Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Just write it.

In a creative process, inspiration can come from unexpected and unrelated sources.Dan Wieden, co-founder of the advertising agency  Wieden-Kennedy that created the Nike ads drew his inspiration for the slogan “Just do it” from a rather unusual incident.  The story is narrated in the book, “Imagine” by Jonah Lehrer (Sadly this book was withdrawn following charges of plagiarism).  

“In 1988 Widen was hard at work on a series of television spots for Nike. The campaign consisted of eight video clips, each of which focused on a different athlete in a different sport. Wieden knew that the campaign needed a tagline, a slogan that could link the disparate commercials together. Unfortunately he was drawing a blank. “I’d been struggling to find that line for months” he says. “And it was late at night, and we had to have it ready to go in the morning.  And so I’m getting nervous, thinking about how this really wouldn’t work without a slogan. But I couldn’t come up with a slogan. It was killing me. 

But then just when Wieden was about to give up and started to go to sleep, he started thinking about a murderer named Gary Gilmore who had been executed in 1977. “He just popped into my mind” Wieden says. “And so it’s in the middle of the night, and I’m sitting at my desk, and I’m thinking about how Gilmore died. This was in Utah, and they dragged Gilmore out in front of the firing squad. Before they put the hood over his head, the chaplain asks Gilmore if he has any last words and he says, “Let’s do it”. And I remember thinking, “This is truly courageous”. Here’s this guy calling for his death. And then, the next thing I know, I’m thinking about my shoe commercials. And so I start playing around with the words, and I didn’t like the way it was said, actually, so I made it a little different. I wrote, “Just Do It” on a piece of paper and as soon as I saw it, I knew. “That was my slogan”. 

The question is why Wieden started thinking about Gary Gilmore, while working on a slogan for cross-trainers. “I swear I don’t normally think about murderers at midnight” he says. “So I asked myself: Where did this thought come from? And the only explanation I could come up is that someone else in the group”- one of his colleagues working on the Nike campaign- “had mentioned Norman Mailer to me earlier in the day. I don’t know why Mailer came up. I can’t remember. I’m sure we were just bullshitting, doing what people do when you put them in a room together. But we were talking about Mailer, and I knew that he’d written a book about Gary Gilmore, and that was it, That’s where the slogan came from, Just a little sentence from someone else. That’s all it takes”. 

That still doesn’t explain what the slogan “Just do it’ had to do with shoes, or whether it really played a role in the success of the company or the brand, or if the brand could have succeeded with any other slogan. 

The story only strengthens my belief that these so-called creative geniuses in advertising companies are just a bunch of nut cases who come up with random and meaningless slogans. Most of them fail. Some of them click for reasons even they cannot fathom. The creators of the ones that succeed live to tell their tale retrospectively, suitably romanticized and mystified for waiting suckers like us.

Monday, December 10, 2012

No wasting.

Many years back, an old lady I knew got onto a wrong bus headed in a different direction. The merciless conductor insisted on collecting the minimum fare of 25 paise and asked her to get down at the next stop. The old lady would have none of that. She enquired with him how far she could travel for the minimum fare, travelled up to that stop and walked back a kilometer or two in the hot sun.  She had paid the 25 paise, you see. She couldn’t get down without recovering its full value. 

I find myself applying, pretty much, the same logic in trying to finish a book that I’ve bought for Rs 599/-. It’s a book on Asian history by Pankaj Misra and I felt that I ought to read it. Maybe I can use a snippet or insight gleaned from there and casually slip it into a conversation to impress my friends. But, alas, I find it extremely boring and am struggling to get past the first two chapters. Yet, I refuse to give up. Something in me tells me I’ve paid Rs 599 for it and keeps goading me to complete it, come what may. 

The same stupid reasoning is used when we believe that we shouldn’t waste food served on our plates at home or ordered in a restaurant. Members of my generation, as we were growing up in a more frugal era, were strictly told that wasting food was not acceptable. What was on our plates had to be consumed.  It was not just about the money. The previous generation had been conditioned in a ‘scarcity’ era and that mindset prevailed. There was  a sense of guilt in wasting food when there was such poverty everywhere and so many people struggled to get a square meal.  It took me many years to realise that eating excess food that one doesn’t really want is far more wasteful than leaving it on the plate.  If in a restaurant, order sensibly. But if there’s more food on the table than what you need, just stop eating. It’s a far wiser thing to do.

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

How I learnt to tackle 6'5" doormen.

After checking out of a 5-star hotel in Delhi last week, I casually wheeled my luggage and walked towards the exit where my taxi was waiting for me. The bellboy at the desk rushed towards me and pulled the luggage from my hands and insisted on wheeling it to the car. I let him do it. He placed it in the trunk of the car and gave me three smart salutes and a “happy journey’ greeting. And just stood there.  I said ‘thank you’ and didn’t tip him even a rupee. 

Following that, the doorman, opened the door of the car and gave me three smart salutes and a ‘happy journey’ greeting. Once I got in, he closed the door having made sure that the glass was down so that it wouldn’t be an hindrance when I passed on my lavish tips to him. I looked the 6’5” Sardar doorman squarely and unflinchingly in the eye and gave him a benevolent smile. No tips. 

The bellboy and the doorman in any hotel form a deadly combo. They’ve developed a body language that can prompt you to pull out your wallet. They can linger around for just those few seconds longer so as to make you uncomfortable and guilty. It took me many years of travelling to learn to handle this menace. 

I am all for rewarding people if they’ve provided some special service. Here all the bellboy had to so was pull a 10-kg piece of luggage for a distance of 15 metres on flat terrain or down a ramp and place it in the car- a task I was perfectly capable of undertaking myself, had he not dragged the piece out of me. Similarly, among the few things that I have learnt to do as a grown-up adult is to open the door of a car and I don’t need to be assisted in the process by 6’5” Sardars or 5’6” ones. 

You would think that people would frown at this shameful practice of the hotel staff. But, if you stood in the portico for a few minutes and observed, you would find that they have a very high rate of success. Foreigners, the suckers that they are, tip lavishly. Once I saw a Tamil film star pulling out a Rs 500 note and handing it over to the doorman for the latter’s extraordinarily awesome task of opening the door. I remember regretting that I had not rushed in to open the door for the star and earned that money.

Monday, December 03, 2012

Trans-human Olympics

Scott Adams, of Dilbert fame, is not at all surprised to hear that doping was common among top cyclists. 

When cheating is easy, payoff is huge and odds of getting caught are low, you have the right conditions for people to try out dubious or even illegal methods, he says.

Scott Adams goes to the extent of hypothesising that doping must be pretty rampant in tennis as well. He is convinced especially that many of the women players are already juiced up with drugs.With so much money and fame at stake, the incentive is very strong to try and beat the system.

So, why not legitimize it?

I liked one of the comments on that Scott Adams post.
I propose that they create 3 separate Olympics.

The first would be the 'pure' Olympics, that include only tests of human athletism. Track and Field events, swimming (maybe) and weightlifting, and bare-hand pugilism (wrestling, judo). Gymnastics would be converted to a battery of Parkour obstacle courses. The list of approved equipment would be very short, and the only role of judges is to enforce the rules.

The second would be the human powered vehicle and team sport Olympics - this would be merged with the Paralympics. Cycling, rowing, boxing, fencing, all team sports, etc. In these events all forms limb replacement and augmenting technology is allowed (sans-external power sources) - but not drugs or artificial hormones.

The third would be the trans-human Olympics. In these events competitors are encouraged to use whatever technology is available to boost the power of the human body past its limits. These would the gladiatorial games of science fiction.

It’s an interesting thought. In any case, even in the ‘pure Olympics’, technology is used extensively to boost performance. The shoes are of special, light-weight material and the dress is designed to reduce the drag.
Tennis racquets are designed to deliver the maximum punch with minimal effort. And so on. So, why not relax the rules some more and allow free use of any technology that enhances the performance?

It can be argued, of course, that drugs endanger the lives of the athletes and those of the budding ones who view them as role models. Hell, there’s danger is Formula 1 racing too. The drivers are perilously close to death at any point in the race. So long as the risks are known and taken voluntarily, it should be morally permissible,  I think.

Saturday, December 01, 2012

Is it the same knife?

There is that old philosophical question which goes like this: “You buy a knife with a wooden handle. After a year, the handle breaks and you replace it with another wooden piece but retain the same blade. After another year, the blade or the cutting part of the knife gets bent and you fix a new one on the same wooden handle. Now that you’ve changed both the parts of the original knife, can you call it the same knife or is it a different one?”

I was reminded of that when I read this interesting story on Douglas Adams (source)
On visiting the Gold Pavilion Temple in Kyoto, Douglas Adams was impressed at how well the 14th-century structure had weathered the passage of time. His Japanese guide told him that it hadn't weathered well at all; in fact it had burned to the ground twice in the 20th century.

"So this isn't the original building?" Adams asked.

"But yes, of course it is."

"But it's been burned down?"



"Many times."

"And rebuilt."

"Of course. It is an important and historic building."

"With completely new materials."

"But of course. It was burned down."

"So how can it be the same building?"

"It is always the same building."

"I had to admit to myself that this was in fact a perfectly rational point of view, it merely started from an unexpected premise," Adams wrote. The essence of a building is its design, the intention of the builder. The materials may decay and be replaced, but these are only instantiations of a persistent idea. "I couldn't feel entirely comfortable with this view, because it fought against my basic Western assumptions," Adams wrote, "but I did see the point."
If at a point in the future, medical science is able to change all the organs in the body, one at a time, including the brain would that person be the same one as before?

Friday, November 30, 2012

On boring, fixing, etc

Boring conference

Just finished reading this report from the 2012 Boring conference that was held in London recently. Apparently, this is held in November each year and delegates turn up to listen to ‘boring’ speeches and presentations. 

Why would people turn up at such a conference to listen to presentations on topics such as supermarket self-service check-outs,  post-boxes and “the confusing, non-regulated series of toaster settings on the market”?  Because people enjoy boring things.  Yes, banality has a certain appeal. 

I used to follow a blog post called “the dullest blog in the world” that, sadly, went quiet from July last year. Here are some samples:

“I had a towel in my hands. It was a bit damp. I hung it over the bannister so that it would dry off.”

“I saw that there was a small piece of rubbish on the ground. I stooped over and picked it up. Seeing a litter bin nearby I carried the item a short distance and deposited it in the bin.”

“I logged onto the internet in order to check my e-mails. I clicked the ’send and receive’ button and downloaded one or two messages. A minute or two later I logged off the internet.” 

The blog was tremendously popular and some of the posts received more than 200 comments. Boring stuff can be that appealing. 

If it’s broke, fix it. 

I remember the first suitcase I bought when I became a salesman. It took quite a beating as I travelled extensively every week by bus on bad roads. Every now and then a screw would unloosen or a hinge would get rusted or the cloth lining get torn. I simply had to take it to some roadside repairer and fix it by spending a few rupees. 

I used that suitcase for more than 10 years and abandoned it not because it was not good enough, but because I had by then progressed to travelling by air and felt compelled to buy one that was more stylish and elegant. None of the suitcases that I’ve bought after that has lasted that long, although I travel mostly by air and treat the luggage quite delicately. Also, if a zip gets stuck or a wheel drops off, it is quite painful to find a good repair shop. Might as well throw it off and buy a new one.

The ‘repair’ culture is slipping away, in any case. None of the devices are designed for durability and replacing them every few years is considered a better option as repair charges are often quite close to the cost of a new one. Mobile phones, washing machines, microwave ovens, etc fall in this category. At least, this is what we are led to believe.

I was happy to read about the “Fixer’s manifesto’ that’s been written by a designer. Some of the statements in that manifesto: 

“Fixing’ is the most beautiful form of creativity”

“A small clever tweak can improve how things work for years to come”.

“Resist trends and needless updates. Don’t be a passive consumer”

“If we double the life of a product, we send only half of them to the landfill every year”

Makes one think, doesn’t it?