Saturday, July 21, 2012

The Gamification of Social Issues (or What Satyamev Jayate show can do differently)

Every Sunday at 11 am there is a (scheduled) power outage in my neighborhood. There is also another  prior to that at 6 am everyday. I choose to speak selectively about the Sunday hour because that's when Aamir Khan's show Satyamev Jayate (the show name means - "truth alone prevails") is aired on about 6 TV channels simultaneously.

Sure, a genius move you say. Airing it on atleast 6 channels (both local and ones on cable payed channels). That too Sunday at an hour when you are hopefully not outdoors or working. What are the chances, huh? So you bound to sit and watch and mull and brood and (even cry with Aamir) about the social issues in India.

Only, you didn't anticipate the following:

- There could be a power outage at the time (sad but true. It is easy for me to stream it over Internet later in the day, but I doubt anyone else has the resources or inclination to do that)

- You could be still sleeping. Ask my techie friends. No one gets up from bed on a Sunday until noon.

- You simply don't care. Sure, the first episode or two moved you, you were angered, you teared up and then that's that. You went about your business after the show ended. "Meet you for coffee or movie  late evening? Sure", you tell to your friend over the phone. That's how quickly the pace changes in India. Where everything from getting your home plumbing repaired to servicing your bike is unpredictable (your handyman might not show up, or your bike servicing guy doesn't do his job right). You fight your way through stuff. So why would you waste your time and mind over a damn show? You have your own problems to deal with at every passing second of your life here.

- Someone in your home wants to switch to a different TV channel while the ads are running and then you find another channel that is "interesting". Oh they are playing Salman Khan's "Dabbang" on Sony MAX. Let me see that for a few minutes. That turns into an hour. No more Satyamev Jayate.

- And many more such reasons..too many to list here.

It makes you wonder, what has gone wrong with Indians? Why don't they care anymore? They are busy building farms (FarmVille) or checking-in to joints virtually (Foursquare, Zomato..) but have no time in their lives to spend an hour on a show that discusses social causes?

Lets take a deep breath here and think for a moment.

What drives people? Emotions, shocking truths? Perhaps. That's why the show became a desi version of Oprah Winfrey. The problem is that probably worked for the first two episodes. And strangely we got "accustomed" to that too. Shock value has a short term effect. And then it meets its death.

So why is Farmville more attractive than an emotional, teary-eyed show?

Perhaps the producers at Satyamev may consider Gamification. No kidding.

“In every job that must be done, there is an element of fun. You find the fun, and – SNAP! – the job’s a game!” - Mary Poppins

And that my friends, is the essence that drives gamification.

Half of the country probably spends half of their time on phones (my ballpark average). Your traditional SMS's might reach out to the masses but there's no hook and bait in that. You need people with resources and bandwidth to first get involved and give their full attention when you speak about social issues.

- Make a mobile app that showcases the issues. Something that people can tap into and listen to instantly.

- Show what is happening in their local neighborhood on the app. People (still) deeply care about what is going on in their neighborhood because it directly affects them and their family. They don't have the downtime to think about the nation's problems. 

- Show a way they can contribute to "fix" these issues without getting too much in the way of their work or daily chores. Make that actionable through the app.

- Anyone who does one of the above three should get some kind of "loyalty" or "contribution" points. Yeah, it is sad how THAT works. But the important thing is THAT works. People get motivated with virtual "incentives" like that. They go bonkers sharing, tweeting, messaging their newly owned popularity on the Web. So go ahead, feed their egos. Nothing wrong with that.

So to the producers and crew at Satyamev Jayate - Make it count. Don't let your hard work go wasted. Because, unfortunately, truth alone doesn't prevail in India. 

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Rainy day reminiscences

For many of us rainy days conjure up mushy memories of coffee, hot food, conversation, curling up on bed and watching the rain and perhaps dancing/walking in the rain for the slightly adventurous.

The bubble breaks there.

For the daily commuters in India, rainy days are unpleasant, mostly unwanted, dreadful days - that start with silent pleas to the rain gods to stop inflicting more rain and end with grievances like endless traffic jams, dirty puddles, road rages and other shortcomings (such as your vehicle struggling to keep up with the floods on the roads)

And today happens to be one such day.

"I shouldn't have worn my Nike shoes today", I tell A, suddenly aware a little later, that it is such a first world problem. Ashamed, I stay mum for some time. Not too long before I break the silence with one of my other trivial grievances (such is human nature)

"Why does it have to rain only when we head out?", I mutter under my breath.

Meanwhile A is trying hard to dodge traffic and find tiny gaps in between a fleet of cars, bikes, cycles, cattle, beggars and hawkers at traffic lights etc. Yes, India is diversified like that - even on roads. At one instance, the traffic poured in a single file. Frustrated, we inched along, only later to realize the larger part of the road was hoarded by free moving herd of buffaloes.

Looking at A navigate tactfully, I think to myself, "He is doing such a good job. I probably ought to shut up and quit whining."

Like some sort of a circus trainer, he gives me forewarnings - "Lift your legs high" - as we enter a big flood on the road. A has also mastered the art of reading and predicting the cloud movement. He yells (over the traffic noise) to me, "I think that part of the town is probably already getting heavy rains."

I sigh. By this time I am not too pleased that we have wasted so much time on the road. "This is such a mess", I think aloud. And as if to slight my unheard objections, a heavy downpour comes down on us, forcing us to make a pitstop at a local bookstore.

For close to an hour we stand under the tiny shade of a five floor building and look at the rains that show no signs of giving up. This wasn't going to be a pitstop after all.

A suddenly notices sparks from atop the building. "Look at that", he whimpers to me.

"It looks like Diwali patakas (firecrackers) ready to burst but not quite there", I chuckle.

"Doesn't look good", A says seriously. "Maybe we should move."

We look at it, necks craned, for about 15 mins and then we forget about it. Returning to focus on "the rains" again. Such is the pace of life in India. One grievance giving in to another and then another. Welcome to the Indian grievance lifecycle.

"Hey why don't we just head inside the bookstore?", I look at A briefly and then race through the rain to get to the first floor.

A understands but does not share my passion for books. He often reasons about it this way - "I have no time or inclination to read those fat books. And anyway you tell me the gist and trivia behind them. So I am ok."

I make a steady walk through the book aisles, looking up staff picks, latest bestsellers (I let out a tiny cringe at stacks of Fifty Shades series) and then reach my favorite section on Indian fiction. I run through some trivia for A and by this time he has already taken a peek at "the rains" about half a dozen times.

We goof around a bit and somehow the bookstore fails to draw me. We step onto some weight scale to check our weights and unconvinced with the results, we promptly dismiss the scale as "out of order". 

We look around, we look at the rain, we look at the people taking shelter under the bookstore roof, we look at this guy struggling on his cycle with a plastic bag on his head as his only protection from rain, we look a mini van broken down in the middle of the road and couple of people lending a hand to push it to the corner of the road, we notice men gawking at me, we check on our bike to see no one's taking a free pass at it (sitting or doing stupid stuff on it), we debate if we should just hail a cab, why we should have gotten those better raincoats along...

And yet the rains continue.

Somehow in midst of all this, a poignant thing happened. For a minute I stopped and stared at the local bus that stopped to let some passengers out.

I saw women with small plastic bags trying to get into the bus, fit in the small space inside. It brought back a flood of memories from my teenage days. How I had wished I would never have to take the local buses, struggle to find space, deal with men making a pass at me, carry a load of books in my school bag on tiny shoulders and hope to convince someone seated to hold it for me. I had hated those days then and wanted with all my heart for days like the ones I am living now. Where I owned my own means of transportation and wouldn't have to suffer at the whims of others.

I was embarrassed for a moment with the subtlety of what encompassed me in that one minute.

I looked at A and for some reason we started humming (and discussing) ridiculous songs like "I am a Barbie girl" and conversing in only Hyderabadi slang.

And in that moment, for the first time in the entire evening, we forgot to check on "the rains".

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Yes, you are the creative type

The last time I saw dad off into a MRI machine - he was still scared. Scared as hell. Pale as death. 

MRI machines got the best of him. He describes it as a lonely passage to death. "It is more haunting than any ghost story ever. And it is all alone there.", he told me once. It made me think - Isn't there an easier way to do this? Why use a beast of a machine and scare already sick people this way?

So when I saw this video today, I was delighted with what I saw. An MRI machine designed by Doug Deitz, to look like a "pirate ship" at a children's hospital. By making kids forget about the drudgery and loneliness of the process and instead, taking them through an adventure could build confidence in them. 

Creativity, it seems, can be influenced in the same respect. Conquering our fear goes a long way in building one's creative confidence. The speaker highlights there is no such thing as a "creative type". Because how is it then that as kids we all were very creative?:) The only difference between a creative and non-creative type is the confidence, the belief that your idea is creative. And rallying behind this idea, no matter what or who tries to shoot it down. 

So what does getting rid of fear of snakes got to do with opening doors to creative confidence? 
Watch the video.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

The Coffee Metropolis

Frustrated I looked up from my laptop - "Why isn't there any Internet in this place?"
We were seated in one of the swankiest coffee places in Hyderabad.
A shrugged. "Let me ask them", he offered to help.

I was just getting in the zone there, ready to whip up some code.
And now, I was staring at some "404 - Not Found" page.

I leaned back into the couch, which I thought was slightly uncomfortable. House flies settling in on the already empty cup of Macchiato and bits of sandwiches we had so hungrily devoured an hour ago. And the air conditioning, intentionally switched off, made the air more humid and dry than outside.

One of the coffee waiters came by. "Madam, Internet is not working?"

"Yes", I said with no intention of hiding my irritation.

"Please try this password madam..."

"Yes, yes. I already did. It doesn't work."

The guy threw me a helpless look. "Don't know madam" and flashed a grin as if he was providing me some good news.

I started to ask him if there was a time limit of some sort on the Wi-fi usage, instead I withdrew and gave up. "OK", I sighed.

"I knew it. I should have just downloaded the API docs", I yelped in frustration to A.

This was pointless. With nothing to do, I shut my laptop and looked around.

Scores of young girls in skirts shorter than I had ever seen. With strapless tops that generously exposed their arms and backs. And with mouths that seemed to continuously talk and eyes fixated on their smartphones, their hands twirling the straws and cups flirtatiously.

"Who are these people?", I ask A suddenly aware of the people sitting there.

"And what are they doing here? Where do they get all the money from?". I kept going.

A shrugged again. "I guess kids have more money these days than I thought. I don't even know what's that thing they have ordered there. Whatever that is, looks expensive."

I frowned in agreement. I turned my attention to another set of people - mostly couples.

In my most critical tone I ask "Don't these people have work to go to?"

"Probably one of us", A joked.

"I assume we have been working till this damn Internet gave up on us?", I shot back in defense.

"Anything else madam?", one of the other waiters came by.

"No", I reply dryly.

I tilt my head and ask A, "Do they want us to leave or what?"

"Guess so",  he guffaws.

I usually would get a book to read as a backup. Today I hadn't. Perhaps I was supposed to "chill" at coffee places like these. The only problem is I have no idea what "chilling out" means. Daydreaming, I do - if it doesn't come with a price tag like this. Could I daydream without pouring so much money over a coffee please?

In the US, I love coffee places for being unsolicitous about customers. You could just go in and do things of your choice. No one would bat an eyelid. Read a book, gaze at passersby, gaze at art, daydream, code, play with legos. In India, there has never been a "character" to coffee houses. It is always the same. Young teenagers hanging out or couples cozying up. Where was all that youthful camaraderie and sprouting enthusiasm among groups they are supposed to foster?

Indian coffee places have in fact morphed into these lazy lounges. I have nothing against that. Only that it has become more of a norm in EVERY coffee place I go to. It is disappointing. And now its coffee places with dimmed lights - like it's a bar. Please!

Until I spent some years in the US, I never imagined coffee places to be these think tanks and breeding grounds for some of the revolutionary ideas. In India, that is not encouraged. In fact, anything outside the norm is not. I hope that changes soon.

And so with that hope and indirect hints from the coffee crew to leave, I head back home.

I strike out this coffee place from my mental list of "my favorite coffee places". This list looks rather empty as it is.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Daily Sabbatical - Your vacation every day

Lately, I find myself asking this question every morning - "How am I going to have fun today?"

No that isn't a joke. Nor is it a self-help cliche. It is something to simulates my brain and force it to find the answer for me. Because I want to sneak in some "fun part" in my day. And asking that question every morning helps me wing it.

I believe this is the sad truth about today - We are always in rush, specially in the mornings, that we forget to set our life's priorities straight. How many times have you heard that the best work is done in the mornings (or late nights)? That is because, devoid of all other distractions, you are bound to ask yourself (or work on) honest, self-actuating questions and you have no excuse to make in the guise of distractions.

Put all that aside and think for a moment - What have you really done today that brought you pleasure or any form of relaxation?

*Crickets chirping*

I think that is going to take more than a moment, honestly.

Everywhere I see, whoever I talk to are in the The Busy Trap. No time for fun things. What's your excuse? 

So there is really no foolproof way to make sure fun "happens" in your day. Unless you plan for it. Until you make it a habit. And then probably you wouldn't need to ask that nagging question everyday.

My daily sabbatical began today - I took an hour out to play tennis. An hour I would otherwise spend aimlessly on Twitter. Yes, you are never going to work on "something productive" in that one hour, no matter how many times your brain tells you that. 

The key is to just shut off for one hour a day and do whatever you think is fun. 
That could be doing yoga, reading a book, cooking a meal, walking your dog, working out in the gym..whatever makes you tick.  

Make sure that one hour is really that one hour when you have no excuse to give.
I often see people making excuses about how tired and beaten they are in the evening, so they will happily skip the gym, only to sit and watch TV at home. Either you are really sick or you hate working out. But if it's neither of them, then it's just a time that is not going to work out for you. Instead pick morning hours (if you are an early bird) or pick a "gap time" like around noon when you hit a productivity slump. 

Make sure that it is really fun. Seriously.
The whole point is to have fun/relax/enjoy. If it feels like work, then perhaps that is not your fun activity. So don't allot that one hour to maybe planning your taxes. It is got to be fun. Period.

But I love Facebook or Twitter...Isn't that fun?
Sure, stalking people's profiles on Facebook and reading through a flood of random tweets "feels" like fun or relaxing. Now here's what I challenge you to do with that. Try restricting it to 15 mins. Doable? I think not. The problem with too much Internet is it morphs into this time sink - that mental rabbit hole - you keep digging and digging never to come back. In short, let me define fun for you - something that really simulates your senses, makes you feel creatively free or refreshed. Now tell me how many of you had that "refreshing" feeling after facebooking?

Even if you think you are the most boring person in the world and the only fun thing you can think of is watching TV, allow me to make a more enterprising pitch - Carving out a "me time" is essential for both your personal and professional well-being. That means you live longer and you get paid better (although I can't guarantee your professional success is linearly related to your paycheck). 

I am guessing even if all you want to do is daydream (good news: there is research that daydreaming makes you a tad creative), it still counts. Just don't start pounding away on your smartphone or tablet or laptop. Not cool.

So what's your daily sabbatical plan?

Saturday, July 07, 2012

Phenomenal Woman

Ever since this poem was shared with me on Women's Day this year, I couldn't get this out of my mind. Always lingering and always reminding that women are awesome, no matter what color, shape or profession defines them. Women are phenomenal!

And although there is no particular occasion, as I was flipping through some notable poems today (ya, I have taken to poems lately :)), this came on the top and has and will be my most favorite poem ever.

Share with women who have made a difference in your life. They will likely appreciate the gesture.

Phenomenal Woman

Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.
I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size   
But when I start to tell them,
They think I’m telling lies.
I say,
It’s in the reach of my arms,
The span of my hips,   
The stride of my step,   
The curl of my lips.   
I’m a woman
Phenomenal woman,   
That’s me.

I walk into a room
Just as cool as you please,   
And to a man,
The fellows stand or
Fall down on their knees.   
Then they swarm around me,
A hive of honey bees.   
I say,
It’s the fire in my eyes,   
And the flash of my teeth,   
The swing in my waist,   
And the joy in my feet.   
I’m a woman

Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

Men themselves have wondered   
What they see in me.
They try so much
But they can’t touch
My inner mystery.
When I try to show them,   
They say they still can’t see.   
I say,
It’s in the arch of my back,   
The sun of my smile,
The ride of my breasts,
The grace of my style.
I’m a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

Now you understand
Just why my head’s not bowed.   
I don’t shout or jump about
Or have to talk real loud.   
When you see me passing,
It ought to make you proud.
I say,
It’s in the click of my heels,   
The bend of my hair,   
the palm of my hand,   
The need for my care.   
’Cause I’m a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

Thursday, July 05, 2012

The art of letting go.. a lost art in adults. A known fact that as we morph from a child to an adult we severely restrict our ability to let go and imagine the unimagined. We ridicule and fear any invention. We like to be in our comfort zone and not step onto other's feet. We continuously train ourselves to live within constraints, lest we embarrass ourselves in public.

In a true adult fashion, I started to think analytically about how I can revive or atleast let a part of me go uninhibited. It's this resistance of the brain, refusing to let go. How can I free myself from the fear of making myself a fool? I don't have an answer to this.

Perhaps I must keep reading this excerpt from the book Imagine to inspire me every day, on days when I feel I could have done something - only if I let myself wander, if I let go...

World renowned American cellist Yo-Yo Ma echoes this idea.

"When people ask me how they should approach performance, I always ask them that the professional musician should aspire to the state of the beginner," Ma says. "In order to become a professional, you need to go through years of training. You get criticized by all your teachers, and you worry about all the critics. You are constantly being judged. But if you get onstage and all you think about is what the critics are going to say, if all you are doing is worrying, they you will play terribly. You will be tight and it will be a bad concert. Instead one needs to constantly remind oneself to play with the abandon of the child who is just learning the cello.

Because why is that kid playing? He is playing for pleasure. He is playing because making this sound, expressing this melody, makes him happy. That is still the only good reason to play"