Friday, May 18, 2012

A startling truth

I watched the 1st episode of Satyayamev Jayate (I don't watch much T.V. so I came to know about the episode some days after it was telecast and downloaded it from YouTube) in which it was pointed out that the incidence of female foeticide is higher among city-bred, educated, economically well-off people than among illiterate, poor rural folk. Even though I was aware of this, the revelations still shocked me.

I first came to to know of this counter-intuitive piece of information in The Argumentative Indian by Amartya Sen.He analyses the data for children from 0-5 yrs. He takes the German figure of 94.8 girls per hundred boys as the benchmark. He finds a clear regional divide with the East and South being above the benchmark while the West and North were below the benchmark. Within this divide, there were revealing trends.
...the contrast does  not seem to have any immediate and clearly explicable economic connection. The states with strong anti-female bias include rich ones (Punjab and Haryana) as well as poor (Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh), and fast-growing states (Gujarat and Maharashtra) as well as growth failures (Bihar and Uttar Pradesh). It is clear that we have to look beyond material prosperity or economic success or GNP growth into broadly cultural and social influences.
... even in the eastern and southern states in which the over all female-male ratio is still within the European range, there are signs that urban centres have, by and large, a somewhat lower ratio than rural parts of those very states. For example, the female-children ratio per 100 boys is 93.7 in urban Orissa as opposed to the ratio for rural  Orissa of 95.4. Karnataka’s urban ratio  is 93.9, compared with its rural ratio of 95.4. West Bengal’s  urban ration of 94.8, while much the same as the German cut-off line, is still below its rural ratio of 96.7
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. There have been other disquieting reports. What it shows is that eradicating this blot on Indian society is not a matter of economics but of changing mindsets in a patriarchal society. How much blame for this and other horrors can be attributed to the 'Devi paradox'?

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Laguage as a window to the mind

Remember the notes I keep to remind me of various blogging material? While writing my previous post, I noticed that I had noted page no. 29 of The Language Instinct and I wondered what it was. It was a passage where Steven Pinker shows that even so-called unsophisticated languages follow sophisticated rules.
Here is an example, from an interview conducted by the linguist William Labov on a stoop in Harelm.  The interviewee is Larry, the roughest member of a teenage gang called the Jets. (Labov observes in his scholarly article that "for most readers of this paper, first contact with Larry would produce some fairly negative reactions on both sides.")
You know, like some people say if you're good an' shit, your spirit goin't heaven...'n' if you bad, your spirit goin' to hell. Well, bullishit! Your spirit goin' to hell anyway, good or bad. 
Why? I'll tell you why, 'Cause, you see, doesn' nobody really know that it's a God, y'know, 'cause I mean I have seen black gods, white gods, all color gods, and don't nobody know it's really a God. An' when they be sayin' if you good, you goin't' heaven, tha's bullshit, 'cause you ain't goin' to no heaven, 'cause it ain't no heaven for you to go to.
[... jus' suppose that there is a God, would he be white or black?]
He'd be white, man.
Why? I'll tell you why. 'Cause the average whitey out here got everything, you dig? And the nigger ain't got shit,y'know? Y'understand'? So-um-for-in order for that to happen, you know it ain't no black God that's doing' that bullshit.

Pinker then goes on to analyse auxiliaries, non-declarative statements and other grammatical paraphernalia.

In this BBC interview, the presenter says that Pinker and his wife Rebecca Goldstein have been called the brainiest couple in the US. Pinker is an excellent speaker. For eg., see his TED talks.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Just like ours

New Guinea is the second largest island in the world. It has a line of mountains at its centre which are surrounded  by plains. Till the 1920s, it was thought that people only lived in the plains and the mountains were too inhospitable for people to live. It was then discovered that there were actually two mountain ranges at the center running parallel to each other. In-between them was a plateau with many fertile valleys where lived about a million Stone Age people who had been cut-off from the rest of the world for thousands of years. Both the highlanders and plains people were equally surprised to meet each other. In The Language Instinct, there is a description of what the highlanders thought about their discoverers:
The highlanders conferred intensively, trying  to agree upon the nature of the pallid apparitions.  The leading conjecture was that they were reincarnated ancestors or other spirits in human form, perhaps ones that turned back into skeletons at night. They agreed upon an empirical test that would settle the matter."one of the people hid," recalls the highlander Kirupano Eza'e, "and watched them going to excrete.  He came back and said, 'Those men from heaven went to excrete over there.' Once they had left many men went to take a look. When they saw that it smelt bad, they said, 'Their skin might be different, but their shit smells bad like ours.'"
I often resort to the 'Feynman manoeuvre' when watching Indian politicians on T.V. I watch their minions clapping their hands for some standard pablum. I will look at the large crowds listening attentively to the speeches and wonder how many have been brought in by the truckload, how many fit Gabbar Singh's description of Jai and Veeru in the film Sholay - kiraye ke tattoo. There will be numerous people falling at the feet of The Leader and I  will keep thinking how embarrassed I would be if people kept falling at my

I will do similar things while watching American politicians. I will not pay much attention to the speeches. Instead I look at the crowd clapping rapturously at the thunderous bromides of their messiah. I watched the State of the Union address of the American President a couple of times. The fun part for me was the sight of the rich and powerful of Washington standing up to clap and sitting down every couple of minutes. I wonder how those with dodgy knees manage.

You must be wondering what some remote New Guinea tribe has to do with Indian and American politicians. It occurred to me  that their skin might be different, but their shit is just like ours (that is, if you ignore the elephantine statues). Stimulating democratic debate is not what you get.

when the obsequiousness goes to extreme lengths, one witnesses the strange scenes seen in North Korea after the death of Kim Jong il. Actually it is difficult to interpret the scenes of sobbing. On the one hand , the grief might be genuine because the people are so brainwashed and cut off from the rest of the world that they actually seem to believe that their country is paradise on earth. (The video at that link is surreal.) On the other hand, they may be acting because if they don't sob in front of the cameras, they may be thrown into the dungeons.

I heard that when Kim Jong-il was  alive, his father, Kim Il-sung, who had died in 1994 was President. (I heard this in a speech by Hitchens.) According to Wikipedia, Kim Jong il was proclaimed the Eternal General Secretary of the Workers' Party of Korea and Eternal Chairman of the National Defence Commission in 2012.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

The ethics of food

I did all my schooling in Jamshedpur. I used to visit my ancestral home in Palakkad, every couple of years during the summer vacations.  My grandparents used to keep a couple of  cows for milk and I used to enquire before every trip whether there was a new calf I could play with. I wasn't too concerned about whether there were other kids with whom I could play. Apparently, I had once asked why we couldn't take a calf back with us in a suitcase!

I am telling you all these stories to let you know that I like being with farm animals. So  I was horrified to see the video in this post. The picture of the sow suckling its young has been giving me nightmares. I could watch only part of the video in another link in that post because the way the animals were being treated was sickening. (I had uncomfortable reminders of the short story about meat.)

Before my stroke, I  used to occasionally eat non-veg. food.If I had seen these videos then, I would have stopped eating them. I would not have been able to get the images out of  my mind.

PS: Rabbi defends animal sacrifice.

PPS:  There was a series of articles in NYT some years back on The Food Chain.

PPPS: A talk on critical thinking.