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Am I Pretentious?

I was chatting with an old friend of mine, and he told me that he never felt inclined to read anything I wrote. Naturally, I was a little miffed. I mean, I pour my heart and soul into my books, columns and these posts here, and people don’t even feel inclined to read it? Why would that be? My friend, helpful as always, explained that it was because I sounded pretentious. My first reaction, of course, was to get offended and say all kinds of nasty things about him. But one has to learn to make use of criticism. After all, if I sound pretentious to somebody, there is no use pointing out that I am not really pretentious because what I sound like and look like and feel like is really what I am to that somebody. That is one of the underlying themes of my first book. Well, not quite, but close enough.

Why do I sound pretentious? And what does that even mean? Those are the questions that I shall analyze today. You see, I take these things very seriously.

A few years ago, during my research years here in Singapore, I met this professor from the US. He was originally from China and had gone to the states as a graduate student. Typically, such first generation Chinese emigrants don’t speak very good English. But this guy spoke extremely well. To my untrained ears, he sounded pretty much identical to an American and I was impressed. Later on, I was sharing my admiration with a Chinese colleague of mine. He wasn’t impressed at all, and said, “This guy is a phoney, he shouldn’t try to sound like an American, he should be speaking like a Chinese who learned English.” I was baffled and asked him, “If I learn Chinese, should I try to sound like you, or try to hang on to my natural accent?” He said that was totally different — one is about being pretentious, the other is about being a good student of a foreign tongue.

When you call someone pretentious, what you are saying is this, “I know what you are. Based on my knowledge, you should be saying and doing certain things, in a certain way. But you are saying or doing something else to impress me or others, pretending to be somebody better or more sophisticated than you really are.”

The implicit assumption behind this accusation is that you know the person. But it is very difficult to know people. Even those who are very close to you. Even yourself. There is only so far you can see within yourself that your knowledge even of yourself is always going to be incomplete. When it comes to casual friends, the chasm between what you think you know and what is really the case could be staggering.

In my case, I think my friend found my writing style a bit pompous perhaps. For example, I usually write “perhaps” instead of “may be.” When I speak, I say “may be” like everybody else. Besides, when it comes to speaking, I’m a stuttering, stammering mess with no voice projection or modulation to save my life. But my writing skills are good enough to land me book commissions and column requests. So, was my friend assuming that I shouldn’t be writing well, based on what he knew about how I spoke? Perhaps. I mean, may be.

However, (I really should start saying “but” instead of “however”) there are a couple of things wrong with that assumption. Everyone of us is a complex collage of multiple personas happily cohabiting in one human body. Kindness and cruelty, nobility and pettiness, humility and pompousness, generous actions and base desires can all co-exist in one person and shine through under the right circumstances. So can my weak articulation and impressive (albeit slightly pretentious) prose.

More importantly, people change over time. About fifteen years ago, I spoke fluent French. So if I preferred conversing with a French friend in his tongue, was I being pretentious given that I couldn’t do it five years before that time? Ok, in that case I really was, but a few years before that, I didn’t speak English either. People change. Their skills change. Their abilities change. Their affinities and interests change. You cannot size up a person at any one point in time and assume that any deviation from your measure is a sign of pretentiousness.

In short, my friend was an ass to have called me pretentious. There, I said it. I have to admit — it felt good.

Luddite Thoughts

For all its pretentiousness, French cuisine is pretty amazing. Sure, I’m no degustation connoisseur, but the French really know how to eat well. It is little wonder that the finest restaurants in the world are mostly French. The most pivotal aspect of a French dish usually is its delicate sauce, along with choice cuts, and, of course, inspired presentation (AKA huge plates and minuscule servings). The chefs, those artists in their tall white hats, show off their talent primarily in the subtleties of the sauce, for which knowledgeable patrons happily hand over large sums of money in those establishments, half of which are called “Cafe de Paris” or have the word “petit” in their names.

Seriously, sauce is king (to use Bollywood lingo) in French cuisine, so I found it shocking when I saw this on BBC that more and more French chefs were resorting to factory-manufactured sauces. Even the slices of boiled eggs garnishing their overpriced salads come in a cylindrical form wrapped in plastic. How could this be? How could they use mass-produced garbage and pretend to be serving up the finest gastronomical experiences?

Sure, we can see corporate and personal greed driving the policies to cut corners and use the cheapest of ingredients. But there is a small technology success story here. A few years ago, I read in the newspaper that they found fake chicken eggs in some Chinese supermarkets. They were “fresh” eggs, with shells, yolks, whites and everything. You could even make omelets with them. Imagine that — a real chicken egg probably costs only a few cents to produce. But someone could set up a manufacturing process that could churn out fake eggs cheaper than that. You have to admire the ingenuity involved — unless, of course, you have to eat those eggs.

The trouble with our times is that this unpalatable ingenuity is all pervasive. It is the norm, not the exception. We see it in tainted paints on toys, harmful garbage processed into fast food (or even fine-dining, apparently), poison in baby food, imaginative fine-print on financial papers and “EULAs”, substandard components and shoddy workmanship in critical machinery — on every facet of our modern life. Given such a backdrop, how do we know that the “organic” produce, though we pay four times as much for it, is any different from the normal produce? To put it all down to the faceless corporate greed, as most of us tend to do, is a bit simplistic. Going one step further to see our own collective greed in the corporate behavior (as I proudly did a couple of times) is also perhaps trivial. What are corporates these days, if not collections of people like you and me?

There is something deeper and more troubling in all this. I have some disjointed thoughts, and will try to write it up in an ongoing series. I suspect these thoughts of mine are going to sound similar to the luddite ones un-popularized by the infamous Unabomber. His idea was that our normal animalistic instincts of the hunter-gatherer kind are being stifled by the modern societies we have developed into. And, in his view, this unwelcome transformation and the consequent tension and stress can be countered only by an anarchical destruction of the propagators of our so-called development — namely, universities and other technology generators. Hence the bombing of innocent professors and such.

Clearly, I don’t agree with this luddite ideology, for if I did, I would have to first bomb myself! I’m nursing a far less destructive line of thought. Our technological advances and their unintended backlashes, with ever-increasing frequency and amplitude, remind me of something that fascinated my geeky mind — the phase transition between structured (laminar) and chaotic (turbulent) states in physical systems (when flow rates cross a certain threshold, for instance). Are we approaching such a threshold of phase transition in our social systems and societal structures? In my moody luddite moments, I feel certain that we are.

Physics vs. Finance

Despite the richness that mathematics imparts to life, it remains a hated and difficult subject to many. I feel that the difficulty stems from the early and often permanent disconnect between math and reality. It is hard to memorize that the reciprocals of bigger numbers are smaller, while it is fun to figure out that if you had more people sharing a pizza, you get a smaller slice. Figuring out is fun, memorizing — not so much. Mathematics, being a formal representation of the patterns in reality, doesn’t put too much emphasis on the figuring out part, and it is plain lost on many. To repeat that statement with mathematical precision — math is syntactically rich and rigorous, but semantically weak. Syntax can build on itself, and often shake off its semantic riders like an unruly horse. Worse, it can metamorphose into different semantic forms that look vastly different from one another. It takes a student a few years to notice that complex numbers, vector algebra, coordinate geometry, linear algebra and trigonometry are all essentially different syntactical descriptions of Euclidean geometry. Those who excel in mathematics are, I presume, the ones who have developed their own semantic perspectives to rein in the seemingly wild syntactical beast.

Physics also can provide beautiful semantic contexts to the empty formalisms of advanced mathematics. Look at Minkowski space and Riemannian geometry, for instance, and how Einstein turned them into descriptions of our perceived reality. In addition to providing semantics to mathematical formalism, science also promotes a worldview based on critical thinking and a ferociously scrupulous scientific integrity. It is an attitude of examining one’s conclusions, assumptions and hypotheses mercilessly to convince oneself that nothing has been overlooked. Nowhere is this nitpicking obsession more evident than in experimental physics. Physicists report their measurements with two sets of errors — a statistical error representing the fact that they have made only a finite number of observations, and a systematic error that is supposed to account for the inaccuracies in methodology, assumptions etc.

We may find it interesting to look at the counterpart of this scientific integrity in our neck of the woods — quantitative finance, which decorates the syntactical edifice of stochastic calculus with dollar-and-cents semantics, of a kind that ends up in annual reports and generates performance bonuses. One might even say that it has a profound impact on the global economy as a whole. Given this impact, how do we assign errors and confidence levels to our results? To illustrate it with an example, when a trading system reports the P/L of a trade as, say, seven million, is it $7,000,000 +/- $5,000,000 or is it $7,000, 000 +/- $5000? The latter, clearly, holds more value for the financial institution and should be rewarded more than the former. We are aware of it. We estimate the errors in terms of the volatility and sensitivities of the returns and apply P/L reserves. But how do we handle other systematic errors? How do we measure the impact of our assumptions on market liquidity, information symmetry etc., and assign dollar values to the resulting errors? If we had been scrupulous about error propagations of this, perhaps the financial crisis of 2008 would not have come about.

Although mathematicians are, in general, free of such critical self-doubts as physicists — precisely because of a total disconnect between their syntactical wizardry and its semantic contexts, in my opinion — there are some who take the validity of their assumptions almost too seriously. I remember this professor of mine who taught us mathematical induction. After proving some minor theorem using it on the blackboard (yes it was before the era of whiteboards), he asked us whether he had proved it. We said, sure, he had done it right front of us. He then said, “Ah, but you should ask yourselves if mathematical induction is right.” If I think of him as a great mathematician, it is perhaps only because of the common romantic fancy of ours that glorifies our past teachers. But I am fairly certain that the recognition of the possible fallacy in my glorification is a direct result of the seeds he planted with his statement.

My professor may have taken this self-doubt business too far; it is perhaps not healthy or practical to question the very backdrop of our rationality and logic. What is more important is to ensure the sanity of the results we arrive at, employing the formidable syntactical machinery at our disposal. The only way to maintain an attitude of healthy self-doubt and the consequent sanity checks is to jealously guard the connection between the patterns of reality and the formalisms in mathematics. And that, in my opinion, would be the right way to develop a love for math as well.

Math and Patterns

Most kids love patterns. Math is just patterns. So is life. Math, therefore, is merely a formal way of describing life, or at least the patterns we encounter in life. If the connection between life, patterns and math can be maintained, it follows that kids should love math. And love of math should generate an analytic ability (or what I would call a mathematical ability) to understand and do most things well. For instance, I wrote of a connection “between” three things a couple of sentences ago. I know that it has to be bad English because I see three vertices of a triangle and then one connection doesn’t make sense. A good writer would probably put it better instinctively. A mathematical writer like me would realize that the word “between” is good enough in this context — the subliminal jar on your sense of grammar that it creates can be compensated for or ignored in casual writing. I wouldn’t leave it standing in a book or a published column (except this one because I want to highlight it.)

My point is that it is my love for math that lets me do a large number of things fairly well. As a writer, for instance, I have done rather well. But I attribute my success to a certain mathematical ability rather than literary talent.  I would never start a book with something like, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” As an opening sentence, by all the mathematical rules of writing I have formulated for myself, this one just doesn’t measure up. Yet we all know that Dickens’s opening, following no rules of mine, is perhaps the best in English literature. I will probably cook up something similar someday because I see how it summarizes the book, and highlights the disparity between the haves and the have-nots mirrored in the contrasting lead characters and so on. In other words, I see how it works and may assimilate it into my cookbook of rules (if I can ever figure out how), and the process of assimilation is mathematical in nature, especially when it is a conscious effort. Similar fuzzy rule-based approaches can help you be a reasonably clever artist, employee, manager or anything that you set your sights on, which is why I once bragged to my wife that I could learn Indian classical music despite the fact that I am practically tone-deaf.

So loving math is a probably a good thing, in spite of its apparent disadvantage vis-a-vis cheerleaders. But I am yet to address my central theme — how do we actively encourage and develop a love for math among the next generation? I am not talking about making people good at math; I’m not concerned with teaching techniques per se. I think Singapore already does a good job with that. But to get people to like math the same way they like, say, their music or cars or cigarettes or football takes a bit more imagination. I think we can accomplish it by keeping the underlying patterns on the foreground. So instead of telling my children that 1/4 is bigger than 1/6 because 4 is smaller than 6, I say to them, “You order one pizza for some kids. Do you think each will get more if we had four kids or six kids sharing it?”

From my earlier example on geographic distances and degrees, I fancy my daughter will one day figure out that each degree (or about 100km — corrected by 5% and 6%) means four minutes of jet lag. She might even wonder why 60 appears in degrees and minutes and seconds, and learn something about number system basis and so on. Mathematics really does lead to a richer perspective on life. All it takes on our part is perhaps only to share the pleasure of enjoying this richness. At least, that’s my hope.

Love of Math

If you love math, you are a geek — with stock options in your future, but no cheerleaders. So getting a child to love mathematics is a questionable gift — are we really doing them a favor? Recently, a highly placed friend of mine asked me to look into it — not merely as getting a couple of kids interested in math, but as a general educational effort in the country. Once it becomes a general phenomenon, math whizkids might enjoy the same level of social acceptance and popularity as, say, athletes and rock stars. Wishful thinking? May be…

I was always among people who liked math. I remember my high school days where one of my friends would do the long multiplication and division during physics experiments, while I would team up with another friend to look up logarithms and try to beat the first dude, who almost always won. It didn’t really matter who won; the mere fact that we would device games like that as teenagers perhaps portended a cheerleader-less future. As it turned out, the long-multiplication guy grew up to be a highly placed banker in the Middle East, no doubt thanks to his talents not of the cheerleader-phobic, math-phelic kind.

When I moved to IIT, this mathematical geekiness reached a whole new level. Even among the general geekiness that permeated the IIT air, I remember a couple of guys who stood out. There was “Devious” who also had the dubious honor of introducing me to my virgin Kingfisher, and “Pain” would drawl a very pained “Obviously Yaar!” when we, the lesser geeks, failed to readily follow a his particular line of mathematical acrobatics.

All of us had a love for math. But, where did it come from? And how in the world would I make it a general educational tool? Imparting the love math to one kid is not too difficult; you just make it fun. The other day when I was driving around with my daughter, she described some shape (actually the bump on her grandmother’s forehead) as half-a-ball. I told her that it was actually a hemisphere. Then I highlighted to her that we were going to the southern hemisphere (New Zealand) for our vacation the next day, on the other side of the globe compared to Europe, which was why it was summer there. And finally, I told her Singapore was on the equator. My daughter likes to correct people, so she said, no, it wasn’t. I told her that we were about 0.8 degrees to the north of the equator (I hope I was right), and saw my opening. I asked her what the circumference of a circle was, and told her that the radius of the earth was about 6000km, and worked out that we were about 80km to the north of the equator, which was nothing compared to 36,000km great circle around the earth. Then we worked out that we made a 5% approximation on the value of pi, so the correct number was about 84km. I could have told her we made another 6% approximation on the radius, the number would be more like 90km. It was fun for her to work out these things. I fancy her love for math has been augmented a bit.

Photo by Dylan231

In Our Defense

The financial crisis was a veritable gold mine for columnists like me. I, for one, published at least five articles on the subject, including its causes, the lessons learned, and, most self-deprecating of all, our excesses that contributed to it.

Looking back at these writings of mine, I feel as though I may have been a bit unfair on us. I did try to blunt my accusations of avarice (and perhaps decadence) by pointing out that it was the general air of insatiable greed of the era that we live in that spawned the obscenities and the likes of Madoff. But I did concede the existence of a higher level of greed (or, more to the point, a more sated kind of greed) among us bankers and quantitative professionals. I am not recanting my words in this piece now, but I want to point out another aspect, a justification if not an absolution.

Why would I want to defend bonuses and other excesses when another wave of public hatred is washing over the global corporations, thanks to the potentially unstoppable oil spill? Well, I guess I am a sucker for lost causes, much like Rhett Butler, as our quant way of tranquil life with insane bonuses is all but gone with the wind now. Unlike Mr. Butler, however, I have to battle and debunk my own arguments presented here previously.

One of the arguments that I wanted to poke holes in was the fair compensation angle. It was argued in our circles that the fat paycheck was merely an adequate compensation for the long hours of hard work that people in our line of work put in. I quashed it, I think, by pointing out other thankless professions where people work harder and longer with no rewards to write home about. Hard work has no correlation with what one is entitled to. The second argument that I made fun of was the ubiquitous “talent” angle. At the height of the financial crisis, it was easy to laugh off the talent argument. Besides, there was little demand for the talent and a lot of supply, so that the basic principle of economics could apply, as our cover story shows in this issue.

Of all the arguments for large compensation packages, the most convincing one was the profit-sharing one. When the top talents take huge risks and generate profit, they need to be given a fair share of the loot. Otherwise, where is the incentive to generate even more profits? This argument lost a bit of its bite when the negative profits (by which I indeed mean losses) needed to be subsidized. This whole saga reminded me of something that Scott Adams once said of risk takers. He said that risk takers, by definition, often fail. So do morons. In practice, it is hard to tell them apart. Should the morons reap handsome rewards? That is the question.

Having said all this in my previous articles, now it is time to find some arguments in our defense. I left out one important argument in my previous columns because it did not support my general thesis — that the generous bonuses were not all that justifiable. Now that I have switched allegiance to the lost cause, allow me to present it as forcefully as I can. In order to see compensation packages and performance bonuses in a different light, we first look at any traditional brick-and-mortar company. Let’s consider a hardware manufacturer, for instance. Suppose this hardware shop of ours does extremely well one year. What does it do with the profit? Sure, the shareholders take a healthy bite out of it in terms of dividends. The employees get decent bonuses, hopefully. But what do we do to ensure continued profitability?

We could perhaps see employee bonuses as an investment in future profitability. But the real investment in this case is much more physical and tangible than that. We could invest in hardware manufacturing machinery and technology improving the productivity for years to come. We could even invest in research and development, if we subscribe to a longer temporal horizon.

Looking along these lines, we might ask ourselves what the corresponding investment would be for a financial institution. How exactly do we reinvest so that we can reap benefits in the future?

We can think of better buildings, computer and software technologies etc. But given the scale of the profits involved, and the cost and benefit of these incremental improvements, these investments don’t measure up. Somehow, the impact of these tiny investments is not as impressive in the performance of a financial institution compared to a brick-and-mortar company. The reason behind this phenomenon is that the “hardware” we are dealing with (in the case of a financial institution) is really human resources — people — you and me. So the only sensible reinvestment option is in people.

So we come to the next question — how do we invest in people? We could use any number of euphemistic epithets, but at the end of the day, it is the bottom line that counts. We invest in people by rewarding them. Monetarily. Money talks. We can dress it up by saying that we are rewarding performance, sharing profits, retaining talents etc. But ultimately, it all boils down to ensuring future productivity, much like our hardware shop buying a fancy new piece of equipment.

Now the last question has to be asked. Who is doing the investing? Who benefits when the productivity (whether current or future) goes up? The answer may seem too obvious at first glance — it is clearly the shareholders, the owners of the financial institution who will benefit. But nothing is black and white in the murky world of global finance. The shareholders are not merely a bunch of people holding a piece of paper attesting their ownership. There are institutional investors, who mostly work for other financial institutions. They are people who move large pots of money from pension funds and bank deposits and such. In other words, it is the common man’s nest egg, whether or not explicitly linked to equities, that buys and sells the shares of large public companies. And it is the common man who benefits from the productivity improvements brought about by investments such as technology purchases or bonus payouts. At least, that is the theory.

This distributed ownership, the hallmark of capitalism, raises some interesting questions, I think. When a large oil company drills an unstoppable hole in the seabed, we find it easy to direct our ire at its executives, looking at their swanky jets and other unconscionable luxuries they allow themselves. Aren’t we conveniently forgetting the fact that all of us own a piece of the company? When the elected government of a democratic nation declares war on another country and kills a million people (speaking hypothetically, of course), should the culpa be confined to the presidents and generals, or should it percolate down to the masses that directly or indirectly delegated and entrusted their collective power?

More to the point, when a bank doles out huge bonuses, isn’t it a reflection of what all of us demand in return for our little investments? Viewed in this light, is it wrong that the taxpayers ultimately had to pick up the tab when everything went south? I rest my case.

An Office Survival Guide

Let’s face it — people job hop. They do it for a host of reasons, be it better job scope, nicer boss, and most frequently, fatter paycheck. The grass is often greener on the other side. Really. Whether you are seduced by the green allure of the unknown or venturing into your first pasture, you often find yourself in a new corporate setting.

In the unforgiving, dog-eat-dog corporate jungle, you need to be sure of the welcome. More importantly, you need to prove yourself worthy of it. Fear not, I’m here to help you through it. And I will gladly accept all credit for your survival, if you care to make it public. But I regret that we (this newspaper, me, our family members, dogs, lawyers and so on) cannot be held responsible for any untoward consequence of applying my suggestions. Come on, you should know better than to base your career on a newspaper column!

This disclaimer brings me naturally to the first principle I wanted to present to you. Your best bet for corporate success is to take credit for all accidental successes around you. For instance, if you accidentally spilled coffee on your computer and it miraculously resulted in fixing the CD-ROM that hadn’t stirred in the last quarter, present it as your innate curiosity and inherent problem solving skills that prompted you to seek an unorthodox solution.

But resist all temptation to own up to your mistakes. Integrity is a great personality trait and it may improve your karma. But, take my word for it, it doesn’t work miracles on your next bonus. Nor does it improve your chances of being the boss in the corner office.

If your coffee debacle, for instance, resulted in a computer that would never again see the light of day (which, you would concede, is a more likely outcome), your task is to assign blame for it. Did your colleague in the next cubicle snore, or sneeze, or burp? Could that have caused a resonant vibration on your desk? Was the cup poorly designed with a higher than normal centre of gravity? You see, a science degree comes in handy when assigning blame.

But seriously, your first task in surviving in a new corporate setting is to find quick wins, for the honeymoon will soon be over. In today’s workplace, who you know is more important than what you know. So start networking — start with your boss who, presumably, is already impressed. He wouldn’t have hired you otherwise, would he?

Once you reach the critical mass in networking, switch gears and give an impression that you are making a difference. I know a couple of colleagues who kept networking for ever. Nice, gregarious folks, they are ex-colleagues now. All talk and no work is not going to get them far. Well, it may, but you can get farther by identifying avenues where you can make a difference. And by actually making a bit of that darned difference.

Concentrate on your core skills. Be positive, and develop a can-do attitude. Find your place in the corporate big picture. What does the company do, how is your role important in it? At times, people may underestimate you. No offence, but I find that some expats are more guilty of underestimating us than fellow Singaporeans. Our alleged gracelessness may have something to do with it, but that is a topic for another day.

You can prove the doubters wrong through actions rather than words. If you are assigned a task that you consider below your level of expertise, don’t fret, look at the silver lining. After all, it is something you can do in practically no time and with considerable success. I have a couple of amazingly gifted friends at my work place. I know that they find the tasks assigned to them ridiculously simple. But it only means that they can impress the heck out of everybody.

Corporate success is the end result of an all out war. You have to use everything you have in your arsenal to succeed. All skills, however unrelated, can be roped in to help. Play golf? Invite the CEO for a friendly. Play chess? Present it as the underlying reason for your natural problem solving skills. Sing haunting melodies in Chinese? Organize a karaoke. Be known. Be recognized. Be appreciated. Be remembered. Be missed when you are gone. At the end of the day, what else is there in life?

Reading between the Lines

When it comes to news, things are seldom what they seem. The media can colour news events while remaining technically objective and strictly factual. Faced with such insidiously accurate reporting, we have little choice but to read between the lines.

It is a tricky art. First, we develop a healthy attitude of scepticism. Armed with this trust-nobody attitude, we examine the piece to get to the writer’s intentions. Mind you, the idea is not always to disapprove of the hidden agenda, but to be aware that there is one — always.

Writers use a variety of techniques to push their agenda. First and foremost in their arsenal is the choice of words. Words have meanings, but they also have connotations. As a case in point, look at my choice of the word “arsenal” in the last sentence, which in this context merely means collection. But because of its negative connotation, I have portrayed writers as your adversaries. I could have used “collection” or “repertoire” (or nothing at all) to take away the negativity. Using “gimmickry” would imply that the writers usually fail in their efforts. Choosing “goody bag” would give you a warm feeling about it because of its association with childhood memories. Unless you know of my bag of tricks (which has a good connotation), you are at my mercy.

When connotation is employed to drive geo-political agendas, we have to scrutinize the word choices with more serious care. In an Indian newspaper, I once noticed that they consistently used the words “militant” or “militancy” to report a certain movement, while describing another similar movement with words like “terrorist” or “terrorism”. Both usages may be accurate, but unless we are careful, we may get easily swayed into thinking that one movement is legitimate while the other is not.

Americans are masters in this game. Every word spoken by the states department spokesperson is so carefully chosen that it would be naïve to overlook the associated connotations. Look at Hillary Clinton’s choice of the word “misspeak” — books can be written on that choice!

What is left unsaid is as important as what is not, which makes for another potent tactic in shaping the public opinion. Imagine a TV report that runs like this: “Pentagon has reported a surgical strike with a laser-guided missile fired from an unmanned predator aircraft killing five terrorists in the US most wanted list. However, civilians claim that the bomb fell on a wedding party killing 35 people including 15 children and ten women. We haven’t independently verified this claim.” While staying factually accurate, this report has managed to discredit the civilian deaths by playing with the connotations of “report” and “claim”, as well as by not saying that the Pentagon report also was unverified. Besides, how can super-duper unmanned aircraft and laser-guided munitions miss their targets?

We, of course, have no means of knowing what actually went on there. But we have to discern the process of colouring the report and develop an ability (or at least a desire) to seek the truth and intentions behind the words.

This ability is especially crucial now because of a worrying trend in the global media — the genesis of media conglomerates. When most of the world gets their information from a limited number of conglomerates, they wield an inordinate amount of power and sway over us and our opinions. Unless we jealously guard our ability to read between the lines, we may be marching quietly into a troubling brave new world.

Good and Bad Gender Equality

Gender equality has made some great strides. About one hundred years ago, most women in the world didn’t have the right to vote — no suffrage, to use the correct term. Right now, we have a woman inching closer than ever to the office of President of the United States, considered the most powerful “man” on earth. In the corporate scene too, we now see many women in powerful positions.

But, even the most optimistic among us wouldn’t argue that gender equality is a reality and that women have arrived. Why is that? What exactly is the difficulty in achieving this holy grail of equality?

I think that the difficulty lies in our definition, in what we mean by women’s equality. Of course, the whole equality issue is a minefield as far as political correctness is concerned. And I’m barging on to thin ice where no sane person would dream of stepping in. But a columnist is allowed to be opinionated and, let’s face it, a bit obnoxious. So here we go…

I feel that there are good and bad arguments for equality. Let’s take the case of tennis Grand Slams, where they “achieved” equality by equalizing the prize moneys. The argument was simply that women and men were equal and they deserved the same prize money.

To me, it wasn’t much of an argument at all. It was a form of condescension. It is a bit like the condescending (though, no doubt, well-meaning) encouragements offered by native speakers when you learn their tongue. Towards the end of my five year sojourn in France, I could speak pretty good French and people used to tell me, encouragingly of course, that I spoke well. To me, it always meant that I didn’t speak well enough, for if I did, they just wouldn’t notice it at all, would they? After all, they don’t go around congratulating each other on their perfect French!

Similarly, if men and women tennis players were really equal, nobody would speak of equality. There wouldn’t be “men’s” singles and “women’s” singles to begin with — there would be just singles! So this argument for equality in prize money is bad one.

There is a much better argument. Prize money is sponsored by corporate bodies bent on promoting their products. The sponsors are therefore interested in TV viewership. Given that women’s singles draws in as many viewers as men’s, the prize money should be equal. Now, that is a solid argument. We should be looking at dimensions where equality really does exist rather than trying to artificially impose it.

When such dimensions of equality encompass all aspects of our lives, we will be able to safely say that gender equality has arrived. We should not be looking for equality in testosterone-driven playing fields, which, by the way, may include higher echelons of the corporate pyramid. We should be relegating debates on equality to irrelevance by attributing enough respect and value to natural differences.

Articulated by a man, this statement of mine, of course, is a bit suspect. Aren’t I trying to shortchange women by offering them useless respect rather than real equality?

I once heard a similar exchange when someone argued that women in my native land of Kerala enjoyed higher level of gender equality because, coming from a matrilineal system, they ruled the household. The pithy rebuttal to that argument came from a Keralite woman, “Men are perfectly happy to let women rule their households as long as they get to rule the world!”

Then again, we are pretty close to letting Hillary Clinton rule the world with just two men standing in her way. So perhaps gender equality has finally arrived after all.

How Friendly is too Friendly?

We all want to be the boss. At least some of us want to be the big boss at some, hopefully not-too-distant, future. It is good to be the boss. However, it takes quite a bit to get there. It takes credentials, maturity, technical expertise, people skills, communication and articulation, not to mention charisma and connections.

Even with all the superior qualities, being a boss is tough. Being a good boss is even tougher; it is a tricky balancing act. One tricky question is, how friendly can you get with your team?

At first glance, this question may seem silly. Subordinates are human beings too, worthy of as much friendliness as any. Why be stuck up and act all bossy to them? The reason is that friendship erodes the formal respect that is a pre-requisite for efficient people management. For instance, how can you get upset with your friends who show up thirty minutes late for a meeting? After all, you wouldn’t get all worked up if they showed up a bit late for a dinner party.

If you are friends with your staff, and too good a boss to them, you are not a good boss from the perspective of the upper management. If you aspire to be a high powered and efficient boss as viewed from the top, you are necessarily unfriendly with your subordinates. This is the boss’s dilemma.

From the employee’s perspective, if your boss gets too friendly, it is usually bad news. The boss will have your hand phone number! And an excuse to call you whenever he/she feels like it.

Another unfortunate consequence of accidental cordiality is unrealistic expectations on your part. You don’t necessarily expect a fat bonus despite a shoddy performance just because the boss is a friend. But you would be a better human being than most if you could be completely innocent of such a wishful notion. And this tinge of hope has to lead to sour disappointment because, if he your boss is friendly with you, he/she is likely to be friendly with all staff.

By and large, bosses around here seem to work best when there is a modicum of distance between them and their subordinates. One way they maintain the distance is by exploiting any cultural difference that may exist among us.

If you are a Singaporean boss, for instance, and your staff are all expatriate Indians or Chinese, it may be a good thing from the distance angle — cultural and linguistic differences can act as a natural barrier toward unwarranted familiarity that may breed contempt.

This immunity against familiarity, whether natural or cultivated, is probably behind the success of our past colonial masters. Its vestiges can still be seen in management here.

The attitude modulation when it comes to the right amount of friendship is not a prerogative of the bosses alone. The staff have a say in it too. As a minor boss, I get genuinely interested in the well-being of my direct reports, especially because I work closely with them. I have had staff who liked that attitude and those who became uncomfortable with it.

The ability to judge the right professional distance can be a great asset in your and your team’s productivity. However, it cannot be governed by a set of thumb rules. Most of the time, it has to be played by ear and modulated in response to the changing attitudes and situations. That’s why being a good boss is an art, not an exact science.