Wednesday, December 24, 2014

.Suresh and I - I

The Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges wrote a short story called Borges and I in which he wrote about the public and the private Borges. The public Borges is the one to whom things happen, who is in the news, in a list of professors or figures in some biographical entry. The private Borges likes ' hourglasses, maps, eighteenth-century typefaces,  etymologies, the taste of coffee and the prose of Stevenson'. Although the public Borges shares these likes, he is more put-on. Although, little by little, the private Borges will fade away and the public Borges will live on.

In many ways,I also have such public and private faces as a result of my stroke. I have been saddled with various characteristics by various people after my stroke depending on how they interpret my blinks  and because of certain characteristics I have as a result of my stroke.I think there are many versions of me floating around. I had mentioned earlier about various misunderstandings.

Sometimes when I  seem interested in watching a particular scene or song in a program that the nurse is watching, she will instantly conclude that I am a big fan of that particular actor. For eg.,  I  once kept laughing over those parts of the lyric that I could understand in a Vijay song. The nurse instantly concluded I was huge Vijay fan.  She told the physiotherapist about it.He unfortunately turned out to be a Vijay fan and started quizzing me about his movies. Since I have seen only one movie of his, the physiotherapist soon concluded that the nurse was exaggerating somewhat. I have been a fan of several actors in this way..

Sometimes, when the nurse will be watching some program and I will be lying quietly thinking of something, she  will suddenly say, 'Isn't that guy married to someone in Coimbatore? His wife owns a flat in ...'.I don't know how she got the impression that I am interested in such information because she would never have seen me watch these programs.

My expression at these times would be similar to that of Lord Emsworth when he is disturbed by a pesky relative while he is contentedly contemplating the potato munching skills of his prized pig The Empress of Blandings as she prepares to compete in the  "Fat Pigs" class at the local Shropshire Agricultural Show. I am sure you will agree with me that it is impolite to disturb a man who is enjoying the sight of his pet pig fattening itself.

I will often be told "You look handsome!" or "You look like a model!" etc., things that I was never told before my stroke! P.G. Wodehouse said in Uneasy Money, 'At the age of eleven or thereabouts women acquire a poise and an ability to handle difficult situations which a man, if he is lucky, manages to achieve somewhere in the later  seventies.' Considering my demeanour before my stroke, seventies would have been considered rather optimistic.

It seems that people are accustomed to making such flattering remarks to handicapped people ostensibly to improve their morale. Some time back I watched the Tamil movie Anbe Sivam. In it the character played by Kamal Hasan meets with a terrible accident in which he suffers grevios injuries. When he recovers, he has a grotesque face with protruding teeth, has lost the use of one hand and walks with a pronounced limp. When the nun who had nursed him back to health meets him after a long while, she says, 'Doesn't he look handsome!'

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

'Morcha organiser'

In this interview, when Ashis Nandy talked about media consultants moulding the image of politicians so that it is the way the public wants them to be,  I was reminded of a character in the novel A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry. This character had throat trouble and said that he had got it by working in 'morcha producion'. This job involved making up slogans, hiring crowds, and producing rallies or demonstrations for different political parties.He had gone into this job after being a proofreader for many years. He explains the intricacies of his job:
'Writing speeches, designing banners -all that was easy. With years of proofreading under  my belt, I knew exactly the blather and bluster favoured by professional politicians. My modus operandi was simple. I made up three lists: Candidate's Accomplishments, (real and imaginary), Accusations Against Opponent (including rumours, allegations, innuendos, and lies) and Empty Promises (the more improbable the better). Then it was merely a matter of taking various combinations of items from the three lists, throwing in some bombast, tossing in a few local references, and there it was - a brand new speech. I was a real hit with my clients.' 
'My difficulties lay in the final phase, out on the street. You see, I had spent my working life in an office, in silence, and my throat was unexcercised. Now suddenly I was yelling instructions, shouting slogans, exhorting the crowds to repeat after me. It became too much. Much too much for my underused larynx.'
When asked why he didn't let the rented crowd do the yelling for him, he said that he couldn't break out of his old habit of doing everything himself. He says:
I could not leave it to the rented crowd to do the shouting.  after all, the success of a demonstration is measured in decibels. Clever slogans and smart banners alone will not do it. So I felt I must lead by example, employ my voice enthusiastically, volley and thunder, beseech the heavens, curse the forces of evil, shriek the praises of the benefactor - bellow and clamour and cry and cheer till victory was mine!'
I had not heard the term 'morcha production' before reading this book. Perhaps the folks involved in morcha production have more respectable, corporatised designations now like media consultant or member of the communication cell or, in these days of popularity of the war metaphor, he or she may be a member of the 'war room'.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Drowning in the trivial - III

Remember the third slogan of the Party in George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-four? IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH.That appears to be the new mantra. People may not know the difference between an Assembly and General election, they may not be able to locate a major Indian city on a map (eg. for Ahmedabad, there may be guesses like, 'Is it in Orissa, Bihar, Punjab...?), may not know that Sherlock Holmes is a character and not an author...(I am talking of graduates.) One Std. XII boy was asked in a TV program whether he had ever heard the name 'Charles Darwin' and the answer was 'No'.

I saw an ad which stated that the most important reason for having a successful career is good looks! People will keep asking me what diet I am on to get a fair skin. The simple explanation never seems to occur to them that I don't roam in the sun collecting sunburns, dust and grime. A Tamil song says, 'Black is my favorite colour', but nobody else seems to say so. The level of narcissism keeps increasing. There are many people who don't wear helmets when driving a two-wheeler because it will spoil their hairstyle! People are never satisfied with the number of dresses they have, weddings become more garish, the bride keeps staggering under increasing amounts of jewellery... I saw an ad in which a model sees a pimple on her cheek and cries out, 'My life will be ruined!' Methinks the lady protests too much.

Many well-heeled people seem to be divorced from reality. It is as if uncomfortable facts like infant mortality, chronic hunger, female foeticide, etc don't exist. I once saw a program about e-commerce. One speaker said that the worst punishment you can give to a teen these days is to impose a 'no-screen day' on them. Apparently this means that they can't access any social media that day. That is the worst punishment? Really? And how many kids are there like that?

In The Demon-Haunted World, Carl Sagan writes that 63% of American adults think dinosaurs lived with humans, half don't know that the Earth goes around the Sun and takes a year to do it, that some of his students in his undergraduate classes at Cornell don't know that the Sun is star. Bemoaning the preponderance of pseudoscience and psychic explanations on TV, Carl Sagan writes in The Demon-Haunted world:
In American polls in the early 1990s,two-thirds of all adults had no idea what the "information superhighway" was; 42% didn't know where Japan is; and 38% were ignorant of the term "holocaust". But the proportion was in the high 90s who had heard of the Menendez, Bobbit, and O.J. Simpson criminal cases; 99% had heard that the singer Michael Jackson had allegedly sexually molested a  boy.The United States may be the best-entertained nation on Earth, but a steep price is being paid.
Don't worry, America. India will catch up soon. I know that a science tuition teacher didn't know that stars produce their own light. Now she knows! Children here are not taught to think.  By the time they are in about Std VIII or Std. IX, they stop playing. They will be running from tuition to tuition memorising the same things over and over again thus strengthening their sphexishness or uncomprehending competence.  I get the uncomfortable image of kids in madrassas memorising verses from the Koran.The only difference seems to be that they are not memorising a religious book.

Sturgeon's law states that ninety percent of everything is crap. Unfortunately fluff and glitz will generally win because they require less bandwidth for human beings to appreciate them. A type of Gresham's law works in acquiring information with the bad driving out the good. People actually seem to think that the bromides that glamorous models coo like 'It doesn't matter where you come from as long as you believe in yourself' is true. The are seduced into believing that life is like an Amitabh Bachchan movie.

Politicians and marketers keep saying that people are getting 'more aspirational'. It increasingly seems to mean that people are becoming shallower. They seem to think that the raison d'être of life is to buy the next fancy gadget available in the market. I saw a clip in which Shah Rukh Khan said, 'I love the commercialisation of life. I am willing to sell my soul.' People who should know better buy into the catchy statements of politicians who follow a strategy explained by Obama in this article:
 “Nothing comes to my desk that is perfectly solvable,” Obama said at one point. “Otherwise, someone else would have solved it. So you wind up dealing with probabilities. Any given decision you make you’ll wind up with a 30 to 40 percent chance that it isn’t going to work. You have to own that and feel comfortable with the way you made the decision. You can’t be paralyzed by the fact that it might not work out.” On top of all of this, after you have made your decision, you need to feign total certainty about it. People being led do not want to think probabilistically.
 For eg. the BJP is very good in coining catchy slogans like 'Minimum government maximum governance', 'zero defect, zero efffect', etc., but translating them into reality is a complex, long drawn out process filled with false starts and disappointments. Or take the obvious idea that improving and widening roads will reduce traffic snarls. Only that, it is not so obvious due to what economists call 'induced demand'. But people easily buy into these statements without appreciating their complexities.

PS: I was pleasantly surprised to see these videos of Ramachandra Guha which had longish discussions with a young audience. The audience had read books and thought about issues beyond the narrow confines of their careers.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Drowning in the trivial - II

With Reliance taking over Network 18 which includes TV channels like CNBC TV18, CNN-IBN and CNN Awz, the media scene in India looks worrying. Carl Sagan says in The Demon-Haunted World:
I hope no one will consider me unduly cynical if I assert that a good first order model of how commercial and public television works is simply this: Money is everything. In prime time, a single rating point difference is worth millions of dollars in advertising....the content of commercial programming is in the course of a steep, long-term dumbing down.
Much the same can be said about TV in India. In the last IPL, there was a match-fixing controversy and there was some doubt over whether the final will be held. I normally don't watch IPL but this time I decided to watch the pre-show before the final to see what will be said about the controversy. (I am often told that I am wasting my time watching Test cricket. I never fail to be amused by the thought that I seem to have wasted a lot less time than most of those who are smitten by T20 cricket.) With the King of Hype, Navjot Singh Sidhu in full cry, I needn't have bothered.

There were the usual flashing lights, music, jokes that had to be advertised as such and raucous laughter. It seemed as if the people were living in an alternate reality. If an alien had come and watched the program it would have thought that people had nothing better to do than watch the King of Hype in hyperactive mode. In one program, a senior executive of IPL was asked whether there was too much cricket. He replied, 'There is never too much of cricket.' As Upton Sinclair said, 'It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.'

And now that many sports have IPL-style matches, it will keep everyone busy all year with the menfolk watching sport and the women watching serials. A humorous old man told me that he had stopped going to people's houses after 6 p.m. because they will be glued to the idiot box. He said that beneath their welcoming smiles they may be thinking, 'What a time for this old man to come and pester us!' It is ironical but I seem to remember watching more interesting programs in my neighbours' houses when I didn't have a TV and DD was the only game in town.

Before my stroke, I had a mental frame whereby even though I was not religious, I was deferential to religion. (In this video, Simon Singh gives a good demonstration of mental frames.) The message of respecting religion is constantly reinforced in movies, TV programs, newspapers, conversations etc. This mental frame got shattered only some years after my stroke after the full blast of the weirdness hit me. Earlier, I was hesitant to advertise the fact that I am an atheist. Now, I don't give a damn.

Most people have some irrational behavior or the other which they often indulge in especially when under some sort of pressure. It will be like the story of Neils Bohr. A visitor to his house was surprised to find a horseshoe above the front doorway. Tradition asserts that a horseshoe brings luck when placed over a door.  He expressed incredulity that a man of science could possibly be swayed by a simple-minded folk belief. The physicist replied: 'Of course I don’t believe in it, but I understand it brings you luck, whether you believe in it or not.'

But what I encounter often is of a different order. A Maths teacher said that nothing is a coincidence, everything is the work of God. Sujit was told that he should keep an empty place next to him while writing examinations where Lord Ganapati can sit. Apparently, the birth of the Kauravas is evidence for the existence of stem cell technology in Mahabharata times. I was told that Modi recites some mantras everyday before dawn which makes him invincible in any argument. I was told that a college in Puttaparti run by Sai Baba gave admission to a student because he said, 'I knew Baba from the time I was in the womb!' And this was presented as evidence of how great the college was! Spinoza's God, indeed!

The majority of people from the PM down have strange beliefs - politicians, bureaucrats, army commanders, bank officers etc. are all in the same boat.  Many well-heeled people take great pride in flaunting their religiosity and spending ostentatiously for religious events. When the Minister for Water Resources, Uma Bharati, was asked about mixing science and mythology, she said that in India, both were the same. Thanks for the clarification, ma'am. How can anybody doubt that this century belongs to India?! Considering the amount of mental baggage that people carry, if I was a believer, I would have required an Electric Monk described by Douglas Adams in Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency:
The Electric Monk was a labour-saving device, like a dishwasher or a video recorder. Dishwashers washed tedious dishes for you, thus saving you the bother of washing them yourself; video recorders watched tedious television for you, thus saving you the bother of looking at it yourself; Electric Monks believed things for you, thus saving you what was becoming an increasingly onerous task, that of believing all the things the world expected you to believe.
The man from the Monk shop...pointed out that the new improved Monk Plus models were twice as powerful, had an entirely new multitasking Negative Capability feature that allowed them to hold up to sixteen entirely different and contradictory ideas in memory simultaneously without generating any irritating system errors, were twice as fast and and at least three times as glib, and you could have a whole new one for less than the cost of replacing the motherboard of the old model.
Being an irrational atheist is good enough for me. I had come to the conclusion long ago that talking to people with such beliefs would be a waste of time especially for me.It be like talking to the deaf person in the following episode. An old man I knew who was hard of hearing was going to Palakkad in a car. A friend of his was travelling in another car in the opposite direction and when they crossed each other they slowed down for a brief conversation. The friend asked, 'Are you going to Palakkad?' The old man replied, 'No, no. I am going to Palakkad.'

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Drowning in the trivial - I

In You Can't Read This Book: Censorship in an Age of Freedom, Nick Cohen mentions something that I have been mulling over for a while - the explosion and encouragement of triviality. I have written about it earlier. The Net gives writers new tools but they may find that the public that they are trying to influence may be diverted by other attractions. In George Orwell's dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-four, the Party controlled the masses with prolefeed - the rubbishy entertainment and spurious news which the Party handed out to the masses.

The Web has simultaneously made it easy to write and easy for their efforts to be ignored. They can produce serious content but find that their target audience is seduced by cheap entertainment. The Web and TV have the risk of making people blind to the vital issues of the day.A character in Nineteen Eighty-four who is involved in editing the Dictionary of Newspeak says, 'The whole climate of thought will be different. In fact there will be no thought, as we understand it now. Orthodoxy means not thinking -- not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness.'  Cohen writes:
Evgeny Morozov, the most bracing critic of modern optimism, emphasises the anaesthetising effects of perpetual amusement.  People use new means of communication not to engage in political activism, but to find entertainment. The Net is no exception, and has increased the opportunities for the masses to find pleasing diversions to a level that no one had previously imagined possible.  In Russia, China, Vietnam and the other formerly puritan communist countries, the decision by the new market-oriented regimes to allow Western-style media to provide high-quality escapism, sport, dating and gossip sites was a smart move that made their control of the masses more effective.
Cohen says that in Belarus, Morozov discovered that some sites offered free downloads of pirated movies and music. The authoritarian government could have easily stopped this but he feels that they prefer to ignore and may even be encouraging them. The free market in India also encourages fluff. If you ask network executives, they will say, 'That is what people want.' Apparently, many newspapers have only one rural correspondent but 50 correspondents will cover a fashion show.

The  morning news bulletin of NDTV 24*7 often has 15 minutes of national and international news and 15 minutes of entertainment news - movies, music videos, affairs of celebrities, the fashion show that 'everyone is talking about', etc. A nauseating Shah Rukh Khan ad about NDTV Prime that keeps being aired tells you the recipe for creating a zombie - 'work hard, play hard'. In other words, slog in office during the day and flop in front of the TV till you sleep.

Channels keep flashing 'Just in', 'Breaking news', 'Flash news', etc. which will generally be about irrelevant news eg. 'PM arrives at CII meet venue' or 'Voting begins in Maharashtra'. They will ask viewers to vote on some issue and say '75% of the people support...'. People watching an  English language channel in India (or any particular language) cannot be said to represent the whole of India. (And for all you know, 10 people may have voted.)

In TV debates like 'We the People' (Rammachandra Guha called it 'We the People of South Delhi), or Big Fight, the moderator keeps butting in and not allowing the speakers to speak. In these days of soundbite TV, only short, staccato sentences are acceptable. In sporting events, there will be a 'Twitter battle' where the most inane questions will be asked eg., 'Will KKR score more than 50 runs in power play?' How does it matter if you declare that 'CSK is winning the Twitter battle'?

Book are not looked at as another source of entertainment. They are rather viewed as part of studies and therefore avoided, a view that is largely due to the method of teaching that is prevalent here. I grew up before  satellite TV, Internet  and mobile phones came on the scene (I assure you there was such a time) so books were always a major pass time for me. I will often be asked, '"What were you 'studying' today"? Book reading is not a preferred activity elsewhere too as shown by Michael Sandel in What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets:
A number of online companies now buy gift cards for cash (at a price lower than their face value) and resell them.  So, for example, a company called Plastic Jungle will buy your $100 Home Depot gift card for $80 and then resell it for $93. The discount rate varies according to the popularity of the store.  For a $100 gift card from Walmart or Target, Plastic Jungle will pay $91. A $100 card from Barnes & Noble, sadly, yields only $77, slightly less than Burger King ($79).
Regarding medical matters, people believe anything they read on the Web, hear on TV or what anybody tells them.  Not being connected to the medical profession in any way doesn't disqualify you from being an expert on medical matters.  Reliance on myths and quacks has real world consequences - people delay treatments or they don't try to find more effective treatments, I don't think it is a coincidence that India has a huge number of people with various diseases and disabilities while there are also large numbers of people who can cure anything.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Why keep blogging? - II

There is  another reason why I keep blogging.  But for that I have to  first tell you why Ramachandra Guha thinks India is a 50% democracy. In this talk, he says that India is the world's most unnatural country and the most unlikely democracy. It was thought that a country should have one language and one religion while India is a majority Hindu country that has more Muslims than Pakistan and more Christians than Australia and a multiplicity of languages many of which have their own script and rich literary tradition.

Both before and after Independence many foreigners have doubted whether India will survive as one country. After every corruption scandal, natural disaster like flood or earthquake or after every failure of an institution doubts will crop up about Indian democracy. But India has not Balkanised. Military rule has not happened. As a person from Indonesia remarked in the talk I linked to earlier, 'You at least have General elections. We have elections of Generals.'

A personal note on elections: At the time of every election, I can hear the servant of the day say how much different parties will pay them for their votes. (Both DMK and AIADMK are equally culpable. Probably the other parties don't pay because they don't have a chance of winning. Some say that they will take money from both parties and vote for the party of their choice.) Prior to the last General Election,I heard that there was an ad in some Tamil newspaper offering a certain sum of money to anyone willing to cut off the finger on which the voting mark is put so that the person could vote a second time.  I don't know if anyone took up the offer. If this sort of thing happens in Tamil Nadu, which is one of the better governed states in India, one can imagine what may be happening in many other parts of the country.Ramachandra Guha writes in India after Gandhi:
Is India a proper democracy or a sham one? When asked this question, I usually turn for recourse to an immortal line of the great Hindi comic actor Johnny Walker. In a film where he plays the hero"s sidekick, Walker answers every query with the remark: 'Boss, phipty-phipty'. When asked what prospect he has of marrying the girl he so deeply loves, or of getting the job he so dearly desires, the sidekick tells the boss that the chances are roughly even, 50 per cent of success, or 50 per cent of failure.
Is India a democracy, then? The answer is well, phipty-phipty. It mostly is when it comes to holding elections and permitting freedom of movement and expression.  It mostly is not when it comes to the functioning of politicians and political institutions. However, that India is even a 50 per cent democracy flies in the face of tradition, history and the conventional wisdom. 
My life after the stroke can also be said to be phifty-phifty. A major reason for it being 50% and not lower, apart from the support of family and friends, is the blog. It gives me something to do and keeps me out of everyone's hair. There were 10 years before the blog which I managed to get through and I am not eager to revisit that period.

One conversation between Jaya and a physiotherapist shows the importance of the blog. On seeing me move my head this way and that while using the neuro headset, the physiotherapist asked, 'Doesn't his neck start paining?' Jaya replied, 'If he doesn't type, it will start paining!' As this hindi song says, life must go on and the blog helps in this process. I saw a quote by Nietzche in Susan Sontag's essay, AIDS as a Metaphor which sums up the role of the blog:

Thinking about illness! - To calm the imagination of the invalid, so that at least he should not, as hitherto, have to suffer more from thinking about his illness than from the illness itself- that, I think, would be something! It would be a great deal!

Monday, November 3, 2014

Why keep blogging? - I

In Fermat's Last Theorem, Simon Singh quotes from a book by the mathematician, G.H. Hardy:
I will only say that if a chess problem is, in the crude sense, 'useless', then that is equally true of most of the best mathematics... I have never done anything 'useful'. No discovery of mine has made, or is likely to make, directly or indirectly, for good or ill, the least difference to the amenity of the world.  Judged by all practical standards, the value of my mathematical life is nil; and outside mathematics it is trivial anyhow.  I have just one chance of escaping a verdict of complete triviality, that I may be judged to have created something worth creating.  And that I have created something is undeniable: the question is about its value.
After my stroke, I was also similarly engaged in useless activities, reading about evolution, human irrationality, etc. (although I was not creating anything). I gradually found that I was better at doing these useless activities than I had been in doing any useful activities earlier. Then someone suggested that I start a blog. I started writing tentatively and then with more confidence. The blogging went on for longer than I had expected and I also started writing about the books that I read, including about topics not directly connected to my stroke.

Dan Dennett has written a book called Intuition Pumps And Other Tools for Thinking. As you would have guessed, it is about Intuition Pumps And Other tools for thinking. It is a heavy book. Very heavy - and I am not referring to its  bulk. (But maybe I am underestimating you and  you may find it suitable for casual reading.) I will quote from a relatively easy section of  the book:
In his excellent book on Indian street magic, Net of Magic: Wonders and Deceptions in India, Lee Siegel writes,  
"I'm writing a book on magic," I explain, and I'm asked, "Real magic?" By real magic people mean miracles, thaumaturgical acts, and supernatural powers."No," I answer: "Conjuring tricks, not real magic." Real magic, in other words, refers to the magic that is not real, while the magic that is real, that can actually be done, is not real magic.
A couple of years back, I got something that would have been considered "real magic" a few decades back - a neuro headset with which I could type on my own. As Arthur C. Clarke said, 'Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.' This eased the process of typing a bit and my posts got longer. I will read something and think, 'How can I not tell you about this? 'Lately, I have been blogging more about other things than about my stroke. (You can write only so much about a guy who can't eat, walk or talk without it becoming an outstanding bore.) But every so often, the typing will feel tedious and I will feel like making a final post titled 'So long and thanks for all the fish'  and calling it a day.

At such times, I will remember the ending of this splendid speech by Robert Sapolsky to Stanford students. He tells the story of a nun who spends all her time ministering to prisoners on the death row of a particular prison. These are some of the most horrible people on earth so naturally she is always asked how she is able to  do such a thing. She always replies, 'The more unforgivable the act, the more you must try to forgive it; the more unlovable the person, the more you must find the means of loving him.' He tells the students to adopt a similar attitude (I have deleted some words from the speech to make it read better in print):

You guys, as of tomorrow around noon, are officially educated. And as part of your education, what has happened is that, you have learnt something about the ways of the world, how things work, you have learnt the word 'realpolitik', you have your eyes opened up, you have wised up and one of things that happens when you have wised up enough is, you reach a very clear conclusion that, at the end of the day, it is really impossible for one person to make a difference. The more clear it is that it is impossible for you to make a difference and  make the world  better, the more you must. You guys are educated, you are privileged, you are well connected, you are enormously lucky if you are sitting here at this juncture and thus what that means is that there is nobody out there in better position to be able to sustain a  contradiction like this for your entire life and use it as a more moral imperative. So do it and good luck and have good lives in the process.

And what happens?  I begin to think that a post on Fermat's Last Theorem is just what the doctor ordered for you to feel better about the world, to help take your mind off those nasty sales targets or that stressful presentation to your boss about how to make your product move up the value chain i.e how to charge more for it.

And so it goes.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Some interesting properties of numbers

In  Fermat's Last Theorem, Simon Singh writes about some interesting patterns among numbers:

  1. Perfect numbers - Numbers whose divisors add up to the number itself. Eg.6 has divisors 1, 2 and 3 which add up to 6. The next perfect number is 28. If the sum of the divisors is more than the number, Pythagoras called it an 'excessive' number and if the divisors added up to less than the number, he called it 'defecttive'.
  2. Friendly numbers or amicable numbers are closely related to perfect numbers.They are pairs of numbers such that each number is the sum of the divisors of the other number. For eg. 220 and 284 are friendly numbers. 220 is the sum of the  divisors of 284 (1, 2 4 71 and 142). 284 is the sum of the divisors of 220 (1, 2, 4, 5,10, 11, 20, 22, 44, 55and 110). Fermat discovered 17,296 and 18,416. Descartes discovered a third pair (9,363,584 and 9,437,056). Leonhard Euler discovered 62 pairs. Strangely,they all had missed a much smaller pair which was discovered by a 16 year old Italian - 1184 and 1210.
  3. Sociable numbers are 3 or more numbers which  form a closed loop. Consider the loop of five numbers: 12,496; 14,288; 15,472; 14,536; 14,264. The divisors of the first number add up to the second, the divisors of the second add up to the third, the divisors of the third add up to the fourth, the divisors of the fourth add up to the fifth, and the divisors of the fifth add up to the first.
  4. Fermat proved that 26 is the only number sandwiched between a square and a cube (between 25=52  and 27= 33)
  5. All prime numbers (except 2) can be placed in two categories: those  which can be written as 4n + 1 and those which can be written as 4n - 1 where n equals some number.Thus 13 is in the former group (4*3 + 1) while 19 is in the latter  group (4*5 - 1). Fermat's prime theorem claimed that the first type of primes were always the sum of two squares while the second type could never be written in this way. The theorem was proved by Euler almost a century after Fermat's death.

PS: Since I will rarely do any maths related posts (I know that you are dreadfully disappointed but as a wise philosopher of yore said, you can't always get what you want) I am generally giving a couple of links about maths that I had saved:

  1. An excellant series in NYT by Steven Strogatz on The Elements of Math
  2. A talk by Simon Singh about "The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Fermat's last theorem - III

You thought you had escaped a bad dream with the last post, didn't you? But the title of this  post would have revealed to you that, like George Bush, you were a bit hasty in arriving at the conclusion that the mission had been accomplished.

Where we last left him, Andrew Wiles had become a celebrity but the peer review process was only beginning. This is a process that all scientific works have to go through before being accepted as correct. Wiles had to submit a complete manuscript to a leading journal.whose editor will then choose a team of experts who will then examine the proof line by line. The proof was so complicated that 6 referees were appointed with each given responsibility for one section of the proof. The process took a few months.

At first all the problems were minor and Wiles sorted them out quickly but there was one 'little problem'. And you are right - it had  to do with the Kolyvagin-Flach method which he had used in the proof. No matter how hard he tried he couldn't fix the problem. If he fixed the problem in one place,another problem cropped up somewhere else. The issue dragged on for months. (But tell me how did you guess it was the Kolyvagin-Flach method?)

Rumours started flying in the mathematical community - perhaps this was another in the long line of failed proofs for Fermat's Last Theorem. Wiles wanted to work in isolation and concentrate completely on the problem but this was not possible since he had become a celebrity. There was pressure on him to publish the incomplete proof so that someone else could try to correct the flaw but this would have meant the end of a childhood dream.

In desperation he took on a collaborator and struggled on for a while but the problem seemed intractable. He was on the verge of giving up when  one day in Sept. 1994, over an year after his initial presentation, he had an inspiration - all he had to do  to make the Kolyvagin-Flach method work was to use it in conjunction with the Iwasawa theory! Aren't you amazed by the man's brilliance? Simon Singh gives the views of a mathematician on the final 130 page proof in Fermat's  Last Theorem :
'I think that if you were lost on  a desert island and you had only this manuscript then you would have a lot of food for thought. You would see all the current ideas of number theory. You turn to a page and there is a brief appearance of some fundamental theorem by Deligne and then you turn to another page and in some incidental way there is a theorem by Helleguarch - all of these things are just called into play and used for a moment before going on to the next idea.'
Oh....Ah.. That Sounds Very Interesting. (As Douglas Adams said in Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency , "Capital letters were always the best way of dealing with things you didn't have a good answer to.") But... er, can I exchange it for a Wodehouse? Much obliged.

But the question is, was Wiles' solution the same as Fermat's? It couldn't have been because Wiles' proof involved 20th century mathematics which had been unavailable to Fermat so Fermat's proof, if it existed, must have been simpler.

Believe it or not, I am through with Fermat's Last Theorem. Now you can safely breathe a sigh of relief, grab a restorative  drink and check Facebook.

PS: As a reward for your patience, here is a bit of nonsense math.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Fermat's last theorem - II

Computers had been used to check Fermat's Last  Theorem (Fermat's Last Theorem states that xn + yn =  zn    has no whole number solutions for x, y and z when n > 2) for the first trillion numbers and it had proved to be true. For most of us this would have been enough but mathematicians are a finicky lot. There still remained infinite numbers to be checked so the brute force of a computer could never be used to prove the theorem. Simon Singh relates a story in Fermat's Last Theorem to illustrate mathematicians'penchant for exactness:
An astronomer, a physicist and a mathematician (it is said) were holidaying in Scotland. Glancing from a train window, they observed a black sheep in the middle of a field. 'How interesting,' observed the astronomer, 'all Scottish sheep are black!' To which the physicist responded, 'No, no! Some Scottish sheep are black!' The mathematician gazed heavenward in supplication, and then intoned, 'In Scotland there exists at least one field, containing at least one sheep, at least one side of which is black.'
Enter Andrew Wiles. As a 10 year old he saw the theorem in a library book and was fascinated by it. (You would have thought that 10 year olds had other things to do but there it is.) That fascination became an obsession for the next 30 years before he finally cracked it. For the last 7 years, he shut himself off from the rest of the world to focus solely on the problem. Nobody in the world knew what he was doing. This was highly unusual in the field  of mathematics where people frequently checked new ideas with each other.

Wiles' proof involved deadly beasts like elliptic equations, modular forms, L-functions, Taniyama-Shimura conjecture etc. I know you want to know more about these things but since I know only their names and nothing else, I must respectfully avoid throwing any light on them. Browning said that one's reach should be beyond one's grasp or what is heaven for? I am sure he meant well but I have the unfortunate tendency of steering well clear of things that are way beyond my reach. What to do, I am like that only (sic). A thousand apologies!

But I know that you will not let me live in peace till I give you some idea of how he went about his quest so here is my honest effort. Elliptic equations and modular forms are two widely separated areas of mathematics that didn't seem to have any obvious connection with each other like say, probability and calculus. Then the Taniyama-Shimura conjecture was proposed out of blue stating that thees two forms were actually two different manifestations of the same underlying property. Wherever it was checked, it proved to be true but it remained a conjecture. It faced the same problem that Fermat had: how to check for infinite possibilities?

It was then shown that if Taniyama-Shimura was right then Fermat was right i.e. either both were right or both were wrong. So Wiles decided to try to prove Taniyama-Shimura. If he could do that then Fermat was right by default. During the final stages of the proof he began to wonder if he was on the right right track. He decided to confide in another mathematician, Nick Katz. They decided they would design a lecture course for graduate students which Katz would also attend and they would check the calculations. Simon Singh writes:
'So Andrew announced this lecture course called "Calculations on Elliptic Curves",' recalls Katz with with a sly smile, 'which is a completely innocuous title -it could mean anything. He didn't mention Fermat, he didn't mention Taniyama-Shimura, he just started by diving right into doing technical calculations. There was no way in the world that anyone could have guessed what it was really about. It was done in such a way that unless you knew what this was for,then the calculations would just seem incredibly technical and tedious. And when you don't know what the mathematics is for, it's impossible to follow it. It's pretty hard to follow it even when you do know what it's for. Anyway, one by one the graduate students just drifted away and after a few weeks I was the only person left in the audience.'
After some more time and a few more steps (sounds simple, doesn't it?) Wiles was ready with the proof. He decided to announce it at the Isaac Newton Institute in Cambridge during a workshop called 'L-functions and Arithmetic' where he was slated to give 3 lectures called 'Modular Forms, Elliptic Curves and Galois Representations' (there are people who go to such conferences and attend such lectures) which was later called 'The Lecture of the Century'.  There were rumours circulating that some big result was going to be presented but Wiles didn't let on.

After the first 2 lectures the audience was still not sure whether he would actually come up with a big result. Finally towards end of the 3rd lecture he read out the proof, wrote up Fermat's Last theorem and said, "I think I'll stop here." And then the audience burst into applause - he had solved a 350 year old problem. E-mails were flying and soon newspapers, TV crews and science reporters descended upon the institute wanting to interview the 'greatest mathematician of the century'. He had become a celebrity. Simon Singh writes:
This was the first time that mathematics had hit the headlines since Yoichi Miyaoka announced his so-called proof in 1988: the only difference this time was that there was twice as much coverage and nobody expressed any doubt over the calculation. Overnight Wiles became the most famous , in fact the only famous, mathematician in the world, and People magazine even listed him among 'The 25 most intriguing people of the year' along with Princess Diana and Oprah Winfrey. The ultimate accolade came from an international clothing chain who asked the mild-mannered genius to endorse their new range of menswear.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Fermat's Last Theorem - I

Hang on. Don't give up so soon. Take heart from this feisty droplet. In a devastating book review, Peter Medawar wrote:
Just as compulsory primary education created a market catered for by cheap dailies and weeklies, so the spread of secondary and latterly tertiary education has created a large population of people, often with well-developed literary and scholarly tastes, who have been educated far beyond their capacity to undertake analytical thought.
I have been secretly fearing such a withering comment given my  penchant for indulging in sesquipedalianism. Given the title of this post, you have another reason for sending me such colourful remarks especially as there are some equations to follow. That gives me an excuse for a digression. It is just to tell you that God resides in equations so you better know something about them. As Richard Dawkins said in Unweaving the Rainbow, "What is this life if, full of stress, we have no freedom to digress.."

Apparently, once at the court of Catherine the Great, Euler met a French philosopher named Denis Diderot. Diderot was a convinced atheist, and was trying to convince the Russians into atheism also. Catherine was very annoyed by this and she asked for Euler's help. Euler thought about it and when he began a theological discussion with Diderot, he said: " (a+ bn)/n = x,   therefore God exists. Comment." Diderot was said to know almost nothing about algebra, and therefore returned to Paris.

End of digression. I would not have known much about Fermat's Last Theorem if Simon Singh had not been sued by the British Chiropractic Association. (Here is a talk by Simon Singh  where he gives some background about the problem. If for nothing else, watch the video for his hair style. Isn't it cool?) While checking out who Simon Singh is, I found out that he had written a book about Fermat's Last Theorem which I thought I will read. But as so often happens, it was a few years before I finally read it.

You must be wondering why I wanted to read about this of all things. The mathematician E.C. Titchmarsh once said, 'It can be of no practical use to know that pi is irrational, but if we can know, it surely would be intolerable not to know.'It is just a matter of curiosity and challenge. It is like the guy who was asked why he wanted to climb Everest. He replied, "Because it is there." The book is written for a lay audience so I thought maybe I can follow it.

Enough of my ramblings and on to Fermat's Last Theorem which is what I know you have been waiting so patiently for.  But first I have to tell you a fundamental idea about equations which I heard in a talk by Lawrence Krauss. I urge you all to remember it come what may:

L.H.S. = R.H.S.

Now that we are all clear about this idea, we will move on to an equation which you may have heard about somewhere: Pythagoras' Theorem. It states that the square of the hypotenuse (the side opposite the right angle) is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides. In algebraic terms, a² + b² = c² where c is the hypotenuse while a and b are the legs of the triangle. This equation has an infinite number of solutions eg  3² + 4² = 5² or 5² + 12² = 13²

Fermat's Last Theorem states that in an equation of similar form, if the power is more than 2, the equation will have no whole number solutions i.e. If n is a whole number which is higher than 2 (like 3, 4, 5, 6.....), then the equation  xn + yn =  zn     has no whole number solutions when x, y and z are natural numbers (positive whole numbers (integers) or 'counting numbers' such as 1, 2, 3....). This means that there are no natural numbers x, y and z for which this equation is true i.e., the values on both sides can never be the same. What caught mathematicians' attention was that in the margin of the book where he wrote the theorem, Fermat wrote
I have discovered a truly remarkable proof which this margin is too small to contain.
That kept mathematicians busy for 300 years after his death in 1665. The brightest minds around the world struggled over the problem and some breakthroughs were achieved but a complete solution remained elusive. (As Simon Singh says in this TED talk, it even appeared in The Simpsons.)  Despite large prizes being offered for a solution, Fermat's Last Theorem remained unsolved. It has the dubious distinction of being the theorem with the largest number of published false proofs. (Of course there is always the possibility that some Hindu zealot might claim that it had already been proved in the Vedic period.)

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Startle reflex

Startle reflex is a defensive response to sudden or threatening stimuli, Sometimes when I am concentrating on a book or deep in thought about something (one of the iconic scientific images is Darwin's words 'I think' scribbled beside a tree-diagram;  my thoughts won't be so deep), if someone suddenly calls out to me, I will give a start as if a bomb has just gone off beside me. The sound won't be close to these sounds in intensity. (According to this interesting Radiolab podcast, hearing is our fastest sense.) In Laughing Gas by P.G. Wodehouse, the protagonist says:
I remember once, when a kid - from what motive I cannot recall, but no doubt in a spirit of clean fun - hiding in a sort of alcove on the main staircase at Biddleford Castle and saying 'Boo!'to a butler who was coming up with a tray containing a decanter , a syphon, and glasses. Biddleford is popularly supposed to be haunted by a Wailing lady,and the first time the butler touched the ground was when he came up against a tiger-skin rug in the hall two flights down. 
My reaction to an unexpected sound would also be as undignified as that of the unfortunate butler. My heart would jump up higher than Wordsworth's did when he saw a rainbow. It  will almost 'killofy my heart' as Epifina the bad-tempered great-grand mother of Salman Rushdie's The Moor's Last Sigh would have said. Sujit used do this often when he was smaller but he would then overdo it so the element of surprise is lost and my reactions will become normal.

A similar thing happens when slightly cold water falls on me. Sponging or any cleaning on my body is always done with lukewarm water - water that is in the Goldilocks zone: neither too hot nor too cold. I have got used to this so when normal tap water falls on me, I give a start as if ice-cold water has fallen on me.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014


In some situations, small changes stop having small effects and result in sudden qualitative changes called phase transitions. For eg., the temperature of a solid keeps increasing as you keep heating it but after a point, if you supply it with a little more heat, the crystalline structure of the solid collapses and the molecules start slipping and flowing around each other i.e. it starts melting.

Phase transitions need not occur only in chemistry. They can occur in social systems too like spreading of fads and fashions, speculative bubbles, stock market crashes, etc. The occurrence of my stroke can also be described as a phase transition. One moment I was like millions of others preparing to go  to office and from a moment later, I was unable to scratch my nose on my own. Over time, I have developed a healthy respect for itching like Ogden Nash who said:
I’m greatly attached to Barbara Fritchy; 
I bet she scratched when she was itchy.
When my nose itches, I twitch my nose and surrounding areas (part of it is involuntary) which is the signal to Jaya about what the problem is. Over time this has  become the signal for any kind of itching in any place. Through trial and error, Jaya will find out the exact spot. I am usually given head bath about once a week. By the end of that period, my head will start itching which is signal for my next head bath. At this time if my head is scratched, it feels divine. There is actually a word for the part of the body where one cannot reach to scratch.

It is not surprising that strange itching problems catch my eye. There is an article by Atul Gawande where he writes about a phantom itch:                                                                                                            
“Scratching is one of the sweetest gratifications of nature, and as ready at hand as any,” Montaigne wrote. “But repentance follows too annoyingly close at its heels.” For M., certainly, it did: the itching was so torturous, and the area so numb, that her scratching began to go through the skin. At a later office visit, her doctor found a silver-dollar-size patch of scalp where skin had been replaced by scab. M. tried bandaging her head, wearing caps to bed. But her fingernails would always find a way to her flesh, especially while she slept.
One morning, after she was awakened by her bedside alarm, she sat up and, she recalled, “this fluid came down my face, this greenish liquid.” She pressed a square of gauze to her head and went to see her doctor again. M. showed the doctor the fluid on the dressing. The doctor looked closely at the wound. She shined a light on it and in M.’s eyes. Then she walked out of the room and called an ambulance. Only in the Emergency Department at Massachusetts General Hospital, after the doctors started swarming, and one told her she needed surgery now, did M. learn what had happened. She had scratched through her skull during the night—and all the way into her brain.
I didn't know you could scratch past your skull  into your brain! Then there is an itch which  occurs when you run.  And what about Morgellons syndrome?

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Tolerance of dissenting opinions- II

In India the choice could never be between chaos and stability, but between manageable and unmanageable  chaos, between humane and inhuman anarchy, and between tolerable and intolerable disorder. - Ashis Nandy, sociologist 

In the years after Independence, the civil service  was shielded from politics so promotions, transfers and the like were not dependant on whether you please your political masters. Post retirement sinecures were not dangled before them as inducements to toe the line. These days, almost  the first action of any  government is to transfer bureaucrats perceived to be loyal to the previous government and appoint their own favorites. If all top decision makers think similarly, there is a problem. (The same thing happens in corporates where a new CEO surrounds himself with yes-men and refers to them as 'my team'.) Ramachandra Guha says in India after Gandhi:
As P.S. Appu points out, the founders of the Indian nation-state respected the autonomy and integrity of the civil services. Vallabhai Patel insisted that his secretaries should feel free to correct or criticize his views,so that the minister, and his government, could arrive at a decision that was the best in the circumstances. However, when Indira Gandhi started choosing chief ministers purely on the basis of their loyalty to her, these individuals would pick their subordinates by similar criteria. Thus, over time, the secretary of a government department has willingly become an extension of his minister's voice and will. 
Following Indira Gandhi's massive victory in the 1971 General Elections, Kushwant Singh commented ,"...if power is voluntarily surrendered by a predominant section of the people to one person and at the same time opposition is reduced to insignificance, the temptation to ride roughshod over legitimate criticism can become irresistible." Ambedkar had warned against the dangers of bhakti or hero-worship, of placing individual leaders on a high pedestal and treating them as immune from criticism. Ramachandra Guha writes:
...most political parties have become extensions of the will and whim of a single leader. Political sycophancy may have been pioneered by the Congress Party under Indira Gandhi, but it is by no means restricted to it. Regional leaders such as Mulayam, Lalu and Jayalalithaa revel in a veritable cult of personality, encouraging and expecting craven submission from their party colleagues,and their civil servants and the public at large. Tragically, even Ambedkar has not been exempted from this hero worship. Although no longer alive, and not associated with any particular party, the reverence for his memory is so utter and extreme that it is no longer possible to have a dispassionate discussion about his work and legacy.
Witness the furor over an innocuous cartoon that both Ambedkar and Nehru would have laughed over. Many people seem to take themselves too seriously and lack a sense of humour. Arguing with people who lack a sense of humour is an impossible task. As is arguing with people who are proud of their ignorance, as Christopher Hitchens says while discussing the fatwa on Salman Rushdie.

As soon as some senior person raises his or her voice against the ruling party, CBI, Income tax dept. etc seem to find cases against them. The CBI is a useful tool to harass your opponents so no government will grant it autonomy. They will all speak in self righteous tones when in opposition but will sing a different tune when in power. It is like the Women's Reservation Bill - everybody seems to be for it but it never gets through parliament.

Have you heard one word from the BJP about CBI autonomy even though they had made a lot of noise about it earlier? Don't tell me you are surprised.Saying one thing when in the Opposition and doing something  else when in Government is nothing new. One is reminded of the conclusion of George Orwell's Animal Farm: 'The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.'

Whenever I hear comments in news channels like 'people are wise', 'people know the truth', 'people can't be fooled', etc., I can't help smirking. Really? Winston Churchill's most famous comment is that 'democracy is the worst form of government if it were not for the rest' but he also said that 'the best argument against democracy is a two minute conversation with a vvoter'. Talk about 'informed voters' reminds me of a nurse who asked me, "What is this BJP? Is it Congress?" Kejriwal will say ,"I told  you so."

Democracy often works because of the idea of emergence - a lot of units that are individually stupid giving rise to group intelligence - but there are some assumptions in it which could cause problems. Even the wisest and most educated among us have only a partial idea of what is really going on and we reach our own conclusions based on our own biases. (You don't have theses biases of course. I mean other people.) Like the protagonist of Joseph Heller's Something Happened, you never really know what happens behind closed doors.Contrary to what this song says, the public doesn't know many things.

PS : Democracy of Our Times, a talk by Prof. André Béteille

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Tolerance of dissenting opinions- I

It is not the function of our government to keep the citizens from falling into error; it is the function of the citizen to keep the government from falling into error. - US Supreme Court Justice Robert R. Jackson

I came across an interesting comment by J.B.S.Haldane in Ramachandra Guha's India after Gandhi. Haldane was a famous British biologist who moved from London in 1956 to reside in Calcutta. He joined the Indian Statistical Institute and became an Indian citizen. He once described India as 'the closest approximation to the Free world'. When an American friend protested at this surprising statement, he said:
Perhaps one is freer to be a scoundrel in India than elsewhere. So one was in the USA in the days of people like Jay Gould, when (in my opinion) there was more internal freedom in the USA than there is today. The 'disgusting subservience' of the others has its limits. The people of Calcutta riot, upset trams, and refuse to obey police regulations, in a manner which would have delighted Jefferson. I don't think their activities are very efficient, but that is not the question at issue.
The reference to Jefforson is because he believed that one of the chief duties of a citizen is to be a nuisance to the government of his state. I saw this comment at around the time when there was news about an IB report about Greenpeace. The report sounded silly stating that Greenpeace reduced India's GDP by 2-3%. Greenpeace is an advocacy group that puts forth its point of view and there are others who convey the opposite point of view. If there is anything illegal, prosecute them otherwise what is the problem? Magnifying the effect of a contrary position is a good strategy before clamping down on it.

In some talk show, a BJP spokesperson said they have nothing against NGOs who do "good work" but will act against NGOs that "create mischief". Who defines these terms? What is "good work"  for me may be "creating mischief" for you. One BJP spokesperson implied that the IB should  not be criticised. No institution, individual or idea can be beyond criticism otherwise it becomes the refuge of choice for scoundrels. A prime example of this is religion.

In a talk show about something else, about 70% of the studio audience was in favour of a proposition. A BJP spokesperson said that if you ask the same question in a year's time, 100% of the audience will support it. I would be uncomfortable living in a society where 100% of the people are for something. That level of conformity is a ready recipe for an unscrupulous leader to '"create mischief". We are not talking of philosopher kings here. If we know only our side of the argument, there is a problem. In his celebrated  treatise, On Liberty, John Stuart Mill says:
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..... 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.
In The Demon-Haunted World, Carl Sagan writes:
Even a casual scrutiny of history reveals that we humans have a sad tendency to make the same mistakes again and again. We are afraid of strangers or anybody who's a little different from us.When we get scared, we start pursing people around. We have readily accessible buttons that release powerful emotions when pressed. We can be manipulated into utter senselessness by clever politicians. Give us the right kind of leader and, like the most suggestible subjects of the hypnotherapists, we'll gladly do anything he wants - even things we know to be wrong.
Most of us are for freedom of expression when there is a danger that our own views will be suppressed. We are not upset though when views we despise encounter a little censorship here and there.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

A Prediction

I sometimes deliberately delay getting new books in order to re-read some old books. I would have forgotten many things in these books so it will be almost like reading new books. I thus read again India After Gandhi by Ramachandra Guha. It is a book that I liked because it covers a period of history that does not appear elsewhere. It was interesting to read about things I had very little idea of like integration of princely states, resettlement of refugees after partition, debates in the Constituent Assembly, linguistic reorganisation of states (language can still evoke passions as shown in this debate), etc.

I had mentioned earlier that long-term predictions about complicated situations are generally off the mark.  In this book, there are many mentions of dire predictions about India's disintegration and slide into military dictatorship which did not happen. But there is mention of an article called "After Nehru..."  by  an anonymous writer that appeared in the Economic Weekly in the summer of 1958 which contains predictions of broad trends that have generally come true.

In 1958, Jawaharlal Nehru had been Prime Minister of India for 11 years. He was around 70, and the last representative of the old guard within the Congress. The great men who had worked with him in uniting and integrating India were all gone or going. Vallabhbhai Patel was dead, Maulana Azad was on his death-bed, Govind Ballabh Pant was ailing and Chakravarti Rajagopalachari was in retirement. The party, and nation, were both held together by the moral authority and prestige of the PM. There was no obvious successor among the next generation of Congressmen. What would happen after he was gone? This was the question being addressed by the writer:
The prestige that the party will enjoy as the inheritor of the mantle of Tilak, Gandhi and Nehru will inhibit the growth of any effective or healthy opposition during the first few years. In later years as popular discontent against the new generation of party bosses increases, they will, for sheer self-preservation, be led to make increasing attempts to capture votes by pandering to caste, communal and regional interests and ultimately even to `rig' elections.
The writer said that in this situation the Congress party would find it hard to resist the temptations of business interests. Thus
in a politico-economic system of mixed economy, in which the dividing line between mercantilism and socialism is still very obscure and control over the State machinery can give glittering prizes to the business as well as the managerial classes, the monied interests are bound to infiltrate sooner or later into the ruling cadres of the party in power.
Finally, the writer predicted that the growth of caste, communal and regional caucuses would lead to an "increasing instability of Government first in the States and later also at the Centre". This instability, in turn, might also lead to a competitive patriotism among the different national parties.
for instance, the Congress Party may try to unite the nation behind it by warning of the dangers of `balkanisation', the Jan Sangh by playing up the fear of aggression from Pakistan, the P[raja] S[ocialist] P[arty] by emphasising the competition between India and China and the Communist Party by working up popular indignation against dollar imperialism.
Who was this far-sighted writer? Ramachandra Guha speculates that he might have been a Western political scientist, who would have felt constrained to write anonymously about a controversial subject concerning another country. A more likely possibility according to him is that he was a civil servant precluded by his job from speaking out in his own name. This latter possibility is suggested by the remark that "senior civil servants are hoping that they will retire before Nehru goes"

During an Internet search, I came across this article by Ramachandra Guha with the sub-heading " `... do you think there is any chance that he could have written it?'
'He' referred to Nehru.

P.S.: Here is a talk by Ramachandra Guha on Indian Democracy's Mid-Life Crises

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Myopic discounting

Myopic discounting is the tendency of people to prefer a large late reward to a small early one but then to flip their preference as time passes and both rewards draw nearer.  For eg., you decide before dinner to skip dessert (a small early reward) in order to lose weight (a large late one) but succumb to temptation at the time of placing the order. Or a person will give up smoking in order not to risk lung cancer but will start smoking again when friends tempt him. In How the Mind Works, Steven Pinker writes about an economist named Schelling:
Though myopic discounting remains unexplained,Schelling captures something important about its psychology when he roots the paradox of self-control in the modularity of the mind. He observes that "people behave sometimes as if they had two selves: one who wants clean lungs and long life and another who adores tobacco, or one who wants a lean body and anther who wants dessert, or one who yearns to improve himself by reading Adam Smith on self-command...and another who would rather watch an old movie on television. The two are in continual contest for control." When the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak, such as in pondering a diet-busting dessert, we can feel two very different kinds of motives fighting within us, one responding to sights and smells, the other to doctors' advice.
I observed myopic discounting happening in me a few months ago when Jaya had to undergo a routine operation to remove the gall bladder. She was suffering from occasional pain in the abdomen and scans had revealed the presence of gall stones. She was told that surgery was not urgent because the issue with gallstones is that only a third of population with gall bladder stones become symptomatic and the rest stay undiagnosed or have no symptoms and can live with it all their life. She could wait and if the pain became frequent later, she could have the surgery.

The problem was that if she had to go in for surgery later and there was no home nurse at that time who could understand my dumb charades then we would find ourselves caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. Or between a rock and a hard place. Whichever was worse. (One wag said that Bush was caught between Iraq and a hard place!) At that point of time there was a home nurse who could understand me so we felt that it wold be safer to get  the surgery done immediately rather than wait for a later time when we may be caught between, well, maybe Scylla and Charybdis.

But as the date of the surgery neared, I began to hesitate. Jaya will not be able to lift any weight for some days so perhaps I will not be shifted to the chair for a while? The watchman volunteered to do it along with the nurse but I was not sure how they will manage. The nurse could understand my dumb charades but Jaya will not not be able to assist for a while so there will be some discomfort. Maybe Jaya belongs to the 2/3 part of the population who live comfortably with gall bladder stones? Is prompt surgery really required?

Fortunately I resisted the temptation to postpone the surgery. Everything went off quite well and I only had minor discomforts during Jaya's period of rest. The alternative scenario of perhaps having surgery when there may have been no nurse would have been a nightmare.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014


Sometime back I saw some photographs that I didn't know I had. I decided to put some here along with a couple of my school photographs that I stumbled across on a friend's Facebook page.

This is a photograph from Std. V or VI. The best part of it was that I didn't know where I was. Jaya had to point me out to me.

Where am I?

This is a rare photograph of a school picnic because I don't think I have ever again worn such a psychedelic shirt. (Whenever I see this song from the Malayalam movie Classmates, I am reminded of this trip - not because of any incident in the movie but because this song involves a college bus trip. Incidentally, the movie contains one of my favorite Malayalam songs.)

Red Storm Rising

A time when this song fit:

With Jaya soon after our marriage was fixed

On tour in Bangalore with friends from Bajaj Auto Ltd.

Looking sophisticated in Lungi at IIMA

My room at IIMA

With my doom mates at IIMA

Sujit when he was about six months old

Sujit when he was 3 years old

(Sujit is now in a boarding school in Kodaikanal.)

In Such a Long Journey by Rohinton Mistry, when  Gustad Noble walks around  Chor Bazar in Mumbai, it brings back a flood of memories from childhood and he muses, "How little it took to wake up so many sleeping memories." Indeed!

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Attitude of a teacher

Further to my rant about educational standards, there was an incident that I wanted to mention. When one student who had scored just above 80% went for admission to Std. XI in his own school, the vice-principal shouted at him and told him that he was 'unfit' to be given admission in the school. How can a teacher talk like that to a student even if he had scored 40%? In this article, Richard Dawkins writes about the attitude of Sanderson of Oundle, a much-loved educator of long ago:
Far from coveting garlands in league tables by indulging the high flyers, Sanderson's most strenuous labours were on behalf of the average, and specially the "dull" boys. He would never admit the word: if a boy was dull it was because he was being forced in the wrong direction, and he would make endless experiments to find how to get his interest... he knew every boy by name and had a complete mental picture of his ability and character. It was not enough that the majority should do well. "I never like to fail with a boy," he once said.
In spite of - perhaps because of - Sanderson's contempt for public examinations, Oundle did well in them. A faded, yellowing newspaper cutting dropped out of my secondhand copy of Wells's book: "In the higher certificates of the Oxford and Cambridge School examinations Oundle once again leads, having 76 successes. Shrewsbury and Marlborough tie for second place at 49 each."
In this TED talk, Melinda Gates says that whatever facilities are provided will be useless in the absence of an effective teacher. In the above article, Dawkins writes about his recollection of a zoology class.
I recall a lesson about Hydra, a small denizen of still fresh water. Mr Thomas asked one of us, "What animal eats Hydra?" The boy made a guess. Non-committally, Mr Thomas turned to the next boy, asking him the same question. He went right round the entire class, with increasing excitement asking each one of us by name, "What animal eats Hydra? What animal eats Hydra?" And one by one we guessed. By the time he had reached the last boy, we were agog for the true answer. "Sir, sir, what animal does eat Hydra?" Mr Thomas waited until there was a pin-dropping silence. Then he spoke, slowly and distinctly, pausing between each word.
"I don't know... (crescendo) I don't know... (molto crescendo). And I don't think Mr Coulson knows either. (Fortissimo) Mr Coulson! Mr Coulson!"
He flung open the door to the next classroom and dramatically interrupted his senior colleague's lesson, bringing him into our room. "Mr Coulson, do you know what animal eats Hydra?" Whether some wink passed between them I don't know, but Mr Coulson played his part well: he didn't know. Again, the fatherly shade of Sanderson chuckled in the corner, and none of us will have forgotten that lesson. What matters is not the facts but how you discover and think about them: education in the true sense, very different from today's assessment-mad exam culture.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014


Once the Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi dreamt he was a butterfly happily fluttering around doing as he pleased. He suddenly woke up and didn't know if he was Zhuangzi who had dreamt he was a butterfly, or he was a butterfly dreaming he was Zhuangzi. I was in a similar state of confusion when I started regaining consciousness after my stroke. But all through that period of haze, I remembered some dreams that I had seen during that period of unconsciousness:

  1. There  was a lighted candle near my bed. A  nurse periodically came to my room, looked at the candle and went away. The sense I  got was that she was checking to see if the flame had gone out which would signal my death.  She seemed to be saying, “Out, out, brief candle!"but the flame never went out.
  2. A large crowd seemed to be gathered for my funeral and my body was lying nearby. a large black bird was flying high in the sky and everyone was looking at it.  The sense I got was that I was not yet dead and that my death would be signalled by the bird flying away.Everyone was waiting for the bird to disappear but it never did.
  3. My body seemed to be lying on what looked like the moving belt of an assembly. The belt seemed to be moving towards what I felt was a furnace in an electric crematorium. (I have never seen an electric crematorium.) When I passed inside the furnace, I cringed at the prospect of getting roasted but the temperature never rose.

Memory is a very unreliable chronicler of events so much so that someone said that all autobiographies should come with a warning  "based on facts". My memory of the dreams could be even more suspect since they happened such a long time ago and they are after all dreams but I can assure you that they are "based on facts".

 I related them to Jaya after our communication protocol was well established. I then didn't dwell on them figuring that they would have been random images caused by  the firing of different parts of the brain due to the various drugs that were being given and the various noises and voices that I used to hear. The bullshit detection meter in my brain was off and it was concocting fantastic stories.

I later read about Near Death Experiences (NDEs) which seemed somewhat similar to the dreams I had had. NDEs have some things in common: there are accounts of a bright light (the candle in my dream was a light but it was not bright); there will be descriptions of passing through a tunnel (I suppose going into the furnace in the electric crematorium was like passing through a tunnel although the experience was so long ago that I don't remember the details). In US people having NDEs write books about it which top best-seller lists. Sam Harris examines one such book.

Oliver Sacks has written a book called Hallucinations which guessed it...hallucinations that people have in various situations - in the haze when falling asleep or waking up, under the influence of drugs (medical or recreational), sleep deprivation, when blind , epilepsy, migraine and also when near death. About NDEs, he writes:
Kevin Nelson and his colleagues at the University of Kentucky have presented evidence suggesting that, with the compromise of cerebral blood flow, there is a dissociation of consciousness so that, although awake, the subjects are paralysed and subject to the dreamlike hallucinations characteristic of REM sleep ("REM intrusions") -- in a state, therefore. with resemblances to sleep paralysis(NDEs are also commoner in people prone to sleep paralysis). Added to this are various special features: the "dark tunnel" is correlated,Nelson feels, with the compromise of  blood flow to the retinas (this is well-known to produce a constriction of the visual fields, or  tunnel vision, and may occur in pilots subjected to high g-stresses). The "bright light" Nelson correlates with a flow of neuronal excitement moving from a part of the brain stem (the pons)  to subcortical visual relay stations and then to the occipital cortex. Added to all these neurophysiological changes may be a sense of terror and awe going with the knowledge that one is undergoing a mortal crisis -- some subjects have actually heard themselves pronounced dead -- and the wish that dying, if imminent and inevitable, should be peaceful and perhaps a passage to a life after death.
A curious happening was that my physiotherapist asked me about a neurological condition called narcolepsy which I had never heard about that was included in the plot of a Tamil movie that he had just seen called Naan sigappu manithan. A couple of days later, I read about it in this book.

Here is Oliver Sacks on Fora.TV about his book. He had written an article about NDEs, OBEs (out of body experience)and prayers. There was an Intelligence Squared debate on life after death.