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Urban Junkie

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Liff and junk

Question: Where would you find half an extension cord, two faded dog collars, 4 antique Good Knight machines, a Scrabble board with no tiles, a set of marbles and a 1999 calendar?
Answer: in a box that you are finally unpacking after having moved back to Bangalore last month.

Ever notice how moving house makes most of our possessions seem like junk? Junk that gets packed in the hurry to get packed but has its revenge on you when the unpacking begins. There is the nostalgia stuff, of course, and there is a bit of the ‘aHA, that’s where it’s been’ stuff. But there is a much more daunting, endless list of ‘don’t know what to do with’ stuff. Having waded through the last of my boxes last weekend, here’s the tally:

The ‘aHA, that’s where it’s been’ stuff : 3 items

  • The income tax form from last year
  • The never-used patchwork cushion covers
  • The leather jacket

The nostalgia stuff : 1 item

  • The photographs from the trip to Manali

The ‘nostalgia but don’t know what to do with’ stuff : 12 items

  • A menu from some restaurant in Paris
  • Bangles from my sister’s wedding
  • Gypsy’s first ball, chewed beyond recognition
  • … you get the drift

The just plain ‘don’t know what to do with’ stuff : 55 items

  • 2 burnt-out multi-plugs
  • the modem from the old computer
  • audiotapes of music I now have on CD
  • unusable gifts from important people
  • 3 unidentifiable objects which on close examination turn out to be : 1) a doorknob; 2) an oddly shaped lampshade; 3) half a rawhide bone
  • 3 other unidentifiable objects which remain unidentified
    … and so on.

But one of those boxes this time has yielded a treasure that balances out all unpacking woes. Deep in the pockets of a jacket not worn for 5 years, lying inside a box not opened for 3, was my long-missing, believed stolen copy of ‘The Meaning of Liff’.

''The Meaning of Liff'' is possibly one of Douglas Adam’s best books, though I’m often surprised at how little it’s known. It’s a tiny book, not easy to buy at a store these days, a second hand copy of which costs a small fortune at Amazon. Co-authored by John Lloyd, it is a tongue-in-cheek "dictionary of things that there aren't any words for yet". All the words listed are names of places, and describe common feelings and objects for which there is no current English word. For example:

ABILENE (adj.) Descriptive of the pleasing coolness on the reverse side of the pillow.

BODMIN (n.) The irrational and inevitable discrepancy between the amount pooled and the amount needed when a large group of people try to pay a bill together after a meal.

DRAFFAN (n.) An infuriating person who always manages to look much more dashing than anyone else by turning up unshaven and hungover at a formal party.

DUNBOYNE (n.) The moment of realisation that the train you have just patiently watched pulling out of the station was the one you were meant to be on.

And, particularly relevant to me, I suppose
DOGDYKE (vb.) Of dog-owners, to adopt the absurd pretence that the animal shitting in the gutter is nothing to do with them.

I love this book. I’ve never known anyone to not have been reduced to helpless giggles page after page. I’ve made many friends over this book … jointly rolling on the floor screaming with laughter does much to break the ice and dissolve boundaries. For many years, it was my most effective ‘upper’ when I was low.

This week’s for rediscovering (and celebrating!) the Meaning of Liff.

For those who have not yet encountered this delightful book, here’s a link to the online version.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Multitasking and the crowded dictionary

I remember reading somewhere that one of the unique and defining characteristics of today’s generation is their ability to multitask. They talk on the phone while driving, talk on the phone while exercising, exercise while checking email, check email while driving. Wow.

Let me see if I’ve got this right.

Multitasking (mλlti`ta:skiђ) v. doing several things at once; handling more than one task at a time. As in … keeping an eye on the milk boiling, toasting bread, frying an egg, brewing tea and simultaneously laying the table for breakfast? Or, maybe, doing the kids’ homework while keeping the dog’s head out of the garbage and the toddler’s hand out of the oven?

Many of the women I know would be glad there is finally an official name for this. Many of the men, too, actually. None of them, however, can claim to be Gen-Xers. (Actually I think it’s Gen-Y these days … or do I mean Gen-Z? In a clever deployment of their knowledge of the alphabet, the media keep relabeling the youth … I’ve lost track now).

However. To get back to my point. Why is multitasking a new-age thing? Why is it owned by Gen X/Y/Z? Granted, life is hugely busy these days, work hours are long and there is much more fun to be had. So maybe it isn’t so unfair of them to invent a new word and claim ownership. But it doesn’t stop there, you see.

There is a related concept called ‘multiminding’ that has just arisen. Today’s generation can multimind; that is to say, they have several different things on their minds at the same time. This is what is responsible for their short attention spans, proclivity for soundbytes, channel surfing, poor memory for advertising and so on.

Multiminding (mλlti`maindiђ) v. having more than one thought in your head at any time.

Really?! No, seriously, is this a joke? Is the ability to process multiple thoughts and ideas simultaneously such a marvel for Gen Z that we need to invent a new word for it?

The pressure to rewrite the dictionary to describe the life and times of each successive generation is not new. There is, for example, the concept of ‘quality time’ that dates back a few years. ‘Quality time’ actually has fairly respectable origins, being rooted in the idea that time we spend with / on something we love needs to be of high quality, given the shortage of it these days. The usage of the term, however, leaves you considerably puzzled.

“Sorry I can’t make it for lunch … I need to spend quality time with my son”. Quality time as opposed to what? Why not just say ‘I need to spend time’ / ‘do homework’ / ‘watch a movie’ / ‘go to the park’ etc? But no doubt the word ‘quality’ adds a subtle dimension I have missed.

“What will you be doing?” I asked, keen to get to the bottom of this. “Oh, just homework, and – you know – bonding”. Aah. Just hanging out, chatting, swapping news. What one would usually do, I imagine, when spending time with the kids. I wonder why it needs to be specified.

And there’s another of those words up there. Bonding. If it adds any extra dimension to the meaning of ordinary friendly exchanges, it is clearly lost on me. Besides, “we really bonded” could mean anything from “we had a nice chat” to “we became bosom pals”. Our parents used to meet people, make new friends, exchange gossip, revive old friendships, share secrets, share problems. We, however, ‘bond’.

Aren’t there already too many words for us to remember, without adding more unnecessary ones?

Lake Superior State University agrees. The university annually compiles a List of Words Banished from the Queen's English for Mis-Use, Over-Use and General Uselessness. The top award for 2004, I was delighted to find, went to my old favorite, 'metrosexual’. I quote from the article:

Bob Forrest of Tempe, Arizona, says it "sounds like someone who only has sex downtown or on the subway." Fred Bernardin of Arlington, Massachusetts, asks, "Aren't there enough words to describe men who spend too much time in front of the mirror?"

Amen to that.

Friday, September 23, 2005

Waning wanderlust?

You know, on paper I often describe myself as a traveler. If I were to flesh out my profile on this blog, there it would be: ‘love to travel’. Most of my friends would say the same about me. And I believe it of myself, undoubtedly. Often when I dream of an ideal life I think of a life spent wandering about the world; my ideal job would be one where I’m paid to travel – I even vaguely remember applying for one as a travel writer.

And yet …

In practice I wonder if I really live up to that. Increasingly, I feel pangs the minute I step out the door. And nothing quite compares with the feeling of getting back home, even if it’s only been a few days. A boisterous welcome by two indignant yet overjoyed Labs, the smell of ghee-drenched rasam and rice, the ability to brew my own tea (thank goodness), my sumptuously comfortable futon to sink into (even if it is suspiciously covered with dog hair - they’ve clearly been having a wild time in my absence). What could possibly compete with this?

A large part of my homesickness is, of course, to do with the Labs. And a substantial chunk of the responsibility undoubtedly goes to hotel tea. But the watering-down of wanderlust runs a bit deeper than that.

More and more, I just can’t seem to get ‘enough’ time at home. About workdays the less said the better, but even weekends go by in a flash – at the movies, at coffee bars, at the gym (ok, not every weekend, but ...), out shopping, out drinking. And there really are no complaints here … I love this bursting-at-the-seams life, would probably pack in more if I could. As much as I love to travel – I have only yet been to a fraction of the places I want to go to, a long list still awaits.

But a parallel me just wants to be at home. To revel in the spaces I’ve created with such care, to enjoy my garden, to light my candles, to romp with the dogs, to watch TV, even just to potter about in my kitchen. What parallel me would really like is a holiday at home.

Is it age? Or just a sign of the stress-and-bustle times we live in?

Friday, September 16, 2005

Of wobbly knees and chattering teeth...

The BIG conference in Cannes is two days away and the symptoms are beginning to kick in. My teeth started to chatter yesterday, the knees are distinctly gelatinous and my face has acquired that about-to-burst-into-tears look.

I do envy those who present with panache – people with that mysterious X-factor called Stage Presence. They stroll out onto the stage with hands nonchalantly in pockets, they throw a lazy grin at the audience and are immediately granted complete silence and attention. A wink here, an engaging smile there, a witty remark tossed out casually and off they go. They don’t need to clear their throats to silence the room. They don’t tap repeatedly at the mike to ask if they can be heard (they know they can be). They don’t shuffle their notes anxiously, having misplaced the title slide (there is no visible sign of notes). Their audience can intelligently differentiate their jokes from their brilliant points, and does not mix up applause with laughter.

I, sadly, do not belong to this privileged club.

Not only do I lack the mysterious X-factor, the presence of a stage seems to bring out in me an entirely detestable Y-factor which consists of a carefully measured mix of incoherence, monotony and idiocy. I would come across much better if I could just present from behind a curtain, but for some reason they insist on a clear view of the speaker.

This time, however, things will be different. I have been programming my unconscious for two weeks. For those who belong with me in the Y-factor zone, here are a few instructions I have been sleeping with under my pillow, which would have hopefully seeped by now into my mind and altered my default responses.

  • Do not babble. The audience is not filled with morons, and they do not need you to repeat everything thrice and examine it from multiple angles. Also, stories from your childhood will not make the conclusions of your research more forceful.
  • Do not, on the other hand, swallow up half your intended presentation. You have 20 minutes to fill up, and if you wrap up in 7 minutes you will face the prospect of standing in agonizing silence for the remaining 13. Should this happen, however, resist all temptation to go back to the first slide and begin again. Hopefully some generous soul will have mercy and ask an intelligent question.
  • Do not believe people who say that imagining the audience naked is a cure for stage fright. Sometimes the grotesqueness of the image can actually induce stage fright.
    Remember the mike lurks below your collar. When you curse in an undertone to yourself, you are also speaking to the entire room.
  • If you MUST faint in relief after the presentation, it is better done at the chair than at the lectern.
  • If they don’t get your joke the first time, don’t repeat it or try explaining it.

As you can see, the preparation this time is strong. So … deep breath, and here goes. Hopefully I will return victorious, having kept Y-factor completely at bay.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Push-button wonders

Once upon a time the ultimate tech fantasy was the humanizing of computers. Bright-eyed engineers plowed their genius into the creation of the perfect robot with no room for human error: someone who could take over all tiresome human tasks efficiently and uncomplainingly. Then an awful truth dawned on someone somewhere: if computers became human, what would humans do? Where would our jobs go? And so began the reverse invasion – if THEY could mimic us, WE would mimic them. If THEY became more intelligent, WE would become less so. If THEY acquired greater flexibility, spontaneity and complexity of responses, WE would become perfectly predictable, simplified automatons. Ha!

Nowhere is the success of this strategy more evident than in the world of customer service. Try if you can to alter the following greeting:
This is a response programmed to go off at the ring of a phone followed by the sound of a customer’s voice. And go off it will, no matter what. Speaking from the experience of a seasoned pizza orderer I can tell you it is pretty near impossible to stop it, change it or interrupt in any other way. I have tried many tricks, including beginning with a pre-emptive ‘no, I don’t want your free coke offer’ – but the speech above is relentless and will run its course.

The only strategy that is partially successful is to dial the number and remain absolutely silent. I stumbled upon this purely by chance, but having tried it a few times I am delighted to say it works most of the time. At the absence of a customer’s voice some sort of error seems to register and what we get is
“Good-evening-Dominoes-pizza-this-is …er, hello?”

The human automaton was actually invented by Indian Airlines many years ago, though it has been a largely unsung pioneer. Remember the steady monotone of ‘tea-please-coffee-please’ as the airhostess made her way down the aisle? Or the masterfully consistent delivery of ‘veg non-veg?’ without as much as a change in inflection? The newer airlines have built a bit of courtesy into the programme but the original principle remains intact. So now we have “may I offer you some coffee ma’am” delivered in a bright and cheerful voice rather than “coffee please” in a grim and threatening one.

Today, of course, the automaton industry is a booming one, exemplified by call centers. The new world is full of twice-born wonders who have mastered a handful of perfect responses to a handful of triggers – often in an alien language, sometimes in an alien accent. At times I suspect they may not even fully make sense of the questions they are trained to recognize and the responses they are trained to give – but what does meaning matter as long as the delivery is correct and the job gets done?

The strange thing is that our own responses become automatic in response. I switch off for 15 seconds after dialing the Dominoes number, knowing I have to give Chetan time to finish his pitch before I can begin. I sometimes forget I am talking to a ‘person’ when I dial-in a call center – forgetting the basic greetings and social courtesies. I rarely listen to the security warnings at the beginning of a flight, even though I am urged to.

This is not really a criticism of slick-and-automated customer service. There is no denying the jobs created by call centers or the lives that have been transformed. I don’t even deny the huge difference the call center industry has made to customer service – from no service at all (the bank queues, the engaged telephone lines, the dour voice telling you to ‘come personally to the shop’) we now have at least the possibility of a solution at the push of a button.

But can we go a step beyond the automaticity that we now witness? Do we have examples of people remaining engaging, spontaneous and human, even while delivering standardized responses? I love the anecdotes of Southwest airlines … the humour built into the in-flight announcements, the sense of fun, and the sheer innovation underlying all interactions. I wonder if it is possible to extend this spirit elsewhere ...

Saturday, September 03, 2005

The next time I hear a mobile phone ring just as the plane is tilting off the runway I swear I will leap off my seat, hunt out the errant phone, rip it off its owner's ear, throw it to the ground and grind it to as fine a powder as the heel of my shoe can manage.

This is not an innate disrespect for other people's space. And while it may seem like a somewhat unreasonable display of intolerance, I assure you it has come to this after a prolonged, slow, simmering boil. Listen to the following conversation and perhaps you may pick up on some of my distress:

"Oh hi ... long time no hear"
"________" (person on other end, presumably asking 'whatcha doing?')
"No, nothing much - what are you doing?" (Nothing much? How about "I am taking off to Mumbai, will call you later"?)
"_____________" (person on other end, presumably commenting on the weather)
"Yup, it's been really hot. No electricity too last night"
"________________________________" (person on other end, apparently talking about a movie he / she is currently watching)
"Wow, I've been dying to see it. Is it good?" (Now that is anybody's guess. If it was good, would he / she be calling you? On the other hand ...)
"____________________" (person on other end, apparently indicating that the movie is excellent. What do you know.)
"Great, I'll watch it this weekend. Will you call me when they come to that song I told you about? Actually, call me later - I'm off to Mumbai right now" (Finally!)
"________________________" (person on other end, tenaciously hanging on)
"Yes, I know ... were you there at Rakesh's party?" (Dear god.)
"_______________________" (well I clearly cannot blame the person-on-other-end, he has been given no hint of our man's whereabouts - except for the fleeting reference to Mumbai)

All this while the air hostess tells us of the perils to the flight navigation system (and by a logical extension, to our lives) if all phones are not switched off NOW.

I am not against technology. I love the miracle of mobile telephones. I love the fact that it is possible to talk to anyone, anytime and anywhere. I love the feeling of being connected, of being at the other end of the world and yet being 'home' at the push of a button. I love the personalization of phones - the one-to-one contact without a 'may-I-speak-to-xyz-please' ... the knowledge that when you call a number you will hear a specific voice ... the caller identification possible through not just flashing names but also personalized ringtones.

Like I said, I am fully appreciative of the joys of mobile technology and do not grudge anyone else reveling in them.

I have come to tolerate meetings being interrupted by calls. I don't mind (not terribly, at least) the shriek of a mobile ring piercing through a quiet restaurant. I even smile bravely when I hear one during a movie ... presumably there are important things that motivate people to pay for a movie and not watch it. One could even argue that their ringtone sometimes has more entertainment value than the soundtrack of the movie.

But my deep affection for mobile technology is overruled by a healthy respect for aeroplane technology. If the aeroplane does not want to fly when a mobile phone is on, I have no wish to argue. And honestly, I cannot understand people who do want to argue. While some may be dismissive of the aeroplane's touchiness about mobile phones, surely they recognize that it has the upper hand when we are airbound? Of all the possible ways to die, I can think of none more unseemly than "killed by aeroplane's reaction to ringing mobile phone".

I have just gotten off a traumatic flight from Delhi where no less than 7 phones rang just after the airhostess had finished with her dire warnings. Are we witnessing a new kind of thrill-seeking behaviour? Is there a 'keep your phone on' challenge that I am unaware of? Roll over bungee jumping, white water rafting and dirt track racing : the brave new breed keeps their phones on longer while flying. Having puzzled extensively over possible reasons for this widespread flouting of mobile phone rules, I find I can think of nothing plausible. Any ideas, anyone?

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