Sunday, May 20, 2012

Flawsophy tackles the mother of all philosophical questions : "Who are we?" and "What are we doing on Earth?" using a universal metaphor of the 21st century : SHOPPING.


You know why life feels pointless. It's because we are pushed into something with very little introduction.  I got no memo on where I am being born, what I am good at, what I am going to do for a living. ZIP. NONE. Not even a top 10 list of things that can make me happy. Suddenly, you are dropped into a familial, societal, political and economic context and your time starts running. By an adventure of trials and error, you hurriedly start learning about the world only to figure out that you are not the same as anyone else. That you are a just a permutation … a mere psychological permutation of desires, passions, fetishes, talents, and moods, strengths, weaknesses, fads and personal ideas of fun, beauty, sex, entertainment and so on. And you are asked to react and improvise to the situations around you. As if you are positioned behind a musical instrument amidst a grand cosmic orchestra that has started a long time back. You catch up on the beat and start playing your parts whatever you can and perhaps if you are lucky enough, there is a tattered sheet music in front of you and you know what you should do. If you are tired and can't go on anymore, you retire. Even if you took out the garbage the last day of your life and you die that very night peacefully, the garbage collector will still show up the next morning to pick your garbage even though he hates his job. Life on this planet will continue even after you are gone. The processes you have set in motion will continue. The legacy lives on. See? How little control we actually have on all of this? You don't decide anything. You get to choose nothing. You don't know until mid-life what even makes you feel good. You don't select the environment in which you operate to try and get whatever makes your time worthwhile. And you make a splash on this ocean of life's drama and you are gone. GODDAMN DEAD. Oceanographic scientists have concluded that nothing happens to the ocean if a bunch of water molecules evaporate away. GOOD RIDDANCE. The rains and the rivers of life keep flowing and feeding them. Your story is just a tiny sub-plot in a massive screenplay that's been unraveling for about 4 billion years during the life of a medium sized planet at the end of a galaxy formed after when our own universe popped out of the womb of a heavenly nowhere during the Big Bang. Our existence are but minor events in a large process. What is this process? How did it come about?  Who set it to motion? Who is setting the controls for this motion? - Billions of people like us spend their lives asking these wrong questions. The answers will not improve anything as the Gods just laugh at your plans and our eyes can't see beyond the expanding horizons. Pity be showered on our mind's own willful ignorance  that childishly rejects the realization of a cursed finality that there is no intended role for us and that grand process will outlive itself. You are a beautiful insignificance, a magnificent  non-entity and a ruggedly sexy triviality. That's what you are.

If so, what are you doing here ?



That's right, sweetie. The closer I look at life, the more I am convinced that we spend their entire lives in activities and decisions that stunningly resemble and remind me of shopping. If you have never shopped for anything in life, you have come to the right place because I am now going to tell you all you need to know about shopping. Here's what all of us ding-bats do at any shopping center:

(a) Have some money so that you can splurge;
(b) Have an item in mind and sift through the merchandize;
(c) select the one you like and move on to the next item ;
(d) repeat (b) and (c) until satisfied and pay using (a)

Now think about this. Let's say that your genetic, emotional, attitudinal, behavioral and environmental factors that were handed to you are like the money or the "personality currency" and your various desires for hedonistic, social and spiritual happiness are like the products in a shopping mall called the "universe". These desires or the product-set that we keep chasing can be of various forms include education, spouse, career, hobby, entertainment choices and  of course, actual products in a real shopping mall. All we are doing all day every day is sifting through the world and spending all your "personality currency" in order to scratch this inexhaustible itch called  the "desire". Looked at it this way, life is just one long, complex exercise in shopping. We use these wallets of "personality currency" and try to get the best deal, snatch that great discount, take advantage of the grand sale bonanza, bargain for right price, bring home the maximum quality product you can manage to afford. Remember that you probably don't have too much control on how wealthy your wallet of "personality currency" is.  Look closely. Did you ever decide what should make you happy? Do you think you can make yourself fall in love with anyone? Do you think you can stop your anger when you find that your favorite cartoon dog Pluto is no longer a planet. They just happen at an unconscious or a sub-conscious level in the realm of dreams. A careful consideration reveals that you control nothing given that you are not one of those Jedi warriors (if you are a Jedi warrior, will leave a comment on this blog?). That's constraint # 1 which is: you don't get to decide a lot of what you are. This constraint is the fountainhead of life's pain. Now, if you ask a Buddhist, he would tell you that the corner of your brain that constantly springs forth all the desires is the root of all problems. Since, I can't be a mind-ninja or a Zen monk who can control the Department of Desire's annual budget, I blame it on the finiteness of my wallet of "personality currency". Supply-side or Demand-side? What side are you on ? Anyway, let's delve deeper into this shopping metaphor …


Let me tell you the story of how I became a computational scientist. When I was 7 years old, all I wanted to be was to bowl the final over in the world cup cricket final versus Pakistan  which needs 6 runs to win with one wicket in hand. So, I would be walking on a dusty, broken road in my small south Indian town on a hot summer morning. I spot a small broken brick lying on the side of this deserted road. I look around to see if there is a suitable cement concrete electrical pole rising out of wild grass. I vividly remember how my mind undergoes this marvelous transformation, from the sluggish mood like that of a caterpillar, it flies away like a beautiful butterfly transcending into a plane of simulated wonderment. Suddenly, the broken brick becomes the cricket ball and the electric pole becomes the wickets. I would imagine that I am getting ready to take the run-up as a fast bowler. I am standing in the middle of this grand stadium with thousands of spectators suspended in an animation of nervous cheering and wavering tension.  I notice that my heart-beat is thumping  with all the country's expectations in my very hands. My mind wavers as to what the commentator Tony Greig must be saying about me at this point of time. I feel the beads of sweat on my brow and my eyes softly focus onto the wickets. I take the run-up small strides at first and slowly increasing the strides, I leap at the crease and deliver the ball and it just takes off the middle stump with the tail-ender batsman standing clueless. I become ecstatic and start celebrating only to be interrupted by the cacophonous hawking of an ongoing vegetable vendor. Only then, I was painfully reminded that I just took a broken stone, started suddenly running wildly and hurled the stone like a cricket bowler at an electric pole that is standing on the side of the road minding it's own business of transmitting electricity. The point is I was a dreamy kid and the whole cricket thing never worked out. Then, a few years later, I saw the Terminator 2 movie. Arnold Schwarzenegger as the brawny dude with cool shades riding on this kick-ass motorcycle wielding a machine gun who shoots in the goddamn head of this stone-faced villainy cop made of mercury sounded like a good career option at the time. It didn't take me much time  to realize that a lean south Indian kid from a vegetarian household weren't usually cut out for such stuff. Basically, that’s how I spent my childhood reading super-hero comics, playing road-side cricket, enjoying Telugu comedy movies and growing alongside a kid brother  who wanted to grow up to be "The Mask" character from that Jim Carry movie. He was weird too. But, I was good at a couple of subjects - math and sciences and did enjoy reading short-stories in my English class. I sucked at pretty much everything as showcased by my just described cricketing and terminating skills. 

Based on my proficiency in math /sciences and being not very good at cracking engineering entrance exams , I managed to get admitted into a bachelor's degree program in civil engineering … yada … yada … yada … the 4 years went by. I got my degree and took a job at a construction company. I was in the middle of a construction site laying a 4 lane highway. There were many broken stones on that empty road being built. There were electrical poles too. But, I am no longer of the age or the mood to practice cricket bowling. The job was a cruel limbo comprising of lethal levels of dust, grilling heat, greasy construction machinery roaring and clanging with irritating colleagues who angered me because they can't spend even a minute thinking about me and my basic problem of how I am a total misfit for the job with an engineering degree from a top institution. It was very lonely and worse than the hell for humans, perhaps more like a hell for earthworms or something. It was also the time when India was in the middle of the massive boom for the software sector with all my college friends sitting at computer desks, sipping free fountain soda, wearing neckties and writing code to somehow ensure that my debit transactions for my bank account connected to the salary account of my lame job can be done over the internet. I was unabashedly jealous of the fact that they could sit in the AC all day while having fun on the weekends. I, being naturally a person who hates challenges decided to make peace with wearing neckties and try to get one of those jobs in the first 3 months. I kept on trying to be a software engineer, an intellectual property expert, business analyst anything that will make me sit in the AC with a computer. I could never crack the interviews because no employer would appreciate my real reason for wanting to get the job which was to get out of that hot, humid, irritating construction site.  The employers were all nuts, anyway. Screw them and their big ego for shamelessly demanding a career plan from a clueless 21-year old, I hope they are forced to work after death in the construction industry of hell, designing and carrying giant cauldrons of boiling oil and digging canals in the lake of fire. I even tried to become an MBA graduate - I thank God for not bestowing me enough talent and time to prepare and crack an entrance exam. Then one day it hit upon me , if all I wanted was to sit in the AC with a computer, with ardent love for math, let's try applying to grad school. When I got admitted, I decided that I will not leave until get all possible degrees until it is impossible for any academic institution in the world to let me study anymore. Doing things I was naturally passionate about rather than struggling to manage a crew of construction workers, the PhD turned out fine and that's how I became a researcher in computational sciences applied to engineering problems. Of course, this won't be the story I am going to retell in a commencement speech I am going to give to university graduates in the future. To fill their hearts with hope, kidneys with kindness and loins with love, I am going to tell the celeb version of the story. I am going to blah-blah the usual popular culture narrative of being the tough-guy that I have always been. How I have known always what I wanted to do and how I have worked and worked and worked, harder and harder to get what I want. For you sweet people, I have no ego to defend as this blog is already an incorrigible record of personal embarrassments.

If you look at my story, my "personality currency" was relatively rich in math and scientific aptitude. So, I gravitated towards a career in that. It took me a while but I had my doubts all along. But, given my personality, I feel that a career in something scientific was inevitable. It was meant to be, sort of. I wasn't a gifted cricketer or conceived as a Terminator. I was giving this wallet that contained a sound engineering predilections. It took me quite a while to convince myself of that. I tried all sorts of opportunities till something worked out that I am content about. In other words, I just shopped for my engineering career as it seemed the best deal to keep me happy, given my context. It was as if I was sifting through different aisles in a clothing store trying out various types of suits and finally, keeping the one I liked.  That's the logic for any shopping. Isn’t it? We keep on trying and trying till we find something we really like or many a time, hastily select whatever we find to be the best of all the options available and move on to some other aisle in the store. If you look closely at everyone's lives, the same process is worked out all the time. Some people hate studying but they are heftily built and have no moral quandaries in snatching whatever they want by punching people in the face. If such people go to a career counseling center, they are more likely advised to become mobsters and gangsters, not go to school and become an economics graduate, work for wall-street and create recessions. Some people are born with plenty of good looks and those are the people who cultivate the right attitude to become a fashion model with shaved torsos and over the years, end up unveiling their own brand of fragrance. Someone might be better at writing or music and they get to be famous so that they can talk in interviews about god-knows-how they are spreading love through art. Someone is probably good at getting people to do things that they hate to do, they become your boss. Some people are born naked and have a genetic condition that prevents them keeping clothes on their body, they become social activists who strip for a cause and so on. As you can see, what you end up professionally depends again on the your effort, talents, the socio-political habitat, timing and luck. Of all, you have control only on the effort. As comic-genius Woody Allen quips, "I think, being funny is not anyone's first choice".

We all shop around and get the best goods we can. That's all we are doing. Who, as a child, wants to grow up to be entertainment lawyers, dog-poop collectors, investment bankers or septic tank engineers, bank software developers ? They are all very important functions needed for the society to run and yet, they were also compromises and negotiations made in the shopping store so that we can move on to other items.


No where is the shopping metaphor more stark and visible than in the world of human dating. It is as ridiculously obvious as the dual wave-particle nature of light or that brain-storming never works. Each day people are falling in love or meeting new people or entering a casual relationships or trying to make things work or dumping someone or trying to move on with their lives or getting separated or meeting friends with benefits or attempting trial marriages or locking into arranged marriages or trying alternate lifestyles including kissing your own mouth or even changing their gender to see how graze the grass on greener side like the lonely cow on a solitary pasture and so on and so on - oh! that glorious, that magnificent kaleidoscope of romantic arrangements presenting myriad and mystical games belonging to the kingdom of the heart.

Ask HIM (Horny Indian Male) why he's nuts on every girl he meets, he will tell you that his engineering degree makes him so insecure that he has to shop till he drops. Ask any girl what she is really looking for, she will describe her knight in the shining armor must definitely have two working ears. Every time, we meet a potential mate, the brain works its magic and makes us fall in into a special trance. There is a shopping festival in your head then: Do we share the same interests? Does she have a killer belly-button? Does he have a good sense of humor? Will he let my mom and dad live at our house? Will she let me pursue my interests in fighting social change through poetry? Can I still play video games after we have kids ? What will happen to my comic book collection if I end with this girl? What's his taste in music, movies and arts? Who are her personal heroes and favorite dictators? Is he crazy enough ? Does she cry a lot or Is he the strong, silent type? … and when the score is high enough, you fall in love, you get hitched, you get pleasurably imprisoned into the noblest of unions. Or quite the opposite. You fall out of the trance when some kind of reality slaps you in the face. You don't love the product anymore. You want to return the product and demand a refund perhaps. You want to exchange it for something else. May be, you are interested in a product similar that you have always owned and you realize to crawl out of the closet. Or you may be don't want anything at all for sometime now as you are convinced that all products are worthless pigs. Whatever it is, it's all shopping, folks. The unconscious land never sleeps. It keeps itself busy in the trial room putting on a cloak, admiring from a distance by comparing the reflections of the cerebral mirrors. It seems to be constantly making judgments on every minor experience we are having. It is perpetually, habitually, tirelessly sifting through the various aisles of experiences as we go through our days, trying to rate, learn, record and remember the emotional preferences on a scale of "That sucks" to "That's awesome".


Right from your childhood hobbies to your choice of pets to your social causes to fashion style, everything you end up in life is a result of a shopping process using the "personality currency". I argue that you have a very narrow lifestyle choices that you ought to accomplish so that you could be modestly happy in life. In that sense, I do believe in a broad definition of destiny based on "personality currency". The idea of free will never sat well with me ever. It seems incredulous that we are making conscious choices and we ought to be responsible for them. I know not about you but I see no control on many things that make up my personality. Most days, I do something goofy and spend my time repairing the situation. My whole life has become a long string of apologies from my conscious mind because my sub-conscious can’t control it’s impulses. I'll tell you the most astonishing thing about the mind's shopping addiction. I would argue that even your value system and moral code is shopped as well. Our mind adopts a philosophical system that rationalizes and explains best our choices in life. You might like to think you are a christian or a rationalist or a humanist or a nihilist. The names come later. What you are is already decided and you merely end up identifying with a name. Once again, look closely how it works. A gangster is likely to see the world as a war out there with everyone fighting for scarce resources. These alpha males try to profess a world-view of territorial behavior and capitalism just like a typical chimpanzee. Alternatively, if you share your DNA with bonobos, you will probably subscribe to a peaceful matriarchal structure and have sex all the time for fun. May be, if you are a rock-star or unfairly lucky to be a handsome person, besides going to rot in hell for all the physical fun you had on earth, you are likely to believe in a less monogamist lifestyle. If you are the type, who accepts a particular God as the guy who's looking after all your needs, you are end up as a religious person. If you are a person who questions everything, you will probably be an agnostic who will oppose abortion and agree with gay people to marry each other. If you are the Spiderman type, you will think with great power comes great responsibility. Because I am not Spiderman, I can shamelessly enjoy power completely oblivious of responsibilities. If you are like a Indian movie hero, you will think all there is in life is getting married. Depending on the "personality currency" and how you have lived and enjoyed your life, you are likely to adopt a convenient value system or a sophisticated interpretation of the religious scriptures. That's exactly why two people can't seem to agree on the definition of God. That's the reason why we have different grades of religious enthusiasts ranging from fanatic to nominal - because all of us shop for a personally suited version of the scripture. The major conflict an individual faces today is between his own inherited, intellectual and intuitive versions of God or Universe. If you are the type that can accept the mythology of God as handed by your family or immediate society, you will be a part of the club. Else, you rebel and try to settle down to something between an existentialist and an evangelist. That's exactly how semi-vegetarians popped out. They want to eat fish and eggs but also want to distant themselves from more horrible people that murder innocent animals for their taste-buds. Apparently, they are a separate group of people now.


Folks, that's all you are doing. You are just shopping on this planet, all the time. Your ego center might convince you that your life is your handiwork but remember that most of what went into it was supplied to you by nature itself. You just use what you got to get what you wanted. I grant you that there is a little flexibility and that's your patience and energy to keep sifting through the merchandise. In fact, comedian and my guru George Carlin believes that "even the ability to do hard-work is genetic". If you are one of those types who claim responsibility for all the success and blame others for your failures, think a little. You can actually blame the whole thing on everything else. If you can't choose what makes you happy and you are actively pursuing happiness, what part are you actually responsible for ? You are merely executing a script so that you can be a little less painful. That's the story of your life. Is it a noble privilege? You decide. These are the kind of thoughts that confuse me when I am sincerely trying to hate someone for being an absolute moron that he is. Having said that, if all we are doing is shopping, may be the commonsense rules that apply to shopping apply to living one's life:

** May be, knowing about the extent and size of "personality currency" can prevent a lot of stress. ("find out your passions, strengths, limitations etc.")

** May be, we should be careful not to max out our credit cards because it was too expensive ("Don't chase wild fantasies, one step at a time").

* May be, we don't need to look at how your friend shops ("what's working for your friend may not work for you")

May be you can go to a different store and have a different but unique shopping experience.("Follow your bliss")

And there is actual shopping. I really hate actual shopping. Remember that I am the guy who suggested to "Just take the veryclothes you have. Go to the very shop you bought them and buy the same designs - once again."  to save time. Now you know how I feel about life.

Be a shopaholic. Live it up.

Thanks to:

  1. MEDHAJANANAM FOUNDATION - Ignite your Intellect.
  2. Whatever Works (A movie by Woody Allen)
  3. Images off Internet


Twilight Musings said...

What's with Civil Engineering PhD's with computational mechanics background and the life's existential crises? Too much time spent looking at poorly coded programs (wait, otherwise we will be software engineers), I guess.

It is obvious you don't have Children. Then it is no longer a shopping experience, just massive credit card debt repayment. The interest rate controlled by your ancestors. You thought all that parental investment in you was your own currency? Ha!

Good write-up though. :)

Sash! said...

No, I don't have children ... I am still in the final chapter of grad school ...

Yeah, I think I speak about only one side, I guess .. the taking side of it ... Indeed, a time would come when you have to lend the currency for the future generation as a way of paying the debt for what we have received from the previous generation ... justifiably so :)

Thanks for broadening my perspective ... :)

Twilight Musings said...

Oh boy! It's much much worse than I thought. You are not a run-of-the-mill finite elements guy.

Hi Young Research Cousin! No wonder our thoughts run along same lines. Suffice to say, I belong to CQC branch. :)

Best wishes towards becoming "Doctor-Engineer" and all that.
And, you are welcome.

Sash! said...

hehe ... you seem to know quite a bit about civil engineering and mechanics ?

who ... are you ? :P

Twilight Musings said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Good one!
But,You are most certainly single.

chakri said...

You are just A-W-E-S-O-M-E. I read your post one day after I wrote this :

Your shopping view is comfortable.

Sash! said...

@ Anonymous : you bet ... :)

@ Chakri: thanks ... nice post you got there ... :)

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