Why I Do Not Write For The Mainstream

When people ask me why I do not write for the mainstream, it reminds me of an incident that happened over a year ago. I mailed Psychology Today’s editor Hara Estroff Marano, saying that I would like to write on Asperger Syndrome. I am sharing this exchange, to illustrate why—much as I would like to—the effort is often not worth it for me. Contrary to what people believe, editors do respond (This is not true of Indian editors. They have poor personal standards.), and are not prejudiced against unknown writers at all. 

Dear Hara,

May I write an article for Psychology Today on why direct communication is a great virtue, in people with Asperger’s Syndrome? As a man somewhere on the  autistic spectrum, it was never clear to me why the direct communication  style of people with Asperger’s Syndrome is considered harsh and insensitive.  Some psychologists like Simon Baron-Cohen think that the people with  Asperger’s Syndrome communicate directly because they have an extreme male brain, and hence, low ability to empathize. But, if directness makes people  uncomfortable, this is perhaps a problem with people and not with direct  speech. People are indirect when they are not fully comfortable telling you  what they really think. An Aspie can easily claim that he finds it more  exhausting to interpret the indirect demands of people, defend himself  against their implicit accusations, and meet the indirect demands others impose on him.

I often notice that people are unable to put themselves in my shoes and understand that my disagreement does not indicate a conflict, or personal  enmity. This is a classic case of failure of introspection. I suspect that  this means that the neurotypicals are deficient in the cognitive component of  empathy. They are also unable to be nice to Aspies despite the disagreements they might have. I suspect that this means that they are deficient in the  affective component of empathy. Now, is it the people with Asperger’s  Syndrome who lack empathy? If someone is willing to defend true, unpopular  positions even when most of his peers disagree with him, I think he is a  dynamo of self-responsibility. I think literalism and disagreeableness are  the fountainhead of human progress. The triumph of the disagreeable over the agreeable is what the progress of humanity is all about.

 Given below is a published  work on mine. A book review emphasizing the autistic cognitive traits I noticed in Warren Buffett. And on why people like Buffett thrive in the information age:

http://www.business-standard.com/article/beyond-business/the-nerd-of-omaha-113010300048_1.html

Warm Regards,

Shanu Athiparambath

She replied:

(more…)

The Softness And Fragility Of Baby Animals Caused Us The Same Intense Pain

I do not feel true sadness. I know that this is a strange claim. If I do not feel true sadness, how would I know what true sadness means? But, this need not be true. I have felt sad, at times, when I was young. I no longer feel that way. I would feel quite the same way if something happens to my child—if and when I have one. I think I would be sad beyond redemption. But, I cannot imagine this happening any other way. I do not know how common it is among normal human beings to not feel sad at all.

When I cry, it is out of anger, frustration, fear, or happiness. It is never out of sadness. I weep when I read, write, think or listen to something I deeply relate to. Along these lines:

“When you’re a carpenter making a beautiful chest of drawers, you’re not going to use a piece of plywood on the back, even though it faces the wall and nobody will see it. You’ll know it’s there. So, you’re going to use a beautiful piece of wood on the back. For you to sleep well at night, the aesthetic, the quality, has to be carried all the way through.”

Similarly, I have never known what it is like to miss someone. Many human experiences are closed to me. But, I relate to this essay: (more…)

The David Friedman Interview

I met David Friedman at Starbucks in Connaught Place, the Central Business District of Delhi. Starbucks, which exemplifies the age of aesthetics, tends to maintain consistency in look, feel and attitude across the world. But, its store in Delhi’s premier market reeks of traditionalism, with bare cement interiors, local crafts and furniture. The Connaught Place market, though somewhat dilapidated, is one of the most expensive office spaces in the world. Starbucks, which does not have many outlets in India, bought space here because as per its brand values, it cannot afford to open stores where the catchment area does not justify the investment. The young men and women who listened to Friedman consuming expensive retail space without consuming the expensive coffee epitomize India’s leisurely café culture. It is hardly surprising that Starbucks does not have many outlets in India.

Economist David Friedman is one of the most creative minds of our times. Friedman studied Physics at Harvard and Chicago, and has never taken a course for credit in economics or law. But, the finest of minds vouch that Friedman’s class on legal systems is the best economics course in the world. David Friedman is the son of Milton Friedman, the 1976 winner of Nobel Prize in Economics, and economist Rose Director. Rose Director was the co-author of Milton’s best-selling book, ‘Free to Choose’ and sister of economist Aaron Director who was instrumental in the development of the Chicago School of Economics.

Read the whole interview here.

Why Social Skills Cannot Be Learned

I am not sure that this is his intention, but I think this blog post of Eliezer Yudkowsky explains why social skills cannot be learned. What normal human beings call social skills is largely the ability to read others. I am repeating this because people do not appreciate this enough—What normal human beings mean by social skills are, largely, mind reading skills.

“Brains are so complex that the only way to simulate them is by forcing a similar brain to behave similarly. A brain is so complex that if a human tried to understand brains the way that we understand e.g. gravity or a car—observing the whole, observing the parts, building up a theory from scratch—then we would be unable to invent good hypotheses in our mere mortal lifetimes. The only possible way you can hit on an “Aha!” that describes a system as incredibly complex as an Other Mind, is if you happen to run across something amazingly similar to the Other Mind—namely your own brain—which you can actually force to behave similarly and use as a hypothesis, yielding predictions.”

Coming from me, this is a great compliment, but this is why I think Manu Joseph’s “The Illicit Happiness Of Other People” is one of the most underrated novels in history. Most readers would have missed the extremely nuanced observations on human heterogeneity:

“The truth of every neurological system is unique and it cannot be transmitted. It cannot be told, it cannot be conveyed, it cannot be searched for and found.

The second sentence was, of course, “lifted” from Nietzsche’s “Beyond Good And Evil”:

“It is some fundamental certainty which a noble soul has about itself, something which is not to be sought, is not to be found, and perhaps, also, is not to be lost.” 

But, still. (more…)

Kafka On The Shore

IMG_20150105_084140“I’m in love with you, and that’s what’s important. I think you understand that.” Like someone rising to the surface of the sea from deep below, she takes a deep breath. She searches for the words to say, but they lie beyond her grasp. “I’m sorry, Kafka, but would you mind leaving? I’d like to be alone for a while,” she says. “And close the door on your way out.” I nod, stand up, and start to go, but something pulls me back. I stop at the door, turn around, and walk across the room to where she is. I reach out and touch her hair. Through the strands my hand brushes her small ear. I just can’t help it. Miss Saeki looks up, surprised, and after a moment’s hesitation lays her hand on mine. “At any rate, you–and your theory–are throwing a stone at a target that’s very far away. Do you understand that?” I nod. “I know. But metaphors can reduce the distance.” “We’re not metaphors.” “I know,” I say. “But metaphors help eliminate what separates you and me.” A faint smile comes to her as she looks up at me. “That’s the oddest pickup line I’ve ever heard.” “There’re a lot of odd things going on–but I feel like I’m slowly getting closer to the truth.” “Actually getting closer to a metaphorical truth? Or metaphorically getting closer to an actual truth? Or maybe they supplement each other?” “Either way, I don’t think I can stand the sadness I feel right now,” I tell her. “I feel the same way.”—Kafka On The Shore, Haruki Murakami

I find the way this boy speaks very similar to the way I speak. Abstract. Especially the retorts peppered with “I know”.

HT: Krishnapriya, who also shared a handwritten note. (more…)

Nabokov’s Little Girl

I really love Nabokov ‘s description of a 12 year old girl. Nabokov claims that he did not know any such girl when he wrote “Lolita”. I do not know how great writers do it:
 
“We washed zillions of dishes. ‘Zillions’ you know is schoolmarm’s slang for many-many-many-many. Oh yes, last but not least, as Mother says — Now let me see — what was it? I know we made shadow-graphs. Gee, what fun.”?
 

I don’t read much, but I have read the Harry Potter series a zillion times.


From Krishnapriya’s Orkut Profile:

Favorite Writers: Marquez

Enjoyed, but not appreciated: Mario Puzo, Ayn Rand.

Paulo Coehlo is great.

And I love Dan Brown. Why? Dan Brown is cool, and he knows the stuff.

And:

“You know, I missed you terribly, Lo.”

“I did not. Fact I’ve been revoltingly unfaithful to you, but it does not matter one bit, because you’ve stopped caring for me, anyway. You drive much faster than my mummy, mister.”

“The word is incest,”said Lo—and walked into the closet, walked out again with a young golden giggle, opened the adjoining door, and after carefully peering inside with her strange smoky eyes lest she make another mistake, retired to the bathroom.

George Orwell, Public Choice Socialist

I am not a fan of George Orwell’s novels, but this quote in 1984 capsulizes my novel better than anything I have ever read:

“To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just so long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies—all this is indispensably necessary.”

Bryan links to a public choice paper on George Orwell:

“There really ought to be a paper on George Orwell and Public Choice.  Thanks to Loyola University senior Michael Makovi, there finally is.  He’s done a great job –George Orwell as Public Choice Economist,” forthcoming in The American Economist, is history of thought you can really sink your teeth into.  Here are some highlights.”

Why Are People So Dumb?

“Dear board members and investors, I don’t think you guys are intellectually capable enough to have any sensible discussion anymore. This is something which I not just believe but can prove on your faces also! I had calculated long back (by taking avg life expectancy minus avg sleeping hrs) that I only have ~3L (hours) in my life. ~3L hrs are certainly not much to waste with you guys! Hence resigning from the position of Directorship, Chairmanship and the CEO position of the company. I’m available for the next 7 days to help in the transition. Won’t give more time after that. So please be efficient in this duration.”

This is Housing.com CEO Rahul Yadav’s resignation letter. This is “bad English” and “bad manners”. But, unlike most people, I’ve always greeted these sort of statements with sympathy, tolerance and respect because I know where this comes from, without even knowing anything about such people. And this morning, I read this interview:

Rahul has a general disregard for humankind. Yes. “While growing up, I observed things and always kept thinking. Why are the trains so dirty? Why is this thing like this? Why are people not working hard? Why are hostels so dirty? Why is everything so broken? Why are people so dumb?” he asks rhetorically. However, he is optimistic about changing all this.

Again, this is “bad English” but I think this is obvious:

Rahul looks outside the window at the lake and says, “Well, food will also change. It is something that hasn’t changed over the last couple of centuries. More and more people are working on computers and are getting tensed about what they eat. It creates stress and is something that is always on the minds. Lifestyles are changing but the food hasn’t. Our generation will be screwed but then we’ll realize and course correct,” he says and Rahul believes this to be the fate with most things on planet earth.

 

Why Do We Find It So Hard To Understand Each Other?


Years ago, a smarty pulled a trick on me. In the mornings, she would promise to come to my room. Before sunset, while the keyboards still jingled and rattled. Beaming, I always whispered, “Why, oh, how nice of you!” But, after a while, she started defaulting on her promises.

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow.

I waited and waited and waited till it was too dark. The reasons she gave me were always along these lines, “This morning, a coconut fell on my grandmother’s head. You know, I love her more than anyone on earth. Weeping. Sob. Sob.”  Soon, suspicion began to dawn on my nerdy mind. The underlying assumption, of course, was, “Now that you have seen what it is like, if you want more of this, you must put me permanently there.” I could never get my head around this line of reasoning. But, this didn’t have any effect on me for the same reason rain does not have a big effect on the nerd who always reads in the school library.

I, the scholar and gentleman, still courted her, tolerating her antics with Buddha-like patience. I wasn’t big on sleeping with her. So, she assumed that I wanted to make her my “wife”. Now, I am being blatant at the risk of sounding honest. It is very cruel, to be honest. (more…)

The Mellow Heuristic

If our hearts were pure, we wouldn’t need our heads. To me, this is the most beautiful, most insightful statement on moral reasoning. We would never understand how much we really care about morality without fully understanding what this quote of Paul Bloom means.

For instance, I am an Aspie. Aspies are far less cruel than normal human beings because Aspies are more guilt-driven. Normal people feel shame when they lose in the status game. Aspies feel guilt when they do wrong. So, it is not surprising that Aspies often do things which lower their status, but does not leave them guilty. Similarly, normal people are more likely to do things which raise their status, but leaves them guilty. Or, perhaps they do not feel much guilt. It also seems to me that normal people value covert conniving skills more than moral rectitude, though they hide this even from themselves.

What possibly explains this? Rational deliberation plays more of a role in the moral attitudes of Aspies. But, I do not think that this fully explains this. This is probably not detached concern either. I believe Aspies are less cruel than normal human beings because they feel genuine compassion toward victims of injustice. In other words, the belief that thinking people are more rational, and feeling people are mush headed is not true. This is a false dichotomy. The truth is that it is impossible to think deeply without feeling deeply, without being emotionally sensitive.

I will explain. One of the most interesting observations of James Watson is that genetics would lead to a world where honest compassion for the underdog might become possible. This means that we do not live in such a world. It is obvious to me that we do not live in a world where true civility between human beings—let alone compassion—is possible. Honest, wholehearted compassion wouldn’t be possible without a high degree of safety, trust, comfort and reciprocity in human relationships. This wouldn’t be possible without more direct, verbal communication between people. If you think that there is enough of this in the world in which we live in, you are not a particularly introspective or sensitive person. But, it is not surprising to me that James Watson made this observation. From his worldview, he seems to be such a person. (more…)

Totally Conventional Views Which I Hold

 

  1. If our hearts were pure, we wouldn’t need our heads to tell right from wrong.
  2. Certain things are right, and certain things are wrong. Even if no one would ever prove why.
  3. If people become nice, the world would be nice.
  4. If people calmly listen to others, most human conflicts wouldn’t arise in the first place.
  5. To paraphrase Bryan Caplan,“Raising kids is the most meaningful thing most people will ever do with their lives.”
  6. You perhaps shouldn’t follow your “dream”.
  7. Creative men often do stupid things. 
  8. Politicians are crooks.
  9. Humility is very valuable. (It is a very valuable form of humility to understand that there is much one can learn from far more intelligent, learned fellows.)
  10. Most mothers prefer normal children, not exceptionally intelligent or stupid ones.

Bryan Caplan’s list here, and Tyler Cowen’s list here.

                                                       

Gone Girl

“Hi Darling,

So we both have things we want to work on. For me, it’d be my perfectionism, my occasional (wishful thinking?) self-righteousness. For you? I know you worry that you’re sometimes too distant, too removed, unable to be tender or nurturing. Well, I want to tell you – that isn’t true. You need to know that you are a good man, you are a sweet man, you are kind. I’ve punished you for not being able to read my mind sometimes, for not being able to act in exactly the way I wanted you to act right at exactly that moment. I punished you for being a real, breathing man. I ordered you around instead of trusting you to find your way. I didn’t give you the benefit of the doubt: that no matter how much you and I blunder, you always love me and want me to be happy. And that should be enough for any girl, right? I worry I’ve said things about you that aren’t actually true, and that you’ve come to believe them. So I am here to say now: You are WARM. You are my sun.”

-Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn

Gail Wynand, My Favorite Fictional Character

“Gail Wynand lived with his father in the basement of an old house in the heart of Hell’s Kitchen. His father was a longshoreman, a tall, silent, illiterate man who had never gone to school. His own father and his grandfather were of the same kind, and they knew of nothing but poverty in their family. But somewhere far back in the line there had been a root of aristocracy, the glory of some noble ancestor and then some tragedy, long since forgotten, that had brought the descendants to the gutter. Something about all the Wynands–in tenement, saloon and jail–did not fit their surroundings. Gail’s father was known on the waterfront as the Duke. 

Gail’s mother had died of consumption when he was two years old. He was an only son. He knew vaguely that there had been some great drama in his father’s marriage; he had seen a picture of his mother; she did not look and she was not dressed like the women of their neighborhood; she was very beautiful. All life had gone out of his father when she died. He loved Gail; but it was the kind of devotion that did not require two sentences a week. 

Gail did not look like his mother or father. He was a throwback to something no one could quite figure out; the distance had to be reckoned, not in generations, but in centuries. He was always too tall for his age, and too thin. The boys called him Stretch Wynand. Nobody knew what he used for muscles; they knew only that he used it. 

He had worked at one job after another since early childhood. For a long while he sold newspapers on street corners. One day he walked up to the pressroom boss and stated that they should start a new service–delivering the paper to the reader’s door in the morning; he explained how and why it would boost circulation. “Yeah?” said the boss. “I know it will work,” said Wynand. “Well, you don’t run things around here,” said the boss. “You’re a fool,” said Wynand.

He lost the job.  (more…)