Last night some colleagues and I were discussing the case of the Titan Submersible. For people who will be reading this after the news cycle has passed, this is basically a submersible that took people to see the debris of the Titanic, and then disappeared.

At the time of discussion, there was reportedly “20 hours of oxygen left” in the vessel, which meant rescue operations had to go on quickly. Then again, I’m writing this 23 hours after our conversation and there is no update yet, so I don’t know what that “20 hours means”.

In any case, someone in the group said “the worst thing that will happen is if someone panics. At that point, the rest of the people will have no option but to just kill this person”. I took a while to figure out what was happening, and then someone mentioned that when you panic, you tend to consume more oxygen.

The “20 hours of oxygen” was at “ground state”, with everyone remaining calm and consuming the average human amount of oxygen. However, if someone panicked, their rate of consumption of oxygen would go much higher, meaning the oxygen reserves will get drawn down much faster, thus lessening the chance of the others to be found.

So, from an expected value basis, it is rational for the rest of the people to kill the panicker, and give themselves a better chance of being found.

There was nobody from my JEE coaching factory in the group, so I didn’t talk about this there, but I got reminded of this story back from 1999 (I wrote JEE in 2000).

Our JEE factory had been making efforts to “imbibe us with fire in the belly”. As one of the teachers in the factory had told us in class, “naavu Kannadigarige aambode mosaranna koTTbiTTre khushhyaagiddbiDtivi” (if someone gives us Kannadigas falafel and curd rice, we’ll live happily forever, and we will forget about working hard).

And so there was this feeling that we need to be taught to be more competitive and ruthless, and part of the factory process involved giving us inspirational lectures to that effect.

“Ning kOpa baralva?” (“don’t you get angry?”), they would ask. They would ask us to imagine something that would make us angry, and then “channel that anger towards cracking JEE”. We needed to have that killer instinct, they would say.

Again, in the context of yesterday’s discussion on the Titan submersible and limited oxygen supplies, I got reminded of yet another of these inspirational speeches from our factory, about the killer instinct.

Remember that this was 1999. The Kargil War had just ended, and was still on everyone’s minds. I’m paraphrasing what one of the teachers said.

“Imagine you are in the army. There is a very good friend with you. You went through the defence academy together, and have always served together. Now you are at war. 

The fight isn’t going very well and you both are hiding somewhere. And then your friend gets hit badly. He is alive but very very badly hurt and can’t move. And he can’t help but groan, and that means there is the risk of giving away your location to the enemy.

So what do you do? You put a bullet in his back and put him out of your misery. Yes, he is your friend. You have both served together for the longest time. But at that moment, you should be willing to shoot him because that is your only chance of survival.”

I don’t know what impact it had on us. The only impact it had on me is that it got etched in my super-normal long term memory. And in a very different, but sort of related context, I remembered it yesterday.

Oh, and when we went to IIT, we found that there was a term for this – “RG”, from “relative grading”. Because grading in most courses was relative, one way of getting better grades was to make sure others performed worse than you (even if you couldn’t perform better).

This took bizarre forms – hiding books in the library so nobody could find them; refusing to share your notes with your classmates; doing much more than required in your course assignments and term papers (this was very very common in my Computer Science class); flattening the tyres of your classmates’ cycles on exam days; teaching others the wrong formulae; and so on.

So in that sense, our factory teachers knew what they were prepping us for!

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