BOOK REVIEW: Panchatantra [trans. / ed. by Arthur W. Ryder]

PanchatantraPanchatantra by Arthur W. Ryder
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

“Panchatantra” is “Aesop’s Fables” meets Machiavelli’s “The Prince,” but with an Indian flavor. [I realize that the Panchatantra is much older than “The Prince” (though not as old as Aesop’s Fables — at least not when comparing written editions) but I’d argue it’s still a useful tagline for general readers who aren’t particularly acquainted with Indian literature.] Like Aesop’s Fables, anthropomorphized animals make up the bulk of the cast in this set of stories within a story. Like “The Prince,” a lot of the the advice offers insight into how to lead (as opposed to just how to lead a moral life.) The topics addressed include: building sound alliances, avoiding deception, and making decisions regarding war and peace.

As the Sanskrit title — Panchatantra [“Five Treatises”] — suggests, this work is arranged into five books. Of the over eighty fables of the original, more than fifty are collected in this edition. [I suspect this was done to eliminate or consolidate stories that were essentially the same.] The first book is “The Loss of Friends” and it focuses on how alliances are broken up by enemies. The second is “The Winning of Friends” and it gives particular attention to alliance building. The third book is “On Crows and Owls,” and it’s about how to decide whether to go to war, choose peace, or seek some alternative. The penultimate book is “Loss of Gains” and it discusses ways in which people forfeit (or have stolen from them) what they have gained. The last book is “Ill-Considered Action,” and it advises against being hasty. The stories are skillfully written and translated, and they are thought-provoking. That said, they can be a tad hackneyed and simplistic as well. For example, a large number of these tales convey the same simple lesson that one should take advice from individuals who are wise and virtuous, and that lesson’s inverse (that one should ignore those who are foolish and / or immoral.)

I’d highly recommend giving the Panchatantra a read. It both conveys wisdom and offers good stories. It’s true that the stories can become a bit repetitive and also frequently have less than profound morals, but overall, it’s a smart and entertaining collection of fables.

View all my reviews

POEM: Blake’s Virtue

by Thomas Phillips, oil on canvas, 1807

box of virtue, or box of sin
which one does this act go in?
and why put each one in a box?
to sell the sins down by the docks?

Blake the madman, Blake the pious
the difference reflects your bias
wedging each act into a crate
dilutes the evil and the great
all so the vain can extricate
themselves above the ones they hate

5 Bizarre Moral Dilemmas for Your Kids to Worry Over

5.) Can “innocent until proven guilty” survive the next generation of predictive models?

I started thinking about this post as I was reading Dean Haycock’s book Murderous Minds, which is a book about the neuroscience of psychopathy. In that book, the author evokes The Minority Report, a Philip K. Dick story turned into a Tom Cruise movie about a police agency that uses three individuals who can see the future in order to prevent violent crimes before they happen. Haycock isn’t suggesting that precognition will ever be a tool to predict crime, but what if a combination of genetics, epigenetics, brain imaging, and other technology reached the point where the tendency toward violent psychopathy (not redundant, most psychopaths function fine in society and don’t commit crimes) could be predicted with a high degree of accuracy. [Note: unlike the Tom Cruise movie, no one is suggesting all violent crime could be anticipated because a lot of it is committed by people with no risk factors whatsoever.] One is likely to first go to the old refrain (Blackstone’s Formulation) that it’s better that 10 guilty men escape justice than one innocent man be punished. Now, imagine a loved one was killed by a person who was known to have a 99% likelihood of committing a violent crime?

Of course, one doesn’t have to lock the high-risk individuals away in prison. What about laws forcing one to take either non-invasive or invasive actions (from meditation retreats to genetic editing) to reduce one’s risk factors? That’s still a presumption of guilt based on a model that  — given the vagaries of the human condition — could never be perfectly accurate.

 

4.) What does “trusted news source” mean in a world in which media outlets tailor their messages to support confirmation bias and avoid ugly cognitive dissonance? (i.e. to give viewers the warm-fuzzy [re: superior] feeling that keeps them watching rather than the messy, uneasy feelings that makes them prefer to bury their heads in sand and ignore any realities that conflict with their beliefs.) Arguably, this isn’t so much a problem for the next generation as for the present one. The aforementioned sci-fi legend, Philip K. Dick, addressed the idea of media manipulation in his stories as far back as the 1950’s. However, it’s a problem that could get much worse as computers get more sophisticated at targeting individuals with messages tailored to their personal beliefs and past experiences. What about if it goes past tweaking the message to encourage readership to manipulating the reader for more nefarious ends? I started to think about this when I got the i-Phone news feed which is full of provocative headlines designed to make one click, and — if one doesn’t click — one will probably come away with a completely false understanding of the realities of the story. As an example, I recently saw a headline to the effect of “AI can predict your death with 95% accuracy.” It turns out that it can only make this prediction after one has shown up in an emergency room and had one’s vital statistics taken and recorded. [Not to mention “95% accuracy” being completely meaningless — e.g. in what time frame — minute of death, day, year, decade? I can come up with the century of death with 95% accuracy, myself, given a large enough group.]

 

3.) When is it acceptable to shut down a self-aware Artificial Intelligence (AI), and — more importantly — will it let you?  This is the most obvious and straightforward of the issues in this post. When is something that not only thinks but is aware of its thoughts considered equivalent to a human being for moral purposes, if ever?

 

2.) When is invisible surveillance acceptable / preferable? This idea came from a talk I heard by a Department of Homeland Security employee, back when I worked for Georgia Tech. He told us that the goal is eventually to get rid of the security screening checkpoints at the airport and have technology that would screen one as one walked down a corridor toward one’s gate. At first this sounds cool and awesome. No taking belts and shoes off. No running bags through metal detectors. No having to pitch your water bottle. No lines. No dropping your laptop because you’re precariously balancing multiple plastic bins and your carry-on luggage. [I don’t know if they would tackle one to the ground for having a toenail clipper in one’s bag or not, but — on the whole — this scheme seems awesome.] But then you realize that you’re being scanned to the most minute detail without your awareness.

One also has to consider the apathy effect. If one can make an activity painless, people stop being cognizant of it. Consider the realm of taxation. If you’re pulling a well-defined chunk of pay out of people’s income, they keep their eye on how much you’re taking. If you can bury that tax — e.g. in the price of goods or services, then people become far less likely to recognize rate changes or the like.

 

1.) If society can reduce pedophilic sexual abuse by allowing the production and dissemination of virtual reality child pornography (computer generated imagery only, no live models used, think computer games), should we? This idea is discussed in Jesse Bering’s book, Perv. It’s not a completely hypothetical question. There is some scholarly evidence that such computer-made pornography can assuage some pedophiles’ urges. However, the gut reaction of many [probably, most] people is “hell no!” It’s a prime example of emotion trumping reason. If you can reduce the amount of abuse by even a marginal amount, shouldn’t you do so given a lack of real costs / cons (i.e. presuming the cost of the material would be paid by the viewer, the only real cost to the public would be the icky feeling of knowing that such material exists in the world?)

BOOK REVIEW: Being Mortal by Atul Gawande

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the EndBeing Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

This may be the scariest, saddest, and most necessary book that I’ve read in some time. In it, Dr. Gawande discusses how medicine has proven increasingly effective at extending life, but—at the same time–we are less able to care for the elderly. The traditional approach, in which the elderly move back in with their families (or live independently near them,) often proves untenable. And it’s not necessarily because people are too busy, lazy, or indifferent to put up with granny, but rather that granny is likely to end up with needs that require a professional caregiver—in some cases for virtually every aspect of her daily life. In short, we’ve done a great job of extending life, but often with a sharp dip in the quality of life at the end.

The nursing home was the solution that the health care community came up with when this problem first became apparent. While the nursing home is both necessary and effective for many, for those of sound mind and sound-ish body, the move can be highly demoralizing. People revert from being independent and autonomous adults into a child-like status in which they have little freedom or privacy. Again, if grandpa has dementia or needs to be tube-fed, there’s no way around this, but if he’s just at risk for a fall that might break his hip, then it can be humiliating.

When it comes down to the end, fear of death has led to an unwillingness to ask important questions or even consider what might be just around the corner. This has led patients to keep asking for that one treatment that just might extend their lives—and doctors have been more than willing to allow this. This may be fine in the early days of a terminal illness, but once one has gone through—say–a couple of courses of chemotherapy, the treatment one is likely to get is some trial phase experiment that is as likely to kill one cruelly as extend one’s life—and to the degree that it does extend one’s life one may suffer a set of complications far more miserably than one would in letting the disease kill one. One of the most intriguing study results cited showed that people who took up hospice palliative care (making one comfortable) were found on average to live a little longer than those who kept seeking whatever treatment they could find.

This all sounds like bad news, but the author devotes much of the book to exploring the options that have been put forth in the face of these problems. One of these is the assisted living facility as an alternative to a traditional nursing home. These facilities work for people who are of sound mind and who aren’t too bad off physically. They allow the individuals to live as they might in a condo or apartment, but there are on-sight caregivers and assistance with all the tasks around the house that might prove too challenging for an older person. The other major solution is hospice care. Not that palliative care is new, but it’s increasingly being show to be a preferable option for all concerned. Another important outcome resulted from a major insurance provider’s decision to allow individuals to pursue palliative care while they were still being treated. [Historically, one only had the option of hospice once one had given up on treatment.] At any rate, the intriguing finding was that the insurance company actually ended up paying less because more people signed up for palliative care and those individuals used expensive health care elements like emergency rooms and intensive care units (ICU) less.

While I can’t say that I enjoyed reading this book, I would recommend it for everyone. It’s very readable. The approach is case-based. Dr. Gawande talks not only about his own patients and the patients and caregivers that he interviewed (his practice is not geriatric in nature, so he spoke with several experts), but also about the end of his own father’s life. It’s a short book of about 300 pages arranged into eight chapters. There are no graphics, and endnotes are the only ancillary matter, but nothing else is necessary for this book.

Read it.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: The Bhagavad-Gita Translated by Barbara Stoler Miller

The Bhagavad GitaThe Bhagavad Gita by Anonymous

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

The Bhagavad-Gita is a philosophical poem, the title of which is translated as “Song of the Lord.” It’s often read as a stand-alone work, but it’s included in the sixth book of longest known epic poem, entitled the Mahabharata.

In The Bhagavad-Gita, Krishna teaches the warrior-prince Arjuna about sacred duty (dharma.) The setting is the battlefield at Kurukshetra as a war is about to get underway. Arjuna asks his charioteer, Krishna, to halt the vehicle between the opposing armies. Arjuna is struck with a crisis of conscience. He doesn’t want to fight and kill the men on the opposing side–some of whom are related to him by blood and others of whom are well-respected elders. Arjuna can see no virtue in the war.

Krishna, after briefly mocking what he describes as Arjuna’s newly developed cowardice, goes on to offer his explanation of why it is that Arjuna should fight. The first argument is that nobody really dies because consciousness is reborn. This makes sense if you believe in reincarnation… otherwise, not so much. A concise restatement of this argument is presented in the 11th teaching: “I am time grown old, creating world destruction, set in motion to annihilate worlds; even without you, all these warriors arrayed in hostile ranks will cease to exist. Therefore, arise and win glory! Conquer your foes and fulfill your kingship! They are already killed by me. Be just my instrument, the archer at my side!”

Another of Krishna’s argument is that if Arjuna fails to fulfill his duty he will be thought less of by others. This is an odd argument to make as Krishna makes a more compelling case for ridding oneself of ego, whereas this seems to be saying that one should put what others think of one above doing what one believes is right. That sounds a lot like succumbing to ego rather than eliminating. In the 12th teaching, in fact, Krishna tells us that the best of men are “Neutral to blame or praise…” This suggests that perhaps one shouldn’t be moved by what others will think of one.

At the core of Krishna’s argument is that one cannot escape the Karmic cycle by engaging any acts but those that are selfless. Like the reincarnation argument. One may find this logic compelling or not depending upon whether one believes in Karmic theory. Karma is the idea of cause and effect. If you do good, you’ll receive good effects and if you do bad you’ll experience bad effects. Ultimately, however, the goal is to break free of the Karmic cycle and, in theory, the only way to do that is to engage in acts that are selfless—hence doing your sacred duty. If your driver isn’t God, it’s not entirely clear how you know what your sacred duty is, at least not by way of this work. (Presumably, God talks to kings and princes, and kings and princes tell the unwashed masses what they are supposed to do. If you happened to have already done away with such a system—as most of the planet has—you may have trouble with this logic.) However, if one takes the lesson to be that one should not be consumed with personal gain when one acts, one has an argument of more general appeal.

Another argument is that devotion to God is all important, not a man’s actions in any absolutist sense. From the 9th teaching, “If he is devoted to me, even a violent criminal must be deemed a man of virtue, for his resolve is right.”

It should be noted that Krishna delivers a number of lessons beyond the need to comply with one’s dharma, and, in my opinion, many of these ancillary lessons are more compelling than Krishna’s explanation of why Arjuna must fight.

One such lesson is to concern oneself with the journey and not the destination. Krishna states it as such, “Be intent on action; not the fruits of action…” Furthermore, there are a great many teachings that will be familiar to Buddhists, such as the need for non-attachment and moderation.

The poem contains lessons of Samkhya (e.g. discussion of the three gunas) and Yoga. It describes concepts from the three original forms of yoga (predating yoga as a fitness activity by centuries): those being of action yoga (karma yoga), knowledge yoga (jnana yoga), and devotional yoga (bhakti yoga.) While The Bhagavad-Gita predates the formulation of eight limbs of yoga as described by Patanjali, it does address certain among them in varying detail. Early on, it speaks about pratyahara—withdrawal from the senses—in considerable detail. There are also references to pranayama (breath/energy control exercises) and most of the yama and niyama are listed among the virtues in the latter part of the teachings. Of course, samadhi (liberation / yoga’s 8th limb) is a central concept in this work.

While The Bhagavad-Gita remains widely cited and relied upon for guidance to this day, it’s not without its controversial elements. In the fourth teaching, Krishna explains how he created the caste system. Of course, Krishna might not have intended it to be the stain it became.

The Miller translation that I read has a few nice ancillary features. There is an introduction that offers background and context for those who have little knowledge of Indian history or mythology. There’s also a glossary that goes into detail about terms that are frequently used in the work. It’s not that there are Sanskrit words mixed into to the text. The glossary explains what the English words should be taken to mean in the context of the Hindu worldview.

What is most intriguing, however, is the afterword which is entitled, “Why Did Henry David Thoreau Take the Bhagavad-Gita to Walden Pond?” Of all the thinkers that have cited The Bhagavad-Gita, the use of Thoreau and Emerson as examples raises intriguing questions. The Thoreau of Civil Disobedience and the Emerson of Self-Reliance would seem to be as far from the message of The Bhagavad-Gita as possible. Krishna is telling Arjuna to ignore his conscience, and just do what God tells him to do—be a selfless instrument of destruction. Thoreau and Emerson both preached that one’s conscience should always be one’s ultimate guide. Thoreau went to jail because he refused to pay taxes that would support the war with Mexico. I suspect Krishna would say to Thoreau, “Hey, I’m throwing this war, and you’d damn well better do your part.” However, there are ideas in The Bhagavad-Gita that work with the American Transcendentalist philosophers. The idea of removing self-interest and egotism as a way to eliminate delusion before one makes one’s own decision is a consistent suggestion.

I have mixed feelings about The Bhagavad-Gita. Like many (most?) sources of religious doctrine, I think the central message of The Bhagavad-Gita is just another means by which to keep the masses under the control of an elite—and, specifically, fighting the wars of the royalty. However, I–like Thoreau and Emerson—also see a great deal of insight into how to be a better person in this poem.

I think The Bhagavad-Gita is worth a read, regardless of how you may ultimately feel about its message. It offers a concise summary of key ideas in Indian philosophy and psychology. It will give one a better understanding of the Indian worldview, and may teach you something about how to live in the process.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Rashōmon and Other Stories by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa

Rashomon and Other Stories (Tuttle Classics)Rashomon and Other Stories by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

Six stories make up this brief collection. All six are intriguing, well-written, and shine a light onto the dark side of mankind. The works of Akutagawa collected herein are all morality tales, but aren’t written in a moralistic tone. In fact, it’s not clear that the author wishes to convey lessons on virtue and vice as he’s intrigued with the instant at which an ordinary person turns bad. That instant, and the inflamed passions that often inspire it, is a prevailing theme throughout most of this small anthology. Akutagawa beats AMC by the better part of a century in showing us how bad breaks.

The first story is entitled In a Grove. This is a murder mystery in which we are given conflicting accounts of a man’s murder through the process of the investigation of the act. The final account that we are offered is that of the victim himself–as presented by a psychic medium. [Only two of these stories contain supernatural elements–this one and the last. Most of the collection involves realist premises. One must remember that Akutagawa was writing in the early part of the 20th century, and scientific rationality hadn’t yet gotten as strong a hold as it does today.] In this case, the use of a psychic is really just a plot device to give the reader insight into a truth which couldn’t otherwise be revealed. Having heard the perspectives of the murder and the dead man’s wife, one is left with questions owing to the self-serving nature of those statements. Of course, the final section reveals a twist–that I won’t spoil.

The second story is the title story, Rashōmon. The title is the name of a gate in Kyōto, the largest gate of Kyōto, in fact. However, Kyōto has fallen on hard times, and our protagonist is a newly masterless samurai who has sought the gate’s shelter from the rain. There, he contemplates whether he should take up a life of crime, which seems to be his only means of survival in the current economy given his skill set. The gate has become a repository for the corpses that are amassing as victims of the hard times accumulate. Within the gate, he finds an old hag who loots bodies for a living. His interaction with the old woman helps him to decide his own destiny.

The third story is called Yam Gruel. While “yam gruel” (or anything with the word gruel in it) might not sound appealing given today’s usage, a fact one must know is that during the time of the story it was a highly-prized and rare dish. The story follows a milquetoast administrator who leads a rather pathetic life in which he has but one ambition, to eat his fill of yam gruel. As a member of the samurai class, he’s invited to an Imperial banquet each year. However, because of his low status and the high-value of yam gruel, he never gets more than a taste. One year he openly bemoans the fact that he never gets his fill. A powerful samurai overhears this complaint, and it puts a seed of mischief in his mind. While this tale isn’t about breaking bad, it is about inflamed passions.

The fourth story sticks out as different from the others. While the bulk of the stories center on that moment at which a more-or-less good person goes bad, The Martyr tells us about a protagonist that never goes bad, despite having every right to. This might seem like a sea change in theme, but in reality it’s just another way of shining a light on the dark seed that resides in people. Only this time it does it by way of contrast. All of the other characters are deeply flawed, and we see that most vividly when contrasted against the one who always behaves virtuously. In this case, that virtuous character is Lorenzo, a novice monk who is accused of a severe breach of good conduct. Lorenzo becomes an outcast and a vagrant due to these allegations. Yet, despite all this, he acts heroically–even to assist those who’ve betrayed him.

In the fifth story we revisit the theme of breaking bad. In Kesa and Morito we are presented with two regret-filled accounts of the instant at which an adulterous couple decides to kill the husband of the woman involved in the affair. Each member of the cheating couple thinks that the other desperately wants the killing to go forward. In reality, both consider it a foolish decision driven by a brief moment of passion. This is another tale about letting one’s passions get out of control.

The final work is a retelling of the story of a monk named Hanazō who decides to prank his fellow monks because they chide him about his huge nose. Hanazō sets up a sign that says a dragon will appear from the local lake at a certain time and day to fly up into the heavens. The joke doesn’t turn out at all as the monk intended. I won’t go into the moral of the story to avoid giving too much away, but suffice it to say there is a moral.

I highly recommend this collection. As I’ve suggested, the collection isn’t just a disparate collection of tales, but has an integrating theme. Akutagawa was truly one of the masters of the short story. He wrote 150 stories before dying at the age of 35 in a suicidal drug overdose.

For those who like to see how literature is portrayed in, below one can watch the film version of Rashōmon.

View all my reviews