Tag Archives: humor

Need I say more?

Quiet Me

I’m an introvert. In today’s world where articulation is often mistaken for accomplishment, introversion is a bit of a baggage. But I have no complaints about my baggage, for I have been more successful than I expected or wanted to be. That’s one good thing about being an introvert — his ambition is aways superseded by the need for reflection and introspection. To an introvert, the definition of success doesn’t necessarily include popular adulation or financial rewards, but lies in the pleasure of finding things out and of dreaming up and carrying out whatever it is that he wants to do. Well, there may be a disingenuous hint of the proverbial sour grapes in that assertion, and I will get back to it later in this post.

The reason for writing up this post is that I’m about to read this book that a friend of mine recommended — “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking” by Susan Cain. I wanted to pen down an idea I had in mind because I’m pretty sure that idea will change after I read the book. The idea calls for a slightly windy introduction, which is the only kind of introduction I like (when I make it, that is).

Like most things in life, extroversion, if we could quantify it, is likely to make a bell-curve distribution. So would IQ or other measures of academic intelligence. Or kinesthetic intelligence, for that matter. Those lucky enough to be near the top end of any of these distributions are likely to be successful, unless they mistake their favoured curve to be something else. I mean, just because you are pretty smart academically doesn’t mean that you can play a good game of tennis. Similarly, your position on the introvert bell curve has no bearing on your other abilities. Whether you are an introvert or an extrovert, you will be badly and equally beaten if you try to play Federer — a fact perhaps more obvious to introverts than extroverts. Therein lies the rub. Extroverts enjoy a level of social acceptance that makes them feel as though they can succeed in anything, just like a typical MBA feels that they can manage anything despite a total lack of domain knowledge. That misplaced confidence, when combined with a loud assertiveness hallmark of extroversion, may translate into a success and make for a self fulfilling prophesy.

That is the state of affairs. I don’t want to rant against it although I don’t like it. And I wouldn’t, because I estimate that I would fall about one sigma below the mean on the extroversion curve. I think of it this way: say you go and join a local tennis club. The players are all better than you; they all have better kinesthetic intelligence than you can muster. Do you sit around complaining that the game or the club is unfair? No. What you would have to do is to find another club or a bunch of friends more at your level, or find another game. The situation is similar in the case of extroversion. Extroverts are, by definition, social and gregarious people. They like society. Society is their club. And society likes them back because it is a collection of extroverts. So there is social acceptance for extroversion. This is a self-fueling positive feedback cycle.

So, if you are introvert, and you are seeking societal approval or other associated glories, you are playing a wrong game. I guess Susan Cain will make the rest of it pretty clear. And I will get back to this topic after I finish the book. I just wanted to pen down my thoughts on the obvious feature of the society that it is social in nature (duh!), and therefore extrovert-friendly. I think this obviousness is lost on some of us introverts who cry foul at the status quo.

To get back to the suspicion of sour-grapishness, I know that I also would like to have some level of social approbation. Otherwise I wouldn’t want to write up these thoughts and publish it, hoping that my friends would hit the “Like” button, would I? This is perhaps understandable — I’m not at the rock bottom of the extroversion distribution, and I do have some extrovert urges. I’m only about a sigma or so below the mean, (and, as a compensation, perhaps a couple of sigmas above the mean in the academic scale.)

Bernard ShawMy wife, on the other hand, is a couple of sigmas above the mean on the extroversion department, and, not surprisingly, a very successful business woman. I always felt that it would be swell if our kids inherited my position on the academic curve, and her position in the people-skills curve. But it could have backfired, as the exchange between George Bernard Shaw and a beautiful actress illustrates. As the story goes, Mrs Campbell (for whom Shaw wrote the part of Eliza Dolittle in Pygmalion) suggested to him that they should have a child so that it would inherit his brains and her beauty to which Shaw replied: “My dear lady, have you considered that it might inherit my beauty and your brains?”

Ridiculous, Annoying and Embarrassing

Now it is official — we become embarrassing, ridiculous and annoying when our first-born turns thirteen. The best we can hope to do, evidently, is to negotiate a better deal. If we can get our thirteen year old to drop one of the three unflattering epithets, we should count ourselves lucky. We can try, “I may embarrass you a bit, but I do not annoy you and I am certainly not ridiculous!” This apparently was the deal this friend of mine made with his daughter. Now he has to drop her a block away from her school (so that her friends don’t have to see him, duh!), but he smiles the smile of a man who knows he is neither annoying nor ridiculous.

I did a bit worse, I think. “You are not that annoying; you are not always ridiculous and you are not totally embarrassing. Well, not always,” was the best I could get my daughter to concede, giving me a 50% pass grade. My wife fared even worse though. “Oh, she is SOOO ridiculous and always annoys me. Drives me nuts!” making it a miserable 33% fail grade for her. To be fair though, I have to admit that she wasn’t around when I administered the test; her presence may have improved her performance quite a bit.

But seriously, why do our children lose their unquestioning faith in our infallibility the moment they are old enough to think for themselves? I don’t remember such a drastic change in my attitude toward my parents when I turned thirteen. It is not as though I am more fallible than my parents. Well, may be I am, but I don’t think the teenager’s reevaluation of her stance is a commentary on my parenting skills. May be in the current social system of nuclear families, we pay too much attention to our little ones. We see little images of ourselves in them and try to make them as perfect as we possibly can. Perhaps all this well-meaning attention sometimes smothers them so much that they have to rebel at some stage, and point out how ridiculously annoying and embarrassing  our efforts are.

May be my theory doesn’t hold much water — after all, this teenage phase change vis-a-vis parents is a universal phenomenon. And I am sure the degree of nuclear isolation of families and the level of freedom accorded to the kids are not universal. Perhaps all we can do is to tune our own attitude toward the teenagers’ attitude change. Hey, I can laugh with my kids at my ridiculous embarrassments. But I do wish I had been a bit less annoying though…

Belle Piece

Here is a French joke that is funny only in French. I present it here as a puzzle to my English-speaking readers.

This colonel in the French army was in the restroom. As he was midway through the business of relieving his bladder, he becomes aware of this tall general standing next to him, and realizes that it is none other than Charles De Gaulle. Now, what do you do when you find yourself a sort of captive audience next to your big boss for a couple of minutes? Well, you have to make smalltalk. So this colonel racks his brain for a suitable subject. Noticing that the restroom is a classy tip-top joint, he ventures:

“Belle piece!” (“Nice room!”)

CDG’s ice-cold tone indicates to him the enormity of the professional error he has just committed:

“Regardez devant vous.” (“Don’t peek!”)

English as the Official Language of Europe

The European Union commissioners have announced that agreement has been reached to adopt English as the preferred language for European communications, rather than German, which was the other possibility.

As part of the negotiations, the British government conceded that English spelling had some room for improvement and has been accepted a five year phased plan for what will be known as EuroEnglish (Euro for short).

In the first year, “s” will be used instead of the soft “c”. Sertainly, sivil servants will reseive this news with joy. Also, the hard “c” will be replaced with “k”. Not only will this klear up konfusion, but typewriters kan have one less letter.

There will be growing publik enthusiasm in the sekond year, when the troublesome “ph” will be replased by “f”. This will make words like “fotograf” 20 persent shorter. In the third year, publik akseptanse of the new spelling kan be expected to reach the stage where more komplikated changes are possible.

Governments will enkorage the removal of double letters, which have always ben a deterent to akurate speling. Also, al wil agre that the horible mes of silent “e”s in the language is disgrasful, and they would go.

By the fourth year, peopl wil be reseptiv to steps such as replasing “th” by “z” and “w” by “v”. During ze fifz year, ze unesesary “0” kan be dropd from vords kontaining “ou”, and similar changes vud, of kors, be aplid to ozer kombinations of leters.

Und efter ze fifz yer, ve vil al be speking German lik zey vunted in ze forst plas…

A Crazy Language

This crazy language, English, is the most widely used language in the history of our planet. One in every seven humans can speak it. More than half of the world’s books and three quarters of international mail is in English. Of all the languages, it has the largest vocabulary perhaps as many as two MILLION words. Nonetheless, let’s face it, English is a crazy language. There is no egg in eggplant nor ham in hamburger; neither apple nor pine in pineapple. English muffins weren’t invented in England or French fries in France. Sweetmeats are candies while sweetbreads, which aren’t sweet, are meat.

We take English for granted. But if we explore its paradoxes, we find that quicksand can work slowly, boxing rings are square and a guinea pig is neither from Guinea nor is it a pig.

And why is it that writers write but fingers don’t fing, grocers don’t groce and hammers don’t ham? If the plural of tooth is teeth, why isn’t the plural of booth beeth? One goose, two geese. So one moose, two meese?

Doesn’t it seem crazy that you can make amends but not one amend, that you comb thru annals of history but not a single annal? If you have a bunch of odds and ends and get rid of all but one of them, what do you call it? If teachers taught, why didn’t preacher praught? If a vegetarian eats vegetables, what does a humanitarian eat? If you wrote a letter, perhaps you bote your tongue?

Sometimes I think all the English speakers should be committed to an asylum for the verbally insane. In what language do people recite at a play and play at a recital? Ship by truck and send cargo by ship? Have noses that run and feet that smell?

How can a slim chance and a fat chance be the same, while a wise man and wise guy are opposites? How can overlook and oversee be opposites, while quite a lot and quite a few are alike? How can the weather be hot as hell one day and cold as hell another?

Have you noticed that we talk about certain things only when they are absent? Have you ever seen a horseful carriage or a strapful gown? Met a sung hero or experienced requited love? Have you ever run into someone who was combobulated, gruntled, ruly or peccable? And where are all those people who are spring chickens or who would actually hurt a fly?

You have to marvel at the unique lunacy of a language in which your house can burn up as it burns down, in which you fill in a form by filling it out and in which an alarm clock goes off by going on.

English was invented by people, not computers, and it reflects the creativity of the human race (which, of course, isn’t a race at all). That is why, when the stars are out, they are visible, but when the lights are out, they are invisible. And why, when I wind up my watch, I start it, but when I wind up this essay, I end it.

[Unknown source]

Ioanna’s Aisles

During my graduate school years at Syracuse, I used to know Ioanna — a Greek girl of sweet disposition and inexplicable hair. When I met her, she had just moved from her native land of Crete and was only beginning to learn English. So she used to start her sentences with “Eh La Re” and affectionately address all her friends “Malaka” and was generally trying stay afloat in this total English immersion experience that is a small university town in the US of A.

Soon, she found the quirkiness of this eccentric language a bit too much. On one wintry day in Syracuse, Ioanna drove to Wegmans, the local supermarket, presumably looking for feta cheese or eggplants. But she was unable to find it. As with most people not fluent in the language of the land, she wasn’t quite confident enough to approach an employee on the floor for help. I can totally understand her; I don’t approach anybody for help even in my native town. But I digress; coming back to Ioanna at Wegmans, she noticed this little machine where she could type in the item she wanted and get its location. The machine displayed, “Aisle 6.”

Ioanna was floored. She had never seen the word “aisle.” So she fought and overcame her fear of Americans and decided to ask an employee where this thing called Aisle 6 was. Unfortunately, the way this English word sounds has nothing to do with the way it is spelled. Without the benefit of this knowledge, Ioanna asked a baffled and bemused clerk, “Where is ASSELLE six?”

The American was quick-witted though. He replied politely, “I’m sorry, miss. I am asshole number 3; asshole number 6 is taking a break. Can I help you?”

A Chess Game

When I was a teenager, I used to be pretty good at chess. The highlight of my amateur chess career was in the late eighties when I beat Manuel Aaron, the nine-time Indian national champion and India’s first international master. True, it was only a simultaneous exhibition, and he was playing 32 of us. True, three others also beat him. Still… Even more satisfying than beating the champion was the fact that my friend, whom we lovingly call Kutty, got beaten by Mr. Aaron. To understand why Kutty’s loss was sweeter than my win, we have to go back a few years.

Date – August 1983. Venue – No. 20 Madras Mail. (To the uninitiated — this was a train that took one from my hometown of Trivandrum to Madras. These cities were later renamed to Thiruvananthapuram and Chennai in a moment of patriotic inspiration; but I was away during that time and prefer the older, shorter names.) I was in the train going to my university (IIT, Madras) as a freshman. Unbeknownst to me, so was Kutty, who was sitting across the isle in the car (which we used to call a compartment or a bogie.) Soon we struck up a conversation and realized that we were going to be classmates. Kutty looked like a harmless character — all blinking eyes, thick glasses, easy grins and loud chuckles.MandakOurWing.jpg

Things were going pretty well until he noticed my magnetic chessboard among my stuff. All right, I admit it, I had arranged it so that people would notice it. You see, I was rather proud of this chessboard that my dear father got me as a gift (from a cousin working in the “gulf,” of course). Kutty said, “Oh, you play chess?” He said it almost too casually, in a tone that rings alarm bells these days, thanks to experiences like what soon transpired in that baking oven of a train.

But, young and reckless as I was, I didn’t heed the warning. I used to think a lot of myself those days — a personality trait I haven’t quite outgrown, according to my better half. So I said, equally casually, “Yeah, do you?”

“Yeah, on and off…”

“Want to play a game?”

“Sure.”

After a few opening moves, Kutty asked me (rather admiringly, I thought at that time), “So, do you read a lot of books on chess?” I still remember this clearly — it was right after my fianchetto, and I honestly thought Kutty was regretting his decision to play chess with this unknown master. I think he asked a couple of more questions in the same vein — “Do you play in tournaments?” “Are you in your school team?” and so on. While I was sitting there feeling good, Kutty was, well, playing chess. Soon I found my fianchetto diagonal hopelessly blocked by three of my own pawns, and all my pieces stuck in molasses with nowhere to go. Twenty-odd excruciating moves later, it was I who sincerely regretted exhibiting my chessboard. You see, Kutty was the national chess champion of India, in the sub-junior section.

In our IIT lingo, it was thorough poling, that chess game, much like a lot of the games that followed, for I kept challenging Kutty during the next four years. You see, I have no qualms fighting impossible odds. Anyway, I learned a lot from him. Eventually, I could play blind chess with him without the benefit of a chessboard, as we once did during our one-hour bus ride from Mount Road to IIT after a late-night movie, shouting out things like Nf3 and 0-0 much to the annoyance of the rest of the gang. I remember telling Kutty that he couldn’t make a particular move because his knight was in that square.

Although I remember it that way, it is not likely that I would have seen something Kutty had missed. He could always see a couple of moves deeper and a couple of more variations. I remember another one of our train games, a rare one where I got the upper hand; I declared, impressively, “Mate in 14!” Kutty thought for a minute and said, “Not quite, I can get away after the 12th move.”

Anyway, it was this first embarrassing chess game with Kutty that made his loss to Aaron doubly sweet. Kutty later told me that he had missed a fork, which was why he lost. Well, that may be. But you are not supposed to miss anything. Nothing is unimportant. Not in chess. Not in life.

Photo by soupboy

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?

Sophistication

Sophistication is a French invention. The French are masters when it comes to nurturing, and more importantly, selling sophistication. Think of some expensive (and therefore classy) brands. Chances are that more than half of the ones that spring to mind would be French. And the other half would be distinctly French sounding wannabes. This world domination in sophistication is impressive for a small country of the size and population of Thailand.

How do you take a handbag manufactured in Indonesia, slap on a name that only a handful of its buyers can pronounce, and sell it for a profit margin of 1000%? You do it by championing sophistication; by being an icon that others can only aspire to be, but never ever attain. You know, kind of like perfection. No wonder Descartes said something that sounded suspiciously like, “I think in French, therefore I am!” (Or was it, “I think, therefore I am French”?)

I am amazed by the way the French manage to have the rest of the world eat things that smell and taste like feet. And I stand in awe of the French when the world eagerly parts with their hard earned dough to gobble up such monstrosities as fattened duck liver, fermented dairy produce, pig intestines filled with blood, snails, veal entrails and whatnot.

The French manage this feat, not by explaining the benefits and selling points of these, ahem…, products, but by a perfecting a supremely sophisticated display of incredulity at anyone who doesn’t know their value. In other words, not by advertising the products, but by embarrassing you. Although the French are not known for their physical stature, they do an admirable job of looking down on you when needed.

I got a taste of this sophistication recently. I confessed to a friend of mine that I never could develop a taste for caviar — that quintessential icon of French sophistication. My friend looked askance at me and told me that I must have eaten it wrong. She then explained to me the right way of eating it. It must have been my fault; how could anybody not like fish eggs? And she would know; she is a classy SIA girl.

This incident reminded me of another time when I said to another friend (clearly not as classy as this SIA girl) that I didn’t quite care fore Pink Floyd. He gasped and told me never to say anything like that to anybody; one always loved Pink Floyd.

I should admit that I have had my flirtations with bouts of sophistication. My most satisfying moments of sophistication came when I managed to somehow work a French word or expression into my conversation or writing. In a recent column, I managed to slip in “tête-à-tête,” although the unsophisticated printer threw away the accents. Accents add a flourish to the level of sophistication because they confuse the heck out of the reader.

The sneaking suspicion that the French may have been pulling a fast one on us crept up on me when I read something that Scott Adams (of Dilbert fame) wrote. He wondered what this ISO 9000 fad was all about. Those who secure the ISO certification proudly flaunt it, while everybody else seems to covet it. But does anyone know what the heck it is? Adams conjectured that it was probably a practical joke a bunch of inebriated youngsters devised in a bar. “ISO” sounded very much like “Iz zat ma beer?” in some eastern European language, he says.

Could this sophistication fad also be a practical joke? A French conspiracy? If it is, hats off to the French!

Don’t get me wrong, I’m no Francophobe. Some of my best friends are French. It is not their fault if others want to imitate them, follow their gastronomical habits and attempt (usually in vain) to speak their tongue. I do it too — I swear in French whenever I miss an easy shot in badminton. After all, why waste an opportunity to sound sophisticated, n’est-ce pas?

Money — Love it or Hate it

Whatever its raison-d’etre may be, there is a need for more, and an unquenchable greed. And paradoxically, if you want to try to quench a bit of your greed, the best way to do it is to fan the greed in others. This is why the email scams (you know, the Nigerian banker requesting your help in moving $25 million of unclaimed inheritance, or the Spanish lottery eager to give you 67 million Euros) still hold a fascination for us, even when we know that we will never fall for it.

There is only a thin blurry line between the schemes that thrive on other people’s greed and confidence jobs. If you can come up with a scheme that makes money for others, and stay legal (if not moral), then you will make yourself very rich. We see it most directly in the finance and investment industry, but it is much more widespread than that. We can see that even education, traditionally considered a higher pursuit, is indeed an investment against future earnings. Viewed in that light, you will understand the correlation between the tuition fees at various schools and the salaries their graduates command.

When I started writing this column, I thought I was making up this new field called the Philosophy of Money (which, hopefully, somebody would name after me), but then I read up something on the philosophy of mind by John Searle. It turned out that there was nothing patentable in this idea, nor any cash to be made, sadly. Money comes under the umbrella of objective social realities that are quite unreal. In his exposition of the construction of social reality, Searle points out that when they give us a piece of paper and say that it is legal tender, they are actually constructing money by that statement. It is not a statement about its attribute or characteristics (like “This is a glass of water”) so much as a statement of intentionality that makes something what it is (like “You are my hero”). The difference between my being a hero (perhaps only to my six-year-old) and money being money is that the latter is socially accepted, and it is as objective a reality as any.

I conclude this article with the nagging suspicion that I may not have argued my point well enough. I started it with the premise that money is an unreal meta-thing, and wound up asserting its objective reality. This ambivalence of mine may be a reflection of our collective love-hate relationship with money – perhaps not such a bad way to end this column after all.

Photo by 401(K) 2013