Who Are My Favorite Bloggers?

I think everyone should read Ezra Klein’s interview with Tyler Cowen, because Tyler is one of the greatest minds of our times. 

“I have never come across a mind quite like Tyler Cowen’s. The George Mason University economist, and Marginal Revolution blogger, has an interesting opinion on, well, everything.”

But Tyler said something about the rationality community which I don’t agree with at all—And this is so typical of him.

Ezra Klein

The rationality community.

Tyler Cowen

Well, tell me a little more what you mean. You mean Eliezer Yudkowsky?

Ezra Klein

Yeah, I mean Less Wrong, Slate Star Codex. Julia Galef, Robin Hanson. Sometimes Bryan Caplan is grouped in here. The community of people who are frontloading ideas like signaling, cognitive biases, etc.

Tyler Cowen

Well, I enjoy all those sources, and I read them. That’s obviously a kind of endorsement. But I would approve of them much more if they called themselves the irrationality community. Because it is just another kind of religion. A different set of ethoses. And there’s nothing wrong with that, but the notion that this is, like, the true, objective vantage point I find highly objectionable. And that pops up in some of those people more than others. But I think it needs to be realized it’s an extremely culturally specific way of viewing the world, and that’s one of the main things travel can teach you.”

I read about half a dozen blogs every day, and Ezra seems to have covered almost all. Here’s my list. 

Bryan Caplan’s blog on Econlog is my favorite blog.  I’ve been reading Bryan for over 13 years. Bryan is the most objective thinker I’ve read, and I learned much of what I know from there. That’s because a blogger can add many dimensions to a blog post. Bryan also introduced me to many other thinkers like Thomas Szasz, Michael Huemer, Robin Hanson, Tyler Cowen, Steven Pinker, Timur Kuran and Daniel Kahneman. Bryan changed my views on parenting, economics, and philosophy—and many other fields.

Robin Hanson’s Overcoming Bias is just too good. I haven’t read anyone who looks at human nature so objectively and perceptively as Robin does. Economists and other social scientists don’t take office politics very seriously. Robin is a rare, honorable exception. Robin’s book “The Elephant In The Brain” will be out in January 2018. I’ve started reading it, and it’s quite good.  Robin is an economist who is far too ahead of his time. 

Scott Alexander is another brilliant blogger. I find his way of looking at the world truly compassionate and perceptive. His understanding of the world is more in sync with human nature than most other great intellectuals. 

I just discovered Julia Galef. She’s young and is pretty good. I’ll soon read more of her. Julia Galef has a great book list here. 

Tyler cowen and Alex Tabarrok run Marginal Revolution, one of the best economics blogs. Their stuff on India is more informed than the work of Indian intellectuals.  Alex is in Mumbai now, and I met him over a month ago. I started taking Tyler seriously after I read his work on Asperger. I didn’t know what I was missing. Read my interview with Tyler. 

Less Wrong is, again, great, great stuff. Generalizing from one example is my favorite article. That kind of thing makes me see everything in a different light.

 

Why Do I Find It So Difficult To Understand Sarcasm?

She wanted to name our baby “Sachin”. I believed her.

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?”

The World Is What It Is: We Are What We Are

My favorite Naipaul story has sexist undertones. My mother doesn’t like me arguing when my father is driving. This is not because that’d distract him. She just doesn’t like it. She usually changes the subject or turn silent when I argue. Or she looks here and there. When I ask why, she wouldn’t answer, or say that she knows I’m wrong. Women hate arguments. Usually, when their husbands debate me on some abstract topic, women ask them to stop. They won’t say this, but they see debates as a sign of conflict. It took me so many years to see this. Continue reading “The World Is What It Is: We Are What We Are”

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.

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 passed 10th standard. 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.

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.”

Why Social Skills Cannot Be Learned

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

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

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

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

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

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

But, still. Continue reading “Why Social Skills Cannot Be Learned”

The Mellow Heuristic

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

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

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

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

Gone Girl

“Hi Darling,

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

-Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn

Happy Women’s Day, People

Oh, Happy Women’s Day. But, sorry. It is not true that women are more oppressed in any society—or that they were, at any point in time. It is just that women’s suffering is taken more seriously. These two books are good places to begin:

“I think one unfortunate legacy of feminism has been the idea that men and women are basically enemies. I shall suggest, instead, that most often men and women have been partners, supporting each other rather than exploiting or manipulating each other. Nor is this about trying to argue that men should be regarded as victims. I detest the whole idea of competing to be victims. And I’m certainly not denying that culture has exploited women. But rather than seeing culture as patriarchy, which is to say a conspiracy by men to exploit women, I think it’s more accurate to understand culture (e.g., a country, a religion) as an abstract system that competes against rival systems — and that uses both men and women, often in different ways, to advance its cause.”

Roy F Baumeister, Is There Anything Good About Men?

“Sexism negatively affects not only women and girls, but also men and boys. While the former manifestation of sexism is widely acknowledged, few people recognize or take seriously the fact that males are the primary victims of many and quite serious forms of sex discrimination. Male disadvantages include the absence of immunity, typically enjoyed by females, from conscription into military service. Men, unlike women, are not only conscripted but also sent into combat, where they risk injury, both physical and psychological, and death. Men are also disproportionately the victims of violence in most (but not all) non-combat contexts. For example, most victims of violent crime are male, and men are often (but again not always) specially targeted for mass killing. Males are more likely than females to be subject to corporal punishment. Indeed, sometimes such punishment of females is prohibited, while it is permitted, if not encouraged, for males. Although males are less often victims of sexual assault than are females, the sexual assault of males is typically taken less? ?seriously and is thus even more? ?significantly under-reported. Fathers are less likely than mothers to win custody of their children in the event of divorce.?”?

David Benatar, The Second Sexism