Sunday, June 27, 2010

TED Video: Steven Levitt on Car Seats

TED Talk: Let's Raise Kids To Be Entrepreneurs

Comment: On NIIT University MBA

I read with interest a press interview given by R S Pawar, the Chairman of NIIT, on the subject of NIIT University's launch of a MBA programme. Being an NIIT student first and then an employee for several years, I regard Mr Pawar as a thought leader and a pioneer in Private Education business in India. Despite many criticisms that NIIT faced for its uncontrolled growth and resultant inability to control the quality of services, Mr Pawar and his colleagues had a vision which transformed India in a way. I know the persistent criticism is that they just took the opportunity presented to them, but this comes from people who have not seen the hard work, the management sophistication, the long term strategic thinking, commitment to professional business practises that built NIIT. I have, first hand, and therefore, I hold NIIT in very high esteem. Therefore, what Mr Pawar says about the MBA programme is worth listening to.

This is of course just a Press Release, orchestrated, no doubt, by NIIT's very efficient corporate communications people. Among many business practises NIIT pioneered in India and excelled in is Corporate Communications. Its consistent focus on brand messages, consistent style, hard work in developing media relations and planning and organizing high visibility events played no small part in making NIIT the big global brand that it is today. However, its very success ensures a fairly bland, predictable style in all its messages. Those who have heard Mr Pawar in person know that he is an extremely engaging speaker, a man of great knowledge and perspective, capable of producing deep insights while being on the message. However, this Press Interview looked like more an exercise that he had to - the perfunctory Chairman's message - than a real conversation. In fact, some of the sentences are so constricted - like this one, 'As Karan Singh, MP and Chairman NIIT University puts it “NIIT University gives a glimpse of what future education institutions can be”, one can almost feel a copywriter working away on a press release rather than a live conversation. This is not a failure, just too much success of corporate communication: The world has indeed moved on.

So, I am sure there is more to the NIIT University MBA than Mr Pawar gives out in the interview. The key idea is fairly simple: This is an MBA inside a multi-disciplinary university, allowing the students a great choice of electives. That's the way it should be though: I am not sure whether availability of electives is a problem in India. The message seems like a throwback from a different age, when NIIT used to compete at the 'institute' space, with the myriad of single room technical schools that mushroomed in India over the years. Why would it think an MBA inside a multi-disciplinary university is such a key differentiator?

But there is a real differentiator in what RSP says. He makes an interesting point about research focus and gives glimpses of an interesting business model. NIIT University is a technology oriented university which will put a lot of focus on research, expecting good quality research output coming up in five years time, and then, he says, the same research can be harvested for commercial purposes in ten years time. If this happens, this will surely differentiate NIIT University from its bigger, state sector peers as well. In India, the quality of university research abysmally poor, and this is going to hurt now that the companies are moving up the value chain. There are lots of discussions about setting 'world class universities' in India; Mukesh Ambani recently said that he is planning to set up one. One great thing about British University system is the rather close Academia-Business-Government linkage, and NIIT University may be able to bring the same in India.

There will be two challenges on the way though. The economic incentive of research is still low in India. It is easy to see why. BusinessWeek says India is exporting to the world its new innovation mantra - Jugaad, the technique of getting by. The Economist concurred, running a story on this and likening the Indian model, among other things, an emerging management paradigm. This is a model which has indeed served Indian businesses very well during the time when capital was limited and resources were hard to come by. Things have changed, but the approaches to innovation persisted. I would suspect that we see such poor quality research at the university level in India not just because the institutions are faltering, but also because research isn't valued and not part of the corporate culture in India. It will be interesting to see whether and how NIIT University create the desire to do serious research among the students.

Next the commercial harvesting bit, which is a great model and NIIT, as a commercial entity, obviously understands the process. In fact, NIIT excelled and left its early competitors in the computer training market behind by harvesting two internal capabilities: The ability of its tutors to come up with good quality instructional material [which they converted into a business of its own, and today, they are one of the world's largest and most respected instructional material producer] and the ability of their students to write computer programmes [which they turned for good use in their software factories]. The MBA programme is different though, in content and in student aspirations, and NIIT University has to curve out a niche - for more entrepreneurial students - if this business model has to be turned into reality.

This can potentially be a game changer for NIIT, in a way. Today, it has lost much of its pioneering spirit, its ability to come up with fresh ideas, innovative products and business models, its ability to be ahead of the pack. In fact, while working at NIIT in the early years of the millennium, I developed a maxim [which is not necessarily true]: Quality is the excuse of those who can't innovate! The fact that NIIT got into business education so late tells a story.

There are many reasons for this. The Indian education space was suddenly crowded and was not governed by a set of transparent, forward-looking rules. The company became too large and had to create management barriers, stamping out out of the line thinking and therefore, innovation. But most importantly, after being a pioneer of sorts on systematic research, NIIT became over-reliant on it. While NIIT had brilliant scientists in the team and they were working on pioneering projects, not much of that was being commercially used in actual learning areas. While the world appreciated the value of 'open innovation', NIIT remained inward looking. This, the university-based research and the desire to leverage it commercially, may mean a new turn for NIIT. That will surely be double good news for Indian industry.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Approaches to Business Education

So, first step in the World College project, a middle-of-the-way, somewhat safe, step - the initiation of a Business School. No big deal, indeed. This is the most crowded field of education, particularly private education. In fact, a touch risky, given that there are league tables and campus recruitment salary benchmarks, the struggle for good professors and good students, both of which are in remarkably short supply. The business of business school, because of its dependence on performance parameters, is more about creating a club for already intelligent, already ambitious students. The success mantra is not to try anything exceptional, not to go out of the way.

The business education is indeed out of sync, at least a bit. We have a major crisis in the world economy because of the way we educate. Because, as some commentators put it, the focus is so much on creating clever rogues than thinking professionals. The whole business around MBA, the ubiquitous three-letter symbol of management excellence, suddenly looks too narrow, too limited, in the context of a rapidly changing world.

However, as I said, the whole business of business school is designed to be counter-intuitive. It is not about thinking deep, but about thinking fast; it is about treating people as resources, a company as a money-making machine and management as an art of manipulation. Though technology is putting enormous pressure on all the real world practises, business education is largely transfixed in Henry Ford's age. The new thinking in the discipline is actually coming from the edges - from psychology, sociology, education, technology - and the business education has suddenly become bereft of innovation.

Success corrupts: This will be the most obvious conclusion. The near universal acceptance of MBA as a benchmark of business excellence has spawned too much uniformity. You need to be Henry Mintzberg to think out of the way. Others are consigned to bland uniformity, an unified linguistic community [using expressions such as 'way to go', lots of three letter acronyms and consciousness about social classes such as VP and GM], a sure shot road to lifelong mediocrity. The problem is that this model is built in a different age, for a different age. In a world which is global, disrupted by technology, with aware customers and increasingly vigilante governments, where diversity is making a full-fledged comeback, such models are hopelessly out of date. As Sudhakar Ram puts it, we are in a Connected Age, where the industrial definitions of Success, Work, Well-Being, Learning, Consumption, all has to change. The business education is hopelessly behind cycle as far as such thinking is concerned.

So, as I set out to start a new business school, and negotiate various real world aspects of the job, setting an agenda in sync with the future, not with the past, will be of paramount importance. As a starting point, I see three core assumptions driving the agenda. The first is, as put by Mintzberg, Management is a practice and not a science. What this means, essentially, is that we don't know all the answers about what makes businesses tick, so let's stop pretending that we have fixed formula that will work every time. Rather, see this as a practice, where one explores and discovers, finds answers as one goes along. It is an important distinction in terms of business education: From providing answers, the business schools should talk about encouraging a spirit of enquiry. In lay terms, this means moving from arrogance to humility, from 'we know' to 'we seek', from formulaic approach to success to a commitment to progress. We want to put this at the core of the business school education.

Secondly, if the above sounded like fostering of self-doubt, it is not. It is about finding other sources of self-assurance than blinding arrogance. Such as creativity, and a real understanding of the mechanics of the world. A systematic understanding of allied disciplines, of psychology, education, sociology, technology, is helpful to imbibe the learner with dual attributes of humility and confidence. So, we have decided to adopt a strongly multi-disciplinary approach, backed by travel and exposure to global cultures, at the core of the business education.

Thirdly, as I mentioned before, this business school will be ready for the connected age. It is not just about technology, it is about technology in context, a deep understanding of human connectedness and our responsibility towards others. There is a rush in business education to teach ethics, but the way it is done suggests that this is something outside the core, a top-up, something to be followed like tax laws. But to survive the world of increasingly customer and regulatory vigilance, one needs to go a step further; to become sustainable businesses, a business may not just follow ethical practices, it should be about ethical practices. And, such a thing can not happen without first treating people as people. This is the founding proposition of the connected age, an acceptance that technologies of subjugation has indeed become technologies of liberation, and whereas Habermas moans the decline of the public domain, this is just the final step of 'enclosing' the world, at which point more fences will not make any sense and the whole edifice will come crumbling down.

In short, a business school for the future, and I am currently absorbed in its creation.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Day 2 of 100: Talking About England

George Osborne did what he promised to do - took maximum advantage of recent poll victory, wimpishness of Liberal Democrats and the usual Conservative scare-mongering - and delivered a very harsh budget. It hit home, and thousands of teachers and other public service workers have been imposed a pay freeze. This government excels in PR, indeed that was this Prime Ministers chosen profession, and the practice of spin reigned supreme on the budget day. Britain is bankrupt, indeed, a second Greece in the making; though it is interesting to note that Britain can afford to maintain and upgrade Trident, at the cost of £50 billion, whereas Greece can't dream about such a waste.

I am not affected. I have nothing to do with public sector. But it is a stunning display of conservative comeback, which is happening all over Europe in all its ugliness. There is a cosy coalition of newspapers and conservative dagger-wielders, with some clueless privileged bobbies like Nick Clegg literally being the sitting duck of the time. It seems that everything bad was a Lib Dem policy - Child Benefit freeze to unexpected rise in VAT - though Conservative George Osborne will finally save the Britain. One thing is clear: Though Gordon Brown is so evidently not likable, we should have never deserted Labour. They were foolish and incompetent, but it is dangerous to get the Tories in. They may hijack Britain's future, completely.

This is long term for me. I fear British economy will be in decline, in a prolonged state of recession, after its Keynesian life support is withdrawn. This may affect the world. However much the Conservative spin masters want us to believe, Britain is no Greece, and what happens to Britain impacts rest of the world significantly. Not our Trident, but our economy, our creativity and innovation, education and ideas, make a difference to the world. The usual conservative bamboozle, the assumption of Imperial Grandeur overseas while playing broke while paying the retired soldiers, teachers and nurses, will please the newspapers united in dislike of Gordon Brown, but undermine Britain's long term future. Something I am indeed tied to. I am not here in the hope of a state pension, though as an immigrant, I am stereotyped into living in the hope of one. But it is more the competitiveness of this country, the ongoing excellence of its universities, vibrancy and integrity of its democracy, which worry me.

France finally goes out of World Cup, losing out to hosts South Africa. It can't be just footballing reasons. One would suspect that this is about a deep clash of cultures. The authoritarian French, represented by the coach and the Football Association, seems to have permanent war against players who seem to be less French, corrupted by close contact particularly of English Premier League, known for its irreverence. The walk outs, the suspensions, the abuses, all point to a deep clash of cultures: The war between Paris and the suburbs have finally reached the football team.

My routine is settling into a predictable morning-evening cycle, my old beloved habit of walking on London Bridge every morning/ evening, walking shoulder to shoulder with thousands of walkers through Gracechurch Street and Leadenhall Market, talking about endless possibilities of technology with some of the more enlightened colleagues and friends, and believing, once again, that my actions make a difference. Few months ago, I had given up, planning to go back to Kolkata for a breather; but the evidently foolhardy decision to walk out of a job without any firm plans have suddenly paid off and opened up dramatic new possibilities.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Day 1 of 100: Starting Again

I return to my 100-day project, yet again. This is all a game, so it is, but this keeps life interesting. So I go again.

This 100-day project is different from the previous one. There is a certain sense of freedom in it. I am much less constrained from what I was a few months back. I am free to pursue opportunities as I see them. I can do things, not just talk about it, at work. Overall, I am starting this period with a sense of optimism and hope.

Of course, we are living in a particularly bleak time otherwise. Tomorrow, George Osborne is scheduled to read out his emergency budget. This will mean, from the noises made by the Tories, a full-fledged return to monetarism, which will possibly mean a retrograde turn for Britain. Indeed, retro is chic, but no one seems to have much enthusiasm for any of that now. If anything, the pseudo-Tories like Nick Clegg will finally be outed, and Liberal Democrats as a party, as they vote for this budget, will be consigned to history. I do believe in the redemptive powers of the Tories to make Gordon Brown look like a saint.

If tomorrow belongs to George Osborne [and in a lesser way, to Raymond Domenech, who will possibly be seen as the French Coach for the last time], Wednesday will be England's day. George Osborne can actually get lucky that way; the gloom he will deliver may be lifted if England makes it to the Knockout stage. The fact that they will have to play Germany then is a different story though.

However, it does not matter much to the work I am doing. My project with a private education college in London is progressing well. I have now got a 'strategic agenda', a six point plan to introduce some key changes in the business. I am mostly working on the brand image, and that too from an international perspective - as the college is primarily international - but, as Seth Godin said, one can not attempt to make Meatball Sundae. As I work on creating a new brand image for the college, I must engage in a conversation about the fundamentals, what the college will be known for, who they will attract and what courses they will offer, so that the image I help create isn't out of sync with the day-to-day realities.

This is indeed exciting stuff. Change is always hard, but it becomes a lot easier with clear intent from the top management. I have had enough experience otherwise. But this time, there is full sponsorship of my ideas and a free hand, and I am enjoying working with the possibility. I could not get better understanding of the international markets or British education system without being into it, hands on and day to day. The experience is indeed enhanced by my learning, and I must comment that the Adult Education course in the UCL was an eye opener. I have been liberated from the narrowness of my earlier thought - when I saw application of technology as a panacea for all the problems that afflict learning - and can see the business of learning from an all-round perspective. One thing I still need is actual teaching experience, and this is something that I am going to do in the coming days.

So, being in an adult learning environment, studying about adult learning, mentoring an adult learning business - this is my preparation for what I want to do finally. I am hoping that these 100 days, and the period following that, would equip me adequately to take on the challenges such a project will bring.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Notes On Education

Some time back, I wrote that the purpose of Education is to instill an intent to enquire, to provide an engaged mind, eternally curious, to seek to understand the world. Lots of things changed since then. Two major influences in my thinking came from my practical engagement in the business of education, and my studies in the University College which has provided me a systematic introduction to the ideas of education. Somewhat in the middle of this journey, I have come to realize that my initial view was hopelessly idealistic, out of touch with the practicalities of why and how education is delivered or pursued.

However, one must also ask whether the current practice of education - which is more about providing answers, and more so, providing credentials required for a purposeful employment - is deviant from what education should do. One may or may not take an idealistic point of view; however, if we accept that our current social structure is less than optimal, and there is plenty of evidence to argue that way, there may be practical arguments in favour of reviewing how we educate and what we educate on.

Interestingly, there seems to be a worldwide consensus that the current system of education is not working. Talking about education makes political sense. It hits home with all kinds of voters. Some of the more memorable government policy initiatives in the Western world, Tony Blair's 'Education, Education, Education' agenda or George W Bush's 'No Child Left Behind' initiative, acknowledge the centrality of education in national policy. Beyond this, every successive election campaigns in developing or developed nations are defined by presentation of competing visions of education, from the left and the right, diverse in details but based on the acceptance that improvement of education is the only way will keep the respective nations competitive and progressive.

However, the fact that the same issues continue to persist election after election, the crime rates keep rising, more and more people stop voting and stop participating in the society, tells us that there is something wrong in the way we are approaching the question. The developing nations indeed copy the model that the developed nations hand out, bending with the ideological traditions that shape the policy in the western nations, trying to get more and more people in education and in jobs thereafter.

But, in this education fetishism, there is a subtle shift all too evident in public policy. Education has to provide answers, skills and jobs, and not the spirit of enquiry and openness that idealism demands. The purpose of education, some argue, is to be able to consider one's experience critically, but that is not something the State would want. The statist education will always be about conformance and acceptance of society as is. Indeed, as long as the state pays, the powers that be would define what education is meant to do. In recent years, the statist education is taking a backseat and allowing the space to education as a business, but only on the basis of a cosy understanding that this is also about preservation of status quo and not for encouraging critical thinking.

Education as a business has several shortcomings, starting with the measurability of the 'return' on education and therefore to 'price' it correctly. This is no trivial thing in a capitalist enterprise, because 'price' determines resource allocation and planning, and inability to price leads to inefficient resource allocation and subversion of priorities. So, education as a business does not represent a vast improvement on the statist sort, just a different alignment of priorities and a different set of inefficiencies. Raghuram Rajan, formerly of World Bank and now of the University of Chicago argues that one must address the issue of education - how and what and why - to address the 'fault lines' of our society. The inverted sense of priority that he argues is largely responsible for the current global crisis has arisen from the misalignment of education, he argues.

I am currently engaged in development of an education business model and I am sure these thoughts may sound a bit odd, coming from me. But these reflect my ongoing enquiry to find a new and improved model, and the fact that I am convinced that the current model isn't optimal. I would guess a lot of people will agree with me on this last bit.

Being A Londoner: Three Stories, One Truth

The British Media spent most of the last month complaining out the 'anti-British' rhetoric in America. Led by President Obama, many senators and public intellectuals were overtly critical of BP's handling of the Oil spill in Mexican Gulf. The company looked clueless on how to contain the spill and several attempts failed and only a somewhat partial solution seems to have been achieved after two months of efforts. The extent of the disaster makes Exxon-Valdez looks tiny - one Exxon-Valdez a month, as one of the TV commentator puts it. The problem in the British media was none of this disaster, and the fact that this will severely affect the ecosystem and livelihood in an entire region, but that the American rhetoric on BP's responsibility threatens British jobs and Btritish dividends etc.

True, BP is one of the premier companies in Britain. One pound in each seven pounds paid in dividend by British companies come from BP. They employ thousands of British workers, and serve as a somewhat national symbol of pride. But, BP is not Britain. There is no reason to equate the two. They may be struggling to contain the spill, which is exceptionally difficult many kilometers below the sea level, but the point is that this should not have happened at all. BP has an appalling safety record, and their track record does not inspire confidence that they are capable of taking the responsibility of sensitive assets like the Deepwater Horizon.

In fact, the last week's incidents underscored BP's callousness and subverted priorities. The week started with a media-induced [no doubt orchestrated by BP's spin doctors] highly publicised call from David Cameron to President Obama, implicitly to convey the British dismay at BP's treatment in America. Middle of the week, it was BP's CEO, Tony Hayward, facing a Senate hearing, dishing out more 'I don't know' answer than anything else. Finally, the week ended with photographs of him in a Yacht race, on Isle of Wight's pristine waters, taking a break and hobnobbing with other millionaires enjoying the Sun. In the meantime, BP's partners in American accused it of callousness and putting financial priorities ahead of safety concerns. We should have already known that - the dividends to us are more important than what happens to the sea and the creatures that live in it - and this story should not stir us any further.

The other developing story of the week was the Tory emergency budget, due on the 22nd June, and the build-up to that. The treasury secretary, Danny Alexander, had the honour of delivering a prelude, cutting pledges made by the Labour government, and setting the stage for deeper cuts and structural shift of priorities to delivered next week. David Cameron made the right noises, followed by his Comrade in Arms and Deputy, Nick Clegg, that the state of public finances are worse than previously thought. George Osborne topped it up on Sunday stating that Britain faces a ruin unless tough steps are taken.

The story of tough steps are interesting. In essence, this means a relative easing of the squeeze on the rich, those people who live on estates and dividends, and instead, cutting various working class benefits, limiting what the pensioners get and raising VAT, which will affect the lower income families the hardest. Instead of raising the National Insurance, which the labour government proposed and Tories vigorously opposed, they will reduce national income contributions, for the employers. All this, because the government believes that this is going to be a private sector led recovery, and suddenly Britain will become an 'opportunity society'.

So, in essence, finally Keynesian theories have been beaten back, and we have swung again back to monetarism. It is surprising how little it took for us to go back to the same theories which got us into trouble, how soon we gave up our anger of banks and gave in to them. And, indeed, I am amazed by the media indifference to the Cameron's volte face. He fought the election bandying that he is the voice of hope whereas the hapless Brown was trying to talk about perilous state of public finances, and he is turned to the usual conservative fear-mongering the moment he got the power.

Anyone with sense can see the conservative nonsense about Britain becoming Greece. Greece got into trouble because the economic fundamentals were weaker; Britain leads the world in creative industries, education, design. Besides, Greece did not have the currency flexibility that Britain has. As long as the debtors are willing to lend money to Britain and are willing to buy British assets, the British economy is not in trouble. Did we see a lack of appetite to buy houses or businesses in London from the millionaires and billionaires of the world? Do we seriously believe that investors doubt Britain's ability to pay its debts in the short run? But, all this is indeed very handy to force a political change, like the switch from pre-election hope to post-election fear mongering, and David Cameron and his pals are currently committed to give Britain over to the City kinds who believe dividends are more important than health and education of working class babies.

Finally, the English football, which came to a rather sudden stop last week after a listless display against Algeria, one of the weaker teams in this world cup. The celebrity led English football team was out of ideas and now facing a first round extinction from the world cup which the city-gamblers expected them to win. It was celebrity all over, with Princes William and Harry with their entourage in South Africa to prop up the team and even David Beckham, who is not playing, available at hand to add to the star attraction. If religion was the opium of the people in Marx's time, football it is in our's, and a World Cup debacle will be the last thing that the City will welcome.

But, if football has to survive and enchant us, it should have less to do with what the City wants and rather thrive on the Latin American football, which is enjoying a sort of resurrection. If Britain has to regain its self-respect, it will have less to do George Osborne's budget than the inventiveness of impoverished British students against whom he is waging his war. And if Britain has to survive and move into the future, it has to survive despite BP, not because of it.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Building The Cathedral in Baby Steps

I must admit that I am enjoying what I am doing now. The work isn't easy, and involves changes in my own habits and lifestyle. But I am always excited by possibilities, and there is plenty to be excited about in my scope of work that I have now. Effectively, I am trying to pursue my big dream - setting up a world college - in a series of baby steps. So, this is the 'building the cathedral' feeling, where the day's tiredness does not seem to matter because of the purposefulness of the endeavour. Suddenly, my life has taken a 360-degree turn, from being a drag to a race, and my sense of wastefulness and despair have disappeared.

On that happy note, I have started writing this blog again. In fact, the last week's silence was the tipping point, the transition from resignedness to purposefulness. Someone pointed out that the silence in my blog points to my happiness, which probably is true in context, but not necessarily the way I want this to be. This blog is my place of sharing, my irreversible bond with my friends, many unmet, and a happy moment must therefore be adequately spoken about here.

Besides, a sense of success is no less a teacher than a sense of failure. I know the bit about double loop learning, but that assumes a complete lack of humility, a disease I have attempted to avoid so far. In fact, that way, my last three years' experience has been useful. I have been deeply humbled by the failure, and today, when I do something right, I do not take this as a proof of my own unquestionable greatness, but be able to reflect on why that particular bit really worked.

In fact, I shall argue that while failure teaches a lot, and it did teach me certain key things, the teaching of success is slightly different. The learning from failure misses out on uncovering the possibilities of what could have been, focusing the minds back primarily on the past. That is useful; but no worthwhile life can be lived without a complete commitment to future. Besides, failure makes today look nasty. I noticed this poster on the entrance of British Library yesterday, something I could not have appreciated fully a few days ago - 'Today is a gift. That's why they call it - Present.'

Before this is misunderstood, I must say that I don't disown the past. Ever. In fact, I believe the past is me. Just that I believe the incontrovertible duty of the past is to create the future, and at any moment failing to do so is about being abrogating our responsibilities.

In any case, I wish to return to my daily blog writing habits now, because I think that's important. My ex employers were very uneasy about my blog writing. Though I never wrote about actual incidents at work, and only wrote about my own life, they were still uneasy. This was because they were firmly chained to the past, devoid of the gift of openness and imagination. This time, it is supposed to be easier. First, because I am working for no one but myself, helping others to do things along the way. And, besides, I am working with a set of people committed to the business of creating possibility, not just of making money.

I have suddenly loved to hate this expression of making money. If it was only on my vote, I would have chosen this to be the ugliest expression in English. Or, at least, it will be right at the top of the list competing with other absurd ones like making love. And, in my mind, being in love, which is an expression of possibility and worthiness, has as much relationship with making love, as creating wealth has with making money. More, making money is wonderfully reductionist - inconsistent with the whole idea of building a cathedral - and so much I hate this expression that I have decided not to work with anyone who is in business to 'make money'.

I am now off for some weekend work - a visit to an international students fair, which I would consider an essential part of my voyage towards a platform for international education exchange - and shall therefor stop writing. But, the silence is over now, and once I come back, I shall set out to write again.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Return of Depression Thinking

The World Cup Football could not have been timed better: We needed a diversion from continuous bad news. For every good news these days, there seems be something darker lurking around the corner. The moment economies seem to be returning to growth, inflation starts to raise its head. As we hear the US jobless rates dropped, we also know that most of these new jobs came from US Government, primarily temporary positions created for the US census work. In fact, the job data turned out to be bad news and only indicated a precipitous fall in private sector job creation.

The scare regarding European finances seem to be on hold right now. But Europeans seem to have taken the recovery for granted. While Spain was forced into a Greece-style austerity package, Hungary's government thought talking about Greece-style meltdown is a good idea and paid the price. That, however, did not stop Britain's David Cameron keep stoking up the fears of Britain defaulting at some future date, all to ramp up support for his political agenda of cuts in public spending. As long as the public takes him seriously but investors don't, this is okay: But at times like this, neither outcomes can be guaranteed. Japan's new Prime Minister, Naoto Kan, is also invoking Greece to talk to his domestic audience, possibly with more justification than David Cameron; but he too will be queasy that investors don't take him at the face value and head home.

The biggest risk, however, comes from Europe's rightward lurch. This invariably happens, because right-wingers usually play on fear and do well in uncertain times. However, there are two dangers of right-wing politics at this time. First, as demonstrated by Germany, this means assuming that one can run a country as one should run one's home, and sneering at unfortunate neighbours and trying to push them out. The German strategy put the whole Europe project at risk, created divisions which will return to the agenda again on a future date. Second, as demonstrated in Britain, a right wing government too cosy to financiers may put too much emphasis on reducing the risks [of default, by cutting spending] and think too little of the life-support requirements that the economy may need at this time [and attendant social and individual pain]. This may unsettle the middle class consensus that kept capitalism in its place, and in the absence of an alternative, may start pushing these societies towards the extreme edges.

Raghuram Rajan, rather improbably in University of Chicago now, makes the point about social consensus in his new book, Fault Lines. His thesis is that the unsustainable housing loans were allowed to spread because these were handed out as sops to poorer people as American society got more unequal, mainly to maintain this social consensus. This indeed sounds about right in Britain too, where mortgages are the principal instrument to keep people in line [how many people have told me that they can't walk out of the clutches of a terrible employer because there is a 'mortgage to pay']. This social consensus, and resulting compliance, is more important for functioning of our societies than it seems: The other side of the story will be millions of people giving up hope and stopping to work, and heading to depression clinics [one would assume that the revolutionary fervor is all but gone now]. If we look closely, most of the work that gets done, the innovations that make our lives better and the businesses that employ most of the workforce, come from these mortgage-bound, college tuition fee burdened people; we would not want them check out any time soon.

In summary, it seems that we are in fact heading for a deeper economic crisis just when we were getting ready to declare victory. There is no easy answer why we let this happen, after the shocks and warnings of the last two years. However, going by the fact that the solution so far hinged upon spending an enormous amount of money to keep the old system going, time has come to reassess whether the system itself is the problem.

Which indeed seems to be the case. The efforts to recovery looked like, to borrow a phrase from Alan Cooper's book, the inmates are running the asylum. Once the banks grounded us all, our response was to hand them over our money [and, by implication, trust] and let them run away again. We can return to that question of consensus yet again. There seemed to be a consensus among the politicians and the financiers, and the response to the crisis has been - take more money but don't change how we work. So, the whole recovery thing actually sunk us deeper in the mess, not resolving any of the issues that created the crisis in the first place.

Which is, as Mr. Rajan talks about, inequality. For the economic wheel to go around, everyone must be compensated rightly in proportion of their contribution. We have moved a bit from Marx's labour theory of value, but the question of fair and sustainable compensation remains at the core of this crisis. We have somewhat agreed that we must maintain the current system, which perverts the rules of the market by imposing the inverted terms of trade between the investors and the producers: This is the first problem we need to solve.

Indeed, it is not an easy problem to solve. The whole banking system stands on the inverted premise that I am talking about. Banks are defined as 'places which lend you money if you can prove you don't need them', which is a bit stupid and absolutely correct at the same time. This money-begets-money allow a range of speculators and middlemen affect the economic balance between the producers and the money men, thus subverting the market determined reward structure and eventually undermining the central premises of the capitalist economy itself. This is what got us into trouble in the first place. Our problems are not going to go away till we master the courage to confront this.

Joining the Middle Class

A book changed my life. This is a Bengali novel, about someone who joins revolutionary communist movement in Bengal. The book shot to fame as it won some sort of an award that year [It had a second year of fame much later, when it was made into a movie]. I was in the final year of college then. I was not communist, in the sense of card carrying, but shared the deep sense of anger and disillusionment that communists were supposed to have.

The book, which appealed to me because this was about a 'true' communist, a revolutionary one, who did not compromise with the establishment and did not become a clerk. He, instead, fought, got tortured and died or became paralysed, I don't remember which one after so many years. What I remember is that he had a rather futile end - nothing really changed - and he wasted his life, in a way.

Frankly, this was not just about the romanticism of my adolescent years. There was something more, a personal story. My uncle died young, presumably shot by the Police in his sleep, because he was a revolutionary communist. He was in the mould of a late sixties college leaver, someone who felt real anger about how the country was run and tried to do whatever little he could do.

My mother's own brother, but I haven't seen him. I was very young when he died. His photos were erased from all family albums, particularly because the police were looking for him at the time. My mother and my grandmother lived in hope that the story of his death is untrue, because his body was never found. My grandfather learnt about his death from some source, but concealed his feelings as stoically as humanly possible; rest of us had to wait for declassification of police records a couple of decades later. No one spoke about him, and questions about him were met with silence and awkwardness. In time, I learnt not to speak about him, but, almost inevitably, felt his presence [or the lack of it] all the time.

There was a big problem in my life. My father's family was very different. They were successful business people, steeped in the values of hard work and enterprise, and believed that if you try hard enough, you will make it. They also sounded right - their own lives bore testimony that their theory was right. I idolized the patriarch of the family, the eldest brother of my other grandfather. He was all about discipline, courage, honesty and hard work. I learnt that it did not matter what the world threw at you, you must do your work and you would prevail. Which, surely, had its own appeal.

This was irreconcilable. I missed my uncle. I fantasized about his coming back from the dead. I noted that my mother never believed that he was dead, and made a secret wish for his long life on every 'bhaiphota', the autumn day when every sister in Bengal bless their brothers and wish for them luck. I remember, vaguely, that moment when a photo of my uncle fell out from my mother's secret hiding place: There he was, all smiling, absurdly holding a baby, me!, is his arms. I did not even know that he ever saw me. My questions were never fully answered: no dates, no time, how old was I, where was this photo taken, and the photo was returned to its hiding place, secretly. But, in the context of all the lessons I was learning in life, his battles looked quixotic, and his absence, pointless.

Therefore, I went to college undecided, knowing that you can make it in life if you try, but in effervescent presence of my brilliant uncle who died fighting against injustice. Shot in the head and burnt secretly! Outwardly, I was a out-of-place suburban teenager with an awkward dress sense madly in love with smartest girl in the class. So, I had no option but to keep a little private revolution going, and preach my anger at social norms when we could not go beyond holding hands. Awkward and confused, I was shifting between the absence of my uncle and the presence of the girl of my desire, deeply ingrained with the belief that one can change one's own life but deeply frustrated that one has to live within prescribed boundaries.

Big tragedies happened thereafter. The girl left me, never rewarding my deep desire. My exam results were more than disappointing. My parents demoted me, mentally, one grade lower in the government service that I should aim for. Again, revolution seemed only way to go. I was angry, truly disillusioned, on the threshold of taking the plunge, mixing with the secret society kinds, arguing on the desirability of throwing out the state power through armed uprising, and reading Che Guevara.

Then, suddenly, I met this book, written by an alumni of my college, who flirted with revolution himself and finally made it in life as a writer. I encountered a familiar story of wasted lives, anger and deep passion, a will to change in the world and the powerlessness and confusion of middle class Calcutta, all tied together by a seething sexual frustration, a desire for freedom that could only be requited by consummation but was constrained by the social norms. This, suddenly, was not just a story of the writer's life, or even my uncle's life with some change of detail, but my story as well.

But this was the story of sixties told in eighties, the wastefulness of such passion in full evidence. The anger felt misplaced, the injustice self-inflicted, and the reality of freedom more distant. The central theme of the book seemed to be not the desire to change the world, but, waste, waste, waste - I kept feeling - wanting my uncle to come back, wanting to discover a doctrine that puts me at ease, with the world, with myself.

And, then, I found one. The protagonist's father advised - one should attain success in the traditional way before trying to change the world. He was nationalist, with deep respect with heroes of India's freedom movement. He cited Nehru, and others, who trod the predictable path before jumping into the struggle of Independence. By then, they were leaders, he preached; they did not have to die.

Suddenly, this reconciled all the bits - my middle class aspirations with my uncle, the romanticism of his cause with the waste of his life. I could now become a clerk, marry a girl, have family, have a house - and, then, when I am done with all this, return to revolution. A cosy doctrine at ease with whoever I was and whatever I was expected to do, and whoever I wanted to be.

Looking back, many years later, this was when I joined the Middle Class. Irreversibly, I made peace with myself, and closed my eyes. I disagreed, but postponed the expression of my disagreement. I chose to wait, and surrender. I traded the desire for freedom for sexual attainment. I converted my anger to enterprise, and my desire to change the world with the desire to change my life. This was the age before EMIs, Housing Loans, Private Jobs and Designations, Low Aeroplane fares and even Satellite Televisions; it did not feel bad to cross over the line and think the only person you could really oppress is yourself. Life has only got more tempting since then, and I have managed to forget how my uncle really looked like.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

An Idea for Civic Education

Michael Sandel talks here of how one can raise the standards of political debate, which is key to the performance and sustanance of democracies. He invokes Aristotle, talks about flutes to golf to same-sex marriages, and talks about making available such sessions online, for learners in China, India and elsewhere.


Michael Sandel teaches political philosophy at Harvard. His new book, Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?, explores some of the most hotly contested moral and political issues of our time.

As of fall 2009, some 14,000 Harvard students have taken Michael Sandel’s legendary course, "Justice." His lectures draw a thousand-plus students eager to discuss big questions of modern political life: bioethics, torture, rights versus responsibilities. Sandel's class is a primer on thinking through the hard choices we face as citizens. The course has been turned into a public TV series with companion website and, this past fall, a best-selling book: Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?

"Michael Sandel is one of the world's most interesting political philosophers," the Guardian writes. "Politicians and commentators tend to ask two questions of policy: will it make voters better off, and will it affect their liberty? Sandel rightly points out the shallowness of that debate and adds a third criterion: how will it affect the common good?"

Calling Sandel "one of the most popular teachers in the world," the London Observer explains what makes his voice distinctive: "He sets himself at odds with one of the reigning assumptions of modern public life -- that moral and religious notions are private matters that should be kept out of public political debate."

"The responsibility of political philosophy that tries to engage with practice is to be clear, or at least accessible."
Michael Sandel

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Education as a Business

Some of the things I planned earlier are coming together, and among them is the plan to set up an educational institution in India. I am learning the ropes, discovering how the cold logic of business interacts, and shapes, the starry-eyed talk of building an education institution. To be honest, I am getting a first hand feel why a for-profit business may not be best format to run an education operation.

If that flies in the face of conventional wisdom, I can do little. Over the last few years, I have noted the essential conflict between the logic of profit maximization and the longer term needs of an education operation. It is not an one-sided story: I also know of the bureaucracy and the risk-aversion that plagues the public education providers, and how that does not help the learners in a rapidly changing world. But, on the other hand, I have seen the dark sides of managing education with the objectives of return maximization, and have seen so many scandals now that I would believe that for-profit is not the be-all and end-all solution that we believe it is.

Let me talk about the good bits first. I think education as a business really makes institutions dynamic and responsive to markets. That format pushes for continuous innovation, in terms of courses, delivery technologies and in developing market relevance, so that the students get a shorter 'pay off' period for their degrees. Which is all good, if you consider education is essentially for developing skilled individuals to help fill the jobs that exist and drive the industry forward.

But, education should do more. Looking at education as merely the way to produce workers is limiting our imagination. While such a thing must happen, education should also facilitate a balanced society, with its 'useless' supply of poets, artists, photographers and novelists, and also equip everyone with more than just the employablity skills, like respect. In short, education as we know it is about facilitating human progress, not just filling the needs of the industry of the time.

One can say that the education debate is actually between these two viewpoints. But it is not an evenly balanced debate, and education for creation of possibilities is all set to lose the contest. This is because education as a provider of skilled workers have captured the public imagination, and even the governments love it. If one considers that the governments' main job is to maintain social stability, to create jobs and to allow businesses to have growing profits, which in turn ensures GDP Growth, then education as a factory for skilled workers really is the only thing that the governments should promote. This is even better, because businesses love it. It is simple to establish a pay-off equation and produce graduates. As long as the math works, there is a good business to be had.

However, this does not work. There are a number of reasons. First, this model brings the existing industrial orientation to education at the cost of new and emerging requirements. For example, psychology and behavioural economics, relatively new sciences which have gained enormous popularity in recent times in the west, are not very popular with education institutions in India: Nor they are likely to be. Indian education system has almost accepted in principle its subsidiary role to the education institutions of the West, and concentrates on producing graduates who can do programming. It does not matter what the students' personal orientation was, nor what the future job markets, 10 years down the line, may require. At this very moment, being a programmer may have the quickest pay-off in India; hence, almost all resources of education-as-business sector is geared towards that.

In fact, there is more to it than just bringing the near term orientation of business to the education provision. Giving over education to private business means the societal imbalances become deeper and more entrenched. For example, while we may acknowledge that the bankers do not deserve the multiple times the salary they earn over teachers or nurses, the education infrastructure automatically adjusts to this market reality, and creates additional incentives for banking education and disincentives for teaching - in effect, institutionalizing the imbalances.

The current formula - private business running education with bureaucratic oversight - possibly combines the worst of both worlds. It keeps the bureaucracy in its place, impeding development and dynamism usually witnessed in other, non-regulated, industries. But the format also allows education delivery to be run by private businesses, which, in my experience, then treats the business as any other fixed capacity business and operates through the principles of capacity utilization. This is a problem, because education is not like hotels. You can't really exit education, change it and its impact goes far beyond the night of stay.

I do think Private businesses can contribute a lot in education, but their strengths primarily remain in capacity planning and innovation, which is not where they are most active in. The state will have a role to play in education in foreseeable future, but I think their strengths are really in allowing the learner greater freedom in choosing and developing their skills. This is not where the state sector is involved much. Currently, it is a proximity-based model, where state sector plans and regulates and private sector delivers the services, just because the state is too far from its people and private sector is still distrusted.

However, in the coming days, this model may change. The delinking of delivery from physical capacity may push things forward, and allow private businesses to get better. At the same time, interestingly, the online delivery and socially networked world may help reduce the distance between the education policy makers and learners. Also, we may bring back the Community Organizations - this sure sounds like going back to basics - and let them play a much greater role in designing and delivering education.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

The Problem with Israel

Israel can get away with anything. They can copy other people's passports and send out death squads. They can blockade an area and starve civilians. They can bulldoze unarmed students. They can board a ship with medical aid and food supply and fire on those who had the courage to carry them. They can develop nuclear weapons on their own but have the license to bombard anyone else if there is any hint of a nuclear ambition on the other country's part.

They can get away because they are civilizations outpost in a resource-rich region. They are the stooges of old colonialism, mainly British. They are supposed to divide and terrorise the Middle East, and keep it in permanent disarray. They seem to be under permanent seize, even if they are the strongest country in the region. They regularly give the impression that they are some superior race, returned and maintained in their land by God [or by America] and they can kill, maim or rape anyone they wish.

The problem is - they can't go on for much longer.

I would think Israel is the most dangerous threat to the World Peace. I thought Pakistan was, but no. Not Afghanistan, not North Korea, not Myanmar, but Israel. This is blasphemy for the Western media, who regularly cites Israel's 'democracy' and 'free press' as maintainers of civilized behaviour. But, then, Israel does not behave - and the reason is not difficult to see.

Because, Israel's democracy is a load of rubbish. This one is an apartheid state, denying the majority of its own citizens even the basic right to live and work. They are doing exactly what Hitler did to their ancestors, and they are a great example of how oppressed, when given freedom, quickly becomes the oppressor. Their permanent seize mentality is sickening, they are under much less threat than many other countries in the world, and their cavalier approach to international law threatens to derail any attempts to maintain peace.

I say this: Tolerating South African regime in the 70s and the 80s made the West lose Africa. Tolerating Israel will do the same for Middle East. I know this is a short term game: In twenty years from now, the Middle Eastern oil will start to run out. The Western countries by then will reduce their dependence on oil and move onto alternative sources of energy. That point, they will abandon Middle East. Their interest in Iraq and Afghanistan will be over. Incidentally, their interest in Israel will also be over.

Yes, a belligerent state like Iran, with nuclear weapons, can change all that. This is why the Lords of the Universe are so upset. They need to move on, as soon as they can, to a new region. They are already interviewing new overlords, like India, as their interest shifts to the Indian Ocean. They continue to see, even after the end of Colonialism and Cold War, the world in terms of spheres of influence. The problem with that this thinking is dated: In a world where complete destruction is possible and missiles can go anywhere, such orderly geographical division does not work. Besides, the 'agency' model, conceived by British Colonialists and perfected during the Cold War time, which maintains power through positioning compliant bullies like Israel in every region and by subverting popular will inside major states like Saudi Arabia and Egypt, does not maintain itself well in the age of citizen journalism and online politics. The whole power structure was maintained by controlling the information; that seems to be less and less possible now.

I see Israel will potentially divide the cosy consensus among the G7 soon. This is because some countries will be affected more by Israeli actions than others. That Turkey has finally taken an independent stance, rather than falling to its knees in front of its Military masters, is heartening; I would think the outrage in Arab Streets will also translate in political action in Egypt and Saudi Arabia as well.

The onset of 'freedom' in Middle East can be a good thing, and it is sad that it has to arise in reaction to the ghetto democracy handed out by the West. Given that Western civilization owes a lot to the Arabs, a Conflict of Civilization there wasn't; but now that we have imagined one, we are blindly heading towards one.

Saturday, June 05, 2010

In Search of Creativity

Someone told me that my CV looks like a search, and the question I need to answer for myself is what I am searching for.

The observation stuck. I have 'stepped from plank to plank', indeed. That's my favourite poem - first picked up on an Underground, and now in a very central position of my bookshelves in Emily Dickinson's Collected Poems - which I repeat here:

I stepped from plank to plank
So slow and cautiously;
The stars above my head I felt,
About my feet the sea.

I knew not but the next
Would be my final inch,--
This gave me that precarious gait
Some call experience.

That seems like the story of my life as well. When I tell it, I talk about the 'experience'. I always look for some. I work with a charity for experience, I travelled around on business for experience, I pick up odd projects to enhance my experience, even I exiled myself to expand my experience. This is the point I stress. To all my friends, all those who know me, this seems improbable - are you not supposed to 'settle down' at this stage of life? That's why this search thing comes up.

The question is valid - you are supposed to search for 'something'. But that is quite fundamental. There is an implicit assumption that there is a final answer, one thing to search for. But that is not necessarily the way of the world. There can be other searches. One kind of search is searching for an answer, when the parameters of the question is known. The other possible kind of search is a journey, when the destination is not known, but the rewards of the process is the pleasure of the journey itself. Sometime, I feel my search is of the second kind.

But, I am still pressed for an answer. In my regular, middle class life, such vagueness is not welcome. People live by socially mandated objectives, go through 'stages' and achieve 'what they want'. Life is not to be lived for its own pleasure, unless someone wants to waste it. If you dare to argue that objectives are often misled, stages are not linear but recursive, development is not logical and incremental, but accidental and revolutionary, you are not really fitting to the mould. You are to be cast aside as an idealist, a dreamer or plain crazy. I have earned that label many times in my life; so many times that I have started thinking that it is not a bad thing.

Still, an answer is needed. However much one is distracted by the banality of existence, we owe others an answer. Something that 'makes sense', even if twisted logic is needed to fit you into one of God's accidents. I try various things at various times. When confronted, I usually say that I am not confused, I am just searching. I know more every second than the previous second, and i feel I owe nothing to my own previous self to maintain the status quo. I may not bring a revolution to the world, but I am certainly capable of bringing it in me.

People who know me tells me that I can be deeply frustrating, but I would have pre-warned them as such. It is just that I hate to fit a mould, any mould, even if one I would have ended creating for myself. I find my 'flow' in defeating the mould, in living millions of seconds of revolutionary existence - all within myself.

I must say I am sympathetic to the need of 'theory' in everyday life. If anyone thought theory is only for the academic folk, I shall point out that it is just the opposite. Ordinary men and women live by theories, of moulds, predictions, suppositions, extrapolations, of a general assumption of 'ordinariness'. The way to raise this game and maintain a sentient existence is to question the theories and play this game of defying them. My search is not really a search; it is a game of challenging theories and changing them.

I am at one such moment of 'inflection'. Such moments are when fundamental changes in what I am become visible. This comes as an aggregate of the million-moment revolutions that I effected on myself, but this is a time when it becomes a visible turn, a lurch hitherto unexpected though it was in the works for all this while. This is both an unconscious and a conscious process, both controlled and uncontrollable. This is not something engineered, nor imposed on me. It is best seen as a meeting point of my search with an opportunity window presented by the circumstances, not unlike the meeting point of the negative and positive charge on the atmosphere and sudden creation of lightning which seems to have come down directly from the sky.

For too long, I have lived a life where I gave primacy to responsibilities over creativity. Poetry attracted me; I felt a deep concern for the 'imbalances' around us. But I did not feel empowered to pursue what I liked, nor the courage to step outside the line and to speak my mind. All my life, I have been trying to appear normal, which is a direct contrast to my mental urge to break the mould. I am finally coming the moment when I know the two can not happen together. It is much better to live a reconciled life, even if chequered by failure, than an on-again off-again search for normality and success measured in terms of the number of mortgages I could take out.

To be honest, I live a life on the edge. I have always done so. I have stayed away from my home and family for a long time, and I have started feeling the pain of that distance. While I am emotionally affected, I know that this distance is irreversible and perhaps inevitable. Solitude is terrible and often a punishment; however, it is possible to reconcile with solitude and find freedom and empowerment in it. Sometimes, it sure feels desperate, and I also feel the need of someone standing by, giving a helping hand, letting me exist emotionally; but, I have possibly reached the time to reconcile with the essential loneliness of a conscious existence, and to understand that being lonely is actually the first step of being one with the world.

This is also the first step of being consciously creative. The acceptance of own person/larger world duality in its brutal nakedness is the first step of seeing stories in hitherto neglected places. The silence of one's own life suddenly opens up new conversations with, I dare say, God, or at least with his representatives in hitherto inert objects, not just the TV or this laptop. Suddenly, my car seems to have a persona, and a story to tell. So does the discarded bulb of the third wall light in the absurdly large room I stayed in my childhood. I did not hear it then; I do it now.

Being creative to me is not just seeing what's not there, but more to find things we missed so far. I see cues everywhere, as if someone has set up life as an endless treasure hunt. We keep ourselves amused with the tidbits of everyday busy-ness, but as I see now, when the noise stops, everyone goes away, the great journey must begin afresh.

Friday, June 04, 2010

Being A Londoner: Random Reflections on A Chaotic Life

I am thrilled today. I know which compartment of my train from Moorgate stop right in front of the exit of Liverpool Street station. This meant I walked a little less, but may be not - because I had to walk those extra steps anyway while getting on to the train. But, still a small victory: I have saved about 30 seconds and the hassle of walking through the gathered crowd waiting to get into the train while I get off. That was surely smart!

But, may be, it is just my lucky day. I got onto the same train I get on to every day, at 8:26 from Croydon, a busy commuter suburb on the South of london, but today, amazingly, I got a seat. This was just lucky, someone got off at a station in the middle [they never get off, at least from this particular train] and the girl standing next to the seat did not want to take the vacant seat. That was so unusual! This almost looked tailor made to make this a happy day for me. As the departing passenger packed his bags and slided past me for the station, I lingered on a few seconds, resigned to the fact that the girl is standing closer to the unexpectedly vacant seat; finally, it dawned on me that she is not interested. This amazing realization suddenly threw my usually cultivated politeness out of the window, only for a few brief seconds, as I moved in to take the seat. Then, sense returned, along with a bit of shame, what did that girl really think of me, as I settled on the seat.

But, then, I forgive myself: This allowed me a full 15 minute seating time, which I could have used productively. I tried reading Rennie and Mason's E-Learning and Social Networking Handbook, which I have been trying to get my teeth into for a week now. But today was too lovely a day not to look out of the window, and feel happy momentarily. The book was, suddenly, too heavy and too depressing. I had to duly fold it back in my bag, and soon, was left with no option but to blankly stare at my un-busy blackberry lest the middle-aged woman sitting next to the window mistake my interest in the sunny outside for an interest in her.

Okay, nothing really transpired to make me think that. But this is a man thing: men always like to think that they are being noticed noticing a girl. Otherwise, the world will be a very dull place. All this, haggling for a seat, conniving to position myself in a crowded platform right in front of opening tube doors, or scoring brownie points in getting off near the exit, will be meaningless. This has to be punctuated by noticing the outrageous outfit the girl in Moorgate always wears to office [may be that's Friday only, but I need another week to tell], or the very young looking girl in the train who stand awkwardly clutching the very fat Law textbooks in the corner, among other things. I can plainly, freely amuse myself in thinking what's going on in their heads. It is a game, silly perhaps, that I can see myself in the mirrors of their thinking, clumsy sometimes, polite some other time, a touch arrogant, a bit rude, somewhat out of place, or may be not.

What about men? What about them? They are almost always the same. Suited ones punctured by few people in stained overalls, but always looking the same, like me, to the mirrored world of the girls' perceptions. I have noticed they read more books than free papers. Yes, free papers, one of the few joys of the commute is the free papers, Metro in the morning, and Evening Standard in the evening. Besides, as I step outside the Liverpool Street station, two Bangladeshi boys greet me in Bengali and hand over the magazine of the day, either a Stylist, or a Shortlist or a Sport on Friday. If I show interest, I will also get a City AM, a free business paper meant for people who work in the city, which primarily means the banks and insurance companies in a square mile wide area towards the eastern edge of London. But, those papers seem to attract women more than men. Men are interested in reading books, somewhat. Mostly the latest best-seller, except some busy types like me who would want to sport an e-Learning handbook. Possibly, it is like what women wear; for men, they want to be known by what they read, at least in the train.

Reading is compulsory here, because you never talk to anyone. Don't even say hello, even if you are seeing the same man in the train for last one week. That will be intrusive, who knows if he wants to talk to you. Except, of course, if there is a calamity. Like a train stuck in signal; or 'Severe Delays' on a tube line. Sometimes, for a person like me who came from another country, it is difficult to know what constitutes a calamity. For example, severe delay means the trains come every ten minutes rather than the usual two. I am used to trains coming 24 hours late, and sometimes, I find it amazing that people get ruffled so easily. But, then, that's fun: you hear things. For example, I learnt that there are Hours and Minutes, and there are Northern Line minutes, because the trains were taking much longer than the declared two minutes written ion the board. Supposedly, this is quite a well understood expression among Londoners.

Calamity, indeed! People start speaking to each other when such a thing happens. It is possible to treat this as an expression of kindness, or genuine comradeship. This is about the whole anti-establishment thing which is quite truly British, a quiet disregard which one learns at moments like this. This is a possible explanation why everyone start slating whatever is seen as authority - in the tunnelled world of tube stations, it is those who run the trains and chose to label delays as severe or minor - at the slightest possible excuse. This is slightly crazy, but this is probably what keeps everyone sane.

But then, friends are different. Someone you know, at work, or at the neighbourhood, who by some chance, takes the same train as you at precisely the same time. That's a draw of luck, but it happens. Other people get jealous when you have someone to talk to, and then, you can either keep the conversation in an unknown tongue to keep everyone irritated, or in English to keep everyone amused.

I can't stop comparing the experience to what happens in Calcutta, my home town. such conversations always create a trail, everyone joining in, earnestly, passionately, as if changing the interlocutor's point of view will be the start of changing the world. It often ends with angry break-ups, in some extreme cases after fist-fights, with vows of never engaging in conversation with same set of people again. Of course, this is a daily affair.

But, being a Londoner proper means switching on and off being conversations and codes, stepping in and out of the book-walls of self-image and the thousand mirror world of other people's perception, all to survive the world of crowded platforms and scarce seats, with the steady silence and politeness which is seen as the expression of culture. And, whatever the British National Party or its ilk may think of it, it is also about participating in the life of this City of Cities, a congregated whole of many micro cities that we carry around with us, submerged in the random trivialities of a chaotic life.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

After Science

Science is the new dogma of our age. Of the industrial age.

We have done brilliantly with science. We have battled nature and pushed the boundaries forward. We have changed the possibilities of human life, and also greatly extended it. All because of science, and the hundreds of thousands of people who have engaged in research and came up with answers hitherto unknown. We owe our existence, almost every minute of our life, to various scientific discoveries that led to this point.

And, therefore, not reasonably, we believe in science.

This faith is boundless, a dogma. Our world is based on simple principles: scientific is good, everything else is bad. In this setting, we must substitute our faith with science, because faith itself is non-scientific. So, we have Scientific Management, a set of processes and methods which can clock and chain human work. And, it is not just the bankers and businessmen who caught on the fad. We have Scientific Socialism, which dates back to the days of the origins of scientific management, and indeed, the Christian Scientists. There was a time in India when Hindu revivalists tried to find a 'scientific' justification for every odd Hindu custom, including of shaving off the head and of wearing the sacred thread. I am sure they had their cousins in other religions too.

In fact, science came to replace religion. There are so many things around us that we don't know, don't understand and can not explain. Before we started winning our wars with nature, we explained and understood this in terms of religion. Religion was the knowledge system we accumulated over centuries, and we looked for answers, when baffled, in the wise words of men who asked the same questions before us.

Then came science.

The basic premise of science was questioning. Don't take any answer for granted, ask why. The passive knowledge system of religion was not enough; suddenly we had the confidence that we can, and need to, find our own answers. The process of enquiry opened up new possibilities, new ways of looking at things. Most evident of these results were in technology, suddenly we could fly and float, cover great distances, cure ailments, reach out to the Moon, solve complex problems and ask more and more sophisticated questions. We came to believe that we live in the age of science.

But, if religion fell short while we tried to apply our imagined models to the material world, the opposite, applying the principles of the material world to the space of imagination and creativity was no less disastrous. In fact, the better we got at solving the problems of the material world, worse we did to solve our cognitive ones. Nothing wrong with science, though; it is just that we turned the principles of science on its head.

When we engaged with the material world, we engaged with a sense of awe and a sense of limitation; our method was of questioning, patient questioning. Besides, material problems gave material cues - we knew what we could or could not achieve. But when we brought the methods to our cognitive world, the usual approach was - this works in nature, so this must work here. The humility of questioning was often missing, and what we got is not scientific enquiry, but scientific pretension to support what is essentially a pre-conceived idea.

I am not trying to paint all the economists, psychologists, social scientists in the same brush; nor I am questioning the intellectual integrity of the individuals in those professions. I am only of the opinion is because of the stunning success of science in solving many material problems, science has achieved a dogmatic proportion; in the name of science, anything goes.

There are a number of things that creates the 'science' myth. Not knowing is not fashionable. The reigning fashion in an incomplete discipline like, say, management, where the unknown largely surpasses the existing body of knowledge, is not to acknowledge the unknown at all, but present a single dimension or solution as the answer to everything. The same in economics: There seems to be some gospel truths which seems to cause trouble often, but never changed.

One way of looking at this is to think that we have reached the twilight of the scientific age. See this debate around recession as equivalent of the inquisition, the last desperate attempts by the medieval clergy to retain their monopolies on the business of answers. Indeed, science is not going to go away anywhere, as the religion did not; in fact, religion continued to play an ever more important role since the day. Just that, it lost its primacy, which turned out not to be a bad thing.

I am not suggesting that we are going to go back to the age of voodoo. Human societies never go back. We stand on the accumulated body of knowledge of the centuries, of all religious movements, of enlightenment and of scientific discoveries. But, at times like this, the rules, the fundamental assumptions change. From our blind faith in science, we reach a point where we need to ask fresh questions and recognize the limitations of science. Scientific age did not mean abandoning all moralities, only the questioning the fatwas and edicts handed down by religious heads; the post-scientific age does not mean abandoning the process of enquiry and reason, but only an acknowledgement of the limits of knowledge and need to persist in the process of enquiry rather than proclaiming premature victories.

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How To Live

"Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the grey twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat."

- Theodore Roosevelt

Last Words

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

- T S Eliot

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