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.


Rumour Marketing

Last year, just before the new iPhone was launched, an Apple engineer carelessly left the new prototype in a bar. It was picked up by Gizmodo, one of the premier technology blogs and splashed as a scoop. Whether the act of leaving the prototype was intentional or not, it created a buzz that a normal campaign could not have whipped up. The rumour mills churned with the possibilities, Tech writers went to absurd lengths to dissect the propriety or otherwise of breaking the story. Apple formally asked for the phone to be returned. It added to the considerable collection of iPhone jokes and talk show hosts featured it as a hot story. Rumours, like gossip, spread faster than avian flu. But was it smart marketing masquerading as rumour mongering?

The first rule about rumour marketing is that your product or service must be worth spreading rumours about. Instead of merely anticipating your product, prospects must salivate about getting their hands on it. Windows has tried it a few times, especially by ‘leaking’ stories on the Windows 7 mobile  phone OS launch, but nobody is interested. They remain in blogs and planted press releases. It’s the secret no one wants to spread or discuss. The private life of Page 3 wannabes. They strut their stuff but who’s looking?

The other way to get a rumour to work is to do something unique in a ‘hot’ area – location based, for example. UseHipster, got 10,000 sign ups in less than 2 days after launch. The site has still not started delivering, but since the only requirement is an email address, people are intrigued. Then, every few months, there is the rumour that a new search engine to beat Google has arrived. Followed by reports of its demise. Reports (rumours) about the open source initiative that was meant to take away the traffic from Facebook because of the privacy concerns were greatly exaggerated. David Goliath stories are prime territory for rumours – but the fact is, Davids in real life are hard to find.


Special emotional effects

Watch these two new commercials from Volkswagen. One of them is a hip beetle cavorting through the undergrowth. The other is a young Darth Vader who scares no one. I see the hip beetle and smile. The other one makes me feel warm inside. The beetle has close to 70,000 views. Darth Vader has 635,000 views. No prizes for guessing who tugs at the heartstrings better. The first one is a million dollar special effects extravaganza. The other one costs a fraction and doesn’t use a single special effect or a camera trick. But it gets under the skin much better. Why?

Instead of providing you with the obvious answer, let me point you to 2 old commercials – in the insurance category – one is for Bajaj super agent and the other for Max New York Life. I am sure the special effects team toiled with the animation of the ‘Super Agent’ and did everything possible to make him a more human figure. But it falls as flat as seven-year-old beer. All the fizz is gone. Here’s another insurance ad – with all the product info piled in but executed much better. One more in the series – what this taps into is our experience of Indian social situations and the way people interact. The conversation is real, not contrived and unlike the bulging Super Agent, Sukhi and Dukhi come off as far more believable characters. We’ve seen a lot of pessimists in life.

So there’s really no point in blowing up a budget on special effects unless it has an emotional connect. It’s all very well to think of animation that will dazzle the viewer but no one’s looking to be dazzled. In today’s world, they get over it fast enough. When BMW commissioned the world’s top names to make a series of films that showed off the car, the directors built it on a story and not the features of the car. Its great to see how Guy Ritchie ends up treating his superstar ex-wife, Madonna


Mineral Madness

If anyone wanted to compete against the mineral water giants, here’s the ammunition. Just fill up any of these water bottles with filters from the nearest available tap and you get water that is 99.99% free of all dissolved contaminants, pollutants, heavy metals, microbial cysts, etc. In other words, mineral water – without the waste. It’s probably one of the smartest moves an existing mineral water brand can make as a brand extension. Market this to people who are environmentally conscious and are willing to pay the extra price. They would have a surefire winner on their hands since their brand is already trusted by millions of people – and building that is the really hard part.

The mineral water market is not new. Bottled water has been around since 1767. The development of glass technologies in the mid-1800s paved the way for the mass expansion of the market and over 7 million bottles were being bottled every year at the Saratoga Springs. It went out of style in the early 20th century when chlorination ensured that municipal water was safe for drinking. The revival was when Perrier made bottled water aspirational again in a $5 million campaign in 1977. It dovetailed perfectly into growing public concern about pollution and poor quality tap water and the growth of the ‘yuppies’ generation who were quite willing to pay the premium.

In India, ‘Bisleri‘ was introduced by Signor Felice Bisleri in 1965 and bought by Parle a few years later. Initially, it catered to the tourist market since Indians would not dream of paying for water. It was their right to be served free at any restaurant they went to. It was only around the mid-90s that the mineral water market really took off with liberalisation and the growth of the Indian economy – when it was positioned as a status symbol. I guess environmentalists will have to take a leaf out of the marketer’s handbook if they want to be successful. People switch because they care about themselves, not necessarily about the world.


Goodbye Edison

What is the image that comes to mind when you read the word ‘bulb’? The icon for ideas, the bulbous round and transparent glass with a filament that lights up in the middle, right? So here’s a different take on the humble bulb. Goodbye Edison – nice brand name. Don’t waste time looking for the light source, it’s that thin line at the top. I can see this go right along the edges of a room and bathe it in soft, even light. We’ve grown so used to ‘point’ sources for artificial light, we don’t consider a light stream. It’s so much better than distributing light bulbs around a room and turning the intensity up or down to create the mood. And if there are 4-5 bulbs in a room, there are as many switches. Wouldn’t it be great to just play up the intensity in a part of the room with a scroll switch, much like the iPod wheel?

Recessed light  makes rooms look richer merely by pushing in the light source, but it still means distributing points of light and the concealed wiring is expensive work. With this set of LEDs you know if the water flowing through a tap is cold or warm. Discos come alive with LED t-shirts that glow in the dark and move to the music. Or shoelaces that flash. The latest fad in Japan is LED teeth – yes, teeth but why anyone would want to go around looking like this beats logic. Anything to get attention

Edison invented the bulb but the Light Emitting Diode is altering the way we interact with light. It is no longer illumination but decoration, style, luxury and mobility. Right from the bright screens of our mobiles, the headlights on our cars, the viewfinders of our cameras and the sleek televisions, LEDs are everywhere we look. Soon, mood shifting light will not require a room to be painted in different colours – we simply need to play with the LEDs


Passive research

The idea that simply asking people questions gets the right answers is open to debate. In surveys, people say things they don’t mean, do diametrically opposite things from what they say. So, is there an alternative? A company called Affinnova calls it evolutionary design. The research does not ask people what they prefer about a product. They simply present them with hundreds of design options and ask them to pick the ones they like. Turns out that it is a far better indicator of preferences than regular answers. When the need to articulate an answer is removed, people are more truthful.

Sounds crazy, right? But that’s the exact way we go about our purchases. We pick out products that catch our eye. So, by observing behaviour, we get a much better idea about response than by checking with questions. Which sets the stage for passive research – analysing the data we generate doing what we do every day. Travelling, Making calls. Surfing the net. Buying things online. Checking in at locations. Online ad networks know what we are interested in – and serve us more of the same. It’s getting better at predicting what we will buy – and what we won’t. Which explains the uproar and the response from developers who do not want privacy controls legislated.

But the other benefits of a highly networked world are just getting clearer. What is the asthma footprint of the world? A site called Asthmapolis has GPS inhaler trackers that record when it is used. Combine all of this and you get a clear picture of how the climate is affecting asthma sufferers – without asking them a single question. Or the T-Drive research project from Microsoft – it tracks the routes taken by cab drivers to get to a destination by combining the benefits of GPS with real-world experience. In the process, it throws up routes that are normally not considered. Somehow, researching what we really do seems to provide far better insights that what we say.

Edited: 26th June 2020: Today, I heard from a company demystifying innovation. The word has several connotations and the approach they have taken is to build a process around it. Here’s an excerpt: The stereotypical notion of smart people in lab coats churning out patents and potions is perhaps a common one, and yet it fails to tell the whole story, as innovation can also cover everything from novel business models to new processes. It can be incremental and sustaining just as much as it can be radical and disruptive.


Eyes vs Camera

Why is it that seeing the world through a camera looks different from what we see naturally? This article explains what the similarities and the differences are. It makes a distinction between subjective measurement (real eye) and absolute measurement (camera). But cameras allow us to distort and comment on a situation through nuances in the way a scene is staged. And our eyes ‘see’ a different kind of reality. Take this brilliant trolley time lapse captured when the volcano in Iceland erupted. Early use of the time lapse technique had footage in which clouds moved swiftly across the sky and flowers bloomed before our startled eyes. The cameras were fixed and exposed a frame every few seconds. But in the Iceland volcano clip, the camera pans across the scene as well, heightening the impact. Our eyes cannot slow down the action even when it happens right in front of us. That’s why we are amazed when we see this perspective.

Ultra high-speed photography captures water balloons bursting into hundreds of tiny fragments. Or the flight of hummingbirds. And water sculptures. These are frames that are invisible in real life. Gone in microseconds without the ability to process the image at the speed at which the action is happening. In football games, cricket and basketball, shots are slowed down, dissected, analysed by commentators and used by coaches to correct moves and magnify the mistakes committed by opponents. In swimming, they are used to refine the action of swimmers to get that elusive microsecond advantage that could make the difference between a gold and a silver medal.

This post by David Pogue of the New York Times shows how amateurs can capture the action before it begins. Getting fluid shots of athletes in motion used to be a hit and miss affair even for professionals with their bulky equipment and telephoto lenses. But a combination of sensors that detect the action and the ability to anticipate it are letting our eyes and our senses fragment time far beyond the normal experience.


Chennai Coffee

It may not be as famous as Colombian worldwide, but in Chennai, ‘filter’ coffee is the drink to have. The original is served in stainless steel cups, not in pretty ceramic. You still have places where a tumbler full of coffee is inverted inside a larger bowl. You carefully unpack the scalding hot liquid, let it flow into the larger bowl, and enjoy in small batches. Across Tamil Nadu, coffee shops mean the ones that stock the beans and grind them on request. No self-respecting Chennaiite will stock more than a week’s supply of the aromatic powder. In every house, there is a filter, a small stainless steel vessel with two compartments. Into the top compartment, you put 2-3 spoons of coffee powder, pour boiling hot water and allow it to slowly drip into the lower compartment. The resulting black, viscous decoction is the real thing, not the ‘instant’ powders that masquerade as coffee.

Every morning, this is the aroma that greets you as you walk along the Marina beach or the hundreds of roadside cafes. It has produced a wealth of variations as well – and one of the better known is Kumbakonam ‘degree’coffee. The difference is marginal ( Both are made by the filter method but the ‘degree’ coffee apparently has milk made much thicker by condensing it) but purists will throw a fit and will argue the matter for days and months – over steaming cups filter coffee, ‘degree’ or otherwise.

The lattes and the cappuccinos may be served at the swankier coffee cafes, but to the locals, nothing works as well as the original filter coffee. It’s the original pick-me-up, the drink to have in the morning along with the newspaper. Nothing really can replace the feeling, especially the faintly metallic tang of the stainless steel tumblers filled to the brim with the hot, frothy liquid.


The Blame Game

Reading a set of articles from one point of view, we arrive at a conclusion. Take the sensational case that has been ruling the airwaves for the last few days – the murder of the Addl Collector of Malegaon, Yashwant Sonwane, burnt to death by the ‘Oil Mafia’. If we were to read only the reporting on the main event, the facts are that the system is under seige because of the money and the payouts involved – over $2 billion per year. Then, details emerge about how the system is subverted for personal gain – by several stake holders in the system, including Sonwane’s personal staff. Now, another angle has emerged – that Sonwane was killed because he wanted a bigger bribe

I wonder if any of the media channels would be as interested in the siphoning off, if it weren’t linked to the story. Since it generated money for all involved, the black marketers, the bureaucracy, the police and the politicians, little was done to stop it. Like a festering sore, it broke only when it was lanced by the murder. The oil companies who bore the brunt of the losses of the products could do little apart from fixing GPS monitoring and sophisticated locks – like closing the front door while the building was being mowed down by bulldozers

An analysis of the problem shows how it was generated and sustained. When the story broke, the oil mafia were directly culpable. As it developed, all those involved were painted in shades of grey. Without a system of subsidies, there was no way this market could have developed. The difference in prices between kerosene and petrol ensured exponential expansion and profits as the price of petroleum products went through the roof. What started as a measure to help the poor grew tangentially into a situation that exploits them ruthlessly.


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.