Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Attitude of a teacher

Further to my rant about educational standards, there was an incident that I wanted to mention. When one student who had scored just above 80% went for admission to Std. XI in his own school, the vice-principal shouted at him and told him that he was 'unfit' to be given admission in the school. How can a teacher talk like that to a student even if he had scored 40%? In this article, Richard Dawkins writes about the attitude of Sanderson of Oundle, a much-loved educator of long ago:
Far from coveting garlands in league tables by indulging the high flyers, Sanderson's most strenuous labours were on behalf of the average, and specially the "dull" boys. He would never admit the word: if a boy was dull it was because he was being forced in the wrong direction, and he would make endless experiments to find how to get his interest... he knew every boy by name and had a complete mental picture of his ability and character. It was not enough that the majority should do well. "I never like to fail with a boy," he once said.
In spite of - perhaps because of - Sanderson's contempt for public examinations, Oundle did well in them. A faded, yellowing newspaper cutting dropped out of my secondhand copy of Wells's book: "In the higher certificates of the Oxford and Cambridge School examinations Oundle once again leads, having 76 successes. Shrewsbury and Marlborough tie for second place at 49 each."
In this TED talk, Melinda Gates says that whatever facilities are provided will be useless in the absence of an effective teacher. In the above article, Dawkins writes about his recollection of a zoology class.
I recall a lesson about Hydra, a small denizen of still fresh water. Mr Thomas asked one of us, "What animal eats Hydra?" The boy made a guess. Non-committally, Mr Thomas turned to the next boy, asking him the same question. He went right round the entire class, with increasing excitement asking each one of us by name, "What animal eats Hydra? What animal eats Hydra?" And one by one we guessed. By the time he had reached the last boy, we were agog for the true answer. "Sir, sir, what animal does eat Hydra?" Mr Thomas waited until there was a pin-dropping silence. Then he spoke, slowly and distinctly, pausing between each word.
"I don't know... (crescendo) I don't know... (molto crescendo). And I don't think Mr Coulson knows either. (Fortissimo) Mr Coulson! Mr Coulson!"
He flung open the door to the next classroom and dramatically interrupted his senior colleague's lesson, bringing him into our room. "Mr Coulson, do you know what animal eats Hydra?" Whether some wink passed between them I don't know, but Mr Coulson played his part well: he didn't know. Again, the fatherly shade of Sanderson chuckled in the corner, and none of us will have forgotten that lesson. What matters is not the facts but how you discover and think about them: education in the true sense, very different from today's assessment-mad exam culture.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014


Once the Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi dreamt he was a butterfly happily fluttering around doing as he pleased. He suddenly woke up and didn't know if he was Zhuangzi who had dreamt he was a butterfly, or he was a butterfly dreaming he was Zhuangzi. I was in a similar state of confusion when I started regaining consciousness after my stroke. But all through that period of haze, I remembered some dreams that I had seen during that period of unconsciousness:

  1. There  was a lighted candle near my bed. A  nurse periodically came to my room, looked at the candle and went away. The sense I  got was that she was checking to see if the flame had gone out which would signal my death.  She seemed to be saying, “Out, out, brief candle!"but the flame never went out.
  2. A large crowd seemed to be gathered for my funeral and my body was lying nearby. a large black bird was flying high in the sky and everyone was looking at it.  The sense I got was that I was not yet dead and that my death would be signalled by the bird flying away.Everyone was waiting for the bird to disappear but it never did.
  3. My body seemed to be lying on what looked like the moving belt of an assembly. The belt seemed to be moving towards what I felt was a furnace in an electric crematorium. (I have never seen an electric crematorium.) When I passed inside the furnace, I cringed at the prospect of getting roasted but the temperature never rose.

Memory is a very unreliable chronicler of events so much so that someone said that all autobiographies should come with a warning  "based on facts". My memory of the dreams could be even more suspect since they happened such a long time ago and they are after all dreams but I can assure you that they are "based on facts".

 I related them to Jaya after our communication protocol was well established. I then didn't dwell on them figuring that they would have been random images caused by  the firing of different parts of the brain due to the various drugs that were being given and the various noises and voices that I used to hear. The bullshit detection meter in my brain was off and it was concocting fantastic stories.

I later read about Near Death Experiences (NDEs) which seemed somewhat similar to the dreams I had had. NDEs have some things in common: there are accounts of a bright light (the candle in my dream was a light but it was not bright); there will be descriptions of passing through a tunnel (I suppose going into the furnace in the electric crematorium was like passing through a tunnel although the experience was so long ago that I don't remember the details). In US people having NDEs write books about it which top best-seller lists. Sam Harris examines one such book.

Oliver Sacks has written a book called Hallucinations which guessed it...hallucinations that people have in various situations - in the haze when falling asleep or waking up, under the influence of drugs (medical or recreational), sleep deprivation, when blind , epilepsy, migraine and also when near death. About NDEs, he writes:
Kevin Nelson and his colleagues at the University of Kentucky have presented evidence suggesting that, with the compromise of cerebral blood flow, there is a dissociation of consciousness so that, although awake, the subjects are paralysed and subject to the dreamlike hallucinations characteristic of REM sleep ("REM intrusions") -- in a state, therefore. with resemblances to sleep paralysis(NDEs are also commoner in people prone to sleep paralysis). Added to this are various special features: the "dark tunnel" is correlated,Nelson feels, with the compromise of  blood flow to the retinas (this is well-known to produce a constriction of the visual fields, or  tunnel vision, and may occur in pilots subjected to high g-stresses). The "bright light" Nelson correlates with a flow of neuronal excitement moving from a part of the brain stem (the pons)  to subcortical visual relay stations and then to the occipital cortex. Added to all these neurophysiological changes may be a sense of terror and awe going with the knowledge that one is undergoing a mortal crisis -- some subjects have actually heard themselves pronounced dead -- and the wish that dying, if imminent and inevitable, should be peaceful and perhaps a passage to a life after death.
A curious happening was that my physiotherapist asked me about a neurological condition called narcolepsy which I had never heard about that was included in the plot of a Tamil movie that he had just seen called Naan sigappu manithan. A couple of days later, I read about it in this book.

Here is Oliver Sacks on Fora.TV about his book. He had written an article about NDEs, OBEs (out of body experience)and prayers. There was an Intelligence Squared debate on life after death.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Red Strangers

In this interview with Richard Dawkins about the books he reads, I came across the novel, Red Strangers, which is about the Kikuyu tribe before and after the British arrived in Kenya. I decided to read it because I thought that it would be interesting to read about a culture that is very removed from anything that I had read about or experienced earlier. In the foreword, Dawkins writes:
It is Elispeth Huxley's extraordinary achievement in the first half of Red Strangers to immerse her readers so thoroughly in Kikuyu ways and thought that, when the British finally appear on the scene,  everything about them seems to us alien, occasionally downright ridiculous, though usually to to be viewed with indulgent tolerance.
One gets used to strange custom. For eg., a son is regarded as a reincarnation of his grandfather and so is sometimes addressed as "father" by his own father. The novel is written from the perspective of the Kikuyu. The habits of the Europeans and the items they use  like guns, handcuffs,taps, etc. are not mentioned as such but as they appear to Kikuyu eyes. For eg., it will be written:
  • He neither squatted nor stood, but rested his buttocks against a piece of wood secured in place by four poles.
  • Greatly to Matu's surprise, two iron bracelets joined by a chain were fixed around his wrists, so that he could not move his hands freely.
The beliefs and practises of the British seem incomprehensible and contradictory to the practises of the Kikuyu which they believed had been in existence since the beginning of time. As one of them remarked, "If you work for these strangers it is useless to ask:' Why must I do this?'  They have no sense, and do many foolish things without reason."

One can't help but sympathise with the older Kikuyu who are bewildered by the changes that they have seen happening in their lifetime. The sense of being misfits in a world that they cannot recognize is put into words by a dying Matu:
"Irumu spoke also of paths on which our feet were set," Matu whispered at last. "He said that we moved towards unknown things, away from all with which we were familiar. His words were true. The world to which the path is leading is one which we cannot understand; it was created by a strange God, and it is ruled by distant people; and the young men have learnt new magic that has taken away their laughter. It is time that I reached the end of the path, for I do not know where it is going."
Matu's brother Muthengi has cozied up to the British and has consequently done well for himself. But in the process he had become grasping, self-centered and has forgotten how to smile. Even without the brutalities of colonization, would it have been better to let the Kikuyus live peacefully in their ancient ways? It is a question that has no easy answers.

The beliefs and practices of the Kikuyu would seem bizarre but they are not more wacky than what goes on in our culture. So in that sense it was not such a different culture. One scene reminded me of a scene in the Malayalam movie Midhunam (from 3:37).

Some weeks ago Sujit  got chicken pox. What followed seemed to be imported from Kikuyu culture. There is a lot of mythology associated with the disease and I learned that they were not just practised by the ancients. I was told that this is not like other diseases but is caused by an annoyed godess. There were learned discussions about the day and time of day that traditions dictated for Sujit's bath. When guests were served eatables, someone said' "Give it first to Devi." Devi?! That was Sujit. He was possessed by a goddess you see.

I watched all this in astonishment.  Richard Dawkins had likened religious indoctrination of children to child abuse. After watching what happened to Sujit I am inclined to agree with it. I started to think of these people as Kikuyus with mobile phones. And I am asked to worry about Spinoza's god!. Dawkins said, "We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further.” I must say Hindus have it tougher since they have crores of gods to worry about.There seems to be a god for everything. 

Saturday, June 21, 2014

A curmudgeon's lament

Sujit's  Std.X results came out on 23rd May. Before the results came, there was great apprehension  in the house regarding his performance. When the results came there were whoops of joy and high fives in the house - his performance was much better than expected. (He had scored 87%) I thought back to the time when I got my Std. X results. It was a much quieter affair.

At that time, I was on holiday in my native place in Kerala. I got a letter from my uncle informing me about the results.(It was the age of snail mail.) I informed my parents about the results, they were happy with them and there were congratulations all around. The whole thing lasted for about10 minutes and then everyone went back to their work. It was treated almost as a routine affair and I didn't feel that it was strange. Looking at the expensive gifts that people gave Sujit, my mother commented that she had not even bought me a Hawai chappal. (Notwithstanding the fact that she was one of the culprits this time around. Strict parents often become indulgent grandparents.) That was a different time.

It is like the clippings that you see of old cricket matches. When a bowler picks up a wicket, he gives a quiet smile, the fielders walk up to him and shake hands and wait for the next guy to come in. No jumping around making faces, no pointing angrily to the pavilion. I loved the reactions of Ajinkya Rahane and Kane Williamson when they got their first Test centuries. They quietly raised their bat to the crowd, acknowledged their partner and then got ready to face the next ball.

A couple of days  after Sujit's results, I viewed them more soberly after getting an idea of the distribution of marks. I couldn't recall anybody who had scored below 80%. (That is still the case about a month after the results had been declared.) About 1/4 to 1/3 of Sujit's class had scored 100% in each of Maths, Science (Physics + Chemistry +Biology) and Social Studies (History + Geography +Civics). If you get the impression that Sujit's class was filled with exceptionally bright students, perish the thought. Anyway, how do you get 100% in a subject like Social studies?

Apparently three students in the state had secured 500 / 500 (the other two subjects being English and Hindi / Tamil). I would love to see the marks distribution for the State as a whole. I have some idea of the marks distribution of only 3 schools but even if I had a sample of only one school of 70 odd students it was strange that everybody scored above 80%. Scoring 100% in any subject should be a rare achievement but it seemed to be common. It was obvious that correction was very lenient to inflate the marks.

The question papers too (not just the Board questions but also the ones in the school) have been simple. Generally, the questions should progress in order of difficulty. The distribution of questions could be say, 50% of the questions are easy and everybody can attempt them, 30% of the questions will be tougher and 20% of the questions can be tackled only if you are really prepared. Such a gradation is non-existent here. To my mind, you should not be able to max any paper except Maths where you can get exact answers. All other papers have qualitative elements in them.

The focus on marks to the exclusion of all else is amazing. Jaya was telling me about some reactions after the results. One parent asked her about Sujit's marks and on being told that it was 87%, she seemed about to express her sympathies but was confused by the joyful look on Jaya's face, hesitated, mumbled a quick 'ok' and hurried on. I was told of a girl who was in tears because she had scored 'only' 97 in science whereas she was expecting 100.

A friend of Sujit, who had score almost 10 percentage points higher than him, was downcast because he got 'only' 99 each in Science and Social Studies and his mother was scolding him! It was a bizarre (and sad) tale.  What kind of pressure are these kids being put under? I am told that the trend of scoring 100% in various subjects started about 10 years ago. The dumbing down of the syllabus and the marks inflation are presumably to reduce the pressure on the students but it is having the opposite effect on them. As often happens, the path to hell is paved with good intentions.

The liberal correction makes it more difficult to distinguish the bright students from the not so bright ones. I have met some bright students who would have done well in a better school and some others who George Carlin refers to as "minimally exceptional". If you look at the mark difference between them, it will be only about 10 percentage points while I think it should be much higher.

For admission to colleges in Tamil Nadu, the marks of all Boards are  treated on par. In the State Board, the marking will be liberal, the students just have to learn by rote and vomit it out during the exams and so end up with absurdly high marks.There is a famous Pink Floyd song which says that education tends to turn students into sausages. It seems to be very true here. I  am quite sure that if you ask those Science students (I have heard only Science marks) to describe the scientific method, they will struggle. The system is different in CBSC and those students end up with lower marks. You will be cautioned by everyone against joining a CBSC school because you will not be able to compete with the State Board students on marks. So the students are caught between the Scylla of learning and the Charybdis of marks.

Scoring marks seems to become easier by the day. Scoring 80% seems to be like what scoring 60% was when I was in school. A friend told me that CBSC Std. X portions have been diluted, the questions have been restricted and the students know what questions to expect for the exams.This year's CBSC Std. XII topper scored 99.6%. Whenever I see marks of 100% or close to it in any subject other than Maths, I get suspicious of the question paper pattern and the correction.

This post raises questions about ICSE correction. Students increasingly seem to take the easy way out to score marks and Spinoza's observation - Anything excellent is difficult - seems  lost on them. Increasing the pass percentage by diluting standards is pulling the wool over peoples' eyes. Unlike what this ad says, it is ullu banaoing everybody. As I had written earlier, "Why create a generation of thinkers when what’s needed are workers?” seems to be the thinking behind education in most Indian schools. I increasingly agree with this guy's views. Richard Dawkins says in Unweaving the Rainbow:

I worry that to promote science as all fun and larky and easy is to store up trouble for the future. Real science can be hard (well challenging, to give it a more positive spin) but, like classical literature or playing the violin, worth the struggle. If children are lured into science, or any other worthwhile occupation, by the promise of easy fun, what are they going to do when they finally have to confront the reality? Recruiting advertisements for the army rightly don't promise a picnic: they seek young people dedicated enough to stand the pace.

Of course have many more ways to waste time these days. Apart from TV, there is Facebook, Twitter, Whatsapp etc. which make it more difficult to do anything productive.  This is is especially so for teenagers because at this time, peer pressure is difficult to resist and they "know" everything. (I was more confident of many things when I was in my teens than I am now.) I didn't even have a TV at home which made it easier to channel my energies in more worthwhile directions. I realized that long after my teens.

There is in social psychology the theory of the cognitive miser: a person will put in less effort to achieve a certain task if he can manage well in this way. After all  why work harder when yo can get by with less? Getting absurdly high marks in various subjects makes students think that they are geniuses which is far from the truth. It increases their illusion of explanatory depth, a failing that bedevils all of us.

A factor that is probably involved in the dumbing down of the syllabus and marks inflation is an over-emphasis on the idea of self-esteem, an idea that has been criticised. If you keep telling people that they are the cat's whiskers without any reason, you promote arrogance coupled with ignorance which is a deadly combination. An important factor in learning is developing the ability to say "I don't know" which is not helped by indiscriminately granting 100% marks. As Einstein did not say, "Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts."

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Is knowing the future helpful?

In my previous post, I had written about a situation which had made me very nervous and such situations will keep arising.Would it help if I knew for certain what would happen in the future? This question reminded me of something I had read about Huntington's chorea in Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters by Matt Ridley.

Most genes are probabilistic in their effects on the body. But one of the most deterministic of all genes is the mutated version of a gene on chromosome 4 which causes Huntington's chorea. The gene consists of a sequence of 3 nucleotides repeated over and over again: CAG, CAG, CAG... (The letters refer to the bases in the nucleotides which are the differentiating factor.) Everything depends on the number of such repetitions. If the number of repetitions is 35 or less, you will be fine.

 If the repetition is more, you will in mid-life slowly start deteriorating - your intellectual faculties will start declining,you will stat losing your balance, limbs will start jerking, you will get depressions, hallucinations, and delusions.The disease takes15-25 years to run its course and there is no cure. The psychological stresses and stain of waiting for it to strike are devastating. (The disease runs in families so you know whether you have a chance of being affected.)

Either you have the mutation and will get the disease or not. There is nothing you can do about it. Matt Ridley writes:

The scale is this: if your chromosomes were long enough to stretch around the equator, the difference between health and insanity would be less than one extra inch.

Now medical science has advanced to the stage where it is possible to know for certain whether you can get the disease or not but you cannot do anything about it if you know that you will get the disease. So is it better to know or to enjoy a few more years of happy ignorance? Ridley relates the story of Tiresias , the blind seer of Thebes to illustrate the problem:

By accident Tiresias saw Athena bathing and she struck him blind. Afterwards she repented and, unable to restore his sight, gave him the power of soothsaying. But seeing the future was a terrible fate, since he could see it but not change it. "It is but sorrow", said Tiresias to Oedipus, "to be wise when wisdom profits not."

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

An unnecessary fear

Usually when I sleep on my side, a urine can is kept in the correct position to collect urine. I had suggested this idea so that I don't have to strain to call anybody and I won't have to disturb anyone at night. But sometimes, the position of the can gets changed due to cough or some involuntary movement which will necessitate my having to call somebody otherwise I will wet the bed.

One night, I suddenly woke up and felt that the can was out of position and I had to make some noise to wake up somebody and ask to check the can. That somebody is usually Jaya. The nurse and Jaya sleep in my room and Jaya often has to do the night duty because the nurses often don't get up (except the nurse who had stayed for 12 years). Usually Jaya wakes up quickly on hearing my sound  but this time I did not hear any sound.

I tried to increase the volume of my sound and kept baying for what seemed like an eternity but there was no response and I panicked. I wondered what could have happened. There is a concept in social psychology called psychological distance, one aspect of which is temporal distance. When an event is thought to be far away in the future, an individual will think of it in abstract terms, looking at the big picture and not worrying about the details. But when the event comes closer, it is regarded more concretely and the details become important.

I suddenly thought of situations where I would have struggled if Jaya was not around. The hole in my stomach where the feeding tube is inserted pains often but she knows how to relieve the pain within a couple of minutes...Once something had entered my ear and I couldn't sleep; Jaya woke  up, did some trial and error and finally poured a little water into my ear and took out a small insect...Once my back had started itching; How could I have told that without dictating?...

I told myself that I was over-dramatising my fears. Maybe she was just exhausted, maybe I should try and hold my urine for a while, maybe the can was really in the correct position and I won't wet the bed....But when you don't want to think about something, you will think about it. Like that damn spot on Lady Macbeth's hand, the anxiety in my mind refused to go away.So I continued my croaks.

After a while Jaya suddenly got up and switched on the light. She had just been tired and drifted off into deep sleep. Boy was I relieved! The rustle in the grass was just a breeze and not a lion: it was a Type I error. (Type 3 error occurs when you are not sure if something is Type 1 or Type 2 error.I always fall prey to this error.)  The brain is a remarkable organ. As soon as I realized  that everything was normal, my pulse rate became normal and I began thinking about how best to torture you in my next post.

In Accounting, there is a concept of the going concern. Similarly life is a going concern and one has to keep going as if everyday will be just another day. I have ideas for wasting your time for next one year (don't panic; Bertrand Russell said that 'The time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time' so all is not lost) but I am also aware that every post could be my last. Of course that is true for everybody;  it is just more true for me because I am dependent on a lot more variables.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Man's second favorite organ

Woody Allen described the brain as 'Man's second favorite organ'. Robert Krulwich wonders whether the brain or the universe is bigger and is undecided about the question. But whichever way you look at it, the human brain is a remarkable organ. (Although in one memory test a chimp will beat you.) When Steven Pinker appeared on the Colbert Report and was asked to describe the brain in 5 words, he said, '“Brain cells fire in patterns.” But when those patterns are disrupted by an injury or due to genetic reasons, some bizarre disorders result.

I first read about such disorders in Phantoms in the Brain by V.S. Ramachandran. It described problems that I had never heard about like anosognosia, hemineglect, blindsight, Capgras Sndrome, Cotard's syndrome, phantom pregnancy etc. I later learnt about  more strange disorders like reading blindness and  body integrity identity disorder (BIID). Oliver Sacks describes more strange neurological disorders. It is amazing what s/w glitches can plague a symbolic animal trapped in a body that once belonged to a fish. Bertrand Russell had it right when he said, “If I had omnipotence, and millions of years in which to experiment, I would not consider humanity much to boast off for my efforts."

I recently read a more recent book by Ramachandran, The Tell-tale Brain. (He talks about the book in this video.) This book is more speculative covering areas of more recent research in neuroscience and I didn't enjoy it as much as the earlier book. Ramachandran is a big champion of mirror neurons which has been called the most hyped concept in neuroscience. He says that it is responsible for our powers of empathy, language and the emergence of human culture, including the widespread use of tools and fire. He believes that when mirror neurons don’t work properly, the result is autism. Others are more skeptical.

In the book, he gives his suggested Ten Universal Laws of Art. He describes some of these principles in Lecture 3 of his interesting and entertaining series of talks in the BBC Reith Lectures.

PS: One of the most talked about topics in neuroscience is about the plasticity of the brain. In this transcript of a talk by Ramachandran, I came across this anecdote involving Francis Crick:
I remember after a fundraiser at UCSD he was approached by a lady during the cocktail reception. "All this stuff on the brain is interesting, Dr. Crick", she said, "but can you name any one single discovery in the last two decades that has really important implications?" "Well, my dear, "replied Crick, "one thing we have now learnt is that the brain is really plastic". The lady fainted.