Bitter Chocolate

It’s one of the most highly advertised product categories in the world. Chocolate addicts brag about their devotion. Innumerable recipes zealously guarded combine it with nuts, liqueur, and fruits to melt in the mouth with a palette of exotic flavours. Chocolatiers have their own product lines, much like the fashion lines from Milan.  Or it is added to European loaf recipes like Babka. The research conclusions are impressive. Chocolate contains flavonoids and antioxidants that help to keep cancer and heart disease at bay. It’s supposed to uplift moods and keep you happy. Eat too much of it can plunge you into a depression as well. It still isn’t clear whether people turn to chocolates because they are depressed or the other way around. And it is the ultimate dealbreaker for those trying to stay on a diet. Chocolate has everything going for it – history, innovation, and controversy.

Much of the controversy centres around the origin of the bean. Extracted from labour farms in Africa where people work in inhuman conditions, the flow of cocoa into factories around the world is controlled from economies ruled by despots. In one of the countries from which chocolate is sourced – Ivory Coast, it is the single largest lever of power. In a rigged election where the political situation is fluid, a ban on the country’s exports is sending rising cocoa prices to stratospheric levels. To try and avoid the backlash that affects a $16 billion business in the United States a Fair Trade Certification was introduced to counter the exploitative methods of collecting cocoa.

In 2010, a cocoa trading company – Armajaro, cornered close to 7% of the world’s cocoa production. With their own weather stations at strategic locations, they were able to determine minute stock movements and profit from it. Since 2008, the price of chocolate has galloped nearly 150%. That makes it a market ripe for increased exploitation and down the line, customers around the world will end up paying through their nose for another one of life’s simple pleasures. The bitter aftertaste is likely to linger much longer than customers would like.


Curd Rice Comfort

No buffet in Chennai is complete without curd rice. Chefs can be culinary masters of any art but they had better have this in their arsenal. At the end of a long row of kebabs, or continental delicacies or Schezwan delights, a large bowl of curd rice holds its own. If the restaurant does not serve it, it risks immediate alienation. Chennai loves its ‘Thair Saadam’ – and to the outsider who first sees the fluffy white mass, with dots of black mustard, curry leaves, flecks of ginger and an array of powders, pickles, and fries around it, it may not make much of an impression. North Indians will mistake it for Kheer, a much loved traditional sweet dish with a massive following, but it will flatter to deceive. Curd rice is bland with the overwhelming flavour of yoghurt and squished up rice. The accompaniments are what make for its distinction and its consumption in massive quantities.

The Chief of Pepsi has admitted that it’s her secret weapon! And everyone has their own little touches. Savoured with a sprinkling of grapes. Or showered with pomegranate seeds that are crunched and add a sweetish note. Or with tiny slivers of raw mango, carrot and lime juice squeezed over it. For a lot of students, curd rice is staple and punishment, rolled into one. The easiest dish to cook and pack into tiffin boxes. And sending everyone around scurrying for cover when the lids come off in the afternoon and the rich, full-blooded aroma of the fermented yogurt hits home. Like Durian, it has a very distinctive bouquet and the same effect. You either love it or hate it but you cannot be ambivalent about your preference for curd rice.

From a purely nutritional point, it provides about 250 calories per serving. But the ‘cooling effect’ is what people swear by. In the hot, tropical climate of Chennai where summers can extend for 9 months in a year, everyone is looking for a way to cool off. And curd rice fulfils the essentials qualities of a comfort food. It goes back in time in terms of its origin, setting the base as a well-loved tradition. It’s easily made, easily digestible and goes with a variety of accompaniments. It allows everyone to be inventive in their own way. Families have their own little touches that make it distinctive. And that may be its greatest strength.


Tagging Telemarketers

The ‘Do not Disturb’ (DND) registry was the only refuge for people being solicited with offers for everything from home loans to credit cards to land investments. And even after registration, there were no guarantees that the calls would stop. Then, a stiff fine was proposed for violations. The newest solution looks promising – a landline number that tags telemarketers. – a 140 series number. Telemarketers won’t be happy with the screening once awareness of the number series spreads. But in the long run, it could turn out to be a blessing since the calls being answered have a better chance of conversion. And keeping with the trend of instant identification, porn sites will now have to carry a .xxx suffix rather than a .com, making them easier to filter. The people who pay for these sites will have quite some explaining to do when the credit card bills show up on their statements!

There are numerous ‘how-to’s’ on the net on dealing and dodging telemarketing calls. It is the subject of numerous forums and passionate discussions. And seeing how it gets under the skins of those affected, there are several strategies that have evolved to counter and thwart them. It’s a game of cat and mouse, much like the war between the hackers and the hacked. The pressure on those working at call centres only increases when they have to deliver results by intruding rather than persuading. And it just boils down to the verbal abuse they can tackle and stay calm. Self-esteem can be the first casualty. There is enough experience to show that cold calling is probably the worst sales strategy, but it continues to be used because it is cheap.

But telemarketers come across dumb customers as well and the results are delightful. Here’s a long conversation where a customer is made a free offer from SBI Cards and has genuinely no clue as to what it is about. He shows off his non-existent English-speaking skills in an effort to impress and by the end of the conversation, the girl making the call is frantic and doing all she can to prevent herself from bursting out with laughter. It couldn’t have been better scripted.


Can Teachers Trash Students?

A high school teacher in the US set off a maelstrom when her students discovered her blog castigating their behaviour – not their grammar or spelling skills. Most of her posts were about mundane everyday things and she wrote for almost two years with all of nine followers when things changed – abruptly. The posts that stung vented on the frustrations in the class of dealing with disinterest, negative attitudes and a lack of motivation. While she did not name any of the students, her descriptions left no doubts about whom she was referring to. And in this age of instant celebrity, she has gone from unknown to highly seen in just the space of a couple of weeks. The affected students were very vocal in their criticism of the teacher and this was picked by the media and blown into a big story.

In her own words – I’ve been to New York City 3 times in 3 days; today I went to Philadelphia for some satellite stuff. I’ve been on Justice with Judge Jeanine, Fox and Friends, CBS 3, 6 ABC, NBC 10, Good Morning America, CNN, WFMZ 69. I’ve talked on radio programs in Toronto, San Francisco, London (the BBC), and Philadelphia 1210. I’ve sat with reporters from the Intelligencer, the Inquirer, the NY Post, Time magazine, Reuters, and the Associated Press.

The teacher has since lost her job pending an inquiry into the incidents. She has removed the offending posts. And while the debate rages online, the question that divides is whether the teacher was right to rage in public about her frustrations. Well, if students can be ruthless about the teacher’s abilities and most of them are much savvier about using the internet- with sites like RateMy Teacher, why can’t teachers be allowed an equal opportunity to be heard? Even on the site mentioned above, teachers have no opportunity to log in and rebut the ratings or defend themselves. Like a lot of sites where collective ranting is encouraged, it means that the genuinely good teachers will be crucified if they make a mistake. Or if they are lucky, they will be ignored. Teachers are like canaries in the mine. They know first hand if the involvement of students is on the decline – and it is a message we would do well to take seriously


Scripting Stereotypes

In a feature film script, you work at character development and the story arc. The audience gets to see facets and shades over the course of the narration. In an advertising commercial script with characters, you are limited to stereotypes. The frugal parents. The underworld don. The nerdy loverboy. The dumb secretary. The jaywalker. The six pack hulk. The college head turner. You have to use visual shorthand that people recognise right away. It’s like caricature art where character points have to be drawn in sharp relief so that the narrative doesn’t meander and the audience is drawn in with no room for ambiguity. And come to think of it telling a story in 30 seconds is no mean feat. But it does not stop with that. The product has to be introduced, the audience involved and the brand imprinted so that there is recall at the point of purchase.

Commercials are climaxes. You deduce what has happened as soon as the first scene opens. Then, you are in the thick of the action and before you know it, you have reached the denouement. This is repeated over and over and over in the fond hope that it will be memorable. That’s the tired formula that plays out on television screens across the world all through the year. In extremely rare cases, you are surprised with a sliver of insight that shines with its articulation. Great commercials, like gems, are to be treasured – because they are so tough to find. The Indian Railways captured the magic of childhood and journeys without a single train shot. The range of visual delights in Madhya Pradesh was depicted with enchanting eye movements.

Stereotypes allow for brevity. They can be fitted into containers and swapped with impunity. Put the frugal parents against freedom loving son and a new idea can evolve. Or take the underworld Don and have him confront an impish head turner and there could be magic. The small shopkeeper, the thief and the cops combination have been done several times. But this execution still entertains.


Facebook in 2015

It’s the ultimate irony. Names Database was the original social network with a 10-year lead. It now has a page on Facebook with all of three ‘likes’ with borrowed Wikipedia content! It took over Classmates, another site that started with the same avowed objective in 1995 – that’s now literally become a trip down memory lane with nostalgic content (Regret doesn’t get better expressed). Facebook tossed them aside like roofing sheets in a typhoon. With over 30 million members, they would be respectable by any other standard but are completely insignificant in the current social context. Facebook did a lot right and the question now is, will it continue to execute?

This is how Zuckerberg sees it. Facebook has one perspective on the world – social, and while it is the company’s biggest strength, it could also become its greatest weakness as it tries to transform everything it touches from small businesses to gaming to group buying to local. Even in the case of political ideas, democracy competes with communism,  religious fundamentalism and dictatorship for the levers of power. So the very act of growing at a scorching pace brings its own set of obstacles. Google has had to contend with the Chinese government when its transparency threatened the government’s diktats.

From a user perspective as well, there is likely to be fatigue sooner rather than later. It’s the reality of today’s attention deficit economy. Will the fans who spend hours on Facebook today continue to do so 4-5 years from now? That’s far from certain. Google does not have the same allure as Facebook anymore and Microsoft is looking ancient, even though revenues are strong and solid as a business. The New Big Thing is always replaced by The Next New Thing. Groupon and Twitter have great valuations but… There was a time when MySpace and Second Life registered astounding growth but they are no longer on a ‘must watch’ list anymore. The truth is, we’ll all move on.


Manipulative mannequins

They are clotheshorses in shopping windows – vehicles to depict the latest fashion styles and colours. Unlike scarecrows meant to drive away birds by simulating human presence, mannequins do just the opposite – they stop and attract shoppers. Do you even notice the expressions? Or whether they have well-sculpted, androgynous bodies?  They seem lost, gazing into infinity with their sightless eyes. Some shops even dispense with the heads and keep the limbs clothed figuring that no one will notice the difference. And they can be used to depict dresses for the young and old, saving on costs. Every single square centimeter in a shop is oriented to enable a sale and mannequins perform their role invisibly. The manipulation is subtle, understated and shoppers are not even aware that the big names in fashion have subliminal cues conveyed through mannequins.

Roberto Cavalli has mannequins with bronzed bodies. Translucent fiberglass defines the look at Giorgio Armani. The growth and sophistication of the mannequin industry have been promoted by the establishment of the fashion industry worldwide, bringing in the need to differentiate. Merchandising requires freshness, both in terms of shop decor and to make a brand statements. Now, they have moved a step further with mannequin body parts being used to display product categories other than garments. Jewelry, for example. Or shoes. It makes eminent sense to relate it to the human figure to get people more interested in a purchase.

If you want to explore the mannequin world, this site is a good place to get background information, the evolution of the business and a sense of where it is going. Absolut made great use of a display to show off their product range. The automotive industry uses mannequins in a completely different way – as crash dummies to test the safety of cars. But there has been growing concern that crash dummies are predominantly male and do not adequately test the effects on accidents on females. So, the US government is now making amends – and officially implementing a rating system.


The Singing Ladies

Katie Melua is originally from Georgia, lives in Surrey and sings about bicycles in Beijing. Her videos have unusual special effects and her voice sparkles over the instruments on the track. Natalie Imbruglia is Australian and her debut ‘Torn’, rose to platinum status when it was released in 1997. Alanis Morissette is Canadian American, visited India in an attempt at exploration and self-discovery, and went back to the top of the charts. Tracy Chapman is American and sings of fast cars and revolutions in a remarkably unique voice and expression. Bjork is from Iceland, sings with raw intensity and her video ‘It’s Oh So Quiet‘, is featured in the top 10 music videos of all time. Like an assembly line, pop divas have journeyed from obscurity to stardom with just the right mix of packaging and promotion.

The list is endless – Britney SpearsMadonnaLady GagaShakiraRihannaJanet Jackson are all singers who don’t just have talent, they have been promoted with slightly different shades to their audiences. And long-term success is very hard to sustain. Britney Spears crashed and burned before she was resurrected under the watchful eye of her father. Her songs in the post-reformation phase don’t have the zing she began with. Images need to be cultivated and grown with care – underexposure can mean disaster just as much as overexposure.

The shelf life of the pop diva is limited. And Madonna is the only one who has matured perfectly like wine. From the first flight of ‘Like a Virgin‘ to her latest she has taken on the establishment, religion, parenthood, patriotism as she grew and her music managed to hold her audience in thrall. Her brand custodians and her instincts have been spot on. And in a series of well-scripted moves executed perfectly, she has moved to the top of her game and managed to make it look spontaneous. Her website is more than just a collection of photographs and schedules. It captures all her variety. Just like good brand building should be – it is not the efforts that show but the results.


Multiplying Multiplexes

Doesn’t it seem strange that the concept of multiplexes had to be sold to a reluctant management? The prevailing belief was that the market was already saturated with theatres. In the early 90s, Peter Guber, the CEO of Sony Pictures saw the opportunity to serve those who needed a larger spread of films to ‘consume emotionally’ during their visit to the theatres. Single serve or single screen cinemas were just not enough.  The spread of digital cinema theatres and projection also brought about a drastic drop in the investment in prints, enabling producers to duplicate and retain control over the content to a certain extent.

Like Amores Perros, three independent tracks were converging to crash and it would have a permanent effect on movie making. Production. Distribution. And Piracy. The problem of piracy was changing box office economics – recover the money in a few short weeks or was gone forever. The studios were in a race to beat the pirates, ramp up the number of theatres the film would open in and cut costs as well. But to build up the buzz for a movie so that it opened well is a herculean task. And here’s a glimpse of the complexity that a worldwide release of Avatar had to contend with:

From The Hollywood ReporterIn total, there were 18 different versions of “Avatar” created for the domestic market, plus an additional 92 for international markets, which were released in 47 languages. The international versions included more than 52 subtitled and 18 dubbed versions on film, 58 subtitled and 36 dubbed versions in digital 3D, nine subtitled and eight dubbed versions in digital 2D, and 23 subtitled and 15 dubbed versions for Imax.The interesting part is – Avatar was not just the highest grossing film of all time, but also the most pirated – more than a million torrents downloaded in 2010


Sometimes Behave so Strangely

I suggest you listen to this when you aren’t in the mood for instant gratification. Imagine climbing a mountain and coming across a wondrous landscape or walking into a host of fireflies. Absolutely breathtaking. The link that follows is one of those enlightening experiences – Musical Language from Radiolab. Arising out of a perfectly innocent string of words spoken with normal intonation, it changes character when heard in a loop. It forces you to reconsider what you have accepted as fact all along – that music and speech are different. I can see the skepticism rise, but indulge me. Is there a difference between words that are spoken and sung? Would you ever believe it is possible to confuse the two?

It isn’t just the rhythm or the beat. The best-written pieces of prose have a character of their own. And so do symphonies. Music and speech ought to be separate, distinct, but you find that they are not watertight. Audio illusions, though not as popular as optical ones show how our ears can be fooled. There are bells falling through space, a drum beat that seems to accelerate even though it doesn’t, a matchbox being shaken and rattled at various points around you, and most fascinating – your mind constructs the words when you hear a meaningless noise.

But the one that drives a whole lot of adults batty because they cannot hear it is the mosquito ringtone. High pitched, it’s easily audible to teens but inaudible to adults – and it became quite popular. Imagine the coolness factor of having your phone ring in class and everyone hears it except for the professor. Dog whistles have been around for over a hundred years and are a great way to train dogs ‘silently’ since human ears don’t pick up the high frequencies. And if you are looking for more tricks to see how your senses perceive things quite out of the ordinary, here are a handful of things to try