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My Friend Sancho

My first novel, My Friend Sancho, is now on the stands across India. It is a contemporary love story set in Mumbai, and was longlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize 2008. To learn more about the book, click here.


To buy it online from the US, click here.


I am currently on a book tour to promote the book. Please check out our schedule of city launches. India Uncut readers are invited to all of them, no pass required, so do drop in and say hello.


If you're interested, do join the Facebook group for My Friend Sancho


Click here for more about my publisher, Hachette India.


And ah, my posts on India Uncut about My Friend Sancho can be found here.


Bastiat Prize 2007 Winner

Category Archives: Blogging

The Big Deal About Blogging

This is the 14th installment of Viewfinder, my weekly column for Yahoo! India, and was published on July 29.

At about the time this column is published, I’ll be speaking at the Asian Bloggers and Social Media Conference in Kuala Lumpur. The organisers contacted me a few weeks ago and asked me to give a half-hour talk on blogging. My first reaction was, Oh no, what can I say about blogging that hasn’t been said already? The subject is so 2004, and anything one can say about it sounds obvious: Yes, blogs make the tools of publishing available to all of us, democratise free expression, and yada yada yada. Yawn.

I thought about it some more, though, and realised that the subject is a very personal one for me. Over the last seven years, blogging has changed my life. As a medium, it has offered me opportunities I did not have as a mainstream journalist. It has broadened and deepened my perspectives of the world around me. It has sharpened my craft as a writer. It has introduced me to ideas and people I’d never otherwise have known. How this has happened, how this medium can be so powerful as to have such an impact on my life, seemed worth exploring. So I agreed to give the talk, which is titled, What’s the big deal about Blogging?

A little background: In 2004, I was a mainstream journalist. I had worked in television and written for newspapers, and at the time was the managing editor of Cricinfo. It was a fun job, and a great place to work in, but I was itching to go beyond the usual formats offered to me of cricket coverage: the match reports, the analysis, the colour pieces, the features, the news reports. These were all categories with familiar templates, and not much scope to go beyond them. I was just beginning to read blogs from around the world, and thought I’d try this new medium. 23 Yards was born.

I had taken baby steps into the medium. I did not use a blogging software for 23 Yards, but improvised within the content management system that Cricinfo then had. Some of my posts, when I look back on them, make me cringe. There are parts that are wordy, preachy, self-important, self-conscious, and lacking of the economy I would come to pride in myself in the years to come.

In December 2004, I started winding up 23 Yards, having decided that I was sick of cricket, and needed to detox. I began India Uncut. I planned it as a filter-and-comment blog. Several times a day, I would link to pieces on the web that I found interesting, and share my views on them. I would intersperse that with ruminations on issues that mattered to me, and occasional reportage, when I was travelling and there was the scope for it.

At the end of that month, the tsunami struck Asia. A friend told me that he was going to travel down the coast of Tamil Nadu, and would be glad if I would accompany him. I accepted his offer, and for the next few days, we went from one tsunami-affected area to the other. I felt the need to write about those experiences, and rather than use my journalistic contacts to write about it for a newspaper or magazine, I chose to blog. I’d keep taking notes, and every time we saw a cyber cafe, we’d stop for a few minutes and I’d upload a few posts.

I returned home to find that my posts had been linked to by bloggers and mainstream publications across the world, and the traffic was stratospheric. Once the initial spike had settled down, I realised that I now had a regular readership. And as I continued to blog steadily, it continued to grow. It didn’t matter that I was nobody, that I was new to this, that India Uncut was so fresh into the world. As long as I consistently put out compelling content, I would have readers. The only limit on me was me.

That period taught me a few important lessons about blogging—and many more would follow in the years to come. I’ve summarised a few of them below. (Note that when I use the term ‘blogging’, I include much of ‘social media’ in it. Twitter is micro-blogging, after all, and I was writing posts of that length and Twitter-like frequency on IU before Twitter existed—many Facebook posts are also effectively blog posts.)

1. Blogging captures the moment. One of the most attractive things about blogging to a mainstream journalist is that it has immediacy, and is not a slave to news cycles. A newspaper journalist, if he sees something today, will find it published tomorrow. A blogger can put it out there within five minutes, and it can be read (and linked) around the world in ten. Today, when everyone’s using Twitter and newspapers handle their websites much better, this doesn’t seem like a big deal. But when I was travelling through coastal Tamil Nadu in 2004-05, in the aftermath of the tsunami, it was huge.

2. Blogging frees you from the dictates of length. In a newspaper or magazine, one is bound by word limits. But when you’re writing for the internet, word limit does not matter. Your posts can be as long as you want, and you do not have to trim needlessly or submit to a sub-editor somewhere doing so. Also, importantly, your posts can be as short as you want. Sometimes, you might want to share a simple thought or an anecdote, which would otherwise not bear expanding into a full-length piece. Blogs allow you that luxury. Consider, for example, these posts of mine from the time of the tsunami: 1, 2, 3, 4. What could I do with them if I wrote for a newspaper?

3. Blogs contain multitudes. A blog post can have added dimensions in ways that a print article can’t. For one, you can use hyperlinks to encompass immense content that might otherwise have to be explained to the reader. Because of that, the need to simplify or give context is reduced—and you provide a valuable service to your reader in the process. Two, whether or not a blog has comments enabled—some high-traffic blogs disable it because they can’t control the noise-to-signal ratio—a blog post or a tweet stands a high chance of becoming part of a larger conversation, with other bloggers linking to it, commenting on it, tearing it apart and so on. There is much value in this both for the reader and the blogger, who can grow intellectually if he has the humility to listen.

4. Blogging enables greater breadth of coverage. This point is especially important during a catastrophic event of such magnitude that it stretches the limits of traditional media. While newspapers and television channels struggled to cover the tsunami adequately with their limited resources, bloggers posted regular updates, and one now-defunct website even posted SMS updates that enterprising citizen journalists sent in. (Those were pre-Twitter days.) More recently, during 26/11, the most immediate coverage was to be found on Twitter, which provided a more vivid and powerful picture of proceedings than the TV channels could manage. Once the channels and newspapers got their act together, it was different, but in the immediate chaos that day, the best news was crowdsourced.

5. Blogging enables greater depth of coverage. The biggest problem with mainstream media, especially in India, is that journalists are generalists. They don’t have specialised knowledge about any subject, and consequently often get the nuances wrong, and are unable to cover any issue in great depth. The reason for this is simple: specialists are busy doing whatever they specialised in, which is, for them, more lucrative or satisfying than journalism. Where is their voice to be heard?

In blogs, that’s where. A specialist may not have time to write for a newspaper, but can certainly blog about the subject, at his own pace and convenience. This vastly improves the depth of coverage of practically any subject you can think of. As an example, see the difference economics blogs like Marginal Revolution, EconLog, Cafe Hayek and the Freakonomics Blog have made to the coverage of economics. Not only do you have specialists from across the spectrum expressing themselves on the subject, but there is also a continuous dialogue on these subjects, happening across blogs and Twitter streams and continents. We take such depth for granted today—but isn’t it astonishing?

6. Blogging keeps Mainstream Media honest. Much of the mainstream media, especially in India, is immune to criticism, but the Blogosphere (and the Twitterverse) does play the role of a watchdog of sorts. Bloggers have exposed plagiarism in the mainstream media (1, 2), regularly catch journalistic sloppiness, and all this attention surely plays a part in making journos (and their editors) wary of screwing up. It’s no panacea, of course, especially in India, where one of our biggest publishing houses continues selling editorial space despite years of screaming from all of us. But we’ll keep screaming, and one day we’ll be loud enough. I hope.

7. Blogging keeps bloggers honest. Bloggers need watchdogs as much as the mainstream media does, and the Blogosphere plays this self-regulating role. Every post you write, every errant sentence, is liable to be taken apart by a fellow blogger somewhere—especially if you write about hot-button topics like politics, economics or Himesh Reshammiya. Trust me, the criticism is never-ending, and while much of it can be superfluous, some of it can also be sharp and precise. The result of that is that you cannot slip up, and be sloppy in either your thinking or your writing.

8. Blogging enables the Long Tail of Opinion. Sorry for the jargon—and this is, again, a fairly obvious point. Blogs enable relatively rare strands of opinion to find their rightful constituency through the internet. Libertarianism in India, for example, was surely non-existent, or at best fragmented, before the internet came about. Thanks to my blogging, though, I discovered a host of fellow libertarians around me, met them in person, made friends with them. Since we kept blogging about our ideas, that way of thinking found an audience out there it would not otherwise have had. Since ideological opponents kept engaging us, we had to question, sharpen and refine those ideas, which made for much better dialogue all around. I use Indian libertarianism as just one example, but this is true for just about any kind of ideas out there—including the Cult of Cthulhu. Fhtagn, okay?

9. Blogging breaks down geographical barriers. This again sounds banal, but let me give you a concrete example of this. A few years ago, the Indian government, in its efforts to ban one particular Blogspot site they found objectionable, ended up blocking all of Blogspot. So suddenly, one day, tens of thousands of Indian blogs were inaccessible to Indian readers—and even their authors. Naturally we kicked up a fuss, and the matter got sorted out. But while that happened, guess who came to our rescue. A group of Pakistani bloggers got together and created and popularised proxies through which all these Blogspot blogs could be viewed by readers in India. (IIRC, they had been through similar censorship issues, and had the tools ready.) We were divided by geography and popular political rhetoric—but united in our commitment to free speech. Blogging enabled us to find (and support) each other.

10. Blogging can help you find your voice as a writer. When you write for a mainstream publication, you are bound by house style, and the whims of the editor or copy editors you work with. The copy you write is seldom quite the article that appears. A blog, on the other hand, is all you. It gives you the luxury of space and time to find and refine your own voice as a writer. You might initially be awkward and self-conscious—but as time passes, you will get into your groove. Pick any blogger who has been writing for a few years, compare his early posts with some recent ones, and you’ll see what I mean.

11. Blogging sharpens your craft as a writer. When you write a blog with one eye on building a readership, you cannot bullshit. At a functional level, your writing has to be spot on. Your readers have countless other things they could be doing with their lives, and hazaar links to click on if you bore them. You cannot be self-indulgent, and your prose cannot be flabby or long-winded.

When you write regularly for such readers, your writing is bound to improve. I wrote an average of five posts a day for the first few years of my blogging—my frequency has dipped alarmingly since, alas—and have probably written more than 8000 posts across blogs and platforms. That kind of practice is bound to have an impact on your writing. Many of my early posts make me cringe today, and I’ve clearly improved hugely as a writer. And as I keep writing, hopefully I will keep improving. (Also see: Give Me 10,000 Hours.)

12. Blogging rewards merit. As I learned after my coverage of the tsunami, the blogosphere is meritocratic. Not only is there no entry barrier, all you need to do to build a readership is consistently produce compelling content. It is my belief that writers on the internet invariably get the audience their work deserves. (Size may not always be an indicator of quality, as a good niche blog may have less readers than a so-so mainstream blog, but my point is that it will find its potential readership.) The internet is viral, social media is social (duh!), and the word gets around.

13. Blogging expands your world. From a reader’s perspective, the sheer variety of content that blogging enables introduces one to ideas and content we may not otherwise have come across otherwise. There’s a lot of such content out there, and over time we find out own filters to navigate this content. Thanks to blogs, I’ve learned much more about the world than I otherwise would have.

From a blogger’s perspective, the world expands as much. Most of my close friends today are people I met through blogging—many of them also bloggers. At a personal level, this is what I cherish most in my journey as a blogger—the people I have met, the friends I have made. Much as I mock the term, maybe there is something to be said for ‘social’ media after all.


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Earlier pieces on blogging:

In Defence of Blogging

Blogging Tips From a Jaded Veteran

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Previously on Viewfinder

The Oddly Enough Species

The Beautiful Game of Poker

Beauty and the Art of Winning

Football and a Comic Marriage

Beware of the Cronies

Indian Liberals and Colour Pictures

We are All Gamblers

Homeopathic Faith

Give Me 10,000 Hours

Match ka Mujrim

The Man with the Maruti 800

Internet Hindus and Madrasa Muslims

The Hazards of Writing a Column

Posted by Amit Varma on 02 August, 2010 in Blogging | Essays and Op-Eds | Journalism | Media | Personal | Viewfinder


Vir Sanghvi’s Cognitive Dissonance

Reader Mani Shankar writes in to point me to a post by Vir Sanghvi in which he hits out at people “who blog and tweet”. I have three things to say about it:

1] Sanghvi criticises bloggers and blogging… in a blog post. Is there not a little bit of dissonance there? If he is blogging, he is a blogger. And yet, his criticism doesn’t seem directed at himself.

2] He attacks a straw man and generalises madly. He’s upset because some bloggers “complain that the media are only interested in circulation and viewership (or TRPs)”. (He doesn’t link to any of them.) He finds this criticism invalid, so he generalises about how bloggers “regard themselves as an elite.” Which bloggers? All bloggers? Me also? Him also?

This is as silly as my attacking the writing skills of Indian journalists because some journalists mix metaphors. It would be fallacious of me to generalise in that manner, and far more productive for me to link to a specific journalist whose writing falls in that category—as I did a few days ago with poor Bobilli. Should I have generalised about Indian journalism on the basis of Bobilli’s writing?

3] Finally, when people (bloggers or otherwise) criticise the media for chasing TRPs, they are effectively criticising them for catering to the lowest common denominator. Sanghvi attacks them for feeling this way, and calls them an elite. But hey, wait a second, what about when journalists criticize politicians for the exact same thing? As when Sanghvi himself writes:

If we are led by the lowest common denominator then that is where we will remain in the community of nations: at the lowest level, without any hope of catching up with the rest of the world.

The “elite bloggers” Sanghvi mocks presumably hold the same sentiment about our media. Can Sanghvi not take his own medicine?

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There’s another response on Sanghvi’s post over at Retributions. I think this is by one of those “pseudonymous bloggers” Sanghvi is so upset about. Heh. Correction: The post is by Rohit Pradhan, who’s not been pseudonymous for a while now, I’m told.

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Also read: An old piece by me, “In Defence of Blogging.”

Posted by Amit Varma on 22 January, 2010 in Blogging | Journalism | Media | WTF


Blogging Tips From a Jaded Veteran

A couple of years ago, Penguin asked me to contribute a chapter on a book they were bringing out for kids giving them writing advice. The book, Get Smart—Writing Skills, is in bookstores now. I contributed a chapter with tips on writing a blog. It basically contains lessons that I’ve learnt over my five years and 7000+ posts on India Uncut—but it need not apply to anyone else. Still, in case someone finds it useful, here it is.

Writing a blog can be the most enjoyable kind of writing you do. There are no restrictions on a blogger: you can write as many or as few words as you want, and there is no one correcting or editing your writing, saying ‘write like this’ or ‘write like that’. What’s more, you can write about anything you like, and are not restricted by subject or style.

If you wish to write a blog for your own satisfaction, and don’t care about building a readership, then you don’t need to read the rest of this piece. Write whatever you feel like, and more power to you.

But if you want to be a widely-read blogger, with regular readers who take time off every day to read your blog, then you need to work hard at it. The reason for this is the nature of the medium.

When readers buy a book, they are mentally prepared to spend a large amount of time with it. When they pick up a magazine or a newspaper, they are less patient, but there is still some commitment there. When readers visit a website, on the other hand, they are probably doing many other things at the same time. They could be chatting with people, sending and receiving emails, perhaps playing a game somewhere — and other websites might also be open, in various windows or tabs. Your blog is competing with all these distractions. If your writing does not grip your readers’ attention and keep them engrossed, they will move away to something else just by clicking their mouse.

To be a successful blogger, thus, there is just one rule you need to remember: Respect your reader’s time. Any advice I can give you on writing a widely-read blog flows from that one rule.

Here are some of the things I have learnt about blogging.

KEEP IT CRISP
There is nothing as intimidating to an Internet surfer as pages and pages of text, or long, wordy paragraphs. Your friends and relatives may suffer through it, but why should a stranger? Keep your content as crisp as possible. Use the shortest, most common words possible. Use simple sentences. Make sure each sentence adds something to what you are trying to say: otherwise, cut it out.

DON’T SHOW OFF
The most common mistake an aspiring writer can make is to show off his writing skills. Do not do this. Writing is merely a means to an end: people write to tell stories, express points of view, and so on. It should be as simple as possible. If a reader actually notices your writing and says, ‘Wow, this is so well written,’ then you are not writing well. Your writing should not be the focus of the blog — what you are writing about should be. Style should be a slave to substance.

ASK YOURSELF WHY YOU ARE WRITING YOUR BLOG
Are you writing it because you are passionate about a particular subject? Do you think you have a unique take on things that you want to communicate? Do you like telling stories? If you are clear about why you are blogging, it will make you a better blogger.

WHO ARE YOU WRITING FOR?
It will help you write smoothly if you can imagine your ideal reader. Here’s a trick I use sometimes when I am stuck in the middle of writing a difficult piece: I pretend that I am sending an email to a friend. That helps me finish what I am writing without getting too stressed out about it. One can always polish the piece later.

ADD A LITTLE OF YOURSELF TO THE POST
There are millions of blogs out there, and there is only one thing unique about your blog: You. Try and add a little of yourself to every post you write. It could be a point of view; it could be an anecdote you share related to the subject of your blogging; it could even be just a wisecrack. Your blog is the one space where you can share yourself with the world—don’t hold back.

BE REGULAR—BUT DON’T FORCE YOURSELF
If you want to build an audience of regular readers, you need to blog regularly. They should keep coming back for more - and get something when they come back. Remember, even a small thought lasting one sentence is enough for a post, so don’t hold yourself back.

Equally, don’t blog just for the sake of it. If you are bored of blogging, your readers will get bored of reading you. You may force yourself to write, but your readers won’t force themselves to read. When the juices aren’t flowing, give it a rest.

DON’T BE SCARED TO TRY NEW THINGS
Want to experiment with your writing a bit? This is a good space to do so. When I was a cricket journalist, my boss once told me, ‘If in doubt, play your shots.’ I’d give you the same advice. You never know what you may find out about yourself - and trust me, any regular readers you have won’t mind.

USE PROPER ENGLISH
Contractions and short forms may be convenient when one is sending SMSs, but they should be avoided when you write a blog. I say this not because I am an old-fashioned purist, but because SMS-speak is simply harder to read. Contrast these two sentences: ‘grt meeting u, c u l8r’ and ‘Great meeting you, see you later.’ I don’t know about you, but I find that I have to pause and interpret the first sentence, and the second is easier to read. Why would you want to make your reader work harder than he needs to?

USE LINKS
The more value you will provide to your readers, the more they will come back to your blog. The greatest service you can provide to your readers is by expanding their knowledge. The easiest way to do this is by using links. The beauty of the Internet is that a single site can contain multitudes: in a single paragraph, you can put a number of useful links to the subjects you are talking about that your readers find interesting and enlightening.

Don’t worry about your readers leaving your site by clicking on a link. If they find the link to be of any value, they will automatically credit your blog for it, and come back to read your next post. But don’t overdo the links. An overuse of links leaves the page looking ugly and cluttered, and confuses the reader. Remember, respect the reader’s time.

DON’T TREAT THE READER LIKE A FOOL
Too many bloggers, drunk on the power they feel while blogging, talk down to their readers. Do not do this. Treat your readers as if they are as smart as you, if not smarter. If you have comments, don’t behave like a king granting an audience to minions. Be respectful of others’ opinions and points of view. As a friend of mine once told me, ‘Speak as if you are right; but listen as if you are wrong.’

NEVER GET PERSONAL
Inevitably, while blogging, you will enter discussions. These could be in your own comments space, or in someone else’s. Many such discussions become ugly because they get personal. While conversation is generally a win-win situation, as all parties concerned learn a little more, discussions that are personal are just the opposite - everybody feels bitter and angry, and they are a waste of time.

So what to do in a situation like that? Simply remember to focus on the argument, and not the person. Do not question his motives, his intelligence or his parentage. Just state your point of view without reference to the person you’re arguing with. Do it simply and crisply, and neutral readers will be inclined to agree with you. Even if they don’t, they will at least respect you.

DON’T BETRAY CONFIDENCES
A lot of bloggers treat blogs like personal diaries, and write about their lives. There’s nothing wrong in that. But we should remember to respect the privacy of others when we do that. Before we blog a conversation with someone, or quote from an email we received, we should take permission. If something is in a public space, like a concert we went to or a blog post we read, then we can write about it freely. But if it is private, it should stay private.

This rule doesn’t affect your readership. If you blog juicy gossip about your friends and classmates, your blog may attract a few readers. But your friends, if you have any, will be careful of what they say in your presence. You will not be trusted, and once the juicy gossip disappears, so will your readers.

DON’T CLUTTER YOUR PAGE
Writing a blog is not just about writing. When we are in a bookshop, we are always more inclined to pick up a beautiful book than an ugly one. Similarly, your blog should be clean and easy to read. Don’t clutter the sidebar with too many links or widgets, as fledgling bloggers tend to do. You or your readers won’t use most of them, and they will add clutter to the page. Link to all your friends and the blogs you like to read, but ask yourself if the other things you are adding serve a purpose. For example, some bloggers add a clock to their sidebar. When every computer displays the time anyway, this is redundant.

USE PICTURES
Whenever you can, use a picture with your post. It makes the site look colourful and vibrant. However, make sure that the picture you use is not someone else’s property. Use pictures in the public domain. If you do use a picture without being sure of whether it’s okay to use it, add a link at the end of the post acknowledging where you got the picture from. Isn’t that the minimum you would ask for if someone used pictures taken by you?

DO IT ONLY IF IT’S FUN
This is my last piece of advice, and possibly the most important one. If you don’t enjoy yourself, your readers won’t enjoy reading your blog. Blogging won’t make you a millionaire, so you should only blog if you love doing it. If it’s fun for you, then all of the above advice might be redundant, for the act of writing a blog will be its own reward. So log on and have a blast!

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Box 1—Web Design

• Do not clutter your page. Keep it clean and easy to read.

• Organize the content well. Make it easy for the reader to find anything on your site.

• Make sure your site loads quickly.

• Do not use fancy or colourful fonts. The text should be easy to read.

• Go easy on the graphics. White space is good.

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Box 2—Traffic Generation

• Write about things that interest you. If they don’t interest you, what you write on them will interest no one else.

• Join conversations on other blogs. If you add value, people will check out your blog.

• Link to bloggers you like. If they also like you, they’ll link back. This is called link karma.

• Use tags and/or categories for every post. This makes posts on any subject easier to find.

• Be topical. If you blog about a subject in the news, people are more likely to stumble upon your blog.

• Blog often. You won’t get regular readers if you blog irregularly.

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Box 3—The Secret to a Good Post

• Write about something you know. Lack of knowledge is easily exposed on the Internet.

• Write about things you feel strongly about.

• Your post should have something only you can provide, be it opinion, humour or whatever else. Otherwise why should anyone read it?

• Increase the reader’s gyan by providing relevant links.

• Be crisp. Don’t waste the reader’s time. Keep it simple.

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Box 4—Copyright Law

• Everything on the Internet is copyrighted by default. Even material without a copyright notice.

• Do not reproduce anyone’s posts in full without asking and attributing.

• Quoting people is okay. But always attribute and link back.

• For your own content, use a copyright notice. (Example: Copyright © 2009 [Your name].) Even without this, your original writing is copyrighted to you, but there’s no harm in making it explicit.

• If you don’t mind your content being used by others under certain conditions, choose a Creative Commons license that suits your purpose.

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There’s another largish box after this that speaks about the different kinds of blogs I like to read. I’ve mentioned people like Prem Panicker, Amit Agarwal, Nilanjana Roy, Sanjay Sipahimalani, Nitin Pai, Jai Arjun Singh and Chandrahas Choudhury, as well as Sepia Mutiny. I hope they are overwhelmed by an army of kiddie readers now.

Posted by Amit Varma on 20 August, 2009 in Blogging | Personal


Frequently Asked Questions About MFS

While I was on my MFS book tour, the same questions about the book and me kept cropping up in all the cities I went to, from journos and from the audiences at the launches. I thought it would make sense for IU and MFS readers if I collected some of them and answered them here as well. These frequently asked questions are collected on this page, which will be expanded as more questions come in. You can also check out my bio page, and this interview. Meanwhile, here on the IU Blog as well, here’s the first set of questions:

On Indian writing in English, and where MFS fits in

There is an unfortunate gap in India between popular fiction and literary fiction. Readers of literary fiction look down on popular fiction and think of it as infra dig; and readers of popular fiction are intimidated by literary fiction, by any indication of heft or gravitas or self-indulgence. An Amitav Ghosh reader won’t read Chetan Bhagat; and vice versa.

I’d like my work to appeal to both kinds of readers. Plenty of Japanese writers manage to bridge this gap in their country, and writers like Banana Yoshimoto, Haruki Murakami and Yoko Ogawa are both critically acclaimed as well as wildly popular. There aren’t any writers like that in India writing in English, creating compelling narratives that are both entertaining and thought-provoking. I hope to fill that space with my novels. Whether or not MFS lives up to that is for readers to judge.

On whether I am a blogger or a novelist

I’ve wanted to be a novelist all my life—since I began to read, I wanted to tell stories, and I can’t remember ever wanting to be anything else. I did various other things along the way, procrastinating furiously. In 2001, I took some time off and tried writing a book, but after 10,000 words, realised that it wasn’t working, and that I wasn’t ready for it yet, either in terms of craft or maturity. I bided my time till I was ready, and then eventually did get down to it. My Friend Sancho is my first baby-step in my career as a novelist. I don’t see myself doing anything else, ever.

Some readers of IU see me as a blogger-turned-novelist, as if I became successful as a blogger, found that I had a readership, and then decided to write a book. This couldn’t be further from the truth. I’ve wanted nothing else in my life but to write novels, and blogging was just something that happened along the way.

Two of the four publishers who wanted MFS didn’t even know I blogged. The blog was irrelevant in that scheme of things, and my book found its way into the world on its own merit. I hope that is also how readers evaluate it.

On how blogging made me a better writer

I think of the facility to write as akin to a muscle. Just as working out daily in the gym increases one’s fitness, regular writing makes one a better writer. Blogging amounted to exercising my ‘writing muscle’ every day. I used to be a frequent blogger, and for much of my time as a blogger, have averaged about five posts a day. (I once put up 22 posts in a day; yes, I needed to get a life.) That’s a lot of working out.

Blogging also taught me one of the most important lessons of writing: Respect your reader’s time. When someone is online reading your blog, there are a thousand other things they can do with their time. The whole world is just a click away. If you’re self-indulgent, if you waffle, if you use 10 words where five will do, boom, they’re gone. To build a readership, you have to keep giving your readers value for their time. Blogging made my writing crisper, more economical, and less self-conscious. I’d like to think that these values reflect in the other writing I do.

On why I gave up journalism

I felt that writing a novel needed me to devote myself to the fictional world I was creating, and weekly deadlines for columns and suchlike got in the way. I had to make a choice, and so I chose to give up journalism. The process of writing MFS confirmed to me that writing fiction was my natural domain, and I don’t intend to return to journalism now.

Also, writing columns and op-eds require a different mindset from tackling literature. In opinion pieces, one is expected to pass judgments on things, to paint the world in black and white. Literature gives us more scope to acknowledge the real world’s complexities, and to explore its ambiguities. I rather prefer the latter—you won’t find me passing judgement on any of my characters in MFS, or in future books. No matter who the character is, there but for the grace of the FSM go we.

On why my blogging and journalistic concerns are not reflected in my novel

I blog a lot about economics and politics, and my columns were also on those subjects. But you will not find me talking about these subjects in MFS. Indeed, reading MFS will tell you nothing about my ideology or my political leanings, which is as it should be. Literature is about human beings, and, to use a much-abused phrase with a pomposity alert, the human condition. A book that pushes an ideology is, in my view, not literature but propaganda. You won’t find any of that coming from me.

On whether MFS is autobiographical

My Friend Sancho is not autobiographical, and Abir Ganguly isn’t me. I’ve never worked in a newsroom, or as a crime reporter, and none of the events in the book have happened to me. As a person, Abir is quite different from me, though his sense of humour is a bit like mine.

Writers are often wisely told, ‘Write about what you know.’ I’ve lived in Mumbai since 1995, and love this city and know it well, so obviously I set the novel here. And I know a fair bit about journalism as well, so that was also a natural choice for Abir. That said, Abir has no more in common with me than with any Mumbai journalist.

It could be argued, though, that the character of the lizard is based on me. To begin with, we’re both unnoticed observers of the world with an unusual perspective. And then there’s the reptilian looks. Also… ok, I’ll stop here.

On the voice of the book

The book is a first-person narrative from the point of view of Abir Ganguly, this immature, 23-year-old, smart-alecky reporter given to glib wisecracks. The voice of the book, thus, is his voice. As the story proceeds, and he is taken out of his comfort zone by his attraction to a girl he would not have noticed in normal circumstances, he changes in subtle ways, and begins to see the world slightly differently. This change in Abir is at the heart of this book—it is a coming-of-age story.

Every book has its own voice depending on what it’s about, and pov. My second novel is a third-person narrative starring an IAS officer in his late 40s living in a city in Central India, and will read quite differently.

More Q&A will follow on the FAQ page. If you have any questions of your own, send ‘em in. I can’t promise to answer all the questions I get, but will do so for any that haven’t already been addressed, and that seem to be of interest to many of my readers.

Posted by Amit Varma on 22 May, 2009 in Blogging | My Friend Sancho | Personal


The 50 Most Powerful People In India

Business Week has just come out with a feature entitled “India’s 50 Most Powerful People 2009”. India Uncut readers will be pleased to know that I’m on that list. I come between Sachin Tendulkar and Lalu Prasad Yadav, and am not quite sure how to respond to that honour. What have I done to deserve this?

I was quite surprised, and much delighted, when I heard that I was on the list. I’m not sure I deserve to be there, but I guess my inclusion is Business Week‘s nod to the potential that blogs have for shaping public opinion, as also to the power of words in general—my columns for Mint, and otherwise, have been cited as a reason for my inclusion. I get quite cynical sometimes about the alleged power of words, and it’s nice to see that others are more optimistic. I hope they’re right.

This immense honour means that now I have to display gravitas and responsibility, and blog about serious matters that affect the nation. No more cows, no more WTFness, no more sex, no more imaginary dialogue. I’m going to be a full-on pundit now.

Ok, chill, I’m not.

*

In case you’re wondering why I come so far down the list, it’s because it is displayed by alphabetical order of last name. Heh.

*

And just take a look at Lalu’s magnificent ear hair. I don’t like his politics, but man, he is one stud machine, he is. No?

Posted by Amit Varma on 18 April, 2009 in Blogging | India | Journalism | Media | News | Personal


Raju vs Raju

Rohan D’Sa compares Venkatapathy Raju and Ramalinga Raju—or the ‘Spin Twins’, as he calls them.

It’s interesting how so many rocking Indian blogs, like those by Rohan, Ramesh, Anand, Saad, Krish and, of course, the venerable Arnab, are so strong on humour. And none of these dudes are frivolously funny—they provoke thought as much as they cause laughter. Given what Manjula Padmanabhan once said about the need for humour, could this flourishing of comic bloggers indicate that we live in depressing times?

Posted by Amit Varma on 12 January, 2009 in Blogging | India | Small thoughts


LK Advani Starts A Blog

One of the many grand old men of India politics, LK Advani, has started blogging. In his first post, he says that his “young colleagues” have convinced him that “a political portal without a blog is like a letter without a signature.” He also tells us this wonderful story:

In the first general election, when as a 25-year-old political activist I campaigned in Rajasthan for the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, which had been founded in the previous year by Dr. Syama Prasad Mukherjee, even printing a rudimentary handbill was a novelty. Let me recount an interesting incident here. My party had entrusted me with the responsibility of managing the campaign in Kotputli. After studying the problems of the region, I prepared some literature explaining how the Jana Sangh would try to solve these problems if the people elected our candidate. I had also brought copies of the party’s manifesto for Rajasthan.

I reached the constituency about a month before the polling and resolved to remain there until the elections were over. As I began unloading the poll literature that I had brought from Jaipur, I saw our candidate standing at a distance and watching me bemusedly. I was half his age at the time, but he addressed me very respectfully and said, “Advaniji, would you like me and my workers to distribute this literature in the constituency? But where is the need for it? This manifesto and these pamphlets are totally useless in our election strategy. We would have to spend a lot of time and energy in distributing them. If you insist, we will do it. But that will not fetch us even a single additional vote.”

He then added: “Let me tell you one thing, Advaniji. No one can defeat me in this election. This is a predominantly Gujar constituency. And I am the only Gujar in the contest.” His next statement opened my eyes even further regarding the reality of elections in India. “Firstly, every single Gujar who goes to the polling booth is going to vote for me simply because I am a Gujar. Secondly, a majority of non-Gujars will also cast their votes for me because they know that in this constituency I am the most likely winner. They would not like to waste their vote by giving it to a losing candidate!”

I’m no fan of Advani or the BJP, but I think it’s an excellent sign that he’s blogging—I hope his posts are honest, and true to himself, and not exercises in public relations. All blogs by public figures reveal a lot about them, sometimes even in what they choose not to write about, and I hope that some of our younger politicians get online as well.

That said, I really don’t want to see Narendra Modi’s Flickr account. Can you imagine that?

Posted by Amit Varma on 10 January, 2009 in Blogging | India | Media | News | Politics


India Uncut Is Nominated In The 2008 Weblog Awards

I’m pleased to inform you that India Uncut has been nominated in two categories at the 2008 Weblog Awards:

Best Asian Blog.
Best Political Coverage.

As far as I can tell, it is the only blog written out of India to be nominated in any category. It is also one of a handful of blogs nominated in more than one category. And will it win a prize? That’s in your hands, kind reader.

Wins are decided by voting, and readers are allowed to vote once every 24 hours, so if you enjoy reading India Uncut, go forth and vote. The category I have great hopes of is Best Asian Blog, so do vote there wholeheartedly. I’m most unlikely to win Best Political Coverage, where giants like Daily Kos, Townhall and Politico have also been nominated, but hell, we’re the world’s largest democracy, we know how to vote, so do vote there as well.

Interestingly, I seem to be the only nominee in that category writing about non-American politics, so I guess that’s an honour in itself. My posts on politics are here.

The 2008 Weblog Awards

Posted by Amit Varma on 06 January, 2009 in Blogging | Personal


The Pundit (And Desi Pundit)

Two quick plugs:

1] Girish Shahane, who used to write a column for Time Out Mumbai, was one of my favourite Indian columnists, for his crisp insights and analysis of contemporary culture. I always wondered what kind of blog he would write—and now we’re going to find out. Girish has ended his column and begun a blog, Shoot First, Mumble Later, that I have very high expectations from. Watch that space.

2] Four years ago, I had the pleasure of welcoming Desi Pundit to life. It has now been reborn in a new avatar, which young Patrix elaborates on here. Once again, I wish them all the best. May a thousand blog posts bloom.

Posted by Amit Varma on 05 January, 2009 in Blogging | India | Media


Haruki Murakami And Charlie Parker

Ligaya Mishan goes to see Haruki Murakami at the New Yorker Festival:

[Murakami] began by telling the story of a jazzman who, when accused of playing “just like Charlie Parker,” handed his saxophone to his critic and said, “Here—you try playing like Charlie Parker.” He said that we should draw three conclusions from this:

1. Criticizing somebody is fun and easy.

2. Meanwhile, creating something original is very hard.

3. But somebody’s got to do it.

I know many bloggers who take point 1 very seriously—and stop right there.

Posted by Amit Varma on 09 October, 2008 in Arts and entertainment | Blogging


The Power of Blogging

This is an interesting piece of reportage:

Mithun would never speak out openly against Amitabh and fear incurring his wrath especially now that he has started blogging.

Ignore the grammar—that sentence confirms what I’ve always suspected: Blogging is a powerful tool in the hands of the powerful. That means little for the rest of us, who blog to indulge ourselves. There’s nothing wrong with that at all. What else is life about?

(Link via email from Rajeev Mantri.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 14 May, 2008 in Arts and entertainment | Blogging | India | News


Blogospheric Manners

The quote of the day comes from Andrew Sullivan to Jeffrey Goldberg:

Calling you an asshole is just the blogosphere’s way of saying hello.

So what I thought was either envy or cussedness on the part of a few people was clearly just conviviality. Well, it’s not too late. Hi there! Assholes!

(Link via email from Arun Simha.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 30 April, 2008 in Blogging


The Utility of Blogs

XKCD is priceless:

(Link via Language Log.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 22 April, 2008 in Blogging | Miscellaneous


A Complete Package

The SMS of the day comes from Peter Griffin:

On the flight with Annie and Chandrahas. If it gets hijacked, you’ll get live blogging, news and reviews.

Heh. And if I may add to that, all three of the highest quality.

PS: They’re headed here.

Posted by Amit Varma on 17 April, 2008 in Blogging


Amit Agarwal Blogs, Honda CR-V Comes

“Google AdSense and Blogging Brought Me This Car,” reveals Amit Agarwal. It’s a Honda CR-V. It couldn’t be more well-deserved, and it couldn’t happen to a nicer guy. Congrats, Amit.

And why is this other Amit still a pauper? I can rationalize. Boo hoo.

Posted by Amit Varma on 15 April, 2008 in Blogging | Personal


Did I Say ‘Lucrative Book Deal’?

I did. And that’s exactly what just happened to Stuff White People Like. Way to go, and all that. So much can happen in just a few weeks…

Posted by Amit Varma on 22 March, 2008 in Arts and entertainment | Blogging


How Bestselling Authors Can Become Successful Bloggers

During my recent visits to the Amazon pages of books by Chris Anderson and Neil Gaiman, I found that those pages now carry their latest blog posts. If Amazon does this across all its books, then it represents a great way for widely read authors to become widely read bloggers, as chances are that many readers interested in their books will end up discovering their blogs. This doesn’t guarantee success, of course, as they need to convert those first-time visitors into regular readers with compelling content, but the fact that they’re successful authors indicates that writing is their core competency anyway—the rest is adaptation to this new medium, and the desire to adopt it.

And yes, I know, Amazon doesn’t actually direct traffic to the author’s blog, but to their mirror of it. But, as in Gaiman’s case, it specifies that the content is syndicated from his journal, and links to it. And once you get hooked to it, the chances are that you’ll go to the original site, not to its Amazon mirror. Of course, Gaiman’s blog already has a significant readership and doesn’t need to be promoted on Amazon, but that isn’t true of most other writers.

So all I need to do to expand my blog readership beyond current levels is write a bestselling book. That can’t be too hard!

Posted by Amit Varma on 06 March, 2008 in Blogging | Economics


Stuff White People Like

I’d written in a column last week about how the internet has no entry barriers and is meritocratic, and how if a new blog is good, it will gain the readership it deserves on word of mouth alone. Well, here’s a blog that illustrates just that: Stuff White People Like.

The blog began about six weeks ago, and already has about 4 million hits. That’s no surprise—it contains satire and social observation of the highest quality, and I’ll be very surprised if a lucrative book deal doesn’t come its way soon. Just scroll through some of those entries, it’s super stuff.

More dope: Here’s an LA Times piece on it, and here’s an interview of the author, Christian Lander.

(Link via email from Sruthijith.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 27 February, 2008 in Blogging


Welcome to the Free World

This piece of mine was published in the Indian Express today.

“Where in the world are truly free markets?” a friend asked me the other day. “The kind of economic freedom you libertarians dream of just doesn’t work. Freedom leads to chaos. All markets need to be regulated by the government, which alone can safeguard the interests of the people.”

“Have you been online recently,” I asked.

“Don’t change the subject,” he said.

“I’m not,” I replied.

A couple of years ago, the libertarian blogger Warren Meyer was asked why there were so many, well, libertarian bloggers. His reply, in a nutshell, was that the internet is a libertarian space. “Libertarianism resists organization,” he wrote. Libertarians tend to be “suspicious of top-down organization in and of itself.  Blogging is therefore tailor made for us - many diverse bottom-up messages rather than one official top-down one.”

In many ways, the online world is like the beautifully functioning free market that governments have never allowed in meatspace (the ‘real’ world). To begin with, the government does not pose an entry barrier to individuals who wish to have a presence online. You want to start a blog? It’ll take you three clicks to set one up. You don’t need a license for it, and you won’t have inspectors coming over and scrutinising your methods of work.

The blogosphere is a meritocratic space. Each blog finds the audience it deserves. If you like economics, you’ll find tons of good economics blogs, often much better than anything you’ll see in the mainstream media, because they’re written by specialists, not generalists. You want gardening? Literature? Technology? You’ll find content in any niche you can think of.

There is a lot of junk on the internet, but readers navigate through it easily, and soon settle on a few sites they regularly visit. Information percolates so quickly that a good new blog doesn’t take much time to build a readership. You write something nice, people who like it link to you, their readers check you out, and so it grows. Marketing and hype are generally wasted, and everything is viral. If you provide compelling content, readers come. If you write rubbish, readers go. Competition is the best regulation.

The blogger Ravikiran Rao once speculated on what would happen if the government decided to protect users from “bad blogs”, and regulate blogging. If government babus started deciding what content was appropriate for audiences, good bloggers would be intimidated away, not bothering to enter a space where there were so many hassles. Established bloggers would lobby for regulation to protect them from pesky newcomers. The quality of blogging would go down, not up - and readers would be shortchanged.

Far-fetched? Well, it works that way in many fields - such as, as Rao pointed out in his post, “private schools and educational institutions.” Indeed, in India at least, it is pervasive.

If only our government understood the power of free markets. I wish our bureaucrats read “I, Pencil” by Leonard Read, one of my favourite essays. It is a first-person account by a pencil of its genealogy – and by the end of it, you realise that a mere pencil is such a thing of wonder that no government could have put it together. It takes legions of people, possibly across continents, doing disparate things without knowledge of one another to make sure that when you need a pencil, and go to the shop to pick it up, it’s there. It’s a miracle, almost beyond comprehension, and certainly beyond planning or oversight. It takes a free market, not a benevolent central planner - economists call this process spontaneous order.

The internet benefits from this freedom. Consider Wikipedia, for example. It once used to be laughed at - how can a few volunteers produce better content than experts? - but is now a classic example of what spontaneous order can achieve. It is much broader than the Encyclopedia Britannica, and often deeper as well. It has its own self-correcting mechanisms, and its rules of use have evolved from the bottom up, and not been enforced from the top down. It shows that the voluntary actions of people working towards their self-interest is a far more powerful force than the self-important and sanctimonious supervision of governments. Online, we’re all free.

Supporters of free markets stress on the importance of the rule of law - and the internet is not a lawless zone. The laws of the real world apply to what we do online - sometimes to worrisome effect, as jailed bloggers in countries like Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia have discovered. But on the whole, the internet is free of the kind of needless, suffocating government regulation and barriers to trade that bedevil the rest of the world. Long may it stay that way.

*  *  *

Also read: In Defence of Blogging.

You can browse through more of my essays and Op-Eds here.

Posted by Amit Varma on 23 February, 2008 in Blogging | Economics | Essays and Op-Eds


How to Be Nasty

The Gawker formula’s been leaked.

Posted by Amit Varma on 14 February, 2008 in Blogging | Miscellaneous


At Ode To Blogging?

Nice.

(Link via email from Deepika.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 29 January, 2008 in Arts and entertainment | Blogging


A Rather Nasty, Truculent, Aggressive Edge

The Q&A of the day comes from Isaac Chotiner’s interview of Ian McEwan in the New Republic:

Chotiner: Do you read any online reviews?

McEwan: I don’t read the blogs much. I don’t like the tone-the rather in-your-face road-rage quality of a lot of exchange on the Internet. I don’t like the threads that come out of any given piece of journalism. It seems that when people know they can’t be held accountable, when they don’t have eye contact, it seems to bring out a rather nasty, truculent, aggressive edge that I think slightly doesn’t belong in the world of book reviewing.

This is true of much more than online book reviewing, of course.

(Link via, again, PrufrockTwo.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 17 January, 2008 in Arts and entertainment | Blogging


Why Bloggers Blog

In an excellent interview, Tyler Cowen is asked about blogging:

Knowlege@Wharton: You are a writer and co-founder of the popular economics blog MarginalRevolution.com. How does your inner economist explain blogging? What is the incentive for people like yourself to offer high-quality goods and services online for free? 

Tyler Cowen: Blogging is fun. I’ve made friends through blogging, but most of all I have learned a lot. I think it has made me a better economist. I would also say it’s helped me to discover my inner economist. Because when you are blogging for real people, they don’t want techno babble. They don’t want jargon. They’re like, “What can you tell me that I actually care about?” Most of the ideas in this book, in one way or another, came out of blogging.

Knowlege@Wharton: So we can be motivated to do a lot of work, even highly skilled work, just because it’s fun?

Cowen: Absolutely. A lot of science works on the same basis. It’s true that scientists get paid, but typically they don’t get paid more, or much more, for discovering something that will make them famous. They do it because they love science, or because they want the recognition or because they just stumble upon it. Einstein was never a wealthy man but he worked very hard. So blogging is a new form of an old idea: that people do great things for free. Adam Smith didn’t get paid much for writing Wealth of Nations, even though it’s a long book that required a lot of work. He had an inner drive to get his ideas out there.

I’ve often been asked, and have often asked myself, why I blog. I spend more time on it than any other productive activity, and make only a small fraction of an anyway-insignificant income from it. The above excerpt answers the question rather well.

Posted by Amit Varma on 08 December, 2007 in Blogging | Personal


India Uncut = Junior High School

A number of readers over the last couple of weeks have drawn my attention to The Blog Readability Test, which claims to measure the level of education required to understand a blog. I’m delighted to announce that India Uncut can be understood by anyone who has gone to junior high school. I’ve always aimed to keep it simple, and to avoid jargon and obfuscatory words like ‘obfuscatory’. I’m glad that it seems to be working.

Of course, you can argue with the substance of what I write, but as long as the style has clarity…

Posted by Amit Varma on 06 December, 2007 in Blogging | Personal


How to Become a Famous Blogger

Dave Walker explains:

how to become a famous blogger

I’ve nailed one step: “Become a Blogger.” The other one can wait.

(Link via email from Sanjeev Naik. Ach—I now see it’s also on Linkastic. Never mind!)

Posted by Amit Varma on 09 November, 2007 in Blogging


Free is Complicated

Scott Adams writes in the Wall Street Journal:

A few years ago I tried an experiment where I put the entire text of my book, “God’s Debris,” on the Internet for free, after sales of the hard copy and its sequel, “The Religion War” slowed. My hope was that the people who liked the free e-book would buy the sequel. According to my fan mail, people loved the free book. I know they loved it because they emailed to ask when the sequel would also be available for free. For readers of my non-Dilbert books, I inadvertently set the market value for my work at zero. Oops.

So I’ve been watching with great interest as the band “Radiohead” pursues its experiment with pay-what-you-want downloads on the Internet. In the near term, the goodwill has inspired lots of people to pay. But I suspect many of them are placing a bet that paying a few bucks now will inspire all of their favorite bands to offer similar deals. That’s when the market value of music will approach zero.

That’s my guess. Free is more complicated than you’d think.

The irony is that free isn’t free. You might think that you’re reading India Uncut content for free, but actually you’re paying a price for it: The price of your time. Every second you spend reading India Uncut, you could be doing something else, and that opportunity cost indicates the value you place on my content. Sadly, there is no mechanism yet by which I can benefit from that, which is why we bloggers are so impoverished.

Except Scott Adams, of course. Sigh.

(Link via email from Manish Vij.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 03 November, 2007 in Blogging | Economics | Personal


The Undercover Economist is Blogging

Tim Harford is back to regular blogging, which means one more top-quality blog to follow every day. It looks like he’ll also reproduce his Dear Economist pieces and his Undercover Economist column here, which makes for quite a treat. Time to get the feed.

Meanwhile, I still have only 24 hours in a day. That’s never enough.

Update: Reader Akanksha points me towards one way to get myself a little more time. Round and round I go…

Posted by Amit Varma on 25 October, 2007 in Blogging | Economics


David Miliband, Blogger

David Miliband, Britain’s foreign minister, has started blogging. His reasons:

Diplomacy is traditionally seen as something that happens between governments and behind closed doors, but as the distinction between domestic and foreign becomes blurred, increasingly foreign policy is becoming the domain of all people. Whether it is climate change, the threat from extremism or the fight against poverty and degradation, these are challenges that have an impact on all of us and we can all play a part in tackling them.

Through this blog I want to explain my priorities, how I approach my job as Foreign Secretary and my ideas about the issues we face. But I also want to use it to hear the views of the readers across the world who have their own perspectives and ideas.

That’s quite excellent, but the last time Miliband started a blog, it was alleged to be costing the British taxpayer “somewhere approaching £40,000 a year,” in a classic example of government inefficiency—a blog costs next to nothing to set up and maintain. If he wishes to portray himself as transparent and accountable, he should first indicate on his new blog how much taxpayers’ money is going into it. After that we can look past the clunky prose and figure out if this is just an exercise in public relations, or Miliband really wishes to engage with the world. If it is the latter, hats off to him.

(Link to Milband’s blog via FP Passport, which Gautam John pointed me to via email.)

Update: Ravikiran Rao writes in:

You’ve mentioned that a blog “costs next to nothing to set up and maintain”. But that is true only if you ignore the opportunity cost of the blogger’s time. For comparison, if a CEO of a major corporation blogs, he will almost surely have an assistant to do the research for him, and that will cost him something. Given that, 40,000 pounds a year does not seem hugely inefficient to me. It is inefficient only if you think that blogging is just hot air, which seems to be the premise of the criticism.

Good point. But the premise of my criticism is not that blogging is hot air, which would be rather ironic given the medium of my message, but that money coercively gathered from citizens should, at the very least, be responsibly spent. So the big question here would be whether Miliband’s blog is worth the taxpayers’ money spent on it, a matter that can be left to individual taxpayers to decide for themselves. To do this, they should first know what Miliband really is spending.

Also, if Miliband’s blog really has value, there should be better ways of monetizing it than using funds coercively gathered from hapless citizens. And that principle applies to more than just the blog.

Posted by Amit Varma on 03 October, 2007 in Blogging | Politics


The Econoblogosphere

Here’s a map.

My favourites, of course, are the GMU Mafia—but there isn’t one blog on that list that is not worth reading regularly.

(Link via email from Ravi Venkatesh.

Also read: Economics as a Guide to Human Behaviour.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 29 September, 2007 in Blogging | Economics


Scott Adams on Cognitive Dissonance

I see this all the time in the blogosphere.

Besides dissonance, I think many people have a hard time tackling complexity and nuance. It’s much easier to have a simple position consisting of absolute values, and then to view everything through the prism of that worldview.

(Link via Silk-list. Related columns by me: Reason vs Rationalisation. The Comfort of a Worldview.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 28 September, 2007 in Blogging | Miscellaneous


In Defence of Blogging

This is the 31st installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

Not a week goes by these days without someone bashing blogs. Last Thursday, the essayist Mukul Kesavan referred disparagingly to how the “masters of blah have migrated to the Republic of Blog”. Just days before that, Robert McCrum wrote in the Observer of how “the democracy of the Web is in danger of becoming a cacophonous nightmare”. The Times of India famously (and ironically?) wrote last year that “no one can beat Indian bloggers when it comes to self-obsessed preaching, gossiping and bitching”.

I write a fairly widely read blog, India Uncut, so let me jump to the defence of blogging. Firstly, all these gentlemen are right—but they nevertheless miss the point, as Theodore Sturgeon could have told them. When Sturgeon, a writer of science fiction, was attacked for the rubbish that came out of that genre, he famously came up with what is known today as Sturgeon’s Revelation: “90% of everything is crud.”

Sturgeon’s point was that most attacks against science fiction used “the worst examples of the field for ammunition”. And while he accepted that 90% of science fiction was rubbish, so was 90% of everything else. If one just looked at the crud component of any field, it would be easy to dismiss anything.

This problem is amplified in blogging’s case. In journalism, for example, there are filters to publishing. Newspapers and magazines have editors who constrain what goes into print, and the limitations of space ensure that a lot of crud gets filtered out.

Read more...

Posted by Amit Varma on 13 September, 2007 in Blogging | Essays and Op-Eds | Journalism | Thinking it Through


Ideas, And The People Who Hold Them

Here’s Salman Rushdie:

The thing I learned most at Cambridge was that you should be as brutal as possible toward ideas but as courteous as possible to the people who hold them. It is entirely proper that people not be discriminated against, whatever damn fool thing they believe. That doesn’t mean we can’t say what horseshit it is.

Sadly, the opposite approach is what one encounters most commonly on the internet.

(Link, again, via PrufrockTwo.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 26 August, 2007 in Arts and entertainment | Blogging


Discussing A Farewell To Alms

I am immensely impressed by the quality of this discussion over at Marginal Revolution. First, Tyler Cowen writes his impressions of the first 112 pages of Gregory Clark’s A Farewell to Alms. Then an outstanding—and civil!—discussion takes place in the comments, with the author of book being discussed, Clark, joining in. This is blogging at its very best.

I’ve received a review copy of the book, as it happens, but haven’t yet begun reading it. But when I do, having read the discussion on MR will enrich and inform my reading experience so much. May there be many more such posts!

Posted by Amit Varma on 23 August, 2007 in Blogging | Economics


Atheism as the absence of belief

Scott Adams is a fantastic cartoonist and a very funny writer, but he writes the occasional odd post when he tackles a subject that he is not too familiar with. PZ Myers tears into him for a strange post on atheism, in which Adams had remixed Pascal’s Wager in a rather odd way. Read Myers and Austin Cline for more on his post, but being an atheist myself, let me clarify one point.

Atheism is not a belief that there is no God—it is the absence of belief in God. I am an atheist not because I am 100% sure that there is no God—how does one prove the negative anyway?—but because I see as little evidence around me for God as for flying fairies or invisible pink unicorns. I’m open to evidence that any of those exist, but in the absence of such evidence, I will not believe in them.

Adams’s post was particularly galling because he was not even arguing against atheism, but against his own silly misrepresentation of it. If it was wilful, it was intellectually dishonest; I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that it was just sloppy thinking. I am a massive fan of Adams’s blog, and will continue relishing his posts, but I wish he avoids one of the great dangers of blogging: publishing thoughts without thinking them through.

And yes, of course, I’ve done that as well, and have silly posts in my past that embarrass me when I revisit them. (I’ve done around 5000 posts across my blogs, and such wanton prolificness invites blunder, though I try my best to avoid that now.) So I feel for Adams…

Also read: Austin Cline on the difference between atheism and agnosticism.

(Link via email from MadMan. This post comes out of an email conversation with Neha.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 08 August, 2007 in Blogging | Miscellaneous | Personal


If Harry Potter Was A Hindi Film

Navin of BasKya.com has a number of interesting Bollywoodised plot points from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Here’s one:

#6. Harry, Ron and Hermione are being chased by death eaters and are in danger of being captured. They use the polyjuice potion to convert into Lara Dutta, Mallika Sherawat and Rakhi Sawant and do an item number until the death eaters leave.

I especially like #1, which reminded me of Sholay. And the update with Mosilager‘s suggestion, with Nagini’s melodrama, is also immensely viable.

Speaking of Mosilager, he has a post on how the Harry Potter series would be had it been written by writers other than JK Rowling. The Enid Blyton one is particularly excellent.

Posted by Amit Varma on 08 August, 2007 in Arts and entertainment | Blogging


A Blogger’s Union?

Really, who thinks of such things? Time reports:

In a move that might make some people scratch their heads, a loosely formed coalition of left-leaning bloggers are trying to band together to form a labor union they hope will help them receive health insurance, conduct collective bargaining or even set professional standards.

The effort is an extension of the blogosphere’s growing power and presence, especially within the political realm, and for many, evokes memories of the early labor organization of freelance writers in the early 1980s.

Sigh. A lady named Susie Madrak has been quoted as saying that bloggers “feel a little more entitled to ask for something now.” Don’t ask what forms the basis of this sense of entitlement.

Also, someone named Leslie Robinson has said, “It would raise the professionalism. Maybe we could get more jobs, bona fide jobs.” Heh. If Mr or Ms Robinson can’t get a job on his or her own steam, then he or she doesn’t deserve a damn job. What kind of self-esteem must they have to want to rely on a pressure group, which is what a union really is, to get themselves a job?

To each his own, of course. But it’s irritating when people criticize ‘bloggers’ on the basis of what some self-important bloggers happen to get up to. Pah.

Also read: “Don’t Think In Categories.”

(Link via email from BVN.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 07 August, 2007 in Blogging | WTF


38 Ways To Win An Argument—Arthur Schopenhauer

For all of you who have ever been involved in an online debate in any way, Arthur Schopenhauer’s “38 Ways To Win An Argument” is indispensable. Most of these techniques will seem familiar to you, right from questioning the motive of a person making the argument instead of the argument itself (No. 35), exaggerating the propositions stated by the other person (No. 1) , misrepresenting the other person’s words (No. 2) and attacking a straw man instead (No. 3). It’s a full handbook of intellectual dishonesty there. Indeed, I generally avoid online debates because they inevitably degenerate to No. 38.

The full text is below the fold. Many thanks to my friend Nitin Pai for reintroducing me to it.

Read more...

Posted by Amit Varma on 28 July, 2007 in Arts and entertainment | IU Faves | Blogging | Politics


Joe Lindsey’s Boulder Report…

... is my favourite sports blog at the moment. Lindsey covers cycling, and his posts on the Tour de France are crisp, sharp and insightful.

Despite all the doping controversies, the Tour is my favourite sporting event by a long way. Cycling is an elemental sport—the machines don’t make much difference, as man goes against man and the elements with not much else in between. These three weeks of racing test the body and the character more than any event in any sport that I can think of, and you can see the effort, the pain, the despair, the ecstasy in the faces of the riders as they ride, even on their bodies. It is pure sport.

And today’s the finest stage, where the hardest mountains loom. Back to television!

Posted by Amit Varma on 25 July, 2007 in Blogging | Sport


A quiz on Indian bloggers

Old pal and one-time colleague Abhirami Arumbakkam (aka Ammani) of ‘Quick Tales’ fame has a quiz up here on Indian bloggers. It is part of a series of contests she is holding on her blog to promote LAFTI. Do check it out—it’s a nice quiz, though it would have been much better if question No. 8 was No. 1.

Having said that, the first word in my first Extrowords, which was themed on Indian bloggers, is the answer to her first question here. Fitting, in a way.

And guess who is 17 down?

Posted by Amit Varma on 13 July, 2007 in Blogging | Personal


Why Amit Agarwal makes more money than Amit Varma

Amit Agarwal is an exceptional tech blogger, besides being a wonderful guy, but that alone surely cannot explain why he makes thousands of dollars every month through Google Adsense while I earn in the mere hundreds. Well, I have found out the secret, and it has nothing to do with our abilities. Instead, it’s all because of our last names.

Richard Wiseman of the Telegraph writes:

A few weeks ago, I invited Telegraph readers to take part in a unique experiment to explore whether your surname influences your life. There was a massive response, with 15,000 readers participating online.

The results yielded a fascinating insight into a hitherto hidden aspect of the human psyche. I wanted to know if people who had a surname that began with a letter near the start of the alphabet were more successful in life than those with names towards the end. In short, are the Abbots and Adams of the world likely to do better than the Youngs and the Yorks?

No prizes for guessing what Wiseman found. As I’d mentioned last year, a study had once found that last names did matter in the field of economics, but Wiseman now finds that it matters outside academics as well. And the habit of listing names in alphabetical order has everything to do with it.

[W]hether it is on a school register, at a job interview, or in the exam hall, people with surnames towards the start of the alphabet are used to being first.

Given that we often associate the top of a list with winners and the bottom with losers, could all of these small experiences add up and make a long-term impact on someone’s life?

Indeed, I’ve recently joined Facebook, and whenever I browse the friends list of a friend, I feel almost hurt to find myself near the bottom. Surely I’m closer to them than that? At this rate, I’ll end up resenting the world and having no friends left.

As for that Amit Agarwal chappie, pah! I demand that the government taxes away 90% of his income and redistributes it to bloggers with last names like, um, mine.

And don’t get me started on the Bushes, Blairs, and Bin Ladens of the world.

(Link via email from Ullas Marar.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 11 July, 2007 in Blogging | Economics | Miscellaneous


Why bloggers shouldn’t have children

Kudzu shows us the reasons.

My reasons have more to do with Cthulhu.

Doug Marlette, Kudzu’s creator, died recently in a car accident. I love the way he once explained what caricature is all about:

It’s kind of like when you recognize somebody walking 100 yards down the beach, before you can make out the features, you can tell who it is. That’s the quality I’m trying to get at in caricature.

(Link via email from Sanjeev Naik.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 11 July, 2007 in Arts and entertainment | Blogging


Neha, Akshay, Shez and Saira Bano

Two good friends of mine, one of whom is the self-proclaimed president (and only member) of the India Uncut Fan Club, are on their way through the Himalayas (or suchlike) as I type these words. Neha Dara and Akshay Mahajan have Shez Jifri and Saira Bano for company, and they seem to be having a rocking time. Who Saira Bano? That’s the auto-rickshaw they’re travelling in. They hardly blogged through the first section of the trip—if you’re zooming through the jungles of Nepal in an auto, whaddya expect—but have built up some decent posts by now, and more posts and pictures will surely follow. So far we have:

Shez: Rickshaw Driving 101
Shez: DAY 1 : Biryani and blowing flutes
Shez: Gianni and Maurice : Team KarmaPizza
Shez: Pimp my ride for Pole position!
Neha: Gathering a crowd 101
Shez: Some rabblings over rubble
Neha: To pack a bag is no easy thing
Neha: Team of Four

And Akshay’s pictures are here. His photographs are a joy, check them out!

Let me place it on record here that I’m burning with envy. We all tell ourselves that we shall take off on such an adventure one day, but trapped by the inertia of everyday life, we rarely do. These kids seized the day, and I’m immensely proud of them. The fan club has a fan club now. (Recursive? What’s that?)

So where are you off to this weekend?

Posted by Amit Varma on 05 July, 2007 in Blogging | Miscellaneous | Personal


“A fortress of people”

The International Herald Tribune reports:

Four years ago, India was rocked by the murder of Satyendra Dubey, a government engineer who exposed corruption in the national highway building program. Two years later, Shanmughan Manjunath, a manager at a state-owned oil company, laid bare a scheme to sell impure gasoline. His body was found riddled with bullets in the back seat of his car.

To [JN] Jayashree, her husband, MN Vijayakumar, appeared to be trailing in their footsteps. Vijayakumar, 51, is a bureaucrat in the southern state of Karnataka, and he has a penchant for chastising colleagues who supplement their modest salaries with bribes, kickbacks and garden-variety pilferage. In recent months, his chastising ruffled feathers at high levels, and he began seeing the signs often directed at whistle-blowers in India: He was flicked around the civil service like a hockey puck, switching jobs seven times in the past nine months, most recently on June 26.

As her husband made powerful enemies, Jayashree began to fear for his life. And so she devised an unusual ploy to protect him: She blogged.

Here’s Jayashree’s blog; her reason for starting it, she told IHT reporter Anand Giridharadas, was to “[create] a fortress around him - a fortress of people.” Well, I wish her all the best, and certainly the visibility that the blog gives Vijaykumar should make his enemies wary of attacking him. But I’m skeptical of the concept of a “fortress of people”, because of this, illustrated most recently by this. Voyeurism comes naturally to us, but beyond that…

(Link via email from Arjun Swarup.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 03 July, 2007 in Blogging | India | News


The most irritating words on the internet

The Telegraph has a list. One that I often find irritating comes in at No. 2: ‘Blogosphere.’ It leads to lazy generalizations, and encourages thinking in categories.

How would Ian McEwan and JM Coetzee like it if you told them that they’re part of the Bookosphere? And then if you begin to rant against the Bookosphere because you don’t like Paulo Coelho and Dan Brown? Now, wouldn’t that be silly? And still…

Posted by Amit Varma on 25 June, 2007 in Blogging


If you are a child…

... please stop reading this blog right now. It seems that India Uncut is rated PG-13.

Of course, my earlier Blogspot avatar was rated R, so it must be admitted that I am getting more child friendly. In a few years, I’ll be writing for toddlers. Goo, ga, parents suck, walking is boring—all that stuff.

(Link via email from reader justescaped.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 23 June, 2007 in Blogging


Is there something you’d like to ask…

... John Buchanan? Prem Panicker is due to interview Buchanan, and will incorporate reader-submitted questions that he finds interesting. Almost a Web 2.0 interview, you could say, without the anarchy of a chat. Hop over to leave your suggestions.

And by the by, I’m quite delighted to see Prem blogging regularly on his own space. He’s a magnificent blogger, though he’s often been too busy running large teams of journalists to blog regularly. I’m going to watch that space.

Posted by Amit Varma on 21 June, 2007 in Blogging | Sport


Cliche is the new cliche

Heh.

(Link via email from Corporate Whore.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 14 June, 2007 in Blogging | Journalism


Meiyang Chang, blogger

I think it is immensely cool for an Indian Idol contestant to have a blog. Indeed, make that blogs. Here’s Meiyang Chang’s Blogger page, which lists all his blogs:  The Buddha Soliloques is his regular blog, with travel posts and stuff, Fool’s Imagery contains his photographs, and The Amyegin Outburst has cartoons drawn by him.

Chang comes across on the show as much more intelligent and balanced than the rest of the contestants, and that comes through in his blogs as well. I predicted in my last Indian Idol post that he will reach the final three, and last night’s performance gave me no reason to rethink that. Among other things, his voice has a timbre that sets him apart from the others, and he sings with a certain sukoon, as it were, that most of the other singers just don’t have.

The boys were outstanding in last evening’s episode, and seem to be getting better with every performance. I take back what I said earlier about this year’s contestants not being as good as those in the last two: The boys, at least, are every bit as impressive as their predecessors in the last two seasons, even if there is no one quite as stunning as Karunya was last season.

Speaking of stunning, I never thought I’d think something like this, leave alone open myself to ridicule by expressing it publicly—but isn’t Alisha Chinai just superfreakingcute? The years have sat really well on her…

(More Indian Idol posts here.)

Update: Oops, apologies, forgot to indicate that I got the link to Chang’s Blogger page via email from reader VatsaL.

Posted by Amit Varma on 08 June, 2007 in Arts and entertainment | Indian Idol | Blogging


Bloggin’ ‘bout my generation

Heh.

(Via email from Gautam.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 08 June, 2007 in Blogging


The Ministry of Blogging

We could have one if some chappies in our government read this and get inspired. Can you imagine what would happen if Arjun Singh ran it?

(Link via email from Scribbler.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 27 April, 2007 in Blogging | Freedom


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