Archives for February 2008

Is this the far-seeing eye of Shiva?!

Shiva, it is said, has a third eye, one which could penetrate the soul of existence and perceive its singular essence. This was the all-perceiving eye of the Chief Ascetic. One which could see all triple projections of time, the ‘trikala dhrishti’ – the eternal now, the receeding past and the impending future. To gain some measure of insight into the workings of Time would make a mortal even as one of the Gods.

But technology, that great democratizing power, knows no Yoga, nor penance, nor asceticism. It lays no claim on eternity, unlike religion, but is forever the skeptic. Abandoning one half-truth in preference to a fresher half-truth. But it atleast upgrades itself unlike religion!

Science in its most candid moments touches a little of our eternity. When that happens, the method of reaching out ceases to be relevant. It is the touch that counts.

The WorldWideTelescope is one such expression of who we all are. It is a brief glimpse of the eternity to which we shall return, at least as dust. There is something about the TED presentation here. Could be the invention, could be the AWESOMENESS of it, could be the uncorrupted intent of the iventor or the speaker..could be some other alchemy that escapes our understanding.

But I loved it, every second of what I saw.

The interviews on the site seek to guess its utility once released. But I think this is a big mistake. Things of such beauty should not need to justify their existence.

I can perfectly understand Scoble’s reaction on seeing this.

I dont remember seeing a software application that made me confront and remember what I am as a human being.

No untruth was proved false. No hidden connection was revealed. No forgotten secret laid bare. This was an epiphany, of who we all are, masquerading as science and software.

Dramatic contrasts in India, raises more questions at HBR

Marshall Goldsmith at HBR wonders about the contrasts in India. To quote-

“In the cities, I saw a longing for extreme opulence — countless ads with rich people living lavish lives — next to the reality of extreme poverty — countless shanties with poor people living harsh lives.”

To be honest, as an Indian, I have become almost numb to the contrasts. What appears as shocking dichotomy is to me a fact of life, these are the environments I grew up in.

Marshall asks a bunch of questions and I take a crack at them below.

What is being gained in the “new” India? What is being lost?
The new India gains self-awareness – Of her strengths, of the fact that she has a voice of her own, that she can dream and deliver on it, that its okay to bully once in a while, that she has to work out her place in the world and her purpose.

The new India has lost, or is in the process of fast losing, her ability to introspect. Her wisdom is a myth, her spirituality consumed by the canker of materialism. Faith is held up by tradition and an intuitive perception as the thing worthy of possession, attempting to withstand the assault of rushing reality and retreating farther into the recesses and having little to no influence on how this life is lived.

How can today’s Indian professionals achieve the material success of the West without losing the wisdom of the East?
Well, how can you lose what you don’t possess?! To be honest, the vast majority of Indians don’t know their own mythology, their scriptures and their past. What is taken for knowledge is only superficial opinions gathered from the mass medium.

I see this as a phase where all that is dead and not reasoned is washed away in the waters of progress and this is not necessarily a bad thing. And ages of poverty has created a perverted need for riches. India wants to splurge now. Given an option between iPhone and Buddha’s Nirvana, it is very clear what the majority would ask for.

So how does India not lose her wisdom. First she re-acquaints herself with the past, its scriptures and law of life. Not by donning the robe of a monk or chanting mantras at a temple doorstep. But by staying in the battlefield of material life. By innovating, by creating and sharing wealth, by not mimicking the voices of the west, by finding the heart of her own self and purpose.

What is your experience of professionals from the West? What can you learn from them?
The ability to focus. To dedicate ones life to any pursuit that captures their fancy. To value labour above and beyond any notional values attached due to legacy or other superficial reasons. To practise dedication to the lord of wealth with such intensity that the East often gapes in wonder!

On Offshoring and Remote Roman Outposts

(Disclaimer: This post is the result of personal observations over more than a dozen years. I would like to think, like Shakespeare, that there is no single company that manifests all these scintillating qualities. All companies must be approximations of this ideal!)


Creative Commons License photo credit: Rob Meredith

I have come to a conclusion that Offshored operations and remote Roman outposts share similar characteristics.

This has been brewing in my head for way too many years.

I see offshoring as a tool in the hands of corporations to increase their efficiencies, in how they become profitable and respond to potentially hostile environmental factors. I have first hand witnessed its ability to lift lives from poverty. But this sudden influx of values of another society bring with it a variety of hazards. The impact of transplanting an alien work culture and life-ethic leads to an island of values that does not mingle amongst most societies that are at the receiving end of outsourcing largesse.

Allow me to explain the primary causes or symptoms, listed in no particular order of severity.

  • Power Center – This is seldom present at the offshored location. All decisions of any significance are taken at the power center. The most successful of the offshored locations are given symbolic tokens of independence. Items of purely local relevance that it means nothing to the power center. This is the sort of lame self-governance that the Indian National Congress wanted from the British many hundred years ago. Thank God for nationalists!
  • Bread and Circus – This fascination with utterly childish celebrations at the work place. Not sure where all this crap started. Could be HR departments figuring out ways to keep the masses engaged. Could be a workforce that has not known fun during college times. Premature celebration indicates a superficial goal. By all means have fun, but do something worthy first. Not success as defined by an arbitrarily cooked up metric. Change the game and then fool around.
  • Alien laws – That will not be questioned. With no shared context, meaning is a by product of interpretation. And the one who interprets is the law maker. Reminds me of the Vatican or a Brahmin priest!!
  • Bureacracy – It starts off as specialization. To focus on one aspect sufficiently deeply to learn all nuances. In tandem with Processes creates a labyrinth of deferred purpose. A form to fill up, manually in triplicate, to be signed by a platoon of people, who have nothing to do with the proceedings. By the time you know it specialization has morphed into silos of mediocrity.
  • Processes – Success begets size, size begets complexity, complexity demands processes. Without processes scale and complexity cannot be tamed. But processes also hide the worst of human kind. The kind that does not want to think. That lives with a theoretical free-will that will never be manifest in real-life.  That cannot, and will not, think beyond the rule book.

Of course this is just an initial list to get us warmed up. As a follow up I shall post about perspectives on the power center and the assumptions they make.

All is not lost though. I shall end this mini-series with steps anyone can take to work out a win-win, in the offshoring game.

What would you like to hear more about? Tell me about a tough situation you are facing in your offshoring/onsite relationship and we could work through possible resolution approaches. I would not claim to have seen every situation but have learnt a lot from the little I have come across.

Drop me a note with your feedback. Thanks a ton, if you have read this far!

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Twitter and Frameworks for Serendipity

“Allow users to define your app” goes the refrain from Josh Catone on ReadWriteWeb in this post.

Definitely an interesting notion. I too have been following Twitter and its Bartimaeus-que ability to shift shapes. Right from being able to add an expense thru to Xpensr, or being able to add a reminder to Sandy..Twitter seems a ubiquitous endpoint, much like a telephone, acting only as a conduit to carry commands to a given destination.

But this openness is not something that can be built consciously. It is difficult to predict which application would be more amenable to adaptation by users in brand new contexts, short of actually rolling out a product and seeing what sticks!

But a simple rule of thumb could be used-
i) Start from simple systems
ii) Change minimally when confronted with new need
iii) Yet retaining backward compatibility
iv) Serve
v) Repeat as required

Numerous examples come to mind to illustrate this but HTTP, TCP/IP standout as familiar examples. Anything that aspires to universality, it seems, ought to heed to the principles of evolution.

Bottom line, no amount of upfront planning is going to tell you with any certainity if users are going to ‘play’ with your application. Starting simple, listening to customers and a willingness to drop pre-conceived notions can inform whether the product you have is a framework for serendipity!

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Authoring tools and Semantics – Possibilties that outrun imagination!

Nitin K asks “Where are the meaning-enabled authoring tools?” on ReadWriteWeb. Though the article asks the right questions, the conclusions it derives, that authoring applications have not yet learnt to capture ‘semantic knowledge’ and that their XML creation capabilities are severely limited.

Now I don’t know how much research Nitin has done on this, or if its a case of selective dissonance,  but Microsoft Word since version 2003 has had really decent support for XML, which has reached maturity in the XML standards for Word 2007 with the new file formats.

If we interpret Nitin’s definition of “meaning-enabled” applications as those that can mark out any specific element of content with an XML tag, with all of the tags adhering to an XML Schema, then Word already does it.

Nitin concludes after coversations with a variety of folks that there is no intrerest in semantic authoring tools. Adding semantics for the sake of adding it does not add any value to the user, which leads to comments that question the usefulness of such an exercise.

I believe any application that seeks to be successfull and useful to consumers should strive to give minimal indication that the user is working for the collective good. This is one of the reasons why tagging works so well on the web, at least in my opinion. Because self-interest trumps collective good anyday. A user applying a bunch of tags does so in the interest of being able to recollect the tagged thing by labelling it with associated ideas and words. The fact that such tags are being viewed with a multi-dimensional lens to mine insights is something that always escapes the cognitive process of the individual.

In fact I manage a product, Word-based add-in, that does just this. Users perform actions as they would in a plain-vanilla Word document and all tagging is done by us behind the scenes. Users gain all the benefits of richly marked up content without any additional cost. The key to our approach is the seamless user experience.

But this seamlessness comes with a cost. Any user defined modification to the tags are possible only if the developer has catered for it explicitly. We allow the user to overcome this by allowing them to define additional/custom metadata before handing off the document to the next stage in the workflow process.

The Semantic Web movement gains momentum with all the attention its been getting lately. But we need to remember that apps like Word, with their support for XML, have enabled content + metadata to co-exist for a long time and that live production apps have been successfully built on top of it.

That said I recognize the benefits of RDF and RDFa, or even Microformats. The ability to run inference rules on top of a forest of triples connected to each other is rife with possibilities that would outrun my wildest imagination in a mere wink! But we need to observe and gather the lessons of the past.

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Tips for any takeover!

Found these tips for a takeover or merger from Valleywag comments.

The tips are in the specific context of Microsoft’s bid for Yahoo! But the advice is so universal it can be applied to any situation. Here is a little sample to whet your appetite – “Buy a competing company, like AOL while you’re at it…Then pin each company against each other. Better yet, get a General Manager from AOL and have it oversee BOTH the AOL and Yahoo acquisition, ensuring the GM from AOL says ‘I will be impartial’.

Sheer genius!

I have been through some of these. The company I worked for last was bought over. Its been an 1+years since and all noise I hear from the ground indicate a failed exercise. Its a different issue that this news gets a positive spin depending on who you hear the status from!

Organizations, in my humble opinion, don’t give sufficient attention to the work cultures of the entities involved. What should be a no brainer in terms of the extent of incompatibility somehow gets muddled when discussing PE ratios I guess.

I like to think of this as the initial curiosity( or lust!) of a dating couple. All is nice, all is tempting..the chemistry is just unbelievable. Add to it the music of corporate hype and you have the perfect mating dance. The veils though are off a little while later- the buxom beauty is a padded waif, the chivalrous knight turns out to be a conflict mired dwarf.

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Insight vs Crowdsight

The origin of perspective, whether from within the confines of the individual-self or sourced from the collective selves, should ideally be irrelevant. The perspective should be all that matters. But the means and techniques of identifying, collating and harnessing these perspectives vary based on their origin.

In thinking about these terms the individual perspective could be captured by the word ‘Insight’ defined as …..

But the opposite of this term ‘Outsight’ could not, at least to me, sufficiently capture the sense of a collective perspective.

And so I coin this term Crowdsight, defined as the cognition of multiple perspectives originated from outside the individual self. Especially relevant when studying bottom-up systems and their behaviours, web 2.0 style folksonomy/tagsonomy and SemanticWeb type systems etc.

A duel with Death and RDF triples…

Prajapati, the creator of all that exists, watched Mrtyu(or Yama), Death that consumes all. Each sought to annul the other. The duel between them lasted an eternity almost. Death, the shadow of all that is born, pervaded all of creation.

Prajapati penetrated the frames of existence pursuing Death. The masks were insidious, hiding the villain in the most unlikely of places. But during the pursuit, Prajapati observed. Flashes of recognition, an euphoria filled his mind. He thought: "This is like that, this corresponds to that, this is equivalent to that, this is that". And thus the sampads were born. Sampads were a "falling together", were the equivalences. They were the bonds that connected, intangible vibrations that birthed meaning.

The duel stretched on interminable. He watched every thing hiding a mental state, every thing corresponding to something. A fever gripped his mind, "Perhaps all this would dissolve if Death were to win, perhaps the sampads would never fall together". But then where was the body of the sampads? Again Prajapati felt the surge in his mind, "If I, who am thinking the sampads, know not their origin then how shall Death know anything of them?".

Prajapati had won. Meaning was born in the thinker. All that was tangible, and intangible, was merely a framework upon which meaning or purpose could be impressed. The equivalences were eternal, Death had no dominion over them.

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I have been following the Semantic Web trail lately and its not just out of idle curiosity. I believe this is where the next generation of applications are going to come from and have a product in the works that should ruffle the application space where its going to be. In trying to grapple with RDF and its notations, I hit upon the fundamental concept of RDF triples: "Subject, Predicate and Object". Subject being the subject(!). Predicate being the connector, the relating factor. Object being the actual value.

And this is when it actually clicked in my head. The "Predicate" of RDF is equivalent to the Sampads of Prajapati. In a way Prajapati and RDF could be said to perform similar functions. One is a mythical power and the other a model/notation/standard, with each the purpose was to intuit/infer/uncover meaning.

I find this truly beautiful, to stand where I am, viewing equivalences between the works of two civilizations so far apart in time and their methods of knowledge and living.

Note: The passage on Prajapati is inspired from Ka, by Roberto Calasso. This is a book that I reached out to over and over again to get a sense of my own tradition and mythology.

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Are we non-Americans allowed to hope?

I am as far from America, or being an American, as I could possibly be. But something stirs within when I watch this video. The theme of the speech rises beyond mere provincial concerns into something uplifting regardless of ones origin, country, race. This is a leader I would follow.

I have watched this video many times over now. Wish we Indians too had such options, instead of the moral dwarves and dynastic leeches we have today.

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