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Automatic launched this week

Automatic_RGB_Vertical_Logo.d73eccede466

The startup that I’ve been part of for more than a year has launched this week : Automatic – Your Smart Driving Assistant. It’s a hardware device + mobile app + cloud combination that helps you save money by helping you drive in a more fuel-efficient way, monitor your car engine’s health, automatic call to local authorities/911 in case of a car crash, and will automatically remember where you parked your car (note that the product is currently USA-only).

Watch the video:

Now, go and pre-order it now at www.automatic.com.

So how did I get involved? A couple of years back when I was considering freelancing full-time, Thejo Kote got in touch with me and I got started with NextDrop for which he was one of the co-founders. After some time, I was looking for something more long-term, so I pinged Thejo and he welcomed me to join his new startup.

[Read more…]

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Wrote an EDN format reader and writer in Python

I was reading about the EDN format over the weekend. EDN (pronounced like in “eden garden”) is a data format in the same league as JSON but is supposed to have some nifty features such as sets, keywords, date-time type, custom types, and also being a proper subset of Clojure.

Having a date-time type as well as custom types seems useful to me, so I was taking a look at the current Python implementations of the EDN format and I didn’t find them satisfactory, for example, one of the listed ones had all custom parsing code which was difficult to read, one was not even a real implementation, just boilerplate code, etc.

So I thought why not create a better implementation and I did – it is up on GitHub at https://github.com/swaroopch/edn_format.

It has been a long time since I did lex and yacc, so it was a fun weekend project :)

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What I learned in gamification class

For 2-3 weeks after Prof. Kevin Werbach’s Gamification course ended, I literally felt my weekends were dull without listening to him! And I’m not the only course attendee who felt that way.

The best part about the course for me was how engaging and interesting the topics were and that I could relate so much to the myriad topics he brought up, whether it was self-determination theory, or about games, or about psychology.

He always kept each class within 10 minutes duration each, which was perfect to listen and think / indulge / take in the material.

Just to give an example of the engaging material, where else would you find a professor asking you to watch an excellent movie (by graduate students of an Israeli film school) called Sight and tells you to answer questions about it in your final exam!

I personally feel that there is no point in learning something if it doesn’t teach you to “see with new eyes.” As I was halfway through the course, I suddenly started observing gamification in practice in so many places – whether it is websites or games or loyalty cards. For example, check out comments on the Times of India website:

Gamified comments section on Times of India website

You will notice the points and badges being assigned to users to give them feedback on their actions on the website and recognizing them for their continued patronage of the website. Interestingly, I previously never bothered to read the comments section of newspaper websites because they’re usually full of vitriol and anonymous trolls, but after seeing these badges, I don’t mind reading the comments because it shows that these people have been engaging the comments section for a long time and upvoted by others on the community. Of course, if the community is mostly full of trolls, this wouldn’t be impactful, but in this case, I think the comments section has definitely improved in usefulness.

You can see similar ideas in action at makeuseof.com/game/ who are using lots of extrinsic rewards such as gadgets and giveaways to drive engagement. The course taught us that this usually doesn’t sustain long term if we don’t also consider intrinsic motivation (need to express oneself, need to gain mastery on a subject, etc.), so it will be interesting to see how the MakeUseOf website evolves their gamified system over the coming years.

A friend of mine recently sent me an invite to his new startup product’s alpha version, and immediately my first reaction was: “Where is the onboarding process? Where are the feedback loops?” and then I chuckled to myself “I’ve been gamified.

Getting people started with a new application or software by looking from the lens of “What if this was a game?” has interesting repercussions on how you design the system. Of course, you shouldn’t have annoying animated characters, rather, the emphasis should be on making it fun, which is not as easy as it sounds.

To summarize the gamification design framework that the professor taught us (which is probably explained in more context in his book For The Win):

  1. Define business objectives : What is the meaningful results for the business that you want to see – not how, but what.
  2. Delineate target behaviors : If whatever you design is highly successful, what kind of behaviors would your players (users) be engaging in?
  3. Describe your players : What do you know about them? What is the context? What motivates them?
  4. Devise activity loops : What are the engagement loops – small tight loops of motivation -> action -> feedback -> motivation? What are the progression loops – larger challenges, etc.?
  5. Don’t forget the fun : What are the fun elements? Could be puzzles, problems, surprise, delight, etc.
  6. Deploy appropriate tools : A ton of game elements are available, choose appropriately based on the answers to the above questions, and ensure a coherent system.

There are many companies that provide gamification platforms, I wonder whether they apply such a framework in helping people design a system for their business situation or whether they directly jump to step 6 :).

The next time I ever design a software application, I will surely be using this gamification framework to make a more engaging app.

Regarding the Coursera platform – peer assessment of essays was surprisingly fun – you have to give scores for essays of 5 anonymous students and give them feedback on what you liked and what you wish they had included. This motivated me to analyze their answers carefully and give feedback, and I looked forward to feedback on my own essays. The overall platform was pleasant to use and I only wish they allowed students to submit corrections to the subtitles of the videos as well as give a better prominent dashboard view on when the quizzes and assignments are due – a little gamification wouldn’t hurt ;-).

Overall, the professor and his teaching assistants made the course so interesting that I eagerly listened and ended up earning a 99.3% score and a certificate of accomplishment:

Gamification12 Coursera score

I sure hope to attend more such wonderful Coursera courses in the future and learn about things that I otherwise would never have learned about.

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Exploratory Cycling

I recently got my cycle fixed up at Rider Owned Bikes (ironically, despite the grumpy owner of that shop). I hadn’t done that good a job at reassembling the bike gears after I had taken apart the wheels and put them all in the back-seat of the car when travelling from Bangalore to Pune.

This was one of the fortunate days where I slept early enough and woke up early enough. And I badly wanted to take the refreshed cycle out for a spin. I had been too often to Nagar Road, Viman Nagar and related areas. I wanted to explore a different part of Pune, I wanted to go south. I didn’t have much idea about that. Then, I remembered that NH7 Weekender (which I’m looking forward to) is happening at Amanora Park Town which is south of Nagar Road.

I checked the maps, just ~7 km from where I live, so I set off! I went exploring the gullies of Pune, crossed the Mula-Mutha river to the Mundhwa Road, went under a flyover, crossed a railway track, back to the main road and into Amanora Park Town.

I explored Amanora Park Town quite a bit, lots of residential complexes have come up, but I didn’t see much else, or probably I couldn’t figure out which way to go because it was a massive under-construction area. The security guards were nice and even wished me good morning. I guess they assumed I must be one of the locals, one of the benefits of wearing a cycling helmet which makes people consider you “seriously”, I guess.

And then cycled back. RunKeeper app says that I did 15.5 km in 1 hr 10 min. Not bad for cycling after a long time, that too in unfamiliar territory.

I love exploratory cycling, probably why I should stick to cycling rather than running, even though the latter felt more of a workout.

The only irritating part to this morning’s cycling was the constant fear of my iPhone jumping out of the front basket as it was not tied to anything. It was critical to keep it there because I needed Google Maps to show me the route to take. Of course, the phone did fall out once, luckily I was in one of the gullies where there was no vehicle behind and the protector case did it’s job well. Maybe I should get one of those Quad Lock mounting systems… let’s see!

Crossing the Mula-Mutha river

Crossing the Mula-Mutha river

 

Lifting the cycle across a railway track under a flyover

Lifting the cycle across a railway track under a flyover

 

Amanora Park Town

Amanora Park Town

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Learning Gamification by attending a MOOC

I remember when @Ravi_Mohan kept talking about MOOCs and how excited he is by it, I didn’t pay attention to it at the time. A few weeks ago, I watched Daphne Koller’s TED talk and was blown away. I ended up signing up for one of the courses and have been enjoying the course since a week. 4 more weeks of class to go :)

MOOCs stand for “Massively Open Online Courses”. The idea of online educational videos is not new – Academic Earth, Khan Academy, etc. have been around for some time. What is new is online full-length courses taught by the best professors who teach the same courses at the best institutions + actual course schedule (it has a start date and an end date) + actual grading on quizzes and homeworks. This translates to any university course brought online with many more benefits – the videos can be watched any time anywhere, you can pause, replay and rewind the professor’s talk any number of times (I do that more often than I thought I would!), you can interact with other students all over the world in the forums. Phew!

When I was browsing through the list of courses (Coursera has the most courses), I saw a course on gamification. Since it was a business course, something I was curious about and something non-heavy, I decided to take up that course instead of any heavy technical course – out of fear that I might not enjoy a full-length course after having last studied 7 years ago. Watching an hour-long video is one thing, watching a continuous topic for six weeks is something else!

The course I signed up for is on the topic of gamification. The statistics on the students who have signed up for that one course is astounding : in a survey sent to the students, 71,000 students participated which revealed they’re from 147+ countries. Out of 40% who responded to the survey, 9000+ from USA, 1700+ from Brazil, 1700+ from India, 1000+ from Canada. That’s right, 1700+ from India.

The course is taught by Prof. Kevin Werbach (he has his own Wikipedia page) who teaches at the Wharton school, which is supposed to be one of the the best B-schools anywhere. Another plus.

Gamification is defined as “the use of game elements and game design techniques in non-game contexts.” If you’ve ever been encouraged to get more followers on twitter by constantly watching the follower count – then you’ve experienced what gamification can feel like. Similarly, if you’ve participated in Stack Overflow and noticed the badges, the points and the avatars, then you’ve seen gamification at work. Gamification as a concept is new, and only commonly known since 2010.

Gamification, obviously, is inspired from games. The most surprising things I’ve learned in this course is how pervasive games are. I grew up playing Atari and video games such as Mario and I played a little “Quake 2” and “Unreal Tournament” when I was at Yahoo! but have not played games since then. Did you know that “the game industry is $66 billion worldwide (DFC 2011), that’s double the Hollywood box office revenues”? I didn’t know that until I took this course.

On top of that, “online games are expected to surpass retail games (playstation, xbox, nintendo wii, PC) in 2013”. This is astounding considering that  “XBox Live currently has 35,000,000 monthly uniques and 1,20,000,000,000 (120,000 million) minutes time spent per month.”

That’s just online – what about mobile? “40% of US/UK adults have played a mobile game in the last month” (PopCap/Information Solutions).

If you consider the ever-increasing use of loyalty programs, social graph connections with businesses, frequent flyer program tiers, gold/platinum credit cards, etc. gamification is all around us and we may not even realize it. Heck, even if you use the Pomodoro technique like I do, you have experienced gamification.

Prof. Werbach does a fantastic job of explaining things and getting the student excited. I already finished the quizzes and written assignment for week 2 ahead of schedule because I finished the videos early because I couldn’t stop listening to him. (I hope I maintain the pace for the rest of the weeks and balance work and this course.)

In contrast, I also had signed up for the Statistics One course on Coursera – the first ten minutes of the first lecture was so undecipherable that I quickly un-enrolled.

In summary, lessons learned: (1) Always listen to Ravi Mohan and (2) MOOCs are a fantastic way forward. Anyone anywhere can learn the best courses. Think about that.

 

Update on 20 Sep, 2012 : Also see this great short article in Forbes magazine by the founders of Coursera talking about the issue of access to education, not only about better education.

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Life without a TV

During our stay in Pune, in the first apartment we stayed, the owner had provided a TV. We had to soon move out because the apartment was in the topmost floor which translated to unbearable heat in the summer. In the second (and current) apartment, the owner did not provide a TV. The contrast in experience because of the presence and lack of TV respectively has been quite amazing.

1 Meatspace

The first significant aspect is that my wife and myself spend more time talking and discussing and actual exchange of thoughts. And yes, more communication also means lesser scope for misunderstandings and so on.

Our life is more real because of no sensationalizing TV news anchors, no unrealistic portrayals on TV which skews our thinking, and no constant advertisements. This was also noted by Rukhmini Punoose in her recent DNA article “Why the TV should stay off”.

Because there is no TV, people tend to ask the Joey question: “What’s all your furniture pointed at?” :)

2 Social Media

I used to respect TV news channels CNN-IBN and NDTV, but after reading @mediacrooks@centerofright and @kiranks, I’m completely shocked at how much of the truth gets suppressed by the TV channels a.k.a. “paid media”.

An example: The recent Assam riots which CNN-IBN doesn’t consider important enough to cover because there are not enough deaths while the truth is that these news channels don’t want the masses to know that the current government is responsible for this.

And I would have never known this if I hadn’t stopped listening to paid media and started listening to social media. Of course, I still subscribe to DNA newspaper to get a balanced view as well as local news coverage.

As a bonus, listening to social media means we get to hear about unsung hero lawyers in India and more.

Interestingly, even my wife now follows @mediacrooks and @centerofright via the Flipboard app on her phone.

Update on 26 Sep, 2012 : We are hooked to the Chai with Lakshmi online show!

3 Watch any show

When my in-laws came visiting, they still needed TV news, so YuppTV app on the iPad came to the rescue, and they were able to watch the local Kannada news channel right in their hands.

Even shows like DewaristsSatyamev Jayate and MTV Roadies are not missed. They’re just online now. And on-demand. Even Olympics will be live on YouTube.

And even considering the useful TV channels, just watching them would mean that information is inevitably lost, for example, my wife is enjoying searching for “rajma masala” on youtube and watching the video tutorial any number of times and pausing any time than having to quickly note down the recipes while watching a cooking show. On the same note, she’s learning much much more, for example, having free time to kill means she visits Pinterest or Ravelry or YouTube and picks up some knitting, crochet or tatting skills and designs.

Believe in the power of YouTube.

4 Books

I have read more books in the non-TV period than in the with-TV period of equal duration. My wife read “How I Taught My Grandmother To Read And Other Stories” by Sudha Murthy, “Single in the City” by Sushmita Bose, and so on. I read books such asJaya (A retelling of Mahabharata) by Devdutt Pattanaik and other books in progress.

5 Choosing

The mere act of choosing the entertainment than whatever is playing already (do you really want to watch Speed or DDLJ for the thousandth time?) on TV has been great, especially watching old movies such as Wag the Dog.

On the same note, I’ve started listening to Sky.fm channels regularly and listen to different genres of music depending on the mood rather than listen to the same old songs or trying hard to find new bands and albums. I re-discovered Sky.fm only because I wanted to fill the void sometimes during breakfast or in the evenings when a little background music would make life more pleasant. I listen to Hard Rock or Uptempo Smooth Jazz during work or when writing a blog post, Smooth Lounge in low volume during dinner, sometimes Club Bollywood when we are in the kitchen, etc.

Update on Nov 12, 2012: Listening to sky.fm/di.fm is better with the Clementine Music Player.

6 TL;DR

I’ve been enlightened how TV news channels are not telling the real facts, books bought long ago are actually being read by us now, we are having more discussions and more human interaction, and no interesting shows are missed. Best of all, we are more active in choosing how we spend our time, we actually realize there is more and better entertainment out there, we have way lesser distractions and life is not centered around advertisement breaks.

 

Update on 16 Sep, 2012 : Also read The power of ignoring mainstream news and related HN discussion.

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Book review: Thoughts from Jaya, a retelling of Mahabharata

The world around me is very unsettling. First, we have the incompetence of the governments of the day, and then the startling realities highlighted by Satyamev Jayate show, even if it is not the whole truth, and so on. And these strange behavior of man to hurt and not help starts from his kindred and extends to the society around him/her. Very depressing.

Coincidentally, I chanced upon Devdutt Pattanaik‘s book Jaya : An Illustrated Retelling of the Mahabharata in a Crossword outlet. I couldn’t stop reading it, so I bought it, and continued reading at home. And I was thoroughly engrossed by it.

What is not incredible is the number of stories, characters or the breadth of it. What is incredible is that it seems that every situation that I can come across or have heard of could be generalized into one of the situations already talked about in the stories of the Mahabharata and you can relate to it!

The most important lesson reinforced was that life is meaningless (there is no grand plan), our greatest challenge is leading a “normal life with values” and to be human to each other. Think about that for a minute. Think about how it applies to every minor situation in every minute in the office and at home or on a bigger scale at the level of states and nations. If only we could be a little more human towards each other and lead a “normal” pleasant life. Why is it that we are all screwed up in so many little ways? Whether it is lack of trust or lack of intimacy or lack of friends or lack of self-confidence or lack of support or lack of pleasantries or lack of humanity… so on.

While I did not find the answer to it in the Mahabharata, I did come to the stark realization that this has been the way for generations and has been so since the age of the Mahabharata. So I should take heart in it and figure out what are the age-old approaches to overcoming this hassled life.

Coincidentally, this has been part of my initiative to “read older”, I’m trying to cut down on reading “newer tweets” and instead read “older books” and “older papers”, etc. So far, it’s been working out well, but that is a perpetual battle of focus. There is far more wisdom and far more to learn in older stuff than the newer stuff which tends to be mostly regurgitations.

Many of my realizations or understandings in the book came about because of the ‘interpretations’ by Devdutt after each story. Those interpretations put the stories in context – there is the usual intended “moral of the story”, but there is also cultural, political and religious explanations and sometimes simply how stories were changed to possibly cover up or make a story suitable for hearing by subsequent generations.

1 Descendants

For example, it is believed that man and woman are reborn as their grandchildren or any of their descendants – this probably explains the female foeticide issue on why men want boys and not girls, and that tendency has gone to an extreme in the last couple of generations. On the same note, it probably explains why rearing children is considered such an important part of life for our previous generations even though the current generation (including me) consider it as just another phase of life. In fact, in one of the stories, Bhishma is considered to have sinned because he decided to not get married because of his step-mother’s wishes that there be no other heirs to the kingdom! So many beliefs and fervour can be attributed to a simple age-old concept which has been twisted and extended by generations.

2 Dharma

When Subramaniam Swamy says “we are fighters.For fighters for dharma there is always hope.” after the recent Presidential election, he is probably referring to is this quote by Krishna regarding Dharma:

Humans alone of all living creatures can reject the law of the jungle and create a code of conduct based on empathy and directed at discovering the meaning of life. This is dharma.

To live in dharma is to live without fear. To live in dharma is to act in love. To live in dharma is to have others as a reference point, not oneself.

Function therefore in this war not like that insecure dog that barks to dominate and whines when dominated, but like that secure cow, that provides milk freely and follows the music of the divine.

Do you fight this war to break the stranglehold of jungle law in human society, Arjuna? If not, you do not practise karma yoga.

As an aside, you also get to know why the cow is considered sacred.

In another instance, I have started to differentiate when a person is in anger and says things that I should not pay attention to whereas when they are genuinely upset with something I did or didn’t do:

Dhritarashtra expresses it by crushing the iron effigy of Bhima while Gandhari expresses it by burning Yudhistira’s toe with a glance.

Once expressed, rage dissipates and reason returns.

One is advised in many parts of India to eat sugar when agry, just like Gandhari did, so as not to end up cursing the Pandavas.

3 Trust

This relates to the point of the importance of trust:

The reason for telling these stories was to calm the angry brothers and to tell them that sometimes things are not what they seem. Arjuna should not assume that words spoken during stressful situations were real. His brother was just angry and did not mean to insult him or his bow. One should have faith in one’s friends and family and not let one harsh word break the bond of trust.

4 Attachment

One has to forgo attachments to fight for dharma:

The Pandavas have to fight father (Bhishma), teacher (Drona), brother (Karna) and uncle (Shalya) to defeat the Kauravas. They have to break free from all attachments that bind them.

I’m not sure I really understand this, but I think it suggests that we should fight for dharma, even against our own. Just like how Indians fought against Indian soldiers who were serving the British. And how there will soon be another fight by IAC against the government, even if the IAC itself is becoming disillusioned.

5 Outgrowing the beast within

The real difference between Pandavas and Kauravas is:

It is simplistic to imagine that the Pandavas are good and the Kauravas are bad and so Krishna sides with the former.

Pandavas are willing to change; they want to outgrow the beast within them.

The process of change is difficult – the Pandavas have to suffer exile, kill loved ones and lose their children, in the process of gaining wisdom.

The Kauravas cling to their kingdom like dogs clinging to a bone. They refuse to change. Hence, they die without learning anything.

Krishna is the teacher. But the onus of learning rests with the students.

6 Destruction and Living

Yudhistira is so upset about the destruction and loss of life during the war that he is unwilling to be crowned king and he is given a lesson the point of life:

The eldest Pandava had lost all interest in kingship. “I am a murderer,” he cried. “My hands are soaked with the blood of my family. When I sit on a pile of corpses, how can I drink the cup of success? What is the point of it all?”

Vidura spoke solemnly to his nephew, “Everybody dies – some suddenly, some slowly, some painfully, some peacefully. No one can escape death. The point is to make the most of life – enjoy it, celebrate it, learn from it, make sense of it, share it with fellow human beings – so that when death finally comes, it will not be such a terrible thing.”

A Charvaka, one who does not believe in the existence of anything spiritual or metaphysical, shouted from the city square, “Yes, Yudhishtira, life has no point at all. So enjoy every moment for there is no tomorrow, no life after death, no soul, no fate, no bondage, no liberation, no God. Be a king if it makes you happy; don’t be a king if it does not. Pleasure alone is the purpose of life.”

None of this pacified Yudhishtira. He paced the palace corridors all day and lay awake on his bed at night, haunted by the wail of widows and orphans. No one understood his pain. “Perhaps I must become a hermit. Find serenity in the forest.”

(Remember that forest is also a metaphor for the darkness and the wilderness of the mind. Conquering the forest and being at peace there means enlightening the mind.)

It was then that Krishna spoke, “Yes, Yudhishtira, you can renounce the world and become a hermit and achieve peace, but what about the rest of the world? Will you abandon them?” Yudhishtira did not know what to say. Krishna continued, “A hermit seeks meaning for himself but only a king can create a world that enables everyone to find meaning. Choose kingship, Yudhishtira not out of obligation but out of empathy for humanity.”

“Why me?” asked Yudhishtira.

“Who better than you? You, who gambled away your kingdom, can empathize with the imperfections of man. You, who silently suffered thirteen years of exile, know the power of repentance and forgiveness. You, who saw Duryodhana reject every offer of peace, know the power of the ego and the horror of adharma. You, who had to lie to kill your own teacher, know the complexities of dharma. Only you, son of Kunti, have the power to establish a world where the head is balanced with the heart, wealth with wisdom, and discipline with compassion. Come, Yudhishtira, with your brothers by your side, be Vishnu on earth.”

Yudhishtira needed no more persuasion. He realized what it meant to be king. He agreed to wear the crown.

In the presence of all elders, he was made to sit on the ancient seat reserved for the leader of the Kuru clan. Milk was poured on him and water. He was given first a conch-shell trumpet, then a lotus flower, then a mace and finally the royal bow.

The priests said “Like Vishnu, blow the trumpet and make sure the world knows your law. Reward those who follow it with the lotus of prosperity and discipline those who don’t with a swing of your mace. And always stay balanced – neither too tight nor too loose – like the bow.”

Interpretation: The coronation ceremony in ancient times paralleled the ceremony in which a stone statue was transformed into a deity in temples. The ceremony was aimed to bring about a shift in consciousness. Just as it enabled a stone to become divine and solve the problems of devotees, it enabled an ordinary man to think like God – more about his subjects and less about himself.

Interpretation: Dharma is not about winning. It is about empathy and growth. Yudhishtira knows the pain of losing a child. He can empathize with his enemy rather than gloat on their defeat. In empathy, there is wisdom.

On a similar note, Bhisma, on his deathbed, tells Yudhishtira:

Bhisma told Yudhishtira, “Life is like a river. You can struggle to change its course but ultimately it will go its own way. Bathe in it, drink it, be refreshed by it, share it with everyone, but never fight it, never be swept away by its flow, and never get attached to it. Observe it. Learn from it.”

On the note of us over-reaching what is given to us by Mother Earth and of course the greed, corruption and scams, there is this story:

Bhishma told Yudhishtira about human society. Humans, unlike animals, were blessed with imagination.

They could foresee the future, and take actions to secure it. Often attempts to secure the future leads to hoarding; need gave way to greed. With greed came exploitation.

King Vena plundered the earth to such a degree that the earth, tired of being so abused, ran away in the form of a cow.

The sages then had Vena killed. Vena’s son, Prithu, pursued the earth-cow crying. “If you don’t feed them, my subjects will die.”

The earth-cow retorted angrily, “Your subjects squeeze my udders until they are sore. They break my back with their ambition.”

Prithu then promised that he would establish a code of conduct based on empathy, rather than exploitation, which would ensure the survival of humanity.

“This code of conduct will be called dharma,” said Prithu.

By this code, the earth became a cow while kings became the earth’s cowherds ensuring there was always enough milk for humans as well as cow’s calves.

7 Four parts of life

The dharma-shastras divide life into four parts.

The first, brahmacharya, prepares one for the world.

The second, grihastha, is the time to enjoy the pleasures and powers of the world.

The third, vanaprastha, is the time to retire from the world passing on all wealth to the children and all knowledge to the grandchildren.

The fourth, sanyasa, is the time to renounce all things worldly.

The characters in the Mahabharata from Pratipa to Dhritarashtra retire from society and renounce the world after completing their worldly duties.

Thus only the young are allowed to enjoy the fruits of the earth, while the old contemplate on it.

This lesson should be imbibed by political leaders.

8 Wisdom is always a work in progress

Despite learning from Krishna the value of outgrowing the beast within man, the Pandavas cling to their grudges after the war, like dogs clinging to bones.

No lesson is permanent.

Wisdom thus is always work in progress.

Interestingly, the Mahabharata lays a greater emphasis on karma than on the “blessings” of God:

Krishna’s family does not escape Gandhari’s curse.

Thus even God surrenders to the law of karma.

By making man the master of his own destiny and the creator of his own desires, God makes man ultimately responsible for the life he leads and the choices he makes.

God does not interfere with fate; he simply helps man cope with it.

9 Life is an endless turmoil

Emphasis mine:

Arjuna decided to take the few survivors (of Dwaraka) with him to Hastina-puri.

But the misfortunes continued. On the way, they were attacked by barbarians who abducted many of the women and children. Arjuna raised his Gandiva and tried to protect them but was outnumbered.

The great Gandiva which could destroy hundreds of warriors with a single arrow now seemed powerless. Arjuna realized that he was no more the archer he used to be. His purpose on earth and that of Gandiva had been served.

Overwhelmed by his helplessness before the rising tide of fate, humbled before the raging storm of circumstances, Arjuna fell to his knees and began to cry uncontrollably.

When the tears dried up, it dawned on him that Gandhari’s curse, which had destroyed Dwaraka and its people, had its roots in the war at Kuru-kshetra.

And the war would not have happened if they had simply restrained themselves and not wagered their kingdom in a game of dice.

/Arjuna realized, that in a way, he was responsible for the fall of Dwaraka. This was the great web of karma that connects all creatures in a single fabric. He begged for forgiveness for his part in the sorrows of all mankind./

/In response, the clouds began to rumble and in a flash of lightning, Arjuna saw a vision: a gurgling, happy child sucking its butter-smeared big toe as it lay on a Banyan leaf cradled by the deadly waves that were destroying Dwaraka./

In the midst of destruction, this was a symbol of renewal and hope.

/Arjuna finally understood the message given to him by God. Life would continue, with joys and sorrows, triumphs and tragedies rising and falling like the waves of the sea./

It was up to him to respond wisely, enjoy simple pleasures unshaken by the inevitable endless turmoil of the world.

He took the surviving Yadavas and gave them a home in Mathura, where in due course, Vajranabhi, son of Aniruddha, grandson of Pradyumna, great grandson of Krishna, would rise as a great king.

10 Kauravas in Swarga and Pandavas in hell

As soon as Yudhishtira stepped into heaven, he saw the hundred Kauravas, Duryodhana and Dusshasana included, standing beside the Devas looking radiant and blissful. They too spread out their arms to welcome Yudhishtira.

Yudhishtira recoiled in disgust. “How did these warmongers reach Amravati?” he asked angrily.

The Devas replied, “They were killed on the holy land of Kuru-kshetra. That has purified them of all misdeeds and earned them the right to enter Amravati. Surely, if heaven is good enough for your dog, it is good enough for your cousins.”

The explanation did not satisfy Yudhishtira. “And my brothers? And my wife? What about them? Where are they? Are they here too?” he asked.

“They are not here,” replied the Devas placidly, refusing to pay any attention to Yudhishtira’s rising rage.

“In another place,” said the Devas, taking no notice of Yudhishtira’s impatience.

“Take me to them,” said Yudhishtira, determined to get to the bottom of this.

“Certainly,” said the Devas who led Yudhishtira out of Swarga, down from the sky, along the slopes of Mandara, through a crevice deep under the earth to a realm that was dark and gloomy and miserable.

There, Yudhishtira heard cries of pain and suffering. It was everything Amravati was not.

He realized it was Naraka, the realm of misery.

“My brothers are here?” cried Yudhishtira in disbelief.

In response, he heard the moans of his brothers, including Karna. “Yes, we are here,” they said in unison.

Bhima, Yudhishtira knew, was paying for his gluttony. Arjuna for his envy, Nakula for his insensitivity, Sahadeva for his smugness and Draupadi for her partiality.

But Karna? Why him? Had his elder brother not suffered enough in life?

“Karna promised Kunti to spare four of her five sons despite knowing that Duryodhana relied on him to kill all five Pandavas.

He is paying for breaking his friend’s trust,” clarified the Devas rather matter-of-factly.

Yudhishtira felt everyone’s pain and started to weep.

“Shall we go back to Amravati now?” asked the Devas.

“No, no. Please don’t go,” Yudhishtira heard his brothers cry. “Your presence comforts us.”

“Well? Shall we leave?” asked the Devas impatiently.

“Please stay,” Yudhishtira heard Draupadi plead. She sounded so lost and tired and anxious and afraid.

Yudhishtira could not bring himself to move. Tears welled up in his eyes. How could he return to Swarga and leave his family here?

He took a decision. “No. I will not leave Naraka. I will stay here with my wife and my brothers. I will suffer with them. I refuse to enter Amravati without them.”

The Devas laughed. Rising up in the air, glowing like fire flies, they said, “Oh, but we thought you had renounced everything?”

“What do you mean?” asked Yudhishtira, suddenly uncomfortable.

“Did you not renounce all worldly ties when you entered Swarga? Wherefrom then, comes this attachment? You are as attached as to your hatred as a dog is attached to its master.”

Yudhishtira argued, “How can Amravati open its gates to the Kauravas, those murderers, and not to my family which has always followed the path of righteous conduct? Even Krishna fought against the Kauravas!”

“Do you feel we are taking sides, Yudhishtira?” asked the Devas.

“Yes,” snapped Yudhishtira, looking at the dark misery all around him. Surely, his family who had established dharma on earth did not deserve this. This was so unfair.

“You have given up your kingdom and your clothes, son of Dharma, but not your hatred. You killed the Kauravas in Kuru-kshetra and ruled their kingdom for thirty-six years! Still you have not forgiven them. You, who turned your back on your brothers on your way to Amravati, recalled them the instant you saw the Kauravas in heaven. This display of love is nothing but a reaction, retaliation. You cling to your anger, Yudhishtira. You still distinguish between friend and foe. You refuse to let go and move on. How then do you hope to truly attain heaven?”

Suddenly, a vision unfolded before Yudhishtira. The Virat-swarup of Krishna. “Behold within God,” a voice boomed, “all that exists. Everything. Everyone. Draupadi and Gandhari. The Pandavas and the Kauravas. All possibilities. The killers and the killed.”

At that moment, Yudhishtira realized he was not the great man who he thought he was. He had not really overcome his prejudices. Only when there is undiluted compassion for everyone, even our worst enemies, is ego truly conquered. Realization humbled Yudhishtira. He fell to the ground and began to weep.

Led by the Devas, Yudhishtira then took a dip in the Ganga and rose enlightened, purified and refreshed and truly liberated, with the sincere desire to forgive and accept the Kauravas. There was no more hatred. No more ‘them’ and ‘us’. No more ‘better’ and ‘worse’. There was only love. Everyone was one.

“Jaya!” shouted Indra. “Jaya!” shouted the Devas. “Jaya!” shouted the Rishis. For Yudhishtira had won the ultimate victory, victory over himself. No he would ascend to a heaven higher than Swarga. Now he would ascend to Vaikuntha, the abode of God.

Interpretation: The epic ends not with the victory of the Pandavas over the Kauravas but with Yudhishtira’s triumph over himself. This is the spiritual victory or Jaya. This is the ultimate aim of the great epic.

Interpretation: Unlike Biblical traditions, Hindus have more than one heaven. There is Swarga and Vaikuntha. Swarga is the paradise of Indra where all desires are fulfilled. Vaikuntha is God’s heaven where one is free of all desires.

11 Janamejaya asks where is the victory

‘Why then do you call this tale “Jaya”? There is no real victory.’

‘There are two kinds of victory this world,’ said the storyteller-sage Vaisampayana. ‘Vijaya and Jaya’.

Vijaya is material victory, where there is a loser.

Jaya is spiritual victory, where there are no losers.

In Kuru-kshetra there was Vijaya but not Jaya.

But when Yudhishtira overcame his rage and forgave the Kauravas unconditionally, there was Jaya.

This is the true ending of my tale, hence the title.’

‘What was the insight that eluded my forefathers?’ asked Janamejaya.

‘That conflict comes from rage, rage comes from fear, and fear comes from lack of faith.

That lack of faith which corrupted the Kauravas continued to lurk in the minds of the Pandavas.

It had to be purged.’

The image of Krishna, serving as Arjuna’s charioteer, singing the song of wisdom before the war, flashed through Janamejaya’s mind.

‘If you have faith in me, and in the karmic balance sheet of merit and demerit, then you will have no insecurity,’ he heard Krishna say.

The lotus of wisdom bloomed in Janamejaya’s mind. ‘I too have no faith,’ he admitted.

‘That is why I am angry with the serpents and frightened of them.

That is why I delude myself with arguments of justice and vengeance.

You are right, Astika, this snake sacrifice of mine is not dharma.’

Astika smiled, and Vaisampayana bowed his head in satisfaction: the king had finally inherited the wisdom of his forefathers.

An expression of peace descended up on Janamejaya, the son of Parikshit, the grandson of Abhimanyu, the great grandson of Arjuna.

He finally took his decision.

‘Shanti,’ he said.

‘Shanti,’ he said again.

‘Shanti,’ he repeated a third time.

Shanti, peace.

This was the king’s call to end the Sarpa Sattra.

Astika burst into tears.

Janamejaya had overpowered his fear and abandoned his rage.

No more serpents would be killed.

‘Shanti, shanti, shanti,’ he had said.

Not peace in the outer world.

That could not happen as long as man felt insecure.

This was a cry for inner peace.

Let us all have faith.

Let us all be at peace – with ourselves, our worlds, and all the rest there is.

Shanti. Shanti. Shanti.

Interpretation: The Mahabharata is not as much concerned with the war as it is with the root of conflict. Conflict is the result of greed exhibited by Duryodhana, and outrage exhibited by Yudhishtira. Both greed and outrage stem from insecurity; insecurity is the result of a poor understanding of, and a lack of faith in, one’s true nature and the the true nature of the world around us. The Veda says that as long as we do not accept life for what it is, as long as we try to control and change things, there will always be conflict. Conflict ends when we realize that beyond tangible material reality, there is intangible spiritual reality.

Interpretation: A Bengali folktale informs us that Janamejaya asked Vyasa why he was not able to convince his ancestors from not going to war. Vyasa replied that excited people never listen to such logic.

Interpretation: All Hindu rituals end with the chant ‘Shanti, shanti, shanti’ because the quest for peace is the ultimate goal of all existence. The peace is not external but internal. It is not about making the world a peaceful place; it is about us being at peace with the world.

12 The Idea called Dharma

The fear of death makes animals fight for their survival. Might becomes right as only the fit survive. With strength and cunning territories are established and pecking orders enforced. Thus, the law of the jungle comes into being. Animals have no choice but to subscribe to it. Humans, however, can choose to accept, exploit or reject this law.

Thanks to our larger brain, we can imagine and create a world where we can look beyond ourselves, include others, and make everyone feel wanted and safe. We can, if we wish to, establish a society where the mighty care for the meek, and where resources ar emade available to help even the unfit thrive. This is dharma.

Unfortunately, imagination can also amplify fear, and make us so territorial that we withhold resources, exploit the weak and eat even when well-fed. This is adharma. If dharma enables us to outgrow the beast in us, then adharma makes us worse than animals. If dharma takes us towards divinity, then adharma fuels the demonic.

The Kauravas are stubbornly territorial before the war. The Pandavas struggle to be generous after the war. Adharma is thus an eternal temptation, while dharma is an endless work in progress that validates our humanity.

13 Ultimate aim of spiritual practice

Vyasa says all creatures kill themselves eventually because of merits lost and demerits earned.

By logic therefore, one who earns no demerit cannot die.

Such a person can potentially rise up to paradise without dying.

In other words, he becomes immortal.

That is the ultimate aim of all spiritual practice.

That is the aim of Yudhishtira.

14 Narendra Modi quotes Vivekananda

“Each soul is potentially divine. The goal is to manifest this Divinity within by controlling nature, external and internal. Do this either by work, or worship, or psychic control, or philosophy – by one, or more, or all of these – and be free. This is the whole of religion. Doctrines, or dogmas, or rituals, or books, or temples, or forms, are but secondary details.” – Swami Vivekananda, From Raja Yoga

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Energy and Health

The past several weeks I’ve been down with various illnesses and the repercussions and emotions that went along with the physical problems has been taking its toll on me.

While I’ve still not recovered and still reeling from the effects, I’m recording these memoirs now precisely because the experience and memory is fresh.

The first thing that comes to my mind is just how much of our life depends on having a good supply of energy first thing in the morning.

Having had no exercise for so long has made my knees feel rubbery and have started complaining to me. At the same time, my stomach feels bloated than usual. And then there is the shoulder pain, back pain, etc. because of too much (albeit needed) resting and not enough physical movement.

Work has been a disaster since I’ve not been able to concentrate or have the energy to focus on the laptop in-between the trips to the wash room. The guilt of not contributing to the project’s timeline only makes me feel worser. And sick days can mean loss of pay which compounds the problems.

Sometimes I feel these past few weeks have been a glimpse of old age. I shudder at that thought.

Personal life has taken it’s toll as well, since I’ve been so obsessed with surviving and getting through the day, that I’ve been unable to recognize situations and compliment my wife when she was deserving. And that invariably has repercussions (married men know what I’m talking about).

I haven’t returned calls from friends because I keep coughing every few sentences and then I don’t want to talk about my sad change in health. It’s not manly to talk about illnesses, I feel sometimes. And generally people give lot of, possibly well-meaning, advice that they won’t even listen that it may not apply to your situation. And at the same time, you’re glad that they are concerned about you and you’ll be missed when you disappear from the planet someday.

Steve Pavlina once said:

Most people’s problems fall into one of four basic categories:

  1. Career problems – Lack of fulfilling work (not doing what they love, not contributing)
  2. Financial problems – Financial scarcity (too much debt, not earning enough money, not creating enough value, not experiencing financial flow)
  3. Relationship problems – Lack of loving relationships (unsupportive, disempowering, or apathetic social circle; no one to love and be loved by)
  4. Health problems – Poor health (lack of energy and vitality, feeling tired, feeling sick)

These are the most common spark killers.
There are other categories too like emotional problems and mental problems, but the four categories above probably cover about 95% of the issues people have.

And when all four of these combine, it is a living hell. Because you’re not well.

Moral of the story: Take care of your health! It’s the thing we sacrifice the first as soon as we have a hint of busy-ness.

 The greatest wealth is health.  ~Virgil

(Image courtesy of Kate Ter Haar under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 license)

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Freelancing for NextDrop

SMS and interactive voice response systems are emerging as a significant methodology for gathering and spreading information in the developing countries. This is important to note because in 2010, more than 4 billion people paid for mobile phone service. That’€™s 6 of every 10 people on the planet compared to 3 out of every 10 people on the planet who has internet access 1.

One such initiative that utilizes SMS and IVR is NextDrop which gathers water supply information from the valvemen and spreads the information to residents of those areas.

Why does this matter? Because outside of major cities, water gets delivered once in 5 days or once in 15 days, and on those “water days,” someone (usually the women) has to stay back and ensure to collect enough water for the next 4 or 14 days. They usually don’t have enough water storage capacity for that many days and end up having to collect as much water as possible in vessels and pots. So, as you may expect, it is critical for someone to be at home on “water days” and even keep back children from going to school on those days. This is such a loss.

NextDrop
A valveman releasing water to an area by opening the valve

This is where NextDrop comes in and tries to solve this information asymmetry and hopefully solve corruption problems as well. NextDrop is running its pilot in Hubli, Karnataka in collaboration with the Hubli Water Board.

You can get a good overview of NextDrop in their winning presentation at the Global Social Venture Competition :

NextDrop was started by a group of Berkeley students including a Ph.D researcher in environmental science who noticed this problem when researching water quality in Hubli, Karnataka and other Berkeley School of Information students. One of the team members, Thejovardhana Kote did his masters thesis on NextDrop and made the initial prototype. Eventually he had to make the hard decision of moving on to something else and he asked me to step in. Since I had just then made the decision of going freelancing, it was perfect for me to earn money as well as make a social contribution at the same time, so I readily agreed.

It took me some time to figure out a different domain (SMS, IVR, non-computer-literate users) but eventually I got the hang of it.

The challenge for me was to get the system to a production level and subsequently, I embarked on a rewrite of the system because it was clear one had to be thrown away which I will write about in more detail later.

There are some really interesting stories on the Official NextDrop blog during this time frame:

I’ll end with Rohini Nilekani’s writeup on future water challenges for India :

India may have to ready itself for perennial freshwater shortages. The country is among the wettest in the world, with an average annual rainfall of 1170 milimeters and total water resources of around 4000 billion cubic meters per year. Of this total, a little more than a quarter is pegged as usable. With India’€™s high rate of population growth and intensifying water consumption, per capita availability of water, one of many indicators of an oncoming crisis, has declined steadily over the years. Thanks to indiscriminate withdrawal from rivers and underground aquifers, without adequate thought to recharge and regeneration, India could become an officially water-stressed country within this decade, dipping below the common indicator of 1700 cubic meters per person per year. Going beyond a merely human-centric position, it’™s critical to understand that water is a key element of nature in its own right.

1: Amazing ventures such as VillageTelco will further those numbers.

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Freelancing

I’ve been a long-time reader of Ramit Sethi – I love his irreverent approach to money which has influenced me positively. About a year and a half ago, he launched the Earn1K program and I was immediately curious about it. Having failed to run a business once, I thought this was a great way to “hack my brain” to learn about business.

Eventually, I signed up for it. Of course, I have never mentioned this before to anybody other than a handful of friends because most people would balk that I paid so much for an online course and consider me an idiot. I guess I’m just not the latte saving kind of guy – I don’t earn a lot and I don’t spend a lot, but I do want to spend on the things that I really want. I’m mentioning this today because I have results to show from having gone through just half of the course.

A few months ago after I left my last job, most people expected me to jump into a startup again:


@vijayanands


@satpalparmar

Having the spent last 3 years in startup land, I learned a few things which have made me wary and weary of startups. It had gotten me to think of what it is that I was actually seeking.

It turns out to be simple – “I like coding. I like building interesting and meaningful projects. I like working with good people. I like getting paid well.” That’s it ;-). After all these years, I still love coding, so I kept thinking of ways to focus on just that and stay far away from the business and management side of things. “At least, let me indulge in coding till I have the enthusiasm for it” was my refrain. But how to achieve that?

That was when my lessons from Earn1K kicked in.

Today, my full-time freelancing is going better than I had anticipated a couple of months ago.

There was one more reason why freelancing seemed like a great option to me:

To be happy, your work must fulfill three universal psychological needs:

  1. Autonomy – control over how you fill your time.
  2. Competence – mastering unambiguously useful things
  3. Relatedness – feeling of connection to others

This was what I came across in Cal Newport’s blog whom I pay attention to.

As you can imagine, freelancing has given me an opportunity to further each of the above three points – I get to choose the projects I work on, I get to choose projects that improves my skills and I get to choose to work on projects that I want to be a part of. I am not bound by a company’s roadmap at all.

There are other pluses such as not having to commute, not having to take phone screens and face-to-face interviews, no meetings, not having to worry about sales and product roadmap (my clients take care of that), not having to worry about the competition (my clients take care of that), etc.

There are minuses, of course, such as not having a team to interact and learn from, not having the opportunity to meet wonderful colleagues, no paid holidays, and so on. Thankfully, Pomodoro and GTD help me stay focused and productive and the other minuses haven’t bitten me strongly yet.

At some arbitrary point in time in the future, I’ll do a personal review of how things stand, especially if I have a reasonably steady income. If all is well, then I’ll probably continue freelancing, otherwise there is always the option to jump back into a regular job. Until then, my new life experiment is in progress and so far, so good.

P.S. I’ll talk about my current projects in subsequent posts.


“The three most harmful addictions are heroin, carbohydrates, and a monthly salary.”

Nassim Taleb