Peter Thiel Believes Justice Is Unrelenting

Everything about Peter Thiel seems larger than life. Marty Neumeier once said that you can hear the caffeine coursing through your veins as you read Peter Thiel. In the words of journalists, he is a “gifted rhetorician and a provocateur with a bottomless pocketbook” who is also America’s greatest living public intellectual. Peter Thiel is against death. He is more “athletic than his onscreen impersonators”. Peter Thiel pays brilliant students to drop out of college. Peter Thiel wants to prevent aging, produce meat and leather without killing animals, and build computers with greater brainpower than human beings. Peter Thiel also wants to build artificial libertarian cities in the ocean. Ayn Rand would have been delighted to see a libertarian businessman who is also one of the greatest intellectuals of all times.

It is not just journalists who find Peter Thiel impressive. Some of the greatest intellectuals on earth are admirers of Peter. Economist Bryan Caplan called him the world’s most creative philanthropist. This is how economist Tyler Cowen introduced Peter Thiel before interviewing him.

“It’s been my view for years now that Peter Thiel is one of the greatest and most important public intellectuals of our entire time. Throughout the course of history, he will be recognized as such. Peter himself doesn’t need an introduction; he has a best-selling book. His role in PayPal, Facebook, Palantir, many other companies, is well known. Peter is a dynamo. There is no one like Peter.”

But it was Peter Thiel who funded Hulk Hogan’s legal battle against for violating privacy. In 2004, Peter Thiel was outed by Gawker. “Peter Thiel is totally gay, people”, a Gawker article said. Peter feared this may deter some of his more traditional investors in Arab countries. When Gawker’s dig at Peter Thiel and some of his friends got too much, he decided to get even. Peter Thiel hired a team of lawyers to research how to bring Gawker down to its knees. Peter Thiel became a vengeance donor. This is one of the many cases in which Peter Thiel funded people who sued Gawker.

Do I blame Peter Thiel? No. Why?

Peter Thiel once told New Yorker’s George Packer that he had not made up his mind about the seat belt question. People drive carelessly when they fasten their seat belts. Then he made a volte-face, fastened the seat-belt and said it is much better to drive carefully while wearing the seat belt. Think about this. Seat belts make driving safer. But if your mind tells you that you’re safe, you’d probably drive recklessly. It’s all in your mind. You can selectively erase the information inside your mind. You can twist such information to your advantage. You can forget facts when it is inconvenient, and remember them again when it suits you. You can transmit untrue facts from one mind to another. All these have consequences. This is why delusion trumps the seat belt. Your safety has more to do with your beliefs than seat belts do. Your safety, and that of others. Our beliefs matter more than where regulators stand.

Let us suppose you live in a traditional society where the punishment for homosexuality is ostracism. If news gets around, your family will disown you. Your friends will leave you. Your will be out of your job. No one will rent out an apartment to you. You will have no place to go. Remember: These are not violations of your rights. People are within their right to do all this. These are not hypothetical scenarios. In some parts of the world, till recently, gays were treated not too unlike this. Even in the US, gays were persecuted under the sodomy laws, and often faced private ostracism and violence. Peter Thiel’s sexual preferences were not known to many except his family, closest friends and colleagues. Why? He feared things wouldn’t be pretty if everyone gets to know this. Your friend Jim knows you are gay. He outs you. Is this fair?

This much is obvious to me. You will suffer through no fault of your own. Jim and your other associates have the satisfaction of not having violated your rights. By tinkering with the information inside the heads of people, Jim harmed you. Here, Jim was not lying. But, what if he were lying? What if he were publicizing information he had not right to publicize, as in Hulk Hogan’s case? Gawker often targets powerless and vulnerable people who can’t fight back. Whatever you think about it, this fits Peter Thiel’s fundamental tenets of philanthropy:

“You want to pick an issue where it both does some good on its own, and at the same time helps draw awareness to a broader set of issues.”

You Still Think I Do Not Have Empathy

I am an Aspie. I have a near-photographic memory, a razor-sharp mind, and the ability to focus on a problem for an unbelievably long period of time. If you know me, you know that I tell you exactly what I think—on your face. You feel bad. But, I don’t see why you should. I think you shouldn’t. In nine out of ten cases, if you had gone along with me, you would have done a lot better. A lot, lot better. Now, I am being modest. Deep down, you know this. You have even told me this, not always in so many words. But, you still betray yourself—and me—for the momentary pleasure of being petty.

You made a torture rack for me, and yourself, with your poor self-esteem. But, you still think I do not have empathy.

Now, you are probably thinking that this is about you. I know that this is exactly how you think. Common people—They always think that it is about them. Now, you are mad that I called you a “common person”. If you are so convinced, this is probably the truth you do not want to admit about yourself. But, this doesn’t occur to you.

That’s how common people are.

Tell them that Facebook is good for kids, and they will say, “Don’t ever tell me how to raise my child.” Tell them intelligence is genetic, and they will think you just called them stupid. Tell them that there is no trade-off between inflation and growth, and they will think that you don’t like them. If you write that half the people in Mumbai live in one-room houses, they will remove you from their friend lists. Tell them that their parents are “bad”, and they will faint. But, they will still admit, “I know that you are right, but this makes me so weary….so weary…”

But, I believe in Eugene Gendlin’s words, “What is true is already so. Owning up to it doesn’t make it worse. Not being open about it doesn’t make it go away. And because it’s true, it is what is there to be interacted with. Anything untrue isn’t there to be lived. People can stand what is true, for they are already enduring it.” This doesn’t mean that I am honest. All this means is that I tend to do this. If people were not so weak and pathetic, I would have been happy to do this all the time. Now, that doesn’t seem to be a tempting prospect to you, does it?

Reading me so far, what you have noticed is the arrogance, the self-righteousness, the condescension, the many “I’s”. You would not have noticed that all this is so true. But, that is exactly how you think. I know it.

Should Writers Read?

When I was in college, one of my prized possessions was a biography of Sachin with its margins filled by a school girl. Her email password was “Sachin”. The letters she wrote to me were beautiful, though she did not read. In her letters, there was not a single word that would send the reader to the dictionary. I rarely see such purity in literature. The truth is that there are eight year olds who write more clearly than virtually all editors in this city. Writers are born, not made. What separates a eight year old who writes clearly from a literary giant? Plenty of talent. Tens of thousands of hours of hard work. 

I read Jai Arjun Singh‘s article on young tycoons of mass market fiction a few weeks ago. He is surprised that many popular Indian writers are convinced that reading isn’t their thing. I don’t know what they are smoking. People have many misconceptions about writing, because they have never really gone through the process of being a writer. I know people who believe that you write from your “heart”. But, writing is an intellectual process. Great writing stems from a great mind. To think deeply, you should feel intensely. But, this does not change the issue.

Then, there are people who believe that you can learn how to write by reading style manuals. It is true that if you grow up reading a lot, you will acquire very valuable skills. If you write for many years, you will acquire skills that writers so need. But, this does not mean that the process can be reversed. It is not possible to become a great writer by acquiring verbal skills—or by learning where to place commas. As the great H.L. Mencken once said, They write badly simply because they cannot think clearly.

I don’t know where all these assumptions come from. To begin with, English grammar is too complex to be learned as a set of rules. Any good psycholinguist will tell you that a 3 year old’s understanding of English grammar will be far more sophisticated than any grammar text in the world—if she grew up in the US or the UK. Now, imagine the complexity of the mind of a Nabokov or a Faulkner. Language is mindbogglingly complex. It cannot be taught as a set of a finite number of rules. This is why “schoolma’ms, bucolic college professors, and other such pseudo-literates” fail so miserably at writing, despite their attempts to learn how to write and edit (!) from style manuals. This is also why such beliefs are often found at the lowest rungs of the society—and never in great writers.

As I said, great writers are born, not made. But, this does not mean that great writers were born with skills in English composition. They were born with an innate fluency with language. They were born with certain attitudes of mind. But, they acquired the skill to write beautiful, fully formed sentences. How? As Steven Pinker points out:

“No one is born with skills in English composition per se. Those skills may not have come from stylebooks, but they must have come from somewhere. That somewhere is the writing of other writers. Good writers are avid readers. They have absorbed a vast inventory of words, idioms, constructions, tropes, and rhetorical tricks, and with them a sensitivity to how they mesh and how they clash. This is the elusive “ear” of a skilled writer—the tacit sense of style which every honest stylebook, echoing Wilde, confesses cannot be explicitly taught. Biographers of great authors always try to track down the books their subjects read when they were young, because they know these sources hold the key to their development as writers.”

This cannot be explicitly taught because such skills are too complex to be explicitly taught. World class performers in many fields spend roughly 10,000 hours to acquire competence of the highest order. In writing and science, you need far more hours of practice. I am not even counting the tens of thousands of hours we spend reading. Of course, this is an oversimplification. The amount of practice you need varies from person to person. But, even the best writers work excruciatingly hard. Again, this does not mean you will become a great writer by working as hard as Naipaul, though it is true that Naipaul works really, really hard. You most probably will not. Not one in many millions is born with such enormous talent.

Talent is rare—rarer than people think. A few years ago, I read an article economist Jagdish Bhagwati wrote for Mint. It was badly written. This is not because Jagdish Bhagwati is abysmally read. This is not because Jagdish Bhagwati is lazy, stupid or inexperienced. He was 80 years old when he wrote this. Many believe that he is Nobel Prize material. There could be many reasons. He was not born with an innate fluency with language. English is not his mother tongue. Perhaps he did not read much in his formative years. He grew up in the 1930s when people did not read much. Most Indians were illiterate then. Asians generally have low verbal IQs. Academia does not punish bad writing. Academic journals place too many constraints on writers. They do not write because they are genuinely curious, or because they have a strong desire to speak their mind. They are forced to write. That is how the academia works. There are, of course, other reasons why academic writing stinks. Academics are not able to get outside their own heads. It doesn’t occur to them that what they write is beyond common folk. But, I doubt whether this is why Bhagwati writes so badly. 

Again, don’t be too quick to assume that all academics are lousy writers.Almost all my favorite economists and social scientists write well—-or at least, decently enough. Why? Like good writers, they are avid readers too. The best economists, for example, know other social sciences fairly well—at times, extraordinarily well. Some of them read more fiction than most literary critics do. 

But, Jagdish Bhagwati is not an exception. Most experienced academics and journalists write badly. The sad truth is that this is a very difficult skill to acquire. Somerset Maugham once said that there were only six writers in human history who knew how to write flawless English. I agree with him. All of us fail ourselves, to some degree, because it is such a difficult task. It is not at all surprising that many obscure Babbits fail miserably.

This is why I am surprised when I hear that it ain’t necessary that writers read. I even see people who believe that editing is very different from writing—and that it ain’t necessary that editors read.  Jai Arjun Singh is quite perceptive in such matters:

Being a reader is inseparable from the question of a writer’s abilities. When you start reading from an early age, not only do you develop certain standards, you also realise how much good work has already been done. And it makes you humble – it might even make you diffident about your own work, which can be a problem. But at least it prevents you from being cocky and overconfident and thinking “I think I have a great story to tell, and the world is just waiting for my book; literature begins with me.” During our session, I asked Singh the obvious question: if you don’t read yourself, on what basis do you expect others to read your books? I didn’t get a coherent response.

I’m not a literary snob: my favorite authors include many genre writers like Stephen King, Agatha Christie and Thomas Harris, all of whom have reached very large readerships; as a film critic too, I constantly defend the value of good mainstream films, and my latest book is dedicated to viewers “who are smart enough to take popular cinema seriously”. But at the same time I’m also uncomfortable about some of the narratives that have grown around mass-market writing in India – such as the inverse snobbery on view when bestselling writers scoff at “pretentious” literary types and wonder why anyone would waste six or seven years writing a “heavy” book full of “complicated” words.

This is a view I completely agree with. I do not believe that popular cinema is less artistic. I never believed that popular literature is less artistic. I read many popular writers, and I am convinced that some of them are better than most great names in literature. It is obvious to me that people look down on popular literature because they have such poor judgment. They have such narrow minds. They do not know that Shakespeare was once considered a popular writer. Many great painters and musicians who are considered great today were profit-minded. Sales were very important to Ayn Rand, though she did not place money above the integrity of her work. 

I do not look down on popular Indian writers. One of the best things that happened to Indian literature is that there is a now a larger market for popular fiction. This does not mean that the Indian reader is reading more trash. This means that the Indian audience is now more mature. At last, there is a market for literature.  One of the greatest tributes you can pay a society is that people are now consuming literature like potato chips. Indian writers do not comprehend Chetan Bhagat because they do not have the brains to see marketing as an art. But, the anti-intellectualism in these self-styled writers is worse than annoying. They are immature, but they think they have the whole world figured out.

Why do people believe in such nonsense? My best guess is that people are mad. They have no sense of reality. They do not know where they stand. This makes me melancholy, because they are unskilled and unaware of it. Cognitive psychologists call this the Dunning-Kruger effect. They are not able to see this. If you are not fluent as a writer, it is hard to say how fluent you are. Nabokov once said that you can’t even give your phone number without giving something of yourself. They are probably fooling themselves, and their readers who are semi-literates. But, they are not fooling their betters. Now, it is obvious why hardly anyone outside India read the many young Indian writers who are tycoons of mass market fiction. The more sophisticated audience in the west is less tolerant.

Indian Soldier Is Never On A Holiday

Good God! Mr. Noob!

Aakar Patel’s article “The Martyr Who Cleans Your Drains” is brilliant. Sanitation workers are incomparably more likely to die than soldiers. So, why are they not considered martyrs? Why are soldiers seen as heroes? I think the explanation lies in human evolution. People don’t like the idea of doing a task and getting paid for it because they have such poor personal standards. They have all sorts of illusions about themselves. They don’t have the brains or nerve to think on their own. But, if they are paid to do a task, they think there is something demeaning about this. But, the truth is that most human beings do not have the deep specialized knowledge to be truly creative. The most they can do is to take orders, get paid, and say “Thank You” nicely.

But, if they are led covertly into serving ideals that do not challenge the society’s secular religion, like warfare, they are fine. People value covert conniving and the warrior spirit more than they value real skills and co-operation. Soldiers are also high status—martyrs in the uniform. Aakar Patel once pointed out that Gujaratis are more likely to be traders and less likely to be soldiers. The reason is that the mercenary spirit and the spirit of the trading floor are entirely opposed to each other.

A person who reads this article can’t honestly disagree with it. But, they won’t pay much attention to it. Why? It ain’t hard to admit that sanitation workers die more often than soldiers, and that they deserve more respect. But, once you admit this, it would become clear that what soldiers do is no big deal. People are quite willing to die while getting paid to do a task.

Private Truths, Public Lies And The Age Of Abundance

Years ago, I spent my mornings talking to an exceptionally smart Canadian teen on the internet. She loved to entertain her virtual friends by taking her clothes off. When I asked her why, she said that it was a pleasant experience for everybody concerned. But, the last thing she wanted was her mother knowing it. One day, she said that she was depressed. She said that she felt bad about being a harlot over the Yahoo Messenger. I knew this before she said it because I knew enough about human nature to be suspicious of such claims. But, the internet is the best teacher I can think of. 

A decade ago, I loved reading the Orkut scrapbook of a 16 year old girl who shared her nudes for everybody to see. I was a silent spectator who enjoyed her conversations with men who entered her space hoping that there is so much that is possible. She was wise beyond her years—smart as a whip. When we once talked, she said that I should have known her horrible reputation. Her language skills were excellent, unlike that of men who stalked her. When someone called her a snob for being a grammar Nazi, she said, “When I was in middle school, I used to read high school textbooks. Nobody ever helped me.” Years later, I heard that she killed herself at UC Berkeley, where she was studying Physics. Without the internet and social media, we would not have known much about the inner worlds of outliers like her. If we knew more, she would have….she would have, well, survived.

The internet tells us that we are all so similar and so different at the same time. Nothing is more important to morality than deep insight into people who are very different from us. Moral refinement is the fountainhead of human progress. The most prosperous societies are where morality and fairness are valued to the largest degree. If moral refinement is the fountainhead of human progress, this outweighs everything else that the internet gives us. I argue that this is the most underrated fact about the internet. This is an extraordinary claim. But, one day, the internet will be celebrated for this, more than for anything else.

The internet makes us human.

Philosopher Michael Huemer thinks that political ignorance is greatest problem that we face. Huemer believes that political ignorance is a graver threat than crime, drug addiction or even world poverty, because political ignorance is at the root of everything else.  He is wrong. Our moral failures are often a form of politicking. But, political ignorance does not explain everything. It is our poor understanding of ourselves and that of other minds that prevents us from solving much of our problems, including political ignorance.

If you are discerning enough, your Facebook friend list is probably a more diversified portfolio of human beings than your school or office will ever be. The best blogs say more about the inner workings of the finest minds on earth than any newspaper or magazine ever will. When the best minds are unguarded, what ensues is an unusually high supply of intelligent conversation—-and extraordinarily perceptive writing. This is why the internet is very important for moral refinement.

Now, many believe that, on the internet, no one will see the real “You”. In fact, the truth is the opposite. Over 5,000 years ago, the written word did not even exist. Aristotle would not have had much success in those days. But, this does not mean that “Nicomachean Ethics” is misleading or that Aristotle had quite a different personality when he wrote. Aristotle is remembered for his philosophical works, and not for being a wife-beater or for “not holding the gods in honor”.

Moral refinement of mankind would not have been possible without great literature. But, in a world without the written word, Aristotle’s greatest talent would not even have been a voice that people could recognize. To see the “Real Aristotle”, his contemporaries probably had to separate the “Aristotle who did not hold the Gods in honor” from Aristotle, the great philosopher. We face no such dilemma today. There is near unanimous agreement on the criteria Aristotle should be judged on. But, if the written word did not exist, Aristotle’s place in history would have been the same as that of the savages of his time. On the internet, we make finer distinctions. In the future, people will find it obvious that people were so undifferentiated before the internet. Before the internet, there was nothing but a heap of moral uniformity. For the same reason we celebrate language and literature for how far we have come today, one day, the internet will be celebrated for making people morally distinguishable.

The age of the internet is the age of abundance. This is indisputable. But, of all things we find on the internet, what matters the most is the abundance of moral perspectives. What matters the most is the abundance of knowledge about the inner worlds of people. Without knowing much about the inner worlds of people, we would never understand their moral beliefs.

In the real world, we see people. We see how they dress, walk and speak. But, their inner worlds are closed to us, and often to themselves. But, ultimately, their hidden inner worlds drive everything that they do. Hidden motives influence what people do, regardless of what they say publicly. Hidden assumptions almost determine their political and moral beliefs. But, if these motives and assumptions are hidden, often even to themselves, how do we know them? There are no substitutes for introspection, reading and hard thought. But, these are still not enough to know what other people hide, even from themselves. There is no better guide than the internet because people tend to be frank in their virtual lives. Unguarded.

Facebook, Twitter, Instant Messenger, Blogs. Yes.

Frankness on the internet may seem suicidal. A brewing revolution will always be invisible to everybody, but the most perceptive. When people underestimate the price of speaking their mind, many will. Speaking one’s mind will slowly become the norm, tweet by tweet. The price of speaking one’s mind will fall, tweet by tweet. One day, people will find it hard to believe that many of the most obvious truths about human nature were once private truths that no one spoke of.

In Search Of The True Indian

I met him three years ago, somewhere near North Block. As a rule, I refuse to meet people in the three-dimensional world. I made an exception for him because he once tweeted that I am the most beautifully idiosyncratic Indian writer. “Now, this is somebody who has good judgment. He understands my work, unlike the half-brained slobs I see every day.” I told myself.  We shall call him “Indian”. I do not want to name him and shame him. But, when I think about the “nature-nurture debate”, it is hard to get this fellow off my mind.

When I met him, he said that he “loved” a quote on my wall:

“We all talk about clarity and sanity all the time, but the truth is it’s very dangerous. True clarity and sanity won’t allow you to do anything — it will just make you jump off the building.

I have my doubts. I am the happiest person I have ever known. My hypothesis is that most people find it difficult to get out of their beds in the morning because they are sad. It is sadness which doesn’t allow them to do anything. They are sad, but they do not see the world half as clearly as I do. This was red flag enough.

He was unbearably depressed. I found this bizarre. When I said that I found this hard to believe, he said, “I know that it is strange for a very young man to be so depressed, but this is how I feel now.” I asked him whether he was a victim of “office politics”. He said that “office politics” is not the only source of misery. There are many other. This was news to me.

He said, “I don’t think you are trying to make a point on your blog. It is always along these lines, ‘I said this to her, and then she said this to him.’ But, what comes through is the absolute pettiness that emerges from the interactions between half-anglicized Indians.” The depressed are refreshingly frank.

I tried to cheer him up saying that a Masters from UChicago will take him very far in this third-world city where people are quickly impressed. But, he said that he studied something pointless. I reassured him. He will tower over everybody like an Albert Einstein in newsrooms in Delhi where journalists have IQs in the range of hockey scores. But, he did not budge. He is useless. Pedagogues had as much as said so, in that almighty piece of paper.

It was then his grandfather called him on the phone to ask whether he took the bananas in the fridge. He said, thinking long and hard, “Strictly speaking, that is not true.” He lived with his grandparents. His grandparents and mother were doctors. But, when she was young, his topper-type mother married a never-do-well from the hills. Before his mother jilted this Pahadi idiot who never did an honest day’s job, he was crawling.

On the first day of every academic year, his teachers at Modern School asked him what his father did. He couldn’t stand this diabolic torture. When he was a child, he said, “My mother (Softly) is a doctor (Emphasis added).” Soon, it dawned on him that he could not get away with it. He learned to say that his father was in “import-export business”. But, one day a girl walked to him and said cheerfully that her father was in “import-export business” too. He did not know what to tell her. When he was twelve, he decided that enough was enough. He walked toward the teacher, leaped and whispered in her ears, “My parents are divorced, and my father doesn’t do anything.” That did it for her.

My girlfriend once told me that her schoolmates asked three questions whenever she joined a new school, “In which part of Delhi do you live? What does your father do? Which car does he drive?” In all the cosmos, nothing mattered more to them.

He was bright, but he barely graduated high school. His mother (presumably an enterprising woman) decided to ship out and live in a ghetto in the UK where his grades did not bother anyone. I asked him how he managed to get into a school in the UK. He laughed and asked me whether I was living under a rock for long. “This is the age of decadence. Educational standards have been declining throughout the world.” When he was ejected from University of Chicago at the age of 25, he resembled his father. He had no desire to work.

He said, “Your prose is very ‘westernized’. But, if you like western thinkers so much, why don’t you live in the west? Without living in the west for a few years, you will never understand the west.”

I said that there was no conscious attempt to “deracinate” myself. I do not see things this way at all. The best books are ‘western’. I haven’t really bothered to read Indian writers for the same reason I have never been on a social networking website created by an Indian. This did not convince him. He sighed saying that he did not know that colonialism spawned people who have such dichotomous lives.

He attributed much of his depression to being compelled to live in the west. He loved Nirad Chaudhuri—who loved the west—and Pankaj Mishra, who, for all ranting, still prefers to live there. When I said that we have such fucked up lives, he sighed, “But, Pankaj Mishra is having a swell time, with his British wife and everything.”

Tired hearing that a passage of Nirad Chaudhuri is enough to take libertarianism out of me, I bought Autobiography of an Unknown Indian. I read the first few dozen pages before throwing it away. It was written in the sort of pedantic prose a school headmaster turned out of a public school hundred years ago would have written.  

The west was a nameless, faceless enemy. But, after a decade in the west, Indian streets had become unbearable. “I hate walking the streets because I do not like seeing these lower class people. I never go out, but when I go to the super market, the guy at the counter talks to me. I find that really oppressive”, he once said. He did not like his grandparents either. “My grandmother is so primitive. She is not westernized. I pray for her to die so that I can live in this house with my grandfather.” he said. The feeling was mutual, because he looked like his father.

His preoccupation with the west colored his perception of everything around him. Whenever he spoke, it was along these lines:

“My grandfather does not know why I lock my door when I am alone in my room. Indians do not understand the concept of privacy.”

“Theory is a western concept.”

“Morality is a western concept. Indians do not even know what “morality” means.”

“Did they understand you? I am sure that they did not. Indians do not know how to reason with each other.”

“Why do these people stare at me? Is it because I am westernized? I smile and make eye contact. I haven’t seen Indians doing that.”

But, despite everything, he loved the idea of India. Everywhere, he searched frantically for true Indianness.

Steve Jobs And The Nature-Nurture Debate

a-young-steve-jobs-smelled-so-bad-he-had-to-be-put-on-the-night-shift-at-atariMany years ago, I dropped out of college. People have often asked me whether I felt fear when I dropped out of engineering college. But, people are cowards. They do not understand college dropouts. The night I decided to drop out, I paced on the terrace of the college hostel, throwing stones, watching their trajectories. I felt exhilaration and a great sense of relief. Then onward, I had all the time in the world to read whatever I wanted to read.  Everything I did since then—and before—was rooted in my absolute confidence in creating a world of sublime beauty and tenderness by pressing my fingers on the keyboard.  

In the years I spent there, I cut myself off from the outside world to read the tall pile of books in my otherwise Spartan wooden room. My hostel mates called it “The Eiffel Tower”. All they could hear was me shutting the door loudly behind their backs. So, they often loosened the screws of my room to see what went on inside my room. Each time they did, I filled those holes with my large collection of ancient pens and pencils. Once, they did not allow me to sleep till 2 past midnight because they wanted to know what was in my briefcase. It was a battle I won.

In one of those days, I read a speech by Steve Jobs on dropping out of college. It was beautifully written. If Steve Jobs were not a visionary leader, he would have been one of the greatest writers of our times and of all times. The impulse that drives men like Steve Jobs to lose everything for their beliefs is the same that drives me to burn inhuman energy to create a work of unparalleled beauty. Over years, I read his speech many times because what kept me going was that I loved to write. Nothing else mattered much to me. Years later, when I was working in a run-down building in Safdarjung, I wept reading a beautifully written eulogy. It was the most beautiful tribute written when Steve Jobs died. It was written by Steve Jobs’ sister Mona Simpson, a successful novelist who was unaware of his existence for the first 25 years of her life. Mona Simpson’s husband is a writer for The Simpsons.

Similarities do not end there. Steve Jobs’ biological father ran a popular Mediterranean restaurant in Silicon Valley. Once Steve Jobs’ biological father told Mona Simpson without knowing that Steve Jobs was his own son: “Even Steve Jobs used to eat there. Yeah, he was a great tipper.” Steve Jobs called his biological parents his egg and sperm bank. But, it was his egg and sperm bank that shaped him, and not the working class parents who raised him.

When Steve Jobs’ high school sweetheart visited his home for the first time, she wondered “how these hardworking, blue-collar parents, these people with common sense but so few books, gave him the space to be completely otherworldly. To be extraordinary, in fact.” But, Steve Jobs’ biological father was a PhD in Economics and Political Science. He was his mother’s teaching assistant when she was a doctoral candidate. Steve Jobs was born when his father was 23. When Steve Jobs was young, his girl friend gave birth to a child he was not willing to raise. He was then 23 years old. Jobs’ biological parents wanted him to be adopted by a wealthier couple that rejected him at the final moment because they wanted a baby girl, and not a baby boy. So much for the belief that parents prefer baby boys. Anyone who has read enough about gender knows that parents prefer to adopt baby girls.

Is Steve Jobs’ case exceptional? No. As Bryan Caplan points out:

“In early 1979, a pair of identical twin brothers who had been separated at four weeks were reunited after 39 years. Both named Jim, they discovered that they smoked the same brand of cigarettes, vacationed in the same town and both called their dog “Toy.” Struck by the story, psychologists at the University of Minnesota started studying separated twins that same year. Their efforts blossomed into the Minnesota Study of Twins Reared Apart, which ran for a quarter century, attracting world-wide fascination and antipathy.  The Minnesota researchers tracked down every pair they could find—and measured traits related to almost every aspect of life: health, cognition, personality, happiness, career, creativity, politics, religion, sex and much more. The Minnesota study reveals genetic effects on virtually every trait. The breakdown between nature, nurture and everything else varies from trait to trait. But Ms. Segal emphasizes the uniformity of the results—the consistent power of genes, the limited influence of parenting. Some findings go down easy: As most would expect, identical twins raised apart have virtually identical heights as adults. Some findings seem obvious after the fact: Genes, but not upbringing, have a pretty big effect on personality traits like ambition, optimism, aggression and traditionalism. Other findings perennially cause outrage: The IQs of separated identical twins are almost as similar as their heights. Critics of intelligence research often hail the importance of practice rather than inborn talent, but a three-day test of the Minnesota twins’ motor skills showed that how much you benefit from practice is itself partly an inborn talent.”

What If Mumbai Were Taller?

To borrow an invaluable metaphor from Voltaire, if Alain Bertaud did not exist, it would have been necessary to invent him. When I read about Indian real estate, I almost never come across anything that is good. Alain Bertaud’s work is a rare, honorable exception. If Mumbai were a beautiful, livable city,  many great minds would have lived in Mumbai. They would’ve written about Mumbai. Even in such a dense city, there isn’t anyone who can write intelligently about housing and urban policy.

But, I find Alain Bertaud’s position that raising the floor area ratio (FAR) will not raise Mumbai’s population density strange. For beginners, Floor Area Ratio is the ratio between the floor space constructed on a plot to the area of the plot. For example, if the FAR is 2, a 2000 square feet building can be built on a 1000 square feet plot. If the FAR is 3, a 3000 square feet building can be constructed on a 1000 square feet plot. The higher the FAR, taller buildings can be. In Mumbai, the FAR is 1.33, while in some cities, FAR in the city core can be as high as 25. In Hong Kong’s city core, for example, a 100 storey building can be constructed on the plot on which a 4 storey building can be built in much of South Mumbai. In fact, this is the major reason why space is so congested in Mumbai. This is the single biggest reason why housing is so expensive in Mumbai.

To put it shortly, this is Bertaud’s argument, as best as I understand it.

Density=Population/Built-up Area.

So, density would change only if the amount of land developed changes or if the number of people in the city changes. For reasons unknown to me, Alain Bertaud maintains that changing the FAR does not change either the population in the city or the land developed. Bertaud thinks that if FAR is lowered, people will deal with it by consuming less floor space. Similarly, if FAR is raised, people will, at best, consume more floor space. Bertaud claims that this will not change Mumbai’s population.

But, I suspect people are more likely to move to a city where floor space is abundant, and rents are low. Wouldn’t that happen if FAR is raised in Indian cities? Better amenities attract more people. Spacious houses will have the same effect, right? How on earth can someone believe that this wouldn’t happen? Wouldn’t Mumbai attract more people if it were a more livable city? I have never lived in Mumbai. I would love to live in India’s most cosmopolitan city. But, I have never considered moving there. Why? Having lived in large houses much of my formative years, I won’t be able to adapt to such congested spaces. Delhi is bad enough. I can’t be the only guy who thinks along these lines. Remember: I am a misanthrope who loves density.

When there is more floor space, there will be more job opportunities too. This would, again, have the same effect.  I am willing to believe that this is an empirical problem. I am willing to believe that the number of people who wish to migrate to Mumbai has nothing to do with how spacious Mumbai’s houses are. But, I would like to hear why.

Post Script: Tyler cowen thinks that Indian cities are under-crowded. And if they are in fact, under-crowded, wouldn’t more people migrate cities when it is easy to build tall? (Alain Bertaud would say that density and crowding are not the same.) Robin Hanson thinks the same, though I am not sure in what sense he used the word density:

“City density, and hence city size, is mainly limited by the abilities of the conflicting elements that influence local governments to coordinate to enable taller buildings. Remember those futurist images of dense tall cities scraping the skies? The engineers have done their job to make it possible. It is politics that isn’t yet up to the task.”

Bryan Caplan thinks that if real estate markets are deregulated in such cities that would lead to more affordable housing elsewhere. This is perhaps the most interesting view I have come across. But, I’m not sure how easily it can be reconciled with the fact that Mumbai has about the highest disparity between personal incomes and housing prices. 

Tyler Cowen has a very interesting post, on why migration to cities is unusually low in India, where financial returns from migration is high: 

Indian migration to the cities is much lower than for China or Indonesia. The explanation that we propose for India’s low mobility is based on a combination of well-functioning rural insurance networks and the absence of formal insurance, which includes government safety nets and private credit. In rural India, informal insurance networks are organized along caste lines. The basic marriage rule in India (which recent genetic evidence indicates has been binding for nearly two thousand years) is that no individual is permitted to marry outside the sub-caste or jati (for expositional convenience, we use the term caste interchangeably with sub-caste). Frequent social interactions and close ties within the caste, which consists of thousands of households clustered in widely dispersed villages, support very connected and exceptionally extensive insurance networks. Households with members who have migrated to the city will have reduced access to rural caste networks.”

Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX and The Quest For A Fantastic Future

Elon Musk is one of those entrepreneurs who thinks very much like I do. I am now reading, Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX and The Quest For A Fantastic Future. Excerpts that resonate the most with me:

“One night Elon Musk told me, ‘If there was a way that I could not eat, so I could work more, I would not eat. I wish there was a way to get nutrients without sitting down for a meal.’

“It was in my first interview with Musk, which took place at the design studio that I began to get a sense of how he talked and operated. He’s a confident guy, but does not always do a good job of displaying this. On initial encounter, Musk can come off as shy and borderline awkward. His South African accent remains present but fading, and the charm of it is not enough to offset the halting nature of Musk’s speech pattern. Like many an engineer or physicist, Musk will pause while fishing around for exact phrasing, and he’ll often go rumbling down an esoteric, scientific rabbit hole without providing any helping hands or simplified explanations along the way. Musk expects you to keep up. None of this is off-putting. Musk, in fact, will toss out plenty of jokes and can be downright charming. It’s just that there’s a sense of purpose and pressure hanging over any conversation with the man.”

“He would call very insistently,” she said. “You always knew it was Elon Musk because the phone would never stop ringing. The man does not take no for an answer. You can’t blow him off. I do think of him as the Terminator. He locks his gaze on to something and says, ‘It shall be mine.’ Bit by bit, he won me over.”

Musk never seemed to leave the office. He slept, not unlike a dog, on a beanbag next to his desk. “Almost every day, I’d come in at seven thirty or eight A.M., and he’d be asleep right there on that bag,”

Musk also began consciously trying to manage his criticism of others. “Elon is not someone who would say, ‘I feel you. I see your point of view,’” said Justine. “Because he doesn’t have that ‘I feel you’ dimension there were things that seemed obvious to other people that weren’t that obvious to him. He had to learn that a twenty-something-year-old shouldn’t really shoot down the plans of older, senior people and point out everything wrong with them. He learned to modify his behavior in certain ways. I just think he comes at the world through strategy and intellect.” The personality tweaks worked with varying degrees of success. Musk still tended to drive the young engineers mad with his work demands and blunt criticism.

“Someone complained about a technical change that we wanted being impossible. Elon turned and said, ‘I don’t really give a damn what you think,’ and walked out of the meeting. For Elon, the word no does not exist, and he expects that attitude from everyone around him.” Periodically, Musk let loose on the more senior executives as well. “You would see people come out of the meetings with this disgusted look on their face,” Mohr, the salesman, said. “You don’t get to where Elon is now by always being a nice guy, and he was just so driven and sure of himself.”

Employees at Zip2 would go home at night, come back, and find that Musk had changed their work without talking to them, and Musk’s confrontational style did more harm than good. “Yeah, we had some very good software engineers at Zip2, but I mean, I could code way better than them. And I’d just go in and fix their fucking code,” Musk said. “I would be frustrated waiting for their stuff, so I’m going to go and fix your code and now it runs five times faster, you idiot. There was one guy who wrote a quantum mechanics equation, a quantum probability on the board, and he got it wrong. I’m like, ‘How can you write that?’ Then I corrected it for him. He hated me after that. Eventually, I realized, Okay, I might have fixed that thing but now I’ve made the person unproductive. It just wasn’t a good way to go about things.”

Musk wanted a measure of control over his life’s story. He’s also wired like a scientist and suffers mental anguish at the sight of a factual error. A mistake on a printed page would gnaw at his soul—forever. While I could understand his perspective, I could not let him read the book, for professional, personal, and practical reasons. Musk has his version of the truth, and it’s not always the version of the truth that the rest of the world shares. He’s prone to verbose answers to even the simplest of questions as well, and the thought of thirty-page footnotes seemed all too real.

Our conversation began with a discussion of public-relations people. Musk  turns through PR staffers notoriously fast, and Tesla was in the process of hunting for a new communications chief. “Who is the best PR person in the world?” he asked in a very Muskian fashion.

One thing that Musk holds in the highest regard is resolve, and he respects people who continue on after being told no. Dozens of other journalists had asked him to help with a book before, but I’d been the only annoying asshole who continued on after Musk’s initial rejection, and he seemed to like that.

For the first time, Musk would let a reporter see the inner workings of his world. Two and a half hours after we started, Musk put his hands on the table, made a move to get up, and then paused, locked eyes with me, and busted out that incredible question: “Do you think I’m insane?” The oddity of the moment left me speechless for a beat, while my every synapse fired trying to figure out if this was some sort of riddle, and, if so, how it should be answered artfully. It was only after I’d spent lots of time with Musk that I realized the question was more for him than me. Nothing I said would have mattered. Musk was stopping one last time and wondering aloud if I could be trusted and then looking into my eyes to make his judgment. A split second later, we shook hands and Musk drove off in a red Tesla Model S

I found Musk back at work at the Tesla headquarters in Palo Alto. It was a Saturday, and the parking lot was full of cars. Inside of the Tesla offices, hundreds of young men were at work— some of them designing car parts on computers and others conducting experiments with electronics equipment on their desks. Musk’s uproarious laugh would erupt every few minutes and carry through the entire floor. When Musk came into the meeting room where I’d been waiting, I noted how impressive it was for so many people to turn up on a Saturday. Musk saw the situation in a different light, complaining that fewer and fewer people had been working weekends of late. “We’ve grown fucking soft,” Musk replied. “I was just going to send out an e-mail. We’re fucking soft.”

Elon exhibited all the traits of a curious, energetic tot. He picked things up easily, and Maye, like many mothers do, pegged her son as brilliant and precocious. “He seemed to understand things quicker than the other kids,” she said. The perplexing thing was that Elon seemed to drift off into a trance at times. People spoke to him, but nothing got through when he had a certain, distant look in his eyes. This happened so often that Elon’s parents and doctors thought he might be deaf. “Sometimes, he just didn’t hear you,” said Maye. Doctors ran a series of tests on Elon, and elected to remove his adenoid glands, which can improve hearing in children. “Well, it didn’t change,” said Maye. Elon’s condition had far more to do with the wiring of his mind than how his auditory system functioned. “He goes into his brain, and then you just see he is in another world,” Maye said. “He still does that. Now I just leave him be because I know he is designing a new rocket or something.”

Other children did not respond well to these dreamlike states. You could do jumping jacks right beside Musk or yell at him, and he would not even notice. He kept right on thinking, and those around him judged that he was either rude or really weird. “I do think Elon was always a little different but in a nerdy way,” Maye said. “It didn’t endear him to his peers.” For Musk, these pensive moments were wonderful. At five and six, he had found a way to block out the world and dedicate all of his concentration to a single task. Part of this ability stemmed from the very visual way in which Musk’s mind worked.

He could see images in his mind’s eye with a clarity and detail that we might associate today with an engineering drawing produced by computer software. “It seems as though the part of the brain that’s usually reserved for visual processing—the part that is used to process images coming in from my eyes—gets taken over by internal thought processes,” Musk said. “I can’t do this as much now because there are so many things demanding my attention but, as a kid, it happened a lot. That large part of your brain that’s used to handle incoming images gets used for internal thinking.”

Maye tells the story of Elon playing outside one night with his siblings and cousins. When one of them complained of being frightened by the dark, Elon pointed out that “dark is merely the absence of light,” which did little to reassure the scared child. As a youngster, Elon’s constant yearning to correct people and his abrasive manner put off other kids and added to his feelings of isolation. Elon genuinely thought that people would be happy to hear about the flaws in their thinking. “Kids don’t like answers like that,” said Maye. “They would say, ‘Elon, we are not playing with you anymore.’ I felt very sad as a mother because I think he wanted friends. Kimbal and Tosca would bring home friends, and Elon wouldn’t, and he would want to play with them. But he was awkward, you know.” Maye urged Kimbal and Tosca to include Elon. They responded as kids will. “But Mom, he’s not fun.” As he got older, however, Elon would have strong, affectionate attachments to is siblings and cousins—his mother’s sister’s sons. Though he kept to himself at school, Elon had an outgoing nature with members of his family and eventually took on the role of elder and chief instigator among them.

The Elon that his peers encountered at school was far less inspirational. Throughout middle and high school, Elon bounced around a couple of institutions. He spent the equivalent of eighth and ninth grades at Bryanston High School. One afternoon Elon and Kimbal were sitting at the top of a flight of concrete stairs eating when a boy decided to go after Elon. “I was basically hiding from this gang that was fucking hunting me down for God knows fucking why. I think I accidentally bumped this guy at assembly that morning and he’d taken some huge offense at that.” The boy crept up behind Musk, kicked him in the head, and then shoved him down the stairs. Musk tumbled down the entire flight, and a handful of boys pounced on him, some of them kicking Musk in the side and the ringleader bashing his head against the ground. “They were a bunch of fucking psychos,” Musk said. “I blacked out.”

Kimbal watched in horror and feared for Elon’s life. He rushed down the stairs to find Elon’s face bloodied and swollen. “He looked like someone who had just been in the boxing ring,” Kimbal said. Elon then went to the hospital. “It was about a week before I could get back to school,” Musk said. (During a news conference in 2013, Elon disclosed that he’d had a nose job to deal with the lingering effects of this beating.)

For three or four years, Musk endured relentless hounding at the hands of  these bullies. They went so far as to beat up a boy that Musk considered his best friend until the child agreed to stop hanging out with Musk. “Moreover, they got him—they got my best fucking friend to lure me out of hiding so they could beat me up,” Musk said. “And that fucking hurt.” While telling this part of the story, Musk’s eyes welled up and his voice quivered. “For some reason, they decided that I was it, and they were going to go after me nonstop. That’s what made growing up difficult. For a number of years there was no respite. You get chased around by gangs at school who tried to beat the shit out of me, and then I’d come home, and it would just be awful there as well. It was just like nonstop horrible.”

Musk spent the latter stages of his high school career at Pretoria Boys High School, where a growth spurt and the generally better behavior of the students made life more bearable. While a public school by definition, Pretoria Boys has functioned more like a private school for the last hundred years. It’s the place you send a young man to get him ready to attend Oxford or Cambridge. The boys from Musk’s class remember him as a likable, quiet, unspectacular student. “There were four or five boys that were considered the very brightest,” said Deon Prinsloo, who sat behind Elon in some classes. “Elon was not one of them.” Such comments were echoed by a half dozen boys who also noted that Musk’s lack of interest in sports left him isolated in the midst of an athletics-obsessed culture. “Honestly, there were just no signs that he was going to be a billionaire,”  aid Gideon Fourie, another classmate. “He was never in a leadership position at school. I was rather surprised to see what
has happened to him.”

“You can make billions of dollars for free,” he said. His boss told Musk to write up a report, which soon got passed up to the bank’s CEO, who promptly rejected the proposal, saying the bank had been burned on Brazilian and Argentinian debt before and didn’t want to mess with it again. “I tried to tell them that’s not the point,” Musk said. “The point is that it’s fucking backed by Uncle Sam. It doesn’t matter what the South Americans do. You cannot lose unless you think the U.S. Treasury is going to default. But they still didn’t do it, and I was stunned. Later in life, as I competed against the banks, I would think back to this moment, and it gave me confidence. All the bankers did was copy what everyone else did. If everyone else ran off a bloody cliff, they’d run right off a cliff with them. If there was a giant pile of gold sitting in the middle of the room and nobody was picking it up, they wouldn’t pick it up, either.”

The Pieces Fall Into Place

7287174776_b9a42a733bMy dearest, Do you remember that you used to tell me that I am very much like Sheldon Cooper? I wish I could go back in time, reconstruct those events, prodding you to see what I see today, in retrospect. I still have not watched The Big Bang Theory. I still have not. But, do you even know what that means?”

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.

Here 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:

Warm Regards,

Shanu Athiparambath

She replied:

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