Writing Simply

economist cover-1Greg Mankiw writes about a carbon tax in the New York Times. Whether or not you agree with the economic arguments for the tax, it is easy to agree that Mankiw writes very well. Mankiw is a Professor at Harvard and was the Chief Economic Adviser to President George Bush. You would expect him to be quite an authority on economic theory. But in this piece he explains a complex matter in a way that a high-school kid would understand it.

Writing simply is a craft. It requires hard work and practice. James Thurber, an American writer and humorist, was known to go over his writing again and again until he was satisfied that it was clear and simple. His “My Life and Hard Times” was a book that I read and reread, again and again, as a child – and still can, as an adult. It is a timeless classic.

Writing simply requires expertise. You can’t be clear and simple in your writing until you are clear about the subject in your head. Writing simply isn’t the same as writing about simple things. Richard Dawkins has written volumes of erudite stuff about evolutionary biology that is completely accessible to people with no more that high-school biology.

On the other hand, there are all manner of experts who hide behind a facade of jargon and what Thurber calls expression-complexes. Referring to psychoanalysts Thurber says:

…I have discovered that they all suffer from one or more of these expression-complexes: italicizing, capitalizing, exclamation-pointing, multiple-interrogating and itemizing…It is a defense mechanism used to cover up a lack of anything new and sound to say on their favorite subjects, and to make up for an inability to write simply and convincingly, or to think clearly.

Writing simply often requires having an opinion. The reason I like the Economist or Om Malik, is because they generally don’t waffle. You know where they stand on issues. The cover page of the Economist and its headline leave you in no doubt about their position on Syria.

Writing simply is risky. If you are wrong with your facts, you can’t hide behind a possible misinterpretation. If you are wrong with your opinion (like the Economist was, by their own admission, on Iraq) someone will call you out.

When that happens, you go back to your blog post and admit that you made a mistake. Right there, next to where you made it. In italics, so nobody misses it. And then continue to write the way you want to.

My Wish “Less” for 2011

A very happy new year to my readers.

A couple of years ago I had posted a New Year’s Wish “Less”. Instead of a Wish List, which is mostly about wishing for things that you don’t have, I thought that I would ask for less of things that we have too much of. (no money is not one of those things!)

Fewer natural disasters in parts of the world that can’t handle them


Less irresponsible government spending

One word – Greece

Less than 24 hours of news coverage from 24 hour news channels

If they can’t do that then can we get them to have fewer talking heads on the screen at the same time. CNBC, I’m talking to you.

Fewer pages in the US Tax Code

Unfortunately, every change that is deficit neutral, hurts somebody who goes and lobbies their senator who filibusters until the bill is killed. Either that or the tax accountants will kill it. Simplification reduces billings. Hmmm…that’s true about IT Services too.

Less complexity in our cell phone bills, banking fees, utility bills…

I eagerly await Bank Simple

Fewer Amitabh Bachhan ads

I propose a public service ad that has Amitabh Bachhan say “I endorse all products sold by all manufacturers”. The ad loops from 2am to 4am on all TV channels. When we want to see Big B, we go to the movies. Oh wait, when did he do his last movie?

And while we are on the subject of TV ads, can we have fewer ad minutes per programming minute in India?

Less disrespect for its readers from Times of India group websites

ET and ToI start video ads with sound, as soon as you land on the website. On the other hand, I click less and less on links from ToI.

Less corruption in India

It’s not like I am hopeful or anything, but this is a Wish List after all.

Less religion in politics. Less religion in education.

Leave science alone.

My personal resolve for 2011

Spend less time with the Web of Infinite Information and more time with friends and family.

@labnol’s resolve for 2011

…type less and spend more time with speech recognition…

Direct Flight Envy

Jet Airways, one of my favourite airlines is heavily promoting a direct flight from New York (Newark airport) to Mumbai. A friend who lives in Chicago and travels to India often was quite pleased with American Airlines’ direct flight to Delhi. American Airlines flies directly from Chicago to New Delhi. Flying time each way is between 15 and 16 hours. Compared to the 25 hours that I am used to on Cathay from SFO, even with a good connection in HongKong, that is travel nirvana.

I did some research on ClearTrip on the subject. There are nine direct flights between the US and India. All of them are from the New York area and Chicago to either Delhi or Mumbai. Either city in India works for me to land in. But there are no direct flights out of San Francisco. Bummer.


Why aren’t there direct flights out of San Francisco. Distance obviously isn’t the problem. New York to Bombay is 12, 500 km. San Francisco to Delhi is 12,360 km. So the distance that a plane can travel without refueling is obviously is not the problem.

The distances are as the crow flies and were computed here.

It can’t be a problem of no-fly zones either. That is to say, the shortest route involves flying over countries that won’t allow you to, so you have to alter the flight path to an extent where it becomes too long. The San Francisco to Mumbai shortest path essentially flies over Russia and China.

So then it must be about the San Francisco Bay Area market. Will they be able to fill seats on a direct flight to India from SFO? I find it hard to believe that Chicago can be a bigger destination than San Francisco. There’s a large Indian population in both metro areas, but the Bay Area has to be bigger by a wide margin. More businesses in the Bay Area – all the tech companies – do business in India than out of Chicago. Tech companies are both interested in the Indian market as well as India as an outsourcing/backoffice destination.

I hope some airline will stand up and admit that they have tarried too long on San Francisco and quickly inaugurate a direct flight to India. Someone was about to do it before the recession, so it isn’t entirely inconceivable.

Another Perfect Notebook

I went to Odyssey in Chennai last week. I like to go to the stationery section in the book store. You never know what you’ll find.

This time I found a handy little notebook. I like notebooks. I know people who will take notes in a meeting on their laptops, some even on their handhelds. I just can’t. So I always carry a notebook around. This one is from a company called Kaapy (couldn’t locate the website). It has about 80 pages of good quality paper. The hard cover has a nice distinctive, monochrome graphic on it. Not too flashy, but not too plain either. The best thing about it is that it is light weight and just the right size to fit into your pocket.

It costs Rs. 36. I know this price can’t last, so I bought 6 of them.

A few years ago I wrote about another notebook from Rubberband. Strangely, that slim, stylish notebook was not carried by Odyssey. Instead they had a fat, ugly looking notebook which seemed to be a special edition notebook in collaboration with some movie. It cost some godawful amount that I can’t recall. Why would Rubberband do this and who are the people who buy this one, escapes me.

I guess notebooks are a little like companies. With success, they bloat and raise their prices.

Time for a Reader Survey

Why is it time for a reader survey? I don’t know. But it sure has been a long time since I did one, which is never.

This is the 5th year of this blog. If you look at the archive, the first post dates back to January 2006. I have enjoyed it immensely and have found it very rewarding. I hope you have too.

I have always maintained that I write for myself. I write because I feel like writing. Consequently, the way I write and what I write about are entirely driven by what’s going on with me – what I am reading, my interests professionally and personally and whether I feel like writing or not.

But that is partly disingenuous. I also write because people read what I write. Just as it is important to a thespian that the theater be full for his performance, readers are important for a writer. A rant is not fun if nobody’s listening.

Which brings me to the survey. I have never tried to understand my readers better (other than what Google Analytics tells me). I’d like to know my readers better and get some feedback. Ergo, the survey.

It’s short. It’s sweet. And it’s here. I promise to share the results after I close the survey.

IPL Notes

We watched the IPL T20 Finals yesterday. Some random musings:

  • We had subscribed to Willow.tv but YouTube quality was way better even though free. Willow.tv was $60 for the entire season. I wonder if advertising can pull in that kind of revenue per viewer. There was a lot of wastage, I thought. That dual SIM ad with Gambhir and Sehwag is now deeply etched on my brain for no useful purpose at all.
  • We were supporting Chennai but not really with any passion (I didn’t have a hoarse throat at the end of the game). We have supported an Indian team for so long that it is difficult to take sides when Dhoni and Tendulkar are on different teams. I wonder if this happens to other folks too. A friend from Bangalore was actually supporting the Chennai team just because they liked Dhoni. Another one, also, from Bangalore supports KKR for similar reasons. Is it because we so much identify with the Indian team or is it because we are all rootless, economic migrants who don’t identify with a particular city?
  • When Raina [corrected from Tendulkar] was dropped off Zaheer Khan, you could read his lips so clearly it should have been bleeped out.
  • The whole Shashi Tharoor matter has got me foxed. I cannot make head or tail of it. Some woman who had some connection with Tharoor got sweat equity in a company that was part of the consortium that won the bid for the Cochin IPL team. Now, I don’t watch Indian TV. Nor am I part of the grapevine on this kind of a thing. But from just reading online, I couldn’t make out why he had to leave. To leave he either had to have used his position as a minister to influence the selection process or there was some hanky panky going on between Tharoor and the woman which could not be denied. Or he chose not to deny it. If anyone can illuminate this clueless NRI with some links in the comments, it will be much appreciated.
  • The IPL has too much money involved for politicians to stay away from it. BCCI is already in their clutches. Cricket is too important to mess around with. How about if someone with unimpeachable credentials who also cared deeply about cricket became interim Chairman of IPL. Just long enough to put a new charter in place and hire a Commissioner with great credentials. Running IPL is like running a mega corporation. Experience with regional sports bodies has no relevance to the job. The new charter should put the players and owners in charge with some other people on the board who will make sure that short-term greed doesn’t destroy the national pastime.
  • The stats could be much, much better. The IPL website was pathetic on stats. Cricinfo was better, but not quite there. Or maybe I wasn’t looking in the right place.

Its Getting Warm in California

It was a nice day to be in the backyard. It was a riot of colour. The rainbow picture is from a few days back. We had quite a lot of rain this winter in Norther California. I think the flora like it.

The Best Names are Gult Names

Gaurav Rastogi has a very interesting take on the inadequacies of human naming conventions.

A naming convention designed for a planet with 100 million people (as on 500 BCE) is hopelessly useless in the world where the number of people to be named has expanded 70-fold. What was designed to be a unique identifier (viz. “Gaurav”, son of the “Rastogi” family) is no longer unique now. By my reckoning, there must be another 5-600 people called “Gaurav Rastogi”, and another 5-10,000 people called “Amit Garg”. Living. Today. Waiting for their unique names.

I completely concur that this is a problem that needs a modern day solution. Many an email has been sent to the wrong Gaurav Rastogi or S. Raghavan. Sometimes, said Raghavan may not even be in the company. When said Raghavan got my second email meant for the internal Raghavan, he said something like “You think I left the company just to keep getting your stinking emails?!”


Why are IPL Cheerleaders all Firangis?

Back home from a rather hectic week in India. The IPL fever is raging. You can’t meet anybody in India in business circles and not get into the economics of IPL. Corporate India is just fascinated by the money gushing out of IPL. It is actually a complex economic system which is unfolding in front of our eyes. Capitalism at its best. There is a book in the making there. I would buy it in a flash – I hope someone good writes it.

Everything in the IPL seems to be well thought out and well executed, for an operation that’s in its formative stages. So there must be a good reason why all (or at least most) of the cheer leaders are firangi (I hate the term ‘non-Indian’ which is more PC. Here firangi is more apt anyway.)

I asked a few friends why this was so. There’s a cap on the number of foreign players that a team can play. But when it comes to cheer leaders, there are no rules. Nobody knew exactly why this is so. But some of the hypotheses were:

– Indian women would never do this. Goes against the grain of our culture. Besides, who would marry them after they did a gig with IPL?

– Indian women can’t do it. The problem is not that they can’t do the moves. It’s that with their body types, those moves would send the men folk amongst the spectators into orbit. That’s not good for business. Just ask the English football clubs about their rampaging drunk male fans.

– Security reasons. Shiv Sena and other cultural police pretenders threaten physical harm to women who showed that much leg and midriff. The culture cops apparently have no problem with firangi women debasing themselves.

– Economics. If you have the figure and the moves, becoming a Bollywood item girl pays much better. And is less hazardous.

– Cheerleader positions have been offered to cricketing nations whose players have not found enough spots on the IPL teams. (OK I made this up)

None of these ring true to me. But if I had to pick one, I’d go with the “afraid of Shiv Sena” reason.

Any thoughts?

Photo by S V Jagadeesh