Sunday, February 11, 2018

Ravana mode of development – II

Gandhi had seen signs of militarization in India and was worried that an arms race between India and Pakistan would divert resources from areas like education, which is of course what happened. He said that India had accepted his remedy only because a violent alternative was not visible. In these days of guided missiles and misguided rulers, his observation in Nov 1947 is still relevant: 'Our statesmen have for over two generations declaimed against the heavy expenditure on armaments under the British regime, but now that freedom from political serfdom has come, our military expenditure has increased and still threatens to increase and of this we are proud! There is not a voice raised against it in our legislative chambers.'

A basic justification that was given for colonialism was the civilizing mission of superior-matured men of West over inferior-childish men of East. Gandhi rejected the idea of viewing West's masculinity as matured, aggressive and civilized as against East's masculinity as childish, passive and barbarous.  (As discussed by Ashis Nandy in  The Intimate Enemy.) The authors of Postmodern Gandhi and other essays say, ‘Gandhi turned the moral table on the English definition of courage by suggesting that aggression was the path to mastery of those without self-control, non-violent resistance the path of those with self-control.’

But people still seem eager to adopt the western definition of courage marked by aggressive self assertion. This can be seen in various debates one sees on TV where participants think that admitting an error is a sign of weakness and muscular responses are seen as being desirable. The responses will sound as if they are saying 'Mistakes were made but not by me'. In Great Soul, a book that shows many of Gandhi's compromises, inconsistencies and objectionable statements, still comments on his contrast with present-day politicians:
Seldom does he give in to the politician's usual temptation to blithely sweep away any sense of letdown, to proclaim victory at every juncture. This unsatisfied Gandhi, the one who doesn't know how to pretend, is the one who still makes a claim on Indian social conscience, such as it is. 
In Nationalism (a book that would be banned as 'anti-national' if it was published in these days of manufactured nationalism), Tagore criticized the ‘fierce self idolatry of nation worship’. Tagore was surprised why Gandhi took to nationalism while it, according to Tagore, negates other benefits of modernity such as freedom, equality etc. But Gandhi’s nationalism was not exclusive, it was “intense internationalism”. When I heard about the SC making it compulsory to stand in theatres for the national anthem, the first thought that occurred to me was a statement by Gandhi during his trial for sedition in 1922, 'Affection cannot be manufactured or regulated by law.'

Gandhi's nationalism was very different from Hitler's nationalism. By using one word to describe such a wide spectrum of sentiments, a lot of confusion is created. If you wield a stick and tell a person to say 'I love you' and you really think the person loves you, you have to be quite naive. As Ramachandra Guha writes, 'Speaking of 18th century England, Samuel Johnson famously said that patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel. In 21st century India, it seems to be the first refuge of the incompetent and malevolent.'

In Nationalism, Tagore said that if India tried to copy Western countries (he was talking specifically about political nationalism) without taking into account its own history, ‘it will be as absurd as if Switzerland had staked her existence in her ambition to build up a navy powerful enough to compete with that of England’. I saw an instance of such imitative modernity in Bonfire of Creeds by Ashis Nandy. Apparently, the Bhilai steel plant, located at a place where the winter temperature rarely falls below 55 deg. F, has a roof modeled on a Russian prototype which is designed to withstand heavy snowfall.  Such blind mimicry will be given some fancy name like ‘technology transfer’.

The latest in this spree of copying is the bullet train project which has no relevance to the overwhelming majority of the population. It reminds me of an episode in Yes, Prime Minister where there is a proposal to buy the expensive Trident missile. The bullet train is India's version of something at Harrods:
Sir Humphrey Appleby: Don't you believe that Great Britain should have the best? 
Jim Hacker: Yes, of course.
Sir Humphrey Appleby: Very well, if you walked into a nuclear missile showroom you would buy Trident - it's lovely, it's elegant, it's beautiful. It is quite simply the best. And Britain should have the best. In the world of the nuclear missile it is the Saville Row suit, the Rolls Royce Corniche, the Château Lafitte 1945. It is the nuclear missile Harrods would sell you. What more can I say? 
Jim Hacker: Only that it costs £15 billion and we don't need it.
Sir Humphrey Appleby: Well, you can say that about anything at Harrods.
In The Good Boatman, Joshua Oldfield, who had shared a room with Gandhi during his college days in London, discusses about Gandhi not following the habit of other Indian students. He says, 'I have always felt since that the Indians coming to England have to face the same great testing examination. If they fail, they prove that they have commonplace minds and they drop into the ordinary run of English diet, English habits, and general mediocrity.' You don't have to go to England now to see that.  Macaulay’s aim, set out in his infamous “Minute on Indian Education”  - to create 'a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect' - is still operational.

You can see this Western mode of living in many cities - the way of dress (suit and tie in the middle of an Indian summer), in the foods they prefer (pizza or burgers), the language they speak (Hi dude - or 'bro'-, cool hairdo!), the antics during various sporting events like the IPL...(somebody called these people 'Resident Non-Indians'). My physiotherapist said that his daughter (in kindergarten) had been told by her teacher to speak in English at home! Sujit once told me with great excitement, 'Tonight is El Classico!'. Uh, what's that? It turned out to be a football match between  two European clubs which was apparently followed avidly in his college. Ashis Nandy writes in The Intimate Enemy, '...once the British rulers and the exposed sections of Indians internalized the colonial role definitions….the battle for the minds of men was to a great extent won by the Raj.'

I keep hearing foreigners say that India has become more confident. It seems to mean that India has become better at copying. What is copied is the worst of the West, not its best like respect for institutions, defence of free speech etc. On a visit to London in 1931, for a conference on determining India’s political future, Gandhi was asked by a British journalist what he thought of Western civilization. “I think it would be a good idea,” he replied. I heard a modern spin on this incident. An Indian intellectual said that if Gandhi was alive today and was asked what he thought of Indian civilization, he would reply, “I think it would be a good idea.” As it says in The Mahabharata, 'Alas, having defeated our enemies, we have ourselves been defeated.'

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Ravana mode of development – I

Never has the individual been so completely delivered up to a blind collectivity, and never have men been less capable, not only of subordinating their actions to their thoughts, but even of thinking. - Simone Weil

In Asuras, a novel based on the Ramayana from Ravana’s point of view, when Ravana faces defeat at the hands of Rama, he starts wondering how he had failed as a king. How did he, a mighty emperor of a vast empire, fall to an immature prince of a vassal state? He then reflects on his rule: he knew his people and ruled them with an iron fist. He had ensured that he was surrounded only by people he trusted. ‘I thought that my empire was built on a foundation of steel…but I discovered that it had been built on nothing’. He says that he had built great roads, taken fertile lands for grand building projects, damed rivers that irrigated the countryside, diverted water from fields to cities, etc. He reflects:
When I strove for bigger things – for bigger cities, magnificent temples, wider roads, better ports, larger ships, increased trade, improved business, making a name among the nations of the world, making my country the richest in the world - I forgot something simple and basic: I forgot my people. I thought glittering cities marked progress, I forgot about the people who lived in gutters.
He says that he had become ‘intoxicated with praise’ and had thought that ‘the glitter was all that mattered’. And when the crisis came, ‘the foreign-educated, Sanskrit-speaking, betel-chewing wealthy gave me advice from their hiding holes, but nothing else’. It is apparent that Ravana’s Lanka is post-independence India. That last comment reminds me of an article by Ramachandra Guha where he says that the most vitriolic, nationalistic comments he receives for his articles are from Indians who left long ago and are settled in the West. As Ashis Nandy says in Bonfire of Creeds, '...the more doubtful one's roots, the more desperate one's search for security in exclusion and in boundaries.'

In September 1909, The Illustrated London News published a stinging attack on the idea of Indian nationalism written by G. K. Chesterton.  He had been reading a journal called The Indian Sociologist and he found the ideas there just copies of British ideas. He wrote, ‘the principal weakness of Indian Nationalism seems to be that it is not very Indian and not very national’. He found praise of Herbert Spencer among the nationalists and wrote, 'What is the good of the Indian national spirit if it cannot protect its people from Herbert Spencer? I am not fond of the philosophy of Buddhism; but it is not so shallow as Spencer's philosophy; it has real ideas of its own.' He then wrote:
When all is said, there is a national distinction between a people asking for its own ancient life and a people asking for things that have been wholly invented by somebody else. There is a difference between a conquered people demanding its own institutions and the same people demanding the institutions of the conqueror.  
Suppose an Indian said: "I heartily wish India had always been free from white men and all their works. Every system has its sins: and we prefer our own. There would have been dynastic wars; but I prefer dying in battle to dying in hospital. There would have been despotism; but I prefer one king whom I hardly ever see to a hundred kings regulating my diet and my children. There would have been pestilence; but I would sooner die of the plague than die of toil and vexation in order to avoid the plague. There would have been religious differences dangerous to public peace; but I think religion more important than peace. Life is very short; a man must live somehow and die somewhere; the amount of bodily comfort a peasant gets under your best Republic is not so much more than mine. If you do not like our sort of spiritual comfort, we never asked you to. Go, and leave us with it." 
Suppose an Indian said that, I should call him an Indian Nationalist, or, at least, an authentic Indian, and I think it would be very hard to answer him. But the Indian Nationalists whose works I have read simply say with ever-increasing excitability, "Give me a ballot-box. Provide me with a Ministerial dispatch-box. Hand me over the Lord Chancellor's wig. I have a natural right to be Prime Minister. I have a heaven-born claim to introduce a Budget. My soul is starved if I am excluded from the Editorship of the Daily Mail," or words to that effect.
Gandhi  was electrified by the article and decided to be the Indian nationalist that Chesterton was looking for. He then wrote his trenchant critique of modernity, Hind Swaraj (a useful introduction to it can be found in Gandhi Hind Swaraj and Other Writings by Anthony J. Parel) containing thoughts that had been brewing in his head for some time. What appears obscurantism and the typical NRI gloating about the glories of India's ancient past (Gandhi had till then been abroad for most of his adult life) was an attempt to dismantle the ‘white-man’s civilizing role’ self-image of colonialism so that it can be made a byword for racism and exploitation. Gandhi became appreciative of the fact that colonialism was not just a geographical reality but also a colonization of the mind. In Bonfire of Creeds, Ashis Nandy explains the reasoning behind Gandhi's strategy while fighting colonialism:
Gandhi acted as if he knew that non-synergic systems, driven by zero-sum competition and search for power, control and masculinity, forced the victims to internalize the norms of the system, so that when they displaced their exploiters, they built a system which was either an exact replica of the old one or a tragi-comic version of it. Hence, his concept of non-violence and non-cooperation...He thus becomes a non-player for the existing system - one who plays another game, refusing to be either a player or a counter-player.
The difference between Jinnah (and most others on either side in the freedom movement) and Gandhi is that Jinnah struggled for a piece of land but did not ponder over the kind of state that would develop there while Gandhi had started thinking about it even before he had joined the freedom struggle. He did not accept the idea that ends justify the means and thought that there was an inextricable link between the two. He insisted that ends were shaped by the means that lead to them – you cannot directly control the ends; you can only influence them via the means that you adopt to reach that end. Thus, Gandhi tailored his strategies according to the picture of the Indian government that he visualized at the end of his struggles.

There has been a cottage industry (pdf) over the years pointing out the objectionable things that Gandhi wrote or said while ignoring other things in his oeuvre. (About 90% of the reactions when people are told that I am reading about Gandhi these days suggest that they are thinking, ‘This guy has finally gone nuts!’) Newton spent the major portion of his life on alchemy and trying to interpret some Bible codes but that doesn’t mean that his science should be ignored. Indeed Neil de Grass Tyson says that he was the smartest person who ever lived.  It just shows that contradictory things can co-exist comfortably in the same mind. In the enthusiasm to point out Gandhi's faults and mis-steps, what is often missed is that he was astonishingly prescient on many issues that others weren’t even thinking about, seduced as they were by the glitter of modernity.

Is Gandhi relevant today? The question is asked with unfailing regularity as his birthday approaches each year on October 2. I think he is more relevant now than he was at the time of Independence. In Bapu Kuti, Rajini Bakshi makes a distinction between the historical Gandhi and the civilizational Gandhi. The historical Gandhi may be criticized and condemned as an ordinary figure. But the civilizational Gandhi, the Gandhi of the  ideas and concepts and uncomfortable questions scattered throughout his works about what a good society should be like, is a far more imposing and enduring figure. Getting lost in extreme statements distracts from the substance of Gandhi’s critique of modernity. Gandhi was great because he had faults like anybody else but had the guts to put them in the public domain, examine them and correct them. By tying to pull him down we diminish ourselves.  As an Urdu verse says, 'nai duniya ke hañgamoñ meñ 'nasir'/dabi jaati haiñ avazeñ purani' (In the tumult of the modern world, old voices get suppressed.)

PS: I got that Urdu verse from, a site devoted to Urdu poetry. Someone said that Hindi and Urdu are a great language separated by a script and a lot of politics. Javed Akhtar once said that when Hindi speakers understand something, they say it is Hindi and when they don't understand something, they say it is Urdu. The great thing about this site is that when you click on any word in a verse, a window opens up telling you its meaning.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Reunion again

In late December last year, I attended the 25th year reunion of my IIMA batch at Ahmedabad. Jimmy Connors once said, 'The trouble with experience is that by the time you have it you are too old to take advantage of it.' This is not always true. Since I had been to Ahmedabad 4 years earlier, we were familiar with what the journey entailed so the soul-searching, preparations and tensions of last time were not present this time. (I remember another quote about the lateness of learning from experience - 'By the time you realize that your father was right, you will have a son who thinks that you are wrong.'.)

All the batch mates from my dorm (D2) attended the reunion. During our campus days, we had styled ourselves 'Enlightened Rogues'. This was a term that I had completely forgotten till I read it  in a Whatsapp message. This was the first time since our campus days that all of us rogues (enlightened ones, don't forget) were together. (A friend from D1 - which was a girls' dorm - did not fail to remind me that the enlightening was because our dorm was located next to theirs!)

With 'Enlightened Rogues' (From left): Sidey, Sardar, Chandu and Pondy
Anitha, the wife of one of my dorm-mates (Sidey) has been my unofficial medical advisor for about 15 years now but we had never actually met in person. All our interactions had been through Whatsapp and email. She is from Chennai and practises in New York. Sidey is from Mumbai and works in New York. I am from Palakkad and settled in Coimbatore. Jaya is also from Palakkad and settled in Coimbatore. It must be obvious to you now that we had to travel to Ahmedabad to meet for the first time.
With (from left) : Sidey, Jaya, Anitha, Sujit, Pondy and Chandu
This being the 25th year reunion, there were many more batch mates attending than was the case last time. So I met a lot more friends who I had thought I would never meet again. As it has happened at all reunions, I was astonished at how much people could remember about various incidents that had happened in our campus days. In the Yearbook that we were given, I couldn't remember many incidents that my batch mates had described. While going around the campus, my recollection of some regular haunts was quite hazy. It was another reminder of how my life before my stroke is becoming more like a hazy dream. 

I was having more trouble remembering incidents and places rather than people which is a blessing. 'My path, thank God, took me to Oxford but my path, thank God, took me away from it', said Santayana. I can make a similar remark about my areas of study in college - 'My path, thank God, led me towards Engineering and MBA, but my path, thank God, led me away from them.' But I cannot make a similar remark about the friends I made there. In their case, I would say - ''My path, thank God, led me to them and my path, thank God, kept me with them.

Apparently, Confucius said that if a person is searching for happiness, it is essential for him to find the right chair to sit. This worthy problem has been addressed satisfactorily for a while in my case so I have to consider what else Confucius said. Unfortunately, I don’t have a clue. I am sure that meeting friends made long ago and exchanging gossip with them would have figured very high in his list.

In one of his incomparable works (I don't remember which one),  one of the timeless Wodehousian characters (I seem to have forgotten who it was), said, “One of the poets, whose name I cannot recall, has a passage, which I am unable at the moment to remember, in one of his works, which for the time being has slipped my mind, which hits off admirably this age-old situation.” I find myself in the shoes of that Wodehousian character - I am sure there was a poem which described beautifully the pleasure of meeting old friends after a long time but I am not able to recall which one it was.

I once heard Jorge Luis Borges say, 'You can read what you want but you can't write what you want; you can write only what you are able to.' It is generally agreed that I can't write a decent poem to save my life. That being the case, I will spare you the torture of reading my pathetic attempt to mimic that great poem. (It really was great, take my word for it.)

With all my batch mates
One of de riguers of any reunion is a DJ night and we had two of them. It is a time when middle-aged folks try to emulate youngsters while their amused children look on. A friend was telling us about the lunch menu at her office meetings. I forget the sequence of items but  the final course would always be thairu shaadam (curd rice). For many Tamilians, a meal is never complete without some thairu shaadam. A DJ night is the thairu shaadam equivalent of reunions.

PS: In the two years that I was in Ahmedabad, I had never thought of going to Sabarmati Ashram. Over the past year, I had been reading about Gandhi and have become a big admirer so I decided to go there on this trip.
With my brother-in-law at Sabarmati Ashram

Monday, January 8, 2018

Another curious nurse - II

The nurse seemed to have a persecution complex and seemed to feel that everybody was always talking about her. For example, she will sometimes clean the tracheostomy tube in the morning thinking that Jaya is not at home.  Jaya will come to my room after some time maybe to tell me about a guest who would be coming home later that day. About an hour or two later, the nurse will suddenly ask me why Jaya was displeased about her cleaning the tracheostomy. I will be surprised since the topic had never come up.

She will crib to me about such matters when Jaya is not around so I will not be able to clear the air. But I think even if somebody was around to clarify matters, she would not have been convinced since she was always right. She seemed to have an inferiority complex in front of Jaya which she countered by adopting a superiority complex. Like Neetu Singh, she used to keep saying,  ‘I know everything!’

Once Jaya had some health issues and the doctor told her to lose some weight. Accordingly she joined a gym which increased the nurse's ill-feeling towards her. The reason was that she used to see Jaya going alone to the gym and wondered why she was not taking me also along with her. She was convinced that if I did the exercises in the gym regularly, I would become alright! She would mention her idea to the physiotherapist who would just smile. She concluded that the physiotherapists were useless - she was giving them such great suggestions which were not being taken seriously!

She was fond of buying lottery tickets and would look religiously in the newspaper to check if she had won. (One of her favorite movie scenes was regarding a Malayalam comedy actor being fooled about a lottery ticket.) She is the only person I have met who had won a lottery. She used to win small amounts like Rs. 500 or Rs. 100 quite often. She would tell me that when she wins a large amount, she will buy me a wheelchair! She was convinced that nobody bothered about me. Although I don't know why she decided on a wheelchair because I never heard her criticizing the one I have.

She would imply that my feeding had not been proper and now that it was 'proper' after she came, I didn't have any excuse for simply lying on the bed without speech. She would say, 'If you don't speak, how will the nurses who come after me be able to understand you?' It didn't seem to occur to her at all that she had been here for only a year while my stroke had happened over 18 years ago.

A reason why the nurse thought that nobody was bothered about me was that Jaya often avoided coming to my room when she was present so that arguments are avoided. Jaya tells me that whenever she comes to my room, her eyes will immediately fall on the one thing that was not ok! It may be the feeding vessel that had not been washed properly, a bit of the medicine still sticking to the porcelain bowl in which the tablets are crushed, etc. The nurse will never agree that she is responsible for these things so when she is not around, Jaya will set these things right.

It is said that on Krishna's hint, Bhima tore Jarasanda's body into two halves and threw them in opposite directions. Listening to the nurse's comments, I would be similarly torn between the opposing emotions of wanting to keep my cool and wanting to 'snap' at her in irritation. In Very Good, Jeeves, when Bertie Wooster realises that Jeeves was actually steering him away from a soup when he had thought that he was being led into it, he says:
It was like those stories one used to read as a kid about the traveller going along on a dark night and his dog grabs him by the leg of his trousers and he says, 'Down, sir! What are you doing, Rover?'and the dog hangs on and he gets rather hot under the collar and curses a bit but the dog won't let him go and then suddenly the moon shines through the clouds and he finds he's been standing on the edge of a precipice and one more step would have - well anyway, you get the idea...
As so often in the past, my equivalent of that faithful dog was my lack of speech. I would try my best to be like a well-bred statue and would just try to contort my facial muscles into what  I would hope approximated a smile. I would not always succeed and I would sometimes go over the edge of the precipice much to my regret later because I must admit that she ultimately did stick on for one and a half years which was a lot more than what many other nurses managed. Also she was the only nurse in the last 4 years or so who got up at night when I wanted to pass urine.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Another curious nurse -I

 I once had a nurse who would have been an interesting subject for Sir Roderick Glossop, the loony doctor who used to hound Bertie Wooster. (I mean the doctor's patients were loony, not that the doctor was loony, although Bertie would have said that such a conclusion was also perfectly justified.)

Once the nurse said that she wanted to visit a patient she had looked after some years ago who she said lived nearby. She had met his wife in the bus a couple of days earlier and the latter had asked her to come over one day. The rest of the conversation went as follows (J- Jaya, N -nurse):

J - Did you note the phone number?
N - No
J - Do you know the address?
N - No
J - Then how will you find the house?
N - It near 'Patterns' shop near SBI bus stop.(That's a bus stop near our house.)
     Once I go there, I will be able to find the house.
J -  There is no 'Patterns' shop there. How long ago did you go there?
N - About 4 years ago.
J -  The shop must have changed. What is the person's name?
N - Swaminathan
J - There must be a lot of Swaminathans around. What are his initials?
     Where is he working?
N - Don't know his initials. I think he was working in SBI.
J - Which branch?
N - Don't know. His wife is a doctor.
J - Which hospital?
N - Don't know.

She asked a couple of other people about the location of the house and the conversations proceeded along similar lines. Maybe Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot would have found it easy to guess the address from the clues she gave and said that it was elementary but the people she consulted were not up to the task. But she was confident that she will be able to find the house. Her attempts to locate the house reminded me of a character in George Orwell's essay, Bookshop Memories:
Many of the people who came to us were of the kind who would be a nuisance anywhere but have special opportunities in a bookshop. For example, the dear old lady who 'wants a book for an invalid' (a very common demand, that), and the other dear old lady who read such a nice book in 1897 and wonders whether you can find her a copy. Unfortunately she doesn't remember the title or the author's name or what the book was about, but she does remember that it had a red cover.
One day the nurse decided that she will go alone and find the house. Jaya gave her the directions to SBI bus stop as she couldn't accompany her (since it would have meant that I would have to be alone). Within half an hour, she returned home sheepishly admitting that she couldn't locate the house and that the people she had asked for directions couldn't help her. She was still confident that she will be able to find the house one day although she never tried again while she was here.

All through the time the nurse was here, she had the unshakable belief that I could actually move and talk and I was faking my ailment so that others would do my work for me. Otherwise pray tell me, how was it possible that while she had ‘cured’ many patients, I had remained indifferent to her best efforts? Sometimes, she would whisper a threat to me when I have a visitor. What was this threat? ‘Shall I tell them that you can actually do everything and you are only pretending now?' My secret was safe with her for the moment but mind it, I could be outed by her any moment!

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 where you will find Trivia Day, Peculiar People Day, Laugh And Get Rich Day, Unique Names Day, Tell An Old Joke Day, Cliché Day, ...