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. 

Saturday, June 17, 2017

The emotional tail wagging the rational dog - V

Many nations and ethnic groups demand apologies for wrongs committed in the distant past. Germany has paid the equivalent of billions of dollars as reparations for the Holocaust. Japan has shown reluctance to apologize for its wartime atrocities in the face of growing international pressure. Debate has raged in Australia over the government's obligation to aborigines over past wrongs. Sashi Tharoor's speech about British colonial rule in India earned him fans even among his political opponents.

Should nations apologize for historical wrongs? There are worries about inflaming old animosities, hardening historic enmities, etc. There is the argument that people in the present generation should not apologize for the wrongs committed by a past generation. This rests on the notion that we are responsible only for our own actions and not for the actions of someone else.But are humans unencumbered beings entirely free to take decisions without outside influences?

If we think of ourselves as unbound by moral ties that we haven't chosen ourselves, we can't make sense of many things like family loyalty, patriotism, religious faith, etc. In Justice, Michael Sandel says that we are storytelling beings who are born in the middle of a continuing narrative. My decisions are influenced by larger life stories of which my life is a part. He quotes from Alasdair MacIntyre's book After Virtue:
We all approach our own circumstances as bearers of a particular social identity. I am someone's son or daughter, someone's cousin or uncle; I am a citizen of this or that city, a member of this or that guild or profession; I belong to this clan, that tribe, this nation. Hence what is good for me has to be the good for one who inhabits these roles. As such, I inherit from the past of my family, my city, my tribe, my nation, a variety of debts, inheritances, rightful expectations and obligations. These constitute the given of my life, my moral starting point. This is in part what gives my own life its moral particularity.
[SNIP]
...the story of my life is always embedded in the story of those communities from which I derive my identity. I am born with a past, and to try to cut myself from that past, in the individualist mode, is to deform my present relationships.
To illustrate this narrative account of a person bound by moral ties that he has not chosen, Sandel gives an example of a communal obligation. During WW II, members of the French resistance conducted bombing raids over Nazi occupied France. Although factories and military installations were targeted, civilian causalities were inevitable. One day a bomber pilot found that his assigned target was his home village. He asked to be excused from the mission because he felt that even in a just cause, he couldn't kill some of his fellow villagers. Sandel writes:
What do you make of the pilot's stance? Do you admire it or consider it a form of weakness? Put aside the broader question of how many civilian causalities are justified in the cause of liberating France.The pilot was not questioning the necessity of the mission or the number of lives that would be lost. His point was that he could not be the one to take these particular lives. Is the pilot's reluctance mere squeamishness, or does it reflect something of moral importance? If we admire the pilot, it is because we see in his stance a recognition of his encumbered identity as a member of his village, and we admire the character that his reluctance reflects.
I saw later this transcript of a speech by Bhikhu Parekh where his explanation of Gandhi's views about the interconnectedness of humans was similar to MactIntyre's quoted above (the entire explanation is in one paragraph but I have split it into three paragraphs for ease of reading):
Gandhi saw more clearly than most other writers both the interdependence of human beings and the ways in which systems of domination were built up and sustained. He argued that all systems of domination rested on a profound misunderstanding of human nature, and wrongly assumed that it was possible for one man or group of men to harm another without also harming themselves. Human beings were necessarily interdependent and formed an organic whole.

An individual owed his existence to his parents without whose countless sacrifices he would neither survive nor grow into a sane human being. He grew and realized his potential in a stable and peaceful society, made possible by the efforts and sacrifices of thousands of anonymous men and women. He became a rational, reflective and moral human being only within a rich civilization created by scores of sages, saints, savants and scientists. In short, every human being owned his humanity to others, and benefited from a world to the creation of which he contributed nothing. As Gandhi put it, every man was 'born a debtor', a beneficiary of others' gifts, and his inherited debts were too vast to be repaid.

Even a whole lifetime was not enough to pay back what a man owned to his parents, let alone all others. Furthermore the creditors were by their very nature unspecifiable. Most of them were dead or remained anonymous, and those alive were so numerous and their contributions so varied and complex that it was impossible to decide what one owed to whom. To talk about repaying the debts did not therefore make sense except as a clumsy and metaphorical way of describing one's response to unsolicited but indispensable gifts.
There is a school of thought which says that history is a field of knowledge which is a source of conflicts because it reminds people about episodes in the distant past which are best forgotten. An example is the Ramjanambhoomi movement where constant attempts to historicize a figure who had resided peacefully in myths for centuries unleashed atavistic tendencies in many people which had unfortunate consequences. Gandhi once said, ‘Happy is the country that has no history.'

Thursday, June 8, 2017

The emotional tail wagging the rational dog - IV

 Our perception of risk is dominated by the emotional part of our brain.  Threats that bring to mind strong images or which are related to us in vivid stories have more influence on our decision making than we imagine. Theories, graphs,  diagrams and data speak to the rational part of our brain but do not spur us to action. Paul Slovic, an expert on the social amplification of risk identifies two drivers of risk perception: 1)a sense of powerlessness and 2) an anxiety that comes from new and unforeseeable dangers. Terrorism involves both criteria. Economists appeal to the rational rider but the emotional elephant often has its way.

In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman writes about the time when he had gone to Israel when there were frequent incidents of suicide bombings in buses. Even then, the probability that any particular person will die in a terrorist incident is small but that is not how the public used to react. They used to avoid buses as much as they could and when in buses they used to look anxiously at packages or bulky clothes. Kahneman was ashamed to find that despite knowing the probabilities, his behaviour had also been affected. He found that he did not like to stop his car next to a bus at red lights and he moved away more quickly than usual when the light changed. His rational knowledge had no effect on his behaviour. He writes:
The emotion is not only disproportionate to probability, it is also insensitive to the exact level of probability. Suppose that two cities have been warned about the presence of suicide bombers. Residents of one city are told that two bombers are ready to strike. Residents of another city are told of a single bomber. Their risk is lower by half, but do they feel much safer?
Kahneman gives an example where some Americans were offered insurance against their own death in a terrorist attack while on a trip to Europe, while another group were offered insurance that would cover death of any kind on the trip. Even though "death of any kind" includes "death in a terrorist attack", the former group were willing to pay more than the latter. If you imagine a Venn diagram, the subset here is being valued more than the super set. Fear of terrorism for these subjects was stronger than a general fear of dying on a foreign trip. Kahneman suggests that the attribute of fear is being substituted for a calculation of the total risks of travel.

In 2014, the year for  which I heard the data, more people died in the US of gun related violence than in terrorist attacks worldwide. In India, the number of people who die in terrorist attacks is minuscule compared to the number of people who die in road accidents. Yet, people in both counties are more concerned about terrorist attacks. People are more afraid of flying than driving although people are far more likely to die in road accidents.

This anomaly has to do with the availability heuristic which has to do with what people instinctively do when they estimate the frequency of a category. If people can quickly recall instances of a category, that category will be judged to be large. Dramatic events like plane crashes and terrorist attacks are shown again and again on TV making us feel that they occur more frequently than they actually do.

The idea of availability helps explain how people react to various disasters. In the immediate aftermath of a disaster, people will be very concerned and buy various insurance policies and take various preventive and mitigation measures. But as memories of the disaster grow dim over time, the worry and diligence shown earlier melt away. In fact, this cycle of problem, concern and growing complacency seems to happen every year in India regarding monsoons.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

The emotional tail wagging the rational dog - III

When people are confronted with an overwhelming danger, they can adopt many different behaviours to reduce their fear. These may include denial, playing down the threat, fatalism, etc. These reactions are called maladaptations because they are responses that do nothing to reduce the level of risk. If something arouses a painful emotion, people may subconsciously suppress or deny it in order to avoid the unbearable pain, even though the practical consequences may be disastrous. There is an example of such a maladaptation in Collapse by Jared Diamond:
There is a high dam above a narrow river valley which is in danger of bursting.  When attitude pollsters ask people downstream of the dam how concerned they are about the dam’s bursting, the fear is lower far away from the dam and increases as one approaches closer to the dam. Nothing surprising there. The surprising finding is that, after you get within a few miles of the dam, where the concern is found to be the highest, the concern falls off to zero as one approaches closer to the dam! Thus the people who are most certain to be drowned profess unconcern. It would seem that the only way to preserve one’s sanity in the face of such danger is to deny its existence.
Sentences that are mathematically equivalent may not be psychologically so. How a statement is framed profoundly affects how a person views it. Two choices that are formally equivalent may have different emotional content and in their experiments, Kahneman and Tversky found that people consistently chose on the basis of their emotions. For example, they asked people the following two questions that are logically identical but framed differently: The first group of participants was presented with a choice between programs: In a group of 600 people,
Program A: "200 people will be saved"
Program B: "there is a 1/3 probability that 600 people will be saved, and a 2/3 probability that no people will be saved"
72 percent of participants preferred program A (the remainder, 28%, opting for program B). The second group of participants was presented with the choice between the following: In a group of 600 people,
Program C: "400 people will die"
Program D: "there is a 1/3 probability that nobody will die, and a 2/3 probability that 600 people will die"
In this decision frame, 78% preferred program D, with the remaining 22% opting for program C. It was found that when things were stated in terms of death (second question), people prefer treatment D but when things are in terms of life, treatment A was preferred. When thinking about life, people seemed to prefer certainty, but when thinking about death, they seemed to prefer odds, probably because people seemed to think that they might overcome the odds.

In The Trouble with Testosterone, Robert Sapolsky wonders about applying Kahneman and Tversky's scheme to how firing squads are organized. In ancient times one shot may not kill a person. So there could be two alternative scenarios which are formally equivalent: either one man could fire five times or five people could fire once each. Sapolsky thinks that the second method was chosen because of the logical distortion it allowed: at some irrational level, it was easier for people to emotionally convince themselves that they had killed only one-fifth of a man. He writes:
Why do I think the firing squad was an accommodation to guilt, to the perception of guilt, and to guilty consciences? Because of an even more intriguing refinement in the art of killing people. By the middle of the nineteenth century, when a firing squad assembled, it was often the case that one man would randomly be given a blank bullet. Whether each member of the firing squad would tell if he had the blank or not - by the presence or absence of a recoil at that time of the shooting – was irrelevant. Each man would go home that night with the certainty that he would never be accused for sure, of having played a role in the killing.

Monday, May 22, 2017

 The emotional tail wagging the rational dog - II

In The Emotional Brain, the neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux shows that the emotional part of the brain is tightly integrated with the rational part and has dominance in decision making because of its ability to respond quickly to threats, which is crucial to an organism's survival. He says that emotions can easily displace routine events out of awareness but non-emotional events do not so easily displace emotions from the mental spotlight. He writes:
...emotions are things that happen to us rather than things we will to occur...We have little direct control over our emotional reactions. Anyone who has tried to fake an emotion, or who has been the recipient of a faked one, knows all to well the futility of the attempt. While conscious control over emotions is weak, emotions can flood consciousness. This is so because the wiring of the brain at this point in our evolutionary history is such that connections from the emotional systems to the cognitive systems are stronger than connections from the cognitive systems to the emotional systems.
I came across an experiment in The Emotional Brain involving split-brain patients. In such patients, the nerve connections between the two hemispheres of the brain are cut to try to prevent very severe epilepsy and thereby, the two sides can no longer communicate with each other. Thus, since language centres of the brain are in the left side, the person can only talk about what the left side knows. If a stimulus is presented in such a way that only the right hemisphere sees it, the split-brain patient is unable to verbally describe the stimulus. In these patients, information provided to one side of the brain remains trapped on that side and is unavailable to the other side.

A split-brain patient called P.S. was presented with a stimulus having emotional content. When the emotional stimulus was presented to the left hemisphere, P.S. could describe the stimulus and tell whether it signified something good or bad. But when the same stimulus was presented to the right hemisphere, the speaking left hemisphere could not describe the stimulus. But it could correctly judge whether the stimulus seen by the right hemisphere was good or bad.

For example, when the right hemisphere saw the word 'mom', the left hemisphere rated it as 'good', and when the right side saw the word 'devil', the left rated it as 'bad'. Such correct rating by the left hemisphere happened consistently even though it had no idea what the stimuli were, the emotional significance of the stimulus seeming to 'leak' across the brain. Joseph LeDoux writes, 'The patient's conscious emotions, as experienced by his left hemisphere, were, in effect, being pushed this way and that by stimuli that he claimed to have never seen.'

A psychologist at New York University, Jonathan Haidt, describes the two systems with the image of a rider and elephant. The rational rider tries his damnedest to make the emotional elephant go in the direction he wants but ultimately the huge elephant will have its way. I came across a passage in Somerset Maugham's novel, Of Human Bondage, which struck a chord in me:
It amused him sometimes to consider that his friends, because he had a face which did not express his feelings very vividly and a rather slow way of moving, looked upon him as strong-minded, deliberate, and cool. They thought him reasonable and praised his common sense; but he knew that his placid expression was no more than a mask, assumed unconsciously, which acted like the protective colouring of butterflies; and himself was astonished at the weakness of his will. It seemed to him that he was swayed by every light emotion, as though he were a leaf in the wind, and when passion seized him he was powerless. He had no self-control. He merely seemed to possess it because he was indifferent to many of the things which moved other people.
He considered with some irony the philosophy which he had developed for himself, for it had not been of much use to him in the conjuncture he had passed through; and he wondered whether thought really helped a man in any of the critical affairs of life: it seemed to him rather that he was swayed by some power alien to and yet within himself, which urged him like that great wind of Hell which drove Paolo and Francesca ceaselessly on. He thought of what he was going to do and, when the time came to act, he was powerless in the grasp of instincts, emotions, he knew not what. He acted as though he were a machine driven by the two forces of his environment and his personality; his reason was someone looking on, observing the facts but powerless to interfere: it was like those gods of Epicurus, who saw the doings of men from their empyrean heights and had no might to alter one smallest particle of what occurred.
Sometimes, I will feel that I have some solid grounds to let off a bit of steam. But I will keep telling myself, 'Relax. No need to get so agitated, it is not such a big deal.' But all these attempts at self-control will be utterly useless and I will show my usual signs of being irritated like the stiffening of my muscles.  I will realize that the task of trying to control my emotions was a daunting one and my Inner Voice will tell me to  abandon the project. I will later find that Jaya had already attended to whatever had been agitating me and I had been fretting unnecessarily.

I will be like the batsman who shapes to play a hook shot but pulls out of the shot at the last moment and ducks hastily after realizing that the bouncer is a little quicker and a little higher than what he had initially anticipated. What often helps preserve a facade of calmness instead of giving a stupid speech are two factors:

Firstly, I am indifferent to many things like new models of cars, mobile phones etc. that excite many people. (In the present age, mobile phones provide the starkest reminders of Gandhi's warning - 'Machines should be man's slave, man should not be machine's slave.) Secondly, the tediousness of my communication process means that I am unable to deliver my fiery speech.

Friday, May 12, 2017

The emotional tail wagging the rational dog - I

The only questions worth asking today are whether humans are going to have any emotions tomorrow, and what the quality of life will be if the answer is no. - Lester Bangs, rock critic

“An Indian born economist once explained his personal theory of reincarnation to his graduate economics class,” Paul Krugman writes in the opening paragraph of his Preface to Peddling Prosperity. “If you are a good economist, a virtuous economist,’ he said, ‘you are reborn as a physicist. But if you are an evil, wicked economist, you are reborn as a sociologist.” The evil economist is closer to reality but many economists want to emulate the virtuous economist and achieve the precision of physics.

Adam Smith recognized that humans are not always guided by reason. His Theory of Moral Sentiments begins, 'How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.' But many later economists try to subsume human behaviour into their imposing theories and complex calculations involving the rational maximiser whose resemblance to reality is highly questionable.

Commenting on the new methods of reproduction like IVF and surrogacy, one professor of business administration at Harvard said that this 'unbundling the supply chain' has prompted 'growth in the surrogacy market' since people who participated in this market 'essentially needed to purchase a single package of egg-bundled-with-womb. 'This description instrumentalises women's bodies and treats babies as tradeable commodities. Philip Ball writes in  Critical Mass about Gary Becker's analysis of the economics of  the family (which helped him win a Nobel Prize in 1992):
'Participants in marriage markets', argues Becker, face a difficult choice because they 'have limited information about the utility they can expect with potential mates.' People are compelled to marry across boundaries of race, religion and class when 'they do not expect to do better by further search and waiting'. Let us be thankful that Shakespeare did not have Romeo and Juliet put it that way. 
In this TEDx talk,Gerd Gigerenzer talks about this idea of economists of marrying by maximizing expected rational utility. When he asks economists how many married this way, no one says he did so. Finally, one economist admitted that he calculated the maximum utilities of his girlfriends and married the one who had the highest score. Not surprisingly, when they met a few years later, the economist was divorced.

In Antifragile, Nassim Nicholas Taleb (no admirer of economists; he often calls them charlatans and advocates throwing out everything in economics that has an equation)  relates a hilarious story. It is about a highly cited academic in the field of decision theory who helped develop "something grand and useless called 'rational decision making' loaded with grand and useless axioms... and grand and even more useless probabilities".

When at Columbia university, he struggled over a decision to move to Harvard. A colleague suggested that he use some of his greatly honoured and discussed techniques which "included something like like 'maximum expected utility'". He angrily responded, 'Come on, this is serious!' (Taleb is not sure whether the story is apocryphal or not but thinks it true to type.) As Yogi Berra said, 'In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is.'

Economists often come up with such cartoon models of human behavior because they are conducive to deriving simple equations and getting exact solutions. But modeling human behaviour without any role for emotions is unrealistic. It is like the drunk who was searching for his keys under a streetlight. When a passerby asked him where he had lost his keys, he replied that he had lost it in the next street. Then why search here? The drunk said, 'Because this is where the the light is present.' Similarly economists use only reason in their models because that is where light is present. In The Black Swan, Nassim Nicholas Taleb gives an idea of why economists make bizarre models:
Economics is the most insular of fields; it is one that quotes least from outside itself. Economics is perhaps the subject that currently has the highest number of philistine scholars - scholarship without erudition and natural curiosity can close your mind and lead to the fragmentation of disciplines.
Humans have generally thought that reason is better than passion, thoughts are better than feelings. Plato thought that emotions are like wild horses which have to be controlled by the intellect which he thought of as the charioteer. I came across some sample sentences in  Metaphors we Live by that show humans regarding reason as better than emotions - The discussion 'fell to the emotional' level, but I 'raised' it back 'up to the rational' plane. We put our 'feelings' aside and had a 'high-level intellectual' discussion of the matter. He couldn't 'rise above' his 'emotions'.

But researchers are finding that reason and emotion work together. The evolutionary journey has equipped us with two distinct information processing systems. Researchers such as Daniel Kahneman have classified these systems as System 1 which can be called the emotional brain and System 2 which can be called the rational brain. These systems are in constant communication with each other.  The attentive System 2 is who we think we are but it is not a paragon of rationality and is often derailed by the automatic System 1.