Humans and chance

A delightful story from the Nikkei Asia Review

Historic discoveries occur by chance. It was December 1982, and Yoshino’s workplace was undergoing a year-end office cleaning. With nothing to do that afternoon, Yoshino picked up an overseas research paper that he had ordered a while ago but had not had a chance to read.

Flipping through the pages, Yoshino came across a surprise find. John B. Goodenough, an Oxford University professor, had written in a 1980 paper that a material called “lithium cobalt oxide” works as a powerful positive electrode for rechargeable batteries. The only problem was that there was no negative electrode to match it, Goodenough had said. [Link]

Moral of the story:

This can be easily an hour-long discussion in classrooms. Is it by chance that he discovered the positive electrode? If not chance, what else was happening that made him discover it?

We could think about the message of the story in multiple ways.  In fact, the message of the journalist is that historic discoveries occur by chance. That is perhaps the smallest of messages and may even be wrong. Chances do not happen. They are created by application of mind.

He could have taken time off that afternoon; gone for Christmas or New Year shopping. Or, he could have gone to play golf. He has been thinking about the problem and hence, he decided to use his spare time to read the paper he had ordered and never read.

That shows that if you keep thinking about an issue, the mind (and the universe) eventually finds the answer or locates the source of the answer. The subconscious mind works in our sleep and produces an answer when you wake up. I am sure you had experienced it yourself

Simply put, the value of ‘plugging away’ at a problem is often understated and seldom understood.

Second, what you learn from this is the importance of finding these windows of time to do long-term thinking. We always deal with the ‘URGENT’ but it is important to create windows of time to think of the ‘IMPORTANT’.

We all get lost in the day-to-day trivia. It is important to find, create and utilise the time for long-term reading, for the reading that you postpone always because it is not urgent; because it is not mandatory; because it is not required reading for the course or for the exams!

Just as it is important to find time for reading, it is important to set aside time for reflection too. Only then, the mind gets to work on connecting the many dots that it has come across.

God does not do barter!

Uddava – Krishna Samvadham

Questions are from Uddava; answers are from Lord Krishna

(1) Q: Who is a true friend?

A: One who comes to help without even being asked

(2) Q: Then, why did you not go to the help of Yudhistra in the game of dice? Nor did you turn Lady Luck in his favour. Nor did you warn him that he could not and should not gamble away his kith and kin and that it was wrong to do so. When Duryodhana dared Yudhistra to stake Draupadi, you could have helped the dice roll in Yudhistra’s favour.

But, you waited until her dignity was robbed and then you boast that you saved her dignity, after they had almost fully disrobed her. What is the big deal and sense of pride in what you had done?

A: Good questions. The dharma of the world is that the smart and intelligent win. Yudhistra did not have Duryodhan’s smarts. Duryodhana did not know gambling but he had wealth to gamble away. He smartly delegated the task to Sakuni. Yudhistra could have said that Krishna would play on my behalf. He did not do that. I could have easily beaten Sakuni. Fine. Yudhistra did not do that.

He did something else too. He said to himself that he had made a mistake in accepting the invitation to gamble. He felt guilty and therefore prayed that I should not know about it and that Krishna should not come to the gambling hall too. He prayed to me to stop Krishna from entering the gambling hall!

Then, Bheema, Nakul and Sakadev were staked. They cursed Duryodhana. They did not call me either. Draupadi did not call me when Duchasan grabbed her hair and dragged her. She trusted her strength and her logical and oratorical skills more. I was waiting to be called. When she called me finally, I rushed to her and saved her dignity. What wrong did I do?

(3) Q: Fine. Clever answers. But, are you saying that you would come only when called and not come to your friends’ support spontaneously?

A: Uddava, humans’ lives are determined by their Karma. I do not run their lives nor do I interfere in the laws of Karma. I am a mere witness. I stand and watch. That is my dharma.

(4) Q: Oh, well! Does it mean that we will keep making mistakes, do evil deeds and you will not stop us but we will keep accumulating vices and bad karma and you won’t come to save us from ourselves?

A: Uddava, pl. reflect on my response carefully. If you are always aware of and realise that I am always a witness for your thoughts, words and deeds, you cannot do wrong things. When you forget this important point, you make mistakes. You think you can do things without my knowledge. Yudhistra thought that he could gamble without my knowledge. That is his ignorance. If he had remembered that I am always the witness for one and all and for the actions of one and all, the gambling episode would have ended very differently.

(5) Uddava was rendered speechless. He grasped the tremendous significance of the message of his friend and Lord Krishna.

Source: from a collection of short-stories for children by Poojya Guruji Shri Chinmayananda in Tamil.

For most of us, praying and worshipping the Divine is a call for help. But, when we fully realise and always remember that not an atom moves without HIM, then one realises HIS presence with us always. Then, we cannot and won’t act without that consciousness.

My take-away: He is the witness, ever and always! Therefore, prayer is not a call for help; prayer is not a barter for God’s favours; prayer is an instrument of reminder (memory aide) that HE is THE WITNESS! ALWAYS!

When that consciousness is ever present, we cannot accumulate bad karma or Vasanas! That, indeed, is the purpose of prayer.

Is Krishna worthy of devotion?

That was the question posed by a reader to writer-author Jayamohan. His long response was interesting. Well worth a read.

In short, both belief and its counterpart must be rooted in understanding and awareness. They cannot be about form over substance (pun intended). You don’t have to agree with the author Jayamohan to appreciate the point he makes. That point escaped some readers-friends with whom I shared this piece.

Economic growth, speed and thoughts

My colleague Captain Ramesh sent this link. Good read. Vaclav Smil does well to make a distinction between regions that need growth and regions that can do with less economic growth.

In the western world, fact is, we have run down the environment too quickly. We have tried and we do try to pack too many things in too short a time. We want to have it all and now. The point about three-day trip to Singapore from Copenhagen is well made.

However, ‘The Guardian’ emphasises his aversion to economic growth. That is one-sided. That too is a form of intellectual colonialism.

Jawad Mian’s blog, ‘Stray reflections’ (got there from his twitter handle) appears rather interesting. This particular post, ‘On the tragedy of speed’ is a good supplement to the interview of Vaclav Smil.

Jawad Mian’s twitter handle pointed to this interview of ‘Ram Dass’:

Thoughts, thoughts, thoughts: Those are the daily attention-grabbers that make it so that you can’t come from your mind to your heart to your soul. The soul contains love, compassion, wisdom, peace and joy, but most people identify with the mind. You’re not an ego. You’re a soul. You’re not psychologically full of anxiety and fear. [Link]

Again, I came across this rather interesting piece about ‘confidence’ from Jawad Mian’s twitter handle:

Taking steps to feel confident is good. It’s when we try to get that feeling sui generis — when our plan is to be confident instead of doing what it takes to feel that way — that we run into trouble. …

… Confidence is therefore not the opposite of doubt so much as a solution to it.

Sunil Gavaskar’s column in ‘Sportstar’ on 12th September is a good read. The non-ego of P. Gopichand, Sindhu’s coach is well highlighted. The hype over ‘The Ashes’ is put in perspective too.

Decoding the expertise of the experts’ expert

I was forwarded a comment from, what I believe, is the ‘LinkedIn’ page of Dr. Raghuram Rajan. I am not sure if it is authentic. I am assuming that it is.

He had written,

I am worried about what the events in Kashmir mean for the future of India. Since I am not a political expert, let me refer readers to perhaps the most thoughtful political analyst in India today, Pratap Mehta. You may not agree with everything he says, but you should certainly be alarmed. I am!

I went through the Pratap Bhanu Mehta (PBM) piece.

If I were PBM, I would have argued differently to put some substance to his fears and concerns.

  • I would start with recapping how the Union government has re-interpreted a few things to make this a reality:

(a) Changing the reference to the ‘Constituent Assembly’ to ‘Legislative Assembly’.

(b) The absence of the ‘Legislative Assembly’ being re-interpreted to mean only the Government of J&K

(c) The absence of a Government being ignored and replaced by reference to the Governor

Clearly, all these are ‘questionable’ means even if the ‘end’ is a good one.

  • Then, I would discuss whether the ‘end’ was a good one. There, one can have different views. This is where a bit of history as to the original rationale for the ‘special status’ accorded J&K and an honest discussion on whether such rationale was observed over the years would have been enlightening and useful to readers. PBM does nothing of that.

If these discussions lead to the conclusion that the original purpose and its actual record were both spotty or decidedly counterproductive, then the decision to reverse this bit of history is a reasonable one, even if the methods were ‘questionable’.

  • Then, as it is the usual thing with op-eds., PBM simply mentions his key hypothesis in the end without substantiating them, simply because he thinks that the government’s record speaks for itself. It is self-evident to him that the BJP would end up ‘Kashmirising’ India rather than ‘Indianising’ Kashmir.

Unfortunately for him, it is not self-evident to the rest of us for the following reasons:

Notwithstanding all the concerns about the ‘murder of democracy’, many commentators, including PBM and, to a limited extent, Dr. Rajan have been critical of many actions of the NDA government II and now III. Some of the criticisms were well-founded and correct and some not. But, the point is that the critics are still around to keep penning their criticisms.

Further, notwithstanding some genuine and some exaggerated concerns over lynching and murders in the last several years, the fact is that there has been communal peace in the country, raising valid questions and concerns in many neutral minds as to whether most of these social concerns were manufactured and orchestrated to turn them into truths and/or self-fulfilling prophecies.

  • The article would have been credible had PBM ended with what would it take to make BJP’s avowed aim of ‘Indianising’ Kashmir a reality. In the process, he could have also articulated as to why he thinks ‘Kashmirising India’ more likely.

In other words, why his odds on the latter are much shorter than it is for the former is quite a legitimate argument to make. But, he does not make it. For the many ordinary Indians, it looks like that a move to integrate the state of J&K with the rest of India is not a divisive or exclusionary move but an inclusive one.

To summarise:

(1) Recap the original rationale and the empirical utility of the special status over the years

(2) If they were valid and served a purpose (notwithstanding the substantial costs), then removing the special status is wrong.

(3) Even if (2) were not true and that the special status deserved to go, he could still argue that the means adopted were questionable and may not (or may) stand judicial scrutiny

(4) Then, spell out what would it take for the NDA government to make it a case of ‘ends justifying means’

(5) Argue (and substantiate) why he is sceptical if (4) would happen

(6) In the end, in the spirit of humility and honesty (lack of certitude is always endearing), leave open the possibility that he could be wrong.

Instead, of what we have got from PBM is a song (nay, rant) from the choir for the choir.

I don’t want this post to be about PBM’s commentary on the Government of India’s decision to integrate Jammu & Kashmir with the rest of India. The development is of far greater import than his commentary.

I came across Ashok Malik’s piece at the Observer Research Foundation. He makes two important points. They are worth noting:

The explosion of terror in Kashmir in the early 1990s had followed the withdrawal from Afghanistan by another superpower, the Soviet Union. It had made Kashmir the next “cause” of an international jihadist coalition and attracted not just Pakistani Punjabis but even Afghans and other Central Asian nationals. A tangential and yet direct correlation between Taliban ascendancy in Kabul and terrorism in Kashmir clearly existed. Having defeated the Russians and out-survived the Americans, the “liberation” of Kashmir would be a tempting prize for a supra-national army of the ummah.

Through 2019, as the US engaged the Taliban with Pakistani facilitation, Indian apprehensions grew. During Prime Minister Imran Khan’s visit to Washington, DC, in July, President Trump’s throwaway line, offering to “mediate” between India and Pakistan, was over-the-top but did indicate that such thinking had re-entered the ether in Washington, DC. At the very least, it confirmed that the US saw it necessary to offer a carrot to Pakistan.

As soon as Imran Khan returned from his America visit, officials in New Delhi say, the top brass in Rawalpindi began to celebrate. Jihadists who had pulled back from Pakistan-occupied Kashmir started to return and temperatures at the LoC rose. The opening lines of a familiar Pakistani ransom note to the West were being written – tell India to behave on the Kashmir front, or the effort in Afghanistan will suffer. The Modi government responded by writing an even larger ransom note of its own; it changed the script on Kashmir.

Finally, while I was searching for the transcript of the speech made by Mr. Uday Kotak at the Lalith Doshi Memorial Lecture on the 5th of August, I came across the speech delivered by Dr. S. Jaishankar, India’s Minister for External Affairs last year, when he was the international advisor to Tata Sons. You can find the full speech here.

Few key sentences from that speech are a fitting finale to this post:

“A sharper willingness to articulate our interests and be resolute in its pursuit is also necessary….. An old civilisation that is that is hesitant to project its culture is also unlikely to evoke respect.”

Talking of Indo-China relations, he noted,

we cannot afford the complacency of the past that oversaw the Hambantota project or ballooning trade deficits.

and

It should also be recognised, especially in West Asia, that Indian strategic interests are no longer being sacrificed on the altar of ostensible political correctness.

Small minds cannot create a large economy

The subject-header was the concluding line of my column in Mint last Tuesday.

That is as true of nations, economies as it is true of institutions. Those who sweat the small stuff or wallow in their minor insecurities, fears and prejudices do not create lasting institutions and legacies. Worse, they drag others who do so, down and undermine the process.

They may not be able to stop the creation of such institutions but they may be able to divert productive time, resources, managerial attention away from the important to the trivial and/or urgent.

Many of us are inclined spiritually; have their gurus, visit Ashrams and meditate, etc.

However, as Shri. M. ( of ‘The Satsang Foundation’ and author of ‘Apprenticed to a Himalayan Master’) puts it in this daily letter of his,

We now need to look at how we can live in this world, which is quite nice. Living in this world, is it possible to be spiritual? If we don’t think of that, then there’s no point being spiritual.

In other words, spirituality is practised in daily lives; in small and big situations.

(1) It is not esoteric. It is about being consistent in one’s thoughts, words and deeds. It is about relying on facts and not yielding to one’s fears and prejudices. It is about waiting to reach conclusions after gathering all facts and arguments rather than jumping to conclusions.

(2) It is about not yielding to the temptation to talk loosely and gossip. Indeed, it is about the moral courage and strength to leave a group if it is engaging in such practice and, even better, in gently dissuading the group to reflect rather than succumb to the temptation to be part of the group.

(3) It is about channelising one’s fears, insecurities and jealousies into constructive competition.

(4) It is about achieving parity through elevation of self rather than through the diminution of the other.

(5) It is about rigour in thinking, communication and being careful with words even as one communicates directly and with the most relevant persons rather than practise escalation, diffusing negative energy in the process

In short, it is about thinking calmly and reflecting on how one could contribute to the building of institutions rather than wallow in myopia, fears, prejudices and other negative emotions and undermine institution-building.

Countries cannot become great without great institutions; small and insecure minds are hurdles to the creation of great institutions.

The temptation of scratching and sinning

Last night’s serendipitous discovery: due to heat or whatever provocation, there are times when there is an extreme urge/provocation to scratch the skin, as though it would provide relief. If one succumbed to it, what one is left with is more burning, more discomfort in the end.

It is exactly the same as it is with sinning. There is an extremely strong urge/push/temptation/provocation to succumb to it. If one did so, then the after-effects are, to put it mildly, very unpleasant.

What is the best way to handle this? The scratching sensation goes away if one does not yield to it. Same with sinning.