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Teenage Success Stories

At an age when most teenagers are agonising over their pimples and awkward social relationships, a chosen few are blazing a trail of real achievement. The Google Online Science Fair has declared the winners – and girls have pipped boys to the post. The overall winner – Shree Bose will travel on a National Geographic expedition to the Galapagos Islands – to do her own tests on marine life. Her entry uncovered problems in ovarian treatment. Another winner, Naomi Shah looked at quantifying the effect environmental pollution had on lung function. These are teenagers – but given the breadth and depth of information and facilities they now have at their disposal, they are dreaming up solutions to global problems. In the process, they get a headstart with prime internships at Google or Lego or National Geographic. And these companies benefit from a completely fresh perspective from bright young sparks. Harini Ravichandran from India was a finalist and her project was on handling the sag in voltage that all Indian homes and industries wrestle with – for which she came up with a cost-effective solution

We’ve come a long way from the trials and tribulations that Ramanujam had to go through before he finally got through to Hardy and left a legacy in mathematics that is still being mined today. There, the effort was in getting people to take notice. Now, it is as if talent will not have to go waste if there is a little effort and persistence. With Intel running its Science Fairs for over a decade, the projects, again from teenagers, makes for very impressive reading. The benefits cut both ways – companies get intelligent young minds to come up with new ideas uncluttered by the normal corporate brainstorming, where there may be several egos and other issues involved. The students get a platform they can capitalise on. For both Google and Intel, the costs of running the contest is inversely proportional to the benefits they derive.

We see the same discovery in the popular reality shows, like singing and dancing, where children get a real taste of the big time. But the jury is out on whether these kinds of programs actually harm more than help. Getting fame and cartloads of money at a young age can turn impressionable young minds into hedonistic adults. So the question really is – should you get a chance at the big time when you are still a teenage prodigy? Or is it best to get success when you can handle it better? We know what happened to Britney Spears and Michael Jackson. So, maybe if your talent is in the mental arena, an early discovery is good. But not so good if you are in entertainment and hit your peak in your teens. I know I have left sports out of this, where your best years are before you turn 25. Should Tiger Woods be the exception or the rule?

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Reinventing the Wheel

It’s a cliche. Why work on something where a solution has already been found? A lid to pour liquids? Why on earth would we want something new there? But for the finicky designer of the snap-on lid, the problem of drips was all too real. Pouring out of spouts or the little ‘v’ shaped indentation invariably let a few drops spill onto the counter. And that was not acceptable. So we now have a snap on lid that pours in a clear stream, without dripping. Take a look. It may not be essential, but in some strange way, it is reassuring to know that there are people working on the world’s insignificant problems as well. Here’s this solution to the wet toothbrush problem. Keeping the brush horizontal after brushing helps it dry faster, but keeping it upright in a box along with the other brushes means that it could tangle with the other family brushes. Compared to meteorites hitting the earth or the coup in your country, this is a laughable problem to tackle. But this answer looks snazzy, bright and perky on your bathroom counter, enthusiastically bobbing this way and that but never toppling over. Maybe it’s just the right way to get you started off in the mornings.

The unknown component in product design is likeability. It may be functional, perfectly acceptable and have all the right attributes. But the X factor that eludes is the response people will have to the product. There are hundreds of MP3 players out there in the market – good looking, functional ones. But the iPod succeeded where all the others just had to be content with a market share that went into tiny fractions. For sheer likeability, the Pixar Lamp is hard to beat. It looks like a lamp alright, but at certain angles and the right ‘posture’ it begins to look uncannily human. That’s how the ‘Luxo’ lamp grew to acquire such a following. You know that an icon has truly arrived when it starts getting spoofed.

The chair is a perfect example of reinventing the wheel. We already have lounge chairs, garden chairs, office chairs, love seats and more. But the Herman Miller chair of 2011 is a work of art you can physically experience. You could say that it is excess. Much like the maligned and coveted ‘Vertu‘ range of phones from Nokia. The simple fact is that these products are a form of expression and go far beyond functionality. It’s almost as if the functional part is secondary. But it isn’t just expensive products that encourage this burst of creativity. If you think you have already seen every folding and stackable chair, here are the entries for a recent competition. In form, shape, utility and function, they exhibit the range that the human mind is capable of. Reinventing the wheel is not reworking the cliche. It looks at the mundane and stretches our creative horizon

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The Great Indian Wedding Reception

Last evening, we went for a wedding reception. South Indian receptions are by custom, less boisterous and sedate as compared to the typical Punjabi wedding that goes on for days and has lots of drinking, dancing and singing. This one was somewhere in between. There was the customary South Indian Classical music being played ‘Live’ but it was managed by a drummer who stood in the middle and belted out racy versions of the classics – getting a group of youngsters in the crowd to roar in approval and hand out requests. That’s a change from the group of guys playing on stage and being practically ignored by the whole gathering. Then there were hostesses serving snacks. Alcohol, of course, is still a complete no-no, which is good because you wouldn’t want too many truths to come out at these family gatherings when a cartload of gossip is exchanged. Or a favourite uncle making a mess of himself socially.

What hasn’t changed is the long queue snaking up to congratulate the bride and groom who sit on outsized ‘thrones’ and meet an endless procession of guests who stream in, shake their hands enthusiastically and then grin for the cameras. The only problem is that the video cameras are recording at the same time and they would have 30 seconds of people standing still with smiles plastered on their faces or worse, fidgeting and sweating in the heat. Since this could go on for more than an hour, the resultant video is a torture to watch, even for the bride and groom. It gets relegated to the shelf where it is sprung only occasionally on unsuspecting guests when the conversation runs dry in a matter of seconds and they can’t be whisked away to dinner immediately. The equivalent of those huge wedding albums which are still given away and provide fodder for pointing out how much people have ‘changed’ years later. The change is always in terms of girth and age, neither of which is complimentary and so what has changed is never explicitly stated. Indians can never be direct in person, they always speak tangentially, which is a national trait.

Thankfully, the feast was still South Indian and served on wide banana leaves. There are places where the buffet has replaced the traditional meal and a choice of Indian cuisines. But it invariably ends up feeling like eating in a restaurant. Here, the speed with which the servers deposit item after item in precise quantities in a matter of seconds is still a treat to watch. Before long, the leaf is covered with everything from pickles to pappads, a pulao, sambar rice, curd rice, a couple of sweets and the obligatory bottle of mineral water on the side. The payasam, the glorious liquid dessert made out of everything from lentils to vermicelli to jackfruits and a regular on such occasions seems on its way out. A pity for all those who have grown up with it and lusted for it from childhood. The sweets were the ras malai and the gulab jamun. Maybe they serve payasams in North India now – true Indian integration!

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The subway supermarket

It’s the kind of place where you kill time reading a book, or play games on your mobile while you wait for your train to arrive. But the subway has found a new position in Korea. It doubles up as a supermarket. Tesco just launched an interesting experiment where the walls are full of virtual merchandise. But they aren’t just pretty ads, they are projections of the actual supermarket aisle. And you can shop with your mobile, just like you would in the real supermarket. Download an app, pick out what you want to buy, pay and have the groceries delivered to your home at the time of your choosing. It’s an amazing combination of virtual, real world and mobile wallet integration. And for the stressed out Korean, it is a godsend – not having to brave the lines at the store and the traffic and parking hassles that go with it. The solution came from a simple brief – how could Tesco increase its sales without increasing the number of offline stores?

We are primed to thinking in specific silos. The shop is the place where you buy stuff. Online stores seek to create the ‘shop’ experience by providing shopping carts and trying to replicate the offline model. There was a specific reason for it – people first needed to understand the concept of an online store and so the familiar icons of the offline world became the trust creators – the landscape of the familiar. Carts, checkouts, virtual storefronts as icons and navigation markers, so that you could move within a known environment and be persuaded to try out the new. The promise was the same. Avoid parking hassles, spend as much time as you like, a wide selection of merchandise to preview before making the purchase and home delivery – all from the comfort of your couch.

I can see this being replicated in any environment where people are stuck for a certain length of time. Bus stations, train stations, airport walls, doctor’s clinics, gym treadmills… the possibilities are endless. For companies, the costs of building and maintaining stores just went through the floor. Why invest in a store when you can simply go to wherever people are? A significant part of every retail chain’s fixed cost are the rentals, the stocking, the salaries and the inventory – and the management of the logistics. Now it won’t matter. You can simply show the articles that you have in your inventory in a virtual aisle and encourage people to pick it up. What served as a reminder medium for a brand, just morphed into a real storefront. There are no parking challenges, no rentals, and mortgage negotiations. I think we will see a rapid change in the way we shop. Just like no one ever goes into a bank these days, we may never have to step into a store but simply have it move to wherever we are.

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Bitcoin – Money or Mirage

It’s easy enough to understand money when it passes through your hands. Comfortable denominations, a feeling of solidity and remarkably efficient for transactions. The credit card changed all of that. Suddenly, you could sign off on a receipt and your bank account got a  little lighter every time you filled up at the petrol bunk, ate at a hotel or bought something you liked online. No wonder then, that Visa and Mastercard have grown to be among the most powerful corporations in the world – when they can levy even a sliver of a percentage of the millions of transactions that happen every day, it all adds up. And since banks have been around since the age of modern civilisation – over 2000 years, it gets a little difficult to imagine what life can be like without them. The crash of 2008 gave birth to a new phrase – ‘Too Big to Fail’. Even the banks that had made exceedingly bad lending decisions were put on the oxygen of taxpayer’s money – because the alternative was too terrifying to contemplate.

So it is mystifying to come across currency that is not issued by a bank or a treasury. Bitcoin is just is an ephemeral piece of code that exists only on the internet. Created in open source, the code is free to download and modify. And it is being used to buy and sell goods and services online – creating another economy that the world’s governments and corporations do not control – or profit from. The premise is simple. You open a Bitcoin account by downloading a program and ‘mine’ for coins by dint of your effort. You agree to get paid in the currency and your transaction is recorded. This can be exchanged for ‘real’ money like pounds and dollars at Bitcoin exchanges. This FAQ explains the basics. The transactions are completely anonymous, not monitored or centrally controlled. It’s already setting off a firestorm. Take this line in an article from the Economist – ‘This has not stopped some American politicians from expressing grave concern about the virtual currency. Charles Schumer, a prominent Democratic senator, has inveighed against it, claiming it is just what drug dealers have been waiting for‘.

Whether Bitcoin grows or ends in a blaze of controversy, the net is redefining what we think about the most ordinary facts of daily life. It raises an important question – if governments and corporations were no longer able to control the flow of money, what will the resultant structure look like? Will it be complete anarchy or will there be the enforcement of a new world order where the old paradigms of power are no longer applicable? The premise of Bitcoin – a safe, low-cost transaction option anywhere in the world not mandated by law and borders will send shivers down quite a few powerful spines – because it actually asks the question – Do we need banks at all in future?

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Speechless in Victory

When Novak Djokovic crashed to the ground after defeating Nadal and became the 2011 Wimbledon Champion, he lay on his back looking up at the sky. Crossing over from competitor to victor, he savoured the moment and the most telling gesture afterwards was the bit of the hallowed grass he plucked and stuffed into his mouth. The raised hands and the clenched fists to symbolise victory have become a cliche. So has the sinking to the knees and gazing up at the heavens. Tsonga has a nice little routine where he pirouettes and jumps as he beats his hands on his chest. In football, the ‘war dance’ after a goal has become a team’s signature. In cricket as in football, all the team members converge and engulf the bowler who has engineered the breakthrough. Nadal provided fodder for photographers when he ‘bit’ the cup in his victory. This year’s Ladies Wimbledon Champion Petra Kvitova held her trophy limply by her side, till a photographer gestured to her to raise it above her head. It seemed a little surprising that she showed nothing after winning the world’s most coveted title.

The interviews held immediately afterward are exercises in embarrassment. They offer no deep insights into victory or the state of mind of the victor, which is often blank. It’s as if the body reacts to extreme success the same way as it does to extreme trauma. Shock and a sense of resignation, not the giddiness of triumph as the phrase goes. When Sachin has knocked off another of his effortless century knocks that astounded the audience, he has little to add apart from saying ‘I played from over to over and kept the score ticking’. His most memorable quote came as a reaction to the number of press stories that prophesied his retirement – ‘When they throw stones, I turn them into milestones’. To an audience hungry for the mantra of success, there is no enlightenment, no path to tread, except for the metronome of practice and effort, and long hours of hard work. It seems a little unfair that even the gods have to toil, and don’t have it easy.

We put our greatest efforts towards achievement and we are feted for them. But the pinnacle we aspire to reach is a shadow we wrestle with. I wonder what Edmund Hilary and Sherpa Tensing truly felt when they stood on the cold crest of the tallest mountain in the world. Or what Lance Armstrong felt when he won the Tour De France in the face of tremendous personal odds. Or Mahendra Singh Dhoni when he won the World Cup after all the brickbats prior to the commencement. Exhilaration? The end of the adrenalin rush? A realisation that they have entered another orbit? Or a sense of surprise that life does not seem any different even though it is supposed to. Perhaps victory is the perfect example of words being poor substitutes for conveying expression.

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Dislike the ‘Like’ button

It’s the lazy commenters’ favourite tool – needs no effort apart from a click. The numbers pile up, provide gratification for those who receive it and according to the Wall Street Journal article, encourage conformity. In an age when the average comment is the meaningless ‘Nice post’ or ‘Great’, there is a rationale for the ‘Like’ button. Or the +1 from Google. It’s the equivalent of a ‘I was here and saw what you posted’. There is no attempt to probe deeply into the subject or come up with a counter argument that stimulates. The basic attitude is ‘why bother?’ In the flame wars that erupt on a Mac fanboy site and the vitriol on Rediff, the comments have a mind and life of their own. They have very little to do with the article posted. It is simply posturing for the sake of posturing – with all the allure of watching a street fight where the combatants have run out of words. It is amazing that people have such strong positions on things they have virtually no control over – and the length they are prepared to go to defend that opinion.

In focus group sessions, moderators are wary of the single dominant opinion. It starts early and if the dissenter or the opinion leader is strong he or she will ensure that a contrary opinion does not arise. The ‘discussion’ quickly morphs into who is right and who is wrong, not on the subject at hand. It is interesting to watch from the sidelines where the dominant person will first hold forth without allowing anyone else to speak. If there is the chance that a dissenter will take a different path, it erupts into an all out assault on the dissenter’s point of view. Then, depending on the nature of the combatants, the discussion moves one way or the other depending on the number of those involved who subscribed to either view. What was more surprising, however, was the absence of a real position. People were happy to be stuck in a neutral mode where they could have swung either way because it really made no difference to them – and they want the opinion of the person they ‘liked’

So, in person, people were more likely to keep their real opinions to themselves. But provide them with an anonymous forum to vent and they will come up with all kinds of filth and open up to the world. The proliferation of sites like this establishes the fact that we rant when we are unhappy, rather than be appreciative when we encounter something good. So Facebook took the easy way out. They gave millions of their users a safe, non-objectionable way to show appreciation. And that’s probably the reason they did not create the ‘Hate’ button. Because it would have blown up into another pointless flame for every provocative post