Category Archives: Work and Life

My thoughts on corporate life, work-life balance or the lack thereof and so on.

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Death and Grief

Some recent events have prompted me to revisit this uncomfortable topic — why do we grieve when someone dies?

Most religions tell us that the departed, if they were good in life, end up in a better place. So grieving doesn’t make sense. If the departed were bad, we wouldn’t grieve any way.

Even if you are not religious, and do not believe in an eternal soul, death cannot be a bad thing for the dead, for they feel nothing, because they do not exist, which is the definition of death.

One reason for grieving may be that you will miss the departed, and that is painful. Let’s examine this possible reason with the help of a thought experiment. (Or rather, Prof Shelly Kagan in his lectures on the Philosophy of Death examined it that way.) Let’s say you have a close friend who is going on a space mission to the nearest star. He will not return in the next hundred years, and there is no chance at all that you will be able to see him again. Let’s also say that because of the nature of the mission, it will be impossible to communicate with your friend after lift off. You will sorely miss your friend. To all intents and purposes, your friend is as good as dead to you. Or is he? Let’s say thirty seconds after lift off, something goes terribly wrong and the spaceship explodes and your friend dies. To you, is it the same as the friend continuing his space mission? If your missing him was the only reason, it should be. I think it is pretty obvious that death is worse than a permanent farewell. Why? What is the extra badness that death adds to the equation?

That brings us to the next common reason for the badness of death. Your friend dying in a spaceship explosion is worse than him leaving forever because he will be missing out on all the great things he could have done if he were alive. If somebody dies at the age of 70, it is bad because he could have lived for another 20 years; he is missing out on 20 years of life. If he dies at the age of 50, it is worse because he is missing out on 40 years. Dying at the age of ten or one would be horrible because they would be missing out on their whole life. Continuing that logic, not being born at all should be really really bad. How about not even being conceived? Shouldn’t that be worse still? But we don’t feel any grief for the trillions of potential lives (from all the unfertilized eggs and lost sperms) that never got started. I think there is a logical inconsistency in this “missing-out-on-life” reason for the badness of death. It cannot be the real reason, or we would be grieving for all the potential lives that never happened.

Another possible reason is that we know that the departed may have gone through a lot of pain and fear. I thought of it and worried about it during my own personal grieving. But I have to say that there was something beyond that concern, way beyond, in my grief. Now I think I know what it is. You see, when someone (anyone) dies, a bit of you dies with him. If that person was a large part of your life (like your parent, or your spouse), it is a large bit of you that dies, for all the memories you created in him, all the projections of your soul in his consciousness, are also gone with him. The space you occupy in this universe becomes that much smaller. Your grief is not for the departed. Your grief is for yourself because what is departed really is a bit of yourself.

This is probably what Hemingway meant when he penned the title, “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” going by the epigraph of the book where he quoted John Donne:

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.

Photo by SIRHENRYB.is ****the dreamer**** cc

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Fields Medal – First Woman

Just read the news that Prof Maryam Mirzakhani won the prestigious Fields medal (the equivalent of Nobel prize in Mathematics). She is the first woman to ever win the prize. First of all, congratulations to her. Coming from an Iranian background, being a woman, I’m sure it must have been hard for her.

Women seem to have difficulties in quantitative fields — we see this everywhere. The general belief is that compared to men, women are more creative and intuitive, but less analytical. They take in the world as a whole. Theirs is a romantic understanding, concentrating on the immediate appearance and values of the objects around them. This mode of understanding is to be contrasted with the analytic, classical understanding of men, who seem to mentally divide things in smaller, manageable chunks and drill down to the underlying forms to come to grip with world around them. In giving this description, I’m trying to paraphrase what Richard Pirsig said in the opening chapters of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The analytic mode of understanding lends itself better to quantitative fields like mathematics, and hence the paucity of brilliance among female mathematicians.

Stating the reason that way doesn’t really explain anything. We have to wonder where this gender difference comes from. Again, the common wisdom is that men and women are wired differently in their brains. Women are considered more right-brained and men, more left-brained. The right hemisphere of the brain is the origin of creative and intuitive thinking while the left side is supposed to handle linear, analytical (and boring) thinking. Here is a simple quiz that can determine whether you are right or left-brained. Hope you get the “right” answer. If the quiz says you are left-brained, you are likely to be in a mathematical field, like programming, finance, accounting, physics, engineering etc. And you are likely to be a man. If you are lucky enough to be right-brained, you are likely to be successful in a creative field. Do leave a note to say how it worked out for you. (In fact, I used the very same quiz to determine whether you believe in God!)

All the statements in the quiz above are meant to be true of a left-brained person. So if you get close to 100% in your score (or as the rate, if you didn’t actually finish the quiz), you are hopelessly left-brained, and probably in a technical field. If you find yourself at the other end of the spectrum, you are creative and intuitive, but a Fields medal is probably out of the question for you.

So, this is the nature part of the nature-nurture equation of our aptitude for mathematics. Of late, I feel that nurture has a lot more do with what we end up doing. Parents exert a scarily large influence on what their kids become and do with their lives. I’m speaking from personal experience. My daughter used to be of an arty-farty kind, spending all her time sketching, photographing and painting, with a career path pretty much set as a fashion designer like her mom. After my retirement last year, I started spending a lot of time with her, and something totally weird started happening. She topped her school in physics, and started seeing art as a chore rather than leisure. Her favorite subject has now become math. I really thought she was right-brained. Did she change into a left-brain being because of me? Is my left brain so strong that it can actually polarize the brains around me? God, I hope not!

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Robin Williams

I was as shocked as everybody else when I heard the news of Robin Williams’s apparent suicide. I wanted to write something about it because I am ardent fan of his work. In fact, I’m a fan of all those talented people who can make others laugh, starting from Ted Danson of Cheers to Jon Stewart of the Daily Show, and all the f.r.i.e.n.d.s in between.

It also gets me thinking. Most of us want to be rich and famous. But money and fame don’t seem to be enough to keep anybody happy. Why is that? As usual, I have a theory about it. In fact, I have two. I will share both with you, but keep in mind that these are merely the theories of an unreal blogger, nothing more. The theories notwithstanding, right now, I just feel profoundly sad, almost as though Robin Williams was somebody I knew and cared about. It is silly, of course, but something about his age (and how uncomfortably close it is to mine), the suddenness of his death, and the fact that he made us laugh out loud, makes his parting something of a personal loss.

Why do celebrities have a hard time staying happy? We have seen a long line of celebrities with substance-abuse problems and taking their own lives in despair. The incidence of depression seems to be more prevalent among them than the rest of us. They say it is probably the pressure of being a celebrity, the unrelenting media attention, paparazzi and whatnot. But I wonder… I feel as though if the media suddenly stopped paying attention to them, the celebrities would be even more depressed. I think the depression comes from something more fundamental. Celebrities are geniuses in their own right — otherwise they wouldn’t be celebrities. Geniuses, by definition, are away from the norm, from the rest of us. Their brains are wired differently. Then it seems likely that they would be more prone to psychological extremes; after all, extremes are also defined as being away from the norm. This could be one reason why so many of them end up being depressed. It’s possible that an equal number of them are euphoric, but that doesn’t make headlines, does it? Coming to think of it, I already wrote something like this before.

The second theory is that fame and money, while giving you a lot, might rob you of something very fundamental — your animalistic instinct for a strife. Once you are well off, you don’t face the daily struggle for survival. This may sound like a great thing, and I’m pretty sure it is. But I think we all have this need to fight, and these innate hunter-gatherer instincts are written in the recesses of our genes. Once the expression of this instinct is eliminated from our lives, we do go through some amount of stress, or a feeling of being lost. Perhaps in celebrities, with all their resources, this feeling is stronger than in among the rest of us loafers. Is that what is manifesting itself as depression and substance abuse?

Photo by theglobalpanorama

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Back to Blogging

As you may have noticed, I haven’t been writing much in the last couple of months. It was because of one of my regularly scheduled writer’s blocks. When I’m blocked, I usually find other things to do, and convince myself that they are really important and urgent. One such thing this time around was a revamping of my blog backend. The original design was dated, and it really needed an upgrade. Or so I told myself and worked on it for a few weeks. If you are reading this post, you can see the fruits of my labor. And I hope you like it.

I was rather proud of my handiwork — until I showed it off to a collaborator. Or rather, a would-have-been collaborator. He was the big boss of one of those Internet startups in the advertising space, trying to reach the user base of my popular WordPress plugins. Our discussion wasn’t going well, and he wanted see my blog, all revamped and modernized. He took one look (about five seconds) and shot it down without even a second look, and told me that it was second-grade. I begged to differ, and I certainly hope you would too. You see, this guy was trying to shoot down my work to get an upper hand in the collaboration negotiations. It didn’t work, and the collaboration never really happened.

This is how the whole thing panned out. An illustrious marketing guy from the said startup contacts me one morning and tells me that I stand to make a ridiculously large amount of money by way of affiliate commissions if I promote their advertising product. I have heard such promises before, but I say to myself, sure, why not? But before doing anything, I decide to try out their product, and find that the returns from their product are, well, ridiculously small. The commission, which is a fraction of the returns, would be even smaller. So I offer them a different deal — a monthly paid banner placement model. They get all upset and try to badger me (and badmouthing my blog was part of that badgering effort), but finally come up with an offer which was about 3% of their original promise. Now, I’m not greedy, so I counter with 6%. I haven’t heard from them yet, and I don’t think I will.

If you make a living on the Internet, you have to be very careful about who you partner with. I don’t actually make a living (I’m retired), so I can afford to turn down such bogus affiliate offers and probe them with potentially smaller returns. I know that there are bloggers out there who make handsome rewards from their popular blogs and websites through such programs. But be careful — your assets may be worth quite a bit more than you think.

Photo by cambodia4kidsorg

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Three Parrots

Once upon a time in India, there were three parrots. They were for sale. A prospective buyer was interested.

“How much is that parrot?” asked he, pointing to the first one.

“3000 rupees.”

“That’s pretty steep. What’s so special about it?”

“Well, it can speak Hindi.”

The prospective buyer was impressed, but wanted a better deal. So he probed, “How much for the second one?”

“5000 rupees.”

“What? Why?”

“It speaks Hindi and English.”

Thoroughly impressed and interested by now, he tried again. “How about the third one?”

“10000 rupees,” was the reply.

“Wow! How many languages does it speak?” asked the buyer.

“None. It doesn’t say a word.”

“Well, then. It must do some wonderful tricks. What can it do?”

“Nothing. It just sits there.”

Outraged, the buyer asked, “Why are you asking for 10000 rupees for it then?”

“Well, the other two parrots call it ‘Boss’,” explained the seller.

Moral of the story: All parrots are birdbrains. Why would they be for sale otherwise?

Photo by mybulldog

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Instant Water Heater

My primary degree is in engineering of the electric/electronics variety, which is why I can fix LED lights, for instance. I suspect an engineering degree gives you more of a theoretical understanding rather than practical knowledge. I mean, I’m no electrician. At times, I take on projects where I may have been better advised to call an electrician.

Recently, our maid’s instant water heater died, and some action on my part was indicated. Though an engineer, I have been in the corporate scene long enough to know that the right response to any action item during a meeting is, “May be by next Tuesday.” So I asked the maid to use my mother-in-law’s bathroom, thinking that I could postpone this issue to one of the future Tuesdays. But the maid, probably bound by some sacred ethical covenants of her profession, refused to do that. At that point, I should have called the electrician. But I foolishly decided to take a look at the prima facie evidence. The switch looked fine, with its indicator light coming on as expected, but the water heater remained intransigent.

Knowing, theoretically, that the most likely point of failure was in the heater, I decided to focus my formidable intellect on it. It turned out that the darned thing was so neatly installed by the electrician (with insufficient theory, I bet) that it was impossible to even open it. A closer inspection revealed a tiny screw near the bottom, which looked promising. But I didn’t have a screwdriver handy right then (when I was on the ladder, I mean). Then again, what was there to see? What else could be wrong?

Once I diagnosed the problem using the sheer power of pure intellect, I used the second lesson I learned during my corporate years — transference. I called my wife and informed her that she needed to get a water heater; her commute route ran close enough to a bunch of appliance stores, and by arguments of proximity and convenience, she was much better placed to get it. Furthermore, I would do the installation myself, and that gave me the edge in the argument of division of labor as well. But my wife, much better schooled in the corporate games, promptly skipped the country thereby nullifying my proximity and convenience advantages. I should have called the electrician then, I can see clearly now in hindsight.

An engineer is nothing if not resourceful. If we can save a trip to the local mall or the appliance shop using eBay and the Internet, why wouldn’t we? I know this statement also nullifies proximity and convenience arguments, but know this — no action is always better than even convenient action, and the proximity argument still applies, as long as it can save an action item. I ordered the heater online, and they delivered it in about five minutes. These guys need to take a chill pill. Seriously.

Anyway, I ignored the box for as long as possible. Finally, I located the elusive screwdriver and dismantled the broken heater. It turned out to be remarkably easy to install the new one. The only issue was in lining up the front panel knobs with the internals of the heater. It took me a while, but I finally managed it, The installation wasn’t as sturdy as the electrician’s, but its theory was clearly superior. Then came the cutover process and user acceptance tests. The switch clicked on, with the bright red pilot light indicating that all was well with the world. The faucet opened, and water ran nicely and in copious quantities. But it ran cold.

An engineer is seldom flummoxed by a hundred dollar (plus shipping and handling) water heater. Not for long anyways. No, he focusses his sheer and pure intellect on the next possible solution, and like hot knife through butter — nay, like high-power laser though butter –it invariably takes him to the bottom of the problem at hand. Sure enough, my laser-guided problem solving methodology led me to the culprit – the switch. It was the only other moving element in the system, the only other point of failure, the villain. It got power because its light came on. It didn’t send power because the water heater didn’t work. What could be more obvious? The only question was, really, where to get the replacement switch from. Local mall or eBay? As I was formulating a general plan of action to procure the afore-mentioned switch, it occurred to me — what if this point of failure didn’t fail either? We engineers, we learn from our experience, you see. We are logical. We are trained in abstract lateral thinking. If the most likely point of failure didn’t fail, the second most likely point is even less likely to fail — ergo, the third most likely point is in fact the most likely one. Doesn’t make sense to you? Don’t feel bad; it takes years of rigorous training to follow such intricate logic. To be fair, this lateral logic came to me after I tested the switch and found it to be working fine.

Although it meant I had to take off the carefully aligned front panel of the water heater, I did some improvised continuity tests and found the power cable, the least likely point of failure, had in fact failed. Another hour of blood, sweat and tears, and the battle — nay, the great war — against the water heater was finally won. True, an electrician may have checked the incoming power before dismantling the old heater. True, there was no need to spend $100 (plus S & H) on a new heater. But the greatness of a struggle is not often counted in dollars and cents. No, its glory transcends mere profit and loss — mundane, prosaic, vulgar even, profit and loss, how dare you? It is all about the journey, not the destination. It is about living in the present, it is about experiences, life’s lessons. (If you can think of any other vaguely applicable platitudes, please leave a comment. It will really help me out.)

As all great stories, this one also has a moral. “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth,” as our fellow logician, Mr. Holmes put it. In other words, eliminate the theory and call the electrician.

Photo by VeloBusDriver

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Sad Movies

I found something weird. People seem to like sad movies — tear-jerkers. But nobody likes to be sad. I mean, you watch great tragedies with genuine sadness, and then go around saying, “What a great movie!” If whatever happened in the movie really happened to you or somebody you knew, you wouldn’t say, “Wow, great!” Why is that?

I think a good answer is that such depictions in movies let you experience the emotional intensity with no immediate physical (or even emotional) danger. If you were actually on the Titanic, you would at least have taken a cold dip even if you survived. But watching Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio battle for their lives probably lets you experience their fear and pain from the comfort of your armchair, with popcorn and soda to intensify the feeling.

I have a similar morbid fascination with natural disasters. I don’t mean to trivialize the human trauma caused by events like tsunamis and earthquakes, but I cannot help watching the movies and documentaries over and over. Volcanos are my favorite though. Visiting a live one is one of the things on my list of things to do before I die. If it is a very active volcano, I guess it will have to be the last thing on the list. I think in my case, the fascination goes beyond the safety associated with movies; I suspect I actually want to see the real thing, and don’t mind a bit of physical harm. The only downside I can see is that the real experience may not be as good as the movies. I mean, say I am in a tsunami. I say to myself, cool, I get to see a real one. But then, I may get hit by a pole or a plank or some other debris in the first five seconds and get knocked out cold. What’s the point in kicking the bucket in a natural disaster if you don’t even get to see the show?

I wonder whether this kind of fascination extends to people who like horror movies. Would they really want to be in a haunted house with Freddie Crugers and other slashers running amuck? Or see creepy girls crawling out of their television sets? Luckily, I’m not a horror movie buff, and I don’t have to find out.

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How to Act Young

Everybody wants to be young forever. Of course, nobody is going to be succeed in that quest. You will get old. The next best thing you can hope for is to look young. If you have enough money, tricks like facelifts, BOTOX, tummy tucks, hair implants etc may help. Those on a budget will have to content themselves with delaying tactics like hair dyes and gym memberships in their battle against the ravages of time. This is not too bad; I’m in this category and I think I have managed to stave off about five years.

What do you do when all your efforts fail? Well, then you have to cheat, of course. Here is how. You have to act young. The devil is in the details, you see. Well, may be you don’t see too well, which is one of the problems of old age. In order to get the aging muscles in your corneas to squeeze down on your hardening lenses, you squint, and then you hold the piece of paper you are trying to read farther and farther away. And finally, the day comes when your hand is just not long enough, and you go and get your reading glasses. Now, when you see a youngish-looking fellow holding his smart phone at arm’s length, you know that appearances can be deceptive.

Here is my advice — when that young friend of yours hands over his or her hand phone with their vacation photos, hold the phone at the normal, optimal distance of about a foot from your eyes and make appropriate noises like “Wow!” “That’s amazing!” etc. Just remember to keep your comments non-committal — “Wow!” almost always works. Of course, you won’t be able to see anything, but what are you missing, really? If you do want to see the pictures of people jumping off cliffs and stuff, ask them to email them to you. In the privacy of your home, you can don your microscopes (reading glasses, I mean to say) and take a good look.

This trick may not always work, when they show you a text message, for instance, for you to read and enjoy. (I actually wanted to write “peruse and be enthralled” for comic effect, but then I remembered that people have accused me being pretentious.) The trick in such a situation is to do a double-bluff — say something like, “Could you read it for me? These old eyes are not what they used to be.” And then give a wink or a sly smile to indicate that you are only kidding. By the way, this trick also works in a corporate setting when your job involves, well, nothing. I had a colleague at the bank. At director-level on the more lucrative side of banking, I knew that he commanded a handsome compensation package. So I asked him over lunch one day what exactly he did. He said, “Nothing, absolutely nothing!” I said, “No, seriously.” He insisted, “Seriously, nothing!” You know what? I actually believe him. But then, he was recently promoted to be the managing director of nothingness with a generous hike, I heard. Another buddy of mine, CEO of a start-up, when asked the same question about his daily activities at work, replied, “You know, sweeping, cleaning..!” I don’t know what to believe. But I do believe this — one of the most effective ways of lying is to stick to the outrageous truth with a twist.

Back to our theme, blurry vision is only one of the nasty features of us attaining wisdom. Another one is joint aches and a general lack of springiness in our movements, especially after a hard session of tennis or badminton. Well, my advice is to either learn to smile through the pain and simulate springiness. Or, exaggerate and simulate a sprain or something, which is usually a young affliction. (Broken hips and knee problems are old afflictions though.)

One thing to keep in mind, however, is that this obsession with aging and how to fight it is a sure sign of aging. So this blog post is probably not helping my quest for eternal youth. With that, I shall forever hold my peace on this subject.