This epic rant is worth your time if you read the news

LiveMint journalist Sidin Vadukut’s rant was partly based on a reading course he was designing

How I got my pixel avatar

My sister, Surabhi Rathi, is a graphic designer. After much hassling, she relented to making a new digital avatar for me. And then she did a nice thing. She let me have a peek at the process.

Step 1: Some examples

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Step 2: John Maeda looks like this…

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And Debbie Millman looks like this…

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Step 3: So how would Akshat look?

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Step 4: Let’s create a skeleton

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Step 5: Let’s refine that

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Step 6: Adding colour

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Step 7: Final touches and beautification

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Voila! Thank you, Surabhi!

Why Dhoni’s decision to retire from Test cricket was right for him and for India

The announcement of Dhoni’s retirement from Test cricket has been a shock to many. As one of the most experienced cricketers in the Indian team and only 33 years old, many expected him to be around for longer. And yet, from what little we know about MSD, this decision would not have been made on a whim. He would have deliberated over it and then chosen the time when it felt right.

The post-announcement analyses have given us some plausible explanations. Dhoni got India to the top of the Test rankings (albeit for a brief period), but his Test leadership wasn’t as great as that in the shorter format of the game. He played in 90 tests and was a highly respected captain, but he could see how India’s overseas Test performance was consistently poor despite his efforts. He perhaps saw in Kohli—even though their personalities are poles apart—more hope than he saw in himself.

Kohli’s captaincy in the first Test can be criticised, but there is no doubt that it was the most entertaining Test so far in Australia. With eight months of no more Test cricket for India, Dhoni leaving now would give the Indian team time to regroup without him and think about how to improve.

So there are honourable reasons for Dhoni to leave now, but the analyses missed a grander point. If Dhoni was worried about not captaining well enough, he could have just given up the captaincy and stayed on as a wicket-keeper. After all, India doesn’t have a better Test keeper than him. But he didn’t; he retired from the format completely.

Here’s why: Test cricket isn’t what it used to be. Sure there are fans who revere this format more than any other, but that base has shrunk. Thanks to franchise cricket, such as the Indian Premier League, the shorter formats of the game enjoy more crowds, more money and thus more fame. The return on effort invested is far greater in those formats than in Test cricket.

I have immense respect for Dhoni, and I place him on a high moral pedestal. In a wonderful profile, Mark Nicholas wrote: “Dhoni is a thoughtful and intelligent person. He is driven by a deep morality.”

But a moral decision alone wouldn’t have brought the Test retirement this early. I reckon his decision involved the sharp perspective of a businessman. He is after all one of the richest sportspersons in the world.

That though should not be seen with contempt. His decision might not be in the best interests of the Indian team in the short-term. However, I feel it might do the team a service in the long-term.

Image credit: movingahead under CC-BY-NC-SA.

22 health lessons from “Trust me, I’m a Doctor”

The BBC ran an excellent second series of three episodes of “Trust Me, I’m a Doctor”. You can dig into all their conclusions here. Here are the take away lessons from it:

1. Moderate amount of exercise every day is better than few intense gym sessions a week. Anything outdoors from walking to gardening is good enough to be considered moderate. Most exercises only have beneficial effects that last for 12-24 hours after exercise.

2. Coffee helps caffeine addicts to keep working at normal levels. This conclusion is a bit simplified because there may be a genetic component in the equation, which might mean the some people need it to keep working at normal levels not just because they are used to it.

3. Fatty foods are probably not going to cause acne or make it worse. Chocolate, or similar sweet things, might do. The science is scant.

4. E-cigarettes seem to be definitely better than cigarettes. But beyond the obvious harm of nicotine addiction, the jury is still out if they are harmless.

5. Less salt may not lower blood pressure, but it wouldn’t be harmful to eat less of it. What you should eat more, however, is potassium—found in broccoli, spinach, apricot and bananas.

6. Most claims about the benefits of omega-3 aren’t that strong. Eating fish, though, is beneficial to reducing heart attacks. But replacing fish with pills as a source of omega-3 does not have the same effect. This might be the case because it is a combination of nutrients in fish that provide the real benefits.

7. Best painkiller to start with is paracetamol, which can be taken in combination with caffeine, ibuprofen, codeine, or all together.

8. Instead of caffeine, chewing gum can increase alertness and sage pills can give a cognitive boost. Both of those might be beneficial without the downsides associated with caffeine (see point 2).

9. Cold pasta changes the structure of starch such that some of the carbs are converted into dietary fibre. It means you don’t get the high-carb load in the blood normally associated with pasta. Reheated pasta is even better than cold pasta, and it is tastier too.

10. Acupuncture may actually have a pain-relief effect. We don’t know how but studies are showing positive results!

11. UV-A, which we can get from the sun, lowers blood pressure and has a lasting effect. The decrease is only 2mm Hg, which is not much but still lowers chance of stroke by 10% and heart attack by 7%. For people with red hair, or if you burn instead of tan, or if you have a family history of melanoma, the sun may not be a solution for you. But for the rest (that is, most of us), the sun is beneficial.

12. It’s impossible to avoid BPA in plastics (bisphenol-A). There is little evidence that the concentration we consume it in is harmful.

13. Saturated fats in certain foods such as nuts or milk might be good. But jury is still out.

14. Vitamin C may not help fight a cold, but zinc supplements taken within first 24 hours can help (beware of side-effects though).

15. Vitamin D supplements work, so does fish and of course sun. But use supplements only when at risk of deficiency.

16. Energy drinks don’t have any more caffeine than normal coffee drinks that millions consume every day. Those with palpitation problems should avoid both.

17. Cold packs are for use on sudden injuries and can help reduce inflammation. Hot packs are for use to treat ongoing pains, such as neck or back pain, to relieve symptoms.

18. Meats after the use-by date should be thrown, but other foods could potentially be consumed. Remove the mouldy bits on breads, cheese and fruit, and you’re good to go. Consuming slimy food items, on the other hand, including those found on vegetables, are a bad idea. The slime tends to be of harmful bacterial origin, not benign fungal origin.

19. Two squares of dark chocolate every day is enough to get the benefits from flavonoids. You can rightly feel guilty if you eat more.

20. When it comes to added sugar in our diet, it is clear that it should be treated as a luxury item. Cutting down sugary drinks will go a long way to help, so would noticing hidden sugar in food items such as chocolate bars and cereal.

21. Waxing pulls the hair out from the follicles, which is why when they grow back it feels as if they are thinner. Shaving only cuts the hair, which makes them appear thicker and harder. However, if one leg is waxed and the other is shaved, you will find no difference between them 12 weeks on.

22. Garlic, beetroot and green leafy vegetables are quite good at reducing blood pressure.

Here are links to lessons I learnt from the 2013 series and the 2015 series of “Trust Me, I’m a Doctor”.

Image by grasper. Published under a CC-BY-NC-ND license.

I love gadgets but here’s why I’m immune to the temptations of new devices

Despite my love for new technology, I’ve become averse to adopting it right away. This may be a reflection of having conservative parents who worked as retailers in the tech industry. Even though my dad had access to the latest gadgets, he hardly ever switched to using them everyday. When advising clients, he made it clear which devices actually offered value for money. Most of the time the newest device wasn’t on that list.

Even when I had enough money of my own to spend, my aversion for new tech remained. It was clear to me that future-generation devices are always much better than the first-generation ones. After removing the inevitable kinks and adding the much-needed features that the first device missed, the second device does the job significantly better.

Another reason for not wanting to upgrade to a new device is the result of a wider trend, and it has only become more obvious to me in recent years. The new devices on offer won’t make my life that much easier. My first smartphone was a touchscreen Pocket PC device, and it was tonnes better than any Nokia phone on offer at the time. I could look at full-sized images, browse the internet on Wi-Fi, manage a planner and use Google Sync.

Then I bought a Blackberry 8320, which seemed like a step in the past. But it wasn’t. Although I missed the touchscreen, the ease of using a full keyboard was quite something. Finally came the iPhone 4S, which changed my life in more ways than any phone had.

Now we have the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus. Sadly, they are nothing but the same old iPhone with a bigger screen. Apart from tiny upgrades in the operating system, which is available on older devices, there is nothing about the new iPhones that is attractive to those not part of the cult. There are Android phones which offer a lot more, but none of those features are enough to change my mind.

The Apple Watch may be gorgeous, but I won’t be buying a first generation device. Mostly, though, a smartwatch seems to be nothing more than an additional layer of distraction right now. This is true of Google Glass, too.

There is hardly a profession where reading and replying to every text message, email, Facebook or Twitter notification as soon as you can is important. Most things can wait, and they must if we are to do anything productive in life. The suggestion here is not to become a Luddite, but, when a screen is only a wrist-flick away or in your eye, the temptation is too high.

The only reason I may end up buying a new internet-enabled device is if I am forced to. This could happen either because the device stops working, gets destroyed or doesn’t perform as I need it to. My nearly three-year-old iPhone 4S runs iOS7 and I have no complaints whatsoever (I won’t be upgrading to iOS8, because that would be suicide. Reviews suggest that the user experience becomes choppier.) My nearly four-year-old iPad2 runs iOS7 and works perfectly well. My four-year-old MacBook Pro 17″ runs Mac OSX Mavericks and runs like a leopard. My four-year-old Kindle 3G does everything I need it to.

I love you, gadget-makers, but to get me to actually buy something new you will have to do a lot more.

Eric Schmidt would approve of the new Quartz homepage

The homepages of all news websites are pretty much the same: some pictures and lots of headlines, all linked to full stories. Until last week, as far as I know, every news website in the world had a homepage except one. Now even that exceptional news website—Quartz—has succumbed.

Launched in 2012, Quartz wanted to be like The Economist but for the 21st century… “embodying the era in which it is being created”. When you visited qz.com, you didn’t reach a homepage. Instead you were dumped on to whatever was the top story at the moment. If you didn’t like it, simply scroll down for the 2nd most important story, or choose one from the sidebar.

Their logic for this design was pretty simple: most people were coming to news websites from the side door of social media. A few months ago, a leaked New York Times report showed that unique visitors to their homepage fell from 160 million in 2011 to 60 million in 2013, which only reaffirmed the Quartz stance. They proclaimed, while acknowledging the self-serving argument, that the “homepage is dead“.

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The audience growth chart would make it seem that the “no homepage” strategy seems to be working. And, yet, this week Quartz introduced a homepage. Living up to their spirit of experimenting, the homepage design is unusual.

Homepages are boring…

Most homepage designs are boring, partly because of their function (and partly because of the old mindset of the newspaper industry). If you want to give your reader what you think are top stories and still leave choice for them, you need a page where headlines and pictures can be placed strategically so that you can nudge the reader towards stories that you deem important.

Not having a homepage may seem to be the lazy approach. The common belief is that an editorial staff is paid not only to produce important and interesting stories, but also to help the reader navigate this complex world by showing them which stories are more worthy of their attention. When you don’t have a homepage, you are letting the reader come to their own conclusions about what is important and what is not. And for this extra effort that you demand from them, they may decide not to read your website.

But Quartz didn’t seem to care, and neither did their readers. In the two years since launch, only 10% of the visitors were coming to Quartz stories via qz.com. Rest were taking the side-door: social media, direct referrals, search engines and email.

…but they still matter

Homepages are designed to increase reader loyalty. This is one reason that despite falling traffic to them, they remain central to how news websites function. People go to news websites when they are bored at work or when they want to know what’s going on.

When you visit the website of a large news organisation, you are guaranteed that they will have at least one story (of course linking back to their own website) of the most important happenings in the world. But if you are a startup news website with a small editorial team, how do you compete with the big dogs?

Quartz found the answer in their email newsletter. In less than two years, their daily newsletter—the digital equivalent of a printed newspaper—was being to sent to 70,000 subscribers. More than 40% of those subscribers opened the newsletter every day, which is a surprisingly large proportion of readers.

The success of the newsletter—called the Daily Brief—spurred Quartz to create a homepage in a bid to leverage this loyalty further. The new homepage consists of tailored summaries about “your world right now”, which are continuously updated. Right now, there are 10 summaries with multiple links in each. And, like the newsletter, the links aren’t always those that take you to a Quartz story.

Eric Schmidt would approve

Not simply linking to Quartz stories is how their homepage could compete with the big dogs. This move gives Quartz the freedom to choose the best story from any news organisation in the world, and still build a loyal readership to their own homepage. Eric Schmidt, Google’s executive chairman, would approve of the homepage. Recently he said, “The best way to stay ahead is a laser focus on building great products that people need.”

What people need from a news website’s homepage is an update about the world around them and high quality information to put things in context. It doesn’t matter to the reader whether that information comes from your own reporters or that from a Guardian reporter. As long as your homepage is providing the links to the best information, loyal readers will come back. This is one reason why news aggregation websites have become so popular.

The downside is that readers may not click through to Quartz stories as often. But that trade-off is worth it if the total number of visitors to the homepage goes up, because then the absolute number of clicks will increase both on Quartz and non-Quartz stories.

The new-style homepage is fertile ground to experiment. For instance, based on the number of clickthroughs, Quartz can gauge reader interest in particular stories. If a non-Quartz story is doing very well, it could inform the newsroom to cover that story in their own style. And when they do, they can simply swap the link and retain the reader.

If nothing else, as senior editor Zach Seward told Nieman Lab, “If you don’t build a homepage for people to go to, they’re not going to come to it.” I have a feeling that I will use the Quartz homepage more often than I use the Daily Brief.