The Sanctity and Value of LIFE

A couple of events transpired during the last two days have left me thinking and wondering over the value and sanctity we attach with the human life. Before I begin to narrate, it’s only relevant to mention the two events this post is based upon:

1- On Tuesday, 21st January 2014, there was a sad incident at my university (Purdue University) in which a young man was shot dead by another. Though the official version doesn’t mention the reason, the rumor has it that the deceased was a TA (Teaching Assistant) and the assassin held a grudge against him due to failing the exam. It resulted in a wave of shock and terror around the campus with suspicion running high.

2- On Wednesday, 22nd January 2014, I watched the Tom Hanks starrer “Captain Phillips”. The movie is based on true events, which took place in the April of 2009, written in the 2010 book “A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs, and Dangerous Days at Sea” by the central character Captain Richard Phillips. It portrays the attempted hijacking of an American container ship, Maersk Alabama, at the hand of Somali pirates.

Both these events, in their own peculiar ways, stress upon the value and sanctity these so called developed and first-world nations attribute to the life of their people. After the incident on Tuesday, despite the fact that the gunman has surrendered himself, the law enforcement agencies were out there in action! Some of the main roads were barricaded along with major re-routing of public and private transport vehicles. Although the temperatures were in negative, one could see and feel vigilance all around the campus – please be reminded that the campus covers a total area of 72.55 KM2. Not only the quick reactive measures, the university went on to organize special counseling services to help normalize the traumatized students and staff. One can’t help but appreciate the efforts at personal and institutional levels in the face of a tragedy. Vivacious nations respond like this!

Image

 

In the case of Captain Phillips’ abduction, the US Navy mobilized hell lot of equipment in order to rescue one man! Other than the Nave SEAL team, three large naval vessels (USS Bainbridge, USS Halyburton and USS Boxer) were assembled in order to ensure the safety and success of the mission. One might ask: “So much for only one man!”. The question, no matter how ludicrous, seems justified for the people of underdeveloped world. Our law enforcing organizations don’t necessarily serve to protect us; they have their own duties and jobs. It feels as if the state’s responsibility for the common people has ceased to exist in the third-world countries.

I have a theory that might justify this behavior: the importance is directly proportional to value; and value, in turn, is a cumulative effect of asset building. Reducing to bare bones, developed nations invest on their people; they undergo serious asset building exercises in order to add value to their human resource. This value later on becomes tantamount to importance; therefore more the asset building, more the value and more the importance as a result. Therefore whenever one of their resources gets under threat, these nations act ferociously and ensure the resource’s safety. It all sounds very plain and logical, no rocket science at all.

On the other hand, people in poor nations die unceremoniously; accidents, force majeure, criminal activities and what not. There is no stopping and no one even making an effort and taking the trouble to stop the otherwise avoidable deaths. It is mainly because there is no value attached to the life of those people in the eyes of state. It is taken as nothing more than a few newspaper items, statements of no substantial value and deceitfully superficial sympathy. But if looked from numerical point of view, this inhumane treatment shouldn’t surprise us; after all what did the state do to add value in their life that it should mourn its loss now. It’s pure economics with application to the human resources development.

In more plain words, this behavior is identical to one’s housekeeping practices; open your closet and you’ll understand how you treat your belongings differently: costly clothes wrapped and stored properly and daily use (not so costly) items just getting enough space and attention. If the individual attention to detail is limited by and based upon monetary value for their belongings why shouldn’t the same prevail at the larger level?

The third world countries are so mainly because of their third-class treatment of their people. The state of affairs won’t change until they start considering the people as assets and hop on to some serious resource building initiatives.

Politics of Confusion, Religion and Power

I usually avoid writing political pieces mainly because the ground realities in this realm change very abruptly and, in the absence of guiding principles, unsubtantiation and baselessness prevail in humongous amounts. This uncorroborated reality and rapidly changing scenario, in turn, give rise to confusion which is rampant in the people of land of the pure; they are not sure about their friends and foes, killers and heroes, and, worst of all, their benefactors and defectors.

Why so much of naivety, why so much of confusion? For that, we need to dig deeper: the foundation of state of Pakistan was purely driven by religious zeal – at least at the face of it; Hindus and Muslims (discounting various other minority religions) could not live together anymore, hence a new state was formed, named as Pakistan. Two years later, in March 1949, another step was taken towards Islamizing the state: the infamous Objective Resolution. After such vivid, lucid, clear and flawless declarations, why would anyone think that Pakistan will ever take a secular turn! Can it be anything other than sheer insanity? Or it is one of those self-serving biases some of us have hard time getting over with? I leave it to your fine sense of judgment.

Building upon this rather hard-to-swallow reality (for some), the acts of religious extremists, either under the garb of TTP or any other offshoot, must be taken as distinctly coherent with the state ideology. End of the day, whoever is a better Muslim is supposed to run this country, not some enlightened, secular and forward-thinking mindset who tosses the idea of separation of state and religion. Has anyone ever bothered to ponder into the rationality behind constant and never-ending exploitation of people of this land of the pure in the name of religion? Because that is their most vulnerable spot and they allow to be taken on a roller-coaster ride with practically anyone hurling the religious slogans, sporting a certain uniform and speaking in a certain way.

Moving on, the case of state (read Pak Army and other law enforcers) against the miscreants (according to their official versions) seems fairly obvious and aptly vocal. However, there is a severe scarcity of actual action on ground. Throw a stone on an Army jeep in Karachi, Mirpur Khas, Dadu, Pano Akil, Khuzdar, Sibbi, Nushki, Zhob, Bahawalnagar, Okara, Jhang, Kharian, Rawalpindi, Attock, Peshawar, Mardan, etc. and you will get the justice right then and there. No corps commander meetings, no Ministry of Defence correspondence and exactly paying no heed to civil and individual rights. But when it comes to fighting the devil in tribal areas, our forces either seem unwilling, unfit or, worst of all, unworthy.

A fair analysis of these possible justifications is mightily warranted. Our army, in the not-too-distant-past, collaborated with these Mujahideen at Afghan and Kashmir fronts. They were the foot soldiers; ruthless, brave and intensive in their killings. Our forces were (and might always remain) indebted to these tribal fighters for a lot of face-saving. It needs no rocket-science explanation that the camaraderie dictates for loyalty. Although this seems like an argument of bygone times, it somehow still finds its routes into the foot-soldier behavior; thus a strong case for unwillingness.

As regards to incompetence, there is no doubt that the forces against which our army is locking horns with are out there for some serious business. The involvement of much-spoken foreign hands, though, cannot be discounted; the lack of competence must also be accounted for in any case. The serving of ubiquitous justice in the so-called settled areas and its lack in disturbed areas suggests either the imbalance of power these forces are dealing with or absolute inability to match with the muscle power they are fighting against.

There is, however, a lot of hue and cry for the peace process, but it must not be neglected that the power dynamics dictate any such process; if Taliban succeed in garnering more strength (which, it seems, they will), forces opposing them will continue to backtrack, become increasingly defensive and eventually disappear. This will then give rise to a ‘golden’ era of Islamization in the land of pure with proponents and staunch followers of Taliban mindset into parliament and other decision making organs of the state. It will be same as before; convert to their mindset and repent later. Those opposing will either have to fled the country or die struggling. The fate of the land of pure has been sealed, Taliban mindset is there to prevail!

Decision Making Conundrum

ImageShahzeb is about to finish his engineering degree; a couple of months more of arduous toil in the labs, a few hundred pages of dissertation, a few days of mind-boggling preparation for his final presentation and he’ll be through with his undergrad education in Electronics engineering. At this critical juncture in his life, Shahzeb is faced with making a number of significant and life-changing decisions.

Like almost every youth in the underdeveloped and developing world, he too has been deprived of essential career counseling and was made to make decisions either based on his tacit understanding of his skills, aptitude and desires in life, or worse, the bandwagon effect. The former, no matter how insidious, is indigenous: derived from his own perception and intellect; whereas the latter is a groupthink experience which is a psychological phenomenon that occurs within peers, colleagues, friends, etc., in which the desire for harmony based on the lack of knowledge and fear of unknown results in a combined decision, whose quality and meticulousness may be questionable.

 

Shahzeb would like to pursue a career in electronics, or he’ll like to go abroad for higher education, or change the field and pursue further education and career in business administration, or switch to engineering management field, or get married! What an irony; he is supposed to do all of it on his own, after all how will he learn the tough situations of life without making ‘wrong’ decisions. Thus we reach at a very interesting situation: making wrong decisions. If analyzed objectively, we never make wrong decisions; given the time, space and conditions, our choices in life are always perfectly right. But then the future unfolds what seemed uncertain before and a hindsight analysis – a retrospective review, so to say – hits us with the unthinkable and inevitable: our decision was wrong!

 

ImageThis retrospective analysis is at the core of ‘better’ decision making; it allows us to try and understand what went wrong and how it can be mended. Without admitting the wrongfulness, it’s impossible to improve – that’s what we terms as ‘experience’. But can we always derive positive and enabling lessons from our experience? This question brings us to another core issue we face while decision making: the (ir)rationality. Although we believe that our decisions are based on pure rationality, logic and farsightedness, nothing can be farther from truth in this context. It can be partially factual given an ample prep. time or a single criterion to decide on. However things get very tricky when we’re made to think and decide fast, and where there are multiple-criteria. No matter how sensible the various MCDM (multiple-criteria decision making) techniques seem at the outset, psychologists have revealed the irrationality of human decision making. In their seminal work, Kahneman and Tversky[1][2] nailed the fact that when confronted with cognitively tough situations, we almost always tend to make irrational decisions, choices which are not necessarily based on pure logic and reasoning, but revolve around something famously called ‘gut feeling’.

 

Contrary to impulsive decisions, we also have the realm of ‘informed decision making’. However it’s important to understand that irrationality of our decisions is not necessarily tantamount to impracticality. There is a complete field of social philosophy around this topic and a worth mentioning work “The Humean Theory of Practical Irrationality[3]. Suffice to synthesize the Humean theory of rationality: it’s rational for agents (decision makers) to do whatever maximizes expected desire satisfaction. Thus, the desirability is paramount to decision making in trivial cases, not the rationality.

Also the decisions based on gut feeling are automatic; we make them implicitly, conveniently and without breaking much sweat. On the other hand, the informed and calculated decision making is an effortful activity; it involves active participation of most of our brain’s faculties, dilation of our pupils and an increase in heart rate.

ImageGetting back to our dear Shahzeb, he is justified in making his decisions, regardless of the results, in order to enrich his experiences. He’ll definitely realize the significance of thinking it through before making a choice, he’ll learn the important lessons during his journey and he’ll definitely succeed in his endeavors but he’ll always remain – like all of us – an irrational decision maker, a quality we all must be proud of. Let’s make mistakes and learn from them, let’s take the responsibility of fixing up what erroneously we messed up and let’s help each other in doing that.

I’ll conclude by a line from Thinking, Fast and Slow[4]: “The premise of this (article) is that it’s easier to recognize other people’s mistakes than our own”.


[1] Tversky, A., & Kahneman, D. (1974). Judgment under uncertainty: Heuristics and biases. science, 185(4157), 1124-1131.

[2] Kahneman, D., & Tversky, A. (1979). Prospect theory: An analysis of decision under risk. Econometrica: Journal of the Econometric Society, 263-291.

[3] Sinhababu, N. (2011). Humean Theory of Practical Irrationality, The. J. Ethics & Soc. Phil., 6, 1.

[4] Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. Macmillan.

A constant struggle to excellence!

Life is a constant struggle, a journey with thousand milestones, momentary destinations, temporary layovers and issues of all sorts. The yearning to reach the final destination is overwhelmingly strong. There also are distractions windy and powerful enough take off-course, pseudo-goals which may overshadow the real objectives and the constant meddling of extraneous factors. Balancing the necessary, important and value-adding balls midair, fighting the cross-winds pushing away from  the original plans and maintaining focus is the art of a determined and disciplined individual.

We all have near- and long-term goals in order to enrich our lives. It is of utmost importance that our goals be derived from and based upon our desires, skills and plans. A fair analysis of these factors helps us project the objectives and goals we aim to achieve.

In the subsequent stage, a culture of self-discipline, dedication and diligence is at the core of converting these goals into actions. A brutally honest analysis of current conditions, with the hope to prevail in the long run, is the key here. Management knows this notion as Stockdale paradox, named after James Stockdale whose story of self- perseverance as a prisoner of war (POW) during Vietnam War explains the degree of endurance human spirit can take him to. The Stockdale paradox says that you must retain faith that you will prevail in the end AND you must also confront the most brutal facts of your current reality.

Once these actions start yielding the results, it’s only relevant to introspect over the performance in the light of hindsight actions. An honest analysis of this will help modify and upgrade desires, skills and plans taking back to square 1! This is a cyclic process and needs constant monitoring.

pr1

Given below is an excerpt from Jim Collins’ famous book, “Good to Great” which puts this into perspective, with an analogy of a flywheel, knows as “The Flywheel Effect”, the amassing phenomenon of human effort and ensuing success.

“Picture a huge, heavy flywheel — a massive metal disk mounted horizontally on an axle, about 30 feet in diameter, 2 feet thick, and weighing about 5,000 pounds. Now imagine that your task is to get the flywheel rotating on the axle as fast and long as possible.

Pushing with great effort, you get the flywheel to inch forward, moving almost imperceptibly at first. You keep pushing and, after two or three hours of persistent effort, you get the flywheel to complete one entire turn.

You keep pushing, and the flywheel begins to move a bit faster, and with continued great effort, you move it around a second rotation. You keep pushing in a consistent direction. Three turns . . . four. . . five . . . six. . . the flywheel builds up speed. . . seven. . . eight. . . you keep pushing. . . nine. . . ten . . . it builds momentum. . . eleven. . . twelve. . . moving faster with each turn . . . twenty. . . thirty. . . fifty. . . a hundred.

Then, at some point — breakthrough! The momentum of the thing kicks in in your favor, hurling the flywheel forward, turn after turn. . . whoosh! . . . its own heavy weight working for you. You’re pushing no harder than during the first rotation, but the flywheel goes faster and faster. Each turn of the flywheel builds upon work done earlier, compounding your investment of effort. A thousand times faster, then ten thousand, then a hundred thousand. The huge heavy disk flies forward, with almost unstoppable momentum.

Now suppose someone came along and asked, “What was the one big push that caused this thing to go so fast?”

You wouldn’t be able to answer; it’s just a nonsensical question. Was it the first push? The second? The fifth? The hundredth? No! It was all of them added together in an overall accumulation of effort applied in a consistent direction. Some pushes may have been bigger than others, but any single heave-no matter how large-reflects a small fraction of the entire cumulative effect upon the flywheel.”

flywheel

Excellence is not an option for exceptional: it’s how they function, it’s how they are made to function. Being exceptional might be remarkable in itself; however, pursuing the goals with utmost diligence, unwavering discipline and fastidious details is something we all can work upon. The results may vary but not necessarily based upon inbuilt brilliance but surely the level of hard work put in.

To conclude, we need a religiously sincere approach towards our goals – always promising less and delivering more – with a conviction that we’ll prevail in the end; that we’ll come out of all the problems stronger than before. We need to keep the flywheel spinning no matter how small the heave; it is all these large and small pushes together that provide the motion to our life’s flywheels!

Engineers: are we really that instrumental?

Image

In a recent conference on Safety, Construction Engineering and Project Management at NUST, Islamabad and interaction with young undergrad students, the Q&A sessions delved into the sort of discussion that we engineers are not usually considered to be exposed to: from philosophy to socialism and from pure statistics to behavioral sciences, the range of topics discussed was equally confusing for young graduates as it was mindboggling for scholars. Some of the eminent professors presented their works on ‘value system’ and ‘culture’, others went on to debating the need to teach pure statistic to engineering students (although it is already taught but more of applied version of it, also called “Engineering Statistics”).

In a PhD course a few months ago, the Norwegian professor introduced this paradigm shift in engineering education in some of the Nordic universities which aims at providing a holistic learning to engineering students in the form of extremely generic course during their 1st year. Further motivating and deriving this transformation is the notion of sustainable development that is not only important for 1st world countries but equally relevant for developing countries like Pakistan.

However we live in a world of specialization, recent events in my observation are triggering towards a fundamental change in engineering education. We need to equip our young engineering graduates not only with pure technical skills but also the kind of awareness that will come handy when taking professional decisions and making technical choices. Since we are at the forefront of implementing and ensuring sustainability, it is opportune that young graduates know the cost of engineering solutions they provide and possible ways to avoid them. As Peter Senge has unarguably debated in his famous book “The Necessary Revolution”, the kind of mentality that has created problems can never solve them. We need a shift in engineering and system thinking in order to impress upon the young engineers the sense of responsibility while taking decisions. Of course this does not apply when such infrastructural decisions are influenced by politics and one-time gains only.

Image

 

We have to our credit the resolve of a number of issues and problems, and taking the civilization to where it is – both in negative and positive terms. However we need to check on our decision-making and work towards ensuring and enhancing the positive side and reducing the negative. This can only be done when engineering education is so transformed that it prepares the future leaders in engineering, the kind of people who know the long-term hazards of their decisions and can effectively analyze and carry out the tradeoff between what’s relevant for now and how far it’s beneficial to the future!

Equally relevant is the education of soft skills to engineering students: universities, while busy with infrastructure development and ranking debate, need to furnish these students with courses which help them in dealing with onsite situations. Engineers are supposed to deal and interact with a lot of people, write technical and managerial correspondence, and provide leadership on projects. While one may learn on-job, it is highly unlikely that a high quality produce may be expected from everyone undergoing this natural learning. Therefore engineering education must take the challenge to provide courses which deal with technical writing, human resources management, leadership and project management to name a few.

We in Pakistan undoubtedly produce some of the best engineers among other professional who are truly instrumental in bringing about the technical advancements wherever they work; the quality can be considerably improved if sustainability and soft skills are made part of our curricula.