Vivek's blog: 2009

Monday, December 14, 2009

Is quality dead?

I freely admit it: I have a vested interest in quality.

I work for a company that prides itself on offering what appears to be a commodity - travel information - but that commands premium prices because of the painstaking expertise and layers of checking involved.

But quality ain't what it used to be. Now I'm not one to moan about those-darned-upstart-bloggers-taking-my-newpapers-away-why-don't-they-get-off-my-lawn? or demand that we go back to lovingly crafted horse-and-buggies in place of those mass-produced nightmares that clog our roads these days.

However, there's part of me that sees the market constantly rewarding quantity over quality. CDs replaced records, and my hard-core musician friends tried to convince me that there was no way digital music could be as true as analog. I couldn't tell the difference - but I can with mp3s. The vast majority of music being listened to these days is so compressed that much of the nuance is lost. That's why you get bands like the Arcade Fire, who think that dynamics are something to do with engineering.

It's happening in content. It's passé to talk about "user-generated content" versus "expert content"; the fabric of the web is what it is. But now we're seeing companies like Demand Media using volume to overwhelm search engines, build tremendous traffic and get rich off low-quality page views.

Yes, this is affecting me directly. When I have a fathering-related question, I turn to Google. These days, the first several links are from aggregation sites that put together Q&As from people who are far from experts. I need to dig deeply to find opinions by people whom I trust.

You know what I'm talking about: places like Yahoo! Answers, which make me weep for humanity. It's like reading pages and pages of YouTube comments. It saps your will to live.

So I miss that authoritative stamp that used to come with publication. This probably makes me old and cantankerous. I'll admit to being both if someone can provide me with reassurance. Where can this prematurely grumpy old man go for his daily dose of quality?

(Image courtesy John Pozadzides, Flickr Creative Commons)

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Fact is opinion. Isn't it?

My partner, Janet, enjoys telling me that in a postmodern framework, there is no objective truth.

If that's the case, then we are truly living in a postmodern world, at least politically. Never before has reality been so divergent depending on one's political point of view.

Take the United States as a case study. Unending strife between Republicans and Democrats is nothing new, but the field of disagreement has moved to the arena of fact rather than opinion or philosophy.

In general, Democrats believe that there is scientific evidence of global climate change caused by humans. Republicans, looking at the same numbers, dispute this conclusion. Similarly (to stereotype crudely), Democrats believe that there is evidence that humans evolved from an apelike ancestor. Again, Republicans dispute this. This occurs despite the fact that a liberal or conservative view of government has, theoretically, nothing to do with conclusions about biology or climatology.

What's more, political belief systems increasingly appear to control people's perception of history. Many conservatives believe that a link was proven between Saddam Hussein and the events of September 11. Many liberals believe that vote recounts demonstrate that Al Gore defeated George W Bush in Florida during the 2000 election.

Although this trend may be disturbing, it shouldn't be surprising. From a young age, I quickly learned that point of view colors reality to a frightening degree. If you're a sports fan, think about how what team you support alters your view of events. What's clearly out of bounds to one team's supporter definitely clipped the line to the other team's supporter. An obvious rule violation to one is well within the spirit of the game to one's counterpart.

So next time you are 100% clear on the facts, and your opponent seems to be ignoring them in favor of other facts you've completely discounted, pause a second. You might just get at some form of objective truth.

How modernist of me.

(Image courtesy chibart, Flickr Creative Commons)

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Does the Washington Post secretly think Michael Moore is a moron?

Um - can someone explain this to me?

Here's a screenshot from today's Washington Post:

You see the headline I've circled - where "Tuesday with Weingarten" appears, but Weingarten is struck out and replaced with "Moron"? Well, that goes to this article - a Q&A with Michael Moore.

Is this an innocent mistake, or has some careless subeditor secretly revealed his or her hatred for the muckracking lefty? Or am I altogether mistaken?

Thursday, July 30, 2009

A counterintuitively productive hospital stay

I learned a profound lesson in prioritization today.

My most excellent wife, Janet, went into labor last night. Seven hours and three calls to the midwife later, we swung into action. We made sure all the bags were packed, the dishes done and the cat well fed. It was time.

Except it wasn't. Despite the assurances of the first midwife - 'Well, you're in labor; I don't think we're sending you home today' - it turned out to be a false alarm. After nine hours in two different hospital rooms, we finally came home. (Janet's in the bath as I write this.)

But here's the thing. As Janet experienced that first contraction, I remember thinking, 'We're not ready. I'm not ready.'

There was an emotional aspect to this. A man can prepare intellectually forever, but can he truly be ready for fatherhood before the fact? However, that's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about the pile of tax forms on my desk, the dirty laundry on the floor next to my side of the bed, the musical instruments and assorted hardware strewn about the (putative) nursery, the leftovers in the fridge that I had neglected to put in the freezer. And a thousand other things. When the call came, I knew - just knew - that I didn't have my life in order adequately.

But somewhere along the line, that changed. As we bundled into the car, I mentally reviewed the things I needed to have in order for when we came home with a baby. Will Janet be comfortable? Will we have enough to eat and drink? Will we have a safe, cosy spot for the baby? Do we have all the ingredients for a secure, loving household?

Instantly, the list cleared in my mind. I knew, with absolute clarity, what the key things were that I needed to address. I did those (it took all of five minutes) and pushed everything else off the list. By the time we hit the hospital, I was completely certain that we were ready to welcome a child into the world.

What a revelation. If I go back to work tomorrow (a 50-50 proposition right now), I'll be on fire. Of the 1100 things on my list, maybe 10 are important for me to achieve my professional goals, as well as those of my workplace. The rest shouldn't even be on a backlog: it all needs to be cast aside.

Take a look at your personal backlog. Ask yourself how much of it is on there because it's socially important (eg your friends will look down on you if you don't even aspire to doing it) or because you feel as though it's something you just 'ought' to do. Cut out what's unimportant to your goals - cut it out altogether. It feels great.

Then ask yourself why you haven't done the rest.

So there you have it. At least I got something out of our day at the hospital. I can only imagine what lessons I'll learn when the baby actually arrives.

It'll be excellent.

Monday, July 27, 2009

I do not understand Australian real estate one bit

OK, so Australia might well avoid a recession. Huzzah!

I have to admit, though, that I'm still completely perplexed by Australian housing prices. After they experienced a slight dip in urban centers, apparently they've bounced back up.

This is great news for the millions of Australians who have invested in property. It's fabulous for people looking to sell out of the market. It's bad news for people who aren't in the market but want to be. And, although it's perceived as good news for those who own a house they live in, it's actually neutral news for them. (Why do you care how much your house is worth, unless you're selling it? And if you're selling it to buy another house, a rising market will mean that you're no better off.)

Now here's what I don't get. Housing in Australia is ludicrously expensive. I've heard several theories as to why this is. Most focus on 'supply and demand' (there's a shortage of housing in Australia, so there's upward pressure on prices) or Australia's high degree of urbanization (the more urbanized a country, the higher its average dwelling prices).

The supply-demand argument seems flawed. As with any asset, future events should be priced into current value. Therefore, if we know that the population of Australia is rising and that there's a housing shortage, that shortage should be factored into today's prices.

There should be no sustained upward pressure on prices, except if there are unforeseen circumstances that affect supply and demand (such as a massive influx of immigration). Without this exceptional circumstances, the appreciation in real terms of an asset such as property should correspond directly with the risk that that asset will fall in price. Riskier assets will command higher growth rates, all else being equal.

We are consistently told that property in Australia is one of the safest asset classes around, and that house prices 'double every 7 to 10 years'. This simply cannot be true. Guaranteed assets do not outperform inflation. If prices do double every 10 years (a 7% compound annual growth rate), then there is a high likelihood of that price falling. We are told that 'pent-up demand' has created a floor for house prices in Australia, so prices cannot fall dramatically or for a long period. Now I have to believe several things that just don't add up: house prices almost always go up, they'll never fall much or for long, and they will outperform inflation.

This smells extremely fishy. It stinks of market intervention. Clearly, the Australian government has a vested interest (votes) in propping up house prices. That's why it's giving cash handouts to first-time homebuyers. (Of course, the cash simply makes its way to the sellers.) The Reserve Bank of Australia, fearing recession, has supplemented the cash stimulus by lowering interest rates to the floor. Property prices have benefitted from this double whammy: a government subsidy and cheap finance. (If you're American or British, this should sound hauntingly familiar...and terrifying.)

Of course, I'm not a professional economist. The Australian property market has been skyrocketing this entire millennium with barely a pause. I just don't understand the fundamentals behind it or how it's sustainable.

Although I'm tempted to call 'bubble,' I'm not going to do anything drastic (like short real estate). I know that the market can stay irrational longer than I can stay solvent. And I'm not pretending to be prescient.

I just don't get it. Can anyone explain?

What writers can learn from Merlin

Wizards are back in vogue. And boy, am I pleased!

As a young fan of Gandalf, I'm all for the wizardization of reality. The world needs more wisdom, contemplation and restrained power. I'd vote Dumbledore for president any day.

But sadly, our friends at the BBC have screwed up the tale of one of the greatest wizards of all time: Merlin. Their train wreck of a TV series teaches us some fantastic lessons about what makes writing captivating - and what can make it crushingly disappointing.

The final episode of The Adventures of Merlin (season 1) aired last weekend in Australia. If you haven't seen the show but intend to, stop reading. This post is going to be chock full of spoilers. (I hope they're illuminating spoilers.)

Lesson the First: Keep your rules straight
When creating your universe, you develop a set of rules. It's OK to ask your audience to ignore the rules of reality and adopt the rules of your universe instead. But once you create them, stick to them.

This doesn't just pertain to 'scientific' rules (such as the behavior of photon torpedoes or warp drives in Star Trek). It means keeping character behavior and actions authentic-feeling.

In Merlin, the young prince Arthur gets bitten by a magical beast. We are assured by a sage figure that such a bite is inevitably fatal, and that there is no cure. However, it turns out that there is a cure - a cure that, frankly, should have been freaking obvious to the sage figure. This erodes the character of the sage and tries the patience of the audience. It's particularly galling because it's so obvious: of course Merlin will cure Arthur. The writers lose the audience's trust and get nothing in return. Not an iota of suspense or twist.

Lesson the Second: Make the audience feel the protagonist's pain
The cure mentioned above requires a soul-trying quest. Of course. No objections there - that's standard fantasy material, and it can rock hard.

But after being treated to a description of the nearly impossible lengths Merlin has to go to in order to achieve his goal, we get about two minutes of sweeping vistas and then an easy arrival at the mystical destination. Huh? Where's the pain, the sweat and tears, the character-building voyage? We never get a visceral sense of Merlin's tribulations, so there's no payoff (for us) when he finishes up.

This goes from silly to ludicrous when Merlin learns that he must go back to that place...and he just hops on his horsie and gallops away. At this point, it's as though the writers are running out of time and have shrunk their universe by 90%. Not cool.

(By the way, there's another scene where we completely fail to see Merlin's pain: when he has to confront his mother's affliction. The lack of empathy here is probably more due to bad acting, though, than to poor writing.)

Lesson the Third: Calibrate your moral compass
At the end of the episode, Merlin kills the villain in cold blood. Now, she's a nasty piece of work and has done some pretty evil deeds throughout the season. But Merlin attacks her unprovoked and ends up murdering her while her back is turned.

This would be fine if it were treated as a piece of character development. It's a perfect opportunity to bring out darkness in a previously untarnished protagonist. It could set the scene for a blacker second season. But there's nothing to indicate that the writers are aware of the horror their hero has committed.

I'm not saying that fantasy characters always have to be black and white. Shades of grey are what make the great works of fantasy worth rereading. But there needs to be a degree of self-awareness if subtleties are introduced into a plot. Merlin's writers show nothing of that.

Lesson the Fourth: No glory without sacrifice
At the end of the episode, Merlin is on Cloud 9. He's saved his prince, he's saved his mother and he's saved his mentor. His nemesis is dead. No one has found out any dark secrets of his.

This is terrible writing. How can we revel in a protagonist's achievements when he has done nothing to deserve them? Take a cue from JK Rowling: personal loss is compelling. Even in the nicely tied up Lord of the Rings, the protagonists come home to a loss of innocence. Merlin loses nothing, and so we don't have to feel for him at all.

Lesson the Fifth: Odd numbers work better
Actually, this is one that puzzles me.

For some reason, in fiction writing - and especially in fantasy - odd numbers work far better than even ones. If you're going on a quest, you should look for one, three or nine things. If you seek companions, your party should be made up of an odd (preferably prime) number. Merlin returns to meet his nemesis once (for a total of two meetings); for some reason, three encounters would have been much more satisfying.

I don't know why this is. If anyone has a theory, I'm all ears.

On a personal note, I'm really sad. Merlin is a show I could have loved. I have half a mind to have a go at creating something like it myself. But boy, am I mad that the Arthurian idea has been taken, and taken so poorly.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Three blogging 'mistakes' that aren't

Some mistakes aren't mistakes at all.

For example, if you mentioned that something is your forte (as in 'something you're good at'), but pronounced it 'fort,' a lot of people would make fun of you. But that usage comes from the French, and 'fort' (rather than the common Italian-style 'fort-ay') is perfectly acceptable.

A lot of bloggers focus on mistakes. Often, there's a good reason - which is why my post yesterday was about five common mistakes in blogging and how to avoid them.

But there are some 'rules' of blogging that are all but useless. Cast these aside as though they were the split-infinitive rule and you'll free up your blogging.

Nonmistake #1: Letting the fundamentals slide.
I love the mechanics of English. I'm happy to debate the finer points of grammar for hours (well, minutes) on end. I grow livid when I hear someone say 'between you and I' (or when someone tells me that a 'livid' person has gone red rather than white).

But in blogging, it's OK to be a bit sloppy. Just a bit.

Why? Well, here's one take: at a conference last March, Oracle's Gareth Llewellyn remarked that if you don't make the occasional typo, people start to 'question whether you're human.'

Although I initially recoiled at this philosophy, I've come to terms with it. The best blogs out there are bursting with fantastic ideas and observations. Often it's as though the writer can't type fast enough to keep up with her mind. As long as the final product is coherent and respectfully presented, it can be highly engaging.

I'm not saying to stop editing. You must respect the reader. But if timeliness is of the essence, get your thoughts out there, and get the interaction started. You can always tidy up later.

Nonmistake #2: Not giving a toss about 'best practice'
There are a lot of terrible blogs that tick all the 'do this and your blog will be successful' boxes. They have great lead images, engaging headlines, rich media and a surfeit of keywords. They are concise and direct. They ask questions of the reader.

But they have no soul. Give me a creative genius who knows nothing of blogging rules. Give me beautiful content over keyword stuffing any day. Give me something so perfect in its current form that wedging it into a technique-driven formula would kill it.

Don't get me wrong. Technique can help. Many folks can use all the tips and tricks and still come away with something meaningful. But if you have to choose, go with the heart. The rest can come.

Nonmistake #3: Updating only when you have something to say
It's true that frequently updating your blog is a Very Good Thing. It's frustrating to find a blog you like and then have it languish on the vine while its author is busy procrastinating or watching monthlong Doctor Who marathons.

Don't take the concept of rapid-fire updating too far, though. When the great idea hits, get it down as soon as possible. But if you're starved for creativity, don't force it. That's how you end up with insipid posts about what you just heard on the news or how someone in the restaurant said something really annoying. Save it for Twitter.

Many among you will be reading this post saying to yourselves, 'Well, that was a truckload of obvious.' Believe me: not all these principles are universally understood. Think about all the blogs you've seen that sacrifice passion for pedantry, meaning for maxims, and fun for frequency.

I'm passionate about great blogging, but I've held court for long enough on the subject. My next post will probably be on plot. Yes, plot.

Five critical blogging mistakes

This post might outrage you.

It's been written by someone who has violated every basic rule of blogging. I've started a blog, made promises, and then just left the blog in the graveyard.

No matter. I've learned a lot in the meantime. I'm yet to be a champion blogger, but I am one badass evaluator of blogs. (It's part of my day job.) So, if nothing else, you'll be hearing from someone with a ton of experience in separating the great blogs from the chaff.

With that in mind, here's my take on the top mistakes bloggers are making today. Avoid these and your blog will be on its way to success.

1. Being ludicrously self-conscious
The 'likable movie date' syndrome

I have a friend who is a smart cookie with great writing and editorial skills. She can whip an idea into a neat piece of prose in no time. But she's enormously frustrating - and it's because of fear.

You see, she is always worried about what other people think of her. She can't tell a joke without looking around for fear of offending someone. (And no, I'm not talking about racist/homophobic/coprophilic humor - I'm talking about someone who wants to be 100% sure that everyone in the room will be the type of person who will find her joke funny.) She will never tell anyone how she's truly feeling. She will never produce an authentic, spontaneous reaction to a moment.

Why? She doesn't want to annoy anyone. She wants to be liked by everyone. She wants to be inoffensively pleasant and charming. She detests awkwardness.

In fact, she's the perfect friend to go to a movie with. She will sit quietly next to you and then debrief the movie in measured tones afterwards. She'll never guffaw loudly, try to predict the next line, spill popcorn on you or even cough during a tense moment.

This makes for terrible blogging.

Excellent blogging requires risk. You have to put yourself out there in raw form. You have to be prepared to be ridiculed, stared at and critiqued. No great work engenders universal agreement. And no great blog is universally liked.

In order to be loved, you have to risk being hated. Embrace the fear. Otherwise, get the hell out of my way. You're boring me.

2. Being ludicrously self-obsessed
'The world exists to reflect my view of it.'

There are some people who can get away with extreme narcissism. Every single post is about their mood, their activities, their take on how the world should be.

When this succeeds, it's usually because it's blisteringly funny. We get taken along on a wild, caustic journey where a particularly sharp mind unleashes lightning bolts of scorn and approval on itself and its reality. It can be great. (And, funnily enough, it's usually not the celebrities who are good at this!)

Two warnings, though. First: this is dreadfully difficult. It requires a degree of natural talent that most people don't have. If you're not the type of person who can talk about herself at a dinner party for hours on end AND have guests hanging on every word, you're not cut out for this. And believe me: chances are, you're not. Ask your friend (the good ones).

Second: the saddest people in the world - and especially on the internet - are the ones who think and talk only of themselves. It might be interesting for a while, but it's usually horrifying. When reading these types of blog, I'm usually overcome with fear for the writer's mental health and wellbeing. Compelling narcissists flame out quickly. I recommend being a happy blogger.

3. Worrying too much about the medium
'It's pixels, not ink. It's a different world!'

You know the drill. 'Users' aren't 'readers.' People 'scan' text in a browser; they don't 'read' it.

There's a ton of awesome usability research out there. I'm not dissing the data: it's true that people read blogs differently from how they read magazine articles or novels.

But great bloggers know how to make the medium work for them rather than tailoring their style around the medium. Like any other form of human communication, you need to remember that there are people looking at your words and pictures. And you have a suite of tools to help them.

No one appears to state the obvious: blogging gives you amazing abilities with text that most book publishers would die for. If I wanted to draw your attention to this phrase right here, I barely have to take two seconds out of my narrative. A print publisher would be searching for the correct ink over weeks. (Believe me. I know.) Right away, you're equipped with tools that help you transcend the fact that you're communicating on a screen rather than on friendly paper.

More importantly, though, think about the path you want your users to take. If you want a 'dip in' mentality, then it's fine to pepper the top of your posts with compelling images and put your headlines up front. This is a great style for marketing yourself: lead with your best story and get yourself out there.

But it is possible to cultivate readership on the internet. You want to seize interest from the beginning, of course. That's a given with any style of authoring. However, you can create a solid editorial flow, move the reader logically and felicitously from one point to the next, and make reading on the web much more pleasurable with your style.

Want proof? You've probably read more than 900 words to get down to this part of the post. So much for 200-word posts, eh?

Create a compelling narrative, present it in a way that people will love, and shout it from the rooftops. If you have something great to say, people will listen.

4. Closing down the conversation
'I wrote the book on it. Here it is.'

Have you ever been in a situation where you were debating something - really going hammer 'n' tongs at it with someone else, having a great time...and then it just stopped?

It might have been because you were interrupted. But chances were, one of you shut down the debate. Perhaps the person you were talking to was tired, hungry, headachey or something. And they just stopped the conversation in its tracks by saying something like 'Fine, we'll just have to agree to disagree,' or 'Well I don't see it that way, and I don't think I will,' or (worst of all) 'Cool - whatever - nevermind.'

How frustrating is that? You were passionately discussing something you believed in...and then it just stopped.

A lot of bloggers treat their readers exactly like that. They start an interesting discussion, then cut it off. They don't respond to comments. Or they never address an unanswered question in a followup post.

When you're blogging, you're communicating with people. Cut them off and they'll cut you off. If you want to publish, buy a printer and distribute leaflets. Good luck with that.

(By the way, this is not a license to engage in one of my pet peeves: posting an inane, nearly irrelevant question at the bottom of blog entries to 'stimulate conversation.' This ranges from the catch-all 'That's what I think; what do you think?' to the awkward 'Here's my theory on the deeper meaning of Moby-Dick.... Err, everyone likes whales. Do you like whales? Have you ever seen a whale?'

Screw that. If you're going to end with a question, it should have arisen naturally from your thoughts. When you're talking with someone, you don't end everything you say with a question. Do you?)

5. Obsessing over topic
The political and the personal DO mix!

You can write anything you like.

You don't have to stay on topic.

Most folks don't think of this one as a biggie, but it can kill creativity dead in seconds. Folks get hung up on the 'point' of their blog: 'My blog is about the nature of magic and the necessity of magical speech in Harry Potter, so I can't write about this really cool thing I just thought of.'

That's bull. If you have an original, creative, entertaining thought, then by God I WANT TO KNOW ABOUT IT. We are surrounded by entertainment options, but we are transfixed by anything that adds a spark of joy to our existence.

Please, PLEASE don't limit yourself. Got a great photo? Put it up. Wrote a poem? A good poem - not some claptrap about how the changing of the seasons puts you in the mind of your own mortality but reassures you because it signifies how you're part of a greater cycle that has deep underlying meaning which touches every part of the universe and unites all its individual atoms on a metaphysical level? Let's see it.

Don't be afraid.

(Hey, thanks for making it this far! I'll follow up this post soon with a corollary: three blogging 'mistakes' that aren't mistakes at all. Soon. I promise.)

UPDATE: Hey, look! Here it is.

Friday, March 20, 2009

What's to come

Hi everyone.

This blog will serve as a repository for my thoughts and analysis on a variety of topics.

I have a strong academic background in philosophy and economics. Therefore, I'm likely to expound at length on interesting macroeconomic situations, such as the one we find ourselves in. I'm also very intrigued by subsections of the macroeconomy, especially real estate.

When it comes to microeconomics, I am intrigued by irrational behavior. A solid read, if unsatisfying in the end, is Dan Ariely's Predictably Irrational. Check it out on Amazon, or take a look at his neat website.

I also love following politics, especially political promises. Once in a while, I'll give a recap of recent thoughts on what politicians are doing right and what they aren't.

I have an odd relationship with music. More on that later.

There are many sports I like, and a few I love. I am a devoted follower of the Washington Redskins and the Western Bulldogs (né Footscray).

Oh, and I travel. With my partner Janet. I work for Lonely Planet, which is a company that's all about travel.

Finally, I'm a stickler for correct grammar, punctuation and spelling. If you find any errors on my blog posts, please let me know via comment and I'll figure out a way to reward you.

Hope to see you back here.