Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Presence of Good; Absence of Bad

When we want to see if something is good, do we count the good things about it or the bad things about it? Does something need the number of bad things to be zero in order to be called good?

Is a good person allowed to have no vices?
Is a time which I wish to call good allowed to have no bad memories associated with it?
Can a good job never have anything uninteresting in it?
Can a life not to be called good if it ever saw any rough patches?
Is sincerity and concentration characterised by absence of moments of distraction?

The common answer to all the above questions is easily guessed.

I know I am writing on something very obvious and spoken of million times. Yet, I find myself motivated to write about it. Because, I see that we do it again and again. We hate someone because he has done something bad, and forget all the good he has done. We often remember the bad moments of a time and forget the happinesses it had granted us. We call our jobs bad because we have to do many uninteresting things in it; and we forget that all the little interesting things that we get to do happen only because our job allows us the freedom to indulge in them -- officially sometimes, and sometimes unofficially. We think that life sucks because it's difficult; we forget its riches most of the times.

Yes, I am talking about the cliche called positive thinking -- the thinking about the good things about something. What I want to add are two things: One, you need not forget about the bad things in something to appreciate its goodness. Two, you should practice it when it's most tempting to do otherwise. Then only it would work. Otherwise, why should it? We all are very positive about everything when we are having fun in water-park. Can we, when we are fighting cancer?

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Three Pillars of Enlightenment

We bought a farewell gift of three books -- one on popular science, one on Bhagwad-Gita, and one a humour novel by Wodehouse -- for one of our colleagues who spent his last day in our company today. The following message (edited) was written to bring them together:

Science: The disciplined approach of understanding everything through logical deduction, experiments and sensory observation.

Metaphysics: There lie truths beyond the boundaries of our 5 senses. Where science goes mute, mystical metaphysics becomes our guide.

Humour: Zen masters say that an acute sense of humour is the highest form of intellect; and a light-hearted laugh, the highest form of spiritual bliss.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

SMS competitions

There's this new thing going on in TV in which you get a number in the Thums Up bottle. You have to SMS it to some number. There will be a lucky draw and you have a chance to win a Hero Honda motor-bike. Similarly, these days, every dance-show, music-competition or reality show on TV has a compulsory model of seeking feedback from the viewers. The feedback determines the fate of the competitors -- a method very questionable when looking for the real talent. Yesterday, I saw a question rolling past the bottom line of the TV screen:

Actress XYZ played the role of ABC in the movie PQR: A) Yes; B) No; C) Can't say. SMS your answer to DEFGH and win ...

I thought that was stupid enough to deserve a blog post. If someone sends 'C' as an answer, the person should be sent for psychiatric treatment. If there are sufficiently large number of 'C's coming as an answer, there should be national level red-alert. Having so many idiots in the country poses a serious threat to the national security and general well-being. The matter should be taken up at the summit level as a matter of highest concern.

But this article is not about choosing 'C' as an answer. It's about choosing 'A', 'B' or 'C' as an answer. It's about choosing to answer. I have often felt very uncomfortable with the very business model of encouraging people to spend money for a minuscule chance of winning a prize. The only party which is sure to gain in this game is the one who throws the competition. Of course no one is being forced, and people are being conned on their own. But, I feel, while the business model is a source of easy income for TV channels, mobile service providers and other business houses, it lies in a very grey ethical area.

Order and beauty lies in making improbable things happen through expert actions. It's been the nature of humans to be fascinated with things which couldn't have existed without an expert hand bringing them into being. But, what distinguishes man from others is his capability to cause the order that makes the improbable happen, to be that expert hand himself. A passive fascination with improbability, where a person waits passively for an improbable thing to happen and rejoices when it does, is characteristic of a baser nature. It leads to gambling.

Perhaps it is fair to give a thought to what acts behind the psychology of gambling. The instinct of gambling seems to be encoded in our genes, like many other unfortunate genetic quirks of our species. The genetic explanation of gambling identifies that risk-takers of the past reaped rewards in the form of survival and progeny. So, the 'risk-taker' genes have been passed on to us by natural selection. We are hardwired to feel a thrill in taking risks.

However, while the fact that this gene has survived in us also is a proof of the fact that though the risk-taker ancestors ultimately managed to clinch a jackpot in the struggle for existence, risk taking by itself may not be a formula to a highly probable success. The gene just gives us an urge to take risks. It doesn't encode the intelligence in us to count the number of risk-takers who have perished due to the same instinct, a number which must have been very much larger than that of the winner ancestors. Like many of the intelligences that are critical for giving us not just an edge over other species, but the barest chance of survival, this intelligence doesn't come naturally to us; we have to groom it.

The import of the last two paragraphs was just to know that the fascination to see an improbable thing happening exists in us thanks to evolutionary reasons. In that, we can't look for an answer to whether it's justifiable to act in accordance or opposition to this instinct. It just tells that in spite of all conscious knowledge about it, all of us will fall prey to it some of the times; and some of us will fall prey to it often enough to ruin themselves and others around them. But the answer to the question of ethical justifiability of gambling, whether done once, occasionally or compulsively, has to be sought elsewhere.

In any kind of gambling, the odds of winning are abysmally low -- making it illogical for the gambler to gamble, and a very profitable business for the organiser of the game. To quote 'illogical' as 'unethical' may be something of moral belligerence. Being illogical at times is considered 'indulgence', and in general is allowed to all of us, albeit in sparing amount. For example, we sometimes binge on ice-creams and chocolates. We spend exorbitant sums of money in travelling to exotic places. We drape ourselves in expensive clothes, jewellery and make-up. Non of which makes any direct logical sense (except again a digression into the evolutionary antecedents of the instincts of vanity etc.), but we are allowed to do them in controlled quantity, and nobody frowns. In fact huge businesses exist around each of these indulgences. Is occasional gambling an indulgence in the same parlance; and should businesses flourishing around it be looked at in the same way as any of the other businesses that cater to our 'indulgences'?

Gambling done in moderation indeed seems to qualify as a harmless indulgence. In opposition to traditional forms of gambling, SMS gambling has two peculiarities. One, they make it extremely easy to start gambling, which raises a red flag against them. Two, they don't seem to scale in a way that a person could turn into a compulsive gambler by indulging in them. The very tedium of typing an SMS makes it infeasible that a person could lose a significant amount of money by sending too many of them. That might be a thankful aspect.

All the above arguments seem to advocate a lenient attitude towards this phenomenon of SMS gambling. I have my own doubts and can't decide either ways. There are some intractable questions associated with this business as with any business thriving on any indulgence. In a macro way, if such businesses grow relentlessly, I do feel that it sends disturbing signals about us as a race. Indulgences are like respite points from the tyranny of being logical. But if indulgences pervade our lives -- be it SMS gambling, making fun trips, wearing expensives clothes or sporting fuel guzzling fancy cars -- it fundamentally shapes what a life stands for at both an individual level or at a more collective level. Is life an instrument to achieve something noble, making it permissible to loosen up only to make it sustain its productive existence for longer? Or are all noble deeds of life just a fuel to the inextinguishable need to indulge and entertain oneself endlessly without regard to anything more meaningful than that?

Well, I must say that the fact that in the end I had to invoke a very lofty argument to defend my initial stand of opposition to SMS competitions, shows that my argument has weakened quite a bit over the course of writing this article. So, to sound fair, I must accept that these competitions seem harmless to an extent. But I would continue to feel unhappy if I see an individual indiscriminately indulging in it and never thinking that after all it's all stupid; and that we are allowed to behave stupidly only very very rarely. I would be full of blessings for a person who could bring me a data that such businesses are profitable but small enough not to matter in the grand scale.