This is Manish from Udaipur

This is about life and life in Udaipur. About me and about me in Udaipur.

Category: Weltanschauung

It is not ABC!

Men are wise in proportion, not to their experience, but to their capacity for experience. (George Bernard Shaw)

What really is this “capacity for experience”? Surely, it is related to “Growth Mindset” which is a belief and preparedness to change for the better in light of new knowledge. It is also related to curiosity and ability to explore—openness with healthy scepticism. And, perhaps the most important element of “capacity for experience” is the ability to experience analytically and draw lessons which work.

The most instructive experience is, of course, failure. And, not just grand catastrophic failures—an unsuccessful rocket launch or a building collapse—but the stuff that we experience everyday: a bug, a lost sale, a bad presentation, a missed deadline, etc. They upset us, dent our enthusiasm, and might make us cynical. This is more so when such failures repeat and we do not seem to have learnt anything from these experiences.

Our default toolset to deal with failures is ABC. That is, we instinctively Accuse, Blame and Criticize. It is natural that we ask ‘whose fault is this’. So, if we are late for the meeting, it’s the cab driver who took the wrong route! We are wired by evolution to see agents and intent, and that is how we tend to deal with failures as well. Alas, it is rarely helpful, it seldom changes things for the better and it only reflects a poor “capacity for experience”.

We deal with complex things all the time. Any outcome is a result of many interconnected events. A defective report, for example, cannot simply be blamed on the developer who did not incorporate the required data correction in her code. Perhaps, the access to the API she depended on was not available. Maybe the API itself did not account for an unanticipated scenario. Resorting to ABC would not lead to a lasting solution, would not solve the problem for ever. All one might possibly have is a temporary satisfaction of identifying the ‘culprit’.

One with capacity for experience should be able to see deeper, and would know that the right thing to know and learn is not who the culprit is, but where the system failed. A great way to do that is to ask earnestly, ‘What could have been done differently?’ (WCHBDD). Maybe, we would learn to be better prepared for unexpected data scenarios, perhaps we would use better components in our solution, or perhaps we would test for more cases. While none of them would specifically guarantee that there would be no errors, each of them would make the end product better.

The key thing to appreciate here is that an outcome is result of a process, a system which is built of many parts and many stages. And, that zero defect at the end of pipe does not mean lack of errors altogether. And stuff happens—it is not possible to be errorfree. Yet, it is possible to be zero defect if we ditch ABC and adopt WCHBDD!

For Your Information

Didn’t you know: Emperor Nero received this email “Rome is burning, this is fyi.”

We watch news, read papers and listen to radio while driving and, do nothing more than participating in an adrenalin heavy – but largely inane – discussion on ‘current affairs’ at the friendly neighborhood paanwala (or equivalent, say, office water cooler or blogosphere). That’s how we handle fyi’s.  Be it global warming or spectrum allocation scam. Be it litter-on-road or office politics.

The corporate versions of fyi include ‘reports’. Typically thousands of them. As I learnt recently, a company identified some 5000 (and still counting) different reports being produced and circulated (communicated or consumed would not have been correct words) in their corporate head-quarters, and, on review, only 40 were deemed useful, that is ‘marked’ as useful by at-least one person. The fyi malaise is eminent when one looks into corporate emails.

Let’s say you receive some fyi email. It can only mean one of the following:

  • I am not sure what can be done about this
  • its not my job, maybe its one of the 17,000 recipients on this email
  • my job is to inform you, I don’t care otherwise (the journalist)
  • don’t bother doing anything about it
  • aw, hot potato
  • just wanted to ensure that I can save my ass using the shield of collective responsibility, or you are now partner-in-crime
  • not sure, what can you do about this, uhh, wait a second, what do you do here?

There are variants of ‘fyi’, having the same import as above, like, “for necessary action” (what action, for what purpose) or, amazingly vague, “for needful” (I don’t have a freaking clue about this, so let me use this Raj-relic on you.) or “review and comment” (on the thousand page attachment).

The fyi-person has little inclination to think through or figure out. He has no intention to solve the problem, and so is loathe to articulate and argue. He is happy un-named and un-attached. He is content with cheap pleasures of cribbing and bitching. He is wary of pain of creation and is afraid of scrutiny.

A person with mission does not need fyi’s. He will figure out what’s needed and get it (maybe use RTI or Google or WikiLeaks or a fanciful business intelligence tool or not-so-fancy Excel). He will not bombard people around with vague requests (“needful”) or unsolicited updates (he will have results to show). He will ask specific person for specific help with a specific request. If he is unclear, he will build candidate clarifications and ask specifically if they stand scrutiny. (Aha, the scientific method!). He will differentiate between facts and opinions, and will have his own opinions. He will be his own beacon (atma deepo bhav – as a Sanskrit blessing goes.)

He gets (in an active sense) informed and he acts.

The bigotry of passive consumption of information is spreading, permeating and enveloping us all. I have little doubt that this is cause and symptom of institutional limbo.

How to Change the World

Two simple steps:
     1.  Be the change
     2.  Be proud of it

The first step is actually self evident. Mahatma Gandhi famously said: Be the change you wish to see in the world. Of course, easier said than done. The hard part is not ‘being’ the change but to project the change we want in the world to ourselves. Its difficult because its easier to find fault with others, blame some ‘them’, and, as I learnt sometime back, we are hard wired for ‘agentism’. So there’s always somebody else (not us) who needs to change to make our world happier, better place.

It tolls for thee. Our predisposition to suspect this somebody as source of problems leads us to find solution there. So we take ourselves out of the change equation and, send for whom the bell tolls!

The second part is really a corollary. It asks us to revolt against the tyranny of common sense. (Thanks Sir Ken Robinson for this phrase.) I believe that we fundamentally are what we desire to be. We get trained, conditioned and constrained to be something else. These constraints, conditioning, and training form the norms, the status quo. These cause us to be apologetic as we attempt to do right (whatever we think to be right, that is). And, these make us to fool ourself into rationalizing our compliant activities. Maybe we loathe to change because it would be construed as stupid. But maybe there’s a larger constituency waiting to be converts, waiting for one to change and be proud of it.

So Who Do I Blame For This

We all are wired in some quirky ways. The wiring works well in a range of situations, but the complex dynamics of modern life throw a lot of situations where our such learnt reactions are not just non-optimal, they are damaging. The research suggest a negative agency bias—negative events are more often attributed to the influence of external agents than similarly positive and neutral events, independent of their subjective probability. (Morewedge, 2009) People generally appear to suspect that the causal origin of events is a prime mover—an intentional agent that initiates the first event in a causal chain of events (Rosset, 2008; Vinokur & Ajzen, 1982).

It is important to realize that we all are victims of this bias. Maybe this awareness can lead us to question the rationality and reasonability of our reactions – which mind so passionately insists to be so. Yes, our lives aren’t perfect, but we do not have to always find somebody to blame. But, we do and when we do the little accountant in our head increments the counter. Unknown to the person being blamed, the count just gets bigger and bigger. There are situations and there are reactions. Reactions which are function not of the situation but of the count. The little accountant has a viral way of keeping itself employed and grow its clan – the reaction triggers many more counters.

Hmm… so is this why the life is how it is? Or maybe the conspiracy theorists are right.

The Email Quagmire

Yes, email is great. Its the most important invention after the wheel. But what happens when fools don’t stop and wont know how to put a full-stop.

Exasperated, as I am, I really cannot codify what (in my very humble opinion) are the email usage rules. Its like any other medium of expression: using email is an art and artists are rare.

While shabbily composed, heavily acronym’d emails can be considered a minor irritant, what would you say when such emails have been marked to seventeen and copied to seventeen thousand people. Would one even be able to say anything when someone does a ‘reply-all’ to this email. Loopy. Loony.

I can still think of two rules:

  • Avoid sending emails. (Use phone, IM, blog or, even better,  just walk up to that person.) I believe use of email can only be justified if what you write makes an original contribution to the wellbeing of the mankind!
  • If you have to hit ‘send’, send it to as few people as possible.

Email is not work. Sending an email does not mean completing a task. If an email has crossed your outbox, it doesn’t mean that responsibility has now been transferred to the seventeen thousands and seventeen other souls. And, if you measure your importance by number of emails you receive – you are certainly not important.

Gamzatov’s Daghestan

How can this not resonate with me? Rasul Gamzatov in his book, My Daghestan writes about his village, Tsada.

Tsada! Seventy warm hearths. Blue smoke rising from seventy chimneys into the clear mountain sky. White saklias standing-on black soil. Flat green fields facing the aul and the white cottages. Beyond the village rise the mountains. Grey cliffs overhang our aul like so many children who have gathered on a flat roof to get a view of the wedding in the courtyard.

When I arrived at Tsada, I recollected a letter Father wrote home on his first visit to Moscow. It was always hard to say when Father was joking and when he was in earnest. Moscow was a surprise to Father.

"It looks as though here in Moscow people do not light fires on their hearths to do their cooking, since I do not see any women kneading kiziak on the walls of their dwellings, or smoke rising above the roofs, like Abutalib’s shaggy fur hat. Neither do I see the stone rollers we use to tamp down the earth on our roofs. I do not see people here drying hay on their roofs. But if they do not dry hay, what do they give their cows for fodder? I haven’t seen a single woman making her way with a faggot or a load of grass. I have not heard the strains of the surna or the sounds of the tambourine. One might think people did not get married here or celebrate weddings. No matter how long I have walked the streets of this strange city, I have not seen a single sheep. Now the question is: what do Moscow people slaughter when a guest crosses the threshold? How, if not with a slaughtered sheep, do they greet the arrival of a valued friend? No, I do not envy this way of life. I want to be back home at Tsada where I can eat khinkali to my heart’s content, after telling my wife to use plenty of garlic…."

Father found many other faults with Moscow when he compared it with his native aul. He was, of course, joking when he expressed surprise at seeing no kiziak drying on Moscow walls, but he was not joking when he said he preferred his little aul to the great city. He loved his Tsada and would not exchange it for all the capitals on our planet.

My beloved Tsada! I have returned to you from that vast world Father found so many "faults" with. I have travelled all over that world and seen much to marvel at. My sight has been" dazzled by an abundance of beauty, unable to settle on any one object. My glance has passed on from one splendid temple to another, one fair face to another, but I have known that, no matter how lovely what I now see is, I shall see something lovelier tomorrow…. The world, don’t you see, is boundless.

I crave forgiveness of the pagodas of India, the pyramids of Egypt, and the basilicas of Italy; I also crave that forgiveness of the motorways of America, the boulevards of Paris, the parks of Britain, and the mountains of Switzerland, as well as of the women of Poland, Japan and Rome. I have admired you all, but my heartbeat has remained steady; if my pulse has become a little faster it has not done so sufficiently for a feeling of dryness in my mouth or for a sense of momentary dizziness.

So why is it that the sight of seventy saklias hugging the foot of the rocks can make my heart throb so that my ribs ache, my eyes grow misty, and my head dizzy as though I were ill or drunk?

Can it be that a little village in Daghestan is fairer than Venice, Cairo or Calcutta? Is the Avar woman I see treading a footpath with a load of faggots more comely than a tall fair-haired Scandinavian woman?

Tsada! I wander in your fields and the cool morning dew bathes my tired feet. I lave my face, not even in mountain rivulets but in the waters of springs. They say that if you are thirsty, drink from a spring that wells up from the earth. It is also said-and Father said the same-that only in two cases should a man fall to this knees-to drink from a spring and to pluck a flower. Tsada, you are my spring. I fall to my knees and drink deep draughts of you.

I see a stone, and seem to make out a shadowy figure on it-myself as I was thirty years ago. I am sitting on the stone, watching a flock of sheep. There is a shaggy fur hat on my head, a long staff in my hands, and dust on my feet.

I see a path and see the same shadowy figure on it-myself as I was thirty years ago. I am making my way to a neighbouring aul, probably on an errand for Father.

At every step I meet myself, my childhood years, with their spring seasons, their rains, flowers, and the falling leaves of autumn.

I strip and stand under a sparkling waterfall. As it falls from a rock, the stream breaks into eight cascades to gather together again and again until it crashes on to my shoulders, arms and head. Compared with my cool waterfall, the shower-bath at the Palais Royal Hotel in Paris is a plastic toy.

Among the boulders a pool has been formed by a side-trickle from a mountain rivulet, and warms up during the day. The bluish bath-tub at the Metropole Hotel in London is merely a hand-basin compared with my mountain bathing-place.

Indeed, I am fond of strolling about big cities, but after five or six long walks, a city becomes familiar, and all desire to continue with my walks is dulled.

But here I was walking along the little streets of my aul for the thousandth time but there was no sense of satiation, no loss of desire to tread them.


My Son’s Education

Mark Twain once warned against letting school interfere with education. Wise as it is to be able to differentiate between schooling and education, it is dispiritingly too easy for a school to do that.

Unless painstakingly attempted otherwise, the prevalent (or, say, traditional)  methods lead to built up of inappropriately high academic load pretty quickly. The primary indicator is, for obvious reasons, is the weight of the school bag. We have seen that to be always to be a little higher than 5kg even after carefully arranging the content according to teachers’ instructions and the time-table. (Given that a child of this age would normally weigh 20-25kg, this is 20% of a kid’s body weight—equivalent to an adult carrying about 15-20kg.) While certainly unhealthy and in contravention to relevant regulations (mandating the limit at about 3kg), this harks of an age and world of decades back.

This impression is bolstered by the amount of homework that is given. This surely takes the fun out of studies—the capacity to have joy in learning is one contribution that the school and the teachers can make for which the child (and us, of course) would be ever grateful.

I am truly amazed at the archaic insistence on written work and rote learning that is being put in by the teachers, even today. Children are asked to write (twice, in the textbook and the notebook) inane questions and answers. Not just redundant, this is nonsensical—unimaginative, uncreative and devoid of any learning value. I happened to be helping (or was it nagging and disciplining—oh, I hate that) my son with his English homework, the masculine of goose is gander and feminine of horse is mare! I had to google up to find out these antiquated words.

I admire the science textbook that he has, though. I certainly wish that was how science was taught when I was his age. As beautiful and relevant the exposition of scientific method (stress on observation, for example) that it has, saddening is the pedagogy where it is made into mockery by stupid questions and answers to be written into note-books and eventually remembered for tests/ exams. (Take for example, being asked to write about ‘prediction’ rather than making predictions and learning from the same.)

I wish and hope for the sake of my son that his teachers realize that  the world with its fields and trees and men and women and objects and stars, is a far bigger and richer textbook or a teacher or a school. I hope that with this sense of humility, the teachers and schools exercise the enormous power they have on a child and influence they have on his future.

Elections 2008

Ok, so we had this opportunity again to elect a new state government. These elections had the usual uncertainty, drama and fierceness of competitive fight and now when results are out, not many surprises. Anti-incumbency is always a powerful factor and can only be countered by strong sentiment or a prominent track record, both of which were not apparent. One surprise, of course, is defeat of C P Joshi by a single vote. A single vote!

I wonder at times if the polling process captures the intent of majority in a reliable manner. I think its not the case. One of the fundamental flaws is the aggregation mechanism which destroys a lot of information at the constituency level as ‘seats’ are totalled instead of ‘votes’. Now the constituencies are defined geographically and so a geographically dispersed opinion would have much lesser influence than a concentrated one, even if the opinion is supported by a significantly larger number of people. And, then, one can count an umpteen number of issues related to vote capture mechanism — what if the choices in front of the voter don’t include the choice that the voter wants to make, what about people who could not or did not vote, and many possible errors in counting and aggregating, and so on.

A defeat by one vote is still a defeat. Even if we assume that the electronic voting machines (EVMs) worked flawlessly and were used in correct manner everywhere, can the result be considered representative of public opinion? But, also, is there any way to ascertain if the EVMs worked flawlessly. As a practitioner in information technology, I have learnt not to trust technology. One has to have control mechanisms and audit trails. And we have none here. There is no way to differentiate between button presses by eligible voters and random electronic noise. But then that, per-se, doesn’t worry me. I think that till there is no way for anybody but the voters to influence the behaviour of the machine, we still have representative democracy. But, it is a plausible scenario that, atleast in some ways, the EVMs can be unduly influenced. And the purpose of elections is defeated if any of the candidates has any, howsoever small but significant, advantage over others. Having the machine print out every vote as the voter presses the button, ensuring a paper trail is a possible solution. And, this might have been helpful to the hapless Joshi!

Terrorism and Us

Well, an Udaipuri could have, with some justification, felt safe and detached all this while. But then, the recent Mumbai terror acts have been unprecedented in their impact on people around. These brutal and senseless acts of November 26 had all of us shocked, grieved and enraged.

Such acts of terrorism engage us emotionally. While Indians as with the rest of the world have been facing such attacks for quite some time now, somehow those felt distant in comparison to these where the events were brought closer and inside our homes via the relentless beaming of stark images all through the weekend. Other, more potent and bigger threats like malaria, global warming or road accidents do not invoke the same sentiment. They are far too dispersed or too complex to dominate our imagination.

Are we less safe now? Are the anti-terrorism measures making us safer? I don’t think much has changed. The security establishment remains as effective (or ineffective) as it was. Our safety sensibilities haven’t matured a bit. Our minds are not great at assessing risk and are unduly influenced by scenarios that we can relate to at an emotional level. No surprises that we are hearing insanely hawkish calls based on deeper prejudices.

Terrorism is far too complex an issue to be amenable to the currently talked about approaches. More of so called security measures are getting in vogue. Nobody seems to have invested in understanding their effectiveness, direct costs and costs in terms of harassment of innocent citizens (of a free country!). There seems to be much more acceptability to measures like pervasive scrutiny and surveillance, more powers to police, national ID, etc., which have enormous implications in terms of privacy and individual freedom. Isn’t that a terrorized state? Maybe the terrorists have succeeded in their goals.

My Udaipur

Everybody loves his city. To put it to measure or to seek reasons would be futile. Would I love Udaipur less if what makes it lovable become less so. Even if some trees die, birds vanish and noise increases, it still be a city I love.

Love, alas, is root of so many sentiments. Its this love that brings me to rage when I see the hideous signboard at otherwise beautiful Rajeev Gandhi Park. It causes me grief when I witness the misguided beautification measures at otherwise pristine Badi lake. It saddens me to despair when I watch ugly cement and concrete destroying the harmony of Sajjangarh and the valley.

It is the comfort of being in the city I love which triggers so satisfying contemplations into myriad aspects of life as I drive beneath the Amul billboard. It is this love that makes me sigh with joy driving through Sukhadia Circle on a Sunday afternoon.

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