Saturday, June 17, 2017

The emotional tail wagging the rational dog - V

Many nations and ethnic groups demand apologies for wrongs committed in the distant past. Germany has paid the equivalent of billions of dollars as reparations for the Holocaust. Japan has shown reluctance to apologize for its wartime atrocities in the face of growing international pressure. Debate has raged in Australia over the government's obligation to aborigines over past wrongs. Sashi Tharoor's speech about British colonial rule in India earned him fans even among his political opponents.

Should nations apologize for historical wrongs? There are worries about inflaming old animosities, hardening historic enmities, etc. There is the argument that people in the present generation should not apologize for the wrongs committed by a past generation. This rests on the notion that we are responsible only for our own actions and not for the actions of someone else.But are humans unencumbered beings entirely free to take decisions without outside influences?

If we think of ourselves as unbound by moral ties that we haven't chosen ourselves, we can't make sense of many things like family loyalty, patriotism, religious faith, etc. In Justice, Michael Sandel says that we are storytelling beings who are born in the middle of a continuing narrative. My decisions are influenced by larger life stories of which my life is a part. He quotes from Alasdair MacIntyre's book After Virtue:
We all approach our own circumstances as bearers of a particular social identity. I am someone's son or daughter, someone's cousin or uncle; I am a citizen of this or that city, a member of this or that guild or profession; I belong to this clan, that tribe, this nation. Hence what is good for me has to be the good for one who inhabits these roles. As such, I inherit from the past of my family, my city, my tribe, my nation, a variety of debts, inheritances, rightful expectations and obligations. These constitute the given of my life, my moral starting point. This is in part what gives my own life its moral particularity.
...the story of my life is always embedded in the story of those communities from which I derive my identity. I am born with a past, and to try to cut myself from that past, in the individualist mode, is to deform my present relationships.
To illustrate this narrative account of a person bound by moral ties that he has not chosen, Sandel gives an example of a communal obligation. During WW II, members of the French resistance conducted bombing raids over Nazi occupied France. Although factories and military installations were targeted, civilian causalities were inevitable. One day a bomber pilot found that his assigned target was his home village. He asked to be excused from the mission because he felt that even in a just cause, he couldn't kill some of his fellow villagers. Sandel writes:
What do you make of the pilot's stance? Do you admire it or consider it a form of weakness? Put aside the broader question of how many civilian causalities are justified in the cause of liberating France.The pilot was not questioning the necessity of the mission or the number of lives that would be lost. His point was that he could not be the one to take these particular lives. Is the pilot's reluctance mere squeamishness, or does it reflect something of moral importance? If we admire the pilot, it is because we see in his stance a recognition of his encumbered identity as a member of his village, and we admire the character that his reluctance reflects.
I saw later this transcript of a speech by Bhikhu Parekh where his explanation of Gandhi's views about the interconnectedness of humans was similar to MactIntyre's quoted above (the entire explanation is in one paragraph but I have split it into three paragraphs for ease of reading):
Gandhi saw more clearly than most other writers both the interdependence of human beings and the ways in which systems of domination were built up and sustained. He argued that all systems of domination rested on a profound misunderstanding of human nature, and wrongly assumed that it was possible for one man or group of men to harm another without also harming themselves. Human beings were necessarily interdependent and formed an organic whole.

An individual owed his existence to his parents without whose countless sacrifices he would neither survive nor grow into a sane human being. He grew and realized his potential in a stable and peaceful society, made possible by the efforts and sacrifices of thousands of anonymous men and women. He became a rational, reflective and moral human being only within a rich civilization created by scores of sages, saints, savants and scientists. In short, every human being owned his humanity to others, and benefited from a world to the creation of which he contributed nothing. As Gandhi put it, every man was 'born a debtor', a beneficiary of others' gifts, and his inherited debts were too vast to be repaid.

Even a whole lifetime was not enough to pay back what a man owned to his parents, let alone all others. Furthermore the creditors were by their very nature unspecifiable. Most of them were dead or remained anonymous, and those alive were so numerous and their contributions so varied and complex that it was impossible to decide what one owed to whom. To talk about repaying the debts did not therefore make sense except as a clumsy and metaphorical way of describing one's response to unsolicited but indispensable gifts.
There is a school of thought which says that history is a field of knowledge which is a source of conflicts because it reminds people about episodes in the distant past which are best forgotten. An example is the Ramjanambhoomi movement where constant attempts to historicize a figure who had resided peacefully in myths for centuries unleashed atavistic tendencies in many people which had unfortunate consequences. Gandhi once said, ‘Happy is the country that has no history.'

Thursday, June 8, 2017

The emotional tail wagging the rational dog - IV

 Our perception of risk is dominated by the emotional part of our brain.  Threats that bring to mind strong images or which are related to us in vivid stories have more influence on our decision making than we imagine. Theories, graphs,  diagrams and data speak to the rational part of our brain but do not spur us to action. Paul Slovic, an expert on the social amplification of risk identifies two drivers of risk perception: 1)a sense of powerlessness and 2) an anxiety that comes from new and unforeseeable dangers. Terrorism involves both criteria. Economists appeal to the rational rider but the emotional elephant often has its way.

In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman writes about the time when he had gone to Israel when there were frequent incidents of suicide bombings in buses. Even then, the probability that any particular person will die in a terrorist incident is small but that is not how the public used to react. They used to avoid buses as much as they could and when in buses they used to look anxiously at packages or bulky clothes. Kahneman was ashamed to find that despite knowing the probabilities, his behaviour had also been affected. He found that he did not like to stop his car next to a bus at red lights and he moved away more quickly than usual when the light changed. His rational knowledge had no effect on his behaviour. He writes:
The emotion is not only disproportionate to probability, it is also insensitive to the exact level of probability. Suppose that two cities have been warned about the presence of suicide bombers. Residents of one city are told that two bombers are ready to strike. Residents of another city are told of a single bomber. Their risk is lower by half, but do they feel much safer?
Kahneman gives an example where some Americans were offered insurance against their own death in a terrorist attack while on a trip to Europe, while another group were offered insurance that would cover death of any kind on the trip. Even though "death of any kind" includes "death in a terrorist attack", the former group were willing to pay more than the latter. If you imagine a Venn diagram, the subset here is being valued more than the super set. Fear of terrorism for these subjects was stronger than a general fear of dying on a foreign trip. Kahneman suggests that the attribute of fear is being substituted for a calculation of the total risks of travel.

In 2014, the year for  which I heard the data, more people died in the US of gun related violence than in terrorist attacks worldwide. In India, the number of people who die in terrorist attacks is minuscule compared to the number of people who die in road accidents. Yet, people in both counties are more concerned about terrorist attacks. People are more afraid of flying than driving although people are far more likely to die in road accidents.

This anomaly has to do with the availability heuristic which has to do with what people instinctively do when they estimate the frequency of a category. If people can quickly recall instances of a category, that category will be judged to be large. Dramatic events like plane crashes and terrorist attacks are shown again and again on TV making us feel that they occur more frequently than they actually do.

The idea of availability helps explain how people react to various disasters. In the immediate aftermath of a disaster, people will be very concerned and buy various insurance policies and take various preventive and mitigation measures. But as memories of the disaster grow dim over time, the worry and diligence shown earlier melt away. In fact, this cycle of problem, concern and growing complacency seems to happen every year in India regarding monsoons.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

The emotional tail wagging the rational dog - III

When people are confronted with an overwhelming danger, they can adopt many different behaviours to reduce their fear. These may include denial, playing down the threat, fatalism, etc. These reactions are called maladaptations because they are responses that do nothing to reduce the level of risk. If something arouses a painful emotion, people may subconsciously suppress or deny it in order to avoid the unbearable pain, even though the practical consequences may be disastrous. There is an example of such a maladaptation in Collapse by Jared Diamond:
There is a high dam above a narrow river valley which is in danger of bursting.  When attitude pollsters ask people downstream of the dam how concerned they are about the dam’s bursting, the fear is lower far away from the dam and increases as one approaches closer to the dam. Nothing surprising there. The surprising finding is that, after you get within a few miles of the dam, where the concern is found to be the highest, the concern falls off to zero as one approaches closer to the dam! Thus the people who are most certain to be drowned profess unconcern. It would seem that the only way to preserve one’s sanity in the face of such danger is to deny its existence.
Sentences that are mathematically equivalent may not be psychologically so. How a statement is framed profoundly affects how a person views it. Two choices that are formally equivalent may have different emotional content and in their experiments, Kahneman and Tversky found that people consistently chose on the basis of their emotions. For example, they asked people the following two questions that are logically identical but framed differently: The first group of participants was presented with a choice between programs: In a group of 600 people,
Program A: "200 people will be saved"
Program B: "there is a 1/3 probability that 600 people will be saved, and a 2/3 probability that no people will be saved"
72 percent of participants preferred program A (the remainder, 28%, opting for program B). The second group of participants was presented with the choice between the following: In a group of 600 people,
Program C: "400 people will die"
Program D: "there is a 1/3 probability that nobody will die, and a 2/3 probability that 600 people will die"
In this decision frame, 78% preferred program D, with the remaining 22% opting for program C. It was found that when things were stated in terms of death (second question), people prefer treatment D but when things are in terms of life, treatment A was preferred. When thinking about life, people seemed to prefer certainty, but when thinking about death, they seemed to prefer odds, probably because people seemed to think that they might overcome the odds.

In The Trouble with Testosterone, Robert Sapolsky wonders about applying Kahneman and Tversky's scheme to how firing squads are organized. In ancient times one shot may not kill a person. So there could be two alternative scenarios which are formally equivalent: either one man could fire five times or five people could fire once each. Sapolsky thinks that the second method was chosen because of the logical distortion it allowed: at some irrational level, it was easier for people to emotionally convince themselves that they had killed only one-fifth of a man. He writes:
Why do I think the firing squad was an accommodation to guilt, to the perception of guilt, and to guilty consciences? Because of an even more intriguing refinement in the art of killing people. By the middle of the nineteenth century, when a firing squad assembled, it was often the case that one man would randomly be given a blank bullet. Whether each member of the firing squad would tell if he had the blank or not - by the presence or absence of a recoil at that time of the shooting – was irrelevant. Each man would go home that night with the certainty that he would never be accused for sure, of having played a role in the killing.

Monday, May 22, 2017

 The emotional tail wagging the rational dog - II

In The Emotional Brain, the neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux shows that the emotional part of the brain is tightly integrated with the rational part and has dominance in decision making because of its ability to respond quickly to threats, which is crucial to an organism's survival. He says that emotions can easily displace routine events out of awareness but non-emotional events do not so easily displace emotions from the mental spotlight. He writes:
...emotions are things that happen to us rather than things we will to occur...We have little direct control over our emotional reactions. Anyone who has tried to fake an emotion, or who has been the recipient of a faked one, knows all to well the futility of the attempt. While conscious control over emotions is weak, emotions can flood consciousness. This is so because the wiring of the brain at this point in our evolutionary history is such that connections from the emotional systems to the cognitive systems are stronger than connections from the cognitive systems to the emotional systems.
I came across an experiment in The Emotional Brain involving split-brain patients. In such patients, the nerve connections between the two hemispheres of the brain are cut to try to prevent very severe epilepsy and thereby, the two sides can no longer communicate with each other. Thus, since language centres of the brain are in the left side, the person can only talk about what the left side knows. If a stimulus is presented in such a way that only the right hemisphere sees it, the split-brain patient is unable to verbally describe the stimulus. In these patients, information provided to one side of the brain remains trapped on that side and is unavailable to the other side.

A split-brain patient called P.S. was presented with a stimulus having emotional content. When the emotional stimulus was presented to the left hemisphere, P.S. could describe the stimulus and tell whether it signified something good or bad. But when the same stimulus was presented to the right hemisphere, the speaking left hemisphere could not describe the stimulus. But it could correctly judge whether the stimulus seen by the right hemisphere was good or bad.

For example, when the right hemisphere saw the word 'mom', the left hemisphere rated it as 'good', and when the right side saw the word 'devil', the left rated it as 'bad'. Such correct rating by the left hemisphere happened consistently even though it had no idea what the stimuli were, the emotional significance of the stimulus seeming to 'leak' across the brain. Joseph LeDoux writes, 'The patient's conscious emotions, as experienced by his left hemisphere, were, in effect, being pushed this way and that by stimuli that he claimed to have never seen.'

A psychologist at New York University, Jonathan Haidt, describes the two systems with the image of a rider and elephant. The rational rider tries his damnedest to make the emotional elephant go in the direction he wants but ultimately the huge elephant will have its way. I came across a passage in Somerset Maugham's novel, Of Human Bondage, which struck a chord in me:
It amused him sometimes to consider that his friends, because he had a face which did not express his feelings very vividly and a rather slow way of moving, looked upon him as strong-minded, deliberate, and cool. They thought him reasonable and praised his common sense; but he knew that his placid expression was no more than a mask, assumed unconsciously, which acted like the protective colouring of butterflies; and himself was astonished at the weakness of his will. It seemed to him that he was swayed by every light emotion, as though he were a leaf in the wind, and when passion seized him he was powerless. He had no self-control. He merely seemed to possess it because he was indifferent to many of the things which moved other people.
He considered with some irony the philosophy which he had developed for himself, for it had not been of much use to him in the conjuncture he had passed through; and he wondered whether thought really helped a man in any of the critical affairs of life: it seemed to him rather that he was swayed by some power alien to and yet within himself, which urged him like that great wind of Hell which drove Paolo and Francesca ceaselessly on. He thought of what he was going to do and, when the time came to act, he was powerless in the grasp of instincts, emotions, he knew not what. He acted as though he were a machine driven by the two forces of his environment and his personality; his reason was someone looking on, observing the facts but powerless to interfere: it was like those gods of Epicurus, who saw the doings of men from their empyrean heights and had no might to alter one smallest particle of what occurred.
Sometimes, I will feel that I have some solid grounds to let off a bit of steam. But I will keep telling myself, 'Relax. No need to get so agitated, it is not such a big deal.' But all these attempts at self-control will be utterly useless and I will show my usual signs of being irritated like the stiffening of my muscles.  I will realize that the task of trying to control my emotions was a daunting one and my Inner Voice will tell me to  abandon the project. I will later find that Jaya had already attended to whatever had been agitating me and I had been fretting unnecessarily.

I will be like the batsman who shapes to play a hook shot but pulls out of the shot at the last moment and ducks hastily after realizing that the bouncer is a little quicker and a little higher than what he had initially anticipated. What often helps preserve a facade of calmness instead of giving a stupid speech are two factors:

Firstly, I am indifferent to many things like new models of cars, mobile phones etc. that excite many people. (In the present age, mobile phones provide the starkest reminders of Gandhi's warning - 'Machines should be man's slave, man should not be machine's slave.) Secondly, the tediousness of my communication process means that I am unable to deliver my fiery speech.

Friday, May 12, 2017

The emotional tail wagging the rational dog - I

The only questions worth asking today are whether humans are going to have any emotions tomorrow, and what the quality of life will be if the answer is no. - Lester Bangs, rock critic

“An Indian born economist once explained his personal theory of reincarnation to his graduate economics class,” Paul Krugman writes in the opening paragraph of his Preface to Peddling Prosperity. “If you are a good economist, a virtuous economist,’ he said, ‘you are reborn as a physicist. But if you are an evil, wicked economist, you are reborn as a sociologist.” The evil economist is closer to reality but many economists want to emulate the virtuous economist and achieve the precision of physics.

Adam Smith recognized that humans are not always guided by reason. His Theory of Moral Sentiments begins, 'How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.' But many later economists try to subsume human behaviour into their imposing theories and complex calculations involving the rational maximiser whose resemblance to reality is highly questionable.

Commenting on the new methods of reproduction like IVF and surrogacy, one professor of business administration at Harvard said that this 'unbundling the supply chain' has prompted 'growth in the surrogacy market' since people who participated in this market 'essentially needed to purchase a single package of egg-bundled-with-womb. 'This description instrumentalises women's bodies and treats babies as tradeable commodities. Philip Ball writes in  Critical Mass about Gary Becker's analysis of the economics of  the family (which helped him win a Nobel Prize in 1992):
'Participants in marriage markets', argues Becker, face a difficult choice because they 'have limited information about the utility they can expect with potential mates.' People are compelled to marry across boundaries of race, religion and class when 'they do not expect to do better by further search and waiting'. Let us be thankful that Shakespeare did not have Romeo and Juliet put it that way. 
In this TEDx talk,Gerd Gigerenzer talks about this idea of economists of marrying by maximizing expected rational utility. When he asks economists how many married this way, no one says he did so. Finally, one economist admitted that he calculated the maximum utilities of his girlfriends and married the one who had the highest score. Not surprisingly, when they met a few years later, the economist was divorced.

In Antifragile, Nassim Nicholas Taleb (no admirer of economists; he often calls them charlatans and advocates throwing out everything in economics that has an equation)  relates a hilarious story. It is about a highly cited academic in the field of decision theory who helped develop "something grand and useless called 'rational decision making' loaded with grand and useless axioms... and grand and even more useless probabilities".

When at Columbia university, he struggled over a decision to move to Harvard. A colleague suggested that he use some of his greatly honoured and discussed techniques which "included something like like 'maximum expected utility'". He angrily responded, 'Come on, this is serious!' (Taleb is not sure whether the story is apocryphal or not but thinks it true to type.) As Yogi Berra said, 'In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is.'

Economists often come up with such cartoon models of human behavior because they are conducive to deriving simple equations and getting exact solutions. But modeling human behaviour without any role for emotions is unrealistic. It is like the drunk who was searching for his keys under a streetlight. When a passerby asked him where he had lost his keys, he replied that he had lost it in the next street. Then why search here? The drunk said, 'Because this is where the the light is present.' Similarly economists use only reason in their models because that is where light is present. In The Black Swan, Nassim Nicholas Taleb gives an idea of why economists make bizarre models:
Economics is the most insular of fields; it is one that quotes least from outside itself. Economics is perhaps the subject that currently has the highest number of philistine scholars - scholarship without erudition and natural curiosity can close your mind and lead to the fragmentation of disciplines.
Humans have generally thought that reason is better than passion, thoughts are better than feelings. Plato thought that emotions are like wild horses which have to be controlled by the intellect which he thought of as the charioteer. I came across some sample sentences in  Metaphors we Live by that show humans regarding reason as better than emotions - The discussion 'fell to the emotional' level, but I 'raised' it back 'up to the rational' plane. We put our 'feelings' aside and had a 'high-level intellectual' discussion of the matter. He couldn't 'rise above' his 'emotions'.

But researchers are finding that reason and emotion work together. The evolutionary journey has equipped us with two distinct information processing systems. Researchers such as Daniel Kahneman have classified these systems as System 1 which can be called the emotional brain and System 2 which can be called the rational brain. These systems are in constant communication with each other.  The attentive System 2 is who we think we are but it is not a paragon of rationality and is often derailed by the automatic System 1.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Sharing knowledge - II

The Tamil folktale about the importance of telling your stories that Ramanujan relates goes as follows. A poor widow lived with her two sons and two daughters-in-law who always ill treated her. Since there was no one to whom she could unburden herself, she kept putting on weight and her sons and daughters-in-law mocked her bulk and told her to eat less. Once she wandered away and came to an old, deserted house where she decided to blurt out her miseries.

She told her grievance against her first son to the wall in front of her which collapsed under the weight of her woes and she felt herself becoming lighter. She similarly told of her grievances about each of the other persons to each wall in turn. All of them came down and she felt lighter each time. Standing amidst the rubble, she felt lighter not only in body but also in mood.

While reading folktales, you should suspend logic for some time and not ask questions like 'Won't the roof fall on her head if the walls collapse?' Otherwise you will miss the main point of the tale which is that telling stories has a cathartic effect on the teller even if nobody else is listening. Ramanujan writes that wealth, knowledge, etc must circulate , 'there are danas, or gifts, that, in their nature, must be given.'

Whenever I feel like stopping the blog, I will remember this story and tell myself that I  will end up being the loser if I do it. It gives me something to do and keeps me from irritating others in the house. Of course the unintended consequence is that you will have to bear the brunt of my prolixity, what with me frequently expounding on various weighty matters with, what Gandhi once said regarding himself, ‘…a cocksureness worthy only of a man who knows not that he knows not’. The motivation is similar to what Wodehouse says in the preface to Very Good, Jeeves:
It is some fourteen summers since, an eager lad in my early thirties, I started to write Jeeves stories: and many people think this nuisance should now cease. Carpers say that enough is enough. Cavillers say the same. They look down the vista of the years and see these chronicles multiplying like rabbits, and the prospect appalls them. But against this must be set the fact that writing  Jeeves gives me a great deal of pleasure and keeps me out of the public houses.
 (The poet and satirist Edward Young didn't spare the  likes of Gandhi and Wodehouse and other such cunning foxes in whose pack I find myself: The love of praise, howe'er concealed by art,/ Reigns more or less supreme in every heart;/ The Proud to gain it, toils on toils endure;/ The modest shun it, but to make it sure!)

So there is some uncertainty about when you can finally give a sigh of relief and exclaim, 'All is well that ends.' As Yogi Berra said, 'If you ask me a question I don't know, I'm not going to answer.' One option you have is to wait for the dialogue from Sholay to play itself out, 'Agar Gabbar se koi tumhe bacha sakta hai toh khud Gabbar.'(If anyone can save you from gabbar, it is gabbar himself.) The easier option is to use the mouse aggressively and escape to less taxing parts of the blogosphere.

Actually I will tell a couple of stories now itself instead of waiting for a future post. What was it that Laurence Sterne said? Digression is “the sunshine of narrative”. I love this quote - it gives me the freedom to write pretty much what I like without bothering about unity, order, coherence, and completeness and other such inconvenient factors.

The first story is about the Dalai Lama's impish sense of humour that I  saw in this post by Ramachandra Guha where he mentions an incident during a commemoration ceremony for the Dalai Lama. One of his table-mates went over to the Dalai Lama and said loudly, ‘Your Holiness! How are you!! You remember we met in Calcutta!’. The Dalai Lama did not recognize him at all so the person continued, ‘We met in Calcutta! With Mother Teresa!’. The older man now took off his glasses, wiped his face, and softly said: ‘I am sorry I don’t remember you, but I do remember Mother Teresa’.

The second story is about Gandhi who thought it a sin to waste a moment of one's life and kept a punishing schedule. He would get up at 3 a.m., say his morning prayers and start replying to letters that he has received and writing articles for his newspapers. He would even dictate letters and articles to his secretaries while walking which used to be an average of 10 km a day.  After one disagreement, one of his devoted, long-time secretaries, Mahadev Desai, wrote in exasperation:

To live with the saints in heaven is a bliss and a glory,
But to live with a saint on earth is a differnt story!

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Sharing knowledge - I

A poor widow lived with her two sons and two daughters-in-law who always ill treated her...oh, I suppose that you haven't the foggiest notion of what this is all about. Bertie Wooster says in The Mating Season:
It so often pans out that way when you begin a story. You whiz off the mark all pep and ginger, like a mettlesome charger going into its routine, and the next thing you know, the customers are up on their hind legs, yelling for footnotes.
Since there are a couple of detours before I get to the nub of the matter, I might as well get started. Nassim Nicholas Taleb made most of his money through a couple of bets that came off and this gave him complete independence. In Antifragile, he writes that he calls  this kind of sum 'f*** you money' - 'a sum large enough to get most, if not all, of the advantages of wealth (the most important one being independence and the ability to only occupy your mind with matters that interest you) but not its side effects' like having to listen to boring conversations because 'the worst side effect of wealth is the social associations it forces on its victims'.

You can say that my stroke was the physical equivalent of Taleb's  f*** you money which forced me to suddenly drop out of the rat-race without a by-your-leave. Although I am still heavily dependant, the dependence is on family and friends which, you will no doubt agree, is about a million times better than being dependant on the government or on corporates. We all know about the Kafkaesque machinations of governments. I was also saved from boring corporate talks of the kind you  hear from corporate honchos on CNBC. In Fooled by Randomness, Taleb gives examples of such phrases that will be stitched together in various combinations to make impressive sounding sentences:

We look after our customer’s interests / the road ahead / our assets are our people / creation of shareholder value /our vision / our expertise lies in / we provide interactive solutions / we position ourselves in this market / how to serve our customers better / short-term pain for long-term gain / we will be rewarded in the long run (remember the last two terms from the demonetization days? - Suresh) / we play from our strength and improve our weaknesses / courage and determination will prevail / we are committed to innovation and technology /  a happy employee is a productive employee / commitment to excellence / strategic plan / our work ethics

After a couple of years of aimless TV watching when I was getting used to the new mental landscape I found myself in, I came across a couple of books that caught my interest. Odysseus voluntarily tied himself to the mast of a ship in order to escape the lure of the Sirens. I found myself involuntarily tied to a wheelchair and I realized over a period of time that reading books was something I could do with almost complete freedom. And almost all the books that caught my interest were ones that had nothing to do with what I had studied in college.

This calls for a digression. (Laurence Sterne called digression “the sunshine of narrative”.) In his essays, A.K. Ramanujan says that folklores are autotelic, i.e. they travel by themselves without any actual movement of populations.  Thus neighbouring languages and regions will have similar folklore that have similar structure but have cultural and contextual differences. To make his point, Ramanujan tells a folktale that is sometimes attributed to Aristotle and sometimes to an Indian philosopher.

The philosopher asks a village carpenter who has a beautiful old knife, 'How long have you had this knife?' The carpenter replies, 'Oh, this knife has been in our family for generations. We have changed the handle a few times and the blade a few times, but it is the same knife.' In my case similarly, MBA subjects are a distant memory, Engineering subjects are an even more distant memory but it is the same Suresh.

A few years after the stroke , I started writing this blog which I had planned to be only about my life after the stroke. But then I started getting bored writing about myself and started writing about many other matters triggered by what I was reading (although it might make you agree with Alexander Pope - 'The bookful blockhead, ignorantly read, / With loads of learned lumber in his head..."). I would often feel like quitting but then I came across a folktale by Ramanujan about the importance of sharing stories and other knowledge. To know more about it, you will have to wait till the next post. (This sounds like one of those unending TV serials which say at the end of an episode 'to be contd....' and like those serials, you may find the next instalment underwhelming.)

Talking about TV serials calls for yet another digression about a serial  of yore. I remember watching a serial called Mr. Yogi when I was in NIT, Trichy. It is a story of a USA settled Indian boy, Yogesh Ishwarlal Patel, aka Y.I. Patel, aka Mr. Yogi, trying to arrange his marriage in India. He meets 12 girls and tries to select one of them as his bride. When he goes to one house, he shakes hands with the person who opens the door and introduces himself, 'Y.I. Patel.' The other person says, 'How do I know why you are Patel?'

Sunday, April 9, 2017

'The brain as a computer' - II

With the invention of the electronic computer, it became the norm to think of the brain as a similar information processing device. A computer is just a metaphor for the functioning of the brain and like all metaphors, it should not be carried too far. Here is a post that tells the differences between a brain and a computer. Thinking of the brain as a cognitive computer ignores emotions which do not function independently of the body.

In Geek Nation, Sunny Joseph, who works on the truth machine,  tells Angela Saini, 'Experiences can't be planted in the mind by police officers or lawyers...information will be stored in the brain only if we undergo an experience.' This sort of thought comes if we think of the brain as a computer and memory is like the hard-disk, which is erroneous. Memory is a self-justifying historian that resorts to confabulation, distortion and plain forgetting to preserve our core self-images. (Slate had an 8 part series on memory manipulation.) Angela Saini writes:
But I am skeptical. Not only is every human brain different, but criminals in particular are more likely to have aberrant mental states. Psychopaths and pathological killers, for example, often show signs of brain damage. Memories also change and fade over time.
It is estimated that a piece of the brain the size of a grain of sand would contain one hundred thousand neurons, two million axons and one billion synapses, all communicating with each other. It has been calculated that the number of possible brain states - the number of permutations and combinations of activity that are theoretically possible — exceeds the number of elementary particles in the universe.

V.S. Ramachandran, one of leading lights of brain research, said that we began researching the brain 300 years ago and he sometimes feels that we are still at the same place. In Phantoms in the Brain, he writes, 'The Cambridge physiologist Horace Barlow recently pointed out at a scientific meeting that we have spent five decades studying the cerebral cortex in excruciating detail, but we still don't have the foggiest idea of how it works or what it does.'

Granted that the book was written a couple of decades ago but it is improbable that in this time we have learnt everything about how the brain does what it does. And here were people who were confident of determining a person's guilt based on a few electrical signals from the brain. What is scary is that they have the ear of the authorities.

In the second book of The Shiva Trilogy by Amish Tripathi, he mentions Lord Ram's law - No innocent person should be punished and no criminal should escape This situation is like the concept of a frictionless surface - an idealization that does not exist in practice. In practice, two types of errors are possible - type 1 error or false positive (an innocent person is found to be guilty) and type 2 error or false negative (allowing a person who is actually guilty to escape).

You cannot eliminate both types of errors simultaneously. If you try to reduce the number of false positives, the number of false negatives will increase and vice versa. A British judge once said that it is better to let ten guilty persons escape than to let one innocent person suffer. This principle is broadly accepted by all humane societies. Reliance on the truth machine risks creating a horror society where it is considered ok to let innocents suffer so long as all the guilty are caught.

Beware of simple solutions to complex problems. As Nassim Nicholas Taleb says about the difference between a cat and a washing machine: living systems are complex; man-made objects are merely complicated. We seem to be bombarded with the idea that it is easy to do many things - pop a pill and your memory will improve by leaps and bounds, read a particular book and you can speak English fluently in a month, can identify criminals easily by some electrical signals from the brain.

Friday, March 24, 2017

'The brain as a computer' - I

I can calculate the motion of heavenly bodies, but not the madness of people. - Isaac Newton

In Geek Nation, Angela Saini describes her visit to the Directorate of Forensic Science Laboratory in Kalina, Mumbai where people are experimenting with a truth machine. She meets Sunny Joseph, who works as a psychologist and one of the operators of the truth machine. He has a creepy level of faith in technology and thinks the brain is like a computer where information is stored and can be retrieved.

In Gandhinagar, she meets Champadi Raman Mukundan, the inventor of the Brain Electrical Oscillations Signature software which is used by the truth machine. He is another who thinks the brain is like a computer and thinks he can break it down 'to its nuts and bolts like the machines in laboratory.' He is in no doubt at all that that his technology is totally reliable (a clear warning sign) although towards the end of the meeting he thankfully expresses some doubt about his ability to duplicate the brain.

Champadi Raman Mukundan is a Physics guy, an electronics buff who tinkers with machines. Physicists work with inanimate particles which have invariant laws throughout the known universe but that is not the case with biology or sociology which are more messy and they tend to get impatient with it. The Nobel laureate Murray Gell-Mann said, 'Think how hard physics would be if particles could think.'   There is an oft-told story  about how physicists go about their task of trying to understand the world.

A physicist, an engineer, and a psychologist are called in as consultants to a dairy farm whose production has been below par. Each is given time to inspect the details of the operation before making a report. The first to be called is the engineer, who states: “The size of the stalls for the cattle should be decreased. Efficiency could be improved if the cows were more closely packed, with a net allotment of 275 cubic feet per cow. Also, the diameter of the milking tubes should be increased by 4 percent to allow for a greater average flow rate during the milking periods”.

The next to report is the psychologist, who proposes: “The inside of the barn should be painted green. This is a more mellow colour than brown and should help induce greater milk flow. Also, more trees should be planted in the fields to add diversity to the scenery for the cattle during grazing, to reduce boredom”. Finally, the physicist is called upon. He asks for a blackboard and then draws a circle. He begins: “Assume the cow is a sphere....”.

Such simplification often produces good results when you are working with inanimate particles with universal laws but when working with thinking and feeling biological entities, this strategy often doesn't produce good results. The impatience of physicists is illustrated by a comment I heard by the cosmologist Lawrence Krauss, 'All of psychology is crap.' It reminded me of an observation by Peter Drucker, '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.'

From the time of  Enlightenment in Europe, a mechanistic view of the world became popular. A person was viewed as a sophisticated machine. The mind was viewed as just a calculating machine - a sort of computer. The body was just a system of  jointed limbs moved by the strings and pulleys of muscles and nerves. Human beings were thought of as puppets whose strings were pulled by the forces at play in the world. Although today such a model is regarded as crude and simplistic, it is still adopted by many materialist scientists and philosophers.

In Metaphors We Live By, Geeorge Lakoff gives some example sentences of 'the mind is a machine' metaphor that are commonly used: We are still trying to 'grind out' the solution to this equation. My mind just isn 't  'operating' today. Boy, the 'wheels are turning today'! I'm 'a little rusty' today. We've been working on this problem all day and now we're 'running out of steam'.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Gavaskar vs Tendulkar and other cricket chat - II

Even though I was a fan of Gavaskar, I also was a fan of a person who batted totally unlike Gavaskar - Virender Sehwag. Probably the best decision that Ganguly took during his term as captain was to ask Sehwag to open the innings. What made me a fan was that his major successes had come in Test cricket rather than in the limited overs game contrary to what one would have expected. I heard a couple of incidents that show the attitude he brought to the game.

In one Ranji Tropy game, Sehwag came down the wicket at a medium pacer, had a wild swish at a wide delivery and missed it completely. The next ball was short and he went on his backfoot and hooked it for six. At the end of the day when he was asked about the wild shot, he said that he had played it deliberately. He said that therefore he knew that the next ball would be short so he was already waiting for it on the backfoot and had no trouble putting it over the midwicket fence. If this had come from any other player, you could have thought that he was making it up, but coming from Sehwag it was believable. There was method in his madness.

In another Ranji Trophy match, on a greenish pitch that had some help for the bowlers, Sehwag score a rapid century. At the end of the day Ravi Shastri asked him seriously, 'Did you keep telling yourself to put your foot to the pitch of the ball, not to poke at deliveries outside the off stump, not to drive on the rise...?' Sehwag's reply was typical, 'I didn't think about these things. If the ball was there to be hit, I hit it.'

Apart from the past generation of Indian players I liked to watch foreign players like Lara, Gower (English batsmen are generally awkward to watch but ironically produced a very graceful player), Mark Waugh, etc., but the player I was most fascinated by was Viv Richards. His swagger to the wicket, casually chewing gum, was quite a sight. He probably intimidated fast bowlers more than they intimidated him.

I once heard Imran Khan say why he considered Richards a cut above all other batsmen he had played against. When the situation was tense, the bowlers were dominant and West Indies needed runs, he put his best foot forward. But when the situation was boring and the match was meandering towards a dull draw, he quickly lost interest and threw his wicket away playing outrageous shots. You could never accuse Gavaskar and Tendulkar of such a misdemeanour.

In  Antifragile  by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, there is mention of a town in Netherlands which decided to remove all street signs. The result was that there were fewer accidents. It was also found that airline pilots became more careless with increasing reliance on automated controls thus compromising safety. Also, people meet with more accidents in regulated crossings than when jaywalking. Why these paradoxical results? Reliance on external aids dulls the survival instinct of the brain. Remove these aids and the person becomes attentive and alert to danger.

There is a parallel situation in cricket with the use of helmets by batsmen. In pre-helmet days, one hardly ever saw batsmen being hit on the head. Nowadays it seems to happen frequently. The survival instinct of the brain seems to be dulled by the protection provided by the helmet making the reflexes just a little bit slower. (Granted batsmen play many shots these days that they would not have attempted in pre-helmet days but seem to get even when just trying to avoid the ball. Many pitches have also become slower.)

In a discussion, Ramachandra Guha gave an interesting sociological reason why cricket is the de facto national game of India and not hockey. (He quotes Ashis Nandy as saying  that cricket is an Indian game accidentally discovered by the British.) Cricket is an interrupted game while all other games have concentrated action. In cricket, the bowler delivers the ball, walks back to his mark, does this six times, the field then changes and the action then continues from the other end. This inturrupted nature of the game enables Indians to indulge fequently in their favorite pass-time of casual chit-chat.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Gavaskar vs Tendulkar and other cricket chat - I

I am an old fashioned guy who is in full agreement with Nevill Cardus' comment, 'The scoreboard is an ass.' I would rather watch a program about Gavaskar's  last Test inning on a minefield of a pitch in Bangalore than watch a century in 40 balls in a T20 World Cup final. Somebody said that the IPL is cricket's version of WWF, an assessment that I agree with.

In this talk (I have linked to Part 1, the relevant portion is in Part 3), Ramachandra Guha says that  Raj Singh Dungarpur had told him that his father was of the opinion that Palvankar Vithal (a Dalit cricketer before India had gained Test status) was as good as Vijay Hazare. Dungarpur had been of the opinion that Vijay Hazare had been as good as Sunil Gavaskar. Guha himself had often told his son that Gavaskar had been as good as Tendulkar. This meant that by algebraic equivalence, Palvankar Vithal had been as good as Tendulkar! I would agree with the view that Gavaskar was as good as Tendulkar.

Gavaskar played 80 innings abroad and scored 15 centuries. Tendulkar played 135 innings abroad and scored 18 centuries. Gavaskar scored most of his runs as an opener, without helmets, with inferior equipments than are available today on pitches that did a bit more than is the case now. Gavaskar also played at a time when the Indian batting line-up had not been as strong as it had been during much of Tendulkar's career. Tendulkar did score runs as an opener in one-day cricket but that is a whole different ball game with flatter pitches and field restrictions. The white ball also swings less than the red ball.

I remember a couple of Gavaskar stories worth telling. The first happened during a Test match in the  West Indies when Gavaskar was dismissed for one. A spectator wagered that the West Indian openers - Greenidge and Haynes - will score more than Gavaskar. And guess what happened - both were dismissed for ducks! The poor spectator could not be traced later so his reaction is not known. You can't blame him if he stopped watching cricket altogether.

In a Test match against the West Indies in Kanpur, Gavaskar decided to drop himself to no.4 and asked Gaekwad and Siddhu to open the innings. First ball, Marshall to Gaekwad, OUT! Second ball, Marshall to Vengsarkar, OUT! India 0 for 2. Gavaskar negotiated the rest of the over and at the end of the over, when Richards was walking past him, he muttered, 'At whatever position you bat maan, the score will still be zero.' Gavaskar then went on to score 236 n.o. which remained the highest individual score for India till Laxman broke it with his  unforgettable 281 at Eden Gardens, Calcutta. As Yogi Berra said, 'I knew the record would stand until it was broken.'

Although I would rate Gavaskar and Tendulkar at par as far as their actual achievements in Test cricket are concerned, it cannot be denied that Tendulkar had more pure natural talent. I saw him in the flesh only once in a Test match against the West Indies at the Wankede stadium in the mid 1990s. At that time Walsh was quick and the wicketkeeper, who was standing half-way to the boundary line, was collecting the ball above waist height. All batsmen were playing him with hasty, jerky movements but Tendulkar picked the line and length of the ball early, was forward or back in a flash and seemed to be waiting for the ball to come to him. (I was a great fan of Azhar and when he walked out to bat, I sat back to enjoy a strokeful partnership between him and Tendulkar. You can of course guess what happened next – Azhar was dismissed for a duck.)

Although Gavaskar and Tendulkar have been hugely influential players, both have regrettably been establishment men who have quietly toed the BCCI line at all times. They have never used their prestige to speak out about malpractices in the BCCI. Whenever there is any corruption allegation in IPL, you can bet that they will make some bland statement. Tendulkar is also conspicuous by his absence from the Rajya Sabha although he has the time to go to Rio. It shows again that celebrities are often very limited outside their narrow band of excellence, a fact obscured by the halo effect.

In this post, Ramachandra Guha writes about Dravid's advice regarding sticking to one's knitting. He once noticed on TV Dravid fielding at mid-off to advice the bowlers and wrote to him that he should field in the slips so that so many catches don't go down. Dravid wrote back saying that he was reading a book by Guha and agreed with the view that Indian history seemed to stop at Gandhi's assassination; that they should meet sometime and discuss this and other issues. There was not a word about the cricketing advice that had been given. Guha writes:

My email was unsolicited, unprompted, even impertinent — akin in cricketing terms to a bouncer from a bowler of military medium pace, it was dispatched to the boundary with a flick of the wrists. The put-down was decisive; and yet so delicately worded. I was told, in the kindest possible manner, to shut up about strategy in cricket and go back to writing history books. And so I have.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Don't believe what people say - IV

An oft-repeated shibboleth is that education is the only way to get rid of India's ills.  The SC recently said that “it is only education which gives a human being the power to discriminate between right and wrong, good and bad”. I don't agree with that conclusion and I have written about it. Education is important but the idea that it is a silver bullet that can solve all the problems of a society is an exaggeration.

The consequential terrorists in most terrorists organizations have received secular modern education and are Internet savvy - they are doctors, engineers, software professionals, etc. Gandhi's assassin was an educated, middle class Brahman who was well-versed in scriptures and in Gandhi's speeches and writings. Every other day one comes across instances of educated people not being able to distinguish between right and wrong, good and bad so it is surprising how the SC came to such a conclusion.It is not necessary to be educated in order to be ethical. In fact a strong case can be made that modern education favours instrumental rationality over ethics.

I once saw a headline about an interview that Virat Kohli gave which stated that he believed that his team would become the best in history which I thought was an over the top statement. But when I saw the full interview, I did not find the actual sentence that the headline stated. The sentence had been made by taking a couple of words from different sentences and pasting them together.

This reminded me of what Ashis Nandy had once said. He had been involved in a controversy a couple of years ago regarding a statement that he had made about Dalit corruption. He said that he had never made the particular statement that was attributed to him. Some words from different sentences that he had said were pasted together to form the sentence that was attributed to him. Some channels kept flashing this statement which soon became the truth.

In the Preface to Animal Farm, George Orwell wrote, 'Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without the need for any official ban.' Giving journalists government awards is one way to make them more sympathetic to the government of the day. Persistent intimidation and violence against writers makes them exercise self-censorship which is worse  than overt censorship. Anything can be swept under the carpet in name of respecting religious sentiments or safeguarding national security.

You can use statistics to lie convincingly. These days documents, photos, audios and videos can be doctored. ( I saw a Malayalam movie called ivide swargamaanu which showed methods of doctoring documents that I had never heard about.) Immense pressure was brought to bear on legislators to reduce the age limit for application of the Juvenile Justice Act in spite of there being evidence questioning the idea. Mob justice will be recommended as a good idea. News channels in their race for TRPs will blow up a small incident into an earth- shattering event. Or they may not give much coverage to some news because of pressure from advertisers.

Some channels  and some social media sites are hyper-nationalistic and call for sedition charges at the drop of a hat. (There is something strange about nationalism. We decry individual selfishness but put group selfishness on a pedestal and call it nationalism.) For some time now, the news channels that I mainly listen to are the public broadcasters - LSTV and RSTV. I find them better than the private channels - more calm debates (except in live transmissions from Parliament), more programs on science and culture and, most importantly, there are no product advertisements.

The only TV program that I know of that looks at how different media outlets slant the coverage of news items is media manthan on RSTV. You learn for example that hardly anyone had heard of Kailash Sathyarthi before he had received the Nobel prize because the area he works in is ignored by the media. There will be meagre coverage of rural India and saturation coverage of a minority thus presenting a false image. Channels will not have the money to send a reporter to cover an anti-dalit atrocity a 100 km from the state capital but will have the money to send a reporter to Perth to cover an India vs UAE World Cup match.

There is a phenomenon called 'private treaties' where certain media companies enter into agreements with listed companies for a stake in them and in return provide media coverage through advertisements, news, reports, editorials etc. A SEBI letter to the Press Council warned that “Private Treaties may lead to commercialization of news reports since the same would be based on the subscription and advertising agreement entered into between the Media group and the company. Biased and imbalanced reporting may lead to inaccurate perceptions of the companies which are the beneficiaries of such private treaties.”

People will be subjected to bruising media trials on the flimsiest of evidence (or no evidence). People are quick to jump to conclusions and indulge in character assassination, especially in social media, as Fareed Zakaria shows in this article. If  some process is followed for determining the guilt of a person and the process takes some time, there will be heated debates about why the the decision should be made quicker.

In Umberto Eco's novel, The Name of the Rose, there is a trial scene in which the Inquisitor contrives to find  a person guilty of heresy. The narrator of the story, a monk named Adso, asks his mentor, another monk named William, 'What terrifies you most in purity?' William replies, 'Haste'. To my mind, 'purity' refers not just to religious certitude. It refers to any social situation where a person thinks he is 100% correct. It is good to have at least a smidgen of doubt that it could be wrong. As a Zen maxim says, 'Great doubt: great awakening; little doubt: little awakening: no doubt: no awakening.' In Doubt:A History, there is a quote by one Pierre Charron about doubt:
It alone can provide true repose and security of our spirits. Have all the greatest and most noble philosophers and wise men who have preferred doubt been in a state of anxiety and suffering? But they say: to doubt, to consider both points of view, to put off a decision, is this not painful? I reply, it is indeed for fools, but not for wise men. It is painful for people who cannot stand freedom, for those who are presumptuous, puritan, passionate and who, obstinately attached to their opinion, arrogantly condemn all others...Such people, in truth, know nothing. They do not even know what it is to know something.
There sometimes is talk of reforming the Rajya Sabha or doing away with it altogether in order to quicken the making of laws. This is a typically blinkered view from some sections of the educated, impatient middle class (and noisy NRIs). It is said that 'the will of the people' should be taken into account. Every party  that has come to power in India has got less than half the number of votes. The government of the day will not have representation from many states. Listening to 'the will of the people' that is talked about would mean ignoring  the will of the majority of people.

Members of the Lok Sabha  represent their constituencies while members of the Rajya Sabha represent their states. State issues often get raised in the Rajya Sabha and giving states a voice is important in a federal structure. 1/3 of RS members change every two years depending on the results of state elections so it gives a more current snapshot of public opinion than LS. The delay in the Rajya Sabha prevents hasty decisions being taken by a party which has a brute majority in the LS.  This often results in more moderate laws which reduces the alienation in many sections of the population than would have been the case otherwise.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Don't believe what people say - III

Apparently, one reason why some students of JNU were suspended was because they had a puja of Mahishasur instead of Durga. This is ridiculous. By that criterion, I can also be dubbed an anti-national since I am not a  fan of any gods, goddesses or godlets. I remember reading that those who talk the most about Indian culture know the least about it. In Doubt: A History, Jennifer Hecht says that the Cervakas in 7th century BC were the earliest example of radical doubt in the human record. Some of their views may be more extreme than those of the New Atheists.

(I have not been reading any literature criticizing religion for about 3 years now- except the book Doubt: A History. I decided to take the Issac Asimov route: 'I don't have the evidence to prove that God doesn't exist, but I so strongly suspect he doesn't that I don't want to waste my time'. I also saw a note of caution by Gandhi who now seems wiser than anybody who has studied in a business school - 'I am prepared to maintain that humbugs in worldly matters are far worse than the humbugs in religion.')

I learnt later that there are tribes that worship Mahishasur. There is an attempt to push one version of Hinduism modeled on the Semitic religions and having the gods and and rituals of the upper castes. In the process, the folk religions of Scheduled Castes, tribals and other disadvantaged sections of society are ignored. (This process is by no means happening only in the last couple of years.)  The religion of Hinduism can more properly be viewed as a collection of Hindu religions.

In his essays, A.K. Ramanujan indicates why there is no simple formula for 'unity' and 'diversity' in the Indian subcontinent. He says that "India doesn't have one past but many pasts. There are many different traditions like Brahmanism, bhakti traditions, Buddhism, Jainism, tantra, tribal traditions and folklore, modernity as well as Islam and and Christianity all of which have porous borders. 'They look like single entities, like neat little tents, only from a distance.' (A study shows that about 11% of the communities in India cannot be clearly identified as belonging to any of the conventionally defined religious groups.)

The attempt to force one version of Hinduism was seen in forcing a ban on 300 Ramayanas, A.K. Ramanujan's essay which gives an idea of the various versions of the Ramayana in existence. In Folktales from India, Ramanujan writes about the tales, 'Figures of power like kings, the law, Brahmans and gurus, gods and goddesses...are all shown to be stupid, easily outwitted and all too flawed.' In instances where a ban is sought, it is said that the sentiments of Hindus is hurt. The question is: which Hindus?

The gods of Hinduism are not the remote incomprehensible gods common in most other religions. And like in Indian epics, there is something of a demon in a god and something of a god in a demon. Thus gods and demons are not wholly good or wholly bad; they are only relatively good and relatively bad. Onam, the main festival of Kerala (some people may know it better as India’s Somalia!), is celebrated in the memory of a demon-king whose reign was supposed to be just and prosperous till he was finally deceived by a pious Brahmin. So a demon-king has the last laugh in God’s own country!

There was an attempt by the BJP to call Onam Vaman Jayanti, Vaman being the dwarf avatar of Vishnu who deceived the demon-king. (The Indian category 'asuras' is not exactly coincident with the Western category 'demons' although it is generally translated into English as such.) It was another attempt to make the non-conforming bits of Hinduism conform to one dominant narrative.

In a video, an audience member says that it would be a good idea to make Sanskrit compulsory in schools - the student would then be able to read the  ancient Sanskrit literature for themselves and find out how distorted is the view of Indian culture being currently propagated. He adds tongue in cheek that it will also enable them to read some good erotic poetry! In a couple of essays in Bonfire of Creeds, Ashis Nandy says:
Since about the middle of the nineteenth century...there has been deep embarrassment and discontent with the lived experience of Hinduism...For nearly a hundred and fifty years, we have seen a concerted, systematic effort to eliminate these god and goddesses from Indian life or tame them and make them behave...these reformers wanted Indians to get rid of their superfluous deities and either live in a fully secular sanitized world in which rationalized and scientific truth would prevail or, alternatively, set up a regular monotheistic God, as 'proper' Muslims and Christians have done.
Those given to this modern version of religion find all other spiritual experience low-brow, corrupted and, thus, meaningless, uncontrollable and fearsome. That fear of religion of the uncontrollable kind (to which the majority of Indians of all faiths give their allegiance) is part of the fear of the vernacular, the democratic and the plural. It is the fear that the majority of Indians are religious in a way that is not centrally controllable and does not constitute a 'proper' religion in contemporary times.
As a slight digression , there is  an interesting story (probably apocryphal) that Ashis Nandy tells about the depth of devotion to Ram of the politically vocal Rambhakths. During his only visit to an RSS shakha, Gandhi saw the portraits of some of the famous martial heroes of Hindutva like Shivaji and Rana Pratap on the walls. Being a devotee of Ram, Gandhi asked why no portrait of Ram had been put up as well. The  RSS leader who was accompanying him around said, ‘No, that we cannot do. Ram is too effeminate to serve our purpose.’

Friday, January 20, 2017

Don't believe what people say - II

Note: For some reason, I am unable to indent the paragraphs in italic which are extracted from a book.

Those who sing praises of new technologies making censorship impossible forget that they can also be used by established powers to spread their own propaganda. The dissenting opinion can get drowned in this swirl of misinformation spread by the existing powers. Jefferson said, 'Every government deteriorates when left to the rulers of the people alone.' Gandhi along with Thoreau believed that ‘that government is best which governs the least’. Gandhi had said that he anticipated having to continue his program of satyagraha for social justice even after India had attained independence.

A trial balloon is sometimes floated of the idea that the central and state elections should be synchronized. The reason given is that this would give elected leaders and officials more time to implement their  policies. This is not a good idea nor is it possible under the present Constitution.  It seems to me that ordinary people will be able to lead more peaceful lives if highly educated and powerful people are not given a free hand. They are often too clever by half and labour under the delusion that text book scenarios closely mirror real life. The smart, powerful people at the top often take decisions which, as Taleb points out in Antifragile, have small, visible benefits but have side effects that are potentially severe and invisible. Having to face the people frequently during elections keeps them in check.  As Ashis Nandy says, 'Intelligence and knowledge are poor - even, dangerous - substitutes for intellect and wisdom.'

It is better to have strong States and a weak Centre than to have weak States and a strong Centre. Nassim Nicholas Taleb demonstrates convincingly in Antifragile that the first system is more stable while appearing disorderly and the second system is more fragile in the long run while giving the illusion of stability. The first system has a lot of disturbances none of which are consequential while the second system has few disturbances but those that take place have big consequences. The most insidious aspect of the second system is that the long period of calm before the storm lulls people into complacency. Preferring the second system is like, in the words of Taleb, 'saying that nuclear bombs are better because they explode less often'.

He brought to my attention the political system in Switzerland which is today the world's most stable democratic system offering a maximum of participation to citizens. It is a Confederation of 26 cantons which can exercise a lot of freedom so, for eg., there are 26 different systems of education. A majority of the electorate reaffirms this basic principle of Swiss politics consistently by rejecting centralist laws and accepting Federalist laws in referendums. The government is a team consisting of seven members with equal rights. There is no full-time president; the representational functions of a president are taken over by one (or all) of the government members. Being member of parliament is not a full-time job so they are closer to everyday life of their electorate.

Frequent referendums have a stabilizing influence on parliament, government, economy and society. Referendums increase the willingness to compromise (otherwise a party defeated in parliament will call for obstructive referendums). As extreme laws will mercilessly be blocked by the electorate in referendums, parties are less inclined to radical changes in laws. The resulting system must appear to be rather strange to foreigners, but though it is very complicated it does work astonishingly well and even more perfectly than in many other industrialized countries. The system doesn't seem to have the suffocating tendencies of a militarized nation-state which seems to be the model of choice in the modern world. Perhaps there is no other system in operation today that is closer to Gandhi's ideal of 'enlightened anarchy'. (It is to be noted that the best example of a democracy -  Switzerland makes a lot less noise than two much more flawed democracies - US and India.)

The Washington Post had an article about the psychology of believing news reports, even when they’ve been retracted. It suggests that if false information is presented early, it is more likely to be believed, while subsequent attempts to correct the information may, in fact, strengthen the false impression. Negating a statement seems just to emphasizes the initial point. The additional correction seems to get lost amid the noise. It is like asking you not to think of a black bear: the only thing you can then think of is a black bear.

Denials inherently require repeating the bad information, which may be one reason they can paradoxically reinforce it. We probably tend to think information is more likely to be true the more we hear it. This means that whoever makes the first assertion about something has a large advantage over everyone who denies it later. Goebbels knew the concept of the Big Lie, 'The English follow the principle that when one lies, one should lie big, and stick to it. They keep up their lies, even at the risk of looking ridiculous.' As George Marshall says in Don't Even Think About It (an interesting book on the psychological reactions to climate change):

People will maintain their belief in an engaging story even if they are told that it is a fiction. In one psychology experiment, people were invited to read stories that, they were clearly warned, were false. Later on, when they were given a general knowledge quiz, this incorrect information then reappeared in people's answers. They had internalized this information so effectively that some people could not remember that it had come from the stories they had first heard a few hours earlier.

For twenty-five years, psychologists have been repeating variations of another story-telling experiment. Participants are told the story of a warehouse fire in the style of live, rolling news coverage. First they hear of toxic smoke, then explosions, and then they are told that it may have been caused by gas cylinders and oil paints that were negligently stored in a closet.

The final story is so complete that many people resolutely refuse to accept any further variation that might weaken it. If they are subsequently told that there was no gas or paint in the closet, the repetition of the phrase leads some people to become even more convinced that gas and paint were responsible. Only if they are supplied with an even more compelling replacement story - for example, that arson materials were found in the closet - will they abandon the original version.

You will think that people will soon see through falsehoods but it often is not the case. Psychologists refer to 'cognitive ease'- something familiar, eg. a sentence that has been heard before, will be processed fluently by the brain without wasting more effort on a closer look. In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman says that even if part of a sentence sounds familiar, the whole sentence appears true. He gives an example: people who often heard the phrase 'the body temperature of  a chicken' were more likely to  regard as true the statement 'the body temperature of a chicken is 144 deg.', or some such arbitrary number. The familirity of one phrase makes the whole statement sound true because of the sense of cognitive ease.

PS: The Backfire Effect – When your deepest convictions are challenged by contradictory evidence, your beliefs get stronger.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Don't believe what people say - I

post-truth (adjective) - Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief

When I had gone to NIT, Trichy for the reunion, a friend told me that I had once told him, 'Don't believe what people say. Check the books.' Apparently this advice was given to me by a school teacher. I couldn't recall anything about the episode so I don't recall in what context I made the statement. Whoever that schoolteacher was, he or she had given me a useful piece of advice. In The Demon-Haunted World, Carl Sagan writes, "Part of the duty of citizenship is not to be intimidated into conformity. I wish that the oath of citizenship taken by recent immigrants, and the pledge that students routinely recite, include something like 'I promise to question everything my leaders tell me'".

I became aware of the distortions that can happen when information is transmitted by word of mouth when a school-teacher made us play a variant of the game 'Chinese whispers'. She asked some people to go out of the room. She then dictated to one person in the classroom a small incident consisting of 4-5 sentences. She asked him to take as long as he wanted to memorize every aspect of the story. When he felt ready, she took back the piece of paper on which the story was written and asked him to relate it to a student she called from outside the room.

A few mistakes crept into the retelling. The same procedure was followed again - the person was asked to listen to the story till he was sure that he had got all the facts right and then he was asked to relate it to another person she called  from outside the classroom. A few more mistakes crept into the retelling. By the time a few such iterations  were completed, the story had completely changed from the original version. 

If someone says that he is very confident that a certain outcome will happen or if he says that he can remember some incident as if 'it happened yesterday', it is better to be skeptical. Historical figures are fitted into rigid compartments and used as political footballs by various parties. In these days of SMS, Twitter, WhatsApp etc, false information gets repeated so often that they soon acquire the ring of truth. In propaganda, what matters is not what people think but what people can be made to think. The information explosion mostly increases the hay making it more difficult to find the needle. 

In Gandhi before India, Ramachandra Guha mentions the work he did for writing the book. He consulted the Collected Works of Gandhi which has 100 volumes of which the first 12 relate to his days in Kathiawar, London, Bombay and South Africa and run to 5000 pages in print. He visited the archives that held the private papers of Gandhi's contemporaries, examined the letters to and from Gandhi by the people who had worked with him as also the published and unpublished works of his four children.

He also studied the perceptions of those who opposed Gandhi like the officials of the British Empire, reading the letters, telegrams, reports and dispatches in national and provincial archives in India, England and South Africa. He also read Jinnah, Tagore and others who had opposed him on various issues. He read contemporary newspapers like Kathiawar Times, Natal Mercury, Johannesburg Star, The Times of London and The New York Times to know what was written about him at the time.

He studied 10,000 pages of microfilms of records from Natal Government House which give an idea of the lives of Indians in SA and of the role played therein by Gandhi. He read the 500 odd issues of Indian Opinion, the newspaper started by Gandhi in SA as well as copies of African Chronicle, the newspaper of Gandhi's rival. He also read many books and pamphlets printed at the time to get an idea of how Gandhi's views were understood at the time.

All the sources are listed in the notes for each chapter so that any interested person can the check the veracity of the information in the book. With so much work having gone into writing the book, the information contained therein has a high degree of reliability. Of course, any material that is written by a human being and not by a machine will have some personal biases. (There is no such thing as an unbiased opinion. If the biases are in the same direction as yours, the material will be called unbiased, otherwise it will be called biased.) Reading a well researched book is the next best thing to reading the original sources which most of us cannot do.

I heard the actor Kamal Hasan say that in his younger days, he used to be unimpressed with Gandhi like many of his friends. He then decided to do his own exploration of Gandhi out of curiosity and gradually developed great respect for him. This prompted me to do some reading since my knowledge about Gandhi was quite sketchy and the  more I read (and listen to YouTube lectures, eg. this lecture series by Vinay Lal) the more impressed I am with him. Despite his faults, ambiguities and eccentricities (you don't have to take everything he said seriously), he is far bigger than what his skeletal histories or simplistic slogans like those in the Swatch Bharat campaign will tell you. Such slogans are just meant to corral his subversive legacy into bland, easily manageable soundbites.

Among the leaders of the national movement, Gandhi was the one who had the courage to think differently and take the road less travelled. Being aware of the  power of conformity in humans, I was  astonished at how relaxed and comfortable he was in being totally different in appearance and thought from those around him.  Rajagopalachari made the pertinent point that while others were thinking of the short-term, Gandhi thought of the long-term. His critique of colonialism, violence, history,  modernity, masculinity and the nation-state are thought provoking. He was thinking about issues that others were grappling with decades later.

He often magnified his faults and minimized his achievements which is the exact opposite of what is popular today. It is a commentary on our times that the giants of yesterday are sought to be painted as pygmies while the pygmies of today are projected as giants.(Look at résumés: you will think that geniuses are more common than house-flies. Modi and Rahul Gandhi have never made any mistakes: they seem to have been born perfect.) I am sure that if he was alive now, he would be called ‘anti-national’ for a number of reasons. For eg. David Hardiman writes about Gandhi's nationalism in Gandhi in His Time and Ours:

Gandhi's nationalism was...broad and catholic. He hardly regarded India as a nation in a narrow sense; rather it was a civilization with its own particular qualities.  He did not condemn Europe in any blanket fashion - in contrast to those demagogic nationalists who whip up support by preying on popular ethnic and racial antagonisms. Too often, the critique of the latter of Europe and 'eurocentricity' is deployed to condemn anything which they dislike in the modern world - eg. human rights, women's assertion, democracy, socialism, secularism and religious toleration - while modern technologies of organization and disciplinary control which are of use to them - eg. the authoritarian state,  new forms of surveillance, policing, torture and armaments - are all absolved from being eurocentric or anti national...He was not interested in chauvinistic nationalism - he aspired to a universalism that soared above narrow political goals.