Design-Think Challenge: Make Your Car-Horn Smart

About Time The Car-Horn Gets A Much-Needed Update

Design-think for smart horns for smarter cities
Design-think for smart horns for smarter cities

Cars have evolved dramatically yet the car-horn remains essentially the same: a brutish, beastly remnant that barks loudly and incoherently in our ears and our cities’ soundscapes with its harshness. Can design-think solve this problem? Here are some quick notes I made as I crawled in a huge traffic snarl in New Delhi recently, with horns just hooting and honking thoughtlessly all around.

Am looking forward to all of you discussing and pitching in with your design-thinking to give this a more evolved and final shape, and to have you implement at least some ideas to get the wheels moving in this direction. You sense the birth of new startups here?

Horns With Eyes

Let’s give eyes to our horns. Imagine we set up sensors in the car. Sensors that continuously monitor the eyes of the driver. The moment the driver presses the horn the sensors immediately track, in milliseconds, with sensors outside, what is it that the driver is seeing that prompts her to honk. In the case of motorbike and two-wheeler scooter drivers, the sensors and tech are embedded into the helmet and are synced with the vehicle’s horn. I know this is a rather sophisticated and demanding piece of tech, but it is possible. In fact, such ‘driver monitoring systems’ have already been designed and exist since more than four years. For instance, take a look here. None, however, explore how to integrate these smarts into a horn and to curb our propensity towards honking.

The smart-horn system not only quickly identifies what is the driver honking at, but also assesses why, using machine-learning. Here are some typical real-world user-case scenarios, and on how it is programmed to respond. The driver honks at:

  • A car ahead to give way. The system emits no sound into the open environment. Instead, it blinks an icon on the dashboard inside the other car and sounds a gentle, specific tone that indicates to the other driver to give way. Imagine the peace and silence outside.
  • A jaywalker who suddenly steps in front of the moving car or bike. A short note designed to alert but not alarm, emitted only in the direction of the jaywalker and adjusted to be audible enough for the short distance.
  • Children or a procession in front to give way. First, the system ensures the vehicle cannot speed in such a situation.The horn quickly changes its tone to a fun, cheerful, musical chime that will catch the attention of the children or the procession, and makes them alert and also happy. The volume of the alarm automatically levels down to fill only the area with the children or the group in front and not travel further than that. Did you know most horns are typically 103dB and above. Factor in closer proximity and that may cause permanent damage to ears.
  • A speeding vehicle coming headlong. The systems on both the vehicles will attempt to avoid the collision by setting each on a different course while dramatically slowing down the vehicles. Emergency warning tones and notifications fill the cockpit of the two cars. It also checks if the respective horns have to be sounded externally, and will rapidly decrease the volume as the vehicles near. Yes, you read that right.

Of course, in every situation the system will have a quick over-ride placed at the steering wheel, so the driver may blare away if required in any case.

Road-Rage? Just Horn OK Please

So what else can the system do? For trigger-happy, road-ragin’ folks who love to press the horn hard, the system will always play the sound of the horn inside the car for psychological comfort, without actually playing it outside in the open. This is a little like that camera-shutter sound you hear when you click a photo with your mobile-phones. There is no manual shutter mechanism in a smartphone. The system will also trigger the appropriate alert-sound and notification inside the targeted vehicle or towards the pedestrian, but with more pleasant notes and volume. More importantly, sensors monitoring the eyes and those embedded in the horn measure the psychological state of the driver. It specifically picks up cues for aggression, impatience, anger, rage, frustration, as well as panic, drowsiness, and even drunkenness. Based on these cues, the system will intervene as appropriate. The possible interventions that can be designed would need a whole, separate post, but you get the idea.

For instance, it could play soothing music; release calming and pleasant aromas to soothe the nerves; and even talk to the driver. In states of drowsiness it could turn up the music-levels, turn down the temperature considerably, and release sharp lime-based aromas in the car to make the driver more alert. In the case of drunk-driving, the system may suggest and even prompt the driver to pull over or even book a cab, and on refusal, may alert authorities and loved-ones as well.

Look Dashing on Your Dashboard

The local authorities could also set up analytics on the smart car-horn. Based on how sparing and courteous the driver is with the horn, parking-lots and gas-stations could offer discounts as a government incentive. The results of the analysus may also negatively or positively impact the car-insurance policy premium and bonuses. Yeah, this rabbit-hole can go quite deep.

The system makes the use of the car horn in our outdoors almost redundant, bringing much-needed peace and quiet in our cities and our lives. The sounds are also tailored to indicate context and emotion, rather than just blare the same loud and garish notes. For this system to be successful, the government needs to set policies, resources, and deadlines. Car and vehicle manufacturers could launch such systems as smart value-additions. And I foresee a slew of startups that see the numerous opportunities available in this space.

All of this may take anything from two to five years, but eventually our cities will get less noisy and more quiet, and our citizens more civil and courteous. We may then just finally say “OK TATA” to the rudeness and crudeness of the archaic car-horn.

Candy Crush Kathak

User Interaction Design Through Dance

Shravani perfoming Kathak
Shravani perfoming Kathak

 

Her two graceful fingers point towards the sky. The rolling sounds of thunder envelope the lightening-dazzled valleys of Pune. Swaying in her balcony overlooking a verandah with a mango tree, Shravani suddenly widens her eyes, lifts her hands, and her wrists begin to tremble. With two fingers from each hand still pointing to the sky, she traces the path of rains descending on the hills in the distance.

As if on cue, the rain falls heavily on the thousands of thirsty leaves of the mango tree. The young and beautiful Shravani’s dance is expressing her joy at her gaining admission into the prestigious National Institute of Design (NID), a train-journey away in Ahmedabad. The daughter of a dear family friend, Shravani is at the threshold of her new life, sharing for the first time with me her love for design and for Kathak, which is a classical dance-form from India.

When the rain starts to abate her movements slow down, focussing all her energy to the forefinger of each hand tenderly tapping its thumb. Aha! The gentle pitter-patter of a drizzle. In simple, evocative dance moves, she wordlessly expresses the different moods of India’s majestic monsoons. From downpours to light drizzles, lushly lazy to dramatic, thunderous ones.

Her hands and gestures, known as mudras in Kathak, soon melt into evoking the stately poise of a proud peacock, the sudden alertness of a grazing deer, the determined hunt of a ferocious lion, the prowl of a fierce tiger. And finally of course, the dancing form of Shiva, the playfulness of Krishna, the longing of Sita, and the desperate search by a lovelorn Ram.

Hand Mudra Gestures in Kathak
Hand Mudra Gestures in Kathak

Design Is Non-Verbal

Like the first exhilarating chirp of a Koyal, or a nightingale, that bursts into song when the rain finishes, a fresh thought dawns into my mind. Through centuries in India, the essence of stories and myths have been expressed using the non-verbal. Elegantly, they cut across the barriers of different languages and our rich and intricate cultures. Generation-after-generation, the eternal truths encoded in our legends are literally danced through gestures and expressions.

We need to trace our steps back to thousands of years, when ancient tribes in India first discovered the art of storytelling through non-verbal communication. Indeed the word ‘Kathak’ is from Sanskrit that literally means ‘story’ and this art relies solely on the dancer’s expressions, gestures, mudras, stance and especially delicate eye movements to evoke emotions while unfolding the story.

When I then turn my gaze to the years just ahead of us, I see the same game at play. Today, the world is a multicultural, plural society. The internet embraces all, the literate and the non-literate. In the present moment, how do we design apps for smartphones, tablets, smartwatches, smart TV, Internet of Things (IoT) and even more that we have not imagined yet for this rich, diverse and global cauldron that bubbles on this planet.

 

The Womb of Verbs

Design philosophers of the twentieth century from the Bauhaus movement and its minimalism boldly proclaim: ‘Form Follows Function’. Yet I strongly feel that design is not made of just nouns and its associated forms. Design to me is forged from the womb of verbs, actions and interactions. The role of a designer therefore is to design interactions that emotionally touch and delight your customers while fulfilling specific, precise tasks. Exactly like a dance.

To me: ‘Verb Follows Function’ is the new design language of the century. From the flirtatious swipes of the Tinder app, the harmless pokes on Facebook, the pinch and zoom in photos, the flicking of cash in an e-wallet, the exploding and popping of sweets in Candy Crush Saga, all design has become verb follows function. We are transiting from pure user-interface design to user-interaction design.

In Interaction design, there is indeed a form of Kathak at play in your hands. The Natya Shastra, an ancient Indian text on classical arts, has this famous quotation:

“Where the hand is, the eyes follow
Where the eyes go, the mind follows
Where the mind is, there is the feeling
Where there is feeling, there is mood, flavour, sweetness.”

Shravani’s dancing points to a deeper truth: The most fundamental approach today is to design as if the world has turned non-literate.

The objective of design is to use playfulness to enhance usefulness.

Take a look at these stunning and inspiring examples of six second transitions and interactions here for web and smartphones: sixux.com
In the ‘Dive Into Interaction Design’ workshops, I cover a great deal more about every aspect of making the world more meaningful through interactions. Here, for example, are easing functions which choose not just the speed but also the mood of moving elements in a design: http://easings.net/  Each one conveys a mood and emotion in the interaction design. I call this ‘Motion with Emotion’.

Lots more is covered in the workshop, including for instance, finding inspiration from some great film-sequences and opening title sequences in movies. From these we gain insights in interaction design for apps and UI. Am also curating a special board on my Pinterest account, dedicated to great examples and inspirations of interactivity. I may currently be conducting other workshops on Design, so if you do wish me to conduct one on Interaction Design, just write to me, and will inform you of upcoming dates.
Meanwhile, the next time you have to hire a designer or developer, ask them what they understand about dance. Every button, every icon, and every relationship between elements jumps to life with interaction design, because dance is a celebration of life. Need some quick inspiration to dance? Here’s some trippy, groovy music I composed a few months ago for a colleague, ‘Think With Your Feet.’

So go ahead, dance like its raining. It might just help you understand design as definitely being more alive.

Everything Will Be Broken into Rules of 3

Handwritten Notes in Niyam's Notebook

One day I just opened this hand-made notebook. Looked at the blank page, and then just started writing this down. It just flowed. I did not have to think this. I also have no idea what it means. And then I just forgot about it, until I opened the notebook again and happened to glance at this page. Am sharing with you. For those who can decipher this message, but only if they can decipher my handwriting, here is what is written:

 

  • Everything will be broken into Rules of 3
  • Three times three will give you nine
  • This nine will give you the answer
  • Nine times three will give you 27
  • 27 will give you love
  • Love is always between 3
    The two who love, and the third
    in who’s abode there is love
  • Tao:
    1. The first is Love
    2. The second is Never Too Much
    3. The third, Never Be The First In the World
  • Laughter.  Tears. Silence
  • Intelligence of the Mind
  • Intelligence of the Heart
  • Intelligence of the Hara-point
  • Live. Love. Laugh

 

 

 

Autobiography of an Android Yogi

Why I’ve Stopped Using A Smartphone, And So Will You.

Autobiography of a Lenovo Yogi
Why I stopped using a smartphone. While being irreverent to one who is irreverent. With my Lenovo Yoga 2 tablet and a Moto 360 smartwatch, circa December 2014 onwards.

 

The increasing momentum of my digital life, personal and professional, was suddenly hurled over a precipice into a beep-less, soundless, vacuum. All thanks to my Samsung Galaxy Note. One moment it was an artsy, smartsy phablet. The next moment it frapped into an inert, lifeless brick while in the middle of a battery-recharge. As abruptly simple as that. The experience reminded me of one of my favourite meditation techniques: The Stop Exercise by the mystic master, Gurdjieff. The great aspect of the Stop! Meditation is when you re-emerge from it, something intrinsically changes in you. Maybe that explains why I wish to explore a new way of living and working digitally without a traditional smartphone.

 

Yoga: The Alpha and the OMG!

What’s better than using a smartphone? In fact, what is it that a smartphone aspires to be? A tablet, of course. So I immediately started researching on the most suitable tablet for my needs, one which can also handle voice-calls and SMS-texting. That immediately ruled out the Apple iPad. Try this experiment for yourself: Look at the price of an Apple iPhone 6 plus. Then look at the price of a 7-inch iPad. Do you realize a 7-inch iPad is nothing but a larger 5.5-inch iPhone, with similar or same features, the same iOS, the same apps, but with voice-calling disabled? It still has cellular network connectivity, mind you. So then exactly what is it that merits an iPhone to be so expensive? Your hypnotism that a smartphone is meant to be expensive, while a tablet is meant to be a cheaper alternative to a laptop. If anything, the iPad should have actually been more expensive than the iPhone 6 plus, given the larger screen. Yet in a rather twisted way, the top-end iPhone 6 plus can be 250% to 300% more expensive than the price of an iPad mini. Emphasis on the hundreds of percent here, for the same tech.

 

The other thing I want is freedom. The freedom to have a micro-SD card in which I may freely drag-and-drop all my music, photos, and videos, and carry it around. Good luck with that shiny Apple thingie. First, you don’t even get a micro-SD card. And forget about the woes of using iTunes. I love the simplicity of using a pen-drive or a micro-SD card to manage my music-collection. My way. The lack of a micro-SD port on the new Google Nexus also puts it to shame, and out of this race. Again, do note how much you pay for a 32GB or 64 GB microSD card or pen-drive. Then take a look at how much Apple charges you for moving up from a 16GB Apple iPhone to a 64GB one. Har! Har! No wonder they don’t want to offer you a micro-SD port.

Okay, so everything I need in a smartphone, I have here. Rear and front-facing cameras. GPS for navigation, audio-jack, microUSB, sensors, Bluetooth. The battery especially is impressive at 6400mAh which can even be used to charge your other devices. The greatest joy is I get to install all my favourite apps from the Android store. Can you imagine the experience of WhatsApp, Telegram, FaceBook, web-browsing, Google Maps, on a gigantic 8-inch screen at full HD resolution? You may never want to look at your scrawny 5-inch smartphone screen again.

 

Witnessing the Watch

For a phablet that large, my life has surprisingly become so hands-free. I feel freed from the tyranny of having to constantly clutch a smartphone, or pull out one about a hundred times a day to glance and respond to the constant stream of interruptions. I carry the Yoga tablet 2 in a smart and artsy sling-back, which was originally meant to be an iPad slingbag. Often, I just dump it in my laptop bag, or leave it aside on the co-passenger seat or even the backseat while driving. No more distractions. A discreet bluetooth headset perched on my ear allows me to make and receive calls.

The jewel is of course the Moto 360. All incoming calls, tweets, facebook messages, emails, WhatsApp and Telegram messages, SMS-texts, and several other types of notifications from many other apps, land straight on my wrist. Just a glance is enough, followed by a swipe or two on the watch screen. The battery on both devices lasts me a full day of solid work with no need to recharge. I pair my interaction with the devices using Google talk. It still has issues in recognizing Indian names to call, so am waiting for that experience to improve. A smartwatch is a winner of an idea. While people are predicting the failure of the Apple watch, am quite confident the market for smartwatches is going to explode. The smartphone does need a smartwatch. There are new paradigms at work here. Apple may emerge the top smartwatch maker in the world, but Android will have the largest marketshare by far. Don’t kid yourself about a smartwatch. This paradigm-shift is here to stay.

Suffice to say I get a complete 100% overlap of all the features and tasks I expect from a smartphone. Now comes the stimulating part, the extra and new experiences and discoveries I couldn’t even have imagined. And which take me into a new leagues with experiencing smart mobile devices.

 

Beyond The SmartPhone

The first experience which is completely new for me, is the lavish 8-inch screen on which to surf the web and watch videos, at full HD quality. It’s like moving out of a congested single-room apartment into a mansion with gardens. This is not an incremental jump from a 4-inch screen to a 5-inch one or 5.5-inch screen. My first Apple Macintosh computer, the Mac 512K launched in 1985, had a 9-inch greyscale screen, with less than one-fourth the resolution of this Yoga tablet.

Then comes the music. The Lenovo Yoga tablet 2 ships with large, stereo speakers built-in, and with Wolfson audio-processing and Dolby. The sound, though near-field and moderate in volume, has to be heard to be believed. At my table at work, the side-table at night, or even at impromptu moments, I just prop up the Yoga and play some music. When I wish. It’s so personal. Indeed, I bought the first Yoga tablet in April of 2014 for my mother, as a personal music-player and iPod-replacement. Take a look at the pic here, with the two Yoga tablets. The ease with which I can manage my music-collection, share files, look up and play music, find albums, just cannot be beaten by an Apple iPod or iTunes. That era is finally over.

Excellent replacement to an iPod. The external 64GB card holds a massive collection of music, especially music for active meditations and a huge selection of English and Hindi discourses from Osho. As well as eBooks and a smattering of videoes.
Excellent replacement for an apple iPod. The external 64GB card holds a massive collection of music, especially music for active meditations and a huge selection of English and Hindi discourses from Osho. As well as eBooks in both languages and a smattering of videoes.

 

The Lenovo Yoga 8 as a replacement for an Apple iPod goes further. Using the new dual-plug microUSB pen-drives, you know the types that have a standard USB plug on one side, and a microUSB plug on the other, I can effortlessly and seamlessly transfer music on-the-go back and forth between my tablet and my laptop and even to or from another smartphone. While listening to an Osho discourse, if I find the mp3 file suffering from audio problems, I can just launch the web-browser, and download a newer version of the file from the Oshoworld.com site. I’ve set up a sleep timer that switches off the music or the discourse automatically after 45 minutes. And auto-starts with a playlist of music with which to start the day early in the morning. I can freely create my own playlists with gaps of silence, for meditations when requested. Indeed, my mother uses the Yoga tablet without a SIM card, and as a dedicated music-player, which in her own words, has a gorgeous, large, and colorful user-interface and a user-experience that is far more delightful, and easier, to use than an iPod.

The cylindrical housing of the battery is a unique aspect of the design. It offers a better grip than the tiring one required to hold a razor-thin tablet or smartphone for longer durations. It feels like a curled book or magazine. Indeed, the Yoga tablet offers a great experience for reading eBooks.

I just finished reading ‘Autobiography of a Yogi’ on the Yoga. This is the book by Paramahansa Yogananda that Steve Jobs had willed to be gifted to everyone who attended his funeral. More on this book someday perhaps in another blog-post. I find reading books on Yoga a joy. Okay, that’s a pun, I obviously mean the tablet, not just the topic. Then there’s Zinio and the ability to read all my favourite magazines in a digital format. The large screen is just so much more comfortable.

 

The Path of Renunciation

There are still a few minor things to sort out. I still  haven’t found a suitable tablet-holder with which to affix my Yoga tablet in the car while driving. That’s also because I haven’t looked hard. But that’s the point. Google’s voice-recognition is still awkward and clumsy at times. For names it just can’t recognize, I memorize the numbers and then spell out the numbers alone to dial. Clumsy. The rear-camera does not have a flash though it can click in very low light. People did complain about the software being buggy, but that was at its launch. A couple of updates later the software works fine for my needs, but there are still a few annoyances which I’ve just taken in my stride for the moment.

The one negative aspect that I truly dislike, is the apparent renunciation of Yoga for MHL support. For the uninitiated, MHL stands for Mobile High-Definition Link. That means, with a nifty little adapter, you can mirror what’s on the Yoga tablet’s screen on to an HDMI-enabled device like a large LCD or LED screen, or an overhead projector. Most needed for a guy like me into professional and corporate training and workshops around design, design-think, and creativity. So far, tech-support in India seems clueless about its support, and the few adaptors I’ve tried don’t work. I do know the previous version supports MHL so am hugely disappointed this one does not.

I hope Lenovo fixes these problems in the next version, while Google refines its voice-recognition considerably, as am probably going to stay on the path of Yoga for sometime.

 

So that’s it. That’s my story. Hidden in this is of course the concepts of design-think used to find a creative approach to selecting my next smartphone. I love to think of everything as a design problem, and try to use a creative approach to find an alternative solution each time. So why don’t you read this post again, this time from the perspective of design-think. Makes the journey more rewarding.

Living In A Trance-port: Life in Delhi

Saturday-afternoons in Delhi are beautiful in January, especially with the golden sunshine of winters, and less traffic. So, like on most lazy Saturday afternoons, took my six-year-old on a trip to his library in my car. The distance from Greater Kailash 2 to his library in South Extension is six kilometres (3.7 miles). As we neared our destination, my heart sank to see a total jam at the entrance to the South Ex market. Hmmm! Must be the result of the winter-sale season, I wondered. Cars spilled out from the jammed parking lots onto the Ring-Road. Yes, there were cars on the Ring-Road, waiting in queue with engines switched off. Helpless traffic-cops just stood by. I waited for ten minutes, but saw not a car move even far into the parking-lot.

I’m Feeling Lucky

“Let’s do something crazy and inspiring” I told my six-year-old. I pulled out of the queue, and drove all the way to Nehru Place, which is about six kilometres away (3.7 miles), carefully noticing I could find not a single parking-spot on this entire route. Parked my car in the lot of The Delhi Metro Station, which was also nearly full. The assistant informed me today was a lucky day as there were less cars due to the weekend. In Delhi, It’s not unusual to hand over your keys to the attendant so he may keep shuffling your car around in the driveways of an overflowing parking-lot. I didn’t have to today.

Nehru-Place is the nearest metro-station from my home, and Moolchand is the closest station to South-Extension on the violet-line. I bought two metro tickets from Nehru-Place to Moolchand, for Rs 20 (43 cents). The distance from Moolchand to South-Extension is about 1.5 kilometres (0.93 miles). I could have easily walked this last mile, but not in Delhi’s pollution and noise, and certainly not with a six-year-old. Please search the web to discover the alarming levels of Delhi’s air-pollution, and how Delhi records the highest cases of respiratory diseases and infections in its population. So I decided to catch an auto-rickshaw for this short distance. He charged me Rs 40 (87 cents). Wow!

Anyways, business done in South-Extension, we walked back to the Ring-Road, and this time I decided to catch a bus to the Moolchand Metro station. A spanking new Redline Bus came by, and we hopped abroad. This was my first trip on these new buses. The conductor charged us Rs 50 (USD 1.08) for this short ride. That’s more than what the auto-rickshaw charged me, and that too for an even shorter distance as we had to take no U-turn on this route. Lesson learned. Next time, I’ll try the green-line.

The bus dropped us at a bus-stop about 400 metres away from the metro-station, and we carefully walked our way through the Moochand crossing with its dangerous and bewildering BRT crossings. Another set of metro-tickets for Rs 20 (43 cents) got us back to Nehru-Place, where I paid another Rs 10 (21 cents) for the car-parking. Then spent another ten minutes in the traffic to get back home.

Neurotic Standards

I spent Rs 140 (USD 3.04) for a return-journey for two by public-transport, for about 12 kilometres total, that took a total-time of 90 minutes of commuting, including walking and waiting. Rupees 140 is high, even by Delhi’s mad and neurotic standards. I don’t know whether for the same amount I could have covered this round-trip by auto-rickshaws. For that kind of money, my auto-rickshaw driver quipped, I could buy bus-tickets for two from the Inter-State Bus Terminus (ISBT) to head out far into the countryside.

On such days, maybe I could have my driver drop me at South-Extension, find parking in a two kilometre radius, or else drive back home, and in either case wait for me to call him over his mobile-phone to pick me up. Sinful.

I do want to switch to public-transport. That’s what I use when I travel anywhere else in the world. And Delhi’s metro service is indeed impressive, as is the redline-bus. Am eager to see better solutions emerge for this route and other short but equally congested distances near me. Let’s see. Oh! And by the way, must confess I did have quite a lot of fun doing this today. Expect to see me hop on-board the metro and even the red-line buses more frequently.

[ends]

Navigating with Stars Far into My Mind

Ancient algorithms in my contemporary world

Sometimes, late into the night when I enter my bedroom, I find it plunged pitch-black in total darkness. The experience is rather delightful. The sense of space suddenly disappears. I don’t know what’s ahead, above, sideways, or below. I just know I am there but I can’t see anything about myself either. From within my body I can feel my hands and limbs moving without being able to see them move, and I bring all my attention to my movements, warily observing if I touch, bump, or brush against something in this abyss.

The only orientation I can deduce initially, is the sense of my standing upright, thanks to the constant pull of gravity I feel through the soles of my feet and across the various postures of my body. If I don’t feel my head being pulled down and my entire body pushing it further down behind it, then I must not be falling down. It’s really that simple.

No Thing

I pause to appreciate all the vibrant colors that cover every surface in my bedroom are no longer available to my brain to recognize. The color-cones within my eyes capture nothing. The subtle play of lights and shadows, which helps my mind perceive depth and distance around me is also gone. The rods within my eyes capture no ‘concurrent monotone textures’ with which I understand 3D and spatial distances. In fact, there is not even enough ambient light for me to at least see objects where ‘color constancy’ has drained all sense of color from their surfaces. Finally, I can’t even see any sillhouettes of my bed, chairs, tables, jutting into the darkness. My mind cognizes no shapes. As I said, it’s all pitch-black.

Depraved

Well, nearly. The only things my eyes see, are pinpoints of three to four lights. These are the standby lights emitting from the LEDs of my gear. The TV’s red-colored standby light. The Home Theater System’s standby Red light, the TV set-top box’s amber-green light. Up above on the side, the AC unit’s neon-blue light, and in another area, a larger red-dot from the AC’s stabilizer. All these small dots of colored light, look like starlight to my mind depraved of all sense of dimension and space. Interestingly, the color from these LED dots, is sensed by the cones in my eyes, and apart from each one’s inherent shape as a dot or a small-circle, my brain picks up no other shape. As far as my mind is concerned, these could be star-light that travelled millions of years ago, from exotic stars, millions of light-years away on a night horizon.

Within a few moments, I marvel at how my mind auto-magically rummages through its couldron of experiences and memories, of how it has cognized the room’s dimensions and spaces during normal daylight or artificial light moments. My mind draws a mental map as it were, of the entire room, and overlaps it in 3D over those pinpoints of LED lights. It then orients my position, and lets me ‘know’ I am five steps to the right of my bed, after I make a subtle swaying movement to dodge a table-edge jutting out on the right. I thus navigate myself through various obstacles, literally on an invisible path, safely to my bed, using nothing but nearly dimensionless points of light.

Ancient Algorithms

As I rest my head on my pillow, I always wonder at the ancient antecedents of this algorithm in my mind. It must be buried somewhere, deep in our collective consciousness, used by ancient travellers navigating their way across the shifting and rolling landscapes of deserts or vast oceans, using nothing but stars to point them to their destinations. Thankfully, no ancient traveller lived for hundreds of thousands of years to observe the gradual shifting of the night-horizon. Thus, those stars were the most permanent navigation points, in an impermanent and ever-changing land or seascape. But, the ‘LED stars’ in my bedroom can be hacked. If someone were to move my gear around a bit, and I were to enter the room without prior knowledge of this, would I stumble through the room? With each bump and knock, how hastily would my mind create a new version of object-placement and my orientation in the room?

As I slowly drift into the inner darkness of sleep, I can only wonder: The accuracy of the mind’s navigation-map has to be sensitively appreciated as well. To test it, I have often shut my eyes tight and moved through the physical space in my room, guided only by the mental space conjured by the mind. It works flawlessly. Static shape dissolves into fluid motion, and the pillow under my head reminds the mind to unravel and repose in its secrets far away from my conscious self.

[ends]

Bird’s Eye-view: To Bee or Not to Bee Saving Tigers.

Mobile-Towers May Be Endangering Species of Birds Across India and Threatening Bees.

How do you poach customers in a battle for survival and marketshare? An Indian mobile-telephony company, Aircel, may have hit upon a new idea for big-game hunting. Aircel has partnered with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) India, in a strategic campaign to save the declining population of tigers in India. Why save half a paisa on talk-time, when you can go save a tiger? You may join the initiative here: www.saveourtigers.com

In one leap, the company has earned good karma points by creating a growing social-buzz around its campaign in new-media such as facebook, twitter, and online blogs, and most importantly, by generating market-conversations around its brand. City-wide hoardings, and ads in traditional media are further fueling their buzz. Suddenly, people are emotionally-charged and galvanized, and funds and support are pouring in to save the tiger. This is Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) at its best. I wish every corporate in India feels inspired to devote a huge chunk of their marketing funds and warfare at similar causes that matter to us.

Save Our Birds and Bees

But who will save species of birds and even bees endangered by the harmful radiation emitted by mobile cell-towers? According to several media reports, the ElectroMagnetic Radiation (EMR) from cell-towers can damage eggs and embryos of birds, and may have caused the rapidly-declining numbers in the bird-population across regions. “It’s almost like being microwaved”, says a researcher involved with the study on the impact of EMR from these towers.

Here’s a report from the Times of India from 3 October 2008, on various researchers that seem to concur on their findings: http://bit.ly/CellTwrBirds

Another report, carried by AFP and published at PhysOrg, mentions the deadly impact of EMR on the population of bees in India: http://bit.ly/CellTwrBees

We must save tigers. But we must also save these birds and bees. Even if it means the cell-tower as we know it has to become extinct. Smarter Corporate Social Responsibility, not just from Aircel, but any other corporate, should urgently address this issue. As an individual, you can generate enough buzz around this issue to galvanize the powers-that-be to take positive and affirmative action. You can buzz about bees on blogs, chirp about birds on twitter, and use the power of the social-web to make all mobile-telephony companies wake up to the call of our winged living beings.

The first mobile-telephony company to take on this urgent cause will unleash a brilliant marketing strategy that will not only save these precious species, but also improve the current technologies used in mobile telephony to make them safer. Oh! And along the way, poach millions of customers away from its rivals. Now that is predator-thinking.

[ends]

The New ‘Avatar’ of Mysticism

Neyetri from Avatar 3D, with bioluminescent points on her face.

Look carefully. The Na’vi people portrayed in James Cameron’s ‘Avatar’ sit cross-legged on the ground, hold hands, and rotate their bodies from their bellies in a circular movement. All this in a deeply-meditative trance under the guidance of their chief Shaman and High-Priestess.

Mandala Meditation

The sequence closely resembles an actual technique of meditation, devised by Osho called Mandala. From its official website:

“Mandala means circle. Every circle contains a center. The aim of this technique is to create a circle of energy so that centering results naturally. At the end, one is left in absolute stillness, absolute silence.”

The specific technique is in the second stage of this meditation, described as follows:

“Sit with your eyes closed and mouth open and loose. Gently rotate your body from the belly, like a reed blowing in the wind. Feel the wind blowing you from side to side, back and forth, around and around. This will bring your awakened energies to the navel center.”

Meridien Points of Acupressure

As darkness falls, or during moments of dramatic stress, the beautiful blue-toned bodies of the avatars gently glow with tiny points of bioluminescent light. In some scenes these points appear on the face, in other scenes on the forearm, or on the torso. These points are reminiscent of ‘meridien points’ from traditional Chinese acupuncture. According to wikipedia:

“The meridian … is a concept central to traditional Chinese medical techniques such as acupuncture, and to martial arts such as tai chi and qigong. According to these practices, there are channels along which the energy or qi of the psychophysical system is considered to flow. Such techniques are said to achieve their effects by manipulation and, ideally, balancing of the energy running through a network of complex bodily patterns.”

Deep Forest

While immersed in 3D, keep your ears wide open. You will hear several types of tribal instruments playing soothing, calming, and rather evocative tribal music, even during the call for war. Pay attention to the didjiridoo, which plays for a short while but at the most pertinent moment. Something uncannily familiar about the music kept haunting me, like a fading memory. A few days later, in the silence of the night, I suddenly remembered! This music reminds me of my favourite album from 1998, ‘Deep Forest’, an album on which I’ve danced and meditated through several years of my life, all the way till 2006-ish. Early the next morning I rummaged through my collection, pulled it out, and danced for an hour in my room, delighted to have re-discovered it through a regression into my past from a 3D-conjured future.

The movie has several other allusions to mystical concepts and practices, but I leave the joy of more discovery to your search. At a more basic level, the film also alludes to many Hindu philosophy and religious concepts, starting from the obvious concept of the ‘avatar’. The astral-body and astral-travel of hinduism and buddhism is re-invented by Cameron as a DNA-mutated 10-feet tall living organism. Plugging into other living beings through the ‘queue’, which are the neural strands within the hair-braid of the Na’vi, is a creative interpretation of the ‘hara’ point in zen and buddhism.

The genius of the film lies not just in its technological-marvel, but in James Cameron as a shaman of our new age, channeling truths through a conjured world, unplugging us from the rigor-mortis of mankind’s decaying religions and spirital-values, navigating us in 3D back to our present-day world to our eternal truths.

This is the mark of genius, the revolution of consciousness over computers and CGI.

[ends]

“Genesis Takes Place Continually in Nirvana” – Physicist Dr. Michio Kaku

Physics in the 21st century is finally beginning to speak the language of mysticism. Dr. Michio Kaku is an American theoretical physicist, who speaks of Science unravelling not one, but several universes, or ‘multiverses’. The first time I heard this term and its explanation was not in this century, but the previous, and not from a physicist, but an enlightened mystic master, Osho. Watch this excerpt from an episode, posted on YouTube, where Dr. Michio Kaku expresses with child-like enthusiasm how our whole understanding of the universe is going to fundamentally change again:

[end]

How You May Fight Unwanted and Spam SMS-Text Messages

Are you fed up of receiving unwanted sms-text messages on your mobile-phone? Have you received any within the last 24 hours? If your answer is yes, your problem is far deeper than you’d like to acknowledge.

Harassment

For instance, do you realize with each passing day, the menace of unwanted SMSes bombarding your mobile-phone is only set to grow? Soon, the growth may turn exponential? Unlike spam-messages in email, that can be seen cluttering your inbox only when you log into your mailbox, a spam-sms pesters you directly, at any odd hour of the day or night, demanding your immediate attention. You may soon find yourself persistently interrupted through your day and life. This is harassment, apparently non-physical and non-verbal, but in reality, it is physical, mental, and even social. So stop being mute about it.

Private and Confidential

It may seem obvious that you need not give your mobile number away to random people and organizations. However, this step alone is not sufficient. I have an Airtel mobile number since 1999, and so far I have never published my number anywhere. In these ten years, I’ve made it a point to never publish my number on any of my business cards. When I do give my number to someone, I immediately impress upon them, whether verbally or in writing, not to share my number with anyone else without my prior consent.

Do Not Answer

My second rule is even stricter. I tend not to answer calls from numbers I do not recognize, or do not expect. So, if you want me to answer your call, you have to first sms me, letting me know who’s calling and why, and request me to consider answering my phone.
The nature of my work, as well as my life, is such that I tend to keep my phone in a switched-off or its silent-mode for hours at a stretch. This is actually a good habit to inculcate. Once people know you are not a reliable mule always available at the other end of their mobile-phone, they’ll use their discretion in calling you, and switch to alternatives, such as e-mail, or even an urgent sms. I make it a point of being prompt in my responses to valid emails. This works as a positive assertion, as people soon learnt to email rather than just call me.

No Escape From SMS-Spam

Even then, the best laid plans of mice and men-with-mobiles oft go awry. Each time I’ve had to book an airline ticket for myself, I’ve been asked to provide my mobile number so the airline may inform me of delays and schedules. Yeah! Right. Within minutes of them punching my number into their systems, I’ve consistently received sms-es promising me hotel rooms, properties to buy, and even vacations. Similarly, when I fill up forms for making investments, or at banks, where providing my mobile number is mandatory (why?) I am subsequently besieged by spam-smses. Even certain government-forms demand I share my mobile-number.

Do Not Disturb

By now, you may wonder how come I do not mention Unwanted Commercial Calls (UCC). Oh! I solved that problem long ago. You see, desperate to unplug myself from this vortex, I immediately registered myself with the National Do Not Disturb (N-DND Registry). You may do so too, by following the directions here: http://ndncregistry.gov.in/ndncregistry/index.jsp

Black-list Callers

Within 45 days of registering, all unwanted commercial calls actually ceased. Once in a rare while, say once in three to four months, I may receive the one stray call. I promptly fire off a written complaint via email to 121@airtelindia.com. They formally acknowledge the email, provide me with a number, and respond within a few days on the action they may have taken to resolve the call. I’ve also subscribed to Airtel’s ‘Call Management’ service. This is available from their website for a small fee per month: I pay Rs 15 per month. I have created a ‘black-list’ of telephone and mobile-numbers, and that pretty much keeps UCC at bay.

SMS is a pesky problem. For each junk-sms I receive, I promptly fire up my email software, and write a complaint to 121@airtelindia.com. Their customer-service then has to respond to such a written complaint, and they follow it up with a voice-call as well. This is where the rub lies. Since the past several months, I’ve pointedly asked Airtel the following questions, which they either duck or evade:

01. Exactly what steps have they taken to stop that sms-sender from sending messages? I don’t need assurance, I need proof.

02. For the harassment caused and for the trouble I take to sit down and file a written complaint, and to respond to their follow-up calls, what compensation will be offered to me?

03. Given that I have clearly and unequivocally indicated that I do not wished to be disturbed by unwanted smses, and registered with the TRAI for this, why is it that Airtel first waits for me to file a complaint, and then responds by stating that a warning has been issued to the spammer? Is that all? Why can’t Airtel prevent spam-smses, by using clever software-filters that catch spam and chuck them out?

04. Does Airtel stand to gain money from having such smses sent on their networks? Or, does Airtel stand to gain money in receiving compensations from spammers for their offenses? The TRAI directive may offer a clue:
“To discourage the telemarketers who make calls to the numbers registered in Do Not Call List, a provision has been made whereby Rs.500/ – shall be payable by the telemarketer to the service provider for every first unsolicited commercial communication (UCC) and Rs.1000/- shall be payable for subsequent UCC. There is a provision for disconnection of the telemarketer telephone number / telecom resource if the UCC is sent even after levy of Rs.500/- & Rs.1000/- tariff. In case of non-compliance to the Telecom Unsolicited Commercial Communications Regulations, 2007, the Service Provider is also liable to pay an amount by way of financial disincentive, not exceeding Rs.5000/- for first non-compliance of the regulation and in case of second or subsequent such non-compliance, an amount not exceeding Rs.20,000/- for each such non-compliance.”
Source: http://ndncregistry.gov.in/ndncregistry/index.jsp on date: 28 July 2009.

As you can see, the TRAI directive is lopsided. The end-user suffers, while the Service-Provider may stand to profit from penalizing spammers when a complaint is lodged by the end-user. It’s obvious the end-user must be compensated for each offense. This compensation may be automatically offered, whether or not the end-user lodges a complaint.

In the meantime, I feel getting Airtel to respond to me for every spam-sms against which I file a complaint, will eventually yield results. I would therefore strongly encourage fellow-users to file written complaints at 121@airtelindia.com.

Throughout, I mention my experiences with Airtel. You may find similar services with your service provider. So please check with them, as I would not know.

Finally, we’ve all forgotten the small little detail of spamming. The real person or organization behind the spamming tend to share their own mobile or landline numbers as well. Yummy! Starting this week, I am going to publish all these numbers on a special blog-post, and trust automated internet-spiders will harvest these numbers and contact-details. The rest, I leave to your imagination.

In the meantime, if you’ve got tips and suggestions to share, please do so here.

[ends]

Quantum Compass in Birds’ Eyes, And More.

There’s more to vision than meets the eye. Especially our eyes. Since more than fifteen years, I have just read, researched, and absorbed anything that helps me understand vision, colors, and ultimately, perception. I just find it so fascinating and mysterious. My workshops on digital color, digital typography, or digital sound, and more recently, digital video, are drawn from my ongoing research and study into the fundamental principles of these doors of perception.

Just stumbled across this new discovery, which I find rather exciting:

Reverse Engineering the Quantum Compass of Birds:

http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2009/06/birdcompass/

That birds have a compass in their eyes with which they can actually ‘see’ the Earth’s magnetic field is startling. You’ll also find other equally intriguing snippets of information on the page, including how cows and deer align themselves to the north-south magnetic fields of Earth.

[ends]

Seeking Intelligence and Meaning on the Web

Let’s Start with Toys through alaTest.com. Hopefully We’ll Get to Truth Later.

What is the world wide web? A collective outpouring of almost a billion minds chattering together to create a cacophony of frenzied thoughts that overwhelm and deluge you. If you could imagine a single giant megaphone connected to the web, and a text-to-speech engine, that converted every blog, chat, email, and every fragment of text on the web into sounds, mixed it with all the podcasts and music, as well as the audio from all videos published on the web, what would you get? Crank up the volume for good measure.

The web is man’s search for meaning. A thirst for intelligence embedded within information.
Google is a funnel, but leaves it to you to extract meaning and intelligence from its results.

A small step in the right direction is alaTest. It addresses a rather frivolous purpose: intelligently rate
any electronic gadget you may wish to purchase. alaTest achieves its goal using a complex and brilliant algorithm, that automatically searches the web for all expert reviews on a single product, then compares it with users’ comments and reviews, to arrive at its alaScore. The engine is much more complex than that, but what would take me several hours or even days through several sites and reviews, is now achievable with almost a single click, in a few seconds.

Whew!

The site is still a work-in-progress, and expect a few anomalies as the engine refines itself. However, it is a commendable project. For all those who often love to pick my brains on helping them choose their often pre-determined gadgets (hehe!), please consider using the evaluation here instead.
On a more philosophical note, it mirrors our path. As children we start with grasping toys as we try to decode the world around us. Gadgets are nothing more than toys, more often for boys. Hopefully, some day, we may just find the essential algorithms developed through alaTest and other similar engines, to find more meaningful insights on the web, than just what to buy. Until then, let’s enjoy alaTest.

[ends]

Global Meltdown: The Fine Print

Chanced upon these figures:

…companies in their bid to save costs, have announced more than one lakh [100,000] job cuts in the month of December alone in the US, while so far in 2008 there have been close to 20 lakh [2 million] layoffs.”
http://profit.ndtv.com/2008/12/28200015/microsoft-advised-to-lay-off-o.html

No figures available on what’s going to happen the next month, as well as through 2009.

[ends]

How Anyone Can Improve Their Spoken and Written English

What every Indian must understand: Good language skills go a long way in furthering your professional career, personal life, and self-grooming. Poor skills betray the value and credibility of your education.

Over the past five years, have noticed a rather alarming trend in India. Literate and well-educated people can no longer speak a single, proper sentence in English. They suffer from terrible mistakes in grammar and pronunciation. What is more embarrassing for them, is many of them have spent a fortune and have devoted two or three decades of their lives in acquiring their education. Yet almost anybody I meet or interact with, sounds illiterate and uneducated the moment they open their mouths.

How Deep The Grammar Rabbit-Hole Goes

Students and professionals from engineering seem to be the worst hit. To most of them, English has always been an unimportant subject, and reading books a waste of time. Thus, intelligent and highly-skilled professionals in India find it difficult to find jobs, or move ahead in their careers. The IT and BPO industries find it especially hard to find people with even a basic level of business-communication skills. I recall that through my school days, I never met a single teacher of Science subjects such as Physics, Biology, Chemistry, or Maths, who could speak English properly. Sadly, many children laughed and mocked their teachers’ abuse of the language (“Hush! Children! The Principal is vibrating in the corridor.” Or, the odd “Open the window, let the climate come in.”)

In the last ten years of my work as a journalist and editor, am dimayed to note graduates in English-literature from top universities, some armed with additional qualifications in Journalism and New Media, are quite insufferable. Sub-editors, who are normally in-charge of correcting spelling, grammar, and style, are themselves quite terrible, too.

The Rot Seems to Have Set In

Web-search to discover how many bookshops have shut down in Delhi alone. The few surviving ones augment or even support their business with in-house coffee-shops, or by selling music, movies, stationery, and knick-knack. I seldom find people browsing through bookshops, or once inside, browsing through books. The writing-style of popular books today is a subject for another discussion.

The English in our daily newspapers is appalling. This is even more ironic when you realize one of them claims to hold the record for the world’s largest circulation among English newspapers, while others contest closely for this top position. Mainstream English TV channels have presenters who should be pulled off the air and sacked, but it’s apparent there is a genuine problem in finding good people in a country with a population of over one billion. While I send my child to one of the best play-schools in Delhi, am distressed to note that some of his play-school teachers can’t speak English correctly. How do I shield his ears from imbibing their language?

Hiding Their Incompetence

Most people have found clever and sly methods of hiding their incompetence. They all mix English with their local language, such as Hindi, Punjabi, Tamil or whatever else. This bastardization is deliberately made to sound ‘cool’, and Radio and TV jockeys heavily indulge in ‘Hinglish’ or other corruptions. The second trick is to use as few words as possible, and to be repetitive, all this to hide the sparseness of their vocabulary. They all tend to speak rapidly, as this hides their ignorance of pronunciation, tenses, and other inaccuracies. While speaking, only key operative-words are emphasized. In particular, the sharp consonants of some words are spoken loudly, while the rest of the words are merely mumbled. For example, “CARReer” or “CARRier” to hide their ignorance of the distinct pronunciation of each word. Some words are abbreviated, such as “congrats” instead of “congratulations”, and “vocab” instead of “vocabulary” . Eye and hand-gestures compensate for the rest.

Writing-skills

This deserves special mention. Graduates in their twenties and thirties cannot write, not even to save their skins. Many companies, sensitive to their image, enrol their staff into what I call ‘re-education crash courses’ to get them to send an email in comprehensible English. I often groan when I find PowerPoint or OpenOffice Impress slides beamed on big screens and to large audiences, with glaring spellings and other mistakes. As important speakers and guests-of-honour butcher the language on public-address systems, have often wished someone would invent technology to run live and subtitled-text for the audience. People I know, who speak fluently and once wrote nearly flawless English, have today sent their writing skills to the dogs. They never realized when they deteriorated to SMS-English in their formal letters and published words. I rarely find someone who remembers to spell ‘you’ as ‘you’, for instance. Indian authors may win the Booker prize and other international recognitions for their literary outpourings, but nobody seems to address the reality in every street, school, office, and home in India.

Wake-Up Calls

For a few years in my profession, I foolishly imbibed the Hinglish-style of speech, and freely spoke in the incorrect English of my clients, thinking this would help me get my message across better. The worst thing I could possibly do to myself professionally and personally, was to discard my English and imbibe the atrocious language-style of my students in New Media and/or Graphic Design, especially from 1998 till 2007. This I did even when I was merely working as a visiting-faculty from time-to-time at a few institutes, and despite being a prolific writer, journalist, and an editor.

The first metaphoric stinging slap across my face, came from my dear friend, and one of my gurus, Raj Mathur, who publicly admonished me in 2000, for typing in sms-English, on the linux-delhi.org mailing list. I immediately noted how I had to struggle with myself to break away from that habit and get back to proper spellings. Am so glad linux-delhi.org, a hub of obviously educated people, insists members use proper spellings in their public posts. This also helps web search-engines to accurately tag and index the often valuable information shared on the list. I appreciate Raj for correcting me, and am often disappointed when otherwise educated people on the linux-delhi mailing list make weak excuses, cite laziness, or even argue, for using sms-spellings in their posts. Little do they realize the negative impression they generate for themselves in the eyes of prospective clients and employers, as well as friends and peers.

The second wake-up call followed almost immediately. I re-examined my professional writing and noticed my style had deteriorated drastically. It took me, and is still taking me, great effort to get back to my initial command over the language. Try this yourself now: Take pen and paper and see if you can spontaneously write two pages of text without sms-spellings, deletions, and other errors. Chances are you can’t.

The third wake-up call happened in 2007. While chatting with a dear friend over the phone, she pointed to me how I had grown into the habit of using rather abusive language. I felt rather ashamed of myself, and promised to drop the habit completely, though I love to use the ‘F’ word, out of love for Osho. Am not embedding the video-extract of Osho’s remarkable speech, but you may view it here: http://in.youtube.com/watch?v=6D7rWLzloOI

The fourth and final wake-up call came from Dr. Ramesh Biswas, from Austria. I frequently appear on television, usually, but not limited to, being interviewed for insights and recommendations on technology. While flipping through some TV channels one evening, Ramesh was surprised to catch me on-air and dropped by the next day, to tell me quite clearly: “You come across as an educated, well-groomed, and an intelligent person, until you spoil your own credibility and impression by suddenly mispronouncing words that you shouldn’t be, given your background…. You should find a teacher or instructor who actually raps you on your knuckles, and firmly deals with you until you get your presentation right.”

That was it. I suddenly remembered that for ten years of my life as a child, I did indeed have a private mentor who taught me English, and a love for poetry, literature, and books. Her name was Muriel Wasi, and with each passing day I fondly remember her as an old battle-axe. More about her in another post. Meanwhile, on receiving my Bachelors in English Honours from Delhi University, had enrolled for my Masters, and at one time, was all set to work towards a Ph.D in English Literature, until life had other plans for me. Twenty years forward I took a good and hard look at what I had done to my command over the language. I needed no further prodding.

Top Tips

Here are details of how I personally improved my deteriorating command over English. I further refined my techniques so people who have always suffered from poor English-skills may also significantly improve themselves within a month.

  1. Stop using sms-English: All it takes is just another 50-paise, or even a rupee, for you to type a slightly-lengthier message in proper English. Consider it a valuable investment to make each time. For recurring messages, consider creating templates of pre-typed messages in your phone. I often insist friends and colleagues who sms me regularly, to only use proper spellings in their messages.
  2. Read at least one good book a week: Reading newspapers, magazines, brochures, and business and technical documents, is like trying to nourish your body exclusively on junk food. Just think: Have you read at least 52 good books in the last twelve months? If not, you know why you’re suffering. I threatened to hold back salary-increases for writers in a publishing team assigned to me during a consulting project, if I did not find them reading a book a week. I even threatened to fire them if they defaulted twice. Within a month of this stern condition, I noticed a dramatic improvement in their quality of writing. If you work with writers, consider implementing similar rules.
  3. Run every paragraph you author through a free online spell-check and grammar-check tool. You may try my favourite one here: www.spellchecker.net/spellcheck
  4. Be more evocative: Quickly describe or write a review of your favourite movie or music. Chances are you might just have used the word ‘awesome’ somewhere. Consider using a free online thesaurus to find other words for almost everything you say or write. This will help you increase your vocabulary and also make your expressions more evocative. Here’s one: thesaurus.reference.com
  5. Conduct a readability test: Nobody will ever tell you whether they found your written English easy or difficult to understand. Raj Mathur has developed a free and opensource web-application, that grades your text against various readability metrics. James Joyce would find it quite Useless, but this may just help you catch the Achilles heel of your writing-style. Discover it here: English Diction and Readability Tests.
  6. Speak slowly: You might find this difficult at first, as you try hard to distinctly pronounce each word, and watch out for mistakes with definite and indefinite articles such as ‘a’, ‘an’, ‘the’; with prepositions such as ‘of’, ‘in’, ‘on’, ‘at’, and more; and with your tenses.
  7. Learn correct pronunciations with howjsay.com: Just pay attention on how to correctly pronounce words you often take for granted. Try some words that most Indians tend to get wrong: ‘Career’; ‘Europe’; ‘Executive’; ‘Wednesday’; ‘Pronunciation’; ‘Project’ (there’s a difference between the noun and the verb with the same spellings); ‘Florist’; ‘August’; ‘Spectacles’; ‘Form’ (as in admission-form. Most people tend to mispronounce this as ‘farm’ or ‘pharram’); ‘Director’; ‘Invalid’ (the noun is distinct from the adjective).
  8. Stop using ‘Hinglish’ or freely mixing English with any other language. You will soon find you can’t speak the other language properly either.
  9. Stop using ‘arrey’ at the beginning, and/or ‘naa’ at the end, of each sentence. Most otherwise well-educated Indians have taken on this rather deplorable habit. Examples: ‘Please come here, naa’; ‘Don’t you think, naa?’; ‘Arrey! What are you doing?’; ‘Arrey! Using English like this is not good, naa?’
  10. Avoid speaking in abbreviations: ‘Congratulations’ is better than ‘Congrats’, unless you do wish to make someone feel like a rodent.
  11. Correct, or else avoid, people who refuse to improve their language-skills. Why? You tend to imbibe their language. If i meet a client or colleague I can’t avoid, I silently correct all language-mistakes made by him or her, just so I can fence off the rot that may otherwise set in on me. Also, choose to spend more time with those who speak fluently and you’ll eventually notice a change in your style as well. It’s just human nature.
  12. Switch off from TV and radio stations that butcher the language. Choose instead, to watch at least one hour of good English TV programming, while paying more attention with your ears than your eyes. Tune in to a quality radio station, whether local or international, where your ears can soak up to abut an hour of good English.
  13. Avoid abusive or offensive language. It makes you sound rather uncouth.

As you may see, the deterioration of your language has actually taken considerable effort and fortification of wrong habits by you, but what if you feel none of the above tips improve your English? I’ve successfully used the following technique with Hina Khan and Anshuman Kumar, two students am individually mentoring in various creative disciplines.

Niyam’s Audacious Technique for Improving Your English

Before Your Begin: Download and install, audacity, the free audio-editing software, on your desktop or laptop computer. You may get it from audacity.sourceforge.net. Buy yourself a reasonably good-quality microphone, or else a headset with a built-in microphone. Plug it in to your computer, and make a test recording in audacity, to ensure everything works.

Step 1: Take a good book or magazine. Flip open a random and unread page. Record yourself reading that page aloud, for about five to seven minutes. Take care to speak slowly, clearly, and distinctly.

Step 2: Close the publication. Playback the recording while keeping your eyes closed, so you can focus on what you said.

Self-Test: Launch your favourite word-processor, like openoffice.org for instance, and type in a paragraph or more in summary of what you think you read, without consulting the publication or your recording. You might just feel quite disappointed or even aghast with your summary. Do this self-test just the first time you follow this technique.

Step 3: Launch your word-processor, and while listening to and pausing audacity phrase-by-phrase, transcribe everything you read back into its written form. This step may be tedious, but it will help you a great deal. Once done, compare it with the original. Once more, you might just find yourself surprised at spellings or even words you thought you had read and uttered.

Step 4: Close your eyes, listen to your recording one last time. Then open a fresh document and write a summary. Compare this with the original.

Step 5: Finally, make a second recording, this time looking up the correct pronunciation of words on howjsay.com in advance.

When you close your eyes and listen to this second recording, you may notice with increasing satisfaction, how much your spoken English may have improved within just thirty minutes of this exercise. Follow the above five steps daily, for about three months, and you’ll observe a startling and positive change in your diction and style.

Why Does This Technique Work?

Deep down, we’ve learnt to forget to pay attention to, and listen to, what we say. When we read with our eyes, we tend not to listen to the words being read with our ‘inner ear’. When we speak, our ears tend not to listen to our own voice speaking. Our mind switches off and wanders off, or merely listens to words, without paying much attention to meaning. Hence all the errors made the first time anyone goes through this exercise.

This technique is highly effective, because when you do get down to carefully listening to yourself reading that publication, you sub-consciously hear yourself using correct grammar and style. That re-inforcement goes a long way in spurring your speech towards correct English.

So ultimately, only you could have paved the way out from your own deterioration, without requiring direct intervention or ongoing instructions from any other person. Amazing Fascinating, isn’t it?

[ends]

Are Words Empty Vessels of Sound?

A zen brush-stroke defines an empty bowl. Using typography, I carefully placed the following words near it: “words: nothing but empty vessels of sound.” You may check the calligraphy and design here: writing.
words: nothing but empty vessels of sound

I must have authored the original design somewhere in 2001. A few hours ago today, in 2008, I received the following email from a complete stranger called Ian. I immediately wrote back to him, and sought his permission to share this email with you. Says Ian:

“Words cannot be empty vessels of sound. Words work fine in written form, yet no sound is heard. Words are not the vessels for sound – Sounds are the vessels of words. Words have an idea behind them. They represent realities that we grasp in our minds as ideas. God made a physical universe that has true reality because He is REALITY and was able to communicate reality to His creation. Reality is lent by Him. He made this creation by WORDS. He communicated the reality by speaking (in infinite power) it into existance. Its reality existed first with Him, and He communicated it with “let there be..”. He gave the gift of words and language to man. We cannot “speak-create”, but we can transmit the ideas behind things by sending and receiving words.”

Hmmm. Here’s a question, Ian, though it’s a little more like a zen-koan: Can the deaf, especially those born with total-hearing impairment, learn to read and write? The answer is a surprising yes. Discover more here: Raising Deaf Kids. You may find something even more fascinating here: Deaf People’s Inner Voice.

The essential point, is that even the deaf create an ‘inner auditory’ sense equivalent, or maybe equal, to what we experience as sound. You may search the web for more case-studies and research into how the deaf learn to read and write, and often so eloquently and with much better grammar and style.

Magic Moment: The word, then, is indeed a sound. Words to me, are vessels of sound. When you learn to read a word, you learn to say it loud to yourself. Soon, the subtle and magic moment arrives when your parent or teacher recommends you read the word ‘silently’ to yourself. The sound then becomes internal. As humans, we impart thought, and soon, abstract thought, to words. For example, the word ‘apple’ makes you think of the tangible fruit. The word ‘innovation’ is a pure and abstract thought. Beyond thought, as humans we impart emotions and moods, and even cultural and other connotations to the words we use. Nevertheless, each word has first to be a sound heard in the mind.

Empty Vessels: Students and participants to my various workshops have almost always asked me why I describe words as “empty vessels”, especially when I earn a part of my livelihood and name as a professional author and editor. I leave that for you to ponder over, but I do hope you find inspiration in the sufi poetry and lyrics sung in this exotic music video. I especially love the sequence with the sufi-whirling:

And inside,
We’re all still wet.
Longing and yearning.

How can I explain how I feel?