Wednesday, December 17, 2014

'Morcha organiser'

In this interview, when Ashis Nandy talked about media consultants moulding the image of politicians so that it is the way the public wants them to be,  I was reminded of a character in the novel A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry. This character had throat trouble and said that he had got it by working in 'morcha producion'. This job involved making up slogans, hiring crowds, and producing rallies or demonstrations for different political parties.He had gone into this job after being a proofreader for many years. He explains the intricacies of his job:
'Writing speeches, designing banners -all that was easy. With years of proofreading under  my belt, I knew exactly the blather and bluster favoured by professional politicians. My modus operandi was simple. I made up three lists: Candidate's Accomplishments, (real and imaginary), Accusations Against Opponent (including rumours, allegations, innuendos, and lies) and Empty Promises (the more improbable the better). Then it was merely a matter of taking various combinations of items from the three lists, throwing in some bombast, tossing in a few local references, and there it was - a brand new speech. I was a real hit with my clients.' 
'My difficulties lay in the final phase, out on the street. You see, I had spent my working life in an office, in silence, and my throat was unexcercised. Now suddenly I was yelling instructions, shouting slogans, exhorting the crowds to repeat after me. It became too much. Much too much for my underused larynx.'
When asked why he didn't let the rented crowd do the yelling for him, he said that he couldn't break out of his old habit of doing everything himself. He says:
I could not leave it to the rented crowd to do the shouting.  after all, the success of a demonstration is measured in decibels. Clever slogans and smart banners alone will not do it. So I felt I must lead by example, employ my voice enthusiastically, volley and thunder, beseech the heavens, curse the forces of evil, shriek the praises of the benefactor - bellow and clamour and cry and cheer till victory was mine!'
I had not heard the term 'morcha production' before reading this book. Perhaps the folks involved in morcha production have more respectable, corporatised designations now like media consultant or member of the communication cell or, in these days of popularity of the war metaphor, he or she may be a member of the 'war room'.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Drowning in the trivial - III

Remember the third slogan of the Party in George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-four? IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH.That appears to be the new mantra. People may not know the difference between an Assembly and General election, they may not be able to locate a major Indian city on a map (eg. for Ahmedabad, there may be guesses like, 'Is it in Orissa, Bihar, Punjab...?), may not know that Sherlock Holmes is a character and not an author...(I am talking of graduates.) One Std. XII boy was asked in a TV program whether he had ever heard the name 'Charles Darwin' and the answer was 'No'.

I saw an ad which stated that the most important reason for having a successful career is good looks! People will keep asking me what diet I am on to get a fair skin. The simple explanation never seems to occur to them that I don't roam in the sun collecting sunburns, dust and grime. A Tamil song says, 'Black is my favorite colour', but nobody else seems to say so. The level of narcissism keeps increasing. There are many people who don't wear helmets when driving a two-wheeler because it will spoil their hairstyle! People are never satisfied with the number of dresses they have, weddings become more garish, the bride keeps staggering under increasing amounts of jewellery... I saw an ad in which a model sees a pimple on her cheek and cries out, 'My life will be ruined!' Methinks the lady protests too much.

Many well-heeled people seem to be divorced from reality. It is as if uncomfortable facts like infant mortality, chronic hunger, female foeticide, etc don't exist. I once saw a program about e-commerce. One speaker said that the worst punishment you can give to a teen these days is to impose a 'no-screen day' on them. Apparently this means that they can't access any social media that day. That is the worst punishment? Really? And how many kids are there like that?

In The Demon-Haunted World, Carl Sagan writes that 63% of American adults think dinosaurs lived with humans, half don't know that the Earth goes around the Sun and takes a year to do it, that some of his students in his undergraduate classes at Cornell don't know that the Sun is star. Bemoaning the preponderance of pseudoscience and psychic explanations on TV, Carl Sagan writes in The Demon-Haunted world:
In American polls in the early 1990s,two-thirds of all adults had no idea what the "information superhighway" was; 42% didn't know where Japan is; and 38% were ignorant of the term "holocaust". But the proportion was in the high 90s who had heard of the Menendez, Bobbit, and O.J. Simpson criminal cases; 99% had heard that the singer Michael Jackson had allegedly sexually molested a  boy.The United States may be the best-entertained nation on Earth, but a steep price is being paid.
Don't worry, America. India will catch up soon. I know that a science tuition teacher didn't know that stars produce their own light. Now she knows! Children here are not taught to think.  By the time they are in about Std VIII or Std. IX, they stop playing. They will be running from tuition to tuition memorising the same things over and over again thus strengthening their sphexishness or uncomprehending competence.  I get the uncomfortable image of kids in madrassas memorising verses from the Koran.The only difference seems to be that they are not memorising a religious book.

Sturgeon's law states that ninety percent of everything is crap. Unfortunately fluff and glitz will generally win because they require less bandwidth for human beings to appreciate them. A type of Gresham's law works in acquiring information with the bad driving out the good. People actually seem to think that the bromides that glamorous models coo like 'It doesn't matter where you come from as long as you believe in yourself' is true. The are seduced into believing that life is like an Amitabh Bachchan movie.

Politicians and marketers keep saying that people are getting 'more aspirational'. It increasingly seems to mean that people are becoming shallower. They seem to think that the raison d'ĂȘtre of life is to buy the next fancy gadget available in the market. I saw a clip in which Shah Rukh Khan said, 'I love the commercialisation of life. I am willing to sell my soul.' People who should know better buy into the catchy statements of politicians who follow a strategy explained by Obama in this article:
 “Nothing comes to my desk that is perfectly solvable,” Obama said at one point. “Otherwise, someone else would have solved it. So you wind up dealing with probabilities. Any given decision you make you’ll wind up with a 30 to 40 percent chance that it isn’t going to work. You have to own that and feel comfortable with the way you made the decision. You can’t be paralyzed by the fact that it might not work out.” On top of all of this, after you have made your decision, you need to feign total certainty about it. People being led do not want to think probabilistically.
 For eg. the BJP is very good in coining catchy slogans like 'Minimum government maximum governance', 'zero defect, zero efffect', etc., but translating them into reality is a complex, long drawn out process filled with false starts and disappointments. Or take the obvious idea that improving and widening roads will reduce traffic snarls. Only that, it is not so obvious due to what economists call 'induced demand'. But people easily buy into these statements without appreciating their complexities.

PS: I was pleasantly surprised to see these videos of Ramachandra Guha which had longish discussions with a young audience. The audience had read books and thought about issues beyond the narrow confines of their careers.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Drowning in the trivial - II

With Reliance taking over Network 18 which includes TV channels like CNBC TV18, CNN-IBN and CNN Awz, the media scene in India looks worrying. Carl Sagan says in The Demon-Haunted World:
I hope no one will consider me unduly cynical if I assert that a good first order model of how commercial and public television works is simply this: Money is everything. In prime time, a single rating point difference is worth millions of dollars in advertising....the content of commercial programming is in the course of a steep, long-term dumbing down.
Much the same can be said about TV in India. In the last IPL, there was a match-fixing controversy and there was some doubt over whether the final will be held. I normally don't watch IPL but this time I decided to watch the pre-show before the final to see what will be said about the controversy. (I am often told that I am wasting my time watching Test cricket. I never fail to be amused by the thought that I seem to have wasted a lot less time than most of those who are smitten by T20 cricket.) With the King of Hype, Navjot Singh Sidhu in full cry, I needn't have bothered.

There were the usual flashing lights, music, jokes that had to be advertised as such and raucous laughter. It seemed as if the people were living in an alternate reality. If an alien had come and watched the program it would have thought that people had nothing better to do than watch the King of Hype in hyperactive mode. In one program, a senior executive of IPL was asked whether there was too much cricket. He replied, 'There is never too much of cricket.' As Upton Sinclair said, 'It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.'

And now that many sports have IPL-style matches, it will keep everyone busy all year with the menfolk watching sport and the women watching serials. A humorous old man told me that he had stopped going to people's houses after 6 p.m. because they will be glued to the idiot box. He said that beneath their welcoming smiles they may be thinking, 'What a time for this old man to come and pester us!' It is ironical but I seem to remember watching more interesting programs in my neighbours' houses when I didn't have a TV and DD was the only game in town.

Before my stroke, I had a mental frame whereby even though I was not religious, I was deferential to religion. (In this video, Simon Singh gives a good demonstration of mental frames.) The message of respecting religion is constantly reinforced in movies, TV programs, newspapers, conversations etc. This mental frame got shattered only some years after my stroke after the full blast of the weirdness hit me. Earlier, I was hesitant to advertise the fact that I am an atheist. Now, I don't give a damn.

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.'

But what I encounter often is of a different order. A Maths teacher said that nothing is a coincidence, everything is the work of God. Sujit was told that he should keep an empty place next to him while writing examinations where Lord Ganapati can sit. Apparently, the birth of the Kauravas is evidence for the existence of stem cell technology in Mahabharata times. I was told that Modi recites some mantras everyday before dawn which makes him invincible in any argument. I was told that a college in Puttaparti run by Sai Baba gave admission to a student because he said, 'I knew Baba from the time I was in the womb!' And this was presented as evidence of how great the college was! Spinoza's God, indeed!

The majority of people from the PM down have strange beliefs - politicians, bureaucrats, army commanders, bank officers etc. are all in the same boat.  Many well-heeled people take great pride in flaunting their religiosity and spending ostentatiously for religious events. When the Minister for Water Resources, Uma Bharati, was asked about mixing science and mythology, she said that in India, both were the same. Thanks for the clarification, ma'am. How can anybody doubt that this century belongs to India?! Considering the amount of mental baggage that people carry, if I was a believer, I would have required an Electric Monk described by Douglas Adams in Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency:
The Electric Monk was a labour-saving device, like a dishwasher or a video recorder. Dishwashers washed tedious dishes for you, thus saving you the bother of washing them yourself; video recorders watched tedious television for you, thus saving you the bother of looking at it yourself; Electric Monks believed things for you, thus saving you what was becoming an increasingly onerous task, that of believing all the things the world expected you to believe.
The man from the Monk shop...pointed out that the new improved Monk Plus models were twice as powerful, had an entirely new multitasking Negative Capability feature that allowed them to hold up to sixteen entirely different and contradictory ideas in memory simultaneously without generating any irritating system errors, were twice as fast and and at least three times as glib, and you could have a whole new one for less than the cost of replacing the motherboard of the old model.
Being an irrational atheist is good enough for me. I had come to the conclusion long ago that talking to people with such beliefs would be a waste of time especially for me.It be like talking to the deaf person in the following episode. An old man I knew who was hard of hearing was going to Palakkad in a car. A friend of his was travelling in another car in the opposite direction and when they crossed each other they slowed down for a brief conversation. The friend asked, 'Are you going to Palakkad?' The old man replied, 'No, no. I am going to Palakkad.'

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Drowning in the trivial - I

In You Can't Read This Book: Censorship in an Age of Freedom, Nick Cohen mentions something that I have been mulling over for a while - the explosion and encouragement of triviality. I have written about it earlier. The Net gives writers new tools but they may find that the public that they are trying to influence may be diverted by other attractions. In George Orwell's dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-four, the Party controlled the masses with prolefeed - the rubbishy entertainment and spurious news which the Party handed out to the masses.

The Web has simultaneously made it easy to write and easy for their efforts to be ignored. They can produce serious content but find that their target audience is seduced by cheap entertainment. The Web and TV have the risk of making people blind to the vital issues of the day.A character in Nineteen Eighty-four who is involved in editing the Dictionary of Newspeak says, 'The whole climate of thought will be different. In fact there will be no thought, as we understand it now. Orthodoxy means not thinking -- not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness.'  Cohen writes:
Evgeny Morozov, the most bracing critic of modern optimism, emphasises the anaesthetising effects of perpetual amusement.  People use new means of communication not to engage in political activism, but to find entertainment. The Net is no exception, and has increased the opportunities for the masses to find pleasing diversions to a level that no one had previously imagined possible.  In Russia, China, Vietnam and the other formerly puritan communist countries, the decision by the new market-oriented regimes to allow Western-style media to provide high-quality escapism, sport, dating and gossip sites was a smart move that made their control of the masses more effective.
Cohen says that in Belarus, Morozov discovered that some sites offered free downloads of pirated movies and music. The authoritarian government could have easily stopped this but he feels that they prefer to ignore and may even be encouraging them. The free market in India also encourages fluff. If you ask network executives, they will say, 'That is what people want.' Apparently, many newspapers have only one rural correspondent but 50 correspondents will cover a fashion show.

The  morning news bulletin of NDTV 24*7 often has 15 minutes of national and international news and 15 minutes of entertainment news - movies, music videos, affairs of celebrities, the fashion show that 'everyone is talking about', etc. A nauseating Shah Rukh Khan ad about NDTV Prime that keeps being aired tells you the recipe for creating a zombie - 'work hard, play hard'. In other words, slog in office during the day and flop in front of the TV till you sleep.

Channels keep flashing 'Just in', 'Breaking news', 'Flash news', etc. which will generally be about irrelevant news eg. 'PM arrives at CII meet venue' or 'Voting begins in Maharashtra'. They will ask viewers to vote on some issue and say '75% of the people support...'. People watching an  English language channel in India (or any particular language) cannot be said to represent the whole of India. (And for all you know, 10 people may have voted.)

In TV debates like 'We the People' (Rammachandra Guha called it 'We the People of South Delhi), or Big Fight, the moderator keeps butting in and not allowing the speakers to speak. In these days of soundbite TV, only short, staccato sentences are acceptable. In sporting events, there will be a 'Twitter battle' where the most inane questions will be asked eg., 'Will KKR score more than 50 runs in power play?' How does it matter if you declare that 'CSK is winning the Twitter battle'?

Book are not looked at as another source of entertainment. They are rather viewed as part of studies and therefore avoided, a view that is largely due to the method of teaching that is prevalent here. I grew up before  satellite TV, Internet  and mobile phones came on the scene (I assure you there was such a time) so books were always a major pass time for me. I will often be asked, '"What were you 'studying' today"? Book reading is not a preferred activity elsewhere too as shown by Michael Sandel in What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets:
A number of online companies now buy gift cards for cash (at a price lower than their face value) and resell them.  So, for example, a company called Plastic Jungle will buy your $100 Home Depot gift card for $80 and then resell it for $93. The discount rate varies according to the popularity of the store.  For a $100 gift card from Walmart or Target, Plastic Jungle will pay $91. A $100 card from Barnes & Noble, sadly, yields only $77, slightly less than Burger King ($79).
Regarding medical matters, people believe anything they read on the Web, hear on TV or what anybody tells them.  Not being connected to the medical profession in any way doesn't disqualify you from being an expert on medical matters.  Reliance on myths and quacks has real world consequences - people delay treatments or they don't try to find more effective treatments, I don't think it is a coincidence that India has a huge number of people with various diseases and disabilities while there are also large numbers of people who can cure anything.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Why keep blogging? - II

There is  another reason why I keep blogging.  But for that I have to  first tell you why Ramachandra Guha thinks India is a 50% democracy. In this talk, he says that India is the world's most unnatural country and the most unlikely democracy. It was thought that a country should have one language and one religion while India is a majority Hindu country that has more Muslims than Pakistan and more Christians than Australia and a multiplicity of languages many of which have their own script and rich literary tradition.

Both before and after Independence many foreigners have doubted whether India will survive as one country. After every corruption scandal, natural disaster like flood or earthquake or after every failure of an institution doubts will crop up about Indian democracy. But India has not Balkanised. Military rule has not happened. As a person from Indonesia remarked in the talk I linked to earlier, 'You at least have General elections. We have elections of Generals.'

A personal note on elections: At the time of every election, I can hear the servant of the day say how much different parties will pay them for their votes. (Both DMK and AIADMK are equally culpable. Probably the other parties don't pay because they don't have a chance of winning. Some say that they will take money from both parties and vote for the party of their choice.) Prior to the last General Election,I heard that there was an ad in some Tamil newspaper offering a certain sum of money to anyone willing to cut off the finger on which the voting mark is put so that the person could vote a second time.  I don't know if anyone took up the offer. If this sort of thing happens in Tamil Nadu, which is one of the better governed states in India, one can imagine what may be happening in many other parts of the country.Ramachandra Guha writes in India after Gandhi:
Is India a proper democracy or a sham one? When asked this question, I usually turn for recourse to an immortal line of the great Hindi comic actor Johnny Walker. In a film where he plays the hero"s sidekick, Walker answers every query with the remark: 'Boss, phipty-phipty'. When asked what prospect he has of marrying the girl he so deeply loves, or of getting the job he so dearly desires, the sidekick tells the boss that the chances are roughly even, 50 per cent of success, or 50 per cent of failure.
Is India a democracy, then? The answer is well, phipty-phipty. It mostly is when it comes to holding elections and permitting freedom of movement and expression.  It mostly is not when it comes to the functioning of politicians and political institutions. However, that India is even a 50 per cent democracy flies in the face of tradition, history and the conventional wisdom. 
My life after the stroke can also be said to be phifty-phifty. A major reason for it being 50% and not lower, apart from the support of family and friends, is the blog. It gives me something to do and keeps me out of everyone's hair. There were 10 years before the blog which I managed to get through and I am not eager to revisit that period.

One conversation between Jaya and a physiotherapist shows the importance of the blog. On seeing me move my head this way and that while using the neuro headset, the physiotherapist asked, 'Doesn't his neck start paining?' Jaya replied, 'If he doesn't type, it will start paining!' As this hindi song says, life must go on and the blog helps in this process. I saw a quote by Nietzche in Susan Sontag's essay, AIDS as a Metaphor which sums up the role of the blog:

Thinking about illness! - To calm the imagination of the invalid, so that at least he should not, as hitherto, have to suffer more from thinking about his illness than from the illness itself- that, I think, would be something! It would be a great deal!

Monday, November 3, 2014

Why keep blogging? - I

In Fermat's Last Theorem, Simon Singh quotes from a book by the mathematician, G.H. Hardy:
I will only say that if a chess problem is, in the crude sense, 'useless', then that is equally true of most of the best mathematics... I have never done anything 'useful'. No discovery of mine has made, or is likely to make, directly or indirectly, for good or ill, the least difference to the amenity of the world.  Judged by all practical standards, the value of my mathematical life is nil; and outside mathematics it is trivial anyhow.  I have just one chance of escaping a verdict of complete triviality, that I may be judged to have created something worth creating.  And that I have created something is undeniable: the question is about its value.
After my stroke, I was also similarly engaged in useless activities, reading about evolution, human irrationality, etc. (although I was not creating anything). I gradually found that I was better at doing these useless activities than I had been in doing any useful activities earlier. Then someone suggested that I start a blog. I started writing tentatively and then with more confidence. The blogging went on for longer than I had expected and I also started writing about the books that I read, including about topics not directly connected to my stroke.

Dan Dennett has written a book called Intuition Pumps And Other Tools for Thinking. As you would have guessed, it is about Intuition Pumps And Other tools for thinking. It is a heavy book. Very heavy - and I am not referring to its  bulk. (But maybe I am underestimating you and  you may find it suitable for casual reading.) I will quote from a relatively easy section of  the book:
In his excellent book on Indian street magic, Net of Magic: Wonders and Deceptions in India, Lee Siegel writes,  
"I'm writing a book on magic," I explain, and I'm asked, "Real magic?" By real magic people mean miracles, thaumaturgical acts, and supernatural powers."No," I answer: "Conjuring tricks, not real magic." Real magic, in other words, refers to the magic that is not real, while the magic that is real, that can actually be done, is not real magic.
A couple of years back, I got something that would have been considered "real magic" a few decades back - a neuro headset with which I could type on my own. As Arthur C. Clarke said, 'Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.' This eased the process of typing a bit and my posts got longer. I will read something and think, 'How can I not tell you about this? 'Lately, I have been blogging more about other things than about my stroke. (You can write only so much about a guy who can't eat, walk or talk without it becoming an outstanding bore.) But every so often, the typing will feel tedious and I will feel like making a final post titled 'So long and thanks for all the fish'  and calling it a day.

At such times, I will remember the ending of this splendid speech by Robert Sapolsky to Stanford students. He tells the story of a nun who spends all her time ministering to prisoners on the death row of a particular prison. These are some of the most horrible people on earth so naturally she is always asked how she is able to  do such a thing. She always replies, 'The more unforgivable the act, the more you must try to forgive it; the more unlovable the person, the more you must find the means of loving him.' He tells the students to adopt a similar attitude (I have deleted some words from the speech to make it read better in print):

You guys, as of tomorrow around noon, are officially educated. And as part of your education, what has happened is that, you have learnt something about the ways of the world, how things work, you have learnt the word 'realpolitik', you have your eyes opened up, you have wised up and one of things that happens when you have wised up enough is, you reach a very clear conclusion that, at the end of the day, it is really impossible for one person to make a difference. The more clear it is that it is impossible for you to make a difference and  make the world  better, the more you must. You guys are educated, you are privileged, you are well connected, you are enormously lucky if you are sitting here at this juncture and thus what that means is that there is nobody out there in better position to be able to sustain a  contradiction like this for your entire life and use it as a more moral imperative. So do it and good luck and have good lives in the process.

And what happens?  I begin to think that a post on Fermat's Last Theorem is just what the doctor ordered for you to feel better about the world, to help take your mind off those nasty sales targets or that stressful presentation to your boss about how to make your product move up the value chain i.e how to charge more for it.

And so it goes.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Some interesting properties of numbers

In  Fermat's Last Theorem, Simon Singh writes about some interesting patterns among numbers:

  1. Perfect numbers - Numbers whose divisors add up to the number itself. Eg.6 has divisors 1, 2 and 3 which add up to 6. The next perfect number is 28. If the sum of the divisors is more than the number, Pythagoras called it an 'excessive' number and if the divisors added up to less than the number, he called it 'defecttive'.
  2. Friendly numbers or amicable numbers are closely related to perfect numbers.They are pairs of numbers such that each number is the sum of the divisors of the other number. For eg. 220 and 284 are friendly numbers. 220 is the sum of the  divisors of 284 (1, 2 4 71 and 142). 284 is the sum of the divisors of 220 (1, 2, 4, 5,10, 11, 20, 22, 44, 55and 110). Fermat discovered 17,296 and 18,416. Descartes discovered a third pair (9,363,584 and 9,437,056). Leonhard Euler discovered 62 pairs. Strangely,they all had missed a much smaller pair which was discovered by a 16 year old Italian - 1184 and 1210.
  3. Sociable numbers are 3 or more numbers which  form a closed loop. Consider the loop of five numbers: 12,496; 14,288; 15,472; 14,536; 14,264. The divisors of the first number add up to the second, the divisors of the second add up to the third, the divisors of the third add up to the fourth, the divisors of the fourth add up to the fifth, and the divisors of the fifth add up to the first.
  4. Fermat proved that 26 is the only number sandwiched between a square and a cube (between 25=52  and 27= 33)
  5. All prime numbers (except 2) can be placed in two categories: those  which can be written as 4n + 1 and those which can be written as 4n - 1 where n equals some number.Thus 13 is in the former group (4*3 + 1) while 19 is in the latter  group (4*5 - 1). Fermat's prime theorem claimed that the first type of primes were always the sum of two squares while the second type could never be written in this way. The theorem was proved by Euler almost a century after Fermat's death.

PS: Since I will rarely do any maths related posts (I know that you are dreadfully disappointed but as a wise philosopher of yore said, you can't always get what you want) I am generally giving a couple of links about maths that I had saved:

  1. An excellant series in NYT by Steven Strogatz on The Elements of Math
  2. A talk by Simon Singh about "The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets