On Selflessness and Nation Building

The other day I learned that David Sedaris, one of my favorite American essayist and public speaker, does a very peculiar thing. These days he lives in England, which is not particularly peculiar. His peculiarity is that every day he spends five or six hours picking up trash along the roads around his home.

Why does he do that? Because, he says, he just likes doing it. He does not do it for some greater good or public service, according to him. Does it make him a public-minded person? Not necessarily. Doubtless, his actions result in a cleaner road than otherwise, but his motivation is not to do good — he merely does what gives him personal satisfaction and which does not harm anybody.

I believe (perhaps mistakenly) that people who are primarily motivated by doing “good” for others often see themselves as morally superior to those who let others alone. If you like to pick up trash, good for you but slipping into the role of a person who is selfless tarnishes the enterprise. Worse, it can persuade the person that he has the moral authority to force others to do one’s bidding. Continue reading

The Decline and Fall of Bengal

A long time ago, maybe a thousand years ago but certainly a little over a hundred years ago, Bengal was remarkably prosperous. Something happened that led to its transformation from past prosperity to present destitution. What was it? A natural disaster, meaning something that was not humanly caused but something had natural causes? Or was it something that humans brought about by choice?

Let’s be very clear about one feature of this universe we inhabit. That is, nothing stays the same. Ceaseless change is unavoidable. The great, the seemingly invincible invariably decline and are replaced. The Buddhist call it anicca — impermanence. If you expect a changeless world, you are guaranteed to be disappointed.

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Inequality, the Universe, and Technology

One of the more distinctive features of the universe is that it is unequal. It is unequal in the sense that it is not one mass of undifferentiated goo. It has differentiated features, starting with the distinction between inanimate and animate matter. A lump of coal is quite distinct from a squirrel even though at the most basic level, both are collections of atoms, each atom a composite of protons, neutrons and electrons–which reduces to two types of quarks and electrons.

In this essary I consider the matter of inequality and what it implies about the human condition and what therefore are its normative implications.[1]

Technology

What’s technology? I define technology broadly as “know how” — the knowledge of how to do something. The products of the technology have “know how” embodied in them. Every human artifact and process of production is, in that sense, a technology product. How to convert ore into metal, how to communicate using writing, how to transmit information using wires, or wirelessly, how to build a transistor, how to put 21 billion transistors on a tiny silicon chip, how to build a commercial jetliner starting from materials that are provided by nature, … ad infinitum. Continue reading

The Road to Tyranny

Slowly raising the temperature allows a frog submerged in water to get accustomed to its ever-worsening condition until it gets cooked to death. So goes folk wisdom regarding how to cook a frog. Though a pointless exercise, it does serve as a good metaphor for how countries gradually advance on the road to tyranny — in very small, nearly imperceptible steps.

But it is possible to notice small objects and minute changes if one gets sensitized to them. It is hard to notice a commercial jetliner at cruising altitude from the ground without its telltale vapor trail. However, if someone pointed you to it, it’s easy enough to track the nearly invisible object in the sky if you pay attention.

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Government of India Carries the White Man’s Burden

Doing Good is Always a Good Excuse

If you want to be loved and admired by the people, do good to others. Unfortunately that only works sometimes. But if you wish do well for yourself, even if it means that it causes harm to others, make the people believe that what you are doing is for the good of others. That’s always guaranteed to work. It has worked like a charm in the past, works now, and will work in the future. Public perception trumps reality. Billions spent on false advertising attest to the fact that it works.

The past masters in this game of duping the public into believing blatant falsehoods are governments of all stripes, be they communists, socialists, fascists — and especially democracies.

One of the more important lessons to be learned from the British Colonial regime is the absolute necessity for governments to hoodwink the public. The British rulers cloaked their imperial drive with the noble enterprise of helping the natives as part of the “White man’s burden” to better the “half-devil and half-child” (phrases that the bigoted racist Rudyard Kipling so memorably penned in 1899.) Continue reading

Personality Cult Disorder and the Naming of Roads

Getting around in most Indian cities is no cake walk given the awful traffic. What makes the experience worse is that quite frequently addresses are hard to locate. I was in Delhi recently and was trying to locate L-1/18 in Hauz Khas Enclave. It is never easy. I’ve been there about half a dozen times, and each time it involved a good deal of driving around because the numbering is random and unpredictable.

Why Indians have not figured out the simple street numbering system used in much of the world is a mystery to me. Another mystery is the naming of streets. Street names manifest what I call a “personality cult disorder” or PCD.

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