Are you video-averse?

I know many people who hate voicemails – myself included. I find voicemails ominous, akin to the telegrams of olden times where such urgently communicated messages were rarely positive. Voicemails do the same thing – if you have to tell me something so urgently that you prefer leaving a message in this era where call-logs are routine, it can never be good! Only I can hear my heart thumping everytime I check my voicemail box.

Recently, I have realized that I am also video averse. I slowly noticed this trend when news articles (especially Indian) started peppering their news stories with a relevant video report on the same issue. I noticed near and dear who happily clicked on the video and didn’t bother to read the lengthy transcript and I found myself strangely attracted to the text. I have come to love reading the news, not watching it. 

Maybe this stemmed from my Harry Potter movie aversion, where I’d go to great lengths to avoid watching all the franchises so they don’t disturb my intricately-built, extensive imagination of every scene, person or location. As facebook, youtube and reddit videos abound, I find myself turned off if it is a video-only link without a text transcript attached. I do watch some type of videos – of playful dogs or cats or any animal documentary narrated by Sir Richard Attenborough or some cooking inspiration but am generally put off by “watching” something over reading it. Might sound strange, but true.

Did I tell you I also dislike watching movies? Okay, I’ll stop here before you think I’m a total nut-job!

Happy weekend, all! 🙂

Things that no one tells you: Working in isolation

Offlate, I’ve been on a path of self-discovery, or so it feels like. Growing up, far away in what feels like a different planet, my visions of adulthood were vastly different than the reality today. Many of the nuances and small battles in life were never brought to my attention before and not all of them are bad, but I really wish someone had read out the fine print in life’s manual earlier…say sometime in college. But nevertheless, I want to write down somethings that no one really talks about anymore (due to millennial angst, competitiveness, lack of deep-meaningful conversations yada yada) because they are uncomfortable. Let me start with the first, working in isolation.

In my hot pursuit of scientific knowledge and aspiring to work in the creative/innovative engines of a technical company , I never bothered to inquire about the actual work environment. I was in blinders, where I imagined I’d be solving these big issues, and working with a group of really smart people who I’d share great camaraderie with. The first bit I have realized, thankfully. I do work in an extremely research oriented group where I’m paid to brainstorm and innovate  BUT the second part of that dream has fallen off a cliff. “You are luckier than you think”, “Look! How cool is your job!”, is all I hear when I try to tell them that though the big picture is rosy, the actual life of a person working in research is very solitary. It is lonely and frustrating, where you sit at your desk and try to squeeze your brain-juices to solve an issue or develop a theory alone all the time and there is no concept of a downtime.
I am surrounded by some of the smartest people I’ve ever met. They are endowed with a great academic track record, understand complex phenomena as easily as the machinations of a coffee maker and do some seriously mind boggling work. But so many are crippled by social anxiety, making them the perfect definition of a modern-day “nerd”. They can rattle off names of countries which produce the maximum amount of silver and can list out the family of Romanovs like reading off a Waffle-house menu but clam up when asked to hang out over a cup of coffee. They are uncomfortable in social settings – happy hours are probably scarier than a hackathon for these folks and they positively look mortified making small talk. While I’m no social butterfly either, the absolute lack of any interaction beyond work in a research environment gets tiring beyond a point. And while these behaviors might be limited to what I experience, they are way more common that you’d think. Whether it is because I’m female and men are uncomfortable talking to a woman (see the nerd picture above), or the geniuses are usually introverts – I honestly don’t know. But here is my advice to any girl aspiring to work in research/science – learn to love isolation. It outlasts graduate school and probably will surround you for your whole career.
While learning quantum physics has been hard and is still in progress, the harder pill for me to swallow has been the loneliness. No matter the setting – academic, industry or a combination of the two, life in research is solitary. Duh, you’d say. But I’m not talking about just the work. Isolation is perhaps mandatory for excellent output, but the part no one told me about was  that there is little else. The work parties are awkward, pleasantries or smiles are hardly exchanged in the hallways and no one wishes you for festivals/occasions. 3pm parties are often a perfect excuse to leave early and light topics are hardly ever spoken. I’d hear about colleagues meeting up for coffee or meeting up outside work occasionally but I never imagined that I’d spend weeks where I don’t speak to a soul at work. I’m surrounded by thousands of people, tapping away at their keyboards but not a soul to talk to. Everyone is somewhere else, engrossed in their work (or reading blogs), walking around looking into their phones with headphones blaring their latest spotify playlist. 
Yes, there are a lot of ways I can become social but it is an effort to connect to people outside your department or go to official ‘meet-ups’ (I actually find them so uncomfortable). Following popular advice of actually going physically to a colleague’s cubicle actually renders the whole situation more uncomfortable with lack of eye contact and curt, abrupt answers. Yes, the group I work with is totally at home over instant messaging over face to face meetings. People don’t show up a minute before it is needed or stay back a minute beyond. These folks are not rude or un-friendly, they are just not social. They answer what you ask them politely and help with what you need. But turn to small-talk or non-work related conversation, it gets awkward so fast!

It is easy to call me out on possible biases – they are introverts, they are being professional, work isn’t for making friends etc. I am aware that my personality and needs might be different, but I often wonder if it is my expectation that is letting me down. Maybe today’s work environment is so competitive that it is easier to just work at work and unwind in a completely different setting with a different personal group. While keeping work and personal life often is the best way to go, it doesn’t hurt to bond a bit more with folks you spend 8-10 hours a day, 5 days a week. Maybe, it is how the professional world is (and was for a while), it just caught me by total surprise.
It has taken me a good four years to get acclimatized to this work ethic. While my productivity and reading has shot up, I wonder if some of these anti-social traits are rubbing off on me as well. And before you call me lucky to get to work in isolation, it always seems grass is greener on the other side. While working alone has its upsides, it can get very solitary very quickly.
Workplace isolation and loneliness is a real thing. Just remember, someone warned you about this before you take on that next role and it is a possibility, it can happen to you. 

The holiday season is here!

My favorite time of the year is here! I simply love the lights, the decorations and the excitement of holidays in general.The makrets are abuzz with table decor, thanksgiving recipes are on a loop on channels and cranberries, pies surrounded by glittery baubles abound! This year, I’ll be spending my Thanksgiving in my favorite city of all time. I am going to explore places I haven’t in the past and hopefully have a relaxing four days. Life gets so busy in general with action-packed days and endless chores on the weekend. I’m glad the holidays are finally here. For once, I’m not buying anything major but focusing on experiences and unwinding.
Will post in detail about what I did when I return. Happy Thanksgiving all! 🙂

OTG – my miracle oven

I recently purchased an OTG – Oven Toaster Grill or as they call it nowadays, a toaster oven. It ain’t anything fancy, just a regular Cuisinart with your typical features. I had to justify the purchase owing to limited counter space and the presence of our big bulky oven. But thanks to my mom’s baked vegetables in white sauce which she made in the OTG and which remains my fav (recipe here), numerous cakes and other baked goodies – eggplant, tomato among others, I went ahead and bought it. It has been nothing short of a miracle!

So what do I use it for, you ask? Everything. From reheating frozen patties to toasting bread perfectly (on a weekend, though) for 10 minutes to making more of the vegetables in white sauce and increasing my vegetable consumption dramatically, my OTG is my go-to. Recently, I watched Samin Nosrat perfectly roast vegetables and lo and behold, my OTG did it perfectly for me! No more waiting for the big oven to preheat, then juggling carefully with the trays to get it out/ put it in and all the uneven heating and spatial browning is a thing of the past. No longer is the oven off-limits in summer and I don’t have to feel like walking by a bonfire everytime I cross the kitchen. It is much quicker, cleaner, more efficient and has opened doors to baking everything in ways I did not imagine.

This isn’t a plug from Cuisinart and it comes from a place of genuine love and appreciation of baked (healthy) food. To anyone who found the oven too big for quick dinners, reheats or roasting, go ahead and welcome your new friend – a toaster oven.

Living in a climate of hate and lies

With the pervasive lies, hyped and often misquoted media coverage and torrential downpour of bad news, it is easy to feel angry and sad. Everywhere you look, politicians and leaders are caught lying, manipulating the public, and reports of rape, murder and loss of life are omnipresent. So if you can’t really read the news for too long or try to follow current affairs with a feeling of dread and impending doom, how do you continue to keep your head down and chug along?

These are the tricks that work for me:
1. Go offline – Yes, the motivation to turn off and go outside is highest when the news online is all depressing. I’m currently enjoying walking outside with my dog, appreciating the dark grey skies and the misty clouds that top the coniferous forests of the pacific north west. I have picked up the reading habit once again and have immersed myself in graphic novels or illustrated novels. Persepolis pushed me to find more of that genre and I cannot thank Amazon, reading clubs and my dear library enough for giving me a treasure trove of all these wonderful novels.

2. Hit the gym and find new music – This one is a no brainer. For all the good endorphins and chemicals that exercising releases, it also is a wonderful way to listen to new music (or really old songs but new to me) and slow down mentally. Off late, it has always been about looking forward or backward and not really in the present and the act of running on a treadmill and feeling all your muscles burn really bring you to the present.

3. Find new genres to read – I have discovered cookbooks! A large part of the credit goes to Anthony Bourdain (RIP) who ignited a love of travel, food and interesting conversations. His unassuming style, willingness to keep an open mind and his truly exploratory series is one of a kind and it personally hurt when he succumbed to his demons. Samin Nosrat reignited the love of watching travel+food shows and her smile and easy style of cooking combined with her authenticity and joie de vivre inject happiness into the most mundane tasks like roasting vegetables. Love her show and her book!

4. Do nothing – They always say boredom is underrated. It gives you a chance to space out and think more clearly. After years running behind goals and pushing productivity and motivating oneself to accomplish more and more and more, having nothing to do sometimes feels like a blessing. This is very hard for me personally, being a fidgety person who seeks constant mental stimulation, but have recently begun to just exist for a few minutes and I must admit it feels nice.

I must thank the current socio-economic-political climate for forcing me to take a step back and look at the other joys in life. Hope these good habits continue once sanity in society and politics is restored.

What do you do? What have you picked up recently in the wake of all the depressing news and aggressive social climate?

The joy of a public library

All along, a library was something I thought of as an ultimate goal – images of warm, wood paneled walls with floor to ceiling bookcases filled to the brim with books, a ladder to reach the higher shelves, warm diffused lamps, comfy cushions, a throw and of course dog(s) around. This was what I pictured retirement and rainy days to look like. Unconsciously, I would buy books and think about their covers and how it will fit in my ornate imaginary library room.

Now, the collection is not imaginary, by any means. Over the last decade, I have collected hundreds of books since I firmly believe in never getting rid of any book and they occupy some of the prime real estate in my house. A bookshelf was the one piece of furniture I always splurged on, thinking about the future where it would occupy some part of that fictional library room at home I described in the beginning and how it would fit into the rest of the decor (too much, I know). Move-after-move, my 5+ boxes of books came with me and grew in size. I definitely am guilty of bearing a ‘tsundoku‘ collection, (a Japanese term for unread books) which I intend to get to, some time in the future.

With my latest move into a relatively nice locality, came the perk of being automatically enrolled into the local library system. I went in person, twice or thrice and browsed the collections which were immense and the libraries were beautiful. I was thrilled to have access to books and walked around the isles reading titles and picking up some books which I didn’t want to buy but just browse. Then, the librarian told me about their online catalog. THAT changed my life.

This past year, I have read over 15 books, all bestsellers that came highly recommended online. Some recommendations from NYtimes, blogs, blurbs floating in the web found their way into a list which I never carried in person but had stored in a text file on my computer. The online catalog meant I could copy-paste the name and to my utter delight – it was available! I could request for it to be delivered to my local library with an email notification telling me the book was here! In two days, I had the hard copy and the imposed return date forced me to read and I must proudly announce (drumroll) – it brought back my joy of reading!!!!

I have so many posts lined up for book reviews now and will finish them up really soon. But in case anyone was wondering how I managed to escape the prison of social-media and deluge of shows on all sorts of streaming services and up my reading game, the secret is my wonderful public library.
I sleep better, have loads to think about, have less to spend on and lug around with more focus on reading and can proudly say I am on the path to reading diligently cover-to-cover again!!! WOOHOO!!
What are you reading now? I am currently enjoying chuckling and pondering over David Sedaris’ collection of essays ‘Dress your family in Corduroy and Denim’.

The American High School of yore

As all south-Asian kids from the 90’s, we grew up watching limited, watered-down and often very delayed hollywood movies and TV-shows. As a school kid myself, the American schools depicted in the movies and MTV videos seemed so fascinating to me. The Indian school system is aligned with the British system (thanks, East India Company and the Empire) and we are more familiar with the schooling system described in Harry Potter – uniforms, school houses, inter-house competitions, 2 sets of public exams to be taken when you are 15 and 17 respectively among other similarities. American schools with their prom nights, casual “colorful” clothes, locker system, cafeteria social dynamics and yellow school buses were very interesting to see from the outside. So many movies highlight the importance of interaction in these school buses, the pecking order established in the cafeteria (Mean Girls, wow), the gym-classes and the importance to sports. None of this was normal to us – regimented school timetable, intense focus on academics, large classes with abysmal teacher student ratios, lack of any gym, lockers or air-conditioning and few schools had cafeterias at all. The partying, alcohol consumption (gasp!), dancing with members of the opposite-sex, serious relationships and the general debauchery depicted by the protagonists and antagonists (bullys, heartbroken-exes, rowdy drunk boys and girls) were general themes of any movie revolving around schools/high-schools or colleges. Academics was never shown to be important. In defense of movie-making, academics are a boring thing to most audiences.

My experience in a graduate school in the USA was vastly different. Being well-respected for its academics, all the students in my program were top-notch. All my peers were exceptional students all through and their high-school experience was similar to mine – lots of studying, very strict schedules, almost no partying. So many of them had skipped prom-night and were more familiar with AP classes, piano recitals, science fairs, top-notch internships (jealous) and general academic prowess. I knew I was in a crowd that was academically oriented – duh, it was a graduate engineering program after all, but somehow I had to re-imagine the American high-school in my head. I got an intimate view of the requirements for Ivy-league admits, the caliber of my classmates and I was seriously impressed. I discarded the image of the high-school cultivated by MTV and Hollywood. That was until this past week.

The recent happenings of a Supreme Court nominee’s confirmation and the saga that has opened the door to the past is riveting to me. I am not writing about what I genuinely think about him or what he did or if he is even deserving of this position he is being considered for – that is a separate issue in itself, but I am genuinely fascinated about the lifestyle of this elite-prep school crowd who are now showing a glimpse of what their high-school life was and of 80’s America. To me, the concept of ‘Beach Week’ is as alien as being allowed to drink in high-school at an unsupervised party. Even the basic idea that one needed calendars to plan their day is new, I had absolutely no trouble knowing what my week would look like without any written assistance. The idea that seniors would go to beaches, can come home stumbling drunk, guzzle beers and flout their sexual exploits in a school yearbook (gasp!) is a brand new concept. Even the idea of a yearbook is strange – we never had one. We had some slam-books that I remember filling, but I have conveniently lost all of them. I know school rivalry, gossip, weird rumors and speculated romances ( that involved passing some pieces of paper and looking more than usual at someone) but have never seen such intense socializing in school. I do know that if anyone in my school had ever had a beer – that would have made headlines and the tag would have followed the person for the rest of his life.

What genuinely surprises me is how the lives of these unruly teens have turned out. They have all done well – some exceptionally well and they have all generally sobered down in life. All this behavior is even being considered “normal teenage behavior”. I was brought up with the notion that academic prowess was the main factor in determining your success in life and that seeking top grades came at the price of everything else. In a sense it did, to really excel in high-school and gain admission into a college of repute, one hardly found time to pursue other interests. But clearly, it was different for the relatively wealthy in the America of the 80s. Makes me think that despite all their shortcomings, the older, stricter Asian cultures might have an edge over the American way of upbringing and education. It is no wonder that the culture of schooling has changed significantly (much to the chagrin of the some Americans) with intense competition and pressure, now that Asians form a significant portion of the American diaspora.

For now, I am enjoying reading the various high-school accounts – not for the felonies these teenagers committed or the reprehensible stuff, but for the glimpse of an era it offers. But it is now crystal clear – the 80s/90s high school of Hollywood/MTV/sitcoms was very real and perhaps, a terrible place to be.

9/11/2018

The paranoia about beards and turbans
The invasive security checks
Birth of the TSA
Fear of flying
Smoke, asbestos and silica
Valiant rescue workers
Chilling footage
Surreal memorial
Dizzying heights, horrific imagery
The fear of what ifs..
The melted girders, charred flags
Ash and browned, curled paper bits adrift in the air
Quietest fountains in the city, falling infinitely
An occulus eye for looking inwards
An office day turned last, of plans abandoned long past
Of memories that would remain flash frozen.
It never gets easier or forgotten,
Just buried deeper beneath daily humdrum
Makes you think of how this moment,
Could easily be one’s last.

Mourning the loss of Indian music channels

MTV hotline with Nikhil Chinappa was my favorite memory of middle school. I remember watching the videos, listening to the callers and being totally mesmerized by this cool-hip VJ who had unique facial hair (he beat Aamir Khan to the goatee) and an extremely chill attitude. The twelve year old me was fascinated by the VJ, the format of the show and equally enthralled by the nice music videos that one got to watch. I will be lying if I didn’t admit to dialing that number a couple of times every other day.

Equally interesting, more for the hosting prowess of the glamorous Malaika Arora was MTV’s loveline. Her all-pink set and heart shaped couch with her endless legs and strappy sandals almost evoke a fond memory, one where she sorted out people’s complicated love lives so easily and the fact people wrote so much of their heart to her made the show very engaging. There was an innocence to it all, from the hosting to the simplified love-letter-reading-problem-solving to the hip Nikhil to knew what to ask every caller irrespective of their age/demographic. Channel V’s Gaurav Kapur and their ‘One Tight Slap’, ‘Bakra’ series were absolute fun and my TV time was largely restricted to Channel V or MTV on repeat. It was where I was introduced to BSB’s songs and Shakira’s impossible moves, George Micheal’s timeless pieces and Bryan Adams. It was glorious.

Cut to today, where thanks to an internet-based subscription of Indian channels, I get to watch some music channels both Hindi and Tamil. While MTV-USA has completely stopped airing music, focusing on some strange Kardashian-esque reality shows and Channel V is nowhere to be found, new entrants like Zoom and Mtunes have taken their place. I wonder if it is the kind of music or the struggle of trying to stay relevant in the age of Youtube and Itunes, but these new entrants don’t hold a torch to the channels of yore.

Hindi music is more Punjabi than Hindi, the videos are headache-inducing with flashing lights, jerky camera movements and extremely glamorous, lithe leads who exercise more than they dance. It is filled with scantily clad extras mouthing lyrics with little connection to the movie or the artist. Rappers like Honeysingh and Badshah have become ubiquitous with any bollywood movie sound track. It is so formulaic – a love song (set in gorgeous locales), a sad Punjabi background score (where the heroine and hero are separated), a disco-party song (loud, bright and obnoxious) and a ceremony song (wedding/engagement/party) and a credits song where the entire cast and crew shakes a leg. The concept of VJ’s has come down to reading off social-media feeds of the bollywood stars with almost zero appeal from the host. There are hardly any shows and channels are just endless playlists of garish music videos,all of which sound the same to me.
South-Indian music channels fare no better. All songs sound very similar with ridiculous budgets and pairing (50 year old men and 20 year old women) who gyrate to tamil songs in Alpine towns as locals stare. Every movie has one or two of these. VJ’s read off facebook posts on their phones and refrain from any original content. No smart comments, no quirky personalities. There is little joy in watching any music channel nowadays.

Youtube, you beauty.

Spotting Fake News on Whatsapp

Fake-news is the enemy of the people. It spreads lies and misinformation with sophisticated doctored videos and  anti-social intent. I observe many folks falling victim to the clever make-believe of these fabricated images/videos and fake-authenticity of the content on whatsapp/facebook almost making it their go to ‘news channel’.

So what can you do to stop the flow of fake news and prevent yourself from becoming a prey to falsified news stories?

  1. Think. Yes, many times the ‘facts we never knew’ which sound startling and puzzling, forwarded to us on these platforms are not true. Credible news articles (from standardized publications – Reuters, AP and the big newspapers) are to be trusted. If you can’t identify the source, it is best to ignore. Reporting is also an option for those willing to go the extra mile.
  2. For viral videos that are disturbing or inflammatory in any sense, check out this website – Boomlive ; a team of people who are doing the painstaking job of identifying the fake news – digging up the undoctored videos and trying to diffuse tensions by showing that the video in question is actually fake. They are trying to stem the flow of harmful information and one can also forward these fake news pieces to them on their tipline. See their hotline number here.
  3. Stop mindlessly sharing video content: This one is hard to preach and is clearly a personal choice. But harmless fun videos are safe to spread but it is worth stopping for a second or two to think before sharing or forwarding a controversial, violent video to your contacts. What if your action actually caused real-life harm to those involved?
  4. If your friend/family/contact forwards you something that is fake, confront them and let them know this content is false. Just as misinformation spreads rapidly, information can also be disseminated as quickly.

Remember, not everything you see online is true. The internet has come full-cycle – from being completely untrustworthy when it debuted (full of chatrooms of fake identities and strangers) to being entrusted with all our information (social-media) to being a source of fake news and videos again. Fake videos especially of religious and caste based content are especially dangerous to fracturing the society and pitting groups of people against one another. We must stop this as much as we can.

Here is another good read from the Atlantic and about Boomlive.