A little more than a week ago, I graduated from college.

I am still in denial.

But there are enough reminders, and I think it is finally sinking in. A first of those was an email stating I must move out of graduate housing the day after I graduated, (though I did have the option of extending that through the summer. I did till mid-July, I found out yesterday that someone is moving in 4 days after I leave). I had a few library books I needed to return today. Usually, the turnstile at the library opens with a satisfying click when I swipe my card. Today, I was greeted with a tiny red light that informed me that I no longer had access. I had to wait for a few minutes while someone had to come to the entrance to take the books from me. I now get limited alumni access, and of course I can pay to be able to borrow books. Only a matter of time before I lose my access to the I was thinking of going to the gym today, but maybe I will go for a run outside instead (knowing that my card won’t allow me inside the gym). I should probably add something to my email signature, letting people know they won’t be able to use my university email address any more. We recently found a place to stay in San Francisco. Google maps tells me I’ll have to change two trains and spend over an hour to get here. So I can no longer plop out of bed 10 minutes before class starts and get there just in time (but then again, I don’t have any classes to get to.)

It’s not like I haven’t had transitions in my life before, or I am some fukru who doesn’t want to pay the (discounted) alumni rates to get access to university resources, but somehow this one seems, for the lack of a better word, ‘harsh’. Maybe the other transitions were easy: When I went to college in India, I was a 40 minute drive away from home. When I got my first job, my office was 15 minutes away. Eventually I started a company that operated out of my house’s basement. Even when I was moving to the US, somehow the transition did not seem that hard. Perhaps because I had a year to plan, and be prepared for it. I was excited. I was traveling with only two suitcases full of stuff. Now, I have no idea how I amassed the mound of boxes that I know will have when I move out. Worse, I came to a place where you learn how to “make stuff”. Some of it I can part with, some carries too much emotional value to give up.

In one of our classes here, we do a project called “Themes and Bridges”. We are supposed to take two or three contrasting themes and then bridge them. A lot of us didn’t get it the first time. We had contrasting themes but we didn’t have well articulated bridges, or we “cheated” (like using a black fadeout between two frames of a video). On our second attempt we did better.

One of my friends build a “Z” shape out of a piece of aluminium, a nicely finished piece of wood and an unfinished piece of wood.

Tom's Themes and Bridges
Themes & Bridges by Tom Cohlmia

The bridge between the two wood pieces was visual: dovetail joints, and conceptual: the material of the wood itself. The bridge between the finished wood piece and machined element again had two parts, the visual: bolts and conceptual: the finished rectangular piece of wood and machined rectangular aluminium. Our professor emphasized that we need to work hard on our bridges, our transitions, because that is the stuff we don’t pay attention to.

Even as laymen, we know bad design. When we see something that has not been bridged well, we get a sense that something is ‘off’. Having spent some time at design school, on some occasions I can identify what that “off” is. This feels like one of those times, there is something “off” about this transition. Given that as an alumnus, I am valuable to my school, I wonder how they can make this transition better (or maybe I should just grow a pair and stop being a whiny little bitch).

Better Products or Better People?

The central dogma of design thinking is “Thou shalt have empathy”. That means we start by understanding the needs of the people we are designing for : not just their explicit needs but (especially, and very importantly) their implicit and latent needs. A framework to classify different needs is Michael Barry’s Use, Usability, Meaning framework.

Inevitably, this leads to better products. As Paul Graham says, make something people want. But here’s the question I have been considering: How can we design better people? How can we design so that people want things that make us a better culture, a better civilization?

In The Lost Interview, Steve Jobs says “The way we’re gonna ratchet up our species is to take the best and spread it around everybody so that everybody grows up with better things and starts to understand the subtlety of these better things”. (Also relevant, Paul Graham essay on taste).

This is a question that needs much reflection and investigation, and I will touch upon this topic many times, but for today, I will share a passage from Kenya Hara’s Designing Design:

Design is like the fruit of a tree.

The soil of design

In product design, vehicles and refrigerators are the fruit. Design functions from the perspective of how to produce good fruit. If you look at the fruit from some distance, you see the next tree that bears the fruit and then the soil in which the tree stands. Important to the whole process of creating good fruit is the condition of the soil. If we’re after good fruit, we must cultivate the soil, though that might seem a roundabout path to the fruit. In our metaphor, the soil corresponds to the market and the “level of desire” of the individuals who make up the market controls the quality of the soil. What matters is the quality of the appetite: what kind of appetite do they have for living?

More good stuff from the Hara Design Institute.


When we hear the word ‘relationships’, we probably think of big hairy audacious relationships first. Family, spouses, close friends. Then there are the acquaintances. Somewhere along this spectrum are Facebook friends. (Interestingly in Poland, there are two separate words for friendship. A “normal friend” and then a “friend friend”, and you are very careful about what to use when. I always love to find words in other languages that cannot really be translated to English).

Anyway, there is another class of relationships that I would like to call microrelationships. They are unusual in the sense that they are more than acquaintances, so they have a little more ‘intensity’, but within a very specific context or a thin slice of time (even though the overall time for which they may last is longer). You make these relationships with your bank teller whom you enjoy talking to, or with the barista at a coffee shop you frequent who knows what you like, or with the man who comes to your department for clean up at 1am in the night and you practice a couple of lines of your measly Spanish with.

I differentiate these from relationships like your driver or your dhobi, because you can still choose these people. Microrelationships are more serendipitous.  Maybe a different barista serves you one day, maybe the guy who cleans your department has a different shift that night.

For example, at the coffee house at Stanford (CoHo), I know a guy called Sergu, with whom I always have a fun conversation whenever I am getting coffee. I like my coffee extra hot, and one day he decided to describe that as ‘cachondo’ (which apparently means horny in Spanish slang). So whenever I get my coffee now, we get a laugh out of him calling me Mr. Cachondo. Our ‘relationship’ doesn’t go beyond that, but the short conversation means something to me. When I go to get coffee I hope that it is his shift.

But what if something goes wrong? What if one fine day he refuses to acknowledge me in the same way? This happened recently at another coffee shop here. A barista who used to be really nice to me (our little schtick was addressing each other with the first three letters of each other’s name) has practically stopped acknowledging me (and I can even guess why that might be: I was abusing the free refills policy – you know, like PIGS are prone to do). But how do you resolve a conflict in a microrelationship? The serendipitous nature of these makes it decidedly awkward.

In a class called Social Brands here, I learnt that brands are a lot like people. They have a personality, they make mistakes and so on. A simple framework to look at this relationship  trajectory is the following:


You start by saying hello, you listen with intention, you make mistakes and then recover, you express gratefulness and then you start again. One of the things that our teaching team drilled upon was the power of the apology, which brands don’t leverage enough. I wonder how one apologizes and recovers in microrelationships? Or maybe just take Tim’s advice about uncomfortable conversations?

Indian Food in Chinese To-Go Boxes

A while ago (and it really has been a while, because the restaurant is now closed), I went to the restaurant Hyderabad House on University Avenue. This isn’t (wasn’t) a big Indian restaurant and definitely more like a smaller family run restaurant. The food was reasonably good, and when I was leaving I got some to-go (as you frequently have to do in the US of A given the portions), but instead of getting the standard recycled cardboard boxes that are the norm, I got my food in tiny Chinese To-Go boxes.


This was such a pleasant little surprise! Some biryani in a tiny Chinese ToGo box. So charming. I was imagining leaving it in the communal fridge at the design loft and not labeling it, so that whoever would open up the box would also be in for a little surprise.

And it got me thinking, we frequently have experiences that are delightful and joyous, but entirely NOT by design. Compare a hike in India or the sanitized hikes here in the US (generalizing from the very small amount of hiking I have done). When we talk about design language and branding, coherence and consistency show up frequently. You walk into a Macy’s and there’s the Macy’s signage and the Macy’s card and the Macy’s carry bag with the usual insignia, and so it is everywhere and to be honest it gets a little boring.

So I ask two questions:

One, Is is even possible to design for the kind of surprise that I got at the end of my meal at Hyderabad House? There was an authenticity to it. What might have been the back story? Maybe the restaurant owner thought the Chinese boxes would be less expensive overall, a financial optimization that Indians frequently do (and which I could relate to being from that culture), or perhaps he had a friend who was Chinese and also a restaurant owner and this guy would have just used the same vendor as his friend. If anyone had designed it to be so, it would actually have the opposite effect – of either coming across as inauthentic or just an oversight.

Two, if you do design it, how do you do it? Imbuing your design with personality perhaps? An even human personality, that doesn’t always do what you expect? Aarron Walter’s Designing for Emotion gets to this a little bit. Jennifer Aaker’s work on Brand Personality may be relevant. Or maybe you just try to design for surprise. But how can you do that in a way that doesn’t seem contrived? I like the tiny surprise this little jar style beer mug at CurryUpNow.

CurryUpNow Beer Mug

Googling ‘Designing for surprise’ leads to the following interesting links. This one is my favorite: POLA (Principle of least astonishment). And these two are linked here for future reading.

To be pondered over.


inkling [ingk-ling] noun a slight suggestion or indication; hint; intimation


I was speaking to a good friend of mine today (who also happens to be a magician) about making a choice about the several career paths he can choose from after graduation, and how he has made such choices in the past. He said “I’ve always had an inkling, and then I end up fully committing”, and this time he didn’t have any sort of inkling (yet).

I thought that I hadn’t heard that word in a while. Inkling, such a beautiful word, it has such a nice ring to it. Also, with such a beautiful meaning: A suspicion, a sixth sense about what is about to happen. And an interesting way to make a decision.

At grad school, I’ve spent much time making decisions, big and small: who to work with, what to work on, when to start working (when has always been a bad decision because inevitably, it has been last minute) etc. I feel like through most of life, I’ve been taught a very left brain way to make decisions, weighing the pros and cons and making an informed judgement, but here in grad school, ‘feelings’ have come up as a strong decision making strategy: what feels right, what you gut is saying, having an inkling. Or let me rephrase, I have always made emotional decisions, and therefore been branded emotional, but it is here in grad school (at a renowned engineering university of all places), that it seems like there is some legitimacy to it.

A related concept is the the notion of embodied cognition, which I learnt at an Improv session here at Stanford. Our body affects the way we think and feel and not just the other way round (when you are feeling sad, it shows on your face, but if you force your face into a smile, you feel better). Or that our body is the site for a lot of thinking, just as our brain is (I feel more and more that reductionism is not a good enough approach to understanding the world – and I haven’t fully read the thesis on reductionism so I might be using the term incorrectly here, but the idea that the mind of the brain is where we ‘think’ and the body is where the actions are manifested seems reductionist).

A couple of excellent images on the topic:

An image I saw at a friends place: note the last column about where these emotions are felt.


This is from the (awesome) book: Designing Design by Kenya Hara.


Going back to the notion of inkling, an inkling is our body helping us make a decision. Right is felt in the gut, Wrong is (at least by me) felt in the neck and shoulders.

Other related notions that come to mind are Gladwell’s Blink, and David Brooks talk on Reason and Emotion (He says “for centuries, we’ve inherited a view of human nature based on the notion we are divided selves, that reason is separated from emotion”, a “great amputation”, he calls this.)

Suitably Epic Dream

A talk series I always enjoy listening to is the Entrepreneurial Thought Leaders series at STVP (Interestingly, one of the things I was excited to come to Stanford for was to be able to see it in person, and the funny thing is that I didn’t go even once. Oh grad school!). Anyhoo, I still listen to recorded talks every now and then. A while back I heard Phil Libin’s talk. A fascinating idea in that talk is about having a ‘Suitably Epic Dream’.

My suitably epic dream, or at least one that I have been trying on for size, is to help people live up to their own potential.

As Steve Jobs said, you can never connect the dots looking forward (one manifestation of which I saw when I was applying to the Stanford Design Program, and the courses in which I had done well at undergrad, even when I was mostly just dicking around at the time, were perfect for the Design Program) I see a thread of this throughout things that I am drawn to. It starts off by trying to live up to my own potential: my fascination with finding (or making) the perfect ToDo list/email killer, inspirational talks, my interest in self help books. Another thread is about empowering others by working on more ‘platform’ problems, a mini-example being ReadyMad– getting companies with Indian pop culture inspired products to have an online platform, my desire to solve the e-commerce enablers problem in India – payment gateway, shipping etc. My Interest in companies like Square and Kickstarter and so on.

A riff on this was captured well by another STVP talk I heard today, by Tim O’Reilly:  where he talks about the notion of ‘creating more value than you capture’. Interestingly, Square features heavily in Tim’s talk, and given that Square is one of the companies I want to work for, I found the weird sense of Synchronicity at play. (I found out there was another phrase for it: cognitive bias though in this case i couldn’t have know that Square will feature in the talk).

The question that I am pondering on these days, is what can be a specific implementation of this dream?

Hope and Worry

Reposting a section from this Paul Graham essay:

“The best writing is rewriting,” wrote E. B. White. Every good writer knows this, and it’s true for software too. The most important part of design is redesign. Programming languages, especially, don’t get redesigned enough.

To write good software you must simultaneously keep two opposing ideas in your head. You need the young hacker’s naive faith in his abilities, and at the same time the veteran’s skepticism. You have to be able to think how hard can it be? with one half of your brain while thinking it will never work with the other.

The trick is to realize that there’s no real contradiction here. You want to be optimistic and skeptical about two different things. You have to be optimistic about the possibility of solving the problem, but skeptical about the value of whatever solution you’ve got so far.

People who do good work often think that whatever they’re working on is no good. Others see what they’ve done and are full of wonder, but the creator is full of worry. This pattern is no coincidence: it is the worry that made the work good. (emphasis mine).

If you can keep hope and worry balanced, they will drive a project forward the same way your two legs drive a bicycle forward. In the first phase of the two-cycle innovation engine, you work furiously on some problem, inspired by your confidence that you’ll be able to solve it. In the second phase, you look at what you’ve done in the cold light of morning, and see all its flaws very clearly. But as long as your critical spirit doesn’t outweigh your hope, you’ll be able to look at your admittedly incomplete system, and think, how hard can it be to get the rest of the way?, thereby continuing the cycle.

It’s tricky to keep the two forces balanced. In young hackers, optimism predominates. They produce something, are convinced it’s great, and never improve it. In old hackers, skepticism predominates, and they won’t even dare to take on ambitious projects.

Also, watch this video:

Purpose Frameworks

(An ongoing post)

I am making a list of all the Purpose Frameworks that have resonated with me. That is, how to decide what to do with yourself and your life.

# Jim Collins’ Born to do, Good at, Get paid for and who’s on the bus with you. I learnt it from this awesome talk by Tom Kelley.

# Tim Ferriss’ ‘What excites you?’ + Muse framework

# I don’t know where I read this, but ‘What makes you angry?’

# Haidt’s Job, Career, Calling

# Hugh Macleod’s Sex and Cash Theory (similar to Ferriss)

# The ever insightful Paul Graham’s ‘Live in the future, and build what’s missing’.

Kinect Installation for ‘Making Things See’ on Windows 8

Started tinkering with Kinect using this book:

Spent half a day trying to install the OpenNI library on Windows 8. Turns out that driver signature enforcement needs to be disabled before the SensorKinect drivers from PrimeSense will be installed.

Follow the instructions on this page:

Then, follow the instructions in the book.

Raise more money than you need. A Mario analogy

This summer, I spent some time playing Super Mario Bros on my Nintendo DS ( I had played and finished the game years ago but never got all the star coins. This was mostly because I was just really eager to finish the game, and after finishing the game, there is less incentive to replay it and get all the stars.

This time, it had been long enough that I knew the game will feel fresh and my priority became not to finish the game, but to get all the stars.  Another thing I usually do when I am playing a Mario game is that I stay ‘hand to mouth’, that is, I never collect more lives than I need.  The policy is to get them as they come and go back and redo a stage to get a few more if running short. Even better find a cheat code that gives you more lives.

This time I discovered a trick in level 4-4. At the mid level checkpoint, there is a rotating power-up, and I got the star power.  As beginner’s luck would have it, it lasted long enough to hit enough goombas and koopas, and as Mario fans would know, when you hit enough enemies in a single streak you get bonus lives. What got me excited was that I was able to make to the last set of flying koopas right before the final pipe leading to the flag.

I decided that I need to do it once more. Time the jump so that I would get the star power and then make it last long enough to reach the flying koopas.  Notice here, instead of working towards finishing the level, I instead worked on my skill. Unlike my lucky first attempt, this took multiple attempts and in the process my extra lives went up to 80 and just to round them off, I got them to the max – 99 lives.

Remember what I said earlier, usually I keep it around 20-24 just enough, and knowing that I could go and get more. Now with 99 lives, I never had to go back and replay a level, but there was another thing Inoticed, I kept playing and even though I kept dying, my extra lives never went below 65, in fact I hit another level which gave me a windfall in terms of extra lives and the same pattern repeated itself.

Mario and Fundraising

A common startup advice that one often gets is to raise more money than you need. This is because when shit happens (A really challenging game level) then you have a buffer which gives you a long enough running time to hit another windfall in the future – starting a virtuous cycle. I guess it also applies to other contexts – have enough money so that you can do what you love.

Alas, if only it was that easy to get ’99 lives’ in real life.