Sad songs

I was listening to the song “Lagi aaj sawan ki…” and wondered why I like sad songs inspite of the fact that I get over things quickly and so, sadness for me is hardly a persistent emotion. Thinking about it I realized that to get over sadness one needs to accept the fact that one is sad, face the reality, experience the emotion in its full intensity and only then can one move on. One can’t move on by denying either the facts or one’s own emotional state. A sad song is an exercise of experiencing sadness in its full intensity. It is therapeutic.

For completeness, here are the lyrics of the song with an attempt at translation. Lyricist: Anand Bakshi

lagi aaj saawan ki phir wo jhadi hai
lagi aaj saawan ki phir wo jhadi hai
wahi aag seene mein phir jal padi hai
lagi aaj saawan ki phir wo jhadi hai

That same incessant monsoon rain has started again (2) [saawan is the season of love]
That same fire in my chest has flared up again
That same…

kuchh aise hi din the wo jab ham mile the
chaman mein nahin phool dil mein khile the
wahin to hai mausam magar rut nahin wo
mere saath barsaat bhi ro padi hai
lagi aaj saawan ki phir wo jhadi hai
lagi aaj saawan ki phir wo jhadi hai

Those days too were the same, the days when we had met
Then, flowers had blossomed not in gardens but in our hearts
The weather is the same, but the season [of love] isn’t
Along with me, the rain is crying too
That same…

koyi kaash dil pe bas haath rakh de
mere dil ke tukdon ko ik saath rakh de
magar ye hain khwaabon khayaalon ki baaten
kabhi toot kar cheez koyi judi hai

If only someone would lay a hand on my heart
And hold together its broken pieces
But these are vain dreams and thoughts
Has anything once broken ever been mended?

lagi aaj saawan ki phir wo jhadi hai
lagi aaj saawan ki phir wo jhadi hai
wahi aag seene mein phir jal padi hai
lagi aaj saawan ki phir wo jhadi hai

That same…

And finally, because I can’t resist it, the line “Has anything once broken ever been mended?” brought the second law of thermodynamics to mind! With a mind like that I can’t remain sad for long, can I?

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.

Sach Ka Saamna (Facing the truth)

Today’s supplement to the Times Of India carries a column by Vinita Nangia on the controversial TV show ‘Sach Ka Saamna’. Ironically the lesson Nangia draws from the show (as do many others) is

Facing the truth isn’t all that easy and some truths are best left unsaid. Each one of us has a dark side that is best left hidden from others; revealing our dark secrets can do nothing but cause harm to loved ones. As a young lady puts it succinctly, “There’re skeletons in every cupboard, and we shouldn’t rattle them!” Another adds, “Is there really anyone out there who doesn’t have a dark deed festering somewhere in his heart?”

This is bound to destroy a lot of relationships… simply because more questions will be asked… and more truths served up on a platter! Thankfully, we all have a choice — stop watching or at least stop trying to lift the veils of illusion; believe me, it is sure to backfire miserably…
(Emphasis mine)

I should note that I haven’t watched the show yet, nor do I intend to do so. I have no interest in the private lives of random strangers. But the concept of the show (from what I have read of it) is fascinating in the context of today’s culture. This is obvious from the attention the show has got. It is worth analyzing the issues that the show raises.

The show is about facing the truth about one’s emotions and actions and whether these are consistent with one’s consciously or implictly held value system. An emotion is an automatic reaction. It is determined by one’s values. If one’s emotions are not consistent with one’s values, it means that one’s value system is not consistent with itself. In any situation where one’s value system clashes with itself, there is bound to be conflict. It is not surprising that people act badly when they are in conflict. What the show reveals is that its participants and audience – judging by their reaction – are very often in conflict about a lot of very important aspects of their lives. And worse, that this conflict is usually brushed under the carpet by repressing one’s emotions or by indulging them stealthily.

By bringing this conflict into the open, the show has disturbed a lot of people. That is good. It is good that people are concerned about the truth. But the concern will not be of much use if it does not lead one to question its cause – the inconsistencies in one’s value system. But that is not what Nangia (or any other article writer that I have read) wants to do. They all want to brush the truth, the conflict and the show itself under the carpet. Some even want to legislate the show out of existence. All of them want to preserve their existing relationships even at the cost of the truth. They think that conflict is inevitable. There is a grain of truth to that. Man is not born with a value system. He has to create it for himself. And not being infallible, it is likely that he will make mistakes. So some amount of conflict is inevitable when those mistakes manifest themselves. But the mistakes can and should be corrected. And that requires facing the truth. Conflict certainly does not have to be perpetual. For most people, it is perpetual because they have never made the effort to explicitly create a value system or even to question the one they happen to absorb from the culture. Their method of dealing with conflict is to pretend that it does not exist. When someone exposes this pretense, they want to pretend that the exposure does not exist either.

There isn’t anything wrong about not revealing the entire truth to everyone. Honesty is not an unconditional virtue. It is merely a recognition of the fact that wishing something does not make it so, that reality cannot be changed by refusing to recognize it. It is a virue when one is dealing with rational people. There is no reason to reveal the entire truth to random strangers when one does not know whether they are rational or not. But when one is dealing with people one claims to value, there can be no excuse for dishonesty. If a relationship is weakened by the truth, it cannot be valuable in the first place. Anyone who advocates hiding the truth from one’s loved ones is doing himself, his ‘loved ones’ and everyone else a great disservice.

Morality is just evolution – says David Brooks

In an inappropriately named and pointless (if correct, which it is not) article, David Brooks writes

In other words, reasoning comes later and is often guided by the emotions that preceded it. Or as Jonathan Haidt of the University of Virginia memorably wrote, “The emotions are, in fact, in charge of the temple of morality, and … moral reasoning is really just a servant masquerading as a high priest.”
The question then becomes: What shapes moral emotions in the first place? The answer has long been evolution…

Speak for yourself, Mr Brooks. It may well be that you don’t use reason to reach your moral (or any other) ideas. And given the mish-mash of incompatible ideas you write about, that seems very likely. But don’t make the claim that no one does. And if your ideas are merely a product of evolution, why bother to write this article? Oh I see, it too is just a product of evolution. But my ideas are not determined by evolution and so I refuse to be influenced by the evolutionary force of your article.

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