Tuesday, December 8, 2015

The illusion of skill - I

In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty. - Ralph Waldo Emerson

Daniel Kahneman won the Nobel Prize in economics even though he is a psychologist, not an economist. His two papers (along with his colleague Amos Tversky) - "Judgment under uncertainty: Heuristics and biases" and "Prospect theory: An analysis of decisions under risk" - had a big impact in diverse fields like economics, philosophy, military strategy, etc. When he was once asked to summarise his work in seven words, he said that five will do - 'Endlessly amused by peoples' minds.'

His book Thinking, Fast and Slow questions the peculiar assumption that most economists have that actors in the economy are rational and selfish. (If they were, I wouldn't have survived for 16 years in relative comfort.) It is useful to assume that humans are sometimes part of the mix. Assuming human rationality is like assuming a frictionless surface in introductory physics: it is fine for introducing some basic concepts before complications are introduced into the model for a closer approximation to reality. As Kahneman writes in his book while discussing prospect theory:
The standard concepts and results that undergraduates are taught are most easily explained by assuming that Econs do not make foolish mistakes.
In some contexts, however,...the Humans described by prospect theory are guided by the immediate emotional impact of gains and losses, not by long-term prospects of wealth and global utility.
(In his book Nudge, the behavioural economist Richard Thaler says that economists and psychologists seem to be studying two different species: Econs and Humans. The Econs of economists 'can think like Albert Einstein, store as much memory as IBM's Big Blue, and exercises the will power of Mahatma Gandhi'. But real people or Humans studied by psychologists 'have trouble with long division if they don't have a calculator [esp. if you are American - Suresh], sometimes forget their spouse's birthday, and have a hangover on New Year's Day'.)

Kahneman is not impressed with the stock-picking skills displayed by investors. He says that an entire industry has been built on an illusion of skill. Many investors lose regularly by trading, 'an achievement that a dart-throwing chimp could not match'. He cites a study by a student of his, Terry Odean, a Finance professor at UC Berkely, who studied the trading records of 10,000 brokerage accounts of individual investors covering nearly 163,000 trades over a 7 yr. period.

Odean then chose those cases where an investor sold some stock and immediately bought another stock. This showed that the investor expected  the stock that he bought (most investors were men) to do better than the stock he sold. Odean followed the stocks for 1 year after the transaction and found that, on average, the stocks that were sold did better than the stocks that were bought by 3.2%/yr after taking into account the transaction costs. Thus for the majority of investors, it would have been better to do nothing. Kahneman writes:
...it is clear that for the large majority of individual investors, taking a shower and doing nothing would have been a better policy than implementing the ideas that came to their minds. Later research by Odean and his colleague Brad Barber supported this conclusion. In a paper titled "Trading Is Hazardous to Your Wealth," they showed that, on average, the most active traders had the poorest results, while the investors who traded the least earned the highest returns.  In another paper, titled "Boys Will Be Boys," they showed that men acted on their useless ideas significantly more often than women, and that as a result women achieved better investment results than men.
This reminds me of a game that was played by the students when I was at IIMA. The students had some virtual money which they could use to invest in stocks. Whoever ended with the maximum wealth at the end of a given period was the winner. The person who won the game was one who invested in one stock on the first day and didn't do anything else for the remainder of the period. The others, who bought and sold stocks using various strategies, were left behind.

PS: What is obvious is not always true and what is true is not always obvious. In Descartes' Error, Antonio Damasio illustrates why a person with only reason and no emotion struggles to make good decisions. Psychologists refer to emotions as 'lubricants of reason'.  Here is a talk by Damasio on human decision making.

PPS: A talk by Daniel Kahneman on A Psychological Perspective on Rationality

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Education is not a panacea - III

There are gated communities all over India where the educated rich live cut off from the rest of the country and cribbing about everything that doesn't resemble Singapore. In Geek Nation, Angela Saini describes one such community in the making, Lavasa -  'a metropolis governed mainly by machines' being built in the middle of the Western Ghats, a region rich in bio-diversity and populated by a few tribal villages. It is a half-billion dollar project that is 'the biggest thing to happen to  the Western Ghats since the Cretaceous Period'.

It is a surreal place  having an American Diner with staff dancing to Elvis tunes, opulent villas, a state-of-art hospital that looks deserted, delicate fountains, a street that looks as if it was in Italy...It sounds as if the promoter has taken the most picturesque parts of Europe and built a collage in the middle of nowhere.The employees say that it 'will be a city that governs itself' using technology, that it can provide a role model for the rest of India.  I got a feeling similar to what Angela Saini had - a 'feeling as if I've arrived in Jurassic Park but the dinosaurs haven't escaped...yet.'

In the biography of Steve Jobs by Walter Issacson, the author says that Jobs often disappeared into a 'reality distortion field' which made him view the world in black and white terms with no shades of grey,an ability to convince himself and others about almost anything without any sense of proportion. Similarly many educated people seem to live in a reality distortion field.An article in The New Yorker about the Indian print media gives an idea of why this is so. The desired stereotype is also promoted by television serials.  Nehru's comment in The Discovery of India may not have been off the mark: "I have not discovered any special qualities in a literate or slightly educated person which would entitle his opinion to greater respect than that of a sturdy peasant..."

On average, the educated and uneducated don't seem to be very different when it comes to basic human values. Knowing more about protons or perfect markets doesn't seem to help in this regard. The decision to extend voting rights to everybody without putting any restrictions on the basis of educational qualification was perhaps the wisest thing that Nehru did. Most people were opposed to the idea of giving voting rights to large numbers of illiterate people. But Nehru over-ruled all objections and went ahead with his decision. And his instinct has been proved right in election after election over the decades.

As soon as Indira Gandhi held elections after the Emergency, she was promptly booted out. The Congress did well in the more literate states in the South who preferred to ignore the horrors of the Emergency. It was highly educated, successful people who were likely to overlook the excesses of the emergency and say that population needs to be controlled somehow. It is educated, rich people who are likely to say that a spell of military rule will bring much needed discipline. (I have heard this, I am not making this up.) Talk of short-sightedness!

Granted there are  problems of inducement and intimidation but unpopular governments have been shown the door at regular intervals. If buying votes was so easy, the ruling dispensation would have been able to hold on to power more easily. I have heard servants say that they will take the money offered by both the main political parties in Tamil Nadu and then vote for whoever they like! As Ramachandra  Guha says in India after Gandhi:
...the distance - intellectual or moral - between Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi, or between B.R. Ambedkar and Mulayam Singh Yadav, is not necessarily greater than between, say, Abraham Lincoln and George W.Bush. It is in the nature of democracies, perhaps, that while visionaries are sometimes necessary to make them, once made they can be managed by mediocrities.  In India, the sapling was planted by the nation's founders, who lived long enough (and worked hard enough) to nurture it to adulthood. Those who came afterwards could disturb and degrade the tree of democracy but, try as they might, could not uproot or destroy it.
I remember seeing a video where it was stated that in the airport, the people in the queue for first class passengers look more agitated and prone to anger than the economy class passengers. I saw this video after my stroke so I couldn't check it for myself but it rings true. In India whichever party comes to power will have the majority of people voting against it. Every winning party claims that it has the mandate of the people which is far from the truth.Nehru at the height of his popularity got only 47% of the votes. So no government can risk moving too far away from the centre much to the chagrin of the better off sections of society, who seem impatient like the first class airline passengers.

Chetan Bhagat has written a book called Making India Awesome which I have not read. For all I know, I may  agree with most of its contents. My problem is with the title. In all probability the publisher would have thought (probably correctly) that a title that gives the impression of there being easy, clear-cut solutions to complex problems would result in better sales. It is similar to the BJP's penchant for coming up with MBA style mnemonics like 3 'C's, 4 'D's, ABCD etc.

A more humble title like 'Some Suggestions that May improve India's Prospects' may not sell as well. During sales training in Wipro, an advice was given which I thought was sensible: 'it is better to under promise and over deliver than to over promise and under deliver'. I am probably a misfit in a social ecosystem that encourages simplistic bombast. I heard a great line in a talk by Arun Shourie which illustrates the problem, 'Jo hyper-bole so nihal.'  As Nassim Nicholas Taleb says in Fooled by Randomness:
I do not dispute that arguments should be simplified to their maximum potential; but people often confuse complex ideas that cannot be simplified into a media-friendly statement as symptomatic of a confused mind.  MBAs learn the concept of clarity and simplicity - the five-minute-manager take on things.  The concept may apply to the business plan for a fertilizer plant, but not to highly probabilistic arguments - which is the reason I have anecdotal evidence in my business that MBAs tend to blow up in financial markets, as they are trained to simplify matters a couple of steps beyond their requirement. (I beg the MBA reader not to take offense; I am myself the unhappy holder of the degree.)

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Education is not a panacea - II

Educated people have caused untold miseries to large numbers of people through their fancy ideas like social Darwinism or medical procedures like frontal lobotomy. The iatrogenic effects of the medical profession are long and make for sorry reading. Educated people have often destroyed the environment and show scant regard for unintended consequences of actions like deforestation, over-exploitation of natural resources, introducing alien species into new habitats, etc., often driven by greed, arrogance and over-confidence. While speculating about the collapse of Easter Island society, which appears to have been cased by self inflicted environmental damage, Jared Diamond writes in Collapse:
I have often asked myself, 'What did the Easter Islander who cut down the last palm tree say while he was doing it?' Like modern loggers, did he shout, 'Jobs, not trees!'? Or: 'Technology will solve our problems, never fear, we'll find a substitute for wood'? Or: 'We don't have proof that there aren't palms somewhere else on Easter, we need more research, your proposed ban on logging is pre-mature and driven by fear-mongering'?
Well, perhaps it was, 'Cut, baby, cut.' Is it a smart idea in the long run to ignore environmental norms for achieving development goals? Many educated people seem to think so. They seem to suffer from what Nassim Taleb calls 'epistemic arrogance' - what they think they know far exceeds what they actually know. As Kahneman says in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow: 'Our comforting conviction that the world makes sense rests on a secure foundation: our almost unlimited ability to ignore the extent of our ignorance.'(If you are going to read only one book in the rest of the year and the whole of next year, I would recommend this book. I think it should be required reading in business schools.)

Paul Slovic is one of the leading experts in the world in studying how people decide about risk. He thinks that the public has major limitations like over-reliance on emotions and trivial details while experts are are much better in dealing with numbers and amounts. But the issue is not so cut and dried. As Daniel Kahneman writes in his splendid book Thinking, Fast and Slow:
...but Slovic draws attention to situations in which the differences reflect a genuine conflict of values.He points out that experts often measure risks by the number of lives (or life-years) lost, while the public draws finer distinctions, for example between "good deaths" and "bad deaths", or between random accidental fatalities and deaths that occur in the course of voluntary activities such as skiing. These legitimate distinctions are often ignored in statistics that merely count cases. Slovic argues from such observations that the public has a richer conception of risks than the experts do. Consequently, he strongly resists the view that the experts should rule, and that their opinions should be accepted without question when they conflict with the opinions and wishes of other citizens. When experts and the public disagree on their priorities, he says, "Each side must respect the insights and intelligence of the other."
The arrogance of ignorance is often in evidence but what cannot be ignored at times is the arrogance of the educated. It cannot be that if you are highly educated, only your views should count. It cannot be that only those views that benefit me are the sensible ones. Economists and businessmen lead the way in saying that people with viewpoints opposed to theirs are being 'misled'.When the poorest and the most defenceless are brushed aside in the name of development, one should at least pause and think. Democracy involves taking every group's point  of view even if the 'educated' think some views don't make sense.

It is hard to believe that real people on ground decide like economists in TV studios do. In The Black Swan Nassim Nicholas Taleb writes about the harm caused by economists due to their physics envy which makes them think that the behaviour of human beings can be approximated to the behaviour of billiard balls.  Economists as a tribe are too confident about their projections. (I have become wary of people who sound very certain.)  There is also the saying that if you put 10 economists together you will get 11 opinions. George Bernard Shaw said, 'If all economists were laid end to end, they would not reach a conclusion.'So where they get their confidence from is a mystery.Andre Beteille, probably the foremost sociologist in India, says in Chronicles of Our Time, 'To be sure, there is a large body of social science literature on modernization, development etc., but that part of it which claims to deal with scientifically established laws of social and economic change is mainly bluff and verbiage.'

Take for instance the land Bill. (I have not read the different versions and don't know the nuances.I am just commenting on the basis of a few talk shows that I have heard.) It seems that economists are looking at the issue from the angle of an intellectual problem to be solved - they don't have any skin in the game. On the other hand, the land-owners are looking at it from the angle of livelihood, social status and prestige, sentimental attachment etc., not just monetary compensation. Maybe the endowment effect is playing a role - not everything can be reduced to monetary terms.The image that comes to mind is of the farmer with small plot of land in the Hindi movie Do Bigha Zameen.

It is a question of differential motivation of the different groups involved, similar to the life/dinner principle in biology: ‘The rabbit runs faster than the fox, because the rabbit is running for his life while the fox is only running for his dinner’. As Andre Beteille says in an article A Right for Every Season:
There is widespread desire for change and betterment among all sections of society, all communities and all professions. Everybody wants to get to the end of the rainbow, but not many worry about how to get there. Economists seek to create their utopias through planning, politicians by legislations, and social activists through empowerment. They all can give detailed and eloquent accounts of  what that utopia will be like once it has been created. But they find it tiresome to dwell too closely on the obstacles the lie on the way. Perhaps in our social environment these obstacles are so pervasive and so oppressive that the mind naturally turns away from them. In the event, people tend to alternate between being utopian and being fatalistic, or fluctuate between a moralizing and a cynical perception of the world.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Education is not a panacea - I

In the  documentary Ram ke Naam, the sensible statements were often coming from those with little literacy and the medieval statements were often being made by the educated.  ('Education' is a flattering word to describe what is imparted in many schools and colleges in India.) Many of the vicious, misogynist, jingoistic comments by trolls on Twitter are by college-going students. Educated, middle-class people take great pride in flaunting their religiosity and finding modern ideas in ancient texts. Meera Nanda points to the peculiar mind-set of many Indians who have an inferiority complex with respect to Westerners which causes them to wear a superiority complex. As she says in Geek Nation by Angela Saini:
'For an ordinary believer, it's just faith.  They don't need to explain it. But there's a certain class of people coming up that need to justify their faith, who need to somehow intellectually put into words why they believe. It's more of a disease of educated people.'
Educated people have the same biases that everyone else has but are often in a position where they can cause much damage. The female-male sex ratio looks worse in some of the more developed parts of the country. Dowry pressure is quite common among the educated. Many of the educated rich seem to have an attitude similar to a comment I heard by a character in a novel by Kiran Nagarkar, 'With great fortitude we bear the misfortunes of others'. Caste, class and regional feelings are very much present among the educated. A Lancet study pointed out the disturbing possibility that recent increases in literacy and Indian per-person income might have contributed to increased selective abortion of girls.

In this video, Ashis Nandy says that more than 95% of the causalities in riots have been in cities, where the majority of the educated live, and not in the villages, where the majority of the population lives. These riots are orchestrated and  directed by the educated. The instances of public apathy, where lots of people look on with exemplary restraint while atrocities are committed in front of their eyes, seem to happen mainly in cities. There are many regressive practices in villages but these sordid realities of cities also cannot be ignored.

Incidents of drunk driving where poor pavement dwellers get killed and the educated perpetrator walks away without remorse happens in cities. There were many insensitive reactions after Salman Khan got convicted in a hit and run case. The most appalling comment was made by the singer Abhijeet, a person who one would have thought was educated enough and well-travelled enough to have some idea of the harsh realities outside his cocoon: 'If a dog sleeps on the road, it will die a dog's death. The poor and homeless must not sleep on roads... I too was homeless once, but never slept on road.'

I heard in a talk by the Dalai Lama that over 200 million people were killed by violence in the last century and most of these were at the hands of educated people. Educated people seem to be more likely to drool over terrible weapons that cause immense destruction somewhere far away and over the costly ceremonials of state power. I was shocked by this report that there is brisk sales of Mein Kampf in Delhi with some management students seeing it as "a kind of success story where one man can have a vision, work out a plan on how to implement it and then successfully complete it".  If education is only about learning skills at the cost of basic human values then there is something rotten at the core of modern education.

Educated people often say that Human Rights groups should not interfere with the working of security forces especially in remote areas. They are ignoring the fact that without checks and balances any group, whatever its ideology, becomes coercive. It is human nature. As Primo Levi says in The Periodic Table, '...man is a centaur, a tangle of flesh and mind, divine inspiration and dust.' It is the job of Human Rights groups to ask questions that security agencies find uncomfortable. If they have an amicable relationship with the security agencies, it means that they are not doing their job.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Changing one's mind

You can get some good stuff on the Internet and a lot of garbage. Sturgeon's law  that 90% of everything is crap is more applicable to the Internet than anything else. The other day, I came across a comment by Gandhi which is one of the good stuff.
I would like to say to the diligent reader of my writings and to others who are interested in them that I am not at all concerned with appearing to be consistent. In my search after Truth I have discarded many ideas and learnt many new things. Old as I am in age, I have no feeling that I have ceased to grow inwardly or that my growth will stop at the dissolution of the flesh. What I am concerned, with is my readiness to obey the call of Truth, my God, from moment to moment, and, therefore, when anybody finds any inconsistency between any two writings of mine, if he has still faith in my sanity, he would do well to choose the later of the two on the same subject.
Some time back, for some reason, I saw the the titles of a couple of my old posts and couldn't recall what it was all about. After I read the posts, I remembered having typed some sentences in it but for the most part it seemed as if I was reading someone else's post. So it is entirely possible that you may come across inconsistencies in my views. If so, Gandhi has the answer.

It has become the norm to regard changing one's view as a sign of weakness. Our first instinct when shown our contradictory statements is to somehow show that both mean the same thing. Talk shows often have one politician saying that another had said something in the past that is opposite to what he is saying now. I think that it is ok to change one's mind  provided of course that it is based on experience and reason and not due to political convenience depending on whether one is in the Government or in the Opposition.

For example, Arun Jaitly said when in the Opposition that disruption was a legitimate form of parliamentary protest but now he is against disruptions. If he holds on to the changed view whenever he finds himself in the Opposition then the change of mind is credible.

Faith is a realm in which minds are very difficult to change,  with scientific information that contradicts a cherished belief leading people to doubt the study in question. In psychology, the motivation to resolve conflicting ideas is called cognitive dissonance and it leads us to try and resolve the contradiction in whichever is the most personally satisfying way, rather than whichever is the most in tune with reality.

Many people revel in mysteries. Some look at them as challenges to be solved; some like them for their own sake, thinking, like Keats, that explaining a rainbow in terms of its prismatic colors destroyed the beauty of a rainbow. Keats wrote, 'Do not all charms fly / At the mere touch of cold philosophy?' They don't want to change their minds about a mystery and would prefer to be left alone in ignorance. In Unweaving the Rainbow, Richard Dawkins talks of an incident when Michael Shermer publicly debunked a famous TV spiritualist:
The man was doing ordinary conjuring tricks and duping people into thinking he was communicating with dead spirits. But instead of being hostile to the now unmasked charlatan, the audience turned on the debunker and supported a woman who accused him of 'inappropriate'behaviour because he destroyed people's illusions. You'd think she'd have been grateful for having the wool pulled off her eyes but apparently she preferred it firmly over them.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The 2015 Ig Nobel Prize Winners

The Ig Nobel Prize is for achievements that first make people 'LAUGH then make them THINK.' It is more interesting than the Nobel Prizes. This year's winners are:

  1. CHEMISTRY PRIZE - for inventing a chemical recipe to partially un-boil an egg.
  2. PHYSICS PRIZE - for testing the biological principle that nearly all mammals empty their bladders in about 21 seconds (plus or minus 13 seconds). 
  3. LITERATURE PRIZE - for discovering that the word "huh?" (or its equivalent) seems to exist in every human language — and for not being quite sure why. 
  4. MANAGEMENT PRIZE - for discovering that many business leaders developed in childhood a fondness for risk-taking, when they experienced natural disasters (such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, and wildfires) that — for them — had no dire personal consequences. 
  5. ECONOMICS PRIZE — The Bangkok Metropolitan Police [THAILAND], for offering to pay policemen extra cash if the policemen refuse to take bribes.
  6. MEDICINE PRIZE - for experiments to study the biomedical benefits or biomedical consequences of intense kissing (and other intimate, interpersonal activities). 
  7. MATHEMATICS PRIZE - for trying to use mathematical techniques to determine whether and how Moulay Ismael the Bloodthirsty, the Sharifian Emperor of Morocco, managed, during  the years from 1697 through 1727, to father 888 children.
  8. BIOLOGY PRIZE - for observing that when you attach a weighted stick to the rear end of a chicken, the chicken then walks in a manner similar to that in which dinosaurs are thought to have walked. 
  9. DIAGNOSTIC MEDICINE PRIZE - for determining that acute appendicitis can be accurately diagnosed by the amount of pain evident when the patient is driven over speed bumps. 
  10. PHYSIOLOGY and ENTOMOLOGY PRIZE — Awarded jointly to two individuals: Justin Schmidt [USA, CANADA], for painstakingly creating the Schmidt Sting Pain Index, which rates the relative pain people feel when stung by various insects; and to Michael L. Smith [USA, UK, THE NETHERLANDS], for carefully arranging for honey bees to sting him repeatedly on 25 different locations on his body, to learn which locations are the least painful (the skull, middle toe tip, and upper arm). and which are the most painful (the nostril, upper lip, and penis shaft). 

Monday, September 28, 2015

My antilibrary

In The Black Swan, Nassim Nicholas Taleb says that the writer Umberto Eco has thirty thousand books in his library. Most visitors focus on the books that are read but Taleb says that one should focus on the books that are not read which he calls the antilibrary. The more you know the  larger should be the number of books that you have not read.  The library should contain as much of what you do not know as you can reasonably store.

Whenever I come across titles of books that look interesting, I bookmark it. You can call this my virtual antilibrary. I keep adding to this list even though I know that I will  be able to read only a small fraction of the books in it (because of the limitations of time). Every book I read seems to give me 3-4 new book ideas. I keep getting surprised by how much I don't know even in areas where I thought I knew something.

Just after getting admission in IIMA, one person told me that in two years I will 'know everything'. It seems as if since then (especially after my stroke  when I've had more free time) I have been chiefly engaged in finding out how limited his concept of knowing everything was. I get disconcerted when I hear people ascribe knowledge to me that I don't have. It is becoming increasingly clear that the MBA degree is over-rated by society.

Meanwhile my antilibrary keeps growing. Of course, it has nowhere near the number of books that are in Eco's physical library. And yes, it now has some books by Umberto Eco because Taleb says that he 'belongs to that small class of scholars who are, encyclopedic, insightful, and non-dull'. I don't know when I will get around to reading them because there are other book ideas that take precedence (for now).

The concept of  the antilibrary explains why people who know the least are the most confident and why relying on the 'wisdom of the youth' is not a very good idea - they don't know how much they don't know. If I had written down my thoughts on various issues when I was in my teens and twenties, they would have made hilarious reading now. Confucius ("Real knowledge is to know the extent of one's ignorance"), Bertrand Russel ("One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision")  and Charles Darwin ("Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge") knew what they were talking about.

PS :Taleb uses the analogy of an antilibrary to explain his argument about rare events in his book. The Black Swan, an argument that I agree with - no amount of white swan sightings allows you to make the claim that 'all swans are white' but the sighting of just one black swan is enough to make the claim that 'all swans are not white'. There is an asymmetry in the level of certainty that you can ascribe to statements- you can be very certain about the negative statement but you can't have the same level of certainty about the positive  statement.

The common argument that is offered against any warning of any sort -'it hasn't happened before' - focuses on the books that you have read and ignores the unread books. It illustrates 'the tendency to look at what confirms our knowledge, not our ignorance'.

Monday, September 14, 2015

When I was fooled big-time

One evening I got a a call from Vivek Chandel (Chandel/Chandu) who was my classmate and dorm-mate at IIMA and is currently in Delhi. (You would have come across him in an earlier post.) We had the usual chit-chat, nothing that seemed different from our earlier conversations. The next morning I got a call from Amir Mirza (Sidey), another classmate and dorm-mate at IIMA who was then in Mumbai. He informed me that he was leaving for New York (where he is working) the next day and that we will meet on his next visit.

Jaya  informed me that some visitors who had been expected the previous day were coming that morning. Jaya got me ready and shifted me to the wheelchair. She told me that the expected guests were in a hurry to go back so she took me to the front hall as the visitors were expected soon.

And who do I find there? Sidey and Chandel! They had been sitting quietly lest their voices carry to my room. Sidey said, 'Kesu! Fancy you being here! What a surprise!' P.G. Wodehouse described the expression on the face of a chap who "while picking daisies on the down line, has just received the 4.15 in the small of the back." I had a similar expression on my face when I saw the two of them. You scarcely expect two guys who you thought were in Delhi and Mumbai to be in front of you.

It was the first time since our hostel days that we were together. We had spent a lot of fun times together in our hostel days. Chandel and Sidey had come home separately earlier but this was the first time they had come together. I had thought that they had had enough of my sick jokes but they have more resilience than I had imagined. It was good to know that familiarity doesn't always breed contempt.

We soon got down to discussing old times. And when Sidey is around when discussing old times, the topic soon veers around to the time when a restaurant in Ahmadabad had to close down due to his gargantuan appetite.

The three idiots meet after 22 years: Sidey to the right of me and Chandel to the left of me (and Jaya in front of me with the camera) 

We had gone to a restaurant that offered unlimited Gujarati thaali. Unfortunately for the restaurant, it had gulab jamun on its menu for dessert. With his gastric juices working overtime, Sidey polished off 23 of the sinful sweetmeats. When good food is in front of him, he feels compelled to show his appreciation. He is mindful of a cook's fragile temperament as evidenced by Anatole, the cook of P.G. Wodehouse fame, the one who serves a magnificent  mignonette de poulet rotie petit duc  and a sublime  nonats de la Mediterranée au fenouil (if you don''t know what they are, don't worry; I don't either) and threatens to put in his papers if he finds someone pushing them away and nibbling on spinach instead.

The good Samaritan, whose sole motivation was to protect the self-esteem of a hard-working and often unappreciated cook (any suspicion of gluttony that you might entertain would be making a mockery of the truth) had stuffed himself so much that he told us on the way back, 'Guys, don't touch me or I will puke!' When we came next to the restaurant, we found that it had shut shop and the blame naturally fell on Sidey. His calorie intake was one of those low probability, high impact events that Nassim Nicholas Taleb was warning about in The Black Swan.

Chandel is not to be considered a slouch when it came to punishing (er ...nourishing) the human body with excess calories. Once after finishing our dinner at a restaurant, we were about to leave when he said that he was still feeling hungry. He had eaten 4 parathas but he said that he could have 10. Everyone agreed that if he did indeed have 10 parathas, they will pay his bill. And indeed it turned out that way. (It reminds me of a scene in a Tamil movie.) Luckily for the restaurant, it had a pricing model that was more robust to such rare events.

These and other  hostel incidents formed the bulk of our chit-chat for the next few hours. All too soon, it was time for them to go. When I was checking with Jaya whether their cab to the airport had been booked, Sidey remarked impishly, 'I knew it, Kesu wants to get rid of us as soon as possible!' This visit was a surprise worth having.

PS: Some time back, I was reading Joesph Anton by Salman Rushdie  in which I came across the following lines: "anybody could walk in the front door.  You really had to be somebody to get in through the kitchen door, the staff entrance, the rear window, the rubbish chute." The first thing that I remembered when I read those lines was when I first visited Sidey's house in Mumbai.

When I reached there, I found the front door closed and I couldn't see anybody around who I could ask for directions. I saw a staircase which I thought led to the entrance so I climbed it ...and went straight into the kitchen with Sidey's mother looking in astonishment at the strange apparition that had suddenly appeared in front of her. But she managed to retain her sang froid in what must have been a stressful situation and just said, 'Hello, are you looking for somebody?' She must have known that her son has some weird friends and guessed that this must be one of them.

Fortunately,Sidey entered the kitchen at this moment and said, 'Trust you to enter my house through the kitchen.' I responded with a weak smile. Lacking in sound and fury, it signified nothing but embarrassment. A Bertie Wooster often has a Gussie Fink-Nottle in his circle of acquaintances. I was feeling like the poor cove who drops a dolly at mid wicket on the opening day of a Boxing Day Ashes Test Match in front of a 100,000 strong crowd and then has to endure the damn slow motion replay on the giant scoreboard at the ground with his eyes firmly fixed to the ground.

I have a lot of empathy for such an unfortunate member of the species. In my school days, I was sometimes known as 'gadda' -Hindi for 'hole' or 'pit'. When batsmen hit a catch towards me, they took fresh guard knowing that it would be a miracle if I actually managed to pouch it. I believe the technical term for the possession of such virtuoso fielding skills is 'butter-fingered'. The good Lord, when pondering over his Grand Design for this best of all possible worlds, overlooked an important detail which thinkers across the ages have agreed is a significant ommision - He forgot to provide for the ground to open up and swallow the tortured soul who found himself in such an agonising situation.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Aggressive Hinduism - II

I consider myself a Hindu, Christian, Muslim, Jew, Buddhist and Confucian. — Mahatma Gandhi

When I was in IIMA, Anand Patwardhan screened his documentary Ram ke Naam (you can watch it on Youtube) which showed the events leading up to the damage of the Babri Masjid. After the screening, there was a discussion during which there were some claims about there being archaeological findings, satellite photos, etc. (I forget the exact statements) which showed that there was a temple beneath the mosque.  I wondered why some very intelligent and well-educated people were animated about a question in which I had no interest.

It was another manifestation of the saying that whatever you say about India, the opposite is also true. Thus you will get promotion of medical tourism, with advanced medical facilities being provided at low cost while there will also be claims about Ganesha being created by plastic surgery. India will send mission to Mars while there will also be claims that inter-planetary planes existed during the Vedic age. Hindu religious men, who are supposed to preach universal love and brotherhood, will get vials of nuclearised sand from  where India exploded nuclear devices, as sacred offerings.

In one talk, Ashis Nandy said that all ideologies have the characteristic that they have an ambivalent relationship with the audiences they seek to influence. So, for example, feminists will not like most females, Marxists will not like most proletariat, nationalists will not like most of their people etc. They will keep saying that these people are not aggressive enough, not revolutionary enough in implementing all the principles of the  ideology even though it is to their benefit. I suppose Hindu ideologues will similarly dislike most Hindus for not being 'Muslim-enough' in their willingness to do anything for their religion.

Some months back, Obama said that Gandhi would have been shocked by the level of intolerance in India. Predictably - since, like America, we are a preachy people who like to lecture to the rest of the world but don't like it when others point out our faults - there were indignant voices about Obama's double standards in not commenting on the religious freedom in Saudi Arabia or Pakistan, about the ridiculousness of lumping together India and Afghanistan  in matters of religion etc.

These are all true of course but it is also true that Gandhi would have been shocked by the level of intolerance in India. The most intolerant will talk a lot about every statement except the one about Gandhi. Then a Hindu temple was vandalised in the US and immediately there were voices saying that US should not dictate  to others when it cannot put its own house in order. I call this the Mahabharata defense.

During the Mahabharata war, Krishna often uses unethical means to help the Pandavas defeat the Kauravas. When the Kauravas  protest, the defense is always of the form: 'You did many unethical things in the past so why are you cribbing if we do something unethical to you now?' It is the sort of thing politicians do in talk shows. You will not improve if you keep comparing yourself to the worst in others.

My views will be similar to that of Tagore's in the second half of his life. Initially, although tolerant of all faiths, Tagore had a tilt towards political Hinduism speaking of a Hindu nation and a revival of Hindu civilization. But after the communal riots in 1906-07 in Bengal, such views disappeared and he spoke only of all Indians.  Sarvepalli Gopal writes in Imperialists, Nationalists, Democrats:
In the years thereafter Tagore spurned ritual and ceremony as 'the fetters of blind observance' and had no use for any religion which claimed a monopoly of the truth.  He repudiated the contention that certain peoples, races, or creeds had been specially chosen by God and hailed Zarathustra as the first prophet who emancipated religion from the exclusive narrowness of the tribal God ...He disapproved of those who did not appreciate the religions of others and who brought the pride of acquisition and the worldliness of sectarianism even into the region of spiritual truth.  To the person genuinely moved by the religious impulse the ultimate truth is one, every religion bears some traces of it, and which particular creed more professes it is a matter of indifference...
If this be the essence of religion, the fact that a society is multi-religious need pose no problems; and the state has no role to play in this matter.  It is this idea, underlying the poems of Tagore and shared by Gandhi and other profoundly religious Indians, which forms the basis of the Indian understanding of secularism and which, after years of fostering since 1947, is today again hard-pressed.  The logical attitude of getting rid of religion altogether is too Utopian for human society.  The more practical answer, in line with the recognition by Tagore and others of religion as a matter of individual experience and action, is the removal of religion from public affairs, the distancing of the state from all faiths and refusal to favour any one creed above all others, the insistence on religion as a private matter with no bearing on civic rights and duties, and freedom for the practice of diverse forms of religious worship provided they do not come into conflict with each other. 
The Indian model of multiculturalism is referred to as a salad bowl model in contrast to a melting pot model. It is like the ingredients of a salad (or thaali) whose individual components retain their identities but together, they provide a good taste. 

Monday, August 17, 2015

Aggressive Hinduism - I

Unity cannot be achieved by making a law that all shall be one. - Tagore

Hinduism has always been an amorphous religion with multiple gods, goddesses and texts and people have been free to pick and choose what they like. Ramanujan's 300 Ramayanas shows that even texts revered by many had multiple versions. There have been significant strands of atheistic thought within Hinduism and doubts and debates were common. I came across a stanza in the Rig Veda which said:
Who really knows, who can truly say
When and how did creation start? 
Did He do it? Or did He not?  
Only He, up there, knows, maybe; 
Or perhaps, not even He.
But over the last couple of decades Hinduism has been copying the characteristics of the monotheistic religions, promoting one god (ok, make it two - Rama and Krishna, specifically the Krishna of the Mahabharata not the Krishna of Bhagavata Purana), one book (Gita) and a proposal to make Ayodhya as Hindu Vatican. Many people seem to take pride in wearing religion on their sleeves characterised by the cry 'garv se kaho hum Hindu hain'. I came across a couple of paragraphs in two different books that struck a chord. The first in The Idea of India by Sunil Khilnani:
For many in India modernity has been adopted through the conservative filters of religious piety, moralism and domestic virtue.  This has spawned a novel Hinduism, where holographic gods dangle on well-used key chains and cassettes of devotional ragas are played in traffic jams: instances of a religious sentiment freed from its original defining contexts, from the subtle iconography of materials and the punctual divisions of the day into sacred and mundane time. Besides tapping the sentiments of domesticity and piety, political Hinduism also summons up the energies of the young, many of whom have drifted through India's colleges and universities (for most, an idle rite of passage rather than an education).
The other extract is from Anti-utopia by André Béteille :
Hinduism as a system of religious beliefs and practices has been organised very differently from Christianity or Islam.  It has left much room for activities that might be interpreted as either religious or non-religious, according to the inclinations of the individual.  In that sense, though not in every sense, it has a closer  affinity with secularism than Christianity or Islam.  But Hinduism is changing, and one significant change is its tendency to define itself in opposition to other religions, notably Islam.
Broadly speaking, there were two views of India's past, one being tolerant and inclusive, the other being aggressive and exclusivist. Both were attempts to refute the British narrative that India as a unified entity did not exist till they arrived on the scene. This view is illustrated by Churchill's statement that India has as much claim of being a country as the equator. They claimed that in their absence, India would descend into chaos and dictatorship.

The inclusive view was propounded by people like Gandhi, Tagore and Nehru. In The Discovery of India, Nehru says that India is ' “an ancient palimpsest on which layer upon layer of thought and reverie had been inscribed, and yet no succeeding layer had completely hidden or erased what had been written previously”. He views India's past and celebrates its unique identity as a confluence of various influences which mirrors what he would like India's future to look like.

The other conception of the past was the Savarkarite view of a Hindu race joined by blood kinship. Those who had a racial connection, shared culture and had common laws and rites formed the core and others like Muslims, Christians and tribals were relegated to a secondary status. The Hindu nationalists viewed Hindus as victimised by Muslims and colonialists and laid stress on a martial patriotism as a means of righting this historical wrong.

After partition, many had a simple logic: since there was a Muslim Pakistan there had to be a Hindu India, a religious state driven by narrow nationalism. This view is characterised in the present day by the BJP manifesto of 'one nation, one people, one culture'. For the first couple of decades after Independence, the inclusive view was in ascendancy but the Savarkaite view always lurked in the background and started gaining momentum in the eighties. (It is interesting to note that Jinnah and Savarkar, who wanted a nation formed on the basis of religion were non-religious; while people like Gandhi and Abul Kalam Azad, who wanted a secular nation, were religious.)

The idea of making India a Hindu Rashtra is a mirror image of the idea of Pakistan - of a homogeneous nation created on the basis of religion, a familiar model of the Western nation-state where unity is derived from uniformity of religion, culture and language. The proponents of such a view regard internal difference as a sign of weakness. But as Sunil Khilnani points out in The Idea of India:
If one looks beneath the confusion and black arts of India's politics, one sees in its democratic experience evidence of something that James Madison and his Federalist colleagues well understood more than two hundred years ago. Large republics with diverse and conflicting interests can be a better home for liberty, a safer haven against tyranny, than homogeneous and exclusive ones.  Within them, factions and differences can check one another, moderating ideological fervour and softening power.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

A memorable meeting

In a previous post, I had shown a photograph from a school picnic when I was in Little Flower School (LFS) Jamshedpur.

The person in front of me (in the middle wearing a white T-shirt)is Sir Joseph who had taught me Physics in Std.XI and XII. He had learnt of my stroke from a classmate of mine. When he was in Coimbatore a couple of months ago in connection with a wedding, he was kind enough to visit us along with his wife and two of of his children. Needless to say, I was delighted.

Sitting in front - Sir Joesph and me
Standing (from left) - my mom, Sir's daughter, home nurse, my sister, Mrs. Joesph, Jaya and her father
We exchanged reminiscences about our time in LFS. He told us about his interview before joining LFS and about how it came about that he had to set the question paper for selection to KG! I asked him to sing an old Malayalam song and he responded by singing a medley of the opening lines of 27 hit Malayalam songs.

A brief note about LFS: When you are young you take many things for granted and only later do you realise how lucky you were. As they say, life is lived forwards and analysed backwards. One of these lucky breaks that I had was being able to study in LFS., a fact that was brought home to me more forcefully by the idea I got of Coimbatore schools. My days in LFS with the teachers and friends there are among my most treasured memories. It was not NIT,Trichy or IIMA but LFS that had the biggest influence on me both academically and in terms of values (which I think is at least as important).

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Two illiterate nurses - II

Soon after the previous nurse I had written about, I got another nurse who had never gone to school. Apparently, girls in  her village (near Trichy in Tamil Nadu) were never sent to school. (This was some decades ago. Things have changed now - her daughter is in college now.)

She was a bit better at telling the time as compared to the previous nurse so giving feeding and medicines on time was not a major concern. This nurse was a Tamilian but she could also manage some broken Hindi and broken Malayalam, having picked up these languages while working in the houses of various patients. For some reason, she concluded that I did not understand Tamil inspite of numerous pieces of evidence  to the contrary. She persisted for over 20 days speaking to me in half-baked Hindi and Malayalam and I couldn't understand half the things she said.

She seemed to love the sound of her own voice. She would keep talking even if no one was paying attention. She would sometimes talk to herself in the same loud voice which would often make me think that she was talking to someone. Because of her constant chatter, I couldn't hear a word on TV when I was listening to the news but her conversation was fun to listen to so it was ok.

She had a peculiar habit of  speaking in the first person. Her name was Kamakshi, so she will say, 'Today Kamakshi is not feeling well.' Or, 'Kamakshi has a headache.' Or, 'Kamakshi is not feeling hungry now.'

At most times she talked to me with the realisation that I understood what she said. But sometimes she lapsed into thinking that I didn't understand anything. Once she told me, 'I am going to the terrace to bring back your cloths'. I blinked 'ok'. She said, 'I had hung them out to dry., I blinked 'ok'.  She said, ' They would have dried by now, I'll get them.' I blinked 'ok'. She said, 'If I don't get them, you will not have cloths to wear tomorrow.' I blinked hard - 'OK dammit'. I breathed a sigh of relief when she finally went to the terrace.

An interesting incident happened once when I was watching TV. There was a cartoon of Narendra Modi who she didn't appear to recognise. She just said, 'Isn't that person looking scary!' I asked Jaya to find out if she knew who the PM was. She didn't seem to know. She just knew that during elections, there was one party led by Jayalalithaa and another one led by Karunanidhi.

I was surprised by a comment that she made. She said that she would not mind having to do things like sponging, washing clothes, etc. the whole day but what she found difficult was having to turn the pages of books! I had thought that it was the other way around.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Two illiterate nurses - I

So far, the agencies had been sending me nurses who had gone to school but had dropped out before completing Std. X. This time, they sent me a nurse who had never been to school and didn't know how to read and write although she could speak two languages ( her native tongue which was Malayalam and Tamil.). It was fascinating to watch her methods to negotiate a world which requires some literacy at various times.

She didn't know how to tell the time by looking at a clock. She could tell the hour from the clock (eg, one o' clock) but she couldn't tell the in-between times (eg. 1 : 15). But she was the most punctual of all the nurses, getting up at exactly six in the morning without ever glancing at the clock. She woke up half an hour early couple of times but the darkness must have told her the time  was not quite right. She looked carefully at the clock for a few minutes, thought that something about the positions of the needles didn't look ok and went back to sleep. She got up half an hour later and knew without looking at the clock and knew it was the right time.

Since the nurse could not read, she could not identify the names that were stored on her mobile phone. She could only redial the last number that she had dialed. If she had to call someone else or a new number had to be stored, she had to tell somebody to  do it. If she wanted to call her daughter early in the morning, she would tell Jaya the previous night to pick out the correct  number so that she just has to press it in the morning.

She was confident of travelling anywhere within Kerala and Tamil Nadu since she knew the local languages. You just had to make her board the correct bus. Before boarding the bus, she will ask Jaya to select in her mobile the number of the person who is waiting for her. After that she was only in contact with that person. It was too risky to ask a stranger to change the number since she couldn't be sure that it was the right number.

Once there was a minor dispute about a date. She said that she  had joined duty on 5th January with which we agreed.  But she insisted that it was a Tuesday and we said that it was a Monday . Jaya began to show her the calender but then realised that it was useless since she couldn't read. There didn't seem to be a way to show her what day it was so we had no option but to accept her statement.

When she had to keep a book in the bookstand for me to read, she would not be sure whether the book was upside down or which was its front cover. She would take a minute or two to determine the correct orientation from the pictures on the  front and back covers.

Her major passtime was watching TV serials. She was not interested in watching anything else, not even movies. She used to be downcast on weekends because serials are telecast only on weekdays. She would watch a particular Malayalam channel for most of the day which would include repeat telecasts of serials which she had already watched. Even if she was watching the same episode for the third time during the day she would watch it with wide-eyed interest. It used to remind me of a Wodehouse description in A Damsel in Distress:
These all belonged to the class which will gather round and watch silently while a motorist mends a tyre.  They are not impatient.  They do not call for rapid and continuous action. A mere hole in the ground, which of all sights is perhaps the least vivid and dramatic, is enough to grip their attention for hours at a time.  
(Come to think of it, I may not be too different. My favorite movie is Sholay which I would have watched  dozens of times. I still watch it every time it comes on TV with the same level of interest that I had when I first saw it almost 40 years ago. There is no accounting for human tastes.)

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Mentioning institute affiliations is not enough - IV

The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible .- Oscar Wilde

In his piece, Sanjeev fails to differentiate between levels of analysis. For example he asks, 'which particular cell or atom or subatomic particle feels it all?' This is like asking, 'When you stretch a rubber band, which atoms undergo the maximum stretch? 'Chemists will talk of interactions between atoms and molecules. A car mechanic will talk of larger aggregates of matter like cylinders and spark plugs. As Richard Dawkins says in The Extended Phenotype, 'At every level the units interact with each other following laws appropriate to that level, laws which are not conveniently reducible  to laws at lower levels.'

You cannot analyse the lowest level using the laws used at the highest  level. If a chemist thinks in terms of spark plugs or a mechanic thinks in terms of atoms both will become dysfunctional. The building blocks used at one level (say, sense organs) are analysed in detail at another level (say, the cells that make up those sense organs). Each provides some information that adds to the overall picture but none of the levels can be fully understood if they are studied in isolation without any reference to other levels.

Sanjeev also does not distinguish between proximate and ultimate causes. A proximate cause is an event which is closest to, or immediately responsible for causing, some observed result. It explains biological function in terms of immediate physiological or environmental factors. The ultimate cause is one which is usually thought of as the "real" reason something occurred. In biology, ultimate causation explains traits in terms of evolutionary forces acting on them. For e.g., take the case of a cheetah chasing a gazelle.

You can say that the cheetah's visual system registers the gazelle, its hunger pangs cause its brain to secrete some hormones which cause the relevant muscles to contract. You could step back a bit and talk about the genes that made the proteins that make up the hormones and muscles, about the effect of a mutation on one of those genes, etc. You could step further back and look at the evolutionary history and say that cheetahs that could run a bit faster than others in the population caught more gazelles when they were hungry, so they survived better and produced more offspring on average and over many generations their genes came to dominate the population. Most of the energy for the evolutionary process is obtained from sunlight.

Now if you omit all the intermediate processes and just say that the cheetah chases the gazelle because the sun shines, it sounds strange. Sanjeev does a similar thing when he says that thoughts and emotions are caused by chemical reactions.Such blurring of the dichotomy between the immediate short-term explanation and the underlying long-term explanation of the same behavior is done by Indian gurus. IIT graduates are expected to to do better.

If not his IIM connection, Sanjeev's IIT connection should have given him a better appreciation of the methods of science. But as the Salem hypothesis - It holds that people who claim science expertise, whilst advocating creationism, tend to be formally trained as engineers - shows, engineers seem to have difficulty with biology. As for me, having studied engineering, I find biology, especially evolutionary biology, more interesting. Jerry Coyne says in Why Evolution is True:
Among the wonders that  science has uncovered about the universe in which we dwell, no subject has caused more fascination and fury than evolution. That is probably because no majestic galaxy or fleeting neutrino has implications that are so personal. Learning about evolution can transform us in a deep way. It shows us our place in the whole splendid panoply of life. It unites us with every living thing on earth today and with myriads of creatures long dead. Evolution gives us the true account of our origins, replacing the myths that satisfied us for thousands of years. Some find this deeply frightening, others ineffably thrilling.
No points for guessing which group I belong to. I find the idea that I am related to a cabbage fascinating rather than disturbing. Sanjeev seems to be uncomfortable about scientists saying that life is chemistry. Whether he likes it or not, it is true but life is more than 'just' chemistry just as football is more than 'just' physics.

Analysing the chemical composition of chocolate doesn't mean you lose the ability to taste chocolate. Regarding a flower as a lure sculpted by evolution over millenia to attract pollinating agents does not mean that one can't appreciate the beauty of a flower. Regarding a bird as a small dinosaur does not mean one can't appreciate its splendor (or indeed, a poem about it; one of my favourite poems is  Shelley's To a Skylark). As Richard Feynman said, scientific knowledge adds to the beauty of nature; it doesn't subtract.

(I wanted to write a bit more but felt that these posts were becoming too long and decided to stop. Ever since I got the neuro-headset, I have flouted the fundamental idea of the Elizabeth Taylor school of blogging. And if you are wondering what that is, she is supposed to have told a husband of hers, 'I shan't keep you for long.' In other words, I have not erred on the side of brevity and conciseness for quite a while.)

Friday, June 26, 2015

Mentioning institute affiliations is not enough - III

Man is a Reasoning Animal. Such is the claim. I think it is open to dispute. - Mark Twain

In this post Sanjeev says, 'I could never get a satisfactory answer to what the source of this consciousness is. If I fear death, feel pain and pleasure, who is this I actually?' Many people think that we are more than just chemicals and electrical impulses. Thoughts, beliefs, choices etc. seem to suggest Decarte's concept of mind-body duality - the body is made of material stuff but the mind is not. It seems difficult to accept that the mind is the emergent property of the brain.

There is plenty of neurological evidence to show that all aspects of our mental lives depends solely on physiological activities in brain tissues. When some part of our brain tissue dies some part of the mind disappears. As I heard Sam Harris say in a discussion about life after death, when different bits of brain tissue is destroyed, people lose different abilities, yet they seem to think that when the whole brain is destroyed on death, they will rise up perfectly intact, recognising grandma and speaking English. As Steven Pinker says in The Blank Slate:
...it is still tempting to think of the brain as it was shown in old educational cartoons as a control panel with gauges and levers operated by a user - the self, the soul, the ghost, the person, the "me". But cognitive neuroscience is  showing that the self, too, is just another network of brain systems.
The hint first came from the case of Phineas Gage, a 19th century railroad worker. While at work, a sudden explosion blasted a rod straight through his brain, left eye and skull and lay meters behind him. There was a hole in his head where his frontal cortex had been. Incredibly he was only briefly stunned and was able to walk and talk soon afterward. He seemed okay but from the next day, as one co-worker put it, 'Gage was no longer Gage'. His personality had changed.

From a pleasant, reliable, popular person, he had changed to someone who lied and cheated uncontrollably.He lost his sense of responsibility, his moral compass had degenerated and he was not able to hold a job for the rest of his life. In one lecture during his Human Behavioural Biology course at Stanford, Robert Sapolsky gives several instances of problems with frontal cortex damage.This shows that consciousness  is not some disembodied concept mediated only by culture and religion. Morality is as firmly grounded in neurobiology as anything else about us.

There isn't even a single 'I'; the brain just gives the illusion that a single 'I' is in control. It is not just in fiction that Dr. Jekyll turns into Mr. Hyde. In an earlier post, I had mentioned several brain disorders like anosognosia, hemineglect, blindsight, Capgras Sndrome, Cotard's syndrome etc. But the realisation that genes have a role to play in deciding one's morality need not make Sanjeev have such existential hopelessness as to make him say that his fate 'was decided in the first nanosecond of big-bang or even less'. In most cases the effects of genes are probabilistic in nature and depends on a complicated interaction with nurture. Moreover, most DNA are non-coding i.e. they don't seem to do anything.

Complex traits are affected by multiple genes with individually small and typically fickle effects. Most genes are pleotropic i.e. they have multiple effects, and most behaviours are polygenic i.e. they are mediated many genes working in a network having positive and negative feedback loops.Also some DNA sequences are regulatory elements i.e. they regulate the actions of genes near them, often under the influence of environmental factors.

 Thus most human behaviours can't be predicted with 100% accuracy. The reason is that the causation involved is so complex and deeply probabilistic that it is, in effect, unpredictable even if we were to try to enumerate all the contributing factors. Thus for all practical purposes, we are indeed free.As Robert Sapolsky says in Monkeyluv:
...you've have got nature - neurons, brain chemicals, hormones, and, of course, at the bottom of the cereal box, genes. And then there's nurture, all those environmental breezes gusting about. And the biggest cliche in this field is how it is meaningless to talk about nature or nurture, only about their interaction.  And somehow, that truism rarely sticks.
Sgmund Freud said, “Humanity has in the course of time had to endure from the hands of science three great outrages upon its naive self-love. The first was when it realized that our earth was not the center of the universe, but only a tiny speck in a world-system of a magnitude hardly conceivable...The second was when biological research robbed man of his peculiar privilege of having been specially created, and relegated him to a descent from the animal world, implying an ineradicable animal nature in him...But man's craving for grandiosity is now suffering the third and most bitter blow from present-day psychological research which is endeavoring to prove to the ego of each one of us that he is not even master in his own house, but that he must remain content with the veriest scraps of information about what is going on unconsciously in his own mind." Neurological findings have increased the third outrage and many are not willing  to acknowledge it.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Mentioning institute affiliations is not enough - II

It has been said that man is a rational animal. All my life I have been searching for evidence which could support this - Bertrand Russell 

In his post, Sanjeev says, 'Anything that is not measurable under their telescope or microscope or meters etc does not exist for them.' One reason for relying on instruments is that they are free of human biases. Perhaps the most problematic of these biases is confirmation bias - the tendency of people to look for evidence that confirms what they already believe. As Richard Feynman said, ' The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.' Eyewitness testimony is a very unreliable form of evidence. People see what is not there and don't see what is there. Optical illusions show that people can be fooled by simple lines drawn on paper.

Instruments increase the range of signals that can be detected. For eg., the human eye can detect signals only in a narrow band of the electromagnetic spectrum and has limited power. Telescopes and microscopes enable us to see objects that are far away and tiny objects respectively, objects that can't be seen by human eyes. For eg., the Hubble Deep Field image is produced by pointing Hubble space telescope at an apparently empty patch of sky.It is revealed to contain many galaxies each with millions of stars many of which are a few billion times dimmer than what can be seen by the human eye.

Dogs can smell far better than humans, bats can hear sonar, insects an see in infra -red, birds can see in ultra-violet.  Then there are signals like the magnetic field of the earth that you will not detect without instruments. Relying exclusively on human senses reveals  a small world enabling humans to harbour the delusion that they are the pinnacle of creation. The vastly bigger universe revealed by instruments is far grander than the tiny universe revealed by human senses.Maybe everything we know about the universe now is wrong but what will replace it will be backed by evidence not dreams.

Sanjeev says, 'They do not have any conclusive logic to justify how they are so certain that no world apart from what can be measured by their scopes and meters can at all exist.' The conclusive logic is the absence so far of evidence to that effect. The personal experiences that people relate are very real and convincing to them but as evidence, they are worthless. As Oliver Sacks shows in his book Hallucinations (I had written a post about it), people can experience many things in many circumstances and be certain that they are real.

Sanjeev asks, “Who guided atoms to become humans?” Nobody. That was the brilliant discovery by Darwin. He noticed how breeders moulded the shapes and qualities of plants and animals in the way they wanted by choosing the breeding individuals in each generation. The entire first chapter of On the Origin of Species is devoted to artificial selection. But in artificial selection human beings are the controlling agents.

Then Darwin had his leap of imagination - why can't the same thing occur in nature with gradual change in wild plants and animals over many generations without the aid of a controlling agent? The individuals that breed in each generation are chosen automatically - those individuals that have the superior equipment to survive in their environment are most likely to reproduce and pass on the genes (a word that Darwin didn't use since he didn't know about them) that helped them to survive.

Sanjeev asks, “Why not slightest of evolution take place in documented history?”. If he means visible human evolution, then the time period is too small. Evolution by natural selection depends on the generation time of the organism and not enough human generations have gone by in recorded history for there to be visible evolutionary change. In organisms with shorter generation times, evolution has been documented. One of the most potent examples of evolution by natural selection which has the potential to cause havoc for humans in the not too distant future is the development of antibiotic resistance by bacteria.

Evolution by natural selection has occurred at the genetic level in human beings in recent times. An oft-cited example is the evolution of lactose tolerance in adults in pastoral communities. Another common example is the evolution of genetic resistance to malaria in some African populations due to hetero zygote advantage - When carrying two copies of an allele is disadvantageous (in this case, causing sickle-cell anaemia), but carrying only one copy is advantageous(in this case, conferring resistance to malaria). Isaac Asimov writes in his essay The Relativity of Wrong:
If the rate of change were more rapid, geology and evolution would have reached their modern state in ancient times. It is only because the difference between the rate of change in a static universe and the rate of change in an evolutionary one is that between zero and very nearly zero that the creationists can continue propagating their folly.
Actually, the idea of vast stretches of time should not  faze the Indian mind since such ideas are part of myths.For eg., in Hindu mythology, there are 4 yugas which make up a cycle called divya-yuga, which lasts 4,320,000 years. One thousand of these yugas equal one day of Brahma. Brahma's lifespan is 100 years of this time. The idea of a 6000 years old earth believed by Young Earth Creationists in the US will strike the Indian mind as strange.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Mentioning institute afiliations is not enough - I

Far too many people — especially those with great expertise in one area — are contemptuous of knowledge in other areas, or believe that being bright is a substitute for knowledge. But taking pride in their ignorance is self-defeating - Peter Drucker.

Agniveer is a site which, while introducing itself, says, 'Vedas are the best available benchmarks cum workbooks cum textbooks to help us model ourselves.' In it,  I came across an article by one Sanjeev who says, ' I am an alumnus of IIT-IIM and hence try to find my humble ways to repay for the most wonderful educational experience that my nation gifted me with.' Citing the names of well-known institutes can only take you so far. The effect wears off after a while. I think he should have read and thought a bit more before writing his post.

Education is an investment that will yield returns after a while. The returns are increasingly being viewed only in monetary terms rather than about whether you learn something. As a Mehmood song says' 'The whole thing is that ke bhaiyya, sabse bada rupaiyya.'“Why create a generation of thinkers when what’s needed are workers?” seems to be the thinking behind education in most Indian schools. The RSS recently advised the government to  make education 'more practical and less theoretical'. In other words, don't think, just do.

I won't entirely blame Sanjeev for this post. The school system is geared towards training children to jump through the requisite hoops to get to college. Once there, you are expected to know about progressively narrower ranges of knowledge. When working, with the current fashion for staying late in office, there is no time to develop other interests. So people can be very knowledgeable about one area and astonishingly simplistic in their views about other areas.

It will be erroneous to think  that if a person is very good in one field, he is equally good in other fields. I was trapped in this bubble and would have continued in blissful ignorance but then I slipped on Life's banana skin and everything changed. Since then I have been reading about many things (since time is not of the essence, I can indulge in such luxuries)  and the common element in all  of them is that they have very little to do directly with what I studied in college. What I found was that the universe is a lot more complicated (and therefore more interesting) than I had been led to believe.  I agree with what another person said in this post:
All our technical universities seem to have one thing in common: their constant refrain to us to be ‘successful’. Be it the IITs, BITS or of course, the myriad others, anyone observant enough can make out that ‘success’ is the buzzword. ‘Achievement’ is a virtue, and dreams of 50 Lakh p.a. starting salaries seem to be the bench mark of the student who has ‘used his time wisely and worked hard’. And somehow, somewhere down the line, the real point of it all seems to have been lost.
It is simply not enough that universities exhort their students to make something of themselves. It is not enough that they churn out well-educated young professionals who still seek solace in astrology, continue to hold conflicting views about the universe in the face of scientific evidence, and continue to cling to crippling fears and insecurities about themselves and their purpose in life.
The cat is already out of the closet, and it’s becoming increasingly clear that a spurious understanding of science can co-exist with academic brilliance in higher education. If we are to really get anywhere to begin with, we must shed our collective cultural tolerance for faith-supremacy and stop riding on the popular bandwagon of Appeal to Antiquity. This manifestation of Karmic Capitalism comes at the cost of the rational worldview, and feeds off modern insecurity. It festers in a vacuum of discourse and open debate about what it means to be successful, or how we can overcome our anxieties thoughtfully.
Sanjeev seems to think that a scientific theory is a random guess that someone came up with over dinner. A theory is a system of ideas that gives an explanation of a group of facts or phenomena. It begins as a hypothesis and finally becomes a theory that is accepted by the scientific community after it has been confirmed by experiment/observation. If even one observation is wrong then the theory is wrong and has to be modified. The new theory must not only explain the anomalous fact but also explain the facts that had been satisfactorily explained by the old theory. Stephen Jay Gould says:
Well, evolution is a theory. It is also a fact. And facts and theories are different things, not rungs in a hierarchy of increasing certainty. Facts are the world’s data. Theories are structures of ideas that explain and interpret facts. Facts do not go away when scientists debate rival theories to explain them. Einstein’s theory of gravitation replaced Newton’s, but apples did not suspend themselves in mid-air, pending the outcome. And humans evolved from apelike ancestors whether they did so by Darwin’s proposed mechanism or by some other, yet to be discovered.
Like the theory of gravity or the atomic theory, evolutionary theory is an extensively documented set of principles with evidence from multiple independent sources - morphology, embryology, paleontology, bio-geography, molecular biology, etc. There are multiple books and online sources which give information about evolution in language accessible to the layman. Following the advise of the Bible is useful: 'Seek and ye shall find'. As Jacques Monod said, '[A] curious aspect of the theory of evolution is that everybody thinks he understands it."

There are an amazing number of misconceptions about evolution by natural selection, an idea that can be summarized in just a few words - non-random selection of random variation. The use of the word 'evolution' as a synonym for the word 'change' in many contexts like evolution of Indian foreign policy, evolution of cities, evolution of car design etc. are misleading. These processes have nothing in common with the process of biological evolution.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

An irritating nurse - II

Once when I asked the nurse to turn the page of a book, she muttered something under her breath that sounded like, 'Why can't this guy just lie down quietly?' After that, I stopped asking her to turn pages. I would read the two pages in front of me and sit quietly. After half an hour, she may turn the page. If she did, I read; otherwise, I didn't. During such times of simple living and high thinking, my favorite pastime was how best to bore you in my next post. So you can blame this nurse for some of your miseries.

The nurse had the habit of saying one thing when people were around and muttering the opposite thing under her breath when she was alone. For example , she will say to people that she had learned my system of communication quickly while the reality was very different. She seemed to temporarily think that I was deaf and couldn't communicate anything to anybody. At these times, I will quietly continue doing whatever I had been engaged in, pretending that I didn't hear anything while she will be sitting with a brilliant smile as becomes the victor in a battle of wits.

She seemed to be the perfect example of the cliché  - a bad carpenter blames his tools. If she couldn't remember where she kept a towel, she blamed the towel; if some piece of clothing that she had put out to dry flew away in the breeze because she had not fastened it with a clip, she blamed the clothing. If she spilled some feeding or urine, she blame my cough even though I had been lying quietly.

Once she spilled urine all over my pant because she had not kept the can properly. At this time, I was lying on the bed and the so the nurse didn't have to call anyone to shift me. She struggled on her own to remove my pants and wipe me clean. I told Jaya about the incident when the nurse was not in the room. We knew she would blame my non-existent cough which was exactly what she did later when she described her struggles in making me clean. Jaya pretended as if she was hearing about the incident for the first time and said, 'Really? You should have called me to help!' I did my best to look on impassively.

When Sujit was discharged from the hospital, I asked Jaya to get the nurse changed. It was the first time I had made such a request. There had been other nurses too who had some similar characteristics but this nurse had them all to a much greater degree. In A damsel in Distress, P.G. Wodehouse wrote:
The gift of hiding private emotion and keeping appearances before strangers is not, as many suppose, entirely a product of our modern civilization...Of all the qualities  which belong exclusively to Man and are not shared by the lower animals, this surely is the one which marks him off most sharply from the beasts of the field.
Animals care nothing about keeping up appearances.  Observe Bertram the Bull when things are not going just as he could wish.  He stamps.  He snorts.  He paws the ground.He throws back his head and bellows. He is upset, and he doesn't care who knows it.  
As long as this nurse was around, there was always the danger that I might forget my better nature and decide that Bertram the Bull had the right idea.

Monday, May 11, 2015

An irritating nurse - I

Sometime back, I had a nurse  who the agency said was very experienced, had looked after quadriplegic patients and would be able to look after all the needs of the patient without trouble. All agencies say this so not much confidence could be placed on it. The part about experience was not very reassuring because rarely had a nurse handled a quadriplegic who could not speak so any experience would have had limited relevance.

The first and foremost problem with her was that she was never able to understand my basic communication of one blink for 'yes' and no blinks for 'no'. When I indicated that I wanted something, she would ask whether it was about pillow, hand, fan, etc. but was unable to understand what I was saying. She would randomly adjust various things which would make matters worse till my eloquent eyes discouraged further investigations.

I always want the nurses to close the door when my motion is being cleaned. This nurse would often forget it in spite of being told to do so numerous times. On one such occasion, when she forgot to close the door, I kept turning my head towards the door and making some croaking sounds. She understood that it was about the door and kept insisting that she had closed and bolted it which I could see wasn't the case. All she had to do was to turn and look at the door and the mystery would have been solved but she was reluctant to do it.

At times like this it is a good idea to ask the question, 'What would Sherlock Holmes have done?' But this did not help. The famed resident of 221B Baker Street had only handled murders, burglaries and international intrigues. This was a lot more tricky.I could not expect Luck to do the heavy lifting at all times. I had to occasionally give it a push with my own effort.

Not being known to act with promptness and dispatch in sticky situations (or in any situation for that matter), I had to fall back on my tried and trusted eyes to convey the gravity of the situation. They screamed at her in helpless anger, 'Look at the bloody door!' There were some fruity words long suppressed swirling about in my mind struggling for utterance. It is said that meaningful silences are better than meaningless words. I am full of meaningful silences and this was as meaningful as any. (My meaningless words are reserved for the blog.)

The usual clonus set in and my  hands and legs began to have the typical shivering movements. The nurse finally got the message, turned towards the door and found it wide open. Mission accomplished.  If she had looked at me sheepishly, I would have laughed over the incident. What irritated me further was that the nurse pottered towards door muttering under her breath as if she was annoyed that I had pointed out her error.

At this time, Sujit developed some health issues and had to be hospitalised for a few days. This meant that Jaya had to be in the hospital for extended periods of time leaving me to deal with  the whims of the nurse. This was a situation that could not have been avoided and I had no option but to depend on Lady Luck. In  A Damsel in Distress,  Wodehouse writes:
Luck is a goddess not to be coerced and forcibly wooed by those who seek her favours.  From such masterful spirits she turns away.  But it happens sometimes that, if we put our hands in hers with the humble trust of a little child, she will have pity on us, and not fail us in our hour of need. 
I decided that Wodehouse knew what he was talking about. I am pleased to report that my trust was not misplaced. Luck had shaken off her capriciousness and was on her best behaviour. I suffered only the discomforts that I had anticipated and there were no unpleasant surprises.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Harking back back to a glorious past - II

It is claimed that Pythagoras theorem was known in India before Pythagoras. This  is an example of a partial truth - a statement that can't be rejected outright because it has some elements of truth but it can't be accepted without qualification because it is some way from the whole truth. Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, scientist and philosopher,  said that the most dangerous of all falsehoods is a slightly distorted truth.

From what I have read, there were civilizations that knew about the theorem before Pythagoras.and they used it frequently in their construction activities. But they knew specific instances of the theorem. It was true for the instances they checked but they had no way of knowing whether it was true for an infinity of right angled triangles.  The theorem is named after Pythagoras because he was the first person to give a mathematical proof using variables to show that it was true for all right angled triangles.So till Pythagoras provided the proof, the equation was a conjecture.

The PM stated that the creation of Ganesha is proof of the existence of plastic surgeons thousands of years ago. He said that an elephant's head had been grafted on a person's body to create the god. There were claims that Kauravas were born using stem cell technology, that cars and TV existed in Mahabharat times, that a helmet used in the Mahabharata war is found on Mars, that there were inter-planet planes during the Vedic age...the claims keep getting more bizarre. Some of these claims were made at the Indian Science Congress. Here is a discussion about it. By such glorification of myths the real achievement of ancient India like creation of the number zero is  in danger of being brushed under the carpet.

The argument that science has often been wrong and the ancient sages always knew the right thing is underwhelming. Each generation finds out something about the universe that is more true than what the previous generation knew. Isaac Asimov illustrates this idea in a piece he wrote called The Relativity of Wrong in which he said that if you said that the earth is flat, you would be wrong; if you said that the earth was spherical, you would still be wrong; but the first statement is more wrong than the second. Asimov writes:
What actually happens is that once scientists get hold of a good concept they gradually refine and extend it with greater and greater subtlety as their instruments of measurement improve. Theories are not so much wrong as incomplete.
In IIT Madras, one Dr. A. B. Sudhakara Sastry delivered a speech on the topic of “Vedic Sciences: A Treasure waiting for YOU”. He said' 'Vedic literature has every speck of knowledge we need for today. There is no need to invent; we just need to discover what’s already there.' Judging from the videos of the event (Part 1, Part 2), he had a testing time. As Tagore said:
That our forefathers, three thousand years ago, had finished extracting all that was of value from the universe, is not a worthy thought. We are not so unfortunate, nor the universe, so poor.'
It is all designed to evoke a false sense of pride among the gullible. It is an extension of the trend of taking pride in what you are not. Résumés are about showcasing the outstanding personality that you are not. The inflated marks in schools are about projecting you as the brilliant student that you are not. Liberal use of fashion accessories is about showing off the trendy, debonair person that you are not. In one commentary stint, Sunil Gavaskar called this generation 'the hyped generation'. It is all about hype and show; about exaggeration and chest-beating; and reality be damned.