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: ...it 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). 

Monday, June 10, 2013

Was my education a waste? - II

All man's unhappiness derives from just one thing, not being able to stay quietly in a room. - Blaise Pascal 

Emily Dickinson  said that 'Hope' is the thing with feathers. But if you cling to it for too long,  you will fritter away your life chasing mirages. I came across the following passage in this post:
Yann Martel, author of Life of Pi, the story of a young, lone survivor of a shipwreck, beautifully captures how Americans should face our political reality:
“I had to stop hoping so much that a ship would rescue me. I should not count on outside help. Survival had to start with me. In my experience, a castaway’s worst mistake is to hope too much and do too little. Survival starts by paying attention to what is close at hand and immediate. To look out with idle hope is tantamount to dreaming one’s life away.”
Thankfully I was a victim of a college education which ensured that I did not fall for the sweet talk of various quacks and gurus selling snake oil quoting scriptures. It is amazing what all fairy tales people will believe when there is a complicated illness in the family. I got interested in reading various things that I didn't know about earlier and decided that I would rather waste my time this way  'while memory holds a seat In this distracted globe'. (Here is a touching story about a man who has lost his memory.)

I had mentioned earlier that the mother of all outlets for frustration is the process of writing this blog. The books and blogs that I read have helped me to tell my story and I have enjoyed the process of writing it. It would not have been half as interesting for me if it were not for the reading which is a direct result of my education. (It is true that education doesn't guarantee that you won't fall for gas. Something about the wiring of my brain helped me to avoid this trap.)

Come to think of it, I would not have been able to enjoy a Wodehouse were it not for the kind of education I received. He refers to Biblical stories, poetry, nursery rhymes, etc. to make his wisecracks.  I had teachers who would occasionally tell such stories and encouraged reading books unrelated to the syllabus. Were they wasting time by doing this? No. In this TED talk, J.P.Rangaswami says that information is like food. By this criterion, I am a foodie suffering from the book lovers dilemma. My sentiment is the same as that of Jefferson when he wrote to Preistley:
I thank on my knees, him who directed my early education, for having put into my possession this rich source of delight; and I would not exchange it for anything which I could then have acquired, & have not since acquired.
One of the aims of education is to equip students to keep learning after their formal education is over. I don't read about anything I studied after Std. XII but that doesn't mean that those years were wasted. I read quite a  bit about evolutionary theory which uses concepts like cost benefit analysis, utility function, path dependent process, maximising an objective function,etc. Since I was already familiar with these concepts, I could grasp the arguments quickly which sustained my interest in the topic. (Here is Paul Krugman about the similarities between evolutionary and economic theories.)

Aristotle said, "Education is an ornament in prosperity and a refuge in adversity." At present I am little more than a 'brain in a vat' and it is my education that has kept it from dissolving away. (I read somewhere that a brain is a terrible thing to waste and it is my education that has prevented this from happening.)The institutions that I have studied in have given me what Robert Krulwich calls 'The Chumbawamba Principle' in this speech which has helped me to stay in the game.

In the absence of the kind of education I received, I would have moped around the house thinking of sad songs which would not have helped anybody. And regarding the quote at the beginning of this post, education helps to address the problem. To a significant degree, you are the sum of the stories you tell yourself about yourself.

Education is not just about creating what Anthony Grayling called 'clones for a job'. In this debate, Richard Dawkins compares science to music. I think the same analogy can be used to compare education and music: a good education is like good music - it is about much more than merely giving exercise to the violinists' hands.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Was my education a waste? - I

It  has always seemed strange to me that in our endless discussions about education so little stress is laid on the pleasure of becoming an educated person, the enormous interest it adds to life. To be able to be caught up into the world of thought -- that is to be educated. -Edith Hamilton, educator and writer (1867-1963) 

People will often come home and tell Sujit, 'You must study like your father.' In the same breath, they will add, 'But anyway there is no use studying. Look at what happened to your father.' (It is interesting to note that such advice is often for other kids. When it comes to their own kids, many of the same people will have strict guidelines for academic performance.) In the initial confusion, I used to agree  with them.

When my father died when I was studying in first year engineering  in REC, Trichy (now NIT, Trichy), there was a proposal to get me a job in TELCO (now TATA Motors) where my father was working, because there was  no other working member in my family. (This was possible then; I don't think this would happen now.) If the tuition fees that I had to pay at that time was not very low, I would have discontinued my studies and taken up the job. Perhaps that is what I should have done?

I was not intending to study further after engineering. When I was working in Bajaj Auto Ltd., many folks who joined with me were preparing for something called CAT (those days we  did not have dozens of TV channels hunting for some news so I did not see headlines about the CAT exam and interviews with CAT aspirants) and I joined the bandwagon. I attempted CAT because  the tuition fee was very less at that time and I felt I could afford it. (So the ramblings in this blog are the product of a not-so-expensive education.)

Should I have worked for a longer time instead of wasting my time in further studies? If you consider the only worth of education to be to increase your earning capacity, then obviously my education was a waste. But that would be a narrow view to take. In What’s the point of a college education?, Janet Stemwedel writes about Boethius, a Roman patrician who suddenly fell from grace, and was imprisoned, tortured and killed:
Before his execution, he had a lot of time to mope. Indeed, how could he avoid wallowing in just how far he had fallen from having it all?
While in prison, Boethius wrote Consolations of Philosophy, an imagined dialogue between himself and Lady Philosophy. Here’s a synopsis:
Boethius: Boy, it really sucks to be me. I had everything and now I have nothing.
Lady Philosophy: Dude, snap out of it. The stuff that really matters is the stuff that even a sudden change of fortune can’t take from you.
A job is nice. So is political power, a fancy chariot, hangers-on. But you can have all these things and still not be happy or fulfilled. And, if your happiness depends on having such things, you’re pretty vulnerable to sudden reversals.
So how has my education helped me? As Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote, let me count the ways. Firstly, I would not have met most of the people I know now and who have been instrumental in my being able to deal with changed circumstances. One of the outcomes of studying in good institutions is the friendships that you make, relationships that endure throughout life.

I was encouraged to develop the reading habit in school and the books I have read have enabled me to while away the days and nights without getting bored stiff and this has  helped me to gradually get used to the changed circumstances. It has increased my joy-to-stuff ratio. (I heard of a POW who practised mental golf during his incarceration.By the time he was released, he had  improved his game by 6 strokes. Similarly, I have been practisinsg my straight drive and if it is not as Tendulkar's was in his prime, it is not due to want of trying.)