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.

‘Lightning’ Bolt on the ground

The story of Usain Bolt’s exit from competitive athletics is a poignant one. He failed to win the 100-meters individual race and he had to limp out of the 4 *100 relay. Given a choice, he would not have wanted to script such an exit. Many of us who have admired his athletic prowess also would have wished a better exit for him. Apparently, he is also a good sportsman rather than being just a good athlete. I guess you know what I mean.

So, very few would have wanted an embarrassing and anti-climatic exit for him, as it happened. The cramps he suffered from and collapsed during the relay did not happen to anyone else although everyone was made to wait for 30 to 40 minutes in cooler weather, as Gatlin said. It happened only to Usain Bolt. Therein lies a message. There is very little that we control.

I was at the London (Kia) Oval Cricket ground in July. Sir Donald Bradman played his last innings there. He scored a 0 in his last innings. His test match average was 99.96. Had he just got 4 runs, it would have been an average of 100.0.

Sachin Tendulkar did not play a role in India’s World Cup victory in 2011 nor did he help the team win the finals in 2003. Virat Kohli could not beat the West Indies in the T-20 championships in India in 2016; did not play a role in the World Cup finals in 2015 against Australia and could not help India beat Pakistan in the Champions Trophy finals at the Oval in 2017.

Instances like these galore. There is only one message from all of these. There is very little that we control. If we remember this, we will stay grounded. If we stay grounded, the risk of a fall is almost nil.

 

Symptoms of hubris

This is a full version of the symptoms originally put forward by Owen and Davidson*. Some symptoms could be associated with other conditions such as Narcissistic Personality Disorder.

So the stipulation is that “in making the diagnosis of Hubris Syndrome, three or more of the defining symptoms should be present, at least one of which should be among the five components identified as unique.”

  • A propensity to see the world primarily as an arena in which to exercise power and seek glory
  • A predisposition to take actions which seem likely to cast the individual in a good light – taken in part in order to enhance their image
  • A disproportionate concern with image and presentation
  • A messianic way of talking and a tendency to exaltation in speech and manner
  • An identification with the nation or organization – to the extent that they regard the outlook and interests of the two as identical (unique factor)
  • A tendency to speak of themselves in the third person or use the royal ‘we’ (unique)Excessive confidence in the individual’s own judgement and contempt for the advice or criticism of others
  • Exaggerated selfbelief, bordering on a sense of omnipotence, in what they personally can achieve
  • A belief that rather than being accountable to the mundane court of colleagues or public opinion, the real court to which they answer is much greater: history or god
  • An unshakable belief that in that court they will be vindicated (unique)
  • Loss of contact with reality; often associated with progressive isolation
  • Restlessness, recklessness and impulsiveness (unique)
  • A tendency to allow their ‘broad vision’, especially their conviction about the moral rectitude of a proposed course of action, to obviate the need to consider other aspects of it, such as its practicality, cost and the possibility of unwanted outcomes (unique)
  • Incompetence in carrying out a policy, where things go wrong precisely because too much self-confidence has led the leader not to worry about the nuts and bolts of a policy. [Link]

* ‘Hubris Syndrome: An acquired personality disorder? A study of US Presidents and UK Prime Ministers over the last 100 years’, David Owen and Jonathan Davidson, Brain 2009: 132; 13961406 (article available on this website)

A lesson from Nana Nani

I had to travel on March 7 night to Coimbatore. My mother decided to settle down in a community of retirees in Coimbatore, not wanting the responsibility of maintaining a house in Madurai, all by herself. Fair enough. It is a good place. I spent two days there.

I can see why it is completely peaceful. One does not have to worry about things and if your children take care of themselves and you are well provided for, this can be a world in itself. You can be connected to the world whenever you wish to – there is internet.

Temple, chanting, similar concerns, priorities, good walks, television, magazine, etc. Life can be uncomplicated. It is tempting for all of us too because modern lives have become overwhelming.

There is gym, library, clubhouse, squash court, pool, even a beauty parlour inside. The place is well lit in the night.

Actually, for some of us, it is also a place for humility because no matter how young and fit, active and good looking you are, this place reminds you as to where and how you will eventually become. A great way to be reminded of one’s mortality and hence, humility.

Enduku Peddala

Yesterday, a friend visited us and she was talking to us about the 10-day Vipaasana programme she had attended. My wife asked her about the benefits or what she discovered from the programme. I am not going into what my friend told her. The question set me thinking about the possible benefits from the programme which involves no talking, no reading, no writing and no eye contact with anyone for ten days.

Your only company is your thoughts. I can see the benefits of the programme. It can lead to an intimate awareness of oneself. All thoughts hidden deep within the crevices of one’s mind and memory will come gushing out – the good, the bad, the ugly, the profane, the gross, the sublime, the perverse, the straight, the generous, the mean, the narrow, the vicious and the magnanimous. One is bound to be surprised, startled, alarmed and repulsed and even scared by some of those thoughts.

But, the idea is precisely that. To become more intimately familiar with one’s thoughts and learn over those ten days to accept them, to see them for what they are – mere thoughts – and not to take them too seriously.

So, the programme has to be eventually about becoming more familiar with ourselves and not taking ourselves too seriously. In the course of the ten days, we realise that we do not miss the outside world and perhaps, more importantly, the outside world does not miss us either! Thus, it is also about coming to terms with one’s own insignificance and dispensability in the overall scheme of things.

Sure, this can happen without attending the programme or one can attend the programme and not achieve any of this too.

That should remind us of what Saint Thiagaraja meant in his kriti, ‘Enduku Peddala’:

vEda shAstra purANa tattvArthamu dElisi bhEda rahita vEdAntamunu dElisi nAda vidya marmambulanu dElisi nAtha tyAgarAjanuta nijamuga

Meaning:

In spite of me being aware of the profound meanings of the Vedas and Sastras and expounding the Bheda Rahita philosophy and the subtle secrets of Nada Vidya (knowledge of sound), yet real wisdom which transcends mere intellectual awareness you have not blessed me with! Why? [Source]

The purpose of liberal arts education: an examined life

A conversation between Professors Robert George Cornel West of the Princeton University (ht: The Heterodox Academy). I have extracted some portions that made me think and I am presenting them in this blog post. You can find the full transcript here.

  • It’s the gospel of liberal arts education. It’s a gospel that is all about interrogating your own assumptions and presuppositions. In an age of ideology, it’s hard to think of what could be more important than the self-critical attitude and the virtues of intellectual humility and love of truth that are at the core of liberal arts learning.
  • As Plato said, perhaps an unexamined life is not worth living. Perhaps the wealth and the prestige and the status and the power and influence are mere dross. Maybe the real meaning of life, what it’s really all about is something different, something that can only be obtained through critical self-examination.
  • And to learn how to die is to muster the courage to critically examine yourself, the courage to interrogate yourself so that you must wrestle with a certain doctrine and dogma that may have to die — certain xenophobic prejudice, certain assumption or presupposition you’ve had in your life, you’re holding on for dear life and you have to let it go. That’s a form of death.
  • Spiritual blackout is about the eclipse of integrity, the eclipse of honesty, the eclipse of decency. And once that goes, no matter what our ideological or political orientations are, we’re just on the way to the survival of the slickest.
  • What we don’t want is for higher education across the board to be instrumentalized to the goal of, for the individual, career attainment, and for the society as a whole, simply training our workforce for the new economy or the next stage of the economy.
  • I do believe in all honesty that we’re in a deep moral and spiritual crisis. The liberal arts tries to get us to look at the world through moral and spiritual lens, whatever our traditions are, so that the sense of what it means to be human is not reduced to just money making, status seeking, manipulation, domination. Those are the dominant forces in human history. Human history is a cycle of hatred and revenge and resentment, domination, exploitation, and subordination. How do you interrupt those? That’s what Plato is concerned about. Why is Plato concerned about it? Because his mentor
    condemned — Socrates. He said, I’m going to make the world safe for the legacy of Socrates so every generation will have to come to terms with his example, the enactment of an examined life. And Plato pulled it off pretty well.
  • think the dominant goal for most people these days, or at least many people these days — perhaps I shouldn’t be quite so judgmental — is feeling good. It’s having satisfaction. People find it in different places, look for it in different places, often look for it in all the wrong places. But they’re after a certain psychological status, a certain desirable psychological state….something deeper and more difficult to handle.
  • Why do people want money? Because prestige comes with it. Why do — or status. Why do people want prestige and status? Because you feel good. It makes you feel good. It’s like a drug. It’s the same reason people like applause. It’s the same reason people, including students at universities, are so conformist, so unwilling to cut against the grain, so unwilling to question the campus dogmas and orthodoxies, because if you do, you get criticism, and that doesn’t feel good. What feels good is applause. It’s like a drug. It’s addictive like a drug. And to avoid that drug, you need spiritual strength.
  • What’s our age? Well, it seems to me that our age is the age of feeling,… And the age of feeling — feeling is what slips into the role of governor when faith and reason are abandoned, when they lose their status, when they lose their prestige, when they lose their authority. And that’s what you get — I think what Cornel is calling spiritual blackout. You get spiritual blackout when feeling is the whole thing and what we’re after is feeling good. Some people seek that in very, very bad and dangerous ways: through drugs, promiscuity. Other people seek it in other ways, less physically dangerous but perhaps no less spiritually dangerous: through the status and prestige that comes with wealth or power or what have you.
  • Again, there’s nothing wrong in itself about feeling or desiring to feel good, but if that’s your fundamental goal, then you’ve got a deep spiritual problem. And the last thing you’re going to be looking for is the examined life. You will not see the point of the examined life because what it does is make you feel bad.
  • The examined life is a life in which you’re constantly questioning yourself. You’re subjecting yourself to self-criticism. Intellectual humility is a central virtue because in order to carry out the enterprise of self-criticism, you have to actually deal with the possibility that you might be wrong, and that’s hard, especially if changing your view would result in your being stigmatized, ostracized, isolated on your campus or in your community, whether your community is right, left, center, Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim — whatever your community is. Seeking the examined life can be a very dangerous thing if what you’re after in life is satisfaction and feeling good. It’s a probe. It’s a prod. It’s a disruptor.
  • People don’t feel as though anything matters, that they’re looking to feel good, something that will make them feel good. People want to at least feel like they matter, something matters. And when they can’t find that, when they’re in the condition of nihilism, you will turn to something else. Now, drugs are just the kind of gross, obvious example for people who are very poor, who don’t have an alternative, although it also affects people who are very rich. But for a lot of people who are very rich, they can find that. They can look for that in a less obviously physically dangerous way. And it can, in its pathological forms, take the form of not just power but domination; not just influence, but narcissism — can take these kinds of forms. And there’s an awful lot of that about.
  • So the call for the restoration of liberal arts ideals is necessarily a call for a sort of spiritual reawakening, a revival, which is at the same time a condition for anybody’s truly appreciating that it’s worth working hard for things, that there are things that are worth having that go beyond how they make you feel, things that are worth having even though — you know, the drug rush is not going to be the reward but, nevertheless, whose value we can perceive and appreciate and struggle for and dedicate ourselves to.
  • So this is not an argument that you have to have a college education or a liberal arts education to be a good person. It’s just that the value of a liberal arts education consists at least in part in its capacity to contribute to our spiritual and moral fulfillment, our spiritual and moral well-being, and there will be a certain number of people for whom, absent that provision, the path is going to be the wrong one. It will be down the path toward seeking wealth and power and status and prestige and influence because there will be a certain number of people who will confront Shakespeare or confront Plato and suddenly realize, “I’m on the wrong path. I’m going the wrong direction. I need to reevaluate my life. I need to assess what really matters. I need to rethink what I’m going, what I’m going to dedicate these next 60 years or 70 years to doing.”
  • My brother David Brooks talks about this in terms of the shift in his own life from being obsessed with his resume as opposed to becoming obsessed with his eulogy said at his funeral. That’s a very different set of stories and narratives and analysis of what’s said at your funeral as opposed to just what’s on your resume. I think what’s said at your funeral is very much about integrity and honesty, decency, love, sacrifice, self-surrender, service, and what have you.
  • On Liberty” — there Mill makes the point that we should value dissent even when we are confident that the dissenter’s wrong because that dissent will enable us by way of defending the truth to deepen our understand and appreciation of it.
  • We human beings wrap our emotions around our convictions, which is not a bad thing in itself, but it can become an impediment to having an open mind. So, you know, I’ve got a lot of stuff against Nietzsche, and yet I read him and I assign him not only because I know that trying to respond to his criticisms will deepening my understating of what I believe to be true, but also because I know that there is a chance — maybe an outside chance, but a chance — that he’s right and I’m wrong.
  • … a true liberal arts education with that openness of mind, with that intellectual humility, that willing to recognize that one might be wrong, that willingness to engage the greatest that’s been thought and said by the greatest minds, the greatest people, it’s like getting on a train not knowing where you’re going to get off and maybe even not recognizing who you are anymore when you get off that train.

I had read about Professors Robert George and Cornel West last year in a Bloomberg article. Their collaboration, despite different ideological viewpoints, was refreshing to read. They reminded me of Professor Daniel Kahneman who had done that too, in practice. This is the original Bloomberg article and this is my cover story for Swarajya for December 2015 (‘Who is a Liberal?’) in which I had mentioned them and Professor Daniel Kahneman.

 

What can Siddartha give?

Since starting his podcast in 2014, bestselling author Tim Ferriss has interviewed well over 100 highly successful people, from Navy SEALs to billionaire entrepreneurs.

He uses his interviews to pick apart the, as he puts it, “tactics, routines, and habits,” that have brought these subjects to the tops of their fields. He’s collected his favorite lessons from these discussions, along with a few new ones, in his book “Tools of Titans.”

Ferriss recently stopped by Business Insider’s New York office for a Facebook Live Q&A, and explained that there is a passage in Herman Hesse’s 1922 novel “Siddhartha” that offers a suitable lens for all of the “tools” he shares in his book.

The novel “Siddhartha” tells the story of a young monk’s quest for enlightenment (the Buddha narrative). Four of Ferriss’ guests included in “Tools of Titans” said it was the book they most often gave as a gift to others, including renowned Silicon Valley investor Naval Ravikant.

Ravikant was the person to highlight for Ferriss the passage in which the protagonist is asked by a merchant how he can offer anything to the world if he has discarded all of his possessions. Siddhartha tells the merchant that, “Everyone gives what he has,” and the merchant replies, “Very well, and what can you give? What have you learned that you can give?”

“I can think, I can wait, I can fast,” Siddhartha says.

Ferriss said that this deceptively simple response is the foundation for all high performers. He explains in “Tools of Titans”:

“I can think: Having good rules for decision-making, and having good questions you can ask yourself and others.

“I can wait: Being able to plan long-term, play the long game, and not mis-allocate your resources.

“I can fast: Being able to withstand difficulties and disaster. Training yourself to be uncommonly resilient and have a high pain tolerance.”

“Those are three very, very powerful tools and they’re very flexible,” Ferriss told us. [Link]

I would add the following:

‘Think’ here includes reflection and introspection.

‘Wait’ here more correctly should mean accepting delayed gratification. Being patient for results.

‘Fast’ here includes being prepared to bear and accept pain as part of the offerings of life.