Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Itchy moustaches and prickly beards

Some years back, I had to bid a tearful adieu to my moustache and had penned this moving epitaph when I was caught in the resulting maelstrom of emotions.

Now, BBC News reports that India’s famous facial hairs are disappearing as India enters the clean-shaven digital age. It quotes a book as saying that that the traditional belief that facial hair is a sign of virility appears to be facing the chop. Young people in particular do not want an itchy moustache or beard which they think makes them look old.

Apparently, clean chins are becoming more commonplace among younger people who no longer have role models sporting beards or moustaches.

What have I done to this country? I never realised that, by removing my fearsome moustache, I was robbing the young people of a powerful role model.

Gen Next

When I was a student many decades back, preparing for exams required solitary confinement. Cutting myself off from human society, I had to single-mindedly focus on the task at hand, to wit the cramming of the passages and the equations and the diagrams. Slightest of disturbances was enough to distract my attention and disrupt the flow of information into my sensitive brain.

Not so with my daughter now. When she is seemingly studying, she needs to have a galaxy of gadgets around her. Surrounded by her books and with music streaming into her cars from the iPod, she can keep text- messaging a friend on her mobile phone and chatting on the cordless landline with another, while catching some pieces of the action on the TV screen in front of her. Not only can she multi-task, she has to multi-task. Without the constant stimuli from multiple sources, her brain ceases to function, rendering her unfit to study.

The difference in behaviour, explains an article in Times (via) is due to the fact that I am a “digital migrant” while my daughter is a “digital native”, terms coined by the futurist Marc Prensky to distinguish between those who have merely adapted to technology and those who have grown up with it. As a first-generation immigrant, I may be reasonably proficient with computers, but I still need to print out hard copies, still need to check with recipient if he/she has received my e-mail and can’t figure out how to use the webcam properly. Natives, on the other hand, multi-task, thrive on instant gratification and claim to function best when networked.

According to research cited in the same article, we are in the midst of a sea change in the way that we read and think. Our digitally native children have wonderfully flexible minds. They absorb information quickly, adapt to changes and are adept at culling from multiple sources. But they are also suffering from internet-induced attention deficit disorder.

So, I have a wonderfully focused mind that can do one thing at a time well, but can be paralysed if asked to take on more than one task; Whereas my daughter has a wonderfully flexible mind that can multi task, but will start re-booting if denied simultaneous sensory inputs from, at least, a dozen sources. It’s all a package deal.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

All you religious fanatics out there

So you believe that you are not the ‘religious’ type and, especially, do not subscribe to many of the methods and rituals that religions resort to?

Even if your claim is right, you could be an unwitting follower of other surrogate religions, such as “brands”, if we go by what Martin Lindstrom says in his book, “buy-ology” that dwells on the subject of “ how everything we believe about why we buy is wrong”.

Almost every leading religion has ten common pillars underlying its foundation: a sense of belonging, a clear vision, power over enemies, sensory appeal, story telling, grandeur, evangelism, symbols, mystery and rituals.

But, what is not so well acknowledged is the fact that these pillars happen to have a great deal in common with our most beloved brands and products.

Religions were meant to create a sense of belonging and identity. Brands do the same thing to you. If you are a Harley-Davidson aficionado, the chances are you will feel a sense of belonging among other users of the bike- it’s like being a member of a club.

Like religion, successful brands have a clear sense of mission. “Man is the creator of change in this world. As such he should be above systems and structures and not subordinate to them” said Steve Jobs twenty years back. Apple mission continues to have its ardent devotees.

Sensory appeal is another key characteristic of religion. Light reflecting off the glass of the church, the tone of the bells ringing, the fragrance of the incense.. So it is with products and brands that evoke certain feelings and association based on how they look, feel or smell. The unmistakable Nokia ring tone. The leathery scent of a new Mercedes Benz car. Or the pleasing lines of an iPod.

Religions are propagated through story telling. Whether the New Testament or the Koran, every religion is built upon a heft of history and stories. Every brand similarly has stories connected to it. Think of Disney and the colourful characters that come to mind.

Most religions celebrate a sense of grandeur. Have you been to the Vatican? Among the vaulted ceilings and beautiful frescos and paintings, one comes away with the realization that all of us are mere mortals dwarfed by something far greater than ourselves. No building in Rome is permitted to be higher than the St.Peter’s Cathedral. Many companies, likewise, work to inspire feelings of awe and wonderment, from imperial banks to magnificent hotels and awesome flagship stores. All marketed to stir up notions of grandeur.

What about the power of evangelism- the power to reach out and secure new acolytes? Remember the devilishly shrewd way Google’s Gmail service started? By making the service available by invitation only. It became a virtual religion.

Symbols are ubiquitous in religions, as they are in brands. The cross, a dove, an angel – religions have their own icons. Brands have their logos that are instantly recognized. Think of the Apple icons. Think about Mcdonald’s Golden Arches or Nick’s signature swoosh.

Mystery is a powerful force in religion. The unknown can be as powerful as the known. For centuries, scholars have been pondering over the mysteries of the Bible or the Shroud of Turin. When it comes to brands, mystery can be just as effective. Coca Cola, for example, has drawn on a sense of mystery with its secret formula- a distinctive recipe of fruits, oils and spices that the company keeps in a safe deposit box in an Atlanta bank and guards zealously, to keep the aura alive.

And, of course, just as rituals are an integral part of any religion, they are quite extensively resorted to by brands as well. At Subway sandwich franchises, sandwiches are constructed in the same order each time, so customers know how to instruct the person behind the counter. Or the ritual of drinking Bacardi with Coke and a slice of lime. Clearly, rituals help us differentiate one brand from another.

To sum up, says Lindtrom,the emotions that we experience when we are exposed to iPods, Guinness and Ferrari sports cars are similar to the emotions generated by religious symbols such as crosses, Mother Teresa or the Bible. In fact, research work using brain scans on volunteers shows that the reactions are not merely similar; they are identical. Which is why marketers and advertisers have begun to borrow even more heavily from the world of religion to entice us to buy their products.

Glory be to the brand.

Stout denial

"Sticking to stout denial” was the tactic that characters in stories of P.G,Wodehouse would resort to, even when caught red-handed. For instance, in the Blandings Castle stories, Clarence or Lord Emsworth who had the habit of getting into trouble with his sister for some misdeed or other would simply keep denying that he had done it. For, “he was a great believer in stout denial and very good at it.”

I didn’t realize that, hundred years after these books were written, the technique of “stout denial” would continue to be practised with vigour, in Pakistan. So it is that even in the face of unimpeachable evidence of involvement of their men, they resolutely stick to “stout denial”. Wodehousian philosophy is well and alive.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

We won! We won!

As a nation, we seem to harbour the impression that we had emerged victorious after the recent terror incidents at Mumbai.

Many TV channels had showered encomiums on our NSG commandos on winning the 3-day encounter against the terrorists. “Mumbai fights back” they said when thousands of citizens lined up at a rally a few days later, holding candles. “We won’t let the terrorist cow us down” said one banner. Another screamed, “You are just 15. We are 15 million”.

“Nation displayed tremendous courage” proclaimed the Prime Minister in Parliament, no doubt, complimenting the one billion people who tenaciously fought the war against the ten terrorists.

In the opening line of this post, I find that Dilip D’Souza uses the expression “ …..after the terror attack in Mumbai was finally defeated.”

Yesterday I saw a headline, “Triumph over terror: Taj and Trident back in operation”.

Alas, such semantics and sentiments are remnant of the era of “paleo war”, as Umberto Eco refers to it in one of his essays. ( I talked about in an earlier post). In those old-fashioned wars, conquest of territory was a key motive. So, an aggressor was considered victorious if he managed to capture a piece of territory belonging to an enemy, while the defender was considered the winner, if he managed to thwart such a move.

Conditioned as we are to this “chess board” logic, we view the eventual killing of the terrorists holed inside the Taj and Trident, as a clear sign of victory. As if the intention of the terrorists was to permanently annex and rule over the territory marked by these hotels, and by not allowing them to raise their flags and open a head office there, we have the right to claim victory..

In the neo-wars that terrorists choose to fight, the motives are completely different and varied, as are the techniques. In the case of the Mumbai attacks, it may be to prove a limited point that they could, while consuming minimal resources, cause serious economic damage, kill people without any compunctions and in one stroke destroy the reputation of India as a safe haven for foreign tourists and investors. And, of course, while doing all this, also gain sufficient mileage through the media, ever willing to reach out to them and oblige. If this was their agenda and if were to judge their performance against the objectives, they achieved 100% of what they set out to achieve. The fact that the few actors eventually succumbed to our gunfire is of no significance whatsoever. Make no mistakes, they won.

To say that they were “finally defeated” is to delude ourselves. Our act of patting ourselves on our backs for the courage could have been charitably dismissed as funny, if it were not hallucinatory.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Work less, consume less

A report filed by Reuters says that the recession in the USA is “a rude awakening for a generation of shoppers who grew up on easy access to credit and have never had to limit purchases to simply what they needed or could afford. Instead, buying and consuming have become part of the national culture, with many people using what is in their shopping bags to express their own identity, from the latest gadgets to designer handbags.

For those who need to abruptly curtail spending, that leaves a major void…People that have been ... identifying with and defining themselves by their material objects and expenditures are losing a definite piece of their identity and themselves”. ,

The article concludes that the downturn represents a chance to move away from "irrational" and "careless" consumerism toward "a more discerning consumer."

All very easily said. How does one curtail consumption?

Tim Harford asks in his post, “Why don’t we all simply work less, earn less, spend less and consume less?” The typical British man, he says, earns roughly twice what his father earned at the same age. When today’s teenagers are in their forties, there is no reason why they shouldn’t decide to enjoy their increased prosperity by working less instead of earning more. Rather than being twice as rich as their parents, they could be no richer but start their weekends on Wednesday afternoon.

The difficulty in attempting to working less and earning less today is that income is linked to our desire for status, which is collectively insatiable because status is largely relative. If my neighbour has a bigger car, I crave for one too. So, the solution is to force everyone to work less, earn less and consume less.

To begin with, why don’t we abolish Mondays from our calendar?

Which path?

In an article in Business Line, T.C.A. Srinivasa-Raghavan points out that Prime Minister Dr.Manmohan Singh and Economist, Dr. Amartya Sen share a quality that is central to their success; neither takes any but the most central of positions on any issue. The Left and the Right could both claim them as well as criticise them. No one knows what they really stand for.

They believe that the ‘middle path’ is the most pragmatic route to take. You could say that both men want to have the cake and eat it too. On the other hand, you can’t pin them down, because both can trot out opposing quotes or theorems. In a way, concludes Srinivasa-Raghavan, they typify what the poet A.K. Ramanujam described in his perceptive essay called Is there an Indian way of thinking?.

(In that essay Ramanujam had observed that Indians don’t have an absolute sense of morality. Context is everything. The same action can be viewed as objectionable in one context, but permissible or even desirable in another.

In fact, the essay opens with the assertion that even the question Is there an Indian way of thinking?can mean different things and elicit different answers depending on which word you choose to stress, as in:

Is there an Indian way of thinking?
Is there an Indian way of thinking?
Is there an Indian way of thinking?
Is there an Indian way of thinking?)

Anyway, going back to the ‘middle path’ theory. This seems to suggest that the practitioners of this method carefully evaluate the two extreme positions of the spectrum, and then take an average of both to determine the coordinates of the path they ought to take. So, if one extreme position is that India should open its doors unconditionally and fully to foreign investments, and another is that we should hermetically seal ourselves and prevent the entry of more East India Companies, then Dr Manmohan Singh will adopt the policy of allowing FDI upto 49% of equity in select sectors for a limited period and subject to Govt approval, leaving the holders of both extreme positions bewildered .

I have tried to apply this principle myself. When a blogger takes an extreme position, I make sure that I read the views of another blogger with an opposing view, so that I can then carefully balance the views and take a middle position.

The problem is that when I read the first blogger’s views, I get totally convinced. When I go across to the blogger who has diametrically opposite views and read the posts there, I get equally convinced that he or she is right. This leaves me thoroughly confused and unable to cling to either of the positions, or to take a middle path. A blog I read regularly had provided a remarkably cogent argument to prove that climate change was real and could wipe out humanity by the year 2030. This was so convincing that I couldn’t find a single flaw in the reasoning. Hurriedly, I went across to another blog, which dismissed the whole thing as hype created by doom-mongering Cassandras. Again, I couldn’t pick a single hole in the reasoning.

You must have heard the following story before:

Prosecution : Based on the evidence, Your Honour, it is clear that the defendant has committed the crime.
Judge: You are right. I tend to agree.
Defence : Your honour, the evidence is entirely fabricated and my client was nowhere near the scene of the crime.
Judge : You are right. I tend to agree.
Clerk: But, Your Honour, both of them can’t be right.
Judge : You are right too.

I feel like that Judge most of the time.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

On boring cricketers

Why do cricketers sound so dull, even dumb, when answering simple questions put to them by the media? Why do they need to be politically correct all the time? Why can’t they lower their guard, once in a while, and speak what’s on top of their heads? Why are they obsessed with the need to avoid controversies?

Tendulkar epitomises this breed of boring speakers. “How does it feel after the century?” he is asked. He replies with a deadpan expression, “Every century is special, but a century that helps the team win is what I cherish the most”. How does it feel to break the world record?”. “Well, I never play for records. Important thing is the honour of playing for the country”.

Some years back, when he had taken some important wickets to clinch a match for India, he gave a boyish grin and said, “Slowly, slowly, I am becoming bowler too”. Spontaneous and a top-of-the-head remark that stood out for its refreshing honesty. Today, the same Tendulkar, will deliver a pious speech filled with motherhood statements about how the wickets are dedicated to the victims of the terror attack and how he salutes the country for its bravery and courage. And end up sounding completely insincere.

The bovine fixation

In an essay titled, “Confessions of a Xenophile” that came as a supplement to the latest issue of Outlook magazine, Amitav Ghosh describes his stay in a little village in Egypt, in the 1980s. He later gave this village the name of Lataifa.

The villagers, he says, knew no English while Amitav knew very little Arabic. So, conversation languished, till the time they mutually discovered one medium of communication: aflaam-al-Hindeyya, that is to say, Hindi film songs. Everyone would ask him detailed questions about various film episodes, especially of the fifties vintage, featuring stars such as Raj Kapoor, Nargis, etc.

Another aspect that they would torment him with was ‘cows’. He would face questions like, “Was he a devotee of cows?”, “At what time did he conduct his prayers to cows?” “Could they witness his prostrations?”, “Wasn’t there a risk of being splattered with dung?” etc. From the barrage of questions, says Amitav, one would have imagined that Bollywood was a veterinary enterprise and that cows, not Raj Kapoors, were the true stars. Till he went to Egypt, says Amitav, he had no idea that cows played such a central role in Hindi films.

I had a similar experience once, more than 20 years back. A colleague from our UK office was visiting India for the first time. I picked him up from the hotel in the morning and as we set off to meet our first customer, he pulled out his camera and expressed his intention to take a few photos of cows on the road, something that he had heard about from his friends who had visited this country earlier, and a subject that fascinated him. He had never been seen cows on the road.

I told him that the chances of filming cows on the high-traffic city route that we were taking were pretty slim. And, that he was in for some disappointment. By the end of the day, however, he had spotted cows of every variety and in different settings, including one inside a tea shop. He finished an entire roll of film before sunset.

I guess that cows are so much a part of the scene here that we no longer notice them. It takes a new pair of eyes to discover them.

The softened target.

Glancing through my daughter’s history book, I find generous references to the role played by stalwarts of our freedom movement. On Independence Day, she had also taken part in a play with the clichéd theme that the British were a blood-thirsty lot out to butcher the heroic natives at the slightest hint of resistance or the faintest murmur of the words, “ Vande Mataram”.

Our history books, of course, will tell us only that version of the story and much of it is probably true. But, till recently, the average citizen did not have easy access to other versions and so could never attempt a detached, dispassionate study, removing the filter of nationalism. Google Books, fortunately, provides an avenue to gain another perspective. What was the mind-set of the British people in those times?

Much as we like to give the entire credit to our brave freedom fighters for throwing out the British, a fact that was also responsible for the softening of their imperial stand was the growing consciousness among the British people, starting from the Victorian era, that much wrong had been done in the name of colonialism.

After the massacre at Jallianwala Bagh in 1919, many in Britain did endorse the orders given by Brigadier-General Dyer and even complimented him on “nipping the next Mutiny in the bud”. But, some like Churchill could take a more detached view and see the incident for what it was – “an episode without modern precedent or parallel in the modern history of the British Empire. It is an event of an entirely different order from any of those tragical occurences which take place when troops are brought into collision with the civil population. It is an extraordinary event, a monstrous event, an event which stands in singular and sinister isolation.... Our reign in India or anywhere else has never stood on the basis of physical force alone, and it would be fatal to the British Empire if we were to try to base ourselves only upon it...”. The Hunter Committee eventually found Dyer guilty of using disproportionate force.

Dr. Rod Thornton, in a paper , touches on this incident and narrates how the mores and values of British society were undergoing structural changes by the beginning of the twentieth century, so much so, that an increasingly affluent middle class came to be influenced by a sentiment that manifested itself in a distinct turn towards liberal values and philanthropic action. Among other things, he says, a desire was generated among Government ministers and other opinion-makers of the time to correct certain wrongs committed in the name of imperial expansion up to that point. This sentiment stressed the virtue of humanitarianism and urged that imperial expansion, if at all, must be compatible with the new ideals of honour, duty and use of minimum force. These ideals, explains Thornton, melded with the Romanticism that dominated literature in the nineteenth century. Such chivalric principles were also publicised through the efforts of the Victorian school system. So, when the Amritsar massacre happened, the British- and the Army- were shocked by the uncharacteristic brutality. For, the understanding of the English Common Law, by that time, was that no more or no less force than necessary to restore the peace was to be resorted to. There was, of course, no precise definition on how much force was warranted in different circumstances, but this was left to good judgement.

So, by the time the freedom movement gained momentum, there was a corresponding softening of the stance already taking place on the other side. And, it was only a question of time, when both these forces would combine and hasten the departure of the British.

"He asked for it"

“Far from being brave, Karkare, in trying to take on the terrorists on his own, was reckless and even senseless”, was my comment on one of Guru’s posts.

Jonah Lehrer, at Frontal Cortex, explains that cold-hearted comments such as mine are the result of “Just-world hypothesis” – a phenomenon by which we tend to rationalize injustices away, so that we can maintain our naive belief in a just world. This is the tendency for people to want to believe that the world is "just" so strongly that when they witness an otherwise inexplicable injustice they will rationalize it by searching for things that the victim might have done to deserve it. This deflects their anxiety, and lets them continue to believe the world is a just place, but at the expense of blaming victims for things that were not, objectively, their fault..

This is also the tendency to justify a rape, on the grounds that the victim ought not to have gone out alone in a taxi in the first place. “She was simply asking for trouble” someone would invariably comment.

A victim always deserves sympathy and the perpetrator of the crime our strongest condemnation. No caveats to either of these.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

On men biting dogs.

“Man biting dog’ is more likely to be reported as news than ‘dog biting man” is a cliché in journalism. Reuters took this piece of wisdom literally and carried a report some time back that a man in South India had indeed bitten a dog that was running off with his duck.

A corollary of this cliché is that ‘man biting dog’ is more newsworthy than ‘man not biting dog”. As at any point in time, in some part of the world or other, some man or the other is biting some dog or other, newspapers will always find such material to carry on their pages. The result being that news items on ‘men biting dogs” constitute 100% of the content in any newspaper.

So, when readers learn from the paper that “ 2 killed in road accident” or “ 5 admitted in hospital with symptoms of cholera” or “ 120 passengers of an Air India flight had a miraculous escape” they don’t pause to think that “ 9,999,998 people in that city managed not to get killed” or “ 9,999,995 people did not show symptoms of cholera” or that “ 99.7% of the flights that took off that day landed safely and uneventfully at the intended destination”. The news item has the desired effect.

So, in the interest of balance, for every sensational item that a newspaper publishes, should we insist on corresponding statistics such as what I have mentioned above?

No. It will render the newspaper too dull. They will simply have to continue with their stories of men ( or women) biting dogs. If you are looking for the 'dog-biting-man' variety, you will have to subscribe to, "the dullest blog in the world"

Thursday, December 04, 2008

The doubt. That nagging doubt.....

There is an old story that I am sure you would have heard, but which I want to use in a new context.

"A husband suspected that his wife was cheating on him. But he could never be sure. He felt he did not have adequate proof. Or the clinching evidence.

So, he goes to a detective agency and seeks their services. He tells the detective, “I have this doubt, this nagging doubt about my wife. But I don’t have any proof to back it up.” The detective assures him that he will unravel the truth in a week and put an end to his misery.

In exactly a week, the detective reads out his report:

'On the evening of Thursday, the 19th of June, your wife (subject) was spotted walking out of your house. She took a bus and went down to Hotel Regal at the other end of town. There she met up with a tall, handsome man, around thirty years of age. They went to the restaurant where they had a candle-light dinner. The waiter at the table, whom we talked to later, informed us that subject and man were holding hands and uttering sweet-nothings to each other’s ears. The waiter managed to take a photograph too, which is attached with this report.

Soon after dinner, they walked out of the restaurant together, took the elevator and went up to a deluxe suite on the 3rd floor. The elevator operator told us later that they were locked in a tight embrace throughout the journey up. He also photographed them going into the deluxe suite.

We had positioned one of our spotters at a cafe across the road from where he had a good view of the window of the deluxe suite. Through the light falling on the curtains, he caught the silhouette of the pair kissing each other. Here’s a photograph of that too.”

At this stage, the husband stopped the detective, “What happened next? What happened next?”

The detective replied, “After that, they switched off the lights in the room and we couldn’t take any further photographs”.

The husband thumped the table and cried in frustration,” Damn it. That doubt again. Always, the nagging doubt. That clinching evidence still eludes me”.

I was reminded of this story when I read about Prime Minister Zardari’s reaction to India’s demand that Pakistan hands over terrorists, "I am definitely going to look into all the possibility if any proof is given to us," Zardari said. "At the moment, these are just names of individuals. No proof, no investigation, nothing has been brought forward.”

No proof?. If GPS data, IP addresses traced back to Lahore, recorded confessions, intercepted messages by US agencies, satellite images, CCTV footages, don’t constitute proof, I wonder what will satisfy Zardari.