Category Archives: Life and Death

Of celebrating life, even in death — this category contains some of my more personal posts.

Definition of Success

We all want to be successful in life. What does success mean to us? Because success is goal in life, when it is not achieved, we get disappointed. We are then, to be blunt, unsuccessful. But the word success can hold anything within. So if you we don’t know what success is, disappointment is inevitable. We really do need to define it.

Let’s go through a few common definitions of success and see if we can draw any conclusions from it. By the end of this series of posts, I hope to give you a good definition that will make you successful in life. What more can you ask of a blog?

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Autism and Genius

Most things in life are distributed normally, which means they all show a bell curve when quantified using a sensible measure. For instance, the marks scored by a large enough number of students has a normal distribution, with very few scoring close to zero or close to 100%, and most bunching around the class average. This distribution is the basis for letter grading. Of course, this assumes a sensible test — if the test is too easy (like a primary school test given to university students), everybody would score close to 100% and there would be no bell curve, nor any reasonable way of letter-grading the results.

If we could sensibly quantify traits like intelligence, insanity, autism, athleticism, musical aptitude etc, they should all form normal Gaussian distributions. Where you find yourself on the curve is a matter of luck. If you are lucky, you fall on the right side of the distribution close to the tail, and if you are unlucky, you would find yourself near the wrong end. But this statement is a bit too simplistic. Nothing in life is quite that straight-forward. The various distributions have strange correlations. Even in the absence of correlations, purely mathematical considerations will indicate that the likelihood of finding yourself in the right end of multiple desirable traits is slim. That is to say, if you are in the top 0.1% of your cohort academically, and in terms of your looks, and in athleticism, you are already one in a billion — which is why you don’t find many strikingly handsome theoretical physicists who are also ranked tennis players.

The recent world chess champion, Magnus Carlsen, is also a fashion model, which is news precisely because it is the exception that proves the rule. By the way, I just figured out what that mysterious expression “exception that proves the rule” actually meant — something looks like an exception only because as a general rule, it doesn’t exist or happen, which proves that there is a rule.

Getting back to our theme, in addition to the minuscule probability for genius as prescribed by mathematics, we also find correlations between genius and behavioral pathologies like insanity and autism. A genius brain is probably wired differently. Anything different from the norm is also, well, abnormal. Behavior abnormal when judged against the society’s rules is the definition of insanity. So there is a only a fine line separating insanity from true genius, I believe. The personal lives of many geniuses point to this conclusion. Einstein had strange personal relationships, and a son who was clinically insane. Many geniuses actually ended up in the looney bin. And some afflicted with autism show astonishing gifts like photographic memory, mathematical prowess etc. Take for instance, the case of autistic savants. Or consider cases like Sheldon Cooper of The Big Bang Theory, who is only slightly better than (or different from) the Rain Man.

I believe the reason for the correlation is the fact that the same slight abnormalities in the brain can often manifest themselves as talents or genius on the positive side, or as questionable gifts on the negative side. I guess my message is that anybody away from the average in any distribution, be it brilliance or insanity, should take it with neither pride nor rancor. It is merely a statistical fluctuation. I know this post won’t ease the pain of those who are afflicted on the negative side, or eliminate the arrogance of the ones on the positive side. But here’s hoping that it will at least diminish the intensity of those feelings…
Photo by Arturo de Albornoz

Pride and Pretention

What has been of intense personal satisfaction for me was my “discovery” related to GRBs and radio sources alluded to earlier. Strangely, it is also the origin of most of things that I’m not proud of. You see, when you feel that you have found the purpose of your life, it is great. When you feel that you have achieved the purpose, it is greater still. But then comes the question — now what? Life in some sense ends with the perceived attainment of the professed goals. A life without goals is a clearly a life without much motivation. It is a journey past its destination. As many before me have discovered, it is the journey toward an unknown destination that drives us. The journey’s end, the arrival, is troublesome, because it is death. With the honest conviction of this attainment of the goals then comes the disturbing feeling that life is over. Now there are only rituals left to perform. As a deep-seated, ingrained notion, this conviction of mine has led to personality traits that I regret. It has led to a level of detachment in everyday situations where detachment was perhaps not warranted, and a certain recklessness in choices where a more mature consideration was perhaps indicated.

The recklessness led to many strange career choices. In fact, I feel as though I lived many different lives in my time. In most roles I attempted, I managed to move near the top of the field. As an undergrad, I got into the most prestigious university in India. As a scientist later on, I worked with the best at that Mecca of physics, CERN. As a writer, I had the rare privilege of invited book commissions and regular column requests. During my short foray into quantitative finance, I am quite happy with my sojourn in banking, despite my ethical misgivings about it. Even as a blogger and a hobby programmer, I had quite a bit success. Now, as the hour to bow out draws near, I feel as though I have been an actor who had the good fortune of landing several successful roles. As though the successes belonged to the characters, and my own contribution was a modicum of acting talent. I guess that detachment comes of trying too many things. Or is it just the grumbling restlessness in my soul?

Pursuit of Knowledge

What I would like to believe my goal in life to be is the pursuit of knowledge, which is, no doubt, a noble goal to have. It may be only my vanity, but I honestly believe that it was really my goal and purpose. But by itself, the pursuit of knowledge is a useless goal. One could render it useful, for instance, by applying it — to make money, in the final analysis. Or by spreading it, teaching it, which is also a noble calling. But to what end? So that others may apply it, spread it and teach it? In that simple infinite regression lies the futility of all noble pursuits in life.

Futile as it may be, what is infinitely more noble, in my opinion, is to add to the body of our collective knowledge. On that count, I am satisfied with my life’s work. I figured out how certain astrophysical phenomena (like gamma ray bursts and radio jets) work. And I honestly believe that it is new knowledge, and there was an instant a few years ago when I felt if I died then, I would die a happy man for I had achieved my purpose. Liberating as this feeling was, now I wonder — is it enough to add a small bit of knowledge to the stuff we know with a little post-it note saying, “Take it or leave it”? Should I also ensure that whatever I think I found gets accepted and officially “added”? This is indeed a hard question. To want to be officially accepted is also a call for validation and glory. We don’t want any of that, do we? Then again, if the knowledge just dies with me, what is the point? Hard question indeed.

Speaking of goals in life reminds me of this story of a wise man and his brooding friend. The wise man asks, “Why are you so glum? What is it that you want?”
The friend says, “I wish I had a million bucks. That’s what I want.”
“Okay, why do you want a million bucks?”
“Well, then I could buy a nice house.”
“So it is a nice house that you want, not a million bucks. Why do you want that?”
“Then I could invite my friends, and have a nice time with them and family.”
“So you want to have a nice time with your friends and family. Not really a nice house. Why is that?”

Such why questions will soon yield happiness as the final answer, and the ultimate goal, a point at which no wise man can ask, “Why do you want to be happy?”

I do ask that question, at times, but I have to say that the pursuit of happiness (or happyness) does sound like a good candidate for the ultimate goal in life.

Summing Up

Toward the end of his life, Somerset Maugham summed up his “take-aways” in a book aptly titled “The Summing Up.” I also feel an urge to sum up, to take stock of what I have achieved and attempted to achieve. This urge is, of course, a bit silly in my case. For one thing, I clearly achieved nothing compared to Maugham; even considering that he was a lot older when he summed up his stuff and had more time achieve things. Secondly, Maugham could express his take on life, universe and everything much better than I will ever be able to. These drawbacks notwithstanding, I will take a stab at it myself because I have begun to feel the nearness of an arrival — kind of like what you feel in the last hours of a long haul flight. I feel as though whatever I have set out to do, whether I have achieved it or not, is already behind me. Now is probably as good a time as any to ask myself — what is it that I set out to do?

I think my main goal in life was to know things. In the beginning, it was physical things like radios and television. I still remember the thrill of finding the first six volumes of “Basic Radio” in my dad’s book collection, although I had no chance of understanding what they said at that point in time. It was a thrill that took me through my undergrad years. Later on, my focus moved on to more fundamental things like matter, atoms, light, particles, physics etc. Then on to mind and brain, space and time, perception and reality, life and death — issues that are most profound and most important, but paradoxically, least significant. At this point in my life, where I’m taking stock of what I have done, I have to ask myself, was it worth it? Did I do well, or did I do poorly?

Looking back at my life so far now, I have many things to be happy about, and may others that I’m not so proud of. Good news first — I have come a long a way from where I started off. I grew up in a middle-class family in the seventies in India. Indian middle class in the seventies would be poor by any sensible world standards. And poverty was all around me, with classmates dropping out of school to engage in menial child labor like carrying mud and cousins who could not afford one square meal a day. Poverty was not a hypothetical condition afflicting unknown souls in distant lands, but it was a painful and palpable reality all around me, a reality I escaped by blind luck. From there, I managed to claw my way to an upper-middle-class existence in Singapore, which is rich by most global standards. This journey, most of which can be attributed to blind luck in terms of genetic accidents (such as academic intelligence) or other lucky breaks, is an interesting one in its own right. I think I should be able to put a humorous spin on it and blog it up some day. Although it is silly to take credit for accidental glories of this kind, I would be less than honest if I said I wasn’t proud of it.

How Should I Die?

I have reached the age where I have seen a few deaths. And I have had time to think about it a bit. I feel the most important thing is to die with dignity. The advances in modern medicine, though effective in keeping us alive longer, may rob us of the dignity with which we would like to go. The focus is on keeping the patient alive. But the fact of the matter is that everybody will die. So medicine will lose the battle, and it is a sore loser. That’s why the statements like “Cancer is the biggest killer” etc. are, to some extent, meaningless. When we figure out how to prevent deaths from common colds and other infections, heart disease begins to claim a relatively larger share of deaths. When we beat the heart disease, cancer becomes the biggest killer, not so much because it is now more prevalent or virulent, but in the zero-sum game of life and death, it had to.

The focus on the quantity of life diminishes its quality near its tail end due to a host of social and ethical considerations. Doctors are bound by their professional covenants to offer us the best care we ask for (provided, of course, that we can afford it). The “best care” usually means the one that will keep us alive the longest. The tricky part is that it has become an entrenched part of the system, and the default choice that will be made for us — at times even despite our express wishes to the contrary.

Consider the situation when an aged and fond relative of ours falls terminally sick. The relative is no longer in control of the medical choices; we make the choices for them. Our well-meaning intentions make us choose exactly the “best care” regardless of whether the patient has made different end-of-life choices.

The situation is further complicated by other factors. The terminal nature of the sickness may not be apparent at the outset. How are we supposed to decide whether the end-of-life choices apply when even the doctors may not know? Besides, in those dark hours, we are understandably upset and stressed, and our decisions are not always rational and well-considered. Lastly, the validity of the end-of-life choices may be called into question. How sure are we that our dying relative hasn’t changed their mind? It is impossible for any of us to put ourselves in their shoes. Consider my case. I may have made it abundantly clear now that I do not want any aggressive prolongation of my life, but when I make that decision, I am healthy. Toward the end, lying comatose in a hospital bed, I may be screaming in my mind, “Please, please, don’t pull the plug!” How do we really know that we should be bound by the decisions we took under drastically different circumstances?

I have no easy answers here. However, we do have some answers from the experts — the doctors. How do they choose to die? May be we can learn something from them. I for one would like to go the way the doctors choose to go.

Retirement — a Wife’s View

In connection with my recent retirement, my wife sent me an article (a speech given by someone on how to retire happily) which made several interesting points. But even more interestingly, it started with a funny story. Here it is:

In a small village in Kerala, a devout christian passed away. The local priest was out of station, and a priest from an adjoining village was called upon to deliver the eulogy. “Ladies and Gentlemen,” began the venerable pastor with the coffin before him. “Here lies dead before me a rare human being of this village with outstanding qualities. He was a gentleman, a scholar, sweet of tongue, gentle of temper and very catholic in outlook. He was generous to a fault and ever smiling.” The widow of the deceased sprang up and screamed, “Oh my God! They are burying the wrong man!”

True to form, this gentleman concluded his speech with another story.

First God created the cow and said, “You must go with the farmer everyday to the field, and suffer under the sun all day long, have calves, give milk and help the farmer. I give you a span of sixty years.” The cow said, “That’s surely tough. Give me only twenty years. I give back forty years.”

On Day Two, God created the dog and said, “Sit by the door of your house and bark at strangers. I give you a span of twenty years.” The dog said, “Too long a life for barking. I give up ten years.”

On the third day, God created the monkey and said to him, “Entertain people. Make them laugh. I give you twenty years.” The monkey said to God, “How boring! Monkey tricks for twenty years? Give me only ten years.” The Lord agreed.

On the fourth day, God created Man. He said to him, “Eat, sleep, play, enjoy and do nothing. I will give you twenty years.”

Man said, “Only twenty years? No way! I will take my twenty, but give me the forty the cow gave back, the ten that the monkey returned, and the ten the dog surrendered. That makes it eighty. Okay?” God agreed.

That is why for the first twenty years we sleep, play, enjoy and do nothing.
For the next forty years we slave in the sun to support our family.
For the next ten years we do monkey tricks to entertain our grandchildren.
And for the last ten years we sit in front of the house and bark at everybody.

Well, I managed to cut down my forty cow-years to a mere twenty. Here’s hoping that I will get similar discounts on my monkey and dog years!

Why Do We Drink?

We get in trouble or at least embarrass ourselves once in a while because of our drinking. Why do we still do it? Ok, it is fun to have a drink or two at a party — it gives you a buzz, loosens your tongue, breaks the ice etc. But most of us go way beyond that. We almost always end up regretting it the next morning. But we still do it.

Alcohol actually tastes bad, and we have to add all kinds of sodas and fruit juices to mask it. It is a depressant, so if we drink it when we are sad, it makes us sadder. It is toxic to our liver, kills our brain cells and makes us do silly things like puke and generally make an ass of ourselves. But, by and large, most people who can get their hands on it, drink it.

I am not talking about alcoholics who have trouble controlling their urges (although I believe most of us are budding alcoholics). I am not even talking about why we start drinking — that could be because of peer pressure, teenage dares, curiosity etc. I’m talking about those of us who continue drinking long after that sweet buzz that alcohol used to give us is history.

I do have a theory why we drink. But I have to warn you — my theory is a bit looney, even by the generous standards of this Unreal Blog. I think we drink because it alters our sense of reality. You see, although we don’t usually articulate it or even consciously know it, we feel that there is something wrong with the physical reality we find ourselves in. It is like a tenuous veil surrounding us that disappears the moment we look at it, but undulates beyond the periphery of our vision giving us fleeing glimpses of its existence in our unguarded moments. Perhaps, if we can let our guard down, may be we can catch it. This vain and unconscious hope is probably behind our doomed attractions toward alcohol and other hallucinants.

Although the veil of reality is tenuous, its grip on us is anything but. Its laws dictate our every movement and action, and literally pull us down and keep us grounded. I think our minds, unwilling to be subjugated to any physical laws, rebel against them. Could this be behind our teenagers’ infatuation with Stephenie Meyer’s vampire stories and Harry Potter’s magic? Isn’t this why we love our superheroes from our childhood days? Do we not actually feel a bit liberated when Neo (The One in Matrix) shows that physical rules don’t apply to him? Why do you think what we worship are the miracles and the supernatural?

Well, may be I am just trying to find philosophical reasons to get sozzled. Honestly, I’m feeling a bit thirsty.

Why did Federer Lose?

I am a Federer fan. His inevitable decline has been a source of grief for me. When it comes to shot selection, imagination and pure magical talent, there isn’t another tennis player who could ever hold a candle to him. Why did he have to go and lose in the second round of Wimbledon? It damn near broke my heart.

Roger FedererOk, we all know the answer. He is getting too old. But he is only 31, and has to be in terrific shape. I am pushing fifty and can still put in a couple of hours of vigorous badminton. Sure, weekend badminton is no world class tennis, and the effects of aging are very different. Still…, I wish he would stick around a bit longer.

A few months ago, I listened to a series of interesting lectures on the effects of aging on our perception and sensory processes. One thing new that I learned there was that we all have a sixth sense, in addition to sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell. It is the kinesthetic, muscle feedback, which is the sense that allows you to apply just the right amount of pressure, for instance, when braking your car, or holding a baby. You may lose this sense when you get angry and break the glass you are holding, if we are to believe Hollywood movies. In certain games, this sense can make an enormous difference. I had a friend who was a pool shark. He once told me that at the top of his game, he could feel the tiny nicks and scratches on the cue ball through the cue stick in his hand. When I knew him, he was well past his prime, but he could still call shots like bank off the point of the side pocket, and double kiss into the corner pocket. And make them. So I believe him and Eddie Felson (The Hustler) when he says the cue stick, when he holds it, has nerves. I bet Federer could feel the seams of the tennis ball and the amount of spin he was putting on them through the strings and the grip of his racket.

Age blunts the sharpness of all of your senses. The most obvious is your sight. In your forties, you have to hold your smart phone farther and farther away from your face to read the tiny screen. At some point, your hand is not long enough and you end up using reading glasses — reluctantly at first, but more readily as the years roll by and the images get blurrier. Apparently you lose your sensitivity to high pitched sound as well. So teenagers can download ringtones that their parents and teachers are deaf to. But the first sense to go is the muscle feedback, which begins to decline in your teens. This, apparently, is the reason why the Olympic gymnasts are all teenagers. By the time they are in their twenties, this sense of theirs is already too weak to keep them competitive at that level. I guess it is this sense that has deserted Roger Federer as well.

Frederer’s brand of tennis with its finesse and artistry demanded more of this sense. His opponents tend to hit flatter and harder. I read somewhere that they use stiffer rackets for this purpose, and can hold Federer behind the baseline. The champion stubbornly refuses to switch to this style and this kind of rackets. May be he is getting a bit too old. Reminds me of Bjorn Borg, when he attempted a mini come-back with his wooden racket.