promptly posted a heartfelt birthday greetings message.

I wonder sometimes if we are pushing the envelope a bit too far at times? Why is it so important for us to be perennially socially-connected with a tool whose name, even my dumb Microsoft word processor does not recognize and shows as spelling mistake? Is there anyone readying this who does not have a facebook account and still has real friends?…. and why am I bothered about this, its late and I should be in bed!