Are we ‘inevitably’ evil? – the story of the year

NY Times magazine published a very long piece titled, ‘The case against Google’. It will probably be the article of the year for me. It is a business case study, a public policy case study and a business ethics case study – all rolled into one. All of these are interwoven into the personal story of two small entrepreneurs whose search engine proved more powerful than Google for certain types of queries and how they paid for it!

Public policy students and analysts will appreciate the spirit behind ‘anti-trust’. In the process, you learn the story of Standard Oil, the story of Microsoft. Microsoft did win its appeal against anti-Trust decisions. It did not have to break up. But, the legal challenges – even though they failed – made the company a lot more sensitive and allowed an upstart (called Google) to emerge.

Google’s behaviour may not have been against consumer interests but was it simply fair?

One can also reflect on the spiritual and philosophical lessons of this. When Google was formed, it took on the motto, ‘Don’t be evil’. Has it lived up to it? Or, as one grows big, powerful and influential, does it become part of the DNA or almost inevitable to become ‘evil’? Is that true, almost without exception, for individuals, institutions, corporations and sovereigns?

[Note: Google’s new parent Alphabet abandoned that motto and took up, ‘Do the right thing’, circa 2015. Don’t be evil is simple and absolute. ‘Doing the right thing’ is relative, can be subject to interpretation and it can be bent. The yardsticks are malleable.]

Then, does it follow that if you are self-aware, you limit your own growth and stay small, lest you become inevitably evil?

Do we realise that, once we start rationalising, we are no longer wedded (but already divorced) to our values? In fact, the rationalisation is merely a confirmation of the divorce that would have happened some time earlier.

Is there no better way at all than to become inevitably evil? What is that ‘better way’ if there is one? What does it take to traverse down that path? Do the modern society and its organising principles militate against individuals, institutions and businesses walking down that path?

Or, is that question too a form of rationalisation? Isn’t it implicit in the question that we have simply re-arranged our priorities?

How do we stop rationalising or, better, realise that we have started rationalising?

Is it about having fearless upstarts and advisors telling us that? Does it work? In the Indian epic Ramayana, Kumbakarnan warns Ravana eloquently of the doom that he was courting by having brought Sita forcibly to his kingdom. It did not work. It was too late.

In Mahabharat, Vithurar was the voice of wise counsel in the Kaurava court. Even Vikarnan warns his brother, Duryodhana of the destruction that awaits in the path that he had chosen to walk on. No avail.

Indeed, even the wise ones and the exalted souls are not exempt. The illusion of size, power and influence shrouds their intellect. Knowledge, spirituality and reason retreat.

Therefore, ‘are we doomed to end up like this only?

Utterly fascinating, utterly educative and utterly and ultimately sobering, about us. [Link]

Jordan Peterson

Peggy Noonan has an interesting article (ht: Venugopal Ramakrishnan) on the interview of clinical psychologist and social philosopher Jordan Peterson by a British television journalist. From what she writes, I think Peterson’s work resonates with me. I listened to the interview he gave to Cathy Newman of Channel 4. He handled himself exceptionally well.

If you want to be shocked by how someone could so deliberately distort the interviewee’s words and if you do not want to watch the interview, you can read an article in ‘The Atlantic’.

I got to know of Jordan Peterson as the person who had interviewed the Google employee James Damore. Sunder Pichai fired him for posing important questions on the culture at Google. Now, Mr. Pichai says he stands by his decision. Well, I suppose, it is too early for a mea culpa. Julian Baggini has a review of his book at FT.

The sub-title of the review is: ‘A YouTube intellectual’s advice on how to live emphasises order and tradition’. That is enough to put any objective reader off. The arrogance of some of these self-styled intellectuals is blinding them to the obvious reality that it is not helping but hurting the very causes that they claim to espouse – so-called liberal values. There is nothing very liberal or liberating about putting down another person. It is cheap and vulgar. It is intolerance. There are far better, more effective and more persuasive ways of critiquing a book’s content or the lack of it.

Cathy Newman of Channel 4 and Julian Baggini have done the greatest disservice to genuinely liberal values and principles.

Peggy Noonan has an answer for Julian Baggini:

When cultural arbiters try to silence a thinker, you have to assume he is saying something valuable.

So I bought and read the book. A small thing, but it improved my morale.

As many readers-commentators in FT have said, the article in ‘The Guardian’ on his book is far more insightful. I could also read what Professor Peterson had to say about the backlash his interviewer from UK’s Channel 4, Cathy Newman, faced.

The last line of that article tells me that he is a liberal:

If Cathy is interested, maybe we could model a conversation. That would be a good thing.

That is the way to foster a dialogue.

Yatha Sabha, tatha Rasika; Yatha Rasika; tatha Sabha – Chennai Music Season – Dec. 2017 – Post 1

‘Yatha Sabha, Tatha Rasika; Yatha Rasika, Tatha Sabha’

If you click on the link called, what would you expect to see, first thing? As an ordinary music rasika, you would love to see a link called ‘Tickets’ or ‘How to buy?’ or ‘How to attend concerts?’. Try your luck. May be, I am a novice and I do not know how to navigate the site and find it.

I was told that daily tickets would be sold only on the morning of the concert and tat too, you have to queue up like one does for Wimbledon, early in the morning. But, in Wimbledon, there are other avenues to get tickets – through Tennis Clubs, through a lottery, by buying Wimbledon debentures, etc. Then, you can also go online every day at 9 AM (UK time) and rely on your computer and connection speed to get some daily tickets. I did that in 2015 and got tickets. It was not difficult nor was it exorbitant. Try any of that with the Chennai Music Academy, hosting its 91st Annual Music Conference and Concerts. Most of the donor members and patron members do not show up for concerts especially if they are by artists who are not from within the radius of few miles from the Music Academy. Those seats are empty while, outside, many Rasikas are probably turned away because the daily tickets are ostensibly sold out.

Lest anyone think that I am singling out the venerable Music Academy of Chennai, I must hasten to add that they are probably one of the better ones. Another Sabha continues to hold its annual December performances in a marriage hall. Another one has remodelled it for enhancing dance and drama performances but continues to insist on classical music concerts there too with a result that one hardly sees the artists (because they are seated deep inside the bowels of the stage) or hears them. The audience is in total darkness – an atmosphere conducive for sleeping and not listening to music.

Most of the Sabhas think that they are doing a favour to the artists, to the Rasikas by holding these annual music and dance festivals. The idea that they are selling an experience to the audience is missing from their behaviour. Chennai Music Sabhas are stuck in a time-warp.

However, just as the saying ‘Yatha Raja, Tatha Praja’, the same goes for music. ‘Yatha Sabha, tatha Rasika’. They are educated and usually belong to the middle class or above.

The amount of movement that one encounters and chatter that one hears is not funny. A not-so-old man sitting in my row insisted on explaining everything to the lady next seat – a doctor, whose eighty-year old father was doing the same before he disappeared into the canteen or the rest room for a long time. Mamas and Mamis do not know how to put their smartphones in silent mode. You will be lucky to listen to the music in between.

There is also the habit of seating rasikas on the dais. At one level, it is nice. At another level, there should be some decorum for the rasikas sitting there. They should not distract the artists. There can be an age limit for those who get in there. Last evening, during the concert by ‘Bombay’ Jayashri, a young boy kept moving around the dais. Thank God, Jayashri did not notice it.

Then, there is the habit of the rasikas walking in at 6:00 PM for the concert of their favourite artists at 6:45. The artist who has been singing and the rasikas who came to listen to him from 4:00 PM be damned. These people are out to get the best seats for their favourite Chennai artist. In the meantime, if the Rasika enjoying the concert of his or her favourite artist, how does it matter to me? The slot at 4:00 PM is for outstanding outstation artists. For all they care, for the Chennai rasikas, those artists do not really matter. I am exaggerating on this aspect but only a bit.

There should not be such unlimited arbitrary entries. Music is meditation. South Indian Classical Music was in praise of the Almighty. It is not casual entertainment in one’s dining room to walk in and walk out, at will. The Rasikas must show some respect to the artist, the composition, the composer and the performance. The artists too must render the composition not just with technical accomplishment (necessary condition) but also with bhava, bhakti and dedication (also necessary conditions).

An old friend (still a good friend) whom I ran into at the Music Academy told me that this is all part of the manner in which the ‘Mylapore Mafia’ enjoyed its music and that the artists expect it and are used to it. Well, Sir, my friend, I do not buy that. This is an excuse born out of the twin tyrannies of habit and laziness.

No matter how expensive one’s saree or trouser is, it will be trampled upon because the Music Academy in Chennai has taken it upon itself to play the ego-leveller by ensuring that anyone and everyone can and will (or, will have to) trample upon the feet and the dress of those seated if they have to leave. There is no gap between rows to exit with dignity. Nor has this inconvenience prevented the Rasikas from attempting to leave and enter at will.

One must not be churlish, however. The Music Academy does two things well. One, it starts and ends concerts on time. No quarter given to anyone. Praiseworthy. Second, they have put in some effort in maintaining the cleanliness in toilets. There is a strict request to the users to keep the toilet seat dry but that is unheeded. Pity.

In case you are wondering why Indian voters elect the kind of leaders they do, look no further than the behaviour of the Chennai Music Season Rasikas.

Krishna on M.S. Subbulakshmi

Lot of outrage and support for these remarks by the musician T.M. Krishna on the life of Smt. M.S. Subbulakshmi. [Link]

I am not sure why there should be. He is not saying anything new. Moreover, the question that came to my mind is ‘So what?’.

(1) May be, he is unaware of how communities, groups form, coalesce and how that makes them commit sacrifices for each other. That is how nations and societies bind.

As with many (may be, almost all) things in life, there is both good and bad in group identity.

If one wished to belong to a group, one had to follow the group’s customs, practices and methods. That is how one belonged.

Humans may forget narrow identities when confronted with a common threat – like natural calamity. But, otherwise, group identities matter and they have been a reality of life when societies got organised and when sapiens learnt to farm. Once they grew roots in a place, they became rooted and group customs, norms and practices are all about rootedness.

Without identity and belonging to a group, humans lose their anchor and feel rootless. Too much immigration and outsiders into a community can destroy and have destroyed its order, stability and its cohesion.

Recommended reading: Jonathan Haidt’s ‘The Righteous Mind’. Indeed, coincidentally, on the morning of the 30th, I came across this article about the end of ‘The end of history’. It talks about the importance of ‘Nation-states’. It applies to smaller ‘groups’ or ‘groupings’ too.

These sentences, in particular, are relevant in the context of Mr. Krishna’s remarks:

It is not very helpful to speak of training people to think of themselves as citizens of the world. This might be good for globalizing your markets and your labor force, but it is not so good for fostering a sense of place, or for forming a proper regard for your neighbors, not to mention those who came before you and made your way of life possible. Citizenship is always particular and exclusive, citizenship “of” something, of some place, some jurisdiction, one entity rather than another. To call oneself a citizen of the world, as Diogenes did, is a grand rhetorical flourish, but it amounts to little more than a sentimental metaphor, and may be a way of dodging the commitments that come in tandem with our embrace of our duties and loyalties to particular people, places, and things—a way of loving humanity while despising actual people. ….

… It is hard to see how a vast collection of people could ever be persuaded over the long run to make sacrifices for the common good, if that commonality is not somehow rooted in fellow-feeling, in a sense of “us” that is something more than shared belief in a philosophical abstraction. [Link]

These paragraphs reinforce the relevance of groups and communities except that a nation is a larger version of that with even more common elements than smaller groups will have.

(2) Whether she was forced into being part of a Brahmin family or whether she chose that life because it offered her certain things she wanted in her life (while denying her certain other things, no doubt) is something we would never know. She is not around to corroborate or deny.

To each his version of history even if facts are immutable.

In fact, even if she were around, it would be difficult for her to say whether she regretted or felt vindicated about the choices she made. That would be with the benefit of hindsight whereas actual decisions are made in real time and there is no way to verify if the counterfactual would have been better for her.

Neither Mr. Krishna nor anyone else, for that matter, could either prove or disprove that.

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.

Viruses on campuses and in the American society – great weekend reads

(1) The Media Bubble is Real — And Worse Than You Think [Politico].

The only quibble I have with the article is that it concludes that journalists respond best when their vanity is punctured. But, far from trying to figure out why they were so vain as to miss what was happening to America, their vanity is making them tilt at the manifestation of their failure – Donald Trump. So, they are pitting their vanity against his and are directing their energies at getting him out. Russia is their trump card (pun intended). If they succeed in removing him, they think that they can exculpate themselves of the failure to anticipate his rise. Then, it would be difficult for the authors of this wonderful article to come up with another explanation as to how the media could do worse than they did in 2016.

(2) Professors moved Left in the 1990s. The rest of the country did not. Great read although it is from 2016.

While the data confirms that university and college faculty have long leaned left, a notable shift began in the middle of the 1990s as the Greatest Generation was leaving the stage and the last Baby Boomers were taking up teaching positions. Between 1995 and 2010, members of the academy went from leaning left to being almost entirely on the left. Moderates declined by nearly a quarter and conservatives decreased by nearly a third.

What is it about the boomers that they turned so irredeemably Left? Is it their success or is it guilt conscience that they achieved so much success at so high a cost to the world at large, to Planet Earth, etc.,?

(3) Heather Mac Donald’s experience at Claremont McKenna College in April 2017. It is positively scary and despairing. David Brooks is right to call it a tale of ‘chilling intolerance’.

(4) A great title: ‘Freedom from speech’ and a great line (George Will – Nov. 2015):

Campuses so saturated with progressivism that they celebrate diversity in everything but thought [Link]

(5) David Brooks is unfortunately likely to be proven right here:

These days, the whole idea of Western civilisation is assumed to be reactionary and oppressive. All I can say is, if you think that was reactionary and oppressive, wait until you get a load of the world that comes after it. [Link]

(6) On a hopeful note: this video has more than seven million views on YouTube

(Most of the links above were picked from the Twitter handle of Jonathan Haidt)

How to listen to Carnatic music?

I have a simple suggestion for the header on this Buddha Purnima day. List the very popular musicians today, go back, and listen to their concerts 10 or 15 years ago. That should, mostly, make for a very satisfying listening.

You will commit Type I errors. That is you might waste time listening to those who do not satisfy the null – ‘if an artist is popular today, he or she would have been a prodigious talent when young’. That is Type I error – accepting the null when the null is false.

You would commit Type II error too – rejecting the null, when the null is true. That is, you might reject a good artist because he or she is not popular.

You would not even be selecting them because they may not be popular today. You may not identify such artists.

But, the difference is that you would not know that you are committing a Type II error. The impossibility of the counterfactual in real life, real time!

Of course, you can choose to minimise one of the two errors as with most quality control settings. If you recall your high school statistics, you may not mind good pieces being rejected but you might be particular that no bad one seeps through.

Only, in this case, you would do the opposite.

You would probably list popular, moderately popular and mildly popular artists and listen to them from the past. You would rather listen to over-hyped talent and then reject them than let go of good talent without listening to them.

Why this sudden ‘enlightenment’? Well, today is Siddhartha Jayanti. That is probably one explanation. Ok. The real explanation is that I had bought a one-year subscription to Charsur digital archives during the Chennai Music Season 2016-17 at the NSG Mini Hall in Chennai. I was listening to Sanjay Subramanian’s ‘Shubha Pantuvarali’ from a concert in 2002. It was fabulous. That explains this blog post.

Of course, needless to add, this is not the only way to listen to Carnatic Music.