Friday, October 29, 2010

Baby gorilla at London Zoo: Or is it EastEnders in a new avatar?

Hmm... so I have started contributing to Londonist. It is all a big experiment and all shall be revealed in due time.

In the meantime, enjoy my latest contribution on gorillas, zoos and EastEnders.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

i Spy: or what possessed The Independent to launch another newspaper?

 Why oh why, did The Independent launch i?

It is a question that has me befuddled ever since I read the first copy of this tabloid-sized newspaper that launched two days ago – the first national newspaper to be launched in Britain in 25 years. I actually read the paper for three days running to try and figure that out.

It is not that I don’t think there is a need for a newspaper, a proper paper publication at that, in the UK. The endlessness of news over the web – the twitter feeds, facebook updates, rss feeds, google news updates and reams and reams of endless commentary – does make me wish for a one-stop shop every morning for all the important events of the day past.

But I wanted it be real news – facts and information that would clue me into the important issues surrounding my life. I didn’t want to be entertained. I didn’t want gossip. I didn’t want lifestyle features. And I certainly didn’t want views and commentary telling me what to think about the issues at hand. I have enough media at my fingertips to do just that for FREE. I only wanted facts – the bare bones to build my own opinion on, if I cared enough about the issue.

That is exactly what i claimed it would do. It was supposed to be “a new kind of a paper” giving you your “essential daily briefing” that “cuts through this information overload to give you all you need”. Only it came filled with features like “Are you getting your oats?”, “best toys in town”, “10 best leggings” reviews on films, theatre and books, tv listings, and still more commentaries and views on television, arts, business, sports and politics to add to the existing media cacophony.

But it is only 20p, The Independent says. The point is I would still have to take a detour to a newsstand or at the very least, stop by a streetside vendor, search through my handbag, and extract 20p for the pleasure. For that much effort, wouldn’t I want to treat myself to a real newspaper?

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Watch this space: Or has Google come to our rescue... finally?

Zuckerberg: Poor little rich boy
Watching The Social Network yesterday got me curious about how Facebook makes money. After all, the site hasn’t made a public-offer yet, it hasn’t been bought out, so how has it made Zuckerberg the youngest billionaire in the world?

The answer left me reeling. It made $500 million dollars last year primarily through advertising. Ever noticed those four small boxes that pop-up on the side of your profile page? I hadn’t. I would have, if I had known that they were making nearly $450 million dollars for Zuckerberg & Co annually. And what made me nearly burst into tears was that the rest of the $50 million dollars were being made through sale of virtual goods – those silly $1 ducks, mugs, hugs and batches we keep sending to each other.

How is it that Facebook can get people to collectively spend $50 million dollars on silly goods that are not even real but newspaper and magazine websites can’t get a penny out of people for bringing critical information to their desktops every day? What is it that media companies providing information content don't seem to understand about their audience? Or is it that they are just lazy, uncreative and incapable of thinking of innovative ways to squeeze money out their audience? The best great minds such as Rupert Murdoch’s have been able to come up with is a militant, view-on-subscription-only paywall approach. But if I haven’t felt motivated enough to get an online subscription to his Sunday Times then fat chance Mr Murdoch has with ADD-infected teenagers? 

But help may be on its way if Google’s Watch This Space campaign is even half as effective as it sounds.

Now we might as well accept that information content is all going to go digital. It is also mostly going to be free. So the only saviour content creators can possibly find is advertisors. And yet, online advertising has always been particularly dull. Those tacky banner ads have a tendency to pop-up at the wrong time and wrong place. Besides, conventional wisdom suggests that the medium is too fragmented and fractured for any campaign to make any measurable impact. However, Google has put its geek-might behind making online advertisements easy, smarter, attractive, measurable, customised and better-targeted than ever before.

Algorithm-by-algorithm, Google is trying to streamline the online digital space to make it easier for advertisers to find the right audience, place smart and attractive advertising campaign swiftly and smartly, and be able to measure its success more accurately.

For example, Google representatives Barry Salzman and Neil Mohan at the Interactive Advertising Bureau’s Mixx conference last month (see video above) predicted that almost half of all online display ads will move from static text banners to real media ads, that is, videos which are interactive and expandable. Google claims to have the necessary technology called the double click studio to help the conversion. The ads will be customised in real time depending on the audience and their location. They are also working on more metrics to examine the success of the campaign, which hitherto has been dependent on the actual number of clicks on display ads. But clicks didn’t take into account people who made related searches or visited the product’s website instead of clicking on the display ad. Google claims it can make that possible in the future, apart from coming up with other solutions to measure a campaign’s success.

If Google can, and if online media becomes genuinely profitable for the first time, perhaps there will be some hope for me.

And yes, The Social Network was a fabulous film! Zuckerberg was a sneaky little bastard but what a rich sneaky little bastard he was.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Bookered Out: Or I bet Jacobson was not mantelpiece-deprived like me

As Howard Jacobson was accepting his first Man Booker Prize award yesterday for the book The Finkler Question, I was accepting my first polite rejection from the Story Quarterly to whom I had sent a short story for publication.

I don’t blame them. I was destined to fail as a writer. Because I grew-up funny in small town India reading words I couldn’t visualise and seeing things I had no words for.

Howard Jacobson: Bet his was rich with mantelpieces
We spoke Hindi at home, English at school, and a hopeless mix of the two everywhere else, and my book diet was rationed by our school librarian to 12 books a year -- to be chosen out of an exclusively selected pile of Enid Blytons and Nancy Drews. Other than that, there was a Railway Club library entirely built out of the comic books and American paperback thrillers left behind by Railway Officers passing through Dhanbad.

The problem was that everything I read related to some imaginary world out there with landscapes, terrains, houses, neighbourhoods, foods and clothes that were divorced from most things that surrounded me. I remember spending an entire winter afternoon in our large, bare drawing room staring hard at its every feature trying to figure out if anything fit the description of a mantelpiece. Mantelpieces frequently appeared in the lives of the Famous Five whom I was rather obsessed with. Yet, I had great trouble visualising it. I knew my drawing room had shelves and a cupboard, four walls and a CEMA fluorescent tube light – but nothing that could be a mantelpiece. It sounded grand, M-A-N-T-E-L-P-I-E-C-E, but what was it? What did it really look like? The fat Oxford English Dictionary gave me a hazy idea of shape and form, and the fact that it probably had something to do with fireplaces, but nothing concrete that I could grasp. And there were no google images to rush up to. There was only my imagination, and a hazy, frustrating feeling that I was not trying hard enough.

But how could an eight-year-old visualise something that she had never seen. How could I visualise bacon, mackintoshes, loafers, brogues, macaroons, jodhpurs, loafers, brambles, blueberries, awnings, turrets, gables, attics, and daffodils when I was surrounded by saris, pyjamas, polyester, aubergines, karelas, English broilers, spices, scooters, pigs in gutters and water buffaloes. Slowly, I simply started shutting descriptions out, involving myself more and more with the characters and their internal lives. After all, I could still identify with their anger, surprise, jealousies, envies and joys, if not with their mackintoshes and brogues. I thought that a better solution than the one my best friend Shilpi (or was it Shilpa?) came up with – not read at all.

To make matters worse, there were no texts around me that helped me put into specific words the things that actually formed my visual landscape. Even our school textbooks were filled with stories by English and American writers. There was nothing that described the lives we led in our Indian towns and cities. Was there a specific word to describe the standalone single-storey brick-built apartment block that I lived in? I knew it was different from the row of stone-built single-storey apartments with shared walls that my friend lived in. If there were separate words to distinguish them, I never came across them in either books or real life – they were only ever called buildings. There were bungalows and then there were buildings, nothing in between.

Confused and frustrated by words and descriptions, I simply stopped looking for words to describe the in-betweens. Rooms were rooms, houses were houses, trees were trees, colonies were colonies and chicken curry was chicken curry – if there were in-between features, they existed in the world of my vision, not in words, not on paper, not in stories, and not in novels.

Today, Indian children are more lucky. Google has made the world so much smaller, and Indian authors writing about life in India are increasingly common. But it is too late for me. Mantelpiece deprivation sealed my fate forever. Bet Jacobson never had that problem.

 Update: Naresh sent me a link related to a BBC4 documentary talking about Blyton's overpowering effect on so many Indian children. I am glad I wasn't the only one.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Zuckerberg & The Social Network: Or why when in doubt I turn to The New Yorker

On my third day at Time Out Mumbai, I dragged Naresh into our merry, cherry-red office meeting room and demanded to know what he expected of me as a journalist. I was an aggressive, green 24-year-old, and was determined that my Columbia-educated, WSJ-alumnus editor, Naresh Fernandes, was going to teach me all that there was to learn about journalism. Naresh, in his usual part-alarmed, part-taciturn way, asked me if I had heard of The New Yorker. I hadn’t – you see, I was also a stupid 24-year-old. He went ack to his desk, got a few copies, handed them to me, and said: “This was my favourite magazine in New York. This is what I want Time Out to be.”

I remember feeling a bit deflated at that time. But six years later, I wonder if he could have taught me more about journalism then to introduce me to the absolute best in the trade. I am a complete, unabashed, unapologetic fan of the publication and now website. I love it because whenever there are too many voices, too much emotion, too much hyperbole in the air about something, I know I can turn to The New Yorker for a detailed, thoroughly well-researched and reasoned analysis of the situation.

And if there is one subject that has tongues wagging at the moment, it is David Fincher & Alan Sorkin’s film The Social Network, which is the story of how Mark Zuckerberg, the creator of Facebook, screwed all and sundry in the process of becoming the hippest geek in the world. It is hardly surprising that the film is so anticipated. After all, no internet tool since Google had impacted our lives as much online as offline. For better or worse, it tapped somewhere deep into our psychology and affected our notions of friendship, popularity, self-awareness, privacy and connectivity. And of its reach, I can only say that my 61-year-old Dad who still types with one finger has a Facebook account, as do many of his friends.

The film will release in the UK on Oct 15 but if reviews of the film from the US are anything to go by, Zuckerberg is depicted as a socially-retarded, sexually-charged, and morally-vacant person. The film is not kind to Zuckerberg’s personality, his intentions or the way he went about making the Facebook tool. In short, we will probably come out the theatre heartily disliking the fellow and suspicious of how his intentions for us, the unquestioning users of Facebook.

But trust the New Yorker to come out with a more questioning and nuanced profile of Zuckerberg just before the film’s release in the States to balance the Sorkin’s hyperbolic character. The author Jose Antonio Vargas still describes him as supremely ambitious, iconoclastic and socially-retarded, but tempers his portrayal with enough humanity to make him believable. There are four things from the article that I would like to keep in mind when I watch the film.

a)    He was 19 when he created the tool. He is 28 years old now. Surely, some self-reflection must have accompanied his ascent into adulthood.

b)    If money and acceptance was all-important to him, why didn’t he sell his tool to Yahoo!, Microsoft or MTV Networks, all of whom offered him between 75 million dollars and a billion dollars for the tool.

c)    His girlfriend of last seven years, Priscillia Chan, is a Chinese-American studying medicine at the University of California. Somehow that does not sound like the actions of a horny, misogynistic jerk – that the film supposedly shows he to be – who suddenly came into a lot of money and fame.

d)    And finally, the fact that the 49-year-old Sorkin admitted in the article that he knew very little about social networking and professed an “extreme dislike of the blogosphere and social media”. Are the most ignorant, often the most prejudiced?

The New Yorker article was important because how we view Zuckerberg, and perhaps Facebook, will be affected by the film for a long time to come. Hence, I am glad that there is another compelling and alternative account of him out there too to counter the film’s character. After all, as any good journalist knows, you will never know the truth but it is important to put all versions of it out there. And The New Yorker is all about good journalism.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Wright or Wrong: Or how not to get "Robie-ed" in life

Robie House: modernism or a Vaastu disaster?
I couldn’t have left Chicago without visiting at least one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s buildings -- now could I? So I zeroed in on Robie House: a residential house he built in 1910 in Hyde Park (the neighbourhood that would later house the Obamas). Not only was it considered to be Wright's first house that truly embodied modernism, it is now a museum with guided tours of the property.

It turned out to be beautiful, peaceful, three-storey brick house with an innovative spatial lay-out, gorgeous design details and lots of delightful little aids to the modern life, such as an ice-box, planters with automated water pipes and vacuum cleaners, with reflected the forward-looking sensibilities of the young, fashionable Robie family.

I kept thinking how lovely it must have been to live in the house until our guide started disclosing the sordid fates of all its eventual residents. The house was custom-built for 28-year-old Fredrick C Robie, his socialite wife and two kids, keeping in mind their modern lifestyle, ideals and aesthetic sensibilities. But poor Fredrick Robie, who spent nearly $60,000 on the house (20 times what he had budgeted for it), went bankrupt within a year of moving into the house. He sold the house to repay his debts, but never recovered his fortunes. Soon after, his wife walked out on him with their two kids. The new owners of the house, The Taylors, didn’t have a happy run in the house either. David Taylor died less than a year after moving into it, and the house had to be sold again. The third and last family to live in the house were the Wilburs, who lived there for 13 years. History doesn’t record their fate, but they sold the house to the Chicago Theological Seminary, who bought it with the general idea of demolishing it and rebuilding larger premises on the plot. They attempted to do so thrice, and only gifts of all the adjoining plots to the Seminary by Wright fans to the premises instead finally stopped them. The house was then bought by a real estate firm which handed it over to the University of Chicago in 1963. It ran a rather dull administrative office there till 1997, after which it was converted into a museum. So it was a family home than never quite managed to become one.

How could this amazingly harmonious-looking house bring so much disharmony in the lives of all those who lived in it?

Sid and I could think of only one cheeky explanation: messed-up Vaastu (or the Feng Shui of India). I searched the Internet to find if any of the enthusiastic proponents of Vaastu Shastra might have done a post mortem of this famously controversial house pointing out all the design-disasters led to such headaches in the lives of its residents. Surprisingly, I didn’t find any.

So here’s an idea for a reality show for silly Indian television: Vaastu vs Wright, or should we say, how not be “Robied” of love and luck in life?

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Me & the Bean Talk

There are few things that immediately turn me into a child. Sculptures by Anish Kapoor – especially the large, tactile, abstract ones – invariably do.

Which is why I landed up visiting the Millenium Park thrice during my two-week stay in Chicago. Just so that I could stare, touch and fool around with The Bean (or Cloud Gate, as is its official name that nobody uses) – the giant, bean-shaped, silvery sculpture by Anish Kapoor that sits in the park reflecting the amazing towered skyline of downtown Chicago.

After attending a retrospective of his works at the Royal Academy of Arts, I had written in a blogpost: “The material and colours somehow invited you to touch them, stare into their curving holes, pose in front of its shiny surfaces, hop over them, slide under them – and just fool around with them. The museum staff was having a tough time stopping people from doing just that, even though, I wonder if Kapoor would really mind. The works looked too solid to be easily harmed by anyone.”

Well, there was no museum staff to police people here, and boy, were they fooling around with the sculpture? You could see people being attracted to its shiny, curved reflective surface almost against their will. They would stare at it, crawl under it, run their palms on its smooth surface, and then slowly the camera would come out and they would go nuts shooting their own distorted reflections, or in my case, taking post-modern pictures of me taking pictures of Sid, which he has expressly forbidden me from publishing on this blog.

The work did exactly what good public art should do – get people curious, interested, fascinated and, at the end, exhilarated.

According to Wikipedia, the people of Chicago started referring to the sculpture as The Bean even before it was fully unveiled, thanks to its inverted bean shape. Kapoor thought the name "completely stupid", and went on to name it Cloud Gate. Of course, I didn't come across one person in the city who called it that. But then again, looking at his amazingly tactile works, one would imagine that Kapoor made them specifically for people to physically interact with. Yet, as Girish said in a comment to my previous blogpost, he absolutely hates the public touching his works. The fact that the people anyway call his work The Bean and continue to touch it in fascination goes to show how the city has appropriated his sculpture. It is a measure of how this public work of art has truly gone public. Would Kapoor have wanted it any other way?

Monday, October 4, 2010

Kallat in Chicago: Or you just can't escape India anywhere

Step-by-step Kallat conquers the world

I went all the way to Chicago, and guess what – the first article to catch my eye, when I opened the Time Out Chicago website, was one recommending a view of a public installation work by Jitish Kallat entitled Public Notice 3 at the Art Institute of Chicago or ARTIC. (ARTIC, by the way, houses such greats as Nighthawks by Edward Hopper and American Gothic by Grant Wood.) Never one to let a story go to waste, I quickly charged my dictaphone and set out to view the work and interview the curator. The article appeared in this week’s TOI Crest, and you can read an online version of it here.

What is interesting, and which I didn’t get a chance to discuss in the article – word counts are such a bummer! – is how the work actually got made.

So for those not keen on reading the Crest piece, this much should suffice to understand the work: “The installation links two important events in American history. The first is the landmark speech delivered by Swami Vivekananda calling for an end to “bigotry and fanatism” at the opening of the first World’s Parliament of Religions, on September 11, 1893, held at the site of the Chicago museum. The second is, of course, the terrorist attacks on the same day, 108 years later. Kallat has recreated the entire text of Swami Vivekananda’s speech on the risers of the main staircase of the museum using LED lights in the five colors of the US Department of Homeland Security alert system—red, orange, yellow, blue and green.”

However, I imagined Kallat playing a critical role in the creation of the installation. When we hear that the installation is by So-&-So, we still conjure-up visions of the artist painstakingly hammering away at his sculpture / installation. Actually, Kallat’s main role regarding this work pertained to conceptualisation. The museum curator, Madhuvanti Ghose, then found a company that specialises in making art installations, gave them the specifications, and worked with them to bring the installation to life. Kallat was consulted over phones and emails. Throughout the course of the installation’s creation – which was roughly a year – Kallat only made an appearance in Chicago once. That was in August this year, a month before the show’s opening, when the installation was ready for a mock-up.

I wonder if any credit needs to be given to the company that actually produced the installation as per the specifications received. None of the literature accompanying the work mentions them. Ms Ghose in the interview said that it is well-known within the artistic community of Chicago, so I am guessing, they don’t as such need the marketing mention. But do we as the viewers need to know who actually made this work, apart from who conceptualised it?

I am not asserting that the installation not being hand-made by Kallat in any way diminishes it. It does not: the work fully and completely remains his. But does the museum or the artist owe it to their viewers to make the process of the making of the artwork transparent to the viewer?

What was also interesting was that the installation – that is so custom-made for this particular site – can in fact be loaned to other museums. Only, it would have to be built from scratch for the borrowing museum. Ms Ghose said that the site of its display will have be relevant, since much of the artwork’s meaning is derived from the site of its installation: the staircase opposite the Fullerton Hall at ARTIC, the exact spot where Swami Vivekananda made his speech on September 11, 1893. However, I wonder, if the artwork is so site-specific, how can it ever be recreated elsewhere without either losing its meaning or donning a new meaning. Would it not then be a whole new work?

After all, if it weren’t for its site-specificity, wouldn’t the art-work simply be Detergent: a very similar text-and-light installation – with the same speech and colours – on the staircase of the Guangdong Museum of Art in China, that Kallat made last year?

I have created a soundslide – my first – of Kallat’s installation. All images except the first one are courtesy the Art Institute of Chicago. (PS: The triumphant Star & Stripes music is meant to be tongue-in-cheek, and yes, I know there are typos in the video text. I didn't realise that I wouldn't be allowed to edit once the video was made. Sorry about that.)

Kallat goes to America on PhotoPeach

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Games people play: Or why the success of CWG will spell our doom

A cracker of an Opening Night...
As I watched the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Games in Delhi – perhaps, the most controversial in the history of the Games – I kept thinking of the wise words by a wise Indian economist – “The 21st century is India’s to lose”. If the past few months building-up to the Games are anything to go by then lose it we will.

The opening ceremony was a success. No bombs went off, no ceilings came down, no bridges collapsed and we put together a lovely, warm, humorous opening ceremony – I damn near burst into tears twice while watching it. Unfortunately, in its very success lie the seeds of our eventual failure to make it big. Because this final face-saving effort will erase the need for any post-mortem or soul-searching that is necessary if we are ever to remove the “ing” from our “developing” tag.

What we really and truly needed was for the Games to be cancelled. We needed to be told by the world that “Jugaad” – the boastful Hindi word that we use to show the ingenuity of our last-minute “beg, borrow, steal” survival skills – is not good enough. We needed complete humiliation to realise that if we want to be taken seriously around the world then we need to start taking ourselves seriously first. We need to demand higher standards of our politicians, government officials – and before them, of all ourselves.

I remember meeting this Delhiite in Vienna who kept complaining about how Tata Nano – the one lakh car – would spell the ruin of the city. A little while later, when I asked him how many cars he owned for his family of five, he proudly declared, “Oh, seven”. He saw no irony in his position. Similarly, I am sure right this moment one of the private contractors, who bribed his way into the Games and then provided shoddy, inefficient construction work, is sitting somewhere loudly complaining about how corruption is the bane of our country. And he’ll see no irony in his complaints. If we look into our own lives, we are constantly taking advantage of our corrupt, inefficient systems to gain little advantages: whether it is dodging a traffic fine, getting a fake license, bribing examiners, exploiting our servants or getting contracts to CWG Games for a steal. Because we are corrupt and inefficient as people, we have a corrupt and inefficient government. After all, we are a proud democracy, aren’t we? And democracy is as much a government OF the people and BY the people, as it is FOR the people.

To make matters worse, there will be insidious comments about the complains being a racist conspiracy. Only, I don’t understand what is racist about pointing out that if a footbridge to the biggest stadium collapses two weeks before the opening ceremony, then the facilities are potentially dangerous? What is racist about saying that that missing deadlines after deadlines in building the stadiums and residential village is not a mark of a mature country vying to be seen as a world power? What is racist about asking for clean toilets and rooms for athletes? What is racist about holding us to the same standards as they would hold other developed countries to? On the contrary, wouldn’t it be patronising and racist to expect lower standards of us?

The fact that the ceremony opened to great fanfare will make us forget the ridiculousness of our efforts – the missed deadlines, the broken bridges, the falling ceilings, the inflated budgets, the slimy double-dealings, most of all, the deaths and injuries of construction workers that marked the event. We will just comically nod our heads side-to-side and say, we are like this only – and expect the world to congratulate us for our “jugaad”.

... but better not forget the fallen footbridges
Just remember, the only other Games to be riddled with the same last-minute, hurried problems – though on a somewhat smaller scale – was the Olympic Games of 2004 held in Athens, Greece.  And Greece was the first country to go humiliatingly bankrupt when world recession rolled-in. Internally weakened by years of corruption, inefficiencies and nepotism, it simply collapsed. Is that the fate we are looking for ourselves too? The twenty-first century – ours to lose?