Friday, December 26, 2008

Seasons' Greetings to Ye All!

So, here's wishing you all discerning readers a Merry Xmas and a very happy, prosperous 2009!

For everyone, the new year brings with it memories and milestones, regrets and resolutions, and criticisms and change. The same for my blog too, so I thought I'd spruce it up a bit. So here are a few new features, the Labels Cloud on the top right, a new link list on The Popular blogs that I follow, and I've also added links to some great financial blogs/ sites that I regularly visit to get a handle on this crazy world! Do check them out and let me know your feedback...and of course, if you visit any great interesting, novel blogs, DO DO let me know! After all, isn't the festive season all about sharing?

And I've finally embraced the blogging-tech-geek-culture and familiarized myself with RSS feeds and the likes- high time I guess. I actually sat up last night and pored through reams of online research on effective blogging, and decided that, come 2009, I'm going to be more techy! So now you can, with 1 click of your mouse, subscribe to my blog FOR FREE! (Find it hilarious? Read somewhere that the "subscribe" word has monetary connotations to laymen and hence scares them away, so smart bloggers actually specify that!) . But if you are as bad as me and had to be explained how to know whether your internet connection is wireless or not, then worry not, you can subscribe to my blog via email and I'll send to your inbox my blogs!

Take care and see you soon :)

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

A SOP Story

The mention of those three letters still give me nightmares. Together, they represent the one nemesis common to every aspirant of higher education or employment- whatever it may be it that the young hopeful may be pursuing, an MBA, MS or a PhD, his/ her journey isn't complete without the final literary hurdle- the S.O.P aka Statement of Purpose.

It appears in different innocuous forms, some universities nonchalantly mentioning the 3 letters and thereby killing the faint-hearted, while others opt for the more subtle, creative approach, "Describe your life in sixty words", "How will doing a [insert degree] help you in your chosen career?" or worse, "Where do you see yourself in five years?" Face it, there's no escaping it, you've been SOPed!

And you cringe, because, nothing makes makes you feel more purposeless in life than being asked pointedly about it. Its almost like an allegation of a crime, an unbearable burden of proof, "What do you mean, what's my purpose??? Are you out of your head? OF COURSE I HAVE A PURPOSE!! And I'm not going to @$%%" tell you about it!!!" Selling oneself already is a hard task for the young ego, but nothing hurts as much as when your individuality is threatened. Because a SOP does just that, with its unsaid pressure on you to show yourself as different- you know that you are, but just can't put it on paper.

My first encounter with a SOP was in my MS applications. Perhaps a bit carried away by someone committing the folly of asking ME to talk about MYSELF on an open canvas, I gave the right hand a free hand, waxed eloquent on everything imaginable about my life and even peppered the script with a liberal handful of my favourite grandiose words such as "quintessential" and "instrumental" (pity they didn't like my autobiography). And then I ran into it during applications for MBA school, wherein I hastily concocted a story around my favourite characters of Soft Skills, Business Acumen, Networking and Perspective (It turned out to be a suspense tale about a missing Point).

But if I thought I had seen the last of them, I was heavily mistaken, because a few months after joining, there was I, besaddled with yet another goddamn application form for summer internship, with the $$$$$ question staring at me, "Explain the reasons for your decisions in life". *!:@:{:!- I could see through the wolf's clothing- here was another SOP virus.

The stakes were a bit higher this time around, so I sat down seriously to mull over my life. The gaze was turned inwards and the mind was subjected to a 3rd-degree interrogation, but all to no avail. I grew cynical, for my genuine answer was that I had no clue, and that I wasn't sorry for it. What the heck, I was all of 21. Skill sets? I was aware of my strengths and weaknesses but honestly didn't know what my "skills" were. Maybe I was yet to build them? Decisions? I didn't have any career counselling priveleges and took up engineering simply because the brightest in my times took it up. Sad but true for 90% of people in my time. Future plans? I genuinely didn't believe in a 5-year plan for my career (and still don't) , and I liked my cluelessness about what I'd be in 5 years time- it displayed something called flexibility. Why should everyone conform to rationale? And why is there no place for chaos?

But I guess, when firms ask these questions, what they dig at is deeper than mere clarity of mind. Everyone knew these questions are always a fair bit of spin-doctoring, and yet they are the rules- so they are followed, irrespective of whether they agree with your morals or not. And so what actually is tested is your practicality and your EQ- are you level-headed enough to do what's asked of you, without getting cynical about it? In some ways, I find that synonymous with professionalism or corporate discipline- it's like politely leaving only after your boss does- he knows you are idle but can't leave because its only 6, and you know that he can see that too- but you both still duly play your parts. (Some of us are lucky to break that mould though!)

And thus the sense was imbibed into my revolting head, and I resolved to ridden myself of the vexing question, polling friends and seniors on "What is a cool purpose to have nowadays?" "Entrepreneurship!!", roaring came the answers back, from all quarters, and so I mixed the flavour of the season with a few toppings of fact (my dad is one), cut back on the flowery prose and explained to the firm, with a deep sense of pride, how honoured was I to be born into a Marwari business family, how my parents imbibed in me a strong sense of initiative, and how ambitiously I planned to grow my father's chemical engineering business after gaining a management skillset from my MBA followed by a few years of hands-on experience. Unfortunately, so did everyone else :)

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Yet Another Write-down

Conference room, HR, letter, handshakes, relief. Years of dedication and moments of trepidation, starry dreams and insomniac nights, CAT* calls and rat races, Finance 101s and HR one-on-ones later I'd finally been anointed as an Investment Banker, a member of that elusive coterie that resides in the highest percentile of human achievement!** This moment would change me- the stride became triumphant, the swagger precocious and the head skywards. The suit now resided familiarly on my frame as if it had always been there, the cab was nonchalantly hailed and the eyes assumed the permanence of an intellectual look.

But no no, I wasn't just a mere investment banker, the icing on the cake was the appellation against my name- Interest Rates Exotics Trader. I revelled in it, mulled over it and doted on it- it sounded so interesting, so.....exotic! Rarely does this happen, but the job title had taken precedence over the name: my business card could well have read Interest Rates Exotics Trader, Sumit Mehta.

Which I would have dismissed as an unthinkable, 6-sigma event 18 years ago, when I had fallen in love with my name, etching its preponderance into the house walls, school desks, sister's certificates and- Freud, summoned! - my history textbooks. Or in the summers of adoloscence when I romanced over how different girls pronounced my name differently and broke the suspense by announcing my support for the eeeee version. The name has always been for me, more than mere identity- it represented my identity.

But for now, it was resigned to the support cast as the Exotics thingybob took centrestage, at alumnous rivalries and banker parties, and even at family functions and pick-up lines! You might say I was towing a dangerous line, but cmon! I wasn't a Convertible Equity Sales ("What's the hottest car model you are selling nowadays?"), Commodities Trader ("So basically you peddle oil? Why do you need to wear a suit for that?") or a Vanilla Options guy ("Naah, defo not my flavour"), so I was unfairly confident of being greeted with an agape mouth (the figurative entry point), followed by a whimper of a "Wow". Get in!

Credit here must be given to the esoteric image of banking, its magical money-making ways unknown to the populace, its entry-barrier jargon too overpowering in this information-crazy age. But don't blame us, we were only inspired by lawyers (atleast some good came out of their exorbitant fees!), those Masters of Jargon, who added several letters to every word so that the reader ran out of patience, who, when Legalese was deciphered, sprinkled tons of Latin into it! @"£*&! You see, we only followed the law.

But the law of winlose was soon to follow us. For Credit and Crunch were to tag-team us into recessionary submission, and it is testimony to the virulent success of their publicity-seeking, that we stand where we stand, which is in a precarious position, our magic revealed, our prestige spotted, our benefit-of-doubt in serious doubt.

For we are now part and parcel of mother-,father- and grandfather-tongue, of worried "Hope your son is ok with all this subprime nonsense" exchanged between mothers, of Breaking "More writedowns to come!" News and stage comedian scripts. We have entered the dictionary and spread through it like wild fire.

And hence nowadays the business card is hidden away carefully, the name is back in vogue, and when asked "What do you do?", it is inferred as a pleasant inquiry of your hobbies....and Exotic, Structured and Derivatives while being freely available on everyone's lips are confidently absent from mine. :)

*Common Admission Test- the entrance exam that is the gateway to get into India's top postgrad institutes the IIMs.
**Meant to be very sarcastic- don't get your daggers out!

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Time and again...

I seem to be intoxicated, not so much by the Dom Perignon 1953 bubbling in the flute in my hand, but by the three hawt beauties that adorn me. A blonde, a brunette and an Asian- mind you, I have the world's best diversity wrapped around my arms. They are engrossed in conversation, enrapt by my charming description of my latest novella, so much so that they ignore Daniel Craig's lascivious eyes that corner them as he passes by, waving me an envious Hi.

"What's the blonde's name, again?", I ask my memory, slurring, as I survey the pool in which nubile wannabe stars are already flirting with water and the Hollywood whos-who. But I don't really care, because I've found all the answers, I'm in heaven, honobbing with the A-list at this ultra-glamourous Oscars bash at the Sunset Tower Hotel, Hollywood.

I excuse myself from the beauties and stroll to the bar, and as I impatiently wait for my Grand Mojito Martini, I feel a pleasant tap on my shoulder and sense overwhelming beauty in my vicinity. I turn around, and lo and behold!

I'm still beholding, awed, speechless, overwhelmed at God's sexiest creation which currently is within touching distance, frantically trying to capture every bit of her with my two small eyes, which seem to roll over and over, fidgeting between her flowing hair, her expressive eyes and other things. How much can they ogle after all!! But, finally, Scarlet Johansson decides to break the ice, and, we go into slow motion here, I follow her inviting pout transform into luscious lips that create beautiful speech, and soon its my ears who are in for a treat as she voices a sweet......

"Tring Tring"

Jolt, shudder, even more frantic roll of the eyes. The intoxication is gone, but this is a bad hangover. Did I hear that right? and as if to answer,

"Tring Tring" again.

The body's natural reaction to such mishaps is to reach out to press a Green button somewhere. I promptly do that.

"Suuuuuuuuumiiiiiiiiiiiiiiit beta (kid)!!", says a gruff, ruthless voice which has an unmistakeable sense of mischief. Its my Dad. The ears revolt. The eyes frown. The decrepitation of the reverie is now complete.

I push the pillow up and prop my spine against it, mumble a "Hello" and look at my watch. 3:30 am. @%*^&@!

My dad never had a sense of timing. When he dabbled in the stock markets, he bought high and sold low and contributed in his own little way to the Indian stock market's bull run. He disowned me just before I got into IIM, and then promptly had to reown me. He watched cricket games right till the end when India lost and shut the TV prematurely when India pulled off last-gasp wins.

But an international sense of timing is a totally different level. Since I moved to London, I gave the folks a crash course in timing. -4:30 usually, and -5:30 in winter, due to daylight saving. I chose the wrong words. The daylight saving had them very curious, and caused immense confusion. "But, whyyyyy?", crooned my Mom, and the Dad's creativity abolished its boundaries and devoted itself to the creation of hypothetical scenarios, "What if you are catching a flight at 2 am on the 2nd weekend of Nov, if you were 1 hr late would you be on time?" Arrgggh. Give up.

My lifestyle hours have only compounded matters. Even when I was in India, we were time zones apart, they operating 5 am to 9 pm and me doing 9 am to 5 am. The tradeoff of accompanying them for a family function was thus complicated by the jet lag involved. And here, it has only worsened, now that I'm no longer under their strict eye, and so I've often got up at 4 pm on Sundays and called home, only to have had a tough time explaining why I haven't had breakfast when they have just finished dinner!

Anyways, so back to the call, because Mehta Sr. is waiting. We exchange pleasantries. And then comes the time bomb, "Mummy's asking, did you have lunch???!!!" I don't understand my Mom's obsession with my appetite, but of course I find it very sweet. However, a part of me thinks its only her way of finding out the time. Like, "did you have lunch?", "Arre, I had lunch 5 hrs back, its dinner time now", "Aah! thought as much."Clever.

But thankfully, she has better sense than my Dad, because I hear her voice in the background, shouting "He must be sleeping now! How many times have I told you not to get confused between London and Singapore!" If only confusion was a matter of will, but I hope my Dad has a better response. But you see, thats an additional confusion, because my sister lives in S'pore, and having 1 kid at +2:30 hrs and another at -4:30 hrs has had the Mehta Sr. swimming in a pool of confusion 8 hours wide. I don't blame him, honestly.

So he realizes his error, mumbles a few things like, "Oh what time is it?", Me: "3:32 am", Him: "Oh you must be sleeping then?", Me: "YEAH!", Him: "Ah, its not a Saturday, no wonder I got confused, last week you were wide awake this time, even though slurring your words!" @£$&&. One can never win, I shrug, say Goodbye, promise to call back at a more convenient time, hang up and re-engage myself in invoking the divine spirit of Ms. Johansson.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Homeward Bound

The day is etched firmly in my mind. London had victoriously wooed me away from Bombay, and as I tearlessly packed my bags, and bade my parents an abrupt good bye, I was aware of the lack of emotion in me. In one moment, it impressed me, in another it scared me. How had I become so stone-hearted for ambition?

But, as I realized a return trip later, there was no emotion simply because there was no loss. Or, more accurately, no acceptance of a loss. Because somewhere in my heart I knew myself well- I am a romanticiser of places. Unlike others who miss people, my memories are linked to places. Which suits me fine, as people can sometimes go away or, worse, they can change, but places stay where they are, weathered by the forces of nature and progress, forever losing their exteriors but keeping their interiors.

And so I knew that wherever I went, I'd never lose the Bombay that was mine. Deep ensconced in a cobwebby corner of my vital organ, it would live on, adding juxtaposial layers to itself with my every frequent visit back. And so, on that gloomy Sunday of the twenty fifth of September 2005, I ventured out of my house, my city and my country, with a sprightly and adventurous step into life as a Londoner.

If anyone doubted my resolve to revisit and renourish my India roots as frequently as possible, they were proved wrong after barely 90 days. Just as family had begin to convert my room into a much-needed storage area, and friends had started to resign my phone numbers to the Etcetera list, there was I, punctually standing at Bbay airport, excitedly calling everyone to announce that "Yeah, you heard it right, I'm BACK!". My mom, disgusted at being deprived of a proper nostalgia, gruntled, "Khota sikka" (false coin, literally, basically meaning someone who doesn't live true to his word". I grinned.

And it has thus continued over the years- friends' weddings, house-hunting and renunion Goa trips all providing the necessary excuse- and the surprise turned gradually into annoyance. Quippy friends asked whether I'd procured a lifetime all-seasons ticket, and gradually even the familial luxury was stopped. On my 1st visit, I'd found the family driver proudly waiting to pick me up in the dusty Maruti and excitedly enquiring about London on the way back, but the next few times that seemed to be replaced by a frustating nonchalance...and last year I'd been politely informed, "Sorry beta (child), the driver's got some urgent work, so could you please take a cab instead?".

So by now, the India routine has been well-polished and tried-and-tested. As I finish dealing with betel-nut-chewing customs officers whose purpose in life is harassment, and venture out into the polluted Bbay air, unheralded and unnoticed except by opportunistic cabbies, I feel I have arrived. Of course I have, silly, but I mean, my instant ability to relate to my suddenly-different surroundings sends congratulatory blood to my head. The unconfused dual life, the balancing act- it all gives me a kick. I'm as home here as I was in London 8 hours and 7200 km ago. With these thoughts I hail an autorickshaw, for-the-heck-of-it'ly haggle the cost of a trip to Mankhurd and settle down comfortably into a very uncomfortable, shifting seat, looking forward to watching grime, odours, noises and the Bombay evening engulf me through the rickshaw's open windows. For a Bombay lover, its undiscriminating discomfort is itself its most comforting aspect.

(Not-so) soon, I reach home. Everything looks familiar and I even know the people on the streets- the baais (maids) still huddle around, kids still play cricket on the streets and cars still run into each other. But as the heart leaps in comforting joy, exclaiming, "I still haven't lost you, Bombay!", the futility of it all suddenly reveals itself to me on the subsequent landing.

Isn't all the frequent visiting an unending race to play catch up? With India growing and transforming itself in leaps and bounds, isn't what I really fear is losing touch with the beloved city, of having a generation gap with one's own childhood friend? And then I realize it, at the base of it all is my endeavour to keep unshaken my delicate faith in the constancy of places.

But I needn't worry, I relaxedly tell myself, as "Sumeeeeeettt, dinner is ready!", my mom's voice sails through the cool December air, like it always used to, rising above the latest item number blared by the neighbour's proud imported amplifiers, as they always did, and the shrill shrieks of the newest contingent of building (Indian slang for an apartment complex) kids. But I'm busy reading the girl's emails from London, and at the same time making clubbing plans for the night, waiting to explore the side of Bbay that I previously couldn't afford to- Oh boy, isn't it great to be home!

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Toxic Waist

It alarmed me when it first appeared on the scene, seemingly out of nowhere. I'd always felt that my thin frame was a natural immunization to it- a combination of the two would be such an ugly sight that God would take offence at such a product of his own device. But there it had surreptitiously arrived, always right in front of my eyes, taunting me amoebically every moment I looked down or at the mirror. I was doomed.

But that's a lie, actually. That was my second reaction to it. My initial reaction to it was actually a feeling of snug accomplishment. After all, as a kid, I'd always envied those who proudly flaunted it- the gilt-covered Punjabi businessman (and his wife!) who lived across the street, the perenially-juice drinking Gujarati stockbroker/estate agent/jeweller and closer to home, my father- they all seemed so comfortable with it, displaying that elusive, fine balance of ease and care as they proudly carried it everywhere they went. I ventured to ask my mother as to how I could get one, and she laughed it off- apparently it was correlated with happiness and wealth, and hence I should work hard at school so that I could be rich later and get one. Mothers should be held accountable for the responses that they sometimes provide to their kids.

So, all these years later, I'd finally got one. It meant I was happy and contented, so I happily stomached all the abuse. "You aren't even married!" announced one friend, "When is the delivery?" wisecracked another. "Call up your courier firm!" I desperately riposted, but even I wasn't finding it funny after a while, what with the evidence showing up in every frontal (sorry) photograph of mine, every holiday at the beach and every sight of me in a tight tee. It became an issue of national importance for Mehtasia. Her borders had to be reined in.

Worry soon had grown into paranoia. I shunned beer altogether, and dived headlong into whisky. I banned the basmati and gave exclusive curry accompaniment rights to the naan. I was caught attempting to fry onions with no oil on the frying pan. But no avail. Whatever I did, it was always ahead of me (yeah!).

Then the girl mentioned exercise. I balked and gulped, but soon caved in, especially after she threatened to get one herself (physical promixity was already being annoyingly impeded by one, imagine two!). And thus, the drunken evenings discussing the rumour mills were converted into gym sessions on the treadmill. And Saturday a.m hangovers were replaced by basketball court stopovers. And voila! I was soon tending back to shape.

But every cure has its own side-effect, and in this case it was my overall weight which turned out to be the unfortunate victim. And then I realized the sinister workings of my body's capitalist economy. When I gain weight, it all runs straight to the flab sink called the stomach- when I lose weight however, it is my cheeks that suffer a liquidity crisis!

But what the hell, I haven't given up running- the punchy paunch will be conquered. :)

P.s: Hello all you esteemed readers, could I please request you to comment on my blog, if you manage to wade through the proceedings? A comment is for the blogger what applause means to the stage performer- you might not necessarily like the performance, and you don't HAVE to clap, but it is that moment of deafening that she lives for, so you do it out of respect. And it's nice to know who's been here, because sitemeters don't give any useful information. You don't need to say anything, mabe just a frank rating on 10 would do? Gracias!

Thursday, September 25, 2008

The Sibling Sex Test and other Mathematical Stories

I'll cut to the chase just this one time- and only because I'm so excited to write about this!

A friend asked me this puzzle today:
"I have two children.. one is a boy. what is the probability of the other being a boy as well?"

My immediate reaction was: "They are independent! So 1/2!"

This seems a bit counterintuitive. Imagine you tossed a coin 20 times, and got H 19 times. If someone asked you, "So, are you going to get 20 heads?", you'd shake yours and say "Nah, 19 is enough of a fluke, 20 would be awe-fking-some but impossible." Thus we are implying that the probability of the 20th toss is dependent on the results of the earlier 19 tosses. But that's human psychology. In reality they are just independent.

Or so I was mulling until the friend came back saying, "No! you are wrong, its 1/3." And my attention was dragged towards a Wikipedia-take on the issue.

Now, ladies and gentlemen, I must diverge from the topic and address this crazy rise of Wikipedia-reliance. Just to be clear, I love Wikipedia-surfing. The sheer joy of hopping from one all-you-can-find-on-topic-X page to another is only paralleled by the glee one experiences when one proudly rattles off recently-Wikied information to a guileless hottie at the pub. Get me no wrong, Wikipedia has been one of the most amazing new ventures in the last decade- by warehousing, presenting and classifying information, it has enabled us and opened our minds.

But we often forget that Wiki's open source strength is itself its biggest drawback. It really doesn't matter when it comes to finding out who appeared on the Playboy cover in April 1984, but when you are talking Maths and famous conundrums, the wwwikipedia reliance could be a bit stuttering. As has been proved in this case.

And this is what it said:
"For a single birth, there are two possibilities (a boy or a girl) with equal probability. Therefore, for two births, there are four possibilities: 1) two boys, 2) two girls, 3) first a boy, then a girl, and 4) first a girl, then a boy; all of them have equal probability. We are given that one of the children is a boy. Thus, only one of the four possibilities -- two daughters -- is eliminated. Three possibilities with equal probabilities (1/3) remain. Out of those three, only one -- two sons -- is what we are looking for. Hence, the answer is 1/3."

That did stump me for a while, until a Chai latte later, I discovered the fallacy in the above. Can you?


Yes, you got it! (Or you are too bored)

Assume there are 2 variants of the problem.

Variant 1: (the puzzle I asked above)
The puzzle says "THE FIRST ONE of them is a boy" (i.e permutations)

Hence your sample set in this case isnt BB BG GB. Thats wrong. You know that the 1st one is a boy. the second one cud be a B or a G. hence sample set is BB and BG simply. GB is ruled out

Variant 2:
Now suppose you were told that "ANY ONE of the 2 children is a boy. what is the probability that the other is a boy?"

Now this is combinations. your sample set now is BB and BG (BG = GB in this case) and the answer again is 1/2.

What I'm trying to get at is that the incorrect explanation (which leads to answer 1/3) selectively uses permutations and combinations hence resulting in an irrational answer. If you are assuming that the order matters then the case GB cant exist. if you are assuming that the order doesn't matter, then BG = GB and GB is thus a simple repetition of BG. In either case the answer is 1/2. And this is consistent with my 1st logical answer i.e 1/2.

I was surprised to find a lot of debate on this on the net- and quite a bit of it wasteful. For example, there has been talk of frames of reference, of ambiguous meanings of "one of them is a boy" etc etc. And people have gone into discussions of conditional probability v/s absolute probability and have defended 1/3 on the basis of that. But that's absolute trash. The two can often be different, yes, but only when events are dependent on each other. In the case of independent events, they have to be equal! Just because you get an erroneous answer of 1/3 you can't defend it by saying that probability depends on sample sets and hence depending on which sample set you choose, you have a different probability. That's wrong. Whatever sample set you choose, your answers must be consistent.

I was given yet another argument by the friend's random friend: BG and GB aren't the same because the boy being elder to the girl is different from the girl being elder to the boy. This is another argument citing permutations.

Again on first glance, you can make out that this is specious, because ages of the 2 siblings shouldn't make any difference to their genders. You haven't been told which sibling is the boy, the elder one or the younger one. Thus age cannot be a basis of permutations.

More formally, the error in this argument is this: If you really wanted to complicate matters in your head and include age, you should consider it completely. Hence if you considered the various combos as Elder/Younger, the total combos would be BB,BG,GB,GG.

Of this one is a boy, but as we said, it could be the elder one or the younger one. Hence there are 2 possibilities, and the final probablity is given by:

P(2nd kid is boy/1st kid is boy) = P(1st kid is elder)*P(2nd kid is boy/1st kid is boy and hes elder) + P(1st kid is younger)*P(2nd kid is boy/1st kid is boy and hes younger)

There's an equal chance of the kid being elder or younger, hence both probablities = 1/2

Hence P= 1/2*(2nd kid is boy/1st kid is boy and hes elder) + 1/2*P(2nd kid is boy/1st kid is boy and hes younger)

Possibility 1: the boy is elder
In this case BB and BG remain and the answer is 1/2

Possibility 2: the boy is younger
In this case BB and GB remain and the answer is 1/2

and the final answer is 1/2 :)

Of course the clever mind will realize that all I've done is prove that the gender probablities are independent of the age.

Probability theory can get really overwhelming at times- conditional probabilities, what sample sets to choose, independent or dependent events- all cause a lot of confusion. But at the end of the day, there is one thumb rule to mastering it: it should all tie up to common sense. Or else the chance that the purpose of mathematics is lost is unity :)

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Dynamics of a tête-à-tête

Let's admit it- I'm no man of my word (I claimed I'd write a blog regularly and I didn't!). But hey, I'm a man of my words. I'm also a man of other's words- because very often in conversations, I talk so much that I seem to steal the other person's fair share as well. But then talking for me is a passion, each conversation being an enjoyable puff of addiction and every random dialogue with a stranger a welcome stimulus to unlock my inner thought apparatus. And hence, here's an attempt at dissecting it. 

After all, we all place such a great emphasis on conversations. Consciously and unconsciously, they are critical to every important decision in our life- remember the night you spent discussing your fav cartoons with your girl in the park and realized you both clicked? Or the coffee you had with your current boss when he gave you the confidence to quit and join him (Did you even taste the coffee?)? And oh, we nearly forgot the 2-minute-long phone call that was enough to convince you that the prospective buyer of your flat sounded right! Yes, our hunches are always piggy-backing on impressions derived from conversations. 

Most importantly, though, it is such a joy to have a fruitful, meaningful, intelligent, non-stop conversation. The kind where you are parring thoughts back and forth, where one trivial observation is snowballed swiftly into a takeaway to be consumed in solitude. Where no thought is considered bad or stupid or wierd, and where the synergy between two minds is far greater than the sum of its parts.

So I wonder, what makes a cracking dialogue? Is it merely the people indulging in it? Do we only click with people who think alike? Are we born good or bad conversationalists or is it (as I strongly felt) something we can develop? I thought of the questions, but I'd never have conjectured any answers (I was busy talking!) until a chance reading in Gladwell's Blink on improvisation comedy (what Whose Line Is It Anyways is) got me at Hello. 

For those who haven't read it (is quite an average book tbh), Gladwell describes the science behind the art of spontaneity- how, unlike what we believe, creativity is honed and not inherited. He talks about how improv actors strictly follow a set of rules- foremost among them being the rule of agreement- no matter what, a character always accepts what is being said, and NEVER is his response to anything denial. Once this rule is followed, the book argues, spontaneity flows easily. The more I thought about it, the more I felt, yes, that's one of the major keys to conversationality as well!  

I think good conversationalists are people who follow this rule of agreement. But, agreement in this case doesn't mean agreement of views (they would be really boring conversationalists otherwise), but agreement with the existence of ANY view. You say something radical and they don't get fazed, and even though they obviously disagree, they would hit something back at you that isn't a knee jerk reaction or a judgement of you. Because they are suspending judgement completely. You stonewall a view, and they try breaking through it, asking questions on why you think so. Good con...lists (I'm tired typing now) never stop a topic. They always draw you into a conversation, not out of it. And they know how to steer your intellectual energy (positive or negative) in a positive direction. 

Another thing I feel that distinguishes an interesting dialogue from an average one is the difference between observations and facts. Look at students cramming for finance job interviews- they mug up the levels of every goddamn stock index in the world, and are ready to rattle off market capitalizations at the drop of the Managing Director hat. But as an interviewer, what catches the eye when it parses through a sea of intelligent applicants is simply an opinion. A student who has an unrefined, crudely-hatched view on where the market will be in 2010 is anyday a winner over the numbers-spewing Wikipedia-addict. And the same is true for other conversations, I feel. Knowledgeable people do create a good first impression, and if you know your facts you do earn respect. But your shelf-life is also for an instant- ironically, you lose your contributing power the moment you use it! But what really drives a good conversation is opinions and observations, hunches and stances. These are the ones which elicit responses, which draw people into following suit with their own views. 

What often makes chat fun is creativity- foremost needed in the ability to package things differently. Everyone conveys a thought in way A, so let's use method B. Isn't that what pick-up lines are all about? Everyone likes a light exercise of the brain cells, and a witty phrase or monicker provides just that, and in the right quantity. And if combined with humour, you've had your prey (in line with the context of pick-up lines!).  

But finally, the most basic ingredient of the confab masala is a hunger to talk to people who think differently from you, a genuine curiosity to understand why they think what they think, and a fearless disposition to subject your quirky, could-be controversial views to the microscope that's sitting across the sofa. And that's what makes banter, well, banter :) 

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Making a counter-point

Many people commented on my judgemental blog earlier, saying it was too direct and negative. I agree wholeheartedly, but that was the point of it- when one calls a spade a spade, one cant call it almost a heart. Nevertheless a good suggestion by a few has been that I should write a 2nd part, focusing this time on the more positive traits in people. I think its a great idea, but I decided I dont want to repeat myself on the points in the earlier post, since obviously if I dislike something I would appreciate the absence of it. So heres my list:

Above everything else, I respect genuineness and honesty, Mallika Sherawat-ishtyle. It requires immense guts, and more importantly, inner self-belief, to come out into the public and say "Yes, this is the way I am, and the way the industry is"- her practical logic for sleaze as the only way to beat the acting-family grip on Bollywood was impressive. (Admittedly, she overdid it a bit, and often finds herself with her foot in her mouth.) But have you observed, genuineness is a trait every person unconsciously appreciates, however genuine or fake he might be. I think its one of the traits that people who somehow seem to endear themselves to everyone, unfailingly possess.
Next on my list would be determination and ambition, personified by countless successfuls, notably Shah Rukh Khan and Linkin Park. We all know whatever there is to be known about SRK, but Linkin Park, who practise their music 16 hours a day, have taught professionalism to an industry that has always been known for humongous egos and erratic genuises. A lot among us have these virtues in their own small ways- they dare to dream big, and they spend their lives, unfazed by adversity, chipping away towards that vision. Salut!

And I'm always awed by a Darren Gough-esque attitude to life: cheerful, bright and optimistic, you could never see him without a smile or a guffaw. Such people light up our lives with their shining countenance, provide us with memorable moments, and remind ourselves of how life's meant to be lived.

But nothing's as dignified a virtue as humility and simplicity, especially in one's moment of glory, paraded by the likes of Narayan Murthy and Rafael Nadal. Rafael's post match interview after winning the French Open a record third time had more "Federer"'s in it than "I"'s! We always associate the term "being a sport" with failure, but I sometimes think it applies more to victory. I respect and admire people who display generosity and integrity in success- be it in resisting an urge to take a pot-shot at the also-rans, or be it in terms of not wanting victory at ANY costs. And its probably this fine point that seperates the likes of Michael Schumacher from the pantheon of true legends. (I'm sure to kick up some controversy about this!)

This easily has been my shortest post ever :-)
p.s: This bloody blogger sometimes really drives me up the wall. I've tried in whatever way I can, but I can't seem to get that extra line between paras 2 and 3. Anyone else had a similar problem? Works fine for other paragraphs. First person to help me gets a special reading of my 1st book. Only kidding, relax.
p.p.s: And now its doing the same prank on the paragraph above! Bloody hell.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Local anaesthesia- part 1

Luxury is for the human mind a bastard adopted from the street- we all lend it our own unique name and implication. For the gourmets, it is pampering the stomach, for the art collectors, it's pleasing the eye, and for some like me, it is relieving the legs of their arduous task of transporting my restless energy on its jaunts across town. And hence, propelled by the power of the pound, I have allowed myself the gratitude of taking cabs wherever I go in Bombay, blissful in the thought of avoiding Bombay's crowded local trains. It's a luxury that has taken a long time coming though- having endured 6-odd years of a daily 3-hr full-body massage provided by the Mumbai Suburban Railways have left me with more than a backache. Its been a thoroughly enjoyable journey though, replete with its moments, and my experiences can only seem entertaining in hindsight. So heres the first part of a threatise.

For the uninitiated, the aforementioned massage services are run on 3 lines, Western, Central and Harbour- me being the proud client of the latter-est. There is a clear status divide between the three: we Harbour boys were a bit late in catching the train bandwagon, and hence our trains are the least frequent. Counter-intuitively, our infrastructure is also the worst- saddled with no fast trains and with tracks running through slum-dwellers' bedrooms, we often have been mocked at by the others: "Harbour line pe paan thunko toh gaadi ruk jaata hai" (translated as "Its enough to spit on the tracks when in a Harbour line train to halt, who needs heavy rains or signal failures?") But we are always better off than the horrid Central line, what with its majority clientele of abusive fishwives. The Western line (some parts of it, atleast) is generally accepted as the most cultivated- after you alight, people are polite enough to allow you to climb the stairs on your own- the Central line has no such luxuries. The general quality of women is another driver for the Western line's popularity- repressed Central adolescents regularly take Western-line guilt trips to remind themselves that abusive fishwives are not a good representation of the average Bbay lady.

So lets focus back onto the product- the massage. Its a winner, this one. For starters, it is delivered dynamically, on the go, unconsciously, perfectly positioned to make efficient use of your travel time, and thus fits in handsomely in Bombay's breakneck pace. In fact, "Journey is the destination" was adopted as a slogan by the Railways once. (It was however removed a few days later after customers started stoning rail offices, mistaking the tagline as a lame attempt to pacify them on the matter of train delays). Secondly, and most enchantingly, it is delivered by the clients to the clients, much like a network marketing concept, wow! Such an arrangement upholds India's status as the world's largest democracy, giving customers the power in their hands (and legs and head and shoulders) to customize their own experience.

The dynamics of it all are also very fascinating. It usually starts with waiting for the train to arrive, and the waiting usually starts when its expected time of arrival and you can't see the train anywhere in the distance. Certain self-driven members of the crowd usually act as the harbingers of fate- straining their neck and their binocular-ly organized eyes, they provide free regular updates to the rest. A few minutes later, there is the unmistakeable murmur as you brace for the most important part of the journey: getting into the train- many a self-proclaimed-street-smart Delhi novice has underestimated this step and paid a heavy price.

So you roll up the sleeves, hide the cellphone in the innards of your clothing, lift whatever luggage you are carrying onto the top of your head and take a deep breath. (The deep breath serves two purposes- it destresses you and it saves your life, since there is very little chance you are going to get any air once you are inside.) It is also important to choose the right entry position, the right gambit. Mumbai locals have no doors to their exits, so its a free-for-all, with the exception of a rather inconvenient steel rod right in the bloody middle of the exit. After above mentioned Delhi novices learn after a few attempts to give themselves a chance of getting in, the rod presents their next nemesis, and they often end up smacked right against the rod, with no room for movement and no sensation in certain body parts. You thus endevaour to choose 1 of the 2 sides of the entry to make your way in.

And before you know it, the train has chugged onto the platform, and there are people spewing out of the moving train in dozens and thirteens, headed right towards you. Which is very unnerving, as many of them will drop right onto your right toe, thereby spilling the pickle from their tiffin box conveniently onto your shirt pocket. But you shrug it off, not letting it divert your attention from catching the train. And as the train finally grinds to a stop, there emerges an even greater exodus of humans in every size, shape and mood, falling off like grains from a leaking sack.

Everything after that can be simply described as going with the flow- a concerted wave of pressure from people behind you propels you with lightning quick speed into the compartment. The crowd also rationally takes care of your seating preferences- if there are free seats inside, you will be taken right to them. The massage then continues unabated throughout the journey- you only have to steer clear of the all-encompassing-in-its-midst Kurla-exiting flow and you have gained full value for your money.

And then its time to hop off. Alighting from the Mumbai local is as simple as staying in- again, you simply go with the flow. If you are in a Central line train and alight at Kurla, and the flow is headed to the bus depot at Kurla's stations east-side exit, thereby interfering with your plans of catching the Harbour line train to Vashi, you dont fret. You simply follow the flow to the bus depot, and latch onto the next flow originating from there to your preferred destination. Its simple ergonomics, you see.

So before you realize it, you have been released from the pressure cooker- clothes rumpled, confidence eroded, de-de-odorized but positive about life- after all, you have successfully completed another day of reaching office! And you say to yourself, "Wow, there weren't any bomb explosions either! Life is indeed beautiful." :-)

p.s: This initially was meant as a comprehensive essay on the local train services of Bombay. Midway through the piece however, it struck the author that there was more to it than he had envisaged- as the memories came tumbling back much like men from a Dadar local, he realized that this journey was worth more than 1 Harbour-line trip down memory lane. Watch this space for the trilogy!