The Science of Thinking and Deciding

This whole thing started when I picked up a pink hardbound second-hand copy of The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb at the famous Blossoms Book House in Church Street, Bangalore. He minces no words when pouring scorn on the financial sector and the “pseudo-science” that he claims they use to certify risky decisions that are motivated by short-term bonuses. I get that. I think I will change my investment strategies as a result! He summarizes, very well, the impact of events that were unforeseen and helps you with ideas on how to benefit from them while not getting steamrolled. This is a remarkably prescient book that foreshadowed the financial crisis and events such as the Arab Spring even though his philosophy eschews prediction and favours robustness in planning and preparedness in the face of such adversity. A friend of mine who read this book was put off by the amount of mud thrown on to academicians. But I feel that researchers need criticism to constantly improve research methodologies and words need not be minced as long as personal attacks are not made. The process by which research is published today leaves much to be desired and more on this later.

One little thing I liked was the fact that the book started with an Umberto Eco reference where he talks about Eco’s large library, the majority of whose books were unread. Umberto Eco is an old favourite of mine and I have read several of his fiction and non-fiction books. Taleb calls him encyclopaedic and this is visible in every chapter of any of Eco’s books. The reference to Eco made me feel good about all the books I keep buying and don’t end up reading immediately (Fooled by Randomness by Taleb is sitting unread in my bookshelf!). Taleb’s point is that one has a library not to fill it with more and more books as a matter of vanity but rather as a research tool. Having as much content as possible about what you don’t know is great for research and to keep you grounded! So it’s OK if you haven’t read every chapter of every book that you own. Taleb calls this great mountain of unread books the anti-library – a cool term in my opinion.

Reading this book led to several other books that I read thereafter. Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, (and the shadow of the posthumous influence of his research partner, Amos Tversky) summarizes a few lifetimes worth of quality research into how people think and how they make decisions. How does our mind think about stuff and store or retrieve memories? How do we arrive at judgements and biases? How do we learn skills and can do some things almost subconsciously (intuition)? How do we make decisions in the face of the choices we have in real life? The difficult questions, an insane amount of experimentation, great anecdotes and good quality writing about the findings will undoubtedly leave an impact on the reader. The book explains the different cognitive systems we use and how we train them. It delves into decision making and how the human mind processes risk. The main link in terms of ideas between these 2 books is that humans don’t deal with randomness, uncertainty and risk very well.¬†Even if those humans are statisticians and trained experts! The other important link is empiricism, which in this context (human behavior, economics etc.) means learn from experimentation and observation rather than established notions or theories. Taleb stresses that empiricism and healthy skepticism are vital for humans in this technology-driven world. Kahneman’s significant body of research uses this principle at every step. I would highly recommend this book. In terms of tone, it is exactly the opposite of Taleb’s! Reverential when talking about good research and politely criticizing the bad.

Taleb refers a lot to Karl Popper who I learned was a very important philosopher of science. I bought some of his masterpieces and they are currently in my anti-library! The writing is all pre-World War II and I am finding it difficult to switch from the more accessible language of the modern books I’ve been reading lately.

My friend (the one who wasn’t so thrilled with Taleb) then pointed me to How Not To Be Wrong by Jordan Ellenberg. Ellenberg was a child prodigy and is an accomplished mathematician. While I cannot judge his research, his ability to teach is amazing and you can experience that throughout this great book.¬† I never realized until I read this book that concepts like non-linearity, regression, correlation, probability, hypothesis testing and randomness could be taught so intuitively and used so powerfully. The concepts that link this to Taleb’s writing is Ellenberg’s critique on how these concepts are misused in when publishing academic research and the lack of importance given to simple things like sample size and repeating an experiment to verify original research. Taleb pours scorn into the gaping holes of academic research and Ellenberg suggests how to cement these voids. That is the difference. Kahneman shows how the typical process of “thinking and deciding” works and Ellenberg shows how you can use math to get better at it. Ellenberg is engaging and funny. He has done a humungous amount of reading and research into how mathematicians codified these concepts and he picks out some absolute gems. There was one anecdote in the section on regression where Hotelling delivers a “statistical smackdown” on the pointlessness of a gigantic research undertaking by Secrist to demonstrate what Hotelling called an “obvious mathematical fact”. This made me laugh for the better part of an hour and I did not expect that from a book written by a mathematician about how math should be used. May be the lack of expectation increased the pleasure (utils as Ellenberg might call it) I felt!

The differences in tone and writing style almost stereotypically correlate with age as I noted that Kahneman is in his 80s, Taleb in his 50s and Ellenberg in the 40s. Taleb’s time spent in hostile environments like the Lebanese civil war or Wall Street probably explains why he is so easily outraged when he thinks he sees incompetence.

I tend to read a series of books on any given topic right from school days. There was a Frederick Forsyth phase, a Robert Ludlum phase, a William Dalrymple phase which led into other engaging travel and history books by Robert Byron, Paul Theroux, Charles Allen, Pico Iyer and the like, a scientific phase with Jared Diamond, Richard Dawkins, Simon Singh, Siddharta Mukherjee, V.S. Ramachandran and others. They have all been rewarding in their own way and this one – the Thinking and Deciding phase – is now up there with some of the most fulfilling series of reading I’ve done.




Kamal’s Legacy

It is probably too early to speak about Kamal Haasan’s legacy as he hasn’t started playing a grandfather on screen. He would most likely rock that! But I think he already has enough content that ranks up there in the top percentile of cinema that we can speak about his legacy. Personally I am not very qualified to speak about it as I am not one of those die-hard fans who has watched every one of his movies a dozen times or even seen some of his movies (like Hey Ram, A Wednesday, Sigappu Rojakkal). But may be that’s what it takes to write about someone’s legacy. An interested outsider who enjoys the good and is disappointed with the bad. Right now there is a Tamil TV channel running a great selection of Kamal Haasan movies and that’s what inspired this post.

There are many things that are truly great. A powerfully understated realism when required like the protagonists acting in Nayagan and Papanasam. A brashness that comes naturally like in Virumandi or PKS. Impeccable comic timing you can see in Michael Madan Kama Rajan – henceforth to be referred to as MMKR – and Panchathantiram. A meticulous attention to detail that comes through in several movies. For example, the NRI in MMKR who wears loose sweatshirts and speaks a funny pretentious English and the differences in dialects and accents in Virumandi or Thenali. He displays a boldness of the kind you will never see in any other mainstream actor/director. The exploration of mental illness and jealousy in Aalavandhan/Abhay, the touching story of his daughter in Mahanadi, the burden of inheritance in Thevar Magan, a silent masterpiece in Pushpak, marrying an exploited prostitute in Nayagan are some typical markers of this. He adds layers on to the story which you learn more about each time you re-watch the movie or learn more about the context. In Virumandi you have the folk stories and historical references, the typical rural property inheritance issues, the tragedies faced by eloping rural couples, the difficult questions around caste issues and death penalty all in one coherent movie which you can read about in this blog. His make-up artist training has also helped add dimensions to several movies – Indian, Nayagan, Avvai Shanmugi and more. An actor or director is celebrated today for displaying even a single one of these characteristics, so Kamal ranks very high indeed.

The not so good follows. He does have a tendency to burden his protagonist with an improbable number of unfortunate events and make you feel awed at his ability to not feel self-pity in the face of them (Manmadhan Ambu, Anbe Sivam). I don’t mind that in a movie you can have one individual face a succession of tragedies but I would really like for them to let loose once in a while and rage at everyone and everything which would make them more human. There are also several movies where he tries to do too many things and fill too many frames himself (Apoorva Sagotharargal and MMKR were just about tolerable in this respect but in Nayagan it starts to hurt a bit when unlike in The Godfather where the Don Corleone is succeeded by his son, Kamal is there from beginning to end, and Dasavatharam took it to extremes). Many of these movies are good (even great like Nayagan) but all of them would have benefited from letting other characters develop and occupy some space. There are also several movies which are forgettable and which you would expect someone of the calibre of Kamal would instantly reject. But this price has to be paid because no producers are willing to finance his bolder fantasies that have come to define him.

He is an inspiring figure for not only being a great creative but also a tenacious fighter. He has fought against the tide of an insipid industry for decades and got his masterpieces financed. He has then fought the very typical reactionary attitude of political parties to anything they feel is negative to Tamils and a Government that goes weak on its knees when asked to protect freedom of expression. All this to get his films screened in the very state that should be proud of such a prodigal son.