Invisible bin

Obliviously obvious – India is dirty

Reflecting on the thoughts and opinions I entertained while spending time in India, I think that I came away for it having learned new lessons and for those lessons to be shared with people who may not get this experience.  Otherwise, what justifies the indulgence of traveling somewhere to learn when you can stay at home and read? However the lessons are not as apparent as I might have hoped.  Having experienced mild culture shock earlier in my life spending time in Cambodia, the surface appearances and outward behaviours one encounters in India didn’t have the same shocking effect and obvious impact they once might have.

The lessons India administers can be as subtle as a breeze in your hair; an ordinary everyday experience which leaves you feeling like you’ve been changed somehow but not quite sure what that change is until a later instance of self-reflection.  My most profound learnings in India have been of a very personal nature and as of yet I’m not quite able to encapsulate them in words for sharing, but I will endeavour to raise myself to the task.

On the other hand, some aspects of India, which may be deemed blinding obvious from the surface even without visiting the country, have provided me with interesting observations of the culture when examined a little closer.

India is dirty
India is corrupt
India is crowded
India loves gold
India is spiritual

Each of these will be examined in due course.  Of course it should be stated that these observations are completely subjective based on my limited experiences in India and in no way should be taken to define the indefinable subject which is India and Indian culture.

India is dirty
One of the most oft-noted and discussed aspects among visitors to India is just how dirty and littered it is.   Upon arrival it’s something which can take some time to get used to, but you do get used to it.  I only noticed how accustomed I had become to it when I visited Mangalore, a city in the more economically developed south, and had this strange feeling when walking around the city.  “It’s so clean”, I remarked to my companion.  “It feels so weird!”, she responded as we ambled through a town centre which did not have any litter. This is not to suggest that Mangalore was the only place where I noticed cleanliness but it was noteworthy at the time as it was the first clean street I had observed in a number of months, over a few thousand kilometres of travel.

To say that “litter” and the act of “littering” are the problems at hand does not paint this picture with the vivid colours and gigantic canvas this situation warrants.  A person can be accused of littering when they neglect to dispose of their waste in the bin.  India has neither bins nor a concept of waste disposal which involves applying any more effort than throwing the litter out of your immediate personal space. It’s almost as if by moving it out of your personal space, it ceases to exist.

When confronted with a problem (the rubbish) with an easily identifiable solution (clean it up), one immediately starts pondering the reasons as to why this is not already happening. Having discussed his with numerous people some of the underlying notions which create this outcome were revealed.

An American acquaintance named Max told me a story which I shall paraphrase:

“Travelling on a train, I found myself sitting beside the Head of R&D for a well known Indian pharmaceutical company.  This gentleman was from the highest caste in India, had the finest of educations and occupied a vaulted position in Indian social society.  We began discussing all manner of matters and soon we came to the issue of the rubbish.

A strain of his higher caste sentiments were coming to the fore when describing how the problem should be tackled; “it’s a case of ‘it’s not my problem’, there’s someone else whose job it is to pick up the rubbish”.

A person of his caste, Brahman, would expect that someone of a lower caste would be tasked with picking up the rubbish so therefore it was not something he needed concern himself with.  I asked him, “As a scientist, do you think the rationale behind your thinking is grounded in reality?”.  “Obviously not, just take a look around you.” he replied referring to the rubbish strewn at the side of the tracks.

“What do you think could actually be done to change the situation”, I asked?   “Encouraging each individual to be responsible for his actions and not to pass the responsibility onto someone else”, he responded after some contemplation.  Satisfied that I had engaged this intelligent man in a conversation which had brought about a realisation, I settled into my seat to enjoy the remainder of the journey.

A few minutes later, my enlightened friend unwrapped a sweet, popped the sweet in his mouth and then leaned over me to toss the wrapper out the window of the moving train.  Our eyes met and in that moment, our conversation was relived, each and every word, and like the impending fate of the sweet wrapper, all the lessons went right out the window as he said to me ‘There’s someone whose job it is to clean up the tracks.’ “

Ugly Indians?
When looking for reasons to explain this situation, you’ll encounter a number of the same themes: government corruption; lack of funds; lack of public awareness to commit to a clean up; lack of personal responsibility.

One group who are taking to cleaning the streets of Bangalore, have a postulated that one of the main reasons is “ugly Indians”.

© Copyright 2010. The Ugly Indian. All rights reserved. An e9ds design

“We Ugly Indians are part of the problem and only we can solve it.”

The situation is acknowledged by those at the highest offices of the Government yet the problem persists.

“Our cities are the dirtiest in the world. If there is a Nobel Prize for dirt and filth, India will win it hands down.” Jairam Ramesh, Minister of Environment 2009-2011.

The future
It’s inevitable that this situation will be rectified, either by choice or ultimately necessity when the mounds of rubbish pile so high that they pose an issue to the balance of the earth on its axis of rotation.  The timeline for this is the trillion dollar question.  I say trillion dollar question as I think that the cleaning up of india will have effects far greater than just making the streets lighter of litter.

In a manner similar to the broken windows theory, a social-political initiative in New York in the 1980s where the central concept was as such: repair the broken windows and other small cosmetic defects in a neighbourhood, people will start taking more pride in their community and as a result, petty crime will fall.  The experiment was deemed a success and has been documented in considerable detail by researchers and writers.  India’s broken windows are its piles of rubbish.

Addressing the issue and cleaning up India could have a propagating effect on the population which will carry forth into other areas which require cleaning up.  Once the streets are cleaned up, people will inevitably begin to take greater pride in their communities, villages, towns and cities and will be propelled forward to solving other social problems.  Clean up the street and you’ll clean up the country.

Deep down I think the Indian politician establishment knows this and it would go a long way towards explaining their lack of action toward solving this easy-to-solve issue.  In a country of 1.4 billion people, there is no lack of resources to address these problems, but there is a lack of motivation to get things started.

In part 2 (India is corrupt), I will talk about some of my observations on the Indian political process during the run up to the 2014 election where Narendra Modi lead the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to victory in a country fraught with electoral corruption.

Related reading:
The police and neighborhood safety – BROKEN WINDOWS by JAMES Q. WILSON AND GEORGE L. KELLING

A letter to Twiggy

Dear Andrew,

Your “Our Iron Ore” campaign has ignited the public imagination. It has reminded people that the resources which lie in the ground actually belong to all of us, the people of Australia. On, it states, “We are all impacted by the disappearing iron ore dollars in our economy and we want to ensure Australia gets the most benefit from the mining and resources industry in the future.”

Your critics have described your campaign as self-serving. They might have a point considering you were instrumental in opposing the Mineral Resources Rent Tax (MRRT) back when the price of iron ore was delivering record profits for your company, Fortescue Metals Group. From my understanding, the MRRT also intended “to ensure Australia gets the most benefit from the mining and resources industry in the future.” Alas, it was not to be and now we find ourselves where we are today.

Pope Francis and Andrew Forrest. Picture: Chris Warde-Jones/GFN
Pope Francis and Andrew Forrest. Picture: Chris Warde-Jones/GFN

Detractors and the past aside, I take the issues you raise today at face value. And as such, I offer my support for your cause. Let’s shine a light on these industry practices and ensure that Australia gets long term benefit from its precious resources.

I also urge you to extend your considerable influence even further. To ensure our great nation gets the most benefit from mining and resources long into the future, you could gift your share of the resources industry to the Australian people. Donate your FMG shareholding to the people and sign your name in the Australian story as the harbinger of social and economic change.

Your considerable wealth is not necessarily the solution to our economic woes, but an act of generosity such as donating your wealth to the greater good, could in my opinion, be a catalyst for major perspective shift in our society.

Reasons against the idea: you wouldn’t trust the state/federal governments with your company; you want to keep all your hard-earned money for yourself; it sounds like one step away from socialism.

Reasons supporting the idea: the gratitude and respect of 99% of Australians; an opportunity to be recognised as a selfless global visionary; ultimate moral high ground for your current campaign.

In “The Lucky Country”, Donald Horne wrote “Australia is a lucky country run mainly by second rate people who share its luck.” You’ve shared its luck. Are you more than a second rate person? I know you have the potential to do this and deep down, I believe you share the desire to really change Australia, and the world, for the better. If nothing else, I hope I’ve given you something to ponder.

Yours sincerely,
An Australian

P.S. I also wish to congratulate and commend the fine work you are doing with the Walk Free Foundation. An admirable cause.

In my second opinion

What constitutes an informed opinion? Does it follow one infallible source of truth? Or does it come from integrating many truths into one’s own? How wide do we open our minds when forming our opinions? Do we go narrow and deep into one specific area? Or broad and shallow across the best of various ideas? To what extent do we really challenge the basis of our opinions and others?

When confronted with an unsavoury medical diagnosis we often request the infamous “second opinion”. This is to confirm that the bad news is really as bad as it is being proposed or to seek the lining that may be lurking somewhere in that cloud. I say infamous, as it has been known to provoke more than a bit of scorn. When one esteemed professional’s opinion is not deemed esteemed or professional enough for the layperson who has the audacity to suggest that their first opinion even requires validating.

Your doctor reveals an unexpected diagnosis of your condition and the suggested prognosis for recovery might be so life-changing, that inquiry for the second option of an expert is required just so that the decision can pass the reasonable test of “really, are we sure? Have we double-checked?”. That’s what the second opinion is, the double-check. Surely not beyond the realms of a reasonable request? We double-knot our shoes, forbid we trip and fall, so of course one should double check important life-changing information when it’s presented.

The usual cause of requesting a second opinion lies in the severity of the proposed future should the first opinion be deemed correct. In medical cases, it can involve undergoing chemotherapy and in others, switching off life support. It has consequences of the most intense nature imaginable. Hence it should be agreeable that establishing the relative correctness of the first option should be undertaken. The testing of correctness should extend to its applicable limit, even assessment to determine if this is the correct general course of treatment to be prescribed when there exists alternatives which lie outside the specific discipline which is being consulted in the first place, and within whose boundaries the nature of the testing is defined.

In the case of cancer diagnosis, the second option is often sought when the first opinion diagnoses cancer with a treatment of chemotherapy. A second opinion is then sought, which confirms the diagnosis of cancer hence the prognosis of chemotherapy. In this case, would a second opinion from outside the traditional medical community be of more value in these circumstances? The verdict of cancer is unlikely to be ruled out by any credible alternative medical practitioner, the disagreement may lie in what method makes the optimal treatment. I say optimal because when considering the heavy weight between the physical effects of chemotherapy, the recurrence rates of cancer, and the value of quality of life, a balance must be found which puts the person at the centre of the situation.

Real decisions in realty reality
It’s one of the most life defining moments for many people lives, the purchase of their family home. Signing up for a mortgage with a 10-30 year commitment is a significant commitment and one which involves the opinions of many people in the interaction. The big question, “When is the right time to buy?”, as it applies at both a business and personal level. The value is affected by various market forces which determine the price paid for a property at any given time. Buy when the forces are about to go in your favour, and you win, buy when the forces align against you, and you lose. Win or lose money in this case, or borrowed money, or mortgaged time, all items and constructs of considerable value. WIth all this at stake, getting the best answer to this question is a matter of vital importance.

In the property game, real estate agents or brokers, are the king-makers in a land of pauper princes and princesses. They advise sellers on prices and they advise buyers on prices. They sit in the middle of these delicate negotiations with one clear objective in mind, facilitate a transaction which results in a commission percentage. Ask them when is the right time to buy and the answer might be right “about now, maybe tomorrow at 9am, here’s my card”. In this scenario, the diagnosis is “currently priced at 350K before it goes up to 400k in one year”, with a companion prognosis “30 year variable rate mortgage”. A second opinion might yield “nothing worth buying now, wait one year until priced at 325k, prognosis 27 year mortgage”. Two very similar modes of action defined within a very narrow scope with deep long-lasting impacts.

Where does the qualified alternative second opinion come from here? What’s the alternative diagnosis to this question of time in a game all about timing. The competing qualified opinions of realtors which are driving the consensus that infinite appreciation is possible in the property market must surely be deemed to be the same sides of an argument which is creating a bubble but denying its existence. Can these opinions really be deemed viable secondary sources of valid information?

Stock brokers and rule breakers
A similar dynamic is at play when discussing financial markets and the forces which push and pull on FOREX, stock market and interest rates. Recent revelations regarding insider collusion among banks in setting interest rates to exploit their customers, shows that we must be more critical in our assessment of what are considered acceptable measures of oversight in an industry whose effects are far reaching, and whose rewards are disproportionately weighted to towards certain behaviours i.e. maximising profits.

The basic, “Are you sure? Have you double-checked?” investigation method might fall short in this circles. In the case of the LiBoR revelations, the banks involved had responsibility to double-checked their calculations and ensure everything was correct. They were the primary and secondary sources of informed opinion for the market. It’s just that due to their own short-term personal interests, they were able to misrepresented the truth because their word was deemed the beginning and end in all discussions involving their business practices.

The revelations proved there was a conspiracy to manipulate data and calculations, so that even a qualified second opinion in the field would have deemed it sound. That an long-established, highly-rewarded and “respected” industry thought it acceptable to treat its customers this way, one might ask if other industries are similarly guilty of such manipulations? The incentives are there, the potential is there, are we to be as innocent to think that other corporations aren’t actively conspiring in the same way the banks were?

The very nature of having control of a decision, small or large, puts you in the position where someone may be affected by the result of your decision. In the case of a material acquisition, the person selling the item to you stands to benefit, the person missing out on the sale, stands to miss out. The value of consumer spending in the western world makes it such that one of the biggest spending industries is advertising. It is worth billions of dollars to influence where billions more are spent. So it is worthwhile for someone with something to sell, to ensure that their interests are best presented to potential buyers.

We can see a similar influence at play when decisions of a political nature are made, which affect the lives and bank balances of people. We hear of decisions being made in the economic interests of the nation. But what exactly are those economic interests being referenced? Does an increase in a state’s GDP or the profits for a selected group of businesses, reflect the economic interests of the population at large? There should be more to political decision making, than short-sighted decisions which use GDP and profit as the best measuring sticks of the quality of a decision.

Yet inside political influencing circles, the ones most likely to be seated in positions of influence tend to come from a very narrow segment of our society. It is well documented the extent to which business interests yield an inordinate amount of influence on decision making in the political establishment. When the spectrum of debate and variance of opinions on a topic are derived from such a select segment of the populace, the standard to which original opinions can be tested will inevitably be lowered.

There are a multitude of ideological areas where there are concerted efforts by players in that area to keep the frame of all discussions inside their realm of control. If you can control the debate, you can control the outcome of the debate. Anarchist protest groups are marginalised as much as possible by governments and business, not just because their ideas are not aligned with business and political interests, but that consideration of their ideology calls into question the entire basis of our understanding of democratic and capitalist societies. But when considering societal policy, we match up competing policy A against policy B in a ring where the rules of engagement have been defined by a narrow spectrum of starting assumptions, and the judgements passed by those purporting the particulars of the policies. Should we not be holding up our ideas against their extreme counterpoints to determine their suitability for our purposes?

Actually challenging your base assumptions vs. reconfirming your existing assumptions
A lesson to extrapolate from all of this could be summarised as when engaging a second opinion, one should rebuild the entire case from the bottom up, redefining all base assumptions if required, as opposed to conducting a top-down justification of the initial opinion, with the depth of the inquiry only going as far the level required to satisfy the most basic criteria of conceptual soundness. Rather than engage a realtor to challenge the assumptions of another realtor, engage the services of an investment analyst who believes that the property market is in the midst of a bubble. The opposing base assumptions (if sound), will build an alternative view of the situation and perhaps provide a different insight with another series of options available to the person in search of advice. Best case scenario, one ends up with a variety of opinions aligned on a definite course of action. Worst case scenario, one ends up with more opposing information than they can reasonably fit into a proposed model of their situation. Especially when addressing issues which can impact a person’s lifestyle for the next 25 years, no decision (a null decision) based on good information is better than a bad decision based on no information.

Are you open to the idea that you may be completely wrong in your way of thinking?
The inherent dangers in employing the services of a contrarian’s professional opinion are that it may require a complete overhaul of one’s base assumptions, should the contrarian prove their case in an appropriate manner. To question a person’s methods of reasoning by providing an alternative method for consideration is one thing, but to challenge a person’s base assumptions, upon which they have selected all of their methods for navigation through the minefield, can be met with more strenuous resistance. But isn’t this where we should be focusing the intention of our questioning, at the very roots of the arguments? To attempt to address arguments by working on the surface and to a certain depth, is to neglect the fact that we are always running the risk of being wrong by the basis of the fact that our original assumptions are wrong. The construct of an argument is only as sound as the assumptions which form its basis.

Considering the range of opinions on offer as we navigate the world, the question arises for us to contemplate: Are my secondary opinion sources really secondary or are they just confirming my primary judgement? If you align with left-wing political ideologies, do you consult right wing sources for balancing your judgement, or do you seek other left leaning opinions to further validate your position?

What constitutes an informed opinion? Is it one which has gathered all the data and opinions which support its hypothesis or does it seek and integrate the arguments which try to completely undermine the basis of its existence? An informed opinion should not fear the stress testing of a different angle or way of thinking. Rather it should welcome it, as the nature of it’s being “informed” is dependent on its exposure to information.

A true champion idea will stand up to all aspiring opposition and not just limit itself to challenges from a friendly stable of sparring partners. Get in the ring!

Streams across borders

Stream across a border
Photo: Wikipedia

Recently, I attended a talk by a Chinese professor of literature who is translating the novel “Finnegan’s Wake” into Chinese, a task which is not to be taken lightly considering the circumstances. The author of “Finnegan’s Wake” is James Joyce, the Irish author famed for his stream-of-consciousness & idioglottic style. Joyce uses words derived from a combination of languages or words that could be interpreted in numerous way. All of these words and sounds are new territory for Chinese literature and linguistic scholars, meaning that new Chinese characters are being created to describe the thoughts of an Irish man who was pushing boundaries almost 100 years ago.

Joyce, having lived in Catholic Ireland and later Continental Europe had many of his thoughts influenced by his religious upbringing and surroundings. Joycean scholars write about his work, often on themes which are identified in relation to their own, predominantly Western, cultural and societal influences.

Now we have this paradigm shifting book being introduced into a population hungry for intellectual stimulation. In some ways, the language barrier has been the not-so-great wall which has kept people out of China for a long time. My work brought me to China and into Chinese cultural engagements on many occasions. Although I tried to learn Mandarin and my hosts spoke some English, the communication of abstract thoughts remained difficult at best.

Now, with thanks to the work of Professor Dai Congrong of Fudan University, the barrier is being brought down and Joyce is making headway with Chinese high-school students in particular, according to the Professor. It made me ask, if “Finnegan’s Wake” is being read and interpreted by a group, who do not possess a backgrounding in the same cultural and societal reference points as the author and other commentators, surely it’s possible for the work to be interpreted in a brand new and interesting way?

Professor Congrong noted that Chinese people, herself included, already view Joyce’s work to be in line with Taoism. Many of his themes and subject matter would appeal to fit its philosophies. It will be interesting to see how Joyce travels in China and even more interesting to see the Chinese interest in Irish culture take a new step forward.