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How much do we need to know?

The argument for keeping knowledge and memory on our devices instead of our heads has far-reaching implications for the way we function in the real world. How much geography should we know? Or history? Only what we are interested in or some that should be imposed starting at the school level?

Self-discovery is over-rated. It’s a lot like eating. If we were to eat only what we like, our diet would comprise of things that are largely unhealthy. The food trend in the US, where junk food is cheaper than vegetables has led to a lop-sided consumption pattern – leading to obesity and health complications affecting a sizeable percentage of the population.

The same is true of knowledge. If we were to indulge only in what we were really interested in, without making any significant effort outside of our interest areas, we are digging a tunnel. Most of us would not dig very deep – because going into a subject in-depth requires a lot of dedicated effort. And the effort is being given step-sisterly importance.

We’re obsessed with making things easy to follow, rather than encouraging and rewarding effort. Working hard is for chumps. We’re more focused on results than discovery. Everything is about outcomes rather than the process where mistakes are a natural part of the learning. Indian schools place the emphasis on rote learning – rather than self-discovery. But look at Indian and Chinese kids beating the pants off their counterparts in schools in the US and you question the way education in the US has evolved. General Knowledge – an essential component of every Indian curriculum is about sampling knowledge across diverse topics. How will you know what you are interested in unless you go through a wide variety of subjects in school or at any time in life? On our jobs, we tend to know more and more about the single area in which we operate. Like cultural diversity leads to dynamism in the genetic pool, we need to seed our knowledge streams. How will creativity develop unless you first encourage a deep dive into diverse knowledge pools? Or even impose it at school?

Today, there is convergence on subjects as far apart as mathematics and stock investing. To test the first artificial retina, it required specialists from medicine, biology, physics, chemistry, industrial design, and manufacturing to collaborate. Multi-disciplinary skills are only going to make us far more employable rather than narrow skills. The world has veered around from needing specialists for a single job to requiring multi-disciplinary specialists.

So how much do we need to know? As much as we can possibly absorb. The stuff on our devices does not draw conclusions or cross reference data or make unique linkages like our brains do. It doesn’t analyse or pick up anomalies. And we will be shorting our brains if we don’t serve up the exercise. Recent studies have shown that learning a new language, especially as we grow older can significantly increase neural activity and delay dementia. Which is another word for brain atrophy.

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The Daily Celebrities

It’s hard to be interesting every day. But in today’s news-saturated world, the rules of the game have changed. If you aren’t making news, you are out. So Lady Gaga goes to the extent where she never repeats the same outfit – even at interviews held within hours of each other. Her handlers have to ensure that her pictures are different, no matter where they appear. She might say the same thing at every single interview for the next couple of years, but the wrapping is different. She said the same thing in a red hat. Or when she was dressed in that strange pink effervescent abomination. She has carried the cult of celebrity to such ridiculous lengths, it’s as if there’s no real person inside – merely a ghostly manifestation in different clothes.

It must be crazy to wake up in the morning and think – Ok, what should I do today to get the TV guys to line up and chase me for quotes? Trashing hotel rooms gets no more than a yawn and a huge bill that isn’t affordable, even if you earn millions. For a reference, I cite the recent case of Charlie Sheen, who was paid $2 million for every episode in ‘Two and a Half Men’. He lost the role when he ran down his long term writer and producer down in a drunken stupor and continued the haranguing over the next few weeks. Quite a sitcom outside the sitcom. And he apparently managed to blow that inflated weekly salary – enough to feed several egos, not to speak of mouths on drugs and some really high maintenance prostitutes. The other rapid descent into oblivion is Tiger Woods. Now officially the mouse. Having lost his home, his status, his wife and going by his current game record, his talent as well. Two years ago, he could do no wrong. Now, he can’t seem to get into a tournament, let alone win it.

Last week must have been a real low for gossip in the Indian film industry. No one caught in the wrong bed. No marriages breaking up. No star thrown out of a film for some stupid reason. No child claiming that he or she had been fathered by the reigning superstar. That’s why the lead story in the film sections was how Priyanka Chopra was invited to Shah Rukh’s Khan’s home for a party and then pointedly ignored by his wife, Gauri. Nothing happened – now even that is a story. The stress on film reporters who have to do this living must be insane. What happens when our stars have absolutely nothing spicy, funny, or interesting to say? Or do? The cult of daily celebrity is a curse. We’d like to believe that they are fundamentally different, living lives laced with excitement and glamour. The truth? If you’re always in the fast lane, it’s the new normal. Unless you crash. And the cameras are there for a brief spell again to record for a ravenous audience. Until the next headline beckons.

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Do Not Disturb – Partially

If you’ve submitted your number to a Do Not Disturb (DND) list and think you can rest peacefully, here are a few exceptions. Would you like SMSs that tell you if your flight is late? Or if a book you ordered is on its way? Or if your waitlisted PNR number on the train is now confirmed? Tough luck. The new TRAI regulations have shut everyone out – even the SMSs that you can receive legitimately from the companies you have done business with and hopefully, in future as well. So all those 50% sale offers are going to stop along with some of the little stuff that you actually had a need for. Strange how even the most derided forms of communications have their uses.

You have probably been receiving these notifications from your service provider prescribing a maximum of 3000 messages a month that you can now send out from your phone. That’s it. The authorities have decided that your ration of messages for the day is an average of 100. If your send out that many every hour, you’ll reach your quota in a couple of days, after that, no more messaging for the rest of the month! Your days of cheap deviations around the teachers, your parents and your access to your girlfriend or your boyfriend as the case may be are now at a government sanctioned roadblock. Would be nice to see how the young ones get around this one. They will probably crack it in a couple of days and then text or IM to their heart’s content. The telecom companies’ revenue is going to be badly hit on this one, but they will say it is about encroaching upon the fundamental rights of a person to message.

This must also be the fallout from the Anna Hazare movement where SMSs were used as a simple, inexpensive way to get the information out and mobilise volunteers. Expect this to get questioned in a court of law and argued fiercely by both sides out pretty soon. In an age where the network is already in place, you can’t shut down something that is the lifeblood of the younger generation and expect them to take it lying down. Newspapers and TV are not our primary sources of information anymore.

But back to the Do Not Disturb list. Apparently, a provision has been made for a subscription to make it partially accessible for the companies from a particular sector to reach you. But this is going to take a long time to implement because you cannot ‘whitelist’ SMSs from a single company just yet. That seems to be an area for the next entrepreneur to step up and solve. Ensure that these notifications reach subscribers with them having to do very little. One door shuts and another opens. Companies like SMS GupShup will find their markets squeezed since their lifeblood is dependent on increasing the numbers of messages sent out between their subscribers every day. Another day. Another battlefront.

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The Leisure Economy

While we’re working our butts off and accumulating more stress than raindrops in a puddle, we seem to be indulging in prolific playtime as well. Work hard and play hard is the mantra that the world loves to live by. The annual market for tourist receipts for destinations in the world exceeded $900 billion in 2010. This year, it could become a trillion dollar market. That means there are more people spending more time at various spots around the world doing some pretty unusual things. So, if your idea of a holiday is to go swimming, trekking, watch a few castles or museums or simply catch up on tons of books you always wanted to read but couldn’t, welcome to the new world.

This year, it could become a trillion dollar market. That means there are more people spending more time at various spots around the world doing some pretty unusual things. So, if your idea of a holiday is to go swimming, trekking, watch a few castles or museums or simply catch up on tons of books you always wanted to read but couldn’t, welcome to the new world.

The simple act of sightseeing has been transformed into sharply defined activities like sustainable tourism, eco-tourism, pro-poor tourism (as if to imply that most tourism isn’t), recession tourism, medical tourism, educational tourism, dark tourism (sites of genocide, prisons and other unsavoury history) and doom tourism – where the marvel is likely to be lost if you don’t see it in the next few years. (Alaska before the polar bears disappear or whales in their original habitat). You travel for a cause and not just because you have the time and the inclination.

As if all of these were not enough, Richard Branson is getting space tourism off to a highly publicised start. At $2 million dollars and a lot of training, before you can take off, it’s not exactly the kind of holiday a lot of us would look forward to. Being shot into space in cramped quarters and experiencing the nauseous pleasures of weightlessness and muscle atrophy, not to mention having to eat pelleted food and going through elaborate routines for your daily ablutions is not anyone’s idea of fun. And the people who line up to pay for the privilege of boasting that they are the chosen few are welcome to their illusions. I’d prefer to see space in 3D from the air-conditioned confines of a planetarium and get back to the real world by just stepping outside. Thank you very much

Sports tourism is also getting to be a highly trafficked sector. The football cups have acquired notoriety on account of the drunken fans that trashed the countries they travelled to when their teams lost. But there are the tennis and the cricket faithful who go wherever their teams go.

So what does all this go to show? That we have more leisure in our lives than at any time in history. And we’re capitalising on the opportunity with a vengeance, recession or no recession – going by the fact that tourism worldwide is growing at 7%. On a base of even $900 billion, that’s an additional $63 billion being added to the growing pie. Take a look at this interesting graph of air traffic across the world over a 24 hour time span. The world is connected like never before. And the leisure economy is exploding in size and scope

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Glamour in Advertising? What’s that?

Everyone thinks advertising film shoots are glamorous affairs but the truth is, all the glamour is within the frame. If you saw the contortions that light guys go through to keep the lights in the right place, the shouted instructions to the camera assistants on keeping people and objects out of the frame and the general chaos that prevails on any film set at the point of execution, glamour would be the last word that comes to mind. Miles of wire snake across the set, thermocole boards used to reflect light are stacked at various precarious angles, noisy generators hum in the background and at every break, the carpenters move in and pound away at a different corner where the next shot is being set up. It all adds to the confusion. Lunches and snacks are quick and messy affairs with huge tiffin carriers being opened up and spread out at any place available. Just like the fashion ramp walks are all glamour and glitz but backstage is all chaos and confusion

About the models, the less said, the better. Most of them you wouldn’t give a second look in the street. It’s only when the makeup men and women work their magic and the photographers get them to show off their best angle do they look like gods and goddesses. The pimples are artfully hidden, natural scars and flaws camouflaged and the carefully calibrated light end up making them look like they were from a different planet. But the illusion only works on TV or in a movie theatre. On the set, it’s just another guy or girl working for a living. You see them with their flaws, their inability to mouth a single line with the emphasis it requires – and all the insecurity that goes with trying to act – even if it is a 20-second commercial where the best performances can be teased out of wood. It’s only for a few seconds that the illusion has to be preserved, not the long grueling schedule of a feature film shoot.

I love it when friends think that all people do in advertising is look at pictures of beautiful girls and call it ‘work’. If only they knew how little it takes to crack the veneer that goes with the job. Poring through hundreds of pictures to shortlist an interesting face or sitting through the video tests where the hit ratio of a worthwhile test to the ones that are simply painful to watch is 100:1 – at a minimum. In many cases, you can go through reams of files from model coordinators who shepherd the starry-eyed into an ever-growing stream in the hope that they will ‘make it’ and come up with nothing.

It’s a lot like Facebook where people spend hours putting up the right profile picture. Clicking through leads to ordinary party and social snaps – which destroys the bubble altogether.

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Postman Passing

I noticed our neighbourhood postman stuffing mail into the apartment mailboxes yesterday. The khaki uniform that characterised him is history. The modern day postman wears crumpled clothes and until I saw his bag full of junk mail, I did not even make the connection. The tribe is now unrecognisable. People had a close relationship with their local postmen. They were a good source of news on what was happening in the neighbourhood. I remember that they came around during the festival season to collect their tips. And everyone happily paid a few rupees. It was the extra bonus they earned apart from the official one.

There were songs in films (This one features the superstar of the time – Rajesh Khanna) where postmen were the harbingers of important news – but like the town crier, their roles have now been marginalised to the extent where they no longer command attention but are relegated to the attic of our thoughts. Even as recently as 2008, Shyam Benegal made a film with the postman as the protagonist – Welcome to Sajjanpur. It is about the marginalisation of the breed. Postmen were respected because they were among the educated few who could read and write. Their help was taken for everything from writing petitions to love letters. In the film, it is the rapid adoption of the cell phone that hastens his demise and status in society.

When was the last time you physically posted a letter into a letter box or waited for the postman to deliver one? The familiar bright red post boxes are gone. They used to be at every street corner within walking distance of most apartments barely 10-15 years ago. Maybe things haven’t changed too much in deep rural pockets but with cell phone connections expanding by 4-5 million every month, it can’t be long before letters written for love, longing and simply to keep in touch are history.

Email may not have the same romance but it’s all that this generation knows. Text messages delivered at the push of a button tens of times every day. Short messages flying between numbers for everything from mood updates to gossip. The world has gone social with a vengeance and the casualty is the one from a less hurried time. I am not mourning the passing of the postman. Waiting interminably for news of a job application or admissions does not endear the man to you. And if was a rejection he brought, he bore the blame as well.

I’m just wondering what it means to enter a profession in its prime and see its value eroded steadily over time. Going from being in an inner circle to becoming irrelevant can be hard. Especially when you put in your best years and in the sunset of your life, see that it finally means nothing at all. Are the BPO employees of today the postmen of a future generation?

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People like us

Who do we find interesting? People like us. We may be lawyers, doctors, engineers, accountants and um, advertising copywriters but we find lives gone wrong interesting. Unpalatable and horrifying perhaps, but interesting. It’s like looking through a window into complex lives and watching them unravel episode by episode at prime time. They are usually about characters we would not like to meet or even be friends with. But somewhere deep within us is a voyeuristic instinct that needs to be fed regularly. We don’t have nosey neighbours anymore because lives on TV are far more engaging. What happens next door is unpredictable entertainment. Something to break the tedium of everyday living. What happens on TV is that we can settle down, grab a snack and our favourite drink and watch the next instalment. It is also timed to perfection, so we know when we can tune in and tune out.

Gossip, of course, is ageless. Go back in time a few decades when there was no TV and you will find families who spent hours backbiting about each other and running the neighbours down. The joint family system had rifts that were never allowed to come out into the open but contained like festering sores within the deep dank recesses of the family’s honour and respect. The patriarch or matriarch ruled with an iron hand much like the saas bahu serials that are so popular today. No wonder it is the genre that housewives are so captivated by. Of course, everyone living in a joint family these days will continue to maintain how their family is completely above all this, but the truth is, you see one joint family and you’ve seen them all. No wonder the system broke the moment a few adventurous children got the first whiff of freedom and bolted to set up their own nuclear families.

As a kid in a nuclear family, it was great fun getting into the thick of a joint family during the annual holidays. We got to know our cousins and aunts and uncles. And what complete lack of privacy meant. Everything was shared. Everyone adjusted. It was only when we grew into adults that the cracks showed. On the surface, all was bonhomie and camaraderie. But in the nights, the complaints were whispered. Sobs under the sheets amplified into little gestures of revolt at meal time and family functions. Nothing would be out in the open but sharp tangential phrases and gestures were the weapons of choice. And they cut deep, brought out in heated conversations years later. Who had done more for the family. Who had done less. Who had saved the honour and who had besmirched it. Who had paid and who had gotten away scot free. Ambitions throttled and dreams forgotten. Prime time drama created outside the reach of the cameras and scripted with very few happily-ever-afters.

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Growing the rapid weight loss market

Morbid obesity is now on the rise in India and acquiring proportions of an epidemic. Over 5% of India’s population is obese, an unwelcome side effect of our growing prosperity. This puts a lot of stress on the medical system as well, as morbidly obese individuals are certain to have diabetic, cardiac and orthopedic problems. It’s simple. Multiple layers of fat mean that every single organ in the body functions under unnatural pressure – the heart, kidneys, lungs, and stomach have to work much harder to maintain normal processes.

There is a proven solution – bariatric surgery. The stomach is bypassed altogether, or the intestines are shortened – leading to a feeling of ‘fullness’ by eating very little food. The effect is dramatic. Patients have lost as much as 50-75 kilos within weeks of surgery. The other welcome change is that diabetes and cardiac problems often disappear – if obesity alone is the cause.

Seems like an easy market to crack, doesn’t it? There is a tremendous need, there are multiple benefits right away and the market size is huge. 5% of a population of a billion people is about 50 million people. In truth, the market was going nowhere. Hospitals that were equipped to handle the surgery were waiting for patients to line up. It isn’t easy to convince people to go under the knife even when their lives are at stake. The other issues involved include the need to educate patients about the benefits, the skill of the surgeon and the long-term gains. Even with social awkwardness and all attendant health issues, patients prefer to wait it out and try all kinds of quick-fix solutions that never really work.

But bariatric surgery is in for some dramatic growth. The portly President of the BJP – Nitin Gadkari has just undergone the procedure in a Mumbai hospital. In the next few weeks, if the surgery has gone well and achieves its objectives, he will stride on the national scene with a trimmer profile. It will encourage several party members to follow suit – driving market growth and hospital profits. Bariatric surgery is like cosmetic surgery; in demand from the rich and famous who fill their suits and sarees very generously. Once it gets accepted at that level, a trickle down is inevitable.

Just goes to show that communication works in complex ways. Market growth is determined not by need alone but by the people who popularize it. So while you can get Shah Rukh Khan and Amitabh Bachchan to endorse suitings, you won’t find a willing celebrity to extol the virtues of bariatric surgery. Just like you won’t get our best-known actresses to admit that they have ‘corrected’ their noses or breasts or rid themselves of a number of wrinkles. For that, you have to rely on our ageing politicians to oblige when their health deteriorates and the media steps in to educate. Replacement knee surgery in India came of age when the former PM, Atal Behari Vajpayee went through a well-publicised recovery.

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The Steve Jobs moment

Everyone has their favourite Steve Jobs story. For us in India, it was the first time we set our eyes on products that seemed to have been invented on another planet. Even back then, they obviously catered to a different aesthetic and helped to elevate our perception of what computing could be. PCs with Windows were workhorses. If you were passionate about design, you drooled on a Mac. The earliest Mac I saw was in a studio – used for something as arcane as ‘pulsing’ slides for a slide show. Those slide shows in the Kodak trays synchronised to music and voice, to create a sound and light presentation for audiovisuals. This was in the mid-80s. The first time I saw an Apple Mac was when a close friend Sankaran Nampoothiri, imported some of the earliest Apple Macs in the late 80s for desktop publishing at his company Password. He was like a little child when the machines arrived, showing off the GUI and the sleek white mouse. He told me it would change the way publishing worked and ad agencies would move completely to computers to design ads. They would no longer cut and paste artworks but send them digitally to publications – and sure enough, within the next few years, they did.

I recalled this when I read Malcolm Gladwell’s article in The New Yorker about Steve Jobs visiting the Xerox Parc research centre and seeing the mouse for the first time. He challenged his product designers to reduce the cost of the mouse from $300 to $15. The importance of not just the ‘idea’ of the mouse but the way Steve Jobs fundamentally altered the landscape of computing is captured in this excerpt – Jobs’s software team took the graphical interface a giant step further. It emphasized “direct manipulation.” If you wanted to make a window bigger, you just pulled on its corner and made it bigger; if you wanted to move a window across the screen, you just grabbed it and moved it. The Apple designers also invented the menu bar, the pull-down menu, and the trash can—all features that radically simplified the original Xerox PARC idea.

But he did not stop there. He changed the way we hear music, the way we look at phones and the way we surf the net. All these were ‘ideas’ implemented much earlier by others. But Steve Jobs has been the magician who impacted our daily lives like Ford transformed personal transportation. He had an instinctive feel for what would work in advertising as well. The 1984 launch of the Mac placed it as a bulwark against an Orwellian future. It aired just once went on to become a cult classic. And probably the only case in advertising where the entire budget was blown up with just one ad aired during the Super Bowl of that year. It’s another story that Apple has gone on to become, in an ironic twist, the company with more reserves that the US Government!