Saturday, December 03, 2011
Thursday, September 22, 2011
I always take ‘studies’ with a pinch of salt. Given the right funding, I can confidently state that a study can prove anything. I’ve read studies that ‘prove’ that moderate drinking is good and bad, that vegetarianism is good and bad, that this food or that food makes us fat, or doesn’t, and so on.
Why, there are even studies that say human beings are responsible for global warming, and others that confidently say this is all hot air!
It seems to me that a lot of researchers are having a lot of fun proving everything and their opposites. I hope someone will fund me to study this hypothesis.
There may be something to this overconfidence study, though.
The key point in favour of overconfidence is that it propels people to attempt feats they would otherwise give up on even before starting. It makes people attempt the barely possible, and even the impossible. In many instances they perish in the attempt. In some, they succeed, and thereby make history.
The grandest stories of human achievement and endeavor are made of such stuff. If the adventurers and explorers of yore had not given in to overconfidence, they wouldn’t have pointed their rickety wooden ships at the open and uncharted seas, and set sail, guided by instinct and the stars.
That they did worked to their favour, and arguably, to ours.
A similar spirit, buoyed with a faith in divine powers, inspired and enabled our ancestors to build the great structures they did. It seems incredible to imagine that the Taj Mahal, the Great Wall of China, the Pyramids, and all the great cathedrals of Europe were built before machines as we know them had been invented. They were all made with human and animal labour, and the most basic tools.
Anyone who so much as suggested building a new Taj Mahal in today’s day and age would be laughed at as mad, find NGOs campaigning against them for wastage of money, and wake up to find the Income Tax and CBI at their doors.
We live in practical times. Our thoughts are of taxes and hikes, not earth and heaven.
Even practical people, however, tend to suffer from a particular delusion that affects the majority of humankind.
It is well known that most people think they are right all the time. Psychologists have been noting this for years. They even have a word for it. It’s called ‘overestimation’.
Overestimation applies especially to beliefs. We all tend to believe that our views and values are the most correct, or the theories we subscribe to, the best.
This is where overconfidence can start to go seriously wrong. It’s one thing to build a Taj Mahal or set sail upon an unknown sea. It’s another to embark upon a witch hunt.
The people who wanted to burn Galileo Galilei at the stake (he was let off but spent his remaining life in house arrest) were probably good folks with firm conviction. They truly believed the earth was the centre of the universe, and decided that Galileo, who said the sun was the centre, was a heretic. Galileo made his own position worse by supporting his fellow scientist Nicholas Copernicus’ view that the earth moves around the sun.
In the event, it turned out that the folks who had such confidence in their beliefs - the same people who built the magnificent cathedrals and palaces of Florence, and supported artists from Michelangelo down - were wrong.
And so it goes. Even today, most of the troubles in the world are on account of people’s certainty that they are right.
The worst examples of this can be seen in fundamentalists of all hues.
For example, Osama bin Laden was a good man in his own way. He followed a certain code of conduct and fought for it in his own way.
His problem was that he believed only his way was right, and every other way was wrong. He was prepared to kill or die for it.
That didn’t do the world, or him, much good.
There may be great value in confidence and overconfidence, but there is at least equal merit in doubt.
Yet there are unintended consequences.
The scientific worldview has diminished faith. A consequence of this is that it has diminished nearly all human endeavor to the utilitarian.
Our natural reflex now is to reduce all activity to accounts of profit and loss. We only do things for comfort and material gain.
And so we are left with a world that has all the beauty and grandeur of a balance sheet.
Sunday, September 11, 2011
Tuesday, June 14, 2011
I suffer from Sarkarophobia. This is strange considering my father worked all his life for the government, and I grew up making occasional visits to his office. This was in the days before computers made their appearance on desks, so files and paperweights and cups of tea were the only objects on desks. It all seemed very innocuous.
The scary nature of the files and paperweights became clear to me much later.
I began to discover the true power and weight of these things when I came to Delhi and bought a third-hand car. I needed a driving license, so I went to the regional transport office (RTO) to apply for one. I was immediately confronted by an army of touts. Walking past these persistent individuals, I tried to find the right forms, but had to ask several people before I was even able to find the right counter to collect this from. There was a rugby scrimmage going on around it. This is not a sport I fancy, but a man must do what a man must do. I entered the fray, and eventually emerged with the form.
It demanded certain things of me that I did not possess, such as proof of residence. I did not have a ration card. I use a mobile phone and had no landline, so the phone bill was not valid proof. The electricity bills were in the landlord’s name, not mine. My rent agreement, while apparently a legal document on stamp paper, was not recognised as proof of residence.
So I did a Kafkaesque run, up and down the building from counter to pillar to post. I took two days off from work to do this and even enlisted the help of a journalist who covered the ministry of surface transport. All to no avail.
Eventually, I had to throw in the towel. I simply could not prove to the honest folks at the RTO that I actually lived in Delhi. Why this should be so important escaped me, since any driving license is valid for all of India. They would be testing me to see if I could drive, so why did it matter what address my electricity bill came to, as long as I was an Indian citizen? I had a passport to prove that!
I eventually got a driving license from my home state, Meghalaya. I have been using it to drive it in Delhi for the last 10 years. The authorities have no problem with that.
I had similar difficulty in proving I live here when I tried to change the address on my passport. I went to the passport office once, saw the scrimmage, and ran away. I went back a second time, with greater resolve, but had to go back because the queue was too long and I had work to do. I went back a third time, bright and early and very determined. The officials were on strike.
Finally, I decided the straight and narrow was not the best path to be on in these complicated times. So I got an agent. The chap took an advance and my documents, but even he couldn’t do the trick. I didn’t have a ration card or voter ID from Delhi.
The whole business has left me bitter and a little befuddled. I don’t understand: if I already have a valid passport, doesn’t it mean I am a citizen of this country? If I am, then why do I need some dodgy document to be able to merely submit my passport form? There is police verification of the current address anyway! So what’s the point of that nonsense about electricity bills and so on?
Truly, the Sarkar has a mind of its own. Or perhaps it has none at all.
Monday, March 21, 2011
by Samrat X
The world’s imminent demise has been predicted by all sorts of people down the ages, and by now there’s quite a menu of options to how it could end. Would you like to get knocked off by an asteroid or comet, sink under rising seas as polar ice caps melt due to global warming, or freeze as the next ice age comes upon us, or get sucked into a black hole created in a nuclear experiment? At a pinch, if none of this works, we could always blow ourselves to clouds of vapour in a nuclear war.
The day this will happen is well known. Please mark it on your calendars: December 21, 2012. By now you’ve surely heard of the ancient Mayan prediction that the world will end on that day.
There is, therefore, so much to do, and so little time. To make sure I don’t miss out on anything really important, I’m putting together a list of 99 Things to Do Before the Apocalypse.
For starters, I’ve quit my job and started traveling. Heck, if this world and everything on it including me is going to end up, er, ended up, I want to see it before it pops. What a waste of a world and a life it would be to die without knowing what the world I lived on is like.
Secondly, I’ve decided to spend more quality time with people I like and care about. If life is short it would be wise to spend the time in good company.
Third, I’ve decided to live without fear…to live like I’m dying. Far too often the choices we make are dictated by absurd worries. We then live pained lives trying to convince ourselves we’ve averted a disaster, or even half hoping the worst will actually occur, because we made life choices worrying it might. It’s a bit like sleeping under the bed every night because you’re afraid an earthquake might strike.
Well, buildings do need to be designed to resist earthquakes. That makes sense. Lives, however, cannot yet be designed to avert death. That is a certainty every human is born with. In other words, in the context of human life, the worst will definitely happen. The best design for a good life therefore is one that is not cut unduly short, and allows for time well spent.
Individual ideas of what constitutes time well spent may vary. However there are some things essentially human that people across time and space seem to cherish.
A good meal is one. Good sleep is another. Loving relationships come next. Time spent in creative work or work that contributes to the social good would also count for something. If you’re spending too much of your time of life on other stuff, you’re probably making a mistake. You may not get that now. It will strike you when apocalypse comes, which could be tomorrow or a year and something from now.
It is likely that in the end this doomsday prediction will prove to be as false as all the ones that have come before it. That’s great. We humans need to be reminded of apocalypse from time to time to get some perspective into our lives.
That sales figure, that assignment, that crotchety boss, that lovers’ tiff, that ego tussle…you know what? It’s probably not that important.
This is the first of my columns for DNA
Monday, February 14, 2011
If you’re single and attractive, every day can be Valentine’s Day. If you’re in a stable relationship, the day holds expectation but no real thrill
Are you single this Valentine’s Day? Do those red heart shaped toys everywhere look like they’ve been put up to mock you? Are you seeing only thorns in the roses being peddled? Dear friend, as the Border Roads Organisation says, fikar not. Don’t fret. You may be single but you are not alone. There are a few million of us with you, and a few million who would happily return to our ranks if only that was easier to do. This love day business is just a galumphing capitalist marketing thingamajig, and it’s worth many crores. Money can’t buy you love but it does buy the soft toy makers Mercs.
So don’t worry about V day. For starters, you need to realize that if you’re single, every day is Valentine’s Day. Just fill your heart with love and spend the day, and maybe the night, with whoever you’re feeling the love for. As long as you don’t end up hurting anyone, including yourself, doing this, it’s perfectly cool. If it’s likely to mess up your life, avoid. A mess is easy to make and hard to clear up, you know.
The pleasures of the single life are gradually being forgotten in today’s world. That’s a bit strange, given how relationships all around seem so fragile nowadays. Marriages collapse around us all the time. Relationships akin to marriage flounder before the vows. The world of those in relationships looks pretty from the outside, but is usually less cheery on the inside, teetering as it does between the extremes of stress and boredom.
Traditionally, the single life has been marked as the highest kind of life in many cultures and religions. The Buddha chose to leave his wife and child to seek enlightenment. Jesus Christ never married.
Even thinkers less divine have not been especially enamored of marriage and relationships. The great Greek philosopher Socrates was unhappily married. He had a good quip on the subject: “If you get a good wife, you’ll be happy. If you get a bad one, you’ll become a philosopher!” He became a philosopher.
His wife must have been quite a woman. Plato, Socrates’ most famous disciple, who is said to have had some kind of affair with her, turned gay. He then advocated the view that partners of opposite sex should mate without commitment or love in order to procreate. Do it only for the species was his motto.
Till the early years of the last century, the single life was seen as a most excellent one in many places. From London to Calcutta, life after work revolved around the club, which was usually a ‘gentleman’s club’. The other leisure activities for a gentleman were to play cricket, or go hunting or shooting. Marriage and relationships were concerns for women. Real men had better things to do even when they were not exploring unknown continents or killing hapless animals. On those occasions when they felt the need for female company, they would go to courtesans. That was the custom from Paris to Tokyo to Calcutta.
Now there’s thankfully much greater gender equality, and marriage and relationships have become equal concerns for men and women. That is a good thing but there are side effects. Men in general are more soppy and needy than they used to be, and women, having discovered the joys of freedom, are arguably less interested in marriage and stable relationships. As a result, the default relationship status message now for the modern woman and man is “it’s complicated”.
That’s because contemporary notions of relationships involve far too many expectations.
According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “While the contemporary Western ideal of marriage involves a relationship of love, friendship, or companionship, marriage historically functioned primarily as an economic and political unit used to create kinship bonds, control inheritance, and share resources and labour.”
In the last 100 years, it’s gone from being a relationship with minimal expectations to one where even love, friendship and companionship are considered insufficient. The idea of a good romantic relationship, created by fiction, drama and poetry, is one where the lovers never cease to feel butterflies in their stomach when they are around one another. Small wonder then that these exciting relationships last the span of a butterfly’s life. Success is their death; the moment they achieve stability, the butterflies depart.
Down the ages, the lover and the husband, or wife, have always been different people.
Remember all those great love stories from around the world - Romeo and Juliet, Heer and Ranjha, Devdas and Paro? They were all tragedies. They ended very badly for the lovers.
All successful love stories end with “…and then they lived happily ever after”. No fairy tale except Shrek goes into the details of the “happily ever after”. Not much drama in, “they drank their tea, and ate their meals, and paid their bills, and remembered anniversaries, for the next 40 years”.
That’s why only new lovers in the first flush of love can be truly happy on Valentine’s Day. For those who have been in stable relationships for a long period of time, it’s another predictable – and hence unexciting - day. For those who’ve been married for a long time, it can be a bit of a bore and a bit of a chore. Both partners must play their appointed roles in the charade of expectations built by advertisements and card companies. They must buy the obligatory roses and gifts and dress up and do the usual ‘special’ things that have long ceased to be special. If the love is gone, the day can weigh heavily on the couple. If the love is still there, it’s probably not what it was initially. It’s more mature, deeper, companionable rather than incendiary.
That sort of love doesn’t need a special day.
Nor do singles who are at peace with themselves.
Samrat’s first novel, The Urban Jungle, was published by Penguin earlier this month