Editorial JAM

April 10, 2012

Earlier today, I was talking to Vikster on twitter about how, the next time we are in Mumbai, I should bring along RED Full Blooded Romances so that he could read them out loud at dinner. This may seem like a surprising thing to the uninitiated – but allow me to assure you that to hear him doing a dramatic reading of terrible South Indian romance novels is one of life’s greatest joys. I’m hoping to persuade Anand to come along to dinner with his mic so that the joy can be shared with the world at large. But I digress.

During the course of this conversation I realised that I could adapt JAM (Just-a-Minute, the thing you play at college cultural festivals) into a game for editors. Here’s what you’d need:

  • someone to read out loud – ideally Vikster, but then he is very busy and important, so anyone else with a clear, bell-like voice
  • a game master to arbitrate – so someone who has mad language and grammar skillz
  • contestants – the best sort would be editors, sub-editors, or people planning to become editors or sub-editors
  • one buzzer per contestant
  • and finally, a RED Full Blooded Romance, a Srishti novel, or a copy of the Times of India or The Hindu (or any Indian newspaper really – just that those are the two worst offenders, though in different ways)

How to Play

The game master comes up with a list of violations of language and style. Depending on what exactly is being read out, these could include:

  • errors of grammar (almost every sentence in Srishti)
  • errors of fact
  • logical fallacies
  • inappropriate use of business or technical jargon (alarmingly common in RED)
  • cliches
  • pompous language (pretty much every other sentence in The Hindu)
  • completely irrelevant puns (pretty much every other headline in The Times of India)

This is only a starting list – I’m sure more can be added.

Then, one contestant is picked to start. After that, the elocutionist starts reading the material out loud. The contestant who starts has to buzz every time she catches a violation on the list. If she manages to do this for a whole minute (or article, or chapter – this bit needs to be worked out), she scores 100 points.

To make things interesting and JAM-like, any of the other contestants can also buzz if they think the contestant in the hot-seat missed something. If their objection is sustained by the game master, the original contestant gets negative points and the interjector gets a shot at going for the 100 points. If the objection is overruled, the interjector gets negative points.

Now you could play this for points, or, to make things interesting, you could turn it into a drinking game. So, instead of getting negative points, you’d have to take a shot every time you either missed an error, falsely identified something as an error, or someone else got the 100 points. With every shot you’d take, your reflexes would slow down further, making it even more difficult for you to identify the language violations in the next round – so the worst editors would be the ones who got tanked first.

That actually makes this drinking game a Darwinian method of selecting good editors: the weak and unfit will be culled from the herd by alcohol poisoning, while the good ones will be the last people standing. That way, this could be an excellent training program for interns at newspapers – or even an entrance test for journalism schools. I mean, it would eliminate the chance that you’d have someone grammar challenged spending two years at J-school, then six months in editorial training, and finally turning out to be completely incompetent as a copy editor.

The only disadvantage I can see with this idea is that rather than selecting people with really good grammar awareness, it may just end up selecting people with really good alcohol tolerance. But then, being able to function despite being absolutely sloshed could also be  major advantage if you’re an editor, and you need to drink  to drive away the pain of  editing freelancers who forget to use the Oxford comma.

The Tragedy of Fresh and Updated Pop Culture References

April 10, 2012

At the end of March, when year-end despatch pressure was driving me loony, I resorted to retail therapy, and bought the box set of The Princess Diaries. Unfortunately, I asked Flipkart to ship the box to my flat in Chennai, and I’ve been at Kanchi almost incessantly, so I didn’t get to open the box until yesterday. Unfortunately, since I had already paid for the set, it did mean that I had no money with which to buy my mixie. But then it is hard to take a long term view where the Princess Diaries are concerned.

Quick clarification: I had read the first four books in the series back in 2004, when I had a bookshop-cum-lending-library membership in Patiala (I think they had never counted on a reader as voracious as myself and I drove them bankrupt by issuing two books a day). After that, I was in Bangalore for two years, and lost track. In 2007 or 2008, I read up to Book 5 or Book 6 as pirated ebooks that Aisha had scored. And after that, I decided that since the series was coming to an end, I’d just wait for the box set to come out.

Well, the box set came out, and after many months of always having something more important to buy first, I finally got it and started reading it (right from Book 1) last night. And Alamak! It’s terrible!

Well, the diaries themselves are not terrible. They are still as funny as they were when I read them eight years ago. But the editing is awful. This set is the UK edition, published by Pan Macmillan. Unfortunately, it uses the updated, 2007 edition where:

  1. a bunch of pop culture references from the original 2000 books have been updated to more contemporary, 2007 popstars and movie stars. Thoo.
  2. Worse, this updating is not even done consistently – so that in one paragraph, Britney Spears is changed to Ashlee Simpson twice, but there’s still an instance of Britney (which is how I realised that this jigger-pokery was going on)
  3. And this is just part of really sloppy editing throughout the new editions – there are howlers like “an ten extra bucks” scattered throughout the two and a half volumes I’ve read so far.

Even if the editing had been good, and the pop culture updations consistent, it would have been lamentable. This is because the original series existed in comic book time: so while the characters aged only a month from one book to the next, the setting they were in aged in real time. This can be exasperating to the literal minded – but is part of the charm of the books, especially if you have one of those perverse (*cough* quizzing *cough*) minds that delights in listing contradictions and anomalies. Besides, as Ford Prefect says: “Time is an illusion. Lunchtime doubly so.” And on a slightly weightier note, as Fraa Jad says: “There is no backwards.”

One other series that used comic book time was Richmal Crompton’s Just William series, where William was always eleven years old, even though he could remember things that he had done three years ago (when he was still eleven years old).  This complete changelessness of William, his friends, and surroundings, was in fact made the key plot point of Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s comic horror spoof of the William series, Good Omens.

By coincidence, the William series is also published by Macmillan – and they have taken it out of print. So they have mutilated the Princess Diaries, and taken away the William books. Scoundrels!

Saving for Marriages

April 8, 2012

I am at Kanchipuram today. This is due to dire circumstance and not by choice. My car is being serviced (this involves spare parts from Europe and so will take a month), and so I couldn’t drive back. The driver is on holiday for Easter (hey, Happy Easter, everyone!) and so he can’t drive me to Chennai and back in another car. And I could take the bus except I am not very enamoured of taking a bus to T-Nagar and then an auto to Velachery in the April heat.

All right, that last bit is laziness, not dire circumstance. Be that as it may – due to a combination of laziness and dire circumstance – I am spending this Sunday at the guesthouse in Kanchipuram instead of my flat in Chennai. This also meant that after a very long time, I read the Hindu Business Line, and specifically its Sunday personal finance agony aunt column.

The letter in today’s column featured a goal which features almost every Sunday:

For my daughter’s graduation, I would require Rs 10 lakh in 2021 and Rs 10 lakh for her post graduation. I wish to create a corpus of Rs 12 lakh for her marriage by 2030. For her marriage, we have 30 sovereigns of gold and 2 kg silver.

(The Hindu Business Line: Investment World)

Before I get to the financial matters, let me address the language. As an editor and grammar-bigot, there are two things about this which make my eye twitch:

  1. It uses ‘would’ instead of ‘will’. This appalling misuse is clearly notrestricted to North Indians.
  2. It uses ‘marriage’ instead of ‘wedding’.

Using ‘marriage’ instead of ‘wedding’ actually makes me twitch twice as much, because I have no way of realising which the letter writer actually meant. Did he want to have twelve lakh rupees to spend on her wedding? Or did he plan to give her twelve lakh rupees as a sort of nest egg to accompany her through married life?

If he did mean wedding, that makes me twitch for another, non-grammatical reason. I wish that just one Sunday, somebody would write in to the personal finance advice column and proudly announce that they were saving purely for retirement and that if their kids wanted a big fat wedding they had better pay for it themselves or elope.

This whole saving up so you can afford a big wedding thing must be one of the leading causes of misery in India. So much present consumption foregone, and all it accomplishes is to put the bride and groom through even more stress. Haakthoo.

Languages and Optionality

April 2, 2012

Last week, I completed the Goethe Institut’s A1 German course. (My new year’s resolution is to complete the B1 course this year. Registration for A2 is in a couple of weeks, and the course itself starts in May.)

I had enrolled in the A1 course last year for a number of reasons, including:

  • I enjoy languages
  • Our company has German partners and customers, and it’s useful to know their language
  • I had been diagnosed with anxiety disorder due to extreme social isolation (what else do you expect when you live in Kanchipuram?), and something that would give me social contact every weekend would help
  • and most importantly, everything sounds more badass in German. (Even Disney movies. Exhibit A.)

The A1 course was huge fun. I had stars in my eyes when, towards the end of the course we did the past participle of words. Quick explanation: it’s a shortcut that prevents you from having to learn the past tenses of verbs. Instead of saying “I made”, or “you made”, or “they made”, you say “I have made”, “You have made”, and so on. This doesn’t seem that impressive in English, because the past tense for I, you, he, and they are all “made”, but it’s a significant advantage in German where they’re different but the participle stays the same throughout.

It was also very easy for me. I think this was because of a combination of two things: first, the Goethe Institut has an incredibly structured teaching methodology where you learn both by swotting grammar and vocabulary, and by actual conversation and immersion. Since they’ve been teaching German as a foreign language for years now, they’ve presumably settled on the best schedule to expose a new learner to either grammar or actual conversation or text reading. It worked for me, anyway.

The other thing that made the course easy was that I had spent five years (Class 6 to Class 10) learning Sanskrit in a CBSE school.

Now, back in the 1990s, studying Sanskrit in a CBSE school was anything but an appropriate mix of immersion and grammar. (I don’t know if it’s changed since then.) From Class 6 to Class 8, you did only grammar. It wasn’t until you came to Class 9 that you started reading short stories – up until then, you would read a sentence at a time at best. (This was when you weren’t rote-learning verb conjugations and noun declensions.)

I won’t comment on how useful this was as a method of teaching Sanskrit – I hardly remember any Sanskrit now, but that could easily be because I never stayed in touch with it after the board exams, and not necessarily because it’s a mad pedagogical method. But it was incredibly useful as a way to make me familiar with the rules of language in general.

Remember how I said that in German the verb form changes with person? Let’s stick to the present tense of make for now, and compare English and German.

  • First Person Singular: I make / Ich mache
  • First Person Plural: We make / Wir machen
  • Second Person Singular: You make / Du machst (informal) and Sie machen (formal)
  • Second Person Plural: You make / Ihr macht (informal) and Sie machen (formal)
  • Third Person Singular: He Makes / Er macht
  • Third Person Plural: They make / sie machen
That’s two forms (make and makes) in English, and four forms (mache, machen, machst, macht) in German. If you’re coming from English, it can drive you mad. But if you’ve spent three years mugging up conjugations in Sanskrit (where, just to make things fun, there’s a dual along with the singular and plural – though there’s no difference between formal you and informal you) you already know what a conjugation is, and all you have to do is remember the conjugations. You’ve already climbed the first hurdle of knowing what  a conjugation is.

Incidentally, a month or so ago, a friend who knew I was studying German forwarded me Mark Twain’s epic rant about the language. Twain complains bitterly that German has four cases for declension. He would have gone mad with Sanskrit, which has seven; or with Finnish which apparently has fourteen. Incidentally, he reserves particular ire for the dative case – and he has my sympathies. The dative case is maddening – it seems to be the case where all the special exceptions to the other three cases end up.

But this illustrates my point – that if you’ve been through Sanskrit grammar and managed that, grammar in German is both familiar and trivial. I suspect this may be true for any language in the Indo-European family. So if your learning style is okay with three years of learning grammar by rote, doing Sanskrit the way we did it back in our day (and, for all I know, is the way kids these days are still doing it), you can then learn any other Indo-European language in the future very quickly. Maybe even any other language, though I will have no experience in this until my Tamil lessons kick off later this year. The value of Sanskrit, then, is not in the language itself, but that it opens up options to learn other languages.

Time now for a quick segue.

A week or so ago, this blogpost about how the Millennial generation is obsessed with picking options that open up other options was being tweeted all over my timeline (though I think I saw it via Suze and Ravi first):

…strange anxieties are getting in the way of these ambitions – none more prominently than something called FOMO. It is the “fear of missing out,” and it has been written about by others (including in an article about SXSW last year) as a phenomenon caused by social media.

More and more, particularly among those who have yet to make those big life decisions (whom to marry, what kind of job to commit to, where to live), FOMO and FOBO – the “fear of better options” – are causing these young leaders to stand still rather than act.

Those with the most options in this generation have a tendency to choose the option that keeps the most options open. Wrap your head around that for a second. It’s one of the reasons that management consulting has become so popular among today’s young elites.

(CNN: Global Public Square)

I empathise with that “fear of better options” a little, but I’m also wary about generalising to an entire generation (even if generations are by definition where generalisations apply). Not to mention that the Millennial generation of the USA is not going to match the similar generational cohort in other countries. Though I have to admit, globalisation means that (rich) American Millennials are probably more similar to (rich) people from the same generation in other countries than at any point before. Earlier in history, the similarity would have been in destitution…

But now that Priya Parker has come up with this very interesting concept of optionality, it ties in to the first part of my blogpost: Sanskrit, as I said, is brilliant at opening up other options. But (and of course there’s a but)…

If there is this hankering for optionality, at what point does it actually develop?

I ask this because when I did Sanskrit, there was no choice – from Class 6 to Class 8, you had to do Sanskrit as the third language at my school. Then I came to Class X or XI, and suddenly our school introduced an option for the middle school kids: they could do French or German instead of Sanskrit. Suddenly there were mass desertions – Sanskrit fell down to one or two sections (if that many.)

Now admittedly most people might not have made the connection between learning Sanskrit now and learning French or German much quicker later on. But even if someone had gone around madly pitching Sanskrit as the best language if you wanted to keep your options open to a bunch of middle school kids: would they really have listened?

The obsession with optionality requires a sense of the future. And perhaps I’m doing them a disservice, and the younger generation has that sense of the future – but honestly, I don’t see an eleven year old giving up French now to study Sanskrit so that he (or she) can study both French and German in the future.  I don’t think that’s about impatience, or inability to think ahead: if you’re eleven years old, thinking of a future three years away (or even further) is a quarter of a lifetime.

(UpdateAishwarya pointed out over chat that not only would they not have listened, but this would only have been true for the kids who learned like me and for whom grammar works in the same way. Yes, this would have only worked if you had some magic way of identifying such kids and pitching to them, and I thought my earlier caveat about German being easier if this method of pedagogy worked for you made that implicit, but I should have made it explicit instead. That was sloppy writing on my part.)

Proportionally, that’s like asking a twenty-something to make plans for when he’s thirty five – but then, twenty-somethings do do that – anyone entering a long-gestation career like law or medicine is doing that, and so is somebody who’s setting up a retirement fund.

So at some point between being kids and late-teenagers, we gain a sense of the future. Sometimes this future orientation is thrust upon us (as it would be for most Indian kids who’re pushed kicking and screaming into a predetermined engineering+MBA career). Sometimes, we’re born with it and start off early. And sometimes, we become obsessed with it and end up like the Millennials that Priya Parker describes.

And now seguing back to the paralysis brought about by the hunt for options…

To be honest – I’ve been there. The thing that’s helped the most is to keep reminding myself that some things are best done now when I have the youthfulness to do them well. Really, this is balancing out options with a bucket list or checklist where ticking off items gives me a warm and fuzzy feeling. It still doesn’t work as well as I’d like it to – but it’s a start.