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Addicted to Ease

We’re getting addicted to ease. Less work, more convenience, fatter paychecks, endless vacations. We’re not just celebrating the people who are successful, we’re making heroes of those who made it with ease.  Answer 15 questions and you can become a millionaire. Children obsessed with gaming find studying difficult? The solution is to make learning fun. Timothy Feriss professes to follow the 4 hour workweek. Getting rich quick is the other mantra. And the opening line in the sales pitch is usually about how easy it is and how little you have to do. Whether it is an online business or losing weight – it’s as if we’re scared of work and scared to fail. And that is a formula for failure.

Paul Graham’s wonderful essay The Acceleration of Addiction is scary. Because it is so true. We’re already at the stage where we cannot conceive of a life without the internet, mobile phones, and gaming. While we classify only those who are on drugs and alcohol as addicts, how do you respond to those who spend hours gaming or texting every day? He ends on a thought-provoking line ‘We’ll increasingly be defined by what we say no to’. An escape from work is easy in today’s world. One just has to pretend that there is a lot going on. The Bermuda Triangle of productivity is captured in this insightful illustration.

Every generation has tried to make life easier and more comfortable for the next one. Leisure over work. Matter over the mind. And according to Graham, we’ll increasingly choose what we like. Not what is good for us. So, we’re hurtling along the highway enjoying the speed. What’s waiting around the corner?

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Hacking Trust networks

Hackers tap into every human emotion, apart from deficiencies in technology. They prey on human vulnerabilities, using charm, fear, and misinformation. Essentially, they hack trustRead more

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When couples become strangers

Apparently, good friends and couples have the same problem. Some of them communicate worse with each other than with strangers according to a study. A ‘communication-closeness bias’, kicks in leading to the belief that they are doing well, even when they are not. When there are no awkward silences between couples or friends, it is assumed that they have grown much closer. Relationships are nurtured with conversations and shared experiences but once they culminate in marriage or extend to long relationships, the bias creeps in.

Couples who have been married for decades practically complete each other’s sentences – that’s the cliche. But the fact is, the closeness leads to less information sharing and occasionally, misconceptions. With a stranger, there is a need for clarity – attention is paid to tone and manner, details are explained and feedback is obtained. But with close friends or a spouse, only cursory details are provided. Not intentionally but the relationship is on auto pilot. This can lead to oversights and assumptions. I’ve often seen that when I am in a new unfamiliar city, all senses are on high alert. I notice sights and sounds that locals may not be attuned to at all. But once it is known, habits form – and a routine is comfortable, not energising.

I suspect the same is true of relationships. They are fresh, to begin with, and over the years, slip into comfort zones that are easy to navigate. Only when a personal crisis threatens to change or alter the relationship does it get the same kind of time and scrutiny. So how do you keep the magic going? You don’t allow it fade away or take it for granted under any circumstances.

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Ugly is beautiful

Prepare for some truly surprising findings from a dating site OK Cupid –

  1. The more men disagree about a woman’s looks, the more they end up liking her
  2. Guys tend to ignore girls who are merely cute
  3. Having some men think she’s ugly actually works in the woman’s favour

What’s going on here? Beauty alone is not enough to make a woman interesting. It’s how other men see it that make her more, or less desirable. Is Katrina Kaif prettier than Aishwarya Rai? That’s a matter of conjecture. Angelina Jolie’s lips are seen as her strongest feature – the pout has become her claim to fame. And it could easily have gone the other way – that her lips are so huge, they are ugly. Salma Hayek’s eyebrows are the reason her looks are arresting as well – and today, most women trim their eyebrows to a thin line.

Apparently, it isn’t enough to be cute. Women get to be interesting when they play up a feature that polarises men. While she turns off a few, she becomes far more attractive to another set of men. Dating sites are pushing the envelope on figuring out how to make their business models more effective. The data they provide is proving to bust quite a few myths about the way relationships are formed and sustained.

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Carrying your Maharaj

Does your cook travel with you when you roam the world? For an increasing number of affluent Indians, the way to travel is to eat vegetarian Indian food prepared fresh by their own ‘Maharaj’ – Indian chefs, who take over sections of the kitchen in the restaurants. Apparently, this is a fad mainly with Indians and the Chinese. The rest of the world seems perfectly ok with eating local food when they travel. But we don’t just carry this obsession with our own food abroad, we even practice it at home. Changing even the most established cuisines in the world to suit our palate. The food served in Chinese restaurants in India is as far away from real Chinese as Mumbai is from Shanghai.

The same is true of continental food served in India. Only the 5 star restaurants stay true to the original. But we abhor blandness. We want spice dosed liberally into every dish so that it becomes a ghost of the original. There are now, ‘Indian pastas’, concocted by restaurants to cater to their clientele. So, while they claim to be different, most restaurants only maintain a facade of what they serve. Smart tour managers recognised this long ago. While some of them searched and tied up with Indian restaurants at the destination, Raj Tours and Travels carried Indian cooks with them, so that their guests would not have to pine for ‘dal-chawal’ and ‘roti’ on foreign shores. Indian tourists apparently want the foreign experience to stop at sights and sounds and not go all the way to their stomach

We may declare that we want our food experiences to be different. But whether we go into Italian, Mexican or Lebanese restaurants in India, the first question after the waiter explains the dish is – ‘Is it spicy? And the answer usually is ‘We’ll make it spicy for you’

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Charlie Bit Me

If you haven’t come across the ‘Charlie bit me‘ clip on YouTube, you’re in a minority. 272 million views and counting. Marketers would have multiple ecstasy moments if their brand ever managed such viewership. So what’s the clip? Charlie bites his elder sibling’s finger and chuckles. That’s it, you would say? It’s the expressions and the naughty chuckle that work. A small segment captured by a doting father has the whole world hooked. No camera tricks, no technical glitz, just a cute moment. Like David Ogilvy said, animals and children are instant magnets for attention. Here’s another one with 2 million views. Charlotte says no

Cuteness is big business. The Cheezburger network ( I kid you not) has just raised $30 million in funding. Laughing cats, trip ups, fail moments are all captured for posterity and profit. Namely for the people owning them. Working tirelessly for free are a bunch of people around the world who submit pictures and videos by the thousands every day in the fond hope that their cat, their ‘failed’ moment will have its place in the sun. With properties like Lolcats, I can has cheezburger and FAIL, they monopolize the trivia universe. Talk about the ultimate crowdsourcing network. This is Mark Twain’s story about the boy who got all the kids on the block to paint a wall for him executed on a global scale.

So what’s going on here? Is it that there are so many ‘jobless’ people who have nothing better to do? Or is this the true democratization of technology, where everyone with a video camera or even a cellphone is a filmmaker? It may be, but the truth is, these are flukes. The ‘Charlotte says no’ video has several runner-up posts that have just not gone viral. When it works, the whole world comes calling and says ‘how cute’ over your shoulder. Here’s one for the road of a bull dog watching TV – over 3 million views

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Do we understand our own thoughts?

The idea that artificial intelligence is very different from human intelligence is just gaining cachet. It’s hard to believe that we rarely understand our own motivations and desires. Think about it. Do we really know what we like? I remember a discussion initiated at the office on the choice of toilet soaps. No one was able to give a clear reason for preferring their brand apart from the obvious responses like – ‘It works for me, it smells better, lathers in all kinds of water, keeps me feeling fresh’, etc. – things that the advertising has put into their minds in the first place. When pressed further, they were just plain confused. Then factors like ‘Mum always bought it’ were touted as reasons.

So, if we are not able to explain simple preferences like soap, shampoo, and moisturiser brands, how do we get machines to understand what preferences are? If physical properties like tall and short get vague the moment you change the context ( tall among basketball players vs tall among the general populace), imagine how hard it is to define desire. And from a status standpoint. So, if we want machines to think (whatever that means), we’re constantly confusing it with emotional connect – the essence of being human. There are lots of terms – humanoids, robots, and the concepts have been explored by some of the world’s best directors in movies, but we are no closer to understanding how to construct them.

Sure, fuzzy logic washing machines and microwaves claim to understand which cycle to use – depending on how dirty the clothes are or what needs to be cooked. But the variables again have to be clearly defined. What is dirty vs very dirty vs insanely dirty. Incidentally, how would you define dirt? Dust, grease, curry, oil? On what surface area of the clothes does it have to be to qualify? See where this is going?

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Articles – the Long and Short of it

Is a short article more interesting than a long one? That’s a lot like asking if one paragraph is more interesting than ten. I’ve spent a large part of my life distilling long briefs and ramblings into short persuasive prose. 100 words about a soap. 300 about a summer holiday package. 150 about the marvellous tip of a ball point pen. So, I am continually fascinated by those who work on the long form – 3000, 4000 words Faking it – by Michael Lewis in the New York Times. Try this one – Love and Lies by Michael Pollan – it completely changed my opinion about plants. Or Blowing Up by Malcolm Gladwell. It provided the thinking into investing against the market and made Nassim Taleb famous during the collapse of 2008

Short articles are like executive summaries. They pique your interest and let you wander through vast troves of analysis and insight. There aren’t too many people who can hold your interest beyond a certain length. So how do these masters do it? They write prose operas as opposed to staccato pop. They draw you in through a combination of factual and anecdotal brilliance. They work with words the same way as a painter works with colours. Or a surgeon with a scalpel. Or even a composer with music notes. They force you to consider options that your mind resists – and then melt all the opposition.

If you are looking for long form gems, there are several places. The old faithfuls – Arts &Letters Daily. Or the incisive articles at Rolling Stone. Instead of visual delights, settle down with verbal ones and you will discover that it is every bit as fulfilling as pictures – because it is your imagination that fills in the blanks.

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The 50 most powerful people

Every year, the mainline magazines across the world release their own ’50 most powerful’ list. Everyone from the global elite to the local state honchos. And every year, this list keeps getting revised with some of the powerful losing their status, the others sliding down and several new ‘powers’ who are first timers. I did a quick Google search for the ‘50 most powerful‘ and it was a joke. Apart from the global list, there were these gems – 50 most powerful people in networking; 50 most powerful people in open source; 50 most powerful physician executives; 50 most powerful minority CEOs; 50 most powerful  Gay Men and Women in America – see what I mean?

It’s another device to sell more magazines. And puff up the self-importance of a few who would be miles away from a ‘global influence’ list. A businessman looking to manage growth expectations from shareholders and the public will do all he can to be featured on the ‘most powerful’ list since it would improve his chances of growing the business. A college looking for students will be desperate to be featured on the top 50 list of a well-circulated magazine. Companies making a beeline for the stock market listing will want to be in the ‘Fastest Rising 50’. Or in the list that says ’50 technologies to watch out for in 2011′ Want to know what the technologies in 2005 were the ones to watch out for? We’re still watching out for most of them in 2011.

To get back to the Most Powerful 50 –  Have the most powerful in open source made any difference to software adoption and usage? The 50 most powerful people in entertainment a decade ago are no longer on the list. The most influential businessmen, diplomats, actors, lawyers, real estate tycoons are no longer influential. What happened? Like Voltaire famously remarked ‘ The future is hidden, even from those who make it’.

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Using Word Lens in Advertising

It seems almost bizarre- a practical joke. Install Word Lens and point your iPhone camera at a foreign language sign to have it translated it back to English. The translation isn’t perfect and there are problems when the sign or type is against a blurry background but it still marks an enormous leap of using the phone camera as the input.  The translation is shown as an image, with the same background and roughly the same type as the sign. No other input required. It’s an entirely new crease on augmented reality. So, if you were next to a monument, where the description was in French, you could instantly figure out what it was about without asking a guide. Run it over a Spanish language menu at a restaurant and you would know what the dishes were.

It could be a good way to serve up relevant advertising as well. If the translation was for a restaurant, it would be perfect to offer the other choices in the area. If the translation were required for a sign, rental cars in the vicinity could be displayed. Right now, advertising is only served based on search terms or location. The translation offers another input on what is likely to be the objective.

But the real change here is the use of the camera as a search or clarification input. That’s clearly new. I can also see the potential for a website that captures the images and a ‘Word Lens’ filter being applied to the pictures so that you can read the signs and make out what they are. Japanese and Russian cityscapes would begin to make a lot more sense.