Sunday, October 31, 2010

What makes us tick?

If you want to understand what makes India tick, read India Unbound, by Gurcharan Das.

If you want to understand what makes the world tick, read Longitudes and Attitudes, by Thomas L. Friedman.

(Both books are available in the Commits library.)

But, surely, we also want to know what makes us tick. In that case, read A Spot of Bother, by Mark Haddon, to better understand the human condition. Yes, it's a novel, a work of fiction. But it smacks of reality all the same, dealing as it does with the madness of family life.

There's so much we can learn from the book that was hailed by the New York Times as "a fine example of why novels exist".

  • Aphorisms to live by-1
George chewed this over for a minute or two. When men had problems they wanted someone to give them an answer, but when women had problems they wanted you to say that you understood.
  • Aphorisms to live by-2
You could say all you liked about reason and logic and common sense and imagination, but when the chips were down the one skill you needed was the ability to think about absolutely nothing whatsoever.
  • Aphorisms to live by-3 occurred to him [Jamie] that there were two parts to being a better person. One part was thinking about other people.The other part was not giving a toss what other people thought.
  • Aphorisms to live by-4
Perhaps the secret was to stop looking for greener grass. Perhaps the secret was to make the best of what you had.
  • Aphorisms to live by-5
And Ray said, "Eventually you realise that other people's problems are other people's problems."

FYI, Mark Haddon is the author of that massive bestseller, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (also available in the Commits library).
  • Photo courtesy: The New York Times

Saturday, October 30, 2010

"Push us. Push yourself."

In a recent post titled, "What's the point of being educated if you're illiterate?", I criticised our education system and our educators for failing our youngsters. I highlighted the inability of many undergraduate and master's level students to even spell simple words correctly and I wrote:

Neither at the high school level nor at the undergraduate level do teachers bother, I am told, to check and correct spellings in their pupils' written assignments and examination answer sheets. One reason for this may be the inability to deal with, and lack of time for, 40 or 50 or more students. However, I suspect that lack of interest is also a problem.

Yesterday Faye D'Souza (Class of 2004) sent me the link to a brilliant blog post by American entrepreneur and author Seth Godin lambasting "mediocre professors" and the education system in the US. See how much we have in common?

Godin, who popularised the concept of "permission marketing", is highly critical of...

"...professors who spend hours in class going over concepts that are clearly covered in the textbook... professors who neither read nor write blogs or current books in their field, professors who rely on marketing textbooks that are advertising-based, despite the fact that virtually no professional marketers build their careers solely around advertising any longer. ... And most of all, professors who treat new ideas or innovative ways of teaching with contempt."

And Godin concludes by coining a slogan after my own heart when he urges students to tell their teachers:

"This is costing me a fortune, prof! Push us! Push yourself!"

Now, Commitscions, where have you heard that before?


Earlier this month, on October 20, Seth Godin made another astute observation on the importance of reading (thanks for this link, too, Faye):

If you're in the idea business, what's going to improve your career, get you a better job, more respect or a happier day? Forgive me for suggesting (to those not curious enough to read this blog and others) that it might be reading blogs, books or even watching TED talks.

I am so glad that there are others out there who believe that reading can transform our lives. And who are happy to rant about it.

To read Godin's post in its entirety, go to "Deliberately uninformed, relentlessly so [a rant]".
  • Photo courtesy:

Friday, October 29, 2010

Street artist extraordinaire

Not many may know that an anonymous artist known only as "JR" last week received the 2011 TED Prize, a $100,000 (approx. Rs.44.5 lakh) award given by the non-profit organisation.

TED, or Technology Entertainment and Design, sought someone "who has a track record for changing the world in innovative ways, who hopefully has mobility and charisma, and who works on a global level," TED Prize director Amy Novogratz told the US magazine Fast Company. "And he does all those things."

 The article, by David Zax, continues:

JR, who keeps mum on the real name his initials stand for, joins the ranks of Bill Clinton, E.O. Wilson, and U2's Bono, previous prize recipients.

JR's canvas is the world. The Parisian guerrilla artist eschews museums, favoring the crumbling walls of the world's slums to the austere halls of its museums. (Even so, the Tate Modern did give him 100 feet of an external wall, and a 2009 auction of one of his prints fetched over 35 grand). Somewhat in the vein of the British artist Banksy, well known for his politically charged graffiti murals, JR will show up at slum, shantytown, or favela, often braving streets so mean that its children run around in bulletproof jackets. Once there, he enlists a crew of locals and erects enormous black-and-white photographic canvases on the walls, typically human faces or figures that lend a dignified air to a forgotten neighborhood.

You have to take a look at these "enormous black-and-white photographic canvases" to realise that TED has made a wise choice.

Watch the slide show: "Street Artist J R Wins the TED Prize".
  • Photo courtesy: Fast Company

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Salman Khan gets a glowing video testimonial from Bill Gates

That's because he's a really, really good teacher. No, this is not Sallu bhai we're talking about here but his namesake, a Harvard MBA and former hedge fund manager who runs Khan Academy, surely the world's most unusual educational institute, from his home in Silicon Valley, California.

"This guy is amazing," Gates wrote in an email quoted in David Kaplan's article in the September 6 issue of Fortune. "It's awesome how much he has done with very little in the way of resources."

Kaplan continues:

Gates and his 11-year-old son, Rory, began soaking up videos, from algebra to biology. Then, several weeks ago, at the Aspen Ideas Festival in front of 2,000 people, Gates gave the 33-year-old Khan a shout-out that any entrepreneur would kill for. Ruminating on what he called the "mind-blowing misallocation" of resources away from education, Gates touted the "unbelievable" 10- to 15-minute Khan Academy tutorials "I've been using with my kids."

So what is Khan Academy?

According to Kaplan:

Khan Academy, with Khan as the only teacher, appears on YouTube and elsewhere and is by any measure the most popular educational site on the web. Khan's playlist of 1,630 tutorials (at last count) are now seen an average of 70,000 times a day ... Khan Academy has received 18 million page views worldwide.... Most page views come from the U.S., followed by Canada, England, Australia, and India. In any given month, Khan says, he's reached about 200,000 students. "There's no reason it shouldn't be 20 million."

Isn't that an incredible statistic?

What is also interesting is the way Kaplan structures his feature, which is not only a profile of Khan but also a look at individual achievement and a study of how venture capital companies and entrepreneurs sniff out the next big idea.

Read the article here: "Bill Gates' favourite teacher". You can visit Khan Academy here.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Outlook's peerless issue on the Indian media crisis

If you've an interest in the media (and every right-thinking person in our country should have an interest in the media), if you are a journalist, if you're an aspiring journalist, if you're a media student... rush to the nearest newsstand and grab a copy of Outlook's 312-page 15th anniversary issue.

In a brilliant section of essays, helmed by foreign editor Ajaz Ashraf, the magazine dissects what it refers to as the great Indian media crisis. For old fogeys like me some of the articles may have made for depressing reading but I take heart from the thought that Outlook has done Indian journalism a singular service by highlighting the ills that plague our newspapers, magazines, and television news channels. Younger journalists and would-be journalists, who will now understand better what is wrong with our media, thanks to Outlook, will be inspired to make an effort to put our house back in order. For that I am very grateful.

Here, to give you a flavour of this thought-provoking — and provocative — issue are excerpts from the stand-out essays:

1. The pen points to us, by Ajaz Ashraf

For Outlook’s 15th birthday, instead of cutting cakes, blowing out candles and printing inane power lists, we decided to tweak a popular cliche and say that journalists who live in glass houses must throw stones at others. Heck, we are journalists, taught to blow against the wind, even live dangerously.

The 15th anniversary issue you hold in your hands does precisely that: it throws stones at the giant media houses, their ambitious owners, their flamboyant editors and wily marketing honchos. We have chosen to defy the norm that dog won’t eat dog because the media is palpably in crisis. What’s worse, the deep gashes are all self-inflicted, by those like us in the media itself.

2. Why I quit the media, by Sumir Lal

I reported from Ayodhya in 1990 on a storming of the Babri Masjid, the police firing, the many deaths, the mayhem. After filing my story, I called my wife to let her know I was safe. While BCCL [the publishers of The Times of India] was raking in record profits, the accounts department refused to reimburse me the few rupees for that call. The expense statement went all the way up to the general manager, who did not approve. On another occasion, a colleague covering an election in a sprawling constituency had his taxi bill turned down on the ground that he could have used a rickshaw. That epitomised the contempt for the newsgathering process of a paper that the BBC mysteriously certified as one of the world’s six greatest.

3. Cut-rate democracy, by Paranjoy Guha Thakurta

... corruption in the mass media in India and elsewhere is as old as the media itself. If there is corruption in society, it would be unrealistic to expect the media to be free of this affliction. In recent times, however, corruption in the Indian media has gone way beyond individuals and specific media organisations — from ‘planting’ information and spinning views in lieu of favours received in cash or kind — to institutionalised and organised forms of corruption wherein newspapers and TV channels receive funds for publishing or broadcasting information that is sought to be disguised as ‘news’ — but are actually designed to favour particular individuals, corporate entities, representatives of political parties or cash-rich candidates contesting elections.

4. Reading the reader, by Patrick French

Today, the media is in crisis; but that is not unusual, and it may not be a bad thing. The churning marks a moment of creativity. Anxiety about the state of the press indicates that people in India care about what newspapers, magazines, TV channels and websites are doing and thinking, which is not the case in countries with a less vigorous public debate. Now, Indians face further problems — trivialised reporting, predatory press owners and stories that are paid for by politicians and others.

5. "Our paper isn't for our editors. It's for people." Anjali Puri interviews the Times Group CEO, Ravi Dhariwal

Q: It was the Times that taught the Indian media that newspapers must pay for themselves. But readers have also seen walls collapsing between advertising and editorial. One question that comes up time and again is: is there a cap to greed? It seems like everything is on sale — the masthead, the front page, the editorial columns, the headlines....
A: Our editorial is priceless; it is never up for sale. I have worked here for 10 years now, not once have we ever influenced editorial decisions. We have no political agenda, our agenda is only reader engagement and relevance. We believe it is because of that that we get great advertising. Our editorial department and advertising department are totally separate. There is a Chinese wall. But if a client wants a particular design on the front page, why not? It does not upset what our editors write. To say that editors own that entire real estate, and nothing else should happen on it, is an old-fashioned formula.

6. What the hack!, by Shashi Tharoor

On the positive side, our newspapers are more readable, better edited and usually better written than they were. Every newspaper looks at the news more critically, with a clearly visible slant on the events it is reporting. Investigative stories are frequent and occasionally expose wrongdoing before any official institution does so. ... On the negative side, newspapers seem more conscious than ever that it is not they, but TV, that sets the pace.

Tharoor does not spare some of the media bigwigs, including Outlook, in his critique, citing the example of the hyper-coverage (most of it, including the Outlook article, was distasteful, in my opinion) given to his soon-to-be wife:

Part of the problem is a genuine disinclination to take the trouble to research a story, and a disregard for the need to verify it. Outlook ran an appalling piece on my wife Sunanda, in which every second statement was provably false or inaccurate, without consulting either her or her friends about their veracity. (To the magazine’s credit, it also ran a flood of letters pillorying it for the piece.) The Times of India got taken in by one of the many fake Facebook sites purporting to be Sunanda’s (she is not on any social networking site) and ran an entire article quoting her supposed views, without ever checking as to whether the site was genuine. Mid-Day placed words and sentiments in the mouth of one of my sons at my wedding that he would never have thought and did not utter. Perhaps it is our country’s weak libel protections that lead publications to feel they can print anything with complete disregard to the fact that it could amount to character assassination. But it is a sad commentary on how low our print standards have fallen that the very notion of what is “fit to print” has ceased to have any meaning in India today (and in India Today as well, but that’s another matter).

7. Pow! Thud! Diss!, by Mark Tully

The most obvious place where the editor is missing from is the Breaking News slot, which usually deteriorates into a desperate struggle to fill airtime. After the BBC’s early encounter with 24-hour radio news during the first Gulf War, an old veteran of the newsroom said to his editor, “I reckon we’ve been broadcasting untreated sewage.” Apart from the lack of content, Breaking News consistently ignores two basic lessons I was taught. It was drummed into my head that film should never be used as wallpaper. But that is exactly what film is, or at least is for most of the time, in Breaking News.

8. Mainland discourse, by Sanjoy Hazarika

It could be argued ... that poor basic services and slothful, insensitive and corrupt administration have aggravated the political crisis both in the Northeast and Kashmir. This is often where the media fails to make the connection — insurgency and bad governance are part of the same coin, the same story — and often misses the point that lack of services exacerbates alienation. These are the kind of stories that must be leadership-driven, by editors of vision and perspective. For that, you need the kind of determined editors represented by the ilk of B.G. Verghese and P. Sainath. There aren’t many of them around.

9. Just bite, don't chew, by Dipankar Gupta

To a large extent, the poor quality of TV debates is largely because our broadcasters have little faith in their viewers. They believe the ordinary person wants to see only blood, gore and spittle. They’re probably right. The masses are like potatoes, true, but in different sacks of potatoes. They are switched on to their favourite channels, but with their minds switched off. Where TV anchors go wrong, very wrong, is when they disrespect their own, quite awesome, talents. Given their backgrounds and training, they should want to be tested by the best worldwide. TRPs are mere fig leaves. Why not go for the whole tree, figs and all?

10. Slips, a silly point, by Peter Roebuck

You can see why it isn’t easy for reporters to keep the BCCI on its toes. N. Srinivasan and company resent the critique provided by Cricinfo so much that they refuse to give them passes to Test matches. It is pettiness on the grand scale. It is also a warning to other scribes. Cricinfo has one million readers and is the second most important institution in cricket behind the BCCI. And still it can be ostracised.

And you must especially read, and try to answer, the questions Outlook editor Krishna Prasad has for readers (and viewers). "This isn’t about us, it’s about you," he writes. "While you, as a consumer, have the power to read, watch and listen to what you like, you, as a citizen, also have a responsibility that goes beyond paying for what you buy. Question is, how often do you exercise that right, since it’s in your name that a multitude of sins are committed?"

Go to "A manifesto for readers"

There is more, much more to read, absorb, and act upon. This is a veritable collector's issue — why won't you want to own it?

Why is India TV what it is?

This is the television channel which was launched with the best of intentions, as Rahul Bhatia writes in a recent issue of Open. But somewhere down the line, after it failed to make any headway with viewers or advertisers, founder Rajat Sharma, of Aap Ki Adalat fame, decided on a change in strategy. "It was becoming a question of survival," Sharma tells Bhatia. "If I perished what would I do with my idealism?"

Bhatia also quotes extensively from an unnamed former bureau chief of India TV, according to whom the place was a haven for journalists, but it struggled to maintain its ideals and, as Bhatia writes, "slowly, quietly, the bureau head believes, the rules disappeared".

And then all sorts of bizarre programmes began to be telecast on the channel:

The former bureau head says, “One day they picked up a YouTube clip and ran it, saying, ‘Shaitan ki aankhen. Dekho shaitan ki aankhen’ (Eyes of Satan, watch the eyes of Satan). They made a half-hour show around the clip. Woh dikhaya. Log dekhte rahe. Baad mein kuch pata nahi chala (We showed it. People couldn’t stop watching it).”

Read this cautionary tale to understand why India TV is what it is today: "The world according to India TV".

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

"Open" sesame...

Aniruddha Bahal is unlike any journalist I know of. While his claim to fame rests largely on the sting operations he carried out for, Bahal is also an accomplished author and writer who has worked with both India Today and Outlook. For a brief period in 2008, he also hosted the irreverent Tony B Show on Channel V.

Five years ago Bahal founded the online investigative journal Cobrapost, which was responsible for Operation Duryodhana (also known as the "Cash for Questions" scandal), in which his team secretly caught on camera several MPs accepting cash in return for asking questions in Parliament.

Bahal's life as a novelist began in 2003 with Bunker 13, an espionage thriller. Last month, he published his second novel, The Emissary, a 500-page tale set in ancient Greece. Why ancient Greece? How did the idea originate? And how did he write this story without first visiting Greece? That is what both media students and aspiring writers will want to know. Obligingly, Bahal has written a detailed account in a recent issue of Open, in which he explains how Nobel laureate V.S. Naipaul nudged him towards history:

“It is essential for a writer to read history. It widens the scope of his imagination, amongst other things. But what kind of travel writing are you reading?” he [Naipaul] asked with some sternness.

Naipaul’s gaze can rattle one in the best of times, and right now he seemed to be calibrating whether I was someone he should be wasting time with.

“Well, I was going through a lot of Ryszard Kapunscinski and Bruce Chatwin,” I said, shakily hoping the names would pass muster and get me past some duffer classification that his gaze seemed inclined to thrust me into.

Naipaul’s gaze mellowed as he heard me belt out a few Kapunscinski titles: Shah of Shahs, Imperium, Another Day of Life. “That’s good,” he said. I felt like I was sliding out from the gutter. There seemed a warm hum of approval. The conversation veered elsewhere.

That’s the point that I decided to brush up on history.

You can learn a lot about generating original ideas and about doing the right kind of research by reading Bahal's highly entertaining article here.

(Contrast Bahal's working style — I am tempted to call it "laid-back" — with that of Jonathan Franzen, hailed by Time magazine in a recent cover story as one of America's best novelists and whose fourth novel, Freedom, has just been published. Here's an excerpt from the profile-cum-interview by Lev Grossman:

(If Franzen finds prepublication media attention difficult, at least he doesn't have to deal with it very often. It took him seven years to write The Corrections. You'd think that having done it three times (his first two novels were The Twenty-Seventh City and Strong Motion), he would find the fourth easier. But no. Freedom took him nine years. "It was considerably more difficult," he says. "It was a bitch. It really was."

(Read the article to get a good insight into the writing process: "Jonathan Franzen: Great American Novelist".)


In the same issue of Open, dancer and writer Tishani Doshi pays tribute to Chandralekha, one of India’s most controversial and celebrated choreographers, whose "refusal to separate art and life inspired my parallel careers, one drawing upon the other".

Doshi writes: "My twin lives of dance and writing have flowed in and out of each other fairly seamlessly. Dance taught me the rigour and physical discipline that every writer needs, and poetry and literature in turn added dimensions and depth to the dance".

What does this tell us? That writing, even full-time writing, does not really have to be a "full-time" occupation. That is the beauty of being a writer there are so many other cultural options that you can indulge in simultaneously. (Don't tell that to Naipaul, though.)


I have saved the best for last.
One of our most famous cartoonists, Hemant Morparia, bemoans the decline (and possible early death) of the political cartoon in India. In his well-founded critique in the same issue of Open, Morparia lists seven reasons for India's poor track record in producing good cartoonists. What's exceptional about his argument here is the quality of the writing: each item in that list, for instance, runs on, and leads, to the next item — you have to read it to appreciate it.

And he tops it with a brilliantly telling cartoon.

Read "Death of the political cartoon" and revel in some sparkling originality.
  • Photos courtesy: Outlook; Sunday Times (Sri Lanka);  
Speaking of cartoons, I have always wondered why most of our daily newspapers give such short shrift to the good old comic strip. And why the majority of comic strips hail from the good old US of A. Don't readers turn to the funny pages first any more, as they used to do in the good old days? And are there no Indian comic strip artists who are good enough?

Writing in in Outlook's 15th anniversary issue, Manjula Padmanabhan, playwright, journalist, comic strip artist, and children's book author, offers a convincing answer to that second question:

Publishing Western strips is not merely cheaper, it also permits a newspaper to dodge the issue of socially relevant humour. When Blondie throws a jar of mustard at Dagwood’s head, Indian readers are unlikely to think “Oo! Husband abuse!” But if a sari-clad, middle-class, middle-brow Indian Blondie were to follow suit, Indian readers would very likely howl with righteous disapproval. In Bombay’s Sunday Observer edited by Vinod Mehta, where Suki made her debut in a strip called Doubletalk, readers whined about her constantly, calling the strip a “horrible eyesore”, “Double Gawk”, “dragging and brazenly repetitive”. The reason I was able to carry on was that I had my editor’s full support. That was almost three decades ago. Today? I don’t know which newspaper editor would champion a lowly strip cartoonist against sustained reader-rancour.

Read her enlightening article here: "Strip the skin".

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The 1 a.m. call that led to a scoop

Bangalore Mirror has been publishing some hard-hitting stories on its front page for some time now. Yesterday it took the police to task for unlawfully keeping a law student in custody (October 23, Page 1) for 16 hours and not even informing his frantic family about his whereabouts.

Today, October 24, it has headlined, with telling photographs, the case of a family traumatised by a drunk BBMP official who went on a rampage at 1 a.m. Of special interest here to media students is the first-person account by the reporter, Manasi Paresh Kumar. Here is the intro:

I WAS JUST TURNING in for the night at around 1.30 when my phone began ringing. Wondering who it could be at that hour, I was taken aback to see it was Dinesh Kumar, the president of the RWA in Panduranganagar. I had met the elderly gentleman a couple of days ago with regard to the story about Vijay Patil’s harassment and demolition orders. Though I was expecting bad news, the fear in Kumar’s voice was unnerving. “Patil has come with a demolition team and vehicles to (Parameshwar) Bhat’s house. He has hit him and is now threatening to go for the house. What do we do?” was his shaky query. Assuring Kumar that I was on my way, I reached the place in just under 15 minutes along with our photojournalist P Muthu.

When you're a reporter you have to be prepared to be rung by your sources at all odd hours. In Manasi's case, the phone call that came as she was about to go to bed gave her a Page One exclusive. Which is more important for her than the fact that she was up all night, as she relates in her first-person account, and only got to return home at 6 a.m.

Read her account in its entirety here: "OUR REPORTER WAS THERE WHEN IT ALL HAPPENED".

Saturday, October 23, 2010

When a writer spews venom at subs

A majority of writers are philosophical about the changes subs make in their copy, but some writers go ballistic when that happens, and Giles Coren, the restaurant critic of The Times, falls in that category.

Read the letter he sent to the Times subs — he was furious because the indefinite article 'a' was excised from the last sentence of his article. Be warned: The email is awash with four-letter words and is not for the faint-hearted.

Here's a "clean" excerpt, one of the few paragraphs not littered with obscenities:

It strips me of all confidence in writing for the magazine. No exaggeration. i've got a review to write this morning and i really don't feel like doing it, for fear that some nuance is going to be removed from the final line, the pay-off, and i'm going to have another weekend ruined for me.

When I was a journalist, I was always a Desk-man (and proud of it) — never have I had an encounter with anyone as severe on subs as Giles Coren. I have to say, though, that while I don't condone his foul-mouthedness and while I hold no brief for his verbosity in that letter, my sympathies are with him. I would not have deleted that 'a'.

This was not the first time Coren was taking on the Times subs. He had lashed out at them in 2002 for changing "the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog" to "...jumps over a lazy dog".

Another fairly "clean" excerpt from that email:

never ever ask me to write something for you. and don't pay me. i'd rather take 400 quid for assassinating a crack whore's only child in a revenge killing for a busted drug deal — my integrity would be less compromised.
Laura Barton gives us the writers' viewpoint on the Coren controversy in her column in The Guardian. An excerpt:

There is, it must be said, something of a long-standing tension between writers and subeditors. We writers are rather protective of our words, prone to filing late and flouncing about and are altogether a tad precious. In short, subeditors view us as the Little Lord Fauntleroys of the office, and we in turn view them as our evil nemeses, hellbent on our undoing.

So while half of Fleet Street undoubtedly thought Coren a proper wazzock for his outpouring this week, there were at least some of us who sympathised somewhat. Most of us, at one point or another, have mentally drafted what we shall henceforth refer to as a "Corenian" letter, but never quite found the chutzpah required to actually send it.

And, to get an insight into a sub's emotions when faced with a tirade of Corenian proportions, read the response of The Guardian's David Marsh: "Excoriating the coruscating Coren". Here's the intro:

If only Giles Coren had given his email to a good subeditor before sending it, he might have got his point across effectively without revealing himself to be arrogant, petulant, pompous and, frankly, the last person you'd want to be stuck in a restaurant with.

And then Marsh takes on his colleague Laura Barton for the piece in which she defended Coren:

Even those we regard as friends can damn with (very) faint praise. Lauding Coren because "you've taken one for the [writing] team," one of my colleagues describes in today's Guardian how she sees a sub's job: "A subeditor sets [an article] out on the page, cuts the words to fit, checks for spelling and grammatical errors, wanton cursing and factual inaccuracies." Perhaps she didn't have space to mention the coruscating headline-writing skills, visual flair, compendious knowledge and ability to turn sows' ears into silk purses on a daily basis that makes the subeditors who put together the very section that she writes for one of the most brilliant journalistic teams in the business.

All good subs will be able to relate to this accurate description of what a sub brings to the table.

And the final reaction, this time from the Sunday Times sub-editors.

An excerpt:

There was a sharp intake of breath when your e-mail hit the inbox of subs throughout the industry this week that was after we'd stopped laughing. Not that we didn't think you had a point. Yes, tinkering with copy just for the sake of it and without consultation is wrong. It is disrespectful and arrogant. And we can see why you'd be furious at the loss even of an indefinite article.

There is nothing more irritating than a sub-editor who thinks they know better than a writer, particularly one who cares deeply about his work. But did you really have to be so rude?

Read the measured response in its entirety here: "Sunday Times subeditors reply to Giles Coren".

Friday, October 22, 2010

What's the point of an education if you remain illiterate?





JIST (for "gist").


LOOSE (instead of "lose", as in "to lose weight").

ALOT (for "a lot").





These are common spelling and grammatical errors made not by schoolkids, as you might imagine, but by young people in their twenties. What accounts for this? It's easy to point a finger at the tendency to use "SMS lingo", which is supposed to have obliterated the need to know correct spellings and grammar.

But I think the culprit is our education system.

Neither at the high school level nor at the undergraduate level do teachers bother, I am told, to check and correct spellings in their pupils' written assignments and examination answer sheets. One reason for this may be the inability to deal with, and lack of time for, 40 or 50 or more students. However, I suspect that lack of interest is also a problem.

Also, at school and in college, not enough is done, in my view, to encourage students to read newspapers, magazines, books.

How are these young people then going to know that 'at least' and 'of course' are two words? Or that you can't write 'for e.g.' because e.g. stands for 'exempli gratia', which means 'for example'? Or that the correct phrase is, "one of my friends..."? Most do not know that it is wrong to say someone was so angry he "literally" hit the roof... unless his head actually touched the ceiling.

I am not alone in voicing this concern. Only yesterday, DNA carried a major feature explaining why the decline in standards of the English language is a subject of hot debate today. "Some [teachers] are ready to throw their hands up in despair over the sorry state of the English language as it appears on test papers, project work and assignments done by their students," wrote the reporter, Asha Chowdary. "Some educators however, are stoic about it: they feel that technology has changed the world for both young and old, and language, therefore, has to change with the times."

The report goes on:

Youngsters do not have the time to read a book, an entire magazine article or a newspaper edit. They use abbreviations wherever they can. To make matters easier for them, their cell phones offer predictive text messaging which means that they have to key in fewer letters to get to the word they want, which is perfect for the lazy speller. A tweet can only be 140 characters or less and this means shortening any profound thought they might want to convey.

The best argument in favour of getting young people to pay more attention to what they write comes from educator Nirmala George, who has been an English teacher for 30 years:

There is an argument that language is only meant for communication and, so, there is no need to learn it thoroughly. I would say, why learn a language then? We might as well go back to sketching stick figures or drawing objects to communicate what we want to say. It is very important to learn a language well. The problem that we find in schools today is that children know words but are unable to express themselves right. They have not learnt how to structure a sentence right.

And Asha Chowdary, the reporter, sums up well: "The key, say most educators, lies with the teachers and the parents. They have to encourage youngsters to read, to think deeply and write thoughtfully. Language may be evolving, but we have to learn to blend the past and the present, for the best communication possible."

Read the news report in its entirety here: "Keeping it short and simple" (Page 7).

And read the sidebar, too, in which educator and columnist Arul Mani makes a caustic comment about teachers who don't know their job:

Young readers blessed with English teachers who give notes and insist on their writing exam-answers as they were dictated in class must stockpile and throw decaying vegetables till these practices come to a stop. Some part of the larger problem arises from the fact not enough English teachers have a reading life, and tend to operate in terrible fear of putting a foot wrong as a result.

What do you young people have to say?
  • Illustration courtesy: (thanks to Commitscion Sanaa Abdussamad)


"This is a problem here in Canada, too"

Shagorika Easwar, editor of the Toronto-based Desi News and CanadaBound Immigrant comments: Of course it is [a problem in Canada, too]. And it is one of my pet peeves. Your/you're, its/it's, cd's and dvd's for sale, you all/you'll...Ohhhhhhh, look at what you got me started on!

It has, of course, lots to do with a lack of reading as you say remember what you wrote about reading more to hone your writing? If you don't see how it is written and rely only on what you hear, these errors multiply.

It has also to do with a lack of emphasis on spelling and grammar in schools at least here. Kids here would faint in shock and horror if they were to see good old Wren and Martin. I still remember an essay [my older son] Tejas wrote back in grade four, soon after we moved to Canada. His teacher gave him full marks and wrote a whole paragraph, praising it in glowing terms. I was really pleased when Tejas showed it to me, until I noticed a few spelling errors that hadn't been marked. At the next parent-teacher meeting (which happened to be just a day or two after), I brought it up with Mr Ciavone (known to all as Mr C). You know what he said? They don't like to mark spelling errors in creative writing assignments! Spellings are for spelling tests. In creative writing, the focus is on development of ideas and the style, etc. That pointing out spelling errors discourages a child.

We grew up with teachers telling us things like, "I before E, except after C". Quaint as it sounds now, it was a great way to remember a basic rule.

And then you also have language being tested in multiple choice format that can be fed into computers to be corrected. How else do students score 100 per cent in English? Or even history? And that's not just here but in India, too. I have nieces in Delhi who regularly max their papers.

As for "for e.g.", I remember a teacher at Sophia's reading out from the day's newspaper and asking us what was wrong with "the hoi polloi". Hoi polloi, she went on to tell us, meant the people, the common masses, and therefore, it should be just hoi polloi, not the hoi polloi, which made it the the people!


"I was reminded of my days as an English teacher"

Senior journalist Pratibha Rao comments: Reading this piece on spellings and grammar reminded me of my days as an English teacher. A student of mine spelt Rome as "roam". Soon after leaving school, she got married and went to Venice for her honeymoon, while I have yet to visit the place. Irony of fate? I hope her trip to Venice taught her how to spell Rome correctly!

I have, of late, been toying with the idea of compiling an 'Encyclopaedia Erratica' a compendium of common (and not so common) errors.


"It's shocking how poor English skills have found their way into the Indian media"
  • Faye D'Souza (Commits Class of 2004) , who's now an anchor and assistant editor with ET Now in Mumbai, comments: It's shocking how poor English skills have found their way into the Indian media. Gone are the days when we referred to to Doordarshan to find out the right way a word should be pronounced or used.

    Now, our television news channels and anchors misspell and mispronounce almost all the words in the dictionary and worse still is the excuse that this is the way the language is evolving because speaking proper English will make us sound elitist, alienating us from a large section of our viewers who will not be able to identify with us.

    I personally believe it's because of a lack of talent. There just aren't as many young recruits out there who speak clear, good English to feed the demand of this massive industry.

    I hope that will change in the future with more colleges like Commits turning out bright, able students who cross their T's and dot their I's. In the meantime, let's cross our fingers hoping that this current mediocrity doesn't become the norm.

"Of course, those teachers are to blame"

Sneha Abraham (Commits Class of 2011) comments: I have always hated predictive text messaging because I need to write my English the way I want it. And not to blow my own trumpet but in spite of using SMS lingo in text messaging, I always make sure that I do not use it when writing anything important. I cannot believe that there are some people out there who cannot separate their mobile phones from their answer papers.

And, of course, those teachers are to blame. Wherever an error is seen, it is to be corrected as modestly as possible. To not do this is to misguide children as to the correct spellings and grammar.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Copying and pasting. And an apology — of sorts — from India Today.

An apology from none less than Aroon Purie.

Here is the opening paragraph of his "From the editor-in-chief" column in the latest issue of India Today (Oct. 25):

Jet lag is clearly injurious to the health of journalism. I was in America and still a bit bleary-eyed and sleep-deprived when we took an unusual decision: to split the cover. This is jargon for changing the cover for some editions; so while the content of the magazine remained the same worldwide, the cover that went to our readers in South India displayed the phenomenal Rajinikanth while our other readers saw Omar Abdullah on the cover. This meant writing two versions of 'Letter from the Editor'. Not being an acknowledged expert on the delightful southern superstar, I asked Delhi for some inputs. Unfortunately a couple of sentences lifted from another article were sent to me. An excuse is not an explanation. So, without any reservations, mea culpa. Apologies.

Now here's the opening paragraph from Purie's piece in the Oct. 18 issue:

Jackie Chan is the highest-paid actor in Asia, and that makes sense. Besides producing, directing, and starring in his own action movies since 1980, he's earned millions in Hollywood with blockbusters like Rush Hour and The Karate Kid. But the No. 2 spot goes to someone who doesn't make any sense at all. The second-highest-paid actor in Asia is a balding, middle-aged man with a paunch, hailing from the Indian state of Tamil Nadu and sporting the kind of moustache that went out of style in 1986. This is Rajinikanth, and he is no mere actor—he is a force of nature. If a tiger had sex with a tornado and then their tiger-nado baby got married to an earthquake, their offspring would be Rajinikanth. Or, as his films are contractually obligated to credit him, "SUPERSTAR Rajinikanth!" If you haven't heard of Rajinikanth before, you will when you watch his latest movie Endhiran: The Robot which has just opened in movie theatres around the world. It's the most expensive Indian movie of all time. It's getting the widest global opening of any Indian film ever made, with 2,000 prints exploding onto screens simultaneously. Yuen Wo-ping (The Matrix) did the action, Stan Winston Studios (Jurassic Park) did creature designs, George Lucas' Industrial Light and Magic did the effects, and Academy Award-winning composer A.R. Rahman (Slumdog Millionaire) wrote the music. It's a massive investment, but the producers fully expect to recoup that, because this isn't just some film they're releasing; this is a Rajinikanth film.

And here are the opening two paragraphs from an article written by Grady Hendrix for the online magazine Slate:

Jackie Chan is the highest-paid actor in Asia, and that makes sense. Besides producing, directing, and starring in his own action movies since 1980, he's earned millions in Hollywood with blockbusters like Rush Hour and The Karate Kid. But the No. 2 spot goes to someone who doesn't make any sense at all. The second-highest-paid actor in Asia is a balding, middle-aged man with a paunch, hailing from the Indian state of Tamil Nadu and sporting the kind of moustache that went out of style in 1986. This is Rajinikanth, and he is no mere actor—he is a force of nature. If a tiger had sex with a tornado and then their tiger-nado baby got married to an earthquake, their offspring would be Rajinikanth. Or, as his films are contractually obligated to credit him, "SUPERSTAR Rajinikanth!"

If you haven't heard of Rajinikanth before, you will on Oct. 1, when his movie Enthiran (The Robot) opens around the world. It's the most expensive Indian movie of all time. It's getting the widest global opening of any Indian film ever made, with 2,000 prints exploding onto screens simultaneously. Yuen Wo-ping (The Matrix) did the action, Stan Winston Studios (Jurassic Park) did creature designs, George Lucas' Industrial Light and Magic did the effects, and Academy Award-winning composer A.R. Rahman (Slumdog Millionaire) wrote the music. It's a massive investment, but the producers fully expect to recoup that, because this isn't just some film they're releasing; this is a Rajinikanth film.

So, that's not just "a couple of sentences" that were lifted. That's almost all of the first two PARAGRAPHS. About 250 words were copied and pasted.

Three questions come to mind now:

1. Even if the "inputs" were sent by "Delhi", did they have to be reproduced word for word?

2. Is the person who sent the "inputs" still an employee of India Today?

3. Does Aroon Purie really write the "letter from the editor" column week after week after week?

PS: As is to be expected, Purie has got hell from the writer whose work was plagiarised. "Any man can apologize," Grady Hendrix wrote yesterday in an article for Slate titled Great Writers Steal, "but only the millionaire CEO of a multiplatform media company who is also editor-in-chief of a major news magazine can write an apology that is defiantly nonapologetic."

There's more in the same vein:

This official apology blamed jetlag for the theft, and if that's the case then my heart does go out to Mr. Purie's staff. If this is a man suffering from a narco-klepto disorder (also known as "sleep stealing") then he must be watched vigilantly. Every yawn is a signal to lock up your laptops, every announced nap is a sign that your wallet could suddenly go missing. But the jetlag apology wasn't meant to be taken as a serious statement, it was more of an old school attempt to make the problem go away with a silly, "Whoops, I'm tired!" shrug. Only with the new media, problems like this don't go away. While print journalists in India are said to be unlikely to report on the infractions of their colleagues, the Internet knows no loyalty, and all over India online writers are still tweeting and blogging for a better explanation. 

Hendrix also reproduces the letters Purie wrote to him and to the editor of Slate. And he says at the end, " far as I'm concerned this is a satisfactory close to the matter".

But is it? Plagiarism is the bane of journalism and it is unlikely that either his competitors or his readers will forgive Aroon Purie — precisely because he's the editor-in-chief of India's first major English news magazine and the largest-selling for this blatant transgression.

'She copied my article and it was sent back to my magazine as her feature!'

Shagorika Easwar, editor of the Toronto-based Desi News and CanadaBound Immigrant comments: You know, recently, I received an article on heart health from Maharaja Features. It seemed strangely familiar. The more I read, the more it seemed like I had read it before. And then it dawned. It was an article I had written on the subject a few years ago! Their feature writer lifted it word for word, with just two changes. Where I had written about spotting people jogging along Lakeshore Boulevard, she 'saw' them on Bandra Bandstand. She also changed the name of one of the people quoted in the article. Other than that, it was exactly as is. Including the intro para that began with now that heart-shaped candy boxes had been put away, it was time to get serious about heart health. That made sense in March, the month we ran it, after Valentine's Day. They sent the article in August, when  you have to wonder which heart-shaped candy boxes were being put away.

I wrote to Mr KRN Swamy of MF and he responded with something about how they would never use the lady's articles again. And that was that. (I should clarify here that I don't think Mr Swamy knew. His own articles on history and travel are meticulously researched with due credit given to sources. This was one of his feature writers and if it took me a few minutes to make the connection, I can hardly expect him to have remembered an article we carried a few years ago. He gets a copy of Desi News each month as we carry some of their features and she might have seen it there and tucked it away for future use!)

I thought that was bad enough, but this India Today case is shocking. And the man has the gall to try and shrug it off with a half-hearted apology that is more along the lines of "I'm sorry I got caught, BUT... " We all know that politicians have speech writers, that more often than not, the brave, inspiring words they spout were written by someone else. After seeing this, I begin to wonder if editors have ghost writers! Such a shame.

'This episode highlights the problems we all face today — delegation'

R. Umesh, partner in a Bangalore-based chartered accountancy firm, comments: A monumental gaffe indeed. But tell me, I don’t know how this works — how would one identify plagiarism anyway? I feel the only way this could have been avoided was for Aroon Purie to write the editorial himself (which is what I presume he should be doing in the first place), right?

This episode also highlights the problems that we all face today — delegation. Just to what extent can you delegate your work? If you cannot, then how do you handle workloads? I have no idea about Aroon Purie's workloads, but I am sure it must be high. This is why we become donkeys at work because reliability today comes at a premium. This is what I refer to in office as the CR factor (C for capability and R for reliability).  I always say — If I were to choose between two chartered accountants for a job at our office, I would surely go for the one who is more reliable though less capable (even if that means I have to put in extra time).  Generally, you never find a person with the right combination.  In other words, this is the classic conundrum at many offices today. I sure don’t want to land up in Purie’s unenviable position.

'Is Indian media indifferent to plagiarism?'

Here is veteran journalist Bala Murali Krishna's take on the issue: "India Today’s plagiarism scandal".

Bala, who is now associate editor with The New Indian Express in Chennai and who taught journalism at Commits as guest faculty when he lived in Bangalore, makes an important point when he writes that the Purie "apology that is a non-apology, the unwillingness to explain the real circumstances of the incident and an unwillingness, over the years, to address other similar allegations, suggest a pattern of indifference at India Today that, embarrassingly, might be a proxy to the entire Indian media".

He then makes a comparison with American media:

The Washington Post stripped [Janet] Cooke of the Pulitzer, The New York Times ordered a complete audit of each and every word written by [Jayson] Blair and published in its editions, and made a determination of the extent of plagiarism and/or unethical practice. It also fired the blogger Zachery Kouwe, who had copied from the Wall Street Journal’s blogs. The Boston Globe, USA Today and others have responded in similar fashion, firing editors, writers and reporters found plagiarizing or indulging in unethical practices.

Now I think the only way Aroon Purie can redeem himself and salvage the reputation of India Today is by stepping down as editor-in-chief. But I am not going to hold my breath waiting for that to happen.
  •  Aditya Sinha, the editor-in-chief of The New Indian Express, was the first media honcho to write about the Purie scandal. An excerpt:
The buck stops at the top... and it will take time for Purie to live down this stupid-mistake-by-stupider-underlings. But that’s good, in a way, if it occasions some introspection and forces some self-regulation. India Today has been charged with plagiarism too many times lately; just ask Canada-based blogger Niranjana Iyer or Anshuman Rane of the UK digiterati. It’s not a coincidence that these victims were foreign-based and that their work appeared online. It seems Indian journalists think that they are immune given a blogger’s distance from an Indian court and the fact the cyber-universe is so vast that the readership of a particular online article is often limited. No apologies have ever been offered to either of these two, by the way, and the culprits roam free to plagiarise again. Similarly, the Times of India film critic, Nikhat Kazmi, lifted from the legendary Roger Ebert for her review of Shark Tale, yet she remains at work for India’s largest media company.
Read the no-punches-pulled column here: "Plagiarise and be damned".

  • Mitali Saran, who wrote a weekly column, Stet (Commitscions know what this means now), for Business Standard, dedicated her October 30 post to the Aroon Purie plagiarism scandal — but BS refused to print it. Now Saran has terminated her agreement with the newspaper. What did Saran write? And why did BS refuse to print the column? Read all about it here: "The case of the missing attribution".
  • And India Today gets more flak, this time for its Goa cover story (November 6), from Vivek Menezes, the founding editor of "an online review of art, culture, news and opinion relating to Goa" "Another low for Aroon Purie".

    Do those e-mail forwards annoy you?

    The ones that come with the subject line: "Hilarious!!! You MUST read this!!!!!", or something similar? And where the body of the email contains a gazillion e-mail addresses through which you have to wade IF you want to read the substance of the e-mail?

    These forwards are the bane of e-mail users and I, for one, have found a simple way to deal with them. I don't even open these e-mails. I just hit the DELETE key now. And yesterday I discovered there are others like me. Mala Bhargava, for instance, who devoted her column in the latest Businessworld to explain why she hates forwards.

    Here is an excerpt:

    "... e-mail savvy hasn’t increased much.

    "The one thing that has remained an annoyance is the tsunami of 'forwards' that crisscross cyberspace everyday. The well-intentioned individuals who indulge in the pastime of sending their friends jokes, chain mail, presentations, videos, pictures, and more, are convinced they’ve done their altruistic bit for the day. They’re always surprised and more than a little hurt when you tell them you don’t really want these, even if they were amusing. I’m afraid I’m one of those who could totally do without the deluge of forwards from my network."

    And then she lists five reasons that should give pause for thought to all the avid forwarders out there. Are you one of them? Reading "Why I Hate Forwards" should cure you, I think.

    (Sadly, the "forward" contagion now seems to have spread to Facebook, which is awash with links that come bearing the entreaty: "Hilarious!!! You MUST watch this!!!!!". If you really want us to read those forwards or watch those videos, doesn't it make sense to give us a valid and cogent and coherent reason to do so? Stop with those generic messages already. And if you still feel compelled to send me a forward, get rid of those unwanted e-mail addresses, please.)

    Monday, October 18, 2010

    JUST DESERTS: Getting our due

    A FEW WEEKS AGO, in class, we had a brief discussion during a test about the correct spelling of "deserts" in the phrase "just deserts". Some students were surprised to learn that there was no connection to "desserts". We then discussed the origins of the phrase: "(From A deserved reward or punishment, as in He got his just deserts when Mary jilted him. This idiom employs 'desert'  in the sense of 'what one deserves', a usage dating from the 1300s but obsolete except in this expression. Origin: Middle English, from Old French deserte, from feminine past participle of deservir, to deserve; see deserve."

    Later I remembered a little feature I had written for Dubai's Khaleej Times earlier this year at the request of editor Patrick Michael. The feature is reproduced below.

    Ramesh Prabhu left Bombay (now Mumbai) for Dubai back in October 1988. His first and last place of residence in Dubai was Karama. Eleven years after he returned to India, he still has fond memories of the city and his home. Here, he recalls his years as a resident of Karama:

    Call it karma.

    When I first landed in Dubai to work as a journalist with the Khaleej Times, I was put up in a villa somewhere in Jumeirah. Within a couple of days, I asked to be moved to “civilisation”. I had come to Dubai to learn more about the place, so living in an isolated bungalow, as we called it back in India, was not for me.

    As luck or karma would have it, a Khaleej Times editor was vacating his second-floor apartment in Karama’s Pioneer Buildings. I moved in very soon after.

    I can only imagine what the area looks like now, in the wake of Dubai’s construction boom, but in those days it was a quiet residential zone with three- and four-storeyed apartment buildings and oodles of supermarkets and convenient stores within walking distance.

    The great thing about living in Karama then was the home-town atmosphere: we had friends from the subcontinent in our block and in neighbouring apartments, and get-togethers on holidays and festival days were the rule.

    Living in Karama had another big advantage: easy access to all the important locations, from Satwa and Bur Dubai, to Shaikh Zayed Road and the Maktoum Bridge.

    When my wife and I returned to India, I wanted to name our bungalow, sorry, villa, “Karama”, but this would have sounded strange to our fellow Bangaloreans. So we settled on a moniker that, we thought, would be a throwback to our good old days in Dubai: JUST DESERTS.

    We have since moved to a new apartment in a gated community, but the gate plaque bearing the legend “Just Deserts” holds pride of place in our living room even today.