Flash Boys: A Wall Street RevoltFlash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt by Michael Lewis

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A great read for the view it offers into the world of high-tech trading and the complexity of modern financial markets. The ways in which modern technology has changed share-trading is really mind-blowing. But, the best thing is, a lay-man can get a top-level view of this world of big money and high-technology in a very entertaining and gripping read thanks to Michael Lewis.

Before reading the book, I never really understood what flash-trading was all about. I just thought that it was a faster way of processing market information and using it to make relatively risk-free trades that make money for the people who invest in the required computing power.

Given my understanding I really couldn’t grasp why the people engaged in this were viewed as villains and getting pulled-up by law-enforcement now and then.

But, as I read the book, I understood that what was happening was not quite so simple. The manner in which HFTs colluded with stock-exchanges to access information that was not yet available to others to make risk-less trades against actual investors was shocking.

In a normal trade both sides gain something. It is not a zero-sum game. But, HFT is presented as a tax on the movement of capital. This is over and above what is required to solve the problem of connecting a genuine buyer with a seller. Instead of “taxes” like this reducing with better technology, they are in fact made possible and allowed to do so much damage by the growing abilities of modern information processing and transmission systems.

This book documents how a bunch of guys got together to build an exchange that would give the right incentives to the intermediaries to put the interests of their customers first.

There is no excessive moralizing. Which is a huge plus! And I really liked the concept of “long-term greedy”. It is something I have believed in myself. The problem with selfishness is not the mere fact of its existence. But, the inability of people to fully understand what really is good for them in the long-term. Of course, this is an over-simplification. The point is this. You don’t have to really suffer any pain or deny yourself stuff to be of value to your society. If the system of incentives were set up in such a way that people were rewarded for the value of their work to society then people could do good merely by doing their jobs well and earning to their maximum potential.

But, when the reward system gets corrupted you can expect the guys who lack a sense of empathy to swoop in and exploit the loop-holes for their benefit at a great cost to the broader society.

Instead of focusing on individual failures of conscience, this book tries to analyse why the scalpers wound up doing what they do and the enabling environment. Also, there is quite a bit of back-ground on “front-running” and how this practice has evolved over the decades. The author clearly explains how this activity has had increasingly deleterious effects on the markets because of the technology used nowadays to implement this conceptually simple but ethically-fraught technique.

Also, another subtle but extremely important aspect of the author’s style is how he manages to convey the difference between visualizing a corporate entity as an evil and sentient being and a mere agglomeration of groups fighting pitched battles internally for survival and supremacy. Ultimately, all businesses are made up of human beings and they can never be entirely evil or completely generous.

He merely tries to point out how faulty incentives can mistakenly reward people within the businesses to put their short-term interests above everything else and thus allow/sanction the happening of bad things.

Overall, 4/5. It is a great book. But, not quite as gripping as The Big Short! Maybe it is unfair to give a lower rating merely because the author has written an even better book! But, I am a little biased that way

View all my reviews

Picking a travel destination

You are dead tired, each step feels heavy and labored, every single muscle in your body is making its presence felt, but, the destination is in sight and relief is just a few more kms away.

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This is the best part of any hike or trek or trip. There is isn’t any more danger or uncertainty. There is no fear that you might be unable to complete the trip without getting hurt. There is just a rising excitement from finally seeing the finishing line and a feeling of relief from the crushing fatigue. You start to smile and talk more and suddenly there is a spring in  your step.

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Once the main trek was done, we took a taxi to Dhankar where we stayed at the guest house attached to the monastery and relaxed for a day before the next trip.

Spiti Valley

After a week of trekking and sleeping in the rain and snow, being finally under a concrete roof in one of the most surreal landscapes in the world is a wonderful feeling. Sitting on a terrace attached to the coffee shop gazing out at the desolation and barren beauty of the Spiti-valley while pondering over things like the motivation of people who voluntarily chose this place as their home, feels different and strange.

Dhankar Monastery

Dhankar Monastery

We spent the morning hiking up to the Dhankar lake and then I and KP spent the rest of the day lazing about and eating tasty little treats and talking at the coffee shop.

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When I think of a place to travel to, it is only rarely that I try to see if that place is objectively beautiful or if the sights are “worth-it”. The first thing I think of when picking a place is about the things that could be done there. I think that by doing something or engaging with a place physically we will be able to better appreciate what it has to offer.

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I have heard many people talk about how great it would be to visit foreign countries or go on a whirl-wind tour of the famous tourist-spots of the world. When I hear that I always wonder what it is exactly one feels when standing in front of a tourist attraction. What is the happiness you get out of taking a picture of yourself in front of the Eiffer tower or some other such landmark? One can of course see anything online nowadays. When we imagine ourselves being happy in front of a particular sight have we ever wondered why we would be happy in that position? Is it just the beauty of the sight?

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A lonely flower

I have a strong feeling that it has to be more than that. Maybe, it is the break from the routine of daily life involved in getting to the said location. Maybe it is being there with your friends or family. Maybe it is the little surprises that happen on long trips…

When I look through these old photos, the pleasure I feel comes more from remembering how I felt like at the time than from the mere aesthetic appeal of the scenery that I have tried to capture with these images.

I once cycled up the Khardung-La pass in Ladakh and was deeply affected by the experience. Once the cycling expedition was finished I got myself into a group which was hiring a share-taxi to visit the Nubra valley through the same route. The second time I went through that route, I slept most of the way and the sights that had deeply moved me the first time failed to have the same impact as they whizzed past the window of our vehicle.

A sky so rare, the moon is visible at noon!

A sky so rare, the moon is visible at noon!

I realized then that the impact travel has on us is mostly a function of our own state of mind, our physical condition, the accessibility and uniqueness of the place, interaction with our travel partners and the activities we are engaged in. If one’s stated purpose for travelling is to collect different experiences and learn something new about oneself in that process, then, the “impressiveness” of any place or sight is of only secondary importance. The way we engage with that place has a bigger say in deciding how much we are able to take away from the whole exercise.

Is there something objectively great about a place that would make a trip there worth the while? I think this is an important question for someone interested in expanding their mind in whichever way possible.

So, the next time I plan a trip, I ought to spend more time thinking about what I can do there than on whether that place is “beautiful-enough” or not.

Cycling near Jog Falls

This was one trip that I had been planning to do for a long time. Cycling in the rain through the ghats!

A lot of my friends had promised to come this time around. But, unfortunately, when the day of the trip came many of them dropped out because of some reason or the other.

But, there were still 4 of us ready to go and at the last-minute I managed to convince Mahesh to come with us. He is a photography enthusiast and I was sure that the lush greenery of the ghats would be an absolute delight for him.

So, on Thursday night, after a lot of rushed running-about to get things ready for Mahesh too, we were finally on our way in the vehicle we had hired for the trip with the cycles on top. I was super-excited about this trip because it was the first time we were going to be cycling in nearly constant rain. I wanted to know what it would feel like.

We reached Sringeri at about 7 in the morning. As we expected, it was raining. As I stepped out of the van into the cold drizzle, I had a sudden moment of doubt. “Maybe”, I thought, “this was not such a great idea!”. But, it happens every time and I was already there. So, too late to turn back!

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It is hard to push yourself out into the rain and start cycling when it is so cold and wet!

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Cycling in constant rain is very different from pedaling on through the occasional drizzle. No matter what you wear, the water will eventually get through it. You will never feel hot or dry. The constant spray of water on your face makes you forget the effort of cycling and the fast pitter-patter sound of the rain against your helmet as you speed down an incline adds to the relief and excitement of the effortless speed!

One of the temples we visited near Sringeri

One of the temples we visited near Sringeri

Once you are soaked and on your way you never want to stop cycling except to catch your breath and enjoy the scenery around you. If you come out of the rain once and stay inactive for more than 15 mins then the chill will start getting to you and it becomes tough to start cycling again.

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Never stop, never take breaks, let the rain cool you down, wash your face and soothe your eyes. Rush against the rain drops while breathing in the wet, thick and clean air. After the congestion, smoke and dust of Bangalore, cycling through the rain-soaked, verdant countryside along the empty roads lining the Linganamakki reservoir was really soothing. The terrain with rolling ups and downs and occasional stretches of level road was never difficult. Every few kms we could catch a glimpse of the reservoir.

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Once we reached Talaguppa, we got onto the main highway and continued on our way to Jog falls. The roads were amazing. But, the inclines were starting to get longer and steeper. It was almost 5 in the evening by the time we reached Jog and settled down for a late meal.

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After eating and walking around the view-point(nothing much could be seen because of the heavy fog) we started again for Gundimane where we had arranged to stay for the night.

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It was a good 30 or so kms from the falls through a steep ghat-section.

The roads in the gathering dusk, soaked in the constant rain and lined with progressively thickening vegetation were an absolute marvel. I was starting to get slightly worried as we were a little behind on our schedule. The last 6 kms to the homestay were through unmarked and unpaved roads that went through the forest. Once the light waned it would be difficult to spot the boards and there was also the risk of encountering wild animals to be considered.

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After some harried pedaling, we reached the turn off point towards Gundimane, marked by a police station. The policemen there seemed a little worried about us going through on our cycles. They asked us to be careful and cycle fast.

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The rest of the ride was through the forest and it was very different from anything we had done until then. The weakening sun was subdued further by the towering trees on both sides. The rain fell in big heavy drops from the leaves above us and we pedaled with gathering urgency as the sounds of the forest started becoming louder and louder.

It was with a sense of relief that we came upon the board marking the gate towards the estate. As we rolled into the courtyard, we saw that our hosts for the night were waiting for us. We dumped out cycles outside and rushed in.

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After having a hot tea, we all had a nice hot bath and settled down to discuss our ride as our dinner was getting ready. I was so terribly cold that I was having fits of shivering every now and then. It was only after dinner that I felt comfortable again.

We spent the next morning lazing around at Gundimane before leaving the place.

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What a day it had been!

Ride to Sirsi

Compared to the first day, the second day’s ride from Jog to Sirsi was pretty easy. But, I think that was a good thing. The ride through the countryside in the fresh air on easy terrain was, I felt, very therapeutic.We stopped now and then to eat the snacks we had bought along and chat. Our colleague Krishnamurthi had arranged for our stay, a hotel there and the night’s stay there was very comfortable. The highlight of the second day was the dinner at Krishnamurthy’s place. His whole extended family was there to celebrate Ganesh Chathurthi and they had prepared an awesome feast for us with many sweets and savories that I had never even tasted before.

The next day, we again went to his estate and he showed us around the whole place. Of particular interest to us was the apiculture he practised on his farm.

DSC_9922He showed us many of the hives and explained how he took care of them and the techniques required to get good quality flavor-rich honey from his bees. It was fascinating!

DSC_0030 copyAnother wonderful sight for us was the private waterfall he had on his farm which drained into a river that meandered through the middle of his land. It was simply mind-blowing.

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After seeing all that, we said bye to him and started for bangalore.

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We had our parting dinner at Bangalore.

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All in all an amazing trip! The only thing that could have been better was if more of our friends had turned up. Seeing and experiencing all those things together would have been so much more fun!

Krishnamurthy showing us around his farm

Krishnamurthy showing us around his farm

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Now, when I get fed up of the dust and congestion of Bangalore, for a bit of relief, I look through these pictures of rain-drenched Shimoga and replay in my mind the two days of cycling we did there…

P.S. All photos credits belong to Mahesh. My camera died after the trip because of too much exposure to the rain.

Cycling from Bandipur to Ooty

This was my second cycling trip with my friends from office. Last time we had gone to Chikmagalur. We started cycling from Jayapura. The route we took was Jayapura- Horanadu – Kalasa – Kuderemukh – Hanumanhundi Falls – SK Border – Sringeri. Most of the guys who were there last-time were there this time too.

This time, we cycled from Bandipur to Ooty via the Kalhatty Ghat. We reached Bandipur by about 7 in the morning. It took 1 hr to get all the cycles ready. As the cycles were getting ready, the first-timers were given a quick talk on how to use the gears effectively.

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Finally, everyone is ready with their cycles.

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The ride through the forest was one of the most enjoyable parts of the trip.

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It was still cool and pleasant and there were so many animals all along the side of the road.

The ride was a short one. 20-30kms. After which we reached Masinagudi. Before starting to cycle we had all had a milk-shake from the CCD at the entrance to Bandipur. After the cycling through the reserve everyone had worked up a healthy appetite.

I just went absolutely crazy during breakfast. I had some 4 double omelettes, 3-4 Dosas and somewhere around 5 teas.

The “Killer – Kalhatty” climb was on top of all our minds. So, I decided to stock up on as much energy as possible. After lazing around a bit, we all started cycling again. After some 10 kms we reached the start of the climb.

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From that point, there were 36 hair-pin bends that needed to be covered to reach the elevation of Ooty. It was one of the most relentlessly steep roads that most of us had ever seen.

23-IMG_0214Of course, I had seen much worse! After all I had climbed from 3500 mtrs to 5650 mtrs to reach the mighty Khardun-La in Ladakh on cycle(I like to occasionally toot my own horn, sorry!).

There were boards at every hair-pin bend counting down from 36.By the time we covered the first few hair pin bends, the Sun had started to bear down upon us harshly. By around 12 it had become so mind-numbingly hot that I could see the water vapor rise from my exposed arms. The heat was making it hard to focus and pedal on.

By the time I finished 30 per cent of the climb I had finished my bottle of water. From then on, it was stopping now and then to get water from vehicles coming down the road.

I must have gone through at least 5 liters of water in the time it took me to reach the halfway point which is marked by a tea-shop. I think it was situated just before bend number 16.

By the time I reached there the support vehicle with a couple of guys who had decided to not continue cycling because of some problem with the gears was already there. Raghu had also reached there before me.

I walked into the shop, got a bottle of cold water, and finished it off in one long gulp. Then I had a couple of teas and decided to lie down till the others caught up. In any case, I decided that I was going to cycle again, only after the Sun let up a little. I then had the idea of asking one of the cars passing by on their way down to carry water bottles for the guys climbing up.

When they eventually showed up, they told me that the water was a big relief for them in the heat!

After the Sun had let up, everyone started cycling again. After a while I too started. The bends started coming faster. Also, the climb became steeper. Towards the end there was an especially steep and seemingly-unending climb. I had decided before-hand itself that I wouldn’t push my cycle for even 10 cms.

When jumping up from the bench on which I was sleeping on at the tea shop, some muscle in my hip had suddenly started to cramp. I had ignored it then. But, now it was starting to act up.

So, I cycled in a zigzag manner to reduce the amount of force I needed to put down on the pedals to allow my legs to relax and feel loose again.

Finally, after a satisfyingly-tough last climb, I started my descent to Ooty. When I got to the police check-post I found Raghu sitting there. We went and had some tea and home-made chocolates and then started to cycle to the YWCA guest-house were stay and dinner had been arranged for the night.

We got there just in time to order dinner for the night. By the time we got the keys to the rooms the rest of the guys except Shailesh had arrived by the support vehicle. Some of them had managed to cycle almost 90 per cent of the way up, but had to stop because it was getting too late.

Shailesh arrived an hour later, just when we were starting to go out to look for him. He had lost his way in the town and had to wander about quite a bit as a result.

The stay was one of the high-points of the trip. Each room was a suite and we had taken a cottage for all of us.

29-IMG_0232The YWCA dining hall was a pleasant and welcoming place and we really enjoyed our dinner there.

Ooty to Kodanad View Point

37-IMG_0248After a hot-water bath and a comfortable night’s sleep and rest, we woke up feeling refreshed the next day.

31-IMG_0237After one more “super-charger” break-fast we were ready to start cycling.

The Kodanad view-point is around 40 kms from Ooty.. The weather was cool, the roads were amazing and there were plenty of tree-lined downhill sections with winding roads and amazing scenery.

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48-IMG_0269After spending some time at the view point we started on our way back to Bangalore.

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This was my second time cycling with my friends from office. Being together with people you see everyday in office in such a different environment, doing something completely unrelated to work allows you to see everyone in a different light. I felt that everyone learned something new about their colleagues and that I think is a very important part of what makes trips like this so much fun!

52-IMG_0275Anyway, I am already looking forward to going out with my friends again for our next cycling trip!

Rant against The Righteous Mind

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and ReligionThe Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Recently, I got to read The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt. I was disappointed by the general quality of the book, the style of reasoning and the somewhat surprising conclusions the author draws from them.

Somewhere in the middle of the book, he discusses the type of people he thinks are more susceptible to liberal ideas. As examples he takes great thinkers like Immanuel Kant, David Hume and John Stuart Mill.

He says in the book that the liberal thinkers among them tended to be recluses with some anti-social tendencies.
In order to support this somewhat strange point of his he talks about how these people had few friends, had odd routines and about their dysfunctional or somewhat abnormal personal relations.

He then goes on to analyse the liberal thinkers'(John S Mill and Kant) personalities in light of his interesting Moral Foundations Theory that posits that the human moral system is founded on a few basic concepts that supposedly have their roots in basic human psychology.

According to this theory, these foundations are :-

  1. Care/Harm foundation
  2. Justice/Fairness
  3. Sanctity/Purity
  4. Loyalty
  5. Respect of authority

He thinks that conservatives and conservative thinkers depend on all these foundations “evenly”(whatever that is supposed to mean!) to make moral decisions. Whereas, liberals depend overwhelmingly on the first two to make their moral choices.

At this point the book starts to get really weird. He says that the moral foundations are like taste buds and that moral systems exhibit so much diversity because of the infinite ways in which these “tastes” can be combined to create “cuisines”.

Then, he jumps from this to his follow-on conclusion that because liberals depend on fewer “tastes” to stimulate their moral sensibilities they are less broad-minded than conservatives!! (WTF moment!) Please read the above sentence once more. I wanted to make it all caps. Because, that is how it appeared to me when I read it. It was like a giant big flashing red sign telling me that somewhere something went horribly wrong….

Hmmm…. So, turns out conservatives are more broad-minded when compared to liberals because they crave for and appreciate a more “varied (moral) diet”.

So, the liberal thinkers who made such astounding and paradigm changing contributions to human welfare by suggesting ways of removing fundamental blocks to it in our law, social and political organization and personal behavior and who have had a fundamental impact on our collective well- being in addition to providing the basic concepts that underpin the most sophisticated, peaceful and developed social systems in the world are apparently narrow-minded people because they don’t have as many moral taste-buds!! hahaha

He bolsters his case by talking about how Kant was such a loner and a strange character. He then comes up with a clever experiment. He rates people on a spectrum of qualities at the far end of which lies characteristics that indicate possible autism. He then measures the degree to which their attitudes are liberal and discovers that people who tend more towards autistic qualities are more liberal than the “normal” people.

There is a hidden implication here. The overall point of all these specious arguments, cherry-picking of facts and flawed experiments is to somehow justify his apparent “enlightenment”(more on that later) and awakening to the value of conservatism and his unstated conclusion that liberal attitudes don’t fit with “human-nature”(TM).

This is wrong on so many levels that one feels a little pity for this dude for having spent so much time on confusing himself so thoroughly. It might be true that loners who don’t spend as much time partying and hanging out with friends are more liberal. But, did he ask why? Is it because there are some neurological differences in their brains that make them susceptible to moral deviances and deficiencies or is there something about the typical lifestyle of such a person that causes them to dump conservatism?

Isn’t it likely that people with a scholarly personality will be reading a lot more stuff, spending more time thinking about things and observing others from a distance? Isn’t it possible that the consequent higher level of intellectual development and detached perspective is what causes them to realize that the purpose of human morals is human well-being and not “tasty moral cuisines”(hahaha, what a stupid fucking idea!!) and causes them to be economical with moral principles that make them more judgmental?

Extending this line of reasoning, isn’t it possible that the differences in attitudes of “normal” people and liberals might not be caused primarily by their personalities. That might be only a distal cause. The proximal cause might be the kind of universalist thinking and hunger for other perspectives that reading and thinking can generate in a person. So, if “normal” people with 10s of girlfriends and 1000s of Facebook friends and a party schedule that is limited by his/her liver capacity were somehow encouraged to read and think a lot what would happen?

He never asks these kinds of questions. Instead he just says that Kant and Mill were probably a little weird. But, he is careful to point out that he doesn’t hold that against their conclusions. That would be an ad-hominem attack. And that would be wrong(tut-tut). But… you get the idea! If you are a liberal, you are probably an odd-ball who doesn’t have many friends and is going to get divorced.

Again, he doesn’t fully explore this line of thinking. He just casts aspersions on some great thinkers, makes a half-hearted attempt at ameliorating the rape of logic and then leaves it at that, leaving the reader to fume and rage over it. So, let us examine the conservative thinkers then!

Let us look at the Popes, all the amazing Pastors, God-men, catholic-priests, saints, religious thinkers and conservative philosophers. Let us look at how successful their marriages were and how many friends they had and how few children they abused and how few women they have tortured and killed and how well they can dance the Salsa! Let us do that and see how they stack up against Kant and Mill. If you do that you will also conclude that what the author had was probably not an “enlightenment”.

Equivalence of moral systems

Since all moral systems are basically just a random combination of his moral foundations, all of them are according to him about equivalent. He never makes an attempt to see if the moral systems are tied to social conditions, economic and technological development and average levels of violence and strife in the society. He never tries to discern the overall drift of all moral systems and in which direction they are all headed.

He fails to appreciate the fact that the greatest advances in human happiness were caused by the abolition of slavery, feminism, recognition of child rights, secularism, democracy, rise of individualism and science – all of which are liberal concepts. These are also things that are spreading the world-over and which most societies are striving-for with higher levels of economic development acting as a symbiotic agent. What is happening here is not the rejection of 3/5ths of human morality(as the author would have us believe).

It is a growing realization that the first two moral foundations have the veto over the other ones.

You should not respect authority that asks you to rape and kill.

You should not be loyal to your teammates to the point that you don’t mind their cruelty to others.

You should not be so obedient that you will go out and kill someone if your dad asks you to.

You should not beat your kids because your religious text asks you to.

You should not abuse your spouse because he/she is not traditional or obedient.

Our moral feelings have a survival value. But, they are also open to exploitation and erroneous firing. The only way to protect ourselves against our own survival instincts is by recognizing the primacy of reason and justice.

He talks about how in India, the unit of social organization is the family and community and how that is so prevalent in most parts of the world(he doesn’t mention that most of those parts are also seriously underdeveloped) as compared to western individualism which is sort of rare(but kind of common in all the developed countries). He doesn’t write much about how women and children suffer under these social systems, how the country has been crippled by casteism and communal thinking and how the idea of sanctity and tradition has atrophied the intellectual growth and cultural renewal of our country.

He doesn’t make a single attempt at trying to answer one critical question. What is the fucking purpose of morals!!?? In your mind you are always thinking, “Please, please answer that!” If you read his book the idea you get is that morals are supposed to be complex and tasty and that liberal morals are just plain boring.

Morality as an end in itself

The author claims that he was a liberal who was suddenly “enlightened” and came to the realization that he was superior to both liberals and conservatives. He gives his acceptance of the moral equivalence of both attitudes as a proof for it.

But, does he say anything to convince us of this equivalence. He narrates some anecdotal incidents which alternately show the folly of both liberal and conservative solutions for particular problems. So, he goes like, “Yeah, so, you see, both liberals and conservatives are occasionally wrong and here I am like a wise old grand-dad watching the little kids squabble over gay-rights and freedom-of-speech. Tch-tch, if only they just sat back and enjoyed each other’s moral cuisines!”. And you feel like punching him in his face for being such a pretentious little prick.

Liberals are only 2/5ths as moral as conservatives

What he fails to analyse in detail is the relative priority of the foundations. Liberals don’t let the last 3 foundations effect their judgement if it contradicts the first 2. This does not mean that they are disloyal, indecent or disrespectful. It simply means that they appreciate that things are not black and white and that at times they will need to go against authority, appear indecent and break away from their groups if that is what is required to be just and compassionate. In short, their morals might be more subtle and complex than it is given credit for in the book.

It is not like liberals don’t like football or other such team sports which are so enjoyable mainly because of the team-spirit and cohesion it creates in the players.

It does not mean that they randomly break laws. Science is considered to be one of the most disciplined professions.

It does not mean that they are incapable of learning from the past or respecting tradition. After all, the most famous liberals are also some of the most erudite people.

So, when he says that conservatives are broad-minded because they consider all foundations on an equal footing, I think that he has got it ass-side-up.

Science and reason fail to appreciate the moral complexity of humans?

He routinely drops lines like, “yeah, so scientists have failed” and “rationality has failed at grasping human nature” etc. etc.. And you are like, “How did this guy get a PhD!?”.

The fundamental idea of science is that humans are fallible and that their individual judgements are of limited value when trying to ascertain facts and truths and coming up with theories to account for them. Science is precisely the solution to the vagaries of human cognition. And whatever our failings, we have to give ourselves credit for coming up with something that has worked so well!

Now, here is this guy saying that science, logic and reason doesn’t work for clarifying moral dilemmas because people just “know” that some things are wrong! They can’t give reasons for it. Obviously, you too think that they are wrong! And you can’t give reasons for it. So, hence we can prove that reasons are useless when it comes to morals.

He fails to appreciate that you can find somethings distasteful but don’t see the need for it to be banned for others or for it to be made an offense that is punishable. What you like or don’t like is different from what you consider to be morally wrong.

Liberals have a ready standard for separating what is wrong from what is merely distasteful. For example, if I were asked his “trick” question,” Is it ok to have sex with your dead chicken before eating it?”. I would probably be shocked for a second thinking why anyone would want to do that. Then, I would instantly say no. Then I would think about it for a bit more and then say, “Hey, I can’t see why you would want to do it. But, I don’t think it is a wrong thing. So, no one should stop you from doing it.”

Now, he says that some people would just say no to it. It is easy to see why. It is obviously a disgusting thing for some people, myself included. So, I can be forgiven if I just say no to it. If I think like that I am probably a conservative. But, nothing has been proved here, mind you. Reason has not been defeated here. What has been proved here is that some people don’t want to follow the lines of reasoning to their logical conclusion and are quite satisfied with giving an answer from their gut.

What he is hoping for here is that people will get confused by his own muddled thinking and conclude that reason is useless when it comes to deciding what is morally wrong and what isn’t.

If he thinks that people just know some things to be wrong regardless of their conditioning or social or intellectual background, then maybe he should have asked this question to jews and muslims.

“Hey, what do you think of me cutting-off a piece of my newborn baby’s penis(circumcision)?”. They would say, “Great Idea! Do you want me to do it?”. But, a mother who has never heard of this practice will probably take a shotgun and take off your head with it if you went anywhere near her baby’s penis with a knife.

So, as you can see, exposure and culture are strong factors in deciding what people consider right and wrong. This might not be anything innate. And it certainly doesn’t prove that reason can’t help refine social practices. For example, circumcision is just plain silliness. Female circumcision is nothing short of a crime against an innocent child. Yet, many conservatives intuitively “know” it to be the right thing to do. People who refuse to consider justice and harm to an innocent child over tradition, sanctity and deference to authority cannot be placed on a level with people who consider fairness and compassion to be of primary importance.

More on his “experiments with disgusting questions”

His experiments with these questions are just plain retarded. If I were asked whether I would want to eat the shit of a particular civet which has been fed coffee beans(Kopi Luwak), I would say no to it. Because, I am not used to it. Now, there are people who pay thousands of dollars for this thing because it is a delicacy.

So, you can see that I don’t want to consume it. But, if it were safe for human consumption, I wouldn’t support any motion to get it banned.

Just like that some actions might not be agreeable to me. But, I will not have them banned for everyone.

But, conservatives don’t want anyone to do the things they think are wrong and the things they consider to be wrong are determined more by dogma and tradition than by reason. And this is where the problem lies. He doesn’t address this issue at all in the book.

In fact, he goes one step further and aggravates the problem further by seeking to justify this kind of insular thinking by attributing such feelings to certain moral foundations. He says, “See this is why people think that way. It is human nature.”.

“Yeah, so what? “. Racism is human nature too. Violence is human nature. Rape is human nature. Murder is human nature. Theft is human nature. Stupidity is human nature. What exactly does that prove? These tendencies might have evolved in response to certain factors in the pre-historic environment of our ancestors. But, that doesn’t justify anything. And, we are certainly capable of recognising these tendencies for what they are. Unacceptable manifestations of primal instincts that need to controlled at any cost. Except maybe murder which is ok during war( I am not sure, actually, about this).

The moral foundations theory doesn’t make social conservatism appealing. It merely explains it in a slightly different and I must add, dumbed-down/scientifically shallow way.

Polarization of political debates

This is the only part that you can read without getting a headache. But, this idea has been dealt with by many other authors and I didn’t think that this book’s treatment of the problem of growing polarization and partisanship in politics was in any way extraordinary.

His ideas on how common ground can be found between people of opposing view points and on the art of convincing people are interesting, but they are neither original nor exceptionally well-presented.

There is a very strong correlation between liberalism and factors like scientific aptitude, awareness and erudition. Social conservatism thrives in an environment that dulls the above factors. What this book has done is merely explain what is already known about this phenomenon in terms of fundamental human tendencies along with claiming that social conservatism is fine because it is human nature.

Well, the real question that one is left with after reading the book is……..

“Am I a narrow-minded liberal or a broad-minded conservative!?”

View all my reviews

Some fun under the Sun

We had thought that the difficult part of the trek was over. I was preparing myself for an easy walk through the Spiti Valley.

Before starting I asked the guide how much time it would take for us to reach Mudh He haw..hummed for a few mins and said that 3 hours ought to be enough. Well, I looked around.

All I could see was an endless desert hemmed in on all sides by mountains with a river flowing through a deep gash in the valley.

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We started off on our “short trek”.

The Sun started growing in intensity in the sky. The air was thin and dry and utterly devoid of moisture.

The trail was initially strewn with a lot of rocks.

We kept walking….

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and walking…

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and walking. The Sun was now at its prime in the noontime sky and beat down on us mercilessly. We came across a rushing stream that was unexpectedly deep and rapid.

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We walked a few kms towards the mountains until we found a glacier and walked across it.

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By the time we reached a meadow in the afternoon and plopped down on the soft wet grass for a bite to eat, we were pretty hungry and thirsty.

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I took of my shoes and walked on the soft grass while wallowing in memories of the greenery of Kinnaur and the shade of the trees on the other side of the mountains.

After eating and sitting around looking at the flocks of sheep grazing around us I asked our guide how much more of our “easy trek” was remaining. I wasn’t surprised when he told me 3 hours again. I stuffed my legs into my dry hard shoes again and we all started once more on the dusty trail.

It seemed liked we were walking on Mars or at least somewhere that was not on earth.

The barren land, the mountains bearing the tear marks of glaciers with their strange mineral-derived colors, the gorge in the valley that stretched far into the distance and the trail winding and weaving its way along the side of the mountains.

We kept walking…

I fell into a rhythm. My breathing, my steps my gaze and my thoughts all fell into lock-step. I am a guy who enjoys movement and the continuous rhythmic motion was deeply soothing for me.

By afternoon, signs of civilization started appearing. Pieces of smooth stone with prayers inscribed on them, artificial ponds, farms and electric poles in the distance.

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Finally, we could see the village of Mudh in the distance. Nestled in a crook in the mountains, flanked on both sides by glaciers and standing like a sentinel over the lush green paddy fields under it. It was a pleasing sight.

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After a final trek up the slopes towards the village along stone paths cutting a way through the fields we got into the village and then into a small tea-shop.

I kept drinking water until I suddenly started sweating profusely. After sitting down I had fresh omelettes and tea until I felt the haze start to lift from my mind and felt alert and active again.

We got into the hired vehicle which would take us to Dhankar where we would be halting for the night. But, not before we saw a couple of monasteries along the way.

After a week of sleeping inside a sleeping bag in a tent, the hostel attached to the Dhankar monastery was a pleasant change.

No big treks for the next 2 days! But, going over the plans inside my head, I had a feeling that things were going to be no less exciting…

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