To laugh often and much; To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; To earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; To appreciate beauty, to find the best in others; To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child , a garden patch, or a redeemed condition; To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.
- Ralph Waldo Emerson

Friday, August 19, 2022

Empathy vs. Compassion

I've been quite a bit intrigued at times when certain persons are perceived as insensitive or even apathetic, even when they seem to be doing reasonably well helping the people or causes they're accused of being apathetic to.

Listening to the book 'Humankind' (an excellent ode to positivity, which takes apart all the negative 'tenets' we go by) by Rutger Bregman, the portion in the Epilogue dealing with compassion, clarified the issue a lot. 

The author says that, to really be able to help others, people need to be more compassionate, not necessarily (or not just) more empathetic.  This is supported with evidence from a scientific study of people's brains being scanned while they were told to consciously experience empathy and then compassion about a certain situation - it was reported that different areas of the brain 'lit up' in the two cases.

The author gives the example of a child who's afraid of the dark - to help the child, the parent or caregiver does not cower in a corner thinking about the causes of the fear (empathy), but instead feels for the child and soothes him/her with comforting behaviour (compassion).

It seems to me that people displaying compassionate behaviour have to retain a level of reasoning in their mind, to be able to formulate responses and actions to help out, and that may be why they're perceived as 'dispassionate' and thus 'devoid of feeling', not being able to balance 'thinking' and 'feeling' to the degree possible for the more voluble (who may be perceived as more empathetic but may or may not be more compassionate).

Added to this is the factor that compassionate behaviour may be more 'action-oriented', while empathetic behaviour can be more expressive (verbally or otherwise).  And we all know that the old adage of 'Actions speak louder than words' has been turned on its head in the current age of 'in your face' behaviour and microsecond attention spans where, for instance, love has to be expressed in words rather than just conveyed through gestures and actions.

Which is probably why people with genuine compassion, who may actually act on their feelings of empathy by helping through their actions, may be unfairly characterised as unsympathetic.

Sunday, May 15, 2022

Fungibility in Nature

Had an epiphany of sorts, during my daily morning readings today.  (Nothing groundbreaking, and may look too simplistic to some.)

Being a finance person, I've been aware of the concept of fungibility since a few years now.  Basically, as I understand it, fungibility means that any random unit of a certain thing is exactly equal in value to any other random unit.  Money is the most common thing described as fungible, since a note or coin of, say, ten rupees is exactly equal in value to any other of ten rupees.  (This doesn't consider the practices of collectors, who fondly collect notes or, more typically, coins of a certain vintage, which actually gain in value over time, regardless of their underlying value which the Governor of Reserve Bank of India "Promise(s) to pay the bearer...' as printed on the note!)

The concept of fungibility has further come into prominence in recent years in the digital realm, specifically in the context of digital 'currencies' (recognised vor not) and 'tokens'.  Technically, all digital 'currencies' like Bitcoin and Ethereum are what is known as 'tokens', and one unit of, say, Bitcoin floating around anywhere in cyberspace is supposed to be equal in value to any other unit of Bitcoin stored or traded anywhere else, the value itself being arrived at through a complicated process, not relevant for our discussion here.  On the other side are NFTs, or Non Fungible Tokens.  These are supposed to be unique, typically representing something in real world, for instance a shoe or a song or a photo, usually with some unique identifier.  As such, these are 'non fungible', that is, no two units of the specific token is an exact substitute of any other.

Coming back to our core discussion after this lengthy detour, wouldn't it be helpful if we could consider our relationships with others also as 'fungible'?  Say, someone could have slighted us or even harmed us in some way in the past.  Typically, we carry around that hurt for years, sometimes our while life, even as we may realise that this actually harms us only and possibly restrains our development, without the object of our hate being even aware of it.  In such a scenario, couldn't we instead think back to the behaviour of another person who would've done us some good (and, if we think sincerely, most of us can surely find a person or persons to whom we should be grateful to).  

So, if we follow the concept of fungibility, can't we treat the behaviour of our do-gooder as an exact substitute for that of our supposed 'enemy'? (This may also be in line with the traditional Indian ethos of वसुधैव कुटुंबकम् or 'the world is our family'.) Once we're able to do that, we should be on our way to release the negative energy trapped in our feelings of hurt, letting our psyche fly higher to the realm of wholesomeness.

This could possibly also be applied to our own behaviour towards others.  But perhaps that's another discussion.

Something to think about...

Friday, May 06, 2022

Concepts of Freedom and Property in Mediaeval Europe

David Wengrow and the late David Graeber, 'spiritual father' of the Occupy Wall Street movement, co-wrote a wonderful critique of European-dominated narrative of world history, 'The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity'.  Their attempt is to stand on its head the self-important 'history written by victors', parts of which are anyway being debunked all around as formerly subjugated countries pull off the yoke of European economic colonialism, decades after political colonialism went out of fashion.

One of the themes tackled by the authors is that of European 'Renaissance' of the 17-18th century, heavily 'publicised' as a home grown effort.  With copious references to books of French Jesuit priests who arrived in North America with the invaders, putting forth detailed accounts of their interactions with indigenous American thinkers (including the legendary Wendat leader Kandiaronk, whose thoughts were popularised in books written by an itinerant French writer, in the style of dialogues with a 'noble savage', a construct which was catching on at that time), the authors comprehensively prove that much of the ideas underlying the Renaissance were actually absorbed from such interactions, and did not in fact sprout spontaneously in European minds.

On the subject of individual freedom and liberty in the specific context of property rights, the authors extensively quote the 18th century French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau.  He is shown to be heavily influenced by the then prevailing 'dialogues' floating about in European societies in various forms, including in the form of dramas, based on the same indigenous American thoughts.

In this context, a particular thought of Rousseau which is quoted throws light on how the concept of individual freedoms evolved in European cultures, as opposed to the completely different, much more egalitarian and compassionate path and bedrock of indigenous American philosophy.  Some excerpts may help:

On a slightly different note, not connected to the authors' arguments, the above perhaps puts in a bit of context a slightly puzzling feeling many people of cultures other than European have carried for years and years: namely, as to why people (or at least politicians) of European-descended cultures talk so much about liberty, equality, freedom and compassion (thoughts which may come naturally to people of some other cultures) while doing their level best to deny and snatch away those very things from others, earlier openly in the colonial era, and of late camouflaged behind veneers of free trade (read: economic dominance) and enforcement of 'rule based order' (read: war and other forms of aggression, driven by arms industry lobbies).

The reason for this dichotomy and holy talk may lie in the fact that in European societies in middle ages, from which most current Western politico-economic and social structures have developed over centuries, such lofty concepts were simply not the 'order of things' (unlike, say, in the Wendat society, or in the Lichchhavi and Shakya Janapadas of north India in the first millennium BCE).  Social and political status in European societies of that time was based purely on property and economic affluence, and individual freedoms and even liberty flowed out of that only, with no place for compassion of any sort on that count.  (As an aside, this may also be the reason for the violent opposition in such societies to even a whiff of the concept of Communism, a la McCarthy years in US, and its characterization as pure evil.) 

So could all that talk of compassion actually be arising out of a subconscious guilt at the human depredations inflicted upon other peoples by adherents of this core philosophy of European-seeded thought?

{We've to be very careful to distinguish here between indigenous American thoughts of that time and later/current American philosophies: the two have absolutely no parallels and are in fact diametrically opposite in many ways, not the least because most indigenous American tribes like the Wendat were wiped out by the marauding Europeans, something which continued at least till the 19th century if not later, and the current American philosophies are probably rooted on the bedrock of the same European thoughts, especially about property, dominance and freedoms, Renaissance-influenced or not.}

Friday, April 15, 2022

Surviving and Thriving in 'The Passion Economy'

All around, the poor seem to be getting poorer and the rich richer, on the back of their favoured vehicles of enterprises, virtual and real, ballooning up in size and scale, often courtesy the new-fangled technological tools of automation, AI, robotics and the like (with startups quickly becoming Unicorns and even Decacorns, even with minuscule success rates).  In this scenario, most may be excused for thinking that there's hardly a chance in hell for small and midsize businesses to survive, as the behemoths in their industry rampage around gobbling up all available spaces and monopolising supply chains.

Adam Davidson begs to differ.  With a plethora of real world examples, Adam illustrates how some smaller enterprises have not only survived but managed to carve out their own niches, fiercely protecting their turf, transforming what they do and how they do it, and actually growing their businesses sometimes beyond their own wildest imaginations.  And all this they do by consciously beating complacency and diligently working at identifying, being close to, and constantly delighting their core customer base with innovative products and services.

Adam delves deep into the whats and hows of the new age entrepreneurs, sometimes fourth or fifth generation descendants of the founders, to reveal what clicks.  He culls out 8 'Rules of the Passion Economy', and analyses each in depth for their potential to add scale and value to the chosen businesses.  The rules are centered around identifying the core business, pursuing 'intimacy at scale' with a sharp focus on customer passions (and how to communicate the passion 'story'), fostering entry barriers in terms of unique offerings rather than commoditization, and the nuances of selling price and what it conveys in terms of value.  All through, the focus is on relentlessly working to know the needs of core customers (something of a matter of faith with old world entrepreneurs but sometimes sadly neglected during the pursuit of scale and latest fads) and servicing such needs in unique ways.  Along the way, some entrepreneurs also explain why they chose to avoid growing beyond a point, to be closer to the customer and also to 'avoid unwanted attention' which'd detract them from their core mission.

The legwork put in my Adam epitomizes his approach to the Passion Economy itself.  The chapters come across not as cut and dried business narratives, but as intimate stories.  And the approach is thorough and deep.  For instance, in the chapter on Ocho Candy, Adam delves into the life and ethos of Jesuit priests, the nuances of mass production and distribution, the economics of consumer packaged goods or CPG, and a bit about private equity and venture capital, besides of course the science of candy bars.  That's some landscape to cover!  In a similar vein, Adam covers enterprises in such varied domains as business consulting, accounting services, winemaking, Amish manufacturers, stationery, and ice cream (besides or course candy bars).  In almost every case, Adam appears to have personally met the storied entrepreneurs, in an effort to glean out the essence of their approach, to synthesize a set of principles which can be adopted by almost any entrepreneur to plug into the 'passion economy'.

A great work, which can be read either as a set of fascinating stories of common people surviving and thriving against overwhelming odds, or as erudite lessons on interesting aspects of the modern world and economy.

Wednesday, December 15, 2021

Book - 'Man's Search for Meaning' by Victor E. Frankl

For a good number of years, while being aware of Victor Frankl's book, I've been avoiding taking it up, in the (mistaken, as it turns our) belief that it's another one of those preachy 'self help' books full of homilies for the troubled mind, while being disjointed from realities.  Coming to know that it was by someone who survived the Nazi camps stirred some interest, but not enough to motivate me to actually read it.  Must say the loss has been entirely mine!  Getting on Audible finally led me to this gem of a (audio)book.

In my view, the unique thing about this book is that it's not based on an author's observations of others traits and behaviors, but in large part on his own life spent inside the infamous Auschwitz concentration camp, while undergoing all the travails and tortures of that life but also retaining the sanity to be an 'observer' of his own psyche and that of his co-sufferers.  The second fascinating fact (perhaps one that enabled Frankl to add to his uncompleted manuscipt while at the camp) is that he was a trained psychologist, who rose to even greater heights post his tragic incarceration, pioneered a whole new discipline (Logotheraphy, a summary of which is given in Part II of the book), and wrote a number of books.

Part I of the book, which is entirely based on Frankl's experiences at the camp, is quite a moving account.  Besides alluding to the death (nee, murder by Nazis) of his wife who entered the camp with him, he gives a first person account of the minutiae of what went on at the camp on a day-to-day basis.  The food deprivation, the overworking in trying conditions,  the forced marches amidst freezing cold and snow, the swollen feet and emaciated bodies, the diseases and deaths in thousands, the incinerators with chimneys, references to the cannibalism which broke out in the camp towards the end - everything is brought out in full detail, albeit with compassion.

Frankl doesn't flinch from bringing out the 'deals with devil' by certain co-prisoners, warders and others, who inflicted or facilitated further tortures on others just to gain temporary respite from tortures and a few 'luxuries' like cigarettes.  Amazingly, Frankl demonstrates a clear eye and unbiased attitude even while explaining the psyche of the prison guards, many of whom, as he says, were probably traumatized and inured to human emotions by being exposed continually to the barbaric goings on at the camp.

But also brought out is the potential for redemption, for a man (Frankl was placed in the male part of the camp) to rise above the circumstances and both demonstrate compassion towards others and help them in any way possible, by sharing one's own sparse food, by words and actions, by (in Frankl's case specifically) by volunteering to help in the ward of sick prisoners, which came with a real risk of infection and death.  

Through it all, Frankl continues to weave his own take on existential questions concerned with the meaning of life.  One of the themes he propounds is that it's not what is the meaning of life, but what meaning we can impart to life.  At another point, he muses whether enduring the travails of life, while preserving one's dignity and humanity, is itself the point of life.  (In this, he's perhaps close to the 'Karma' concept of Indian philosophy.)  He tells of how some prisoners, many of them motivated by Frankl himself, learned to avoid giving up on life by thinking about who or what is waiting for them after the end of war.

The book is full of such insights and life lessons, perhaps much of them taken up and popularized in later years.  Part II of the book lays out a summary of the branch of psychology which Frankl pioneered - Logotherapy, seemingly more attuned to emphasizing the patient's own choices and responsibilities rather than following the set patterns of traditional psychology.  Part II has some interesting tools and techniques, but a large part could probably be of interest mainly to psychologists, though laypersons may probably try out some of those with no harm.

A must read for those looking to understand human psyche and motivation a little better.

Tuesday, December 07, 2021

Book - 'A Short History of Nearly Everything' by Bill Bryson

Truth be told, I've been a fan of Carl Sagan since decades, since the time I used to watch his TV series 'Cosmos'.  I've always firmly believed Sagan to be the high priest of popular science, the one person who brought together his deep knowledge in myriad disciplines together into one cohesive narrative, ably carrying forward the legacy of European polymath scientists and mathematicians of 16th century and later.  And 'Cosmos' perhaps epitomized that ability.

But having read (or actually listened to, on Audible) 'A Short History of Nearly Everything', I'm persuaded to believe that Bill Bryson walks in Sagan's illustrious footsteps surefootedly and  with an assured voice.  Bryson's book brings together updated knowledge and perspectives on earth sciences, astronomy, core sciences including genetics, archeology and paleontology, medicine, anthropology and sociology, among other fields.  On similar lines as Sagan, but with whole new perspectives.  Perhaps the only 'Sagan-like' thing missing in this encyclopedic work is the 'leaps of inspiration' strewn throughout 'Cosmos', which many may've been tempted to dismiss as 'philosophizing', but which actually acted as the fulcrum of Sagan's arguments.  Bryson goes some way on that path towards the end, especially when ruminating on the pernicious consequences that the rise of humankind has had on the 'disappearance' of thousand of species since ancient times.  But otherwise, he revels in bringing to the reader cutting-edge knowledge on how the earth and life on it (including, lately, mankind, which has been there for only a minuscule proportion of earth's age of 4.5 billion odd years) evolved.

One theme running across the book is the huge number of occasions when one scientist discovered or invented something, and someone else ended up getting all the credit (and, lately, the Nobel that went with it).  As Bryson quotes one scientist, 'First they refute it, then they accept it, then they credit the wrong person'!  And this has been true not only of controversial cases like (allegedly misogynistic) James Watson et all being awarded the Nobel for discovering the structure of DNA, relegating Rosalind Franklin who apparently did most of the gruntwork in X-ray crystallography, and eventually died from the cancer she got while working with it and was thus could not be considered for the Nobel (which is not awarded after the passing of a person).  

But it's also happened in so many other celebrated cases like Charles Darwin being anointed the father of evolutionary theory of natural selection, even though he expounded only that it happens, not the how of it.  That work was done by the priest Gregor Mendel (it's amazing to know how many scientists and mathematicians of yore were members of the clergy!), of the famous pea plants, who got no credit for it during his prime years and eventually left the field and died unrecognized - his contribution was acknowledged only in early 20th century by another group of scientists.  The interesting story is that the detailed notes of Darwin from his HMS Beagle voyages across the world kept lying almost untouched for years, till he was motivated to write up his observations and conclusions when he got a manuscript from another scientist Alfred Wallace whose theories were too close for comfort to his own, all the time looking over this shoulders lest Church and country denounce him for even alluding that man evolved from ape!  To be fair, though, Darwin got his theory published alongside that of Wallace.

It's such stories which enliven Bryson's tome and take it to a level much beyond just the bare facts which are availably aplenty in the cloud.  And all through, while talking about evolution, Bryon cautions us that our very existence hanged by a thread and does even now, what with unimaginably powerful forces like the earth's magma chambers raring to explode as volcanoes, at such unexpected places as the Grand Canyon in US.

The other running theme is of course the multi-talented nature of many renowned scientists of those days, specialization only appearing towards the latter part of 20th century.  It seems the flowering of their mind was aided in no small measure with what such towering personalities did in their 'off time', whether it was music and arts or something else!  Alas, not only are such personalities long gone but, as a scientist tells Bryon, there is sometimes no continuity even in research into a discipline once someone working on it passes, no 'succession planning', till the field catches the fancy of the next group of scientists and, more relevant for modern times, till funding comes along, which may not happen for decades altogether.

Towards the end of the book, Bryson makes a fervent appeal for humankind to recognize the damaging effect it has had on the survival of so many species of life, from land animals to birds to amphibians to marine creatures, a process which is still continuing.  And this when hominids have been on the planet for a minuscule two million years or so, as compared to the tens of millions for which dinosaurs roamed the earth, and hundred of millions (or even billions) of years for which many other creatures including microbes have been the inhabitants of earth, and continue to be.  It's this which can perhaps be read as the overarching message of this great piece of work.

Friday, November 12, 2021

Book review - 'Caffeine' by Michael Pollan (audiobook)

 'Caffeine' by Michael Pollan (audiobook)

It's Pollan's name as author which initially drew me to this, the first audiobook I completed*, as I'm reading his rivetting 'Cooked' too.

In his own style, Pollan takes us through the history (and geography!) of caffeine.  One of the new things I learned is that centuries before tea (which also has caffeine, though less than in coffee), it's coffee which was the staple drink in Europe.  The ubiquitous coffee houses not only served the beverage but functioned as a place for intellectuals and scientists among others to get together and interact (Pollan contrasts those to the modern virtual version, the internet forums!), and reputedly the leader of the Paris Rebellion during French Revolution also frequented a coffee house and started the 'action' from one!

Apparently, coffee played a part not only in industry (coffee breaks, now a legally enforceable benefit in US, were meant to shore up the workers' energies against a midday sag), but also in wars - notably a Republican general during the American Civil War distributed quantities of coffee amongst his troops, which seems to have contributed not a little to their victory!

Pollan's narrative gains a rare kind of personal touch as he reveals towards the beginning that he abstained from his daily cuppa(s) while writing this book, as a way to understand the effects of abstention from what effectively keeps most Americans awake and toiling!

A thoroughly enjoyable listen.

(* Completed not in the perhaps more typical manner of a mobile device with headphone, but aloud on an Amazon Echo Dot using Audible membership.)

Friday, September 10, 2021

Work without hope...

Long back, while in college, I read this blurb at the beginning of a course reading 'Nectar In A Sieve', a novel by Kamala Markandeya on the travails of a farmer family in India:

'Work without hope draws nectar in a sieve,

And hope without an object cannot live'

I was reminded of this while reading a passage in the 'Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda':

But isn't that the very thing that's a lifelong struggle for a householder, at least those driven by an overriding sense of duty and responsibility - the unrequited striving, in all arenas of life?  To keep doing one's duties without any (or commensurate) appreciation, not to talk of return, for big and small things?

Seems Karm Yog suggests a way to rise above the often resulting frustration, to wash away not only the physiological but also the Karmic consequences of the negative feelings generated: offer (उत्सर्ग) everything to God, the work as well as both good and bad 'returns', and live in this ephemeral world like a water lily...

{From 'Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda', Vol. I, Karma-Yoga}

Wednesday, September 01, 2021

Can plants talk

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Book review - 'Lone Fox Dancing'

'Lone Fox Dancing - My Autobiography'

Just finished reading the story of 'Ruksan' in his own words, and it's difficult to come out of the aura created by Bond through his magical pen.  Words at par with the gentle stories he weaves, so authentic that the reader just wants to believe that Bond actually lived each story!

From his early life to ripe old age, Bond has laid out his whole life, though he admits towards the end that for some personal anecdotes he has changed the names.  One thing that comes through is his deep love for his dear departed dad, whom he lost in his early teens, and the undertones of a strained equation with his mom, with whom he tries to make up on her deathbed.

And the other theme is his deep love for India.  He does hop over to England for a couple of years at the beginning of his writing career, also taking up odd jobs to support himself.  But he gets restless and comes back to India, to his beloved Doon, to the friends of his younger years and some new.  His early struggles as a writer vouch to his abiding love for the art of writing, and he keeps at it for well nigh four decades before starting to get a degree of recognition.  

It's amazing that Bond has continued to live in and around Mussoorie almost his whole life, that he continues to delight in and get inspiration from the trees, the birds, the wildlife of the hills, even as life around him has changed beyond recognition over the decades.  And he continues to live with and support his adopted family of a man of the hills, his early support, over three generations.

A rewarding story of gentle love and deeply humanist outlook.