Is handwriting hereditary?

I don’t know the answer to that question. However, I have a theory on how handwriting passes on down the generations.

So my daughter goes to a montessori. There they don’t teach them to read and write at a very early age (I could read by the time I was 2.5, but she learnt to read only recently, when she was nearing 4). And there is a structured process to recognising letters (or “sounds” as they call them) and to be able to draw them.

There are these sandpaper letters that the school has, and children are encouraged to “trace” them, using two fingers, so they know how the letters “flow”. And then this tracing helps first in identifying the sounds, and later writing them.

With school having been washed out pretty much all of this year, we have been starved of these resources. Instead, over a 2 hour Zoom call one Saturday in July, the teachers helped parents make “sound cards” by writing using a marker on handmade paper (another feature of Montessori is the introduction of cursive sounds at a young age. Children learn to write cursive before they learn to write print, if at all).

So when Berry has to learn how a particular sound is to be written, it is these cards that I have written that she has to turn to (she knows that different fonts exist in terms of reading, but that she should write in cursive when writing). She essentially traces the sounds that I have written with two fingers.

And then in the next step, I write the sounds on a slate (apparently it’s important to do this before graduating to pencil), and then she uses a different coloured chalk and traces over them. Once again she effectively traces my handwriting. Then earlier this week, during a “parent and child zoom class” organised by her school, she wanted to write a word and wasn’t able to write the full word in cursive and asked for my help. I held her hand and made her write it. My handwriting again!

Now that I realise why she seems to be getting influenced by my handwriting, I should maybe hand over full responsibility of teaching writing to the wife, whose handwriting is far superior to mine.

The trigger for this post was my opening of a notebook in which I had made notes during a meeting earlier this week (I usually use the notes app on the computer but had made an exception). Two things struck me before I started reading my notes – that my handwriting is similar to my father’s, and my handwriting is horrible (easily much worse than my father’s). And then I was reminded of earlier this week when I held my daughter’s hand and made her write.

This is how handwriting runs in the family.

The Mint Way and the NED Way

I wrote for Mint for six and a half years. I loved writing for them. The editors were fantastic, the copy desk was understanding, and for the most part (until the editor who hired me moved on), they published most of the stuff I wrote.

What I wrote for Mint also helped open doors, as I ended up striking up many conversations based on that (though I’ve forgotten if any of them converted to revenue generation). At least in my initial year of writing for them, when I did a data-based take on elections in the run up to Modi’s first national election, I seemed to get a lot of “footage” and attention.

However, one person who was definitely unimpressed with my writing for Mint was my wife. Apart from two or three articles (I remember this and this for sure), she considers most of my writing for Mint as being rather boring. And when I go back to read some of the stuff I’ve written for them, I must agree.

The sort of flow that is there to every post I write here (or at least most posts) is completely missing there. A lot of pieces seems to simply be a collection of facts, and a small dose of analysis based on those facts. I hesitated to state my opinions and “take risks” in my writing. Barring one or two pieces I even hesitated to use a personal voice, appearing rather impersonal in most of my writing.

I had started writing for them at a time when I was starting to be known as a sort of data guy (I mainly wrote data related stuff for them). And from somewhere I had picked up this notion that it is honourable to be faithful to only the data, and to describe it as it is and to the extent possible simply state facts without taking sides.

And the fact that my pieces mostly appeared in the news pages (rather than the opinion pages) made me even more hesitant to use my personal voice in the writing – if it’s going to be news, I need to be as impersonal as possible, I thought. And so I wrote. The editors seemed to like it, since they kept me for six and a half years. Social media feedback tells me that at least occasionally the readers liked it. My wife never liked it.

Nowadays, from time to time, I find myself getting into “the Mint frame of mind” when I’m writing something. This happens when I need to get something out by a deadline, and I try to become too careful about what I’m stating and not bring in a personal opinion. So I try to find links to support every piece of information I put in. I try to be careful to not appear taking political sides. In other words, I get into “Mint mode”. And when I write in Mint mode, I end up writing stuff that, in hindsight, is not very interesting to read.

I guess my blog gives me the freedom that when I’m not writing well, I simply abandon the post. In that sense, the quality of my writing that you see has some selection bias – if I’m not happy with how something is going, I simply abandon it. However, my writing elsewhere doesn’t have that luxury, and so I sometimes end up “delivering shit”.

I really don’t know what I can do to prevent this from happening on a consistent basis. Maybe I should just blog more. And try and be myself when I write elsewhere as well. Maybe I should just write like I write a blog and then edit it to take out any personal touches, rather than trying to write impersonally in the first place.

OK I know i’ve rambled here ūüėõ

Blogs and tweetstorms

The “tweetstorm” is a relatively new art form. It basically consists of a “thread” of tweets that serially connect to one another, which all put together are supposed to communicate one grand idea.

It is an art form that grew organically on twitter, almost as a protest against the medium’s 140 (now raised to 280) character limit. Nobody really knows who “invented” it. It had emerged by 2014, at least, as this Buzzfeed article cautions.

In the early days, you would tweetstorm by continuously replying to your own tweet, so the entire set of tweets could be seen by readers as a “thread”. Then in 2017, Twitter itself recognised that it was being taken over by tweetstorms, and added “native functionality” to create them.

In any case, as with someone from “an older generation” (I’m from the blogging generation, if I can describe myself so), I was always fascinated by this new art form that I’d never really managed to master. Once in a while, rather than writing here (which is my natural thing to do), I would try and write a tweet storm. Most times I didn’t succeed. Clearly, someone who is good at an older art form struggles to adapt to newer ones.

And then something clicked on Wednesday when I wrote my now famous tweetstorm on Bayes Theorem and covid-19 testing. I got nearly two thousand new followers, I got invited to a “debate” on The Republic news channel and my tweetstorm is circulated in apartment Telegram groups (though so far nobody has yet sent my my own tweetstorm).

In any case, I don’t like platforms where I’m not in charge of content (that’s a story for another day), and so thought I should document my thoughts here on my blog. And I did so last night. At over 1200 words, it’s twice as long as my average blogpost (it tired me so much that the initial version, which went on my RSS feed, had a massive typo in the last line!).

And while I was writing that, I realised that the tone in the blog post was very different from what I sounded like in my famous tweetstorm. In my post (at least by my own admission, though a couple of friends have agreed with me), I sound reasonable and measured. I pleasantly build up the argument and explain what I wanted to explain with a few links and some data. I’m careful about not taking political sides, and everything. It’s how good writing should be like.

Now go read my tweetstorm:

Notice that right from the beginning I’m snide. I’m bossy. I come across as combative. And I inadvertently take sides here and there. Overall, it’s bad writing. Writing that I’m not particularly proud of, though it gave me some “rewards”.

I think that’s inherent to the art form. While you can use as many tweets as you like, you have a 280 character limit in each. Which means that each time you’re trying to build up an argument, you find yourself running out of characters, and you attempt to “finish your argument quickly”. That means that each individual tweet can come across as too curt or “to the point”. And ¬†when you take a whole collection of curt statements, it’s easy to come across as rude.

That is possibly true of most tweetstorms. However good your intention is when you sit down to write them, the form means that you will end up coming across as rude and highly opinionated. Nowadays, people seem to love that (maybe they’ve loved it all the time, and now there is an art form that provides this in plenty), and so tweetstorms can get “picked up” and amplified and you become popular. However, try reading it when you’re yourself in a pleasant and measured state, and you find that most tweetstorms are unreadable, and constitute bad writing.

Maybe I’m writing this blogpost because I’m loyal to my “native art form”. Maybe my experience with this artform means that I write better blogs than tweetstorms. Or maybe it’s simply all in my head. Or that blogs are “safe spaces” nowadays – it takes effort for people to leave comments on blogs (compared to replying to a tweet with abuse).

I’ll leave you with this superb old article from The Verge on “how to tweetstorm“.

Footage

So after a fifteen year gap, I was in the Times of India yesterday, writing about the joys of working from home (I’d shared the clipping yesterday, sharing it again). The interesting thing is that this piece got me the kind of attention that I very rarely got with my six ¬†years with the HT Media family (Mint and Hindustan Times).

The main reason, I guess, that this got far more footage, was that it came in a newspaper with a really high circulation. ToI is by far the number one English newspaper in India. While HT may be number two, we don’t even know how much of a number two it is, since it seemingly didn’t participate in the last Indian Readership Survey.

Moreover, ToI is read widely by people in my network. While the same might be true of Mint (at least until its distribution in Bangalore went kaput), it was surely not the case with HT. I didn’t know anyone who read the paper, and since my articles mostly never appeared online, they seemed to go into a black hole.

Another reason why my article got noticed so widely was the positioning in the paper – it was part of ToI’s massively extended “page one” (it came on the back of the front page, which was full of advertisements). So anyone who picked up the paper would have seen this in the first “real page of news” (though this page was filled with analysis of working from home).

On top of all this, I think my mugshot accompanying the article made a lot of difference. While the title of the article itself might have been missed by a few, my photo popping out of there (it helps I have the same photo on my Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and WhatsApp – thanks Anuroop) ensured that anyone who paid remote attention to my face would end up reading the article, and that helped me get further reach among my existing network.

ToI is going to pay me a nominal amount for this article, far less than what Mint or HT used to pay me per piece (then again, this one is completely non-technical), but I don’t seem to mind it at all. That it’s given me much more reach among my network means that I’m satisfied with ToI’s nominal payment.

Thinking about it, if we think of newspapers as three-sided markets connecting writers, readers and advertisers, it is possible that others who write for ToI do so for below market prices as well, for it has an incredibly large reach among “people like us”. And that sets the size-related network effects (“flywheel” as silicon valley types like to call it) in action among the writer side as well -you don’t write for money along, and if it can be sort of guaranteed that a larger number of people will read what you write, you will be willing to take lower payment.

In any case, this ToI thingy was a one-off (the last time I’d written for them was way back in 2005, when I was a student – it’s incredible I’ve given this post the same title as that one. I guess I haven’t grown up). But I may not mind doing more of such stuff for them. The more obscure the paper, though, the higher I’ll be inclined to charge! Oh, and henceforth, I’ll insist my mugshot goes with everything I write, even if that lowers my monetary fees.

 

Newsletter!

So after much deliberation and procrastination, I’ve finally started a newsletter. I call it “the art of data science” and the title should be self-explanatory. It’s pure unbridled opinion (the kind of which usually goes on this blog), except that I only write about one topic there.

I intend to have three sections and then a “chart of the edition” (note how cleverly I’ve named this section to avoid giving much away on the frequency of the newsletter!). This edition, though, I ended up putting too much¬†harikathe, so I restricted to two sections before the chart.

I intend to talk a bit each edition about some philosophical part of dealing with data (this section got a miss this time), a bit on data analysis methods (I went a bit meta on this this time) and a little bit on programming languages (which I used for bitching a bit).

And that I plan to put a “chart of the edition” means I need to read newspapers a lot more, since you are much more likely to find gems (in either direction) there than elsewhere. For the first edition, I picked off a good graph I’d seen on Twitter, and it’s about Hull City!

Anyway, enough of this meta-harikathe. You can read the first edition of the newsletter here. In case you want to get it in your inbox each week/fortnight/whenever I decide to write it, then subscribe here!

And put feedback (by email, not comments here) on what you think of the newsletter!

Equity financing of books

A rather uncharitable view of the book advances that legacy publishing houses give out to established (non first-time) authors is to look at it as “convertible debt”, as this piece by Matthew Yglesias points out.

An advance is bundled with a royalty agreement in which a majority of the sales revenue is allocated to someone¬†other¬†than the author of the book. In its role as venture capitalist, the publisher is effectively issuing what‚Äôs called convertible debt in corporate finance circles ‚ÄĒ a risky loan that becomes an ownership stake in the project if it succeeds.

Now, as I consider possibly self-publishing my book, while simultaneously attempting to sell it to established publishing houses, I realise that apart from the convertible debt, publishing a book also involves a massive sale of equity.

I’ve finished the manuscript, and edited it once. It needs further editing, but I’ve put it off so far in the hope that I can sell the book to a mainstream publisher, who will then take care of the publishing. However, given that I might end up self-publishing, and from what I read that publishers don’t do a great job of editing anyway, I might need another pass or two.

And then there are other things to be done before the book comes out in print – a cover needs to be designed, illustrations need to be put in, maybe we should get someone to do an audiobook, and all such. Now, if a mainstream publisher picks up the book, I’d expect them to take care of these. Else I’ll need to spend to get people to do these things for me.

When people first told me that royalties in book publishing are of the order of 7.5% of cover price,¬†it was a little hard to believe. However, looking at the costs involved in the publishing process, it’s not hard to see why publishers take the cut that they take. The problem, though, is that it involves you selling equity in your book.

By going for a mainstream publisher (rather than self-publishing), you are saving yourself the upfront cost of getting your book edited, designed and “typeset”, in exchange for a large portion of the equity of the book.

Looking at it in another way, you are trading in your limited downside (what you spend in designing, printing, etc.) for what might be a massively unlimited upside (in case my book is a runaway success). For the most part, considering that most books don’t do that well, it isn’t a very bad deal. However, considering that downside is limited (in terms of costs) I wonder if it makes sense to trade it in for a large stake of what could be a large upside.

In any case, the main reason I’m still pushing to get mainstream publishers is because the self-publishing market is a “market for lemons“. With barrier to entry not being too high, lots of bad books are self-published, and so anyone who thinks they’ve written a half decent book will try to find a mainstream publisher. And this further diminishes the average quality of self-published books. And further dissuades people like me from self-publishing!

 

Writing and depression

It is now a well-documented fact (that I’m too lazy to google and provide links) that there exists a relationship between mental illness and creative professions such as writing.

Most pieces that talk about this relationship draw the causality in one way – that the mental illness helped the writer (or painter or filmmaker or whoever) focus and channel emotions into the product.

Having taken treatment for depression in the past, and having just finished a manuscript of a book, I might tend to agree that there exists a relationship between creativity and depression. However, I wonder if the causality runs the other way.

I’ve mentioned here a couple of months back that writing a book is hard because you are working months together with little tangible feedback, and there’s a real possibility that it might flop miserably. Soncequently, you put fight to make the product as good as you can.

In the absence of feedback, you are your greatest critic, and you read, and re-read what you’ve written; you edit, and re-edit your passages until you’re convinced that they’re as good as they can be.

You get obsessed with your product. You start thinking that if it’s not perfect it is all doomed. You downplay the (rather large) random component that might affect the success of the product, and instead focus on making it as perfect as you can.

And this obsession can drive you mad. There are days when you sit with your manuscript and feel useless. There are times when you want to chuck months’ effort down the drain. And that depresses you. And affects other parts of your life, mostly negatively!

Again it’s rather early that I’m writing this blog post now – at a time when I’m yet to start marketing my book to publishers. However, it’s important that I document this relationship and causality now – before either spectacular success or massive failure take me over!

On writing a book

While I look for publishers for the manuscript that I’ve just finished (it’s in “alpha testing” now), I think it’s a good time to write about what it was like to write the book. Now, I should ideally be writing this after it has been published and declared a grand success.

But there are two problems with that. Firstly, the book may not be a success of any kind. Secondly, it will be way too long after having finished it to remember what it was like to write it. In fact, a week after the first draft, I’ve almost already forgotten what it was like. So I’m writing this now.

  1. Writing is a full-time job. I got this idea for the book in October 2014 when I was visiting Barcelona for the first time. I wrote the outline in November 2014. Despite several attempts to write, nothing came out of it.

    During a break from work in October 2015 I managed to get started, but I’ve re-written all that I wrote then. Part-time effort doesn’t just cut it. It wasn’t until I came to Barcelona in February that I could focus completely on the book and write it.

  2. You need discipline.¬†This probably doesn’t need to be explicitly stated, but writing a book, unlike writing a blog post, is a fighter process, and you need a whole load of discipline and focus. After a week or two of preparing the outline, I prepared fairly strict deadline regarding when I would finish the book. I had to reset the deadline a couple of times, but finally managed it.
  3. There is no feedback. I think I wrote about this a few days back. The big problem with writing a book is that you spend a significant amount of effort before even a small fraction of your customers have seen the product. So you soldier on without any feedback, and it can occasionally be damn frustrating.
  4. You feel useless.¬†Writing a book can introduce tremendous amounts of self-doubt. One day you think you’ve completely cracked it, and your book will change the world. The next day you start wondering if there’s any substance at all to what you’re writing, and there’s any point in going ahead with it. On several occasions, I’ve had thoughts on abandoning it.
  5. Getting away helps.¬†The only reason I didn’t abandon the book when I had my bouts of self-doubt was that I was away in Barcelona with nothing else to do. It wasn’t as if I could ditch the book and find some work to do the next day. Being away meant that the TINA factor pushed me on. There was no alternative but to write the book.
  6. Getting in a draft is important. You are likely to have bad days when you’re writing. On those days you feel like giving up. On putting things off for another day. Reams have been written about great writers stalling their books for several days because they couldn’t find the “right word”. I don’t buy that.

    Found that when I’m in a rut, it’s better I simply push through and finish the chapter. Editing it later on is far easier than writing it again from scratch.

  7. There is a limit to how much you can write. When I said it’s a full time job you might think I spent 8 hours a day on the book. I took around 70 days to write it (including a 10-day vacation), and the draft weighs in at 75,000 words (I intend to cut it before publication). So it’s less than 1200 words per day on an average.

    That doesn’t sound like a lot, but trust me, writing on a continuous basis is quite hard. A lot of time goes in fact checks and in getting links (I don’t think I still have all the footnotes and endnotes I need for the book). Writing a book is far more complex than writing a blog post.

  8. Writing is tiring. This isn’t something I figured out while writing the 2000 odd posts I’ve put on this blog. When you’re writing a book, and for an audience, you realise that you get tired pretty quickly. I don’t think I was able to work more than four hours a day on any of my “writing days”. And four hour-days would leave me a zombie.
  9. You need a schedule, and a workplace. I did the pseud romantic thing. The entire book was written at this WiFi enabled cafe near my place in Barcelona. Pseud value apart, the point of having the workplace was that it brought a schedule and some discipline to my days. I would go there every morning on writing days (exact time varied), get a coffee and sit down to write. And not rise until I had finished my target for the session.

    Two days back I went there to work on something else. I figured I couldn’t – that cafe is now forever tied to my writing the book. The kind of focus required there was of a different kind.

I’ll stop for now. I hope to¬†republish this blog post once the book has hit the stands!

On cricket writing

This piece where Suveen Sinha of the Hindustan Times calls out Dhoni’s “joke” with respect to retirement has an interesting tailpiece:

When Dhoni was bantering with the Australian, the other journalists in the hall were laughing. They would, no sports journalist would want to be anything but nice to the formidable Indian captain. That’s why this piece had to be written by someone whose day job is to write on business and economy.

Looking at the reports of the incidents from both Sinha and EspnCricinfo’s standpoints, it is clear to me that Sinha’s view is more logical. That Dhoni’s calling of the journalist to the press conference table and cross-questioning him was unprofessional on the one hand and showed his lack of defences on the other.

Yet, the ending to Sinha’s piece also explains why other sports journalists have taken to lauding Dhoni’s view rather than critisicing him – for them, access to the Indian limited overs captain is important, and they wouldn’t like to damage that by taking an Australian colleague’s side.

The problem with a lot of sports journalism in general, and Indian cricket journalism in particular, is that jingoism and support for one’s team trumps objective reporting and analysis. One example of this was coverage from Indian and Australian newspapers of the Monkeygate scandal in 2007-08 (when Harbhajan Singh called Andrew Symonds a monkey).

More recently, there was the controversy about India losing games because of the tendency of Rohit Sharma (and Indian batsmen in general) to slow down in their 90s. Again, commentary about that took jingoistic tones, with the Indian sports media coming out strongly in favour of Sharma. There were reports defending his “commitment” and “grit” and all such flowery language sports journalists love, and that Glenn Maxwell’s comment was entirely unwarranted. Maxwell even backed down on his comments.

Data, however, showed that Maxwell need not have backed down on his comments. Some analysis based on ball-by-ball data that I published in Mint showed clearly that Indian batsmen do slow down in their 90s, and of all recent players, Sharma was the biggest culprit.

Indian batsmen slowing down in their 90s. My analysis for Mint
Rohit Sharma is among the biggest culprits in terms of slowing down in the 90s

The piece was a hit and was widely shared on social media. What was more interesting, however, was the patterns in which it was shared. For one, the editors at Mint loved it and shared it widely. It was also shared widely by mango people and people with a general interest in cricket.

The class of people which was conspicuous by its absence of commentary on my piece was sports journalists. While it could be reasoned that they didn’t see the piece (appearing as it did in a business publication, though I did send emails to some of them), my reasoning is that this piece didn’t gain much traction among them because it didn’t fit their priors, and didn’t fit the jingoistic narrative they had been building.

It is not necessary, though, that someone only shares pieces that they completely agree with – it is a fairly common practice to share (and abuse) pieces which you vehemently disagree with. The commentary I found about this piece was broadly positive – few people who had shared the piece disagreed with it.

My (untested) hypothesis on this is that this analysis flew in the face of all that mainstream sports journalists¬†had been defending over the previous¬†few days – that Maxwell’s comments were simply not true, or that Sharma was a committed cricketer, and all such hyperbole.¬†With data being harder to refute (only option being to poke holes in the analysis, but this analysis was rather straightforward), they chose to not give it further publicity.

Of course, I might be taking too much credit here, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that there is a problem with sports (and more specifically, cricket) writing. Oh, and as for the ultra-flowery language, I’ll save my comments for another day and another post.

 

 

Mythology, writing and evolution: Exodus edition

I watched half of Exodus: Gods and Kings last night (I’d DVRd it a few days back seeing it’s by Ridley Scott). The movie started alright, and the story was well told. Of Moses’s fight with Rameses, of Moses being found out, of his exile and struggle and love story and finding god on a mountain. All very nice and well within the realms of good mythology.

And then Moses decides to hear god’s word and goes to Memphis¬†to free his fellow Hebrews. There’s a conspiracy hatched. Sabotage begins. Standard guerrilla stuff that slaves ought to do to revolt against their masters. Up to that point in time I’d classified Exodus as a good movie.

And then things started getting bad. God told Moses that the latter wasn’t “doing enough” and god would do things his way. And so the Nile got polluted. Plants died. Animals died. Insects attacked. Birds attacked (like in that Hitchcock movie). ¬†What had been shaping up to be a good slave-revolt story suddenly went awry. The entire movie could be described by this one scene in Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark:

When you see the guy twirling the sword, you set yourself up for a good fight. And then Indiana just pulls out a gun and shoots him! As a subplot in that movie, it was rather funny. But if the entire plot of a movie centres around one such incident¬†(god sending the plague to Egypt, in this case), it’s hard to continue watching.

Checking out the movie on IMDB, I realised that it has a pretty low rating and didn’t recover its investment. While this is surprising given the reputation of Scott, and how the first part of the movie is set up and made, looking at the overall plot it isn’t that surprising. The problem with the movie is that it builds¬†on an inherently weak plot, so the failure is not unexpected.

It did not help that I was reading mythology, or a realistic mythological interpretation, earlier in the day – the English translation of SL Bhyrappa’s Parva. In that, Bhyrappa has taken an already complex epic, and added his own degrees of complexity to it by seeking to remove all divinity and humanise the characters. Each major character has a long monologue (I’m about a third into the book), which explores deep philosophical matters such as “what is Dharma”, etc.

While moving directly from humanised philosophical myth to unabashedly religious story might have prevented me from appreciating the latter, it still doesn’t absolve the rather simplistic nature of the latter myth. I admit I’m generalising based on one data point, not having read any Christian myth, but from this one data point, it seems Christian myth seems rather weak compared to Hindu or Greek or Roman myth.

My explanation for this is that unlike other myths, Christian myth didn’t have enough time to evolve before it was written down. While the oral tradition meant that much valuable human memory was wasted in mugging up stories and songs, and that transmission was never exact, it also meant that there was room for the stories to evolve. Having been transmitted through oral tradition for several centuries, Hindu, Greek and Roman stories were able to evolve and become stronger. Ultimately when they got written down, it was in much evolved “best of” form. In fact, some of these myths got written down in multiple forms which allowed them to evolve even after writing came by.

While writing saves human memory space and prevents distortions, it leaves no room for variations or improvisation. Since there is now an “original book”, and such books are determined to be “words of God”, there is no room for improvisation or reinterpretation.¬†So we are left with the same simplistic story that we started of with. I hope this explains why Exodus, despite a stud director, is a weak movie.