How's my Luck now?

Reflections, views and descriptions during my stay at IIM Lucknow from July 2004 to March 2006

Name:
Location: India

Friday, December 30, 2005

Happenings

Just a few developments that I am noting for the record:

  • Academics are very light this term, but very interesting nevertheless. Management of Financial Services being a very practical course, International Finance having great intrinsic interest value and ERP having value in the lateral placements and being important otherwise too, the going is good so far.
  • Lateral placements start next week and some time has been spent in thinking about where to apply, in looking up information on companies and in actually applying.
  • After-dinner hours have recently been devoted to sports as an inter-class sports tournament is on based on the first-year class distribution. Old section loyalties have awoken and the competition has been good.
  • The cold has intensified in the last few days, largely unaccompanied by fog. This morning there was a heavy fog but it dispersed very quickly.
  • I completed another P. G. Wodehouse book - 'Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit'. It shares quite a lot, perhaps too much, with 'The Code of the Woosters', in terms of the plot, the roles of different characters, the situations, etc. Some excellent uses of the language fetch good laughs, but still the latter is much the better work.
  • The power situation has been abysmal here for the last few days. The computer is bearing the brunt of sudden and frequent power outages.

Monday, December 26, 2005

'Soros on Soros'

I completed the reading of this highly interesting book by famed international investor George Soros (John Wiley & Sons, 1995) today. The book, as Soros says, is a summing up of his life's work. Set in an interview format, the book has three parts: the first part on 'Investing & Global Finance' (with Byron Wien); the second part on 'Geopolitics, Philanthropy and Global Change' (with Krisztina Koenen) ; and the third part on 'Philosophy' (with Byron Wien again). But in this description, I think I will start with the third part first.

Soros comes across as a 'first-rate mind' (as Henry Kissinger has said, on the back cover of the book) when one reads his philosophy - not only his theory itself but also the clarity with which he has expressed it. At a time in life when he had made more money than he could possibly use in his lifetime through investing, he decided to pursue philanthropy by using his excess money for a worthy cause. That worthy cause was that of helping countries of Eastern Europe develop into 'open societies' after the collapse of communism around 1989. Soros unifies these two main fields of his activity - investing & philanthropy - by means of the theory of reflexivity that he developed several years ago (around 1962), after he had studied under the great Karl Popper.

The theory of reflexivity relates to socio-economic fields of activity, as opposed to the pursuit of natural science. According to Soros, and unlike Popper's assertion, theories of natural science cannot and should not be applied to the 'social sciences', including economics. This is because, in socio-economic fields, human beings are thinking participants and not objective observers. Their perceptions influence reality, and in turn, reality influences their perceptions (reflexivity). When this realization is combined with the assumption made by Soros that all human understanding is imperfect (and hence all mental constructs flawed in some way), it means that participants' perceptions and reality can never be identical. However, the gap between thinking and reality tends not to be very large much of the time (near-equilibrium conditions). This is particularly so when participants adhere to some fundamental values or purpose. But occasionally, the gap becomes large (far-from-equilibrium conditions). The latter kind of conditions can in turn be of two types - static disequilibrium (when the thinking is systematically following, or being forced to follow, a dogma while reality is something else); and dynamic disequilibrium (when continuing self-reinforcing biases reach a peak and turn self-defeating).

Using this theory, he explains, in the first part of the book, the boom/bust sequence that is observed in many financial markets. Here, we see Soros' great financial acumen in picking the far-from-equilibrium conditions to speculate and make money. In the second part of the book, we see the same theory being used to justify his advocacy of an 'open society' (where man's imperfect understanding leads him to respect other views and where human beings have genuine alternatives in life), as opposed to 'closed society' (e.g. communism). In this part, we see his superb grasp of international economics, as well as of the politics and socio-economic conditions prevailing in particular European countries after the collapse of communism and the reunification of Germany.

The book gives a detailed look inside a complex mind capable of thinking critically, by his own admission, and in terms of abstractions. Soros' development of the idea of open society and its desirability, benefits and pitfalls is highly readable. Also interesting are: the speech he gave in Berlin in 1993 on how he could predict the breakdown of the European exchange rate mechanism after Germany's reunification and make money on it, and the testimony before a US House of Representatives committee on hedge funds and the inherent instability of financial markets, increased by sophisticated new instruments like derivatives.

I miss mentioning a few important points, but I think I have captured the gist. Although the book may not be that easy to read for a wide audience - the aim of the book - I definitely think it is worth a committed attempt for anyone who wishes to understand the perspective on a changing world and the right attitude towards it, of a man who has been in the thick of change.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

'Julius Caesar' and Asimov

During the term break, I watched the Hollywood classic 'Cleopatra' at home. This reignited interest in knowing the exact story of Julius Caesar, Mark Antony & Cleopatra. After coming back, I decided to satisfy this curiosity by reading my first Shakespeare play in the original - 'Julius Caesar'. I chose to read the play rather than find a historical source directly because I have an electronic version of 'Asimov's Guide to Shakespeare' in 2 volumes, wherein sci-fi great Isaac Asimov annotates, in lucid and interesting detail, each of Shakespeare's plays. In these two wonderful volumes, Asimov fills in historical and mythological details not obvious from Shakespeare's plays, explains finer points in Shakespeare's use of language, provides nuggets of trivia, points out anachronisms, etc.

This simultaneous reading of the play and the annotations has now made the events of the pre-Caesar, Caesarian, and post-Caesar periods and the role of different characters in these clear to me. The way Julius Caesar rose to prominence late in life, was killed as much due to fear of his ambition as due to envy, the tremendous vanity and consequent foolishness of Brutus, and the end of the conspirators achieved by Antony and Octavius are fascinating to read about. One does feel sympathetic towards Caesar because of the egregious way in which he was betrayed, even though he was a dictator and had ambitions to proclaim himself king.

Much of the play is based by Shakespeare on Plutarch's original version of the events. The play has several famous lines and passages, and it coins some phrases which are in common use now. Cleopatra does not enter the play, and Asimov only mentions that when in Egypt, Caesar met Cleopatra. The film shows that Caesar had a son by Cleopatra and that Cleopatra had entered Rome in a triumph as ordered by Caesar. These do not seem to be historically correct. To complete the story which the film covers, I will read Shakespeare's 'Antony & Cleopatra' next, but not immediately.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

'The Code of the Woosters'

Believe me or not, this is the first P. G. Wodehouse book (Rupa, 1992) I read while travelling to and from home to the institute recently. How this author, so popular among Indian readers, as I have been able to note, came not to be read by so voracious - if that is the word - a reader as I so far is rather inexplicable. I knew this bird wrote well, but somehow I always came to prefer reading something else. Finally, this time, I thought it might make a good travelling companion, and "Right ho!", I said, and borrowed the book.

Bertie Wooster, as usual I suppose, gets himself embroiled in a growing web of difficult situash-es, implicitly following the code of the Woosters ('never let a pal down'). He has to rely on some of his own skills of oration and a lot of Jeeves' quick thinking to wriggle out of one difficulty, only to find himself immediately landed in another. Overall, quite humorous, this PGW.

(In the above, I was just trying my hand at imitating Wodehouse's writing style :). As stated in the foreword, though I found the reading humorous, I initially thought its appeal would be limited. That is, after a few novels, the reader would feel bored by the same nonsensical situations and the same turns of phrase. But every time I left the book, I had an urge to go back to it and have a good laugh. And having immediately borrowed another Wodehouse book now, I think I am beginning to understand why people enjoy his humour so much, even though the situations and the settings are typically British.)

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Last hurrah

After an extremely brief vacation lasting only 4 days, I am back at campus for the last term of the course. A shorter term, lasting 2 months and consisting of only 3 subjects, means that there will be a lot more time to utilise for some (hopefully) useful purpose. Of course, with the lateral placements happening during the term and the final placements following the term, activities related to these (like CV preparation, filling application forms, etc.) will take up some time. Let's hope this term also offers as much variety and opens up as many avenues in terms of studies as the previous two terms.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Nearing the end

Term V ended for me today with all exams going surprisingly well. Now we are left with less than a 100 days to go before the course ends. The need to take stock will soon arise and then I plan to write a series on the lines of 'Making sense of my MBA experience', which was one of the assignments in a course on Leadership this term (I hadn't opted for it). The last term will, hopefully, be a breeze, with only 3 subjects and no mid-term exams. The break is extremely brief this time - less than a week - and I don't think my time home will be felt sufficient.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Task scheduling

The end-term exams are on. There's nothing particularly interesting happening. Given how things work here, it's ironic how the last one or two weeks before the exams are very hectic with the project submissions and presentations, and when it's exam time, one actually feels relief :).

Normally hard-pressed for time in many descriptive exams, I have completed each one of the 5 exams so far ahead of time. Of course, the papers were a bit shorter this time. But the main difference is in how I went about writing the paper. Normally, I would look at the watch, see how much time is left, and calculate backwards based on safe estimates of how much time each remaining question would take. In other words, I would backward-schedule, and set intermediate deadlines mentally for each question.

This time I am constrained as my watch has run out of battery power and I don't have the time or inclination to go to the city and get a new battery. This means I have no time reference with which I can set intermediate deadlines (cell phones are not allowed in exams and the wall clock is generally too far away for me to make out the time). So I just do each task (e.g. reading a case, then writing the answers, etc.) as fast as I can (without too much loss of effectiveness, I hope). And I find that this way I am finishing papers faster.

Exactly the advice Eli Goldratt would have given me, and a good practical experience of the project scheduling methods outlined in 'Critical Chain', about which I have written earlier.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Time squeeze

The familiar experience of leisure time vanishing near the end of the term is back. I am just hopping from project to project, from a submission to a quiz and then back to a submission. Of course, in this term, wilful neglect of projects early on in the term due to the spate of competitions that many people took part in, is a contributory factor to this situation. Generally, the quality of projects and term papers suffers because of this last-minute rush. But I have managed well so far in all my group projects and assignments.

Last weekend was the Index weekend - the marketing fair (or 'market intelligence event' as it has been repositioned to) conducted in Lucknow city. The Nehru Bal Vatika ground at Aliganj was the venue. Although the venue is smaller, the response from the Lucknow public was better because of Aliganj being a residential area, and the avoidance of a head-on clash with the Lucknow Mahotsav, which clashed with Index again. I was not involved with the event in any way, so a few of us just went there for half an hour or so.

The end-term exam, the penultimate exam of the course, is scheduled to start from Tuesday, the 6th. Preparation is shoddy so far, but fortunately, only a couple of subjects have some kind of heavy preparation to be done.