Thursday, March 24, 2016

Luck - I

Some in the upper strata of society lose no opportunity to say that their success is entirely due to their hard work and luck has nothing to do with it, that everyone can achieve their dreams. They will give the credit for their success to factors like passion, hard work, skill, focus, and having great ideas. These answers will get plenty of air-time since they make for more inspiring stories than any credit given to luck or privilege. Saying that everything is within your control is an appealing story but that doesn't mean it is true.

When I hear statements like 'you can be whatever you want to be', 'Champions are not born, they are made', 'the only person standing between what you are and what you want to be is you', etc. I get the feeling that these people are living on  a different planet from the one I occupy. It is often seen that the advantages that give us a head-start and the accidents that open up avenues play a huge part in our lives. Small, random, initial advantages can balloon into huge ones. Nick Cohen writes in You Can't Read This Book: Censorship in an Age of Freedom about many of the super-rich:
...they are unshakable in their belief that they are entitled to their wealth, and have every moral right to resist attempts to reduce it. It never occurs to them that they are lucky...To outsiders their luck seems self-evident. Yet nowhere in the recorded utterances of the plutocracy does one find a glimmer of an understanding that time and chance played a part in their good fortune.
The same book quotes the Russian oligarch Mikail Khodorkovsky before his fall from grace, 'If a man is not an oligarch, something is not right with him. Everyone had the same starting conditions, everyone could have done it.' Every one had the same starting conditions? This guy must have been hallucinating when he said that. As somebody said, 'You cannot make your opportunities concur with the opportunities of people whose incomes are ten times greater than yours.'

Our existence begins with a genetic lottery. Only one out many sperms in an ejaculate can fertilize an egg. It is estimated that the set of people allowed by our DNA far exceeds the set of actual people. In The Extended Phenotype by Richard Dawkins, I came across a poem by Aldous Huxley:
A million million spermatozoa, 
All of them alive:
Out of their cataclysm but one poor Noah
Dare hope to survive.
And of that billion minus one
Might have chanced to be
Shakespeare, another Newton, a new Donne -
But the One was Me.
Shame to have ousted your betters thus.
Taking ark while the others remained outside!
Better for all of us, forward Homunculus,
If you'd quietly died!
If you are lucky to be born on the right side of the social  and economic divide, you can think of Gabbar Singh in the movie Sholay putting a gun under the chin of one of his henchmen, pulling the trigger, seeing that nothing had happened and saying, 'Bach gaya saala.'  The lottery starts before the moment of conception. What happened to your forefathers, the country and culture in which you are born etc. make a big difference to how you end up. Richard Dawkins writes in Unweaving the Rainbow:
Your parents had to meet, and the conception of each was as improbable as your own. And so on back, through your four grandparents and eight great grandparents, back to when it doesn't bear thinking about. Desmond Morris opens his autobiography, Animal Days (1979), in characteristically arresting vein:
Napoleon started it all. If it weren't for him, I might not be sitting here writing these words...for it was one of his cannonballs, fired in the Peninsular War, that shot off the arm of great-great grandfather, James Morris, and altered the whole course of my family history.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

The feeding conundrum

Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth. - Sherlock Holmes

Watch this brief video before you proceed further. (It is critical that you watch the video before you read the post.) In one of my early posts, I had written:
At times I am so lost in my thoughts that I fail to notice the nurse giving me feeds through the feeding tube. When Jaya asks me about the feeding I stare blankly at her and she has to get the details from the nurse. Even I am surprised that I did not notice something so obvious. 
I came across a study which throws light on why I missed something so obvious. Since the experiment was first published in 1999, it has become one of the  most widely demonstrated and discussed studies in all of psychology. It won the psychologists, Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons  the Ig Nobel Prize in 2004. It illustrates a situation where people are misled into thinking that they know something that they actually don't.

The psychologists made a short film of two teams of people moving around passing basketballs. One team wore white shirts and the other wore black.Many people were shown the clip and asked to count the number of passes made by the players wearing white while ignoring the passes made by the players wearing black. The subjects counted the number of passes fairly accurately but that was not the point of the experiment.

Half-way through the video, a female student wearing a gorilla suit walks into the scene, stops among the players, faces the camera, thumps her chest and walks off.The amazing fact is that roughly half the number of people in the study did not notice the gorilla! They were so busy doing the task assigned to them that they did not notice any other happening. The experiment has been repeated many times, under different conditions in many countries but the results are always the same: about half the people fail to notice the gorilla.

This error of perception due to lack of attention to an unexpected object is called 'inattentional blindness'. It is called 'inattentional' because the blindness results not from any damage to the visual system but  because people are devoting their attention to one aspect and miss other aspects that they are not expecting. They are taken aback when their error is pointed out.

When the experiment was repeated without the task of having to count the passes, everyone spotted the gorilla easily - their brain was not busy doing another activity. The gorilla study illustrates the powerful illusion of attention.  Looking directly at something is no guarantee that you will see it. You may miss it if your brain is busy doing something else. That is why driving while talking on the cell-phone is so dangerous. The psychologists write in The Invisible Gorilla (a description of the experiments mentioned in the book can be found at their website
As the gorilla experiment has become more widely known, it has been used to explain failures of awareness,from the concrete to the abstract, in diverse domains. It's not just limited to visual attention, but applies equally well to all of our senses and even to broader patterns in the world around us. The gorilla is powerful because it forces people to confront the illusion of attention.It provides an effective metaphor precisely because the illusion of attention has such broad reach.
It is plausible to now think that missing noticing the feeding being given to me  was not unusual. My brain was busy thinking of something and was not paying attention to the surroundings.Most of the seeing is not done by the eyes but by the brain.

PS: I had to think of a title that was related to the post yet did not give any clue about the contents of the post otherwise you may spot the gorilla. Once you know about the existence of the of the gorilla, you cannot avoid seeing it. And yes, I did not spot the gorilla. Neither did Jaya.