A time to watch birds

It is placement season and most people in class are occupied with interview preparation. This has made me a bit worried about my own preparedness.

One of the many advantages of pursuing an MBA after a break from work is the pleasures of enjoying your hobbies in peace. The one year at IIM Bangalore has allowed me the luxury of time to explore bird-watching at a live hotspot of diversity. 

E-bird identifies 78 species at the campus. Most of these call the campus home and find a restful island in an increasingly crowded city. We do get many visitors too, though. There have been distant sightings of the Oriole, Monarch and Treepie. Occasionally, the larger of our flying neighbours drop by from nearby lakes-Madiwala, Arekere and Hulimavu. In the distant corners of campus, you may find a Stork, Heron and Ibis brooding on the forest floor- drying itself. 

I am still far from discovering all the species recorded on campus, but I do carry a pair of bins in my bag every class day. I try to get to campus early in the morning so that I can catch a glimpse of them waking up and starting their day just like the students and teachers that surround them. 

श्रोत से समाधी तक

बूँद की तरह- मैं भी टपका,
घन बादल का मटका,
अँधेरी रात में,
जैसे किसी ने धरती पर पटका।

दाने जैसे लाल अनार,
मुझमें भी समाए किस्से हज़ार,
मूंदे हुए पतले छिलके से,
फिर भी खाने वाले लाचार।

करवट लेती झिलमिल नदियां,
मैंने भी सवारी कई बगिया ,
बचपन, यौवन- महीने, साल,
धुंधली- धुंधली कई सदियाँ।

टीम-टीम करता मैं भी जगमगाऊं,
छल-छल करता बहता जाऊं,
क्षितिज पर ढलते सूरज से,
सायंकाल में दौड़ लगाऊं।


अँधेरे कमरे के इक कोने में
कुछ सिकुड़े से पन्ने
बंद, नम, खिन्न हवा से नाराज़,
धूमिल ज़मीन से लिपटे थे ।

बरसों पहले की सूखी सियाही
अब फीकी- फीकी दिखती थी
और प्रणेता की स्पष्ट लिखाई
अब मुश्किल से ही दिखती थी।

ये शाम,
उन पन्नो का आखरी दिन,
ढलते सूरज की रौशनी
आवरित उन पन्नो पे,
ज्योत से प्रकट पृष्ठ- शैया और सेज़
दग्ध- शायद अपने ही तेज़ से।

On Idols and Markets

Had the misfortune of listening to trending music on Apple Music today morning. I was in a hurry so I just played the first “curated” playlist that the app suggested- and to my unsurprised disappointment, it was the same reverb+echo, auto-tuned voice that has been doing the rounds past few years. What is disturbing is that even though the streaming services overtly suggest that the recommendations are based on the taste and listening history of the user, the algorithms are heavily biased to bombard the trending and monetisable music/content disproportionately.

A simpler example would be Youtube. I mostly watch ad-free content on it. Much of it comes from Universities and NGOs who seldom put advertisements on their videos. If I make the unforgivable mistake of clicking on some of the suggested links on the side-panel- which appear harmlessly similar to the content, the system directs my journey to monetizable, snappy and insincere content made for mass consumption. This is more by design of an evil organisation than a random drunk walk along the hyperlink network. The psychological studies that the streaming services greatly leveraged, have guided them to reward views to content that keeps users glued to the screen the most. Parameters such as time-duration, provocative banner/thumbnails, geographic preferences and perhaps a dozen more guide the algos towards an advertising utopia where the viewer happily watches the sales pitch while being under the illusion that the content was worth her time. To her, it was a win-win deal. It is highly unlikely that the content that she ended up watching is what she was actually looking for when she began 2 hours ago against a 15 minute search for a paper she needs to submit tomorrow morning.

Among the proposed updates, the researchers specifically target a problem they identify as “implicit bias.” It refers to the way recommendations themselves can affect user behavior, making it hard to decipher whether you clicked on a video because you liked it or because it was highly recommended. The effect is that over time, the system can push users further and further away from the videos they actually want to watch.

MIT Technology Review:
YouTube is experimenting with ways to make its algorithm even more addictive

The music industry has been propping up idols for decades now. The labels find it easy to sell a single artist for a few years until the artist is chewed up beyond the juicy taste of the market and spit out to be replaced by a new face. The music and lyrical themes mostly stay the same through the change. Bollywood milked the sole theme of premarital love and the lure of it in a sexually suppressed society for decades.  The people behind the stage also survive the cyclical change. Piracy and advent of compressed music formats spelled doom for the recording industry and they found shelter in stage-shows which grew in size and number in the past 20 years. The world tours and continental circuits are now almost seasonal- albeit the COVID-19 crisis put a pause to it. The curated playlists from the music streaming apps also feel like an attempt to prop up idols who are more of a style-statement of a community or age-group for some months or years, and then presenting the audience with some(thing/one) new. The label is shielded from the fickle novelty trends of the audience. The other advantage of bombing uninterested users with mainstream music/video is the payoff of creating FOMO in your customer base. Since everyone else is listening to the “Day’s Top Ten” playlist, there’s gotta be something good about it. Doesn’t Zara practice the same principles in clothing?

Lata Mangeshkar passed away this week. Was she someone who was groomed by the film-industry and country over the decades or just raw power that was unsurpassed in her time? The whole story is difficult to know without all players involved speaking their accounts in public. The advertising industry knows how Sachin was propped up to be “The God of Cricket” in the 90s when the Indian market was opening up to the world. It also knows why Dhoni was captain cool with all the ads until Kohli was made the next big thing. The cycle-time is shorter today in advertising. The face of brand is showered with money and fame, but has to be quickly replaced to adjust to the sentiments of a crowd with historically low attention span. Five seconds is what Youtube gives to you as a brand before it release the viewer from its clasp with a “Skip Button”.

Advertising needs a reinvention. It needs to develop a marketplace where the interested buyer is rewarded directly for their time, rather than using gimmicky music and videos in between as filler. B2B sales already remedied this through time commitments by both parties- buyer and seller. Yellow pages and its internet adaptations (e.g., Craigslist) used to do it in the B2C market. Ideally, I would prefer the streaming services to move to a purely paid-subscription model with their efficiency measured via matching-ratio of the viewer to the content she needed. Paying money for web artefact that solved a problem and splitting gains between the content-creator and streaming platform while eliminating the hawkish advertiser that sleazily parses user data is a rewarding goal. It also has potential to resolve serious problems of 21st century. Complete lack of privacy, online addiction, over-consumption and low self-esteem of buyers with the FOMO phenomenon being a powerful motivator in purchases, and even to an extent the hate-campaigns that have become popular thanks to the desensitization of the viewers.

A testing crucible for such a paradigm was the online Q&A platform Quora. The website maintained restricted entry behind a paywall for asking questions which were then answered by “experts” who were compensated by the platform from subscription earnings. The coming of Reddit democratized Q&A platforms, and as the power of network exploded for Reddit, there was very little market left for other Q&A platforms to compete for. Today, unfortunately, Reddit is another monopoly within the existing advertising model and suffers from the same ills that plague other sheep in the herd- hate, addiction, and numb senses of the users. Quora, while negligible in its scale has maintained its quality discounting from some dilution that comes mostly with making part of its content free-to-access.

The challenge for a video/music platform to match user with her intent may lie more with sensory psychology. Text is more rationality heavy than Photos/Videos/Music which exact a rather immediate emotional response. This explains why memes are more viral than jokes. The general tendency for video/music is to gravitate towards an entertainment value-proposition for the consumer. If the everyday user consumes media as purely an entertainment venture, she risks being prey to larger forces than she has control over. The psychology of addiction has been sufficiently explored- at least for the purpose of advertising. Her quest for that infinite jest will leave her drained and exhausted under the powerful advertisement model existing today. Is the general user prepared to limit her dosage of entertainment with monetary expense out of her pocket (hypothetically, a limit of 10 videos per day on Netflix) and make it transactional like other consumption decisions on in her life? The preference of users will decide the path that online advertising takes. The alternative is regulation, a path that has abhorrent past and one that the netziens vehemently resist.

Back from Goa

We just returned from Goa. Left Bangalore on the previous sunday on a burst of enslaved will- with COVID practically cutting off most non-essential travel.

We stayed at the Sibaya resort on Morjim beach, North Goa. I had booked the place for three nights without seeing the reviews, which were all negative. The stay, however, was a pleasant revelation- a first in Goa. The staff was courteous, the rooms spacious and beautifully maintained for a property right on the beach, and the adjoining restaurant (called Saz On the Beach) has the most beautiful views of the evening sun. We saw the sun set into the ocean every evening. Well, not exactly in the ocean as some clouds on the horizon would curtail the last few minutes. But the golden glimmer of the long beach stretched out end-to-end called us every evening.

It had been bright and shiny the morning we reached the Mapusa bus stand. That’s where our bus from Bangalore had dropped us. After a walk along the wrong direction, we took an auto for Morjim that charged us Rs 500/- for a 20 km trip, which I felt was a little high. By the time we reached the hotel, it had suddenly become clouded grey, had rained and and had stopped, but the clouds were still out in the sky. We were allowed an early check-in at 10:00 AM thanks to the pleasant personality of Mr. Ranjan who hails from Darbhanga. I have always had an unreasonable affinity for people from Darbhanga and the Mithila region, perhaps due to my long friendship with Mota. Ranjan has been in Goa for past 14 years, he says. That’s enough time to be naturalized to any life- shore or snow. And naturalized he is- just as relaxed and calm as the everyday Goan.

In the evenings, we would go on walks along the Ashwem stretch. The little shanties along the margins had few visitors but all sparkled in yellow warmth. Gusts of wind would carry bohemian songs from distant lands, now treated as endemic to Goa. We had not booked any motor-vehicle for our stay this time, so this stretch of sand was all we had. There are rocks jutting out in the sea at places along the shore, but the rest of the beach is non-threatening for a swim. The waves were harsh the first two days because of the turbulent weather(there was a cyclone warning out) but eventually the sea turned into a calm and undulating cradle with just the right temperature. On the last day, we were in the water for 3 hours straight, without a shiver.

The return journey from Goa has always been sad. Leaving all that bright sunshine and a world or carelessness. I kept mapping all the places and my past visits from Morjim until Cancona. Thanks to google timeline and modern human tracking every second, I know of all my prior visits to the state. June 2017 was the first time I went to Goa. Now that we are back in Bangalore, we are back to the routine ebb and flow of routine life. Work and weekends, and the cycle again. Maybe one day my books will go viral and I can spend my rest of days from beaches and mountains far away from the need of cities.

ओस की बूँदें

कड़कती धुप से रोटी की तरह सिकी धरती पर
दो बूंद पानी की, रात की ओस,
कुछ देर में ओझल हो जायेगी।
सूरज का क्रोधित चेहरा
सूखा देगा उन आखरी बूंदों को भी,
जिसने ठंडी नदियों और झीलों को निर्जन कर दिया।

या फिर शायद उन बूंदो के तले
कोई बीज हो दबा सदियों पहले
किसी का हांथो से बोया हुआ
या कनक सा सत्व का बिखेरा
जो ओस की ठण्ड से कंपित हो
भीगा-भीगा उठ पड़ेगा।

ठिठुरता, कांपता, उदित धुमिल करवटों से,
बेलबूटे, वनस्पति, दरख्त, टहनिया,
खिलेंगी फिर से कुदरत के कालचक्र में।
जो रेगिस्तान में शुतुरमुर्गों पर सवार बैठे हैं,
भूल गए हैं लू और ताप में,
ओस की बूंदों ने कई मौसम देखे हैं।

Brewer’s Dictionary

A week after marriage, Diksha and I had gone to the Oxford store on Park Street, Kolkata. Mostly for its nostalgia value, I had really wanted to visit the place. The last time I went in there- I ended up purchasing a lot of Dicken’s newspaper novels and a DK Atlas. I never found the time to start with those mammoth novels- but I do still page through the Atlas- and it was a delight during the UPSC days. A much cleaner presentation than the darling of students- Oxford Atlases.

The problem with an aimless drop-in at a bookstore is selecting a few. Even in the age of internet abundance, books bring a journey that stop-and-go search of the internet cannot offer. Thanks to the relatively large literature population in Kolkata, you don’t risk being called names while just browsing through a shelf. I liked Kissinger’s book, Diplomacy, which was placed in one of the entry displays. I had heard about it a lot for many years, but never took the trouble of reading it. That was the first book I wanted to buy before I left the shop.

The next one was hidden in the back shelves of royalty-free books. It seems Oxford has released some of the classics in beautiful leatherback and very clean fonts. It’s difficult to find that quality with Indian presses. The Huckfinn and Moby Dick looked beautiful and lay unnoticed in the dark aisle. The trouble was- I would probably never put in the effort to read HuckFinn again, and Moby Dick is too big an epitome for my present life luxuries. Crossed off the list.

The last one I liked was a hardbound 17th edition of “Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase & Fable”. The book was being sold at discounted price of Rs 1,000. For a huge hardbound, that was a bargain I didn’t want to miss. Besides, I really loved the page quality and content. It was an encyclopedia of words that the digital dictionary could not replace. The only trouble was, we were carrying alot of weight for our flight back to Bangalore. And a book of that size and weight would not fit-in well.

As was to be, we came out of the shop with nothing in our hands. I had already packed some books from Jamshedpur for the MBA coursework, and any more additions to the pack would not justify the price-to-weight fees that airlines charge you. We ended up paying almost Rs 6,000 extra for the weight we were carrying despite the books we liked in Oxford.

Two week after we reached Bangalore, Diksha wanted to go visit the Blossoms bookshop on Church Street in Bangalore. We reached there early in the evening with plenty of time on our hand. Blossoms is the kind of bookstore where you are pretty much lost and on your own. Having the afternoon or evening dedicated just for browsing usually helps. Right outside the store, the Brewer’s dictionary was lying on a bench. Now, I had never heard of the book before I saw it in Park Street that evening. Later in the days following, I had discovered that it was, in fact, a very popular title being published for almost a century. I was happy that Blossoms exists in Bangalore.

We ended up buying a lot of books. Diksha calls it her quota for the year 2022.

On the variety of words

I like to think about the world around me. Tools and machines, professions and institutions, cultures and people- much of which I have very little knowledge and experience of. It is astonishing the amount of knowledge preserved in words. Much can be learned about any field of human-knowledge by simply understanding its vocabulary. It is not surprising then, how easy it was to restrict knowledge in the past. Shunning people not from your craft and guild.

I’m sure a harmless activity like gardening hides much in its terms. In fact, much of the secrets of gardening can perhaps be completely explained through its dictionary. There are sowing seasons and blooming seasons, types of shrubs, herbs and trees, arrangement of leaves, shears and loppers and rakes and hoes. You get the idea. As long as you know what constitutes “gardening” and its elements, you essentially know the entire field.

Garden at the Schultenhof in MettingenNorth Rhine-Westphalia, Germany

This is, of course, not true for all fields for human knowledge. Much of research is premised on discovering the unknown so it can be put in words and dictionaries to be passed to the next generation. Words then, become the aggregate of all human knowledge. Any man that “quickly” wants to get involved with the world, just needs to pick up the giant encyclopedia and look for the right words. In fact, that is what the schooling system and much of the higher education system geared for. It’s no mystery I am discovering.

Mahatma Gandhi, known for keeping maun-vrat every Monday, would finish off much of his week’s work that day.

Which brings me to the bitter side of language- the one that makes it too easy to sound smart at best and kills creativity at its worst. When powerful words are spoken without their value weighed out in the mind, they trivialize discussions. Impactful- on occasions- but exaggerated more often. When used in self-talk, they have the power to calm the restless and aggrieved self. Misused though, as words often are, we are pulled further into the misery of emotions. An addict summoned by his addiction, one last time to calm a thirst that won’t end. He will search for more powerful words- maybe to hurt us further, push us deeper into misery.

Humans have been smart for much long now. They documented in their stories and tales a lot of what they learnt. We are powered with much of our ancestors’ treasure trove of knowledge- condensed, at times, in single, crisp words. Very often, from across cultures and vast distances. I wish to pay homage to words and their power. They control our inner and outer lives more than what we give them credit for.

The Blind Leading the Blind by Pieter Bruegel the Elder

Batman: Hush

Cover of first edition of Hush
(Published October 2002 )

Just finished watching a batman movie. Can’t remember the last time I watched anything batman, except the Nolan trilogy. The movie was called “Hush” and to tell the truth it was a rather mediocre story. I am not usually a fan of omnibuses which include all villains of a universe, but even if I were to let that pass, the romance between Catwoman and Batman was vomit inducing. When the writers know they are committing fan-service or atleast experimenting an idea they are not sure of, they tie the loose ends towards the end of the story to let the canon flow smooth. That seems to be the case with the depicted romance.

Film poster for Hush (Released July, 2019)

On the positive side, the animation was beautiful as we have come to expect from the WB house. The closing credits reminded me of art-style from the Arkham novels- some of the best animation in comic book history. The music went well with the story and the sound team seems very talented, unfortunately though, the story itself moves too fast and puts little effort in character development.

Not the worst movie to spend 1.2 hrs on. Look forward to give other batman movies a try. Cheers.