Monthly Archives: May 2018

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A Bengali Gentleman’s engagements with America – Part III

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Part I and Part II of this series of works were more personal in nature and to provide a context of the individual who was writing about the on-going engagements. In this final and the longest part of the series, I shall deliberately de-personalize the relation between the text being written and the person writing the text.

This will discuss issues related to Immigration, Business, Cross-Cultural Interaction (Indian at the narrowest and South East Asian at the broadest), Habitat, Technology, Religion, Beauty and Aesthetics.

Religion 

Blaise Pascal, one of the greatest scientists in the true sense of the term and also an observer of human situation of the highest order, was historically and temperamentally placed at the greatest event of last five hundred years : the ideas of science impacting ideas of religion – Christianity  in Pascal’s time and in Europe. His genius of both of the head and the heart and sensitivity of a poet could foresee the vacuum that was being created by the discoveries of science and something invaluable was getting lost.

He could foresee that Man needed consolation – consolation of finding itself alone and orphan in a world which he claimed to have understood better but was suffering a bottomless nothingness inside. Hence Pascal could say – Man is a reed, a thinking reed and the triumph lies in self-awareness.  This self-awareness issue is more relevant today – when computers are becoming smarter and smarter.

The worldly activities and morals and man’s very purpose of Life  depend very strongly on how he thinks of the mortality and after-life. From Pascal till our time, powerful thinkers tried to grapple with this problem of “meaning” in life and we have a super-market of meaning :

  • Discard the question. Let us pursuit happiness in an equal and fair society.
  • Morality without God. Man is the measure, not only of architecture or of created things, but of Moral. French Revolution – where a new religion was tried to be established where Man was at the centre. The Great Human-centric Utopia at its most-eloquent articulation and also with devastating consequences.
  • We are progressing and Technology – a human created product will solve all our problems. However, as late as 1928, Oswald Spengler demolished all such hopes in his Decline of the West where he hammered on the idea and on its ambit – “if Man is on decline, its created product – Technik will not save him.” This is a re-statement of the doctrine – “Man is the measure of all things.” All relativism after sufficient number of iterations will end in nothingness and the only distinction that will remain is the bare physical survival. Hence continuous war without any higher purpose will drain such a culture of its vitality and the culture will go back to its baseline – tribalism.
  • High Art will replace the vacuum left by Religion. This may be possible for a minority but by its very definition, in a democracy and equal society, median taste will go downwards (and nobody dare to speak it as it will be considered unfair and unequal) and materialism will be the call of the day. In private sphere, this will mean “more stuff” and in public lives, there will be un-ending debate on crushing any incremental or imagined injustices whereas monstrous inequality nobody will notice.  So, in such a society, monstrous inequality will be tolerated as nature of things but any individual claiming “higher dimension of being” will be “cut to size.”. Such societies, in due course, with its unanimous agreement on not tolerating any infinitesimal “imposition”, “elitism”, “high culture” will consider, again for some finite time, baboons and imbeciles as “great artists.” Nowhere but in modern painting this is more clearly demonstrated.  The best defense of an idiot is to propagate the idea that intelligence is a construct by intelligent people and such an injustice can be only remedied by making “intelligence” as some kind of “phobic” word.  If you see a typical modern painting, especially those that are “famous” – if you put the work of art in the left and the description of the work in the right, you shall come to the conclusion that the work is mute – the description is of some value. Can this be said of an old master’s work ? Say of the Girl with the pearl erring by Vermeer – the painting, as if removes some stone inside us and meaning, words, images, poems come of which we were not aware of.

Without the absolute standard imposed by all true religion – the vacuum sucks in everything like a black hole and the first radicals who have all the dust of the classical age sprinkled over them at least retain the respect for the skill of the past. However, it remains the tragedy of their lives to see swarms of imitators and upstarts whose only claim now remains how much un-tutored and banal they can be.

Immigration 

Immigration has been the reactant and catalyst of all racial and genetic (plus and minus) evolution of the United States as a nation. This is a fact and not an opinion. I am directly aware of a particular human group in this Immigration Cycle into that country and that is the people of Indian origin born in the seventies and eighties of the last century. They belong to my generation and they were all, almost to the last man and woman were economic or intentional migrants. They have clocked close to fifty years in this country and the day Rajat Gupta, ex-McKinsey CEO (immigrated in the ’70s) was convicted for Insider Trading, I was shocked like most but the historian in me was delighted to find that the assimilation process  of this particular human group has now reached the level that of the immigrants some century back – Italians. Conviction of Rajat Gupta was the signal act where, I quote myself when the news broke, thinking of Marquez’s Macondo and its earliest settlers : “..a land does not become one’s own till some people are not in the grave” and then my own – “..when the human group does not produce irregular sons and non-regular daughters and some thieves and criminals who finally participate in the drama that is bound to the soil – local jailhouses and local madhouses. Nobody exports criminals or mad people once they are detected either by courts or by courts of community whispers.”

I did write my own observation – a mystery with a damning conclusion where I had asked why this human group – some million strong was not able to produce an enduring, classic piece of art (the mysterious process of self interacting with the universe). I was younger then when I dared to write the indictment but age has mellowed me and now I am more patient. I believe, it will take some time and we shall surely see some classic work of work by this human group. It was 30 years between the actual events happened in New York in the 1940s – Cosa Nostra and Art waited this time and then in 1970s, a 24 year old Italian-American Mr. Copolla was gripped by something which is pure genius and he produced The Godfather.  If Art or the Universe respects some pattern, it will be perhaps in 2042 (some 30 years after the conviction of Mr. Rajat Gupta and few more immigrants of Indian origin), we may wait to see some enduring classic in any art form by this human group. The wait starts now.

Why am I harping on Art ?

An Art of Enduring Beauty alone has the potency to connect dissimilar things. How ?

Nostalgia of the Forgotten Home  – America as a Continent of Circe 

Circe was a mythological demi-goddess who used to attract seafaring men by her siren song and once the sailors landed into her island, she treated them well, fed them, gave them wine but with all these, she mixed some herbs and potions that made those men forget their own land and that of their forefathers.

For all immigrants, America has been a continent of Circe sort of. For Indian immigrants, the magic potion worked better in terms of the forgetfulness. A whole new set of business – of enormous proportion was developed by Bombay film industry in 1990s – coinciding exactly with the time when the first wave of immigrants were having their children entering adolescence and whole new viewership emerged of the films of Bollywood. These films, artistically very mediocre addressed one thing, I paraphrase from the film Casino’s  invocation – “.. just as the Lourdes was for the hunch-backs, these films shot in the new home but controlled from India – these became the purgatorial exercise for those who were aware of being the victim and the suitor – both at the same time of the new land which had become the Continent of Circe for them.”

Technology

I lived my life mostly in India and one group whom I have observed incessantly is the so called “Indian middle class” – being a member of that class myself. These observations with suspended judgement provided me some insights which allowed me to be courageous enough to generalize two key pillars from which we can not only build a vantage point but even something useful for other human groups.

  • The less seminal contribution a human group has on some enterprise, the higher the chance of the same group being more fascinated and irrational about it. Note the word seminal.
  • The more seminal contribution a human group has on some enterprise, the less it will be fascinated and being irrational about it.

The world of technology to which India is beholden was created some five hundred years back in the small landmass called Western Europe.

Our times have witnessed the full flowering of these ideas and also its decay without the moral compass. Rather having no compass of moral or beauty, the whole enterprise finally boiled down to mechanistic exercise and the only measure was the measure of something which was a reductionist unit of convenience – money and its making.

Contemporary India is a major consumer of these technologies and the products the seminal contribution for whatever reasons is very less. Hence the spectral fury of interest and so much hope and faith bestowed on its redemptive value. Redemption, of course from relative, real and imagined poverty.  Our political class and leaders also believed on this and on this, in this divided land appears to be at least no disagreement. That is very strange indeed !

I shall perhaps write after a week once again the next part where two themes of contemporary lives will be discussed – Debt and Livelihood.

Source: wordsmithofbengal.wordpress.com


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A Bengali gentleman’s engagements with America – Part II

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In 2006, something very radical happened in my career – I had “retired” just as cricketers do in India while they “peak”. Before I was 30, I left my corporate job for no other reason that that of becoming apathetic of going to work. I was not aware at that time but it was something taken not kindly in our environment. I was a married man with a child of one year.

I started working on my business – a business I had started while I was a Master’s student in the UK. The business provided me with ample leisure and I passed my time by reading and then writing a narrative history of my native province, Bengal, entitled An Intimate History of Bengal.  It was in this period, Democracy in America by Alex de Tocqueville came in my hand and I started reading the 700 page book with utter fascination.

The book was written in 1833 and wonder of wonder, the book started giving me underlying reasons of the contemporary  society’s reaction to my philosophy of life – “un-examined life is not worth living.“.  I was very delighted to find that in a democratic and equal society where all privileges of birth, lineage, pedigree, caste are theoretically made irrelevant and this vacuum will be filled by the sole identification of what one does (job) and what one earns (money). The more  society moves from aristocracy to democracy, it will amplify these trends. Interested reader may see a whole summary of the book here.

Hollywood

Hollywood also had its influence in my growing up and three films that stand out are The Godfather Trilogy, The Untouchables, Once upon a time in America. I do not remember any other film having any trans formative influence  on me. Most of the other mainstream films were more or less thoughtless like our Bollywood films but with better production and more disciplined acting.

Meeting my first American in person 

I met my first American in person in 2001 while  I was on a cable laying ship laying submarine cable across the seven seas. He was a big Texan man – 6 feet plus and a belly to match. I had found his English difficult to understand initially but after some training, the ear could be accustomed .

The Indian Immigrants in America 

The next interactions I started having was from Indian immigrants or those who worked for few years while deputed by their employers – large Indian IT companies. These people were in the age group of 25-32 years – predominantly male and it appeared quickly to me that being economic migrant and that too working very late hours, they had less temperament and more less opportunity in terms of time and money to have comprehensive cultural experience. Except one, I could not have any commentary of individuality and hence although such people were too many but influence was very insignificant to me. In short, they had fixed expectations and more rigid and fixed ideas and being operational workers looking for opportunity and nothing else, their commentary and observations were bound to be limited, selective and interest-driven.

I wrote my commentary on this theme and posited a devastating thesis on the absence of any first order work of Art by this population. 

Credit Crisis of 2008

It was in 2008, my interest in America got intensified. By that time, many new technologies appeared and that made the global village appear more and more vivid in images and videos. Something was lost in this barrage of information and that was penetrating the obvious.

In the last and Part III, I shall cover the next 10 year period when I worked as a business owner and in my own assessment – “a Time Rich Cash Poor Gentleman.”

Source: wordsmithofbengal.wordpress.com


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A Bengali gentleman’s engagement with America – Part I

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Bengali Gentleman : Author

America : the geography as well as the “myth” and stories interwoven collectively by Indians from 1970s. Also the New Rome of our times – the new Rome is told as an approximation and as a shorthand.

Engagements : Mental and in-person collisions / interfacing.

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I have never stayed more than 45 days at a stretch in America though I did come many times – first time as a Federal Government of India officer and later as visitor, business or combination. I did visit many cities and many locales although all these can be considered fleeting, fragmented and highly selective. The first visit was in 1997 – a different world perhaps and a different man, some 23 year old.

I first became aware of America while I read , an adolescent boy residing in Silchar, a small-town in Assam of North East India, a short story by a Bengali author Mr. Shankar called ” Milk of New York” where an immigrant mother was irrationally pursuing her daughter to drink a glass of milk while she was going out for a date. On being asked by the author for such such insistence, the Bengali immigrant mother replied: “I mixed birth control pill in the milk. ” The story timeline was somewhere in 1970s and I read the story in 1980s.

Then I read dispatches of Ms. Alolika Ganguly in one of the leading Bengali newspapers where she described the life very nicely and in a simple prose. It provided a small-town boy the idea of the goings-on of a far away land.

Then when I was 16, I read Buddhadev Basu’s travelogue in the United States – somewhere in the 70s when he was as scholar visitor and stayed in New York with his wife for few months.  Mr. Basu, being first and foremost a poet could communicate more essence of the land to me and it was also the time, I was getting ready to enter into the hyper-competitive Indian Entrance Systems.

In my engineering college, I met Mr. Mathew who was my class-mate and room-mate and he introduced me to the novel The Godfather. I was hooked by the English prose and the prose itself told me how American soil and the environ took Queen’s English and produced something utterly different and individual. The Godfather left in me a lasting lust for New York. Even after I had watched the trilogy, the charm of Puzo’s prose retained its freshness. One of the images that haunts me is Michael Coreleone’s escape in Italy from New York harbour at the same night, he killed Sollozzo and Captain McLuskey and his watching the New York skyline with its lights and the image of a Greek hero watching some funeral fire at the coast of Carthage or that of Byron greeting English coast or I myself finding the palm trees of Dumdum airport when I was leaving for England after leaving my job for my “tryst with destiny” in England. The imagery is old but it is so portable in ages when uncertainty is embedded on a moving vehicle.

In the final year of my college days, I did encounter an acronym called GRE – the entrance test to enter America as s student. I did see many of my classmates preparing themselves for the examination. Curious, I did see the structure of the examination and I discovered how hilarious and grotesque it was when the students were supposed to know very complex, arcane English words and their meanings.

Two American men impressed me a lot – Mr. Edgar Allan Poe and Mr. Whitman. I believe Mr. Poe’s stories impressed me a lot and Mr. Whitman was talking of something that was close to my heart as a small-town boy with wide fields and less crowded spaces.

Post-college, I was working as a Federal Government of India officer in the monopoly international telecom provider and I heard many of my batch-mates were leaving the job and joining “software companies” and then taking a flight to the United States. Curious, I went to visit a “software company” in Chennai somewhere in 1999 and one in Bangalore in 2000. An old colleague used to work there and I entered the office… I did not see the space at eye-level, instead I instantly fixed my eyes in space and it looked like a bee-hive with square boxes or hives. The whole space looked like a factory with matrix of men and women. The artificial light, a hermetically sealed environment and the AC cool air – all made me feel like a prisoner. My “dot com” dream ended then and there.

I started taking more active interest in the United States as a geography when I became a business owner (not an entrepreneur).

I consider, the word a sort of insult while spoken in certain context in India and that story I shall tell in Part II.

Source: wordsmithofbengal.wordpress.com


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Voice – Future of UI (User Interface) and UX (User Experience)

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The Future Landscape connecting Smart Machines, Universal User Interface (i.e. voice – spoken words) and Business Mantra

  • In Sanskrit, the word “mantra” always signifies some spoken words, i.e. sounds with convoluted, complex and encrypted meanings. Something resembling genetic code. It uses matter (vibrations in air in general) but in itself a mantra is “de-materialized matter”. A mantra is a universal interface ranging from calling Olympian gods to that of activating a weapon.
  • The future landscape, I believe will resemble a situation where voice / spoken words will be the Universal User Interface. From keyboard, mouse, stylus, smart-screen, fingers, eyes and hand to completely TOUCHLESS.
  • Spoken words, VOICE or mantra – whatever you call it will use SYNTAX, SEMANTICS, CONTEXT  and SENTIMENT on a framework called – HUMAN LANGUAGE
  • One’s first language (by birth or by acquisition) will always feel like a “biological organ” for a person and being an organ rather automation, it will have all the attributes humans have.
  • Future devices and the ecosystem in general needs to be TRAINED on the huge number of languages spoken by people all over the globe.

LOCALIZATION – 1.0

The historical evolution of machines took a specific route but it could have taken other equally probable alternate routes. Hence, we learnt “computer languages” first to have basic interaction with world’s first computers. The evolution of this phase reached its zenith with the evolution of HLLs or Higher Level Languages.

Localization – 2.0

The parallel stream was computation through multiple natural languages. Then came the wave of localization of content – translation in major languages. Devices came with multi-language manuals and training kits opening a new industry vertical in the function of language translation.

Localization – 3.0

This is the phase we are now where new devices directly process “spoken words” in few languages some basic instructions. It is the equivalent of fighting with parsers and compilers in the era of Localization 1.0 whenever the syntax, semantics and context become subtle and inter-wined.  Handling Sentiment is in its infancy.

Localization – 4.0

This phase will rule few decades. In this phase, devices will be able to handle all natural languages – it will be able to process syntax, semantics, context and sentiment together. It will be also the phase when devices will resemble more like a “human entity” and the value-add will be on the emotive, (functional yet transcending functionality) artistic (functional but connecting to some hidden and intractable aspect of our being) and aesthetic (recall of beauty and our attendant sense of mortality).

These devices will interface pre-dominantly with spoken words – either spoken within the range of speech (sitting on a self driven car) or any distance away (directing a drone).

What will be the most-valued USER EXPERIENCE in this environment?

Of this new world, we have no historical precedent and human nature is our only guide, even if not an infallible one. Based on what we understand by human nature, i.e. our own, we can identify some attributes of this ecosystem:

  • The anthro-morphic principle: Human beings will project its own reflection into things created by him. Example, can you deny that once or twice, you have talked with an elevator or a computer in half-praying, half-playful mood as if the device understands your emotion.
  • The Beauty Principle: Human beings respond to beauty and will continue to do so although definitions will vary and there will be change in fashion but the poet was right – “a thing of beauty is a joy forever” and only this principle and none else can explain why people are ready to pay so much premium for an I-phone although functionally it is same like other smart-phones. Another example – people visit Acropolis, Greece to see a non-functional building like Parthenon but who will pay to see most of our highly functional office buildings?
  • The Intimacy Principle: This principle is founded on our liking for being closer with non-judgmental and “you will err but forgiven in advance” environment.  This is at the root of some of our greatest attachments and friendships. This is the psychological and sexual glue that binds relationships that endure. This is the reason why rather than becoming angry, we find comfortable when devices suggest the corrected string we have typed in a hurry.
  • The Morality Principle: Starting from name written on a grave-stone to that of emperors putting obelisk, the under-lying principle is the subterranean but perpetual presence of the inevitable human mortality. Until every human is immortal, this principle will be the fountain-head of all other principles. The Beauty Principle is the complement of this principle. A thing of beauty is a joy forever only because we know that none are here (or there) forever.

CONCLUSION

With Voice as Universal Interface, a whole business landscape will emerge and that means there will be new business models. The value concentration will be in the niches. It is not yet clear where will be those niches but we can have some idea about the nature of those niches and the skill-sets supporting them:

  • Artistic
  • Linguistic
  • Auditory
  • Phonetic

Source: wordsmithofbengal.wordpress.com