And Homo Sapiens Shall Inherit the Earth

Life as we know, on our planet or for that matter in the entire universe, first stirred in a primordial sea of organic molecules from which were formed the more complex molecules such as amino acids that are the building blocks of proteins which in turn are the basis of all life. Most people of the non-nut variety accept this theory of origin of life. Single celled organisms formed first and thus started the fantastic assembly line of evolution that gave rise to the incredible number of species that exist on earth today. From fossil records we also know that quite a few of these species became extinct along the way. Modern man’s direct ancestor Homo Sapiens only appeared on the scene a few hundred thousand years ago. We are most closely related to the chimp on the evolutionary ladder. If you think about it we have come a long way indeed from such nondescript beginnings. We now lord it over all other species of life.  Question is what makes us so special?

You don’t have to be Darwin to guess that it is the human brain that gives us the advantage. If it were a contest of pure brawn we would have lost out a long time ago. Our brains are significantly larger than any other species on the planet, size does matter in this case I suppose. We obviously know the importance of the brain, that no doubt is the reason we call ourselves Homo Sapiens (translates as “wise or knowing man” from Latin). Large brain essentially translates into a more complex brain. If we were computers we would say that we are equipped with the best software. The real question is what does this fancy brain of ours permit us to do that let’s say animals cannot.

Actions of animals are dictated by survival and biological imperatives entirely. It is as if there is a very simple instruction set stored in their simple brains. If hungry then eat else just rest; if predator approaches then take evasive action else do nothing; if prey spotted attack prey else do nothing. You get the picture. You might be tempted at this point to chime in with cute stories about cats and dogs to counter my picture of simplicity. A dog is smarter yes but its actions are still dictated by training. Cats are a little different I suppose but they are either looking for mice, evading dogs or going to the neighbor’s yard to lounge. It is surely not thinking about what tomorrow holds nor is it reflecting on its accomplishments of the day. It is not troubled by visions of an apocalyptic future and what can be done today to prevent such a future.

Most of the time human actions are similarly simplistic. To make matters worse we have another simplistic motivation of just having fun. But as mentioned before our brains are just a wee bit more complex and therein lies our salvation. Through evolution we have developed a capacity for imagination and a capacity to weigh the pros and cons of our actions, specially when the cons are long-term and pros are short-term. We can imagine what a given course of action might lead to in future. A case in point would be fossil fuel consumption. Reasonable folk would agree that global warming is real and fossil fuel consumption is a major contributing factor. So we can imagine a day when multiple generations from now human race will be in trouble. This is where we need to use our ability to trade short-term pain for long-term gain for all of humanity. That view tells us we gradually need to stop our reliance on oil and gas and think not just about ourselves but about our future generations also.

That was just one example but the same thought process can apply to a multitude of scenarios. We have to think in this fashion to ensure the survival of human race in a distant future. Naysayers will tell you that it can all go to pot by events outside our control but be that as it may we have to do what is in our power. It is not easy but every small thought and step in the right direction counts and builds momentum towards a better tomorrow.

Your Soul is in the Cloud

I draw your attention not to the fluffy white clouds where angels sing but to the data storage cloud where companies like Google and Facebook store the information they “collect” on us. All our actions on the internet are essentially a bits and pieces record of our personality. What we search for, read, watch, like, dislike on the internet can provide a window into our soul. In a day not so far off in future, it will be possible to “construct” a virtual you just from the fingerprints you leave behind on the internet. It may sound far-fetched to some of you and I can see the skeptics shaking their heads in violent disagreement. But it is already beginning to happen. The signs of what is to come are plain for all to see. On your Gmail and Facebook you already see online ads that are targeted to your own individual quirks.

I got started on this train of thought after reading this news item from last week, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-16801154. It talks about the legal challenges to living online after your death. Question asked here is whether you can assign a legal representative who will have access to your online persona after your death. Aside from the legalities, there are some very serious philosophical and religious implications. To get started let us assume that one day advances in computer algorithms will make it possible to build a virtual avatar of any individual from the information (data) on that individual present in the cloud in the hyper connected future (this is exactly the kind of future that makes some of us want to live off the grid). This “software” avatar will behave exactly like us sans the flesh and blood. The word avatar comes from Hinduism by the way and means incarnation or manifestation. It is interesting that even in technology we stick to such mystical/religious terminology.

This is not a coincidence in my opinion. Religion and science both offer us hope of immortality after their own fashion. In the world full of relative truths death is the only absolute. Since the beginning of times we have strived to wrap our brains around it. Religion says that there is something else to come for us after death and it is not the end. Science on the other hand has focussed on means to postpone death (physical destruction of our body) for as long as possible. But it appears now that technology, the child of science, is beginning to align itself more and more with religion (witness the hordes of iPhone devotees at the temple of Apple for example). Science is primarily concerned with inquiry and thought whereas both technology and religion aspire to make us feel better. Inquiry and thought never makes one feel better!!

So this is how it will come to pass. Through the wonders of technology, we will have a copy of our soul in the cloud in the form of our software avatar. It will not be subject to the mortality of the physical world and go on living long after the original copy is destroyed along with our physical selves. Our flesh and blood loved ones that we leave behind could still interact with the virtual us. The software avatar/soul will be “aware” and continue to “grow” through these interactions. Your soul/personality could also be plugged into a physical body and voila the world of Caprica and Battlestar Gallactica will become a reality. If this sounds like the stuff of your nightmares, log off Facebook and go outside. It is rather sunny for February.

Note: The featured image is from www.angelsghosts.com.

Marines behaving badly — Whose fault is it anyway?

I am sure by now everyone has read or heard about the U.S. Marines who urinated on dead Taliban fighters in Afghanistan. Officials on both sides as well as the media have been unflinching in their criticism of the perpetrators. There has been a distinct rush to pass judgement on the soldiers involved. We have dubbed the act deplorable, repugnant, morally reprehensible, inhuman and disrespectful to the dead. It is all that of course and I am in no way suggesting otherwise. We have been quick to express moral indignation but I wonder if we need a pause. The situation is not as black and white as it appears on the surface. Not a word has been said about the psychological impact of “society-sanctioned” killing on the soldiers. In the flush of victory when adrenaline levels run high events like this are more common than the society would care to admit. Can any of us in all honestly say there is not even a remote possibility of ourselves behaving no better under similar circumstances?

Had this event occurred in a normal milieu (i.e not war), the first thing that would have horrified us is the killing and then the post-killing act. The circumstances of war however make us overlook the killing. Instead we are focussed on what was done after. A true discussion about morality in this case would have to start with the original act of killing. But I digress. That gets into the morality and justifications for war in the first place. I am neither a war mongerer nor am I a pacifist. I am well aware that in the real world there will always be wars and to win wars soldiers have to kill enemy combatants. So yeah, we need armies to protect ourselves and to achieve that we take ordinary human beings and train them to kill other human beings. I am no expert on psychology but for most people killing other human beings is not exactly a therapeutic act. Au contraire, the person doing the killing is likely to experience great emotional distress and trauma.

In order to follow orders and do their “duty” soldiers have to come up with some means of coping. From what I understand, one commonly employed coping technique is to not think of the enemy as human. In other words it is easier to kill another person when you think they are inhuman and are clearly undeserving of common human decency. It is easy to see where this road leads to. After killing the enemy there are bound to be celebratory acts and these acts sometimes involve the victors literally taking a piss on the vanquished. Our sense of outrage is clearly misplaced. We are effectively asking our soldiers to be efficient killing machines, to only kill at order and then switch off. 

Of course this is incredibly unrealistic. What compounds this situation is the young age of the soldiers who are on the front lines in all wars. It is said that our rational brains do not fully develop till we are 25 years old. I suppose that is why the youth of the nation is the primary target for military recruiting. A completely rational individual is never going to sign up for this racket in the first place. All right, so we take these young kids, train them to disregard all concerns for their own safety, kill enemy soldiers and to disregard the fact that they will watch their friends die. On top of it all, we expect them to retain their moral compass under these most demanding of circumstances. We are in effect letting our youth (soldiers) bear the moral costs of war that should actually be borne by all of us. Frankly, it is a little too rich of us and smacks of self-serving morality.

As long as we are going to ask our younger generation to fight wars on our behalf the least we can do is equip them with proper psychological tools and training to cope better with the decidedly inhumane acts of war. Barring that, we can at least be sympathetic and understanding of their torment. For it is not they who failed us, it is us who failed them.

Love the skin you are in

This is not an advertisement for body or face lotion. That may please most of you and displease some. It is a time dear reader for reflection, not lotion. Didn’t you hear, the world is about to end. That’s what the Mayans predicted anyway. But as you and I both know the world will not end, that will perhaps be too easy. No, we will be experiencing all that life has to offer for the foreseeable future. And what better way to start the rest of our lives than with a little reflection on what has gone before. As you must be aware by now I am given to bouts of reflection, perhaps a tad too much one might argue. Most of the deductions from these reflections are rather fleeting in nature but this one in particular has stayed with me: “know and accept thyself”. You can see how well that works with the title, I thought it was quite clever of me. Enough of this frippery though, why don’t we get to the juicy bits?

Awareness of self is an important tenet of eastern philosophy. Knowledge on its own does not matter however, what matters is what you do with it. This is where “being yourself”, a central belief in modern western societies, comes into play. Basically we need to marry knowledge with acceptance. That’s nice philosophy you say but why should we care? The answer is that this philosophy can help us in leading more enriching and fulfilling lives. Remember we only get one life and more often than not we need to make consciously smart decisions to make the most of it.  And as you may have guessed already, awareness of self is the first step towards that. Self awareness can be as simple as knowing your likes and dislikes but in a deeper sense it is to know your strengths as well as weaknesses. If we have a good idea of what makes us tick, the things we are good at and things we are not good at, we give ourselves our best shot at life. In the world of sports, players and coaches always talk about playing to your strengths. I am simply advocating the need to adopt the same approach in other spheres of life.

This knowledge of self that I speak of is not that difficult to come by. As we interact with our surroundings, we start to develop a fairly good notion of who we are (see disclaimer below). In fact it is amusing that we spend half of our lives running away from ourselves, trying to become the exact opposite of who we are and therein lies the rub. One of the major issues in my opinion is that we have always been taught to measure and compare ourselves against others. In itself that is not a bad thing, without competition and incentive society would probably come to a standstill. It becomes problematic however when we start tying our self-worth and self-esteem to how well we fare compared to others. If we think about it clearly the whole notion is downright silly. No matter what walk of life we are talking about we can always find somebody who is better than us and somebody who is worse than us. If that’s the case why worry about it at all? It will be more fruitful in the end if we can just focus on performing to best of our abilities and according to our inclinations. Too often this tendency towards comparison leads to self-doubt, which can snowball into a sort of identity crisis. We are liable to start heading down the wrong roads in such a state of confusion. At some point or other in our lives, we have all experienced it I am sure. I speak of a state where we are not comfortable in our own skins and think that people are constantly evaluating us when in fact we are doing it to ourselves. We want people to like us so much that we create an outer persona that is not us. Of course it does not lead to intended consequences. Most of us appear rather foolish and unattractive when we try to be somebody we are not (except for some people who are very good actors and manage to fool themselves along with everybody else). We are instinctively leery of people who do not appear genuine to us, why should we assume that others will welcome us when we are not being true? So take a good look at yourself, start liking what you see or else life will be a long, lonely, arduous and ultimately futile trek.

Disclaimer: I am well aware that a large percentage of my fellow human beings on this planet are trapped in extremely de-humanizing circumstances and philosophical musings do naught to counter hunger and poverty. For that reason I am specifically talking about the fortunate ones who do not have to live under such circumstances.

Sunday Blues

We all get them from time to time. All of a sudden without any preamble it hits us like a ton of bricks and we feel that we are carrying all the burdens of the world on our puny little shoulders. It goes by many other names of course but most people will recognize it as Sunday Blues. It doesn’t mean that we don’t get the blues on other days but the impact is a little more heavy on Sundays. It is perhaps fitting then that I am writing about it on a grey and cold Sunday afternoon. Many years ago when I had first moved to Portland, blues used to visit more often than I would like to admit. I have spoken to enough people on this topic to know that it is a reasonably common occurrence and I am not the only one who is susceptible to this condition. I believe that at some level we are all aware of how alone we actually are in this world. Sunday Blues is just an acute awareness of that feeling of loneliness concentrated in a short amount of time.

Throughout the regular work week our jobs and other daily chores keep us busy. Friday evenings and Saturdays are typically spent with few friends that we are lucky to have. But Sunday is a nether state, almost like a transitional purgatory. It’s neither here nor there. On Sundays, we are usually on our own getting ready to face the world for another work week. There are no chores to keep us busy. There is just the spectre of beginning the weekly drudgery of work again. Almost involuntarily, our thoughts turn inwards. We are so alone that we can hear the tumult of our thoughts whirling inside our brain. And in that moment when our thoughts are the only things keeping us company, we start to indulge in a bit of soul-searching, trying to understand the meaning of our insignificant lives and wondering if there is any purpose to our lives at all? It is not unlike a weekly bout of existential crisis. I wonder if all of us carry in our DNA the loneliness and utter isolation our pre-historic ancestors must have felt. Maybe we suddenly channel those feelings when we are mentally alone. Or perhaps we are hit with a realization that in the vastness of the universe we are merely specks of microscopic dust floating about in space.

Everybody has their own versions of Sunday Blues I am sure. But I would venture that the trigger is the same — feeling of isolation. Human connection in the form of shared experiences is the nourishment for our soul. We are born alone, we die alone and if we are lucky we connect with a few fellow souls in the time that is given us. Perhaps we miss that on some Sundays and that maybe the simplest explanation for the blues. So I suppose we ought to be thankful for friends, family and loved ones for keeping us company. Without the warmth of human relationships our existence is devoid of its meaning and without that meaning we will all be living in loony bins singing loony tunes.

If any of you have felt something similar at some point in life, please share. And if you happened to devise some methods to keep the blues at bay share those as well. 

P.S: I promise that my next post will be more cheerful in keeping with the holiday spirit.

No Pain, No Gain — Nature and Nurture part II

In response to the nature vs nurture post one of the readers had a link to this article from New York Times (Thanks Mukesh): “Sorry, Strivers – Talent Matters”. Got me thinking again about nature and nurture (I suppose that was the intent anyway). I used to be parked firmly in the “talent” camp back in my immature callow days but thankfully over the years my views on the matter have become more nuanced. My assertion in fact is exactly the opposite to that stated in the article: Striving is all that matters.

If we are trying to predict “success” in any given sphere of life, we can divide the competing folks into 4 categories, those with: 1) No talent and lots of motivation, 2) Lots of talent and no motivation, 3) No talent and no motivation and lastly 4) Lots of talent and lots of motivation. Now if we define fulfilment in life as realization of one’s potential, numbers 1) and 4) will get to enjoy equally fulfilled lives. The actual material success for category 4) will probably be higher compared to that for category 1), so yeah talent matters. But you cannot say sorry strivers!! Categories 2) and 3) are the sorriest bunch of people, one might even say that 2nd category is by far the worst. We all tsk tsk when we meet people who are wasting their potential. By choosing not to strive, we give up our only chance of discovering true happiness in life.

What matters in our otherwise mundane existence on this planet is not where we get to but how we get there. We all need to feel a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction from our actions. The successes we achieve in life through the dint of our hard work taste so much the more sweeter for the labor and toil involved. The lessons we remember most in life are the ones we learn the hard way. Things that are handed to us on a platter somehow do not have the same meaning. We cherish the feeling of having “earned it”. Accomplished con artists and thieves will take no pleasure in robbing the blind so to speak. A tennis player with superior ability will get no enjoyment from beating a lowly opponent. The point being that we can get by in life easily by operating at just ~50% of our ability i.e without striving. That will be a very sorry existence however. Struggle plays a key role in achieving satisfaction in life. Striving is the key to thriving or no pain, no gain.

Hilbert and Behavioral Relativity

Ladies and gentlemen, prepare to be dazzled. I am going to do the unthinkable and analyze human behavior with the aid of mathematics. Please save the stones and arrows for last. David Hilbert was a brilliant mathematician during late 19th and early 20th centuries. He came up with this notion called a “Hilbert space”. In mathematical terms what it means is this: in a Hilbert space of “n” dimensions any vector (a line would be a vector in 2 dimensions) can be completely expressed in terms of “n” orthogonal (independent) “basis” vectors. If this has put you to sleep please wake up, the worst is already over. One simple analogy from everyday life that can shine light on this concept is the notion of primary and secondary colors. We know that primary colors (RYB: red, yellow and blue) cannot be created by mixing other colors. On the other hand we can create a variety of other colors by mixing the primary colors in different proportions. So in this Hilbert space of color, RYB are the “independent” entities (basis vectors) from which we can make any other color. Easy, right? We can apply the same concept to human behavior. If we could come up with a set of key behavioral qualities independent from one another each human being on the planet can be described with a different mixture of the said qualities. As you can guess the difficulty here lies in coming up with a complete set of independent qualities. Since this is just a humble blog post and not a doctoral thesis I am going to use 2 qualities to illustrate my point ( I ask all of you to respond with a set of qualities to create a complete picture). Basically we are making a very simplistic assumption that our behavior is limited to just 2 qualities. Let us say that the 2 qualities are “A” and “B” where A is our ability to be selfless and B is a measure of how introverted/extroverted we are. Then all human beings can be described as x*A and y*B, where both x and y can go from a scale of 1 to 10. In case of A, 1 means the person is completely selfish and 10 means the person is completely selfless. In case of B, 1 means an extremely introverted character and 10 means a social butterfly. The cool thing about human beings is that x and y are not constants. They can vary considerably depending upon who we are interacting with and the circumstances under which the said interaction takes place. Many people would go from 1 to 10 on the B scale (introvert-extrovert) through the simple expedient of imbibing alcohol. People who have difficulty talking to strangers can be extremely garrulous in the company of their friends and family. Same person can be an introvert in one person’s company and an extrovert in someone else’s. This is equally applicable to our 1st quality A. We may choose to do a selfless act when everybody is watching and be more selfish behind closed doors. We are talking about the same concept when we say one kind turn deserves another. If somebody does a selfless act it can spur us to be more selfless. If people around us are being selfish all the time we are likely to do the same.

The main point I wanted to make here is that human behavior is highly relative and thus variable as a result. This fact alone should encourage us to not rush to snap judgements about others and be more forgiving. Another important conclusion is that our behavior will necessarily be influenced by the kind of people we surround ourselves with (what is funny here is that this is what our parents told us all along anyway). If you are ambitious about life there is no point in hanging out with people who are just going to sit around and mope all day long. You can choose to be with people who bring out the best in you or people who will bring out the worst in you. The choice is yours. Enough said.

Nature vs Nurture

This is one of the most often asked questions about human behavior: what part of us is nature and what part nurture? Like every other behavioral question the answer to this one is the same: little bit of both. The natural response at this point is to ask why bother writing about it, answer seems simple enough. To which I say the answer is simple but there is a lot to learn by looking at the various scenarios in which either nature or nurture may dominate. I have also noticed in the past that this topic riles up people no end and that is as good a justification as any for writing about it. 

From a purely physical sciences stand point, we could look at a person as an entity born with certain attributes at time zero and as time goes by the said entity interacts with its environment in a fashion that is also a function of its’ time-zero attributes. These attributes in turn are modified by the environmental interactions. I have not said anything revolutionary here: we are born with certain traits, we are influenced by our surroundings and we grow and change. I am sure however that there are certain traits in all of us that have not changed one bit since we were born. That’s where genetics comes in. As I grow older it is very obvious to me that I really am my parents’ son. I can see for example that my irritation when people waste my time comes from dad and my emotional intuitiveness comes from my mom. We share our DNA with our siblings but more often than not our siblings are completely different people than ourselves (which is all for the best anyway).

We tend to lean on the side of the nature vs nurture question that makes us feel good about ourselves. We like to think that everything that is good in ourselves is something we worked on and everything that is bad we were born with. Incidentally we use the reverse logic when we are talking about other people. Let’s say you are an engineer and try to learn a musical instrument and fail, 9 times out of 10 you will say that you were not born with musical genes i.e you would say nature is the dominating cause of the failure. But if I asked you a similar question about your friend, you will say that your friend did not try hard enough.

We can frame our question in a slightly more specific manner to really get to the answer: is our DNA all there is to us? Hint hint: everybody should be saying no to this question. I guess I am taking nurture’s side after all. We are all born with a certain “potential”. What we end up doing with that potential is very much a factor of the values instilled in us by our parents or other parent like figures in our lives. These “nurturing” individuals in our lives are the ones who taught us empathy, compassion and helped trained our moral compass. Our whole society in fact is based on the assumption that with proper nurture we can make decent human beings out of anyone (excepting certain folk who may literally be born evil). Even from a more selfish standpoint this makes sense. We may never exceed our potential but our nurture will determine how close we get to fulfilling it.

 

Human Dignity

The genesis for this post lies in a simple question. The question is not simple by any means but it was put to me simply by a high school junior I mentor: What makes us human? Some say it’s vanity. The mere fact that we humans indulge ourselves with this question is proof enough. Others have said it is jealousy. This one trait could probably explain a whole gamut of human actions. We could throw other traits into the mix say compassion, love, cruelty and greed. Of course we possess all these traits to varying degrees but none of these really get to the heart of the matter at hand. I have been pondering this for last few weeks and have struggled to come up with a neatly packaged answer. So I decided to look at it from an opposite angle. Instead of asking what makes us human I asked myself what us inhuman? And the answer became clear as light of day (light of a warm summer day that is, not the gloom of a rainy winter Oregon afternoon): robbing a person of their dignity robs them of their humanity. In other words, dignity of the individual is at the essence of being human. Whatever do you mean by dignity O wise one I hear you say. Well hang tight, I am just getting started.

If we grant that we have a body and a soul, it follows that true dignity must encompass material as well as spiritual well-being. The material aspect requires access to basic necessities of life and control over one’s own body. Spiritual dignity is a combination of freedom of thought and freedom of expression. This is not as high brow as one might think. Food and shelter are the two most basic of human necessities. For all the progress that we have made as a race, a big fraction of our fellow human beings are hungry and without shelter. Hunger can drive a man insane and make animals out of decent human beings. People forced to beg on the streets have been deprived of their dignity. We should be thankful that state sanctioned slavery was abolished. Can you imagine any dignity in that? And yet there are people who tend to romanticize that part of history. That was a prime example of dehumanizing people by taking away any control over their own bodies. Modern day versions of slavery are well and alive though. Human trafficking goes on around the world without any abatement, primarily driven by illegal sex trade. This is a case where some humans are making a choice to act in an inhuman fashion thereby robbing others of their dignity and at the same shedding any vestiges of their own humanity. People deprived of material dignity can still retain dignity of soul however. Like Oscar Wilde said, “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars”. I think he was referring to the power of imagination. If we can cling to hopes of a better tomorrow it can make the material sufferings more bearable. Andy Dufresne was referring to the same concept in Shawshank Redemption when he was put in solitary confinement (btw solitary confinement is a barbaric punishment). In my view, the most inhuman thing we can do to a person is take away their right to think (imagine) and the freedom to express their thoughts. I cannot imagine any cruelty worse than this. No wonder that the freedom of speech is so sacrosanct in the United States’ constitution. The fear of loss of individual thought and expression has led to great works of arts centered around visions of dystopian society — Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World — are two works that immediately spring to mind. We are so traumatized by visions of a society where there is no concept of an individual and all our thoughts and actions are controlled and monitored. In 1984, there’s even a concept of “new speak” where certain words are eradicated from the language to remove concepts represented by these words. Can you imagine a bleaker existence than what is portrayed in these two works? It is also interesting to note that dignity of the spirit is very likely responsible for the fact that we are descended from Homo Sapiens (loosely translates as “wise man”) and not Neanderthals. The two existed side by side in ages of old but Homo Sapiens thrived and Neanderthals died away. By all accounts, Neanderthals were expert hunters and made sophisticated tools and were entirely capable of surviving in tough environments. Homo Sapiens on the other hand instinctively understood the importance of expression of thought i.e dignity of the soul.

Is there any lesson in here for all of us? Don’t tell me you didn’t see that coming. Can we establish a guiding principle for our everyday interactions with one another centered on the concept of dignity? Anytime we say or do hurtful things to those around us we are taking away part of their humanity. Anytime we display controlling behavior i.e try to place constraints on others’ thought process and actions we are in fact telling them to give up their humanity. Keep in mind that you are also losing your own dignity when you engage in such behavior. It is a clear lose lose situation if there ever was one. So dignify others and enhance your own dignity in the process. Now there’s a win win for everyone.

Thinkers and Tinkerers

Broadly speaking there are two kinds of people in this world: thinkers and tinkerers. I bet you love this overly simplified categorization of humanity. So to appease all you haters, let’s break it down into four instead of two: Pure thinkers, pure tinkerers, combination of both and those who have neither of these attributes. Obviously the last category of people are only contributing to global warming (meaning only breathing), so less said about them the better. A lot of you might think of yourself as too complicated of a person to fit into my neat little categories. My response to that is: don’t be vain, stop whingeing and read on. Categorization of any kind is by nature simplistic and I am using that only as a tool to provide a general framework for discussion, it is not a conclusion by any means (if you thought that sounded clever, I am in absolute agreement with you). OK so let’s start from extremes first and we will end up in the middle. Tinkerers at their very core basically like working with their hands and are fascinated with the “how” question. Edison is one of history’s well-known tinkerers. John Dyson, the British inventor of fancy vacuum cleaners, would be a modern example in the same spirit. On the other hand, thinkers indulge themselves in thought experiments and like to come up with theories, asking the “why” question; great philosophers from ancient Greece and theoretical physicists from the early part of 20th century (Einstein is the most renowned example) are two specific types of the thinker variety. I am certainly not implying that tinkering is thoughtless and thinking is passive. Any successful tinkerer has to put a lot of thought to see his/her vision take physical shape. Theoretical thinking on its own may appear passive but it can drive stupendous material/physical advances in society. The actual process of thinking can also benefit from tinkering. I personally get my best ideas while I am busy doing something in the yard or around the house. While my hands are busy my thought gets sharpened and some concepts/ideas that I maybe normally resistant to can gradually enter my brain through a sort of side door. Edison apparently tried hundreds of different materials before he came up with the material that could work as the filament for his lamp. He could have shortened his labors by theorizing a bit more. As we can see, there’s an obvious overlap between the two categories, the benefits of using one facet to help the other are also apparent. What is the difference then that’s leading me to create two separate categories? I don’t think it has anything to do with other personality traits or preferences. For example, it is not obvious whether a tinkerer would be an extrovert or an introvert, a person who likes the outdoors may be a tinkerer or a thinker. I believe the real explanation is rooted in the relative sense of joy derived from the above mentioned activities. A tinkerer will derive more happiness and satisfaction from the actual implementation of his/her little schemes whereas a thinker would be happiest during the actual scheming phase and would probably get bored with the “real” stuff. Most people will derive enjoyment from tinkering and thinking under different circumstances. You may like doing your thinking with somebody else but perhaps you would be tinkering when alone or vice versa (this is not a double entendre). As I mentioned earlier I am more of a thinker than a tinkerer. I am usually thinking about something (That may explain the look of boredom on my face when around other people).

So who do you think you are — thinker or tinkerer?