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.