For me, visiting northern California is like returning home. I arrived here on Saturday evening and feel like I never left this place. This journey to the San Francisco bay area was one of the nicest that I have ever had, thanks to the excellent Jet Airways flight from Mumbai to SFO via Shanghai. That’s a first for me — traveling to the US via China.
This is a plug for Jet Airways. The flight is the shortest that I have ever taken between India and the US: ony 5 hours 30 minutes between Mumbai and Shanghai, and 10 hours 30 minutes from Shanghai to SFO. Total transit time was around 17 hours. Most importantly, the service on Jet was the best I have ever experienced in my nearly three decades of flying internationally on a dozen different carriers. If you wish to get pampered, try their business class as I did. All their business class seats on the new 777s have aisle access. They have lie-flat beds, big TV screens, the best champagne, and they even give you pajamas!
Pity that Jet has decided to discontinue this service because of the low load factor. Perhaps they will reconsider.
Flying commercially is not my idea of fun. It has to be endured. Yet I cannot stop marveling at the incredible achievements that make commercial airtravel possible. We take it for granted but just think about it — a hundred years ago it would have been inconceivable that ordinary people would be traveling at high speeds at altitudes above 10,000 meters.
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Whenever I am in a large airliner, I am struck by a thought. How can something so huge even get off the ground? It has hundreds of tons of metal, modern composite materials, thousands of gallons of fuel, and carries hundreds of people and tons of baggage. Its engines are marvels of technology that one can hardly begin to comprehend. Sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, as Clarke said. This huge thing that we so casually and routinely use is magical.
Then another thought follows. Where on earth did all this come from? It came from the earth, literally. Every little bit that makes up this great big airliner was once in the ground in the form of raw materials. Every part — and there are literally millions of them in a complex machine such as this Boeing 777 — went through hundreds of transformations in processes developed over hundreds of years. The making of this complex machine was touched by every conceivable process and institution ever created by humans.
The raw materials out of which this was fashioned existed for billions of years on earth. The energy required for the transformations existed since the beginning of the universe around 15 or so billion years ago. The energy and the materials existed for billions of years but had to wait for the secret ingredient before the transformation took place. In a word, that secret ingredient was “mind” or “intelligence” or “consciousness”. Minds have ideas. I consider the combination of these three primary ingredients — materials, energy, and ideas — as necessary and sufficient for building a world.
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I frequently sit for hours on end just contemplating this thought. Call me weird but that’s just me. There is very little material exchange between the earth and the rest of the universe. Except for the energy arriving from extra-terrestiral sources, the occasional asteroid and meteors striking the earth, and the small amounts of atmospheric gases escaping the earth’s gravity, the earth today has the same material composition as it did billions of years ago. The significant change is the way in which the matter has been reorganized by human action motivated by human mind. Every material artifact — from houses to computers to cars to clothes to airplanes — every thing that you use without giving it a second thought — everything is essentially human ideas made visible.
The more I think about it, the more I am convinced about the primacy of ideas. Given the same raw ingredients, what you eventually get depends on the ideas you have. Of course, you could say that two people with the same idea but with different tools will get different results from the same set of raw materials. But then you have to note that the tools are themselves embodied ideas. In the ultimate analysis, it’s only ideas that transform, for better or for worse.
The thing about ideas is that they accumulate as they are embodied. Over thousands of years, people have been having ideas and making them concrete by building things out of them. Then these things are combined with more ideas and the process keeps going on. The laptop that I am using to write this on, and the great information and communications web which you are using to read this, are the result of hundreds of years of ideation from thousands of minds. The ideas are getting being continually being refined through a process of Darwinian selection. (Note that Darwinian selection is itself an idea that arose only relatively recently in human history.)
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I think that we generally neglect to give sufficient importance to ideas. Economic growth and development is of course dependent on the availability of material resources. They are necessary but clearly not sufficient. You have resource rich areas in the world which are nevertheless very poor. The missing component clearly is a set of good ideas. But then ideas are not secret — at least, they are not really secret any more. Anyone with a sufficiently receptive mind has access to all the ideas that have ever occurred to human minds. The biggest and the most important ideas are generally in the public domain.
So in a sense, the problem of development, economic or otherwise, is a problem of the non-adoption of good ideas. What impedes that adoption is a fascinating question. I think it has something to do with culture. Thinking further into it, one comes full circle when one realizes that culture depends on ideology which is nothing but a large set of shared and persistent ideas.
It should be possible to partition ideas into two sets: one that promotes development and the other that impedes it. I believe that eventually only the good set will survive because those who adopt the bad set would have failed to survive in the long run. As Dawkins puts it, just as we are the descendents of a long line of successful ancestors and therefore the genes we have are the ones that are successful, so also the ideas (he coined the word “meme”) that survive are the descendants of successful ancestor ideas.
Like I said, I spend hours just meta-ideating. I like the idea of ideas. I will spare you the details but in the end of all the contemplation, I come to an idea that I believe is the most profound that humanity has ever had. In Sanskrit it is expressed as “Tat Tvam Asi.” It means: I AM THAT. The “I” and the “THAT” are entangled ideas and are in a sense identical.
That’s all that there is.