Thursday, February 28, 2013

Shakespeare - I

Some months ago, I heard Naseeruddin Shah on NDTV's Walk the Talk show [the link takes you to an autoplay video]. He mentioned Shylock's 'I am a Jew' as  a favourite. I immediately perked up because the speech [the link takes you to a YouTube video of the speech] also happens to be a favourite of mine:
I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us do we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh? If you poison us do we not die? And if you wrong us shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge. The villainy you teach me I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction. 
There was another Shylock speech early in the play, The Merchant of Venice, which is also a favourite:
Signior Antonio, many a time and oft
In the Rialto you have rated me
About my moneys and my usances:
Still have I borne it with a patient shrug,
For sufferance is the badge of all our tribe.
You call me misbeliever, cut-throat dog,
And spit upon my Jewish gaberdine,
And all for use of that which is mine own.
Well then, it now appears you need my help:
Go to, then; you come to me, and you say
'Shylock, we would have moneys:' you say so;
You, that did void your rheum upon my beard
And foot me as you spurn a stranger cur
Over your threshold: moneys is your suit
What should I say to you? Should I not say
'Hath a dog money? is it possible
A cur can lend three thousand ducats?' Or
Shall I bend low and in a bondman's key,
With bated breath and whispering humbleness, Say this;
'Fair sir, you spit on me on Wednesday last;
You spurn'd me such a day; another time
You call'd me dog; and for these courtesies
I'll lend you thus much moneys'?
While listening to the interview, I suddenly felt the urge to read a bit about Shakespeare which I had not done since my school days.(Should I call it a fitzcarraldo?) I know a couple of his plays reasonably well since I had studied them in school, I have some idea of some of of his famous plays and know nothing at all about many other plays so I can hardly be called a Bardolator. I thus read Will in the World by Stephen Greenblatt and A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599 by James Shapiro.

I came across this site which had 37 plays by the Bard in 37 languages. I saw Twelfth Night in Hindi which was hilarious. I wanted to see some other plays in languages that I don't understand just to see how they are interpreted in various cultures. (Gosh, the things people do when they have time to kill! Some burst bubbles. These are some of the ways in which nerds kill time.) But most of the plays were no longer online when I checked next. I didn't know that they were available only for a limited time.

All this is a roundabout way of saying that I will be giving you some Shakespeare dope for a while. If you feel that this is a good time for you to take a well earned break, I won't blame you for it.

PS: There is some controversy about who exactly Shakespeare was. This youtube video shows Keir Cutler’s Adaptation of Mark Twain’s Is Shakespeare Dead? One wag said that the plays of Shakespeare were written by another person named Shakespeare.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Importance of a broad education

In The Third Chimpanzee, Jared Diamond writes:
Geography sets ground rules for the evolution, both biological and cultural, of all species, including our own. Geography's role in determining our modern political history is even more obvious than the role I have discussed in determining the rate at which we domesticate plants and animals.  From this perspective, it is almost funny to read that half of all American school children do not know where Panama is, but not at all funny when politicians display comparable ignorance.  Among the many notorious examples of disasters brought on by politicians ignorant of geography, two must suffice: the unnatural boundaries drawn on the map of Africa by nineteenth-century European colonial powers, thereby undermining the stability of some modern African states that inherited those borders; and the borders of Eastern Europe drawn at the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 by politicians who knew little of that region, thereby helping to fuel the Second World War.  
It is a fashion for many people to rubbish subjects that were not of direct use to them later in life. A person working in the IT industry once told me that it would have been nice if he only had to study IT from Std. I. The obvious question that arises is: Who is going to decide that he will be interested in IT later on? He wouldn't have heard of something called IT at his age. Moreover, you cannot do without some subjects no matter what profession you are in. For instance, in IT you will at the very least require basic English and Math.

Often education is taken as a synonym for vocational training. Here is an extreme example from the US. The purpose of education is not just to train people to become cogs in the wheels of commerce (as depicted by  Chaplin in modern Times). It is for people to become thinking citizens who are aware of the ups and downs of civilization. That is why we learn about Shakespeare or the history of Ancient India. I would have cribbed with everyone else when learning History but I am glad I know a little bit about various events so that I am not completely cut out of conversations involving them.

A consequence of ignoring subjects that initially seem boring is explained by  Jennifer Ouellette:
...most of us have no idea what we want to do as a profession as teenagers. We have no idea what knowledge we’ll need. I didn’t even know science writing was an option. By the time we figure that out, more often than not, it’s too late to remedy our lack of background knowledge.
Often we forget the nitty gritties of the various subjects we learnt but  we retain the modes of thinking we imbibed while learning those subjects. When Neil deGraase Tyson was showing the American diplomat, Richard Holbroke around the Hayden Planetarium,  he discovered that the latter had studied Physics in college. When Tyson asked him if his physics training had been useful for him in his diplomatic career. Holbroke replied in the affirmative saying that it had taught him to think logically, quickly separate the wheat from the chaff and arrive at the core of the problem.

In this interview, Neil Shubin stresses the importance of taking a broad mix of courses. (Much of the interview is about fossils which makes it more interesting, don't you think?) His most famous fossil find , Tiktaalik roseae,  was discovered as a result of him stumbling upon the right location while flipping through a geology textbook.

In this talk at Google, Atul Gawande talks of the importance of seeing the scatter plot as well as the dot. If we take the dot as our area of interest and the scatter plot as the wide variety of topics that interest various people, one must not forget the existence of the scatter plot while focusing on the dot of our choice.

Always choosing the utilitarian angle for learning a subject would be a limiting approach. One often hears people ask, Of what use is Geography?' or 'Of what use is Algebra?' long before they realise the use of these subjects. Discussing the oft-asked question, 'Of what use is going to Mars?', Mary Roach says in Packing for Mars:
I could parrot the NASA Public Affairs Office and spit out a long list of products and technologies spawned by aerospace innovations over the decades.  Instead, I defer to the sentiments of Benjamin Franklin. Upon the occasion of history's first manned flights - in the 1780s, aboard  the Montgolfier brothers' hot-air-balloons - someone asked Franklin what use he saw in such frivolity.  "What use," he replied,"is a newborn baby?" 
People mired in poverty may have no option but to concentrate on getting a good job but as Jerry Coyne says, "Those other disciplines aren’t really “ways of knowing,” but they’re ways of experiencing, and to die without that panoply of experience, had it been available to you, is to have lived in vain."It is important to remember that those who have the opportunity are the lucky minority.Education should be of use not only during work but also during leisure. On a practical note, a top executive at Google says, “Quit Your Tech Job and Get a Ph.D. in the Humanities”.

In this video about the reasons for studying philosophy, it is mentioned that the top skills that companies look for in new recruits are 1)written and oral communication skills and 2) critical thinking and analytical reasoning skills. These skills will not be developed by only sticking to a few 'core subjects'.

You can never say how something becomes useful. (Jaya tells me that when she was learning typing, she had never imagined that it would become useful in typing this blog!) On a personal note, a game that I used to play at home when I was a kid back in the middle ages has proved helpful in an unexpected way. In the game, one person would specify a  place or a feature on a map and the other would have to locate it. (Here is a blog about strange maps.)

In many books I read, a map will be given on one page while the matter related to it will be given in subsequent pages. It will be time consuming to convey to the nurse to flip the pages back and forth. I find it easier to memorise the map quickly and refer to memory while reading the subsequent pages. No doubt the game I used  to play as  a child would be helping me.

PS: Talking of geography, Jared Diamond wrote a whole book, Guns, Germs and Steel, about how geography influenced the way various civilizations developed, about why the Spanish conquered the Incas rather than the other way around. Here is a documentary based on the book. He would have had to write a very different book if the land masses were spread out the same way as now - only rotated by an angle of 90 degrees.

PPS: And if you want to have an even longer term view, look at this post.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The tyranny of the discontinuous mind

While on the subject of education, I once heard a debate on TV about whether a marks system or a grade system is better. I don't remember the arguments (this was before I started this blog, else I would have listened more carefully and noted some points) but the consensus was to favour a grade system. In this connection, Richard Dawkins talks of the tyranny of the discontinuous mind, the tendency of many people to see the world in binary terms.He discusses it in The Ancestor's Tale (my favourite Dawkins book) in the course of which he writes about marks vs grades:
Students do not really separate neatly into good, middling and poor.  There are not discrete and distinct classes of ability or diligence.  Examiners go to some trouble to assess students on a finely continuous numerical scale, awarding marks or points that are designed to be added to other such marks, or otherwise manipulated in mathematically continuous ways.  The score on such a continuous numerical scale conveys far more information than classification into one of three categories.  Nevertheless, only the discontinuous categories are published.  
In a very large sample of students, the distribution of ability and prowess would normally be a bell curve with few doing very well, few doing very badly and many in between.  It might not actually be a symmetrical bell ... but it would certainly be smoothly continuous, and it would become smoother as more and more students are added in.
If, against all my expectations, it should turn out that the more students you add in, the more the distribution of exam marks approximates to a discontinuous distribution with three peaks ... it would be a fascinating result.  The awarding of First, Second and Third Class degree might then actually be justifiable.
But there is certainly no evidence for this, and it would be very surprising given everything we know about human variation.  As things are, it is clearly unfair: there is far more difference between the top of one class and the bottom of the same class, than there is between the bottom of one class and the top of the next class. It would be fairer to publish the actual marks obtained, or a rank order based upon those marks.  But the discontinuous or qualitative mind insists on forcing people into one or other discrete category.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Some culture!

I wanted to publish this rant a month ago but then decided to wait till I finished the last 3 posts which were connected. Changing course is as easy and quick for me as for a supertanker making a U-turn. I now find myself in the shoes of the parliamentarian who had to give a speech at the end of a long day full of speeches. He began by saying, 'Everything has been said but not everybody has said it.' Here are my comments about an incident that brought out the worst of India.

In the wake of the horrific Delhi rape, I had been watching with disbelief the various misogynistic statements made by leaders of various hues. I knew that this is a male chauvinist country but I had been living in a bubble and had not realised that the rot was so deep. I thought these sort of people would lie low for a while considering the massive protests but it was nothing of the sort. But after reading some quotes from Manusmriti. I am not so surprised.

The Home Minister said something to the effect that the protests had tarnished the image of the country. I would have thought that if there were no protests after such a brutal assault in the capital city at 9:30 p.m. (which is practically broad daylight), that would have tarnished the country's image. Like the BJP, the Congress too is caught up in the 'India Shining' image and wants to keep the rot carefully hidden, thinking like the mythical ostrich that burying one's' head in the sand will make unpleasant things go away.

And what about the godman's comments? I was listening to the spokesperson defending the godman on TV. What made it more intriguing was that his spokesperson was a woman. As expected, she was living in her own alternative universe of fairy tales where frogs turn into princes, defending the godman vigorously and not letting others speak. Some (but not all) turkeys will keep on voting for Christmas.If the problem of evil doesn't convince somebody about the vacuousness of religious preachings then nothing can. And will the godman's insane comments make the slightest dent in his following? Not a chance.

I was getting irritated that the panelists were keeping on appending the honorific 'ji' to the guy's name. It is a pernicious idea that people who wear the right uniform and decorate themselves with some powders are automatically entitled to respect. It is these same people who when told that religion makes people  closed minded and immune to reason, will say that religion promotes charities and gives solace to people in distress. (Here is an example of how religion hits minds for a six.)

As Stephen Fry says in this debate, it is like a burglar protesting in court that everyone is only talking about the theft and murder he committed and nobody is saying anything about the birthday card he gave to his father. I was glad that at least one government minister had the guts to say bluntly that religious leaders have 'been shown up for the frauds that they are' and speak more harshly about the political class than one normally expects from politicians.

That there is apathy in the government arms and that heinous crimes are forgotten is not surprising given that the bosses who control them are also woven from the same cloth. But there is also apathy among the general public, the recent protests notwithstanding, and it is not only in routine everyday activities. There have been many instances having much greater consequences where people have turned a blind eye.

Many people seem to be too self-centered and focused on their own activities. A common reaction seems to be to ignore the more unsavoury aspects of society as 'not my problem'. As Bryan Stephenson says in this TED talk, when we ignore the darker aspects of society, the positive and wonderful things are nonetheless implicated. This habit of not caring about what is happening around you reminds me of what Pastor Martin Niemöller said about Nazi Germany:
First they came for the Jews                    
and I did not speak out — because I was not a Jew.                                
Then they came for the communists
and I did not speak out — because I was not a communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists
and I did not speak out — because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for me —
and by then there was no one left to speak out for me
I can't digest the report which said that 64%of Indians had no doubt that their culture is the best in the world. That such a huge chunk of people think that there is no scope for improvement is worrying. I recently saw some debate in which a nationalist said that no one had yet been born in this world who can beat Indians in anything. He seemed to belong to the group of people who keep saying that everything under the sun from sliced bread on was actually invented in India and can be traced back to the Vedas or some such ancient Hindu text.

There are people who display the characteristics that Orwell noted in nationalists: 'OBSESSION. As nearly as possible, no nationalist ever thinks, talks, or writes about anything except the superiority of his own power unit." This in a country where the police treat some like royalty and  the majority like dirt; where politicians and those who wear the right uniform and make a great show of sucking up to various spooks can get away with anything while an ordinary citizen making an innocuous (and perfectly justified)comment on Facebook can get arrested within hours; where caste discrimination is still prevalent; where discrimination against females starts from the womb; where there are dismal social statistics, where 'honour' killings are defended, where there is a lot of media corruption...

It looks as if the level of brutality in society has increased. Every time I listen to TV news, I hear about horrors the likes of which I had not heard before - student stabbing teacher, classmates killing one of their own for a motorbike...I don't know whether I am getting this feeling because I don't roam around and come to know about such incidents from a few minutes of superficial TV news. I hope that is the case. (Is It Time to Treat Violence Like a Contagious Disease?)

The world is a pretty depressing place but it is better than yesterday (as Robert Krulwich indicates) but you will never know this by just watching TV news.But all that chest-beating talk of India dominating this century rings hollow if people can't roam around freely and fearlessly.

Amidst the gloom, I must add a silver lining: I am glad that I don't live in a society where guns are sold like consumer hardware.(Of all the conspiracy theories that I have heard, this one takes the cake.)

PS: The most outrageous word of the year.