Saturday, January 28, 2006

Our Glorious Past

So while surfing the net, I came across this article. It talks about three Indian Americans who were among the forty who made it the Intel Science Talent Search competition. I am pretty certain that similar headlines made their way to the Economic Times, Times of India, and pretty much every other Indian newspaper. Goes along really well with the scores of forwarded emails that keep finding their way into my inbox, waxing eloquent about our nation's achievements. Especially in comparison with the only current superpower, the USA. For example, I remember reading with pride that the debacle that was the 2000 US election could not happen in our country, because the fathers of our constitution were intelligent enough to institute the Election Commission. Besides, which Indian cannot remember the email about how half the American economy depends on Indians, (while surely an exaggeration, there are plenty anecdotal evidences, to show that Indians do indeed play a remarkably important role in the US economy.) No other immigrant community in the US is as influential as the Indian. Maybe the spanish speaking community are a great political catch, but that is only because of numbers, and they are economically very weak.

So seeing this article, after arising the usual feelings of patriotic glory, got me thinking. So what exactly about these kids is making me so happy? What has led to these three being highlighted in nearly every newspaper in a country 2 continents across? Well because they are Indian - Americans. How did it take so long for me to latch onto that? Maybe its because I am really stupid. Or maybe it is because I think the Indian in their Indian-American qualification is a misnomer. What is so Indian about them? Lets see. Are they citizens of the country called India?, thats why they have that American following the Indian. So is it because they have probably been raised in a culture which can be uniquely described as Indian? Well, in that case, is anyone who does not believe or follow that unique Indian culture not Indian? Or if tomorrow Britney Spears decides that she wants to wear sarees, a mangalsutra, and the whole shebang, and does not want to divorce more than 2 people in her lifetime, she is also an Indian-American? Does not sound right to me, so I dont think the culture issue is the answer. Maybe its their names and religions? Nah...that is way off. I dont even need to argue that one. Color of the skin? Blasphemy! Probably the fact that probably (however, at least this article does not mention it), its beacuse their parents are direct immigrants from India. However, that is like saying that a farmer in Africa should be proud of Michael Jordan, for having been the richest sportsperson in the world.

My point is that, we, as Indians (here I mean the people who are citizens of the Republic of India), have been serious underachievers. We know we are capable of so much more, and not having achieved to our capabilities, look out for the weakest link we could find with achievers across the world, to boost our egos and self esteem. Hence we have adopted pretty much everyone who is a descendant of anyone who has ever been a part of this country. This attitude has resulted in a severe identity crisis and has led to a sense of achievement when in fact we should be bearing the burden of gross failure as a nation and a people. I mean, even this article which is being proudly displayed in newspapers as a sign of Indian genius, only shows how India is incapable of encouraging talent, although it has amongst the most talented individuals on the planet. Indians need to go to other countries to be able to succeed and flourish. We keep talking about India being the next superpower, and have quoted everyone from Nostradamus to Bejan Daruwalla to show why this will be true, yet if we compare our progress to China in the last five years, ours is nothing but a story rich in embarrassments. We constantly compare ourselves to China, but our economy is about 2 and a 1/2 times smaller than China's. Their GDP is about 8 trillion dollars while ours is only about 3 1/2 trillion. And yeah, they are also growing faster than us...much faster. And their expatriates actually generate business for their country.

Its about time that we stop fooling ourselves and adopting every achiever with the remotest connection to our nation, as one of our own. Its about time we realize that we have fucked up, stand on our feet and do something about it. Its about time we stop talking about our great nation, and actually start creating a great nation. Personally, I believe that every history book on the nation should be banned, because we all find safe comfort in our glorious history, which makes it easier for us to achieve our present lethargy, and prevents us from struggling to achieve all that our nation is capable of. While we are doing this, it might be advisable to stop celebrating a single olympic medal as a success but recognize it as the symbol of glorious national underachievement that it actually is.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

A Clockwork Orange

Today I watched Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange. Extremely violent, but interesting from many points of view. There use of music in the movie is quite brilliant. The interlacing of the classics with grotesque scenes of violence and rape, made these scenes bearable, even palatable. A strong testament to the value of sound in the rendition of a movie. But what caught my eye was the issues raised about choice and free will. Put that together with Gourav's brilliant writings on a similar topic and I was compelled to write my thoughts down.

Specifically, the movie presents an individual who seeks violence and debauchery in every moment of his life. He is a sadist taken to the furthest extreme. He is put through a rehabilitation program, in which his body is conditioned to associate violence and sex with sickness and nausea. So all his violent or sexual thoughts are accompanied by unbearable pain, preventing him from indulging in either activity. However, while it keeps him from causing trouble, the procedure is reversed by people who are disgusted by the fact that he is no longer living under his own free will.

The question here is that while he has limited free will, he is no longer a menace to society. But then again, there has been an intrusion on the individual's liberties. So what was the right course of action. Let's consider what was the popular action in the movie. (Or at least initially, before a certain writer convinced the public to believe that a grave injustice was done to the protagonist by the conditioning. Which brings up another interesting point of how easily our convictions can be manipulated, especially by the media. But back to the issue at hand). In the movie, all wanted to keep criminals away from the street and so loved any action which promised to reduce crime. Thus the public strongly supported the program. The reasons are extremely simple, if you can prevent someone from killing someone else, then why not? In practice it is brilliant and is sure to succeed as a crime reduction effort. And who would say no to feeling safer while walking home at mid night? Besides, if the government possess the ability to reform criminals, and they dont, aren't they responsible for any misdeeds committed by the criminal? Which judge would be able to sleep at night if he prevented such a reform procedure from being carried out on a known rapist, and the rapist went forwarded and ravaged the life of an innocent teenager? Isn't pre-emptive action always a good thing? Haven't we always heard that prevention is better than cure?

On the other hand, you have the larger philosophical issue of free will. The idea that the individual is capable of making his own decisions is one on which modern society is based. All current governance systems, ranging from democracy, capitalism to the decision to abortion and freedom of religion are intricately bound to the concept of free will. Can you imagine a situation where the government decides where you shall sleep, what you shall eat, or what work you should do? I know I am exaggerating a little, but the fact is that once we start letting go of a few freedoms, it does not take much to lose all our liberties. Besides the larger philosophical issue, there is also the practical problem of reducing free will. The fact is that who decides what is right and what is wrong? And history is evidence to the fact that what may be a mortal crime yesterday is worshipped as a sign of heroism today, and vice versa. For example, slavery was a respectable and well established practice in the USA. Even Jefferson, the third President of the US also had slaves. But today it is considered an abhorrent practice. Closer to home, in India, Sati used to be considered an honorable act, but now it is only reviled. So if succeeding generations can have such wide chasms in their moralities, then isn't it quite reasonable to believe that different individuals within the same generation can have widely divided opinions on the same issue. And both may be contradictory, yet correct opinions.

It is a strong argument, however, that in every generation, there is a certain basic level of right that is accepted by everyone, well at least a sufficiently large majority. In that case, would it not be appropriate to actually perform such a procedure, as long as you remain within the bounds presented by this basic morality? Except, in practice there are two problems. One is defining the boundaries of this basic morality, which allows unscrupulous individuals to cheat the system to everyone's detriment. The other is the fact that even within those boundaries, there are unpredictable side-effects. In the movie itself, for example, the protagonist loses his appreciation for Beethoven's 9th symphony, and him being a Beethoven fanatic, this causes him a lot of anguish. Consider, Hitler, an individual that most would believe the world would be much better off without. But is that really true? How can you predict what would happen if he did not exist? In fact, I think that there was a great chance that if Hitler would not have started the 2nd world war, we would have had a more deadly world war later on, this time with a liberal use of nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons were created late enough in the war that there was no need for their widespread use, yet the two times they were used, woke the world to the urgency of containing them. So practically, any such change that is made in an individual, need not necessarily be a good change.

Thus it appears that ideally we would have complete free will, but would always make the right decision. But is this free will? If everyone's decisions are constrained by the fact that their decision is the right one, then they longer do not have any free will. So ironically, the ideal of free will requires that people make wrong, and damaging decisions. On the other hand, paradise would be a world where there would be no free will. Which brings me to the question: Is free will really a good thing? Or is it just a wolf in sheep's clothing?

Thursday, January 05, 2006


In the last posting, I realized that the more successful economic systems prevalent today, have inbuilt measures to prevent equality. Which raises the question, how important is equality and should man take any extraordinary measures to bridge this gap.

It is easy to see that a certain level of equality is necessary to sustain any social community. If the gaps between the rich and the poor, the working and administrative classes, or different religions become too acute, then instability is sure to follow. As the clichŽ goes, Man is a social animal, so social instability is a serious deterrent to happiness, achievement, and progress. Thus, the gaps between different sections of society must never be allowed to exceed the point where it would cause rebellion and revolution. So there is obviously a minimum level of equality that must be maintained for the betterment of the human race. Is there a maximum? Is there any such thing as a society that is too equal?

At first glance, a situation where everyone is equally well off seems to be the definition of Utopia, however, if such a situation is indeed achieved, then there is no incentive for anyone to go out of their way and do anything better. For that matter, there is no incentive for anyone to do anything if that individual is assured a certain way of life, in either situation. I strongly believe that this kind of equality, and equality of outcome, where everyone has equal rewards irrespective of their inputs, is detrimental to human society. That is not to say that if such a situation is achieved due to natural means, for example everyone starts doing equally good and important work, is a bad thing. However, if someone who works 6 hours a day reaps the same rewards as someone else who does the same work for 12 hours a day, then we would have trouble.

On the other hand, synthetic means to achieve equality of opportunity are surely welcome. For example, everyone should be allowed to have the ability to receive the highest quality education possible. However, even this theory, as plausible as it sounds, runs into trouble when applied in practice. It will probably be impossible to have enough higher education institutions, of the caliber of the IIT's and the better American Universities, to satisfy every young person's needs. So the opportunity available to some youngsters will be greater than those available to others. And why shouldn't the efforts of the parents (i.e. parent's wealth) be a determining factor for who should get preference? This eliminates the ability to provide the equality of opportunity to everyone.

Besides the practical hindrances to equality of opportunity, is also the ideological question as to whether people who are better endowed have any responsibility to ensure better opportunities to the not as well of sections of society. As long as they make sure that these sections of society are not too far off (due to the practical purpose of maintaining stability) is there any moral duty to look out for them? Studying nature for answers, humans seem to be the most selfless animals of all. Very few other animals would risk their lives to save a being that they do not even know. Even fewer care two hoots about animals of different species. Humans are at the top of the pyramid as far as selflessness is concerned. So why are we so altruistic? I believe it is an evolutionary adaptation that was developed during caveman times. In those periods, man was among the weaker animals. He was very vulnerable physically and did not have the tremendous mental edge that he has now over other animals. As a result, he developed society as a means to better his survival rate. An important part of this was developing innate feelings of compassion for others and a moral duty to help each other. However, now that he has so much control over his own destiny, and his only enemies lie within the human race itself, he no longer has that need. So it makes evolutionary sense for those better off to be selfish and worry only about their own needs rather than concern themselves with the problems of others less fortunate.

A fine example of this theory is the parallel development of India and China on one side and the USA on the other. In India and China, education is key, and can mean the difference between a successful life and dying of hunger on the streets. On the other hand, in the USA, even a high school dropout lives a life that is of the same standard as middle class people in most other countries, by flipping burgers at the local joint. Thus the incentive to study is far greater in India and China than in the USA. At the same time, on both these countries, the education levels of the citizens are rising rapidly. They are churning out more scientists, engineers and smart people in general, with every passing year. On the other hand, the USA's standards in education are dropping day by day. American students fare miserably when compared to their counterparts in other countries in almost all international educational competitions. This cannot be explained by a lack of opportunity, because undoubtedly, the USA has the best educational facilities in the world. Instead it is because no one in India or China can seriously consider ending his education without at least a bachelor's, if they want to survive, while Americans have no qualms about dropping out of high school.

So if we want the human race to continue improving and evolving, maybe we should worry less about equality, and more about encouraging excellence and greatness.


Every time I come home to Bombay from Atlanta, I am faced with the difficult problem of buying something for as many people as I can. Exploring the stores and malls in and around Atlanta, I am struck by the amazing variety of things at offer. Some are necessities of life, while others are simply silly, like designer clothes for dogs. However, the sheer abundance of things to buy makes entering an American shopping mall a fascinating experience.

Since the newspapers in the US are extremely expensive, and impossible for a college student to afford, my only source of news is the internet. With this regard, I find Google News a wonderful tool. So, anyways, I noticed that every Christmas season, all the companies and newspapers go haywire trying to determine what kind of sales have occurred the week before, after, and during Christmas. In fact, the period from Thanksgiving to Christmas, people go crazy buying gifts for their spouses, kids, friends, and coworkers. It is a shopping frenzy with alarming importance to retailers of all sizes and shapes. In fact, until a few years ago, many retailers depended on the profits made on the day after thanksgiving, (Black Friday, as it is nicknamed, the black referring to bottom-lines) to see them through the rest of the year. So every year around this time, you will see the United States President make a speech about how the economy is doing fine and everything is perfect with the US and that citizens should help the economy by buying.

Buying seems to be the number one duty of every American citizen. The American economy depends on consumption. And the world economy depends on America. So it is in everyone's interests for people to consume. That is how capitalism works. Another strong driver of the capitalist system in its current form are the share markets. In these, investors provide companies with money, in return for a stake in the company, and hope that the company grows to a greater size, thus making the investor's stake more valuable than what he paid up. Thus publicly listed companies (pretty much every big company) are under tremendous pressure to become bigger with every passing year, month and day. This growth is achieved in a few ways, increasing the products the company deals in, expanding the market the company trades in, and entering new markets. All of these actions lead to greater consumption than before, helping companies grow, and keeping shareholders happy.

Thus it is quite clear that capitalism depends on consumption. When you mix in the share markets, economies not only depend on consumption, but increasing consumption. Yet, the resources that are converted into things to consume are finite. Already, we have reached a situation where certain groups of people consume far more than what the average human should be using in order for the earth to sustain our species. The only reason that nature has not completely collapsed yet is that vast majorities of the people on earth live in sub standard conditions. In fact, if there is one defining characteristic in capitalism, as it exists today, it is inequality.

One aim of our society is to help uplift the poor and make sure that they have similar lifestyles as a middle class individual. However, if such a situation happened, there would be much trouble because the planet cannot sustain 6 billion people living such a lifestyle. Economically also, it has been determined that approximately 6% of the work force needs to be unemployed for a capitalist society to function effectively. Therefore, capitalism needs inequality to function. While personally I believe that capitalism is indeed the best system we have at our disposal, there is no reason that it cannot be improved. For improvement, it is necessary to recognize its flaws and mistakes rather than to unthinkingly brand everyone who disagrees with some of its philosophies as a commie and a traitor.