Kindle Under Your Nose

Using Design to Surpass My Experience of Reading A Book

Attention to detail. Carved out a notebook handcrafted in India, into an Amazon Kindle book-cover for myself.
Attention to detail. Carved out a notebook handcrafted in India, into an Amazon Kindle book-cover for myself.

You use your nose to read a book.

The faint smell of ink mixed with that sharp note of glue, and of course the woody smell of paper. Your fingers love the assuring texture and of paper as you unfurl your mind and curl up your body with your favourite book. When you finally close your droopy eyelids, you love the book resting on your chest, as if in a gentle embrace, while your imagination expands into your dreams with the fantastic worlds conjured by the living words of the book.

No such magic happens when you read an eBook.

The plasticy feel of the Amazon Kindle clutched in one hand is a barren, stark experience. Geeky perhaps. But shorn of the aesthetic breakthrough Gutenberg achieved with his first printed Bible in hot metal type. Even today, Gutenberg’s Bible is considered a marvel of design, typesetting, and illumination. So what is it that Jeff Bezos lacks with the Amazon Kindle?

Amazonian Jungle of Design

I carefully studied the user-interface design of the Amazon Kindle, now in its 7th incarnation with a touch-screen, 6-inch ink-display. The initial simplicity of design over this Linux-driven device peeks through. Just a screen with text typeset to the font and size of your liking, with margins you can choose, and with a single long-press to look-up the dictionary or a wikipedia-entry. Convenient and intuitive. A gentle tap on either side moves to the previous or the next page. However, with each new feature and extra option added over versions, the patchy, shoe-horned approach to design begins to show its signs. Even after three months of heavy use, I tend to get as lost and bewildered in the rabbit-hole of menus and options, as Alice in a Matrixed-wonderland.

Are You Experienced?

One evening, after the first session of one of my Design workshops, I sat alone, visualizing how I would overhaul the user-interface design of the Kindle for the third decade of the 21st century. Lots more can be achieved by not doing, and by leaving things out, in design. But is it all about the UI bass, no treble? Curious, I called some of my friends who use the Kindle. The response was universal. Each felt disappointed by eBooks and expressed something lacking with reading pixels. That may explain why sales of eBooks have suddenly plateaued across the world and printed books have rebound.

Aha! Here then, is where user-experience is the real bottleneck. I can’t fix the user-interface design of the Kindle as Amazon has locked it all away. But I can certainly fix the user-experience. All I need to do is to focus on the nose.

Hina Khan with the hand-crafted book-cover she made for me.
Hina Khan with the hand-crafted book-cover she made for me.

Notebook by A Student

I got in touch with Hina Khan, one of the students I have been mentoring in design since several years. In the past ten years, Hina has come to me every few years, just to sit and learn over several months, some aspect of design, color, photography, and more recently, typography. Hina is quite a versatile creative-professional, dabbling in many disciplines of art, design, and creativity. So when she ambled in one fine morning for her mentoring session on the complexities of free-culture, I gave her my DRM-ensnared and restrictive Kindle as a side-project.

The brief was simple. Let’s take a beautiful, handmade and organic notebook or diary which is made in India. Carve out the inside pages hollow and glue them, to form a cavity into which the Kindle tucks in. Hold it down with elastic or a thread or something. Embellish the design at will. And here, ladies and gentlemen, is how and what she crafted.

Diary of An Amazonian Madman
Diary of An Amazonian Madman

Hina caught the Delhi Metro to Chandni Chowk to deftly skip back in time by three centuries. She scoured the small by-lanes in search of a handmade notebook or diary of the required size and aesthetics. Surprised at not finding anything worthwhile, she did shop for a variety of exotic hand-made papers and art-supplies for her other various projects. Hina then searched the more artsy Khan Market  where at last she spotted just what she wanted. A notebook with screen-printed inscriptions in Hindi and Urdu, some quite incomprehensible, but nevertheless beautiful in its calligraphic style.

 

Don't judge this book by its cover
Don’t judge this book by its cover

She bought this silky azure ribbon and handed it to a tailor to carefully stitch it around the border.

 

Kindle Book-cover
Kindle Book-cover

From her collection of wood-block prints, Hina stamped a paisley design on front-side of the notebook, and then meticulously painted it in by hand.

 

Illustrated inside-cover of the Kindle book-cover
Illustrated inside-cover of the Kindle book-cover

Why tweet about a book when you can have a birdie in the inside front-cover? Yes! an original illustration by Hina drawn and traced onto that red paper, and then glued to the inside-front of the Kindle cover. The hollowed-out pages of the notebook were glued together and stuck into the inside-back, and then painted orange.

 

Opening an eBook, the organic way
Opening an eBook, the organic way

The final finish of the book-case, with the Kindle embedded.

Niyam Kindle
Niyam Kindle

Hina braided this cord, then punched two holes into the back of the book-cover and tied it in. We noticed the cord holding the Kindle in was a bit bulky as well as loose, causing the device to often fall out of its crevice.

 

Improved design of the Kindle cover
Improved design of the Kindle cover

So Hina promptly replaced it with two elastic bands in white.

 

Magnum opus of design for user-experience
Magnum opus of design for user-experience. Proud of the design and craftmanship of Hina Khan.

 

The New User-Experience of Kindle

Here at last was a Kindle with a spine. That was what was missing in the experience all along. The feel of a real and more importantly, organic, hardbound cover. The flourish of calligraphy with Indic scripts. The touch of silk. The smell of real paint-inks and not just printing inks. And the feel of handmade paper inside.

Now I find offset-printed books too mechanically perfect, machine-made and precisely trimmed. A product of an industrial age that dehumanizes, scales monstrously in the name of economy, and ravages the environment. A machine-made book is not compatible with the new value-systems of the more sensitive 21st century. Why sacrifice a tree for just one, and usually expensive and disposable book, when you can just make one hand-made book-cover, and read thousands of books-as-software inside. All this while enriching and enhancing the ‘real’ experience of reading a ‘real’ book.

 

Free Culture

Speaking of free-culture, should you wish to replicate the design of this ‘Kindle book-cover’, be happy to know it is published under a creative-commons license, specifically the cc0 license. The design of the original handbook may be subject to copyright by its author. What this means is that you may freely replicate this design, modify and adapt it, to make your own Kindle-cover or iPad cover, a book-case or a hide-out case or piggy-bank or anything else you can conjure up. You may choose your own colors and materials, improve upon this, use a different handbook or even a hardbound or paperback book, and kickstart a cottage industry around this. A few are already doing this around the world.

I’d be happy to see your designs. Please share them by posting them on my FaceBook page on design here: fb.com/niyamdive 

So get yourself a Kindle or any other eBook reader, and make this Earth into a lotus-paradise.

 

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

 

 

 

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?