Saturday, 26 April 2008

Art of Decisioning and Karl Popper

Starting from when to wake up from the bed we start making decisions like which shirt to wear , which train to take, whom to talk to, when to respond to an email, whom to take for lunch etc etc.. we all take countless decisions everyday (strategic, operational , tactical, good , bad, opportunistic, benovalent etc) . They can be categorized easily into those that work very well (not taking an umbrella when weather forecaster says it would rain heavily) to decisions that screw up very bad (concluding that Iraq had weapons of Mass Destruction ) .

Decisioning is really an art, which decides between life or death many a times. Though decisioning is well talked about and we are all aware of how critical it is to make a correct decision, many of us fail miserably many a times. To get this art into a science form there are lot of interesting experiments by Philosophers, I recently read one such experiments (“Conjectures and Refutations”) by the eminent philosopher Karl Popper. Those who are too lazy to check out who is popper from wikipedia, Popper is an Austrian philosopher who spent great deal of time in London school of economics (LSE)(1946-1969, subsequently knighted as well) and has influenced variety of philosophers and new age thinkers. He is not a guy with whom you will share a mild relation, people either like him to the core (Like legendary Investment banker George Soros) or other Classical empiricists who hate him to the core.

The book talks about scientific philosophy , origin of knowledge , decisioning etc and he covers them at great length at various different perspectives and sheds a great light on conventional wisdom. The part that intrigued me was that on the decisions we make, the way we form theories and their testability and falsibility. It started lot of questions and I started searching for the truth. (He has devoted an entire chapter on truth also), As we all know (in popper's words), truth is always relative and it is very hard to reach the absolute truth. When Galileo proposed his theory , it held good (after a great deal of reluctance from vatican) till newton arrived , newton's version of truth was better than Galileo's and kepler's and Einsteins was far better than newtons and so on. But individually their postulates helped to overcome and correct the assumptions that the society held till that point of time.

Leaving truth aside(it gets too philosophical and to us it is of no use),If we were to consider decisioning to be a black box , it has two main inputs , facts and assumptions (at a given situational context). The facts and assumptions are predominantly derived out the knowledge repository that we have gathered genetically as well as from our own experience. The knowledge that we gain is based on our observations and the inferences that we make out of them. He argues that unfortunately we don't do a critical evaluation of the inferences we make and we don't do it for the assumptions that we carry along as well. This could mean that we carry a sig
Popper's philosophical genre is what is being called as “critical rationalism” and he has done a remarkable work on it. Apart from treating it as a branch of philosophy , one could use his critical rationalism in variety of practical purposes , starting from psychology , economy to business intelligence etc. He mentions that this is a heritage of the greek philosophers that western civilization has accepted as a mainstream thinking which has resulted in numerous scientific discoveries (eastern society was close to invent a steam engine, they had a similar concept but used it to make rice-cakes) .

Human mind is very good in making judgments based on the known facts , but doing a critical evaluation and being driven by the assumptions that are influenced by biases have cost huge amount of lives and money from both the good sides and bad sides.

Anybody out there dying to make a bad decision?, evidently nobody would (Not sure about Bush, though) . Then, why do we keep taking bad decisions all the time? , Cant we all sit back , spend lot of thoughts and take right decisions all the time. Unfortunately that is not how it happens. We make decisions based on our prior knowledge with the time constraint a situation poses and tend to make lot of assumptions in the due course, if we are rational (a bit lucky as well) and have critically evaluated the assumptions that are the constituents of a decision making process , then it increases our probability of the decision being good, nothing else.

With an infinite permutations and combinations of events and possibilities of the occurrence of events which we are not even aware of ( only terrorists knew the flight could be made as a kamikaze bomber but not the police during 9/11) , the confidence level of a decision being successful increases . Please note this can never become an event with a probability of one (unless you decide on a fact like , today sun will appear in east and will set in the west, which is also debatable as we are making an assumption based on the observations on the laws of nature).

If decisioning seems to be such a hard stuff, why people tend to talk about it so less, unfortunately we all tend to think about things in the way we are taught to in the early part of our life and form rigid patterns of learning, we tend to develop our own convenient ways to deciphering and reacting to the challenges that a situation poses and this rigidity shuns our mind from adding more assumptions and a chance to evaluate them. But the philosophers starting from Xenophanes, Socrates and recent contemporary philosophers like Tarski, Russell, Popper etc have spent a great deal of energy and efforts into it and it is sad that this knowledge still remains elusive to a small circle.

It would be good if analytical reasoning and the views of several philosophers /scholars can be taught as a part of the curriculum for all of us as it would definitely make a better world, till that time lets keep making decisioning in our own ways and keep messing up to make the world a more interesting place. World would be a dull place to be filled by smarter people alone. Can you think of a super intelligent George Bush!
References :
Conjectures and Refutations by Sir Karl Popper
Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb (Image reference)
And a bit of google and wiki.

Tuesday, 22 April 2008

Great Moghul Buildings on a Indian Summer Roadtrip

Few things would be more fascinating than the moment when , what your boring history teacher taught comes to life before your very own eyes. I have always been fascinated by the history of(probably everything) moghul emperors who ruled India before the British. The grandeur of the palaces , the cities, gardens and the cuisine (biriyani, chicken tikka etc) that they have introduced have left an everlasting mark (both good and bad) on the history of India, especially in her medieval period.
I was keen to take a road trip in the northern part of India as a part of our annual north indian road trip with my inlaws. and after contemplating various choices like Gurukshetra (where Mahabharata epic war was-supposed to have been- fought), Jaipur, Mathura Brindavan etc we decided upon Agra and Fathepur Sikri as it would be a good chance to liven those dull pages of the histroy books depicting the moghul period.
Day 1
The Moghul history (as we all know) started with Babur and progressed with humayun, Akbar (famously) , Jehangir, Shahjehan (lavishly and lovingly) , Aurangazeb ( hatedly) and ended in a chaos with the last moghul Bahadur Shah. We started our exploration with Redfort and it was really “grand” in its truest senses. The very thought that you are walking among the places which altered or determined the due course of Indian history was exhilarating.
Brushing aside the ugliness/damage caused by those who want to be a part of the history by etching/sketching in the walls to leave their names (mostly their lover's as well) Redfort is well preserved and has well spoken about places like Diwanii-Am (the courtyard which hosted Peacock throne – taken away by Iran's Nadir Shah-) , Diwani-Khass (where Chatrapathi Sivaji was interrogated by aurangazeb), the Tajmahal view where shah jehan was kept prisoner by his own son Aurangazeb. Except for the disappointing guide that we employed who twisted the history to his own whims , it was a day well spent.
Day 2
Our next stop was Tajmahal, it would be a waste of time to add anymore words to describe it and all the good words (majorly romantic) in all the known languages have been spent to translate the awe inspiring Taj Mahal. The Industrialization has not spared its splendour and what used to be a White Marbled Taj and is almost yellow now and my uncle was joking that in the due course the pollution would automatically ful fill Shah Jehan's desire of building a Black Taj (he has infact laid the founding stones on the other side of the yamuna river) by converting its color from yellow to black.

Though Taj stands for an obnoxious (close to reckless) spending of people 's money by shah jehan's (even his son felt so and put him in prison for his last 8 years) , If one may consider the boost it has given to Indian Tourism and the innumerable people who make their living , starting from rickshaw-wallas , guides, to those interesting photographers (who make you feel/pose like shahjehan for 1000 Rs ) etc, I strongly felt , it was a nice investment for SJ for the Indian tourism.
Our Last stop was at Fatehpur Sikkri which was built by “Akbar the great”, as a mark of his grand victory, Akbar is believed to be the most tolerant (but some facts say differently ) moghul emperors of all. Interestingly he had a wife each from Muslim, Hindu (Jodah Akbar – she was talked about more than Akbar by everybody thanks to the recent hit hindi movie in her name) and christian religions, its no wonder that he created Teen-Elahi which he proposed as an amalgamation of the three religions.
I was really thrilled to roam around in his court where he would have been conversing with the great ministers like birbal and the lovely music court where tansen would have been rendering those immortal ragas.

Just to ensure that I get a proper dosage of Indian summer before starting my next travel , I visited a hindu temple in a place called Sripuram near vellore fully woven by gold by a self proclaimed god (man), it was huge , intricate, stunningly beautiful and people have been flocking like mad to have a glance of the god (presumably gold, I suppose) . One would definitely find it enjoyable as a tourist attraction, forgetting the I-AM-THE-GOD type stories. I had lots of questions on the pur pose of the building on the lines of Christopher Hitchens (“God is not Great”) , but kept them with in myself just to ensure I respect others sentiments.

Buildings start their life from the days of their conceptualization in the minds of those who had/have access to the huge kitty (of others) , carried on by the architects who gave life to the thoughts by their superior design (the use of trignometry principles in Redfort) and those poor builders who toiled for ages – Taj Mahal took 20000+ men and about 22 years-. Not all of them are completed and the lucky ones like Redfort, TajMahal etc stand as a proof of the “bigger than life” type imagination of those who wanted to outlive the time and be remembered by future generations. Visionaries like Akbar, Shahjehan have definitely achieved it evidently as no one is bothered about people like Jehangir (poor guy, built a huge library !), aurangazeb etc. Lets love buildings...

Sunday, 6 April 2008

In search of Lively bookstores in London!

Bookstores small and big have a life unto themselves and going to bookstores definitely provides a good experience - at least for the bibliophiles-. The fresh paper smell, knowledgeable staff , great selection of books to your avail would definitely could leave a great feeling of satisfaction of time well spent in them. London with its blend of modern values and legacy has a plenty to offer for those who love that personal feeling of visiting a booksho. Especially, Charing Cross road is full of bookstores from Borders, Blackwell, Foyles , a couple of secondhand bookstores etc. This is just an attempt to connect the dots on my pursuit of good bookstore's over the last three weeks .

Week 1:

Foyles was the first bookshop that I started with, Foyles is one of the oldest bookstores in London ,started in 1903 by two brothers, William and Gilbert Foyles, who set the shop to sell the books that they left with after failing in the civil service exams. Foyles has an extensive collection of books ( loved those books on pirates). Though it has many a sections, the collection lacked depth, I ended up staying mainly in the philosophy section and bought a couple of books.

Week 2:

After a bit of googling, I found Hatchard's to be a cut above the rest- it is the oldest surviving bookstore in whole of UK (Started in 1797)- and it didnt fail to impress. The shop has a well preserved legacy look(especially those reading chairs), after walking around for a while, I eventually moved on to my favorite section. Disappointingly the philosophy section was very weak. In the tills – I bought “Conjectures and Refutations” from Karl Popper- the staff accepted the fact that they have a very little collection on philosophy and surprisingly, referred me to couple of other places (competitors) where I could find a good collection. I don't know whether his manager would like that!

Another interesting place I found near Hatchard's was the “Fortnum and Mason” which was started in 1707 as a grocery – a supermarket now by evolution-, It was really an interesting place with all those costly items (350 pound hats, 150 pound umbrella's etc). It had an unimpressive small book section (majority on cookery , wine etc) as well.

Week 3:
After having lost the mobile , the weekend seemed to be more personal ,with an absolute control over my destiny. I decided to hit the Waterstones near Piccadilly (based on Hatchard staff's reference). After waving bye's to the party goer's in the stretch limos, I entered the biggest bookstore I have ever been to (they own Hatchard's as well), it was so huge that people were sleeping on the reading coaches- you feel bad when you want to sit and read-.

Waterstone's has a big collection of every possible books on all the possible titles -with a huge one epistemology as well-, but I didn't get the same warmth as in Foyles and Hatchard's. The staff (at least those whom I encountered) were less knowledgeable and more like those who are behind the train ticket counter. In spite of huge collection of philosophy books ,somehow I didn't feel like staying there for a long time. After spending a while in the Travel section, I headed back to Hatchard's to spend my evening with whatever they have got.

In the fast paced world, where book reading habit is dwindling drastically, very soon the smaller as well as bigger bookstores could be extinct paving way to supermarkets. Though these days could be a bit far, the smaller soulful bookstores would definitely be missed. After all , buying books is an experience we could always cherish, somewhere i read a quote about fishing which went like, 'Fishing is about that experience, many confuse it with the fish".

Tuesday, 1 April 2008

Psychology of social networking sites

Nobody passes a day these days without checking out or without getting an invitation to join a social networking sites, they are the in thing and if you are not a part of these vogue stuff, you will be branded out of touch with the system, and with those net junkies , the peer pressure adds up even more.

If you start digging deep into to the psyche of the social networking site, we can understand our human carving to be associated with a group. This didn't start recently and has been since from our primordial days, man (and women too) started moving in groups for the want to food and safety which eventually led to the birth of villages , cities, countries etc and etc. Being in a group (except if you are a true lion which by probability very low) just adds to your comfort and you feel more courageous if you are among the crowd of like minded people. (Refer single theory , group theory etc or those pranks in your college days).

The key tenet of Internet has been collaborations among a diversified groups and initial days of web was all about consolidating information, it was a good foundation which led to newer interactions with somebody/thing whom you wouldnt have dreamt of meeting . For a society whose constituents had a shrunken vision of life, thanks to the widely accepted materialistic values, this was hardly sufficient and thus started chat .Chat was(is) a transient interaction and it built good (and some bad too) relationships. Evolutionary theory started playing a role and gradually web started moving towards social networking.

I dont have a clue about the exact birth of social networking sites (wikipedia is a different genre ) and am sure our wikipedians would take care of that, there are numerous popular soc networking sites like myspace, facebook, linkedin, orkut, bebo. flickr etc with huge fan following and very niche sites like asmallworld which are by invitation only but all of these exploit our carving for being in a group (not forgetting those emerging virtual world ones). So there is something to choose from whatever may be your want. But the sad fact is apart from being popular and money spinning machines, these sites are becoming more like Walmarts , Carrefours and Tesco's of the world. Pure commodity stuff.

On the otherhand there are set of emerging sites like twitter , librarything, passportstamp really stand out of the crowd for different reasons, twitter is a microblogging site and is a real cool stuff. Librarything is one the most useful site which exists for a purpose , where you can set up a catalog of your books (200 for free membership) in no time with all the information and you can put it in your blog also for a random display of your books, passportstamp is a site where you can keep a track of your travels and am sure if we dig more we could get more.

Whatever said and done, its good to understand that technology helps in getting people closer together where religions (were they supposed to ?) and other great leaders have failed. It would be interesting be see what would be next evolution of these sites, may be we all will dwell in the virtual communities and would be debating with socrates , aristotle in a greek amphitheater sipping our super chilled fosters. Lets keep our eyes open, in the mean time lets socialize more in the real world with real people, there has been no substitute to it.