Imperialism: The Darwinian Justification

The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the WorldThe Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World by Niall Ferguson

My Rating: ★★★☆☆

Imperialism: The Darwinian Justification

Ferguson contends that today’s financial world is the result of four millennia of economic evolution. It is very important to the aims of this book that this metaphor is accepted. Ferguson looks at this evolution of money into the complicated financial ecosystem of today. He explores how money mutated into new tools/organisms and acquired characteristics that allowed it to meet the needs of its users/demands of its environment better. The tools that helped men make even more money or harness their own energies more efficiently were selected for as ‘fittest’ and soon took over the monetary environment.

This happened in fits and starts:

First came the invention of money itself, which is not given much attention to, probably because it is too shrouded in the mists of time (and also because the West has no unique claim on it, at any of its stages – even the more advanced forms). Then it started mutating into its various forms, conquering and occupying various niches according to functionality.

And according to Ferguson, the civilizations who had access to these new and more efficient tools were hugely benefitted and in many cases were at a decisive advantage, down to our day.

The Evolutionary Stages

1. Banks

Money, once it allowed quantification of the value of transactions soon led naturally to delayed payments and then to the institutions of lending and borrowing. These slowly grew to become banks, clearing houses for ever larger aggregations of borrowing and lending.

2. Bonds

The rulers and the lords were the biggest customers of the banks. In time governments that figured out how to utilize the credit market best thrived and their innovations led to government bonds and securitization of streams of interest payments. This matured into full-fledged bond markets by the 13th century. The rulers had great incentive to protect and regulate this amazing new source of funding! This led those governments most dependent on these markets to institute regulated public markets so as to maintain stability and security of transaction, which was in their own best interests. Transaction and discovery costs reduced drastically and areas with such markets proved extremely useful to their rulers, who could no raise money for wars much more effectively. Battles were now to be won and lost in the bond markets.

3. Stock Markets

By the seventeenth century, corporations started aping the states, a process that was not limited to only financial matters, and started to raise equity through share markets. This could only develop first in areas with already well developed bond markets and public markets and thus gave them a further advantage — the advantage derived from the financial tools now extended from wars to trade and industry. The West was rising buoyed by its financial innovations, in Ferguson’s view.

4. Insurance

With the institutions of bonds and shares prospering, the next step was to use the market to spread risk out. insurance funds and then pension funds exploited economies of scale and the laws of averages to provide financial protection against calculable risk. The corporations now had another decisive advantage in being able to have access to protection against risk and in a world where financial risk was the biggest danger any advantage there could prove world-conquering. The accumulation of financial innovations had already tipped the balance for the West and was now on its way to helping them conquer the world.

5. Real Estate

With the rise of more innovative instruments such as futures, options and other derivatives, it was now possible to increase leverage, not only for governments and corporations, but also for individual households. With government encouragement they soon increased their leverage and used that to invest more and more in real estate. This helped the western countries to have a larger and larger propertied class helping them to transition the into property-owning democracies, which, according to Ferguson, are the most robust sort.

6. Imperialism and Globalization: The Justified Culmination

Now we come to the crux of the narrative — Economies that combined all these institutional innovations – banks, bond markets, stock markets, insurance and property-owning democracy – performed better over the long run than those that did not, because financial intermediation generally permits a more efficient allocation of resources than, say, feudalism or central planning. The financial ecosystem evolved in the West was the best suited for governance and for human civilization in general. And it is for this reason that the Western financial model tended to spread around the world, first in the guise of imperialism, then in the guise of globalization, and has been vital for all sorts of progress achieved around the world — from the advance of science, the spread of law, mankind’s escape from the drudgery of subsistence agriculture and the misery of the Malthusian trap.

Ferguson has narrated the history of money as a financial evolution and thus given it the air of inevitable complexity and of progress. This makes it seem like the adoption of the ‘evolved’ financial system first by the West and them by the Rest is but a logical and inevitable choice that is for the best of the world at large.

It is noteworthy that Ferguson makes a point of using elaborate evolutionary metaphors to project the history of financial institutions in a Darwinian light.


According to this interpretation, financial history is essentially the result of institutional mutation and natural selection: Random ‘drift’ (innovations/ mutations that are not promoted by natural selection, but just happen) and ‘flow’ (innovations/mutations that are caused when, say, American practices are adopted by Chinese banks) play a part. There can also be ‘co-evolution’, when different financial species work and adapt together (like hedge funds and their prime brokers).

But market selection is the main driver. Financial organisms are in competition with one another for finite resources. At certain times and in certain places, certain species may become dominant. But innovations by competitor species, or the emergence of altogether new species, prevent any permanent hierarchy or monoculture from emerging. Broadly speaking, the law of the survival of the fittest applies. Institutions with a ‘selfish gene’ that is good at self-replication and self-perpetuation will tend to proliferate and endure.

As we can see there are certain key themes here:

a. That the survived institutions have to accepted as ‘fittest’ under Ferguson’s interpretation, and

b. That ‘selfishness’ of institutions/genes are rewarding for the species/humanity in the long run. So we should encourage the selfish imperialism of countries/the globalization of corporations today.

These are specious themes that are present in this book with a specific agenda, trying to escape notice by being presented in pseudoscientific light. And as we have seen from our discussion of how Ferguson uses the history of finance to show us how Imperialism was a good thing for the rest of the world, we can safely slot this book as another among Ferguson’s life-long attempts to come up with innovative apologetics for Empire.

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Posted by on June 7, 2015 in Book Reviews, Books, Economics, Thoughts


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I, Hegel: A Poem

I, Hegel
I, Hegel, wrote an essay today
Comparing Jesus,
And his disciples
With Socrates,
And his.
Jesus emerges from my comparison
As decidedly the inferior teacher
Of ethics.
What does that say
About my Religion?


I, Hegel, had a dream today
In which Napoleon
Was offered
One of two paths
In a cold subterranean dungeon:
One of which led to untold riches
And the other to a lost work of Aristotle.
He took the first
Without hesitation.
What does that say
About my Hero?


I, Hegel, went on a walk today
When I heard
Two villagers arguing
About metaphysics,
And epistemology.
They talked of Jesus and of Zeus,
Of Mary and of Vampires!
But not a word was told of Kant,
Yet they reached (and easily)
The very same conclusions!
What does that say
About my Teacher?

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Posted by on March 1, 2015 in Books, Creative, Philosophy, Poetry, Thoughts



INTERSTELLAR: Do Not Go Humble Into That Good Night

The Science of InterstellarThe Science of Interstellar by Kip S. Thorne

My Rating★★★★☆



The book discusses the movie, so it is only fair that I use most of the space to discuss the movie as well. I will discuss the book itself in one of the sections below. To get a better understanding, we can break our discussion it up into three overlapping sections —
The Three aspects of the movie that has to be examined to get at its core Premise:

1. The Future

2. The Science

3. The Dreams

Book Rating: 4/5 (Goodreads); Movie Rating: 9/10 (IMDB)

Caution: Spoilers Ahead; Spoilers Abound

“The overriding question, ‘What might we build tomorrow?’
blinds us to questions of our ongoing responsibilities
for what we built yesterday.”
~ Paul Dourish



Interstellar is about mankind’s future and about the options we face. It challenges us to think about how we should react to that future.

It starts from the premise that the Earth has been wrecked.

We have become a largely agrarian society, struggling to feed and shelter ourselves. But ours is not a dystopia. Life is still tolerable and in some ways pleasant, with little amenities such as baseball continuing. However, we no longer think big. We no longer aspire to great things. We aspire to little more than just keeping life going.

Humans have coped with their sudden tragedy by shutting down technology, engineering, research and all the marvels of science. This was the only option left to them.

But why this extreme reaction by a species that was not frightened even by Frankenstein’s monster? Presumably science/progress had something to do with unleashing the blight? My guess would be too much monoculture.

Most of them seem to think that the catastrophes are finished, that we humans are securing ourselves in this new world and things may start improving. But in reality the blight is so lethal, and leaps so quickly from crop to crop (there is also a bit of unscientific nonsense about Nitrogen versus Oxygen, but let us not be too critical), that the human race is doomed within the lifetime of Cooper’s grandchildren. The only hope is to start dreaming again. To get back on the Science Bandwagon.

And (thankfully?) there are dreamers, who refuse to give up to this sub-par, non-imaginative existence.

We are explorers, we are adventurers. Humanity is not meant to give up like this, Nolan tells us. And uses Dylan to drive the point home (too many times!).

The prevailing attitude of stopping progress and just focussing on ‘surviving’ is seen to be a regressive step by our intrepid explorers.

Instead our heroes decide to risk it all on a cross-galaxy exploration. To find a new home for humanity, out among the stars.

In the process Nolan also attempts to reverse the message of Kubrick’s Space Odyssey and portray technology as a friend to humanity (TARS), instead of an unknown and volatile threat (as embodied by HAL).


This is an eminently plausible future. It is also an eminent plausible reaction to such a future. In face it is very close to what Naomi Oreskes  imagines in her own Near-future scenario: Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future. A dictatorial regime, community-based (communist, in fact), strictly controlled, paranoid. We have seen these things before in history, during the dark ages. It is one of our worst nightmares.

A totalitarian govt is pretty much what would be in store in such a future. Freedom comes with trade-offs — the more we can indulge now, the more we restrict humanity later.

The only problem is that by the time we have had time to degrade so much, to feel the hopelessness, to tighten control over a society so much with so less technology, it would probably be too late to be even thinking of interstellar travel.

And that is where the Future that is shown to us breaks down. It shows us an agrarian world that is still capable of inter-planetary travel. That would require a very fast breakdown of things. Fast enough to not let the technology or the knowledge wither away. One bad generation would enough to lose the skills that were required for the Exodus. The plot had to assume an almost impossible fast degeneration and a lot of coincidental happenings in that very small window allowed even in such a world. That is not very realistic.

Lucky we had a miracle to bail us out.

See high-res Here:


Soft Science

This is where science comes in. Under what scientific capacity we have, and with what technology we can reasonably expect in the near future, we cannot really travel inter-galactic distances in a time span that is remotely realistic, at least for current generations. Nor do we have the cryopreservation methods to take any live humans across such time spans.

And if we were capable of sacrificing our present for the future generations…? Well. Umm. We wouldn’t be in a fix in the first place, would we?

The nearest star (other than our Sun) thought to have a habitable planet is Tau Ceti, 11.9 light-years from Earth, so traveling at light speed you would need 11.9 years to reach it. If there are any habitable planets closer than that, they can’t be much closer.

Voyager 1 is traveling out of the solar system at 17 kilometers per second, having been boosted by gravitational slingshots around Jupiter and Saturn. In Interstellar, the Endurance travels from Earth to Saturn in two years, at an average speed of about 20 kilometers per second.

Even if we imagine an extreme 300 kilometers per second, we would need 5000 years to reach Proxima Centauri (nearest star to earth) and 13,000 years to reach Tau Ceti. Not a pleasant prospect!

Using twenty-first-century technology, we are stuck with thousands of years to reach other solar systems. The only hope (an exceedingly faint hope) for faster interstellar travel, in the event of an earthly disaster, is a wormhole like that in Interstellar, or some other extreme form of spacetime warp.

So a major inter-galactic, centuries-spanning exploration is out of the question.

What then?

Luckily we have the Gods helping us (well, 5 dimensional beings – “them” for short) out.

They make our job a lot easier with a strategically placed wormhole – not too near to rip earth apart, but not so far that we don’t notice it, or will have to spend too much time reaching it. And it takes us to a place with multiple earth-like planets. And we go there on LAZARUS missions (Get it? Christ will walk amongst us at The End of Days — as Technology!). Resurrection itself, no less, is on display here!

Talk about miracles.

“And whoever They are, They appear to be looking out for us. That wormhole lets us travel to other stars. It came along right as we needed it.”

Well, what do you know, we are a lucky species.

Hard Science

I have heard a lot of people criticizing the science behind the movie. To me that is the most acceptable part in the movie. The science mostly makes good sense, except for a few artistic liberties here and there. Also the story was written first and the science was made-to-order. But despite that, it hangs together well.

The movie is exclusively based on a String Theory interpretation of the universe. Most of it won’t make sense unless you accept all the premises required under String Theory.

So we live in a “Brane” inside a “Bulk”. Our universe is the Brane and the Bulk Beings live in higher dimension, in the Bulk. The movie simplifies matters a bit by assuming the Bulk to be in only 1 dimension more than ours, while String Theorists tend to assume 5-6 extra dimensions in the Bulk. Also they are supposed to be curled-up microscopic dimensions, certainly not big enough for Cooper to be floating around in. Nolan didn’t want to confuse a mass audience. Let us accept that as fair.

All this is beautifully explained in the book and reading it will make you respect the rigor and faithfulness to scientific principles that is on view in the movie. Everything (including all those stunning visuals) is modeled based on equations and backed by scientific possibility (speculation at best). The movie allows us to visualize what a wormhole, black-hole, accretion disks, tesseract, world-tubes, etc. would look like IF they were real. And they allow us to do so with scientific rigor. Nolan brings String Theory to spectacular life. So this movie sets a pretty high standard as far as fidelity to science is concerned. Let us give full points for that.

I am wiling to defend most of the science on display in the movie. Please feel free to fire away in the comment section.

They even use realistic equations in the movie. Gotta give points for that too.

Even when the equation is attempting to “solve gravity”. *chuckles*

In short, it is easy to be skeptical of the science, but this companion book does a good job of shooting down most objections you might have and proves how well-founded most o the exotic stuff in the movie is. The really exotic things turn out to be closer to home, in the Future that is depicted and in the Dreams we are being asked to nurture! I started this book being very critical of the movie, looking for weapons to bludgeon it with, but the constant doses of science has softened me up. Reading this book will probably make you respect the movie much more too. Highly recommended.

Artistic Licences

That said, Nolan does take many liberties with science in the movie, but mostly they are for visual effect.

As Kip says, If Chris had followed the dictates of Einstein’s laws, it would have spoiled his movie. So Chris consciously invoked artistic license at some points. Although I’m a scientist and aspire to science accuracy in science fiction, I can’t blame Chris at all. I would have done the same, had I been making the decision. And you’d have thanked me for it.

Truth, Educated Guesses, and Speculations

The science of Interstellar lies in all four domains: Newtonian, relativistic, quantum, and quantum gravity. Correspondingly, some of the science is known to be true, some is an educated guess, and some is speculation.

That is why throughout this book, when discussing the science of Interstellar, Kip has to explain the status of that science—truth, educated guess, or speculation—and he label it so at the beginning of a chapter or section with a symbol:


The thing is that a wormhole cant work (they are just not stable enough to be traversable, even if they actually exist — admitted freely in the book, in fact Kip goes so far as to almost admit that Wormholes are the most impossible outrageous idea in the book, and he was also the one responsible for introducing a wormhole into Contact and thus into mass consciousness!), time can’t be fixed, and if you have enough energy/tech to make a new planet habitable, you will definitely have enough to make earth re-habitable!

So we will never actually face a choice — either we will be capable of saving the earth AND colonizing a new planet. Or we will be incapable of both. And if the earth is in a bad enough condition it is unlikely that a true centuries-spanning mission is going to get funding anyway. And if we can fix the planet, how can we choose to leave all the other species behind? (Diversity being so important, as mentioned in the movie — and true genetic diversity should also include species diversity.)

The Science in the Movie DOES NOT matter. Because it is not a question of what is possible, but of what we want to believe in.

Cooper = Christ

This movie is about Miracles & Dreams, not of Science. And, to drive it home, religious hints litter the movie, as pointed out with the Lazarus missions above.

We thus have Cooper in a double role, as a Christ figure who brings God’s message to a Prophet, and also as an Apostle-Prime, who alone has experienced divinity, who is convinced that the miracles are being performed by The Children of Men. That men will become Gods one day, capable of miracles. Get it? The Bulk-beings, the 5-Dimensional Gods are nothing but the Children of Men, conceived immaculately through a Technology-Mary)

“Not yet,” Cooper says, “but one day. Not you and me but people, people who’ve evolved beyond the four dimensions we know.”

Traditionally, when you fall into a black hole, you should get pulled apart, instead the movie itself gets pulled apart by its seams. It was a plot necessity. Of course, our new understanding of singularities allow a slim chance of survival, but certainly not for the Nolan-esque climax. It’s a brave plunge, either way.


The real message of the movie might very well be to show how difficult it would be to find an inhabitable planet and get to it, even with plenty of miraculous deus ex machinas thrown in. And we still need to have in source of energy — gravity itself — to have any shot at a humane solution (of transporting everyone instead of having to deal with the rough job of choosing WHO gets to go!)

In the move, it all ends in an optimistic note in COOPER STATION, but what of the Earth? Kip admits in the book that to “harness gravity” to get off the earth would probably require a complete destruction of the planet (through extreme compression).

If they had access to enormous energy, through “solving gravity”, then surely they could have fixed Earth instead? Given the choice between a beautiful Earth and an artificially recreated station (limited by man’s imagination, even if by the imagination of the most brilliant among us), where would you choose to live? What would you choose for your child? Even today, would you rather stay in a magnificently designed IT park imitation or actually go and visit the original? And what of the history, architecture and ecology we have to leave behind? I know what choice I will make. I might make a visit, but I would want come back to earth.

A Cut-And-Run Theme

As an article puts it:

At first glance, Interstellar does seem to have a green message, warning that climate change could make the world uninhabitable for humans (and, presumably, other species). Yet there’s an odd twist. The tag line for the film is, “The end of the Earth will not be the end of us.” And the lead scientist, played by Michael Caine (no longer Alfred the Butler), says at one point: “We are not meant to save the world. We are meant to leave it.” In other words, if humans do trash the planet, don’t worry, some super-smart folks will help us make a nice get-away somewhere else in this swell and expanding universe. Given that Grinspoon researches life and planetary development, I wondered what he thought of this cut-and-run theme.

Once we cut out all the fantasy elements, Interstellar has this dire projection for us:

1. We are ruining the planet

2. We need to look for options to save ourselves.

Now, I have no objection to Humans leaving the Planet. Best case might even be that Humans leave the Planet to save the Planet.

3. But, whatever solutions we want to imagine/implement, we need to do it before it is too late.

By the time it is too late for the planet, it is bound to be too late for our technology too.

Cut-And-Run is not a feasible option. Deus Ex Machina happens only in movies.

As I have repeated many times by now The Science of Interstellar is the least questionable aspect of the movie. Its core premise (the Future & The Dreams) is what is really questionable.

Interstellar operates from a premise that it is never too late as long we keep the flame of exploration and technology alive. It ignores the ethical dilemmas of leaving a planet and most of its inhabitants (including humans) to die. It also ignores the more present question of how to avert a cut-and-run scenario from ever manifesting itself. That is the real question in front of humanity today. By skipping ahead and showing us an imaginary solution to present day problems, Nolan is indulging in a sort of escapism.

Let us just deal with it:

The right dream to have might just be of saving the planet and thus ourselves, and not of leaving it.

The movie was good entertainment and the book does a wonderful job of backing it up scientifically. But having the right dream is important too, to direct Science, which is merely a tool.

Humanity was not meant to die on Earth.
Earth was not meant to die of Humanity either.


Arthur C. Clarke took us on a similar journey in 2001: A Space Odyssey, but he asked us uncomfortable questions: Where are we headed? Are we ready to rely on Technology? What hidden dangers lurk in the Highway of Progress?

Nolan instead chooses to allay most of those uncomfortable questions and leaves us with a too simple an answer: Trust in technology, keep the spirit alive and everything will be fine.

I am not sure that is the right message for our times. It needs to be examined, and hence the review. I have done a shoddy job of it, but it is something.

All this is not to indulge in technology-bashing. Our scientific knowledge and our capacity for improvement are still our best bets to continuing survival. But “Solutionism” is not the answer.

This is how “Solutionism” is defined:

“‘Solutionism’ interprets issues as puzzles to which there is a solution, rather than problems to which there may be a response.”
~ Gilles Paquet

We should be optimistic, but only cautiously so. We should not ride headlong into a future we don’t want, expecting a miracle at the end of the lane to bail us out. We should respect science and trust in it, and expect it to not only be a miracle, but also a path-finder. Science should show us the way, it should show us the means to avoid the unwanted future. It should be a companion, not a god-of-last-resort, to which we turn only once we have ruined ourselves by ignoring it.

Let us use science to chart the best course. Let us respect what our scientists tell us instead of allowing our politicians and our run-away consumerist economy to take us to a cliff from which even Science cannot be expected to work a Miracle.

Even though the movie was supposed to be a powerful message about Man’s power, in the end it turns out to be about man’s desperate need for miracles, for easy answers. That is its failure.

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Wishing Yourself A Good Night

Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of SleepDreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep by David K. Randall

My Rating★★★☆☆

Wishing Yourself A Good Night

What do you do when you really don’t have much to tell on a subject, especially when you care a lot about it? You tell anecdotes and try to keep it interesting. Most neuroscience books these days tend to be packed with anecdotes that are weird, but on which there is no scientific consensus. The reader is left to his/her own devices on what to make of all the stories. This book is not much different. It starts with an admission that we know next to nothing about sleep – the activity that occupies 1/3rd of our lives.

The author sets off an a quest to discover more about his own sleep conditions and finds that he has fallen into a strange rabbit hole that exists just on the other side the pillow, and which most of are never aware of.

Once I started really thinking about sleep for the first time, the questions came in waves. Do men sleep differently than women? Why do we dream? Why is getting children to fall asleep one of the hardest parts of becoming a new parent, and is it this hard for everyone around the world? How come some people snore and others don’t? And what makes my body start sleepwalking, and why can’t I tell it to stop? Asking friends and family about sleep elicited a long string of “I don’t knows,” followed by looks of consternation, like the expressions you see on students who don’t know the answers to a pop quiz. Sleep, the universal element of our lives, was the great unknown. And frankly, that makes no sense.

A few take aways:

1. The Need for sleep:

Most of us will spend a full third of our lives asleep, and yet we don’t have the faintest idea of what it does for our bodies and our brains. Research labs offer surprisingly few answers. Sleep is one of the dirty little secrets of science. We don’t know about sleep, and the book opens with the most obvious question of all—why we, and every other animal, need to sleep in the first place.

Here we hear many horror stories of sleep-deprivation: Within the first twenty-four hours of sleep deprivation, the blood pressure starts to increase. Not long afterward, the metabolism levels go haywire, giving a person an uncontrollable craving for carbohydrates. The body temperature drops and the immune system gets weaker. If this goes on for too long, there is a good chance that the mind will turn against itself, making a person experience visions and hear phantom sounds akin to a bad acid trip. At the same time, the ability to make simple decisions or recall obvious facts drops off severely. It is bound to end in severe consequences – including death. It is a bizarre downward spiral that is all the more peculiar because it can be stopped completely, and all of its effects will vanish, simply by sleeping for a couple of hours.

2. The Amount of sleep:

Humans need roughly one hour of sleep for every two hours they are awake, and the body innately knows when this ratio becomes out of whack. Each hour of missed sleep one night will result in deeper sleep the next, until the body’s sleep debt is wiped clean.

3. The Stages of Sleep:

Researchers now say that sleep is made up of five distinct stages that the body cycles through over roughly ninety-minute periods. The first is so light that if you wake up from it, you might not realize that you have been sleeping. The second is marked by the appearance of sleep-specific brain waves that last only a few seconds at a time. If you reach this point in the cycle, you will know you have been sleeping when you wake up. This stage marks the last stop before your brain takes a long ride away from consciousness. Stages three and four are considered deep sleep. In three, the brain sends out long, rhythmic bursts called delta waves. Stage four is known as slow-wave sleep for the speed of its accompanying brain waves. The deepest form of sleep, this is the farthest that your brain travels from conscious thought. If you are woken up while in stage four, you will be disoriented, unable to answer basic questions, and want nothing more than to go back to sleep, a condition that researchers call sleep drunkenness. The final stage is REM sleep, so named because of the rapid movements of your eyes dancing against your eyelids. In this type of sleep, the brain is as active as it is when it is awake. This is when most dreams occur.

4. The Ideal Pattern of Sleep (that you are not following):

Natural light is the way to go. Artificial light messes up your sleep patterns and the body pays for it in the long run. Post-Edison world has come close to banishing the night, but our bodies still live in a world where sun is the only source of light, and have all sorts of troubles processing artificial light induced sleep patters. More and more health problems are being tied to unnatural sleep patterns and Light Pollution.

Example: Electric light at night disrupts your circadian clock, the name given to the natural rhythms that the human body developed over time. When you see enough bright light at night, your brain interprets this as sunlight because it doesn’t know any better. The lux scale, a measure of the brightness of light, illustrates this point. One lux is equal to the light from a candle ten feet away. A standard 100-watt lightbulb shines at 190 lux, while the lighting in an average office building is 300 lux. The body’s clock can be reset by any lights stronger than 180 lux, meaning that the hours you spend in your office directly impact your body’s ability to fall asleep later. That’s because your body reacts to bright light the same way it does to sunshine, sending out signals to try to keep itself awake and delay the nightly maintenance of cleanup and rebuilding of cells that it does while you are asleep. Too much artificial light can stop the body from releasing melatonin, a hormone that helps regulate sleep.

Poor sleep is just one symptom of an unwound body clock. Circadian rhythms are thought to control as many as 15 percent of our genes. When those genes don’t function as they should because of the by-products of artificial light, the effects are a rogue’s gallery of health disorders. Studies have linked depression, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity, and even cancer to overexposure to light at night. Researchers know this, in part, from studying nurses who have spent years working the graveyard shift. One study of 120,000 nurses found that those who worked night shifts were the most likely to develop breast cancer. Another found that nurses who worked at least three night shifts a month for fifteen years had a 35 percent greater chance of developing colon cancer. The increased disease rates could not be explained as a by-product of working in a hospital.

In one of the most intriguing studies, researchers in Israel used satellite photos to chart the level of electric light at night in 147 communities. Then, they placed the satellite photos over maps that showed the distribution of breast cancer cases. Even after controlling for population density, affluence, and other factors that can influence health, there was a significant correlation between exposure to artificial light at night and the number of women who developed the disease. If a woman lived in a place where it was bright enough outside to read a book at midnight, she had a 73 percent higher risk of developing breast cancer than a peer who lived in a neighborhood that remained dark after the sun went down. Researchers think that the increased risk is a result of lower levels of melatonin, which may affect the body’s production of estrogen.

There could be more discoveries on the horizon that show detrimental health effects caused by artificial light. Researchers are interested in how lights have made us less connected to the changing of the seasons. “We’ve deseasonalized ourselves,” Wehr, the sleep researcher, said. “We are living in an experiment that is finding out what happens if you expose humans to constant summer day lengths.”

5. What Should Be Your Sleep Schedule?

In the Canterbury Tales, one of the characters in “The Squire’s Tale” wakes up in the early morning following her “first sleep” and then goes back to bed. A fifteenth-century medical book, meanwhile, advised readers to spend the “first sleep” on the right side and after that to lie on their left. And a scholar in England wrote that the time between the “first sleep” and the “second sleep” was the best time for serious study. Sleep, it seems, wasn’t always the one long block that we consider it today.

This natural mode of sleep sounds weird to the post-Edison world of artificial lights and 6 hour sleep cycles. But it was a fact of life that was once as common as eating breakfast.

For most of human history, every night, people fell asleep not long after the sun went down and stayed that way until sometime after midnight. This was the “first sleep” that kept popping up in the old tales. Once a person woke up, he or she would stay that way for an hour or so before going back to sleep until morning—the so-called second sleep. The time between the two bouts of sleep was a natural and expected part of the night and, depending on your needs, was spent praying, reading, contemplating your dreams, urinating, or having sex. The last one was perhaps the most popular.

Experiments confirm this tendency: Thomas Wehr, who worked for the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, Maryland, was struck by the idea that the ubiquitous artificial light we see every day could have some unknown effect on our sleep habits. On a whim, he deprived subjects of artificial light for up to fourteen hours a day in hopes of re-creating the lighting conditions common to early humans. Without lightbulbs, televisions, or street lamps, the subjects in his study initially did little more at night than sleep. They spent the first few weeks of the experiment like kids in a candy store, making up for all of the lost sleep that had accumulated from staying out late at night or showing up at work early in the morning. After a few weeks, the subjects were better rested than perhaps at any other time in their lives.

That was when the experiment took a strange turn. Soon, the subjects began to stir a little after midnight, lie awake in bed for an hour or so, and then fall back asleep again. It was the same sort of segmented sleep that Ekirch found in the historical records. While sequestered from artificial light, subjects were shedding the sleep habits they had formed over a lifetime. It was as if their bodies were exercising a muscle they never knew they had. The experiment revealed the innate wiring in the brain, unearthed only after the body was sheltered from modern life. Not long after Wehr published a paper about the study, Ekirch contacted him and revealed his own research findings.

Numerous other studies have shown that splitting sleep into two roughly equal halves is something that our bodies will do if we give them a chance. In places of the world where there isn’t artificial light—and all the things that go with it, like computers, movies, and bad reality TV shows—people still sleep this way. In the mid-1960s, anthropologists studying the Tiv culture in central Nigeria found that group members not only practiced segmented sleep, but also used roughly the same terms of first sleep and second sleep.

6. Sleep & Performance

The places where most of the cutting edge research happens and great places to understand the importance of sleep is the Military and Sports fields – areas where human excellence, endurance and performance is pushed to the limits. It stands to reason that these fields notice the effects of sleep problems first. Many sports teams now take great trouble to make sure Light is adjusted to natural cycles, athletes get the full quota of sleep, etc. It s only a matter of time before rest of popular culture catches on – just like many health ides, diets, exercises etc.

7. Sleep Timings Change with Age:

The three basic stages of adulthood—teenage, middle age, old age—have drastically different sleep structures. Teenagers going through puberty find it impossible to fall asleep early and would naturally sleep past ten in the morning if given the choice. Their grandparents often fall asleep early in the night, but then find that they can’t stay that way for more than three or four hours at a time. Middle-aged adults typically fall between the middle of these two extremes, content to fall asleep early when circumstances allow it, yet able to pull an all-nighter when a work project calls for it. These overlapping shifts could be a way to ensure that someone in the family is always awake and keeping watch, or at least close to it. In this ancient system, it makes sense that older adults who are unable to move as fast as the rest of the family are naturally jumpy, never staying in deep sleep for long, simply because they were the most vulnerable to the unknown.

The other stage – babyhood is a time with no sleep structure at all. They sleep and wake up independent of the light/circadian rhythms. To the eternal consternation of all parents!

So human society is biologically designed to live in different time zones?!

Biology’s cruel joke goes something like this: As a teenage body goes through puberty, its circadian rhythm essentially shifts three hours backward. Suddenly, going to bed at nine or ten o’clock at night isn’t just a drag, but close to a biological impossibility. Studies of teenagers around the globe have found that adolescent brains do not start releasing melatonin until around eleven o’clock at night and keep pumping out the hormone well past sunrise. Adults, meanwhile, have little-to-no melatonin in their bodies when they wake up. With all that melatonin surging through their bloodstream, teenagers who are forced to be awake before eight in the morning are often barely alert and want nothing more than to give in to their body’s demands and fall back asleep. Because of the shift in their circadian rhythm, asking a teenager to perform well in a classroom during the early morning is like asking him or her to fly across the country and instantly adjust to the new time zone—and then do the same thing every night, for four years. If professional football players had to do that, they would be lucky to win one game.

8. What Sort of Bed Should You Choose?

The biggest question—whether a bed should be hard or soft—has a long and confusing history. In 2008, the medical journal Spine seemed to settle the question of firmness. It found that there was little difference in back pain between those who slept on hard mattresses and those who slept on softer ones. How hard a person likes his or her bed is a personal preference and nothing more.

In fact, the bed that you find the most comfortable will most likely be the one that you are already sleeping on.

9. Forget The Bed – Sleep Hygiene Is What You Need

While a comfortable mattress may have little impact when it comes to sleep quality, there are several other aspects of the bedroom that do. Taken together, they form what specialists call sleep hygiene. Most are common sense.

– No coffee before bed / in the evening

Nor is drinking alcohol before bedtime a smart move. Alcohol may help speed the onset of sleep, but it begins to take its toll during the second half of the night. As the body breaks down the liquid, the alcohol in the bloodstream often leads to an increase in the number of times a person briefly wakes up. This continues until the blood alcohol level returns to zero, thereby preventing the body from getting a full, deep, restorative sleep.

Developing a few habits with the circadian rhythm in mind will most likely make sleep easier. Adequate exposure to natural light, for instance, will help keep the body’s clock in sync with the day-night cycle and prime the brain to increase the level of melatonin in the bloodstream, which will then bring on sleepiness around ten o’clock each night.

By the same token, bright lights—including the blue-and-white light that comes from a computer monitor or a television screen—can deceive the brain, which registers it as daylight. Lying in bed watching a movie on an iPad may be relaxing, but the constant bright light from the screen can make it more difficult for some people to fall asleep afterward.

– Walk around your house and switch off all bright lights half an hour before you sleep, including the TV, the iPad and the laptop.

Recent studies have shown that body temperature also plays an outsized role in getting decent sleep. Takes steps to have a comfortable temperature: Take a cold shower, etc.

– Even a small increase in the amount of exercise a person gets leads to measurable improvements in the time that it takes to fall asleep and stay that way. This is particularly true for older adults.

10. The Effort Is Worth Your Time

But, though its effects were subtle, devoting extra time and attention to this most basic of human needs impacted nearly every minute of my day. Because I was improving my sleep, I was improving my life. And all it took was treating sleep with the same respect that I already gave other aspects of my health. Just as I wouldn’t eat a plate of chili-cheese fries every day and expect to continue to fit into my pants, I structured my life around the idea that I couldn’t get only a few hours of sleep and expect to function properly. If there was one thing that I took away from my talks with experts more than any other, it is that getting a good night’s sleep takes work.

And that work is worth it. Health, sex, relationships, creativity, memories—all of these things that make us who we are depend on the hours we spend each night with our heads on the pillow. By ignoring something that every animal requires, we are left turning to pills that we may not need, experiencing health problems that could be tamed, and pushing our children into sleep-deprived lives that make the already tough years of adolescence more difficult. And yet sleep continues to be forgotten, overlooked, and postponed. Any step—whether it comes in the form of exercise, therapy, or simply reading a book like this one—that helps us to realize the importance of sleep inevitably pushes us toward a better, stronger, and more creative life.

Sleep, in short, makes us the people we want to be. All you have to do is close your eyes.

In addition to all the sleep advice, the best part of the book was the full-fledged dissing of poor Freud: Far from being full of hidden symbols, most dreams were remarkably straightforward and predictable. Dream plots were consistent enough that, just by knowing the cast of characters in a dream, scientists could forecast what would happen with surprising accuracy. – “None of Freud’s claims are true by any of our standards today,” Domhoff said, dipping his spoon into his yogurt. “If you look at dreams—if you really look at them like we have—then you see that it’s all there, out in the open. You don’t need any of these symbols.” He went on. “Freudians got all caught up in the idea that there were hidden meanings to our dreams. But their interpretations only worked because we share a system of figurative language and metaphor.”

The Short Summary

Too Lengthy for your tastes? Would reading such a big review eat into your sleep quota for today? Here is a Quick Summary:

1. Sleep for eight hours. Sleep is the natural repair mechanism of the body. If we mess with it, we are bound to have repair related diseases – such as cancer.
2. Follow the natural cycle and your circadian Rhythms. Dont live in perpetual jet lag conditions.
3. Sleep by around 8-9 and wake up at around 12, go back to sleep by 1 and wake by around 4-5 (add 2 hours if possible on either side)
– if you are older, you will need to sleep earlier to be able to fill your quota. it will be almost impossible to sleep late into the day as you age.
4. Avoid artificial lights while sleeping, make sure you are exposed to natural light
5. Relax yourself before sleep, make sure you get some exercise every day.
6. Don’t indulge in dangerous/delicate activities when sleep deprived. Sleep well for high performance.
7. Sleep properly to be more healthy in general – it affects all sorts of things in your body.
8. Don’t impose your sleep patterns on the rest of your family, esp when they are of another age. Dont impose adult sleep patters on kids.
9. Make sure your naps are always 90 minutes or longer. Take naps before important activities, or when stressed.

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Posted by on September 18, 2014 in Book Reviews, Books


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Shakespeare: The Obscure & The Elusive (A Biography)

Shakespeare: The Biography


Shakespeare: The Biography by Peter Ackroyd

My Rating★★★☆☆


“Shakespeare is the only biographer of Shakespeare. 

So far from Shakespeare’s being the least known, he is the one person in all modern history fully known to us.”

~ Emerson

The Obscure & The Elusive

This ‘biography’ that Ackroyd strings together is mostly tedious, though it has a few really good moments and it has to be admitted that it presents most of the facts that is known of the great Bard. In spite of this, I think it is a mistake to pick up this bio unless one is familiar with ALL the plays of Shakespeare, including the controversially attributed ones – since Ackroyd constructs the bio mostly through the plays and the lines and extrapolating form them, tying together with some skill the fragmentary traces Shakespeare left in the world outside the stage.

The fact that whatever is pieced together from outside plays is from the patchy legal records of Shakespeare’s land dealings, taxes paid, borrowings/lendings, cases filed, and so on, should give an idea of the tedium involved. The saving grace is when Shakespeare’s contemporary critics step in to spice it up by naive statements that posterity was destined to have hearty laughs at.

Also, Ackroyd tries to do it both ways – understand the life through the plays and then understand the plays through the life. Which makes a bit of a mess in figuring out where the circle closes. Also, Ackroyd seems to lean towards reading the life into the work when the life can be read out of the work.

Maybe, much of Shakespeare’s existence was the very construction of his plays, and these in turn might tell us more about him than can the set of random anecdotes that have escaped the distortions of history and Shakespeare’s own efforts to maintain a private life, that Ackroyd tires so hard to dig out. If Ackroyd had stuck to a consistent plan either way, we might have had a much more coherent work.

In the end, the ‘bio’ is definitely useful in understanding Shakespeare’s London (which included the audiences, stage, limitations of the stage, audience expectations), what is known of his life (with shadings of childhood influences, dramatic/poetic progress, worldly progress, family troubles/tragedies/ambitions), and the London Stage itself (including economic conditions and preoccupations, major rivals, the dramatic scene of the time, the actors, the interaction b/w actors and characters).

This is all very admirable, but the question is how much of all this information is needed for understanding his plays – especially when his greatest genius was apparently in being conspicuous by his absence in his works! Ackroyd asserts this himself and thus nullifies his entire effort, in one fell swoop. (if you detect a contradiction in the review here, it is intended to show the same contradiction apparent in the book)

In addition Ackroyd is known to present speculation as concluded fact and reader has to keep his guard up throughout the book, which is very tiring to be honest, and not quite worth the effort.

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Posted by on May 22, 2014 in Book Reviews, Books


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Arthashastra: The Science Of Good Governance

The ArthashastraThe Arthashastra by Kautilya

My Rating★★★★★


The Arthashastra is the most comprehensive treatise of statecraft of classical times, and perhaps of all time.

The Arthashastra is written mainly in prose but also incorporates 380 shlokas, which adds a vital poetic flourish to this otherwise down-to-earth classic. The text of this extraordinarily detailed manual contains fifteen books which cover numerous topics viz., the King; a complete code of law; foreign policy; secret services; civic responsibilities, and so on.

In trying to understand Kautilya‘s analysis, we have to keep in mind the fact that in the Kautilyan view, the king encapsulates all the constituents of a state, he has expounded the theory in terms of the king – any king. In other words, what Kautilya calls the ‘interest of the king’ would nowadays be termed ‘National Interest’.

A Note About The Translation

This translation by Rangarajan is a good reference book if you are coming back to Arthashastra for reference, but not particularly good for a first reading. It is too well catalogued and too practical for that. The verses should be read in the order Kautilya arrayed them rather than in this re-arranged fashion that helps to make much better sense of it, but somehow takes away the spirit.

The translation also contains a useful Index of Verses (By Textual Order) — it is meant to assist in finding out in which Part and Section a particular verse of the text has been included.

The Branches Of Knowledge

Traditionally, in classical Indian texts, the four branches of knowledge are considered to be:

1) Philosophy,
2) The Three Vedas,
3) Economics, and
4) The Science of Government

Kautilya tells us that these are, indeed, the four fundamental branches of knowledge because one can know from these four branches of study all that is to be learnt about Dharma [spiritual welfare] and Artha [material well-being]. {1.2.8-9}

Artha, literally wealth, is thus one of four supreme aims prescribed by Classical Indian tradition. However, it has a much wider significance and the material well-being of individuals is just a part of it. The ‘Artha’ of Arthashastra is an all-embracing word with a variety of meanings.  In accordance with this, Kautilya’s Arthashastra maintains that the state or government of a country has a vital role to play in maintaining the material status of both the nation and its people.

The Arthashastra is thus ‘the science of politics’ with a significant part dedicated to the science of economics. It is the art of government in its widest sense — the maintenance of law and order as also of an efficient administrative machinery The subjects covered include: administration; law order and justice; taxation, revenue and expenditure; foreign policy; defense and war. Its three objectives follow one from the other: promotion of the welfare of the subjects leads to acquisition of wealth which, in turn, makes it possible to enlarge the territory by conquest.

The Instruction Manual

The Arthashastra is essentially a treatise on the art of government and is, by nature, instructional. It seeks to instruct all kings and is meant to be useful at all times wherever dharma is held to be pre­eminent. And because it is instructional, it is basis is the practice of government. The majority of the treatise is a Manual of Instruction for kings and officers of the state.

There are three distinct parts in this manual:

1. The Manual of Admi­nistration
describes the organization of the apparatus of the state and prescribes the duties and responsibilities of every key official, either for maintaining order or for collecting revenue. There are, naturally, parts devoted to budgetary control, enforcement of civil service dis­cipline and the public’s civic responsibility.

2. The Code of Law and Justice
covers both civil and criminal law and is, basically, a Penal Code; the extensive and graded penalties and fines prescribed in it have the twin aims of deterring transgressions and collecting revenue for the state.

3. The third part is a Manual of Foreign Policy, the pri­mary aim of which is acquisition of territory by conquest.

These three manuals correspond to the three objectives of the state – wealth, jus­tice and expansion — A stable and prosperous state, which only a just administration can secure, is a prerequisite for accumulation of wealth which is then used to augment the territory.

Justice —> Wealth —> Expansion —> More Wealth, and so on

… as long as Justice is not compromised. Which is why the prime focus of The Arthashastra is good administration that ensures the perpetuation of justice and posterity in the kingdom.

Against Reductionist Arguments

Before we move on, we should face the unfortunate fact that both Kautilya the author and his masterwork the Arthashastra are much misunderstood. Popularly known as Chanakya, he is maligned and often ridiculed as a teacher of unethical, not to say immoral, practices and as an advocate of the theory that ‘the ends justify the means.’ ‘Chanakyan’ has entered Indian vocabulary as the equivalent of ‘Machiavellian’.

Most people know little of what Kautilya actually said in the Arthashastra. The only thing they can recall is the superficial aspects of the ‘mandala’ theory, based on the principles: ‘Every neighboring state is an enemy and the enemy’s enemy is a friend.’ This is, no doubt, almost always valid. Nevertheless, to reduce Kautilya’s theory on foreign policy to just these two observations is to do him a grave injus­tice. Indeed, the theory deals with not just three states, but with a twelve. Here is a sample of how much more nuanced that simple understanding could be, with a little effort:

This popular view is not only simplistic but untrue. A through reading of the treatise is required to appreciate the range and depth of the Arthashastra. It is a pioneering work on statecraft in all its aspects, written at least one thousand five hundred years ago.

Even the condemnation of Kautilya as an unethi­cal teacher and the equivalence established with Machiavelli (itself based on gravely erroneous conception of that great master!) is based on ignorance of his work.

Kautilya’s is always a sane, moderate and balanced view. He placed great emphasis on the welfare of the people. His practical advice is rooted in dharma. But, as a teacher of practical statecraft, he advocated unethical methods in the furtherance of national interest, but always with very strict qualification. But these are often ignored or just plain unknown to the majority.

Just as Kautilya’s important qualifications to his advocacy of unethical methods is often ignored, so is the voluminous evidence in the Arthashastra of his emphasis on welfare, not only of human beings but also of animals. Welfare in the Arthashastra is not just an abstract concept. It covers maintenance of social order, increasing economic activity, protection of livelihood, protection of the weaker sections of the population, prevention of harassment of the subjects, consumer protection and even welfare of slaves and prisoners.

In short, the Arthashastra is a mixture of both what we applaud today and what we consider to be reprehensible. Kautilya has a great deal to say about civic responsibility; the obligation of every householder to take precautions against fire is mentioned; so is a prohibition on cutting trees in public parks. Consumer protection and vigilance against ex­ploitation of the people by government servants are aspects which we consider good. Equally, some of Kautilya’s suggestions will be seen by us as unethical. What is essential is that we understand both aspects and use them to learn history as well as to apply to the modern situations.

The Kautilyan Conception of The State

Dr. Kangle, in his magisterial work on Kautilya, notes that ‘the kind of state control over the economy Arthashastra presupposes is not possible without an efficient administra­tion. We, therefore, find in it a description of an elaborate administra­tive machinery.’

A ruler’s duties in the internal administration of the country are three-fold: raksha or protection of the state from external aggression, palana or maintenance of law and order within the state, and yoga­kshema or safeguarding the welfare of the people. These duties also meant that the King needed an elaborate support system.

The highly centralized Kautilyan state was to be regulated by an elaborate and intricate system as laid out by Kautilya. While at first glance we might think that this high centralization is repulsive, we should also appreciate the difficulties of the time. Most of the empires of the world relied on tight centralization to ensure some degree of success. Also, in Kautilya’s eyes, everything was in the service of one goal: Justice.

The extensive responsibilities of the state for promoting economic wellbeing and preserving law and order demand an equally extensive administrative machinery.  Any text on Arthashastra thus has to contain details of the organization of the civil service as well as the duties and responsibilities of individual officials.

Thus we can see how The Arthashastra was bound to be an elaborate manual that dealt with every minute aspect of administration and daily life.

The Arthashastra is a through discussion on the science of living, along with being a valuable historical document on the conduct of administration. It is thus supremely valuable for the historian but also for a modern political scientist or sociologist or economist or administrator.

A Modern Kautilya

All this shows us how close to modern life and administration the Kautilyan ideas come. Reading ancient books is the best way to rid ourselves of modernist fantasies — except for communication and transport, in the basic institutions, we are still where we were. and it is these two things (advance in communication & transport) that has made our institutions slightly more efficient, but also a lot more complex and thus just as bad at dealing with real things, while giving the illusion of a lot of activity.

The same thing can be said of the role of technology in daily life as well. We can get more things done because we can, but precisely because we can, there are always more things to do.

The Red Queen’s laugh reverberates through our modern lives and modern states.

Reality And The Ideal

The picture of the ideal Kautilyan state that emerges from our discussion above is one of a well-run state, prosperous and bustling with activity. But if we are to comprehend clearly Kautilya’s teachings and apply them judiciously to the modern world, we also have to be aware of the essential characteristics of the work. The treatise is about an ideal state – not that such a state actually ever existed or is even likely to exist now or in the future. To the extent any of the six constituent elements of a state – the ruler, the ministers, the urban and the rural population, the economic power and the military might – differ from the ideals Kautilya has set out, to that extent the advice given by him has to be modified.

I cannot imagine that much would change if a modern Kautilya were to write an Arthashastra today, except that he would have a broader, faster reach, and a better chance of enforcing things. But the basics of what he wants to do would not change much, nor would the how, only the means/instruments of effecting them would be easier., But unless those means are not available to the people, their range also increases, and hence real control would remain as difficult today as it was then.

The Illusion of Governance?

This realization should lead us to wonder why Kautilya attempted such an elaborately and minutely planned state architecture — we should consider the possibility that perhaps this level of intrusion into daily life was required, at least at the planning level, precisely because real control was so impossibly difficult? Maybe the Plan was needed for any semblance of governance? This reminds me strongly of Kafka’s Castle administration and their reliance on the awe of the villagers. Maybe the illusion of minute micro-managed and all-pervasive governance can cover up for the inability to really govern?

Isn’t it the same today?

The Best in the Market

We have seen that the Arthashastra is an exhaustive and detailed inventory of everything a state should do and everything every minor official should do. A more detailed secular constitution of governance and daily life cannot be imagined. With this legacy, it is no wonder that the much less ambitious Indian Constitution is still the longest in the world, the most detailed and most concerned with trying to micro manage the nuts and bolts of administration.

We have also seen how the problems that Kautilya tried to tackle are more or less the same as what modern states fail spectacularly at, even when aided by more gee-whiz technology. And this immutability of problems and of solutions is precisely why the level of detail that Kautilya goes into is still valuable for government officials, administrators and citizens.

A better guidebook has not hit the market yet.

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Posted by on May 15, 2014 in Book Reviews, Books, Philosophy, Thoughts


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Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics: The Pirates of the Powerpoint

How to Lie with StatisticsHow to Lie with Statistics by Darrell Huff

My Rating★★★★☆

Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics: The Pirates of the Powerpoint

Darrell Huff uses a simple, but effective literary device to impress his readers about how much statistics affect their daily lives and their understanding of the world.

He does this by pretending that the book is a sort of primer in ways to use statistics to deceive, like a manual for swindlers, or better, for pirates. He then pretends to justify the crookedness of the book in the manner of the retired burglar whose published reminiscences amounted to a graduate course in how to pick a lock and muffle a footfall: The crooks already know these tricks; honest men must learn them in self-defense.

This keeps the book interesting and entertaining, though for anyone even partly trained in statistics, it has very little educational value.

Of course, the title of this book and Huff’s little charade would seem to imply that all such operations are the product of intent to deceive. The intelligent reader would be skeptical — it is the unfortunate truth that it not chicanery much of the time, but incompetence. On the other hand, Huff is pretty clear that the ‘errors’ if that is what they are always seem to come down on the side of the interested party. As long as the errors remain one-sided, he says, it is not easy to attribute them to bungling or accident.

No More Mr. Nice Guy

After being fellow pirates for much of the book, in the concluding chapter Huff finally lets go if his pet charade and faces up to the more serious purpose of the book: explaining how to look a phony statistic in the eye and face it down; and no less important, how to recognize sound and usable data in that wilderness of fraud to which the previous chapters have been largely devoted. He lays down some thumb rules, which in the end comes come down to asking intelligent questions of the stats, especially of the conclusions. Asking such questions require the readers to be aware of the tendency of stats to mislead and to not be dazzled by the numbers.

Huff’s book is primarily an attempt to pull down the high estimation automatically awarded to anybody willing to quote numbers. It is a fun evening read for the expert, who may then roll his eyes and say that there is nothing of real value in the book. But as its popularity attests to, it seems to be an important book for the lay reader, just by serving a reminder that the pirates are still out there — wielding their charts.

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Posted by on May 11, 2014 in Book Reviews, Books


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