Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Heal The World

Songwriters and film-makers and artists would have us believe that love makes the world go round. It's some form of self-delusion that they have to engage in to keep themselves functioning, or at worst it's a feeble attempt at mass deception. Either way, such songs and movies and paintings about love and all that are at most a minor distraction from the real thing that makes the world go round - hate. Be it the multitudes of Islamic extremists attacking and killing innocent people because of their hatred of some vaguely defined evil imperialist ideology of America, or the irrational hatred of right-wing Americans for all things non-right-wing-American, or the equally irrational hatred of left-wing Americans for anyone who dares to profess a conservative ideology, every big decision anyone makes these days seems to be primarily driven by hate.

Not that this is a new phenomenon. After World War 2, the poster child for hatred, came the Cold War. This gave us amazing advances in space exploration. Mankind hadn't yet figured out how to fly at the turn of the twentieth century, but merely seventy years later we managed to put a man on the moon. Incredible, you say? It was only possible because the Soviets and the Americans would do anything to beat 'those imperialist dogs' or 'those commie bastards', respectively, to win the space race. The reason we haven't heard much about space in the last twenty years is because comity and harmony don't get NASA funded, so the fall of communism has not been so good for it.

Go as far back in time as you choose, but the only people who made a real difference in the world seemed to have had issues about love and happiness - issues which prevented them from practising either one for any extended length of time. Alexander, Napolean, Genghis Khan, Babur, Hitler - they wrote their piece of history and shaped many lives, kindoms, even generations, but they sure killed and maimed a lot of people while doing so. Sure Rembrandt and van Gogh are famous, but paintings don't count for zilch in this world. It's hate that makes the world go round and you better go about it the right way if you want to make a difference.

Which brings me to the extremely long-winded point I am trying to make - way to go, people of Switzerland. You specifically banned minarets and only minarets from being constructed in your country, which is a blatant act of discrimination because you did not ban construction of any other religious buildings in any way. Just goes to show that the most neutral country in the world can hate with the best of them. Ever since the Moors were beat driven out of Spain by the Christians, Europe has been nervous about the next, ever imminent Muslim invasion. Of course, our dear, peaceful (ahem) Muslim brethren can't ever have enough things to get offended about, so this little piece of legislation plays right into the hands of all the extremist nut-cases. And we know there are more than enough of those to go around. Grab a bag of pop-corn people, coz this is going to be fun. And by fun, I mean not fun at all.

Good grief, can't we all just get along?

Thursday, August 20, 2009

No leprechauns, no rain... it's all a wee bit strange.

UK Trip Log: Day 2 - Monday, 29 June, Touchdown Belfast:

Previous Entry: UK Trip Log: Day 1

Mercifully, the six hour flight is over. My friend and neighbour, Mr. Overly Friendly Drunk Irishman, has already confirmed at least one Irish stereotype. I let him go ahead of me as we disembark, mildly surprised that he can walk in a straight line after having imbibed such copious amounts of alcohol.

As expected, the immigration line for non-citizens is long and tediously boring, even more so because I am stuck behind a bunch of American high-school kids visiting Ireland for the summer. Eventually I make my way through immigration, baggage and customs (or so says a sign I pass under - no sign of a customs official anywhere nearby though).

I am really looking forward to seeing S, and it is equal parts relief and joy meeting her again. V and N look just like they did a couple of years ago, quite a mighty feat considering V had a baby in the interim.

We make our way outside and I get my first real glimpse of Ireland. It's nice and sunny and warm (well, it's not cold). I begin to wonder whether I am in the right country. I'm told there's been a heat wave the last few days and some people have even been hospitalized. If this weather is considered a heat wave, I fear I might need to be hospitalized once it gets back to 'normal'.

One thing to note for Americans going to Europe - the roads are narrow. If you like to drive an F150 with room to spare on the sides, this ain't the place for you. Knowing I am going to need to drive in the next couple of days, I grab the seat in the front and try to get used to driving on the other side of the road, trying hard to ignore the fact that the roads are barely wide enough for a Mazda 6 and that there is no divider to stop the oncoming traffic from barreling straight into you.

When we get home we are greeted by my mother in law and the cutest baby girl this side of the Atlantic. The rest of the day is spent being entertained by the Baby A. Show. In between I realize I have been designated the resident computer expert and now have the responsibility of diagnosing and fixing V's beat-up old laptop. This is the only computer they have, and their only connection to the outside world, so no pressure really.

I manage to stay up till 10:30 and not fix the machine. I know I have to sleep so that I am fresh for my US visa stamping the next day, but the damn sun's still out and it just doesn't feel late enough to sleep. What sort of freakish place have I come to?

Light or not, I feel the jet-lag starting to get a hold of me, so we decide to pack it in for the 'night'. After all, it's a big day tomorrow. I get to find out whether I am going to be let back into the US.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Dive under the rainbow, fly over the pond... Ho, what's this? Do I spy a wee Leprechaun?

UK Trip Log: Day 1 - Sunday, 28 June, Raleigh to Belfast via Newark:

Ahh... the day has finally arrived. After all the planning, booking, cancelling, searching, bidding, pricelining, kayaking, hotwiring and eurocheapoing, I am relieved that the day is finally here when I leave for our UK vacation. S has been in Ireland for 3 weeks by now, so there is the added benefit of ending my forced isolation. My friends had all been telling me to enjoy my temporary bachelorhood, but despite my best attempts, I could not find much to enjoy about being lonely and hungry all the time.

It's good that I don't believe in omens. I am woken up by a recorded message from Continental that my 2:30 flight has been cancelled and I have been booked on the 5:30 flight to Newark instead. Now normally this would be no more than a minor irritation, but knowing from first hand experience that Continental flights from RDU to Newark are always late by at least two hours every day, I know this change means I will definitely miss my connection to Belfast.

I yell into the phone, " Are you kidding me? You can't just cancel the f@#$%^& flight!"

I hear the recorded voice say a dispassionate "Thank You," followed by an even more dispassionate click.

I immediately scramble to call the customer support, who turn out to be very customer unsupportive. Apparently all other flights are full, so I can't get a seat on an earlier one. There is nothing they can do, I am told. They can un-cancel the original flight, I counter. For some reason they think this is an unreasonable solution.

So I call the friend who is dropping me off and tell him to come 3 hours early so that i can try to catch the earlier flight. I reach the airport and manage to get on the top of the waiting list for the 1230 flight.

I make my way to the gate, hoping and praying that I get the earlier flight. I am told that I will have to wait until the entire plane has boarded before they know if someone has not shown up for the flight. I feel like an expectant father pacing outside the delivery room. After what seems like an excruciatingly slow boarding process, in which time I have prepared and practised my rant about how they need to get me to Newark in time any way they can, the attendant finally delivers my boarding pass. Thankfully, I don't need to demonstrate my inadequate arguing skills. I carry the boarding pass with me like I would a newborn child (or at least how I imagine one does this sort of a thing, never actually having had the chance to do it).

The flight is uneventful and on time, a rare feat for Continental ( the latter, that is. I assume most of their flights are pretty uneventful). Having reached Newark airport seven hours before the next flight, however, I now need to figure out how to pass the rest of the time. I figure one good idea may be to spot potential terrorists. One just never knows these days. And doing it on the ground is so much easier than saving the plane from them a-la Steven Seagal, though I have no doubt I can pull that off as well if the situation arises. So I start scanning the crowd and almost immediately come upon a likely candidate. Angry scowl, stubble, brown skin (racial profiling, cry the liberals) - definitely a shady character. It takes me two minutes to realize I am staring at my own reflection in the terminal window. Hmm, scratch off FBI from the list of potential career options.

After my failed attempt at racial profiling, I decide to spend some time people-watching. Oh people, you are so weird. There is this one lady who must think she is on a reality show. She is arguing with her boyfriend on the speaker phone. Angry women scare me, so I quickly sidle past her. I take a seat. Directly in front of me is a couple in their thirties. The woman is showing the man the warts on her neck and back. People watching is not turning out to be that much fun either.

One puke-worthy hamburger, one fourth of a book and a multitude of strange people later, I finally am on board the plane. Oh, the ride is just beginning. I am in the middle seat, a location intended for the singular purpose of torturing the poor, unfortunate souls who are either too late or too stupid to book a different seat. Already seated in the window seat is a friendly Irishman. Shakes my hand, gives me his headphones (God knows why) and tells me he has been stuck at the airport for the past 24 hours. Wonderful. I sit down and make myself comfortable. A lady in her forties walks up to the aisle seat. As she is sitting down, my new Irish best friend tells her that he has been stuck at the airport for 24 hours. She brushes him off, and then brushes me off for good measure. Mr. Window Seat tells me I am a good man. As if I didn't know.

At this point Mr. Window Seat proceeds to burp three times. Of course, being a gentleman, he does excuse himself. Sulking Lady now pages the air hostess (or whatever they are called these days) and gets her seat changed. Mr. Window Seat asks me if it was anything he said. He says he has had a few wines and makes sure I know he has been at the airport since last night. I am thinking about how to move to the vacant aisle seat without offending the man, when the air hostess (steward?) ushers another man into it. The light at his original seat is broken, so he has come here so that he can read his paper. Poor sod doesn't know what he is getting into. Just to prove that point, Mr. Window Seat asks him if the previous lady changed the seat because he had had too many wines, tells him that he has been here since last night, burps a couple of times, and then excuses himself three times. Then he decides to take a toilet break, apologizing profusely for making us get up.

He comes back and gets seated, making sure he tell us how sorry he is for making us get up (again), and how nice we are. Eight times. When the dinner rolls around, her asks for two whiskeys, one water and no dinner. He plans to drink the whiskey and go to sleep he tells me. Thankfully, he really does do that. Of course, the burps continue. And he talks in his sleep. Every once in a while he wakes up and reminds me what a nice man I am, how he was at the airport for 24 hours, and how beautiful Ireland is.

After a couple of hours, I decide I really need to get some sleep despite the wine-and-whiskey-burps smelling air around me.

It's a good thing I don't believe in omens. This day does not portend well for the rest of my trip.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Dust In The Wind

I don't know any more about Google than the average consumer, which limits my knowledge to the contention that it is one of the most successful companies of this century, to go along with the paranoid opinion that they will soon take over the world. So it was no surprise that Google was named one of the most innovative companies by Business Week. The surprise was that they were number 2. Since such lists are equal parts fact, opinion and conjecture, we can assume they are as good, if not better, than the number one company in the list, Apple.

So what makes Google so good? How can a start-up become an indispensable part of the life of an average person in less than a decade? Did the patented ranking algorithm for the Google search engine hold some fantastic magical power that has by now taken hold over the human race? Doesn't seem likely.

I once read a quote from a scientist in some scientific magazine (it may have been Popular Science; does that count as a legitimate magazine to which scientists give interviews?). To paraphrase he said that most new technologies that revolutionize life for the average person are really not that new. They have either been building up incrementally in a small community of innovators or scientists, or somebody developed them long ago and shelved them after finding no worthwhile use at the time.

I believe that is true. It is not so much the technology, but how you apply it that separates the merely smart from the insanely successful. That is not to say that the Google page ranking system wasn't all new and shiny - I wouldn't know; nor is it to say that Messrs Brin and Page aren't smart. Not only are they smarter than the average bear (me), but it's not too far fetched to say that they have genius in spades. But the reason Google is successful is not that the founders were good enough to go to Stanford, but that they knew how to apply all those smarts to figure out exactly what the people wanted, and exactly what they would pay for. Google did not benefit from the slavish cultishness of Apple consumers who would do anything to push, pull or drag Apple to the top of the heap despite their ridiculous prices or obvious shortcomings. They did, however, benefit from being the outsider - a sleeker, hipper, and, even more importantly, freer alternative to Microsoft. They used the hate and mistrust people had for the giant and all-encompassing behemoth to become one themselves, and were able to maintain the love of the people all along the way. Now there's a magic trick if I ever saw one.

As if to prove the point of how Google really gets it, Yahoo!, the search engine that started it all, is now going through its death throes even as Google and Microsoft fight to take over the corpse. Yahoo got too cluttered and obese for it's own good. The home page became bloated, the mail, news and music sites were just pale imitations of others, or bought off the shelf and re-branded. There was no innovation. They either didn't 'get' what the consumer wanted, or didn't care. Google gets it. The home page is practically unchanged since inception. They don't do new stuff for the sake of doing it. In fact, the brilliance is that they know what people will want tomorrow, and they cater to that need. I remember when Google Maps came out, there was an afternoon wasted with colleagues marveling at the genius of it. What had come before from others and what we had thought of as cutting edge had been blown out of the water. Google's other apps like Earth, Sketch-up, Orkut, News, Finance all live up to that standard (let's no talk about Froogle in this space). Acquisitions like Youtube and Blogger are opportune and improve the brand instead of bloating it. Yeah, I think Google's number one in my list.

I hope they stay there and don't go the way of Apple, of creating something funky and cool and completely useless and racking up sales by convincing people they can't live without using this funky, cool and completely useless thing (yes I desire an iphone, no I can't afford the data plan, yes you can go ahead and call me sour grapes).

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Live to Tell

I wonder when the obsession with getting older starts for most people. There are those lucky few who never think about it. They age without seeming to get old, get laugh lines instead of getting worry lines, and look dignified instead of stale.

I didn't think turning thirty was such a big deal. That is, I didn't think it was such a big deal until I actually turned thirty. Now it seems as if time has passed me by and that no matter how much I scramble and scrape, it will forever be out of reach. It seems as if I will never lose this feeling of having let it go without giving my all to grab it, corral it and dominate it for the rest of my life. There are so many things that I wanted to do, but never got an opportunity - or made one. And then I think, hey I'm only thirty, not sixty. I still have enough time to sing those songs, write those books, direct those movies and climb those peaks.

Then comes this gnawing realization that I'm probably no closer to achieving any of those things than I was five years ago and the added frustration of being a part of the rat race. I wasn't designed to be a 9 to 5 kind of guy. Carpe Diem they say in Latin. Well, I didn't and with each day that passes I feel more entrenched in the rat race. Age brings responsibility, and the added burden of expectation. We are expected to follow the usual road - education, job, marriage, kids, savings, retirement. And with each day that passes without carpeing the diem there are fewer exits to get off that road.

Such is the agony and ecstasy of living in the United States. Whereas in India I would have likely not even entertained thoughts of breaking from the pack, here I feel the ecstasy of limitless potential - and the agony of being an alien who is not allowed by law to reach it.

Despite the doom and gloom nature of this post, however, I am an optimist. My nature is to chip away. Chip away at a block of stone and soon there will be a beautiful sculpture. Where others see a block of stone, the sculptor sees a Madonna and child. All I have to do is chip away.

Word of the day: Stability