I was listening to a radio programme with a host (epithet loveguru) who in between songs, takes questions on matters “related to the heart” and heard this conversation (translated from Hindi)

A girl: I had a proposal for marriage. I liked the guy but our kundalis didn’t match. Now I have another proposal where the kundalis match. I like the new guy too. I am confused. [In a typical Indian arranged marriage, a family puts forward a proposal to another family, astrological records are matched and the couple gets to meet a few times before deciding]

loveguru: I can’t understand your problem. Why do you need to think so much? For whatever reason your earlier relationship didn’t progress. Now you have a new opportunity. Take it and move on.

Note the second-handedness involved in asking a total stranger for advice on deeply personal matters. And note the complete passivity being preached. This passivity is pervasive in Indian culture. In a comment on an earlier post, Burgess Laughlin wrote

…The Times article refers to “fatalism.” If fatalism is indeed widespread in India, what is its source? A particular religion?

I have still not identified the source of this passivity or fatalism beyond the concept of karma. But this is a concrete instance and I thought I should record it for future reference.

Book Review: Superfreakonomics

I had some spare time at an airport, and happened to pick up Superfreakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner. I haven’t read Freakonomics (I do plan to now) and didn’t know what to expect. I found the book to be an interesting read. It covers a wide range of topics – too many to list – but does so in an engaging and often witty way. The variety in topics makes this a particularly difficult book to review and I will not make any attempt to cover or even mention most of the contents.

Chapter 1 deals with prostitution. The authors write

Since time immemorial and all over the world, men have wanted more sex than they could get for free. So what inevitably emerges is a supply of women who, for the right price, are willing to satisfy this demand.

Interesting. I hadn’t encountered this description before. A few pages further down, the authors note that the prostitute’s wage has fallen drastically over time and attribute it to the change in sexual mores that has resulted in “competition for the prostitute” – any woman who is willing to have sex with a man for free. The authors write

If prostitution were a typical industry, it might have hired lobbyists to fight against the encroachment of premarital sex. They would have pushed to have premarital sex criminalized or, at the very least, heavily taxed.

That is just hilarious. I wonder if the social conservatives (in India and abroad) who preach abstinence, oppose the mixing of the sexes etc. realize that they are promoting prostitution.

Chapter 3 – titled Unbelievable stories about apathy and altruism – was the one I found most interesting. The authors describe experiments conducted by economists in the 80s to measure altruism. The typical experiment involved two players, one of whom was given a sum of money with the choice to keep all of it or give any part of it to the other player. Players gave 20% of their money on average. The experimenters took this as proof of altruism. The authors then describe experiments by John List. List conducted the same experiment – called the Dictator game – with some variants. In the first variant, the player given the money ($20) was given the choice to give the other player any part of it or take $1 from the other player. Only half the number of people who had given money in the original version now gave money. In the second variant, the player making the decision was told that the other player was also given the same amount of money. The choice offered was to take the entire amount from the other player or to give any portion of her own money. In this variant, only 10% of the players gave money while more than 40% took all of the other player’s money. In the final variant, both players had to work for their money with the choice being the same as in the previous variant. In this variant two-thirds of the players neither gave nor took any money while 28% took the other player’s money. The authors note “It [the final variant of the experiment] suggests that when a person comes into some money honestly and believes that another person has done the same, she neither gives away what she earned nor takes what doesn’t belong to her.”

It should be obvious that any of the experimenters could have tried the twists that List used. In fact, without such twists, the experiments look quite weak. Yet they did not do so over a period of two decades. That indicates that the experiments’ motivation was a desire to find proof for hard-wired altruism rather a simple scientific enquiry.

After discussing a few factors that might influence the outcomes of such experiments such as selection bias – the people who volunteer to play along are more likely to be cooperative, the effect of scrutiny and the absence of a real-world context, the authors write

If John List’s research proves anything, it’s that a question like “Are people innately altruistic?” is the wrong kind of question to ask. People aren’t “good” or “bad”. People are people, and they respond to incentives. They can nearly always be manipulated – for good or ill – if only you find the right levers.
So are human beings capable of generous, selfless, even heroic behavior? Absolutely. Are they also capable of heartless acts of apathy? Absolutely.

I disagree with the authors but that is a subject for another post. Meanwhile, there several interesting questions worth considering. Were the experimenters really measuring altruism (or its lack, in the case of List) at all? Do such experimental results justify conclusions of the form that the experimenters drew – human beings are hardwired for altruism? If not, what would be required to establish (or reject) ahypothesis that a certain kind of behavior is hardwired?

Chapters 4 describes how several problems that were once thought of as difficult or unsurmountable have been solved very effectively at a low cost. As one instance, the authors write of how the simple practice of doctors disinfecting their hands before treating patients saved innumerable lives. It seems awful that doctors were/are responsible for easily avoidable deaths. It seems even more awful that doctors resisted and still resist policies that require them to wash/disinfect their hands. My reaction was – how could they be so negligent when the cost (potentially lost human lives) is so high? A little reflection shows that such negligence is not uncommon at all in any profession. Washing hands is after all a boring, time consuming act and its consequences (prevention of infection) are not apparant at all by their very nature. A parallel example from the field of software is writing tests – also a boring, time-consuming act whose consequences are not apparant. Is the cost of not writing tests as high as the cost of not washing hands? Again, it is doesn’t seems so, but in a world where the use of software is all-pervasive, it might even be higher. This is a good lesson in looking beyond the obvious.

Chapter 5 is about global warming and how there might be a cheap and simple solution to the problem – injecting sulphur compounds into the upper atmosphere. But don’t expect anyone to try it (or be allowed to try it). I find the whole issue of global warming extremely boring – I don’t think I have a single post on it here. But I suspect that the contents of this one chapter – less than a fifth of the book – will dominate most reactions to this book.

Overall, the book is a collection of a large number of interesting and thought-provoking analyses and anecdotes and the attitude of the authors is refreshingly healthy.

Religion and timezones

Several (most?) Hindus engage in ritual fasts to propitiate various gods. Apparantly (via my sister), when they travel abroad, they have a problem. They don’t know when to start or stop their fasts. What timezone do Hindu gods live in?

Ayn Rand’s contradictory life?

Via Muse Free, I came across this article in the NY Times by Adam Kirsch. From the article

When Bennett Cerf, a head of Random House, begged her to cut Galt’s speech, Rand replied with what Heller calls “a comment that became publishing legend”: “Would you cut the Bible?” …
In fact, any editor certainly would cut the Bible, if an agent submitted it as a new work of fiction. But Cerf offered Rand an alternative: if she gave up 7 cents per copy in royalties, she could have the extra paper needed to print Galt’s oration. That she agreed is a sign of the great contradiction that haunts her writing and especially her life. Politically, Rand was committed to the idea that capitalism is the best form of social organization invented or conceivable…
Yet while Rand took to wearing a dollar-sign pin to advertise her love of capitalism, Heller makes clear that the author had no real affection for dollars themselves. Giving up her royalties to preserve her vision is something that no genuine capitalist, and few popular novelists, would have done. It is the act of an intellectual, of someone who believes that ideas matter more than lucre.

Anyone who has read and bothered to understand The Fountainhead should remember the scene where Howard Roark refuses a contract for a building to protect the integrity of his vision when that contract is the only thing that can save him from bankruptcy. When asked “Do you have to be quite so fanatical and selfless about it?” Roark replies “That was the most selfish thing you’ve ever seen a man do.”

Perhaps Kirsch missed it or perhaps he just took it as an unbelievable part of the plot. “The plotting and characterization in her books may be vulgar and unbelievable, just as one would expect from the middling Holly­wood screenwriter she once was.” Either way he has no conception of what Rand meant by selfishness or capitalism. Kirsch should read this excerpt from The Fountainhead

“Dominique,” he said softly, reasonably, “that’s it. Now I know. I know what’s been the matter all the time.”
“Has anything been the matter?”
“Wait. This is terribly important. Dominique, you’ve never said, not once, what you thought. Not about anything. You’ve never expressed a desire. Not of any kind.”
“What’s wrong about that?”
“But it’s…it’s like death. You’re not real. You’re only a body. Look, Dominique, you don’t know it, I’ll try to explain. You understand what death is? When a body can’t move any more, when it has no…no will, no meaning. You understand? Nothing. The absolute nothing. Well, your body moves–but that’s all. The other, the thing inside you, your–oh, don’t misunderstand me, I’m not talking religion, but there’s no other word for it, so I’ll say: your soul–your soul doesn’t exist. No will, no meaning. There’s no real you any more.”
“What’s the real me?” she asked. For the first time, she looked attentive; not compassionate; but, at least, attentive.
“What’s the real anyone?” he said, encouraged. “It’s not just the body. It’s…it’s the soul.”
“What is the soul?”
“It’s–you. The thing inside you.”
“The thing that thinks and values and makes decisions?”
“Yes! Yes, that’s it. And the thing that feels. You’ve–you’ve given it up.”
“So there are two things that one can’t give up: One’s thoughts and one’s desires?”
“Yes! Oh, you do understand! So you see, you’re like a corpse to everybody around you. A kind of walking death. That’s worse than any active crime. It’s…”
“Yes. Just blank negation. You’re not here. You’ve never been here. If you’d tell me that the curtains in this room are ghastly and if you’d rip them off and put up some you like–something of you would be real, here, in this room. But you never have. You’ve never told the cook what dessert you liked for dinner.
You’re not here, Dominique. You’re not alive. Where’s your I?”
“Where’s yours, Peter?” she asked quietly.
He sat still, his eyes wide. She knew that his thoughts, in this moment, were clear and immediate like visual perception, that the act of thinking was an act of seeing a procession of years behind him.
“It’s not true,” he said at last, his voice hollow. “It’s not true.”
“What is not true?”
“What you said.”
“I’ve said nothing. I asked you a question.”
His eyes were begging her to speak, to deny. She rose, stood before him, and the taut erectness of her body was a sign of life, the life he had missed and begged for, a positive quality of purpose, but the quality of a judge.
“You’re beginning to see, aren’t you, Peter? Shall I make it clearer. You’ve never wanted me to be real. You never wanted anyone to be. But you didn’t want to show it. You wanted an act to help your act–a beautiful, complicated act, all twists, trimmings and words. All words. You didn’t like what I said about Vincent Knowlton. You liked it when I said the same thing under cover of virtuous sentiments. You didn’t want me to believe. You only wanted me to convince you that I believed. My real soul, Peter? It’s real only when it’s independent–you’ve discovered that, haven’t you? It’s real only when it chooses curtains and desserts–you’re right about that–curtains, desserts and religions, Peter, and the shapes of buildings. But you’ve never wanted that. You wanted a mirror. People want nothing but mirrors around them. To reflect them while they’re reflecting too. You know, like the senseless infinity you get from two mirrors facing each other across a narrow passage. Usually in the more vulgar kind of hotels. Reflections of reflections and echoes of echoes. No beginning and no end. No center and no purpose. I gave you what
you wanted. I became what you are, what your friends are, what most of humanity is so busy being–only with the trimmings. I didn’t go around spouting book reviews to hide my emptiness of judgment–I said I
had no judgment. I didn’t borrow designs to hide my creative impotence–I created nothing. I didn’t say that equality is a noble conception and unity the chief goal of mankind–I just agreed with everybody.
You call it death, Peter? That kind of death–I’ve imposed it on you and on everyone around us. But you–you haven’t done that. People are comfortable with you, they like you, they enjoy your presence. You’ve spared them the blank death. Because you’ve imposed it–on yourself.”

But then, Kirsch probably won’t understand it anyway.

And while I am at it, consider this from Kirsch’s article

Rand’s particular intellectual contribution, the thing that makes her so popular and so American, is the way she managed to mass market elitism — to convince so many people, especially young people, that they could be geniuses without being in any concrete way distinguished. Or, rather, that they could distinguish themselves by the ardor of their commitment to Rand’s teaching. The very form of her novels makes the same point: they are as cartoonish and sexed-up as any best seller, yet they are constantly suggesting that the reader who appreciates them is one of the elect.

Mass market elitism? Talk about contradictions. Elitism, by definition, cannot have a mass market. Yet, Kirsch is desperate to label Rand’s ideas as elitist. Why?

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