Sunday, July 27, 2014

Hinduism trumps Buddhism

I was in a discussion with Slavoj Zizek a little while ago - a lively discussion it was in the Stanford classroom wherein they were have the meeting. Zizek said that the Buddha was arguing against the Hindu scriptures. I corrected him by saying that he was arguing against Scripture itself per se and was emphasizing Reason over Scripture. Nothing to do with Hinduism itself.

Furthermore, Hinduism itself came up with the idea of dualism as opposed to monism, an idea central to Buddhism but one that has been almost completely undercut with the advent of the Scientific Revolution. And Hinduism itself has been influenced by the Age of Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution enough that it has pretty subsumed the teachings of the Buddha in that while we can appreciate some of the ideas of the Buddha in a modern context, we can also reject those ideas that are now known to be not only misguided but also false.

I am in a discussion over at the Facebook page for "Zen Soto Buddhism". I would like to place some of my comments from that page over here so that Zizek and others can see the full context of the history of Hinduism and Buddhism.

This argument falls out naturally from my paper, which it looks like is going to have be a book, "The End of History and the Last Hindu". Please read that to get the full picture.


Anand: Given the multiplicity of views on this matter, the best choice in terms of public utility might be to use a federated form of government where different states within a country are allowed to enact their own laws on prostitution. This idea would be particularly applicable to the Buddha's own homeland, India.

Commenter1 : does this increase or decrease suffering?

Anand: That's a Good way to phrase the question. Let us be really thoughtful and insightful about this rather than jump to conclusions. It would be good to be Insightful about this because, as the Buddha said, it is Reason that we must privilege above Scripture. Whereas upon initial analysis, it might seem to be somewhat counter-intuitive as a stance, we can see that it is actually in accordance with Buddha's ideal of Reason over Scripture. 

This economic arrangement, if properly implemented (and that is not inordinately difficult to do), is Pareto-optimal. As economists, we call something Pareto-optimal if, of course, some people are made better off and nobody is made worse off. So, this arrangement ought to decrease Suffering (Dukkha (Pali)). (Again, from a Western Judaeo-Christian Scriptural point of view, this may seem counter-intuitive. But one must cultivate Compassion for those who disagree with us as well.) In fact, that is exactly what we observe in Western democracies where it has been implemented.

As a person on this board said in a different context. The Buddha often told his disciples the following: "The most difficult hindrance to developing Truth in one's mind is adhering to the letters of the scriptures. The merit of millions of years of scriptural study is inferior to that of a single day's cultivation of mind. Abandon the scriptures, instead, cultivate your mind."

Commenter2 : which scriptures was he warning people against then?

Anand: He was warning them against the scriptures that he knew about - the scriptures of India. However, he was not a sociologist. Since these scriptures were all that he had to go with, he warned people against these scriptures. If he had the Torah before him, he would have warned against that as well. 

Some people would answer your question as : the Hindu scriptures. but this is a less than accurate answer because Hinduism was not even defined at the time at the time.

Please also see my entry on "Who are the Hindus" in The Hinduism FAQ:

P.S. If the Buddha had been a comparative sociologist looking at the scriptures of all religions: (1) what would he say about killing people in the name of religion? (2) what would he say about modern monotheism? (3) what would he say about modern polytheism? It is reasonable to say that we can guess at what the answers would be - even if we can't be fully sure.

Commenter2 : 
The Buddha did say that if there was another field of desire as strong as sex that enlightenment would be impossible. 

Anand: > Actually, the Buddha did say that if there was another field of desire 
> as strong as sex that enlightenment would be impossible. 
Unfortunately, with the number of addictive substances now available, the number of fields of desire has multiplied im

The fact of the matter is that the Buddha was a pre-modern. This means that post-Enlightenment thinkers (say, Jewish rabbis or Jewish thinkers of today - say me!  <feeling mischievous>) are a better guide to both curbing desire and to avoid excessive licentiousness than the Buddha. (With due respect to the Buddha, of course).

I should also mention that the Buddha himself said that if there was something that he said we did not feel was right, then we should reject it.

As far as sexual desire is concerned, I, for one, believe that Freud was right. (Jewish guy! :))

The fact is that various forms of Desire can lead to addiction. Even Facebook satisfies various brain centers in ways similar to additive substances such as cocaine and Ecstasy. None of this was known to the Buddha. But curbing Desire is surely important. <feeling happy>

Commenter2 : 
Anand, with all due respect, we have always had drugs and many fields of desire. Nothing has changed with humans at all. Desire is suffering. It proceeds from the mistaken belief that I am a separate being. Modern psychologists are groping in the dark by comparison to the pristine clarity of the Buddha and the many geniuses who have added to the sutras since his time. I say this as someone who has worked in mental health and has a great respect for the profession. Modern psychology is very limited indeed at this point - hopefully it will open up eventually.

> Anand, with all due respect, we have always had drugs and many 
> fields of desire. 
Yes, but if you see my point on Facebook, surely you can note: first, that this specific form of addiction (to online social networks) is new and different; and seco
nd, therefore, it follows that the treatment for this form of addiction could potentially be different. It is certainly possible that what the Buddha said could potentially be applicable here. That is one hypothesis. Call it H1. The other hypothesis is that what the Buddha said is -not- applicable to deaddiction from Facebook. Let us call this hypothesis H2. How can you prove to me, beyond reasonable doubt, that H1 is the right hypothesis to go with? I can certainly see the other possibility- viz., that there may be specific strategies that may be applicable to getting deaddicted from Facebook that may not even be Buddhist in nature at all.

> Nothing has changed with humans at all. 
No, people are now exposed to a very different set of stimuli than they were at the time of the Buddha. To argue otherwise would be daft. The addiction to Internet pornography, for instance, is a new phenomenon. The question of the "misuse of sex", therefore, comes up in that context.

However, it is clear that hypotheses H1 and H2 are just as applicable here as well. Thus, we are being asked to think more critically about whether the teachings of the Buddha are applicable -necessarily- to deaddiction from Internet pornography. Maybe it won't help.

> Desire 
> is suffering. It proceeds from the mistaken belief that I am a 
>separate being. 

@Tom, with due respect, whether one believes that one is a separate being from others or not is not important to many questions related to the "misuse of sex", which is the topic under discussion. I, for one, think the monism preached by the Buddha has been almost throughly rejected by all modern scientists. We must, therefore, reject this idea of the Buddha just as he asked us to. (The Buddha said that if there was something that we found incorrect in his teaching, we should reject it.) I think it is time that we simply rejected any idea of monism - such as the idea that I am not a separate being. No matter how charming the idea itself may be. This is partly what prompted the great Hindu thinker Madhvacharya to argue for dualism. Madhvaharya defeated many, many others in debates, and it is a testament to the greatness of the Hindu religion that they considered Buddhism (or Buddhisms) also to be under its umbrella as possible approaches.

And I think we can all agree that Madhva was right. P.S. The Hindus simply can't defeated in debates. <feeling mischievous>


Saturday, July 26, 2014

Friday, July 25, 2014

The history of Political Thought, Eastern philosophy, et cetera

This post takes off on a comment made on Rajesh Kasturirangan's FB page.

The context for the comment is the following: Rajesh picked up a book at the Harvard bookstore with the title "Princeton Readings in Political Thought: Essential Texts since Plato."  The problem was the choice of people listed.

The book includes the writings of many of the most distinguished observers of the Western experience from classical times (Thucydides, Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero), the Middle Ages (St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, and Christine de Pizan), modern times (Machiavelli, Luther, Calvin, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Adam Smith, The Federalist Papers, "Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen," Burke, Marie-Olympes de Gouges, Mary Wollstonecraft, Bentham, Mill, de Tocqueville, Hegel, Marx, and Nietzsche), or the ideas of twentieth-century political philosophers and ideologists (Weber, Mosca, Michels, Lenin, Freud, Emma Goldman, Mussolini, Arendt, Orwell, de Beauvoir, Fanon, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Leo Strauss, Walzer, Rawls, Nozick, Habermas, and Foucault).

Obviously, such folks as Sun Tzu and Gandhi are missing in the list of people featured. Rajesh mentions Kautilya but that is truly speaking a person who ought to be omitted because much of even the work supposedly written by Kautilya is little more than a collection of maxims and assorted thoughts (at which point, one must ask if Moses and the authors of the Gospels - Mark, Like, Matthew, et cetera - should also be included if the basis should be pure influence). Rajesh also mentions Mao but Mao was hardly an original Thinker in any sense of the word. So, we may dispose of Mao as well.

As it happens, we did discuss this issue on Zoo Station some years ago. The comments have all been deleted there and so let me simply mention that this issue is quite well known, as was remarked by yours truly at the time.

To me, the question ultimately is not whether the book above is representative of books in the field (it probably is - but the issue is not whether it is a fair sample), but rather whether there are other books in the field which complete the picture (that is, is reaching the mathematical closure set reasonably easy?). This latter question is the one to ask.

The answer to this question, one can confidently say, is "Yes". So that takes care of that.

By the way, Political Thought must be distinguished from political practice. And that is why Gandhi is not there. And so, that takes care of that other issue as well.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

TECHNOLOGY: Hackers reverse-engineer NASA's leaked bugging device

From the New Scientist:
RADIO hackers have reverse-engineered some of the wireless spying gadgets used by the US National Security Agency. Using documents leaked by Edward Snowden, researchers have built simple but effective tools that can be attached to parts of a computer to gather private information in a host of intrusive ways.

The NSA's Advanced Network Technology catalogue was part of the avalanche of classified documents leaked by Snowden, a former agency contractor. The catalogue lists and pictures devices that agents can use to spy on a target's computer or phone. The technologies include fake base stations for hijacking and monitoring cellphone calls and radio-equipped USB sticks that transmit a computer's contents.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Office hours - and learning Malayalam in 21 days

Office hours for next month are scheduled for Monday, August 4th.

I have been on a "Learn Malayalam" project this summer. I set myself a target of learning enough Malayalam within a 21 day period. It has been working quite well. I am almost done, and have reached the desired level of fluency.

This three week period happens to coincide with the World Cup. Which was nice. Because I could cheer for Team USA in malayALam. The best thing about America is that it is a country that celebrates diversity. It is quite awesome that you can cheer for Team USA in whatever language you want.

And, while on the topic of learning Malayalam, I wanted to send out a quick shout out to Gita Natarajan Shankar, Aruna Govind and Rita Maheshan for offering time to talk to me in malayALam, and/or offering resources. This is exactly the type of "constructive cooperation" I need. I am quite sure that it is this sort of "constructive cooperation" and support that is also responsible for the success of Indian-Americans in Spelling Bees - it is important to identify for other people what they need, when they need it and given them the right support at the right time.

And below is my thank you note on Facebook to my Facebook friends.

I hope to have brought some Germany-like efficiency to my Malayaalam learning. I truly believe that it is possible to learn languages quite quickly (And this has important implications for Reading/Writing [well, I think they are important] and for improving literacy levels in the world too, but that is a different matter. I am close to the end of the scheduled 21 day period. Still have a few more days to go, but I think I have reached the desired level of fluency now. It should be smooth sailing from here on. It has been fun cheering with you all. Thanks, Avinash Kishore Shahi Ujjwal Sinha Partha Basu Stan Veuger Anusha Iyer Sundar Pichai Sunil Ravipati Arnab Pal Shalin Patel Raghav Krishnapriyan Nirupama Bulusu Pradeep Madhavan Louis Osofsky. And for the finals, best of luck, Deutschland! Viel Gl├╝ck!

Monday, June 30, 2014

INNOVATION: Information School team app for West African fishermen snags sustainable fishing prize

From UC Berkeley:
When they woke at the base of the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s 30-foot-high kelp forest Saturday morning — under the watchful gaze of leopard sharks, red octopuses and dozens of other marine species — four students and alums at UC Berkeley’s School of Information knew they faced no ordinary programming challenge.

The team spent the weekend participating in a nationwide Fishackathon, a project supporting sustainable fishing practices around the world. The team’s project first was judged the best at the Monterey Bay Aquarium site, and then faced finalists from four other hackathon sites across the country. After Tuesday’s final presentations, the I School team was awarded the hackathon grand prize.

I School student Dan Tsai and 2014 graduates Isha Dandavate, Jenton Lee and Kate Rushton joined dozens of other programmers, students and information professionals from Silicon Valley and across Northern California at the aquarium the weekend of June 13-14 for two straight days and nights of design and development. The aquarium had teams of oceanographers and fishing researchers available as resources and consultants for the contestants, to provide information they needed to guide their designs.

Response to Tyler Cowen : why Indian restaurants are better than Pakistani restaurants

Bang in the middle of World Cup season when international rivalries are prominently on display (and what could be more important than watching Deutschland play ("JA, JA, DEUTSCHLAAAAAAAND!!")) comes this short post furthering the point I made on why Indian restaurants in the United States are better than Pakistani restaurants. Tyler Cowen has argued otherwise in his book. He wrote that Pakistani restaurants are better than Indian restaurants in the United States. But when I asked him for amplification, he did say that... well, read on to find that bit out. But first, the question: is Tyler's observation really true? Has Tyler Cowen scored one for Pakistan?

At first blush: perhaps, in a manner of speaking, but then again, maybe not. Indian restaurants do tend to cater to the American palate more often than Pakistani restaurants. However, it must be first noted that this is not universally true. It must also be noted that there are reasons to believe that - when the full 90 minutes are done and the final whistle has been blown - Indian restaurants come out - overall - ahead of Pakistani restaurants. That is my considered opinion on this matter any way.

Why? Two reasons, both observations on the restaurant market in the United States. The first thing I would like to note is that where this is greater competition among Indian restaurants, and where there is a greater concentration of Indians, the quality of Indian restaurant food is excellent. This includes such areas as the San Francisco Bay Area and New York. Competition brings quality. This is the point that Prof. Cowen clarified via email in his reply to me. He agreed that the quality of food in these areas is outstanding - and he attributes it to competition as well.

The second thing I would like to note is that Indian restaurants are like American business schools in an important way - they have made various choices that may be treated as "strategic positions". American business schools have, of course, done exactly this - Duke positions itself as a team-based school ("Duke grads are great TEAM PLAYERS!"), Wharton positions itself as a great school for people interested in Finance ("Finance? Come to Wharton!) and HBS positions its students for leadership roles ("HBS- more CEOs than any other business school"). Indian restaurants have done the same thing. They have positioned themselves as vegetarian or vegan, as buffet-based or menu-based. Now, vegetarianism happens to an extremely good lifestyle choice and, therefore, the Quality of a regional cuisine is a function of whether it offers good choices for vegetarians. In this regard, Indian restaurants in the United States are superior to virtually every other regional cuisine (except perhaps Thai).

And so, in the context of great international rivalries, it must be noted that Pakistani are certainly in contention in this game. However, there are few to zero Pakistani restaurants that are exclusively vegetarian - and this is important because the wafting flavors of kebabs and koftas are enough to tempt even the most die-hard dieter. Furthermore, Indian cuisine is a strict superset of Pakistani cuisine and so there is little to support the contention that it has anything to do with Indian food per se.

I note Tyler Cowen's point that Indian restaurants have added more sugar to some of their dishes, have diluted the flavors of some of their soups, et cetera, all of which add up to much less flavor for the gourmet. (This is a valid and very important point - and it is especially true in places where there is less competition.) But being a bit of a gourmet myself, I would argue that you can quite easily satisfy your appetite for excellent food at Indian restaurants by simply downloading the Yelp app for the iPhone or Android and finding out what dishes at a particular restaurant are bad.

It may then be concluded that Tyler Cowen's goal must, in fact, be challenged. As an unbiased referee, I am going to be unable to award this point to him. If anything, given that Indian cuisine is a strict superset of Pakistani, it is clear that you are better off going to an Indian restaurant, particularly one that supports your dietary choices- whether low carb or low fat, whether vegetarian or non-vegetarian.

And now, I must go back to Germany versus Algeria.