Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Five Books I wish I'd read when I was younger

In response to my post inviting ideas for more blog posts, Murthy suggested that I do the Tyler Cowen thing and list out the 10 books that have inspired me the most. Now I'd already done something similar on Facebook many months ago thanks to one of those tag things from Han, so that didn't seem like something worth rehashing. So instead here's a list of books that I wish I'd read when I was younger. Some of these I have gotten around to reading only in the recent past, while others I've only read in part or not at all, and the longer I delay getting around to reading them, the more I find that I can get by (and indeed have gotten by) passably without reading them or that my attention span is now too short to attempt picking these books up at this point. I dont think these books would have brought about any life-altering changes in my own personality (which is fine, since I quite like who I am), but I feel these would have been good reads at some point, for various reasons. So on with the list:

1. Godel Escher Bach, by Douglas Hofstader - Just as something of a geek-culture touchstone this would have been worthwhile to read and subsequently name-check (note: especially useful when having slightly tipsy Econ PhD-applicants explain computability problems to you), and it also seemed to cover a lot of things that I've never been able to get a real handle on - music, math and art, but also deeper stuff about logic and so on which I only get a peripheral idea about through Wiki-trawling. I haven't read it yet so what little I know about the book too is from Wikipedia and by word-of-mouth, so maybe I'm building it up to be bigger than it is, but given its sheer size itself, it'll probably be a while before I work up the nerve to read it.

2. The Return of Depression Economics, by Paul Krugman - Krugman came out with the first edition of this book way back around the time when I was in college, so it was a little silly of me in hindsight to wait until 2009 to read the updated edition. It wouldn't have transformed me into an economics wunderkind, but I guess it would have helped relate what I learnt in class to the real world, which, hopefully, would have made me pay a wee bit more attention. Instead I did the Delhi Times crossword, doodled or wrote atrocious schoolboy poetry and eventually had to relearn economics via pop-econ books and blogs. And of course Wikipedia.

3. The Story of Philosophy, by Will Durant - I had a copy of this when I got to college way back in 2000 and tried manfully to read through it before getting lost somewhere in the discussions about Kantian thought. I did pick it up again in my 3rd year to refer to for an assignment on Hegel and Dialectical Materialism, which I must admit was probably the best tute I ever wrote, but after that I let the book go again. Maybe I should have started with 'Sophie's World' instead...

4. The Argumentative Indian, by Amartya Sen - This started off as an OK read, but every time I picked it up it reminded me of the absolute mind-numbing horror that was my Social Choice Theory paper at D-School, and the thought that our primary reading material for the course was Amartya Sen's drier theoretical work was enough to prejudice me against him forever. Someday, perhaps, I might be able to get over it and give him a fair chance.

5. Basic Econometrics, by Damodar Gujarati - considering that I've been working in analytics for almost 5 years now, I have to admit that my knowledge of 'trics and stats is a little shakier than I'd like it to be. 'Gujarati' is something of a ready reckoner for most people working in the analytics sector in India, and although I bought myself a copy in a fit of work-related enthusiasm many moons ago, I'll admit to having opened it only sparingly since then.

So that's my list. Murthy, Han and Kanishka, consider yourself tagged. Anybody else want to talk about the books they wish they'd read, feel free to blog about it and leave a link in the comments below.

Monday, 12 April 2010

I've started, so I'll finish

In my last post, I spoke about one way to think about the possibility of God's existence, and I stopped short of talking about how that meshes with my own day-to-day life as a Catholic. As I had said, I don't have it all figured out, and there are obvious questions that come up on why I continue to identify myself as one, as illustrated in this comic.
I think that part of the reason that I self-identify as a Catholic is simply that since my parents are staunch Catholics and brought me up as one, I choose to stick to the label and explore the more personal aspects of my faith within it, rather than trying to make a clean break from it. I'll admit that if they had been part of some other religion or denomination I would probably have accepted that label willingly too. At the same time, one aspect of Catholicism (as I've experienced it) that I think helps make it easier for people to stay within the fold is that it does not require or expect followers to know or read the Bible in much detail (some of the more evangelical types do make the effort, of course). Other denominations (and a few other religions) require greater knowledge of their sacred texts and consequently a stricter, possibly more literal-minded adherence to them. There is a lot more focus on rituals and symbolism in Catholicism, and I feel that they allow for more individual interpretation - for example, some followers may have a favourite saint whom they hope will intercede on their behalf.
 Along the same lines, I find going to mass an interesting contemplative experience, where I can follow my own train of thought while participating in the overall proceedings. Being a creature of habit, I find it easier to be contemplative in church than in most other environs, especially when thinking about my own limitations and errors. At the same time, participating in the service along with the congregation is also something of a soothing experience, making you feel that you are part of a greater entity than just yourself. I think a similar feeling of belonging would also arise from jagrans, retreats or Buddhist chanting. The need to belong is, after all, part of the human essence.
In terms of my personal faith independent of the church, I will admit that I've found it difficult over the last few years to think of a way to properly engage with God,especially since I broke up with someone I was very close to. It called into question what I would consider the standard approach, where we as humans expect something like a quid pro quo relationship, exchanging prayer and supplication for specific outcomes that we desire - 'Not on our deeds, but on your grace, O Lord, though if you could help me out on this small matter, I would be eternally grateful and will light a candle to symbolize this'. Insofar as I do get around to praying these days, it usually revolves around expressing gratitude, and rephrasing what is essentially the Serenity prayer to fit the minor hassles of life- 'God grant me the wisdom to know that there is very little that is entirely under my control, and grant me the serenity to accept that; and perhaps you could grant courage to those who would use it better than me'.

I know the above is neither comprehensive nor entirely convincing, but that's because I've never really contemplated my faith in too much detail either. Deep down, I suspect my spiritual beliefs do get captured by the following lines which appear at the beginning of Vonnegut's 'Cat's Cradle':
'Live by the foma that make you brave and kind
and healthy and happy.'
-The Books of Bokonon 1:5

Did I mention that I sometimes think that God has a sly sense of humour?

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Imagining an Ant God

A few days ago I asked readers of this blog for ideas on what they'd like me to write about, and my cousin Nikhil suggested a post on my religious beliefs (or lack of them). Now that's a tough one, since I find that, for the most part, the best way to retain one's religious beliefs is to not think about them too deeply. What I'd initially planned to do was to just record myself talking about this for a while and then post it as an ersatz podcast, since that would also make it a 'stream of consciousness' type post, which is also something that Nikhil asked for. However, I ended up recording myself at about 2.00 AM, which meant that I wasn't making too much sense when I was talking. Plus I usually sound like a 15-year-old with a blocked nose, and since the whole thing revolved around God and so on, it basically sounded like someone getting doped out of their head and talking nonsense. Not the sort of thing I'd want to post, thank you. Which brings me to this post. Hopefully the meandering prose sounds sufficiently like a stream-of-consciousness narrative so I can tick that off the list as well and not make up something to project my consciousness as being sufficiently arty-farty.
Now on to the topic at hand. I guess when talking about my religious beliefs, I can split the narrative into two posts detailing firstly, how I think about God at a broader rational(izing) level and, secondly, how that relates to my day-to-day life. Let me admit now itself that the links there are tenuous and the arguments inconclusive, and it all eventually comes down to belief and force of habit, so if you're hoping for a cogently argued piece on why everybody should go to church on Sunday, you may as well quit reading now. Consdier yourself warned.
When I was in school in Cochin, we used to have a weekly class on the Gita, taught by the Biology teacher who, incidentally, was an Ottamthullal dancer in his spare time (true story, though I'm a little hazy on whether it was Ottamthullal or Kathakali). One of the few things I remember from that class was that, during a discourse about God's existence, he said that the only people who have a complete definition of God are atheists, because only if you have a complete definition can you put it to the test and then say for sure that God does not exist. That's not entirely true, but I think it is a good way to start thinking about how the way we think about God is constrained by the limits of human comprehension.
Consider this: let's say you have a whole bunch of ants sealed up in an ant farm so you can observe them, but they are pretty much oblivious to the existence of the world outside of the farm. Assuming those ants were developed enough to think about these things, how would they think about a god in this case? Being at the top of the food chain within the farm, they'd probably assume that god was very much like themselves. The funny thing is, as the owner of the ant farm, you could pretty much play god with them if you felt like it, but they'd still think of you in ant terms - perhaps as a deity with six legs and magical pincers or something, until you revealed yourself as a human, at which point they probably would not even be able to comprehend your existence in non-ant terms.
Now that's not a great thought experiment, but what I wanted to bring out was that we as humans are far too vested in trying to think of god in strictly human terms, with broadly human motives and human emotions. Remaking god in our own image, as it were. And yet, if god as an entity really exists, it seems to me that he/she/it would be far too complex a being for us to wrap our minds around, far more complex than the idea of a human being would be to an ant. When we do prove that our earlier beliefs are wrong, that only demonstrates our own small-mindedness and ignorance. This doesn't prove that God clearly does nor does not exist, it's just saying that thinking about Him/Her in terms of human logic may not provide a sufficient answer. It then comes down to a question of belief or faith.
However, if god really is so complex, it does make it tougher to assign emotions or motives. We would like to believe he has a soft spot for us, but the ants in our hypothetical ant farm might also believe the same thing about the humans who own the farm. This is one of the things I definitely haven't figured out completely yet - how to engage with this idea of God. After all, if I don't know if there's a plan or what that plan might be, I may as well live my life assuming that there's no plan, or at best, that I'll play just an incidental role in any larger plan.

At this point, things get really murky, so I'm going to stop for now, and in my next post I'll try to cover how I try to engage with my religious beliefs on a day-to-day basis.
Right now I need to go get a haircut.