Friday, December 27, 2013

An update and ...More about evolution in textbook

I am feeling better now and have begun to sit for some time. I will begin my regular posts in a couple of weeks after a brief  trip which I shall post later. In the meantime, I will publish the post that I had almost completed before my back pain. I thought you would like some light reading while relaxing! Happy New Year!

Lawrence Krauss never tires of saying that “The purpose of education is not to validate ignorance, but to overcome it”. In some chapters of various  textbooks, the word 'animals' is used excluding humans thus privileging humans over other species.When David Attenborogh was asked what would be the single piece of information he would like everyone to know, he said that it would be that all organisms on earth are related.  There is no natural category of animals that excludes humans. Humans are animal, mammals, primates, apes. In this talk, Robet Sapolsky tells of the various ways in which human behaviour is like that of other animals and of the various ways in which it is different.

Evolutionary tree

Tree-thinking is essential for understanding evolution. The only diagram in On the Origin of Species is a hypothetical evolutionary tree. If the history of life forms a tree then a common ancestor can be found for any pair of existing species by tracing each twig back through its branches till they intersect at a common node. It is important to note that the branches and nodes represent populations not individuals.There is very brief discussion about evolutionary trees in the textbook which is inadequate. The diagram given in the book is also wrong. It shows trifurcations at the nodes whereas standard evolutionary trees show bifurcations. More than 2 branches at a node indicate areas of uncertainty.

This tree-thinking makes it easy to answer the common creationist argument: “If humans evolved from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?” The answer is that humans did not evolve from monkeys. The correct statement is that humans and monkeys evolved from a common ancestor who was neither a monkey nor a human. No living species evolved from any other living species. (This site tells you when the common ancestor of any pair of organisms lived.) Something like a 'crocoduck' can never evolve. If ever something like a crocoduck is found, it will disprove evolution. As is usually the case,the closed-minded one in this debate calls the other person closed-minded.

Take the specific example of humans and their nearest relatives, chimpanzees. Humans and chimpanzees evolved from a common ancestor who lived about 6 million years ago and was neither a human nor a chimpanzee. Fossil evidence indicates that this common ancestor would have looked more like a chimpanzee than a human. Since this split from the common ancestor both lineages have been evolving independently.

It is only in retrospect that we can see this split. If a paleontologist was present at the the time of the putative split or even a few thousand years later, she would not have seen anything extraordinary. The two incipient species would just have been two slightly different populations of the same chimpanzee-like creatures and she would have been hard put trying to distinguish between the two lineages that would eventually evolve into chimpanzees and humans.

The positive aspect of the textbook is that the chapter on evolution is the first chapter instead of the last. But, for what is the overarching theory in Biology, the coverage is grossly inadequate. The lack of proper evolution education  in schools is reflected in the fact that hardly anyone knows how drug resistant bacteria develop. (It has been cited as an example of the tragedy of the commons.)I get scared by the casualness and negligence in antibiotic use. In The Greatest Show on earth, Richard Dawkins writes:

I was mildly irritated to read a pamphlet in my doctor's waiting room warning of the danger of failing to finish a course of antibiotic pills. Nothing wrong with that warning but it was the reason given that worried me. The pamphlet explained that bacteria are 'clever', they 'learn' to cope with antibiotics. Presumably the authors thought the phenomenon of antibiotic resistance would be easier to grasp if they called it learning rather than natural selection. But to talk of bacteria being clever, and of learning , is downright confusing,and above all it doesn't help the patient to make sense of the instruction to carry on taking the pills until they are finished. Any fool can see that  it is not plausible to describe a bacterium as clever. [I am not so sure. - Suresh] Even if there were clever bacteria, why would stopping prematurely make any difference to the learning prowess of a clever bacterium?But as soon as you start thinking in terms of natural selection, it makes perfect sense.
Like any poison, antibiotics are likely to be dosage dependent. A sufficiently high dose will kill all the bacteria. A sufficiently low dose will kill none. An intermediate dose will kill some but not all. If there is genetic variation among bacteria, such that some are more susceptible to the antibiotic than others, an intermediate dose will be tailor-made to select in favour of genes for resistance. When the doctor tells you to finish taking the pills, it is to increase the chances of killing all the bacteria and avoid leaving behind resistant, or semi-resistant mutants. With hindsight we might say that if we had all been better educated in Darwinian thinking we would have woken up sooner to the dangers of resistant strains being selected.
As Lawrence Krausss says in this discussion with Richard Dawkins, evolution should be used as a hook to attract students to biology. Otherwise biology is just a collection of interesting facts that appear to be random. This article gives some cribs by various animals about what evolution has saddled them with. The recurrent laryngeal nerve of the giraffe is a stark example of bad design. (It is demonstrated in this dissection.) Here are some examples of bad design in humans. This article has a cartoon which states, 'Oh, I know that He works in mysterious ways. If I worked so mysteriously, I will get fired.' All these design faults can be easily explained by evolution. As Theodosius Dobzhansky said, 'Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution.'

The process and pattern of evolution cannot be understood without studying about Deep Time and plate tectonics. These are discussed in various textbooks but all 3 are never combined in an interesting way. Here is an interesting example covering all 3 ideas. For the two of who are still reading this post (I am an optimist!),here are a few ideas about evolution that should have  been stressed.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Temporary break

I am suffering from back pain which makes it difficult to sit so I am not able to post anything. I  don't know how long it will take for my back to heal. So you can relax for sometime. I may post updates if possible to keep the blog alive.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Evolution in texbook

I saw some sentences in the chapter on genetics and evolution in Sujit's textbook which I think are not correct. I am commenting here on only some of them. I am sure a professional  in the  field will spot a lot more errors than I did. My frustration with the system of education prevalent here is that you have to write exactly as given in the textbook even if it is wrong. If sujit writes what I tell him, he will fail in the exam.“Why create a generation of thinkers when what’s needed are workers?” seems to be the thinking behind education in most Indian schools. I will start with the  definition of evolution given in the textbook:

Evolution may be defined as a gradual development of more complex species from pre-existing simpler forms.

This definition is unhelpful. In biology, development refers to the changes in a single individual over its lifetime. Using this word confuses a basic idea:  individuals don't evolve, populations do. Also, it is not necessary that evolution always results in production of greater complexity. For eg., the tapeworm lost its digestive system when it became an intestinal parasite. It has no need for one. The most successful organisms on Earth -bacteria - did not evolve into multi cellular forms.

Some dimensions of an organism may become simple while other dimensions may become more complex. It all depends on its way of life. Eg., the tapeworm has adaptations that enable it to avoid the immune system of the human body. The minimal definition of evolution as given in this post is:

Evolution is a process that results in heritable changes in a population spread over many generations.

As Susan Blackmore says in this TED talk, (variation + selection + heredity) MUST result in evolution. The organism shaped by evolution is not the perfect, but the good-enough. It is not striving for anything. It just depends on the differential survival and reproduction of replicating units that have high copying fidelity with occasional errors. It is incredible to think that fungi and giraffe are different manifestations of the same simple process. When I first had a clear grasp of  this  idea., I had a similar reaction to what Keats had when he read Chapman's Homer.

The term 'survival of the fittest' appears in the chapter but is not explained. This is a much misunderstood term. The word 'fittest' is taken to mean 'strongest' and is often used to justify the Gordon Gekko-style 'greed is good' philosophy. Actually it just refers to an organism that best ' fits' its environment. A pusillanimous rabbit that takes flight at the slightest sign of danger is fitter than an intrepid rabbit that investigates every suspicious sound. The former will leave descendants while the latter will be lunch.

About speciation, the textbook says:

Thus speciation is arising of a new species from a sub-population of a species which is geographically or reproductively isolated over a long period of time from the other population of the same species.

The 'or' is confusing here. Though defining a species is not easy, speciation just means the evolution of different groups through reproductive isolation over a long period of time so that there is no gene flow between the two groups. These genetic differences gradually grow larger to the extent that the individuals of the two groups cannot interbreed. The most common way in which reproductive isolation occurs is by geographical isolation, a process known as allopatric speciation.

While discussing the formation of new species,it is mentioned at one point: "Then they would be ready to become two different species." This is not how evolution happens. It is not as if the best and the brightest of a species held a conference , decided that that they have had  enough of this practice business and that it is time for them to become new species. There is no conscious strategy involved. The language of conscious strategising is often used but that is only for expository convenience.

What actually happens is that because of the variation of individuals in a population, some individuals will have certain characters (morphological, anatomical, physiological or behavioral) that will give them an advantage over individuals that don't have them.Thus more of these individuals will survive and reproduce on average and leave copies of their genes to future generations. By this process, that particular character becomes more common in that species over many generations.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

On Liberty

A good treatise for reading about freedom of speech and other personal freedoms would be On Liberty by John Stewart Mill. Bertrand Russell said, “On Liberty remains a classic . . . the present world would be better than it is, if [Mill’s] principles were more respected.” Here are some excerpts:
... there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling; against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them; to fetter the development, and, if possible, prevent the formation, of any individuality not in harmony with its ways, and compel all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own.
The effect of custom, in preventing any misgiving respecting the rules of conduct which mankind impose on one another, is all the more complete because the subject is one on which it is not generally considered necessary that reasons should be given, either by one person to others, or by each to himself. People are accustomed to believe, and have been encouraged in the belief by some who aspire to the character of philosophers, that their feelings, on subjects of this nature, are better than reasons, and render reasons unnecessary.
If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind. Were an opinion a personal possession of no value except to the owner; if to be obstructed in the enjoyment of it were simply a private injury, it would make some difference whether the injury was inflicted only on a few persons or on many. But the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.
First: the opinion which it is attempted to suppress by authority may possibly be true. Those who desire to suppress it, of course deny its truth; but they are not infallible. They have no authority to decide the question for all mankind, and exclude every other person from the means of judging. To refuse a hearing to an opinion, because they are sure that it is false, is to assume that their certainty is the same thing as absolute certainty. All silencing of discussion is an assumption of infallibility. Its condemnation may be allowed to rest on this common argument, not the worse for being common.
But I must be permitted to observe, that it is not the feeling sure of a doctrine (be it what it may) which I call an assumption of infallibility. It is the undertaking to decide that question for others, without allowing them to hear what can be said on the contrary side.
 At present individuals are lost in the crowd. In politics it is almost a triviality to say that public opinion now rules the world. The only power deserving the name is that of masses, and of governments while they make themselves the organ of the tendencies and instincts of masses. 
The demand that all other people shall resemble ourselves, grows by what it feeds on. If resistance waits till life is reduced nearly to one uniform type, all deviations from that type will come to be considered impious, immoral, even monstrous and contrary to nature. Mankind speedily become unable to conceive diversity, when they have been for some time unaccustomed to see it.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Religion and free speech - II

I do not agree with what you have to say, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it. -Voltaire 

Religion, far from being a unifying force, has become a dividing force with each group shutting down views that don't accord with its own. There was the row over Ramanujan's 300 Ramayanas, Sanal Edamarku's run-in with church leaders, Narendra Dabholkar's murder, controversy over a textbook, the controversy over the Zubin Mehta concert, threatening an all-girl band in Kashmir....The last one brings to mind H. L. Mencken 's comment about the characteristic of Puritans everywhere: 'The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.' And those who say that Kashmir has more important things to do than listening to music concerts should read Karl Paulnack Welcome Address at The Boston Conservatory.

There is often the conflation of Indian culture with Hindu culture. There is always a Hindu structure beneath a Muslim structure. In a civilization as old as India, everything is built on top of something else. There may be a Buddhist stupa beneath the Hindu structure, a tribal place of worship beneath the stupa...where to stop? Who decides where to stop? As John Stewart Mill says in On Liberty, "..."the tyranny of the majority" is now generally included among the evils against which society requires to be on its guard."

It is disturbing to find majoritarian sentiments among the educated middle class section of the population. I am appalled when I hear liberal Hindus say that Hindus should follow the violent methods of radical Islam. (I am no Hindu apologist. The idea of India becoming a Hindu Pakistan is terrible. I think all these cults are, as Chritopher  Hitchens said, 'equivalent glimpses of the untrue'.) I keep getting confirmations of the observation by Avital Ronell, the second philosopher to talk in this documentary about conversations with various philosophers, who says that people who act with  a good conscience are the immoral ones.

So many concessions have been made to fundamentalist groups of all hues who engage in what Rushdie calls 'a competition of offendedness' in this discussion that that they can indulge in 'whataboutery' forever. This has increased the difficulty of putting the genie back in the bottle. In India, fundamentalists decide the limits of freedom of speech not informed, well-read citizens who are wise in the ways of the world. What happened recently in the UK is even more true in India: the abusers have freedom of speech, the abused don't. Rushdie writes in Joseph Anton:
At the heart of the dispute over The Satanic Verses...behind all the accusations and abuse, was a question of profound importance: Who shall have control over the story? Who has, who should have, the power not only to tell the stories with  which, and within which, we all lived, but also to say in what manner those stories may be told? For everyone lived by and inside stories, the so-called grand narratives. The nation was a story, and the family was another, and religion was a third.  As a creative artist he knew that the only answer to that question was: Everyone and anyone has, or should have that power. We should all be free to take the grand narratives to task, to argue with them, satirise them, and insist that they change to reflect the changing times.We should speak of them reverently, irreverently, passionately, caustically,or however we chose. That was our right as members of an open society. In fact, one could say that our ability to retell and remake the story of our culture was the best proof that our societies were indeed free. In a free society the argument over the grand narratives never ceased. It was the argument itself that mattered. The argument was freedom. But in a closed society those who processed political or ideological power invariably tried to shut down these debates. We will tell you the story, they said, and we will tell you what it means. We will tell you how the story is to be told and we forbid you to tel it in any other way. If you do not like the way we tell the story then you are an enemy of the state or traitor to the faith. You have no rights. Woe betide you! We will come after you and teach you the meaning of your refusal.
While religion is the elephant in the room, the intolerant streak in India has kept growing in other spheres too. Witness the furor over the Ambeddkar cartoon, Ashish Nandy's comments, Shoba de's tweet,  Aseem Trivedi's cartoons... Humourless politicians who take themselves too seriously are always a problem. Talking of humourless politicians, Rushdie relates an incident that took place when he attended a get-together at 10 Downing Street after Tony Blair was elected PM. There was a teddy bear in the room which had no name and Rushdie suggested that it be called Tony Bear. Blair was not amused.

Ratan Tata had once said that India was becoming a banana republic. I had thought that he was exaggerating. I would have been more in agreement if he had said that this was because successive governments have kept giving in to the shrill voices of extremists. India is passing through what Rushdie calls a 'cultural emergency'. Freedom of expression is tested only on views that don't agree with your own. Of course you will allow the expression of views that you agree with.

A citizenry dulled by religion easily accepts arguments like:  'it is for the public good', 'to maintain law and order', 'to avoid hurting religious sentiments', etc. As Christopher Hitchens says about the nature of censorship in this debate, 'It will all be done in the name of niceness. It will all be benign. Will you bear it?' Yes, if your main priority is next week's Bollywood  flick. In this humorous and thought provoking speech, Rushdie makes a key point: You keep the freedoms that you fight for. You lose the freedoms that you neglect.

PS: Salman Rushdie Bozar 13-11-2012 Complete Meeting

PPS: Christopher Hitchens, Deepa Mehta and Salman Rushdie - Love was everywhere 

Friday, October 18, 2013

Religion and free speech - I

Where they have burned books, they will end in burning human beings.- Heinrich Heine

Joseph Anton is the riveting account of the fatwa years of Salman Rushdie which he spent hiding from the fanatics of the "Religion of Peace"which is deemed to be beyond criticism. (Is there a better example of an Orwellian term?) Here is Christopher Hitchens' recollections of the fatwa years. The name of the book is the name he had assumed during those years and is a combination of the first names of Conrad and Chekhov. It is an autobiography written in third person. I must say that I was intimidated by his easy familiarity with writers from across the globe and their works. I felt illiterate.

In this talk, Christopher Hitchens says that freedom of speech includes the  freedom to offend. All religions try to fence off criticism but none goes as ballistic as the "Religion of Peace". And Rushdie bore the brunt of it. As Rushdie says (quoting from memory): "There is something strange about a club that makes membership compulsory. The best clubs make membership difficult in order to keep the riff raff out."

Like a character in a Kafka novel who wakes up to find himself in a nightmare, Rushdie found that his life had changed after the fatwa. Trying to hide from the rest of the world is a disorienting, schizophrenic experience. You don't know what a new day will bring and you begin to yearn for the quotidian periods of yesteryear which you had tried hard to avoid. In Rushdie's words, he was "cursed with an interesting life". He was among the first to see the gathering birds.

I had thought that I knew something about psychological pressure but what Rushdie had to go through was orders of magnitude greater. Scuttling from house to house to keep his location a secret, fearing  for his life as well as for the lives of family and friends, keeping quiet for fear that his statements may endanger the lives of hostages, lies about him in the media, public pressure about the money being spent on his protection, pressure to compromise with (read "give in to") fanatics ...It was enough to make a person crumble psychologically as Rushdie did for a brief while before he regained his sanity. He writes:
Compromise destroyed the compromiser and did not placate the uncompromising foe. You did not become a blackbird by painting your wings black, but like an oil-slicked gull you  lost the power of flight. The greatest danger of the growing menace was that good men will commit intellectual suicide and call it peace. Good men would give in to fear and call it respect.
The saddest thing about the whole sorry episode was that India was the first country to ban the book (which has still not been lifted) even before a single copy had reached the country's shores and anybody had had a chance to read it. It became a football in vote bank politics. Religion, culture and patriotism are sentiments which drive large numbers of people into a frenzy on somebody's say-so although they won't have much idea what it is all about. When these are the issues, "The windiest militant trash/ Important Persons shout", as W.H.Auden wrote in his poem, September 1, 1939. Rushdie writes:
In spite of India's much-trumpeted secularism, Indian governments from the mid-seventies  onwards - ever since the time of Indira and Sanjay Gandhi - had often given in to pressure from religious interest groups, especially those claiming to control large blocks of votes. By 1988, Rajiv Gandhi's weak government, with elections due in November, cravenly surrendered to threats from two opposition Muslim MPs who were in no position to 'deliver' the Muslim electorate's votes to the Congress Party. The book was not examined by any properly authorised body, nor was there any semblance of judicial  process. The ban came, improbably enough, from the Finance Ministry, under Section 11 of the Customs Act, which prevented the book from being imported. Weirdly, the Finance Ministry stated that the ban 'did not detract from the literary and artistic merit' of his work. Thanks a lot, he thought.

Strangely -innocently, naively, even ignorantly - he hadn't expected it. In the years that followed, attacks on artistic freedom would multiply in India, and not even the most  eminent would be spared: the painter Maqbool Fida Hussain, the novelist Rohinton Mistry, the film-maker Deepa Mehta would would all be targeted, amoung many others. But in 1988 it was still possible to believe in India as a free country in which artistic expression was respected and defended. He had believed it. Book banning was something that happened all too frequently across the border in Pakistan. It wasn't the Indian way. Jawaharlal Nehru had written in 1929,  'It is a dangerous power in the hands of a government; the right to determine what can be read and what shall not... In India, the power is likely to be misused.'  The young Nehru was writing , at that time, against the censorship of books by India's British overlords. It was sad to think that his words could be used, almost sixty years later, as a critique of India itself.
Rushdie wrote a fiery letter to Rajiv Gandhi protesting the ban which he later admitted was arrogant in some respects. I think the arrogance was ok. Lord Reith,the first head of the BBC said, "Offend people? . . . There are people it is one's duty to offend". I will change the quote slightly to say that there are circumstances when it is one's duty to be offensive. To the government defense that the ban was a preventive measure, he wrote, 'This really is astounding. It is as though, having identified an innocent person as a likely target for assault by muggers or rapists, you were to put that person in jail for protection. This is no way, Mr Gandhi, for a free society to behave.'

PS: Salman Rushdie spoke at Dominican University: Joseph Anton: A Memoir

PPS: Salman Rushdie spoke to NDTV and CNN IBN soon after the publication of Joseph Anton.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Limits of markets - IV

Dan Ariely says that people operate simultaneously in two realms: one where market norms operate and another in which social norms operate. If you mix the signals from the two realms, you will get sub-optimal results. For eg. ,if you give a gift to a friend and say it cost you five hundred rupees, the perceived value of the gift drops. Once such a mistake has been committed, mending a social relationship is difficult.

If a social norm has been replaced by a market norm, it is not necessary that  the social norm will return when the market norm is removed. In the Israeli day care center example, when the fine was removed, the parents'  behaviour did not change. The guilt feeling that had kept them in line many times earlier did not return. Actually,  now that both the social norms and the fine had been removed, there was a slight increase in late pickups.

Companies have tried to establish social relationships with their employees, recognising that this makes them willingly go the extra mile. But when times are tough, they revert to market norms. This has risks. Dan Ariely writes in Predictably Irrational:
In treating their employees - ... - companies must understand their implied long-term commitment. If employees promise to work harder to meet an important deadline (even cancelling family obligations for it), if they are asked to get on an airplane at a moment's notice to attend a meeting, then they must get something similar in return - something like support when they are sick, or a chance to hold on to their jobs when the market threatens to take their jobs away.
Although some companies have been successful in creating social norms with their workers, the current obsession with short-term profits, outsourcing, and draconian cost cutting threatens to undermine it all.In a social exchange, after all, people believe that if something goes awry the other party will be there for them, to protect and help them. These beliefs are not spelled out in a contract, but they are general obligations to provide care and help in times of need. 
Again, companies cannot have it both ways. In particular, I am worried the recent cuts we see in employees' benefits - child care, pensions, flexitime, exercise rooms, the cafeteria, family picnics, etc. - are likely to come at the expense of the social exchange and thus affect workers' productivity. I am particularly worried that cuts and changes in medical benefits are likely to transform much of the employer-employee social relationship into a market relationship. 
If companies want to benefit from the advantages of social norms, they need to do  a better job of cultivating those norms. Medical benefits, and in particular comprehensive medical coverage, are among the best ways a company can express its side of the social exchange. But what are many companies doing? They are demanding high deductibles in their insurance plans, and at the same time are reducing the scope of the benefits. Simply put, they are undermining the social contract between the companies and the employees and replacing it with market norms. As companies tilt the board, and employees slide from social norms to the realm of market norms, can we blame them for jumping ship when a better offer appears ? It's really no surprise that "corporate loyalty", in terms of loyalty of employees to their companies, has become an oxymoron. 
I lived in Jamshedpur till I was nineteen years old since my father was working in TELCO (now Tata Motors). At that time Tatas used to spend a lot on the social sector and employee welfare. I hardly ever heard of anyone wanting to leave. Most of the people I knew as a child were the same people I knew as a teenager. TELCO Colony, where I used to live was a well-maintained township with good amenities and schools. Many of the expenses of the school I studied in was paid by TELCO hence my school fee was low.

I have heard and read since then that Tatas have reduced their social sector spending in order to improve their bottom line. Presumably the salaries have also gone up in the meantime. I wonder how the resultant of these two changes have impacted employee loyalty. And as the example of the Israely day-care center shows,  if loyalty has reduced, it may be difficult to get it back.

Blind application of market principles in every situation is not a panacea for all ills. As one wag put it, 'Socialism is the exploitation of man by man. Capitalism is the reverse.' Both are operated by human beings and so will get corrupted in the long run. Human beings are subject to many influences from the variables in the diversity wheel and are thus victims of many irrationalities and biases, contrary to the assumption of Homo economicus. Market norms generally work well for material goods (see this Radiolab episode on 'emergence' - a lot of units that are individually stupid giving rise to group intelligence) but when social norms are involved, applying market logic often confounds expectations.Economics is about trade-offs and the trade-off between market and social norms is often ignored.

PS:  In the introduction to his course on Human Behavioral Biology, Robert Sapolsky talks of the pitfalls while studying human behavior.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Limits of markets - III

There has been an announcement of compensation to rape victims in West Bengal, a proposal to pay salary to housewives or the issue of gene patents. Does monetary payment  only compensate the relevant people? Or do they end up corrupting the good in question - a woman's dignity and right over her body, family relationships and a product of millions of years of evolution respectively? (There was an interesting comment in the  last link: "If they patent the gene, shouldn’t this make them legally responsible for the cancer?")

Or take the issue of water privatisation. It sounds sensible that since costs are involved in purifying and distributing water, people should be made to pay for it. It is argued that this will reduce wastage but does it? The answer is not so clear-cut. Apart from the inherent inequality involved in making available a resource that nobody can live without - have money, will get water - it also promotes a certain attitude.

The feeling of those who can afford it is -'I have paid for it so I can do what I want with it. So what if I waste it? It is my money.' Is this the attitude we want to promote for a scarce resource that everybody needs? I think wasteful use of water (especially drinking water) by anybody for any purpose, howsoever it is acquired, should carry a social stigma.

Or take the issue of Narendra Modi. There is the tendency to say that his performance on the economic front trumps everything else. It may never be proved whether he had a direct role in the Gujarat riots but that doesn't mean the riots should be forgotten. I have little sympathy with arguments like 'it has been a long time', 'Gujarat has made great economic strides', 'all sections have progressed', 'it is time to move on'...

One of the aims of punishment is that it should act as a deterrent to anybody contemplating such acts in the future. That is why you still see doddering old Nazis being dragged dragged to court even though they can't harm a fly now. The message that is sought to be sent is that if you indulge in certain kinds of activities, you will never be allowed to live in peace no matter how long it takes, no matter where you live, no matter what you do. It is hoped that this will prevent such crimes in future. The same argument applies regarding the anti-Sikh riots of 1984. The cases have to be pursued no matter how long it takes. I don't know the legal position here but I don't think  the statute of limitations applies in these cases.

I heard the head honcho of some corporate say that one of his achievements was a reduction in the workforce by 30%. It is undeniable that some companies have a bloated workforce and they need to shed some flab in order to remain competitive. If it had been described as a 'painful necessity', it would have been OK but 'an achievement'? How can inflicting pain on a large number of people be called 'an acievement'?

You can say that it is just a question of semantics but this reflects a mindset that is increasingly prevalent. Excess of market thinking leads people to view employees as nothing more than statistics to be manipulated in order to beautify the balance sheet. Such a mindset seems to to be apparent  in the case of  "janitors' insurance". It converts a safety net for families of employees  into an instrument of corporate finance. (I saw an interesting video called The Wisdom of Psychopaths.)

When market norms govern all aspects of life, it leads to the kind of response apparently given by Mukesh Ambani. (I will not elaborate on the lady's question which is another symptom of a market society.) Do people really think like this in making decisions about interpersonal relationships? It is all right for making mathematical models of human relationships in the same sense as moths 'assuming' parallel light rays the difference being that humans can do the assuming while moths presumably cannot. When such market calculations enter into human relationships, it corrupts their meaning.If market variables are used to analyse a personal relationship, you shouldn't expect anything more than a business partnership. I saw a strange statement by Larry Summers quoted in What Money Can't Buy:

"We all have only so much altruism in us. Economists like me think of altruism as a valuable and rare good that needs conserrving. Far better to conserve it by designing a system in which people's wants will be  satisfied by individuals being selfish, and saving that altruism for our families, our friends, and the many social problems in in this world that markets cannot solve."

Altruism is a 'rare good'? I have been surviving on altruism for over 14 years and have never felt that it was so rare. In this context, listen to a podcast on Radiolab called The Good show.

PS: A BBC Radio 4 podcast series, The Public Philosopher

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Limits of markets - II

One problem in moving more and more and more from a market economy to a market society where everything has a price is about inequality - it leads to what can be called economic apartheid. Market prices reflect both the ability and willingness to pay. When everything is up for sale, the ability to pay (or lack of it) matters. As Edward Sandford Martin  said, 'You cannot make your opportunities concur with the opportunities of people whose incomes are ten times greater than yours.' A certain level of inequality is inevitable but if it goes on exacerbating then at some level, there are bound to be problems.

The rich and successful tend to to think that everything is due to hard work and luck has played no part in their success  but Sam Harris and Michael Lewis point out that this is not so as does Michael Sandel in one of his Harvard lectures. All that hard work comes after huge dollops of luck determine that you find yourself at the right place at the right time. Rahul Gandhi says that "poverty is a state of mind". Seriously?! Prof. Sandel writes in his book:
If the only advantage of affluence were the ability to afford yachts, sports cars, and fancy vacations, inequalities of income and wealth would not matter very much. But as money comes to buy more and more - political influence, good medical  care, a home in a safe neighbourhood rather than a crime-ridden one, access to elite schools rather than failing ones - the distribution of income and wealth looms larger and larger. Where all the good things are bought and sold, having money makes all the difference in the world. 
Another reason why we should think more before moving towards commodification of everything is because markets promote certain vales and attitudes towards what is being priced. In standard economic theory, a transaction is fine if it results in some people being better off and no-one else is worse off. It assumes that putting a price on a good doesn't change the character of the good. Is this true in all situations? Sometimes market values crowd out non market values worth caring about.An example is the difference between fees and fines. Prof. Sandel writes:
A study of some child-care centres in Israel shows how this can happen. The centers faced a familiar problem: parents sometimes came late to pick up their children.A teacher had to stay with the children until the tardy parents arrived. To solve this problem, the centres imposed a fine for late pickups. What do you suppose happened? Late pickups actually increased.
Now if you assume that people respond to incentives, this is a puzzling result. You would expect the fine to reduce, not increase, the incidence of late pickups. So what happened? Introducing the fine changed the norms. Before, parents who came late felt guilty; they were imposing an inconvenience on the teachers. Now parents considered a late pickup as a service for which they were willing to pay. They treated the fine as if it were a fee. Rather than imposing on the teacher, they were simply paying him or her to work longer.
The price effect - when the price goes up, people buy less of a good ,and when prices go down, they buy more - is generally reliable when material goods like PCs or mobile phones are being discussed. But  it is less reliable when applied to social practices governed by non market norms. In the above case, when the price of arriving late increased, late pickups increased. The social norm of a moral obligation was now viewed through a market lens as overtime fees.

Even in  the case of some material goods that have significant social norms associated with them, the price effect doesn't seem to work. Consider the demand for gold in India.  The price of gold keeps going up and the demand keeps rising.

Market and moral values are not always additive. There are situations where social norms apply where introducing monetary incentives to encourage some behavior gets you less of it not more. We should ask if it is always necessary to maximize social  utility  regardless of the moral worth of the preferences. Economists say that they don't 'traffic in morality' but their belief in maximising utility is itself a value judgement. I abhor the Gordon  Geccko philosophy that 'greed is good'.

What is the importance of norms and attitudes that market values may crowd out? Are they worth preserving? If so,  should we avoid incentivising with money certain activities even though they may do some good?The answer varies with each case and depends on the attitude and values likely to be lost. Human nature is too complex to be reduced to a simple formula that can be applied everywhere.

PS: A conversation between Michael Sandel and A.C. Grayling: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

Friday, August 30, 2013

Limits of markets - I

Michael Sandel is a professor of philosophy at Harvard University who has the status of a rock star. He has put his Harvard lectures online for free viewing. His most famous book is What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets where he reflects on market norms replacing social norms. He worries about a market economy inexorably turning into a market society. He writes:
 The difference is this: A market economy is a tool—a valuable and effective tool—for organizing productive activity. A market society is a way of life in which market values seep into every aspect of human endeavor. It’s a place where social relations are made over in the image of the market. 
He says that "market triumphalism" of the past few decades has resulted in markets becoming detached from morals. Postulating that greed led to excessive risk taking is only a partial diagnosis.The most profound change is the expansion of markets and market values into areas of life where they don't belong, eg. health, education, family life, nature, civic duties, etc. These are moral and political issues not just economic ones. He writes:
Consider the proliferation of for-profit schools, hospitals, and prisons, and the outsourcing of war to private military contractors. (In Iraq and Afghanistan, private contractors have actually outnumbered U.S. military troops.)
Consider the eclipse of public police forces by private security firms—especially in the U.S. and Britain, where the number of private guards is more than twice the number of public police officers.
Or consider the pharmaceutical companies’ aggressive marketing of prescription drugs to consumers in rich countries. (If you’ve ever seen the television commercials on the evening news in the United States, you could be forgiven for thinking that the greatest health crisis in the world is not malaria or river blindness or sleeping sickness but a rampant epidemic of erectile dysfunction.)
Consider too the reach of commercial advertising into public schools, the sale of “naming rights” to parks and civic spaces; the marketing of “designer” eggs and sperm for assisted reproduction; the outsourcing of pregnancy to surrogate mothers in the developing world; the buying and selling, by companies and countries, of the right to pollute; a system of campaign finance in the U.S. that comes close to permitting the buying and selling of elections.
These uses of markets to allocate health, education, public safety, national security, criminal justice, environmental protection, recreation, procreation, and other social goods were for the most part unheard-of 30 years ago. Today, we take them largely for granted. 

Why worry that we are moving toward a society in which everything is up for sale?
PS: Micael Sandel on Fora TV.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Money and happiness

It is quite well established that money does not buy happiness. (In this post where many people give their views on how to attain happiness, there is hardly any mention of wealth.) The marginal utility of money quickly diminishes once you are above the poverty level but the hedonic treadmill ensures that you keep wanting more. But you can always find someone richer and feel  miserable. I saw some quotes in How the Mind Works which show comparison with another person influencing happiness:
But O! how bitter a thing it is to look into  happiness through another man's eyes! - William Shakespeare, As You Like It 
Happiness, n. An agreeable sensation arising from contemplating the misery of others. - Ambrose Bierce
It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail. Gore Vidal
When does a hunchback rejoice? When he sees one with a larger hump. - Yiddish saying
From the book:
Research on the psychology of happiness has borne out the curmudgeons. Kahneman and Twersky give an everyday example. You open your paycheck and are delighted to find you have been given a five percent raise - until you learn that your co-workers have been given a ten percent raise.
People in different classes and countries are often content with their lot until they compare themselves to the more affluent. The amount of violence in a society is more closely related to its inequality than to its poverty. In the second half of the twentieth century, the discontent of the Third World, and later the Second, have been attributed  to their glimpses through the mass media of the First.

Within an industrialised country, money buys only a little happiness: the correlation between wealth and satisfaction is positive but small. Lottery winners, after their  jolt of happiness has subsided, return to their former emotional state. On the brighter side, so do people who have suffered terrible loses, such as paraplegics and survivors of the holocaust .
These findings do not necessarily contradict the singer Sofie Tucker when she said, 'I have been poor and I have been rich. Rich is better. 'In India and  Bangladesh, wealth predicts happiness much better than it does in the West. Among twenty-four Western European and American nations, the higher the gross national product per capita, the happier the citizens (though there are many explanations). Myers and Diener point out that wealth is like health: not having it makes you miserable, but having it does not guarantee happiness. 
In One Hundred Years of Solitude, there is a description of a very old Ursula: the impenetrable solitude of decrepitude she had such clairvoyance as she examined the most insignificant happenings in the family that for the first time she saw clearly the truths that her busy life in former times had prevented her from seeing.
Similarly, in in my "solitude of decrepitude", I noticed something: The general rule that we value less that which we have in abundance seems to broken in the case of money. Many very rich people seem to be freaked out about money and many super rich seem to use wealth as a means of 'keeping score'. These folks have all the money in the world but are not free from worries. (Moving away from individuals, corporations go through complicated loops to increase their bottom line.) I am reminded of  Tolstoy's short story, How Much Land Does a Man Need?

 In my house, compared to everybody else, I am the least concerned about money even though I have nothing in my name (for the simple reason that I cannot sign). Would this have been the case if I had not suffered a  stroke and had a few crores in my bank account? It is highly unlikely. What Alain de Button calls 'status anxiety' in this talk would have ensured that there will be no escape from the hedonic treadmill. I have noticed quite a few people change slowly for the worse, like the picture of Dorian Grey, as they became richer and status anxiety stated to take its toll.

'Money, like vodka, can play queer tricks with a man', said Chekhov in his short story, Gooseberries. I heard a news item that the application for gun licences in some city in India had shown a quantum jump (why does quantum jump mean 'big jump' when a quantum is an infinitesimal quantity?) because the nouvoue riche regard owning a gun as a status symbol!

PS: Here is an interesting talk by Daniel Pink about money and productivity.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The genesis of superstitions

Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me) mentions a curious tradition among the Dinka and Nuer tribes of the Sudan - they extract the front teeth of their children.This gives them a sunken chin, collapsed lower lip and speech impediments. The practise started at a time when lockjaw (which causes the jaws to clench together) was widespread. Pulling out the front teeth meant that the children could drink liquids through the gap. The lockjaw epidemic is long gone but the practise continues. Why? In 'Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me)' the authors write:
During the epidemic, the villagers would have begun extracting the front teeth of all their children, so that if any later contracted tetanus ,the adults would  be able to feed them. But this is a painful thing to do to children, especially since only some would become affected. To further justify their actions, to themselves and their children, the villagers would need to bolster the decision by adding benefits to the procedure after the fact. For example, they might convince themselves that pulling teeth  has aesthetic value - say that sunken-chin look is really quite attractive - and they might even turn the surgical ordeal into a rite of passage into adulthood. And indeed that is just what happened. "The toothless look is beautiful," the villagers say. "People who have all their teeth are ugly. They look like cannibals who would eat a person. A full set of teeth makes a man look like a donkey." The toothless look has other aesthetic advantages: "We like the hissing sound it creates when we speak." And adults reassure frightened children by saying, "The ritual is a sign of maturity." The original medical justification for the practice is long gone. The psychological self-justifications remain.
Perhaps many superstitions began in a similar manner. There may initially have been good reasons to start the practice. These reasons have been long forgotten but the justifications remain. 

Monday, July 29, 2013

Superstitions, traditions and learned paralysis

Personal superstitions are common. Various sportsmen at the top of their professions have some superstition or the other. Rituals that seem illogical may have played a role in the development of complex societies. Peanuts are necessary for landing the Mars rover. Even self-confessed atheists have irrational behaviors. I heard Richard Dawkins say that one of his prized possessions is a 1st edition copy of On The Origin Species. It is after all a book. Perhaps you would like to invest in a superstitious fund.

Being a fan of Rahul Dravid, I used to watch every ball that he faced if he was batting in the nineties (if I was in front of the TV at the time) for fear that he might get out if  I looked away. Not that it helped - he still was dismissed in the nineties 10 times. (Or maybe it did - now you know why he got 36 centuries!)

I get to hear plenty of superstitious talk - about performing a ritual if some venture is successful, about meeting an astrologer about my recovery, about going to some temple if a wish is granted...I don't say anything because it probably helps them feel good. If you dissuade them from carrying out these long held beliefs, it will keep playing on their minds which will negatively impact their performance giving rise to the familiar 'I told you so'.

The power of the mind cannot be ignored  as evidenced by the curious placebo [You tube video] and nocebo effects. Anyway rational arguments are only going to lead to wastage of time without convincing believers. In Very Good, Jeeves! after trying to make peace between two warring females, Bertie Wooster muses:
It was rash. Looking back, I can see that. One of the first lessons life teaches us is that on these occasions of back-chat between the delicately-nurtured a man should retire into the offing, curl up into a ball,and imitate the prudent tactics of the opossum, which, when danger is in the air, pretends to be dead, frequently going to the length of handing out crepe and instructing its friends to stand round and say what a pity it all is. 
I had learned long back that there was nothing to be gained by charging into battle like Genghis Khan. What I had to do was to 'imitate the prudent tactics of the opossum' and if you allow me to indulge in a bit of self-praise, I will say that I do it quite well even though I will privately think that I am listening to crap as I am being given the familiar arguments.

The power of the mind is all fine but if you become a slave to too many superstitions, then you become mentally paralysed and unable to do anything. Anybody can say something and derail your plans. Various stultifying social customs like the caste system have a similar effect giving rise to the Rooster-coop effect discussed in The White Tiger. The protagonist of the novel, Balram Halwai says:
"Do you know about Hanuman, sir? He was the faithful servant of the god Rama, and we worship him in our temples because he is a shining example of how to serve your masters with absolute fidelity, love, and devotion. These are the kinds of gods they have foisted on us Mr. Jiabao. Understand, now, how hard it is for a man to win his freedom in India.” 
I saw an example of being in such a mental trap in a nurse who had come some time back. When this nurse used to come to the front hall, she used to sit on the floor. In spite of repeatedly telling her to sit on a chair, she always sat on the floor.Perhaps she had been coached from childhood on some sort of 'master-servant' relationship where her place was on the floor and she was unable to break out of her conditioned prison. Changing such a mind-set is difficult but not impossible.

In this talk, Robert Sapolsky discusses how various rituals paralyse people. My favourite line in the talk: "If you get it [schizotypalism] just right then for the next couple of millenia people won't have to go to work on your birthday."

PS: In The Demon-Haunted World, Carl Sagan writes:
One of my favourite cartoons shows a fortune-teller scrutizing the mark's palm and gravely concluding, "You are very gullible." 

Sunday, July 21, 2013

The Good Brahmin

Voltaire tells the story of "The Good Brahmin", who says, I wish I had never been born!" It is related in The Story ofPhilosophy:
"Why so?" said I.
"Because," he replied, "I have been studying these forty years, and I find that it has been so much time lost...I believe that I am composed of matter, but I have never been able to satisfy myself what it is that produces thought. I am even ignorant whether my  understanding is a simple faculty like that of walking or digesting, or if I  think with my head in the same manner as I take hold of a thing with my hands...I talk a great deal, and when I have done speaking I remain confounded and ashamed of what I have said."
The same day I had a conversation with an old woman, his neighbour. I asked her if she had ever been unhappy for not understanding how her soul was made? She did not even comprehend my question. She had not, for the briefest moment in her life, had a thought about these subjects with which the good  Brahmin had so tormented himself.She believed in the bottom of her heart in the metamorphosis of Vishnu, and provided she could get some of the sacred water  of the Ganges in which to make her ablutions, she thought herself the happiest of women.Struck with the happiness of this poor creature, I returned to my philosopher, whom I addressed thus: 
"Are you not ashamed to be thus miserable when, not fifty yards from you, there is an old automaton who thinks of nothing and lives contented?"
`"You are right," he replied. "I have said to myself a thousand times that I should be happy if I were as ignorant as my old neighbour and yet it is a happiness which I do not desire."
This reply of the Brahmin made a greater impression on me than anything that had  passed.
Count me as being on the same page as Voltaire. Here is a video showing the views of many people from various perspectives about The Nature of Existence. 

Monday, July 15, 2013

The Rooster-Coop syndrome -II

Advertisements are what Hamlet called 'an abstract and brief chronicle of the time'. The products advertised will be things that will entice the well-heeled minority and encourage them to keep miswanting in order to keep up with the Joneses, things like cars, expensive mobiles, beauty products etc. (Aside: Six Psychological Reasons Consumer Culture is Unsatisfying.) When asked why he robbed banks, Willie Sutton famously replied, "Because that's where the money is." Similarly, ads are targeted at this segment because that's where the money is. In The Extended Phenotype, Richard Dawkins writes:
Advertisements are not there to inform, or to misinform, they are there to persuade.  The advertiser uses his knowledge of human psychology, of the hopes, fears and secret motives of his targets, and he designs an advertisement which is effective in manipulating their behaviour.
If people are persuaded by an ad that using a particular brand of soap makes life 'awesome', it speaks more about those people than about the advertiser. In this ad, the expression on the face of the person who says 'farak padta hai' takes  my breath away - an expression that suggests contempt at the other guy's lack of knowledge about a laughably trivial product. What George Carlin calls 'the modern man' seems to be a dandy.I came across an interesting term called colourism that is widespread in ads.

Thus people with opportunities are engaged in chasing after superficialities like fancy hair  cuts, discussing loud Bollywood movies having lots of guns and explosions or the IPL tamasha, attending Gatsby-style parties, developing '6-pack' bodies etc. There seems to be a lot of pretense and one-upmanship. Jaya said that some with 4-wheelers act a bit snobbishly towards her because she only has a 2-wheeler. (This story was amusing.) The general impression is that many people seem to be like the Red Queen - running twice as fast to stay in the same place.

The rising prosperity of the 'middle class' seems to be accompanied by increasing levels of insecurity. I get an indication of this by regular reports of there being huge crowds in all the temples I hear about and copious amounts of money being spent on religious festivals. People do these things when they feel worried. These businesses do well when people don't feel well emotionally. A manager in Indian Bank once told me, "There are only sick companies; there are no sick promoters." I think a similar statement can be made here: There are only sick devotees; there are no sick temples. Apparently, there is a 'Vaastu fish' costing upto Rs. 1.5 lakhs!

Then there are people who do nothing. One physiotherapist who only had to treat a couple of cases, when asked what he did for the rest of the day, said, 'Sleep or watch TV.' I once heard Richard Dawkins say that it is possible to muddle through life without knowing the earth revolves around the sun, what a waste of a life that would be! It brings to mind what Bertrand Russell said, 'Although it is a gloomy view to suppose that life will die out, sometimes when I contemplate the things that people do with their lives I think it is almost a consolation.'

It is not as if there is a Prof. Moriarty sitting at the center of the web pulling strings. It is just that the system has developed that way. I was also on a similar 'auto-pilot' before my stroke. It is very difficult to ignore the standard norms for success that society sets for you. It is ironical that the more time saving devices there are, the less time there is to stand and stare in a world gone Madoff. Not many can act like Pico Iyer. I view things differently now, as Shakespeare said in Richard II:
Like perspectives, which rightly gazed upon 
Show nothing but confusion, eyed awry 
Distinguish form 

I think Lawrence Krauss is right in this tribute to Christopher Hitchens when he says that stupidity, prejudice, superstition, hatred, power, money will generally win. I sympathise with the views of the prisoner in Chekhov's short story, The Bet. John Stuart Mill put it bluntly:
“It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question.”
I suppose you can't expect much else from a guy whose favorite disco song is over 50 years old!

Monday, July 8, 2013

The Rooster-Coop syndrome -I

One of the main ideas in The White Tiger is The Rooster-Coop syndrome - the poor, who have to work so long and hard just to survive that they don't have time to think about the various injustices around them. They can sing nice songs and flatter themselves all they want but ultimately he who pays the piper calls the tune.

 I think a significant part of the more privileged minority is trapped in what I would call the gilded Rooster-Coop syndrome. They seem to be married to their jobs and have very little interest in areas outside what their job require. Or perhaps they don't have the time to cultivate other interests. In An Open Letter to India’s Graduating Classes, one of the points made by the writer is ''stretching yourself to work longer hours when needed'. The problem is that it is always needed.

It seems to have become a fashion to stay late in office to please the boss. One person called this 'the MBA culture'. I remember a thoroughly uninspiring guy from Citibank giving a pre-placement talk at IIMA. He said that he loved being in office so much that he hurried to office in the morning and didn't want to leave the office at night. I remember thinking, 'What a fraud! He must be having another fiend as his boss. If he didn't stay in office  later than his boss, his chances of promotion may be jeopardised.

One person said that he used to work such long hours that he could see his children only on Sundays. On other days,  he used to come so late that his kids were asleep by then and by the time he got up the next day, they had gone to school. (He is self-employed so the pressures are different compared to that on a salaried employee.) There are people who live in Pune and work in Mumbai, commuting 4 hrs each way everyday. It is not a life I would have liked to lead.

In this TED talk, Margaret Heffernan says that companies should encourage dissent.That rarely happens. The emphasis is on conformity and adherence to standard company practices leading to groupthink. Any deviation is frowned upon. In corporate-speak this is called 'being on the same page' or 'pulling in the same direction'. Companies often react viciously when established authority is challenged (as do governments) so most people prefer to carry on as before. Emily Dickinson figured it out long ago: the  majority view prevails. In The Denial of Death, Earnst Becker writes:
...usually life sucks us up into standardised activities. The social hero-system into which we are born marks out paths for our heroism,paths to which we conform, to which we shape ourselves so that we can please others, become what they expect us to be. And instead of working our inner secret we gradually cover it over and forget it, while we become purely external men, playing successfully the standised hero-game into which we happen to fall by accident, by family connection, by reflex patriotism, or by the simple need to eat and the urge to procreate.
Kierkegaard had no illusions about man's urge to freedom. He knew how comfortable people were inside the prison of their character defenses. Like many prisoners they are comfortable in their limited and protected routines and the idea of a parole into the wide world of chance, accident and choice terrifies them...In the prison of one's  character  one can pretend and feel that he is somebody, that the world is manageable, that there is reason for one's life, a ready justification for one's action. To live automatically and uncritically is to be assured of at least a minimum share of the programmed cultural heroics - what we might call "prison heroism": the smugness of the insiders who "know".

Monday, July 1, 2013

A scary journey

The  initial part of The White Tiger is set in Bihar. This reminded me of a an incident that made me quite nervous. I lived in Bihar for the first 19 years of my life. More accurately I lived in Jamshedpur which,, for practical purposes, can be considered separate from the rest of Bihar. (Whenever I mention  Bihar in this post, I mean the erstwhile Bihar, before it was split into the present-day states of Bihar and Jharkhand.. Jamshedpur is now in Jharkand.)

Jamshedpur is a well maintained city with quality of life much better than the rest of Bihar, nay, most other parts of India. There was a (probably apocryphal) story about a bridge, one  end of which was under the control of the Tatas and the other end was under the control of the Bihar Government. The Tatas end always had light and the bulbs were changed as soon as their life was over while the other end was in darkness. This was a good metaphor for the gap between Jamshedpur and the rest of Bihar at the time. (Things seem to be changing now.)

I had cleared an entrance exam and had to attend a counselling session to choose which engineering college I wanted. This was to be held in Bhagalpur and accordingly my dad and I went there. The counselling was held in the Bhagalpur Engineering College and after completing the required paperwork, we returned  to the hotel in the afternoon. A friend and I had to return to the college to complete some formalities so I left after telling my dad that I will be back in a couple of hours. In Very Good, Jeeves!, while planning a typically sloppy scheme, Bertie Wooster muses:
The first thing you need in matters of this kind, as every general knows, is a thorough knowledge of the terrain. Not know the terrain and where are you?Look at Napoleon and that sunken road at Waterloo. Silly ass!
When we finished our work, it was around 7 p.m. When we came out of the college, it was pitch black all around and not a soul was in sight.  I had  unconsciously assumed that things would be like in Jamshedpur - it would be lighted and that it would be easy to find some transport back to the hotel. But we couldn't make out anything and wondered how we could get back.

We then spotted a dim light in the distance and decided to try our luck there. It turned out to be from a lantern hanging inside a bullock cart. We asked the guy who was standing near the cart if he could take us to the  hotel we were staying in. He agreed and we hopped in. Then began a journey that may have lasted for about 20 min. but it seemed like 2 hours. It is the sort of time dilation that Einstein didn't bother about.

We could not see anything in front of us. If I was a poet, I would have said that ' The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas', but since I am not a poet, I will just say that it was bloody dark. I wonder how the bullock cart guy could make out the path in front of him. My friend and I kept up a nervous chatter acting as if it was the most exciting journey in the world.

It is in situations like this that one tends to mull about nightmarish incidents just to perk things up a bit. So I started thinking about the infamous Bhagalpur blindings which was the only thing I knew about the place - not the most cheery thought to have  in such situations. I half expected the highway man to come riding, riding, riding.

After an eternity, we spotted a dim light in the distance - the second such welcome sight during the night. In The Merchant of Venice, Portia says:
That light we see is burning in my hall. 
How far that little candle throws his beams! 
So shines a good deed in a naughty world.
The dim light certainly was good news in a naughty world. The light was from the hotel where my father was waiting anxiously. 

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The White Tiger

I read the Booker Prize winning novel,  The White Tiger by Arvind Adiga sometime back. (You can see a video review here.) It is a depressing novel not least because much of it is true - the sleaze, the corruption, the caste discrimination, the hopelessness of millions, the practise of coercing lower caste people into taking the rap for the errors of the upper castes (it is anybody's guess how many innocent people are languishing in jail)...The excuse always is what Shashi Kapoor and Zeenat Aman say in this song: Everybody does it. But one is disturbed by the callousness with which the protagonist goes about righting the wrongs.

This article about cricket says that there is a 'postcaste India'. There are small pockets of it scattered across the country but they are firmly in the minority. Caste still plays a major role in many places. Its social and economic structure makes it difficult for many people to escape its clutches. In many places, election results are crucially dependant on the caste of the candidate.  If the candidate belongs to the wrong caste, he or she has no chance of winning irrespective of other qualifications. And what about Brahmin-only housing?

Many people who say they don't discriminate on the basis of caste, class, religion etc. nevertheless show these biases in subtle ways in their words and behavior. Of course if you point these out, they are not likely to agree with you. A Hindu family was reluctant to employ a cook because she was a Christian. If educated, city-bred folk still have these attitudes, then we still have a long way to go.

Then there are unconscious biases in each of us which we are not aware of. These seep into us as a result of exposure to the culture we grew up in. In this video, the first speaker, Mahzarin Banaji talks about these biases.

There is a big empathy gap between the haves and the have-nots. There is a difference between sympathy and empathy. There may be a significant amount of sympathy but not of empathy.I often hear complaints that servants are not doing their work sincerely. Well, it is hard to be sincere when the work involves a  lot of drudgery in a lot of houses not your own. As the protagonist of The White Tiger says:
You will have to come here and see yourself to believe it.  Every day millions wake up at dawn - stand in dirty, crowded buses - get off at their masters' posh houses - and then clean the floors, wash the dishes, weed the garden, feed their children, press their feet - all for a pittance. I will never envy the rich of America or England, Mr.Jiabao: they have no servants there.  They cannot even begin to understand what a good life is.
The kind of sentiment that many well-heeled express is similar to a view that Lee Iacocca expressed in his autobiography which I had read many years ago.  I don't remember the exact circumstances but he was served by a grumpy waitress  in a restaurant and he wrote that if people are not satisfied with their work, they should quit their job and find some other work. At that time, i was a callow youth and Iacocca was a hot-shot name so I thought he must be right. Now I think he was talking rot.

Iacocca may have found it easy to find another job but that is not true for all. There are bills to be paid, food to put on the table, kids to be educated...The waitress may have been a  single mother holding two jobs in order to make ends meet, her mother may be in the hospital...You may want people to be like robots but it is not always possible to mask your emotions. If a hot-shot manager's only response to a grumpy employee is to say that she should find another job then he is not so hot after all.

In this documentary about conversations with various philosophers, the second philosopher to talk, Avital Ronell says that people who act with  a good conscience are the immoral ones. She gives the example of George Bush who signed death penalties galore without any compunctions. A truly moral person would have agonised over those decisions and spent sleepless nights wondering whether he was right or wrong.

India has too many people who  act in good conscience (since the overwhelming majority is afflicted by what Dawkins called 'the virus of faith', this is a natural result.), know everything and are always right. As the cartoon character Pogo said, 'I have seen the enemy and he is us'.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Evolutionary traps

In this post, Carl Zimmer writes:
We have altered the environment in a vast number of ways, both small and large. And when animals try to read the cues from our human environment, they can get tricked. They can end up doing something that kills them, loses them the opportunity to reproduce, or simply wastes their time. Scientists call these situations evolutionary traps.
This reminded me of an evolutionary trap that Richard Dawkins described in The Extended Phenotype:
Moths fly into candle flames, and this does nothing to help their inclusive fitness. In the world before candles were invented, small sources of bright light in darkness would either have been celestial bodies at optical infinity, or they might have been escape holes from caves or other enclosed spaces. The latter case immediately suggests a survival value for approaching light sources. The former case also suggests one, but in an indirect sense...Many insects use celestial bodies as compasses.Since these are at optical infinity, rays from them are parallel, and an insect that maintains a fixed orientation of, say,30 degrees to them will go in a straight line. But if the rays do not come from infinity they will not be parallel, and an insect that behaves in this way will spiral into the light source (if steering an acute angled course) or spiral away (if steering an obtuse-angled course) or orbit the source (if steering a course of exactly 90 degrees to the rays). Self-immolation by insects in candle flames, then, has no survival value in itself: is a byproduct of the useful habit of steering by means of sources of light which are 'assumed' to be at infinity. That assumption was once safe. It now is safe no longer, and it may be that selection is even now working to modify the insects' behaviour. (Not necessarily, however. The overhead costs of making the necessary improvements may outweigh the benefits they might bring: moths that pay the costs of discriminating candles from stars may be less successful, on average, than moths that do not attempt the costly discrimination and accept the low risk of self-immolation...)
As for using language like moths 'assuming' something or overhead costs outweighing benefits, which may sound as if moths are doing such calculations, see Dawkins' reply to Mary Midgely's criticisms of The Selfish Gene (pdf).