Wednesday, December 23, 2009
I am not much into hyperboles when I am talking about something I feel passionate about. But I just want you to know how passionate I feel about discussions. Discussions about anything. As long as they are sincere, come from your heart, and are constituted of sentences and passages that have gone through some degree of refinement.
I am not going to write a long essay here. People who know me, and have met me for anytime, know well about my love for discussions. Sometimes, it's a matter of fun to my dear ones. But all in all, I am sure they all understand well that it's not my way of killing time, socialising, or pampering my laziness; it's one of my life's greatest passions.
Discussions turn into speaches, lectures, discourse, essays and books. But above all, a well conducted discussion shapes thoughts, cleans the mind of clutter. It often touches lives.
Probably, I will write a lot more about discussions in future, in disparate pieces maybe.
Tuesday, December 15, 2009
We shifted our house this weekend. And like any other experience, I have all the wisdom now that I would have needed then. Well, it may be useful the next time I make a shift. But for now, let me jot them down. I hope that someone planning a shift will have a look at it and will have something to gain.
Packers and Movers
For one, don't hire shady packers and movers. We hired someone called T.T. Transport in R. T. Nagar. They charged us a modest Rs. 2500/-, which was cheap I hear. But in return, we got an aweful service. Four starving drunkards who evoked no confidence in their strength or integrity arrived late on Saturday morning. They didn't understand our language. They didn't have the necessary patience to listen to our directions (which gradually turned into desperate pleadings). Everytime they would say, 'tension nakko. damage kya bhi nahi hota saab!' (means 'Don't worry, there won't be any damage, sir!' in a wierd sort of a way). They didn't have the necessary skill or tools to move things without damaging them. They broke an expensive cot, our washing machine. And created dents in our almirah. As far as now, we haven't discovered any thefts. So, I can't raise any warnings in that track.
Packing and moving is an integral part of the shifting. And one can't take it lightly. Spend money. Don't settle for shoddy service. Take feedback from your friends and hire only those of whom you hear words of appreciation from past customers. Even after all this, take precaution to prevent them from damaging your belongings. For instance, we now realise that we should have called the Godrej guys to get the cot dismantled properly. It would have costed us some money. But damages to expensive belongings leaves scars on your heart that ache each time you see those damages (because they are not always completely repairable).
Knowing the Destination
If possible, visit the destination house many times over. Learn about it intimately. Here's a checklist
This will be needed to determine which major furniture goes where. And it will be critical in many of innumerable decisions to be taken post-shifting.
Just as you need to find out where the big things go, similarly, you must find out where the small ones go. Do it in chunks by knowing where and how much you have got space to stuff things. Create a map between the source and destination storage units. Pack things in accordance to those.
Condition of all the accessories
Check if all taps give out water; and check if all drains are functional.
plug-points, geysers, fans, lights, switches. All the doors. See if the bolts and locks and keys are in place.
Try figuring out where you are going to place your electrical appliances. Find out if there are plug-points within acceptable distance. Find out if the plug-points have current ratings necessary to drive the appliances you are planning to connect to it. Similarly for TV and phone which require connection lines to pulled to them, give a thought as to how you will do that. For instance, if the cable TV output is given on one wall, and you have decided to place your TV on the opposite wall, it will mean that a long wire has to be pulled across the room. Similarly, if you have decided to place your landline phone at a point, figure out where the telephone wires come from and how you are going make them reach that point.
Packing, Labelling, Tagging
Each unit of storage should be stuffed into one single unit of moving. This means that articles belonging to one cupboard should go into one carton.
Fragile items should be tagged appropriately.
Get plenty of cartons: We are a family of two adults and an infant. We have made a shift from a two bedroom house to another of similar measurements. We used close to 30 cartons to pack our stuff.
Friday, December 11, 2009
Thursday, December 10, 2009
Algorithm, Computer Science
I suggested that it's a good idea for you to be acquainted with basic computing. One thing is that in your work you may have to use computers more and more. But the prime reason is that if you happen to work on structural biology, or on genomics etc., you may even have to do rudimentary programming. It would help to be conversant with programming methods, a couple of programming languages like C, Perl and Java. Then your dependence on computer specialists would be minimised. Finally, algorithmic way of thinking augments logical thinking which is in general a researcher's best friend.
Basic Methods of Problem Solving
In order to be able to make quick switch between subjects -- which everyone will have to do more and more in his career in the coming times -- one must be able to promptly get to the core issues of things. My assertion was that there are a few basic tenets or characteristics of problems that are shared by pretty much all problems that we solve. And the fundamental tools to solve such problems are also few in number. We should be able to grasp these basic characteristics and methods. What are those basic characteristics? It's not easy for me to tell you. I am just on my way to prepare a list of my own. For example, one problem that recurrently appears in the world of computing is 'inconsistency'. It appears in so many various avatars. But there's a way to model them all as instances of inconsistency. In programming the solution to this problem comes as modularity and re-use. Right now, I have been able to work out a handful of such fundamentals for my field. I have reasons to believe that there are fundamentals which apply across fields. All this mayn't make immediate sense to you since they are specific to my field. Your field may have its own list of fundamental problems and their solutions. Be on a look out for them.
A very simple interpretation of the above paragraph is: keep your fundamentals clear.
Importance of Literature Review
You had asked how a researcher ever finds out whether what he has come up with is novel or not. My answer to that was that you must spend a majority of your efforts in reading the literature in your area so that you have a feel of the cutting edge. It also depends a lot on your experience to find out roughly if a given problem has likely been solved or not. However, at the end of the day, it boils down to finding it out from the community. You share your work within circles of progressively increasing radii. Eventually, you share it with the open community in the form of a paper. If no one comes out with a feedback that the exact idea has already been published somewhere else, the paper gets published. It's then that it's novelty is an accepted fact, not through a formal proof, but by the consensus amongst the experts of the area.
Therefore, you must know that as you grow as an expert, you also become partly a keeper of the forefront of the knowledge in that area. When a paper comes to you for review, it's a great responsibility because a wrong decision on your part may lead to a good idea not coming out into the open, or the credit of an idea being misappropriated by a wrong person. Both these things are unacceptable.
Hence, both as a producer and as a reviewer of scholarly work, the importance of literature review can't be over-stated.
Knowing the Important Players in the Research Field
Unlike traditionally believed in our country, research is no more a lonely act to be performed in solitude. Now, the process of proving your credibility gradually makes you an accepted member of a community. Unless you belong to a community, you run little chance to be believed for your ideas easily. Hence, socialising is very important. Knowing the right people, starting from those who are the most important people, not only makes you aware of the hierarchy of the work, but the power structure that is inherent in a scholarly community. It also helps you determine where you belong in this community.
Therefore, find out the greatest guys in your area. Your search for information may end you anywhere, but it'll pretty much always start on the webpages of these big guys.
Role of Guide
The guide's role is central in defining the quality of the PhD thesis, sometimes even your career as a researcher. When you start your PhD, he will guide you out of your immaturity. He will criticise you when you are being too naive, and will reassure you when your confidence takes a nose-dive. He will give your the action points to work on as you gradually learn to walk around in the intellectual space you are out to master. The guide's importance is infinite in the beginning. By the end of the PhD, it should be your joint goal to reduce his role to a name in your acknowledgement, which means, that at the end of your PhD you should have learned to define and formulate your problem and work out a solution to it without anyone's guidance. Till then, guide teaches you to do that.
Be careful in choosing your PhD supervisor.
How to find out if your work is new
Interacting with Others
This is where I have plenty to tell you, worth a separate mail. But anyway...
First thing to learn is to respect others. Always remember, people you interact with everyday are pretty much as intelligent as you are, if not more. Your body language and speech should express that respect in plenty. Show eagerness to listen. Don't be too eager to present your point of view in everything and anything, particularly when it doesn't bring value to the discussion. Giving uninformed opinions on things often doesn't give an impression of your being an all-knower. Among intelligent people, such people end up being shunned as incessant blabberers, bores. It's a good habit to weigh one's words when saying it. Always, before saying anything, give a moment of thought on 'Is it going to make this discussion a more fruitful one; or is it just aimed to increase my share in the discussion, even though with garbage.' Don't spew garbage. Maintain your dignity.
On the other hand, those who carefully listen to others end up imbibing enormous amount of information and knowledge. So, listen. Listen carefully. Even passively. Which means that while you internalise the information being given by a speaker, do it without colouring it with your own interpretation, with daydreamings, with ulterior thoughts. It's easier said than done. It requires a lot of discipline to become a good listener. Frankly, I myself continue to struggle.
While discussing, if you have a choice, always try to keep the focus on the other person and his work. Ask more questions. Exude interest and curiosity. Make the other person amply aware how fascinating you find their field and their ideas. It will encourage them to reveal more and share more. It's not with a cunning intention that you do so. It's to make the discussion valuable to all parties involved. If required, speak about your thought frankly, with a balance of pride and modesty. But always be factual. Always try to make it valuable to your listener. It hardly helps to brag. It hardly helps to speak more than you know. It hardly helps to keep blabbing endlessly about things your listener doesn't want to hear.
Given that, you should always try to find out the commonalities between your field and the other person's. Remember the thing about fundamentals? There are fundamentals common to any two areas, however disconnected on the surface. A discussion which at least indirectly reveals a set of commonalities between you and his interests is more than just fruitful. It's fabulous.
One Page Presentation of Your Idea
In various scenarios, this one page could be called an abstract, an introduction, a synopsis, a summary etc.
A general sequence of coverage is the following:
- Introduction to the problem
- Existing work to solve the problems
- Your work and explanation as to how it fills the gap
- Your reason to believe that your work indeed fulfils the promise, presented via proofs or experimental results.
You will learn with time that the above is just a guideline. You have to make a structure of your own. Remember, through your introduction, you must evoke interest in your audience to look deeper into your work. Always imagine that the audience is asking you: 'Why should I listen to you? Why should I believe you?' Your introduction should answer those questions somehow.
At this stage, I can't speak more on this topic. But with time, we will get plenty of opportunities to revisit it.
Advice to a Youngster
Wednesday, November 11, 2009
Quintessential element is the fifth essential (quint for five) element of universe, which is ether. The other four are air, earth, water and fire.
What surprises me is the fact that the same set of objects are quoted in Indian text as the panchbhoota, or the five elements. It's not a trivial co-incidence again, if at all a co-incidence.
Anyone has any idea regarding the origins of this idea of elements in both latin and sanskrit scriptures?
Thursday, September 17, 2009
Last week, Thursday, I did a one day training in time management. I felt it was a great experience. Got all enthused to apply my learnings to every aspect of my life. Since, the weekend almost immediately followed, I spent it planning my leisure very well. Since, anyway there was little to do, planning worked very well. I got further encouraged. Sunday night, before going to bed, I had ready with me, a detailed plan for Monday. It ran into 2 pages of my notebook. Even activities taking just a few minutes had been planned. I slept well looking forward to a busy but neatly executed day at office. Got up in morning and did my exercises rather peacefully. After all the days was planned. The success lies in working smart, not in hurrying around.
When I reached office and opened my Outlook, there popped up a reminder saying 'Customer Orientation Training - 45 minutes overdue.' I was enrolled in this 2 day training! I looked at my 2 page plan. Hesitated a while wondering if I could back off from the training still. Realised, I couldn't. And ran to the training room in a tremendously frustrated state of mind. An example of how it's going to take a while before I really learn how to manage my time, if at all. For now, I surely learn a lesson that I must try to keep only one task list so that conflicts don't occur and even if they do, they are known.
The second instance of irony happened at the end of the Customer Orientation course. The trainer asks all trainees in the beginning what their personal expectation from the course are. At the end of it, he reviews this list to see if they have been fulfilled. My expectation was the following: to be able to handle situations where there is a gap between my understanding of value in a proposal with my customer.
Just as an explanation (which I shared with the class that day), it's often seen in our research projects that our customers come with the idea that the result of our research projects will prove directly financially beneficial to 'their' projects. Our perception often differs. We tend to think that we need to produce knowledge through the exercise which will be found beneficial to the organisation in a long-term sense. This difference in perception is natural. No one is wrong at his respective role. But this difference in perception has to be managed.
During the course of the training, the fact about my being a researcher and PhD bla bla was naturally revealed. In response to my expectation, my trainer said that it would be my responsibility to try showing the value of the proposal to my customer. It wouldn't be fair on my part to expect him to buy my idea of value from the project. I think my trainer was right on that. However, rather unexpectedly, he continued further saying something about how people from premier institutes tend to expect others to buy their ideas just because they are from premier institutes. He opined that being from premier institute doesn't help. One must perform to show his value.
While technically my trainer was again right, I found this remark very out of place. In fact, I felt embarrassed because it was directly in response to my query. It seemed to indicate that I had in some way given an impression that I was trying to throw my weight around because of my being from a premier institute. Though the whole training had been quite valuable, I came out of it with an uneasy heart. So much so, that I wrote a mail about my feelings to the trainer, explaining that I had never meant my ideas to be accepted easily simply due to my background. A very unpleasant exchange of mails followed which left me even more uneasy. I could see no hint of eagerness in him to understand what had bothered me. He took a very defensive stance. Something in complete contrast to what he had taught for 2 long days. Unfortunately, it's no assurance in soft-skills matters that your being a preacher gives you the ability to practice.
Thursday, August 27, 2009
This time when I went to my native place, he engaged me in some story-telling exercises. And I had my share of funny moments. I enjoyed telling him 'Beauty and the Beast'-like stories. Possibly, I had less than 5 different stories in my kitty. His hunger for stories was inexhaustible though. He kept asking for more stories. To which I answered truthfully that I didn't have anymore stories to tell him. He had an easy solution. He said, no problem tell me one of the old ones. But I had just told him that was not a problem at all. So, I started telling him the whole thing all over again; he started gobbling it with open-mouth with every possible expression of mytery and intrigue on his face. Looking at him no one could've told that he knew the story to the last detail, except when I would, for the sake of novelty, or may out of sheer forgetfulness, miss out on or alter some of the details. He would quickly correct me on those and return back to his perfectly hungrily receptive mode of listening. It was very funny and cute beyond what words can tell!
Another time, when he was behind me to tell him some stories, I tried to avoid accepting that I didn't have any more stories to tell him, by saying, 'I know many stories. But they are for bigger people. You won't understand them.' This was not a problem for him. He said, 'I anyway don't understand much of the stories. I still enjoy them. You tell. No problem.' I found this limitless innocence on the one hand and self-awareness on the other a very uncanny mixture. Not to say, it was very cute again!
Once, I succeeded turning the table on Chhotu. I insisted that at least some time it had to be his turn to tell a story. So, this particular time, he unwillingly agreed. The story he tried telling was that Tenalirama/Birbal/Gopal Bhaad story wherein Tenali finds out that a burglar is hiding in his house waiting for them to go to bed before he would clean up. So, instead of panicking he makes the best out of it. Being aware that his garden needed watering, he tells his wife, making sure that the burglar is within earshot, that he has hidden all their jewels in the garden well. When they go to bed, the burglar goes out and starts pulling out water from the well and throwing them into the garden. He keeps doing it the whole night hoping that eventually the hidden jewels would come up with the water. The garden gets its water. The burglar gets caught in the morning.
Chhotu's version 1: A burglar comes to Tenali's house and starts taking out water from the well and pouring them into the garden. And the garden gets irrigated.
My question: "But why does the burglar come to Tenali's house?"
Chhotu: "Because he wants to steal."
My question: "Then why does he start taking out water from the well."
Chhotu, like a worthy prospective Windows user, tries pressing the restart button, and starts all over again.
Chhotu's version 2: Tenali tells his wife that he has hidden his jewels in the well. The burglar comes and starts pouring water into the garden...
My question: "But why does the burglar pour water into the garden?"
Chhotu: "???!!!! Because he wants to water the garden."
My question: "But why does the burglar want to water Tenali's garden?"
At this point, Chhotu found it all not worth it to explain such petty stuff to me, and went ahead with some other game. What can I say. The story holds its magic in Chhotu's mind sans its logical sequencing of events. I have been wondering eversince, what, if not the logical sequence of events, holds its appeal for a story in the eyes of a child! :)
Thursday, August 06, 2009
For some months now, I have been turning the pages of books on probability models. Fortunately, my job affords me chances to go back to textbooks and learn things I never tried, or had tried but had given up or was made to give up. Probability used to occupy a part of our mathematics curriculum every year after 9th standard for all the years that had a mathematics paper. I think I was fairly good in probability then, but wasn't exceptional. I learned it to a certain extent that was possible for me during those math courses. After those courses, I hardly ever got a chance to study probability until recently. There were other friends of mine who didn't show an initial aptitude towards probability. They got a few years to demonstrate a growth in their aptitude. Most of them ended at the same level where they had started. They never studied probability after that. Unlike me, they will never study it again.
Perhaps, to a large extent, that's a thankful thing. We ought to be spared of having to struggle with the same set of subjects forever even though we show no inclination or necessity to learn them. There should definitely be a quick and efficient method in place to identify the natural gifts of a child, and propel him in that direction with all resources possible. But there is another side to it. We don't develop our aptitude for certain subjects at the same time. Each child develops his own way of learning. Certain subjects which appeared like Greek in my adolescence now appear easier to grasp when I pick them up after a while. I can upfront think of a few reasons: one is experience which prepares us to look at the subject from another angle. Another is the fact that over years, we develop techniques of thinking and reasoning. Arguments which might have appeared exotic to me when I was 18 now appear quite mundane to me.
Children pick up life-skills at various paces, in different order. Most of them finally arrive. It's not more probable that a child learning to walk early is not more probable to become more athletic than his peer who learns to walk later. An early talker isn't more likely to become an orator than the one who learns to speak a little later. Nature doesn't put us in rigid curricula where we learn our subject along with our peers at a predesignated period of our life; in which we don't get another chance to learn once we miss the first few.
It would be good to learn our subjects in a slightly more flexible way too. If I don't understand probability in my 9th grade, can I take it in my 11th? If, during my 5th grade, I show a strong propensity towards literary skills, can my curriculum be enriched with language and literature subjects, scheduling my other subjects for a later coverage? If before that I show a prodigal aptitude for literature, I may simply be spared of doing my science courses and allowed to grow in my natural order at a much accelerated pace. If I flunk math due to bad performance in some of the modules, can I be allowed to move on, keeping those modules for a repeat visit at a later point in my student-life?
In short, I am talking about flexibility. The tyranny of perpetual comparison with peers will be broken. The growth of the child will be with the direct intent of making him an employable citizen depending on his aptitude. The child will get an almost unlimited opportunity to learn subjects in a customised order. Moreover, there will be possible to maintain a much finer grained profile of the student's strengths. For example, currently it's impossible to know if a student of commerce had, at one point in time, shown exceptional calibre in problems of graph theory. Then, such profiling will be possible. Straight-jackets of science, commerce and art streams are outdated and rotten. This system will allow each student for designing his own stream. Students will seek absolute excellence. Competence (being good in something) will not confused with competiveness (winning games and wars).
Looking closely, it's hardly a revolutionary idea. I see subdued forms of it in the current system of education, particularly in higher education. To implement this idea in all its glory, we need a much more developed way of assessing a child's progress. It may be expensive to implement as it will obviously call for more attention to be given to the individual growth of each student.
May be, something of this sort will work out for a future society. Your inputs please! Particularly, as to how this proposed system could be broken.
Tuesday, July 28, 2009
Thursday, July 23, 2009
Thought 1 -- Falling into the Chasm
It was about the Tornado theory of how technologies evolve and how businesses get created around them. In that there was one particular concept of a chasm that exists between early adopters and early majority market segments. It says that most consumers are such that they wait for the technology to get proven for its usefulness before they adopt it. They constitute the majority segment of the market. On the other hand, early adopters test out the technology due to its technical appeal, or simply due to its novelty. When a company introduces a technology into the market, it must first hit the early adopter market. Gradually, as the technology matures, the company must adapt its strategy to start covering the early majority market segment. This transition is crucial, as in, many technologies die during this transition as the its proponents make some strategic mistakes at this juncture. This transition point has been visualised as a chasm; the event of failing at this point is called falling into the chasm.
About this, I had one small thought to add. That is, aren't there technologies which are designed to fall into the chasm? In the sense, their not making it into the next market segment may not actually be an accident, but a designed thing. The technology may well be a stepping stone or throw-away prototype or pilot for a more mature technology. The example I have upfront in my mind is pager technology. It was very popular for a short while with the more savvy and business class people. But just when it was graduating into a mature technology, it was promptly taken over by mobile-phones. I don't know the details, but I would say that mobile-phones are a similar technology. Both the technical and business aspects of these two technologies seem to have great overlap. Without really trying to prove my point, I would say that technology-makers must have foreseen that mobile-phone technology, if realised, is a superior technology to pager, and would overtake it sooner or later. But introducing pagers into the market temporarily might actually have helped in many ways. First, it was easier to implement. Second, it created the demand for such a convenience and created awareness. Third, the infrastructure that would be required to set up mobile-phone technology got created to a large extent when pagers were introduced. Fourth, the running of pager business must have acted like a tutorial for the mobile-providers on how to run the mobile-phone business in the short future. In short, pagers were designed to fall into the chasm; it wasn't an accident. It paved the way for mobile-phones to cross the chasm with perfect ease.
Of course, all the above is not rooted in my awareness of how the mobile-technology actually evolved, but it's just a conjecture of how it must have happened. More than that, you could take that as a hypothetical example of the main point I am trying to make: Falling into the chasm needn't always be an accident; but could be a well-thought business strategy to ease the entry of a superior technology into the majority market by sacrificing its inferior alter-ego.
Thought 2 -- Basic Nature of Technology
This was not really part of the talk, but it appears as a nagging possibility. It might be so significant as to be a distinct indicator that our race is actually programmed to self-destruct. sooner or later. The conjecture is that there doesn't seem to exist any technology capable to reduce overall consumption of resources. Mathematically, say, there's a work W that a population P does resulting in consumption of resources amounting to C. The consumption per person is CPP = C/P. Enter technology T. It reduces the consumption per person CPP to CPP'. This makes it lucrative to consumers to adapt T due to their personal gain. However, the total consumption changes from C to C', and ironically C' is always greater than C. This is because, the number of people who consume T is no more P, but P', and P' >> P. That makes total consumption C' = CPP' . P' > CPP . P > C. Moreover, even with all its merit, T would never make economic sense to the businessmen who push it into the market unless the above happens. In other words, there can never be a technology which really reduces consumption. All it will do is to drastically increase the profitability of consumption, thus causing orders of magnitude rise in overall consumption.
As a concrete example, trains cause tremendous reduction in per person consumption of fuel as compared to individually arranged travel. But, the rail business would never be profitable unless large volumes of people travel, resulting in overall increase in fuel consumption.
Another example. information technology has resulted in tremendous reduction in the cost of communication of one unit of information. However, none of the business thriving around IT, be it computer software and hardware, mobile, etc. would have made economic sense unless there had been such manifold rise in the flow of information that the overall expenditure on information handling has grown several times than before.
In fact, the power of certain technologies lies in so altering the behaviour of consumers that they end up spending more resources (count in money) on the same task due to the ease of consumption. For example, even though the cost of travelling per kilometre is perhaps less than before, it's so convenient to travel that we end up spending much more on travel these days than before. Similarly about communication. In other words, human race doesn't seem to have invented a technology that's so powerful that, even after accommodating business concerns, it results in an overall reduction, or at least maintenance, of the consumption of resources in the task that technology aids in. If this conjecture is true, we are doomed to continue inventing technologies because they make good business sense for the businessmen and individual consumers, but which will continue the ever accelerating approach to an ultimate destruction of our race resulting from exhaustion of natural resources.
If someone provides me with a counterexample to disprove the above conjecture, I will bless him/her from the bottom of my heart.
Friday, May 29, 2009
My first experience is with a person called Irshaad, the owner of Sana Cane Furniture in Shivajinagar. I first met him about half a year ago in connection with purchasing cane furniture for our living room. He turned out to be an apparently avid Muslim, beard and prayer cap on his head. His attire wasn't anything to drool on -- dirty shirt and trousers and a battered boot. A very workmanly appearance. And the funniest thing was his bike -- a very old 100 CC, one of the first which used to ply our roads, perhaps way back in the 80s. But an immediately noticeable aspect about him was his gentlemanly behaviour. A polite and articulate way of speech most Muslims can boast of. And a very Indian-accented but immaculately correct English. These contrasting colours in his personality caught my attention immediately.
My first meeting with Mr. Irshaad was in the middle of Queen's Road, from where we proceeded to his workshop which was approached through narrow, muddy lanes with Muslim children, Muslim ladies, Muslim shopkeepers selling clothes, food-items and everything -- a very typical old-city look a part of every big city would have. The workshop itself turned out to be an extremely unkempt tin-sheded place. Pieces of wood, cane, nails, dirty clothes, polish, strewn around to give the place the most classic look of untidiness. The entrance was a narrow opening cut into the tin-wall in the form of a two pane door, one of which has been kept locked for some reason. I had to struggle getting into the workshop through it.
On the one hand, Ramzan was round the corner. October 1, I think. Mr. Irshaad's workmen would go on a week's vacation after Eid day. On the other hand, we were expecting guests on October 2, and positively needed the furniture to be delivered before that. It was about a week to go. And the deal was made that he would give us our furniture before that. Going by our previous experience with some of the most professional (so-called) parties of Bangalore, e.g. Big Bazaar, we set our own expectations on a date about a week or ten days after Ramzan, never mind the urgency of our need for the furniture. In the meantime, we would of course keep pushing them, without which perhaps nothing would be delivered even in a year.
There were some other aspects of the deal which were particularly precarious. First, Mr. Irshaad literally chased us to an ATM and made us make half the payment in advance in cash. And second, the whole deal was made orally. There were no paper receipts. No bills. No invoices. No quotations.
The surprise came on the Eid day. By that time, work worth a day was remaining, as reported by Mr. Irshaad. But since Eid had arrived we reached an understanding (unwillingly on our part) that the delivery would be delayed till a few days later. However, on the Eid day, we got a call from Mr. Irshaad. Second day Moon hadn't been seen. Eid had been postponed to the next day. Work would therefore continue and be finished. So did it happen. We had our furniture in our living room on October 1. Taut cane weavings and the heady smell of fresh varnish!
That wasn't my final experience with Irshaad. A few weeks back, we needed some maintenance on our furniture. Since the service guarantee (again oral) was for five years, I called up Mr. Irshaad and told him that I had purchased my furniture from him about 6 months back and that they needed some attention. Without arguments, Mr. Irshaad said that I could come to his Shivajinagar shop and pick one of his boys. The explanation he gave for troubling me to come was that if he sent his boy by himself, he might just loaf around and go back and say that he didn't find our house. Anyway, I went to his shop and found it unattended. While I entered hesitently, the neighbouring shopkeeper came up and informed that Irshaad was in the Mosque for his evening prayer, had asked him to seat me while he was away and would be there in 10 minutes. Irshaad appeared in around that time. Another visit to his workshop. The boy was sent and the work was done. I was instructed to give the boy a token Rs. 50 after the work was completed. Given with pleasure!
He is a meek looking, greying, aging LIC agent. He carries a small handbag sort of thing which is full of his agency related papers. Each time he is needed to produce a document, he clumsily sifts through the contents of the bag. I noticed that sometimes he finds them; something he doesn't.
I got Mr. Raghunath's reference from my colleague Vijay who was both his personal acquaintence and a client himself. Vijay had more to tell about Raghunath. Raghunath's son used to be his classmate. Vijay had spent much of his time during student days in Raghunath's house and had received very affectionate treatment from the entire family. Raghunath is a past employee of HMT. He had incurred some heavy losses in the stockmarket etc. etc.
My experience with Raghunath was very brief. Only 3 meetings. First, in office when he came for the introductory interview. I sent him back asking him to come home, as I wanted it to happen in the presence of my wife. Second, the very same evening at my house. He arrived punctually, gave an elaborate explanation about the policy which got very boring and tiring for me, and left after giving me a list of documents needed for initiating the policy. Two days later, Raghunath was at our office. I handed over the documents to him while we had coffee together. He left shortly. Within two-three hours, I got a call from him wherein he informed me my policy number.
Why these little incidents have had a visible effect on me is not very clear. I think it's got to do with many things. And for those many things, some of which I can guess, some perhaps, I can't clearly see, I thought it worth recording these two singular experiences.
Recently when I was sharing this experience with my wife, she said: 'But they were just doing their job.' And immediately, we both concurred on the point that perhaps that's what made them such a rarity. None of these two men did a favour to me. They just did their jobs well. I felt so phenomenally thankful for the smoothness that my dealing with them enjoyed. This smoothness is a rarity in cases of the best-known organisations notwithstanding their process-orientedness, their customer-care centres, their 24 hour toll-free lines and their interest free personal loans.
Another more important thing to notice was the relative anonymity of both these personages. They aren't famous. they aren't important. They are ordinary people. In all probability, they aren't ever going to break free of their anonymity or ordinariness. But they cling on steadfastly to such standards of professionalism as might not meet any international standard, and yet result in the rarest of the rare experiences in business -- a feeling of complete satisfaction.
Mr. Irshaad took approximately Rs. 10000 from me as advance without providing a bill. He expected me to trust him. I don't know what gave him that confidence that I would trust him. But I simply had to. He returned my trust amply not just by delivering the furniture on time, but providing with immediate and hassle-free service. No paperwork involved. The whole experience was most fascinating how trust worked both ways without leaving one with a feeling of having been cheated. An example that even business can be done through trust.
You see many people sitting on positions of power and importance setting all sorts of wrong examples: researchers faking results, politicians and officials misappropriating public money, people travelling in big beautiful cars breaking traffic lights, artists selling insincere work, reporters selling sensation, TV channels selling endless soaps, not to mention scientistswriting blogs in company time. Among them, there are these Irshaads and Raghunaths, trudging about on rattling BMTC buses and old motorbikes, wearing the most indistinguished look -- who live by high standards of ethics.
What's the use of being good and anonymous? What's the use of being professional if it doesn't translate into riches? I don't know. But to me, I think they simply prove a point -- it's OK to be good people. It's OK to be honest. It's OK to do one's job with sincerity. Such a life is possible. And it's OK to live it.
Monday, May 11, 2009
Their behaviour is characterised by one singlemost quality: Whatever they are talking about, they will give you normative statements about it before giving out positive ones. In other words, they will impress you with how strongly they feel about a thing before they reveal their real understanding of it. A list of examples follows:
- It's a good site. (I have studied it.)
- It's a beautiful theory. (I have understood it.)
- It's based on raag yaman. Lovely raaga! (I know about this raaga.)
- Tolstoy's writings gives me goosebumps. So intricate! (I have read Tolstoy's work.)
- This country is going to dogs! You should shoot all the politicians. (I am concerned about the nation's welfare.)
- This is my favourite part of my thesis. (I have done my PhD with a lot of affection. Therefore it's a good thesis.)
It's generally understood that you get emotional about something you are deeply involved in. So, the easiest way to prove the existence of your deep involvement in something, particularly when the involvement is not there, is to show your emotions about the thing. It shows that you have it in you to get deeply involved in something, which needs you to be at some level of intelligence. So, if the listener is weak enough in logic not to see that emotions are not a sufficient condition for intelligence, and is gullible enough to believe that your emotional involvement is authentic in the first place, he'll interpret it as a sign of your intelligence.
I'm sure we all have learned to expect such people around us in parties, conferences, workplace etc. Also there are some disguises in which the same thing appears. For example, use of superlatives, e.g.
- I read it a long time back. (I have been involved in this for long. Hence, the involvement is ripe and deep.)
or casual/askance statements like:
- ...when I was talking with Queen Elizabeth last year ...(proves that I had been to England last year, and I mix around with monarchs, and most importantly it's no big deal for me.)
- I feel nauseous in the flight (Ya, I mean, I travel by air very often.)
- Man, M. G. Road parking situation is horrible! (I travel by car often.)
Similarly, for example, throwing jargons, e.g
- Picaso, right? It's surreal!
- Plutocracy bla bla totalitarianism bla blah bla ... existentialism bla bla bla blah... emricism, idealism...
Sometimes, it requires a conscious effort to resist the temptation to be one of this kind at occasions. But, it helps in general to stay away from this temptation. Discipline in this regard the makes it possible to experience the actual fun of emotional involvement. Faking it closes all roads to the authentic experience; or at best delays it severely.
I also beg your pardon for a slight tinge of cynicism in this post. I definitely don't mean that all high-sounding discourses are phony. Often, trying too hard to sound simple and modest could be the worst form of vanity. But definitely, if one is conscious (without being paranoid) of the germs of vanity that is present in all of us, we would learn to minimise its expression in our behaviour. I do feel this discipline to shun vanity is very hard to get, but unfortunately lies at the root of all ethical behaviour in professions like research, art and social-service.
Wednesday, April 29, 2009
Is a good person allowed to have no vices?
Is a time which I wish to call good allowed to have no bad memories associated with it?
Can a good job never have anything uninteresting in it?
Can a life not to be called good if it ever saw any rough patches?
Is sincerity and concentration characterised by absence of moments of distraction?
The common answer to all the above questions is easily guessed.
I know I am writing on something very obvious and spoken of million times. Yet, I find myself motivated to write about it. Because, I see that we do it again and again. We hate someone because he has done something bad, and forget all the good he has done. We often remember the bad moments of a time and forget the happinesses it had granted us. We call our jobs bad because we have to do many uninteresting things in it; and we forget that all the little interesting things that we get to do happen only because our job allows us the freedom to indulge in them -- officially sometimes, and sometimes unofficially. We think that life sucks because it's difficult; we forget its riches most of the times.
Yes, I am talking about the cliche called positive thinking -- the thinking about the good things about something. What I want to add are two things: One, you need not forget about the bad things in something to appreciate its goodness. Two, you should practice it when it's most tempting to do otherwise. Then only it would work. Otherwise, why should it? We all are very positive about everything when we are having fun in water-park. Can we, when we are fighting cancer?
Wednesday, April 15, 2009
Science: The disciplined approach of understanding everything through logical deduction, experiments and sensory observation.
Metaphysics: There lie truths beyond the boundaries of our 5 senses. Where science goes mute, mystical metaphysics becomes our guide.
Humour: Zen masters say that an acute sense of humour is the highest form of intellect; and a light-hearted laugh, the highest form of spiritual bliss.
Thursday, April 02, 2009
Actress XYZ played the role of ABC in the movie PQR: A) Yes; B) No; C) Can't say. SMS your answer to DEFGH and win
I thought that was stupid enough to deserve a blog post. If someone sends 'C' as an answer, the person should be sent for psychiatric treatment. If there are sufficiently large number of 'C's coming as an answer, there should be national level red-alert. Having so many idiots in the country poses a serious threat to the national security and general well-being. The matter should be taken up at the summit level as a matter of highest concern.
But this article is not about choosing 'C' as an answer. It's about choosing 'A', 'B' or 'C' as an answer. It's about choosing to answer. I have often felt very uncomfortable with the very business model of encouraging people to spend money for a minuscule chance of winning a prize. The only party which is sure to gain in this game is the one who throws the competition. Of course no one is being forced, and people are being conned on their own. But, I feel, while the business model is a source of easy income for TV channels, mobile service providers and other business houses, it lies in a very grey ethical area.
Order and beauty lies in making improbable things happen through expert actions. It's been the nature of humans to be fascinated with things which couldn't have existed without an expert hand bringing them into being. But, what distinguishes man from others is his capability to cause the order that makes the improbable happen, to be that expert hand himself. A passive fascination with improbability, where a person waits passively for an improbable thing to happen and rejoices when it does, is characteristic of a baser nature. It leads to gambling.
Perhaps it is fair to give a thought to what acts behind the psychology of gambling. The instinct of gambling seems to be encoded in our genes, like many other unfortunate genetic quirks of our species. The genetic explanation of gambling identifies that risk-takers of the past reaped rewards in the form of survival and progeny. So, the 'risk-taker' genes have been passed on to us by natural selection. We are hardwired to feel a thrill in taking risks.
However, while the fact that this gene has survived in us also is a proof of the fact that though the risk-taker ancestors ultimately managed to clinch a jackpot in the struggle for existence, risk taking by itself may not be a formula to a highly probable success. The gene just gives us an urge to take risks. It doesn't encode the intelligence in us to count the number of risk-takers who have perished due to the same instinct, a number which must have been very much larger than that of the winner ancestors. Like many of the intelligences that are critical for giving us not just an edge over other species, but the barest chance of survival, this intelligence doesn't come naturally to us; we have to groom it.
The import of the last two paragraphs was just to know that the fascination to see an improbable thing happening exists in us thanks to evolutionary reasons. In that, we can't look for an answer to whether it's justifiable to act in accordance or opposition to this instinct. It just tells that in spite of all conscious knowledge about it, all of us will fall prey to it some of the times; and some of us will fall prey to it often enough to ruin themselves and others around them. But the answer to the question of ethical justifiability of gambling, whether done once, occasionally or compulsively, has to be sought elsewhere.
In any kind of gambling, the odds of winning are abysmally low -- making it illogical for the gambler to gamble, and a very profitable business for the organiser of the game. To quote 'illogical' as 'unethical' may be something of moral belligerence. Being illogical at times is considered 'indulgence', and in general is allowed to all of us, albeit in sparing amount. For example, we sometimes binge on ice-creams and chocolates. We spend exorbitant sums of money in travelling to exotic places. We drape ourselves in expensive clothes, jewellery and make-up. Non of which makes any direct logical sense (except again a digression into the evolutionary antecedents of the instincts of vanity etc.), but we are allowed to do them in controlled quantity, and nobody frowns. In fact huge businesses exist around each of these indulgences. Is occasional gambling an indulgence in the same parlance; and should businesses flourishing around it be looked at in the same way as any of the other businesses that cater to our 'indulgences'?
Gambling done in moderation indeed seems to qualify as a harmless indulgence. In opposition to traditional forms of gambling, SMS gambling has two peculiarities. One, they make it extremely easy to start gambling, which raises a red flag against them. Two, they don't seem to scale in a way that a person could turn into a compulsive gambler by indulging in them. The very tedium of typing an SMS makes it infeasible that a person could lose a significant amount of money by sending too many of them. That might be a thankful aspect.
All the above arguments seem to advocate a lenient attitude towards this phenomenon of SMS gambling. I have my own doubts and can't decide either ways. There are some intractable questions associated with this business as with any business thriving on any indulgence. In a macro way, if such businesses grow relentlessly, I do feel that it sends disturbing signals about us as a race. Indulgences are like respite points from the tyranny of being logical. But if indulgences pervade our lives -- be it SMS gambling, making fun trips, wearing expensives clothes or sporting fuel guzzling fancy cars -- it fundamentally shapes what a life stands for at both an individual level or at a more collective level. Is life an instrument to achieve something noble, making it permissible to loosen up only to make it sustain its productive existence for longer? Or are all noble deeds of life just a fuel to the inextinguishable need to indulge and entertain oneself endlessly without regard to anything more meaningful than that?
Well, I must say that the fact that in the end I had to invoke a very lofty argument to defend my initial stand of opposition to SMS competitions, shows that my argument has weakened quite a bit over the course of writing this article. So, to sound fair, I must accept that these competitions seem harmless to an extent. But I would continue to feel unhappy if I see an individual indiscriminately indulging in it and never thinking that after all it's all stupid; and that we are allowed to behave stupidly only very very rarely. I would be full of blessings for a person who could bring me a data that such businesses are profitable but small enough not to matter in the grand scale.
Monday, March 30, 2009
One of the interesting disillusionments has been that PhD is not just all about being called Dr. Sujit and being respected for the knowledge and depth of thinking. It's also about managing people's perceptions and insecurity. In the initial days, I observed with some perplexity that I occasionally used to get into trifle conflicts with many people around during discussions. The matter of conflict could be as trivial as the interpretation of terms. Slowly, the nature of the conflicts started unfolding when they showed themselves in more significant moments -- when the charter of a research project was being drawn; when deliverables and timelines were being decided; when the very process of conducting the project was being figured out.
There are people in this industry who are around my age and have worked their up to a very respectable and powerful position in the organisation. I unwillingly learned to understand, and was also pointed this out by some, that my entry into the scene creates a very unsettling effect on the ecosystem. What existed before me was a fairly stable ecosystem, with well-defined power-hierarchies. In this place where most people have achieved success not through a degree from a premiere institute, but through the more difficult way of proving their mettle in the ugly corporate world via a prolonged struggle, I figure as a foriegn particle. I gradually learned to recognise the look of threat in many eyes, as if saying: "Don't you try throwing about your weight around just because you have got a degree." These days, when I introduce myself, I make sure not to mention anything about my academic background. My business card, my nameplate, and any other communication has my name, but no mention of my PhD. It's easier for acceptance here to mingle in the crowd and work one's way ahead as one of them. Being singled out as an alien ousts you from the race in the first lap itself.
And yet, I understand that the way I can add value to the organisation is not by conforming to the pre-existing culture, but by bringing in fresh ideas. It's not got so much to do with my PhD, but by the fact that I have struggled hard elsewhere, have learned things apart from those which can be learned here, and am able to raise questions which a person having spent his life here might have learned to ignore.
It's a tricky struggle. And perhaps the fun lies therein. Let's see how it shapes up.
Tuesday, February 10, 2009
I don't know if the demand is abominable. It's definitely stupid. An employer can't know more about its employee's character than is necessary to employ her. And actions speak louder than words. Why would he employ someone whose character he is not sure about? The employment is a stronger proof than any other written statement by the employment. An employer is well off taking care that his employee does her job well and her academic credentials are authentic. What kind of an employer would go to the extent of examining how many men she sleeps with? It's therefore more reasonable to ask for an employment proof.
As far as this being seen as a reproachful act in itself, my sympathies (temporarily) lean towards the landlord, particularly because we men have put up with this nonsense forever now, and no spinster ever stood up in our support. There have been landlords who have warned me (me, the Sujit; can you beat that?!) not to involve in 'all the nefarious activities of a bachelor' when I was about to take his flat on rent. There are still others who have their doors permanently closed to bachelors. Only married people please! I have found this very unfair, seriously. And have tried to raise my voices in many occasions. All my objections to this unfair and demeaning attitude to gentlemen has always been taken lightly. No one protested! Men, by default, are assumed to be nasty, lecherous, characterless. No one finds it odd if they are treated that way.
On a wider front. Perhaps, tomorrow there will be spinsters who would be insulted with suspicious glances in buses, trains and everywhere? Such looks as tells: 'Hey! I know what you are upto, huh! Don't you dare!' and there will be protests. Then, may be, pubs and discos will be closed to spinsters (not because they are in mortal danger of being beaten up by saffronists, but to prevent them from behaving badly with sober visiters). And there will be reproofs.
There should have been protests earlier though, when all this started being done to bachelors -- millions of years ago. It never happened. It's so easily accepted that men have been treated rawly in such matters. A man of genteel ways has always had to tolerate a treatment that the more lecherous brethren of his deserved.
But hold on! Perhaps we don't need any protests. Perhaps all these reproaches are side-effects of an upcoming gender equality. It's not a steady state, but a transient. Slowly, perhaps, women are starting to get an equal share in everything -- opportunities, responsibilities, power. And suspicion and reproaches as well. Perhaps, it also shows another non-obvious good thing. Women are indeed more liberated these days. They too have fun. They go to pubs. They drink. They check out guys. Some of the bolder ones even give a damn about premarital virginity and figure out everything the experimental way regardless of marriage. I feel all this is fine. Why not? Guys have been doing this for ages. Why can't girls? Particularly when both are equal, which means an equal propensity to any kind of behaviour? But there's an obvious side-effect. There are people in our society who don't approve of this kind of lifestyle. Such people want to stay away from any intercouse with people of a more adventurous kind. This kind of people have been asking for some sort of a character certificate from bachelors for ages, unless they had decided on not letting out their place to bachelors at all. These days, thanks to gender equality setting in, women have started getting rid of their age-old idea of their being any less craving for excitement, and have started indulging in what they really are, that is, very similar to men. Naturally, they too are coming into the firing line of those conservative people, who have forever subjected poor bachelors to this indiscreetness.
I envision a time when there won't be character certificates asked for renting accommodation (because it's stupid and illogical). No generalised restrictions will be effected in places of enjoyment. No suspicious glances thrown on anyone for percieved chances of lechery. Both in case of men, as in the case for women.
That will be the Age of Gender Equality. Till then I prefer fair indiscreetness to unfair discreetness.