Archives for July 2013

Belief System for Continual Progress

William_Faulkner

Ta-Nehisi Coates shares snippets from an interview with William Faulkner. The topic being the amoralism(lacking a moral sense) of being a writer. I would not have characterized it as “amoralism” but rather as “belief system”. Faulkner sizzles in articulating this belief system of a novelist, and perhaps of himself. All that he says is 100% true of any creative endeavor- whether you are starting a company, creating a product, participating in a competition or learning music. This is like Arjuna, or perhaps Achilles, talking about what it takes to be a warrior. Go digest these words:

Impossible Goal

All of us failed to match our dream of perfection. So I rate us on the basis of our splendid failure to do the impossible. In my opinion, if I could write all my work again, I am convinced that I would do it better, which is the healthiest condition for an artist. That’s why he keeps on working, trying again; he believes each time that this time he will do it, bring it off. Of course he won’t, which is why this condition is healthy. Once he did it, once he matched the work to the image, the dream, nothing would remain but to cut his throat, jump off the other side of that pinnacle of perfection into suicide.

I simply love the axiom-like assertion of the first sentence and the oxymoron(splendid failure) in the second. Act and raise yourself. And repeat! Perfection is an impossibility, so get ever closer to it. The striving is its own reward.

Formula to Follow

Ninety-nine percent talent . . . ninety-nine percent discipline . . . ninety-nine percent work. He must never be satisfied with what he does. It never is as good as it can be done. Always dream and shoot higher than you know you can do. Don’t bother just to be better than your contemporaries or predecessors. Try to be better than yourself.

Your swabhava, inner disposition, is to be the guide of your efforts. Following the law meant for another only leads to chaos, jealousy, confusion. The Gita declares the same thing, to follow your own dharma rather than that of another.

Demons and Muses

An artist is a creature driven by demons. He don’t know why they choose him and he’s usually too busy to wonder why. He is completely amoral in that he will rob, borrow, beg, or steal from anybody and everybody to get the work done.

Two opposing elements churn the being of an artist or a creator. The one is bright, luminous and leads him to higher ground. The other is dark, brooding, wrathful and doubting. Between these opposing pulls our being is churned. We laugh, cry, dream, suffer and create. All our works are born thus.

Creator’s Responsibility

The writer’s only responsibility is to his art. He will be completely ruthless if he is a good one. He has a dream. It anguishes him so much he must get rid of it. He has no peace until then. Everything goes by the board: honor, pride, decency, security, happiness, all, to get the book written.

Focus and resourcefulness. A single minded aspiration to realize the dream. Nothing else distracts him from that endeavor.

Art Can Come From

Good art can come out of thieves, bootleggers, or horse swipes. People really are afraid to find out just how much hardship and poverty they can stand. They are afraid to find out how tough they are. Nothing can destroy the good writer. The only thing that can alter the good writer is death. Good ones don’t have time to bother with success or getting rich.

Faulkner really nails this one. What do you fear? What are you willing to sacrifice to create something? What will make you stop trying?

A Word Holds a World – Pitfalls in Design Thinking

To design something is not a random process. The creative act has its characteristic associative leaps within and between concepts. Pinning words to these concepts can limit design thinking. A few thoughts on this topic.

If we’re thinking of a lunchbox, we’ll be really careful not to have the word ‘box’ already give you a bunch of ideas which are … quite narrow.– Jonathan Ive

David McGillivray has written a beautiful post on how labels are saddled with assumptions and how it narrows design thinking. The context is a design competition to build a lunchbox that is also a bag and a pencil box. Some fantastic quotes from David’s post. 

Labels have to exist because we have to talk about projects with people when we’re working on them, and if an element doesn’t have a name, we need to give it one so people know what the hell we’re talking about.

..right, next is the “Profile Page.” Just this generic label alone starts the design process in my head. Immediately, my subconscious cross-references all the profile pages I’ve seen and compiles a generic layout for me. 

it’s not our fault, it’s (hopefully) not because we’re bad designers, but because ofhow our brains are wired to work. The association that occurs is an unconscious process that plots its commute along well-worn neural pathways that are formed and reinforced everyday as we work, and discuss design.

The entire post is a fantastic deconstruction of how designers approach designing. Make sure you read it. 

Its fascinating how a mind cognizes the world. Every sensory input is labelled, classified, stored and processed away. Being aware of this cognitive process invariably makes you a better thinker. It does not matter if you are not a designer, even as programmers or product managers, one invariably has to name a class or a feature or an entire product. Awareness of how an idea will be perceived makes you able to choose an appropriate name.

And I also find the idea of conjuring a whole world of visuals, feelings, ideas, words and preferences from merely uttering a word as akin to magic. Assume I said, “Game of Thrones” or “Mahabharatha” or “Illiad” or “Scala”. Based on your exposure to these works, a whole set of impressions would have been brought in front of your mind’s eye. It is miraculous how the mind has an entire set of impressions stored and indexed and is able to retrieve it in real-time. And this is not just lexical matches, even semantically associated/related terms are brought out.

A mythologically inclined mind would treat us as magicians, by our ability to bring up worlds of experience with a mere word! Perhaps there is something to it when Vyaasa said, 

The world is like an impression left by the telling of a story. – Rishi Vyaasa

And watch the video of Jony Ive reviewing lunchbox designs. Such humility in his stance. And the Apple lab is not shabby either! 

How do you think about thinking and design? What is occurring in your head just now?

The Sphinx in a Startup

sphinx-entrance

Whatever it may otherwise lack, a Startup is blessed with an abundance of unknowns. What is the product? Who is the customer? What is the value proposition? How will you sell? At what price point? The utterly simple yet immensely vexing answer to all these questions is “We don’t know fully”. Of course I jest, but only a little. This is the Sphinx posing its riddles.

In a startup, everything and nothing is open for exploration. Sounds like one of those contradictory Zen statements but believe me there is nothing remotely calm or enlightening about this state.

When friends or ex-colleagues try to comprehend our proposition, there is always a glint of sympathy in their eyes. I almost hear them thinking, “How misguided could you get?”, “Can’t you focus on key features?”, “Where is your execution plan?”, “Are you making money?”, “I did a MVP last weekend, what takes you so much time?” and so on.

Or when arguing about evolving the product in a specific direction with my team, I always feel the tension. Features change, evolve, mutate like a precocious two year old’s imagination. What was to be a journey to India, is possibly leading us to an entirely different continent, while making us feel lost in a wide sea of unknowns.

How do I deal with it? Well, the unknown to me is always a possibility. Something to be unwrapped and explored. As my Guru Sri Aurobindo, says in an aphorism:

The sense of impossibility is the beginning of all possibilities.

To confront impossibility is to stand firm in front of the Sphinx posing its riddles. You stand and answer its questions. The more it questions, the deeper you dig and answer. If you give up, the Sphinx wins.

Whether its rewriting a feature you removed few weeks back. Or venturing into a technical area you know very little about. Or doing a pre-sales call. Or dealing with a hundred less than ideal situations at work and elsewhere. That is the Sphinx presenting itself to you.

The Sphinx is not a statue posing its impossibility on a ocean of sand far far away. The Sphinx is a customized version of impossibility created just for you. To everyone else the riddle is plain, simple and they might think you naive, perhaps even that you are stupid. It could be true too. But this is your impossibility. Your personal Tour De France. Your Everest. This is Xerxes confronting you with his Persian might.

The Sphinx demands answers. The unknown demands exploration. Tenacity is what you must live and breathe. To wake up and greet your unknowns. To welcome them one by one. To dissect and get into and get around them. To do everything but giving up.

And then you might hear one day, as I did earlier today, “This has promise”, in reference to our product. There is still long way to go but hey, even the imaginary sound of seagulls is music to my ears now.

Massive. Ugly. Asymmetric. Behold the Iron Throne!

So formidably beautiful. Behold the Iron Throne, the seat of power for which “Kings are dying like flies”.

GoT-IronThrone

If you have not yet caught up with Game of Thrones, it might be time you did so. The novel by George RR Martin, and the HBO series of it are both awesome.

In George’s own words about the Iron Throne:

This Iron Throne is massive. Ugly. Assymetric. It’s a throne made by blacksmiths hammering together half-melted, broken, twisted swords, wrenched from the hands of dead men or yielded up by defeated foes… a symbol of conquest… it has the steps I describe, and the height. From on top, the king dominates the throne room. And there are thousands of swords in it, not just a few.

This Iron Throne is scary. And not at all a comfortable seat, just as Aegon intended.

Look on his works, ye mighty, and despair.

George has a way with words, a unique ability to bring his imaginary worlds to life and make it tangible for mere mortals like us to gape at. The art work itself is by Marc Simonetti.

(via iO9)

Two Types of Narcissists

Narcissus-Caravaggio

The professional world abounds in Narcissists, those with an unusually high sense of their own awesomeness. Whether you are a Narcissist, or have to deal with one, it helps to have a nuanced understanding of this syndrome.

The first type. Is skilled. Accomplished. Perhaps decorated by the world. Has mapped the perimeters of his domain and sees himself as unassailable. The second type. Is willing to be skilled. Yet to accomplish anything significant. Decorates himself. Has no inkling of his boundaries, or what lurks beyond its little borders.

The first can, with a dose of humility, return to his brilliant beginnings. Perhaps even expand the borders of his influence and have men follow his banner. The second lives too deep in his own imaginings. Quirks of fate could yet wake him.

Having been both these types at various stages of my life, and recovered by fortuitous circumstances that were not all benign, a few words that might help. If only to recover from this malaise or perhaps to put up with one afflicted. Be understanding and tolerant of the first, make them see what lies beyond and things might change. The second might need methods that are either too subtle or cruder than what you are capable of, leave it to the vagaries of time to set things right.

For yourself, choose action that grows the good virtues within. Let these be a reminder of how pride in any accomplishment, when not tempered by humility, can lead you astray. Remember your falls as you march forward.

Inventor, Invention and Intent – Doug Engelbart

Doug Engelbart passed away on July 3rd 2013. The father of the “Mother of all demos“, he was a visionary inventor. In response to obituaries from popular news sites, Brett Victor digs into what tech writers get wrong about Engelbart’s work. Here are some quotes. 

When I read tech writers’ interviews with Engelbart, I imagine these writers interviewing George Orwell, asking in-depth probing questions about his typewriter.

Brett has a point. Tech writers are prone to simplify. Constraints of getting message across to a wider audience, lack of time, or even lack of comprehension all manage to simplify the message to the extent of saying nothing. The point is that the larger motivations of an inventor are drowned out. As Brett so eloquently states,

This is as if you found the person who invented writing, and credited them for inventing the pencil. 

Engelbart’s vision was to build systems that augment human intelligence. And again as Brett states,

Engelbart’s vision, from the beginning, was collaborative. His vision was people working together in a shared intellectual space. His entire system was designed around that intent.

Intent of an inventor is nuanced by necessity. If you read the paper by Engelbart you understand the depth of this thinking. It does take time to explain anything of value. Besides an online journal or tech blog is not usually a place for nuance or depth.

That said, I do understand the constraints of tech writers or journalists. Visitors to their portals don’t have time. The header has to capture attention. The body has to communicate the message as briefly as possible. Attention is a scarce resource.

I face these issues when talking about our product CollabLayer to potential customers. Articulating the proposition, and our intent to amplify collaboration & insight discovery takes a lot of work and time. Reducing it to small sound bites eats away the nuance. Elaborating leaves the customer with too much detail or just plain bored.

I try to understand context and constraints of audience to adapt my pitch. In the last few weeks, my pitch has gotten refined but there is a long long way to go before we can emulate the “Mother of all demos”. Don’t miss that demo, you will learn what a ‘visionary inventor’ means. Check out our baby too. Doug would have understood where we are headed, we hope you check us out and agree too  🙂

Two Perspectives on Leadership

There are as many perspectives on Leadership as there are people. While watching Game of Thrones I could not help but notice the two contrasting approaches to leadership, as embodied by Ned Stark and Joffrey Baratheon.

Joffrey_Baratheon-Throne

Let us start with one extreme. Joffrey Baratheon, kinghood has been conferred upon him by the accident of birth. He knows he has power but does not understand power. He has not paid the price to be crowned, events beyond his control have led him to the throne. But all he sees is power, he does not understand its responsibilities, has no inherent trait of leading and guiding men, no impulse to fairness, no empathy to his subjects. Power he has and he exercises it. With all the smugness of one born to wealth and power, all pleasure and indulgence but no reflection, no self-questioning. His ego has deluded him to attribute his position to his own being.

EddardStark-Throne

In contrast, Ned Stark, Lord of Winterfell, knows he does not belong on the Iron Throne. He does not like, perhaps even despises power. Kinghood to him is a burden. He understands the machinations, the politics, the betrayals that underlie the crown. He lives by his values..brotherhood, family, his people and above all the honor of a warrior. He has strength, is battle-scarred. The burden of responsibility weighs upon his actions. Deliberate and methodical, his actions issue out of him as a craftsman chisels his jewels.

Two contrasting approaches out of the many that are possible to leadership. To be aware of what style one is employing, a recognition of our origins and our destinations and the legacy we wish to be known by are the starting point for grounded leadership.

Good leaders lead not just by the power that resides with their position. They lead with skills, with empathy, with humility. Purpose and principles motivate their actions. They do not look down upon their subjects however high the seat. They understand the ephemerality of power, the transient nature of events.

Through all this good leaders lead. And the bad ones gloat and relish their transient power enroute to their impending downfall.

Knowledge is Free, Learning Costs You

Knowledge is power. Power is not shared. It remains institutionalized, parceled out to the few and is usually affirmed by a seal and sanction of an Institution. Knowledge had been monopolized by educational institutions, Universities and Boards. The few who had the aptitude, or the means, had access to this training and subsequent rewards. The rest languish in a vicious cycle of intellectual and economic mediocrity.

With the Internet, all this has changed. Knowledge is available in abundance. With arrival of MOOCs, this knowledge is at least a subset of what is offered in elite educational institutions. Udacity and Coursera are leading the charge here. Even before the MOOCs, there was MITs OpenEdu program. There are podcasts, websites, guides..heck knowledge flowed freely even through Torrents as ebooks and video lectures, beyond the standard Hollywood fare and porn.

With all this glut what seems to be scarce is our propensity to learn. Our curiosity has not deepened, it does not burn us yet. Our love of learning has either diminished or stayed the same. We still look to the old stimulants of economic rewards and social recognition to be nudged forward. Of course external motivations are important but the propensity to learn can be more effective when driven by a love of learning, by a desire to understand something truly, to build something of value using that knowledge.

But learning takes effort. This effort is more or less the same whether you learn from an Institution or on your own. With the glut of knowledge available online, one only needs a computer and connectivity to the Internet to join the information revolution. But what is lacking is our willingness to pay the price for learning. Guess it is much easier to pay money and have an institution declare we know something!

The time we spend on Facebook or Twitter is attention that could be purposefully spent elsewhere. Whether you wish to learn Rhetorical Composition, Systematic Program Design or Startup Engineering the best minds and generous hearts have conspired to ensure knowledge is free. You only need to pay for it with your curiosity, willingness to learn and perseverance.

What have you learnt lately?

On Translation – Nabokov, Borges & Sri Aurobindo

Nabokov & Borges seemed to have had opposing views on literary translation. While reading that post I could not but help think about Sri Aurobindo’s approach to literary translation, more specifically, translation of poetry.

The two contrasting views, as articulated in the post, are: Literal translation and Free-form Translation. Nabokov adheres to the literal school and views any change  in a translation as a deformation. While Borges delights in the “happy and creative infidelity” of the translated material to the original.

Sri Aurobindo had the following to say on literal vs free-form translation:

A translator is not necessarily bound to the exact word and letter of the original he chooses… We find that literal translation more completely betray than those that are reasonably free – turning life into death and poetic power into poverty and flatness.

Above quote was taken from an essay (warning, its a PDF file) by Usha Mahadevan on Sri Aurobindo’s Tirukkural translation. Some splendid examples there of how a translation could retain fidelity to spirit of the original, rather than the word-forms.

First Kural, first line – “Agara Mudala Ezhuthellam..”

Rev. G.U.Pope translates as, “A as its first of letters, every speech maintains”

Sri Aurobindo translates as “Alpha of all letters the first”.

Read the essay (PDF again) for some more examples contrasting Sri Aurobindo’s approach and others in dealing with Tirukkural.

I posted a comment on the Dialogos site about my views on literary translation. Yes, I do know its presumptuous to put my views in a post where Nabokov, Borges and Sri Aurobindo are mentioned..but hey, my Master is a tad lenient at such things 😉

Word-sense, sound rhythm, feeling and emotional aftertaste all make up our experience of language. To retain fidelity over all these factors while transplanting an idea from one linguistic landscape to another is a challenge.

For me, translation is less about the words than it is about transcribing that soul-state which yielded the words. The “sanctity of source text” resides not in the words but in the idea behind them and in the mind & heart that produced them.

To leave a reader in the target language the same joy, feeling and insight evoked by the original should be the primary goal.

Specific linguistic characteristics of the source language, say culture-specific ideas, puns, brevity of expression, sound rhythms…are more difficult to bring across and will invariably undergo a deformation, or mutation, driven by abilities of a target language and the translator.

So what do you think? Any strong views?

Note: Okay, I know this is not the most pressing issue for mankind's problems...but..damn..will shut up now!