Monthly Archives: October 2011

Chasing the Monk’s Shadow

Mishi Saran

There are some books that one wishes went on forever, for the vicarious experience offered is incredible. This is one of those. Long after the pages have been completed, the journey promises to stay in my mind.

It is now exactly a decade since Mishi Saran started on her journey – to follow a monk who had himself made a journey of over 10000 miles, 14 centuries before her time. Xuanzang, who I last met in my history text from school, the monk with the neat backpack.

The book hooked me right from the time the author described how she found a purpose – “an Indian woman with a Chinese craze, a Chinese monk with an Indian obsession, we had the same schizophrenia, the monk and I. It seemed logical to take the same road.”

The best journeys are those which traverse time and space in one stroke, and that’s exactly what this book does. Though in many ways, it could be described as a travelogue too, that would be utterly unfair. It is very much a personal journey for the author, a search for her roots, and identity.

As Mishi Saran travels across China and Central Asia, following Xuanzang’s path, her vivid prose blurs the boundaries that have been created in the modern era, and its easy to see the influence of ancient civilisations and regimes influence art, architecture, language, customs and thus life itself. And at the edges, where its not just cultures that collide, but religions too, as they are reshaped or recast in different moulds – Islam, Buddhism, Sufism…

The writing style forces one to make the journey with her, and I could see that there were actually three journeys unraveling simultaneously – the author, the monk, and the Buddha himself. All of them journeys with a purpose.

And amidst all the eloquence, it has obviously been a journey that required grit and courage.. And luck, which many a time failed the author. From places where children going to school needed visas and permits, to the posturing of a few contemporary students of Buddhism, to the origins of words that are still used in common parlance, and characters which seem to leap out of history pages – Ashoka, Kanishka, Chandragupta, the pages hold in them, tangential journeys for the reader.

The last part of the book, where the author gets to (almost) finally visit the territories crossed by Xuanzang in Afghanistan, is written a month before 9/11, and gives us a gripping account of Afghanistan under the Taliban, with glimpses of people who have perhaps yet to find peace. “I believed him. It was hard not to believe a man when you were standing in front of his blown-up home and staring at the ruins of his life. Whatever the story was, this was his truth.” Unlike fiction, one cannot console the self that the person and his story are imaginary. The last part of the journey does not add a lot with respect to the purpose of the book, but it’s a part that I’m glad the author chose to add here.

As a reader, I could relate to the author’s words in the last page “…I understood less, not more…. I had acquired this sadness”, and that is what makes this book one of the best I’ve read.

Gamification – Level 3

I ended last week’s post comparing the previous season’s buzzword ‘social media’ with gamification, and the need for brands to evolve their own way of utilising it. Though it’s easy to find a huge number of case studies that have been generated on the use of social media by brands to interact with consumers, the amount of material available on how the internal organisation has been wired to implement this, is relatively less.

At a broad level, both consumer facing social media and gamification are ways to interact with consumers and engage them better. But though a single function in the organisation might be handling this interface (I think the vast majority of organisations have not evolved to the advanced social media frameworks), its effectiveness depends on coordination between functions.

I read JP Rangaswami’s excellent post on Gamification and the Enterprise, on how the consumer and  the enterprise are changing and that new problems require new approaches and advocates a look at game design to solve these. I also read a counter-post by Sigurd Rinde which argues that gamification, dashboard and search are signs of enterprise failure. The disagreement seemed more to be on semantics, if you check the comments on Sig’s post.

Both agree that extrinsic rewards based gamification is not the way to do it. Not that my agreement much in the debate, but I do agree. :) To me, extrinsic rewards seems like a way to reward a process for its own sake, but intrinsic rewards might significantly work better to ensure that the intent is the bigger focus.

Which brings me to implementation. Usually, social media outposts happen first and then organisations scramble to make processes and frameworks out of it. This is probably because the social networks enable customers to have a conversation about the brand anyway without its having any say in the matter. In the case of gamification, though, there is a requirement to build game dynamics, mechanics and aesthetics and it seems that this would have to be done by the brand. That leads to a choice.

So should an enterprise first use gamification on the consumer side, finding ways to marry customer intent and business objective and then attempt this in the enterprise to ensure that employees work towards achieving these ‘ways’? Or should they identify business objectives and gamify the enterprise to ensure they are met and then attempt this on the consumer side, so employees can work on making the ‘ways’ smoother to execute? Or build both in parallel? I am swinging towards the first option. You?

until next time, end game, for now

Fake my life

Funny Confession Ecard: I am no match for the perfect, carefully crafted online version of myself.The perfect life, that’s what I called it – the phenomenon that has spread across the two social networks I frequent. Facebook Photos is nothing new and has come up here as a subject for discussion earlier. But its rise has been meteoric, just like the social network. The best vacations, the coolest friends, the hottest parties, the snazziest gadgets, seems everyone can haz it. :) Twitter is not far behind. People, almost like brands, out to show their best side. Made for Facebook/Made for Twitter/ Lies of Life, call it what you will. Of course condolences would pour in if someone had a distressing update. Either outrage against the wrongdoer if any, or at least a +1 to show solidarity. Unfollow, unfriend you’d say, but these are not bad people, they just have a perfect life. :) Unfortunately, the networks work as emotion aggregators too, forcing me to vent once in a while. [image source Check it out for more awesomeness :)] And yes, I generalise. :)

I have wondered about the motivation. Maybe we like to share happiness more than sadness by default. Maybe sadness is a private thing we choose only to share with dear ones. (do you think there’s a social network idea there? A mutant version of Path) Maybe the algorithms ensure I see only the happy ones. Or maybe it’s indeed true that our vanity stops us from showing that we have been humbled, beaten, saddened by a human hand or a twist of fate.

A few minutes after I tweeted about the perfect life, I got a message on the blog (deleted now) from an old dear friend S, who had gotten in touch after quite a while. In the long years before a virtual home, when a real diary was a lifesaver, hers would probably be the name that was mentioned most, before the rise of the  thenceforth omnipresent D. :)

S isn’t on twitter, so she would have no idea of the coincidence. She was happy about the progress I was making, doing the things I love to do and generally having fun. And that led me to wonder if I, in my own limited way, was also feeding the perfect life network. So here’s setting the record straight. In case you see my vacation photos, restaurant visits and general attempts at humour and think that the story begins and ends there, you couldn’t be further from the truth.

As many of my posts would indicate, I have multiple ‘missed life crises’ – singer, author, theatre actor, h3ll, even cricketer, and perhaps a few more too, all skills I have either displayed to some degree or think I possess. :) I think way too much for my own good and am forever irritated at the inequity of life (in terms of those more unfortunate) and not being able to do much about it. I am constantly trying to shed baggage and sometimes failing miserably. My feelings of insecurity would be legend if they were a published work. Thankfully D exists. There is more, but that’s enough fun at my expense. The silver lining is that I’m learning through it all. Meanwhile, all I’m trying to say is that the grass on the other side is probably photoshopped. If it’s not, they’ve probably worked hard to make it this way. And we can too, if we try. Please smile now, and mean it. Or I’ll have to ask you to Like the post ;)

until next time, open source happiness

PS: It was only recently that I gave off my fakemytrip.com domain to mygola. I had bought it thanks to an irritating status on FB, and had a 4sq based idea around it. :D

Adaa

Koramangala’s autumn cleaning has meant that we have a new set of restaurants. Adaa is one of them, and has the advantage of already being famous in Marathahalli, one of those recent upstart villages that is trying to give Koramangala’s sheer number of restaurants a run for its money. ;)

A social visit earlier meant that the tummy was half-full, so we decided to walk to Adaa. This is on one of Koramangala’s food streets, same as Kobe, Empire, Sufi etc. You’ll see it on the left turn (corner) just after the Jyoti Nivas College left, opposite what used to be Paramount. (and now seems to be on its way to becoming Naushad’s The Big Chef) I think Adaa has taken Desmond’s spot. Thanks to the parking lot near Empire, you should be able to easily find a place.

Adaa is a compact restaurant with a warm yet classy interior, and comfortable seating options. The menu informs you that it is part of the same group that owns Treat in Indiranagar. That used to be one of our favourite haunts during our brief stay in Bangalore East. The usage of green in the menu and logo is also a good hint to the connection, on hindsight.

We started off proceedings with a Bukni Kabab. ‘Bukni’ seems to be a powdered masala with a dominant red chillies flavour. This indeed turned out to be a hot, fiery seekh kabab with an excellent texture, complemented well by the lemony, tangy onions. We washed it down with a thick, sweet lassi, that proved to be a good investment too. For the main course, we ordered a Murg Raada and a Magaz, and to go with that, a Kheema Kulcha, a Lal Mirch Paratha and later a, Hari Mirch Roti.

The chicken dish seems to have a back story too. Apparently, it was created in a dhaba near the Road Transport Authority in Old Delhi. The mince and meat combo was good but though that made it a thick dish, the gravy itself proved a bit watery and bland. The Magaz, which is goat’s brain in a spiced masala was a much better dish, in spite of being slightly inconsistent with its flavours. There were spikes of salt and tanginess, but that didn’t take away much. The roti, paratha and kulcha did their jobs well, though we expected more spicy versions.

There were dessert options, but we were too stuffed. There was this cool packaged ‘paan’ that came with the bill. First time I have seen this, and it’s quite good. So good that we ate two each and took the remaining with us. :D The bill came to just over Rs.900, including a 10% service charge. The service is courteous and attentive. In short, quite worth a visit, if you’re in Koramangala and would like some North Indian fare.

Adaa, 48, 4B Cross, 5th Block, Koramangala Ph: 41103144/55

A review published in Bangalore Mirror later

Gamification – Level 2

I’ve spent quite some in the last week exploring gamification – going through documentation and perspectives that have been shared online. While there’s a simplicity in the basic concept, application is a totally different story. So as with all games, I’m going to navigate step by step, until a larger picture reveals itself over a few posts.

One of the things that I have thought about is where one would start. Since I’ve operated mostly on consumer brands, my thoughts were skewed in that direction. Most of the white papers outline a fairly simple approach that consists of defining goals, identifying users and rewarding engagement. Of course, it’s only the outline that’s simple, and application design is the real challenge. As games designer Sebastian Deterding (creator of the ‘Gamification and its Discontents’ presentation I shared last week) has written “Games are not fun because they’re games, but when they are well-designed”

One of my favourite posts on the subject is Kathy Sierra’s “Pixie Dust and the mountain of mediocrity” (this is the original post, for some reason it wasn’t opening, hence the FB link) It underlines the point about putting lipstick on a pig, and is applicable to every buzzword that appears on the horizon. Marketers (I generalise here) have been guilty of taking the easy path and focusing on the what (tools and frills) and not focusing on digging deeper and understanding the why. That probably explains why Kathy is “passionately against ‘gamification'”

Every brand – consumer or enterprise, serves a purpose for its user. In Kathy’s words, “make people better at something they want to be better at.” If they don’t do that yet, then they might want to get around to doing it. Brands wants users to do certain things, and it invariably boils down to a sale, and repeat sales. Every interaction in a marketing funnel is most likely a step towards pushing the user in this direction. Once upon a time, brands achieved this through one way communication on mass media, and other available means like Direct Mails and Ground promotions. The rise of social platforms allowed brands to listen more closely and gave them an avenue for understanding user motivations, reacting accordingly, having a conversation with consumers and taking word-of-mouth to levels hitherto unexplored. But rewarding this, especially if working on monetary premises, is not likely to be economical. Nor is ‘share with friends’ a great ploy because it does amount to spam. I think what gamification does is help marketers link the brand’s purpose in the life of the user to his journey in getting there, all the while utilising user motivations to create a different ecosystem of rewards that help the brand as well as the user. It then continues to give the marketer means to make the user ‘stick’ – retention.

Just like the previous season’s buzzword – social media – this too cannot afford a ‘one size fits all’ approach. Nor can it work by adding meaningless points and badges to an ill conceived process/product. Brands would have to align their own purpose, the role it plays in users’ lives, understand personal, group and social motivations and make their own game mechanics, dynamics and aesthetics that accommodates instant gratification as well as long term purposes.

until next time, level up

The window seat….

…at night. The sight of a person looking into infinity from within the confines of a moving vehicle. What sparked this memory was a single scene from a song in a movie (Malayalam) that I saw recently – Salt N’ Pepper. Not in this song, which is absolute foodpr0n, but in the other melodious song (2:50 – 3:05) You’ll probably not recognise Shwetha Menon. :)

In trains, it works differently for me. The lights are much further away, and flicker, as though desperately trying to get me to imagine their story. In buses, the lights seem much closer, and so are the people outside. Returning from work, knowing they have a night ahead to recoup before they face the daily grind the next day. On their way to meet friends, hoping they’ll have a good time. Rushing home, eager to see a loved one, whom they have missed all day. Stories of hope, stories with a face.

I don’t get to see this these days, but I remember when I was in engineering college and used to return home on weekends. My usual bus dropped me at home by 6, too early for this, but in case I got delayed, I’d be in a plodding bus, half empty, on a route and through a landscape that looked completely different when seen at night. Before I got the Kiney to Goa, the trip from Panjim to Ribandar at night felt just the same. The Mandovi just made it extra special. In my first job, there was a period during which I used to travel daily from Cochin to Paravur, about 20 km away. That was probably the last time I got the window seat in a bus, at night. Ironically, that was also the time I used to go back to an empty home. One of those times, when the spectator had his own story to tell. :)

There is something about the window-seat-at-night experience – romantic/ nostalgic/ wistful that makes it special. A feeling that I was not alone in the crowd. It used to give me a sense of peace, a feeling that everything would be alright.

until next time, the bus stops here.

Weekly Top 5

This week’s updates include the completion of Microsoft’s Skype acquisition, Dell and Windows 8 devices, Bing branded deals; Zynga’s IPO, new games, Zynga Direct, Angry Birds and IPO plans; Facebook’s acquisition of friend.ly, association with Walmart; Apple’s pre-orders for 4S, launch of iOS5, Foursquare’s launch of Radar; Google+ userbase, closure of Buzz, and the launch plans of Nexus Prime.

The Immortals of Meluha

Amish

The first of the Shiva trilogy. The book takes a historical view of Hindu mythology and looks at the Hindu God Shiva as a human who through this actions got elevated to the pedestal of Mahadev – the God of Gods. Set from 1900 BC onwards, it tracks Shiva’s journey from Mount Kailash in Tibet to the land of the Sapt Sindhu inhabited by the Meluhans, who see him as ‘Neelkanth’, the incarnation that will help them triumph over evil. ‘Evil’ to them are their neighbours, the people of ‘Swadeep’.

The book is very fast paced and tells a good story. It also has a sprinkling of philosophy, especially towards the end that lends it some (relative) gravitas. Though the book shows no dearth of imagination in bringing a reality perspective to a lot of things we consider myth, what I felt it lacked was a certain finesse of prose, a factor that made it seem corny at regular intervals. But that won’t stop me from picking up the other two books, and that sense of intrigue is what makes the book a good read.