Monday, December 31, 2012

Few Best Essays Of 2012

I wanted to keep track of all the great pieces I read this year but eventually lost count and here are few I could remember. 

William Damon's excellent piece on The Death Of Honesty:

Indeed, there may be a perception in many key areas of contemporary life—law, business, politics, among others—that expecting honesty on a regular basis is a naïve and foolish attitude, a “loser’s” way of operating. Such a perception is practically a mandate for personal dishonesty and a concession to interpersonal distrust. When we no longer assume that those who communicate with us are at least trying to tell the truth, we give up on them as trustworthy persons and deal with them only in a strictly instrumental manner. The bounds of mutual moral obligation dissolve, and the laws of the jungle reemerge.

How the U.S. Lost Out on iPhone Work by Charles Duhigg and Keith Brandsher

For over two years, the company had been working on a project — code-named Purple 2 — that presented the same questions at every turn: how do you completely reimagine the cellphone? And how do you design it at the highest quality — with an unscratchable screen, for instance — while also ensuring that millions can be manufactured quickly and inexpensively enough to earn a significant profit? 
The answers, almost every time, were found outside the United States. Though components differ between versions, all iPhones contain hundreds of parts, an estimated 90 percent of which are manufactured abroad.

Andrew Ferguson's r
eview of The Closing of American Mind:

If I had reread The Closing of the American Mind 10 years ago, when my own children were themselves under 10, I confess I would have thought Bloom’s portrait of educational decline was overwrought. And then they grew up and went off to college.
Here Bloom describes a freshman arriving on campus. “He finds a democracy of the disciplines,” he wrote. “This democracy is really an anarchy, because there are no recognized rules for citizenship and no legitimate titles to rule. In short, there is no vision, nor is there a set of competing visions, of what an educated human being is.” In the end the freshman will likely opt for a major that will get him hired when he graduates, while “pick[ing] up in elective courses a little of whatever is thought to make one cultured.”This observation from 25 years ago matches what a freshman encounters at a moderately selective university today, and with small adjustments, even at many smaller colleges that claim to specialize in the liberal arts. The “core curriculum” or “general education requirements” are largely a sham:  A math class may be offered, a science class may be offered, but seldom are both required, and often the content of each has only a glancing relation to the study of math or science. Philosophy and history fare still worse.

Pat Shipman's piece on 
How Dogs helped humans survive:

The dominance of modern humans could have been in part a consequence of domesticating dogs—possibly combined with a small, but key, change in human anatomy that made people better able to communicate with dogs.
Dogs may also have contributed more directly to human hunting success. To discover how big a difference dogs could make, Vesa Ruusila and Mauri Pesonen of the Finnish Game and Fisheries Institute investigated what may be the closest easily studied analog to a mammoth hunt: the Finnish moose hunt. Finns use large dogs such as Norwegian elkhounds or Finnish spitzes to find moose and keep them in place by barking until humans can approach and shoot them. In hunting groups of fewer than 10 people, the average carcass weight per hunter without dogs was 8.4 kilograms per day. With dogs, the yield went up to 13.1 kilograms per hunter per day—an increase of 56 percent.

Brian Doyle o
n Edmond Burke:

Everyone claims Edmund Burke, except me. I merely savor and celebrate him, and appreciate his piercing thought and ringing speech, and honor the service he rendered his bruised native land and his earnest adopted country, which tried, against great odds and the tide of history, to operate a generally reasonable and enlightened empire, except in the case of its neighboring island, where it destroyed an ancient culture with a thorough and strategic violence it did not inflict on any of its other many colonies around the world. Why that was so, what demons drove the English to so detest and crush the Irish, is a mystery to many, as surely it was to Burke; but he fought the destruction with his capacious intellect, his silver tongue, his bounding heart, even as he rose to become, as Hazlitt said, the chief boast and ornament of the Commons. It was Hazlitt too who wrote that Burke’s wisdom was greater than his eloquence.

Mike Lewis profile of Obama (my favorite piece of the year):

“You have to exercise,” he said, for instance. “Or at some point you’ll just break down.” You also need to remove from your life the day-to-day problems that absorb most people for meaningful parts of their day. “You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits,” he said. “I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.” He mentioned research that shows the simple act of making decisions degrades one’s ability to make further decisions. It’s why shopping is so exhausting. “You need to focus your decision-making energy. You need to routinize yourself. You can’t be going through the day distracted by trivia.” The self-discipline he believes is required to do the job well comes at a high price. “You can’t wander around,” he said. “It’s much harder to be surprised. You don’t have those moments of serendipity. You don’t bump into a friend in a restaurant you haven’t seen in years. The loss of anonymity and the loss of surprise is an unnatural state. You adapt to it, but you don’t get used to it—at least I don’t.”

Neil Gershenfeld on 3D printing - How to make almost anything:

A new digital revolution is coming, this time in fabrication. It draws on the same insights that led to the earlier digitizations of communication and computation, but now what is being programmed is the physical world rather than the virtual one. Digital fabrication will allow individuals to design and produce tangible objects on demand, wherever and whenever they need them. Widespread access to these technologies will challenge traditional models of business, aid, and education.

Breaking The Silence - a heart breaking piece on perpetual inequality in India by Pratap Banu Metha:

Acute forms of social segregation remain a reality. A large number of social struggles continue to be animated by the indignity of inequality and powerlessness. Despite significant reductions in poverty, it is difficult to deny that India still breathes an oppressive atmosphere of social inequality. The idea that growth and economic development represent our best chance of unsettling fixed hierarchies of power has some truth to it. But we cannot get away from the fact that growth is bringing in new challenges of inequality, which we ignore at our peril. It is also true that much of the political discourse of equality has been hypocritical. But here we must acknowledge that debates over growth and equality rarely manage to dent the psychological resistance we have erected to avoid confronting uncomfortable facts about inequality.

Quote of the Day

Most people would rather die than think; most people do. People like narratives, they like to have an explanation, they like to know where they are going. They don’t want to have to think these things out for themselves. They like the nice, pre-packaged answer that’s just handed to them by somebody authoritative with a big beard. And that is a kind of betrayal, in a way, of the fact that we have curiosity but, most of all, we have intelligence and so we should be questioning, challenging, trying to find out.

- A.C Grayling

Sunday, December 30, 2012

What I've Been Reading

The 33 Strategies of War by Robert Greene. I started out this year keeping up my promise to read as much as I could on stoicism but now ending the year reading this book - go figure!!

One of the best books I have ever read, period. Each page is packed with pragmatic wisdom which directly corresponds to the ape that is still alive and kicking inside us.

From the preface:

"The world has become increasingly competitive and nasty. In politics, business, even the arts, we face opponents who will do almost anything to gain an edge. More troubling and complex, however, are the battles we face with those who are supposedly on our side. There are those who outwardly play the team game, who act friendly and agreeable, but who sabotage us behind the scenes, use the group to promote their own agenda. Others, more difficult to spot, play subtle games of passive aggression, offering help that never comes, instilling guilt as a secret weapon. On the surface everything seems peaceful enough, but just below it, it is every man and woman for him-or herself, this dynamic infecting even families and relationships. The culture may deny this reality and promote a gentler picture, but we know it and feel it, in our battle scars.

It is not that we and our colleagues are ignoble creatures who fail to live up to ideals of peace and selflessness, but we cannot help the way we are. What we need are not impossible and inhuman ideals of peace and cooperation to live up to, and the confusion that brings us, but rather practical knowledge on how to deal with conflict and the daily battles we face."


1: Declare war on your enemies: Polarity
You cannot fight effectively unless you can identify them. Learn to smoke them out, then inwardly declare war. Your enemies can fill you with purpose and direction.

2: Do not fight the last war: Guerilla-war-of-the-mind
Wage war on the past and ruthlessly force yourself to react to the present. Make everything fluid and mobile.

3: Amidst the turmoil of events, do not lose your presence of mind: Counterbalance
Keep your presence of mind whatever the circumstances. Make your mind tougher by exposing it to adversity. Learn to detach youself from the chaos of the battlefied.

4: Create a sense of urgency and desperation: Death-ground
Place yourself where your back is against the wall and you have to fight like hell to get out alive.


5: Avoid the snares of groupthink: Command-and-control
Create a chain of command where people do not feel constrained by your influence yet follow your lead. Create a sense of participation, but do not fall into groupthink.

6: Segment your forces: Controlled-chaos
The critical elements in war are speed and adaptability--the ability to move and make decisions faster than the enemy. Break your forces into independent groups that can operate on their own. Give them the spirit of the campaign, a mission to accomplish, and room to run.

7: Transform your war into a crusade: Morale
Get them to think less about themselves and more about the group. Involve them in a cause, a crusade against a hated enemy. Make them see their survival is tied to the success of the army as a whole.


8: Pick your battles carefully: Perfect-economy
Consider the hidden costs of war: time, political goodwill, an embittered enemy bent on revenge. Sometimes it is better to undermine your enemies covertly.

9: Turn the tables: Counterattack
Let the other side move first. If aggressive, bait them into a rash attack that leaves them in a weak position.

10: Create a threatening presence: Deterrence
Build a reputation for being a little crazy. Fighting you is not worth it. Uncertainty can be better than an explicit threat. If your opponents aren't sure what attacking you will cost, they will not want to find out.

11: Trade space for time: Nonengagement
Retreat is a sign of strength. Resisting the temptation to respond buys valuable time. Sometimes you accomplish most by doing nothing.


12: Lose battles, but win the war: Grand strategy
Grand strategy is the art of looking beyond the present battle and calculating ahead. Focus on your ultimate goal and plot to reach it.

13: Know your enemy: Intelligence
The target of your strategies is not the army you face, but the mind who runs it. Learn to read people.

14: Overwhelm resistance with speed and suddenness: Blitzkrieg
Speed is power. Striking first, before enemies have time to think or prepare will make them emotional, unbalanced, and prone to error.

15: Control the dynamic: Forcing
Instead of trying to dominate the other side's every move, work to define the nature of the relationship itself. Control your opponent's mind, pushing emotional buttons and compelling them to make mistakes.

16: Hit them where it hurts: Center-of-gravity
Find the source of your enemy's power. Find out what he cherishes and protects and strike.

17: Defeat them in detail: Divide and conquer
Separate the parts and sow dissension and division. Turn a large problem into small, eminently defeatable parts.

18: Expose and attack your opponent's soft flank: Turning
Frontal assaults stiffen resistance. Instead, distract your enemy's attention to the front, then attack from the side when they expose their weakness.

19: Envelop the enemy: Annihilation
Create relentless pressure from all sides and close off their access to the outside world. When you sense weakening resolve, tighten the noose and crush their willpower.

20: Maneuver them into weakness: Ripening for the sickle
Before the battle begins, put your opponent in a position of such weakness that victory is easy and quick. Create dilemmas where all potential choices are bad.

21: Negotiate while advancing: Diplomatic war
Before and during negotiations, keep advancing, creating relentless pressure and compelling the other side to settle on your terms. The more you take, the more you can give back in meaningless concessions. Create a reputation for being tough and uncompromising so that people are giving ground even before they meet you.

22: Know how to end things: Exit strategy
You are judged by how well things conclude. Know when to stop. Avoid all conflicts and entanglements from which there are no realistic exits.


23: Weave a seamless blend of fact and fiction: Misperception
Make it hard for your enemies to know what is going on around them. Feed their expectations, manufacture a reality to match their desires, and they will fool themselves. Control people's perceptions of reality and you control them.

24: Take the line of least expectation: Ordinary-Extraordinary
Upset expectations. First do something ordinary and conventional, then hit them with the extraordinary. Sometimes the ordinary is extraordinary because it is unexpected.

25: Occupy the moral high ground: Righteousness
The cause you are fighting for must seem more just than the enemy's. Questioning their motives and making enemies appear evil can narrow their base of support and room to maneuver. When you come under moral attack from a clever enemy, don't whine or get angry--fight fire with fire.

26: Deny them targets: The Void
The feeling of emptiness is intolerable for most people. Give enemies no target to attach. Be dangerous and elusive, and let them chase you into the void. Deliver irritating but damaging side attacks and pinpricks.

27: Seem to work for the interests of others while furthering your own: Alliance
Get others to compensate for your deficiencies, do your dirty work, fight your wars. Sow dissension in the alliances of others, weakening opponents by isolating them.

28: Give your rivals enough rope to hang themselves: One-upmanship
Instill doubts and insecurities in rivals, getting them to think too much and act defensive. Make them hang themselves through their own self-destructive tendencies, leaving you blameless and clean.

29: Take small bites: Fait Accompli
Take small bites to play on people's short attention span. Before they notice, you may acquire an empire.

30: Penetrate their minds: Communication
Infiltrate your ideas behind enemy lines, sending messages through little details. Lure people into coming to the conclusions you desire and into thinking they've gotten there by themselves.

31: Destroy from within: The Inner Front
To take something you want, don't fight those who have it, but join them. Then either slowly make it your own or wait for the right moment to stage a coup.

32: Dominate while seeming to submit: Passive-Aggression
Seem to go along, offering no resistance, but actually dominate the situation. Disguise your aggression so you can deny that it exists.

33: Sow uncertainty and panic through acts of terror: Chain Reaction
Terror can paralyze a people's will to resist and destroy their ability to plan a strategic response. The goal is to cause maximum chaos and provoke a desperate overreaction. To counter terror, stay balanced and rational.

Quote of the Day

The blue model has impoverished our lives and blighted our society in more subtle ways. Many Americans became (and remain) stuff-rich and meaning-poor. Many people classified as “poor” in American society have an historically unprecedented abundance of consumer goods—anything, essentially, that a Fordist factory here or abroad can turn out. 
But far too many Americans still have lives that are poor in meaning, in part because the blue social model separates production and consumption in ways that are ultimately dehumanizing and demeaning. A rich and rewarding human life neither comes from nor depends on consumption, even lots of consumption; it comes from producing goods and services of value through the integration of technique with a vision of social and personal meaning. Being fully human is about doing good work that means something. Is a blue society with our level of drug and alcohol abuse, and in which the average American watches 151 hours of television a month, really the happiest conceivable human living arrangement?

- Walter Russell Mead, The Once and Future Liberalism

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Secret To Good Life & Meaning Of Life

It’s being engaged, it’s having a project, it’s being outward-looking. I think it was Emerson who said that a man wrapped up in himself makes a very small parcel.

And I say, the meaning of life is what you make it. There will be as many different meaningful lives as there are people to live them. If we honor the obligation we have to ourselves to develop, to the best of our ability, the constellation of interests and passions and talents that we have—even if we don’t succeed, never win a gold medal, never get knighted, never get published—that in itself is the good life

- Interview with A.C. Grayling

Wisdom Of The Week

  1. Nobody is ever going to change their mind -  For instance, if I say something like “kids shouldn’t go to college” everyone either already agrees with me or disagrees with me.
  2. 100 Years from Now everyone reading this blog will be dead - I know there is a labcoat army working in Science that might change this. But, trust me, it won’t work. Science has it’s limits. And after seeing the shit you eat, don’t count on being alive 100 years from now.
  3. Us vs Them - The World Wide Web has created this oozing lava of “Us” vs “Them”. What happened before there were message boards? Before there were “threads”? Or hypertext?
  4. Why Educate People? - There’s two worlds: the material world we live in where there’s limited resources. And the world inside, where we either find our happiness or it stays just slightly outside of our grasp. It’s our choice. The world inside has infinite resources if we let it. We can all find peace there, no matter what our situation is. So, as they say, go for the “best of both worlds”. Be happy on the inside. And don’t educate the weak players who will stab you in a heartbeat in a world of limited resources.
  5. I Could Be Reading a Book - Time is also a limited resource. You can respond to a comment on The Facebook or you can take a walk by the river. Or you can kiss someone. Or you can jump on a trampoline.
  6. Loneliness - I think most people fight because they are alone. There’s nothing we can do about loneliness. We’ve been trapped in these bodies since  birth. But we try. We want people to agree with us so that for a brief second we can feel good about ourselves, establish a connection, and then make slow, sweet love.
  7. I’m Always Wrong - I have never had a correct opinion. I don’t even know what a correct opinion smells like. Opinions are like money. No matter how much you know, there’s always someone who knows more. And they aren’t afraid to flaunt it. I have no credentials on anything. My education is hopelessly outdated.
  8. Hold Your Breath - Try holding your breath for just 30 seconds. That’s all it takes. Try it right now while you are looking at this line. Now…on the 29th second, do any opinions matter?
  9. Less - I’m trying to have less things in my life right now. This doesn’t always mean less  trinkets that shine on a shelf. It also might mean less things that upset me. Less people that bother me. Less regrets that are long dead and buried. Less anxieties about a future that may or may not exist. I find that if I dig deep and throw away one thing a day, then I wake up the next day a little more peaceful. I don’t need to have so many opinions. The fight will continue with or without me.
  10. Bewildered - Just try it. It’s fun. Walk around all day bewildered. It’s much more peaceful.
- James Altucher,  Ten Reasons I Don’t Have Opinions

Quote of the Day

The research by neuroscientists at Emory University compared the effects of music on human brain activity with that of birdsong on bird brains and found indications that the birds were experiencing pleasure and distaste as a reaction to the sound.

Birds May Get Emotional Over Birdsong

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Ramanujan's Theta Functions Unlocked

It was on his deathbed in 1920 that he described mysterious functions that mimicked theta functions, or modular forms, in a letter to Hardy. Like trigonometric functions such as sine and cosine, theta functions have a repeating pattern, but the pattern is much more complex and subtle than a simple sine curve. Theta functions are also "super-symmetric," meaning that if a specific type of mathematical function called a Moebius transformation is applied to the functions, they turn into themselves. Because they are so symmetric these theta functions are useful in many types of mathematics and physics, including string theory.

Ramanujan believed that 17 new functions he discovered were "mock modular forms" that looked like theta functions when written out as an infinte sum (their coefficients get large in the same way), but weren't super-symmetric. Ramanujan died before he could prove his hunch. But more than 90 years later, Ono and his team proved that these functions indeed mimicked modular forms, but don't share their defining characteristics, such as super-symmetry.

The expansion of mock modular forms helps physicists compute the entropy, or level of disorder, of black holes. I
n developing mock modular forms, Ramanujan was decades ahead of his time, Ono said; mathematicians only figured out which branch of math these equations belonged to in 2002. 

- More Here

What I've Been Reading

The Problems of Philosophy by Bertrand Russell. Concise and precise to the point with limited philosophical roller-coaster rides. The problems of philosophy per-se is pretty well known; but I liked his answers on the unknown - the value of philosophy.

On Absolute Skepticism: 
We speak philosophy as a criticism of knowledge, it is necessary to impose a certain limitation. If we adopt the attitude of the complete sceptic, placing ourselves wholly outside all knowledge, and asking, from this outside position, to be compelled to return within the circle of knowledge, we are demanding what is impossible, and our skepticism can never be refuted. For all refutation must being with some piece of knowledge which the disputants share; from blank doubt, no argument can begin. Hence the criticism of knowledge which philosophy employs must not be of this destructive kind, if any result can be achieved. Against this absolute skepticism no logical argument can be advanced.

Value of Philosophy:
To determine the value of philosophy, we must free our minds from prejudices of what are wrongly called "practical; men. The 'practical' man, as this word is often used, is one who recognizes only material needs, who realizes that men must have food for body, but oblivious of the necessity of providing food for the  mind. If all men were well off, if poverty and disease had been reduced to their lowest possible point, there would still remain much to be done to produce a valuable society; and even in the existing world the goods of mind are at least as important as the good of the body. It is exclusively among the goods of the mind that value of philosophy is to be found; and only those who are not indifferent to these goods can be persuaded that the study of philosophy is not a waste of time.

Philosophy is to be studied, not for the sake of any definite answers to its questions, since no definite answer can, as a rule, be known to be true, but rather for the sake of of the questions themselves; because these questions enlarge our conception of what is possible, enrich our intellectual imagination and diminish the dogmatic assurance which closes the mind against speculation; but above all because through the greatness of the universe which philosophy contemplates, the mind also is rendered great, and becomes capable of that union with the universe which constitutes its highest good.

Best Movies Of 2012

  1. Lincoln
  2. Argo
  3. Moonrise Kingdom
  4. Life of Pi
The Bourne Legacy had some of the best action sequences and Act of Valor was good too.

An unique comedy with a "twist" and great casting made Safety Not Guaranteed work brilliantly. Also liked The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.

I am yet to watch Zero Dark Thirty and Cloud Atlas (not sure I would like this one).

I didn't like Once Upon a Time in Anatolia and Beasts of the Southern Wild  - seen too much "live" during the first 20 years of my life in India.

Victories for Animals in 2012

Illinois banned the shark fin trade, and several city shark fin bans came about in Canada. Amazon Japan included whale and dolphin products on its list of prohibited items, while on its U.S. site, added products containing shark, whale or dolphin to its list of prohibited items.

- More Here

- If you wish to donate, you can here.

Quote of the Day

Another way of avoiding the game would be perfect honesty and straightforwardness, since of the main techniques of those who seek power is deceit and secrecy. Being honest will inevitably hurt and insult a great many of people, some of whom will choose to injure you in return. No one will ever see your honest statement as completely objective and free of some personal motivation.

Very recently I have pondered the value of honesty from others, it is truly a gift if someone is honest with you, which is why it so rarely happens. Another person has to genuinely care about you to tell you the truth. Admittedly I perceive myself as a person that is conscious of honesty to myself and others, from which I stand to reap, or suffer from, my own kharma and fate. I fear as much as I obey, due to motivation. I do not enforce honesty on myself for the benefit of all others, as the altruistic idea of honesty would suppose but more of a tactic, commonly labelled ‘CYA.’

- 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

A Life Worth Ending

  • The traditional exits, of a sudden heart attack, of dying in one’s sleep, of unreasonably dropping dead in the street, of even a terminal illness, are now exotic ways of going. The longer you live the longer it will take to die. The better you have lived the worse you may die. The healthier you are—through careful diet, diligent exercise, and attentive medical scrutiny—the harder it is to die. Part of the advance in life expectancy is that we have technologically inhibited the ultimate event. We have fought natural causes to almost a draw. If you eliminate smokers, drinkers, other substance abusers, the obese, and the fatally ill, you are left with a rapidly growing demographic segment peculiarly resistant to death’s appointment—though far, far, far from healthy.
  • Make no mistake, the purpose of long-term-care insurance is to help finance some of the greatest misery and suffering human beings have yet devised.
  • It is among the most reductive facts in this story: Women take care of the old. They can’t shake it because they are left with it. In the end, it is a game of musical chairs. The girl is the one almost invariably caught out.
  • Give us the right to make provisions for when we want to go. Give families the ability to make a fair case of enough being enough, of the end’s, de facto, having come.

    - Brutally honesty essay A Life Worth Ending by Michael Wolff
I think stoics had a sensible way to deviate this self-induced and irrevocable suffering - A well reasoned exit (eulogos exagoge).

2012 Sidney Awards I - David Brooks

I think being an election year his versatile reading habits probably took a little hit. This year's list is very good (Sidney Awards part 1) but not as good as previous years.

Quote of the Day

A general “law of least effort” applies to cognitive as well as physical
exertion. The law asserts that if there are several ways of achieving the
same goal, people will eventually gravitate to the least demanding course
of action. In the economy of action, effort is a cost, and the acquisition of
skill is driven by the balance of benefits and costs. Laziness is built deep into our nature.

- Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Max Holiday Card 2012

Happy Holidays !!

Quote of the Day

Nature is not always tricked in holiday attire, but the same scene which yesterday breathed perfume and glittered as for the frolic of the nymphs, is overspread with melancholy today. Nature always wears the colors of the spirit.

- Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature and Selected Essays

Monday, December 24, 2012

Sachin Sachin

Growing up in India, Sachin was important as Max is to me now. I promised to watch cricket as long Sachin played and no more. I missed his retirement (thankfully only ODI) by a day. It's just a sport but Sachin made it personal by inspiring an old British colony into becoming self-reliant.

What makes me sad is that today probably will be the end of cricket being a metaphor of life and it will be just about money.

So long Sachin and please stay away from politics.

Tyler Cowen on Conservative, Liberal & Libertarian Vices

These three posts should make that simple fact self-evident - he is one of the most brilliant and open-minded person on the planet.

Conservative Vice:
Consider domestic policy.  Policy X does not make a dent in the poverty rate, and this is pointed out by a critic.  A conservative might respond: "But if those people would live by Confucian or Korean family values, they would do just fine."

The conservative vice is not intrinsic to conservatism, but I see it to an increasing degree.  Perhaps it is a response to the combination of a nominal conservative majority in goverment yet a growing inability to control events.

This intellectual move is not in every case false.  If we are considering the relative obligations of citizen and state, for instance, it must be recognized that a state can do only so much for self-destructive citizens.  But when the vice is "applied" to situations where a more consequences-oriented approach is warranted, well, then it becomes a vice.

Liberal Vice:
"Trying too hard to limit risk will increase the number of global people who are just outright screwed over."

My sentence is the least politically palatable or salient of the three.  But the more globalized the world becomes, the greater its relevance.  It is imperative to keep the United States — the number one generator of global public goods — as a highly productive, innovative economy.

The modern liberal vice is to think that everyone can be taken care of, and/or to rule out foreigners from the relevant moral universe.  Too many issues are (incorrectly) framed as "taking care" vs. serving the avarice of the wealthy.

Libertarian Vice:
The libertarian approach treats government vs. market as the central question.  Another approach, promoted by many liberals, tries to improve the quality of government.  This endeavor does not seem more utopian than most libertarian proposals.  The libertarian cannot reject it on the grounds of excess utopianism, even though much government will remain wasteful, stupid, and venal.  More parts of government could in fact be much better, and to significant human benefit and yes that includes more human liberty in the libertarian sense of the word.

Libertarians will admit this.  But it does not play a significant role in their emotional framing of the world or in their allocation of emotional energies.  They will insist, correctly, that we do not always wish to make government more efficient.  Then they retreat to a mental model where the quality of government is fixed and we compare government to market.

It is possible to agree with the positive claims of libertarians about the virtues of markets but still think that improving the quality of government is the central task before us.  One could love markets yet be some version of a modern liberal rather than a classical liberal.  This possibility makes libertarians nervous, thus their desire to fix the quality of government in advance of making an argument.

Quote of the Day

Well, my dear reader, this battle with Mr. Covey,—undignified as it was, and as I fear my narration of it is—was the turning point in my “life as a slave.” It rekindled in my breast the smouldering embers of liberty; it brought up my Baltimore dreams, and revived a sense of my own manhood. I was a changed being after that fight. I was nothing before; I WAS A MAN NOW. It recalled to life my crushed self-respect and my self-confidence, and inspired me with a renewed determination to be a FREEMAN. A man, without force, is without the essential dignity of humanity. Human nature is so constituted, that it cannot honor a helpless man, although it can pity him; and even this it cannot do long, if the signs of power do not arise.

- Frederick Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Managing Difficult Conversations

Every difficult conversation is really three conversations:
  1. There's the conversation about what happened: the substance, the facts. Each of us has a story about what happened. 
  2. There's also what they call the feeling conversation, the emotional level.
  3. There's also the identity conversation, which asks “what does this say about me?” Is something in my self-image implicated in what's going on here? What's making the conversation difficult for me? 
I've spent a lot of time working with executives, teaching, working in companies, and working in some government situations, and I noticed that people had this difficulty trying to deal with the three conversations - they got the concept, but in real time they found it very difficult to use this concept.

I became extremely interested in this gap, what I later called the Performance Gap, between people's potential to negotiate effectively, which might be very high, and their ability to practice it. In looking at this gap and trying to figure out how you help people in real time bring forward their skillful means and higher nature, I simply asked the question: What if I'm the problem?

Asking yourself if I’m the problem isn’t the same as self-blame. If you think about your levers of change, where you can influence - it’s not easy to change other people, particularly when you're talking about long-standing habits and mindsets. But you actually do have a quality of autonomy that enables you to grow as a human being. You set that intention, you learn skills, and you shift your mindset. It’s extremely empowering to notice that one of the ways to improve your interactions with other people is to get better at how you interact with yourself."

- Daniel Goleman

Insight Of The Year 2012

Spending time with Clay leads to lots of interesting insights, but for me, there was one that stood out among all the others.

You’ve probably heard it said that someone can’t be taught until they’re ready to learn. I’ve heard it said that way too. It makes sense, and my experience tells me it’s mostly true. Why though? Why can’t someone be taught until they’re ready to learn?

Clay explained it in a way that I’ve never heard before and I’ll never forget again. Paraphrased slightly, he said: “Questions are places in your mind where answers fit. If you haven’t asked the question, the answer has nowhere to go. It hits your mind and bounces right off. You have to ask the question – you have to want to know – in order to open up the space for the answer to fit.”

- Why can’t someone be taught until they’re ready to learn?

Quote of the Day

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime.

- Mark Twain

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Wisdom Of The Year 2012

Offstage, my husband was an impossible act to follow.

At home at one of the raucous, joyous, impromptu eight-hour dinners we often found ourselves hosting, where the table was so crammed with ambassadors, hacks, political dissidents, college students and children that elbows were colliding and it was hard to find the space to put down a glass of wine, my husband would rise to give a toast that could go on for a stirring, spellbinding, hysterically funny 20 minutes of poetry and limerick reciting, a call to arms for a cause, and jokes. “How good it is to be us,” he would say in his perfect voice.

My husband is an impossible act to follow.

I miss his perfect voice. I heard it day and night, night and day. I miss the first happy trills when he woke; the low octaves of “his morning voice” as he read me snippets from the newspaper that outraged or amused him; the delighted and irritated (mostly irritated) registers as I interrupted him while he read; the jazz-tone riffs of him “talking down the line” to a radio station from the kitchen phone as he cooked lunch; his chirping, high-note greeting when our daughter came home from school; and his last soothing, pianissimo chatterings on retiring late at night.

I miss, as his readers must, his writer’s voice, his voice on the page. I miss the unpublished Hitch: the countless notes he left for me in the entryway, on my pillow, the emails he would send while we sat in different rooms in our apartment or in our place in California and the emails he sent when he was on the road. And I miss his handwritten communiqués: his innumerable letters and postcards (we date back to the time of the epistle) and his faxes, the thrill of receiving Christopher’s instant dispatches as he checked-in from a dicey spot on some other continent.

The end was unexpected. 
At home in Washington, I pull books off the shelves, out of the book towers on the floor, off the stacks of volumes on tables. Inside the back covers are notes written in his hand that he took for reviews and for himself. Piles of his papers and notes lie on surfaces all around the apartment, some of which were taken from his suitcase that I brought back from Houston. At any time I can peruse our library or his notes and rediscover and recover him.

When I do, I hear him, and he has the last word. Time after time, Christopher has the last word.

- Carol Blue’s afterword to Mortality by her husband Christopher Hitchens.

Being the Hitch, it's easier to find someone special like Carol and it's easier to be the Hitch if there is someone special like Carol in life.

Quote of the Year 2012

  • I don’t care about someone being intelligent; any situation between people, when they are really human with each other, produces “intelligence.” 
  •  “I don’t claim my opinions are right,” or “just because I have opinions doesn’t mean I’m right.”
  • Nothing is mysterious, no human relation. Except love.
  • Being in love a pathological variant of loving. Being in love = addiction, obsession, exclusion of others, insatiable demand for presence, paralysis of other interests and activities. A disease of love, a fever (therefore exalting). One “falls” in love. But this is one disease which, if one must have it, is better to have often rather than infrequently. It’s less mad to fall in love often (less inaccurate for there are many wonderful people in the world) than only two or three times in one’s life.
Excerpts from Susan Sontag's book As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980

Friday, December 21, 2012

Best Books of 2012

My only resolution for this year was to read as much as I could on stoicism and for once, I lived up to that promise. But ironically, none of the books on stoicism (albeit being brilliant) made the list.

First on the list is none other than the last book by Christopher Hitchens - Mortality (more here).
  • Only OK if I say something objective and stoical: I am remarking that a time might come when I’d have to let go: Carol asking about Rebecca’s wedding “Are you afraid you won’t see England again?” Also, ordinary expressions like “expiration date”… will I outlive my Amex? My driver’s license? People say— I’m in town on Friday: will you be around? WHAT A QUESTION!
  • Myself, I love the imagery of struggle. I sometimes wish I were suffering in a good cause, or risking my life for the good of others, instead of just being a gravely endangered patient. Allow me to inform you, though, that when you sit in a room with a set of other finalists, and kindly people bring a huge transparent bag of poison and plug it into your arm, and you either read or don’t read a book while the venom sack gradually empties itself into your system, the image of the ardent soldier or revolutionary is the very last one that will occur to you. You feel swamped with passivity and impotence: dissolving in powerlessness like a sugar lump in water.
  • REMEMBER, YOU TOO ARE MORTAL”— HIT ME AT THE top of my form and just as things were beginning to plateau. My two assets my pen and my voice— and it had to be the esophagus. All along, while burning the candle at both ends, I’d been “straying into the arena of the unwell” and now “a vulgar little tumor” was evident. This alien can’t want anything; if it kills me it dies but it seems very single-minded and set in its purpose. No real irony here, though. Must take absolute care not to be self-pitying or self-centered. Always prided myself on my reasoning faculty and my stoic materialism. I don’t have a body, I am a body. Yet consciously and regularly acted as if this was not true, or as if an exception would be made in my case. Feeling husky and tired on tour? See the doctor when it’s over! Lost fourteen pounds without trying. Thin at last. But don’t feel lighter because walking to the fridge is like a forced march. Then again, the vicious psoriasis/ excema pustules that no doctor could treat have gone, too. This must be some impressive toxin I’m taking. And a mercy for sleep purposes… but all the sleep-aids and blissful dozes seem somehow a waste of life— there’s plenty of future time in which to be unconscious.
  • “Until you have done something for humanity,” wrote the great American educator Horace Mann, “you should be ashamed to die.” I would have happily offered myself as an experimental subject for new drugs or new surgeries, partly of course in the hope that they might salvage me, but also on the Mann principle.
I probably will remember these simple lines until my final breathe to avoid any self-pity:
To the dumb question "Why me?" the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: why not?” 

Next on the list is Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder by Nassim Nicholas Taleb (more here).
  • First ethical rule: If you see fraud and do not say fraud, you are a fraud.
  • My idea of the modern Stoic sage is someone who transforms fear into prudence, pain into information, mistakes into initiation, and desire into undertaking.
  • All you need is the wisdom to not do unintelligent things to hurt yourself (some acts of omission) and recognize favorable outcomes when they occur. (The key is that your assessment doesn’t need to be made beforehand, only after the outcome.)
  • The largest fragilizer of society, and greatest generator of crises, absence of “skin in the game.” At no point in history have so many non-risk-takers, that is, those with no personal exposure, exerted so much control. The chief ethical rule is the following: Thou shalt not have antifragility at the expense of the fragility of others.
And the last one on the list is an old book which I am reading currently - The 33 Strategies of War by Robert Greene.

Understand: the greatest generals, the most creative strategists, stand out not because they have more knowledge but because they are able, when necessary, to drop their preconceived notions and focus intensely on the present moment. That is how creativity is sparked and opportunities are seized. Knowledge, experience, and theory have limitations: no amount of thinking in advance can prepare you for the chaos of life, for the infinite possibilities of the moment. The great philosopher of war Carl von Clausewitz called this "friction": the difference between our plans and what actually happens. Since friction is inevitable, our minds have to be capable of keeping up with change and adapting to the unexpected. The better we can adapt our thoughts to the current circumstances, the more realistic our responses to them will be....

Think of the mind as a river: the faster it flows, the better it keeps up with the present and responds to change. The faster it flows, also the more it refreshes itself and the greater its energy. Obsessional thoughts, past experiences (whether traumas or successes), and preconceived notions are like boulders or mud in this river, settling and hardening there and damming it up. The river stops moving; stagnation sets in. You must wage constant war on this tendency in the mind.

All three books have made it to my all time favorites list; it has really been an enlightening year. A million thanks to all these brilliant minds who taught me to lead a better life and just be a better human being.

Quote of the Day

If psychology is the main cause, we should have 12 times as many psychologically disturbed people. But we don’t. The United States could do better, but we take mental disorders seriously and invest more in this area than do many peer countries.

Is America’s popular culture the cause? This is highly unlikely, as largely the same culture exists in other rich countries. Youth in England and Wales, for example, are exposed to virtually identical cultural influences as in the United States. Yet the rate of gun homicide there is a tiny fraction of ours. The Japanese are at the cutting edge of the world of video games. Yet their gun homicide rate is close to zero! Why? Britain has tough gun laws. Japan has perhaps the tightest regulation of guns in the industrialized world.

- Fareed Zakaria

Thursday, December 20, 2012

What I've Been Reading

Bunch of Amateurs: A Search for the American Character by Jack Hitt. I picked up this book to check on the progress of DIY Biology but was more than delighted to find Ben Franklin and Ivory-Billed woodpecker as well - fun read !!

Amateurs are often wrong, crazy, fraudulent, or twisted. There is typically a pomposity among amateurs that, well, one just has to get used to. They are often nerds, if younger; cranks, if slightly mature; eccentric, if aged; and— it should be said— at just about any age they can be total jackasses. But these are just the characteristics of people obsessed with a new idea, following their bliss, in love (amo, amas, amat— amateur) with one true thing. One thing that marks the amateur, the best of them, is this talent for not seeing things according to the dominant paradigm.
Amateurs are more likely to see what is actually there because there’s no money, no power, no prestige (at least not immediately) attached to seeing anything else. Amateurs mainly just want to know.

On DIY Biology:
Any major plant humans love to consume— the banana, the ear of corn, the apple, the potato, the tomato, most hot peppers— were all long ago coaxed into becoming the now seemingly fixed bounty of nature we revere. But we made them, using slow-motion synthetic biology.
“Every orchid or rose or lizard or snake is the work of a dedicated and skilled breeder. There are thousands of people, amateurs and professionals, who devote their lives to this business. Now imagine what will happen when the tools of genetic engineering become accessible to these people.” - Freeman Dyson

On Astrophysics:
Whether we are sitting in the Department of Astrophysics at Cambridge or under the night sky of Stellafane, we’re all amateurs once we get out here. Even the alleged facts that a genius like Stephen Hawking is working with are highly provisional. As I wrote these sentences, for instance, I received an e-mail alert about a new study out of the University of Durham in England that “suggests that the conventional wisdom about the content of the Universe may be wrong.”

There is no fixed American meta-narrative, but there is this ebb and flow between Adamsian veneration of piety and Franklinian love of improvisation, between Calvinist certainty and Deist doubt, between head and heart, virtuocracy and meritocracy, good character and cunning action, between security and freedom, between professionalism and amateurism.

Quote of the Day

I can't understand these chaps who go round American universities explaining how they write poems: It's like going round explaining how you sleep with your wife.

- Philip Larkin

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Life of Pi

First, I would like to thank everyone who didn't let Night Shyamalan direct this movie.
I went in expecting a Disney version of the novel but I was in for a pleasant surprise and a visual treat !! Not many Hollywood movies open with a Tamil melody; it opened up those flood gates of nostalgia - no way for the contemporary India but my childhood India.
The movie is worth every penny just to watch that bond slowly unfold between Pi and Richard Parker. I was missing Max big time in the theatre and couldn't wait to get home fast enough.
  • Check out how Hindus, Christians and Muslims live so closely in India - giving that COEXIST bumper sticker a literal meaning (sans that liberal feel good idea to feel good about oneself).
  • Faith can be mellow without being passionate and preachy. A society filled with only reason will not only be boring but downright bad (I am saying this as person of no faith). It's ok to give the prefrontal cortex some rest.
  • No matter who we are, how much power or money we have, there will be times in life none of those matter. One should be aware of that and probably no amount of preparation can prepare us for that moment. But one can learn and adapt to be stoic even in the company of Richard Parker.
  • And of-course that human-animal bond. Thankfully, I live it everyday. Life is incomplete if you haven't experienced it. If you have no clue what I am talking about...

Can Hollywood stop using technology to make those stupid repetitive Marvel comics movies and make more movies like this one?

Quote of the Day

I often tried plays that looked recklessly daring, maybe even silly. But I never tried anything foolish when a game was at stake, only when we were far ahead or far behind. I did it to study how the other team reacted, filing away in my mind any observations for future use.

- Ty Cobb

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

What I've Been Reading

The Social Conquest of Earth by E.O.Wilson. A very very important book of  this century which pissed off too many people. I am not qualified to comment but I guess this is neither Darwin's Origin of Species nor Thomas Malthus's An Essay on the Principle of Population. Wilson's theory is important and probably will provide significant insights on understanding ourselves in decades to come. For a youngster, I think its better to read Wilson's other simple (but yet packed with wisdom) books like Biophlia and Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge before reading this one. Those earlier books of his has had a great influence on how I view the world. 

“Where do we come from?” “What are we?” “Where are we going?” Conceived in ultimate simplicity by Paul Gauguin on the canvas of his Tahitian masterpiece, these are in fact the central problems of religion and philosophy. Will we ever be able to solve them? Sometimes it seems not. Yet perhaps we can. Humanity today is like a waking dreamer, caught between the fantasies of sleep and the chaos of the real world. The mind seeks but cannot find the precise place and hour. We have created a Star Wars civilization, with Stone Age emotions, medieval institutions, and godlike technology. We thrash about. We are terribly confused by the mere fact of our existence, and a danger to ourselves and to the rest of life.

Eusocial Theory in a nutshell:

In briefest terms, a full theory of eusocial evolution will consist of a series of stages, subject to experimental verification, of which the following may be recognized: 

  • The formation of groups. 
  • The occurrence of a minimum and necessary combination of preadaptive traits in the groups, causing the groups to be tightly formed. In animals at least, the combination includes a valuable and defensible nest. The nest-dependent condition predetermines the likelihood that primitively eusocial groups will be a family— parent and offspring in insects and other invertebrates, and extended families in vertebrates. 
  • The appearance of mutations that prescribe the persistence of the group, most likely by the knockout of dispersal behavior. Evidently, a durable nest remains the key element in maintaining the prevalence. Primitive eusociality may emerge immediately due to spring-loaded preadaptations— those evolved in earlier stages that by chance cause groups to behave in a eusocial manner. 
  • In the insects, emergent traits caused by either the genesis of robot-like workers or the interaction of group members are shaped through group-level selection by environmental forces. 
  • Group-level selection drives changes in the insect colony life cycle and social structures, often to bizarre extremes, producing elaborate superorganisms. 
Given that the last two steps occur only in the insects and other invertebrates, how, then, did the human species achieve its own unique, culture-based social condition? What mark has the combined genetic and cultural process put on human nature? Stated another way, what are we? 

Steven Pinker and Richard Dawkins critique here and here

Quote of the Day

There's a lot to be said for quitters. Those people who are extremely good at one thing got that way by quitting almost everything else.

- Penelope Trunk, On Quitters

Monday, December 17, 2012

American Gut Project

An open-source, community driven effort to characterize the microbial diversity of the American public. Does diet matter? - American Gut Project

You are more microbes than you are mammal.  Everybody on Earth has two genomes.  You have the one you got form your Mom and Dad which you inherited.  Then you have your second genome which is all the genetic material that is packaged up in your gut and in your skin, all those microbes, and that is the genome you acquire.  It's interesting that there are only 23,000 genes in your genome but over three million genes in your gut microbiome.  So, in other words, those genes encode more instructions than your own genome.  It begs the question, "Who is in charge?"  We know that the microbiome may influence things like auto-immune disease, certain cancers, inflammatory bowel disease, colitis and rheumatoid arthritis.  So it appears that a lot of disease may be related to a shift in your gut composition.

Let’s say you want to donate. This is not a commercial lab, this is not a fee for services. It is a straight up citizen science project we’re asking you to donate to. You donate $99 for the project between now and January 7, you’re signed up, and you’ll receive a kit at your home. The kit basically amounts to an eight inch long double-headed swab, just like something that you swab your ear with.  It comes in a tube. What you’re going to do is, you’re going to wipe that across the toilet paper and you’re going to stick it back in the tube, and you’re going to mail it to us.  We’re going to process the sample. It’s going to go through DNA sequencing. All the samples go to the University of Colorado at Boulder, to Rob Knight’s lab. All that data will be processed there. It will be given a number. When you receive your kit at home,  you'll also get a questionnaire. You’ll also have a special ID number that nobody knows except you.

- Interview with Jeff Leach founder of American Gut Project.

Quote of the Day

Our comforting conviction that the world makes sense rests on a secure foundation: our almost unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance.

Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Criminalizing Cognitive Enhancement At tThe Blackjack Table

I considered two possible justifications for the fact that we criminalize device- assisted card counting but not ordinary card counting. The first was that, unlike natural card counting, device-assisted card counting requires tech- nological enhancement. It makes card counting less natural and is unfair to casinos and should therefore be prohibited.

The first proposed justification fails because concerns about the unnatural- ness of card counting, if they have any merit at all, are too weak to justify a criminal prohibition. 

The second proposed justification was that card counting is a kind of cheat- ing that warrants punishment. We do not criminalize natural card counting on this view because such laws would interfere with our thought privacy. Since concerns about thought privacy are less applicable to device-assisted count- ing, we can prohibit device-assisted counting without violating our rights to freedom of memory and mind.

The second proposed justification faces two major obstacles. First, it must show that we really should not punish natural card counting. Second, it must show that there is significantly greater value in protecting the privacy of thoughts that are more closely associated with the brain than in protecting the privacy of thoughts that are less closely associated with the brain (because they are partly encoded in smartphones and other devices that are external to our bodies). Both of these obstacles are substantial. 

- Read the full paper here

We All Are Assholes

I've been reading the comments and comparisons of today's massacre with the attack in China, and I've got to tell you it only adds to the sadness and disgust I'm feeling. I think anyone making that comparison is missing a fundamental point. Do we want to be a society that compares itself to China and feels somehow absolved by coming up only slightly short, regardless of the weapon employed? I've spent time there - China is an insecure, deeply troubled society with a lot of violence bubbling beneath the surface. What makes me sick is that we are increasingly the same way.

As I drove around today, my day off, all I felt was sadness and disgust listening to the radio. The complete unwillingness to reflect on why this country is so full of violence. I could never feel anything but contempt for the asshole who did this, but the truth is we are a nation of assholes. I include myself in that. Most radio stations I heard could only be bothered to touch on this massacre of children for a moment or two before getting back to the critical topic of football. That wonderful game full of violence that has no regard for the well being of the young men who play it. It was such an apt representation of the priorities of our country. I watch it too, but at least I'm willing to examine it.

The radio stations that did discuss the killings were quick to blame silent doctors for protecting the crazies, then followed the obligatory self congratulation about how so many Americans are decent and come together at times like this. No where to be found was any discussion of why we breed such violence, what sicknesses in our collective unconscious give rise to such soaring levels of senselessness. I live in Baltimore, I hear it everyday. A murder everyday, often of children, and we're still such a great town because we've got the Ravens and what a great season the Orioles had. Sports are just one example of many, many childish distractions that we use to ever avoid looking in the mirror.

I'm a conservative in the vein you are, and I still think this country is exceptional, but our heads are too far up our own asses to look at why we kill each other at exceptionally high rates. If even the massacre of innocent children won't wake us up, it's because we've become a nation of children!

- Andrew's Reader Reacts To The Horror In Newtown

Quote of the Day

I am not a ‘wise man,’ nor . . . shall I ever be. And so require not from me that I should be equal to the best, but that I should be better than the wicked. It is enough for me if every day I reduce the number of my vices, and blame my mistakes.

- Seneca, Letters From A Stoic

Saturday, December 15, 2012

On Ratan Tata

  • In 1991 Tata, who had joined the family firm from university and worked initially on the shop floor, took over as chairman from his uncle, JRD, who had been in charge for more than half a century. This was also the year in which India opened its economy to the world and both country and company have grown hugely since, with Tata now operating in more than 80 countries. What began almost 150 years ago as a small textile and trading operation has become India’s most important industrial business, with operations stretching from steel and cars to power plants and IT outsourcing. This year it earned revenues of over $100bn, more than half of it abroad, while employing around 450,000 people.
  • Tata himself stands out from other Indian tycoons: he lives an unpretentious life, holds only a small amount of the group’s stock, and conspicuously does not appear on the annual Forbes magazine list of Indian billionaires. Later this month he cedes control to Cyrus Mistry, his 44-year-old deputy, who will become the first non-Tata family member to run the group since it was founded in 1868 by Tata’s great-grandfather Jamsetji.
  • Those who know him speak of his elaborate courtesy.
  • The story goes that, one wet monsoon evening, Ratan Tata – head of India’s largest conglomerate, one of the world’s most influential industrialists and a keen dog-lover – decreed that any strays outside the complex be allowed to shelter. Some have never left. I’m told later that their future in Tata’s lobby is secure, even after the man who granted them residency departs.

    - More Here


A mediocre story with a wafer thin plot-line but Aamir Khan makes it work BIG time.

Wisdom Of The Week

Before Max came into my life:
I appreciated what I had but never was grateful for it, leave alone using it as an asset and was too busy worrying about what I didn't have in my life.

Ever Since Max came into my life:
I am grateful for what I have in my life and realized it was an asset and never worried about what I don't have in life.

But now I think it's time to be grateful for what I don't have in my life. There is so much one doesn't have that it not only can be used as a psychological asset but also as potent cognitive and physical asset. I guess, the grey matter realized that sometime this year before I was consciously aware of it.

Quote of the Day

Anyone who values truth should stop worshipping reason. We all need to take a cold hard look at the evidence and see reasoning for what it is. ... [M]ost of the bizarre and depressing research findings [about cognitive biases] make perfect sense once you see reasoning as having evolved not to help us find the truth but to help us engage in arguments, persuasion, and manipulation in the context of discussions with other people.

I'm not saying we should all stop reasoning and go with our gut feelings. Gut feelings are sometimes better guides than reasoning for making consumer choices and interpersonal judgments, but they are often disastrous as a basis for public policy, science, and law. Rather, what I'm saying is that we must be wary of any /individual/'s ability to reason. We should see each individual as being limited, like a neuron. A neuron is really good at one thing: summing up the stimulation coming into its dendrites to 'decide' whether to fire a pulse along its axon. A neuron by itself isn't very smart. But if you put neurons together in the right way you get a brain; you get an emergent system that is much smarter and more flexible than a single neuron.

In the same way, each individual reasoner is really good at one thing: finding evidence to support the position he or she already holds, usually for intuitive reasons. We should not expect individuals to produce good, open-minded, truth-seeking reasoning, particularly when self-interest or reputational concerns are in play. But if you put individuals together in the right way, such that some individuals can use their reasoning powers to disconfirm the claims of others, and all individuals feel some common bond or shared fate that allows them to interact civilly, you can create a group that ends up producing good reasoning as an emergent property of the social system. This is why it's so important to have intellectual and ideological diversity within any group or institution whose goal is to find truth.

- Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion

Friday, December 14, 2012

And This Is Why I Voted For This Man

We’ve endured too many of these tragedies in the past few years.  And each time I learn the news I react not as a President, but as anybody else would -- as a parent.  And that was especially true today.  I know there’s not a parent in America who doesn’t feel the same overwhelming grief that I do.

The majority of those who died today were children -- beautiful little kids between the ages of 5 and 10 years old.  They had their entire lives ahead of them -- birthdays, graduations, weddings, kids of their own.  Among the fallen were also teachers -- men and women who devoted their lives to helping our children fulfill their dreams.

So our hearts are broken today -- for the parents and grandparents, sisters and brothers of these little children, and for the families of the adults who were lost.  Our hearts are broken for the parents of the survivors as well, for as blessed as they are to have their children home tonight, they know that their children’s innocence has been torn away from them too early, and there are no words that will ease their pain.

- Obama, A human being serving as a politician and not just a politician.

Jason Alexandar of Seinfield gave a much needed light to a true fact after the Colorado shootings early this year:

These weapons are military weapons. They belong in accountable hands, controlled hands and trained hands. They should not be in the hands of private citizens to be used against police, neighborhood intruders or people who don't agree with you. These are the weapons that maniacs acquire to wreak murder and mayhem on innocents. They are not the same as handguns to help homeowners protect themselves from intruders. They are not the same as hunting rifles or sporting rifles. These weapons are designed for harm and death on big scales.


Asimov's Foundation Novels Grounded My Economics - Paul Krugman

There are certain novels that can shape a teenage boy's life. For some, it's Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged; for others it's Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. As a widely quoted internet meme says, the unrealistic fantasy world portrayed in one of those books can warp a young man's character forever; the other book is about orcs. But for me, of course, it was neither. My Book – the one that has stayed with me for four-and-a-half decades – is Isaac Asimov's Foundation Trilogy, written when Asimov was barely out of his teens himself. I didn't grow up wanting to be a square-jawed individualist or join a heroic quest; I grew up wanting to be Hari Seldon, using my understanding of the mathematics of human behaviour to save civilisation.

Nerdy concerns - After all, the Foundation novels aren't really about the galaxy, or even about space travel. They're about the true final frontier – understanding ourselves, and the societies we make.

A non-nerdy concern – or anyway, a less nerdy concern – would be this: Now that I'm a social scientist myself, or at least as close to being one as we manage to get in these early days of human civilisation, what do I think of Asimov's belief that we can, indeed, conquer that final frontier – that we can develop a social science that gives its acolytes a unique ability to understand and perhaps shape human destiny?

Well, on good days I do feel as if we're making progress in that direction. And as an economist I've been having a fair number of such good days lately.I know that sounds like a strange claim to make when the actual management of the economy has been a total disaster. But hey, Hari Seldon didn't do his work by convincing the emperor to change his policies – he had to conceal his project under a false front and wait a thousand years for results. Now, there isn't, to my knowledge, a secret cabal of economists with a thousand-year plan to save our current civilisation (but then I wouldn't tell you if there was, would I?). But I've been struck these past several years by just how much power good economics has to make correct predictions that are very much at odds with popular prejudices and "common sense".

- More Here

Quote of the Day

The introduction of dairying was a critical step in early agriculture, with milk products being rapidly adopted as a major component of the diets of prehistoric farmers and pottery-using late hunter-gatherers. The processing of milk, particularly the production of cheese, would have been a critical development because it not only allowed the preservation of milk products in a non-perishable and transportable form, but also it made milk a more digestible commodity for early prehistoric farmers. The finding of abundant milk residues in pottery vessels from seventh millennium sites from north-western Anatolia provided the earliest evidence of milk processing, although the exact practice could not be explicitly defined1. Notably, the discovery of potsherds pierced with small holes appear at early Neolithic sites in temperate Europe in the sixth millennium BC and have been interpreted typologically as ‘cheese-strainers’, although a direct association with milk processing has not yet been demonstrated. Organic residues preserved in pottery vessels have provided direct evidence for early milk use in the Neolithic period in the Near East and south-eastern Europe, north Africa, Denmark and the British Isles, based on the δ13C and Δ13C values of the major fatty acids in milk. Here we apply the same approach to investigate the function of sieves/strainer vessels, providing direct chemical evidence for their use in milk processing. The presence of abundant milk fat in these specialized vessels, comparable in form to modern cheese strainers, provides compelling evidence for the vessels having being used to separate fat-rich milk curds from the lactose-containing whey. This new evidence emphasizes the importance of pottery vessels in processing dairy products, particularly in the manufacture of reduced-lactose milk products among lactose-intolerant prehistoric farming communities.

Earliest evidence for cheese making in the sixth millennium bc in northern Europe

Thursday, December 13, 2012

What I've Been Reading

Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. One the best books I read in my life and probably I will ever read in my life time, period. I don't care if this book is not on any "top ten" list or if people I admire hate it.
Taleb wants to be remembered as a philosopher and he wants his name to be synonymous with uncertainty, randomness and yes, Black Swan - I think he already succeeded in that mission. 

  • Fragility implies more to lose than to gain, equals more downside than upside, equals (unfavorable) asymmetry and Antifragility implies more to gain than to lose, equals more upside than downside, equals (favorable) asymmetry. I’d rather be dumb and antifragile than extremely smart and fragile, any time.
  • The largest fragilizer of society, and greatest generator of crises, absence of “skin in the game.” At no point in history have so many non-risk-takers, that is, those with no personal exposure, exerted so much control. The chief ethical rule is the following: Thou shalt not have antifragility at the expense of the fragility of others.
  • We have the illusion that the world functions thanks to programmed design, university research, and bureaucratic funding, but there is compelling— very compelling— evidence to show that this is an illusion, the illusion I call lecturing birds how to fly.
  • Heuristics are simplified rules of thumb that make things simple and easy to implement. But their main advantage is that the user knows that they are not perfect, just expedient, and is therefore less fooled by their powers. They become dangerous when we forget that.
  • It is time to revive the not well-known philosophical notion of doxastic commitment, a class of beliefs that go beyond talk, and to which we are committed enough to take personal risks. 
  • First ethical rule: If you see fraud and do not say fraud, you are a fraud. Just as being nice to the arrogant is no better than being arrogant toward the nice, being accommodating toward anyone committing a nefarious action condones it.
  • Compromising is condoning. The only modern dictum I follow is one by George Santayana: A man is morally free when  …   he judges the world, and judges other men, with uncompromising sincerity. This is not just an aim but an obligation.
  • How do you innovate? First, try to get in trouble. I mean serious, but not terminal, trouble. I hold— it is beyond speculation, rather a conviction— that innovation and sophistication spark from initial situations of necessity, in ways that go far beyond the satisfaction of such necessity.
  • Redundancy is ambiguous because it seems like a waste if nothing unusual happens. Except that something unusual happens— usually.
  • The worse touristification is the life we moderns have to lead in captivity, during our leisure hours: Friday night opera, scheduled parties, scheduled laughs. Again, golden jail. This “goal-driven” attitude hurts deeply inside my existential self.
  • If you drink a poisonous substance in small amounts, the mechanism by which your organism gets better is, according to Danchin, evolutionary within your system, with bad (and weak) proteins in the cells replaced by stronger— and younger— ones and the stronger ones being spared (or some similar operation). When you starve yourself of food, it is the bad proteins that are broken down first and recycled by your own body— a process called autophagy.
  • One of life’s packages: no stability without volatility.
  • An agency problem, for instance, is present with the stockbroker and medical doctor, whose ultimate interest is their own checking account, not your financial and medical health, respectively, and who give you advice that is geared to benefit themselves. Or with politicians working on their career. What Montaigne and Seneca missed, in addition to the notion of skin in the game, was that one can draw the line with public affairs. They missed the agency problem— although the problem was known heuristically (Hammurabi, golden rules), it was not part of their consciousness.
  • Few understand that procrastination is our natural defense, letting things take care of themselves and exercise their antifragility; it results from some ecological or naturalistic wisdom, and is not always bad— at an existential level, it is my body rebelling against its entrapment. It is my soul fighting the Procrustean bed of modernity. In fact we humans are very bad at filtering information, particularly short-term information, and procrastination can be a way for us to filter better, to resist the consequences of jumping on information. 
  • No matter how many dollars are spent on research, predicting revolutions is not the same as counting cards; humans will never be able to turn politics and economics into the tractable randomness of blackjack.
  • To become a successful philosopher king, it is much better to start as a king than as a philosopher. Many of the “doers” turned “thinkers” like Montaigne have done a serial barbell: pure action, then pure reflection.
  • Success brings an asymmetry: you now have a lot more to lose than to gain. You are hence fragile.
  • Stoicism is about the domestication, not necessarily the elimination, of emotions. It is not about turning humans into vegetables. My idea of the modern Stoic sage is someone who transforms fear into prudence, pain into information, mistakes into initiation, and desire into undertaking.
  • I am personally completely paranoid about certain risks, then very aggressive with others. The rules are: no smoking, no sugar (particularly fructose), no motorcycles, no bicycles in town or more generally outside a traffic-free area such as the Sahara desert, no mixing with the Eastern European mafias, and no getting on a plane not flown by a professional pilot (unless there is a co-pilot). Outside of these I can take all manner of professional and personal risks, particularly those in which there is no risk of terminal injury.
  • No one at present dares to state the obvious: growth in society may not come from raising the average the Asian way, but from increasing the number of people in the “tails,” that small, very small number of risk takers crazy enough to have ideas of their own, those endowed with that very rare ability called imagination, that rarer quality called courage, and who make things happen.
  • If you “have optionality,” you don’t have much need for what is commonly called intelligence, knowledge, insight, skills, and these complicated things that take place in our brain cells. For you don’t have to be right that often. All you need is the wisdom to not do unintelligent things to hurt yourself (some acts of omission) and recognize favorable outcomes when they occur. (The key is that your assessment doesn’t need to be made beforehand, only after the outcome.)
  • We humans lack imagination, to the point of not even knowing what tomorrow’s important things look like. We use randomness to spoon-feed us with discoveries— which is why antifragility is necessary.
  • People with too much smoke and complicated tricks and methods in their brains start missing elementary, very elementary things. Persons in the real world can’t afford to miss these things; otherwise they crash the plane. Unlike researchers, they were selected for survival, not complications.
  • Governments should spend on nonteleological tinkering - Note that I do not believe that the argument set forth above should logically lead us to say that no money should be spent by government. This reasoning is more against teleology than research in general. There has to be a form of spending that works. 
  • Our ingratitude toward many who have helped us get here — letting our ancestors survive - Our misunderstanding of convex tinkering, antifragility, and how to tame randomness is woven into our institutions— though not consciously and explicitly. There is a category of people in medicine called the empirics, or empirical skeptics, the doers, and that is about it— we do not have many names for them as they have not written a lot of books. Many of their works were destroyed or hidden from cultural consciousness, or have naturally dropped out of the archives, and their memory has been treated very badly by history. Formal thinkers and theorizing theorizers tend to write books; seat-of-the-pants people tend to be practitioners who are often content to get the excitement, make or lose the money, and discourse at the pub. Their experiences are often formalized by academics; indeed, history has been written by those who want you to believe that reasoning has a monopoly or near monopoly on the production of knowledge. Consider our ingratitude to those who got us here, got our disrespect, and do not even know that they were heroes.
  • The biologist and intellectual E. O. Wilson was once asked what represented the most hindrance to the development of children; his answer was the soccer mom. He did not use the notion of the Procrustean bed, but he outlined it perfectly. His argument is that they repress children’s natural biophilia, their love of living things. But the problem is more general; soccer moms try to eliminate the trial and error, the antifragility, from children’s lives, move them away from the ecological and transform them into nerds working on preexisting (soccer-mom-compatible) maps of reality.
  • I started, around the age of thirteen, to keep a log of my reading hours, shooting for between thirty and sixty a week, a practice I’ve kept up for a long time.
  • We may be drawn to think that Friedrich Hayek would be in that antifragile, antirationalist category. He is the twentieth-century philosopher and economist who opposed social planning on the grounds that the pricing system reveals through transactions the knowledge embedded in society, knowledge not accessible to a social planner. But Hayek missed the notion of optionality as a substitute for the social planner. In a way, he believed in intelligence, but as a distributed or collective intelligence— not in optionality as a replacement for intelligence.
  • I have used all my life a wonderfully simple heuristic: charlatans are recognizable in that they will give you positive advice, and only positive advice, exploiting our gullibility and sucker-proneness for recipes that hit you in a flash as just obvious, then evaporate later as you forget them.
  • I have often followed what I call Bergson’s razor: “A philosopher should be known for one single idea, not more” (I can’t source it to Bergson, but the rule is good enough). 
  • To understand the future, you do not need technoautistic jargon, obsession with “killer apps,” these sort of things. You just need the following: some respect for the past, some curiosity about the historical record, a hunger for the wisdom of the elders, and a grasp of the notion of “heuristics,” these often unwritten rules of thumb that are so determining of survival. In other words, you will be forced to give weight to things that have been around, things that have survived.
  • For the perishable, every additional day in its life translates into a shorter additional life expectancy. For the nonperishable, every additional day may imply a longer life expectancy.
  • Simply, humans should not be given explosive toys (like atomic bombs, financial derivatives, or tools to create life) because of the scalability of the errors, you are exposed to the wildest possible form of randomness.
  • If there is something in nature you don’t understand, odds are it makes sense in a deeper way that is beyond your understanding. So there is a logic to natural things that is much superior to our own. Just as there is a dichotomy in law: innocent until proven guilty as opposed to guilty until proven innocent, let me express my rule as follows: what Mother Nature does is rigorous until proven otherwise; what humans and science do is flawed until proven otherwise. Let us close on this business of b*** t “evidence.” If you want to talk about the “statistically significant,” nothing on the planet can be as close to “statistically significant” as nature. This is in deference to her track record and the sheer statistical significance of her massively large experience— the way she has managed to survive Black Swan events.
  • It has been shown that many people benefit from the removal of products that did not exist in their ancestral habitat: sugars and other carbohydrates in unnatural format, wheat products (those with celiac disease, but almost all of us are somewhat ill-adapted to this new addition to the human diet), milk and other cow products (for those of non– Northern European origin who did not develop lactose tolerance), sodas (both diet and regular), wine (for those of Asian origin who do not have the history of exposure), vitamin pills, food supplements, the family doctor, headache medicine and other painkillers.
  • So once again, religions with ritual fasts have more answers than assumed by those who look at them too literally. In fact what these ritual fasts do is try to bring nonlinearities in consumption to match biological properties.
  • Finally, the cure to many ethical problems maps to the exact cure for the Stiglitz effect, which I state now. Never ask anyone for their opinion, forecast, or recommendation. Just ask them what they have— or don’t have— in their portfolio.
One of the important message from the book about which many don't talk about comes from the Thales, a pre-Socratic philosopher (later, Montaigne and Seneca seconded it):

Thales, as a philosopher, was characteristically impecunious. He got tired of his buddies with more transactional lives hinting at him that “those who can, do, and others philosophize.” He performed the following prowess: he put a down payment on the seasonal use of every olive press in the vicinity of Miletus and Chios, which he got at low rent. The harvest turned out to be extremely bountiful and there was demand for olive presses, so he released the owners of olive presses on his own terms, building a substantial fortune in the process. Then he went back to philosophizing. 

What he collected was large, perhaps not enough to make him massively wealthy, but enough to make 
the point— to others but also, I suspect, to himself— that he talked the talk and was truly above, not below, wealth. This kind of sum I’ve called in my vernacular “fuck you money”— a sum large enough to get most, if not all, of the advantages of wealth (the most important one being independence and the ability to only occupy your mind with matters that interest you) but not its side effects, such as having to attend a black-tie charity event and being forced to listen to a polite exposition of the details of a marble-rich house renovation.