The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through The Madness Industry – Jon Ronson

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Traipsing around the globe trying to discern psychopaths and psychopathic tendencies might not qualify as either an absorbing hobby or a way of life, unless, one happens to be either a psychopath or a psychiatrist hunting the former – and his clan – down. Yet, best-selling author Jon Ronson does precisely that. The outcome of this singularly peculiar search is the equally absorbing book, “The Psychopath Test.”

It all begins when Mr. Ronson is requested by an acquaintance of a friend to investigate the appearance of an elaborate and painstakingly handmade book, Being or Nothingness, that has found its mysterious way into the pigeonholes of random academics spanning the world. A clever take on Jean Paul Sartre’s seminal work, “Being and Nothingness”, this book has forty-two pages with every other page being a blank sheet. Page 13 of every copy has a hole gouged out. This weird book takes Mr. Ronson first to Gothenburg in Sweden before inducing in him an irrepressible arousal to dive deep into the world of the ‘madness industry.’

What follows is a bewildering pastiche of a cast of characters, renowned and reviled, repulsed and revered. From meeting Professor Douglas Hofstadter, the author of the topical ‘Godel, Escher, Bach”, to talking up the controversial psychiatrist R.D. Liang’s son Adrian Liang, Mr. Ronson takes us at a breakneck speed through the evolution of psychiatry and its glorious hits and gloomy misses. The unimaginably dirty story of Mary Barnes, a patient of Liang, who had this despicable penchant for smearing herself and the walls of her room with her own excreta before being provided ample paint as an alternative – a move which ultimately brought her fame and success – to interviewing Tony, an inmate of the infamous Broadmoor Psychiatric Hospital who insisted that he ‘faked’ madness to get away with a shortened sentence after indulging in Grievous Bodily Harm, Mr. Ronson takes us through the muddy and murky waters of an illness which arguably garners the maximum sympathy as well as anger.

This book in fact is an agglomeration of interviews conducted mainly with psychiatrists and inmates of various asylums and correctional facilities. For example, at the high security Coxsackie Correctional Facility in eastern New York, Mr. Ronson meets with Emmanuel Constant, a former Haitian death-squad leader who is behind bars, ironically not for his heinous crimes, but for a mortgage fraud. Mr. Ronson, coincidentally had interviewed Constant when he was a free man living at Queens. During the time of that interview, Constant invites Mr. Ronson to his mother’s house where he proudly and later, a tad sheepishly, displays to Mr. Ronson an assemblage of Dumbos, Muppets, Bart Simpsons, Jackie Chans and Buzz Lightyears.

At the core of Mr. Ronson’s work, however, is the Holy Grail that assists in ‘spotting’ psychopaths. This Holy Grail is the 20-item Hare Psychopathy Checklist (by the way the title of the book derives from this check list) devised by the famous psychologist Robert Hare. Mr. Hare is a researcher in the field of criminal psychology and developed the Hare Psychopathy Checklist (PCL-Revised), used to assess cases of psychopathy. Incidentally, Mr. Hare also advises the FBI‘s Child Abduction and Serial Murder Investigative Resources Center (CASMIRC) and consults for various British and North American prison services.

Armed with this checklist, and after attending a course personally conducted by Dr. Hare over a span of three days – a part of which included looking at mutilated and blown faces – Mr. Ronson goes on an interviewing spree to identify psychopaths. His subjects vary from the prosaic to the preening. From Chainsaw Al Dunlap, the merciless and ruthless Corporate Chieftain whose primary predilection involved slashing jobs and birthing ghost towns, to Petter Nordlund, the strange author of the aforementioned Being or Nothingness, Mr. Ronson’s journey is a mixture of hilarity and astonishment.

Mr. Ronson also brings to our attention the dangers and futilities involved in being a slave to ‘checklists.’. A classic example being the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Psychiatric Disorders (“DSM) an ever expanding tome (with gargantuan appendices) of conditions published by the American Psychiatric Association. Now in its fifth edition, the DSM a virtual dinosaur in size and pages embraced within its confines tenuous and esoteric sounding disorders such as intermittent explosive disorder (temper tantrums), relational disorder (pissed off with a relative) and sluggish cognitive tempo disorder (you may lack motivation). Based on this universally acknowledged tome, doctors ‘blanket’ prescribe drugs even to children as old (or as young) as three years. This insidious practice has resulted in a surge of children being diagnosed as being afflicted with “bipolar disorders” and “Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorders” (“ADHS”). The ‘avoidable’ death of three-year-old Rebecca Riley courtesy an overdose of anti-psychotic medication makes for some seriously somber reading. Mr. Ronson engages Robert Spitzer, the editor under whose aegis the DSM took its most obese Avatar and tries to elicit from him an answer to the question as to whether the DSM has spawned an era where psychiatric diagnoses have become convenient labels to obfuscate purely normal, albeit irritable behaviours. The response of Mr. Spitzer sends a chill down one’s spine, “I don’t know.”

The tacit and unwritten collusion between the medical profession and Big Pharma is also an issue to be considered. For example, consider this extract from the San Francisco Chronicle dated July 13th 2008 concerning the doyen of childhood bipolar disorders, Dr. Joseph Biederman, and reproduced by Mr. Ronson:

“The science of children’s psychiatric medication is so primitive an Biederman’s influence so great that when he merely mentions a drug during a presentation, tens of thousands of children, within a year or two will end up taking that drug, or combination of drugs. This happens in the absence of a drug trial of any kind – instead, the decision is based upon word of mouth among the 7,000 child psychiatrists in America.”

Dr. Biederman is a controversial figure who was accused of peddling the commercial interests and corporate agenda of the multi-billion dollar pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson. Ian Goodyer, a Professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at Cambridge University, believes that the childhood bipolar illness is a conveniently crafted illusion. “Epidemiological studies never find anything like the prevalence quoted by the protagonists of this view that there are bipolar children….it is an illness that emerges from late adolescence. It is very very unlikely indeed that you’ll find it in children under seven years of age.”

The book also has its share of hilarity. Mr. Ronson’s escapade with conspiracy theorist-turned-transvestite Fetishist-Turned-Messiah-turned-self-proclaimed Jesus Christ, David Shayler to the residue of the radical psychiatrist Elliott Barker, Mr. Ronson brings to bear his unique wit and self-deprecating humour. Constantly reminding us of his obsession with the horror that his wife might be dead if she is not answering her phone, Mr. Ronson wonders whether he might tick off more than just one of the 20-point Bob Hare Checklist that qualifies one to be a psychopath. Also of great interest and humour is Mr. Ronson’s tryst with some actively practicing propagators of Scientology, the late Ron L. Hubbard’s fascinating albeit dubious creation.

But on the whole the book makes for some sobering read. The foibles and failures of once deified criminologists such as the mercurial Paul Britton who rose to fame with his criminal profiling before ungainly coming down to earth as an ostracized homo sapien who identified the wrong criminal (an innocent man going by the name of Colin Stagg was unfairly punished for 14 months for a gruesome murder – having been subjected to the most revolting of honey trap techniques at the suggestion of Mr. Britton – while the real murderer John Napper pitilessly and brutally killed and mutilated two more victims), the book warns us about getting immersed in glorified stereotypes made sacrosanct by their reputed creators.

“The Psychopath Test” – a book to be eagerly lapped up!

The Bee Keeper of Sinjar – Dunya Mikhail

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Nadia Murad was a 19-year-old going about her life with a prosaic bent of mind when fighters from the Islamic State rounded up the Yazidi community in her village of Kocho in Sinjar District, Iraq. What followed was a tale of indescribable horror and dread. Exterminating close to 600 residents of the village, the rabid terrorists took into captivity Nadia and 6,700 other Yazidi women. Employed as ‘sabaya’ or a sex slave, Nadia endured wanton torture and unspeakable torment. Repeatedly sold on slave markets in Mossul, Tal Afar and Raqqa, Nadia was raped at will by her ‘purchasers’, physically beaten and burned with cigarettes. Adding to her woes was the fact that she lost 46 family members – that included her parents – in the ISIS massacre. After enduring an agonizing twelve months of captivity, Nadia managed to escape and flee to a refugee camp in Duhok, Northern Iraq. Now a resident of Germany, Nadia is engaged in spreading awareness about the atrocities committed by ISIS and their mindless genocide against the Yazidi community. In 2018, In 2018, she, along with Denis Mukwege were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for “their efforts to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war and armed conflict”.

(Ms. Murad’s powerful speech in the United Nations in her role as the Goodwill Ambassador for preventing Human Trafficking)

In her eviscerating, emotional and extraordinary book, “The Bee Keeper of Sinjar”, the Iraqi-American poet, Dunya Mikhail chronicles in a searing and poignant manner, the travails, tribulations and tumult of a multitude of Iraqi women abducted by the ISIS and subject to unimaginable acts of barbarity. While it requires nerves of steel and a heart of stone to get through till the end of Ms. Mikhail’s book, it also leaves the reader with a hope that emerges out of the very cockles of the heart. The reason for this surging optimism goes by the name of Abdullah, a former bee keeper who has dedicated his very existence, resources and determination to rescuing these vulnerable women from the despicable, diabolical and dreaded clutches of their sadistic captors. Using an elaborate and highly complicated networks of informants, smugglers and known Samaritans, Abdullah working in close co-ordination and co-operation of the Office of Kidnapped Affairs, meticulously pores over maps, prepares painstakingly in advance, plans escape routes and plucks the desperate women right from under the very noses of the ISIS before transporting them to various refugee camps.

The harrowing tales narrated by the women makes for some incredibly painful reading. Nadia a young Yazidi woman was sold on the sex slave market for 100,000 dinars (about US$85). The sale was made in a warehouse post an inspection exercise as a process of which the buyers selected their picks like choosing watermelons and after smelling the girls carefully. Nadia’s ‘buyer’ was a man from Chechnya and he carted away Nadia along with her three children (aged six, five and one), to a four-story building in the Tishreen Dam region. Mercilessly beating and raping her in front of her children, Nadia’s captor also had a penchant for “passing her on for a day or two, like presents being borrowed, a practice they called rent.” Nadia and her children worked for twelve hours every day making rockets for the Daesh. “They gave my five-year-old daughter the most dangerous job, tying together the detonation lines. At any moment a mistake could explode the bomb right in her face.”

If young women were taken captive and abused to satiate the sexual appetites of the reprobates, a worse fate (if such an extended misery was to be even possible) awaited the elderly women, the men and the little children who refused to be separated from their families. The Daesh separated the elderly, the men, and the obstinate children from the eligible women and either buried them all alive in makeshift pits or shot them down in a torrent of gunfire.

Ms. Mikhail also elucidates to her readers that even in the midst of savages there can be found miraculous examples of beacons of empathy. A shining example is that of the seamstress Reem. The daughter of a Daesh member, Reem smuggled Zuhour a mother of two in her warehouse, right under the nose of her unsuspecting father before the resourceful Abdullah whisked the trio away to safety. Reem did not even bat an eyelid before putting herself in a ridiculously dangerous position in trying to rescue Zuhour and her children.

The myriad cast of characters facing an existential crisis courtesy the ISIS ways, may be distilled from the assemblage in any refugee camp. In the camp at Arbat, for example, the occupants include Iraqis, Syrians, Kurds, Turks, Assyrians and Persians. There are people from many different regions taking shelter in the camp. Shabak and Christians fleeing from Mosul; Syrians escaping Kobani; Yazidis bidding goodbye to Sinjar, and Muslims escaping across the Tigris from al-Anbar on small skiffs.

This arresting work contains its own bit of gallows humour as well. As Ms. Mikhail writes, some women discovered ingenious techniques to ‘trick’ the Daesh and minimizing the grief caused to them. According to one of the captured women, Badia, who was purchased by a Daesh member originally hailing from the USA, there existed five tricks for escaping the Daesh: “the first trick was to stop bathing for an entire month, until she smelled so bad that the fighters would stay away from her, refusing to buy her. The second trick was to claim she was married, and that the little child beside her was her son. The third was to pretend she was pregnant in order to avoid being raped, if only temporarily. The fourth trick was to say that she’d just stepped outside with her girlfriend to get some air. The fifth trick was to call “the American Emir”, (an influential Daesh member originally from the USA), to make it clear that she was not trying to run away from him.”

The Daesh viewed the captured youth as potential enlistees for both their missions and martyrdom. With this intent they proceeded to give the boys intensive training. As the mother of a boy named Ragheb recollects, “Ragheb was forced to train for four hours every day, learning how to kill, how to chop off people’s heads. They would also teach him Quran for two hours a day and fight for another hour. They have classes on everything, from how to wash your hands to sex education, from impurity to handling an animal, from genetics to just about anything you can imagine – and things you can’t imagine. And finally a personalized sermon to convince him to die for God, so that he’ll be rewarded in heaven. They have special passes to get into heaven that are handed out at the end.”

To quote Nadia Murad, “the daily routine for Daesh is taking drugs, reciting religious songs, going to fight, and then coming home and raping women.” Even after being liberated from the vice like grip of the ISIS these women are scarred psychologically and physically for most of their lives. According to psychotherapist Dr. Nagham Nozad Hassan, the plight of survivors who get pregnant after they are raped is the worst. They develop conflicting feelings between “motherhood and the desire to get rid of Daesh embryos.”

The world is indebted to people of the likes of Abdullah. In spite of immense personal tragedy (he lost his brother and some family members to an ISIS mass slaughter), this former bee keeper from Sinjar has dedicated his life to bringing hope to those teetering on the brink of hopelessness. Ms. Mikhail with her haunting book does yeoman service to the noble deeds of Abdullah by bringing them out in the open for the whole of humanity to admire and emulate.

The selfless and heroic Abdullah has the last word. “With the money I made selling honey in Iraq and Syria, I was able to help save female captives – and I rely upon the same skills in my new work. I cultivated a hive of transporters and smugglers from both sexes to save our queens, the ones Daeshis call sabaya, sex slaves. We worked like in a bee-hive, with extreme care and well planned initiatives.”

We offer our deepest gratitude and respect to him!

Walmart: Diary of An Associate – Hugo Meunier (Translated by Mary Foster)

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Hugo Meunier informs us that he is an ‘immersion journalist.’ This means – more or less – that in the event you are either a celebrity and/or a celebrity who is getting married, watch out for a mobile toting serious faced, tuxedoed individual (in this case, a man) who is not only trying his best to act serious behind a pair of cool looking shades, but is also trying to fool the security guards into gate-crashing the wedding. By the way, his tuxedo is invariably, rented.

Meunier in the introduction to his book, “Diary Of An Associate” confesses that he likes field reporting. He also educates us – with what reads like more than just a dollop of pretentiousness – that he leaves ‘mundanities’ such as the Lance Armstrong doping debacle to the reporting preserve of others. His preference is more towards the kid from Boucherville and the PointeCalumet beach who shoots steroids for seemingly no apparent reason. With the same element of impetuousness, he also provides us with a sample of illustrious events which he has successfully proceeded to invade – Justin Trudeau’s wedding and a party organized by Guy Laliberte, the ‘top dog’ of Cirque du solei, where the excesses were so exacerbated that international model Naomi Campbell and seven time Formula One Racing Champion Michael Schumacher, nonchalantly engaged in a conversation paying barely a hint of attention to two stark naked women acrobats perched next to them. As Meunier goes on to further amplify his prerogatives – “the Israel-Palestinian conflict, the famine in Niger, and the war in Iraq would have to wait.” A singularly stellar example of how best to prioritise alternatives in the order of their vitality and importance!

So it did not come as a complete surprise to his boss, Katie at La Presse, when Meunier proposed covertly immersing himself as a Walmart ‘Associate’ for a period of three months at store 3094 in the Saint-Leonard neighbourhood of Montreal. The reason for such an intrusion? A penchant to “live Walmart. To feel it, see it, rub shoulders with its customers, its bosses; to experience it physically and psychologically; to witness this reality; this is essentially what motivated my project.” Wow! Sounds great from a social, rational, metaphysical, cosmological and even an anthropological perspective! The ghost of Sam Walton would be shedding unconstrained tears of experiential bliss!

Muneir also takes the pain to educate us about a few jaw dropping facets that makes Walmart. “Since the 1990s, Walmart revenues represent 2.5% of America’s Gross National Product (“GNP”); according to Nelson Lichtenstein and Susan Strasser, Walmart’s success marked the end of the domination of American economy’s industrial sector; Gilles Biassette and Lysiane J. Baudu argue that ‘Walmartization’ of America consists of a conversion to an economic model based on importation, distribution and optimization of logistics chain, more than the industrial and manufacturing excellence that General Motors long symbolized.”

Great! Now that we have armed ourselves with information more than adequate, sufficient and relevant for 3 months of undercover employment, let us rub our hands with unfettered glee and begin without much ado! Time to do the hard yards.

What follows however is a repetitive description that has at its core a never ending shifting of pallets, an interminable stocking – and restocking of – shelves, punctuated by lines of slapstick humour and funny analogies. Yes, the famous Walmart pep talk does exist as does a highly confidential internal document unimaginatively titled, “A Manager’s Toolbox to Remaining Union Free.” Walmart’s allergy towards the act of Unionization is a phenomenon well known and absorbed across the globe. Unionization to the retailer is what the rays of the sun are to a vampire. Yes, the salaries are Walmart are so abysmal that at $11.05 per hour, a $1 signing bonus, the entry level pay translates to a meagre and abominable annual income of around $18,000. Bill Quinn’s “How Walmart is Destroying America (and the World) and What You can do about it” provides the whole ghastly lowdown about the pay (or the lack of it) at Walmart.

As is the case with any, or at least, many of the supermarkets, Walmart also has its share of abusive customers, who have an issue with looks, race, intelligence, stupidity, empty shelves, re-order levels of stock and most importantly, sealed and unopened products stacked upon racks. “A young woman came up to ask, very seriously if the five-by-eight-foot patterned carpet on sale for $30 would look nice in her dining room. “Difficult to help you madame, as I have never been to your place,” I candidly replied…….”I should really unroll one of them!” she finally cried, in a quasi-trance. Without waiting for my answer, she seized a carpet, ripped off the packaging with the enthusiasm of a child recognizing Lego through wrapping paper, handed one end to me and backed down the aisle to unroll it.”

The incredulous comparison of revenues generated every day with the revenues generated on the same day a year ago, the even more incredulous commuting habits of associates who leave home at 3.00 A.M to keep both their jobs and the timing of the bus, makes for some poignant, albeit expected reading. Allegiance to the three uncompromising maxims of Respect for the Individual, Service to the Customer and Striving for excellence is a given and this principle is absolutely non-negotiable. As is the famous “three meter” rule: the associate must smile at all times and when a customer is within three meters, the associate must greet the customer, ask if they need help, and if necessary, escort them to the products.”A description of the Crystal Bridge Museum inaugurated in Bentonville, the Headquarters of the behemoth in 2012 courtesy Sam Walton’s eccentric daughter Alice also gets a mention by Meunier

Meunier wax eloquent and witty on his shifts and schedules, on his colleagues’ shifts and schedules and on the physically taxing nature of such shifts and schedules, when he is not calling the swathe of customers, Walking Dead that is. The only part of the book that makes for some seriously interesting reading deals with the harrowing experiences of two former Walmart employees, Patrice Bergeron and Gaetan Plourde who succeeded in unionizing the Walmart Store in Jonquiere before a scathingly swift response from Walmart led to the closing of the store.

Finally, we are all euphoric to know that Meunier donated the total sum of $4150 net earned at Walmart during his three months of infiltration to two Montreal organisations. (Applause).

While you would not regret reading “Diary of an Associate”, you would not repent not having had an opportunity to digest it either.

The Sadness of Geography – Logathasan Tharmathurai

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For over three agonizing decades, the island nation of Sri Lanka was mired in an ethnic conflict that led to a wanton spate of massacres, mayhem and melee. This conflict, that pitted the Sri Lankan military against the separatist forces of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (“LTTE) divided Sri Lanka along ethnic lines – pitting the majority Buddhist Sinhalese-dominated government against the minority Tamil speaking population. When the dust finally settled over one of the longest sectarian strife in modern times, the damage wrought was unspeakable. Over 100,000 lives are estimated to have been lost, while the total economic cost of the war was estimated at US$200 billion. The Human Rights Watch also cast allegations of genocide against the Government of Sri Lanka under international law and published the relevant details in December 2009. Leading American expert in international law, Professor Francis A. Boyle held an emergency meeting with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon to urge to stop Tamil genocide by providing the evidence of crimes against humanity, genocide against Tamils and the international community’s failure to stop the slaughter of Tamil civilians in Sri Lanka.

Millions of people were displaced either involuntarily, inevitably or forcibly throughout the tenure of the civil war. One such individual was Logathasan Tharmathurai. Now a resident of Canada, Mr. Tharmathurai was forced to flee his motherland when violence manifested itself at the doorstep of his house. In his evocative work, “The Sadness of Geography”, Mr. Tharmathurai recounts his harrowing experiences both within Sri Lanka and abroad as he attempted, both bravely and foolishly to secure a passage to freedom, both for himself and his family. The son of a respectable businessman plying his wares in the small village of Sangkathaanai in the Jaffna District of the Northern Province. Mr. Tharmathurai let a life of contentment. As he postulates, “when I was growing up our house was by far the largest and most modern in Sangkathaanai. My father was very proud of that and always made sure that he was the first to have any modern convenience. We were the first to have running water and the first to have electricity. My father bought the first automobile in the village.”

However, to say that his father led a queerly Bohemian existence would be putting it mildly – an understatement. In spite of having an extraordinarily devoted woman for a wife, Mr. Tharmathurai’s father commenced to have an affair with his sister-in-law before nonchalantly taking the latter as his second wife and proceeding to have kids with her. Growing up in a predominantly Tamil region, Mr. Tharmathurai was isolated and insulated from communication of any sort with the Sinhalese segment of the population. His blissful existence meant that he was totally in the dark regarding the simmering undercurrents which would soon lead to a full blown war of ideologies. Mr. Tharmathurai’s first taste of the ethnic conflict materialized on the morning of May 31st 1981 when the famous Jaffna Public Library, home to more than ninety-seven thousand books and precious ancient manuscripts containing irreplaceable artifacts of Tamil cultural and historical heritage was set ablaze. At that time, a boarder in the St John’s College in Jaffna, Mr. Tharmathurai and his classmates bravely tried to extinguish the fire but were prevented by an egregious bunch of security forces from carrying out their mission, thereby leaving the Library to burn to its unfortunate ruin.

The most searing and scarring impact of the conflict on Mr. Tharmathurai took place in one of the compartments of a train. On his way to visit his parents from boarding school, Mr. Tharmathurai was accosted by a bunch of Sinhalese soldiers and one of them proceeded to molest him, jeering and making fun of him all along. This nerve racking incident imbued a sense of hatred and anger in Mr. Tharmathurai towards the Sri Lankan military and before long he was recruited as a rebel in the ranks of the LTTE. The recruitment, however proved to a damp squib barring one spine chilling experience, as the new recruit’s job involved distributing pamphlets organizing collections and pasting propaganda posters.

Fed up with the entire scheme of things in his country, Mr. Tharmathurai then seeks to bolt the nation and head to Europe where his older brother Lathy was already stationed – in Paris.

The rest of the book recounts the traumatic experiences of Mr. Tharmathurai travelling on fake and genuine passports, being detained in a refugee camp in Nuremburg and the Rouen prison in France before finally arriving in Canada as an asylum seeker. The travails and tribulations undertaken by Mr. Tharmathurai make for some unsettling reading. From having been duped by an agent promising him a passport and divesting him of Rs. 20,000 (prior to miraculously recovering both his passport and money courtesy a chance encounter with a good Samaritan) that left the young man homeless, hungry and sleeping on a beach for four days in a row to a rough encounter with the guards in the Parisian prison, “The Sadness of Geography” reminisces about the plight of a young man who having his roots uprooted painstakingly tries to find a life.

Mr. Tharmathurai writes in a manner that is candid and unhesitatingly discloses even the most private of details. For instance, the episode of his getting molested in a railway coach is recounted in a simple, telling and matter-of-fact manner that both shocks and startles the reader. Recounting his traumatic time at the Rouen Prison, he writes, “Rouen Prison (also known as the Bonne-Nouvelle Prison) is located in the town of Rouen in the northwest Seine-Maritime district of France. Many years later, I learned that Rouen had been home to Nicolas Cocaign, the cannibal who killed a fellow prisoner and ate one of his lungs. Thankfully this happened years after I was there.”

In the end, Mr. Tharmathurai succeeded in sponsoring his family to Canada (with the exception of his father who died after being shot at by the military trying to make it to India via sea), by engaging in a frenzy of jobs. In his own words, “I would wake up at 7.00 a.m. and go to school. School ended at 3.30 p.m., and I would commute to work by 5.00 p.m. I did my homework during my commute. During the week, I would work eight-hour shifts and get home at about 2.00 a.m. On the weekends I would work fifteen hour shifts, starting at 10.00 a.m. and finishing at 1.00 a.m. the following morning. With overtime, I managed to meet the required income level – just barely – and sponsored my family…”

Unlike a multitude of unfortunates, Mr. Tharmathurai succeeded in all his endeavours, courtesy his intrepid and never-say-die attitude as well as a spate of good fortune.

Conformity: The Power of Social Influences – Cass Sunstein

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In 1972, the social psychologist Irving L. Janis coined the term “Groupthink.” This term was employed to define a psychological phenomenon under which people endeavor to strike a consensus within a group. In most instances, people even set aside their own personal beliefs and philosophies before adopting the consensus of the rest of the group. People going against the overriding ‘group tide’ tend to maintain a veneer of stoic silence and quietude, often preferring not to rock the boat and let the harmonization of the crowd prevail.

But the pioneering example of the groupthink phenomena – without using the exact word – was bestowed to the world by George Orwell, courtesy his immortal epic, “1984”. Groupthink is but an analogy for and of its predecessor, “doublethink.” Doublethink as per Orwell in his dystopian work refers to the deed of simultaneously accepting two mutually contradictory beliefs as correct, often in distinct social contexts. Whether one desires to christen the phenomena Groupthink, or prefers the word doublethink or prosaically restricts oneself to calling it, conformity, the bottom line is that such acts produce outcomes that are not just undesirable or prejudicial but downright dangerous.

In his new and concise book, “Conformity: The Power of Social Influences”, acclaimed author Cass Sunstein dwells on the nature of conformity, its perils and possible measures to mitigate the ill effects of conformity. Conformity as Mr. Sunstein explains can be found in almost every sphere of our life. “Wherever we live – a small village or New York, Copenhagen, Jerusalem, Paris, Rome, Beijing or Moscow – we develop allegiances. Once we do that we follow informational signals from some people rather than others. We want the approval of those we admire, like and trust.” Mr. Sunstein brings to the attention of his readers the Power of Social Influences in bringing to bear upon people the attribute of conformity. In a social experiment conducted a few years earlier that involved assembling a number of citizens from two different cities to deliberate on three topic issues of our time: climate change, affirmative action and same-sex unions, the results revealed a startling trend. Individual opinions denoted a marked shift towards extremism and “Group Verdicts.” Citizens of the more conservative state veered towards extreme conservatism even if their individual opinion was to be liberal and vice-versa.

As Mr. Sunstein proceeds to illustrate this grain of conformity does not spare the judicial system either. “When sitting with Republican appointees, Democratic appointees often vote like Republican appointees, and sitting with Democratic appointees, Republican appointed judges often vote like Democratic appointees.” So what exactly influences individual beliefs and behaviours making them subservient to majority opinions even if such opinions might not be the most rational or logical alternatives? Mr. Sunstein focuses on two important factors: Informational influences and a pervasive human desire to have and to retain the good opinion of others.

 Informational influences dictate that “if a number of people seem to believe that some proposition is true, there is reason to believe that that proposition is in fact true.” The second influence postulates that “if a number of people seem to believe something, there is reason not to disagree with them, at least not in public. The desire to maintain the good opinion of others breeds conformity and squelches dissent, especially but not only in groups that are connected by bonds of loyalty and affection…”

Throughout the course of his work, Mr. Sunstein lays emphasis on three points:

  1. Confident and firm people will exert particular influence over otherwise identical groups, thereby leading them in dramatically different directions;
  2. People are extremely vulnerable to the unanimous views of others and thereby a single dissenter is likely to have a huge impact; and
  3. Bonds of affection, loyalty and belongingness within a group is far more likely to influence decisions on both easy and hard questions.

Mr. Sunstein corroborates his assertions by taking recourse to the experiments made by the Turkish-American social psychologist Muzafer Sherif, the Polish-American gestalt psychologist Solomon Asch and the American Social psychologist, Stanley Milgram.

Conformity is also an outcome of ‘peer pressure’ as has been dramatically illustrated by the Milgram experiments. People tend to take a deferential view towards the opinion of qualified personnel and experts. This deference exhibited by Milgram’s subjects towards the ‘expert’ in the experiment let the psychologist to an opinion that such obedience to authority was in a way reminiscent of the behavior of many Germans under the Nazi rule, However, Mr. Sunstein deigns to differ when he postulates that Miligram was not right in arriving at the German analogy. Milgram’s subjects were not simply obeying a leader but responding to someone whose credentials and good faith they thought they could trust.

Conformity is also the result of what Mr. Sunstein terms are “cascades.” In an informational cascade, people cease relying at a certain point, on their private information or opinions. They decide instead on the basis of the signals conveyed by others.”

Conformity will also depict a dramatic decline when people perceive themselves to be different from the perspective of ideologies, preferences, and allegiances from opinions expressed by ‘others’. Mr. Sustein calls this behavior “reactive devaluation”, to signify the tendency whereby people devalue arguments and positions simply because of their source. Conformity also takes a back seat when financial rewards are offered for making the right decisions or for providing the correct answers. People would be less inclined to follow group members when they stand to profit from a correct answer. Conformity also finds refuge in the phenomenon of Group Polarization. “Members of a deliberating group typically end up in a more extreme position in line with their tendencies before deliberations began. This is the phenomenon known as Group Polarization.”

Mr. Sustein argues for what he calls a “Voice of Sanity” to disrupt and derail the forces of conformity. Such a Voice of Sanity might even be a sole dissenter, a dissenter who typifies John Stuart Mill’s prototype “working against the tyranny of prevailing opinion and feeling.” As Mr. Sunstein claims, “if a group is embarking on an unfortunate course of action, a single dissenter might be able to turn it around by energizing ambivalent group members who would otherwise follow the crowd.” A classic case in point for the value of dissent being the marvelous study by Brooke Harrington of the performance of investment clubs. Dissent also finds enshrinement in the American Constitution, “which attempts to create a deliberative democracy, that is a system that combines accountability to the people with a measure of reflection and reason-giving.”

The most controversial ‘remedy’ to shun conformity is however reserved by Mr.Sunstein for the Courts. Arguing for what he terms ‘reasonable diversity’, Mr. Sunstein makes a clarion call for a requirement of bipartisan membership that operates as a check against judgments veering towards the extreme. Having a reasonable diversity, in the words of Mr. Sunstein would “ensure that judges, no less than anyone else, are exposed to such diversity, and not merely through the arguments of advocates.”

The facet of reasonable diversity might also be introduced in the realms of higher education according to Mr. Sunstein. “The idea is that education is likely to be better if a school has people with different views, perspectives, and experiences.” Justice Lewis Powell in the landmark decision involving the Bakke case, argued that a diverse student body is a constitutionally acceptable goal for higher education. The central reason is that universities should be allowed to ensure a “robust exchange of ideas” an interest connected with the first amendment itself.

“Conformity” in size is an extremely small and concise book. But the arguments packed within are more an eye opener leading to a path of potential progress than a manifesto that has been part of innumerable previous deliberations.

Loonshots – Safi Bahcall

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One might be forgiven for nursing a genuine assumption that the most famous “Bush” surname belongs to one of two men, both of whom happened to be the Presidents of the United States of America at different intervals. Safi Bahcall, a second-generation physicist (the son of two astrophysicists) and a biotech entrepreneur might also have harboured a similar notion until the day when the Chairman of a project group constituting the then-President Barack Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology mulled about the goal of the group being to “write the next generation of the Vannevar Bush report.”

Piqued by curiosity, Bahcall proceeded to look up the storied life and achievements of the former engineer and inventor who was tasked with the Office of Scientific Research and Development during World War II. Most importantly, Bush laid the edifice for US’ whirlwind success in Science and Technology. The greatest good to have come out of Mr. Bahcall’s inquisitiveness to learn about Vannevar Bush is undoubtedly his wonderful book, “Loonshots: How to Nurture the Crazy Ideas That Win Wars, Cure Diseases, and Transform Industries.”

So what exactly is a “loonshot?”. Mr. Bahcall says, a loonshot represents “a neglected project, widely dismissed, its champion written off as unhinged.” The most significant and influential breakthroughs, are often, the results of loonshots, where the ultimate outcome’ pioneers are initially dismissed, written off and laughed away as being loony. Richard Miller, an oncologist was a CEO in a struggling biotech company. Miller, who also served as a part-time physician at Stanford University pioneered a new drug that promised a radical line of treatment for cancer afflicted patients. Not only was his drug scoffed at, it also led to Miller losing a boardroom battle and resigning as CEO. However, continued clinical trials resulted in not merely encouraging, but mind boggling results. Patients administered with Ibrutinib, – Miller’s drug – showed a nearly ten times higher response rate. FDA approval followed shortly before Miller’s company, Pharmacyclics was acquired by a pharmaceutical company for a whopping sum of $21 billion! A classic example of Mr. Bahcall’s Loonshot.

Akira Endo, a scientist from the food-processing division at the Japanese conglomerate Sankyo, faced an experience similar to that undergone by Miller, in his quest to finding a solution to treat cholesterol. As Mr. Bahcall asserts, a Loonshot usually has to survive a few “Deaths” before announcing itself to the world. From screening fungi in discovering the mold Penicillium citrinum to experimenting with chicken, Endo’s drug had to survive Three Deaths. Failures and rejections later statins changed both the face of medicine and the fate of millions of patients. Cumulative statin sales of the pharmaceutical major Merck exceeded $90 billion while sales from all statins have exceeded $300 billion. In 2008, Endo was the recipient of a delayed recognition of his contribution to the medical world, courtesy the impressive Lasker-De Bakey prize.

At the core of Mr. Bahcall’s Loonshots lies the analogy of phase transitions. The behavior of water undergoes a dramatic shift at the critical point of 32 degrees Fahrenheit. A glass of water into which one could lazily swirls one’s fingers goes absolutely rigid and freezes over at the point of 32 degrees Fahrenheit. What causes such a sudden change. More so when the molecules inside are exactly the same? This behavior in physics is popularly known as phase transition. This analogy according to Mr. Bahcall can be fruitfully employed to analyse group behaviours and their attendant changes. In other words, “there is something about structure that causes molecules to suddenly change behavior and that has nothing to do with the top or culture. It’s what elements of structure transform the behavior of teams and companies. structure can drive culture! There is a famous saying in business that culture eats strategy for breakfast and the theme here is that structure eats culture for lunch. Here’s an example. Let’s say you took 50 people and asked each one of them individually, are you excited about this early project? They’re all individually excited. You organize them into a group and then they collectively reject that idea. Why?

According to Mr. Bahcall, a good example of structure driving culture is that of the multinational enterprise Nokia. Before becoming the globe’s leading smartphone company, Nokia dabbled in what looked like a haphazard menagerie of randomly selected items – rubber boots, and toilet paper included. This pottered experiment underwent a phenomenal transformation resulting in Nokia swamping the market for smart phones. In the early 2000s, a team within the company came up with an idea of a large phone, with unique touchscreens and an inbuilt camera. The head honchos however put paid to the idea, until a few years later a startled bunch of Nokia engineers watched Steve Jobs unveil what seemed to be their own prototype – with a mixture of awe and trepidation. The rest as the cliché goes is history. As Nokia grew and expanded, its structure changed and it crossed that point where it became more about people’s individual incentives and politics. The moment that transition was crossed, it was a mere inevitability that Nokia was going to become an institution that was rigid.

For managing these phase transitions, Mr. Bahcall provides the following measures:

  • Separate the phases:

Create separate groups for inventors and operators: those who may invent the next transistor vs those who answer the phone. Wide management spans, loose controls, and flexible metrics work best for loonshot groups. Narrow management spans, tight controls, and rigid metrics work best for franchise groups. S-type loonshots are small changes in strategy no one thinks will amount to much, whereas P-type loonshots are technologies no one thinks will work.”

  • Create Dynamic equilibrium:

Innovative leaders with some successes tend to appoint themselves loonshot judge and jury. Instead create a natural process for projects to transfer from the loonshot nursery to the field and for valuable feedback and market intelligence to cycle back from the field to the nursery.

  • Spread a system mindset:

Keep asking why, keep asking how decision making processes can be improved and identify teams with outcome mindset and help them adopt a system mindset.

Mr. Bahcall also warns us to be wary of what he terms the “Moses Trap.” One place where the working of the Moses Trap is very apparent is Silicon Valley. In Mr. Bahcall’s own words, “the leader is so enamoured with new ideas. You need two conditions. Number one is an all-powerful leader where the decisions really get made from the top of the mountain. Two, you have someone who becomes infatuated with the crazy ideas and always wants to have the next one. You always hear that something is the holy loonshot that will save the company.”

PanAm fell squarely into the Moses Trap. PanAm was soaring high on proud wings (literally). Boasting a talented leader who identified new technologies that allowed him to build bigger, faster, better planes, he kept turning that cycle and that worked for quite a while until it didn’t. “He had all these competitors and he was building bigger faster planes, but some of them were working on small changes in strategy like frequent flyer miles, things like yield management with big data, how to arrange seats. Things that sound kind of boring but actually make a big difference, and when airline deregulation hit [creating a free market for the airline industry], he had big, fast planes but no competitors. His competitors didn’t have as high-quality planes, but they had small changes in strategy that allowed them to run a much more economical business. They survived and PanAm didn’t.”

PanAm, however was not the only company to find itself swallowed by the Moses Trap. Edwin Land’s Polaroid, could have become the host, emcee and showstopper of the world’s digital revolution. Land, in fact was at the forefront of the digital technology, when in 1971, as part of a secret panel advising the US president, he advocated digital photography, which the US eventually adopted for its spy satellites. But the brilliantly talented Land was myopic to the promise of digital cameras for commercial use. He wagered all his money instead on a high-resolution, instant-print movie technology called Polavision, launched in 1977. It was a commercial flop. Later, Land invited a guest to visit a warehouse full of unsold Polavision cameras. “I wanted you to see what hubris looks like,” he said.

“Loonshots” teems with a plethora of interesting, illuminating and insightful examples similar to the ones mentioned in this review. It also provides a platform to nurture Loonshot thinking and institutionalization of the same as an organizational habit.

Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization – Roy Scranton

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The 2014 Roadmap on Climate Change Adaptation struck more than just a somber warning when it stated that, “Rising global temperatures, changing precipitation patterns, climbing sea levels, and more extreme weather events will intensify the challenges of global instability, hunger, poverty, and conflict. They will likely lead to food and water shortages, pandemic disease, disputes over refugees and resources, and destruction by natural disasters in regions across the globe.”  Sentiments similar to these have been echoing across the Globe. A raft of reports such as the World Bank’s 2013 report, Turn Down the Heat: Climate Extremes, Regional Impacts, and the Case for Resilience, and their 2014 follow-up Confronting the New Climate Normal, all seem as though they have been drafted by grim Cassandras.

So with all these ominous forebodings and dire prognosis, how much time do we actually have on our hands to save the Earth from an impending and irreversible catastrophe? While a plethora of experts wield an overabundance of views on this controversial topic, Roy Scranton seems to have no doubts whatsoever when it comes the trajectory of our future. In his book, imaginatively and fatalistically titled “Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization”, Mr. Scranton opines that we are already late in our bid to save the Planet. In other words, to paraphrase one of his most colloquial of phrases in the book, “we are fucked.” This kind of fatalism, however is not an outcome of some frustrated fibbing. Mr. Scranton has seen the worst that humanity could offer by being right in the middle of a smoldering Baghdad. A private with the United States Army, Mr. Scranton lived every day as though it was his last amidst a fusillade of bullets, shrieking of mortars and the spontaneous explosion of improvised explosive devices. But what we are doing to our Planet might be even more grave in magnitude than even all our wars put together. Admiral Samuel J. Locklear III, head of the US Pacific Command, postulates that global climate change is the greatest threat the United States faces, more dangerous than terrorism, Chinese hackers, and North Korean nuclear missiles. It is not just the United States that faces such adire predicament.

It’s not just glaciers and ice sheets that are melting. Along with them, so are the deposits of Carbon and Methane that lie long frozen in seabeds and permafrost. As Mr. Scranton educates us, “as a greenhouse gas, methane is more than twenty times more powerful than carbon dioxide, and thousands of gigatons of the stuff lies locked under the oceans in clathrate hydrates, waiting to be released.”  In the words of oceanographer John Kessler, “These solid, ice like structures are stable only under specific conditions, and are estimated to contain a quantity of methane roughly equal in magnitude to the sum of all fossil fuel reservoirs on Earth.” As geophysicist David Archer warns, “The potential for planetary devastation posed by the methane hydrate reservoir . . . seems comparable to the destructive potential from nuclear winter or from a comet or asteroid impact.”

So how do we brace ourselves for the inevitable collapse of our civilization? Mr. Scranton in this part harangue, part philosophy, argues that instead of engaging in meaningless actions and providing fatuous lip service to keeping our civilization alive, we would need to learn to ‘die’ as a civilization collectively in this age of the Anthropocene. “The problem is that the problem is too big … The problem is that the problem is us.” he asserts. Mr. Scranton, when he uses the phrase “learning to die” actually exhorts us to let go. Letting go of the ego, the idea of the self, the future, certainty, attachment, the pursuit of pleasure, permanence, stability, salvation, hope and death. This is in line with the philosophy propounded by the Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius.

If we have to stop ourselves from “fulfilling our fates as suicidally productive drones, in a carbon-addicted hive, destroying ourselves in some kind of psychopathic colony collapse disorder”, Mr. Scranton urges us to consider the problem of global warming in terms of Peter Sloterdijk’s idea of philosopher as an interrupter. Sloterdijk “sees the role of the philosopher in the human swarm as that of an aberrant anti-drone slow-dancing to its own rhythm, neither attuned to the collective beat nor operating mechanically, dogmatically, deontologically, but continually self-immunising against the waves of social energy we live in and amongst by perpetually interrupting their own connection to collective life. So long as one allows oneself to be ‘a conductor in a stress-semantic chain’, one is strengthening channels of retransmission regardless of content, thickening the reflexive connective tissues of mass society, making all of us all the more susceptible to such viral phenomena as nationalism, scapegoating, panic, and war fever. Interrupting the flows of social production is anarchic and counterproductive, like all good philosophy: if it works, it helps us stop and see our world in new ways. If it fails, as it often and even usually does, the interrupter is integrated, driven mad, ignored, or destroyed.”

Futher elaborating on the principles of Sloterdijk, Mr. Scranton paraphrases the philosopher “What Sloterdijk helps us see is that responding autonomously to social excitation means not reacting to it, not passing it on, but interrupting it, then either letting the excitation die or transforming it completely. Responding freely to constant images of fear and violence, responding freely to the perpetual media circuits of pleasure and terror, responding freely to the ongoing alarms of war, environmental catastrophe, and global destruction demands a reorientation of feeling so that every new impulse is held at a distance until it fades or can be changed. While life beats its red rhythms and human swarms dance to the compulsion of strife, the interrupter learns how to die.”

Employing the unique method of humanism to bring to bear the gargantuan dangers of Climate Change, Mr. Scranton takes recourse to the epic of Gilgamesh to hammer home his point. “We must suspend our attachment to the continual press of the present by keeping alive the past, cultivating the info-garden of the archive, reading, interpreting, sorting, nurturing, and, most important, reworking our stock of remembrance. We must keep renovating and innovating perceptual, affective, and conceptual fields through recombination, remixing, translation, transformation, and play. We must inculcate ruminative frequencies in the human animal by teaching slowness, attention to detail, argumentative rigor, careful reading, and meditative reflection. We must keep up our communion with the dead, for they are us, as we are the dead of future generations.”

We do not have time on our hands. That ship of hope seemed to have sailed away right under our collective arrogant nostrils. Average atmospheric CO2 levels have rocketed from 290 ppm to over 400 ppm, a level the planet hasn’t seen in more than two million years. At the same time, methane (CH4) levels have increased from 770 parts per billion to more than 1,800 parts per billion, the highest concentration of atmospheric methane in at least eight hundred thousand years. In the words of Climate scientist James Hansen, formerly with NASA, we face an “apocalyptic” future, a view that finds resounding approval with various other experts such as Vaclav Smil and institutions such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the World Bank, the International Energy Agency (IEA), and the World Trade Organization (WTO). Maybe the time for conventional measures are passé. It’s time perhaps to pay heed to the words of the likes of Mr. Scranton.