Exit, Voice, and Rachel Chu

My father has a poster on his office pinboard, which says “Love It, Leave It, or Change It.” If I have a failing, it is that I tend to leave it rather than change it or love it; but my personal failings are not a subject for this post; and perhaps not even for this blog. What I wanted to say is that I vaguely imagined Albert Hirschman’s Exit, Voice, and Loyalty to be a scholarly framing of this very sentiment; with Exit being “Leave It”, Voice being “Change It”, and Loyalty being “Love It”. A major problem with this is that I had never actually read the original Hirschman book, only seen lots of references to it, especially in all the Deirdre McCloskey books I had read last year. But I resolved to read it as soon as possible, only to encounter unexpected hurdles: first, there was no Kindle edition. Second, Amazon didn’t have it in stock in India and was demanding an import fee depost and proof of identity to ship it from the USA. Finally, grumbling, I imported it in August; and read it over August and September.

Now that I’ve read it, I can confidently say two things:

  1. It’s a fantastic book, one that is short and yet very dense with insight
  2. If Albert Hirschman ever intended his framework of exit and voice to be applied to families, he didn’t reveal it in this book. He was more concerned with how either business firms or organisations like political parties, committees, unions, or governments responded to exit or voice. His acknowledgement of families as a sort of organisation wasn’t non-existent, but it was tangential.

But that doesn’t mean that we can’t take Hirschman’s ideas and apply them to families. For many of us, our families are the first tiny dictatorships – or, if we’re lucky – semi-authoritarian but principled structures – that we encounter. And as such, they too will respond to exit or voice. And one sort of exit and voice keep cropping up in pop culture: young lovers whose getting together is ferociously opposed by one or both of their families.

In the twilight period between knowing about Exit, Voice, and Loyalty; and having actually read it, I remarked to the incomparable Chilli that we should categorise movies (and songs) into Exit, Voice, and Loyalty based on the decisions taken by the romancers with regards to their family. Yo Yo Honey Singh’s Desi Kalakar, with its exhortations to Billo to run away with everything from her passport to a packet of roti and bhindi1, is very much on the exit side. The chorus of chhad de, chhad de, chhad de takes it to the pinnacle of exit as a strategy.

As a grimmer and darker votary of exit, Sairat starts off with exit, and closes with a message of what a mistake it is to choose voice or loyalty.

Practically at the opposite end from Sairat lies Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge, which pushes loyalty to absurd levels. Hours of refusing to either run away or to do anything to persuade Amrish Puri to cancel the arranged marriage lead up to Amrish Puri magically changing his mind2 Loyalty for its own sake and bearing the consequences is one thing, but loyalty getting you what you wanted all along is quite another.

And as for voice, there’s… well, that’s the thing. Indian pop culture isn’t very good at voice. There are bizarrely few movies where couples talk other people into seeing their point of view. Admittedly, an open and honest statement of positions, followed by negotiation, doesn’t make for very riveting movies if you’re used to chase scenes and fights, but there could still be negotiations that do make for good drama? Which brings us to another point that Exit, Voice, and Loyalty doesn’t go into great detail on: what does count as voice?

Exit, Voice, and Loyalty first tries to point out that sometime the point of deserting is not to kill a bad organisation; but a way of communicating that its quality is poor and needs to improve; and secondly, that because economists are obsessed with the possibility of switching from competitor to competitor, that they don’t consider the possibility that frustrated customers (or members) simply tell their supplier or organisation that the quality is lacking. His major insight is that telling somebody that the state of affairs is unsatisfactory, and asking for a change is also a valid strategy. But that’s where it ends; and it doesn’t break down the different types of asking for, or bringing about, change.

If voice is anything that doesn’t involve quitting or switching to a competitor; or accepting that you’re stuck with bad quality; then all of these count as voice:

  • Polite requests and petitions, like the Indian National Congress’s early days
  • A bargaining session filled with negotiation
  • A flaming row (which usually get nowhere, so they would be followed by loyalty or exit)
  • Or customer imposed quality audits and factory acceptance tests
  • Civil disobedience movements
  • Negotiation made under false pretexts (think of PG Wodehouse’s Summer Lightning, where Sue Brown impersonates Myra Schoonmaker in order to be taken seriously, but honestly, think of most of Wodehouse)
  • Negotiation that shades all the way into blackmail (Wodehouse again, and think of Aunt Dahlia threatening to cut Bertie Wooster off from Anatole’s dinners)
  • Storming the Bastille and beheading Marie Antoinette
  • Expelling or massacring anybody who happens to be inconveniently sitting over the crude oil that you want, as in Tintin in America

I am hesitant to place blackmail in the same category as a three month long drafting of a product specification document; and immensely queasy about placing violent revolution in the same category as an election campaign, but that’s what broad and simplifying categories get you. I wonder what would make the Exit, Voice, and Loyalty categorisation more useful – to separate out violence3 and deceit as separate categories; or to place them all on a spectrum of ethical and less ethical voice.

Let’s return to our frustrated lovers, and let’s also consider the spectrum of voice. On the spectrum, they could start with politely asking their parents to change their minds; move on to bargaining; move on to guile and trickery; and end with violence.

So when it comes to fiction, violence is a different kind of story. The dramatic possibilities of politely asking and getting what you want are highly limited. Thanks to PG Wodehouse, we have lots of stories centred around guile and trickery. Smooth talkers who negotiate a happy outcome for themselves without resorting to tricks, bluffs, or a hidden card up their sleeve can be interesting too; though the suitability for fiction goes down the less smooth a talker you are. And as fiction goes, it’s probably the most acquired taste, having none of the things that immediately appeal to our sense of drama.

Which is why it’s such a pleasure to come across fiction that does cards-down, no-trickery negotiation – and successsful negotiation – well. And there’s a shining example of it I came across recently – the Crazy Rich Asians movie. Note: spoilers for the movie follow, even if you’ve read the book, as the movie departs significantly from the book.

I am referring, of course, to the end of movie mahjongg parlour showdown between Eleanor Young and Rachel Chu. Up until that point, the couple – Nick Young and Rachel – have been trying honest and polite, but not very firm voice to win over Nick’s family; only to be rebuffed in ugly terms. So, finally, Rachel Chu meets Nick’s mother, Eleanor Young, for a final settlement of terms over mahjongg.

This is the major departure from the book, where things just sort of happen, and the main characters roll with events, culminating in Nick and Rachel walking out on his family in despair, or as Hirschman would put it, exiting. The movie, however, turns Rachel Chu into a stupendous badass4, who decides to sieze control of events instead of just going with them. So, over mahjongg, Rachel tells Eleanor that Eleanor has created a no-win situation for Nick, and that she, Rachel, refuses to be made to play this no-win game5; and is therefore deciding to leave, but on her own terms. And to reinforce how she’s doing this on her own terms, she passes a crucial mahjongg piece from her own winning hand to Eleanor, letting Eleanor win the game.

Good grief, what amazing writing that scene is. It was ostensibly exit, with Rachel deciding to walk out rather than be pulled into what her mother-in-law would make a miserable marriage; but instead of the simple, voiceless exit that Hirschman accuses his fellow economists of celebrating, it was exit combined with voice, or perhaps even voice masquerading as exit6, and it makes such an impact on Eleanor that the very next scene is Nick proposing to Rachel with his mother’s implicit blessing. All in all, the movie ends up being what Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge could have been if all its characters had been sane and reasonable human beings instead of complete idiots.

Of course, Crazy Rich Asians is a movie. The depressing thing about reality is that no matter how good your arguments, or how persuasive you personally are even if your arguments are terrible, you might always find yourself stuck in a situation where voice just isn’t getting you your happy ending; and having failed to change it, you have to love it or leave it. But, as I frequently have to remind myself, you don’t know if trying to change things will work or not until you try.

My Tryst With Juvenile Dramatics

I have always had a low grade resentment towards children’s theatre, and had expressed this resentment back in the early days of this blog. Back then, I had cited three unpleasant run-ins with the activity. Those wounds have healed somewhat, but my suspicion of the theatre remains.

These days, my main problem with children’s theatre is the claim its practitioners make – that it is a cure for shyness. My reaction to this claim is very much like the reaction of the X-Men to the ‘mutant cure’ – rage and insistence that there is nothing to cure. Shyness, I tell everybody who will listen, is a personality trait and not a disease. It can often be a very useful personality trait, in that it rescues you from prolonged interaction with other people, who can often teach you stupid things that it will take a long time to unlearn. This is all the more poignant considering that shyness isn’t even  communicable. Even if you’re not shy yourself, you don’t risk catching it from a shy person. So why not just let them be?

Recently I remembered that I had forgotten to write about my first ever, probably formative, encounter with juvenile dramatics. I may as well tell the story now.

The story dates back to either Class 5 or Class 6 – more likely Class 5, so sometime between April 1992 and October 1993. My aunt Gugloo1 Masi had arrived from the United States (or possibly France) and was in Delhi visiting her parents, in-laws, cousins (which included my mother), and friends (which included either Lushin or Lilette Dubey – possibly both, as she had been to school or college with one of the Dubey sisters). Anyway, as things turned out, Gugloo Masi was at the home of whichever of the sisters was her friend – probably Lushin – and invited my mother to come over and meet her there. Ma in turn took me along. Once we were there, the three ladies became engrossed in conversation. I became engrossed in the bookshelf.

The bookshelf was magnificent. It stretched from floor to ceiling, and my nine or ten year old self could only examine the upper shelves by dragging a chair from the writing table to the shelf and then clambering on top. It had what looked like the collected works of Agatha Christie, whom I had started reading in the summer of 1991. If I remember right, the Harper Collins paperbacks in those days were priced between Rs 75 and Rs 125; and seeing the collected works, as it were, in the wild, free for the picking, was a powerful stimulus to my soul. I gazed at the bookshelf in rapture. Conversation from the sitting room, some of it to do with the benefits of theatre in curing shyness, drifted through, but I paid it no heed.

Alas, my plans of communing with Agatha Christie were scuppered by Ma, who yelled at me for climbing on people’s chairs without their leave, and we eventually left, though in the intervening period Lushin Dubey said I was welcome to visit the bookshelf again.

Some weeks later, Ma informed me on a Sunday morning that an opportunity to visit said bookshelf had come up, and I excitedly accompanied her to the Dubey house. It was only once I got there that I realised that I was the victim of treachery. True, the bookshelf was still there, and it was still full of Agatha Christies. But my path to it was blocked by about eighty children who were there to audition for Peter Pan – or possibly The Jungle Book – and to my horror, I found that I was expected to do the same.

I was taken in hand by a girl, one or two years older, who explained what I had to do in the audition. I would play a young child, she would play my older sister, and a third person would play a drug dealer. The drug dealer would offer me a sweet, I would accept, my sister would see me taking unidentified substances from a stranger, and rush over to a) make sure I didn’t swallow them b) warn me about the danger of taking things from strangers c) warn me about the danger of drugs. She asked me if I had got all that. I said I had. So she kicked off the audition.

Things started smoothly. The drug dealer did indeed ask me if I wanted a sweet. So far, so good. But at this point, reasoning that I already knew about the dangers of drugs and strangers thanks both to the initial briefing and in general being a well read and informed person, I might as well come to the same conclusion as the script with far less tedious exposition. So the audition went more like this:

Drug Dealer: Do you want a toffee?
Aadisht: no.
Drug Dealer (unprepared for this): what?
Sister (rushing up): Don’t take that toffee from him!
Aadisht: I didn’t.
Sister: what?
Aadisht: I don’t take things from strangers.
Sister and Drug Dealer: …

At this point the actress playing the role of the sister suggested that I wait on the staircase, which I did until Ma came to take me away.

As things turned out, I did not get the part, and my habit of skipping to the end when I already knew the answer meant that I spent the next five years having marks cut in maths and physics exams for not showing all the steps. But most importantly, I never got to read the promised Agatha Christies. Very possibly my lingering resentment towards juvenile dramatics has its origins there.

Pastry and the Progress of Civilisation

On the weekend gone by, I was attending a class on how to cook Hokkaido Cheese Tarts and Xiao Long Bao, the famous and delicious soup filled dumpling. The class was a birthday present from my darling wife, and as birthday presents go, has been the best one since she got me Ticket to Ride, which continues to provide hours of fun to this day. In time to come, the ability to make xiao long bao or cheese tarts may provide more cumulative pleasure and meaning than Ticket to Ride. But why speculate? For now, I shall write about the insights I gained during the class.

As I went through the class, the teacher pointed out that xiao long bao, for all its fame, does not have particularly exotic or expensive ingredients. It’s made with flour, minced pork, gelatin, and the same seasoning ingredients – sesame oil, vinegar, soy sauce, and salt and pepper – as are found in any East Asian chicken. The only really unusual ingredients are yeast and gelatin, which are procured easily enough. The reason you have to pay almost a dollar a dumpling, said Ms Tan, is that making the dumplings is both time consuming (you start the night before by adding yeast to the flour) and highly skilled; and that restaurants have to scour China to find skilled dumpling makers. Xiao Long Bao, she said, was all about the people making it, and not about what they were making it from.

This, I realised, is an interesting parallel to my older aunts’ and uncles’ idea of a good time. But as I thought more about it, I also realised that it is brought about by dramatically different circumstances. Let me elaborate.

My older aunts and uncles, all born before 1947, started adulthood as post-Partition refugees in Jammu and Delhi. Those were bleak years, not just for refugees, but for India as a whole. Material luxuries were scarce, or didn’t even exist. Automobiles and telephones were on a waiting list. Fruit and butter were major treats. But even with fruit, variety was limited; and so the treat was more to have a lot of a single kind of fruit, than to have many different kinds of fruits.

The thing that wasn’t scarce in those days was people. And so for my older relatives, their idea of luxury involves people doing work for them. The more work, the better. For my bua, bliss is having her driver drive around in the rains with no destination in mind. The driver, who has to control the car in miserable weather and driving conditions, may disagree. But anyhow. As they – and India – became richer, they started treating themselves to newly available material goods as well, but never quite lost the habit of thoroughly enjoying themselves by getting other people to do the work on their behalf.

Today, the situation is dramatically different. Free economies, free trade, and internet shopping, among other things, mean that we are spoiled for choice when it comes to material things; and they all cost much less thanks to the Chinese manufacturing miracle. Smartphones and motorcycles are within everyone’s reach! There are five different kinds of grains in the market. The fruit shop has fruits from all over the world, and farmers in Uttarakhand are now growing zucchini. What a cornucopia!

The trouble with cornucopias is that if everyone1 can have a smartphone, a smartphone ceases to be a signal of status and wealth. So if displaying your status and wealth is important to you, you can’t really do it with material things; unless you get really rare and exotic material things. Or, you could buy things which require something else scarce to make them – that is, skills. Such as xiao long bao.

So, sixty years ago, when money was limited, but things you could buy with it were even more limited, the only way you could show off was by buying labour. Today, money is widespread, things you can buy are even more so; and so the only way to show off is again by buying labour. What a full circle, and what a sandwich generation it makes those people who grew up in the 1990s and early 2000s and could impress others with laptop computers or automobiles.

This is possibly overgeneralisation, but I think there’s another difference between buying labour in a scarcity era and in a post-scarcity era. In the scarcity era, you paid for conspicuous waste, like having five domestic servants run around to find your glasses; while in the post-scarcity era you pay for conspicuous skill2 like folding the perfectly symmetrical dumpling. Which brings us back to the class.

At the end of the class, I can testify to the importance of skill. Making the dumpling dough is easy enough, and the stuffing is even easier. But picking out the perfect quantity of dough, rolling it out into a flat disk that’s thinner on the edges, and then folding the disk into an aesthetically pleasing dumpling are skills that take probably take months of practice to get right. Frustrated at my fumbling efforts, Ms Tan frequently took over the doug rolling herself, and the bun folding even more so. About twenty dumplings in, my folding technique finally became adequate, if not good. It was hard to overcome habit and heed Ms Tan’s advice to do the folding right rather than do it quick3.

During the class, demonstrating a method of squeezing out dough, and noting my Indian origins, Ms Tan told me that it was the same method as would be used in making pratas. Too embarassed to admit that I have never made a paratha by hand, and buy frozen ones from packets when forced to make them for myself; I merely nodded; but this observation, coupled with her comments about xiao long bao being all labour and skill and not material cost, made me remember a classified advertisement that had gone viral a few years ago.

I’m not sure if the classified was real or a photocopied joke, and I can’t even find the image any more, so I’m describing it from memory. It was in Tamil, and listed several job openings, along with the salary offers against those openings. Beginner software engineers, or something similarly white collar, were being offered 8000 rupees a month. A parotta master (or perhaps it was a dosa master) was being offered something much higher – ten or twelve thousand rupees a month. In general, people were amused at a blue collar occupation making much more than a white collar occupation. Further commentary, if any, focused either on the utter commodification of IT skills, or on pointing out that domestic and cooking skills were actually in very short supply and worth paying for. But it was only on Sunday that I realised that Douglas Adams too had made a pertinent comment on the situation, many years before the classified had come out. It is this quote from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series:

The history of every major Galactic Civilization teds to pass through three distinct and recognizable phases, those of Survival, Inquiry and Sophistication, otherwise known as the How, Why and Where phases. For instance, the first phase is characterized by the question ‘How can we eat?’ the second by the the question ‘Why do we eat?’ and the third by the question ‘Where shall we have lunch?’

So yes, a parotta master making more than a software engineer has a lot to say about the dignity of blue collar jobs, the commodification of coding skills, the changing demographics and economic fortunes of South India, and our tendency to carry around too many expectations. But at a very big picture level, it also suggests that South India, as a civilisation, has started the transition from Inquiry to Sophistication. Hurray!

Underage Invitations

There are many distasteful aspects of social life in Delhi. There is the habit of brides and grooms turning up late to their own weddings, the associated late start to dinner, the tiresome status signalling, and the very specific subset of status signalling that is the gentlemen’s silk kurta with pyjama. All of these have existed for years, and some of them may even be peaking. But in the past few years, a new and revolting trend has emerged – the invitation issued in the name of underage family members.

This is, for example, the invitation to somebody’s fiftieth wedding anniversary or seventieth birthday party that comes from their grandchildren; who might not even have started school. At a slightly less extreme level is the wedding party invitation for a twenty two year old issued by their seventeen year old sibling. The worst I’ve ever seen has been a wedding sangeet invitation supposedly from the groom’s two year old nephew, which even came written in baby talk. Hindi baby talk, in Roman script. ‘Mere tata ke sangeet pe daroor aana’ or some such emetic nonsense. Horrible.

Who do these people think they are fooling? Who is seriously going to believe that little Aarav, with his vocabulary of five hundred words, and pocket money of two hundred rupees, has single handedly managed the catering, venue, bartender, and guest list? It may seem like a cute, even good idea, at the time of writing out the invitations, to have them go out from a five year old. This will be limited to the actual hosts, and last a few moments. The eyerolling, and the judgement of the many guests who receive the invitation, will last much longer, and be felt by many more people.

If I were feeling cynical, I would dismiss this as merely another form of humblebragging; one in which parents, or even grandparents, depending on who is actually paying and organising the shindig, try to play down their responsibility. That sort of thing is tiresome. In my even more cynical moods, I would suspect the hosts of trying to turn the focus away from their hospitality (which is both virtue and skill) and instead trying to point out that they have offspring (which may or may not be virtuous, and requires such little skill that practically everybody does it). And at my most cynical, I would suspect that this sort of thing is a desperate gambit to turn both the focus and the presents away from the people being celebrated to the child-hosts. “Oh, our parents’ friends didn’t even know that we have children? Well, let’s send them the anniversary party invitation from Aradya, and maybe she’ll get some presents too. With the cost of nursery schools today, she’ll need it.”

I am no longer as cynical as I used to be, though. Some combination of age, experience, and the love of a good woman has led to me becoming more compassionate and charitable. And so I can as well see this sort of cutesy symbolism being motivated by entirely pure intentions. “My parents are in their seventies, and my kids aren’t even five yet,” thinks the hapless host. “By the time my kids are able to have a half decent conversation, their grandparents might be ravaged by dementia. The two generations will barely know each other. Having them symbolically host the party is the least I can do to forge some sort of connection, or at least signal to society at large that there is one.”

All very well-intentioned, yes, but even this sort of motivation only undermines the dignity of the actual adult hosts. And if we look at things dispassionately, even the initial regret that sparks this motivation may be misplaced. Yes, perhaps the new generation of children will never see or remember their grandparents having a relationship with them that goes beyond baby talk. But that is the price we pay for the age of marriage and childbearing increasing over time. And considering that this increase in the age of marriage has led to more education, more liberty, and more happiness for everybody who’s spent their young adult years exploring their lives, careers, and choice of partners instead of being frogmarched into a mandap; it seems like a bargain price to me.

On Annotating Your ebooks

For almost a week, the people I follow (and the ones whom the algorithm shows me anyway) on Twitter have been polarised about this tweet:

and the reply to it:

The responses I have seen to this have ranged all the way from people who run book clubs or discussion groups and think that these sort of features would be very welcome; to outraged readers who don’t want yet more Silicon Valley algorithmic social feeds messing up something that has been quite joyous for them right now.

I myself fall more towards the outraged end of the scale than the enthusiastic end. The reasons for this might be boring, but in the process of discussing them, I will end up sharing what I think is the best way to annotate books and share them; and that might be useful to the public at large. So, here we go.

My first reactions to the original tweets were:

  1. Good lord, this already existed eight years ago. It was called a book blog.
  2. Existing apps already do this! What more do you want?

That was then. Now, I am trying to write out a less snarky, more useful, response. The problem is, I don’t know what the original posters want to do with either their or other people’s annotations and marginalia. So I will list out the reasons highlight things in books, and take things from there. I went through the past few months of highlights, and counted the following reasons I might have highlighted a passage:

  1. In sheer appreciation of the language or how well a sentence or paragraph was constructed. For example: “Call me Jimmy. Your mother’s brother’s wife’s sister’s second husband is my father. Blood is thicker than water.”
  2. I read something interesting and decided to set a quiz question around it.
  3. I read something that somebody else (one person, multiple people, a group of people, or multiple groups of people) would enjoy reading, and want to share it with them, with or without context.
  4. I find it intriguing and would like to blog my thoughts about it.
  5. It’s a reference to another book, and I want to make a note to get that book as well.
  6. As a slight variant to #5, it references say a movie or a piece of music, or even a product or something to eat, and I want to make a note to watch, listen to, or buy it later on.

Other people will have their own reasons, of course. There’s an important point to make here though. Except for #1, all these reasons require me to perform some mindful action beyond simply highlighting the passage.

  • Setting the quiz question will need me to actually rewrite the factoid in the highlight (along with perhaps two or three others), or download related photos or media; and then save the final question somewhere
  • Blogging my thoughts about what I’ve highlighted means I have to clear my head, put my thoughts together, and write the blogpost out
  • Getting the book means searching my libraries and reserving it; or adding it to a shopping website wishlist
  • For listening to a referenced piece of music; or watching a referenced movie, or buying something, I would have to search for it and add it to a queue to get to when I have the time to devote

What about the case of sharing it with somebody who might be interested? It sort of dovetails with what the original tweets were talking about, but the thing is, this sort of sharing is best when I am providing some context to what I am sharing. For example, “Remember when we were talking about how terrible and scary the street lighting in Delhi is? This is what Jane Jacobs wrote about safe streets.” Yes, there are going to be times when I share something without context, if the passage is just intrinsically funny, or touches upon an injoke or shared experience so close that it needs no context, but without the ability to provide context – by typing it out, or adding a voice note, or in any other way, sharing is going to be quite useless. In fact, by adding to the stream of notifications which the recipient is already receiving through the day, it might even be a hostile act.

Compared to all the actions I listed above, actually retrieving the highlights is a very quick and painless procedure with existing technology. The difficult part isn’t retrieving highlights, but being disciplined enough to do things with them.

If you have the discipline, the existing Kindle app for Android already lets you do all this with a few taps. If I could build up the discipline, this is how I would do it:

  1. Read the book on a Kindle, so that my device wouldn’t interrupt me with other notifications while I was reading.
  2. Highlight along the way.
  3. Before starting the next book, sync my Kindle, and download the read book to the Kindle app on my phone as well.
  4. The copy on my phone has all my highlights. I can open the highlight view, and then deal with each highlight one at a time, using the relevant Android share method, as follows:
    1. If I had highlighted something for a quiz question, share it to an Evernote notebook or Trello board of quiz questions; and then consult that notebook or board whenever I was sitting down to set questions
    2. If I wanted to share it with somebody, share it to my email, or messaging app, and forward the highlight, with necessary context
    3. If I wanted to write about it, share the highlight to an Evernote notebook or Trello board of writing ideas
    4. If I wanted to buy something, open goodreads, or amazon, or any relevant shopping website on my laptop at the same time, and add it to the relevant wishlist
    5. If I wanted to listen to, or watch, something, add it to a queue on youtube, or a todo list where I was saving things to look for

I’m reasonably sure non-Kindle ebooks let you do this easily enough as well; and for that matter, if you come across something interesting even in a paper book, you can take a photo and let OCR do the initial work before sending it on the relevant app.

For now, I’m still mystified at what the original tweeters wanted to do with their friends’ highlights, marginilia, or even summaries that they couldn’t have done by reading reviews or notes from somewhere else. And though I touched upon it before, I’ll mention again that without knowing just how these highlights are shared, there are real problems of noise and spam in this sort of indiscriminate sharing of what somebody has highlighted.

  1. What are the privacy settings on what I’ve highlighted? I don’t want the public to know if I’ve highlighted something to set a quiz question on it. But I might also want exactly one other person to see the highlight if we’re setting the quiz together.
  2. In this hypothetical service where my highlights are open to the public, just how does the public see what I’ve highlighted? Are they going to see everything? Or is a Facebook News Feed type algorithm going to decide what is worth seeing?
  3. In this hypothetical service where I get to see everybody’s highlights, am I able to receive a highlight that has been picked out by my friend for me? Or am I only getting a firehose of notes and marginilia, with no way to decide what is relevant?
  4. And is this feed of my “social reading” going to be filled with ads?

In conclusion, I personally would not pay extra for books if I could see what my friends had highlighted. But if I really trusted my friends’ books recommendations and ability to pick out amazing passages, I would encourage them to do this with thought, word, deed, and cake; and if I really trusted strangers’ book recommendations, I might well encourage them to blog a lot more by contributing to their Patreon. I just hope that more people do the same before reading recommendations go the way of Facebook.

My Year of Reading Women

My reading had sort of collapsed in the recent past, especially from 2014 to 2016. The reason behind this was mostly extreme frugality, brought on by trying to pay for a house. So I was not buying books. What I was doing a lot of instead was:

  • reading longform articles by sending them to my Kindle (which means not reading a lot of fiction)
  • reading out of copyright books (which has the side effect of reading a lot of dead white people1
  • rereading what I already had

and starting in late 2015 and throughout 2016:

  • reading my wife’s collection of books

2017 saw a massive turnaround for three reasons:

  1. The benevolent Masabi gave me the username and password to his account at the Brooklyn Public Library, which let me borrow ebooks from there to my American registered Kindle2
  2. I joined Goodreads at the beginning of the year with a measure of skepticism about how useful it could be, but found that simply enrolling for a reading challenge made me competitive and determined to complete it – and so I ended up reading a lot instead of, say, listening to podcasts or wasting my time on Twitter
  3. I finally paid off what I had to for house reconstruction, and the liberated cashflow meant that I could buy books to my heart’s content.

All this together has meant that I have read ninety one new books in 2017, apart from a lot of rereading. At the beginning of the year, when I enrolled in Goodreads, I set myself a target of fifty-two books, or was it fifty? I finished the fiftieth, fifty first, and fifty second books just before the end of June; and promptly revised my target to a hundred books for the year. In November, though, encountering a rough patch of great Russian novelists, I decided to slow down, enjoy rereads instead (more on that later), and not worry overmuch about hitting a hundred. And so, yesterday, I wrapped up at ninety one for the year. Here’s my Goodreads 2017 challenge page, which lays them out in an attractive grid.

I will save the highlights of the books themselves for later. But first, I will mention something else which using Goodreads prompted me to do – seeing how many books my women, and how many books by men I was reading3.

At the beginning of the year, I had not really set myself a target on reading men and women, and only wanted to monitor myself for implicit bias. By the end of January, I had realised that I was reading almost only men, and in mild embarrasment at the ratio, without having even set myself a target, set out to improve it. This took a long, long, time; because I was also working through my existing to-be-read pile, which at that point was almost all men.

By the end of January, my ratio of books by women to books by men was 1:3. At this point I tried to compensate, which meant going to the Brooklyn Public Library’s ebook catalogue, going through their history and science sections, and checking out as many interesting looking books by women as possible. By the beginning of May, the ratio had moved up to 12:19. It wasn’t until July 6, when I finished Deirdre McCloskey’s The Bourgeois Virtues, that I had finally read one book by a woman for every book by a man.

However, even before hitting the comforting 1.0 ratio, I was begninning to wonder if a simple ratio of books was telling me enough about my sexism, if any. It was so easy to change the ratio by simply picking out books at the Brooklyn library, did the ratio convey any useful information at all? So I decided to take my self-monitoring one step further, and duplicated my Goodreads records in an Excel file. Then, with the power of pivot tables, I set out to see if I was rating books by women lower than I was rating books by men. In the Excel sheet, I recorded:

  • The name of the book
  • The name of the author (s)
  • Whether it was fiction, nonfiction, or mythology
  • Whether the authors were male, female, or the book had a mix of male and female creators
  • The rating I had given the book

I now realise that I should have also recorded the date I finished the book, which would have allowed me to make cool graphs of how my books by women / books my men ratio changed over time. Alas, I didn’t, and can only promise to do it for 2018 records onwards. For what it’s worth, my Excel sheet is uploaded over here, so if you want to do your own pivot table analyses, please go ahead. But this is what my playing around has led me to conclude:

  1. On the simplest measure – ratio of books – I finished at 48 books by women to 42 books by men.
  2. However, because I was acutely aware of this ratio, I kept trying to improve it by reading more books by any woman author whose books I liked. So my ratio of authors is 37 women to 35 men.
  3. Separating into nonfiction, fiction, and mythology reveals a massive mismatch: In fiction, I read 28 books by men to 23 by women; and in nonfiction I read 25 books by women compared to 12 by men. This is probably a reflection of how I tried to improve my raw ratio by browsing the nonfiction section of the library to find interesting books by women, but didn’t try that with the fiction section.
  4. Breaking down into even smaller genres might reveal more such mismatches, but I haven’t tried that yet.
  5. The reason I gamed my raw ratio with nonfiction but not fiction is that with nonfiction it seemed easier to judge a book by its cover. I felt that taking a chance on a book I had never heard about or been recommended already was easier with nonfiction books, where the cover and blurbs would tell me if at least the topic was interesting or not. With fiction, I wanted to stay with personal recommendations.
  6. Taking a chance on nonfiction I had never heard of earlier really paid off with:
    1. Steam: The Untold Story of America’s First Invention
    2. The Birth of the Pill
    3. Pandemic
    4. Meathooked
  7. Coming finally to ratings. My average rating of books by female authors was 3.58, and for male authors it was 3.69. So I did rate books by men a little higher, but apparently not even by one standard deviation higher.
  8. What if I break it down by category again? This falls two ways. In fiction, my average rating for books by men was 3.78 and for women it was 3.48; a much wider difference than in the overall average. In nonfiction, I rated books by men at 3.58, and books by women at 3.68. Again, the difference is less than one standard deviation in all categories.
  9. I think the one thing in which I may be guilty of implicit bias is in how likely I am to give five star ratings. I gave the full five stars to 6 books by men (4 fiction and 2 nonfiction), but only 2 books by women (one each). So even though I rate women higher on average, I give exceptional ratings to women much less. Ed Yong’s Atlantic essay on how the science Nobel Prizes awarding rules end up making a few lucky scientists famous and lionised but excluding all their collaborators – especially the women – may be a relevant parallel.

Turning now from the numbers to the books themselves, these are the highlights from my 2017 reading:

  • My wife introduced me to Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians series, which was probably the most fun I had this year with lowbrow but very funny fiction.
  • Some years ago, I had asked for recommendations for climate fiction, and friend Sowmya Rao recommended about fifteen books (some not exactly climate fiction but generalised science fiction). What with the whole not-buying-books thing, I only got around to reading most of these in 2017. This meant that I was reading lots of apocalyptic science fiction for a stretch of almost four months, and may have scared myself into never having children. The apocalyptic note carried over to nonfiction in Jane Jacobs’s Dark Age Ahead. At the same time, though, the past two years of reading about Tesla left me slightly annoyed at some of these apocalypse scenarios, because I kept asking “Bloody, how is it that nobody installed solar panels before the apocalypse hit?” This was a question that arose particularly in Station Eleven and The Bone Clocks. Later in the year, I read All The Birds in the Sky, not on Sowmya’s recommendation, and while enjoying it thoroughly, was slightly exasperated at having stumbled into more apocalyptica; but at least this was apocalyptic science fiction that did not rely on a magical disappearance of photovoltaics.
  • The books which friends had raved about and which I found deeply disappointing compared to the hype were Ghachar Ghochar and Liu Cixin’s The Three Body Problem and its sequels. While both were good, they were definitely not the “best books of the decade!” that friends were proclaiming them to be.
  • Chasing the female-male ratio meant that after a gap of years, I read more books in the Mary Russel series, and more books by Sarah Waters, and I was very glad of this.
  • In a lot of the fiction I read in 2017, I found myself loving the beauty of the writing, while being repelled at the characters or the underlying assumptions about human nature. This includes The MagiciansThe Master and MargaritaThis is How You Lose Her, and Her Smoke Rose Up Forever.
  • Many years ago, I had read the citation for Elinor Ostrom’s Nobel prize, thought ‘Oh this sounds interesting’, and promptly wishlisted two of her books. I finally got around to reading them this year (that budget thing at play again), and realised that this had been a rash decision, as the books in question were intended for at least graduate students of economics or public choice, and not dilettantes such as myself. I persevered with the books, but it took ages, and after many years of peace I was reprimanding myself for not having had the discipline to go through with an Econ PhD. So it goes.
  • In November, my reading queue included The Master and Margarita, another book by Elinor Ostrom, and the vast and expansive Bourgeois Equality. After the first half of The Master and Margarita fully justified Cuthbert Banks‘s gloom about the mantle of the great Russians, I looked at the queue, and decided not only to not bother with hitting my target of a hundred books, but to plunge into comfort rereading – and so I did a binge reread of the entire Discworld series (not including the Tiffany Aching books, though). Reading the series in one go, in such a short period of time, meant that I was able to see connections between the books that I hadn’t earlier; discovered that ten years on, I was still able to smile at new things and say ‘Oh so that’s what Terry Pratchett was going for’; developed new respect for Reaper Man, and formed some interesting thoughts on how to classify monsters, which deserve a blogpost to themselves.
  • I found myself making connections between otherwise unrelated books. danah boyd’s It’s Complicated, Jane Jacobs’s Dark Age Ahead, and Ed Gleaser’s Triumph of the City all ended up cribbing about American suburbia, but each talked about a different bad outcome it was leading to. Pandemic connected both to the apocalyptic science fiction I was reading, and to Maryn McKenna’s fantastic Big Chicken. So did David Benatar’s “having children will only perpetuate the suffering of the human species” book Better Never to Have Been, which I am still thinking over, but finding hard to dismiss.
  • Out of “new women science fiction writers”, I ended up not liking Nnedi Okarafor’s Binti, but eager to try her other books, and liking N K Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy but also finding it a bit of a chore. Surprisingly, the easiest to read in this microgenre was Becky Chamber’s The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet – which is a little short on plot and surprise twists, but which I found a very comforting read and charming in its worldbuilding and lack of pretentiousness. Perhaps if I had read any of these books in a different sequence, my opinion would be different. I think they are all worth rereading to find out.
  • I finally finished the year with Deirdre McCloskey’s Bourgeois Equality. Like the other books in the trilogy, it’s expansive and maximalist, a style which I enjoy, and so it was a great book to close the year with. That maximalism meant that it also linked in interesting ways with lots of other books I’d read in 2017, which also made it a particularly appropriate book to close the year with. Some of those linkages were:
    • I loved Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt, in which KSR goes ‘What if the Black Death had killed all of Europe instead of just a third?’, and then sketches an alternative history in which the Industrial Revolution happens in Central Asia instead of Europe (among other things). Bourgeois Equality though spends a lot of time talking about how the Industrial Revolution was a massive coincidence, and on all the reasons why it wouldn’t have arisen anywhere else, thus pouring cold water on The Years of Rice and Salt. So it goes.
    • The Discworld binge reread made me realise that McCloskey’s Bourgeois trilogy is the nonfiction exploration of all the same themes that Pratchett poured into fiction: the value of rhetoric and Vetinari’s opinions about politics, the awfulness of how aristocracy gathered violence through warmaking being reflected in Lord Rust’s suicidal charges, the disgust with aristocracy in general being reflected in Sam Vimes’s rage; and of course the Bourgeois Revaluation itself being taken up and explored in all the books from say, Feet of Clay onwards. Heck, there is even a bit in Bourgeois Equality which directly mimics the passage about Ankh Morpork tearing down its city walls.
    • Of course McCloskey references Elinor Ostrom’s work on how communication can overcome the Prisoner’s Dilemma (Please be aware that this is a gross oversimplification for the purposes of this blogpost).

What are my plans for next year’s reading? In no particular order:

  • Continue to track my reading of women vs men, and particularly try to find fiction by women.
  • Read all the source material Bourgeois Equality threw up, particularly The Theory of Moral Sentiments and Hirschman’s Exit, Voice, and Loyalty.
  • Track my date of reading, source of book, and money spent or saved through cunning library utilisation along with everything else I’m tracking.
  • Instead of chasing an impressive looking number of books, allow myself to take the time to slowly read in languages other than English. I am planning to read Shrilal Shukla’s Raag Darbari and a German young adult time travel trilogy for sure.

That wraps it up for my review of 2017 reading. I look forward to reading about what you have read this year.

Bandra is Deconstructing Human Courtship

Last month, good friend Supriya tweeted:

She followed it up this month with:

I think this is indicative of a larger and more significant trend. Bandra is reinventing romcoms, but in reverse, and for yourself.

See, humans have always been masturbating, which is having sex with yourself. Considering that monkeys and chimpanzees also masturbate, maybe this goes back to our common ancestral primate. But the point is that having sex with yourself came first.

In the last few years, we have had the self-esteem and self-love movements, which encourage you to love yourself, not just have empty and meaningless sex with yourself. So now when it comes to ourselves, we have both sex and love.

But jumping straight into love is indicative that you are from a bad Bollywood movie, or possibly Bingo Little. Surely there should be some interaction and exploration of shared interests and attraction which leads up to love instead of just diving in and giving your heart away? And that is where Bandra Zumba classes come in: they encourage you to flirt with yourself by winking at yourself in the mirror. Bandra has essentially made self-love much easier by creating the important preliminary step of self-flirtation. Combined with other great inventions like Elco’s panipuri, the Pali Village Cafe sangria, and the Bandra East to Kurla skywalk, this will surely help Bandra in coming close to the standards of greatness set by Mumbai’s premiere neighbourhood, Mahim. But I digress.

In the future, Bandra will no doubt complete the deconstruction of the romantic comedy by somehow inventing a situation in which you accidentally encounter yourself thanks to a contrived coincidence. I urge the august members of the GRCA[footnote]Guys who love Romantic Comedies Anonymous, but also Gentlemen’s Romantic Comedy Association[/footnote] to keep a watch out for this happening.

Christmas Tree Whataboutery is the Stupidest Whataboutery

For the last few years, Delhi in Diwali seemed to be getting better and worse simultaneously. Better, because as the campaign against firecrackers in schools continued, and as the police started enforcing the midnight (was it 10 pm?) limit on bursting crackers, cracker use was dropping, and crackers themselves became less noisy. Worse, because despite dropping cracker use, Diwali getting more and more commercialised meant that traffic kept getting more nightmarish and costumes got more garish.

In the last two Diwalis, though, the shift away from crackers, which until now just had to overcome force of habit, ran up into sudden, vicious pushback of “How dare people tell us not to burn crackers! This is a threat to Hinduism!”

The idea that burning crackers is related to Hinduism on any level beyond sixty years of habit is stupid, but I won’t go into that right now.

The idea that Hinduism is under threat is even more stupid, but I won’t even go into that right now.

No, what I will write about in this post is one particular brand of whataboutery that is trotted out in dubious support of the original ‘threat to Hinduism’ argument. Because there are multiple whatabouteries which people are pushing in defence of crackers. Including:

  • If you love the environment so much, why don’t you stop using cars first?
  • If you love the environment so much, why don’t you stop using air conditioners first?
  • If you love the environment so much, why don’t you fix crop burning first?
  • Where’s your love for the environment when millions of goats are slaughtered on Eid, huh?
  • Where’s your love for the environment when thousands of Christmas trees are chopped down on Christmas?

All of these except the crop burning one have nothing to do with firecracker pollution. Cars and air conditioners are admittedly greenhouse gas emitters, but don’t directly fill the air with unburnt sulphur and toxic gases. Neither does goat slaugher, and nor does chopping down Christmas trees.

But the Christmas tree whataboutery is such a special kind of stupid that I will now devote the rest of the post to debunking it. In a vast universe of stupid statements, this manages to be simultaneously ordinarily stupid, and, Pratchett-character-like, so stupid that it goes around into the other side to be sensible.

First, the ordinary stupidity. Worldwide, Christmas trees are not chopped down from virgin forests, you idiots! They are cultivated on farms and fresh ones are planted every year. Christmas tree decoration is not causing deforestation or denudation. Meanwhile, while they are growing, they are happily acting as carbon sinks.

Does that mean that they are completely environmentally benign? Probably not, because wherever they were planted was once a diverse forest or grassland rather than a single-species plantation. To that extent, a Christmas tree farm is a bad idea. But then, so is every other intensive farm on the planet, including wheat, rice, and marigold and chrysanthemum.

And on to the bit where the argument is so stupid and wrong, that it turns into something that actually makes sense.

Accusing Indians of choppping down trees for Christmas is stupid because most Christmas trees sold in India are not Christmas trees at all, but metal or plastic rods with green plastic leaves. So no actual trees are getting chopped down.

Why the argument still makes sense at some level despite being so wrong is because all that plastic is ultimately coming from petroleum or wood pulp extraction. If it’s from wood pulp, again, it would in all likelihood be coming from a managed forest and not from denudation; and if it’s coming from petroleum, that’s your carbon footprint right there.

Fortunately, there is a very simple, and environmentally friendly way to have a Christmas tree in India that involves neither plastic trees nor cutting down a tree from a forest, nor cutting down a tree at a tree farm. It was advised to me by Nilanjana Roy last year: get a potted plant, decorate it for Christmas, and then look after it for the rest of the year. Your garden gets an extra plant, and your Christmas decorations look all that nicer. So that is just what I did last Christmas.

 

IMG_20161224_194913459

It was fantastic.

Punjab’s Resource Curse

A resource curse is when a place that has abundant supplies of natural resources (usually crude oil) ends up worse because of it. The concept explains, for example, why:

  • Saudi Arabia, which has so much crude oil, is nevertheless such a horrible place for human rights
  • The Democratic Republic of Congo, which is a supplier of all the rare minerals that go into our cellphones, is torn apart by civil war
  • Jharkhand and Chhatisgarh, which produce so much of India’s coal and iron ore, are miserably poor and underdeveloped compared to places which only buy up the power and steel products

Less extreme and gruesome examples of the resource curse include Dutch Disease, in which having lots of natural resource exports makes all your other industries less competitive. So even though the Netherlands didn’t descend into poverty or dictatorship after the discovery of natural gas, the rest of their economy suffered.

Although the Netherlands (and Norway!) managed to stay intact as democracies1, having lots of natural resources certainly does seem to make you more susceptible to dictatorship or authoritarianism, or at least make it harder to build democracy and the rule of law. This EconTalk episode, in which Leif Wenar talks about refusing to trade oil with dictatorial regimes is an interesting discussion on that. (For what it’s worth, I found it highly worth hearing, but it left me unconvinced because it didn’t really address the issue of oil and other commodities being very fungible in trade. But still very intriguing; and the bits about how to use resource revenues for the community or nation rather than to enrich dictators has interesting tie ins with the work of Elinor Ostrom2, which I am also reading these days.)

After hearing the episode and ruminating on it for a while, I had a moment of insight. That insight was this: Punjab has a resource curse too. The resource in question is fresh water.

My narrative goes something like this: for centuries, the five rivers (plus the Indus) in the Punjab made it a little more fertile than, say, the Ganga-Jamuna Doab or the Cauvery delta. But in the 1950s and 1960s, the Green Revolution was to Punjab what the invention of the oil well was to Texas or Arabia. The introduction of thirsty and productive hybrid varieties of wheat and rice meant that suddenly the abundant water resources, instead of being left to flow, were being rapidly converted into foodgrains3.

As irrigation, electrification and groundwater pumping stepped up, so did foodgrain production (though productivity eventually stagnated). Simultaneously, the slow decline of manufacturing began. And in the 1980s and 1990s, the freshwater resource curse became as bad in Punjab as the petroleum resource curse became for Arabian states, playing out in:

  • Khalistani separatism and terrorism
  • Police retaliation and brutality
  • The steady consolidation of the Badal family over the Shiromani Akali Dal

Meanwhile, as the state itself went bankrupt, and the power company even more so, manufacturing became practically unviable (being so far inland from a decent port doesn’t help either); and the drug abuse epidemic took off. And here Punjab is today, where manufacturing is unviable, agriculture itself is looking unsustainable after years of pumping groundwater and growing rice has left the soil waterlogged and unsuitable for cultivation, people across the state are drug addicts, and the best option for anybody with ambition is to migrate to Canada or Italy4. What a mess.

 

Saints, Transhumanists, and Death Eaters

In the past few years, my regular reading and podcast listening included:

And a few months ago, I realised that all these books and articles and episodes, which I had read as part of regular subscriptions, or unconnected curiosity, shared a common theme, and a theme, in fact that was linked to my reading from ten years ago: the Harry Potter series. That theme is the quest for immortality, and the pushback against it.

This will require a little bit of detail. Allow me to explain, because summing up will be inadequate. Let’s start with the Peter Brown book.

Reading The Cult of the Saints, you find out just how weird early Christianity was2. There were all sorts of different sects, any holy person could wander off and start his own, and, of course, there was the role the saints played after their lives.

According to The Cult of the Saints, the fact that Christianity made room for saints rather than just holy men was one of the things that helped it spread far and wide (even if with inconsistent practices), especially compared to Judaism. Judaism enjoined you to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, which was an onerous task in the ancient world. But with Christianity you could always go to the closest shrine of a saint.

What truly connects the early saints to everything else I mentioned, though, is what people believed about their lives and deaths. Which was this: that the saints weren’t as dead as ordinary people.

The gleaming white shrouds, the incense, the strict control of demonstrations of grief were a triumphal reminder of Christ’s triumph over “black death.”

The “shining way to Paradise” of Christian art and liturgy had in no way rendered translucent the facts of death for the average Mediterranean man.

Hence the emotional force that thrust the graves of the martyrs into prominence. Here, at least, were the graves of the very special dead. They had died in a special way; they lay in the grave in a special way; this fact was shown by the manner in which all that was most delightful and most alive in late-antique life could be though of as concentrated in their tombs and even (perhaps, as we shall see, particularly) in detached fragments of their dead bodies.

The late-antique cult of the martyrs represents, therefore, a consistent imaginative determination to block out the lurking presence, in the cemeteries of the Mediterranean world, of “black death.”

Their holiness meant that their remains didn’t decay3, and that their extant, non-decaying remains made their gravesites sources of powerful holiness that you could tap into to get your wishes fulfilled.

Peter Brown writes further that eventually – with the Protestant reformation and especially the Puritans – Christians came to look on death as natural and sweet grace, but this was very far from how Christianity had started out:

… the distance between early-modern Christian attitudes to death and those applied in late antiquity to the cult of the martyrs. The martyrs had triumphed over death; the iconography of the saints in late antiquity made no attempt to encompass “grim death” and “sweet grace” in one symbol. As Andre Grabar has written, “The imagery of a martyr’s relics is never in any case an imagery of the memento mori; rather it strives by all means in its power to proclaim the suppression of the fact of death.”

This was the first connection I drew: that the attitude of early Christians towards martyred saints was much like the admiration a Death Eater would feel towards Voldemort for managing to overcome death4.

I, who have gone further than anybody along the path that leads to immortality. You know my goal – to conquer death.

And it was the early modern Christians who took up a more Dumbledorish view of death:

And then he greeted Death as an old friend, and went with him gladly, and, equals, they departed this life.

Did the obsession with longevity or immortality transitioning into an acceptance of peaceful death happen only with Christianity? I haven’t read enough to say about, for example, Judiasm, Islam, or East Asian religions. But in India, Jainism talks about Tirthankaras having extraordinarily long lives; so a conflation of holiness and immortality is there too. And in Hinduism, where you find all sorts of contradictory statements depending on where you look, we have:

  • The claim that lifespan keeps dropping as we move from the Satyuga into the Kaliyuga; so that longevity is a desirable thing, but one that is associated not just with individual effort, but with the age and environment as a whole
  • As a counterpoint, we have the Mahabharata where Aswatthama is cursed with three thousand years of immortality; in which he will suffer all manners of disease and wounds; while also being isolated from any human contact – again, echoed by Voldemort’s shadow existence in the Harry Potter books.

suppose that the closest Greek myth comes to immortality and warning against it is the story of Orpheus trying to pull Eurydice out of the underworld and failing. But as I said, I’ve not read enough.

Let’s move on now to Hannu Rajaniemi’s trilogy. Because of his simultaneously admirable and frustrating way of never spelling things out so that you, the reader, have to do a lot of the work, it took me some Googling and Wikipedia reading to realise that the Jean le Flambeur trilogy is set in a world that took the ideas of early twentieth century Russian cosmists and set about making them real:

Fedorov argued that evolutionary process was directed towards increased intelligence and its role in the development of life. Humanity is the culmination of evolution, as well as its creator and director. Humans must therefore direct evolution where their reason and morality dictate. Fedorov also argued that mortality is the most obvious indicator of the still imperfect, contradictory nature of humanity and the underlying reason for most evil and nihilism of humankind. Fedorov stated that the struggle against death can become the most natural cause uniting all people of Earth, regardless of their nationality, race, citizenship or wealth (he called this the Common Cause).

Achieving immortality and resurrection of all people who ever lived are two inseparable goals, according to Fedorov. Immortality is impossible, both ethically and physically, without resurrection. We can’t allow our ancestors, who gave us life and culture, to remain buried, or our relatives and friends to die. Achieving immortality for individuals alive today and future generations is only a partial victory over death – only the first stage. The complete victory will be achieved only when everyone is resurrected and transformed to enjoy immortal life.

Fedorov stated that people needed to reconcile the difference between the power of technology and weakness of the human physical form. The transition is overdue from purely technical development, a “prosthetic” civilization, to organic progress, when not just external tools, artificial implements, but the organisms themselves are improved, so that, for example, a person can fly, see far and deep, travel through space, live in any environment. People must become capable of “organodevelopment” that so far only nature was capable of.

(Wikipedia: Nikolai Fyodorovich Fyodorov)

Clearly, Fedorov took things much further than the early Christians (who believed that only saints could conquer death) or the Harry Potter mythos (in which anybody can conquer death but only Voldemort did); and prescribed conquering death for everybody. Without giving detailed spoilers, let me say that Rajaniemi’s books are about how the consequences of this actually happening are horrible.

And more interestingly, the Wikipedia page claims that Fedorov and the other Russian cosmists are the link between Christianity (though the Russian Orthodox flavour and not so much the Mediterranean late-antiquity flavour) and current day transhumanism. That is to say, the cosmists started off from Russian Orthodox Christianity, and came up with cosmism; and cosmism then inspired modern day transhumanists.

I won’t quote in detail from the New Yorker piece or EconTalk episodes, because the links above are free to read or listen; but current day transhumanists and life-extenders certainly do give off a vibe of having decided that any technological means necessary to end death are worth pursuing. To be fair, the article and the podcast both do draw distinctions between the sort of transhumanists who want to increase the quantity of good health and the ones who want to eliminate death altogether, but even so, there is a substantial number of people out there who seem unwilling to accept the finiteness of life.

The New Yorker piece does end with an equivocation about how the human race has always wanted to live longer while also seeing beauty in death; but I think the Peter Brown quotations above show that the two impulses may not have been equal at all times, but ebbed and flowed.

But it has certainly been there for a very long time, I realised recently. Because, in the period of laziness between realising this connection, and actually writing it up, I coincidentally came across one more literary work where the tension between chasing immortality and accepting death, and that literary work is supposedly the first ever piece of human literature: The Epic of Gilgamesh. The In Our Time episode on The Epic of Gilgamesh describes how Gilgamesh, horrified by the death of his friend (and perhaps lover) Enkidu, journeys across the world to find the immortal Utnapishtim and learn how to be immortal himself; only to be told that immortality is no longer on the shelf, and to be content with a life well lived. And Gilgamesh accepts.

Perhaps the transhumanists are right, and this time is different. But if they are, they will be running up against, and overturning a preoccupation that has been with us as a species since we created culture, and one where for the most part, we’ve been on the side of accepting death. Who knows just what painful changes we’ll need to make, to adapt to life without death?