The Kodak moment of World War 2


The camera moves over dense green foliage from the air.

It's the kind of footage that sets the atmosphere for everything from travelogues to war even in films today.

In a beautifully narrated documentary, Todd Dominey talks about the problem that drew Kodak into the war.

In the early 40s when the US pilots flew over enemy terrain, they faced a strange problem.

They were unable to pick out enemy lines in the midst of green foliage because of a cheap hack. Camouflage.

It was so effective at hiding artillery and supply lines that the US military approached Kodak and asked if there was something they could do.

Kodak created Aerochrome - the film that gave all natural foliage a reddish hue by shooting it in infrared.

And the camouflage stood out because it did not contain chlorophyll.

All the pilots had to do was photograph terrain with Aerochrome and the enemy lines stood out in stark contrast.

Post war, Aerochrome went on to find expression in the album covers of rock bands and acid experiments of the sixties.

In graphic design, it's one of those instantly recognisable representations of flower power.

Not the soft and emotional moments of brand Kodak.

Blackberry reinvents itself

Remember the Blackberry?

Before the iPhone came up with the 'slab' they dominated the world of mobile telephones at enterprises globally.

There was a generation of business users addicted to the Blackberry and they even had a name. Crackberry.

If you've read 'Losing the Signal' you'll understand how a small Canadian company went from obscurity to dominance and then seemed to lose their way altogether when the iPhone appeared and wiped them out.

Turns out corporate obituaries are short lived.

Blackberry flirted with the idea of new phone models but it was a half-hearted attempt to return to relevance.

There was another market they were quietly working on.

Car manufacturers were integrating sensors into their vehicles - for navigation, engine performance, mileage, parking... You name it, there was data being generated

Blackberry figured that a system to integrate all that data and bring it to a common platform would be of interest to them for developing new applications.

That's exactly what they've built.

Seeing the progress Blackberry made, AWS from Amazon has joined hands with them

It's called IVY and built for an era when data from cars will flow into one giant network.

IoC (Internet of Cars) may well arrive before IoT (Internet of Things)

The walk-in movie theater

Defence cantonments were great places to grow up in.

Open spaces, trees to climb and coves to explore.

But the weekend movie was special.

Kids could stay up later than normal to watch.

The setup was temporary - a cloth screen flapping in the breeze, a rented projector, even the seating - stools, folding chairs and mats spread on the ground.

Families would arrive at the designated time in the open ground when it got dark.

Home cooked dinners were parceled out and shared - a giant pot luck between neighbours and friends

There were several breaks every time the assistant ran the projector through a reel of film, rewound it and then played the next one.

So things would easily stretch into late night.

The sound of the projector whirring was a constant overlay on the soundtrack.

In the breaks, the movie was discussed. Or even better, ladies would lower their voices as they exchanged the latest local gossip.

Kids with sharp ears could catch on easily. Sometimes, the subplots were as interesting as the movie on screen.

No one drove to the theater. It was all within walking distance of the housing blocks.

That's how 20th century social media worked.

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The Indian doughnut


The resemblance is superficial.

Both are round rings. As cultural icons, the Indian version is more of a South Indian staple, though that is changing

The Indian Medu Vada is culturally as distant from the American doughnut as Indians are from Americans.

Eating a doughnut is basically like chomping a re-designed bun. Doughnuts need makeup. They have to be bathed in chocolate, drizzled with sugar, slathered with caramel or stuffed with things a chef can imagine to acquire a character.

And they're sweet, fluffy and airy.

The medu vada, on the other hand is spicy and crusty.

Getting the medu vada right is an art. It has be perfectly brittle and crumbly on the outside and  layered softness on the inside. The best way to eat it is piping hot, dipped into sambar or the chutney of your choice.

When cold, they are best enjoyed submerged in hot rasam or sambar. Or marinating in curds with a seasoning of curry leaves and mustard and a sprinkling of fresh coriander leaves.

Depending on which Southern state you belong to this can be an intensely spicy experience or soulful.

East is east and west is west. Truer words were never spoken.

Solving an impossible problem

In the 90s, I remember using digital diaries from Casio. 

They could store up to 6000 addresses and messages.

The capacity? A grand 32 kb. It's not as if those devices were cheap. They used to cost about Rs. 5-6000 back then.

Upgrading to a new device was hard work. 

Music cassettes were the rage until the compact disc took over

Video microcassettes, popular for decades are all but unusable now. Unless you find stores with the original hardware to convert them into .mov or mp4 files.

As technology evolves, new formats are created.  And the old ones are trashed.

That is the impossible problem.

How do you make formats accessible beyond their expiry dates?

Making everything backward compatible is not a solution because too many technical aspects are involved.

For most people, the answer is simple. Move on to the new one.

Anyone remember Flash? Even in the early 2000s, it was the tech that defined animation. All the wonderful work done is Flash is now mostly inaccessible.

That's why the File Format project deserves to be better known. It's trying to gather every electronic format ever used and create a solution.

Universal access to every file format ever created.

The rebirth of electric batteries

What happens to electric vehicle batteries after they die?

Rebirth is the only option

The number of electric vehicles on the road in the next decade is going to increase by 800%

And the batteries cannot be disposed off without causing an environmental catastrophe.

Fossil fuels posed a different kind of issue. Fouling up the air.

So engines had to evolve. 

It's been a tug of war between car manufacturers and governments on the standards to aim for.

Electric cars have no engines.

The batteries are pivotal and vehicles are built around them.

But in a few years, after multiple charges, they run out of juice.

They won't disappear into thin air. 

It was a problem the former CTO of Tesla saw as an opportunity to build what he calls a 'remanufacturing ecosystem'. In other words, rebirth.

It's a contest to figure out how it can be done at massive scale. The change in mindset from seeing spent batteries as waste to harnessing it as a resource.

There are already multiple environment friendly approaches to conversion - using it to create raw materials for several industries

Rebirth is no longer a spiritual issue but one looking for practical solutions

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Baby Boomers are the coolest


No Millennial coder knows COBOL.

They'll laugh when you tell them that the earliest banking systems in the US were built on it, back in the 70s.

We know there are mainframes chugging away somewhere in the background, unseen and unheard but they are the roots of fintech.

They can't be replaced or made redundant because billions of lines of code generated over the years still run the systems.

It could process millions of transactions a day back then. That's how it made its way into the heart of the financial system and stayed there.

Over 50 years of debugging has gone into it, so it's the most time-tested code language out there. Nothing is going to replace it.

There are so few COBOL programmers in the world now that the 73 year old who wrote the initial code still gets calls to come in and add features.

Probably to talk to languages conceived decades later.

Millennials can be proud of the smartphone on which they live and document their glorious social standing and aspirations.

But the Baby boomer generation built the financial foundations for today. They really did change the world.

COBOL has cool written right into it!

No baby sitters required

The majority of players and game developers on Roblox are kids.

The environment is made for them with easy to understand game development. And gameplay modeled on simple Minecraft style graphics.

They build and play the games they like with some even making revenues from them.

Roblox has over 36 million daily players in the US and Canada. Over 18 million games or 'experiences' have been created.

The company's revenue comes from in-game currency used to decorate avatars or other virtual trophies in the games.

It's on track to make $1.2 billion in the last nine months of 2020.

Gaming for pre teens was a market mostly ignored.  Roblox saw them as the core audience back in 2006 They encouraged kids to make the games they wanted and created a kid safe environment to unleash their imagination.

It wasn't adults imagining the games kids wanted to play. It was kids experimenting with game concepts they came up with to play with friends. That is a different ball game altogether.

And Roblox got insights on what kids like and how they evolved into game designers.

In time, will coloring books and crayons grow less popular?

Why is climate change like the Bitcoin problem?

Both are fighting established belief systems.

And both are fundamentally important to what the world will look like in a few decades from now.

The business models that will work for both are unclear.

We've tried carbon credits, sequestration and exchanges but they're still work in progress.

Bitcoin is trying to convince the world that decentralized finance is the best way forward.

The internet was a small shift in established systems compared to what climate change and Bitcoin will bring about.

We know we can't keep taking from the earth without balancing the equation.

Money has always had masters. That's the source of the conflict.

What will the tipping points be?

We're already seeing some of them. The wildfires. The pandemic. And the melting of the Arctic.

Venice started building a flood barrier system back in 2003.  It was commissioned in 2019 and saved the city from certain flooding in 2020. But what happens when the water rises further?  

Nature doesn't negotiate. We can't buy our way out of this.

It's time for a reset. Where we think ahead not in quarters but decades.

If we succeed, you'll see more trillion dollar companies in the news.

Or else, it won't matter anyway.

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The idea tree that keeps growing


You may not have heard of Ward Cunningham.

He's the quiet guy who invented the wiki.

Which in the Hawaiian language means 'quick'

He created a new concept of collaborative editing of ideas through linked documents in 1994.

Hypercard was a set of pages , ideas connected to each other before the internet with weblinks and URLs came into being. People could navigate from one page to another.

As soon as a new idea was added, a fresh page would be created and anyone could write and edit the contents 

The pages could evolve through collaboration but it took 2 years to get people to understand and explore the infinite possibilities.

This was before the early web browsers were built.

That experiment grew rapidly into what we know as Wikipedia today.

Jimmy Wales,  the well-known face of Wikipedia made two vital contributions.

He got the licensing terms right, so contributors could not claim specific rights to content and fragment the site's immense knowledge base.

And he opened it up, so anyone, anywhere in the world could write and edit pages in any language about subjects they knew well.

That's why Wikipedia exists the way we know it.

The AI that takes lunch and dinner orders

In 2018, Sundar Pichai of Google showed an AI program that made a booking for a hair salon appointment.

The AI assistant made the call, responded to queries and wrapped up the job in less than a minute.

At one point, the AI says 'mmhmm' in response to a question instead of 'Yes' - a human response. It received thunderous applause from the audience

Turns out that these tight well-defined situations with a clear outcome is one of the best places to go ahead and install AI.

For a company called Kea in the US, it's the business model.

It reverses the roles, taking orders at restaurants for lunch and dinner from customers calling in.

Why is that a big deal?

Restaurants in the US are short staffed and employees are unable to respond promptly to customer calls at lunch and dinner time, resulting in long delays.

It's also a great problem for AI to solve because the context is narrow.

You ask for menu options, pick what you like and place an order.

The conversations are predictable and all you need to know is if your order has been taken down.

It's already live at over 250 restaurants

What if solar power didn't need panels?

Today the two are seamlessly joined. 

Every time you  think of solar power, the solar panel pops into your mind.

However, a young student from the Philippines had a different idea.

And it won him the James Dyson award this year for renewable energy innovation.

Mixing a luminous bio-resin and lining it with solar film, he was able to generate enough power to charge two mobile phones at the same time.

The clincher? It works by converting UV rays to visible light. And solar film converts that to energy far more efficiently than any available option.

It can be fixed to walls, roofs, or any other surface, essentially converting buildings into electricity generating structures.

There's no need to face the sun, since the absorption of UV happens even in the absence of sunlight.

Until now, this was one of the biggest problems to overcome - the sun shines for around 10-12 hours a day and the panels had to be oriented towards the sun's movement.

That will no longer be necessary.

Existing solar film manufacturers can incorporate the resin into the production process.

In the years to come, solar power generation may just blend into the decor. 

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The song that launched a million purple saris


Netflix's greatest hit, The Queen's Gambit has exponentially increased chess game app downloads in the store

That wasn't part of the script.

Though the connection between brand surges and hits has been documented, it's still hard to figure out what will work.

Product placement in films has become an integral part of funding productions.

When Madhuri Dixit, swayed to 'Didi tera devar deewana' in the hit film Hum Aapke Hain Kaun, it was the purple sari she wore that sold in the millions.

The song still tops the charts with over 140 million views on YouTube

Rip-offs hawked on street corners and small shops probably made more money collectively for shopkeepers than the movie did for the producers. 

Movies influence popular culture and design more than we care to admit. But it is a lottery. 

The flops are forgotten - unsold merchandise gathering dust in musty warehouses and victims of fickle public taste.

There was even a short-lived trend of building the brand into the song lyrics. 'Main Zandu balm hui', was one that hit the sweet spot.

For marketers, it's a long shot in the dark.

The ripple effects of Covid vaccines

Only a few products have truly global demand and the vaccine is one of them.

Pfizer's vaccine has to be stored at minus 70 degrees.

That has sent the requirement for dry ice skyrocketing. Production capacity at all plants manufacturing dry ice has been locked up already

The companies involved are trying to see how they can ramp it up further.

But storing large quantities of dry ice, which is hazardous, is also a problem and regulations around that are sure to follow.

There will be a search for alternatives and cheaper solutions will emerge to drive prices down.

There are already plans to reformulate the vaccines to be effective at room temperatures but that is at least a year away before it is tested and proven.

Governments will push forward to expand the cold chain in a hurry and that will support the deliveries of many other products in future.

Logistics companies will come up with new ways to preserve and deliver the cargo

Those solutions will be used long after the vaccines reach their destinations.

The ripple effects of vaccine discovery have already shaped clinical research and approval procedures.

But we'll keep that for another day.

A note to myself

Handwritten notes are a rarity now.

When you hold a pen in your hand, it feels alien.

Like a forgotten memory, the lines struggle to form legible words.

In your mind, you still think you know cursive writing, that point when one letter flowed perfectly into another.

Some of us were commended and got prizes for good handwriting but that's over in school

There was a joy in seeing words form and arrange themselves on a single line, like birds on a wire.

Now, they've all flown away and we have perfectly legible impersonal text.

No indication or the personality of the person sending it. Like many other things, the features that differentiated us have merged.

Like fast food restaurants have done for food. Reduced it to a state where it's acceptable to everyone and distinctive for none.

But we won't accept that things have changed.

The technology to mimic handwritten notes is now available.

The fake versions of the genuine thing.

What is strange is that we won't simply pick up a piece of paper, write a note and send it off to a dear friend. Too much work.

As usual, something gets lost in translation.

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