Monday, January 26, 2009

We've Had Some Letters*

Dear Middler,

I have been following your blog regularly, though, even I do not know why. The blogs are long and rambling. The sentences are jerky and have too many commas. In addition to that you choose to inflict upon us some "art". Despite that I follow you, because like me, you too like to start sentences with "Basically". (Psst... Are you Tam-Brahm?)

I beg to ask a question. I find it difficult to maintain a sunny disposition. I feel blue whenever I think of myself. How is that you cope with the existential dilemmas that come upon one like waves on the shore that leave only to return?

Feeling Blue
Male, Dustbin near Independence Park

Dear FB,

I am touched by your insightful letter. Basically, the fact that you observe so much indicates either a) you are an astute observer or b) you really ought to find a job. Anyway, coming to your problem many people think alcohol is a way out of the blues. I would advise otherwise. I used to resort to alcohol once. Yes, in the good old days, when I did not know of things better, I used to swig Old Monk with Pepsi a la rickshaw-puller, as I did my homework. But, I do find a definite correlation between developing what is cutely called a "traffic police mama paunch" and the perusal of alcohol. Ergo, with much sadness I have cut down on the habit. (sigh)

In the absence of -OH beverages, what then are the options? If you can read this blog, you can access the internet. Hence I recommend Youtube videos of the kind below to "beat 'em blues".

Exhibit A

(I got this video through Raghav :))

Of course, before you cluck your tongue in disapproval, you must know that I believe, in the manner of Bertrand Rusell, that the intellect while giving man many advantages gives one singular disadvantage; it makes him anticipate sadness and when that sadness transpires he still, paradoxically, feels sad though one would expect him to feel happy for having anticipated that sadness. Hence, when negative thoughts enter, I resort to means that drain the blood from my head to judiciously allocate it to other parts of that body that may use it more fruitfully. Seeing the wholesome goodness of two babes cavorting away to a kuntry song in itsy-bitsy clothes is indeed the meaning of life. (Tears of Joy)

It is said that Nayanthara visited her tailor and gave an order for a dress. By mistake her kerchief slipped out. When she came to collect the dress, she found that the tailor had made the dress out of the kerchief and such was his honesty he also gave some bit of the cloth that was unused.

Thanks for writing in. Not that I give a Rat's Arse.

Dear Middler,

I find that in addition to being an engineer and worshiping Pink Floyd I also love Monty Python. Will I get laid before marriage?

Very Anxious,
Male, Computer Club

Dear VA,

No. But you, son, have known a rare pleasure that few men know of, so take that you biker dudes! Now that you are not going to get laid, why don't you spend some time on "A Bit of Fry and Laurie". In some parts, they are even better than the Pythons!

Exhibit B,C, D:

Thanks for Writing In. Not that I give a Rat's Arse.

If you have any such profound questions on life, relationships, academics then fire away to the following address:

Subject: Dear Middler
c/o middlergivesaratsass [at] gmail [dot] com

(read as middler-gives-a-rat's-ass)

If on the other hand, you need money from Africans or male enlargement pills just check your spam folder.

*This was too one of their sketches though I am not able to locate the video now

Thursday, January 22, 2009

On How Being "Cool" is Just Not Cool

The last three blogs of mine have been kind of heavy, preachy and long. So here is one that is light, short but still preachy.

One of my favorite pastimes is watching videos on youtube. I discovered Goodness Gracious Me, some good music and most recently, the American Talk show host Craig Ferguson. I find Craig Ferguson spontaneous, warm, great with expressions. More importantly, his brand of comedy is markedly different from the usual galaxy which includes Letterman, Leno, Colbert, Kimmel and many others.

Anyway, I happened to see an interview of Paris Hilton by Craig.

Paris looks stunning, the flowing blond hair, the red frock-ish outfit, just gorgeous. However, I really got irritated by the way she spoke. Let me clarify one thing. One has heard and read a lot about Paris. But I think she has potential. For one, I do think she can look like a heiress when she puts the effort. And I have seen videos in which she has tried different things. (Not those, you pervs!) But this interview put me off. I strongly disapprove of this "umm... yeah... I umm.. well, yeah" kind of talk. The body language is put-off-ish. The giggle comes across as artificial and disingenuous. The school girl giggle, few people like it on school girls, but on a woman it is just not nice at all.

Writing is indecent exposure and I guess what I am about to say also reveals something about me. Well, what the heck. My favorite women characters in American sitcom (in order) are Julia Louis-Dreyfus' Elaine, Patricia Heaton's Debra and Cobie Smulder's Robin Scherbatsky. So, I looked at the video of Julia Louis-Dreyfus' interview with Craig.

She is a billionaire heiress too. But she starred in such a plain Jane role in Seinfeld and her bits for Saturday Night Live are also pretty good. Most importantly, since she is not being "cool", look at the folksiness, the ease with which Craig and Julia banter along. Must be the upbringing which makes all the difference.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Book Review: Adventures of a Bystander by Peter Drucker

(I finally ended up profiling Peter Drucker for the course. It is damn hard to profile someone and frankly, this is not my usual style. At some places, I admit, some sentences are contrived and affected. Also, it was a 2700 word essay which I have edited a bit. But despite all that, I think it is a pretty entertaining read and it is my first attempt at newspaper type writing. So ... here it is)

Adventures of a Bystander

Life and Times of Peter Drucker

Peter Drucker is widely considered the “Father of Modern Management” after the publication of the book the “Concept of Corporation” in which he predicted the rise of corporations as the dominant form of organization in the post World War II era. The book borne out of a study of GM also brought in vogue the “Management by Objectives” paradigm. With time he was credited with the predictions such as the decline of the command and control form of management - characteristic of the assembly line approach - and the rise of decentralization. He also predicted the rise of Japan as a modern power and a credible alternative to US. Some of his predictions which came in for criticism such as his assertion that top management pay should never be more than 20 times that of rank and file appear to bear significance in the light of recent events in the financial services world. Interestingly, Drucker predicted the decline of the R&D system in the US characterized by the creation of a number of PhDs, post-doctorates and the competitive research grant process. There is little data to support that prediction and the American R&D system continues to be the most envied in the world.

Given his phenomenal predictive power and status as a thinker ahead of his time, the objective of this essay is to glean insights from his autobiography “The Adventures of a Bystander” to explain his subsequent success in life.

The context under which Drucker grew up is vastly different from ours. He grew up at a time when formal degrees were optional. When Drucker was researching on GM in the early 1940s, he got access to biographies of everyone of the senior management easily except one. He figured they were hiding something about him and when quizzed it turned out that the person in question had possessed a PhD. Apparently everyone else had risen from the level of clerk or mechanic and it was considered de rigeur to rise to a top position without “manly” experience! Drucker’s career involved a lot of transitions which would be hard to imagine today. After finishing high school, his first big job was with the Daily Frankfurter General Anzeiger. There he rose quickly upto the post of senior editor, partly due to the fact that a whole generation had been wiped out due to the First World War. He did a part time doctorate in Law while at Franfurt. Increasingly repulsed by the rise of Nazism he decided to move to London. There he found a job with a merchant bank. This experience helped him financially but more importantly it earned him some good connections, but after some time, he decided to move to the United States. His first shot to fame came with the publication of the book “The End of Economic Man” in which he alerted the American audience to Hitler’s Final Solution.

He brought out his next book while a faculty at a place called Sarah Lawrence. In the book “The Future of Industrial Man” he recognized the increasing role of corporations. After joining the faculty at Bennington University he was looking to write an indepth analysis of a company – from the organizational structure to the operations. When he approached industry, he was rebuffed by suspicious executives. His break came when GM approached him to do a book. The book “The Concept of the Corporation” laid the foundations for management as a modern discipline. It also made him a consultant to many top businesses, launching a separate career for Drucker.

Some themes emerge from this. It is no doubt that Drucker’s growth was characterized by the written word. However, he was not a writer of fiction. The interesting thing is that Drucker’s interest lay in human affairs, how humans behaved in the structure of institutions that are imposed upon them. However, that neither fits economic theory nor does it fit political theory. So unknowingly, he ended up creating his niche – management – which did alienate him from both the fields. It is tempting to speculate on why he thought the way he did. Drucker grew up in a Europe that was still debating on how society should be organized. Young men were still pre-occupied with debates over the superior ideology – Communism, Socialism, Fabianism etc. Therefore, when Drucker came to America and looked at American society, the notion of the corporate as an alternative to these ideologies would have occurred. However, to develop into the formal system that he eventually managed, required ability.

The title of the book itself is an insight into a defining characteristic of Drucker – that of the detached observer, questioning, pondering but rarely judging. The chapters in the book are named after people who shaped his life at various stages of his development. Drucker narrates his story through their influence on him. These influential personalities range from his grandmother, to friends of his parents, to men of fame such as Henry Luce (The publishing moghul who founded Time and Fortune) and Alfred Sloan (The CEO of GM for more than 30 years)

What is surprising is that even at a young age Drucker shows an emotional sophistication far beyond his years. While describing the bizarre antics of his grandmother who was the source of many family jokes, Drucker alone is able to go beyond the mocking and perceive the underlying value system that led her to function in that way. On reflecting about it, he realizes that much of her “goofiness” was due to her stubborn insistence on following an outdated value system in a world that was in a state of flux. However, the fact that it was outdated did not mean it was wrong or funny. On the contrary he suspected a deep wisdom and grace behind that value system that people of his own generation lacked and sorely needed.

There is a pattern to the people he admires. Drucker shows a tendency to admire strong and independent personalities. His heroes are eccentric, strong willed, acerbic, rebellious but always genuine and honest to the point of hurting themselves. He speaks of Dr. Hermann Schwarzwald, a prodigious civil servant known to his family. Hermann or Hemme as he is referred to was a crippled Jew with a bitter tongue, who rose to stratospheric heights in the closeted Austrian bureaucracy. Hemme was also incredibly eccentric. Drucker tells an interesting story. Being a Jew, crossing a certain threshold in the services required a discrete conversion to Catholicism. Hemme steadfastly refused even after a letter from the Emperor. But Hemme’s genius was undeniable; hence the requirement was removed expressly for him. After he got the post he crusaded that Jews must come to the post only after ridding themselves of the Jewish spirit! (Hemme considered himself a Confucian!) Drucker accepts these seeming contradictions but again manages to go deeper into a person’s psychology. He argues that Hemme’s behavior was entirely consistent. He rejected the Emporer’s request because it just discriminatory. On the other hand, Hemme himself disapproved of some cherished Jewish values! This aspect is crucial to understanding his success as a management thinker. Ultimately, beyond all the fancy analytical tools developed today, business is about human beings – aspirations, needs, emotions. Going beyond the superficial and understanding the unstated and contradictory human yearnings is key to understanding management and this is precisely what Drucker took out of his experiences.

As mentioned earlier, he looks for models from various spheres of life and is open to learn from anyone who fits this mode. One of Drucker’s earliest jobs was at a merchant bank in London. There he met Ernest Freedberg, an old fashioned private banker who enjoyed nothing more than a good deal, yet maintained the highest ethical and professional standards. There was an incident when Drucker had to check a claim of 80,000 pounds (in 1920s) against his firm. He found that his firm was indeed on the wrong and wrangled a deal for paying damages upto 50,000 pounds. On getting back, Freedberg quizzed him on his actual estimation of the liabilities. When Drucker admitted that the firm was indeed morally responsible for the 80,000 pounds, Freedberg phoned the firm, apologized for the mistake and offered to pay the full sum as damages.

Freedberg also brought Drucker in contact with some remarkable personalities. Drucker speaks of Uncle Henry, owner of a retail chain in the United States, whose lessons on human behavior and business ethics profoundly shaped Drucker’s sensibilities. There is a story of how retail chain owners across the region found that store clerks were pilfering merchandise. While other store owners brough security agencies, Uncle Henry figured there was something wrong with the compensation system and changed that to deal with the problem. Such thinking is of course common place in management today and one can speculate that Drucker learnt these lessons from such personalities. However, Uncle Henry never went to a school all his life. There is also a Dutchman called Willem Parboom whose abilities to spot deals and implement them was genius. Drucker speaks of how Parboom approached the Austrian minister when a crucial industry was going down and offered to restructure the ailing industry, which he did with great aplomb! Parboom too never had any formal education, but he possessed a quick mind and enormous drive.

It is no doubt that exposure to such strong personalities at a formative age shaped Drucker’s character extensively. What is amazing is his extraordinary access to such people. Is that an accident? On the hand, Drucker appears to have unfailingly impressed every employer he worked for. On a number of occasions he was chosen as an envoy or a representative by his ex-employers. Even factoring for modesty, Drucker does not come across as an academic prodigy. Definitely his family’s standing did provide the introduction, but Drucker appears to have built upon it with great success. It is hard to ascertain what exactly that quality was that helped Drucker to gain his employer’s confidence.

One theme that comes up repeatedly in the book is that of learning relevant lessons from history. In this respect Drucker is uniquely gifted in that he possesses a wide reading. His understanding of history and context is genius. For example, even as a young man barely twenty, Drucker gets into an argument with a law student over what can be called the “Great Man Theory”. The law student (who was later to become Henry Kissinger’s mentor) contends that foreign policy is supreme and hence requires a great man at the helm. Drucker counters with the following remark by Benjamin Disraeli. Disraeli commenting on Bismarck’s diplomatic triumph in the Congress of Berlin says that*:

“Poor Germany; Bismarck is old and cannot last long. And then they will try to fill the giant’s shoes with a lieutenant of Marines who will either be timid and not dare do anything or [he would be] so besotted as to believe he can play Bismarck. Either way Germany will be lost”.

From this, he points out that every great foreign minister be it Bismarck, Richelieu (France) or Metternich (Austro-Hungary), though celebrated in their times, sowed the seeds of the decline of their countries simply because their successors could not match up to their brilliance.

I am of the following opinion. Some skills of life can be taught. Arithmetic, writing, bookkeeping can be mastered by diligence, hard work and a set of good learning tools. Some other things like conflict resolution, attitude towards failure and success, attitude towards money arise from the surroundings viz. parents, relatives and peers. Based on this one can feebly speculate on the source of his intuition.

Peter Drucker was born into the lap of education and intellect. Born to a family of civil servants in Vienna, Drucker was surrounded by personalities of immense gifts. His father was a senior civil servant in first the Austro Hungary empire, then in the Austrian Republic. His mother was one of the earliest women graduates in Vienna, passing the exam for the university at a time few women attended university. Drucker narrates of an incident when his mother was the only woman sitting in on Freud’s lectures which consisted of many references that may embarrass a woman. It was undoubtedly an elite progressive environment that he grew up in.

Drucker also grew up in a Vienna where Freud and Jung were discussed on dinner tables. In these conversations, the scientific method was dissected to bits. This was also a time of extreme ferment in the world of Physics. Drucker speaks of a conversation in his house between Oskar Morgenstern and a professor of psychology by name Karl Buehler. Oskar Morgenstern later was to lay the foundations of game theory in a seminal work with Von Neumann. It was this upbringing that gave him the depth to formalize a very fuzzy field such as management.

From such a background, one would expect superior academic and intellectual qualities. It is hence not surprising to see Drucker’s predisposition to intellectual pursuits. Also his brother became a doctor. However, it is interesting that Drucker chose this path and his brother chose the professional path. This gives rise to the age old debate between nurture and nature. While it is of no doubt that being in an intellectually stimulating environment ensured intellectual interests, it does not explain why some people choose to employ their gifts in one field and some in others.

In the preceding paragraphs we saw some aspects of Drucker’s personal development that could have contributed to his success. However, the real question of interest is: If we speculate some reasons could be the secret of his success, will mimicking them ensure success? Can every child growing up in an elite progressive intellectual environment become a Drucker? One can say that children growing up in such an environment are likely to do better simply because we would expect that such an upbringing emphasizes professional discipline. But what about the other Druckers all of whom were in the academic world but yet did not reach this fame? Peter Drucker undoubtedly possesses an intuition that is superior. How does one develop wisdom and intuition? Is it then a by- product of your environment?

In my opinion, the fundamental values that helped Drucker were curiosity and ability to deal with multiple viewpoints. He speaks of personalities very different from himself. Yet, Drucker was able to not only tolerate the difference; he was able to look at the good points. These are lessons every manager must learn. Interestingly, a mind interested in many things can also be accused as one lacking focus, and it is one that he admits in the book. Also, Drucker seems more interested in the moral than the details of the story, and his characters are too perfect and heroic. At times Drucker has been criticized on his interpretation of data. However, what remains is that his unrelenting questioning, polished by a sophisticated upbringing made him uniquely suited for a role such as an advisor or consultant.


*Pg 154, Adventures of a Bystander, Allied Publishers Pvt Limited, First Indian Reprint 1980

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Indian Plays in English

(Some parts of the blog may come across as arrogant. At places I could have "softened " the sentence by writing "In my opinion" and "In my view". But I think that it is redundant given that all the content here is "my opinion" or "my view". Bewarned that this is a purely subjective blog without any objective references.)

We are required to review an autobiography/biography of a successful person, as part of a course. Even before the assignment was announced I had been reading Somerset Maugham's "Summing Up". It is a viciously witty account by a remarkable writer. As I have also mentioned many times before, Muagham is my most favourite writer and I loved the book both for the content and the style of his writing. In the book, he lays down three characteristics of good writing viz. simplicity, lucidity and euphony.

Simplicity refers to the simplicity of both the vocabulary and sentence construction. And this is really a tricky thing for someone who aspires to be half decent. Simplicity changes with time and medium. I love Maugham's style and language. But I doubt if could be used at this age. One must remember that Shakespeare's language was often considered "racy" and unconventional for his times. Also, he invented words to suit the dialogue delivery. Similarly, Maugham's writing too was criticised for using colloquial phrases. Trying to be a show off only distances the author from the reader. On the other hand, people nowadays may "lk to rt lk ths". Should one then shamelessly pander to the audience? What about the artist as one who leads the way? Ah damn, we get into one of those chicken and egg questions which one can debate endlessly and arrive at an MBA answer like "It is a trade-off between X and Y". My opinion is, just do whatever works for you, after you are reasonably confident in your technique. Here is a nice story.

Drucker speaks of a great piano teacher he knew of when he was growing up in Vienna. Drucker visits him as the teacher is giving piano lessons to a gifted pupil. After she finishes rendering a piece looking at the notes, he asks her to play it again, this time playing it the way she heard it. This may seem funny. How are the two different?

Imagine you had to make something, say a chair. Of course, imagine that you are perfectly competent in making a chair and have all the tools. You are given a manual which is extremely well written. On the other hand, imagine, you saw a chair in someone's house and had to come home and reconstruct it. Would the outputs not be different? More importantly, won't the chair in the second case be more representative of you, have more of your style? Of course, the concern of your style in chair making comes into question only if you know to use the tools in the first place. Someone like me who got a C in workshop cannot be expected to reconstruct from memory when I could not even meet the basic requirements. I don't like Chetan Bhagat's "writing". It would be tiring to parody it. But the language is simple and the treatment is straightforward. If the book is called "One Night at a Call Centre" you know that the book is about a call centre. On the other hand, I have no fucking clue what the few pages of "The Moor's Last Sigh", that I read, were leading to.

The next virtue is lucidity. Lucidity is the ability to put forward an idea in the simplest terms, but without compromising the idea in any way. If it takes two paragraphs to express the idea, take two paragraphs. Don't take three, don't take one. But, you may ask, maybe it is possible to express an idea in two paragraphs if you used high falutin words, maybe it takes three if you use simpler word. That is left to the discretion of the author. If your intended audience is mass audience, then yes take three. (It is not to disparage the masses, well, ok, maybe a bit disparaging)

The one I am most interested in is euphony which refers to the phonetic quality of the words. Of course, most of us never realize that consciously. Somerset Maugham made his name by writing plays. He writes that actors sometimes asked for an extra word here or a word less there, so that the "flow" can be maintained. When we read a book, we too, in a sense, read it aloud in our minds and the phonetic quality of sentences are of great importance.

There is an ulterior motive for me to write this. In the 4th term, I had taken a course which consisted of lectures from artists. One of the components required us to stage a play on the artist's life as per our interpretation, a week prior to the artist's lecture. (Of course, I was not a great fan of this idea, given that this would cut into my "peace time", but I must say our team did put up an excellent show) After that we had a discussion on the play. (I know, oh-so-arty :P)

Usually, I try to maintain a low profile. But since I entered the class late, I was forced into the first 2 rows. And this is the problem. When I am in the last benches, I remain gloriously indifferent. Thrust me into the first few rows and at times I get the itch to put CP. (Class Participation) The discussion came to something about Indian plays in English and I started to say something. Unfortunately, the itch to put CP was magnified by the presence of this very nice looking lady. Normally, I do not like women cutting their hair short. If it is short by nature, good. If it is long, even better. But I found the lady quite attractive. Of course, it could be purely an attraction of opposites thing you know - someone in the arts as opposed to engineering. Being surrounded by geeky engineering women who kick your ass in courses (even the quanti ones) takes its toll. (It has been 6 years people, show some pity!)

Anyway... I started to say put CP and I kind of botched up the point. The problem was... what I wanted to say was, "Somehow I find English plays in India... peteru". I did not know how to say peter-u politely. There is no equivalent for that. You cannot say "I find English plays in India condescending and distant". These words are too harsh and not really accurate. Peteru is a more harmless word, it is a lightly sarcastic term for people who may be trying too hard to be "in". And that statement is more closer to the truth.

Therefore, when an audience sees a play in which all the characters are Indian, the setting is Indian and everyone speaks in English, that premise itself creates a distance. This is entirely different from an Indian actor playing a Hamlet role. The audience would find the latter very acceptable but not the former.

What is the problem? I contend that the fundamental differences lie in the way Indian languages are pronounced and the inflections in our voice while pronounciation. We are an effusive people, prone to demonstrations of emotions. The English are a people known to pride themselves for understatement and restraint in emotions. There is bound to be some disconnect when you use their language to express our emotions.

To demonstrate the difference between peoples, consider the difference in the sense of humour between the two peoples.

Compared to the west, our sarcasm can be really caustic. (Goundamani-Senthil jokes would be brutal if translated to English. It would be a good day for Senthil if he got away with "You black pig head"/ Karuppu panni thalaiya) The metaphors we use in our double meanings (not double entendres :P) are also more interesting (Refer Petromax) and varied and at times too far fetched. Third, there is quite a bit of self deprecation. Fourth, compared to English comedies there is a lot more slapstick humour. But most importantly, the inflection.

Exhibit A:

In one of S Ve Shekhar's play, there is the following situation:

In Tamil:

Patient: Doctor Doctor, kaala aani irukku

Doctor: Adhuku inga yen ya vara... nalla calendar-a eduthu maatiko

In English:

Patient: Doctor, I think I have a nail in my foot

Doctor: Nail? Why do you come here? Go hang a calendar.

Exhibit B

In Tamil:

Random Person: Annaen, enakku chappal vaanganum.

SVS: Poyi vaangiko

RP: Aana kadaiyile poana size-a kekaraangaley

SVS: Naan onnoda kaal size trace panni tharaaen. Poyi kaatu. Nalla velai underwear-ku en kitta varaliyey

In English:

RP: I need new chappals. (The lack of the Annaen Annaen itself reduces the comedy)

SVS: Why are you asking me? Go buy in a shop.

RP: I don't know my size.

SVS: Okay, I will make a drawing of your foot so that the shopkeeper can give you the correct size. (Aside) Thank God he does not need new underwear.

For those who understand Tamil, you can really see the jokes falling flat. For those who cannot, I think you get my point.

Why is that? Part of the comedy is in the way the patient conveys the urgency. He says "Doctor doctor" in a manner that acts as a cue for comedy. Note the repetition of the doctor. No english author ever repeats something like that. That is the point of sound of inflection coming in.

To take another example. There is a famous Vivek line "Epdi irundha naan, ipdi aayitaen". Half of the joke is in the way he delivers it, that look in his eyes when he says that. If you were to say that as "How my situation has changed"/"How the tables have turned", you see it lacks that punch. On the other hand if you say "How I was, How I have become", maybe it comes near the sense of the situation. It is a bit "I walk english, I talk english" level, but it carries that punch.

So the point is... I think plays written in English staged in an Indian context for Indian audiences should get more natural. They currently come across as peteru max. It appears that I have nicely identified the problem but have not offered a solution. Well, the moral is, authors who aspire to write more contemporarily need to look at succesful work in their local tongues and apply lessons from that in their English writing. To apply it to my own "writing", I faced a difficulty when I wrote the story "Romances of the Past". Somehow I could not invent characters by the name Ram and Lakshmi as the lead characters of that story. Somehow it does not gel. On the other hand for the story, "Big Man, Mad Dog and Velachery Vimala", I think the lines sounded consistent with the premise even though the whole story is written in English.