Friday, October 24, 2014

Stories

Neil Gaiman says in his introduction to Stories, the short-story anthology he and Al Sarrantonia have edited, "What we missed, what we wanted to read, were stories that made us care, stories that forced us to turn the page. ... We wanted to read stories that used a lightning flash of magic as a way of showing us something we have already seen a thousand times as if we have never seen it before."

That's a pretty tall order for any anthology. In my experience, no such collection is perfect - even a good one will have only a handful of good stories, the rest being mere page-fillers.

Stories is no different, despite Neil Gaiman's promises. Out of the twenty-eight stories it contains, about ten are actually good; another two or three are readable. I couldn't really find any reason for the addition of the others in this anthology - maybe the hope that the famous authors would attract more readers.

Some of the stories are mere sketches (Michael Moorcock's Stories, for example), others peter out halfway, leaving you feeling cheated (Roddy Doyle's Blood). Many are good ideas, half-heartedly executed (Kat Howard's A Life in Fictions). I got the feeling that they had been hurriedly written in order to meet an obligation or a tight deadline. At any rate, the editors don't seem to have done much filtering.

The story I enjoyed most was Joe R. Landsdale's The Stars Are Falling - a dreamy tale set in Texas that begins, "Before Deel Arrowsmith came back from the dead, he was crossing a field by late moonlight in search of his home." It's a twist on the typical zombie tale - one that involves lost hopes and mislaid lives.

Overall - you'll enjoy this anthology only if you don't let the famous names on the cover fool you. In fact, the stories written by the authors I recognized were generally disappointing (Neil Gaiman's The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains being the sole exception). Set your expectations low before reading this anthology.
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Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Food Habits and Productivity

Image Courtesy: rageforst ├Žsthir

Just came across this interesting article on how the food we eat affects our productivity. Many of the points are quite obvious:
Some foods, like pasta, bread, cereal and soda, release their glucose quickly, leading to a burst of energy followed by a slump. Others, like high fat meals (think cheeseburgers and BLTs) provide more sustained energy, but require our digestive system to work harder, reducing oxygen levels in the brain and making us groggy.
In the Indian context, I've noticed that people who have lunches heavy on rice and curd (I'm looking at you, fellow South Indians!) tend to be drowsier in the afternoons.

The article does serve as a good reminder about some healthy eating habits. For example, it's better to "graze throughout the day" rather than wait till you're famished before lunch. This sounds very similar to the weight loss advice usually given by doctors - "small frequent meals".

The author cites research that suggests that:
The more fruits and vegetables people consumed (up to 7 portions), the happier, more engaged, and more creative they tended to be.
Why?
Fruits and vegetables contain vital nutrients that foster the production of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that plays a key role in the experience of curiosity, motivation, and engagement. They also provide antioxidants that minimize bodily inflammation, improve memory, and enhance mood.
So if you weren't already eating fruits and vegetables because they're healthy, you have another reason to do so - they'll make you more productive at work.

Go read the entire article.
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Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Time and Tide

Photo Credit: Luke Peterson 

As a young man he'd never considered time as anything other than a current to bear him aloft, propel him into his future, now he understood that time is a rising tide, implacable inexorable unstoppable rising tide, now at the ankles, now the knees, rising to the thighs, to the groin and the torso and to the chin, ever rising, a dark water of utter mystery propelling us forward not into the future, but into infinity, which is oblivion. 

- Joyce Carol Oates (extracted from the short story Fossil-Figures)
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Thursday, October 09, 2014

Contagious

Whether you're a marketer trying to sell your product or an HR professional trying to get people to do their appraisals on time, have you, at some point, tried to get a large number of people to talk about something and change their behaviour even for a short while?

If you have, then this book is for you.

Jonah Berger's Contagious: How to Build Word of Mouth in the Digital Age manages to attain the Holy Trifecta rare in so-called "management" books - it's readable, it's backed by research, and it inspires ideas.

Not just that, it also makes it sound like it's very easy to build word of mouth. Just follow the six steps and you'll have a viral phenomenon on your hands!

Frankly, I'm still not convinced that it's possible to build word of mouth using a "by the book" approach. But for what it's worth, Berger creates a very convincing framework of six S.T.E.P.P.S for the aspiring viral-er to follow. Here are the six steps.

  1. Social Currency: People care about how they look to others. For example, if you make a club exclusive or secret, people will tend to brag that they've been there - thus spreading word-of-mouth.
  2. Triggers: Top-of-mind means tip-of-tongue. Rebecca Black's horrible Friday song went viral because - you guessed it - people were reminded of it on Fridays! 
  3. Emotion: When we care, we share. That Susan Boyle 'Britain's Got Talent' video? It inspired awe - and that's why we shared it. (I just watched it again, and it's still as awesome as before. Go watch it. NOW.)
  4. Public: Built to show, built to grow. To use the simplest example, this is why brands have their own signature carry-bags. 
  5. Practical Value: News you can use. Did you know that articles about education and health are the ones that people share the most? Because they're so practical you'll WANT to share them with somebody else. 
  6. Stories: Information travels under the guise of idle chatter. If you tell me Flipkart has great customer service - meh. But if you tell me you ordered a product at 5 PM yesterday and got it at your doorstep at 10 AM today - THAT'S interesting.

Berger illustrates each of the S.T.E.P.P.S with an interesting set of examples, and cites enough research to make you believe he's got a point. All the S.T.E.P.P.S seem quite obvious at first sight (OBVIOUSLY emotion would cause more sharing), but he digs in and shows us the nuances (low-arousal emotions such as sadness or contentment don't result in sharing).

Despite my belief that it can't be that easy to create something viral, I have a feeling I'm going to come back to this book again and again. If nothing else, Berger's framework provides an interesting way of looking at the viral phenomenon, and his examples are sure to inspire some ideas.

Want to know more without buying the book? This might help. 
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