Wednesday, June 20, 2018

And then there was one

This is a short review of Sapiens, a book by Yuval Noah Harari.

Tl;DR: Read it. You'll walk out wiser.

There was more than one species of humans living at the same time, and over the course of 2.4 million years, Homo Sapiens destroyed and pillaged not just other human species, but thousands of animals and plants and other living beings. With those first few lines, the history of our species starts with the indelible stain of destructors par excellence. Homo Sapiens have presided over the largest mass murdering of life on earth and here we stand; triumphant and proud of what humanity stands for. Harari's book is a challenge, an anticlimax to how we got where we are and how can learn to improve, and it doesn't disappoint.

The first 150-pages of Harari's Sapiens is a whirlwind ride. Writing the history of our species for a mass audience is no easy task and it's no surprise this book is a bestseller. It ticks all the right boxes. Anyone can read it and walk away wiser - and that's the pulse of a non-fiction book. For me, page 90-onwards was an absorbing insight into how deep the author has probed and preyed and taken a stand on the most controversial subjects.

How can one critique the advent of agriculture? It seemed impossible, and yet, Harari's account of the onslaught of wheat on Homo Sapiens, is a terrific read. There is a generalisation to be made around how Luxuries eventually become necessities and it isn't off the mark. The very nature of evolution from systemic farming to the bare 'necessity' of having a smartphone dictates today's luxuries are tomorrow's necessities. Here's an author who writes evocatively, not shy to voice his own view point and speaks to the reader. For this and for this alone, Sapiens is a must read for anyone. You will come out knowing more, being more mindful of the world around you and that's a win for me.

Where it failed - the last 100-pages were preachy, spoke in length about religion, the nature of happiness etc... Topics that needed objectivity and perhaps not in a book that had so much more to offer. But that's just me. Read it, for you seldom come across such a commanding author who writes for all to read, understand and imbibe.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Public spaces, English, and a couple

You can’t say that after 6 months of knowing me, Ravi
But it’s been only 6 months, that’s the point Neetu.

Sir, OTP 6341, Jayanagar janaa hei, location correct hei, navigation dal dheejeye.

Jayanagaraaaa? 4th block ok?

Yes sir, correct.

This cab is a bit stuffy, can we switch on the AC please.
Sir, AC dalo please.

You’ve always wanted to break-up, I just don’t understand why you had to prolong it for 6-fucking months.
Neetu, calm down, speak softly, i’m right here.

There you go again, diverting the subject.
I’ NOT. And I can’t decide to just marry you in 6 months. That’s preposterous. YOU aren’t wholly committed either.

Then why am I fighting this one? I’ve been monogomous all this while. I haven’t had sex with anyone else, not ever flirted.
Can you stop yelling, Neetu. We’re in a cab and there’s a… you know… driver.

He won’t understand our language, and there you go again changing the subject.
You said you didn’t even like the sex. Or some such… And now you want to speak about marriage. Isn’t sex important for you? And if you can’t enjoy it with me, why do you even want this?

That’s because you’re not adventurous enough. You always want to do missionary. There’s more to life than just one position Ravi.
And all you want is sex, sex sex. What about accepting me as a person who does things for you?

Fuck you. You always want me to go down on you and you don’t ever do it to me.
That’s because I don’t like it. You can’t force me to do something I don’t.

And yet, I’m supposed to do everything? So typically male. And the moment my hands go to your…
Can we speak about this at home. We have someone else with us.

HE DOESN’T UNDERSTAND OUR FUCKING LANGUAGE and once we go home, you’ll want to sleep. It’s all you want. And you don’t want to talk about us ever. Why don’t you just say you don’t like me and we can move the fuck on?

This is frustrating, Neetu. I can’t make a decision in 6 months and I can’t keep having sex with you if that’s the only thing that makes for a good relationship according to you.
Aren’t you being an absolute idiot? What is wrong with you? Don’t you have any shame or the balls to just say what you really feel like so the two of us can move on?

Sir, we’ve reached Jayangar. Your total bill is 89 rupees. If you don’t mind, can i stop here? Else, I’ll have to make a U turn and cross the road again… That’ll take me an additional 10 minutes. Only if you don’t mind. Your destination is right across the road.

Errr… Sure, ok… Erm…  no problem… We’ll get down…. Ok… Thanks…. You know English?

Yes sir, i graduated in Science. Driving Uber in my part time so I can make some money and study further.


*pays, steps out.*

I think we’re done Neetu. Bye.
Fuck off, Ravi. And for the record, I faked most of our orgasms.  

Friday, March 11, 2016

A quick study of Barack Obama’s PR — From storytelling to ‘Between Two Ferns’

In early 2007 when a young senator from Illinois beat Hillary Clinton in the Democratic presidential primaries, my cook in India assumed that he became the president of the United States. Such was the fanfare and aura around Barack Obama, many didn’t know who the president of India was, but the name Obama was common knowledge. His journey from 2008–2016 is a compelling study in the simplicity of storytelling.
The president’s slogan of “Change” resonated across the world after the colossal mess that he inherited from George Bush. Yet, the very storytelling machinery that elected him twice over has failed to convey ‘what’ the president has really done. In the past 9-years of Obama’s epochal reign, his most sweeping ‘changes’ have not been communicated with the similar gusto of his campaigns.
The most notable failure is the 900-page legislation, “Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act” (ACA henceforth). Here’s a piece of legislation so historic in value, history will judge the president on this one change. The bill aims to impact the millions of underprivileged people by providing free healthcare, yet it remains shrouded in mystery and complexity.
The Republicans derisively call the legislation as ‘Obamacare,’ and surveys state that many in the U.S. have no idea what the act does and how it benefits them. A Jimmy Kimmel interview hilariously showed that Americans opposed Obamacare but heaped praises on ACA, when the two were the same. A CNBC survey found that 46 percent of Americans oppose Obamacare, yet only 37% oppose the Affordable Care Act. Again, both are the same.
Education. College fees and expenses are so high in America, BuzzFeed ran a post on how you can buy islands instead of getting a degree from the New York University. Student loan debts in the US are more than $1.3 trillion, the highest in the world by any stretch of the imagination. The president signed an amendment to the Health Care law that also affected education. Its core purpose was to shift the burgeoning student debt from the students to the taxpayers.
These two important pieces of legislation are seldom spoken about or appreciated. He’s the first president to speak openly for gay rights, (the one portion I thought was well communicated to the world considering its sensitivity and scale) reducing our carbon footprint, signed off on a range of financial changes, brought about closer relations between the West and other countries, increased the number of job opportunities etc…
There are a number of misses as well like the frosty relations with Putin. But from a Public Relations’ point of view, a number of his wins remain opaque. It was in this context that the president of the United States attended Jack Galifianakis’ ‘Between Two Ferns’. He wanted to control the narrative, dumb down after all the bad press it garnered. Did it do enough? Not really. But the president’s office wanted to reach out to its people and explain his achievements.
The perception of Barack Obama is still positive world over. Speaking out for gay rights alone won him a lot of good karma. (It’s the 21st century for crying out loud) But how many really know of his most consequential pieces of legislation that are likely touch the millions of Americans and billions around the world? That calls for a bigger study and a closer analysis. While Obama’s campaign was simple, his office has largely fallen short of communicating his biggest achievements. And that’s precisely why the world needs its storytellers, even in the highest offices.

Monday, February 15, 2016

How Twitter can convert its skeptics

Oh ho, Twitter. One of my favourite social networks is bleeding dry. The company’s recent quarter was a bloodbath of sorts with shares going down as much as 12 percent. The company has lost a little more than 60% of its market capitalisation from last year. That’s more than half the company’s value being wiped out!
If numbers were to go by, earnings of 16 cents per share and $710 million in revenue actually beat the Reuters EPS estimates and met the revenue. The problem with Twitter is that user growth declined sequentially, meaning, lesser ‘new’ users are getting onto twitter and the existing dormant ones are disillusioned and/or ‘inactive’.
At the core of twitter’s problem is that there’s no sense of gratification for a new user. In Facebook, you have your friends to ‘like’ ‘comment’ or ‘share’ your posts. In a sense, there’s some sort of reciprocation, and therefore, an incentive to be on Facebook. It’s a truly social network. Twitter on the other hand, is yearning for this conversation. It’s not a ‘social’ platform for the larger populace by the strictest definition because monologues are far more predominant. And therein lies the problem to acquire more users.
Unless you’re a celebrity or a popular person, the chances of you gaining followers and being ‘accepted’ are limited. New users feel timid and vague to be having these monologues with minimal followers. And from what limited followers you have, responses are even lesser, reducing the incentive to rant on twitter. This is also why politicians, journalists, celebrities, influencers love twitter — it makes for multiple dialogues because they have a base to interact with.
What twitter can do?
  • For starters, how about showcasing some tweets from new/less popular users on the feeds of users who have a lot more followers. For example, 1 out of 10 tweets on Neil Tyson’s timeline can come from a new user whom Michael Jordan does not follow. This incentivises new users to join Twitter because there’s a chance of their tweets being seen by celebrity feeds. As you roll-out this feature down to non-celebs who have a considerable amount of followers, a mention/retweet incentivises less popular users stand a chance to engage more.
  • Improving the data sciences of Twitter Moments. This feature was launched about a month back. Though it was not aimed at getting new users on board, it was an attempt to lure existing users. If users are clicking on links/engaging with content, it means that they are interested in that particular tweet. Similar content should be relayed on moments, which should also act as a way to show you 15–20 of the possible tweets from the day you might like and have potentially missed.
  • Have a bot to navigate new users through the workings of twitter. Most new users are confused once they sign-in and find it awkward to be tweeting into nothingness. Tap into the existing phone, facebook contacts etc… and notify friends that YYY person whom you know, has joined twitter. Existing friends can then follow this person and begin interactions from the very beginning.
  • Position twitter as the go-to platform for news. Twitter should be talking about how TV is a boring snooze-fest and why twitter is a place of informed views. It can be difficult considering trolls lurk about on twitter more than any other platform, but it’s also a place of debate and discussion. There’s almost little communication on the many advantages of real-time information, ability to interact with thought-leaders and sift through quality content.
I love twitter. I learn everyday from interacting with some of the brightest minds. But if the company really needs to build on these great conversations, it needs to retain talent and work on its core strengths.
Sidenote — A while back rumours were rife of Google wanting to buy Twitter. It’s not about the money needed to buy twitter. Google has $73.1 bln in cash sitting around. Instead, the company sat in the sidelines and partnered with Twitter for a few simple offerings. Nobody wants to touch the company until they devise a way to attract more users and engage on their platform. Here’s hoping 2016 will be a great year for twitter and may they ride the tide.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Book Review - The Lives of Others, a journey pre-1969 into the heart of Bengali traditions

Reading Neel Mukherjee's 'The Lives of Others' felt like an exploration into the author's own beliefs of India's communist factions. Interlaced with the story of a Calcutta family’s social lives, it traces the symptoms leading up to the Naxalite revolution of 1969. The book is rich in language and seeped in cultural nuances. It's no surprise that it was deemed worthy of a Booker nomination.

Mukherjee’s language is simple, yet powerful and he weaves a story with the many superstitions and social dogmas of Indian society. It’s not a roller-coaster ride of a book with plots and sub-plots. He builds characters and gives adequate time to make them impressionable to the reader. The language makes this book a compelling read.
Like most books, I felt it could be about a 100-pages shorter, but I particularly enjoyed how he elaborated on the many revolving characters in the book. He painstakingly navigates the reader through the many layers each character has and builds a compelling social narrative. It's a book about ideology and how his characters - meek, strong, courageous and cowards, all come together to tell you their stories. 
Read it, because it’s about an India you might not have heard much of. It’s about the story of a rich family with bigotry and how one boy left all the luxuries of life to join a movement he believed in.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Let’s take a moment to appreciate how startups have helped Chennai

Tech startups. We love them, but almost always love to hate them. We question their soaring valuations, we question their business models, their massive discounts to acquire customers and their very existence. But all of us use their services in some form or the other. Be it Uber, MakeMyTip, Practo, Zomato or Flipkart, they’ve all made our lives a lot simpler. There’s no denying this fact.
Today (and I’m sure in the coming days) a number of these companies came out to help Chennaiites stuck in the biggest disaster they’ve ever faced. Daily life has come to a halt and this is a national disaster of unimaginable proportions. The unprecedented destruction has left many of us wanting to help. Startups have a network; they have a database of users and some of them used these simple resources to reach out to residents in desperate need for help. This post is to call out some companies who have come out and offered their help, even if they didn’t have to.
 1. Paytm
2. Uber
3. Zomato (whose CEO was crowd-sourcing ideas from twitter to help)
4. Ola
5. IndiGo
Honorable mentions who are not startups - Airtel and BSNL have waived off their usual call and data charges. 
I'm sure there are more to be added to this list. Please let me know if I've missed out something and will definitely update the post. 

Thursday, November 26, 2015

The biggest irony of all – Public Relations has a perception problem, and rightly so

PR. The two alphabets that summon a host of negative connotations ever since Ed Bernays made Public Relations synonymous with propaganda. Bernays’ (Sigmund Freud's nephew. Ha.) brand of PR was effective. It was measured and controlled. Companies saw tremendous value in what he brought to the table. This brand of PR is now redundant. Anybody who thinks they can control information or subvert truth is living in a shell. PR has evolved from cold war propaganda into the art of storytelling. We all parrot the line, but in essence, practitioners and companies don’t practice what they preach. 
Here are some thoughts on the current state of PR -
What PR is today:
  •  PR is ‘assuring coverage’ in the mass media
  • PR is incessantly calling journalists and asking them to write stories about your clients
  • PR is jargon and fluffy words that only technical people understand
  • PR is sending reports on competition without any relevance or analysis of how it affects business
  • PR is ‘spin’ as companies love to think and hire agencies to do
  • PR is boring reports, processes and endless PPTs
What PR should be:
  • PR is about unearthing hidden stories companies don’t know how to narrate
  • PR is about putting someone’s thoughts on paper – it’s about writing, editing and crafting quality content
  • PR is about aligning a company’s communication to ensure all employees understand the objective/goals
  • PR is about building awareness of a company by removing the clutter and explaining what it does
  • PR helps in differentiating between what makes a good story and what is marketing fluff