On Principles And Values

Principles and values are concepts that have often troubled me. I struggle to understand their meanings and the interplay between them. This essay articulates some of my thoughts in the area.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary provides the following definitions:

principle: a rule of conduct

value: something intrinsically desirable

An example of a principle would be “A country should not attack another country” whereas a value would be “peace”. Another example of a principle would be “One must help their neighbor in times of need” and an associated example of a value would be “happy cohesive communities”.

A few observations follow from these examples.

  1. A value is a desirable state of being. It is a quality that we wish was present in the world around us. An individual may uphold a value for a variety of reasons. For example, “peace” may economically benefit an individual, it may give them inner happiness, it may appeal to their religious beliefs or it may improve the odds of survival of the people they love.
  2. A principle is a rule that we adopt, with the goal of realizing some value. A principle that is not anchored in some underlying value is mere dogma.
  3. Principles can be both prohibitive (in that they disallow some conduct) or prescriptive (in that they encourage some conduct).
  4. Adopting a principle is a predictive action. We believe that adhering to a principle will lead to the value we desire. That should be the sole reason we adopt a principle. Often, our principles are motivated or derived from the cumulative collection of human experiences.

A principle seems somewhat of a mental shortcut. One can deduce the correct course of action, given one’s values and the specific details of the present situation, without having any principles at all. Such a person would constantly evaluate all courses of action open to them, and choose the one that ensures maximal realization of the values they care about. Such an exercise is of course quite onerous and therefore, our brains start learning patterns that occur frequently and we call them principles. To borrow an analogy from mathematics, values are the axioms that we hold and principles are theorems that are derived from those axioms.

This framework of principles and values appeals to me. But many people object to principles being cast as mere shortcuts! To them their principles represent something more sacred. They are inviolable holy rules.

My argument against such a characterization is that, given any principle I am confident that I can construct a hypothetical situation where the follower of the said principle would be unwilling to adhere to it. For example, many people hold the principle, “Abortion should be disallowed”. Such a stance is typically borne out of the value they place on “life”. However, one can easily imagine situations where abortion is necessary to save the life of the mother. Everyone except the staunchest of abortion-opponents agree that abortion is an agreeable course of action in such a context.

What about those that do not condone abortion even in such an extreme scenario? I conclude that either they dogmatically stick to their principle without knowing the underlying value they desire; or the value that motivates their opposition to abortion is not “life” but something else – most likely strong Biblical beliefs or other related positions.

This example serves to illustrate an important point. The reason for all moral debates is conflicting values. In the abortion case for example, the conflicting values in question are: “personal freedom of the mother”, “life” and “Biblical values”. How does one balance the relative merit of one value vs others?

All of us answer this question in our own unique ways. Some people evaluate the options from a solely personal perspective: which value appeals the most to me? Others take a more societal view and discuss the issue in terms of impact to society at large. Yet others tread a fine path where they balance societal benefit with personal appeal and opt for a combination of the two. Still more people invoke divine scripture to answer these questions. Is there any one method which is right?

I do not claim to have an answer to this question. But I do claim that this question is irrelevant. This is because the real world has its own way of resolving such conundrums arising from conflicting values. When a society chooses to uphold some value, it derives utility (either negative or positive) from adhering to that value. For example, “equality and freedom for all” is a widely-held American value and it makes America an attractive destination for talented immigrants.

This observation leads to a strange Darwinian landscape where countless moral beliefs, ideas, values are competing to be adopted by a society. And over time, societies adopt those ideas that bestow the greatest strength upon them. Or phrased slightly differently, if a society makes a sub-optimal choice and sticks to a value that makes it weaker, it ends up being dominated by another society’s value system that made a smarter choice. The claim is that over the long term, a more efficient system will win out over a less efficient one; the moral appeal of the values and principles notwithstanding.

I do not claim to have any concrete evidence for my theory of Darwinian evolution of ideas and societies. However, let me provide some examples which will hopefully persuade you that there is a kernel of truth behind the idea.

Consider the issue of equal treatment for women. Tremendous advances have been made in the past few decades at bridging the gap between men and women. Today, things are much better in the developed world, while a lot of work is underway everywhere else. Let us ask a hypothetical question: Could such progress have been achieved five hundred years ago? Or two hundred years ago? Hundred years ago?

My answer to these questions is no. Such progress was simply impossible in the past. And the reason doesn’t lie in some moral awakening that we have had in the past few decades. Somewhat surprisingly, the reason lies in industrialization. Industrialization has helped the cause of women in two distinct ways.

Firstly, the modern world places greater emphasis on the mental abilities as opposed to raw physical strength. Industrialization and the onset of machines reduced the utility of personal physical strength and that proved to be a big equalizer between men and women.

Secondly, modern technology has freed up a lot of time that women used to invest in doing household chores. The biggest economic innovation ever made was the idea of division of labor. If a single person was required to cook food, stitch clothes, maintain cleanliness, cultivate food, earn money, defend against attacks, cure diseases etc, then nothing would ever get done. A society where people are responsible for all aspects of their lives would be hopelessly unproductive. So we invented roles. Farmers cultivate food, doctors cure diseases etc. This allows people to invest their energies into becoming better at their jobs and the society as a whole reaps super-linear benefits. This same division of labor principle is applicable to a medieval family as well. Men were naturally, biologically suited to go out to earn a living because a lot of jobs required physical strength.Consequently women were left to tend to the other jobs like stitching clothes, cooking food. cleaning the house etc. A society which organized itself the other way around would simply have been less productive and would not be able to compete with other societies around it.

So what has changed now? Modern technology has sped up household chores and women have a lot more time on their hands now. In such an environment, a society that gainfully employs half its population stands to be more productive than one that keeps its women imprisoned inside the household.

I find this absolutely fascinating. “Equality for women” seems to have gone from being a net productivity negative to a productivity positive. And lo and behold, the movements for women’s equality gained steam right around the time these conditions became ripe. This leads me to believe that our recent advances in women’s equality have less to do with the abstract moral force behind those ideals and more to do with the hard underlying economic realities.

A similar argument can be made with respect to slavery or the more general case of bonded labor. Machines which were cheaper and more effective than humans, made the idea of bonded labor obsolete. And a society that clung to obsolete notions of bonded labor and failed to embrace modern technology would lose out over the long term.

As the quote goes, “One cannot resist an idea whose time has come”. The converse of course is, no amount of advocacy can prop up an idea who time hasn’t come.

So where does this leave us? If we feel passionately about a cause, should we take a passive approach and wait for the right thing to happen at the right time? No. The above discussion does not attempt to devalue the role played by an agent of change. The only claim made is that even though agents of change are frequently driven by moral considerations, the success of their efforts has little correlation with the moral superiority of their ideas. However, since we can never predict whether the time is right, perhaps the best thing to do is to assume the right time is here and now and to keep fighting for the causes that we care about.


Politics and Corruption

What follows is a random, hastily written observation about corruption in politics.

Countries typically have GDPs far in excess of the revenues of most corporations. Even otherwise, leading a country is a significantly more challenging task than leading a corporation. Then why are leaders of countries entitled to far less compensation than say CEOs of companies?

Take the case of Egypt for example. It has a GDP of $500 billion. Hosni Mobarak was at the helm of the country for 30 years. What would be the net worth of a typical corporate CEO who has been heading a company of equivalent size for 30 years? A billion dollars would be easily achievable!

So why are Mobarak’s finances a problem? Well for starters, it is stolen money. And that’s that. There is no excuse for Mobarak to have made that amount of money. But our political systems are set up in a way that incentivizes people like Mobarak to steal.

Say my family owns a business that no one from our family is interested in running on a day-to-day basis. So we decide to hire a manager. Since we own the business, the money it generates belongs to us. We will use that money to pay the manager. We can’t hope to hire a good manager if we offer a bad salary. Or we will find a really smart manager who understands he is worth more than we are offering, but figures that he can bridge the difference by skimming off some money.

I claim that tax payers are unwilling to pay a good salary for the CEO of their country. I claim that our political leaders should be compensated in a manner that is commensurate with the intellectual complexity and importance of the job we hire them for. And the compensation we offer should be competitive with what the private sector can offer. We don’t believe that corporate CEOs do their jobs solely out of the desire to make the world a better place. So why do we expect our political leaders to do so?

There is a problem with this scheme. Once a leader is in power and is raking in the big bucks, why would she relinquish power? I can imagine it is a problem in countries like Egypt where dictators rule for 30 continuous years. But in countries like India, where elections are held frequently and largely fairly, with an independent press and judiciary, this shouldn’t be an issue.

CEO incentives are aligned to the best long-term interests of the company they head, by giving them an ownership stake in the company. If we can come up with a similar system, which gives every leader a fair ownership stake in the country, perhaps one of the big drivers behind top-level corruption will go away.


Freaky speedbreakers

In a move that I find quite crazy, someone in Canada has decided to paint images of small children on streets in a attempt to make drivers slow down. The images of children are drawn in a manner such that from a distance of around 100 feet, they look like a real child without any perspective distortion.

I wonder what will happen once people get used to these images on the road and then someone actually hits a child thinking its an image? I am horrified!


Corrupt Cricket

This is an excerpt from one of Prem Panicker’s recent blog posts about corruption in cricket.

This is a true story [and knowing you guys, the comments field will fill up with speculation on the identity of the central characters. Speculate all you like, I’m not telling]:

There was once an opening batsman known as much for his impeccable technique as for his preternatural sense of the ebbs and flows, the rhythms, of Test cricket. The way he constructed an innings was both masterclass and template: the early watchfulness, the constant use of the well placed single to get away from strike and go to the other end, from where he could observe the behavior of pitch and bowler, the imperceptible change of gears and then, as the lunch interval loomed, the gradual down-shifting of gears as commentators marveled: ‘He is pulling down the shutters… he knows it is important not to give away his wicket just before the break… the onus is on him to return after the break and build his innings all over again… the man is a master of focus…’

I followed along, on radio first and later, on television, and I marveled along with the commentators, the experts. And then, years later, I heard a story — of how, when the toss went the way of his team and this opener went out to bat on the first day of a Test, a close relative would bet with not one, but several, bookies, about whether the batsman would get to 50 before lunch. Or not. ‘So he would get to 45 or so, and there would be 20 minutes to go before lunch, and he would defend like hell, and all these experts would talk about how he is downing shutters for lunch when the fact was, there was a lot of money riding on his not getting 50 before the break,’ is a paraphrase of what one of the bookies who suffered from such well-placed bets said.

Prem makes it clear that he has no intentions of revealing the identity of the person. However, he drops enough hints about who the person might be. The only big assumption required is that he is talking about an Indian cricketer. Assuming that, I am fairly certain that the cricketer he is talking about is Sunil Gavaskar. Gavaskar used to open and he fits the description Prem provides very well. Also, Prem alludes to the fact that he initially followed the games on radio and then on television which matches the age in which Sunil played.

Prem Panicker has a lot of credibility among cricket writers. He’s done a lot of reporting and has a lot of contacts in the cricket fraternity. I am inclined to believe that his heart is on the right side in matters cricket related. If his allegation is true and my deduction that he is talking about Sunil Gavaskar is true, then all cricket fans should be shattered. For Mohammed Azharuddin to indulge in match fixing is one thing. For a legend of the game like Sunil Gavaskar to do it is a completely different thing altogether! I pray to God this isn’t true. The sad thing is: I will never know!


Sloppy Reporters

I get quite frustrated by bad journalism. As a amateur hobbyist on matters writing related, I care deeply about how people report things. In this post when I say bad journalism, I am not talking about the choice of subject matter (which is frequently and worthily criticized) but the quality of the reporting. At times I am led to believe that no one ever proof-reads the trash that routinely gets written. Here are a few examples.

Anand also signed autographs for his fans during play.

After the session he was engaged in a question-answer session with the participants.

The media was told not ask any questions.

This is taken from here (Rediff). Apart from being grammatically incorrect, the above excerpt also seems stupid. What use is a question answer session when you can’t answer questions? I am sure what it means is that the session was moderated and only pre-selected questions were allowed, but Mr. Reporter would you mind saying so? This in fact, is not even the most egregious example of its kind and such cases are quite bountiful.

Another example is this article here (The Hindu). This article talks about a letter that the President of FICCI wrote to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, arguing for the removal of clauses 17(a) and 17(b) from the Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Bill. While the article does a reasonable job of summarizing the arguments contained in the letter, it fails to answer the most basic follow-up question that any reader would have. What do those clauses say? If you read the full article, you can with some effort, piece together a hazy picture of those clauses. But isn’t it much better to just tell us about them directly?

I suspect that some of these practices are left-overs from the print era. There used to be a time when newspaper real-estate was costly and every word had to be chosen with care. In the online world, articles ought to be more detailed. News sites should make full use of the riches that the WWW offers and hyperlink content together in a way that curious readers can jump right into the middle of an issue and understand it without having to rewind.


(Common)Wealth Games

While the Commonwealth games are still two months away, we are increasingly hearing sordid tales of Indian Olympic Association (IOA) officials making money in the guise of getting Delhi ready for the games. Here are a few examples that made me particularly sad:

  • Instead of buying treadmills, the games committee has decided to lease them for the duration of the games. The organizers claim that the cost to lease a treadmill for 45 days is a ridiculous Rs. 10 lakh. Investigation by media outlets have later revealed that you can buy (not lease) these same treadmills for around Rs. 4 lakh! (link)
  • Contracts have been brazenly awarded to the people who run the IOA. See this for example where the contract to prepare the tennis courts has been awarded to a company which is headed by the IOA treasurer’s son.
  • All preparations are hugely behind schedule. Many people attribute it to official apathy or incompetence. The truth is much more sinister. The IOA guys know that given a choice between (a) pumping money and getting Delhi ready at the last minute at all costs and (b) immense loss of national prestige by a lackluster event; the Indian/Delhi government will clearly choose (a). Hence, the IOA has deliberately delayed the preparations and now it is basically holding the Indian government hostage. “If you want us to be ready, we need Rs. xxx. And make it fast please!”.
  • Mr. Suresh Kalmadi has been the head of the IOA for the past fourteen years. I wonder what credentials does he have which allow him to remain the head of such a critical body for such a long time? His resume doesn’t list any sports background. The results he has delivered (as evidenced by our performances in international sports competitions) have been mediocre at best, and if you take out two or three brilliant individual performers, they are downright appalling. So why does he get to be the head of the IOA?

I am sure we will hear many more stories like this in the days to come. And it will be followed by the usual. After the games, a committee will be seated to investigate the conduct of the officials organizing the games. After six years of painstaking effort, all of it on taxpayer’s money, the committee will produce a 600 page report. Suresh Kalmadi by that time will be standing for his seventh re-election to the post of the IOA President. And India will be preparing for Olympics 2020 with the same wealth games being played in the background. I hope I am wrong.


Raising money for children’s education

As many already know, Atashi and I are training for a marathon. She is running the San Francisco Half ten days from now and I will (hopefully) be ready for the Silicon Valley Full Marathon in October. We have (along with two other friends Anurag and Ritika) pledged to raise $4275 for Asha for Education. We have created a short video to communicate why we run and why we chose to support Asha. If you would like to contribute to our efforts please visit this page.

Discovering running has been an amazing change for us. Our only hope is that we can leverage this positive change in our lives to help improve the lives of as many children back home as possible!


Slashdot Redux

I recently picked this up from Slashdot. A British scientist became the first human to be infected by a computer virus! :) Yes – you heard that right – a computer virus. Read the full story here.

Apparently he infected a chip implanted in his body and then caused the virus to spread from his body to his PC! And he argues that human-to-human computer virus infections will also become common as implanted chips become commonplace!

Among other techie news, Sony recently demoed a flexible OLED screen thinner than a human hair! And it is flexible enough that it can wrap around a pencil even as the video keeps playing!! How cool is that. :)

Sony's flexible OLED screen Sony's flexible OLED screen

[Pics courtesy inhabitat.com]

And on top of all this, a research group in the University of New South Wales has successfully created a 4nm transistor made of just seven atoms! Just seven frikkin atoms!

Very cool stuff!


Euler Visits Silicon Valley

Here’s an Euler tour of the Bay Area! Of course many more such tours are possible. The one I have here is 165 miles long and it will take an estimated four hours to drive around the loop. It should be a fabulous day out for a photographer!

For those not well-versed in Computer Science, an Euler Tour is a path through a graph that traverses each edge exactly once. In this particular case, bridges are the obvious edges. Nodes aren’t completely clear though since the land masses are amorphous and not clearly demarcated from each other. For my purposes, I assumed there are three distinct nodes corresponding to WestOfBay (SF, SouthBay, Peninsula etc), OverTheBay (Marin, Sausolito etc) and EastOfBay (Walnut Creek, Fremont etc).

Can you come up with a shorter Euler Tour which covers all the Bay Area bridges? One condition your tour must obey is that the stops in the tour must be city centers and not arbitrary points on the map. For example, in the tour that I display here goes as follows: Redwood City -> Hayward -> San Francisco -> Sausolito -> Rollingwood -> Vallejo -> Walnut Creek -> Fremont -> Redwood City.

View Larger Map


Well done, Vishy Anand

A wonderful write-up about a man I immensely admired in my childhood (and still do).

At some time in the past, I used to be pretty good as a chess player (compared to other players my age). Somehow, over the years, my skills stagnated. However, Anand’s successful defense of his World Champion title has sparked a new desire to become good at chess again :)

Not sure how many people read these posts, but it would be awesome if I could find a group of three-four people who want to get better at chess and are roughly at the same skill level as myself.