Sidin Vadukut interviews Prof. Audrey Truschke

I stumbled upon the interview of Sidin Vadukut of Prof. Audrey Truschke in MINT this morning.

I have not read the book of the Professor on Aurangazeb. So, this blog post is not a comment on the book nor a critique of the book. But, it only contains questions that I wish the interviewer had asked the interviewee.

(1) She says, when asked about whether the Emperor could be ‘blamed’ for the end of the Mughal era in India, she gives a fairly reasonable reply, overall. But, this caught my attention:

When you combine that with modern anti-Muslim prejudices, which are widespread in India and around the world today, one gets a narrative of India’s most abhorrent king.

If I were the interviewer, I would, just to draw out the interviewee, ask more about the other side of Aurangazeb, citing from other sources, just to see how rigorously she established her case that he was not India’s most abhorrent King. For example, someone reminded me that Aurangazeb reintroduced Jazia, a punitive and pernicious tax on non-Muslims. Etc., etc.

Second, ‘Modern anti-Muslim prejudices’. Are they only prejudices? Are there no empirical evidence, available from goings-on in the Islamic world itself, that these are not (just) prejudices?

(2) She remarks, towards the end of the interview:

History is an evidentiary-based discipline to a great degree, but it also rests on arguments made by individuals, and nobody stands completely free of their own  historical context.

Does it not apply to her? Being not free of one’s historical context – is that a strength or a weakness? If it can be a weakness, how and what did she do, to guard against the weakness of being ‘not free of one’s own historical context’? That would be a good follow-up question to ask but not asked.

(3) Lastly, when she blames the British for having painted Aurangazeb in a ‘bad light’ just to make themselves look better (an assertion that could have been challenged), a follow-up question was begging to be asked: could a similar judgement be extended to what the British wrote about Indian and Hindu systems too, just to make themselves appear as the civilisers?

I have noticed a pattern in several interviews. Either the interviewer is an antagonist and actually asks rather hostile questions. If the interviewee is well prepared, it turns out to be a great interview because, that way, the interviewees are forced to explain, articulate, justify and defend their theses rather rigorously. If they do not, then the readers can form their own conclusions as to how much time to devote to or waste on their work, as the case may be.

When the interviewer is in awe of or is too respectful towards the interviewees or is sympathetic to the subject matter or is unsympathetic to the interviewee’s antagonists, then the interview becomes too lame. My suspicion is that this interview falls in the latter category.

The wisdom of Sébastian Bras for Mark Zuckerberg

The September 23rd International Edition of New York Times had two very beautiful stories. I caught up with them on my flight to Hong Kong.

The first story I want to mention here is that of Facebook. The article is aptly titled, ‘Facebook’s Frankenstein moment’. The article has some very interesting and profound sentences that should make us think of its relevance for human lives too.

The journalist writes:

If I were a Facebook executive, I might feel a Frankensteinian sense of unease these days. The company has been hit with a series of scandals that have bruised its image, enraged its critics and opened up the possibility that in its quest for global dominance, Facebook may have created something it can’t fully control.

One more:

But the troubles do make it clear that Facebook was simply not built to handle problems of this magnitude. It’s a technology company, not an intelligence agency or an international diplomatic corps. Its engineers are in the business of building apps and selling advertising, not determining what constitutes hate speech in Myanmar. And with two billion users, including 1.3 billion who use it every day, moving ever greater amounts of their social and political activity onto Facebook, it’s possible that the company is simply too big to understand all of the harmful ways people might use its products.

The last one:

When Mark Zuckerberg built Facebook in his Harvard dorm room in 2004, nobody could have imagined its becoming a censorship tool for repressive regimes, an arbiter of global speech standards or a vehicle for foreign propagandists.

These three excerpts made me think. Multiple thoughts came to my head. There are lessons in this for corporate mission and goals; for humans.

Is growth the ‘be all and end all’ for corporations? Are we in control of what we do? When we begin to do something, do we even know in what directions it would grow and how big? Do we control the process all the way through? Do we realise that? Do we even know that we don’t drive the process but the process has a mind and life of its own? In fact, it is the real intelligence and we are the artificial one! Do we grasp the play of the law of unintended consequences in life and in business?

Only if we do, we can put our hand up and say STOP and not pursue growth for its own sake. When we conscioiusly question the ‘growth’ choices (becoming big or rich or both), we will even think of why we pursue those goals – megalomania or delusions of grandeur?

Plainly put, is it ego that drives and not any other so-called rational imperative? Per se, nothing wrong with ego having a role. It always does. But, recognising that will evaluate the trade-offs and the costs better and pursue corporate goals (or, personal goals) with a sense of awarenesss.

Every time we are offered choices to grow big and fast, the alternatives are ‘grow big but at a measured pace’ and ‘stability over growth’. How do we evaluate the choices? That would make a big difference. Going back to our origins, our goals at inception would help steer us better and keep us grounded even as we fancy taking flight to higher altitudes. Again, applies as much to businesses as it does to individuals and institutions.

And, to politicians! As they become bigger and bigger players, they move furhter and further from their core values and principles. IF they look into the mirror one day, they will not recognise the face they see. How much has it been transformed and HOW and WHY?

Staying close to one’s knitting and to one’s initial goals, staying small, compact and manageable vs. growing big, these are as much philosophical decisions as they are business decisions. When we choose the latter – growing big – we do have to recognise the possibility that we won’t be in the driver’s seat.

Letting the process drive us and growing big consciously are actually two different choices. The articles give us the opportunity to think about how many of us are victims or prisoners of the former? The second one is about freedom. Are we free?

[Of course, at a macro level or economic plane, there is a problem with this philosophy. A country of India’s size needs scale. Also, conversely, while the desire and passion to grow big brings with it, its own share of problems, issues and loss of control, the motivation to stay small should also be subjected to rigorous questioning? – laziness (sloth) or lack of confidence.]

But, in the American context and in the light of what Facebook has wrought to itself, to people’s lives (most users are on big ego trips on their Facebook page unmindful of their own privacy and security), the above questions and issues are more relevant than the parenthetical sentiment.

The story of the Michelin *** Chef putting his hand up and say STOP was a beautiful contrast to the Facebook story. He is a spiritual chef.

Mark Zuckerberg – and all of us – must have a conversation with Sébastian Bras. He is only 45 years old (google search). He wants Michelin to take his three stars away. Pointedly, he said this:

I want to be liberated from the pressure.

That is it. We have found our spiritual wisdom. That one sentence can unlock many things, many of our minds including that of Zuckerberg.

‘Liberation’ is a heavily loaded spiritual term. We are all held in bondage by our desires, by our goals and by social conventions, pressures and because ‘this is how and this is what everyone does’. Liberation is about letting go. He is ready to do that, at least in this aspect. If ‘letting go’ is not spiritual, what else is?

He said he wanted to give a new meaning to his life.  Bingo!

Towards the end of the article, there are quite a few profound truths, uttered by chefs. There is something very beautiful about hearing these words from chefs because food is the biggest craving for many of us. It is a very big bondage. Here, chefs are teaching us about ‘letting go’. There is a beautiful irony in it.

Sample this:

In 2005, Alain Senderens, a founder of the nouvelle cuisine movement, decided to close Lucas Carton, his Art Nouveau restaurant on the Place de la Madeleine in Paris and abandon his three stars. He said he was fed up with the agony of perfection and wanted to do “beautiful cuisine without all the tra-la-la and chichi, and put the money into what’s on the plate.”

Fed up with the ‘agony of perfection’ – think about it.  It is not an invitation for sloppiness. Indeed, the paradox is that he would most likely make food that delight scores of customers with this mindset.

Or, sample this:

Earlier this year, René Redzepi, 39, the chef and a co-owner of Noma in Denmark, a leading light of the New Nordic movement, said he was closing his two-starred restaurant and moving it to another neighborhood in Copenhagen, forsaking his hard-earned stars. He said in an interview that it was “necessary to break down a castle in order to build a new one.”

Of course, in my book, the gold goes to Sébastian Bras:

Mr. Bras, for his part, said his decision to shun the would-be supreme court of global cuisine had been motivated by a search for serenity. He noted that while the pressure to retain three stars could be an engine for creativity, it could also prove debilitating.

“Food should be about love — not about competition,” he said. “All I want is to welcome people to my restaurant during the day, or during the night under a sky filled with stars.”

All emphasis mine.

Sébastian Bras is not just a chef. He is a Guru.

[Postscript: A friend, on reading the post promptly, pointed out that the use of the word, ‘process’ can be confusing. A process-driven path to growth (or any other business or personal goals) may actually be considered the right way to go about it rather than the one that is ego-driven or driven by convention, social pressures or peer group pressure, etc. I have used the word, ‘process’, to denote these latter, unthinking and unconscious approaches]

Scarcity of nuance

A good friend forwarded an article by Ta Nihisi Coates – extracts from his forthcoming book, apparently – published in ‘The Atlantic’.

I read it and I was profoundly disappointed. It was an article written for the faithfuls. He was singing to the choir.

The author makes fundamental errors of distinguishing between ‘average’ and ‘at the margin’. Uses exclusionary arguments. Broadbrushes everybody else and quotes out of context. Contradicts himself liberally (pun intended).

It should be possible to accept and argue

that racism remains an issue in America,
that America has indeed made considerable progress,
that many conscientious Whites have done their bit to remove the racism barrier,
that the election in 2016 was between two unworthy candidates,
that the more populist won (because of race, among other things)
and that President Obama did not do much for blacks (except tokenism as he ‘did’ for world peace)

Exclusionary and exclusive arguments and assuming what one needs to establish are the stuff of polemics and not scholarship.

Articles or books such as these, in the environment that the world finds itself, won’t shake up the establishment and narrative. They would worsen the divide. What is in short supply is ‘nuance’ and that is what intellectuals need to supply. What is in short supply has value. Polemics and polarisation are on offer plentily. No value. Sheer Economics.

But, nuance is hard work.

Nice

Confronting our profound ignorance is frustrating, but it is also crucial. It is the force driving us forward. Real progress in understanding the Universe requires recognising that every instance of our ignorance is a scientific opportunity, and then resolving to chip away at it. Advancing our understanding requires venturing beyond the edifice of current thought and opening our minds to new ideas. [Link]

Kinderschule

It is easier to sit around in a drawing room and pontificate on how Narayana Murthy or Ratan Tata failed to let go. They hung on and want to hang on. That is the chorus. But, letting go is easier said than done. We turn the inward gaze and check. It is there. It is universal. ‘Clinging on’ is the default mode. The justification, the strength and the intensity of clinging on vary. It is there.

When friends asked me months ago whether I was prepared for the departure of my daughter for college in a faraway land, my answer was that I did not know if I was prepared or not. That was an honest answer. Now, I know that I am not prepared. Much work remains.

Mixed feelings and mixed emotions.

The justifiable part of the mix is the one that deals with the issue of familiarity. Sheer force of habit. For about eighteen years, there has been a routine, a familiar pattern. Kids go to school, come back, homework, vacation, play dates, falling sick, etc. That is about to be broken. Habits die hard. Creatures of habit that sapiens are, it takes time to adjust to the new routine. That is the easily understandable part. But, it runs deeper. More on it later.

Then, there are other feelings. Will she acquit herself well or will she self-destruct or will she fall victim to undesirable friendships and habits?  Equally, if not more importantly, will she cross the road safely looking left first? Will she be texting while walking? Will she know how to handle black ice? Will she handle the rapid onset of darkness and biting cold in the winters?

Questions and more anxious questions. These are not questions arising because of distance and faraway lands but questions of the illusion of control, of the feeling of ‘being in charge’. Which one is more laughable? The width of the range of thoughts and anxieties or the depths of ignorance?

Who controls what and who takes care of whom? A saint said in Tamil that even the hair does not obey human laws. Natural laws. Someone or something is guiding us all, including the worrier. Or, if you don’t BELIEVE, it does not matter. It happens anyway.

As the familiar pattern looks set to be disrupted (yes, that word has to be in), the mind thinks of ‘What Ifs’. What if I had stayed in India throughout my life?

The problem with WHAT IFs – they are partial differentiation calculus. Life does not work that way. One cannot change only the part that is jarring and that too for now. WHAT IFs are about total differentiation.

The struggle to adjust and adapt as the ‘familiar’ gives way to the ‘unfamiliar’ is not one of adaptation and adjustment alone. It is about remaining relevant in our children’s lives. The truth is that we would no longer be relevant. Well, not THAT RELEVANT, any more. As a mother wrote, she was the sun and her little ones were the planets revolving around her. That is not going to happen anymore. That, in the end, may be the real issue facing parents. Their increasing irrelevance, amplified and reinforced by aging and the prospect of loneliness that come with it.

This is true of all parents who were children once to their parents and all children who will be parents in future. The archer put the arrows in the Quiver. The person carrying the bow and the quiver full of arrows is not the archer. He is just as passive a participant in the ‘Leela’ (the drama) as the arrow itself because he is an arrow himself! The archer takes out the arrow, strings the bow and is ready to launch the arrow for its own journey. Some of the arrows might return to the quiver again. But, it won’t be the same arrow nor is the quiver the same, anymore.

How does one adjust to this new reality?

Some run, some drink, some pick up other habits, some learn and some get a dog. Some write blog posts!

But, is there an alternative? YES.

It can be the beginning of the journey to non-identity. Non-labels. No labels. It is a journey with no destination. It is a journey towards a JOURNEY. That remains the ideal. These episodes and milestones – important and emotionally challenging, they may be – are, in the end, reminders of that journey barely begun.

A lady who owns and runs a petrol pump in Johannesburg says that one grows when one lets go. Yes, we grow spiritually. Well, the evidence is I am barely out of the kinderschule.

The reminder follows.

Nirvana Shatakam [LINK]

Mano-Buddhy-Ahangkaara Cittaani Naaham
Na Ca Shrotra-Jihve Na Ca Ghraanna-Netre |
Na Ca Vyoma Bhuumir-Na Tejo Na Vaayuh
Cid-Aananda-Ruupah Shivo[a-A]ham Shivo[a-A]ham ||1||

Meaning:
1.1: Neither am I the Mind, nor the Intelligence or Ego,
1.2: Neither am I the organs of Hearing (Ears), nor that of Tasting (Tongue), Smelling (Nose) or Seeing (Eyes),
1.3: Neither am I the Sky, nor the Earth, Neither the Fire nor the Air,
1.4: I am the Ever Pure Blissful Consciousness; I am Shiva, I am Shiva,
The Ever Pure Blissful Consciousness.

Na Ca Praanna-Samjnyo Na Vai Pan.ca-Vaayuh
Na Vaa Sapta-Dhaatuh Na Vaa Pan.ca-Koshah |
Na Vaak-Paanni-Paadam Na Copastha-Paayu
Cid-Aananda-Ruupah Shivo[a-A]ham Shivo[a-A]ham ||2||

Meaning:
2.1: Neither am I the Vital Breath, nor the Five Vital Airs,
2.2: Neither am I the Seven Ingredients (of the Body), nor the Five Sheaths (of the Body),
2.3: Neither am I the organ of Speech, nor the organs for Holding ( Hand ), Movement ( Feet ) or Excretion,
2.4: I am the Ever Pure Blissful Consciousness; I am Shiva, I am Shiva,
The Ever Pure Blissful Consciousness.

Na Ca Praanna-Samjnyo Na Vai Pan.ca-Vaayuh
Na Vaa Sapta-Dhaatuh Na Vaa Pan.ca-Koshah |
Na Vaak-Paanni-Paadam Na Copastha-Paayu
Cid-Aananda-Ruupah Shivo[a-A]ham Shivo[a-A]ham ||2||

Meaning:
2.1: Neither am I the Vital Breath, nor the Five Vital Airs,
2.2: Neither am I the Seven Ingredients (of the Body), nor the Five Sheaths (of the Body),
2.3: Neither am I the organ of Speech, nor the organs for Holding ( Hand ), Movement ( Feet ) or Excretion,
2.4: I am the Ever Pure Blissful Consciousness; I am Shiva, I am Shiva,
The Ever Pure Blissful Consciousness.

Na Me Dvessa-Raagau Na Me Lobha-Mohau
Mado Naiva Me Naiva Maatsarya-Bhaavah |
Na Dharmo Na Ca-Artho Na Kaamo Na Mokssah
Cid-Aananda-Ruupah Shivo[a-A]ham Shivo[a-A]ham ||3||

Meaning:
3.1: Neither do I have Hatred, nor Attachment, Neither Greed nor Infatuation,
3.2: Neither do I have Pride, nor Feelings of Envy and Jealousy,
3.3 I am Not within the bounds of Dharma (Righteousness), Artha (Wealth), Kama (Desire) and Moksha (Liberation) (the four Purusarthas of life),
3.4: I am the Ever Pure Blissful Consciousness; I am Shiva, I am Shiva,
The Ever Pure Blissful Consciousness.

Na Punnyam Na Paapam Na Saukhyam Na Duhkham
Na Mantro Na Tiirtham Na Vedaa Na Yajnyaah |
Aham Bhojanam Naiva Bhojyam Na Bhoktaa
Cid-Aananda-Ruupah Shivo[a-A]ham Shivo[a-A]ham ||4||

Meaning:
4.1: Neither am I bound by Merits nor Sins, neither by Worldly Joys nor by Sorrows,
4.2: Neither am I bound by Sacred Hymns nor by Sacred Places, neither by Sacred Scriptures nor by Sacrifies,
4.3: I am Neither Enjoyment (Experience), nor an object to be Enjoyed (Experienced), nor the Enjoyer (Experiencer),
4.4: I am the Ever Pure Blissful Consciousness; I am Shiva, I am Shiva,
The Ever Pure Blissful Consciousness.

Na Mrtyur-Na Shangkaa Na Me Jaati-Bhedah
Pitaa Naiva Me Naiva Maataa Na Janmah |
Na Bandhurna Mitram Gurur-Na-Iva Shissyam
Cid-Aananda-Ruupah Shivo[a-A]ham Shivo[a-A]ham ||5||

Meaning:
5.1: Neither am I bound by Death and its Fear, nor by the rules of Caste and its Distinctions,
5.2: Neither do I have Father and Mother, nor do I have Birth,
5.3: Neither do I have Relations nor Friends, neither Spiritual Teacher nor Disciple,
5.4: I am the Ever Pure Blissful Consciousness; I am Shiva, I am Shiva,
The Ever Pure Blissful Consciousness.

Aham Nirvikalpo Niraakaara-Ruupo
Vibhu-Tvaacca Sarvatra Sarve[a-I]ndriyaannaam |
Na Caa-Sanggatam Naiva Muktirna Meyah
Cid-aananda-ruupah Shivo[a-A]ham Shivo[a-A]ham ||6||

Meaning:
6.1: I am Without any Variation, and Without any Form,
6.2: I am Present Everywhere as the underlying Substratum of everything, and behind all Sense Organs,
6.3: Neither do I get Attached to anything, nor get Freed from anything,
6.4: I am the Ever Pure Blissful Consciousness; I am Shiva, I am Shiva,
The Ever Pure Blissful Consciousness.

Listen to it here.

Lilla on the ‘Liberal’ leela

Closely related to the previous post on the matter of James Damore vs. Google, is a long piece by Professor Mark Lilla of Columbia University. It is an extract from his book being published today. It is long but it is time well spent. Google’s conduct exemplifies what he writes below:

It is time to admit that American liberalism is in deep crisis: a crisis of imagination and ambition on our side, a crisis of attachment and trust on the side of the wider public. The question is, why? Why would those who claim to speak for and defend the great American demos be so indifferent to stirring its feelings and gaining its trust? Why, in the contest for the American imagination, have liberals simply abdicated?…..

Other sentences from his piece that are worth pondering over:

As a teacher, I am increasingly struck by a difference between my conservative and progressive students. Contrary to the stereotype, the conservatives are far more likely to connect their engagements to a set of political ideas and principles. Young people on the left are much more inclined to say that they are engaged in politics as an X, concerned about other Xs and those issues touching on X-ness. And they are less and less comfortable with debate.

Over the past decade a new, and very revealing, locution has drifted from our universities into the media mainstream: Speaking as an X…This is not an anodyne phrase. It sets up a wall against any questions that come from a non-X perspective. Classroom conversations that once might have begun, I think A, and here is my argument, now take the form, Speaking as an X, I am offended that you claim B. What replaces argument, then, are taboos against unfamiliar ideas and contrary opinions…..

We must relearn how to speak to citizens as citizens and to frame our appeals for solidarity—including ones to benefit particular groups—in terms of principles that everyone can affirm……

Black Lives Matter is a textbook example of how not to build solidarity. By publicizing and protesting police mistreatment of African-Americans, the movement delivered a wake-up call to every American with a conscience. But its decision to use this mistreatment to build a general indictment of American society and demand a confession of white sins and public penitence only played into the hands of the Republican right.

Frank Bruni’s article in the New York Times (‘I am a white man; hear me out’) is a good read too.

An inner search engine for Google

The story of former Google Engineer James Damore is dominating airwaves. He was fired for writing a memo that pointed to basic gender differences as one of the explanations for why there were so few women in software. It is not just about the firing of a single employee. It is about Google. Over time, being fired from his job might turn out to be a blessing in disguise for James Damore.

I had gone through his memo. You can find it here. I found it reasonably worded and argued. I listened to the 50-minute conversation of Prof. Jordan Peterson with James Damore. Professor Peterson at the University of Toronto cited many references that supported the points that Damore had made in his memo.

David Brooks in NYT wrote a good piece as to why Sunder Pichai should resign.

James Damore wrote a piece for the Wall Street Journal as to why he was fired. It is interesting that he appeared to sympathise with Google management by blaming the ‘mob’ for ‘tying’ the hands of the management:

Upper management tried to placate this surge of outrage by shaming me and misrepresenting my document, but they couldn’t really do otherwise: The mob would have set upon anyone who openly agreed with me or even tolerated my views. When the whole episode finally became a giant media controversy, thanks to external leaks, Google had to solve the problem caused by my supposedly sexist, anti-diversity manifesto, and the whole company came under heated and sometimes threatening scrutiny.

Professor Jonathan Haidt and Sean Stevens have a comprehensive post at the Heterodox academy with a list of citations and research findings that both support and refute the points that Damore had made in his memo:

If you wanted to jump straight to their conclusion, here it is:

In conclusion, based on the meta-analyses we reviewed above, Damore seems to be correct that there are “population level differences in distributions” of traits that are likely to be relevant for understanding gender gaps at Google and other tech firms. The differences are much larger and more consistent for traits related to interest and enjoyment, rather than ability. This distinction between interest and ability is important because it may address  one of the main fears raised by Damore’s critics: that the memo itself will cause Google employees to assume that women are less qualified, or less “suited” for tech jobs, and will therefore lead to more bias against women in tech jobs. But the empirical evidence we have reviewed should have the opposite effect. Population differences in interest may be part of the explanation for why there are fewer women in the applicant pool, but the women who choose to enter the pool are just as capable as the larger number of men in the pool. This conclusion does not deny that various forms of bias, harassment, and discouragement exist and contribute to outcome disparities, nor does it imply that the differences in interest are biologically fixed and cannot be changed in future generations.

If our three conclusions are correct then Damore was drawing attention to empirical findings that seem to have been previously unknown or ignored at Google, and which might be helpful to the company as it tries to improve its diversity policies and outcomes.  What should Google’s response to the memo have been? We’ll address that in a followup post next week. [Link – all emphasis mine]

Based on her personal experience, Megan McArdle agrees with James Damore.

In short, Google had an opportunity to set an example for what it means to be truly liberal. It blew it. Perhaps, Sunder Pichai’s education, background and experience did not prepare him for facing a situation like the one he faced with James Damore’s memo. It needed a non-Engineering approach. Perhaps, a woman would have handled it better? But then, Google’s diversity officer Danielle Brown did not offer any nuanced reaction. It was a mere prelude to the firing of James Damore.

There is very little to choose between the openly intolerant and not-so-openly intolerant. In fact, the former can be handled mostly through the law-and-order apparatus and framework but the latter is insidious and, hence, probably more dangerous.