Saluting the champ

Amit Varma on Vishy Anand, and all that he means to chess, to India. Must read.

Eye browse

It’s been said before, but will say it once more — because I can.

I’m getting to totally love the freedom blogs and Twitter provide. Firstly, because there is no compulsion to write a ‘column’ of a specified length to a specified deadline — majorly useful, when some days all you really have to say is, ‘same shit, different day’ [which is just perfect as a twitter post, by the way]. Second, you can write whenever you really want to, without worrying about whether it is your allotted day on some arbitrary calendar. And third, you can write a thousand words, or just throw in a link, with maybe a line or two of context, if you feel the need for it.

Today being one of those days when I don’t really feel like I have something to say, three links and an invite, for your consideration:

Aakash Chopra on why left is right in cricket.

Gideon Haigh argues that an obsessive focus on the ‘brand’ could keep BCCI from carrying out the thorough clean-up that the IPL, and by extension Indian cricket, requires. [Just in case we aren’t too clear what this ‘brand’ really means, here’s Sukanta Chaudhari in the Telegraph on the wealth the BCCI generates, and the pointlessness of it all].

And, having saved the best bit for the last, here’s Amit Varma’s latest for Y! Opinions — on “Internet Hindus”, the unwisdom of pig wrestling, and the why the Internet lends itself to the gradual hardening of arteries opinion.

Read, comment. And oh, the invitation: here you go, the link to today’s Yorker live chat, 3.30-4.30, as per usual. See you there.

It’s about money, honey

So when I came back to India in late 2006, I had friends going, what the hell is wrong with you, you mean you have no investments? Not one? Not even now, when the stock market is booming and people are becoming mega-rich overnight?

My stock answer was, I don’t understand stocks and shares.

And the response invariably was, you don’t need to. Find a good advisor, tell him what you are looking to do and leave it to him to manage things for you. So I did all of that. Slept my way through several discussions, signed a lot of paper and a lot of checques, and began planning my rise to millionaire status, and my retirement, in quick succession.

And then the market tanked.

Two years and a bit later, it had still not reached the levels it was at when I invested in it. So, when I was planning to shift lock, stock and wife to Bangalore, I decided I might as well sell out and keep the money liquid, to fund house-renting and related expenses. Needless to say, the upshot of two years of investing is that I lost a few lakh of my hard-earned money.

And I still don’t understand how any of that happened.

Hopefully, enlightenment will come in carefully calibrated doses, going forward — today, Deepak Shenoy debuts his column on Yahoo.

It’s fascinating how the wizards of the financial world can take something simple and make it utterly confusing and intimidating. Take a simple loan: it used to be “I’ll give you money, you’ll pay me back more money”. Today there are processing fees, pre-closure charges and service taxes. Even the “more money”, traditionally known as “interest”, is now suitably prefixed with “flat-rate”, “monthly-reducing”, “floating rate”. They’ll even loan you money against deposits – the mouth-watering proposal of “Let me lend you your own money and charge you interest”. And finally, what you pay back is now an “Equated Monthly Installment”, a complicated mix of interest and principal, which has the magical effect that even after you make diligent payments for 10 years, you still owe the bank the same amount.

Exactly. That is precisely why I continue to live in a rented apartment, resisting all temptation to buy a swish place of my own.

There is a “huh” factor in everything financial. Shying away from it is ineffective, because our lives are intertwined with money more than ever before. We might have earlier trusted the industry to take care of our money; it no longer seems that’s a given. That just means we have to figure things for ourselves. Like a jigsaw puzzle, once you get the key pieces in place, it’s a lot more understandable.

Ah, okay. So I’ll wait for those missing pieces to surface in Deepak’s subsequent columns. And start investing again. And dream of being a millionaire in my own swish apartment.

Or maybe not.

A column, and a comeuppance of sorts

The stomach bug that laid me out all of last week is much better [and my thanks to those who either commented, or mailed, their wishes], but I’m still kind of groggy from the experience, and taking another day to get back to where I need to be.

Two quick pointers: one, to the story of the day, which is that the sports ministry has capped the tenures of those heading the various national sports federations. Rahul Mehra’s PIL helped move the needle on this one, so kudos where due — but in actual fact, I am not sure anything has been accomplished besides reiterating a rule that existed, and was universally ignored, in the first place. The key lies in compliance — Kalmadi and his ilk are past masters at this, so I wouldn’t be too surprised to see the ministry’s decision being challenged, other delaying tactics being implemented, or even one or more of those honchos arguing that the ministry’s directive cannot be grandfathered, and therefore for all practical purposes their tenures need to be counted from today.

Elsewhere, the Yahoo Opinions space just rolled out its third columnist: Girish Sahane, whose blog ranks high on my daily to-read list. As Maharashtra celebrates 50 years of its founding, Girish examines the many public myths and memorials that commemorate its birth, and in the violence of the state’s birth, finds parallels to its present.

We did promise to make sure that each column that goes up is a must read — this latest easily lives up to that promise. Read on.

And if you have comments, feel free to post them here, or on Girish’s blog.

Meanwhile, avoiding comment on the two WC games India featured in over the weekend — all that and more when I get back to this blog tomorrow, hopefully feeling a lot better.

A matter of opinion(s)

A couple of months ago, when Amit Varma first sounded me off on the idea of putting together a slate of columnists for Yahoo, the attraction was obvious.

I had just recently joined Yahoo; in my short stint there, I had just enough time to understand the organizational architecture, to scope out its basic strengths and identify pain points that needed to be addressed.

Aggregation is something we do well through an eclectic slate of content providers/partners that at this present point number 30, and rising all the time. And content, clearly, seemed to be what people came to the site for [in surprisingly large numbers, I must add: it startled me at the time, and it still gives me pause, when I learnt via Comscore that Yahoo, besides being the second most visited site in India, topped all other sites in categories like News, Entertainment and, glory be, Cricket].

That learning was not just startling — it was also in a way sobering. As a journalist, I’ve always been a votary of “original content” as the key attraction; I’d always believed that a newspaper or, since I joined Rediff in late 1995, a website, lives or dies by the quality and frequency of the “original” stories it does.

Gradually, I am finding out different.

Not that original content does not work — but that the average reader is not too worried about where the content originates from, as much as he is in finding it in front of his nose when he wants it.

So the first step in the process of assimilation into Yahoo was to swallow my personal preference, to put aside my dream [purely temporarily, note — the dream is postponed, not abandoned] of creating a crack team that would produce compelling original stories, and to devote my attention to fine-tuning the aggregation play.

The numbers continue to rise, so somehow, we seem to be doing something right. Yet Amit’s point was well taken: Yahoo was an anonymous ‘aggregator’, albeit a good one. It didn’t have a face, a resonant voice with which to engage the audience.

Creating that voice has been Amit’s preoccupation these past two months. He selected the slate of columnists, the over-arching idea being to resist the temptation to pick “names” and instead, to pick voices that are eloquent and individually compelling, and that together create a mosaic of thought and opinion that collectively address all of our preoccupations. The list speaks for itself.

In his inaugural, scene-setting column, Amit speaks of the hazards of column-writing:

The act of writing for an audience is an act of hubris. When you set out to fill an empty page, you assume that the words you write will have some value, that your thoughts will move readers from one paragraph to the next, and keep them turning the pages (or scrolling down). How presumptuous is this? What leads me to imagine that mythoughts are worth your time?

Reporters who write for the news pages can plausibly claim that their writing has value because they are setting out, as is often said, the first draft of history. The facts that they report are the essential raw material from which we manufacture the story of the world. But columnists make claims on your time with nothing to offer but opinions; perhaps an argument for this or that; a worldview they want you to share. Why should their opinions be worth more than yours?

One conceit that a columnist might have is that his calling is to help you make sense of the world. Reality is complicated and confusing, and no one has the time or resources to figure it out on their own. To construct narratives that make it all simple and explicable, the columnist might say, does you a service — and it’s damn hard to do.

Well — yes and no.

There are a number of traps inherent in creating such narratives, and most of the opinion columns I see in the daily papers fall into them. They have implacable opinions on whatever they write about; they exude certainty; contributing to a public discourse that is severely polarized, they choose black or white. They construct simple narratives of a complex world — and when the columnist gets lazy, simple can fast become simplistic.

The point is well made, and argued with characteristic eloquence. But there is a counter-point:

There is news, the famous “first draft of history” [a draft that increasingly, in these days of sound-byte journalism, tends to sound confused, even cacophonous, but let’s not go there now], and there’s history.

And then there’s a middle ground.

Columns by definition, lacking as they do the distance, the perspective, that time lends narrative, can never hope to be definitive. But at the same time, Amit and I are convinced that considerable insight is discoverable in the middle ground that lies between journalism and history — and it is this middle ground that the Yahoo Opinions section seeks to occupy.

This is Amit’s baby — my role, other than agreeing to the original idea, has been to stand by and see this develop, go through various birth pangs [you don’t even want to know!] and finally, a fortnight or more behind schedule, finally see the light.

But it is also your baby. Over time, we hope to make this more relevant, to use these columns to reach out to you, to spark your ideas and your imagination, to move from the one-speaks-to-many model and use columns as the spark of vibrant conversations. Enhancements and larger ideas are in the pipeline — but while we work on those, we await your thoughts, ideas and suggestions.

PS: I love fish, but this past week, I’ve been discovering my favorite food’s less savory underside — a bad case of food poisoning compounded by my initial neglect of the symptoms ended up knocking me out, hence the radio silence of the last couple of days. When India starts its campaign for the T20 World Cup tomorrow, I hope to follow it on Twitter [find me here]. And to get back to work — and to the blog — Monday. Till then, be well. Eat lots of fish — the food is, I am told, rich in Omega3, which for some unexplained reason is supposed to be altogether a good thing. But be careful — as I have found out these past two, three days, a stomach bug causes problems hugely disproportionate to its size. 🙂

The Coens

Thanks to Roger Ebert’s Twitter stream, spent a few moments watching this tribute to the Coen Brothers. And while on Joel and Ethan, not sure how many of you had read this hilarious interview clip I’d once posted on the previous avtaar of this blog.