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Most intellectuals, writers and journalists are mediocre. But this doesn’t bother me much. There is a lot of good stuff to read out there on the internet. If you are an intelligent teenager or young adult—or even a full-grown man who disagrees—where should you begin?

Thomas Szasz’ work against psychiatry is great, and I’ve been reading much of his work over the past few weeks. Yesterday, I saw a report on how psychiatrists try to cure people of homosexuality in some bogus country. What people do not know is that Homosexuality and masturbation—and even reading books or being runaway slaves—were seen as mental illness not long ago, by all smarties. Thomas Szasz’ arguments against the concept of mental illness are the best I’ve ever read.

Less Wrong is a community blog which makes you really think.

Satoshi Kanazawa was fired from Psychology Today for saying black women are not very attractive. I am not surprised that much of the prose in Psychology Today is very mediocre.

It’s good to start with this paper on how geniuses become less productive when they age. Continue Reading

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Do you write as well?

It was November. Shorts were fading rapidly out of the streets. Many girls queued to the ATM machines near my home in night clothes around midnight, their t-shirts knotted at their waist. Aren’t their parents home? I don’t read newspapers, and I don’t watch TV. The bright fellows I follow on Twitter and Facebook don’t like news either.  So, I didn’t know what was coming. I slept for many hours without knowing that those clever girls were trying to get cash before the news got through to everybody.

There are always enough such girls to go around in Noida. My landlady’s niece is one of them. When I first met her, she was sitting on the bed, pouting and sulking, complaining about some ridiculous thing. My landlady and her mother tried to calm her down, but that didn’t have any effect on her. I, the scholar and gentleman, was at my desk, poring over tomes on economics of culture. It was not that I did not see her, but my mind wasn’t there. When her mother said that it was time for them to go, she snapped straight and scratched her back, raising her top. She then turned  around  and  smiled  at  me,  her  eyes  twinkling.  I  raised  my eyebrows, glanced at her and smiled. “Bye”. Continue Reading

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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.

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

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

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

The internet makes us human.

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

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

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

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

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

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


Facebook, Twitter, Instant Messenger, Blogs. Yes.

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

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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

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“Gail Wynand lived with his father in the basement of an old house in the heart of Hell’s Kitchen. His father was a longshoreman, a tall, silent, illiterate man who had never gone to school. His own father and his grandfather were of the same kind, and they knew of nothing but poverty in their family. But somewhere far back in the line there had been a root of aristocracy, the glory of some noble ancestor and then some tragedy, long since forgotten, that had brought the descendants to the gutter. Something about all the Wynands–in tenement, saloon and jail–did not fit their surroundings. Gail’s father was known on the waterfront as the Duke. 

Gail’s mother had died of consumption when he was two years old. He was an only son. He knew vaguely that there had been some great drama in his father’s marriage; he had seen a picture of his mother; she did not look and she was not dressed like the women of their neighborhood; she was very beautiful. All life had gone out of his father when she died. He loved Gail; but it was the kind of devotion that did not require two sentences a week. 

Gail did not look like his mother or father. He was a throwback to something no one could quite figure out; the distance had to be reckoned, not in generations, but in centuries. He was always too tall for his age, and too thin. The boys called him Stretch Wynand. Nobody knew what he used for muscles; they knew only that he used it. 

He had worked at one job after another since early childhood. For a long while he sold newspapers on street corners. One day he walked up to the pressroom boss and stated that they should start a new service–delivering the paper to the reader’s door in the morning; he explained how and why it would boost circulation. “Yeah?” said the boss. “I know it will work,” said Wynand. “Well, you don’t run things around here,” said the boss. “You’re a fool,” said Wynand.

He lost the job.  Continue Reading

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People are very bad at reading writers. If you aren’t paying attention, it is hard to know what goes on inside their minds. I am not angry when I write, much of the time. I laugh and laugh and laugh. But, the people who read my blog assume that I am angry. I am very slow to temper. A lot of post-processing happens before I write. It’s hard to write when the anger consumes you. 

‘Terry Pratchett isn’t jolly. He’s angry’

“I want to tell you about my friend Terry Pratchett, and it’s not easy. I’m going to tell you something you may not know. Some people have encountered an affable man with a beard and a hat. They believe they have met Sir Terry Pratchett. They have not. Some years ago I ran into someone who said, “What a jolly old elf Sir Terry is,” he said. And I thought, No. No, he’s not.”

 

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“Summers’s inability to get outside his own head landed him in fatally hot water. It reached the boiling point following his appearance at a conference sponsored by the National Bureau of Economic Research on women in science, which was held in Cambridge in mid-January 2005. There he suggested that the relatively small number of women in tenured positions in the physical sciences might in part be attributable to a lower frequency among women as compared to men of innate potential for doing science at the highest level. Aware that many women would not take kindly to these words, he was careful to leave open the alternative explanation that in the past many talented women had been strongly discouraged by their teachers from ever trying to master top-level mathematics and sciences.

Summers’s remarks might have gone unnoticed outside the meeting were it not for the presence of my former student, now a professor of biology at MIT, Nancy Hopkins. Over the past decade she had worked tirelessly and effectively to improve the working conditions of women scientists there. Before Nancy’s highly visible efforts, the salaries and space assignments of women at MIT were notably unequal to those of their male counterparts. But Nancy did not challenge Summers at the meeting. Instead she instantly bolted from the room, later saying Summers’s words made her sick, and soon appeared on national TV attacking him and setting off a firestorm of feminist anger. It did Nancy Hopkins no particular credit as a scientist to admit that the mere hypothesis that there might be genetic differences between male and female brains—and therefore differences in the distribution of one form of cognitive potential—made her sick. Anyone sincerely interested in understanding the imbalance in the representation of men and women in science must reasonably be prepared at least to consider the extent to which nature may figure, even with clear evidence that nurture is strongly implicated. To my regret, Summers, instead of standing firm, within a week apologized publicly three times for being candid about what might well be a fact of evolution that academia will have to live with. Except for the psychologist Steve Pinker, no prominent Harvard scientist voiced a word in Summers’s defense; I suspect the majority were fearful of being tarred with the brush of political incorrectness. If I were still a member of the faculty, the number of tenured scientists standing visibly behind the president in this matter would have literally doubled. But that would not have been enough to put out the flames. Apparently desperate, Summers soon contritely proposed a $50 million kitty to recruit more women to Harvard’s senior science faculty. The women-and-science firestorm by itself did not lead to Summers’s dismissal late last February as Harvard’s president. It was merely the culmination of hundreds of more private displays on his part of disregard for the social niceties that ordinarily permit human beings to work together for a common good. While academia almost expects its younger members to be brash and full of themselves, these qualities are most unbecoming in more seasoned members of the society, and generally fatal in leaders. Reading up on a topic the night before and then appearing at conferences with the bravado to suggest that one knows more than those who have spent their careers thinking about the issues at hand is no way for a president to act. Summers’s non-age-adjusted IQ, moreover, at age fifty-one is likely 5 to 10 points lower than when he was a twenty-year-old wunderkind. Harvard’s longstanding mandatory retirement age of fifty-five for academics was never a matter of arbitrary ageism but a recognition born of experience that as academics age they live more by old ideas and less by new ones. Summers, still acting as if he were the brightest person in the room, was bound to offend people who knew better.

It may be, however, that Summers is not entirely to blame for his social ineptitude. His repeated failures to comprehend the emotional states of those he presided over might be indicative of the genetic hand he was dealt as a mathematical economist—the very cards that endowed him with great quantitative intelligence may also have disabled the normal faculties for reading human faces and voices.

The social incapacity of mathematicians is no mere stereotype; many of the most brilliant are mild to full-blown cases of Asperger’s syndrome (the high-intelligence form of autism), perhaps the most genetically determined of known human behavioral “disabilities.” Like exceptional math aptitude, Asperger’s occurs five times more frequently in males than in females. The reason why must remain a mystery until further research shows how genes control the relative development and functioning of male and female brains. If Summers’s tactlessness does, in fact, have a genetic basis, much of the anger toward him should rightly yield to sympathy. No longer can his upbringing be blamed for failing to instill in him the graces of the civilized individual. In any case, all discussion should stop as to whether his dismissal was unduly precipitous—it was in all likelihood overdue. Whether those prominent individuals who promoted his candidacy should hang their heads in shame, however, is less obvious.

          —James D Watson, Avoid Boring People

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05paper3A decade ago, while debating capitalism and socialism in an Orkut forum, I shared a journal article of Murray Rothbard. This evoked response to this effect: “I don’t care about what some guy on the internet says about economic depressions.” It did not occur to them that Murray Rothbard was one of the greatest polymaths ever lived, and that they were adolescents who did not know what they were talking about. When journalists like Manu Joseph claim that the internet disseminates rubbish, I feel quite the same way. They do not know what they are talking about. When journalists see nostalgia as a business model, a bit of iconoclasm is in order. Let me evaluate those claims.

“Friends, as most of us know, are people on Facebook who usually share information. Among the things they post on their newsfeeds are, in fact, news. And columns, too, thankfully. An increasing number of people are now doing many things primarily on Facebook, including consuming journalism. And what they are most influenced by is what their friends have shared. As a result their hopes and convictions find easy confirmations, and are seldom challenged on their newsfeeds. The world might be fragmenting, but within the fragments there is an eerie, almost indestructible, uniformity of minds. Facebook did not create this, but it has facilitated, and will do so more effectively in the future.”

Are these arguments even new? Hundreds of years ago, when the print culture was taking off, the narrow minded Luddites without sufficient imagination raised the same arguments. They believed that The Bible and the works of Aristotle would be printed and read throughout the continent. When people read the same texts, there would be “an eerie uniformity of minds”, or so they believed. Of course, this was not what happened. The body of literary output, before and since then isn’t even comparable. It was not just that the people did not read the same texts over and over. Their belief in earlier texts was shaken when they compared the ancient texts with more credible, modern works of literature. This would not have happened without the printing press. Over five centuries later, the ancients sound stupid. Why didn’t they see the obvious? People aren’t good at comprehending or anticipating change, especially when they are dull and have a vested interest in preserving the “good old ways”.

When I was a child, the only English language publications my parents subscribed to were The Hindu and The Indian Express and The Reader’s Digest and India Today. The internet wasn’t around. These newspapers and magazines were the only source of news and analysis. There was a certain uniformity in consumption of news and analysis. Even now, the range of political and philosophical positions debated in the public sphere in India is quite narrow. It was much worse when I was a child, or even in my early teens. The contemporary events were analyzed by journalists, by mediocre minds. When they debased the ideas of their superiors, there was no one to call them on this. The journalists couldn’t interpret the world quite the same way the public intellectuals or the academic bloggers do. They were blinded by envy and ignorance. A lot of them did not even read books. Even today, I cannot think of a single Indian journalist who knows elementary economics—Or the fundamentals of any social science, for that matter.

There was not much access to the non-fiction classics of the west before early 2000s. Before the blogging revolution, the brightest academic minds couldn’t publicize their thoughts on contemporary events. The internet changed everything.  News, when seen through the prism of social sciences, did not make any sense to me. The journalists never made much sense to me, but the internet made them look naked.

An academic who has been thinking about the internet for the past quarter of a century would not have missed the parallels with the arguments of the Luddites at the outset of print culture. Fifteen years ago, I had to be content reading such third-world ignoramuses who wrote for the Indian newspapers and magazines against tight deadlines. Now, to understand the internet I read Tyler Cowen, Clay Shirky, Chris Anderson, Paul Graham, David Weinberger or Sherry Turkle. Why? They know what they are talking about. They aren’t writing to make a quick buck.

When the brightest intellectuals discuss contemporary events on their blogs, they see many aspects the journalists would have missed. They see many aspects other intellectuals had missed. They continually challenge each other. In the pursuit of the truth, they push themselves hard. Do you see uniformity of opinions here? I do not.  

“Facebook is now an ally of mainstream journalism as any good distributor of content would be, but it is also an efficient medium for disseminating rubbish.”

True enough. Way too many people write on the internet. The median blogger is, in all likelihood, a moron. This is inevitable. But, India has 99,660 publications according to a recent estimate. The media allows way too many people to write. The median journalist is also, in all likelihood, a moron. If you judge the media and the blogosphere according to the performance of the median journalist or the median blogger, there is no substantive difference. As a reader, I do not see much difference between writers that live with mild mental retardation and the writers that live with borderline intellectual functioning. So, why do I read blogs? The best bloggers are geniuses. Here, I am not using the term “genius” loosely. The best bloggers are more informed than any newspaper columnist. If the best bloggers are geniuses, why should I worry about the incompetence of the large majority of incompetent bloggers? 

True enough, rare as they are, the western capitalistic democracies have very good journalists and columnists. I sift through newspaper and magazine archives. I read them. Of course, bright academics and public intellectuals do write for the mainstream press, but they are not merely bright intellectuals, they are also politically correct, clever “politicians”. When compared to the best bloggers, they are not so good. The newspapers and magazines do not turn over their editorial page to truly iconoclastic thinkers. To speak for myself, I do not write carefully constructed prose for a middle-aged harlot to botch it up.

For instance, Manu Joseph writes for the New York Times, but not one of my favorite western bloggers have a regular column at the New York Times. The mainstream media does not cater to elite insiders. His views are well within the mainstream because he is not a particularly well-read writer, or an extraordinary thinker. But, every single blog post of the best academic bloggers reflect a lifetime of scholarship. It is not surprising that their views might offend the readers of the New York Times or The Wall Street Journal. I cannot recall a single blog post on Econlog, or Overcoming Bias that disappointed me. On the internet, anyone can contribute to world literature, but the internet also allows the geniuses to publish. It is the geniuses who push humanity forward. Time is very, very, valuable.

“Facebook is most dangerous when a major conflict divides society, as did Israel’s attack on Gaza. Facebook users, in the passions of their ideologies, found, in their newsfeed of course, news and visuals that endorsed their emotions. They attached credibility to these stories because they were posted by their friends, and propagated them without enduring the inconvenience of verifying them. For that they would have had to take the trouble to go to the website of a respectable news organisation.” 

The journalists are not more credible than the best bloggers. To begin with, the talented academic bloggers would find the cheap rhetorical tactics of third-world journalists beneath them. I was never disappointed reading a journal article or book the best bloggers recommended. I do not trust the Indian literary critics. No Indian journalist has sound judgment in such matters. No news organization is “respectable”, in any meaningful sense of that term. Verifying facts ain’t easy. No Indian journalist knows how to interpret studies because they do not know social statistics. News is worthless if you do not know how to interpret what you read. Most people who read the newspapers cannot interpret news. But, it is the processors that matter, not the hunters and the gatherers. The talented bloggers are better processors.

Could any journalist have written any of these blog posts on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? (1, 2, 3, 4, 5). I doubt. So, should a reader form his opinions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by reading the lesser “eminentoes” that write for The Times Of India or The Hindustan Times? Or, should he read what the brightest minds on earth have to say on this? For once, I leave the answer to you.

“Over the past few weeks, many were fooled by a story that was originally the work of a satirical website — that all of Earth would be enveloped in total darkness for six days in December because of a solar storm.”

But, the supposedly respectable newspapers and magazines have always fooled the readers. This is not necessarily because they were trying to purposefully fool the readers, but because they are duds. While working against tight deadlines, even a bright mind might just give up. Journalists do not see how they are distorting reality because they do not see how their cognitive biases deceive them. Even if you point this out, they wouldn’t recognize this, because they are not introspectivist enough. . They do not have ethical standards not because the advertisers corrupt them, but because they are barbarians, and do not have any values to begin with. They did not grow up reading books.  Morons cannot have moral values. Much as they rant about falling journalistic standards, the journalists haven’t even identified the problem. But, on the blogosphere, the brightest minds analyze contemporary issues. The brightest minds on earth are not journalists for the same reason the copy editors in news organizations are not the most grammatically skilled people around.

“Facebook, like most smart people and entities, has a mild disregard for what humans might achieve when left to their own devices. So it intervenes in the composition of newsfeeds to make them interesting. It does this through a secret, evolving algorithm that decides, on the basis of personal histories, what people might be interested in seeing when they are inside Facebook. Such a seductive newsfeed not only makes it easier for the users to shift to online journalism but also lures them to bypass the digital versions of conventional media. Already, for a vast section of the youth, the very idea of a newspaper’s homepage is nostalgic. They are not foraging for news, they are being fed, and fed what they like.”

This is the philosophy of a middle-aged Luddite in its full glory. There were not many talented fellows among the published writers before the internet. There aren’t many talented fellows among the writers who publish on the internet today. Talent is innate, and scarce. The internet has not changed this. So, what has changed? Unlike newspapers and magazines, the internet allows the obscure geniuses to publish. A typical blog post or essay does not fit the format of a newspaper or magazine piece. The traditional publishing outlets, especially in poor countries, were never good filters. 

Much of published literature was always mindless pap. The internet hasn’t changed it. But, this is irrelevant. The problem was never that there are way too many writers. But, it was always challenging to find the diamonds in the rough. But, too much “rubbish” being published on the internet does not make it harder to find those precious diamonds in the rough. Quite the contrary.

In the past, when there were tens of thousands of publications, perhaps filtering meant subscribing to, at most, a handful of them. In those times, perhaps filtering meant reading what the literary critics or friends consider to be good. These weren’t good filters. How do I filter? I read what the best academic bloggers and writers link to. I peruse the footnotes religiously. I subscribe to their blogs. I follow the most thoughtful thinkers on Twitter. I create lists on Twitter and Facebook. On Facebook, I add them to my “close friends” list. I receive instant updates when they share insightful essays. 

The social media is a great filter. But, human minds resent the algorithm-driven filters of the social media because human brain isn’t good at comprehending probabilistic statistics. But, in many contexts they act as if they do comprehend probabilistic statistics because they are instinctively shrewd. But, while reading newspapers they do not act quite the same way. They prefer a “wise editor” for the same reason they pray for a benevolent dictator. It is not Facebook or Twitter, but the supposedly “wise editor” who does not have much respect for what human beings would have chosen to read if they were left to themselves. It is the supposedly “wise editor” who lumps too many unrelated essays together, nudging the reader toward consuming them mindlessly .

Facebook, Google, Twitter, Gmail and YouTube impels us to compromise on the margins to optimize in more substantive ways. When I Google “Neurodiversity”, I might not see some of the best pages that Google does not display on the first few pages. But, this is a small price to pay for macro-scale optimization. It is better to use Google than to grope in the dark. I would rather not read some of the best content than avoid Google altogether. This is what Facebook and Twitter feeds do too. The social media saves time. It cuts “searching costs”. I can barely influence what the media publishes, but I actively influence what Google and my Twitter and Facebook newsfeeds shows me. If you are able to make fine distinctions, you cannot afford not to filter. This is what being a discerning reader is about.

For long, the journalists argued that a lot of nonsense is being published on the internet. The solution is of course, learning how to filter. The social media is one of the greatest filtering tools. Now they claim that filtering creates uniformity. These two claims cancel out each other. But, does this even occur to them? 

“Most of the stories that become popular on Facebook are, naturally, free. Newsfeed functions like a supernewspaper of free content from various parts of the world. There is a popular view that most of the world will not pay for online journalism as they have been habituated to paying nothing for journalism. But it is inevitable that in the future high-quality journalism will not remain free. Great journalism then will become niche and expensive, and very rarely found on Newsfeed.”

The journalists have been saying this for at least two decades. But, this has not materialized, and probably won’t. This is not true of other forms of literature, like academic non-fiction or literary fiction. They have long found a niche. So, why did the truthful journalists fail to find their sweet niche? As Clay Shirky put it, Nostalgia cannot be  a business model.

Books, Uncategorized

1891996“Four years ago, while working with Chappell on his book Fierce Focus, I read his diary. It was exhaustively detailed. Chappell wrote it for himself, not for publication. He has not consented to my raising it now. But he has, it seems, been traduced, and ought to be defended. The diary records only one visit paid by Chappell to Tendulkar’s home. It took place nearly a year before the World Cup, on May 9, 2006, the day before Chappell and Dravid were to take the Indian team to the West Indies for a Test and one-day tour. Tendulkar was months away from playing. In private and in public, Chappell was placing unstinting faith in Dravid. This is the meeting to which Chappell’s statement refers. His diary records no other visit to Tendulkar’s home. So what’s going on? Was there a second meeting? Conspiracy theorists might say Chappell doctored his own diary, to delete a meeting such as Tendulkar describes. However, he would have needed to do this between 2007, when the diary was finished, and 2011, when I saw it. The only conclusion is that he has done this deliberately. Why would he do that? Perhaps to win favour with Dravid, who, while not possessing Tendulkar’s godlike status, has universal admiration and respect from cricketers of all nations for his unimpeachable integrity, a quality in which he is second to none. There is a certain cruel logic by which Tendulkar should throw Chappell under a bus. By the end of his tenure after India’s poor showing in the 2007 World Cup, Chappell was the convenient fall guy for all of India’s problems. Tendulkar may be playing a dangerous game by challenging others to go public with what they really thought of his behaviour over the years. Or perhaps there is no danger at all. Greatness on the field brings its own shield of invulnerability, and off-field, financial power adds a sword of intimidation. To fight for the truth is seen as too much bother, too difficult, too politically fraught. Too scary. Cricket Australia has bowed its head to realpolitik before, and there is no sign that it will change course. But for as long as free speech is suppressed in public, private resentment will fester.”

—-Malcolm Knox in The Sydney Morning Herald

“Why would he do that?” This is a good way to put it, because there is too much paranoia about paranoia. This question has roots in the weak-hearted fool’s inability to accept the human condition. Jealousy explains much of what people do, but this is an explanation that sounds too ugly to the little people who are too nice to see the truth. People don’t have self knowledge. So, when this question is posed at “conspiracy theories”, the proper retort is often, “Perhaps the dirty old shmoe was jealous?”

But, why would Tendulkar do that? Malcom Knox’s explanation doesn’t make any sense to me. Even if it is true that Sachin has lied, it can’t be because Sachin wants to win favors with Dravid. Sachin has already hinted that Dravid had declared the innings when Sachin was at 194 in the Multan test. This makes Dravid look like a jealous guy, and this is perhaps not unjustified. The Chappell incident was probably slipped in to make Sachin look like a noble guy who wouldn’t accept Chappell’s offer to kick out Dravid and pull the strings, even after Dravid had stabbed him in the back. Awww.

Dravid seems to have sensed this and that’s why he is hinting that he doesn’t know about that:

“I haven’t really read the excerpts of that book. Also I am not privy to any private conversation between two individuals. I have not heard about this before and I have no idea what happened and I would not want to make any comment. It’s been a long time and it does not make much of a difference to me now. Not looking forward towards reading this [Chappell controversy] but yes anything that Sachin writes on batsmanship and things like what made him the best in the world. I am more interested in reading those parts (!).”

Post Script: But, there seems to be an answer here:

“Then, there is the problem of Rahul Dravid. There was a distinction between the society’s love for Tendulkar and for Dravid. The distinction was based on class. Just as Tendulkar’s ruse was humility, Dravid’s was intelligent discourse derived from apparent reading. A segment of the urban society had a Nehruvian adoration for Dravid. Tendulkar knows enough to embarrass Dravid and the ill-fated coach Greg Chappell, and people tell me that he has spoken at length to the book’s collaborators, but it is possible that he has not retained everything.”

Books, Uncategorized

I think many, perhaps most Indian writers find Rushdie’s claim controversial:

“The prose writing – both fiction and non-fiction by Indian writers working in English, is proving to be a stronger and more important body of work than most of what has been produced in the 16 “official languages” of India, the so-called “vernacular languages”, during the same time; and, indeed, this new, and still burgeoning, “Indo-Anglian” literature represents perhaps the most valuable contribution India has yet made to the world of books. It is a large claim, and while it may be easy for Western readers to accept it (after all, few non-English-language Indian writers, other than the Nobel laureate Tagore, have ever made much of an impact on world literature), it runs counter to much of the received critical wisdom within India itself. It is also not a claim which, when we set out on the enormous and rewarding task of doing the reading for this book, we ever expected to make. The task we set ourselves was simply to make the best possible selection from what is presently available in the English language, including, obviously, work in translation. To our considerable astonishment, only one translated text – S. H. Manto’s masterpiece, the short story “Toba Tek Singh” – made the final cut.” Those who wish to argue with the conclusion we have drawn may suspect that we did not read enough. But we have read as widely and deeply as we could. Others may feel that, as one of the editors is English and the other a practising English-language writer of Indian origin, we are simply betraying our own cultural and linguistic prejudices, or defending our turf or – even worse – gracelessly blowing our own trumpet. It is of course true that any anthology worth its salt will reflect the judgments and tastes of its editors. I can only say that our tastes are pretty catholic and our minds, I hope, have been open. We have made our choices, and stand by them.”

I have said this before. I haven’t read literature in “vernacular languages”. But, I think Rushdie is right. I have my own reasons. 1) The Indian writers in English have much higher IQs. 2) English is a rich, complex language. 3) Writing in vernacular languages doesn’t pay. 4) If the non-English-language writers were smart, they would have been writing in English. It is hard, if not impossible to express complex thoughts with the highest degree of fluency in vernacular languages. But, I am being charitable here.

I noticed this now:

“First, there has long been a genuine problem of translation in India – not only into English but between the vernacular languages – and it is possible that good writers have been excluded by reason of their translators’ inadequacies rather than their own. Nowadays, however, such bodies as the Indian Sahitya Akademi and UNESCO have been putting their resources into the creation of better translations, and the problem, while not eradicated, is certainly much diminished. And second: while it was impossible, for reasons of space, to include a representative selection of modern Indian poetry, it was evident to us that the rich poetic traditions of India continued to flourish in many of the sub-continent’s languages, whereas the English-language poets, with a few distinguished exceptions (Arun Kolatkar, A. K. Ramanujan, Jayanta Mahapatra, to name just three), did not match the quality of their counterparts in prose.”

If it is, indeed, true that Rushdie is prejudiced against vernacular writers, why is he unusually prejudiced against prose writers, but not against poets? People don’t think.