Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Why is design everything?

I have always been a keen admirer of good design. The idea of making something good just for the sake of making it was never so appealing to me until I stumbled upon the concept of good design. It is right there in plain sight - the way we hold the spoon, the way we use our vessels in the kitchen, the way we hold our pens, the way we sit on our chairs, the way we walk on the street, practically everything we do everyday is heavily influenced by design. All the mundane items I mentioned just now were designed (or in some cases hopelessly copied) by some designer at some point in time. They went through the pain of sketching up a prototype & then tried to imagine how it would be used in different situations. 

With such a dense influence of design on us, do we actually notice it? The point of good design according to me is that the product must completely disappear from its physical form & become an extension of the body. So we stop noticing how the object is designed & we focus more on how we are using it. A staggering number of daily objects successfully do that. No matter if they were natively designed or copied from some original, they still serve the same purpose as the designer intended. 

BBC had a 5 part documentary series called The Genius of Design. It was by far the best tribute to an art form which has always stayed hidden & unglamorous. But the role it plays in our lives cannot be underestimated. This led me to another question, why has good design stayed on for such a long time? What drives it to survive apart from the will of a few motivated individuals who struggle to solve day to day problems through products & processes?

The answer leaped almost instantly within a few minutes of watching the first episode of the BBC series. 

'Design is a slave to capitalism'
Without the financial incentive to create a better product, no person will keep on designing good products. Capitalism, the idea that someone is willing to pay for a product & appreciate its value for the job that it does is perhaps the chief intention of design. The profit may not be directly achieved, but it does drive the design process. 

'Design is never a pure activity. It is always connected to how things are bought, sold, recycled. It is the entire product life cycle.'
Design for the sake of design doesn't even sound right. It is based on a series of observations on how the product will become a solution to some daily problem. I am tempted to think of the first stone tool & what a product of genius it must have been! Although the sophisticated nature that design has achieved at the moment, being based on a financial incentive, must also create efficiency in making the product. This makes it mandatory for a designer to think of the entire life cycle of the product rather than just making the object only once in a studio.

The documentary series, goes from the industrial revolution, to the early, mid & late 20th century design ideologies to create this chronology of thought processes driving a designer's mindset. Schools of design unlike schools of art became problem solvers rather than just being temples of creativity. Manifesting a need through an object is no less than art, but creating a need just to manifest it through some object seems a bit vain. Good Design lives way above this vain creationism of objects. 

What kicked designers in the nuts to actually solve so many of our daily problems? To imagine a problem which some designer solved - remember the time when you wore a poorly designed pair of shoes which made your feet itch & made you want to remove them every chance you got. That's how annoying bad design is. It is rather astounding at what scale design has invaded our daily lives. There has to be something more to it than just solving problems. 

This is where design met its long distant cousins - manufacturing & marketing. Mass production was not an old idea during the industrial revolution. In fact it was born out of the ability of the machines to churn much more items than manual labour could. The idea behind mass production according to the documentary was -
'mass production = universal availability + universal affordability'. 

Americans perfected this idea with their corollary = Standardized parts made with special tools assembled by semi or unskilled workers to an uniform design. 

Imagine a revolution in the way manufacturers started to think where one faction of society has been completely absorbed in making more items with less cost which led them to design newer versions of manufacturing machines capable of more efficient production. The only problem they faced was their ability to make the customer appreciate the value of reduced manufacturing cost & improved quality. Customers were still paying the same amount or even less in some cases for the same product. But capitalism being extremely efficient, the race to cover a bigger portion of the market makes it difficult to keep selling at the same price. Prices constantly drop as some efficient manufacturers keep selling at a lower price thus passing on the benefits of efficiency to their customers.

So now we know how improving manufacturing helps design turn into reality but sometimes totally fails to create an appreciation of it. That's when the other distant cousin, marketing steps in. The better the product is marketed the more chance the manufacturer has in really reaping the benefits of efficiency. Imagine Apple selling stunningly designed consumer products. Why doesn't Apple sell its products at a discount or at the same price as other manufacturers? Why do more & more Apple customers in effect pay for the design excellence where some other companies have blatantly copied some of their designs & continue to charge a lot less? Apple projects themselves & their ability to design beautiful & most importantly functional products in a way which makes people appreciate it. Sometimes even for the sake of appreciation. If Apple's products were not functional & merely aesthetic, then they would most certainly have been stuck in the same rut as the rest of the competition. 

By marrying function & design at the same time making sure that the cost of production & distribution stays low, Apple qualifies its most basic responsibility to its shareholders - increasing profitability. Thus design comes full circle when people understand their need of a product & equate it with an available product.

That's why I admire good design. Something so hidden from our day to day point of view can have a profound impact on the way we live. 

A few tributes to good design:
  1. Gary Hustwit Design Trilogy
  2. Dieter Rams' Ten Principles of Good Design
  3. Architect Norman Foster's Biopic

Saturday, January 26, 2013

F i n - a very short story about 'a story '

In the beginning, there was only the end. He coveted closure. Just the thought of the ending sent goose bumps up his hands. He imagined himself typing, every word with an effortless stroke like a synchronized swimmer zipping through the water. His fingers danced upon the keyboard like a ballerina tip toeing across a polished wooden floor. The silent screeches when he brushed his fingers on the keys just before scooting off to the next key were like the sound of the fingers shifting a chord on an acoustic guitar. 

His motor neurons never felt so calm. All he could visualize was ending it. The last words, the last phrase, the last meaning, the End. He hadn't written it yet, nor had he seen what it would look like. All he could think of was writing it. His momentum would guide him like a distant lighthouse on an unknown shore. The boat would bob in the water watching the light turning ON & OFF & ON again. The pulse of the shore almost reverberated through the hull. With each key stroke his breath grew heavier yet in perfect rhythm. Just as the hull of the boat creaks in the water his lungs hissed with exhaustion & excitement. With the shore approaching, the fingers clicked on the keyboard resembling waves silently moving up & down & up again, leading the boat with them. It was a silent peristalsis of thoughts being sent in wave after wave to his fingers. 

Why was the end so important? Why does the boat have to reach the shore? To end with a question would be sinister. To solve the mystery of the beginning would be moral. Nobody appreciates the creation of a problem, but they always reward the solution. Shouldn't the problem be rewarded too? The problem carries in it the seeds of its own solution, the beginning is loaded with the end. Without the problem there would be no solution & without a beginning there is no chance of an end. It's a revolver, cocked and ready to be fired. 

He is tempted to go on & waste a perfect stride. He does it. He misses the crescendo & the symphony collapses on itself. He is only left with a coagulated End in his heart, which somehow won't circulate to his finger tips. A feeling of terror slowly creeps up to him as he watches the cursor blink on the screen, asking, "Now What!". . . 

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Read More, Become More

Fiction is a very powerful idea. I can't say that any other life form on our planet has ever graduated to using the full power of fiction like we have. The most they can rely on is the immediate knowledge from their genes and what they learn vicariously. 

But we have an unique advantage. We can put all our working knowledge of our culture, our traditions, things of practical importance into a tidy little capsule called a story. Once all this knowledge is filled in that capsule it is only a matter of time someone will come along and swallow it. It may not profoundly affect that person's world view but it will surely make a dent. How big a dent it can make depends on how potent the capsule is & how often he swallows it. 

Fiction in the form of books has changed the way people perceive the world. It has made our existence a lot more colourful and has added flavour to our experience which, at that moment, we couldn't have added on our own. A lot of times writers dissect their character's thought processes. This helps the readers clearly understand a character's actions. If a reader looks up to that character then the thought process seems like an incentive to improve ourselves to that standard. Even if we read of some character behaving disagreeably, we can always feel it and it reflects our own cultural & social upbringing. It brings out our ideas about good & evil & allows us to express them in our thoughts.

These thoughts wouldn't have come out on their own unless we were subjected to that experience directly. Fiction speeds up this process minus the pain of living through it.

The structure of fiction is also unique. There's no contents page, no acknowledgments, no introductions. We plunge directly into the narrative right from page one. This puts us front and centre of the events that unfold. No other form of correspondence or form of knowledge transmission works that effectively. Every other form needs some sort of qualifying introduction to set the tone for what's to come. Even a brilliant piece of music needs a right setting.

Since we humans are a bag full of feelings and emotions, whether we like to admit or not, fiction brings out the best and the worst of our feelings. We feel for the characters, we feel for their outcomes. Perhaps we feel for them more strongly than we feel for our own outcomes. That's because in fiction the characters' actions are always motivated by some thought. There's no room for purposeless actions. This is contrary to the way we humans go through life. We usually do a lot of things that are motivated by some thought but largely there are a lot of other things we do automatically. We have a subconscious drive that pushes us to do things we wouldn't do if we carefully consider them. Sometimes we are not even conscious of the purpose of our actions and are made aware only after someone or some event brings it to our attention. This possibility opens up a whole new world of exploration for us. Fiction can help us see the motivations behind the characters' actions & can make us question ours as well. Without fiction for our aid we would pay an hour's fee to a therapist to help us understand & untangle the subconscious intentions behind what we do. But the joy to figure it out on our own is totally different and it's much more vivid. 

We generally have these self biographies running in our head. They tell us who we are, what we must do, what we are like. These biographies change with our experience & knowledge of ourselves & the world around us. These biographies seem remarkably similar to reading character profiles in fiction. They are highly imaginative & very colourful. They make us look either good or bad in our own eyes which in turn determine the kind of mood they put us in. We have this remarkable tendency to observe our behaviour & deduce what kind of a person we are. Fiction is a similar process where the character is written & presented in front of us to figure out the labyrinthine thought behind each action. Fiction can helps us question what our biographies should be like. 

Aristotle said that "We acquire virtues by first having put them into action ... we become just by the practice of just actions, self-controlled by exercising self-control, and courageous by performing acts of courage." What better way to get acquainted with our actions than to see us emotionally respond to what the characters do? Better yet, they can also change us into who we wish to become. A good story invokes all these thoughts & puts us in an inevitable position to answer these questions about ourselves. That's why reading novels involving existential themes are very difficult to accept. They force us to ask what is our purpose & may force us to consider that there may not be any.

Read More, Become More.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

So long & thanks for all the Fish!

On the day after the supposed destruction of our world I wish to ask - Has anything changed?

Firstly I don't believe anybody really believed that the world was going to end. Catastrophe or not I don't think any one takes it seriously until the News Channels flash it with a Breaking News tag on it.

Here's one for the networks - Breaking News: We're still alive. Now the world thinks how to get back to work on Monday.

Just in case the Mayan's got the date wrong & the world does end today, I can only think of one thing to say - So Long & Thanks for all the Fish.

New Project Announcement

The Why:
From the past few months I have been putting together a new project. The content of this project is very dear to me. It has made a tremendous difference to the way I have started to look at things. 

The past few years have made me realize that my ability to learn new things & use them in my day to day life has started to peak. Normally I would enjoy myself at this peak & look back at my achievements. But this time I was not so satisfied at what I had achieved. 

The speed at which I have been consuming knowledge (content) has steadily risen over the past decade but the speed at which I process this knowledge hasn't changed at all. I thought that in order to maximize what I learn from what I am absorbing I need to change the way I work. I cannot use the same techniques which have proved to be ineffective in the past & expect different results.

The What:
So I started on this idea of learning how to be more productive & effective in learning what I want to learn & finding ways to make it easy to apply in my day to day life. This is way more difficult to implement than to put in a sentence. I have barely scratched the surface of any potential gains I can reap from this idea.

So my desire to learn ways to be more effective in learning & applying my knowledge has led me to a point where I wish to share the philosophy & involve a more engaging discussion about the ideas around Productivity & how to really use it as per our individual needs.

There are productivity Apps, Productivity Techniques & Systems, but no process to connect these ideas to our specific needs. 

After all a tool used for the wrong purpose can't really be effective.

Hope this project gets good feedback & encourages us to think together about Productivity from a different perspective.

The Where:
You can access this project on my new blog here.

It is called NonDump.

The origin of the title is as ambiguous & as mysterious to me as it is to you. But the moment I used it for the blog, it seemed catchy & short enough to remember. So it stuck.

Now What:
If you wish to leave any feedback or suggestions do contact me through the new blog or just share your comments here.

Or you can reach me at

Monday, December 17, 2012

A Human's Rant

We humans have evolved into self aware, intelligent beings. This allows us to understand our surroundings. It allows us to question the way the world works & figure out how. This is unlike any other animal which doesn't indulge beyond its base instincts of food & mating. Lets call it an inner biological need. A few reasons that we know which made us what we are, 
  1. An efficient way to store energy 
  2. Evolution of a complex language to generate, process & transmit thoughts. 
Once this structure was in place we could practically cruise around seamlessly with knowledge learned & retained from previous generations.

But the flip side of it was we started to develop elaborate formal systems around us. Formal systems where the rules of behaviour are standardized. These are our social, political, religious, economic, legal systems. This was perhaps the single handed exercise which has resulted in keeping the majority of us aligned & focused on a shared social goal - multiply our own kind. In all this we very occasionally become aware of the nature around us. We are so engrossed in our formal systems & rules of engagement that we often forget what we actually are at a biological level. We are only reminded of our true origins & our vulnerability when things start going wrong. 

We take a lot of pride in thinking that it is always better to get along very well with our current systems & excel within them. We have pulled a world over our own eyes full of structured, controlled & (perceived) certain outcomes. We indulge in them so heavily that we eventually take our biological footprint for granted. We tend to forget that under our skin of iphones, blackberry's & technology we are the same as other mammals that have been roaming around this planet for eons.

We are so convinced of our survival instincts & ingenuity in creating such systems that we have perhaps started to believe that this is the only right way to live. Whereas there is no such prescribed way of life in nature. There are several models of co-operation & survival in the jungle & all of them have their unique advantages. We perhaps indulge in our own political models of co-operation to suggest that we too have the same system, but it is just a little bit more structured & at a higher level of intelligence. We refuse to live on nature's autopilot & we choose to create our own autopilot systems. This ironically is something that comes very naturally to us. Find a working pattern & repeat. We have been accustomed to this way of living as a standard model of human life for who knows how long.

We have become dependant on it to the point of believing that everything that doesn't evolve into our system is potentially wrong. As some systems become more & more advanced they create aspirations for other primitive systems to imitate them. A successful system is valued more & believed to add more to the average daily life of humans. We go to any developed nation in the world & watch their use of this idea as a standard evolutionary fact. But we never seem to question if this assumption of evolution can ever be incorrect.

With this assumption we start looking more & more inward to seek what we need & try to recreate that need in real life with the use of technology or policy. For instance at some point we decided that we need to carry our music with us - all of it. So we found peace in a little tile shaped box with a round dial on it & a pair of white cables extending from our ears. We walked around with it for about a decade & evolved that idea into a way of life. We create latent needs into actual needs & transmit them as a new & more efficient way to live in the systems that we ourselves have created. It seems almost automatic. This is pervasive at all scales from personal to global.

We have basically outsourced the whole process of outward thought (thought about the world around us & our impact on it) to a small group of people. We call them our scientists. I use scientists as a general term which includes all those people doing any research in trying to understand things beyond the inner needs of humans. They study the space & the universe, they study our biological systems to find better ways of surviving, they study the planet, they study the elements of nature & human nature. They look beyond these systems & hope that the average person gets to acquaint with their world view through their research. All this also for the conformity of creating better systems than what we have at present.

The average person, instead of acknowledging that we are a part of the universe & that too a rather insignificant one, is incredibly busy in trying to cope with the systems that other humans have created. There is perhaps this creationist bias, where only ideas that are created by others are worth believing in. We start getting bigger & bigger in our own systems thru more wealth of knowledge, money, power, anything. We eventually reach a stage of believing that there is nothing greater beyond this. Perhaps religion & theistic beliefs have stemmed from such a latent human need to systematize the uncertainty around us. They have given us a reason to create our systems. Religion did try to bring in the respect for outer systems, but it has failed miserably & ended up creating atheists like me who wish to detach the propaganda from the true message. I see a pious man praying to a river & then throwing a plastic bag full of decaying flowers right in the middle of it. This is not religion.

One thought I can't shake off is what would happen if we started to channelize our latent inner curiosity - outwards? First of all is it biologically possible?

What would happen when we individually start to acknowledge our role (position/state to be precise) in the universe (which is pretty benign considering we are just perishable animals)? Will it change the way we treat our surroundings?

How will it affect our current social structures & would it make us better in relating to the needs of other species which inhabit the same space as us?

These questions push us into a thought which doesn't fit within our system, it seems like a plugin which needs to be installed from the outside. But before all this, we need to ask why should we do all this!

Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Untouchable City

I cannot remember the last time I touched any wall in my city. It's not as if I am obsessive compulsive about not touching anything outdoors, but one glimpse at the walls of this fateful town & it is apparent why you can't even dream of touching them. 

The average height of an adult Indian male is around 5 Feet 5 Inches. That means, the mouth of this average Indian male is at around 4 Feet 11 inches from the ground. The tobacco munching mouth can project a jet of murderous red spit on any wall at an average angle of 45 degrees at varying velocities. This is obviously assuming that the person spitting on the wall is at a reasonable distance from the wall to avoid any splatter on him. This archetypical male has been bestowed with god given powers to consume infinite amount of chewing tobacco. That translates directly into the city's latest murals. We are blessed with this art form which is the biggest ever crowd sourced art project ever imagined. It also works on a subliminal level to make the artist unaware of his contribution. With gravity doing most of the strokes, all the artist has to bring is fresh set of saliva & a large puddle of chewed tobacco. With the cutting edge pneumatic forces which took nature itself several million years to perfect, this unassuming street artist does this city a favour by contributing his talent for free.

No amount of dripping sarcasm is enough to speak of these dripping red walls. We are tactile animals. One of the largest & the most important sensory organs on our body is the skin. We count touch as one of the five basic senses which allow us to perceive our world. Although we are not limited to touch anything else, we are definitely limited in our ability to caress our own city walls. It can be a building of historic importance or some high rise commercial premises. These murals paint the city with a joyous abandon only found elsewhere in nature. As a matter of excretion, these artists were never taught any discretion. In a way they can't be blamed, no one ever taught them not to paint these walls. Another feature of this city, where if it isn't explicitly mentioned, anything is allowed. For instance, if there is no 'no parking' sign, even an entrance to a building is a place to park. If by some miracle there is an instruction like 'no parking', some of the courageous folks from the city do take pride in disobeying them, especially "Do Not Spit Here" signs.

So who's fault is it anyway? BMC (the local municipality) has tried half successfully to enforce an 'on the spot' fine a few years back. But with the city bubbling with new art work, it seems not to be working so well. What would it take for an average artist to avoid painting the wall? What incentive can we offer to that artist whose mouth does his work for free? 

Education is another futile concept for these artists who will gladly spit on it & move on. The very posters that tell not to spit in public would become open dart boards to test their projectile accuracy. The spittoons will be inundated with a smouldering red goo at the end of the day which is below any human being's dignity to clean. The beetle juice in these chewing products is itself corrosive by nature & takes more than just water to clean once it has dried. So something which is beyond anyone's dignity to clean, becomes even harder to clean after it dries.

I remember having taught in my school that littering, spitting & defecating in the open is bad. I don't know why I remember this, but somehow it must have made some impact subconsciously. I don't do any of these things in the open out of choice & which has now become a reflex. Any habit to form requires torturous repetition of some task to make it mundane & ordinary so that our body can carry it out automatically. How can we internalize the importance of hygiene in public places in these lost souls?

Is decency a matter here? Are people just not decent enough to acknowledge the fact that they are soiling something? I have had some rare glimpses of decency which I wouldn't have attributed to the city of Mumbai if I hadn't witnessed them myself. A white collar gets off the bus at CST bus depot & innocuously throws the ticket stub near the bus door. Now ideally this would be a normal sight in Mumbai, where people thoughtlessly litter. But he wasn't so lucky & had to spend some time thinking over what he did later. The Clean-Up Crew recruited by the BMC had apparently cleaned the area a few minutes ago & were resting on the foot path adjoining the bus stop. All of them watched the guy throw the stub & they suddenly sprang into action. They all rushed at once to have that person surrounded. The white collar obviously demanded to know in a rather animated way why he was being held up. When they told him that he had littered, I was half expecting an apology or at least some sign of shame. Perhaps that's what the clean up crew expected too but instead they heard him barking expletives. Now a cloud of anger shrouded the bus stop & shoving ensued. Clearly a crowd gathered demanding to know why an educated (looking) person was being held up & barking in an uneducated way at a bus stop full of uniformed clean guys. After a full 4 minutes, which seemed like half an hour of proving how he never even got off the bus, he relented & walked back to the bus door. There wasn't more drama in any soaps on the tele than what I saw next. A clean - up member had recovered the ticket stub & was holding it in his finger tips. He handed the stub to the white collar & made him dispose it in a nearby dust bin. No claps, no appreciative words from anyone, no thanks to the clean-up guys, the crowd dispersed as if nothing had happened & the white collar, mumbling expletives under his breath rushed off to catch his train.

Another slightly more graphic incident gripped me the other day waiting in a traffic jam trapped inside an auto rickshaw. There was no view staring at the back of the driver so I peeked outside & looked in the general direction. I noticed two beggars (perhaps husband & wife) along with a small kid. Perhaps 3 years old or may be less. The couple was begging at a street corner where a lot of pedestrians walked by. The small kid, was looking for a spot to take a dump around the same corner. I knew even before it actually happened what I was about to see, but I couldn't have been more wrong. I looked away from it, but could't seem to shake my mind from the idea that a piece of fresh turd was going to lie at the corner of the road for eternity. I turned around hoping that the horrible scene would have passed & saw something so unbelievably surprising that I couldn't believe my eyes. My hand reached to cover my mouth in total disbelief. The 3 year old kid was instructed by his mother to pick up the turd with a small plastic bag. She then took him to a dustbin nearby & they both threw the bag in. The mother & the kid got back to the corner & she started to beg again as if nothing had happened. The whole world went their way after the traffic cleared, completely missing the point of this miracle of decency which I am sure not many must have seen till the very end.

I am cherry picking examples due to sheer lack of them which display basic decency in the urban population of Mumbai. But I can never forget the torment of the cleaning crew or even the basic hygiene of a beggar. What are these if not examples of decency & an unsaid love towards our own city? Even if it was just part of the job description or a habit to clean it up.

One question I beg to ask these people, whoever they are & who are never going to read this. Is their artwork motivated by a systemic hatred towards the city? Do they hate the diversity, the financial inequity, the general throbbing pulse of the city so much that they choose to malign it with their sole contribution. I am yet to see a person spit inside his own home & then welcome any guest. Athithi devo bhava my ass. We can't even keep the financial capital of our nation clean, let alone invite anyone to walk through this god forsaken pile of filth.

After all this probing & venting out my frustration towards this art epidemic, I don't feel any better. I still can't touch my city & must forgo the biggest sensory attachment I have to the place I call home. 

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Taxmen (a much awaited Accounting Drama)

There's no legal show out there that hasn't gone through real life cases & dramatized them for television. Also there are crime scene investigation drama shows which have so far shown, in vivid detail, how to kill a human being. Sometimes I wonder how many more ways a person can die & how many unique murder weapons would be used? I have also watched an amazing medical drama & throughout its 8 season run time, all I could care to understand about medicine is that Lupus is a very common diagnosis, Auto-immune diseases are like the wild cards of medical cases & projectile vomit is simply awesome, without knowing absolutely anything about what Lupus & auto-immune diseases are. But one thing I am yet to watch, solved in meticulous detail with all the grit, drama & excitement of reaching to the conclusion is doing a tax audit.

I have searched the length and breadth of the internet & I must have definitely left a few spots, since I still haven't found a dramatization of accountants in a multi season TV show. They do get side jobs in legal dramas but there isn't one show which shows the glitz and glamour of going through some person's or a corporation's books. Especially when they are wonderfully cooked. OK, I can take back the glamour, but there is definitely some glitz-ish stuff. It is so surprising to find a lack of media interest in the profession of accounting especially when some of the most important plots in films have hinged upon accountants.

A few that I care to remember, 

Ben Kingsley in Schindler's List
Will Ferrel's exceptional performance as an IRS auditor in Stranger than fiction
The accountant in Untouchables, he has all the evidence (no accountant, no Capone)
The chubby guy from the film Hitch

Ok, I thought I had an exhaustive memory of accountants in the media, but it seems it has exhausted.

So all these films gave accountants their share of screen time, but what I really really long for is to watch the clacking of calculators & digging out evidence, missing expense receipts, backtracking tax frauds, some exciting time in tax havens, back room dealings with bankers & tracing secret accounts of the super rich. I may have gotten a bit carried away there, but somehow the excitement of solving the number puzzle would make an excellent series on accountants.

I do have some baseless assumptions on why there may not have been any attempt at making a series / film on accountants:

- It is too complicated to show on primetime TV
(duh! so is law, medicine & crime investigation)

- Accountants are dull people 
(well I have a few accountant friends & they know their way out of their numbers. Certainly not dull)

- There can't be much drama in an accounting firm 
(wherever the average age of the staff in a firm is less than 40 you can be assured to have a lot of competition, rivalry, sexual tension, forced hierarchy & finally cut throat colleagues - I thought this is what the legal shows were based on. Also I have nothing against people over 40 doing all those things, but my experience is pretty slim in being over 40 to realize what they would do)

- It is difficult to show people endlessly working on their calculators & make it look exciting 
(well if a show like Numbers can crunch advanced math on TV, accounting is just plain adding & subtracting)

- Finally, accounting shows will give people ideas on how to evade tax & commit financial fraud 
(this is the closest, I think, I have come to making a legitimate case for not having an accounting TV show. But then I remembered watching all those meticulously executed murders in CSI or Dexter & that made me feel better since I haven't had even the faintest urge to plan such an execution. So far ;) )

- There can't be a protagonist
(that may be true, since everyone I know hates the taxman & auditors sometimes have the nasty habit of uncovering a number trail which was cautiously buried causing a lot of inconvenience to a lot of seriously rich people. The taxman always seems to be a metaphorical antichrist)

So this sure does call for a really gritty accounting drama, I don't mind writing the pilot episode for this one at all. :)

But like all great Eureka moments, as soon as I started to bask in the glory of my powers of observation I came across these three unsuspecting links (thisthis & this). These are 3 blog posts that basically say the exact same thing that I have been yapping about here, but in a much better way than I have. One of them also happens to be written by an accountant who has figured out the first scene for the pilot episode. There goes my pilot dream. 

So much for drama. CLICK

(In case you are wondering what the click was at the end of that sentence, it was the melancholy sound of pressing the OFF button on my calculator. If you listen very closely, you might actually hear it.)

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Bookworm in a Kindle [A Short Story]

He messily clicked through the pages of the book. He was desperately trying to find the passage he had highlighted. He didn't wish to use the Clippings to find all his notes. All he wanted was to reach to that one marked passage, to invoke that one idea which he wanted to think on. "Damn this button, why can't you go any faster?" he clicked the button harder in anger hoping it could miraculously skip several pages just to satisfy his urgency, but the device was only capable of going at a page per second.

He realized with any more force, the button might come off & he won't be able to read on the device again. He took a giant gulp of breath, pursed his lips and exhaled emphatically through his nostrils. He tried to calm himself down. Instead he began to think about that passage, to recollect the exact words while still clicking slowly & laboriously through the pages. He couldn't focus, his mind started to wander into an ancient memory. He remembered how easy it would have been to just flip the pages of a paperback & reach the page in less than half the time. No clicking, no tapping, just a flurr of paper. He completely lost track of the thought & limply slumped in his arm chair unable to console his urge. 

He was tired of searching & his mind started to drift. He closed his eyes, rested his temple against the back of the chair & forgot that he even held the device. He imagined his old shelf, the neat row of books, arranged by height. The books had an inviting gaze. They pulled him across the room to pick up a book he had long wanted to read. He remembered the coffee stains on the cover of his favourite novel when he had accidentally kept his mug on it. He smiled through the corner of his eyes when he remembered that dank smell which came from the shelf in the rains. He remembered the rummaging of a pile of books at the public library to find an article mentioned in an old book. That moment seemed like the fate of the world depended on it. He could have just googled it, but it would lack the anticipation, the sense of urgency, the kinaesthetic pleasure of using his hands to find something. It would just be functional, unemotional & useful to use a computer.

As his eyes slowly shut, his imagination flew him to the scrolls from the library of Alexandria. He imagined how they would have been inked. They wouldn't last the test of time & termites, but they would enrich the life of some thinker who looked through them to process his thoughts a little better. He would know something more about the world which he didn't know before. He would hold the delicate parchment in between his fingertips as if lifting a feather without ruffling it. Although the rest of the world would be oblivious to the importance of those scrolls, they would be made aware of its significance centuries later. That's when books went public.

The moveable type would bring the magic of the library of Alexandria into a common man's shelf. The printing press would become the bastion of information, spreading ideas with every rhythmic clank of its gears. Behind his closed eyes he could now see how a lonely child would sneak under his bed in the middle of the night with the cover pulled over his head & a torch light glaring on the pages of his favourite comic book. He could see a young woman with only a single book keeping her company in her moment of solitude giving her hope & strength. She has no need to carry a hundred books along with her, in a device just to not know which one she could lean on to provide her the most support. The confusion, the intermittence of reading too many books together & not ruminating on any of them, is the bane of this technological evolution. Have we evolved so quickly to accept the need for a faster processing ability? Has the human mind evolved to such a degree to understand how to weigh the ideas strung together by a chain of several hundred books at once?

He watched his thought process spring from user interface to form & functionality & ultimately hatred of the new book reading technology. He wanted to read not only to fulfill his over powering sense of curiosity but also to test the limits of his own ideas. He would be amazed to find an idea in some obscure book about something he knew, but had never felt the desire to think in those terms before. He would get totally lost into an idea from a single book & weeks later emerge from it like a miner emerges out of a coal mine at the end of his shift. He would be smeared all over with a thought which was not his own but he nevertheless had excavated through it. The pleasure of burrowing deeper & deeper into an idea was extremely compelling to him. 

The fall of the singular idea, into a pool of unconnected phrases made him feel trapped, yet very powerful. It gave an illusion of knowing more but in reality understanding very little. With the ability to carry so many books with him at once, he at first let the technology goad him into believing that not one, but many ideas could travel with him & he would be free from the tyranny of the shelf. The shelf would lose its monopoly & become an ancient artifact in his home. It would only exist for the pleasure of an occasional visitor to figure out the past indulgences of the owner of those books. With his new device he believed he had the ultimate power to unleash his mental capability to think on several ideas at once & not limit his mind to the ideas of a single book.

It worked beautifully until one fine day he couldn't find that one idea he wanted so desperately to think about. Now the idea seemed distant & had vaporized. He felt lost in a room full of mirrors with all those surplus ideas staring at him from different angles. He couldn't locate them in reality. They were merely reflections of the ideas he had crammed into his skull by abusing his faculty to concentrate on too many at a time. They lacked form, they lacked the meat.

He opened his eyes to find the device still resting in the grip of his right hand. His finger tips were sweaty & it left a small moist patch where it came in contact with the plastic. He changed the grip to his left hand & saw something wiggle across the screen. It wiggled & moved briskly to another corner of the device & seemed to have hidden at the back. He gave a full smile when he realized what he had witnessed just now. A bookworm somehow found its way to the device & was trapped under his grip while he was day dreaming. It was released when the device changed hands & wiggled across the screen to hide under the grip of his other hand.

He felt a warm satisfaction, like a gulp of warm milk rushing down his throat, from the thought that not everything had changed. No matter how much the technology of reading evolved, an occasional bookworm will still find its way to a digital shelf to chew on a few bytes.

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

We Want Everything, Period. [A short story]

“Who gives a damn about saving a bunch of cats out in some jungle?” Varun poured angrily at Rishabh. “They aren’t just any cats man, they are tigers. They are majestic. You know that! And since when does it matter what cats they are. They are animals, they have the right to live on that land just as any of us.” Rishabh said trying to sound polite but totally missing it. “We can be callous about such a thing sitting here in our comfortable conditioned air, but there are people out there who cannot be fed, because they can’t buy their own food. You know why, because they don’t have jobs. They haven’t had any idea what livelihood means.” Varun saw it very clearly & tried to shine a torch down Rishabh’s brain. But he sensed no activity through his eyes. 

“I understand that the people are poor & they need to be fed. That’s honorable, but do you really think that a national park, a beautiful forest needs to be destroyed for such industry?” Rishabh thought he was good at asking rhetorical questions, but Varun was too thick to understand the rhetoric. Varun looked at him furiously. He had taken it way too personally than the situation demanded. He was justified in taking it personally, because on this one his neck was way out there. His firm wouldn’t win that contract for constructing those factories if Rishabh didn’t sign in on the agreement, the agreement to use the forestland to build a swanky new Special Economic Zone. Rishabh’s influence in the upper house of the parliament was exactly what was needed to spearhead such a project on this scale. This was never heard of, not even in the most advanced & fastest growing nations in the world. This was a project that would create jobs for a million people & could sustain a metropolis with their livelihood. It was an ultimate experiment in economics by trying to inject supply into a system that was ready to begin consumption. 

Varun said, frustrated, folding the sleeves of his fifteen thousand rupee shirt, sorry, his $300 custom made shirt. He sat on Rishabh’s table to add emphasis by towering over him. Rishabh calmly, yet firmly sat in his chair holding his point in between them like an unlit cigarette. Varun tried to explain, “look, we can really help these people. We are going on all fours with this one. The mere amount of working capital that we need to raise, you could build 10 expressways with that. We are very committed to make this nation the best capitalist system anyone has ever seen. This is it for us Rishi.” Rishabh looked at the window, he saw dew gathered at the corners of the glass. He said, slowly, while exhaling the fictitious smoke, “That piece of forestland is the only one we have in this region to protect the tigers. Besides there are several dozen rare species of frogs & other animals, some of which haven’t even been cataloged yet. How do you wish to destroy such a pool of natural diversity with the aim that these people will eat better? I have nothing against those people, in fact I will be more than happy to find a man earn a decent living & live a dignified life, but what you are asking to do here, is to destroy a piece of nature. It is like asking your mother to cut some part of her heart just so she can feed you. There is no going back after this.” Rishabh was concerned not just about the impact of deforestation, but also about the fact that there is no way to re-create it anywhere else. 

“But what about civilization?” Varun asked in a very dejected tone of a child who was just denied the toy it craved for, for a thousandth time. “We really do care about the forest, but this location is pivotal. It is extremely close to the water source, where we plan to construct a massive dam, so that we can harness electricity, pollution free. We don’t contaminate anything, just delay the flow of the stream that’s all.” Varun said with a chuckle. “Once the power issue is solved we have hired the best architects from all over the world to build this nice green city for us, which will host it’s own conservation system to preserve water & electricity. There would be no waste.”

“Are your genius planners going to give an advance evacuation notice to the animals living there too?” Rishabh said mockingly. “I’d love to see a draft of that one.” Rishabh’s idea of a joke was not just to insult the hollow sense of respect that Varun showed, but the sheer pretentiousness of the way people looked at nature & it’s importance to us. People believe that the nature, this planet is separate from them, form their fate. People tend to believe that whatever is happening to this planet is not going to affect them, because living in a city forever has blocked their senses. There is no connection towards the world around them. It is like losing a sense, of touch, of smell, of sound, of taste. It is like forgetting what a breeze of fresh air feels like. People might as well be zombies, if they felt that the nature was not something worth protecting. And the dams & their pollution free power, what good is that, if there is no one left to breathe the fresh air?

Rishabh’s whole idea about the planet & what one species’ capacity to influence its fate was hinged upon a fact that unchecked deforestation has been responsible for the loss of a lot of species of animals & plants. All these extinct species were part of the same ecosystem that man is. They must have served some purpose in their chain of events. They must have been someone’s food & they must be eating something else. They were maintaining that unsaid balance. But now they are no more, for industry encroached & tore down their habitat. Any attempt to re-create that artificially for those species was merely keeping them alive for our scientific amusement. When it’s gone, it’s gone. The connection is severed, the link is lost, the umbilical cord is cut, and that event collapses on itself. That system will now have to find different ways to keep on doing what it used to do before. New food chains had to be forged, new habitats, new balance within this chaos.

While Varun pretended to be a capitalist, his idea was to destroy a resource to create another one for the betterment of only one species. The man, the homo economicus, the rational ape. Varun dreamed far ahead into the consequences of such an enterprise & how many people will get their livelihoods from this location. The want of man, that’s what he thought of. His principle philosophy was that of consumption feeding the need for creating supply. He only saw a few cogs in the bigger picture of man’s universe & mistook it for the whole thing. Pretending to be a capitalist in a socialist’s coat, he never really knew what he really was. He felt that capitalism was to allow better transfer of money from one place to the other, from one hand to the next. His idea of capitalism was to facilitate trade & grow industry for the betterment of civilization. But the nature of a true capitalist doesn’t merely end here. The capitalist, the captain of industry always considers the cost. There is a cost, not just of capital but the cost of economy, the cost of ecology & finally a cost on humanity. A self-sustainable industry; is a capitalist dream. 

“There is nothing wrong about man wanting more.” Rishabh said in a small voice. “You remember both of us growing up, don’t you? We had so little to begin with & we built it inch by inch, in our own separate ways. We never really looked back, have we?” Rishabh was almost apologetic. Varun lost the track of Rishabh’s line of thought, “How do you believe that was possible, our current state of being? We have been taking advantage of the same system of wants that I am trying to build here. We wanted & we could achieve it. The man has tremendous ingenuity & you know it. We can re-create a thousand such eco-systems if we wanted to. This is ‘the man’ we are talking about. The animal that eventually taught itself to speak, to grow food, to change its habitat. The only intelligent life on this planet that can even think about it’s repair. Do you think a tiger or a bunch of frogs would be able to think of such a thing?”  Varun continued with a tone of indifference, “Some species are always lost in the race of time. They don’t survive because perhaps they don’t mean to survive. Their extinction might be nature’s process of weeding them out. The humans removed them because nature is acting through us. Nature is directing us to remove unsustainable species & replace them with a much more sustainable one. I mean, we are part of that same nature, we are not different, are we?”

Rishabh couldn’t believe Varun’s logic, but chinks began to appear in his armor. Rishabh was on the verge of breaking down, but he held on. “These million jobs you are about to create, how do you think these million people feel about the nature that we are speaking of destroying?” “They don’t need to know” Varun replied quickly. “They don’t need to know in the same way you don’t need to know how the computer was made just because you choose to use it. They don’t need to know, because they can’t do anything about it even if they want to. They want everything. Period. Don’t you get this? They want to consume, they want to spend, for that they need money, they can earn it or they can rape, pillage or murder for it. Isn’t this industry a cleaner way to achieve that outcome?”

Rishabh drew a large breath as if he was about to inhale the entire room. “You make a lot of logical short cuts Varun, you always have. That’s why you can live with the consequences of your actions so easily. You don’t seem to understand that for every connection lost in nature, there may not be a new connection to replace it with. Where now you see deserts, there were forests with abundant diversity of life. What do you think made them into a desert? Even re-wiring a river to flow in another direction can change the future of an entire topography. Can destroy entire civilizations. Wars are fought for that sort of thing. Do you honestly believe that our planet needs to suffer for the consumption needs of a few million? Why not make a better plan to work around this problem, to make it more sustainable, spend a little more to make sure that you don’t disturb the natural order of things? We want everything too Varun, we want to survive with what we have & not regret later when it’s gone & we were too late to acknowledge its importance.”

Varun gasped as if it was his last breath, “You can’t fathom the kind of capital we are sinking into this. You bureaucrats have never understood how much it costs to create the development that we see. You never seem to notice the price we pay so that you can go abroad to give lectures about our country’s growth story. It is we on the frontlines, battling the fibrillations of the economy. We shape the future as you sell it to your voters. We have already paid the price you are asking us to pay.”

Rishabh said furiously, “Let me ask this one last time Varun, do these people whose consumption stories you are parading really understand what they are building their lofty towers on? Do they really understand what is the price we, as animals sharing this planet, have paid just so they could buy a better soap? Don’t you think they should know?”

Varun disregarded the whole line of thought, “Even if they knew they can’t stand across a fucking bulldozer when we would have pummeled the mountain. They can’t do anything, they haven’t done anything about it so far, and they just want everything. All we are doing is satisfy that want. For every demand, there has to be supply.”

Rishabh chuckled this time, “They can do much more than what you believe. They can vote. Why do you think you are talking to me right now? I represent their voice & I represent their choices. They might regret not having the television they wanted, but they won’t regret it if they still have the fresh air they are breathing, the clean water they are drinking & the food they are eating.”

Rishabh added emphatically, “We Want Everything. Period.”