Monday, February 29, 2016

Palace of illusions

Sometime back, I read The Palace of illusions which is a novel based on the Mahabharata from Draupadi's point of view. Draupadi is the narrator of the story. It had raised the hackles of some Hindu groups which was the reason why it came to my notice and decided to read it - a minor illustration of the Streisand effect.

It was not difficult to find  passages that would have annoyed some groups. For eg., when her brother Dhrishtadhyumna's tutor says that the primary duty of  a woman is to support her father, brother, husband and sons, Draupadi tells her brother, 'And who decided that a woman's highest purpose was to support men? A man, I would wager! Myself, I plan on doing other things with my life.'

About fortune-tellers, Dhai Ma (who is the nurse of Draupadi, a character invented by the author) says, ' Fortune-tellers are always predicting weddings. They know that's what foolish girls want to hear. That's how they get fatter fees.'

The book is worth a read. I found it the most interesting version of whatever I have read of the Mahabharata. It humanises deified characters and gives them qualities that one relates to, for eg., the mother-in-law - daughter-in-law psychological tussles between Kunti and Draupadi or the steady deterioration of moral values as a war proceeds. Most interesting is the depiction of a soft corner that Draupadi always had for the most tragic hero of the Mahabharata, Karna.

This was something I had not come across earlier. The author got the idea from an incident described in a Bengali version of the Mahabharata. The incident itself does not form part of the book but is described by the author in this talk about the book.It happens after the Pandavas were exiled following Yudhishtira's loss in a game of dice.

While they were  traveling through a forest, they saw a tree laden with fruits from which they plucked one fruit. At this point Krishna appeared and told them that the tree belonged to  a great sage who had a bad temper. When he finds out that they had plucked a fruit from his tree there was no knowing what curse he might put on them - it might even mean the  death of the Pandavas. A frightened Draupadi asked him how to atone for the misdemeanor.

Krishna said that as atonement, each person should tell his or her deepest secret. Each of the Pandava brothers reveals his deepest secret and each time, the fruit rises part of  the way towards the tree. It was only a little distance away from the tree when it was Draupadi's turn but when she revealed her secret, it dropped to the ground. Krishna said that Draupadi had not revealed her deepest secret and asked her to try again. But the fruit did not rise - it was not her deepest secret. Finally she confesses, 'I always had a soft corner for Karna.'

I read that the author is working on a novel based on the Mahabharata  from Sita's point of view.It will definitely be part of my antilibrary.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Analysis of disasters

After every disaster - earthquakes, floods, industrial accidents, terrorist attacks...-there will be breathless coverage for days on end with lots of expert analysis. They quickly become rather tiring.

In The Black Swan, Nassim Nicholas Taleb suggests doing a thought experiment. Suppose there was a far-sighted manager who had implemented some years ago the safety measures that are now being discussed by the media. He would have been told that he was wasting scarce resources in superfluous areas; the scenario that he had painted would be dismissed as a figment of his imagination - it has never happened before. He would have got a bad annual review since his department had 'squandered resources on non-productive expenses'.

If he continues along his 'foolish' path, he may lose his job. He may be replaced by a 'dashy-pushy' (see note below) guy who has more 'Confidence in the future' (i.e. who ignores the possibility of Black Swans) who will be obsessive about buzzwords like efficiency/cash-flow/ bottom line etc. and reduce the 'unproductive expenses'. He will focus on 'leveraging intellectual capital and intangible assets' to create a 'knowledge-based' firm. (Add a few more buzzwords to impress CNBC) And suppose some of the 'unproductive expenses' had been retained and they had helped mitigate the effects of the disaster that would have happened some years after they had been implemented, the far-sighted manager who had risked his career over them would have been long forgotten.

Accidents often happen because of seemingly trivial faults and minor malfunctions that had been overlooked. Small faults like a tiny leak or a rusted bolt that had been routinely picked up earlier would now be missed by the fewer number of over-worked employees that had resulted from Downsizing/Layoffs/Ramping down an operation/Right sizing/Restructuring etc. to 'trim costs' in order to 'remain competitive'. (The 'flattening of the organizational pyramid' would be to take 'nimble advantage of market nuances'.) The mistake that caused the accident may be the final straw on the camel's back. Taleb writes in The Black Swan:
Who gets rewarded, the central banker who avoids a recession or the one who comes to 'correct' his predecessors' faults and happens to be there during some economic recovery? Who is more valuable, the politician who avoids a war or the one who starts a new one (and is lucky enough to win)?
...everybody knows that you need more prevention than treatment, but few reward acts of prevention.  We glorify those who left their names in history books at the expense of those contributors about whom our books are silent.  We humans are not just a superficial race (this may be curable to some extent); we are a very unfair one.
Hindsight bias, also known as the knew-it-all-along effect, is the inclination, after an event has occurred, to see the event as having been predictable, despite there having been little or no objective basis for predicting it. After an event, people often believe that they knew the outcome of the event before it actually happened. They often forget a dictum that one historian stated - what is now in the past was once in the future -and assume that a decision-maker at the time had the same information that they have now.

In his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Danil Kahneman give an example of hindsight bias. The day before the attacks on WTC in the US, the CIA got information that al-Qaida may be planning a major attack in the US. This information was given to the NSA rather than to President Bush. When this became known later, the executive editor of The Washington Post said, 'It seems to me elementary that if you've got the story that's going to dominate history you might as well go right to the president.' But the day before the attack, no one knew - or could have known - that the next day would 'dominate history'.

After a terrorist attack you will often be told that the suspect had been in some police record somewhere for some petty crime. The implication will be drawn that if there was better coordination between the different agencies, the person would have been caught then and the terrorist incident would not have happened. But there was no way for the police to know that he would plant a bomb in a bus a few months later.

Note: I came across the word 'dashy pushy' in an article in The Caravan magazine. It is a corrupted combination of two English words and is used in West Bengal:
By chopping the last three letters off “dashing,” and adding a “y” to ease its coupling with “pushy,” we get a new word. It denotes a go-getter with an unsubtly aggressive edge about him — a slightly pejorative term in its early days, but now one of approval, if not admiration. 

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Reunion at NIT, Trichy

The NIT, Trichy batch of 1990 (to which I belong) held its reunion in December last year. I decided to go for the reunion since it gave me the chance to meet many friends who I had thought I will never see again. The same contingent that had traveled with me for the IIMA reunion accompanied me this time too - Jaya, Sujit, my brother-in-law and the nurse (but this time it was a different nurse).

We decided to first go to Pudukkottai and stay overnight at the house of Kamala, the person who had been my physiotherapist for 4 years soon after my stroke. She had subsequently got married and settled down in Pudukkottai. We thought we could kill two birds with one stone -  we could meet Kamala and her family and since NIT was only about an hour's drive away, we would reach the campus refreshed after a night's rest.

We reached the campus a little while before the group photo session was to start. It felt good to meet old friends after such a long time. Like at the IIMA reunion, I felt that my lack of speech was a blessing since it gave me time to recognise some people. They will introduce themselves, I will look at their faces...and yes, their faces did resemble the faces I remembered from 25 years ago.

Some folks were well on their way to becoming the sort of men that Ceasar liked to have about him. Remember that he liked men about him that are fat, having a dim opinion of the lean and hungry look of yond Cassius. He would have liked what he saw at the reunion.

After the photo session, there were some formal sessions after which everyone went to visit the hostels where we had stayed. I did not go since it would have taken me a lot of time time to get there. Instead I preferred to stay in the hall where the next program was to be held. I requested a friend to take Sujit and my brother-in-law to see the hostel where I had stayed. I thought of the ragging time when I had stayed in a hostel (this was in a different hostel from the one Sujit had visited).

At the time the common practice among seniors was for North Indians to rag South Indians and vice-versa. I was conversant with a North Indian and a South Indian language so I decided to try out an idea. Whenever North Indian seniors came, I always said that I was from Jamshedpur and spoke only in English/Hindi. At the slightest opportunity, I brought an Amitabh Bacchan movie or song into the conversation and then everything was quite pally.

Whenever South Indian seniors came, I always said that I was from Palakkad and spoke only in English/Malayalam. I also used the smattering of Tamil that I knew at the time. (There were some Tamil Brahmins in my village, Tamil films and songs are popular in the area and there is some similarity between Malayalam and Tamil languages so I knew some Tamil.) The result was that I hardly ever got ragged.

I used to be surprised that my trick was never found out. It helped that I was an unremarkable, low-profile guy who would not have figured in any conversations. There was also the fact that I did not have a readily identifiable accent.

With my batch mates

With my Mech. Engineering classmates

Sujit standing in front of the hostel in which I used to stay