Proving the point being made

The argument does not create the idea, the idea creates the argument. [Link]

So says Manu Joseph in this article. Nothing new. I saw it the first time two years ago in Jonathan Haidt’s ‘Righteous Mind’. That too, I am sure, was not the first time it was mentioned or discovered but that Haidt himself had cited from research.

We do not use reason to make decisions or to form priors but we use them to rationalise decisions we make or to validate our priors.

Having said this in a somewhat complicated way, Manu Joseph goes on to demonstrate that the article itself was a very laboured attempt to make the point – totally unconnected to the issue – that, for him, Amartya Sen is a more ‘conscientious’ person whereas Bhagwati was a mere ‘economist’.

Regardless of the motives and the manner in which Bhagwati argued with Amartya Sen, he was absolutely right to challenge the notion that economic growth did not matter or that distribution mattered more.

Need for luck and learning: constant and continuous

Last week was rich pickings for insightful stories, for me. I still remain captivated by the story, ‘The case against Google’. I blogged on it here.

The next story that I liked immensely was the story in Wall Street Journal on GE under Jeff Immelt.

I like such stories not for the reason that they vindicate my priors (I remind myself not to hold too many of them!) but because they make me think.

This one short paragraph summed up the story rather well:

But Mr. Immelt didn’t like hearing bad news, said several executives who worked with him, and didn’t like delivering bad news, either. He wanted people to make their sales and financial targets and thought he could make the numbers, too, they said. [Link]

Jena McGregor in Washington Post has a good follow-on article on this story. She writes,

The article puts GE well out of its usual role as management exemplar. And it shines a light on a problem endemic to corporate America, leadership experts say. People naturally avoid conflict and fear delivering bad news. But in professional workplaces where a can-do attitude is valued above all else, and fears about job security remain common, getting unvarnished feedback and speaking candidly can be especially hard.

There was an added complication for Jeff Immelt. He was a celebrity CEO. No matter how hard he tried, people would hesitate to share bad news.

From Jane McGregor’s article:

Being led by a celebrity CEO who succeeded a man once named “manager of the century” probably doesn’t help either. Immelt, who rose through GE’s sales and marketing ranks before leading its plastics and health care divisions, became CEO after a high-profile horse race to succeed Jack Welch that catapulted him into the spotlight. One of the most recognized faces of corporate America for the 16 years he held the job (he stepped down last year) Immelt led President Obama’s jobs council and was considered as a veteran corporate hand to replace Uber CEO Travis Kalanick.

Leadership experts say such prestige can create a “social distance” between the CEO and direct reports, even if they make efforts to improve personal relationships. (Immelt, for instance, was known to host dinners with one of the top 185 officers of the company each month at his home and reconvene for a few hours the next morning to talk about their careers and their performance.)

“People tend to not want to tell them the bad stuff,” said Tim Pollock, a professor of business at Penn State University who has studied celebrity CEOs. “They become starstruck; they’re less likely to want to speak up and say negative things.”

As with most things in life, this too could go wrong. You could create an organisation culture where everyone only brings up bad news and uses them as an excuse not to perform or deliver. There is a fine line and no one knows where it is drawn.

It requires repeated experimentation, trial and error, learning by trying and, above all, good luck, to figure out the right balance between fostering a culture of frankness, honesty and of positivism; right balance between awareness of limitations and of strengths too.

In general, today’s world is a high pressure world – not just in jobs or in businesses but in just about everything. From parenting to maintaining social networks, friendships, from pursuing multiple interests. The culture is one of doing so much in so short a time. Efficiency and scale, even in personal lives, pursuits and social interactions, are privileged. They used to be expected only in business organisations.

When people are running everywhere and in every place with no place to rest, pause and reflect, anyone who allows them to step back, reflect and question these will actually be deemed a saviour! People feel grateful to be allowed to voice their self-doubts and inner doubts, their anxieties and frustrations once in a while and feel connected with those who do not hesitate to let them know that they share these too!

Therefore, that CEO or leader who allows his lieutenants the odd opportunity to step back, to say NO and to warn him of over-reaching, should be received with gratefulness and will be reciprocated with trust, commitment and higher motivation actually. That is my guess.

Not without dangers. Someone might take advantage and someone might embarrass the leader publicly about this. Some one in the media might say that the leader is a shirker and the share price might nosedive! The leader will be out of his or her job soon.

It is not that easy to swim against the prevailing currents even if you are convinced that the current will eventually plunge into a ravine. Given time, it will be right. The GE story is an example. The company went with the social norms and ethos of the times – good news, optimism, success, high performance, not taking NO for answers and deadlines are yesterday, etc. Indeed, it defined the ethos and norms of the times. Has it succeeded? Now, we know that it has not.

But, it takes time to know that it does not work. Not many have that luxury of time or luck to take a bet against consensus norms and ethos and succeed. They have to live in a society and be part of it. Humans are social animals. They need to belong. Some of us actually come to like it. It is seductive. It is lonely to be not part of it. Not easy.

The best we can do is to be aware of how excessive any organisational culture can become and modulate it from time to time. No one size fits all and no one culture works in all situations.

Let us also not forget that these articles are appearing with the benefit of hindsight. Note this paragraph in the WSJ story:

Former GE Chief Financial Officer Keith Sherin, who worked alongside Mr. Immelt during challenges such as the financial crisis, said the CEO would methodically approach a problem with his team, consider multiple viewpoints and communicate regularly with the board, making sure executives stayed focused on the most important issues. “I never found him to be overly optimistic,” said Mr. Sherin, who retired in 2016.

To his credit, Jeff Immelt did not preach one thing and practise another. He believed in his model:

At a conference hosted by Axios in November, the month after he stepped down as chairman ahead of schedule, Mr. Immelt noted that GE is “125 years old; we go through cycles,” and said he was “fully confident that this company is going to thrive in the future.”

A spokesman for the former CEO pointed to his decision to purchase $8 million worth of GE shares in 2016 and 2017. That included 100,000 shares in mid-May at a price roughly twice today’s.

The only enduring lesson in all this is that in business as elsewhere, the need for luck and learning is constant and continuous.

Are we ‘inevitably’ evil? – the story of the year

NY Times magazine published a very long piece titled, ‘The case against Google’. It will probably be the article of the year for me. It is a business case study, a public policy case study and a business ethics case study – all rolled into one. All of these are interwoven into the personal story of two small entrepreneurs whose search engine proved more powerful than Google for certain types of queries and how they paid for it!

Public policy students and analysts will appreciate the spirit behind ‘anti-trust’. In the process, you learn the story of Standard Oil, the story of Microsoft. Microsoft did win its appeal against anti-Trust decisions. It did not have to break up. But, the legal challenges – even though they failed – made the company a lot more sensitive and allowed an upstart (called Google) to emerge.

Google’s behaviour may not have been against consumer interests but was it simply fair?

One can also reflect on the spiritual and philosophical lessons of this. When Google was formed, it took on the motto, ‘Don’t be evil’. Has it lived up to it? Or, as one grows big, powerful and influential, does it become part of the DNA or almost inevitable to become ‘evil’? Is that true, almost without exception, for individuals, institutions, corporations and sovereigns?

[Note: Google’s new parent Alphabet abandoned that motto and took up, ‘Do the right thing’, circa 2015. Don’t be evil is simple and absolute. ‘Doing the right thing’ is relative, can be subject to interpretation and it can be bent. The yardsticks are malleable.]

Then, does it follow that if you are self-aware, you limit your own growth and stay small, lest you become inevitably evil?

Do we realise that, once we start rationalising, we are no longer wedded (but already divorced) to our values? In fact, the rationalisation is merely a confirmation of the divorce that would have happened some time earlier.

Is there no better way at all than to become inevitably evil? What is that ‘better way’ if there is one? What does it take to traverse down that path? Do the modern society and its organising principles militate against individuals, institutions and businesses walking down that path?

Or, is that question too a form of rationalisation? Isn’t it implicit in the question that we have simply re-arranged our priorities?

How do we stop rationalising or, better, realise that we have started rationalising?

Is it about having fearless upstarts and advisors telling us that? Does it work? In the Indian epic Ramayana, Kumbakarnan warns Ravana eloquently of the doom that he was courting by having brought Sita forcibly to his kingdom. It did not work. It was too late.

In Mahabharat, Vithurar was the voice of wise counsel in the Kaurava court. Even Vikarnan warns his brother, Duryodhana of the destruction that awaits in the path that he had chosen to walk on. No avail.

Indeed, even the wise ones and the exalted souls are not exempt. The illusion of size, power and influence shrouds their intellect. Knowledge, spirituality and reason retreat.

Therefore, ‘are we doomed to end up like this only?

Utterly fascinating, utterly educative and utterly and ultimately sobering, about us. [Link]

Jordan Peterson

Peggy Noonan has an interesting article (ht: Venugopal Ramakrishnan) on the interview of clinical psychologist and social philosopher Jordan Peterson by a British television journalist. From what she writes, I think Peterson’s work resonates with me. I listened to the interview he gave to Cathy Newman of Channel 4. He handled himself exceptionally well.

If you want to be shocked by how someone could so deliberately distort the interviewee’s words and if you do not want to watch the interview, you can read an article in ‘The Atlantic’.

I got to know of Jordan Peterson as the person who had interviewed the Google employee James Damore. Sunder Pichai fired him for posing important questions on the culture at Google. Now, Mr. Pichai says he stands by his decision. Well, I suppose, it is too early for a mea culpa. Julian Baggini has a review of his book at FT.

The sub-title of the review is: ‘A YouTube intellectual’s advice on how to live emphasises order and tradition’. That is enough to put any objective reader off. The arrogance of some of these self-styled intellectuals is blinding them to the obvious reality that it is not helping but hurting the very causes that they claim to espouse – so-called liberal values. There is nothing very liberal or liberating about putting down another person. It is cheap and vulgar. It is intolerance. There are far better, more effective and more persuasive ways of critiquing a book’s content or the lack of it.

Cathy Newman of Channel 4 and Julian Baggini have done the greatest disservice to genuinely liberal values and principles.

Peggy Noonan has an answer for Julian Baggini:

When cultural arbiters try to silence a thinker, you have to assume he is saying something valuable.

So I bought and read the book. A small thing, but it improved my morale.

As many readers-commentators in FT have said, the article in ‘The Guardian’ on his book is far more insightful. I could also read what Professor Peterson had to say about the backlash his interviewer from UK’s Channel 4, Cathy Newman, faced.

The last line of that article tells me that he is a liberal:

If Cathy is interested, maybe we could model a conversation. That would be a good thing.

That is the way to foster a dialogue.

Reading what is written and not what we wish to read

This article has come from multiple sources in WhatsApp. It is about the power of intense verbal memory training and its impact on the brain and not on the power of Sanskrit verses and mantras. Given that such intense  verbal memory training is imparted or undertaken only in Sanskrit and is part of the training for Vedic Pandits, it is not possible to state – one way or the other – if intense verbal memory training would (or, would not) have a similar effect on the brain.

This sentence is important:

Although this initial research, focused on intergroup comparison of brain structure, could not directly address the Sanskrit effect question (that requires detailed functional studies with cross-language memorization comparisons, for which we are currently seeking funding), we found something specific about intensive verbal memory training.

Yatha Sabha, tatha Rasika; Yatha Rasika; tatha Sabha – Chennai Music Season – Dec. 2017 – Post 1

‘Yatha Sabha, Tatha Rasika; Yatha Rasika, Tatha Sabha’

If you click on the link called, what would you expect to see, first thing? As an ordinary music rasika, you would love to see a link called ‘Tickets’ or ‘How to buy?’ or ‘How to attend concerts?’. Try your luck. May be, I am a novice and I do not know how to navigate the site and find it.

I was told that daily tickets would be sold only on the morning of the concert and tat too, you have to queue up like one does for Wimbledon, early in the morning. But, in Wimbledon, there are other avenues to get tickets – through Tennis Clubs, through a lottery, by buying Wimbledon debentures, etc. Then, you can also go online every day at 9 AM (UK time) and rely on your computer and connection speed to get some daily tickets. I did that in 2015 and got tickets. It was not difficult nor was it exorbitant. Try any of that with the Chennai Music Academy, hosting its 91st Annual Music Conference and Concerts. Most of the donor members and patron members do not show up for concerts especially if they are by artists who are not from within the radius of few miles from the Music Academy. Those seats are empty while, outside, many Rasikas are probably turned away because the daily tickets are ostensibly sold out.

Lest anyone think that I am singling out the venerable Music Academy of Chennai, I must hasten to add that they are probably one of the better ones. Another Sabha continues to hold its annual December performances in a marriage hall. Another one has remodelled it for enhancing dance and drama performances but continues to insist on classical music concerts there too with a result that one hardly sees the artists (because they are seated deep inside the bowels of the stage) or hears them. The audience is in total darkness – an atmosphere conducive for sleeping and not listening to music.

Most of the Sabhas think that they are doing a favour to the artists, to the Rasikas by holding these annual music and dance festivals. The idea that they are selling an experience to the audience is missing from their behaviour. Chennai Music Sabhas are stuck in a time-warp.

However, just as the saying ‘Yatha Raja, Tatha Praja’, the same goes for music. ‘Yatha Sabha, tatha Rasika’. They are educated and usually belong to the middle class or above.

The amount of movement that one encounters and chatter that one hears is not funny. A not-so-old man sitting in my row insisted on explaining everything to the lady next seat – a doctor, whose eighty-year old father was doing the same before he disappeared into the canteen or the rest room for a long time. Mamas and Mamis do not know how to put their smartphones in silent mode. You will be lucky to listen to the music in between.

There is also the habit of seating rasikas on the dais. At one level, it is nice. At another level, there should be some decorum for the rasikas sitting there. They should not distract the artists. There can be an age limit for those who get in there. Last evening, during the concert by ‘Bombay’ Jayashri, a young boy kept moving around the dais. Thank God, Jayashri did not notice it.

Then, there is the habit of the rasikas walking in at 6:00 PM for the concert of their favourite artists at 6:45. The artist who has been singing and the rasikas who came to listen to him from 4:00 PM be damned. These people are out to get the best seats for their favourite Chennai artist. In the meantime, if the Rasika enjoying the concert of his or her favourite artist, how does it matter to me? The slot at 4:00 PM is for outstanding outstation artists. For all they care, for the Chennai rasikas, those artists do not really matter. I am exaggerating on this aspect but only a bit.

There should not be such unlimited arbitrary entries. Music is meditation. South Indian Classical Music was in praise of the Almighty. It is not casual entertainment in one’s dining room to walk in and walk out, at will. The Rasikas must show some respect to the artist, the composition, the composer and the performance. The artists too must render the composition not just with technical accomplishment (necessary condition) but also with bhava, bhakti and dedication (also necessary conditions).

An old friend (still a good friend) whom I ran into at the Music Academy told me that this is all part of the manner in which the ‘Mylapore Mafia’ enjoyed its music and that the artists expect it and are used to it. Well, Sir, my friend, I do not buy that. This is an excuse born out of the twin tyrannies of habit and laziness.

No matter how expensive one’s saree or trouser is, it will be trampled upon because the Music Academy in Chennai has taken it upon itself to play the ego-leveller by ensuring that anyone and everyone can and will (or, will have to) trample upon the feet and the dress of those seated if they have to leave. There is no gap between rows to exit with dignity. Nor has this inconvenience prevented the Rasikas from attempting to leave and enter at will.

One must not be churlish, however. The Music Academy does two things well. One, it starts and ends concerts on time. No quarter given to anyone. Praiseworthy. Second, they have put in some effort in maintaining the cleanliness in toilets. There is a strict request to the users to keep the toilet seat dry but that is unheeded. Pity.

In case you are wondering why Indian voters elect the kind of leaders they do, look no further than the behaviour of the Chennai Music Season Rasikas.

Krishna on M.S. Subbulakshmi

Lot of outrage and support for these remarks by the musician T.M. Krishna on the life of Smt. M.S. Subbulakshmi. [Link]

I am not sure why there should be. He is not saying anything new. Moreover, the question that came to my mind is ‘So what?’.

(1) May be, he is unaware of how communities, groups form, coalesce and how that makes them commit sacrifices for each other. That is how nations and societies bind.

As with many (may be, almost all) things in life, there is both good and bad in group identity.

If one wished to belong to a group, one had to follow the group’s customs, practices and methods. That is how one belonged.

Humans may forget narrow identities when confronted with a common threat – like natural calamity. But, otherwise, group identities matter and they have been a reality of life when societies got organised and when sapiens learnt to farm. Once they grew roots in a place, they became rooted and group customs, norms and practices are all about rootedness.

Without identity and belonging to a group, humans lose their anchor and feel rootless. Too much immigration and outsiders into a community can destroy and have destroyed its order, stability and its cohesion.

Recommended reading: Jonathan Haidt’s ‘The Righteous Mind’. Indeed, coincidentally, on the morning of the 30th, I came across this article about the end of ‘The end of history’. It talks about the importance of ‘Nation-states’. It applies to smaller ‘groups’ or ‘groupings’ too.

These sentences, in particular, are relevant in the context of Mr. Krishna’s remarks:

It is not very helpful to speak of training people to think of themselves as citizens of the world. This might be good for globalizing your markets and your labor force, but it is not so good for fostering a sense of place, or for forming a proper regard for your neighbors, not to mention those who came before you and made your way of life possible. Citizenship is always particular and exclusive, citizenship “of” something, of some place, some jurisdiction, one entity rather than another. To call oneself a citizen of the world, as Diogenes did, is a grand rhetorical flourish, but it amounts to little more than a sentimental metaphor, and may be a way of dodging the commitments that come in tandem with our embrace of our duties and loyalties to particular people, places, and things—a way of loving humanity while despising actual people. ….

… It is hard to see how a vast collection of people could ever be persuaded over the long run to make sacrifices for the common good, if that commonality is not somehow rooted in fellow-feeling, in a sense of “us” that is something more than shared belief in a philosophical abstraction. [Link]

These paragraphs reinforce the relevance of groups and communities except that a nation is a larger version of that with even more common elements than smaller groups will have.

(2) Whether she was forced into being part of a Brahmin family or whether she chose that life because it offered her certain things she wanted in her life (while denying her certain other things, no doubt) is something we would never know. She is not around to corroborate or deny.

To each his version of history even if facts are immutable.

In fact, even if she were around, it would be difficult for her to say whether she regretted or felt vindicated about the choices she made. That would be with the benefit of hindsight whereas actual decisions are made in real time and there is no way to verify if the counterfactual would have been better for her.

Neither Mr. Krishna nor anyone else, for that matter, could either prove or disprove that.