Telling stories with data

I’m about 20% through with The Verdict by Prannoy Roy and Dorab Sopariwala. It’s a fascinating book, except for one annoyance – it is full of tables that serve no purpose but to break the flow of text.

I must mention that I’m reading the book on the Kindle, which means that the tables can pose a major annoyance. Text breaks off midway through one page, and the next couple of pages involve a table or two, with several lines of text explaining what’s in the table. And then the text continues. It makes for a rather disruptive reading experience. And some of the tables have just one data point – making one wonder why it has been inserted there at all.

This is not the first book that I’ve noticed that makes this mistake. Some of the sports analytics books I’ve read in recent times, such as The Numbers Game also make the same error (I read that in print, and still had the same disruption). Bhagwati and Panagariya’s Why Growth Matters is similarly unreadable. Tables abruptly inserted into the middle of text, leading to the reader losing flow in the reading.

Telling a data story in book length is a completely different challenge to telling one in article length. And telling a story with data is a complete art form. When you’re putting a table there, you need to be able to explain why that table is important to the story – rather than putting it there just because it seems more rigorous.

Also the exact placement of the table (something that can’t be controlled well in Kindle, but is easy to fix in either HTML or print) matters –  the table should be relevant to the piece of text immediately preceding and succeeding it, in a way that it doesn’t disrupt the reader’s flow. More importantly, the table should be able to add value at that particular point – perhaps building on something that has been described in the previous paragraph.

Book length makes it harder because people don’t normally expect tables and figures to disturb their reading flow when reading something of book length. Also, the book format means that it is not always possible to insert a table at a precise point (even in print, where pagination is an issue).

So how do you tell a book length story with data? Firstly, be very stingy about the data that you want to show – anything that doesn’t immediately add value should be banished to the appendix. Even the rigour, which academics might be particular about, can be pushed to the end notes (not footnotes, since those can be disruptive to flow as well, turning pages into half pages).

Then, once you know that showing a particular table or graph is inevitable to telling the story, put it either in the beginning or the end of a chapter. This way, it doesn’t break the reader’s flow. Then, refer to individual numbers in the middle of the text without having to put the entire table in there. Unless each and every data point in the table is important, banish it to the endnotes.

One other common mistake (I did it in my piece in Forbes published yesterday) is to put a big table and not talk about it. It only seeks to confuse the reader, who starts looking for explanations for everything in the table in later parts.

I guess authors and analysts tend to get possessive. If you have worked hard to produce insights from data, you seek to share as much of it as possible. And this can mean simply dumping data all the data in the piece without a regard for what the reader will do with it.

I’m making a note to myself to not repeat this mistake in future.

Podcasts to replace books

Yesterday I listened to an excellent podcast episode with Steven Pinker at Amit Varma’s Seen and Unseen podcast. In this, they discuss concepts from Pinker’s latest book Enlightenment Now.

Pinker is an author I’ve found difficult to read. Based on glowing recommendations, I bought his books The Stuff of Thought  and The Language Instinct a decade ago, but couldn’t get beyond the first ten pages of both, despite trying several times. As a consequence, I’ve declared that his writing style is not suited for me, and I won’t bother reading his books any more.

However, since I’ve heard good things about the book, listening to a podcast episode which covered the major concepts in the book was damn useful.

It is similar with poker player and author of Thinking in Bets Annie Duke. She’s highly regarded by the “finance twitter circlejerk” that I follow (I follow her as well), and she appears on several podcasts with members of this circlejerk. However, a friend whose opinions I trust told me that the book itself isn’t particularly great, and that there wasn’t that much in the book about thinking in bets per se.

A quick reading of the Kindle sample confirmed this hypothesis, so I didn’t bother with the rest of the book. Instead, I substituted for it by listening to a couple of podcasts that Duke has recorded, to get the best of her insights. This combined with following her on twitter, I don’t think I’ve done too badly.

I’ve found this “podcast trumping book” concept work in other cases and other ways as well. Beyond the first chapter, I found Ray Dalio’s Principles unreadable, but then I realised that I had got most of the concepts in the book from his podcast recording with Shane Parrish of Farnam Street.

Jordan Peterson’s 12 rules for life again is extremely insightful, but a very boring read. So for someone who doesn’t have the patience to plough through all his philosophy and religion stuff (which are weak compared to his psychology stuff which is incredible), I would just recommend that they listen to his podcast recording with Russ Roberts.

In some ways this takes me back to my old concept of how a lot of non-fiction books simply don’t have that much information content and just keep repeating the same points over and over. The antidote to this, I’ve argued, is to pack the book with a sufficient number of “side stories” so that there is more information packed in it. I think, and hope, that I’ve done this with my own book.

When an author records a podcast to promote a book, the intent is to get a potential reader to be attracted to the book, and hence the best concepts in the book get put out there. Also, as long as the podcast interviewer is good (Amit Varma, Russ Roberts and Shane Parrish are all very good podcast hosts), the podcast will never be boring and you’ll be able to get the information content in an easy way. So unless you want depth (I’m glad I ploughed through Jordan Peterson’s book since I found it has some depth, but not everyone would feel the same), just listening to the book-related podcasts should serve you well.

Oh, and I’ve recorded some five or six podcast episodes with Amit Varma’s seen and unseen podcast to discuss the book. I guess a lot of those listeners thought like me, so they didn’t bother buying my book!

Showing off

So like good Indian parents we’ve started showing off the daughter in front of guests. And today she showed us that she’s equal to the task.

A couple of weeks back, after seeing the photo of a physicist friend’s son with the book Quantum Physics for babies, I decided to get a copy. Like with all new things the daughter gets, she “read” the book dutifully for the rest of the day it arrived. She learnt to recognised the balls in the book, but wasn’t patient enough for me to teach her about atoms.

The next day the book got put away into her shelf, never to appear again, until today that is. Some friends were visiting and we were all having lunch. As I was feeding the daughter she suddenly decided to run off towards her bookshelf, and with great difficulty pulled out a book – this one. As you might expect, our guests were mighty impressed.

Then they started looking at her bookshelf and were surprised to find a “children’s illustrated atlas” there. We told them that the daughter can identify countries as well. Soon enough, she had pulled out the atlas from the shelf (she calls it the “Australia book”) and started pointing out continents an d countries in that.

To me the high point was the fact that she was looking at the maps upside down (or northside-down – the book was on the table facing the guests), and still identified all the countries and continents she knows correctly. And once again, I must point out that she hadn’t seen the atlas for at least two or three weeks now.

Promise is showing, but we need to be careful and make sure we don’t turn her into a performing monkey.

PS: Those of you who follow me on Instagram can look at this video of Berry identifying countries.

PS2: Berry can identify continents on a world map, but got damn disoriented the other day when I was showing her a map that didn’t contain Antarctica.

Book challenge update

At the beginning of this year, I took a break from Twitter (which lasted three months), and set myself a target to read at least 50 books during the calendar year. As things stand now, the number stands at 28, and it’s unlikely that I’ll hit my target, unless I count Berry’s story books in the list.

While I’m not particularly worried about my target, what I am worried about is that the target has made me see books differently. For example, I’m now less liable to abandon books midway – the sunk cost fallacy means that I try harder to finish so that I can add to my annual count. Sometimes I literally flip through the pages of the book looking for interesting things, in an attempt to finish it one way or the other (I did this for Ray Dalio’s Principles and Randall Munroe’s What If, both of which I rated lowly).

Then, the target being in terms of number of books per year means that I get annoyed with long books. Like it’s been nearly a month since I started Jonathan Wilson’s Angels with dirty faces , but I’m still barely 30% of the way there – a figure I know because I’m reading it on my Kindle.

Even worse are large books that I struggle to finish. I spent about a month on Bill Bryson’s At Home, but it’s too verbose and badly written and so I gave it up halfway through. I don’t know if I should put this in my reading challenge. A similar story is with Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Emperor of All Maladies – this morning, I put it down for maybe the fourth time (I bought it whenever it was first published) after failing to make progress – it’s simply too dry for someone not passionate about the subject.

Oh, and this has been the big insight from this reading challenge – that I read significantly faster on Kindle than I do on physical books. Firstly, it’s easier to carry around. Secondly, I can read in the dark since I got myself a Kindle Paperwhite last year. One of the times when I read from my kindle is in the evening when I’m putting Berry to sleep, and that means I need to read in the dark with a device that doesn’t produce so much light. Then, the ability to control font size and easy page turns means that I progress so much faster – even when I stop to highlight and make notes (a feature I miss dearly when reading physical books; searchable notes are a game changer).

I also find that when I’m reading on Kindle, it’s easier to “put fight” to get through a book that is difficult to read but is insightful. That’s how managed to get through Diana Eck’s India: A Sacred Geography, and that’s the reason I made it a point to buy Jordan Peterson’s book on Kindle – I knew it would be a tough read and I would never be able to get through it if I were to read the physical version.

Finally, the time taken to finish a book follows a bimodal distribution. I either finish off the book in a day or two, or I take a month to finish it. For example, I went to Copenhagen for a holiday in August, and found a copy of Michael Lewis’s The Big Short in my AirBnB. I was there for three days but finished off in that time. On the other hand, 12 rules for life took over a month.

Once upon a time

Thanks to gifts from various sources (including the National Health Service, where we’d gone for a checkup), Berry has a few books now. Most of them have lots of pictures (the only book we’ve bought for her is simply a collection of animal pictures). Some have text as well. And it is that that is rather underwhelming.

I don’t know the target age group for most of these books, but the stories seem damn lame to Pinky and me. In my opinion, a good children’s book (or show) should not only be interesting for the child, but also for the parents – it is not often that the child uses the book or show alone. And from that perspective, a lot of these books Berry has got don’t pass the muster.

The books I had when I was a kid may not have been particularly optimised for a child. The illustrations weren’t great. The paper quality was underwhelming as well (one thing Berry can’t do with her books is to tear them! A useful quality for sure for children’s books). But the stories were fantastic. And things that I still remember.

Most of these stories came from the Panchatantra, which is a collection that “evolved” over time. This memetic evolution means that the stories that have come till today are “fit”, and fantastic. It’s similar with Aesop’s Fables – their age means that stories have evolved sufficiently to become damn interesting. And of course, this applies to the Ramayana and Mahabharata as well (and NOT to Christian myth, which didn’t get time to evolve and is thus rather boring).

Speaking of myth, I recently read Neil Gaiman’s book on Norse Mythology.  It’s a good book, and I’ll make Berry read it before she is five. But the stories themselves were all rather underwhelming and devoid of complexity. Considering it’s an ancient myth, which had sufficient time to evolve being written down, the simplicity of plots is rather surprising. Or maybe it’s the way Gaiman told the story.

I’m reminded of this “one Shloka Ramayana” that I’d been made to mug up as a kid (I still remember it “by heart”. Maybe Gaiman’s book is the Norse equivalent of this?

Poorvam Rama Thapovanadhi Gamanam
Hatva Mrigam Kanchanam
Vaidehi Haranam, Jataayu Maranam
Sugreeva Sambhashanam

Bali Nigrahanam, Samudra Tharanam
Lankapuri Dahanam,
Paschath Ravana Kumbhakarna Madanam
Ethat Ithi Ramayanam

In any case, considering the lack of plots in “modern” children’s books, we’re seriously exploring the idea of bringing back truckloads of Amar Chitra Katha when we visit India later this year.

Books, Music, Disruption and Distribution

Having watched this short film by The Economist on disruption in the music business, I find the parallels between the books and the music businesses uncanny.

Both industries have been traditionally controlled by the middlemen – labels in the case of music, and publishers in the case of books. Both sets of middlemen are oligopolies – there are three big music labels and four (?) major publishers. This is primarily a result of production costs – traditionally, professional recording equipment has been both expensive and hard to get. Similarly, typesetting and printing a book was expensive business.

However, both industries have been massively disrupted in the last couple of decades, primarily thanks to new distribution models – streaming in the case of music, and online vendors and e-books in the case of books. Simultaneously, the cost of production have also plummeted – I can get studio quality recording and mixing software on my Macbook Pro, and I already have a version of my book that looks good on the Kindle.

Yet, in both industries, the incumbents strongly believe that they continue to add value despite the disruption, and staunchly defend the value of the marketing and distribution they bring. In the above video, for example, a record studio executive talks about how established artistes may do well going “indie”, but new artistes require support in production, marketing and distribution.

If you see blogs and news articles on publishing and self-publishing, on the other hand, most of the talk is about how little value publishers themselves bring into the marketing and distribution process. While publishers continue to have a broad monopoly on the traditional distribution chain (bookstores, primarily), they have no particular competitive advantage in the new channels.

One of the successful indie artistes interviewed in the above video talks about how he was successful thanks to the brand and following he built up on social media, which ensured that his album had several takers as soon as it was released. It is again similar to advice that authors who want to self-publish get!

As someone who has completed a book manuscript and is looking for production and distribution options, I find the developments in the indie space (across products) rather interesting. Going by all this, maybe I should just give up on the “stamp of approval” I’m looking for from a traditional publisher, and go indie myself!

I leave you with a few lines from one of my favourite poems, which I believe is a commentary about the music record label industry!

Now the frog puffed up with rage.
“Brainless bird – you’re on the stage –
Use your wits and follow fashion.
Puff your lungs out with your passion.”
Trembling, terrified to fail,
Blind with tears, the nightingale
Heard him out in silence, tried,
Puffed up, burst a vein, and died.

 

I completed the manuscript of my book

I had set myself an April 15 deadline to finish the first draft of my book, and I’m happy to let you know that I’ve achieved it. This draft weighs in at around 75,000 words, which is probably longer than I’d expected.

Now the hard part begins – of finding publishers, editing, promotions and all that jazz. I don’t even know where to start and which publishers to approach. This is a popular economics book where I use the concept of market liquidity (from finance) to explain why certain markets are structured the way they are, and how markets can be made more efficient.

Here is a brief introduction of the book that I’ve written. I’m yet to give it a name, but the subtitle is “How financial markets explain life”:

Why do people with specialised skills find it hard to switch jobs? Why do transfer fees for footballers always seem either too high or too low? Why are real estate brokers still in business despite the large number of online portals that have sought to replace them?

The answer to all this lies in liquidity. Broadly speaking, market liquidity refers to the ease with which a product or service can be bought or sold in a particular market. With its origins in financial markets, the concept has far-reaching implications in a large number of markets.

In this book, Karthik Shashidhar, a management consultant and public policy researcher, explores a large number of markets, financial and otherwise, and explains why they are structured the way they are. From relationships to property rights, from big macs to public transport, a large number of markets are dissected to show why liquidity remains a useful concept well beyond financial markets where it originated.

Now, while many of the examples are from India, I’ve written this book with a global audience in mind. Hopefully I should be able to publish and sell this book internationally.

There is a full chapter on the economics of Uber, and how surge pricing is critical to creating liquidity in the rides marketplace. There are also chapters on matchmaking, obsolete technologies, agricultural markets and why most Indians cook at home.

I haven’t really seen any other popular economics books from India, so don’t know where to start my publisher hunt. Any leads will be welcome. I’m currently in Barcelona, but will be returning to Bangalore in mid-May.

Oh, and there is very little intersection with this blog, or anything I’ve published so far. One chapter intersects one blogpost here, and another draws from a Mint piece I’ve written, but the rest is all fresh material. So, you people have no excuse but to buy the book when it does come out!

Wish me luck!