Saturday, July 28, 2007

Correspondent at large

After a little more than 100 posts over three and a half years, cosmicdebris has moved here. Only the blog's now called correspondent at large. See you there!

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Roger & Rafael: a burgeoning rivalry

Just when I was thinking it would be better to watch Aisam Qureshi (because he volleys on grass) than all those baseline bashers with titles, Nadal and Federer served up a treat at the final. The first five-setter at a Wimbledon final since 2001 when Goran Ivanisevic beat Patrick Rafter was everything a Grand Slam final should be - fast, furious and unbelievably close.

In the end, like tradition demands it at the home of tennis, the usurper had to be content with second place. Federer bawled like a baby after putting away Championship Point and promptly added on a white blazer and white pants. (The wrong way round, according to a few reports)! Who said Wimbledon doesn't make you do quirky things"! And when Federer congratulated Nadal for having made it to a 2nd final in a row, he managed not to sound condescending.

Though Federer reminded us that he had the touch even at the net, it was Nadal who was the revelation. He showed that he could out-volley the champion and unfurl incredible passing shots on grass. The intensity of play did not drop even in the final set. Five-setters tend to be tiring for the viewer as well, especially when the two players are sluggish after giving it their all. But this wasn't so because the points were short. Thankfully, we were spared tedious rallies with both players unafraid to rush towards the net. A brief summary for those who missed the match:

First set 7-6 to Federer. Nadal saves 4 set points in the tie-break, but Federer smashes a back hand volley to end the matter. Absolutely loved the angles Nadal was getting in, he must have rubber wrists!

Second set 6-4 to Nadal. Federer snuffs out two break points with three aces cool as you plesae to make it three games all. But at 4-5, serving to stay in the set, Nadal rushes forward to break him. A wrinkle of two appears on Federer's forehead.

Third set 7-6 to Federer. Unbelievable intensity. Am checking The Guardian's website commentary on the match, while watching the battle on TV. They quote Jimmy Connors on BBC, "if either player drops their level by as much as two percent, they will be totally overrun". Federer quickly ratchets up a lead in the tie-breaker and duly closes the third set out.

Fourth set 6-2 to Nadal. Hold on! Quick as a flash, Nadal snatches a break in the first game of the fourth set and before you realize it, breaks Federer again to go up 3-love. Federer intensely irritated, says 'shit' within range of the umpire's microphone. The marginal calls continue to go Nadal's way, is Hawkeye conspiring against the Champion" Alan Wilkins says something like this on commentary, "Nadal is like Joe Frasier was against Mohammed Ali, he keeps coming at Federer."

Fifth set 6-2 to Federer and with it the match! Both players are moving very well. Federer continues to rely on his serve to bail him out and Nadal is still whipping out passing shots that are hard to comprehend; Nadal also continues to come to the net. Vijay Amritraj in mock-discovery mode, "he likes to volley!" But Federer has begun to lift his levels. He breaks Nadal, his game getting tougher and tougher to match as he rides the momentum. Championship Point is upon us before we know it, and Federer ends it with a smash. Whatta match!

This piece was originally posted here.

Monday, July 02, 2007

MBA degrees for Page 3 gals?

Time magazine's cover story on media mogul Rupert Murdoch's bid for the Wall Street Journal reveals his own viewpoint on what a journalist should be like. Murdoch, in the report,

"...has always said that craving respectability is the beginning of the end for a journalist. 'Journalists should think of themselves as outside the Establishment, and owners can't be too worried about what they're told at their country clubs,' says the man who influences Prime Ministers and Presidents and still poses as a scrappy outsider."

Here's an admission - respectability is what I'm after. I chase after it, turning a blind eye to the need to break stories or what I believe will be half-baked stories. I'm not prolific enough, for fear of filing a report that 'compromises' me. Murdoch's words jolted me, because I realise now that I've often confused respectability for credibility. Credibility is what you get when you're constantly on the field - respectability has nothing to do with it. Just like a journalist needs to have a healthy disregard for all that's fed to him, so must he be wary of being too timid in going after those who've stepped over the line. Do those words resonate in you?

Not that I'm endorsing Murdoch - his reputation for editorial interference precedes him. But perhaps we've been guilty of demonizing him too. Read the entire cover. Before I sign-off, another mischievous quote from him,

'..Murdoch wouldn't be Murdoch if he didn't love sticking it to sanctimonious J-school toffs. "When the Journal gets its Page 3 girls," he jokes late one night, "we'll make sure they have M.B.A.s"...'

Friday, June 29, 2007

How to create comic strips

I've always wondered how comic strips are created. It turns out now that all you need to do is get yourself a banana, diet coke, cat and the right kind of computer. Hard time believing me?! It's all in the Dilbertblog.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

On average, you're mean

I suppose all those fusty, badly-dressed statisticians get to revel in their profession and throw up puns like the one on the title of this post, for at least one day. Mark your calendars, for its day after tomorrow - National Statistical Day. How many professions even have their own day?

Number crunchers can thank a shadowy figure from history, one whose name was virtually unpronouncable, at least until I found he was Bengali. Prof. Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis was born on this day, June 29th, 1893. He founded the Indian Statistical Institute and is even named after a statistical principle - Mahalanobis distance (click at your own peril!).

The reason I'm referring to him, is that he was the architect of India's 2nd five-year plan (1956-61) which took India towards industrialization. The period we're talking about resulted in the building of massive dams, steel plants and power plants - all the building blocks of modern India. The country took turns that were to influence society, economy, politics and foriegn relations for a better part of 40 years. Of course, many of the above 'achievements' had unintended consequences and there is much debate today about the effectiveness of following such a policy.

Yes, I continue to be influenced by Ramachandra Guha's India after Gandhi.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

'If he is a bastard, at least he is our bastard'

Q. Who said this? And how does it explain why India tilted towards Russia, despite Nehru's original non alignment stance?

A. Ramachandra Guha, in his comprehensive history of India after independence, attributes this statement to John Foster Dulles, the secretary of state when Nehru visited America in 1949. During the Cold War, the US was suspicious of any nation that said it was neutral ("if he's not with us, then he's against us"). Guha writes,

"Generally speaking, dictators who toed the American line were to be preferred to democrats who didn't"

Nehru is quoted as well in one the letters he wrote to K P S Menon in 1947,

"We must be friendly to both and yet not join either. Both America and Russia are extraordinarily suspicious of each other as well as of other countries. This makes our path difficult and we may well be suspected by each of leaning towards the other. This cannot be helped. "

As Nehru feared, the US grew increasingly suspicious of India. Dulles offended India by suggesting that Portugal could continue to keep its colony in Goa as long as it chose to. And he was instrumental in signing a pact with Pakistan in 1954, further alienating India. Guha also suggests that,

"Nehru's vigorous canvassing of the recognition of the People's Republic of China, and his insistence that it be given the permanent seat in the UN Security Council...was also not taken to kindly by Washington".

So now I know a little more about what had been a mystery to me. Of course, Guha explains that Nehru's false reading of Russia's intentions (perhaps fired by his idealism) led to India gravitating towards the Reds. No doubt there are a cocktail of reasons that dictated India's choices just after independence, but Guha's book is a good starting point.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Anatomy of an apology

Tim Harford's column on apologies (link via India Uncut) reminded me of what I'd learnt soon after landing up in Delhi for a new job in news. I'm sorry, I said to my boss one day, after committing a pronunciation mistake of the sort one tends to see a lot on TV (I said kaun-stituency instead of constituency).
The incident itself wasn't of much importance, but my ready apology surprised him, and I could almost see his mental gears shifting. His new opinion of me seemed to be that I was a pushover. Bad mistake. Days later, I was told someone else would be in charge of our team, although I had the relevant experience.

Alright, it's an apocryphal example, that story. The actual facts are far more complicated. But the point is that an apology has its costs as well as benefits. To quote from Harford's column,

"... apologies make us more likable but also make us seem incompetent - an intuitive response backed up by psychological research. For example, the psychologists Fiona Lee and Lara Tiedens showed subjects some edited footage of Bill Clinton talking about the Lewinsky affair.
After viewing the clips in which Clinton seemed apologetic, the subjects said they liked him more but respected him less. This suggests that an apology is not cheap talk at all: it represents a choice to appear loveable but bumbling. The alternative is to admit nothing and look like a competent hard-man..."

My own view of an apology is simply: if I'm wrong, I should apologise. The trouble arises when I'm only partly wrong. My habit is to acknowledge my mistake even if my part in the 'error' committed is so minuscule so as to warrant no apology. Consequently, I apologise when I shouldn't be doing so. And to let off the set of frustrations that go with behaving in that fashion, I don't apologise when I should be. I'm trying to be a little more sparing in my manner now, but I wonder what all this has done to my image.

The final word in this topic should belong to my wife of 6 months, to whom I've probably apologised to a thousand times. I ask her what she thinks of my habit. She says, "you don't ever apologise, you only offer justifications".

Ah well, whatever.

Dear reader...

It's not like I've stopped writing out my thoughts. The reason I'd stopped publishing them was because I wanted the writing to be less self-indulgent. Having tried out blogs related to specific topics in the hunt for more focus, I think I've arrived at a compromise. I'll still write about anything that's fit to print (with apologies to the New York Times), but hopefully with greater purpose.

Monday, April 30, 2007

Aussies champs, viewers champs

A bizarre moment during the World Cup final pretty much summed up all the coverage by SET Max through the tournament. Cutting back to action from a commercial break, we were treated to a celebrating Australia in the 33rd over of the Sri Lankan run chase. Apparently, the Lankan batsmen had accepted an offer to walk off because of bad light with three overs to go (in a 38-overs-a-side-final), sparking off premature celebrations in the Aussie camp. Of course, we didn't know that, because we were watching the ads.
Many moments later, the channel did it again; just when Australia were about to take off with the World Cup trophy, they cut into Charu Sharma, Mandira Bedi and co.
Cricket nuts would agree I'm sure; that the coverage this world cup has been appalling, and we're not just talking about the final.
To further embellish the point, there are two specific areas where TV audiences have been ripped off; all in all adding up to 200 causes for irritation each night in a match of 100 overs. I'm talking about the beginning and the end of each over.
At the end of each over, the folks at SET Max would switch to the ads the moment the batsman in question hit the last ball. So diligent in their task were they, that many times they cut into the ads before a run was completed. And if the last ball were a boundary - there would be no replay before or after the ad break. An example: when Australian captain Ricky Ponting unfurled two gorgeous drives in the 2nd and 4th over during the semifinal match against South Africa.
Some may say I'm nitpicking here, but take a look at what would invariably happen when the channel cut back to action. Captain setting the field? Cut to a model peddling a liquour brand, (asking you what your 'score' is). Change of bowler? Time to remind us that some newspaper is now No 1 in Punjab. So in the space of seconds, it would be back and forth between the cricket and advertisements - the viewer be dammed.
That isn't all - action replays would have advertising 'bands' obscuring a catch. These bands would even come in the way of a player close-up.
Were we watching cricket, or advertisements with cricket 'breaks'? Forgive me for not knowing the answer.
Of course, this isn't how it should be. Among other things, cricket is a game of anticipation & pauses, and much of the story plays itself out between deliveries. Killing a tense captain-wicketkeeper conference at the beginning of an over, or a change-of-ball, or a bowler change with advertisements takes away half the fun of the game. I'm sure there are many of you who agree.
I'm registering this protest in the hope that something will be done about the way cricket is presented in the next series. Sports channels cannot easily be made accountable in the present system. The BCCI which has sold the rights, may not want to dictate terms to broadcasters, and perhaps better coverage is not even legally enforceable. But you have an option - the remote.

This article was originally posted here.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

An open letter to Ten Sports

I'm livid. You deprived me of the pleasure of watching a gripping match, by cutting into ads at crucial points. Yes, I said DURING the match, the US Open semifinal between Andy Roddick and Michail Youzhny.
I'm especially angry because you chose to dip into those ads, when the third set tie-breaker was on - during what could be termed the turning point of the match. The two players are tied a set apiece, and what happens - you cut into those miserable ads. And this wasn't the first time during the match mind you. And this wasn't the first match you've done this during this year's US Open too.

I'm tempted to say I will never use those products you advertised during that match. Yes, yes those disgusting catchlines are still repeating with annoying consistency in my head still. But of course, you know that I may not be able to stick to my promise. Better still, would be to boycott your channel. But then of course, I'm just one sports buff, among the millions in this country. My only hope is that, others who (didn't) saw this match would feel that same.

Cheers to your staggeringly insensitive policy. I hope you rot in hell.