Many of us live interesting moments in our lives that have no scientific explanation. These moments or events happen just by a “chance”. In this post I am narrating to you some of my “chance experiences” and then ending the post with a story on chance and destiny.
The first event is during my school days at Balmohan Vidyamandir in Shivaji-Park, Mumbai. I was in the 9th grade following the Scouts movement.
Scouting was founded in India in 1909 as an overseas branch of the Scout Association and became a member of the World Organization of the Scout Movement in 1938. The mission of Scouting was to contribute to the education of young people, through a value system based on the Scout Promise and Law to help build a better world where people are self-fulfilled as individuals and play a constructive role in society.
Looking back I feel that Scouts movement influenced me a lot. I do not know the current national status. Could there be a Green Scout and Guide movement in the schools? A new orientation to the changing and challenging times. This will really help introducing responsible behavior right in the formative years of education and at a national scale. Well just a thought to ponder.
As a part of the Scouts program, we had to appear for various written exams, carry out volunteering, especially to elders in the neighborhood, attend the “jamborees” (camps) etc. One of the interesting requirements was to appear for the “entertainment examination”. The entertainment exam for my “unit” was carried out by a senior Parsi Gentleman, Mr. Wadia in his house at the Parsi Colony in Dadar. Mr. Wadia was a very senior Scout, with lots of labels and decorative medals on his shirt and special purple scarf wrapped around his neck. He was known to be very strict but with a great sense of humor. I was asked to report to Mr. Wadia at 10 am sharp on a Sunday for the “entertainment examination”.
Mr. Wadia made me sit on a lovely antique sofa in his drawing room. There was an upright piano pushed against the wall and a set of Teapoys around that had some music books stacked up. “Sir, I don’t know the piano” I said. “Oh no worries” said Mr. Wadia “Do what you can” and as he said he yelled out “Zareen and Ruksana – come – the Scout boy has arrived”. And two daughters appeared. They looked like (naughty) twins and of my age. Both seemed to be waiting just for me to get entertained. They were giggling and that worried me a bit and made me uncomfortable.
I told Mr. Wadia that I will show them some card magic. I asked Mr. Wadia to choose any card from the pack that he did after some thought. I then placed his card at the bottom of the pack and started shuffling. In this process, I quickly peeped into the card and I thought I did this cleverly as I spoke to Mr. Wadia while diverting his attention. I knew that the card was Queen of the Hearts. The girls were watching.
I shuffled the deck for a while to Mr. Wadia‘s satisfaction and even let him mix. Then, I started asking him stupid questions as which color he likes, whether spade or hearts and whether he likes a card belonging to the royal family. The questions led finally to his choice that was Queen of the Hearts. When I produced this card for him – he was very impressed. “You are a wizard my son” He said this with a large smile and turned to Zareen and Ruksana with admiration for the Scout.
But Zareen and Ruksana had other plans. They asked me to repeat the magic and this time wanted to choose a card. Looking at the mischievous twinkle in their eyes I understood that they knew my “magic”. After I let them pick up their card from the pack, Zareen said that she will place the card herself and mix the pack giving no chance to me to “peep” like before.
When I got the pack of cards back in my end, I realized that my “game of magic” was over. There was a strange silence. The two girls were controlling their (evil) giggle. Mr. Wadia was anxious – he had no clue on what was happening.
I decided to take chance. I shuffled the deck for a while. Then placed the deck in front of the girls and lifted the first card right on the top of the deck, turned it around and said “It’s the spade of ten”. And wow, indeed it was!! The girls simply screamed and jumped from their seats. This was so unbelievable to them (and to me) and I turned out to be the “Super Card Magician”. “Oh Dad, he deserves not just pass certificate but with a star with your signature” Ruksana said this to Mr. Wadia. I left Mr. Wadia‘s house with a Star certificate of entertainment after walloping a good caramel custard prepared for the Sunday by Mrs Wadia.
(What was the probability of me hitting the right card? I leave this question to my readers with background on statistics)
I remember I was conducting a 2 days training program for the Member Secretaries/Chairmen of the Pollution Control Boards in India on the subject of Water Quality Management. The course was unique and was supported by the then Chairman of the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) Mr. Paritosh Tyagi. The heat on the Ganga Action Plan was on and many States were interested to formulate such plans focusing on the polluted river stretches. The course tool place in Hyderabad. Incidentally it was the first training program of the Environmental Projection Training and Research Institute (EPTRI) that was just established.
As a part of the training program, I was running a “modelling laboratory” where each participant was provided a desktop and a water quality modeling software STREAM-I that I had developed. The model allowed simulation of DO-BOD (Dissolved oxygen and Biochemical Oxygen Demand), compare with the observations (calibrate), build scenarios and allocate waste loads optimally to meet the required DO-BOD standards. I had set up a DEMO data file so that the participants could easily understand the science of water quality management.
Mr. N S Tiwana, then Member Secretary of the Punjab Pollution Control Board (who later became the Chairman of CPCB) was amongst the participants. A very impatient man as he was (or is even today), he had strong reservations on the credence of water quality models. He was negative.
He watched me show the DEMO file and the participants getting impressed. He stood up and stopped me. He said “Dr Modak, this is all artificial data you are using to “convince” us. I have with me right now the Sutlej river data with flows, waste discharges and monitoring observations. Let us input this “real data” in your model and test its “accuracy” first. Let us not fool around”
And then in all seriousness he said, well, your model predictions of DO and BOD must match with the observations taken and if they don’t, I would say that there is no point wasting time to learn this modeling gimmick. I would rather like to drop this “modeling lab” and go to visit the Birla Temple”. The participants supported Mr. Tiwana’s challenge to me. They wouldn’t listen to my plea that models are after all approximations and are to be used with care and maturity to come up with scenarios that prepare us better for reaching solutions that are pragmatic.
The lab atmosphere suddenly changed to a War Room against Water Quality Modelling. Mr. Tiwana opened a diary that had data for a 10 km stretch on Sutlej. The data was entered in STREAM-I after some processing and checking. Everybody was involved. I knew I had to be prepared for a disaster as the data quality was poor and not representative. Further, my model was a poor emulation of the river Sutlej.
“Tell me, which menu option to Press now” Mr. Tiwana asked me in a tone of the Examiner or an Auditor or like a judge in the Court Room. “Press the button Simulate Sir” I said sheepishly. Everyone in the room was tensed to see the results of simulation and how well they compare with the observed DO and BOD. I was prepared for the explanation as I knew that the results were not to match.
And Lo and Behold!! The graph of DO-BOD produced by STREAM-I was within 5% of the observed DO-BOD concentrations the monitoring station. The intersection was unbelieving close as if someone manipulated! This result was shocking to all (and especially to me!).
“Oh your model works “Mr. Tiwana shouted. And as impatient man he was, he asked me to serve as a consultant to Punjab Pollution Control Board right away and develop model based water quality management plans for rivers in Punjab. I became an instant Hero.
(What was the probability that my model could reproduce the observed DO-BOD concentrations against all data and model uncertainties? I leave this question again to my readers who specialize in modelling and data science)
I was attending one of UNEP’s Cleaner Production conferences in Melbourne in Australia. The Conference was held at Yara Hotel Abbotsford overlooking river Yara. It had around 200 participants mainly coming from Australasia. When the concluding session ended, I and some of the Cleaner Production colleagues decided to have a chat in the coffee shop of the hotel. The coffee shop was on first floor, with large windows opening to the street junction. We could watch the pedestrians crossing at the signal.
One of the participants from Hanoi joined in our chat. “I like to watch the street” he said while choosing his seat on the round table. We got introduced. His name was Phien. Phien did not speak great English but could communicate to us with all his “animated” style. “Tell me your story friend” I asked him. And Phien had a very interesting story.
During the Vietnam War, Phien’s family split and his mother and sister fled Vietnam in another boat with no trace later to find. Only thing Phien found out that the boat had drifted to islands of Indonesia beyond Papua New Guinea and perhaps landed to the coast of Australia. This was years ago, Phien said this in a slightly chocked voice “Whenever I come to Australia, I hope I will see my sister one day” he looked at the street junction with pedestrians waiting for the signal. We asked for another around of coffee. This was so touching to hear.
And suddenly, we saw Phien standing up, screaming aloud “my sister – I see my sister” and rushing down to the traffic signal outside hotel Yara. We saw Phien stopping a woman with large purse standing at the traffic signal. There seemed to be animated conversation first and later a long long hug. We also saw people on the street flocking around the two.
It was just a few minutes that Phien returned to our round table with his gorgeous looking sister. She lived in Melbourne longing one day she will see her brother and connect with the family. (Its complicated to reconnect once you deserted Vietnam during the war times – as those who left were like traitors). That night we had a dinner to celebrate the brother and sister reunion with a bottle of Champaign.
(What was the probability for Phien to hit on his dear sister in the population of Australia? And what a chance finding it was. Or was it a destiny? I leave my readers to decide)
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