Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Strangeness of attention

I had written about how Gandhi spoke calmly forcing people to strain to hear him. A similar situation is described by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in Antifragile. He writes of the time when he had to give some lectures. He was asked to do some antics on the stage to attract attention and speak in a clear voice which he refused to do. He writes:
I find it better to whisper, not shout. Better to be slightly inaudible, less clear...One should have enough self-control to make the audience work hard to listen, which causes them to switch into intellectual overdrive. This paradox of attention has been a little bit investigated: there is empirical evidence of the effect of 'disfluency'...The management guru Peter Drucker and the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, the two people who mesmerised the crowds the most in their respective areas, were the antithesis of the polished-swanky speaker or the consonant-trained television announcer.
Psychologists divide the brain conceptually into two parts: System 1 represents what we call intuition and System 2 represents reason, self-control and considered decision making. System 1 is fast and does not require much effort. System 2 is slow and requires effort. We rely most of the time on System 1 for our regular activities and it does fine. Occasionally, this causes problems. There are times when using System 2 would have been beneficial but we often skip it since it requires time and effort. Advertising, political, nationalistic and religious messages target System 1 which is why they are so effective.

The brain measures what psychologists call the ‘cognitive ease’ of a given situation. If it determines a particular situation to be easy, it decides that extra effort need not be made to process it and that the information can be processed by System 1 by itself without bringing System 2 online. When you can hear a speaker clearly, the brain determines a situation of cognitive ease and extra effort of System 2 is not called upon. (Of course, this should not be taken too far. If you can’t hear a speaker properly because say, fire-crackers are going off around you – as happens during Diwali – your System 2 working at full tilt is not going to help you.)

Similarly, when the font is large and you can see the writing clearly, the brain has a sense of cognitive ease and it avoids extra work.  I have experienced this effect quite often. When I get a book that  has fonts a bit smaller than usual, I have some difficulty in seeing it. This makes me read a bit slower than usual and this helps in grasping the matter better. Again, this should not be taken too far. There is a certain ‘twilight zone’ where the greater effort of System 2 is effective. Before reaching this zone, the quick but superficial System 1 is in charge. Beyond this zone, System 2 is ineffective.

The situations of cognitive ease and strain have various effects on how we process information. When you are in a state of cognitive ease, you are more likely to like and believe what you see and hear. You are also likely to be more casual and superficial in your thinking. In a state of cognitive strain, you are more likely to be vigilant and invest more effort in whatever you are doing. Daniel Kahneman writes in Thinking, Fast and Slow:
…predictable illusions inevitably occur if a judgment is based on an impression of cognitive ease or strain. Anything that makes it easier for the associative machine to run smoothly will also bias beliefs. A reliable way to make people believe falsehoods is frequent repetition, because familiarity is not easily distinguished from truth. . Authoritarian institutions and advertisers have always known this fact.
A psychological effect called the Dr Fox effect shows the impact of speaking styles on an audience. An actor with no formal training in a subject was told to give a convincing, exciting lecture and a bland, formal lecture; with the content for both lectures being  basically nonsense. It was found that people felt they had learned a lot more from the engaging lecture rather than the more conventional one even though they didn’t notice that in both cases the talks were gibberish.

The audience tends to get distracted by the speaker's hand movements and fails to pay attention to what he is saying. This was demonstrated to me during a communications class when I was working in Bajaj Auto Ltd. The speaker told us to follow his instructions. He then told us - 'Touch your forehead', 'Touch your ear', 'Touch your eye'...All the while his hands were doing what he was saying. Then he said, 'Touch your cheek' while he touched his chin. I think everyone in the room without exception touched his chin. He kept repeating, 'Touch your cheek' while we stared at him wondering why he was repeating his instructions. We realised our mistake a moment later and stared at each sheepishly.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Commemorative days

Every day seems to commemorate something. There is Father's day, Mother's day, Valentine's day, Friendship day, etc. Most of these are marketing gimmicks to enable shops to sell more cards and gifts.  But there are some less well-known and more interesting commemorative days. Did you know that today is French Toast Day? Here are some more such days:
  • World Pangolin Day is the 16th of February. The pangolin, also known as a scaly ant-eater, is a rare, scale-covered mammal about the size of a house cat. It is insectivorous and mainly nocturnal. It is a shy animal that rolls up in a ball to protect itself. It can fend off lions in this manner, but not poachers who just pluck these critters out of the jungle and toss them into sacks. Pangolin meat and scales are quite valuable on the black market (the meat is considered a delicacy in China and Vietnam and the scales are used in traditional Chinese medicine) .  The pangolin is thought to be the most trafficked mammal in the world. So one can't grudge it having a day to itself.
  • Pi (Greek letter ) Day is celebrated on March 14th (3/14) around the world.  It also happens to be Albert Einstien's birthday. In 2009, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution designating March 14 as "National Pi Day" to encourage “schools and educators to observe the day with appropriate activities that teach students about Pi and engage them about the study of mathematics.” This is the day for you to bone up on some facts and impress everyone at parties.
  • Towel Day (25th of May) is celebrated as a tribute to the late author Douglas Adams (1952-2001). On that day, fans around the universe carry a towel in his honour, a way for them to say 'Thanks for all the fish'. The importance of the towel was explained in his book The Hitch hiker's Guide to the Galaxy: 
A towel is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have. Partly it has great practical value. You can wrap it around you for warmth as you bound across the cold moons of Jaglan Beta; you can lie on it on the brilliant marble-sanded beaches of Santraginus V, inhaling the heady sea vapours; you can sleep under it beneath the stars which shine so redly on the desert world of Kakrafoon; use it to sail a miniraft down the slow heavy River Moth; wet it for use in hand-to-hand-combat; wrap it round your head to ward off noxious fumes or avoid the gaze of the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal (such a mind-bogglingly stupid animal, it assumes that if you can't see it, it can't see you — daft as a brush, but very very ravenous); you can wave your towel in emergencies as a distress signal, and of course dry yourself off with it if it still seems to be clean enough. 
More importantly, a towel has immense psychological value. For some reason, if a strag (strag: non-hitch hiker) discovers that a hitchhiker has his towel with him, he will automatically assume that he is also in possession of a toothbrush, face flannel, soap, tin of biscuits, flask, compass, map, ball of string, gnat spray, wet weather gear, space suit etc., etc. Furthermore, the strag will then happily lend the hitch hiker any of these or a dozen other items that the hitch hiker might accidentally have "lost." What the strag will think is that any man who can hitch the length and breadth of the galaxy, rough it, slum it, struggle against terrible odds, win through, and still knows where his towel is, is clearly a man to be reckoned with.
  • World Beard Day is celebrated the first Saturday of September. Whether you prefer a goatee, Van Dyke, mutton chops, or chin curtain this is the day dedicated to your facial glory. It is all about promoting and elevating the global status of the the beard. Shaving on World Beard Day is universally considered to be highly disrespectful. Things can get quite weird on this day. For eg., in the Swedish village of Dönskborg, anyone without a beard is banished from the town and forced to spend twenty-four hours in a nearby forest. Back in the town, the hirsute burn effigies of their clean-chinned loved ones. The "Official World Beard Day All-Bearded Human Pyramid" pits countries against each other in a battle for national pride.
  • Ada Lovelace Day is an international celebration of the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM). It is celebrated on 13 October. It is aimed at highlighting role models to inspire the next generation in the hope that increasing their visibility will inspire future generations. Ada Lovelace Day was founded in 2009 because of a worry that women in tech were invisible. Lovelace was Lord Byron’s daughter, though she didn’t know her father very well. She was schooled in maths and science, unlike the majority of girls at the time she was growing up. Her social circle included Charles Babbage, and her grasp of the potential for his Analytical Engine has led her to be hailed as the first computer programmer.
  • International mud day is celebrated on June 29th. It is the day where children, adults, and organizations across the globe get muddy to raise awareness about the importance of nature for children. After all, as American botanist Luther Burbank said, “Every child should have mud pies, grasshoppers,water bugs, tadpoles, frogs, mud turtles, wild strawberries, acorns, chestnuts, trees to climb. Brooks to wade…bees, butterflies, various animals to pet, hayfields, pine-cones, rocks to toll, sand, snakes and hornets; any child who has been deprived of these has been deprived of the best part of…education.”
You will never be short of 'days' to celebrate if you visit daysoftheyear.com where you will find Trivia Day, Peculiar People Day, Laugh And Get Rich Day, Unique Names Day, Tell An Old Joke Day, Cliché Day, ...

Saturday, November 18, 2017

The Indian epics - II

In certain versions of the Ramayana, Sita is Ravana’s daughter. She has a curse on her head that she would bring death to her father. Knowing about the curse, Ravana tries to get rid of her, and she ends up in a strange northern land where she marries Rama. An unsuspecting Ravana kidnaps Sita and ultimately gets killed by Rama. Here Rama, as the son-in-law of Ravana, can be seen as the substitute son.  Thus the story has shades of the Oedipus story in Greek mythology where the son kills the father.

Ramanujan says that folk versions of the epics often contemporise the action at various points, often raising a laugh. He gives one example from a folk play in Northern Karnataka. When Rama was exiled, the weeping people of Ayodhya followed him to the river bank where he bid them to return, ‘Brothers and sisters, please go home now. I’ll be back in fourteen years.’ When he returned after fourteen years, he found a small group of people standing at the same spot in tattered clothes, long and grey hair and beards and dirty uncut nails.

When he  asked them why they stood the way they did, they said that they were the eunuchs of Ayodhya. Rama had bid goodbye only to the men and women of Ayodhya by addressing them as brothers and sisters. ‘You didn’t bid us goodbye. So we stood here waiting for you.’ Rama was touched by their devotion and ashamed of his oversight. So he blessed them and gave them a boon, ‘O eunuchs of Ayodhya, I’m greatly touched by your devotion. May you be reborn as the next Congress party of India and rule the country!’

Another example of contemporisation of the Ramayana: Since the 18th century, the British had been a powerful presence in India and Ramanujan gives an example of how this fact got reflected in a folk narrative of an epic. In  village enactments of the Ramayana, suitors from all over the universe come to the function where Sita was going to choose her bridegroom. In a North Indian folk version, an Englishman with a  pith helmet, a solar topee, and a hunting rifle regularly appears as one of the suitors of Sita!

The oral traditions give a different picture of women from  that in the written texts. Ramanujan gives two examples. When the Tamburi Dasayyas of Mysore sing the Ramayana, the focus is on Sita's birth, marriage, exile etc.The Tamil story of Mayili Ravanan is set in a time when Rama has defeated the 10-headed Ravana. A 100-headed Ravana arises to threaten the gods and this time he is not able to win. It is Sita who goes to war and defeats the demon.

Ramanujan contrast the characters and moral tone of Ramayana and Mahabharata. The heroes of the Mahabharata are polyandrous, two of the brothers also have other wives while the hero of the Ramayana is strictly monogamous. In Mahabharata,  the characters are complex and each fails spectacularly in the very quality for which he is well-known. For eg., Arjuna, the greatest of warriors, loses his nerve at the first moment of war or the strong Bhima who can defeat Duryodana only by cheating. Ramanujan writes:
The values are ambiguous; no character is unmixed; every act is questionable, and therefore questioned. Not dharma, the good life of right conduct, but dharmasuksmata, or the subtle nature of dharma that mixes good and evil in every act, the impossible labyrinth of the moral life, is the central theme of the Mahabharata. So, the character of every person and the propriety of every major act is the subject of endless legal debate and moral scrutiny.
But in the Ramayana, personal integrity..., fidelity, is supreme. Like an existential hero, Rama picks his way toward his ideal, through accident, obstacle and temptation.  He is in fact, untemptable, cruel in his vow of chastity, admirable but unlovely in his literal insistence on what is just, even against faithful and obedient wife. As character is all, the Ramayana is full of suspicions and doubts - every character and virtue, even the chastity of Sita and the fidelity of Lakshmana, are tested in the crucible of doubt. The Mahabharata is replete with legal debates because dharma itself is subtle, the Ramayana is replete with doubts, tests and acts of truths because everything in dharma depends on character. 


Thursday, November 9, 2017

The Indian epics - I

In one of his essays, A.K. Ramanujan says that Hindus don’t come across the Indian epics for the first time by reading and when they do finally read it, it won’t be in Sanskrit.They would be familiar with it from stories told by parents, elders, discourses, village plays, and other such oral traditions.

Ramanujan says that though it is generally thought that writing is fixed and speech is constantly changing, it is not necessarily so in the Indian context. A text like the Vedas is fixed but was not written down until 2000 years after its composition.They were considered magical texts that would devastate anyone who mispronounced them. They were transmitted using elaborate teaching systems by experts learned  in grammar, syntax, logic and poetics. So though they were in the oral tradition,  they retained high fidelity in transmission.

On the other hand, a text like the epic story in the written tradition of the Ramayana seems to allow endless variation. Hundreds of variations exist, written, sung, danced and sculpted in South  and Southeast Asian languages. The epics are texts that were originally oral traditions. Writing did not necessarily fix them, nor did it prevent their having other and parallel lives. Such fixed-phase and variable-phase forms exist in both written and oral traditions and cannot be generalized.

Classics like Mahabharata and Ramayana have multiple existences - in many regions, languages and versions, in oral and written media, in 'classical' and 'folk' modes, in ancient and current renditions. These epics are known widely - among literate and illiterate, among young and old - which is not the case with Western epics like the Illiad. The Indian epics are  in daily consciousness though proverbs, phrases, songs, movies, magazines and TV. In Europe, only the myriad uses to which the Bible is put can be compared to these epics.

In all traditions, especially Indian, the oral and written forms are deeply intermingled. Ramanujan says that many of the differences in the texts of Indian epics may be 'due to the way the texts do not simply go from one written form to another but get reworked through oral cycles that surround the written word'. This pattern means that Western analytical methods may not be suitable for reconstruction of these epics. These methods are aimed at making tree-diagrams that relate one text to another reaching back to an Ur-text which is deemed to be the original text from which the others descended.

There are around 300 Rama stories in different languages and countries of South and South East Asia. Ramanujan prefers to call these different stories tellings rather than variants or versions because the latter words imply that there is an original or Ur-text from which these stories have later been derived. This Ur-text is often assumed to be Valmiki’s Sanskrit Ramayana but many tellings have significant variations from Valmiki’s Ramayana. (Ramanujan’s essay 300 Ramayanas had stirred up a controversy.) Indian epics may not have such a reconstructable Ur-text 'enmeshed as they were in oral traditions at various stages of their composition and transmission'.

More than 300 Ramayanas have been written and in the later Ramayanas, comparisons will sometimes be made with other Ramayanas. Ramanujan gives the example of the Adhyatma Ramayana, probably written in the 11th century. In it, like in other Ramayanas, the hero Rama is exiled. He tries to dissuade Sita from going into the dangerous forest with him. But Sita insists on sharing the exile and hardships with him. After the argument continues for some time, an exasperated Sita comes up with the knock-down argument, 'Countless Ramayanas have been composed. Do you know of one where Sita does not go into the forest with Rama? Ramanujan writes:
Such self-reference to other or prior examples of the narrative, often implicit, makes texts like the Ramayana not merely single, autonomous texts but also members of a series with a family resemblance. When we add Jain Ramayanas and folk Ramayanas, the Rama story becomes a language with which each text says many different things in different periods and regions - but they require each other because they refer to each other.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

‘Internal amputation’

I was reading A Leg to Stand On by Oliver Sacks, a physician by profession. He injured his leg while climbing a mountain and found himself on the opposite side of the table from what he was used to - he was now the patient. The injury was severe but straightforward to fix but the psychological effects were much more complicated. Sacks experienced paralysis and an inability to perceive his leg as his own, instead seeing it as some kind of alien and inanimate object, over which he had no control. He says that it felt as if  he had had an 'internal amputation'. The book is an account of Sacks’ ordeal and subsequent recovery.

My stroke happened over 18 years ago and my memories of the early months are hazy. In fact I now have to refer to the early posts in my blog to recall certain details. Certain experiences that Sacks describes seemed similar to mine so I will give them here. He describes the first time a physiotherapist had visited him and asked him to move his leg a week after it had been put in a plaster cast but he had failed to move it:
The session with Miss Preston left me pensive, and grim. The strangeness of the whole thing, and the foreboding I felt...now hit me with full force, and it could no longer be denied. The word 'lazy' that she had used, struck me as silly - a sort of catchword with no content, no clear meaning at all. There was something amiss, something deeply the matter, something with no precedent in my entire experience. The muscle was paralyzed - why call it 'lazy'? The muscle was toneless- as if the flow of impulses in and out, such as normally and automatically maintain muscle tone, had been completely suspended. Neural traffic had stopped so to speak, and the streets of the city were deserted and silent.
[SNIP]
It was the deadness of the muscle which so unnerved me. And deadness was something absolute, unlike tiredness or sickness. This was what I had felt, and suppressed, the previous evening: the sense, the foreboding, that the muscle was dead.It was, above  all, its silence which conveyed this impression - a silence utter and absolute, the silence of death. When I called to the muscle, there was no answer. My call was not heard, the muscle was deaf.
I did not get these feelings all at once after the first session of physiotherapy. I was unconscious during the first few physiotherapy sessions and was only aware that I was being pulled this way and that by somebody or something. Once the Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi dreamt he was a butterfly happily fluttering around doing as he pleased. He suddenly woke up and didn't know if he was Zhuangzi who had dreamt that he was a butterfly, or he was a butterfly who had dreamt that he was Zhuangzi. I was in a similar state of confusion when I started regaining consciousness after my stroke and the above feelings crept in over many subsequent days.

After his initial physiotherapy session, Dr. Sacks sunk into despair. He quotes Nietzche, ‘If you stare at the abyss, it will stare back at you.’ All the experience he had accumulated previously  were totally useless in ‘the limbo of Nowhere’. It seemed to him that he had ‘fallen off the map, the world, of the knowable’. He felt a great sense of fear because not only was his knowledge useless now but had now ‘the sense and feeling of passivity’ which he found humiliating. But after a few days he mysteriously began to change – ‘to allow, to welcome this abdication of activity’.  He writes:
Thus my limbo….started as a torment, but turned into patience, started as hell, but became a purgatorial dark night; humbled me, horribly, took away hope, but, then, sweetly-gently, returned it to me a thousandfold, transformed.
In this limbo, when I journeyed to despair and back - a journey of the soul, for my medical circumstances were unchanged,...and in an agreement, not uncordial, between my physicians and myself not to make any reference to 'deeper things' - in this limo, this dark night, I could not turn to science. Faced with a reality, which reason could not solve, I turned to art and religion for comfort. It was these, that could call through the night, and these only,could communicate, could make sense, make more intelligible - and tolerable. 'We have art, in order that we may not perish from the truth' (Nietzsche).
Art certainly is a comfort (for eg., listening to Kunnangudi Vaidyanathan on the violin is divine; for Tamilians, here is him playing some great songs on the violin) but religion never appealed to me even though I was surrounded by it. Since most people are religious, especially in India, I must be a mutant. Although personally nothing has changed, I have become more sympathetic to religion than before. Rubbishing religion and putting science and technology on a pedestal has harmful consequences. 

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

The Case for Astrology

In The Tao of Cricket, Ashis Nandy says that astrology was not used as a serious guide to the future in ancient India. He relates a story to show that it did not have uncritical acceptance. Two kings consulted the same astrologer before going to war with each other. The result came out reverse of what the astrologer had predicted. Instead of keeping quiet, the two kings demanded an explanation from the astrologer. The astrologer said that the loser had taken the battle casually after hearing the prediction that he was going to win and  the winner tried even harder after hearing the prediction that he was going to lose. The astrologer said that in such cases astrology was useless!

Ashis Nandy says that not just the truth value but also the social uses of astrology should be considered. Take for example cricket which ‘is a game of chance and skill which must be played as if it was only a game of skill’.  The same characteristic exists for films and politics. All three fields are highly susceptible to the charms of astrology because it gives the actors the feeling that they are doing something to control the uncontrollable. Similarly people who feel threatened by the winds of social change will clutch at astrology so that they get ‘an internal locus of control when dealing with outside forces’. He quotes a journalist as saying:
Today, the phenomenon in India is ironic. The westernized section of the youth, who do not know which Indian rashi they belong to, or even the names of the rashis, who have not seen their horoscopes, and who scoff at superstitious Indians, the section considered the most modern, liberal, the hope of the country, are the ones who believe the most in newspaper forecasts.
Horoscopes are often exchanged between parents before fixing marriages. Many times, horoscopes are used by one side to reject certain marriage proposals which they may not be keen on for some reason. Even if the other side produces an astrologer who says that the horoscopes match, an astrologer can always be found who will say that they don't match.  In these cases, giving rational reasons for the rejection might cause friction among old friends and relatives who may find themselves on opposite sides. Citing mismatched horoscopes as the reason for the rejection enables both sides to shrug their shoulders and continue relationships as before.

Horoscopes can be used to used to justify certain decisions which have been arrived at logically. Ashis Nandy illustrates such a situation with a story by Tagore. In the story, a mother is hostile to the marriage between her daughter and the latter’s lover because their horoscopes don’t match. The husband overcomes her opposition by revealing to his wife that he had doctored his own horoscope to marry her 21 years ago because their horoscopes too did not match!

People may take astrological help as an additional insurance which may or may not help while they take normal, rational steps to cope with the problems of life. 'Maybe it has some effect, who knows!' could be the reasoning. The psychology is similar to a story I once read of an atheist philosopher who started praying on his deathbed. When he was asked why he had started praying, the philosopher replied, ‘This is no time to to be making enemies!' Nandy concludes thus:
It is possible to argue that, even as a proper superstition, astrology is less harmful than taking glucose, or taking multivitamin capsules daily in response to advertisements or bottle feeding one’s baby or drugging it with overdoses of sugar, food preservatives, or hydrogenated, hydroxyquinoline derivatives used as anti-diarrhoeal agents. At worst, the first kind of superstition benefits small-time cheats who are ill-organized and scattered. At best, the second kind of superstition is a global enterprise; it makes us a victim as well as a participant in a centrally organized, capital-intensive structure of exploitation. 
The multi-million dollar global superstitions include the prestige of quaffing certain sugared waters, the idea sold by the global arms industry that increased spending on national security will increase people's security, books on tips to beat the stock market / guarantee business success / increase self-confidence etc. (based on the belief that everything is within your control and that luck is irrelevant), fairness creams, health foods...(To a large extent, the consumers of these superstitions are the educated.) I am reminded of Gandhi's statement in Hind Swaraj, 'I am prepared to maintain that humbugs in worldly matters are far worse than the humbugs in religion.'

And looking at the jet-setting, globalised modern swamis who abound in India, they seem to have a greater following in cities than in villages, among the educated than among the illiterate, among the rich than among the poor. If you thought that superstition is due to lack of education, you are ignoring reality. Ashis Nandy writes in Bonfire of Creeds:
It is a feature of the recipient culture which is to be created though the modern state system, that the superstitions of the rich and the powerful are given less emphasis than the superstitions of the poor and lowly.This is the inescapable logic of development and scientific rationality today.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Words that create a mental fog - III

In  Politics and the English language, George Orwell bemoans the deterioration of the English language with people now using vague generalities to cover-up realities. He illustrates his point by translating into modern English a well-known sentence in Ecclesiastes - 'I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth.' His translation and analysis:
Objective consideration of contemporary phenomena compels the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.
This is a parody, but not a very gross one...It will be seen that I have not made a full translation. The beginning and ending of the sentence follow the original meaning fairly closely, but in the middle the concrete illustrations – race, battle, bread – dissolve into the vague phrase "success or failure in competitive activities." This had to be so, because no modern writer of the kind I am discussing – no one capable of using phrases like "objective consideration of contemporary phenomena" – would ever tabulate his thoughts in that precise and detailed way. The whole tendency of modern prose is away from concreteness. Now analyze these two sentences a little more closely. 
The first contains 49 words but only 60 syllables, and all its words are those of everyday life. The second contains 38 words of 90 syllables: 18 of its words are from Latin roots, and one from Greek. The first sentence contains six vivid images, and only one phrase ("time and chance") that could be called vague. The second contains not a single fresh, arresting phrase, and in spite of its 90 syllables it gives only a shortened version of the meaning contained in the first. Yet without a doubt it is the second kind of sentence that is gaining ground in modern English. I do not want to exaggerate. This kind of writing is not yet universal, and outcrops of simplicity will occur here and there in the worst-written page. Still, if you or I were told to write a few lines on the uncertainty of human fortunes, we should probably come much nearer to my imaginary sentence than to the one from ECCLESIASTES.
A more contemporary example of such vagueness is the explanation of the financial crisis of a decade ago by the former chairman of the American Federal Reserve, Ben Bernanke. Paul Krugman said that the explanation had a Hirohito feel to it. (When announcing Japan’s surrender in 1945, Emperor Hirohito famously explained his decision as follows: “The war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan’s advantage.”) Bernanke's explanation: “Market discipline has in some cases broken down, and the incentives to follow prudent lending procedures have, at times, eroded.”

The noise made by party spokespersons almost always tries one’s patience. They often say something to fill the time For eg., a BJP spokesman said that when growth picks up, job growth will improve. And the discussion was about there being jobless growth in the past decade! And as if by reflex, the Congress spokesman criticized the statement without showing any sign that he remembered that a major portion of this period occurred when his party was in power and it was making similar statements at that time. In the above-mentioned essay, Orwell writes (the first two paragraph are combined into one paragraph in the essay):
In our time it is broadly true that political writing is bad writing. Where it is not true, it will generally be found that the writer is some kind of rebel, expressing his private opinions and not a "party line." Orthodoxy, of whatever color, seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style. The political dialects to be found in pamphlets, leading articles, manifestoes, White Papers and the speeches of under-secretaries do, of course, vary from party to party, but they are all alike in that one almost never finds in them a fresh, vivid, home-made turn of speech. 
When one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases – BESTIAL ATROCITIES, IRON HEEL, BLOODSTAINED TYRANNY, FREE PEOPLES OF THE WORLD, STAND SHOULDER TO SHOULDER – one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy: a feeling which suddenly becomes stronger at moments when the light catches the speaker's spectacles and turns them into blank discs which seem to have no eyes behind them. And this is not altogether fanciful. A speaker who uses that kind of phraseology has gone some distance towards turning himself into a machine. The appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved as it would be if he were choosing his words for himself. If the speech he is making is one that he is accustomed to make over and over again, he may be almost unconscious of what he is saying, as one is when one utters the responses in church. And this reduced state of consciousness, if not indispensable, is at any rate favorable to political conformity.
Political language - and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists – is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind. 
PS: A paper by a Princeton University professor called ‘Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly’ explores the habit of many students of using complex words to give the impression of intelligence. You would no doubt have noticed such a tendency to utilize erudite vernacular irrespective of necessity in this blog. What to do, I am like that only (sic)!

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Words that create a mental fog - II

In 1996, Social Text journal published an article by Alan Sokal, Professor of Physics at New York University, entitled "Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity." It was written in the typical style of academic articles, slightly overbearing and verbose, and it had a huge number of footnotes (more footnotes than actual text). In his article, Sokal argued that the traditional concept of gravity was just a capitalist fiction that would be made irrelevant by the socialist/feminist/relativist theory of 'quantum gravity.' Sokal assumed that this argument should have been self-evidently absurd. An excerpt from the article follows:
Here my aim is to carry these deep analyses one step further, by taking account of recent developments in quantum gravity: the emerging branch of physics in which Heisenberg's quantum mechanics and Einstein's general relativity are at once synthesized and superseded. In quantum gravity, as we shall see, the space-time manifold ceases to exist as an objective physical reality; geometry becomes relational and contextual; and the foundational conceptual categories of prior science — among them, existence itself — become problematized and relativized. This conceptual revolution, I will argue, has profound implications for the content of a future postmodern and liberatory science.
But on the day that the Spring issue of Social Text appeared in print, Sokal published a letter in the academic trade publication Lingua Franca revealing his article was actually intended as a parody, a fact which the editorial board of Social Text had failed to recognize. The article was a hoax submitted, according to Sokal, to see "would a leading journal of cultural studies publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if (a) it sounded good and (b) it flattered the editors' ideological preconceptions?"

It did get published much to the chagrin of the editors when they discovered later that it was a hoax. Sokal says that if the editors had been careful and intellectually competent, they would have recognized from the first paragraph of his essay that it was a parody. Above all, however, the Sokal hoax demonstrates how willing we are to be deceived about matters we believe strongly in. We are likely to be more critical of articles which attack our position than we are of those which we think supports it. This tendency to confirmation bias affects physicists or professors in the social sciences or a lay person.

Researchers at the University of Waterloo have identified a certain kind of humbug they call pseudo-profound bullshit – the kind that sounds deep and meaningful at first glance, but upon closer inspection means nothing at all. In Fooled by Randomness, Nassim Nicholas Taleb gives such an example from Hegel:
It is hard to resist discussion of artificial history without comment on the father of all pseudothinkers, Hegel. Hegel writes jargon that is meaningless outside of a chic Left Bank Parisian cafe or the humanities department of some university extremely well insulated from the real world. I suggest this passage from the German 'philosopher' (this passage detected, translated, and reviled by Karl Popper):
Sound is the change in the specific condition of segregation of the material parts, and in the negation of this condition; merely an abstract or an ideal ideality, as it were, of that specification. But this change, accordingly, is itself immediately the negation of the material specific subsistence; which is, therefore, real ideality of specific gravity and cohesion, i.e.--heat. The heating up of the sounding bodies, just as of beaten and or rubbed ones, is the appearance of heat, originating conceptually together with sound.
I won't detain you further. I am sure you want to rush to a good bookstore near you and grab copies of Hegel's books before they go out of stock.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Words that create a mental fog - I

In 1950, computer science pioneer Alan Turing proposed a famous test of computer intelligence: could a program (what we might now call a "chatbot") answer your questions so convincingly that you couldn't tell it apart from a human? A reverse Turing test is a Turing test in which the objective or roles between computers and humans have been reversed

Nassim Nicholas Taleb writes about the reverse Turing test in Fooled by Randomness: a human can be declared unintelligent if his or her writing cannot be told apart from a generated one. The Postmodernism Generator is a computer program that automatically produces imitations of postmodernist writing. It produces random text with correct grammar and makes for hilarious reading of gobbledygook each time you refresh the page. For eg today, I got a treatise on 'Rationalism in the works of Pynchon' by Catherine N. Cameron, Department of Politics, University of Massachusetts, Amherst and Helmut Tilton Department of Semiotics, Carnegie-Mellon University which began as follows:
1. Narratives of meaninglessness
“Society is unattainable,” says Lacan. However, the subject is contextualised into a modern discourse that includes art as a reality. “Consciousness is part of the economy of language,” says Bataille; however, according to d’Erlette[1] , it is not so much consciousness that is part of the economy of language, but rather the collapse, and subsequent fatal flaw, of consciousness. Neocapitalist desituationism implies that reality is responsible for capitalism, but only if sexuality is distinctfrom narrativity. Therefore, any number of discourses concerning the role of the poet as reader exist.
The Chomskybot is another such page which produces imitations of Noam Chomsky writings on linguistics. The creator writes, ‘What I find interesting about it is how it just hovers at the edge of understandability, a sort of semantic mumbling, a fog for the mind's eye.… [It’s] most interesting effects are in the mind of the beholder, especially since its output not infrequently induces a strong feeling of inferiority in the unsuspecting, a sense of "I just don't get it, so I must be dumber than I'd thought."’  Here is an example of the output:
Look On My Words, Ye Mighty, And Despair!
        For one thing, the descriptive power of the base component appears to correlate rather closely with a parasitic gap construction. It may be, then, that any associated supporting element cannot be arbitrary in problems of phonemic and morphological analysis. I suggested that these results would follow from the assumption that this analysis of a formative as a pair of sets of features is not quite equivalent to a corpus of utterance tokens upon which conformity has been defined by the paired utterance test. This suggests that the speaker-hearer's linguistic intuition does not affect the structure of the system of base rules exclusive of the lexicon. Suppose, for instance, that this selectionally introduced contextual feature can be defined in such a way as to impose a general convention regarding the forms of the grammar.
Another such software is the Random Deepak Chopra Quote Generator – Wisdom of Chopra. Every time you refresh the page, you will get some mind numbing words of  Chopra randomly strung together that will stir your soul. In these examples from the generator he doesn't take a long time to make his pointless.
  1. "Transcendence is entangled in the flow of excellence" 
  2. "Your heart constructs a symphony of neural networks" _
  3. "Information shapes formless belonging" _

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Post-traumatic growth

Most people have heard of post traumatic stress. Yet few are aware of post traumatic growth (PTG). The idea of the possibility of finding blessings in bad breaks is said to be present often in the writings of the ancient Greeks, Hebrews, early Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims as also in literature and philosophy. PTG began to be studied in the 1990’s and they indicate that for a substantial number of people, trauma can be a catalyst for positive psychological changes. For eg., people may feel an increased sense of compassion for others, they may have a greater acceptance of their vulnerabilities and limitations, may become less materialistic etc.

While they were not happy about what had happened to them, they felt they had learned valuable lessons from the experience and these lessons eventually changed their lives for the better. They became better parents, better partners, and more compassionate friends. This does not happen immediately or easily, and rarely by itself. The right tools and support are almost always required in order to transform a bad break into a breakthrough. PTG is true not just for life-threatening illness or abuse, but also about everyday traumas such as a divorce, losing a loved one, or a surgery.

This does not mean that trauma is not also distressing. Just because individuals experience growth does not mean that they will not experience struggles. Also, PTG is not universal. It is not uncommon, but that doesn't mean that everybody who faces a traumatic event experiences growth. But there is a view that contrary to popular opinion, experiencing growth after trauma is far more common than PTSD. Richard Tedeschi, Professor and Graduate Coordinator, Department of Psychology, UNC Charlotte, says, 'In the wake of trauma, people become more aware of the futility in life and that unsettles some while it focuses others. This is the paradox of growth: people become more vulnerable, yet stronger.”

An example of PTG  is Dr. Geraat Vermeij, a scientist who I think should be as well-known as Stephen Hawking. He has been blind since the age of 3 but he is an evolutionary biologist, a teacher, was the editor of Evolution, the field's foremost journal, a MacArthur Fellow, an obsessive shell collector, a world- traveled explorer and a field naturalist. Researchers say Dr. Vermeij's findings are among the foundations of the emerging field of paleoecology. He is considered a world authority on the evolution of shells. He has even published on such diverse topics as leaf shape and the evolution of birds. He has the ability to feel differences among shells, quickly identifying them down to the level of subspecies using only his sense of touch.

There are examples  of PTG closer home. We had got a table calendar which featured people from a local NGO called Swarga foundation which performed some services for handicapped people. Jaya rang up the organization to find out if they had some services that I could use. She told the person at the other end about the calendar and enquired about services that they rendered.The other person introduced herself as Swarnalatha and said, ‘I am in March!’ Huh? Jaya was nonplussed for a moment before she realized that the person she was speaking to featured in the March page of the calendar!

I am in March!

Swarnalatha said that they were going to launch a vehicle soon that would help in easier transportation of handicapped people. This service looked attractive for us since shifting me to a car is a difficult task requiring a lot of physical strength. The proposed vehicle was supposed to have a ramp which meant that I could go inside directly seated on my wheelchair. This is the vehicle we now hire when I travel locally, say for going to the hospital, school reunion or for attending a cousin's wedding reception.

Swarnalatha is the Managing Trustee of the organisation. She holds a Diploma in Computer Science and is a post graduate in Hindi and is fluent in 6 languages. She is a Motivational speaker, Social Activist, Singer, Artist (arts & crafts), Puppeteer, Green Crusader, Counsellor, Story writer, Photographer. Also, she is affected with Primary Progressive Multiple Sclerosis since 2009 and is wheelchair-bound. If you look at the other pages of the calendar, you will similarly come across many instances of achievers who have overcome various handicaps viz. a person with Transverse Myelitis who is a Disability rights advocate, Hr consultant and a guest lecturer for management studies or person with Down's Syndrome who is a Bharatanatyam dancer and playschool teaching assistant.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

"Just where do you think you are, sir?"

Being an outside observer now rather than a participant in daily activities that I would otherwise have been, I get a different take on what people do. In many cases, when I hear about people 'working hard' till late at night in the office, it just seems to be a confirmation of what Gandhi had said in Hind Swaraj, 'Formerly, men were made slaves under physical compulsion. Now they are enslaved by temptation of money and of the luxuries that money can buy.' The world is too much with them. I was reading a book written in 1883, Conventional Lies of Our Civilization by Max Nordau. Its description of Western society at that time seems to be true of India today:
Each day witnesses the birth of some new, wonderful invention, destined to make the world pleasanter to live in, the adversities of life more endurable, and to increase the variety and intensity of the enjoyments possible to humanity. But yet, notwithstanding the growth and increase of all conditions to promote comfort, the human race is to-day more discontented, more irritated and more restless than ever before.
[SNIP] 
The light literature of England has long since ceased to be a faithful mirror of real life. When it is not describing with gusto, crimes and scandals of all kinds, murders, burglaries, seductions or testamentary frauds, it portrays a model society, in which the members of the nobility are all handsome, dignified, cultivated and wealthy; while the lower classes are honest God-fearing people, devoted to their superiors, the virtuous among them being graciously praised and rewarded by Sir This or Sir That, while the wicked are locked up by the police — in short, a society which is in all respects an absurd idealization of the dilapidated, tottering structure of society as it exists in England at the present day.
Many people I meet are richer than they were before my stroke but I am not sure if they are happier.  The levels of narcissism seems to have gone through the roof with people spending incredible amounts of time, effort and money to look good. In spite of riches they seem to have many issues to worry about – property disputes; couple separating within months after an extravagant, no-expenses spared wedding; highly educated son becoming a drunkard…After listening to all the sorry tales, I will end up feeling that I am not in such a bad state after all.

Private vehicles are regarded as status symbols rather than as a means of transport. Some people change models of cars and mobile phones every year depending on the talk of the town. They seem to be advertisement driven rather than utility driven. Teens will wear only expensive, branded items (which they will soon outgrow much to the delight of manufacturers) due to peer pressure. And as George Orwell says in his essay Pleasure spots, ‘Much of what goes by the name of pleasure is simply an effort to destroy consciousness.’ I heard of a 14 year old boy who committed suicide because his parents refused to buy him a smart phone. Once the genie is out of the bottle, it is difficult to put it back in.

People keep wanting a bigger TV with additional features they will rarely use. They will want computers with more RAM, more hard disk, higher speeds…all of which will be an over-kill for their normal use. And as you become more tantalized by these 'innovations' , you become more dependant on your job which thereby becomes the modern version of slavery. There is often an air of pretense and phoniness like one sees in the manufactured, made-to-order smiles of air-hostesses, hotel receptionists and TV presenters. Many successful people seem to acquire characteristics similar to one I had read in an article which had a quote from a novel in which a wife tells her husband who is a typical big shot executive:
‘…you are losing a kind of innocence which was always dear to me. I think you take the wrong kind of pride in what you are doing. You are learning how to push the little buttons which make people jump, and you are becoming cynical and skeptical about people. It is a kind of 'watchfulness' which I see in you. Your smile is the same and you seem to talk in the same way, and people like you as readily as ever, but you are on guard, even with me. I think you are becoming a political man, and once again I must sound childish to you as I say that I do not like the byproducts—the compromise, subterfuge and so help me, the 'use' of human beings. I am not accusing you of some enormous wickedness. But I think the kind of work you are doing now will change the essential texture of you, will harden you in ways I cannot clearly understand.’
There is a philosophical term called the paradox of hedonism according to which directly seeking pleasure makes pleasure difficult to achieve and even more difficult to maximize. The person starts framing all of his relationships in terms of his own pleasure and cannot care about anything or anyone else.  It is better for him to  genuinely care about things distinct from pleasure and then let pleasure be felt as a byproduct. But we are attracted to all sorts of trivialities thinking that they will give us pleasure as noted by Gandhi in his description of the Eiffel Tower - 'the tower was a good demonstration of the fact that we are all children attracted by trinkets'.

Psychologists have double plus ungood news.They have determined that people are more sensitive to losses than gains, privilege short-term over long-term and prefer certainty over uncertainty. So if changing the current style of living involves bearing shot-term costs that are certain in anticipation of uncertain long-tern gains, most of us will not consider the long-term alternative. So we will continue to struggle in the swamp even if we know that we are getting even more stuck. I know I have this weakness. It is not a pretty picture. Gandhi seems to have instinctively recognized this Faustian pact of the human mind.

In Oct 1945, he wrote to Nehru that may be India too will adopt the modes of modern Western civilization that he had criticized and ‘like the proverbial moth burn itself eventually in the flame round which it dances more and more furiously’. ‘The indefinite multiplication of wants’ which Gandhi said defined modernity soon begin to pall. (It is one of the paradoxes  of India that a man who was not materialistic finds his portrait on all rupee notes.) This tendency has a name - hedonic treadmill, which proposes that people return to their level of happiness, regardless of what happens to them, because we psychologically adapt to that new experience. Gandhi recolonized this tendency when he wrote in Hind Swaraj:
We notice that the mind is a restless bird; the more it gets the more it wants, and still remains unsatisfied. The more we indulge our passions the more unbridled they become. Our ancestors, therefore, set a limit to our indulgences. They saw that happiness was largely a mental condition. A man is not necessarily happy because he is rich, or unhappy because he is poor.
A model of growth that requires an endless increase of consumption is probably doomed. As someone said, ‘If you think infinite growth is possible on a finite planet, you are either crazy or you are an economist.’ It all reminds me of a joke that is more than a joke that I had once read. A man found himself, after death, in heaven. His host showed him around the celestial premises and it soon became apparent that it was a place where the residents could have anything they wanted. The man kept wishing and getting whatever he wanted until he finally ran out of desires. Then he started getting bored and irritated and said flippantly that things might be more interesting in Hell. His host asked quietly, 'Just where do you think you are, sir?'

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Recreating LFS in CBE


About 10 years ago, some of my schoolmates - Little Flower School (LFS), Jamshedpur - started planning our 25th year reunion and started tracking people down. But try as they might, they couldn't locate me. They finally found out the landline number of my house and gave me a ring. It was then that they found out some details about my stroke. By then there was only a week left for the reunion, I had never travelled so far at the time (2010) after my stroke and I did not attend the reunion.

Earlier this year we were informed that this time the reunion was being held in Coimbatore so that I could attend easily.  This was a pleasant surprise for me since I had thought that the reunion will be in Jamshedpur. The connectivity between Coimbatore and Jamshedpur (call me biased but that is the best city in India, at least as I remember it from over 30 years ago!) is poor and it would have been difficult for me to go there. There was a good chance that I would not have been able to go. With the reunion now scheduled to be held in Coimbatore, to go or not to go was no longer a question that I had to grapple with.

I was shocked when I read this post. It is by a person who  graduated from high school in 1984 (exactly the same year as me) and was being called for his class’s 25th year reunion. He writes about the rough time he had in school, the bullying, physical abuse and social ostracization that he had suffered. He writes that ‘there was not a single person in my graduating class who came close to treating me like a friend. Not one.’ It was the exact opposite of my school experience where being with my school mates was something I looked forward to.

I had spent many pleasant years with my schoolmates both inside and outside school. Within about half an hour of our school-day being over, many of us used to meet again and play cricket for the next 2-3 hours. (On many days, we used to play till it was too dark to continue.) This is is what I think about when I see children these days running from one tuition to another with no time to play. And I am quite sure that the syllabus was more in our time so I don't know what it is all about. I am reminded of a poem called Leisure by W.H. Davies that I had in school.

It was no surprise that my mother expressed a desire to meet my friends. She would be familiar with many of them since the ground we used to play cricket in was next to our house. Many of our parents knew each other since they worked in the same organization and also met on various social occasions. So she had a lot of news to catch up with! My mother and sister accompanied us on two days and my in-laws on the second day of the reunion. Sujit came for a day to attend the reunion. He returned the same night to Chennai.

Sujit in the center of the circle; others clockwise after me - Jaya, my father-in-law, my sister, my mom, my mother-in-law and my classmates Saravan and Manoj. The other person in the photo is Sarvan's wife. 
It was great meeting people I had grown up with, most of whom I was meeting after a gap of over 30 years. Even though Father Time had done his bit in producing grey hairs and generous paunches, I could recognize everybody without much difficulty. I had, like Wordsworth up at Tintern Abbey, “sensations sweet, / Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart; /And passing even into my purer mind  / With tranquil restoration:—feelings too / Of unremembered pleasure: such, perhaps / As have no slight or trivial influence” on my life.

With all my classmates 
Updated on 10/08/2017: I have changed the group photograph because three of my friends were not in it. I have included the old photo at the end.

While identifying the people present did not pose a problem for me, I would have struggled to identify everyone in a group photograph having everyone in all 3 sections of our class. (Jaya will tell you that this is not surprising as I once failed to identify myself in a photograph!) I was astonished at the rapidity with which many had been able to identify everyone in that photograph. Age had not dimmed their memories at all.

There was a session where people related various funny incidents that they recalled from schooldays. I was often surprised by the clarity with which people recalled various incidents, many of which had remained with me as what Wordsworth called”gleams of half-extinguished thought”. I am often told that I have a sharp memory which was belied by the stories that I was hearing. I suppose, like it is said in obituaries where a person is said to be the best, the kindest, the most loving person who ever lived, I get to hear wonderful things about me that nobody told me about in my better days.

I was asked to relate an incident from my school days but I declined the invitation. One of the advantages of suffering a stroke is that I can delegate to Jaya the  nightmarish task of speaking in front of a mike. (This is a characteristic that I share with Gussie Fink-Nottle, the newt lover with a face like a dead fish.) The one time I managed to do the impossible, people were so surprised by the event that some seemed to remember something about it. But this was not the only reason why I kept quiet.

I generally avoid saying anything substantial when a lot of people are present and prefer to keep my responses as short as possible or say nothing at all. The reason is that my method of communication is so slow that it keeps others waiting for long and also prevents Jaya from interacting with people for quite a while. Also, unless she is writing my responses, some distortions will inevitably creep into the retelling. That is why I prefer blogging: I can take my time to write what I want in the way that I want. So I will write about a cricket match that Thapa (Ravinder Kumar) had talked about.

He talked about the final of a cricket tournament that we had won in which he was the captain. I had injured my finger the previous day and did not expect to play but Thapa insisted that I play. Fortunately we won the toss, batted first and Thapa played a brilliant innings. (The fortunate part was about winning the  toss not Thapa’s brilliant innings which was along expected lines.) At the lunch break he showed my injured finger to the umpires, said that I had got hurt while batting and asked for a substitute fielder to which the umpires agreed.  The substitute fielder was Anuj Kathuria who was a very good fielder and took a couple of excellent catches that helped us win the match. I was a lousy fielder and would have dropped them for sure. This was the ideal match for me and the team – I batted and did not field!

With Thapa,  the canny captain - he knew when to keep me in the pavilion much to the relief of the team and me!
The surprise for me at the reunion was Rocky's (Rajesh Sharma) singing. I had no idea about his talent when I was in the school.  With such a great voice, he can make a career out of singing. He later recorded a song and posted it here. Listen and be amazed.


                   
Rocky singing at the reunion. With him is Chandrashekar, who organised the reunion
I am reliably informed that we are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep. If that be so, I was pretty well stocked up for the dreams when I returned from the reunion, like Wordsworth from Tintern Abbey, “not only with the sense / Of present pleasure, but with pleasing thoughts / That in this moment there is life and food / For future years.”

Until next meeting!

Monday, July 31, 2017

Nurses and TV

'Water of India' is act that magicians in India use in most shows. A large bowl full of water is shown, then emptied completely into a bucket. The bowl is then set down for a short time, but whenever the magician desires, water again pours out and he can repeat this many times during his show. Nurses are my equivalent of the magicians' 'water of India' trick - they keep giving me incidents to write about.

After I am shifted to the wheelchair, I sit in such a way that the TV is behind me so I can't see it. Once an MGR song was being shown on the TV. I was familiar with the song and enjoyed listening to it. Noticing this, the nurse jumped to the conclusion that I was an MGR  fan and knew all his movies and songs which is not true. When another old song came and she asked me to identify the actor, I decided to take a chance and guess 'MGR' again because she was not giving me the option 'don't know'.  It turned out to be right.

After that, I guessed 'MGR' for every old Tamil song she asked me about. It would always be correct and she would be impressed. Then she asked me about another old song but this time my regular guess was wrong and I didn't have any idea who the actor was. She cottoned on to my ruse and asked me about 3-4 more songs and in all of them, my guess was wrong. She said, ' You don't know anything except reading books!' Sometimes she used to tell me, 'why don't you enjoy?' by which she seemed to mean, 'Why don't you watch TV?' She didn't seem to realise that this alternative would have bored me.

Among the TV channels that  I watch frequently are the nature channels like National Geographic and Animal Planet. Most nurses also like these channels because they see animals that they never knew existed.  But one day a nurse said that she was having nightmares about the predator-prey struggles that she had seen earlier in the day. From that day, I decided not to see the nature channels as long as this nurse remained with us. I didn't want her sleep spoiled because of my TV viewing habits. 

Most nurses know a lot of tidbits about films and film stars and think that I am also an authority on these matters. For instance, a nurse pointed at an actor and asked me, 'Isn't that Bhiman Raghu?' I had never heard the name before and stared blankly. I then discovered that she was referring to an actor I had seen in several movies  but whose name I did not know. In this way, I have picked up the names of several actors with familiar faces who are not in lead roles.

Many nurses are also avid watchers of TV serials, something that I keep well away from. The serial makers seem to have taken to Oscar Wilde's observation, 'Nothing succeeds like excess' so when several nurses have changed, many serials remain the same. One nurse said to me, 'When I keep Tamil, you look away.' This was not true. She didn't seem to have noticed that when she kept serials, I will stare at the ceiling (if I am lying on the bed; I rarely watch TV when I am sitting on the wheelchair) but when she kept movies or songs, I was watching.

Once a nurse told me, 'These two are divorced.' I looked at the TV and saw two people who I didn't know at all and wondered why I should know that they are divorced. Then I suddenly realised that it was the trailer for a forthcoming episode of a serial and it was about the story in the serial! This nurse used to say that she did not like serials but she will ask others about the story so far in different serials. And every once in a while, she will watch a serial with rapt attention.

The favourite sports program of one nurse was WWF. While changing channels, if she came across a program of WWF, she will exclaim ‘kusti!’ (fight) and stare at the action unblinkingly.

PS: The most puny, weak and thin people seem to be fascinated by WWF. Perhaps we are all schizophrenics and mentally live out what we see on screen and can't do. For eg., I love watching Govinda movies. I would never have been able to do what he does: perform crazy dances in a quiet Singapore street dressed in a blue pant, yellow shirt and red tie (with white polka dots) with passersby wondering which mental asylum to send him to.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Degradation of nature - II

Creeping normality is the way a major change can be accepted as the normal situation if it happens gradually. If the same change took place in a single step or short period, it would cause a lot of hue and cry. In Collapse, Jared Diamond discusses how societies have slowly destroyed themselves without noticing the harm they were doing until it was too late because the affects happened very gradually. An example that Diamond uses is people and societies slowly using up all their resources. Success may hide impending disaster as it might have done to Easter Islanders.

A question often asked is,  ‘Why bother about little critters? Human lives are more important.’ This argument ignores various ecosystem services that different organisms provide for free – nitrogen fixation, pollination, seed dispersal, etc. Some of these services can be replaced by human agency but they will prove expensive and some of these services will never be known till long after the damage has been done and it is too late to do anything about it. As an example of inter-relationships in nature that may not be immediately apparent, Charles Darwin writes in On the Origin of Species:
I have very little doubt, that if the whole genus of humble-bees became extinct or very rare in England, the heartsease and red clover would become very rare, or wholly disappear. The number of humble-bees in any district depends in a great degree on the number of field-mice, which destroy their combs and nests; and Mr. H. Newman, who has long attended to the habits of humble-bees, believes that "more than two thirds of them are thus destroyed all over England." Now the number of mice is largely dependent, as every one knows, on the number of cats; and Mr. Newman says, "Near villages and small towns I have found the nests of humble-bees more numerous than elsewhere, which I attribute to the number of cats that destroy the mice." Hence it is quite credible that the presence of a feline animal in large numbers in a district might determine, through the intervention first of mice and then of bees, the frequency of certain flowers in that district!
Environmental issues belong to a class called 'wicked problems' which are difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements. They are very different from relatively "tame", soluble problems in mathematics or chess. Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, but good or bad and a purely scientific-engineering approach cannot be applied because of the lack of a clear problem definition and differing perspectives of stakeholders. Their solution requires a great number of people to change their mindsets and behavior. These problems have a lot of ambiguity and the consequences are difficult to imagine.

Most wicked problems are connected to other problems. Complex interdependency among various components means that trying to  solve one aspect of a wicked problem may reveal or create other problems. You cannot talk about 'optimal solutions' to these problems because there are ideological, cultural, political and economic constraints which keep changing over time. In Collapse, after identifying 12 sets of environmental problems like soil erosion, loss of biodiversity, issues due to alien species, etc., Jared Diamond writes:
People often ask, 'What is the single most important environmental/population problem facing the world today?' A flip answer would be, 'The single most important problem is our misguided focus on identifying the single most important problem!' That flip answer is essentially correct, because any of the dozen problems if left unsolved would do us grave harm, and because they all interact with each other, if we solved 11 of the problems, but not the 12th, we would still be in trouble, whichever was the problem that remained unsolved. We have to solve them all.
Global climate change has been called a 'super wicked problem' because it has the following additional characteristics: time for addressing it is running out,  it has no central authority and those seeking to solve the problem are also causing it. Don't Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change by George Marshall explores several psychological issues that come in the way when addressing the issue of climate change. For eg. it has no clearly identifiable enemy, has dispersed responsibility and diffused impacts making it very difficult to motivate and mobilize people around it.

When meddling with nature, it is better to err on the side of caution. From large dams to smart cities to the proposal to interlink rivers, such large multi-crore projects have always been favorites of politicians, technocrats and contractors. In Bonfire of Creeds, Ashis Nandy explains why these large projects are attractive no matter how much empirical data about their harm is provided:
It is often a major source of distributing patronage through contracts, political financing, building new networks of political obligations, generating politically powerful blue- and white- collar specialist jobs. It is also often a technology of electoral mobilization and a means through which an impression of grand political performance can be created. Such a project gradually becomes an end in itself and cultivates a certain forgetfulness about its effects on the life-support systems of a community.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Degradation of nature - I

'Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually slaves of some defunct economist', said John Maynard Keynes. One of these defunct ideas is the environmental Kuznets curve which assumes that environmental degradation tends to get worse as economic growth occurs until average income reaches a certain point after which further development will lead to improvement of the environment. Most of the decision-makers seem to be hostage to this idea.

In this blog post, George Monbiot writes about a group called economodernists in UK whose ideas seem very similar to what is very often propounded by many in India – modernization, development, technology, urbanization, emphasize manufacturing, etc., displaying a simple minded view of the environment and not considering for a moment the possibility that poverty may be an iatrogenic outcome of their proposals.  Economists seem to be the perfect examples of what Peter Drucker said, 'Far too many people — especially those with great expertise in one area — are contemptuous of knowledge in other areas, or believe that being bright is a substitute for knowledge.'

They remind me of a line from an old Hindi song - naam bade aur darsan chote (famous names with short-term outlook). As Nassim Nicholas Taleb says in Antifragile, 'Where simplifications fail, causing the most damage, is when something nonlinear is simplified with the linear as a  substitute.' And relationships in the environment are full of non-linearities. Economists are unaware of Orgel's second rule - "Evolution is cleverer than you are." (It does not imply that evolution has conscious motives or method but that the process of natural selection, though itself not intelligent, clever or purposeful, produces results that are ingenious.)

In Antifragile, Nassim Nicholas Taleb says that the worst problem of modernity is that one person gets the upside and a different person gets the downside 'with such transfer facilitated by the growing wedge between the ethical and the legal'. The decision-making elite living in cities are themselves not going to suffer from the terrible ill-effects of environmental devastation that the poor suffer from. This makes them contemptuous of environmental safeguards and makes them think that a concern for the environment is detrimental to economic growth. In an article by Ramachandra Guha, there was an extract from a book by John Kenneth Galbraith followed by comments by a Berkely geographer Carl Sauer:
if we are concerned about our great appetite for materials, it is plausible to seek to increase the supply, or decrease waste, to make better use of the stocks that are available, and to develop substitutes. But what of the appetite itself? Surely this is the ultimate source of the problem. If it continues its geometric course, will it not one day have to be restrained? Yet in the literature of the resource problem this is the forbidden question. Over it hangs a nearly total silence. It is as though, in the discussion of the chance for avoiding automobile accidents, we agree not to make any mention of speed! 
A cultural explanation for this silence had been previously provided by the great Berkeley geographer Carl Sauer. Writing in 1938, Sauer remarked that ‘the doctrine of a passing frontier of nature replaced by a permanent and sufficiently expanding frontier of technology is a contemporary and characteristic expression of occidental culture, itself a historical-geographical product.’ This frontier attitude, he went on, ‘has the recklessness of an optimism that has become habitual, but which is residual from the brave days when north-European freebooters overran the world and put it under tribute.’ Warning that the surge of growth at the expense of nature would not last indefinitely, Sauer — speaking for his fellow Americans — noted wistfully that ‘we have not yet learned the difference between yield and loot. We do not like to be economic realists’.

When discussing nature, economists tend to think that what is unknown is non-existent. The  myriad relationships between the entities in nature are to economists what flies are to wanton boys, to be killed – or ignored – for their sport, without considering them important enough to complicate matters. Development which is grounded in the idea that humans can gain absolute control over nature is short-sighted. People keep talking about economic growth but seem blind to the fact that India has 18%of the world’s population and 4% of the world’s water which should be an alarming statistic.

Environmental abuse has various harmful effects like  air pollution, forest and pasture loss, degradation of crop lands, and poor sanitation and water supply. This results in various costs to society like ill health, lost income, and increased economic vulnerability. It has been estimated that the cavalier treatment of the environment is costing India over 5% of GDP annually. In an article, Denial of Catastrophic Risks, Martin Rees says:
I believe these "existential risks" deserve more serious study. Those fortunate enough to live in the developed world fret too much about minor hazards of everyday life: improbable air crashes, possible carcinogens in food, low radiation doses, and so forth. But we should be more concerned about events that have not yet happened but which, if they occurred even once, could cause worldwide devastation.  
The main threats to sustained human existence now come from people, not from nature. Ecological shocks that irreversibly degrade the biosphere could be triggered by the unsustainable demands of a growing world population. Fast-spreading pandemics would cause havoc in the mega cities of the developing world. And political tensions will probably stem from scarcity of resources, aggravated by climate change.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

The emotional tail wagging the rational dog - VI

You know that teenagers are rebellious and think that they know everything there is to know. You think that it would be better to leave them alone till they have a change of heart like Mark Twain: 'When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.' (The quote is probably apocryphal. It  is like a Yogi Berra quote, 'I really didn't say everything I said. [...] Then again, I might have said 'em, but you never know.')

I once heard Naseeruddin Shah say that children should be left alone to find their own way since they won't listen to you anyway. Then he added sheepishly that inspite of knowing this he keeps advising his children, saying that one is not able to help it. It sounds a familiar situation. It is said that you spend the first half of your life being ashamed of your parents and the second half of your life being ashamed  of  your children.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    
Gandhi said that an important lesson he learnt in life was that reason has its limits. Reason can take us up to a point beyond which, it doesn’t work. He wrote in Young India in Nov. 1931, 'Nobody has probably drawn up more petitions or espoused more forlorn causes than I, and I have come to this fundamental conclusion that, if you want something really important to be done, you must not merely satisfy the reason, you must move the heart also.'

Reason can only appeal to the head and you must find ways of reaching somebody’s heart, conscience, his moral universe, only then a rational discourse can begin to proceed. As Prof. Bhikhu Parekh says in Gandhi in the 21st Century (transcript of a lecture)
Reason has its limits and Gandhi says sometimes you can find a strong rationalist becoming a strong advocate for violence. For example: if I am unable to persuade someone then the rationalist would say: “these guys are morally obtuse, no use talking to them, they are not being reasonable, they are not human” – and therefore it is found rationally legitimate to engage in violence against them. And Gandhi’s argument was that the relation between reason and violence is much closer than we realize.             
Most people have some irrational behavior or the other which they often indulge in especially when under some sort of pressure. It will be like the story of Neils Bohr. A visitor to his house was surprised to find a horseshoe above the front doorway. Tradition asserts that a horseshoe brings luck when placed over a door.  He expressed incredulity that a man of science could possibly be swayed by a simple-minded folk belief. The physicist replied: 'Of course I don’t believe in it, but I understand it brings you luck, whether you believe in it or not.'

I first read about economics when I was in IIMA and when I read about the rational actor model, I thought it made sense. But one discipline’s trivia is another discipline’s focus and when I started reading a bit more about psychology I started realizing that the simple conclusion about human behaviour is simplistic. The abstract reasoning favored by economists ignores the realities of how human beings think and act. People are not mechanical robots. Many of their decisions are influenced by psychological factors like regret, love, hate, ambition, conformity, herd behaviour, etc.

Some market forces like advertising can interfere with enlightened decision-making.The problem of social  norms being replaced by market norms has to be considered in each situation instead of a knee-jerk shift to cash incentives. Conflicts of interest and skewed incentive structures do bias decisions. I saw a quote in Predictably Irrational by an economist who lived 200 years ago, John Maurice Clark (it has been an eye-opener for me to see that many people who lived a long time ago had a better idea of human nature than most decision-makers today):
The economist may attempt to ignore psychology, but it is sheer impossibility for him to ignore human nature ... If the economist borrows his conception of man from the psychologist, his constructive work may have some chance of being purely economic in character. But if he does not, he will not thereby avoid psychology. Rather, he will force himself to make his own, and it will be bad psychology.
Blindly following the rationality advocated by scientists and what Ashis Nandy dismissively calls 'the witchcraft called economics' has social costs. Trying to separate ideas from emotions and thinking that pursuing ideas unburdened by emotions is a good thing can have harmful consequences. This might end up creating a society of psychopaths (or economists; some might think that there is not much difference between the two) which is not the ideal situation. They lack the realization that knowledge without ethics is inferior knowledge. I saw this quote by Erich Fromm in Bonfire of Creeds warning about the divorce between  reason and feeling caused by the increasing objectification of people in the modern world:
Logical thought is not rational if it is merely logical...(Paranoid thinking is characterized by the fact that it can be completely logical...Logic does not exclude madness.) On the other hand, not only thinking but also emotion can be rational... 
Reason flows from the blending of rational thought and feeling. If the two functions are torn apart, thinking deteriorates into schizoid intellectual activity, and feeling deteriorates into neurotic life-damaging passions.
The split between thought and affect leads to a sickness, to a low-grade schizophrenia from which the new man of the technocratic age begins to suffer...There are low-grade forms of psychosis which can be shared by millions of people.
Demonetization, Aadhaar, 'truth machine', destructive weapons, etc. are dreamt up by the kind of psychopath described above. It took me a long time to realize that  the pathology of rationality is more problematic than the pathology of irrationality. It promotes the man whose beast within triumphs. (I had thought that I was well educated before my stroke but, strangely enough, a substantial part of my education happened after my stroke.)  It is reported that when someone told Gandhi that the wildlife in India was rapidly disappearing, he said that 'wildlife is decreasing in forests but it is increasing in cities'. As T.S. Eliot said:
And the end of all our exploring
          Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.