Pain, Pleasure And The New Culture Of Small Bits

The year was 2004, and we used to wait for someone to write in our Orkut scrapbooks. Broadband connections were nowhere nearly as fast as it is today, but we refreshed our scrapbooks every few minutes.  The arrival of each scrapbook entry made us happy. It’s easy to call us losers, but social networking websites met a fundamental human need. There was a time when I used to wake up at 6 to log into my Yahoo mail account. My internet connection was too slow that I couldn’t read mails before 8.  But when I could, I felt happy.

I spent many hours every day in Yahoo chat rooms. The boys in my hostel found this a waste of time. But I was instantly a hit with chicks. I metamorphosed into an online Casanova. Jocks in my college were worried. They said I was cheating. The plain truth is that I wrote well. Always on the lookout for great genes, teen girls didn’t miss this. Nerd is the new man. I felt pleasure when I was flooded with offline messages when I logged into Yahoo Messenger after many days. When I did not see enough of them, I was sad. Such pleasures and disappointments are what the internet and social media are all about. It is easy to call all this trivial. But this is big deal, because social media is our culture. For a nerd, the cost of sending out an instant message isn’t much, when compared to walking up to someone. Through small chunks of text I sent out and took in, I was creating a whole world inside my mind. My understanding of human nature became deeper over a long time.  Continue reading “Pain, Pleasure And The New Culture Of Small Bits”

What Libertarians Don’t Get About Gay Rights

A few weeks ago, I gathered that a friend is a homosexual. There were premonitory signs. He was eager to meet. He’d message me incessantly on Facebook. This doesn’t prove anything. I know another guy who does all this. He’s just weird. Maybe some people are neurotic. Perhaps their communication needs are much stronger. People are not straight forward, and perhaps these guys want to just feel safe.

This fellow is very good at his job. But, he’s still bothered by what happened in high school half a lifetime ago. When a guy tells me he’s depressed without giving me any good reason, my first guess would be that he’s gay. He doesn’t believe in marriage. When I probed further, no good reason seemed to be forthcoming. At some point, I felt he was hitting on me. There was nothing really sexual in what he said, but my intuitions don’t go wrong. I asked him whether he’s straight, and he said, “I don’t even know what I am”. I asked him whether he can give me a plain “Yes” or “No”, he said “You can’t put people in a box.” This is exactly the kind of thing leftist people say when they try to get away with something. I said, “Bye-Bye”. This is not my thing.  Continue reading “What Libertarians Don’t Get About Gay Rights”

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 Gawker.com 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.”

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:

Continue reading “Why I Do Not Write For The Mainstream”

Yes, Ma’am

“I am bogged down with this hourly need to consult you, and with the practice of selecting articles on the basis of whether you’ve been addressed as “Malini” or “Ma’am” in the covering letters. I am also sick of this constant play of yours: to pitch one person against another for one week, and then reverse it in the next. One is also tired of your changing goalposts. The Sunday Anchor has to be reportage-driven, and then suddenly it becomes policy-driven, and then suddenly, depending on what you hear or get impressed with, it has to be made reportage-driven again. I quit because the journey had become too pointless. I had differences over editorial autonomy with the editor, Malini. There was hardly any excitement and it became too boring for me. There is freedom to pursue stories, but inside, there is no autonomy or freedom for the editors. But that is also because the majority of editors are pusillanimous and do not have the courage to stand up for their rights. It is the responsibility of every editor to tell the owner-editor where he or she may be wrong instead of agreeing to everything with a “yes ma’am, yes ma’am”

Haha. This is an excerpt from an editor’s resignation letter. I do not have a particular opinion about this guy. I suspect he is one of those brainless idiots who imagine themselves to be principled. But, he said something every editor ought to think. But, why do they behave the way they do? 

Let me try to understand this. Even if people were angels billions of years ago, when they were hunter-gatherers, many conflicts would have emerged. But, of course, they were not angels. We descended from risen apes and not descended angels. Resources were very limited. People were loyal to their tribe—at any cost. When people disagreed, the price they paid was often their life. Over billions of years, people developed strong instincts to see disagreement as a reflection of lack of personal loyalty. But, at least some people were tempted to disagree with others, or correct others, as put-down tactics, or to condescend to them. Even today, the people who disagree with their colleagues or correct their bosses are the people who do that at the cost of their own  jobs. Truth doesn’t mean anything to *most* people. So, why do they do that? Perhaps because these truth-seeking “traitors” do not like them. Otherwise why should they, or so they reason. Genuine respect for truth, fairness and principles is an evolutionary novelty. Most people, especially people with low intelligence do not comprehend such evolutionary novelties.

They do not know that there are some strange fellows who really do care for the truth. But, the modern, comfortable society produces more such people. The modern society also produces many people who spend more time with books or machines, and develop more respect for facts of reality than group loyalty. Such people (Writers, thinkers, scientists, and the nerds who grew up reading them), have developed strong norms against being a fence-sitter, or living a lie. They also verbalize these norms. The nerdy kids spend more time with books or computers, internalizing verbalized norms, while the normal kids mix with their peers, internalizing the intuitive norms of human communication. The verbalized norms are more respectable than the intuitive norms, because at least on the surface, they sound noble. The intuitive norms, if verbalized, would seem unspeakably ugly. Now, it is true that even normal folk are aware of the verbalized norms of their betters. They are dimly aware that these norms are “respectable”. But, deep inside they suspect that this is bogus. They are philistines, and cannot imagine how someone can be so deeply attached to ideas, or their own prose. So, when someone brings up these norms, or acts according to it, they feel that they are just being difficult. Or playing fool. Or blackmailing them. Not surprisingly, consistently defending the truth is harder than almost anything. If you have a valuable piece of information, it might do more harm than good if everyone responds badly to it. This piece of information might have great value. But, if people respond so badly to it that it would outweigh any benefit it might have, it might be better if you keep that to yourself. But, if people respond well to it? The point is that it should start somewhere.
 
So, the people who care for the truth might air those truths hoping that it would change others for good. But, it *probably* won’t. Perhaps they should accept idiocy, cruelty and wastefulness as a necessary price to pay for being part of a group. But, there is a problem. 1) The people who care for the truth are incredibly bad at predicting how others might respond to the truth. So, where do they draw the line? It is not clear. No one will tell you this. It is culture-specific. It is context-specific. Normal folk know it by some seraphic intuition. 2) If the truth-seekers become cynical panderers, they will sound like fakers. They will find it exhausting to the point that they cannot pull it off. This might do more harm than being plainly blunt. People might stand disagreement, but not condescension. 3) But, for artists, scientists , thinkers and other innovators, going along to get along is disastrous. If you are creative, going along to get along will never get you anywhere in the long run. If you do not know why journalism is so disappointing, this is the reason. Journalists are not intelligent, creative folk.

Lousy Women

Young Women's Republican Club of Milford, Connecticut in 1941One afternoon, when I went out for “lunch”, I saw lots of fat women playing cards in the restaurant. I was not in a good mood. I felt giddy after Mr. Old Fashioned’s meeting in which people ordered many rounds of tea and snacks, while he repeated, “The problem with India is that the debates are not based on facts. [Emphasis his.]” A girl sneered, “But, we know how good he is on the facts.”

I heard that Mr. Old Fashioned once tried to prove that Gujarat’s economic performance is not so good. Like a shrewd sleuth who untangles a mystery, he listed the facts and figures to prove his assumption. Soon, someone on Twitter pointed out that he had mixed up the figures of Gujarat and Jharkhand. Mr. Old Fashioned swallowed the mortification, and yelled at the young reporter who did the “leg work” for him.

I tried to read in the restaurant while I waited, but these women were too noisy. They played cards in the restaurant in the afternoons, perhaps while their husbands worked themselves to death somewhere in the same lane.

I can’t read when women are shrilling into my ears.

They shrill into my ears when I write about them. A year ago, an ex-colleague called me and screamed, “You called me a grim, joyless lady who wouldn’t crack a smile?” I said, “Ummm, well, Yeah.” trembling. She gave me a stern lecture on the consequences of violating the modesty of women. She said that I have so much angst against the “society”, but do not know the laws of the land, and how they are tilted in favor of the female race.

I have so much angst but know so pitifully little.

She said, “Many women might have done things to you. But, that is your problem. That is not my problem. You may write about any woman you want to write about, but you shouldn’t write about me. To write about me, you need my permission.” After she made me cow down, there was a note of triumph in her voice. She then mellowed, and began to list the specific laws that might be used against me.

                                                                                           ******

At times, it is their husbands. A few years ago, I used to talk to a middle-aged journalist on Facebook. I gathered that she stalked me when I noticed her “moon face” on my profile page every day. When I asked whether this is true, she removed me, saying, “You seem to be one of those stalker kinds my 16 year old daughter asks me to politely ignore. I know that you are otherwise a wonderful fellow.” I see the world through my pure, uncorrupted eyes. It took me many months to understand what she meant.

She seemed not to mind when we talked on Twitter much later. But, one day, her husband, a low IQ Malayali idiot messaged me on Facebook: “Stop stalking my wife or I will !@#$%%%.” WTF. What could have happened? When she noticed that her hair was graying and that she no longer has quite the same effect on this moron, she might have hinted that she has a secret admirer on Facebook. These stupid men believe anything their women folk tell them.

                                                                                              ******

Once when I saw two South Indian women “writers” telling each other that their men think of them as Idli-making morons, I said, “But, you people make beautiful Idlis. :* ” One among them, a plump young woman lashed out at me saying, “Spare us those “kissies”. You don’t know what I am getting into.” She was hinting that the law was skewed in her favor. The other woman, Kavitha, sounded calm and serene. I thought, “This is a nice auntie.” But, then she started selling her “yet-to-be-published” book to me. A few months later, when I walked into a book store, I saw her book. 

Everything You Wanted to Write About Freelance Journalism (but didn’t know whom to ask)”

By Kavitha and Charu.

That evening, I was ROTFL:

“If you aren’t sure of what you want your article to achieve, you’re going to have a hell of a time convincing an editor.”

“The key to a good interview is to understand exactly what you need with the person you’re interviewing.”

“You don’t want to plagiarize. None of us do. Do you cut and paste information from the internet? Do you use several sources, including wire services, books and research? We all do, but there’s price to be paid for this quick access to information. It means that it is easier than ever to plagiarize without even knowing it. It also means that if you do plagiarize, intentionally or not, anyone, with a bit of digging, can find you out.”

A few weeks ago, when everyone was whipping Pankaj Mishra on Twitter, I noticed Kavitha tweeting, “You can write for the foreign media, even if you are not establishment elite, like Pankaj Mishra. Buy my book.”  😛 

Sherlock Holmes Had Asperger Syndrome

sherlock_holmes_by_puppet_girl86-d4orteuThe Aspie girl said that I am very much like Sherlock Holmes. My mind works pretty much the same way his does. I read the series too long ago to have noticed, but Sherlock Holmes is an Aspie. Tyler Cowen thinks that Sherlock Holmes is the most developed autistic character in the Western literary tradition. I will tell you why, by reading more into the first chapter in “A Study In Scarlet”.

In the beginning, when Dr. Watson meets a friend who asks whether he would like to share a room with man named Sherlock Holmes, this conversation ensues:

“You don’t know Sherlock Holmes yet,” he said; “perhaps you would not care for him as a constant companion.”

“Why, what is there against him?”

“Oh, I didn’t say there was anything against him. He is a little queer in his ideas–an enthusiast in some branches of science. As far as I know he is a decent fellow enough.”

You mustn’t blame me if you don’t get on with him,” he said; “I know nothing more of him than I have learned from meeting him occasionally in the laboratory. You proposed this arrangement, so you must not hold me responsible.”

“If we don’t get on it will be easy to part company,” I answered. “It seems to me, Stamford,” I added, looking hard at my companion, “that you have some reason for washing your hands of the matter. Is this fellow’s temper so formidable, or what is it? Don’t be mealymouthed about it.”

“It is not easy to express the inexpressible,” he answered with a laugh.

Continue reading “Sherlock Holmes Had Asperger Syndrome”

The Antechamber Of Hope

Every morning you leave your cramped apartment in Manhattan’s East Village to go to your laboratory at the Rockefeller University in the East Sixties. You return in the late evening, and people in your social network ask you if you had a good day, just to be polite. At the laboratory, people are more tactful. Of course you did not have a good day; you found nothing. You are not a watch repairman. Your finding nothing is very valuable, since it is part of the process of discovery—hey, you know where not to look. Other researchers, knowing your results, would avoid trying your special experiment, provided a journal is thoughtful enough to consider your “found nothing” as information and publish it. Continue reading “The Antechamber Of Hope”

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

the-girl-with-the-dragon-tattoo-movie“There is a similar Lisbeth Salander in my life, so I know first-hand how complex this character is. Just when you think you’ve got a handle on their thought processes, they behave or think in opposition to your expectations. Sometimes these people look like pretty flowers, but when you try to pick them, you discover stinging nettles in your grasp. Extraordinary circumstances call for extraordinary measures. She is able to clearly process information and formulate solutions to problems because she does not have to wade through social constraints or emotional conflict. She sees ‘patterns’ that defy ordinary comprehension. Lacking emotional insight, she relies on logic to determin a course of action. Her ‘gift’ of a photographic memory presents another problem because her brain must constantly process and analyse information, like a computer, and can’t relax or shut down to provide a mental resting place. Lisbeth is the most complex literary protagonist I’ve ever encountered.”Inside The Mind Of Lisbeth Salander

“Most people with Asperger’s are fairly ordinary people and are not necessarily either incredibly brilliant nor 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.”Does Lisbeth Salander Have Asperger Syndrome?

Should We Brag?

My Facebook friend Anna Krupitsky thinks that bragging is a talented person’s Achilles’ heel. Is this true? There are strong social norms against bragging. Even stupid people know that bragging is looked down on. If this is true, most smart people will try hard not to brag. Only the strange smart person who “cannot help it” will overtly brag. Now, observe: People love to punish the braggarts. At the same time, people claim that the people who brag are deluded, incompetent or at least not “as good as they think”. There is a strong consensus that it is empty vessels that make the most sound. But, if this is what they really think, why do people want to punish them? I do not find it plausible that people punish braggarts because of genuine outrage toward someone who overrates himself. This cannot be true because if their outrage were genuine, advertising would not have been a multibillion dollar industry. So, why does advertising work on almost everyone despite such strong social norms against bragging? Why do people despise bragging in abstract while rewarding it in concrete? 

To understand this, consider situations in which people reward certain behavior in concrete while claiming to despise it in abstract. Women, for instance, claim that they prefer men who are polite and respectful. But, they discriminate against men who take “No” for an answer, and claim that such men are not being honest about themselves. Some people at “overcomingbias” and “lesswrong” even claim that it is because women assume that nerds believe that they are entitled to sex. So, women profess to like men who are polite and respectful, while preferring men who make the bold move. Continue reading “Should We Brag?”

Thoughts On Immigration

When I argue that immigration restrictions are a great threat to individual liberty, people often ask me: “But, you can move out if you want to, right?” I think they are conflating two different issues. 1) Are immigration restrictions a huge threat to individual liberty? 2) Is it possible for me to move out if I want to? I do not see this as an intellectual error. These are the kind of little people who cannot think straight about any social science issue.  When people deny that a genuine problem even exists, it is obvious to me that they are prejudiced against my cause.

I am curious about this abstract problem, and I am curious about it independent of the context of my personal life, and the personal lives of anyone. But, what they say is not entirely true. Anyone can think of many bright people who risked a fortune, and did not succeed in making USA their home. More importantly, it is almost impossible for a low skilled person to move to the developed west. If I say that they have low IQ’s, and that IQ cannot be changed, these people might call me prejudiced, and say that this is not very “relevant” information, even if it is true. But, again, this just proves that they are not interested in the truth. This is important information because if this is true, this is proof enough that a large majority of the people in the third world are permanently trapped there, for no fault of their own.

When I think about a social science issue, I want to understand it. I do not see it as a solution to “problems”, of that of mine or that of anyone else. To me, it is an intellectual parlor game. Of course, it is true that social scientists have long unearthed many facts that would instantly solve many problems, like world poverty: People just have to stop being so little. Open the borders for migration and trade, abolish welfare, public schooling and medical care. And so on.  It is not difficult. But, I do not think this proves anything. Social scientists have known this for at least a few hundred years. What prevents it from happening are the little people who ask such stupid questions.