Books

The Nerds Shall Inherit The Earth

There were times when brawn mattered more than brain.

A lady who thinks that there is always a touch of Aspergers in high IQ men was describing a friend of hers: “He is able to walk, speak, write and care for himself. He is a wonderful writer. But, he does not make eye contact. He cannot read social cues. He does not understand sarcasm. He tells inappropriate jokes. But, he is very kind, and assumes that every one is honest.”, she said.

I asked, “There is a boy who stays behind my flat. He is often surprised when I say “America’s Great Depression, Page no. 63, Last paragraph.” or words to that effect when he asks me questions like, ‘Where does Murray Rothbard discuss the effect of savings during an economic depression?’. It was a book I had read seven years ago. Is that how your friend is?”
 
She said, “Yes. That is how our friend would answer. He remembers every word he has ever read of every book, even from thirty years ago.” I named him. When she asked, “How do you know?” I replied, “His knowledge is encyclopaedic.”, and she said, “You are very astute.”
 
She then narrated an incident: “I once hosted a dinner. One guest—an autistic—came with a book. He came inside through the door, found a corner and read for an hour. When I called him to the table, he brought the book with him. He ate with one hand, holding the book with the other hand. Several of us asked him questions. He looked up, gave a one word answer, and went back to reading the book. It was very annoying.”
 
I said, “You know, such people really like talking to people. I carry a book wherever I go because I feel impatient when there is nothing to do when, say, I travel in the metro train. I always read while I am having my food. My parents took me to many psychologists when I was a teen. One of them gave me many pictures to recognize. I got all the answers wrong.  Then she removed her spectacles, and said that there is something terribly wrong with me.”
 
She said, “But, it ruined the dinner. Autistic people think that they are amazing people, and that others should quietly suffer their rudeness. The funniest thing is that after the dinner, we spent hours trying to get him interested, asking him questions. He barely answered. The next day, his wife told me that he is upset because nobody spoke with him. Weirdo.”
 
I said, “I think part of the reason the autistic guy carried a book was that such social settings make him nervous. Or because he could not relate to those conversations. Either he would be completely oblivious to the fact that he spoiled the dinner, or he would be feeling too guilty about that. I lived in a small town for long, and people always wanted to know why I behaved in a particular manner. When I joined high school, the kids in my batch and my senior batch would talk to me, to make me interact. They wanted to know whether there is something that made me sad. There was nothing of that sort. It was hell. ”
 
She said, “Yes. Just like it is hell for us normal people trying to get autistics to interact. If a person knows himself to be autistic, it is his job to be aware of his actions, and to modify them when appropriate. I have since learned since then.  I’m sure that he was nervous. But it was not right when he said to himself: “I’m autistic. Too bad for them. I will do as I please.” That is why he has a wife. She can tell him these things. It was bizarre. He will spend hours talking about the one subject he likes best though. The agony!”
 
I said, “I read this about Paul Graham. Any sort of politicking pains him, and he gathered as much when he was doing his PhD at Harvard, and later when he worked with a software company where all the decisions they took were irrational. But, his wife is a very clever lady, and manages all the tricky situations. So, he is very rich now.”
 
And she said, “See? It pays to marry a smart woman.”
 
Many high-functioning adults are autistic. Economist Tyler Cowen thinks that the ability to classify things in unusual and illuminating ways, and seeing details ignored by others is the essence of autism. Tyler thinks that these are personality traits that have contributed enormously to human progress.
 
The Autistic Way Of Looking At The World
 
Much of the aesthetical disagreements are about the ability to perceive fine distinctions.

Many years ago, an extraordinarily smart boy who added me on Orkut started gushing over my blog in my scrapbook. He used to write poetry, and unlike many of us who became libertarians in our late teens, he was a libertarian since the age of 15.  He said that my short stories are among the best that he has ever read. He was soon embarrassed, and removed those scraps hoping that I would not have read them.

 
Years later, when he said that he is moody at times, I said, “You think you are feeling moody, perhaps because you have a potent form of OCD?” When he asked, “Shanu, How do you know about that I have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder? Did I mention it before? ‘Potent form of OCD’.  I have a feeling that I once used the same phrase. Did I?”.
 
I said, “Yes. You said that you have a potent form of OCD, and that it screwed up your life in the past. You said that though it is largely under your control right now, you cannot get rid of it. And that it has effects similar to that of depression and that it was only your laziness which prevented you from being depressed. You deleted those posts from my Scrapbook before you thought I had read it. But, I had read them.”  And then he asked, “But, how do you remember all that I had said, word by word?”
 
He had also quoted from Ayn Rand’s “We The Living”:
 
“I don’t want to see too much. Who suffers in this world? Those who lack something? No. Those who have something they should lack. A blind man can’t see, but it’s more impossible not to see for one whose eyes are too sharp. More impossible and more of a torture. If only one could lose sight and come down, down to the level of those who never want it, never miss it.”
 
Tyler Cowen quotes David Hume who believed that much of “aesthetical” disagreements are about the ability to perceive fine distinctions, and that too fine an ability to perceive  can be as much a burden as a blessing.
 
Observe some similar passages in The Fountainhead:
 
“The sound perception of an ant does not include thunder.”

“Howard, You must learn how to handle people.” “I can’t.” “Why?” “I don’t know how. I was born without some one particular sense.” “It’s something one acquires.” “I have no organ to acquire it with. I don’t know whether it’s something I lack, or something extra I have that stops me. Besides, I don’t like people who have to be handled.”

 
I suspect that this is an autistic way of looking at the world. Many others too have pointed out that Rand must have been a high-functioning individual with autism.
 
I would say that this is indicative, because I have a lot more to say, but observe some similar passages in Manu Joseph’s “The Illicit Happiness Of Other People”:
 
At some point she realizes that Unni is standing in the doorway and watching. She smiles at him. “What are you thinking?” she says. “I was thinking, you may never see what I see.” “What do you see?” “I see things that are beautiful. And I was thinking, Mythili will go through her entire life without ever seeing what I see. Mythili will never know what she is meant to see.” “You are mad, Unni.” “What if I am not?”
 And:
“Unni Chacko, who appeared to possess a superior detachment, apparently also had an unnatural curiosity about the world around him, as if he could see something extraordinary hiding in plain sight.”
I am not saying that this guy is autistic, but I do not think it is a coincidence that this is the same author who once said, “True clarity and sanity won’t allow you to do anything — it will just make you jump off the building. The pursuit of truth itself is a psychiatric condition.” This is a lame and idiotic way of looking at clarity of thought, but it is true that clear thinking people often can see the insanity involved in most things that people do. People with clarity of though cannot be themselves and be liked.
 
Blunt Speech And Human Progress
 
We are the sheep.

Once when someone asked me about the Magazine I had worked with, I said, “It is very hard for a small magazine to find decent writers.” And then I thought,“You know, this is just another way of saying that not one among those drooling dolts knew how to write a decent sentence. A month back, I would have said just that. This perhaps makes me more likeable, and less interesting. I do not know why all this matters so much to people, but now I know that its does.” I have become softer over years, and words like “Whatever” have dropped out of my vocabulary.

 
Tyler Cowen thinks that autistics often have such a direct, blunt style of speech and that is very refreshing:
 
“A preferred strategy for communicating or coordinating is simply to say what you mean, and that can do a great deal of good for communication and coordination. You also could say it is a focal point, among many self-aware autistics, not to be so offended by any perceived directness from the other person. So it’s wrong to think that all the communication and coordination problems lie on the autistic side of the ledger.”
Deep inside, very smart young men often “love” blunt speech, even when they are not willing to celebrate it the way I do. This is one of the greatest reasons behind the appeal of writers like Ayn Rand, Murray Rothbard and H. L. Mencken on the very young. The great Mencken once famously told his correspondents to never apologize for their views: “This is a place for frank discussion, not for the exchange of polite nothings.”
 
I was a fairly well read teen when I read Ayn Rand, and had read capitalistic thinkers like Mises and Bastiat. But it was she who was very clear about what she wanted, from beginning to the end. This is a great virtue. I think this is one reason why unlike others, she could build a movement.
 
Though readers, and their peers are likely to see blunt writers are very intolerant, this is a naive and idiotic view and largely because they do not identify with them. People who engage in blunt speech are extraordinarily likely to be open to new ideas, and to iconoclastic research. Someone who is so intolerant would have never been so open to such unpopular positions in the first place. Blunt people are also far less likely to see personal disagreements as an expression of hostility, when the allegedly tolerant people are more likely to turn silent and defensive. The stubbornness of blunt writers is not such a big problems as people make it out to be.
 
There can only be one possible explanation why people fear and hesitate to engage in such blunt speech: Fear of direct confrontation.
 
Agreeableness or the fear of direct confrontation is  perhaps the greatest roadblock to progress, especially in poor countries like India where people in positions of power are almost always “not very learned”. Being agreeable becomes a full-time business here.
 
Imagine that you are working in a newspaper office in India. You can’t really make progress with your editor arguing, “But, that is wrong….”. It does not matter that no serious thinker would disagree with you. Before you finish, the editor would have said, “I will never read your drafts then.”, because he might be someone who has never really read a book in his whole life. He might not even have the wits to know that he does not know what he is talking about. All societies are intolerant, but in a more civilized society, shame will be more of a deterrent. A less educated person is likely to see everything as an authority issue and act without moral scruples.
 
Agreeableness has broader, negative implications.
 
           Consider the effect of agreeableness on monetary policy:
 
An economist who speaks in a refreshingly blunt way once told me:
“Think of India, a feudal country. Imagine a RBI Governor in a room. The Governor is glowering at a subordinate. Will the subordinate be able to disagree with him? I doubt it. And The RBI governor is basically a bureaucrat. He cannot stand up to the Finance Minister beyond a point.
But, the problem is universal. Bryan Caplan says this about the Federal Reserve:
My best guess is that Ben Bernanke simply didn’t have the backbone to tell people like Paulson and Bush that they didn’t know what they were talking about. Contrary to my expectations, Bernanke’s been a disasterAt the same time, though, I can’t honestly say that his successor will be any better.
 Read this passage in DNA’s interview with Ajay Shah:

“If politicians want to interfere with the monetary policy process, it is easier to pressurize one person (the governor) than to pressurize seven persons in a committee. This motivates the Monetary Policy Committee (MPC). Think of it like a bench of judges. But for this to work, the individuals in the bench should be fully comfortable disagreeing with each other. As an example, In the UK, while there is a MPC structure, it almost never happens that the MPC votes against the governor.

The point is that there is no escape.

These are just instances of fear of direct confrontation blocking progress. Remember that the UK and the US are developed countries where economists involved in the monetary policy formulation are more likely to be aware of diverse positions, and be far more tolerant of disagreements. But, the problems involved in formulating monetary policy in developed countries are just the tip of the iceberg, because they have reached solutions that have worked reasonably well.

Imagine the worst forms of political correctness like patriotism, and how it has resulted in so much blood shed and poverty through wars and immigration restrictions. Unlike monetary policy, these are issues in which even ordinary men are blinded by envy, resentment and ignorance.

The agreeable nature of most human beings is the primary reason I think that there are no easy solutions for the woes of mankind. There is no escape from such conformity because we are the sheep.

PS: People apply their lame standards to everyone, but they apply higher standards to people they do not identify with. When a reporter once asked an Indian Cricket team captain why the performance of his team is so pathetic, he retorted, “If you can do it better than me,why don’t you be the captain?” Many people found it insulting. He was just being Sarcastic. Funny. And he probably would not have expected that much hostility when he said that. Much of what we call social norms are about that. When a minister once said, “cattle class’, referring to economy class, I think he lost his job. That is crazy. People do not think that all this is fundamentally immature, though they imagine themselves to be serious. It is my theory that if you pay attention, you would see such behavior too often—In almost everyone. When people talk about maturity, and sanity, they have no idea of what they are talking about. They are just sick.

The Narrative Mode As Cheap Entertainment?
 
Thomas C. Schelling

Tyler Cowen says that his professor at Harvard, Nobel Laureate Thomas C. Schelling was a great story-teller:

“When he encounters an idea he usually responds in a roundabout manner. You might hear a story about how he tried to quit smoking, what his grandmother used to tell him, or why terrorists won’t want to use any nuclear weapons they happen to acquire. Typically, at first you think that Schelling didn’t listen to what you said because his story seems so off base; a minute later you realize that maybe he has a point, albeit a wrong one; five minutes later you understand he was well ahead of you the entire time.”
Readers almost never notice the meticulous planning, the bewilderingly complex planning that is involved in stories that are popular entertainment.

When I once launched into a monologue on how people are wolves, after listening to me for long silently, Krishnapriya asked: “So, you mean to say that people are up to no good?”I laughed. A normal person might think that she is not listening to you, but she might be watching you like a hawk. She even has a child-like voice, and sounds somewhat helpless and flustered, but she would have passed a million judgments on you before you even notice that she is paying attention.

A few days later, I said, “I liked your question.”, and she said, laughing: “You often miss the subtle point that I am making”. And I said, “I don’t. You should  have observed the way I structured my story on you.”

The first day we talked, I argued with all my power and passion that happiness can only be achieved by being perfectly logical and rational. She asked: “Are you logical and rational?” I nodded cheerfully: “Yes”. “Now, are you happy?” I was silent, because in my teens, I was anything, but happy.

When I argued endlessly for my positions, listing my premises one by one, she would say, “Once in a while, you should take your fingers off the keyboard and pay attention to what I say too.”

When she asked what I look for in a girl, I said that I want someone with whom I can discuss philosophy all night long. It is such philosophical discussions that turn me on, I said. She said, “I knew a sixty year old man. I still miss him, and the philosophical discussions I once had with him. It still turns me on.” And then she sent a smiley that resembled a scooter driven by an insect. It was only after many years I understood that she was kicking my ass.

She was leagues ahead of kids of my age in intelligence and maturity. “But, what is the point in being smart among all those dumb people?” she once asked me.

When I once said, “People tell me that I am the coldest person on earth. But, you sound colder than me.”, she replied, “It is for my own safety.” She said, “I am too mean to people, but they still like me. I am not nice to you because otherwise you will stop loving me as much as you do now.”

“When a young friend quoted an excerpt from a novel which convinced him that it would be one hell of a read, I did not know what it meant. It read: “If there were ever a sudden almighty silence in marine drive, you would hear a thousand bra straps snap.” When I once read that “Ron Paul is a gynecologist, and he is self-taught.”, I did not understand why it evoked laughter in an audience. I still do not.

When I once read in a Magazine that physical intimacy begins with a kiss, I wondered apprehensively: “But then, how far would they go?”  So, it is hard for me to not like the twelve-year-old Thoma in Manu Joseph’s The Illicit Happiness of Other People.

Thoma is glad that he is not a woman, because unlike his elder brother Unni, he does not know how to decipher clues. When Gloria Miss stands in front of the class with her arms folded, Thoma felt sorry for her. He wondered how women go through their lives—how they handle this shame. He knows that if he were a woman, he would have spent his whole life missing all the insults hurled at him by other women. To people who do not know how to decipher clues, there is an aspect of reality that is incomprehensible-an aspect of reality that involves people.

Thoma’s father Ousep trusts the editor who asks him to reveal his sources in the name of “journalistic tradition”. It seems odd to him that plain men, simple men, men who are not writers too can make their wives laugh. He is convinced that his father-in-law was mesmerized by his prose.  He is surprised when he suddenly finds himself unemployable because not long ago, publishers who had read his short stories wanted him to write novels. Introspection often fails the cognitive elite. Ousep also wonders how humiliating the honest compassion of fools is. But then, Introspection fails everyone else too.”

(Read the whole review and see what I was driving at, through the sections that are put in block quotes.  That bastard missed it. He was the first person to share it.)

Tyler says that this is the age of infovores in which autistics can thrive.  See a book review in which the autistic way of functioning, and how they could have thrived only in the information age comes through.

“There were times when brawn mattered more than brain. In the battle between nerds and jocks, jocks always had the last laugh. But the second half of the 20th century witnessed the rise of nerds. Bill Gates was consistently on top of the Forbes list of billionaires for long. The investing career of Warren Buffett is so successful that Fortune has had an expert on him since 1966. Jocks should be worried.

Mr Buffett spends much of his time reading and thinking. He has been reading books on investing since the age of eight. He does not split his stock. When Mr Buffett was once asked when he would sell his Coca-Cola shares, he replied: “Never.” He rarely travels beyond Omaha. He does not venture beyond his area of expertise. For long, he refused to use an electronic computer. He is not swayed by the latest fads in the investment arena. He has a schedule free of meetings. Listening to stupid people gives him “blinding headaches”. He would not do business with people he dislikes.

Mr Buffett loves his work. His unwillingness to compromise the integrity of his work enraged a Fortune editor, Daniel Seligman; at one point, Seligman wanted the magazine to not publish the great investor’s article. When he was 19, Harvard rejected Mr Buffett because he had the social skills of a 12-year-old. In other words, if the jocks in the pre-industrial age needed a punching bag, Mr Buffett would have been the most obvious candidate. But, as Ms Loomis points out, in the information age, few jocks can afford a stock of Berkshire Hathaway. Today, it sells at a hefty price of $134,490.

In a conversation in this anthology, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett admit that if they were born a few thousand years ago, they would have at best been an animal’s lunch. Mr Buffett says that, being rich, he can easily avoid dealing with people who would make his stomach churn.”

The narrative form can be so powerful. I think one of the most talented story tellers I have read is Jeff Kinney, the author of The Wimpy Kid Series, but most readers would miss that what they are reading is highly sophisticated entertainment. They would miss that they are reading one of the greatest minds of our times.

But, Tyler asks an interesting question: Autistics are not very fond of story telling. But, should you always embrace the narrative mode or the story based approach to writing or should you be suspicious of it? Telling stories is always not the optimal way to educate, or put across your view point. This is true. For instance, a Magazine or newspaper article on inflation would have everything from the woes of a dim housewife to the grim, joyless predictions of the grubby Finance minister. But, it would do a terrible job of explaining what causes the prices to rise.

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