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The Smile model

All it requires is an upward movement of the lips. That’s what we are aware of anyway. Until animation artists tried to replicate the smile, it became painfully apparent that turning simple manipulations of the lips into smiles instead of grimaces was high art. The problem is that we are finely attuned to human emotion. We don’t just recognise smiles, we make out coy smiles, sinister smiles, apologetic smiles, happy smiles and innocent smiles. And we perceive fake smiles equally well. Or at least we think we do. So, getting not just the right expression but the right shade gets to be crucial.

This is further complicated by the fact that the same facial muscles that contract for smiles can also contract for sadness and disgust, for example. In a recent article – More to a Smile than Lips and Teeth, Dr. Niedenthal and her colleagues surveyed a wide range of studies, from brain scans to cultural observations, to build a new scientific model of the smile. The link between faces and feelings is still not understood. Why do our lips curl when we are happy? And how is it interpreted as an expression of happiness or disgust by the person watching it?

I was reminded of an episode of the Miss World contest. The girls are repeatedly instructed not reveal their gums while smiling. It’s considered less attractive. They are just supposed to reveal a perfect row of pearly white teeth to dazzle the judges. And without grimacing. Talk about manufactured smiles – anything to win the crown.

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Launch without fanfare

It’s great business for the big hotels. Or for exhibitions where the product is unveiled with much fanfare. At CES this year alone over 100 tablets were launched, apart from the big ticket 3D televisions and other electronic gadgetry. Launches are glitzy, expensive affairs with a lot going into the planning and execution of the event. How many of those brands go on to succeed is another story. Remember the Nano launch? It was a PR extravaganza with the national and international press. As Ratan Tata’s tall frame uncoiled itself from the small yellow wonder, it was hailed as a breakthrough in automobile cost cutting and design. Six months later, the Nano was available off the shelf with cancellations galore and some bad press. Now, it’s back to a conventional mass media campaign that stresses the car’s advantages.

Anyone remember how Google was launched? Or when it got it’s first mainline press mention? Here are the other names that came in quietly and then caught fire through word of mouth – eBay, Amazon, Paypal, Twitter, Facebook. The iPad was revealed at a signature Apple event, but then Apple is the exception that proves the rule. They manage cover stories and play the media to perfection. It helps that their customers are loyal to the point of being obsessive. But for the vast majority of brands introducing parity products with hairline differences can only aspire to a few column centimeters tucked away in the inner pages.

A launch event can work when anticipation is built. An Indian company, Notion Ink was present at CES this year with their Android tablet, Adam.  But almost a year prior to the launch, they kept up a constant stream of updates through the blog and whipped up interest around the world. They ran a contest for the logo, teased potential prospects with the possibilities and when they finally announced limited availability, sold out in a few days. So, time, as well as constant engagement, is key if you want to build the foundation for a base of customers

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Addicted to Ease

We’re getting addicted to ease. Less work, more convenience, fatter paychecks, endless vacations. We’re not just celebrating the people who are successful, we’re making heroes of those who made it with ease.  Answer 15 questions and you can become a millionaire. Children obsessed with gaming find studying difficult? The solution is to make learning fun. Timothy Feriss professes to follow the 4 hour workweek. Getting rich quick is the other mantra. And the opening line in the sales pitch is usually about how easy it is and how little you have to do. Whether it is an online business or losing weight – it’s as if we’re scared of work and scared to fail. And that is a formula for failure.

Paul Graham’s wonderful essay The Acceleration of Addiction is scary. Because it is so true. We’re already at the stage where we cannot conceive of a life without the internet, mobile phones, and gaming. While we classify only those who are on drugs and alcohol as addicts, how do you respond to those who spend hours gaming or texting every day? He ends on a thought-provoking line ‘We’ll increasingly be defined by what we say no to’. An escape from work is easy in today’s world. One just has to pretend that there is a lot going on. The Bermuda Triangle of productivity is captured in this insightful illustration.

Every generation has tried to make life easier and more comfortable for the next one. Leisure over work. Matter over the mind. And according to Graham, we’ll increasingly choose what we like. Not what is good for us. So, we’re hurtling along the highway enjoying the speed. What’s waiting around the corner?

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Hacking Trust networks

Hackers don’t just look for vulnerability, they prey on trust. When Twitter introduced the 140 character limit, it gave rise to new businesses – URL shorteners like bit.ly, which would convert those long URL’s into short 10-12 character links. URL shorteners work by acting as redirection points. They take a link, provide a unique id, and process it through their servers to point it to the original page. It became the easiest way to share interesting articles with friends and followers. The problem was that you no longer knew what you were clicking on because the original was masked.

Both vulnerability and trust need to work in tandem for hackers to succeed. Phishing scams where people unwittingly allowed their bank accounts to be drained happened because they trusted communication that seemed to originate from the bank. It’s an established trust network – ripe for exploitation. The same is now true of Twitter – millions of trusted tweets and all that needs to be done is to insert a link to malware somewhere in the stream. In this case, the link pointed to fake anti-virus software. Hackers have to use ingenuity, not just to code the virus but to foil its detection and enhance its spread.

The bait used exploits the most common human weaknesses. Like the one years ago, where people got ‘I Love You’ messages in their email. How many can resist that one, especially when it comes from an unknown source? Or even a known one, where the hackers got into mailboxes and then sent out requests for money to everyone in the address book. It takes years to build a trust network. And a handful of deviants can undermine that trust forever.

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When couples become strangers

Apparently, good friends and couples have the same problem. Some of them communicate worse with each other than with strangers according to a study. A ‘communication-closeness bias’, kicks in leading to the belief that they are doing well, even when they are not. When there are no awkward silences between couples or friends, it is assumed that they have grown much closer. Relationships are nurtured with conversations and shared experiences but once they culminate in marriage or extend to long relationships, the bias creeps in.

Couples who have been married for decades practically complete each other’s sentences – that’s the cliche. But the fact is, the closeness leads to less information sharing and occasionally, misconceptions. With a stranger, there is a need for clarity – attention is paid to tone and manner, details are explained and feedback is obtained. But with close friends or a spouse, only cursory details are provided. Not intentionally but the relationship is on auto pilot. This can lead to oversights and assumptions. I’ve often seen that when I am in a new unfamiliar city, all senses are on high alert. I notice sights and sounds that locals may not be attuned to at all. But once it is known, habits form – and a routine is comfortable, not energising.

I suspect the same is true of relationships. They are fresh, to begin with, and over the years, slip into comfort zones that are easy to navigate. Only when a personal crisis threatens to change or alter the relationship does it get the same kind of time and scrutiny. So how do you keep the magic going? You don’t allow it fade away or take it for granted under any circumstances.

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Ugly is beautiful

Prepare for some truly surprising findings from a dating site OK Cupid –

  1. The more men disagree about a woman’s looks, the more they end up liking her
  2. Guys tend to ignore girls who are merely cute
  3. Having some men think she’s ugly actually works in the woman’s favour

What’s going on here? Beauty alone is not enough to make a woman interesting. It’s how other men see it that make her more, or less desirable. Is Katrina Kaif prettier than Aishwarya Rai? That’s a matter of conjecture. Angelina Jolie’s lips are seen as her strongest feature – the pout has become her claim to fame. And it could easily have gone the other way – that her lips are so huge, they are ugly. Salma Hayek’s eyebrows are the reason her looks are arresting as well – and today, most women trim their eyebrows to a thin line.

Apparently, it isn’t enough to be cute. Women get to be interesting when they play up a feature that polarises men. While she turns off a few, she becomes far more attractive to another set of men. Dating sites are pushing the envelope on figuring out how to make their business models more effective. The data they provide is proving to bust quite a few myths about the way relationships are formed and sustained.

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Carrying your Maharaj

Does your cook travel with you when you roam the world? For an increasing number of affluent Indians, the way to travel is to eat vegetarian Indian food prepared fresh by their own ‘Maharaj’ – Indian chefs, who take over sections of the kitchen in the restaurants. Apparently, this is a fad mainly with Indians and the Chinese. The rest of the world seems perfectly ok with eating local food when they travel. But we don’t just carry this obsession with our own food abroad, we even practice it at home. Changing even the most established cuisines in the world to suit our palate. The food served in Chinese restaurants in India is as far away from real Chinese as Mumbai is from Shanghai.

The same is true of continental food served in India. Only the 5 star restaurants stay true to the original. But we abhor blandness. We want spice dosed liberally into every dish so that it becomes a ghost of the original. There are now, ‘Indian pastas’, concocted by restaurants to cater to their clientele. So, while they claim to be different, most restaurants only maintain a facade of what they serve. Smart tour managers recognised this long ago. While some of them searched and tied up with Indian restaurants at the destination, Raj Tours and Travels carried Indian cooks with them, so that their guests would not have to pine for ‘dal-chawal’ and ‘roti’ on foreign shores. Indian tourists apparently want the foreign experience to stop at sights and sounds and not go all the way to their stomach

We may declare that we want our food experiences to be different. But whether we go into Italian, Mexican or Lebanese restaurants in India, the first question after the waiter explains the dish is – ‘Is it spicy? And the answer usually is ‘We’ll make it spicy for you’

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Charlie Bit Me

If you haven’t come across the ‘Charlie bit me‘ clip on YouTube, you’re in a minority. 272 million views and counting. Marketers would have multiple ecstasy moments if their brand ever managed such viewership. So what’s the clip? Charlie bites his elder sibling’s finger and chuckles. That’s it, you would say? It’s the expressions and the naughty chuckle that work. A small segment captured by a doting father has the whole world hooked. No camera tricks, no technical glitz, just a cute moment. Like David Ogilvy said, animals and children are instant magnets for attention. Here’s another one with 2 million views. Charlotte says no

Cuteness is big business. The Cheezburger network ( I kid you not) has just raised $30 million in funding. Laughing cats, trip ups, fail moments are all captured for posterity and profit. Namely for the people owning them. Working tirelessly for free are a bunch of people around the world who submit pictures and videos by the thousands every day in the fond hope that their cat, their ‘failed’ moment will have its place in the sun. With properties like Lolcats, I can has cheezburger and FAIL, they monopolize the trivia universe. Talk about the ultimate crowdsourcing network. This is Mark Twain’s story about the boy who got all the kids on the block to paint a wall for him executed on a global scale.

So what’s going on here? Is it that there are so many ‘jobless’ people who have nothing better to do? Or is this the true democratization of technology, where everyone with a video camera or even a cellphone is a filmmaker? It may be, but the truth is, these are flukes. The ‘Charlotte says no’ video has several runner-up posts that have just not gone viral. When it works, the whole world comes calling and says ‘how cute’ over your shoulder. Here’s one for the road of a bull dog watching TV – over 3 million views

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Do we understand our own thoughts?

The idea that artificial intelligence is very different from human intelligence is just gaining cachet. It’s hard to believe that we rarely understand our own motivations and desires. Think about it. Do we really know what we like? I remember a discussion initiated at the office on the choice of toilet soaps. No one was able to give a clear reason for preferring their brand apart from the obvious responses like – ‘It works for me, it smells better, lathers in all kinds of water, keeps me feeling fresh’, etc. – things that the advertising has put into their minds in the first place. When pressed further, they were just plain confused. Then factors like ‘Mum always bought it’ were touted as reasons.

So, if we are not able to explain simple preferences like soap, shampoo, and moisturiser brands, how do we get machines to understand what preferences are? If physical properties like tall and short get vague the moment you change the context ( tall among basketball players vs tall among the general populace), imagine how hard it is to define desire. And from a status standpoint. So, if we want machines to think (whatever that means), we’re constantly confusing it with emotional connect – the essence of being human. There are lots of terms – humanoids, robots, and the concepts have been explored by some of the world’s best directors in movies, but we are no closer to understanding how to construct them.

Sure, fuzzy logic washing machines and microwaves claim to understand which cycle to use – depending on how dirty the clothes are or what needs to be cooked. But the variables again have to be clearly defined. What is dirty vs very dirty vs insanely dirty. Incidentally, how would you define dirt? Dust, grease, curry, oil? On what surface area of the clothes does it have to be to qualify? See where this is going?

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Articles – the Long and Short of it

Is a short article more interesting than a long one? That’s a lot like asking if one paragraph is more interesting than ten. I’ve spent a large part of my life distilling long briefs and ramblings into short persuasive prose. 100 words about a soap. 300 about a summer holiday package. 150 about the marvellous tip of a ball point pen. So, I am continually fascinated by those who work on the long form – 3000, 4000 words Faking it – by Michael Lewis in the New York Times. Try this one – Love and Lies by Michael Pollan – it completely changed my opinion about plants. Or Blowing Up by Malcolm Gladwell. It provided the thinking into investing against the market and made Nassim Taleb famous during the collapse of 2008

Short articles are like executive summaries. They pique your interest and let you wander through vast troves of analysis and insight. There aren’t too many people who can hold your interest beyond a certain length. So how do these masters do it? They write prose operas as opposed to staccato pop. They draw you in through a combination of factual and anecdotal brilliance. They work with words the same way as a painter works with colours. Or a surgeon with a scalpel. Or even a composer with music notes. They force you to consider options that your mind resists – and then melt all the opposition.

If you are looking for long form gems, there are several places. The old faithfuls – Arts &Letters Daily. Or the incisive articles at Rolling Stone. Instead of visual delights, settle down with verbal ones and you will discover that it is every bit as fulfilling as pictures – because it is your imagination that fills in the blanks.