Musings on books, technology, entrepreneurship, nonprofits and umm.. everything else …

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As you might have read from Arundhati Roy’s work of fiction, Kerala was an awesome place to spend one’s childhood. A state that is highly literate and emphasizes reading, that has very good development indicators and got written up by Amartya Sen for the “Kerala Development Model”, one of the few states with the sex ratio as close to what one would expect in a society without female infanticide, the list could go on and on. But as a child these things don’t stand out or sink in. They are just a matter of fact about the world around you. 

What is interesting as a child, is the wide eyed amazement with which you can soak in nature as well as culture in the world around you. Wonderful beaches, palm trees, greenery and backwaters. The monsoon rains that get you soaking wet just when schools reopen and you stand at bus stops in all your brand new school uniforms and shoes. Mosquitoes that defy all shoos and “Good Knight” devices and show up right by your ears in those hot, humid nights. The eternal “load shedding” through the year and the nights spent swatting flies and other bugs and trying to sleep on the terraces under the starry sky. Temples that hold a million secrets about themselves, including ones like the one about the Padmanabhaswamy Temple and its many riches that just got worldwide attention, much to the locals’ dismay. Dance forms like Kathakali, Theyyam, Theeyattu, Mohiniyaattom and others that come from a rich tradition of folk arts. Temple elephants that have fan followings of their own and legends about their lives. Sarpakkavus across the state that are revered in part and feared in part and the caution with which you walk around them as a child, recalling the stories your grandmothers told you. The ever scary Aezhilam Paala and its white flowers that supposedly attract Yakshis

I could go on and on. Luckily for generations to come, there was one man who tried to distill all of this into one tome filled with fascinating stories. It is one-part a lesson in the history of Kerala and one-part fertile imagination run wild. I’m referring to Aithihyamaala by Kottarathil Shankunni of course. Those of you that grew up in Kerala couple of generations ago would not have missed this treasure trove of stories – of Bhartrhari and Parayi Petta Panthirukulam, Kumaranalloor Bhagawathi and Kayankulam Kochunni, great temple elephants like Vaikkom Tiruneelakantan and Tiruvattar Adikesavan, its a long, addictive list of fascinating stories.

For the longest time, there was no English translation available that I could fanatically recommend to friends from other states. Though I’m supremely unqualified, I harbored thoughts of attempting the impossible and translating it myself. Finally a few years ago, a selection of stories from the original were indeed translated by T.C. Narayan – something that I devoured off of Amazon pretty quickly. 

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The highlight of my recent trip back home to Kerala was my serendipitous discovery at the Guruvayoor Temple of a full translation of the book. Printed by Mathrubhumi, translated by Sreekumari Ramachandran and available here for purchase. If you plan to buy one big book of fables this year, this should be it. Some of the stories may not sound as magnificent without the cultural context, but man am I glad that I can finally find it in a language that reaches beyond the boundaries of Kerala!

The next few months shall be spent in merry abandon reliving memories of stories devoured several times over, of scary nights spent under the covers expecting a Yakshi to turn up outside my window, of evenings at the Padmanabhaswamy Temple watching the Sheeveli and wondering if our local elephant could hold a candle against Guruvayoor Kesavan, of weeks spent wondering why my local Ayurvedic doctor could not do miracles and fix things quickly like Vayakkare Achan Moosse or Alathiyur Nambi.

Thank you, Mathrubhumi, for bringing our childhoods back in such vivid colors into our imagination-deprived presents!

ImageI don’t even have a television and I placed a pre-order for a Chromecast device 20 minutes into the live preview event on July 24th. The combination of price and announced feature set alone made it worth the money. Even if I used it just during vacations and while visiting friends’ houses.

The technical specifications of the device have been covered pretty well by the iFixit folks, so I will skip that and focus on existing features and my wish list.

The HDMI dongle comes with an extender to connect to the TV, a micro-USB cable and a power adapter. Once you plug it in and turn the TV on to the right HDMI input, it asks you to visit http://www.google.com/chromecast/setup from your laptop and configure the device. On your laptop, upon visiting that site, you are asked to install the Chromecast app, which then starts the configuration process. It looks like the dongle sets up a low-power ad-hoc network that the laptop connects to which allows it to setup the wireless network SSID and password on the Chromecast device. Once that is done, the app suggests that you share from Chrome or YouTube or Netflix.

The beauty of the device and the user model is in its simplicity. If you use those two natively supported apps, the dongle directly pulls the video from the cloud and delivers to the TV or HDMI-monitor. No need to mirror through your laptop. Controlling the video by using your laptop or Android device as a remote was pretty cool too (tried with my Galaxy S4). The iOS app does not seem to be out yet, so that could not be tested. As advertised multiple users could queue up videos to watch and control volume and play/pause/location from their devices.  You could also switch away from the application and do other things without disturbing the session in any way.

I wish I could say the same about the chrome-tab sharing. Possibly given the constraints of schedule, it looks like the mirroring is done by encoding the tab and streaming it to the device, and then to the TV. Hence hardware-drawn overlays are left out and show up as empty windows. It would have been awesome if the app could register itself as a secondary graphics adapter and have the display driver generate a secondary display render for it that could have included all the hardware accelerated overlays as well. Sharing videos through this mechanism did result in noticeable delays and not as great a rendered quality. Screen-sharing of documents through Google Drive had pretty poor latency as well and the quality was not as good as using RDP for screen-sharing with Microsoft Lync for example. One reason could be that the laptop I used did not do native 1080p resolution and the scaling of the image could have resulted in visual artifacts. Photo sharing on the other hand from my Google Photos account was pretty awesome and responded pretty well too.

Something else that confused me was the micro-USB power adapter. I thought I heard the PMs mention that all you need to do with the Chromecast was to plug it into the TV and be done. I don’t know enough about the HDMI specs to know if the device can draw enough power through it but I assumed it could. The fact that I had to connect the additional power adapter was a bit of a bummer. Need to test more to see if I can get away without it in any circumstances.

Now here’s a list of cool mods/additions that I would love to see to the device:

1. Support for Google Hangouts and video collaboration

This would require that the device take a camera and audio input, or have the ability to split input audio/video from the app running on a laptop or mobile device, and Hangouts audio/video from the cloud sent via the dongle to the TV. This would also mean some good quality acoustic echo cancellation support in this loop.

2. Wider array of video consumption applications supported on the device

It looks like this is happening slowly, but surely. Rumors are abuzz about HBO, Vimeo, RedBox etc. developing apps for it. Seems like an awesome way to sidestep a full-fledged set-top-boxish product like Google/AppleTV and focus on the bare essentials of what such a device needs.

3. Games, games games 

A mobile device + Chromecast + browser-based game would make a killer combo. As long as the rendering can be done directly from the cloud and not mirrored from the device. Unless it is a high-end device with one of those fancy SnapDragon or Tegra chips. The possibilities for encroaching on Wii/Kinect/PSx territory are pretty cool!

4. Fiber + Chromecast + Android devices

This combination would make for an amazing TV network into a home – plethora of channels to choose from, remote control that is familiar to the user, multiple screens at home can be on different channels .. fits the user experience needs more or less?

5. Ad-hoc network on-the-go for business meetings

Setup a cable-free content-sharing option when traveling to share presentations, spreadsheets, documents, videos etc. Forget about DVI/VGA cables, Mac dongles and associated nightmares.

6. Hangouts-On-Air and YouTube live on TV!

One concept that has not gotten its share of kudos is Hangouts-on-air. If you want to relax on your couch and watch that lecture on your TV instead of your laptop or desktop, here’s the chance! In general for one-way edutainment consumption – be it lectures, Khan academy videos, webinars etc. – this seems like a good idea.

6. Turbocharge your training sessions

Only one training coordinator to run multiple training sessions at work? The ability to stream remotely within the same network to a Chromecast device opens up the possibility of streaming to multiple remote devices within the network. If there was a way to setup an ad-hoc multicast session within the corporate network that the Chromecast devices can discover and subscribe to so that only one stream is pulled down that would be pretty awesome too!

These are some applications that come to mind at first glance. The price point and convenience factor are unbeatable. Also, expect unreleased feature announcements like Bluetooth support as rumored on some of the sites.

Want to give it a test ride while you wait for your own device? Let me know!

It was a forwarded article in the New York Times that piqued my interest in Prof. Adam Grant and his work. I was curious because he was a Wharton professor, and the topic, as laid out in the article, was something quite interesting to me.

As soon as I got done with the article – which speaks of how Adam spends hours on email helping people out and responding to questions – I decided to test that out. I sent him an email introducing myself and asking whether he would be visiting the Bay area. I was pretty sure I will not get a response – I mean this was an NYT article, the man was doing book tours with several stops across the country. But sure enough, within 24 hours I had a short but precise response on when he would be in town and that he would love to meet and chat at his book signing event in Menlo Park.

Needless to say, I was sold. The time spent at his talk, and on his book were probably the most productive so far in trying to understand workplace motivation and career growth, in the context of my world view and notion of what is right and wrong. He’s an amazing speaker and a witty writer – I recommend the book very highly.

I don’t want to steal the thunder of the various anecdotes in the book, but at a high level, it classifies people into givers, takers and matchers. The interesting statistic there was that both at the top of the corporate “success” ladder and the bottom, you would find an abundance of givers. The book then goes through several ways in which you can find your way up, if you are a giver.

An interesting meta-level question is whether if you are a real giver, you would self-identify yourself as such in public. This could also be a reason why for most practical purposes, most of us are matchers – we like to keep score of what we have done for others and what we got in return. I for one, have been amazed at how often people remember even small favors you have done for them and go out of their way to help you when you need help. Adam talks about pronoia in this context as something givers experience which is an antithesis to paranoia.

He also debunks the thinking that somehow one can detect takers from their looks and goes through some ways in which one can “convert” takers into givers, or at least know how to shake them off. 

Definitely recommend adding this to your summer reading list!

Venture debt

First attempt at a finance-y article – http://www.pehub.com/250981/is-venture-debt-on-the-rise/

One of the topics I keep coming back in this blog is about the workplace and different aspects of making that better for the organization, manager, and employees. Books such as The Carrot Principle talk about incentive structures and how they can be used effectively to arrive at a happy and productive workforce. Books like The Starfish and the Spider talk about organizational structures and how structures themselves affect how an organization performs, grows, transmits and retains knowledge.

I had also written about the Shane Battier Effect and how some amazing team players focus on maximizing the contribution from their team and using that as their metric of success rather than just their personal accomplishments. In a post titled The Batmobile and race cars on my Wharton blog, I had addressed the other side of the equation – employees that felt like they had multiple skills and were being under-utilized only along one of those dimensions.

In this post and the next one, I hope to highlight a couple of awesome books focused around traits of the leader herself. I just got done with reading Multipliers, a great book full of skills you can teach yourself to be a better leader. This was referred to me by Prof. Adam Grant, who’s book is next on my list (Give and Take) in response to my question about any work done on the Shane Battier Effect.

The authors condense a lot of research done with successful entrepreneurs and business leaders into a few key skills that they use to distinguish the multipliers from the diminishers, and then provide concrete steps that we can take to go from being diminishers, willful or accidental, to multipliers that get the best out of their co-workers and build leaders in their wake, not just yes-men.

Taking a leaf from the work of folks like Chip&Dan Heath on how to make ideas stick (Made to Stick) they give these five broad disciplines simple and catchy titles – ‘The Talent Magnet’, ‘The Liberator’, ‘The Challenger’, ‘The Debate Maker’ and ‘The Investor’.

Each of these disciplines has real world examples from leaders that exemplify that trait – from Ela Bhatt of SEWA to Abraham Lincoln. All in all, a great read and a good book to have on your bookshelf as reference material for personal advancement.

In a brilliantly written book, Samuel Arbesman talks about the fascinating world of facts, about how they are not frozen in time, but have their own “half-life” that can be measured in many spheres of knowledge. If “On Being Certain” spoke of how our brain decides that we know for sure that something is a fact, this book looks at the reality of how a “fact” itself changes nature over time in recorded history. It serves as a fascinating introduction to scientometrics, the quantitative study of science.

 

One of the interesting sections of the book revolves around hidden knowledge – how people have been able to make remarkable progress towards finding cures to certain diseases, or figuring out some unsolved puzzle in the real world by combining knowledge from published works in different fields of science. This was brought to the fore pretty rapidly through recent advances such as the crowdsourced innovation platform InnoCentive.

As we saw in the announcement last week around the advances made in solving a weak version of the twin prime conjecture, using existing tools of mathematics but looking at a problem differently is a key to problem solving that brought this as-yet “unremarkable” mathematician to the media spotlight. As the saying goes, the more we know, the more we know that the less we know. So true knowledge must necessarily make you less rigid, more humble and more open to questioning your views. It shines light on all the dirt and frayed edges around what we used to consider as the absolute truth and tells us that all is not cut and dry. It tells us that over the arc of time, facts do change, and things that we took for granted as obvious observations get shattered in the light of new findings. The key to staying sane, and succeeding in this world of ever-changing information where the timescales of change are also rapidly compressing, is to keep an open mind, and question all that you hear and see with the curiosity of a toddler. As the saying goes, “Tamaso ma jyothir gamaya” – from darkness, lead me to light …

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Ah the familiar feeling of being a new grad. That extra spring in your steps. The feeling that you can conquer the world with your new found wisdom and tool chest. That the world will come knocking on your doors, begging you to lead them given that expensive piece of paper that you just acquired by toughing it out for two years. That smug smile you have on your face – partially hidden if you’re polite – when you hear some technical term that you learnt in class, though you probably don’t recall much about it any more. Those nuggets of “wisdom” you drop upon unsuspecting friends now that you have a freshly minted degree to back you up.

If I recall correctly from the last time around, the feeling lasts for a few months and gets lost when reality crushes it out of your system. The world does not change because you acquired a new piece of paper – unless it is green and has a lot of zeros next to it :). Which is where the distinction between acquiring knowledge and feeling empowered comes in. We assume that the moment of graduation is the moment of empowerment, that there is a clean transition into a new world where things are not the same anymore and where we should feel empowered to use the tools of the new trade that we just picked up. However, in reality, graduation only represents the opening of opportunities to the graduates. Opportunities that need to be sought, chosen and conquered. Empowerment lies in the ability to act upon the knowledge distilled from school and life, not in the mechanical act of acquisition of the tools themselves.

In that context, knowledge for knowledge’s sake without the ability to act upon it can be disempowering. The boredom of using older tools while newer ones rot in your toolkit can both serve as a disempowering dose of reality, as well as a sure shot way to gradually lose those new skills too. The medical world solves this by requiring that physicians get re-certified every few years, to ensure that they keep pace with the latest findings, un-learn dated materials and re-learn new ones, sharpening their tools for another epoch of usage. Sadly, this is not the case for most other professions such as engineers or MBAs.

At some level, knowledge also represents an elevation of the mind from precision to accuracy. Precision, in most aspects of life, has a banal finality to it. A “fundamentalist” view of things quoted to N decimal places, or to excruciating detail. Accuracy on the other hand attempts to get things directionally right, so that on average experiences align your views in the correct direction, so that you make the right choices for the most part. Yes the edges might be frayed, it may not be presented rosily, there might be dirt around it, but it reflects reality more closely. And being accurate requires a deeper command on subject matter than being precise. It requires that you be okay with being wrong, as long as the experience itself was empowering in that it provided you new information to stow away and act upon in future.

So as we contemplate how we will transform the world through our newly acquired degrees, setting our expectations straight will help us prepare for the long run. From those to whom much is given, much is expected. So set your bar high for what you expect out of yourself. Be less certain of what you think and more open to what you see that contradicts your beliefs. As Taleb talks about in his new book Antifragile, being robust to uncertainty is not sufficient. Being antifragile helps you grow stronger with uncertainty and build better, brighter careers and lives.

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