Going Faster, But Where?

Since the year 2000, The Economist and Shell join forces on an annual basis to create an international writing competition that encourages future thinking. I was going through the work of some of its past winners, when I chanced upon a short but poignant essay on the subject of sustainability of 21st century travel. In a short span of 3 pages, “A Ramble to Africa” makes some insightful observations on Travel, and on Life… and is definitely worth a read…

Since the year 2000, The Economist and Shell join forces on an annual basis to create an international writing competition that encourages future thinking. According to its website, to date, about 7,500 people from over 148 countries have taken part in the competitions, with a select few winning prizes worth more than US$ 60,000 each year!

I was going through the work of some of its past winners, when I chanced upon a short but poignant essay on the subject of sustainability of 21st century travel. This brief essay called "A Ramble to Africa" (PDF) seemed to have captured the essence of the subject very well. In a short span of 3 pages, it makes some insightful observations on Travel, and on Life… and is definitely worth a read.

A few excerpts :

…Slow travel…has mainly been about learning again and again and again that most people are poor, a very few people are exceedingly rich and doing nicely, corruption is normal, clean water is precious and good people everywhere are doing what they can.

(Fast Travel)…Instead of bringing people closer and facilitating mutual understanding and awareness of global issues, it is dividing the world more sharply in two, the rich and the poor. Naturally most tourists on their two-week holiday do not want to be confronted by poverty and disease or reminded that the soup they just ordered costs twice the waiter’s daily wage.

For many people cruising has become a permanent lifestyle…Some of us have loosened our grip on the illusion of security and given up homes and jobs to travel the oceans for a while and just see what happens. It is not a way of getting anywhere. It is a way of being wherever you are.

Travelling fast, but where are you going? Travelling slowly, always at home.

As I said before…this one’s definitely worth a read !

Gary Hart Wants To Blog

Wired magazine recently reported on what is presumably the world’s first true weblog to be put up by a politician. It may not be the best thing a politician can do for the people, but at least its a step in the right direction…

Wired magazine recently reported on what is presumably the world’s first true weblog to be put up by a politician.

According to the writeup :

Maverick politician Gary Hart is trying to muster some political clout by blogging his way into visibility.

The former Colorado senator and 1988 Democratic front-runner for the presidential nomination is not officially a candidate, but his blog GaryHartNews is testing the waters. It promises regular political musings from the man himself and a place for readers to comment.

Elsewhere on his site, Gary explains :

“I think a campaign ought to be a vehicle for involving American citizens in the determination of their own destiny.”

I can’t help but think : It may not be the best thing a politician can do for the people, but at least its a step in the right direction.

When will our politicians take such a step?!

The West Wing

There are very few things that make me feel as good as watching an episode of “The West Wing”. To me, the award-winning drama series highlights what a team of professionals can be capable of. I cannot imagine how many enterprises (private or public) can boast of access to such a treasure… But I do hope God has made more people like these…

There are very few things that make me feel as good as watching an episode of “The West Wing”. It’s not just the acting, or the story line. It’s not merely the production quality or its brilliant cast either. And, a quick look at the Wikipedia will be proof enough that it doesn’t get any better than this.

To me, “The West Wing” offers much more than ‘good entertainment’, though. On one level, its cast and crew personify excellence in television drama, gripping the audience with their exceptional acting, direction, cinematography and story-writing abilities. But, on another level, the series also highlights what a team of professionals can be capable of.

The staff of “The West Wing” behaves like any great team should.

They know the things they ought to know to do their jobs well. They are honest to each other, and do not shy away from criticism where it is due. They never procrastinate and they always work towards the common goal. Not that they don’t make any mistakes ; when they do, they own up to it, as professionals.

They stand by their principles, and are not afraid to take a stance on any issue or make difficult decisions. They have integrity. And they always have sight of the larger picture. Always.

I cannot imagine how many organisations (private or public) can boast of access to such a treasure… But I do hope God has made more people like these.

In the meanwhile, I await the next episode of “The West Wing” to transport me back to my Camelot….

Wear Sunscreen

On June 1, 1997, a young reporter for the Chicago Tribune by the name of Mary Schmich wrote a short essay in her column. It was meant to be a “Guide to Life for Graduates”… It became famous as the “Suncreen Speech” and offers some of the best advice I have ever come across in life…

On June 1, 1997, a young reporter for the Chicago Tribune by the name of Mary Schmich wrote a short essay in her column. She called it : “Advice, like youth, probably just wasted on the young”.

It was meant to be a “Guide to Life for Graduates”… the author’s attempt to reach out to young people with her own words of wisdom. So it was positioned as a speech given to the graduating class of ’97. But within just 2 months since getting published, thanks to an email circulated by a college kid, what was now known as the “Suncreen Speech”, mistakenly came to be attributed as the work of the famed novelist Kurt Vonnegut !

Whatever be its origin, the “Suncreen Speech” offers some of the best advice I have ever come across in life…

Do one thing every day that scares you.

Accept certain inalienable truths: Prices will rise. Politicians will philander. You, too, will get old. And when you do, you’ll fantasize that when you were young, prices were reasonable, politicians were noble and children respected their elders.

Don’t feel guilty if you don’t know what you want to do with your life. The most interesting people I know didn’t know at 22 what they wanted to do with their lives. Some of the most interesting 40-year-olds I know still don’t.

Read it. I am sure you won’t regret it.

Good news for Bloggers

Some months ago, Google bought Pyra Labs – the folks behind Blogger.com, which meant that blogging was getting serious enough for Google to notice… Six Apart (of MovableType fame) has also announced that they will soon be launching the TypePad Personal Publishing Service – the tool that is expected to empower users to reach the full potential of the weblog medium… Self-publishing, which is what Blogger and blogging are really about, is the next big wave of human communication…

Some months ago, Google – the world’s favourite search engine bought Pyra Labs – the folks behind Blogger.com. That, of course, meant that blogging was getting serious enough for Google to notice.

More recently, AlwaysOn interviewed Google’s Eric Schmidt on the subject. According to Schmidt :

Ten years ago, before the Mosaic/Netscape phenomenon, the culture in our country really felt very uniform. It felt like everybody was talking about the same things. On a day-to-day basis you didn?t hear a lot of wildly differing views from your own, because you worked with the same people and you read the same stuff and you were busy working on whatever problem you had.

When the Internet publicity began, I remember being struck by how much the world was not the way we thought it was, that there was infinite variation in how people viewed the world.

I believe that this notion of self-publishing, which is what Blogger and blogging are really about, is the next big wave of human communication. The last big wave was Web activity. Before that one it was e-mail. Instant messaging was an extension of e-mail, real-time e-mail.

On a related note, Six Apart (of MovableType fame) has recently announced that they will soon be launching the TypePad Personal Publishing Service !

According to their website :

The makers of the highly acclaimed Movable Type weblog software, today announced the upcoming release of TypePad?, a hosted service providing powerful tools for creating full-featured weblogs. Built in response to the needs of webloggers, online diarists and writers, TypePad harnesses the power of Six Apart’s popular Movable Type personal publishing system into a turnkey service, suitable for beginners and experts alike.

Building on the established features of Movable Type, TypePad provides weblog publishing with versatile archiving, integrated comments, and customizable designs from a library of attractive and standards-compliant templates. TypePad expands weblog publishing to include integration of text, photos and other media content. The combination of simplicity and comprehensive features will make TypePad the first tool that will empower users, beginners and experts alike, to reach the full potential of the weblog medium.

Good news for bloggers (and wannabe bloggers) all over the world, don’t you think? 🙂

Working for a Living

We were meant to work for a living…not a life. Yet, billions of us spend more than a third of each day, in places we don’t want to be, doing work we don’t want to do. Is there an escape? In June of 2002, I chanced upon an essay by email. It came into my life out of the blue, but seemed to echo every thing I wanted to say on the subject. It provided me with hope…and encouragement…giving me a clarity I wished I had had earlier in life…

We were meant to work for a living…not a life. Yet, billions of us spend more than a third of each day, in places we don’t want to be, doing work we don’t want to do.

In the name of a “fast-track corporate career” or some such thing, we spend most of our lives buried in work…the kind we don’t even enjoy…earning more money than we can spend…and still wanting more !! Many spend their whole lives chasing a dream that’s not really their own, all the while, harbouring desires to do something entirely different.

In June of 2002, I chanced upon an essay by email. It came into my life out of the blue, but seemed to echo every thing I wanted to say on the subject. It provided me with hope…and encouragement…giving me a clarity I wished I had had earlier in life. I reproduce parts of it here for your benefit…

On Work, Kent Nerburn :

I often hear people say, “I have to find myself.” What they really mean is, I have to make myself.” Life is an endlessly creative experience, and we are making ourselves every moment by every decision we make.

That is why the work you choose for yourself is so crucial to your sense of value and well-being. No matter how much you might believe that your work is nothing more than what you do to make money, your work makes you who you are, because it is where you put your time.

This happens to anyone who takes a job. Even if you hate a job and keep a distance from it, you are defining yourself in opposition to the job by resisting it. By giving the job your time, you are giving it your consciousness. And it will, in turn, fill your life with the reality that it presents.

Many people ignore this fact. They choose a profession because it seems exciting, or because they can make a lot of money, or because it has some prestige in their minds. They commit themselves to their work, but slowly find themselves feeling restless and empty. The time they have to spend on their work begins to hang heavy on their hands, and soon they feel constricted and trapped.

They join the legions of humanity who Thoreau said lead lives of quiet desperation – unfulfilled, unhappy and uncertain of what to do. Yet the lure of financial security and the fear of the unknown keep them from acting to change their lives, and their best energies are spend creating justifications for staying where they are or inventing activities outside of work that they hope will provide them with a sense of meaning. But these efforts can never be totally successful. We are what we do, and the more we do it, the more we become it. The only way out is to change our lives or to change our expectations for our lives. And if we lower our expectations we are killing our dreams, and a man without dreams is already half dead.

You must never forget that to those who hire you, your labor is a commodity. You are paid because you provide a service that is useful. If the service you provide is no longer needed, it doesn’t matter how honorable, how diligent, how committed you have been in your work. If what you can contribute is no longer needed, you are no longer needed and you will be let go. Even if you’ve committed your life to the job, you are, at heart, a part of the commercial exchange, and you are valuable only so long as you are a significant contributor to that commercial exchange. It is nothing personal; it’s just the nature of economic transaction.

I once had a professor who dreamed of being a concert pianist. Fearing the possibility of failure, he went into academics where the work was secure and the money was predictable. One day, when I was talking to him about my unhappiness in my graduate studies, he walked over and sat down at his piano. He played a beautiful glisando and then, abruptly, stopped. “Do what is in your heart,” he said. “I really only wanted to be a concert pianist. Now I spend every day wondering how good I might have been.” Don’t let this be your epitaph at the end of your working life. Find out what it is that burns in your heart and do it. Choose a vocation, not a job, and you will be at peace. Take a job instead of finding a vocation, and eventually you will find yourself saying, “I’ve only got thirteen more years to retirement,” or “I spend every day wondering how good I might have been.”

We all owe ourselves better than that.

Desperately Seeking a Memex !

In spite of years of advances in the field of personal computing, no one has bothered to come up with a better way to search-and-retrieve the data we store on our machines. To my surprise, I discovered that the exact same problem was stated way back in 1945 ! Is there a solution?

Every day, a significant amount of my time is spent working on a computer. And, of all the things we use PCs for, storing and retrieving data still forms a critical component of our work, no matter what the nature of work actually is. What amazes me is that, in spite of years of advances in the field of personal computing, no one has bothered to come up with a better way to search-and-retrieve the data we store on our machines !

When you think about it, human beings don’t think in terms of categories and sub-categories. Instead, each thought triggers another one associated with it. That’s the foundation of how we remember every thing we do and are able to recall it at will. But a typical File Management software (like Windows Explorer) confines us to an un-natural way of processing data, requiring us to store every thing with specific filenames in specific locations. The result : When you want something, you can’t always remember where you put it.

To my surprise, I discovered that the exact same problem was stated way back in 1945 ! Vannevar Bush, in an article published in the Atlantic Monthly, spoke of how the growing volume of scientific work is going to need a better of way of storing and retrieving information.

According to Bush :

Our ineptitude in getting at the record is largely caused by the artificiality of systems of indexing. When data of any sort are placed in storage, they are filed alphabetically or numerically, and information is found (when it is) by tracing it down from subclass to subclass. It can be in only one place, unless duplicates are used; one has to have rules as to which path will locate it, and the rules are cumbersome. Having found one item, moreover, one has to emerge from the system and re-enter on a new path.

Of course, at that time, the PC wasn’t invented and Bush envisaged a mechanical machine – something he called a “Memex” – complete with levers and motors, that would hopefully solve the problem. Unfortunately, in spite of processor power (and storage needs) increasing in leaps and bounds, very little progress has been made in this area even today.

I can no longer comprehend a life without Search Engines like Google, and I am pretty sure the “Internet” would not have happened if it weren’t for these indexing utilities to help us sift through the tons and tons of data poured out on the web every day. The information overload we experience on an individual level is not very different in nature…

May be the answer is a personal search engine for our personal computers… a Google-like alternative that would search the entire “database” of files and folders so that we wouldn’t *have* to remember where we put things in the first place ! But such a system would not be able to re-create paths that we followed to record (or search for) specific topics of information.

What is needed is a more flexible way of doing this : A system that allows us to store multiple links to all the data that is stored in one giant location. This data can be either created by us, or sourced from elsewhere as we scoop it along our search on the Internet. We could then look up the same file in many different ways by searching on key words that were included at the time of storage.

Such a system would also allow us to “bind” disparate scraps of information whether they exist as Word documents, Excel sheets, Powerpoint presentations, simple Text files or URLs to websites on the Internet. It will also allow us to look up that “trace” at a future point in time, and recall every thing we did to get there, making it truly meaningful and human-friendly. Wouldn’t it be great if this were possible?

In the meanwhile, I’m going crazy trying to look for that proposal we’d sent to the client last year… Was it in the Pursuits directory or the Proposals one? May be it was in the Clients directory…

I hope some body invents the Memex soon !

David v Goliath

Through most of my working years, I have been associated with small- to medium-sized firms. I have tried the large-enterprise route too. And come to the realization that the two represent two very different personalities. Neither route is more right or wrong. But the probability of success with any one approach will depend strongly on the kind of person *you* are. Over the next several posts, I will try and highlight some my learnings on this subject to give you a better idea of what the two routes involve…

Through most of my working years, I have been associated with small- to medium-sized firms, believing that they would offer me a much richer experience and allow me to hone my skills in many different areas. The trade-off is, of course, the kind of exposure that a large enterprise provides, with its systems & processes and scale of operations and its ability to build “stable”, well-charted, careers.

I have tried the large-enterprise route too. And come to the realization that the two represent two very different personalities. Neither route is more right or wrong. But the probability of success with any one approach will depend strongly on the kind of person *you* are.

Entrepreneurship is not for every one. It’s a different kind of world that you get into. And it’s better to understand it somewhat, before you take the crucial step.

Dan Bricklin summed it up best when he explained the difference between the Davids and Goliaths of the working world :

In big business, when you need to cross a river, you simply design a bridge, build it, and march right across.

But in a small venture, you must climb the rocks. You don’t know where each step will take you, but you do know the general direction you are moving in. If you make a mistake, you get wet. If your calculations are wrong, you have to inch your way back to safety and find a different route.

And, as you jump from rock to slippery rock, you have to *like* the feeling.

Until the next post on this subject, read this excellent series on Entrepreneurship by Rajesh Jain to know more.

Have you been Googled?

The Boston Globe Online wrote a story in Feb 2003 of how the world’s most preferred search engine – Google – is changing what we can find out about one another…The first tool truly to make sense of the white noise that is the Internet, Google has become essential research for everyone…But somewhere along the path toward changing our daily lives, Google changed our concept of time as well. It has helped make our past – or oddly refracted shards of it – present and permanent.

The Boston Globe Online wrote a story in Feb 2003 of how the world’s most preferred search engine – Google – is changing what we can find out about one another.

Excerpt from the cover story :

Michael is a clean-cut 34-year-old working in a professional job at a Boston medical school. You’d never know he did time for burglary and is a former drug addict. Well, actually, you would if you Googled him… The search, Google proudly notes, takes just a 10th of a second…

Michael has never hidden from his past, and in his 20s, he even wrote for a few specialized publications about his brief stint behind bars as a 17-year-old. He was happy to share his exploits with that sliver of the population genuinely interested in the issues of incarceration. But Michael never saw Google coming…

The first tool truly to make sense of the white noise that is the Internet, Google has become essential research for everyone…But somewhere along the path toward changing our daily lives, Google changed our concept of time as well. It has helped make our past – or oddly refracted shards of it – present and permanent. That’s a radical notion for a medium usually defined by its ability to constantly update itself.

In fact, a search on Google for “google big brother” will also throw up a few links to pages dedicated towards unearthing the other unethical issues affecting the search engine.

While no one can deny the role Google has played in making our now-connected lives easier, thanks to an amazingly accurate and efficient search facility, I think the article does raise some very valid concerns about the role of Technology and the limits it should follow.

After all, we all have something in our pasts that we wish we could have done differently, don’t we? 😉

Tolerate Genius

Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds. Isn’t it time we made it just a little bit easier for geniuses to do their job? Isn’t it time we Tolerate Genius?

I passed by a postcards-counter in a restaurant recently, and one particular card caught my eye:

“Tolerate Genius”, David Ogilvy.

Think about it. How many of us actually do?

Albert Einstein once said, “Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds.” If we examine our own experiences, we are more likely to find that a reality. And that’s what a genius faces each day. Opposition. Violent opposition. In spirit, in thought, and in acceptance. Yet, if we look back in history, we would not have moved beyond the Stone Age if it weren’t for unconventional thought. We would spend the rest of our lives in the belief that the Earth is flat and we are at the centre of the Universe. No discoveries to be made. No inventions. No nothing.

Isn’t it time we made it just a little bit easier for geniuses to do their job? Isn’t it time we Tolerate Genius?