Training to be a quizzer

Eleven days before our daughter was born in September 2016, the wife and I attended the annual Family Quiz organised by the Karnataka Quiz Association. We ended up doing fairly well in the quiz, and placed third.

Unfortunately, despite the quiz having been described as “for teams of three and under from the same family”, we only got two book coupons as a prize. If they had given us three prizes instead, I could’ve claimed that our daughter won her first quiz even before she was born.

Two years and four months on, I’ve greatly disappointed my wife in terms of how much I’ve taught our daughter. According to some sort of an agreement we had come to ages back (maybe even before we were married), I was supposed to have taught our daughter calculus by now. As it happens, she can barely count to twenty, and still hasn’t fully got the concept of counting objects.

However, there are other areas of development where, despite me not putting any sort of effort whatsoever, she has done rather well in terms of her learning. I had written last month that she had proved adept at showing off her Quantum Physics for Babies in front of visitors. And before that she had shown promise by reading bus number boards.

Now, an anecdote from last night suggests she is already gearing up to be a quizzer.

Back in May, a friend and business associate gifted her this illustrated book of nursery rhymes (I don’t have the copy with me as I write this, but it was possibly this one). Since each page contains a full rhyme and maybe one or two illustrations, we don’t use the book too much – the daughter prefers books that have a higher picture-to-word ratio.

In fact, the fact that I’m not even sure what the book precisely looks like should tell you that we don’t use the book too often. Once in a while, my wife reads out poems from that just before bedtime, but I normally don’t read from it.

Anyways, last night as I was putting the daughter to bed, she picked out this book and asked me to read it to her before she fell asleep. And then she showed off her prowess as a quizzer.

Being two and a third years old, she can’t yet read (she knows the numbers and a few letters of the English and Kannada alphabets, but not much more). However, the way she was recognising the poems from the illustrations suggested that she was actually reading!

Guessing “Humpty Dumpty” by looking at an egghead sitting on a wall was rather easy. Some of the other poems she guessed correctly were, however, stuff I surely wouldn’t have  gotten from the illustrations. In fact, this included poems whose existence even I wasn’t aware of before I saw them in the book. I was so impressed that I didn’t really mind that she didn’t go to bed until it was eleven o’clock last night!

Now, this might be a false alarm. In the past she seems to have answered arithmetic questions correctly which later turned out to be a fluke. The sheer proportion of poems she got correct last night suggested this is not the case. The other doubt is that she might have seen the book elsewhere, and thus mugged up the picture-poem associations.

The way she was guessing, however, suggested to me that she was simply recognising the objects in the pictures and the actions they were exhibiting, and then working out the name of the poem from these figures and actions (obviously she knew it’s a book of rhymes, so the sample space was finite). And that is exactly how your mental process goes when you’re attempting a (good) quiz.

Now I don’t mind so much that she still has a long way to go before she can learn calculus.

Books and Kindle Singles

Recently I started re-reading Vikram Chandra (the novelist and Berkeley academic)’s book “Mirrored Mind”, which has been published in the US as “Geek Sublime”. I hadn’t read it earlier – I had only read the Kindle sample and then discarded it, and I recently decided to pick it up from where I had left off.
In fact, that was hard to do, so I decided to start from the beginning once again, and so went through the introduction and preface and acknowledgements and all such before diving into the book again. This time I liked it better (not that I hadn’t liked it the first time round), and so decided to buy the full book. But somewhere midway through the full book, I lost enthu, and didn’t feel like reading further. My Kindle lay unused for a few days, for the “loaded” book on that was this one, and there was absolutely no enthu to continue reading that. Finally I gave up and moved on to another book.So one point that Vikram Chandra makes in the introduction to the book is that he initially planned to make it a Kindle single, but then decided, upon the urging of his wife and others, to make it into a complete book on coding and poetry. While the intent of writing a full book is no doubt well-placed, the result doesn’t really match up.

For when you try and turn a Kindle single into a full book, you try to add words and pages, and for that reason you write things that aren’t organically attached to the rest of the book. You want to add content, and depth, but instead you end up simply adding empty words – those that you could have done without, and chapters which are disconnected from the rest of the book.

And so it is the case with Vikram Chandra’s Mirrored Mind. There is a whole chapter, for example, on the sociology of the Indian software industry, which is clearly “out of syllabus” for the otherwise excellent novelist, programmer and creative writer Vikram Chandra. He goes into long expositions on the role of women in the Indian software industry, the history of the industry, etc. which are inherently interesting stories, but not when told by Chandra, who is clearly not in his zone while writing that chapter.

And then there is the chapter on Sanskrit poetry, which is anything but crisp, and so verbose that it is extremely hard to get through. There is nothing about code in the chapter, and it is very hard to cut through the verbosity and discern any references to the structure of poetry, and that lays waste to the chapter. It was while reading this chapter that I simply couldn’t proceed, and abandoned the book.

This is by no means a comparison but I’ve gone down this path, too. I’ve written so many blog posts on the taxi industry, and especially on the pricing aspects, that I thought it might make sense to put them all together and convert them into a Kindle Single. But then, as I started going through my posts and began to piece them together during my holiday in Barcelona earlier this year, I got greedy, and I thought I could convert this into a full “proper” book, and that I could become a published author.

And so I started writing, mostly in cafes where I went to for breakfast (croissant and “cortado”) and for coffees. I set myself ambitious targets, of the nature of writing at least two thousand words in each session. This might help me get out a skeleton of the book by the time my vacation ended, I reasoned.

Midway through my vacation, I decided to review my work before proceeding, and found my own writing unreadable. This is not always the case – for example, I quite enjoy going back and reading my own old blog posts. I’m quite narcissistic, in other words, when it comes to my own writing. And I found my own work-in-progress book unreadable! I immediately put a pause on it, and proceeded to fritter away the rest of my vacation in an offhand way.

I got back to Bangalore and sent the “manuscript”, if it can be called such to editor extraordinaire Sarah Farooqui, I don’t know what trouble she went through reading it, but her reaction was rather crisp – that the “book” was anything but crisp and I should cut down on the multitude of words, sentences and paragraphs that added no value. The project remains stillborn.

So based on these two data points, one from a great novelist (none of whose novels I’ve read), and one from my not-so-humble self, I posit that a Kindle single once conceived should be left that way, and authors should not be overcome by delusions of grandeur that might lead them to believe they are in the process of writing a great work. The only thing that can come out of this is a horribly overblown book whose information content is no greater than that of the Kindle single originally conceived.

Long ago on this blog I had written about “blog posts turned into books”, after reading Richard MacKenzie’s book on pricing (Why popcorn costs so much at the movies). The same holds true for Kindle singles turned into books, too. And when I started writing I intended to be a 500-word blog post, not the 900-word monster it has turned into. I wouldn’t blame you if you if you didn’t get this far.