Brand Inundation

I went to the supermarket yesterday to get myself a toothpaste. After crossing several shelves, I finally found the toothpastes’ rack. There were hundreds of brightly colored and neatly arranged rectangular parallelepipeds proudly staring at me, subtly hinting their numerical dominance. But I wasn’t there to be overpowered. I had a preference. I had a brand name in mind. “Just pick it up and drop it in the basket.” — That’s how simple I thought it was. But I couldn’t be more wrong. Only if selection was that easy.

My brand was Colgate. So, I went past the other brands and found myself staring blankly at the bright red facade of the great Colgate wall. Here’s what I found in the Colgate inventory.

  • Colgate Dental Cream
  • Colgate Sensitive Pro-Relief
  • Colgate Max Fresh
  • Colgate Active Salt
  • Colgate Total
  • Colgate Sensitive
  • Colgate Kids
  • Colgate Herbal
  • Colgate Cibaca
  • Colgate Fresh Energy Gel
  • Colgate Max white

Wait. I thought I’d just pick up the ‘white paste’ and get the hell out of that place. And what’s ‘Dental Cream’? Am I supposed to smear it gently over my teeth after which a motley crew of intelligent atoms spring into action and kick the plaque’s ass? And then there’s ‘Sensitive Pro-Relief.’ I knew the ad on TV where an excessively charitable, white-aproned doctor hands over toothpastes to the passers-by, asks them to try it out for a week, and then waits for them to come back only to tell them that their dental weakness has been reduced by 99.9 percent. Where’s the doctor? Never mind. Perhaps Pro-Relief was what I regularly used. But wait. What’s the difference between Sensitive Pro-Relief and Sensitive? Does Colgate Sensitive ‘lack’ pro-relief? If Colgate Total ensures total protection, what do the other pastes do? I hate gels and Continue reading

Words originating from Greek Mythological Characters

You can gain interesting insights and memorize words better if you check the etymology. Many words in English have fascinating, and sometimes even weird origins (check the etymology of Avocado, for instance). An interest in etymology is self-perpetuating; all you have to do is give it a kick start. This post deals with a few words originating from Greek mythological characters. While listing all of them is certainly a herculean task and something beyond my ken, this is a humble attempt to share a few words off the top of my head.

  • From The Creation Myth: According to the Greeks, the entire universe was initially empty i.e it was void of any physical existence. They called it χάος (Chaos). Gaia (the mother Earth) was the first to come into existence from this void. The prefix “Geo” has its origins at this point and comes from the Greek word γη or γαια (Gaia) meaning “earth.” But Gaia wasn’t the only entity to come out ex nihilo – she was followed by Tartarus (underworld), Eros, Erebus and Nyx (night). Eros, the Greek god of love, according to some sources, is responsible for the existence of the word Erotic [from Erotikos]. Nyx, on the other hand, had children named Hypnos (sleep) and Nemesis (retribution) along with 4 others Nyx’s children are the etymological ancestors of the words Hypnosis and Nemesis respectively. Among the other primordial deities were Aether (responsible for the origin of Ether — meaning, the upper regions of space) and Chronos (responsible for the prefix Chron- meaning Time).
  • Tantalizingly true: There was once a Greek demigod named Tantalus — the son of Zeus and the nymph Plouto. He was invited to Mount Olympus by Zeus, the ruler of gods. Tantalus, drawn away by the abundant supply of Ambrosia (Nectar), stole it to give it to his friends back on Earth. In addition to that, he invited gods to his place and served them the flesh of his own son, Pelops. He also revealed some secrets of the gods to his subjects. If Tantalus were living in the present-day world, he would be charged for infanticide, cannibalism and human sacrifice and be locked up till death. But the punishments given back then were far more severe. After facing the wrath of Zeus, he was sent to Tartarus for eternity where all the scrumptious delicacies hang within his mouth’s reach but move away as soon as he attempts to eat one. The worst part is, he would never die — he’s locked up for a futile eternal quest. Hence, we have the word Tantalizing – the act of tormenting or teasing (someone) with the sight or promise of something unobtainable. From the perspective of an etymologist, the moral of the story is…placing yourself at the extreme ends of the good-bad dichotomy makes your name eponymous with a (sometimes) frequently used word. (If you are really unlucky, you’ll find your name denoting something you despise — see Orwellian). Continue reading

Chessboard in CSS

This is my first attempt at CSS and I’m glad that the end result is satisfactory. As soon as I finished learning the basics, I got the idea of creating a chessboard (or checkerboard) using CSS — after all, I’ve been getting too much inspiration lately. The following tutorial is quite easy to do and is aimed at beginners.

Creating the board — There are multiple ways of doing this and one can use div or table to get the end result. I used table. The first step involves creating an 8×8 table. This can be done using the <table></table> tags and inserting 8 cells (td’s) in each row (tr) and doing the same thing 8 times. Though it may seem long, it’s just a simple copy-paste job (and there’s no alternative either).

Single Row (to be placed between <body> and </body> tags ):
<tr><td></td><td></td><td></td><td></td><td></td><td></td><td></td><td></td></tr>

Once you’re done with the 8×8, it’s time for styling using CSS. For this board, the length of each square is taken as 50px with a silver colored solid border of 1px size.

CSS:

td
{width:50px;
height:50px;
border:1px silver solid;
text-align:center; (Text align is necessary for a proper alignment of unicode)
font-size:40px;}(Font size for the unicode characters)

table tr:nth-child(odd) td:nth-child(even) {
background: #000;
}
table tr:nth-child(even) td:nth-child(odd) {
background: #000;
}

As you can see, the board makes use of nth-child selector to select alternate <td>s and <tr>s. Without that, we’ll end up having a board that has the same initial pattern getting repeated 8 times.

One can find all the individual chess pieces in unicode. So, we can add additional identifiers to place the chess pieces on the board. Using gradients to fill in the checks is the most effective way; but because I used black and white, the unicode characters are red and green for this example. One can replace the chess pieces with circles and arrange them accordingly to get the checkers board.

Here’s the complete code along with the end result.

http://jsfiddle.net/7GmCv/ (or) http://jsfiddle.net/sarath_a/gvZNA/

The Credibility of History

How can one say for sure that everything they’ve learned in their history class is actually true?

There is no straightforward answer to that question, but there are a few parameters that help us determine the authenticity of what we read or listen to. True history (and timeless literature) is something that isn’t influenced by following factors.

  • Socio-Political: Influence of the then societal and political conditions
  • Literary-Historical: Influence of other literary works or baseless historical facts that tend to obscure reality
  • Autobiographical: Influence of the writer’s own views

Whenever someone reads a historical work, they need to question themselves if the given work is influenced by any of the previously mentioned factors (for instance, Glimpses of World History tends to take a socialist stand — after all, it is an epistolary work and cannot be taken as an authentic source) Pieces written in blogs or articles found online are usually influenced by the writer’s own views and that’s the inherent defect of all the blogs in general — lack of authenticity (This can be taken as the classical example of simulacra generating reality) We cannot know for sure if what’s written is indeed true because even the ‘facts’ we usually know are the ones we’ve read elsewhere. All we can do is trust the research done by historians and draw additional (logical) conclusions based on the poetry, paintings, and relics of a particular time.

So whenever you’re in an argument with a person who makes a baseless statement, the best thing to do, when you don’t have an extremely convincing source either, is to stop the argument altogether before it enters the Nietzschean space; because many historical facts take erratic swings on the pivot of trust. The sensible thing to do is to select some widely accepted and honest ‘referees’ beforehand or drop the discussion altogether.

It is understood that there are many conspiracy theories floating around online. Abraham Lincoln’s Internet Wisdom (“The thing about quotes on the internet is that you cannot confirm their validity”) has a funny way of putting this. While some of them can be debunked by a logical analysis, proper observation and reliable evidence, the remaining, based on how adamant your opponent is, can seldom be proved. Sometimes, you should just accept the naivete of others.

Finally, to quote a reputed journalist on the whole issue:

Indifference to objective truth is encouraged by the sealing off of one part of the world from another, which makes it harder and harder to discover what is actually happening. There can often be doubt about the most enormous events. The calamities that are constantly being reported — battles, massacres, famines, revolutions — tend to inspire in the average person a feeling of unreality. One has no way of verifying the facts, one is not even fully certain that they have happened, and one is always presented with totally different interpretations from different sources. Probably the truth is undiscoverable but the facts will be so dishonestly set forth in that the ordinary reader can be forgiven either for swallowing lies or for failing to form an opinion

The flawed concept of ‘Utilitarianism’

Utilitarianism is a doctrine in political philosophy according to which, an act becomes morally right if it provides happiness to the greatest number of people. i.e if there are two actions which give happiness to ‘n’ and ‘n+1′ people, the action which provides happiness to ‘n+1′ people becomes more right when compared to its alternative. Before you proceed any further, a caveat — the following article is biased. It aims to provide examples and cite references that undermine utilitarian motives.

Back to utilitarianism. This doctrine sounds exciting and agreeable, doesn’t it? Why aren’t we all utilitarians then? There can only be two reasons as to why someone’s not utilitarian.

  • They don’t know what utilitarianism is.
  • They know what utilitarianism is.

“But,” you might say, “happiness is the prime motive of all human beings!”

If that’s your line of thought, let me introduce you to a machine proposed by Robert Nozick.

Consider the following gedankenexperiment: A neuropsychologist comes up with an instrument which, when hooked up to a human being, makes him (/her) happy.

If happiness is what humans want, the entire human race should unhesitantly volunteer to hook themselves up to this machine for the rest of their lives.
  • But would you volunteer? No.
  • Would anyone volunteer? No.

Why not? There can be only two reasons why we wouldn’t volunteer.

  • We think that machines are soulless. (i.e they are at the nadir of the “consciousness cone” proposed by Douglas Hofstadter). So, we would never come down the cone to the level of these flesh-less contraptions for the purpose of an abstract notion called ‘happiness.’
  • Happiness is not what we want.

The first reason is self-explanatory. Let me elaborate on the second point. If happiness is not what we want, then what is it that we aspire for? As some philosophers point out, in addition to being happy, we also want to make others happy. To give an example, in addition to reading books, we also want to write books. To put it short, we value experiences as much as we value happiness — too bad utilitarians cannot give you ‘experiences.’

Role of Religion during Diocletian reign

Religion was an integral part of the Roman empire right from its conception. It was mostly a blend of Greek and Egyptian mythologies. They believed in Pietas (priests) maintaining relations with the Pax deorum (Gods). However, different rulers tackled religion differently during their reign. The following analysis begins at what the historians refer-to as the end of the Golden Period i.e the late 200 AD.

Despite having better opportunities like good communication and transport, lack of integrity and the absence of a powerful and reliable ruler who could withstand the threats posed by Persians and Germans worried the Roman populace. It was at this time that a cavalry commander called Diocletian took the brave step of going up the hierarchy on his own to become the ruler of the great Roman Empire following the death of Emperor Carus. But he was faced with the following problem — Given the precarious nature of the Roman Empire at that time, how could he prevent a potential coup d’état?  Someone else could as easily proclaim the throne as he did.

Diocletian had the following choices.

  • Following the path of Augustus and calling himself “The First Among Equals” and then establish a friendly relation with his subjects. But he was a too suspicious to follow this method. He knew that this idea hasn’t worked out successfully for all his predecessors. So, he abandoned it.
  • Tyrannical Rule – Though the ultimate objective of every plan was to establish dominance, suppression had its own problems. Firstly, it could give rise to another civil war and secondly, Diocletian didn’t want to break the legacy of his forerunners by being the suppressive of sorts and being called a tyrannical ruler. With that, he eliminated tyranny.
  • Consecrating the position of the emperor by coming up with an ingenious plan.

Continue reading

On Timers, Adverts and Indian TV

Many television channels display a countdown timer which shows the time after which the program returns. This timer starts ticking 2 minutes before the program ensues. I recently observed this and wondered what psychological effect this has on our channel surfing behavior. After observing the behavior of family and friends, I concluded that this timer is highly successful in preventing the viewers from going away. That’s because the timer confers a sense of urgency and lets the viewer know that they’re just seconds away from the program they’re waiting for. The more I thought about this, the more I appreciated the way the seemingly trivial psychological ‘nuggets’ influence the way we behave.

With hundreds of television channels offering ‘expert’ opinions, airing documentaries, broadcasting movies and giving breaking updates at the same time, it is difficult not to flip channels obsessively. With the remote control at their disposal, viewers quickly flip between channels as soon as an ad shows up. Considering the average adult’s attention span of a mere 8 seconds, it’s a really challenging task for the advertisers to create an efficient advert. This makes the advertisers ramp up their costs by including celebrities or creating nifty graphics interspersed with emotion or humor to create a well-timed ad that entertains the viewer and persuades the viewer to purchase their product.

Adverts are the main source of revenue for TV channels. In order to get adverts, they should produce good appealing content- something that strikes chord with the majority of their audience. That brings us to the Indian TV Scenario. Indian shows are highly stereotypical with each show easily touching the 1000-episode mark without much advancement in the storyline. The introductory recaps last for 5 minutes, followed by commercials for another 10 minutes, ultimately leaving the viewer with 10 minutes of unintellectual stuff filled with melodrama and emotion.

You may find the saas-bahu (daughter-mother in law) stuff really bland, but for the lower-middle class household i.e for about 50 million people in various parts of India out of which 20 million still live in joint families led by the patriarch with women still confined to the kitchen, this comestible pabulum is what entertains them. It not only entertains them, it becomes an integral part of their day-to-day lives. You can find people, ranging from children to grandparents sitting together and watching the serials after the hectic and stressful day. They don’t want to risk losing even an iota of their favorite TV show. So they are usually not in the habit of flipping channels unless they’re catching up with two shows at the same time- that is.

Because TV channels don’t want their viewers to go away as soon as the ads start, they make it a habit to include the stereotypical ‘Aap kahi jaayiye mat, hum abhi lautenge! (Don’t go away, we’ll be back soon!)’ irrespective of the impact that phrase has on the audience. News channels have an advantage over reality shows and sitcoms. They can display ads on the tickers running below and can instantly garner user attention by displaying huge red bands saying ‘breaking news.’

So those were a few things I observed. Anything else? Do let me know!

On writing

“On writing”… with due apologies to Stephen King.

You have amazing thoughts lurking in your mind — vivid thoughts and strong opinions yet to take a form where they can be seen by others. All you have to do is let them out. But unfortunately, that’s where the beginners usually stumble and find difficulty. Our inability to express our feelings sometimes makes us doubt our own volition. But the truth is, we are either bound by our lingual abilities or we’re too lazy to make any effort to improve our skill  set. It is up to you do decide where you belong.

From my brief experience as a writer, here’s what I have to say.

  • Writing is like making a sculpture that everyone likes. You are given a huge monolith and now you’re faced with  the task of making a beautiful sculpture out of it. If you want your sculpture to be liked by everyone, you should give it your  best effort. Similarly, in writing, language is your tool and you should  make the most effective use of this tool to create an elegant essay.
  • The beauty of the end product depends on the time you’ve spent and the aesthetic gain the on-looker gets. Just like an efficient sculptor who carefully marks an outline of what he has to make, you should initially develop an outline an idea of what you have to express and think about how you’re going to do it.
  • There are a lot of sculptors around — so work on every sculpture the way you’d work on your last. After you make the outline, you’re into the business of actually making stuff. Step back regularly and watch the baby you’re about to conceive with the  sternness of a father and the love of a mother.
  • Fix the things you’ve  previously missed, carefully chiseling out the appendages and only leaving out what’s necessary.
  • Now brush the tiny bits here and there with the diligence of an elderly watchmaker working on miniature objects.
  • And now, after giving it your best effort, stand back and marvel at your wonderful creation! It’s up to you to decide if the above task is ‘easy’ or ‘difficult.’

Good luck!

Written for DPChallenge (Easy as a pie) by Sarath Avasarala.

Rain…

As the silver drops of rain
patter against my window pane
bringing the love of the sky above
to the humans down below
I thank the One for heeding my plea
for filling my heart and soul with glee
by giving a summer rain to me…

- Sarath

An outlook on Outlook!

It’s been quite a while since I’ve used Hotmail.

Hotmail, though a widely used email service, lost its market share to the relatively new players like GMail. So it is high time that Microsoft started doing something to get back its share.

Microsoft did a lot of experiments to regain its popularity. Back in 2010, it launched a service called “Cool Hotmail” which allowed its users create an email id of the form “yourname@<yourinterest>.com”. Though you can’t use any word in place of <yourinterest>, Microsoft offered a slew of options ranging from “clubhrithik.com” to “vadapavrocks.com”. I managed to get myself an email id of the form “<myname>@globallyunique.in” (and just so you know, it’s still alive!) But the problem with Cool Hotmail was, it was the same Hotmail service that Microsoft always offered except that it was shrouded in a nifty camouflage. Hotmail was (and still is) a bit cluttered.

Meanwhile, Microsoft came up with the Metro UI Windows 8 UI which shows items/apps as a beautiful arrangement of colored tiles. The interface was fast, fluid and worked the way it was meant to. They used the same interface in Windows 8 OS for computers, on the Windows 8 phones and the Microsoft Surface. So, they decided to incorporate Windows 8 UI to email. So, on the 31st of July, they launched a completely new email service that isn’t called Hotmail, and called it Outlook. Outlook has a very fast interface (faster than Gmail,Yahoo Mail) that is extremely stylish and is more social than any other mail service in the arena! You can “poke”, “like”, “retweet” or even chat with your social networking friends without leaving the inbox. It lets you import all your emails and contacts from other email services like Gmail or Yahoo and automatically updates the same. So, its a unified mailbox for all your emails. The added bonus is that, it allows you to edit the Powerpoint or Word files that come as attachments by storing and opening them directly from your Skydrive account. It shows the attachments as tiles and gives you an option to download them as a zip file. You can send files more than 25 MB in size without uploading it to another file host. If a file is >25 MB, it automatically gets uploaded to your Skydrive. So Outlook has tighter integration with Skydrive than GMail with Google Drive!

Another cool option that only Outlook offers is a “single-use code”. If you’re not comfortable typing your password in the public or have someone peeping onto your keyboard when you type your password, then Outlook is the service to use! You have the following screen for requesting the single-use code:

Once you type your phone number, Microsoft texts you the password which can be used for your login. (Note: You can only use one phone number as support for multiple numbers gives the access to everyone!)

What are you waiting for? Head over to Outlook.com and get yourself yet-another-email.