Monday, December 30, 2013

The best argument I have read for staying away from social media

Avid reader and seasoned journalist Aakar Patel, writing in the year-end issue of Mint Lounge, says social media is for those looking to be distracted by an inexhaustible supply of material — and not those for whom reading is a serious affair.

I don't agree with him entirely, but a couple of points he has made are right on the button:

As a writer, I personally find social media off-putting and not useful.

Writers must be insulated from feedback, particularly of the immediate kind. One has no option but to be exposed to this on Facebook and on Twitter, and such things always carry the expectation of a response. ... [The comments section] is meant to be a conversation, and I accept that at times it is an intelligent one. But having comments on your work published alongside it is the equivalent of talking from atop a soapbox at Hyde Park.

The hooting and the cheers and the heckling is all on display, and apparently for the benefit of the writer. All of this is fine, and legitimate I suppose, and certainly it adds to the reader’s experience. But why subject yourself as a writer to it? Unless the idea is to bask in your popularity or infamy, there is little point.

And here is the other important (and just as valid) point:

[Comments by Indians] tend to be tangential, personal, often abusive and mostly irrelevant. I must also say that the quality of the comment is poor and that of the writing poorer. This is an anecdotal observation, but you know what I mean. It infects the other strain of social media, which is user-generated reviews. I don’t think it is wise to pick a restaurant here through what people have written about it on the Internet.

Read the column in its entirety here: "Why I’m not on social media".
  • To know more about Aakar Patel, go here.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

You have heard about the Curse of the Mummy. Now read about the Curse of the "Mummyji"

Trust the Economist to provide the most intelligent and fact-filled yet engagingly written feature I have ever read on India's vexed saas-bahu relationship.

The headline is perfect: "Curse of the mummyji".

The intro is brilliant:

TIHAR jail in Delhi has a special wing just for her. Young women fear and revere her; their husbands seem crushed by her embrace. On television she is a sari-clad battle-axe. Books about her offer advice including: “Run, she is trying to kill you.”

The direct quotes are kept to a minimum, both in number and in length (unlike the long and often pointless quotes we skip in most Indian publications). Here's a sample:

An elderly woman in north India, laughing ruefully, recalls how, after her rural wedding, it took “three days to work out which man in the new family was my husband”.

By tradition, a wife accepted her saas’s tyranny. The life of Renubala, now an elderly woman, is typical. Married at “12 or 13”, she moved in with her husband’s farming family in Tripura, in north-east India. For three years she shared a bed not with him but with his widowed mother. “I was very scared of my mother-in-law, even when she was nice,” she remembers. “I would call her ‘ma-goshai’ [Godmother].”

Mrs Venugopal sees sex and shame behind such obsessive control. Mothers-in-law, she says, “don’t trust [daughters-in-law] to be faithful”, so they try to desexualise them, locking them up, fattening them up, phoning several times a day.

The transitions are smooth, which is the hallmark of good writing and, also, the hallmark of Economist writing. There's an easy flow to the whole three-page feature, and in no time at all, before you even realise it, you arrive at the concluding paragraph, which you have to admire for its ingenuity because it says so much about the saas-bahu relationship without saying too much.

Read the article in its entirety here to soak up the brilliance and to learn a few things, as I did, about Indian mothers-in-law.

PS: You will be shocked to read what happened to Renubala, the mother-in-law worshipper.
  • Photograph courtesy: The Economist

One of the most courageous young women I know. Certainly, the most courageous young mother I know.

Why I am proud of Commitscion ANN THOMAS (Class of 2005):

Friday, December 20, 2013

Goodreads tells me I have read 107 books so far this year. Only 107?

My Year in Books! What I Read in 2013
Ramesh Prabhu read 107 books in 2013. See the full list on Goodreads, the world's largest site for readers and book recommendations!
    Like · · · Stop Notifications · See books

      Monday, December 9, 2013

      What is "tabloid journalism"?

      Here, in the form of an article in Mint, is a fine explanation of tabloid journalism by Aakar Patel, a senior journalist whose writings I admire and who uses the Tarun Tejpal story to make his point:

      At one end of the news spectrum is the report on one individual and one incident. The more famous the person is, the smaller the incident required to qualify it as news (Sachin Tendulkar retires, Shah Rukh Khan and Gauri have a surrogate baby, Tejpal accused of rape). These stories are usually of no concern to the reader and do not affect the world at large.

      However, this is a legitimate space for reportage, and media that focuses purely on this sort of journalism on one person and one event is what is called “tabloid”.

      There is a class bias here. Such news is aimed at and consumed by the lower classes, who are not very educated and interested in popular rather than high culture. It is the blue-collar masses who subscribe to tabloids such as The Sun in London, which are the best exponents of such journalism.

      What lies at the other end of the (media) spectrum? Read on: "When every newspaper becomes a tabloid".
      • To know more about Aakar Patel, go here.

      Font memories

      Blogger gives me a choice of seven fonts:
      • Arial
      • Courier
      • Georgia
      • Helvetica
      • Times
      • Trebuchet 
      • Verdana
      I don't care for either Arial or Courier, the former because it is ubiquitous and the latter because it looks ugly. Our college newspaper, The Chronicle, uses Georgia; Helvetica and Times, like Arial, are commonplace, while Verdana leaves me cold.

      Which leaves me with Trebuchet, the font that, as it turns out, is perfect for blogging. Here's why:

      This "humanist sans serif typeface" was designed by Vincent Connare, according to a note on Wikipedia, "for the Microsoft Corporation in 1996. It is named after the trebuchet, a medieval siege engine. The name was inspired by a puzzle question that Connare heard at Microsoft headquarters: 'Can you make a trebuchet that could launch a person from main campus to the new consumer campus about a mile away? Mathematically, is it possible and how?' Connare 'thought that would be a great name for a font that launches words across the Internet'."

      Isn't that a great story?


      To move on: I may be a huge fan of Trebuchet, but I learnt recently after reading an article in Bloomberg Businessweek that there are "Helvetica men", too, and Richard Turley is one of them. In his piece about Apple iOS 7's "design problem", Turley spends a lot of time discussing the font chosen by Apple while explaining why Tim Cook & Co. should have used a particular variant of Helvetica.

      If I have a single criticism of Apple’s font, it’s that the designers didn’t go back to the source. The desire for the purity of essence and obsessive detail on which Apple prides itself should have led the company to Christian Schwartz’s recut of Helvetica... Schwartz went back to the original forms of Max Miedinger’s Neue Haas Grotesk, before it evolved through various compromises and mutated into Helvetica. That’s even before you get to Neue Helvetica, a further mutation, which Apple is using here. More weights, more rational, more square, designed by committee, and even less like the original. So. You make a big play of spending every waking hour committed to perfection, Apple? Not in my book.

      Read the piece in its entirety here: "Apple iOS 7's Biggest Design Problem".
      • There is also a feature-length independent film about typography, graphic design, and global visual culture. Titled (what else?) Helvetica, it "looks at the proliferation of one typeface (which celebrated its 50th birthday in 2007) as part of a larger conversation about the way type affects our lives". To learn more, go to "Helvetica: A Documentary Film by Gary Hustwit".
      UPDATE (January 10, 2014): Searching for something about the origins of the ampersand, I discovered this very interesting page on typography on the Adobe website. And that's how I learnt that the symbol & is derived from the ligature of ET or et, which is the Latin word for "and". Learn more about the ampersand here and then go on to the Type Topics page.

      Thursday, November 7, 2013

      What we can and should learn from the scientist who coined the term "continuous partial attention"

      We may think that kids have a natural fascination with phones. Really, children have a fascination with whatever Mom and Dad find fascinating. If they are fascinated by the flowers coming up in the yard, that’s what the children are going to find fascinating. And if Mom and Dad can’t put down the device with the screen, the child is going to think, That’s where it’s all at, that’s where I need to be! 

      I interviewed kids between the ages of 7 and 12 about this. They said things like “My mom should make eye contact with me when she talks to me” and “I used to watch TV with my dad, but now he has his iPad, and I watch by myself.”

      Kids learn empathy in part through eye contact and gaze. If kids are learning empathy through eye contact, and our eye contact is with devices, they will miss out on empathy.

      Wise words indeed from LINDA STONE, who worked on emerging technologies at Apple and then Microsoft Research in the 1980s and ’90s. Stone was being interviewed by James Fallows for The Atlantic magazine. Read the full text of the interview here: "The Art of Staying Focused in a Distracting World".

      Wednesday, November 6, 2013

      What is it like to learn English as an adult in order to practise your profession of... novelist?

      I did everything I could to avoid Dunglish, the unintentional but often funny mistakes Dutch speakers make in English. I had to stop myself from saying nonsensical things such as “let’s fall with the door into the house,” which is what we say in Dutch when we mean “skip the non-essentials.”

      Trying to write in English was even worse. It required more than knowing the correct words to name things, the right prepositions, the difference between “come” and “get.” Writing is about sending a message, with all the nuance I intend. I wondered about tone and voice, the landscape upon which readers and I need to find common ground. I struggled to express myself in a way that would establish a shared intimacy with my readers. I felt vulnerable and worried about being misunderstood.

      That is Pia de Jong, a Dutch novelist expressing herself admirably in what, to her, is a foreign language. De Jong, who now lives in America, wrote this heart-felt piece in The Washington Post a week ago, attracting a variety of comments. Here are just a couple:

      CURMUDGEON: "Excellent. And today in the paper, we also have a story about an English teacher in DC Schools trying to teach the 'best and the brightest' how to write a five-sentence paragraph. Many don't know what a 'subject' and a 'verb' is. And this all in their native language, allegedly." 

      SEMARI1: "What a wonderful piece. Thanks so much for it. I speak, in varying abilities, English (native), French, Italian, German, some Japanese, modern Greek, Hebrew... and I find I tend to have something of a different personality in each of them as if the modalities and idiomatic aspects of them liberate, in each case, something new about myself that surprises me. Merely from reading your English it would appear your adopted language will certainly lead to continued marvellous results."

      Read Pia de Jong's article in its entirety here: "A novelist learns to write".

      And if you want an expert's views on what it means to write English as a second language, then check out "In one place, everything you need to know about writing in English".

      Good news makes for plenty of views... and lots of positive reviews

      There is no dearth of good news, really. Let me put it this way: How can there be a dearth of good news when there is no dearth of good people? People like the husband-wife team of Dhimant and Anuradha Parekh (pictured).

      I learnt about the indefatigable Parekhs and their digital news website when I came across an article which they had written and which has been reproduced in the latest issue of Mint Lounge.

      Anuradha and Dhimant, who live in Bangalore, are the founders and co-editors of The Better India, which, as they describe it, concentrates on positive news, happy stories, and unsung heroes.

      Why did they set up The Better India? Dhimant explains:

      It was a little over five years ago that my wife and I decided to start an alternative news medium. We were exasperated by reading the daily news in India that was largely negative and sensational in nature. It got us thinking: What should news do to you? Should it shake you up in horror? Should it leave you disgusted? Or should it also make you learn? Should it make you contribute? Should it enable you to bring about a change?

      It was in an attempt to answer those questions that the couple decided to start their own news site, but "with a difference".

      We decided to report only positive news. And by positive, we didn’t want it to be preachy or opinion-filled, we wanted to talk about ideas that have influenced communities, we wanted to showcase people who have brought about a change in their areas, we wanted to talk about the forgotten art forms of India, celebrate the successes of organisations that have improved the lives of many children —  the list continues to grow with every passing day.

      It is fascinating to read how they went about popularising The Better India to the point where, five years on, they now have a 25-member team of writers and a fantastic archive of good news from all over the country.

      Hats off to the Parekhs! May their tribe increase!
      • Check out The Better India today here. And if you want positive news in your mailbox every day, sign up for the e-newsletter.
      • Photograph of the Parekhs courtesy: Mint Lounge

      Tuesday, November 5, 2013

      Six simple equations that have the power to change your life

      If A = 1, B = 2... and so on, then...

      L + U + C + K = 12 + 21 + 3 + 11 = 47%

      H + E + A + L + T + H = 8 + 5 + 1 + 12 + 20 + 8 = 54%

      M + O + N + E + Y = 13 + 15 + 14 + 5 + 25 = 72%

      K + N + O + W + L + E + D + G + E = 11 + 14 + 15 + 23 + 12 + 5 + 4 + 7 + 5 = 96%

      H + A + R + D + W + O + R + K = 8 + 1 + 18 + 4 + 23 + 15 + 18 + 11 = 98%

      A + T + T + I + T + U + D + E =

      1 + 20 + 20 + 9 + 20 + 21 + 4 + 5 = 100%
      • Also read: 
      "You are your... attitude"

      "Thou shalt follow these 10 commandments to be effective — and successful — at work"

      "What's with the attitude, Gen-Y?"

      A few inspirational quotes about journalism from a hugely inspiring book

      “A journalist is a grumbler, a censurer, a giver of advice, a regent of sovereigns, a tutor of nations. Four hostile newspapers are more to be feared than a thousand bayonets.”
      — Napoleon Bonaparte

      “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
      — Thomas Jefferson, one of America's founding fathers

      “Journalism will kill you, but it will keep you alive while you’re at it.”

      — Horace Greeley, newspaper editor

      “If you don’t have a sensation of apprehension when you set out to find a story and a swagger when you sit down to write it, you are in the wrong business.”
      — A.M. Rosenthal, journalist

      It is a newspaper’s duty to print the news and raise hell.”
      — Wilbur F. Storey, newspaper owner

      “I think perfect objectivity is an unrealistic goal; fairness, however, is not.
      — Michael Pollan, journalist, author, and professor

      “Bad news goes about in clogs, good news in stockinged feet.”

      — Welsh proverb

      “Journalism never admits that nothing much is happening.”

      — Mason Cooley, professor

      “The proper question isn’t what a journalist thinks is relevant but what his or her audience thinks is relevant.”
      — Michael Kinsley, journalist and author

      “Great questions make great reporting.”
      — Diane Sawyer, journalist

      “I really believe good journalism is good business.”
      — Christiane Amanpour, journalist
      • In addition, you should check out the Heat & Light website, where you will not only get an explanation for the "heat" and "light" in the title, but, among other things, you will also be able to sort through a nifty "Journalists' Toolbox".
      • Naturally you will want to own a copy of Heat & Light. It is available on as well as on Flipkart. (Commits students: A copy has been placed in the college library.)

      An excerpt from the final chapter of Heat & Light, titled "The Future: Advice for the Next Generation of Journalists":
      It can get awfully frustrating at times in journalism. It can be hard to get yourself noticed, hard to get promoted, and hard to get good assignments. In a bad economy, it can even be hard to get a job.

      We’ve both had times in our careers when we did a job we didn’t particularly like, or found it difficult to move up the career ladder. It took Mike several decades to go from being an announcer at a small radio station … to being a star on CBS.

      In the end, you need to focus on building experience and expertise, and trust that the knowledge you’re acquiring will ultimately pay off in your career.

      A fascinating two-man debate on the future of news

      In the blue corner: Bill Keller (pictured below), a former executive editor of The New York Times who is now an Op-Ed columnist for the newspaper.

      In the red corner: Glenn Greenwald, who broke what is probably the year’s biggest international news story, Edward Snowden’s revelations of the vast surveillance apparatus constructed by America's National Security Agency.

      If you are a journalist, or you aspire to become one; if you are a media student; or, if you are just what is now known as a "consumer" of news, you will want to clue yourself in: "Is Glenn Greenwald the Future of News?"

      Sunday, November 3, 2013

      Here is "an oasis of learning about what you don’t yet know you’re looking for but are glad you found"

      My favourite blogger, Maria Popova, popped over this morning in the form of her weekly e-mail newsletter and I learnt something new again.

      "Now I Know" was one of the treats Popova had lined up for me today. "'Lives are shaped by chance encounters and by discovering things that we don't know that we don't know,' a wise woman wrote; more than that, the discovery itself is one of life's great rewards and pleasures," Popova writes in the introduction to her post.

      She continues:

      Since 2010, Dan Lewis, director of new media communications at Sesame Workshop, has been hunting down and illuminating those infinitely fascinating unknown-unknowns and sharing them with the world via his delightful e-mail newsletter. Now, he has gathered the stories behind 100 of these curiosity-quenchers in Now I Know: The Revealing Stories Behind the World’s Most Interesting Facts — a mind-tickling encyclopaedia that does for little-known, unusual facts what The Secret Museum did for little-known, unusual artifacts.

      Read the post in its entirety here. Then, as I did, head on over to the Now I Know website, check out the archives, and sign up for Dan Lewis's free daily newsletter. You'll learn something new every day, promises Lewis. And I believe him.

      Thursday, October 31, 2013

      "I am bored at work. What do I do?"

      Increasingly I am being told by some of the young people I know that they find work a bore.

      Let me rephrase that (because these young people are among the brightest I have met and because they have the potential to shine in their careers): Some of the young people I know are telling me that they are bored at work.

      Which is a concern.

      Because this means they most likely are performing tasks that have become routine, work has become mechanical, and the job is no longer as challenging as it used to be when they were first hired.

      In short, they are bored. That is bad news for both employee and employer.

      What to do?

      I don't get bored easily. And I don't have a problem with self-motivation. I love what I do, so I get to do what I love. And I am grateful that life as a journalist, as a journalism teacher, has not only been full, but also fulfilling.

      But I empathise with today's youngsters who are not able to motivate themselves to jump out of bed at the beginning of the week, thinking, "It's Monday! Woo-hoo!"

      So, for their benefit, here are a few tips on how to relieve boredom at work.

      1. From
      Chrissy Scivicque, an award-winning freelance writer and professional speaker, writes:

      Even if you love your job and you know it’s a good fit, there are some businesses/industries/positions that have natural cycles of activity. This means that there will be times when things are crazy busy and you’re totally engaged. And there will also be times when things slow down and you find yourself going kind of stir crazy. Here are some points to consider when those downtimes occur.
      • Take Responsibility
      • Keep a List
      • Seek New Challenges
      • Find a Friend
      • Get Additional Training
      • Examine the Cause
      Scivicque elaborates on each of those points here: How to Handle and Relieve Boredom at Work

      2. From
      Whitson Gordon, editor in chief of Lifehacker, also has a "Top 10" list on the subject of boredom at work. While not all of his tips may be applicable to the Indian environment, he has some sound advice to offer when it comes to the relationship between exhaustion and boredom (No. 8) and on the issue of taking initiative (No. 6) as well as negotiating a change in your job description (No. 5).

      Check out Gordon's list here: Top 10 Ways to Cure Your Boredom at Work

      3. From
      Productivity expert Mike Vardy writes:

      Being bored with your work means you’ve got to change your work. It’s not the job you need to change, it’s the calling you need to change. Should you simply leave your workplace and do the same calling somewhere else, boredom is bound to creep back in. Now, if you’re content to stay in this job over the long haul, that’s fine… but you won’t find yourself doing awesome work over that haul.

      Find out here how Vardy handled boredom at work: Make a Big Splash

      And if one of the reasons for your being bored at work is that you have time to kill, think about signing up for a course at Coursera or Udacity. Both offer Moocs (massive online open courses), which are all the rage in the West as well as, now, in India. Read up about Moocs here: How would you like to take the world's best courses, online, for free?

      Saturday, October 26, 2013

      Running for a dream... and Dream A Dream

      Back in July 2010, on the "Dream Mentors" blog that I had begun for Dream A Dream, the NGO that works with and for underprivileged children, I had published a post about my involvement with this wonderful organisation based in Bangalore. Here is that post in its entirety:

      A mentor, his mentee, and
      the Sunfeast World Run

      By Ramesh Prabhu

      IN 2009, on May 31, I took part in the Bangalore Sunfeast World Run to help raise funds for Dream A Dream.

      Thanks to generous donations from well-wishers, I was able to raise about Rs.50,000.

      In 2010, on May 23, I took part again in the Sunfeast World Run with the Dream A Dream team (see "Majja Run 2010" below). And this time I raised about Rs.85,000 for Dream A Dream.

      I had begun my association as a volunteer with Dream A Dream in August 2008. I began by teaching basic computer skills to underprivileged children on Sundays. Then, in February 2009, Dream A Dream asked me, and other volunteers, to join the mentoring training programme conducted by the husband-wife team, Dr. Dave Pearson and Dr. Fiona Kennedy. After the eight-week Sundays-only programme, I was "matched" with Kishore, a young boy from a shelter in J.P. Nagar named Vishwas.

      Kishore had been enrolled in a home-schooling programme at the time. Subsequently he and other boys from Vishwas were admitted to a boarding school. But that did not work out and Kishore is now in a vocational training institute in Whitefield where he is learning a trade. He wants to be an automobile mechanic and he told me, when I last spoke with him, that he is happier now than when he was in a regular school.

      In 2009, Kishore accompanied me twice to Commits, the media college where I am the professor of journalism — he met the dean and other faculty members and the students. It is my hope that these interactions will, in some small way, make him determined to do well in life. And, like other mentors, I used to take Kishore on outings, to the Forum Mall, to buy books, toys, etc. (You can view some photographs here.)

      In May 2009, Kishore and I participated together in the Sunfeast World Run (see "Majja Run 2009" below). The two of us were able to bond memorably not only with each other but also with other mentors and mentees.

      I am very grateful to Dream A Dream for having made it possible for me and many other volunteers to play a role in the lives of youngsters who have had a bleak past and who face an uncertain future. Here's a toast, then, to all the Dreamers!

      MAJJA RUN 2009
      MAJJA RUN 2010

      POSTSCRIPT (October 26, 2013): I took part in the annual charity run twice more, in 2011 and again last year. Thanks to the generosity of my friends, colleagues, and relatives, I was able to raise almost Rs.4 lakh for Dream A Dream over four years.

      MAJJA RUN 2011
      MAJJA RUN 2012
      • DREAM A DREAM, founded in 1999 and based in Bangalore, is a non-profit which seeks to empower young people from vulnerable backgrounds by developing life-skills and at the same time sensitising the community through active volunteering. On January 30, 2010, Dream A Dream and Vishal Talreja, co-founder and executive director, were featured in CNBC-TV18's weekly programme, "Young Turks". To watch the video, click here: Dream A Dream on CNBC-TV18.
      • Want to volunteer with Dream A Dream? Click here.