Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Of Non Obvious Messages

The last SMS I sent was over a year ago. My current phone plan doesn't allow such luxuries, and there is no "topping off", no Airtel in this vast land of two-year contractual woes.

Why SMS anyway, when Google came through the way it did with its revolutionary "chat within your mailbox" applet. Couldn't be happier, for here finally was the Reaper of all Reapers, the dynamic traffic-light themed list that made us choose who we wished to ping often, who we would ping only on birthdays, and who were just plain un-pingable.

Despite its apparent simplicity however, the genius of gChat's design is its pliability. The variations of simple emoticons, available in collections ranging from the minimalist to the baroque. The Red Dot Status that is merely a front for a comfortable long conversation with a certain someone, or an effective barrier against queries regarding work, weather and the spelling of the word "itinerary" by a random contact who remembered mid-email that you graduated with a B.A in English and voila, are seemingly online. The disclaimer that you are busy, and they may be interrupting never really stands in said random contact's way. Hence, the Invisibility Option! Add voice and video to this potent, easy-to-use, no separate log-in required mixture and you have the reason why MSN and Yahoo weep themselves to bed every night nowadays.

Not that I don't miss sending an SMS, or two. A strange life it is when you feel nostalgic about events that took place no more than four years ago: the old reliable nokias, the furtive charging in computer labs and backstage during rehearsals, the daily struggle for available balance and then finally when the last recharge finally proved insufficient, the use of missed calls to convey messages.

Ah, missed calls! That wonderful meme of Indian youth culture! One ring meant, "call me back". Two rings meant, "the prof just walked into class, get here quick!" And good luck if you were industrious enough to be in loue at the same time as having restricted balance options. The missed call signal manual suddenly expanded exponentially to not only include new messages-- three rings means I have access to a landline and will be calling you from a strange number, but it's me alright, so pick up!-- but also messages from his or her friends as well.

It's less hectic now, though. And what with the Tower of Babelish sort of communication the world has going for it these days vis a vis acronyms, smileys, glocalized slang, song lyrics, youtube links and other googleable treasures, a whole new sort of system has been developing under our very fingertips, guerrilla-style.

I call it Non Obvious Messaging (NOM).

It's not a particularly new concept. A dear friend introduced me to it around 1998-'99, when she unveiled via yahoo messenger the possibilities that existed when one described actions between two asterisks.

*wanders lazily over to the kitchen for a coffee refill*


*returns, balancing a steaming mug and two shortbread cookies*

Feeling nibblish? Figured.


The world caught on soon though, and suddenly plain LOLing wasn't enough. Today Facebook is putting its finishing touches on the immense citadel right at the tippy-top of that Tower of Babelish communication, while the multitudes scream, clap, defenestrate, throw a sheep at and poke one another.

Ah, the poke.

According to Facebook, "a poke is a way to interact with your friends on Facebook. When we created the poke, we thought it would be cool to have a feature without any specific purpose. People interpret the poke in many different ways, and we encourage you to come up with your own meanings."

Your own meanings.

I'll bet my last pair of clean underwear that there's published literature on the existing positive correlation between the creation of secret, somewhat exclusive systems of communication and the development of new civilizations (Dr. Pinker, are you listening?).
This is why certain folk are moving away slowly from the packaged, parceled versions of messaging each other, and are discretely beginning to take existing systems of communication and turn them into NOMs, NOMs that are most times so subtle and disguised that only the sender and receiver understand them.

There are those who communicate solely via their status messages. Those who record appropriate (and otherwise) lines from songs as NOMs to each other using Gtalk's voicemail function. Those who use a VPN to access each others' desktops, to be able to doodle on the same open Paint file. Those who have devised special hugs, touches, sounds and smiles to convey thoughts, ideas and feelings that are as yet-- praise be to everything that is alive, free, unplugged and unmarketed-- unknown to pop culture overlords.

To those who receive and relay NOMs-- salutations. You have in your fingertips the only thing still innocent, and strangely, wholly honest, that is left in this world.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Lessons for Bombay from an Art Museum in LA

Granted, the variables that affect the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) and those that affect a local government are pretty disparate: the museum doesn't have to deal with armed attacks (yet) or bad drainage.

Fact remains however, that an administration is an administration is a five syllabic word. And Roberta Smith's article, which outlines a method for rescuing the MOCA from bankruptcy, also contains important lessons for organizers, public servants and ticked off citizens everywhere.

Smith writes:

But first there needs to be a truce. Both the siege and the bunker mentality must be suspended. People have to set aside their rage at one another and at outside critics. They should stop fretting about their reputations or grudges. Egos have to be left at the door.
This article places emphasis on the importance of communication across and in spite of the badly-drawn societal lines that exist in any organization, gathering or locality. In a time where every new day brings about four emails containing news of yet another group gathering in the name of solidarity post the attacks in Bombay, this sort of communication is what the city needs first.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Of a proposed corollary to the Infinite Monkey Theorem

Being a child of the 90's, I have often felt thwarted in terms of pop culture memes relating to pipe fixtures. All I had to work with for the longest time was this guy, or his wussy brother.

It took almost a decade and one of the most historic U.S. Presidential elections till date to deliver the Second Coming, and what a delivery it has been.

Not only did good ol' Joe provide significant fodder for spin doctors across America, but he is also an economic stimulus all by himself. Joe Lara, of Ventura County in Southern California is in business like never before, and it's all Wurzelbacher's doing: apparently, media coverage not only affects a campaign, it also bolsters small businesses.

In the words of the average joe, who wudda thunk it?

The erstwhile campaign hot-topic has done more than just help out Mr. Lara: in a most effective way, he has also gotten under Mr. Egan's skin.

Timothy Egan went after the unlicensed, tax-evading pipe cleaner [quick, is the term "faux-plumber" ready to join its brethren on Urban Dictionary yet?] in today's NYTimes with an energy that makes me hope that the object of his um, affection was wearing a hard hat when he read the article. Or had it read to him, as the case may be.
Egan writes:

If Joe really wants to write, he should keep his day job and spend his evenings reading Rick Reilly’s sports columns, Peggy Noonan’s speeches, or Jess Walter’s fiction. He should open Dostoevsky or Norman Maclean — for osmosis, if nothing else. He should study Frank McCourt on teaching or Annie Dillard on writing.

The idea that someone who stumbled into a sound bite can be published, and charge $24.95 for said words, makes so many real writers think the world is unfair.

And all you liberal, plumber-loving socialists out there-- I hear ya. You're absolutely right: give the man a break! Samuel Wurzelbacher was a lucky pipe fitter, who just happened to be in the right place, at the right time, with the right camera running. Egan wouldn't be complaining if Sammy had hit the lottery big and then decided to self-publish, now would he?

Would he?


In order to control for that variable then, I now humbly proffer [the most fatuous phrase of all fatuous phrases]a corollary to the Infinite Monkey Theorem, viz.

Given enough time, a publisher funding memoirs and manuscripts at random will almost surely promote a text based on an event of shallow public interest that will enrage serious writers. Or writers who take themselves seriously.