July 24, 2015

Thalesian Awareness

2500 years ago (624-547 BC), there lived Thales, in the Greek city of Miletus. Thales was a Greek Mathematician and Philosopher, who was often ridiculed and teased by his own people because of his penury. His humble existence was often questioned as his philosophy did not make him rich or bring him any wealth. Much of Thales's writings do not exist and we know of his existence purely due to Aristotle.

But Thales was a keen observer and thinker. Using his knowledge of Astronomy, Cosmology, Geography and Mathematics, he predicted a good harvest of Olives in the year ahead. To extract the oil from the Olives, one needed the Olive Presses. Thales stuck a deal with the oil-press owners(both in Miletus and also neighboring towns) to rent all their inventory of oil-presses in the future by paying them a nominal amount upfront, in return for the confirmed rental of the oil-presses at a discount. The olive-press owners silently laughed at the inherent naivety of Thales. It was a bumper harvest indeed, and by controlling all the oil-presses, Thales could effectively control the starting point of the olive oil production (a sheer monopoly) and became very rich.

Thales was probably the first Hedge Fund Manager who taught us Leverage and Forward Contracts, in the due course creating probably the first Monopoly for himself. Thales was the first to give us a financial derivative instrument - 'Futures' and 'Options'. He purchased the rights, but not the obligation to use the oil-presses. He would have lost the option-premium alone had the harvest been dismal.

Thales thus proved to the World that Decision Analysis and Systematic Reasoning when properly understood and applied, does indeed bring wealth; underscoring the Corporate Mantra that Knowledge when used can also bring profits. While crafting strategies, it is not always necessary that we restrict ourselves to the tried and tested models and frameworks. The much cliched 'thinking outside the box' is very much needed; and also keeps the grey matter engaged in the due course.

Thales observed his environment (context) with great detail and predicted with accuracy. He saw through things and extracted meanings that set him apart from his contemporaries. He was constantly watching and gathering insights that led him to his intellectual successes. He is said to have discovered Ursa Minor (Little Dipper) as a tool of navigation. He also theorized that the Earth is round, and not flat; along with many other fetes.

Thales's Analytic Thought Process coupled with Wisdom as a Profession made him one of the Seven Wise Men of the Ancient World.

July 01, 2015

Shame and Integrity

"Men cannot live without Shame. A sense of Shame is beginning of Integrity. "
- Mencius(Chinese Philosopher)

"The Downfall of Adam and Eve and their expulsion from the Garden of Eden" by Michelangelo

I recently attended a course on Ethics conducted by a top bureaucrat with close to four decades of field-experience. Among many things that we expatiated on, we spoke about the behavior of Terrorists. 'How to deal with Terrorists' is a question that most Governments and bureaucrats grapple with. Terrorists have no sense of their own lives and are ready to give up their lives for some cause that they believe in (let us not get into the merits or demerits of the cause). When a person is not afraid of his own life, which means that the person would hardly be interested in money or anything else either, then dealing with that person is an extremely tough proposition. It is a negotiation nightmare. No wonder some countries have a strict no-negotiation-policy with terrorists and have a clear and well-defined tit-for-tat strategy!

Post the course I was intrigued by this brief conversation and drew some parallels to how some have to face other forms of challenges in the cities that we live in. In the comforts of our houses we hardly think about the changing societal structures and the values that are being espoused. The increasing attitude of shamelessness has caught my attention and it is incredible how this simple value of 'shame' has far-reaching consequences. 

Somewhere along our evolution and the society's progress we seem to have stumbled on a notion that being shameless is 'cool'. Off late, being shameless is conceived as the new 'cool' and the very thought of this sends the chill across my spine. 

'Shame' is a moral emotion. This is not hereditary (not passed on by genes), but an acquired emotion. You acquire these emotional values by looking around those who are close to you. Parents, friends, relatives, teachers, supervisors and culture - all are integral in building up this important virtue.

Parents, being closest to the children, hence have to espouse highest levels of integrity by inculcating good values and ethics in their children. If you lie and cheat in front of children, it is but natural that the child also sees the action, and grows with it. And it is invariably true that the child also forgets that he/she has a conscience and goes berserk on the society.

Shame and Guilt see the Self as an object of evaluation and makes the self conscious of its own actions. Both Shame and Guilt are extremely potent motivators and powerful inhibitors. These acquired emotions can make you do things that you were otherwise were not planning to do; and it can also make you think and not do certain acts for the repercussions of the act. Like the way fear and greed go hand in hand, Shame and Guilt go hand-in-hand with Integrity. For, a person with highest levels of Integrity will be extremely sensitive to shame and guilt and hence will not do any acts which will cause him/her a downfall. People with Shame and Guilt are extremely sensitive to their Conscience.

So, how does one deal with a person who has no concept of shame or guilt, and hence no Integrity? The best thing is not to deal with them. If they want to make you play their nasty game, do not play the game - walk away. Stay away from them at all costs and do not let them interfere with your lives. 

It is but natural that it is not easy as it sounds to not to play the game or ignore, for sometimes, one cannot easily walk away. In such cases, be nice and always nice to them.  Be compassionate; ignoring them is one of the best strategies and having enough safeguards in your life to not let the others affect your happiness -- is one of the most critical. Do not sacrifice your value-systems and ethics for the shameless and the cheats.

“My father had taught me to be nice first, because you can always be mean later, but once you've been mean to someone, they won't believe the nice anymore.
So be nice, be nice, until it's time to stop being nice, then destroy them.”
-- Laurell K. Hamilton, A Stroke of Midnight

June 22, 2015

Dance of the Atoms

"The Great Wave off Kanagawa" by Katsushika Hokusai
I stand at the seashore, alone, and start to think. There are the rushing waves ... mountains of molecules, each stupidly minding its own business ... trillions apart ... yet forming white surf in unison.
Ages on ages ... before any eyes could see ... year after year ... thunderously pounding the shore as now. For whom, for what? ... on a dead planet, with no life to entertain.
Never at rest ... tortured by energy ... wasted prodigiously by the sun ... poured into space. A mite makes the sea roar.
Deep in the sea, all molecules repeat the patterns of one another till complex new ones are formed.
They make others like themselves ... and a new dance starts.
Growing in size and complexity ... living things, masses of atoms, DNA, protein ... dancing a pattern ever more intricate.
Out of the cradle onto the dry land ... here it is standing ... atoms with consciousness ... matter with curiosity.
Stands at the sea ... wonders at wondering ... I ... a universe of atoms ... an atom in the universe.
Richard Feynman in The Value of Science

June 13, 2015

Dissent and The Law of Numbers

One of the problems with a democratic form of governance is that the dissenting opinion requires to be backed up by law of numbers. That is, if you are comprising of the minority and have an opinion, then the majority's opinion is thrust upon you.

"Death of Socrates", Oil on canvas painting by Jacques-Louis David (1787)

So what do you do when you dissent against the majority. Revolution and coups, though a solution, are not to be espoused, as any violence(be physical or psychological) removes the sanctity of the system and causes further degradation.

Rather, holding onto the dissent and working on establishing the dissent with valid evidences, prototypes or a fully-fledged working solution would be a constructive form. We often see that dissents are often restricted to opinions alone, and are not followed up with the scientific rigour to productize the opinion. If you are a change-seeking-agent or an activist, rather than cribbing, complaining, shouting or holding the placards, getting to the crowd and sowing the seeds for the change would be a constructive form.

And if you are still not heard, then use the placards to showcase the solution.

And if you are still not heard, move on.

Contrary to the idea of dissent in democratic forms, in some organizations, there is a general principle of HIPPO - i.e, Highly Paid Person's Opinion :)

June 03, 2015

Book Review : Corrugated Slices : The Social Jalebi

(This book review was published in the BusinessWorld magazine dated 15-June-2015)

The Jalebi Trilogy gets its third and final book titled 'Corrugated Slices : The Social Jalebi'. Taking on the Jalebi as an anecdotal reference, the author Shombit Sengupta tries to juxtapose the jalebi's contortions and tortuosity with an European eye, that is, looking at Indian scheme of things and behaviour patterns with an European style of looking and observing.

The author's career started off sweeping floors for a few years and went onto run his own Company for many decades and the translation of these experiences is this trilogy. The unpredictability of the jalebi's contours is cross-referenced in every possible way with each and everything that the author observes or has experienced. Spread across many sections, with the author meandering from Shah Rukh Khan to civets, the reader is sometimes confused with the author's message. Though the book seems to be an easy read, the lack of a linear story-telling makes this otherwise scrumptious sugary delicacy unappealing and reader is seen trudging along the seamless interconnections.

May 19, 2015

Book Review : The Rich by John Kampfner

(This book review was published in the Business World magazine dated 1-June-2015)

When Gordon Gecko utters  his famous words of Greed, for the lack of better words, being Good, little did we comprehend the thought process that goes into psychology of the money-making business that has rarely changed for generations. John Kampfner in The Rich: From Slaves to Super-Yachts: A 2,000-Year History (Hachette) shows us that the gap between the super-rich and rich (not to mention the poor) has only continued to widen and grow as he focuses on the world of haves and have-mores in his brilliant treatise on The Rich.

The author runs through the individualities starting from Marcus Licinius Crassuw, from the Roman times, to the likes of The Krupps, Andrew Carnegie and Mobutu Sese Seko. The theme throughout the book is money and wealth and the process of making and accumulating it. Kampfner never romanticises his subjects and his discernible commentary is restricted to the subjects alone and ignores the families and friends.

The rich live in a parallel world and belong to a globalised and gilded class flaunting their opulence in their own ways. The author deep dives into a world in which power, influence and position are the pillars of the new establishment and creating and maintaining the reputation is the motivating force. The rich swoon and fraternise on each other’s yachts as the tax regime and infrastructure go hand in hand with glamour and gigantism, to give birth to cities like Dubai. The panorama of the current wealthy people includes the sheikhs, the oligarchs, the geeks and the bankers with a combined wealth to buy out complete economies and also to bequeath important and much needed political muscle, while societies continue to indulge the super-rich.

The fossilisation of the previous dynasties of billionaires has been a wakeup call to the current super-rich, as the latter has indulged in ‘philanthrocapitalism’ for serving the broader societal needs. The moral commitment of the Giving Pledge is overshadowed by words of Buffett when he says “enough so they feel they could do anything, but not so much that they could do nothing”.

Envy, detest and abhorrence often runs across the reader’s mind as the author profiles some of the wealthiest who have ever lived on this planet. While the reader might sometimes be embarrassed with means adopted to accumulate the wealth, the author maintains a distant journalistic view, only reporting what he sees and observes as he concludes that the victory of the present super-rich is a product of the 2,000 years of history. 

May 05, 2015

Understanding Reality and Truth

How does one differentiate between Reality and Truth? But, before that, how does one even define the respective terms? My perpetual complaint with the English language is the lack of expressions and phrases that can be used to define or be expanded upon a term for a good definition for easier assimilation and understanding. Probably, this is one of the reasons as to why many groups prefer having the mother-tongue as the language of instruction and education. But, given the limited  resources at hand, let us try to understand using anecdotes.

In schools and also at home, we are taught that Sun rises in the East and sets in the West. Now, our mind has been tuned to this thought process right from the school. We are rational beings, and with the passage of time, begin to understand language and science. We have also observed that Sun indeed rises in the East and sets in the West, almost everyday. But, during the due course of our education, we are also taught that Sun is always stationary and it is the Earth that rotates on it's own axis and also revolves around the Sun. The phenomenon is the same; one is Reality and the other - the Truth.

As we have seen, the observation of Sun rising and setting is the Reality as it is the one that we perceive and can explain easily, but the larger truth that is often forgotten is : though reality gives us the perception that the planet Earth is stationary, it is the Sun which does not move. And this exactly points to the larger realm - i.e, Truth.

So, what does this mean?

Whenever you observe things around you and form conclusions, you almost always are experiencing reality based on your learnings, assumptions, logic and rationality. You continue to assume things based on the priors "alone". This is Reality for you. Some try to escape away from this reality under the guise of 'Maya' and hush it under the carpet. Disappointment is the difference between your expectations and reality. Many restrict themselves behind the facade called 'Mythya' or 'Maya'. They do not try to understand or make efforts to explore and go and in search of - Truth. When something confounds and confuses you, you hardly make attempts to understand the meaning associated with it and the causality of the phenomenon. You are in limbo and try to come up with your own logic to explain the sequence of events. The journey of the seeker on this path is arduous and painful, but once he reaches the destination, the journey and the destination make a new Man of himselves.

It is Truth alone that liberates one from everything.  "Truth alone sets you free." These are not philosophical words but actual experiences that speak for themselves.

In the real world : We often form opinions about others based on their behavior or come to conclusions about certain actions based on the rationality that we have been endowed with since birth. Any normal or unusual occurrence of an event follows the same course of logic. We restrict our thought process to that alone. (Did someone call-out being 'judgemental'??) But the 'seeker' when he goes beyond the realms of the reality and understands the hidden truths(and lies), he *alone* knows what is happening. Knowing the "What" is followed up with the more rigorous "Why". But, the "What" itself clears many of the ambiguities present in the minds of the seeker. Truth makes the seeker understand the various actions and variables and then he indeed transcends the arena of confusion and misjudged logic.

We all are born rational, few use reasoning, but.

The seeker now knows what needs to be done based on the Truth alone and need not be restricted to limited frame of Reality.


April 23, 2015

Book Review : Neuromarketing in Action

"Neuromarketing in Action" by Patrick M.Georges, Anne-Sophie Bayle-Tourtoulou and Michel Badoc.

Of Purple Cows and Grey Matter

When was the last time you missed reading the fineprint in an advertisement or a document and it later came to haunt you. The smalltext or fineprint specifically targets the information processing rule in the brain that calls out 'The smaller it is, the more insignificant it is' and hence you gloss over them. Do you realize that men with sports cars attract women because behavioral scientists believe that you can only invest in unnecessary objects if you are healthy and strong, after you have met your required needs?

What happens when Oliver Sacks meets Seth Godin? Cross-disciplinary research is in vogue these days, and the field of neuro-marketing perfectly fits into this space. The authors, Patrick M.Georges, Anne-Sophie Bayle-Tourtoulou and Michel Badoc, are Professors at HEC (Paris) and teach marketing. The much needed neuroscience to this mix is brought by Patrick who was the head of neurosurgery earlier. The book details many recipes for the marketing initiatives to be successful both internally (your boss and inside the organization) and externally (end customers).

The different aspects of neuromarketing are presented to us in digestible chunks across different chapters. The authors talk start with the foundational series on marketing, neuroscience, and then juxtapose neuromarketing and slowly build upon it to explain different facets of this subliminal marketing that they aptly highlight as 'talking and selling to the brain'.

When your sub-conscious is rekindled by an external stimuli to make you choose a product, would you question the ethicality of the process? The tenet of 'The brain must confuse myth and reality' to establish the product placement in the customer's memory is highly intriguing. So, do we always attach electrodes to the heads of our customers and wait for the regions of the brain to be lit up to take a call on our marketing schemes? All this talk of the rational intelligence and sensory marketing confuses whether we are helping the customer make the right decision or are we trying to help just sell our products across.

The end chapters talk on value marketing, permission, brand and interactive marketing. Value Marketing aims at surprising customers by innovative strategies and differentiated products while permission marketing is like a bait wherein the communication happens only after taking the customer’s consent and taking an active interest in their interests.

The authors have done a fabulous job of detailing many neuromarketing recipes but the lack of story-telling is visible. The examples spread only across a few lines in some of the scenarios do not bring the much needed depth to the subject at hand and gives a text-book feel to the treatise. Nevertheless, the book is an occupying reading into this fascinating subject to be followed-up by more intriguing research on buying behaviours, decision sciences and neurobranding.

April 21, 2015

The Pursuit of Truth

Snippets from "The Pursuit of Truth" by Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan .....

In the lectures on Hindu View of Life, I present Hinduism as a progressive historical movement still in the making. Its adherents are not custodians of a deposit, but runners carrying a lighted torch. The weaknesses of the Hindu faith which have drawn the institution into disgrace and are today blocking the way for social advance are due to a confusion between Tradition and Truth. We must preserve the spirit of Truth which will guide us all into truth. God does not say, "I am Tradition", but He says, "I am Truth". Truth is greater than its greatest teachers. We must realize that the history of the race is strewn with customs and institutions which were invaluable at first and deadly afterwards. Gross abuses which still survive require to be cut off with an unspairing hand.

To surrender our vanity and love of ourselves and expose the naked ribs of reality may mean anguish and sacrifice but it is worth it. Truth, according to Mahabhatrata, is penance and sacrifice of high order. It says "Truth is always natural with the good. Truth is eternal duty. One should reverentially bow unto truth. Truth is the highest refuge. Truth is duty, truth is penance, truth is yoga. Truth is the eternal Brahman. Truth is said to be -- sacrifice of a high order. Everything rests on Truth". Truth and reality, not falsehood and semblance, are the foundations of lasting friendship, of spiritual life. These friendly revelations have little in common with the exhibitions of spiritual nudism where the sinner speaks exultingly of the depths of sin from which he has emerged to emphasize the heights to which he has attained.

It is by suffering that we understand. The condition of true human life is to suffer pain and endure loneliness. Only those who live outwards lives without being touched inward depths can escape suffering.  Often suffering is not punishment but discipline. When the great blow falls, when we stand in the our darkest hour, shocked, baffled, defeated for the moment, when life has completely lost its savior, when we are tempted to cry "O God, art thou dead?" or with one mightier , "My God, why hast thou forsaken me?"; when we hear no response even to such a cry of despair, when utter silence faces us, when the foundations slip away and the world seems to be cracking all about us, we have to bear it all , face the storm, cling to hope and believe in love. All this means suffering and it is through suffering that we learn and grow.

April 19, 2015

Book Review : Value Proposition Design

(This book review was published in the Business World magazine dated 4-May-2015)

The World of Management Books which is inundated with many titles on the Creation, Sustenance and Evolution of Value in enterprises and business got another member in its fraternity. Alexander Osterwalder(author), Yves Pigneur (co-author), Greg Bernarda (co-author), Alan Smith (co-author and art direction) and Trish Papadakos (design) have created the handbook titled ‘Value Proposition Design – How to create Products and services customers want’. The book comes as a perfect sequel to their earlier book titled 'Business Model Generation'. The set of authors call themselves the Strategyzer crew, as they run a website of the namesake.

The authors had introduced the nine Building Blocks, namely Customer segments, value proposition, channels, customer relationships, revenue streams, key resources, key activities, key partnerships, and cost structure, as part of their the Business Generation Model(BGM)Canvas. While the BGM canvas creates value for your business, the Value Proposition (VP) Canvas helps you create value for your customers.

The authors claim VP Canvas is a plug-in tool to the Business Model(BM) Canvas and just like the BM Canvas allows you to visualize Business Models, the VP Canvas allows you to visualize Value Propositions in greater detail. Both canvases perfectly integrate and work hand in hand and this statement is especially valid as Value Propositions and Customer Segments live inside the framework of the BM canvas and expatiate upon it.

The authors approach starts from the VP canvas which sets the stage for further design thinking leading to testing and followed with constant monitoring of the metrics leading to evolution of the value proposition. The Design, Test and Evolve cycle is an iterative and never ending process in such a way that the value proposition is always kept relevant to the customers.By observing and identifying the customer's task and understanding their needs and their pains (problems) and gains(outcomes or benefits), design thinkers need to develop a product or a service that delivers value. And this is one of the best ways of achieving the Product-Market fit. The authors conveniently call this as Pain Relievers and Gain Creators in the Value Map.

Though the colorful diagrams and emoticons make the text engaging, overdose of it though out the book does cause some color-overload and leads to some distractions as some of the emoticons are not exactly relevant. The book is primarily meant for practitioners who can make use extensive use of frameworks and guidelines as part of their design thinking.

March 18, 2015

The Unsolicited Gajendra Moksham

Few things in life happen out of the blue which are beyond any reason or rationale. While the mind continues to wander, seeking the reason or the causality of the events, and the self ponders about it in an everlasting vicious circle and unending series of man-hours spent while the hairs continue to fall and lathe the floor, the Maker stands somewhere and is smirking at us mortals.

One of my relatives had given my parents a CD containing the discourses of Nochur Venkatraman on Bhagavatham. After having finished reading Mahabharata and Ramayana, the next obvious choice for me was Bhagavatham. But given how fickle our mind is and all the extraneous parameters that continue to affect our lives with their own intricacies, I was not fortunate enough to read either Bhagavatham, or listen to it. My parents continued to the play the CD every day evening and listen to the discourse, while I was ensconced in my man-cave and lost either reading the current state of the World or the ways by which World Domination could be achieved.

The story of Gajendra Moksha always fascinated me right from childhood. I remember having read it in Amar Chitra Katha(ACK), and also had the version of ACK with me for a long time. But little did I know that universe conspires in strange ways and sometimes our scientific mind and all the rationality that comes along with the baggage indeed goes for a toss. The idea of this blog post is not to expatiate on the story of Gajendra and his struggles leading to his ultimate salvation, but the emotional turbulences caused by just listening to it in the most unexpected of the circumstances. By the way, the story of Gajendra and his moksham(salvation) symbolizes so much more than what is contained in the frame - I would highly recommend almost everyone, irrespective or caste/creed/religion to read this amazing story and understand the nuances contained in it. Probably, a blog post in itself in the due course of time will be seen here!

Anywayz, so, my pal(Vijay) informed me that one of his pals was visiting him and we should do a 1-day drive sometime. We decided quickly and the drive did happen. His pal, Rangan, was a highly successful Technologist settled in the United States and was visiting India as his annual ritual. While returning back after the trek and drive, we were talking about some spiritual aspects of religion etc, and I told him about how I always have been wanting to hear the story of Gajendra Moksham but despite the CD and Youtube at a hand's length, it has been evading me. Rangan offered telling the story, and after we all agreed, he started reciting the story of Gajendra Moksham to all of us.

He went on for a good 1-1.5hours. Emotions swelled. Eyes became wet. His brilliant story-telling just numbed my senses at brief moments of time.

Yes I cried. I do not know, but tears rolled by cheeks and I saw Rangan crying in the back seat. Though he was whimpering, my tears were silent and they just rolled down without much fanfare. There was muteness for some time, and Rangan continued. The occasional silence in the car was deafening, and it became a perfect backdrop for an absolute brilliant day wherein we did a tough hike which relaxed the body and then followed it up with some amazing spiritual story telling(for the soul).

Some of us are Gajendras in real life as well, and many of us prefer to fight against ignorance thereby sapping our energies. Fear appears when there is lack of knowledge. We do not accept the fact that our relatives and friends will not lend a helping hand or will be equally useless at certain instances, for we do not understand the concept of 'sharanagati'. Instead, by concentrating on seeking knowledge through karma or bhakti, one can truly seek salvation. Gajendra was not just a pachyderm who was caught into the jaws of the crocodile, he was much more that; the only problem being he did not know what he was and what he was capable of. Ignorance caught him, and kept him occupied.

Why did Rangan come all the way from USA during the said time and why did my pal Vijay have to bring him on this drive and of all the things that we could have discussed, why did I end up listening to Ganjendra Moksham. I have no explanations. And this will continue to remain a mystery to me. Probably, I am romanticizing the entire episode, but I am beginning to believe that my scientific mind these days requires equal amounts of romanticism as well, and it is all the better that the brain does not wander into the course of rationality and try to analyze and understand everything in its details. Certain things are better left unsaid, un-analyzed.

Thanks Rangan. We all are Gajendras.

March 17, 2015

Book Review : Not Impossible: The Art and Joy of Doing What Couldn't Be Done by Mick Ebeling

[This article was published in The Hindu Business Line on 16-Mar-2015]

When Tony Stark in his lab fixes the limb of the Iron Man suit and goes on and creates multiple and better versions of the limbs, the audience hardly realizes the bionic expert's potential in the real world. When Technology meets Humanity, the arena just opens up a million fold and prospects are numerous. What was a chance invitation to an art gallery turned out to be a roller coaster ride for our author Mick Ebeling, changing his career path, his life and also the lives of many - near and far from him – in the due course. 'Not Impossible: The Art and Joy of Doing What Couldn't Be Done" is a collection of a few chapters from Mick's life in the Maker avatar as he takes us on this adventurous, yet path-breaking ride wherein Humanity is the greatest benefactor at the end of the day.

Mick Ebeling is an award-winning TV and film producer as well as an author, entrepreneur and philanthropist. He also is the founder of the Not Impossible Foundation, a nonprofit organization that oversees Not Impossible Labs, which works with state-of-the-art technology to create practical and cheap solutions to some of the problems that we humans face. Mick's inspirational journey and his DIY(Do It Yourself) attitude leads him to create simple gadgets that solve often overlooked yet much needed human necessities. 

The author recounts his experiences with technology adoption and how it ended up changing many lives. One of the first is the The EyeWriter project.  The EyeWriter project tracks the development and implementation of a painting tool for a young graffiti artist (named Tempt). Tempt is a graffiti artist who is stuck down by ALS and hence is not unable to use his limbs to express his art. EyeWriter, a device which looks like a pair of glasses developed by Mick and his team, lets ALS patients to draw just using their eyes. The device is a low cost eyetracking system developed using inexpensive cameras and open source software. Tempt’s start communicating again and the emails that he sends to Mick and the whole dynamics of making the EyeWriter even more functional and powerful is sublime to the reader. Tempt’s nirvana moment is best portrayed when he says “That was the first time I’d drawn anything since 2003. I felt like I had been held underwater, and someone finally reached down and pulled my head up so I could take a breath”. Mick's thought process and his philosophy of development is best portrayed in this story which sets the right backdrop for the rest of the book.  

Committing to a problem, and then figuring out a solution seems to be the modus operandi. 'Commit'(Yes), then figure it out 'how', in such a way that 'why' is self-demonstrating is the mantra that Mick espouses and is often seen evangelizing.  With regards the ‘how’, he lays importance on Singularity of Focus, Giving it Away, and Beautiful-Limitless Naivete as driving forces in his creative process. Mick lays a lot of emphasis on open sourcing the solution, as this is an extremely potent force for easier collaboration amongst people who are geographically dispersed and for the easier access, assimilation and implementation of the final solutions. The idea of ‘Help One, Help Many’ is only possible when the solution is given away for free, makes reduction in costs and exploration of alternative schematics and technologies.

The author does not share any recipe or any roadmap or a charter of how to achieve the Impossible, but shares his own hands-on approach and experiences which are true testaments of his thought processes. The style of First Person Singular across the whole book makes the read extremely light and it feels like a big blog post being transformed into a book. Sometimes, the author takes the reader to a fantasy land with so much energy radiating from the former. Mick comes off as a guy who is an excellent project manager or a highly energetic motivational coach (a.k.a Kabir Khan in Chak De). His ability to spot the problem, commit to it and then collating resources and the constant iterations to better the result is a constant reminder to all the Managers to hone their thought processes.

One of the most intense experiences is his sojourn into the war torn Sudan for Project Daniel wherein the author ends up printing 3D prosthetic limb for a young boy(Daniel) who loses both his hands at the age of 14. The author risks his life and takes many important decisions, but is often seen asking self-prophesying question of : “If not now, when? If not me, who?” And hence underlining the importance of each individual's capacity for betterment of humanity. Mick crosses enemy lines thereby putting even his life on danger in the extremely volatile Sudanese territory, but his singular focus on solving Daniel’s physical disability keeps him on the driver’s seat. The reader is almost transported to the scene of action in Sudan wherein after being fitted with the prosthetic limb, Mick narrates the scene as : “Daniel had never tasted chocolate before. And if you think the sight of a kid seeing his own hand wave to him for the first time would warm your heart, imagine the sight of that kid feeding himself, for the first time, a chocolate brownie. Daniel, of course, ate three”.

Collaboration is the key in any such kind of a compelling venture that leads to a greater good. When people with different and limitless expertise work in tandem, the opportunities are never ending. The author is humble and keeps reminding about his team and the volunteers who popped in from various nook and corners of the world during brainstorming, prototyping and made his dreams and the devices a success. But how to motivate people to spend enormous amounts of their time and psychic energy on a project, any project for that matter, other than the monetary component? Mick states that the beauty of the Not Impossible concept is that they simply put the problem out in the open and wait for motivated people to find it. People find their passion, their calling, and end up taking the problem and do that it for the forseeable future; thereby making the calling more meaningful for themselves.

By bringing in the personal dimension, the author keeps the reader extremely close to the events that are happening, and at times, almost makes the reader an onlooker. "Not Impossible" belongs to a genre after reading which you are very much prompted to join the author's bandwagon and put in the best efforts to change the world one step at a time. Adrenaline rushes through at some places and the reader cultivates a deep respect for the author for his efforts. The book is an important milestone in the Maker movement. Chris Anderson's 'Makers' set the stage a few years back and Mick's book, takes it one level up. The book does not lay down a charter or rules or commandments for innovation, but sheer story telling from the Maker's perspective makes it an enjoyable read.

This book is a slap on the face of those skeptics and pessimists who harbor the thought of "Sorry, this ain't gonna happen" and give up even before a game begins. This is not about winning and losing. This is not about fighting. This book is about creating experiences for humanity by leveraging technology that makes people rediscover their lost talents and bring their smiles back. Or as Mick states it 'Technology for the sake of humanity'.

January 25, 2015

When India was an Island - Adventures Above the Tethys Sea

(Edited version of this article was published in Deccan Herald on 25-Jan-2015)

Spiti River and the Road towards Lhangza from Spiti

Long long ago, even before the reigns of the kings and warrior lords, when dinosaurs trudged this planet, when the continents used to move and collide with each other, and when water was in abundance, a supercontinent named Pangea broke into multiple landmasses. And there was an ocean that separated the ancient land masses of Gondwana and Laurasia. This ocean, known as Tethys was named after the sister and consort of Oceanus, the ancient Greek God of Ocean.

With the continental masses moving, geographies changed – what was once in Southern hemisphere moved to the North. The Indian landmass which was divided from the Eurasian  plate by a distance of 6400km and was closer to the content of Australia, kept moving towards the latter at a rate of 9meters per century and collided head-on. Around 40million years ago when this phenomenon was occurring, the Tethys Sea began to shrink.

The plates of India and Tibet collided and created a massive mountain fold – called Himalayas - which continue to rise by an average of 2cm every year. New species evolved and some were let go. But Life, as a whole, sustained and evolved; and those that perished were engraved into the golden pages of the landmass’s history.  The fossils that were deposited on the Tethys sea bed were pushed upwards. Coral reefs from the Tethys Sea now resting at 5,000m above sea level would be a nice site to visit, isn’t it? And we decided to check this open-air museum in one of the most remote and highest villages in India.

Fossils found in the open-air arena

We had spent close to a week travelling from Shimla and exploring some of the most remote villages bordering our neighboring countries. After having visited Sarahan, Sangla, Chitkul, Nako, Gue and Dhankar we finally arrived at Kaza, the administrative Headquarters of the Spiti region. We gave an evening’s rest to the spine and decided to visit the twin beautiful high altitude villages in a region that almost kisses the skies.

In no mood to trek due to a weeklong hitchhiking, we rented a private car. The road from Kaza meanders along the Spiti river and then you take a right that climbs up a dusty mountain and this was the one that was eventually to take us to Langza and Komic. The vast empty bed of the Spiti river was clearly visible as we rode up and we could clearly feel the gaining altitude. A few foreigners were brave enough to walk all the way from Kaza to Komic, not much in terms of distance(30odd kilometers), but there was absolutely nothing except for falling boulders, dust and sparse oxygen in the air enroute.

We were soon introduced to the Shila Valley that has some of the most gorgeous yet treacherous snow capped peaks. This region boasts of some beautifully named peaks like Chocho Khang Namo [translates to Black Mountain Princess] (5964m) and the Chocho Khang Nilda [translates to Sun-Facing Mountain Princess ](6380m), the 3rd highest peak in Spiti. [Chocho or ChauChau=princess, Khang=mountain, Namo=black, Nilda= sun facing]

The clear blue skies and the arid mountains dotted with a few patches of greenery greeted us into the village of Langza. The 600 year old monastery that is supposed to be a branch of the Tabo monastery bore an unassuming look. After the visit to the monastery, few kids and women showed us some really old fossils that they claimed to have collected from the river-bed and wanted to sell for a few hundred bucks.  Though one could trek to the fossil base that is around an hour’s walk from the Langza village, we preferred to let the fossils remain as-is in their own nature’s lap, in their own open-air museum.  Later, at Kaza, we found similar fossils being sold to tourists instead of being preserved in museums. At Langza, a huge statue of Buddha, sitting on top of a knoll, overlooks the valley below and wards off any evil or illness that tries to emerge from below. The Buddha here is supposed to be also called as Medicine Buddha is the guardian of the villagers here.

Closeup of Medicine Buddha overlooking the mountains at Lhangza

And then we continued driving towards the end of the road, that is, Komic. Situated at an altitude of 4587m (15049ft) this village has nothing more than a handful of villages and a really old monastery. Etymology informs us that, 'Ko' means ‘snow cock’, 'Mic' stands for ‘eye’, and the reason this place was called so was due to an esoteric legend. It was foretold in Tibet that a monastery was to be built in the backdrop of a mountain which would be in the shape of a snow leopard on the left, a beheaded eagle on the right with four springs in the vicinity. The area in between these mountains was to be in the shape of the eye of the Snow Cock and this was to the exact location where the monastery was to be built.

Similar to other ‘highest’ adjectives being given to most of the things found at this altitude, this monastery is the world’s highest Motorable Monastery.  The monastery is called as Komic Lundup Tsemo Gompa(or Komic Lundup Chhemo) and belongs to the Sakyapa sect of Tibetan Buddhism and is expected to be atleast 500 years old.  A board forebode women from entering the monastery while a stuffed snow leopard greeted me in.

The monastery has multiple legends associated with it, for it is quite unnatural to find the monastery at such a high altitude dating back to 14th century. It is said that the three feet tall status of the deity, Mahakal, became so heavy when robbers tried to steal it that they had to abandon it. It was then brought back to the gompa wherein it resides till date. Another story confirms the mightiness of this statue while spinning another legend. The Mahakal Statue that is believed to symbolize Dharma, refused to move from its foundation at Komic when the monks decided to shift it to the nearby and low-lying village of Hikkim. Only one monk stayed back despite others moving to Hikkim and he continued to pray before it. An earthquake that hit the region in 1975 or earlier, reduced Hikkim to rubble but the Mahakal statue at Komic held its ground. The monks re-ascertained the importance and the holiness of Komic and decided to move back wherein they practice till date.

Monastery at Komic

We were here only for a few hours, but I felt a deep karmic-konnection-in-Komic. William Hazlitt’s words, as he mentions in ‘On Going a Journey’ resonated…“Give me the clear blue sky over my head, and the green turf beneath my feet, a winding road before me, and a three hours' march to dinner -- and then to thinking! It is hard if I cannot start some game on these lone heaths. I laugh, I run, I leap, I sing for joy. I begin to feel, think, and be myself again. Instead of an awkward silence, broken by attempts at wit or dull common-places, mine is that undisturbed silence of the heart which alone is perfect eloquence."

While we were just about to leave the monastery, I struck up a conversation with a lama loitering there and found out that there are some uncanny treasures like the tail of a man, horn of a unicorn, dragon’s egg, ribcage of what would be a big demon that are kept extremely secretive in here. Since the monastery was part of the Sakyapa sect of Buddhism, that believes and practices in Tantric practices, this was very much possible. I wandered into the imagery associated with these esoteric treasures while we slowly rode down the serpentine road and entered back into the soullessness in Kaza.