Sunday, June 30, 2013

Goodbye, Google Reader!

Because tomorrow, you're dead. Your parents, who once swore to do no evil, are now killing you off. They're being the Big Bad Corporate they once swore not to be, and they're being merciless with you and with all of us who love you.

But wait - this post is not going to be a whine-post. This is going to be a happy celebratory post, about all the good times we've shared, and all the laughs we've had.

I don't remember who introduced us, or even when we first met. I know it's been at least six years, because you were with me when I moved to Jamshedpur in 2007. So that's a long time, Reader. I know there must be millions of others who've known you longer, and who've even spent more time with you than I have. But that doesn't matter to me. You occupy a special place in MY heart. 

I'm going to miss your white-and-blue face. I'm going to miss how simple you were to navigate. I'm going to miss how you used to let me decide what to read rather than try to figure it out on your own. I'm going to miss always having at least one Chrome tab showing those comforting blue and red squares. I'm going to miss periodically making Resolutions to read more intellectual stuff, and then guiltily lapsing back to the fun stuff. 

There was a time my favourite thing about you was the 'Like' option. I used to obsessively check how many 'likes' my posts had got, how many shares. But your parents stripped you of that in an attempt to promote their other, more colourful, more swashbuckling younger child, Plus. I should have realized then, of course, that the end was near, that it was only a matter of time before they decided to do away with you completely.

But you know what they say about how evil begets evil? I hope and suspect that that'll be true in this case. I don't think Plus will ever be loved as much as you were, Reader. They're shoving Plus down our throats in a way that'll just make us choke on it. 

Whereas you grew on us, you made us love you with your simplicity and your gentleness. You didn't mind when we were too busy for you. You waited for us to come back to you, as we all eventually did. You didn't wave periodically at us from Gmail and Blogger and every other Google site we use, the way Plus is doing today. You were patient, and you were laid-back, and you were nice. For me, you  represent an older and nicer Internet, and maybe an older and nicer Google. 

We love you, Reader. And we're going to miss you. 
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Saturday, June 29, 2013

Julian Barnes - The Sense of an Ending

Nostalgia, the tricks of memory, the subjectivity of history, the relativity of time - these are the themes of The Sense of an Ending, the Booker-winning short novel by Julian Barnes.

Tony Webster has had what would seem like a normal life, if somewhat staid. He says of it, "It's been interesting to me, though I wouldn't complain or be amazed if others found it less so." 

Now sixty-something, he looks back upon his life - or rather, certain aspects of it. He describes his school-boy friendship with Adrian Finn - a boy far more intelligent than him, a frequent quoter of Camus, somebody who thought deeply about moral choices and courage. He also looks back on his relationship with his first girlfriend Veronica Finn - the long courtship and the eventual breakup.

More than anything else, the novel is about the tricks that memory plays upon all of us. As we age, memories grow less grey, more black-and-white. Good things become great, and bad things become revolting. Memory gets stuck in the same reel over and over again, and we frequently forget or mis-remember details. And then something - a chance running into somebody, or perhaps an unplanned visit to a place of personal importance - makes memory run on a different track, and we remember subtle nuances and details that we had chosen to forget. 

Webster's journey is similar. In the first part of the book, he tells us what he remembers of his relationships with Adrian and Veronica. And then, in part two, he is indirectly reminded of Veronica again, ruminates on some of the events of the time, and discovers details that he hadn't previously known. He is forced to correct some of his own memories, to reconsider his own feelings about both Adrian and Veronica. He is forced to admit that he may have been overly charitable to himself in his memories. 

It's fascinating to see this evolution happen. As Webster uncovers layer after layer of emotion, works through all the memories he had repressed (especially of his relationship with Veronica), it's like seeing a Russian doll being systematically un-nested to finally reveal the true kernel of truth inside it. Or perhaps it's the reverse that's happening - a gradual nesting of smaller half-truths inside the larger reality. Because in this case the "truth" Webster has told himself for forty years is the smallest and pettiest truth, more lies than otherwise. The reality is so large that it takes Webster many weeks to comprehend it.

Also pervading the book is a sense of - remorse, perhaps? Initially, Webster claims to be content with the way he has lived his life. But later, he contrasts Adrian's promising youth with his own uneventful life, and concludes that he hasn't really "lived" his life. He didn't take charge of his own life, he never went out and claimed it, he side-stepped most of its challenges. 

Webster also ruminates a lot on life and old age and relationships. In fact, I felt like noting some of these so that I could keep coming back to them. Maybe I'll put some of them up here in the days to come.
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Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Patrick Lencioni - The Advantage

The best business books are the ones that make you think you can solve all the world's problems in one go. Patrick Lencioni's book does exactly that. It offers a magic bullet  (well, four magic bullets) for solving all the organizational problems in the world. 

Unlike most management authors, Lencioni doesn't claim that his suggestions are based on extensive research or data. He provides no graphs or exhaustive tables to back his premise. He says his ideas are based only on his extensive experience as a consultant. A few simple models suffice to illustrate his concepts. 

Perhaps that's what makes the book so compelling. A book written in accessible language is such a rarity in the field of management that you're tempted to hold it up and proclaim it a model for everybody else to follow.

Lencioni's premise is simple. He says that there are two things that leaders can focus on to improve their organization's performance. They can either focus on their organization's "smartness", which is the usual stuff like Finance and Marketing and Strategy. Or they can focus on their organization's "health", which is the touchy-feely stuff like mutual trust, lack of politics, high morale, low turnover, etc. 

The mistake that most leaders make, says Lencioni, is that they focus on organizational smartness at the cost of organizational health. They dismiss the latter as touch-feely - mostly because they don't know what it's all about. He illustrates this with an example from I Love Lucy. 
Ricky, Lucy's husband, comes home from work one day to find his wife crawling around the living room on her hands and knees. He asks her what she's doing. 
"I'm looking for my earrings," Lucy responds.
Ricky asks her, "You lost your earrings in the living room?"
She shakes her head. "No, I lost them in the bedroom. But the light out here is much better."
Good for the Lucy-like-leaders in the world that Lencioni can tell them how to look for the earrings in the bedroom. He offers a four-discipline model for organizational health:

  1. Build a cohesive leadership team
  2. Create clarity
  3. Over-communicate clarity
  4. Reinforce clarity
Lencioni's themes are simple and have been around for a long time - well-aligned leadership; organizational simplicity; good communication; good systems and processes. His success lies in putting these themes together into a model that is easily understood. He also illustrates his ideas using examples from his consulting career.

His ideas will not be very acceptable to self-important leaders who want to create a hero culture in their companies. He is very clear that great organizations are created by great leadership teams, and not by great leaders. The only way the CEO contributes is by ensuring that the conditions are right for the creation of a great team. 

I would recommend this book both for current leaders who're trying to make their organizations more effective; and for wannabe leaders who want to understand leadership better.
• • •

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Art and Life

The below extract is from a 1934 essay titled 'The Novels of E. M. Forster' written by Peter Burra. In Forster's own words, "Burra was a brilliant and sensitive writer of great promise who was killed at the age of twenty-seven in a flying disaster."
... the fact remains that the real life is chaotic and formless, and the artist is faced with the problem of confining his impressions of that life into a space which is infinitely smaller than itself and with at least one of its dimensions removed. He has no other alternative, therefore, than to select what seem to him its most significant parts, and to arrange the chaos into some sort of an order. Inevitably the life he presents is much neater and tidier than the diffuse reality. It is probable that most people take the impressions afforded by art - especially the novel - so much for granted that they sincerely believe life itself to be quite a neat and tidy event and suffer from shock or melancholy if something occurs to disturb their belief. Paradoxically, the more actually 'like' life a work of art is, the more nonsensical it appears to them. One of the most interesting aims of modern writers and artists has been the attempt to dispel this illusion of life's tidiness. 
• • •

Monday, June 10, 2013

The End Of Reader And What That Means For Blogging

Now that Google Reader's shut-down date is alarmingly near, I'm starting to wonder what it means for blogging in general. 

Blogging on the Wane

Blogging has been on the wane for a long time now, of course. It started with Twitter. The ability to spout out short thoughts and get instant feedback and a larger readership - there was no way that the more old-fashioned plodding blog format could compete with that. 

At the same time, Twitter also gave blogs a spurt. It provided readers an easier way to find and share great content. Rather than using RSS feeders (so old-fashioned!), more and more people are using Twitter, Facebook and other 'curating' sources to find stuff to read online. Online reading 'fashion' has changed to finding and reading the most interesting content from a wide range of sources, rather than following a few sources in the hope of finding great content - breadth rather than depth, if you want to look at it that way.

Reader Readership

Needless to say, Google probably realized this from its own usage data. When the shut-down announcement happened, many blogs posted data about how their Reader subscriber base has been increasing. But for Google, that number probably matters less than the amount of time these subscribers are actually spending on Reader. And Twitter has gobbled up a large share of that Time pie.

So how do I account for the collective howl of rage that reverberated across the internet when Google announced that it was phasing out Reader? Denial. 

Don't get me wrong - it was less a disinclination to deal with change and more an inability to accept that they had already made the change. All of these people still continued using their Reader accounts out of habit. But I'm willing to bet that a fair amount of the time they used to spend on Reader was now being spent on Twitter, hunting for the elusive Fairy of Great Content. 

The Tipping Point

For these 'comfort zone' people who continued to use Reader, the shut-down of Reader may be the ultimate tipping point. 

The thing is, there is no easy replacement for Reader. Sure, many people have created lists upon lists of Reader alternatives. But none of them quite hit the sweet spot. The best looking one is Feedly, and that's the one that most people seem to be switching to / thinking about switching to. But as Shrik explains here, Feedly is NOT a Reader substitute. It doesn't let the reader decide what to read. It tries to figure out what people WANT to read, and that doesn't quite work. I tried a couple of the others, but none are simple / attractive enough to meet the standards that Reader set.

So a large number of Reader users are simply not going to make the switch to Feedly or NewsBlur or any other reader. They're going to switch all their attention to Twitter or Facebook or the next phenomenon to come along. (Google+? Nah.)

The End of Blogging?

So what does this mean for blogging? Is blogging as a phenomenon ending? No, not really. After all, you need a place for thoughts that are too detailed for Twitter to handle. 

But since people will no longer be following your blog per se, you will have to drive traffic to your blog through Twitter, Facebook, and so on. You will no longer be able to depend on a loyal group of readers who will read your content, and share it if it's great. Your content will be read only if you ensure that links reach Twitter and Facebook. If it goes viral there - great. If not, too bad. Better luck next time.


On the other hand, it's also interesting to see how Medium fits very snugly into this new gap in the market - though not in the way the creators of the 'Reader Alternatives' lists would have thought. It's again about great content, on a single site. No more trawling through your entire Twitter stream to find a few great links. And there's the added bonus that it even tells you how long it'll take you to read the article. Just the thing for the attention-deprived world of today.

So is Medium the new blogging? Too early to predict. It all depends on the vision the founders have for the site. As of now, it has great UI and good-to-great content. Considering that these are the same guys who founded Blogger and Twitter, let's wait and watch.
• • •

Thursday, June 06, 2013

Ten Questions YJHD* Left Me With

*Where YJHD refers to Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani.
  1. Do all medical students wear mini-skirts and short dresses?
  2. From which shop did Deepika Padukone's character buy Bausch & Lomb contact lenses in the middle of the Himalayan mountains? Not to mention the white hot-pants?
  3. Why does IMDb say that the movie is 130 minutes long when it is CLEARLY at least four and a half hours long?
  4. What percentage of the movie's budget was devoted to Deepika Padukone's clothes?
  5. And on the subject of her clothes, what was that pink thing she was wearing? Surely it was too small to be a bra?
  6. Does Kalki Koechlin not eat?
  7. Does Ranbir Kapur ever play characters that are NOT fun and awesome and happy-go-lucky at the beginning of the movie and all mature and grown-up at the end?
  8. Has the movie's director ever heard of this concept called - editing?
  9. Why did I not take along at least one rotten tomato for the scene where [SPOILER ALERT BUT NOT REALLY] the two lead characters spend five torturous minutes declaring their love for each other?
  10. Why did the audience not collectively shoot its own brains off when the n+1-th song started?
  11. [Bonus extra question since you read till the end] How does Holi happen two weeks AFTER Ranbir Kapoor is shown eating a mango? 
• • •

Sunday, June 02, 2013

A Spot of Bother - Mark Haddon

I think I'm in love.

This book is one of the funniest I've read in ages. It takes some time to sink in, yes. It takes some time to get used to the wry prose, the wit, the dry descriptions. And then it hits you. And then you're laughing out aloud, startling the person sitting next to you and causing her to look at you like you're crazy.

The thing is, this book has no right to be as funny as it is. It's the story of a man who is slowly losing his mind because he thinks the lesion on his hip is cancer. His wife is cheating on him with one of his ex-colleagues. His daughter is marrying a man she's not in love with - just because he takes care of her son well. His son is gay - something he doesn't approve of.

And yet. And yet, and yet, and yet. You find yourself laughing out aloud. At the absurd things that happen - and more importantly, the wry descriptions of the absurd things that happen.

Okay. I find I can't really say much more about the book than how funny it is. Read it for yourself and find out. Here's a sample. George, our hero, is trying to run away from his daughter's wedding:


He was halfway across the field by the railway line, however, when he saw Eileen and Ronnie heading towards him. They were hoisting their dog over the stile and he was fairly sure they had not noticed him. He crept into the depression by the hawthorne so that he was out of their line of sight.

The dog was barking.

He could not retrace his steps without being seen, and a bank of brambles prevented him crossing the railway line itself. His chest tightened.

His arm was still bleeding where he had bitten it.

The barking got louder.

He lay down and rolled into the shallow drainage ditch where the grass dipped before going under the fence. His coat was green. If he lay still they might not find him.

It was snug in the ditch, and surprisingly comfortable. Interesting, too, to find himself looking at nature from so close up, something he had not done since he was a small boy. There must have been forty or fifty species of plants within his reach. And he knew the names of none. Except the nettles. Assuming they were nettles. And the cow parsley. Assuming it was cow parsley.
• • •

Saturday, June 01, 2013

Mistress - Anita Nair

Mistress is the story of four people - Shyam, a resort-owning businessman in the town of Shornur in Kerala; Radha, his wife; Koman, a Kathakali artist and Radha's uncle; and Chris, an American journalist who is visiting Shornur to interview Koman. 

The novel has two different threads. One is Koman's story, as he narrates it to Chris. The other is the love triangle of Radha-Shyam-Chris. Radha and Chris are attracted to each other from the beginning, and the fact that Radha and Shyam's marriage is a sham doesn't help. Running through everything and acting as a colourful backdrop is Kathakali, the Kerala art form. 

I have mixed feelings about the book, though it's more positive than negative. The negative was the writing, which stuck me as forced sometimes. But perhaps that's just me and my mallu-ness. The fact that I know the place and the people and the language probably made the descriptions feel slightly stilted.

But I loved everything else. The characters are brilliant - especially Radha and Shyam. Radha is a snooty  convent-educated city-girl, and Shyam is an ambitious small-town guy. Their emotions and the realities of their marriage are scarily real. Though I was tempted to sympathize with Radha initially (Shyam treats her really badly), we're also shown Shyam's perspective, why he does the things that irritate Radha so much, how helpless he feels against Radha's snootiness. And we start sympathizing with him as well. 

Koman the Kathakali Artist still feels slightly... 'wispy' is the word that comes to mind - insubstantial. This despite the fact that the focus shifts to him in the latter half of the book. He's too much of an idealist, not as flawed and real as the other two. But perhaps such people do exist in the art world - I haven't met too many artists. 

Kerala is depicted in all her glory. The rains, the greenery, the arts. Nair has divided the book into nine chapters, and used the nine expressions of dance to title each. She also manages to link each of the nine expressions to Kerala's weather. Setting the novel against the backdrop of Kathakali was a brilliant idea too. Some of the most vivid narrations are of Koman's performances, and of the mythological stories that underlie them.

Nair's main strength seems to be in depicting emotions - she starts off strong with the Radha and Shyam story. But the parts of the book that deal with Koman's life and loves are weak. I got the sense that she had tried to include too many things, and ran out of time and pages. The ending is weak and flat as well. It's inconclusive - I was left wanting to know what finally HAPPENS. 


Now that I've read this book, I'm very tempted to do some research on Kathakali. It's shameful that I know so little about the most majestic art form of my own state. Admittedly, Kathakali, though colourful and mysterious, has a high entry barrier. The padams are in an old form of Malayalam that isn't easily understood. And the way it's sung doesn't help either. But I'm hoping that the internet will help me overcome these difficulties - Youtube-aaya Namaha!


The cover page of the book I read features half of a made-up Kathakali face, and is brilliant (part of the image is featured at the top of this post).

But I found the image on the left while googling, and just had to crib about how stupid and wrong it is. A Malayali woman does NOT wear toe-rings. She's unlikely to be wearing silver anklets either. 

Interestingly, it was extremely difficult to find the right cover image. When I googled, I got more photos of the author than the book cover! I guess Anita Nair is so photogenic herself that her book covers tend to get lost on the net.
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