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.


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.

Reading List – 1

  1. A post about how Yahoo! uses the behavioural data got from their toolbar towards improving crawling. Its pretty amazing how many previously uncrawled pages are identified using this method.
  2. A review of Koyaanisqatsi which I watched with the GUPS. Its a very artsy documentary, showing some amazing bits of photographic excellence.
  3. Watch HCIR2011 on YouTube. All the Keynotes and presentations. A very handy resource for me considering I have not yet been to  conference proper.
  4. We need some angry nerds. An editorial of sorts from Harvard.

(lack of) Online Debate about Academia

Over the last few months I’ve been reading a lot. Mostly academic papers, blogs of researchers, downloaded text-books and Wikipedia (as usual) related to IR. I can’t help but notice that there is very little open debate about academic papers and research conclusions. Where are the normal under-grads interested in the subject? I have to say that I was a bit surprised.

So here I’m summarizing some good points made by the answer-ers to the Question “Why don’t people comment on Academic papers Online?” on Quora.

Alicia Zha points out one obvious reason that what is written as a comment or written on a blog can then be used without attributing to the original author.

Another point (which Arvind Narayanan makes) is that researchers don’t have any incentive to comment on the blogs. They won’t (really) get any concrete credibility for posting a handful of comments. In this regard, I have seen most of the comments to blog posts made by Profs are by other Profs. They are people who have already made a name for themselves.

Elise Paradis notes something along similar lines – that academia runs on reputation. Whatever you may think, comments on blog posts are not always well thought out. All it may take (according to her) are a couple of lame comments to ruin a carefully built up reputation. So people tend to be extra careful before posting things in the open for all to see and judge.

For the most part I feel its fear of getting seen as a fool by the admittedly superior researcher posting the paper. Open and wild discussion of research may actually be quite interesting. There are some blogs thats openly discuss aspects of academics – with great responses. The Life at IISc blog written by Prof Giridhar is a perfect example.There are bound to be many others.

I have done my own share of commenting on the blogs that I have come across. Both research oriented and academic. At first I was a bit surprised at the lack of discussion, but commented anyway. Now that I’m getting a better idea of the inner working of such things, I am wondering.

If anyone out there thought that I was an idiot, I am sorry to inform you that you may well be correct! 😀
Here’s hoping this doesn’t cost me a scholarship a few years down the line! 😉

Update: There are a few good efforts to open up the whole process and make the reviewing process better also. One of the sites which I forgot to mention was the Not Relevant blog. They can publish papers within days of submission (instead of the regular 2-3 months) with a commons license and the promise of open debate. Its specifically for the Information Retrieval space. I wonder if any other subjects have a similar attempt.

Here’s their flyer/poster at SIGIR 2010 in Geneva