The Ash Track

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(Image Credit: Fandango)

“You have to walk if you desire to be fit”, Ash goaded Venky on as he huffed and puffed his way through the much treaded and cracked walking track. Rivulets of sweat streamed down his forehead, depositing themselves on his cheeks before plummeting down his Led Zeppelin T-shirt, which by this time was damp and soaked. The weather was not helping one bit. The sun blazed down with a vengeance and with an intent that was remorseless. But those ferocious rays were, but water off a duck’s back for Ash. Supremely fit she was a Greek sculpture. Kick boxing on Monday; Pilates on Tuesday; Badminton on Wednesday followed by an insane bout of Fly Cycling on Thursdays. Venky didn’t even bother wondering what the weekends were for her. All he knew was that she was a selfless soul who was trying to get his life back on track following a horrendous automobile accident that had shattered his hip and pelvic bones, and in the process immobilizing him for close to eight excruciating months.

If he had any radiance left in his being, it was Ash. His Ash. But he knew that he was not her Venky.

Will he ever be?

(Word Count – 200)

Written as part of Sunday Photo Fiction. Write a story of around 200 words based on the photo prompt given (above). Hosted by Susan Spaulding. For more details visit HERE

To read more of the stories based on this week’s prompt, click HERE

Conformity: The Power of Social Influences – Cass Sunstein

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In 1972, the social psychologist Irving L. Janis coined the term “Groupthink.” This term was employed to define a psychological phenomenon under which people endeavor to strike a consensus within a group. In most instances, people even set aside their own personal beliefs and philosophies before adopting the consensus of the rest of the group. People going against the overriding ‘group tide’ tend to maintain a veneer of stoic silence and quietude, often preferring not to rock the boat and let the harmonization of the crowd prevail.

But the pioneering example of the groupthink phenomena – without using the exact word – was bestowed to the world by George Orwell, courtesy his immortal epic, “1984”. Groupthink is but an analogy for and of its predecessor, “doublethink.” Doublethink as per Orwell in his dystopian work refers to the deed of simultaneously accepting two mutually contradictory beliefs as correct, often in distinct social contexts. Whether one desires to christen the phenomena Groupthink, or prefers the word doublethink or prosaically restricts oneself to calling it, conformity, the bottom line is that such acts produce outcomes that are not just undesirable or prejudicial but downright dangerous.

In his new and concise book, “Conformity: The Power of Social Influences”, acclaimed author Cass Sunstein dwells on the nature of conformity, its perils and possible measures to mitigate the ill effects of conformity. Conformity as Mr. Sunstein explains can be found in almost every sphere of our life. “Wherever we live – a small village or New York, Copenhagen, Jerusalem, Paris, Rome, Beijing or Moscow – we develop allegiances. Once we do that we follow informational signals from some people rather than others. We want the approval of those we admire, like and trust.” Mr. Sunstein brings to the attention of his readers the Power of Social Influences in bringing to bear upon people the attribute of conformity. In a social experiment conducted a few years earlier that involved assembling a number of citizens from two different cities to deliberate on three topic issues of our time: climate change, affirmative action and same-sex unions, the results revealed a startling trend. Individual opinions denoted a marked shift towards extremism and “Group Verdicts.” Citizens of the more conservative state veered towards extreme conservatism even if their individual opinion was to be liberal and vice-versa.

As Mr. Sunstein proceeds to illustrate this grain of conformity does not spare the judicial system either. “When sitting with Republican appointees, Democratic appointees often vote like Republican appointees, and sitting with Democratic appointees, Republican appointed judges often vote like Democratic appointees.” So what exactly influences individual beliefs and behaviours making them subservient to majority opinions even if such opinions might not be the most rational or logical alternatives? Mr. Sunstein focuses on two important factors: Informational influences and a pervasive human desire to have and to retain the good opinion of others.

 Informational influences dictate that “if a number of people seem to believe that some proposition is true, there is reason to believe that that proposition is in fact true.” The second influence postulates that “if a number of people seem to believe something, there is reason not to disagree with them, at least not in public. The desire to maintain the good opinion of others breeds conformity and squelches dissent, especially but not only in groups that are connected by bonds of loyalty and affection…”

Throughout the course of his work, Mr. Sunstein lays emphasis on three points:

  1. Confident and firm people will exert particular influence over otherwise identical groups, thereby leading them in dramatically different directions;
  2. People are extremely vulnerable to the unanimous views of others and thereby a single dissenter is likely to have a huge impact; and
  3. Bonds of affection, loyalty and belongingness within a group is far more likely to influence decisions on both easy and hard questions.

Mr. Sunstein corroborates his assertions by taking recourse to the experiments made by the Turkish-American social psychologist Muzafer Sherif, the Polish-American gestalt psychologist Solomon Asch and the American Social psychologist, Stanley Milgram.

Conformity is also an outcome of ‘peer pressure’ as has been dramatically illustrated by the Milgram experiments. People tend to take a deferential view towards the opinion of qualified personnel and experts. This deference exhibited by Milgram’s subjects towards the ‘expert’ in the experiment let the psychologist to an opinion that such obedience to authority was in a way reminiscent of the behavior of many Germans under the Nazi rule, However, Mr. Sunstein deigns to differ when he postulates that Miligram was not right in arriving at the German analogy. Milgram’s subjects were not simply obeying a leader but responding to someone whose credentials and good faith they thought they could trust.

Conformity is also the result of what Mr. Sunstein terms are “cascades.” In an informational cascade, people cease relying at a certain point, on their private information or opinions. They decide instead on the basis of the signals conveyed by others.”

Conformity will also depict a dramatic decline when people perceive themselves to be different from the perspective of ideologies, preferences, and allegiances from opinions expressed by ‘others’. Mr. Sustein calls this behavior “reactive devaluation”, to signify the tendency whereby people devalue arguments and positions simply because of their source. Conformity also takes a back seat when financial rewards are offered for making the right decisions or for providing the correct answers. People would be less inclined to follow group members when they stand to profit from a correct answer. Conformity also finds refuge in the phenomenon of Group Polarization. “Members of a deliberating group typically end up in a more extreme position in line with their tendencies before deliberations began. This is the phenomenon known as Group Polarization.”

Mr. Sustein argues for what he calls a “Voice of Sanity” to disrupt and derail the forces of conformity. Such a Voice of Sanity might even be a sole dissenter, a dissenter who typifies John Stuart Mill’s prototype “working against the tyranny of prevailing opinion and feeling.” As Mr. Sunstein claims, “if a group is embarking on an unfortunate course of action, a single dissenter might be able to turn it around by energizing ambivalent group members who would otherwise follow the crowd.” A classic case in point for the value of dissent being the marvelous study by Brooke Harrington of the performance of investment clubs. Dissent also finds enshrinement in the American Constitution, “which attempts to create a deliberative democracy, that is a system that combines accountability to the people with a measure of reflection and reason-giving.”

The most controversial ‘remedy’ to shun conformity is however reserved by Mr.Sunstein for the Courts. Arguing for what he terms ‘reasonable diversity’, Mr. Sunstein makes a clarion call for a requirement of bipartisan membership that operates as a check against judgments veering towards the extreme. Having a reasonable diversity, in the words of Mr. Sunstein would “ensure that judges, no less than anyone else, are exposed to such diversity, and not merely through the arguments of advocates.”

The facet of reasonable diversity might also be introduced in the realms of higher education according to Mr. Sunstein. “The idea is that education is likely to be better if a school has people with different views, perspectives, and experiences.” Justice Lewis Powell in the landmark decision involving the Bakke case, argued that a diverse student body is a constitutionally acceptable goal for higher education. The central reason is that universities should be allowed to ensure a “robust exchange of ideas” an interest connected with the first amendment itself.

“Conformity” in size is an extremely small and concise book. But the arguments packed within are more an eye opener leading to a path of potential progress than a manifesto that has been part of innumerable previous deliberations.

Dryden & Ash

Seeking refuge in alcohol, finding solace in the noise of Iron Maiden

Venky knew he was leading a life of illusion, resorting to Huxley and Dryden

Carrying reminiscences of his Ash in every vein artery and coursing blood cell

He was nothing without her and every minute of her absence was to him a living hell

Ash, his life, his love, his one and only belle

Ash, sans her his life was but an exercise in denial

Courtesy of Sammi Cox Weekend Writing Prompt#105

Hemingway Of The Hills

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(Image Courtesy: CRISPINA KEMP)

For the untrained and the unsuspecting, it was only an ugly unwashed, untenanted rectangular block of concrete, hopelessly trying to hide behind an even more ungainly sprouting of ill directed foliage. At first glimpse the man-made structure seemed a grotesque lump on the bushy hair of a gigantic head that was the preserve of a giant.

But for Venky, the ‘house’ – if the configuration could be called that – was paradise. A refuge from the hustle and bustle of procedure, and the laughter and lament of people. There was no time for pipe dreams and no need for city lights. A miraculously working kitchen worked over the proceeds collected from a small vegetable patch cultivated behind the house. A single bedroom with a modest bookshelf and an archaic cot was adequate for a solitary livelihood.

There, under the sunlight in the morning and the glimmer of a single tubelight, he wrote.

(Word Count: 150)

Written as part of the Crimson’s Creative Challenge #26 More details regarding this challenge may be found HERE.

Such a Lovely Face

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(Image Credit: Wikipedia Commons)

“Relax”, seemed to say the bank of milky white clouds, “we are programmed to receive. You can check out any time you like, But you can never leave!”  What was Venky trying to leave? Fate? Portend? Love? Life itself? Or was he arriving at some beckoning destination? The brilliant foliage of orange bursting forth from either side of the highway wickedly whispered in his alert ears, “Her mind is Tiffany-twisted, she got the Mercedes bends She got a lot of pretty, pretty boys, that she calls friends.” So that was it. Jealousy. Jealousy that was pure and child-like.

An overnight drizzle had left its slippery mark on the road. It was becoming difficult for the driver to obtain the requisite grip on the surface. To add to the discomfiture, even though it was only late noon, the poor visibility made driving with headlights an absolute necessity. His mind, if not priorities were as slippery, if not more, than the curving road which the vehicle was struggling to maneuver. Leaping from agony to ecstasy, swinging between euphoria and lament, he was a roiling cauldron of raw emotions. He never saw the mammoth SUV come careening in on the blind turn. Unfortunately for Venky, neither did the driver blinded by a ferocious burst of high beam. As the car ripped away the railings and cartwheeled like a ragged doll over the precipice, he remembered Ash’s favourite line before his eyes closed, “we are all just prisoners here, of our own device.”

(Word Count: 250)

#TellTaleThursday with Anshu & Priya

For more stories for the week, please click HERE

Pilachu’s Day of Reckoning in Mikanda

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(Photo Credit: A Mixed Bag)

It was a painstakingly crafted artifact. Only the most deserving and exquisite pieces of wood warranted chopping, choosing, carving, and polishing.  The two wings of the mythical creature were bent and curled upwards. The neck was peculiarly and agonizingly slender. The open mouth revealing the two sets of broad teeth seemed to be grinning whereas the rotund eyes expressed surprise. Two spindly legs gave miraculous balance and support to the animal.

Pilachu held her creation in her hands and patiently waited for the Queen Mother Chan Ming Choo to make her resplendent appearance. This was Pilachu’s day of reckoning. The whole of Mikanda would be eager witness to her test. At the anointed hour, Queen Chan Ming Choo glided by in a palanquin. Her head was adorned by a Tiara of glittering diamonds.

The palanquin bearers gently placed her down and she ascended her gigantic throne made of ivory and gold. A majestic wave of her hand and the ceremony began. Pilachu did an arm stand and balanced her art on her soles. A deft somersault and she caught the animal and bending on her knees offered it to Chan Ming Choo.

“Mikanda has chosen”, said the Queen. “ARISE PRINCESS PILACHU!”

(Word Count – 200)

Written as part of Sunday Photo Fiction. Write a story of around 200 words based on the photo prompt given (above). Hosted by Susan Spaulding. For more details visit HERE

To read more of the stories based on this week’s prompt, visit HERE.

Loonshots – Safi Bahcall

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One might be forgiven for nursing a genuine assumption that the most famous “Bush” surname belongs to one of two men, both of whom happened to be the Presidents of the United States of America at different intervals. Safi Bahcall, a second-generation physicist (the son of two astrophysicists) and a biotech entrepreneur might also have harboured a similar notion until the day when the Chairman of a project group constituting the then-President Barack Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology mulled about the goal of the group being to “write the next generation of the Vannevar Bush report.”

Piqued by curiosity, Bahcall proceeded to look up the storied life and achievements of the former engineer and inventor who was tasked with the Office of Scientific Research and Development during World War II. Most importantly, Bush laid the edifice for US’ whirlwind success in Science and Technology. The greatest good to have come out of Mr. Bahcall’s inquisitiveness to learn about Vannevar Bush is undoubtedly his wonderful book, “Loonshots: How to Nurture the Crazy Ideas That Win Wars, Cure Diseases, and Transform Industries.”

So what exactly is a “loonshot?”. Mr. Bahcall says, a loonshot represents “a neglected project, widely dismissed, its champion written off as unhinged.” The most significant and influential breakthroughs, are often, the results of loonshots, where the ultimate outcome’ pioneers are initially dismissed, written off and laughed away as being loony. Richard Miller, an oncologist was a CEO in a struggling biotech company. Miller, who also served as a part-time physician at Stanford University pioneered a new drug that promised a radical line of treatment for cancer afflicted patients. Not only was his drug scoffed at, it also led to Miller losing a boardroom battle and resigning as CEO. However, continued clinical trials resulted in not merely encouraging, but mind boggling results. Patients administered with Ibrutinib, – Miller’s drug – showed a nearly ten times higher response rate. FDA approval followed shortly before Miller’s company, Pharmacyclics was acquired by a pharmaceutical company for a whopping sum of $21 billion! A classic example of Mr. Bahcall’s Loonshot.

Akira Endo, a scientist from the food-processing division at the Japanese conglomerate Sankyo, faced an experience similar to that undergone by Miller, in his quest to finding a solution to treat cholesterol. As Mr. Bahcall asserts, a Loonshot usually has to survive a few “Deaths” before announcing itself to the world. From screening fungi in discovering the mold Penicillium citrinum to experimenting with chicken, Endo’s drug had to survive Three Deaths. Failures and rejections later statins changed both the face of medicine and the fate of millions of patients. Cumulative statin sales of the pharmaceutical major Merck exceeded $90 billion while sales from all statins have exceeded $300 billion. In 2008, Endo was the recipient of a delayed recognition of his contribution to the medical world, courtesy the impressive Lasker-De Bakey prize.

At the core of Mr. Bahcall’s Loonshots lies the analogy of phase transitions. The behavior of water undergoes a dramatic shift at the critical point of 32 degrees Fahrenheit. A glass of water into which one could lazily swirls one’s fingers goes absolutely rigid and freezes over at the point of 32 degrees Fahrenheit. What causes such a sudden change. More so when the molecules inside are exactly the same? This behavior in physics is popularly known as phase transition. This analogy according to Mr. Bahcall can be fruitfully employed to analyse group behaviours and their attendant changes. In other words, “there is something about structure that causes molecules to suddenly change behavior and that has nothing to do with the top or culture. It’s what elements of structure transform the behavior of teams and companies. structure can drive culture! There is a famous saying in business that culture eats strategy for breakfast and the theme here is that structure eats culture for lunch. Here’s an example. Let’s say you took 50 people and asked each one of them individually, are you excited about this early project? They’re all individually excited. You organize them into a group and then they collectively reject that idea. Why?

According to Mr. Bahcall, a good example of structure driving culture is that of the multinational enterprise Nokia. Before becoming the globe’s leading smartphone company, Nokia dabbled in what looked like a haphazard menagerie of randomly selected items – rubber boots, and toilet paper included. This pottered experiment underwent a phenomenal transformation resulting in Nokia swamping the market for smart phones. In the early 2000s, a team within the company came up with an idea of a large phone, with unique touchscreens and an inbuilt camera. The head honchos however put paid to the idea, until a few years later a startled bunch of Nokia engineers watched Steve Jobs unveil what seemed to be their own prototype – with a mixture of awe and trepidation. The rest as the cliché goes is history. As Nokia grew and expanded, its structure changed and it crossed that point where it became more about people’s individual incentives and politics. The moment that transition was crossed, it was a mere inevitability that Nokia was going to become an institution that was rigid.

For managing these phase transitions, Mr. Bahcall provides the following measures:

  • Separate the phases:

Create separate groups for inventors and operators: those who may invent the next transistor vs those who answer the phone. Wide management spans, loose controls, and flexible metrics work best for loonshot groups. Narrow management spans, tight controls, and rigid metrics work best for franchise groups. S-type loonshots are small changes in strategy no one thinks will amount to much, whereas P-type loonshots are technologies no one thinks will work.”

  • Create Dynamic equilibrium:

Innovative leaders with some successes tend to appoint themselves loonshot judge and jury. Instead create a natural process for projects to transfer from the loonshot nursery to the field and for valuable feedback and market intelligence to cycle back from the field to the nursery.

  • Spread a system mindset:

Keep asking why, keep asking how decision making processes can be improved and identify teams with outcome mindset and help them adopt a system mindset.

Mr. Bahcall also warns us to be wary of what he terms the “Moses Trap.” One place where the working of the Moses Trap is very apparent is Silicon Valley. In Mr. Bahcall’s own words, “the leader is so enamoured with new ideas. You need two conditions. Number one is an all-powerful leader where the decisions really get made from the top of the mountain. Two, you have someone who becomes infatuated with the crazy ideas and always wants to have the next one. You always hear that something is the holy loonshot that will save the company.”

PanAm fell squarely into the Moses Trap. PanAm was soaring high on proud wings (literally). Boasting a talented leader who identified new technologies that allowed him to build bigger, faster, better planes, he kept turning that cycle and that worked for quite a while until it didn’t. “He had all these competitors and he was building bigger faster planes, but some of them were working on small changes in strategy like frequent flyer miles, things like yield management with big data, how to arrange seats. Things that sound kind of boring but actually make a big difference, and when airline deregulation hit [creating a free market for the airline industry], he had big, fast planes but no competitors. His competitors didn’t have as high-quality planes, but they had small changes in strategy that allowed them to run a much more economical business. They survived and PanAm didn’t.”

PanAm, however was not the only company to find itself swallowed by the Moses Trap. Edwin Land’s Polaroid, could have become the host, emcee and showstopper of the world’s digital revolution. Land, in fact was at the forefront of the digital technology, when in 1971, as part of a secret panel advising the US president, he advocated digital photography, which the US eventually adopted for its spy satellites. But the brilliantly talented Land was myopic to the promise of digital cameras for commercial use. He wagered all his money instead on a high-resolution, instant-print movie technology called Polavision, launched in 1977. It was a commercial flop. Later, Land invited a guest to visit a warehouse full of unsold Polavision cameras. “I wanted you to see what hubris looks like,” he said.

“Loonshots” teems with a plethora of interesting, illuminating and insightful examples similar to the ones mentioned in this review. It also provides a platform to nurture Loonshot thinking and institutionalization of the same as an organizational habit.