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.