Monday, June 25, 2018

Communication Lessons

What is the one question that almost all human beings seek the answer for? For most of their lives? Yeah, I know, there are those strange beings who want "Who am I?" answered or even,"Why do I exist?" or, if they are really verging on insanity, "Do I exist?" (And, no, I do not think that it is only to assure themselves of their existence that people take a selfie an hour and post it on Facebook.) That question, if you stop trying to look wise and profound and all, is "What do people think of me?" Though, yes, a lot of times you tend to put in one person's name instead of people into that question, it is still the same question.

So, yeah, I bother about that question, too, as much as anyone else and, in my youth, the answer was 'They dislike me'; 'They hate me'; 'They want to run at the sight of me' and so on. (Nothing much has changed? You think you are informing me of something I am ignorant of?) And, by now, you know of my various helpful friends, one of whom said, "The problem is with your communication. You give rise to too many misunderstandings"

Turning over a new leaf, so much so I looked positively green, I walked into college.

"Good morning", I said to Anita with an ingratiating smile.

"What do you want from me today? I am not allowing you to copy the assignment from me."

Vasu interjected, "Nah! He probably thinks that it is his saying so that makes the morning good."

Undaunted in my new green avatar, I used lesson one from my friend. Turn aside criticism with a compliment, he said, and it seemed wise to me.

"You look very attractive today."

"Really? So I was looking like a hag till yesterday?"

"Are you flirting with my girl-friend?"

Ah! Well! Things were not going too well with the compliments. Maybe, I should use lesson three: apologize, even if you are not in the wrong.

"I am sorry if..."

"Sorry for what? Calling me attractive?"

"No, maybe his Highness is sorry about speaking cordially with plebeians like us."

So, guys, here is the lesson on communication. It is impossible to avoid misunderstandings because...

People will understand only what they want to understand!

Monday, June 18, 2018

Bilbliophilic elitism

You know, the worst of claiming to be a reader is that people assume you are well-read. The problem is the books that they expect you to have read. Murakami makes me yawn, Arundhati Roy puts me to sleep and Salman Rushdie stresses me out more than my job ever did. Things have come to such a pass that, whenever a book is said to feature in the long list for the Booker prize, I rush to strike it off my TBR (the 'To Be Read' list which book lovers compile, much like the to-do lists that you make and then forget totally about.) Elitist I mostly certainly am not, duly certified by the incredulous laughter of anyone who ever heard my name and 'reading elitism' in the same sentence.

When I do read any book which has words, metaphors or writing that I cannot grasp, I do not chuck it into the garbage bin and run around telling the world that the book is trash. That sort of reverse snobbery - of expecting to be praised for NOT reading Rushdie, Roy et al and looking down on the authors for being too stupid to write what I can readily understand - seems to have skipped me as well. (Am I ashamed of not reading them? I know this is the digital generation and all that, where every issue has to be a zero or one, but is it so impossible to conceive that I can be neither proud nor ashamed? I mean, I do eat every day and I do not see it as either a matter of pride or shame, so can you kindly make the effort to think that this, too, could be one such thing?)

What beats me, though, is this idea that all books are created equal and it is only individual opinions that classify them differently. I mean, come on, does this mean that no fiction can be bad fiction and none great? That's like saying a masala dosa is a masala dosa, so why bother going to MTR for one (Just to clarify, the MTR restaurant, near Lal Bagh in Bangalore, is (was?) famed for its masala dosa.) It could well be one person's opinion that it is no better than any other, but quality in matters of taste is more about consensus. To say that you did not find any difference may be considered a legitimate opinion but, if you choose to say, "There IS no difference", then you should not be too surprised if people laugh at you, bad manners though it may be.

Food does that to me - makes me digress...and drool. To return to book-lovers, it is fine (and right) for a book-lover not to be judged for the genres he chooses to read. (Like, I'd consider it reprehensible to laugh at someone for preferring paranthas to masala dosas...Ugh! there I go again.) To judge a person based on his genre preferences could well be termed elitism (AND, no, Classics is NOT a genre. Those are books of various genres which have retained their charms well after the time they were written). But, within the genre, there are books and there are books. There are books that you want to chuck away at the first page; there are books that you plow through hoping that the author will redeem himself sooner or later; there are books that you find OK to read but will not regret losing your copy even midway through the read; there are books that you will want to read through non-stop but will not want to revisit; there are books where you come out with some of your own attitudes, morals and view of the world changed to a lesser or greater extent...

So, YES, there is such a thing as quality in the writing and it is NOT all a matter of opinion. OR popularity. Almost everyone of us reads for comfort at times, and most may well read ONLY for comfort. Books that provide you a comfort read are the ones which vibe the best with your own attitudes and morality, your own biases and prejudices, where you can switch your brain off and just coast. Since almost everyone reads for comfort at times, these are the ones that will be the most popular. When attitudes change or when people with a different cultural attitude read, these books fail to appeal, for THEN they will not suit their readers (unless they are so well written that the reader forgets the lack of topicality, in which case they are not merely pop fiction). Which is why most popular fiction has always to be new and topical. Even in such a thing as a thriller, the pop fiction reader will not vibe with a story that is set in a society without, say, smartphones. (Oh! The tragedies of the past because someone in city X could not communicate with someone in city Y except via telegrams!) THAT is why it is said that great fiction has to stand the test of time and transcend be read and relished years after the author is dead or by people with different cultural mores or both.

Opinions about how a book measures up on the yardsticks for great fiction can differ. But to junk all the yardsticks and claim that it is all a matter of opinion...

Just because all recipes say 'salt to taste' does not mean that you can dump a kilogram of salt into a kilogram of dosa batter and claim that it has been cooked well! YOU may like it but just try feeding it to others. THEN you will know that quality is not merely a matter of your opinion!

And, no, I do not think it is elitism to say so.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Quantum Facts

You know, as usual, I am behind the curve. If that is the right thing to say of my sort of person. You know, the guy who wears narrow trousers when bell-bottoms are all the rage and proudly struts around in bell-bottoms when the world is gaga over jeans. That sort of person.

So, yes, I was bemoaning the fact that I could not form opinions without knowing facts. Of course I had no idea that quantum physics had invaded the real world.

Yeah, I know, you are astounded at the thought. (Not at the thought of quantum physics invading the real world but at the thought that I even know that there is some such thing as quantum physics? You @#$%) You see, in quantum physics, unless there is an observer, a thing has not happened. So, apparently, all possible outcomes are inherent in a situation but NONE of them have become reality as long as there is no observer.

This chap called Schrodinger then went on to create an elaborate paradox around it. The so-called Schrodinger's cat.

So, if there is this cat in the locked box, which cannot be seen through, along with a radioactive atom (with a long half-life one presumes) and a Geiger counter. The Geiger counter is set up such that it will break a vial of cyanide if it gets a reading of radioactivity. AND the cat will die. Radioactive atoms may or may not decay and, so, the cat may be alive or dead. (THAT half-life thingy? It means that at the end of the half-life, the lump of radioactive material will have decayed by 50%, which means that the other 50% has still not decayed. AND over the period equivalent to the half life in the next round only 50% of what remains will decay. So, any given radioactive atom may never decay in the lifetime of even the Sun...or decay almost before you close the door on the box). When the box is opened, you will see either a live cat or a dead cat. The question is about whether the cat is alive or dead or 'neither dead nor alive' before the box is opened and the situation observed. (Coma? THAT's not an option, thank you. Schrodinger, thankfully for him, did not have to face up to helpful suggestions like this.)

See, the elaborate arrangement with atoms and Geiger counters and all? THAT's because, this thing about the Observer deciding the reality was supposed to exist only in the quantum world. Which means, in this whole set-up, it is the state of the radioactive atom - whether it has decayed or not - is indeterminate till it is observed. So, naturally, whether the cyanide vial is broken or not also becomes indeterminate, thanks to the Geiger Counter set-up, and thus the cat's life is also depends on being observed. In the macro-universe it does not work that way. Or so, Schrodinger and his fellow-physicists thought in their day. They also thought that, once it is observed, the situation resolves itself to ONE reality for ALL observers.

Now...ah, now...

Now, AFTER the box is opened...

Observer 1: "The cat is alive"
Observer 2: "The cat is obviously dead."
Observer 3: "There is a cat. But where is the box?"
Observer 4: "There is a box. Where is the cat?"
Observer 5: "THAT's a cat? You blind idiots cannot even recognize a monkey when you see one."
Observer 6: "What cat? What box? What monkey? There is nothing here."
Observer 7:.....

AND THAT is what Schrodinger escaped by dying. NOW not only does the Observer decide the fact, even in the regular world, but there are as many alternate facts as there are observers.

And I was talking of forming opinions only based on facts. Without realizing that the important question is 'Which set of facts?'

When oh when will I catch up with the curve?

Monday, June 4, 2018

Confidence Lessons-III

The times, they are a changing. And, in the process of changing, they can rob you of confidence as well. Not merely as in finding that your nephew knows more about how to deal with the world than you do because the world now prefers to be dealt with by a smartphone rather than in person. The times, they bring about a change in what is respected and what is not and...

You see, there was this time when someone was called a liberal thinker on the basis of how open he was to seeing everyone's point of view. How open he was to accepting those portions of ideologies which seem suitable and rejecting only those portions which do not. To do all that, a liberal thinker could not have an ideology of his own. (AND, yes, it is really possible to have ideas even if you do not have an ideology, strange though it may seem.)

So, there were these metaphors that applied to such a strange being - separating the wheat from the chaff and all that. This mythical being would seek to eliminate the weeds and retain the crop, instead of burning up the entire field after spotting a couple of weeds OR claiming that there were no weeds; would be able to see that millet plants are not necessarily weeds merely because you are used to rice and wheat; can see that someone could grow grass in order to feed livestock, even if grass is a weed in a paddy field.

The problem, you see, is that I was taught that this liberal thinking was the best way to be. There was this chap called Thiruvalluvar who also put his oar into it by saying 'EpporuL yaar yaar vai ketpinum apporuL meipporuL kaanbadhu arivu'. Meaning that you assess the truth of what is said without regard to who is saying it.

So, what is the net result?

Someone says something and I cannot confidently call him an idiot immediately. I sit around thinking about whether he had some modicum of truth in what he said, whether his ideas are valid in his context, whether the context itself has changed or remained the same...


Where is the confidence of seeing that, if the guy is not one of us, he HAS to be wrong? And what is this nonsense about being a liberal thinker? A liberal is one who holds views that oppose a conservative, it is that simple. All this nonsense about seeing whether he has a point...are you a bloody conservative, after all?

You see, I have not been able to move with the times. The definition of liberal thinking has changed but I have not changed in tune with the times. And my sort of liberal thinking...only losers think that way.

No-one can stop a man who knows he is in the right and keeps coming, even if his knowledge of his rightness is totally erroneous. The chap who stops to wonder whether he is indeed right, though...

I am afraid I am never going to appear confident, after all.