The Face of Disaster

In a chilling series of photographs featured in the New York Times, the scale of the tsunami in Japan is brought to heartrending light. It shows what the affected areas were just a few months ago. And then it shows how the entire landscape just got wiped out in a few minutes. In one-half of the picture, life when it was normal. In the other half, the sheer trampling of everything built over decades. Development is a slow process and destruction is swift is what these satellite photos register with searing impact. We are on the cusp of evolving the grammar of visual information. Words don’t do justice to what just happened. TV images of cars and houses hurtling through a torrent of viscous muck stun, but they don’t take you back in time to what life was like before the disaster. Move the slider from one end of the picture to the other and get the enormity of what people on the ground would have gone through. The third largest economy in the world, with a reputation for rebuilding from the ashes of the second world war, now looks at doing it all over again.

We’ve seen the stacks of planes and cars, littered like matchsticks, looking more like miniatures rather than actual objects. One continuing theme has been that even though Japan was better prepared, as it had anticipated a ‘big one’ for years, the fury of the quake and the resulting tsunami was far beyond anything that human structures and systems could have stood up to. Citizen’s videos posted on YouTube brought home how people experienced the devastation. When it started, most people assumed that it was like the many quakes that Japan goes through each year. While there is panic, there is also a sense that things will settle down.

The earthquakes in Haiti and China played out in the media for a few days before they were consigned to the archives. But like the Kuwait war was the forerunner of the 24-hour news channels, this may just be the beginning of a data mine that contains some nuggets of permanent change. And while people pick up the pieces and attempt to get back to building their lives, we have got a close up of the face of disaster. And unlike the movies where a band of heroes saves the earth, we are at the mercy of nature far more than we realise or even contemplate.


Moving to a better place

With the price of oil and the geopolitics that go with it, the search for alternatives has been on for several decades. The halfway options – a battery for cruising and oil for power with cars like the Toyota Prius and the Honda Insight have been on the roads for nearly a decade. While they provide a lot more fuel efficient than conventional petrol engine cars, they have not found wide acceptability because they are much more expensive, to begin with. Now, electric cars like the Chevrolet Volt and Nissan Leaf are aiming to bring the concept into the mainstream by targeting a mass audience. India’s own quirky Reva has been chugging along for a decade, used more on golf courses and national parks to transport visitors than as a serious contender on the roads. All of them have their own problems – range being an important consideration. The earliest ones could not go beyond 50-70 km on a single charge. Charging them in home sockets required them to be plugged in for hours and replacing the batteries after a few years was very expensive.

These cars provide formidable communication challenges as well. Eco-friendly may be a rallying slogan but it does not have too many takers unless it meets the needs of style, price, and functionality. First-time buyers are evangelists who want to save the world, but they do not constitute a large enough market to be sustainable in the long term. So there have been attempts to make electric sexy and the Tesla Roadster is a prime example, designed to excite rather than endear. Providing an impressive 245 km’s per charge, it overcomes the psychological barrier against making the purchase for people who can afford it.

But the car or the ecosystem that is really approaching it from the ground up is an Israeli company called Better Place. They understand the consumers are used to petrol stations and detest the chore of plugging in. They know that large outlays for electric batteries every few years is a no-no. They realise that while people don’t want to pollute the world, they don’t want to be stuck with an eco statement instead of a usable means of transport. So, they are building solar charging stations where you drive in, your drained battery is replaced with a fully charged one in a couple of minutes – exactly like topping up the tank. You pay for the number of kilometers you consume – much like talk time on mobile phones. And trials are on in 5 countries to create the infrastructure. It looks like the world is ready to move to a better place in the next few decades.


How Special Are You?

In a great editorial piece, David Brooks reflects on how we have developed an exaggerated sense of self-importance. Case in point: Only 12 % of people in the 50s thought they were important. By the 90s, 80% believed they were. What a profound shift this is. We have gone from being realistic to narcissistic in the space of a few decades. And it shows no signs of slowing down. There’s a lovely phrase he uses – we’ve become praise addicts, used to being told how good, how considerate, how helpful and how accommodating we are. All the while, we are moving in precisely the opposite direction. Less social, less helpful, less considerate. We’ve replaced real world friendships with virtual friendships that let us imagine that we are social butterflies.

In a workshop session at college, we had to estimate the number of flat tiles we could stack one on top of the other before they collapsed. I remember how most of us consistently underestimated what we could manage. We would say 5 and do 7 or 8. I am sure that this generation would not approach it the same way. What isn’t clear is whether higher confidence leads to greater achievement. From what Brooks has to say, performance degrades with overestimation. Fear actually makes us more aware and alert about consequences. And it provides the adrenalin burst to perform. In Andy Grove’s famous phrase – ‘Only the paranoid survive’, there’s a great deal of truth. Complacency breeds sloth and inefficiency.

I think the volume of advertising messages has been a contributing factor as well. If all we see are messages subliminally telling us how special and how unique our choices are every single day, we reach a stage where we begin to believe the hype. Wear a pair of Nikes and think that we are actually as good as Federer or Jordan. Drive an Audi and rule the world. We are beginning to mix up our material possessions with actual achievement. Nothing could be further from the truth. We’re measuring our value by the money we make and what we can flaunt, rather than where we can make a real contribution.


Use and Throw

Every time a trend moves very far in one direction, a counterweight pushes in the other. When disposable becomes the rage, products that endure suddenly appear. When ‘new age’ becomes too extreme, retro returns. Consumers who can choose from the latest and the glitziest pine for a style that is not cutting edge but has the comfort of being familiar and well worn. Tamara Fogle moved out of her job as a freelance interiors stylist to create women’s handbags crafted and manufactured entirely in Britain since 2007. In just four years, her bags are a hit with specialty boutiques stocking and selling them. She makes the ‘Made In the British Isles’ her point of difference when others outsource to cut costs. She builds on the national pride of reviving British craftsmanship and evidently, it strikes a chord with her buyers. It’s not a bag for just this trend or season, it makes a statement beyond fashion.

On the other hand Fabindia made Indian ethnic wear and handicrafts fashionable. Started 50 years ago, they retailed handwoven and hand printed fabrics made by traditional Indian techniques. They helped these arts and artisans survive by paying a fair wage and selling at a tidy profit. From garments and home linen, they expanded the line to personal care products like soap and moisturisers as well as organic food products. Like honey with the faint flavors of litchi – since bees feed only on the nectar from litchi flowers. Growing to encompass over 40,000 craftspersons based in rural India, they provide urban Indians with a wealth of myriad textures and designs that symbolise the variety and ingenuity of the country.

Fuji could have explored the next level in smooth moulded curves with their latest digital camera, the Fuji FinePix x100. Instead, they chose to go in the other direction with the leathery look of old world cameras. Priced at over a $1000, they cannot manufacture enough to meet the demand. And the 70s look is back in oversized sunglasses– with pointy edges and motifs on the frame included. When Alvin Toffler wrote Future Shock, he envisaged the inevitable progression towards use and throw – believing that we would quickly tire of whatever we used. And while that seems true of mobile phones and laptops, it looks like there are areas where nostalgia has a pretty tight grip.


Unreal Reality Shows

Reality shows are anything but real, but in India, it is interesting to see how a western show is packaged to reflect Indian sensibilities. The US version of the reality show is crisp, businesslike and fast-paced. In India, we go the whole hog of tears, friends, and family. Melodrama is king. In American Idol, the criticism is sharp, the performances shorn of artifice and the costumes are simple. In Indian Idol, the criticism is guarded, the family is feted and special episodes mark every festival with traditional exuberance. It’s not just the performers, it’s their life and struggles on display. We never cut to the chase, we always take the material for one episode and stretch it out for three.

Take Last Comic Standing. The performers come on stage, do their routine for a couple of minutes, no slapstick, all words – the judges smile, never guffaw and provide measured feedback. The stage design is simple, sparse. In India, its called – The Great Indian Laughter Challenge. And in most cases, laughing at the jokes is a challenge. And the sets look like the crowded, mangled high rise cityscape of Bombay. No subtlety there. The judge, Archana Puran Singh laughs like a horse even when the audience doesn’t and you’re tempted to ask – What’s so funny? And then we have the inimitable Sidhu who finds everything uproarious. In his other avatar, as a cricket commentator, he’s genuinely funny: Sample this: The batsman was so hasty with his strokes, it’s like he was trying to drink tea with a fork!

And some shows that work well in a western context just don’t cut ice with Indian audiences. ‘The weakest link‘ lasted just one season. The open sarcasm of the host was just not something Indian audiences related to. ‘Sach Ka Saamna‘ based on ‘Moment of Truth’ did not fare too badly. ‘Big Boss’, based on the original ‘Big Brother’ seemed to work with the audience locked into badly behaved contestants locked into a house. But, ‘Are you smarter than a 5th grader?‘, translated as ‘Kya aap Paanchvi Paas se Tez Hain?‘ went nowhere, even with the high voltage Shah Rukh Khan. The Big B, Amitabh Bachchan, though, resurrected his flailing career and the fortunes of a channel with the Indian version of ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire?’ – ‘Kaun Banega Crorepati‘ was a winner all the way.


Living by Instructions

I wonder who writes those ‘How-to’ books. You know what I mean. ‘How to become a topper’, ‘How to start a business with no money’ ‘How to have great sex – all the time”. I am not going to link to any of these abominations. They treat readers like prize idiots and I don’t know who’s the bigger one – the one writing it or the one buying it! Huffington post has a great entry on the ridiculous how-to books of all time and it’s a screamer ‘ How to massage your cat’ and ‘How to have sex in the woods’- Honest, these creations exist. But the best one was this – a how-to for women on peeing standing up!

Since when have we become such imbeciles? Do we need an instruction manual for everything in life? Unpacking some expensive electronic equipment and trying to set it up requires a how-to manual. Or operating a mixer. Or a microwave for the first time.  Dale Carnegie‘s smartest marketing move was to change his name from Carnegy to Carnegie – creating an association with the widely respected Andrew Carnegie, who was no relation. He started a torrent that widened into a flood of advice in 1936 that still is repeated in every generation. Apparently, the only changes made from the first Dale Carnegie primer on ‘How to Win Friends and Influence People’ were dropping the chapters on writing effective business letters and improving marital satisfaction – maybe it does not win you, friends. Then Dr. Benjamin Spock wrote Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care. It has sold over 50 million copies and been translated into 42 languages across the world. It required all of JK Rowling’s considerable storytelling powers to overturn that record.

Now since making friends and having babies is covered by these hard to beat titles, the next set of self help books was forced to move further down the line. The cryptically named ‘The Secret’ unlocks the mysteries of life – health, wealth and happiness. Then Stephen Covey wrote his masterpiece – The 7 Habits of Highly Effective people. Is there anything in the book that your parents and teachers at school have not drilled into you for years? Then the ode to laziness and wealth in the same book – how could it not take off? Timothy Feriss wrote the 4 Hour Workweek and the cash registers are still ringing – for him, not his readers. They are still plodding on with the 60 hour work weeks and making a tiny fraction of his millions. These authors wrote what readers wanted to hear. No one follows the advice, anyway


The diary of an unknown photographer

Long before blogs and photo blogs came to define a digital age, Vivian Maier maintained her own personal record of the people and places she came into contact with. Her output was prolific – she left behind over 100,000 black and white negatives and about 20-30,000 color slides ranging from the 1950s to the mid-1990s. Another 2,000 rolls of undeveloped film lay undiscovered in her personal storage locker before it was auctioned owing to a backlog of payments in 2009. A real estate agent named John Maloof researching a book on the history of Chicago attended the auction. A fascinating discussion on Flickr reveals John Maloof’s own discovery of the collection he had acquired for just $400. He was completely unaware of the value of what he had chanced upon. When he saw the quality of the photographs, he set up a blog. And a rare tapestry of ordinary life from the 50s is slowly coming to light.

Vivian Maier did not have a high profile life. She was a Jewish refugee from wartime France. Holding a succession of jobs as a nanny, she poured all her free time into documenting life around her. The impression she gave to others, according to Maloof was, ‘keep your distance from me’. The fact that she left so much of her work unexposed shows that she did not have the means to develop her photographs. Maybe that’s just another lucky coincidence since her negatives are now being treated as a treasure trove of historical and cultural significance. She always bought a particular brand of Kodak film and her black and white work is seen as superior to the work in colour.

Francis Fukuyama makes an impassioned case for analog over digital. He points out that the ‘analog’ photographs have over 200 times the information contained in today’s high-end DSLR images. Pixels are no match for the intensity and the saturation of analog grains. Today, we have huge digital photography collections documenting everything from families to sports and the news growing by the second. But Vivian Maier has achieved what she never set out to do – immortality through her hobby. The very ordinariness of daily life seen through her perspective will now give filmmakers, historians and costume designers a sense of how much has changed in the intervening decades. And fame will not make a difference – she died unknown in 2009

.Update: There’s a great documentary on Vivian Maier’s life –  Finding Vivian Maier. And if you’d like to see more of her work, there’s a section devoted to her at Artsy. She has left behind a legacy that’s truly unique


Slumdog’s Charred Dreams

She shone in a small role in Slumdog Millionaire. Her career has not gone places after its blockbuster success. Unike Freida Pinto, no one hangs on to her words or report on the clothes she wears to galas. She hasn’t signed another role or acted with Woody Allen. In fact, she would be glad to just go back to school again. Rubina Ali would be happy with a simple wardrobe. And stay in a house that does not burn down every couple of years. She still lives in the slums of Bandra. It was the place where she found fame, stardom and misery. More misery, in fact. She was promised a home with great fanfare when the movie grabbed all the Oscars a couple of years ago. And yet, that has not come to pass. The reporters probably recognise her and know the way to her tenement. But they cover it only when it gets razed again. Otherwise, she’s not newsworthy.

Hers is not a rags to riches story. It’s a rags-to-temporary-riches-to-rags story. And it’s not likely to change any time soon. She does not have an education. Or access. Or the street smarts to circulate and get to the places where she could land another role. She went to Hollywood, posed for pictures with the biggest stars and came back with empty promises. Back to the hovel she calls her home. With a smile on her face, she answered questions. But I wonder what it feels like to swing between these absolute extremes. The slums of Mumbai and the red carpet of the Kodak theater. Most people would not have the will to survive a broken heart. And yet, she soldiers on.

The picture accompanying the report on BBC says it all. From the time her face lit up the screen in 2009, she has traversed through triumph and tragedy like an addict’s cocaine mood swings. Her story would not make sense if it were scripted by an Oscar winner. It does not move from deprivation to success or in fact, go anywhere at all. It’s like being at fame’s golden gateway with the doors locked. But it’s early days. Just 12 years old and she’s already experienced what most people go through in a lifetime. Let’s see if fortune deals her a great deck again.


Self Obsession Advances

There’s a well-expressed view that photographing an event leads to a denial of the actual experience. When eager parents carry their handy cams and record their child’s moments on stage to capture it for posterity, they miss out on the feeling it generates. They obsess about the lighting, get irritated if their view is obstructed and agonise about having captured the right angles. They think they can replay it several times at home later if they want to. But the shaky camera movements, the less than stellar sound and the ‘bobbing heads’ in front are all too evident. It’s the reason home movies are dreaded and today, a lot more people are inflicting them on family and friends. Now that even mobile phones are capable of capturing video, we can all look forward to grainy, shaky personal interpretations.

This self-obsession has given rise to interesting documentation. Here’s a guy who took a photo of himself everyday for eight years. But I don’t know if I want to see how every person on earth has aged. Or what they have eaten. Even if it is gloriously shot and packaged. Twitter has ensured that you can now tell the world whether you are bored, angry, happy or anywhere else in between. Four Square and other location based services now tell everyone where you are once you check in. Why is that important, unless you are the President, is not clarified. When Pranav Mistry demonstrated Sixth Sense technology at TED, he brought the audience to its feet. What he proposed was a way to document every waking moment of an individual’s life. That’s a lifetime of home movies for you, literally.

Now another service is making the rounds. It’s called IntoNow and it gives people who sign in the ability to tell their friends what they are watching on TV by just pressing a button. Neilsen created a lot of controversy trying to track people’s viewing habits and here’s this startup that makes the process – social ( There’s the dreaded word again ) They download an iPhone app, press a green button that makes out the show from the soundtrack playing on TV, and it relays it to others who have downloaded the app as well. It’s a voluntary replacement for the people meter and a lot more accurate. On one hand, you have legislation that tries to protect privacy. On the other, you have people willing to tell the world what they are eating, watching or earning, voluntarily. It’s crazy, isn’t it?


Coconut Oil is back

There’s as much politics in edible oil as the oil we run our vehicles on. And while it has never incited a war, debates rage in research laboratories and in the markets. Coconut oil is much loved in Kerala. Extracted from the creamy white flesh of the coconut, its devotees swoon over the distinctive taste of ‘Nendra chips‘, yellow, thinly sliced and deep fried from the long bananas grown in the state. It is the staple is every local dish, from fish curry to ‘avial‘, a delicious mishmash of vegetables in a thick gravy served on festive occasions. It is also the secret of the black tresses of native damsels who wear their hair long. Coconut oil is one of the best moisturisers known, even better than the celebrated olive oil. But to its detractors, coconut oil is evil. It evokes strong reactions among the foodies who cannot tolerate its aroma. Like mustard oil, the palate has to be conditioned to accept it.

Across the world, coconut oil has got a bad rap on the health front for its saturated fat content. Studies from the Centre for Science in the Public Interest claim that coconut oil is a villain, delivering as much as 1200 calories on every large serving of popcorn. Other researchers now accept that not all saturated fats are the same. Lauric acid, the main saturated fat in coconut oil actually increases the good HDL, or high-density lipoprotein. One of the biggest groups supporting the movement for coconut oil are vegans looking for a sweet vegetable fat alternative to butter for baking pies, scones, and cupcakes. Coconut oil admirably fits the bill. And gourmands extoll the virtues of baking and frying with it.

It’s the new darling of the natural foods world with Whole Foods reporting annual increases in the high double digits for the last several years. But back in Kerala, they knew that all along. A dollop of coconut oil after seasoning the final dish adds body and flavour. Pour it lightly over mango pickle with thin cubes of raw onion and it transforms the original taste into a delicious tangy note. Add it to the ‘idly powder’ and it makes breakfasts a lot more exciting. And if you don’t mind smelling mildly of coconuts, rub a little into the hair. But too much can revive the famous ‘pasty’ look, widely detested and a magnet for bullies at school.