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.


Launch without fanfare

It’s great business for the big hotels. Or for exhibitions where the product is unveiled with much fanfare. At CES this year alone over 100 tablets were launched, apart from the big ticket 3D televisions and other electronic gadgetry. Launches are glitzy, expensive affairs with a lot going into the planning and execution of the event. How many of those brands go on to succeed is another story. Remember the Nano launch? It was a PR extravaganza with the national and international press. As Ratan Tata’s tall frame uncoiled itself from the small yellow wonder, it was hailed as a breakthrough in automobile cost cutting and design. Six months later, the Nano was available off the shelf with cancellations galore and some bad press. Now, it’s back to a conventional mass media campaign that stresses the car’s advantages.

Anyone remember how Google was launched? Or when it got it’s first mainline press mention? Here are the other names that came in quietly and then caught fire through word of mouth – eBay, Amazon, Paypal, Twitter, Facebook. The iPad was revealed at a signature Apple event, but then Apple is the exception that proves the rule. They manage cover stories and play the media to perfection. It helps that their customers are loyal to the point of being obsessive. But for the vast majority of brands introducing parity products with hairline differences can only aspire to a few column centimeters tucked away in the inner pages.

A launch event can work when anticipation is built. An Indian company, Notion Ink was present at CES this year with their Android tablet, Adam.  But almost a year prior to the launch, they kept up a constant stream of updates through the blog and whipped up interest around the world. They ran a contest for the logo, teased potential prospects with the possibilities and when they finally announced limited availability, sold out in a few days. So, time, as well as constant engagement, is key if you want to build the foundation for a base of customers


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?


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


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.


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.


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’


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