Sunday, April 13, 2014

CHAPTER 1: EVERYTHING, IN THREE ACTS

For some reason, the "3 act structure" appeals to me.

On the base level, the 3-act structure is a very simple model. It goes like this. Every good story can be divided into 3 parts:

1. setup
2. confrontation
3. resolution.


The first part is where the "state of the world" is described. The characters are introduced and the problem statement is formulated. Example: boy meets the girl and falls for her, the hero is embroiled amidst all sorts of "filmy troubles" like no job, no money and lots of responsibilities, gets rubbed by the bad guys in some wrong way, something very important to the heroine is absolutely at stake like a relationship, a loved one, career, reputation, whatever and so on.  The second act is where the meat of the story, the drama happens. The characters are more revealed through their reactions to the events around them. The good guys become bad guys, the bad guys change sides, things start improving for our heroine who started with a round of bad luck, the boy loses the girl because he listens to a stupid idea from a friend and so on. The third act is, of course, the climax, the ending where the boy gets the girl, the bad guys are brought to justice, the hero finds the treasure or the heroine achieves (or fails) in her quest.

I am sure we all recognize this pattern in most movies we have seen. No matter be it action, comedy or romance, be it a happy ending or a sad beginning, the three act structure is the most popular and commercially successful model of story-telling since the days of shakespeare and beyond.

Now the reason this interests me is that this 3-act model can be extended to not just story-telling but in general, many things with "sufficient complexity" (emphasis on "sufficient complexity"). Be it buying a house, relationships or charting your career track, it can be argued that the three act structure is present. Take any successful project at work, the three acts again could be:

1. SETUP (framing the problem, research, coming up with a design concept or methodology for solution, allocating resources);

2. CONFRONTATION (the whole drama of actual execution, management of resources, the unseen surprises and twists);

3. RESOLUTION (the obstacles are somehow overcome, tying down the loose ends, the product is set for release, wrapping-up)

Lots of things come in 3s: a chess game is discussed in three parts: opening, middle and end games. The cricket batting line-up is called: opening, middle order and lower-order and a run-chase is often seen in terms of opening, middle-overs and slog-overs. I am sure you can come up with umpteen examples this way. The rule of three in writing seems to suggest that "things that come in threes are inherently funnier, more satisfying, or more effective than other numbers of things". Three, I think, is a cute number that appeals to the mind. It's psychologically-satisfying !!!

Before we go overboard with this, one little disclaimer. To be fair to the more logical, scientific readers out there or the ones who are not in a mood for metaphoric exaggerations, I will admit that there is nothing logical about the three-act structure i.e. nature in no way recommends it. There can be seven acts or just one or two acts and it still can be a great story. May be there is no more to the three act structure except that it is "statistically" proven to be an effective way of narrating a storyline[1]. And we all know, statistics don't mean a thing on a individual basis. So, that's that.

Alright, lets get back to having more fun.

ARE THERE 3 ACTS ?

Now, if most of real life's drama comes in three acts, does it mean that happy endings imply that we constantly need some happenstances that keep propelling us from first act to the second and from second to finally, the third ? Not every story reaches the third act. After all, life being life and a constant valley of tears, not everything we set out to do ends in a success. That is the case where the three act journey is forced to a screeching halt somewhere in the middle. The boy likes the girl. The girl doesn't reciprocate adequate enthusiasm to such advances from him. SLAM.The story ends in the first act. You got a great idea for a product and no one is willing to fund it. SLAM. The story ends in first act. Some stories reach the second act stage drama but the situation is so dashed hammered that the conflicts can't be resolved. The couple breaks up, projects are left unfinished because the funding got discontinued, the families, the cultures, the countries, the societies are thrown into an eternal conflict for the lack of appropriate means or will to resolve the differences. The story dies a sad death with no third act because the events in second act drama were too intense to be resolved.

A good team is where you have people excited in each of the three acts. That's one way we can tell if a project is going to be successful. A job well done is where everyone in each of the acts contributed. We often make the mistake of thinking that somehow who comes up with the idea ("act-1" people) deserves more credit. But that idea won't see the light of the day if not for the managers and entrepreneurs (act-2 and act-3 people) who make sure it is developed and marketed. That's when the story is really complete. IDEAS ARE WORTHLESS. EXECUTION IS EVERYTHING. It's probably why we find people who are good in all the three acts (1. ideas, 2. gather resources, 3. create the product) are the richest and the most successful.

WHAT ACT ARE YOU ?

Being human, most of us are not great at all three acts when we are trying to accomplish something. I am a decent first act guy, and I am good at the third act as well. I start well and the enthusiasm of being close to the finish line excites me. I tend to like first-act activities in any project like research, learning the state-of-the-art, creative stuff, coming up with new ideas and so on. Perhaps, this is why I naturally moved towards a research-type career and away from a standard engineer/designer in charge of running a project. I simply try to manage the second act. The second act stuff, poring over the finer issues, the long hours, fixing everyday problems - the whole grind doesn't entice me as much. I often get caught dismissing second-act activities as "mere details" - although that’s where most of the money is.

Some people have "starting trouble" i.e. they may not be awesome at coming with ideas but once they know what needs to be done, you can trust these people to win the war, finish the project, take care of business. These are great second and third act people. Sachin Tendulkar used to be blamed for not being a match-winner. Nowadays, we all treat him like a God that he is retired but this was back in the day he was still playing. That's because he is a great first- and second-act guy. He sets up a start so good, so good that the victory seems so effortless. That's the beauty of a strong opening line-up. A good "setup" can set an unassailable tempo for the project. Like a good love story begins when the boy and the girl hit it off with a terrific chemistry. That's a strong first-act. The first act is where we need people with a sense of adventure -  someone who is not afraid to scurry around, enter the dark, enchanted forest hoping to get lucky. Dhoni and Yuvraj make great finishers - classic late-second act and third act people. The third act people become the most visible heroes too. Just like actors in a movie who enter the scene  in the third act of the overall movie making process get all the attention although many unsung heroes right from writers to producers to directors to numerous technicians all make the whole production possible. Well, such is life.

Since I am already speaking like an expert on life, let me go ahead and zing you a crack-pot theory. If your primary skill is :

a. Creativity - You are a first act person.
b. Details, persistence - You are a second act person.
c. Going for the kill - You are a third act person.

At the risk of stereo-typing humanity, let me add that our primary skill doesn't solely decide what we become. All of us know how to raise to the occasion, at least to the extent possible. It's just that our natural skills lie in the domains of first, second or third acts and a task in our "home-ground" act comes easy to us.


CHAPTER 2: FRACTAL STRUCTURE

It's not that there are exactly three acts always in every complex task. For the really complicated projects and story-lines, the three acts can often embedded in a fractal structure. That is to say, each of the three acts are sufficiently complex that they themselves have the three acts and so on. 


Like the 7 books of harry potter is so complex that while there are three broad acts of 1. Description of Harry's world, Hogwarts, the whole gamut of relationships between lead characters 2. the dramatic unfolding of events leading to rise in Voldemort's power 3. The resolution of the overall conflict: killing of Voldemort, part of the writers' genius is how they choose to maintain the suspense of the central plot and hence, each of these three main parts have embedded in each of them sub-"three-act" structures with their own intermediate resolutions for intermediate conflicts.  Likewise, each act of a really complex project can have their own sub-"three act" structure, their own tension and their own drama which needs to be resolved. For example, if you are building a bridge across a river, the idea phase (act 1) which is the process of designing the bridge of how it will look and what materials will be used etc. itself is such a complex task that it will have it's own three acts involving the bunch of bridge designers arguing and fighting over what's the best way forward. Someone will say, "let's build a concrete bridge" and some one will say, "no let's build a rope / cable stay bridge" and so on.  The decisions and conflicts at this stage will have to be first resolved before act-2 and act-3 of financing and construction of the bridge can take place. Even research-stage (act-1 task) must be financed and managed (act-2 task) and the financing (act-2 task) options must be researched (act-1 task) before settling on a decision (act-3 task).  I hope you get the idea. 


CHAPTER 3: WHAT IS THE BIGGEST THREE ACTS OF ALL ?

If each act of the three acts of a parent complex project itself bears a three-act structure, we are talking of three-acts within three-acts within three-acts and so on. Now, the great sages of ancient India seem to have taken this idea even further. They asked, "What is the biggest three-act structure of all from which everything begins and descends down ?". The answer, they gave, is called "A-U-M-" (ॐ). The most fundamental three-act structure, they explained, is the process of acts of the Hindu trinity: Brahma creates the universe (matter is created), Vishnu "rules" over it for a while (matter disintegrates), Shiva presides over the slow dissolution of matter into shapeless, formless energy (matter in the universe dissolves into a still, slow death) and then there is silence for a while before the cycle begins again: A-U-M, A-U-M, A-U-M …

Every other cycle in the universe fractally inherits this grand 3-act structure of A-U-M which is why it said every object in the universe contains the essence of A-U-M and it is the sound personifying the fundamental vibration of the universe. Our personal life's three-act story is probably in the first act of our cultural generation's 3-act story which is probably in the second-act of our nation's own three-act story which is in the first act of our solar system's three-act story and so on … this infinite fractal of three-acts, stories of organisms within larger plot-lines of super-organisms transcends all the way into the cosmos and beyond. Everything, you, me, all living things, the planet, the Milky Way, the universe all of us are united in a much grander screenplay, the majestic three-act cycle of A-U-M. What a mind-blowing concept ever to have conceived!!!

The richness of our mythology doesn't end there. Since each stage of A-U-M is identified respectively by Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva who represent the three-acts, their respective consorts symbolize and provide with what they need.


(Courtesy: Krishna Sharma)

Goddesses Saraswati, Lakshmi and Parvati symbolize the requirements of the three acts - "knowledge", "resources" and "fulfillment" respectively as we very well recognize. How gracefully a single motif weaves through the deepest cosmic mysteries all the way down to celebrating and describing the elegance of a divine matrimonial bond, simultaneously reminding us of the rudimentary principles in project management. Fascinating how much thought went into these things. Isn't it ?

That is the biggest three-act story we are all a part of. How do you like that?



Acknowledgements:

1. Krishna Sharma and his "Framework of AUM" for all the ideas laid out in Chapter 3 (Although, I changed and probably misinterpreted them a little bit) Thank you, Krishna garu for explaining me these beautiful meanings.


[1] Having said that, just because it's arbitrary doesn't mean we should ignore it. People fall into this fallacy all the time. People prove that X is arbitrary and draw a conclusion that "therefore, X is not very useful or pointless". A thing can totally be arbitrary and yet be profoundly useful. The measurement of length in meters and time is seconds is purely arbitrary. Alternatively, one might use "feet" or "weeks" to measure length and time to arrive at the same conclusions. The whole point of standardizing  anything is if you can get enough people to think in those terms, you create a language and a feel for the concept. May be, we can think of the "three act" structure a less rigorous, less tangible yet a unit of measurement nonetheless.






Thursday, April 10, 2014

GTOOSPHERE (G2): Have you wondered why:

image

FLAWSOPHY (F): Quite true, I hated bus journeys. But, trains always had a strange charm to them …

G2: Of course, only when you get a window seat.

F: That is there though. Remember how our mom used to take us to uncle’s place or grandmother’s place and we would arrive at the train station desperately hoping we get a window seat.

G2: Yeah … one observation I had over window-seats is how possessive people get over it. I think it ranks right after gold and real-estate in the list of highly-prized personal possessions. Forget kids, ok … I have never seen an adult give up his window seat for the sake of a fellow Indian, just for charity. I am talking about full-grown middle-aged men, aunties with kids, even 70-year olds, who by their age would have completed thousand train journeys, will try their best to avoid eye-contact lest you ask them to give up the spot …

F: ha ha … We have all been there. I always preferred the window seat that is in the direction of train’s motion. The wind blows right on to your face and you can see the engine whenever the track curves … For some reason, I loved that …

G2: You were so hopeless you would even compete with me on who saw the engine more times …

F: BAH! But, train journeys rock though. My theory on why even long train journeys are comfortable is because your seat is at just the right elevation, just the right height above the earth. Ask an architect or a design person, they will tell you that this kind of shit is important. Even good dining or working tables are the ones with the right height difference between the table-top and the chair-seat with your feel on the ground comfortably. Trains have that. With cars, you are too close to the ground and with buses, you are too high. My theory is that it messes up the psychology of comfort …

G2: Don’t forget, with airplanes, the high difference is, of course, obscene …

F: hehe … In a car, you always want to be the driver, in a train you want the window-seat, an airplane, I want the aisle seat so that I can go to the restroom and a bus, I want to totally avoid …

G2: Another reason I think train was fun is that we used to travel mostly sleeper class which had its distinct touch. Something about sharing the wind-field with the surroundings that creates a sense of belonging there.  You are a part of every scene and yet, you are there only for the moment and you are seamlessly ushered into a next moment …The train would pass from village to village to a forest to an empty land to a lake to a city to a river and so on. You get to see the charming country side - the lone farmer ploughing his field, a  buffalo standing under a shade of a tree chewing the cud, some kids playing cricket, women carrying water, the slums near the railway track  and those kids will run along with the train or wave at you and you wave at them back …

image

F: hmm … Isn’t nowadays that the AC 3-tier becoming the new sleeper class? it’s not the same anymore with  those sealed windows and curtains …

G2: The sharing wind-field is gone and no one wants to wave at the AC compartments anyway :)

F: Traveling in an unreserved general compartment is an experience on a different plane, you know. Remember that?

G2: But now when I look at it with a sense of nostalgia, the beauty of the whole seating negotiation used to be quite something. First, there is always an element of tension whenever someone boards the train. You would look surreptitiously towards him hoping that he wouldn’t ask you to adjust. Your mind starts racing how there are three people already sitting quite comfortably and this fourth guy is going to ruin the equilibrium …

F: hehe … "nee yamma veedu vachhesaadaa" … then you try not to make eye-contact and borrow your head even more into the newspaper pretending you are seriously reading the obituary column.

G2: … but they soon find out that you are not reading because your eyes are stagnant and focused on only one part of the page. That’s it. Now this guy figured your game up and he approaches and asks to you to move a little to the side and adjust, goddamnit. Obviously, you cannot say no. So you adjust and now there are four people which is not as comfortable as three. The good thing is how the whole tension lasts for only five minutes and then you would be cool with it because he starts to break ice by asking for the sports section of your newspaper or you look around to notice a mom trying to contain 3 kids and then you glance at this fourth guy and think, “at least we are not with 3 kids and 1 window seat. what the hell. Its ok, after all” …

F: Well, if someone asks me my sports page just after I have just given him a good fraction of my seating area, I will first think about that if there should be a daily limit on my humanity :P … ainaa manaki baaga ekkuvayindhi ra … Don’t you think we are over-romanticizing general compartment travel a little too much ?

G2: hehe … perhaps … I do think people find travel incredibly stressful. Last time, this chap was exclaiming, “abba … ee prayanaalu chaala stress andii baabu…" ("These journeys are too stressful, sir")  and I was like, “dude … He has 2 large suitcases and conveniently enough, he has a confirmed lower berth. If he finds that stressful, how stress-free must be his job …”

F: I can see why though. If you have a couple of kids and a half-dozen luggage items to track, suddenly the simple act of getting your ass on train with a confirmed reservation berth is a source of stress for you … I’d bet that an average fellow in your sleeper class compartment is not the “I would like to sit facing the wind-ward direction so that I can get a glimpse of the engine" fellow :)

G2: Think about it. This guy would force everyone to bed super-early citing that they have a journey next day and everyone should get up and get ready early. And then, they all reach the station half an hour before the arrival time and gets all anxious , yelling at his kids not to stray away on the platform while coming up with not-previously-used excuses to not buy comic books for them. He would keep neurotically count the luggage every 2 minutes, check his pockets for the tickets and keeps repeating to his wife how the train would stop just for 4 minutes, how they better be ready with everything in order and remember to be quick on their feet. And that’s how finally they make it to the train, scurry for spaces to stow their luggage  and finally heave a sigh of relief for 10 minutes before he remembers something else and his brain is soon racing off worrying about some other problem …

F: A day in the life of a middle-class person … anyway, let’s not go there now … I got to hit the sack …

G2: Yeah … bye bye …

Friday, March 28, 2014


Written by my guru, mentor and friend Krishna Sharma as a part of his READ RAMAYANA initiative:

History produces two types of heroes: crisis-time heroes and prosperous-time heroes.

Crisis-time heroes emerge at a time of social, economical, moral and spiritual crisis. They flash like lightening against darkness and are easily remembered. Prosperous-time heroes go unnoticed like Sun in the day time. But they are the ones who work hard to prevent the crises from occurring in the first place, by ensuring smooth, harmonious and orderly function of the society.

It is easy to name a number of crisis-time heroes like Gandhi, Jesus, Nelson Mandela, Mohammad, Gorbachev, Nehru, Mao, Buddha, Hitler, Lenin, George Washington, et.al. But it is hard to think of the names of prosperous-time heroes, becasue their times are remembered more than their names. There had been many of them, who are responsible for the many long, quiet, harmonious, peaceful and prosperous periods of history. Rama is one such hero and Rama Rajyam is one such period, when people enjoyed the best of the times of peace, harmony and prosperity, without any crisis.

Crisis-time heroes, most of the times, leave a legacy of passions against a demonized past, and for a glorified and imagined future. They leave people with hatred for their own past and dissatisfaction of not able to realize an imagined future.

Prosperous-time heroes illustrate the art and science of keeping a society harmonious and prosperous. They illustrate the tough stands one has to take and personal sacrifices one has to make in order to keep the society strong, stable and prosperous. Crisis-time heroes should be remembered, but prosperous-time heroes are the ones that should be emulated. Crisis-time heroes inspire us to take action in the periods of desperation. But prosperous-time heroes are the one that can tell us how to lead life.

For our good fortune, Indian civilization understood this subtle difference. The stories of Indian civilization are about the prosperous-time heroes and not about the crisis-time heroes. It doesn’t mean they ignored the crisis-time heroes. They embedded the stories of the crisis-time heroes inside the stories of prosperous-time heroes. Rama is the prosperous-time hero. Parasurama is the crisis-time hero. Parasurama’s story is embedded into Rama’s story, not the other way around.

Rama is an illustrious prosperous-time hero. He should not be mistaken to be a simple private individual. He inherited one of the grandest kingdoms of the day, from an illustrious line of rulers of an unparalleled dynasty. He gained the confidence of the people much before he got coronation as crown prince. He is a public person with great social responsibilities on his shoulder. He is fully prepared and mentally invested in discharging that responsibility. The magnanimity and grandeur of Rama’s life can only be understood, when one considers him as an individual struggling to keep up to his social responsibilities, which challenged him to make immense personal sacrifices.

Rama says (in Uttara Kanda slokas 45. 11-15) “Even my love to you (the brothers) and to Sita are secondary, when it comes to meeting the expectations of people in discharging my responsibilities”. His decision to leave the kingdom, to kill the Rakshasas to protect the Rishis in the forests, his action to punish Vali for his transgression against his brother’s wife and his killing of Ravana for abducting a women, are all part of one single principle for him: to protect Dharma. In every single action that he takes, he clearly articulates, “I have no choice, but to take this action, in accordance with the expectations of people and in accordance with the guidance of the illustrious Ikshvaku kings of the past”! (example: Kishkindha Kanda Sloka 18.36). Don’t we wish we have rulers of that kind all the time and in all the places?

Valmiki came to know about Rama, after he enquired Narada, whether one such illustrious prosperous-time hero ever existed. Valmiki uses SIXTEEN illustrious characteristics, posed as questions to Narada, to describe such a hero, in the very beginning of Ramayana.

(click on the image for better font)


_________________ 

Whatever be your personal beliefs, Ramayana is one of the greatest literary works written in the history of mankind. Everyone with a love for language, poetic imagery, symbolism, spirituality or just simple nostalgia for a world where one could distinctly hear the birds chirping all day, come across ponds with lotuses afloat and when people were warm and cordial to each other all the time - whatever ticks you, transport yourself to the endearing, magical world created by the great sage Valmiki and “READ RAMAYANA” is the easiest and the most unique way to get started.

You know what? I can’t pitch this better than the one who started it. So, please learn more about the Krishna garu’s READ RAMAYANA initiative here:


http://www.readramayana.org/
https://www.facebook.com/ReadRamayana
 

Sunday, March 02, 2014







[crank up the hope meter]

Here’s a very interesting young entrepreneur - “Sanjana Tadepalli”, the founder of “Storybook Me”. They have come up with this remarkably cute idea of producing personalized storybooks for kids. They describe themselves as “We make children the heroes of their own books!”.

The folks at “Storybook Me” create colorful books for little children where the kid herself or himself becomes the hero of the book, being all brave and smart and saving Snow white or Batman or Rajnikanth from evil forces. The volunteers in the organization actually go and talk to these kids, find out about their friends, family, fears, hobbies, interests, ambitions, role models etc. and then go and create a cool story from that. In the pilot phase, they worked to create 13 books for underprivileged children from urban slums in Bangalore through an NGO called “Aswini Charitable Trust”.

An incredibly cute idea for a project and of course, an incredibly challenging to accomplish !!!

Look at the founder - Sanjana. She’s so full of positive life-energy and clarity. And she’s just eighteen !!! At 18, I was evaluating if being a selfish prick like Howard Roark from Ayn Rand’s “The Fountainhead” was an acceptable life philosophy. And here she is, already in the second gear onto a fabulous path of a creative as well as an entrepreneurial journey leading a marvelous effort with a great deal of heart to it. Here’s the part she won me over:


Interviewer: So that’s where the pilot is right now? Where do you want to go from here?

Sanjana:
I am really interested in scaling, methods to scale but without templatizing. I don’t want to have 10 templates I am putting kid’s stories in. But at the same time, I think there could be ways that I could be more efficient in terms of the way I use my voluntary writers and illustrators. So, we are just looking at better ways to scale. I have some ideas that I think will work … 
I like that she at least made it a point to insist that she doesn’t want the whole thing to turn into an assembly line story-book production as they grow bigger and bigger. Now, that’s a person who’s in this for all the right reasons. Let’s wish her the very best.

Please take some time and browse through this website: http://www.storybookme.in/



Monday, February 17, 2014



Alright! In the part-2 of this series, we had a little fun glorifying the hunter-gatherer lifestyle and how like no other generation of homo sapiens, they managed the so-called "model life" for an individual in the sense that they

  1. were healthier
  2. were more knowledgeable and smarter
  1. were more skillful
  1. worked less
  2. had more free time for friends and family
  1. lived in sync with nature.

On an individual level, hunter-gatherer life may be viewed as a point in history where (statistically) people's personal fulfillment was at a maximum ("the model life") as long as you melodramatically stop counting your own death as your "personal tragedy" (wink, wink). But let's not go overboard with this lifestyle. Stone age life sucked in many ways because there were too many dumb tragedies everyday that led to heartbreaks. For example, breaking a leg in an accident could have turned out into a death sentence and simple things like common cold would have wiped out an entire family. Plus let's not forget politics among people in closely-knit bands. If powerful people didn't like you, they could make your life hell forever. The reason they had to stay healthy, sharp and in control was that everything in their environment was rigged against them.  Nature was handing their ass on a platter everyday of their lives. But it made the stone age person tough - at least the ones who made it.

However, on a species' level, this whole hunter-gatherer enterprise wasn't working out at all. This is a bad lifestyle - too much uncertainty, too much instability and we got an unmotivated bunch with a happy-go-lucky, I-take-life-as-it-comes attitude. The real intelligence within us is the evolutionary intelligence, the DNA intelligence. Now, DNA intelligence is all about one thing and only one thing - making copies. By this standard, 10000s of years of stone-age is a disappointment. So what people were healthy or had free time for family, on paper they showed no progress. For the entire stone age, the population of homo sapiens roughly stayed constant: about 3-5 million. The DNA is not impressed. It needs more of us. You see, the species and the DNA, what they care about is to make 7 billion copies not 7 billion "happy" copies.

No life-form can escape this overriding species-level evolutionary guidelines and best practices. May be, a departure from the stone-age was inevitable. Somewhere along the line, attempting to find a stable source of food and safe reproductive environment, some stone age genius [1] came up with the idea of agriculture. Soon, agriculture turned out to be a massive evolutionary innovation. Suddenly, agricultural societies with a stable supply of food were able to support larger groups of people. Larger communities meant better organizing and more power over neighboring territories and soon, the other hunter-gatherers were also forced to adopt to agriculture themselves just to protect their bands. Gradually, the whole humanity was ushered into an agricultural age. The dark lord a.k.a. the species is happy looking at the rising numbers. The same mechanics of change plays out every time we enter a new age like all of us were forced to adopt industrialization because industrialized countries simply held more power, started calling shots and the rest of us had to resort to that lifestyle to protect ourselves even though it meant letting go of all the sweet things about agricultural society.

The agriculture society did solve some of the stone age problems but since it's not a fix that emerged from a B-school, it wasn't exactly a win-win. Agricultural communities settled in one place made them more vulnerable to natural disasters. Not just that, as numbers in the community kept growing, so did the chance of spreading of infectious diseases. Moreover, we were forced to adopt to a very unbalanced diet. Stone age foragers ate all kinds of things they could find in the jungle - some days it was for mushrooms + fruits for breakfast, snails + frogs for lunch and an occasional steak for dinner if your friend had a lucky day at hunting and so on. That ensured a rich diet of vitamins, minerals, protein for the day. In the agricultural economy, the kings might have had a richer diet but most of the people who were peasants predominantly depended on a single source of food - like wheat, rice or potatoes which is very undernourished diet. That was the trade-off. More and more people moved away from the "model life", but the few people who still had the "model life" were able to achieve more magnificent things with art, architecture, religion, science and technology.

This became a pattern through the agriculture, industrial, the oil age and today, the so-called "knowledge economy" of how concentration of wealth, power and the "model life" was increasingly restricted to fewer and fewer percentage of individuals and civilizations but on a species level, humans were a phenomenal evolutionary success in terms of population-growth and power to influence our environment. Reading the history through the stories of the affluent members (or top 1% as they are now being called) would be like looking at your friend's facebook profile, looking at all those "facebook-worthy" moments uploaded and thinking her life is forever perfect with successful job interviews, birthday parties, shopping sprees and exotic vacations. I am not against looking at positive things in life but in the interest of facts,  let us not miss the larger point in our story of humanity. If you track the story of the average person instead of the affluent through our history, his story, in all likelihood, only got worse and worse. In this sense, the real "affluent society" in terms of how the western countries like to fondly describe themselves may have once belonged long before to our stone-age brothers and sisters.

The way I look at it. Every age  in history is a very complex society that had their own s**t to deal with and cannot be put in away into buckets as "perfect" or "problematic". And if that's the case, why not pick the one we are in right now ? To be fair, we have made impressive developments across the world in addition to all the science and technology revolutions. Something that is long due, the situation of women is vastly improving across the world. Laws are being passed to curb the threat of nuclear war, promote labor laws, proper treatment of animals, preservation of ecosystems and so on. Let me end on a poetic note. Honestly, I think we are in a very exciting period in human history. We are entering the age of planetary consciousness. Dr. Harari's main thesis in his "Brief History of Humankind" was that if there was any pattern in hundreds of thousands of years in human history, it is the story of humanity gradually coming together and unifying as one species on a planetary scale. We started out a small band of homo sapiens  in East Africa and we migrated for survival, formed farming communities, kingdoms, empires, colonies, countries and nowadays, the speed of change is so fast that a single theme or culture is hard to emerge and everyone's talking about how the concept of civilization as we know it is crumbling down. Perhaps as a sign of coming full circle, we are all getting together again as a single band of this global village collaborating in various economic, cultural, scientific ways to solve our common planet-level problems like climate change, sustainable business and manufacturing practices etc.




Not just history, the most exciting developments in every major vocation: economics, climate sciences, philosophy, architecture, ecological studies, environmental studies have become truly global in nature. And that includes social movements and charitable causes too. As soon as the news breaks out, people immediately come forward to help flood victims of Bangladesh or earthquake victims in Haiti. Activists like Noam Chomsky or Vandana Shiva are global celebrities for leading the efforts against unsustainable politics or business practices. Let me quote Dr. Harari here:

In the 19th and 20th century, the main division of the world was a division into nations, different nations. What was really important was if you are Chinese or you are Japanese or you are American or you are Swedish. But today, increasingly the main divisions of the world are horizontal. Into castes, or classes.

And then, there you can see that somebody who belongs to the global caste in New York, is much closer in its, in his or her way of life in interests and outlook to somebody who belongs to the global caste in Delhi. Or in Singapore, than to somebody in a, a poor neighborhood in the same city in New York. So, this is the, the new empire that is emerging, is emerging along with a new ruling class. And many people today in the world, the main question which bothers them, is whether they belong to this caste or not?

And whether they're interests, their loyalty should be given to the global caste, and the global empire, or to their own country and nation? More and more, people, professors in the university, lawyers, engineers, managers of all kinds of corporations. They ask themselves, do I owe my chief loyalty to the particular state and nation in which I was born and in which I live now? Or, does my chief loyalty belong to this global caste and empire and to their interests and values and norms? And more and more people choose the empire. More and more people feel that their chief loyalty is to the, global community. Of knowledge, the global community of values, the global community of interest. Interest again, like stopping global warming, or spreading human rights around the world.

This is the part that gives me goose-bumps as it reminds me of वसुधैव कुटुम्बकम् (vasudhaiva kuṭumbakam). Seriously, I wouldn't want to be in any time else in the past. I want to see if we make the choices that do indeed bring us back closer and closer to the "model life" of hunter-gatherers in terms of general well-being and our relationship with nature or continue the trend of distancing ourselves from our ecosystem more and more and bring upon our own extinction. I wanna know the ending to this movie. Don't you? 

… and now I am thinking how probably everyone across history thought the same thing - how they were living in "a truly exciting time" and how they are better than the preceding generations. Suckers all of us.

Cheers!


[1] Clifford D. Conner's "A People's History of Science: Miners, Midwives, and Low Mechanicks" argues that it could have been women who were primarily responsible for invention of agriculture.  

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Huge thanks to Dr. Yuval Noah Harari and his "A Brief History of Humankind" course for changing the way I look at many things. Also, if something I have written sounds stupid, I assume full responsibility for it.








Thursday, February 13, 2014



PROLOGUE:

I ended my previous post titled "Culture Decay" by arguing that there is really no such thing as culture as the history of humankind is just one big story. Here's what I wrote:

Friends, there is no culture. I mean, there is really no such thing as culture.  I guess it depends on the way you look at it but to me, humankind is always in transition. It's one story and it's one big party that we all got invited to. There was no beginning to Indian culture or any other culture and there won't be an end - at least not until the polar bears regroup their armies to come back and take revenge on us for destroying their habitat. It's one big party and we either move around or we pick our corner, hang out with our favorite kind of people for a while and SWOOSH, off we go.

But, hey, let's be a little honest. Isn't the party getting more and more interesting with all the mingling going on ?


Allow me to admit that, on one level, it sounds like one of those bland self-evident truisms that people keep throwing out there like "Everything happens for a reason" or "What's in a name?" etc. etc. No worries, I have never been the guy who generally gets stuff right the first time. So in the interest of being fair, let me acknowledge that while it can be (technically) a single, long story of humanity, it's nonetheless, a very interesting story with lot of fascinating sub-plots  that make great individual episodes that are totally worth paying attention to.  Just as important it is to embrace our common origins, I very well recognize that it's also equally important to appreciate the marvelous cultural diversity in our species. Let me level that for you, dear intelligent reader.  


………….


Now, to reiterate the core point of the previous post which is:  it is only people in the present who think that the past was any good. If you thought that the 15th century was a great time in history to live and you boarded a time-machine to land in 1500s, you would very likely find a bunch of guys settled under a road-side banyan tree, smoking whatever is in vogue those days and rambling about how the system is all broken … the economy is going to dogs ... people are becoming more and more materialistic ... a once-great civilization is on it's way to a steep descent  and … the real glorious time to live is actually the 12th century and those days are never going to come back !!! Every point in history, people always thought that their grandmothers and grandfathers were happier and productive. And I think there is some truth to this which is why everyone has a favorite time in history when we think things were just perfect and unsurprisingly, people tend to pick the period when the community they belong to was calling the shots and held all the power. Alas! Needless to say, culture and economy walk hand-in-hand and we can't have an outdated culture with the present economy. 

Hold on ... Today, I am in a good mood to indulge you. 

So, if you still insist on picking a time in history to go back where things worked, then pick my favorite -  the stone age hunter-gatherer period about tens of thousands of years ago in the bright and sunny open skies of the African savannah. Yes, I believe that our stone-age friends had it all, had it plenty and had it good. No two ways about it. I know we are taught by our institutionalized education curricula that stone age people are this horny, unenlightened bunch of boors who try to dry hump anything that moves and unwittingly stare at a jack-fruit (1) tree scratching their heads but the reality couldn't be farther from truth. Stone-age hunter-gatherers, on the contrary, are the smartest and physically fittest humans that ever lived. Forget everything you know and just for a second, imagine how it would have been to be a stone-age person. You lived in a small band where everyone knew everybody very well. You would get up in the morning and you had one thing on your calendar:  FIND FOOD. Now, searching for food in the savannah is not like grabbing a plate at a all-you-can-eat weekend buffet. You have to physically walk into the wild and look for every bite you are going to chew. That meant being open-minded about food-choices. If you were a fussy kid who complains "I hate green peas", you're dead.  The best strategy was that you try to grab anything that looks timid enough to become your food - insects, berries, mushrooms, rabbits, turtles, frogs etc.

Hunting and earning every calorie you are going to consume is not a joke. It requires fabulous physical and mental skills. You are spending your day climbing trees, chasing rabbits, escaping away from tigers and so on. That alone will make you as fit as a Olympic marathon runner and no gym membership required, thank you very much. Not just fit, they had to be sharp and alert all the time. For starters, you have to know a detailed map of your entire home territory (which is at least a few dozen to a hundred square kilometers) very, very well. You need to know every landmark tree is what's the path to the river and back etc. You need to know the spot where you can find stones to make sharp spears and knives and come home safely. There were no maps or GPS and no cheating - you had to carry it all in your head. Add to that, an extensive knowledge of botany and zoology to identify bird sounds, edible plants and what animals come from behind and bite you in the ass. On top of that, wandering alone in the jungle demands an array of technical skills like how to make a stone knife, how to mend a torn cloth, how to prepare a trap for rabbit and a basic training in emergency management because you can't call the forest service or police if you encounter a lion or because your buddy fell off the tree branch after leaping at a squirrel. Imagine all this is a fundamental necessity in order to simply get through the day. In summary, these guys can kick both our literal and metaphorical asses in every department of skill and strength.

At the end of it all, they had at most 3-5 hours of work a day, came back home in the 3 or 4 in the afternoon, shared their food with their friends, watched the sun go down, sat around a circle and beat a drum with a stick, played with kids and listened to a wise grandmother weave stories about animal spirits and dozed off into the night. Perhaps, the rules of romantic engagements would have been comparatively liberal but before we jump into any judgments about how they lacked proper values and were promiscuous half the time, remember that they lived in a close commune where everyone knew everyone and everyone needed everyone else. In a set up like that, its hard to be an asshole and get away. Since they had no concept of prisons to lock away problematic characters from civil society, they must have had a more humane way of settling disputes like "hey, don't shamelessly eat my frogs. Those are mine. I caught them" or more serious versions of the kind.

All in all, it can be argued that the stone age guys

  1. were healthier
  1. were more knowledgeable and smarter (2)
  1. were more skillful
  2. worked less
  3. had more free time for friends and family
  4. lived in sync with nature.

That's hunter-gatherer lifestyle, my dear friends.  Most people even today would choose this list up in a heartbeat over any great philosophical truth or a Netflix account to watch episodes of "Breaking Bad" on demand. Isn't this the "model life" that the entire self-help motivation industry is trying to help us get to? Isn't that how the happiest lot among us even today are ? That pattern is still valid. Give or take, stone age people didn't lead miserable, ignorant lives as we are taught to think. They might have lived a shorter life (3) than us but heck, they carried more fulfilling life-stories to tell. Beat that …

I REST MY CASE. One last point though. From my experience, I am sure some of you will likely assume that I am arguing that ALL hunter-gatherers had this kind of life. That is not the case. I am sure hunter-gatherer life must have had it's load of pain and hurt. Some days were just bad-luck days and you had to bed hungry. Some knuckle-head cousin whom you don't even like comes home with an infection after being bitten by God-knows-what while wandering aimlessly in the northern forests and now half the family is sick. Therefore, I would like to gently remind that we must judge these things on a statistical basis. My argument is that, on average, a higher percentage of people in the stone age economy were closer to the "model life" than any succeeding civilizations in human history.


………….
EPILOGUE:

And of course, we gave it all up. Why? Because someone figured out how to domesticate animals and plants which paved way for the agricultural economy. And we started thinking, "eh, all that hunter gatherer life is too much risk, too much adventure ... what I need in life is some surety and stability". We fell for the sucker promises about how this new revolutionary idea of agriculture would promise endless supply of food and predictability in lifestyle over risk-taking and uncertainty on what the next meal could be. And what did we give up in exchange? Our freedoms (4). People were no longer free to move around anymore or lead interesting lives. You had to stay at one place and take care of the land. Since, the practice of farming is tied to the local geography and climate, fertile lands naturally became more valuable. The irreversible notions of property/wealth in form of "this is mine, that is yours" emerged and it was only a matter of time before our society permanently became class-conscious and hierarchical with lowly peasants having to break their backs working in fields from dawn to dusk and pay taxes in grain to the political elite who enjoyed all the wealth and promised protection from enemies. It was a choice that continues to have consequences today even after 10000 years.


Continued in Part 3 ...

 


(1) On a totally different subject, God, How I wish I could have some panasupottu koora (Jack-fruit curry) right now.


(3) Even though, the average life expectancy in stone age was 40 years, it is because of high infant mortality. Fossil records reveal that people who made it to their 20s typically lived easily into their 60s.

(4) Jared Diamond argues that adopting agriculture is one of the dumbest decisions in our history but that's a subject for a later day.


Thanks to :

  1. A Brief History of Humankind with Dr. Yuval Noah Harari
  2. The Third Chimpanzee by Jared Diamond
  3. GTOOSPHERE





 

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