Sunday, September 30, 2018

Problems and Murphy’s law.

Imagine that you are sitting at your desk in your office with ten people sitting in front of you with loads of problems on their mind that must be solved immediately and by none other than you. You look at the watch and realize that you have fifteen precise minutes, because that is the latest time by which you must leave office, if you want to catch your flight in time. In such a scenario, what would be your feelings? There is a feeling of inertia, because you want to continue in office and do not want to leave back unsolved matters. At the same time, there is a feeling of restlessness or anxiety. You do not want to miss the flight as there is an important appointment waiting for you.

I am sure that many of readers must have gone through such experiences. How such situations develop is a mystery. It is not that your journey has been decided at the last moment. It must have been planned at least a week before. Yet it is unknown how problems suddenly crop up on every front, when there is no time available to solve them.

Problems also crop up, when we are not in proper mental frame to receive them or rather they only crop up when we do not want to welcome them. I am reminded of one incidence, etched in my mind. I was working in Mumbai then. We were shifting office and we had decided to have a small get-together for the evening at the old venue after official office time was over. About 2 or 3 months before, we had supplied some equipment to a textiles mill in Mumbai and since then not a word was heard from them about commissioning the equipment. After the office time was over, as the first coke bottle was being opened, the phone rang. Our textile mill customer identified himself and requested us to start immediately for the mill as he was having some problems with our equipment. We had to give up idea of get-together and rush to the spot, where our equipment was supplied. It was well past midnight, when I reached home that night to finally assure my restless wife that all was well. In those days, Mumbai had very primitive kind of phone network and mobiles were non-existent. Wives did not worry too much, when husbands were delayed or were late.

As an equipment designer, I learned Murphy’s Law (Edward Aloysius Murphy Jr. (1918 – 1990) was an American aerospace engineer who worked on safety-critical systems.) very early in my professional career. The law simply says, "Anything that can go wrong will go wrong". My early experiences or inexperience firmly imbibed this law in my mind. I shall give a very simple example. In most of the mechanical parts of any equipment, lock nuts or split pins are fitted on screws tightened with nuts so that they do not come loose. Imagine that in some hypothetical equipment, someone goofed and forgot to put some such locking device on one particular screw out of several hundred of them existing in that equipment and the equipment was shipped. I am quite sure that, when the equipment is to be commissioned, the lone screw without locking device will come loose and spoil everything. This is how Murphy’s Law works.  Unfortunately, no one taught us this law in the college, instead of those hundreds of laws of Physics found useless in practical life.  

There are several variations and corollaries of Murphy’s law, all of them quite true. One variation says; If that guy has any way of making a mistake, he will. Another one says; If it can happen, it will happen. Two more variations are as follows. If there is a wrong way to do something, then someone will do it and if there's more than one way to do a job and one of those ways will end in disaster, then somebody will do it that way. The worst is Drucker variation, which states; If one thing goes wrong, everything else will, and at the same time.

Modern manufacturing, particularly automotive engineering, has somehow overcome Murphy’s law with a new work philosophy known as “Zero defect”. In effect, this philosophy ensures that no defects are left over, which would show up eventually, according to Murphy’s law.  However, manufacturing might have managed to overcome Murphy ’s Law, what about us humans and things we do. There is no way, in which we can escape Murphy’s law and we shall continue to suffer under its burden.

30 September 2018

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Depressing world of negative journalism

A senior friend of mine, who was a senior journalist of a well-known newspaper, often used to comment about news reporting. He would say that if a dog bites a man, it is not a news item. However, if a man bites a dog it is headline news. In today’s context, I find this observation by my friend nothing but truth. An event becomes news worthy if there is an element of unexpectedness. Higher the factor of unexpectedness, higher is the news value of an event. Take example of a sports event. Any unexpected result is always highly noteworthy.

It appears to me that today’s news media have simply forgotten this rule. According to them, report of anything happening can turn into a news report if it can be twisted or turned to produce a depressing “feel bad” factor. In fact, this thought has become so prevalent that any news event that does not produce a depressing “feel bad” factor is not newsworthy at all. Sometimes however, their attempts to put everything into a negative light can misfire badly and produce result, where a reader might start wondering about authenticity of that news media itself.

Yesterday, there was a statement made by India’s finance minister that compared to situation an year back, the “Non-performing Assets” or NPA   of India’s public sector banks have decreased, definitely a piece of good news. According to my understanding, when finance minister of a country makes a statement, it is the official word  from Government. There are no doubts about it whatsoever. It certainly is not a claim, which may prove true or otherwise. However, our news media have called or named the statement as a claim, injecting in air of uncertainty, which would mean that the claim might be true or is most probably false.

What is hilarious however, is the actual description. The news item calls this reduction in NPA, a slide in NPA. A slide always has a negative tone. The stock markets or commodity prices may slide, Rupee may slide against US Dollar. I have never heard of Non-Performing Assets, which are in reality debts that banks are unable to recover, slide. It is clear that in proving his utmost commitment to give black negative colour to each and every news item; our news reporter has goofed here.
A particular Indian news media is often found indulging in this kind of negative reporting. The problem is that we, the ordinary people, who suffer these daily injections of negativism from this media, can do nothing about it. I have a feeling that the time has come to start boycotting this newsgroup.

26th September 2018


Monday, September 10, 2018

So near yet so far

On a visit to Northeast India during 2014, we had halted in a hotel in Kaziranga Wildlife sanctuary Assam. Our next halt was at Bomdila in Arunachal Pradesh. Our hotel in Kaziranga was not at a great distance from Bramhmaputra River, and I had thought that we would be crossing the river by some nearby bridge and would be on our way to Tezpur and beyond. The situation was unfortunately not that simple, as there is no bridge on Brahmaputra, except for the one near Tezpur. We had therefore to travel back towards Guwahati for another 40 Kilometers or so via Nagaon to get on the Kalia-bhomora Bridge to cross the Brahmaputra. I was quite surprised to find that there was no bridge available to cross Brahmaputra anywhere east of Kalia-bhomora Bridge. For the eastern Assam, the situation is quite bad,  because a person in Dibrugarh town, if he needs to cross the Brahmaputra, needs to take a detour of 600 Km to get to the other bank using Kalia-bhomora Bridge.

In 1962, when Chinese had attacked India in Arunachal Pradesh, the situation was far worst. There was only one bridge for crossing Bramhaputra. Indian railways had just constructed first ever bridge over Brahmaputra near Guwahati. This 1.3 km rail-cum-road bridge was the only link between Assam (with  rest of India) and North Eastern states. The situation eased to some extent when 3.015 Km long Kalia Bhomara Bridge was completed in 1987. Naranarayan Setu in western Assam,  is the third bridge to have been constructed over the mighty Brahmaputra . It is a double-deck bridge with a railway track on the lower deck and a road on the upper deck. It has a length of 2.284 kilometres and connects Bongaigaon District on the north with Goalpara District on the south. The bridge was inaugurated on April 15, 1998. However, eastern Assam still remained inaccessible from northeastern states and vice versa.  The situation continues even on this day.

To remedify the situation, Government decided to take up the work on the fourth bridge at Bogibeel , a place located 17 Km downstream from Dibrugarh town. The foundation stone for the Bogibeel Bridge was laid in January 1997 Eventually; work could start only in April 2002, when Atal Bihari Vajpayee inaugurated the construction. The bridge site is located just over 20 km away from the Assam- Arunachal Pradesh border and the bridge is  expected to act as an alternative to the Kalia Bhomora Bridge near Tezpur in providing connectivity to nearly five million people residing in eastern Assam and Arunachal Pradesh.

Unlike other bridge sites, Bogibeel site proved a tough nut to crack. In the first place, it is located in an area of high rainfall, which results in the construction being slowed down significantly, as it can proceed largely during a period of four dry months between November and March. Compared to other bridges, the river is much wider here with the result that the bridge, when open for traffic would be approximately of 5 Km length. Perhaps the hardest difficulty that faced the constructors was the instability of riverbanks and unpredictable floods of Brahmaputra. To overcome this difficulty a system of guide bunds and dykes was planned to train the river. The river now flows through a narrow diversion channel. To do this  total  4.83 km of guide bunds and  flood dykes have been raised and strengthened 9 km upstream and 7 km downstream on both banks. Only when the engineers were sure that the guide bunds and dykes could withstand the river’s might, actual work on the bridge began in 2011.

Several deadlines have been missed in last sixteen years. However, it is envisaged now that the bridge will be thrown open to traffic by end of this year. The Bogibeel Bridge will usher in a new era of economic development in the region, apart from strengthening national security in the border areas says the chief minister of Assam.  The bridge is a double-deck bridge with two-railway tracks on the lower deck and a 3-lane road on the upper deck. Upon completion, it will be the longest combined rail and Road Bridge in India.

10 September 2018