Good Strategy Bad Strategy: The Difference and Why it Matters – Richard Rumelt

Good Strategy/Bad Strategy by Rumelt, Richard (ebook)

A uniquely distinguishable book from its normal run of the mill compatriots, “Good Strategy Bad Strategy” by Richard Rumelt, makes for some refreshing as well as ambivalent reading. While the author by juxtaposing real life examples and management theory, rivetingly differentiates good strategic making capabilities from the bad ones, the reader at the end is still left ruminating on the one differentiating element that separates strategy from other routinely employed measures such as vision, long term and short range planning etc. Rumelt bemoans the fact that the experts and the unsuspecting alike seem to be perpetually yoked to certain misconceptions when it comes to strategy. Such misconceptions lead to unintended consequences for both the executives as well as their corporations.

So what according to this reputed and renowned Harry and Elsa Kunin Emeritus Professor of Business & Society at the University of California, Los Angeles Anderson School of Management, are the attributes of a good strategy and the pitfalls of a bad strategy? Let us dive deep into the world of paradoxical decision making:

A good strategy according to Rumelt has the following three “kernels”:

  • Diagnosis
  • Guiding Policy and
  • Coherent Action

Rumelt’s solution and definition of a proper strategy is one that confines within its nub the ‘discovery of critical factors in a situation, and designing a way of coordinating and focusing actions to deal with those factors.’ Thus the first step in any good strategy is to identify and candidly acknowledge the existence of a problem. The second step is to chalk out a guiding policy to address the problem and finally, employ a set of coherent action steps that overcome the seemingly insurmountable obstacles in an implementable, rational, cohesive and logical manner. These were the kernels that enabled Steve Jobs to bring Apple back from the brink when the company had lost sight of its priorities and focus, and aided and abetted General Norman Schwarzkopf to pull off the impossible in the Iraqi war which had, at the outset forecast some terrible loss of lives for the US and Coalition Forces. “Good strategy requires leaders who are willing and able to say no to a wide variety of actions and interests. Strategy is at least as much about what an organization does not do as it is about what it does. The second natural advantage of many good strategies comes from insight into new sources of strength and weakness. Looking at things from a different or fresh perspective can reveal new realms of advantage and opportunity as well as weakness and threat.”

So is there something called a bad strategy?

As Rumelt informs his readers, Bad strategy does not mean an absence of good strategy. A bad strategy is emblematic of specific misconceptions and leadership dysfunctions. Rumelt argues that there are four inimitable “hallmarks” characterizing a bad strategy:

  • Fluff: A form of gibberish masquerading as strategic concepts or arguments.
  • Failure to face a challenge
  • Mistaking goals for strategy; and
  • Bad strategic objectives where strategic objectives are set by leaders as a means to an end.

Rumelt illustrates the example of fluff by taking recourse to an excerpt from an internal strategy memoranda of a reputed international bank. “Our fundamental strategy is one of customer-centric intermediation.” According to Rumelt, “The Sunday word “intermediation” means that the company accepts deposits and then lends them to others. In other words, it is a bank. The buzz phrase “customer-centric” could mean that the bank competes by offering depositors and lenders better terms or better service.”

Rumelt also warns his reader on the perils of falling prey to a ‘template style strategic planning.’ More often than not strategies are a concomitant of a template that determines what a “strategy” should look like. Being an imprecise concept, leaders have this understandable tendency to adopt a tenuous template that is amenable to easy and uncomplicated “filling in.” These templates then double up as “strategy documents.” Thus, a plethora of vision and mission statements, corporate values and of course, overall holistic strategies.

Sources of Power

Part II of “Good Strategy Bad Strategy, titled “Sources of power” dwells into the various practical strategic approaches and their advantageous application. Some of the most common means of such application, according to Rumelt are:

  • Using Leverage
  • Proximate Objectives
  • Chain-link Systems
  • Using Design
  • Focus
  • Growth
  • Using Advantages
  • Using Dynamics
  • Inertia and Entropy

The complete inability of Blockbuster to perceive the threats posed by Netflix that ultimately led to the former becoming bankrupt or Microsoft’s pedestrian response despite having a large early lead in mobile phone operating systems, that accorded a gigantic  opening for Apple and Google represent classic illustrations of the Inertia and Entropy facets.

The concept of proximate objectives simply means focusing on an objective that is close enough at hand to be feasible, i.e. proximate. For instance, while the first moon landing has been eulogized unrelentingly, many miss out on the fact that in the year 1969, the objective of landing a man on the move was already a proximate objective. This was mainly due to the fact that President John F. Kennedy realised the requisite technology and science was within arm’s length and it was just a matter of allocating, focusing, and coordinating resources in a systematic fashion.

Similarly, a system has chain-link logic when its performance is limited by its weakest link. This implies that every department is dependent on other departments and any inefficiency in one department will adversely impact the overall performance of the entire system. For example, IKEA designs its own furniture, constructs its own stores, and does not outsource even its supply chain. This is a perfect example of a chain-linked system. IKEA will be rendered vulnerable if even one link in its chain underperforms.

Rumelt rounds off the discussion on the Sources of Power and their harnessing to achieve comparable and industry advantage by elaborating on the strategy adopted by Nvidia, the computer graphics entity that dominated the market for 3D graphics.

While Rumelt’s book is definitely one of its kind, the author could have devoted more time to drive home the quintessential elements that constitute strategy thereby differentiating the term from a whole horde of confusing and mimicking management jargons.

Small Things Like These – Claire Keegan

Claire Keegan pays a glorious tribute to the thousands of tormented mothers – employed by the infamous Magdalene Laundries, also known as the Magdalene Asylums in Ireland – whose lives were nothing short of an inferno. “Small Things Like These” is an achingly emotional fictitious story that highlights in equal measure the paradoxical traits of cruelty and altruism, which unfortunately are an inevitable prerogative of mankind. The Magdalene Asylums were institutions operated by the Roman Catholic orders. Claiming to have been established to provide support and succour to “fallen women”, these institutions confined a whopping 30,000 Irish women whose babies were separated by being forcibly given away for adoption. Worse, a Mother and Baby Home Commission Report revealed that in just  eighteen of such institutions, nine thousand babies had lost their lives due to various reasons. In 1993, a mass grave containing 155 corpses was uncovered in the convent grounds of one of the laundries.

Keegan’s protagonist, Bill Furlough is a hardworking devout Protestant inhabiting the quaint town of New Ross. Furlough supplies coal, turf, anthracite, slack and logs to the townspeople. A stickler for punctuality, Furlough does all the deliveries himself. Waking up at or even before the crack of dawn, Furlough painstakingly fills his truck with the logs cut up by his employees before personally depositing them at his customers’ locations. Born to a single mother, Furlough has memories of being bullied at school, called names, and once even having come home with the back of his jerkin inundated with spit. However a timely magnanimity of a widowed benefactor Mrs. Wilson and her caretaker Ned ensures not only a roof over the heads of Furlough and his mother, but also a life of self-esteem and respectability. Mrs. Wilson takes Furlough under her tutelage and complete care when his mother suddenly keels over on the cobblestones one day, in the process of wheeling a barrow of crab-apples, and dies.

Determination, resolve, and resilience see Furlough go to technical school, establish a footing for himself in life and also be the provider of a happy household comprising a wife and five fine daughters. But just before the Christmas of 1985, when Furlough drives up to the “training school” run by the Good Shepherd nuns in charge of a convent, to deliver a stack of logs, an incident shocks him to the bone and alters his life forever. Ms. Keegan sets the stage for the seismic upheaval in such an unsuspectingly innocuous manner that the reader is just blown to smithereens when Furlough comes face to face with a life altering dilemma. The training school a euphemism for a launderette is the hotbed of conjectures and surmises. “Some said that the training schoolgirls, as they were known, weren’t students of anything, but were girls of low character who spent their days being reformed, doing penance by washing stains out of the dirty linen, that they worked from dawn till night. The local nurse had told that she’s been called out to treat a fifteen year old who had varicose veins from standing so long at the wash-tubs.”

Oblivious to all of these rumours, Bill Furlough’s truck sputters and complainingly creaks its way up a hill where the training school is located. Not spotting anyone in the front of the building, Furlough hesitatingly makes his way to the back of the training house. Finding a padlocked coal house door, Furlough instinctively forces the door open. “As soon as he forced this bolt, he sensed something within but many a dog he’d found in a coal shed with no decent place to lie.” Only that in this case it was not a dog but a young woman instead. Lying on the floor in her own excrements and with the front of a gown tainted with her own breastmilk. A shocked Furlough gently guides her to her feet before handing her over to a surprisingly remorseless Mother Superior who just wants Furlough to be off her premise.

This incident shakes Furlough’s conscience and just when he is coming to grips with it, a devastating fact about his parentage rattles the very foundations of his belief. Now burdened with not just one, but two startling revelations, Furlough decides to take matters into his own hands. What he proposes might turn out to ruin not just his own life but the lives of Eileen his wife, and also his five daughters all of whom have promising futures ahead of them.

Will the Christmas of 1985 bring Bill Furlough ecstasy, or would it consign him to an existence of infernal ostracism and rebuke? Claire Keegan has delivered an absolute “one sitting” masterpiece. Even though the book can be devoured in a sitting, the aftereffects of it will continue to haunt the reader long after she has finished lopping off a thousand other books.

Incidentally, no apology was issued by the Irish Government over the Magdalen laundries until 2013, when Taoiseach Enda Kenny finally deemed it worth to do so.    

(Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan is published by Grove Atlantic/Grove Press and will be released on the 1st of December 2021)

Making Excellence A Habit: The Secret to Building a World Class Healthcare System in India by V. Mohan

Making Excellence A Habit: The Secret to Building a World-Class Healthcare  System in India by Dr. V. Mohan

Part-memoir and part-manifesto for inspired living, “Making Excellence a Habit” is one man or rather one determined family’s unrelenting crusade to prevent and treat diabetes. Dr.V.Mohan started out with his wife Rema Mohan in an unassuming fashion in 1991 on a mission. Egged on by borrowed funds and benevolent well wishers the couple faced insurmountable hurdles ranging from a scheming landlord to a most unsuitable location in which to begin a dedicated medical facility for the treatment of diabetic patients. Undeterred they persuaded, ploughed away, and persisted. At the time of writing this review, Dr. Mohan’s Group is one of the largest chains of diabetes centres in the world, comprising 48 branches spanning eight states and spread across thirty two cities all over India. This Group has treated to the north of 900,000 patients and is also the collaboration centre for World Health Organization on Non Communicable Diseases Prevention and Control.

Dr. Mohan’s capabilities and renown transcends geographies. In the year 2018, the American Diabetes Association conferred the 2018 Dr Harold Rifkin Award for Distinguished International Service in the Cause of Diabetes on Dr Mohan. As on date, he remains the only Indian to have been the beneficiary of this august honour. As the diabetologist chronicles in the early part of his book, his ambition was more to follow in the aesthetic footsteps of Shelley and Wordsworth than in wielding a stethoscope or a scalpel. However an enviable pedigree and an engrossing opportunity put paid to such hopes. Dr. Mohan’s father Professor M. Viswanathan is popularly referred to as the “father of diabetology” in India. He was the first medical professional in the nation channel all his efforts in furiously dissecting diabetes to its minutest level with an avowed objective of serving the Indian populace plagued with this silent killer. He soon took the enterprising Dr. Mohan under his tutelage and the father son duo tackled the onset and progression of this disease with a maniacal rigour. “By the time I had completed my undergraduate medical education, I had already written twenty research papers. As our economic standing improved, I also started travelling with my father—initially, around the country and, soon, all around the world. This exposed me to the work done on diabetes at various research centres and universities, nationally and internationally. Needless to say, my self-confidence got a huge boost.”

But as Dr. Mohan demonstrates in a telling manner, nothing comes in life on a platter. Grit, guts, and gumption are indispensable handmaidens of success. This is the very grit that has ensured that this famed practioner has penned more than 1300 peer reviewed research papers in the field of diabetology. A devout man, the doctor is also an ardent follower of Bhagawan Sathya Sai Baba, the popular spiritual Guru. The author’s twin-pronged belief in prayer and the power of positive thinking is articulated in a Chapter where a patient through unflagging will power and persistent prayers successfully brings down his blood sugar levels from an alarming number to a perfectly “manageable” number.

Dr. Mohan also pays a moving and heartfelt tribute to his late wife Dr. Rema Mohan. A specialist in diabetic retinopathy herself, Rema was a pillar of strength and succour in the life of Dr. Mohan. Working with an indefatigable fervour in the running and embellishment of Dr. Mohan’s Specialist Diabetes Centre she was the epitome of encouragement and optimism. Even when beset by cancer and undergoing chemotherapy and radiotherapy, she continued to work from home. “It was during this difficult period that she wrote her PhD thesis and eventually became the first ophthalmologist in India to obtain a PhD degree. Although a clinician, Rema did basic research on the biochemistry of diabetic eye disease, which was most unusual for an ophthalmologist.”

Dr. Mohan throughout the book displays his penchant for literature and an insatiable love of books. Deriving inspiration from both spiritual and scientific authors, he co-relates many incidents from his own life with passages from various books. Dr. Mohan also illuminates his readers on the valuable lessons one can learn from failures and setbacks. Many branches of Dr. Mohan’s Diabetes Centres were shut down in various cities (one Centre was unsuccessful after incurring huge expenses in Muscat even) on account of various factors and as Dr. Mohan humbly states, each failure was a lesson that collectively warned him about the perils of spreading oneself thin.

Dr. Mohan also places invaluable emphasis on the need for inculcating an altruistic bent. His Group approached the World Diabetes Foundation (WDF) in Denmark and requested their support in establishing a telemedicine unit. With the support of the WDF, Dr. Mohan and his Group fabricated, from scratch, a mobile diabetes clinic, the first of its kind, fitted with all the equipment needed to screen for diabetes and its complications. The Indian Space Research Organization donated a satellite link, which was fitted on the bus. This enabled the images in real time, to be sent, from the van to a base hospital in Gopalapuram in Chennai. Quoting “The Psychology of Persuasion” by bestselling author Robert B. Cialdini, Dr. Mohan goads his reader to ‘start by taking the smallest possible action towards your goal and then leverage that commitment to motivate yourself to do more.’

As Dr.Mohan educates his readers, the pernicious yet burgeoning incidence of child obesity also contributes immensely to an upsurge in diabetes. With a view to nip child obesity in the bud, Dr. Mohan commenced a vast programme to prevent obesity in children. “Through the Obesity Reduction and Awareness and Screening of Noncommunicable Diseases through Group Education in Children and Adolescents (or ORANGE) project, we reached out to 22,000 children in over 100 schools in Chennai, both government and private, where we taught them the importance of healthy eating, physical exercise and the overall need to prevent or treat obesity. The project was a huge success and led to an improvement in the lifestyles and health of thousands of children. One can practice the prevention of diabetes.”

“Making Excellence a Habit” is a passionate quasi-autobiography that illustrates the power of determination, devotion, dedication, and discipline. It would not be out of place to state to conclude that Dr. Mohan seems to lead his life uncompromisingly based on one of the favourite quotes of his spiritual preceptor, Sri Sathya Sai Baba, “hands that help are holier than the lips that pray.”

Operation Varsity Blues – Chris Smith

Netflix documentary to examine man behind college admissions scandal | KUTV

In her book “Let Me Tell You What I Mean”, Joan Didion in an achingly wistful fashion recounts her feeling of desolation upon receiving a letter of rejection from Stanford University. In an essay titled “On Being Unchosen by the College of One’s Choice”, which every parent ought to read, Didion mulls on how she  contemplated suicide while sitting on the edge of her bathtub with an old bottle of codeine-and-Empirin. Sanity prevails in the end as she brushes away the ominous thought. Upon hearing the news that her daughter’s application to Stanford was rejected, Didion’s father just shrugs and offers her a drink. “I think about that shrug with a great deal of appreciation whenever I hear parents talking about their children’s “chances””, muses Didion.

Director Chris Smith of “American Movie” fame brings to bear in a brilliantly matter-of-fact yet devastating manner, the infamous college admissions scandal that rocked and shocked the United States. In an original Netflix documentary titled, “Operation Varsity Blues”, Chris Smith showcases the brazen and seemingly inconceivable “side door” scheme perpetuated by the now convicted “education and life coach” Rick Singer. Matthew Modine, who essays the character of Rick Singer to un-distilled brilliance, boasts to one of his high profile clients, “if you want to use my side door at Harvard, it is $1.2 million. But if you wanna go through the backdoor, Harvard’s asking for $45 million.” Neither the scheming counselor nor the willing parent even considers the “front-door” option which has students getting into Ivy League Institutions through talent and grit alone.

Celebrities, business tycoons and magnates and fashionistas made a scramble for the Rick Singer’s side-door. When the scandal was unearthed and the dust settled down, Singer has pocketed approximately $25 million between 2011-18. Most of the money went in bribing college administrators and coaches. Singer had opened a jaw-dropping 761 side doors when the penny finally dropped. Throughout the documentary, Modine works the phones with a single minded determination bordering on the obsessive. Regaling his impressed and astonished potential clients with his modus operandi, Modine furiously works through 21 hour workdays, jet setting from coast to coast. The documentary also depicts Modine establish a for profit education counseling company “The Key”, in addition to setting up a nonprofit foundation “The Key Worldwide Foundation” that is exempt from tax. This is exactly what Singer did. Depending upon the institution which a parent wishes his or her child to secure admissions in, Singer named a price and the amount was wire transferred into the foundation’s account. The money was then channeled to enrich various “point men” such as Yale University Football coach Rudy Meredith and USC Water Polo Coach, Jovan Vavic, who were hand in glove with Singer.

Amongst the people who participated in this insidious scheme were Hollywood celebrities, Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin; founder and chairman of International Dispensing Corp, a food and beverage packaging company, Gregory Abbott; CEO of a boutique marketing company Trendera, Jane Buckingham; owner of a family wine vineyard in Napa Valley, Agustin Huneeus Jr; and senior executive at TPG private equity firm William McGlashan Jr. As Perry Kalmus, an independent education counselor bemoans in the documentary, “the running line in our industry is like, ‘the parents are applying to college’. The kid is the vehicle through which they apply to college. Chris Smith dexterously employs the wiretapped phone calls of Rick Singer and weaves a story line in a totally non-linear fashion based on such phone calls. Smith also succeeds in getting a firsthand testimony from one of the accused in the case, who incidentally was also the one who was let off with the lightest indictment on account of being held not maliciously culpable. Stanford sailing coach John Vandemoer holds forth about how Singer pumped funds into his sailing programme but where the funds were actually utilized for enriching the very purpose for which it was reluctantly made available.

Smith also chillingly portrays the role played by Mark Riddell in the entire grandiose scheme of things conceived by Rick Singer. A Harvard graduate himself in addition to being a former director of college entrance exam preparations at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, Riddell was paid $10,000 for each of the harmonized ACTs or SATs which he was required to edit for the students. Riddell frequently flew from Florida where he was residing to various test centres in Texas and California. At the test centres he doubled up as a proctor before manipulating applicant’s answers to arrive at a ‘predetermined’ score.

“The word prestige means deceit in French” explains John Reider, a former Admissions Officer at Stanford. Prestige that is generally attached to admissions into the hallowed portals of Ivy League institutions, according to Reider is just an “imaginary illusion.” In an era where education symbolizes more badges of honour than an infusion of character, and where – as Michael Sandel illustrates in his brilliant book, “The Tyranny of Merit” – entry into an elitist Ivy League Institution becomes the very end, rather than a mean, Chris Smith in a breathtaking manner blows the lid open to reveal a broken system that exploits anxieties of parents and the angst of children to the hilt thereby birthing a form of corruption that is not just endemic, but institutionalized.  

The insipid and almost laughable nature of “punishments” imposed by the Department of Justice on the perpetrators of the Operation Varsity Blues scam will only lead to an intermittent lull in proceedings before there arrives more grist for a perpetually working mill. Meanwhile the likes of Chris Smith still go about their work unstintingly in trying their best to throw some sand in the gear. May The Force Be With their ilk!

Whirlpool

An orbit of influence is a dangerous whirlpool

Whose swirling eddies suck in many an unsuspecting fool

Birthing chat bots and echo chambers

Fueling incendiary passions and stoking deadly embers

Always remember the wisdom behind taking things with a pinch of salt

Enjoy life with swigs of unadulterated single malt.

(Word Count: 50)

Sammi Cox Weekend Writing Prompt #201

Unsung Valour: Forgotten Warriors of the Kurukshetra War – Curated by Sai Swaroopa

Buy Unsung Valour: Forgotten Warriors of the Kurukshetra War Book Online at  Low Prices in India | Unsung Valour: Forgotten Warriors of the Kurukshetra  War Reviews & Ratings - Amazon.in

As unerring in impact, as the immaculately whetted tip of an arrowhead employed in the epochal Kurukshetra war, “Unsung Valour” is an unvarnished, unabashed and unashamed tribute to some of the heroes whose fearless and valiant exploits in what arguably has to be the greatest war every fought – mythically or otherwise – in the annals of human history, remains muted if not altogether forgotten. As the introduction to the book astonishingly elucidates “about 466 confrontations were recorded with 216 going in favour of the Pandavas and ninety-two in favour of the Kauravas. The quantitative study was a striking contrast to the popular imagination cemented by later retellings. A stunning aspect of this study was that about twenty-five per cent of the victories on both sides were contributed by warriors who aren’t given their due in the popular imagination.” Imagine sacrificing the skirmishes and battles of the Siege of Lille, Battle of the Scheldt, and the Yelnya Offense at the altar of Dunkirk, Stalingrad, and Normandy! Indic Academy, with this collection of stories curated by renowned mythology writer Sai Swaroopa attempts to remediate the above travesty, and it would be an understatement to proclaim that their endeavour has succeeded in great measure.

Whilst it would be defeating the purpose of this review to recount and regale the reader with the relevance and radiance of every protagonist in the book, it would also be equally remiss if a few of the gems are not concisely articulated. The tone and tenor of the collection is set by Ms. Bharathi Venkat, who in “The Fall of The First Son” holds forth on the selfless Iravan. Born to the Pandava Prince Arjuna and a Naga Queen Ulupi, Iravan is an accomplished archer as well as a master illusionist. When the battle between righteousness and chicanery commences, Iravan offers his services and that of the indefatigable Nagas to the Pandavas. Ms. Venkat highlights in exquisite detail the courageous exhibition of skill and strength by Iravan on the battlefield, which unfortunately ended in his demise at the hands of Alambusha, a Rakshasa.

Ranjith Radhakrishnan probably pens the story of the book (in my personal opinion) containing within its confines the portentous ruminations of Shakuni. “Shakuni: The Dice of Death”, captures in an eviscerating  fashion the deceit, despondency, and deviousness of the sinister Shakuni. A master at every possible subterfuge and chicanery, Shakuni sets the scene for the apocalyptic war by defeating the Pandavas by treachery in a game of dice and divesting them of their kingdom. Now as the battle rages on, Shakuni is plagued by self-doubt and recriminations. As Mr. Radhakrishnan illustrates in a refreshingly ingenious manner, “The dark deep set Onyx like eyes” of Draupadi haunt and taunt Shakuni in dream and waken state alike. “She had many names: Krishna, the dark-skinned one; Yagnaseni, born of the sacrificial fire; Panchali, the Princess of Panchala. It was her, no doubt. The blazing flames of sulphur that Vidura reminded him of were inscrutable black onyx now. Black as death.”

“The Invincible” by Ms. Roopal Vaish on Jayadratha, the antagonist is so expertly done, that it almost induces a feeling of approbation in the reader for a man, who otherwise, is worthy of the strongest rebuke and detestation. Narrated in the first person, this is one of the best stories in the book. Spurred on by a boon from Lord Shiva that accords the unique privilege to Jayadratha of defeating all the Pandavas – barring Arjuna- in battle on a single day, The King of Sindhu is all primed to play a pivotal role on the 13th day of the Kurukshetra war. The cockiness, arrogance and a perpetual attitude of smirk that irritates friends and foes alike is encapsulated in such an effervescent fashion by Ms. Vaish that the reader keeps going to the story again and again.

Glorious and exemplary deeds of audacity by Ghatotkacha, the son of Bhima and Bhagadatta the son of Narakasura, the demon slayed by Krishna, by Mr. Shivakumar G.V and Mr. Deepak M.R respectively make for some riveting reading. The description of duels, be it the formidable Bhagadatta wreaking havoc whilst sitting atop his ferocious and gigantic pachyderm Supratika, or a rampaging Ghatotkacha creating wanton pandemonium amongst the entire Kaurava army by laying waste thousands of redoubtable combatants with a fury hitherto unseen, take the reader to unchartered terrains in so far the breadth of imagination is concerned.

“Unsung Valour” does yeoman service by instilling the valuable trait of curiosity into readers young and old. This treasured attribute will go a long way in not just furthering the quest for knowledge, but also aid and abet in according one of the greatest band of unsung heroes their rightful, honoured and storied place under the Sun. The laudable efforts of Mr. Harikiran Vadlamani, founder of Indic Academy and Advaita Academy, who conceived this project and Mr.Chetan Mahajan of the prestigious Himalayan Writers Retreat, who mentored the talented writers during a five-day online workshop call for special mention and appreciation.

“Unsung Valour” is a succinct, subtle, and saccharine agglomeration of cause, consequence, and courage. Story telling in its simplest and most telling sense!

Klara and The Sun – Kazuo Ishiguro

Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro

Absorbing, influential and extremely thought provoking, “Klara and The Sun”, represents the Nobel Laureate Kazuo Ishiguro’s bold attempt to grapple with an urgent, relevant, and essential conundrum, by masterfully employing the medium of fiction. Humanity today is close to achieving a degree of intersectionality between man and machine that was hitherto deemed unimaginable. This convergence is pregnant with possibilities, benevolent as well as malevolent. Such a paradoxical potential has led to a cleave where vociferous optimists take cudgels with vehement pessimists. “Klara and The Sun” is a reflective and meditative rumination on the collision and coalescence of humanity and Science.

Klara is an Artificial Friend (AF). AF is a novel euphemism for ‘friendly robot.’ In fact a voluble woman in the book likens Klara to a “vacuum cleaner” possessing humanoid features. “One never knows how to greet a guest like you. After all, are you a guest at all? Or do I treat you like a vacuum cleaner?” Klara is selected by a young girl Josie to be her AF. Before Josie ‘handpicks’ Klara from a clutch of similar AFs, Klara spends her time watching the sun rise and set, through a window in a storefront where she is ‘displayed.’ Klara is an older version of a breed of AFs that has been superseded in both sophistry and capability by a new variant popularly known as B3. However what Klara lacks in ability, she more than makes up for in acuity. An uncanny facility to perceive the emotions and passions of people around her makes Klara a singularly unique and extraordinary AF. Klara has a reverential attitude towards the Sun since solar power is beneficial for her functioning. This ‘plants’ an innocuous albeit unwavering notion in her that the Sun stands for ‘nourishment’, a nourishment that is soothing and all powerful.

Klara’s experience is set in a period, where on account of a phenomenal technological breakthrough, parents are provided the luxury of having their children “uplifted” via a process known as genetic editing. Josie is an “uplifted” child herself. A bright and intelligent girl, Josie suffers from a debilitating illness which in addition to severely restricting her physical capabilities, also threatens to bring to a premature end, her very tenure on earth. The one bright spark (in addition to Klara), in Josie’s otherwise challenging existence is her neighbour Rick. Rick however, on account of certain unfortunate circumstances is not an uplifted boy. Children who are not “uplifted” are almost entirely deprived of enjoying privileges such as admissions to prestigious institutions, and consequential career prospects. They have no choice but to fall back on their innate abilities and natural talents to compete with an aggressive and disparate tribe of similar unfortunates.

As a spectator to the interactions between Rick and Josie, Klara understands the complexities that characterize human behaviour and the sizzling under currents that dominate inter-personal relationships. Even though perplexed at first, Klara, in a gradual manner succeeds in getting a grip over the various emotions that permeate human communication and contact. “I believe I have many feelings, the more I observe, the more feelings become available to me.” Klara’s understanding is also representative of a phenomenal writer at his lambent best. Ishiguro’s inimitable imprimatur of conveying the profound in a most simplistic (but not reductionist) manner makes Klara’s journey a brave exploration of uncharted terrains. Consigned by the intellectual and the rustic alike as a mere assemblage of nuts and bolts strung together by unseen wires, Klara is relegated to the background and is a mere footnote in the grander scheme of worldly things. Yet she demonstrates a mettle and character that would put even the most meticulously groomed amongst all Homo Sapiens to utter disdain.

The Sun rises, spreads kaleidoscopic patterns of light on whatever is touched by its rays, obediently goes down once his work is done for the day, all under the serene stare of Klara. But Ishiguro in his irrepressible style introduces a devious twist which not only upends the normal lives of Rick, Josie and their loved ones, but also threatens to dismantle Klara’s faith in humanity itself. The compassion epitomizing Klara’s very functioning is overlooked by an opacity on the part of humans who wrongly and routinely attribute mechanistic traits to her. The assumption that Klara is devoid of all feelings, bereft of all emotions and impervious to sentiments forms the bedrock of a thinking that is muddled in and by entrenched dogmas.

If Ishiguro’s magnificently Dystopian “Never Let Me Go” wrestled with the ethical dilemmas underlying the humanization or dehumanization of mankind by in the oblique context of organ harvesting, “Klara and the Sun” in a significantly less Dystopian vein attempts a reconciliation between man and machine. As Ishiguro seems to clearly imply, even in a world swirling with pessimism and wreaked by pandemics, there is hope. Lest one be carried away by this seemingly positive import, this is not a hope nested in the Panglossian oeuvre that has besotted the likes of Steven Pinker. Instead, the optimism takes a more measured and nuanced tone that would ordinarily be the prerogative of say, a Daniel Susskind.

While Ishiguro might not have reached the artistic apogee that blazed through the hallways and bedrooms of the immortal Hailsham boarding school, the symbiotic relationship between Klara’s complex humanoid circuitry and Josie’s equally complicated amalgam of human emotions, spurs the reader to believe that there is a place in the world for a new future, a future characterized by sanguinity and succour.

The Case for Basic Income: Freedom, Security, Justice – Jamie Swift & Elaine Power

The Case for Basic Income – Between the Lines

The early part of the twentieth century birthed an extraordinary concept, where the ethics of work was deemed synonymous with the concepts of diligence, discipline and frugality. Termed the Protestant work ethic, this philosophy was first purveyed by the German sociologist, Max Weber. Also known as the Calvinist or Puritan work ethic, this thinking laid the steppingstone for the birth of capitalism. Unwittingly, the Protestant work ethic also resulted in a “sacralization” of work. Irrespective of the quality, indignity, brutality, or even futility of the nature of the job, the employee or worker was supposed to bear the same as a badge of honour. This entrenched dogma has led to a sustained and consistent opposition to schemes such as Universal Basic Income (“UBI”) or Guaranteed Basic Income. Politicians as well as taxpayers, irrespective of the ideologies they espouse seem to stand on a harmonized footing in their deplorably common belief that any scheme involving an unconditional payment of money would in the larger scheme of things, turn out to be a deleterious “largesse” encouraging sloth and vice. Award winning Canadian journalist Jamie Swift and Head of Department of Gender Studies in University of Toronto, Elaine Power, set out in gut wrenching detail the timely conception and untimely evisceration of a Universal Basic Income Pilot (“UBIP”) Project in Toronto.

Indefatigable efforts expended by the likes of Hugh Segal, former Senator, political strategist and a vociferous proponent of Basic Income, and health economist at the University of Manitoba, Evelyn Forget, whose meticulous revealing of 1,800 boxes of raw data from a similar Basic Income Project in Mincome in the 1970s lent further credence to the concept, resulted in the region of Lindsay being selected as the ‘saturation’ for the institution of a Universal Basic Income Pilot (“UBIP”). Supposed to be for a duration of three years, the Project was flagged off by former Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne in late 2017. However, in spite of its tremendous success (as attested to by the beneficiaries of the scheme) the UBIP was brought to a grinding halt by the newly elected Premier Doug Ford, a Member of the Progressive Conservative Party. Ford, within days of terminating the scheme announced with great pomp and splendour his intention to reduce the cost of beer to just one buck. Talking about priorities!

As Swift and Power beautifully illustrate, the COVID-19 pandemic that is wreaking wanton havoc across the globe has brought to light a new set of unsung heroes in the form of essential workers, and health care providers. But while the world was temporarily honouring these ‘heroes’ a precarious socio-economic situation still ensured that these people were forced to put their lives in danger by taking the public transport on a daily basis and ensuring that there was no interruption in their services to the general public. However, with some of these essential workers taking on multiple roles especially as caregivers in old age homes, the risks to both the caring and the cared takes on ominous proportions. The Canadian Institute for Health Information reported that some ten thousand long-term care workers were infected. The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the need for ushering in safety and security for the economically underprivileged and racialized segments of the society. The Canadian Government, responding to this clamour introduced the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (“CERB’). A whopping eight million Canadians applied for benefits under CERB. However as the authors illustrate an incorrigible linking of paid employment with CERB ensured that close to 1.4 million Canadians did not qualify for CERB. Again the sacralization of work had reared its ugly head.

With two Canadian billionaires Galen Weston and David Thomson enjoying the same proportion of wealth as is the prerogative of the poorest 30 percent of Canada, establishing exclusion criteria for a UBI only goes on to accentuate the perils of inequality. As the authors illustrate, Canada has always been a fertile ground for propagating the benefits of Basic Income. The Basic Income Canada Network (“BICN”) in fact as the authors write, “published the first-ever detailed set of policy options for a Canadian Basic Income, identified as an unconditional cash transfer from the state to individual people.” In a landmark report issued as long back as in 1971, the Special Senate Committee on Poverty headed by Senator David Croll, recommended a national Basic Income Plan to be income-tested and funded by the federal government. There was also the Mincome Project established in Winnipeg and Ottawa in 1974, with predominant funding provided by the federal government. The Canadian Council on Social Development (“CCSD”), supported a guaranteed annual income initiative christened as “CORE”, in the 1980s. CORE, critically strived to accord recognition and importance to what Swift and Power term to be an “amorphous” category of “community Development”, along with “voluntary work, education and training, and child rearing.” Thus an auspicious beginning was made towards an attempt at “desacralization” and redefinition of work.

Riding on the back of such illustrious and formidable social initiatives, the UBIP was kicked off with great fanfare, when in April 2007, Premiere Wynn stood before four thousand people from Hamilton-Brantford, Lindsay, and Thunder Bay to inaugurate the Pilot. The proposal was for every beneficiary to receive $17,000 per year. The programme was a resounding success as it enabled many people otherwise dependent on food banks and disability benefits to hope for a life of dignity, self esteem and good health. Single mothers such as Jodi Dean, whose daughter Madi Dean was suffering from an incurably debilitating disorder such as osteogenesis imperfecta, and patients such as Lance Dingman who, a fall and eighteen surgeries later still chose to lead a life of independence and courage, were immensely benefitted by the UBIP as were multiple other small business owners and labourers.

Yet Doug Ford and his party decided to pull the plug on a perfectly well functioning UBIP, just 8 months into its introduction. This was a scheme that taken an immense load of stress off its beneficiaries and lent them a degree of status and confidence. Behavioural psychologist Eldar Shafir and behavioural economist, Sendhil Mullainathan, “showed that reducing stress about money allowed people to think more clearly.” Ford and his party were egged on in their indiscreet action by the likes of the vitriolic Brian Lilley. A columnist for the Sun, Lilley terms the UBI “stupid” and rails against it at every given opportunity. This is in stark contrast to the views of long standing and rabid UBI advocates such as Guy Standing, Philippe Van Parjis and Yannick Vanderborght, who are steadfast in their opinion that building a Basic Income floor simply “helps equalize what people are given and more roughly “what they might achieve with what they are given”.

In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle holds forth on the virtues of a contemplative life and articulates how happiness can be established through virtue. Perhaps it is time to bring this simple yet profound philosophy to bear. It is time to undertake a brave and timely “desacralization” of work. A delinking that would ensure that in times of rampant robotization and automation, displaced workers can still find their footing. To quote Daniel Susskind in his seminal work, “A World Without Work”, “economists had thought that to accomplish a task, a computer had to follow explicit rules articulated by a human being — that machine capabilities had to begin with two-down application of human intelligence.” But machines are “now deriving entirely new rules, unrelated to those that human beings follow. This is not a semantic quibble, but a serious shift. Machines are no longer riding on the coattails of human intelligence.” 

A UBI is not just to ensure that a harassed worker escapes a bad boss and still manages to lead a life of basic sufficiency and adequacy, although this in itself is good enough a reason. A UBI however goes beyond this. It attempts to bestow facilitate an aspiring yet economically debilitated individual to find genuine purpose in life. With this book, Jamie Swift and Elaine Power do much more than just add credibility to this proposition.

(The Case for Basic Income: Freedom, Security, Justice by Jamie Swift and Elaine Power is published by Between The Lines and will be released on the 3rd of May 2021)