Prose

The Only Way to Know


It is ironic that I had completely forgotten that I had already read Funes the Memorious, an incredible story of a man who acquires a perfect memory after a fall, before I stumbled upon it in another text I was reading, and re-read it. Funes, rather than being empowered by his perfect memory, becomes inundated with extremely precise details of trivial information and is tormented by it. The author then postulates that Funes wasn’t quite capable of thought, despite his perfect and infallible memory, because “to think is to forget differences, generalize, make abstractions”. It is an extremely rich story, and it had me wandering in different directions of thought.

Internet and Information organization
We, as a species, have recently arrived at a stage where we are generating records upon records of information, and most of it is getting stored somewhere- on the cloud, on our phones, in Hard Drives that no one ever touches. It has come to a point where the information stored in our heads is actually the most at risk of being the most corrupted source of information. We can draw an analogy here and think of the Internet as Funes, with a gargantuan memory, ever increasing, ever trivial.
If Borges is right about the nature of thought, then the Internet is also incapable of thought, because most of the information on the interwebs is unorganized and unconnected. There have been, to be fair, attempts to organize and link information through Wikis, but that fails at the other critical juncture- of making abstractions. We are still reliant on the human mind to supply the abstractions, and then consume more memory to describe and link those abstractions. These things may change with inferential statistical models, and only then can we surely say that we have created a fully automated conscious, the next logical step in human evolution (assuming we meet our energy demands sustainably).
In its current form, however, the internet is unwieldy for most humans who don’t have the patience or the time to draw their own detailed abstractions. That leads to a pattern of information consumption that is quite often incomplete and in a way, more mendacious than not knowing. Since the internet (think of reddit forums as an abstract reduction of the internet) is also quite democratic and self moderated, the information in it hovers around an equilibrium state of usefulness- too much moderation and you lose diversity, too little and you have a chaotic mess of trivia. As long as the guiding principle is the civil pursuit of truth with a little bit of humor thrown in here and there, the equilibrium is stable, and quite frankly, magical. The moment either the balance of moderation or the guiding principles go out of whack, the equilibrium goes out of whack and starts churning out vile garbage and misinformation.
This principle of information organization can also be applied to managing teams and companies, where you have to allow a healthy balance between structure and chaos to generate optimal growth and results.

The Infinite Nature of Memory
We would always need infinite memory to capture all the information in the world. Imagine that every memory is a discrete unit. So there would be say, X units, of information in the universe. Now we need another unit to capture the fact that there are X units of information, leading to an unending positive loop. As usual, we can invoke a bigger infinity to capture the essence of this infinity, but then we go into a different kind of loop. There seems to be no theoretical upper bound to the information in the universe, as gleaned from this silly little thought experiment. I may be making an error in my reasoning, so let me know if you have any thoughts on the matter.

The Only Way to Know
It thus seems like the only way to “know” something is to compress the information into usable bites, meshed tightly with other useful bites, infinitely detailed, like a fractal pattern, and yet perfectly cohesive, like it’s seed patterns. Or like how a few basic laws of physics allow you to explain and predict extremely complicated phenomena, with the zoom level determining the complexity and the scale of the problem. Explain a car moving on a highway as a rolling object and it is a perfectly workable solution, but get into the details of the exact path, down to the smallest picometer, the center of mass of the car takes, and you get an infinitely detailed problem, still approachable by the same set of rules, yet with a much higher computational load.
And that reduction of the world into a comprehensible set of rules is what science is, and that is quite exhilarating.

The Cost of Cowardice


Alternate title: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

I am a fairly risk averse person, which often leads me to making sub-optimal decisions and living in a little bit of regret. I also try to be as rational as possible, which leads me to analyze every little or big decision that I want to make, and in most cases eventually arrive at a good understanding of my choices. This then devolves into a self harassment because I am unable to take the riskier routes, even if they overshoot in the Expected Value department.

This can have pretty serious long term consequences, depending on the decision type. Let’s take two seemingly unconnected examples to drive home the point.

A. Relationships
Relationships are tough. They are difficult systems to analyze because you are both the observer and the observed, and your observations will affect the system you are trying to rationally figure out. So when trying to do fault analysis on your own relationship, you have to be aware of the fact that any reflexive process will only lead you to an incomplete truth. That does not mean that honest analysis of such a situation is useless, it only means that the inherent uncertainty associated with whatever conclusions you make can throw off your confidence and lead to a lot of second guessing (in a lot of cases, it should).
Let’s say you analyze the issues in your relationship and arrive at some reasonable conclusions that seem to be holding up in both back and forward time testing. In a lot of cases, the conclusions you arrive at will have you facing some tough choices, like ending a relationship, or changing important things about it, and/or having some difficult conversations.
In such cases, what do you do? The optimal choice is in front of you, but there is hesitation in your mind because you are not totally certain (and you’ll never be) of the quality of your decision. And since it is a difficult conversation to have, you chicken out. The cost of prolonging such decisions are two fold:
a. you stay miserable and the issues never get solved, and usually the pain only intensifies with time (compounded pain, we can call it)
b. in case you have arrived at an incorrect conclusion, there is very little correction that you can do unless you get more information. The best way to get more information in a dynamic two (usually) people system is to confront the other person and get them involved in the process as well

B. Finance
The other case is money. Money is a tricky beast, you never know if you have too little, too much, just right, but the one thing that’s certain is that you would always like more (assume no change in effort). Money is also the place where you get one of the most objective feedback of your decisions- you will have very little if you are not making or saving enough. You can also veer off in the other direction where you are stashing way too much and not putting it to proper use and still living like a poor person with no way of ever attaining full financial freedom (where you don’t need to work for money because your money makes enough money for you).
In my case, it took me way too long to get the courage to move my money from a shitty 0% yield savings account to a mix between investing and deposit in a high yield savings.
The costs are clear, because with investing, the most important thing is time. The more time you give your money to grow, the more it will grow (compounded gain, as many call it). Again, the fear of the unknown, even though it is well documented to be the better choice, leads you to sub-optimal decisions that cost you real money in the long term. It can be massive amounts, a couple year’s wait can cost you as much as 50% of what you didn’t invest in that time (over 30 years).

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Where do we go now but nowhere?
Once I realized that I had been falling into this trap over and over again, I had to figure out a way to escape it. My solution isn’t ingenious in any way, but it doesn’t have to be. The thing is that I only have to perform better than the significantly worse things that I just described above. It would be great to perform much better though, and I have devised a plan for that as well.

The solution is borrowed from most desensitization practices. The idea is to slowly expose yourself to what you are afraid of in minute quantities at first, and then slowly increase the exposure. So if you are afraid to talk about a touchy personality flaw of the person you are in a relationship with, try slowly introducing them to the idea by occasionally pointing it out in the context of other relationships or your own. If they are receptive, it can be over with before you even realize. In case of money, start by saving a fixed small amount over your current saving every month if you can. If your problem is lack of investing, try investing small amounts at the beginning with tools like Acorns, Wealthfront or Betterment. Over time, as you get comfortable, increase both the frequency and the amounts.

Where you can really accelerate into hyperdrive is to draw parallels between these seemingly different situations and accelerate the rate of your desensitization by not only having a regular speed of increased exposure, but a regular speed at which you increase the speed too. You will realize that you will gain confidence to take more risky bets (with higher Expected Value) in general and that will result in you wasting less time in other spheres. If this connect isn’t drawn, you will be “reinventing the wheel” (definitely the most cringe worthy cliche phrase uttered on this blog) every time.
When you realize that there isn’t much to lose when you invest in the markets for example, and the only thing that is preventing you from taking that step is a fear/dread/aversion of the unknown, you realize that the same thing is preventing you from asking out that cute barista who always seems to be super nice to you, and you can only come to the conclusion that life can only get better if risks with low downside and high upside are embraced.

Go. Do.

Footnotes on Soros


Reflexivity refers to the fact that if the investigators (tasked with finding the “truth”) of a system are part of the system, then their beliefs and learnings modify the system and alter the truth. Thus, the truth keeps moving out of reach and will always be unknowable. It is a practical formulation of the problem of understanding human societies because as we learn more about ourselves, new problems arise from the new learnings rendering the learnings overextended and failed. Unlike scientific theories, which have falsibility, social theories are inherently infalsifiable as they themselves introduce a bias in the system.

I think the theory can also be understood as a linear spectrum of the strength of influence the observations from the observers wield on the observed. On the one end of the spectrum you would have people trying to understand themselves, with their own observations about themselves altering their nature so significantly as to render their earlier observations incorrect; and on the other you have people observing the positions of the sun and the moon where the influence those observations wield on the participants of the study are miniscule, leaving the theory valid for longer. Note how I mention the theory is valid for longer. This is because if you imagine a scenario where humans learn enough about gravity to learn how to alter it on an astronomical scale, the prevailing theory would no longer be valid, and would thus be overextended.

Political and financial systems lie somewhere in the middle, with a lot of indeterminacy baked in merely because the observations of the participants would change the dynamics of the systems. Like Trump lying about Obama’s birthplace, or Bush lying about WMDs in Iraq, the manipulators influence reality in a significant way. In a lot of these cases, manipulation of reality is unintentional, but in a fair amount of cases, the manipulator seeks to pursue power more successfully by modifying reality. But due to the innate indeterminacy baked into the system, the reality that they seek to achieve may not arise at all, and the system can digress into a scenario that doesn’t serve its own creator.

In a case of unknown realities, how are we to identify if there is a real truth and its plausibility? I think the answer lies in thinking of this dynamic system as a system of infinite feedback loops and multivariate interactions. The best we can hope to achieve is a system that is internally consistent, and maximizes a function whose value can be as objectively determined as possible. Lowering worldwide deaths, for example, can be a good function to maximize when we are dealing with systems that aim to serve as the guiding principles. Obviously, it’s too simplistic, but it presents a framework within which we can try and make a system that has an internal structure at least. At the same time however, we need to be very cautious of the limits of such a paradigm when it comes to, say, improving human lives, as these things can get overextended really quickly. Communism sounds like a pretty sane theory, but if you establish it as the only version of truth then it can quickly devolve into something that no one intended. At the same time, pluralistic viewpoints can also lead to democracies of misinformation where opinions take priority over facts.

I decided to add some feedback loops to help easily visualize the cases I am talking about.
1. A market in equilibrium
This is oversimplified, as in a lot of genuine cases the loop should be positive feedback, but there was no simple system I could design on the website to show that. Ideally a check condition that would change value based on the disparity between value (reality) and price (assessment of reality). This check condition clearly assumes perfect knowledge, which as discussed, is unattainable in observer as participants systems.

2. A system with emotions interfering to dictate the prices can lead to unstable equilibrium affecting both the reality (value) and price (the assessment of the reality)
Any trigger throws this system out of whack. This is obviously not what happens in financial markets in most cases otherwise the system would be totally dysfunctional. This is a system based mostly on feelings (assessment) rather than reality. This does, however, happen every once in a while or on smaller scales, and value and price go out of whack and influence each other in weird ways.

Will edit as I think about it more. It may even be juvenile in hindsight, but that is the comfort reflexivity allows us. The past is real, and we can be objective about it, but the present and future are wholly uncertain, with a lot of room for maneuvering.

Rage


There are things I cannot influence in any meaningful way that occupy my mind to a troubling degree: how a moron in the government just cut off funding to the EPA, how no one is worried about climate change enough, why people don’t realize that bidets are a much superior option to toilet paper for cleaning butts, why solar stocks are constantly undervalued, why is marriage such a big decision etc. This noise occurs because there are some things I care about deeply and any overarching challenges to those things go directly to my head. I cannot do a single thing about it, so a strange frustration and rage swells up and I feel a lot of blood rushing to my head.

I call it a strange frustration because it feels like I am in a Kafka novel, where things happen to me that affect me immensely and yet I have no recourse but to go on and deal with the situation. There is no deliberate assessment of the situation, there is no choice, there is no escape, there is only time which moves in only one direction, and I feel like I am in a river, drowning, but not dying, just suffocating, all the while moving forward. The rage is impotent, it burns hard but destroys nothing other than me.

It bothers me, and I begin to wonder what it means- have I lost the ability to deal with adversity? have I forgotten where I’m coming from? have I had my fill of the rain and I don’t want to get wet again? have I become so trapped in my own risk averse mediocrity that I don’t dare to do anything about my situation? have things really gotten so bad? were they not always this bad? how did I deal with them then? was I just ignorant? what good is this awareness doing to me? how do I become ignorant again? or how do I become hopeful again? have I lost the ability to take low risk high stake decisions when all I admire in a person is a fearless rationality? how do I get it back? The walls seem to be closing around me, and I feel like this bottle will pop anytime now. But it never does. Instead of being the bottle of soda I imagine myself to be, I think I am a chewing gum, thoroughly malleable, infinitely amenable, infinitely crushable.

I have always written whenever I felt a lack, because that is where my writing comes from. I feel a strong lack again, surrounded by a dense fog of uncertainty and confusion. Only this time, the problem I am dealing with has no form- it is a cacophony of conflicts calling for my help to be resolved, calling for me to identify little ghosts in a noisy signal, and then to wager irreversible decisions based on those ghosts.

Like always, I may have meandered…

But like always, the meandering has helped me understand where the lack is. In a small way possibly, but these little clicks on the keyboard allowed for a fleeting reflection on a pool of thoughts that is unusually murky in my head.

When you take a long time off from biking, you are unsure of yourself in traffic. And I think that is what is happening to me. Gone soft, like they say. The only way to be comfortable again is to take out that rusty bike, oil it up, and start riding.

See you around the corner, Pandit.

Thoughts after the 2016 US Elections


Smugness of Liberals

There are a lot of people who understand that there is way too quick a pronouncement of someone as a racist, sexist, homophobe, xenophobe if one even raises (sometimes genuine) concerns about the dismantling of status quo in each of these respective categories. Sam Harris shares this viewpoint, and a lot of academics would agree that there are certain types of research that you just can’t do these days and even if you did it and found something that goes against the egalitarian view of the world that non-scientific liberals have, you will be rather immediately put under fire. Research showing, for example, that men tend to have better spatial awareness than women and that there are genuine differences between genders. What most of fail to understand in the resulting hysteria of these results is that pointing out differences doesn’t imply discrimination, and that in some cases, going against nature to force fit a 50/50 gender ratio in some occupations can be counterproductive and actually discriminatory. And the feeling of being discriminated against, even though you are the majority, gets manifested in seemingly extreme ways through organizations like the Men’s Rights Activists etc. They have a lot of genuine points, but since the nature of such organizations attracts some actual bigots (who like in every situation scream the loudest), the whole movement gets discredited and maligned, and anyone taking their side on any issue leads to tons of strawman attacks.

Now, a few people have started to understand this, because each of us is a majority in one aspect or the other and we also tend to cry foul when we feel discriminated against in that sphere. Instead, I have been seeing a plethora of articles on NYT and other “liberal” sites that are now focusing on “understanding” the other group, understanding Trump supporters in this case. What they don’t realize is that there is again an implicit moral superiority that gets presented by taking such a position: conservatives aren’t 10 year olds with autism that have trouble expressing themselves. In a lot of cases, they are rich, educated, and have a lot of media to be heard. What is needed is a love for the truth, not a love for the “other side”. What is needed is a clearer understanding of complicated things and letting go of snap judgements and easy labels. 29% Hispanics supported Trump, more NYCzens voted for Trump than did for Romney, so clearly there is quite a variety of flavors that  makes up Trump supporters, and clumping them into labels like xenophobe, racists, idiots, rednecks, only serves to misunderstand them more. As a kicker, Michigan had more people voting for Obama (even in White counties) than had for Clinton. I feel what angered them was not the fact that she was a woman, but the fact that she refused to even address their problems head on. She only ever appealed to minorities and women. Not once did she acknowledge that letting immigrants in is a complicated topic and not a John Oliver video without repercussions, even though I am sure that a woman as smart and with as much experience as her will totally understand it. I would love to live in a world without borders and petty differences based on where you were born, but sadly that is the world we live in and moving away from it too suddenly creates a backlash.

So, in summary, fuck your feelings and fuck your beliefs, whether you are Bill Maher, John Oliver, Sean Hannity, or whoever. What matters is an understanding of the situation based on data, and having the highest resolution picture possible. Forming opinions based on the most relevant and scientific data possible, and then being open to having those opinions be questioned rigorously and sometimes crudely. Science advocates for a simple method to analyze the most complex of situations, but that does not necessarily result in the simplest possible answer, especially in dynamic system like humanity where there are tons of variables, some with a teeny tiny correlations and some with a lot of it. The best possible way to empathize is to understand, and the best possible method to understand is the scientific method.

Who’s the biggest victim here?

I still can’t believe US chose one of its top idiots to run the country, who will clearly assemble a team of choice idiots. But what I am more interested in now is understanding the areas that it will set us back the most. This article helps a little, but since no one understands how strong a resolve republicans have to move the country backwards, I am not sure if it will actually take more or less time to make these changes. One thing that is for certain, and the most frightening, is that climate is going to suffer terribly. The US hardly does enough to migrate to cleaner sources of energy, and it is something I don’t think I understand why. It will only create more jobs, can involve a lot of semi-skilled laborers and is only going to make electricity cheaper in the (slightly) long run. As of now, solar is cheaper than coal anyway, and there are plenty of great solutions to move away from the grid. The only reason I understand is that there is a strong lobby from companies who don’t want the energy mix to shift to areas that they don’t have much expertise in.

Social change anyway is slow and helical, so I am not too worried if gay and women rights get set back by a couple of decades, it is a smaller price to pay compared to what is going to happen to life on Earth in the case of irreversible CO2 increase. Yet this is the most difficult to foresee issue here (despite scary evidence getting ever closer), and will probably face the least amount of resistance. I hope people lead the government here by creating a market that has no choice but to migrate to more sustainable sources of energy because that is what sells. In other words, please save us, Elon. But people have repeatedly been shown to be utterly hopeless, myopic and resistive.

What can you do? Or will you please do this at least?

If you live in a house that is completely your own, can you please invest some money in getting a solar roof? Even more importantly, if you are planning to renovate a roof, go for solar. If you are planning to replace your car or buy a new one, can you go electric? There are plenty of great options: Tesla, Leaf, or even Prius. Read this blog to understand how by making simple tweaks to your life, you can actually increase your happiness, financial and actual health, all the while being a less mendacious version of yourself for the environment. Spend a little money for your kids and the kids of the parents who can’t afford to, instead of (or in addition to) giving them frivolous things like piano lessons, cookies and love, give them a sustainable future.

Through Kundera’s eyes


For those who know me, and most of those reading this blog are among those, know that I have a few authors I am very fond of, and the reason I give is that they talk about the human essence, about ideas that will take millennia to be outdated, and then I throw some names around, like Dostoevsky, or Camus, names hard to argue with. I think I lie. I think the real reason I like who I like is not because they talk about things that will outlast humanity, but because they are kindred, because they have a deeply cynical view of the world, yet they choose to embrace it, make sense of it, and love it. They are not general, they are specific, they are specific to me, in shaping my world, explaining it and then expanding it.

For a long time, I thought Kundera was an Indian author, and I refused to even read about him, filled with a petty jealousy as I myself harbored writerly ambitions, and anyone similar enough was a threat. After I let go of my ambitions, and after I realized Kundera was Franco-Czech, I picked up The Unbearable Lightness of Being. It was at a time when I was not reading much, but the stunning beauty of thought in that book made it a ride that felt too short. It is a book that talks about levity and seriousness, through characters that are fighting against themselves in love. But it is not the book I want to talk to you about, although this should be the first of his books you should read.

I want to talk about another masterpiece, that talks about Identity, Memory, Nostalgia, Absurdity (Laughter): The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. It instantly became close to my heart because these are the only things I think I care deeply about (maybe Mediocrity is another one, but I won’t know till I meet a kindred who talks about that). I don’t want to describe the book to you, for I will only do it a disservice, rather I will list some of my favorite quotes from the book, and maybe annotate them.

On Idealism (in a communist world, specifically):

“All human beings have always aspired to an idyll, to that garden where nightingales sing, to that realm of harmony where the world does not rise up as a stranger against man and man against other men, but rather where the world and all men are shaped from one and the same matter. There, everyone is a note in a sublime Bach fugue, and anyone who refuses to be one is a mere useless and meaningless black dot that need only be caught and crushed between thumb and finger like a flea.”

 

“[Mirek] rewrote history just like the Communist Party, like all political parties, like all peoples, like mankind. They shout that they want to shape a better future, but it’s not true. The future is only an indifferent void no one cares about, but the past is filled with life, and its countenance is irritating, repellent, wounding, to the point that we want to destroy or repaint it. We want to be masters of the future only for the power to change the past.”

This may seem like an overarching poetic statement, but this is in context of explaining the desire of a man to change the future in a way that affects the past, the struggle against memories that won’t cease to exist.

 

“But are tanks really more important than pears? As time went by, [Karel] realized that the answer to this question was not so obvious as he had always thought, and he began to feel a secret sympathy for Mama’s perspective, which had a big pear tree in the foreground and somewhere in the distance a tank no bigger than a ladybug, ready at any moment to fly away out of sight. Ah yes! In reality it’s Mama who is right: tanks are perishable, pears are eternal.”

 

On the unwritten rules of relationship constructs:

“Every love relationship rests on an unwritten agreement unthinkingly concluded by the lovers in the first weeks of their love. They are still in a kind of dream but at the same time, without knowing it, are drawing up, like uncompromising lawyers, the detailed clauses of their contract. O lovers! Be careful in those dangerous first days! Once you’ve brought breakfast in bed you’ll have to bring it forever, unless you want to be accused of lovelessness and betrayal.”

 

“Really as Sisyphus? Wasn’t it Sisyphus Marketa had compared herself to?

Yes, as the years went by, man and wife became twins, with the same vocabulary, the same ideas, the same des-tiny. Each had given the gift of Eva to the other, each to make the other happy. Each had the impression of hav­ing to push a boulder uphill. Each one was tired.”

 

On the difficulty of listening:

“But is she really listening? Or is she merely looking at them so attentively, so silently? I don’t know, and it’s not very important. What matters is that she doesn’t interrupt anyone. You know what happens when two people talk. One of them speaks and the other breaks in: “It’s absolutely the same with me, I …” and starts talking about himself until the first one manages to slip back in with his own “It’s absolutely the same with me, I…”
The phrase “It’s absolutely the same with me, I …” seems to be an approving echo, a way of con­tinuing the other’s thought, but that is an illusion: in reality it is a brute revolt against a brutal violence, an effort to free our own ear from bondage and to occupy the enemy’s ear by force. Because all of man’s life among his kind is nothing other than a battle to seize the ear of others. The whole secret of Tamina’s popularity is that she has no desire to talk about herself. She submits to the forces occupying her ear, never saying: “It’s absolutely the same with me, I . . .” “

 

On the feebleness of Memory, and the need to preserve it:

“She knows, of course, that there are also quite a few unpleasant things in the notebooks, days of dissatis-faction, arguments, and even boredom, but that is not what matters. She does not want to give back to the past its poetry. She wants to give back to it its lost body. What is urging her on is not a desire for beauty. It is a desire for life.
For Tamina is adrift on a raft and looking back, looking only back. Her entire being contains only what she sees there, far behind her. Just as her past con-tracts, disintegrates, dissolves, so Tamina is shrinking and losing her contours.”

 

On Self:

“That night Tamina dreamed about the ostriches. They were standing against the fence, all talking to her at once. She was terrified.

Tamina will never know what those great birds came to tell her. But I know. They did not come to warn her, scold her, or threaten her. They are not at all interested in her. Each one of them came to tell her about itself. Each one to tell her how it had eaten, how it had slept, how it had run up to the fence and seen her behind it. That it had spent its important childhood in the important village of Rourou. That its important orgasm had lasted six hours. That it had seen a woman strolling behind the fence and she was wearing a shawl. That it had gone swimming, that it had fallen ill and then recovered. That when it was young it rode a bike and that today it had gobbled up a sack of grass. They are standing in front of Tamina and talking to her all at once, vehemently, insistently, aggressively, because there is nothing more important than what they want to tell her.”

 

On Love:

“They got into a conversation. What intrigued Tamina were his questions. Not their content, but the simple fact that he was asking them. My God, it had been so long since anyone had asked her about any­thing! It seemed like an eternity! Only her husband had kept asking her questions, because love is a con-tinual interrogation. I don’t know of a better definition of love.”

 

On reconciling with the unknowable around you (the infinity in your grasp):

“Man knows he cannot embrace the universe with its suns and stars. Much more unbearable is for him to be condemned to lack the other infinitude, that infinitude near at hand, within reach. Tamina lacked the infini­tude of her love, I lacked Papa, and all of us are lack­ing in our work because in pursuit of perfection we go toward the core of the matter but never quite get to it.
That the infinitude of the exterior world escapes us we accept as natural. But we reproach ourselves until the end of our lives for lacking that other infinitude.”

 

On the hatred borne out of a love for your kin:

“Her misfortune is not that the children are bad but that she is beyond their world’s border. Humans do not revolt against the killing of calves in slaughterhouses. Calves are outside human law, just as Tamina is out­side the children’s law.”

 

On choosing the “best progressive idea”:

“As I have said, the Clevises were forward-looking, and they held progressive ideas. There are many kinds of progressive ideas, and the Clevises always supported the best possible progressive ideas. The best progres­sive ideas are those that include a strong enough dose of provocation to make its supporters feel proud of being original, but at the same time attract so many adherents that the risk of being an isolated exception is immediately averted by the noisy approval of a tri­umphant crowd. If, for instance, the Clevises were not only against tops but against clothing in general, if they announced that people should walk the city streets naked, they would surely still be supporting a progressive idea, but certainly not the best possible one. That idea would be embarrassing because there is something excessive about it, it would take too much energy to defend (while the best possible progressive idea, so to speak, defends itself), and its supporters would never have the satisfaction of seeing their thoroughly nonconformist position suddenly become everyone’s position.
Listening to them fulminate against tops, Jan remembered the small wooden instrument called a level that his grandfather, a bricklayer, would place on the top layer of a wall under construction. At the cen­ter of the instrument was a glass tube of liquid with an air bubble whose position indicated whether the row of bricks was horizontal or not. The Clevis family could serve as an intellectual air bubble. Placed on some idea or other, it would indicate precisely whether or not that was the best progressive idea possible.”

 

“At the beginning of one’s erotic life, there is arousal without climax, and at the end there is climax without arousal.
Arousal without climax is Daphnis.”

 

Kundera segments men’s erotic history, in his usually incisive manner:

“Every man has two erotic biographies. The first is the one people mainly talk about, the one consisting of a list of affairs and passing amours.
The other biography is undoubtedly more interest­ing: the procession of women we wanted to have but who eluded us, the painful history of unrealized possi­bilities.
But there is also a third, a mysterious and disturb­ing category of women. These are women we liked and were liked by, but women we quickly saw we would never have, because in relation to them we were on the other side of the border.”

He talks a lot about this border, and I think paragraph would maybe explain the meaning of the border best:
“Only a few millimeters separated physi­cal love from laughter, and he dreaded crossing over them. Only a few millimeters separated him from the other side of the border, where things no longer have meaning.”
This border is the line where serious ideas and objects are reduced to laughter, to an absurd position where they are naked and dumb.

 

“…midway through his very long journey as a virgin, he already knew what it is to be bored with the female body. Even before he ever experienced climax, he had already arrived mentally at the end of arousal. He had experienced its exhaustibility.
From childhood on, therefore, he had lived within sight of that mysterious border on the other side of which female breasts were merely soft globes hanging from the chest. That border was his lot from the very beginning.”

 

“”We’re all characters in Barbara’s dream,” said Jan.
“Yes,” replied the bald man. “But it never quite works. Barbara is like a clockmaker who has to keep moving the hands of his clock himself.””

 

” Jan remem­bered Daphnis. He is lying down, spellbound by Chloe’s nakedness, aroused but with no knowledge of what that arousal is summoning him to, so that the arousal is endless and unappeasable, limited and interminable. A great yearning gripped Jan’s heart, a desire to go back again. Back to that boy. Back to man’s begin­nings, to his own beginnings, to love’s beginnings. He desired desire. He desired the pounding of the heart. He desired to be lying beside Chloe unaware of fleshly love. Unaware of sexual climax. To transform himself into pure arousal, the mysterious, the incomprehensible and miraculous arousal of a man before a woman’s body. And he said out loud: “Daphnis!” ”

“…their bare genitals stared stupidly and sadly at the yellow sand.”

I against Them


I am sure you do not know me well, but I will tell you about this party I went to anyway.

It was a housewarming party on a surprisingly warm October day in New York. The house was in Midtown, the place where you find the most nauseating conformists per square meter than anywhere else in the world. It was, as you might expect, a high rent high rise high class apartment complex made for the quintessentially simple, the smart sheep, if you will, who know enough math and algorithms to create efficient maps of the world much bigger than the world itself is, yet know not why they exist (yes, this is an intentional and self aware sentence, so save the sarcasm if you’re bringing that out).

After I arrived an hour late only to know that I was the first to reach, and the only one to care about time, I was greeted by this old acquaintance of mine, and also the host of the party, who always keeps me guessing whether what he is saying to me is because of some invisible camera staring at him, or because he actually talks like that, and showed me to the balcony of the apartment on the eleventh floor, where a couple of women and his roommate were having wine, cheese and platitudes. I hadn’t even the chance to repeat the name of the talker to myself, the sister of the roommate’s girlfriend (the other woman), before I knew how she had married a guy only for his money and was proud of their mutual and unconscious banality.

I was then taken to the roof (it was great, I was told, and I had not brought my sunglasses) where we were joined in due time by the other androids. A couple of girls showed up drunk, with their make up off and their irreverence on, confused whether they were flirting or not. They were later thrown/shown out of the housewarming party of ten people. I need not insult the reader’s intelligence here but I want to explicitly mention that in this party, there were no friends, or even merely acquaintances, but people so much in love with themselves that all they could think about was I: I on the roof of a high rise; I on the blurb of a book; I on the door of a room of a very important office; I on top of a wo/man with a nice body and blue eyes; I on a treadmill; I on the top of the human pyramid; I on everyone’s minds. They were all terribly alone, but they did not know how to write or think honestly about themselves, so they wrote books on Javascript, ASP, The Art of Attack, How to Invest like Me between putting on those expensive shoes to go to rooftop bars with expensive drinks and lights that make you look good, but only until your make up melts or you open your mouth.

Then they talked about their protein shakes, their body fascism, their latest disruptive and innovative startup ideas, exposing their ideas of life sans any vital melancholy, their thought sans any humanity, their laugh sans any sincerity, their eyes shifting furiously from one person to another seeking approval in a frenzied, desperate, relentless manner. I felt sad, and offered them some pity, but that wasn’t what they were craving, no, they were craving their mothers, they were craving that somebody love them without gauging where they would be in five years, that somebody open their embrace to them so that they can remember how it feels to cry.

The Ingrates


“I honestly hate my parents.”

“That is a very strong statement. I am sure you love them, what happened? Anything wrong between you guys?”

“My accusations are not light, man. My hate is not curable. They have made me slip into an abyss of lifetime bondage, stripped me of my freedoms throughout the time I was growing up. I wonder how much more liberated I would’ve been had they been a little better.”

“You seem plenty liberated to me, and also seem to be a very reasonable and balanced man. So much so, that this is the most absurd I’ve seen you act in a long time.”

“That is not due to them, that is despite them. They have been merely trying to raise me in their own image, I owe nothing of my character to them.”

“That’s a ludicrous statement! Surely, they could have imposed their view of the world and their expectations on you, but that does not mean that your character wasn’t shaped because of it. People are defined and made by their reactions to the constraints and assumptions laid by the environment around them. You turned out to be a rebel, sure, but you are still rebelling against them, and thus, being defined by them.”

“That’s clever… and circular. No matter what I do, I will be defined by them, right? Your theory leaves nothing to me.”

“It leaves reconciliation to you.”

“Are you saying that the only decision about myself that I can make that would be completely my own is to accept them as they are? Are we even talking about the same thing? I am telling you about the innumerable instances of repression, suppression, guilt, shame and sorrow I have felt because I couldn’t meet their expectations, because I couldn’t live up to the image that wanted I would be. Like the one instance where I misread my examination time tables and prepared for the wrong exam and scored less, and my mother called me a failure for this. I mean, it was a mistake, a small, genuine, everyday mistake.”

“To me, it only shows how emotionally invested she was in you.”

“She didn’t need to be, it was traumatizing. This is what I am talking about, this is bad parenting. This is why I wonder what would’ve changed if she didn’t make such stupid mistakes with her child.”

“I think you answered your own question. It was a parenting mistake on her part, nothing more. If you want her to have forgiven yours, I expect you should return the favor.”

“I could if it were just one. If the whole process was more mistakes than not, then I cannot forgive something that so tangibly changed my life.”

“I want to hear more. I want to hear other cases of how she or they, was it just her who did that, traumatized you. I want to know if you are being needlessly whiny or if you have any substance behind your frustrations with yourself.”

“It doesn’t have to be overt, I hope you understand that, or this conversation will go nowhere. I don’t care as much about the beatings I received as I do about the dogma and indoctrination. I borrowed their hate for Muslims, I borrowed their paranoia, suffered endlessly because of it. I also borrowed their unquestioned belief in god, their superstitions, some in the name of culture while others purely out of habit.”

“So you are blaming them for being who they are?”

“Yes. Why couldn’t they be liberal atheists, who knew what kind of books to read and what kind of movies to watch?”

“Ha! At least their behavior is justified in most instances, unlike yours in this. They hated Muslims because they were driven out of their homeland and their friends were slaughtered because of a religious movement. While it may not be best to harp upon that feeling, the resentment is still justified. Do you not remember the moments you were bullied in school? Do you still not harbor a hate for that bully, and for that matter, all bullies?
“Their belief in god remained unquestioned because they were not exposed to much science, and definitely not as much as you have been. I should also remark that it is due to them that you have been exposed to so much science, for although they might not have been the best at science themselves, they actively wanted you to be great at it. Not because you would question god for them, but because they wanted the best for you. Isn’t it so?”

“You do have a point. They were as much a product of their environment as I am of mine, and now I see why you said what you said about reconciliation.”

“I am glad you do. This is how progress happens, not because people do what they do with a clear knowledge of what they want to attain, but because they love. Your parents loved you, wanted the best for you, did whatever they thought was the best for you, and egged you on to do the things you fell in love with.

“This is the same for everyone’s parents, look at mine, for instance, they have done a lot for me. They did pay, despite not earning too much, for my swimming classes. They also paid quite a significant percentage of their monthly income to ensure I went to one of the better schools.
“They actually lived a life of extreme frugality themselves while splurging to give me the most comfortable life they could afford to give me. Now that I think about it, they rarely bought any new clothes themselves, they never bought new furniture other than the one instance when it was a table for my studies. Only the other day, I was cursing my parents’ frugality, wishing they were more intelligent with their money, spending it to increase their standards of living rather than stashing it for eternity, all the while not realizing that what was once a necessity, borne solely out of the desire to nourish me, had now become a habit.
“My father had to buy a pair of shoes for himself once. His old shoes had worn out significantly and since he avoided hailing an auto-rickshaw to save money, he needed to walk quite a lot. He needed good shoes. Paying Rs. 500 for a good shoe wasn’t that high an expense, he had bought shoes for me that were twice as expensive. But I remember him scrounging around the market ceaselessly to search for a shoe that was both good and inexpensive. He eventually settled on a Rs. 100 shoe that had a sole with holes under the insole (to save costs of by cutting down on material). I wore that to a game once and my feet killed me at the end of the day. I told him he was stupid for buying this shoe, that he was a miser…
“I haven’t been able to forgive myself for that sorrowful look he had on his face for disappointing me that day. I don’t think I will ever be able to. Why did he buy those shoes? What was the reason? It was I, dear sir, I was the reason. I was what had manifested in him this austerity. And yet, he was the disappointment. Is that fair?

“I think I hate my parents. They have stripped me of my freedom. And this is not your teenage angst whining about how they didn’t let me choose my own T-Shirt color. It is the kind of freedom that Sartre gained when he realized the frivolity of his existence and its inherent meaninglessness, the most essential of human freedoms, Freedom with a capital F, the Freedom that comes from an indifference and detachment to any purpose whatsoever. The reason I cannot have this Freedom is because no matter what I do, I can never be grateful enough. That whatever I do to repay them will fall short. The worst part is that they don’t even expect me to do anything for them. This is how they get their revenge, how they make me suffer for the sorrows I caused them because of my expectations of what they should’ve been and should’ve done.
“I probably would have been much better with parents that didn’t care, that didn’t recognize me soon after they’d given birth to me, like the cartoon ducklings that get lost and create their own father figures who give them nothing in return but a chase.
I hate my parents.”

The Oppressive Compulsive Philistines


Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD): An anxiety disorder in which people have unwanted and repeated thoughts, feelings, ideas, sensations (obsessions), or behaviors that make them feel driven to do something (compulsions).

OCD is a disorder of order, of obsession with order, to maintain it, preserve it, repeat it, without much thought to any revisions to the process. The thing that skipped all of us, is that our world is an OCD, our society is suffering from it, but due to the absence of an external reference the disorder is nearly impossible to spot. There are age old customs, reinforced by glorification of atavistic tendencies, that keep repeating without reason, like the propagation of sacred myths till they become unquestionable truisms. The problem is, they are not, and more often, they are very far away from the ideal.

Imagine if a thousand years from now, the restrictions on twitter statuses were to overflow into all communication by random chance and all communication, without much reason, was happening in 140 characters at a time. It would feel stupid and inefficient, right? Yet there are societal structures in place in the world today that serve no purpose relevant to the post-modern, post-internet era we are living in. Things like religion, marriage, biased patriotism, etc are some that are consistently found across most existing cultures as redundancies that have a sanction so oppressively bold that it is nearly impossible to go against all of them all the time. But some do.

There are two types of people in the world: the Philistines (I intend a broader scope of the term than the culturally indifferent person it is supposed to mean: I intend a person that would tend to gravitate towards vindication of the things he/she’s been taught, or indoctrinated with, in childhood and selectively pick examples to curate and reinforce that worldview. The article would make it clearer what kind of person I am referring to as a Philistine), and the non-Philistines (for the purpose of this article, let’s call them the vanguard, for they are the cultural avant-garde). The vanguard is responsible for raising a hand when the OCD gets too much to justify and tolerate. Sometimes the vanguard is crushed and blown away, sometimes it succeeds a little, and sometimes the apple carts turn over (only to be replaced by another obsession). To give you some examples, feminists have to fight all the time to let others know that women are human; LGBT rights are languishing in the widespread homophobia; atheists get caught in the cross-winds of religious nutcases trying to blow each other off all the time; institutional racism prevents people of color from getting an equal footing everywhere; etc. I take it a bit further to say that the legal sanction of marriage, and the oppressively high importance placed on it in certain cultures (one of which is India’s, to which I belong), tends to marginalize the happiness of a large section of society which is not genetically designed to function in monogamous arrangements.

So are Philistines just a bother, or do they serve any purpose? Well they do. They establish order, function on algorithms, are predictable, and keep the machine running. If this compulsively established order were to disappear, inefficiencies would start to creep in everywhere, and the machine would become more local and less global (let’s just say a bad thing, in general, though a separate exposition on this complicated topic would be in order), and the progress of humanity towards removal of strife and misery would slow down and maybe stop altogether. That is why the majority must always be of the Philistines. But they need to be made aware of the minority.

Like people who fight societal structures would know, one of the most crucial elements in winning the battle and creating an equal ground is awareness. If the majority is aware of their privilege as a majority and they try not to trample too harshly the voices of the minority, the world is not insufferable. So the world needs to be made aware of the vanguard in all its forms. And a person who is a vanguard on one issue may be a philistine in the other, and it needs to be out there. Turning apple carts over shouldn’t be a violent struggle all the time, treating the OCD shouldn’t be unfathomable.

Living should be easy, compromises should be few.

The Minority Identity


Ride the New York Subway on a regular day and you would realise what it means to live in a place where everyone is an outsider. Perhaps this is the reason why New York cannot be termed tolerant, because being tolerant implies that you are aware of the other’s identity, bothered by it and putting up with it. New York doesn’t care: it is indifferent, it accepts. This idea of racial/ethnic acceptance in a multi-cultural society had been going on in my head for the past few months due to its direct relevance to India, and I wanted to share some personal insights, with a little bit of science thrown in to demonstrate the point better.

Hardly a day goes by in the Indian media and political arena without a reference to the biggest religious minority of the country, the Muslims. Even though a good portion of the online population has wised up to the silly politics of religion, most people are not sure about how to go about discussing this touchy topic in a public setting, though most of them are brimming with their opinions about it. I often wondered why this was so, why was this problem so difficult to understand, for the solution begins at understanding. It took me a good deal of bigotry, cockiness, and an overdose of self-belief to allow myself to write radical comments against “the stupidity of Islam”, and the inherent aggression in it to be humiliated later when I was to re-read them again a couple of years later. What had changed in the two years is that I had undergone a change of, or development of a, perspective. I’ll talk more about that later, I want to share a few theories with you first.

At the core of this problem are the same psychological phenomena (at the cost of being too simplistic) that are responsible for the perennial gender issues, endless wars, racism, football hooliganism, the holocaust etc. Humans are irrational animals: they are motivated and influenced more by their asymmetric and biased world view than the objective understanding of the complete picture, for the complete picture is often too difficult to comprehend, even for those with a gifted imagination. Couple these biases with the inherent needs for a self-image and belonging, and we have men that cherish nationalism, for example, as a quality that defines the highest among them.

In one of the most unsettling of psychological experiments conducted on humans by a very important social psychologist called Muzafer Sherif, a group of boys at a camp were separated into two ‘tribes’ to understand how social hierarchies evolved in a natural setting, with the eventual intention of studying the interaction of the two tribes were they to meet.

You can read the details of the experiment in the link given, but to draw the relevant essence of the experiment here, the boys separated into the tribes perceived the differences between the groups, exaggerated them, ignored the similarities, growing more hostile towards each other than accepting. They also became very competitive and their work rate towards competitive activities increased. This is reflective of human nature in general, and can be explained quite easily from an evolutionary perspective- the stronger the collective spirit in a small group, the more likely is it to survive and fend off difficult circumstances. This might result in some intra-species struggles, but as we know from examples in other species, it is not something that is unprecedented. And even though the times have changed, outdating this line of thought, evolution isn’t keeping up. Nationalism, to stick with the same example, is a modern rendition of the same bigotry. It is not necessarily bad, as it can motivate people to often work hard for their country, as evinced by the boys in the experiment, but I feel the philosophical harm it causes (that often has tangible effects in the form of wars, terrorism etc.) outweighs any positives. It should be easy for the reader to see how the same bias is responsible for strife between different religions, races, etc.

Let me elaborate this with my own example. In India, I belong to the religious majority, the Hindus. I am thus fairly certain that when it is my turn to be judged by my peers, I would be judged irrationally on one less parameter compared to someone not from the majority. In other words, my identity is not defined by my religion, it is more defined by what I do, what I wear, what I say, how I behave, etc. This is a privilege of the majority. To elaborate this further, let us take the example of how society would view my moral transgressions. If I were to commit a mild treason by, let’s say, criticizing my country, I would be judged, more or less, on the gravity of my arguments. On the other hand, if I were a Muslim, I would instantly become a representative of the views of my religion, and with each step, I would be integrating my example to the archetype that would eventually become the Muslim stereotype (assuming it is not already created and being reinforced by my act). Why does this happen?

Because we have divided our world view into us and them. The minority identity for the majority is them, and in this particular case, the Muslims. To understand the often complicated reasons behind their treasons, we take refuge in the laziest of explanations: that it has to do something with their religion. This effect is called the Realistic Conflict Theory, and the biases in this form of irrationality are supplemented by yet another of the most prevalent biases we humans have, the Conformation Bias, which is a tendency to select the examples that suit our preconceived notions and ignore the ones that go against it. It creates a skewed world view where the end result might be, in an extreme but common enough situation, to assume all Muslims to be aggressors or terrorists unless proven otherwise, a dangerous, hostile and scary world view indeed.

There is a particular political faction in the country that would have us believe that pampering the minority, treating them differently in almost every sphere of interaction, is the way to their eventual integration into the mainstream. There is another that has a reputation for being downright hostile to the minority. I refuse to believe that they do this because of their naiveté. Most of the politicians in India are motivated more by greed than by adding value to the country, and very few of them have their hearts in the right place. They prey upon the religious difference among the people of the nation to achieve their ends, effectively stepping into the shoes of the colonial powers that preceded them. It again falls upon the great people of this nation to fight their oppressors.

I apologize for the digression. I am more concerned with having this article touch the readers at a personal level. I want to offer a simple thought experiment to counter this bias when you feel yourself succumbing to it.

I have lived in India most of my life. I left my country for the first time about a year back, and have lived in a lot of different parts of the United States. It is not a country that is particularly hostile, at least outwardly, towards people of Indian descent, but something about my situation here was ominous. After thinking about this vague feeling of insecurity over and over, I was finally able to point a decisive finger at it. I was a minority, for the first time in my conscious life.

I have called myself an Indian here in one year way more than I have called myself an Indian in India all my life (even if I count the daily pledge in school). Suddenly being an Indian is my identity, although I hate Bollywood, watch more American TV than Indian TV, hardly listen to any Indian songs, hardly read any Indian authors, love Sushi more than any Indian dish, and a million other “non-Indian” things, like a lot of my other Indian friends. A lot of people I meet here have been utterly disappointed that I call Art of Living a sham. Surely a lot of things about me are Indian, but there is much more that I would want myself to be associated with first before the concept of a stereotypical Indian guy. But that is how I am being defined now. I was never approached like this in my life, and it flipped a switch in me. My radical notions about Arabs and Pakistanis suddenly started dissolving away now that I could closely feel how my remarks would sound to someone from that part of the world. I loved (and understood the reason behind) the feeling of indifference in a melting pot like New York City, compared to the feeling of being an outsider in a less diverse state like North Carolina.

So here is my thought experiment. Whenever you find yourself making sweeping (negative or positive) statements about a particular community, country, culture, colour, gender, etc., you should stop talking for a while. Recognize that you may have taken the wrong line of thought there. Place yourself in the shoes of the other (like the children in Ms. Jane’s blue-eyed/brown-eyed class do) and think how fallacious what you were saying about yourself (as you are now) a minute ago was. Maybe that would help with the perspective. With all the intelligence and information at our disposal in this age, perspective is the thing we lack the most.

Humans no longer fear an existential threat from other species: they can afford to be friendly, helpful and less hostile, within themselves and without. We are (should, rather) no longer living in small groups, other than at a very intimate emotional level, and are moving towards a society that has the perspective of seeing itself from space, as one collective species out of many, floating on top of a rock in space. Our evolutionary instincts need to shift, or at least rationally modified, and it is a process we can accelerate through language and the internet.

The tensions between the warring tribes in the experiment by Muzafer Sherif was lessened by activities that involved both the groups to work together to achieve some goals. Our globalized world is the one camp we are in now, we are all humans, and we need to work collectively to strive towards a world with lesser misery, lesser suffering, and lesser strife, with more equality, more peace, and more happiness: a world that is more understanding and more rational.