Friday, February 21, 2014

Great literature - I

I had mentioned earlier that while reading Joseph Anton I was intimidated by Rushdie's easy familiarity with writers from across the globe and their works. I had not read much fiction for the past couple of decades and was not familiar with many of the works that he  referred to. I thought that I should do something about it so I have been on a literature reading spree for the past few months.Nothing like being jobless for reading some thick books. (Although the reading has not been at such a frenetic pace.)

I thus recently finished reading The Brothers Karamazov which I had been putting off for a long time because of its size (about 900 pages). There are widely varying views on Dostoevsky. As Irwin Weil says in this talk many writers were deeply influenced by his works while Vladimir Nabokov thought that he wrote thick books of 'elephantine  platitudes'. I will be somewhere in between.. Like the curate's egg, the novel was good in parts.

I skimmed through about 1/3 of the book which consisted of  pious ramblings by the monks of a monastery. It was too didactic for my taste. The other parts of the book were more interesting although there were some over-long speeches which I again skimmed through. But I didn't agree with Dostoevsky's conclusion that faith is required for virtue. Of course not. Euthyphro's dilemma addresses the question. I am more in agreement with the views of Lawrence Krauss in this discussion. There is an apt description of a human tendency that is my biggest challenge by one of the Karamazov brothers, Aloysha:
"Oh, my smile meant something quite different. I'll tell you why I smiled. Not long ago I read the criticism made by a German who had lived in Russia, on our students and schoolboys of to-day. 'Show a Russian schoolboy,' he writes, 'a map of the stars, which he knows nothing about, and he will give you back the map next day with corrections on it.' No knowledge and unbounded conceit -- that's what the German meant to say about the Russian schoolboy."
When Dimitry Karamazov is being interrogated after being accused of committing parricide, he says:
Don't think I'm drunk. I'm quite sober now. And, besides, being drunk would be no hindrance. It's with me, you know, like the saying: 'When he is sober, he is a fool; when he is drunk, he is a wise man.'
The same sentence can be reworded to describe me: 'Before stroke, he was a fool; after stroke, he is wiser. Take for instance what I know about evolution. Almost everything I know now about evolution was learnt after my stroke. I don't know why it is not given much more space in schools considering that it doesn't encounter nearly as much religious opposition in India as it does in the US and in Islamic countries.

Before my stroke, I was more accustomed to the Homo economicus assumption. Now I know that biases and irrationalities are all pervasive. It takes some vanity to call our species Homo sapiens. Irrationality seems to be the default position of the human brain. Many phenomena are probabilistic and the human brain cannot intuitively grasp them so superstitions have a field day.

And then there is religion. Before my stroke  I was a  passive participant in religious functions. Even though I was not a believer, I did not give much thought to  what was happening around me. Goaded by experiences after my stroke, I began to think more about these things and I began to have a progressively dimmer view of religion. The conflation of faith as “unevidenced belief” with faith as “justified confidence” is all pervasive. Examples of talks I listened to are the Beyond Belief meetings and academics on God.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

A brief reply

For some reason, some of the comments on my posts have not appeared in my email with the result that I seem to have missed them. I accidentally saw a couple of comments by Amitabh Nanda in an old post which I felt I should reply to:
Amitabh Nanda September 4, 2013 at 11:35 PM:
Hello Professor Ranjan
It is so heartwarming to hear about your incredible and brave journey. 
My mother suffers from Motor Neurone Disease and is also rapidly becoming "locked in". Like you, she has not allowed the condition to destroy her spirit and her zest for life and is keen to push herself to do as much as her disability will allow. 
I have been researching options to help her communicate - and was looking at eyegaze and headmouse as two options, when I came upon the EPOC headgear. While it seems like the perfect solution, given her severely limited mobility and the complexity of using systems like eyegaze, the developers at EMOTIV were unable to clarify for me whether I could successfully use EPOC in combination with an onscreen, hands-free keyboard, and who would be responsible for programming the device for the same.
It seems that you have arrived at such a solution and that you are using it very successfully and I might say, prolifically.
Can you let me know where I can get more information about the interface - again, I am looking specifically for the people who worked with the developer kit of the EPOC and got it to work with your trusty laptop.
Thanks very much and keep shiningAmitabh

Amitabh Nanda September 7, 2013 at 12:30 AM:
My mistake, Mr Karat, I addressed you as Professor Ranjan, sorry about that.
Can you please let me know how to contact you? I'd like to order an EMOTIV system to help my mum type and communicate, as you do and am a little confused about which setup to choose.
I spent some time reading through your blog and will be recommending it to my mum, who is an equally curious soul and will definitely be emboldened by the range of your interests and your prolific posting.

Amitabh Nanda, if you are still reading this blog, I am sorry for not replying earlier. The programming  for my headset was done by Prof. Prabhat Ranjan from Dhirubhai Ambani Institute of Information and Communication Technology (DAIICT) who can be contacted at 09328800025 or 07930510553. I can be contacted at I hope your mother finds the headset as useful as I have.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

A good motto

In Joseph Anton, Rushdie mentions a motto which helped him get through the dark days of the fatwa. This motto is also mentioned in an earlier novel of his, The Moor's last sigh. The motto comes from Joseph Conrad's novel, The Nigger of the 'Narcissus'. A black sailor, James Wait (the 'nigger'of the title), boards the ship called Narcissus even though he is very ill. When asked why he boarded the ship when he was in such a state, he replied, 'I must live until I die, mustn't I?'

That is a good motto to have: live until you die. In an Author's note the novelist, Joseph Conrad writes:

The the thinker or the man of science, seeks the truth and makes his appeal. Impressed by the aspect of the world the thinker plunges into ideas, the scientist into facts - whence, presently, emerging they make their appeal to those qualities of our being that fit us best for the hazardous enterprise of living.

During the problems that I faced before the IIMA reunion, this was the motto that I used to recall frequently. My big fear was that my back would give up mid-way through the trip and then Jaya and my brother-in-law would have had a tough time bringing me back. But everybody including the doctors and physiotherapists were confident that I could make the trip. With so much encouragement from everybody and a motto to encourage me, I was not going to back out. You could say  that if I had not read Joseph Anton, I may not have gone for the reunion. Reading books has its uses.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The reunion - II

We next paid a visit to the dorm I stayed in, D2. Vivek and me were the only representatives of D2.

With Sujit and Vivek Chandel
Even the tree in front of D2 had a hilarious story to tell, One of my dorm-mates, perhaps the shyest guy in the batch, was walking towards the dorm when some guys in the dorm started teasing him loudly about a girl. He became so embarrassed and disoriented that he walked straight into the tree in front of him!

We then paid a visit to the classroom which had so psyched me when I had first seen it. Each row is on a step so that siting on any chair was like sitting in the front row.For a veteran backbencher like me, this was not funny. Moreover the name of the student was written in front of the seat and Research Assistants sat at the back of the class armed with the seating plan making a note of how much each student participated in the class discussions. Gosh, this was something I had not bargained for! I learnt later that the weight for class participation was generally around 10% which I thought I could gamble with  so that was a big relief.

Sujit sitting on the seat where I had sat in class. 
I was parked in front of the blackboard. Vivek wrote the word 'praxis ' on the board, a word that had confused us for a whole term. I still don't know what exactly it means.

This was followed by a cricket match

and DJ night.

It was fun watching the middle aged folks trying to keep pace with the younger generation. I can report to you that the spirits (in more ways than one) of the former were willing and the flesh was not so weak, as evidenced by the rippling biceps of Balls (Rajeev Balasubramanyan) in a sleeveless T-shirt on a nippy Ahmedabad night.

We are basically an amalgam of hopes and memories. In his short story, Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, Jorge Luis Borges writes:

One of the schools of Tlon goes so far as to negate time: it reasons that the present is indefinite, that the future has no reality other than as a present hope, that the past has no reality other than as a present memory.

Here is the haunting story of a person who has lost his memory. In a post, Robert Krulwich says:

Take away your memories, the connective tissue of your life, and what's left? You may be breathing, but in the late stages of memory loss, you aren't really there any more. You have unraveled.

This trip was about renewing memories, some of which had dimmed but were given a new lease of life by revisiting familiar haunts. Passing the then computer lab brought a wry smile to my face as I recalled a project that had caused much heartburn. I thank my batch mates for giving me the opportunity to go back to the campus as also to the people who did the hard work of taking me to Ahmedabad - Jaya,  my brother-in-law and the home nurse.

Finally a brief mention about an aspect of campus architecture that had not registered in my consciousness when I was studying there. There are ramps everywhere so I could easily  move from one part of the campus to the other. The architect had designed the campus with sensitivity especially considering the fact that the Old campus was designed over 50 years ago. This cannot be said for most places in India.