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Sometimes Behave so Strangely

I suggest you listen to this when you aren’t in the mood for instant gratification. Imagine climbing a mountain and coming across a wondrous landscape or walking into a host of fireflies. Absolutely breathtaking. The link that follows is one of those enlightening experiences – Musical Language from Radiolab. Arising out of a perfectly innocent string of words spoken with normal intonation, it changes character when heard in a loop. It forces you to reconsider what you have accepted as fact all along – that music and speech are different. I can see the skepticism rise, but indulge me. Is there a difference between words that are spoken and sung? Would you ever believe it is possible to confuse the two?

It isn’t just the rhythm or the beat. The best-written pieces of prose have a character of their own. And so do symphonies. Music and speech ought to be separate, distinct, but you find that they are not watertight. Audio illusions, though not as popular as optical ones show how our ears can be fooled. There are bells falling through space, a drum beat that seems to accelerate even though it doesn’t, a matchbox being shaken and rattled at various points around you, and most fascinating – your mind constructs the words when you hear a meaningless noise.

But the one that drives a whole lot of adults batty because they cannot hear it is the mosquito ringtone. High pitched, it’s easily audible to teens but inaudible to adults – and it became quite popular. Imagine the coolness factor of having your phone ring in class and everyone hears it except for the professor. Dog whistles have been around for over a hundred years and are a great way to train dogs ‘silently’ since human ears don’t pick up the high frequencies. And if you are looking for more tricks to see how your senses perceive things quite out of the ordinary, here are a handful of things to try

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No Random Luck

The beauty about luck is that it is supposed to be random. If people did not believe they could win, they would not even try. But what drives belief? A one in ten chance to make a hundred rupees? Or a one in hundred chance to make a million? Luck is fascinating because the returns are inversely proportional to effort. Here’s a series of posts on lotteries from the Freakonomics blog. And they are being used to improve everything from the payment of income tax to disciplining traffic. It seems as if human behaviour will always be influenced by a carrot placed squarely in front of the nose. In a freakish coincidence, the Israeli State Lottery turned up the same winning numbers within three weeks. The odds on that happening are apparently one in 10,000.

What if luck was not random? That’s the question a geological statistician asked himself. The logic was simple. The companies conducting scratch card lotteries could fold if the numbers were truly random. What they had to do was to make it appear to be random to players. Applying the same algorithms that helped to unearth gold deposits, he worked out the mechanisms behind the winning numbers and was able to predict the ones that could win, even without scratching a single card. Suddenly, the odds were even. And the company, when informed, pulled the scratch cards from the stores immediately.

While the statistician was honest enough to bring this to the notice of the lottery company, there are a number of reports of individuals ripping them off. And lotteries have attracted attention from the underworld because they are great to launder money. The moment a lottery winner is profiled in the media, they get a lot of attention – most of it unwanted. The recent instance of Holly Lahti, who won $190 million but would have to split a substantial portion with her estranged abusive ex-husband made headlines because the story was accompanied by a police photo of her assaulted face. The angle  was irresistible – money, violence and luck all combined in a steamy mash-up.

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Google’s Marriage Move

No, Google is not playing Cupid, but it wants to be there in the lead up to tying the knot. The search giant is getting romantically inclined, pushing its products – Google DocsPiknikPicasa and Google Sites as an all in one solution to the trials and tribulations before the big day. It’s free, while wedding planners are expensive. So, that could be one draw. The other is that it ties up several activities that have to move in parallel, including tracking guest lists, caterers, follow-ups, dress fittings, travel plans, hotel bookings and thank you notes, post the wedding. But Google is most likely doing this because customised wedding templates on Google Docs were not being adopted with the fervour anticipated.

I can’t see this taking off in India. We have a person between the driver and the toll booth attendant, for God’s sake, merely to hand over the money and return the printed toll ticket. So weddings, where everything from the exchange of horoscopes to the girl and boy meeting each other for the first time under strict family supervision is deeply personal, involved and debated affairs cannot be models of efficiency. Every member of the family, from the elder patriarch to the distant cousin has an opinion and there can be lifelong strife if they are not consulted. Weddings are the best opportunity to show off spending power and establish the social pecking order, apart from the sidelight of the actual bride and groom exchanging vows.

If we were to track the trajectory of an Indian wedding through the Google Planner, I suspect there would be a trail of revisions and versions akin to the launch of the next Microsoft OS. Girl meets boy is never the equation. It’s always family meets family and I think no software on earth can realistically program all the resultant parameters. So, as long as you have a registered wedding with limited guests who are prepared to scrimp and scrounge, you have the solution. But the full-blooded Indian marriage with all its trappings requires resources of a much higher order.

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The Rupee’s Identity

The success of an identity program depends on it’s acceptance among the people using it. The Indian Rupee has always been written as an abbreviation (Rs.) followed by the amount. It was a long journey to shortlisting and finalisation. Introduced in July 2010 after its approval by the cabinet, it was one of the fastest adoptions I have ever seen, even though it would take over a year to evolve the computer standard. It took on a life of its own and became the preferred way to depict the currency within weeks after the official proclamation – in ads in the newspapers, on TV and every other medium. It’s as if the whole of India was just waiting for the right identity to come along and took to it instantly.

Every marketing manager knows the problems in identity design and roll out. Getting the right colour, the right dimensions and ensuring that it is followed by all involved is an exercise in monumental patience and execution. In the case of the rupee, it was a fortuituous decision, given the layers of bureaucracy that it had to go through and emerge unscathed. This was one decision by committee that worked. The simplicity and the similarity to the global currencies set the stage. And the symbol performed as soon as it hit the presses.

And what about the designer, the man behind the symbol? Udaya Kumar is a professor at IIT, Guwahati  – “Had I been working for a corporate, I would have made much more money but wouldn’t have earned a fraction of the honour”, he said in an interview to the Times of India. And on getting it right, he said – “I spent endless nights on trial and error. The symbol had to have universal design features while staying Indian in spirit. Most international currencies have double strokes such as the Australian dollar, Korean yen, the Euro or the Lira. The feature pronounces its identity as a currency”. Most designers will never have the privilege of having touched so many lives

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Mods in India

At the airport arrival area in Mumbai, a blue Innova was parked. In less than an hour, over 100 passengers stopped while they picked their luggage off the baggage belts and peered into the interiors of the MUV before they moved on. One row of seats had been removed and in its place was a comfortable 2 seater at the back where the occupants could stretch out, watch tv, access a small fridge and have a cozy party. It redefined the essence of the Innova,  a car that packs in large families by the hordes. And because it runs on diesel it appeals, particularly to frugal Indians.

Mod cars are a recent trend and while the customisation earlier was typically limited to the exteriors, this represented a departure – reducing the number of seats and ramping up the luxury components. DC has been one of the earliest companies to do mods and this looked like their attempt at mass customisation. Directed it at a market that wants luxury without flaunting it. There really is no other reason to take up space at the airport in Mumbai (It would easily cost about a million rupees a month) and display a mass market car if they wanted to flaunt their design skills. The airport is chock full of their potential customers – so it’s very focused targeting with minimal wastage

Indian buyers are getting confident about their own design choices. And going after an image that reflects their own personality and aspirations. It’s not that mods were not around earlier – but even expensive cars are getting a makeover. Mod enthusiasts spend a lot of time, money and energy on finding the right creative and automotive talent to alter their cars. But the action was limited to a tight community of those who knew what they wanted and where to get it done. Seeing that a modder exhibits his wares at the most crowded airport in the country is probably a defining moment in market expansion.

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Far from Food

The refrain in the US is that nobody cooks anymore. Life is about TV dinners and fast food picked on the run. Jamie Oliver’s talk at TED details the descent into unhealthy eating habits, all from the race to provide inexpensive food. Everything is packaged, processed and preserved. Mark Bittman, believes real food is unthinkable now. So, how did it go, in just about 50 years from a family meal, cooked and enjoyed at leisure around a table to stuffing faces in front of the TV or the computer with no real appreciation or understanding of food? The documentary, Food Inc is a behind the scenes look at the food factories that feed the world and it’s not a pretty sight.

Preparing fresh food is going out of fashion. Couples who work are cooking once or twice a week, typically on the weekend and stacking the fridge. Then, after getting home, it’s reheat and eat. If a food gives no real pleasure, it’s simply a chore to be completed, much like brushing teeth and washing clothes. How can you have a conversation with the family when there are distractions of work, social networking, and calls taken late into the night? Typical situations of the family getting together to prepare a meal are getting rarer because, well, everyone’s busy

It’s uncanny that there are now 24-hour channels on TV showing the preparation of all kinds of food in glorious detail. Shows focused only on baking, on Chinese food, even reality shows like Hell’s Kitchen and Masterchef celebrate the nuances and the intricacies of preparing food. And Masterchef Australia has taken it one step further by having a season devoted entirely to kids cooking. Food has moved from being a family affair to a spectator sport and that’s a real tragedy. If we lose out on the sensory appeal of food, we’re just letting go of a pleasure that can be derived with just a little effort, three times a day.

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Funny or Offensive

Humour is contextual. There are things you can say in male company and bring the house down. The same joke in a family setting can get you permanently off a guest list. Here’s one from a scholarly tome published in 1968 –  Rationale of the Dirty Joke – Anybody can make a mistake”, as the hedgehog said when he stepped off a hairbrush. The question is, are we conditioned to enjoy a certain kind of humour with the kind of political and religious beliefs we nurture or the values we follow ? Dan Ariely has a post from over two years ago on his blog, where he checks if conservatives and liberals enjoy the same kind of jokes.

Stand up comedy in India has not come of age, so we’re importing a few like Vir Das who make fun of our accents and our way of life. The mainstream is the spectacle of ‘judges’ like Archana Puran Singh and Navjot Singh Sidhu who guffaw at every inanity and is painful to watch and sit through.  The same is true of regional films, where slapstick and stupidity rule. Like a laugh track, there is a comedy track that bears no relation whatsoever to the main theme – and its packed with innuendo. India’s true comedy  Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro, was made nearly three decades ago. We haven’t come very far since then. TV has fared a little better with ‘Nukkad’and Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi

But there are silver linings. In 2010 a dark comedy that succeeded was ‘Peepli Live‘. While it used the tragic back story of farmer suicides in the country and the media as well as the politicians exploiting it for different reasons, it did not bite or go as deep as it could have. It just nicked the surface. There were barbs but there was no searing truth that made the viewer uncomfortable. India does not have a Howard Stern or a Ricky Gervais. Some cows are still too holy. And maybe, that’s a good thing

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Obesity is a Disease

It was the first line I heard from an eminent surgeon when he spoke on bariatric surgery(weight loss) to combat morbid obesity. It opened our eyes to some serious problems in handling the social side of the problem. Obese patients hated to come through the front door, for example. They wanted private entrances where they would not be observed. Visit the hospital at a time when there weren’t other general patients around. They constantly lived in fear of ridicule. They would step around the fact and avoid discussion within their circle of family and friends. They would look for ways to avoid going out in public and interacting with new people. They were afraid to sit in the regular waiting rooms because they were not sure that normal chairs would support their weight.

Health problems get compounded with obesity. In India, a chubby child is seen as ‘healthy’ – when there is enough evidence to indicate that childhood obesity is a precursor to obesity as an adult. It’s not just the external appearance. Obesity puts immense pressure on all internal organs apart from knees, elbows, and ankles. Most obese patients are prone to diabetes and heart disease and these are reversible if they lose the weight necessary before major damage is done. But they are not open to discussing this with people who can make a difference to their health and self-esteem. It’s another one of the taboos like dark skin. The one that is hard to talk about and looms like a dark cloud over their lives.

Recently, BBC reported how ambulances are being completely redesigned in the UK to transport obese patients to hospitals. It presents the seriousness of the issues that confront us today if obesity affects a large set of the population. Communicating this requires sensitivity and understanding. Sadly, we are still at the stage of using clever advertising that makes cosmetic sense and wins awards. Tackling obesity requires the kind of effort that made smoking unacceptable and helped cut down the number of addicts and the resultant health problems.

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Ad agency or crowdsourcing interpreter?

New models of advertising are being experimented with. And agencies will be happy they have a role to play. When Harley Davidson ended ties with their agency of record – Carmichael Lynch, an agency that jumped into the fray was Victor & Spoils with a ‘creative team’ of over 3900 from across the world. They offered $5000 to their captive creative network and came up with hundreds of ideas that they shortlisted and presented to Harley. The winning idea –  picked out from the crowd,  is the one that will power Harley’s 2011 campaign.

It disrupts the fundamental way in which agencies function. The ideas aren’t limited to the ones that can be generated in-house. By figuring out a way to expand creative breadth without increasing costs exponentially, Victor & Spoils have ensured a constant stream of ideas. The problem with direct crowdsourcing was that it generated a lot of gibberish from those who had no knowledge or the inclination to figure out what the brand was about. While millions of hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every day, 99% is unwatchable. Exactly like the thousands of unreadable blogs and tweets that dot the blogosphere and twit streams. Trawling through this maze for some obscure gems is a virtual impossibility. The agency acting as curator ensures the client’s strategic and tonal requirements are met – and without that filter, all the ideas generated through crowdsourcing are worthless.

But the basic problem remains – will the idea work? That remains a judgemental call. And once it is released into the media stream, there are no guarantees. Clients need trusted partners to keep their brand on course. And keep an eagle eye on costs. As consumers hop, skip and jump across their areas of interest, they are more elusive. Their connections and loyalties with brands are tenuous, just like their social and professional relationships. It’s interesting, if tumultuous times ahead for both agencies and clients

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127 hours

Before going in for the film, I wondered how Danny Boyle would handle a single focal incident and stretch it over a full-length feature. There’s no other character, it’s a dark canyon in the middle of nowhere. Based on Aron Ralston’s horrific experience, it can be narrated in one short sentence – man explores canyon, gets trapped by a boulder, survives by cutting his arm off. Turning that into a gut-wrenching work that makes for fascinating viewing, 127 hours defies the traditional trappings of storytelling and genre. The director moves you into the mind of a loner who documents his life and his misfortune with equal elan. He welcomes insane risks just as easily as he revels in surviving them.

One sidelight was the roar of approval when James Franco, playing Aron Ralston, blames the poor quality of the Chinese knife that cannot get past his skin. Whether Chinese goods are good or not, the perception is still that they are cheap rip-offs. But then, the whole theatre went quiet when the bloodletting started. There’s the collective experience of the mesmeric when 300-400 others in the hall are caught up in the same experience. No shuffling, no coughs or yawns, no catcalls, even when Franco gags on his own urine. The feeling of being trapped in an impossible situation – in this case, physical, is something everyone can relate to.

The continuity is brilliant with stubble appearing gradually over the 5 days that it plays out on and Franco brings out the essence of the character, driven by the motivation to simply get away from it all on every weekend before returning to the mundane. In most movies, there are times when your mind drifts. This is not one of them. I wasn’t thinking of deadlines or what I was going to do the next day. It’s a tribute to the director’s and the scriptwriter’s skills when they manage to get you to put your life on hold while the film unfolds. That’s no mean achievement in today’s attention deficit sensory overload.