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.

Tigers and Bullwhips

Over three years ago, well before our daughter was born, my wife’s cousin had told us that she likes to watch her daughter’s TV shows because they contained “morals”, which were often useful to her at work. While we never took to the “moral” TV show she mentioned (Daniel Tiger – it is bloody boring), I have begun to notice that there are important management lessons in other popular children’s stories.

So I hereby begin this blog series on what I call the “Kiddie MBA” – basically business lessons from kids’s stories. And we will start with that all-time classic, The Tiger Who Came To Tea, by Judith Kerr. 

The basic premise of this story that remains a classic fifty years after being published is what operations managers call the “bullwhip effect“. Sometimes a business, possibly in trading, can be subject to a sudden demand, which the business will not be able to fulfil given its current inventories.

As a result of this sudden one-time spurt in demand, the business increases its future forecasts of demand, and starts keeping more inventory. This business’s supplier sees this increased demand and increases its own forecasts upward, and increases its own inventory. Thus, this one-time demand “shock” percolates up the supply chain, giving the illusion of higher demand and with each layer in the chain keeping higher and higher inventory.

And then one day the retailer will realise that this demand shock is not replicable and moves forecasts downwards, and this triggers a downward edge in the forecasts up the value chain, and demand at the source comes crashing down.

Being a children’s book, The Tiger Who Came To Tea eschews the complexity of the supply chain and instead keeps the story at one level – at the level of the household of the protagonist Sophie (not to be confused with Sophie the Giraffe).

The premise of the story is the demand shock for supplies in Sophie’s home – a tiger comes home for tea and eats up everything that’s at home, drinks up all that’s there to be drunk (including “all the water in the tap”) and leaves, leaving nothing for Sophie and her family.

Assuming that the tiger will return the next day, Sophie’s family stocks up heavily, including “lots of tiger food”. And the tiger never arrives.

My guess is that the rest of the supply chain is left as an exercise to the reader – how the retailer who sold Sophie the tiger food will react to the suddenly higher demand for food (and for tiger food), how this retailer’s supplier will react, whether the tiger visits some other household for tea the next day (making this demand “regular” at the retailer’s level), and so forth.

Perhaps this is what makes this such as great book, and an all-time classic!

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.

Hindu myth plots

This morning, on the occasion of Naraka Chaturdashi, I was telling my daughter the story of how Krishna killed Narakasura in an aerial battle. The story, for those who are interested, has been articulated extremely well by V Vinay here:

So while I was narrating the story, I realised how similar the plotlines of so many Hindu myth stories are. The plot goes like this:

  1. There’s this guy who does a lot of tapas (meditation, not Spanish small eats) and prayers, and manages to impress some gods
  2. The said gods, impressed with our guy, grant him some boon that he asks for
  3. Usually this boon offers some kind of immortality. Rather, it guarantees that certain methods of death won’t work on our anti-hero
  4. Now that he’s received the boon, he becomes arrogant, and soon starts misusing this boon
  5. The world comes to despair, and one set of gods take a delegation to another set of gods, asking for help
  6. The other set of gods (usually a subset of those that had granted our anti-hero the boon in the first place) realise their blunder, but a boon once granted can’t be taken away
  7. They figure that the only way to defeat the superpower they’ve already granted is to create a superior power, which will be granted to one of the gods themselves (just so that it won’t get misused. So our gods had trust issues it seems)
  8. And so this god takes this superior power, and then confronts the anti-hero with the superpower, and since the superior power defeats the superpower (like how paper covers rock, or rock breaks scissors), annihilates the hero. The hero usually dies in this process (the concept of “resignation” isn’t there in Hindu myth).
  9. In order to commemorate the occasion of the annihilation of evil, which was created by gods in the first place (by the grant of the boon), a festival is celebrated.

And so we have Naraka Chaturdashi on the day Narakasura was killed. Onam on the day Bali was sent to the netherlands (no, not Holland Netherlands). Dasara on the day Durgi outwitted Mahishasura, and so forth.

I’m usually a big fan of Hindu myth, and am proud of our heritage for having created such a rich set of stories. After having identified this pattern, though, I’m not so sure. The only creativity comes in the different powers that the anti-hero is granted, and the superior powers that are created to defeat this.

I wonder why we ended up creating so many stories that are so similar, or rather why so many similar stories (memes) survived while the other memes fell by the wayside in our cultural evolution.

 

Half an Indian Girl

So my first attempt in twelve years to read pulp fiction ended midway, as I gave up reading Chetan Bhagat’s One Indian Girl after around 130 pages (~40% into the book).

My main problem with the book is that it uses too many words for what it has to convey. There are shades of good writing sprinkled through the part of the book that I read, but at least once every ten pages you start wondering where the story is going, and wondering if so many more pages are worth reading.

Based on the plot that I gathered through my reading of the book, it seems written with a Bollywood script in mind. And while it might make for good screenplay, the quality of writing means that the amount of effort and patience required in ingesting and finishing the book is way too high.

In a way, the book reminded me of a short story by Mulk Raj Anand (ok outragers can start outraging now) called Old Bapu that I’d read a few years back as part of some course at IIT Madras. That story begins with the observation that in the split-second before death, one’s entire life flashes in one’s mind.

And so you have this book, set at the protagonist’s wedding, where she looks back at her life and relationships so far, and that I think is a fine premise. The protagonist’s character is also fairly well chosen and most of the events in the part of the story I read seem fairly realistic.

And then, as they say in Bollywoodese, there are some kahaani mein twists and for someone who had largely appreciated the book for what it was thus far, it can be a bit throwing off. And then when you see that after these twists you have a further 160 pages to go, you end up losing all motivation.

So I shut the book, and turned to my wife who had finished reading through it (albeit after some struggles) a week back. She narrated the rest of the story in her own way, a hundred and sixty pages compressed into two minutes of speech. And having heard this narration, I’m glad I didn’t waste time reading those pages.

A long time back I’d blogged about whether the length of a book is a bug or a feature, and suggested that in fiction one would look at extra words as a benefit, since it’s likely to keep you entertained. I revise that observation now, to say that extra words in a book of fiction (or any book) are fine if and only if they add to the story.

This book, in my opinion, has too many of those extra words, which makes it damn easy to get bored as you read it, and very soon you can’t stop wanting the book to end soon!

The Bollywoody plot aside, I could think of this book being written in 100 pages, which would have made it far far better! I don’t know when I’ll attempt reading pulp fiction next!

Also read my analysis on why Half Girlfriend, Chetan Bhagat’s earlier book, failed at living up to its potential.

“Be obediency like Sravana Kumar” and morals of stories

A few days back, the wife and I came across this absolutely hilarious video on Facebook where this guy was imitating his teacher from school, and narrating the story of Shravan Kumar from the Ramayana.

So he relates the story like how the teacher supposedly told him in school, and finally ends it with “the moral of the story is: be obediency like Sravana Kumar”.

It’s an awesome imitation, and you can find it on Facebook (problem with closed platforms like Facebook is that I can’t embed that video in this post, thus diminishing this post. Fie on Facebook for this). You can have a good laugh. (Edit: I’ve found the link to the video, but somehow it won’t embed here).

The point, however, is that “be obediently like Sravana Kumar” is hardly the moral of that story. There are so many other greater morals that the story teaches you, for all that Shravan Kumar’s obedience brought him was an untimely death. For example – “don’t make noise like a wild animal while collecting water from a river”, or more importantly (the wife came up with this one), “after you’ve killed someone, just run, and don’t get sraapu“.

So this has led us to invent this new game, which is called “what is the moral of the story?”. It’s a two-player non-competitive game. The first person tells a story, and the other person is supposed to come up with a moral of the story. It being the first time this time, we stuck to basic childhood stories.

  1. The Fox and the crane
    I came up with “Carry your own plate/jug with you when someone invites you for dinner”. The wife said “don’t invite anyone for lunch/dinner”.
  2. The Cats and the Monkey

    “don’t let a monkey be a judge”
    “don’t strive for exactness. Be happy if two things are approximately equal”
  3. The Crow and the Fox
    This was my favourite one. Inspired by Sergio Leone, I came up with “when you have to eat, eat. Don’t talk”

    It will be a fun game to play after the kid comes out, learns to talk and is old enough for us to tell stories to her. It’ll be fun to see the kind of morals she’ll come up with in school!

Finite and infinite stories

Stories in books or movies are “finite” in that there is a defined end-point. Real life, on the other hand, has to go on.

Recently I started reading a book called “Finite and Infinite Games”. I’m barely through the Kindle sample, so can’t comment much on the book, but I want to talk about a related concept – finite and infinite stories.

An important feature of the story is that it is “finite”, and has a fixed ending. For example, if you take Lord Of The Rings, the story is primarily concerned with whether Frodo can destroy the ring by taking it to wherever it came from before Sauron can get his hands on it. Once either the ring is destroyed or Sauron gets his hands on it, the story is essentially over, and doesn’t concern about any subsequent events.

Thus, as you plough through either the books or the movies, you condition yourself to the story “ending” at one of these two finalities. And in this particular story, considering that both of these are epochal events, all characters have a horizon no longer than the time required for one of these two events to happen. In other words, most books and movies are “finite stories”, and efforts in those stories are optimised for such finiteness.

Real life, however, is different, in that it is “continuous”. Whatever happens, in most cases, life simply goes on, and hence you need to optimise for the long term. Let’s say, for example, that you are going through a tough time at work and want your current assignment to end. And while you are at it, you look upon your life as a story, where the success or failure of your current assignment is an epochal event. Consequently, you will use a strategy that optimises your performance until this epochal event.

And then this event happens. Let’s say the assignment is a success. Then, life has to move on and another assignment gets thrown at you. Except that you’ve thrown all you had at the previous assignment, and now have no energy left to deal with this one.

In that sense, real life is like an “infinite story” (though death adds a degree of finiteness to this). However epochal certain events seem, unless they are life-threatening, one ought to think for the long term and plan for beyond the event. For unlike in the books or the movies, the story never ends.