The Gita and the philosophy of non-entitlement

by kirangarimella on October 22, 2015

The Mahabharata is an ancient Hindu epic. It’s a highly entertaining soap-opera, with myriad twists and turns that can enmesh serious readers for years in its delightfully tortuous intellectual maze. However, it doesn’t offer any specific and unambiguous moral guidance.

From the perspective of a moral philosophy, the only redeeming feature in this epic is Lord Krishna’s Bhagavad Gita, consisting of 700 verses divided into 18 chapters. Among other things, the Gita expounds the philosophy of Karma Yoga, the yoga of action.

There has been well-thought out criticism of each and every verse of the Gita, but there is one verse that I’d like to comment on because of its potential for misunderstanding and its potential for self-transformation.

In Chapter 2, verse 47, Lord Krishna says, “You are only entitled to the action, never to its fruits.”

None of the commentators that I’ve read have explained it satisfactorily. Interestingly enough, numerous modern authors of self-help books (mostly of the New Age variety) seemed to have arrived at a similar motto independently (at least, they haven’t attributed it to the Gita).

I do not claim that my interpretation below is the right one. No one can know what the original author of the Gita had in mind. As with all religious and spiritual texts, the distance of time, the vast intervening societal changes, semantic transformations, and misinterpretations caused by translations all contribute to an impenetrable mystery of the original intent.

However, I like to offer my interpretation as a workable, pragmatic spiritual practice with no claim to authenticity, authority, or scholarship.

Before we understand the real meaning of that verse, it is important to understand what it is not.

It is not a statement of political philosophy. It is not a call to communism or slavery, as some people have asserted. At first blush, the verse can be easily misinterpreted as such.

It is not a call to disciples of any latest guru to ‘work, work, work in the service of humanity’ (i.e., in the service of the guru and his or her ashram). When I first read that interpretation as a teenager, namely, that karma yoga means one should work unceasingly, the prospect of a lifetime of drudgery, of unremitting service, and issuing the insatiable masses a blank check on my life made me so tired that I went to take a nap!

Karma Yoga doesn’t mean we should work like drudges. It also doesn’t mean we have no right to the fruits of our labor. It just means we are not ‘entitled’ to them.

This is a fine distinction, the difference between ‘right’ and ‘entitlement.’ This distinction takes the whole statement out of the realm of politics and brings it into the realm of personal psychology – even salvation, if you will – where it rightly belongs.

An old English proverb says, “There’s many a slip ‘twixt the cup and the lip.” What this essentially means is that there is no guarantee of getting the expected result from one’s actions.

This is the crux of the Gita. Many things can happen after we act. Other people have free will and thwart our actions and impede the expected results. Natural phenomena may intervene. The net result is that the outcome we want is not guaranteed.

We pin all our hopes on the expected results. If they don’t arrive as expected, we are frustrated. Some people are wiser: they know that there are no guarantees, that problems arise, and that they should try again and again. But even the most stoic person expects some result at some time in some form. Without some expectation of positive results, they would have no motivation.

Sisyphus, a figure of Greek mythology, was condemned to repeat forever the same meaningless task of pushing a boulder up a mountain, only to see it roll down again, for all of eternity.

Would the most resolute person find any meaning and happiness if he or she were condemned to fill the shoes of Sisyphus?

Even when we get the expected results from our actions, the fruit may not taste as we imagined it would. The food might turn to ash in our mouth. Or if the fruit tastes exactly as we imagined it, the taste itself vanishes sooner or later, which in turn causes dissatisfaction, as the Buddha pointed out. This pushes us to exert more action to experience the fruit again. And again and again. Just like a drug addict.

So, building our self-esteem, sense of happiness, and meaning in life on the uncertain timing, quality, and tenure of the results of our actions is bound to lead to a crisis. Indeed, for most ambitious and industrious people, this takes the form of a mid-life crisis.

What are we to do?

Lord Krishna offers an alternative that is at once stunning in its simplicity and complicated in execution.

His advice: “You are only entitled to the action, never to its fruits.”

The key word is “entitlement.” It has the connotation of a guaranteed right. One who has a sense of entitlement says, “I sowed the seed, it must sprout.” Really? Why must it? Who’d guarantee it? How would they guarantee it?

If the seed does sprout, then the person says, “The tree must bear fruit.” And then, “I must eat that fruit.” Then, finally, “I must enjoy the fruit!”

See how the ‘entitlement’ chain spreads?

However, between the cup (the sowing of the seed) and the lip (eating of the fruit), there’s many a slip: the seed may not sprout; if it does, the tree may not grow; if it does, it may not bear fruit; if it bears fruit and when you go to pick the fruit, you may fall down and paralyze yourself; if and when you pick the fruit and open your mouth to take a bite, you suddenly remember you are diabetic; if you do eat the fruit, you suddenly discover you have an allergy to that particular fruit, or it may taste horrible.

If you tie your sense of self worth and meaning in life to the ultimate experience of unalloyed pleasure in finally eating the fruit and suffering no ill effects from it, you are setting yourself up for a series of disappointments and frustrations.

If sowing a seed and eating a fruit is fraught with so many potential obstacles, how many more potential obstacles might present themselves to more complicated activities!

So, what are we to do?

Lord Krishna advises us to perform whatever actions we must and completely ignore the results. The results may come or they may not. But by concentrating on performing our actions to the best of our ability – indeed, to pursue excellence in all we do – and not tying our happiness or sense of self-worth to the outcome, we realize immediate happiness and fulfillment right here and now, not in some distant future or in an afterlife. The future is uncertain (which is why we can’t ever insist on getting the outcome, i.e., we can’t be entitled to it); the afterlife is unknown, its existence unproven.

By focusing on performing the action in the present to the best of our ability and not reserving our experience of happiness to the actual realization of the outcome, we are guaranteed happiness right here and now. Such happiness is automatic and unpreventable.

If that seems counter-intuitive, try to remember a time when you were completely absorbed in some task – maybe putting together a jigsaw, solving a game puzzle – and you didn’t realize the time fly by. When you ‘came back to earth’, I’m sure you were aware of being happy.

Indeed, games are the easiest examples for understanding the state of mind whereby we are engrossed in our task happily without necessarily tying our happiness to the end result. That’s because most people don’t tie their sense of self-worth with the result of game, unless they are professional game players, in which case the game isn’t as much fun any more.

This state of decoupling actions from their results is possible for all actions, not just in games. You can experience this with the most mundane tasks, such as doing the dishes, cleaning house, fixing the roof, fetching groceries, and so on. You can experience a surreal sense of peace and one-pointed consciousness by practicing the philosophy of Karma Yoga.

If and when our action produces the desired result, then that is an added bonus. If not, it’s no big deal, because we got our payback right up front. It’s a no-lose situation.

The only fly in the ointment of this philosophy of Karma Yoga is the difficulty of putting it into practice. All our life, we have associated the end result with accomplishment, with our sense of self-worth, our confidence, and our happiness.

Our ego is the self-referential construct of our minds that is an abstraction of all the individual events of our life that represent the end result of some protracted sequence of actions.

For example, 15-17 years of dedicated schooling until graduation; several years of dedicated work before we get a promotion; several years of investments before we reap the benefit of accumulated capital; a long period of dating until we get the mate of our dreams; many years of raising our kids before they too graduate from ‘desirable’ colleges; 35 – 40 years of slaving away at a job in anticipation of a happy retirement; and so on.

It is difficult to free our ego from the addiction to the end result of actions and to re-program it to derive happiness from the actions themselves rather than the outcomes.

The theory of Karma Yoga is stunningly simple in its formulation of action and process, yet enormously difficult to implement since it asks for nothing less than the total decoupling within the ego of the old and entrenched association of happiness with outcome.

It requires the complete transformation of the ego itself.

But – and perhaps because of this difficulty – the results of practicing Karma Yoga are well worth it.

And therein lies the delicious irony – a fascinating self-recursion – in the philosophy of Lord Krishna.

 

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Fooled by randomness?

by kirangarimella on September 24, 2013

Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s “Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets is a highly readable book where the author, in an entertaining and frank style, explains how people are continually fooled by randomness which, according to him, affects and explains successes and failures to a greater degree than one would suspect.

For investors and traders, this has important implications.  On the one hand, we have the camp that insists that the markets are inherently random – the so-called Efficient Market Hypothesis (EMH), which comes in three flavors as it relates to tradable instruments:

  1. Weak EMH: all past, public information is already reflected in the price of the instruments.
  2. Semi-strong EMH: Weak EMH is true and all current, public information is already reflected in the price of the instruments.
  3. Strong EMH: Semi-strong EMH is true and all hidden (i.e., insider) information is already reflected in the price of the instruments.

In the other camp, we have traders and investors who ceaselessly create or follow systems that are built on the principle that the markets are predictable.

What do you believe?

I believe that EMH in any of its forms can’t possibly be true because even if all the information is publicly available, it doesn’t mean everyone has taken all of it into account and factored it in or discounted for it or remembered how they formed opinions in the past.

As far as trading is concerned, here’s my take: the markets are random, but what has that got to do with making money?

Huh?  You see, the markets are random, but they do have an underlying probability distribution.  Most people, when they think of randomness, assume that the underlying distribution is uniform.  For example, the distribution of heads and tails of an honest coin is uniform random, which means that the probability of heads (or tails) is 0.5.

No one said that markets have a uniform random distribution, but that’s what people assume.  They have a non-uniform distribution which no one can characterize (at least so far), but the distribution makes itself felt in the way the price charts show up.  If you don’t believe me, try building a random ohlc chart.  It will look like a price chart, but it will exhibit strange characteristics that an experienced chartist can spot as fake (for examples, a series of down bars where each bar has an open that is less than the close).

The markets are driven by the balance of fear, greed, and waffling with uncertainty.  This constantly shifting balance has its own smell (aka, the underlying probability distribution).

Even if the distribution were purely random, you could still make money at it.  Casinos do it all the time.  For example, let’s say you create a coin tossing game where every time it lands heads you get $2 from your opponent and if it lands tails you give your opponent $1.  You will come out ahead in the long run (assuming you can persuade someone to play this game with you – if you find such a person, do be a sport and share their contact info with me).

It’s called the edge.  If you can define a decent edge and stick to it with discipline, then you can make money.  Of course, making billions in 10 years starting from $1000 is attributable to good luck (aka, randomness).

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Picture this: you bought 200 shares of stock XYZ a month ago for $20 a share (most likely based on the opinion of some talking head on CNN).

It is now Saturday.  Just before you head off to a BBQ at your brother-in-law’s place, you decide to check your account.  What do you see?

The stock’s up and closed at $30 a share.  Your account is up $2000.  A helpful ‘Gain %’ or ‘ROI’ column on your online account shows you 50% gain (annualized, that’s 600%)!

At the BBQ, you smugly let drop that your stock is up 600%.  You are the envy of the party.

For the next few weeks your account keeps rising.  The greener your account, the greener is your brother-in-law with envy.

One fine day, your car breaks down and your kids’ dental bill comes in.  You decide to cash in your stock.  You access your account online and get the shock of your life: the stock is now trading at $5 a share – you lost $3000!

How did this happen?

OTE (Open Trade Equity) is what happened.  Also called ‘Account Balance.’   One of the most deceptive and misguided concepts ever invented.

It lulls you into a false sense of accomplishment and security, and then cuts your legs off just when you are getting ready to run the race to wealth, freedom, and happiness.

Here’s a tip for your financial sanity: completely ignore the account balance or OTE numbers in your brokerage account.  The word “Open” in OTE means your money is open to complete evaporation, just as all the boiling water in your pan will evaporate if you leave  the lid off.

A better concept to follow is what I call the True Trade Equity (TTE).  While this idea is well-known among sophisticated investors, it is unknown among the lay public.  Wall Street and brokerage houses have a vested interest in hypnotizing you with OTE and Account Balance (so they’ll let you borrow on margin and let you dig yourself deeper into a hole – but that’s another story).

Read this carefully – it is the difference between life and death for your account.

If you buy 200 shares of stock XYZ for $20 a share, what is your OTE right away?  It is $4000.  What is your TTE? It is -$4000 (yes, negative).  Or, if you make the lazy assumption that a stock (especially XYZ because it was recommended by a loud-mouthed crackpot on CNN) can’t possibly go to zero and might go to $10 in the worst-case scenario, then your TTE is -$2000.

90% of “investors” don’t even get to this point in their thinking.

A very small proportion of investors actually put in a stop loss order.  Let’s say you think that, based on your analysis, if the stock goes down by $2 then your reason for buying the stock was not valid anymore and that you’d prefer to limit your loss to $2 per share.  So, you put in a stop loss at $18, meaning that if the stock ever touched $18 in the course of trading, your 200 shares would be automatically sold (either at the prevailing market price or limit price, depending on how you set it up).

What’s your current TTE with this stop loss in place?  It is -$400.

If the stock moves up by $2 to $22, what’s your OTE?  It is +$400.  How about your TTE?  It is still -$400.

If the stock moves up to $26 and you move your stop to $22, then what is your OTE? +$1200.  Your TTE? +$400.

Isn’t TTE much worse?  Yes, but it is realistic.  The OTE is pure fiction.  Your brother-in-law, who has no stop in place and boasts that he “made” $1200 on XYZ stock is lying – unless he actually sold his 200 shares at 26.

Until you sell, you have made nothing.  If you have a stop in place, you are at least partially guaranteed to limit your risk or lock in some profits.

I say, ‘partially’ guaranteed but not ‘completely’ guaranteed.  That’s because even with a stop loss order in place, it is quite likely that the stock will gap down on the open on some day to, say, $3 (because after the markets closed the prior day, the news hit the fan that the CEO of XYZ was caught south of the border with a suitcase full of loot, the CFO had shot himself, the SEC had filed a multi-trillion dollar lawsuit against the company, all the large customers had cancelled their orders, the one and only factory of the company was burnt down, and that the company’s only warehouse in South America was confiscated by the local tinpot dictator – you want more reasons?)

In that case, your stop loss order would kick in at $3 or just a bit lower (assuming you had the good sense to place a stop loss market order, and not a stop loss limit order, in which latter case, you’d be out of luck).  You would have lost $3400 or worse by this point – perhaps not $4000 (but why quibble?).

Generally speaking, though, TTE is the number to track rather than OTE.  Your TTE is a reasonable safety net.  With OTE, you are doing backflips 150 feet above the ground on a thin, frayed steel wire that has a coating of oil on it.

The OTE devil shows up in many forms.  One of them, for example, is home equity.  Again, a meaningless metric because until you sell your home and pocket the cash, your home equity means nothing (except, as I mentioned, for financial institutions to lend you more money – thereby making you more indebted to them – and for financial ‘aid’ sources to lend you less money for your kid’s college).

TTE is a sane, conservative, responsible metric.

Along with it, you should adopt the following fundamental attitude when it comes to investing:

Paper profits are illusory, paper losses are real.

 

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Take the call first, die later

by kirangarimella on July 5, 2013

Ever notice how people put even the most tense situations on hold in order to answer the phone?

Scene: Couple having a screaming fight.  Phone rings.  Spouse reaches for the phone.  The other spouse waits until the call is done.

Scene: Intensely romantic scene – quickening pace – frenetic action – phone rings.  Action stops abruptly and things cool down until the call is done.

Scene: Burglar holding up a liquor store.  “Your money or your life?  A case of vintage Bordeaux will be fine too.” Store manager’s cell phone rings.  “Just a minute,” says the manager to the burglar, and answers the phone. Burglar waits patiently.

Scene: Villains surround the hero, guns drawn.  Mafia boss about to pull the trigger on our hero when the hero’s phone goes off.  Everyone waits patiently while the hero takes the call.  (Of course, the call dramatically alters the status quo – for example, the Mafia’s boss’s son has been kidnapped by the hero’s sidekick –  so it’s just as well.)

Scene: Hospital.  Loved one about to die.  Relative by the deathbed.  Final words and farewell.  Emotionally charged atmosphere.  Relative’s cell phone rings.  Relative stops weeping to answer it.  Patient postpones dying until call is done.

Either scenes like this really take place or maybe I’m reading too much into TV shows.  Speaking of which, the country or culture doesn’t seems to make any difference.  Hollywood, Bollywood, Tollywood – same diff.

Landlines, cell phones – same diff.  The phone trumps all.

Seriously, though, the phone always goes to the head of the line.

Scene: Airport.  Flight cancelled.  A line of frustrated travelers at the airline’s customer service desk.  Phone rings. Customer service person picks up phone and deals with the caller before turning back to the customers in line.

BTW, I’ve taken advantage of this last situation to call up the airline’s customer service while standing in a long line of frustrated travelers trying to reschedule.  Result?  I was able to re-book before I could advance two places.  It’s even more hilarious if you can actually connect by phone to the desk agent handling the line you are in.  There you are, number 57 in line, on your cell phone, and the desk agent is on the phone too, making the 56 people ahead of you stomp in impotent fury.  You finish your re-book, desk agent puts phone down at the same time that you step out of line to head off to the coffee shop.

The looks you get!  Priceless!

 

 

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The habit of excellence – an antidote to our K12 education

by kirangarimella on February 17, 2013

It is undeniable that K12 education in America is pathetic.  Study after study and several international competitions provide incontrovertible proof of how inadequate the US K12 system is.

But why?

After all, the educational system focuses on making sure kids understand why things work the way they do.  In my opinion (formed by 25 years of living in Asia and, as of this writing, 25 years in the USA), there is no other educational culture than the American K-12 system that’s better in fostering understanding.

But then, why do American kids continue to fail?  Why do these kids have math phobia?  Why are most people convinced that they are no good at math?

Why are we so focused on math anyway?

Because math, among all subjects, embodies the central issue so clearly.  This is the subject that polarizes opinions decisively.  In just about any other subject you can get away with memorization without understanding.  But not in math.  It is only in math that understanding is paramount.

Or is it?

Generations of school teachers graduating from teachers’ colleges have been convinced, and in turn they have convinced parents, that understanding mathematical concepts is absolutely vital.

This, I submit, is nonsense.

Let’s take an example from math.

2x = 20.  What is the value of x?

It is important to understand, the teachers assert, that you have to reduce the left hand term to a term that has nothing but x, and you have to do the same operation to the term on the right side of the “=” sign.

Every adult knows that.  So far so good.

Let’s see how they teach the application of this principle.

The x on the left side of “=” has a coefficient, 2.  This is what we have to get rid of.

So, divide 2x by 2.  This yields x.  Now you have to do the same to the term on the right side of “=,” namely, 20.  So, 20 divided by 2 equals 10.  Hence, x = 10.

This is perfectly correct of course.

Why then do kids do so poorly on tests?

Let’s see how Asian kids (educated in Asia) would solve the same equation.  When they are confronted with “2x = 20,” they immediately see that x = 10.  The key word is “immediately.”  What’s more astonishing is that they may not actually understand why.

So, here’s the paradox in education.  The American kid has understanding but poor execution, the Asia kid has excellent execution but may be not enough understanding.

The distinction is important not just for taking tests.  After all, there’s more to life than tests.

It has to do with a fundamental attitude – or lack of – towards life: the attitude of excellence.

Back to the poor American student.  He thinks he understands why x = 10.  Then comes the Friday quiz.  He gets 30 questions to be solved in 50 minutes.  How does he tackle them?

Let’s take the first two.

First question: 2x = 20.  Find x.

The student’s thought process (this, by the way, is a ‘good’ student who ‘gets it’) – and each thought step below is accompanied by actual scribbling in the answer sheet:

1. Eliminate the coefficient of x (namely, 2).

2. So, divide 2x by 2.  At the same time, divide 20 by 2.

3. x on the left side, 10 on the right side.

Time taken? 5 seconds.

Second question: 2x +1 = 21.

1. Eliminate everything that surrounds x.

2. So, first subtract 1 from the left side and the right side.  (Why subtract first and not divide by 2? Many kids fail in understanding this completely – but our student gets it).

2x + 1 – 1 = 21 – 1.

2. That leaves “2x = 20.”

Repeat the steps as for the first question.  3 more steps to get the answer “x = 10.”

Total number of steps (both mental and actually on paper): 7

Time taken? 10 seconds.  (That’s being generous.)

The rest of the problems increase in complexity.  When the class bell goes off, our poor student is on problem #25.  Result: great understanding, hopeless execution.

So, you might say, this kid gets a B perhaps.  Big deal.  Life’s not always a timed test.

Let’s assume that’s true (actually, everything in life IS a timed test).  The biggest problem is that our American student develops this attitude that understanding is all well and good but he’s getting a poor grade.  He’s no good at math.

Let’s see how an Asian student attacks the same thing.

First problem: 2x = 20.  Easy, 10.

Second problem: 2x +1 = 21.  (Mental picture: 2x = 20. Easy, 10. What a dumb question!)

Total time for the first two problems: 2 seconds.

To clarify a bit more: an Asian student may not actually know why the subtraction must be performed first before doing the division, but – and this is key – this lack of understanding does not stop her.

All 30 problems done in 5 minutes.  Looks around.  Everyone else is busy.  What are they doing?  Suspects she may have missed a extra sheet of more problems or maybe there are more on the other side?  No, she has done it all.  I’m bored, she thinks.

In contrast, it’s pathetic to see high school kids struggle through math problem solving by laboriously following a sequence of steps that’s supposed to teach them a concept when what they need is practice.

You see, what’s more important than understanding is the feeling of confidence in one’s ability to solve problems fast.  It’s what I call the feeling of excellence.  Yes, excellence is a habit, a quality, but it is also a feeling, a mood.

The primary purpose of education should be to develop this feeling in kids and to give them the mental tools to invoke that feeling at will.  It is this feeling that is the foundation of a strong, confident, efficacious mind.

The primary purpose of education is not to stuff all kinds of information into brains – that’s the secondary purpose.

The kid who is well-acquainted with the mood of excellence is highly motivated to experience it again and again.  And the only way to do this is to stop doing boring math problems at the level of “2x + 1 = 20” and go on to higher algebra.  When that gets boring, go on to calculus…and on and on…

Like a drug addict that wants stronger and more frequent doses.

The mood of excellence is addictive.

Contrast this with the state of mind of the student in the ‘understanding is primary’ school of education.  He understands  the content, but wait, why is this useful in real life?

When was the last time you estimated the height of a building using the length of your shadow?  How much time did you spend laboriously solving trigonometric problems about this?  What for?

99.99% of the content of our education is a complete waste.  The ROI (return on investment) of our educational content is terrible.

Our American kid, faced with the barrage of seemingly useless information, has nothing but a feeling of frustration.

Our Asian kid seeks tougher problems so he or she can experience the feeling of triumph, of excellence, of confidence.  The question of the relevance of the content to real life is itself irrelevant.  Scholastic ability and scholarship become an addictive game.

Did I mention that the mood of excellence is addictive?

That’s why all kids seek it actively.  If they can’t get it through math, they’ll seek out video games.  Somehow, somewhere.  The nature of the content is secondary.

If our Asian student is lucky, she will realize that at some point she has to augment her basic skills of execution with understanding.

The habit of excellence, the feeling of confidence in one’s own mind, is the primary purpose of education.

Now, this does not imply that understanding is unimportant (an attitude that is probably carried to the other extreme in Asian educational culture).

I just mean that kids must first experience success and make the attitude of excellence a firm part of them consciousness.  Only when they are addicted to excellence will they actively seek out things to be excellent in.  Only then will they have sufficient motivation to explore understanding.

The kid with no strong experience of the mood of excellence has no motive power for future development.

This relationship between execution and understanding is inverted in adults, who feel frustrated if they don’t understand something.  They are not as concerned about solving things fast as they are about solving things.

This, then, is the tragedy of the American educational system: cultivating understanding at the expense of the habit of excellence.

So, how do you begin cultivating the habit of excellence?

Practice.

Practice techniques so well that they become second nature.  After all, kids are taught to do this with the multiplication table.  Why not continue that with higher level techniques?

Let’s take an analogy with learning the piano.  If our traditional K-12 techniques were followed, piano classes would churn out mediocre players (or more accurately, non-players), who have a smidgen of knowledge about formal music and poor technique.  These unfortunate students would have no ‘habit of excellence’ to support their growth as pianists.

Contrast this with private piano schools – especially those with good repute.  They have more practice, interspersed with learning repertoire pieces.

Take another analogy with professional tennis players.  They spend 90% of their practice doing drills.  Only 10% of the time is spent playing games.  In contrast, consider weekend warriors.  After a few warm up minutes, they dive right into playing games.

Why?  What are they out to prove?  Well, you may say, we don’t all want to become professional tennis players.  We just want to have fun, not do boring practice.

Oh yeah?  Have you actually practiced drills?  Do you even know how much more fun it is when you can keep the ball in play for 10, 15, 25 ground strokes? How exhilirating it is when you can place the ball consistently in a 5-foot circle in the far court over the course of 10-15 strokes?

Don’t tell me playing sets is fun.  Speak to me after you try my method for a few months.

We don’t all want to become concert pianists, you say.  All I want to do is to play Mary Has a Little Lamb, you say.  I don’t want to practice for four hours a day, you say.  Well, do you know how much more pleasure you can get if you practice good technique for 15 minutes a day – if you focus on getting the technique correct?

This is what I mean by the tragedy of American schooling.  Kids (who later become adults) have no experience of the ‘mood high’ one gets when skills improve with practice.

So, learn a fundamental concept, gain initial understanding – then practice it so well that it becomes second nature.  Then review periodically.  Repeat with another concept.

There you have it.  The ONE and ONLY way to fix education.

Not more technology, not more money, not more philanthropic efforts from well-meaning billionaires, and especially not more Ph.D.s from teachers’ colleges.

 

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The Attitude of Gratitude – The Sutras of Suryakirti

by kirangarimella on November 28, 2012

[With commentary by Narik Allemirag.]

1. Cultivate a discriminatory attitude of gratitude toward everything all the time.

The role of discrimination is obviously implicit in normal social situations.  You don’t give thanks to people who harm you.  But the key is to be grateful to everything that your discrimination tells you is worthy of such gratitude, not just to a small selection of people or just to one’s God.  You must be grateful all the time, not just during special moments or a Thanksgiving holiday.  You have to cultivate this attitude because it doesn’t come naturally to human beings.  The idea of being discriminating in cultivating this virtuous attitude is assumed in the rest of the sutras.

2. Express gratitude toward everything all the time.

The attitude of gratitude must find expression, otherwise it is a meaningless figure of speech.

3. The expression of gratitude is a feeling, not a speech, not a demonstration.

Gratitude is best expressed as a feeling or mood, not a speech or a big demonstration of emotion.  In social situations, a simple ‘Thanks’ is sufficient.  For those who pray, a short, heartfelt thanks to one’s object of prayer – a God, higher force, guru, parent – is sufficient expression.

4. The feeling of gratitude, sustained for a period of time by recognizing the benevolent nature of the universe, becomes a mood of gratitude.

A mood is a feeling that lasts for an extended duration.  A mood of gratitude is achieved when the benevolent nature of the universe is recognized.  This requires constant practice.

5. The mood of gratitude is established as an attitude of gratitude when the benevolent nature of the universe is experienced and constantly recognized.

Constant practice in feeling gratitude gives rise to the mood of gratitude.   Effort in sustaining the mood of gratitude combined with positive experience of the response of the universe solidifies the mood into an attitude.

6. When so established as a fundamental virtue, the universe becomes benevolent, reciprocal, and responsive.

Why should we practice gratitude?  Is there some practical benefit from doing so?  If not, why bother?  Suryakirti assures us that if you practice gratitude diligently, you will find that the universe will respond with more examples for which you can be grateful.  The universe itself becomes transformed from a seemingly indifferent, neutral entity to a dynamic entity that finds ways to support your attitude.

It may seem rather self-serving to be grateful to someone in order to get more benefit later.  That is not what is implied here.  People are part of the universe and hence take on the characteristics of the universe.  People feel happy and motivated to perform beneficial actions if they are recognized for being helpful.  So is the universe.  Thanks are always appreciated.  Why is this property of the universe true?  Suryakirti gives a hint in the next sutra.

7. This is so due to the nature of energy relationships.  Any other speculation is useless.

Why does the universe reciprocate thus?  What are the causes?  What is the mechanism by which this happens?  Is the universe intelligent?  Does this prove the existence of God?  All such speculation, Suryakirti implies, is useless and unnecessary.  It is sufficient to know that the universe merely responds to energy patterns in a certain way.  Any more analysis into this is of academic interest and does not change the result or the nature of what actually happens.

8. Express gratitude toward everything you encounter.

So much for the theory.  Now for the practice.  How is this attitude of gratitude to be cultivated?  Some guidelines follow.

At the outset, it is important to practice this virtue by anchoring it to reality, to things that you encounter personally, not to abstract ideas, and not to limit it to people, gods, or gurus of the past.  If you are grateful only to conceptual abstractions, illusions, or memories, then the virtue yields no benefit in your daily life.

9. Express gratitude toward all objects that have been useful to you.

Here is an interesting departure from the traditional theory of gratitude.  Everyone knows that to give thanks to people who have helped you – and for those who believe in God, to give thanks to God – is good and proper.  But giving thanks to objects?  Objects don’t exist with the intention to serve us, do they?  In the next sutra, Suryakirti assures us that this is true.

10. Objects are encapsulations of thought, invention, work, functionality, intent, or support.

Objects created by human beings, such as a chair, are the result of some person who thought of the idea of a chair and who expended effort in creating it.  A chair is therefore an encapsulation of this idea, effort, and intent.  Hence, every time you use a chair, it is proper to feel thankful.

Objects that are natural – streams, mountains, air, water, stones – also are encapsulations of some purpose and use for human beings.  [Remember, discrimination should be applied throughout this practice of gratitude.  You are obviously exempted from expressing gratitude to hostile people and dangerous objects.]

11. Express gratitude the moment you receive help or service, whether from people or from objects.

Most of the time, we don’t express gratitude at the time of receiving help or service, unless the giver is another person.  We typically don’t express gratitude for happy coincidences, smoothly running cars, things happening on time, or to the vending machine for correctly dispensing a can of pop.

At first, it feels strange to be thanking inanimate objects.  In the initial stages of practice, we will frequently forget to do so.  With persistent practice, it is possible to shorten the time between using an object and expressing thanks (as a feeling or an intention).  Ultimately, you will achieve a sustained mood of gratitude that extends to objects, people, animals, and the more complex phenomena such as a bus arriving on time, a closing of a sales order, an unexpected call from an old friend, a return of money owed to you, getting tickets to a popular show, and so on.

[Remember, gratitude towards objects and fortuitous circumstances is best expressed as a feeling or intention, not in a lengthy speech.]

12. An attitude of gratitude establishes a benevolent relationship with the universe.  The benefits of this virtue are obvious.

A sustained attitude of gratitude – a mood, if you will – puts you in a different relationship with the universe.  It is as if the universe delights in receiving your thanks and willingly does more for you.  You enter into a benevolent partnership with the universe.

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Why don’t we just print more money?

by kirangarimella on November 20, 2012

My friend’s daughter, Jen, is in junior high.  She accompanied her dad, my friend Mark, one day when he dropped by to lend Narik a book.  You remember Narik, my alien friend from Centurion?

Quite naturally, they started talking about the recession that was, at that time, well under way in the US.

Mark, like most people who are not trained economists, held deep opinions about the economy.  These opinions, needless to say, were charmingly disconnected from reality.  It seems to be a truism of human psychology, as Narik once observed, that the less a person knows, the stronger are his opinions.

(Actually, Narik once told me that most economists too held deep opinions that were disconnected from reality.)

Jen’s iPhone battery ran out of power right after they arrived – and no one had a power cord.  So, she was forced to listen to the conversation.  After a few minutes, she interjected:

Jen: Why don’t they just print more money?  That would solve all problems, wouldn’t it?

(She rolled her eyes theatrically, as if to say, ‘Duh, these adults! Why can’t they think of the obvious solution?’)

Mark: That would just cause more inflation because more dollars will be chasing fewer goods.

Narik: It’s true that printing more money will cause more inflation, which is defined as more dollars competing for fewer goods.  But that’s the definition of ‘inflation,’ not its explanation.

Markand Jen: Huh?

Narik: Let’s say we were speaking about a war, and I told you that one side lost the war because they were outnumbered by the other side.  You ask me why the losing side were outnumbered.  I reply that it’s because the other side had more soldiers.  Have I given you a real explanation or have I just given you the definition of ‘outnumbered?’

Mark: Oh, I see.

Jen: But why does printing money cause inflation?  And why is it bad?

Mark: It’s bad because things get more and more expensive.

Jen: But why do they?

Mark: Eh, it’s because there’s more money chasing fewer goods and services – there are more buyers than sellers, and…uh…

Narik: There is a fundamental reason why printing more money is bad.  But before you understand that, Jen, you must understand what money is.  Do you know what money is?

Jen: Sure.  It’s the dollar bills and coins and credit cards.

Narik: All those things represent money.  They are convenient forms of money, not what money stands for.

Jen: Same diff, right?

Narik: If you got an ‘A’ grade on a test, what does the ‘A’ grade mean?

Jen: It means I worked hard, studied well, and did good on my test.

Narik: So, the ‘A’ grade is simply a shorthand way of saying all that, right?

Jen: I guess so.

Narik: Similarly, a dollar bill is a shorthand way of saying something else.  What might that be?

Jen: Eh, I think it’s a way of saying ‘so much of pizza,’ ‘so much of a movie,’ ‘this many iTunes songs.’  Something like that?

Narik: Excellent.  Money is a standard, store, medium, and measure of value.  It represents things that you or someone else values, like pizza, movies, and songs.

Jen: That makes sense.  So, why can’t the government print more money?  We’d all get more things of value, right?

Narik: Excellent question.  The key thing to understand in the definition of money is that it is a standard, store, medium, and measure of value; it is not a creator of value.  You see, value must first be created.  Then, money is used to measure that value, store it, allow people an easy way to talk about the valuable things they created – this is what standard means – and then allow people to easily exchange one value for another – this is what medium means.

Jen: I’m not sure what the diff is?

Narik: Let me give you an example.  You get an ‘A’ grade only after you study well, do good on a test, and get graded, right?

Jen nods.

Narik: What if your teacher simply handed out ‘A’ grades to you?  Does that automatically make you proficient in the subject?  Has the grade created the understanding?

Jen: That’d be dumb.  Getting a grade won’t get knowledge into my head.  I’d have to study for it.

Narik: So, you have to create something of value first, right?

Jen: Like knowledge and understanding?

Narik: You got it.

Jen: I understand that part.  What does this have to do with inflation and why printing money is bad?

Narik: Good question.  Let’s take this a step further.  Let’s say there are two high schools in town.  In your school – let’s call it School A – you only get good grades if you really earn them.  In the other school – let’s call it School B – the teachers just hand out ‘A’ grades to every student without checking to see if the kids studied and know the material or not.

Jen: Gee, I’d like to be in School B!

Narik: Really?

Jen (abashed): Just kidding, not really.

Narik: Why not?

Jen: Because, because, everyone would know that the grades they give out in School B are worthless.  It’d be a joke.  Kids from other schools would laugh at me.

Narik (smiling): You mean, the grades from School B have no value?

Jen: Yes!

Narik: Just giving out grades without the students earning them is like printing money.  School B is just printing grades and handing them out.  That’s why the grades from School B are worthless.

Jen: I get that.  But does it matter?  A grade is a grade, right?

Narik: Fortunately, or unfortunately for students in School B, that’s not so.  If you were an employer, if you had a choice of hiring a kid from School A or School B, which one would you hire?

Jen: The one from School A, duh!

Narik: So, School B’s practice of ‘printing grades’ cheapened them, because they represent no value.  Do you see that?

Jen: Yes, it kinda makes sense.

Narik: Money is just like those grades.  You have to first create something of value.  Only then will your money have any value.   Money is simply a convenience, remember.  Society can get along very well without money as we know it – it’ll just be harder.  We’d have to barter our way through life.

Jen: Barter?

Narik: Let’s say you and your friend have no money.  You have two Barbie dolls and your friend has two CDs.  You exchange one of your Barbie dolls for one of her CDs.  Both end up getting what you each wanted without using any money.  That’s barter.

Jen: We don’t play with Barbie dolls anymore and we don’t do CDs, it’s all iTunes.  But I get what you mean.

Narik: You got the idea.  Now do you see why printing more money is bad?

Jen (doubtfully): Let’s see.  If the government prints more money just like that without checking to see if someone worked hard and actually created stuff, that money is just a bunch of paper that represents no value.  It kinda cheapens the value of our dollars – I mean the dollars of those of us who worked hard to create value.  Right?

Narik: I wish economists who have Nobel-prizes had your intelligence.  When your dollars become cheaper, it takes more dollars to buy the same thing that you could buy last month with fewer dollars.

Jen: You lost me there.  I kinda understand the part about printed money, like printed grades, having no value.  How does that make the cost of things go up?

Narik: Again, an excellent question.  Let’s continue with the school grades analogy.  Let’s say you went to School A, where you get a high GPA of 4.0 only if you really worked hard.  You are only one of two kids to get a perfect 4.0 GPA in your school.

Jen (sitting up straight, with a big grin): Yeah, I like that!

Narik: Now, let’s say you want to get a part-time job at a fancy clothing store.  When you get to the store for an interview, you see ten other kids there, all waiting to get that same job.  Guess what?  They are all from School B.  They all have a perfect 4.0 GPA.  You know that their GPAs are junk.  But perhaps the store manager doesn’t know the reputation of your two schools yet.  What do you do?

Jen: Gee, I don’t know.  It’s kinda tough to convince the manager that I am the best and that the other kids are just losers.

Narik: So, the job you want – something of value – just became harder for you to get because you have to do something extra to convince the store manager that you are indeed the best in that group of applicants.  Just showing the manager your report card won’t do the trick, right?  In other words, it just became more costly for you, in terms of time and effort, to ‘buy’ your job.

Jen: Wow, that makes perfect sense.  All those cheap, junk GPAs are driving out my good GPA.

Narik: Bingo – you got it!  That’s why junk GPAs make it harder for those who have real honest GPAs.  They make it harder for the store managers and employers because they have to work harder to find out who has the real GPA.  They also, ironically, make it harder for the kids from School B because those kids don’t learn how to create value; even though they breezed through high school by taking it easy, they’ll suffer in the future when employers, college enrollment officers, and others figure out that their GPAs are useless.

Jen: Gee, Mr. Allemirag, thanks for explaining that to me.  I can see how that relates to money and why printing money is bad.

 

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The ROI of college education

by kirangarimella on November 10, 2012

(Don’t show this to your kids!)

The phrase “ROI” assumes a ‘financial’ perspective.

From a life enrichment perspective, the more the education the better (upto one advanced degree).

If you are in it for the money, the ROI’s not so good.

I ran a spreadsheet simulation with the following assumptions:

  • College costs $20,000 per year
  • Assume the parents have $20,000 per year available for college – purely from a financial perspective, should they send their child to college or just invest it in the S&P 500 (for the long term)?
  • Constant employment throughout and savings
  • The long-term return of the S&P 500 is 9.5% per year
  • Average starting salaries are as follows:
    • High school: $39,010
    • Associate’s degree: $50,150
    • Bachelor’s degree: $65,800
    • Master’s degree: $80,960
    • Doctorate: $100,000
  • Savings rate: 10% of salary
  • Salary increase: 5% per year (about keeping up with the long-term inflation rate)
  • Repayment of college debt for those who go to college is not taken into account
  • Opportunity loss of investment return for those who go to college is not taken into account
  • Cost of college beyond 4 year degree is not taken into account

If my calculations are correct, at the beginning of their 66th year, the total ‘equity’ of each is as follows:

  • High School: $9,806,409
  • Associate: $9,271,261
  • Bachelor: $7,312,465
  • Master: $7,380,688
  • Doctorate: $5,510,945 (no wonder Ph.D. stands for ‘Poor Hungry Doctor’)

Never mind where the numbers in the assumption come from.  Do your own research and feel free to tweak the assumptions and see what you get. It is tempting to conclude that more education = less money.

While that may be generally true (the numbers don’t lie), there’s obviously more to life than making money, though that message won’t resonate well with most folks these days.

The calculations above are purely mechanical and assume a ‘steady state.’  They don’t take into account:

  • Those with higher degrees have more opportunities (except, it seems, for Ph.D.s)
  • Those with higher degrees are more upwardly mobile; counter-argument: but they are also locked into a comfortable lifestyle and are less entrepreneurial, while a person with only a high-school diploma can go for broke
  • Those with higher degrees are smarter and will tend to invest more and better; counter-argument: reality is that the more you earn, the more you lose to taxes and the more you spend or overborrow.
  • If “The Millionaire Next Door” is to be believed, the people with the most unpretentious wealth are those with small businesses, not the ‘professionals’ – not even doctors making millions
  • And so on and on…

Education really should be a ‘values’ and ‘life enrichment’ argument, not a purely financial one.

 

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Monetizing privacy

by kirangarimella on October 16, 2012

I’ve always been intrigued by the notion of capitalizing on the privacy issue.  There are those of us for whom lack of privacy isn’t a big deal – me, for instance.  I always thought people who worry about lack of privacy have something to hide.  My own life is completely innocent (darn it!) – to someone looking at me from the outside, it looks completely boring.

Obviously, I like to think I have more fun and lead a more rewarding life than the average Joe (but then all the people named Joe that I know of are way above average), but all that excitement is between my ears and not lower down – I mean my wallet, what did you think I meant, eh?

In any event, the privacy debate has polarized people into two camps: the vast majority who are fairly worried about it (the same majority whose heart skips a beat if they see flashing lights in their rear-view mirror), and the tiny minority for whom the whole problem is a non-issue or, at worst, only a minor inconvenience.

But aren’t there any enterprising folks out there who are willing to monetize their privacy?  The closest they’ve come to is to be willing to exchange their privacy for some dubious benefit that is not guaranteed.  Chris Taylor, in his excellent article, has some great examples.

However, here is my proposition: what if the government mandated – and enforced – total privacy by default?  Any company wanting any info has to pay the individual – but only if the person voluntarily contracted with the company.

A company spends money collecting data and pushing ads at you because there is value in doing so.  Right now, the only people collecting the loot are the intermediary channels.  Why shouldn’t we – the privacy targets – collect some too?

What if no ONE has the right to collect our information for ANY purpose unless (a) we allow them to do so voluntarily and (b) the collecting company pays us?  What if they can’t resell our info unless the same rules apply?

What if every company is required by law to offer compensation in cash (not in kind) in return for private information – compensation that the individual is free to accept, reject, or negotiate?

After all, what is at stake here is our own personal brand.  Which brings me to a really revolutionary idea: given that everything I proposed above won’t come to pass (because we have a bunch of wet noodles for our government), why not incorporate ourselves?  John Doe, LLC.  Then, our name becomes a brand that receives legal protection.  No collection of data or usage without our permission.  And we give permission only if we are paid!

Ergo, problem solved.

(Learned counsel will probably shoot holes in this theory.)

I’d love to let some company put a device on my car and track my every movement – as long as they pay me a price that I set.

After all, I don’t violate any traffic laws (not a single moving violation ever since I started driving, for about 25 years now! touch wood, touch wood), don’t visit people I shouldn’t, or go to places that are questionable.

I have nothing to fear.  Bring on the money!

 

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The other day my daughter, who is a sophomore in high school, reported a conversation she had with one of her teachers.  This is all hearsay, of course, and teens can misunderstand just as well as adults.

This is how I reconstructed the conversation:

Student:  “I think I want to be a dentist.”

Teacher: “That’s great.”

Student: “Is it very difficult to become a dentist?”

Teacher: “Well, you do have to work hard.  You have to go to dental school.”

Student: “Gee…”

Teacher (sensing that the student is balking at the hard work): “Well, if you find that too tough, you can become a dental assistant instead.”

I had heard enough.  It was at this point that I blew up.  My wife was outraged too.

Now, there’s nothing wrong in becoming a dental assistant.  But is that the extent of ambition that teachers are supposed to encourage in their students?

Why are some teachers dumbing down their students?  (I realize that not all teachers counsel their students like this.  In fact, I don’t even know if this teacher did so – it was probably a miscommunication.  But I want to make a point here.  The idea of a ‘dental assistant’ should not even arise in a conversation like this.)

We should never raise our kids to settle for anything less than a high ideal.  But what is a high ideal?  Dentistry?  Neuro-surgery?  Chess grandmaster?  Nobel laureate?

Regardless of the answer, this is the kind of inner dialog that parents and teachers need to have.  They should be thinking, “How can I expose new vistas to this child?  How can I convey a sense of grandeur and self-actualization?  How do I motivate my students to shoot for the top 1% in whatever profession they choose?”

This is where the educational culture in the US differs from that in the Eastern cultures.

In the US, becoming a fireman is ok.  In the East, their goal is to become an engineer.

In the US, becoming a medical assistant is ok.  In the East, their goal is to become a doctor.

In the US, becoming a garbage collector is ok (euphemistically called ‘sanitation officer’).  In the East, their goal is to become the owner of the garbage company.

Obviously, not all of our dreams and goals will be achieved.  For whatever reason (financial, family circumstances, scholastic ability, etc.), many of our kids will end up in lower levels of their chosen profession.  Mathematically, it is impossible for the majority to be in the top 1%.

We should respect our kids for having tried and be supportive of whatever profession they choose.  However, by aiming for the top we convey respect for education and high standards.

As opposed to using the words ‘nerd’ and ‘geek’ as derogatory terms.

It is this lack of respect for high achievement that is the leading indicator of the decline and fall of a society.

When I was a student in India, we had no derogatory term to denote a scholastically-inclined child.  ‘Bookworm’ is the closest that I remember.  The kids with high scores, members of the chess club, etc., were held in high regard.

Maybe that has now changed even in India?  I hope not.

(BTW, I did have a heart-to-heart conversation with the guidance counselor, who assured me that she and her colleagues shared my values and that she’d investigate and correct any miscommunication in this regard.)

There is nothing morally reprehensible in being in the bottom 99% – but deliberately aiming for it is inexcusable.

I call on all teachers – the most influential front-line mentors for our kids – to stop the rot.

 

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