Wednesday, December 28, 2016

What does it mean to be an effective altruist? A fascinating podcast interview has the answer

We are (mostly) happy to help people who are less fortunate than we are, provided it doesn't cost us too much in terms of time, effort, and money.

So how do you account for people who go out of their way to provide succour to those in need, no matter what it costs them in terms of time, effort, and money?

That was the subject of a fascinating Bookworm podcast discussion between host Michael Silverblatt and New Yorker staff writer Larissa MacFarquhar, which I was privileged to listen to recently.

I was so impressed I not only ordered MacFarquhar's book, which focuses on what she calls "effective altruism"; I also urged my students to listen to the interview and submit their impressions in a short article afterwards. "There is no word limit," I told them, "but there are two conditions: You must use your imagination and you must make it interesting to read."

Out of the 30 or so submissions, I found Shreya Roy's write-up to be exceptional, so here it is for your reading pleasure:


Life. What is this life we are living? Have you ever taken a minute out of your life to think about life? By that I mean taking the time out of your busy schedule to think about the lives of others out there and not your own.

Just one minute. That’s all it takes.

Unfortunately we all know the answer to that question. We don’t! And why would we want to think about other people’s lives anyway. We are so busy struggling with our own we never think about what others are going through in life. We complain over and over again. Unfortunately, life isn’t a bed of roses.

There is just one word to define us individuals. Selfish.

Yes, that’s right. We are selfish human beings. All we think about is ‘I’ rather than ‘you’. We always see life from our own perspective rather than someone else’s.

Take a moment to think about what it would be to like to live the life of someone who has never seen her own mother or father. How would her life be different from that of yours? Does she even get 1% of the love that you get? What are her feelings? What goes through her mind every second of the day? Put yourself in her shoes for once.

Fortunately (and unfortunately for some of us), there are certain people in this life who care more about others than about themselves. They care about being effective irrespective of what others think of them. They are extremists in their own way of life and would go to any extent to help the needy, give them the love they deserve. These especially good Samaritans are the focus of Larissa MacFarquhar's first book, Strangers Drowning: Grappling with Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices, and the Overpowering Urge to Help.

Strangers Drowning talks about many different kinds of people who have committed themselves to helping others in an extreme way. It’s more to do with "effective altruism", which is so rare to find these days.

And it is these altruists who make a difference in this world. They see things from a different perspective. Why? Because that is what gives them a reason to live. To serve society this way. They feel if they can have the means to buy branded clothes, why can’t they use the same amount of money to save a life? Precisely why MacFarquhar has included in her book the story of an American couple who adopt two children in distress. But then they think: If they can change two lives, why not four? Or ten? They adopt 20. But how do they weigh the needs of unknown children in distress against the needs of the children they already have?

It is interesting that MacFarquhar would never put herself in the category of the people she is writing about. She doesn’t believe in being an altruist herself, precisely why, she says, she became a writer. The fact that she put herself out there to find out more about what drives such people itself is praiseworthy. Not only does MacFarquhar put herself in their shoes but she also tries to explain what true effective altruism is all about.

Strangers Drowning showcases a world of strangers drowning in need and the different ways by which these do-gooders help to make their world a better place.

Moreover, is it right to care for strangers even at the expense of those we are closest to? Strangers Drowning challenges us to think about what we value most, and why.

Now that you have read Shreya's well-articulated thoughts on the podcast interview, surely you will want to listen in on that absorbing conversation between Michael Silverblatt and Larissa MacFarquhar? Yes? Just head on over to the Bookworm website  click here.
  • To learn more about the gifted host of Bookworm, read this interview. You can also learn what things to avoid when conducting an interview.
  • And to learn more about Larissa MacFarquhar, check out this interview in The Guardian.
  • Back in May last year, Shreya Roy had written a post for The Commits Chronicle about why she was glad she was joining Commits. Read her piece here.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Can you imagine a Reuters copy editor not knowing the difference between "it's" and "its"?

Last evening I spotted a typo in a caption for a picture accompanying a story on the Reuters website. So I scrolled down to the "Corrections" tab and wrote this message:

Rd Prabhu, Oct 12, 10:02 PM SGT:
The Amazon Echo, a voice-controlled virtual assistant, is seen at it's product launch for Britain and Germany in London, Britain, September 14, 2016. REUTER/Peter Hobson
That is the caption for a photograph accompanying a Reuters story about Amazon's new music service. "'s product launch"? That should be "...its product launch".

Shortly afterwards I received this automated response:

Ticket #78452: Mistake in caption


Thank you for contacting Reuters Online Support. Your request (#78452) has been received, and is being reviewed by our support staff.

To view responses to Frequently Asked Questions, visit our Knowledge Base.[link Knowledge Base to ]

We will get back to you as soon as possible.
Kind regards,

The Team
And when I took a look at the story again, the error had been corrected:

Is it any wonder that a Google search for "its vs it's" throws up more than 13 million results?


An e-mail interaction with author Mardy Grothe —  It all depends on the telling, sure. But surely who does the telling matters?

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Who are these people who get bombed while doing their work but keep going back?

And who are the people bringing us their stories?

Physicians working for Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) have saved countless lives in troubled and war-torn regions over the years.

Dr. Navpreet Sahsi, an emergency room physician from Toronto, on his daily rounds in an MSF camp in South Sudan. Dr. Nav, as he is known, features prominently in the podcast discussed below. Photo courtesy: NPR/David Gilkey

But what does it take to volunteer for a mission with one of the world's leading humanitarian organisations?

And how will we, siting in the comfort of our homes, know what it means to be an MSF doctor if we didn't have journalists who risk their lives too by travelling to these dangerous areas to report on the work being done there by these amazing, brave, big-hearted men and women?

If you want to know more, and I'm sure you do, click on this link: Embedded for Five Days and Five Nights with Doctors Without Borders.

When you get to the page, click on the "play" icon to listen to the podcast.

When listening to the podcast, pay attention to the journalistic values  how similar is this podcast to a news feature in a newspaper?

Also pay attention to the following:

1. Pronunciation
2. Voice modulation
3. Use of music
4. Use of silences

This is a great example of "radio journalism".

Also, it's a great example of a human interest story.

Who else but journalists can bring us such stories?

  • NPR is a wonderful source of some gripping podcasts, as is Longform. Here are some of my favourites:

Saturday, July 30, 2016

How marvellous it would be if you could edit your own writing...

...but there are not many people out there who are capable of doing so. Lisa Lepki of Ragan Communications understands that and she wants to help. So she has compiled a list of six common problems to fix "before your editor gets out the red pen":

1. Replace adverbs with strong verbs.

2. Fix repetitive use of initial pronouns.

3. Get rid of clichés.

4. Declutter your writing by cutting redundancies.

5. Eliminate your passive voice.

6. Get rid of sticky sentences.

Lepki elaborates on each point and also provides easy-to-grasp examples. Check out her post here: 6 self-editing tips to strengthen your writing.

Afterwards, download this free white paper, "10 ways to improve your writing today".

"Whether you're composing a press release, a blog post, a script, or executive talking points, these techniques," Ragan claims, "will enhance your communication." Get the white paper here.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

"8 small things you do that people use to judge your personality"

Yes, you will be judged on whether you are punctual, whether you arrive in time for class, for a date, for a meeting. But did you know you will also be judged on how you treat waiters? And where you look when you drink out of a cup?

Business Insider India has helpfully made a list of eight small things we do that people use to judge us. Here's the list:

1. Your handshake
2. Whether you show up on time
3. How you treat restaurant staff
4. Where you look when you drink out of a cup
5. Whether you bite your nails
6. Your handwriting
7. How often you check your phone
8. Whether you make eye contact

You can read this topical feature in its entirety here.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Thursday, July 14, 2016

What is it that makes life endurable?

"...we all require devotion to something more than ourselves for our lives to be endurable. Without it, we have only our desires to guide us, and they are fleeting, capricious, and insatiable. They provide, ultimately, only torment."

~ Harvard philosopher Josiah Royce, quoted in a fascinating book I bought for myself recently, Atul Gawande's Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End

  • Want to know more about the book? Check out this review.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Why you shouldn't worry about what people think of you

There are many young people out there who are sure to benefit from reading this first-person piece:

"So much of life is dictated by what others will think of us. In fact, we spend more time wondering what people will think rather than trying to accomplish things that will get them thinking about us in the first place."

Click here.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Playing the role of a television interviewer

Watch this clip from my days as the host of a TV show on TMG Enter, the technology channel launched by the company I joined back in 1999 in Bangalore.

Keep in mind that I have done a fair amount of research to be able to ask my guest relevant questions about a topic I am not an expert on. He is the expert. I am also listening to the answers so that I can ask follow-up questions.

Keep in mind, too, that this chat is meant for an audience comprising technology enthusiasts and people from the tech industry.

I hope watching this video will give Audiovisual Communication students some insight into how they can prepare for and produce their own chat programme for their TV news shows.

Friday, June 24, 2016


"You may say you’re not a writer. But if you have a job that requires communicating with others, you are. If you keep a to-do list, that’s writing. If you draft a project plan, report, or meeting agenda, that’s writing. And, if you’re like most writers, you want to be more skilled at using your words."
~ From a promo for Evernote


    The world is your oyster...

    ...when you have the 3 i's: Interest, Initiative, Imagination.

    And Sumukh Mehta, a 21-year-old Bangalorean, seems to have the 3 i's by the bucketful.

    That's Sumukh on the cover of GQ. What's he doing there, you ask? Read all about it here: Your Resumé Doesn’t Stand A Chance Against This Dude’s Ridiculously Creative One.

    Sumukh's story featured prominently on the websites of many news outlets. Here's how it played out on the BBC's site: This graduate made his CV look like GQ magazine  and it worked.



    Poorvi Kothari (Class of 2014) wrote this piece for The Commits Chronicle in June 2016:

    Before I joined Commits I had no idea that a role like media planning even existed. But thanks to our classes with Mala Ma’am (Malavika Harita, CEO of Saatchi Focus), I not only learnt a lot about advertising but I also got introduced to some great roles, like those of media planners.

    And that’s the beauty of Commits. You can come in without even knowing what you want to do or what you are capable of, but one thing is for sure, you’ll leave with a vision, direction, and goal in life.


    So what exactly is media planning? When I say I work as a media planner, people usually get a little excited and ask, oh, so you are in the TV industry? To which I politely say no. Then they jump to the next possibility: Oh, so then you are a journalist? To which I again say no. As I start explaining how the advertising world works, they become impatient and ask, oh, so you make ads? I say no, I just plan them. By then, even though they haven’t understood what “plan” means in this context they give up and say, oh, okay, that sounds good. 

    So, yes, “media planner” is not a profession that everyone gets right away, like “journalist” or “copywriter”. Let me, therefore, try to put it in simple terms: Imagine a mind-blowing advertisement that never reaches its target audience. What good is the ad then? Media planners ensure that a brand’s ad is served up to the right audience. We are like distributors.

    After an ad is created, media planners think of the best ways to reach out to the brand’s target audience (be it print, TV, radio, or digital). This involves a lot of statistical analysis as well as number-crunching. Media budgets are huge, typically in crores of rupees. Using this money to effectively reach out to a million consumers in the target audience is a big challenge.

    I could go on about everything that happens in media planning, or at work, or at client meetings where we are grilled for explanations about why we are spending this much on a particular medium/channel/programme/website/newspaper, etc., or what the rationale is behind a particular strategy. We are talking big bucks here so, often, we play the role of lawyers, accountants, strategists, and investment bankers.


    To sum up, media planning is the business side of advertising. It is not all about numbers, though. To me, media planning is a good mix of creativity and ingenuity combined with a knack for identifying key insights about what we refer to as media consumption. What I really love is how beautifully numbers can tell us stories, and the best part is when you are trying to sell a story and your job becomes so much easier because you can do so on the back of some powerful data.

    Creative agencies feel proud when their TV commercials are seen on air, but for us it’s satisfying when people say, Hey, did you see that ad? It’s all over the place, man! That’s when I know, okay, I did a decent job there.
    • Here are three ads whose media plans were prepared by Poorvi and her team:

    Thursday, June 23, 2016

    The mother of all podcasts: Serial

    More than 80 million downloads of the 12 episodes that make up Season One.

    That single statistic speaks volumes for the popularity of Serial, which is often referred to as the mother of all podcasts. In fact, Serial changed the way the world thought about podcasts. The New York Times has written that the phenomenal success of Serial lies "in its willingness to defy some of the worst trends in journalism", while The Washington Post has described it as an investigative journalism podcast that became a cultural obsession.

    Strangely, hardly anyone I know has even heard of this revolutionary podcast, even though it was first aired nearly two years ago. I got wind of it last year and I was hooked immediately because, with every episode ending with a cliffhanger, Serial is very much a "TRUE CRIME" THRILLER.

    But it is also journalism; radio; research. Voice modulation; the usage of background music. It showcases the art of interviewing. And it gives us an insight into the importance of script-writing. Believe me, everything about Serial is FASCINATING.

    For media students, especially those who have chosen Audiovisual Communication, this is an invaluable tool — it will help them better understand their chosen field.

    Get your fix here.

    And read up on the impact of Serial: Podcasting’s First Breakout Hit, Sets Stage for More.

    UPDATE (June 30, 2016): From The New York Times, "Adnan Syed, of Serial Podcast, Gets a Retrial in Murder Case".

    • Season Two of Serial kicked off in December last year. But while Season One will be of interest to a general audience, Season Two, in my view, will appeal only to an American audience. Of course, you can make up your mind after you read co-producer and host Sarah Koenig's Welcome Note.
    • The phenomenal success of Serial has led to a boom in podcast-production. The number of apps that enable you to search for and listen to podcasts has also increased exponentially. Here are my posts about my favourite podcasts:
    Do you have dark thoughts?

    Friday, June 17, 2016

    Do you have dark thoughts?

    Such as "I am no good." Or "No one likes me." Or worse.
    Even if you don't, here's an NPR podcast that delves into the secret history of thoughts while giving us two real stories that begin in pretty dark fashion. Both, however (especially the second one), end on such a joyous note you will get a kick out of listening to them.
    Of course, ultimately, this is a great piece of (audio) journalism.

    To listen to "The Secret History of Thoughts" on the "Invisibilia" podcast, click here and scroll down to the episode. If you want to download it, click on the "ellipsis button" and choose "Download". You can also subscribe to "Invisibilia" on the Podcast Addict app, which is my favourite app for listening to podcasts while I'm driving to and from work.



    "Shakespeare got better because he learnt. Now some people will tell you great writing cannot be learnt. Such people should be hit repeatedly on the nose until they promise not to talk nonsense anymore."

    ~ From an extremely witty book I have just begun reading (thank you, Shagorika Easwar, for the recommendation)

    Thursday, June 9, 2016

    When subs fall asleep on the job

    From today's Times of India

    a. In an interview with labour minister Parameshwara Naik by Sandeep Moudgal on Page 4:

    "The ingenuity of these posts is to be verified."

    I think that should read "The genuineness of these posts is to be verified."

    b. In a report headlined "Zika fears: Olympic champ freezes sperm" on Page 20:

    "... the couple were increasingly worried about mosquito-born Zika..."

    I think that should read "mosquito-borne Zika".


    Q. What's wrong with that picture? Can you "point" out the issues?

    A. It's "U.S.", not "U.S".

    Q. What's wrong with that headline?

    A. At the very least, it should read "Tamannaah speaks on why Katappa killed Baahubali!"

    Friday, June 3, 2016

    Some of the best news apps out there, for Android as well as iOS, in one post

    FYI, I have been using Newsd since last night. The best thing about Newsd for me: Human editors provide a well-written summary of each story.

    Check out the complete list here.

    Monday, May 30, 2016

    What it takes to be included in an anthology of graphic non-fiction from India

    Last week, A.P. Payal, a young lecturer at the University of Delhi, became a published author. Her work of graphic non-fiction has been included in an anthology, First Hand, which was launched at a function in the capital on May 26.

    On behalf of the many aspiring authors out there, among whom are my students, I conducted an e-mail interview with Payal (disclosure: she is my niece) to better understand what it means to work as a comics artist. Here is the text of the Q&A:

    1. How did you get this project?
    I follow Yoda Press/Yodakin on Facebook. They shared a call-for-proposals asking artists/writers to submit ideas for a short piece of graphic non-fiction. I was very excited by the fact that they were encouraging first-time comics artists to contribute. I jumped at the idea and got my proposal ready.


    2. Did you meet the other authors before you began work on your story to get an understanding of the overall theme of the anthology?
    Yes. Vidyun Sabhaney Shohei Emura at Captain Bijli (the co-facilitators of this project with Yoda Press and People Tree) organised short workshops for contributors to meet up and interact with each other. They also organised talks with published authors and comics creators so that we could learn from them. While not everybody was present at these events, the interaction with other contributors as well as established artists helped me a lot. It helped me think of pictorial storytelling in different ways.


    3. How did you get the idea for your piece? And how did you go about researching this story?
    As a five-year-old I would listen with rapt attention to my paternal grandfather talking about the family's great escape from Burma (now Myanmar) during World War II. As he described the dense forests on the mountains of Burma, I would try to visualise their journey in my mind. This project gave me the opportunity to finally put those images to paper.

    Unfortunately, my grandfather died years before I could take down his narrative formally.

    My aunt (his niece), Sreedhari Soman, was eight years old when the family fled Burma and this graphic narrative is based on  her recollection of these events. By combining my aunt's memories with my research, I attempted to recreate what they may have experienced.

    My research consisted of reading scholarly articles and books that I accessed via the university. I read some first-hand accounts of similar migration stories in books, on blogs, and on websites. I also searched through books at IGNCA (Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts) to collect reference images/maps of Burma from 1941-42. Specialised naval archives online and websites with photos of military gear from the time were also very useful.

    4. Why did you go the graphic route (instead of telling a text-only story)?
    I have grown up reading comics. Despite being a student of literature, I find myself naturally drawn to images. As a research scholar, I have spent a lot of time reading and researching visual art. This was a story that I really wanted to tell and I suppose I wanted to challenge myself by using images to tell it. As a medium, comics helped me to position this tale of survival within a historical context.


    5. How long did it take for you complete your story (from beginning to end)? Which software program did you use? Or were the illustrations and the lettering done by hand?
    After multiple phone conversations with my aunt, it took me a little more than a month to put together the story and the sequencing of the panels. I also collated the academic research during this period. Collecting reference images was a continual process and went on over many months. It took me about two or three months to ink the illustrations on paper. I scanned the illustrations and used Adobe Photoshop to edit them. After the images were placed sequentially in Adobe InDesign, I placed text boxes and keying in the text. The PDF and the InDesign files were sent to the designer Pia Alize Hazarika. She chose a more appropriate font for my submission and put everyone's entries together.

    6. What were the problems that arose during this project and how did you overcome them?
    Initially, I was to work with an artist. That didn't materialise, luckily, because I was very keen on doing the comic myself. As I am not a full-time artist and lack a certain artistic finesse, I was quite worried that I might not be able to convince the publishers about my visual style. However, they supported me and encouraged me to take my time and slowly raise my own level of illustration.

    I initially insisted on working with charcoal pencils but they suggested that I shift to ink. That really helped me to give detail to the piece, which made the visuals take on a life of their own.

    I suppose the fear of rejection and pushing myself to be better were the real challenges that I had to overcome. Making comics is a long process and there are no short cuts. If you make a mistake while inking, you might have to go back and start from scratch. I learnt not to compromise and that was the best part.

    7. What kind of feedback have you got so far?
    I have mainly heard from friends and family till now. They have all been very appreciative. The best feedback that I received has been from Orijit Sen. I am a huge fan of his work and at the book launch he appreciated my academic rigour, the attention to detail in the piece. It was surreal to hear that coming from him. I look forward to hearing more from people about the comic.

    8. Now that you're a published graphic author, do you have plans for more books?
    I definitely want to take this forward. I am currently working on a collaborative project with a friend. I do hope that one day a publisher will have enough faith in my story-telling (and showing) abilities to trust me with an entire book.

    • Watch Payal answer questions at the launch of First Hand:
    • Hindustan Times calls the anthology "One-of-a-kind". Read the article here.
    • You can buy First Hand on Flipkart (the publisher, Yoda Press, is going in for a second print run) here.
    • Yoda Press is raising funds "in order to compensate the contributors (artists and writers) of the comic for their hard work". If you would like to help, you can do so by clicking on this link.
    • Last month, Payal was featured in The Indian Express for her unique method of teaching Shakespeare to college students by using tarot cards. You can read the piece here
    UPDATE (August 29, 2016): Here's a photograph showing the protagonist of "Rangoon to Vadakara", Sreedhari Soman, holding a copy of First Hand:

    Sreedhari Chechi (Elder Sister) was eight years old when she trekked from Burma to India with her family. She now lives in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala.

    Saturday, May 7, 2016

    Babu English, anyone?

    Look what I found in my e-mail archives recently:

    ------- Forwarded message ----------
    Date: Thu, Mar 24
                 at 1:11 PM

    Respected Sir,

    I have the honour to invite your kind attention to the submission of mine for favour of your kind perusal and necessary action. This is no doubt quite un-called-for and I am fully concious that I am intruding upon your much valuable time and patience too, requesting you to go through the following ,but my only excuse is that neccessity knows no law::

    That Sir, I have applied for admission in your August institution for Masters in Marketing and Management communication which is a two years course.

    That Sir, the date of entrance examination has been fixed on          &             as I have informed.

    That Sir, on                     I got an appointment with my attending physician and I have to undergo some specific test which may take at least ten days time.

    That Sir, in view of the above, as I am very much interested to be a student of Commits,Banglore and consider it as my honour, I appeal to your kind honour to allow me a different date either prior to                 or after                  which can only meet my dream.

    I hope my August Authority will favour me with the appeal.

    Faithfully Yours,




    WHOSE FAULT IS IT? Why do so many people, especially youngsters, write in this fashion? Is it their fault entirely? No, the real culprit is our education system. Read my post on the subject here.