Blink: Not what it’s blurbed to be

Blink "Trust your instincts. Don’t think — blink," says the blurb.

But I am beginning to have doubts about my instincts after reading this.

"Blink is all about those moments when we ‘know’ something without really knowing why," says the blurb.

But I thought the book showed our first impressions could be both right and wrong.

The blurb adds, "This book shows how we can hone our instinctive ability to know in an instant, helping us to bring out the best in our thinking and become better decision-makers in our homes, offices and everyday lives."

If that’s the lesson this book has to offer, sorry, I didn’t get it at all.  I went through the stories about the Greek statue, Warren Harding, the cola tests, the Aeron chair and the women classical musicians and came to the conclusion that first impressions can be both right and wrong. Gladwell explains why they can be both right and wrong, and how to get them right. But the process — what he calls "thin-slicing", looking at only the relevant details — is not easy. For to judge a musician, you have to listen to the music only, but to judge a cola, it’s not enough to take a sip, you have to drink the whole can.

If there’s anything else I learnt from this book, it’s the wisdom of the old saying: Never judge a book by its cover. Or its blurb. You could be disappointed.

Who let the blogs out?

Who_let_the_blogs_outWho Let the Blogs Out?: A Hyperconnected Peek at the World of Weblogs
A book by Biz Stone

Dan Gillmor may not know it, but I link to his blog. He links to Glenn Reynolds aka Instapundit which makes me two degrees removed from the pundit. Bloggers, click on your blogrolls, and see where the blogs you link to take you. We are all interconnected, it seems, in a cyberversion of the party game, Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.

Biz Stone writes:

"Because he has been in so many movies, Kevin Bacon can be connected to any other actor by six degrees or fewer. Bacon is connected to Tom Cruise by one degree because they were both in A Few Good Men. Mike Myers was in The Spy Who Shagged Me with Robert Wagner, who acted in Wild Things with Bacon, so Myers is two degrees away from Bacon. Even Charlie Chaplin is only three degrees from Bacon because he acted in Monsieur Verdoux with Barry Norton, who starred with Robert Wagner in What Price Glory."

Blogs are similarly connected too, says Stone, who helped start Xanga and then spent two years working on Blogger after it was bought by Google in 2003. He got the job at Blogger because Pyra Labs founder Evan Williams, the man who created Blogger, liked his blog. Lucky guy. The luck of the early adopter, one might add. Stone has been blogging since blogging began in 1999, when Blogger was born. There were so few blogs then that Williams would personally check each and every new blog published on Blogger, says Stone. He himself used Blogger though he was working for Xanga at the time. He now works for Odeo, the podcasting company Williams founded after leaving Google.

There were bloggers before Blogger, like Dave Winer, who created the blogging tool Manila in 1999 and then the more enhanced Radio Userland in 2001, says Stone, but Blogger was the first free easy-to-use blog publisher that anyone could use without even knowing how to create a web page. And that’s what started the blogging revolution, says Stone.

In this book, he tells those early war stories, about how he and his friends started Xanga while Winer created Manila and Userland, Williams founded Blogger, and Ben and Mena Trott created Movable Type. Xanga got its name from the kangaroo, he writes. They wanted a name that would suggest something bouncy, that would attract the young, and thought of the kangaroo. That was shortened to "kanga" which morphed into "zanga". But there was already a Zanga.com. So Xanga. And Blogger was born purely by chance. Williams told Stone:

"We started (Pyra Labs) with some notions about better ways to manage information, both for personal and team-based project work. We were developing web-based groupware.That morphed into groupware specifically designed for web teams, for which we thought Blogger would be one simple piece. Of course, it was the simple thing that proceeded to envelop everything else. After a while, we realised that the blog thing was interesting enough to pursue in itself."

This book is full of interesting stories and ideas. Stone quotes other famous bloggers like Instapundit and Belle de Jour and offers his own tips on blogging. He quotes from Dooce about how she (Heather B. Armstrong) got fired from her job and says how Matthew Haughey made money from his PVRblog about personal video recorders through AdSense. There’s also the usual guff about finding your own voice and writing for your readers — and some practical advice on bloggy issues such as should you link to someone simply because he has linked to you ("No"), should you delete a comment you don’t like ("Insulting") and how to post anonymously ("Invisiblog").

Stone writes with the enthusiasm of someone who loves blogging. And he has been rewarded for it. His blog helped him land a job and two book deals. He wrote Blogging: Genius Strategies for Instant Web Content (2002) before coming out with this book. A college dropout, he admits how much he owes to blogging: "No agent. No college diploma. Just my blog. I had created a version of myself online that reflected my true self and interests and a real career grew from it."

His enthusiasm is infectious.

Lost in translation

Tagore A rock’n’roll fan, I don’t care for Tagore’s songs or dance dramas, but I have come across no poet who has written more consistently well than the grand old man of Bengali literature. Wordsworth can bore, Keats has his juvenalia, Yeats and Dylan Thomas can be incomprehensible, Tennyson trite, Browning dense, Shakespeare — well, how many really read The Rape of Lucrece? I haven’t and don’t intend to. But Tagore’s virtuosity shines through every poem. He is as mellifluous as Tennyson but he can be stark and austere too in his later poems. However, it is impossible to appreciate his poetry without a knowledge of Bengali for it is so dependent on the music of words. It is entirely lost in translation, at least in the translations I have seen.

Our knowledge of world literature is so dependent on middlemen. We don’t really get to read the authors at all but their translators.

Some are lucky to get good translators, like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who even said Gregory Rabassa’s English translation of his One Hundred Years of Solitude was superior to his Spanish original. I loved Constance Garnett’s translation of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. The impression Gilbert Murray’s verse translation of Aeschylus made on me was unmatched by later Penguin prose translations. It only goes to show how different the same work can be translated by two different people.

In a play or a novel, it is possible at least to appreciate the story or the characters, but what is a poem without words? That is one reason why I seldom read translations. I would rather a second-rate English writer or a Bengali novel than a European classic. For it is words that make literature and words are lost in translation. Mostly lost, that is.

Still, one must be grateful to translators for at least introducing us to writers we would have never known. They deserve recognition. J Peder Zane writes about a translator’s complaint that a major American magazine quoted his translation of a famous foreign author without even mentioning his name. When the translator complained to the magazine, he was told the editors feared his name would "clutter" the piece.

"Few people would endorse the magazine’s oversight," writes Zane. Yet we seldom mention the translator when we talk about a foreign author, he adds. That’s so true. I can’t even remember who translated Camus, who really impressed me in my younger days. But it was the translator I read, not Albert Camus. I just discovered the novel I always knew as The Outsider is also called The Stranger. There is a subtle difference between the two words. Camus’ novel was called L’Etranger, Answers.com just reminded me. So why was it translated as The Outsider? The translator does make a difference. It’s time we gave him his due.

To Kill A Mockingbird

Tokillamockingbird_1 "When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow. When it healed, and Jem’s fears of never being able to play football were assuaged, he was seldom self-conscious about his injury. His left arm was somewhat shorter than his right; when he stood or walked, the back of his hand was at right angles to his body, his thumb parallel to his thigh. He couldn’t have cared less, so long as he could pass or punt.

"When enough years had gone by to enable us to look back on them, we sometimes discussed the events leading to his accident. I maintain that the Ewells started it all, but Jem, who was four years my senior, said it started long before that. He said it began the summer Dill came to us, when Dill first gave us the idea of making Boo Radley come out…"

And so begins an evocation of childhood that has passed into a timeless classic, To Kill A Mockingbird. There is not a wasted word in those opening lines as will become all too clear in the end after it has taken us on a journey through a racist, segregated Deep South where there is no justice for a black man even when he is falsely accused by a white man. But the story is heartwarming at the same time, told in the voice of a high-spirited little girl.

Scout does not rave and rant. She merely recalls what she saw and the strong emotions she felt as others taunted her father, a lawyer, who had to defend a black man falsely accused of rape. Atticus Finch, her father, had no choice. He was assigned the case. But he really tried to defend his client instead of just going through the motions, earning the nickname "nigger-lover". That’s a word which would hardly appear in print today, it just goes to show how times have changed. This  novel, which appeared in 1960, could not have been written a few years later. That was the year Kennedy became President. Life changed in post-civil rights America — even in Alabama, where this story is set and which fought hardest against desegregation.

The story is set even further back in time, in Roosevelt’s America. But times change faster than people. To Kill A Mockingbird evokes a vanished world whose people still remain oddly contemporary. We can admire the quiet heroism of Atticus, love the clear-eyed innocence of his children Jem and Scout and their friend Dill, feel the motherliness of their cook Calpurnia, appreciate the tolerance and intelligence of their friendly neighbour Miss Maudie, and laugh at the pretensions of Aunt Alexandra and the other Southern ladies with their mix of polite manners and deep prejudice. But some of them too have their good points.

This is a novel of discovery. Perhaps that is why the novel continues after the courtroom scene which is absolutely masterly and unique in describing a complex case from the point of view of a child. The children discover not only racism and prejudice but good things too, like the heroism of their father, and the decency of many others, both black and white. They themselves change, both physically and mentally. One little scene etched in my mind is 12-year-old Jem shyly showing off the beginnings of body hair to his sister. Scout the tomboy finally aspires to be a lady.

And then there is Boo Radley, who turns to be out more pathetic and more deadly than anything the children imagined, but very much their friend though he hides away in his lonely house.

Appearance and reality, Scout the child narrator does not frame it in those terms, but her father says it in all the last page of the book as she falls asleep while reading a story to him. "He was real nice," she reads out before dozing off, and tucking her in her bed, he says:  "Most people are, Scout, when you finally see them. "

Harper Lee, still very much alive, who won the Pulitzer Prize for this novel, never came out with a second book. One can see why. Nothing could be more perfect. I wish I had seen the film starring Gregory Peck so I could compare the book and the movie.

Literature or social studies?

Williamshakespeare Two days ago a letter appeared in The Straits Times headlined: "English literature: Keep its beauty pure". "Literature and fiction are not synonyms," said the writer quite rightly but then went on to add: "My dictionary defines literature as ‘writings having excellence of form or expression and expressing ideas of permanent or universal interest’." That may be a dictionary definition of literature, but it raises all kinds of questions. What is of permanent or universal interest? Literary fashions come and go. Yesterday’s literary lion is today’s dead bore.

"What about Shakespeare?" I can already hear some people asking. But Shakespeare as interpreted and performed today is hardly the Shakespeare of Garrick or Charles Lamb. And, frankly, how popular, how widely read, is Shakespeare today?

And let’s not even talk of the changing fortunes of poets and writers like John Donne and Anthony Trollope. Some may think it heresy to mention them in the same breath, but Donne’s reputation has risen and fallen just like Trollope’s. In fact, the whole business of literary criticism is not all that different from stock market trading in the sense that writers’ stocks rise and fall. Critics evaluate writers  just like market analysts rate a company’s shares as "junk", "bluechip" or "lacklustre". And some critics can be awfully choosy. There was this joke about FR Leavis, the famous critic. His collection of books could hardly fill a shelf, it was said, because he liked so few writers.

"Excellent writing is as essential to the study of literature as accurate calculation is to the study of mathematics," said the letter writer. But that again begs the question, what is excellent writing? To talk of literature and mathematics in the same breath is like lumping together apples and oranges; they could not be more different. There can be right and wrong answers in mathematics. Tastes and opinions change in literature. Even the language we use is different from our forefathers’. 

The letter writer poured scorn on some of the current favourites: "Dan Brown and J.K. Rowling are popular writers. In comparison to the least writer in the English canon, however, their themes are shallow and their wordplay amateurish." I don’t know what a "least writer" is.

But the letter writer had no doubt at all about what is literature and what isn’t. "Mass-market bestsellers belong in holiday reading or library outreaches. Inferior works that are only ‘culturally relevant’ belong in social studies class."

Excuse me, then where should have been Shakespeare read in his day? In a social studies class? After all, he was a box office hit who wrote his plays to entertain the "groundlings" too.

I don’t think they taught social studies in school back then. But if they did, Shakespeare would have fitted right in — as well as in the literature class. There lies his greatness. And possibly of every other great writer, I think. They may have left behind "excellent writing"; but writing is not just a matter of craftsmanship; it is a commentary as well on people and society.

A rare English novel

Fleshmarket_alley I just finished reading Ian Rankin’s Fleshmarket Alley. What struck me was not so much the storytelling or the characterisation — Rankin has done better in earlier John Rebus novels which go deeper into characters and atmosphere. But this is a book one should read not only as a crime novel. What sets it apart is something else that is rare in British fiction. It describes the plight of the illegal immigrants and the wretched conditions in which asylum seekers are kept in Britain.

Rankin writes with his heart on his sleeve and shows the racism which exists in the housing estates, among police ranks and sections of the media. Of course, there are the good guys too. But reading this book made me pause and think: How often do we come across an English novel about the immigrants and the aliens? Rarely.

It’s true that curry restaurants are popular in Britain, there are Asians in every walk of life, and the majority of Britons don’t support the Iraq war.

But while the people behaved in exemplary fashion after the London blasts in July last year, how did they react when the police shot dead a man mistaken for a terrorist  just after the blasts? Angry protests did not flood the airwaves and the newspaper columns. He was a foreigner, a Brazilian.

Americans have had more to say and write about Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib prison than Britons about their own forces in southern Iraq. Maybe, there is no comparison between the two. But maybe the anti-war feeling is based on not just a desire for peace but fear of terrorist reprisals. NIMBY — not in my backyard, please! 

Hart of Gutenberg

One of the Guardian blogs recently carried the rumour that Google might buy the Opera browser. It duly noted that both Google and Opera denied any such deal, but still it ran the story. Anything that Google does is news, even when it is only copying others.

Michael_hart1 Reams have been written about Google and Yahoo’s grand plans to digitise entire libraries, but they are not likely to allow whole books to be downloaded for free. One can already do that — download the classics for free — from Project Gutenberg, the great online free library.  The Wall Street Journal caught up with the man who made it possible — Michael Hart. Unlike Project Gutenberg, however, the Wall Street Journal doesn’t give away anything for free. So thanks to Anil Dash who posted a link to the interview.

Hart, who started Project Gutenberg way back in  1971 creating electronic books for storage in bulky university computers, feels shabbily treated by Google. They approached him before going public with their project last year, he said, but then "they sort of talked us out the door". "It’s not that we don’t want to work with them. Google didn’t want to have anything to do with us," he said.

Project Gutenberg is different from what Google is doing, he added. "From the consumer’s point of view, if you’re trying to get a quotation from a book, you could get the book from Project Gutenberg and cut and paste, say, the whole "Hamlet" soliloquy. On Google, you can’t. Also, ours is totally non-commercial. You won’t find advertising on any of our pages." 

Hart feels overshadowed by Google. "Google certainly got a billion dollars worth of publicity last December(when it announced its plans to digitise books). I think we should have at least been mentioned. If you watched the whole media explosion, Project Gutenberg wasn’t even mentioned. Anybody watching that would think that Google had just invented e-books."

It’s all so true. But people know where to go for free books.

"In a typical week, there are at least a million downloads,” he said. "We get a lot of Thackeray downloads, a lot of James Joyce, a lot of Dickens. Pride and Prejudice is always up there. Sherlock Holmes is always up there."

As for his favourite authors, "Alice in Wonderland was a family classic for us, and my dad was a Shakespeare professor. I do love Shakespeare."

Enough quoted from the Wall Street Journal interview. The picture incidentally is from Hart’s own home page.

About A Boy

About_a_boy Warm and funny, About A Boy is one of the most enjoyable books I have read this year. Nick Hornby is one of the most popular British novelists today. And almost page bears shining proof of his gifts of comedy and empathy as he tells the story of two lovable boys– 12-year-old Marcus, who knows his mum needs a man to be happy, and Will, who is 36 years old but acts like a teenager.

Living off his father’s music royalties and dead set against marriage and children, Will only wants a good time and great sex. A brief fling with a young mother estranged from her husband persuades him the ideal partner is a single mum who no longer expects lifelong commitment. But where to find single mums? Will joins an association of single parents, pretending to be the father of a two-year-old boy.

That’s how he meets Marcus. The boy joins the group for a picnic one day, brought along by his mum’s friend, Suzie, a single mum highly desired by Will.  But before Will can hop into bed with Suzie, they have to return Marcus to his mum. Unfortunately, when they take him home, she is lying unconscious, having overdosed herself in a suicide attempt.

The three of them take her to hospital, and she recovers quickly, but that brings new complications. Marcus is drawn to Will and wants him to hook up with his mum, Fiona. But Will positively recoils from Fiona, an earnest vegetarian in the habit of singing Joni Mitchell songs with her eyes closed. Nor does Fiona care for Will, whom she finds too selfish and irresponsible.

But a 12-year-old can be so hard to resist, especially a boy as determined as Marcus. And, from the boy’s point of view, there is even a good fairy in the story — another woman whom Will fancies very much, but who has other ideas.

This is not exactly a fairy story. No one reaches the "happily ever after" stage. We don’t even know who will be bonking whom. But Suzie, Fiona, Rachel the good fairy, Will, Fiona’s ex-husband — Marcus’ father — and his current girlfriend are all drawn into a close circle which looks likely to remain friends. All thanks to a 12-year-old boy who, meanwhile, has acquired a 15-year-old girlfriend, about whom he is beginning to have doubts, however. He is no longer sure she is right for him.

Pinter on Pinter

Pinter_ap128 "I have often been asked how my plays come about. I cannot say. Nor can I ever sum up my plays, except to say that this is what happened. That is what they said. That is what they did.

"Most of the plays are engendered by a line, a word or an image. The given word is often shortly followed by the image. I shall give two examples of two lines which came right out of the blue into my head, followed by an image, followed by me.

"The plays are The Homecoming and Old Times. The first line of The Homecoming is ‘What have you done with the scissors?’ The first line of Old Times is ‘Dark.’

"In each case I had no further information…"

Those are the words with which playwright Harold Pinter (above) begins his speech accepting the Nobel prize for literature this year.

Forbidden by doctors from going to Stockholm to receive the 10 million crown ($1.2 million) literature prize, 75-year-old Pinter, who has been battling cancer for years, sent a video recording showing him in a wheelchair with his legs under a red blanket, reports Reuters.

His frailty and hoarse voice added to the drama of a speech peppered with the potent silences of his plays like The Birthday Party and The Caretaker, which gave rise to the term "Pinteresque", it adds.

It turns into a savage attack on the US, and I don’t like that at all, but the early parts are interesting where he talks about his writings. Anyone interested can read the complete text on the Guardian web site.

My favourite speech by a Nobel literature prize winner was delivered by VS Naipaul in Stockholm on Dec 7, 2001. In his speech, titled Two Worlds, he spoke about growing up in Trinidad, his Indian ancestry, and his moving to Britain and his writer’s life. It will be appreciated by anyone interested in writers or the colonial influence.

Poetry reading web site

Anyone in the mood to hear poetry readings should explore Poetry Archive. It contains recordings of poets reading their own poems. It’s a virtual who’s who of modern English and American poetry, ranging from Allen Ginsberg to Roger McGough. I even heard a scratchy recording of Tennyson reading The Charge of the Light Brigade.

Sujata_bhatt886_bhattlarge Immigrants anywhere might appreciate Margaret Atwood’s The Immigrants. As an Indian, and a Hindu, I could easily relate to Sujata Bhatta (left) reading her poem, A Different History:

Great Pan is not dead;
he simply emigrated
to India.
Here, the gods roam freely,
disguised as snakes or monkeys;
every tree is sacred
and it is a sin
to be rude to a book.
It is a sin to shove a book aside
with your foot,
a sin to slam books down
hard on a table,
a sin to toss one carelessly
across a room.
You must learn how to turn the pages gently
without disturbing Sarasvati,
without offending the tree
from whose wood the paper was made.

The poem ends with the Indians’ love for the English language.

Betjeman_566_betjemanlarge There are also poems anyone could enjoy. For example, John Betjeman reading A Subaltern’s Love Song. He reads it with relish in his beautiful voice with a posh accent, and both he and his audience enjoy the humorous love poem. He jokes before the reading and there is laughter at the end. It begins:

Miss J.Hunter Dunn, Miss J.Hunter Dunn,
Furnish’d and burnish’d by Aldershot sun,
What strenuous singles we played after tea,
We in the tournament – you against me.

Love-thirty, love-forty, oh! weakness of joy,
The speed of a swallow, the grace of a boy,
With carefullest carelessness, gaily you won,
I am weak from your loveliness, Joan Hunter Dunn

The young man gracefully loses the tennis match and they drive to dance at the golf club. The dance has already begun when they reach the club, but instead of hurrying inside, they sit in the car and love takes its course.

And the scent of her wrap, and the words never said,
And the ominous, ominous dancing ahead.
We sat in the car park till twenty to one
And now I’m engaged to Miss Joan Hunter Dunn. 

I love this poem, it is one of my favourites. It reminds me of my wife and our wedding though it was a traditional Hindu ceremony preceded by no sitting in the car — still, it was, as we call it, a love marriage. We were classmates who went to the library and the movies. Oh well, those were the days.