Thursday, October 27, 2016

Playing With Fire

Diwali is round the corner. And pity, no one knows about John Walker. He’s the modern day Prometheus who invented the first-ever friction match. John retailed it under the awful name ‘Sulphurata-Hyper-Oxygenata-Frict’. Thankfully, he rechristened it soon as ‘Friction Lights’. Rest is history. Or let’s say chemistry.

The fact remains is that fire-themed names have always given a leg-up to anyone who’s chosen to blaze a new trail. When Amazon was researching the creation of an e-reader, they gave it the code name ‘Fiona’. But when they took professional help from branding consultant Michael Cronan, he suggested ‘Kindle’ as books have a tendency to set alight the innate curiosity. Kindle, by the way, is the Nordic root word for ‘candle’. And today, it earns billions of dollars.

Autodesk, the giant software company behind Maya, was one of the earliest to realise the branding potential of fire. They named their entire entertainment suite using terms associated with pyrotechnics. The compositing and visual effects applications were assigned the appellations ‘Flame’, ‘Flint’, ‘Smoke’ and ‘Inferno’. A module of Flame meant for creative assistants was termed as ‘Flare’. And the color grading software was labelled ‘Lustre’. All of these are mightily famous among movie editors and post production specialists.

Cut to India. When the DRDO was in the process developing a comprehensive range of missiles, they came up with five types of missiles: Agni, Prithvi, Aakash, Nag and Trishul. Have you ever wondered why, Agni is a household name while others are not? The reason is clear: Agni lit up a match inside us and burned bright in our mindscape. May be that’s why Abdul Kalam wrote a book titled ‘Ignited Minds’.

Not just firebrands, even fiery personal names are stickier. Take the surname ‘Brando’ as an example. Half the swag of Marlon Brando comes from Brando. And it happens to mean ‘torch of flame or beacon’. Same with badminton player Jwala Gutta. She’s not in the same league as Sindhu or Saina, but somehow her name is unforgettable. That power comes from ‘Jwala’ (‘intense flame).

‘Tinder’ is the one new age app that has tapped the virtues of fire to inflame the romantic spark. Curiously, the founders originally picked ‘Matchbox’and dropped it for something less explicit. In the end, their decision to bet on a word that meant ‘flammable material used for lighting a fire’ proved to be right. And their app has spread like wildfire.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Mad Taste of Madras

I have a simple test for measuring the IQ of a city. Just put all its restaurants under the microscope and evaluate them for evidence of wit. Wackier the names, smarter the city. Given this premise, one must admit that Chennai is way superior to its peers in the sheer cleverness of its spread.

OCD is a starter with which, I’d like to make my case. It’s the name of a little bakery in Shenoy Nagar. In case, you didn’t get it, it’s meant for people with the ‘Oreo Compulsive Disorder’. Cut to ‘The Velveteen Rabbit’ in RA Puram. It’s a cool-sounding lounge bar inspired by the children’s classic written by Margery Williams about a stuffed rabbit that yearns to get real.

Then there’s ‘Craveyard CafĂ©’ at Adyar showcasing its deadly dishes with a touch of dark humour. ‘Wrapsody’, the joint on ECR that specialises in wraps, is as good with its wordplay. ‘Fusilli Reasons’, the pasta place at Kilpauk, however tops the punster’s charts, by giving you a whimsy excuse for trying their food.

‘Jonah’s Bistro’, the brainchild of entrepreneur Sam Paul ostensibly named after his son Jonah, has rolled out a series of restaurants that feel like adventure movie titles. ‘Jonah’s goes to Japan’, ‘Jonah’s meets Chef Willi’, ‘Jonah’s goes to West Coast’, and 'Jonah’s goes Fishing’ are some of his finely christened culinary sequels.

Among the ones that project an authentic aura is ‘Batlivala & Khanaboy’, a Parsi restaurant floated by a Non-Parsi. The acoustics of B&K conjure up the vision of a collaborative venture between two mad bawas.

Even celebrity restaurants here have a touch of imagination. ‘God-ka by Simran’ on ECR is a telling example. Instead of riding solely on her brand equity, she chose a fusion name. Godka is what one gets by mixing Gin and Vodka. Also God-ka is a Hinglish way of implying a divine taste.

The self-deprecatory ‘I Fake’ for an ‘almost authentic’ restaurant; the very sixties ‘Love Peace Karma’ for a hookah lounge; the in-your-face ‘Eggsclusive’ for a roadside eatery; the exotic ‘Bolizza’ for a snackery peddling the South Indian Boli; the catchy ‘Biri Biri’ for a biriyani joint; and the spoonerism ‘Bake My Day’, just go to prove that when it comes to ingenuity, Madras takes the cake.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Looking Good on Paper

One of the prerequisites for being an academic is you have to look and sound very academic. Which is why you’ll rarely spot Elvis Presley sideburns or a Frank Zappa style soul patch among research scholars. Forget the nerdy dress sense, even the language has to be unapologetically abstruse. May be that’s why research papers are cold, clinical, and as unreadable as an engineering manual.

The idea behind penning papers like ‘Metagenomic insights into the pathogenome of cellulosimicrobium cellulans’ is the equivalent of sporting a t-shirt that reads, ‘If you didn’t get my PhD dissertation title, then you’re not PhD enough’.

Given the peer pressure to portray oneself as ‘lab-coatish’, it takes a brave heart to strike a discordant note and make science, very unscientific. Thankfully for every boring scholar, there’s a Feynman somewhere trying to break the mould and simplifying things.

Recently, I stumbled upon a stash of dissertations with titles that made me want to read them. On top of the list is ‘Ramanujan’s association with radicals in India’. It almost feels like a historical thriller about mathematicians and Naxalites. On the contrary, it’s an in depth study of Ramanujan’s work in the field of radicals or square root numbers!

Another one that fascinated me was the ‘Alpher-Bethe-Gamow’ paper on the origin of chemical elements. Doesn’t that sound like Alpha, Beta, and Gamma to you? Apparently, Alpher is the author of the thesis. George Gamow, the famed cosmologist was his guide. And they added Hans Bethe, the nuclear physicist’s name, almost whimsically, just to add some punch to the title.

Juan Bicarregui’s ‘Do Not Read This’ is equally compelling. It taps into the child in you and urges you to take a sneak peek without explicitly asking you to do so. Bailey and Borwein were even more brilliant. They put their key finding as the header: 'The 40 billionth binary digit of Pi is 1'. Anyone who reads it will gasp, ‘How could they know that without a computer?’ and will definitely want to explore their algorithm.

Ryter, Morse & Choi got it spot-on when they put out their findings on the similarities between Carbon Monoxide and Nitrous Oxide. They chose to play on Star Trek and worded their work as 'Carbon Monoxide: To boldly go where NO has gone before'. That level of wit can lift the clouds of dullness from any vapid verbiage masquerading as research.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Land of Legends

Dravid and Kumble are not the only legends associated with Karnataka. Every city in the state is a tale wrapped in a yarn inside an anecdote.

Take Udupi, to know how imaginative things can get. Udupi is said to have been derived from the Sanskrit words Udu and Pa, which mean ‘lord of the stars’. This is an allusion to a mythical story that involves the moon and his 27 wives. Apparently, Daksha, the father of the 27 nakshatras, was cut up with the moon for some reason and he cursed his son-in-law that his light would dim with time. When it did, the petrified moon and his cohort of wives prayed to Lord Shiva to prevent him from turning into a dimwit. Shiva predictably answered his prayers and restored his glorious shimmer. Hence, the name Udupi, as a nod to Lord Shiva.

Bidar, the hill-top city in North East Karnataka, has an equally mythical origin. They say Bidar is named after Vidura, the wise uncle of the Pandavas and Kauravas, probably because he was rumoured to have settled down here.

Mangalore is named after a Malabar princess Premaladevi who had renounced her kingdom after becoming a disciple of Swami Matsyendranath. Apparently, the saint rechristened her as Mangaladevi. She died of illness in an area that eventually became Managaldevi temple. The temple lent its name to Mangalore.

Chikkamagaloru has a little tale associated with its origin. They say the town was given as a dowry to the youngest daughter of Rukmangada, the chief of Sakharayapattana. To commemorate the gifting, ‘younger daughter town’ was translated into Kannada as ‘Chikkamaga uru’.

Mysuru has the most popular funnecdote. And it’s linked to the buffalo-monster Mahishasur. Mahishasur had all the boons from the gods and was virtually unchallengeable. Being conceited, he decided to take on the divine powers. Brahma, Vishnu & Shiva reincarnated themselves as Durga or Chamundeswari and slayed the demon. The Chamundi hills, East of Mysore, is a tribute to the goddess. While the city itself is called the abode of Mahisha.

Adding to the list of colourful etymologies is Kolar. It’s derived from Kolahalapura (Kannada for ‘violent city’). Kolahalapura was the battleground for some famous wars between the Chalukyas and the Cholas. To think that a war zone has transmogrified into a veritable gold mine is truly legendary stuff.