The Death of a Bookshop

The signs.

“Buy 1 book get 3 free!”

“70% off on all books”

Empty shelves. Unkempt books. The last remains of a once popular bookshop. The couches and beanbags tossed to a side.

Second hand dealers making away with carton loads of books, emptying the shelves as we browse. The death rattle for what was once a bustling refuge for the lettered class of society.

I had never watched a bookshop close in this fashion before. Imagine the state of Foyles in London if that were to close in this way. It seems to me only a matter of time. Amazon will claim many more lives in the coming years.

The scenes I describe are not in London , but India. The bookshop I saw closing is not a cute little independent seller, but a large chain. But the signs are disconcerting nonetheless.

Though I hope the death of the bookshop may take a while, when it does come it may in fact be worse in London than what I saw. In Kochi I saw vultures – not browsing but taking – books in cartons which may then be resold somewhere and have another life. In London when this does happen, I feel there will not even be any interest from the dealers since they would have long vanished themselves. It would be a quiet affair. There will be offers :

All books for free. Everything must go.

Note: This post was written in September 2013, when a remarkably similar post seems to have been written about My Back Pages in Balham, London.

Reading Magazines…. While we still can

Ah the joy of finding a new magazine with great articles. I have found a new love – long form narrative journalism.

It started on my trip to San Francisco from work last December. The apartment I was staying in had a few hundred New Yorker magazines piled up. On weekday nights I could walk around San Fran and experience the city, but I didn’t want to splurge or get mugged, and was quite happy putting my feet up and reading. So I got stuck into those New Yorker magazines.

Earlier, I had read the odd article from the New Yorker online  – but reading a full magazine is a completely different experience. There is a flow to it that you can never get from a website. I was hooked.

But New Yorker magazines are – well – quite US (if not NY) centered. On returning to London I started looking for British magazines which were similar. Unfortunately there is no straight replacement for the New Yorker in London. The closest magazines which I have read are Granta, The London Review of Books, New Statesman and, my favourite, The Spectator.

I never thought of myself as having enough time (to read all the issues) or money to have a subscription to any of these UK based magazines – feeling more content to buy the odd issue when I was traveling – something which I didn’t do earlier.

So what is so different between what I can read in a random magazine and what I read here, you ask? The articles are longer, and more thought out. The opinions are well formed and its not just reporting verbatim what happened the previous day. I was tired of reading regurgitated articles of current affairs in newspapers and the opinion-less and shallow reporting on all the TV channels with their special correspondent saying things which I could have said 30 minutes before them looking at Twitter. I don’t want to know what happened – I want to understand what happened. And I don’t want to just understand something, I want to feel enthralled by someone’s personal thoughts on a subject and their experiences. Like a thorough book review on a book on Bhutto, or, something closer to home (for me), arguments about misogyny at the debating club of the Glasgow University Union.

Screen Shot 2013-08-21 at 11.58.50 PMIt was all well and good to get great reporting and opinions for the US and UK, but lets face it, life is a bit boring here compared to India. After getting tired of having to search long and hard to find balanced opinions about India from blogs, I was surprised to find that there was a magazine which did long-form journalism in India. “The Caravan” has been my tube companion for the last week or so. For  £0.69 I get a 115 page magazine on my phone and a couple of long articles for free as well. The quality of the writing is worth a lot more than that.

But it isn’t meant for the masses. Most people don’t have the patience to go through a 30-page character analysis of Narendra Modi which talks of his beginnings and tries to understand why he thinks the way he does. When the article length is that long, you tend to build an image of characters and stories which are far more rounded, respecting even “the villain”’s rise. I think this type of journalism is something which is always in short supply and is accentuated by the wash-rinse-repeat (unto death) method used by TV journos nowadays – the same story, the same video clip, being repeated 100 times over the course of a day.

Reporting things in this detail takes time. From what I could understand it took months of work to write articles like the one on Modi and this one on Arindam Choudary.

I feel print journalism is dying a slow death around the world. Blogs are all well and good, power to the common man to write whatever he wants sounds good. But no blogger has the time to dive deep and investigate something the way a reporter can. But while I ponder on the sad demise of print journalism around the world, I am also loving every minute of its life.

We need an oil company kickstarter campaign!

Growing up, there were things which people always associated with investment. But I don’t feel any sense of security when putting my money in any of these things any more.

Gold, that shiny thing you can’t do anything with, seems like a thing with false value. You have to attribute value to something portable and some man thought “Oh! I know, lets pick gold – because its actually quite useless”. If aliens visit earth and see our love for this metal with the colour of light faecal matter, they’ll be laughing like a Malayali actor after one of his few mediocre comedy scenes.

Shares are the next thing. With a number of companies from the industry I work in going public over the last year, I’ve been seriously considering this. But its a bit like gambling. A fake science. You can never truly predict how a company is going to do – you just have to make a guess with what you know. Someone somewhere who knows more than you then makes a better guess and you lose your money. I’m not as pessimistic about this as I seem when I write this – a bit of gambling is fun.

Then we come to saving in currency. You invest your money in a currency which you think is going to go up with respect to another. But whats to say that after putting your money in a dollar bond (or whatever its called) for a 5 year period, the value of the dollar drops? Its guesswork. Why is it that people haven’t yet figured out a sure shot way of preserving the value of saved money using capitalism?

I think the best investment for a 10 year period that you can make is in oil. The value of black gold is real. People will still be using it and the amount of oil left is going to decrease driving prices ever higher. The only problem with buying oil now as an investment seems to be the difficulty in actually storing it somewhere without it evaporating.

I wonder if there is a way in which I can pre-order some oil at today’s prices for 10 years later. An oil company (which works like a co-op maybe) can use that money to drill new fields. I know – lets have it on kickstarter –  an oil company that will give oil at current prices a few years in the future 😛

The Great War for Civilisation – Robert Fisk (Book Review)

The_Great_War_for_Civilisation_-_Dust_Jacket_-_Robert_FiskThis book is a tome. It weighs in at 1286 pages and another 50 pages of bibliography and notes. It has taken me the best part of 6 months of reading – in bits and pieces – to get through it. Probably because of the way I read it, but also because of the sheer depth and breadth of what is covered in this book, I don’t have a quick summary. I can only tell you my learnings and lasting images. These aren’t pretty images and this is not a book for the faint hearted.

Thishad 2 main themes for me – The personal story of Mr. Robert Fisk – Reporter Extraordinaire, of how he dodges bullets and obstacles and gets the story back to the press office in London, and of history, a history which so few of us know about but we can see it being repeated over and over again.

Fisk’s writing is very emotional and personal. Its not a history book by any stretch of imagination but history is a very important aspect of it. Fisk is fairly balanced at most times but does come across strongly on a few things. The excitement in this book come from first hand accounts of Fisk’s experiences in covering the Palestinian situation, the Iran Iraq War, the first gulf War, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and finally the post 9/11 mess in the middle east. From being handed a soviet rifle by a soldier for self protection while travelling with the “enemy” during the cold war, to dodging bullets on both sides of the front line in the Iran-Iraq war. First hand accounts of the sheer madness of war – of young teenage Iranian militia-men going back from the battle reading the Koran while they spit blood after inhaling Saddam’s nerve gas, to teenage American soldiers who have left their homes not knowing why they are out in a godforsaken desert halfway across the world, waiting to go back. Unfortunately, given the climate in which this book was released, his interviews with Osama bin Laden have been played up quite a bit. But in my opinion, that is not even remotely as interesting as his descriptions of other experiences.

He comes off very strongly against the hypocrisy of Western democracies. For example, the US armed Saddam’s military (the funds were primarily from Saudi Arabia) and the Germans sold them nerve gas during the Iran-Iraq war. Israel and the US sold weapons to Iran which were made in the US. They even accepted an apology from Saddam for killing 37 American soldiers on the USS Starc at one point. And when it is convenient to label Saddam as a monster – they do.  Again, in such cases, the culpability of the press in western democracies – always plying the government line – meant that such flagrant abuses of sensibilities were rarely noticed or acted on by the voters.  Fisk also talks about something which I have noticed myself much earlier –  the way in which the press has misused the words “terrorist” and “terror” and dehumanised the entire Muslim world in the west.

Finally, there are a number of events which we were never taught in school – some which were downright horrifying. One of them which stands out is the shooting down of an Iranian passenger aircraft by an American cruiser in 1988. All 290 civilians were killed including 66 children. Subsequently, the US government said they “regretted” the loss of life but never apologised. In fact the crew of the battle cruiser were awarded medals.

Another, is the chain of massacres which took place in and around the Lebanese Civil War and later involving the Israeli Phalangist Militia. The loss of life is astounding-

Karantina Massacre (Jan 18, 1976) –  1000-1500 dead

Damour Massacre (Jan 20, 1976) – 150-582 dead

Sabra and Shatila Massacre  ( 16-18 Sept, 1982) 762-3500 dead

No one knows the exact numbers of people who were killed and the numbers have been disputed with each interested party claiming the figure to be closer to what would be good for their cause. In some ways I can imagine these accounts being similar to those which surround the partition of India, though thankfully not at that scale. But I have felt that Indians forget more easily than other cultures – and long may it be so. The book covers so much more death and destruction which comes back to me in waves as I write this. But there is no way to put it across in a little review like this. The pictures of the horrors of war are something which every person, I believe, should have in their mind. Because if they do, they would never wish for war.

If there are 2 lessons that I have from this book, they are:

1. That you can’t trust what you see in the news. Ever. There is another side to the story and that side is ugly. No one will show you this because you won’t be able to take it.

2. The whole issue with the Middle East was caused due to Western powers’ political deals at the end of World War I. If you don’t meddle in others’ issues they won’t meddle in yours.

Crowds are Wise – But not when it comes to Voting

In 1907 there was a very interesting article in the Nature magazine called Vox Populi (The voice of the people) written by Francis Galton. It starts with the following words:

In these democratic days, Any investigation into the trustworthiness and peculiarities of popular judgement is of interest. The material about to be discussed is a small matter but is much to the point

He went on to state (in a later comment) that the mean of all the guesses made by an 800 strong audience for the weight of a cow (or some such animal) was closer to the real weight than the weight guessed by a set of experts. He implied that that 800 non-experts may give you a more correct answer than a couple of experts. There have been plenty of experiments since that prove the wisdom of crowds but in one very important aspect I believe crowds have failed.

If ever man devised a system which so wholly depends on the wisdom of crowds it is democracy. Early democracy was very different to what we see today – in some senses it is closer to an Oligarchy – where there was a central group and there would be a vote on a number of issues. Only those above a certain age (always much greater than 18) would have a chance to vote. And even so there would always be a central structure (elite group, king(s)) who could quash legislations which were deemed not right. Ostensibly this elite group of decision makers were ‘learned’ men or at least experienced in whetever it is they did (science, society etc) and the king trusted their opinion. The common man – the peasant, the blue collar worker had no real voice at all. He/she was seen as uneducated (and in most cases they were) and incapable of understanding the complexities of the problems that needed solving.

Over time people started to see chinks in this method of governance . The disenfranchised sections of society started to feel their grievances being neglected. They all felt that they too were suitably qualified to take part in the governing process. So after much struggle, we came to the point – where we are now – where we have universal voting. Any human being who has the qualities of staying alive till the age of 18 can play his/her part in choosing who runs the country.

This brings us to the wisdom of crowds. Once you have a crowd so diverse, doesn’t there arise the question of bias? On the basis of mental capacity, upbringing, race, religion, understanding? People don’t vote for the candidate that they believe will govern them well any more. They vote either for personas or for pre-disposed political or social biases.

“I’m voting for him because I’ve always voted for Tories” (Is “he” any good? I don’t care.)

“I’ll vote for the BJP because I’m Hindu and they will do a better job of upholding my values” (Will BJP’s budgetary goals ruin your trading business?

“I’ll vote for Obama because he talks well”

Going back to the “Wisdom of crowds experiment”, think of a situation where the cow being weighed was co-owned by 50 of the 800 people stating the weight and they all knew that the weight would be decided based on what final value comes up as a mean of their guesses. I’m sure the 50 would have stated weights on the higher end thus making a mockery of the exercise.

The underlying question at a vote, I think, should be, which of these guys will manage and run a district/state/country the best. The people who are voting lose track of this question. They vote for people who don’t have a vision and if they have a vision they don’t have the tools to make it work. And no – corruption doesn’t cloud the idea of the democracy as much as badly informed voting in my opinion. In fact – some say that corruption could help democracies work better.

In Sparta, you had to be 30 years old and male to play a part in governance. I feel that 18 is too young an age to start playing a role. At 18 most people don’t have a wholistic idea about life. They have rarely ever worked and even if they have, they have a hollow education lasting only upto school.

On larger issues, like climate change, fracking, communal harmony, benefits and so on – can we expect an 18 year old kid or for that matter a grown adult with a mediocre intellect to make the enlightened choice to change the status quo? This becomes even more difficult and improbable if making such a choice for change has a direct and negative impact economically on the said person. A car mechanic, an oil worker, a rich taxpayer and a defence contractor  would all find it extremely hard to make a choice which would directly affect their livelihoods negatively however much good it might do for the nation or the world.

With that in mind, what is to stop our world from going the way of the Rapa Nui at Easter Island? I don’t think we can trust people who make choices based on bias, people who elect leaders who unabashedly lie to their country and take them to war, people who elect leaders who think it important to raise statues of themselves.

Churchill backs me up with this one “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” But of course, Churchill himself was the first to state that democracy is the best system we’ve got.