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The fish basket and the flower seller

© September 2009 Girish Venkatachalam
Girish Venkatachalam

Girish Venkatachalam is a UNIX hacker with more than a decade of networking and crypto programming experience. His hobbies include yoga,cycling, cooking and he runs his own business. Details here:


There is an old Indian story about a poor woman selling fish and how she got asphyxiated by the smell of jasmine flowers. The story goes like this.

One day it was raining heavily and this woman with the fish basket took shelter under a tree in front of a big flower seller's house. The rains lashed mercilessly and as it grew dark, the flower seller consented to accommodate her for the night in his outhouse.

She slept on the ground as is the practice in India in the outhouse of the flower seller. She kept her fish basket to her side while sleeping. In the middle of the night, fresh jasmines were piled in the outhouse.

As they ran out of space to pile the flowers, someone moved the fish basket from her side and kept it in the corner of the room. Time went by and the strong aroma of fresh jasmine flowers wafted through the room.

This woman woke up from sleep wondering where her fish basket was and with a very uneasy feeling. Half dazed she went to her fish basket and slept near it.

In the morning she woke up and went on her way.

Story ends there. But our article begins only now. What happened? Why did she feel uneasy when sleeping?

Answer is obvious. She was used to sleeping with the horrible stench of dead fish in her basket everyday. When that smell was gone and the fragrant aroma of fresh jasmine entered her olfactory nerves, the body reacted and she woke up.

All of us lug different fish baskets close to our breasts. Everyone knows that very few things smell worse than dead fish and we also know how great jasmine smells. Still we do not want to get rid of our fish baskets and enjoy the fresh smell of jasmines and roses.


The force of habit.

We cannot get rid of our old habits and tendencies no matter what. We may be suffering endless misery due to it, but our system refuses to change. We simply do not wish to relinquish our evil habits and change our ways.

In the technical world, we constantly find that new ideas get shot down like nobody's business. In the scientific community, new ideas have always been rejected like poison. Somehow it seems as though the human brain rejects fresh ideas.

Nobody likes to lose comfort. This is a well known fact. We do not mind going around in circles in a familiar territory but we do not want to risk embracing new technology. Or new ways of doing things.

Our minds do not accept new ways of thinking. When Andrew Viterbi came up with Viterbi encoding for CDMA technology everyone protested. What? Noise carrying signals? No way.

When an upstart comes along and does something that shakes big corporations he is ignored and ridiculed. Big companies are like elephants. They have built up inertia over time. They have fish baskets they cannot get rid of.

Thankfully nowadays every innovation comes from startups and small companies. And that happens mostly in the open source world. In the bazaar rather than in big companies with fat paychecks.

It is always the people who question convention and think differently; the gutsy ones with entrepreneurial instinct and strong bones and muscles who come forth with a new way of solving old problems.

We have innumerable examples of such path breaking technology taking Internet to new frontiers. Doubtless we benefit immensely by such bold souls, but how many of us are guilty of the 'fish basket' effect?

Aren't we guilty of following old known ways? How many times do we look at what is being said instead of thinking who is saying it?

I am not saying that we should never question new ideas. Of course we should. If we are using proven technology and if something new comes up we should certainly subject the new proposal to a thorough analysis. Accepting without question is not the sign of a healthy scientific mind.

At the same time, we cannot reject something just because it is new. Just because our mind gets uncomfortable. I have personally found that people who innovate a lot tend to respect other innovators and that they are very quick to digest fresh ideas. People whose brains are used to new channels of thought have no trouble in evaluating fresh ideas.

Whereas brains with a formation of a crust of old thoughts and convention will ridicule and reject innovation. I think I should steal this opportunity to mention the 'great American dream'. America has always been very receptive to new ideas and it has done the nation a great deal of good.

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More Articles by © Girish Venkatachalam

Fri Sep 4 11:40:55 2009: 6848   TonyLawrence

I'd never heard that story before, but it reminds me of


The Innovator's Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail (Management of Innovation and Change) by Clayton M. Christensen

Sat Sep 5 02:39:52 2009: 6859   Pasha

Interesting story.
A lot of people around the world eat dead fish. But they will not eat rotten fish.
The stench of fish is unpleasant to many, but gastronomically it is relished around the world.
Even some vegetarians, Bengali Brahmins eat fish.
Some even risk life to eat fish. Fugu
So it is not all bad the 'stench' of fish.


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