Calibrating Expectations

June has been the last month where I get to live in my own place (well, until I make new arrangements in either Delhi or Chennai. It’s complicated.) As a result, I have been making the most of it by inviting as many people over as possible and socialising like there’s no tomorrow (this will actually be true sometime between Sunday and Tuesday).

This means that over the past couple of weeks, many, many ladies have complimented me on how I have such a nice flat for a boy, and how it’s significantly superior to the usual bachelor pad. Success!

This success, I feel, has two contributing factors. The first is my stellar bai, Viji-amma; and the second is how my furniture has calibrated visitors’ expectations.

Right now I have beds with mattresses (and bed linen!), closets (these came with the flat and I didn’t buy them), a basic dining table with basic chairs (and a tablecloth!), and a speaker system propped up on a packing box. This means that my flat is significantly nicer than a bachelor pad where everything is kept on the floor. At the same time, there isn’t enough furniture that people start thinking of it as a family house that is either ill maintained or lacking in soul. That’s quite a sweet spot.

Had I remained in Chennai and continued to furnish the flat one major purchase at a time, this would have meant that at some point I would surely have entered a sour spot where it would be furnished just enough to raise visitors’ expectations to “family home” instead of “bachelor pad” and they would have gone away clucking in disapproval and wishing they had booked a hotel or met up in a restaurant instead. Oh Amma! After that, I would have to struggle for a long, long period; spending more and more time on cleaning and more and more money on furniture, linen, and decor before these new expectations could be exceeded. But then life is stern and life is earnest.

The important question, of course, is – at what point do expectations jump from “bachelor pad” to “family home”? One guest suggested that it is when the first sofa comes in. This seems very likely, but surely there are other things that could cause the expectation jump.

I think a more general solution is provided by the Cushion Rant from Coupling. My (arbit of course) hypothesis is that the minute you have anything that can be covered with cushions – be it a king sized bed, a sofa, or an ottoman; the expectations change.

If this is true, then the solution is to buy furniture in a sequence where the things that can be covered with cushions come last. So you first get single or queen sized beds so you can sleep, then a dining table so you can eat, and then a study/ work desk. Finally you get the sofa, and cushions along with it. I fear, however, that the cushions are necessary but not sufficient. Much more research needs to be conducted in this.

Damn Hoverboards, I Have Bluetooth!

I’ve been thinking about the future recently.

What got me started was the news that Total Recall is getting a reboot. I mused that at least it was a reboot that was coming much longer after the original than the Spider-man reboot, and that in fact it might even be getting rebooted well after the time period setting of the original movie.

Thanks to my twitter-addled life and short attention span, before I even bothered to check this out, I then wondered if we were already past the date in which Back to the Future Part II was set. (I did check it out now, while writing this post, and I couldn’t find a fixed date for the first movie, and the original Philip K Dick story definitely doesn’t mention a date.)

And yikes! We’re only three years away from 2015, which is when the (future bit of) Back to the Future II was set. This got me wondering what would be different if Back to the Future  were to be remade today, with the past sequences thirty years ago and the future sequences in 2042. This is an exercise that would be lots of fun if it was a bunch of fans sitting around and talking about it, but I dread how awful it would be if a reboot actually happened.

We’ll get back to Back to the Future in a bit. Right now, time for the other thing that got me thinking about the future.

Yesterday, this was delivered to my apartment: the Creative D200 speaker bar. The sound quality probably isn’t exceptional, but I’m not an audiophile so I don’t think I’d notice even if it was . The important thing about this speaker bar is that it’s wireless. Not as wireless as I hoped, though. It runs on a power cord and has no batteries, so my hopes of pulling a Lloyd Dobler in Chennai have been cruelly shattered. (I’d even found a cutie with her own balcony! We can ignore the likely outcome of what she’d have done after my boombox manouevering.) But it’s still wireless enough to be absolutely awesome, for it takes the audio input not only through an aux cable port, but also through (this is the part where I rub my hands with glee) Bluetooth.

Here is what this means.

There are mp3 files on my phone. My phone is in my pocket. I am in the bedroom. The speaker, on the other hand, is in the drawing room, and at the far end of the drawing room at that. I can set the songs I am listening to from a device in my pocket, while they’re actually played at the other end of the house, and loud enough for me to hear them anyway.

I asked Beatzo on GTalk if it was wrong of me to be so thrilled about this, and he said “Of course not! Welcome to the future!”

Minor aside. If I had asked Neal Stephenson, he would probably have said it was wrong, considering he is slightly grumpy about how in the past few years, so many people in technology would rather be passionate about making smartphone apps than about making rockets:

When he was asked, toward the end of lunch, where he thought computing might be headed, he paused to rephrase the question. “I’ll tell you what I’d like to see happen,” he said, and began discussing what the future was supposed to have looked like, back in his 1960s childhood. He ticked off the tropes of what he called “techno-optimistic science fiction,” including flying cars and jetpacks. And then computers went from being things that filled a room to things that could fit on a desk, and the economy and industries changed. “The kinds of super-bright, hardworking geeky people who, 50 years ago, would have been building moon rockets or hydrogen bombs or what have you have ended up working in the computer industry, doing jobs that in many cases seem kind of ignominious by comparison.”

Again, a beat. A consideration, perhaps, that he is talking about the core readership for his best sellers. No matter. He’s rolling. He presses on.

“What I’m kind of hoping is that this is just kind of a pause, while we assimilate this gigantic new thing, ubiquitous computing and the Internet. And that at some point we’ll turn around and say, ‘Well, that was interesting — we have a whole set of new tools and capabilities that we didn’t have before the whole computer/Internet thing came along.’ ”

He said people should say, “Now let’s get back to work doing interesting and useful things.”

Digression over. Now, back to Back to the Future.

We have three years left and portable fusion reactors, flying cars, and hoverboards are nowhere in sight. On the other hand, lots of other things that Back to the Future II showed as commonplace are in fact commonplace: flat screen TVs, ubiquitious videoconferencing, and electronics embedded in all sorts of machinery (though not quite accurate on how exactly this panned out). There’s a wiki on Back to the Future, so you can check out the page on the technology of the fictional 2015, and see for yourself how much it got right and how much it missed. There’s quite a decent hit rate, actually, when you consider how tricky this prediction business is.

So tricky, in fact, that a 1996 movie got one detail about 2063 even more badly wrong than 1985’s Back to the Future II got 2015 wrong. The 1996 movie was Star Trek: First Contact, and the detail in question (and this is where things all come together) is wireless music streaming.

As you see in this clip from the movie, Zefram Cochrane, while launching Earth’s first faster-than-light spacecraft, decides that he wants his tunes, and so slips a tiny octogonal, transparent disc into a music player.  Optical media! Teehee! How quaint!

Okay, more seriously. Bluetooth was created in 1994. Flash storage was also invented at about the same time, but I remember that the first time I ever came across a commercial USB flash drive was in 2004. They both took so long to go mainstream, that back in 2006, the most futuristic thing the writers of Star Trek could conceive about playing music was a tinier, differently shaped CD. We now take the ability to whip out a palm sized device and have it send any music we like to any nearby speakers for granted – but Zefram  Cochrane had to hunt for a particular disk and physically shove it in. Wow.

To be fair, Star Trek’s 2063 is a post-World War dystopia where most of humanity and civilisation has been wiped out, so it’s conceivable that there was a flash memory shortage, or a bluetooth shortage, and the war’s survivors had to resort to optical media all over again. Which makes the story even more remarkable  – this is a world with no Bluetooth, but they were still able to build a faster-than-light propulsion drive. Whatay!



The Moral Hollowness of Auto Fare Outrage

A while ago, this petition just popped up on my Twitter recommendations: an efficient system to complain against errant auto drivers in Bangalore. I was already having a gloomy day, and this has increased my bile even further. So now I will say this in clear, forceful, and largely impolite terms to all the 1,434 people who’ve already signed and to everyone who’s going to sign in the future: shame on you. Shame on the whole damned lot of you.

The auto driver is an entrepreneur, and a severely handicapped one at that. He’s too small to qualify for decent financing, he can’t run his business without a license (and the number of licenses is capped by the government), and his fares are regulated by the government. Thanks to fares being regulated by committee, they change far too late to reflect fuel prices increases or cost of living increases.

If you’re salaried, would you accept the government setting the maximum salary you could demand from an employer? If you’re a freelancer – writer, doctor, consultant, whatever – would you accept the government setting your maximum billing rate? If you’re an entrepreneur and selling something, would you accept the government setting the maximum price you could charge your customers? If you would, please let me know in the comments why, because I’d love to hear a credible justification for that. And if you wouldn’t, why are you holding auto drivers to a different standard?

You might point out that the licensing conditions mean that the drivers have to stick to the fare, and that all you’re doing is calling for enforcement. Sure. In that case, you have also lost your right to express outrage any time the Mumbai police busts anybody for drinking without a license, or overcrowding a pub, or attending a party where a couple of guests are carrying drugs. After all, that’s against the law too, and the police is just enforcing that.

But we must do something, you cry out, or auto drivers will keep overcharging us.

Here’s the problem: if the something which your petition proposes actually succeeds, it will lead to the limited resources of the police being diverted from clamping down on say, the arseholes who drive on sidewalks or the wrong side of the road, to harassing auto drivers just because you’re unwilling to pay a market clearing price. Moreover, you’re giving the police the idea that you’re just fine with the idea of them harassing independent entrepreneurs, and the government the idea that you’re just fine with the idea of price caps.

But leave that aside. Do you realise what idiots (and I’m being charitable here, I could easily go all Arundhati Roy and use fascists here) you look like when you’re calling the police to enforce a bad law that gives you, living a comfortable middle-class existence, a few extra rupees at the expense of a small entrepreneur without the social security nets that you have? We are rightly outraged if a Vedanta or a Posco takes tribal land, pays the tribals a sum of money far below what it’s worth, and then calls in state government police if they protest. Do you not realise that this is exactly the fucking same thing that you’re calling for?

So if you must do something, here are a few other somethings you can consider that aren’t as ill-advised or morally abhorrent:

  1. Get a better paying job so that you can afford your own car.
  2. Petition for better mass transit options like round-the-clock bus services, more regular bus-services, or an expanded Metro network instead of for police harassment.
  3. Petition for a change in the licensing regime so that there can be autorickshaw fleets the way there are fleet taxis. Why shouldn’t Meru and Easy run autos as well as taxicabs, and maintain a fixed, corporate rate?
  4. And since I’m on a roll here – petition for privatisation and competition in bus operation, so that we have competing bus or minibus operators running defined routes, open to the public.

These somethings have the benefits that they give you alternatives to being ripped off (and the assumption that you are being ripped off in the first place is a questionable one), they make life better for other people as well, and they don’t call for police harassment. Please do break out of your entitled little bubble and consider them.