Bubbles

The economic history of the modern world has seen it’s fair share of the phenomenon called bubbles.

One of the early, interesting ones is the one orchestrated by John Law. He was a very influential Scottish financier who gained a lot of favor with the pre-revolution Ancien Régime of France.

He was responsible for the Mississippi Company.

This company was ostensibly set up as a typical 18th century government sponsored monopoly. In comparison to its wildly successful Dutch counterpart (which delivered real economic value to it’s shareholders), the Mississippi Company turned out to be a bubble which was propped up by the manic manipulations of Law, who at one time, controlled the currency issuer, the central bank and the largest corporation in the country.

The initial speculations by the shareholders led to the creation of the first “millionaires” in the world. However the company turned out to be a spectacular failure and Law was exposed. He fled the country, leaving it in financial ruin. But the ground was now prepped for the revolution to occur and eventually bring about historic change.

Modern times have also seen fraudulent companies like Enron prop up bubbles by having large influence with the government, but eventually causing economic disasters.

Refactoring

Occasional refactoring to make the code more robust and clean is an important part of any project. In following the boy scout principle, when touching the code, one leaves the code cleaner than it was previously. In this way, when any real functionality change becomes necessary, cleaner code may make it easier to implement it.

When science failed

Science is a useful tool for human beings to explore and understand the world. However, as with all tools, people have misused science for their own detriment.

Albert Einstein wrote a letter in 1939 to President Franklin Roosevelt urging him to build the atomic bomb, believing the Germans would make one soon. But later on, after the devastation had been caused by the US dropping the atomic bomb in Japan, he regretted this letter, saying:

Had I known that the Germans would not succeed in producing an atomic bomb, I would have never lifted a finger.

In medicine too there have been several such cases.

Thalidomide was marketed as a cure for morning sickness to pregnant women. However this resulted in children being born with malformed limbs and only 40% surviving.

Taking a lot of antibiotics has been proven to cause major problems. Bacteria inside such a person’s body develop immunity towards the drugs, thus making diseases harder to cure.

When it comes to food, there are several cases too.

Trans fats were invented in the lab in the early 1900s by hydrogenating vegetable oil and marketed as a modern wonderfood. They were said to stay soft when refrigerated and thus, very convenient to use. However, after several decades of widespread use, in the 1990s, people started to realize the connection between trans fats and cardiovascular diseases which had increasingly begun to occur in the population.

Processed foods have been repeatedly shown to cause major problems. As a way to fight such artificial foods, we even have the Paleo diet movement today which tries to follow the diet of our caveman ancestors.

So, on the whole, it seems that from a risk evaluation perspective, humans are better off following the natural and ancestral methods when it comes to food and avoiding phamaceutic drugs (unless facing major and urgent problems). Our body becomes stronger and develops immunity as a result of contacting some minimal infections. Similarly our bones get tougher when subjected to minor stressors which can be caused by walking, sprinting and deadlifting.

A rare animal

In recent times, P. V. Narasimha Rao has been one of the mostly unknown greats. He led the Indian people through a near crisis and helped to make sure the country came out better off on the other side.

After gaining independence in 1947, India had pursued a mostly central-planning oriented policy. In practice, this had led to decades of stagnant growth. Also, towards the end of the eighties, the external debt had ballooned to an untenable percentage of its GDP and default seemed inevitable.

It was at this juncture that Rao shrewdly coordinated the beginning of the economic liberalisation process. He left the economic planning to Manmohan Singh, while he took care of the political packaging of this process. Overall the process went over smoothly and, today, India is on the verge of becoming a major economic player.

He also made very wise moves in foreign policy with the Look East policy. This, along with other diplomatic moves ensured that India had great relations with all countries in East Asia, the Middle East and the West.

Throughout all this, he was very self-effacing and never took any credit for any of the above historic events.

His record was not without flaws, however, as the Babri Masjid conflict took place during his term. This began a long and bloody religious strife between the  two biggest communities of India.

Apart from his political achievements, he was also a versatile scholar, well versed in 17 languages. He was also very familiar with the classic Sanskrit works. He wrote some very trenchant critiques of the Indian political class in his book, The Insider, and in his pseudonymous article, The Great Suicide.

Overall he was a rare animal who  stood out among the political leaders of recent times, who remains unsung in spite of his achievements. Who knows, this may very well be according to his own plans?

Go’s innovation

By strictly enforcing code format rules, naming conventions, among other things, the Go language takes these small headaches out of programming.

These features, along with having a very limited arsenal of programming concepts, make programming in Go a breeze.

This may often result in projects being done quickly and robustly.

Sit sit. Walk walk. Don’t wobble.

A zen saying goes like this:

Sit sit. Walk walk. Don’t wobble.

This refers to having a single-minded attitude in our pursuits. When sitting, we should just sit. When walking, we should just walk, and so on. This can mean, for example, being really present when one is with another person and not being distracted by smartphones or social media.

The Bhagavad Gita also has a verse about this topic (chapter 2 verse 41):

vyavasāyātmikā buddhir ekeha kuru-nandana
bahu-śhākhā hyanantāśh cha buddhayo ’vyavasāyinām

A rough translation is as follows:

O descendent of the Kurus, the intellect of those who are on this path is resolute, and their aim is one-pointed. But the intellect of those who are irresolute is many-branched.

This is referring to Krishna’s teaching about Buddhi Yoga, or yoga of the intellect. The advice being given here is to be resolute and single-minded in purpose when it comes to pursuing this yogic path.

In today’s social media and smartphone dominated world, it becomes hard for people to focus on single things. However forgoing focus on the thing we are looking into often means sacrificing having an edge. So, it really behooves one to not let go of the edge and try to cultivate a single minded approach to life.

Usefulness of stoicism

I find the philosophy of stoicism very useful and good for several aspects of life.

It’s precepts are a very good guide to life’s ups and downs.

It has helped many people overcome major crises or just face their world’s day to day happenings.

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Seneca (bust pictured above), the Roman lawyer and stoic philosopher, faced his forced suicide with calm. He was one of the wealthiest people of his time. In spite of this, as part of his daily practice, he would imagine the worst possible scenario where he lost his health, family, wealth, and everything else and how he would  accept such a scenario with peace.

George Washington was significantly influenced by Cato and other stoics. He overcame several apparently insurmountable problems with his own health among a host of other issues to become the father of the nation.

The Holocaust survivor and neurologist, Dr. Viktor Frankl, developed his theory of logotherapy while living in the concentration camps. Logotherapy is said to have influences from stoic philosophy. His story is a truly inspiring one. This interview with him is quite interesting.

 

Humans surviving

The relatively short history of humans on the planet Earth has been, until recently, one of constant battles for survival against great odds.

According to the Toba catastrophe theory, around 70,000 years ago when the Toba supervolcano in Indonesia erupted, human beings were reduced in number to around 3000-10,000. The 1000-year volcanic winter which resulted from the eruption caused this severe reduction in human population.

This was a population bottleneck which could have caused the extinction of the species.

However some hardy humans on the coast of South Africa are said to have survived by eating corms and seafood. There was not much else growing on land and there were few animals for hunting. These humans somehow made it through this ice age to later migrate all over the world and result in where we are today.

Heuristics

Understanding heuristics is an important part of not only many engineering and other domains, but of life itself.

A heuristic is some rule or way of thinking which is known to be very helpful in solving problems. It may not necessarily be 100% accurate (it actually is not meant to be 100% accurate) but it is nonetheless very helpful in thinking. A rule of thumb is one of the well known heuristics.

It also applies to software. For instance, one of the well known ones is the KISS (“Keep It Simple Stupid”) rule in designing software.

There are also several heuristics when it comes to software testing like even a poor test is better than no test.

Similarly there are many other heuristics which are very useful to learn for software programmers.

Understanding credit

The origins of credit lie in the ancient Near East where, for example, the code of Hammurabi laid out the structures and rules around credit.

It originated simply to accommodate traders and merchants. They could have been expecting some money in the near future and could borrow money from a lender to make do in the meantime. The merchant could be expecting a shipment of grain for example. The word credit has it’s etymological root in “credos”, meaning “I trust”. So the creditor was trusting the debtor and providing him with the credit, trusting he will pay it back. Paying interest is one of the ways to compensate the creditor for taking the risk in lending.

The origins of the United States was rooted in encouraging free enterprise and entrepreneurs. So it had the bankruptcy law to support failed businesses to clean their unfulfilled obligations and start again somewhere. This was a way around the debtors’ prisons and debt slavery which was seen in the histories of other countries.

However in recent times, bankruptcy has been used mainly for personal debt by individuals. 97% of bankruptcies are filed by individuals, not businesses. These are mainly caused by hardships and medical debts. This, I think, speaks to the dire state of the healthcare system and the poor knowledge of personal finance in the United States.