Tuesday, August 25, 2015

The other side of the fence

 If you grew up in a suburb and played cricket or any game within the neighborhood, then you must be aware of the monster. I speak, of course, of the fat neighborhood aunty or the scowling old uncle who will threaten and curse you to eternal damnation if the cricket ball ever fell in their garden patch. You remember, of course, that the garden was not a Mughal garden. Or an extensive farm of epic proportions. It was, in fact, just a small 6-foot by 6-foot patch of land, neatly divided into four little squares. How on earth someone would cram so many plants into that space was a wonder by itself. My friends would tell me horror stories of this aunty who cuts up tennis balls in front of the children, just to make them realize that they should take the game elsewhere. Or that crazy half-naked uncle who caught hold of little Chintu sneaking in to get the ball, and held him hostage for an hour (even threatened to call the police). Yeah - it was ugly.

 As a grown up person (at least I'd like to think so), there are a few realizations I have had. I am going to draw the comparison between the only two countries where I have lived long enough to observe life styles and culture - the USA and India. So then first of all, why did this happen? Why is this such a common, shared experience? Two concepts: population density and urban planning.

 Think of population density thus: it is not just the raw and absolute number of people who live in a country, but the number of people per square kilometer in every major metropolitan area + the suburbs. When I grew up, just the sheer number of kids competing for a tiny fraction of land or a park was so huge - no wonder cricket balls end up in gardens and other such places. I don't think the situation has improved much today. In the suburbs of the USA where I live, I see almost empty park benches, enough number of playgrounds and open establishments where a small team of kids and their parents can spend a weekend afternoon enjoying the sunshine and not worry about cricket (or baseball) balls ending up in people's gardens.

 Also, a lot of suburbs in the USA are much better planned. Someone thought of reserving an area for parks for kids, what the traffic to/from this park would look like, where people would park their cars and where the toilets should be. I have lived in planned towns and cities in India, as well as places where the city's routes can only be described as chaos. Hands down, the more planned a city was, the lesser the number of such cricket ball vs. garden troll conflicts arose. If there is a single spot at the end of some road where kids can play, then that is where kids will be. If your garden happens to be right next to that end of the road, then it is inevitable that the cricket ball will land in your garden!

 Finally, let's come to the title of this blog post: "The other side of the fence". You would have noticed that I have associated certain words and phrases with the house and garden owners: monster; fat aunty; scowling old uncle; horror story; half-naked uncle who held a little kid hostage. This is pure evil, right? Well, now that I have a house and a garden of my own, I don't want to think of myself as an evil person. However, I do see why a ball that lands in the middle of a garden patch can trigger a fight-or-flight response. You see, the plants are as good as one's children: I nurture them, watch them grow, care for them. It is very cruel to imagine that a cricket ball just happened to land in my little corner of the world and smashed through some plants in 3 seconds what took me 3 months to grow.

 So what is the solution to the problem? How would the kids and garden owners coexist? The answer is empathy. The kids don't think twice about hitting a ball into the garden because they don't understand the feeling. One of the good things we were taught in my boarding school was to care of a plant on our own: one plant dedicated to and fully cared for one student. Invite those kids for some lemonade or Glucon-D one day. Give any three of them the responsibility to look after a plant. Tell them that they are in charge of the sapling. Watch the kids as they come in religiously, every day, to water that plant and take pictures and show it to their friends. Then one day when the same kid or his team is batting, and the ball comes tantalizingly short of length on the leg side, watch how the kid will check his gut instinct and avoid hitting the plant he is in charge of. You would save your patch of the garden, and the kid would have learned a little bit of compassion, empathy and self control. He would join you on the other side of the fence.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Time to Upgrade

When I was growing up, Parker pens were a big deal. Those special pens were expensive and given as gifts on special occasions. Think of your sacred thread ceremony (পৈতে), the birthday where you also happened to top your class final exams, or the special uncle who visited after five years and had to prove that he was well off - that is when you received one.

Almost as a rule, we would stash those away. Possibly to give away as gifts to other kids on special occasions, or to be opened when the "time was right". I revered these pens, of course, and any time I heard of a professor or someone who wrote with one of those, it immediately elevated them into a haloed status for me. It either symbolized wealth, or erudition, or both.

On that day, we were about to go to a sacred thread ceremony of some social acquaintance. I was tasked with finding a good pen set from our cupboard where these were stored. I started going through these one by one. For those of you unfamiliar with the concept of a “pen-set”, it was usually a couple of pens in a fancy box. One of those would be a fountain pen, and another would be a ball-point pen. Almost as a rule, each of the ball-point pens I went through that day had run dry. No amount of scribbling on white paper, shaking, rubbing hands around the refill tube or other home remedies could help. Some of these casualties of neglect also included Parker pens. I remember my mother reminiscing sadly, that at least a couple of them were from the time that she received her PhD. They had run dry - simply because of disuse. We eventually did find a fresh set of Parker pens to gift to the boy. I got my hands on a set that was about to get thrown but we dramatically revived it using the aforementioned techniques. I started writing using a “Parker pen” from that day.

It became, of course, the neighbor’s envy & owner’s pride. My friends would remark about the fact that I was now a high roller (no pun intended), but they soon got used to the fact. I ended up using a lot of the expensive pens that were gathering dust at home, and then when the supply of these costly pens eventually ran out, I started using the old ones again. It was an inconsequential transition, and I could feel the difference between an ordinary pen and the branded one. It did not make me desperate enough to go and start buying Parker pens, but I would still start writing with one when I got one of those as a gift, and then downgrade again.

Parker pens are still a big deal. They are stylish, expensive, and I am sure they are great to write with. (www.parkerpen.com/en-US/shop-online) But it has been a long time since anyone gifted one to me, and I might just write with one if I get my hands on them. But the incident from that day is etched in my mind. I believe the time to upgrade is now. Go find your stash of things for “the special day”. That day is today.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Get a better job referral - don't just send a resume

 A lot of my friends keep asking me for a referral in my company. However, the chances of getting hired depends a lot on not just their skills or their resume, but also on how many people the resume reaches, even if the job requirements are remotely related. While people often talk about going through your connections and network to get the best referrals and positions, you have to make the process of forwarding your resume as smooth as possible.

 The purpose of this post is two-fold. The first is that I cannot repeat this to everyone who sends me a resume. Secondly (and more importantly), the topic is delicate for anyone who really wants a job, but I cannot tell them that you are screwing your own chances by just sending a resume. Consider this anonymous feedback for public good.

1. Make a better resume

As oft-repeated as this is, there cannot be a simpler tip to implement. Please take a look at Gayle's resume tips here: http://www.careercup.com/resume. No objectives, accomplishment oriented short bullet points, with as much useful numerical data as possible. Make it easy for the recruiter to read it - force the eyes to go to the points you want. Also, if I keep forwarding bloated undecipherable resumes to people (even to my personal connections), I lose my reputation. Please help me send at least professional resumes forward.

2. A meaningful email = a good cover letter

Most corporate referral systems have a section where I can make a comment about a candidate who I am referring for a position. Usually, I have to write down how far do I know you personally, why you'll be a good fit, etc. Please make my job easier, by providing some text in your email itself that I can literally copy-paste, or put in with minimal edits.

3. Do not spray and pray

The worst mistake you can do when you are sending your resume is to declare, "Hey dude can you forward this resume for any internal postings?". No, I cannot. Because I don't have time to go through your resume, then do a keyword search, filter by location, external requirements, etc. and then write your cover letter for you and then apply. Really - I don't. Instead, do your homework. Find out from the corporate job listing website exactly which position(s) you are looking for. And then send the requisition numbers or the link to the position, etc. in your email. See, now you just made my life easier - referring you will be just a few clicks away.

4. Follow up, but don't nag

It is okay to reach out after a week and check whether there has been any progress. It serves two purposes. First, if I have really forgotten about the resume (not me, those other people), I can send it at that time. Or, if there is an email from the hiring manager asking for more information about you, I can take the action. Second, if I run into the hiring manager or the recruiter socially somewhere, I might put in a good word about you or just follow up - it brings your resume to the top of the pile.

5. Miscellaneous

Mention what kind of attachment you are sending (and don't forget the attachment). If you don't mention it and I find that there is a suspicious attachment, I will probably mark it as spam. Also, PDF resumes are preferred (since some recruiters have the bad habit of twisting your resume to "enhance" experience for a position), and you also don't me to suddenly copy and paste your resume format for my own. Finally, make sure you are not asking for a favor beyond the level or acquaintance between the two of us. If you are my close friend, I'll dig through the corporate job postings on my own and apply on your behalf to a hundred positions in addition to just the one you sent. However, if you are a casual acquaintance I met at a party, don't ask me to apply to all available Product Manager positions in your email. Ain't gonna happen.

So, what would a good email look like? Like this:

Hi Sudipta, 
 Hope you are doing good. 
 I was going through the job listings on XYZ and noticed this post that really caught my eye: http://www.xyz.com/jobs/posting?id=98765, for a Senior Solutions Engineer. 
 I think I would be a great fit for the position. I have worked with clients before (such as A11 and B22), and have a good knowledge of the business ecosystem of the retail vertical. I noticed that the job role requires Python and MySQL experience, and I have been using those technologies for quite a while now. In addition, looking at the general trend of job postings and news articles of XYZ, it seems you are looking for people who can help move the data to a consolidated data warehousing system. I would be the perfect candidate for the job, since I have been a program manager in our internal data warehousing team for quite a while. 
 Attached is my PDF resume - please forward it to the relevant people and let me know if you need more information. 

Saturday, June 29, 2013

To the women of the world

It feels strange to be writing this, but perhaps every man on earth should say this at least once in their lifetime. To all the women in the world, "Thank you"!

Thank you for sticking around with us, thank you for keeping us sane and for keeping us from killing each other. One fine morning, if a spaceship appeared on the horizon and you had the option of leaving all men behind for even a day, I am certain we'll probably go extinct as a species. If you decide to stick around, however, it will be your greatness, and just sheer dumb luck on our part.

I stand horrified at all of the things that my brethren have meted out to you over the years. Incidents that happen day in and day out that are no less than medieval torture. The ones we get to know are few: be it the rape of the young student in Delhi past December, or the cut up body of the rape victim that was recently returned in Bengal. What were the last few hours like, of those victims who had so much to see and enjoy in the world? Even then, the ones we do not get to know every day are equally devastating. Be it the little brush of skin on a crowded bus, or the domestic violence and beatings that are so common the media hardly ever reports it. I can only think about how they rob you of your dignity, how the value of one's self and one's life is sliced away inch by inch every single time you have to ignore and walk steadily past wolf-whistles and taunts. I feel sad that I can only imagine what it must feel like, to possess your beauty, your vivacity and life; and yet live under the constant threat of rape and violence every time you have to cross a dimly lit street. I shudder to think what it means, and feel incoherent rage at the perpetrators of these acts.

Therefore, I wish to thank you. Thank you for sticking around and still being with us. For nurturing us and cheering us up either as mothers, sisters, friends or wives. And most importantly, for not taking that spaceship and leaving us if the time comes. Like I said, it is just sheer dumb luck on our part that we receive such undeserved love and compassion from you.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Dear Ms Mayer, I don't want to work from home

Disclaimer: I don't work for Yahoo, nor should the following be taken up as a commentary about my company's work-from-home policies. These are just my opinion about working remotely in general.

TL;DR: If you want to stop work-from-home policies, let there be absolutely no work done after 5 pm. No late night email exchanges, no after-hours conference calls, etc.

The latest brouhaha over Yahoo's no-work-from-home policy has its fair share of support as well as opponents. Working mothers are up in arms against this policy, and so are some parents who don't want to miss their kids' school plays or just stay at home one day to attend to their sick child. But as some people admit, the policy is abused more often that not. You can get your afternoon siesta, run errands, and literally run a side job/startup while putting in minimal effort for the stuff that you actually get paid for.

I would personally prefer a little more flexible policy. This makes sense: No more remote working - the whole team should regularly meet at the office and get their work done. But you have to leave room for exceptions. Let's not make it airtight and set in stone that you absolutely cannot work from home. If you want to discourage the abuse, maybe you can make the work-from-home policy a little more stringent. Maybe you need to inform your manager's manager if you are going to be working from home for the day, not just your immediate team. Maybe you can introduce a policy where a person can work from home ten days each year, similar to paid leave of fifteen days (or whatever your company has) per year. Treat people a little more maturely - let someone exercise rational control over what extent a company policy needs to be enforced.

Now, if you do have to enforce the policy of absolutely no working from home, then let's mean it. I admit - I would prefer to leave from work at 5 or 6 pm, and literally leave from work. Let there be a literal no-work-from-home policy. I don't want you or anybody up my managerial food chain to send me an email after 5 pm and expect a reply. You want 8 hours of my time? You have it. But don't expect me to "get work done", i.e. use my "meeting-free" time at home to finish that review document or finish up the code for the day. It will have to wait until 8 am the next morning. Seriously, Ms Mayer, I don't want to work from home!

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Skyfall in context

I watched Skyfall (quite) a few days back. Yes, the James Bond movie that came on the 50th year anniversary. Daniel Craig is the new Bond, following an illustrious list of people from Sean Connery to Pierce Brosnan. Like many others, I certainly believe that Daniel Craig's portrayal of James Bond has been very novel - his scriptwriters and directors have presented a rare look into the "real" world of the spy. The rosiness of the life has been removed, and a much more brutal (and realistic) character has been developed. It has been a bold, a necessary and a successful transition.

Before we talk of transitions, though, we must establish what was status quo. James Bond represented much more than a good action movie to me, and I believe to many many young boys growing up like me. The essential thrill of a movie like James Bond is that they represent the ultimate fantasy life within the bounds of reality as we know it. Allow me to explain the paradox. You see, when you watch a superhero movie, the distance from reality is a foregone conclusion - I know that there is no man of steel, or a person who can generate spider-strings on the fly from their wrists. Because we don't know of them. But we do know of the spies, we know of RAW agents who can cross the Himalayas unaided and barefoot, or the US Navy Seals who can dive in and out of a 30-foot pool with their hands and legs tied behind their back. You see, the glitz, the action, the tense situations and the incredible risks that people take to get out of impossible situations - all of these made boys like me dream a little bigger. Whether it was the suave charm or the cool gadgetry, the fast cars or the gorgeous women, there was always an element of something I wanted or lacked, but that which James Bond possessed almost naturally.

Pierce Brosnan defined James Bond for me. Growing up, I saw that he had the pithy comeback lines, the boyish charm, and most importantly the confident swagger that can only come if you know you are the cool dude in town. For all the wonderful things that people rave about Sean Connery or Roger Moore, Pierce Brosnan was the James Bond I grew up with, and his character portrayal was the one I idolized when I watched re-runs of the same movies again and again.

Enter Daniel Craig. Suddenly the gadgetry, the million exploding pens and remote controlled cars are gone. Instead, you have a spy chasing an assassin across really dangerous rooftops and overhanging construction cranes. It is difficult to explain, but the opening action sequence of Casino Royale made me shiver and brought the reality of the action so much closer, than the events of Pierce Brosnan diving off a cliff on a motorcycle trying to get on a crashing aeroplane. The former just seemed so much more real and dangerous.

I think I too have grown up alongside James Bond. My teenage and early twenties self looked forward to the James Bond who had the most hilarious, double-entendre lines. But my present self was ready to look at the bare nature of the line of duty. The shattered, desperate man out for a revenge, or the man who retreats away from a more powerful enemy just to engage in a fight where he stands a slightly better chance against certain death. I have been able to appreciate the James Bond in Skyfall a lot better than I would have ten years ago. The metamorphosis of the movie franchise has been significantly a parallel development of my own personality and outlook on life.

Finally, about the movie itself. I think it was a fitting way to say goodbye to Judi Dench and her character as M, and to introduce the new M with Ralph Fiennes, and Naomi Harris as Moneypenny. The significance of James Bond ultimately bringing M to where his parents are buried and his knife in the back of Javier Bardem in the last scene have all meanings beyond the movie just being another Bond flick. I would call the movie an inception - a rebirth of a franchise that holds a lot of promise for the future. I really look forward to the next movie; until then "hold your breath and count to ten". Enjoy the beautiful (and Oscar-winning) title track of Skyfall:

Sunday, January 13, 2013

What do we not know about the ground realities in Pakistan?

The next sentence is going to be extremely politically incorrect, in the view of a few people. Some, on the other hand, would be vigorously nodding their heads in agreement. The rest of the post after the sentence is dedicated to those who will be nodding their heads.
In India, and in most of the Western world, the nation of Pakistan is generally regarded as a hotbed for fostering terrorists, giving them shelter, etc. 
But in the wake of the recent bomb blast that killed so many people (yet again), I am reminded of this TED talk: we must be getting a single sided story!

So if you look at the List of terrorist incidents in Pakistan since 2001, it is horrifying that a nation of 187 million people would have over 35,000 deaths just from terrorist attacks in 10 years. Imagine that - thirty five thousand people dead, just due to terrorist attacks, in a decade!

Now, don't come to me with stats from other nations, especially India. We rank 4th on the Global Terrorism Index and India is among the most affected nations. I know, we have a problem. My point is, the enemy number one for us is also under attack, but I don't quite understand why. Given our narrative, all of them should be plotting the downfall of India. When would they have time to kill their own countrymen?

For those of you branding me a traitor as you read this story, let me clarify a few things. I fully and sincerely believe that their army has the mo****-fu****s who killed and beheaded two of my countrymen (among the million other things they do every day, as part of their daily routine). I know for a fact, that the Pakistani army thinks it can get cheap points by provoking the Indians whenever they can.

But, and here is the big B-U-T: "What do we not know about the ground realities in Pakistan?" Who kills the innocent people, and kills Indian soldiers? Are they the same people? If not, (and as I am sure they are aware of each others existence), what is the common goal binding them? What are we missing as part of our own single story?

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

The burden of proof

"90% of all quotes on the internet are made up" - Abraham Lincoln.

 I cannot tell you the number of times I have had to leave that statement as a comment on Facebook. Consider this Facebook "forward", if you will:

 It is attributed to Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam because it suits the narrative that my friend wants to believe in. A lot of you will probably doubt if Dr. Kalam ever said that. I suspect (actually, fervently hope) that my friend who posted this also had a flicker of doubt the source. But he went ahead and posted it anyway.

 That is what scares me the most. People are willing to "forward" anything that tickles their funny bone. I have grumbled about silly email forwards before. But Facebook takes it to a whole new level. This time, you don't even need to fill out the "To:" field. You can just "share" it on your timeline and people will read it. I am surprised at the incredible gullibility of people, and sometimes just feel ashamed that they are my friends. How stupid can you be, if you have really commented "Jump" on this one:
Look at that - 69,094 comments out of which I bet 69,000 are "Jump". About 700 people thought this was worth sharing on their Wall, and about ten times that number actually like this photo+caption.

 There will always be lone crusaders like me, perhaps, demanding proof of outlandish claims of snake oils and hot air. There are some, like me, who actually visit the source of a rumor to verify authenticity. But there will always be ten times that number who will forwarding and posting these things without question. I wish my friends were smart enough to not belong to those who forward. Alas, I sometimes feel outnumbered ten-to-one, and the battles are sometimes just not worth fighting. When it is Dr. Kalam endorsing mass bunks, that is still acceptable. But when you stop verifying your facts, then you'll also begin to believe harmful rumors and spread the word around without realizing what you are doing - don't you remember Dr. Kalam asking all OBCs to leave the country?

 If you are reading this post and have been guilty of the above forwards even once, please stop doing that. You are diluting your own brand value. I usually think thrice before believing anything you post. And you know what, Google is your friend! If in doubt (even the slightest), please check before posting. When you post something, you endorse it (no really, you do!!). Find what the word "endorse" means. Actually, on this blog, simply double-clicking any word will do - go ahead, seriously, try it! 

 And please - Dr. Kalam did not use the word "coz" or say anything of that nature. Swami Vivekananda did not ask you to give up meat. And one "Like" on a picture of an ailing baby will not make Facebook donate a dollar to the kid's parents. Grow some wits, please!

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The moment lost in time

Like a soul lost without its body, I drift across the wide seas. I know not, when this shall end. But whoever said "distance makes the heart grow fonder", lied. It does not. Distance tears the heart apart. It makes you roam around in helpless rage, in a frustration of inexplicable sadness. I looked up at the flights leaving the airport runway each evening... the engines gunning, the sound of the airplane cutting through air, the soft dimming of the roar as soon as the plane lifts off, and then you can see the flight soaring into the distance, hurtling through thin air towards the one you love.

It is a horrible experience, to wake up each morning into an unfamiliar room. Then the memory comes rushing back to me. Why am I here? What am I doing? How will this day turn out? Will I be able to go back today? It is a weird feeling to be in - a day when you look forward to the weekdays, since the rest of the world works on these days. You live in a society, remember? Others need to cooperate with you - you cannot be a lone wolf!

But how will the moment be? Will it be as sweet as the dreams where I see my ticket home in hand? Or will it be like the horrible cold sweat I break into when I wake up from the dream? Each time, in the wee hours of the morning, the blanket/quilt over me shifts and a whiff of cold air shifts in. In my dreams at that time, I have my ticket home in hand, smiling, giving away chocolates.... and then the rude shock of waking up reminds me that it isn't there - the ticket home is simply not there yet.

The moments are lost in time. Imagining, how this could have been. Imagining, what I would do when the ticket finally arrives. Each moment spent here is one more moment away from the one I love. The moment that is painful, slipping away like water through the cracks of my fingers... I simply cannot hold on to it. Bring back, o bring back... bring back my moment to me.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Delayed gratification and the Indian lunch menu

A very interesting research study once came out of Stanford University, led by Prof Walter Mischel. It was called the Marshmallow test. They put four-year-old kids in a small room, put a small toffee in front of them and gave them two choices. If the child could wait for 10 mins, he/she will get two chocolates. If, however, the kid decided to just eat the candy right there and not eat it, that would be the end of the experiment... no more extra chocolates for the kids. Watch the video below of how some kids struggled against the inner urge and temptation :)

Later on, they kept track of what happened to each of these children... how did they do when they grew up? As it turns out, the children who were able to hold off that temptation successfully and got two chocolates as the reward did extremely well in life. The ones who were the quickest to jump the gun were also the ones who ended up in gangs, became small-time crooks, etc.

This concept of "holding off" or working hard in an effort to win a bigger reward is called "delayed gratification": you skip the immediate opportunity of getting something and instead wait for the bigger prize. People who are successful in cultivating this habit also do not default on their loan payments, they don't overspend (generally), can work hard before their exams and not get out to see that India-Pakistan cricket match.

Well, all that sounds good. What does it have to do with the Indian lunch menu, again? Think about it: we do delay the prize ourselves! You start off with the bitter part: karela. Then the plain old bland dishes come in: the ones you eat every day. This counts as dal, some rice, some sabzi (vegetables). But then you move on to the more "interesting" dishes. Your chicken curry, your spicy fish... you get the idea. And then, of course, comes everyone's favourite part: the dessert. Let me not name too many desserts here: you might just feel like having one :)

Even the cultural pressure is there on almost everyone to follow the courses in order. If you "jump the gun", the first time might be passed over as a childish aberration, but then people really look down upon you as uncivilized, etc.

So does this mean, if you try the candy experiment on your own kid and he picks up the chocolate within 10 seconds he is doomed to fail in life? No sir, he isn't. Look at the 3rd paragraph above where I slipped in the phrase "successful in cultivating this habit". Yes, this is a habit, and it can be successfully cultivated. The children from the experiment who grabbed the chocolate early were taught not to do that, and the next time they were able to successfully hold off the temptation. As it turned out, they too were able to succeed in life. Delayed gratification can indeed be practiced, reinforced and made into a habit.

So what does this mean for your lunch menu? Just hold on a little longer, braveheart! The dessert is yet to come :)

Saturday, August 04, 2012

To work for free

It all began when a professor at my (undergraduate) college showed up in our lab and asked, "So who here is the guy who knows everything about computers?".

Admittedly, such people have never existed. However, for all practical purposes, when a professor in his fifties comes and asks the system administrator of the college about "computers", you can be reasonably sure that the sys admin has the skills to do/fix whatever the professor is looking for. The system administrator in this case being yours truly, and the professor being someone not from Computer Sciences (no offence!).

Like any good "computer-person", I dutifully asked, "What do you need? I am the system administrator"

He literally looked me up and down, and said, "No, who is the person here who knows everything here? The person who takes care of all this?". He was pointing at all the 100+ computers around the room.

Had it been the Sudipta of today, I would have deferred to another official in the room, possibly my senior and let him handle the case. But it was the Sudipta of nine or ten years ago. And it became a matter of nerd ego for me. I took it as a challenge to go and fix whatever it was.

"I'll do it", I said - "I take care of all these".

He agreed, finally. He told me that it was a new computer and it had some "hyper-threading technology". It was the latest and greatest but he was not being able to install a particular program. He said he will pick me up in the evening from the lab. After college was over for the day, he showed up on time. I rode pillion on his scooter and reached his home. On the way, he explained that although the sales guy had told him about the hyper-threading technology which was the latest and greatest thing in the current computer market, this particular program was not getting installed.

I reached his home. He switched on his machine with hyper-threading technology and showed what wasn't being installed. I started checking things. Found the error - he needed some other files and sys files. In the meantime, he brought me some snacks: one Methi paratha and a few Mumras. At this time, he was almost surprised that I understood what was wrong in the first place. I fixed it, he became proud of his hyper-threading technology once again, and dropped me off in front of the college gate.

If you think about it, had he hired a local computer technician, his expenses would have been upwards of Rs. 200, at least; that too ten years ago. If he would have hired a computer technician, he would have given the guy much more respect. But I was giving him free labor, and that too upon my own insistence to prove that I was also "a person who knew computers". Did I have anything to prove to a new person in spite of being the system administrator of the entire college? No. Did I get the respect I deserved for being able to do what I did? No. I think it is my deep-rooted desire to do charity, and the insecurity and naivete of a 21-year-old that drove me it. It took me a while to know more about the market itself, and what my value was. That has made me a different person now. With a bigger ego, and a more aware mind. I would still do open-source projects and help others with their "computer problems". But now, I want to do that for people who realize the value of my contribution.

Monday, July 30, 2012

To have what isn't yours

To have what isn't yours: is it stealing or sheer good luck? To most people, the moral compass swings depending on the manner in which you came across the object in question. For example, if you found a hundred rupee note while you were taking your morning stroll, most people would think it is just their luck and would pick up the money. However, if you just saw that the note dropped off someone's pocket in front of you, will you still silently pocket the money or will you call the man and let him know? Like I mentioned, the "manner" of acquisition of the object matters most when deciding if it is morally self-permissible to have it.

What you do with it is a completely different question: some would donate it to a beggar or charity nearby, others would just add it to their wallet. Let us not digress there for now.

Guilt-free rationalization of being the beneficiary of an error is an art to be learned. Allow me to explain. Shoplifting and clerical errors are part of any store's budget. Which means, on any given day, in spite of all kinds of security guards, RFID tags, etc. there are always a few items that slip through. usually, the big brand stores already calculate for that in their daily operations (sort of like their rent or electricity bill). A certain category of people always benefit from the errors of the clerk, meaning the person at the counter probably just failed to scan an item and therefore you got it without paying. You might discover it in the store itself, or you might come home and realize that the item in your bag does not appear on the bill. Now the question is, do you return to the counter or to the store and pay for that as well?

"Maybe, maybe not" for most of us. In a just and truthful world, where you "[be] are the change you wish to see in the world", perhaps all of us would go back and get ourselves billed for that item. In reality, some of us have also learned to live with the fact that "it was their mistake" and therefore you are not at fault to pay for this even though you benefited from the transaction. Notice the words mistake and fault here: the implicit assumption of penalty for wrongdoing is used to absolve yourself of any guilt.

 For some of us, though, a big factor in the equation is the size of the business who loses money due to this. If it is a simple 2-3 person neighborhood store run by some man with his wife and kids, we would think twice before doing this. If, however, it is a big chain of stores where some faceless nameless guy at the top of the foodchain has to eventually deal with it, you would be much more comfortable with this. "He has enough money", "he wouldn't even notice this", "big corporations are evil anyway so I am just getting back at them", "they exploit poor workers in China/the villages" are the many justifications you can use to rationalize your behavior. Notice that those are the same justifications that one may use to rob or steal from a wealthy businessman - they already have enough, right?

I can see that there are lots of discussions that may arise out of this post, or perhaps lots of other blog posts as well. But in essence what it boils down to is whether your conscience is clear of your deeds, by hook or by crook. Like Sri Ramakrishna used to say, "ভাবের ঘরে যেন চুরি না থাকে" - (loosely translated) let there be no fraud in your own deeply personal thoughts.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

The debate over cyber privacy

Like most things in life, there are two sides to "personalization" on the web. In case you don't realize this, each time you googled for something while you were logged into gmail at the same time, Google kept track of your search. Not just that, it actually tracks which search results and links you click, how long you spent there before hitting the back button to return to the search screen. Google knows what you did each summer. This sounds creepy, right?

However, is this a bad thing, always? The short answer is that "it depends" (spoken like a true consultant!). It depends on what you consider a bad thing. I do admit, though, that being tracked "always" does send a shiver down my spine. If you think you are immune, (or you don't have a gmail account), don't flatter yourself. Unless you log out of Facebook each time you are done browsing, you will see a message on a lot of websites who you haven't "Like"-d yet. Usually, it will say this: "1,337 like this page - be the first of your friends" or it will show five or six of your friends and strongly suggest that you should join the club. What do you expect - Facebook doesn't know which websites you have been browsing?

One thing that tends to come up often when we start talking about internet privacy is, "So what?". Meaning, what exactly can someone do with this information? The answer is a lot of things, the biggest of which is targeted advertising. If you happened to click on a particular pair of shoes on amazon.com and hit the back button, you might see that same pair of shoes following you around on various websites. The lack of privacy can also mean a lot of other things. For example, some website might know that your teenage daughter is pregnant way before you do simply based on internet browsing history.

On the other hand, it is useful as well. Facebook does this to some extent, for example, by looking at which friends you "Like" or comment upon most, tries to prioritize updates from those friends. It will also show you ads for Nike shoes if you happened to update your status as "I love running". Google can improve your search results if it knows that you are going to look at the more recent news items than older results and could bring them on top. Google adsense is of course the flip side of the story - playing a similar role.

So how much sharing is good enough? And how do you make sure you are sharing only so much? The answer to the first question is relative to each person. For example, if you need to enable your not-so-tech-savvy aunt to find the result she is looking for on the first page of a Google search, it is a good idea to let her remain logged in. It can help you and me as well, if for example your searches are typically related to the medical domain then customized results would be very useful. The answer to the second question is trickier - and there isn't a definitive answer. My recommendation is to remain on the conservative side - people far smarter than you and I have developed algorithms and "computer stuff" that can connect the dots about you in ways you are not even aware of.

Some of the privacy you have to give up anyway, whenever you use "services" such as Facebook or Google. We live in a connected world, where our digital footprint is inevitably and undeniably linked to our offline identities. You cannot fight it; instead you have to let it flow and embrace it. Like most things in life, you are worth far more than you think, and the sooner you realize the potential the better.

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Lessons from the evolution of Lucky Supermarkets sweepstakes

For my readers outside California, Lucky is a chain of grocery stores similar to Big Bazaar in India or Tesco in the UK.

I am a big fan of contests and sweepstakes from big and well-known brands. Those that promise $10,000 rewards just if you fill out a contest form or something. I know, I know - the chances are rare and there is almost no way of verifying that they indeed gave away the prizes they promised. I also know that a lot of times they are just harvesting emails and phone numbers - nobody actually gets any prize. But two things give me the motivation to fill out these sweepstakes and survey forms. One, if I am buying stuff from a store anyway, I might as well participate and give it a shot - I do not have to buy anything extra to get those sweepstakes entries. Secondly, I have my junk email ids which I feed into these websites where I don't care who they sell it to. Finally, rest assured there IS a zealous customer somewhere (other than the law enforcement) who will check if the prizes were indeed given out and if someone cheated, etc. Wherever and whoever you are on the map, there is always someone crazier than you who will do that for you.

If I remember correctly, this is the third iteration of Lucky's sweepstakes which they roll out annually in various avatars. Let me rephrase that - this is the third year in a row that I am participating. The timing coincides with the Spring-Summer season each time - another topic of discussion for some other day. But the topic of this post is the evolution of the sweepstakes and the gradual ease of participation that they have got right this time.

First up, let's compare the prizes. In the first year, they rolled out a simple game. For each $10 you spend, you get a stamp. Collect enough stamps and you can get pots and pans. If you have unused stamps, you can buy just stamps for raw money. The "game board" as they like to put it was in the Lucky brand colors - red, black and white. It was simple, comprehensible, but bland. The options (prizes) were limited and did not cater to everyone's needs or fancies. You could, technically, buy more stamps to fill out your chart and get to the golden points. However, buying stamps with money to fill more slots on the board which in turn gets you a crock-pot which you could buy with money anyway takes the fizz out of the game. And what do I do with the spillover stamps I have? Tough luck - you get nothing, nada.

The next year, they had a better game plan. The game board was more colorful and had a lot more prize/ sweepstakes options. You get different stickers, you put them on different numbered slots, and then you mail them in once you complete one block. You are getting three stickers for every $10 you spend. What was wrong with this model? First of all, the "stickers" did not really stick. They were bad quality stamp glue which you had to lick and affix. Also, you could do nothing with the extra stickers - you hang on to them and purchase a new game board, hoping one of them clicks and you put it on the new ones.

The stickers themselves are worth a blog post on their own, from all statistical, financial, psychological perspectives. But here is a small trailer. One qualifying purchase = one set of three stickers. There is a game of chance already when you tear open that pack of three stickers. In this gamble, the house always wins because the same set of three stickers as they were printed make their way into the same store, which you end up getting multiple times. How do you increase your chances, then? Shop at different stores, even within the same geographical area! Also, if you are out of town and find another Lucky, go grab as many stickers as you would need in your next grocery shopping list. Statistically, you should be sampling from a different set which increases your chance of completing one block of stickers. There is huge product placement, there is great gamification and psychological push, plus a lot more. More importantly, from a pure economics standpoint, the company gets to be in the driving seat and can control the market and drive sales/incentives; simply by controlling how many "winning stickers" they release into the market when.

What are the things which they corrected this time? No more lick-your-stamp-stickers this time. You get actual stickers: peel them and stick them on the board. Spurious stickers go into dedicated slots where what you put doesn't matter - each purchase therefore definitely counts. They still retain the power over the game participants and by extension, the market. In the stores, they have actually marked out products very clearly on the aisles that also feature on the game board. This connects the game with the physical product - the stickers are no longer just plain pawns on a chess-board. Finally, spillover stickers that did not fill out any of the boxes still count in the final raffle draw when the rest of the competition ends - the element of buyer's regret is definitely mitigated. This last one I suspect is the result of some legal action by some customer - remember the guy who is crazier than you who lives in the same zip code?

Having sung all these praises for Lucky, I do have a few gripes. They seem to be killing the goose that lays the golden eggs by asking you to purchase stuff worth $20 in order to get three stickers - yup, double what it used to cost before. This really sucks, as it almost negates the pain they have taken out of using those stickers and what they promise to deliver. They could engage more people by making it more painless - instead of me actually sticking tiny bits of paper on a glorified poster (a.k.a. game board), they could convert the game into an online rendezvous with codes instead of stickers so that you maintain your game board online. Besides being more secure, they can open up more revenue opportunities by encouraging people to buy more stuff online and get special incentives (an extra sticker, perhaps?) for online purchases. Also, instead of yet another drawing at the end, the leftover stickers could be converted into a partner's credit line: for example if you have 20 or more stickers left, you will get 50 cents off your next gas purchase at Shell. That should actually take care of the lawsuit I suspect which drove this leftover raffle in the first place.

Well, Lucky - are you listening? :)
The last word... never accept defeat until you see yourself dead.