Goals and Instruments; Means and Ends

Most of us have almost lost all sense of the goals we pursue and the instruments we use. The instruments or the means have become goals in themselves. Several examples from recent days:

Technology is the instrument. Productivity and comfort are the ends. My computer keyboard stopped working after a Windows 10 update. It has not been possible to put it back together. Not yet. Windows 10 does not give choice to users to choose to update or not. Restoring the old system before update is not that easy anymore. You have to update and suffer!

I am working on a Mac now. But, it won’t accept the backup drive because that is formatted for Windows! So, I do not have access to my data folder from which I could have checked the answer for your query.

Amazing feats of technology.  Their technology is the purpose now.

(2) Fans, loyalists and followers of political leaders too confuse national interest and purpose with their favourites. Some parties and leaders become favourites because others fail. If one’s favourite repeats the errors and mistakes, then followers defend them. It is no longer about the larger cause or the main cause. The instrument or the intermediary is now the purpose or the goal.

(3) For leaders too, power is the purpose now. Power was supposed to be an instrument.

(4) My wife showed me a Facebook battle where Vegans are prepared to unleash violence on those who are not repulsed as they are by violence unleashed on animals.

Disclined to discuss and hence, disinvite

The media outlets that are relentlessly pursuing Donald Trump should pause and do a story on the data that the Heterodox Academy had presented. See here and here.

Second part is more interesting. The Left proposed more disinvitations and disrupted events more!

It shines another spotlight an aspect of the ‘Regressive Left’ behaviour that needs to be highlighted. This is not ‘Left-Liberal’ but ‘Left-intolerance’. Really, we should come up something far more accurate than ‘Left-Liberal’. There is really nothing ‘Liberal’ at all about this behaviour.

Refusing to discuss problems will not solve them or make them disappear but make positions harden and rigid. In fact, discussion of a problem is, in itself, a step towards the solution.

The media’s non-coverage of the problems faced by European nations with respect to immigrants (primarily Sweden, Belgium and Greece) is objectionable not because it is unfair, immoral but because it is so stupid. It does not even help them advance their goals, regardless of my agreement or disagreement with them. It is so counter-productive,
self-defeating and hence, so stupid.

Avoiding hard questions is neither progressivism nor enlightenment. It is escapism. Escapism has never solved problems nor made the world a better place.

Since when ostriches with heads buried deep in the sand produced problem-solving leadership?

Further, from Prof. Jonathan Haidt’ Twitter handle: The Student Assembly in Cornell U. votes down a resolution to increase ideological diversity. We should worry for America, but not for the reasons many think.

Sagely advice

These are verbatim extracts from the article, ‘Finale’ written by James Taranto who compiled the ‘Best of the web’ for the Wall Street Journal for nine years.

In our own postelection conversations with Trump supporters, the predominant emotions we’ve detected have been joy and hope. It reminds us very much of the prevailing mood in the mainstream media around this time eight years ago.

No doubt before the election a lot of Trump supporters were angry about the incumbent and the status quo more generally. But the same was true of Obama supporters in 2008.

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Territorial animals fiercely defend their turf: “When a territory holder is challenged by a rival, the owner almost always wins the contest–usually within a matter of seconds,” observes biologist John Alcock in “Animal Behavior: An Evolutionary Approach.” We’d say the same instinct is at work when the great apes who call themselves Homo sapiens defend their authority. When it is challenged, they can become vicious, prone to risky and unscrupulous behavior.

That, it seems to us, is the central story of our time. The left-liberal elite that attained cultural dominance between the 1960s and the 1980s—and that since 2008 has seen itself as being on the cusp of political dominance as well—is undergoing a crisis of authority, and its defenses are increasingly ferocious and unprincipled. Journalists lie or ignore important but politically uncongenial stories. Scientists suppress alternative hypotheses. Political organizations bully apolitical charities. The Internal Revenue Service persecutes dissenters. And campus censorship goes on still.

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We argued in November that Trump’s election was “probably a necessary corrective” to left-liberal authoritarianism—a point PJMedia’s Roger Kimball echoes in a recent column:

Among the many things that changed during the early hours of November 9 was a cultural dispensation that had been with us since at least the 1960s, the smug, “progressive” (don’t call it “liberal”) dispensation that had insinuated itself like a toxic fog throughout our cultural institutions—our media, our universities, our think tanks and beyond. So well established was this set of cultural assumptions, cultural presumptions, that it seemed to many like the state of nature: just there as is a mountain or an expanse of ocean. But it turns out it was just a human, all-too-human fabrication whose tawdriness is now as obvious as its fragility.

What we are witnessing is its dissolution. It won’t happen all at once and there are bound to be pockets of resistance. But they will become ever more irrelevant even if they become ever shriller and more histrionic. The anti-Trump establishment is correct that what is taking place is a sea change in our country. But they are wrong about its purport. It is rendering them utterly irrelevant even as it is boosting the confidence, strength, and competence of the country as a whole. Glad tidings indeed.

That may prove overly optimistic. On the other hand, do you see what we mean about joy and hope?

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Our advice to journalists who wish to improve the quality of their trade would be to lose their self-importance, overcome the temptation to pose as (or bow to) authority figures, and focus on the basic function of journalism, which is to tell stories. Journalists are not arbiters of truth; we are, unlike fiction writers (or for that matter politicians), constrainedby the truth. But fiction writers bear the heavier burden of making their stories believable.

When you think about journalism in this way, its failure in 2016 becomes very simple to understand. Whether you see Trump as a hero or a goat—or something in between, which is our still-tentative view—his unlikely ascension to the presidency was a hell of a story. Most journalists missed the story because they were too caught up in defending a system of cultural authority of which they had foolishly allowed themselves to become an integral part.

Studying natural stupidity

Read the ‘New Yorker’ Review of Michael Lewis’ book on Kahneman and Tversky. The review by Sunstein and Thaler offered glimpses into the relationship between both the men than about the book by Michael Lewis – whether it is readable, worth reading, its strengths and weaknesses, etc. In passing, yes.

Some lovely glimpses into Tversky’s personality:

He was an optimist, not only because it suited his personality but also because, as he put it, “when you are a pessimist and the bad thing happens, you live it twice. Once when you worry about it, and the second time when it happens.

When asked about artificial intelligence, Tversky replied, “We study natural stupidity.” (He did not really think that people were stupid, but the line was too good to pass up.)

From the review, it does appear that it would be interesting to read the portions of Michael Lewis’ book after the duo – Tversky and Kahneman – moved to America. Even the most perceptive scholars and students of human minds are not exempt from the common afflictions of human minds, it seems.

I do have a personal anecdote to share. I shared with Professor Kahneman my review of his book, ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’. He replied:

Thank you very much for sending me these very perceptive notes.
Best wishes,
Daniel Kahneman

This was on 21st August 2012.

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]

Hanging up boots

Lucy Kellaway – one of my favourite columnists in international press – is leaving FT by July next year. Apparently, one of her colleagues, Gideon Rachman, could not understand her decision. I am not surprised. I hope she convinces some of her colleagues to leave with her. FT can do with infusion of open minds. Her announcement is to be found here.

This paragraph from her missive is interesting:

For me, the thought of starting over, learning something that is new and terrifyingly hard, is part of the point. So is the thought of being in a staffroom with colleagues who are my children’s age. But the biggest thing, which readers may find hard to swallow given my entire career has been based on ridiculing others, is that, for my next act, I want to be useful. Yes, I know sticking pins in pompous chief executives is useful in a meta kind of way but that’s not the kind of useful I have in mind.

Story of Walter Pitts

My good friend Srinivas Varadarajan had sent this story to me in December 2015. I read it in April 2016. Today, as I was reading the third chapter of the book, ‘The rise of robots’, the name Norbert Wiener came up and that somehow made me recall this story. The story of Walter Pitts is associated with Norbert Wiener. I located it and I think it is a great read. It is a story of genius and unsurprisingly, it is a tragedy involving a woman and some skinny-dipping too!

Just savour this:

In other words, Pitts was struggling with the very logic he had sought in life. Pitts wrote that his depression might be “common to all people with an excessively logical education who work in applied mathematics: It is a kind of pessimism resulting from an inability to believe in what people call the Principle of Induction, or the principle of the Uniformity of Nature. Since one cannot prove, or even render probable a priori, that the sun should rise tomorrow, we cannot really believe it shall.”

It is a story brilliantly told by Amanda Gefter. This story underscores my conviction that most people are grossly overestimating the difference that new technologies (robotic, paper-less, fintech, etc., ) to our ‘lives’ in entirety. They are extensions of the material comforts including improved physical health that technology has already provided us.

Will they leave us feeling even more empty? My personal answer is YES.

Suppose they find technologies that will alter the neural networks in the business and also the chemical balance that would keep us all living long and happy, I doubt if the world can support all of us living longer and consuming longer.

But, let us not forget one thing. This story of people who believed that there is a logic to how the brain works and that such logic can be replicated and mimicked and how they fell victim to jealousy, misplaced anger and depression is as much a story of the limits of logic, science and human ingenuity as it is a story of human brilliance too.