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

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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!?”

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The God DelusionThe God Delusion by Richard Dawkins
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A brutal and unforgiving analysis of everything related to faith with illuminating discussions on the possibilities of freedom from it. The book starts with what exactly faith is, what it does for us, what it can make possible and then goes on to discuss why the possible benefits of faith are small and easily managed-without while the potential problems are huge and dangerous. It contains a satisfying discussion of atheism and agnosticism and is generally considered to be recommended reading for anyone interested in free-thought and skepticism.
I would have given it 5 stars. But I felt that the book should have more thoroughly dealt with the humanitarian activities of religious bodies, the kind of benefits they have delivered for our society and the price of those gains.
A lot of religious people tend to find solace and justification for mistaken beliefs in the apparent goodness of faith-based charities. The long-term impact of such bodies and the ignoring of secular systems that help the underprivileged that it causes need to be dealt with in a book that seeks to comprehensively disprove the notion that religions are good.

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Second hand books

I had gone to MG Road on Saturday for a meet-up of the Bangalore Writing Club. After the meeting and some chit-chat at a CCD nearby I decided to roam around for a while.

While I was looking around I found a shop that sold second-hand books. I went in and bought a few books. They were all in very good condition and considerably cheaper than new copies.

These are the books I bought:

Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad

Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence

Faust (Part 1) by Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe

The Best of R.K. Laxman

The Island of Dr.Moreau by H.G.Wells

Pygmalion and Major Barbara by George Bernard Shaw

Un-read books are piling up in my cubicle now. My propensity for buying new books is getting ahead of my ability to finish reading them. Must make my reading more vigorous!

I was told one more time by a friend who called me day before yesterday that I spout a lot of gyan and that I keep on changing it from time to time. When I thought about it, I realized that it was true.

When I was ruminating on it I remembered a wonderful book called  Gora by Rabindranath Tagore that  I had read a long time back. The main character Gora is a man of quick action, deep and clear convictions, impressive powers of persuasion and a capacity for tremendous pain in the service of the causes he believes in. When you see that the weird name is a sort of anagram of Tagore you are left wondering whether Tagore is trying to convey something about himself. Like Tolstoy did with War and Peace…

As the story slowly unfolds, Gora has to countenance the purging of the most foundational precepts that guided his life one after the other. But, the changes do not dishearten him nor do they truly break his spirit. One would think that a wo/man is the sum of the opinions s/he holds and that changing them is the sign of a weak mind. But the book tells the story of a man whose character transcends mere opinions.

Any one reading the book can easily see that what is unique about him is not just what he says or does at any particular point in time. But, it is the way he says and does those things that makes him special.

I really liked the character because his confidence was not predicated on his infallibility or the intransigence of his principles. Only a fool would think that any one would achieve anything of any value without making mistakes. His self-assured personality was born out of his readiness to take a risk and walk-his-talk.

I have seen a lot of people who would rather sit around and criticize than go out, make some mistakes and walk back proudly with the results of their experiments. You will never know anything with certainity. But using that as an excuse for inaction is a sure shot recipe for mediocrity. Which of course is a bad thing only if one thinks it is.

Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer

I had read this book a long time back and I thoroughly enjoyed it then. Recently, an especially striking part of it resurfaced in my mind. Since no one was prepared to endure a verbal explication of my thoughts I decided to put it down here.

Memory as the foundation of intelligence

There was a part of the book which resonated deeply with me. By the time we reach adulthood, there is not a single cell in our body which we had when we were a child. The meaning of this was shocking to me. Just imagine, my whole person has been materially replaced. But, still, there is something about the new person which follows from the child I once was. There is a continuum of existence, of experience, of thought and consciousness. I feel a deep connection with that child and I believe I am him despite not possessing his body. What is responsible for this phenomenon. There is something that permeates us and links us through time and changing biology. It is memory. That web of experiences, emotions, thoughts and memories that will mark me as unique and make me feel like I have some value, make me feel that despite all my failings, I am someone special. That is the magic of being able to recollect.

It marks time and adds life to existence. It makes one feel that he/she has lived for 10  or 80 yrs. It follows from this that if I wanted to feel myself, by which I mean my personality, my character, my uniqueness more strongly, then it is imperative that that web of experience be made denser and more extensive. Only when we learn to embrace experience and feel emotions strongly do we get to feel the intensity of the life that we are in possession of.

I know it sounds like sugary philosophy. But, this is something I had already realized. This was what sparked my passion for traveling, reading, cycling, weight-lifting etc.. I realized that being a grown-up is not about being “in-control”, being cynical, or being difficult to excite. It is not about having a routine. Settling-down is not what defines it. It is about realizing that we now have the power to make things happen and at the same time remembering the things we wanted as a child. To use our enhanced ability to satisfy the child in us and to keep that spirit alive. To never forget our most ardent desires and to always have the energy to go out and fulfill them.

If every day were the same then there wouldn’t be anything special about living for a long time. The “length of life” is something that should be measured not in time but in-depth and breadth of experience.

When we have lived life, it adds a certain color, dynamism and intensity to our character, I think. It makes a person seem intelligent and attracts people to him/her. A collection of memories can help us assimilate more things. It is a case of more knowledge leading to even more rapid acquisition of knowledge.

I really enjoyed that book. There are a lot more things in it that are worth thinking about when you have the time for it. I came across the author while reading a piece about Conlanging on the New York Review by him. I liked his style of clustering ideas and concepts around his personal experience as he gets intimate with the subject. This led me to the book and I am thankful for it. Hope you guys too enjoy the book and let me know about your thoughts on it…

Walden by Henry David Thoreau

Its been a while since I posted something and it is definitely not because of a lack of interesting things to write about. The pace of my life is increasing and exciting things are happening all the time! In the midst of all this it is becoming increasingly difficult to find time to indulge my oldest passion, reading books.

I heard about this book while reading about Christopher Mc Candless a.k.a Super Tramp on whose life and death, the movie Into the Wild is based. The book describes the author’s experience with staying in the woods, relatively insulated from civilization and people, fending for himself and living by the barest means possible. It was a book which deeply resonated with me.

Living in the wild with little separating us from the elements which shaped and sculpted us. Without all the ceremony, pomp and wasteful superficiality of society. Time that would have been wasted on going through the tedium of the every day life of an average guy devoted to study of books, nature and self.

The whole book actually poses just a very simple question. What is it that you really want from this life? Are all the things that you are doing right now really helping you achieve those aims? Aren’t we a little too distracted by the toys and trinkets that society dangles in our faces to realize that the price being paid for them is the pursuit of a deeper and more self-contained contentment? Do we attach enough value to self-cultivation and independent thought?

There is one whole chapter dedicated to Solitude and I simply adored it! When we are among friends or in a crowd we tend to think and act in a particular way. But, those same guys when left alone tend to become altogether different people. I have always thought that one must not restrict oneself to only one mode of thinking.

On the whole I found the book to be highly stimulating and thought-provoking. Also, the language of the book creates a strong impression of scholarship and erudition. This is not at all surprising considering the deep and varied reading of the author.

Of course, I did not completely agree with all the things in the book. But, I could see that the truth of the writing depended on the person reading it.

I am someone who believes that we as a species and as members of a terrifyingly lonely system of life in this vast universe have a duty to dream big and work towards a greater destiny than simple self-satisfaction and inward reflection. We need to work as a team for a future that will thank us for our efforts. I started getting these ideas after reading more books on popular science, especially those by Carl Sagan. What is the approach that most makes sense? Feel free to share your thoughts here!