Interview with Glenn Frankel: Early Influences

19 Jan

Part 1 of a 5 part series based on my interview with Pulitzer-award winning journalist, Glen Frankel: 1. Early Influences, 2. Professional Influences, 3. Principles of Good Journalism, 4. Reporting on Emotive Issues, 5. Foreign Reporting and Technology.


Where you were born and what were some of the early influences that shaped your choice to become a journalist.

I was born in 1949 in the Bronx in New York but grew up in Rochester, New York, which is up 300 miles north and west of there. I think the principal thing for me was wanting to be a writer at a pretty early age and trying to figure out how to do that. I had no real training. I had an English teacher in High School who was very encouraging and I was editor of the high school literary magazine. When I moved out to go to the university, I went to Columbia University in New York in the undergraduate, not the graduate. Especially in that era, in the 1960s and early 1970s, it was very hard for me to find a way to write in any kind of institutional setting. I was trying to write a novel at one point. I didn’t major in English but ended up majoring in American History which I think was very useful.

Just after the university, I moved out to the Bay Area, where I drove a school bus for almost year and a half here in San Fransisco. The school bus schedule is such that you worked early in the morning and in the evening and there was a big hole of about five or six hours in the middle of the day and I remember spending that time trying to write a novel, trying to write short stories, write songs, playing the guitar, doing various things and gradually coming to the realization that unless I could find an institutional setting of some sort that would actually pay me a regular salary to be a writer, I wasn’t going to be a writer, that it would fade away. I hadn’t found a profession and driving a school bus didn’t seem like a satisfying long-term way of using my Bachelor’s degree. It gradually occurred to me that newspaper business might be a way to go.

We are now talking about late 1972 or early 1973 and the Watergate affair is just beginning to bubble to the surface. The name of the Washington Post, Woodward and Bernstein are just beginning to appear, congressional hearings were beginning to be held. In the late afternoons many days the last group of kids I would take home, it was a private school that I was working for, and I would take the large station wagon rather than the large yellow bus to drive them home and the large station wagon had an AM/FM radio and so I would turn on KQED and listen to the news at 6’o clock, and the news was often about Watergate, Watergate dominated it in its various aspects. And it began to occur to me that newspapers might be the way to actually get paid to write.

To make a long story short, my then girlfriend got accepted into a teacher core program that gave you a degree while you taught, in Richmond, Virginia. That seemed like a better place for someone with a Bachelor’s degree and no experience to try to hook some kind of newspaper job rather than the Bay Area, where as far as I could see there were approximately 17 million recent college graduates with the same degree I had and no chance to get into a job in this kind of field.

So we drove cross country and moved to Richmond Virginia, and gradually I got a job at a very very small weekly newspaper, approximately 20 miles south of Richmond, in Chesterfield County, Virginia. Then I got a better job at a much better weekly in Richmond, Virginia. Richmond is a state capitol with a legislature and a governor and all that. I found quite quickly that not only that this kind of job satisfied my need to write and my dream of being paid to write but also sort of fit my personality and my sense of values because as a journalist I found I could be both inside a community and outside it. You sort of straddled if you will because you had to be knowledgeable about the community, you had to take part in things, you had to meet people and make your way through it but at the same time you were supposed to be the person who was analyzing it critically for new information about it, acquiring sort of intimate details of how it worked. Being inside and outside fit very well with my sense of who I was and so almost from the first week of the job at the little weekly newspaper in Chesterfield County, I thought yes, this could work, this is something I could do, this looks good.

I think you have to remember for many people who were growing up in that era, at the end of the 1960s and the early 70s, we were sort of deeply alienated from institutions in America, deeply suspicious of them and they were deeply suspicious of us; both sides had plenty of justification, I would say. Figuring out a way to live in this country or to decide not to live in this country was very much in the front of my mind and in many of my friend’s minds. People came to various conclusions. My conclusion early on, probably because I came from a sort of lower-middle-class background – my father was a television repairman and my mother was a secretary, neither had been to college, I was the first in my immediate family to go to university – I was a little more practical-minded than some of my friends in thinking that I should try to come to terms with the society. But how was I going to do that? How could I maintain my own sense of values and what I thought was important and still find a way to live without feeling that I was totally compromising. People left the country. Some friends ended up in places like Israel or Sweden. In the end, I actually visited Israel one summer and looked at their ongoing conflict and decided that I simply will be replacing ours with theirs and that didn’t seem like what I wanted to do. I really loved America and loved aspects of American culture and felt very much that this was my home and I felt that I needed to find ways to come to terms with that.

It turned out journalism was a good fit again because it allowed me to be very critical, to analyze things and be really tough but it also allowed me to get to know things, to get inside them and that was my training, and my mindset fit and it very well with that.

Interview with Kavita Khanna

26 Dec

Kavita Khanna is the author of Saturday Morning Omelettes.

Kavita, can you start by talking a little more about yourself? Where were you born? Where did you grow up?

I am the eldest of three siblings; I have two younger brothers. I was born in Delhi. My mom is a stay-at-home mother; dad is a retired Major General in the Indian army. Because of dad’s profession, we were posted frequently and moved around quite a bit. We spent the longest time in Pune, where my high school and college education occurred. I got married and moved to Virginia, USA in 1989 and have been here since.

Kavita, I believe you are a trained engineer. How and when did this writing bug hit you? Were you writing from a young age? Did you always want to become a writer?

There was never a conscious want/need to become a writer, no. I have always loved reading books and telling stories. I guess I just came to a point in my life where I decided to try something I would really enjoy – the engineering degrees and subsequent jobs got home a paycheck, but were certainly not satisfying the creative urge within.

As a South Asian, it is especially hard to pursue writing, given that it is typically viewed as fiscally non-remunerative. What kind of challenges did you face while writing this book and where did you find support within your family?

You know, that is very very true. The venture is certainly not a fiscally reliable, or even sound, one – maybe that’s why it took me so long to do this, who knows? Certainly, the fact that quitting my job and writing full time did not impact our lifestyle was a big plus – I doubt if I would have pursued this dream at the cost of myself or my family having to “cut back”.

Tell us a little more about the early influences that shaped you as a writer. What kind of writers (and books) influenced you? In a related question, which writers do you particularly like?

I grew up with Enid Blyton (Secret Sevens, Famous Fives), Nancy Drews, Hardy Boys, Chronicles of Narnia, Wodehouses, Perry Masons, Agatha Christies, Mills and Boons, Barbara Cartlands, James Heriots, Alistair MacLeans. I still enjoy Daphne Du Maurier, Janet Evanovich, Dave Barry, and Sandra Brown – loved Fountainhead, Catch 22, Bridget Jones’ Diary, Da Vinci Code, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, the Harry Potter series, Gone With The Wind,… gosh, there are too many to name.

In general, if I am picking up a random book to read, I prefer the plot to be fast-paced. I enjoy books with wit, keen human insights, and surprise endings. When I started writing Saturday Morning Omelettes, I made one conscious decision – to portray the story through dialogue rather than too many essay-style descriptions. I am guilty of tending to skip long wordy descriptions when I come across them in most books and wanted to avoid that in my work.

Let me focus my attention on your book – the book broaches on immigrant experiences. Was it difficult for you to assimilate in the US? Can you talk a little more about it in terms of issues around food (adjusting to American food), money, and socialization etc.

Growing up, when my dad was in the army, he was posted to the US Naval Post Graduate School in Monterey, California for two and half years. I was 10 then. So frankly, the process of assimilation when I came after marriage was not too difficult in itself. Here are my “milestone memories” of life in the USA as an adult:

  • My sheer terror of delis. You had to choose the bread, the cheese, the toppings. All of which were ridiculously foreign to me.
  • Enjoying the freedom of being able to sit on a bench at George Mason University and eating alone. No one ogled, sung Bollywood songs, or heckled me, and the feeling of freedom of being “inconspicuous” was divine!
  • Experiencing the first snowfall was surreal in its beauty
  • Realizing that asking all my classmates what their grades were after a test was considered rude.
  • Learning not to “nod” by moving my head side-to-side
  • The open “public display of affection” blew me away

Gambling over the past years has become an obsession in the US. What surprised me was its popularity in the Indian community. Tell us a little more about your experiences and how do you explain its popularity in the ‘model community’?

I think that’s maybe because cards are not considered a huge taboo in our culture. My parents played rummy (cards) ever since I can remember (and still do) – it’s an integral part of army life. Teen patti during Diwali is such a normal thing to do. Today I consider myself a pretty active parent… but like in my son’s high school these days there is a big brouhaha about a growing trend amongst teens playing Poker – and I find myself not nearly as upset as the other parents. I have to force myself to rethink my “it’s just cards’ mentality.

You peripherally mention the politically well connected rich Indian community in your novel. Given that you are living in Virginia, What are your thoughts about Indians and their involvement in politics, especially in context of the Macaca controversy?

Hehe, I actually know who the kid is that caused Allen’s career to come tumbling down. He (the boy with the mohawk who caught Allen’s eye) was the victim of a sleepover prank and sported the Mohawk cut to the rally. Anyway – I frankly do not follow politics too much. I think it’s great that more and more Indians are getting actively involved in politics – it’s a huge reflection on the acceptance of our culture in this country. Hubby will probably have more of an opinion on this question than I do  All I can say is – Indian or otherwise – if you are in politics, you’d better live up to the promises you make to get there!

It is outside the protective family cocoon that personalities are really tested. Tell us a little more about this in context of your portrayal of Amit in the book.

I think for most Indian adults of my generation – certainly for a person like Amit – it’s very difficult to defy the wishes of their parents. There is a deeply ingrained deference there that is difficult, if not impossible, to overcome. Had Amit’s parents been in the USA to rein him in before his addiction got out of hand, he would have definitely not gone down the path he did. As it stood, only Riya was there to try and stop him. He loved her, but the deference was not there. It was easy for him to shrug off her comments by thinking he knew better than she. It was his journey alone to realize the folly of his ways.

I am especially interested in asking you about your experiences in older retired Indians in US. Tell us a little more about what stuck you about them and any interesting anecdotes that come to your mind.

You know, when I came here, hubby’s daadaji used to live with us and my in-laws. He has since passed away, but I still remember how difficult it was to tend to his needs. He was a very active 87-year-old, and used to get bored out of his wits home alone all day (we all worked and/or studied full time). He hated the idea of watching TV all the time, did not drive, and was generally trapped at home till one of us returned. He often used to wander off for walks by himself and lose his way till a neighbor or the cops found him and got him back. We tried to get him to go to a nearby nursing home during the day and spend the day being entertained with seniors there, but he hated it. Language, food (he was a strict vegetarian), the huge cultural gap – it was all wrong for him. Very few families faced the issue back then, but now – now we are soon going to have a whole generation of seniors going through similar experiences. Many of them won’t even have the comfort of sons/daughters by their side.

Our generation is faced with the challenge of determining the future of retired seniors from our Indian community. It’s becoming obvious that we currently have absolutely no infrastructure in place to tend to their future needs. I go back to India almost annually and enjoy the sight of my naaniji going for satsangs, playing cards with her friends, going to the movies, doing yoga in the park, etc. Even while my mamaji and mamiji work, a maid stays with her and tends to her full time. I guess my book reflects some of my dreams/visions of old age here in the States – not just medical needs, but the more important emotional ones.

Kavita, what are your future plans. Do you already have another idea for a book on the anvil or you are too busy promoting your current book?

Writing Saturday Morning Omelettes has been an amazing journey and I would love for nothing more than to experience it again. I would love to write forever, but am sadly not struck with any particular inspiration as of now. Will keep you posted.

——————–
The interview was conducted via email over the past week.

Thank you once again, Kavita for your time. I would like to wish you success in your future endeavors.

Book Review: Saturday Morning Omelettes

12 Dec

The ‘special’ omelets are not tasty though you wouldn’t want to put down the plate until you are done. In her first attempt as a novelist, Delhi born author Kavita Khanna entertainingly, or more appropriately –efficiently, narrates a heartwarming tale about the fortunes of a modern Indian family.

This charmless insipid novel explores the centrality of family in Indian culture by narrating the tale of an Indian couple that immigrates to the US to mitigate the financial strain on their family, successfully battles gambling addiction and returns wiser and closer together to India.

Ms. Khanna does an admirable job in pacing her novel though she does so at the expense of observation. She accepts as much, saying, “When I started writing Saturday Morning Omelettes, I made one conscious decision – to portray the story through dialogue rather than too many essay-style descriptions. I am guilty of tending to skip long wordy descriptions when I come across them in most books and wanted to avoid that in my work.”

A lot of times the novel chugs through the story; we don’t get to bite into the psychology of the characters or languorously appreciate the aroma of the morning omelet. Neither does Ms. Khanna spend time describing the initially humbling experiences that generally dent a recent immigrant’s life. For example, except for describing the damning quiet of the airport and the apartment, she neither spends time noticing the well-tarred roads nor the plush charm of US or problems interacting with Americans. In all, Ms. Khanna’s fails to conjure up the experiences of first-time visitors to the US in a nuanced fashion. The novel lacks the earthiness of a true immigrant tale for it shies from the endless awkwardness to talk superficially about chipped nails and nauseous fumes of Ammonia while cleaning the bathroom for the first time. Ms. Khanna would do well to write more honestly about the challenges of immigrant’s life. More damningly, the story sometimes seems rushed and mishandled.

I can’t help but bemoan the fact that Ms. Khanna fails to deal with issues more substantively. A lot of characters in the book don’t get much attention from the writer and hence come across as standard stereotypes like the struggling black girl and the sensible black grandparent. On multiple occasions, the dramatization in the story seems a touch melodramatic or Bollywood-esque. The ‘scenes’ (and that is how the book seems to be laid out) end abruptly, characters are one-dimensional, the angles explored are clichéd and the language positively empty.

In all a stunted exploration of important issues that is not recommended for anybody over the age of 14. Actually, make it 12.

Updated 12/12/06: “In the case of fiction, I have a particular abhorrence of reviewers who tell readers what book the novelist or short-story writer should have written instead of the one under review. If a reviewer can’t accept an author’s governing premise, or donnee, in Henry James’s famous term, then he or she has no business writing about the book.”
New York Times book editor Sam Tanenhaus in response to a reader’s question. I can’t help but agree that this is what happened to me and this book by Ms. Khanna.

A Small Government: US Federal Budget as Proportion of the Economy

11 Dec

The US federal budget is larger than that of any other country in absolute terms. The US government spends more than $2.3 trillion every year, about $500 billion dollars more than Japan, which has the second largest budget in the world at around $1.7 trillion.

Yet, as a proportion of the economy, the US federal government budget is small. The US federal budget of $2.3 trillion is about one-fifth (.197) of its $12.5 trillion GDP. The average budget-to-GDP ratio in developed countries in Europe is about twice as much. For example, UK’s budget of $951 billion is nearly half of its $2.228 trillion GDP, while France’s budget of $1.144 trillion is a little more than half of its $2.055 trillion GDP. The US budget-to-GDP ratio is closer to the ratios in the developing world. For example, India’s GDP of $720 billion is nearly five times bigger than its budget of about $135 billion. Surprisingly, the US budget-to-GDP ratio also matches the ratio of its left-leaning northern neighbor, Canada.

Petro-economies like Saudi Arabia have budget-to-GDP ratios that fall between those of the developing world and the developed economies in Europe. Petro-economies also fall in the middle in terms of budgetary dollars spent per person. Nigeria, unsurprisingly, is an exception in this regard, with budget numbers far below that of other petro-economies.

In terms of dollars spent per person, United States is far behind developed EU economies. The budgetary allocation per person in the EU is more than double that in the US.

There are two key caveats in interpreting all this. An exclusive focus on the federal budget understates the total government spending for countries with strong federal structures like the US. But the good thing is that federal spending and state and local spending are not inversely proportional in countries with strong federal structures but are strongly correlated. Hence, while relying solely on federal budgetary expenditure does understate the impact, it doesn’t do it by as big a margin as one would expect. Take, for example, the US, whose total budget at the state level is around $600 billion, adding which pushes total government spending to $3 trillion or still about .25 of the GDP.

Secondly, one must look at not only the size of the budget but also where it is spent. For example, the US military budget accounts for a fifth of its net budget by conservative estimates. In sheer numbers, US military budget exceeds the total military spending of the rest of the world, but in terms of its size relative to US GDP, it is a measly 4%.

Developed countries pool:

Country

GDP (in trillions, 2005 estimate, unless mentioned otherwise)

Budgetary Expenditure (in trillions, 2005 est. unless mentioned otherwise)

Proportion of budget/GDP

Population
(millions)
(2006 est.)

Budget expenditure per
Person (thousands)

Germany

$2.73

$1.362

.498

82.4

16.529

France

$2.055

$1.144

.556

60.6

18.877

UK

$2.228

$.951

.426

60.4

15.74

Italy

$1.71

$.8615

.503

58.1

14.827

Norway

$246.9 billion

$131.3 billion

.531

4.5

29.177

Switzerland

$367 billion

$143.6 billion

.391

7.48

19.197

Asia Pacific

Japan

$4.664

$1.775

.380

127.4

13.932

Australia

$612.8 billion

$240.2 billion

.391

20.09

11.95

Developed North American economies

USA

$12.49 trillion

$2.466 trillion

.197

295.7

8.3395

Canada

$1.035

$152.6 billion(est. 2004)

.147

33.09

4.611

Developing country pool:

Country

GDP (2005 est.)

Budgetary Expenditure (2005 est.)

Proportion of budget/GDP

Population
(millions)
(2006 est.)

Budget expenditure per
Person

India

$720 billion

$135 billion

.1875

1,095

123

Pakistan

$89.55 billion

$20.07 billion

.223

162

124

Indonesia

$270 billion

$57.7 billion

.213

245

235

Brazil

$619.7 billion

$172.4 billion

.278

186

927

China

$2.225 trillion

$424.3 billion

.190

1,306

325

Chile

$115.6 billion

$24.75 billion

.214

16

1546

Petro-economies

Iran

$181.2 billion

$60.4 billion

.333

68

888

Saudi Arabia

$264 billion

$89.65

.339

27

3320

Venezuela

$106.1 billion

$41.27 billion

.388

25.375

1626

Nigeria

$77.33 billion

$13.54 billion

.175

128

105

All figures from CIA World Fact Book which can be accessed at: https://www.cia.gov/redirects/factbookredirect.html

Topgraphy of book sales: What lurks beneath?

3 Dec

A full one-third of books sold worldwide are sold in the US. US is a phenomenally important media market and the success or failure of a book in the US can literally make or break the career of an author.

It is interesting to explore who reads the books, where are they sold, what books are read and the reasons behind these.

Let me start by providing the numbers around book sales in the US. In 2004, Nielsen Bookscan tracked the sales of 1.2 million books in the United States and they found:

  • Of those 1.2 million, 950,000 sold fewer than 99 copies.
  • Another 200,000 sold fewer than 1,000 copies.
  • Only 25,000 books sold more than 5,000 copies.
  • Fewer than 500 sold more than 100,000 copies.
  • Only 10 books sold more than a million copies each.
  • The average book in the United States sells about 500 copies.

*The last point should be interpreted carefully as the average of a skewed distribution is neither an intuitive nor accurate representation. Here, the average of book sales distribution is disproportionately influenced by the few really large numbers. A much more useful statistic would be the median book sales figure, which is unavailable.

The statistics above show that a very small minority of books contribute to majority of book sales in the US. Let me put this in perspective with a separate set of numbers – of the around 120,000 titles that are published each year – only about 500 books (.4%) sell more than 100,000 copies.

This raises the question then that what is it that creates this extremely skewed topography of book consumption in the US (and elsewhere in the world)? A variety of hypothesis have been forwarded by people to explain this phenomenon – some trace it to the relative paucity of quality books (if we for a second don’t bicker over what means by quality – it seems like a reasonable assumption), paucity of works produced by popular authors (now we are faced with the chicken and the egg question – how did the author become popular), the book display patterns of major book vendors (books displayed on show windows of 2 major book chains in US – Borders and Barnes and Noble – are highly correlated to book sales), media coverage of books and authors (so topicality plays a role – controversial topics or authors, celebrity authors etc. will all sell more), topicality (feeds into above point), length of book’s title, complexity of sentence structure etc.

Business of Books

Book business is by varying estimates between $16.6 billion (US Census Bureau) and $26.9 billion (Association of American Publishers- 2002 figures).

Not only are the book sales limited to a few top earners, the book sales are also limited by publishing houses. Andre Schiffrin, former head of Pantheon Books, in “The Business of Books” states that in 1999, the top 20 publishers accounted for 93% of sales. Later in the book, he states that 80% of book sales originate from five media conglomerates.

Media and the medium

Book consumption is mediated by mass-media. The book is today a cultural product whose value is still primarily gauged by elite reviewers though this is changing with the onslaught on online review sites.

For more statistics on the publishing industry, visit: http://bookstatistics.com/

Rational Ignorance: Celebrities or Politics

29 Nov

It is a commonly held belief that people are too busy to be informed about policy issues. The argument certainly seems reasonable given the oft-repeated assertion that people are leading increasingly hectic lives with little time for leisure, except that it doesn’t stand well to scrutiny. Americans, as I corroborate below, have ample leisure time and ample access to informational sources.

An average American child between the ages of 8 and 18 spends about 44.5 hours per week, or six and a half hours daily, consuming media, according to a 2005 Kaiser Family Foundation report. More than half of this time is spent in watching television programs, movies, and other videos. The figures are comparable for American adults, who watch more than four hours of television each day or twenty-eight hours each week on average, according to a Nielsen study. Even if we assume that Americans do other tasks, say cook or clean, simultaneously for part of the twenty-eight hours, it is reasonable to conclude that Americans do have a fair amount of leisure time which they spend primarily watching television.

Given that people have ample leisure time and access to information, why do people choose not to be informed about politics? Some researchers have argued that people don’t care about politics because they are rationally disinterested – they don’t feel that they can make a change hence they don’t care to be informed about it. Inarguably fan support is at best peripheral to whether a sports team will either win or lose, then why do people often times posses close to perfect information on the teams (or sport) they follow and argue passionately over the matters related to sports?

Americans are not information averse; they are surprisingly well informed about things they care to know about like celebrity gossip and football. They also spend a fair amount of time and energy collecting, regurgitating and discussing this information. While talking about sports people show a surprising amount of talent for remembering and accurately interpreting statistics. So why is it that Americans are willing to spend time and energy in collecting entertainment and sports while showing little interest in foreign or even domestic policy?

Admittedly policy issues are generally more complex than celebrity news and perhaps people’s interest in entertainment news is driven by the fact that consuming entertainment news is less cognitively demanding. The explanation seems inadequate given people (perhaps mainly men) do keep track of elaborate sports statistics and present well-articulated positions on why a certain team is better than the other. One can perhaps argue that given the general lack of morally divisive issues, people feel more comfortable discussing entertainment news than say abortion. But then certainly there are policy issues that are bereft of morally divisive issues. It seems though that most political information is presented in identity packets rather than ideational packets as in choices are explained and understood as liberal or conservative choices. Choices marked with identity dissuade analysis and reflection, as research has shown, and combined with the chronic lack of factual information on relevant policy topics on American television, there isn’t much hope that people will get to critically think about the problem.

Movie Review: Independent Intervention

21 Nov

General Tommy Franks described the media as the “fourth front” in his (Iraq) war plan, according to Danny Schechter, an award-winning journalist and documentary filmmaker.
What he meant by that was that winning the “media war” is an important part of winning the war in Iraq. Three years down the line with the US stuck in an ever-worsening situation, we all know what happens when governments win the media war and succumb to their hubris.

Independent Intervention, a documentary by Norwegian filmmaker Tonje Hessen Schei, is superficially an exploration of how the Iraq war was fought on the “fourth front” in US media. On a deeper level, it is a well crafted expose’ of the effects of media conglomeration on the style, topicality, and quality of news.

Schei begins her documentary with a series of heartrending images from Iraq, images that were never shown on mainstream American media. This initial sequence provides the preface to her documentary- the Iraq war shown on the television screens of Americans was a very different from the one being fought in Iraq. Schei, stuck by the jingoistic, bleached (of the horrors of war), video game like coverage of Iraq war in US mainstream media, explores the reasons behind how and why mainstream American media became a willing partner in government’s propaganda machine helping it wage the war for the hearts and minds of American public. Using footage from the war and interviews with people luminaries like Dr. Noam Chomsky, Amy Goodman, and others, Schei persuasively argues that a majority of what went wrong during media’s coverage of Iraq war can be traced to corporate media ownership.

The documentary does a stupendous job in tracing media’s coverage of Iraq war starting with the pre-war buildup by effectively using some well known statistics, for example about how during the two week period around which Colin Powell gave his speech at UN and during a time when more than half of the people opposed war, and– out of the 393 people who were interviewed on the four major nightly network newscasts – NBC, ABC, CBS and PBS only a meager 3% held antiwar views while a stunning 71% were pro war.

Independent Intervention is simply scintillating when it weaves snippets from local morning news shows to convey a point. It is jarring to see archival news footage of anti-war protests highlighting mundane inconveniences caused by protestors – “simply creating chaos during rush hour” or “protestors shut down the financial district in San Francisco” and sneeringly ignore to give time to explaining why protestors were against the war.

Independent Intervention explores how the merger of showbiz and “news biz” has had a damning impact on the way news is covered. In their effort to attract consumers, news shows have ramped up their production values to match those in entertainment. The ever-shrinking sound bite has limited what can be conveyed intelligibly to the audience and hence all that is complicated is left at the curb. So while reporting on the Iraq war, the ethnic complexities are left out.

Schei though is never is able to purposefully include some information in the documentary. For example, we are informed that five corporations – Vivendi, Disney, Time Warner, News Corp, Viacom -own eighty percent of media but yet are left in the dark about how and why it affects media coverage in the way it does. Perhaps the critique is implicit but it is limited to corporate control (economics fudging the news) and not to effects of agglomeration.

Media is an important institution for democracy – a tool through which we understand the world and the world understands us (Goodman). We need to keep the media free and independent for we need good unbiased and uncensored information for a functioning democracy. And lastly and perhaps most importantly, media should never be confused as a tool of war.

Overall, Independent Intervention can be seen as part of the genre of documentaries inspired by Michael Moore – a genre of unabashedly political documentaries with an agenda, but its wider message – that of the need for independent media – would be of interest to both liberals and conservatives.

The DVD of the film is available at http://www.independentintervention.com

What is so Foreign About Foreign Aid?

18 Nov

A khaki-clad Western aid worker is helping unload a truck in a sun-baked dusty barren place surrounded by black (sometimes brown) faces. It could be a scene from any of the countless news clips from the equally countless number of crises that continue to rain down upon obscure parts of the world. The clips are ubiquitous and yet hardly anybody notices the egregious role of the Western aid worker, who ostensibly has flown around from whichever place s/he calls home at a pretty penny to do the readily outsourced job of (un)loading supplies from the truck.

Planners versus “the Searchers”
William Easterly, NYU economics professor and a former research economist at the World Bank, in his book “The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good”, argues that the aid efforts led by the West have failed primarily because their utopian aid plans are based on the assumption that they know what is best for everyone. He argues that the West needs to get away from the model of “Planners”, imposing top-down solutions, and rather adopt the “Searchers” model, that tries to adapt innovations that come from native cultures. That may well be. But it is not clear if that is the primary sin.

Home Aid
Easterly misses the fact that many Western aid programs typically mandate that the recipient country buy provisions (defense armaments to cans of food) from the donor nation. Many times in fact aid is provided in form of products made by donor nation industries. So you can have “2.4 million Kellogg’s pop-tarts” being airdropped in Afghanistan (see Wikipedia which cites the book from which the figure is drawn), while much cheaper staples like rice and lentil are largely ignored.

This better explains why “the West spent $2.3 trillion in foreign aid over the last five decades and still had not managed to get 12 cent medicines to children to prevent half of all malaria deaths. The West spent $2.3 trillion and still had not managed to get $4 bed nets to poor families. The West spent $2.3 trillion and still had not managed to get $3 to each new mother to prevent five million child deaths” (White Man’s Burden).

Careerism and Bureaucratization
The rise of careerism and increased bureaucratization in the NGO industry are partly responsible for the failure of development assistance to the third world, according to Dr. Thomas Dichter, an anthropologist at The University of Chicago and author of “Despite Good Intentions: Why Development Assistance to the Third World Has Failed.”

Increased bureaucratization has led to a demand for “trained professionals” (air quotes because it isn’t clear what the training is in) to fill the ranks. Paying heed to the rising demand, “entire college programs have sprung up, such as Wayne State University’s Nonprofit Sector Studies Program (NPSS). The NPSS mission states, “The nation’s fastest-growing sector needs administrators, policymakers, program managers, and advocates who will guide them into the future” writes Michael Donnely for Peace Corps Online. One may expect that the rising compensation packages at non-profit organizations would attract better talent, instead, it has largely meant that the organizations are paying more for the same work or/and are led by ever more ambitious dimwits who want to push for ever larger projects at the expense of some little ones that do work.

The NGO-Ivy league Nexus
In the past two decades, an internship at an NGO has become a right of passage for countless Ivy League undergraduates, primarily in social sciences and humanities, interested in pursuing further graduate school education. Experience with a foreign NGO has become the best way for the ambitious ivy educated brats to pad up resumes and impress law and medical school admissions committees of their sociotropic ideals. There is little that these self-absorbed individuals bring to third world countries in terms of talent or ability to help but every year thousands of such students are farmed out to NGOs across the world and there they leech money and time from NGOs to get training to hang their mosquito nets and make their calls to mom and dad and make safari trips and learn the language.

NGO workers — Why do they get paid more?
“Government employees have complained their co-workers employed by some non-governmental organizations are getting high salaries that cause a socio-economic imbalance in the society. The high-paid workers of NGOs have clouded the status and standard of life of the low-paid government employees. Prestigious social status and high income of the NGOs workers have created envies in the poverty-stricken government employees.” South Asian Media Net “Venting her spleen, Torpikai, a government employee, told Pajhwok Afghan News on Sunday despite 18 years experience she was paid 2,000 afghanis (40$) but her younger and inexperienced neighbor with same qualification was getting double than her salary.” And wages are only part of the issue, real bills pour in from conferences at five-star hotels, and extravagant perks enjoyed by foreign aid employees like the use of SUVs, PDAs, and stays in five-star hotels. The sad fact is that majority of the aid money is actually funneled back to pay for the perks and salary of the Western aid workers.

Lack of accountability
The logic that underpins all NGO wastefulness is lack of accountability, both in tallying funds and actual accomplishments. Washington Post a couple of years reported that employees in non-profits often times take loans from the NGO funds at no or ridiculously low-interest rates. Other ethical violations are also rampant within NGOs. For example, Oxfam, an NGO and a 25% stakeholder of Cafedirect, campaigned vigorously against CafeDirect’s competitors, accusing them of exploiting coffee growers by paying them a small fraction of their earnings.

Food for Thought
Here’s an excerpt from a New York Times article that passingly compares aid strategies between the West and China.

“The industrial nations conducted a sort of moral crusade, with advocacy organizations exposing Africa’s dreadful sores and crying shame on the leaders of wealthy nations and those leaders then heroically pledging, at the G8 meeting in July, to raise their development assistance by billions and to open their markets to Africa. Once everyone had gone home, the aid increase turned out to be largely ephemeral and trade reform merely wishful. China, by contrast, offers a pragmatic relationship between equals: the “strategic partnership” promised in China’s African policy is premised on “mutual benefit, reciprocity, and common prosperity.” And the benefits are very tangible.”

Google News: Positives, Negatives, and the Rest

16 Nov

Google News is the sixth most visited news site, according to Alexa Web Traffic Rankings. Given its popularity, it deserves closer attention.

What is Google News? Google News is a news aggregation service that scours around ten thousand news sources, categorizes the articles and ranks them. What sets Google News apart is that it is not monetized. It doesn’t feature ads. Nor does it have deals with publishers. The other distinguishing part is that it is run by software engineers rather than journalists.

Criticisms

1. Copyright: Some argue that the service infringes of copyrights.

2. Lost Revenue: Some argue that the service causes news sources to lose revenue.

3. Popular is not the same as important or diverse: Google News highlights popular stories and sources. In doing so, it likely exacerbates the already large gap between popular news stories and viewpoints and the rest. The criticism doesn’t ring true. Google News merely mimics the information (news) and economic topography of the real world, which encompasses the economic underpinnings of the virtual world as in better-funded sites tend to be more popular or firms more successful in real world may have better-produced sites and hence may, in turn, attract more traffic. It does, however, bring into question whether Google can do better than merely mimic the topography of the world. There are, of course, multiple problems associated with any such venture, especially for Google, whose search algorithm is built around measuring popularity and authority of sites. The key problem is that news is not immune to being anything more than a popularity contest shepherded by rating (euphemism for financial interests) driven news media. A look at New York Times homepage, with extensive selection of lifestyle articles, gives one an idea of the depth of the problem. So if Google were to venture out and produce a list of stories that were sorted by relevance to say policy, not that any such thing can be done, there is a good chance that an average user will find the news articles irrelevant. Of course, a user-determined topical selection of stories would probably be very useful for users. While numerous social scientists have issued a caveat against adopting the latter approach arguing that it may lead to further atomization and decline in sociotropism, I believe that their appeals are disingenuous given that specialized interest in narrowly defined topics and interests in global news can flower together.

4. Transparency: Google News is not particularly transparent in the way it functions. Given the often abstruse and economically constrained processes that determine the content of newspapers, I don’t see why Google News process is any less transparent. I believe the objection primarily stems from people’s discomfort with automated processes determining the order and selection of news items. Automated processes don’t imply that they aren’t based on adaptive systems based on criteria commonly used by editors across newsrooms. More importantly, Google News works off the editorial decisions made by organizations across the board, for they include details like placement and section of the article within the news site as a pointer for the relative importance of the news article. At this point, we may also want to deal with the question of accountability, as pertaining to the veracity of news items. Given that Google News provides a variety of news sources, it automatically provides users with a way to check for inconsistencies within and between articles. In addition, Google News relies on the fact that in this day and age, some blogger will post an erratum to a “Google News source” site, of which there are over ten thousand, and that in turn may be featured within Google News.

Positives

Google News gives people the ability to mine through a gargantuan number of news sources and come up with a list of news stories on the same “topic” (or event) and the ability to search for a particular topic quickly. One can envision that both the user looking for a diversity of news sources or looking for quick information on a particular topic, could both be interested in other related information on the topic. More substantively, Google News may want to collate information from its web, video and image search, along with links to key organizations mentioned in the websites and put then right next to the link to the story. For example, BBC offers a related link to India’s country profile next to a story on India. Another way Google News can add value for its users is by leveraging the statistics it compiles of when and where news stories were published, stories published in the last 24 hrs or 48 hrs etc. I would love to see a feature called the “state of news” that shows statistical trends on news items getting coverage, patterns of coverage etc. (this endeavor would be similar to Google Trends)

Diversity of News Stories

What do we mean by diversity and what kind of diversity would users find most useful? Diversity can mean diverse locations—publishers or datelines, viewpoint—for or against an issue, depth—a quick summary or a large tome, medium—video, text, or audio, type of news—reporting versus analysis. Of course, Google can circumvent all of these concerns by setting up parallel mechanisms for all the measures it deems important. For example, a map/google news “mashup” can prove to be useful in highlighting where news is currently coming from. Going back to the topic of ensuring diversity – conceptual diversity is possibly the hardest to implement. There can be a multitude of angles for a story – not just for and against binary positions and facets can quickly become unruly, indefensible and unusable. For example if it splits news stories based on news sources (like liberal or conservative – people will argue over whether right categorizations were chosen or even about the labeling, for example, social conservatives and fiscal conservatives) or organizations cited (for example there is a good chance that an article using statistics from Heritage foundation leans in a conservative direction but that is hardly a rule). Still, I feel that these measures can prove to be helpful in at least mining for a diversity of articles on the same topic. One of the challenges of categorization is to come up with “natural” categories as in coming up with categorization that is “intuitive” for people. Given the conceptual diversity and the related abstruseness, Google may though want to preclude offering them as clickable categories to users thought it may want to use the categorization technique to display “diverse” stories. Similarly, more complex statistical measures can also prove to be useful in subcategorization, for example providing a statistical reference to the most common phrases or keywords or even Amazon like statistics on the relative hardness of reading. Google News may also just want to list the organizations cited in the news article and leave the decision of categorization to users.

Beyond Non-Profit
Google News’ current “philanthropic” (people may argue otherwise viewing it as a publicity stunt) model is fundamentally flawed for it may restrict the money it needs to innovate and grow. Hence, it is important that it explores possible monetization opportunities. There are two possible ways to monetize Google News – developing a portal (like Yahoo!) and developing tools or services that it can charge for. While Google is already forging ahead with its portal model, it has yet to make appreciable progress in offering widely incorporable tools for its Google News service. There is a strong probability that news organizations would be interested in buying a product that displays “related news items” next to news articles. This is something that Technorati already for does for blogs but there is ample room for both, additional players, and for improving the quality of the content. It would be interesting to see a product that helps display Google News results along with Google image, blog, and video search results.

A Response to Sherry Turkle

16 Nov

Chaste, who has contributed earlier to the site, critiques an article by Sherry Turkle.

Her article:
http://web.mit.edu/sturkle/www/whitherpsychoanalysis.html

Chaste’s response –

My main issue is that it is a sloppily done article. A thorough piece generally bases itself on a careful theoretical apparatus or produces such solid evidence that most of its claims are very difficult to argue against. This author simply strings together a bunch of speculations, at least 70% of which have at least equally convincing arguments against them. I simply do not see the point of such pieces, for they are little better than a chat-like aggregation of ideas. And her efforts at an MIT-based incestuous self-aggrandizement do little for the credibility of her analysis.

Here are just a few examples to show how very thorough she is in her sloppiness. She talks about the possibility of exploring alternative personas in cyberspace, and how this represents a very different possibility of self-exploration than anything that went before. But isn’t she led to such conclusions by assuming as given that the “virtual reality” of cyberspace is more analogous to “reality” than to fantasy as “virtual” would suggest? Thus, couldn’t a man in his fantasy life in decades and centuries past explore alternative personas based on the films he watched from day to day or the gossip stories he read in newspapers or heard from neighbors? Or take her example of the effect of HCI affection in the shaping of emotions. None of her examples go beyond children aged 10: a time at which they have barely outgrown belief in the tooth fairy. Unless she can give substantial evidence of emotions in adult lives, why should we distinguish HCI from the countless other things that children set store by? And when she does venture into adult HCI, her ineptness is only laughable. She talks of a man who chooses a female persona as a convenient outlet for his assertiveness. First, the man’s responses are reactive rather than exploration-oriented; second, his choice of a female persona appears to be dictated by little more than convenience. Only in an age of post-modernist sloppiness can the choice of a convenient medium be confused with meaningful self-exploration. And I do not need to tell you that avatars are not aspects or sub-personalities of Hindu gods, but are their incarnations: the latter is a discrete entity at a point in time throughout all space.

And now to a couple of things in this essay that actually sparked my interest. First, of course, is the definition of what it is to be human, and why I find it rather absurd that humans would ever accord machines a similar status. At one time, I had toyed with the idea that what gives human beings their uniqueness is an arbitrariness induced by biochemical arbitrariness in their responses to various stimuli. But frankly, all that is pointless palaver. No one has ever seriously taken any definition of humanity based on objective ideas like intelligence. All those crappy definitions of race were largely based in politics and economics, and what support they got from neutral academics was largely based on those academics being at their wits end to produce a logical rebuttal. What people perceive as most worthy about themselves is inevitably what has always driven their definition of what is human. Thus, there were very few serious Christians who ever subscribed to the racial hierarchies of 19th-century race science, precisely because they saw in non-white people the same capacity for Christian redemption that they most valued in themselves. What people regard as valuable can of course change. But let me glance at some of the odds stacked against machine creations. I will start by assuming a sophisticated persona that is not programmed with a limited set of instructions but is constantly changing itself based on selective crawling of web data. As such it would be a storehouse of information and insights on any topic including the manners of various subgroups of our times that a human could only dream of. Given current IP laws, digitally generated personas cannot be owned by the owner of the persona generator. Besides, such persona generators are unlikely to be monopolies. Hence the personas will lack that most important value in human eyes, namely, market value. They will be infinitely reproducible. It is also impossible to conceive of personas as serious stakeholders which could accrue value for themselves through participation in the market and in social spaces. Who would allow a persona a serious stake in anything when that demand for a stake could simply be disposed of with a mouse-click? It is difficult to see why personas should be much more effective than the characters in Shakespeare or in Emily Bronte. Claiming this would be succumbing to the seduction by the latest medium: no different from claims by conservatives about the effect of media violence based on an assumed confusion between reality and screen by the audience.

The other point that interested me pertains to the possible psycho-pharmacological uses of such personas. I think she is trying to make the point seem more important than it is by using some trendy term like “psycho-pharmacological.” The fact that she talks about them primarily in relation to children and the elderly points out the less glamorous spin on it, namely, that they are more effective toys at killing time and keeping unproductive people occupied at low cost. She could have pointed out (which she does not) that intelligent personas could be used as effective and cheap socializing tools both for children and for entrants into a new culture. But doubtless, that sounds less sexy.