Goodbye, David Rakoff

One of the side effects of regularly listening to This American Life is the pleasant experience of getting to know some great artists. Since it is a public radio show, sound is all that is available for the show’s producers to make a good impression and they do extraordinarily well to broadcast the best possible sounds. David Rakoff is one of the frequent writers featured in the show and his unique style in words and narration fit snugly with the core characteristic of TAL. The idea that ordinary things are interesting and that every day moments and experiences have meaning and purpose is a celebrated notion in TAL universe and Rakoff’s brooding, melancholy laced tone that brought the same weight his narrations, whether is it was about cheese grating or his long bout with cancer has always been an enjoyable experience. For some, life’s sombre moments linger for far too long and there seem tobe a lot more of those moments than other people seem to notice. For those of us, Mr.Rakoff’s works stand out as a source of anchor and, may be even, an inspiration. Last Thursday, on Aug 9, David Rakoff passed away at the age of 47 in New York City.

I had the wonderful experience of watching his last performance in front of an audience during the live TAL cinema event conducted in May of this year. At that time, the cancer treatment had rendered his left arm useless and I don’t know if there is anyone who could have made that performance more powerful than Mr.Rakoff. It is not everyday when you see someone stand up to cancer with a poignant dance in the middle of an essay reading and then return to the narration with perspiration and steely determination as the audience exploded in applause. Thanks to the Internets, we can all enjoy and appreciate it.

Thanks and good-bye, Mr.Rakoff.

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How To Design a Fantastic Infographic

When we hear the word ‘infographic’ we often remember the commercials that show statistics in a fancy graph or an animated bar chart. But the science of infographics goes beyond just advertisements that show us how micronutrients in the new health drink is 4 times more than the leading brand. If it is true that a picture is worth thousand words, then an elegantly crafted infogrpahic is worth a leather bound volume of Brittanica(estimation). We are visual creatures, who enjoy seeing things to understand them. We are hardwired to picture things in our head – even things that are not real – which helps us to identify patterns and make rapid decisions. Even when we read books, we imagine the scene portrayed by the chapters, visualize the characters and their surroundings adding as much detail as we can. Many layers of everyday evcomplexity can be stripped off with images and so that is left is the beauty for us to recognize and appreciate.

Take this beautiful infographic posted in the sports section of The New York Times website. Here they show the difference between the olympic gold medal winners in the men’s 100 meters sprint starting from 1896 to 2012 – that’s 116 years of the fastest men on the planet. The graphic is supposed to show how much our runners have improved over the years since the 1900. At the top of the ladder is Usain Bolt who completed his recent race in 9.63 seconds. Compare that to Tomas Burke who took the gold after reaching the finish line in 12 seconds. That is close to 20 meters behind Usain Bolt. Only three seconds separate all the men who have ever won the 100 meter dash since 1896 and an astonishing number of the runners come from the US of A. These numbers may seem impressive, but the graphic is way better in conveying the same idea in much shorter time. Check out the runners infographic here.

The animated graphic also superimposes the US runners from schools and colleges which clearly show that these kids are now on par with many of those olympic gold winners just a few years ago. It is clear that the extensive research in nutrition and exercise routines coupled with the supreme discipline and professionalism exhibited by today’s athletes is literally pushing the boundaries of what we once thought physically possible by the human body.

The best part of the infographic is that we instantly get the idea as soon we get a full glimpse of the animation. Before even the first word is spoken, it is abundantly clear that the lead Usain Bolt has over the previous winners is pretty big. Then, as the narrator gives more information about the runners and how their speed has improved over the years we get a better understanding of their performance. This is the essence of visual design. To convey things even before anything is said, and then fill only the empty spaces with words that matter – that’s a great design.

Check out the runners infographic here. They also have similar interactive graphics for long jump and 100 meter freestyle swimming.


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Ray Bradbury On Reading

Ray Bradbury, the author who made science fiction writing a main stream category in literature, passed away this Thursday. His death was mourned by a variety of personalities, from Stephen King to Steven Spielberg, and publications from the New York Times to the Huffington Post. I had only recently discovered Mr.Bradbury works when I stumbled upon his speech at the Annual Writer’s Symposium and one of the most striking things about him, for me, was his love for his life and craft. It was clear from his voice that he did not write as a pastime or career choice, but he wrote because it brought him joy. Indeed, most of his advice in his speech centered around the idea that if one is not immensely enjoying writing, so much so that all of lives little annoyances become bearable through words, then one has no business writing in the first place. In fact, that seems to be his approach to the larger theme of approaching life as a constant attempt to be curious about the universe and let that curiosity drive one’s ambitions and actions and through the relentless pursuit of those actions, experience true happiness.

If you know how to read, you have a complete education about life, then you know how to vote within a democracy. But if you don’t know how to read, you don’t know how to decide.

More than that speech, I particularly love this interview from him in which, by any measure, he validates the importance of reading. As someone who has recently become a frequent patron of my neighborhood public library, I have been indulging myself in the mysterious and fulfilling experience that is reading without a goal. See, schools and colleges have trained many of us to associate books with mindless memorizing, where we are trying to forcefully yank the knowledge and ideas out of the pages and into our brains, all for the sake of passing an exam. But when you pick up a book, not really knowing why, but for a vague sense that something within those pages might open a portal in your mind to a place where there is hope for truth and clarity, then there is no struggle in learning. There is only a smooth flow of information and ideas. Of course, those are idealistic targets, but that is the point. Each book I pick up seems to lay one more intersection on an internal map that seems to expand with every visit to the quiet and poorly funded neighborhood public library, with only the possibility of finding a promising destination.
I had decided, when I first listened to his speech at the Writer’s Symposium that I will pick up his books next time when I am at the library, not realizing at that time, that his books tend to be put on reservation a month before one can even hope to get hold of them. If anything, his passing will only prolong the waiting times for those books, but if by that his vision of us all living a well-read life will come that much close to reality, then so be it.
Soon after I learned about Maurice Sendak, he passed away and only after a few weeks of me coming to know of Ray Bradbury, he too has left the mortal life. If its a trend, it needs to stop right now.

Books are smart and brilliant and wise. Love what you do and do what you love. Don’t listen to anyone else who tells you not to do it. You do what you want, what you love. Imagination should be the center of your life.

[Post: 291 of 365] [Days Missed: 104]
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Why More Choices Are Making You Unhappy

Have you ever walked into Subway sandwich shop and found yourself unable to decide on which veggies you want to add on your sub ? of course, you have; everybody has, at one point or another. I bet the same indecisiveness crowds your mind when you are standing in the middle of a food court filled with all kinds of fast food outlets and you are paralyzed with the sheer number of choices you are facing. For many of us, the solution is auto-pilot.

A lot of people, including me, when faced with too many choices with no clear advantage over one another, simply choose the first thing that comes to our minds. That explains why I always find that ordering at the Subway a baffling experience. I, a fully grown man, dumb founded by having to choose between 7 types of bread 4 types of cheese. None of those breads are better than the other and I have little to no idea about the difference in the taste among those cheeses. In auto-pilot though, I decide in a matter of seconds and never get flustered. ‘Six-inch oven-roasted chicken sub with swiss cheese on flat bread, please’ – that is the easiest thing for me to say without thinking and I have done it innumerable times. I do it not because I particularly like oven roasted chicken sub on flat bread nor do I love swiss cheese, but because I rather pick something blindly that is good enough than go through the ordeal of choosing between painfully large set of options all in pursuit of getting me the best possible sandwich. Selecting the condiments is a different story. This is a phenomenon best explained with a TED talk.

Barry Schwartz is a psychologist and researcher in the field of Social Theory. He is also an author of number of books on psychology of human behavior and his articles frequent magazines like the New York Times. In this TED talk, Barry Schwartz lays out a compelling case for why more choices are not necessarily good things and more importantly why having too many choices makes us unhappy. His story about select Jeans is sure to resonate with many of us.

With great narrative, backed with research, Mr.Schwartz makes it clear that too many choices actually hinder our ability to think straight. We have enough things to think about already and having to quickly decide between Coke, Pepsi, Mountain Dew, Sprite and Dr.Pepper only makes us more stressed. The distractions we are facing everywhere is beyond anything our brain has evolved for and we have to consciously make effort to just focus for a mere minutes at a stretch. This idea of many choices and the so-called freedom to choose whatever we want is a false choice by any measure and it is hurting us from making the real and meaningful decisions of our lives.

Like Mr.Schwartz points out, these excessive choices also inflate our expectations which can keep us unsatisfied with anything we choose and there by leading to more stress, anxiety and ultimately unhappiness. By reducing the choices we subject ourselves to everyday and when we do make choices, by being more mindful of them, we can clear our minds off clutter and be confident in our choices and the resulting outcomes and ultimately that is the state of mind that can truly make us happy.

[Post: 288 of 365] [Days Missed: 103]
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The Anxiety of Unemployment

Imagine being unemployed. No, really imagine it. Imagine the state of a being where a major part of every day is simply doing nothing but wait; waiting for that phone call or the email from a recruiter. Imagine not seeing the pay check every other week – the same pay check that you were so used to, when employed, that often you barely even noticed its arrival. Imagine the enduring agony of rejection as you go through one job application after another, preparing and perfecting and sending out resumes, cover letters and hand-written thank you notes that never seem to materialize to even a hopeful prospect of a job. Imagine the constant and nagging urge to just give up.

Unemployment rate is presently at 8.1 percent in the US of A, better than same time last year but still not a sign of a healthy economy. A more troubling statistic is that thirty percent of the unemployed have been out of a job for more than 6 months and the picture is even bleaker for job hunters who are past 40 years old. Companies don’t hire older candidates simply because they don’t want to train them in the newer tools and skill sets and pay them more. There is also the stigma attached to the long-term unemployed that if you hadn’t been hired in a while then there must be something wrong with you. A lot of people, well past their younger stages of career life are faced with these problems and Dominick Brocato is one of them.

Stumbled onto his painfully sad story in the New York Times website today about the practical realities of long-term unemployment and how it hurts emotionally as much as it does financially. Dominick, in his words, narrates his journey from a two-decade career as an HR staff who got laid-off as part of a company wide restructuring to being unemployed for, as of this May, 27 straight months. A father of three young adult children, Dominick is at a stage in his life where he can’t start a new career nor can he choose to live a life of retired leisure. The only option for him is to find a job, and as the Times article shows, he has been agonizingly unsuccessful finding one.

The more worrying part of his story for me was the progressive desperation in Dominick’s voice as he explains how after so many job applications, interviews and meetings, all he is left with is heart-break and a damaging level of self-scrutiny. He repeatedly tells us how much in control he was in is earlier employed life, how he was able to support himself early in his childhood after his mother passed away, and how he always saw himself as someone who, with perseverance and hard work, shaped his world and it is easy to see how crushing it is for him to face this reality where everyday is filled to the brim with uncertainty and anguish.

When people find themselves out of luck in life for any extended amount time, for any reason whatsoever, there always seems to be a constant presence of some form of cancer. Recently, Dominick was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer in his left leg which requires frequent doses of chemotherapy. With the US of A’s medical insurance system firmly under the grotesque death-grip of employer-provided benefits, he is out of luck with that too. Perhaps he summarizes it better than anyone can.

I talked to the one doctor that I go to and said, “O.K., so starting in August, if I can’t pay, how is that going to affect my still coming here to see you?” …

He was very silent. He didn’t answer me.

This is his predicament. He needs money to support his family and medical expenses and the longer he stays unemployed lesser he gets preferred by the employers and it just seems like slow-moving rut. Given the number of people who have been long-term unemployed, he is definitely not alone on this terrible ride. Unless congress can extend some of the unemployment benefits and/or the economy picks up steam it is very unlikely that the current state will get any better for Dominick and his fellow job hunters.

After reading his story, suddenly I became thankful for everything I have. As much as I would like to have it better, what I have ain’t so bad after all.

[Post: 281 of 365] [Days Missed: 98]
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A Cruel Prank on a Genius

For your mid-sunday viewing pleasure, here is a delightful documentary from NOVA about the interesting life of Richard Feynman. Feynman is a Noble prize winning theoretical physicist and über genius who identified himself as an explorer.

I’m an explorer, okay? I get curious about everything, and I want to investigate all kinds of stuff.

Upon his death at the age of 69, the New York Times eulogized him as “arguably the most brilliant, iconoclastic and influential of the post war generation of theoretical physicists”. He played percussion instruments, travelled places and explored a multitude of ideas, cultures and languages all in the name of fun. Of all the things he was curious about, the obscure land of Tanna Tuva held a special place in his mind and heart. By his own account, he found out about it when he was a kid and wanted to visit the place for, you guessed it, ‘fun’. This is how he recollects what made him yearn to go to Tuva.

We saw that the capital, this is what did it, the capital was K-Y-Z-Y-L. [We] grinned at each other because anyplace that got a capital named K-Y-Z-Y-L just gotta be interesting.

The almost hour-long video is laced with brilliant insights from Mr.Feynman where he casually, but with great pleasure and amusement, details some of his works and thought processes but the central plot is his fascinating and a bit obsessive quest to visit the Republic of Tuva which was part of the then USSR. Although he was well-known for his work as a researcher and intellectual, cold war bureaucracy prevented him from making his much desired trip. Along with his friend Ralph Leighton, he came up with all kinds of schemes like participating in a vocal singing competition held in Mongolia which would allow him to visit parts of Russia ,from where he could reach Tuva undetected by the authorities, each of his scheme falling through somehow unsuccessfully. His final plan, arranging an elaborate arts show for the cultural artifacts from the ‘Silk Road‘ countries, at last gave him the needed paperwork for ‘an all expenses paid’ visit to Tuva only to be stopped by a cruel and insurmountable joke by fate.

One often languishes in the pain of trying to understand the complexities of one’s being and his surroundings. Lives of people like Feynman are testimony to the most clichéd but probably the truest way to live – curiously. His plan was not to find happiness or fame or even wisdom but to simply be open and curious about everything and to maintain the high of the beginner’s mind throughout his life.

[Post: 245 of 365] [Days Missed: 69]
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Think Outside A Carboard Box

Ever heard the phrase ‘Think outside the box‘? Of course you have. It’s easily one of the most pervasive idioms in marketing, management, presidential run and, possibly, every other field that exists. But is it really true? Does thinking outside the box, literally, make you better at solving problems?

Researchers at Cornell University had the same question and from their experiments they have concluded that it is totally true. Yeah, you read it right. When people literally sat outside a physical box, they were more creative than others who sat inside the said box. They detail their experiment in a recently published article in the New York Times.

They built a large cardboard box — large enough to fit people inside — and had some volunteers sit inside it. They also had volunteers sitting outside but close to the box. And then they gave the participants word association problems to solve — you know, the kind of puzzles where you need to find the common connector between seemingly disconnected words, like mound, foul, and bleachers.[Answer is Baseball, by the way]. When the researchers tallied up the results, they found out that the participants sitting outside the box got the correct answer a remarkable 20% more. Being and thinking outside of the box actually boosted problem solving skills.

The psychology term for this is embodied cognition. This is the skill that enables our brain to process metaphors meaningfully and turn larger problems to relatable and ultimately solvable puzzles. ‘A thousand yards’ is not easy to understand as ‘the length of ten football fields’ because embodied cognition enables our brain to identify and relate to familiar concepts and apply the idea to unfamiliar subjects.

The study, soon to be published in the Psychological Science journal, found out that the box does not have to be an actual box either. In one experiment, students from Singapore Management University were asked to come up with original ways of using an object made of Lego blocks while walking. Research showed that participants who walked freely came up with 25% more ways to use the object compared to those who were made to walk on a restricted and predetermined path. What is interesting is the novelty in the answers given by the free-walkers. They had higher quantity of ideas which were more flexible and unique.

In another experiment, just by moving their arms more – the changing hands metaphor – participants increased their creative capacity by up to 50 percent. Clearly, acting out our metaphors has direct impact in our cognitive skills. It is widely accepted that metaphors assist in our understanding of complex problems, but this study demonstrates that they have a real and tangible effect in our interpretation of the actions implied by those metaphors.

This is something I have experienced personally many times. When I am stuck at something at work, I go for a short walk outside the building and more often than not I come back with a solid workable strategy. It’s just nice that someone from Cornell University has the metrics to back up this strategy.

Moral of the study — Think outside the cubicle.

Original New York Times link.

[Post: 219 of 365] [Days Missed: 65]
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