Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Startle reflex

Startle reflex is a defensive response to sudden or threatening stimuli, Sometimes when I am concentrating on a book or deep in thought about something (one of the iconic scientific images is Darwin's words 'I think' scribbled beside a tree-diagram;  my thoughts won't be so deep), if someone suddenly calls out to me, I will give a start as if a bomb has just gone off beside me. The sound won't be close to these sounds in intensity. (According to this interesting Radiolab podcast, hearing is our fastest sense.) In Laughing Gas by P.G. Wodehouse, the protagonist says:
I remember once, when a kid - from what motive I cannot recall, but no doubt in a spirit of clean fun - hiding in a sort of alcove on the main staircase at Biddleford Castle and saying 'Boo!'to a butler who was coming up with a tray containing a decanter , a syphon, and glasses. Biddleford is popularly supposed to be haunted by a Wailing lady,and the first time the butler touched the ground was when he came up against a tiger-skin rug in the hall two flights down. 
My reaction to an unexpected sound would also be as undignified as that of the unfortunate butler. My heart would jump up higher than Wordsworth's did when he saw a rainbow. It  will almost 'killofy my heart' as Epifina the bad-tempered great-grand mother of Salman Rushdie's The Moor's Last Sigh would have said. Sujit used do this often when he was smaller but he would then overdo it so the element of surprise is lost and my reactions will become normal.

A similar thing happens when slightly cold water falls on me. Sponging or any cleaning on my body is always done with lukewarm water - water that is in the Goldilocks zone: neither too hot nor too cold. I have got used to this so when normal tap water falls on me, I give a start as if ice-cold water has fallen on me.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014


In some situations, small changes stop having small effects and result in sudden qualitative changes called phase transitions. For eg., the temperature of a solid keeps increasing as you keep heating it but after a point, if you supply it with a little more heat, the crystalline structure of the solid collapses and the molecules start slipping and flowing around each other i.e. it starts melting.

Phase transitions need not occur only in chemistry. They can occur in social systems too like spreading of fads and fashions, speculative bubbles, stock market crashes, etc. The occurrence of my stroke can also be described as a phase transition. One moment I was like millions of others preparing to go  to office and from a moment later, I was unable to scratch my nose on my own. Over time, I have developed a healthy respect for itching like Ogden Nash who said:
I’m greatly attached to Barbara Fritchy; 
I bet she scratched when she was itchy.
When my nose itches, I twitch my nose and surrounding areas (part of it is involuntary) which is the signal to Jaya about what the problem is. Over time this has  become the signal for any kind of itching in any place. Through trial and error, Jaya will find out the exact spot. I am usually given head bath about once a week. By the end of that period, my head will start itching which is signal for my next head bath. At this time if my head is scratched, it feels divine. There is actually a word for the part of the body where one cannot reach to scratch.

It is not surprising that strange itching problems catch my eye. There is an article by Atul Gawande where he writes about a phantom itch:                                                                                                            
“Scratching is one of the sweetest gratifications of nature, and as ready at hand as any,” Montaigne wrote. “But repentance follows too annoyingly close at its heels.” For M., certainly, it did: the itching was so torturous, and the area so numb, that her scratching began to go through the skin. At a later office visit, her doctor found a silver-dollar-size patch of scalp where skin had been replaced by scab. M. tried bandaging her head, wearing caps to bed. But her fingernails would always find a way to her flesh, especially while she slept.
One morning, after she was awakened by her bedside alarm, she sat up and, she recalled, “this fluid came down my face, this greenish liquid.” She pressed a square of gauze to her head and went to see her doctor again. M. showed the doctor the fluid on the dressing. The doctor looked closely at the wound. She shined a light on it and in M.’s eyes. Then she walked out of the room and called an ambulance. Only in the Emergency Department at Massachusetts General Hospital, after the doctors started swarming, and one told her she needed surgery now, did M. learn what had happened. She had scratched through her skull during the night—and all the way into her brain.
I didn't know you could scratch past your skull  into your brain! Then there is an itch which  occurs when you run.  And what about Morgellons syndrome?

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Tolerance of dissentinting opinions- II

In India the choice could never be between chaos and stability, but between manageable and unmanageable  chaos, between humane and inhuman anarchy, and between tolerable and intolerable disorder. - Ashis Nandy, sociologist 

In the years after Independence, the civil service  was shielded from politics so promotions, transfers and the like were not dependant on whether you please your political masters. Post retirement sinecures were not dangled before them as inducements to toe the line. These days, almost  the first action of any  government is to transfer bureaucrats perceived to be loyal to the previous government and appoint their own favorites. If all top decision makers think similarly, there is a problem. (The same thing happens in corporates where a new CEO surrounds himself with yes-men and refers to them as 'my team'.) Ramachandra Guha says in India after Gandhi:
As P.S. Appu points out, the founders of the Indian nation-state respected the autonomy and integrity of the civil services. Vallabhai Patel insisted that his secretaries should feel free to correct or criticize his views,so that the minister, and his government, could arrive at a decision that was the best in the circumstances. However, when Indira Gandhi started choosing chief ministers purely on the basis of their loyalty to her, these individuals would pick their subordinates by similar criteria. Thus, over time, the secretary of a government department has willingly become an extension of his minister's voice and will. 
Following Indira Gandhi's massive victory in the 1971 General Elections, Kushwant Singh commented ,"...if power is voluntarily surrendered by a predominant section of the people to one person and at the same time opposition is reduced to insignificance, the temptation to ride roughshod over legitimate criticism can become irresistible." Ambedkar had warned against the dangers of bhakti or hero-worship, of placing individual leaders on a high pedestal and treating them as immune from criticism. Ramachandra Guha writes:
...most political parties have become extensions of the will and whim of a single leader. Political sycophancy may have been pioneered by the Congress Party under Indira Gandhi, but it is by no means restricted to it. Regional leaders such as Mulayam, Lalu and Jayalalithaa revel in a veritable cult of personality, encouraging and expecting craven submission from their party colleagues,and their civil servants and the public at large. Tragically, even Ambedkar has not been exempted from this hero worship. Although no longer alive, and not associated with any particular party, the reverence for his memory is so utter and extreme that it is no longer possible to have a dispassionate discussion about his work and legacy.
Witness the furor over an innocuous cartoon that both Ambedkar and Nehru would have laughed over. Many people seem to take themselves too seriously and lack a sense of humour. Arguing with people who lack a sense of humour is an impossible task. As is arguing with people who are proud of their ignorance, as Christopher Hitchens says while discussing the fatwa on Salman Rushdie.

As soon as some senior person raises his or her voice against the ruling party, CBI, Income tax dept. etc seem to find cases against them. The CBI is a useful tool to harass your opponents so no government will grant it autonomy. They will all speak in self righteous tones when in opposition but will sing a different tune when in power. It is like the Women's Reservation Bill - everybody seems to be for it but it never gets through parliament.

Have you heard one word from the BJP about CBI autonomy even though they had made a lot of noise about it earlier? Don't tell me you are surprised.Saying one thing when in the Opposition and doing something  else when in Government is nothing new. One is reminded of the conclusion of George Orwell's Animal Farm: 'The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.'

Whenever I hear comments in news channels like 'people are wise', 'people know the truth', 'people can't be fooled', etc., I can't help smirking. Really? Winston Churchill's most famous comment is that 'democracy is the worst form of government if it were not for the rest' but he also said that 'the best argument against democracy is a two minute conversation with a vvoter'. Talk about 'informed voters' reminds me of a nurse who asked me, "What is this BJP? Is it Congress?" Kejriwal will say ,"I told  you so."

Democracy often works because of the idea of emergence - a lot of units that are individually stupid giving rise to group intelligence - but there are some assumptions in it which could cause problems. Even the wisest and most educated among us have only a partial idea of what is really going on and we reach our own conclusions based on our own biases. (You don't have theses biases of course. I mean other people.) Like the protagonist of Joseph Heller's Something Happened, you never really know what happens behind closed doors.Contrary to what this song says, the public doesn't know many things.

PS : Democracy of Our Times, a talk by Prof. AndrĂ© BĂ©teille

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Tolerance of dissenting opinions- I

It is not the function of our government to keep the citizens from falling into error; it is the function of the citizen to keep the government from falling into error. - US Supreme Court Justice Robert R. Jackson

I came across an interesting comment by J.B.S.Haldane in Ramachandra Guha's India after Gandhi. Haldane was a famous British biologist who moved from London in 1956 to reside in Calcutta. He joined the Indian Statistical Institute and became an Indian citizen. He once described India as 'the closest approximation to the Free world'. When an American friend protested at this surprising statement, he said:
Perhaps one is freer to be a scoundrel in India than elsewhere. So one was in the USA in the days of people like Jay Gould, when (in my opinion) there was more internal freedom in the USA than there is today. The 'disgusting subservience' of the others has its limits. The people of Calcutta riot, upset trams, and refuse to obey police regulations, in a manner which would have delighted Jefferson. I don't think their activities are very efficient, but that is not the question at issue.
The reference to Jefforson is because he believed that one of the chief duties of a citizen is to be a nuisance to the government of his state. I saw this comment at around the time when there was news about an IB report about Greenpeace. The report sounded silly stating that Greenpeace reduced India's GDP by 2-3%. Greenpeace is an advocacy group that puts forth its point of view and there are others who convey the opposite point of view. If there is anything illegal, prosecute them otherwise what is the problem? Magnifying the effect of a contrary position is a good strategy before clamping down on it.

In some talk show, a BJP spokesperson said they have nothing against NGOs who do "good work" but will act against NGOs that "create mischief". Who defines these terms? What is "good work"  for me may be "creating mischief" for you. One BJP spokesperson implied that the IB should  not be criticised. No institution, individual or idea can be beyond criticism otherwise it becomes the refuge of choice for scoundrels. A prime example of this is religion.

In a talk show about something else, about 70% of the studio audience was in favour of a proposition. A BJP spokesperson said that if you ask the same question in a year's time, 100% of the audience will support it. I would be uncomfortable living in a society where 100% of the people are for something. That level of conformity is a ready recipe for an unscrupulous leader to '"create mischief". We are not talking of philosopher kings here. If we know only our side of the argument, there is a problem. In his celebrated  treatise, On Liberty, John Stuart Mill says:
If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind..... If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.
In The Demon-Haunted World, Carl Sagan writes:
Even a casual scrutiny of history reveals that we humans have a sad tendency to make the same mistakes again and again. We are afraid of strangers or anybody who's a little different from us.When we get scared, we start pursing people around. We have readily accessible buttons that release powerful emotions when pressed. We can be manipulated into utter senselessness by clever politicians. Give us the right kind of leader and, like the most suggestible subjects of the hypnotherapists, we'll gladly do anything he wants - even things we know to be wrong.
Most of us are for freedom of expression when there is a danger that our own views will be suppressed. We are not upset though when views we despise encounter a little censorship here and there.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

A Prediction

I sometimes deliberately delay getting new books in order to re-read some old books. I would have forgotten many things in these books so it will be almost like reading new books. I thus read again India After Gandhi by Ramachandra Guha. It is a book that I liked because it covers a period of history that does not appear elsewhere. It was interesting to read about things I had very little idea of like integration of princely states, resettlement of refugees after partition, debates in the Constituent Assembly, linguistic reorganisation of states (language can still evoke passions as shown in this debate), etc.

I had mentioned earlier that long-term predictions about complicated situations are generally off the mark.  In this book, there are many mentions of dire predictions about India's disintegration and slide into military dictatorship which did not happen. But there is mention of an article called "After Nehru..."  by  an anonymous writer that appeared in the Economic Weekly in the summer of 1958 which contains predictions of broad trends that have generally come true.

In 1958, Jawaharlal Nehru had been Prime Minister of India for 11 years. He was around 70, and the last representative of the old guard within the Congress. The great men who had worked with him in uniting and integrating India were all gone or going. Vallabhbhai Patel was dead, Maulana Azad was on his death-bed, Govind Ballabh Pant was ailing and Chakravarti Rajagopalachari was in retirement. The party, and nation, were both held together by the moral authority and prestige of the PM. There was no obvious successor among the next generation of Congressmen. What would happen after he was gone? This was the question being addressed by the writer:
The prestige that the party will enjoy as the inheritor of the mantle of Tilak, Gandhi and Nehru will inhibit the growth of any effective or healthy opposition during the first few years. In later years as popular discontent against the new generation of party bosses increases, they will, for sheer self-preservation, be led to make increasing attempts to capture votes by pandering to caste, communal and regional interests and ultimately even to `rig' elections.
The writer said that in this situation the Congress party would find it hard to resist the temptations of business interests. Thus
in a politico-economic system of mixed economy, in which the dividing line between mercantilism and socialism is still very obscure and control over the State machinery can give glittering prizes to the business as well as the managerial classes, the monied interests are bound to infiltrate sooner or later into the ruling cadres of the party in power.
Finally, the writer predicted that the growth of caste, communal and regional caucuses would lead to an "increasing instability of Government first in the States and later also at the Centre". This instability, in turn, might also lead to a competitive patriotism among the different national parties.
for instance, the Congress Party may try to unite the nation behind it by warning of the dangers of `balkanisation', the Jan Sangh by playing up the fear of aggression from Pakistan, the P[raja] S[ocialist] P[arty] by emphasising the competition between India and China and the Communist Party by working up popular indignation against dollar imperialism.
Who was this far-sighted writer? Ramachandra Guha speculates that he might have been a Western political scientist, who would have felt constrained to write anonymously about a controversial subject concerning another country. A more likely possibility according to him is that he was a civil servant precluded by his job from speaking out in his own name. This latter possibility is suggested by the remark that "senior civil servants are hoping that they will retire before Nehru goes"

During an Internet search, I came across this article by Ramachandra Guha with the sub-heading " `... do you think there is any chance that he could have written it?'
'He' referred to Nehru.

P.S.: Here is a talk by Ramachandra Guha on Indian Democracy's Mid-Life Crises

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Myopic discounting

Myopic discounting is the tendency of people to prefer a large late reward to a small early one but then to flip their preference as time passes and both rewards draw nearer.  For eg., you decide before dinner to skip dessert (a small early reward) in order to lose weight (a large late one) but succumb to temptation at the time of placing the order. Or a person will give up smoking in order not to risk lung cancer but will start smoking again when friends tempt him. In How the Mind Works, Steven Pinker writes about an economist named Schelling:
Though myopic discounting remains unexplained,Schelling captures something important about its psychology when he roots the paradox of self-control in the modularity of the mind. He observes that "people behave sometimes as if they had two selves: one who wants clean lungs and long life and another who adores tobacco, or one who wants a lean body and anther who wants dessert, or one who yearns to improve himself by reading Adam Smith on self-command...and another who would rather watch an old movie on television. The two are in continual contest for control." When the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak, such as in pondering a diet-busting dessert, we can feel two very different kinds of motives fighting within us, one responding to sights and smells, the other to doctors' advice.
I observed myopic discounting happening in me a few months ago when Jaya had to undergo a routine operation to remove the gall bladder. She was suffering from occasional pain in the abdomen and scans had revealed the presence of gall stones. She was told that surgery was not urgent because the issue with gallstones is that only a third of population with gall bladder stones become symptomatic and the rest stay undiagnosed or have no symptoms and can live with it all their life. She could wait and if the pain became frequent later, she could have the surgery.

The problem was that if she had to go in for surgery later and there was no home nurse at that time who could understand my dumb charades then we would find ourselves caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. Or between a rock and a hard place. Whichever was worse. (One wag said that Bush was caught between Iraq and a hard place!) At that point of time there was a home nurse who could understand me so we felt that it wold be safer to get  the surgery done immediately rather than wait for a later time when we may be caught between, well, maybe Scylla and Charybdis.

But as the date of the surgery neared, I began to hesitate. Jaya will not be able to lift any weight for some days so perhaps I will not be shifted to the chair for a while? The watchman volunteered to do it along with the nurse but I was not sure how they will manage. The nurse could understand my dumb charades but Jaya will not not be able to assist for a while so there will be some discomfort. Maybe Jaya belongs to the 2/3 part of the population who live comfortably with gall bladder stones? Is prompt surgery really required?

Fortunately I resisted the temptation to postpone the surgery. Everything went off quite well and I only had minor discomforts during Jaya's period of rest. The alternative scenario of perhaps having surgery when there may have been no nurse would have been a nightmare.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014


Sometime back I saw some photographs that I didn't know I had. I decided to put some here along with a couple of my school photographs that I stumbled across on a friend's Facebook page.

This is a photograph from Std. V or VI. The best part of it was that I didn't know where I was. Jaya had to point me out to me.

Where am I?

This is a rare photograph of a school picnic because I don't think I have ever again worn such a psychedelic shirt. (Whenever I see this song from the Malayalam movie Classmates, I am reminded of this trip - not because of any incident in the movie but because this song involves a college bus trip. Incidentally, the movie contains one of my favorite Malayalam songs.)

Red Storm Rising

A time when this song fit:

With Jaya soon after our marriage was fixed

On tour in Bangalore with friends from Bajaj Auto Ltd.

Looking sophisticated in Lungi at IIMA

My room at IIMA

With my doom mates at IIMA

Sujit when he was about six months old

Sujit when he was 3 years old

(Sujit is now in a boarding school in Kodaikanal.)

In Such a Long Journey by Rohinton Mistry, when  Gustad Noble walks around  Chor Bazar in Mumbai, it brings back a flood of memories from childhood and he muses, "How little it took to wake up so many sleeping memories." Indeed!