Tag Archives: practice

Steve Jobs And The Nature-Nurture Debate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let The Dying Languages Die

“What’s to be alarmed about? The disappearance of a language is not like, say, a local crop failure that augurs starvation. In other words, if some obscure language ceases to be spoken, it is not as if millions or even dozens of people will be unable to talk. All it means is that the people who would have spoken that language will speak a different language. Maybe we should celebrate the disappearance of obscure languages. Wouldn’t there be considerable positive value if everyone in the world spoke the same language? I think it is fairly typical of how the media and the scholarly world have treated the topic. It seems to assume that the disappearance of languages is a bad thing, though it fails to present much in the way of actual harm that has come. First argument: a claim that multilingual children do better than monolingual ones. Is this worth spending billions of dollars in a futile effort to keep various obscure tongues alive? Even if the data on children are correct – and I can imagine they are confounded by having smarter children or more sophisticated parents – the world only needs 2 or 3 languages, not seven thousand. In fact, the future I foresee is that there would be two or three worldlanguages, such as English and Chinese (Mandarin), and every child would learn both. Hence everyone would be multilingual. Getting rid of the other languages would just facilitate this process. There are those who care about language, and I am one of them. Putting this into practice by preserving near-dead languages on some kind of technologically boosted life support is of dubious value. Instead, we should work to conserve the effectiveness of language to communicate. This means respecting grammar, syntax, writing style, and other hallmarks of a strong, useful language, because they contribute to clarity and precision of communication.”

—Roy F. Baumeister, Languages Are Vanishing: So What?

“Losing a language is essentially a loss of data but culture doesn’t bleed, living organisms do. There is a lot of concern among anthropologists about “lost” ways of life. ( I am more concerned with “lost lives” due to poverty, malnourishment and disease.) The educated and prosperous elite sometimes lament the loss of innocence and purity among indigenous cultures. I have seen that here and in India. Mostly the people whom they wish to see hold on to their culture are poor, uneducated and their quaint way of life is a curiosity for us. I wouldn’t go as far as to draw the harsh parallel to a zoo but sometimes I wonder.”

—Ruchira Paul, Cat (or Global Forces) Got Your Tongue?

“If you have a casual knowledge of history or geography you know that languages are fault-lines around which intergroup conflict emerges. But more concretely I’ll dig into the literature or do a statistical analysis. I’ll have to correct for the fact that Africa and South Asia are among the most linguistically diverse regions in the world, and they kind of really suck on Human Development Indices. And I do have to add that the arrow of causality here is complex; not only do I believe linguistic homogeneity fosters integration and economies of scale, but I believe political and economic development foster linguistic homogeneity. So it might be what economists might term a “virtuous circle.”

—Razib Khan, Language Is Not Value-Free

“Bookstore shelves groan under the weight of countless foreign-language self-teaching sets that are about as useful as the tonics and elixirs that passed as medicine a century ago and leave their students with anemic vocabularies and paltry grammar that are of little use in real conversation. Even with good instruction, it is fiendishly difficult to learn any new language well, at least after about the age of 15. While vilified in certain quarters as threatening the future of the English language in America, most immigrants who actually try to improve their English skills here in the United States find that they have trouble communicating effectively even with doctors or their children’s schoolteachers. Yet the going idea among linguists and anthropologists is that we must keep as many languages alive as possible, and that the death of each one is another step on a treadmill toward humankind’s cultural oblivion. Assuming that we can keep 6,000 languages alive is the rough equivalent of supposing that we can stop, say, ice from developing soft spots. Here’s why. As people speaking indigenous languages migrate to cities, inevitably they learn globally dominant languages like English and use them in their interactions with one another. The immigrants’ children may use their parents’ indigenous languages at home. But they never know those languages as part of their public life, and will therefore be more comfortable with the official language of the world they grow up in. For the most part, they will speak this language to their own children. These children will not know the indigenous languages of their grandparents, and thus pretty soon they will not be spoken. This is language death. Thus the oft-heard claim that the death of a language means the death of a culture puts the cart before the horse. When the culture dies, naturally the language dies along with it. The reverse, however, is not necessarily true. Groups do not find themselves in the bizarre circumstance of having all of their traditional cultural accoutrements in hand only to find themselves incapable of indigenous expression because they no longer speak the corresponding language. Native American groups would bristle at the idea that they are no longer meaningfully “Indian” simply because they no longer speak their ancestral tongue. Note also the obvious and vibrant black American culture in the United States, among people who speak not Yoruba but English. But let’s remember that this aesthetic delight is mainly savored by the outside observer, often a professional savorer like myself. Professional linguists or anthropologists are part of a distinct human minority. Most people, in the West or anywhere else, find the fact that there are so many languages in the world no more interesting than I would find a list of all the makes of Toyota. So our case for preserving the world’s languages cannot be based on how fascinating their variegation appears to a few people in the world. The question is whether there is some urgent benefit to humanity from the fact that some people speak click languages, while others speak Ket or thousands of others, instead of everyone speaking in a universal tongue.”

— John McWhorter, The Cosmopolitan Tongue: The Universality of English

Patience And Passion

Ethan Casey, in a speech on why we should bother trying to change the world, quotes Paul Rogat Loeb:

“Sometimes we achieve the impossible sooner than we expect. Knowing that can stiffen our resolve. But relying on quick victories can also tempt us to place too much emphasis on outcomes; it can cause us to become unduly impatient, brittle, with our will easily broken by setbacks. A deeper, more farseeing hope, by contrast, combines realism with resilience, acknowledging suffering and despair without giving in to them. By letting go of impatient hope we can persist no matter how hard it gets.”

On the face of it, it is a bit of a puzzle why the “idealists” who seem to be guided by noble motives are often very impatient. I judge people by their patience. We are more likely to be patient when we genuinely care about something. The most creative thinkers, scientists and artists do not think too much about the “certain something” that they might achieve at some point in their life. They go on for very long because they do not really doubt that they will get what they want.

We are perhaps more patient when we are confident of getting what we want. Anyone who has been around for a while knows that the passive aggressive people are very patient. They seem to be very confident of things working out in their favor, as it often happens. This is true of the creative writers, scientists and artists too, but for entirely different reasons.

We are also more patient when we are trying to create something meaningful. A great writer does not rush to publish his work. A dime-a-dozen reporter does.

This is true, even of relationships. As Robert Greene points out:

“If you’re trying to seduce a woman for instance, taking the man’s point of view that they are obviously different and the main problem that a man would have in a seductive situation is he is too impatient. The only thing he is thinking about is sex. He is not willing to spend two months courting a woman knowing that in the end the sex will be a million times better if he just calms himself down. He can go home and take care of himself on his own if he needs to. Just spend those couple months, whatever is needed to court her, to make her feel like she is an individual, like she is worth it, and you know it’s going to pay off. On the other side a lot of times a woman all she thinks about is the relationship. Is this going to? My boyfriend, you know, is he going to be committed? They’re thinking about that after one week and it frightens the man away. The woman has to calm down. The woman has to be more patient. She has to let the man trust her more and not feel like she is coming at this with this need for a relationship right away. Both sides have to learn patience, but for different reasons.”

If this is true, why are men and women so impatient? Perhaps they are not too interested in a deep relationship. The man wants sex, and the woman wants the man to channel more resources toward her. But, this does not sound “too nice”. So, they claim to be searching for “love” while being hard-nosed traders, in practice.

What if this is true of the idealists too? What if the “idealists” are impatient because they care too little about what activism might accomplish? The people who desperately want to change the world are impatient because it is hard to genuinely care about putting down atrocities. There’s only so much you can do. This seems to be the case.

The young people are the most idealistic, as Robin Hanson points out, despite idealism being not too effective when you are young because you attract allies and partners when you are young. The young men and women in their 20s, or even 30s do not have much influence over policy. If they are truly idealistic and passionate about changing the world, they would’ve been better off investing money, or acquiring skills that’d help them change the world when they’re older.

As Robin Argues:

“Humans have long lives. We are unusually dependent on our parents when young, and we then slowly gain competence over a lifetime, usually reaching peak productivity in our forties and fifties. Most of the time we are aware of this. For example, we count on our peak earning years by taking out loans as young students, and later saving for retirement. And we prefer leaders at those peak ages.

But when people get idealistic, they tend to forget this. Young idealists often ask me and others what they can do to most help the world. Which is a fine question. But such folks tend to be impatient – they want to know how to most help the world in the next few years, not over their lifetime. So when they consider joining an idealistic project, they focus more on whether the project will succeed than on what skills and contacts they would acquire.

Yet young folks shouldn’t expect to have their biggest influence when young. Yes young folks have higher variance, and so sometimes get very lucky, but they should expect to prepare and learn while young, and then have their biggest influence in their peak years. Why such a short term focus? Especially since idealism should if anything induce a far view. Yes young folks are often short-sighted, but why be more so about altruism than about school, relationships, etc.?

This seems related to the puzzle of why people don’t leverage the power of compound interest to donate to help the future needy, instead of today’s needy. Some argue that the future won’t have any needy, or that helping today’s needy automatically helps future needy, at a rate growing faster than investment rates of return. I’m pretty skeptical about both of these claims.

One plausible explanation is that a habit of extra youthful altruism evolved as a way to signal one’s attractiveness to potential associates. People tend more to form associations when young, associations that they tend more to rely on when old. And potential associates like to see altruism, because it correlates with generosity and cooperation (as near-far theory predicts). But if you save money to help the future needy, or if you invest now in skills useful in future idealistic projects, that is less clearly a signal of altruism, because you might later change your mind and use that money or those skills for other purposes.

So to signal your youthful idealism to potential associates, you must spend the money and time now, even if such spending is less effective toward the idealistic cause. But hey, at least the cause gets something.”

I was sorry he missed

I do not trust biographers. But I do not trust biographers for the same reason I do not trust less talented men. At best, they can hypocritically marvel, or claim that “Even Einstein was a boob outside physics.” But, like all the rascals who lived before them on earth, these hooligans desperately search for flaws in their betters, and slip in a dirty word when they speak or write. And then they come drooling, with their tongue hanging out in eager anticipation, to ask, “But, isn’t that true? Isn’t that true? If I am also lying to myself, I am not really lying, right?” But then, these poor bastards cannot help it. They were born as dead ends. They will be taken to the graveyard as dead ends. I would be surprised if they swallow the mortification without holding grudges.

The attitude of biographers of writers can at best be expressed by these words: “He was a genius, but geniuses too have flaws. If a genius doesn’t have flaws, he should have flaws.” These biographers claim that these are not hagiographies, but that is, again, the usual fig leaf exercise. Do you think that others did nothing to these geniuses when these geniuses annoyed them again—And again and again? I mean, really?

I like autobiographies. I do not trust biographies much because it is hard to write about someone without knowing how he really thinks, without really being able to interpret his behavior. That is even truer, if it is a posthumous biography. But, people are idiots. They claim that autobiographies can be lies. But to tell the truth, you should at least be in a position to tell the truth. That is the difference between “perhaps won’t” and “can’t and won’t”.

From Anne C Heller’s biography of Ayn Rand:

“Ayn Rand regularly protested that Bobbs-Merrill was assigning too much paper to other books and not enough to hers and that the policy of allotting equal proportions of paper to all books slowed shipments of The Fountainhead to bookstores, sabotaged sales, and kept her off the regional best-seller lists. “What about our other authors?” Bobbs-Merrill’s production department exclaimed. That was their problem, she replied. The Fountainhead was her book, her chance, and she wasn’t going to let it slip by out of an ill-conceived concern for others, whose books, she conjectured, were less important and had less potential than her own. At one point, she hired an attorney and hinted that she might sue. As often in these matters, her reasoning made sense if you accepted her assumptions—in this case, that the practice of rewarding (others’) need rather than (her) excellence was tantamount to socialism and exemplified a second-hander’s way of avoiding making a literary or a business judgment. But her manner did not win her friends.”

Observe. Rand’s reasoning made sense if you accepted her assumptions! But, weren’t Rand’s assumptions obviously true, as time has proven? Why is it hard to see that if Rand was good enough to write “The Fountainhead”, she was good enough to see that it will sell? The publishers and editors are ordinary people blinded with envy and ignorance. Even if it is explained to them, they probably won’t understand what Rand have always found obvious. So, should she let it slip it out to “win friends”?  

“She told Isabel Paterson that if The Fountainhead stopped selling—if it went the way of We the Living—she would resign herself to working at a dead-end job and writing only at night, for future generations. That would be her life. When Paterson, herself the author of eight moderately successful novels as well as The God of the Machine, asked why Rand was placing so much emphasis on a single book, the younger woman replied that she considered The Fountainhead to be so good that if it didn’t sell she could hope for nothing further from this culture in her lifetime. Paterson asked what it would take to convince her that The Fountainhead was a success. “A sale of one hundred thousand copies,” Rand immediately replied, watching as a look of disbelief crossed Paterson’s face. No doubt the more experienced writer thought the younger woman’ s expectations bordered on lunacy and invited further disappointment. Very few books sell that well, Paterson pointed out.”

But, again, Rand was right. Now that she is proven right, why is it so hard to admit that she was right, and all others wrong?

“Together The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957) have typically sold more than 300,000 copies a year, easily making them the equivalent of best-sellers. Recently, in the midst of a financial crisis greater than any since the Great Depression—the proximate setting of Atlas Shrugged—sales of her last and most ambitious book have nearly tripled. More than thirteen million copies of the two books are in print in the United States.”

A passage in the end, on her husband:

 One day, Rand confided to a friend that he had tried to hit her. (“I was sorry he missed,” said the friend.)

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