Tipping Point

Disclaimer: This post has nothing to do with Malcolm Gladwell and his book – Tipping Point, which is a fantastic read btw.

Its been a long long long time since I’ve written anything – really this space is an apology of a blog in that sense.

I do have an excuse to offer though. Actually a string of excuses – the first being that I don’t have a job and went through a major phase of depression, then I got married and lately I’ve been spending time with a critically ill family member in a hospital instead of honeymooning.

Between all of this, I’ve had plenty of time (what else does one do in hospitals and beauty parlours anyway?) to introspect and more interesting observe my own behaviour during these tumultuous times.

I find that dealing with a crisis if you’re an overall efficient person isn’t very difficult. All it requires is a clear head, a larger than normal supply of patience, access to money and someone loving who will take care of you while you take care of other things.

Its the little things though that happen throughout that is truly exhausting. It didn’t matter so much for example, that I had to find 16 people to donate blood at a short notice or find ways to deal with extreme cultural shocks. It bothered me terribly though – that my favourite hair brush vanished for three whole days. It drove me to tears when I couldn’t find bathroom slippers in order to go pee when I had Mehendi on my hands.

I’m not sure what explains the complete strangeness of this behaviour – but on a completely non-original note I think I can say I’ve discovered my own Tipping Point. I hate it when I am expected to ‘be there’ and ‘take care’  — and the little things aren’t in order. Clearly working to resolve a large crisis (emotional or physical) brings out the best of ‘responsibility’ in me, but perhaps that process is so alien to me that I compensate by stressing out about the small things. Human nature or peculiar to me?

Or I love my HAIR BRUSH. And oh, I love my husband – he found it. 🙂

At any rate here are somethings to ask yourself during crisis management:

1. Are you being irrational about the little things?

2. Are you doing too much on your own?

3. Are you being a little unfair to those who are in support roles with you?

If you’re answering yes to any of these things – do what I did. Recognise that you have a problem. Find out what your tipping point is. Meditate for a bit. Change what gets you to that point. Get on with crisis management.

Wisdom from Fallon

Its been a while since I’ve read a series of books with as much fascination as  have read Jennifer Fallon’s many books.  The books are fantasy and would be considered lousy pulp-fiction by most. However, I find, that the books are both entertaining and educational.

I started reading them when someone told me I should move beyond Potter and Eragon, and of course, because I believe in all things magical. 😛

Fallon’s achievement is in creating a fragile and very human-like tale about fictitious countries and people. The crowning achievement, of all her books (actually only six, since I’ve read only those many), is “Elezaar’s Rules of Gaining and Wielding Power“. I will not tell you who or what Elezaar is, go read. The rest is obvious.

What is so astounding about these? The fact that they are incredibly applicable to real life – even for those of us who lead very ordinary lives.

Read for yourself:

1. Have a reason other than the pursuit of power, for pursuing it

2. Accept what you cannot change — change that which is unacceptable

3. Never appear to do better than your peers

4. Trust only yourself

5. Conceal your weaknesses, advertise your strengths

6. Regardless of who does the actual work — find a way to take the glory

7. Make others seek your aid

8. Use your enemies’ weaknesses against them

9. Keep people dependent on you — particularly those who might one day grow strong enough to challenge you

10. Your reputation is like a virgin — once violated it can never be restored

11. Do the unexpected

12. Kill the gander and the geese will be yours to slaughter at will

13. Never appear too bright or too clever

14. The people on the front line are closest to the problem — listen to their wisdom and then make their solutions your own

15. The mob likes a show — give them one as often as you can

16. Promise nothing

17. Scorn that which is out of reach, do not envy it

18. Never let an enemy’s blood splash on you — mud sticks but it’s easier to wash off than blood

19. Be merciful when it doesn’t matter — ruthless when it does

20. It is sometimes better to have an enemy on the inside looking out, than on the outside looking in

21. Demand change of others — but take it slowly yourself

22. Know when to ignore your advisors

23. Ask for help only from those in whose best interest it lies to aid you

24. Don’t lie — use only those parts of the truth that will aid you

25. Be generous — and keep a tally

26. Owe no man a favor

27. Let others argue while you take action

28. Know when to declare victory

29. Eventually, every leader must make the final decision

30. Never rely on lasting order — everything changes

Sure there is a lot of “blood and enemies” in there, but still. The rules apply.

Oh um eh….I wear a bra…

By now you know all about this, but just in case you don’t, here is a link you could read. If you, however, do not like links and don’t look up things on the net that you read about – then here is a summary:

There is a meme going around Facebook. A lot of women, (me included) received an e-mail (forwarded), from other girl friends we know — suggesting that we change our status messages to a one word colour that reflects the bra we’re currently wearing.

Why? Because it might be a fun, silly, puzzling-to-men thing to do and also raise awareness about breast cancer along the way. How? One version of the story is that smart men will track down the mail and see that breast cancer figures in the mail – another version is that the mail originated from a breast cancer awareness organization.

A lot of my friends (and apparently a lot of women) did as the e-mail suggested. I counted twenty plus colourful status messages ranging from fawn, pink, white to multi-coloured. Mine said “black” for the record. A while later I started seeing e-mails going back and forth; several which objected to this entire exercise. I like summarizing things – so in summary there were two kinds of responses a) Don’t–  this is stupid/embarrassing etc, and b) Don’t do this – I’m worried this trivializes the entire breast cancer cause.

I’m terribly worried by the latter. This opinion is both stupid, embarrassing and frankly many times worse than ‘trivializing’. Here is why:

1. It is stupid because it betrays a fear about discussing a ‘private matter’. There is nothing really private about a bra colour. In any sense. Men are privy to the vast variety of leopard prints on bras in some of the biggest malls in this country. They are also privy to the cheap, and equally designer, replicas in road side shops. Besides, nobody forced anyone into sharing the colour of their bra. What is so troublesome about seeing a bra colour openly shared? Nothing.

What is troublesome, to these sorts of people, is that so many women spontaneously shared their bra colours (I have no doubt many lied – but a fair share must have been genuine too; at any rate the truthful or fictitious nature of the color is quite irrelevant) and GASP many of them were ‘committed’ or even ‘married’. Now, I don’t know about you, but I think this is quite close to being stupid.

2. Let’s talk about embarrassment. Clearly women who voluntarily shared this information were quite unashamed. If they were embarrassed they probably would never have done it. These women also already knew about breast cancer and felt obligated (morally) to pass the information on. We’ll discuss if Facebook memes are necessarily the best mechanism to do this, in a bit.

Now, I can’t see, why I (or anyone else) should be embarrassed about passing information about breast cancer. As a matter of fact – I would feel very embarrassed if I didn’t. Clearly embarrassment goes a long way. To my mind, if people could be embarrassed into reading (which does not automatically translate into knowing/remembering or internalizing) about breast cancer, let there be more embarrassment.

3. Trivializing the issue. This the big one. This is where all the activists and gender warriors stand up wag their fingers at you. “This is all very well… but won’t men just guffaw silently about bra colours and boobs and not really give breast cancer the concern it deserves? Besides, breast cancer is a serious issue – not a joke about bras and colours, right? Wrong. Wrong because there is a huge framing problem going on here. It is poor logic. If I say I am against capital punishment is that the same thing as me saying that I believe ‘all crime should go unpunished’?

Will men silently guffaw? Sure. Many will, some definitely will. But that is not the point. Let’s go back to the question I asked in point number 2. Are Facebook memes a good way to spread awareness? Depends of how you define the objective. The objective, I think, of the meme was to raise awareness about the existence of breast cancer. Awareness is, to me,  planting a thought. Waving a word in someone’s face. If I scream “BOOBS” and get three men to pay attention and manage to say three lines about breast cancer after – what is the likely outcome?

One scenario is – the man derives some happiness from the word ‘boobs’ and moves on. Scenario 2 – The man remembers about the boobs but also about breast cancer. He has a busy day – but when he casually surfs the net, he looks it up. Maybe he has daughters who he discusses the issue with, maybe he asks his partner.

Scenario 3 – Maybe the chap does nothing other than repeat this “silly story” to another guy, who then tells some other guy…. information spreads. One of those guys is from scenario 2.

So we have a lot of lousy and different outcomes – but some positive ones too. Are the positive outcomes worth it? You decide. What are the losses? Some guys, who wouldn’t have cared either way, still don’t – they occupy the same spot on the indifference curve. Some guys act as carriers of the message. Positive outcome. Some guys, who might not have cared, (if not for the meme) actually read about it. Positive Outcome. Is the breast cancer cause doing any worse than it was in the absence of the meme? You pick.

I also said that response two (the accusation  of trivializing) does some damage. How?

One of the best things about the internet is that information is easily accessible. It doesn’t cost me more than two clicks to read about breast cancer – right now. This is the magic of hyper linked documents. The power of a social media tool (like Facebook) and a meme on it, is that it, adds personal credibility. I get a message from a friend, I read it. Even if it is a meme. Then there is the hope to leverage huge numbers. Most critically – the internet is fun.

In school, I hated statistical classes, because the information was in boring histograms and I had to draw to scale on printed graph paper. There was no undo button if I made a mistake. The cost of drawing that graph and making an error was astronomically high in that context. I had to use an eraser and hope that all the rubbing wouldn’t tear my graph paper. In college, I discovered infographics, beautiful non-histogram ways to understand statistical data. And I could create my own (on excel back then) and make as many mistakes as I wanted – because I could ‘undo’. How did I start enjoying a subject I hated? It was made fun.

Surely, there can be no better way to attract attention to a deserving cause, than by making ‘awareness’ fun? If someone wanted to get people to look up ‘breast cancer’, by mentioning coloured bras because it is fun, how is that a bad outcome?

Here is a real bad outcome – by diluting the enthusiasm to share important information and getting minds to look up ‘breast cancer’ – you’re actually hurting the cause. Time and time again I meet people in the social sector – who like occupying the high ground by using this word ‘trivialize’.

Here is how to trivialize a genuinely good idea —

The internet using population has quick and easy access to information. The meme architect has a hook that catches the eye, a free mechanism to do the networking and a social media tool to add credibility — and what do you do? You worry about bad outcomes because you think people will misunderstand.Worse still, you air those views.

Some timid people out there, who would have liked to be a part of this information chain, have now opted out because your raised doubts. In the words of Steven E Landsburg — you have polluted the communal stream of information that had clear positive spillover effects. If you don’t like Economics — this means there are now fewer people to influence more people. Now that is a bad outcome.

I would not worry so much about people’s understanding. People are genuinely rational. Also, despite my description of men, many are not as awful as one likes to believe and are happy to learn and even help.

So what colour is your bra? 🙂

PS: This is not to say that there aren’t better ways to raise awareness. Neither am I saying that different questions and issues cannot be raised. Cultural sensibilities, prices, attitudes, aspirations and a bunch of other things are extraordinarily important. I’m not entirely sure if breast cancer is a women’s issue alone or if getting men involved is enough.

The point is – you can’t attack an attempt to raise awareness by saying “you aren’t saying all there is to be said on the subject”. Of course not. If the bra meme gets people interested in breast cancer – the internet is a great place to learn, about the weightier and by no means inconsequential issues, in this arena — and breastcancer.org is an excellent place to begin.

Monopolizing TED

This post is an opinion. It is important that I state this upfront given the probability that its likely to be taken badly. This post is an opinion. Re-Stated. Opinion. Period.

Lately, I’ve become a big fan of saying things ‘upfront’ along with becoming a fan of ‘staying in the loop’, ‘re-defining impact’, ‘being on the same page’ and the like, but all that is a story for a different day.

TEDIndia is happening. TED has been ‘happening’, in a better way – for longer. Years ago, when TED found me – I spent several days downloading mp4 (s) to my Ipod. Qualitatively, what made the videos/talks different, was the fact that they celebrated the ‘small fry’, voices that haven’t been heard before.

Now take a look at the TEDIndia’s speakers list.

If you work with development in India – almost all those names are familiar to you. Where are the new ideas? Where is the innovation? A huge percentage of the potential speakers represent the ‘social enterprise’ space, there are also the ‘microfinance guys’, the ‘development economists’ and all then some more.

Some of these guys have done great work in the past. They’ve shaped the development space into what it currently is. They’ve also run out of ideas. Not to mention the ‘legendary-ness” of Usha Uthup.

Clearly, many of these people are established ‘greats’ with good reason. They’re excellent speakers and ,yes, maybe those of in this niche ‘development’ sector do know them – but this is about Global Recognition (with G and R in CAPITALS).

I beg to differ – clearly this is about fund raising and hobnobbing. Nothing wrong with that, just state it upfront.

So here’s my quibble — the idea was for TED bring ‘inspired’ thinking to the rest of us. On this front, TEDIndia – well you’ve failed me.

PS: This post, of course, has nothing to do with the fact that boss(es) are also on the speakers list. 😛

Wanted: A Transformative Experience

I’m going through a crisis of faith – the non-religious kind.

The ‘drafts’ section of my e-mail is overflowing with links to new jobs. I’ve even been gifted a new set of paints and a sketch-book. I was advised to use my lay-off as a break, find some time to ‘unwind’, do what I feel like…. but that is the problem.

I feel stretched, uninspired even to apply, tired to read, my ears are buzzing with music that sounds no more different from set of discordant clangs.

How does one find that single transformative experience? A little tranquility, a little less panic, a little noice, some wind, some space, a burrow, freedom? Its been eons since I’ve done anything even remotely creative, carefree, happy and just me. In fact I’ve forgotten what that ever felt like.

In two weeks I’ll be starting with a new place, a new set of bosses, a new house (not home), more brokers, bank accounts….

This is what I have been reduced to – a rag doll who hammers away at a silly machine all day with a plastic smile. And this is what I have reduced this space to — (once creative and even fun) just another scrap of digital papering to record my irrational miseries.

Persistent Questions

Some questions require critical thinking to answer. Such questions are by definition rigorous- a rigorous question requires answers that are beyond a hypothesis.

Then we have yet another class of questions- questions that are like nagging doubts – these cannot be answered fully and most likely suffer from having failed to become what is popularly known as a Fermi problem.

A Fermi problem is a question so designed that it generates a well judged proximate response. Elsewhere, in this blog – I have discussed how proximates are good enough to make decisions. Anyhow, what (Enrico) Fermi was good at and what Fermi problems are meant to do is to test how strong a set of assumptions are and how they bear out without the availability of much data.

I see this happening around me all the time, a good project manager has to in some sense answer Fermi problems everyday.

Why don’t people follow procedures when they have been explicitly laid out? Why don’t households opt for credit schemes which are to their obvious advantage? Why don’t risk-sharing designs work on the ground the way they do in development economic models? Is money supply endogenous? Will Lehman cause the next great depression? Why does income and saving vary across groups to which discrimination models don’t apply?

The great art to project management is unlearning the science of sufficient assumptions, it is to accept constant refinement and probably much more.

I get paid to do ‘Development’.

I was looking for career principles online and I stumbled upon Ajit Chaudhuri’s post on irmans.org to freshers. Its brilliant and reproduced below for anyone who wants to work with/in development.


Welcome freshers !
Tue, 30/01/2007 – 01:03 — maverick
“S/he who follows another’s footsteps leaves no footprints”*

Despite not (yet) having achieved gurudom, I am occasionally asked for advice about joining the development sector. Most of those enquiring can be slotted into two categories. The first are well-spoken but mediocre people who are getting nowhere in their chosen professions and have (therefore?) developed a social conscience. Their impression of the sector is as a place where the effort to returns ratio is second only to the spirituality business. The second are those whose short-term career objective is to join Kofi Annan in New York, and their impression of the sector is as a place where one hops on to intercontinental flights with the same regularity that you and I used the local public transport system in our student days. But occasionally, very occasionally, some young person approaches me with intent in his or her eyes, not knowing what ‘development’ is, with this vague idea of working with people in some faraway place and dirtying their hands, firm only about using their good qualifications and skills to do something different. I never know what to tell the former types – whether to play up their fantasies or to give them a reality check. As to the latter, this is what I have to say.

First, to address the basic questions:
Is there scope for good people here? The development sector needs bright people coming in as much, if not more, than other sectors of the economy. The array of problems that the sector addresses is mind-boggling in its variety, intensity and complexity and, should you decide to make a career here, you will require all the skills and drive that you think you possess. The sector also offers the opportunity to make one’s mark, and leave one’s footprints, in ways that are not possible elsewhere. So please rid yourself of the notion that this is a sinecure for the mediocre, the retired, the idle rich and the infirm.

Is long-term financial survival possible here? All of us have nightmares about being middle-aged, washed out and broke. Whether this sector provides more scope for such a turn of events than others is debatable. Most people here, as elsewhere, manage to get by, build their houses, educate their children, etc., etc. It is possible, and quite easy if you are good, to move to more lucrative segments within the development sector at some stage in your career. But – you will have to deal with the ass kissing, red tape and white domination that often go with the money. Anyway, by that time you will be aware of the pros and cons of the decisions you take. If money is important in the short term, however, then forget about coming here – you will be better off peddling soap or consulting or doing whatever it is that you are alternatively qualified to do.

What to do? Where to go? You need to figure out some basic questions before you start looking, such as rural or urban setting, in which part of the country, in an activist or a welfarist set up, and how close to the community you want to work. Finding organizations to work in that suit these settings is fairly simple after that, and good organizations are always looking for good people. Donor organizations are good places to enquire about these matters.

And now for my personal advice on what you should do:
Start out doing a field job – one that involves living and working directly with a community. The community consists of a large number of people who don’t have to say yes sir or yes ma’am to you and don’t care which fancy institution you did your post-graduation from – you have to earn your spurs from scratch, throw management theory out of the window and prepare to be surprised and tested every single day. You will discover that the class 5 pass man working with you is much better at the job than you will ever be, or that the supposedly pathetic women your activities are directed towards have much more guts than the modern, educated babes back home. Doing something here involves stress, fun and serious learning, and it is this part of your life that will stay on with you wherever you go. Spend a good amount of time here, ensure that you are not stuck with the report and proposal writing jobs and ayah-duty (i.e. escorting funding agency wallahs into the field) that you will be passed on because of your English-speaking skills, and see that you leave something intangible behind when you go. Later in life, when you are dealing with NGOs from a funding or consulting perspective, you will have plenty of NGO-wallahs giving you the what-would-you-know-you-city-asshole vibes – watch their tunes change once you let slip that you were once in their position.

Do the above with a good NGO – be careful about this because, though there are many good NGOs, they are still a small proportion of the total number of NGOs around. Good NGOs, in my opinion, are honest, secular and transparent. They formulate their plans and activities on the basis of the needs of the community they work with and are answerable to them for this. So be careful about this – you would not want your CV littered with associations with family businesses, feudal empires, pimping and middlemen set-ups, money laundering operations, touts, donor puppets, crooks, etc., masquerading as NGOs.

Become an expert – by the time you have put in 2-3 years in the field, there should be some topic relating to your work that you know more about than anybody else in the world. This means relating what you do on the ground to the larger picture, to what is happening elsewhere in the world and to the latest academic debate on the subject. Keep up to date, keep writing, and write to publish. This is easier said than done, field people have an innate distaste and little time for serious writing, but it is this that will separate those who will later go on to effect policy from those who will remain community organizers all their lives.

Eschew jargon – people in the development sector, like the IT sector and several others, have a peculiar predilection towards using jargon. The problem with this is that it serves to exclude people whom you would wish to include and include people whom you would probably want to exclude. Words like participatory, empowerment and sustainable, which you will find bandied about like toffees on a domestic flight, actually mean different things to different people and very often don’t mean anything at all. And when an organization wants to recruit dedicated, motivated and committed people, it usually means that they want to pay less for more work and therefore only suckers need apply. So don’t get caught up in this bullshit, learn the art of communicating exactly what you mean in a simple and understandable way.

Be humble and be nice – nothing like these qualities, even if put on, to enable you to get along. Having said that, don’t put up with nonsense beyond a point that even fake humility and pleasantness can’t handle. People and organizations that cross the line should end up spitting out teeth with their blood, so to speak.

Watch your love life – you will find yourself working closely with members of the opposite sex, often in very intense situations, and you will find yourself liking some of them and vice versa. Have your fun! But, my advice is, don’t find yourself marrying and/or having children with anyone you would not have done so with had things been different. The fiery young activist can end up a leach of a middle-aged man, worrying more about what is happening in Red Square than in the well-being of his immediate family and quite happy to leave you with all the responsibilities while he gabs on about revolution. And the passionate free-spirited feminist is unlikely, later in life, to have a hot cup of tea ready for you when you come home after a hard day at the office. And you will be shocked at how easy it is to forget people once they are out of context.

Should you take the plunge into the sector, you will find yourself interacting with a wide variety of people. Watch out for the following types –

People with halos – you will find a number of people claiming to be doing a favour to humanity by working in this sector, especially at the higher echelons. Many of them have active PR machineries supporting their claims to sainthood, and some even believe in their own hype. You can be sure that, like everywhere else, being hardworking, intelligent and capable are not enough to reach and stay at the very top – you also have to be ruthless and slimy. There are no exceptions to this. So, whenever you hear or read the words ‘S/he/I could have been rolling in it in any other line but chose to sacrifice her/him/myself to the cause of the poor/destitute/vulnerable blah, blah, blah” be warned of the existence of yet another hypocrite in the world.

Emperors – they are the lords of all they survey, and don’t distinguish between their personal assets and their organization’s resources, and this usually includes its women employees. Yes, most, but not all, emperors are males.

Pompous employees of donor agencies – donors have an inexplicable penchant for recruiting morons. They do sometimes go wrong, and you find yourself dealing with someone who knows his or her job and who is able to have a positive effect on your and your organization’s work. But you do often have to deal with someone who thinks s/he has arrived because s/he represents the money, and/or someone to whom development is about budgets and utilizations more than people. While there is no known cure for stupidity, sometimes it helps to let the former type know that they have their nice air-conditioned offices and fancy credit cards because people like you are willing to slog in the sun for peanuts. Don’t take crap from them and, much more importantly, don’t become like them if and when you are in their position at some later stage in your life.

Development tourists – these people travel the world to conferences and seminars on money that is meant for the poor. They are the self-appointed spokespersons for India’s (and sometimes the entire third world’s) poor in Geneva, Stockholm and such places. Their slick presentations, that have audiences thanking God for having created them in this tumultuous world, invariably disguise the fact that they last did something on the ground about twenty years ago – they have since been too busy traveling. Don’t make the mistake of getting impressed by these parasites. And don’t join them expecting to see the world; you will be lucky to have more than a Bangladesh visa stamped on your passport.

If you are still planning to join the sector – a very hearty welcome to you!

By Ajit Chaudhuri (PRM 8)

* A Confucian saying after having undergone a gender audit


The original url is here.

Mathematical Matters

I’ve spent the better part of my cognitive existence disliking all things even remotely mathematical. So extreme has been my dislike that I once told a dear and well-meaning friend who tried teaching me quadratic equations that I gave a “rat’s arse” to maths! I now realize that this had more to to do with bad teachers and a deeply ingrained fear of the numbers. Consequently I failed to grasp the beauty of all that is mathematical. Now faced with the prospect of running multi-variable regressions for my social science dissertation, I wish I had taken ‘Maths With Mummy‘ a bit more seriously. I have to admit that I have gotten plenty of help in recent times though.

the Klein bottle is a certain non-orientable surface, i.e., a surface (a two-dimensional topological space) with no distinction between the One avenue of help has been ‘The Language of Mathematics’ by Keith Devlin. Not only is the book beautifully written, with amazing illustrations of the Klein bottle, minimal surfaces and so on; but is also a really fascinating journey through the history of mathematical thought. I didn’t know for example, that Riemannian geometry upset Greek mathematical thought so much, (Devlin discusses the Greek precursors to Riemannian geometry) that mathematicians were thrown off ships!

What I find the most engaging and elegant though, is Devlin’s definition of mathematics. As he points out, maths is not only about numbers and what you can do with them, it is the study of patterns. Some thoughts, like this, change the way you look at a subject forever.

The other avenue that has in recent times fueled my mathematical curiosity is Michio Kaku’s book on Hyperspace. I grew up watching Star Trek Enterprise; with Spock materializing and re-materializing between dimensions. In later years I graduated to Ford Prefect and Arthur Dent racing through hyperspace to save civilizations, eat and create improbability fields out of Brownian motion and a cup of tea.

Like my mathematics, my physics too was terrible all through school. I had no idea why Anti-Logs mattered or why thea minimal surface is a surface with a mean curvature of zero. Ohm’s law always gave the same result. I did however love science fiction, and still do. Michio Kaku’s book is probably the only science book I have ever read without a break. It abounds with tales of flat-landers, goldfish and the mannerisms of some of the greatest physicists the world has ever seen.

What I particularly love about this book though, is not the fantastic ease with which it has been written, but the fact that the author tells me how a physicist thinks. Mathematicians and physicists do what they do because they see beauty and elegance in proofs. Wow.

If there are just two books in your entire life that you should read concerning all things mathematical, read these. They’ll change the way you look at numbers and perhaps even your life. And along the way, you might, just like me find writing a mathematical dissertation a little less painful if not fun too!

If you had to philosophize…

For some reason, Philosophy is the least understood of all subjects in the Humanities as a choice of study that someone would consciously take up. I’ve always had a hard time explaining to people what Philosophy is about or indeed why one should ever study it in the first place. Plenty of people have asked me for a good book on Philosophy that will “give them a broad and general idea”, and I have rarely been able to comply with this request.

Its not that books like this do not exist, several do and some are excellent as well. The trouble with me, is the acceptance of the idea that an entire discipline can be summarized in one book. Its like asking a Historian to recommend one complete book on all facets of History.

Normally, in situations like this I tell people I’m willing to point them to books they should read on Philosophy which cover at least some substantial philosophical thought in original. This too is a terribly deficient way of readind up on Philosophy, but it appears to me, to be better than the alternatives.

Here’s a list of Philosophical writings (or texts if you like) that are on my essential reading list (fifty titles) for Philosophy. Several of these don’t classify strictly as texts of philosophy, some deal with language, science, physics and even literature.

  1. Plato – The Republic, The Symposium and The Apology
  2. Aristotle – Nicomachean Ethics, The Politics
  3. Epicurus – Sovran Maxims
  4. Cicero – On Friendship and Old Age
  5. Marcus Aurelius – Meditations
  6. St. Augustine – Confessions
  7. Severinus Boethius – The Consolation of Philosophy
  8. Desiderius Erasmus – In Praise of Folly
  9. Thomas More – Utopia
  10. Niccolò Machiavelli – The Prince
  11. Nicolaus Copernicus – Revolutions of Celestial Orbs
  12. Francis Bacon – The Advancement of Learning
  13. René Descartes – Meditations of First Philosophy, Discourse on Method
  14. Thomas Hobbes – Leviathan
  15. Blaise Pascal – Thoughts
  16. Baruch Spinoza – Ethics
  17. Isaac Newton – Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy
  18. John Locke – An Essay Concerning Human Understanding
  19. Gottfried Leibniz – Monadology
  20. George Berkeley – Principles of Human Knowledge
  21. David Hume – Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding
  22. Jean- Jacques Rousseau – The Social Contract
  23. Adam Smith – The Wealth of Nations
  24. Immanuel Kant – The Critique of Pure and Practical Reason, The Metaphysics of Morals
  25. Jeremy Bentham – Principles of Morals and Legislation
  26. Thomas Paine – The Rights of Man
  27. Mary Wollstonecraft – The Vindication of the Rights of Women
  28. Le Marquis De Sade – Philosophy in the Boudoir
  29. Auguste Comte – Positive Philosophy
  30. Carl Von Clausewitz – On War
  31. Hegel – The Philosophy of Religion
  32. Arthur Schopenhauer – The World as Will and Idea
  33. Marx and Engels – The German Ideology
  34. John Stuart Mill – On Liberty , A System of Logic
  35. Henry D Thoreau – Walden
  36. Charles Darwin – On the Origin of Species
  37. Friedrich Nietzsche -Beyond Good and Evil
  38. William James – Varieties of Religious Experience
  39. Sigmund Freud – Psychoanalysis
  40. Albert Einstein – Relativity
  41. Ludwig Wittgenstein – Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus
  42. Adolf Hitler – My Struggle
  43. A. J. Ayer – Language, Truth + Logic
  44. Jean-Paul Sartre – Existentialism as Humanism
  45. Alan Turning – Computing Machinery and Intelligence
  46. Karl Popper – The Logic of Scientific Discovery
  47. Thomas Samuel Kuhn – The Structure of Scientific Revolutions
  48. Simone de Beauvoir – The Second Sex
  49. Fyodor Dostoevsky: Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, The Brothers Karamazov
  50. Franz Kafka: The Trial, The Castle, Metamorphosis

There are probably many many more that should have made it to this list, still, I think anyone looking to read Philosophy beyond the mere crash course should look at these.

Jesus Among the Neocons

            Had Jesus, the Shepherd of  sheperds,

            been a bodily traveler among us

            today, he might not have been able

            to ride any plane, or cruiser,  or bus

            into the United States,

            or to conquer any of its many hates.

            What with his Asiatic visage

            and sable skin,

            compounded by his Bin Laden beard,

            he would have had to dare

            more than the fates.

            Supposing he had entered the place,

            aided by some technical subterfuge,

            would he have recognized the New World

            as love’s haven, or christian refuge?

            The born-again, beefy giant

            at the check-point tray

            might have slapped the cuffs

            on him even as he made his pliant

            in unintelligible Aramaic huffs;

            and no sooner than you think

            he might have landed in Guantanamo Bay.

            Once  secured there, O Jesus,

            answer me this:

            would you have pleaded anew

            ‘father, forgive them; 

            they know not what they do?’

            Or, would you, more realistically,

            (as Luke has you say) express

            your wrench and anguish thus:

            ‘father, why hast thou forsaken me’

            in a glittering, golden wilderness

            from whence the reigning evil one

            decrees to demonise Creation

            with dirty uranium and white phosphorus?


Easter thoughts in a lovely poem, forwarded to me by e-mail.