Deliverance from a smartphone

So I recently took the plunge that I had been musing about for the last six months - replacing my current smartphone, a comparatively modest Moto E, with a phone that does just two things - call and text. In other words, a return to a dumb-phone. I see this step as another one in a long line of steps which have all been aimed at my eventual goal of wresting back my autonomy, freedom, and sanity from the madhouse that is the modern connected world. This long line has included other steps such as quitting social networks such as Facebook and deactivating digital personal assistants but the overarching emphasis has always been to rely less and less on those modern tools which adversely affect some human qualities which I deem worthy of preserving in myself. I think that people are too connected nowadays, to the extent that it is psychologically damaging. It has become far too easy to compare oneself to a very large social circle and such relentless comparisons decimate any possibility of a human being's independent conception of himself. They also encourage behavior which induces anxiety - seeking acceptance from those who do not matter in one's life, constantly lying in little ways to appear an ideal vision of oneself in the eyes of others. The constant din of notifications appears to reduce the ability to concentrate and has all but relegated to the pages of history, the ability to introspect and reflect. The result is a human being defined completely in relation to the expectations of others, with no power to resist and no desire to think.

I have wanted no part of this degradation and degeneration. My limited capacities mean that I can only be interested in the lives of a very small number of people. My immediate family and maybe 2 more friends. All the rest is noise and needless distraction to me. There is a real world out there which still responds to my pokes, which still crystallizes into beautiful patterns under the tools of my thoughts. It is a little sad that this world is infested with fools who are constantly staring at their phones but there are better aspects to it still. Animals, for instance!

Brexit

A very interesting development took place yesterday: United Kingdom voted itself out of EU in a general referendum. The Pound fell to its lowest level since 1985 and there was immediate market turmoil the world over. Things will surely take a turn for what will be perceived to be worse directions in the future. Surely EU will suffer more fissures and the UK itself might break up with Scotland wanting to defect. London will find it increasingly hard to remain the financial center of Europe and the isolationist tendencies in France, Netherlands, and the peripheral countries will definitely be emboldened. All of these are repercussions which most would paint as undesirable, however, I do not. I think this is an excellent example of democracy at its best and a necessary correction which was long time coming. This won't be the last such correction either.

I suppose I myself belong to what would be called the intellectual class but I have no sympathies with their projects. Neither do I have any sympathies for the modern centers of power and commerce and most of the smug and self-congratulatory people who proudly call them their homes. Their wealth and comfort has not come at no cost. Entire areas the sizes of nations in both the US and Europe have been decimated in the process and with them the lives of simple people. Now I am not foolish enough to think that there was ever an alternative to the way things have progressed. Once you drink the cool-aid of neoliberalism, as the world did, the essential repercussions follow. Job losses through Increased automation and easier immigration policies, decimation of local competitiveness through easier trade, increasing centralization of economic activity, and of course increasing inequality. The benefits of neoliberalism are diffused (cheaper products) but its evils are concentrated (job losses in specific communities). What annoys me most, however, is the sheer arrogance of those who have won in this economic climate in expecting those who have lost to accept their lot quietly, to go down without even a fight. The former expect the latter to simply genuflect against their own "superior" and self-serving logic. The hypocrisy is breathtaking which is why I love the swift kick in the nuts which has been delivered to the elites in the UK and Europe.

It will be unfortunate if a similar thing happens in the US but not because the pain of the analogous American class is any less legitimate. It's because Trump who is their standard bearer is a self-serving fool and a bumbling idiot. Still, in the name of fairness and consistency, I'd understand if it does come to pass. If I was in the position of the millions who find themselves out of job and livelihood because their jobs have been given to cheap labor from outside which, by the way, mostly benefits the owners and shareholders of companies, I'd also exercise the one power that I have remaining: the right to vote. I suspect that I would also, in such a circumstance, be driven to options which leave everybody worse off. It's a perfectly rational response by those whose lot could not be any worse anyway. And the blame for this behavior lies squarely at the feet of the smug elites who not only robbed many of their prosperity but also delegitimized their suffering by portraying them unfairly as racist, ignorant, and bigoted merely for pointing out the obvious reasons of their plight.

Since my parents are visiting, I have been doing something that I hardly ever do - listening to Indian news channels. I generally find myself cut off from Indian news, of which I am not proud, but I am quite okay with not listening to the "news" which these channels have. The list of my grievances is long but they are certainly not particular to Indian news channels. I suspect that most (but not all) parts of the American news channels such as Fox, CNN, MSNBC are similarly garbage. However, till now I have not been able to find the non-garbage parts of the Indian news channels. Perhaps they exist -little unappreciated islands of good analysis and intelligent conversations in a vast stinking sea of loudmouths, idiots, ideologues and charlatans. Perhaps I have mentioned it before on this blog - there is nothing that I hate more than a group with an agenda. This includes but is not limited to groups based on religions, political affiliations, sexual orientations, environmental activism, and atheism. I detest how these groups completely consume an individual to the point where there is no individuality, no independent thinking left. There is hardly a human being left. All thought is reduced to "group positions" at which point all debate becomes soulless and automatic - fit only for a subhuman specie.

This is exactly how I find the news channels. Their entire effort appears to be to distill the world through a lens of their choice for the easy digestion of their non-thinking audience. The people obviously love it all because they are not too different from those who cheered in the Roman Coliseum not too long ago. In a group they find it easy to shed the thin veneer of civilization and turn into barbarians and savages, baying for the blood of those who belong to the other group. Convinced of the rightness of their own positions, they shout down those who disagree with them, feeling within them, I suspect, rage and animosity based only upon what is often just a difference of opinion. All while the news channels post increasingly impressive viewer ratings and the demagogues which they effectively employ gain power and positions.

It's a grim picture that I paint. Which is why I had taken a leave from all this some time ago. TV is unequivocally trash and social media is also garbage with no exceptions. While the former is a shameful exploitation of people's worst instincts, the latter is built exclusively upon what the lowest common denominator thinks is worthwhile - and this denominator could not be lower. Internet does offer some intelligent voices to percolate through if one looks hard enough and I try to limit myself to these. This is also my advise to those who wish to preserve their intelligence, sanity, and even humanity in this hyper-connected, hyper-homogenizing world.

In life I have found that the only person worth knowing, speaking in a philosophical sense, is one who is passionate about something. And as it so happens, almost everybody, at some point in their lives, indeed were passionate and excited about something and during those times they were interesting individuals indeed. Life, however, is a stern master which beats all passion out of her servants and leaves them hollow, pointless, and lifeless. Almost everybody succumbs to her mighty headwinds and the very few who survive are the only ones from whom something novel, something worthwhile could be learned. In this restricted sense I have also found that the dullest, most pointless people that I have ever met have been those with whom I have had the misfortune of sharing many deep beliefs. That there does not exist a God (or the chance is vanishingly small) is a foundational belief of mine from which spring the other parts of my personality. From it spring my utter contempt for authority and the meekness that it demands, my deep belief in the ultimate pointless of everything, and the most destructive facets of my personality which are inflamed far too easily in a society which I find essentially self-delusionary in an infinitude of ways. However the real issue is that by professing a non-belief in a God, I automatically get placed in the rather contemptible group of atheists. I get packed with the idiots who read the God delusion and think that they have gained a deep understanding of life, that they have become privy to its great truths. I get bundled in with the herd-followers whose prophets are Dawkins, Krauss, and other third rate 'thinkers.' These atheists like to think of themselves as rational people but they are anything but. They are just as close-minded and just as invested in their own creed as the religious people they are so quick to decry. In addition to that, I find such atheists to be dullards of the highest order. They worship not a God but money and status instead and what could be more boring and infuriating than that? I have found many religious people from whom I have learned a lot and with whom I have had great conversations with. I think that in all of those instances, the facilitating characteristic was their passion for their religion and my own automatic respect of that passion. I have, with very few exceptions, rarely ever met an atheist from whom I learned anything. They were all well functioning members of a civilized law abiding society who knew the cost of everything but the value of nothing. They were robots to me - dead already. Of course atheists are not the only such culprits here. The point is that religion has the potential to provide an exhilarating, all consuming meaning to one's life and I can and do see a lot of value in that. I respect it. However, religion can also just be another thing that one does and I think this is how it is practiced in much of the world. In this form religion is useless both internally and externally. In this form it neither provides any enduring meaning nor any lasting consolation. It becomes anodyne and passionless and with its passing the individual becomes utterly pointless - a mere cog in the wheel waiting to be replaced by the next generation of cogs.

The Inevitable Rise of Trump and Sanders

An year and a half ago I mused about the inevitable decline of human employment which will follow the current developments in new technology. This is not a new phenomenon and it has existed in some form or the other since the dawn of civilization. Men as brilliant as Russel and Keynes were worried about its implications in the first half of the last century. What has changed now is the sudden rise in the capabilities of AI, something that nobody was predicting before around 2010. It is not inconceivable now to think of a time, perhaps in the next 5 to 10 years, when AI will outperform humans on many very human tasks, including but not limited to hearing and seeing. Coupled with software's massive reach into data this will mean that AI will displace humans who are now employed in many routine jobs (secretary, food ordering, banking, publishing). And coupled with the rise of robotic performance many humans who are now working in areas which only a few years ago might have seemed relatively immune from automation will also be rendered redundant. The prime example of this is the job of a truck driver which currently happens to be the most common job in the 29 states in the US. In short, millions of jobs will be lost to automation within the next decade and there will not be even a remotely commensurate replacement through the creation of new type of jobs. Automation systems are getting more and more integrated with the advances today making it easier to create newer systems for tomorrow. The software developers of a certain kind who are particularly in demand today will be the last to be displaced, but displaced they will be. I can only hope that that day won't be too long in the future. However, by the time that these smug assholes will get a taste of their own medicine, they would have condemned innumerable people to lives of untold misery and purposelessness.

In this context I see the rise of Trump and Sanders as inevitable. This phenomenon is here to stay and is a necessary correction. We will see more of it in other parts of the world in the coming years. Philosophically the essence of Trump and Sanders is the same and it is an economic one. The differences in their social opinions are of very little ultimate consequence. They represent that vast constituency which has lost in this economic system, whose jobs have been displaced, and whose communities have been broken. Sanders' supporter see this as resulting from a rigged system which favors the super-rich and Trump's supporters see this as being the influence of cheap labor from outside. Both are correct but this development was also inevitable. Medium skilled, moderately high paying jobs are at the greatest danger of being displaced by technology. At the precipice of being displaced market forces will require that only those who are willing to do these for vastly lower remuneration will do them. And a population which has grown in the shadow of the prosperous 60s and 70s will find it hard to justify doing them. The result, in any case, is that more people (immigrant or not) are pushed to live on less and and less. The rise of Trump and Sanders, therefore, represents a very necessary social reaction. Society currently produces more than it ever has in the past and yet expects a vast majority to fight ever harder for survival. The brutality of this demand will only get more severe if it is not for what is essentially a money grab from the Trump-Sanders phenomenon. And this money grab is extremely necessary because there is no other way. Today the phenomenon appears irrational, especially to those who are short-sighted or those who have too much invested in the status-quo. However, it will soon normalize and not only will it normalize but it will lead to broad legislative action sanctioning deep wealth transfers. This is unless other mechanisms of transfer could be devised. We'll see.

It was 1999, the year when I had to begin preparing for the JEE (Joint Entrance Exam) which is the nationwide exam to get into one of the 7 IITs in India at that time. Every single one of my friends who was even remotely serious about passing the exam had joined one coaching or the other. I decided not to. I did pass the exam but I'd probably have done better had I done what others did. I don't regret that decision because of two reasons: I'm now doing what I love to do anyway and I think Indians tend to highly overestimate the importance of an IIT education (especially if they graduated from one.) Still, sometimes I wonder why I decided not to join a coaching. That was the first major decision, as far as I can remember, where I made a conscious choice to not follow the flow.

It should come as no surprise that there is a part of me which would like to believe that that decision was inspired by a courageous stance of rebellion. That would most probably be delusional though. The truth, as far as I can tell, is that I was and have always been at a loss when it comes to understanding and appreciating the various forms through which social wisdom is dispensed. The great social machinery which chuffs and hums with stunning harmony might as well be a secret cabal to me. The customs of all of its groups have always appeared foreign. I seem to have stood outside of its circle of mysterious inner workings. And I don't think that I ever chose to be so aloof. Most of those early decisions which might now be mistaken as rebellious in hindsight were taken, as I now understand, purely out of my own hesitation and confusion. This includes not only not doing a coaching but also leaving my job and coming to the US for a PhD. This includes many other personal decisions as well. The overwhelming forces that have shaped my life have been indecision and hesitation, and this I am quite convinced of. Brighter, more ambitious people than me might as well have their lives and goals laid out in front of them but that was never my position.

Over the years I did notice something important though. I noticed that, as far as I can tell, I don't really regret anything from past and I do not feel anxious about the future (at most times anyway.) I noticed that I see my own situation in life as having emerged from a series of accidents, to which I have more or less only been a passive witness. And this series of accidents has landed me at a point where I can lay claim to a certain sense of inner peace and contentment. Perhaps others possess these qualities to a greater degree than I do. Perhaps not. They don't seem to, at least. This observation - that a life created from accidents can find contentment and one which is built upon foresight and wisdom often fails to do so - has sown great doubts within me. Does anybody know what they are talking about?

In defense of arrogance

I remember a conversation that I was having with someone many years ago in San Diego. The talk came to the topic of books at which point I mentioned, in gushing overtones, the incredible joy I found in reading Catch-22. "Of course you would, since it's such a sarcastic book," came the immediate response. That person was a good friend of a good friend and at that moment, politeness and civility barely managed to eke out a slim victory over a harsh and stinging response. The statement was correct (only partially of course) but the person making it was not the correct person.

I'd have taken the exact same comment with good humor had it been made by some specific people that I have known in my life (countable on the fingers of one hand.) These people, in my opinion, were well read (better than me in any case) and had developed an acute thought process over time. In my eyes they had earned the proper right to make such a comment and be taken seriously. Those who are brought up on a steady dose of bestsellers, suspense thrillers, book-club suggestions, self-help trash, and young adult garbage would be well advised to at least cultivate humility in these matters. Their observations are better suited to a much more monochromatic world. One in which a hero is always good and he has to suffer in order to be good, one where there is such a thing as pure love which is excruciatingly painful but ultimately redemptive, one which deals with the inevitable besting of adversaries and adverse situations in a long and linear story-line culminating in a success which could not have been otherwise, one with simple morals and certainties for the simple people that they are geared towards. Quality sarcasm of the Voltaire and Heller variety is a domain these people have no business commenting upon.

It is clear to me that this attitude, which I hold in all walks of life, can be taken as extremely arrogant, especially in this society which teaches how unique and special everybody is and, by extension, how valuable everybody's opinion is. I disagree on both counts. I disagree that this is arrogance and I obviously disagree that every individual is special in the sense that his/her opinion is worth listening to. What is referred to as arrogance is often just a pruning mechanism: an essential tool for separating the wheat from the chaff. I think everybody has this general attitude to differing degrees and in different domains. What they do not like is when it is directed against them. I am perfectly fine with it. I have met some very "arrogant" professors and have been at the receiving end of their impatience and brusqueness but I have always felt okay if there was something backing up their "arrogance" (specifically, some relevant talent or understanding that they had which I understood to be much more refined than it was in me.) I felt that not only was this behavior efficient on their part but it was also a rite of passage for me. To not expect respect for my opinions automatically - this is a deep lesson I learned from the "arrogance" of those who could carry it well. On the other hand arrogance in those who are incompetent in a certain domain really drives me up the wall, from whom I expect humility instead. However, this is never true. In this life I have always found that those who understand the least are also the most confident. They are the quickest to offer what they consider is their very special and singular insight. And the world is full of such people - they spend their days watching trash TV, reading trash magazines, following the humdrum lives of others through social media, who then feel no hesitation in moonlighting as the great philosophers of life. In this world I find that a little arrogance is essential in maintaining my own sanity.

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The truly conventional and dreadfully boring people talk about their day but the interesting ones talk about ideas. And it was over a conversation with an interesting friend recently that I came upon an idea, a part of my personality, which I was not aware of, at least with any sort of clarity, earlier. Our conversation came to the general topic of extra-sensory perceptions and I have, as a matter of principle and practicality, always maintained that it is all a lot of hot air. That wasn't the point that I found interesting though. It is absolutely idiotic to argue whether there is a God or not and I try not to lower myself to to the depths of intellect where I'd be forced to partake in such a conversation. Similarly it is absolutely ridiculous to argue about other supernatural phenomenon and it is waste of life to argue one way or the other. However, it is supremely interesting to think about whether one would like the possibility of a given supernatural phenomenon and if yes then why. Because it tells something deep about the person in question, about his or her personality. During the conversation I mentioned that I see two broad categories of people in this regard, one which is simple minded and numerous in its members and the other which is devious and very small. However, the latter category is small only because people are hypocritical and cowardly, especially when it comes to those characteristics in them which they see as being flawed.

The categories are with respect to the question, whether one would like the possibility of life after death and the possibility of any communication between the two realms. Allowing for this possibility may be greatly consoling for those who have lost someone dear (but perhaps not.) In this respect the first category comprises of those who would not want to accept this possibility but would instead try to provide an alternative form of hope. This hope generally goes along the lines of this life being precious and meant to be enjoyed, a life which is but waiting to be distilled into whatever meaning one would like it to have. The vision is one of a great and curious explorer, one who looks courageously in the distance, his eyes set forward, and has no business looking back and no need for much consolation from without. I do not belong to this category but to the second one. The second category comprises of those who, again, would not like to accept this supernatural possibility but would like to provide no hope and no redemptive possibility either. I did not have to think twice in order to conclude that I had no interest in being in the first category and that it was, indeed, the second one where I naturally felt at ease. The follow up question, obviously, is why, and the answer to this is not very clear to me. A related question, which I asked my friend, was on the nature of the kind of God that one would like to have. Whether one would like for there to be a benevolent God - who then must be incompetent in order to account for the great misery in this world - or whether one would like for there to be a devious, vile God who is having fun at the expense of poor humans. Again, I'd go for the latter. I feel that it lends more meaning and more dignity to human misery than a bumbling buffoon almighty who just happens to suck at his job. I ultimately have infinitely more respect for an intelligent and devious entity than a foolish and "good" one. And this perhaps is the central point here. My vested interest is not in whether the world turns out good or bad or whether people turn out happy or sad. I do not feel any automatic connection to the broad liberal goals of human emancipation and/or environmental protection, seeing much of it as a perverse extreme of self-congratulatory and self-delusional behavior anyway. My vested interest, which is much more modest, is only in whether they turn out interesting or insipid. A peaceful world full of good and happy people is the stuff of my nightmares. Like the very limited imagination of those who dream of it and hope for it, this world is pale, colorless, tasteless, featureless, and pointless.

Now, as he reviewed his past, he saw into what a deep rut he had sunk. The worst of doing one's duty was that it apparently unfitted one for doing anything else. At least that was the view that the men of his generation had taken. The trenchant divisions between right and wrong, honest and dishonest, respectable and the reverse, had left so little scope for the unforeseen. There are moments when a man's imagination, so easily subdued to what it lives in, suddenly rises above its daily level, and surveys the long windings of destiny. Archer hung there and wondered...

Nothing could more clearly give the measure of the distance that the world had traveled. People nowadays were too busy - busy with reforms and 'movements', with fads and fetishes and frivolities - to bother much about their neighbors. And of what account was anybody's past, in the huge kaleidoscope where all the social atoms spun around on the same plane?...

Archer did not accompany his son to Versailles. He preferred to spend the afternoon in solitary roamings through Paris. He had to deal all at once with the packed regrets and stifled memories of an inarticulate lifetime.

-from The Age of Innocence

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