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Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Looking for the next best thing

It is common to fail at things, be knocked off the path you're taking and have things go way off your original plans. Usually, when that happens, the natural reaction is to look for a way to get back on track, catch up with the plan before the wheels started coming off and led you astray. This was my reaction too.

In recent times, I have made two mistakes that I'm now learning from (hopefully!). One, after being knocked off the path I was taking, I focused on getting back to the way things were thinking that that was a necessity to make further progress. Progress towards what, you ask? I wish I had done that myself. Because, then, I would have realised that the goalposts had shifted. The original path was no longer the optimal path. But, too late.

Two, after being knocked off the original path, I started evaluating new opportunities in comparison with where I was originally headed. Again, the goalposts had shifted. And comparing the new opportunities to what was being pursued before was like comparing apples with oranges. Simply not the same.

Looks like Taoism (my recent fascination) is followed by everything in nature, be it air, water, anything. Hence, they have lasted millions of years, because, whatever is contrary to the Tao does not last long. When it comes to air and water, Taoism is nothing but the search for equilibrium. You displace, heat, cool, change the size of the container, incline of the container, or anything else that comes to your mind and the air and water find a way to hit a natural equilibrium. The Tao way is to be in that state of equilibrium.

Just like air or water that follows the shortest path to equilibrium, irrespective of where it previously came from or what state it was on (or what state it's container was in), I ought to have looked for the next best thing irrespective of what path I was on. Now I know better. Now I know the way of the Tao.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Updating the belief map

We work based on belief systems and world views. Everything we're told, everything we read, everything we watch and everything we encounter is what shapes our belief systems, and that forms the basis for interpreting the things we encounter from then on.

Different people react differently to the same news and the same situations and that is because they have different belief systems with which to interpret the situations.

I like to look at our belief systems as a map, one that is handed down to us by our parents and our teachers. The map was built by them and was valid when they did so. You can think of it as a print out of a Google map of your city that you take today and use twenty years from now. The city has changed a great deal over twenty years (or maybe not, depends on your city).

So, if you're following the twenty year old map, you will likely run into things that are not on the map and find that some of the paths on the map you have no longer exist. At this point, you can either think that the map is right and that you are just not following it right and try different approaches, or you can face the fact that the map is not up to date and make changes in the map to account for the reality you now see. There is also a third option. To stick to only those paths and markers on the map that are still true and ignore the rest.

The belief map is just an example. It is true of any map you might be following. Except for Google Maps (perhaps not even that), you are unlikely to have an up to date map with directions for what you need to do to get to where you think you want (your goals).

Remember that where you think you want to get to (your goals) maybe based on an outdated map. Following a map is not about following the most optimal way to your destination. It is about updating the map when you encounter things that aren't on yours and then passing it on to others. That is how a culture grows.

Dedicated to the numerous bans we are witnessing in India in the name of religion and culture. Education (knowledge, not literacy) liberates us all and helps us chart our own belief maps. Then we can have liberation from all the bans.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

It is the way of the Tao to stay in an IIT, not to get into one

IIT Roorkee has been in the news recently for expelling 73 students on grounds of poor performance. The Management at the Institute has taken a dig at coaching institutes for helping students prep for entrance exams who can otherwise do little.

I had written back in 2010 about this phenomenon in a different context. Somewhere around the third year of my Engineering was when I embraced the way of the Tao (although I only realised that it is the way of the Tao a month ago) and that was the time I wrote that post about aptitude.

It is interesting how people who do well enough to be in the top one percent of the country in a tough exam then fail to attain a passable grade once they are in. I think it is a clear case of deviating from the way of the Tao.

For those of you who didn't read my introduction to Taoism a couple of weeks ago, the key idea is that expending too much energy will ensure that exhaustion follows and that is not the way of the Tao, and whatever is contrary to the way of the Tao will not last long.

When students end up giving up everything else in their lives to study for an exam to get into an Engineering college, they are clearly expending too much energy and exhaustion follows in the following years.

The Tao way is to only spend as much energy as you generally do and not do anything additional for any event (the entrance exam in this case). It is to change your lifestyle to include whatever you wish to do (which might be to develop interest in learning the things that might help crack the entrance exam). All results are inconsequential as you wouldn't do anything to change the result in the Tao way. You do it because that is your lifestyle.

So, the Tao way is not to get into an IIT, it is to stay in one.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

First principles and pigeon religions

As part of an experiment, several pigeons in cages were provided food at random times of the day for several weeks. After a few days, the pigeons started repeating the activities they happened to be doing when they received food in the previous days thinking that it was those actions that led to them getting food. This is called a pigeon religion.

This is how superstitions come to life. When we do not have a logical reason to describe cause and effect, we begin to attribute the cause to anything that seems remotely plausible. We like to be in control of our outcomes. We like to think we can do things to affect those outcomes. When the outcomes are outside our control, we are helpless and start worrying what might happen. That is when attributing cause helps.

The alternative is hard work and an open mind.

The only way to accurately attribute effect to a cause is by digging deep and understanding precisely how the effect could have come about and then selecting the cause that fits the actuality. This is tedious and tiresome and not necessary most of the time. Because our experience in attributing cause is accurate enough most of the time.

The key skill lies in identifying when this is the case and when it isn't. And when it isn't, there is no alternative but to look at the effect from first principles and deduce the cause.

A lot of organizations are obsessed with metrics and data driven decisions these days, but I make the case here for having a healthy balance of making decisions on data and making decisions on experience.

On a side note, I recently started watching this show called 'Forever' where the protagonist is a cursed man whose curse is immortality - he is cursed to live forever. He helps a detective with her cases, and quite often brings about this distinction of going with experience and going with first principles. 

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The Fault In Our Stars

"Here's the thing about Hazel: Almost everyone is obsessed with leaving a mark upon the world. Bequeathing a legacy. Outlasting death. We all want to be remembered. I do, too. That's what bothers me most, is being another unremembered casualty in the ancient and inglorious war against disease. 
I want to leave a mark.
But Van Houten: The marks humans leave are too often scars. You build a hideous minimall or start a coup or try to become a rock star and you think, "They'll remember me now," but (a) they don't remember you, and (b) all you leave behind are more scars. Your coup becomes a dictatorship. Your minimall becomes a lesion.
 We are like a bunch of dogs squirting on fire hydrants. We poison the ground with our toxic piss, marking everything MINE in a ridiculous attempt to survive our deaths. I can't stop pissing on fire hydrants. I know it's silly and useless - especially useless in my current state - but I am an animal like any other.
Hazel is different. She walks lightly, old man. She walks lightly upon the earth. Hazel knows the truth: We're as likely to hurt the universe as we are to help it, and we're not likely to do either.
People will say it's sad that she leaves a lesser scar, that fewer remember her, that she was loved deeply but not widely.But it's not sad, Van Houten. It's triumphant. It's heroic. Isn't that real heroism? Like the doctors say: First, do no harm.
The real heroes anyway aren't the people doing things; the real heroes are the people NOTICING things, paying attention. The guy who invented the smallpox vaccine didn't actually invent anything. He just noticed that people with cowpox didn't get smallpox.
After my PET scan lit up, I snuck into the ICU and saw her while she was unconscious. I just walked in behind a nurse with a badge and I got to sit next to her for like ten minutes before I got caught. I really thought she was going to die before I could tell her that I was going to die, too. It was brutal: the incessant mechanized haranguing of intensive care. She had this dark cancer water dripping out of her chest. Eyes closed. Intubated. But her hand was still her hand, still warm and the nails painted this almost black dark blue and I just held her hand and tried to imagine the world without us and for about one second I was a good enough person to hope she died so she would never know that I was going, too. But then I wanted more time so we could fall in love. I got my wish, I suppose. I left my scar.
A nurse guy came in and told me I had to leave, that visitors weren't allowed, and I asked if she was doing okay, and the guy said "She's still taking on water." A desert blessing, an ocean curse.
What else? She is so beautiful. You don't get tired of looking at her. You never worry if she is smarter than you: You know she is. She is funny without ever being mean. I love her. I am so lucky to love her, Van Houten. You don't get to choose if you get hurt in this world, old man, but you do have some say in who hurts you. I like my choices. I hope she likes hers."
 - John Green (through the voice of Augustus Waters in The Fault In Our Stars)

And nothing more need be said.