Monday, November 19, 2018

Numbers don't lie?

The chappie who said, "Numbers don't lie" probably meant it as a statement of fact. You know, like "The Sun rises in the East" or some such thing that people do not like to dispute. The problem is that a lot of people have taken it up as a challenge. "Aha! You think we cannot make numbers lie? Just you wait and see." was probably their reaction. And they got to work on it.

Now this is not about lying about the numbers. Like the guys who create what now has the respectable name of 'Fake News'. Always wondered if it is fake, can it be news? You know, like saying '78% of the people in Timbuktu love koalas', when you do not know if Timbuktu even exists, cannot distinguish a koala from a whale, have no clue about how to work out percentages and put it out. 78% may be a number and this is a lie but THAT is a lie about a number but not a number that has been made to lie.

There are, then, the more obvious ways of making numbers lie. They call it massaging data or some such physiotherapy term. You know, like you check out with your spouse, your sons, your poodle and say '90% of people in India prefer Dairy Milk to Toblerone' or some such thing. No wonder, the first lecture on statistics for me started with, "You have white lies; then you have lies; and then you have statistics."

But what set this off for me is the latest use of numbers, which I keep bumping into on social media. You know the thing. Some government project is proposed and promptly you get memes saying, "For this cost you could have had 8 IITs, 16 IIMs, 32 primary schools etc etc". AND, you see, generally these chaps know how to use calculators, if not computers, and so the division is not erroneous. So, then, what's the problem?

You see, I belong to the old school and I like to know whether the objectives are desirable and whether they are cost-efficient. And, for me, these things say nothing about either, they merely obfuscate the problem.

You think not? That if at the cost 8 IITs can be put up, obviously the project is not worth it? I'll explain why I am confused, maybe you can sort things out for me.

For the cost of feeding one man, you can feed 4 dogs, 8 cats, a score of mice and thousands of ants, say. Now does it make it obvious that you should starve the man and feed the ants? No? Why not?

It is difficult to take a call on the welfare of men and ants, except perhaps for PETA? Okay, here is another question - "For the cost of setting up one IIT, you can set up 20 schools, feed 500 children...", say. Now?

Okay. A third question. If there is a decision to throw a 100 crores worth of copper into the Arabian sea, do you need someone telling you how many schools you could have built with it, or how many people you could have fed? When there is NO desirable goal, there is no need to compare shit like this, you just prove that the goal is undesirable.

Of course, things are not as clear as that normally. THEN, you need to discuss the fact that the goals of the project are LESS desirable than setting up an IIT etc, BEFORE throwing numbers at me. Otherwise, how am I to know that the numbers you are throwing at me is not the same as the 'how many ants can be fed by starving a human' thing?

Is your objection to the cost? Then compare the costs and benefits and tell me that the money is better utilized elsewhere. Or, how am I to know that it is not the same as comparing how many schools can be set up for the cost of one IIT?

If you will only put up this shit, it is only a way of making numbers lie. The numbers say nothing about either the desirability of the goals or about the costs and benefits of the project. AND, by indirection, you try to make the numbers tell me that the project is undesirable. (Witness, if the project is useless, it is useless even if the money will only allow me to set up 1/4th of an IIT or 1/2 of an IIM. But the comparisons never show anything LESS than 1. It is always multiples.) It is like seeing me buy a kilo of apples and telling me I could have got 5 kilos of Onions for the price and trying to make me feel that apples are not desirable.

With me, though, all that these numbers tell me is that you know division...provided you got your sums right.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

The Art of Generalizing-III

I really expected the chap to snap at me to go boil my head when I asked him for a simpler way to start on this Art. For a moment, it did look like he wanted to rearrange my face with his fists but, thankfully, the moment passed.

"I thought I was giving you a cheat sheet and now you want a cheat sheet for the cheat sheet!? Well, the simplest way is to change your mindset. When someone finds fault, you seem to think instantly about what is wrong with your work and try to defend it. Instead, you should learn to instantly think, 'What is wrong with this guy that he is finding fault with my work?' THEN, you will find ways, ranging from that chap's own lack of ability to the various generalizing possibilities to counter him effectively."

"You mean...when I am thinking of my possibly being wrong is when I appear to be unwilling to take criticism? And when I automatically assume that the fault is in the other guy is when I seem to be taking it well? That does not seem right."

"You will never learn. Next thing you will be saying is that the chap who appears the most busy is the guy who does the most work. Just take it from me. You have to have unshakable confidence that you are right...like, you know, when someone opposes your leader, you can call him a Bhakt or Libtard or whatever and go hammer and tongs at him. THEN you have no problems in adopting the art of generalizing, do you? Whatever the specific issue, you..."

"THAT is because my leader is infallible. He can do no wrong. So..."

"Exactly! You have to assume YOU are infallible. Then, you will know what to do automatically. Though, yes, it is easier to assume that your leader can do no wrong. When it comes to you, though, your memory can inconveniently pop up instances of when you made an ass of yourself."

That last was true but this thinking of myself as always right...that I felt optimistic about managing with practice.

"Thanks, dude! I think I can manage this from now."

"What have I done?" he wailed. "You were insufferable even without this. Now..."

And THIS was the guy I thought was sympathetic!

"But...a feeling of infallibility has to be bone-deep. Otherwise, you can never manage it in the heat of the moment. So, maybe, not much damage done after all."

Ye Gods! Was I still going to be no better after all this learning?

Part I; Part II

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

The Art of Generalizing-II

This learning business has always been difficult for me. I had heaved a sigh of relief, once I got a job, at the thought that it was all behind me. Only to find that it is a pest that one can never be rid off as long as you lived.

So, now, I had to learn this generalizing art.

"So, can you teach me how to generalize?"

He looked at me dubiously.

"I can try, I suppose", he said, reluctantly. "Listen, the first thing to do is forget about what is being said and concentrate on who is saying it."

"Ad hominem", I said, proudly, that phrase floating on top of my murky memory.

"Shut up and listen. And, remember, logic is the enemy of generalizing."

I nodded humbly.

"So, the first thing to consider is 'Is this guy someone who can be portrayed as being antagonistic to me?' If he is, you need to think no further. All you have to say is 'Of course you will always find fault with whatever I say or do'. THAT's something you ought to have learned from your family interactions, actually."

I HAD been silenced by that argument at home, almost invariably but...He was continuing his discourse.

"Either the guy starts defending himself, in which case you have deflected the criticism to generalities. Or he will make a snide comment like 'That is because you are always wrong' in which case you retort with 'See, he admits that he is prejudiced against my proposals'. And the argument turns to whether he admitted it or not. It is a rare person who can still stick to the point but if you cannot recognize it in him, you have no business playing this game at all."

I nodded, doubtfully, not sure that I could recognize that paragon.

"If the other guy cannot be readily portrayed as antagonistic, you attack his function. You know that sort of thing. 'You finance guys do not know how it is in the market.' OR 'You finance guys are too conservative' OR like your marketing guy did 'You are antagonistic to marketing proposals'. That serves very nicely to deflect a specific criticism to generalities."

This I understood, having suffered from it very recently.

"Then there is this technique of trying to understand your point which very subtly shifts the argument to general lines. The other two have a bit of a problem, especially in open meetings. There is always a third guy who can put his oar in and shift the argument into specifics. OR the whole lot of them may end up getting pissed with both of you, which is no help in getting ahead in the organization. This one, though..."

"What is that?" I asked eagerly.

"Ask general questions like 'Are you against attractive promotional prices for capturing a market?'. You are a mere seeker after information, trying to understand the other guy's point of view, after all. And slowly keep shifting the argument to the general till you finally attack with the 'You finance guys are too conservative. This way we will never be able to introduce a new product.' If you keep taking the discussion away from the fact that even raw material prices are not covered, and into the general theory of market pricing, you will get your point. Did you get that?"

I did not, really, and I suppose it showed.

"Look, if someone complains about the biryani you cooked, if you shift the argument to what he thinks is a good biryani, he is bound to say things that other people may also disagree with, right? Then the whole discussion becomes about the general theory of biryani, so to speak, and not about the problems with this specific biryani. And it is the other guy who is put in the position of defending his theory. Instead, if you defend YOUR biryani, you will come across as a whiner."

I thought I got that but how exactly I would work it to specific cases that were not about biryanis I needed to figure out. But the chap was obviously running out of patience.

There must be a simple way to make a selection, to make a start on this exciting new Art. But what?

Part I; Part III

Monday, November 12, 2018

The Art of Generalizing-I

This time I headed towards the most sympathetic of my friends. It had been a horrid day at office and I was feeling too sensitive to handle what my other friends generally tend to hand out to me. I poured out my tale of woe to him.

"So, you said that the proposed pricing policy for the new product would not even cover the raw material costs. And the marketing guy accused you of being biased against the marketing function. Right?"

"Yes!"

"And, of course, you said it was no such thing, that you had supported them in a past instance. And he cited ten other times when you had opposed them and so on and so forth?"

"Yes, I told you..."

"Your marketing guy is an expert at the art of generalizing. Instead of arguing the specific point you raised, which he probably could not counter, he made it a problem of your general attitude to marketing. Now, it is YOU who were on the defensive instead of him. And, I am sure that his proposal was approved."

I was stunned. That was precisely what had happened.

"You, I am sure, in his place would have been arguing why the price had to be kept low. And keep giving more and more ammunition to more and more people to attack the proposal."

"Well...is that not what we are there for? I mean, the idea is to make the best possible decision for the company, not score brownie points..."

"Yeah! Well! Who do you think is going to get a better raise next year, you or that marketing chap?"

Shit! I really need to learn this generalizing thingy. Fast!

Part II; Part III