Saturday 27 July 2013

Why people think what they think and do what they do

Three years of living in a foreign country (actually this is closer to eleven, but I'm only counting years of having any brains, i.e. adulthood) and interacting with people from different walks of life have given me some perspective into cultural differences.

My key data points here are admittedly limited to my social circles (both personal and professional) in the UK and India, but as a faux-intellectual blogger, I will take the liberty of generalising to the Western "developed" world and the subcontinent/China-type "developing" world.

There appears to be very fundamental cultural differences between someone who's brought up in Britain and someone who's brought up in India. This might seem quite obvious on the face of it, but it is important to emphasise that these differences are more than just superficial, and cannot just be understood by consuming television shows, films and literature.

One could go into tedious reams of details on the way Indians are more likely to jay-walk, break queues, are generally more undisciplined and have scant regard for rules, but I won't bother. If you've lived in London and been to areas like Wembley and East Ham, the difference between them and the more "UK"-ish parts of London are obvious. After about a year of feeling embarrassed and apologetic for my country-folk ruining perfectly nice parts of the host country (and basically forcing the local government to pass immigration laws that in-all-but-name target people from the subcontinent), I thought it might be interesting to think about why  this happens.

At the same time, I was also struck by deep-rooted cultural "propaganda" (for lack of a better word) in the developed world structured around things like looking beautiful, having nice things, wearing exactly the right attire for any possible occasion and basically being "first-world" beyond just an average amount of presentability.

Then one fine day a couple of theories struck me that just refused to leave. It all made sense -- there appear to be three key interdependent factors that drive a person to behave the way he does:

  1. Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs
  2. Scale
  3. G.A.S Capital

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

The biggest genius of understanding people's motivations has to be Abraham Maslow. While the levels themselves in the hierarchy may not lend themselves to being neatly defined with clear boundaries, the general concept of a gradual layering of a person's motivations (and a subsequent cognitive difficulty in realising differences between them) is quite brilliant.

The simplest explanation for the differences between a typical Indian and a typical Briton is that they're on different levels in the hierarchy.

This need not necessarily be the case for a specific individual -- the layers of the hierarchy can be applied more generally to the society in which one is brought up. Indian society is at a lower rung of the Hierarchy of Needs than British society. This automatically slots someone brought up in either society into the same corresponding level (at least to begin with -- this obviously changes over time and circumstances).

Consequently, the typical Indian is more focussed on survival-promoting or security-promoting actions. Anything that doesn't implicitly -- and immediately -- threaten any one of those can be regarded as Not Very Important™ in the larger scheme of things. Being resident in this level of hierarchy results in:

1. Doing only the bare minimum necessary to get by
2. Not Giving A Shit about anything else (somewhat exaggerated, but we will come back to this later)
3. A complete failure to understand the actions of people in the "developed" world, w.r.t money, morality, art, food, literature, film -- anything!

This is the reason you have people who just can't understand why someone might pay a lot of attention to their looks. This is why someone would just break a queue without fearing the dire consequences of looks of disapproval and annoyed tutting.

On the other side, you have the developed world completely failing to understand why parents force their kids into becoming engineers, lawyers or doctors, or why children continue to live with their parents after leaving college and getting jobs.

As somewhat of an aside, this also explains why the unemployed youth of the developed world due to generally poor global economic conditions are so much like a fish out of water. I posit that the biggest cause of their struggles is coming to terms with suddenly being asked to jump down a couple of rungs in the Hierarchy of Needs. A guy who could self-actualise by doing a graduate degree in English literature or medieval history  is suddenly faced with the onerous task of having to secure his food and shelter needs by dint of having employable and marketable skills.


The developed world simply isn't used to handling massively large numbers of people. A lot of the laws and societal guidelines in place presume quite low numbers of people, which would mean that as a percentage of population, the actual absolute number of people breaching guidelines remains low enough to be manageable within even a comfortably inefficient framework of laws or bureaucracy.

Once you have a certain amount of scale in terms of sheer numbers of people, any such social contracts are bound to break down in the absence of a rigorous framework of rules that are strictly enforced.

Or, to paraphrase something I head a Googler say on Slashdot: "You encounter problems at scale that you didn't know existed."

Rules and laws as merely social contracts simply don't scale very well. If one were to view a social contract as a cartel of sorts, then the larger the group gets, the greater the incentive for chiselling.

As a rather simplistic example, the UK has great roads -- they're well built and maintained. But would they stand up to the relentless weather and traffic conditions of most major cities in India? I very much doubt it.

Similarly, the UK has great institutions like the NHS, and reasonably comfortable socialist safety nets like unemployment and senior citizen benefits. Companies in the UK have great maternity leave policies, and reasonably lax Internet filtering. And of course, there is always a small minority that take unfair advantage of such goodies.

But in India, the massive numbers of people involved means that the percentage of people who will abuse such privileges remains untenably high. This links directly back to the first point -- because people in India are pretty much embedded in the lower layers of the Hierachy of Needs, they will not mind breaking the spirit of a law or rule or guideline as long as they are either not caught, or don't face any "real" consequences, i.e. those that threaten survival or security.

G.A.S Capital

This factor brings together the Hierarchy of Needs and scale, and hopefully puts some explanatory power into how and why the previous two points interact.

Every person, regardless of ethnicity or upbringing, inherently has only a limited number of shits to give. I call this figure the Give A Shit (GAS) Capital of a person, and this can only be distributed among a finite set out outlets, with each outlet having a certain fixed minimum cost to the person.

When a person is on the lower rung of the Hierarchy of Needs, they have to focus on distributing their GAS capital on survival essentials like food, shelter and a stream of income to enable a continued base quality of life, and don't have as much to expend on things like consideration for fellowmen. And this obviously gets compounded when there are simply far too many fellowmen.

Curiously in the latter case, even when the person may be on a higher level, their GAS capital gets spread too thin among too many people. And therefore, even people who are relatively well-off in over-crowded places appear "callous". This implies that scale and GAS Capital end up in a sort of a positive feedback loop.

Due to this feedback loop, it would appear to follow that there is a rough correlation between population density and GAS capital -- the more people you pack in together in close quarters, the less of a shit they appear to give.

So this can be used to explain why competition in countries like India and China is so cut-throat, and also why corruption is so widespread and prevalent there.

Using this relationship between population and GAS capital, one could also arguably posit that the USA is at a reasonably balanced level of population: crowded enough that competition keeps people on their toes and scrambling towards the "American Dream" with sporadic bursts of unethical behaviour, but not so overcrowded that you basically have to cheat to even survive.

Admittedly, these are some pretty large generalisations about large swathes of very diverse countries and populations, but I believe you can see curious little localised effects of GAS capital as well. Take the UK, for example. Anyone who's lived and been brought up in a small to medium-sized town (or even distant suburbs of big cities) complains about the rudeness and over-crowding in big cities. From personal experience as well, a random person on the street in a place like Worth Matravers is more likely to be "nicer" than a random person on the street in London.

Ever since these ideas popped into my head and sat there developing, I have a different sense of perspective when I see things happening around me. It might be a simple case of everything looking like a nail for this hammer framework, but it's frankly far more interesting that complaining or hand-wringing. Additionally, now that I am gainfully employed, the offices of the large online fashion retailer are a shocking contrast to my previous work environments of mostly banks. This gives me even more fodder for my theory, and so far I see little things everywhere that reinforce my ideas (like a little sign above free fruit basket politely reminding people to take ONLY one fruit per person).

One important aspect of the framework remains unresolved though: a catchy name. MSG theory? The Three Thinking Trilbies? Oh well, let the jury be out on that one.


(If you've read this far, feel free to drop me a line on Twitter.)

Wednesday 17 April 2013

On advertising - a Banksy rant

Transcribed from here:
People are taking the piss out of you everyday. They butt into your life, take a cheap shot at you and then disappear. They leer at you from tall buildings and make you feel small. They make flippant comments from buses that imply you’re not sexy enough and that all the fun is happening somewhere else. They are on TV making your girlfriend feel inadequate. They have access to the most sophisticated technology the world has ever seen and they bully you with it. They are The Advertisers and they are laughing at you.

You, however, are forbidden to touch them. Trademarks, intellectual property rights and copyright law mean advertisers can say what they like wherever they like with total impunity.

Fuck that. Any advert in a public space that gives you no choice whether you see it or not is yours. It’s yours to take, re-arrange and re-use. You can do whatever you like with it. Asking for permission is like asking to keep a rock someone just threw at your head.

You owe the companies nothing. Less than nothing, you especially don’t owe them any courtesy. They owe you. They have re-arranged the world to put themselves in front of you. They never asked for your permission, don’t even start asking for theirs.
A little violent for my delicate sensibilities, but the underlying sentiment is about correct.

Tuesday 16 April 2013

Not quite Pixar, but nearly there

After a harrowing Saturday that involved poor scheduling and dinner planning and thereby subjecting ourselves to having to suffer through A Good Day to Die Hard, it was with great relish that the wife and I looked forward to watching Wreck-It Ralph on the following Sunday.

I had been following the general positive buzz on the interwebs about the movie, but had successfully steered clear of any major reviews or discussions about it so that I could go in with a completely open mind.

We ended up thoroughly enjoying ourselves, starting from the delightful Paperman short right up till the credits rolled. (One complaint we had here is that we were eagerly awaiting the credits to see the cast of voice actors, but this took far too long in coming as Disney had decided it was more important to credit nearly everyone in the technical crew first.)

I believe with this movie, Disney has finally successfully integrated a Pixar-like quality to their output by incorporating several Pixar-ian touches:
  1. Right from the beginning, an animated short as a prelude to the main feature. (Incidentally, fans of Disney -- like me -- will instantly notice the similarity between the girl in Paperman to the Disney princesses, and between the Paperman guy and Mowgli from Jungle Book -- one of my all-time favourite Disney films)
  2. The trope of 'make someone want to subvert the status quo in their world' -- toys, cars, insects, monsters, fish, superheroes, and now video games.
  3. The animation is distinctly Pixar -- the ray-tracing and rendering appear to have been done using Pixar's RenderMan software.
  4. One of the executive producers is John Lasseter (who's come full circle -- he started his career off with Walt Disney, moved to LucasFilm, then Pixar and now back as creative head of both Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios)
  5. The sound design (which is absolutely gorgeous in this film) is by Gary Rydstrom, also a long time Pixar sound designer.
To echo the good doctor, it isn't Toy Story, but nevertheless, both of us completely loved the film and wouldn't mind going around to watch it again.

Monday 15 April 2013


Sensory overload. Sounds are louder and more distinct. Lights are brighter. Things feel more tangible. Sweets taste sweeter.

This is where I get off.

...and then climb back on and continue from where I left off. Personal challenge to continue this line of investigation even when the investigatory incentives have worn off.

Much better, but only by a little. Running around in the sun does one's constitution a world of good. It's so beautiful today that I think I'll head to the park instead of stewing at home?

No no, IPL changes to be made. Park can come later.

And the stream of consciousness continues. Trippy trippy trap.

IPL ditched, park idled in, lake walked by. And most of the day is still left to enjoy. Been a great Sunday thus far. People must be thanked, activities and recipes must be repeated, and further fun must be had.

Over and out.

Saturday 13 April 2013

Last night

All these ideas floating around. They all seemed brilliant at the time, but are nowhere to be found now.

No sounds or voices, but the suggestions came over in a thick waterfall anyway. Not much food was eaten.

Oblivion. Thought it was Moon with a soap opera thrown in, but turned out to be The Matrix as well. And then seemed to swerve into a time loop of sorts. Really need to watch the movie again while in a less... profoundly analytical frame of mind. Maybe on Monday?

The train is at Knightsbridge now, and I need to get off at King's Cross. The attempt is to make it to the game successfully and then NOT run around with arms flailing wildly. And hopefully not forget and leave important stuff behind.

Everyone in the tube seems to be eyeing my backpack. I'm suddenly glad I didn't leave the wallet in it. Any minute now somebody could grab it and run. I'm hyper aware of the avenues of possibility around this event, and fully prepared to indulge in fisticuffs with the potential perpetrator.

Like the Peep Show title song, exactly! I'm not good but I'm not well, 'cause I'm in hell. Not entirely sure those are the words, but it'll have to do. But the key line is "paranoia paranoia, everybody's out to GET me!".

I'm actually literally amazed I've managed to ramble on this long with very few spelling mistakes. I could credit the reasonably OK predictive keyboard on the Nexus 4, but screw that. It refuses to predict profanity, even when the words are added into the dictionary. That's messed up, and another unfortunate example of Google overstretching in imposing their values on their users.

However, I, for one, welcome our smartphone overlords and don't particularly care for the underperforming, underpowered and one dimensional dumbphones of yore. Progress is a good thing, even when it isn't.

Friday 12 April 2013

Kurt Vonnegut was right

Tralfamadorians are real. I am one now. The doppelganger watches from a safe distance the miracles on the revived bodies.

Only one difference. They can see all points in time at once. I can do the same, but have no credible way of communicating across to you chaps that my extortionate pricing may not cause the ever seeked elusive retail footfall and heavy walletted poseurs. Buy outside of that you're actually quite nice.

Early in the morning.

Thursday 11 April 2013

Just to continue

It never ends. Just comes and goes. But then all the stories come true and bounded rationality is violated.

It would be almost interesting to put these up on tumblr but enough.

How can I unify identity while still maintaining the decentralisation aspect of many identity providers?

Everyone always seems to have strong opinions on everything. I feel quite envious of such thorough convictions held about an entirely new field. Either genius or successful self deluders. Same reasoning as the .. .

Will sleep help? Don't want to, can't let go just yet. Tripolata. Lots of food, but tandoori chicken was missing. Would've gobbled that up by the bucketful.

Football is OK, NBA is OK. But playing is definitely better than simply reading and commenting.

Some people just sit and eat. They can be watched with interest too, because they may magically turn into zombies. Then we have to place plants that spit seeds out to kill the psychotic attacking flower army.

Wednesday 10 April 2013

It's all good.

Posting this from the blogger app on android.

One is not entirely of sound mind. But one is of fun mind.

Repeal everything. All is well. You may say that I'm a dreamer. So... Wonderful and naïve.

Great weather today. Great for the indian good that was gorged on. Sleepy now, but still attempting to document all this.

Actually not sleepy. Somehow everything is more.. Everything stands out more. Smell, hearing, pain, sight. All existence is magnified.

Seems late, but so much to do, so little time. The woods are lovely dark and deep.

Tuesday 9 April 2013

Hagrid never had these problems

Why is is that I'm so absolutely indecisive when it comes to facial hair?

The only serious attempt I've made has been to "wear" a goatee for a few months. All other experiments with beards and moustaches have been cut short for various reasons.

For the most part these reasons are borne out of a general "fear of the unknown" -- save for aging, my appearance has remained pretty much static for most of my life. Right at the beginning of adolescence, there was a brief period of a year or so when I was "rockin' a 'stash", as the kids call it these days. (Do they..?) But after I discovered the wonders of a good razor, it was wiped out.

Since then the only sort of facial hair I've allowed has been the occasional overgrowth of stubble due to (usually) laziness, (less usually) convenience, or (not applicable any more) religious reasons.

The other times I had to abort any experiments, has been due to "human error". I'd be on the path to an interesting new appearance, when the razor blade would go astray and lop off a crucial piece of carpeting. Initially, the attempted method of dealing with this was to balance out the mistake, but that -- without exception -- always led to merely doubling the error. This would force me to stop fixing errors and just wipe the slate clean. Eventually I gave up drawing on the slate altogether.

During the goatee period, I also realised that maintaining a consistent appearance is just as hard as remaining clean-shaven. This further levelled the playing field, as the amount of effort wasn't a deciding factor any more.

I wonder when I will come around to giving the whole facial hair thing another shot. I suppose the best time is now, unencumbered by professional requirements. Will I, won't I?

Monday 8 April 2013

Go learn something new!

Over this recent period of "underemployment", I have been attempting to do multiple things.

The major effort here has been to acquire new technical skills, primarily around data analysis. One thing which I was unsure of was the approach to take, and this is where Coursera has been immensely helpful.

Initially, after I had signed up for a few courses, I was a little doubtful about them -- particularly because I have tended to find classes largely boring throughout my life.

The first couple of courses were quite hard to stick with, especially because I was travelling in India, and access to the Internet was patchy. There was a block of a few days in Bangalore when I was practically disconnected from the world, sustaining myself with the occasional borrowed hour of Internet.

The real turning point was when one of the quiz submission hard deadline coincided with a day on which I was flying out to Bombay. This was after I had used up all my "late submission" days, so missing this would mean the grade getting docked.

The submission was due by 11.30, and my flight was leaving at 13.30 on the same day. The house that I was leaving from didn't have any Internet, and tethering was out of the question on a ridiculously limited short-term mobile data plan. I left for the airport way earlier than I needed to, reached at about 10.00, rushed through all the formalities and finally took a seat at the gate, and connected to the airport Wifi. (On a side note: the number of power outlets in Bangalore airport is abysmally low.)

By this time it was 11.00, and as it turns out, this was just exactly the right amount of time to ram a perfect attempt through (each quiz in the course allowed 3 attempts, with a varying set of questions each time!).

After I boarded the flight, I had some time to think over my actions. I had put in a lot of effort to maintain a solid level of what effectively amounts to imaginary Internet points, and all because I really enjoyed the course I was doing, and was genuinely learning. In pretty much every other class experience before this, the focus was more on figuring out "the system" to maximise test performance, petty one-upmanship and sometimes just remaining awake through a monotonous drone.

It now appears that self-study is the best course of action for me, with the occasional group interaction. Using this approach, I've managed to pick up the fundamentals of R, Python, Django, and git over the last 3 months. Now, all that remains is to focus all of this into an appropriate work environment...