Category Archives: Features

Cui Bono?

I have an app called Ghostery on my computer. Fed up with an insane numberGhostery of pop-up ads ruining my reading and surfing experience, I installed the little extension that is supposed to block not just ads but also trackers – code from companies that are trying to learn more about you from your online habits. It usually runs quietly in the background but occasionally Ghostery will behave a trifle overzealously, blocking legitimate content on a site because the underlying code is structured like a pop up.

On these occasions the only thing to do is to pause blocking. When you do that Ghostery spits out a list of everything that’s running in the background, as if to say, “Do you really want to do this? Because here’s everyone who’s watching you right now.” It’s an effective tactic because it is pretty scary when you realize that at any point of time you are on the web, you are being tracked by at least a dozen or more companies, with names like Certona and Monotate and Bazaarvoice. And the longer you stay on a site, the longer the list grows.
To a web marketer this is probably routine, but to a lay user like me the level of intrusion is a revelation. These trackers are labelled under categories like “widgets” and “beacons” and “analytics” tools. Some are even honest about their purpose, calling themselves “advertising.” By far the most intrusive are the web beacons, also known as web bugs, which track your movement across sites. These are the little crawlers that ensure that a recent search for “women’s camel hair coat” follows you from site to site, making targeted ads for similar apparel pop up on every future site you visit. Wondering why you are seeing an ad for diet pills on Facebook? You probably visited a health food site or read an article on losing weight.

Tech titans like Mark Zuckerberg have been in the news recently for asking the NSA to cease spying on American citizens. The level of hypocrisy is breathtaking because anyone who is on the web to make money is doing exactly what the NSA is accused of. Companies like Facebook and Google have a pretty deep profile on each of their users. At the moment the information is probably used only in aggregate but it is just a step away from being individualized if needed.

You might argue that we bring it upon ourselves by posting every detail of our lives on social media, from where we eat to where we shop to where we give. But the mining for our personal data is everywhere, not just on social media. You can choose never to post on Facebook and still there will be companies on the web who know a lot more about you than you would care to reveal. The above mentioned Certona “delivers the most personalized customer experiences tailored to each individual using continuous behavioral profiling and predictive technology, resulting in increased engagement and conversions.” You can be sure this “behavior profiling” is not coming from social media. I once took a survey a few years ago that claimed to be able to tell me who I was from my surfing habits. Given my heavy emphasis on political blogs and sports, it concluded I was a middle-aged man. Okay, it wasn’t very accurate but the tracking technology has improved significantly in the last few years.

You might also argue that it has always been in this way. The endangered newspaper survived these many years because of the advertising it sold. Once the web promised better targeting, its days became numbered. But this level of tracking feels uncomfortable, like being a “Big Brother” participant every moment of my life.

What annoys me the most is that I am not sure how useful all the data mining is to the miner. Consider this example: Based on my search terms on its site, apparel company Land’s End now knows that I am in the market for a winter jacket. It aggressively bombards me with pictures of and sales information on the jackets everywhere I go next, whether it is a social media site or news feed. Does this make me more likely to buy one of the advertised items? Not unless you believe nagging is the best way to get someone to do something. It’s like shopping in a store that is entirely made up of checkout lanes with their impulse-buy positioning.

The reason that this saturation approach has worked so far for internet marketers is because it is a numbers game. Because the internet offers access to such a large global audience, even a small percentage of conversions can make the company money. These are customers who would not have been accessible in the pre-internet days or accessible at a prohibitive cost. It’s not unlike the Nigerian emails begging for money. The scammer sends out the email to 100 million people. All he/she needs is .1% to fall for it. The same goes for internet advertisers. The remaining 99.9% of us, who tear our hair out at the dating, weight-loss, and shoe ads that follow us around, are expendable.

Resistance by way of blockers is futile because programmers (probably coding away in an erstwhile Soviet Socialist Republic) simply create new apps to override the old. Pop-up blockers have led to pop-over ads, which are not as delicious as they sound. The biggest deterrent to effective ad blocking are the publishers themselves, because their (net) worth is judged by how many viewers and clickers they can snag in their net. Let’s face it, we may delude ourselves into thinking that we are the shoppers, but we are actually the product.

Still, the popularity of anti-trackers like Ghostery and Do Not Track Plus are a sign that the bacon is fighting back. Ghostery recently got a bump from master leaker and privacy advocate Edward Snowden himself. Facebook has woken up to the barrage of ads its users experience and is quietly trying to control the flow. Eventually users will get desensitized to the ads swirling around them and make them ineffective. The worry is who will survive the war to get online viewership. We’ve already seen the demise of traditional media and brick and mortar stores. We’ve seen the rise of a few monopolistic online giants like Amazon, Facebook and Google. As individual users, as human beings, we have ceded more and more power to entities that manipulate and control us. When the war is over, will we be the prize or the collateral damage?

Brand Modi

By Geeta Padmanabhan

NamoHe is stylish, he is spicy, he is sweet, he is explosive. Choose a non-controversial product, attach his face, add the brilliantly-coined acronym NaMo, and you have a best-seller. Brand Modi sells – anything from clothes, snacks, tea, explosive firecrackers to the idea of India.

Some attribute it to the business acumen of the Gujarati, others point to the unquestionable charisma of the man, but brand-merchandising has closely accompanied Narendra Modi’s rise in the national scene. With state elections a few weeks ahead and national elections just months away, Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, who is also the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) Prime Ministerial candidate is on a brand projectile.

The first to appear were the ones you would see in the US election conventions: Modi masks, pins, bands, caps, T-shirts – in one early rally an entire section of the audience was made of Modi faces – a startling sight! Soon BJP supporters saw the business opportunity in his growing popularity. The obvious product was the Modi kurta – the knee-length top worn over leggings – customized and popularized by the man himself. With a close collar, short sleeves and earth colors it was already a “moving” item. All it needed was international exposure.

A boutique in Ahmedabad has registered a trademark for these “half-sleeve kurtas”. “We’re trying for an international trademark for the brand,” said its owner. A report in the Indian Express said at least 30,000 made-in-Surat kurtas carrying embroidered “NaMoMantra” were sold at Patna’s Gandhi Maidan on the October 27 Hunkar rally, addressed by Modi. A NaMo store opened in an upmarket mall in Ahmedabad to sell NaMoMantra apparel, books and other merchandise. Modi Lion, named after the Hunkar (roar) rally, will soon reach the children’s section of super markets. “Even his most ardent fans could not have foreseen this transformation – from Loha Purush to cuddly toy,” wrote Firstpost Editor Sandip Roy.

The Patna rally also saw the mushrooming of those humble tea-stalls that dot India’s roads, street-corners and railway stations. Unsurprisingly called Modi Tea-Stalls, they were dual-purpose. The kiosks made sure tea was available to rallyists all day while reminding them of the great man’s humble origins as a vendor at a railway tea-stall. A killer branding idea!

Diwali of course brought a multitude of options for value addition. Boxes of firecrackers (labelled Modi Brand) wrapped in Modi’s photograph sold the most, outdoing cheaper imports from China. One shop-owner cracked: “We have Chinese items as well as the ones with photos of actors. Right now, “Modi Brand” is the most popular and is explosive in Rajkot. “Explosive like Modi” was the underlying sentiment, agreed the buyers. In the US, the boxes went for $16/- . The firecracker business, reported India Today, was worth $8 million in Rajkot alone.

Can Modi snacks be far behind? NDTV ran a story of how “Modi magic” spiced up this year’s Diwali in the US. Rajbhog Sweets, which celebrated Modi’s elevation as Chief Minister of Gujarat for a third consecutive term by gifting each customer with 11 pedas (one for each year), decided to go “namkeen” on the run up to the 2014 general elections. According to the news channel, Arvind Patel, Rajbhog Sweets, Newark Avenue, Jersey City said, “A few of us were chatting one afternoon when the idea of ‘Modi Magic’ came about. We give it out for free at BJP events and festivals here in the US, and aim to distribute 10 lakh packets till the elections.”

Each packet of  spicy mix labelled “Modi Magic” sells at 45 cents, but 10 lakh packets will be given away free, said Mr Patel, adding he was ready to do much more. The mix was a hit with the customers, probably Modi fans. “This is the first time I have seen an Indian politician branded like this, his magic is working not only in India but the whole world,” said one. Mr. Patel would have happily sent the sales proceeds to the BJP election campaign, but laws don’t permit supporters in the US to donate directly to political parties in India. So after spreading the Modi message on foreign shores, Mr. Patel has traveled to India to campaign for the BJP.

The virtual world has embraced him. While Modi social-networks constantly, tweeting, face-booking and blogging on the go, his fans have made a video game and composed a Namo Youth Anthem that goes, “A powerful orator will now become the nation’s curator. His persona is athletic, his charisma magnetic. Who’s gonna mar ’em? NaMo. NaMo. Who’s gonna scar ’em? NaMo, Namo.”

Merchandising politics isn’t new to India. Gandhi topi, Nehru galaband, I Am Anna cap, Mamata sari and paintings, Mulayam pehalwan doll, yojnas (schemes) and streets named after leaders are all part of this branding culture. But Modi-branding is much larger in scale and scope. It is market-savvy, and thanks to supporters’ unrelenting efforts, has gone global. In is case, Modi’s the brand, and his supporters know how to sell him.

“Brand Modi becomes an act of reflection with the multiplying effect of a hall of mirrors,” said Firstpost editor Sandip Roy. “As Modi stands at the rally, beaming, waving to the crowd, the jubilant crowd gazes back at him draped in NaMo paraphernalia… Our feverish passion for politics and our insatiable hunger for brands have finally come together in common churn. And Narendra Modi has emerged from that manthan (churn) as an entity than can both sell and be sold.”

As in everything political in India, Modi branding is not without its comic consequences. To their utter dismay, BJP’s election supervisors have found that people in many parts of the hinterlands who have pledged to vote for Modi (Modi ko vote denge) are clueless about the party symbol. Brand Modi now outshines brand BJP! The lotus (party symbol) has been blown away by the Modi storm, said a commentator. Ironically, the party might lose the votes of those who support Modi! Party heads are no doubt at the drawing board figuring out how to bring the lotus back into the picture. Any ideas?

Chennai Express: Funny Despite Itself

“I don’t make my movies for intellectuals,” the director of Chennai Express, Rohit Shetty, is supposed to have said. I can well imagine him making that statement, sneer on his face, contemplating his previous box office successes like Bol Bachchan and Golmaal, all made with similar LCD ingredients of slapstick humor, over-the-top acting, and overwrought emotion.

But a sweet seller (bear with me on the analogy for a bit) is not an intellectual, and a good one will know exactly how much ghee and sugar to put in the halva without needing a culinary degree. If the halva is over-sweet and dripping with fat, people will still eat it, and maybe even relish that first decadent bite, but at the end of it all they will be left with is a stomach ache and a desire never to repeat that mistake.

Which is how I felt after watching Chennai Express, a tale of a North Indian halvai (and there’s the analogy returning to roost) and a South Indian lovely who meet by chance on a train and have adventures on the run.

To be fair, CE is pretty funny in bits; the sequence where Rahul (Shah Rukh Khan spoofing himself) pulls Meenamma (the lovely Deepika Padukone) on to the train, DDLJ style, is hilarious. Even though the dialogues are just plain awful, the situational comedy and Padukone’s perfectly pitched turn as a Madrasi lass are enough to have you in splits through about 70% of the movie, especially if you are sitting in a theater surrounded by tweens. The kids laughed continuously, despite missing the Hindi-Tamil jokes and the SRK references, and we adults laughed along.

But, fair warning, the last 20 minutes are just horrendous and there is a sequence involving a small person which is not just insensitive but bizarrely incomprehensible and left us all scratching our heads. I happen to be a fan of SRK, but ever since R.A.One, I’ve been wondering what the heck happened to the guy. His facial contortions, his weird grimaces and mannerisms – were they always there or is this some pathetic attempt to live up to his superstar expectations?

What saves the movie (and SRK’s butt) is Padukone, whose performance leaves me no doubt that she is the next big thing in mainstream Bollywood. She delivers her cheesy lines with aplomb, completely getting into the skin of what can only be described as a mythical Southy stereotype, the kind once popularized by Mehmood with his “aiyyo-jees.” The role is a complete departure (as much it can be in a Hindi movie) from her successful outing in Yeh Jawaani hai Deewani, and she does it justice in a way that really exposes SRK’s  shortcomings.

It is almost a pity that Chennai Express (as I write this review) is turning out to be a big box office success, because it sends a message to other filmmakers that it is okay to skimp on quality dialogue, it is okay to hire ensemble actors who suck so badly they must be related to the producer, it is okay to pair an over-the-hill lead with a young, gorgeous twenty-something, it is okay to poke fun at disabled people, and it is okay to engage in the worst kind of Southern stereotyping so long as you have a formula and a hook that brings the audience in.

That the crassly commercial Lungi Dance was added as an afterthought suggests even Shetty had some doubts about the viability of a movie where so many aspects were shortchanged.

That the movie is going to be a blockbuster suggests that all those doubts will be erased. Sigh! I gorged on the halva yesterday, but today I’m feeling sick.

*LCD = Lowest Common Denominator

Archives, Archives, Archives

Spent the best part of 4 hours organizing all the archival material of my radio shows. If you look at the new menu above, you’ll see the two new archive options – Parent Talk Show Archives and Quiz Show Archives.  Despite being fairly mundane, the whole process was incredibly validating, especially as I was typing out the various topics I had covered during the year-long run of Parent Talk.

Each archive has the recordings of the various episodes in mp3 form. I’m still not done with the quiz show archives but another couple of days and all the episodes should be up.

Tried out the WpPro Quiz plugin to see if I could put up all the quizzes I have conducted, but it seems to be an incredibly time consuming process, because each quiz question and answer has to be entered separately, and with 25 quiz shows and over 750 questions, that’s a task I am not willing to undertake. Anyone know of a better plugin that will allow me to copy my questions off of MsWord?

Enjoy!

Writing a Novel – Day 21

Snoopy typingHurray! The writer’s block seems to be dealt with for the moment, with only a little shaming from the spousal unit. I knew it was a good idea to go public with my plan to write a book since now I have many well wishers asking every day how much progress I’ve made. I finished my next mini chapter and put a research question out to a friend about a problem to be solved in the next chapter. I think I’ll add him as a helpful character in my book.

I don’t know if I mentioned this before, but the book is a light mystery story whose plot I’m making up as I go along, so the chapters are as much a revelation to me as they are to my characters.

Does this breakthrough mean I am going to be efficient and finish up the book lickety-split? Naaah.

Reading a Novel – Writer's Block Edition

Writers blockNope, the novel is not going anywhere. In a desperate attempt to jumpstart my recalcitrant brain, I went to the library a couple of days ago and picked up a bag full of books. My method, if I am not picking a known author, is to open the book mid-way and see if I can tolerate the language…a necessary ritual, given my declining attention span.

Well, this time my fishing was spectacular. Here are the gems I found.

Blasphemy by Sherman Alexie: If there’s any justice in the world, this man will win a Nobel Prize one day. These short stories, chronicling the un-moored life of Native Americans, are so spare and beautiful that each is a master class in writing. The matter of fact wretchedness of the lives in these stories make for a somewhat grim experience, but I find it difficult to stop reading. Alexie’s keen observations of reservation life and the impact it has on its inhabitants makes you realize that slavery still exists in the US, insidiously cloaked in the trappings of welfare and reparation.

Alexie had a pretty eventful and traumatic childhood, which probably gave him a heightened sensitivity to suffering, but he doesn’t wallow in it. Each page has a paragraph or two that makes you go “Wow” in admiration. If you love to read, and are not daunted by bleak writing, you must, must read this author.

The Doctor of Thessaly by Anna Zouroudi: Now that the Ladies Detective Agency books are beginning to pall a little, I’m really fortunate to have found this series, featuring fat detective Hermes Diaktoros. Lovely comfort food for mystery lovers, in the vein of Miss Marple adventures. There are only three books in the series so far, but I am going to find the others and then wait patiently for the new ones. Zouroudi is also a minimalistic writer and is able to sketch her Greek characters with a sharp pen.

The Girl in Blue by P.G. Wodehouse: I thought I’d read all of Wodehouse’s oeuvre, but I could not recall this one. But the real reason I picked it up was its ancient plastic cover and the faded, silverfish-eaten, brittle pages inside – I had a flashback to the musty libraries of my childhood, mostly stocked by the British before they left India, full of holey books and the smell of mold. Heaven! The Girl in Blue is pretty formulaic Wodehouse, but still a lot of fun and, unlike my reading style as a kid when plot was all that mattered, I read this time to savor the punny style.

Two other random choices were Fleur DeLeigh’s Life of Crime by Diane Leslie and The Spare Wife by Alex Witchel. Each is a satirical peek into the life of the rich and glamorous, one in New York and the other in Beverly Hills, and I’ll review when I finish reading them.

 

Writing a Novel – Day 20

Snoopy typingYou know you have a problem when your Aspie teen with anxiety issues and a video game addiction is further ahead on his novel that you are on yours. I swear I am never yelling at him again for his lack of motivation.

Got back to my novel after days of wasting my time and discovered I needed help with the continuity, even in as small a book as mine. What was the name of that lady in chapter 2? What did the heroine say to her friend in chapter 5? So I had to go back and re-read what I had written so far, a project strewn with the landmines of self-criticism. Luckily I could still tolerate the story I had written so far, so I went ahead and worked on chapter 10.

If I had to do some introspection, I guess I would say that the reason I am not in a hurry to finish the book is because once it is done I will have to show it to people and that prospect freaks me out.