Wednesday, February 18, 2009

My 25 Things

I got this viral note from a friend on Facebook recently, which asks you to list 25 things about yourself - essentially factoids / trivia / minutiae, including aspirations, hobbies, habits, etc. You are then expected to post this on your Facebook page and tag 25 other friends. At first I ignored it but then one fine day I thought I'd give it a shot and see what comes out of it. So here're my 25 things - for the benefit of my non-Facebook friends.

1. My life is an open book, but that doesn’t automatically mean that I will let you read it.

2. I am still trying to understand the meaning of the complex number “i” (the square root of minus one). Frankly, I’m still trying to understand the meaning of “meaning”.

3. Five things I can’t live without – love, music, work (not to be confused with 'job' or 'career'), good food & fine wine, conversation.

4. I started blogging so that I could hone my writing skills but with every post, I become increasingly disappointed with the way it turns out. I have a long way to go, it seems, before I learn the art of crafting extraordinary poetry from ordinary words. Prose lends itself to the proclivity to be bombastic (I could have said tendency but I said proclivity – see what I mean?), and while I try to desist, I find it hard to resist.

5. I grapple with my ability to tolerate intolerance … and rarely succeed.

6. As a kid, I used to make model airplanes, ships etc. Some of my airplanes actually flew. My favourites were the gliders I made out of thermocole sheets – I enjoyed launching them from a height and watching them glide gracefully. Few things give you more joy than seeing something that you have created, actually work the way it was supposed to.

7. Some time ago I propounded my own version of the Uncertainty Principle – “It is impossible to simultaneously and precisely eat your cake and have it too, but you can come pretty darn close to doing so, if you’re lucky”.

8. I don’t drive. But strangely, I have implicit faith in the person sitting behind the wheel (though quite often, they are complete strangers), as I do in the nameless pilots who fly the aircrafts I travel in. This is perhaps the only real manifestation of faith that I have. When my son jumps down into my arms from a tree, he has the same faith in me. This is awesome!

9. I am always looking for opportunities to do absolutely nothing. This is not as easy as it sounds. Try it some time!

10. I learn a lot from everyone, especially from the ones I teach. Quite often, my most intense learning comes from trying to teach something I believe I know, to someone who doesn’t seem to understand. Some of my most momentous moments of epiphany have been in such situations.

11. One of my favourite quotes is from Tunda Kababwalla (a famous kabab chef in Lucknow). In a TV interview, he was asked why he had not started a franchise to expand his business. His reply: “Munafa utna hi ho jitna khane mein namak”. I understood that as: “Target only as much return (in business), as you would have salt in your food”. (I hope my Urdu is accurate!) To me, this was a lesson in moderation.

12. I am fascinated by the universe and everything in it. Especially women. (Kidding! Just thought I’d add that last part to make it funny in a Woody Allen-esque way)

13. Though I do not purport to be a believer, I pray often, because it teaches me humility.

14. My paradoxes don’t bother me as much as they used to: I’d rather be complete than consistent. Then again, I’m not a fan of inconsistency either.

15. Speaking of which, I’d rather be consistent and reliable than inconsistent and unpredictable. It is only those who are truly and intrinsically boring that are afraid of being predictable.

16. My paradoxes don’t bother me as much as my convictions do. But, over time, they turn into paradoxes, and then I am a bit more comfortable with them.

17. Some day I hope to be able to form a band that will play my favourite music and let me play along too!

18. Anyone with strong and deep-rooted beliefs (even if it is belief in the doctrine of faithlessness), scares me. However, I must admit that the zealously devout scare me more than staunch atheists do. It is only with the uncertain sceptics that I am comfortable, though I doubt I am one of them. (A wise wag once said – Always trust a seeker, but only till he finds the Truth.)

19. I have great respect for a few people – some for their vision, some for their character, some for their talent (as manifested in their work) and others for various combinations of these three great qualities. I am not so impressed with personality or charisma as an attribute by itself – if it comes along with vision or skill or character, then so be it, but stand-alone, it represents insignificant value to me.

20. Unlike John Stuart Mill, I’d rather be a contented pig than a dissatisfied Socrates. While Socrates is among the few people I have the greatest respect for, I’d rather not be him, if I have a choice. Ah to be a contented pig!!

21. I would love to travel the world (not on business, like I’ve been doing all these years, but as a carefree nomad). Places, people, cuisines, cultures, music, dance, art, architecture, tools, technologies, history … a vast ocean of enchantment.

22. I’ve always considered Invention to be easier than Discovery; Innovation easier than Insight; Building easier than Understanding. Which is probably why scientists are more intelligent than engineers!

23. My learning from relationships – Give more, expect less. But don’t give more than what you have and don’t expect less than what you deserve. (Works at the personal level as well as in business.) The toughest part is learning to deal with expectations – your own as well as your counterparty’s. Master that and your relationships will be successful.

24. I enjoy getting away from the hustle and bustle of the city to the open and wide country. I can actually hear the absence of the ‘white noise’ in the background of all urban spaces, and it is the most beautiful sound. It feels like a load has been lifted off of you, and you are light and alive. (To those who don’t know what I am talking about – I can only liken this to the fragrance of the first rain on dry earth, which I am sure you can relate to.) Now ... if only those places had broadband!

25. I’ve always empathized more with Hector than with Achilles, and more with Karn than with Arjun. It is easy to be brave when you have been blessed with the protection of gods, which makes you almost invincible. Be a mere mortal and fight your battles yourself! Here’s a quote on bravery from the movie “Kate and Leopold” (yup, the chick flick with Meg Ryan et al.): “The brave are simply those with the clearest vision of what is before them – glory and danger alike, and notwithstanding, go out to meet it.”

26. (Bonus) I didn’t realize I had 25 ... correction 26 ... things to say about myself till I started with this list.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Slow Down! Quick - Before It Is Too Late!

A few months ago, I was visiting a friend who lives abroad and over the weekend that we spent at his place, we got into several interesting debates about a wide range of subjects. On one such occasion (I can't recall the context or the trigger for this discussion) my friend, a man of great erudition, experience and intelligence, talked about the progress made by Man, passionately asserting that it was all good in the final analysis, and that we need more of the same, and faster. I argued that the history (as well as the current state) of the world is not something one could be proud of, since several bad things have happened too over the last several millennia. More so in the last couple of centuries. While he agreed with that my friend predicted with conviction that at some point in the near future, mature change agents -- in the form of individuals or institutions -- will initiate and lead transformation programs on a global scale that would wipe out (or at least mitigate) the bad stuff and enhance the good parts. I, on the other hand, had a different view.

First, I was clear that I would not use the word progress in a general and context-independent sense while describing Man's journey to date. I believe it would be accurate to say that we have made progress in some areas (as long as we confine ourselves to the narrow boundaries of those specific areas, in isolation, without looking at them in totality) but we have been increasingly destructive in others. In my view, the net effect of all Man has done so far is value zero. And I do not share the optimism that the force of human goodness (even if quite plainly, it may boil down to nothing but the survival instinct) would be strong enough to correct our mistakes, solve global problems and set life on the planet on a happy and positive course. I would like to think and hope that it is true, but I do not share the conviction that it will happen. Not that I am a pessimistic doomsday pundit either -- just that I choose not to speculate about how and where the world might end-up, given the way things are going and at the speed with which they are rushing there. That said, my main point of issue was not about whether good would triumph over evil. Instead, it was about whether more / faster 'progress' as currently defined and understood, was indeed a solution. My view was that explosive growth is not progress; only responsible growth could aspire to deliver progress in the true sense, and this cannot be hastened beyond a point. Responsibility towards the larger interests of Mankind requires consideration and contemplation on the part of actors before they act, and that requires time. I would advocate Responsibility over Opportunity, Assimilation over Growth, Pace over Expeditiousness, Sustainability over Efficiency, Quality over Quantity, Wisdom over Knowledge / Intelligence. However, our value systems (as evident through actions, not words) are exactly the opposite. Sadly we have created a culture that rewards "Big Hairy Audacious Growth" and worships the over-achievers who deliver it, as heroes. How many of these heroes, beating their own narrow (but seldom straight) paths to profitability, have stopped to think whether they were creating toxic assets? or toxic pollutants? Or, having thought, have they cared? The few soft voices that call for socially and environmentally responsible behaviour through regulation and moderation are drowned in the melee of quarterly results and market up-ticks.

Later, as I pondered over this particular discussion, I was increasingly convinced that the 3 biggest crises threatening the world today: (1) the global economic meltdown (2) the global environmental deterioration and (3) the world-wide breakdown in security -- have but a few common root causes, all of which have to do with what we have been taught to call progress. All 3 of them have, in some way shape or form, arisen out of an unbridled need, of some rogue individuals/ groups/ organizations/ nations, for achievement of their own self-interests and progress of their cause, which in turn is nothing but complete surrender to the gods of "More / Faster". But this is not new -- the history of human life on earth is full of stories of such behaviour on the part of a few who were either wealthy or powerful or both. What is new is the empowerment of common people, thanks to which small groups or even lone individuals, anywhere in the world (and a far more populous world, at that, compared to even a century ago) can perpetrate such actions; what is new is the scope of the impact their actions can have in terms of geography and number of people affected; what is new is the speed with which these actions can trigger chain reactions across the world. This is new because of the extreme inter-connected-ness that exists today, unprecedented in the history of human civilization. And this is because of technology - the same technology that we keep inventing and putting to much good use in other areas. Where there once was the knife (which, even then, could be used to chop vegetables or to kill people), there is now nuclear power (which could be harnessed to provide electricity or to make weapons of mass destruction). Knife to Nukes: the story of evolution of tools is also the story of evolution of weapons of destruction. So much for "More / Faster"! These mantras, chanted by almost each and every one of us, almost every day of our lives, have overheated the world's engine. The milk of human kindness has begun to turn sour. In each case, of the 3 crises, just one single idea -- the idea of moderation -- could have averted our headlong plunge into disaster. The argument that self-interest in its purest form is adequate to ensure that we will not destroy ourselves, is very weak in the face of the overwhelming evidence of greed, apathy and intolerance underlying these 3 big crises. This argument is predicated on a sense of maturity and responsibility, leading to self-regulation that should go along with self-interest, but which is conspicuously absent in the various actors that have precipitated and are continuing to exacerbate each of these 3 crises, even as you read this. 

I was reminded of this discussion with my friend and my post-discussion pondering, as I watched the news on BBC this afternoon. It featured an interesting story about a new note that was played just today, in a concert that has been playing continuously since 2001 and will continue playing non-stop till 2640. Yes, you got that right - its a 639 year long concert, composed by the late John Cage in the late 1980's. The John Cage Organ Project in Halberstadt, Germany set out, on September 5, 2001 (his birthday) to play his composition "As Slow As Possible". Apparently, when he composed it, he did not specify as to over what period of time it should be played. So the folks in Halberstadt decided to play it, on an organ that was built in the year 1361 (which happens to be 639 years before the year 2000, at the time they were planning this project), for another 639 years. I was intrigued when I learned about this and was also reminded of a related idea, called the Long Now, that I came across some time ago as I was aimlessly surfing the web. It encourages people to think in the very long term, and The Long Now Foundation has built a clock that measures time over a much larger scale than, lets say one year per year. In a sense, the Halberstadt project is an excellent example of a "Long Now" concert - playing a composition called "As Slow As Possible" on a 648 year old organ, over the next 630 years. The Foundation, in their own words, "hopes to provide counterpoint to today's faster/cheaper mind set and promote slower/better thinking". A little more research led me to the Slow Society, whose key message is - eschew speed and embrace slowness, for sustainability. And then on to In Praise of Slow by Carl Honore, who inspired Oprah Winfrey to experiment with living without e-mail for a month, according to a recent news item on CNN which also, by a strange coincidence, I came upon today! 

(In the interests of brevity, I have resisted the urge to elaborate further on the virtues of 'Slow' and 'Long Now' thinking, and would therefore encourage you to click on the links above and read a little more about the 'Slow Movement'. Yet another site worth a visit is The World Institute of Slowness and its connected site Slow Planet. You will find more links to related resources at some of these sites.)

Self-interest is good. It is also all we have by way of a valid, legitimate motive to seek a better life. But it must be tempered by self-regulation, based on responsibility (if not duty), moderation (if not restraint) and pace (if not slowness). Unregulated and immature self-interest will only lead to excesses, extremism and blind speed, which could be catastrophic not just to those who act out of it, but to the whole world. It is time we woke up to the realization that the human race is currently set-up to go nowhere, really fast. Speed kills, in more ways than one. It makes far more sense to lead a richer life at a slower pace than a dangerous one really fast! For one, it will ensure longevity for all of us, as also for our planet.