The Guide: A non-spiritual perspective

Last weekend, I read “The Guide” by R.K. Narayan on the recommendation of a friend and enjoyed it thoroughly. I wasn’t sure what Narayan wanted to convey however. Even as I thought about it, I looked up the wikipedia entry which links to two pieces which talk of symbolism, illusion, self-deception, maya, man being a tool of divine purpose and so on. I was quite bewildered because all those interpretations seemed entirely forced to me.

There is no explicit philosophy in the story. No moralizing. Just a simple dramatized narration. And that leaves the message open to interpretation. The following is my interpretation based on a simple reading of the story itself. (I am not familiar with any of Narayan’s other works so I cannot claim that this is what Narayan intended to convey). Spoilers ahead. Please read the original work before reading ahead.

Raju is a drifter. He does whatever amuses him, interests him, or arouses his passions. And he does not care what the world thinks of him. He inherits his father’s business – a shop on a railway station – and happens to become a travel guide. Quite by accident. He makes a career out of guiding tourists to places he has never seen himself and telling them history which he makes up on the spur of the moment. He is unscrupulous enough to not mind what he is doing and sharp enough to make a good business out of it.

When he meets Rosie – the neglected wife of an archaeologist, he immediately falls in love with her and gets involved in an affair. Against the advice of his friends. He doesn’t really think about the consequences, about the damage to his business, or anything else. He simply follows his heart. Rosie is from a caste of dancers – treated as public women by society. Raju tells her that he doesn’t believe in caste, and he is telling her the truth, but it is not as if he has consciously rejected the concept. It is just that he has never accepted it, never thought about it consciously, and he is too free-spirited to be bound by rules he does not understand.

When Rosie’s husband discovers the affair and dumps Rosie, she comes to him and he takes her into his home. And keeps her there braving the ire of his mother, uncle and society. Out of his passion for her. Not out of any deep conviction that he is right. But that is being unfair to him. More accurately, Raju is just incapable of deep convictions. He lives his life by the whim of the moment, not by a philosophy.

Being a smart man, Raju is soon able to help Rosie achieve her dreams of becoming a dancer. And he gets caught up in the trappings of wealth, power and influence. He begins to believe that he is the architect of Rosie’s success, not realizing that she is a strong woman who would eventually have found her dream with or without him. He is still insecure about Rosie’s husband and foolishly ends up committing a forgery. By this time, Rosie has grown tired of Raju, and although she does everything in her power to help him financially, she decides to go her own way.

Raju is sentenced to two years of prison. And he doesn’t really mind it! On the contrary, he begins enjoying it. Despite having been carried away by the trappings of wealth, he is still too free-spirited to be troubled by the censure of society.

When he comes out of prison, he has nowhere to go and settles in a village. The villagers mistake him for a holy man and he plays along, getting a sustenance for free out of the offerings the villagers make him. He is sharp enough to make the sort of grand-sounding but empty statements that fool the villagers. The railway guide becomes a spiritual guide. But the spiritual guide is just as fake as the railway guide. The railway guide played on the ignorance of the tourists, on their desires to feel that their holiday was worthwhile without knowing what would make it worthwhile, on their mindless acceptance of the fiction that he told them as fact. The spiritual guide plays on the insecurities of the villagers, on their desire to control what is outside the control of any man, on their mindless acceptance of his empty statements.

Finally, Raju gets trapped into a twelve day fast to bring rain. On the eleventh day, he collapses saying “Velan, it’s raining in the hills. I can feel it coming up under my feet, up my legs –“. And that is how the story ends. Ambiguously. Does he die? Does it rain? It does not matter.

Raju is a free spirited and intelligent man but he is not a thinker. He never plans ahead. He doesn’t reflect on what he is doing. He does not ponder moral questions. He does not live by the rules of society, and he does not make his own rules either. There is an oft-cited maxim for a good life “Follow your heart”. Raju symbolizes that maxim. And the story is a brilliantly dramatised account of how that maxim actually plays out. The free spirited man without a guiding principle becomes a tool for others – all through his life. First, as a railway guide, visiting places he is not interested in visiting, because others are interested in visiting them. Then, as a partner with Rosie, promoting art that he doesn’t really understand or appreciate, because the object of his love appreciates it. And finally as a holy man, proclaiming beliefs he does not hold, because others hold them. His entire life is shaped by other people’s decisions. There are two other important characters in the story – Rosie and Marco. Both know what they want, are passionate about it, and work tirelessly toward it without compromising. And both achieve their dreams. Marco publishes a book, Rosie becomes a dancer.

There is no short-cut to happiness. Those who mindlessly abide by second-hand beliefs do not achieve it. Narayan doesn’t even bother with them. But those who mindlessly reject the second-hand beliefs do not achieve it either. And that, to me is the meaning of this story.

Short Review: Coffee in the Afternoon

Coffee in the Afternoon is a short story by Christopher Chinchilla.

The blurb on Amazon says: In a quiet café, Johnny tells his religiously-oppressive wife, Jessica, that he wants a divorce—and that he’s taking their daughter, Lily, with him.

That is an interesting setting for the story and I wondered how the author would develop it in such a short story, just 14 pages.

The descriptions are vivid and make the scene stand out. There is another character in the story – something I did not expect. But it serves its purpose rather well by giving a concrete form to something that would otherwise have remained intangible. The focus on values and the way they are brought out lends a depth to the story that is refreshing to see.

The characters are interesting, but given the difference in their values, the situation they are in seems somewhat unlikely and I was a little disappointed to not have an explanation for it. But that would be difficult in a story of this length, so really, I would have liked this to be more than a short story.

Overall, it is definitely worth reading and a very good investment of the 10 minutes it takes to read it. I look forward to reading more and longer works from the author.

Monna Vanna

I was looking to take a small break from work and ended up reading Monna Vanna, a play by Maurice Maeterlinck. It is easily one of the best works of fiction I have read in a long time. I only have a couple of regrets about it. First, that I don’t know French, so I couldn’t read the original work, and second, that I already knew part of the story.

The first act sets up the plot nicely and the next two acts are just brilliant – in particular, the conversation between Monna Vanna and Prinzivalle. The climax is both dramatic and logical, a rare combination. In fact, the entire play is like that – characterization is clear and the riveting plot is consistent with the characterization right upto the end. The character of Monna Vanna is inspiring.

I doubt if women in Renaissance Europe were as independent as Monna Vanna. None of the other works of fiction set during that period that I have read have strong women characters. I have a bit of fascination with fiction set in historical times (not sure why?) and the contrast with other works set in such periods makes Monna Vanna even more attractive.

I wonder if other works by Maeterlinck are as good as this. The Wikipedia page on Maeterlinck says that his plays are characterized by fatalism and mysticism. Monna Vanna is mostly free of both. There is no mysticism and only the character of Marco can be seen as fatalist.

The Diary of a Young Girl

I had a couple of spare hours at the airport and picked up this remarkable book – The Diary of a Young Girl

The book is a diary maintained over a two year period by Anne Frank, a 13 year old girl forced to go into hiding to escape the persecution of Jews in Nazi-occupied Holland. The afterword states that Anne was captured and killed in a concentration camp.

At over 400 pages, the book is a long but worth-while read. It describes the transformation of a care-free 13 year old girl into a mature and independent woman. As the adults who are in hiding along with Anne (including her parents) are unable to fully come to terms with their difficult conditions and engage in constant bickering, Anne is able to rise above it all. 15 year old Anne has a better understanding of life than most people ever reach. A couple of examples:

While washing up, Bep began talking to Mother and Mrs van Daan about how discouraged she gets. What help did those two offer her? Our tactless mother, especially, only made things go from bad to worse. Do you know what her advice was? That she should think about all the other people in the world who are suffering! How can thinking about the misery of others help if you’re miserable yourself? I said as much. Their response, of course, was that I should stay out of conversations of this sort.!

At such moments I don’t think about all the misery, but about the beauty that still remains. This is where Mother and I differ greatly. Her advice in the face of melancholy is: ‘Think about all the suffering in the world and be thankful you’re not part of it.’ My advice is: ‘Go outside, to the country, enjoy the sun and all nature has to offer. Go outside and try to recapture the happiness within yourself; think of all the beauty in yourself and in everything around you and be happy.’

I don’t think Mother’s advice can be right, because what are you suposed to do if you become part of the suffering? You’d be completely lost. On the contrary, beauty remains, even in misfortune. If you just look for it, you discover more and more happiness and regain your balance. A person who’s happy will make others happy; a person who has courage and faith will never die in misery!

Apart from the value in reading about how Anne copes with the impossible situation she is in, books like this have another great value. They make history real. It is one thing to know that six million Jews were systematically murdered by the Nazis and that the second world war lasted for 6 years. It is quite another thing to understand at a concrete level what this did to individual people.

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.

Mises on The Free-Will Controversy

From Chapter 5 of Mises’ Theory and History,

Man chooses between modes of action incompatible with one another. Such decisions, says the free-will doctrine, are basically undetermined and uncaused; they are not the inevitable outcome of antecedent conditions. They are rather the display of man’s inmost disposition, the manifestation of his indelible moral freedom. This moral liberty is the essential characteristic of man, raising him to a unique position in the universe.

Determinists reject this doctrine as illusory. Man, they say, deceives himself in believing that he chooses. Something unknown to the individual directs his will. He thinks that he weighs in his mind the pros and cons of the alternatives left to his choice and then makes a decision. He fails to realize that the antecedent state of things enjoins on him a definite line of conduct and that there is no means to elude this pressure. Man does not act, he is acted upon.

Both doctrines neglect to pay due attention to the role of ideas. The choices a man makes are determined by the ideas that he adopts.

This is quite close to my own position but with a very important qualification. The choices a man makes are determined by the ideas he adopts provided he chooses to think. Mises denies that choice.

What the sciences of human action must reject is not determinism but the positivistic and panphysicalistic distortion of determinism. They stress the fact that ideas determine human action and that at least in the present state of human science it is impossible to reduce the emergence and the transformation of ideas to physical, chemical, or biological factors. It is this impossibility that constitutes the autonomy of the sciences of human action. Perhaps natural science will one day be in a position to describe the physical, chemical, and biological events. which in the body of the man Newton necessarily and inevitably produced the theory of gravitation. In the meantime, we must be content with the study of the history of ideas as a part of the sciences of human action.

The sciences of human action by no means reject determinism. The objective of history is to bring out in full relief the factors that were operative in producing a definite event. History is entirely guided by the category of cause and effect. In retrospect, there is no question of contingency. The notion of contingency as employed in dealing with human action always refers to man’s uncertainty about the future and the limitations of the specific historical understanding of future events. It refers to a limitation of the human search for knowledge, not to a condition of the universe or of some of its parts.

Having denied the choice to think, Mises treats determinism and causality as equivalent and rejects the notion of contingency for past actions. It will be interesting to see where this takes him in later chapters. One consequence is already apparant though – on his view of morality. A determinist cannot logically be a moralist and indeed Mises is not. Like Taleb, he denies the possibility of a normative science. In earlier chapters, Mises writes that the only possible judgement of human action is whether a particular means leads to a particular end. Ends cannot be judged. Adopting utilitarianism, he goes on to write about justice: “The ultimate yardstick of justice is conduciveness to the preservation of social cooperation. Conduct suited to preserve social cooperation is just, conduct detrimental to the preservation of society is unjust.”

Just goes to show how important the foundational branches of philosophy are.

Book Review: Fooled by Randomness

I chanced upon Fooled by Randomness – The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets by Nassim Nicholas Taleb at a friend’s place and took the time to read it. Having a bit of a financial background – I work in a company that did some financial modeling before I joined it – I had heard of Taleb and was curious. Besides, I want to understand probability better than I currently do – I mean philosophically, not mathematically – and the title was attractive.

The book is divided in three parts. Part I starts off with a long and rather boring story of two traders – a rash, ignorant and over-confident John and a conservative Nero. John succeeds for a time – purely through luck – makes a lot of money and then blows up – market slang for losing more money than you thought possible. Nero remains risk-averse and makes a steady amount but suffers snubs from people like John before being vindicated. The reason for including this story is primarily to show how large a role randomness plays in the markets. Taleb also comments on the fact that Nero suffered emotionally from the snubs by people who made more money than him though he always knew himself to be better. Taleb says that this shows that the rational mind cannot prevent us from experiencing irrational emotions. Taleb then discusses an “accounting method” by which a dentist is much richer than a lottery winner. If one were to consider all the “paths” that the dentist’s life could take, there would not be much variation in the money he makes and the “average” would be close to what he makes in any particular “path”. If one considers all the paths that the lottery winner’s life could take, the average would be much lower than the money he makes on the winning path. This notion should seem familiar to anyone with a knowledge of Monte-Carlo simulations but I had not seen anyone putting it so explicitly. Taleb then goes on to discuss the difference between noise and significant information and how noise can affect perceptions in short timescales. He also discusses the dangers in fitting models to historical data. This is interrupted by an unexpected attack on Hegel’s pseudo-scientific philosophy that draws on Alan Sokal’s famous hoax. Taleb then talks of rare events, how their existence makes the difference between the median and the mean important and how most people including statisticians often unwittingly ignore this difference. He then talks briefly about Bacon, Hume and Popper in relation to the problem of induction and the difficulty of induction in the presence of rare events.

Part II deals with various biases in the perception and evaluation of events and outcomes in areas where randomness plays a major role. He draws on work by Kahneman and Tversky – which I am not even remotely familiar with – to claim that in dealing with uncertainty, our minds adopt certain heuristics/biases that are blind to reason (Prospect theory, Affect heuristic, Hindsight bias, Belief in the law of small numbers, Two systems of reasoning and Overconfidence). While it is easy to see how a person with no understanding of probability theory could be misled in the many examples Taleb gives, it is difficult to believe that people trained in probability would also be misled.

Part III deals with Taleb’s interpretation of stoicism as the solution to living in a world with so much uncertainty. Taleb writes that we should accept that we are incapable of making our emotions rational and attempt to behave with dignity in all circumstances. He writes that stoicism should not mean a stiff upper lip and a banishment of emotions but an acceptance of emotions and the uncertainties of life with the focus being on the process rather than the outcome. This part is titled Wax in my ears in a reference to the story of Odysseus and the Sirens. Taleb writes that he knows that he is not as great as Odysseus and instead of tying himself, he chooses to have wax in his ears. That is, he chooses to accept that his emotions will always be fooled by randomness and the only solution is to avoid situations where he might encounter such emotions (by not listening to the news or not tracking prices of assets on a moment-by-moment basis etc).

Overall, several anecdotes in the book are mildly entertaining, but intellectually, there is very little that I gained from the book. I agree with a lot of Taleb’s views on the role of luck in the markets and the inadequacy or even meaninglessness of most financial models, but I had already reached these views before reading Taleb and frankly I don’t think they merit a significant part of a book. These views can be easily expressed in a few pages – perhaps I will write a post myself. Taleb does not provide any definition of probability – something that I had hoped for – apart from the following excerpt. Taleb’s style is quite disconnected and the numerous back and forward references are irritating, especially since the references are hardly convincing. For example in the following excerpt he refers to something in Chapter 3, but there is no convincing arguement there, not even a hint.

Ask your local mathematician to define probability, he would most probably show you how to compute it. As we saw in Chapter 3 on probabilistic introspection, probability is not about the odds, but about the belief in the existence of an alternative outcome, cause, or motive. Recall that mathematics is a tool to meditate, not compute. Again, let us go back to the elders for more guidance – for probabilities were always considered by them as nothing beyond a subjective, and fluid, measure of beliefs.

The only thing that I got from the book is a reminder that I need to formulate more completely a proper alternative to Popper’s scepticism.

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