What does our future look like?

For the longest time, mankind has predicted its own doom. It is not surprising. As we humans have gained more and more control over our fates, we have also learned an ever greater variety of ways to commit mass suicide. In a way, we couldn’t have acquired greater expertise without having created newer and greater means to destroy the world. That doesn’t imply that expertise is inherently self-defeating. It just means we have had to trust ourselves more.

Every technological adventure has its side effects. Every medicine is also a poison. Every new source of food creates a possibility of famine. Human history is a long litany of tales of societies tripping eventually in the pursuit of progress and then innovating themselves out of the trouble. This, in a fundamental way, defines the human mindset and approach – to be simultaneously error prone and innovative.

We worry not just about our end but also about our obsolescence. The Luddites of the 18th century did better than their ancestors. Even so, they complained about the fragility of their fortunes. Their fragility was understandable because there is something terrifying about being a cog in someone else’s machinery.

Also, there is an inherent unfairness about the way technology disrupts societies. The damage to careers, prospects, and lives from progress is not uniformly distributed among people. Neither training nor pedigree can insulate against the potential to fall prey to the fate of Luddites.

Given its dark side, you have to wonder how technology has been allowed to wreak the havoc it has so far. One reason technology has managed to keep itself going is that its benefits accrue rapidly enough to nearly everyone that it has (so far) kept the Luddites at bay. New jobs appear quickly even as old ones are destroyed. Even so, there isn’t a safe position. If at all, the only safe role is to be the owner of the top node in a network. Even that isn’t safe if you stay rooted long enough. So, the better off we become, the more anxious we become.

Truth be told, we haven’t overcome this anxiety in the last two hundred years. Instead, media cliches and science fiction have only been accentuated and perpetuated the anxiety.

There’s another, subtle reason for our anxiety, which can be described as a sense of alienation. The more we view ourselves to be part of someone else’s world or scheme, the greater the gnawing discontent that our imprint on the world may not be ours anymore. We begin to doubt the authenticity of our lives.

I’m no Marxist. I love competition and free markets. The last thing I want is to live in a communist nation. I grew up in a socialist country and understand its pitfalls all too well. But, if you take the right passages out of Das Kapital, they read as incredibly current in today’s times.

As a technologist and someone heavily influenced by American culture, I have come to believe that optimism plays a crucial role in our lives. The American society, the greatest in the last one hundred years, is driven by the message that optimism is the secret to success. America is the land of Manifest Destiny, motivational speakers and “build it and they will come.”

In Silicon Valley too, we have embraced an All-American optimism. To this end, we have made a secular version of Pascal’s wager. As in Pascal’s wager, little harm would have been done if we’ve held onto a false belief in optimism. We are convinced that the side effects will not be so bad as to make the whole project unwise. We push optimistically forward not knowing quite where we are headed.

As an aside: There is another reason why technology has kept itself going. It’s because the technologist does not need to convince the world of his optimism or goodness. We don’t need to have public conversations about our philosophical motivations for the reason that our craft is inherently remunerative and profitable unto itself. Unlike scientists who are often compelled to describe the wonder they feel or the beauty in their work, we don’t need to enchant the politician or the taxpayer. We use what little attention we get to talk about what we have created and not about our core beliefs. Even so, every thoughtful technologist goes through his moments of self-doubt.

Regardless of our inherent optimism, a wide variety of Icarusian fates for mankind are never far from our thoughts. As we reach greater heights of efficiency, we are being confronted by a peculiar question: Will there be people who are “not needed”?  What will happen to these “extra” humans? Will they be ignored and wither away? Or, will they get easy lives? Who decides? How? When?

Examined at a sufficient depth, these questions lead us back to ancient conversations about the human condition itself. What does it mean to be human? What is the purpose of our lives?

The right question to ask perhaps is not what should be done with extra humans. First, it has to be pointed out that there can be no such thing as “extra humans.” It is not human to conceptualize or normalize the notion of “extra humans.” If we ever get to the point where we do end up with extra humans, we will have made some grievous conceptual mistake along the way. Second, progress isn’t independent of the human condition. It doesn’t exist outside of it. All progress is, in fact, intended for humans and therefore requires humans to validate itself. The data that drives “automation” has to come ultimately from people so it can be made relevant to people. Automation is no more than elaborate puppetry of machines using “big data” collected from human experiences.

The most crucial quality of our response to automation, artificial intelligence and other high-performance systems that are on their way, lies in how we conceive of what might be considered human. Will human be defined as what machines cannot do? Will it be defined as what machines will not be allowed to do? Or, will machines be defined as what humans cannot or not allowed to do?

Nearly all scenarios that have been conceived in fiction, media or research as to how our futures may play out have to do with how the human identity, technological progress and politics are likely to intersect and influence each other.

Utopian abundance is a notion that originated in ancient Greece and is now entrenched in Silicon Valley. In this, technology becomes the means to create material immortality and abundance and thus escape politics. Technology will be so good that soon everyone will have everything and thus we will eventually have no need for governments.

Malthusian scenarios predict our success to be the cause of our undoing. As we approach abundance, our societies will experience catastrophic failures, thanks to a fatal, deterministic ineptitude in our politics. Human nature plus technology will equal extinction. Technology will become so good that it will become possible to intentionally self-destruct very easily.

In less dire and romantic scenarios, humans become inauthentic and absurd as we approach abundance. Technology becomes the means to spiritual malaise and self-destruction. In Marxian scenarios, as we approach abundance, politics continues to gain preeminence and will decide what’s best for people and will ensure that everyone benefits from the bounty.

One can also conceive of extreme scenarios in which the future does not even include humans, let alone put them at the center of things. Artificial intelligence will become so good that it will become supernatural. Only technology will exist and it will procreate itself. People may not cease to exist but may instead become information entities. It will become possible to create and sustain personas of humans long after they have died. These entities will exist and play some yet to be determined roles in a world controlled by non-human intelligence without the need for human operators.

Is it conceivable that the three hands – the hand of the technology operator, the invisible hand of the markets and the hand of governments – may somehow come together coherently to pave the way for a future in which we not only get to survive but also retain our humanity? I hope so. But I do not know.

We live in exhilaratingly confusing times.

Look at Google. Their free tools are leading to a situation in which everything will eventually be free because people share. But, wouldn’t it be great if we could corner the market by collecting data that no one else has?

If everything is going to be eventually free, why would you need to corner the market? What will wealth mean, when we are done with creating nearly everything?

What if I created a software that could make any human voice sound perfect? What if I could connect humans who can barely sing by giving them a tool to sing together in perfect pitches? Wait, wouldn’t it be more authentic if they were NOT singing perfectly? How much imperfection defines the human condition? 10%? 20%? 30%? What’s the optimal trade-off between abundance and authenticity?

Interesting questions.

We entered into this race against self-destruction a long time ago. We have no choice but to keep running. In fact, if we stop, our self-destruction may be assured.

2016 US Elections

Some Observations.

Why were the polls so wrong?

They weren’t wrong. National polls predicted, on average, that Clinton would win by 3%, with a margin of error of 3%. In other words, polls predicted scenarios ranging from a tie (margin of victory 3% – margin of error 3% = 0%) to +6% win (3% + 3%) for Clinton. In reality, she won the popular vote by 1.5%, which is well within the margin of error. The pundits did fine. It’s just that we didn’t pay attention to the fine print.

Presidential races in this country aren’t won on popular vote. So, national polls have limited value. Outcomes in swing states determine the winner. Pennsylvania was lost by 34,000, Michigan by 6,000 and Wisconsin by 14,000. A combined 54,000 votes would have flipped those states and changed the outcome. 54.000 out of a total of approximately 120 million votes works out to about 0.04% accuracy. It isn’t easy to reduce the margin of error in polls. For example- to obtain a margin of error of 0.04%, a poll needs to survey (1/0.0004)*squared = 6.25 million people. That is not feasible. Most polls don’t survey more than 300 people.

Clinton had a 75% chance of winning the WH, according to Nate Silver. In probability terms, that means – if you were to hold the election a million times, Clinton would win 75% of the time and lose 25% of the time. His (or other) prediction offered no guarantee with regards to the outcome of any specific election.

We don’t choose our words carefully any more.

Hillary Clinton was called “corrupt” when the applicable term might have been “untrustworthy” or “technologically challenged” or “lazy” or “arrogant.” There is no evidence that Clinton was corrupt even after lengthy FBI investigations that cost us millions of dollars. We have to stop using the wrong words.

If we don’t choose our words carefully, we open the door to charlatans, who flood the system with half truths and lies. Pretty soon, truth starts to get blurry and phrases like “she’s just as bad as him,” become common. Wait, this just happened.

It has become so hard to say anything – honestly and publicly – in America that anyone who will say everything will get everywhere.

There aren’t any credible voices left in the country.

Trump ran against literally everything including and especially common sense and decency. He was the first candidate in history to not receive the endorsement of any major newspaper or a Fortune 100 CEO. His own party seniors (Romney, Bushes, etc) denounced him in strong terms. On his side were Giuliani, Gingrich, Ailes and Christie – only the disgraced members of the Republican establishment. And yet, he won.

It tells you that there isn’t a voice in the country worth listening to. Not even Donald Trump’s because even he didn’t win the popular vote. The next four years are going to be interesting, as Trump and the Congress lock horns – each claiming to speak for the people.

Working class anger was underrated. Now, it is overrated.

Very few spoke about Michigan before Nov 8. Now, no one can stop talking about it. Yes, there is working class anger in the midwest. But wait, that’s not the only thing we saw in this election. We saw millennials and minorities across America vote for a hopeful future. We have to pay attention to both. It was a battle between the past and the future. The past won. This time.

American democracy is flawed.

You win some. You lose some. And there is this little known third category where you win but are told that you lost. In most countries, it’s called the vote. In America, it’s called the “popular vote.” It’s a travesty that for the second time in 16 years, the candidate who won more votes than her opponents will not be sworn in as the POTUS. Only in America can you win an election and still not win it. Only in America are some votes more valuable than others. Let’s face it. If this were to happen in a third world country, we’d ridicule them. Even dictators have the decency to “win” the popular vote before declaring themselves the winners.

Progress is never perfectly linear.

The way progress works, it doesn’t go in a neat, straight line upwards. Obama was a giant leap forward for America. The election of a racist man who clearly does not respect women is a big step back. It hurts badly not because my team lost. It hurts because it happened right after Obama. We’ve gone from heaven straight to hell in fell swoop. Well, this is how democracy works. Stuff happens. We can’t allow ourselves to be demoralized. Like Obama said, it isn’t the end of the world until the world has actually ended. Until then, we must fight the good fight.

The Democratic Party is no longer the party of the working class.

Trump’s victory represents a culmination of trends that have been in motion for over two decades. It is a backlash to globalization driven by technological innovations, bankrupting of the country through needless wars and the financial crisis of 2008, massive victories for liberal agendas like the election of the nation’s first black President, all the debate around Black Lives Matter, passage of gay marriage laws, the feminism embedded in Clinton’s candidacy, etc etc. Democrats didn’t turn to vote. As someone said, his opponents took Trump literally, but not seriously. And, Trump’s supporters took him seriously, but not literally. There are dozen reasons for Trump’s win and another dozen for Hillary’s defeat. It is what is. When the time comes for an idea (good or bad), no force on earth can stop it. Regardless of what else is true or not, it’s apparent that the Democratic party is no longer the party of the working class.

Things will get worse before they get better.

Trump’s victory is just the beginning of a dark and turbulent period ahead for America, and consequently for the world. As automation driven by machine intelligence and big data rise, unemployment levels will rise dramatically in the coming decades. Machine intelligence will prove to be cheaper and better than human intelligence for a majority of tasks. Many jobs will go away. This is inevitable. It’s not a bad thing. But, until it becomes clear that it’s not a bad thing for humans to avoid doing grunt work, there will be great angst.

As unemployment rises, more Trump-like “outsider” personas will spill onto the political arena from both left and right extremes of the political spectrum. The next couple of decades will be painful as we struggle to come to terms with social consequences of automation, climate change, risk of pandemics, medical advances and longer human life spans.

But we are going to be fine.

Even as machines replace humans in day to day jobs and activities, costs of basic goods and services will plummet, thanks to the extraordinary productivity of machines that will work flawlessly around the clock without being fatigued. We may have less but we will need even less. We will put in place new social constructs like universal basic income, free healthcare and education. Freed from the obligation to work, many of us will choose to contribute. This will lead to unprecedented innovation. We are headed to a Utopian future, as long as we can manage to not destroy ourselves on the way to getting there.

Coming back to the present-

God, I wish Hillary was the President elect. Or Marco Rubio. Or John Kasich. Or Michael Bloomberg. Or, any normal human being, for that matter.

Let’s stop blaming Clinton.

In the final analysis – she lost the upper midwest by a total of just 54,000 votes (6,000 in Michigan, 34,000 in Pennsylvania and 14,000 in Wisconsin). When the counting is done, she will have won the popular vote by nearly 2 million votes, a margin greater than that of Nixon and JFK. It’s hard to see how she could have done things any differently, other than perhaps beefed up the ground game in the midwest. It’s possible that FBI chief’s controversial letters held Clinton back and helped Trump surge across the line in the final days of the campaign. In 2000, it was the Supreme Court that selected the POTUS. This time, the FBI may have helped elect Donald Trump.

Yes, Clinton was “boring” but please stop making it out to be a bad thing.

Much has already been made about how Clinton failed to generate enthusiasm for her candidacy. She has a reputation for being boring and a policy wonk – nerdy and obsessed with details. For some strange reason, we don’t like such people in this country. We vote for the biggest gorilla. Details is not a bad word. Boring is not a bad thing. Boring people get difficult tasks done. They make great leaders. It’s just too bad that we couldn’t see that a lot of Hillary Clinton’s greatness lay in her work ethic and diligence. Instead, we elected a POTUS with the attention span of a gnat. Let’s see how that works out.

Not all Trump voters are racists.

While this is true, I don’t really care. The distinction between being personally racist and enabling racists is not a useful one. Trump voters did, in the final analysis, vote for a racist, a sexist and a horrible human being. And, that’s all that matters. Sorry folks. You know what you did. You may have a hundred reasons (all valid) for why you did what you did. But you did vote for a horrible person. It hurts that some of us will throw the rest of us under the bus because they had “good reasons” to do so. SMH.

Sorry, Canada. We didn’t mean to do this.

Look what we’ve done. We’ve now gone and got the Canadians all worked up. I hope everyone is happy with themselves.

canada

The Chinese need to start timing things better.

After it became apparent that Donald Trump was going to be the 45th POTUS, the Chinese hastily informed Donald Trump that global warming wasn’t a hoax that they invented.

chinese

Apparently, they also let Trump know that General Tso’s chicken isn’t really made by General Tso.

Coming back to the battle between the past and the future..

It will be interesting to see a common vocabulary and language evolve that addresses the disparate groups in the country. There is only one person who managed to appeal to nearly everyone so far – Barack Obama. It is not apparent whether he is a unique outlier in this regard or if his example may be emulated by others.

This election was bitterly fought. It was won by razor thin margins. It could have gone either way. In fact, the “winner” did not even win the popular vote. Trump would do well to accept his good fortune with humility.

Ironically, this election displayed the greatness of American democracy.

As David Remnick writes in the New Yorker, “A very different answer arrived this Election Day. America is indeed a place where all things are possible: that is its greatest promise and, perhaps, its gravest peril.” [ Obama reckons with a Trump Presidency ]

It’s not the end of the world. This too shall pass. But, we must remain vigilant.

Even men and goats stand divided. What is the world coming to?

Last but not least, here’s an equally baffling piece of news about a bitter fight between a goat and a man. I’ve re-read this particular sentence a dozen times and have been unable to wrap my head around it.

goat

It pretty much sums up how 2016 has gone so far.

My take on the Syrian refugee question

Should the US admit tens or even hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees who are being forced to flee their homeland? A lot has been said, from both liberal and conservative viewpoints. I find myself at odds with both. My take is as follows.

America has been a beacon of hope to those who have sought better lives.

At the of core the refugee question is America’s commitment to helping the helpless. It is not a question to which we can lightly offer a knee jerk “No.”. At the same time, we live in a world that is struggling more than ever to reconcile between principles of freedom and religion. A knee jerk “Yes” is not a pragmatic one either.

We must stand for freedom in a manner that ensures that we will continue to be in a position to stand for freedom.

How do we do that?

We have to stop mixing unconnected issues.

The question of admitting refugees is not connected to the question of how we make America a safer place. Terrorists have shown that they are capable of infiltrating target countries regardless of whether they were legally admitted or not. The challenge with combating terrorism lies in the advantage of asymmetry that terrorists enjoy. They spend $1M to wreak $1B worth of damage, to prevent which $1T has to be spent. In contrast to conventional warfare, where engagement escalates costs proportionately for all warring parties, the war on terror has escalated costs only for those have engaged in it, and not the terrorists. The solution to making America a safer place lies in evolving methods to deal with a new kind of warfare, and not in blanket denials to helpless refugees.

We must stop painting extreme pictures.

All Muslims are not terrorists. At the same time, ISIS and Al Qaeda, the two most feared terrorist organizations today, are undeniably driven by a subset of Islamic principles that appear to sanction violence. Statements such as “All Muslims are terrorists” and “Terror has no religion” are equally dishonest and self-defeating, and seek to define the challenge in a way that avoids facing facts.

Every time, a conservative “they are all terrorists” statement is put forth, it reduces America’s credibility in the eyes of the world, and inflicts great damage on the chances of a solution being found. Every time a liberal “Islam is a religion of peace” is put forth, it hurts the cause of those moderate Muslims, atheists and humanists who wage daily battles against Islam’s gross imperfections, and damages the chances of a solution being found.

We must not let religion off the hook.

There is no such thing as a religion of peace or terror. History tells us that most religions have been the source of strife, at some point in history or the other. The role of religion is to be a parent – to offer advice when we seek it, to lend a shoulder when we seek solace, to lift us up when we stumble, and to guide us in a way that we can break free of it and go our own ways when we are ready. Most religions, especially the Abrahamic traditions, have struggled to grasp their roles in the modern scientific era. While we may seek to understand the struggles, we must not justify their methods. The West spent the last 200 years in taming Christianity into submission to democratic principles. It seems that the same will have to be done with Islam.

Support of Sharia laws by moderate Muslims is troubling.

There is no question that large parts of Sharia law, which in many ways defines Islam, are principles that are medieval and largely incompatible with principles of democracy and freedom. The only country with a vibrant, uninterrupted democracy and a large population of Muslims, is India, where Muslims are not a majority in the population. Islam is a rigid framework, built around inflexible rules, that provides little or no degrees of freedom for interpretation, debate, or change. It imposes unacceptable penalties on those who seek to question or examine it. This aspect of Islam is more troubling than even the extreme violence that it begets every so often.

The fact that over 70% of Muslims in Muslim majority countries support (from a Pew Study) the implementation of Sharia principles in both civil and criminal laws of their countries is a damning piece of statistic that should disabuse us of the notion that Islam and Muslims (moderate or extreme) seek secular co-existence with those who don’t adhere to Sharia principles. It stands to reason that Syrians (refugees or not) are likely supportive of Sharia laws as well.

If a large number of refugees (or even legal immigrants, for that matter) who come into the country carry with them an inflexible and reflexive defense of archaic principles, it is bound to have consequences. Anecdotal data supports this hypothesis. More British Muslims fight for the ISIS than the British army. Sharia laws have been enforced in Western Thrace in Greece, where Muslims once emigrated and are now a majority. A large number of civil (mostly divorce) cases in Britain and France are adjudicated by Sharia councils which operate outside the jurisdiction of the laws of the land. Even in India, the world’s largest democracy, a Muslim personal code (based on Sharia) continues to persist in civil law, outside the purview of Indian courts, on the back of strong support from Muslims. It is not unreasonable to expect that such trends will repeat in America.

We need more flexibility and openness for freedom to prosper, not less.

As much as I respect the right to religious freedom, I draw the line at religion (re)writing the laws of the country. There is a low likelihood that there are terrorists among Syrian refugees or that some of them will transform into terrorists once they have found homes in America. But, there is a significant likelihood that their religious baggage will lead them inevitably into a conflict with the principles of freedom that America cherishes and seeks to protect.

Hypothetical question: If millions of self avowed, devout communists were to seek refuge in America, what would we do? Even as we find a way to accommodate them in their misery, wouldn’t we want some assurance that they have left their dangerous ideas behind? We certainly wouldn’t engage in blank check compassion.

I took an oath to protect and defend the constitution of the United States, when I became a naturalized citizen over a decade ago. Implicit in the oath was a commitment that I would accord second place to my personal beliefs (religious and other) if they ever came in conflict with the constitution and the principle of freedom for all. Implicit in the oath was a spirit of compromise, a spirit to live and let live, to serve and be served, and to not subvert the freedom the nation may provide me into bullying others into submitting to my way of life. Today, there is a climate of religious zeal masquerading as a fight for religious freedom in America. Religious principles have been perverted into racial, ethnic and social bigotry. Freedom of the individual has been perverted into uncompromising fundamentalism and has led to confrontations with generally accepted laws of the land.

As we examine the refugee question, we must consider the future of freedom itself even as we exercise it. We have an obligation today to help those who are not free. We have an equally important responsibility to safeguard freedom for those who come after us.

The questions in the Syrian refugee crisis that I find crucial:

Do we, the citizens of the United States, understand and are willing to accord first place to the secular, democratic principles of the US constitution and second place to our religions?

Do the Syrian refugees (our future fellow citizens) understand and are willing to accord first place to the secular, democratic principles of the US constitution and second place to a religion that insists on being placed above everything else?

How can we help them accomplish that?

Why is the 21st century depressing the hell out of us?

We’re in the 21st century and it’s depressing the hell out of us. Why?

1. The idiots are winning.

The history of the human race can essentially be summed up as a fierce battle between the idiots and others. For thousands of years, massive effort has been expended into quelling, sedating and keeping idiots under strict supervision so they couldn’t cause irreparable damage. With the advent of internet and the rise of 24×7 television news, the idiots have finally broken free  of the stranglehold. They have seized pulpits on social and broadcast media and now control dialogues all over the world. News, if we can call it that any more, is now for the idiots, of the idiots and by the idiots. It’s hard not to have a foreboding sense of doom about this.

This just in: Donald Trump, the Supreme Dark Lord of All Idiots, just announced his candidacy for the President of the United States. If this doesn’t lend weight to my argument, I don’t know what will.

2. Outrage has become an industry.

Every election is an apocalypse. India or America or <insert country of your choice here> is turning into Nazi Germany. All men are assholes. All women are whiners. That’s sexist. This is racist. Fat shaming. Skinny shaming. Run. Quick. The zombies are coming. The idiots have turned fear and outrage into an industry. Idiocy has gone viral.

Think about it. Everyone has the same information. But, each idiot is in a race to make you consume his bilge before you consume another’s. And to do that, the idiots have come up with a strategy that befits their iconic status as idiots. They manufacture outrage.

Consider the headline, “Is electricity the greatest invention of modern humans?” And, on the same day, let’s say an idiot puts out something titled, “Is Thomas Edison the greatest jerk of all time?” Guess which one’s gonna win the war for the ever shrinking human attention span? The second one is going to win in a canter. It’s a not even a contest anymore. Wars are waged through innuendo and sophisticated lies. Precious attention is being squandered on the inconsequential. Mainstream media, once a bastion of reason and factual integrity, has been stormed and seized by idiots who now strut smugly on its ramparts as fellow nitwits lustily cheer them on.

3. Classical liberalism is (nearly) dead.

Classical liberalism was once about the fierce protection of an individual’s rights to free expression. Once, battles were fought between those who sought freedom and those who sought to suppress it. Today, we have liberals who shut down expression in the name of bigotry. And we have conservatives who shut down expressions in the name of morality. Balance has been lost. The center has become invisible. Nearly everyone has moved to the right, on different points of that spectrum. I think it’s safe to say that the Age of Enlightenment is over, and that classical liberalism has yielded to the liberalism of emotionally charged and easily offended idiots.

How did we end up with such a negative world view? Back in the day, people didn’t live as long as they do today. Babies died more often. We had more wars. We could communicate only by pen and paper or a rickety telephone that we shared. Our grandparents grew up in a time when no one had air conditioning. Today, we live in an unprecedented golden age of humans, an era in which we’ve wiped out a majority of killer diseases and made life immeasurably more convenient and tolerable for a large majority of the world’s population. You’d never know it if you watched television news or read it online.

I, for one, am rooting for the smart ones to wrest the control back. If they have do it by inventing robots, so be it. If that doesn’t pan out, I hope that they will have a space shuttle on standby so they can flee to another planet.

47 things I have seen in 47 years.

Here’s a collection of truisms I’ve observed over the years on life, love, truth, humanity and other inconsequential matters. In no particular order, here they are.

  1. There are only 4 things that matter- faith, hope, love and a win over Pakistan in cricket.
  2. When there is no such thing as truth, there can be no such thing as blasphemy.
  3. Fair doesn’t mean equal.
  4. We all have our inner demons.
  5. Humans are suited for many things. Democracy is not one of them.
  6. A cursory Google search for ‘the greatest country in the world’ yields 8,50,000 results.
  7. Patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels. Media is the first.
  8. I have arrived. According to Google Maps, this happened last weekend.
  9. I know I can’t change anyone. But I’ve built a list, just in case.
  10. A midlife crisis starts with “Is this all?” and ends with “This is quite good.”
  11. No man is an island. But I’ve seen a few archipelagos in my time.
  12. If you want to get to the source, you must swim against the current.
  13. Destiny is what’s left when we’ve exercised our will and made our choices.
  14. Being logical is not the same as being intelligent. Trained circus animals use IF-THEN rules all the time.
  15. We succeed, fail or get lucky. It’s hard to tell which it is, at any given time.
  16. Experts can better predict what can go wrong than what will go well.
  17. All is flux. Everything changes.
  18. Meditation is better than sitting around.
  19. I like being a vegetarian. My relationship with a chicken is restricted to questioning its motives for crossing the road.
  20. It’s hard to do the right thing when it involves dessert.
  21. If you give laptops and Twitter accounts to millions of monkeys, it’s only a matter of time before they begin correcting your typos.
  22. I often can’t tell if a misspelled word is a typo or the name of a rapper.
  23. The only thing I know about your future is that you are in it.
  24. The leading cause of cancer in rats is research.
  25. The Whole is part of the One. If you don’t watch out on Indian roads, one will become part of the hole.
  26. Indians can handle anything. Except standing in a queue.
  27. Passion is over-rated by those who have it, and misunderstood by those who don’t.
  28. Love is the soul of genius. Without love, there can be no genius.
  29. I’d like for religion to be a parent: to pick us up when we stumble, guide us when we ask and set us free when we’re ready to leave.
  30. Kids say the darnedest, most wonderful things. Unless they are someone else’s kids.
  31. A happy marriage is the greatest gift of all.
  32. Some look great because of their colleges. Some make their colleges look great. It is better to be in the latter category.
  33. Each of us is unique. But, deep down we all have the same hopes and fears.
  34. There is the truth as you see it. And then, there’s the truth.
  35. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Everything is small stuff.
  36. I love India not because I was born on her soil but because there’s something inspiring about the way she’s tolerant of the human condition.
  37. Read more than you write.
  38. When the crowd zigs, it’s time to zag.
  39. Answers are worthless if the questions are useless.
  40. There are no mistakes. There are only experiences.
  41. It doesn’t really matter if God exists or not.
  42. We must not lose faith in faith itself.
  43. A good society appreciates the science of uncertainty and the art of compromise.
  44. There’s not enough darkness in this world that can put out even the smallest of lamps.
  45. The path has a way of appearing when you begin walking.
  46. Que sera, sera. What will be, will be.
  47. Let go, be happy.

A Brief History of Evolution

There is no single idea, which has been more profound or impactful in the history of modern science, than Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution.

The Impact of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution

The ball that Darwin set rolling in 1859 with his blockbuster book, “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection,” continues to be unstoppable. When it first arrived, it dealt a body blow to, and spurred a refinement and tempering of Christianity. Over the last 150 years, it has encouraged a wholesale abandonment of religion. An idea that came to the fore even as Industrial Revolution took roots in Western Europe and America, Darwinism accelerated the transformation of these societies into free market havens, architected around the principle of natural selection. Initially, countries that accepted evolution more readily than others were Protestant nations like England. Although the United States, at that time, was in the middle of a civil war, Darwin’s theory did not go unnoticed. It is no coincidence that these nations turned ‘economically atheist,’ believing in the natural’ capacity of capital to allocate itself to the most deserving recipients, when competition is unfettered. They rejected economic theories that bet on God-like governments to distribute resources efficiently. Although Darwin’s initial inspiration came from economists such as Malthus and Adam Smith, his theory later provided moral justification and has helped shape the course of modern economics in the Western Hemisphere.

Evolutionism’s impact was perhaps felt the greatest in disrupting centuries old social and religious power structures. By adding impetus to political thought, it paved the way for western monarchies to transform gracefully into democratic systems. It captured the imagination of scientists, philosophers and men of letters alike. For the first time, there was a logical explanation for the evolution of life. Darwin provided copious evidence from nature. Most significantly, he provided no role for God in the process. It disabused Christians of their belief that an all-powerful God had created the Earth with all its animals, plants and human beings, in a mere six days. Darwin won such a convincing victory in such a short time that, by the early 20th century, the debate between science and the Church had shifted from the factual integrity of evolution to God’s role in it. The debate within the scientific community had turned towards its mechanisms and speed within a short ten years after Darwin’s pronouncement.

“I mean to say, I know perfectly well that I’ve got, roughly speaking, half the amount of brain a normal bloke ought to possess. And when a girl comes along who has about twice the regular allowance, she too often makes a bee line for me with the love light in her eyes. I don’t know how to account for it, but it is so.”

“It may be Nature’s provision for maintaining the balance of the species, sir.”

From ‘Carry on, Jeeves.’ By P. G. Wodehouse.

The theory of evolution has been co-opted in ways Darwin may have never intended or predicted. Social Darwinism, as it came to be called, had its dark side. Men in power such as Churchill, Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson drew flawed conclusions, and took evolution as ‘nature’s sanction’ to enthusiastically propagate a fundamental superiority of a “fitter, more powerful” Caucasian race. Such ideas were openly and widely disseminated in the 1920s and 1930s to justify the imperialist ambitions and domination of the British empire. Churchill stoutly believed that ‘inferior’ societies in Africa and Asia (including and especially India) were ‘better off’ for coming under the rule of the English, who, he believed, brought “civilization” to the uncivilized. In another example, several thousands of mentally disabled Americans were forcibly sterilized in the 1920s, under prevailing eugenics laws. A decade later, Adolf Hitler and the Nazis would take eugenics to horrific lengths when they systematically murdered the old, the disabled, the weak and eventually large numbers of Jewish people, in the name of Aryan supremacy. Darwin was one of the lucky few scientists to see his theory gain acceptance within the scientific community, in his lifetime. He was also fortunate that he did not live to see the perversions, which were wrought in his name. He would have been horrified. There is no other scientific idea from which society has reaped as much inspirationally positive and horribly negative consequences, as the theory of evolution.

There is no other scientific idea, which is as widely misunderstood as the theory of evolution. Over a hundred and fifty years after Darwin, a large majority of the world population has not even heard of it. Millions of children are not yet properly schooled in it. A huge part of the world population outside the western hemisphere continues to stay largely unaware of this remarkable scientific discovery, save for mischaracterized representations in popular culture. Amazingly, belief in God among Americans has not been as much dented by the theory of evolution as in Western Europe. Even today, over eighty percent of Americans profess to belief in ‘some sort of a God.’ Close to a third reject Darwinist evolution outright as a scientific theory. Less than fifteen percent of Americans understand and accept evolution to the point where they are willing to profess to atheistic beliefs.

As denizens of this wonderful Earth, filled with curiosity about our origin, cause and purpose, it is well worth our time to grasp the power of this single idea which, directly and indirectly, led to world wars, created new memes in popular culture, pitted science against religion in an epic clash, triggered the field of modern medicine and changed human history like none other has done. We must do this, regardless of our personal beliefs about the existence, nature and role of God. For, if we fail to do so, we run the risk of missing out on one of the most spiritually uplifting lessons that Mother Nature dangles every day in front of our eyes; that everything, organic and inorganic, shares a common progenitor. That this brief journey each of us has been afforded is but an opportunity to soak in wonder and awe, as we witness the wonder that we call creation.

Evolutionism over the ages.

Charles Darwin was not the first to envisage a creation without the hand of a Creator guiding it. There have been philosophical utterances to this effect from the Greeks. The Ionian philosopher, Anaximander (611 – 546 BC), believed that the world had arisen from an undifferentiated, indeterminate substance, which he called the Apeiron. Vedic thought, from some of the oldest Hindu schools, took a more nuanced position, even going to the extent of describing Gods as those who came after Creation and attributing the origins of our universe and life to no one in particular.

The Nasadiya Sukta, known as the Hymn of Creation, asks-

“But, after all, who knows, and who can say

Whence it all came, and how creation happened?

The gods themselves are later than creation,

So who knows truly whence it has arisen?

Whence all creation had its origin,

He, whether He fashioned it or whether He did not,

He, who surveys it all from highest heaven,

Perhaps He knows. Or, perhaps even He knows not.”

This hymn from Rig Veda has been interpreted as one of the earliest accounts of agnosticism and skeptical inquiry into the origin of all things, not just organic life on earth. Carl Sagan, scientist, describes the Vedic tradition of inquiry best, as one “of skeptical questioning and unselfconscious humility before the great cosmic mysteries.”

However, such speculation was abstract and philosophical, and lost favor as they failed to satisfy large parts of populations, which preferred the simpler, linear narratives of mythologies and gospel.

Fast forward to the early 19th century.

It’s interesting to pause momentarily to examine the times into which Darwin was born, and did his work.

Aristotle-ian natural philosophy, which held sway for over two thousand years, had yielded to the Baconian scientific method, which insisted on formal experimentation, repeatability and falsification. Europe had already entered the Age of Reason and Enlightenment, which saw science and philosophy flourish, frequently to the benefit of each other. French revolution and the Napoleonic era had played out by the end of the 18th century. Newtonian classical mechanics had unleashed the virtuous forces of Industrial revolution by mid 17th century, which led to machine based manufacturing processes. Chemistry had matured as a science. Historians of nature had begun meticulous classification of flora and fauna, leading to the development of biological taxonomy. A Swedish botanist and a first rate scientist, Carolus Linnaeus, filled 180 books with precise descriptions of plants and animals, and logically classified them. To him, we owe our, often, unjustified name, homo sapiens, which literally means ‘wise men.’ There was new understanding of electricity and magnetism, which led to speculation about connections between such phenomena and life forces themselves. Was life a mere electrical impulse?

Geology had progressed, and with it our understanding of the nature of Earth’s hidden layers. Consensus grew that the Earth had gradually evolved over millions of years, and not magically created in one fell swoop as the Bible claimed. Critically, scientific consciousness expanded to consider enormously lengthy periods of time, in contrast to the Biblical time scale of a few thousand years. As new cities emerged in the fervor of industrial expansion, fossils were uncovered. Paleontology quickly grew to be a discipline unto its own right, providing invaluable clues on how life may have evolved.

Even as Industrial revolution gained momentum in Europe and America, a new field of study emerged with intent to drive efficiency in production, and allocation of capital and labor, leading to the development of what we now know as economics. Industrial revolution changed societies dramatically in ways never envisioned. It raised the living standards of citizens, propelled large-scale urban migration and led to construction and expansion of modern cities. Adam Smith’s ‘The Wealth of Nations,’ and Robert Malthus’ ‘The Principle of Population,’ were written in 1776 and 1798 respectively. Such treatises popularized the idea of “selection” as the natural behavior of free and unrestrained systems. Such thoughts would provide crucial insights to Darwin later as he pondered the mechanism by which life may have evolved on earth.

invisiblehand

Most critically (for Darwin), there had been men of science who had already begun questioning the Bible’s version of creationism. Early closet evolutionists included Comte de Buffon, a French naturalist, and Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of Charles, who believed that life had evolved “over a period of millions of years.” Of these, the most important was a Frenchman named Jean-Batiste Chevalier de Lamarck. In early 19th century, Lamarck offered a theory, which explained evolution through a process of conscious adaptation and acquired inheritance. Lamarck’s theory posited that organisms adapted body parts to suit their environments during their lifetimes. Lamarck also believed that such changes acquired during a lifetime were inherited by offspring. The most famous Lamarckian example is that of the giraffes. Giraffes, Lamarck said, evolved long necks by straining and stretching them further and further to reach leaves on tops of trees. He added that this long-necked-ness was inherited by succeeding generations of giraffes, thus leading to long necked giraffes of today. Lamarck’s hypothesis was bold, powerful, intuitive and easy to understand. Unfortunately, it was also wrong. It is conceivable that necks may grow longer as a result of stretching and straining. But, it wasn’t so readily apparent that such traits acquired in one generation could be inherited by the next. For example, children of bodybuilders aren’t muscular unless, of course, they too engage in bodybuilding. Lamarck’s brave attempt was noted widely, but quickly fell into disrepute and suffered ridicule by both the Church and the scientific community for several decades. Notwithstanding this failure, Lamarck was a topnotch scientist and his courage paved the way for Darwin, by bringing the topic of creation into public debate, and dislodging a brick in the wall of dogma that religion had built over the course of a thousand years.

The stage thus came to be set for the event that changed the course of intellectual history of the world.

Evolution by Natural Selection.

Darwin spent five years aboard the HMS Beagle, during the course of which he sailed to the Galapagos Islands among other places, collected large numbers of samples, and recorded meticulous notes. Upon return to England, he married his wealthy first cousin, and dedicated his life to analyzing the samples he had gathered and unraveling the mystery of evolution.

Side Note: It is a remarkable coincidence that two men who most profoundly shaped the course of events in the Western Hemisphere, Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin, were born the same day – February 12, 1809 – on either side of the Atlantic Ocean. Darwin, at first, went to study to be a doctor at the University of Edinburgh. Unable to stand the sight of blood and even fainting once, he dropped out of medical school and went on to study his first love- natural history, at Cambridge University.

Although the scientific community had warmed up to the prospect of evolution, the theory had suffered grievous wounds during Lamarck’s attempt to storm the fortress. To gain acceptance of his fellow scientists, Darwin knew that it was not enough anymore to merely say that organisms had evolved. He had to explain *how* they had evolved.

It is said that Darwin was influenced by the writings of Robert Malthus, as he pondered the mystery. In his influential essay, Malthus predicted extraordinary growth in human population driven by a rise in the standard of living caused by the Industrial revolution. He argued that such growth in population would lead to a massive increase in the supply of labor, which in turn would cause lowering of wages and lead to poverty. He described such mechanisms as ‘competition,’ ‘survival,’ and ‘allocation.’ They struck a chord in Darwin. If artificial systems could allocate and optimize in the their own best interests, it seemed conceivable to him that nature could do the same.

In a book published in 1859, Charles Darwin described his theory of evolution based on the principle of natural selection. He explained it along four dimensions: Variation, Inheritance, Selection and Time.

Variation aka Why are there so many species and how did they come about?

Darwin defined species as a population of organisms that is capable of inter-breeding only within its own population. Inter-breeding produces a population of offspring that, in turn, inter-breeds, and so on. Over long periods of time, species undergo “evolution,” which are variations that cause a new species to arise. Thus, all species have descended as a consequence of modifications of species that came before them.

To put it simply, Darwin theorized that all species must have a common origin in some sort of an irreducible ‘lower’ life form. ‘Higher’ life forms are no more than lower life forms that have evolved over millions of years. He said that this was the only way we could explain the vast diversity of species found in nature.

Inheritance and Selection aka Why does a species appear the way it does?

Darwin then explained why survivors survive and how others go extinct, using a mechanism called natural selection. This answers questions such as, “Why do giraffes have long necks?” and “Why are zebras striped?”

Darwin observed that nature typically erred on the side of producing more organisms than it could support. These organisms struggle to survive as a result because they have to compete for resources. He pointed out that competition tended to be fiercer within species than between species. Within a species, there are variations in traits. He believed such variations to be random, and not acquired through conscious effort or deliberate strategy, as Lamarck had stated. When changes occur every so often in the environment, those members of a species, which happen to have a beneficial set of traits suited to the environment, are selected by nature to survive. Such evolutionarily advantageous traits are inherited by successive generations until the environment changes yet again, which may cause a potentially new set of beneficial traits to propagate, in a fascinating theater of survival and reproduction.

naturalselection

In the Darwinian world, giraffes didn’t deliberately stretch and grow long necks. Instead, there were once many variations of giraffes, with necks of varying lengths. Long necks happened to prove to be “evolutionarily advantageous” for survival. Consequently, over millions of years, all giraffes but the long-necked ones were filtered out by natural selection.

This, in essence, is the principle of natural selection. Natural selection, has also been described – first by a philosopher, Herbert Spencer, and later by Darwin himself – as “the survival of the fittest,” an unfortunate turn of phrase because it led to much misunderstanding of the principle.

Side Note: “Survival of the Fittest

Being taller, faster, more intelligent, fair-skinned or stronger is often misunderstood as “fittest,” by those who incorrectly grasp the implications of Darwin’s theory. “Fit” in the evolutionary sense is merely the possession of those traits, whatever they may be, which are most advantageous in a given environment, at a given period in time. For example, if the environment were to somehow change to favor pygmies in Sub Saharan Africa, nature would favor them over non-pygmies and the population of pygmies would rise faster than others. In fact, it is conceivable that the environment could favor “lower” life forms over “higher” life forms in the case of a drastic event like a nuclear holocaust.

Darwin’s theory does not imply the superiority of one species over another. It does not imply a hierarchy within species. It merely attempted to explain what is seen in nature, without being judgmental about the merits and outcomes of nature’s approach. Comprehending the term, ‘evolutionarily advantageous,’ may be the secret to understanding much of the workings of nature and human behavior itself.

A Gradual Process of Change.

Darwin emphasizes the role of time in evolution by describing it as a process of gradual change. In his book, he wrote, “Natural selection acts only by taking advantage of slight successive variations; she can never take a great and sudden leap, but must advance by short and sure, though slow steps.”

Since Darwin explained natural selection as a slow process, it came under fire almost immediately, from paleontologists and field naturalists who had observed discrete jumps in speciation from the fossil records. Indeed, natural selection was discarded (even by Darwin himself) within a decade of his book being published.

Nevertheless, Darwin had achieved a stunning coup. Within two decades of his book, evolution came to be accepted as a scientific fact. It also marked the beginning of a long running feud between science and religion, which has not abated yet.

Side Note:

You, my friend, are an outcome of an extraordinary process, which started billions of years ago on earth.

As the American author, Bill Bryson observes, in his inimitable wry style,

“Consider the fact that for 3.8 billion years, a period of time older than the Earth’s mountains and rivers and oceans, every one of your forebears on both sides has been attractive enough to find a mate, healthy enough to reproduce, and sufficiently blessed by fate and circumstances to live long enough to do so. Not one of your pertinent ancestors was squashed, devoured, drowned, starved, stranded, stuck fast, untimely wounded, or otherwise deflected from its life’s quest of delivering a tiny charge of genetic material to the right partner at the right moment in order to perpetuate the only possible sequence of hereditary combinations that could result — eventually, astoundingly, and all too briefly — in you.”

Congratulations!

Why Darwin is a hero.

It’s interesting to note that Darwin did not set out with an express agenda to destroy Christianity or religious belief. He was not religious himself, and did not hold a grudge against religion. In fact, he agonized over the consequences of his theory on society, and delayed publishing the book by over twenty years until Alfred Russell Wallace (whose details I have unpardonably skipped) forced his hand by independently coming up with natural selection and writing to Darwin about it.

What makes Darwin exceptional is that he was a scientist in awe of nature. He sought to answer the profound question of our creation, and once in possession of what he believed to be the truth, spoke it with grace and humility. None exemplify the spirit of science better than Darwin. He started with an admission of ignorance and remained open to ideas that challenged his beliefs, until his end. For this reason, he is one of the great modern heroes.

Coming back to natural selection..

Darwin’s natural selection ran into rough weather pretty quickly. Paleontologists, who saw discrete, sizable evolutionary jumps in fossil records across eras, refused to get on board. Later biologists challenged the theory on grounds that it did not satisfactorily explain certain quirks in nature, such as altruism. Given the damning counter evidence from fossil records, Darwin himself abandoned natural selection and shifted towards Lamarckian-ism in the latter half of his scientific life.

calvinaltruism

Enter genetics.

The question of ‘how do traits pass from one generation to another’ began to consume biologists after Darwin published his seminal work. An Austrian friar, Gregor Mendel, a forerunner in genetics research, had done work in cross breeding hybrids of pea plants. He recorded but didn’t go as far as to analyze the implications of his observations. He even shared his findings with Darwin, who unfortunately failed to see their significance at that time.

When Mendel was re-discovered in 1900, things began to move at a rapid pace. Hugo De Vries, a Dutch botanist, introduced the words ‘gene’ and ‘mutation’ into the vocabulary. By 1910, Thomas Hunt Morgan, an American, had provided evidence for inheritance through chromosomes. The most significant post-Darwinian inflection came from Ronald Fisher’s work on Mendelian inheritance. Fisher is considered the founding father of modern statistical science, design of experiments and biometry, and has been described as the ‘greatest biologist since Darwin’ by none other than Prof. Richard Dawkins. Fisher combined statistical analysis of genetic evidence and Darwinian theories into what came to be known as “modern synthesis,” and architected the emergence of “evolutionary biology,” starting in 1918.

Side Note: Interestingly, Fisher became a vocal proponent of eugenics, a principle that encouraged society to select fitter humans for survival. Fisher showed, using census data, that fertility was inversely proportional to social class. As families became more affluent and climbed the social ladder, they became smaller. Fisher hypothesized that these smaller families unfairly thrived, in spite of their lower reproductive output, solely because of their economic advantage. He campaigned for subsidies to lower income, larger families based on the earning potential of the father. Not coincidentally, Fisher himself had a large family and his financial resources were meager.

Eugenics caught the imagination of politicians, philosophers, writers, journalists and others. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, about a mythical society based on eugenics was published in 1932. Teddy Roosevelt, Churchill, George Bernard Shaw, Woodrow Wilson and John Maynard Keynes were prominent personalities who subscribed to the concept, which at its core, played to the idea of maintaining the purity of the Aryan race. Although Hitler and the Nazis took inspiration foremost from Nietzche’s Ubermensch ( ‘Superman’) which was not based on racial grounds, their eugenics laws were based on similar laws which prevailed in California in the 1920s. Today, eugenics is (rightfully) considered scientific racism, as it pre-supposes an erroneous principle of racial superiority, which is supported neither by Darwinism nor by genetics.

By the 1940s, the onion had been peeled yet another layer to reveal the presence of DNA and RNA as the main constituents of chromosomes, and DNA as the primary carrier of genetic information. In 1953, DNA structure was resolved to be a double helix by James Watson and Francis Crick. By the 1960s, the genetic code, a set of rules by which information encoded within genetic material is translated into protein by living cells, was ‘cracked’ by a team of scientists which included Har Gobind Khurana. By 2003, 99% of the human genome had been sequenced with 99.99% accuracy. The last hundred years have truly belonged to genetics and genomics.

The Modern Synthesis.

Incorporation of genetics and population studies led to Neo-Darwinian theories of evolution in the first half of the 20th century. These theories  emphasized the roles of mutation in causing variation within species. Natural selection, in Neo-Darwinism, was re-interpreted to define the natural process by which the frequency of genes in a population was determined. Neo-Darwinist theories have been subsequently replaced with current views of evolution known as the Modern Synthesis.

Per Modern Synthesis, several mechanisms, not just natural selection, are responsible for evolution. Of these, genetic drift is considered to be as crucial as natural selection. Traits are carried by discrete entities called genes, which are inherited. Variations within a population are caused by alleles, a “sub-type” of genes. Genes are composed of chromosomes, which in turn are constituted of DNA and RNA, which are the repository of genetic information and the messenger for carrying genetic information respectively. Speciation (formation of new species) occurs as as small changes (mutations) in genes. In other words, macroevolution is a consequence of a lengthy series of microevolutions.

In Modern Synthesis, evolution works at the level of genes, phenotypes (observable external traits) and populations, while Darwin’s theory was applied at the level of organisms, species and individuals. Research in evolutionary biology is now heavily focused on speciation, addressing debates around the speed and size of mutations.

That thing that makes you, you and no one else but you…

It is now believed that all genetic information is contained in DNA, which exists in the form of a double helix structure, and made of chemicals called nucleotides. The most crucial part of nucleotides is the base, where the genetic information resides. The sequence in which bases appear in the DNA is somewhat like how letters of the alphabet appear in a certain order to form words and sentences. The ‘sentence’ or the sequence then provides the information required to create and sustain an organism. In other words, DNA is that thing which makes you, you and no one else but you. Human DNA consists of about 3 billion bases, and more than 99 percent of these bases are the same in all people. Biologically, there is very little to distinguish one human from another.

An important property of DNA is that it can replicate; that is, make copies of itself. The double helix structure of the DNA is interesting because it provides two strands, each of which can serve as a pattern for duplicating the sequence of bases, thus providing tremendous resilience and stability to DNA. The ability of DNA to replicate itself is critical because when cells divide, each new cell is required to have an exact copy of the DNA that was present in the old cell. When new cells are formed through mitosis and cytokinesis, each cell receives a copy of DNA, which they check for errors in duplication. Errors are usually caught and the flawed cells are destroyed. However, it is possible that errors may not be detected occasionally and allowed to exist. These errors, known as mutations, are the cause for microevolution, if they happen in gametes, which are cells that participate in sexual reproduction. Such errors may also lead to cancer and genetic diseases. If DNA couldn’t replicate, there would be no life as we know it. On the other hand, errors in DNA replication can lead to the worst of diseases. In that sense, DNA is both the giver and destroyer of life.

dnastructure

In a nutshell aka ridiculous simplification of some very complicated things…

Genes, which are made up of DNA, are the basic functional units of heredity. They are commanders. They contain the blue print, for how to create an organism, and provide instructions for the creation of proteins, which are required for the structure, function and regulation of a body’s tissues and organs. What are proteins? They are complex molecules, which are made of long chains of smaller units called amino acids. The sequence in which amino acids are found in the chains determines the type of protein. Amino acids, in turn, are created from nitrogenous (containing nitrogen) bases. The Human Genome Project has estimated that humans have between 20,000 and 25,000 genes. In humans, genes could vary in size from a few hundred DNA bases to over 2 million bases.

Every person has two copies of a gene, one inherited from each parent. A huge majority of genes are the same in all people, excepting for a small number (less than 1 percent) which are slightly different from person to person. Such genes with minute differences in their sequence of DNA bases are called alleles. It is these small differences which contribute to each person’s unique physical features and make us look different from one another.

Equally remarkably, just four nitrogenous bases, which lead to the formation of 20 amino acids, account for the diversity of all life on earth.

Our distant cousins.

It may not be apparent to us, at first glance, that a wine grape may be a distant cousin. We share a quarter of our genes with that fine fruit. All animals, plants, and fungi share an ancestor that lived about 1.6 billion years ago. Every lineage that descended from that progenitor retained parts of its original genome, which embodies one of evolution’s key principles: ‘If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it.’

Side Note: We share close to half our genes with fruit flies, over 80% with dogs and 90% with chimpanzees.

On a lighter note: It is now increasingly believed that those who work in the Indian news media may be our closest cousins yet, bridging the gap between chimps and humans.

dna commonality

Of course, we aren’t really much like a wine grape at all. As Carl Zimmer points out, “The genes we still share, we use differently, in the same way you can use a violin to play the music of Mozart or Benny Goodman. It is less surprising that we share more genes with chimpanzees than with rice, because we’ve shared most of our evolutionary journey with those apes. And in the small portion of our genes with no counterpart in chimpanzees, we may be able to find additional clues to what makes us uniquely human.”

Ever wonder why we all don’t look the same? (and thanked your stars for it?)

This is another intriguing question. Of all species, humans have the highest diversity in terms of external traits. There are all kinds of people on the planet. This is especially true of the human face. Why is there such a breathtaking variety in the human face, compared to animals which aren’t as diverse in this regard? For example, most elephants (within a gender) look similar, except for the girth or the height. How and why did we learn to process facial patterns and be able to tell friends from strangers when we meet them? For animals, the need to be identified as individuals doesn’t appear to be all that important. For humans, it’s everything. Why? As it turns out, evolutionary pressures may have pushed humans towards this vast variety of facial features and structures that we see today. In other words, to be distinguishable from each other has been evolutionarily advantageous for human survival. It’s easy to imagine scenarios where having identical humans could lead to problems. Clones of an individual being mistakenly killed off by an enemy. Being wrongly accused of murder. We would have many problems if we all looked identical.

Bringing home the Baconian..

In the last few decades, a large part of Christianity has sought to come to terms with evolution by steering towards a middle path between the prevailing evolution view point and the Biblical account of creation as prescribed in the first chapter of Genesis. While continuing to stress God’s initial act of creating the universe and all it contains, they try to reconcile evolution as an expression of His creative activity. Although such hybrid views may provide comfort to some, the fact remains that scientific evolutionary ideals see no role for God; neither in the origin of the universe, nor in the origin and development of life and man.

A mountain of evidence makes modern evolution theory undeniable. There are those who deny it on the grounds that the biologist’s method is not Baconian, and based on circumstantial evidence. It is true that a large portion of the evidence for evolution has been circumstantial. But, if it looks like a duck, and quacks like one, the chances are pretty good that we’re looking at a duck. Deciphering the mystery of evolution has rather been like assembling a jigsaw puzzle with myriad pieces. As each piece falls into place and fits neatly with others that have come before it, and as a picture emerges, it is but the most obstinate dogmatic that will turn his face away and deny it. Further, biological research has come a long way since the days of Darwin, incorporating complex statistical, mathematical and computational methods, and now resembles work done in quantum mechanics or chaos theory, fields that are unquestionably scientific. The “theoretical biologist” is a dying breed, and biology merges more and more into computation and mathematics with each passing decade.

darwin_natural_selection_god_1204735

So, where does evolution leave us?

According to the mechanistic evolution theory, the universe and life in general, including humans, are products of impersonal interactions between matter and energy over eons of time. Everything was an accident. The universe appeared for no presumable reason or purpose, as did life.

As the French molecular biologist, Jacques Monod pointed out, “Pure chance, absolutely free but blind, lies at the very root of the stupendous edifice of evolution…. The universe was not pregnant with life nor the biosphere with man. Our number came up in the Monte Carlo game.”

The belief that our existence can be attributed to nothing more than a long series of fortunate accidents, raises interesting questions about our ability to comprehend the nature of truth. In other words, is it possible that our reason and intellect are wired to comprehend reality only in ways that suit our survival?

Charles Darwin himself agonized over such implications. He wrote, “But then arises the doubt, can the mind of man, which has, as I fully believe, been developed from a mind as low as that possessed by the lowest animal, be trusted when it draws such grand conclusions?”

Darwin intuitively comprehended that nature was terrific at optimizing, but terrible at strategizing. If living organisms survive only on the basis of a tactical, non-strategic natural selection process, then it follows that human logic and reason are products of such natural selection too. In which case, conclusions drawn by human reason may never be known to be true, but instead only as valuable in their contribution to the survival of the human species. In utilitarian terms, truth that arises from human reason can then only be defined as what works, and not necessarily as what is true. We may thus be irreconcilably divorced from being able to discover the purpose of our existence, for we cannot determine if of our conclusions are true or if they are premeditated by survival instincts. Indeed, all scientific and spiritual inquiry may thus be undermined.

Natural selection implies that a man does not possess free will. Instead, he is programmed by forces of natural selection to act solely upon million year old survival impulses, which deny him freedom of action and thought, just as a fanatical religious believer would shut the doors to Heaven on the face of an unrepentant sinner. To hang on to evolution and simultaneously, even in the face of unavoidable conclusions of that theory, to hold on to belief in human purpose, dignity, free will, and ethics outside of the context of survival, is an unresolvable dilemma. One could try to escape the quandary by theorizing that life and man are not solely products of natural selection, and that “other factors” may be involved. But, to do so would not just undermine the central tenet of the theory of evolution, but would also re-introduce the role of the divine into creation.

As humans, we possess an intriguing affinity for virtues such as goodness, kindness and happiness, which may not always be consonant with survival. It is not obvious if such spiritual aspirations have survival value. Are those who cast aside their quick-to-judge-and-act survival instincts in favor of kinder-gentler non-judgmental ones destined be martyred by evolution? Are we to be denied happiness, because it may not have survival value? Implications of a naturalistic worldview such as evolution are simultaneously liberating and ominous, even for the most modern and secular parts of our selves.

Friedrich Nietzsche famously portrayed a madman walking through a marketplace, proclaiming, “Where is God? I shall tell you. God is dead. We have killed him. How shall we, the murderers of all murderers, comfort ourselves?” Science has sought man’s liberation from God. It has sought God’s death, through a mechanistic theory of evolution. But, even as we find ourselves alive and liberated from the tyranny of God’s salesmen, we come face to face with the death of our own reason and intellectual freedom. This may just be the great dilemma of modern, secular humans; that by embracing truth as we come to understand it, we make ourselves ineligible to receive any further knowledge on its nature.

Happy journeys.

Note: I last formally read Biological Sciences in high school, well over 25 years back. I claim no expertise in this fascinating area. Here, I have attempted to describe what I believe is the most important scientific idea that I have come across, in layman terms and language. My observations on the clash of Darwinism and Christianity (and religion in general) are not meant to offend, but to state as a matter of fact, how things were and are. If they offend, my sincere apologies. If there are errors or mis-statements in above (which I’m sure there are), kindly let me know and I will fix them. Many thanks for reading. I hope you enjoyed it.

If this subject interests you, here’s some recommended reading.

  1. On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection.” By Charles Darwin. Free Kindle book. Must read for science lovers. Read it often and early.
  2. The Great Courses, “Theory of Evolution, A History of Controversy,” by Prof. Larson. Six hours of lectures, beautifully done. Great for commutes.
  3. A Short History of Nearly Everything,” by Bill Bryson. A genius raconteur of history. You haven’t lived if you haven’t read Bryson.
  4. The Selfish Gene,” by Prof. Richard Dawkins. A book that changed my life. Authored by a scientist extraordinaire.

If you enjoyed reading this, you might also like the following on What Ho!-

  1. On the Nature of Time and Einstein’s Theory of Relativity
  2. Why is there something and not nothing?
  3. The Cosmic Calendar.
  4. On the Nature of Light
  5. On the Hindu view of Time and Cosmology

Yesterday

24 hours went by. The universe expanded a little more. The sun shone. The moon was coy. A little more ice melted from the polar ice caps.

353,000 babies were born. They will grow up to be moms, dads, sons, daughters, sisters, brothers, cousins, grandparents, nieces, nephews, aunts, uncles, friends and strangers. Families smiled. 150,000 people died. They were moms, dads, sons, daughters, sisters, brothers, cousins, grandparents, nieces, nephews, aunts, uncles, friends and strangers. Families cried.

Stars were born. Stars died. Flowers bloomed. Bees buzzed. 150 species of plants, insects, birds and animals went extinct.

More than a billion pizzas were delivered.

Hundreds of millions of children went to school and complained about home work. Millions didn’t get that chance.

Stock markets rose. Stock markets fell. People made money. People lost money. Some became rich beyond their wildest dreams. Some lost their savings to their great shock. Most didn’t even know.

Men broke women’s hearts. Some cried. Some shrugged their shoulders. Women broke men’s hearts. Some shrugged their shoulders. Some cried. There were millions of smiles. There were millions of tears.

294 billion emails were sent. 2 million blog posts were written. People spent 472 billion minutes updating 532 million statuses and uploading 250 million photos on Facebook. They spent 22 million hours on Netflix, 18 million on Pandora, and bought 378,000 new iPhones.

Men killed men. Men raped women. Some were just angry. Some did so because they felt they needed to. Some will escape. Some will be forgiven. Some will not seek forgiveness. A lot of people became angry hearing about what others had done. Many retreated to lives of quiet desperation, flitting from one debacle to another.

Moms hugged children. Children refused to eat their vegetables. Women wondered what their husbands thought. Husbands remained oblivious. Families re-united. Others said goodbyes.

Some rose at the crack of dawn. Some were unwilling to rise. Many went to work. Many looked for work.

People argued. They debated. They mocked. They praised.

Some were dissatisfied. They wanted more. Others were despondent. They could have used more.

Some promised to start new lives. Some ended theirs. Some were cared for. Some went to bed in tears. Some died unsung.

There was joy. There was sorrow. There was life. There was death. There was fear of tomorrow. There was promise of a new day.

It was the best of days. it was the worst of days. It was a day of wisdom. It was a day of foolishness. It was a day of belief. It was a day of incredulity. It was a day of light. It was a day of darkness. It was day of hope. It was a day of despair. We had everything before us. We had nothing before us. We were all headed to Heaven. We were all going directly the other way.*

Yesterday, life happened. Just as it did, the day before.

*paraphased from The Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens.

The Nature of Time

Ray Cummings, considered the father of science fiction, described time as “nature’s way of preventing everything from happening at once.” John Wheeler, an American theoretical physicist, added, “And, space is its way of preventing everything from happening to me.” If there wasn’t time, everything would happen at once. And if there wasn’t space, everything would happen in the same place.

Side note: Wheeler collaborated with giants like Bohr and Einstein, worked on the (in)famous Manhattan project and taught physics at Princeton, where his graduate students included Richard Feynman and Kip Thorne. Dr. Thorne, who teaches at Caltech, is one of the producers of the movie, “Interstellar.”

There are so many different worlds. We have but one. But, we live in different ones.

What exactly is time? Well, it depends on the world from which the question is posed. We could, simplistically, divide the worlds we’re aware of, into three distinctly separate ones based on our powers of perceiving them. First is the world of classical mechanics described by Isaac Newton. Second is the world of relativistic mechanics described by Einstein as a space-time continuum. And last but not the least, is the quantum mechanical world of sub-atomic particles, which Bohr, Heisenberg, Pauli, Dirac, Schrodinger and others collectively described.

Dire Straits. “Brothers in Arms.” (video)

The world as we know it.

Newton’s laws of motion and gravitational theory concern themselves primarily with the world as we know it. They describe a familiar world of bodies filled with masses that are acted upon by forces and the ensuing consequences of such forces or lack of them. Newton explained a lot of things observed on earth and in the skies neatly. Kepler used Newton’s laws to show that planets moved in elliptical rather than circular orbits, which appeared to be true.* For example, Newton showed that Kepler’s laws of planetary motion would apply in the solar system, as consequences of his own laws of motion and gravitation. Nearly every mechanical invention over the next several hundred years became possible through these suddenly obvious insights, which we take for granted today.

*Corrected. Many thanks to @chasing_mirage for pointing out that Kepler and his laws preceded Newton.

However, the laws of classical mechanics became increasingly problematic when used to explain ‘minor’ anomalies that began to be observed when more accurate telescopes and other measurement systems came along. For example, Newton’s laws, as amazing as they are, led to a strongly held but erroneous belief that the speed of light was relative, and puzzlement when measurements showed otherwise. Another famous example is an anomaly in Mercury’s orbit, which, try as they might, scientists could not explain.

Time in Newton’s world is ‘not relative’. In other words, time provides an immutable backdrop to the grand stage of the universe on which bodies move relative to, collide with, or attract one another. Material objects possess masses and are capable of moving large distances with predictable speeds. But there is no such notion as ‘the speed of time’ in Newton’s world.

For all practical purposes, Newton’s laws explain the world to people like us, who lead unscientific lives and are unaffected by cosmic anomalies and mysterious events that go on in the universe. We understand why something that is tossed up in the air returns. And, so on.

Newton’s laws describe a world of massive objects, low speeds and large distances. They began failing, when applied to ‘other’ worlds with minuscule objects, enormous speeds or sub-atomic distances, a matter which caused great consternation by the end of the 19th century.

Time slows down when you’re having fun..

Einstein formulated the Special Theory of Relativity in 1905 to address Newtonian limitations, in which he proposed a radically different relationship between space and time. Instead of being an unchanging backdrop to the cosmic drama, time, he said, was an active participant and suggested that its nature was ‘relative,’ just as the nature of space was relative. He predicted that time would move slower when an object moved faster. To be more accurate, time would go by relatively slower on an object such as a planet or a spaceship, which was moving relatively faster than another one. This dilation of time, he said, would be noticeable only at very high speeds, typically exceeding 10% of the speed of light.

newton

Einstein thus began describing our broader universe, a world of massive objects, large distances and enormous speeds. At the heart of his Special Theory was an assertion that the speed of light was an ‘absolute’ and a constant in our universe.

Think of our universe as a massive computer program which is designed to reflexively change space and time to keep the speed of light ‘c’ constant anywhere in it. Einstein called the combination of space described by location (x,y,z) and time ’t’ as the ‘space-time continuum,’ a four dimensional interwoven mesh, whose intrinsic nature was to dynamically adjust itself to keep ‘c’ constant.

Regardless of where you measure the speed of light in the universe or the conditions under which you measure it, the speed of light is constant. Why? No one knows. That’s the way things are, in our version of the universe.

You already live in a space-time continuum. You just don’t know it yet.

What’s space-time continuum? It’s a mesh of things that have happened, presently happening or will happen. If you didn’t realize it, we already employ the concept in our day to day lives. When you arrange to meet a friend, you exchange four pieces of information. When you say, “I’ll meet you at the Starbucks near the intersection of Los Gatos Boulevard and Highway 85, at 9am tomorrow,” you’ve provided ‘x’ and ‘y’ coordinates of the meeting point, have indicated that the ‘z’ coordinate (height) is zero and that the time coordinate is 9 in the morning on a day, which is one day after today. No one ever just goes, “Let’s meet at 9am tomorrow,” or, “Let’s meet at the Empire State Building,” because it would raise the questions of where and when. History is another great example of a space-time continuum; a compendium of events which have occurred at specific places and times in the past.

spacetime continuum

Gravity.. is working against me…

It’s now time speak of that invisible elephant in the room – gravity.

Believe it or not, this thing called gravity, which we experience every second of every day of our lives, is one of the least understood phenomena in physics. Newton described it as a property which is both exuded and experienced by anything that is made of matter. He described the gravitational forces of attraction between two objects as being dependent on their masses and the distance between them. It turned out that things were not quite as straightforward as that. For example, light, a massless entity, was observed to “bend” as it traveled through neighborhoods of even small stars like the sun.

John Mayer, “Gravity.” (video)

Einstein spent the next ten years coming up with a General Theory of Relativity which explained the nature of gravity quite differently. Gravity, Einstein said, was not just some intrinsic property of matter. He described it as something which arises when matter interacts with the space-time continuum. Say what?

Okay, let’s try this again.

In the beginning, there was a lot of energy concentrated perfectly in a place called ‘singularity’ which was smaller than a billionth of an atom. One fine day, the singularity began to expand. In fact, it took just a few nano seconds before the singularity expanded to form the space-time continuum or the universe as we call it. Space and time were born simultaneously like a four-headed baby, in a spontaneous moment of cosmic creativity.

Somewhere, sometime in those first few inflationary moments, Mother Nature pulled yet another rabbit out of her hat. Something called matter arose in space-time continuum. Why and how matter arose is a great mystery of our universe. The current theory we have is that of the Higgs field, present throughout the universe, instrumental in transferring mass to those particles known to have mass. Some one described a universe as something that happens from time to time. I guess you could say the same about matter.

So, anyway.. coming back to gravity.

As matter mysteriously arose in the space-time continuum, it began creating distortions in it. The word used in physics for distortions is “space-time curvature.” Imagine if you placed a bowling ball on a rubber sheet. It would create a depression in it, which is another way of saying that the bowling ball creates a curvature. Gravity, Einstein said, is a result of matter interacting with space-time to create curvatures. The larger the mass, the greater the curvature and thus greater the gravitational force or field.

general_relativity_large

It turns out that when the curvatures are very very large, i.e. when there are intense gravitational fields, they can cause time to slow down. This is called gravitational time dilation. For example, both Jupiter and the Sun have masses significantly larger than that of the Earth. Clocks on both Jupiter and the Sun would tick slower than one on the Earth. The clock on Jupiter would gain only about 10 minutes every 100 years compared to the one on Earth, which wouldn’t make a trip to Jupiter worth while. A clock on the Sun would gain about 4.6 days every 100 years. A clock on Mercury, a planet smaller than the Earth, would tick slower * faster. You get the gist now, I’m sure.

*Corrected. Silly typo! Thanks again to @chasing_mirage for catching this.

Think of gravity as something that results from matter creating curvatures in space-time, and time as one of the variables which gets stretched (slowed down) more and more as the curvatures gets larger and larger.

time dilation diagram

Just so we are clear, you will feel time lapsing at ‘normal speed’, at one tick per second, regardless of whether you’re on the Earth, on Jupiter or inside a black hole. You will not experience time going by faster or slower. It’s like everything stretches or contracts at the same time so you can’t tell any difference, unless you become aware of a reference point that lies at a different curvature on the space-time continuum. The phrase used to describe this in physics is that you and other objects are traversing along different space-time paths.

Time, the great vector.

A Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, said, “You cannot step into the same river twice.”

In philosophical terms, Heraclitus described a fundamental property of time in our universe: that it moves forward and only forward. We can move forwards and backwards, and up and down in space but are prisoners in the present. We, it appears, are condemned to watching as moments tick by, rigidly positioned at the intersection of the past and the future. This notion of the arrow of time, as it came to be called, arose first in a field called thermodynamics, in which a gentleman named Ludwig Boltzmann described something called entropy using statistical methods. Simply speaking, entropy represents the ‘amount of disorder’ in systems. Boltzmann astutely observed that entropy was such a thing, which only increased in our universe. It’s a way of saying that things in the universe as a whole, happen only in a forward direction, and are not reversible. You can make an omelette from eggs, but you can’t get eggs back from an omelette.

The relationship between entropy and time is an intuitive one. If we were to somehow be able to “restore” order and decrease disorder in the universe, conceivably we could engineer it back to its original state, which is just another way of saying that we could reverse time itself. The fact that we find the universe today in a state of ‘higher entropy’ implies that it once started off in a ‘low entropy’ state. Why did that even happen? Why was it not in a steady state to begin with? Why does it accumulate disorder? What causes it to do so? Would it not make sense for it to decrease its disorder? How long will entropy increase in the universe? And when entropy reaches some sort of a maximum, will our universe and time begin reversing their directions? These are all fascinating questions, to which there are only speculative answers today. All we know for now is that our universe is becoming more and more ‘disorderly’, and time marches resolutely and uni-directionally forward.

Side note: Boltzmann was so profoundly distressed by philosophical objections to his findings that he became acutely depressed in his later years and eventually committed suicide.

The Third World of Uncertainty.

Deep down in the recesses of matter, at the sub-atomic level, there exists a world of great uncertainty, where an entirely different set of natural laws govern. As we break matter down into elements, then atoms and eventually sub-atomic particles, a dramatically different picture emerges. There are several things that are weird about this quantum mechanical world, as compared to the worlds of Einstein and Newton. Before I get there, let me try first to describe this world and how we came to stumble upon it.

One of the first clues to the quixotic nature of sub atomic particles came from experiments performed on the behavior of light. Of the many that were attempted, the most famous experiment in capturing the central puzzles of quantum mechanics is the Young’s double slit experiment, conducted in 1801.

It’s relevant to note that, at the time Young performed his experiment, light was thought of to be a ‘wave’ which is to say that light was not thought of be composed of ‘particles’ with mass. Young merely set out to prove the wave nature of light with his experiment. It’s a pretty simple experiment which consists of passing light through two narrow slits placed close to each other on a piece of cardboard or metal. As expected, light diffused and spread as it passed through the slits, forming a predictable ‘interference pattern’ on a screen, which is caused when waves of light interfere with each other. Every one was overjoyed, and Young slept soundly at night after that.

youngschematic2

Fast forward a hundred years to the early 1900s. By this time, there was enough evidence to believe that light might be, in fact, be composed of minuscule packets containing discrete amounts of energy, also known as ‘quanta’. Max Planck and then Einstein built equations to describe the energy that could be contained in each packet of light called photon, which led to the discovery of the ‘photo electric’ effect, for which Einstein received the Nobel Prize. This set the stage for the study of what came to be known as quantum mechanics.

The tale of Young’s double slit experiment saw a dramatic twist around this time. A curious person asked, “What if I were to shoot a single photon through the double slits, which one would it pass through?” By this time, scientists had built equipment capable of generating single photons and detectors which could spot them as they moved along.

When a single photon was shot at the double slits, one of the most mysterious events ever observed in physics happened. The photon appeared to pass through both slits at the same time to form a familiar diffraction pattern earlier seen by Young. How was it possible that a single photon could enter through two slits at the same time? Did the photon pass through one slit, and then somehow traveled back in time back through it and then re-enter the other slit to interfere with itself to form wave patterns? Mind boggling stuff. There is no accepted answer to why this happens till this day.

And now comes the really weird part. Another curious person decided to place a detector after the slit. The detector was like a security guard, keeping a close eye on the photon to identify the slit through which it passed. A magical event happened. When the detector was placed, the photon decided that it was going to behave itself, and exactly like a particle. Something about the act of observation, which the photon somehow seemed to be aware of, made it abandon its wave nature. This experiment has been repeated with other particles such as electrons with similar perplexing results.

'You have reached the Heisenberg Institute. Your call will be answered in random order.'

Quantum mechanics describes the world of minuscule things (sub atomic particles), which are separated by minuscule distances. As things stand, it is believed that there are twelve fundamental particles (an electron is one of them) which combine to form higher order particles such as protons, neutrons, etc. which in turn combine to form atoms and molecules, eventually culminating in things like babies, trees, rocks, water, clouds, earth, moon, stars and all such matter that exists in the universe. The Standard Model is a set of equations which describe the state of each functional particle and the conditions under which it forms and exists.

Let’s talk about time in this world.

What’s intriguing is that the arrow of time does not show up in the laws of physics which govern these fundamental particles. The world of electrons, bosons, quarks and other fundamental particles is what is called a probabilistic one. The existence of the particles at a particular position is defined by a set of probabilities. An electron could manifest itself in positions A, B and C, each with a probability of ‘p’. In other words, it exists everywhere and yet nowhere. At any given instant, the wave function describing the electron “collapses” to manifest it at a specific position. The same is true for other particles. It’s like Mother Nature is trying to make up her mind as she goes along, considering infinite possibilities and ruling in favor of one, at each and every instant.

Let’s say we were to somehow be able to build a gigantic model using every tiny bit of data starting from the Big Bang to now, and run a simulation on a massive supercomputer. Even if we did that, we would not be able to predict with certainty what would happen the very next second. That’s because even Mother Nature is yet to decide what she is going to do next.

Here’s the great paradox: Formation, existence and transformation of the fundamental particles, which make up all matter, don’t appear to subject to the arrow of time. They exist in a timeless state of no causality, memory, metabolism, death, etc., in a world of probabilistic fluctuations. The arrow of time seems to be an overlay, almost an after thought, on top of these laws of physics, and applies only to the higher order blocks of matter built from fundamental particles. Our worlds become less and less predictable as we zoom inwards. Weird.

This theory of fundamental unpredictability made many uncomfortable, including Einstein who ironically was considered the founding father of quantum mechanics. Einstein’s relativistic description of space-time continuum, just a few years before quantum mechanics came along, implied the exact opposite: that the world was determinate and that there were no such things as free will, choice and uncertainty. That the universe was a giant program juggling to adjust many parameters to keep a few from changing. The space-time continuum wasn’t evolving. It was already there. The future had already transpired, and everything in the universe was merely traversing its own space-time path towards a predictable and fulfilled destiny. Quantum mechanics came along and put forth this great notion that the future was yet to happen, and yet was not necessarily influenceable or subject to manipulations by higher order matter. The great angst brought about the new revelations prompted Einstein to respond tersely that “God does not play dice with the universe,” and an exasperated Heisenberg, who led the young turks of quantum physics, to retort, “Please don’t tell God what he must or not do.”

For the last seven or eight decades, much scientific energy has been expended in attempting to reconcile these seemingly irreconcilable worlds into one Grand Unified Theory of Everything, with no tangible success so far.

Interstellar.

The movie took my breath away. It made me happy, sad and even cry. America may be losing its edge on a few fronts, but by God, it still makes the best movies in the world.

Official trailer of “Interstellar.” (video)

Interstellar is an awesome example of how science can form a real foundation for movie making. It’s the story of Coop, an astronaut who goes on a mission to find a new world to which humans can escape from Earth, which is in its final stage of destruction. The heart tugging relationship between Coop and his daughter, Murph, which plays out over the space-time continuum provides an emotional backdrop to the intergalactic quest. It’s a movie not just about science. At the heart of it, it’s a work of art which makes us wonder about the magnificence of everything. It gives us pause to ponder things, which might escape us otherwise in our humdrum lives.

Tomorrow never comes. Or does it?

So, is time travel possible? What happens when we enter a black hole? What happens when we die? Would we acquire the ability to move forwards and backwards on the space-time continuum, inside a four dimensional Tasseract? There are some fantastic scenarios that Interstellar portrays, much of it attributable to an artistic liberty and a creative license to imagine.

Of course, time travel is possible. We traveled from yesterday to today. 🙂 Seriously, since the arrow of time points only forward, it’s possible that travel to the past may be impossible, although it has not been mathematically or theoretically proven to be impossible.

Another way of looking at time travel into the past is to examine the nature of causality or ‘cause-effect’, a phenomenon made possible by the ‘flow’ of time. Cause always precedes effect in our universe. Effect may not be allowed to go back in time, to modify or destroy its cause, thanks to the uni-directional arrow of time.

If we were somehow able to enter a higher dimension from which we could witness the space-time continuum, it is then possible that we would be able to move along it to the past and the future. This would raise interesting paradoxes. What if you went into the past and somehow convinced your dad to never have children?

In which case, would we be allowed to revisit the past, if we solemnly promised to refrain from interfering with and changing it? If that were possible, we would merely observe the past as passive observers, just as we are when watching a movie. Wait, we can already do that by recording the past with a video camera, or simply in our memories. Memory is a special form of time travel into a specific part of the past in which we have participated, isn’t it?

time travel

Kids these days….

Why does time go by slower on Miller’s planet?

Miller’s planet, in Interstellar, is a water world, located just outside the event horizon of a massive black hole called Gargantua. A black hole is an anomaly in the universe, believed to have enormous mass concentrated in a singularity similar to the one from which the universe began. A blackhole can be looked at as a massive space-time curvature, inside or near which time slows down dramatically due to gravity.

Wait, they aren’t mountains. They are tidal waves.” In a spectacular moment in the movie, Coop and crew realize that Miller’s planet, which because of its wobbling, really resembles a huge bowl in which water is careening from one edge to another causing tidal waves the size of mountains.

Since Miller’s planet is located within the gravitational field of Gargantua, a black hole with a mass of 100 million suns, each hour on it (we’re told) corresponds to 7 years for someone outside its field. By the time Coop and his partner return to their spaceship, their colleague and Coop’s daughter on Earth have aged by 23 years.

Later, Coop is pulled into the black hole, in which he spends a few minutes, during which another eighty years pass by on Earth. During this time, he enters the mysterious Tasseract, where he travels back in time to guide his past self and then Murph towards solving the set of equations, which allows them to eventually leave Earth, resettle near Saturn and find him. Is it really possible to exit a black hole once you’ve entered it? Unlikely. Is it possible that you can travel back to the past and alter it? Unlikely. Is it possible that our descendants, from the future, can help us escape our present? An exhilarating leap of faith and hopeful imagination.

All we are is.. dust in the wind.

The nature of tIme has been a matter of much speculation for thousands of years, even before Einstein and modern savants came along. Western philosophical and religious view of time has always been a linear, uni-directional one, with starting and ending points. Judeo-Christian-Islamic schools of thought portray time as coming into existence with the ‘creation’, and ending with ‘judgement day’, when the past, in its entirety, will be reviewed with an intent to judge faith and dispense justice. Eastern mystics took more exotic and intriguing stances on time. The Hindus and the Buddhists described time as a “kaala chakra,” cyclical in nature, without beginning or end, stretching into infinity, much as science views the universe. Creation and destruction of things are events that repeat themselves periodically on this cycle. Even Brahma, the creator himself, is subject to the laws of oblivion, and yields his way to a new Brahma when his end arrives. Vedic thinkers intuitively grasped the uncertainty which lies hidden beneath it all, and concluded that the purpose of life lay in enquiry aimed at drawing the distinction between the real and the unreal.

Regardless of our personal beliefs, aspirations and desires to shape our worlds as we wish them to be, and our chosen paths in the pursuit of what we like to call the Truth, enquiry into the nature of things leads us eventually to the comforting possibility that we are, in a true sense, nature gazing upon herself. That, while we may be insignificant lumps of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen on an inconsequential, tiny planet in some corner of a magnificent universe, we have, within our grasp, a great power: the ability to let go, and look upon the worlds with wonder and awe.

Happy journeys.

Kansas, “Dust in the Wind.” (video)

The information in this post is drawn from many sources- mostly my readings over the years and my notes from them. One of the great blessings of ignorance is the ability to over simplify. In my anxiety to tell things simply, it is entirely possible that I may have mis-stated things. It is also possible that I may have misunderstood things. In fact, it is unlikely that this is error proof. If you spot anything amiss, please do let me know. I stand ready to be corrected. Thanks for reading.

Things I Believe In

I wrote this in November 2011. Inspired by a TED lecture, I jotted down a list of things that I believe in, or to put it in another way, the way I look at things. I’ve revisited it several times over the years and now am comfortable with sharing. This has been on the What Ho! page but I haven’t drawn specific attention to it until now.

I’d recommend this exercise to everyone. Writing is not just therapeutic. It forces one to continuously examine the meaning of statements. It helps us understand the source of our deepest desires and fears – both of which are connected to each other, and in the process, I hope, will bring lasting joy to you.

Naturally, this ‘list’ continues to be work in progress.

Things I believe in.

1.  Everything is connected. There is an omnipresent, all pervasive spirit that binds the destiny of things, in this universe and any other universes that may exist. I call this spirit Para Brahman or simply ‘the Spirit.’

2.  My existence is a manifestation of a larger purpose that is being fulfilled, both with and without my consent and knowledge. My life is a piece of a bigger picture, which I am unable to see in its fullness at the moment. The purpose of my life is to remove that which is unnecessary so as to be able to get a direct glimpse of this richness. I call that which is unnecessary as Maya.

3.  Everything – animate and inanimate – possesses a singular ability to sense the connection to the larger picture. This springs from an indestructible essence of its being, that which I call the Atman or the Soul.

4.  I believe in the continuous exercise and introspection of the mind and its free will – so I can rid myself of both of them. I value opinions the way I value tents on a cold wintry night on a mountainside. They provide us protection against the elements so we can stay warm for a little while and get blood coursing through our veins. But, we should dare to and inevitably must venture out into the snowstorms so we can scale the peaks. I believe in accumulating wings and legs and that which will help me move in any way, but not in setting up camps and staying rooted inside tents.

5.  I have affinity for neither good nor bad, neither gods created by men nor men, neither virtuous nor evil, neither mine nor another, neither attachment nor detachment, or for any quality that has an opposite. Everything is relative. I will do my best to be good or bad, virtuous or evil, attached or detached and behave in ways – depending on what the situation calls for. I would like to practice disinterested observation in such matters for the purpose for comprehending what is not necessary, and for sensing the connection to the things around me. This practice I call Yoga.

6.  I have no expectations. Anything I or others do or anything that happens to me or other things keeps me moving, forward or backward or sideways, in the quest. I view this ‘anything I or others do or anything that happens to me or other things’ as the continuous flow of energy or Karma. It is the way of things. I accept it to be true.

7.  I do not desire ‘understanding’. Understanding gets in the way of experience. I am in search of experience and am willing to be led by where experience takes me and remain open to letting ‘understanding’ settle where it might.

8.  I have a yearning to see ‘the bigger picture’ in all its richness and glory. I can sense its presence behind the curtain. I know that I will see it. Only I do not know when. I believe that – as long as I have the yearning – I will not see it. But this yearning is what fuels my journey. I do not know how to resolve this conundrum. Perhaps I need to give up my quest in order to fulfill it.

9.  There is no life. There is no death. There is no time, nor will it run out. There is no race. There are no winners. There are no losers. There is no cause. There is no effect. There is only Karma – the continuous flow of energy. Everything changes from time to time as a result of Karma. Indeed, time is an illusion created by Karma. If there was no change, there would be no need to keep track of and measure ‘time’. At the ‘end’ when all Karma has ceased, we will all find ourselves united in the same place called whatever you may call it – heaven, hell or nothingness. And things will start all over again. That is the only destiny that I believe to be true, inevitable and unavoidable and one that fills me with wonder and awe. In this belief lies the true source of happiness or sat-chit-ananda.

10.  I believe in the universal well being of all things and will do what I can towards that end. I cannot change the world because I don’t know much about it. I don’t believe in morals. There are no moral absolutes which transcend space and time. While I may profess sympathy, my goal is empathy and to be able to look at the things around us from another’s perspective. I do not wish for powers to change another’s life or this world. I wish to divest myself of all powers, prejudices and agendas, so I can remove the curtain and see. To this end, I will construct and destroy my own situational moral compasses. I will neither judge nor foist my morphing and ephemeral moral standards on another.

11.  I do not have material evidence, the powers of persuasion, the intensity of purpose and the desire to convince another of my beliefs.  I am open to the possibility that all or some of my beliefs are wrong, and will remain open to influence.  I will do my utmost to exercise reason and intuition so I can sense the difference between what is expansive, profound and unknowable and that which is merely sophisticated, confining and complex. I call this sense my ‘consciousness’ or my ‘spiritual conscience’. This is the way I can deal with conflicts created in the mind.

If you’d like to stay in touch, you can join me on Twitter Follow @waatho

The Cosmic Calendar

If you watched the first episode of “Cosmos” [hosted by Neil DeGrasse Tyson on the National Geographic channel], then you will be familiar with the cosmic calendar which highlights the immensity of the cosmic time scale. Our universe was formed 13.8 billion years ago. If we shrank that down to fit one year, we get the cosmic calendar.

1 day in the cosmic calendar = approximately 40 million years. 1 month = 1 billion+ years.

If the Big Bang happened on the first day (January 1), then:

The universe expanded and cooled over the next 200 million years ( ~5 days).

It was dark until gravitational forces pulled together critical masses of hot gases to form the first stars.

Light flashed into being as the first stars began forming on January 10.

Stars began clustering to form galaxies, small and large.

Our galaxy, the Milky Way, was born on March 15. About eleven billion years ago.

Earth was born around September. Life on earth started around the same time.

Humans did not arise until December 31, the last day of the year.

Modern civilization has been around for only the last 14 seconds of the year.

Jesus Christ was born 5 seconds ago.

Columbus arrived in America 1 second ago.

India got her Independence from the British 0.145 second ago.

I was born 0.099 second ago and will likely will live for just another 0.065 second, give or take 0.005 second.

Every human we know of, who is part of documented history, lived in the last 14 seconds.

I can’t think of a more significant piece of information that shows our insignificance in the grand scheme of things.

Mind blowing perspective as we ponder our earthly problems.

Cosmic_Calendar

[Reference: Cosmic Calendar on National Geographic]

Zenlighten Up is about interestingness. I try to raise interesting questions about our lives and the world around us and the connection that may or not exist between the two.

Why is there something instead of nothing?

Why are there things? Why is there a universe? Why are there stars, planets, earth, moon, human beings, frogs and flowers? Why are there scientific laws? Why are there abstract things like time, space and distance? Why is there anything? Of all the possibilities, isn’t the simplest that of nothing?

Why is there something instead of nothing?

This question of why there is anything at all has baffled scientists and philosophers for a long while. There have been those who have dismissed this as either not important or unanswerable, saying that since we are already in the field of something, it is not possible to step outside of this field to view the answer. Philosophers, who Plato described as “friends of God, standing on the outside and looking in” disagree saying that the answers may lead us to understand the primordial nature of things and to the original cause itself.

There have been several attempts to pursue this simple yet deep mystery. From what I’ve read, all lines of approach start with asking ‘what in this universe is necessary or fundamental by nature? In other words, what came first without a necessity to exist and thus became the foundational reason(s) for everything else to be created and exist? These are defined as ‘necessary’ and ‘contingent’ entities.

The Scientific School of Thought

The atheistic or rather the scientific school of thought answers by postulating that the laws of the universe have always existed and are the reason that the universe manifested itself in the way it did. What are these laws? There are many laws of science we’re taught in school and college. There is the Ohm’s law. There are the Newton’s laws. And the laws of thermodynamics. Of all the laws, the most fundamental ones pertaining to matter are that of Standard Model, a set of equations which describe how quantum fields manifest themselves as fundamental particles such as quarks, gluons, leptons and the Higgs boson which interact to form matter as we know it. Why is the Standard Model the way it is? No one knows yet. Why is there just one Standard Model? Why is there even a Standard Model? We have now returned to our original question.

Truth be told, it is an extraordinary accomplishment of scientists that we even know that we have laws of nature. They have helped us peel a layer or two of the onion, if you will, in understanding the nature of things. What is more remarkable is that it is only in the recent past that we have accepted that there are such things as laws of nature. Not too long back, in the 13th century, an Islamic scholar, Al Ghazali, considered by historians to be the second most influential Muslim after Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) rejected the notion that there could be such things as natural laws because they would then “put God in chains.” The Christians in the Dark Ages were no different in their rejection of science.

To come back to the question, science holds forth that scientific laws came first and thus precipitated the formation of everything else.

The Judaeo-Christian-Islamic School of Thought

The Judeo-Christian-Islamic theological position supposes the ‘existence of God’ as necessary. That God is the original cause. That there is no logic that underlies the existence of God. For if such a logic were to exist, then such logic would then be superior to God himself. The religious argument insists that the existence of a Supreme Being with unlimited powers is non-negotiable and goes on to build their case from there onwards.

The Neo Platonists

The Greeks led by the Neo Platonists steered clear of science and religion in their explanation. They put forth the doctrine of “the Good” or “the One” which is beyond being. For Neo Platonists, the first principle of reality is an utterly simple and unknowable Quality of Things, a notion derived from the Republic, where Plato famously says that “the Good is beyond being in power and dignity.”

The Vedantic Approach

The “Hindus” of the Vedic era took the position that it is the abstract thought that is the reason to believe that there is something. Vedanta says that the world exists merely as a perception of the senses and made to appear real by thought processes of the mind. The origin of everything is explained as a single thought that arose in the mind of the Brahma who sustains his own existence and everything else by his thoughts and then expires as his thoughts subside into nothingness.

The Mathematician’s Approach

There is also the mathematical school of thought which says that the nature of probability dictates that all possibilities must exist. Which implies that there must be infinite variations of the universe including a version with nothing in it. And that the probability of finding ourselves in a universe with nothing in it is not just an oxymoron but also a near impossibility since one divided by a large number is a very tiny number approaching zero.

Thoughts to Ponder

Could there really be nothing? Even in the extreme case where we had this vast void or a gigantic vacuum if you will, there would be still be abstract notions like the distance between two points in that vacuum. Assuming, of course, abstract notions can exist in the absence of a mind which could create them in the first place. And if we took the position that everything is contingent and not necessary, it would be impossible to answer the question since the solution will require something that is necessary to formulate it. Which in turn makes the case that there indeed must have been an original cause; a necessity that precipitated all other things. Or maybe the question is simply meaningless, as some say it is. Or maybe it’s not.

We may never know the answer. Even if we did, it may not save us from death or assuage the griefs or heighten the joys of our day to day lives. Even so, we must view favorably these words of Einstein which he wrote in “The world as I know it.

The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science. Whoever does not know it and can no longer wonder, no longer marvel, is as good as dead, and his eyes are dimmed. A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, our perceptions of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which only in their most primitive forms are accessible to our minds: it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute true religiosity. In this sense, and only this sense, I am a deeply religious man. I am satisfied with the mystery of life’s eternity and with a knowledge, a sense, of the marvelous structure of existence – as well as the humble attempt to understand even a tiny portion of the Reason that manifests itself in nature.”

[Reference: An excellent video series on The Mystery of Existence]

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

I honestly can’t decide which is more fascinating: Robert Pirsig’s personality or his book “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.”

First about Pirsig. He was judged to have an IQ of 170 at age nine. He went to study at the University of Minneapolis at 15, but then dropped out to join the US army in 1946. He served in Korea before returning to the university to study philosophy. In later years, he said that he studied at Benares in India. There are many Pirsigs. The 15 year old who tried to connect with his college mates and failed. The Pirsig who was drawn to Buddhism in Korea and Vedantic thought in Benares. The manic professor who taught college freshmen ‘Metaphysics of Quality’ at University of Montana. The homicidal Pirsig who was confined to a mental institution and subjected to electric shock therapy. And the father who tried to bond with his son on a motorcycle trek and then had his heart broken by the “casual murder” of his son in San Francisco. Pirsig said that he was trying to live in truth when he wrote ZMM.

By the time ZMM came out in 1974, it had been edited down from 800,000 words and rejected by over 100 publishers. At the heart of it is the narration of a father trying to bond with his son Chris. According to Pirsig, it was a tragic book in many ways. In 1979, Chris was stabbed and killed in a mugging incident as he came out of the Zen Center in San Francisco. A later edition of ZMM carried a moving foreword by Pirsig about his son, “‘I think about him, have dreams about him, miss him still,’ he says. ‘He wasn’t a perfect kid, he did a lot of things wrong, but he was my son …”

ZMM is a strange book. And yet it is a wonderful book. One feels deprived of the 800,000 word original version by a worldly and uncomprehending editor. The book keeps you off balance and struggling to regain your poise as much as riding a motorcycle on a treacherous curve on a mountainous road would. It is a legendary search for an identity; of a soul in obsessive search of salvation.

Here are a few of ZMM and Pirsig quotes.

The truth knocks on the door and you say, “Go away, I’m looking for the truth,” and so it goes away. Puzzling.”

You are never dedicated to something you have complete confidence in. No one is fanatically shouting that the sun is going to rise tomorrow. They know it’s going to rise tomorrow. When people are fanatically dedicated to political or religious faiths or any other kinds of dogmas or goals, it’s always because these dogmas or goals are in doubt.”

For every fact there is an infinity of hypotheses.”

The real purpose of the scientific method is to make sure nature hasn’t misled you into thinking you know something you actually don’t know.”

We have artists with no scientific knowledge and scientists with no artistic knowledge and both with no spiritual sense of gravity at all, and the result is not just bad, it is ghastly.”

Traditional scientific method has always been, at the very best, 20-20 hindsight. It’s good for seeing where you’ve been. It’s good for testing the truth of what you think you know, but it can’t tell you where you ought to go.”

Do Scientists Pray?

Purpose is a human concept. By that, I mean purpose exists only in the human realm. The existential “purpose of my life” question is a man-made construct. An oxygen atom doesn’t wake up in the morning and wonder “what the future holds for it” or “how it can be a good atom today.” The earth bears its burdens unquestioningly. The sun shines without fear or favor. Lions hunt neither because they have to meet their quarterly goals nor to become “well adjusted” lions. We, insignificant carbon life forms on a beautiful but largely anonymous planet, have come to believe in this thing called purpose. Is the flow of a river its purpose? Standing majestically tall is not the purpose of a great mountain. They are the things that define them. What is the thing that defines us? Is there one thing that defines all of us? The answers can only be personal.

Yet, all the “purposeless” things in the universe appear to be bound by a common spirit. By a common spirit, I mean a unifying thread. A spirit, once you sense it, can lift you to the stars and galaxies and all those wonderful places without even having to transcend space. The Vedas refer to it as the Parabrahman. Some like to call it God.

It is perhaps this religiosity that Einstein spoke about when replying to a child who asked him, “Do scientists pray?” It’s a wonderful exchange between the master and a child and I’d like to share it here. [Source: Brain Pickings ]

Do Scientists Pray?

Letter from Phyllis, a sixth grader from New York.

The Riverside Church

January 19, 1936

My dear Dr. Einstein,

We have brought up the question: Do scientists pray? in our Sunday school class. It began by asking whether we could believe in both science and religion. We are writing to scientists and other important men, to try and have our own question answered. We will feel greatly honored if you will answer our question: Do scientists pray, and what do they pray for? We are in the sixth grade, Miss Ellis’s class.

Respectfully yours, Phyllis

Albert Einstein replied in just 5 days.

January 24, 1936

Dear Phyllis,

I will attempt to reply to your question as simply as I can. Here is my answer: Scientists believe that every occurrence, including the affairs of human beings, is due to the laws of nature. Therefore a scientist cannot be inclined to believe that the course of events can be influenced by prayer, that is, by a supernaturally manifested wish.

However, we must concede that our actual knowledge of these forces is imperfect, so that in the end the belief in the existence of a final, ultimate spirit rests on a kind of faith. Such belief remains widespread even with the current achievements in science.

But also, everyone who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that some spirit is manifest in the laws of the universe, one that is vastly superior to that of man. In this way the pursuit of science leads to a religious feeling of a special sort, which is surely quite different from the religiosity of someone more naive.

With cordial greetings, your A. Einstein

Falling In Love With India

I recall reading Plato’s Republic in 1996. At that time, I was living and working in the US. In the book, Socrates asks what Justice is and Polemarchus responds by defining it as “helping your friends and harming your enemies.” Indeed, it was the accepted opinion among the ancient Greeks (and many societies which followed them) that the morally right thing to do was to favor the “insiders.” And Socrates responds to Polemarchus by questioning the exclusivism of his moral position. Thus was launched a debate over the morality of patriotism and nationalism that reverberated through Europe over centuries. Nearly two thousand years later, Kant and others concluded that morality could not be confined to narrow dimensions of ‘me, mine, my family, my city or my nation’ and extended it to include humankind as a whole.

IS PATRIOTISM MORALLY JUST?

I recall pondering, as an immigrant in a foreign land, the notion of patriotism. What logic lay in blind loyalty to a nation, whose citizenship you hold only because of a random act of nature? Or did it make sense to be patriotic to a nation which welcomes you as a citizen after having examined what you had to offer? Have nations done enough to deserve our loyalty? Wasn’t cosmopolitanism, a notion first espoused by Diogenes who declared himself a citizen of the world, more morally acceptable than patriotism? Wasn’t patriotism at odds with a just, moral view of the world?

THE SLIPPERY SLOPE OF MORALITY

Should one country succeed at the expense of another? What makes anyone believe that they are “the chosen ones”? There are no easy answers. Suppose, for example, the Prime Minister of India when faced with the choice of securing Indian access to oil in Iran versus the choice of withdrawing to allow Chinese access to those reserves, decides (rather disinterestedly and morally) on the latter because it would lead to greater overall good of mankind. While morally laudable, it may, by no stretch of imagination, be construed as rightful discharge of his duties as a leader of a nation. Morality can be a slippery slope.

FALLING IN LOVE WITH INDIA

To this day, I haven’t yet resolved the conflict which Plato created in my mind. I am rather enamored by a universal humanism in which I choose not to belong to just one nation or people. I believe in John Lennon’s secular humanism that believes that all humans are equal and share the same aspirations, fears and hopes regardless of our histories and geographies. At the same time, I have a hard time holding back tears when the words “Hey Ram” stream into my consciousness and evoke my pride in having come from a society which brought about a man who Einstein described as “generations to come will scarce believe that such a man as this one ever in flesh and blood walked upon this Earth.

I have interrogated myself often and at length on why I fell in love with India. And I have come to believe that I love India not because I was born on her soil but because there’s something touching and deeply inspiring about the way she’s tolerant and merciful of the human condition with all its frailties and foibles. It is a country that that will lift you from a low to a high that will amaze you. Never mind that it pushed you into the low in the first place. After all, you need to truly understand pain before you can enjoy pleasure. There is no question that she will provide you with an adequate supply of both. If there’s one place on earth which has willingly embraced everything, it is India. If there is a place on earth that will teach you humility and awaken your soul, it is India. May she prosper and shine and provide comfort to all other nations and peoples.

Take your time to examine your beliefs. Find yourself before you fall in love with India. And when you do so, I will guarantee you that it will be a love of a lifetime.

Happy Independence Day (in advance)! God bless India. God bless us all.

Is there a formula for a good life?

Is there a formula for a good life? Are there secret ingredients like some sort of a magical mix of love, work and social connections?

THE GRANT STUDY

A Harvard study set out to find answers to this question in 1937. Called the Grant Study (named after its patron), it is one of the most comprehensive research efforts put into studying the human condition. It was a complex, longitudinal study that examined two vastly different cohorts.

The first cohort had 237 Harvard college sophomores from the classes of 1939-44 and the second cohort had 332 socially disadvantaged, inner city youths who grew up in Boston between 1940 and 1945. The subjects were all male, white and of American nationality. The men were followed until they reached the ages of 70 years for the inner-city group and 80 years for the Harvard cohort.

The men were evaluated every two years by questionnaires, information from their physicians and in many cases through detailed personal interviews. Information was gathered about their mental and physical health, career enjoyment, retirement experience and marital quality.

The goal of the study was to identify predictors of healthy aging. Healthy aging was defined to include both physical and mental health.

THE STUDY’S CONCLUSIONS

Its results have been compiled in two books by George Vaillant, who led the study from 1966. Vaillant identified major factors that predict healthy aging as education, stable marriage, not smoking, not abusing alcohol, some exercise and reasonably healthy weight.

What factors didn’t matter? Cholesterol levels at age 50 had nothing to do with healthy aging. “There is an age to worry about cholesterol and there is an age to not worry about it,” he said. The predictive importance of childhood temperament diminished over time. Shy and anxious kids tended to do poorly in young adulthood. But by age 70, they turned out just as likely as the outgoing kids to be “happy-well.” There were a few subtle surprises as well. For example, regular exercise in college years ended up being a bigger predictor of late-life mental health than physical health.

THE FORMULA FOR A GOOD LIFE

After four decades of painstaking and meticulous research, Vaillant put his finger on two factors which predicted a good life.

A LOVING CHILDHOOD

The study said, “We found that contentment in the late seventies was not even suggestively associated with parental social class or even the man’s own income. What it was significantly associated with was warmth of childhood environment, and it was very significantly associated with a man’s closeness to his father.

Hug your children often. It will make a difference long after you’ve ceased to exist.

RELATIONSHIPS

Interestingly, the study revealed that it was not about the size of the social network. The benefit of relationships came from helping others. Those who cared for others tended to live longer. Good sibling relationships seemed to play a powerful role. 93 percent of the men thriving at age 65 had been close to a brother or sister when younger.

The study asked, “Is there someone in your life whom you would feel comfortable phoning at four in the morning to tell your troubles to?” Those who answered ‘Yes’ lived longer than those whose said ‘No’. The master strength, according to Vaillant, was the capacity to be loved.

It concluded, “It is social aptitude, not intellectual brilliance or parental social class, which leads to successful aging.”

In a 2008 interview, Vaillant was asked what he had learned from the Grant Study men. And he said, “The only thing that really matters in life are your relationships with other people.”

Hope you enjoyed this food for thought. Happy journeys! Stay blessed.


Here are a few links if you want to read more.

About George Vaillant: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Eman_Vaillant

About the Grant Study: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grant_Study

A comprehensive article from The Atlantic about The Grant Study: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2009/06/what-makes-us-happy/307439/


Extroverts vs introverts

Our lives are shaped as much by our personalities as they are by our genders, ethnic origin and other demographic factors. Introversion and extroversion are the north and the south of temperaments. According to studies, one third to a half of all people are introverts, which is pretty amazing considering how few people would admit to being one. There’s a pretty good chance that you’re either married to or a parent of or a sibling of an introvert.

An extroversion bias

Yet the world seems overcome by its preference for extroversion. We are told that – to be great, we must be outspoken. And that – to be happy, we must be sociable. Extroverts are perceived as positive and energetic. Introverts, in contrast, are often berated for ‘being in their heads too much’ and perceived as slow, dimwitted or boring. Introversion at times is even considered a problem in need of fixing. Parents constantly apologize for their child’s shyness. Why? When was the last time you saw a report card which praised a child for her thoughtful demeanor? Why are we always trying to pull people out of their shells? Let’s face it. Our schools and workplaces are designed for extroverts. Why is everyone being subjected to the oppression of the extrovert ideal? Why can’t we let people be who they are?

The difference between extroverts and introverts

How is an extrovert different from an introvert? According to Susan Cain, author of ‘The power of introverts’ ( target=”_blank”>TED video), the difference lies in the need for external stimulus. Extroverts actively seek stimulus, while introverts do not enjoy over-stimulation. This difference reflects in how they go about work and social interactions. Extroverts typically seek to dominate, are good at multitasking and require constant social interaction. They tend to think out loud and prefer to talk than listen. Extroverts are energized by socializing. Introverts in contrast tend to be slow and deliberate. They usually have great powers of concentration and prefer to work on one task at a time. Although they might enjoy social interactions, they tend to wish that they were at home reading a book. They prefer to hang out with a small group of close friends, prefer to listen than speak. They typically avoid conflicts, but enjoy deep discussions with with trusted friends. Introverts are energized when they are alone or in small groups.

Introversion not the same as shyness

Contrary to perception, introversion is not the same as shyness. Shyness is the fear of social disapproval while introversion is the aversion to over-stimulation. The two get easily mixed up because they  often overlap. Often, shy people tend to turn inwards and away from the world and become introverted. And at times, introverted people tend to become shy, because they are worried that the world may view their self-reflection unfavorably. There are shy extroverts who may be afraid to speak up in meetings, and there are calm introverts who prefer to maintain silence in an overstimulated environment. Of course, there is no such thing as a pure extrovert or a pure introvert. We humans are complex hybrids and tend to lie at different points on the spectrum. All we have to do is to look around to find an amazing and mind boggling array of human temperaments around us.

In praise of introverts

We all love extroverts. They are the souls of parties. They entertain us and laugh at our jokes. But let’s not forget the introvert in the din. There is something to be said for introversion –  a way that values introspection over quick judgement and calmness over frenzied speculation. One of the world’s most famous extroverts was Steve Jobs, a man who loved the stage and the adulation it brought to him. Let’s not forget that Jobs did not invent the Apple computer. It was Steve Wozniak, an introvert who toiled all by himself in a cubicle at Hewlett Packard, working outside office hours to make it happen. It was the extrovert Steve who came up and said, “Hey, this looks cool. Let’s go sell it.” The two combined to change our world in ways they never anticipated when they started out.

The world needs both, for they are its yin and yang. And harmony requires balance. So here’s to the introverts, the square pegs in the round holes of today’s society. May (y)our tribe prosper.

The Beauty in Uncertainty

Life is uncertain. As we grow, we learn that stories don’t always have happy endings. We see that poems don’t always rhyme. We are distressed to see that good does not always win over the bad. We find that truth is not always dressed in black or white. We begin to see shades of grey and so we adjust our sensibilities and beliefs. We sense degrees of uncertainty in events that transpire around us. We become uncomfortable and so we embark on a quest to seize control.

In the quest, we try to force happy endings onto tales that cannot be salvaged. We don’t notice or even deride beauty when it does not conform to our sensibilities. We look for patterns amid the disorder and we interpret them in a manner as to reinforce our biases. We mix effects with causes. We try to re-order chaos to make our lives more predictable. We constantly intervene. Sometimes we succeed. That makes us happy. Sometimes we fail. That makes us miserable. So we go on.

There are two fundamental problems with the way we view uncertainty.

  1. Our brains are not wired to comprehend uncertainty.
  2. There is nothing you can do about uncertainty.

The wiring of our brains

The first problem has to do with the way our brains have evolved. In biological terms, evolution is a process which promotes certain traits disproportionately to others. Human evolution, it appears, has promoted the ability to leap to conclusions over the ability to make carefully thought out analytical decisions. This explains why a fast thinking college quarterback or dashing batsman is more popular than a slow thinking chess club geek.

Example: Imagine (a 100,000 years ago) a cave man running into a saber toothed tiger on one of his daily hunts. As you’d imagine, his choices were to either fight or flee. If you think about it, he also had the option of whipping out his NCERT designed maths text book and calculating the odds of an average 20 year old Homo Sapiens male becoming fodder for a wild canine. It turns out that (not surprisingly) that evolution rewarded those who leaped to the swift and plausible conclusion that flight was the prudent course of action. Those paused to analyze and failed to take quick action were weeded out. Thanks to the momentum of evolution, this tendency to leap to quick conclusions persists to this day even in the absence of the threat of encountering sharp toothed felines on daily morning walks.

This is how our brains came to be wired. We are not good at understanding the concepts of chance and probability. Our brains don’t naturally construct normal distributions and assign confidence levels for events. At least, not in normal course of action. If you think back about the struggles with probability and statistics courses in school and college, I’m sure you’d agree.

What can we do about uncertainty?

The first coping mechanism was a belief in an entity called God, who is all-knowing and orchestrates the events of our lives. Pretty soon, salesmen claimed privileged access to God and added extraordinary tales of His powers and especially about His ruthlessness when it came to dealing with disbelievers. These middlemen are possibly ones who understood the nature of uncertainty (that you could do nothing about it) better than most, and exploited this arbitrage to their benefit.

And then came scientific determinism in Europe more than a thousand years after Aristotle spoke of it. Science began explaining events which would normally be interpreted as acts of God. Science began explaining nature in ways that undermined religious middlemen. Scientists began curing people. They made people fly in the skies. They explained why the planets moved the way they did and why stars twinkled. The moon was not made of cheese, they said. Scientists began displaying powers normally attributable to Gods. And it is possible that scientists began believing that they were Gods themselves.

Something happened in 1927 which rocked the world of science. The scientific community which comprised confident men and women who believed that someday they would explain (and thus control) EVERYTHING were told that the creation was not as explainable and controllable as they believed it to be. They were told that, at the subterranean depths of nature where particles smaller than atoms exist, there was great uncertainty. Quantum mechanics described the fundamental aspect of nature as probabilistic (one of many possible outcomes) and not deterministic (a cause leads to a predictable effect) as Newton and Einstein had led them to believe. Wisp like particles with no mass interact in unpredictable ways to produce blocks called atoms and molecules which in turn combine to produce concrete things with mass (like babies, stars, flowers, bees, chairs, etc) which then interact with each other according to deterministic laws, thus creating an illusion of an orderly creation. Some like Einstein never came to terms with this notion of uncertainty. “God,” he complained, “does not play dice with the universe.”

In other words, if you were given a 300 qubit quantum computer capable of processing every single microscopic piece of data from the beginning of time and then were somehow able to construct a model that explained EVERYTHING till date, you would still not be able to predict what would happen the very next nanosecond because even nature does not know what she is going to do next.

To say that the only thing certain about uncertainty is that you can do nothing about it is a conundrum unto itself.

The beauty in uncertainty

Whether you choose to confide in God about your deepest hopes and fears, or to place your faith in text books and armies of scientists who toil unsung in far away laboratories, or to unconditionally embrace the uncertainty in this creation is your decision. However, there is something to be said about the beauty inherent in uncertainty. This beauty becomes pronounced and magical when we view it from a position that is separated from the self.

Happiness comes from simply listening to the music and swaying with your eyes closed without having to torment yourself about why and how the notes came to be composed. The greatest of joys sometimes does not always come from knowledge or discovery. It comes from the simple act of surrendering to the experience.

Maha Kumbh Mela: Part 2

Here’s the link to part 1 of the Maha Kumbh Mela series if you want to read it first > Part 1

Day 3

When we set out for Ram Janma Bhoomi, I don’t think we knew quite what to expect. It’s fair to say that we were surprised, even stunned by what we saw. Before I get to that, here are a few of my thoughts as context, related to the questions of “Did Sri Ram exist? Who built the mosque? Was it built by destroying a temple which stood at that site?”

Did Sri Ram exist?

Believe it or not, this question crops up every once in a while. At the root of it is the argument that Sri Ram is a mythological figure, and that there is no historical proof that he existed. And by extension, the question of things such as birthplace, etc. is void. This is a slippery slope. If we go down this path, we’ll have to tear down every temple, church and mosque in this land and convert them into strip malls. I don’t think that any reasonable person disputes the value brought by the Puranas to the Hindus or by the Quran to the Muslims.

The question of if God exists or incarnated on earth is out of bounds to all except the believers. We must respect belief and put this question aside.

Who built the mosque?

I haven’t yet read Babar Nama, the diary of Babar. Who better than Babar himself to hear from? Apparently the pages from the relevant period of Babar’s life have gone missing from the diary, and the rest has no reference to Babri Masjid. Also, there does not seem to be definitive proof that Babar had the mosque built. There are accounts of Aurangazeb having done it. The accepted version seems to be that Mir Bakshi Khan, one of Babar’s underlings, built the mosque on his boss’s orders. In any case, there seems to be no dispute that the Babri mosque was built by the Mughals, though architecturally it pre-dates the Indo-Islamic style which came into vogue during Akbar’s era.

The answer to who built the mosque is irrelevant to the dispute. Let’s ignore it.

Was the mosque built by destroying a temple which stood at that very site?

This is the central, unavoidable question of the dispute. Naturally, there have been frenzied attempts by several camps to prove things one way or the other. If interested, you should read up on this. There’s plenty of information available on the internet and in books.

We live in a country where it is hard to prove your own birth place if you should need to. Something tells me that we’re going to have a hard time proving Sri Ram’s birth place. To arrive at a sensible solution, there’s no point in trying to decipher specific details of what happened in 1528. The only approach can be to look at patterns and trends instead. In other words, if we don’t have reliable eye witnesses, we must look at circumstantial evidence.

It was standard modus operandi for Mughal rulers to demolish temples and build mosques at sites which Hindus considered sacred (Kashi, Mathura, etc.). Speaking as a student of history and an objective observer, this fits the pattern of an aggressive new conqueror attempting to stamp his authority and power by replacing ‘your God with mine.’ The Ottoman Turks converted the Parthenon in Athens into a mosque until they lost control of the city. This has happened pretty much in every part of the world where there have been conquerors and vanquished. The temples of the gods of the vanquished have always been collateral damage. One of the first things a conqueror must establish is fear. And the best way to create fear is destroy the temples of the Gods of the defeated, and demonstrating courage by inviting punishment for the sin. There is nothing right or wrong about this. It’s just the way things once were.

I’m pretty sure that no one is going to fall out of their chairs in surprise if it is somehow conclusively proved that the same approach was taken by Babar in Ayodhya as well. If it looks like a duck and walks like a duck, it must be a duck; even if the duck was born in 1528.

Ram Janma Bhoomi

Coming back to our trip, I mentioned our surprise and shock. We live in a world where it has become commonplace to conduct our religious business while under the supervision of armed forces. We expected heavy security. That was not a surprise. There was a failed attempt in 2005 by terrorists to breach the wall here. So, in a sense, I appreciate the extra vigilance that is being maintained in Ayodhya. That we were body checked a half dozen times seemed a tad excessive. There are snipers in watch towers watching us as we walk through what I can only describe as crude metal cages, which are frankly claustrophobic and a public safety disaster in the making. I wouldn’t fancy anyone’s chances of getting out of these cages alive if there were to be, say a fire or a stampede. I wish we did better. Surely pilgrims deserve to be treated better than being herded like Holocaust victims in a concentration camp. I exaggerate not.

After about an hour of queuing through the cages, we finally caught a short glimpse of Sri Ramachandra Murthy, who has been graciously accommodated inside an Army tent. The story of Sri Ram and Sita-ji is about upholding dharma and dignity in the face of trials and tribulations. Perhaps it is fitting that their devotees have to undergo the test too.

My take

Are courts designed to resolve religious disputes?

The current approach of placing such a monumentally emotional decision in the hands of the courts is flawed. Courts are good at making binary decisions when there is reasonably solid evidence (or lack thereof). Courts are meant to enforce the laws of the land. They are good at interpreting rules, not creating them. They are not designed to make subjective judgements and interpret history. Courts don’t work well when it comes to arbitrating emotional issues or deciding relative merits. Plus, it’s not fair to place the burden of such a decision, and potential security hazards such a decision may bring about, on the shoulders of a handful of judges. Fear for personal safety may delay or distort decisions. It’s time to disengage this issue from the judiciary.

A group of villagers listening in rapt attention to a bhajan in Ayodhya
A group of villagers listening in rapt attention to bhajans at a store in Ayodhya

Or should this be a decision of the nation’s collective conscience?

The Ram Mandir decision is one that has to be driven by the collective conscience of the Indian people. And the people who represent the public and thus its conscience are unfortunately our MPs. We have no other choice but to force them to get involved. There ought to be an attempt to construct a multi-party bill and take it through the Houses, which is then voted upon by our representatives. While I’m all for keeping the affairs of the state separate from affairs of religion, I must admit that the train has left the station, with the matter already in courts which effectively are government bodies. If a resolution were to be drafted and made to go through the Houses, it would be interesting to see how our representatives vote on the issue. It will give us a sense for how much they are in touch with those they claim to represent. It will give us an idea of how fair and balanced we are as a nation. Our best option to arrive at a sustainable solution may only be a legislative one.

The ball has been set rolling. Where will it stop?

There is a beautiful part of Kambar Ramayanam in which the Tamil poet describes how ‘all the sins of Raavana over the centuries accumulated and manifested as a single white hair on King Dasaratha’s mane.’ Upon seeing the white strand, the long reigning king realized that the time had come to hand over the throne to Sri Rama, thus triggering the sequence of events which eventually led to Raavana’s demise.

Similarly, the sins of the Congress party over several decades may have manifested themselves in the form of the alimony petition brought forth by Shah Bano in 1985, which was then upheld by the Supreme Court. The ensuing protest by Muslim conservatives led Rajiv Gandhi to amend the constitution to effectively limit the powers of a secular judiciary from delivering judgments in conflict with Muslim personal law. The amendment created yet another backlash, this time by the Hindus. A ‘balancing’ appeasement measure led to the opening of the mandir at Ayodhya, which had been under lock and key for a good part of 200 years. The ball which was set rolling by Shah Bano in 1985 may well lead to the eventual end of the 125+ year old Indian National Congress as we know it.

As Chairman Mao famously replied when asked what he thought of the French revolution, “Let’s wait and see.”

Do share your thoughts. I remain open to insights, counter viewpoints and new information as always. Please note: Comments denigrating or mocking religions, religious heads or beliefs will be deleted.

Maha Kumbh Mela: Part 1

Would you take the trouble of going to a place where lakhs of people gather and jostle for limited space and other resources, and incur obvious health risks posed by such an environment?

A bunch of us did. And this is my account of that.

Why?

It’s hard to explain why we chose to go to the Kumbh Mela. It’s one of those things which, once you allow it to seize your imagination, will not allow any negativity to be associated with it. We were a group of five college classmates used to travelling together. We made the decision in January to go, and we never had a second thought about it.

A lot of people go to Prayag to celebrate the Kumbh Mela. They go for many reasons. There are the millions of pilgrims, who come with belief and hope of absolution. There are saints and ascetics who descend from the mountains to renew their vows. There are the onlookers intrigued by the notion of belief and fascinated by the spectacle that is the Kumbh. I think we started as onlookers and crossed over into the zone of hope by the time we left. The way it turned out, we kept aside our cameras, mobile phones and facebook and twitter accounts for the most part and allowed the sensory experience to take over. There is something liberating about just seeing something as it transpires, and not being burdened with having to capture it anywhere but in your memory.

The Plan

We executed on a straightforward plan. We flew into Lucknow and drove to Allahabad. And with Allahabad as the base, we made round trips to Varanasi and Ram Janma Bhoomi on two separate days. The third day (Maha Shivaratri) we spent with Ganga-ji and Jamuna-ji at the Triveni Sangam in Prayag. I’m glad to say that things went without a hitch.

I’ve divided the account into three portions covering our experiences in Varanasi, Ayodhya and at the Maha Kumbh Mela in Prayag.

Disclaimer: This was my first time travelling in Uttar Pradesh. For those of you familiar with that part of the country, my observations may seem trite. Apologies in advance.

Part 1: Varanasi

Day 1: Impressions of Lucknow-Allahabad

The first thing that strikes me on landing in Lucknow was – this could not be Lucknow! The Charan Singh airport is pretty nicely done. No paan stains in corners. And when you come outside, there aren’t any unruly mobs or vehicles like a typical Indian airport. Shame on me for having these images of Uttar Pradesh being filled with dark caves, and Neanderthals roaming around with clubs over their shoulders. The roads are magnificent! Lucknow appears better than Bangalore or even Chennai, at first glance. Mayawati gets credit for this, we were told. Of course, we were just driving out of the city through the cantonment area and had not yet gone into the city. We did eventually go into Lucknow on our final day, which altered the impression slightly towards being like any other town in India. But the positive impressions linger.

The drive to Allahabad (pronounced I-laha-bad by locals) took us a little over 5 hours. We took the longer route via Kanpur, which seems to resemble an industrial and less attractive cousin of Lucknow. Traversing the roads tells you that you’re in UP, where casually driving on the wrong side of the road seems as normal as ambling to a corner dukaan for a chai. Vehicles, broken down or not, can occasionally be found parked on the fast lanes of major highways. If you can’t handle this sort of thing, I guess you’re just not cut out for the Darwinian jungles which are this state’s highways.

Upon arrival in Allahabad, we checked into the neatly maintained, friendly looking Chinmaya Mission ashram, which is about 10km away from Prayag. Awesome rotis and hot daal later, we turned in for the night. The town is empty. There is no sign of a Maha Kumbh mela here. Although this could change on Shivaratri, I can’t say we’re complaining about the lack of crowds yet.

Day 2: Varanasi, the timeless city.

Today was a day in which things didn’t go per plan, and yet everything turned out brilliantly.

First, we get off to a later start than planned. En route, we take a detour to Sita Marhi, where the consort of Sri Rama was embraced by mother earth. And by the time we reach Varanasi, it is late afternoon.

As we drive through Varanasi, the mind fills with images of how it must have once been. Legend has it that Varanasi is the site of the first Jyotir Lingam. A place where Lord Shiva appeared as a pillar of fire stretching between the earth and the sky. The mystical significance of Varanasi was established even before Ganga-ji had an opportunity to appear here. One of the holiest towns in the land lying on one of the greatest rivers in the world, Varanasi was also an important trading destination. It was ruled by eminent kings and filled with prosperous merchants who patronized art and intellect. Imagine standing in the bazaars of Varanasi two thousand years ago. They were filled with the foreign tongues of adventurous Greeks, Parthians and Scythians who would come from Mathura and then travel eastwards along Ganga-ji to the famed Pataliputra.

On the dip in Ganga-ji, what can I say about a simple act of contrition other that you feel its momentous nature only when you immerse yourself into the mother of rivers and engage in the experience. I don’t know if a dip in the Ganges washes your karma away. But watching everyone there, you get the sense that surrendering to Ganga-ji is about asking for a second chance and about renewal of faith in a power higher than the self. And the Lord knows we could all use some faith and a second chance.

Gangaji at Varanasi

We must have stood in line for over a couple of hours before we got to glimpse Kashi Vishwanath-ji for the briefest of a minute. As you enter the temple through its heavily guarded entrance which lies below the ground level and walk past multiple checkpoints with diligent soldiers with rifles who frisk you repeatedly, that’s when you begin to grasp the sacred significance of the reigning deity of the second oldest city in the world, whose name fittingly means ‘the lord of the universe.’

The Kashi Vishwanath temple structure has been destroyed by invaders and rebuilt many times. Mohammad Ghori, Qutb-ud-din Aibak and Firoz Shah Tughlaq were the early invaders. Akbar rebuilt the temple (through his minister Todarmal) which was destroyed yet again by Aurangazeb, who built the Gyanvapi mosque in its place. Ahilya Bhai Holkar, the Maratha queen, rebuilt the temple which stands today. The reign of Aurangazeb lasted 49 years, the reverberations of which have been felt over hundreds of years. The Gyanvapi mosque stands vacant today, a mute testimony to the misguided emperor’s failed attempt to erase a way of life in a city, both of which have an insurmountable, timeless nature to them. I have more to say about this in the context of Ayodhya and Ram Janma Bhoomi, to be covered in Part 2.

Coming soon: Part 2 – Ram Janma Bhoomi.

Plausibility and Probability

I must have read hundreds of books over the years, many of which have been great. Of those I’ve read, I can point to two books which fundamentally and almost instantaneously transformed my views on life, love and happiness. They are (in no particular order)

  1. Life after Death by Deepak Chopra
  2. The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins

Now, there’s a third one. “Thinking, Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman. Prof. Kahneman teaches at Princeton these days. He’s a Nobel winner in Economics, and has done path breaking work over the last four decades in understanding the psychology behind how our minds process information. He’s truly a treasure.

I’d like to share some nuggets from the book over a few posts. If you like this sort of thing, you should get the book and check it out for yourself.

Background: Prof. Kahneman breaks the working of the mind into System 1, which processes data, reflexively forms patterns and draws conclusions, and System 2, which applies logical rules to examine the soundness of drawn conclusions. One of his assertions, borne out from his studies, is that System 1 is hyper-active, and System 2 is extraordinarily lazy.

Plausibility and Probability

One of the things we humans often do is to mix plausibility with probability. To understand this, Prof. Kahneman and his colleagues designed what is now famously called ‘the Linda problem’. Consider the description of a fictitious Linda below.

Linda is thirty one years old, single, outspoken and very bright. She majored in philosophy. As a student, she was deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice, and also participated in anti-nuclear demonstrations.

After reading Linda’s profile, respondents in studies were asked a simple question: Which of the following is a more probable alternative?

  1. Linda is a bank teller.
  2. Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement.

The correct answer is the first. Think Venn diagrams. The circle with ‘feminist bank tellers’ is wholly included in the circle of all bank tellers. Therefore, the probability of Linda being just a bank teller is higher than the probability of her being a bank teller AND a feminist. The more specific you are about an event, the lower are the chances of its occurrence.

Here’s the fascinating part. In the survey, 89% of undergraduate students at top ranked American universities picked option 2. When they administered the test to doctoral students at Stanford Business School, all of whom had taken advanced courses in decision sciences and probability, they got a similar result! 85% chose option 2. A majority of really smart people violated the most fundamental rule of probability. They chose the more plausible but less probable event over the other.

What (the system 1 of) our mind does is to jump to the most plausible or coherent conclusion. It does not consider the likelihood of the conclusion. The mind substitutes likelihood with representative-ness of the event. This is how we make errors in judgment that can have far reaching impact on society at large.

This is not to say that plausibility is unimportant and should be ignored. It has its benefits. Plausibility, for example, is the basis for profiling at US airports. Resistance to these methods may be a laudable moral position, but also a rather simplistic one. If your name is Shah Rukh Khan and there’s a known terror suspect out there of a similar age with the same name, chances are pretty high that you’re going to be detained at the airport. Such predictive techniques are based on pattern matching, where the preference is to form a quick conclusion and investigate at leisure. As long as such methods are not manipulated but implemented fairly, they will lead to benefits for the society even if it means costs for the impacted few.

People who are taught new statistical facts about human behavior are often impressed to the point where they will tell their friends about what they heard. This does not mean that their world view has changed. Learning is about applying lessons to our own experiences, and not about repetition of facts. The test of learning lies in whether our understanding of experiences (and how we live) has changed .

In the words of the good professor himself, “changing one’s mind about human nature is hard work. Changing one’s mind for the worse about oneself is even harder.”

The Trolley Problem

There’s a famous philosophical dilemma called the ‘trolley problem.’ In this hypothetical scenario, there’s an out of control train on a track that is being repaired by five workers. You’re given just a second or two to decide if you want to to flip a switch and divert the train onto a second track. The dilemma is that there is a worker on the second track who will be killed if you flip the switch.

The opposing philosophies which apply here are ‘utilitarian’ – overall good of many, and ‘thou shalt not harm’ – leave it to a higher authority, and don’t consciously kill another person.

Studies have shown that 90 percent of people opted to kill one worker to save five when presented with this dilemma. The studies were then repeated with a twist. Subjects now wore virtual reality gear which projected an avatar of the worker. Surprisingly, 90 percent of people still opted to flip the switch and kill the lone worker even though they could now see their ‘victim.’ There was no change in the results.

Here comes the interesting part. When subjects were told that they had to physically push the worker and kill him instead of flipping a switch to save the other five, only 50 percent opted to kill him. And here’s the kicker. When people were told that the worker on the second track was either their spouse, sibling or parent, only one-third opted to save the five workers.

What can we infer? That evolution has selected a majority of those who will make split second decisions to kill another? That we don’t like to get our hands dirty? That we’re selfish and will sacrifice others in order to save our own? That there are powerful evolutionary forces which propel us into horrific acts when it is a matter of survival?

Are we condemned to always play out our Darwinian impulses? Will our humanity always beat out the divinity in us? That’s not a cheerful picture, if true.

What’s your take?

Why I Don’t Watch Television News

I stopped watching news on TV more than five years ago. I’ve tuned in only on rare occasions, like during elections or recently when the India Gate protests raged. I can count the number of these occasions. By and large, I’d rather have root canal surgery than watch television news. Here’s why.

The media plays at least 3 roles in a democratic society.

1. To inform.

It’s the job of the media to keep us informed of the facts. To be perfectly honest, I don’t watch TV to find out what Rajdeep Sardesai’s or Barkha Dutt’s opinions are. I could definitely do without Arnab Goswami’s histrionics. None of these “anchors” have expert training in economics or public policy or defense or anything else for that matter. They are (I believe) trained journalists and were hired to play the role of skilled interviewers. I’d prefer if they kept their opinions to themselves. I’d like them to tell me the facts, please. Then, I’d like to hear what experts have to say on the matter. And by experts, I don’t mean mouthpieces of political parties or former editors of semi-porn magazines or activist Bollywood actors or self-styled marketing gurus. There are smart people out there who’ve invested their time and careers in analyzing social issues, running businesses and researching and implementing policy matters. Go find them. Bring them on air. Allow us to hear what they have to say, even if they conflict with your opinions.

News anchors should be good at what they are supposed to be good at. If you talk more than your panelists, it means you’re not a skilled interviewer. If your show turns into a free for all among the panelists within a few minutes into the show, it means that you are an embarrassment to your profession.

2. To investigate

Media organizations are the watchdogs of a democratic society. They are our conscience keepers. It’s their job to find where the fire is burning when they see smoke. It’s their job to separate fact from fiction and help us tell a real scam from a smear job. We live in a complex world with complex issues. We want someone to tell us what’s going on so we can make up our minds about it. We are looking for someone to trust. Not someone who makes us live in perpetual anxiety.

It’s not really important to me as to who broke the story. What’s important is that the truth does not get bent in the process. I find our media stunningly incompetent on two counts. 1. They are not the ones to break stories. Stories get handed to them on silver platters. 2. And when they are handed stories, they make no effort to uncover details. In fact, they go through great trouble to obfuscate matters.

The last time we saw high quality investigative journalism in India was in the late 1980’s when the Hindu broke the Bofors story.

3. To build consensus

The media plays a critical role in building public consensus on matters of national importance. It’s not an easy job to take on emotional issues and steer the public towards thinking objectively about them. It’s a lot of hard work to assemble facts about an issue and to paint a clear picture. Instead, we have television channels which take the lazy route by fanning flames and obscuring facts that they end up doing incalculable long term harm to the country. The cornerstone of a democracy is the ability to engage in public discourse. If we don’t get this right, our democracy will fail.

Thomas Jefferson, one of the founding fathers of the United States said, “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” Unfortunately for us in India, we seem to have neither a functioning government nor media.

I’m pretty sure that by now you can understand why I don’t watch television news any more. I’m amazed that anyone watches it at all. Is a little competency and integrity too much to ask for?

India’s approach to Pakistan is messed up.

I think India’s approach to Pakistan is messed up. Here’s why.

Pakistan is not our equal.

Not economically. Not in population size. And certainly not in the way they conduct affairs of the state. Pakistan now stands teetering at the edge of a precipice. India, on the other hand, has a much brighter future notwithstanding our many flaws. They should not be treated as an equal. If you can believe me, I don’t mean this in a dismissive, contemptuous way. I mean it as a matter of fact. A junior minister of state in external affairs should be deputed to engage with their foreign minister. Our external affairs minister should engage directly with their President, and none less. Our Prime Minister and the Leader of Opposition should not comment publicly on or engage with anyone from that country.

I support the position of our Prime Minister when he recently remarked that the recent provocations from Pakistan deserve no more than a tactical response, that we should not indulge in jingoism, and that the matter of how we deter the Pakistani army is best left to professionals in the Indian Army. In contrast, I found Ms. Sushma Swaraj’s “Get me 10 heads for one” response deeply disturbing and alarming.

Never get into a fight with a country which has nothing to lose.

At times, it may be tempting to engage in one-up-man-ship. What we have to remember is that by doing so, we’re going out of our way to keep an irrelevant nation in the public eye and thus make it out to be more important than it really is. In other words, there’s no gain for us. It’s all upside for them. Don’t stoke a dying fire.

The opposite of love is not hate. It’s indifference.

Pakistan works pretty hard to earn our anger. In return, we must offer our indifference. We must stop putting every act of theirs under the microscope and agonizing over it. We must stay focused on fixing our ownselves, and moving quickly ahead in this very competitive global economy. The best “revenge” – for those who tend to like this sort of a thing – is one that will be served someday when Pakistani people wake up and realize that we’ve left them miles behind in the race to prosperity. Those obsessed with things like “honor” and “izzat” should remember that it takes more courage to walk away from a fight than to get into one. Patriotism is not about having a misplaced sense of honor or a narrow view of the world or flag waving and chest thumping. It’s about being a committed citizen and taking the time to understand complex issues, how they intersect and doing what’s what’s best for the country and making your opinion heard in a constructive manner. In my opinion, Pakistan should cease to be a voting issue for Indians, and anyone who attempts to make it one should be discouraged.

There is no such thing as Pakistan.

There are the Pakistani people. There are the politicians. There is the Pakistani army. There is ISI. There are many niche centers of power, controlling narrow domains. None of them are in control. It’s impossible to negotiate when there is no decision maker on the other side of the table. We have to recognize this and understand the difficult job that our government has, when it comes to dealing with Pakistan.

They are people like us too.

Perhaps, a way forward might be one that involves building direct bridges to the Pakistani people and creating economic opportunities for them so they, over time, have something to lose by harming our interests. Pakistan is like this evil twin of India, separated at birth and adopted and raised by a gangster. In many ways, their people have suffered more than us. I refuse to believe that an average Pakistani wakes up in the morning and looks for ways to destroy us. I think the average Pakistani is like the average Indian. He/she just wants a good job, a hot meal and a peaceful life. An “economic version of Aman ki Asha,” which promotes free trade and collaboration – as much as it sounds like a fairy tale – might not be a bad way forward if we’re willing to be patient for at least a couple of decades.

Heck, we don’t have be nice to them, if we don’t want to. But we really ought to stop obsessing about them and move on.

What’s your take?

Also read: O Pakistan, Whither Goes Thou?

An aam aadmi’s letter

To whomsoever it may concern.

They call me aam admi. For you babalog, that translates to “ordinary man.” Presumably women are included in there as well. That’s what they call me. I don’t know the first thing about supply side economics. I’ve never listened to Beethoven. I couldn’t tell an IIT from an ITI. There are many things I don’t know. But, I have a God given ability to detect bull shit. Now, if you don’t mind, I’d like to get a few things off my chest.

When we got our independence, I was ecstatic. I was one of the millions who lined up whenever the Mahatma gave us the word. Then, I heard that Pandit-ji had his reservations about me. He wasn’t sure if I would exercise the right to vote responsibly. Well, here’s the thing. Neither did I. Who knows what’s best for the country? Who do we trust? Pandit-ji and his friends came highly recommended by the Mahatma. They had studied at firangi universities, spoke English and rubbed shoulders with world leaders. Once again, I fell in line when the Mahatma asked me to support his protege. I had a job to find, a family to take care of and mouths to feed. I didn’t have time to think it through. So, without protest, I voted for Nehru, in the hope that he was our Messiah and that he would part the Red Sea and lead us to the Promised Land.

I shed tears when Chacha died. He was our Messiah. We hadn’t yet made it across the Red Sea. In fact, there was no sea. I found myself marooned on a desert with no friendly faces. Pandit-ji, in spite of his firangi degrees and polished accent, had blown it. The lone face that I recognized of Lal Bahadur was but a brief mirage. And that’s when the nightmares started.

They say that the fruit doesn’t fall far from the tree. If that’s the case, I must fault Jawaharlal, the tree and not the fruit, Indira. But my gut tells me that that Jawaharlal was not the tree. He was just the guy who watered a tree called the Indian National Congress. This tree did not produce fruits. Rather, it sucked the life out of the ground it grew on, and gave shelter to reptiles and insects and rodents, which in turn preyed on me.

I wish I could write away the twenty years between 1970 and 1990 as a bad dream. Even now, I wake up in the middle of the night, sweating and anxious that the past may return to revive its hold on me. But trust me when I say that I have a short memory and am trying my best to move on.

The damage that Indira wrought was not to my stomach. It was to my psyche. She said, “Garibi Hatao.” I enthusiastically cheered, more in hope and despair simultaneously and not out of belief. As I said, my instincts told me that these were reptiles, rodents and insects. Hope turned to anger and slowly resignation. And then despair, when one of my own turned his back on us and assassinated our Prime Minister. I lost one more familiar face and that hurt me even though I didn’t trust Indira entirely. Her son was another fleeting mirage. I’m told that he did some good for the country, but am not entirely sure what he did for me.

They tell me that we were in a lot of trouble in 1991. And this man named Narasimha Rao bailed us out of this trouble. I didn’t know he was capable of this feat. I voted for him because he was part of this tree that I told you about. Turns out that he wasn’t entirely a reptile. Another fleeting vision as far as I’m concerned.

Things have been getting better in the last twenty years, I’ll happily admit. I’ve got a cell phone. I can see roads being laid. A lot of my friends have left for cities. I see shiny buildings when I visit them. But twenty years is a long time to wait when you have too little to show for it. There was a time I had resigned myself to my fate. Now, I am not being allowed to even do that. I’ve seen things that I now can’t put out of my mind. My aspirations are spinning out of control. My country has changed a lot. And it doesn’t stand by itself any more. The destinies of all countries are now inter linked, they say. I wouldn’t know too much about that. I have no idea what current account deficit means, and why we need foreign investment so we can have supermarkets and megastores. All I know is that there still aren’t enough jobs for my people and things need to get a lot better before we can afford to fritter time on ideological and political debates. I’ve been waiting for a long while. I wish these fellows would get on with the program so my children can have a better future.

What galls me is that, not only are they frittering away precious time but they are using that time to loot my house. There are thieves inside my house, emptying it as I speak and there are folks outside my house yelling “thief.” It’s like I’ve become invisible to both of them. Neither is helping me.

Anna Hazare, God bless him, says he wants to help me. But, I don’t have the time to make it to Jantar Mantar each time he asks. With due respect, he’s not the Mahatma. Those were different days. And they were different men back then. I trust Anna-ji. But he also wants to tie me to a tree and whip me if I try to drown my sorrows in cheap liquor. So I wonder if I should trust a guy who wants to whip me. Like I said, no one helps me anymore.

This chap, Kejriwal, seems to have his heart in the right place. But I don’t believe I’ve ever met him. I guess it’s hard to meet up when one of you feels the need to be in a city and on TV all the time. To Kejriwal, I tell you this. It’s not enough to start an Aam Aadmi party. It’s not even enough to be an Aam Aadmi yourself. You need to come out here and meet me. Don’t tell me about those reptiles. I know about them already. I’ve seen more than fifty years of reptiles. Help me. We’ve been waiting for a Messiah. We’re so jaded that we’ll give you too a chance. And we fear that you too will blow it.

You know what I don’t need? I don’t need sermonizing and moralizing. Don’t tell me things I know. Don’t tell me that I’m illiterate. I know that already. Don’t tell me that I suck because I vote for my religion and caste. I have good reasons for doing so. If anything, my religion and caste guys are the ones who’ve shown up in times of my need over thousands of years. I can’t abandon such instincts easily. Don’t tell me that we need a dictatorship because only dictators can control fools like me. I’m not the fool that I’m made out to be. In fact, quite the contrary. I’m the product of evolutionary intelligence that’s been gathering steam over millions of years. If I’ve come this far in the evolutionary game, I’m pretty sure that I can handle a few reptiles. So don’t tell me anything.  Just step aside and allow me to be. And help, if you can.

I’ve always dreamed of this Messiah in shining armor, who’ll swoop down from the skies and carry us all away into this land where there is freedom and dignity in life. And you know what? I don’t think that’s ever going to happen. I’ve come around to believing that I, and only I, have my fate in my hands. For that, I need to be responsible. I need to change my habits. And I need to stop making excuses and think things through. I know all of this. But it’s going to be a while before I get there. I wonder if we have the time for me to get there. I don’t think there’s another choice. Let’s see how this one plays out.

Until then, although you may call me an Aam Aadmi, keep in mind that I’m anything but ordinary.

Best regards.

Mango (wo)man.

A Brief Overview of Hindu Cosmology

Time is possibly the most fascinating construct devised by humans. You may say that all organic entities have a ‘biological clock’ and act accordingly. And you might ask, what’s so special about time. It’s true that animals and plants seem to operate to built-in clocks. But humans are unique in the way that we have consciously embraced the notion of time and in the way we let our perception of time dictate how we lead our lives. A while back, I had written about ‘The Secret Powers of Time and Regret.’ You might want to check this out either before or after reading further.

What is time?

Time, at its core, is an artificial and abstract concept. In practice, it’s about keeping track of change and the patterns by which change manifests itself. Time is about keeping track of changes in ourselves and in the world around us. And this has become deeply embedded into our psyches, and into our religions and philosophies. The early human, for instance, must have noticed the regularity with which dawn broke and the sun set, and subliminally internalized the notion of time while deriving benefits of recognizing such patterns. One thing must have led to another, and eventually resulted in Egyptian and Greek sun dials, Indian hour glasses, Swiss clocks , Julian calendars and other inventions which helped in accurate measurement of and tracking time.

If there was no change or observable patterns either in ourselves or in the world around us, we would have simply ignored the passage of time. In other words, our mortal existences are so absurdly short that we have come to believe that there is a necessity to keep track of and measure time. There is no other entity (that we know of) in the universe which consciously does this and allows the concept of time to dictate its behavior.

Thought experiment

Imagine if each of us were to live for a few million years before dying. During the course of our lives, we would observe hills being formed, rivers changing courses and weather patterns changing so gradually that it’s possible that we might not value the notion of time or the practice of measuring it at all. I wonder how the absence of the notion of time would influence the way we live our lives.  Let’s take this to one logical extreme: Suppose we were all to be immortal, wouldn’t  we simply discard time since it would cease to have any value? So, could the converse be true? If we ceased to value time, would that be our ticket to immortality? Interestingly enough, that’s what eastern wisdom tells us – to stay in the now and discard all perceptions of time such as the past and the future. I told you that this was fascinating stuff.

Measuring time

There’s a lot to write on this. I’ll stick to what enthralls me about the way we and our religions have looked at time.

Abra’amaic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – take a linear view of time. They agree that the world started with the creation of the universe by God, who also created the first man and woman roughly five thousand years back. They have neatly compartmentalized time into the beginning – when God created man and woman, now – while we are alive, and the everafter, the future that comes after death when we shall receive Judgment and live in eternal bliss or torment depending on the way we led our lives. The simplicity of this compartmentalization is attractive. It provides a sense of purpose, which is to conduct our affairs now in a manner that we shall be one of God’s chosen ones in the future. It provides a basis in the past – which is that God created man five thousand years back.

Time is accorded a great deal of importance in these religious schools, which borrowed the Greek notion of time being finite and running out . This life that we have now is our only chance of getting it right. Once we die, our time ends, and so do our chances of correcting the errors of our ways. Seize the day and the life you have been given, they say. This simplicity is so powerfully compelling and so easy to grasp that it has taken roots in the way we’ve divided our history timeline – in terms of what happened before the birth of Jesus Christ (Before Christ – B.C.) and that which is happening in the year of our Lord (Anno Domini – A.D.).

Eastern schools are, in contrast, vexingly vague about time.  They insist that time is illusory and hence without value, and all that matters is this mysterious thing called “now.” They candidly confess that they don’t know when and where it all began, and who started this whole thing called the universe. They tell us that we’re trapped in a web of illusion called maya, and that time is merely one of the  illusory constructs which perpetuates maya. They ask – if nothing exists and everything is an illusion, then how can the concept of time be relevant? They tell us that if we can manage to find and stay in the moment, then time itself will cease to exist, and the past, present and future will merge into one and we will be able to see them simultaneously. Indeed, the Sakyamuni was believed to possess the powers of rising above time and view all his past lives, the stories of which came to be known as the Hitopadesha.

This is all confusing and perplexing, and intoxicating and exhilarating at the same time. We listen in fascination each time, and then go away, shaking our heads, back into our worlds in which time only moves forward linearly. We don’t know what to make of such theories, or what to do about them. The eastern concept of timelessness applies temporary balm on our wounded souls and scarred pysches, and provides us with some indescribable comfort. It soothes us to hear that time does not run out and that we will have more chances to get things right, and that God and this universe may not be as harsh and unforgiving as they are made out to be.

A look at Hindu cosmology, calendars and time scales

Carl Sagan describes the Big Bang and the creation of the universe in his television series “Cosmos,” which first aired when I was in school. In this, he talks about how it all began according to science, and how the universe formed within the first new nano seconds of the Big Bang. In the world of science, creation is synonymous with the formation of matter and the creation of space and time.

In “Cosmos,” Sagan makes an interesting observation about how Hinduism has looked at time. He says, ” <snip> a wonderful aspect of Hindu cosmology is that it is consonant with that of modern scientific cosmology. We know that the Earth is about 4.6 billion years old, and the cosmos, or at least its present incarnation, is something like 10 or 20 billion years old. The Hindu tradition has a day and night of Brahma in this range, somewhere in the region of 8.4 billion years. As far as I know. It is the only ancient religious tradition on the Earth which talks about the right time-scale.

Precisely for its uncanny resemblance to modern scientific cosmological time scales, I figured it would be interesting to share my understanding of the Hindu view of the age of the universe. These details are partly from my notes from reading Srimad Bhaagavatam and heavily borrowed from more erudite persons (my sisters), all of which can, I am sure, be found on Wikipedia.

Note: I’m not writing this to prove the superiority of the Hindu view vis-a-vis other religious views. I have no interest in such matters. Each religion brings forth its own compelling insight. That is the raison d’etre of each religion. To bring forth new insights and comfort. In the matter of cosmology and universal time scales, the Hindus have put forth a grand idea, and whether true or not, it does make the pulse quicken. My belief is that it would benefit all to take notice of this.

How old is the universe per Hindu cosmology?

The Hindu cosmic cycle is divided into Yugas, Chatur or Maha Yugas and Kalpas.

A ‘basic’ cycle is called a ‘Yuga‘ or an ‘age’. There are four such Yugas, each for a different tenure. These Yugas are Krita or Satya Yuga, Treta Yuga, Dwapara Yuga and Kali Yuga. Their durations are (in human years):

Krita Yuga: 1,728,000 years. Treta Yuga: 1,296,000 years. Dwapara Yuga: 864,000 years. Kali Yuga: 432,000 years.

Note: At the end of each Yuga, the earth is overwhelmed by elements and humans are wiped out. Each Yuga is followed by an interlude of still and nothingness and life begins anew in the next Yuga. 

Each quartet, a set of 4 Yugas, is called a Maha Yuga or a Chatur Yuga.

 1 Maha Yuga = One quartet of 4 Yugas = sum of (Krita + Treta + Dwapara + Kali + all interludes between them) = 4,320,000 years = 4.32 million years.

1 Kalpa = 1,000 Maha Yugas = One half of a day of Brahma, the creator = 4.32 billion years.

Side notes

1. Each Kalpa is successively ruled by 14 Manus. Each reigning period of a Manu, the giver of Dharma, is 71.42 Maha Yugas. So, Manus come and go during the tenure of a Brahma.

2. Brahma is the creator of the universe, filled with its stars, planets and moons and Manus who reign periodically over it. Brahma is considered to be a manifestation of the (Para) Brahman, the or spirit underlying the universe which binds all things and is the fundamental energy that makes the cosmic dance possible. Even Brahma, the creator, cedes his place and “dies,” at the end of his tenure of a 100 years. And a new Brahma is manifested by the Para Brahman, and the cycle goes on. Such is the nature of the universe, according to the Hindus, one in which permanence is assured to none.

So, what do we get?

When we put the time lines together, we get –

A “full day” ie “day” + “night” of a Brahma works out to ( 2 x half-day of Brahma or 2 x Kalpa) = 2 x 4.32 billion = 8.64 billion years.

This number is interesting because cosmologists now believe that the Big Bang happened roughly 13 billion years back (revised significantly since Sagan did Cosmos twenty five years back). This number of 13 billion years is of the same magnitude (proportionally) to what the Hindus postulated many moons ago. This aspect of Rig Veda is nothing short of spellbinding. How could have they come up with such a grand scale – in billions of years – for the cosmological age of the universe? What kind of minds and awareness did they possess to get into the same ballpark timeline wise, when it has taken us billions of dollars worth of equipment and painstaking scientific research to get into the same ball park? Was it a lucky guess or is there more to this than meets the eye? Incredible.

What’s even more incredible is that the Hindus didn’t restrict themselves to the current universe. The Rig Veda tells us that the life of the cosmos stretches endlessly before the Big Bang and will stretch endlessly well after the current version of the universe ends. The life of a Brahma, we’re told, is 100 years of 360 days each, where each day = 8.64 billion years. Simple math (100 x 360 x 8.64 billion) gives us the life time of Brahma, which is the life of the cosmos. This number is a staggering 311 trillion years. And after 311 trillion years, the ‘old’ Brahma ‘dies’, and a ‘new’ Brahma is ‘born’. And the cycle of 311 trillion years repeats itself with a new Brahma, endlessly into time. Mind boggling!

The significance of the Sankalpa mantra

If you’re Hindu or if you’ve observed Hindu rituals, you may have heard a set of mantras called the Sankalpa mantra which precedes Hindu rituals. The Sankalpa mantra is meant to keep track of where we are, and the time it is now in this version of the cosmos that we exist, at the time of performing the said ritual.

A brief context first to the Sankalpa mantra

It is said that we are presently in the Sveta-Varaha kalpa in the reigning period of Vaivaswatha – the 7th Manu. In this Manvantara we are in the 28th Maha Yuga. As per Hindu cosmology, Brahma is supposed to have completed 50 Brahma years and is now in his 51st year. For this reason, he is called “Parardha-dvaya-jivin” ie he now lives in the second half of his life. The word ‘parardha’ means half. So Brahma is called this as he has completed one half of his life. This might help you make better sense when you hear or read about the Sankalpa. On a lighter note, we live in a time when our Brahma has reached middle age, and one can only hope that he doesn’t go through a mid-life crisis 🙂

As for the Sankalpa mantra, it goes roughly as follows-

…. dvi-teeya parardhe: In the second half of Brahma’s life

Sveta-varaha kalpe: in the kalpa of Sveta-Varaha

Vaivaswatha manvantare – in the reigning period of the Vaivaswatha Manu

Ashta Vimsati tame:  In the 28th Maha Yuga of the current Manvantara

Kaliyuge: in this Kali Yuga

Prathame Padhe: In the first quarter of this Kali Yuga. Note: Kali Yuga is said to have started in 3102 BC according to Aryabhatta.

Jamboodveepe: This denotes the place where the ritual is being performed. Note: India was once believed to have been an island called Jambudveepa.

Bhaarata Varshe, Bharata Kande: in this land called Bhaarata.

Sakhabde Mero, Dakshine Parsve: to the South of the Meru mountain. Note: Mount Meru is repeatedly referenced in Hindu purana, and is believed to have existed when India was once an island. 

Asmin Varthamane Vyavaharike: in the current period now reigning

Prabhavadi Shasti Samvatsaranam Madya: which is in the middle of a cycle of 60 years starting from the year Prabhava. Note: Hindu calendar was divided into sixty calendar years, each with a name to itself, the first of which is called Prabhava.

< insert name of year > Nama Samvatsare:  the name of the present year in the 60 year Hindu calendar. Note: The present year is called Nandana.

<fill in> ayane: Dakshin-ayane (when the sun travels south) or Uttar-ayane (when the sun travels north). Note: Uttarayana is the period between the winter and the summer solstices (roughly Dec 22 to June 21) and Dakshinayana is the other half of the year.

<fill in> ritou: Ritou denotes the six seasons or Ritus, who are Vasantha, Greeshma, Varsha, Sharadh, Hemantha and Shishira

<fill in> Maase: One of the 12 Tamil months when performed in Tamil tradition.

<fill in> Pakshe: Either Shukla Paksham (day after Amavasya to and including Pournami) or Krishna Paksham (day after Pournami to and including Amavasya)

<fill in> Subha Thithou: Name of the day of the month, which is one of the 15 days between Pournami and Amavasya. These are Prathama, Dvithiya, Trithiya, Chaturthi, Panchami, Shasti, Saptami, Ashtami, Navami, Dasami, Ekadasi, Dwadashi, Trayodasi, Chaturdasi, Pournami and Amavasya.

<fill in>Vaasara Yuktaa-yaam: Name of the day of the week, one of Bhanu, Soma, Bhowma, Soumya, Guru, Brugu and Sthira

<fill in> Nakshatra Yuktaa-yaam: Name of the Nakshatra or star prevalent on the day.

Upon reciting all of the above, the name of the ritual is said. According to HH Sri Paramacharya of Kanchi Kamakoti, the Sankalpam is a record of the ritual one performs with exact details going down to the day and location of the ritual. Presumably, this was an effective technique of keeping records and track of time in a tradition that relied more on word of mouth than writing things down.

There is another unusual feature of the Hindu calendar. Each year is labeled by the number of years elapsed since the epoch. As of 2012, 5114 years have elapsed in the Hindu calendar. The present epoch (Kali Yuga) is believed to have started on February 18, 3102 BC (though there are debates around this).

What boggles my mind is the ‘how did these guys keep track of everything?’ question. If the earth and the universe are being destroyed and rebuilt every so often, how do the Hindus confidently state that we are in the 51st year of Brahma? How did the information about the previous epochs get transferred across the epochs? The Hindu calendar is so precisely documented that they have every Manu in every epoch documented going all the way back to the beginning of the life of Brahma himself. How is this even possible? Should we dismiss this as carefully planned deception and bunkum? If it is deception, why would anyone go to such trouble to plan such elaborate deception when easier routes are available?

There is something inspiring about the way we humans have looked at time, especially those in the Vedic tradition. The next time you observe or perform a ritual, hopefully I have made it a more interesting exercise for us. Hopefully, it will make you wonder about the grand scale of this amazing universe and its life time, our own insignificance in the scheme of things that are destined till the end of time and the transcendent beauty of the nature of enquiry itself.

Let me wind up for now, with another quote from Carl Sagan on Hindu cosmology:

“The Hindu religion is the only one of the world’s great faiths dedicated to the idea that the Cosmos itself undergoes an immense, indeed an infinite, number of deaths and rebirths. It is the only religion in which the time scales correspond, to those of modern scientific cosmology. Its cycles run from our ordinary day and night to a day and night of Brahma, 8.64 billion years long. Longer than the age of the Earth or the Sun and about half the time since the Big Bang. And there are much longer time scales still.”

Happy journeys!

PS: For a topic as complex as this, I’d be surprised if there were no errors in the way I’ve understood things. I stand by, ready to correct errors and mis-statements. Do write and let me know if you see anything amiss. Thanks.

On Creativity

Earlier this week, I happened to read an outstanding interview of Doug Casey, an investment guru of some sorts, in which he is scathingly critical of the school system that we have today. This prompted me to go back and re-watch the ” target=”_blank”>famous video of Sir Ken Robinson talking about “how education is killing creativity.” This made me wonder as to the nature of creativity, and how it happens. So, I found ” target=”_blank”>another video by Steven Johnson, in which he talks about how creativity happens. All of this in turn led to thoughts such as, “If creativity is such an amazing thing, why aren’t more of us creating things? Why is there a notion that creativity and pain are inseparable? Why do artists lead tortured existences and can creativity arise only out of pain?”

Here’s a synopsis of what I learnt, and my accompanying thoughts.

On why our schools are killing creativity (by Sir Ken Robinson)

What is creativity? There are many ways to describe it. I rather like the one which describes creativity as divergence in thought – an ability to consider infinite possibilities in the place of one or few. We are all born with it. Tragically, it dies within most of us by the time we cross the age of ten. Studies have demonstrated this. Conformity is the enemy of creativity, which likes to run unfettered and unshackled. The way we are schooled is much like the factory model, regimented and structured, and meant to enforce standards and conformity. This was borne out of the elitist notion during the Age of Enlightenment in Europe that most humans needed “schooling,” and out of the necessity created by the Industrial Revolution for a trained workforce. For a couple of centuries, the concept of “education through schooling” gained momentum on the back of the premise that “if you worked hard and went to college, you would find a job and become prosperous.” This worked for a minority of students who performed well on “standardized tests” and went on to obtain fine jobs and fat paychecks. For a large majority, it meant being relegated to the ranks of the “average” or “poor,” unfairly so because the schooling system did not value creativity that each of them possessed to begin with. The system continues till date, and hasn’t changed significantly over the last 100 years.

How does creativity happen? Where do good ideas come from? (by Steven Johnson)

Steven Johnson argues that creative breakthroughs don’t come through accidental moments of epiphany. Rather, they are the slow buildup of several related hunches (some which are ours, and some from others) which collide in our sub-conscious to produce what appear to be spontaneous bursts of inspiration. Great ideas require time to incubate before they hatch. He also makes the point that we live in an increasingly connected world of Facebook and mobile phones, which, although distracting, help connect us with others who may provide the missing hunches so we can assemble the whole picture for ourselves.

Why aren’t more of us creating things? Why is there a notion that great art comes only out of pain?

All of us love to create. We like to do things that we can get better at. Yet, we suppress these instincts for most of, if not all our lives. And, when leisure visits in our retirement years, we are at a loss as to how to fill our time. Why do we suppress our creative instincts and not let them flower? There are a couple of obvious reasons and one that is not so obvious.

First is the fear of punishment. In spite of all that is said, most workplaces do not reward creativity. So, we try to excel in our vocations through conformance rather than disruption. In most professions, except in a handful, predictability and stability are more valued than the inherently unstable process of creativity. Thus, we become slaves to standards and processes, and creativity dies a slow, painful death over time.

The second reason for loss in creativity is not so obvious. This is the ‘expert complex’ that we develop over time. Interestingly, research shows that the higher the intelligence, the lesser the creativity. Those with scores of 120 and higher on IQ tests have tended to perform poorly on creative fronts. These are ‘smart’ people, ‘who get it’ instantaneously and impatiently turn their minds away from considering other possibilities. As we get better at doing things, we become experts. Once we become experts, we spend our time defending the mountains we’ve built, rather than exploring new terrain. And thus, we turn ourselves away from creative pursuits.

The third reason is the fear of failure. As much as we enjoy creative pursuits, we carry with us a deep-seated fear of “not being good enough” at it. Since rewards from creativity are given only to those who scale its summits, we prefer to play it safe and pursue the mundane where even mediocrity is tolerated and compensated.

Even great, successful artists carry a fear of failure. Barbra Streisand, the singer who’s sold millions of records, once confessed to stage fright and shies away from live performances. In fact, success seems to bring with it an even greater fear of failure. The fear that somehow the artist does not possess what it takes to top the previous astounding accomplishment. This weirdly inexplicable fear drives a successful artist into drinking gin at ten in the morning, and drags him through a tortured existence to an early grave. Why is it so?

Is it the individual or the genius which creates?

Ancient notions of creativity described the individual as too insignificant, even incapable of creation by himself. Creativity was the divine spirit that ‘passed’ through him when it chose to visit him. They maintained a “distance” between the individual and his creation by attributing credit to the ‘genius’ who came to visit the artist and transported her to the realms of the divine.

In the Hindu tradition, to create is to dance with the Lord. An indelible image of Lord Shiva is that of Lord Nataraja, “the Lord of the Dance,” of the great temple of Chidambaram in Tamil Nadu. The Ananda Thaandava of Lord Shiva represents his five activities – shrishti (creation), sthiti (preservation), samhara (destruction), tirobhava (illusion), and anugraha (emancipation), through which he maintains the harmony of the universe. To witness the dance of the divine spirit is to see the world truly as it is – an endless moment of cosmic creativity in which birth, life and death come and go to every entity in this universe.

The ancient Greeks and Romans viewed the creative process similarly.  The Greeks had a word for the spirits whose possess our bodies during inspirational moments of creativity. They called these spirits ‘daemons.’ The Romans called this divine helper a ‘genius.’

It was only during the period of Renaissance that the notion of the individual himself being considered a genius and not separate from it, came about, and has stuck on since. One can speculate that this dissociation of the individual from the creative spirit may have led to extreme egotism and narcissism among artists and resulted in their tortured existences over the last five centuries.

When we regard ourselves as not responsible for creation, and merely as instruments of the divine spirit – there can be no room for pain.

We were born to create.

Great art may come out of great pain. But, the greatest of art comes from the greatest of bliss. To create is to let go of the few, and to embrace the infinite. It is to surrender to and dissolve oneself into the genius when it comes to possess, and draw it forth into expressions of exquisite beauty. To create is to dance with the divine spirit, with Nataraja himself.

This is the work we were born to do. Happy journeys.

What are the Vedas?

Many years back, I read a book titled simply “The Vedas.” It’s an English translation of a series of discourses given by Paramacharya Sri Chandrasekharendra Saraswati of Kanchi Mutt. I’ve read this book several times over in the last five years. Each time I’ve read it, I’ve discovered a new and intriguing notion missed in earlier readings. Highly recommend this book to those inclined to such topics.

Below is a summary of my notes (taken in 2007) of the first two chapters of this book, which answer the question “What are the Vedas?

*** Begin Notes ***

What captures the doctrine of Hinduism?

Various religions have their doctrines in a single work or treatise. The Christians have the Bible, the Muslims the Koran, and the Buddhists have the Dhammapada.

What captures the doctrine of Hinduism? Some say that it is the Ramayana. Others say it is the Bhagavad Gita. Yet others will point to Vedanta. To know what Hinduism is, we have to know what the sacred texts of Hinduism are. Hinduism as a religion does not imply mere ritual. It also includes Dharma or the path to joy and bliss. To understand Hinduism’s principles of Dharma, one has to refer to a series of texts and books, which are together called the Dharma Pramaana ,  that which provides true knowledge of Dharma.

These are 14 texts, and they are:

– The four Vedas: Rig, Yajur, Saama, Atharva
– The Vedaangas or the auxilliaries to the Vedas. These are Siksha (pronunciation), Vyaakarna (grammar), Chandas (meter), Niruktha (etymology), Jyotisha (astronomy), Kalpa (procedures), Meemaamsa (interpretations), Nyaaya (Logic), Puraana (mythology) and Dharma Saastras (codes of conduct).

In addition, we may add the 4 Upaangas or the appendices, which are Ayurveda (science of life), Arthasaastra (science of wealth), Dhanur Veda (science of weapons and war) and Gaandharva (study of fine arts like drama, music and dance).

In all, the 4 Vedas + 10 Vedaangas + 4 Upaangas may be considered to contain the doctrines of Hinduism as they apply to the conduct of life and to the pursuit of joy and happiness.

Who authored the Vedas?

The Vedas describe themselves as Anaadi – without a beginning in time. They also refer to themselves as Apoureshya – without an author. They describe themselves as the “breath of the Parabrahman”, and are said to have been discovered by rishis during their deep meditative states. For this reason, the rishis mentioned in the Vedas are referred to as Mantra Drishtas or the seers of the Vedas, rather than Mantra Kartas (doers/authors of the Vedas).

There are four Vedas – Rig, Yajur, Saama and Atharva. Each has a different way of recitation referred to as“Saakha”. Each Saakha has three portions: Samhita – the foundation, Braahmana – the manuals and Aaranyaka – the spiritual interpretations of rituals. Typically, the Samhita portion is what is referred to in each Veda. In all, there are 20, 500 mantras in the Samhita portions of the four Vedas.

Rig Veda

The Rig Veda comprises of ‘Rik’s or mantras or hymns of praise. These came to be known later as “slokas”. The Riks are grouped into Sooktas. In all, the Rig Veda contains 10, 170 riks and 1028 Sooktas, broadly divided into two groups of 10 mandalas and 8 ashtakas. Each Sookta begins (Upakarma) and ends (Upasamhara) with an invocation to Agni. The import of Agni in the Vedas is not to be understated. Indeed, the Aranyakas remind us that Agni is the same as “Atma Chaitanyam” or the glow of a soul’s awakening. The Rig Vedas contain mantras in praise of Devatas as well as on ways of social living and on specific rituals such as marriage ceremonies.

Yajur Veda

The word “Yaj” means worship, and is the root of Yajna (fire worship). The Yajur Veda contains procedures that add to the mantras in Rig Veda on performing yajnas and sacrifices. There are considered to be two branches of Yajur Veda – Sukla Yajur Veda (propounded by Yajnavalkya) also known as Vaajasaneyi Samhita, and Krishna Yajur Veda by Veda Vyasa also known as Vaisampayana Samhita. Yajur Veda contains detailed procedures for rituals such as Soma yaga, Rajasooya and Asvamedha. Yajur Veda has special significance for Advaitins. For each Siddhaanta (philosophical doctrine) such as Advaita, there is a Sootra (aphorism and theorems), Bhaashya (treatise and commentary) and Vaartika (explanation). There is considered to be only one vaartika-kaara for Advaita, namely Suresvaracharya, the direct disciple of Sri Adi Sankara. Suresvaracharya wrote Vaartika on only two of the Upanishads – Taitreeya and Brihadaaranyaka – to explain Advaita. Both these Upanishads are from the Yajur Veda.

Saama Veda

“Saama” means “shanti” or bliss. The Saama Veda is the musical rendition of the Rig Veda, and contains the same mantras. Saama Gaana is considered to be the basis for the seven swaras in Carnatic and other Indian music traditions. The Saama Veda is designed to bring peace to the mind through the rendition of mantras in melodious form. In Bhagavad Gita, Krishna says “Among the Vedas, I am Saama.

Atharva Veda

Atharva” means purohit. The Atharva Veda is designed to ward off evil and adversity. It contains “Prithivi Sooktam” about the wonder of creation, and contains the Prasna, Mundaka and Mandukya Upanishads. It is said that for a “Mumumshu”, a seeker of Truth, the Mandukya Upanishad alone is sufficient. Such is the greatness of the Atharva Veda.

Highlights of Vedic structures

One of the noteworthy aspects of the Vedas is that they do not claim to be the only way, or insist that there is only one God. In fact, the Vedas are uniquely atheistic in that they do not refer to a personal God. They repeat, through various mantras in each of the Vedas, that there are many ways to realize the same Truth. Other than the Samhitas, the Vedas also contain Braahmanas and Aaranyakas. The Braahmanas are the manuals that describe the procedures for performing rites. The Vedas describe rituals as means to discipline and purify the mind and body and make them ready to meditate upon the true nature of the Self. The Aaranyakas explain the subtler, inner meaning or the spiritual import of the hymns in the Samhita.

Upanishads

If the Samhitas are the trees, the Braahmanas the flowers and the Aaranyakas the unripened fruits, the Upanishads are considered the ripe fruits of the Vedas. The Upanishads, while they contain references to rituals and ways of living, deal primarily with philosophical enquiry.

Action versus Knowledge

The Vedas are broadly divided into “Karma Kaanda” (dealing with action and rituals) and “Jnaana Kaanda” (dealing with knowledge of the Self). The Karma Kaanda was compiled by Maharishi Jaimini and contains over 1000 sections. The Jnaana Kaanda, compiled by Veda Vyasa, is much shorter with only 192 sections. It is said that the study of the Karma Kaanda leads to the purification of the mind and body, and a desire for withdrawal from worldly actions. It is at this highest state of readiness, one is ready to be a Sannyasin and initiated into the Maha Vaakhyas of the Vedas.

There are said to be four Maha Vaakhyas in the Vedas. They are

1. Rig Veda, from the Aitreya Upanishad: “Prajnanam Brahma”  – Exalted actual experience alone is Brahman

2. Sukla Yajur Veda, from the Brihadaaranyaka Upanishad and in Krishna Yajur Veda, from the Taitreeya Upanishad; “Aham Brahmaasmi” – I am Brahman

3. Saama Veda, from the Chandogya Upanishad: “Tat Tvam Asi” – That thou art

4. Atharva Veda, from the Mandukya Upanishad: “Aayam Atma Brahma” – The Atman is Brahman

The Vedas emphasize readiness to receive the truth about the nature of the Self, which is explained in the Upanishads. The Upanishads are to be taught only to those who are considered “ready” to absorb the Truth as contained in them.

If there are any errors in above, please let me know and I will make the corrections. Thank you.

God Delusion by Richard Dawkins – A Review

“God Delusion” is a bestseller non fiction book, written by Richard Dawkins, a professor at Oxford.

The primary purpose of the book is to debunk the Judeo-Christian notion of God as a “superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us,” which Dawkins calls the “God Hypothesis.” His argument against this hypothesis is that a God with such abilities has to be more complex than what it has created, and hence improbable. He then raises the reductio ad absurdum question of who created God. In fact, this elaboration on the “Mommy, who created God?” question is the central argument of the book.

Dawkins’ argues that science and religion are mutually incompatible for the reason that science is all about evidence, while religion is about believing without evidence. He makes the point “morality needs no religion,” which, frankly, has been said before. He stands on the shoulders of Bertrand Russell when he says this.

My observations from reading the book

Dawkins treats “believers” with little respect. e.g. calling them ‘faith heads’ to make unwarranted, implied comparisons with ‘crack heads’. This is not necessary. On the other hand, religion has become accustomed to getting respect. So, maybe a little disrespect is not a bad tactic to get attention. Agree with his real point that there is no reason why religion should be immune to criticism or get any special treatment.

Dawkins blames religion disproportionately. Reading the book – one would be tempted to believe that if religion were to be somehow obliterated, all the world’s wars would cease. Rather dramatic and flawed since things like language and good old megalomaniacal tendencies have contributed more to wars than religion. I get the sense that Dawkins is hung up more on labels rather than religion or God itself, and is stretching to make the linkages. his point really is that religion is a ‘marker’ much like tribal membership, language, skin color etc except that we’re giving it way more (undeserved) respect than the other markers. This is a fair point but not a very useful one.

Dawkins recommends impractical and absurd measures like “children should not be given the religious labels of their parents”. Again, he unfairly picks on religion, since non-religious beliefs of parents play possibly an even more important role in deciding children’s future development. Further, children tend to grow out of their parents’ belief systems as they have experiences of their own

Dawkins makes no distinction between ‘liberals’, ‘moderates’ and ‘extremists’ in religions. This may not be a minor point. Just like – not all atheists are pacifists (eg Stalin, Mao), not all theists are pacifist. So why, again, isolate religion as a sole culprit?

He is unable to pin down what he really feels is wrong with or does not makes sense about religion from an evolutionary perspective. Dawkins would be the first to admit that religion has a “utility” value in evolution, although he would qualify this by saying “even false beliefs have utility value.” False belief or not, religion’s utility appears to be there. So, what’s the problem with this? Why the hysteria against religion? This is especially disappointing given his strengths in this area.

The Verdict

Dawkins brings a great deal of passion to the book, but reading it can feel like watching a Michael Moore movie. His tone is smug, logic sloppy at times and the book occasionally includes crass phrases like “sucking up to God”. When it comes to his own specialty, evolutionary biology, there is none better. But the purpose of this book is not to explain science. It is rather, as he tells us, “to raise consciousness,” which is quite another thing. The book ends up being a unscientific polemic, in which an evolutionary biologist stretches into areas like socio-economics, politics, history, philosophy, theosophy, theology etc. where he has no core expertise. For a person who does not believe in God, he appears more obsessed with Him than the believers.

Dawkins puts forth that to be an atheist is a “brave and splendid” aspiration. On a scale of 1 to 7, where 1 is certainty that God exists and 7 is certainty that God does not exist, Dawkins rates himself a 6. “I cannot know for certain but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there,” he says. An assumption, not coincidentally that has fetched him millions of dollars.

If you’re looking for a “good atheist” book, this one’s not it.

What is the Higgs Boson?

Today (July 4, 2012), scientists from CERN in Europe announced that they may have found clear signs of a particle which is thought to be the Higgs boson, popularly known as the God particle. The hardworking scientists aren’t getting ahead of themselves, and are not quite confirming the existence of the Higgs boson outright. They’ve stopped at saying that they have evidence for a new particle, which “must be a boson” and that “there is a high probability that this could be the Higgs boson.”

What is the Higgs boson? Why is it called the God particle?

Is there a simple way to describe this without doing gross injustice to the years of work and thought that has gone into it? Not really, but what ho! plunge into it we shall, in any case.

All matter is composed of fundamental particles. In fact, scientists have uncovered twelve particles that can be described as building blocks of matter. There may be more yet to be found. As of now, there are twelve. Out of these twelve, three (electron, up/down quarks) are considered even more fundamental for the reason that everything else can be constructed using a combination of these three. In other words, a few basic particles combine in various possible ways to create higher level particles. Higher level particles get together in other possible manners and shapes to form chairs, cats, people and plants, which have perceptible mass. I think we should leave this at that, for fear that if we go any further, our brains will begin to tie themselves into knots.

Long story short, there are a small number of sub-atomic, “massless” particles which combine mysteriously to form matter. Mysteriously? How do an electron and an up quark decide to form a neutron? What is it that triggers these combinations causing matter to be formed?

This is where the Higgs boson comes in. Peter Higgs, a British physicist, came up with the theory that there *had* be this even more inscrutably mysterious particle that catalyzed interactions between the fundamental particles, which results in matter being formed. He and later scientists have envisioned this “thing” as sort of a massless wave that exists everywhere. When other particles interact with this energy field, if you will, they combine and begin transformation into matter. Whew! Hope that made sense. This theoretical particle was named the Higgs boson, in honor of its postulator, and the popular media began dubbing it the “God particle” due to the powers of creation ascribed to it.

How do you prove something called the God particle exists?

For a good part of four decades, the Higgs boson has remained a theory in search of proof. Speaking of proof, how exactly do you go about proving a thing like the God particle? Well, here’s how it roughly works. You have two models. One which says, “Yes, there’s a Higgs boson”. And another that says, “No, there isn’t.” You let each model to make predictions on effects that can be observed. An example of an observable effect is what happens when two particles are smashed into each other, otherwise known as a “particle collision.” So, scientist conduct collisions and record the data from the collisions. And then they check to see if there are observable differences between predictions of the two models. In this particular case of the Higgs boson, the difference predicted between the models is incredibly tiny. Since this difference is so small, bajillions of data are needed before you can come to a statistically significant conclusion. All of this also means you need apparatus that can generate enormous amounts of energy required to conduct particle collision experiments.

This is where the CERN labs in Europe came in. They spent billions of dollars in building the Large Hadron Collider, designed to go in search of the God particle. And, they have been running 40 million collisions a second, all day for the entire year during the last two years.  And, it looks like they have finally found something that looks like the God particle. Amazing stuff.

So, what does this all mean?

First, it is a reflection on this day and age that we have to hold a press conference to cautiously announce that we may have discovered the God particle. There is something indefinably amusing and ironic about this act. That we who have been created by the God particle are not yet sure if our creator exists! This drama appears filled with even more irony when you consider that a large majority of people on this planet are unlikely to even notice this announcement regarding their creator.

Cartoon on reactions to God particle announcement

Having said that, the quest for figuring out how it all got started just got a whole lot interesting. We’ve all heard that the universe started from nothingness and exploded into what we know as the universe with a big bang. The one thing that has mystified scientists about this theory is the question, “How and why did matter form after the big bang?” The Higgs boson, if proved, gives them something to stand and build on.

The day is not too far when CERN scientists will be able to confidently confirm that the God particle does exist. And then will come the question, “Who created the God particle? And where did it come from?”

Picture, my friend, abhi bakhi hai. Get some popcorn, sit back on the couch, make yourself comfortable and have fun watching! Cheers.

An Inconvenient Truth

There are inconsiderate human beings that occupy this planet in every village, town, city and country. Even so, I wouldn’t be straying far from the truth when I say that we Indians occupy a special place in the pantheon of insensitivity. We are a nation of uncaring, indifferent boors, whose lives are only occasionally punctuated by those (increasingly rare) Satyameva Jayate moments, when we sit down and pretend to care about our fellow citizens.

The Inconsiderate Indian

Our indifference manifests in countless exotic ways. It could take the form of spit impelled out of a window of a moving bus or car. It showcases itself in how we drive on the other side of the road, passing those who wait patiently for the light to turn green. Our selfishness blossoms when presented with a long line in front of a small counter with a harassed clerk, and plots clever ways to cut through and get around the indignity of waiting. Mindless road/traffic planners, rude hospital staff, robotically insensitive school principals, gossiping colleagues, uncaring airport staff.. The list goes on. So, it should come as no surprise when our leaders display the same inconsideration that we have so carefully cultivated amongst ourselves. Yet, it surprises us when we hear that our ministers have been pilfering from us, promoting their sons and daughters and circumventing the laws of the land to suit their purposes.

There is one potentially redeeming aspect of the Inconsiderate Indian, which suggests that this condition might not, in fact, be incorrigible. Our strain of inconsideration largely stems from indifference and mindlessness, and is less insidious than its cousin variety that breeds on malice and ill-will. We’re not a malicious people, by and large. But, we, surely, are dim witted. Mindlessness and indifference are progeny of foolishness. In fact, that may be the best piece of information we have at our disposal. That we are mere fools and not evil monsters like what the chinese system has perpetrated. Of course, the worry remains that our behavior is not really borne of our idiocy and it reflects our true selves. In any case, idiocy, in my book, is a far lesser crime compared to malice and leaves room for hope that we may yet overcome this failing someday.

Why are we a nation of dimwitted fools?

Never mind Viswanathan Anand. Never mind that Silicon Valley genius engineer, who invented that clever thing that lets us search the internet. Never mind Homi Bhabha. Never mind J.C. Bose and C. V. Raman. Never mind that ours is the land of Buddha and the Vedas. Never mind the nostalgia from having invented zero. Make no mistake about it. We are a nation of fools. There’s no dearth of evidence or fools, to support this hypothesis, in our otherwise lovely nation.

So, what’s the solution?

This is the tricky part. There are two reasons why this is tricky.

The first part of the trickiness has to do with the possibility that there may exist no solution. There is no magic wand to wave or potion you could force down throats that could rid us of our insufferable mindlessness. I like to think that if there was one, we, in spite of our stupidity, would have found it by now. These sort of things, especially those that involve senselessness, take time to work through. The process of working through stuff is called evolution. Unfortunately, the way evolution seems to be working at the moment, it appears to be favoring the fools. One hopes that this trend will correct itself. If not, we will extinguish ourselves and the problem will solve itself.

Second, I cannot, in good conscience, issue a clarion call to corrective action to you, my reader. For, it would somehow imply that you, the reader, are part of this clan of fools, a notion which seems at odds with the fact that you are a What Ho! reader. What Ho! readers may be misguided. But, they are erudite. They like the finer things in life like What Ho!. They may be many things. But, they are no fools. I say this with sincerest respect and in the fondest hope of retaining your patronage.

Seriously, why are we a nation of fools?

Even a tiny North African country with 10 million people and nothing more than sandy deserts, has found a way to build roads, run hospitals, operate shiny airports and promote civility. I think, the truth is that we, at some fundamental level, seem to revel in our foolishness. We call it jugaad. We call it ‘street smarts’. Our brains work overtime to figure out detours. We are a nation of arrogant, self-centered people which believes that its brand of perverted intelligence is somehow superior because it helps beat the odds. We are a society of fools that celebrates the most ‘jugaadi’ fools. I, for one, take no pride in our jugaad. To me, jugaad is a symptom of how low we have fallen. It is a sign that evolution is favoring the energetic fools amongst us.

The smart thing is to take the straight roads and drive faster. Somewhere along the line, we have forgotten this inconvenient truth. How about more sense and less jugaad?

A Bliss Mantra

From my notes from 2009. Here below is a “bliss mantra” from the Taitriya Upanishad in the Vedas, along with my interpretation.

<In Sanskrit>

Om saha naa vavatu saha nau bhunaktu
saha viryam kara vaavahai
tejaswinaa vadhItamastu maa vid vishavahai
Om shanti shanti shanti-hi

There are two interpretations. The first is as addressed to a friend or a partner

Let us enjoy life together, Let us experience life together
Let us engage ourselves together and share our energies to meet adversities
Pray we do not do or say anything that can divide us
Let there be bliss in our lives

The second is as addressed to the Universal Spirit (Parabrahman) which resides within all of us –

Let us be united, let our energies be united in overcoming adversities
Let our wisdom shine, Let us not be led astray by intellectual conquests
Let us be together in eternity, Let there be no division between us
Let there be bliss

Let there be bliss in your weekend.

This beautiful thing called empathy

Last Sunday, I watched a a fascinating conversation between His Holiness Dalai Lama and a group of scientists, titled “Neuroscience and the emerging mind,”. The dialogue revolved around the questions of “what triggers empathy?” and “can we be trained to be empathetic?”. I spent an hour watching the scientists and the monk in rapt attention. Here’s a gist.

Empathy is the ability to view the world from another’s perspective. Of all emotions, it’s empathy that makes us human. Some would even say it’s empathy that makes us divine. So how exactly does empathy work from a neurological perspective? Prof. V. Ramachandran at University of California, San Diego explains it nicely. Not a surprise since he’s been researching this topic for over two decades. Here’s my understanding of what he’s found.

The brain, at its core, is a mushy mass of gooey tissue filled with a massive number of neurons. The cerebral cortex is the largest part of the brain, and contains 10-13 billion neurons. What are neurons? They’re cells that excitable. When they’re excited, they transmit information through electric signals. When you lean forward to pick up a cup, there’s a neuron in your brain that fires and coordinates the motor movement of the arm stretching, fingers clasping the handle and the hand picking it up.

What made things more intriguing was the discovery of what Prof. Ramachandran calls “mirror neurons”, found in the cortex. Mirror neurons fire when *someone else* performs an action that you’re familiar with. In other words, a mirror neuron fires in my brain when *you* lean forward to pick up a cup. And soon after its firing, my hand signals back to the brain saying “It’s not you picking up the cup. It’s the other person”. All of this happens reflexively in the background. Amazing stuff.

Mirror neurons are the agents of empathy in the brain. When you see another person being pricked with a pin, you flinch reflexively because of them. Your finger quickly sends a message back saying “safe” and that’s how you realize that it’s not you being pricked. In experiments performed on folks with prosthetic arms, subjects actually experienced pain when watching another person being pricked. That’s because their arms lacked cells to transmit “safe” back to the brain! Suddenly, the question of – can we be “trained” to be empathetic? – doesn’t appear out of bounds!

All this talk did leave me a tad uncomfortable. It’s as though we’re trespassing noisily into a sanctum where one must tread with respect. The strength of science lies in its irreverence, which keeps it moving forward and from settling in a comfort zone. That just might be its Achilles heel as well. Science seeks to discover so it can manipulate and control. Any quest based on the notion of “how can I control what’s going on”, I believe, will fail ultimately. Action-without-agenda has far higher staying power, resilience and chances of achieving its goals than action-with-agenda. This is what eastern wisdom tells us. And that’s what His Holiness Dalai Lama subtly conveyed to the professors in the room.

Empathy is a beautiful thing. It holds the key to happiness. Forcing it upon another violates the idea of empathy itself.

ps: This was a great way to spend an hour on a Sunday morning. Check out the video when you get a chance. cheers.

Istanbul

Notes from a recent trip to Turkey 

A world historian in mid 16th century could not have been faulted for confidently predicting the dominance of Asia and Islam in world affairs for times to come. The dominant empires of the world at that time were the Mughal Empire in Hindustan and the Ottoman empire in Middle East Asia and Europe.

Mohammad Jalal-ud-din Akbar had just firmly established the Mughal empire in Hindustan, having seized Delhi back from Samrat Hemchandra Vikramaditya (Hemu), following it up by annexing Kandahar from the Persians. Shahenshah Akbar-e-Azam was just getting into his stride on the way to becoming the greatest ruler of the Mughal empire.

At that precise moment in history, the Ottoman empire was at its zenith, led by Kanuni Sultan Suleiman, known in the East as Suleiman “the Law Giver” and in the West as Suleiman “the Magnificent” – with Christian strongholds of Belgrade, Hungary and Rhodes as well as entire Middle East Asia and large swathes of North Africa in its sway. Their Christian rivals – the Hapsburgs in Austria-Hungary – were kept in check if not subjugated. The Holy City of Jerusalem came to fall into the hands of the Empire. And the Shia Safavid dynasty in Persia had just surrendered to the dominance of the Sultan who marched triumphantly into Baghdad.

Incidentally, around the exact same time, a gentleman by the name of Ivan IV “the Terrible” had not so quietly crowned himself the “Tsar”, laying the seeds for the famous Tsarist empire that grew over time to dominate Russia in the 18th and 19th centuries.

What heady times it must have been for the historian! Between the Mughal and Ottoman empires, they controlled nearly 1 of 5 people on the planet and produced close to half the world’s GDP. Although Akbar the Great ruled over a greater size of population and was more progressive in his governance, it is Suleiman who understandably captured the attention of the western world at that time. And, Constantinople, overlooking the Bosphorus, was justifiably described the “center of the world”.

Yet, history has a way of making something big happen every hundred years or so. And so the fortunes swung towards the Europeans in the 17th and the 18th centuries as the British, Spaniards and the Portuguese came to pre-eminence and supplanted the Islamic empires around the world. The crowning achievement of these later centuries, of course, was the systematic establishment and dominance of India as a western colony, which sealed the British empire’s status as the new world power by the time the 19th century rolled around.

Flash forward to the early 20th century – when a sniper’s bullet felled the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in Sarajevo, triggering what came to be known as the Great War or the First World War. The four major empires – the Hapsburgs (from Austria-Hungary), the Ottomans, the Russian Tsarist empire and the British empire – with their historical rivalries in the background, clashed in this major world conflict, one which resulted in a victory for the Allies (England, France, Russia) against the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary). Ironically, the Ottoman empire chose to throw in its lot on the side of its once bitter rival – Austria-Hungary – and ended up on the losing side.

Notwithstanding its success in the war, the Tsarist empire in Russia was overthrown in the Bolshevik revolution led by Lenin and comrades. The Austrian-Hungarian empire was whittled down to a shell of its former self. The British empire’s dependence on American military technology was established, which eventually led to the forced withdrawal of England from its colonies by the end of the Second World War by the Americans. The Ottoman empire, already described as the “sick man of Europe” was dismembered and distributed among the Allied Forces after the First World War in a stunning and humiliating reversal for the Turks who had held court in most of Europe and Middle East Asia for a good part of six centuries. Indeed, post Second World War, no less than 39 new countries were formed, which were once part of the Ottoman Empire.

Thus all four empires perished and were either dismantled or transformed, sooner or later, in the aftermath of the war, thus paving the way for the United States to emerge as the new power in the 20th century.

It was against this backdrop that a group of rebel ‘nationalists’ led by Mustafa Kemal (who later took the title ‘Ataturk’), a Turkish officer in the Ottoman army, defeated the Allied forces in Anatolia (Central Turkey) with tacit support from the Russian Bolsheviks and forced the signing of the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923, which led the establishment of the Republic of Turkey and the return of Constantinople to Turkey after a brief period of Allied occupation.

If Rome is the eternal city, Istanbul – as Constantinople was renamed by Kemal Ataturk – has to be the timeless city, having endured centuries of struggle and change. Once the bastion of Christianity in the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) empire, and then the capital of the Islamic Ottoman Turks, Istanbul is now a modern, secular and vibrant metropolis which yearns to be admitted into the European fold, of which it was once the capital city.

Who Am I?

Who am I? That’s a simple question. Yet one without a simple answer.

I am so many things. And yet, I could be just one thing. I’m not an inanimate thing that’s silent and motionless like a rock or a mountain or an Indian prime minister. That’s for sure. I was once told that I was filled with life. That I’m a living, breathing thing which can throw rocks, climb mountains and joke about Indian prime ministers. And yet, I’m much more.

I’m a man. I’m a former baby,  a future corpse and an even distant pile of dust and nothingness. I’m an Aquarian born right on the cusp. I’m husband, father, son and brother and more.  In school, I was a “topper”. In college, I was “Room 257” to the hostel security guard.

At times, I simply am. At other times, I’m about ideas, concepts, theories, logic, thoughts, feelings and emotions. Sometimes I’m all of these at once, unless I’m watching a Bollywood movie when I turn my back on logic and thoughts.

I’m told that I am what I eat. I try and remember that when I bite my nails.

Some call me boss. Some call me buddy. I’ve been called “Hey You”, “Get Out of the Way” and “Watch Out”. A few others have called me “Excuse Me” in an annoyed tone of voice, because sometimes I get in the way. I’m sorry for getting in the way. I can’t read minds. And I’m getting out of your way as fast I can.

I’m the silent majority. I’m the loud minority. I’m a friend. I’m a foe. I’m sorry about being a foe. I really don’t like being a foe.

I’m not my own worst critic. There are others who’ve done a fine job of it. I’m not my best friend. There are others who’ve done a fine job of it.

I’m everything and I’m nothing. I’m neither here nor there. Yet, I’m the one who’s on the top row. First one from the left. In my first grade class photo. Yeah. That’s me.

I’m not the elements. I’m neither earth nor water nor fire. Nor the wind or the ether. I’m not the body or the mind or the senses. Nor any of them put together. I’m above time, cause, effect and reason.

I am what I am. I am pure consciousness. I am the blissful spirit that alone exists in eternity, when all else is consumed by time. That indeed I am. I am the soul.

I’m aware that you don’t know me well. I shouldn’t have said any of this. I think I’ll just get out of your way.

An admission letter from the Indian Institute of Technology

This year, as is the case each year, there will be crazed competition among teenagers, in which they will fight each other to the finish for a grand prize. Yes, I’m talking about the Hunger Games, also known as the Indian Institute of Technology Joint Entrance Exam (IIT JEE) – in which hundreds of thousands of contestants from all over the country will take each other on, in a riveting drama and spectacle watched by the population at large – for the privilege of entering the hallowed portals of learning at the dozen IIT campuses in the country. Last year, less than 1% of aspirants were admitted, making this easily the most competitive race in the world. Compare with Harvard which accepted 7% of applicants last year.

From: The Director of Admissions, IIT JEE

To: “Hunger Games” Winner, Class of 2016

Dear Winner,

Congratulations. You’ve made it!

First, I salute your parents’ dogged determination and single-minded focus in making sure that you got in. I tip my hat to your grandparents for their prayers, and to your siblings for intuitively grasping the significance of the stakes and staying out of your hair as you prepared for the ordeal. I commend your school in advance for its annual report, which they will publish shortly, carrying 4×6 photos of winners like yourself. I would salute you, but we all know that you had nothing to do with this.

Let me share details about the class of 2016. This year, we have one successful aspirant who neither attended Kota nor comes from the city of Hyderabad. We’re investigating the reasons for this anomaly. For security reasons, I must keep her name confidential. The boy-girl ratio in the class of 2016 will continue to resemble that of armed forces. My advice: Learn Telugu. And, start practising your pick-up lines.

Over the next four years, you will have an opportunity to demonstrate your repressed truculence towards absorbing any education whatsoever, and most of you will seize it. More than half our faculty is not looking forward to your presence on campus, as they are fully aware of the disregard you will demonstrate towards gentlemen named Maxwell, Gauss and Lorentz. Indeed, you will be blind to the joys of science and engineering which you never had in the first place.

You’re now a life member of the most exclusive club in the world. Allow me point out some of the exciting benefits that await you.

– You will be sought after throughout your life. You will have opportunities to enter varied and unconnected universes in investment banking, angel investing, optimizing search algorithms, designing the next Angry Birds app, increasing pre-paid SIM card sales in Assam and creating powerpoint presentations for the next desktop operating system. Sadly, a miniscule percent of your class will “engineer” anything of value.

– You will be a member of various google and yahoo alumni groups, the primary purpose of which will be to find jobs for all of your relatives.

– You will be enrolled into a lifelong email relationship with our alumni association, whose idea of robust engagement is to invite you to a re-union twenty five long years after you’ve left the campus.

– You will be presented opportunities to obtain enormous power. Some of you will use this responsibly to enable social empowerment by implementing national ID systems. Yet others will use it to make shady deals with Sri Lankan day traders. Most of you will prove yourselves to be incapable of receiving or handling this and fade into obscurity.

– You will spend most of your life “living upto your potential”, advancing your career, competing with rather than winning friends, and in having unreasonably high expectations of the world at large. It’s likely that disillusionment will hold you in its uncomfortably tight embrace by the time you enter your forties. At that point, a number of you will embark on a search for “the meaning of happiness”, whatever that means.

Fret not. The picture is not entirely dire. It’s entirely possible that the “IIT education”, which you spent your energies assiduously avoiding, may have actually penetrated your consciousness without your knowledge. Some of you will wake up to the wonders of learning and creativity at some distant point in time. And an even smaller fraction of your class will finally get to bask in the bliss of comprehending the insignificance of it all.

Welcome to IIT and God speed!

Best regards.

If you liked this, you might also like Weighted Average – a campus tale.

Rahul Dravid – The Accidental Hero

It’s not hard to understand why Rahul Dravid is celebrated as a hero. There are obvious and undeniable reasons. Yet at some level it is hard to fathom how such a persona – one who was so unwilling to seek public attention and uncompromisingly focused inwardly – came to be a hero in these modern times.

In India, it’s hard not to be popular if you’re a cricketer who has scored the second highest number of runs in (Indian) Test history. We love ranks and hierarchy out here in this lovely land of ours. We are easily impressed by words like “first”, “most” and “highest”, when it comes to individual accomplishments. Dravid scaled the summit of fans’ expectations with the skill of a practiced mountaineer. He checked all the stats boxes and ensured that all flattering adjectives applied.  He “left no stone unturned” (in his own words) in the quest to scale peaks. Dravid was like the studious kid in school, whose single minded pursuit of the goal leaves peers, teachers and observers in awe. He was the ultimate geek of Indian cricket’s high school years. Usually, geeks evoke grudging admiration. Very few become celebrated heroes.

Dravid managed to slip through the cordon that enforces the rules of celebrity stardom in modern times and get noticed. And, as always, destiny had a hand in it. The Dravid-Laxman heroics in Kolkatta in 2001 rejuvenated a nation disillusioned by cricket shenanigans and hungry for evidence that it still had the mojo. Beating the nemesis after being truly down and out – Dravid demonstrated that practiced determination and patience had a role to play in winning. That it wasn’t only about hurried displays of extraordinary genius on a given day. He showed us that sweetest of triumphs come from systematic application of fundamental principles, and that the purist still had a role to play in the scheme of things. Fate handed him the opportunities to make his case. And he made it all so well. And thus he got our attention and became our accidental hero.

What if destiny had not conspired. Would we still celebrate Dravid with the passion that we do? The tale of Dravid is not about the 13,288 runs and 36 hundreds in Tests at an average of 52.31. It’s about the gentleman who elevated himself above the din of shirt swirling, chest thumping and fist pumping heroics that have come to define the modern cricket celebrity. The story is of a an ordinarily reticent man, who overcame astounding odds to capture the imagination of an easily distracted public through unwavering devotion to the sublimely beautiful aspects of the game. It is the tale of a man who was not beaten twice on consecutive balls.

I’d like to think that Dravid would have still walked away with ‘sadness and pride’ even if he had scored half the runs and centuries and not pulled off every heroic rescue that he did. But I wonder if he would still have been our hero.

The Secret Powers of Time and Regret

We live in an incredibly fascinating world. I found more evidence of this in the last couple of weeks while reading a couple of different but related articles.

The first insight came from a video by Professor Philip Zimbardo on the “The Secret Powers of Time“. The good professor posits that we, humans, tend to live in one of six ‘time zones’ – 2 of which focus on the past, 2 on the present, and 2 on the future. Of those who live in the past, there are those who are ‘past positive‘ who focus on the ‘good’ memories (birthdays, weddings, past glory, etc.). And there are those who are ‘past negative‘ and wallow in regrets and failures. Those who live in the present can be divided into hedonistic “seeking knowledge, pleasure and living for now” and those who view life as fated “my life is destined to be thus and no amount of planning will help”.

Most of us are ‘future oriented’, mainly because evolutionary forces have favored this approach. That’s the reason we are here and carry this genetic predisposition. According to Prof. Zimbardo, there are two ways of living in the future – One is to be disciplined, learn to work than play, to avoid temptation of the present and postpone gratification. There is another way to be future oriented, which depending on your religious views, starts with the premise that life begins after the death of the mortal body, and one has to earn the rewards for what happens in the after life, in this life.

For example, Protestant nations tend to be very future oriented and consistently outperform others in every economic measure thanks in big part to the Protestant ethic of ‘trusting the future, working hard and earning the right to be called God’s chosen people’. Interestingly, countries that lie along the equator, where weather patterns are uniform and things don’t often change, tend to be more present oriented. Catholic nations such as Spain or Italy tend to be more past oriented. In fact, incredibly so much so that there are cultures (in Southern Italy) which do not have words for ‘plan’ or denoting the future tense.

How about the quality of life in the time zones? Countries which tend to be present oriented tend to have the longest life expectancy. And cities like New York City and London which lie at the furthest end of the future planning spectrum have been observed to have the highest rates of coronary heart disease.

So, the “time culture” of the people makes a profound impact on the personality for a nation and on the personal outcomes for its inhabitants. Fascinating! Another way of internalizing this might be to say – you are likely to be happiest when living in a country/city/neighborhood or working for a company which matches your own personal “time culture”, assuming we have the luxury of being to able to make that choice.  As much as some of us might complain about how slowly things happen in India, there are those of us who believe it to be one of its charms and the secret of its endurance.

The second insight came from an article from Psyblog, which describes the “amazing power of regret to shape our future“. The key observation made by the author is that – regret is not just a backward looking emotion. It is also forward looking. Which is to say that we have the power to anticipate regret and we try to avoid it. This is truly a powerful insight into the workings of our minds.

The article also provides a very cool example of how anticipation of regret works, and sometimes in very irrational ways!

Swapping Lottery Tickets – An example of how we anticipate regret:  In a study, people were asked to first choose lottery tickets. Once they had chosen, they were asked if they’d be willing to exchange their ticket with another person. Those willing to exchange were offered a chocolate truffle as incentive. Surprisingly, less than 50% agreed. Why surprising? Because all lottery tickets have an equal chance of winning, and there is nothing better or worse about any ticket. So, it would make sense to take the chocolate truffle and exchange your ticket every single time.

So, why did more than 50% of the people act irrationally?

This is where anticipation of regret kicks in. We tend to project into the future when making decisions and imagine consequences. Though this is usually the right thing to do, sometimes it works against us. What if we exchanged our ticket and it ends up being the winning one? It is this anticipation of regret that at times stops us from acting rationally and taking the no-brainer chances that come our way. By the way, the only species of organic life observed to be immune to anticipatory regret are auto drivers in Chennai who would rather turn down a handsome offer and wait it out in the auto stand for more. Again, this is one of those things we might have always known instinctively. But, it’s worth a pause to reflect on how anticipatory regret shapes the decisions we make in our lives.

On this note, I leave you with a few questions, the answers to which could improve the quality of the lives we lead.

Which cultural time zone do you belong to? Are you past positive, hedonistic or future oriented? Do you believe in after-life? Does the company you work for or the neighborhood, city, country you live in – reflect your time zone preferences?

I’ve heard a few people claim that they don’t have any regrets. The more useful question to ask is – Do you have any anticipated regrets?

You can watch Prof. Zimbardo’s video on YouTube. And, you can read the Psyblog article here.

pip pip and toodles.

Till Death Do Us Part: The wisdom in love and marriage

Groucho Marx said, “I refuse to become a member of any club that’s willing to admit me”. This clever absurdism reveals the innate human tendency to desire something and yet feel unworthy of it at the same time.

It’s been such a long held, gloomy Western tradition to view marriage through a Marxist lens, that one wonders how marriage happens at all in those societies. Imagine the odds of two strangers coming into contact with each other and upon examination, incredulously find themselves so mutually compatible as to finally overcome the Marxist objection and then proceeding to subject themselves to an oscillation between the Marxist extremes of yearning to be with their loved one and longing to be rid of them. Eroding western self esteem, especially among women when it comes to marriage, has spawned chick flicks, flit lit and whole genres of beauty products and talk shows around “why you’re worth it”.

The Indian male lies at the polar opposite end of the spectrum across from the western female, and is often barges into clubs uninvited and without membership. Look no further than the typical matrimonial advertisement to find proof of complete absence of any Marxist tendency on his part. The matrimonial preferences of the Great Indian Male have evolved steadily from “caste and age” in the ‘60s and ‘70s to physical attributes “extremely fair and beautiful” in the ‘80s to ‘the physically perfect working woman’ in the ‘90s and this decade. The males themselves have been subject to lesser standards, with the “teetotaller, non smoker and broad minded” staples ruling the roost uninterrupted over the decades. Yes, serial killer you can be, but thou shalt not smoke.

Times, they are a changin’, for the Indian male. The male/female ratio in Indiahas steadily dropped over the decades. More women work now in 21st century India already compared to the entire 20th century. Still, the pool of ‘eligible women’ is so much smaller than ‘demand’ that women now call the shots in matters of matrimony. The Indian male is in dire straits and it’s not clear if he understands that.

 But, I digress. This is not about the Indian male. It’s about the wisdom of love and marriage.

Wisdom is that which arrives when we realize that we were not born with the skills to live, and embark on the journey to acquire them. The dawning of wisdom brings with it a desire to aim for tranquillity and peace and live a life devoid of anxiety and fear. It tells us to avoid the excessive enthusiasms and the pains of bitter disappointments, and that frogs don’t always turn into princes. Above all, wisdom helps us control our fears and arrests our flights from imagined shadows on the walls. It tells us that we should not fear death but we should fear fear itself.

So, what does wisdom say about matters of what the poets have called the ‘heart’? Is love like smoking which gives you pleasure but to be given up entirely? Is it like exercise to be practised with predictable regularity because it is healthy? Or is it chocolate and wine to be indulged in, when occasion calls for it? Is the contemplative worship of the divine extolled by the Vedas or the brotherly love taught by Jesus superior to the rash love of a Romeo and the crazed acts of an Othello?

The romantics will insist that love is uplifting much like music, and with enough therapy and counselling, pain and disappointment can be averted. Romeo could have met someone more suitable through cupid.com. Othello just needed to work out his aggression on a therapist’s couch. And, all Devdas needed was a stage IV intervention.

The stoics, on the other hand, will quietly aver that love is a losing game in which the players chase chimeras, and will advocate abdication of the emotion. In a rare moment of anger, they will rise up and tell us that we are destined to love only that which we don’t possess and that the acquisition of the object of desire sounds the death knell for love. They will tell us to ignore the unavoidable reality that humans were born to love. They will point out that for a man and a woman to live together day in and day out for a lifetime is one miracle that Vatican may have overlooked.

Perhaps it is wiser to view love through different lenses, and not the Marxist, romantic or stoic ones. Maybe it is simpler to view love as ‘mature’ and ‘immature’. Immature love subjects itself to the wild swings of idealization and disappointment, and finally meets its end with death or distance or both. Mature love resists idealization, and proactively appreciates the good and the bad within us and pushes for temperance. Death does not do mature love part. As veterans of marriage will put it, marriage is the process of continuously getting used to things you didn’t expect. In fact, creative arguing may just be the secret of a happy marriage. Many a young couple embarks on the journey not knowing how to argue and find their way through trial and error. But, immature love brooks no argument or compromise. And, when we refuse to argue or compromise, we put ourselves on the road to some kind of a cataclysm.

We just might begin to appreciate love when we resort neither to dogmatic optimism or a philosophy built on fear. For it is love that teaches the analytic mind an inescapable life lesson that it is analysis, and not love, that is flawed.

Wasn’t it Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart who said, “Neither a lofty degree of intelligence nor imagination nor both together go into the making of genius. Love, love, love, that is the soul of genius”

Also, check out the infinitely funnier “For Better or For Worse”  from the Laughing Gas collection.

“Why do I have to learn this?”

If I had a dime for everytime I got this question from my younger one (in fifth grade), I’d have assets so disproportionate to my income that would put the local MLA to shame.

“Why do I have to learn this?” Caught off guard the first few times, I drew a blank. Quickly, I learnt to come up with more rehearsed spiels on how “learning is good” or diversionary tactics like “hang on, my pants are on fire”. Over time, I’ve learnt one thing, and also came face to face with a numbing realization.

I’ve learnt that she’s not sold on the “learning is good” bit. Not even close. Learning’s a tough sell when you’re competing with iPads, Taylor Swift and X-boxes. And yeah, I’ve come face to face with that gigantic woolly mammoth in the room. That there’s really no earthly reason to learn 99pct of the stuff taught in schools. It’s a ghastly truth that I’ve truly internalized only as a parent. So, we’ve struck an uneasy truce. Hindi and Social Sciences have been bartered away for the cause of A’s in Math and Sciences. 10 year olds drive hard bargains these days.

The ramifications of this knowledge are so serious and dangerous that our children can never find out about it. If the kids of the world were to somehow become wise to the fact that they didn’t have to learn anything at all, then they’d spend all their time in fun and frolic, making friends and building bonds, and growing up to be socially well adjusted adults without self esteem issues. We can’t have that, now, can we?

O Pakistan Whither Goest Thou?

Everyone’s talking about Pakistan. You can’t run for office, nay even step out of the kitchen these days without knowing your Waziris from your Mehsuds and your Lashkars from your Jaishes. Not everyone knows what they are talking about. After all, there are lots of guys over there doing some incredibly bizarre stuff, that it’s not always clear as to ‘who’s doing what to whom’. Here’s my attempt to clarify the picture.

In the spirit of fair disclosure, I must admit that I’ve never visited Pakistan, let alone lived there. It might sound surprising considering that I live about a 2-3 hour flight away from the country. Let’s face it. A weekend in Abbotabad is not high on a list of bliss filled, weekend getaways. Not to mention that faintest traces of a Pakistani visa stamp on the passport is likely to get you water boarded in Guantanamo. Instead, I’ve relied on conversations with Pakistanis (had while studying in the US), articles in the Economist (inexplicably committed to memory over the years), and healthy levels of stereotyping (that just springs spontaneously). Read carefully, memorize every detail, and prepare for a lucrative career as an ‘expert’ on the lecture circuit.

A Short History of Nearly Everything Pakistani

Did you know that the name Pakistan is an acronym? For P(unjab), A(fghan) province aka North Western Frontier, K(ashmir), S(indh) and ‘stan‘ from Baluchistan. It also happens to mean the “Land of the Pure” in Persian, a great example of those fortuitous coincidences in history when English acronyms and Persian words magically align to make sense. In this nugget lies the answer to a question that has nagged Indians over the decades. Why does Pakistan adamantly hold on its Kashmir fantasy? The answer is pretty obvious. Giving up Kashmir would mean removing ‘K’ from Pakistan, thus rendering it “Paistan”, which sounds like a place in Mangalore.

To cut a long history short, I’d pick two events which conspired to change its trajectory. The first was a Mongol warrior named Babur deciding to swing by through the Khyber pass in 1526 AD, which resulted in the Islamization of the region. The second was the culmination of that destiny through the declaration of an Islamic Republic of Pakistan on 23 March 1956. The Mughal secular doctrine, from which the Turks learnt a few tricks, was forgotten in the din, and it is a irony of history that Turkey now stands a shining example to its erstwhile teacher.

Lots of things have happened since August 14, 1947. Unfortunately, most of it had to do with losing expensive wars, leading to a paranoid-delusional fixation with India, and a self-destructive one-dimensional escalation of its Islamic identity in rebellion against a world which has consistently failed to acknowledge or even remember that Pakistan was once part of an original act – as one of the cradles of civilization itself. Hell clearly hath no fury like a mutinous 3,000 year old.

From an Indian perspective, Pakistan has always represented a failure of imagination. How can one build a theocratic republic in the 20th century? And from the Pakistani perspective, India has presumably stood for a failure of principle. How does one build an identity without an anchor in dogma? Sixty four years later, the Indian identity has not been forged and still is hard to fathom or describe. On the flip side, the Pakistani identity that has emerged has been more disturbing than inspiring. There have been failures on both sides. At this moment in time, Pakistan’s miss clearly appears the more egregious one.

Don’t Leave Home Without Your Lashkar

There is a bewildering cast of characters on the loose today in Pakistan. The only thing they have in common is that they are all fighting. What’s with all these lashkars and jaishes, you may ask and quite rightly so. Say you are a small time tribal chieftain in North Waziristan, which has a reputation for being a badass neighborhood. You start to think about assembling an entourage for protection. That’s when you assemble your own personal lashkar, a word which means ‘tribal posse’. No jihadi group worth its salt would be caught dead or attempting a suicide bombing without a Lashkar or Jaish prefix. There’s Lashkar-e-Toiba, which fights Indians in Kashmir. There’s Lashkar-e-Janghvi which specializes in bombing Shiites in Quetta.  There are many lesser known lashkars fighting the Taliban in FATA. And, then there’s Jaish-e-Mohammad, which is just about game for just about anything on just about any given day.

Let’s talk about the Taliban. These chaps started out fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan alongside the US and General Zia. Al Qaeda are their foreign guests. After the Soviets left, the Taliban ran amok in Afghanistan, pursuing their twin passions of opium trafficking and locking up women. Post 9/11, the Taliban and their guests were decimated by the Americans and fled to their havens in FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas). What bears mention is that FATA is not the same as the North Western Frontier Province, which, as the name suggests, is a province and governed by laws drafted in Islamabad. FATA, on the other hand, is governed by ‘agents’ who report directly to the President. The other thing to keep in mind is the distinction between the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ Taliban. What’s good? And, what’s bad? Well, the answer depends on whether you are asking the question in Karachi, Mumbai or Washington DC.

What’s Good, Phaedrus, and What’s Bad? Need We Ask Anyone to Know These Things?

Confused? What ho, let me explain. Take the example of a delightfully militant chap called Maulvi Nazir in South Waziristan. He’s a Taliban leader from the Waziri clan, who’s interested in knocking the stuffing out of *only* the following people – Americans, Afghans and NATO. He’s the darling of Pakistani military types and is what’s called the good Taliban. On the other hand, Baitullah Mehsud, who comes from the rival Mehsud clan and accused of assassinating Benazir Bhutto, doesn’t get invited to parties and movie premieres in Islamabad because he is a bad Taliban. However, all Taliban, good and bad, share common proclivity towards toting Kalshnikovs, random caning, misogyny, facial hair, a bad attitude and an abhorrence of anything involving fun and frolic.

An Army which has a Country

Where’s the ISI in all of this? Before we answer that, let’s complicate things more. ISI is the intelligence wing of the military. The Army has its own intelligence wing called the MI. Since there was consensus that there was not enough intelligence going around, the Interior Ministry formed its own captive intelligence wing called the Special Branch. As for the military, you have the (in)famous Pakistani army, the sixth largest in the world. It is said that countries have armies. The only army in the world to have a country is the Pakistani one.

On any given day, no one really knows who’s fighting what. Case in point is the recent international incident in which American and Pakistani armed forces chased a group of (bad) Talibanis across the Durand line (Af-Pak border) only to be met with fire from the Frontier Corps. Are these guys the fundamentalist goons that they are made out to be? Well, the armed forces and the agencies are run by the non-bearded Oxford elite who are likely more fond of Johnny Walker than of Sharia.

Waziris, Afridis, Mehsuds, ISI, MI, Special Branch, the Army, Frontier Corps, good and bad Taliban, Al Qaeda. It’s a wonder that Somali pirates haven’t appeared on the scene yet. Naturally you may enquire (again, rightfully so) – what if I was a tourist wandering around the beatific Swat country side and bump into one of these chaps. How do I tell one from another? My friend, these trifling details won’t matter because you’ll be too busy getting beheaded to notice.

Bottom Line

Pakistan is not just a failing state. It’s a dying, once proud civilization, that held court to profound discourse in places like Taxila, and one which now stands teetering at the edge of the precipice. At some level, we all share the burden of resurrecting it. But, the solution at a fundamental level lies in the hands of its people alone. There is a third date worth mentioning. The day – Nov 1, 2011 – on which Imran Khan led an anti government rally attended by 100,000+ youth, surprising himself and his opponents alike. Is this a harbinger of a turnaround? Perhaps a date that might be cited 20 years hence as yet another inflection point in the country’s tortured existence? Can the former captain can get a spot of reverse swing going?

Imran Khan at a rally

Inshallah, I only wish. An implosion of Pakistan would mean the death of something that was once profound and sublime.

On the Nature of Light

Light is at the core of physics. Light, its attributes and energy, define the very parameters of this amazing universe that we find ourselves in. The nature of light, also (less commonly) known by its scientific name – electromagnetic radiation (EMR) – is the most fascinating conundrum we have encountered in nature. Light is the two-faced Janus, connecting our past, present and future, and, for mysterious reasons, can behave as either a ‘wave’ or a ‘particle’. This is no ordinary matter. How light can behave at times like a “particle” – something that has “mass” and confined to “finite amount of space”, and on other occasions, as a “wave” – something that is formless and existing everywhere simultaneously – is one of the most captivating mysteries that science is yet to solve.

On the Nature of Light

Long before before great scientists like Aristotle, Galileo and Newton came along, humans had grasped the mystical importance of light, in a philosophical and religious sense.

Psalms 119:105  (Holy Bible, King James Version):  “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path”

“Seeing the light” came to be equated with wisdom and enlightenment, and with receiving the ultimate expression of God’s benevolence. A dark universe, devoid of light, was considered a universe devoid of itself – a universe that existed without form or purpose until – as the Holy Bible tells us – “God said, Let there be light”. The Holy Koran says, “Allah, (Praise be to his name) is the light of the heavens and the earth”. The Rig Vedantin prayed “Lead me from darkness to light, from the unreal to the real”. The ancient savants intuitively grasped the quixotic nature of light, a baton which science has only recently taken but carried resolutely over the last hundred years. Continue reading “On the Nature of Light”

Can neutrinos travel faster than light?

Scientists in Europe claim that they have observed neutrinos traveling faster than light. What are neutrinos? Why is it surprising that they can travel faster than light? What’s the big deal?

Neutrinos

What are neutrinos? They are sub-atomic particles – little wisps of almost nothing, with no electrical charge. Being neutral, they are found nearly everywhere and can pass through matter unabsorbed. If you hold your hand toward the sunlight for one second, about a billion neutrinos from the sun will pass through it.

These “ghost particles”, as they’re often called, are part of the universe’s essential ingredients, and play a critical role in helping scientists understand some of the most fundamental questions about the nature of matter and in crafting a picture of how our universe formed and evolved.

“Whence this creation has arisen. Perhaps, it formed itself, or perhaps it did not. The one who looks down on it in the highest heaven, only he knows, or perhaps he knows not” – A hymn from the Rig Veda

A group of scientists working at CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research) – among other things – have been attempting to measure the velocity (or speed) of neutrinos, by shooting these particles through an “accelerator” (sort of a long tunnel built underground). In their experiments, the group found that neutrinos were arriving at their destinations earlier than expected. Startlingly, they appear to be traveling faster than light itself. No definitive conclusions have been drawn yet. The results will have to be examined by a wider group of scientists before they can be confirmed or deemed wrong.

Speed of Light

If we were to view the exquisitely intricate design of the universe as a “program” with some of the parameters as “fixed, constant and coded in” and everything else as “variable, relative, dynamic and subject to change”, the only constant (that we know of) is the speed of light (‘c’). Why is the speed of light constant? It just is. We don’t really know why. And light travels at slightly more than 186,000 miles per second. All we know or can say in this regard, is that our measurements till date have not disproved that assertion. It’s the way things work in this particular version of the universe that we find ourselves in, to the best of our knowledge. That light never slows down or comes to a rest and is always moving at a constant speed. This assertion forms a critical basis for Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity.

Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity

The simplest way to explain this is to say that “nothing is absolute” or “everything is relative”. So, immediate answers to any question posed are “it depends” and “compared to what?” For example, a train said to be moving at 60 kmph is relative to a stationary observer on a platform, and not relative to another observer on another train moving in (say) the opposite direction at 70kmph. Everything in the universe is in motion or at rest, *relative to something*. Galaxies with their stars are racing, planets and moons are revolving and rotating and indeed the universe itself is expanding. Grossly simplified, the theory of general relativity is a framework that explains everything as relative and subject to a frame of reference with the notable exception of two things – the speed of light and the laws of physics themselves – which hold steadfast no matter whether you are in San Francisco or in some dark, uninhabited corner of the universe.

Einstein’s theory of general relativity is magnificent for many reasons. In particular, it is awe inspiring for the reason that it tells us that “time itself is relative”. Time itself moves faster or slower depending on the velocity of motion, a mind boggling notion. Clocks slow down when you move faster. Of course, this is not noticeable at speeds we humans move around at normally. The “time dilation” effect kicks in only when we can get to speeds resembling that of light.

Why the fuss about the CERN finding?

It’s tough being a sub-atomic particle these days with scientists constantly tracking your every movement and accusing you of some misdemeanor or the other. If it turns out to be true that neutrinos have been caught breaking the “speed limit of the universe”, the implications are profound at a fundamental level. No, it will not change the way we live in any way. The sun will still rise in the east. Our lives will weave their ways inexorably through to whatever lies ahead. We will continue to fight our daily battles, wage our petty wars and live our lives ordinarily as we did yesterday and the day before. It won’t tell us if there is a God who designed it all. It won’t tell us otherwise either. Yet, everything would have changed. Einstein once said “Time is just a mechanism that ensures that everything doesn’t happen all at once”. The future is nothing more than where light has not reached as yet, or in other words a past that is yet to happen. If something is found to travel faster than light, then notions of past, present, future, time, cause, effect, etc. become mysteriously murkier than ever.

But, it will add a smidgeon of hope and joy that we would have inched forward in the quest for knowing. It will tell us that there is more afoot, more thrill to be had in this pursuit, and simultaneously give us pause to examine this wonder that we call life.

Rajinikanth – The Tale of Two Superstars

What can you write about Rajinikanth that has not been already said? I guess you could start by asking how you go from a dark skinned, Marathi speaking, bus conducting Shivaji Rao Gaekwad in Bangalore to Rajinikanth, the biggest commercial movie star in India?

Rajini’s Sivaji – The Boss, released a few years back, was revelatory to Bollywood and English media, who until then had laughed him off as just another quirk of South Indian cinema and its uninformed audiences. Since its staggering success, they have all fallen over each other to sing paeans to this commercial supernova, who has put the likes of Shah Rukh and Salman firmly in the shade with his unfailing ability to crank out blockbuster after blockbuster. Even Hollywood in the last couple of decades has not had such a bankable star whose mere name has been enough to make cash registers ring.

I’ve read a few articles written in recent times about Rajini. And the first thing that struck me was that they’ve all missed the point by a mile. The best one by Grady Hendrix “The biggest movie star you’ve probably never heard of” in slate.com, was intended to introduce the superstar to western audiences (quoted below)

“But the No. 2 spot (in Asia) goes to someone who doesn’t make any sense at all. The second-highest-paid actor in Asia is a balding, middle-aged man with a paunch, hailing from the Indian state of Tamil Nadu and sporting the kind of moustache that went out of style in 1986. This is Rajinikanth, and he is no mere actor—he is a force of nature”

Even Hendrix, while entertaining, missed the point. Everyone has explained away Rajinikanth as the ‘unexplainable’, the ‘je ne sais quoi’ of Indian cinema. He is not what they expect to see in a matinee idol. In fact, he is the anti-thesis of what they expect to see in one who’s scaled the pinnacle of  movie superstardom. They wring their hands at his physical shortcomings, roll their eyes at his ‘ability to split a bullet in two’ and grudgingly acknowledge that ‘if he’s made a boat load of money, then he must be something special’. They haven’t done justice to the man, who appears to have defied the odds but was always destined to shine.

It is near impossible to understand Rajini the phenomenon, without being a fan and a believer. This is a case when you have to surrender to the experience before you can believe. Yes, his stunts require suspension of reality, punch dialogues zany, and his larger than life person incredible. What makes him tick is a well known word. The word used to describe Clark Gable, the Beatles, Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey and dare I say it, Mahatma Gandhi. The word is charisma. The man does not just have oodles of it, but has now foisted a higher bar on those who aspire to it. Also, to understand the phenomenon, you need to have been an “original” fan. Not one of those fair weather friends who jumped onto the bandwagon when it climbed to somewhere between the stratosphere and Jupiter.

You don’t just go “to watch a Rajini movie”. It’s not just another day in your life. The happiness of clutching the tickets to his latest caper is higher than the high of running a 10K or a marathon. And, then comes the movie watching experience itself. The roll of the titles, and the flashing of “superstar” in all caps using disco lights that went out in the seventies. And the approving roar of the crowd, followed by the frenzy when the superstar’s visage first appears on the screen (always preceded by a shot of his footwear squashing a cigarette). Sufi saints in communion with the One above or a child entering Disneyland for the first time will relate to this experience, one in which the soul soars in unfettered bliss.

That’s charisma. So, what makes Rajini charismatic?

Of the reasons, the biggest is his emotional authenticity. The most fascinating aspect of the man is that – when he’s not playing a superstar, he’s an unassuming individual who goes about in broad daylight unaffected by vanity, unhiding of hair loss and undenying of his past indiscretions. He comes across as a man who does not have an axe to grind. In a world filled with hucksters trying to sell you something or the other, that’s a luxury. Make no mistake. He (and his producer) *is* trying to sell you. But he convinces you that it was your idea to buy. And, it always turns out to be a good idea. It doesn’t get better than that.

It’s like there are two Rajini personas. The superstar actor and the genuine article. And, each persona has watched and learned from the other, always to the betterment of both and their fans. They have both been superstars. That’s a combination hard to find or beat, anywhere in the world.

Rajinikanth is dark skinned, does not have chiseled looks and his voice is not baritone. He’s not tall, has not (regrettably) played a thespian and is self deprecating about his own short comings. He’s humble, honest and authentic. He’s not what a typical movie star is made of. Therein lies the secret of his success. That he’s not what a typical movie star is made of. That is the reason he’s anything but typical. And that’s why it comes as no surprise to those of us who’ve watched him stumble, transform and grow over time. And that’s precisely why he’s destiny’s child.

God bless Rajni.

In Defence of America

There is a lot of hand wringing about the recent downgrade of the US debt, an unprecedented event, which some say, is the beginning of the end of the amazing run of the United States of America. What Ho! puts the American phenomenon, predictions about its decline and fall and other world sentiments about the land of the brave and the home of the free in perspective in this month’s Op-Ed.

Of the man-made phenomena in the last two hundred plus years, one that has to bubble towards the top of a ranking order has to be the rise of the American state. Built on principles of individual liberty and exercise of free will, America has shown the way and led a graceful transition of the Western hemisphere out of an old world ruled by kings, queens, despots and dictators. Along the way, it proved that an economic system built around free markets, merely another form of free will, can be world beating. The free flow of people, thoughts and money in and out of America has led to a renaissance in science, technology, economics and art, which has benefited the entire world.

The extraordinary founding fathers who designed this extraordinary system set out to simply give full expression to the positive and energizing aspects of human existence, a luxury they were not afforded by the masters they escaped from. “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of happiness” may appear simple and obvious today to those of us who have seen or experienced it. Obvious and simple – it was not, two hundred years ago. The birth and rise of America is an unquestionable  triumph of the sublime and beautiful aspects of human existence. Something the entire world should marvel and take pride in. After all, mistakes of entire generations past precipitated the necessity for an America to emerge. The American phenomenon truly belongs to the entire world.

Peoples around the world have little comprehension of the historical struggles of America and the demons it has cast out, in its rise to eminence. America has battled corruption, slavery, racism, sexism, phobias in its relatively young existence and emerged stronger after each tussle, giving rise to hope and optimism in that process. It is an undeniable fact that America was built by and made up of Christians, who have worked comfortably with their beliefs and not let these stand in the way of their guiding principles. It is more a testament to the triumph of reason, good judgement and principles and less to the Christian beliefs themselves. It is difficult to understand a system, its evolution and its struggles. It is easier to cast aspersions by filtered viewing of the demons that are yet to be cast out. Unsurprisingly, most people take the easy route.

Today, the view of America is tinged with many emotions – a little admiration, largely envious resentment and and even some outright hatred. While hundreds of thousands of people are busy emigrating their way to a hopeful life in America, thousands others are busy giving vent to their hatred and planning acts of violence against it. Millions others are busy simply observing and opining, some more animatedly than others. America’s recent economic troubles have provided plenty of fodder for all. There has been anger and resentment against America for a good part of the last five decades. Historically, this resentment was fueled by socialist and communist idealogues, whose discomfort with the brash, freewheeling, individualistic American system stemmed from their reluctance and inability to understand its success. Ostriches with heads buried in the sand, they resisted until they were no more.

Today’s anger and resentment against America no longer feeds off a conflict in ideology. It is shifting to something more personal and capricious. Even peoples in economies like India or Mexico or Brazil, which continue to benefit from borrowing American principles of free will and free markets, are surprisingly resentful. Why? This is surprising because one would expect these peoples to become increasingly familiar with and thus more understanding of American strengths and foibles, as they try to emulate it. Resentment of America seems to derive its energy from several perceptions-

1. Americans are arrogant. They wage unjustified wars for personal gain. They operate with no regard for the rest of the world. They take sides and are not fair.

2. Americans are lazy and stupid. They know little about the rest of the world. They live off the work of immigrants.Their elections are flawed and so are their leaders

3. Americans are materialistic. They place mammon above all, have no culture or soul. They are a bad influence on the rest of us

As with perceptions, there is a little truth, some misunderstanding and large amounts of bias in all of the above. For every bad apple in the American basket, there are several others that  restore the balance. Let us not pretend that America does not have its foibles. Rather, let us learn by observing how it corrects itself. Therein lies the strength and secret of endurance of the system. Unfortunate perceptions have prompted reactions to America’s recent misfortunes (9/11, sub-prime debacle, recession, etc.) ranging from schadenfreude ridden “chickens coming to roost, this is comeuppance, and the end of arrogant America” to well meaning “hope they get their act together”. It is said that you know you are down when the least qualified stop by to give you unsolicited advice. If that’s true, America is truly well and down.

Evolution is a series of mis-steps, punctuated by a-ha moments. The Americans, like anyone else, are evolving and discovering. The last decade has been a period of mis-steps and discovery for America. Election of George Bush, in hindsight, appears to have done more damage than good. If  9/11 had not happened, his presidency could well have been uneventful, even provided some comic respite and shorter by 4 years. it is pointless to speculate how the wheels within the wheels could have turned. Good news is that we all learnt some lessons. Bad news is that we cannot get that time back and some mistakes have to be undone. Yet others cannot be undone. Most important point is that America demonstrated a remarkable will to go down the learning and correcting path by electing Obama. Again, reason and good judgement triumphed over ideology, giving rise to hope and optimism.

The world will have find a way to let go of George Bush, Iraq and the rest of the baggage that America itself is anxious to dispose. If there is anything to be learnt from the last ten years, it is that the best can make mistakes, and often they do not seek or need others’ permission to make mistakes. In front of us, is an emerging world order with China, India and Brazil rising to the fore and making their presence felt. America may lead this new world order or maybe not. Everything that rises eventually fades. The time for America to fade away will come inevitably and surely. Let us hope that the sublime and beautiful aspects of human existence are respected and protected by the new leaders when they come. That’s the kind of world, I hope, our children and theirs will make their own mis-steps and discoveries.

3 reasons Why Life Only Gets Better

Reason number one. You are not going to be 16 forever.

Contrary to what they tell you, the best years of your life are not when you are a kid. This is a myth built on bad memories of disgruntled forty somethings, who remember only the ‘Oh, I didn’t have to pay any bills’ part and have long forgotten the parts involving acne, random hormone explosions, homework, exams and ‘you have to be in bed by 10pm’.

Yes, there will come a time when you will be out on your own, discovering the joys of running up credit card bills, managing house-help and warding off pesky telemarketers. As you get out into the ‘real’ world, it will be pizza for breakfast, pies for lunch and brewskies for dinner. Until, of course, the spleen bursts, ulcers sprout, the midriff widens and you see that dreaded furrow on the doc’s brow after an annual health check.

You know what, kids, freedom is not such a bad thing. You get to live by your rules and you get to break your own rules. Freedom is a beautiful thing. It makes you grow. And, growing is a beautiful thing. Unless, your name is Benjamin Button.

Reason 2: Nothing lasts forever, not even money and time.

Money makes the world go around. As the world gets bigger, there will be more of it. You will get your piece of it. Do not read this to believe that all you have to do is sit back and wait for some money fairy to magically rain cash in your living room. You will have to work for it. The good news is that there is money out there to be made, if you have the time for that sort of thing.

Speaking of time, it is the great healer. The most outrageous slings of misfortune, the worst of insults and the heartrending losses – all fade into black or grey, with time. Even in the darkest of hours, remember the four golden words “this too shall pass.” Except in the cases of a CBI enquiry or a re-run of Kabhi Kushi Kabhi Gam, when nimble footed escape may be more prudent.

Reason 3: Life is not as bad as it is cracked up to be.

Life is not what you see on the telly. When you grow up, your parents do their best to filter out the bad news. The television industry was invented to do exactly the opposite. They do what our parents do, except that they filter all the good stuff.  Why they do that is because bad news sells. Someday in life, you will encounter the phrase “free markets” and it will all magically start making sense. Everything that happens can be explained by either of two human inventions – free markets and stupidity. Quite often, it is both, and the latter is by far more powerful and innovative.

Someday in life, you will encounter the phrase “free markets” and it will all magically start making sense

There will always be a truckload of bad news. Violence, disasters and wars will never go out of fashion. It will often make you wonder “why live in such a crappy a world?’’. But, bad news does not make the world bad. Remember – for every Voldemort, there is a Harry Potter, for every A. Raja there is a Subramaniam Swamy, and for every Osama there is an Obama. Bad news needs to be heard so folks who can fix these ridiculous situations step in. Every fight needs a few good soldiers.

Doing the right thing.

“Life gets better” does not mean that you are going to swoop in, just in the nick of time to cut the blue wire on a dirty bomb to save a planeload of people. It means that you will be given a chance to do a right thing here, and a right thing there. And, if you keep at it, the chances are that it will add up to heroic proportions. And, chances are that no one will notice. Chances are that you will be an unsung hero.

It’s hard to fathom a cheerful world while in the throes of existential angst. Angst smothers you blind, chokes off the oxygen and stops from you seeing that sunrise on the horizon. It takes time and work to get out from under that pillow of anguish and see things for what they are. That, my friend, is how life gets better if you are willing to give it time.