Monday, August 30, 2021

Young at Heart?

This thing about being young at heart has always surprised me. I mean, you hardly ever hear the young wanting to be 'old at heart', so why is it the old who hanker to not be what they are? I can understand, yes, to want to be 'young in body'; who really likes arthritic knees, dimming eyes, slack muscles, laboring lungs and all that? Who likes having to take tablets before meals, after meals and, sometimes, instead of meals? So, yeah, 'young in body' is to wish for but 'young at heart'? What is it, some sort of consolation prize for the body giving way?

Such is the pressure, though, from peers that I was hypnotized into thinking that it was a good thing to try and see if I was 'young at heart'. So there I went, starting off to read Young Adult fantasy in a bid to see whether my heart was not as ossified as the rest of my body.

I knew there were some things that would, now, seem weird to me. All those hearts fluttering at the sight of a slight smile from the significant other; the flush of jealousy when you find someone else seeming close to him/her/them; the depths of despair when you find coldness or anger...yup, all that did seem silly. But, then, I have replaced that silliness with the silliness of allowing my emotions to ride a roller-coaster in tandem with the movements of the stock-market, so what do I have to feel superior about?

Anyway, THAT was not what made me wonder about whether I could qualify for this 'young at heart' thingy which seems such a desirable thing to be for most people. Nope, there were too many other things to worry about.

For one, there is this peculiar behavior of the heroes when they first meet up with a being powerful enough to swat them like a mosquito. And with far more accuracy than you or I can swat a mosquito. It is, perhaps, the fact that I am old at heart that makes me feel that any half-way sensible person would adopt a diplomatic attitude till such time as it is clear that the relationship will be inimical. But, no, what appears stupid to me probably counts as heroic for the young. Our hero will start off snarking the being with snappy lines like "Is black some sort of uniform which all evil beings have to wear?" It is age that makes me feel that this guy should be sent to bed without supper, I suppose. Alas, young at heart seems a distant dream for me.

A friend suggests that, perhaps, it is not all about being young or old. That a culture whose leaders adopt the 'Look before you leap' philosophy would have young adults lauding heroes of a more sensible bent of mind. Where the leaders adopt the 'Leap first. Look after, if you at all want to' philosophy, though...Perhaps there is a modicum of truth in that. I mean, Harry Potter did not give the urge to spank him every time he opened his mouth but a lot of YA fiction from across that ocean kept my hands twitching. But, yeah, perhaps it is all wishful thinking on my part to keep myself in contention for membership in the 'young at heart' brigade.

But, no, there are too many other things. Like, when the house is on fire and someone finds a way to get the hell out and screams, "Follow me! Run", I feel that one should do it. But, no, the Young Adults of the fantasy pick that time to argue about how a person of that age/gender/race/color always assumes that he has the right to give orders. Yeah, I know that's an issue worth the debate but am not young enough to think that THAT was the right time to start debating it.

But debating is something that the Young Adult assumes is worth it at ANY time. Going by these YA fantasies, that is. I mean, there they are in the middle of a battle, surrounded by enemies and about to be slaughtered, when one of them suggests a course of action to escape. Again, being the old fogy, I assume that you either have a better alternative or you act on that suggestion because to linger on there would be certain suicide. But, no, to be young at heart means that you will start asking, "But what if this happens...or that happens..." There are times when you HAVE to leap, there are times when you can have cozy fireside chats about the pros and cons of an action and, I am afraid, that the way I tend to choose those times conclusively prove that I have no claims on being 'young at heart'.

Or, perhaps, it is just that I am not 'Young Adult at heart'. Must try my hand at reading children's fiction from now on!

Monday, August 23, 2021

The problem with mathematics

(I had sneaked in a post hosted on a friend's blog in-between. You can check it out here - The magic of retirement)

The problem with mathematics is that mathematics is all about problems. (I'm sorry, I could not resist it.) At least that is the way it seems to almost everyone through school. "Solve this problem", "Solve that problem"...all through school and you scream, "Why me? I did not create the problem so why should I be responsible for solving it? Let the chap who created the problem solve it."

Why am I singling out mathematics? Because it is the only subject where it is ALL about solving problems. At school, at least. True, other subjects like Physics also had problems...and how I hated them...but there were know...questions to be answered than problems to be solved.

The difference, you ask me? See, these problems...they had ONE right solution (Or, perhaps two or so, like Square root of four could be +2 or -2). You had to KNOW in order to solve and you KNEW when you had got it wrong. Not like those answers where you can feel that you got somewhat close to the right thing OR could claim to have done so. (Especially me. With my handwriting, the teacher could only make out one word in six or so and if that word seemed germane to the question, I got the benefit of the doubt for having answered it right.) With these problems, though...I mean, you could get asked the square root of 4 and if you answered 3, you could not claim to have been more nearly right than the chap who answered 8 and seek to be graded accordingly.

See, the point is that questions allow you leeway to claim some room for opinions about what is the right answer. Some subjects more than others, like most of the Humanities. Yes, you could not define Capitalism as the theory that lead to a welfare state but such absolutes are fewer and farther between in the Humanities. Problems, especially mathematical problems, have this pesky issue of having ONE right answer that will brook no argument.

Therein lies the problem...err...the problem with mathematics that I was intending to talk about. Nobody likes a subject matter where he can be proved conclusively wrong. I mean, come on, you CAN discuss the merits and demerits of democracy and a benevolent dictatorship through a whole evening of drunken debauchery but can you do the same about the right answer to X and Y in a pair of simultaneous equations? Some idiot will solve it in a jiffy and PROVE it is right; OR prove your own ingenious solution is wrong by plugging it in to the equations and showing that the equations do not...err...equate. HOW is mathematics going to get popular if it has to be kept away from popular conversation?

Not to mention that the bleeding thing just does not allow you to hold opinions. I mean, you can hold opinions of your choice only when the opinions can, theoretically be true. IF the falsity can be clearly established, what price opinions? What is the point in a subject matter on which you cannot hold any opinions? Holding opinions, without the need to either ascertain or analyze facts, is the lifeblood of civilization. A subject where your freedom of expression is ruthlessly curtailed by someone pushing uncomfortable and incontrovertible facts in your is a wonder that we have not banished it yet. Perhaps, just as governments face a problem in repealing the law of gravitation, mathematics has become a necessary evil.

Is it a wonder then that mathematics is the least popular of all subjects? You cannot readily speak of anything related to it without the fear of being proven wrong, unlike, say, economic systems or social ideas where you can readily discuss even based on pristine ignorance. You cannot hold and discuss various opinions, form cliques based on those who share your opinion vs others, troll those who oppose your ideas...I mean, it is just no FUN!

Though there is light at the end of the tunnel; a hope that mathematics, too, can aspire to become popular. As I recently discovered on a Facebook thread where this problem was posed for people to solve : 5+10x20. You had those who said it was 205, based on BODMAS - first multiplication and then addition. And you had those who said it was 300, because ORDER was everything and so you were supposed to keep solving it from left to right. So, for the first lot 5+10x20 = 10x20+5 = 205; for the second lot 10x20+5 would be 205 but 5+10x20 would be 300.

Aha! At last! Difference of opinion in Mathematics and THAT thread had hundreds of comments passionately arguing both sides with each side trolling the other!

I look forward to the day when, like Creationism vs Darwinism, we will have two or more versions of mathematics and this much neglected subject takes center stage on social media!

Monday, August 16, 2021

Cry Wolf

I am sure everyone is familiar with the fact that to 'cry wolf' means that one is raising a false alarm; and that the phrase originates from one of Aesop's fables about the boy who cried wolf. In these times, one is so unsure about exactly how many widely variant versions of any given story - even fables - are floating around. So, before starting on my usual learned dissertation, I will first give the version that I shall base it upon.

A Shepherd boy, who was bored of monotonously watching over a flock of sheep near a village, brought out the villagers three or four times by crying out, "Wolf! Wolf!" When his neighbors came rushing to help him, he laughed at them for their pains. Then, a wolf really came. Alarmed and terrified, the boy, shouted, "Help! The wolf is really here, killing the sheep" but no one paid any heed to his screams for help. The wolf leisurely destroyed the flock of sheep.

The moral of the story was that a liar would not be believed even when he spoke the truth. Those were days when things all seemed black and white, apparently, so it suited the people of that day to leave it at that.

The problem, these days, is that what is truth is, itself, a subject of debate. I mean, like if that boy screamed, 'Wolf!', you rushed out to help him and found a puppy mewling in front of the flock, how do you react the next time he screams? HE may be sure that it IS a wolf, YOU are just as sure that it is a puppy, so do you truly think that the next time he screams, you will be sure that it is a wolf this time? The third time? The fourth time?

You see, these are the days of 'my truth' and 'your truth' and we do not restrict that application ONLY to the interpretation of the facts (which is what I thought it was supposed to mean) but to the facts themselves. Einstein himself would be surprised by how much we have taken his relativity to heart, seeing how we seem to consider all facts as relative.

As for interpretations...well, in the days I used to work (AND I DID, you miserable heckler) there was this time when the interest rates on bonds shot up to 16-18% (Cross my heart! I am NOT fantasizing) and I applied a lower interest rate for my projections for a 15 year project. The flak I ran into was unbelievable with the conclusive argument from the other side being 'When have the interest rates ever gone down?'. People use the past as a guideline for the future in their own way and THAT becomes their truth. (You think I can tell those chaps 'I told you so', now? Well, IF they are relatively fair, all they would say is 'I didn't tell you they would not fall, then'. If they are not inclined to any fairness, I'd find that it was I, after all, who was obdurately arguing that the interest rates would not fall while they were desperately trying to convince me that they would.)

Or take the time when I went to a senior IAS officer trying to convince him about our point of view with regard to an Industry policy. The man says, 'You guys are sharp and, whatever you propose, has some hidden benefit to you to the detriment of the government. So...' There! Argue against that if you will. The lesser he finds in the proposal which unfairly favors the Industry, the more he is convinced that there is some deep skulduggery going on. Truth, then, can move diametrically opposite to the facts when processed by humans! (The interesting sidelight on human nature is that they can be absolutely convinced about their negative judgment of your character, while they are never sure about their own analysis of your proposals. Gut feeling trumps brains, almost always, even if it is only indigestion that gives you that pain in the gut.)

Where was I? Ah! Between facts and interpretation of the facts, what is 'truth' differs from person to person. So, when you repeatedly cry 'wolf', and the rest of the crowd sees either nothing or a puppy or whatever, it does you no good to hug to yourself the conviction that they are all fools and there is a wolf there really. Not if you want them to help you drive away the wolf when it attacks the flock. Of course, if all you want is to be convinced of your own superiority...Do not, then, be surprised to be clubbed together with conspiracy theorists for they, too, are convinced that they know truths to which the rest of the populace are blind.

And it does not help if you cry wolf even when you yourself see only a puppy. Exaggerate the danger a few times and it works just the same as crying wolf when no wolf is there.

And I have not even started on whether everyone sees 'danger' the same way. (Don't worry, I do not intend to

Crying Wolf is something that needs more careful handling, especially when you are dealing with metaphorical wolves. If, indeed, you truly wish to safeguard the flock from the wolf.

Else, of course, you can surround yourself with people who see a wolf where you do and cry in chorus with you!

Tuesday, August 10, 2021

Olympian discussions

"Our hockey team has done us proud. Bronze medal at last. Hopefully we will get to win the gold soon. Even the women's hockey team missed the bronze only by a whisker," I said, flush with pride.

"Ah! So you have heard of this game called hockey now? What do you know of it?"

Huh! Why is it that I cannot even talk the topic of the day, in exactly the same manner as millions across the country do, without someone getting on my case?

"Umm...I think...yes, like cricket, it is played with bats and ball, but the score is in goals, like football."

"With this much interest in the sport, you have a right to be proud of the Indian team's performance."

You know, somehow it did not sound like he was being complimentary to me. Sort of like he was sneering at me for rushing in to shine with reflected glory when I had not ever bothered to support them otherwise but...anyway, if it is not an open insult it is not an insult in my dictionary. Otherwise, the color of my face will be perpetually red.

But best to get off the subject of hockey.

"Sindhu has won another medal. Only a bronze, though. Last time it was a silver."

"Yeah! By the way, how did she do in other tournaments between the last Olympics and now?"

Huh! There ARE other tournaments for badminton? Oh, well...

The chap was a face reader if not a mind-reader.

"What? Did you think that they kept her on a shelf after the last Olympics, dusted her off and sent her to participate this time?"

"No...but..." I said as I desperately sought to change the subject. "Hey, we won a gold this time. This Neeraj Chopra in Javelin...he showed up that German who claimed he would win comfortably."

"Ah! Yes! By the way, why did the German say that? I mean, what did Neeraj do before, that the German would specifically say that about him?"

Huh? And I thought I was done with all these general knowledge questions ever since I finished with the last of my job interviews. And, these days, I cannot make the simplest of remarks without one friend or the other making snide remarks about me.

They say offense is the best form of defense. Not that it has worked well for me in the past but what did I have to lose? The chap was walloping me anyway.

"What do you mean by all these comments? That I only pay attention to these guys when they win and ignore them otherwise?"

"Don't you? Tell me, what is the name of that gymnast you were going gaga about in the last Olympics?"

Gymnast...last Olympics? A vague memory stirred somewhere in the recesses of my mind. She did something...Russian-sounding...missed the bronze or some such...

I said as much.

"You are trying to recollect the Produnova vault. And the gymnast is Dipa Karmakar."

"Yes, Yes! So?"

"So, nothing. Just stop talking Olympics to me."

Now, I cannot even feel proud of my countrymen's Olympic achievements without following their sports with interest? What next, if someone wins a Nobel for Chemistry, I should do a PhD in Chemistry before touting how he was born in my state?

These friends I tell you...

Monday, August 2, 2021


Relationships! Hmmm! Come to think of it, that word takes in a lot of territory. Including trolling, hating etc. What's that catch-phrase? Ah, yes, Toxic Relationships. Those are not the sort of things that I wish to dignify with the word 'relationship', so I shall only speak of those inter-personal interactions which have a modicum of positivism associated with them.

You know, when things are going well with people, when it is all fun and games, everyone seems to be a great friend or well-wisher. Your birthday pops up, bang come the good wishes; you put up a 'Hey! I got my idli perfect today' and people chime in with congratulatory messages worthy of your winning a gold medal in the Olympics; and so on. It's tough to differentiate between relationships when things go well.

But, comes the time when, say, you have been busy or stressed and unable to respond to their posts...THEN you will find a lot of them have suddenly found the need to cull their friends list on Social media and you are among the culled...unfriended, is the appropriate term, I believe.  A lot of the people you know are the 'What have you done for me lately' type of friends for whom memory of past deeds last only as long as it takes for their twitter feed to refresh.

Such relationships happen in real life as well. At any point in time, you have a group of people around you in the circumstances that you are in. At school, college, in your current job location, whatever. Most of those remain friends only as long as you are there. Once you split, the relationship totally dies with the extent that they will fail to acknowledge you if you bump noses with them later in life. Except, of course, if you have become the next Zuckerberg or Prime Minister of India or whatever, in which case 'What have you done for me lately' gets substituted by 'What can he do for me now'; and their memory makes a miraculous recovery.

With some others, you can meet up again with goodwill and a 'Hail fellow, well met' sort of relationship, where you enjoy spending a few moments, down a couple of drinks, and part happily. What we guys used to call 'Time Pass' friendship. Good for a few laughs but a relationship that is strictly to be undemanding. If, perchance, you are sick in their city, say, and need them to care for you...Ahem!!!

Then there are the others who you can meet after ages and get along like a house on fire as though the intervening years never happened. These are the people with whom you have a bond that transcends having common interests (like trashing the same boss, say) and frequency of interactions. If you are lucky, you may have a handful of such people in your life (never mind the thousands of Facebook followers who Like your every pic).

Be it family, or be it friends, there are those relationships which are almost self-effacing, but are worked into the very essence of your being. Like the tanpura or harmonium in a classical concert, they are the very back-bone of the music of your life but, like the backbone, they are generally invisible. And, yet, without them, you would not be you. If one were to ask people if they had someone who was like that to them, the most common answer is likely to be parents and, perhaps, siblings. You take them almost for granted but whenever you do spare a thought for them, it is with gratitude that they are there in your life. (Yes, there are a few who may be unfortunate enough to have bad parents. AND a lot more who realize what their parents meant to them only when they are no longer around.)

I have been lucky that, in addition to parents, there have been others who have woven themselves into the warp and weft of my being. People who I, almost unconsciously, always assumed would be there for me through all the travails of life and regardless of my own position and achievements or lack thereof. (Yeah, yeah, lack thereof IS the thing. Who realizes the selflessness of someone's affection when he is hugely successful? It IS failure that brings you face to face with true affection or...err...lack thereof!)

This year, though, has been depriving me of some of those who have been the mainstay of my being. First a cousin. The man who, when I told him that I had been a sick for a couple of days, was enraged that I did not call on him for help; who had hosted my family for months on end when my mother was being treated at Adyar Cancer Institute and I was working in Delhi; who practically commanded me to come over and stay with him when I fractured my hand. He went to sleep one night and did not wake up.

Now my aunt. She had always been a mother figure, most especially since my own mother passed away. The sort of person who, while recovering from surgery, can worry about my straining myself in coming to the hospital because I had twisted my ankle a couple of weeks back; who would, regardless of the pain of arthritic knees, would insist on cooking my favorite dishes turning a deaf ear to my pleas to not stress herself; remember my birthday, my star birthday and be the first in the morning to call me to wish me (Large families and she would call up everyone, so we are really talking about a mind-boggling database of information); small and big things which demonstrated how much she cared. It probably was a totally different model of human, those days, those few who had such large hearts that they could care for so many people with such selflessness that they took little heed of their own needs. Gone, now.

And, yet, I cannot bring myself to grieve. For, to grieve would be to admit that they are no more there for me. And I...I would prefer to hug to my heart, like the warmth of a hearth, the thought that they are still there for me...somewhere!