Friday, November 30, 2012

Lusting after books? Let this librarian help

When I visited Ooty recently, I picked up two utterly captivating books at a "book fair" (a permanent used-books store, really), which is located a short walk away from Commercial Road in the heart of town. The View from the Ground, by veteran novelist and journalist Martha Gellhorn, cost me Rs.250 (Flipkart is selling it for Rs.550). I bought the second book, which sort of jumped out at me from the shelves, for only Rs.150 (it costs Rs.777 on Flipkart). More Book Lust, for that is the name of this frisky critter, is the creation of the seemingly indefatigable Nancy Pearl.

Pearl, a Seattle-based librarian, is clearly in lust with books. Her first compilation, Book Lust, was such a hit that it flew off the shelves (much like its sequel did that day in Ooty) and made her America's most famous bibliothecary. In fact, as the New York Times reported afterwards, Pearl even became the model for a librarian action figure (''With amazing push-button shushing action!'') created by a novelty company.

Both Book Lust and More Book Lust, with recommendations for all tastes and in all genres, help book-lovers arrive at the answer to that perpetually nagging question: What do I read next? Pearl's website is a big help, too — it offers updated recommendations on books that came out after the publication of her two best-sellers and on books that do not feature in either Book Lust or More Book Lust.

I have already made a list of books I want to check out for myself now. And, thanks to More Book Lust, I have also discovered Lee Child's Jack Reacher novels. Not unlike Pearl, who writes that Child wasn't a favourite of hers to begin with, I didn't think the Reacher books were for me. Over time, I have grown to love non-fiction and serious fiction; I am less keen on popular fiction. But after reading what Pearl had to say in the section "Lee Child: Too Good to Miss", I fired up my Kindle and found to my joy that I have the e-book versions of all the eight titles she recommends. I have since finished reading The Enemy. Next up: Killing Floor.
  • Book Lust, published in 2003, recommends 1,800 titles, while More Book Lust, released in 2005, discusses another 1,200 titles.

Here's some sound advice from Nancy Pearl concerning finishing a book you have picked up (from More Book Lust):

One of my strongest-held beliefs is that no one should ever finish a book that they're not enjoying, no matter how popular or well reviewed the book is. (Except, of course, if it's for a homework assignment or for a book group.) Believe me, nobody is going to get any points in heaven by miserably slogging their way through a book they aren't enjoying but think they ought to read.

I live by what I call the "rule of fifty", which is based on the reality of the shortness of time and the immensity of the world of books. If you're fifty years old or younger, give every book about fifty pages before you decide to commit yourself to reading it, or give it up. If you're over fifty, which is when time gets even shorter, subtract your age from 100 — the result is the number of pages you should read before deciding whether or not to quit. (If you're 100 or over, you get to judge the book by its cover, despite the dangers in doing so — see the section "You Can't Judge a Book by Its Cover".)

  • One thing led to another, as it often does when surfing the web, and clicking on a link on led to my discovering a video of her interview with Anu Garg, the Seattle-based software engineer who founded A.Word.A.Day. If you use regularly — and who doesn't? — you will have noticed the "Word of the Day" panel in the top left-hand corner. Yes, that Anu Garg. Watch the illuminating interview here.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Where will journalists be without patience and perseverance?

It took Fortune journalist John Huey 10 days of waiting in frustration in rainy weather to get a photograph of Sam Walton, the legendary but publicity-averse founder of Wal-Mart, back in 1988.

Huey, who subsequently wrote a best-selling biography of Walton and who is now editor in chief of Time Inc., recounts the episode in an interview in the latest issue of Fortune.

(I am taking the liberty of reproducing the relevant passage in full to impress upon readers, and aspiring media students, that journalists who do not possess patience and perseverance in large quantities will find it difficult to make rapid progress in their careers.)

I went to work for Fortune in November of 1988, and they decided they wanted to make Wal-Mart the "most admired company." Usually when you call up a company and say, "We're going to make your company the 'most admired company' on the cover of Fortune," they roll out everything. Wal-Mart said, "Not interested. We don't want anything to do with it."

And the editor said, "We have to have cooperation," because there's never been a posed photograph of Sam Walton. He's avoided the press. The editor said, "You're a Southerner — you go down to Arkansas and talk him into it."

I went down there. It was two weeks before Christmas. It was horrible weather. I went over to Wal-Mart, and I just basically knocked on the door. His assistant — her name was Becky — said, "He's hunting. He's not available."

This went on for days. Rain kept on going. I knew that he drove this old pickup truck. So I kept riding by there looking for the pickup truck.

Ten days into this I said to my photographer, "We're going to go back over there, and if we don't see that truck, we're getting out of here."

So we rode by, and there was the truck. Sam Walton was in the building. We went in, and I picked up the vendor phone and said, "May I speak to Becky?" Sam answered the phone. I said, "Is this Sam Walton?" He said, "Yes." I said, "Well, this is John Huey from Fortune magazine. I've been here 10 days. It's raining. My wife is going to leave me, and if I don't get this picture, they're going to fire me and I'm going to have a terrible Christmas, and all I need is 10 minutes."

You know, journalists have no pride.

He came out, and we took the picture. He complained the whole time. "You're wasting a lot of flashbulbs, you're wasting a lot of the film." And then he said, "Oh, and by the way, you can't put this picture on the cover."

We negotiated. We got the cover. I wrote a long story about Wal-Mart, and then over the next three years or so, I was flying in planes with him and driving around and basically hitchhiking across America.

(It should be understood that the phrase "journalists have no pride" is not to be taken at face value. The tone is self-mocking.)

This story is part of a fascinating conversation between Huey, Fortune editor Andy Serwer, and Walter Isaacson, CEO of the Aspen Institute, a former head of CNN and editor of Time, and the author, most recently, of Steve Jobs. The topic of the conversation: The legacies of two remarkable men — Sam Walton and Steve Jobs.

Read the feature in full here: "Steve Jobs vs. Sam Walton: The Tale of the Tape". 
  • Photo-illustration courtesy: Fortune.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Is the editor someone hired by the newspaper owner to make sure there are no mista

R. Sukumar, editor of Mint, says he has been asked one particular question many times in his career: What does an editor do?

So, in his column in the paper last week, he set out to provide an answer, along the way explaining in detail the four main demands an integrated newsroom makes of an editor:

1. The ability to understand what kind of story works online.

2. The sensory bandwidth to deal with and process everything that’s happening and which is being aired on 24x7 news channels, Twitter timelines, wire feeds, and internal memos from reporters.

3. Physical and mental stamina, given the first two requirements.

4. An understanding of the digital medium.

Sukumar elaborates on each of those points in his article here.

Friday, November 23, 2012

What it means to be an RJ

(From The Commits Chronicle, No. 58; January 30, 2011)

For three years, Commits alumna ARATHI KRISHNAN (Class of 2007) was an RJ with Fever FM in Bangalore. She started with the brunch show in a Hindi and English format, moved to the evening prime time show, and, finally, she was doing the morning prime time show, which was completely in Kannada. She also worked with building creative properties for marketing campaigns and shows on the station.

Then Arathi took a break from radio and joined Educomp Solutions where she heads the instructional design team that builds educational products for the US market. But she couldn't bear to be away from radio for too long. For nine months now, she has been RJ-ing the "Total Request Live with Arathi" show on Radio Indigo (Sundays, 11 am to 3 pm). And she has been doing a great job.

Last week, in an email Q&A with me, Arathi shared some of her insights on a radio career. Radio aspirants will learn much from her candid comments:

  • What prompted you to go back to radio after taking a break from Fever?
English music is my forte and love as I was brought up on everything from Mozart to Michael Jackson. I play the piano and sing, too. Coupled with my penchant for listening to people expressing their thoughts, desires and outlook, it makes radio a healthy addiction. My passion for radio is not circumscribed by money and media ratings, which often dilute content to mere superficial banter. This is why I opted for a non-prime time Sunday show, where I could just concentrate on people and the music, and not on clients who advertise with us.
  • How do you manage the demands of your regular job with what you have to do on Indigo?
For one, I have no children at the moment to run after! Ha ha ha! But, on a serious note, it is hard. After a whole week's work managing an educational content development team, getting up early and conducting a four-hour show on a Sunday can be exhausting. Fortunately, I am thoroughly driven by any creative process and it is this inner drive that keeps me going. The sacrifices are many. But I consciously set goals to use all my skills to their fullest. If one can keep this constantly in mind, the rest falls in place. One has to be extremely diligent and good with time management and I have learned that from this demanding year of my life.

Arathi Krishnan strikes a pose at her RJ console at Radio Indigo.
  • You play requests on your show — are your listeners aware of the latest hits on the international front? Are they hep? Are they clued in?
It's surprising how quickly they catch up with the newest hits on the horizon. Yes, they are aware and will request the latest. Rihanna, Katy Perry, and Bruno Mars seem to be the icons of 2010-11. Since Indigo caters to a premium crowd, you get listeners from urbane Bangalore. A lot of school kids too tune in on Sundays while they are doing assignments or studying for an exam — which is something I never comprehend... they are always studying!
  • What do you love most about your job?
Well, I love that I can share my thoughts with people from all corners of Bangalore. I love that they have opinions and are ready to express them. I love that I can be a liaison between things I like: music and people.
  • How tough is it to be an RJ? What advice would you give your juniors if they showed an interest in joining radio — should they join the marketing or programming departments, or should they try out radio jockeying?
There are two ways to approach radio:
1. Sales and marketing
2. Programming.

The first needs no elaboration. And you do not need to necessarily have radio-relevant experience to get in. I have met station heads who were with telecommunication companies before they moved in to run a station. So, for those concerned with money, marketing, and numbers, sales and marketing is the way to go. Media sales is one way to get into radio sales.

If you love creativity and wake up hungry for it every day, programming is the way to go. Programming includes deciding what music the station will play (it's very interesting and based on research) in which case, you will be the "Music Manager" for a station. You could even be a sound engineer who produces all the ads and jingles on the station. You could be the producer of shows and write scripts for new programmes or segments on the jocks' shows. Or you could be an RJ who doubles up as any of those mentioned above.

Being an RJ is all about what your real personality is. An RJ must NEVER put on an accent, NEVER try to sound cool, NEVER be fake where delivery is concerned. If you must be fake, make it look like it's the real you and always remember to TALK to people, NOT to ANNOUNCE. If you are vivacious, gregarious, witty, natural, and a good conversationalist, you have the potential to be an RJ.
  • What is the hardest part of being an RJ?
1. Commitment: No holidays because "No RJ, no show." So you better be present or out you go!

2.  Content treatment and conversation: How would you engage listeners and speak to them making them comfortable while you simultaneously entertain and move someone who is listening?

3. Receiving feedback: You can never reach a state of perfection. You must always seek honest opinions of the things you do on your show and thank your stars if you have a boss who has the guts to be brutally honest with you and give you constructive feedback. If you reach a stage where you have a bloated head and where you're deaf to criticism, you may most probably be on your way down the RJ graph and be oblivious to it. With big stations, it's a ratings game and can be very stressful. You must have the mental strength to take sharp criticism and yet be undeterred.

EXTERNAL READING: If you’ve ever dreamt about being a radio star, then why not make it happen? Learn how here: Start your own radio station.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Mind your e-language: How you interact with people on any platform on the Web and what you say about issues is an indication of the kind of person you are

Sonal Agrawal, managing partner of an executive search firm, has made a strong case in Mint for minding your e-language. Writing in her "Career Coach" column, she says this is "not about censoring every online move but about exercising restraint".

Agrawal begins her column with the example of a candidate who messed up his chances of a job with a private equity client of her company's because he had not been "particularly circumspect about the language or tone he used".

Agrawal continues:

After some debate, the firm decided that the candidate’s online personal (but not private) interactions displayed an almost schizophrenic lack of maturity and judgment. While I certainly wouldn’t classify him as a “hater”, he certainly bordered on being an Internet troll. They didn’t hire him. Amazingly enough (or perhaps not), the candidate went on a rant about free speech and privacy — online, on a public profile.

Every year I have been telling my students to watch what they say on Facebook and other public platforms ("Yes, recruiters are using Facebook and Twitter to screen candidates") so I was glad to see Agrawal's piece. What she has to say on this subject should be taken seriously because a. she knows what she is talking about, and b. she knows what she is talking about because she is an expert in the recruitment business.

What she has to say here is particulary pertinent today:

With the costs and risks of making a bad hire increasing exponentially, employers are increasingly looking at researching potential candidates well beyond their professional profiles and traditional reference checks. Apart from seeking to reinforce positive traits — Are you well networked? Do you communicate well? Are you considered an expert in your field? — they are also consciously looking for tell-tale signs of undesirable traits that could disqualify you for the job. Do you have anger-management issues? How do you react to stress? Are you racist? Are you a team player? Apart from the traditional methods of interviewing, referencing and testing, increasingly they are going online to see what you are saying about yourself, not just to professional links, but also to your friends, followers and circles. 

Read her column in its entirety here: "Mind your e-language".
  • UPDATE (June 29, 2013): From an article published in Bloomberg Businessweek two days ago: "Think before you post, especially if you’re looking for a job. Seems like common sense, doesn’t it? Yet despite all the advice and warnings to be cautious with social media, job applicants continue to get burned by their online profiles." Read the piece in its entirety here: Hey Job Applicants, Time to Stop the Social-Media Sabotage. 

Thursday, November 1, 2012

How to achieve "Inbox Zero"

Back in February I had written about the hazards of inbox inefficiency and offered a simple 1-2-3 formula for dealing with e-mail ("Wha-aaat? You have FOUR HUNDRED AND NINETY-SEVEN unread E-MAILS in your INBOX!").

Now, thanks to Esther Dyson's recent column on the Project Syndicate website, I know there is a better way to achieve "Inbox Zero". Dyson, a former journalist and Wall Street technology analyst turned investor, has devoted her piece to the many advantages of Mailstrom, a little piece of software that helps you manage your e-mail:

Mailstrom does an excellent job not only of categorizing my mail, but also of helping me to get rid of it by applying my own intelligence and willpower. It helps me do things that I cannot do for myself when I’m trying to sift through my mail. It finds all the messages from a certain person, and then lets me handle them in a batch delete, move, or even answer....

Mailstrom does this in a sleek way, replete with numbers selecting, counting, and sorting messages by date, subject, sender, social network, size, and so forth, and showing charts of the statistics. Mailstrom shows you how many messages of each particular type you have; it ranks the frequency of subject lines; and it lets you see how many messages you have received and how many you have handled each day.

Read Esther Dyson's column in its entirety here to learn more about Mailstrom. And then visit the Mailstrom website to sign up for free: "Achieve Inbox Zero".
  • UPDATE (February 19, 2013): Mint has published a piece today on apps that help you to achieve Inbox Zero, whether you check your e-mails on your phone or on your PC. Check it out here.
  • UPDATE (June 5, 2013): Gopal Sathe has written a very useful article in Mint today about how to be the boss of your e-mail inbox. Read it here.

"Cloud Atlas" and the pleasures of re-reading

I can't remember the last time I enjoyed re-reading a book so much.

Actually I can't remember the last time I re-read a book. Because my greatest fear is that I am going to die before I can read all the books I want to read, I try to get through as many as I can at the same time 12 at the last count. This is crazy, I know. But I can't help it this is what bibliomaniacs do. Despite my best efforts, though, I still haven't managed to read even once all the books I own. So where is the time for re-reading?

I made an exception, however, for Cloud Atlas. I first chanced upon David Mitchell's dazzling novel in the Just Books library three years ago. I loved it so much I recommended it to my wife, Chandrika, who finished it in record time and pronounced it to be brilliant.

A couple of weeks ago we learnt that the movie based on the book would soon be released in India. And that became the motivation for us to pick up Cloud Atlas again. I began re-reading it immediately on my Kindle Fire (on which I have stored some thousand e-books). But my wife insisted we should have our own hard copy, so I purchased one for her last week on HomeShop18, paying Rs.267 for a book that would have cost me Rs.399 in a bookshop (it's now available on the website for Rs.235).

And two days ago, we went to watch the movie at Cinepolis. We knew the book's many-layered structure would be difficult to replicate on film and we were curious to see what Hollywood had come up with. Well, all credit to the three directors (yes, it took three experts in the movie business to realise Mitchell's wondrous vision on celluloid) — they have clearly made a superhuman effort, and an imaginative one at that. I have to say, though, if you haven't read the book, it is going to be difficult to enjoy and appreciate what you're seeing on the screen.

I also have to say the book is infinitely better than the movie. I am three-quarters of the way through the e-book now and how watching the movie has helped is that I can now visualise scenes and characters as I come upon them in my reading. For me, re-reading Cloud Atlas has become twice as pleasurable.

ADDITIONAL READING from The New York Times:
  • "Souls Tangled Up in Time", by film critic A.O. Scott: "This is by no means the best movie of the year, but it may be the most movie you can get for the price of a single ticket."
  • "Bending Time, Bending Minds", by Charles McGrath: "It might be possible to write a novel more unfilmable than David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, but you would have to work at it."