Quitting at 40

6 Apr

Recently, I had the pleasure of interviewing Walter Guillioli. Walter is one of those few brave people who has had the courage to take the reins of his life. Walter carefully and smartly worked to save enough to live off the savings and then quit a well-paying job at 40 to live his life.

GS: Tell us a bit more about yourself.

I grew up in a middle-income family in Guatemala. I am the youngest of five. Growing up, I enjoyed getting into trouble.

From a young age, I was taught that education is important. I studied Computer Science in college. And later, I was fortunate to get a full scholarship from the Dutch government to get an MBA.

I worked in Marketing for 10+ years until I got bored and decided to switch careers to data science. I just finished a Master of Science in Data Science from Northwestern while working full-time.

I love animals, the outdoors and the simple things in life like camping and good scenery. I also like to push myself in sports because it humbles me and helps me build character. I got a black belt in Tae Kwon Do at 38, and I am currently training for ultra-running trail races.

GS: Why did you decide to quit working full-time at 40?

WG: It is a combination of factors, but it is mostly a result of intellectual boredom and a desire to spend my time on earth doing things I love, and to not just “survive” life.

I have always questioned the purpose of (my) life and never liked the cycle most follow: study > work > get married & have kids > consume > be “busy” > (maybe get free time at old age) > die.

Professionally, I have done relatively well. Searching “success,” I have found my dream job three times. However, each time I found my “dream job,” the excitement faded away quickly as I spent most of my time surviving meetings and going through the grind of corporate overhead. I never understood all the stress for work that I didn’t think added much value. I love intellectual challenges and good work, but it was hard to find it in a big corporation.

One of my favorite quotes in Spanish translates roughly to “the richest person is not the one that has the most but the one that knows how to desire less.” And between spending my time in a cubicle working on stuff that didn’t matter to me and buying things I didn’t need, I decided to buy my time and freedom to do what I want.

I decided with my wife to live a simpler life and to move closer to nature and the mountains. I decided to spend more time with my family and raise my 2-year old. I decided that each day I will pick what to do – whether it is going for a trail run (I am training for a 52-mile run) or riding my mountain bike or dirt bike or simply walking my dogs for a few hours or playing with my son and wife in a park or just reading a book.

I will work on projects. I will just work on stuff that matters to me. I want to occasionally freelance on data science projects and contribute to the world. I am also considering personal finance advising to help people.

GS: Tell us a bit more about how you planned your retirement.

WG: I never had a master plan. It has been a learning process with mistakes along the way.

The most important thing for me was changing the mindset about money. I never paid much attention to money. I spent it relatively mindlessly. However, after reading articles like this one, I realized that money is a tool to buy my time and freedom. I can’t think of anything better that money can buy.

So, we focused on understanding our expenses and figuring out ways to reduce them. It’s not about being cheap but about spending intentionally. We also started saving and investing as much as possible on index funds. The end goal became having enough money invested that we could cover our annual expenses from its interest.

GS: What’s your advice for people looking to do the same?


  1. Track and understand your annual expenses with a tool like Quicken or Mint.
  2. Save as much as you can and invest in index funds. Don’t worry about timing the market (it doesn’t work) or about having the perfect portfolio. Start investing in a broad index fund like Vanguard’s VTSAX and get a bit more sophisticated later. Learn more here.
  3. Make a list of things that truly bring you happiness and contrast that with your spending.
  4. Avoid “lifestyle inflation.” And don’t try to keep up with your neighbors. Nothing will be ever enough.
  5. Read these books: Little Book of Common Sense Investing, Simple Path to Wealth, Your Money or Your Life, Four Pillars of Investing.
  6. Read these blogs: Mr. Money Mustache, Mad Fientist
  7. Listen to the ChooseFI podcast.
  8. If you are married, make sure that everyone is onboard.
  9. Have savings targets and automate everything around it so that you pay yourself first.

Interview with Saira Wasim

13 Aug

Saira Wasim is a US-based contemporary artist from Pakistan. Saira has carved a niche for herself with her innovative, meticulously crafted Persian miniatures, which she employs to make political and social commentary. Saira’s work has been widely feted. It has been exhibited at numerous prominent art institutions including the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.


How was it growing up in Lahore? Did you ever visit the BRB canal?

While I was born in the city, my parents moved to the suburbs right after my birth. I grew up in Allama Iqbal town, which is a south-western suburb of Lahore. After my birth, my father built a house in Allama Iqbal town; he always wanted to live away from the city life. Our house was one of the first in the town. My early memories of living in that new town include seeing fields all around our house. My parents still live in that house, though the town itself is much more crowded now. And yes, I have visited BRB Canal plenty of times. My father loved to take us there on picnics.

Is your family originally from Lahore? Or did they move there during partition?

My maternal grandparents were from Lahore while my paternal grandparents were from Pasrur, a small village near Sialkot near the Indian border. Many of my family members originally lived in Qadian, a small village in Gurdaspur in Indian Punjab as Ahmadis have long had very strong ties with Qadian.

Childhood and parents

We were raised in a protected environment. Our weekends were spent at my father’s village of Pasrur. Our father always wanted us to have a first-hand knowledge of village life because he wanted us to experience how people live in extreme poverty. We were also taught swimming, horse riding, fishing, and how to climb on trees, among many other activities of village life.


My father is an engineer. In 1984, my father started a factory for manufacturing capital goods in Lahore. He ran a factory to manufacture control panels and switch gears. Power Electronics, my dad’s company, was the first Pakistani company that made switch gears. Before that, Pakistan had to import these products from Western countries at an enormous cost. It was, in fact, that realization which prompted him to start manufacturing capital goods.

My father disliked the idea of emigrating to other countries. He believed that we have to make things better in our own country. He thought things would get better after Zia’s regime and that our Caliph, Mirza Tahir Ahmad, would come back. He thought that Pakistan would be on the road of peace and prosperity soon after Zia left, but my father was mistaken in his optimism.

Anyhow, while the 1980s were the worst in Pakistan history in terms of freedom of speech and religious freedom, 1990s were the worst in terms of political chaos and corruption in the country. My father had to struggle hard and faced numerous obstacles due to the constant flip-flop between democratically elected governments of Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto, and because these governments brought a lot of corruption in the country. The common man in Pakistan had thought that democratic governments would bring peace and prosperity in the country but things got much worse.


She is a very sensitive person.

My mother had a very tough childhood. My Nana Jaan died when she was two years old and she had to live in extreme poverty.

Although my Nana Jaan, a close friend of Mirza Gulam Ahmad (founder of the Ahmadi sect), was a very rich businessman, with interests in Lahore and Bombay, before partition, and left huge property for his four kids and two widows, those four kids and two widows didn’t get even a single penny from that property because my mother’s two Chachas (uncles) were very much against my naana jaan’s conversion to Ahmadiyya faith and his second marriage at the age of 60 to my nani jaan (a young Kashmiri Ahmadi school teacher from a very poor family). His first wife was a rich lady from a nawab family who lived most of her life with my nana jaan. She had converted to Ahmadiyya faith along with nana jaan but couldn’t have kids so she, along with second caliph Mirza Basir-ud-deen Mahmud and his wife, made my nana jaan do a second marriage with my nani jaan. The first wife died soon after my nana jaan death, and both chachas distributed the wealth among their children. My nani jaan, who got widowed at the age of 25 with four young kids, moved to Rabwa from Lahore where the second caliph was living, who supported nani just like his own daughter and grandkids and there she started teaching at local school. My nani also died when my ami was 16 yrs old and my mamoo (ami’s elder brother) who was himself just 21 yrs old became the guardian of three younger siblings.

Growing up as an Ahmadi in Pakistan

Ahmadis have faced antagonism since the beginning. Ulemas of all the major seventy-two sects of Islam declared them Kafirs in 1891.

In 1974, Prime Minister Zulifqar Ali Bhutto declared Ahmadis non-Muslims. The constitution of Pakistan was amended to outlaw Ahmadis from calling themselves Muslims. Following the legislation, anti-Ahmadiyya riots broke out in the entire country. Thousands of Ahmadis died in the riots. Their properties were looted and their homes burnt.

My ami (mother) always tells us this story that in 1974 when she was pregnant (with me) and alone in the house with her three-year-old daughter (my elder sister), the mullahs led a call during the Friday sermon for every Ahmadi house to be burnt in order to secure Islam from Ahmadiyyat. A huge mob went on a rampage. As the word got around people, including our next door neighbors left their houses to try to save themselves. When the mob, which included some of our own Sunni relatives, was marching toward our house, my abu (father) went to the police to ask for help. The police refused point blank saying that they could not go against the mullahs.

Just when the mob was about to reach our house, there was a sudden severe sandstorm. My ami always says that it was a miracle. (I don’t know about Indian Punjab but in Pakistani Punjab we have a lot of sandstorms especially in early summer and they come so unexpectedly that one doesn’t get the opportunity to close the windows and doors of the house. The storms leave your house covered in dust and the whole city turns into a desert; one can’t even see beyond a foot). The mob couldn’t do anything except break a few windows. My Ami tells us that after the storm there were only shoes and turbans found on the street.

So at a fairly early age we came to know that we had a religious identity which was unacceptable to the mainstream Muslims. We were nurtured in the basic teachings of Ahmadi faith in the house and sent to Convent of Jesus and Mary school because my father didn’t want us to face any discrimination because of our faith.

The discrimination against us has also been endorsed on our passports. If we call ourselves Ahmadis, we have to enroll as a non-Muslim which deprives us of all our basic rights as Muslims. For example, Ahmadis cannot cast votes as Muslim and in order to vote, we have to enroll as non-Muslims.

During Zia-ul Huq oppressive regime, our Fourth Caliph (spiritual leader) Hazrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad was compelled to migrate to England. Since then many Ahmadis in Pakistan have emigrated to European countries. Most of my relatives moved to USA and Canada.

Zia’s oppressive regime left a long-lasting legacy of turmoil in the country and religious extremism. There were many incidents of animosity that I witnessed, and now living in the US I realize how much we were denied of our basic religious rights. Ahmadis were not allowed to practice their faith in public places or build their mosques. So my father volunteered our house for congregational prayers in Ramazan and other Ahmadis meetings. When Mullahs of local mosque got this news my father had to face huge threats and warnings that we were using our residential area for un-Islamic activities. It is against the constitution of Pakistan to build Ahmadiyya mosque or use a building as Ahmadiyya mosque and activities. My father was sued by the local mullahs but my father took the fine in his stride and paid the penalty.

I find it ironic that the only country where I am a non-Muslim is my own. In the past, I have never commented on these issues in my work. And although I was very willing to address such controversial issues, the general air of intolerance in my society always discouraged me from doing so.

When did you first realize that you were interested in art? Was it a Eureka moment for you or a slow eventual realization? South Asian societies generally see art as a hobby. From art as a hobby to choosing it as a profession, this transition is especially difficult in Asian societies. Were your parents supportive of your decision? If you feel comfortable, please tell us a little more about your parent’s professions and their impact on you.

From the earliest that I can remember, I have always been very fond of drawing. Every wall, cupboard, and door was covered with silly figurative drawings and portraits of family members, relatives, and whoever visited our house. I watched the visitors secretly and drew their appearance on the wall and when they were gone I showed it to my parents and said, “Look, I made the picture of Baba Chokidari, motti Chachi, and Apa ji – don’t they look like this?”

In the beginning, my parents were amused by the drawings, my parents said, “look how creative and clever she is.” They laughed at those silly drawing on every wall of the house. And then they realized that every wall was covered with scribbling and drawings, and it gave them a very untidy appearance. So I was given blackboard and white chalks to draw on and instructed to draw on the blackboard only. The blackboard had two sides, one for me and one for my elder sister. We were told to do anything on our given area of Blackboard. My sister’s side was always covered with homework and my side was always covered by drawings. It is funny that now my sister is a Doctor (a general physician in Missouri), and I am still doing those silly drawings.

Let me share one another interesting story with you, my mother was also interested in art and always wanted to be a professional painter. Unfortunately, being a woman, she was not allowed by her family to paint or to pursue a professional career. When she was young, art was considered un-Islamic, and a waste of time. She used to make miniature paintings on fabric, newspapers, and vases, from scratch and without any guidance or training. At that time, parents decided what careers the children would pursue and with whom they would marry. My widowed grandmother, who was a teacher and vice principal at a local school, decided that my mother should become a doctor. However, my grandmother died untimely and the male guardians of my mother disallowed her from continuing her education. So, with her hidden passion for the arts and her mother’s unfulfilled dream for her to be a doctor, she was married away.

Since early childhood, my mother has been mentally and academically preparing my sister and me to eventually become doctors. My sister fulfilled my mother’s dream and became a doctor. But when it came my turn to choose a career, I disappointed her. She always said: I didn’t get permission to be an artist by my mother, so how can I allow you?

At the time, my progress in school was getting very weak and she had to face complaints from my school teachers that they had caught me drawing in the class. So whenever my mother caught me drawing or painting, she would destroy whatever artwork I had created. The only safe time I had was in the middle of the night. I used to wake up in the middle of the night when everybody was asleep, switched on a torch, covered myself with a big blanket, and pursued my art underneath it. Now I feel funny sharing all this but I was still caught and received a good beating from Ami. My mother had a special beating stick for me. If I ever said I wanted to be an artist my sister immediately fetched that stick and put it in front of Ami.

My mother was not an anti-art person, but she feared that her daughter wouldn’t have a respectable place in the society and that pursuing art would kill my professional abilities. As you know in South Asian society artists are deemed to be mere craftsmen.

My secret decision of being an artist was totally opposite to what my mom had decided for me. What I was painting was an even graver threat to Ami and Abu because starting 8th grade, I started painting compositions on human suffering, persecution on minorities and women’s issues.

Eventually, after years of persistence, my parents realized the intensity of my devotion to being an artist and I was granted permission to go to an art school. My Abu was a very big support from the very beginning – he always supported me in whatever I did or chose except we were supposed to be good in studies and elite in our fields. Like, Kasbeh Kamal khon khe Aziz-e-Jhan Shohri Iqbal

My Ami had her own very strong principles and beliefs. She always taught us it was a rigid patriarchal society (secondly we were a religious minority) where there was much discrimination against women and minorities and so women must pursue a career of utmost prestige and which would be considered safe and money making too.

Another reason for these strong anti-art sentiments in the 80’s was Zia-ul-Haq’s dictatorship. Every sort of art except for calligraphy was condemned; figurative art was considered un-Islamic. In fact, engaging in any form of art was considered a great sin.

I was careful to never show my work to my family till it was exhibited or published because if they saw the content and imagery of my work, they would never allow me to continue making such paintings or display them. So, belonging to a family from a controversial religious minority, and one that didn’t support the arts, I grew more politically conscious by the day.


Why did you choose miniature art? What specific affordances does miniature art provide for your overtly political work?

Even today, Pakistani audiences perceive miniature painting as decorative, a form of art that reflects and glorifies their rich traditional heritage. Miniatures, for me, however, have a more transcendental role; it is a vocabulary for the artist to engage in a sociopolitical dialog with viewers towards a more humane society.

Of late, the miniature has drawn attention from foreign curators, museums, and art institutions. Yet, in Pakistan, my work was accepted by just one gallery — Rhotas2, the only serious gallery in Lahore; others were reluctant to display anything controversial.

Moving to Chicago in 2003, I gained the artistic and religious freedom that was somewhat precarious in my own homeland. I began responding to my new environment. The post 9/11 climate of fear, scrutiny, and surveillance of Muslims in the West shaped my current work. Global politics has become a consistent theme. Western societies in general — and the United States in particular — tend to be less aware of other societies in the world, particularly about Islam and Muslim culture. This is an era of cross-cultural misunderstandings; misperceptions created by the Western media that are mostly hostile to Muslim societies and Islam. Much of this misperception is attributable to the Western media, which often presents a distorted version of reality and only one side of the global debate. My new works unmask the injustices and hypocrisy of both the Eastern and the Western worlds.

My work has journeyed through several boundaries, from employing the centuries-old miniature format to a contemporary stage where a human drama unfolds every day, to cross-cultural forays and political interventions. And the inspirational sources have been many — the courtly propaganda of the Mughals, the grandeur of baroque opera, the fun and enjoyment of circus performances, icons of pop culture, and the glamor of South-Asian cinema.

With Mughal allegorical symbolism, we miniaturists have created our own visual semiotics and metaphors. For example, the extremist mullahs who have hijacked Islam for their own political agendas and manipulate Muslim youth in the name of jihad are allegorized by Greek-satyrs, Muslim leaders are depicted as string puppets in the hands of President Bush, Pakistani army generals wearing Hawaiian sandals indicate the irony that this nation is the world’s seventh nuclear state and is spending on a defense budget of over $3.5 billion a year in spite of a national debt of over $40 billion, and the Shia-Sunni clash in Iraq is a bull-fight and the bogeyman media is a monkey with a camera.

Although they provide comic relief, they are critical of ignorance and prejudice, manipulation of governments and religious heads. The ironies and paradoxes of a post 9/11 world permeate my tragi-comic paintings. Mine is a plea for social justice.

Note: The interview was conducted in early 2007. The interview has been extensively edited for style, and on occasion for content. Due care has been taken to keep the overall emphasis and context intact.

Interview with Bina Shah – part 2

28 Jun

Bina Shah is a noted Karachi based author, and journalist. This is a follow-up interview.

In the response to the question about the choice of male protagonists in your novels, you noted, “This is going to change in my next novel, in which the protagonist is a young girl. But she comes from a level of society in which she can slip in and out of various places because she is the poorest of the poor, and they have more liberty in many ways, at least at that age, than a middle or upper-class woman in Pakistan. If that sounds like a paradox, it is.” Your observation reminded me of a passage in Ms. Sidhwa’s novel, The Bride, “Miriam, reflecting her husband’s rising status and respectability, took to observing strict purdah. She seldom ventured out without a veil.”

I think what you say is largely right and something which anthropologists have commented on earlier. They argue that it is the necessity of going to work etc. for the lower class that causes these somewhat lax attitudes. What is your take on the issue? Can you also comment briefly on how economics defines culture? Of course, we have heard all about it through the Friedman patented McDonald’s angle that tackles cultural change via globalization. But can you talk about it from a different angle? And how do you deal with it in your own work?

You won’t see women in the rural areas in purdah. They cover their heads with their dupattas and that is the end of it. They have to go out into the fields and work, and you can’t do that in a purdah or a burqa or a hijab. Some of our women-related cultural rituals and habits are affectations or posturing—making a statement about who you are, or who others think you should be, a very considered statement. Real culture comes more naturally; you don’t have to think about adopting it because you live it.

In response to the question about the ‘type’ of novel—elemental versus Intellectual—you said, “I had a story and I wanted to tell it. I did not feel entitled to comment upon the state of the world at large because I had seen so little of it, in my opinion… My own theories could wait till I had figured out what they were. Why inflict that on my reader?” I perhaps misstated my point about elemental novels for they often have do have opinions and critiques woven in. I certainly think that your novels have implicit critiques, and at least amorphous theories. In fact, I find it impossible that a novel can be absent of ‘comments upon the state of the world’. Perhaps the ‘type’ is more appropriately consigned to the creative process. For instance, I have little doubt that Naipaul first had the ‘idea’ of denigrating revolutionary leaders before he wrote ‘guerillas’. On the other hand, the vicious ‘pettiness’ of everyday life manifest in ‘The House of Mr. Biswas’ seems very much a peripheral part of this sort of unvarnished descriptions. Perhaps I am wrong here and the ‘vicious pettiness’ was indeed a deliberate point. Even if it was deliberate, it was still very clearly made. So is the faux distinction that I draw about types of novels about intentionality? Can you comment briefly on this? And can you talk more about how you craft your own work?

For me, the story always comes first. The social critique comes as I am writing the story. The characters deal with certain situations, and if it is appropriate to comment on society at large because of what they’re going through, then I do it, but I really try hard to weave it in to the narrative rather than taking a big aside that goes on for pages and comments very obviously and loudly on that aspect of society. I’m always sensitive to what sounds natural and what is very obviously the author taking over the narrative, imposing her own voice on the voice of the characters – to me that is very intrusive and distracting and ultimately weak writing.

In response to the question soliciting your comment on whether most ‘authors are trying to write their psychological autobiographies and failing to write them honestly’, you intriguingly started with the phrase, “For me, writing is a therapeutic process”. Was that false start a ‘cousin-of-Freud’ Freudian slip? The point that I was trying to make was that our own histories sometimes make it hard to look at the world objectively, especially in a personal (and seductively powerful) medium like novel that allows, in fact, urges, a novelist to say more or less what s/he wants. Additionally, I think that novelists don’t use the novel to ‘understand the world’ but use it for delivering what they understand about the world.

I meant what I said when I wrote that writing is a therapeutic process. But not therapy for the writer in terms of her own psychological traumas – therapy for the writer as a person existing in a world, a universe, that is difficult and heartbreaking and joyous and eleventeen layers of complex; and coming to terms with all the multiplicities and the multitudes in that world, that universe. There are people that use the novel to exorcise their own demons, certainly. But I will stand by my assertion that novelists write novels to understand the world. When you’re writing or you’re undertaking any sort of artistic project, the process of creation is one that continues throughout the entire span of the project. It’s not that you think and think for five years and you formulate your theories and only then do you put pen to paper and what emerges is fully formed. As you write, your mind keeps working, your theories keep developing. Every day of writing my novel was a new day of discovery, of mental exercises and challenges and expansion and growth. I grew as a person as a result of writing my books. I learned what I knew about the world and what I didn’t. I understood my limitations and where I needed to go in order to overcome them.


Can you talk about how Karachi has influenced your writing?

You are not going to let me get away from that question, are you? Karachi is my inspiration. I couldn’t have been a writer in any other city in the world. Maybe I could now. Like a soldier going into her first battle, I’ve gotten my basic training in Karachi. Karachi is where the stories are. I am a bit of an amateur psychologist and never have I seen another city where people behave in the most contradictory ways. And yet when you examine their motivations and their thought processes, you come up with some amazing insights and illuminations about the human race. It is like a big…what’s the word I am looking for? a cauldron, a test-tube, a type of crucible…where the best and worst of humanity are all thrown together and the results are unpredictable, sometimes horrible, sometimes heartbreaking, but always amazing. I chronicle those results. That is the sum total of all my endeavors as a writer.

This follow-up interview was conducted via email. Questions and answers have been edited for style and content.

Interview with Bina Shah

27 Jun

Bina Shah, a Wellesley and Harvard alumna, is a noted Karachi based author, journalist, editor, and blogger. She has published two novels and two collections of short stories. Her first collection of short stories, Animal Medicine, was published by Oxford University Press in 1999. The collection was followed by a well-received novel, Where They Dream in Blue, that cataloged the return of an expatriate to Karachi. Ms. Shah currently edits the Alhamra Literary Review along with Ilona Yusuf.


How was it growing up in Pakistan in the 1980s under Zia-ul-Haq?

Weird and tense. I remember the day Bhutto was hanged. I was only five but everyone was terrified that there would be some sort of reaction. And there wasn’t. The streets were quiet. Later, I remember “Black Days”, but I didn’t understand what they were about. I touched on those days in my short story 1978 in Blessings where this young boy grows up in the Zia era—the feeling of being out in some sort of wilderness physically echoes what it felt like in this country back then.

You have spent a fair amount of time in the US. You spent your early years in Virginia and then upwards of five years in Massachusetts getting educated, first at Wellesley and then at the School of Education at Harvard. Can you tell us a little more about your time in the US?

Those were the years that formed me. From zero to five, you are absorbing everything and understanding how the world works. Getting your initial programming, so to speak.

When I returned for college and graduate school, it was a time of great freedom, of experimentation, trying my wings. The contrast between a sheltered upbringing in Pakistan and being in the hothouse environment of a Boston education couldn’t be greater. Both of those times in America made me who I am today.

Can you tell me a little more about your parents? What took you and your family to Virginia and what brought you back? What was their attitude towards your choice of profession?

My father was a Ph.D. student at the University of Virginia, and that is why we went there. We came back when he completed his studies, five years later. My parents are many things to me. They were young when they had me, and in a sense, the three of us have grown up together. They challenge me in ways that nobody else does; they are supportive of me but they will never let my head get too big. My mother, particularly, is good at deflating my ego! They are extremely pleased that I have turned out to be a writer because they see how happy it makes me. My dad always said I should be a writer and he never lets me forget that he was right. :)

What was your experience like attending an all women liberal Liberal Arts college in Massachusetts?

Absolutely fantastic! I would send my daughter there in an instant. You have your whole life to spend with men; you only get four years to spend it in an all-women environment. The amount of support, the building of self-confidence and self-esteem is unrivaled anywhere else. It was a very special time.

Your book Where They Dream in Blue deals with an ABCD’s visit to Karachi. How much of the book parallels your own journey? How hard was it for you to readjust to Karachi when you came back from the US in the 1990s? Can you tell us about some of the challenges?

The book attempts to deal with the questions that any person visiting their homeland would feel, especially Pakistanis who were raised in America. The questions that a Pakistani raised in Britain would have might be slightly different, but I think there are some things that apply to everyone. Certainly, I grappled with many of those questions myself. Adjusting back to Karachi in 1995 was nowhere near as difficult as adjusting to it in 1977 when the differences between the two countries in terms of culture and environment were far different. In 1977, there was nobody like me—a person who’d been raised in America. In 1995, there were starting to be lots of kids like me, who had gone for school there and come back. However, the challenge was the same here as it would have been for any young adult attempting to re-enter the real world after college: what am I going to do with my life?

You began your career as a Features Editor for Computerworld in 1996. That is fairly early in terms of the web revolution, and even the Computer revolution when it comes to Pakistan. Can you tell us a little more about the technology ‘scene’ in Pakistan at that time and how it has evolved in the past decade?

The technology scene in Pakistan was it its embryonic stages. The Internet had just come to Pakistan that year, and those of us who had been in America and used email got really excited about the Web and what it meant. People who were based here, especially traditional sorts of businesses, were suspicious and terrified of the new technology. So you had pockets of great understanding – we were like this little team, spread out across the country but keeping in touch through email and being astronauts in a way: “the Internet, the brave new world and then the larger landscape of resistance. But like they say in the space movies “resistance is futile”. Now everyone’s using technology in much the same way they were using it in the United States around, say, 1999. Mobile phones are part of that boom, by the way. We could be doing more – applying technology more to our everyday lives, rather than making an effort to integrate Blackberries and Wifi, it should all fall into place naturally – but it is always going to be that much more of an effort here.


The heroes of both of your novels, Where They Dream in Blue, and The 786 Cybercafe, are men. Arati Belle, in her review of Animal Medicine, writes, “Curiously, she seems to get into the skin of the boy in this story than any of the girls in the other stories” in reference to the story ‘Going Fishing.’ Was it a deliberate choice on your part to use male protagonists?

Yes, it was a deliberate choice. When you are starting out with your writing, the last thing you want is for everyone to ask you, “Well, is this about you?” Making the protagonist a man was the easiest way I could think of to sidestep this question, which gets very annoying to answer after the twentieth time.

The other reason for using men as protagonists is that there’s a practical consideration: in this society, men simply have more access to certain situations and locations than women do. I don’t like it, but it is true. How many women of a middle-class background do you know who would be able to set up a cybercafe on Tariq Road? So I bring women into the narrative, but then I try to highlight their positions/situations in society.

This is going to change in my next novel, in which the protagonist is a young girl. But she comes from a level of society in which she can slip in and out of various places because she is the poorest of the poor, and they have more liberty in many ways – at least at that age – than a middle or upper-class woman in Pakistan. If that sounds like a paradox, it is.

“In the novel, there is room for poetry, for tenderness and violence, for description and investigation, for analysis and synthesis; there is room for the portrayal of the countryside and of characters and of non-characters. That is, the man from within and from without.” Camilo Jose Cela, Nobel Prize-winning Spanish author once said in an interview when asked about the novel. Do you agree with what he says? What do you think is the range of the novel as a medium? What are its limitations?

I had to look up the novel in my Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms to answer this question. The great strength of the novel is its freedom from limitations: style, structure, length, content. It is like this form that can absorb and make its own all the other literary forms around. If there are limitations to the novel, they exist in the limitations of the writer. A bad writer is going to write a bad novel, sure, but even a very good writer can be limited by her own limitations of experience, geography, knowledge of other disciplines, lack of worldview, and so on. The novel really challenges you to dig deep within yourself as a writer and bring out everything you know. It will totally exhaust you as a medium if you are not up to the challenge.

There are a variety of novels – the intellectual novel in the vein of Joyce and Rushdie, an elemental novel or the simple novel, the kind of novel written, for example, in the style of Dickens, or Balzac. (Cela) And then there are of course myriad hybrids. You, to me, have crafted two elemental novels. Firstly, do you agree with the statement and if so then can you tell us a little more about what went behind the choice?

Yes, I agree with your statement. My first two novels were very simply written. I think I simply was not ready to write a very intellectual novel. I was young, I was inexperienced, and I was not confident. I had a story and I wanted to tell it. I did not feel entitled to comment upon the state of the world at large because I had seen so little of it, in my opinion. I wanted to concentrate on my stories and my characters, and do a good job of that; I felt I owed that to the reader first and foremost. My own theories could wait till I had figured out what they were. Why inflict that on my reader?

Most authors are trying to write their psychological autobiographies and failing to write them honestly. Their inability to come to terms with their own ghosts, their psychological traumas, and their inability to forgive themselves and others, often creates perversions that surface in the form of misplaced viciousness with which they deal with some characters. They are also trying to ‘understand’ the world and often ‘fail’ to understand it. Let me provide an example to illustrate the point. You listed Of Human Bondage as one of your favorite books in one of your interviews. The book is also a great favorite of mine. My friend Chaste recently provided a wonderful analysis of a facet pertinent to the question and I paraphrase his analysis here- Philip Carey’s character is largely autobiographical with his club foot a substitute for Maugham’s stutter and closet homosexual status. Then there is Mildred, a common shop girl, who declines in status every time we meet her anew – from a struggling shop girl to a prostitute with syphilis. Chaste argues that Maugham uses Mildred’s debasement as a way to come to terms with the trauma that he had to suffer from at the hands of his peers. He transfers all of that angst onto a working-class girl than the middle-class women, at whose hands he most probably suffered. Can you comment briefly on the unduly broad statement with which I start this question by first pruning it and then analyzing it?

For me, writing is a therapeutic process, not to try and heal the writer of any psychological demons, but to understand the world around them in some way. By writing about issues, especially ones that bother me, that nag me, that are complex and not easily categorized or understood, I grapple with them and eventually arrive at a better understanding of them. As for being vicious towards a character, that is an odd thing to do. As a writer, I have love for all my characters, even the ones that aren’t particularly likable, because they are my creations. I try to make them play out the complexities of life that I see going on in the real world, not the ones in my head.

Can you now answer the question that I raise above with regards to your novel, The 786 Cyber cafe, that in the words of one of your prior interviewers is “centered on a story based on the infamous ‘other side of the Clifton bridge.” In response to which you said, “I think people on this side of the bridge are more narrow-minded in many ways.”

People are hemmed in everywhere by their preconceptions and prejudices. Just because you are rich and you are educated doesn’t mean you lack those preconceptions and prejudices. Nor does being rich or educated make you any more open-minded or tolerant. I believe the rich, the elite, those that live on “this side of the Clifton Bridge, which is a bridge that connects the richest parts of Karachi, Clifton and Defence, to the rest of the town on the Saddar side and beyond – think that their intellectual work is done once they have gotten their college degrees and taken the reins of their fabulous destinies as the nation’s leaders. Intellectually they are some of the laziest people I have ever seen: content to expound forever on whatever theories they formulated thirty years ago, without taking in anything else and considering whether their views are outdated or inapplicable today. When you are hungry, in all sense of the word, you stay humble. And humility goes hand in hand with open-mindedness: the ability to realize that your view is only one of many, and only an opinion at best.

Both of your novels and your current collection of stories have been published by Alhamra Publishing. And you edit Alhamra Literary Review along with Ms. Yusuf. Al-Hamra in Arabic simply means “the red”. It is of course usually used to describe the 13th Century “crimson castle” or Alhambra in Granada. Do you see the name ‘Al Hamra’ as an apt title for a Literary Review or for that matter a publishing house based in Karachi? And if so, why?

You would have to ask the publisher, Shafiq Naz, what was in his mind when he chose that name. I think he wanted to capture the idea that the Islamic world and Europe once had a rich, intertwined history in Moorish Spain. Literature is part of that cultural tradition. Maybe it is an oblique association. Going back to a time when art and literature and poetry was very grand and respected by kings and emperors. It is a good vision for a publishing house.

What is your vision for the Alhamra Literary Review?

We want to encourage Pakistanis to write; we showcase their talent and creativity. I would like to foster a future Booker Prize winner. That is my vision.


The late nineties were a tumultuous time for Karachi with MQM boycotting elections, political turmoil, and violence. Karachi has again recently been in the grip of a maelstrom. In the interim the number of Afghans has multiplied, Karachi beach has suffered a major oil spill, the political alliances have turned topsy-turvy, and the economy has sputtered on. Can you talk briefly about the past ten years in the political life of Karachi?

I am not comfortable commenting on politics, so I will take a pass on this question.

Since you are an author, it would be interesting to raise this question with you. I have traveled to Pakistan twice and extensively toured the cities of Lahore and Karachi. I came across some good bookshops but alas not a great one. Should I have searched more or is the bookshop scene really that modest? (Mayank)

The Liberty Books chain is doing great things for Karachi; they’ve brought the best of English publishing to the country, although at high prices. But I don’t really know how to get around that issue. I always find their bookstores a pleasure to be in; they are relaxing, inviting places, the staff is knowledgeable and helpful, and they’re working on promoting Pakistani writers with their new Book Club, which has hosted some fairly well-received launches of books, including my own. But a country like Pakistan really needs to have several excellent sources in each city for sourcing and obtaining books, and not just in the English language. Right now you have to really hunt for good literature. One day there will be a better bookshop culture, I am sure.

Every great city leaves some an imprint on the work of its writers. How has Karachi contributed to your writing?

I would think that is fairly obvious from my work!

Being a young Pakistani writer who writes about young people, how would you chronicle the changing values of the urban youths in the country? Is it difficult to strike a balance between the Islamic heritage and the McDonald culture? (Mayank)

It is not a case of ‘either/or’. It is a case of ‘and’. Understand that and you have understood the young people of Pakistan. They want choices. They do not want restrictions. But they want to choose both options, not to have to choose between them. This is the strength of Pakistani people of all ages: they are open to everything, influences from the East, the West, from Islam, from America, from Britain, from India. We are like big sponges and we are hungry for all of it. We absorb it all and then we distill it into something that is unique to us. I think that is magical and it should not be contained in any way.

Just following up on the title of your novel, “Where the dream in blue” – what color would you pick to describe Karachi? What color would be the dreams of Karachites?

Again, that should be fairly obvious! These days, however, I think the color of Karachi is brown. There is a lot of dust and mud and construction going on here.

Karachi has a multiplicity of cross-cutting ethnic and class cleavages – Sunnis Vs. Shias, Muhajirs Vs. Natives Vs. Afghans, Urdu speakers Vs. Punjabi Vs. Sindhi Vs. Pashto, rich vs. poor etc. Add to all of this a military, whose role according to Ayesha Siddiqui’s new book runs deep within the economy. What is the prognosis for its future?

Oh God, you are really asking me the easy questions, aren’t you? Karachi will survive everything. We already have. We will go on. Underneath everything, the people of Karachi want two things: to make lots of money and to be happy. To achieve both, you have got to get along with everyone else. We know how to do that, despite all the evidence to the contrary.

Picking Favorites

Which is the last great book by a Pakistani author that you enjoyed? (Mayank)
The two books I really enjoyed most recently are anthologies: And the World Changed edited by Muneeza Shamsie and Beloved City edited by Bapsi Sidhwa. I am sorry I cannot give you a book by a single author. These ones were fantastic just for the sheer variety of good writing between two sets of covers.

You maintain a personal blog. What are some of the other blogs that you like visiting? (Mayank)

From the ridiculous to the sublime: a variety of friends’ blogs, including Jonathan Ali’s Notes from a Small Island, Greg Rucker’s Glossophagia, Jawahara Saidullah’s Writing Life, and the Second Floor’s blog (that’s the coffeehouse that I frequent). Then there are some gossip blogs I have to go to every day, but I won’t name them here because it’s too lowbrow and I am supposed to be this great Pakistani writer. I enjoy the PostSecret site. I like Anglophenia from BBC America. I used to go to Miss Snark, the Literary Agent every day too, but she closed that one down.

Where do you get your news?

I heard it on the grapevine, where else? Just kidding!

The interview was conducted via email. Some of the questions and answers have been edited for style and content. Questions ending with ‘Mayank’ were posed by Mayank Austen Soofi.

Interview (pdf) with Camilo Jose Cela from which the quotes were drawn.

Interview with Bapsi Sidhwa

13 Jun

Bapsi Sidhwa is the author of Cracking India and The Crow Eaters. She currently lives in Houston, Texas.

What does your name Bapsi mean? Who gave you the name?

My grandmother doted on the British. She gave me what she thought was an English name. Ironically, an English woman asked me, “You’re quite dignified. How come you have a name like Bapsy or Popsy?” They said it was definitely not an English name.

I would have preferred to have a poetic Persian name, but I am reconciled to it now. It’s short and easy to remember in the US.

I gather there is a lot of biographical detail in Cracking India’s Lenny. But it is hard to disinter facts from fiction. Can you tell me a little more about your parents? What school did you go to? Was it a Catholic school? What do you remember most about your time in pre-partition Lahore?

Even I often don’t know where fact ends and fiction begins. My father was orphaned as a child and his mother ran their wine business in Lahore. He acquired wealth after the war and Partition — he had the Parsi business gene. My mother was the youngest of ten siblings. Her father Ardeshir Mama became Mayor of Karachi, built the Mama school for girls and donated generously to hospitals etc. before going bankrupt. Because of childhood polio, the doctor suggested I should not be burdened with school. I had light tuition, thankfully no math. The roar of mobs and the fires were a constant of my childhood pre-partition. A mob came into our house to loot but departed when told that we were Parsi by our cook. I have used this scrambled memory for the ayah kidnapping scene. I have fictionalized biographical elements in the earlier part of Cracking India. Lenny is not me, perhaps my alter ego.

A novelist is expected to be both, an insider, and an outsider. How did each of the following things that made you an outsider affect your writing—contracting polio at a young age, being a Parsi in Lahore, the short stint in India in your youth and contact with the larger Parsi community in Mumbai, and your immigration to the US.

That question deserves a detailed answer. I write instinctively and I don’t quite know how to answer the first part of your question. Having polio as a child, and being a Parsi in Lahore or anywhere except in Bombay, marginalizes one. This creates a distance, and also a pressure—I was a lonely child and motivated to give voice to the silences in my life, I guess. Being with the larger Parsi community in Mumbai, was a wonderful experience for me. It gave me a sense of belonging I had never experienced. I found I shared the same weird sense of humor, tastes, and enormously enjoyed being with my cousins. I loved and still love Bombay.

Lahore, the City of Sin and Splendour

Do you think the title of your book, City of Sin and Splendour, captures the book (or the city)? Yes, there is Heera Mandi and the Badshahi mosque, but I felt the book was more about people and their ‘undying’ love for food.

It is called ‘Beloved City’ in Pakistan. But I think the Indian title is more chutpatta.

How often do you go back to Lahore? How has Lahore changed from the days of your youth?

I still have my house in Lahore, and I go back about once every two years. I spent the nineties in Lahore to look after my sick mother. On each visit I find Lahore improved.

How much of the book is—to the extent that you chose the stories and the writers—an expatriate’s silver tinted reflection on the city of her youth?

Lahore is not just the city of my youth. Until the late nineties, I was more in Lahore than in the US. I chose the stories and articles for the Lahore book for the quality of the writing, my respect for the authors, many of whom I know, and because the pieces engaged me as a reader. I tried to present a broad spectrum to show the many facets of Lahore. I also commissioned quite a few pieces. One Indian reviewer asked why I hadn’t mentioned street-children. Lahore has virtually none. The Lahoris take care of their own: children are adopted by madrassas or orphanages. Visitors are surprised at how well-fed Lahoris look. There are hundreds of langars in charitable institutes, Mosques, shrines, etc and no one needs to go hungry.

You dedicated your Lahore anthology to your daughter Parizad whom you complimented as the quintessential Lahori. What traits should a person have to merit such a title?

To me, she is a typical Lahore girl of a certain class. She spends nights with her friends doing tapsaras of Urdu poetry and most of her friends are still from or in Lahore. The way she dresses, relates to her friends, the subjects they talk about, her hauteur and reserve with strangers, her mannerisms, gestures, values and her thought process still reflect the culture of that city. She moved to the US in the late nineties and still functions at the rhythm and laid back pace of that city. Please keep in mind, this is a spontaneous, perfunctory answer. Any more and I’d be intruding on her privacy.

Other Books and such

Usually, it is films that are based on books. But your new book Water is based on Deepa Mehta’s film. This is also your first book that is away from your typical setting—no Pakistan, no Parsis. What prompted you to write it? Can you also elaborate on the relationship that you share with Deepa Mehta?

Deepa Mehta called to say that she wanted me to novelize her film Water and sent me a rough edit of the film. I started with much trepidation because she wanted me to write the novel in three months, to time it with the release of the film. I said I would give it a try because I loved the film, and Deepa can be very persuasive. Once I started writing I didn’t find it as difficult as I had imagined. The child widow Chuyia has much in common with the child Lenny in my novel Cracking India, and once I created an earlier life for the child in her village before the film starts, I had a grip on the novel. I enjoyed the challenge, although I have never worked so hard. I would wake up dreaming of sentences and get to the computer to write them down. I wrote late into the night.

I have known Deepa Mehta since she called me to say she wanted to make my novel Cracking India into the film Earth. She wrote the script for the film but I worked closely with her on it, keeping in mind that it was her cinematic vision of the book that mattered. I was at the film-shoot in Delhi for a good part of the time. I think Deepa and I respect each other and appreciate and trust each other’s work.

You put in a fair amount of autobiographical detail in your novels. Can you briefly comment on it?

I write instinctively, one paragraph giving rise to the other, and have a general idea of where I want to go. Everything, everyone I know and every experience I have or hear of are grist for my mill, like Flaubert, who famously said, “I am Emma Bovary.” I am almost every character in my books.

Pakistan and being Pakistani

Your novels “Cracking India” and “The Crow Eaters” captured the flavor of Pakistan at its dawn. In “The Pakistani Bride”, you dealt with the tribal lores of the Frontier. If you were to decide to write a book on present-day Pakistan, which theme would you like to deal with?

I have just finished writing a collection of short stories. I think that will contain the answer to your question. The stories deal with what you mention above and also my new location in America.

Being a woman in Pakistan, did you think it was a risk to put in sexual humor in your novels? Did it upset the readers? In fact, you self-published your first novel “The Crow Eaters”, which had quite a lot of uninhibited sexual comedy, in 1978, the very year General Zia-ul-Haq announced setting up of the Shariah benches. Did anyone harass you?

I wrote naturally about sexuality because I hadn’t realized I needed to censor what I wrote. Although I am very liberated, my writing is more inhibited now. There were no complaints about this in Pakistan. In fact, my candor was appreciated. When I launched the self-published The Crow Eaters in Lahore, there was a bomb scare at the hotel and the function was hastily closed. I realized later that the Parsi community was very offended and responsible for the bomb scare. No one had written about the Parsis before, except books praising the community, and the Parsis could not stand to see characters fictionalized, warts and all. The general Pakistani community loved it. It was not until the book was published in Britain to critical acclaim that the Parsis accepted it.

The only squeamishness about Cracking India has been in the United States. A mom and her pastor tried to ban it from being taught in a Baccalaureate program in a Florida high school. A committee of 30 people decided it was suitable to teach.

Who are the writers to watch out for in Pakistani literature?

Mohsin Hamid and Kamila Shamsie are the most prominent. Tahira Naqvi and a few others who write short stories in America. Aamer Hussain has published three collections in the U.K., India, and Pakistan. He is a sensitive and poetic writer. Among the new crop of writers published in Pakistan, I really like Bina Shah’s writing. All of the above have stories or articles in the Lahore anthology.

Living in the US, do you ever face any discrimination because of your Pakistani passport?

I have a U.S. passport now, and it is a breeze to sail through various countries with it. Pakistan is out of favor in America and Europe and this does affect me as a Pakistani writer. Although I must admit ‘Cracking India’ had a spectacular reception when it was first published and is taught in almost every university.

A ‘novel’ medium

Naipaul has talked about the end of the novel as a literary form. Is novel a sufficient medium to bring forth the complexities of modern life?

The novel is thriving. There is no other medium which can bring out the emotional nuances and complexities of modern life as well as the novel can in the hands of a good writer.

Milan Kundera recently wrote that the novel is the only form in which you can convey the pointless. It can convey the pointlessness of violence, the myriad irrational tugs and pulls that define humanity, etc. History, on the other hand, is an exercise in sense-making when none exists.

There is validity in what he says when it comes to violence, although the sequence of cause and effect, even in the most irrational-seeming incidents, are always present. Novelists like myself use the novel to express their deepest emotions and views. One usually writes the truth as one sees it. Of course, no one owns the truth and there are many valid points of view. Many historians have arrived at the truth. But often their narration is imbued with their own prejudice and can slant history to suit their or their own or their country’s agenda. History in the hands of fiction writers like Tolstoy is often more authentic and vivid than history books.

Azhar Nafisi in her novel, Reading Lolita in Tehran, makes a fascinating point about the democratic structure of a novel – where each character has a voice. Nafisi, in my mind, fails at the task herself, as all we hear is her elitist trauma. Nonetheless, I think it is an important point and one if followed can help readers really empathize with a variety of characters. Virginia Woolf to me remains an epitome in that regard. Is the role of the novel to build empathy? What do you see is the role of a novel and a novelist?

The role of a novelist, and by extension the novel, is to reveal the culture and complexities of a society in a manner that is engaging and entertaining. The emotions we hold in common have to be strongly portrayed: without empathy for the characters the novel loses its value as a narrative.


I am often struck by how few of the stories of my parent’s and my grandparent’s generations have been chronicled. We are soon going to lose a lot of those stories forever as the oral traditions die, and the storytellers grow old. What do you think should do to keep some of these traditions alive?

The partition was poorly represented because the memories were too painful, and people were too busy setting up new lives. But storytellers will tell their tales, and very little will be lost. Writers in Indian and Pakistani languages are chronicling the old tradition. As long as there are writers and storytellers most of what is important will be retained. Writers are the new mythmakers.

I am struck by the ‘unconscious feminism’ (Sara Suleri-Goodyear) of South Asian female writers like Ismat Chughtai. South Asian female writers take on feminism bubbles with urgency, humor, and candid pugnaciousness that rejects the system but does so in a rooted and informed way. Can you expand a little more on the South Asian female writers and their contribution to highlighting the gender inequalities?

I cannot talk for all South Asian women writers but I imagine that as women, consciously or unconsciously, we bring out the problems and discrimination women face and project our aspirations. I don’t like to preach about feminism but the way the stories unfold illustrate their position in the family and in society.

While South Asian writers have grown in prominence in recent years, their books reflect more and more reflect inert globalized ideas rather than alertness to South Asia. Is there a future for the distinctive South Asian fiction or are we seeing the end of it with increased globalization?

The vernacular languages embed South Asia in their narratives. South Asia will continue to be written about and by authors who write in English as well. Indian writers in the Diaspora reflect their new experiences if that is what you mean by globalization. As writers move their writing reflects their new locations, experiences, thoughts, and aspirations.

Ms. Sidhwa’s Favorite Books: Pickwick Papers (Dickens), Huckleberry Finn (Mark Twain), Black Mischief (Evelyn Waugh), A Passage to India (E. M. Forster), Palace Walk (Naguib Mahfouz), The Tin Drum (Gunter Grass), Catch-22 (Joseph Heller), Refuge (Terry Tempest Williams), Waiting For the Barbarians (J.M. Coetzee), Things Fall Apart (Achebe), The Last Mughal (William Dalrymple), Poems — Elegies (Rainer Maria Rilke), The Essential Rumi (Translations by Coleman Barks and Joyn Moyne), Urdu Ghazals (by Ghalib, Iqbal, Faiz, Zauk, etc.), Short Stories, essays and novels by Saadat Hasam Manto & Ismat Chugtai, A House For Mr. Biswas (V. S. Naipaul), The Mimic Men (V. S. Naipaul [I like almost everything by Naipaul]), An Angry Tide (Amitav Ghosh), A Suitable Boy (Vikram Seth), Midnight’s Children (Salman Rushdie), The Collected Short Stories of Kushwant Singh (Kushwant Singh), Difficult Daughters (Manju Kapur), An Obedient Father (Akhil Sharma), Arranged Marriages (Chitra Divkaruni), Baumgartner’s Bombay (Anita Desai), Meatless Days (Sara Suleri), The In-Between World of Vikram Lal (Moyez Vassanji), Family Matters (Rohinton Mistry), Anna Karenina (Tolstoy), Everything by P G Wodehouse, Thrillers by John la Carre, Ken Follett, etc.

Some of the questions are by Mayank Austen Soofi, who blogs at The Delhi Walla.

Interview with Eric Berlin

10 May

This is the third article in a multi-part series devoted to understanding some of the ethical aspects that dog blogging sites. The series will end with an analysis of Blogcritics.org and blogs in general. Prior two articles –

Can you tell me about your current role in BC and how you came to be involved with it?

Well, I am the Executive Producer at Blogcritics. I take the position to mean doing whatever it takes to move the site forward and take it to the next place, wherever that next place happens to be.

I had been writing a sort of e-magazine by the name, Dumpster Bust, in 2003 and 2004 and I would distribute it to friends and fans via an e-mail list. Then in November 2004, I started an eponymous blog. It had just been a month since I had started the blog when I discovered Blogcritics.org.

It was an extraordinary moment — I’ll never forget it. I simply couldn’t get over how great it was to have a community where writers from all over the world could congregate and write about pop culture and politics and everything in between and chat and argue and laugh and hang out.

I got pretty involved, pretty active right away, and became an editor a few months later I think.

It was apparent to me from the very beginning what an enormous value that BC offers to both writers and readers. As a writer, I noticed that my own writing was improving, that I was reaching a much larger audience than I ever could have on my own, that I could access free review materials, and most of all, I was making connections and even friendships with great, interesting, wonderful people from all over the world.

I became an Executive Producer somewhere around the late summer of 2005 and moved into helping provide editorial oversight, though over time my role has evolved to mostly take on business development and public relations.

Tell me a little more about your decision to blog under real name plus what do you do for your “real” job?

I use my name because I want to present who I really am, “expose” my writing and the person behind it.

It’s a little strange being that “naked” before the world sometimes, but that’s a decision all writers much make

My “real” job is producing websites for a company in Los Angeles. I do try to keep the two roles separate to an extent, though you can, of course, infer that there’s tremendous crossover in terms of what I have the privilege of learning and experiencing each day.

Blogcritics is a passion and a job that has to fit into the cracks of my regular life, but that’s something that millions of fellow bloggers out there are also contending with. It’s a balance thing. Relatively few can pull a full-time wage from blogging so it’s an activity born of passion and devotion and even obsession for most!

You do a full-time job and still take time to volunteer.

I think that people — including the 1,700 “writer-bloggers” of Blogcritics, our passionate readers and commenters, our most involved site users, and most of all our hardworking and dedicated and monumentally talented editorial staff members (which includes many of the site’s best writers!) — put in so much effort because they are passionate about the site and our community and want to see it grow and prosper and do well.

That’s certainly what drove me and what still makes me eager to get up in the morning, flip on the computer (it’s usually on all night, actually!) and see what’s happened since my last visit.

By the way, I am now one of the three co-owners of Blogcritics.org so my position is no longer strictly a volunteer position.

In your response, I think you were also alluding to the fact that the success of BC and the volunteerism that we see on it is due to its symbiotic nature.

Yes, BC is symbiotic — I like to use the somewhat cheesy term “people power” — Blogcritics is a grassroots success story (we’ve never had a dime of investment) literally powered by its membership.

So our “sinister cabal of superior writers” help one another to succeed, producing stories and work that is good and beneficial to the Internet community.

BC has an open commenting policy and an open attitude towards accepting new writers. I am sure there must have been plenty of behind the scenes discussions about it. Tell me a little about the process of deciding about policies around BC.

Open commenting has been around since I joined the site in 2004, and it really falls under the umbrella of creating a wide-open community that is open to multiple viewpoints and that has as low a barrier to entry as possible.

Because of the increased menace of spam, we may one day have to require membership for commenters, but for now, we can maintain this arrangement as we always have.

Tell me a little more about the vision you have for BC.

Whew… that’s a big one! Blogcritics is in a very exciting phase right now in that we’re expanding into a suite of sites that we call the BC Network.

Desicritics, our first network site, is now a year old and is thriving as a platform for people who live in and are passionate about the Desi world.

Now we are looking to create specialty “niche” sites that can capture a new audience that isn’t necessarily into the more magazine-style format that BC presents

GlossLip has now launched under the direction of Dawn Olsen and is a fantastic place to check all things celebrity and gossip, subjects in which there is an insatiable audience for new stuff, and particularly when it’s done with style and attitude and savvy, which basically sum up everything that Dawn is about.

We’ve also just within the last few weeks launched BC Forums into private beta and will very very soon go wider with it. Just in testing, we’ve seen the explosive potential of this area — which provides yet another way for our community to communicate, interact, joke around, or just hang out.

So that’s really the vision right there — providing new ways for our audience and potential audience to learn, interact, and communicate, creating cutting-edge content-community networks online

Eric, I was talking to the other Eric – Olsen- recently and he was telling me of he quickly realized that he would have to assume responsibility if the site had to go anywhere. There are always key actors in a grass root organization. In a way, I am questioning how grass root is a grassroots organization? You are creating a media company from bottom up and I am interested in understanding how norms and policies are decided and who are the key players

Yes, Blogcritics is as grassroots as it gets — most people don’t realize this!

The only full-time employee is the founder and publisher Eric Olsen, so he is the “man at the helm” for emergencies, troubleshooting, fire patrol, you name it!

Phillip Winn is our technical director and lives outside of Dallas. I live in Pasadena California and EO lives outside of Cleveland.

And our editors live around the world — several key editors live in the UK which is great because it gives us “wide coverage” in terms of the unending 24-hour production cycle.

So it’s all virtual, all grassroots, all people working together to create something that’s never been done before. That’s the thing that’s important remember: Blogcritics is singular in so many ways.

That’s why it was named as part of the AlwaysOn 100 in the trendsetter’s category, I believe and that’s what makes BC so fascinating.

Now Eric, a harder question! Do you see this as a model for running media organizations? Even mainstream ones? What the advantages to it? And what are the problems? Is this a model for a more accountable media?

Well — I see your questions as taking on a few different issues. Let me start with the first one.

I do see virtual organizations and small teams of founders working closely together as the present and future of software development. The barrier to entry is so much lower than it has ever been, which is a huge boon to the Internet industry and people who simply dig the Internet and technology.

I’m not sure if it’s the model for “mainstream ones” — I think it depends on the particular circumstances but certainly it’s there as an option.

At the same time, there’s really no replacing in-person day-to-day contact. As to your other question about a more accountable media, I think you’re talking about the role of the blogosphere in making the mainstream media and other institutions more accountable?

I believe so but I am also interested in talking about ownership and editorial policy decisions that are decided differently than they are today. BC is creating a new type of socially owned media company and do you think media itself can be reorganized via this principle and what kind of issues do you see around it.

Well, I think media, in general, is in a state of great flux with the role of traditional media companies declining in some ways and changing rapidly to deal with changing times while new and online media companies are gaining audience and credibility and dealing with the many issues that come along with that accountability and responsibility.

Take for example Mike Arrington at TechCrunch — he’s an interesting case in that he outright declares that he’s not a journalist while reviewing start-ups and tech companies, issuing opinions, and so on, all while openly investing in many of these companies, reviewing competitors, etc.

We’ve really arrived at a new place!

It seems blogosphere itself is going under reorganization as media companies poach top bloggers and buy more electronic media assets. Do you see a more corporatized blogosphere in a few years time?

I see a blogosphere that is maturing and dealing with issues that come with it, pretty similar to what I mention in terms of the greater online media community. I see the blogosphere and traditional media companies, which are online, incorporating elements of one another.

Yeah,.. WP, NYT, BBC – all have blogs…

Yes, I’ve recently covered how companies like Reuters and The Economist are incorporating blogs into their online offerings.

My overarching theory on all of this boils down to a term I call “hybrid social media,” which I think is the future of news online.

I have covered some of the issues you raise in the article, Netscape Is the Future of News.

Very briefly, hybrid social news posits a future in which news will incorporate three main forms of content: original content produced by the online media company publishing the site, social news content driven by user submissions and user voting, and administrator or editor-selected content, which includes editor-selected pieces from all over the Internet, including those submitted by the general audience.

Blogcritics.org has always tried to combat that trend by forming an open platform where competing ideas and ideologies and values can co-exist together under a big tent of sorts. That said, a lot of our stories revolve around popular culture so can, therefore, escape some of the combativeness found in the arena of politics.

Though of course, we do have a politics area that can get rowdy at times but generally does very nicely in bringing in a vast array of news stories, thoughts, and opinions.

Interview with Lisa McKay

9 May

This is the second interview in a multi-part series that will end with an analysis of ethics etc. that underpin BC, and blogs in general. The first interview with Christopher Rose, Comments Editor at BC, can be accessed by clicking here

Lisa McKay is the Executive Editor of Blogcritics.org. Lisa has been with Blogcritics.org since August 2004.

The interview was conducted via email a couple of months ago.

You joined BC at a time when BC was much smaller than today. Tell me a little more about how you came across BC and what led you to join it.

I came across BC a few months before I actively joined, while I was in the process of looking for good sources of movie and music reviews. It was unlike anything else I had come across – it still is, really – and I started checking in on a daily basis to read stuff. Eventually, I worked up the courage to post a comment here and there and then decided that maybe I should actually join the site and try to get some writing done.

You work full time, are a mother of a young son and a wife. How do you juggle your responsibilities?

Actually, only two of those facts are true at present – my son just turned 21 and has been away at college for the past couple of years, so juggling parental responsibilities hasn’t been part of the equation for a long time. Having said that, I think that people make time to do the things they want to do if they want to do them badly enough. My husband and I both have pretty intense interests outside of our work and our family life (which includes a lot of shared interests), and we’ve been very supportive of each other’s pursuits, so part of it is that I have a built-in support system, and part of it is that I’ve become very good at multi-tasking and prioritizing. Even so, I wish I could use all 24 hours in the day sometimes.

While writing an article about why you chose to ‘come out’, if you will, and start writing under your real name, you say that part of the reason was to lay claim on the articles that you have written. This works both ways – now people know whom to hold accountable when they see a ‘perceived’ injustice or have an ax to grind. Has blogging under your real name been a problem? How comfortable do you feel about commenting and blogging about contentious topics?

It probably says something about the nature of what I write that using my real name has never been a problem. The place where the discussions really seem to get personal is in the political arena, where people seem to take everything to heart and can get quite ugly when they disagree. I don’t have the stomach for that type of discourse, so I stay out of that particular venue. I have opinions on pretty much everything, and I have no problem with expressing them when asked directly to do so, but I really don’t see those contentious discussions as serving much purpose. There are a lot of people who like to “argue” just so they can call names – it has nothing to do with actually listening to what other people are saying – and I just don’t have the time for it, as I see it as unproductive.

At the heart of your decision to blog under your ‘real name’ is an ethical question that surrounds online media outlets – the issue of accountability. Of course, there are real people behind these ‘false’ online identities and they often are accountable but somehow the cost-free nature of leaving even the most borderline crazy comment or article under an assumed identity does probably sabotage perhaps reasoned commentary? What are your thoughts on the issue?

While I understand the reasons that many people have for remaining anonymous online, I do believe that a false persona makes it easier to say things that one might not say when using one’s real name. The faceless nature of the Internet makes that easier anyway – even when using a real name, I think many people say things to faceless strangers that they would never dream of saying in person. Accountability online is certainly a different animal than it is with print media, or with television or radio journalism. This is still in many ways the wild, Wild West, and I think one probably has to work a bit harder in the blogging arena to build up a reputation and to build trust among one’s readership. Once you’ve built up that trust, it doesn’t matter if you’re using a pseudonym or not – you maintain integrity the same way you would if you were using your real name, by doing your homework and being honest.

Blogcritics has grown exponentially over the past three years from a small fringe Internet outpost to a relatively decent size media outlet. Tell me about some of the key inflection points in this journey – as you see them.

Certainly, the biggest change was when we went from a self-publishing site where anyone could publish just about anything they wanted to, to what we have in place right now, where every piece that’s published has been edited. We work very closely with our writers to make sure that we publish polished and well-written pieces while still retaining that which makes us unique, which is our multitude of voices. Our strength has been our continued refusal to homogenize what we do – writers find it easy to feel at home here because we don’t have an editorial “voice” in any of our content areas – we ask our writers to be excellent, but other than that, we ask them to be themselves. I am not sure there are many places with a readership as big as ours that can offer that.

Blogcritics is trying to create the norms of running a media organization on the fly. The key policy decisions – open commenting, open attitude towards accepting new writers, etc. – tell me about the behind the scenes struggle that has gone on around them and the kind of ethical questions that you have had to deal with to come to this place.

We’ve certainly had our share of policy discussions about the open comments policy. As is the case with every site that allows open comments, we get our fair share of flakes and cranks and just plain ugliness. We have yet to come to the point where we squelch that in favor of having more civil conversations, and I think that’s another area where we’re unique. We do have a comments editor who applies our very liberal comments policy with a very gentle hand, and I think that’s about all the control we’re going to have on that for a while. Our open attitude toward accepting new writers seems to work very nicely now that we have editors in place. People are either excited about the challenges and take advantage of the opportunity, or they leave because they don’t make the cut or they don’t want to put in the work. In either case, that works to our advantage, and it’s raised the level of our writing tremendously. BC’s growth has been a really organic process, at least from my vantage point. There have been growing pains to be sure, but we move past them pretty quickly.

Perhaps this current place is not the final resting place of this ongoing change. Tell me about your vision of blogcritics.org for the future?

That’s a great question. I wish I had a crystal ball. The quality of what we publish just keeps improving – we’re attracting some really amazing writers, and the section editors are continually working to shape coverage and come up with new ideas. I envision us getting bigger and better.

What kind of policy decisions do you think are integral to how you see BC? As in what kind of policies can you not see BC without, if any?

Well, I think we’ve set some editorial standards over the past couple of years in terms of what we will and will not publish (in terms of quality, not content). I can’t see us without those any more – we’ve really raised the bar, and the writers have really risen to the challenge. This is part of the process by which we become accountable.

How do you look at the role of a Critic? Is there merit in everybody being a critic kind of model? It certainly seems like a competitive market of ideas. What do you see are the positives and negatives of blogosphere?

Well, it depends on what you’re looking for, I think. The blogosphere has certainly democratized the whole process of criticism, which isn’t to say that everything everyone writes is good, or even worth reading. Sometimes you want to stand around the office water cooler and talk with your friends about the film you saw this weekend, and the blogosphere can certainly provide you with that, and sometimes you want an informed opinion about something, which is what real criticism entails. I think one of the neat things about BC is that we provide both; we have some very enthusiastic reviewers who can give you a very entertaining man-in-the-street opinion about something, but they aren’t necessarily approaching it from an academic point of view, and we have other writers who are incredibly well-informed, educated, and knowledgeable about their area of expertise, and they offer a very different perspective. The challenge and the beauty of the blogosphere, in general, is that the reader needs to learn to separate the wheat from the chaff. In general, we may need to wade through more stuff, but in the end, I think it sharpens our powers of discrimination and makes us better consumers.

Blogosphere is widely credited with making mainstream media more accountable. Do you see that as its job? If not, then what do you see are the roles of the blogosphere?

I don’t think it’s the blogosphere’s job to hold the mainstream media accountable. I think that’s our job as citizens, and we’re failing at it miserably. We have the media we deserve. The roles of the blogosphere are as varied as the folks who populate it; I don’t think it has a defined role or is “supposed” to be one thing or another. It’s a tool, a means of communication, a marketplace of ideas, of commerce, of social interaction – it’s a way of organizing, presenting, and retrieving information. It’s a lot of things to a lot of people, and it’s continually evolving. It is whatever we want it to be at any given moment.

It seems blogosphere itself is going under reorganization – as media companies poach top bloggers and buy more electronic media assets. Do you see a more corporatized blogosphere in a few years time?

As soon as people figure out that there’s money to be made somewhere, things change. Certainly, that’s happened in the blogosphere, but a lot of the people who are Internet entrepreneurs are also in the business of putting the tools of production and commerce into the hands of the end users. That’s us, and that’s a good thing. I think the business models we used to have changed, and are continuing to change. Since I have no business background at all, I wouldn’t even want to hazard a guess as to how this is going to look in five or ten years’ time. If you told anyone twenty years ago what we’d be doing online now, they wouldn’t have believed it.

Interview with Christopher Rose

8 May

The following interview with Christopher Rose was conducted via email a few months ago. The interview is part of a series that will end up in an article that provides history and analysis of Blogcritics.org

How did you come to be involved with Blogcritics.org?

I just surfed in one day and was drawn in by the way the site is so open and accepting to all kinds of people. I made a few comments and then, nervously as I was a fairly novice blogger, applied to join. Afer a few months, I was offered the role of Comments Editor, which I mostly love.

Can you tell us a little bit more about your role in BC and how it has grown?

Well, after becoming Comments Editor, I also started contributing ideas, some well received, about how we could develop the key qualities of the site into other areas. Hopefully, some of this will start to become more apparent over the course of this year as we look to develop some more sites.

You are part of three major projects aside from BC. Tell us a little more about those projects and how you juggle your responsibilities.

Well, I don’t know how major they are but I love the potential the web offers to develop new ideas quickly and economically. In addition to my own three blogs, I love the idea of citizen journalism and have developed a repeatable model of how such sites can be launched and made interesting, relevant and profitable very quickly and this is something I’d like to develop more fully. I am also developing an entirely original idea which has the (modest) twins aims of making people’s dreams come true and ploughing a lot of money into micro-credit financing projects to help the world’s poorest people to help themselves. I think the micro-finance model is very strong due to its inherent sustainability and that it doesn’t create welfare dependency but actually empowers people to help themselves. The project just needs a little work on the payment system and a little legal clarification to be fully actualized but I need to find solutions to those two issues so if anybody reading this would like to help, I’d be very grateful!. I also work as the Managing Editor for the Niner Niner family of blogs, which perfectly complements the work I do for Blogcritics. I am also developing four hopefully major new online projects, two for Blogcritics and two of my own. Taking on a bit more than I can handle is possibly one of my signature habits but I like to be busy – and life is for living, right!

Ethics, Normative Standards, Policy Making and Blogcritics

At the heart of your decision to blog under your real name is an ethical question that surrounds online media outlets – the issue of accountability. Of course, there are real people behind these ‘false’ online identities and they often are accountable but somehow the cost-free nature of leaving even the most borderline crazy comment or article under an assumed identity does probably sabotage perhaps reasoned commentary? What are your thoughts on the issue?

I think it’s mostly a question of personal preference. I have several online identities, of which the most well known is Alienboy. It’s a name I started using for online gaming which was reinforced by the fact that I live in Spain, so I am indeed literally an alien boy! I have a semi-dormant-due-to-lack-of-time blog called Alienboy’s World and when I first joined Blogcritics I carried on using that ID for a while. I then decided that the character of Alienboy just didn’t seem right for Blogcritics and reverted to using my full name. Alienboy still has a lot of plans for new sites that will be developed down the road aways but these are temporarily on hold. I don’t see the identity issue as an ethical question unless people abuse it by pretending to be other people, which is obviously totally unacceptable. As to sabotaging reasoned commentary, that’s actually a more complicated issue. Freedom of speech is obviously a major concern and ought to be protected but if people abuse that by making deliberately insulting or offensive remarks then I think there is a case for careful and restrained editing. It’s an incredibly fine line that calls for some serious and careful judgment before hitting the delete key and an issue that I try to keep in the core of my thinking at all times. In the end, I just do the best I can and hope that will be acceptable but it is impossible to please all the conflicting points of view all the time.

Can you elaborate on how are norms created within a new media organization? The kind of decisions that you had to take, along with rest of the BC community, about the nature, editorial policy and style, commenting policy etc. of BC.

Well, when an organization forms, obviously the decisions are taken by the people who start it up. The three people that own and maintain Blogcritics are mostly incredibly open to input and tolerant of a very broad range of views and I think that is an important part of what BC is about. It would have been a much less interesting proposition if “The Troika” had tried to imprint their own very diverse views onto the site and wisely they have largely avoided that. On the other hand, they’re all so very busy with stuff that it can be a bit hard to find out what they’re up to. I hope to be able to help bridge that gap and enhance the level of communication between us all over the coming months.

Blogcritics is trying to create the norms of running a media organization on the fly. The key policy decisions – open commenting, open attitude towards accepting new writers, etc. – tell me about the behind the scenes struggle that has gone on around them and the kind of ethical questions that you have had to deal with to come to this place.

Well, those policies were in place before I joined so I can’t shed much light on those early days but I feel they were absolutely crucial decisions. Dogma and other rigid belief systems are absolutely the enemy of all humankind and I very much doubt that I would have become involved with the site if it limited itself in that kind of way.

In your role as a Comments Editor – you probably have to had to deal with ad hominem attacks, spam and other conflagrations with people using all sort of sophisticated ways to get their message across. Tell me a little more about the challenges and how you deal with them while maintaining a free open commenting policy.

There is a perpetual and natural conflict between freedom of speech and the need to maintain the site’s neutrality, open door policy, and simple readability. It’s obviously important to foster an atmosphere of mutual respect and try to maintain some basic level of good manners or simple common civility. On the other hand, to simply not allow any kind of personal remark would render the site sterile and stifling. Wisely, the site uses guidelines rather than rigid rules, which is much more time consuming to manage but I believe that is well worth the extra time and effort involved.

How do you deal with people who post multiple comments under different names? Should this practice be frowned upon and why?

It’s not actually that common. There are a few who like to do that for dramatic effect, which is fine. When it is done to create a false sense of support for somebody’s point of view, that is basically just lying and is not tolerated. The worst is when people pretend to be other already known characters in order to create false content and is also not tolerated.

What kind of policy decisions do you think are integral to how you see BC? As in what kind of policies can you not see BC without, if any?

I just think that as long as BC maintains its open door policy and avoids becoming controlled by dogma, it will remain the fascinating multi-faceted jewel it is.

From the policy decisions of BC to how do you look at the role of a Critic? Is there merit in everybody being a critic kind of model? It certainly seems like a competitive market of ideas. What do you see are the positives and negatives of blogosphere?

There is information and there is the interpretation of information. Making sense of the ever-increasing complexity of the world we live in is a vital part of contemporary life. There are many often conflicting takes on all that on Blogcritics and that dialectic struggle is part of what makes it so special.

Blogosphere is widely credited with making mainstream media more accountable. Do you see that as its job? If not, then what do you see are the roles of the blogosphere?

It’s both more complicated and simpler than that. There’s been a huge flattening of society worldwide, although obviously different parts of the world are at different points in that process, which has been going on for at least fifty years now. A lot of the old school mainstream media have imitated the blogosphere by adding comments space to their websites for example. That’s a step in the right direction but until they value it as highly as sites like Blogcritics do, it often seems like a token measure rather than really getting the point. However, to answer your original question, it’s certainly not the blogosphere’s job to make the MSM do anything. They will either come to understand the nature of the new world order we live in and adapt to it or they will fade away into history.

Blogcritics has grown exponentially over the past three years from a small fringe Internet outpost to a relatively decent size media outlet. Tell me about some of the key inflection points in this journey – as you see them.

The two key points for me have been 1. the incredibly smart decision by the founders to accept all (legal) points of view on the site and not limit the Blogcritics space on any cultural or ideological grounds and 2. the later introduction of having all articles edited rather than self-published. This has been crucial in establishing a massively popular, well-written non-dogmatic site. The fact that the whole operation, editors and writers alike, is entirely voluntary is pretty impressive too. We really do work hard to help the writers improve their writing ability and bring their work to as wide an audience as possible.

Perhaps this current place is not the final resting place of this ongoing change. Tell me about your vision of Blogcritics.org for the future?

I think the main site can carry on as it is. I would like to see all the fantastic content by a diverse range of great writers put to better use. I think the simple fact that we have around 1,700 (and rapidly growing) writers offers a lot of potential for the rapid creation of other more focused sites in the future. I have a few ideas for the kinds of sites we could develop; sites that would offer compelling content around specific themes and those conversations are ongoing. I don’t really know what other ideas the troika may be considering…

It seems blogosphere itself is going under reorganization – as media companies poach top bloggers and buy more electronic media assets. Do you see a more corporatized blogosphere in a few years time?

Probably both yes and no! Unless a company understands the interactive essence of the online world, its attempts to operate on the web will be compromised. For example, trying to prevent employees from expressing their views is symptomatic of the old way of doing things. It’s been well documented that companies that empower their workers and include their feedback in the company’s development have a competitive edge over those businesses that try to run an old-school centralized command and control structure which sees workers as nothing more than cogs in a machine. I believe in transparency and that carries through all levels of a business in a particularly powerful way that transforms everything it touches, to the mutual benefit of all. A corporatized blogosphere that seeks to control what is said will always be inferior to one that allows true free expression.

Interview with Bill Thompson: Fragmented Information

10 Mar

This is the fourth and concluding part of the interview with BBC technology columnist, Mr. Bill Thompson.

part 1, part 2, part 3

This kind of completes two of the major questions that I had. I would now move on to digital literacy and fragmented informational landscape. Google has made facts accessible to people – too accessible, some might say. What Google has done is allowed the people to pick up little facts, disembodied and without the contextual information. It may lead to a consumer who has a very particularistic trajectory of information and opinions. Do you see that as a possibility or does the fundamental interlinked nature of the Internet somehow manages to make information accessible in a more complete way? In a related point do you see that while we are becoming information-rich, we are also simultaneously becoming knowledge poor?

That is such a big question. In fact, I share your concerns. I think there is a real danger – that it’s not even just that there is sort of a surfeit of facts and a lack of knowledge, its that the range of facts which we have available to us becomes defined by what is accessible through Google. And as we know that even Google, or any other search engine, only indexes a small portion of the sum of human knowledge, of the sum of what is available. And we see that this effect also becomes self-reinforcing so that somebody is researching something and they search on Google, find some information, they then reproduce that information and link to its source and it becomes therefore even more dominant, it becomes more likely to be the thing people will find next time they search and as a result alternative points of view, more obscure references, the more complex stuff which is harder to simplify and express drops down the Google ranking and essentially then becomes invisible.

There is much to be said for hard research that takes time, that is careful, that uncovers this sort of deeper information and makes it available to other people. We see in the world of non-fiction publishing, particularly I think with history every year or two we see a radical revisionist biography of some major historical figure based on a close reading of the archives or access to information which was previously unavailable. So all the biographies of Einstein are having to be rewritten at the moment because his letters from the 1950s have just become available and they give us a very different view of the man and particularly of his politics. Now if our view of Einstein was one defined by what Google finds out about Einstein we would know remarkably little. So we need scholars, we need the people who are always going to delve a little more deeply and there is danger in the Google world – it becomes harder to do that and fewer people will even have access to the products of their [careful researcher’s] work because what they write will not itself make it high up the ranking, will not have a sufficient ‘page rank’.

So I actually do think Google and the model of information access which it presents us is one that should be challenged and it should only ever be one part of the system. It is a bit like Wikipedia. I teach a journalism class and I say to my students that Wikipedia may be a good place to start your research but it must never be the place to finish it. Similarly, with Google, anybody who only uses the Google search engine knows too little about the world.

You bring up an important point. Search engine design, and other web usage patterns are increasingly channeling users to a small set of sites with a particular set of knowledge and viewpoints. But hasn’t that always been the case? An epidemiological study of how knowledge has traditionally spread in the world would probably show that at any one time only a small amount of knowledge is available to most people while most other knowledge withers into oblivion. So has Google really fundamentally changed the dynamics?

You are trying to do that to me again and I won’t let you.

This is not a fundamental shift in what it means to be human. None of this is a fundamental shift in what it means to be a human. Things may be faster, we may more access or whatever but we have always had these problems and we have always found solutions to them. And I am not a sort of a millenialist about this; I don’t think this is the end of civilization. I think we face short-term issues and we historically have found a way around them and we will again. That Google’s current dominance is a blip. In a sense – it will go, I don’t know how. Ok, here’s a good way in which Google’s dominance could go. So, at the moment we have worries in the world about H5N1 avian flu mutating into a form which infects humans. Let’s just suppose that this happens and that somebody somewhere writes an obscure academic paper which describes how basically to cure it and how to prevent infection in your household. Well all the people who rely on Google won’t find this paper will die and all the people who go to their library and look up the paper version will live and therefore the Google world will be over. How about that? There is something, perhaps not quite on that scale, something will happen which will force us to question our dependence on Google and that would be a good thing. We shouldn’t ever depend on anyone like that.

You know Mr. Thompson, even libraries have sort of shifted. They are increasingly interested in providing Internet access.

Yeah, it is and it is search rather than structure. And you know the fact is that search tools make it easy to be lazy and we are a lazy species and therefore we will lazy and we will carry on being lazy until we are forced until something bad happens because of our laziness at which point we will mend our ways.

That’s why I had brought up the question of fragmented knowledge earlier. One of my close friends is blind and he generally has to read through the book to reach the information that he wants. He tends to have a much fuller idea of context and the kind of corroboration that he presents is much different from the casual kind of scattered anecdotal argumentation that others present. Of course part of that is a function of he being a conscientious arguer but certainly part of it stems from he not having as many shortcuts to knowledge and actually having a fuller contextual understanding of the topic at hand. The fact is that most users can now parachute in and out of information and Google has helped make it easier.

I don’t think we see what’s really going on. There is a lot more information and there is a lot more to cope with and this superficial skimming is a very effective strategy. Skim reading is something we know how to do, we teach our children how to do, we value in ourselves and indeed in them, and skim surfing is just as valuable. You know I monitor thirty-forty blogs, news sites and stuff like that and when I am doing it, I don’t look too closely at things. That doesn’t mean that I don’t have the ability or the facility to do something which is a lot deeper and a lot more involved.

I have a fifteen-year daughter. She is doing her GCSE exams this year. And I have watched over the last 18 months or so how she has developed her ability to focus, her research skills, her reading around, she is surrounded by a pile of books, she has stopped using the computer as the way to find things quickly because she now needs to know stuff in depth and she is doing all of that. So I suspect that from the outside observing children we seem them in a certain way because we only see part of what they do and we have to look in more detail. It is too easy to have the wrong idea and actually I am a lot more hopeful about this, having seen this with my daughter and I think I will start to see it with my son, who is fourteen at the moment. And again I see his application to the things he cares about and the way he searches. He is a big fan of The Oblivion, the X-Box game, his engagement and the depth of his understanding is immense. So we shouldn’t let the fact that we look at some domain of activity where they are purely superficial let us lose sight of the fact of other areas where it is not superficial at all, where they have developed exactly those skills which would want them to have.


Bill Thompson’s blog

Interview with Bill Thompson: Copyright Law

8 Mar

This is part III of a four-part interview with Mr. Bill Thompson, noted technology columnist with the BBC.

part 1, part 2

“Copyright is not a Lockean natural right but is a limited right granted to authors in order to further the public interest. This principle is explicitly expressed in the U.S. Constitution, which grants the power to create a system of copyright to Congress in order to further the public interest in “promoting progress in science and the useful arts.” (Miller and Feigenbaum, Yale) UK’s copyright law dates back to Statute of Anne from 1709, which states – “An Act for the Encouragement of Learning, by vesting the Copies of Printed Books in the Authors or purchasers of such Copies, during the Times therein mentioned.” Both seem to see copyright as something tailored towards the public good. The modern understanding of it has sort of disintegrated into a sort of “right to make as much money as one can”. Am I correct in saying that? Please elaborate your views on the subject.

Copyright started out as an attempt to restrict the ability of publishers of books to control absolutely what they did under contract law and to establish limitations on the period in which a work of fiction or indeed any written work could be exploited by one group of people, and to ensure that after a certain amount of time it was available as part of the public domain to serve the public good. So copyright has always been about taking away any absolute right so that the creator of a work of art, fiction, literature or non-fiction has so that everyone can benefit; take away the absolute right and give away in return monopoly over certain forms of exploitation during which period they are expected to make enough money or gain enough benefit to encourage them to carry on creating.

So the idea is that it is a balance – give the creator enough so that they can create more and encourage them to do that because it is good but make sure that the products of their creative output fall into the public domain so they can be used by everyone for the wider good on the grounds that you can never know in advance who will make the best use of someone else’s creative output and therefore it should be available. So, the fact that the early years of the last century a cartoonist in the United States called Walt Disney drew a mouse based on other people’s ideas is great and Disney and his family have had a lot of time to exploit the value in the mouse but there are other people now who could do a better job with it and they should be allowed to get their hands on the mouse and do cool stuff with it. That’s the idea and that is the principle that is being broken by large corporations who see the economic advantage to themselves in extending the term of copyright, in limiting the freedoms that other people have because they don’t care about the public good, they care about their own good. And legislatures, particularly in the United States but also elsewhere, have been bought off, corruptly or not, and have not been true to the original principles, which is that in the end it should all go into the public domain so that anybody who wants can make use of it and exploit it in creative ways that we cannot yet imagine. In a sense it’s an expression of humility – it’s saying that we cannot know for sure who will be able to do the best with its work and therefore it is the interest of everybody that it should be available to everybody. That was the breakthrough – the insight – of copyright law 300 years ago. We are coming up on the 300th anniversary of the Statute of Anne, the first codified copyright law and I think we should big party for it.

The point is that – the point is most eloquently made not by Larry Lessig, who is good, but by Richard Stallman of the Free Software Foundation and his point is just that copyright is broken and it needs to be rebalanced and we need new and different approach to copyright and in a sense it is the one area of law where we actually do need to start again. I am always an advocate of trying to make old laws work with new technologies. I think that we should be very cautious about making new laws because looking back historically it does like that today’s politicians are more stupid and more corrupt than those of older days and therefore are less likely to make good laws – that just seems to be the case. Correct me if I am wrong. And therefore we should avoid giving them the ability to screw things up. But with copyright, we are forced to. So we have to engage with the political system, we have to make sure that the people who have political power understand the issues and we have to force them to do the right thing. In other areas for example libel laws and all sorts of other aspects of what we do online, in fact, the existing legal framework has proven remarkably robust. There have been problems over jurisdiction and problems over enforcement but the laws themselves have applied pretty well in the networked world and we haven’t needed that many new laws and that is a good thing. Copyright is the one area where we clearly do.

Copyright, if minimally construed, is the right to produce copies. This particular understanding is fabulously unsuited for the Internet era where technology companies like Google have a business model based on making daily copies of content and making it searchable. Book publishers, along with some other content producers, have cried foul. It seems to me that they don’t understand the Internet model, which in a way has changed the whole dynamic of ‘copying’.

I don’t think it has changed the whole dynamic as much as it as exposed another reading of the word copy and made it the dominant reading and so undermined part of the ball. Parliamentary draughtsmen, the people who wrote those laws, were perfectly right in using the word like they did; it is just that we have promoted one particular facet of copy. The fact that we use the word copy to refer to the version that is made in sort of viewing a webpage on a browser – the version that is held in the display memory and all those sorts of things – we could have avoided a lot of this fuss by redefining what the word copy means thirty years ago or fifty years ago or just not using the word copy. It wouldn’t have actually helped the larger issue because the real problem with copyright is not that too many incidental acts on our computer systems, on our network are in principle in breach of copyright, it’s the fact that the existence of the network makes it possible to breach copyright deliberately, almost maliciously.

As we talk I am waiting for the Episode 13 of Series 3 of Battlestar Galactica to download onto my PC via BitTorrent from the United States so I could watch it. Ok! Now that is a complete infringement of copyright.
[I reply jokingly – so I am going to the MPAA.] Feel free, I would welcome their letter. I would delete it once I have watched it and I would buy the DVD once it comes out. But Sky here hasn’t started showing it four months after it was on the Science Fiction channel. Well, I am not going to wait four months to watch something when it is available. I mean that’s just foolish. That exposes holes in copyright law. It also exposes holes in the economic strategy of multinational corporations who run the broadcast industry in the UK and the US because they just don’t understand the market or what people are doing. There are times when you have to stretch the system to demonstrate the absurdity of the old model and that’s what I see myself as doing.

The US and EU copyright regimes differ in some marked ways. Similarly, Australian copyright law is different in its statute of limitations that is much smaller than the US. Post Internet, we do really need a common international framework for copyright.

But we do. We have that. We have the World Trade Organization, we have WIPO – the World Intellectual Property Organization, we have the Berne (convention signatories). There is an international framework for copyright. It’s as broken as anything else. We need a new Berne, we need to go back to Switzerland and renegotiate what copyright means on a global level but there is that framework but it’s been caught out by technology.

Databases are given legal protection in EU via its database directive while similar privileges haven’t been granted in US. What do you make of this effort to give copyright to databases?

That’s just a European absurdity which we will realize was a mistake and eventually change. You have a database copyright in the European Union and in some other countries though not in the United States and it is clearly a mistake. There is growing awareness that something needs to be done about it because it’s not necessary to offer such protection. The idea that you get automatic protection for taking other people’s data and structuring it in a certain way has limited economic flexibility and has damaged competitiveness.

There is always a problem you see that as new technologies emerge to suggest new rights to go with them and this was the case where [we drafted something into] a law before wiser counsels could prevail.

Gowers report recently received a fair bit of attention. The report, I believe, had this wonderful recommendation for handling patent applications. It talked about putting up patent applications online and having an open commenting period. You in fact wrote about the report in your recent column. Can you talk a little more about the report?

Gowers report was commissioned by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, who is a senior government minister, basically second only to Tony Blair and indeed Gordon Brown hopes to be Prime Minister within the next few months. Because of the way British politics works he can probably manage that without ever getting elected because he would just become party leader and therefore automatically the Prime Minister because the Labor Party is the dominant party in the government.

Brown commissioned a man called Andrew Gowers, who had at that point just been fired from being the editor of the Financial Times, to carry out this report. Andrew is a nice man but many of us doubted his ability to resist the Copyright lobby, to resist the pressures, to write something which would make industry happy, but he surprised us all, partly thanks to the excellent team of people he had working for him at the Treasury in the UK. He came up with a report that wasn’t radical but was sensible and what we do best in British politics is sensible because people can behind sensible. He said some things which were well argued, didn’t give in to the vested interests and didn’t give the music industry what they wanted.

Unfortunately, the Gowers Report is just that – it is a report, it is a series of recommendations which then goes into the government machine and has then to be acted on. It doesn’t do anything itself. We have a political issue here which is that when Gordon Brown as Chancellor of the Exchequer commissioned the report, he believed that by the time it was published he would be Prime Minister, he believed by then Tony Blair would have gone and he would then be in a position to take this report and say I commissioned this report when I was Chancellor and it is absolutely fantastic, now I am Prime Minister and I am going to make it happen. Unfortunately, Tony Blair has refused to go and so Gordon Brown has received the report as a Chancellor and has no real power to deliver on it. And so the question is when Gordon does become Prime Minister – will it be his priorities – probably not, will the world have changed- probably, will he have been leaned on so effectively by the very wealthy music and movie industry so that he will actually dilute some of its recommendations –well tragically probably yes. So the timing is all wrong. The opportunity that Gowers presented was for Gordon Brown to say – this is great let’s just do it. Now we are going to have to wait – eight months – and [in that time] things would have changed and there will be a lot else for Gordon Brown to do. So for those of us who think that the recommendations are good are trying to keep the pressure on and keep track of what is happening, have the right conversations and make sure that when Gordon does become Prime Minister, because it looks fairly likely that he will, that he is reminded of his at the right time in the right way so that it can then turn into real change.

The other thing to remember is that a lot of changes that are proposed, a lot of recommendations are proposed, are actually international recommendations. So there are things that will have to happen at a European level or at a global level and so to some extent it is a call for British ministers, for British representatives, for British commissioners at Europe, for British delegates at WIPO to behave in a different way but it will take some time before we know that’s being successful. The report advocates engagement at a global level. It then needs to happen.