On a new definition of smartness

Of all the human qualities celebrated by the society, the one quality that excites, attracts and intrigues people the most is mental acumen. No matter what people say, there is something weirdly charming about a person whose brain works faster than the rest of us, who can do calculations and reach at an answer faster than anyone else in the room, who can argue for and defend his/her beliefs and who knows more than most of us. Movies and stories often make a hero out of the odd genius who always gets everything right and who “knew it all along”. Now, I am not saying that a faster mind or a vaster knowledge base is something that I resent. Being a scientist at heart, I have always considered intelligence and intellectualism to be of prime importance to our society. It is especially true in today’s world where a wave of anti-intellectualism and outright dumbassery is taking over the world. But, there is something inherently wrong about the way we define smartness and I wish to make a case for a new, more enlightened definition of smartness.

Francis Harry Compton Crick or Francis Crick is a British molecular biologist who received the Nobel prize in 1953 for discovering the double helix structure of DNA along with James Watson. He was a great scientist. He was also a strong supporter of Eugenics, a set of beliefs that aims to “improve” the quality of human population by eliminating or restricting reproduction among certain sections of the population. Not only is this belief inhuman, it is also grossly unscientific and it can only be considered ironical that the discoverer of the structure of DNA supported it.

Albert Einstein, the man who single handedly revolutionized our understanding of the universe and physics could never wrap his head around some of the implications of quantum mechanics (again an irony considering that he received the Nobel prize for his theory of photoelectric effect which he explained using photos, the quanta of EM wave) and has been known to have refuted them by saying “God does not play dice with the universe”

Kary Mullis is an American biochemist, who received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for developing the polymerase chain reaction (PCR), a technique to amplify a fragment of DNA. PCR is a mainstay of any biology lab and has revolutionized the field of forensics. He is widely infamous for being a AIDS denier (Yup, he believes its all a hoax) and climate change denier.

All the three people mentioned above are no doubt intelligent men, way more intelligent than the average person and have achieved great things in their lives but, despite of all their intelligence they were dead wrong about a number of issues. Why? Because, they are human beings. And our brains have some inherent biases so deeply rooted in our thinking process that even the smartest among us can fall prey to them. Make no mistake though. These biases are very useful. They are shortcuts our brain uses to think faster, they are remnants of our past when acting quickly meant the difference between life and death. But, as our brains developed and our thought process became more complex these artifacts of our brain have become impediments to clear thinking. The biggest and the most well known of these biases is the confirmation bias. We cherry-pick data points that support and strengthen our side of the argument while we merrily turn a blind eye to evidence that points to an alternate narrative of the truth. Our brains are obsessed with creating stories and any evidence that doesn’t fit into a simple straight forward story is gladly overlooked. The fact that our society celebrates cocksureness and “confidence” hasn’t helped much either. In an environment where everyone is forced to have a clear stand on every single issue, it makes little sense to be unsure and wavering even if that comes at the cost of being wrong. We all cover ourselves in a selectively permeable membrane that only lets ideas that confirm to our already held views in.

But, to be able to make right decisions, to be able to choose the right people to elect, we need to shed this membrane. We need to be more curious. Before telling children the things they should know, we need to teach them the pleasure of discovering the unknown. We need to teach them to hold two opposing thoughts in their head simultaneously while, believing in only one of them, on the off chance that the other might turn out be true, in light of new evidence. And most importantly, we all need to learn to be okay with being wrong. We need to stop associating our worth and pride with being right about an issue. If the facts compel, we should be flexible enough to shed our earlier held beliefs and adopt the new, more correct ones. Our species has been so successful only because of those brief moments of genius when someone decided to challenge one of society’s core ideas because evidence pointed in another direction. This is the kind of thinking science is based on.

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On a new definition of smartness

Foreign Exchange : Too expensive or too cheap?

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One of the major adjustments that one has to make while visiting a new country is to get accustomed to the new currency. Depending on the exchange rate that your currency has with respect to the currency of the country you are visiting, you might end up spending too much or too little. If you are an Indian visiting Japan, you might spend less than usual because one Japanese yen equals half a rupee. So, one has to pay larger sums for the same item and this makes one more conscious of the money being spent. The same person might end up spending too much in the USA since one US Dollar equals 60 INR. Or you might be a broke summer intern in Germany who converts the price of everything into rupees in his head instantly and on realizing how expensive that 2 Euros ice cream is, you just decide to drink some cold water and wait for 2 months to have an ice cream. Its too cold anyway.

So, why does this happen and what are the forces that guide the exchange rate? The primary force that drives the exchange rate of a country is its “balance of trade” which is simply the sum of the total imports and exports of a country. If the total value of a country’s exports exceeds the total value of its imports, the country is said to have a trade surplus. A country is said to have a trace deficit if the total value of the country’s imports exceeds the total value of its exports.

Lets the take the example of two countries, UK and Japan. I chose these two nations to address a very popular myth according to which a country is deemed developed only if it has a trade surplus, that is, if it exports more. A country importing more than it exports is dependent on other countries and hence, is underdeveloped. This idea is flawed and completely disregards the nuances of international trade. Both UK and Japan are highly developed nations yet, while Japan is primarily an exporter, UK is a major importer (even USA has a trade deficit). However, it is true that a country’s trade tells a lot about its prosperity. Its not the value but the kind of traded goods that determines whether a country is developed or not. While, underdeveloped and developing nations chiefly export cheap mass produced goods like clothes, cheap electronics etc. that require cheap uneducated labor, rich developed nations usually export goods requiring highly skilled workforce like jet engines, pharmaceuticals, new technology etc. Consequently, developed nations, with high minimum labor wages, are the markets for the goods produced by the cheap labor in the developing nations.

Trade deficit in the UK

Trade surplus in Japan

Now, Japan has traditionally had a trade surplus (more export) while UK has always had a trade deficit (more import). Since Japan’s economy is dependent on other countries buying its goods, it would try to makes its goods available at a cheaper rate to attract prospective buyers. One way Japan can do that is by depreciating its currency. that is, by ensuring that the 1 unit of any foreign currency buys more of Japanese Yen. For example, lets consider an American businessman who wants to buy a Japanese sex doll that costs 5000 Yen in Japan. If 1 US dollar converts to 100 Yen, then he would have to pay just 50$. However, if 1 US Dollar converts to 50 Yen, then he would have to pay 100$. Its clear that the businessman is more likely to make the transaction in the earlier case (Though in this case, I think he’s gonna buy the doll anyway). On the other hand, UK, that predominantly buys foreign goods would want the opposite so that it has to spend fewer GBP while importing stuff.

In truth, Japan and UK do not actively control their exchange rates (come countries like China do). The exchange rates are free floating and hence, they keep changing depending on international trade. The result. The same sex doll costs 50$ dollars in US, and 5000 Yen in Japan.

Foreign Exchange : Too expensive or too cheap?

Monogamy : You shall not…marry more than once

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You shall not…marry more than once

Before initiating a dialogue on this topic, one needs to be very clear about the definition of the term in question. There are several definitions of monogamy(and consequently, polygamy) depending on the context. I am not really an expert on this subject and I haven’t really gone through the pain of researching how the experts categorize and study this phenomenon but, I have come up with a few categorizations of my own.

First, we have sexual monogamy where a person is expected to indulge in sexual intercourse and other sexual practices with one individual only. Then, we have emotional monogamy where it is expected that a person will fulfill all his/her emotional needs by associating with one individual only. Then we have marital monogamy, which is probably the broadest form of monogamy, where a person is expected to spend his/her life being loyal and committed to one person. This usually involves both emotional and sexual monogamy.

Whether polygamy is right or wrong and whether it has any place in our modern civilized society is a question that has generated lot of traction in the last few decades. This is to be expected because the concept of monogamy as a virtuous model for a relationship between a man and a woman has originated fairly recently in human history. Its roots can be traced to the rise of the women empowerment movements in the western world that aimed to raise the status of a woman in a household by preventing the dilution of this status by the presence of multiple women. Before this, many women used to share one husband with the husband acting as the head of the family. This highly patriarchal model was not in line with gender equality. However, its not true that all men or that most men of earlier times had more than one wife. But, the reason behind this was that it was very tough for most men, except the most wealthy, to support and sustain a big family.

In truth, the concept of marriage as a solely romantic union is also very recent. Marriage, historically has been an economic and political ritual. As human beings evolved, the time period required for a human child to become self sufficient increased. In fact, at birth, a human baby is perhaps the most helpless among all animals. This necessitated that the two parents stay together for a long amount of time to take care of their progeny. And hence, it made economic sense for the two parents to enter into an alliance with a promise to procreate with each other. This was especially beneficial for males since, now they did not have to repeat the whole process of persuading a new mate. However, it was also a loss since, having only one partner greatly reduced diversity.

As human society evolved more and became more complex, males took the role of leaders while females were reduced to the status of workers. This made a life long relationship even more lucrative for men. In such a situation, it made sense for wealthy men to indulge in multiple alliances to ensure a wide distribution of their genes. Also, during time of wars, most healthy young men were sent to fight in foreign lands for extended periods of time making a long term relationship unsustainable. In some communities living in very harsh environments, like Bedouins in the desert, most men did not traditionally own land or other unmovable property thus, making them unsuitable for marriage. Due to these and many other reasons, the practice of wealthy men keeping multiple wives became a socially accepted trend and over time, this further reduced the status of women in the household.

The rise of gender equality meant that this practice had to be done away with. However, instead of allowing women to take multiple partners just like men, we decided to make monogamy the norm for everyone. But, is monogamy sustainable?

A close look at other animals species suggests that there are very few truly monogamous species. Even in the few bird species that seem monogamous on the surface, DNA fingerprinting reveals rampant cheating and adultery, with eggs in the same nest coming from multiple fathers. This is to be expected because monogamy is tough. It requires better communication abilities and social skills and hence, might have played a role in faster development of the human brain. As John Keating (Robin Williams) says in the Dead Poets’ Society “Language was invented for one reason, boys – to woo women – and, in that endeavor, laziness will not do.” Well, seems there might be some truth to that after all. May be the highly evolved language skills that we humans have developed is partly so that we could communicate better with our partners. Monogamy seems to to make you smarter (take this with a pinch of salt though).

However, as traditional gender roles change and the contact between men and women increases in the workplace, it is becoming increasingly difficult to justify how reasonable monogamy is. Is it unrealistic to expect one person to fulfill all your needs? In that case, it indeed makes sense to divide this responsibility between many people so that in case, one of them disappoints, you can fall back on the others. I, for one, find the idea of polygamy very tough to digest. May be its all part of a big corporate conspiracy to make us all shell out money or may be this is just the way I am but, I have always found a monogamous relationship easier and better. The long term commitment and trials and tribulations associate with it, have always seemed to me bearable if not, beautiful.

Monogamy : You shall not…marry more than once

Democratic socialism is a redundant term

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A new wind of right wing fanaticism is blowing around the globe. In America, an ignorant arrogant misogynist and childish business tycoon has successfully wooed adult men and women to vote for him to be the head of the state. In India, the biggest democracy in the world, the leader of a leftist student organization was arrested for shouting anti-national, anti-government slogans and the move was widely lauded by people for all over the world. In Australia, with the national election just a month away, parties have openly called for a stop to the “Islamisation of Australia”.

So, when did it become acceptable for a govt. to arrest student leaders for giving “anti-national” speeches, for presidential candidates to call for the complete banning of the people of a particular religion and when did it become cool for angry young adults to take on to social media to post bigoted statements to show or rather prove (without anyone demanding a proof) their patriotism.

These winds created by the flapping of right wing have come to fill a vacuum created by the absence of any serious left leaning political party in most parts of the world. Socialism has become such a taboo word that the US presidential candidate Bernie Sanders who has mildly leftist thoughts has to constantly defend his class of socialism by calling it “democratic socialism” which is just absurd because socialism by definition is democratic. If there is govt or party out there that calls itself socialist but is not democratic or supports undemocratic means for wealth distribution then its a autocracy masquerading as a socialism to gain legitimacy.

True socialism has to be democratic because socialism is much more than just a economic doctrine that demands for equitable distribution of wealth. It is a social movement that believes that in a civilized society. all the members should have access to a minimum level of well being and should live with integrity. If power is concentrated in a few hands, this is not at all possible. Hence, this attempt to rescue socialism (and its sad a philosophy that ought to be natural and universally accepted still needs protection) by joining the word “democratic” is completely stupid.

If there are still people in the world who believe that their fellow men deserve to die of hunger for lack of food and clean drinking water, die of diseases for lack of access to cheap health care and die of cold for lack of a shelter and clothes then, it is not socialism but, humanity that needs rescuing.

Democratic socialism is a redundant term

Gods are bored

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The only kind of unpredictability that exists in the universe is quantum unpredictability, the fact that a single particle can exist in multiple states with a probability associated with each of these states. If there were a super intelligent being that could know the state of each particle in the universe at a given point of time and the probability associated with it, then he (she?) could successfully predict all the future possible states with their probabilities. This brings into question the whole concept of free will and consequently morality because morality assumes that we, as human beings, are capable of taking conscious decisions that could be either good or bad. There can be no morality without this assumption because if we take away this freedom to make a choice, then, a person is either bound to commit evil or do good and his (her?) deeds are not in his (her?) hand.

The above reasoning takes an interesting turn if we assume the existence of god, an all knowing, super intelligent being. Is this “being” bound by the same laws of predictability like the rest of us? If yes, then what sets it apart from the rest of us? The knowledge of all the possible states of the universe? If yes, what are its (his? her?) role and aim in life, if it knows the results of all its and everybody else’s action? Think about this for a second. What kind of a depressing miserable life it would be if time wasn’t a one way arrow for you, if you could move through timejust like we normal people move through space (in whatever direction they want to)? If there was no past or future and you had a recollection of not only the past but the future too. Sure you can hop around the time dimension and have you fair share of fun but, wouldn’t you eventually get bored?

Now, what if this “being” was capable of changing the course of history? But then, what does it actually mean to change “history”? If a universe is nothing but a drop in an ocean of infinite probabilities, then changing the course of history mean hopping from a one of these drops to another. Sure that would be exciting too but, wouldn’t you get bored of that too, eventually?

As I think about this, I can’t help but reach the conclusion that the more a being knows, the more bored it will get of the universe since, it would exhaust all the possible thoughts in a short span of time just like a asking a grandmaster to play a game of chess with an amateur. And since god knows everything, he would surely get bored of everything eventually and would have to keep updating to higher dimensions (time dimension, alternate universe dimension etc) to keep himself entertained. I think like the human species, there is also a species of “gods” and they have there own problems and issues to deal with just like us human beings. Its just that they operate at a higher dimension and can do stuff that might seem magical and miraculous to us. So, for a god operating at the “time dimension”, a being from the “alternate universe” dimension would seems like a god and so on.

So, they next time you pray to “god”, remember, he has his own shit to deal with and “god” you too, remember.

Gods are bored

To Beef or not to beef. Is that the question?

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Much(read “too much”) has been said on the issue of consumption of beef. Politicians have found fresh material for their mud slinging competitions. Citizens of the internet have found a new issue to make memes on. The “responsible and politically aware” youth has found a new topic to rage on. Out of job actors and wannabe authors of national bestsellers have found a new topic to write “open letters” on. And last but not the least, I have a found a topic to write on.

Scriptures have been quoted, famous leaders have been quoted, legal passages have been quoted and retired judges of supreme court have been quoted. Clueless as always, I think its mildly amusing and highly unfortunate that whenever we are faced with a moral dilemma that doesn’t offer a simple solution, we swiftly turn to passages in old and dusty books and words uttered by old and rusty men(Is that anti-feminist?) for the answer. I am not going to do the same. I will take facts and use my own judgement to come up with an answer. Opinions, no matter where they come from carry an inherent bias and should only be treated as cues to guide us along the right path.

The primary question isn’t which animal is sacred and which is not. The first question that needs to be answered is, whether it is at all moral for human beings to consume animal flesh. At the outset, I would like to declare that the human anatomy is perfectly adapted to consume meat. We have canine teeth and a short small intestine like carnivores. At the same time, we have molar teeth and  our jaws can move sideways, just like herbivores and the pH of our stomach is slightly higher than those of carnivores. Hence, we are omnivores, that is, we are well suited to consume both “nuts and meat”. Now that I have got that out of the way, lets get back to the point.

Our ancestors have been consuming meat since a long time and even today, there are populations in distant locations like tribes in south america and Eskimos in Siberia whose diet largely consists of animals. But, that is mainly because they do not have access to other sources of food since large scale agriculture is almost impossible in these locations. But, we have a choice. Most of us living inside the constructs of the modern “civilized” society have access to non-animal sources of food that can satisfy all our nutrition requirements. So, is it then, unethical for us to kill these animals for their meat?  Honestly, I do not have a satisfactory answer to this question. My personal belief is that it is not unethical, not because I cannot give up meat but, mostly because, I have a lot of friends and family members who can’t and they are perfectly good people. And frankly, our(meaning all life forms’) existence is enough to cause distress to other forms of life and it is inevitable. Sure, we should try to minimize it but, there is no way we can completely eliminate it.

However, it cannot be denied that the present mode and rate of consumption of animals, especially in developed western societies is unsustainable and extravagant. The reason for this is that, most of the meat that we eat now-a-days is either purchased from shops or supermarkets or cooked in restaurants, out of our site. This disconnect between the consumer and the consumed might explain the lack of empathy. I believe that if we eliminate this disconnect, people will develop more environment-friendly and sustainable eating habits. A good way to minimize the distress we cause to animals would be to do away with the present methods of industrial scale mass rearing wherein animals and birds are kept under extremely cruel conditions. There should be strict guidelines dictating the conditions that need to be maintained in these facilities.

Now, we need to answer the more nuanced question of whether or not the flesh of all animals be treated the same. I believe that there is no absolute answer to the question. What one chooses to eat is too personal a question to have a generic answer that applies to everyone. This is a choice that would be affected by the environment that we live in and the kind of exposure we have had to animals. For example, if I have spent most of my childhood with a pet dog, then, I would not be very eager to consume dog meat, however delicious it might be. It is usually considered inhuman to consume animals that are domesticated because it is expected that having spent time with these animals we should have a soft corner for them. That is why different societies, according to the pattern of domestication, have different norms for what flesh is considered and what flesh is not. This might be a reason why consuming beef is frowned upon in the Indian society.  Similarly, consuming the meat of animals that cause us harm like animals that destroy crops and carry diseases (rodents and insects) or live in filthy environments (insects, crows and even dogs in some parts of the world) is considered a social taboo. This is most probably due to the evolutionary instinct of our ancestors to avoid potentially rotten or disease causing flesh.

I would like to add that I do not agree with the oft-cited explanation that claims that all life is equal and hence, if we are fine with consuming the meat of one animal, we should be okay with consuming the meat of another. All life is not equal. If it were so, then, I can extend the logic to claim that cannibalism should also be accepted. But, most of us would find that idea absurd because, we as human beings, form emotional connections with other human beings and hence, the idea of consuming another person’s flesh is just appalling.

In conclusion, I believe that, like everything else in life, it is best if what one considers edible and inedible is left to that person. Of course, depending the prevalent conditions, society would come up with certain rules and it has the right to do so but, these rules should not be hard and fast. In other words, keep your eyes off of my plate.

 

To Beef or not to beef. Is that the question?

Here I am

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Why am I writing this blog? To be honest, I am trying to pick up all the thoughts, that have recklessly tumbled out of my head and pile them up in a neat stack. A stack that will stand as a proof of my usefulness. The thing is, I spend a little too much time meditating on such questions as “What is the purpose of my existence?“, “Does god exist?“, “Is time travel possible?“,”Is being a vegetarian moral?“, “Is homosexuality natural?“. Unfortunately, most of my thought endeavors, my pondering on such questions of debatable importance, fail to yield any tangible result and hence, I have often been accused of procrastinating. Though, I gracefully (some might say, shamelessly) accept the charges leveled against me, I am yet to understand why this act, which, I believe, is a symbol of human development, is met with such scorn by most people. After all, isn’t this what our ancestors worked so hard for? All the scientific breakthroughs and technological advancement, isn’t this what they were all supposed to lead to? A utopia where we could delve inside our minds and stay there as long as we wanted, walking trough the darkest of trails, hoping to find some light that might show the way to those who come after us.

Well, apparently that is not how the world works or so I am told, and so, my thoughts roam around looking for a safe refuge. To put it straight, this blog is a desperate attempt at offering legitimacy to “my thoughts”, little bastards borne of the unholy alliance of my brain and lots of free time.

This blog owes its existence to my special friends, who have indulged me and my ramblings. Future content, if there be any, would come from my conversations with these unfortunate souls. A special note of thanks to the person who inspired, nay, nagged me to write this blog. I have undertaken quite a few of the aforementioned endeavors with these friends and I believe, we have enlightened each other. Continue reading “Here I am”

Here I am