Why Do I Find It So Difficult To Understand Sarcasm?

When I was in college, a 16 year old girl promised to marry me. She wanted to name our baby “Sachin”. I believed her.

When a policeman once asked me whether I’d like to get my passport on time, I smiled with gratitude and slammed the door on his face.

When I once read, “Ron Paul is a gynecologist, and he is self-taught.”, I did not understand why this evoked laughter in an audience. I still do not.

I’ve always had a tenuous understanding of sarcasm and double-speak. I take words literally. When I was a child, it took me many years to understand hidden insults. 

I’ve never had it any other way. I was not sarcastic as a child. I was too innocent to understand the art of insinuation. When a teacher was sarcastic to me at 9, I understood her only a year later. When I fully understood her, I felt numb, as if I were struck by lightning. I stood still, staring at my coconut tree. It was too late, because I’d left that city and moved into another school. There was nothing much I could do about this. This was deeply unsettling. Continue reading “Why Do I Find It So Difficult To Understand Sarcasm?”

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
sedan.

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.”

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.

Do You Understand James Watson?

Rosalind-Franklin_2581518kI like novelistic autobiographies. James Watson’s “The Double Helix” is one of the most entertaining novelistic autobiographies I have ever read. He does not hesitate to question the motives of other scientists, and expose their pettiness—their manipulativeness. But, of course, a sentimentalist might claim that their motives weren’t as twisted as he claims them to be. Passages like this are typical:

“It was increasingly difficult to take Maurice’s mind off his assistant, Rosalind Franklin. Not that he was at all in love with Rosy, as we called her from a distance. Just the opposite—almost from the moment she arrived in Maurice’s lab, they began to upset each other. Maurice, a beginner in X-ray diffraction work, wanted some professional help and hoped that Rosy, a trained crystallographer, could speed up his research. Rosy, however, did not see the situation this way. She claimed that she had been given DNA for her own problem and would not think of herself as Maurice’s assistant. I suspect that in the beginning Maurice hoped that Rosy would calm down. Yet mere inspection suggested that she would not easily bend. By choice she did not emphasize her feminine qualities. Though her features were strong, she was not unattractive and might have been quite stunning had she taken even a mild interest in clothes. This she did not. There was never lipstick to contrast with her straight black hair, while at the age of thirty-one her dresses showed all the imagination of English blue-stocking adolescents. So it was quite easy to imagine her the product of an unsatisfed mother who unduly stressed the desirability of professional careers that could save bright girls from marriages to dull men. But this was not the case. Her dedicated, austere life could not be thus explained—she was the daughter of a solidly comfortable, erudite banking family.”

Now, did you understand this passage? Yes? What was he getting at? No answer? You probably did not, even if you believe you have understood. Let me try to interpret.

“It was increasingly difficult to take Maurice’s mind off his assistant, Rosalind Franklin. Not that he was at all in love with Rosy, as we called her from a distance. Just the opposite—almost from the moment she arrived in Maurice’s lab, they began to upset each other.”

This is a fairly common psychological profile. As a writer put it, “Most people with Asperger’s are fairly ordinary people and are not necessarily either incredibly brilliant or completely socially clueless. However, there is a not infrequent form of high functioning Asperger’s whose hallmarks include various kinds of specialized intelligence in a person who, despite their brilliance, simultaneously lacks the basic ability to read basic social cues and to conform to “normal” social standards and expectations. If you have ever known a person like this, you know that part of their repertoire of survival skills is an uncanny ability to get under your skin, into your thoughts, and win a place in your life, even though they are so supremely difficult and hard to deal with. Lisbeth is just like that in the way she captures Blomkvist emotionally, to the point that he can’t stop thinking about her, even though there is no rational explanation for why he would want to remain involved with her.”

“Maurice, a beginner in X-ray diffraction work, wanted some professional help and hoped that Rosy, a trained crystallographer, could speed up his research. Rosy, however, did not see the situation this way. She claimed that she had been given DNA for her own problem and would not think of herself as Maurice’s assistant.”

People with Asperger Syndrome never see any situation quite the same way others do. As Tyler Cowen observes, “A focal point refers to something we all can coordinate around without having to talk about it or plan it in advance. You might say if your boss invites you to present at a meeting of the company’s board of directors, it is focal that you wear a tie, even if no one tells you to. At Google headquarters casual dress usually is expected and thus they have a different focal point. Most generally a focal point is a commonly understood social expectation. The concept of a focal point makes me recall the words of Jim Sinclair, an autistic who writes on the web. He informs us: “DON’T TAKE ANYTHING FOR GRANTED. Don’t assume you can interpret the [autistic] person’s behavior by comparing it with your own or other people’s behavior. Don’t assume the person can interpret your behavior.” In other words, many common focal points are harder for autistic people to use and alternatively autistic focal points can be harder for nonautistics to use. When it comes to picking up on commonly understood focal points, the  performance of autistics is below average in many contexts, as they find it harder to pick up on many unstated social conventions. This is one of the most common complaints you will hear or read from autistic people and it stems from the fact autistics perceive the world in different ways. But it would be wrong to conclude that autistics are incapable of having focal points. We are in fact seeing social conventions or focal points evolving among autistics, most of all with the assistance of web communication. For instance there is now a fairly common understanding, or focal point, that a meeting or good-bye among autistics will not be preceded by a handshake. Many autistics do not enjoy this form of contact, and some hate it, so why do it?”

“I suspect that in the beginning Maurice hoped that Rosy would calm down. Yet mere inspection suggested that she would not easily bend.”

I think Watson is being charitable here. Passive aggressive people do not pounce on someone the day she walks into an office. This is partly because they would come across as too obvious, and partly because they want to convince themselves that they have done their best they can. Yes. Humbert Humbert tried really hard to be good. Really and truly, he did.

“By choice she did not emphasize her feminine qualities. Though her features were strong, she was not unattractive and might have been quite stunning had she taken even a mild interest in clothes. This she did not. There was never lipstick to contrast with her straight black hair, while at the age of thirty-one her dresses showed all the imagination of English blue-stocking adolescents.”

“By choice she did not emphasize her feminine qualities.” 

Simon Baron-Cohen had speculated that Asperger is perhaps merely an extreme male brain.

“Though her features were strong, she was not unattractive and might have been quite stunning had she taken even a mild interest in clothes. This she did not.” 

Simon Baron Cohen observes, “Aside from this, he was not particularly interested in dressing up, or in assuming pretend identities, and so on. Again, little interest in imaginative play, with all its creative variability, is another marker of autistic spectrum conditions in toddlerhood.”

“There was never lipstick to contrast with her straight black hair.” 

141201_SCI_JimWatson.jpg.CROP.promo-mediumlargeAs a recent study noted, female faces have higher contrast. You can appear more feminine by increasing your facial contrast:“In a study published in Perception, Russell demonstrated the existence of a facial contrast difference between the two genders.By measuring photographs of men and women, he found that female faces have greater contrast between eyes, lips, and surrounding skin than do male faces. This difference in facial contrast was also found to influence our perception of the gender of a face. Regardless of race, female skin is known to be lighter than male skin. But Russell found that female eyes and lips are not lighter than those of males, which creates higher contrast of eyes and lips on women’s faces. By experimenting with an androgynous face, Russell learned that faces can be manipulated to appear female by increasing facial contrast or to appear male by decreasing facial contrast. “Though people are not consciously aware of the sex difference in contrast, they unconsciously use contrast as a cue to tell what sex a face is,” Russell said. “We also use the amount of contrast in a face to judge how masculine or feminine the face is, which is related to how attractive we think it is.” Given this sex difference in contrast, Russell found a connection between the application of cosmetics and how it consistently increases facial contrast. Female faces wearing cosmetics have greater facial contrast than the same faces not wearing cosmetics. Russell noted that female facial beauty has been closely linked to sex differences, with femininity considered attractive. His results suggest that cosmetics may function in part by exaggerating a sexually dimorphic attribute to make the face appear more feminine and attractive. “Cosmetics are typically used in precisely the correct way to exaggerate this difference, ” Russell said. “Making the eyes and lips darker without changing the surrounding skin increases the facial contrast. Femininity and attractiveness are highly correlated, so making a face more feminine also makes it more attractive.”

“At the age of thirty-one her dresses showed all the imagination of English blue-stocking adolescents. So it was quite easy to imagine her the product of an unsatisfed mother who unduly stressed the desirability of professional careers that could save bright girls from marriages to dull men. But this was not the case. Her dedicated, austere life could not be thus explained—she was the daughter of a solidly comfortable, erudite banking family.”

Mothers have an uneasy relationship with their attractive and brighter daughters. They cannot stand them growing up in a more affluent, enlightened world. Their daughters are everything they couldn’t have been. A man of Watson’s intelligence could not have missed this. Observe that Watson speculated that the unsatisfied mother “unduly stressed”, not that she “stressed”. Why would a mother do this? Sexism was supposedly in its heyday in the 50s and 60s of the US. Wouldn’t a mother stress the desirability of following her into the jaws of monogamy? An unsatisfied mother would do this only if a professional career would NOT have made her daughter happy. Watson, a broad-minded scientist who urges everyone to understand individual differences could not have missed this. And if Rosalind Franklin had Asperger Syndrome, if she had an extreme male mind, she would have seen things differently, and would have gotten there without an unsatisfied mother’s prodding.

So, What was he getting at, without even knowing it? Rosalind Franklin had Asperger Syndrome.

As he later said in an interview:

He smiles. “Rosalind is my cross,” he says slowly. “I’ll bear it. I think she was partially autistic.” He pauses for a while, before repeating the suggestion, as if to make it clear that this is no off-the-cuff insult, but a considered diagnosis. “I’d never really thought of scientists as autistic until this whole business of high-intelligence autism came up. There is probably no other explanation for Rosalind’s behaviour. “She showed great insensitivity to Wilkins. DNA  was his problem and she just thought she could take it from him. She was clueless. John Randall [the British physicist who led the King’s College team that included Wilkins and Franklin] told her DNA was going to be her thing and she took it from Maurice. But fair play should never have allowed Rosalind to do it. So she was either not a nice person, or just clueless. I think clueless. When you knew her, she wasn’t nasty; just awkward. Francis didn’t think Rosalind was a great scientist. That was Francis at his most honest. The truth was she couldn’t think in three dimensions very well.”

Now, tell me. Do you understand Watson? When you read this passage, did everything that crossed his mind cross yours? If it didn’t, do you really understand him? While you claim that Watson should be punished for his “racist” views, remember: Everything you enjoy is a gift from geniuses like Watson—An unintended consequence of everything they accomplished. What else could they have accomplished if you had let them reach what they wanted, if you could understand them? If only you could understand them. Remember, You are not so smart. It is a very valuable form of humility, to see this. Perhaps, the only one there is.

Cuteness Is Not Negotiable

Cuteness is not negotiable.
Cuteness is not negotiable.

I gather that an actress was arrested for selling sexual services to moneyed people. She was sent to a rescue home where she is entertaining the inmates with tales of her illustrious past. Her full name is Sweta Basu Prasad. Now, many people in the film industry ask: “Why is she held up for our titillation while her rich clients are still walking the streets—and perhaps has many mistresses tucked away somewhere?

She is punished for prostitution, but her rich clients are still paragons of decency in the eyes of their wives and children. Yes, the Indian society is so damn sexist!

Now, Imagine a country “Ruritania” where selling your house is a crime.  A wealthy woman decides to sell her million dollar house. The real estate broker pockets his modest share. Soon the police hears about the deal, and locks up the male broker in a prison room. The home owner is sent to a rescue home where she entertains the inmates with tales of her struggle—with detailed descriptions of how she built her fortune. But, we hear nothing about the man who bought the house. The media reports this, and soon there is an outpouring of sympathy toward her. (Oh, the tragic fall!)

Now, is it true that in Ruritania, the police and the media are unusually biased against women? She was treated tenderly by the cops, but her male broker suffered some rough handling in their arms. He was locked up in a prison room while she was sent to a rescue home. People find the perils confronting women under the pressure of poverty heartbreaking. But, they want her male broker and client to be shamed and horsewhipped out of Ruritania. Misogynist, indeed. Isn’t it possible that they too have a story to tell? What if the broker had hoped to treat his ailing mother with his modest commission? What if her client was homeless? After all, this is a country where people are not allowed to sell houses.Hypocrisy can be so inane. This is what my mind says.

But, what does my heart say? What a cutie! If I knew that she was in so much trouble, I would have promised her a large share of the proceedings from the sales of my yet-to-be-published novel. She says that this is common in the film industry. We need betting markets to pair up talented men with cute girls. Seriously. Cuteness is not negotiable.

New Year’s Baby

Today is my birthday. I was a New Year’s baby.  What did I learn in all these years? A lot. I was never a lazy boy. 

The most radical shift in my thinking in 2013 has its roots in an encounter over a year ago. It was an afternoon in December I interviewed Tyler Cowen. I knew that Tyler is a colleague of Bryan Caplan, and has an astronomical IQ. Bryan influenced my thinking more than any other intellectual, of past or present. I had not read much of Tyler because I found his views too anti-capitalistic for my tastes. But, I pulled a few all-nighters and read all the books of Tyler that I could lay my hands on—except “Create Your Own Economy”. 

I remember that day. I was late for the talk, but I was being instinctively fair. I stood there on the stairs, watching the girls in the registration counter. A very young girl held a pen close to her chin. She looked like a doll. I asked her, “But, it was supposed to begin at 3 O’ Clock.” She said, “It was supposed to begin at 3, but some people who are supposed to come are caught in a traffic jam. It will begin at 3:30.” It began at 4. I once told her that I will write about her in my darling novel. Since then she has been annoying me saying that she wants to see what I had written about her.

After the talk, I walked down. While I was drinking coffee alone, on a table, I saw the PR girl of CCS entering the room. She stood near the door, her eyes flitting around the room. Then she walked to me, and started talking. I thought, laughing inside, “These PR ladies. They have such sharp eyes.” They can spot their prey in a room full of people, in the fraction of a second. I do not know how they do it, but I know that they do it. When they want me to plug their boss, the PR lady is sweet and talkative. But, her boss is grim and joyless. I tell myself, ‘My novel will profit’.

Unlike the typical Delhi intellectual, Tyler was extremely well-read—and a decent fellow. For instance, he did not lose his temper, or walk away when I disagreed with him. His books were among the best that I have read, but he was still too moderate to interest me much. But, it was only in January I read “Create Your Own Economy”. It was on Asperger’s Syndrome. When I read it, everything that happened in my life fell into place, after a lifetime of not fitting in. I spent the whole year thinking about it. 

My Favorite Conversation In The Fountainhead


43-1A conversation that ensues when Peter Keating, an architect tries to send his wife, Dominique Francon, to the newspaper publisher Gail Wynand’s  bedroom, for a building contract. Enjoy Gail Wynand torturing this architect:

“I’ve heard about your brilliant sense of humor, Mr. Wynand.”, Peter Keating said.

“Have you heard about my descriptive style?”

“What do you mean?”

Wynand half turned in his chair and looked at Dominique, as if he were inspecting an inanimate object.

“Your wife has a lovely body, Mr. Keating. Her shoulders are too thin, but admirably in scale with the rest of her. Her legs are too long, but that gives her the elegance of line you’ll find in a good yacht. Her breasts are beautiful, don’t you think?” Continue reading “My Favorite Conversation In The Fountainhead”

My God Died Young

Do you like coffee?

“Do you like coffee?” she asked me. When I said, “Yes”, she said, “I’ll make some coffee for you.” When I waited for her to make coffee for me, she asked, “But, we are in school now. How do I make coffee for you, here?” I turned silent, without knowing what to tell her. I did not know that I was being conned by her. I have always taken words literally. I was ten. She was 13. Once she laid her palms on the table and asked our mathematics teacher why she was supposed to study geometry when she will probably never use in her life. The teacher said that she was rationalizing, but I knew that she knew something that others did not. When she often stood near the door of our classroom, bending her right leg, I stared at her calf.

After she left the school, I once saw her in a temple with my mother-in-law. She was praying with her eyes closed, wearing a long skirt which was not too unlike the one you can see in old Malayalam movies. I looked at her folded palms and bare feet. While I stood there watching her through my eyes that were half-open, my mother held me by my arm and said that it was time for us to go. I felt vaguely uncomfortable. She did not see me. Continue reading “My God Died Young”

Mencken On Babies

“The mother of such a prodigy is proud of its attainments, and feels a glow when bored friends hypocritically marvel,” advised the adult Mencken decades later in his anonymous publication What You Ought to Know About Your Baby. “Later on she will wonder why her child has watery eyes, constant colds or round shoulders.” Such a boy, he advised, should be taken out of school and turned out to grass, to breathe pure air “and make acquaintance with splinters, bruises and sunburn.”

“Of the whole faculty of the school, once they entered the ordinary classes, the senior dummies liked best Miss Bertha and Miss Elvina, for both confined their chastisements, which were very gentle, to girls and never touched a boy above the baby class. The dummies all boarded at the Institute and were full of complaints about the food. One day, when my lunchbox happened to include a couple of doughnuts, two of them told me that they had not tasted a doughnut for six months, and I handed over both. A week later they told me precisely the same thing and then again a week after that, and so on until suspicion began to dawn on my infant mind and I ate my subsequent doughnuts myself.”

“Some men can learn almost indefinitely; their capacity goes on increasing until their bodies begin to wear out. Others stop in childhood, even in infancy. They reach, say, the mental age of ten or twelve, and then they develop no more. Physically, they become men, and sprout beards, political delusions, and the desire to propagate their kind. But mentally they remain on the level of schoolboys.”

Mill And Harriet Taylor

“Mill met Harriet Taylor, a radical Unitarian full of intellectual passion and dogmatism, and fell deeply in love with her. Unfortunately, Harriet Taylor was married, and having an intense friendship with another man’s wife was not respectable in Victorian society. Her husband was astonishingly liberal minded in this regard and clandestinely opened his home to the philosopher. He even bought a country cottage where she and Mill could spend weekends together, and paid for her long trips abroad with Mill. According to Taylor’s correspondence, the twenty-year friendship did not involve sex and was purely platonic until her husband died and they finally married in 1851. Not everyone agreed with Mill’s high assessment of his wife. Carlyle thought she was “full of unwise intellect, asking and re-asking stupid questions” with her “great dark eyes, that were flashing unutterable things while he was discoursin’ the utterable concerning all sorts o’ high topics” She took care of him when he contracted tuberculosis in the early 1850s. Harriet fell ill also, and thinking they would die within a year, toured together in 1854–55 to Italy, Sicily, and Greece. Miraculously, they recuperated. Following their recovery, Mill and his wife acquired an increasing streak of elitism and snobbery. When traveling abroad, Mill regularly graded the people he met, for intelligence, language, and political views. He found no one to  be his (or his wife’s) match. He consecrated the book to Harriet, who tragically died—of tuberculosis!—in 1858, a year before its publication. He wrote an extravagant eulogy, addressing her as “unparalleled in any human being that I have known or read of” . He erected a costly marble tomb for her at Avignon, which he visited daily.Mill’s mother was uneducated and without strong opinions. He blamed her for his father’s coldness and irritability. He despised and disliked her, and never mentioned her in his autobiography.”-The Making Of Modern Economics, Mark Skousen