The Art of Bad Examples

After a prolonged absence, I am back! I had initially intended to publish at least once a month. However, with August rolling by and September too failing to motivate me to write, I decided to finally do something about it in October.

How often has it happened that while you are having a debate with someone, your opponent gives you a rank bad example to make his / her point? I was trying to recollect various instances in which this has happened and not so surprisingly, I found three such cases in the past 6 months. The first two, incidentally, happened on the same day, with the same person (which perhaps goes to speak volumes about his having a completely wrong hold of things).

I am notorious as a person with a strong dislike for Bombay. Readers might jump at me for not using the politically correct Mumbai, but then I say Madras and not Chennai and Calcutta and not Kolkata. To hell with political correctness. While I do agree that Bombay has a lot of merits that help it sustain a burgeoning population, I believe that most of these merits stem from a typical Bombayite’s (or Mumbaikar’s) immense patience and inherent sense of discipline or order within chaos. The city itself is chaotic:

  • The weather is quite lousy
  • It takes an incredibly long time to get from one point in the city to another, thanks to traffic
  • The public transport system, though good, is grossly inadequate. Dissenters simply need to look at a local train station there during the peak hours.
  • Real estate prices are sky-high, without much justification. Yes, people will claim that there are more opportunities there, but the ratio of opportunities is disproportionate to the rents that people have to pay to live there. New companies shy away from setting up centres there (this includes companies like Microsoft, Google and Yahoo – all IT companies, as the doubting Thomases will agree)
  • Roads are no great shakes in most parts of the city. If a road is being repaired, it stays that way for months together
  • The political environment is quite horrible – there were talks of banning non-Bombayites from purchasing real-estate there and of mandating a “Bombay visa” for people to get into Bombay.

But the people are good and friendly and the food is perhaps the best among all places in India. Anyway, liking or disliking a city is more a consequence of a man’s personality rather than anything else. I prefer quieter areas, so Bombay grates on me. I like to call it the largest village in the world, much to the chagrin of my acquaintances from there. I agree that I am being quite uncharitable there, but the fact that the largest slum of Asia, Dharavi is in Bombay only strengthens my case.

But I digress. One fine morning I had a lively discussion with two Bombayites who claimed that their city was the best place to live in. Not to be outdone I put forth my arguments, which, needless to say, didn’t gel well with them. I argued that Delhi is a much better place, thanks to excellent infrastructure (it is remarkable how Delhi went from being the most polluted city in India to becoming a very clean city – a feat that other cities will find hard to match). On the topic of real estate being very expensive there this was a discussion that ensued:

Opp: Let me give you an example. Have you ever been to a casino?
Me: Yes, quite a few times
Opp: If there are two tables, one where you bet $1 and the other where you bet $100, which one will have a higher return?
Me: If you win, then obviously the one with $100
Opp: Then you have answered your question yourself
Me: Really? Then let me ask you – where are you going to lose more if you lose?
Opp: The one with $100
Me: Then you have contradicted yourself.
Me: In a casino you are gambling – not investing based on sound principles. There you have a greater chance of losing, since the house always wins. And when you lose at a big table, you really lose there. On a $1 table even if you lose frequently you will not feel it much.
Opp: You are taking my example too literally.
Me: That’s because it is not the right example to give. Real estate investments are more a study of trends rather than gambles. In most cases if you have done your homework well you will leave with a profit.

There was some rubbish that I had doled out too, but luckily his example was too off-centre for him to come up with a counterpoint.

The same afternoon this gentleman and a few other colleagues of mine were having another discussion. This time the topic was companies using an outsourcing model. The company I work for is a pretty big consultancy firm with well over 100,000 employees worldwide. It does have a couple of big centres in India too. This gentleman was singing paeans of people in the US centres, saying that they are much better employees, since they have equal technical skills and much better presentation skills. While I agree with the presentation part, the technical skills, I believe are a whole different ballgame. But that is a subjective issue and is best not discussed here, lest it gives rise to some unhealthy “us vs. them” debate.

According to him if he had a person working under him and that person couldn’t present his point, then that person had no business working for us. Not a bad point to make, though that would make our organization a bad place for people who are off the charts in technical brilliance but are quite lousy in presentation skills. It would also reflect poorly on the organization’s ability to mentor such a person and would undermine the value of teamwork – the panacea of disparity in a firm. The organization might actually let an uncut diamond slip through its hands if all its managers take this attitude.

On the topic of outsourcing itself, we were remarking how the quality of work coming in from places like TCS and Satyam in India is at 70-80% that of homegrown consultants from our firm, but the price is probably just about 20-40%. In this aspect this gentleman decided to throw in another of his brilliant examples:

My friend: What I don’t understand is when other companies in India like TCS or Satyam or Patni provide almost the same quality as our firm but at a much lower rate, how does our firm expect to survive?
Opp: Let me give you an example. If you have to buy a shirt from Macy’s or Walmart, which one would you choose?
Us: Obviously Walmart (unanimously)

Obviously he expected us to say “Macy’s” (unanimousl
y), but this was an outright horrible example: a much better example might have been a choice between Walmart and a factory outlet of a named brand.

Anyway, this discussion concluded with another set of contentious statements:

Opp: Can the Indian offices of our firm survive without the US offices? No. Can the US offices of our firm survive without the Indian ones? Definitely.
Me: That is rubbish. Without the Indian offices you would be so undercut by Indian firms that you might end up getting no business. In fact a couple of years ago the CEO of the firm had said, “There are four new threats to our company. They are Infosys, TCS, Wipro and Satyam”.
Opp: Again, you are taking my examples too literally.
Me: Well, you are behaving like a child. You start of by trying to give an example and when it turns out to be a bad example you protest if anyone points it out.

The fact is that people providing bad examples simply don’t know how bad their examples are (I am pretty sure I have used a fair number of them in my blog). Very often you have people who try to use a word that they have just read or heard, thinking that they are being very erudite in doing so. I once had a person who had heard the term “comparing apples and oranges” being used quite frequently against him. When two competetive methodologies were being discussed, he said, “That is like comparing apples with oranges”. Luckily for him he got away without much being said.

End of rant.

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