Four For Friday (26)

For me, this was a week full of books, reading about books, and headlines about publishing. A new publishing house, called Juggernaut Books, was launched in India with unusual fanfare. There is much promise, albeit not much detail made public yet, of revolutionising publishing using the magic of tech. The business is of interest to me as someone who reads, “techs”, is interested in business model innovation and financing of new business models, and watches women in leadership roles in creating such innovation.

Over here in London, the first volume of Niall Fergusson’s two-part book about Kissinger was finally delivered. In hardback. I am sure I will only ever read it at home because it is so heavy.

Kissinger by FergussonA personal pattern however is becoming evident. My recent purchases have all been paper. I have company. Digital books have stopped evolving, but why? The rational argument about closed ecosystems resonates with many of us, perhaps, but most of us are committed (read: locked-in) to one or the other closed ecosystems.

In other words, digital books and the ecosystem in which they live are software, and software feels most alive and trustworthy when it is actively evolving with the best interests of users in mind. An open stack is not strictly necessary for this, but it certainly helps.

But the main, and I think the real, reason for some of us falling back into the arms of physical books is emotive.

The object – a dense, felled tree, wrapped in royal blue cloth – requires two hands to hold. The inner volume swooshes from its slipcase. And then the thing opens like some blessed walking path into intricate endpages, heavystock half-titles, and multi-page die-cuts, shepherding you towards the table of contents. Behbehani utilitises all the qualities of print to create a procession. By the time you arrive at chapter one, you are entranced.

This was the week that celebrated Urvashi Butalia, founder and publisher of Zubaan Books, for her path-breaking contributions to publishing women’s and other marginalised voices.

Concerns over the growing acceptability of violence against women – in their homes, in workplaces and public spaces, in conflict zones, by fundamentalist and communal forces – fed directly into today’s ongoing debates on women’s freedoms and the attempts to truncate those freedoms in the name of safety.

Through these tumultuous times, Zubaan and Kali for Women functioned also as archivists and as participants in the organically evolving network of disparate groups that formed the Indian women’s movement.

“We’re putting together an archive of the interviews we’ve recorded with authors, organisers, women on the front lines,” Urvashi says.

Recorded over the decades, these will be an invaluable oral history of Indian women, many of them far more focused on getting the job done in any given moment than on chronicling their thoughts.

A recurrent theme in conversations with my erudite women friends is about frivolity. Or at least perceived frivolity. Can feminists be interested in fashion and style and clothes and jewellery? “Yes, they can and they should,” is my answer. If for not much else, then to redress this.

But can feminists enjoy romance novels? Sure, they can, argues this piece.

‘I am of the opinion that a genre that is written by women, for women, about women, about the female experience, even if that experience is codified and structured within patriarchal, established boundaries, is inherently feminist,’  says Sarah Wendell, co-founder of Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, a US-based website devoted to reviewing romance novels through a critical lens.

Wendell grants readers of all socioeconomic and educational backgrounds permission to enjoy their fantasies – be they feminist, sadomasochistic, paranormal, or male-on-male. For Wendell, this permission is the genre’s beating heart. ‘With romance, you are placing a centrepiece, a focus, on women’s sexuality as a healthy and important thing,’ she said. ‘Her orgasm is important! And so is her security, and so is her ability to access birth control.’

The eagle-eyed amongst you have noticed there are only 3 links here. There is a fourth link embedded in the text which is my sneaky way of making it good on the promise of the post.

Four For Friday (25)

This week marked one year of India’s famous, frugal, successful Mars Orbiter Mission.



Aptly enough women in design, science, business, politics, art all caught my eye this week.

Allowing for the usual hyperbole and USA-centricity of TechCrunch’s reportage, here are 30 women, who have revolutionised male-dominated industries.

Unbeknownst to the world, Ursula Burns joined Xerox as a summer intern in 1980 and would later become the most powerful woman in the company. In a period of just a few short years since she became CEO in 2009, Burns drove Xerox to transform from a global document company to a massive enterprise with a diverse set of services and clients. Though she remains busy with her current position, Ursula is a board director of the Ford Foundation, American Express and Exxon Mobil Corporation and is a leader in various non-profit organizations.

It would be remiss of me to highlight the USA-centricity of such lists, and then omit to mention Elmira Bayrasli’s forthcoming book. Adversity creates entrepreneurs and in places we cannot stretch our imagination to.

The Daraprim (pyrimethamine) story this week was a chance to dig into the real story, of Gertrude B. Elion who developed it. She was a Nobel prize winner whose work led to the development of retrovirals as we know them now.  Here is a partial list of what we owe her for:

6-mercaptopurine (Purinethol), the first treatment for leukemia and used in organ transplantation.

Azathioprine (Imuran), the first immuno-suppressive agent, used for organ transplants.

Allopurinol (Zyloprim), for gout.

Pyrimethamine (Daraprim), for malaria.

Trimethoprim (Septra), for meningitis, septicemia, and bacterial infections of the urinary and respiratory tracts.

Acyclovir (Zovirax), for viral herpes.

Nelarabine for cancer treatment.

Here is what she did after her “official” retirement:

During 1967 she occupied the position of the head of the company’s Department of Experimental Therapy and officially retired in 1983. Despite her retirement, Elion continued working almost full-time at the lab, and oversaw the adaptation of azidothymidine (AZT), which became the first drug used for treatment of AIDS

And anytime you feel “old”, stop and think of the amazing Barbara Knickerbocker-Beskind! At 91, she is an active and busy inventor and designer.

I tried to retire five times – as an OT, as a private practitioner, as an author – but it never works. I went back to school to become an artist in 1997 and that has been helpful in drawing my inventions.


In 2013, I saw David Kelley – the founder of the design firm IDEO – on the TV programme 60 minutes. When I realised he accepted, and really respected, people from a varied background, I thought, “I have a unique kind of life experience and designing skills – I could be of value to their firm.” I was 89.

Bonus: you will have to read these answers yourself. Some brilliant lessons in history! What are some things where the first person to do them was a woman?

Four For Friday (24)

This week, it is all about technology and culture. Culture, to me, is a catch-all term for how we think, feel, live, behave, interact and grow (or indeed retrograde). Technology is but science in action, and co-evolves with culture.

In which, Sebastian Normandin explores the allure of pseudoscience — man’s search, sometimes desperate, for meaning:

“Science, in short, is sobering and provides no succour. Pseudoscience, in contrast, is comforting in the extreme. It rashly speculates on connections and contexts that are poorly supported and largely impossible to prove but that suggest all sorts of possibilities which, while they may seem appealing, are simply not tenable. In their quest to create an easy or oversimplified meaning, pseudoscientists engage in all sorts of scientifically dubious practices — using vague or untested claims, focusing more on confirmation rather than refutation (in this respect the pseudoscientific forgets philosopher Karl Popper’s central notion of falsifiability — essentially that science advances through negation rather than confirmation), making their beliefs about a particular idea a point of personal pride, and, finally, a general lack of rigour in methods and means of expression (i.e. language).”

There is an important place for Luddism today, a long essay worth reading in full.

“Consequently, the Luddite impulse is to embrace a certain distinction between human and machine. Thomas Pynchon put his finger on it in 1984 when he wrote that the midcentury Luddite impulse, embodied particularly in science fiction, embraced “a definition of ‘human’ as particularly distinguished from ‘machine.’ ” “Humanity” was held up as an incommensurable yardstick: You either had it or you wanted it.”

We live in interesting times, which many of us may know is effectively a Chinese curse. But how much do we know about Chinese Philosophy? Does Chinese Philosophy not belong in the academe for its exploration of ways of thinking other than how dead Greek men did? That needs to change, argues this essay.

“Because the dominant academic culture in the U.S. traces back to Europe, the ancient Chinese philosophers were not taught to, and thus not read by, the succeeding generations. Ignorance thus apparently justifies ignorance: Because we don’t know their work, they have little impact on our philosophy. Because they have little impact on our philosophy, we believe we are justified in remaining ignorant about their work.

In our diverse, globally influenced country, such narrow-mindedness shouldn’t fly.”

Many in my generation — and definitely in my father’s generation — never heard the word “startup” till we were in our 20s. But now every little new business is a startup. With dreams of raising VC money, creating vast wealth through exits and then doing it all over again.. or becoming a VC. This week Peter Griffin provided humour, effective because it cuts close to the bone of the “startup culture”, in the form of nursery rhymes reinvented.

Twinkle, twinkle, start-up star,

O M G, you’ve come so far!

You got valuations sky-high,

But boss, where’s the R O I?

The age of un-empathy

“My Spotify drains my phone battery”, she said.

“Do you listen to it on streaming or offline?”, I asked.

“Why, yes I do listen to it on streaming!”

“So you see both the 3G access you are using and the app itself use battery. You can see battery use by app and make choices accordingly especially when you are outside and worried you couldn’t recharge your phone.”

“How do I do that?”, she immediately wanted to know.

Cue, search through settings and battery use data on her 4 year old Samsung Android phone.

“The guys at the Samsung store didn’t help me”, she lamented.

So we opened the settings to check battery use and she was horrified.

“Where did all these apps come from? I am not using them”, she said.

“Not right now, perhaps, but they may be running in the background or operating on a pull mechanism”, I said, weakly. And clearly, unhelpfully.

We then discussed what “pull” means, what other common uses may be battery-draining, how it may be necessary to behave differently to conserve battery, how some apps more than others drain battery, and other things she now needs to know, just so she can use the technology she deems essential to her work and her outside-work life.

There were several such moments, as I helped this 65 year old friend of mine. She needs to get to grips with some essential technology tools and social media as she works on taking her business global.

The detail about her age and her business are material here lest the rest of this reflection should get drowned in the assumptions that just because she is older, she is not “smart enough” or “compos mentis”.

She isn’t the first among my over-55 friends whom I have recently helped with their technology and social media needs. Phones and social networks all play a key role.

It is soon clear that much of the technology design has forgotten technology also serves our ageing population at hand.

IMF depiction of our ageing populations

Mobile phones have several non-obvious hidden access features, sometimes resistive touch screens, complicated pathways to switching off default settings on various apps and in case of Android phones, a fragmented ecosystem that confuses older users who did not cut their teeth on technology.

Social networks have arcane and complex privacy settings, light coloured buttons, light grey ellipses to access extra features, drop-down menus hidden behind little arrows, and of course, their own lingo for features.

It may even seem the ageing user is misbehaving i.e. not behaving in accordance with the designers’ expectations of their ability to make use of features they should be able to see (never mind almost universally weakening eye sight with age) or discover. Because, hey, it is so intuitive, you know!

What is wrong with this picture?

Is technology meant to exist for its own sake? Or is it meant to serve someone?

What are the design assumptions at work here? Do we care whom we are including — and whom we are excluding — by our design choices?

Can the growing numbers of ageing people be this invisible?

Post script

As she started to gather her things and prepare to leave, I said, trying to be helpful, “Of course, you could just buy a portable battery pack so you are never out of battery when you leave home.”

She put her things down and looked at me sternly, “That is now for another day, Shefaly. I cannot cope with this any more.”

Related reading:

Why I think “digital native” and “digital immigrant” typology is short-sighted and unhelpful

The design challenge called Indian traffic [1]

India’s traffic problem is real. No, seriously. Indian drivers makes Italians look tame and Londoners look like novice drivers.

(C) Image from the Hindustan Times

India also has the dubious superlative distinction of having the highest number of deaths in road accidents in the world. The government of India publishes data on road accidents which will make the most hardened person’s eyes water.

I suspect Thaler and Sunstein may weep if they saw how spectacularly any design nudge fails on Indian roads.

Lanes, what lanes? Where available at all, a three-lane main road commonly will have been made into five or six or seven chopping and changing lanes.

Traffic dividers are an easily ignored suggestion, not a design element to separate streams of traffic by direction. Most dividers sooner or later find themselves broken to create illegitimate U-turns for vehicles. No prizes for guessing what this does to vehicular traffic flow! But hey, don’t get upset. Keep your hair on — that car or truck coming at you in the opposite direction is on the wrong side of the road indeed. You need to act and save your vehicle and yourself.

Then there are roundabouts. In normal circumstances, in areas with higher vehicular than pedestrian traffic, roundabouts are more efficient than traffic lights, in keeping traffic moving. Not in India. There seems to be no priority for anyone. Everyone enters it as and when and the space is negotiated (sometimes not). And pedestrians try and cross junctions in the middle of that traffic.

Since I mentioned traffic lights, I feel duty-bound to point out that almost nobody respects traffic lights, especially red lights. It would appear red lights are mere suggestions! Indeed a friend stopped at a red light only to be told off by a driver: “You stopped at a red light? Why?”. One morning, at 7am, a state transport corporation bus nearly rammed into my car because it was trying to turn right on a red light, while my car was turning right on a green light. There but for the grace of who-knows-what go I!

The corollary to that behaviour at traffic lights is this shorthand used by many:

Green – Go. Amber – Go Faster. Red – Go if you like.

Many traffic lights now use timers. Contrary to the design intent, the times serve as an excuse for speeding or revving. Putting timers on lights to show how many seconds to red or to green has only had the effect of turning everyone into Mad Max, either speeding through or revving, depending on whether the light is about to turn red or green.

Then there is the non-use — perhaps non-awareness — of car features.

Hardly anyone uses car indicators to indicate whether they intend to turn or intend to move left or bright. Particularly if you see a driver/ rider on your left, revving while you are waiting at a red light as is customary, you can be certain even before the light changes fully he/ she will cut across in front of you to turn, of course, right! Or not. But the trick is you will not know till you start to move.

Many cars have their side mirrors either absent, or permanently folded to prevent them from breaking. Cars often move past each other at a distance smaller than the width of a side mirror so there is a finite chance of the side mirror breaking. But the effect of no-side-mirror on driving is anyone’s guess.

How about flashing lights? People driving from opposite directions in a narrow street flash their lights at each another. The translation? “I am here, make way for me”. People also flash lights at the drivers ahead of them. Same translation.

People honk constantly — not to draw attention to their presence in case another driver makes a sudden move. But to indicate “I am here, make way for me”. Sometimes people honk in stand-still traffic. That is totally incomprehensible, but then again, what about the list so far is comprehensible?

Lax laws mean seat belts are compulsory only in the front. At the back therefore, most car makers oblige by hanging seat belt straps, but no plugs to plug them into. Not good for passengers in the back seat.

Finally there is this.

The driving chaos does make one’s heart stop for a moment, when an ambulance with flashing lights and sirens is waiting to be given way. Nobody does — indeed can, for where does the traffic move after making three lanes into five or six or seven — give way. I was told that there are many, who paint fake ambulance signage and use flashing lights and sirens to get ahead. The result is that now nobody believes it is a real ambulance. Such “enterprise” and non-standard signage means you really can’t tell if a vehicle is in non-ambulance use or for real.

The distrust of the fellow citizen, whether driver or pedestrian, is evident wherever we look. Combined with a poverty mindset, that makes zero-sum thinking the default and that imbues every action with selfishness with no regard whatsoever for the larger societal impact of one person’s choices, this distrust makes for a lethal combination on Indian roads.

How, if at all, can design address the great Indian traffic conundrum?

Short, flippant answer would say, with difficulty, and over a very long period of time.

Why? Well, that is the next post.