Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Quotes from the The Black Swan

I finished Nassim Nicholas Taleb's The Black Swan a month ago, and still can't (and do not want to) shake off its influence on my thinking. Here are some quotes from the book:

“What we call ‘talent’ generally comes from success, rather than the opposite.”

“Death is often a good career move for an author.”

“Complicated equations do not tend to happily cohabit with clarity of mind.”

“History is opaque. You see what comes out, not the script that produces events, the generator of history.”

“In the end we are being driven by history all the while thinking that we are doing the driving.”

“Uncertainty is our [Taleb’s] discipline, and that understanding how to act under conditions of incomplete information is the highest and most urgent human pursuit.”

“Perception of causation has a significant biological foundation.”

“We pull memories along causative lines revising them involuntarily and unconsciously.”

“The same condition [impulse] that makes us simplify pushes us to think the world is less random than it actually is.”

“Both the artistic and scientific enterprises are the product of our need to reduce dimensions and inflict some [illusory] order on things.”

“We tend to use knowledge as therapy.”

“Respect for elders in many societies might be a kind of compensation for our short term memory.”

“It is tough to deal with social consequences of the appearance of continuous failure.”

“It is my great hope one day to see science and decision makers rediscover what the ancients have always known, namely that our highest currency is respect.”

“A life saved is a statistic; a person hurt is an anecdote. Statistics are invisible; anecdotes are salient.”

“Gambling is sterilized and domesticated uncertainty.”

“Probability is a liberal art…” [one of the best quotes in the book!]

“One needs to exit doubt to produce science…” [a jab at science, especially scientific theories that dumb down skepticism]

“For many people knowledge has the remarkable power of producing confidence rather than measurable aptitude.”

“That strange activity called the business meeting, in which well fed but sedentary men involuntarily restrict their blood circulation with an expensive device called the necktie.”

“If you hear a prominent economist use the word equilibrium or normal distribution put a rat down his shirt.”

“Capitalism is, among other things, the revitalization of the world, thanks to the opportunity [for some people] to be lucky.”

“We tend to be against religious theories but not economic theories.”

“Luck is far more egalitarian than even intelligence.”

Friday, August 27, 2010

Our relationship to the natural world: Some initial thoughts


Our relationship to the natural world is ambiguous. On the one hand, we are drawn to landscapes. We love to visit national parks; we like to build lakefront homes surrounded by woods; and even an overwhelmingly urban space such as New York needs Central Park. The biologist Edward Wilson has a term for this: biophilia.

What is behind the instinct? One possible explanation – Wilson’s, not mine – is that humans, for hundreds of thousands of years, were inextricably part of the natural world: it is where we evolved. Our survival demanded an intimate and practical knowledge of the flora and fauna around us. We probably developed our innate fear of snakes, aggressive carnivores and heights then; these reactions are still hard wired in us. We developed also an appreciation for the environment. That too is still with us; that is why excessive development at the expense of forests and the wilderness provokes a reaction.

But even as hunter gatherers, we were always constantly tinkering with our habitats, trying to figure out ways to use it more effectively: controlled burning, deliberately dispersing certain seeds, slow attempts to tame certain animals. Around ten thousand years ago – and this seems to have happened independently within a few millennia in different parts of the world – we developed or “chanced upon” agriculture.

Agriculture fundamentally changed our relationship with the natural world. We no longer needed to be jointly involved in the process of creating food. The farmers were there to do that. We could follow other passions – the arts, the sciences. The time we gained for these pursuits has brought “progress”, to where we are today. But we still are very much part of the natural world. It is just that we don’t look at it that way. We feel the environment is something on the outside, to be enjoyed during walks or excursions.


Cultures interact in distinct ways with the environments they inhabit. The United States is famous for its stunning national parks. The dedicated rangers, caretakers of these parks, are passionate about their work. They convey their wonder of the natural world, but their curiosity is mainly scientific. The ranger will likely be excited about the park's geology, botany and details of what might have happened during the Paleolithic era.

Then there are the trekkers, the mountain climbers, the campers. Their motivation comes from the need to experience nature up close or to get away from the world of work and stress, or the thrill of a daring feat.

In this sense, the American relationship to the natural world is “secular”. Religion resides not in nature but in the church, synagogue or mosque and their associated communities. That is understandable: Christianity is after all a Middle Eastern religion; and the Middle East is where all the holy places are.

Contrast this with how American Indians looked at the land. For them, the connection was much deeper, inextricable. I don’t mean this in a shallow, “hippie” way; neither do I think there was something consciously “environmental” about it. Rather, the land was part of their origins as a people. The mountains, rock formations, rivers, the birds, the animals, waterfalls and natural landmarks were sacred. Stories about them were relayed across generations through oral tradition.

This aspect is not unique to American Indians of course. Plenty of cultures where the religion is homegrown and old have it too. But India is perhaps – to me at least – the most illustrative modern example. Hinduism is about as homegrown and diverse as any religion can be; and it is intimately connected to the land. While traveling through Tamil Nadu last year, I was struck by how temples were used to commemorate natural landmarks – be it the Cauvery River, or a cave, or a hilltop.

If the Grand Canyon had, by some accident of geology, been in India, it would have been a national park, yes, but it would also be a sacred place, where millions of pilgrims might visit a certain time of the year.

Perhaps, in the beginning, all human religions were necessarily religions connected to the earth. Agriculture led to an increase in societal complexity, and paved the way for the more social religions: the world conquering monotheisms of the Middle East. And in recent centuries, economic ideologies and science have created their own worldviews. We seem, in the process, to have lost the instinctive spiritual connection we once had with the earth. Now, the environmental conservation and biodiversity movement is trying, using the framework of science, to make us aware of what we are losing. That may be the correct way in this time and age. But who knows; we’ll just have to wait and see.

Monday, August 16, 2010

The food post -- Part 1


My friends know well that I do not drink much. In fact, I know nothing of the nuances: which glass suits which wine, the subtle differences between beers, the myriad cocktails. I am even worse about hard liquor, which I haven’t tried beyond a few sips.

But with food it’s a different story. I have a hard time understanding those who want to “get done” with the chore of eating. To me, every meal has to be deliberated on, even if the options are limited and even if I am busy. When I am on the road and alone (and especially so), I search earnestly for a place to sit and enjoy a hearty, elaborate meal.

I am picky though. I prefer vegetarian because that is the way I was brought up. Meat turns me off with its texture and odor. I am willing to reconsider if I am at a Pakistani restaurant that is known to make exemplary chicken curries. I prefer foods that are “liquidy”: soups and moist dips. Dry sandwiches are okay but they have to be nothing short of spectacular, else they risk condemnation. That is why the bagel is my least favorite food: it turns my mouth (and throat) into an arid, oasis-less desert. No, it does not matter how much cream cheese I add -- sorry!


Indian food was all I’d tasted when I first came to the US. I was unwilling for a few months to try anything outside what we graduate students cooked (and I was afraid of credit cards: I had never used one and it seemed like the most complicated process, what with signatures and all). Someone suggested a restaurant called Haji Baba. At the time, I had a subconscious anti-Muslim bias and the Arabic lettering outside the restaurant frightened me. The irony is that the same place later became a favorite, and a way to signal to my more “parochial” friends how “cool” and “multicultural” I was.

So it was a gradual and tentative opening out: the inauthentic yet ubiquitous Chinese restaurants with food soaked in sugar syrup to please the super sweet American tooth; the excitement and later exhaustion with the dull Indian buffets with mass produced northern fare; the repulsion upon first encountering pasta and raw broccoli (Newman, the postal officer in sitcom Seinfeld, rightly calls the latter a “vile weed”, though recently I’ve figured out how to use it well).

In time, I discovered my flavors. The farther north and west of India the cuisine's origins were (but not quite as far as Europe), the better I liked the food. In any American city, if I spot an Afghani or Iranian restaurant, I will not have the slightest hesitation. But it is not the famous kababs that I like, rather it is the simpler vegetable preparations. Eggplant dishes such as kashk e badejmaan and mirza ghassemi for example bring out the essence of the vegetable much better than the Indian version, the baingan bhartha.

And the rice! Rice made the Iranian way (polo, which may be the etymological root of the Indian pulao) is something else. My favorite is the adas polo – rice with lentils, raisins, dates, saffron – at Persian Room, a somewhat upscale restaurant in Scottsdale, Arizona. At that high ceilinged place with blemish-less white napkins, it was easy to forget, because of the quality of food on offer, that I was a poor graduate student.

There are dozens of such Middle Eastern restaurants in the Phoenix metro area (Arizona). The Lebanese restaurant, Haji Baba, I’ve already mentioned. Dipping pita bread in garlicky mashes, hummus and babaghanouj, or having falafels with tahini sauce: these are the usual pleasures. But an under appreciated dish, and one I love, is fava beans, seasoned with sumac and served curry style, along with buttered long grain rice.


Farther west and in a different continent is a cuisine that has captivated me for years now. To most, Ethiopia suggests only famine and poverty. But the tragedies stick in our minds longer of course, and we forget the day to day. I find an echo in Ethiopian cuisine of Indian styles – in the spices, the lentils and the vegetables – but I do not mean to lessen its distinctness or originality by making that comparison.

For starters, Ethiopia is the place where the nutritious yet largely unknown grain teff was domesticated (coffee too is first traced to Ethiopia). Teff is used to make injera, a sour, porous and spongy flatbread (like a dosa). It is a mystery why this African grain, so rich in ingredients, never leapt continents to become as popular as wheat, rice and maize.

Injera is served on a large circular plate. On top, are arrayed small sized vegetable and lentil preparations (I always order the veggie combo; meat is the farthest thing from my mind at an Ethiopian restaurant). The meal is supposed to be communal and eaten without silverware. The lentil preparations – misir watt, kik misir watt – are striking; I rate them much higher than the ubiquitous dals of India. Among the vegetables, my favorite is the the gomen watt, a collard greens dish.

I attribute my love of Ethiopian food to Blue Nile, a restaurant that opened very near my apartment in Tempe, Arizona. So taken was I from then on that during my travels, I made a conscious effort to look for Ethiopian meals. In DC, where the community is the strongest, I’ve tried Meskerem and Etete; in Minneapolis, Fasika; in Las Vegas, Merkato. Then there are two restaurants whose names I do not remember, but whose food I do. In Tucson, I ate the spiciest Ethiopian meal I’ve ever tasted; I remember enjoying immensely even as I sweated throughout. And in Sioux Falls, South Dakota (during this trip), a hole in the wall place unexpectedly turned out to be memorable.

I’ll stop here for now, but the journey isn’t quite complete. In the continuing piece, I’ll turn my eye, briefly, to cuisines to the east of India. And rather than talk of the history of Mexico, Peru and Bolivia – I’ve bored you enough with that – I’ll talk of my meals there.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

The motivation behind the travel

To the uninitiated reader, my travels can seem a little puzzling. Why Mexico, Peru, and Bolivia? A friend recently said I was traveling to places with “rich histories but screwed up economies”. He asked whether there was a “mission”. There is indeed one and I shall try to explain it here.

I came to the United States a decade ago, in August 2000, to start graduate school in engineering. I was fresh out of college and had no idea of the history of any place, including India. I did not for example know that Judaism was the religion of the Jews, even that it referred to a religion. Most students get radicalized, develop a political and historical consciousness during college. But the place I attended in south India failed as much in this regard as it failed to give me a half-decent technical education.

The milieu in the United States, in Phoenix Arizona, was a curious one. On the one hand, graduate school was full of highly motivated students from all parts of Asia. On the other, the neighborhood I lived consisted almost entirely of immigrants from Mexico’s poorer parts, who did odd jobs, legally and illegally, for a living.

This change in the frame of reference as confusing as it was invigorating. It was a first glimpse of how complex the world was. History, which I had long ignored and thought boring, suddenly became indispensable. I was stunned to learn that Muslims had been dominant in Asia, Europe and North Africa before the Renaissance; that a tribal like Genghis Khan had, through a combination of shrewdness and military strategy, built an unimaginably vast empire. I was equally stunned that India too once had a great past, a claim that had earlier, living with Indian realities, sounded hollow.

Without realizing it, I had, like millions of people the world over, internalized the idea of Western superiority. The notion that non-Western people could be dominant was liberating.

But there was one group of people I knew nothing about. They had walked the very land I had now come to; they were even called what I was called -- Indians. From my days in school, I carried the most basic stereotype: horse-mounted, tall and splendidly feathered men. Otherwise I drew a blank. Who were these Indians, why did one hear so little of them and why weren’t there many among us?

The demographic decline of American Indians has been such that it is easy to believe there were very few when the Europeans arrived. There is a certain inevitability about it: technologically superior people come to pristine wilderness that is mostly empty. A few hostile tribes put up a valiant fight, but they stood no chance in the long run. To me, as to many other Asians, the Americas were a place where Europeans had come as a busload of tourists might come to an exotic setting. They liked the place and happened to stay.

It is true that North American Indians did not have large continent spanning empires as in Europe or Asia. But the idea that the land was sparsely populated is a myth. North America had an immense diversity of groups, from the basic hunter-gatherer tribes to those practicing a mix of hunting and agriculture; from the Plains tribes to the coastal cultures; there were dozens or languages and subcultures; and many groups – the Iroquois for example – had coalesced into confederacies (take a look at this map; click to zoom in on the specific names in different regions). European ships that sailed along the east coast in the 1600s could not strike deep roots along the coast because it was thickly populated.

Why then are there only 3-4 million people of American Indian descent today in the US population of 300 million? Massachusetts, Connecticut, Chattanooga, Potomac, Dakota, Kansas, and scores more such names in every state, every region: today etymology provides the only evidence of American Indian presence. The people who left these names have either disappeared altogether or have been marginalized. Phoenix, the sprawling Arizonan city I lived in, was itself a tribute to the Indians, but few are aware of it. White settlers in the late nineteenth century named it so because they anticipated a modern city to rise out of the ashes of the Hohokam, an agricultural people who had marked the desert valley with their well engineered irrigation canals in the centuries before Columbus.

Something profoundly tragic had happened here. In the heat of America’s meteoric rise over the last century, that something has been forgotten and left at the margins of history. Its scale tends to get underestimated, because the evidence is silent and not obvious. An entire continent lost its voice and, most importantly, its people. Today, we have worldviews – African, Chinese, Indian, Western – that are deeply rooted in their histories, even if the externals are predominantly Western. But to find an Indian perspective in North America one has to travel to little known but still culturally vibrant reservations.

It was this history that I began to explore while living in Arizona. I visited archaeological sites in Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico, from the large and architecturally sophisticated – the much ignored and remote Chaco Canyon in New Mexico – to small but equally instructive ruins around Phoenix and northern Arizona. I went to the Navajo, Hopi, Zuni, Apache and Tohono Odham reservations, to see how modern day American Indians had fashioned some measure of cultural continuity in impoverished settings. When I moved to Minnesota, I visited the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, where the same history of dispossession and ethnic cleansing had culminated in the Wounded Knee massacre of 1890. Because of its geographic isolation, the Americas (along with Australia) faced the worst consequences of European colonialism. Diseases, to which American Indians had no immunity, wiped out entire societies.

If the North Americans had faced such devastation, then how had the rest of the Americas, similarly isolated, fared? While the predominantly tribal societies of North America had been conquered by European Protestants, the massive empires of the Central and South had been downed by a band of daring conquistadors from Catholic Spain. The Caribbean natives faded in the decades after Columbus’ arrival; Argentina’s natives were exterminated in the eighteenth century. But in Mexico and the Andean nations (Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia) the descendants of the Aztecs, the Mayans, the Incas (and many other indigenous groups) are still there. The conquests were no less devastating, but a forcibly imposed Catholicism had brought Indians into its fold, even as it erased earlier beliefs.

The new culture also allowed for racial mixing between Native Americans and Europeans (giving rise to the Mestizo) – and blacks too. The poor southern Mexican immigrants in my neighborhood in Phoenix Arizona, brown skinned like me and noticeably short, were of that stock. In fact, Hispanics, who are partly American Indian, are achieving demographic parity with the whites in southwestern America. In a different way, they are reversing what whites once did when they conquered these lands.

My curiosity about indigenous Latin America spurred visits to Mexico City (formerly the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan), Chiapas (in Mexico’s Mayan south), the Andean parts of Peru and Bolivia. These places are the polar opposites of the United States since Indians are the majority. But Spanish colonialism has marked them badly and left them poor. That is why the places have strong socialist movements: the Zapatistas in Chiapas, Evo Morales in Bolivia.

The small discoveries that I make during my visits are the reason why I travel; that is why I have been writing about my visits to Indian reservations in the United States, and more recently about Mexico, Peru and Bolivia. Of course, I know only a fraction of the story. In Latin America, my progress has been hindered because I do not know Spanish. I don’t have any overarching theories, but I always find it instructive to understand the specifics of each place, yet be aware of the broader contrasts.

The arrival of the Europeans to America was a Black Swan – an unprecedented event that had a massive impact. No one could have predicted the consequences. Millions of American Indians died, either due to disease or conquest, and the Americas (especially North America) lost their voice and culture. Europe and Asia benefited immensely from the crops and foods domesticated in the Americas (corn, tomatoes, potatoes, chilies to name a few). Europeans found a new place to emigrate to – for them it was a positive Black Swan that unleashed new energies.

History works in quirky ways and its logic remains only partly visible to us – and that too only after the fact.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Taleb on history

History is totally unpredictable. If you ask me how the world will be in ten years I really have no idea. One assumes it will not change much or will change only gradually, but who knows. Once a significant event has happened, everything seems inevitable; we tend to invent convenient narratives. We like to use newly inferred "knowledge" to advance our ideologies.

I too, in my writings on history, have been guilty of such theorizing. Narratives based on past events are therapeutic and invigorating; they give the illusory sense of greater knowledge and a warm glow when one is able to talk about them at parties and social events. I am not suggesting that there is no causality or narrative at all, or that history should not be studied. But the current manner in which it is analyzed does suffer from these issues that Nasim Taleb points out in The Black Swan:
History is opaque. You see what comes out, not the script that produces events, the generator of history. There is fundamental incompleteness in your grasp of such events, since you do not see what’s inside the box, how the mechanisms work.

The human mind suffers from three ailments as it comes into contact with history, what I call the triplet of opacity. They are:

a. the illusion of understanding, or how everyone thinks he knows what is going on in a world that is more complicated (or random) than they realize;

b. the retrospective distortion, or how we can assess matters only after the fact, as if they were in a rearview mirror (history seems clearer and more organized in history books than in empirical reality); and

c. the overvaluation of factual information and the handicap of authoritative and learned people, particularly when they create categories – when they “Platonify.”