Friday, March 24, 2017

'The brain as a computer' - I

I can calculate the motion of heavenly bodies, but not the madness of people. - Isaac Newton

In Geek Nation, Angela Saini describes her visit to the Directorate of Forensic Science Laboratory in Kalina, Mumbai where people are experimenting with a truth machine. She meets Sunny Joseph, who works as a psychologist and one of the operators of the truth machine. He has a creepy level of faith in technology and thinks the brain is like a computer where information is stored and can be retrieved.

In Gandhinagar, she meets Champadi Raman Mukundan, the inventor of the Brain Electrical Oscillations Signature software which is used by the truth machine. He is another who thinks the brain is like a computer and thinks he can break it down 'to its nuts and bolts like the machines in laboratory.' He is in no doubt at all that that his technology is totally reliable (a clear warning sign) although towards the end of the meeting he thankfully expresses some doubt about his ability to duplicate the brain.

Champadi Raman Mukundan is a Physics guy, an electronics buff who tinkers with machines. Physicists work with inanimate particles which have invariant laws throughout the known universe but that is not the case with biology or sociology which are more messy and they tend to get impatient with it. The Nobel laureate Murray Gell-Mann said, 'Think how hard physics would be if particles could think.'   There is an oft-told story  about how physicists go about their task of trying to understand the world.

A physicist, an engineer, and a psychologist are called in as consultants to a dairy farm whose production has been below par. Each is given time to inspect the details of the operation before making a report. The first to be called is the engineer, who states: “The size of the stalls for the cattle should be decreased. Efficiency could be improved if the cows were more closely packed, with a net allotment of 275 cubic feet per cow. Also, the diameter of the milking tubes should be increased by 4 percent to allow for a greater average flow rate during the milking periods”.

The next to report is the psychologist, who proposes: “The inside of the barn should be painted green. This is a more mellow colour than brown and should help induce greater milk flow. Also, more trees should be planted in the fields to add diversity to the scenery for the cattle during grazing, to reduce boredom”. Finally, the physicist is called upon. He asks for a blackboard and then draws a circle. He begins: “Assume the cow is a sphere....”.

Such simplification often produces good results when you are working with inanimate particles with universal laws but when working with thinking and feeling biological entities, this strategy often doesn't produce good results. The impatience of physicists is illustrated by a comment I heard by the cosmologist Lawrence Krauss, 'All of psychology is crap.' It reminded me of an observation by Peter Drucker, 'Far too many people — especially those with great expertise in one area — are contemptuous of knowledge in other areas, or believe that being bright is a substitute for knowledge. But taking pride in their ignorance is self-defeating.'

From the time of  Enlightenment in Europe, a mechanistic view of the world became popular. A person was viewed as a sophisticated machine. The mind was viewed as just a calculating machine - a sort of computer. The body was just a system of  jointed limbs moved by the strings and pulleys of muscles and nerves. Human beings were thought of as puppets whose strings were pulled by the forces at play in the world. Although today such a model is regarded as crude and simplistic, it is still adopted by many materialist scientists and philosophers.

In Metaphors We Live By, Geeorge Lakoff gives some example sentences of 'the mind is a machine' metaphor that are commonly used: We are still trying to 'grind out' the solution to this equation. My mind just isn 't  'operating' today. Boy, the 'wheels are turning today'! I'm 'a little rusty' today. We've been working on this problem all day and now we're 'running out of steam'.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Gavaskar vs Tendulkar and other cricket chat - II

Even though I was a fan of Gavaskar, I also was a fan of a person who batted totally unlike Gavaskar - Virender Sehwag. Probably the best decision that Ganguly took during his term as captain was to ask Sehwag to open the innings. What made me a fan was that his major successes had come in Test cricket rather than in the limited overs game contrary to what one would have expected. I heard a couple of incidents that show the attitude he brought to the game.

In one Ranji Tropy game, Sehwag came down the wicket at a medium pacer, had a wild swish at a wide delivery and missed it completely. The next ball was short and he went on his backfoot and hooked it for six. At the end of the day when he was asked about the wild shot, he said that he had played it deliberately. He said that therefore he knew that the next ball would be short so he was already waiting for it on the backfoot and had no trouble putting it over the midwicket fence. If this had come from any other player, you could have thought that he was making it up, but coming from Sehwag it was believable. There was method in his madness.

In another Ranji Trophy match, on a greenish pitch that had some help for the bowlers, Sehwag score a rapid century. At the end of the day Ravi Shastri asked him seriously, 'Did you keep telling yourself to put your foot to the pitch of the ball, not to poke at deliveries outside the off stump, not to drive on the rise...?' Sehwag's reply was typical, 'I didn't think about these things. If the ball was there to be hit, I hit it.'

Apart from the past generation of Indian players I liked to watch foreign players like Lara, Gower (English batsmen are generally awkward to watch but ironically produced a very graceful player), Mark Waugh, etc., but the player I was most fascinated by was Viv Richards. His swagger to the wicket, casually chewing gum, was quite a sight. He probably intimidated fast bowlers more than they intimidated him.

I once heard Imran Khan say why he considered Richards a cut above all other batsmen he had played against. When the situation was tense, the bowlers were dominant and West Indies needed runs, he put his best foot forward. But when the situation was boring and the match was meandering towards a dull draw, he quickly lost interest and threw his wicket away playing outrageous shots. You could never accuse Gavaskar and Tendulkar of such a misdemeanour.

In  Antifragile  by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, there is mention of a town in Netherlands which decided to remove all street signs. The result was that there were fewer accidents. It was also found that airline pilots became more careless with increasing reliance on automated controls thus compromising safety. Also, people meet with more accidents in regulated crossings than when jaywalking. Why these paradoxical results? Reliance on external aids dulls the survival instinct of the brain. Remove these aids and the person becomes attentive and alert to danger.

There is a parallel situation in cricket with the use of helmets by batsmen. In pre-helmet days, one hardly ever saw batsmen being hit on the head. Nowadays it seems to happen frequently. The survival instinct of the brain seems to be dulled by the protection provided by the helmet making the reflexes just a little bit slower. (Granted batsmen play many shots these days that they would not have attempted in pre-helmet days but seem to get even when just trying to avoid the ball. Many pitches have also become slower.)

In a discussion, Ramachandra Guha gave an interesting sociological reason why cricket is the de facto national game of India and not hockey. (He quotes Ashis Nandy as saying  that cricket is an Indian game accidentally discovered by the British.) Cricket is an interrupted game while all other games have concentrated action. In cricket, the bowler delivers the ball, walks back to his mark, does this six times, the field then changes and the action then continues from the other end. This inturrupted nature of the game enables Indians to indulge fequently in their favorite pass-time of casual chit-chat.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Gavaskar vs Tendulkar and other cricket chat - I

I am an old fashioned guy who is in full agreement with Nevill Cardus' comment, 'The scoreboard is an ass.' I would rather watch a program about Gavaskar's  last Test inning on a minefield of a pitch in Bangalore than watch a century in 40 balls in a T20 World Cup final. Somebody said that the IPL is cricket's version of WWF, an assessment that I agree with.

In this talk (I have linked to Part 1, the relevant portion is in Part 3), Ramachandra Guha says that  Raj Singh Dungarpur had told him that his father was of the opinion that Palvankar Vithal (a Dalit cricketer before India had gained Test status) was as good as Vijay Hazare. Dungarpur had been of the opinion that Vijay Hazare had been as good as Sunil Gavaskar. Guha himself had often told his son that Gavaskar had been as good as Tendulkar. This meant that by algebraic equivalence, Palvankar Vithal had been as good as Tendulkar! I would agree with the view that Gavaskar was as good as Tendulkar.

Gavaskar played 80 innings abroad and scored 15 centuries. Tendulkar played 135 innings abroad and scored 18 centuries. Gavaskar scored most of his runs as an opener, without helmets, with inferior equipments than are available today on pitches that did a bit more than is the case now. Gavaskar also played at a time when the Indian batting line-up had not been as strong as it had been during much of Tendulkar's career. Tendulkar did score runs as an opener in one-day cricket but that is a whole different ball game with flatter pitches and field restrictions. The white ball also swings less than the red ball.

I remember a couple of Gavaskar stories worth telling. The first happened during a Test match in the  West Indies when Gavaskar was dismissed for one. A spectator wagered that the West Indian openers - Greenidge and Haynes - will score more than Gavaskar. And guess what happened - both were dismissed for ducks! The poor spectator could not be traced later so his reaction is not known. You can't blame him if he stopped watching cricket altogether.

In a Test match against the West Indies in Kanpur, Gavaskar decided to drop himself to no.4 and asked Gaekwad and Siddhu to open the innings. First ball, Marshall to Gaekwad, OUT! Second ball, Marshall to Vengsarkar, OUT! India 0 for 2. Gavaskar negotiated the rest of the over and at the end of the over, when Richards was walking past him, he muttered, 'At whatever position you bat maan, the score will still be zero.' Gavaskar then went on to score 236 n.o. which remained the highest individual score for India till Laxman broke it with his  unforgettable 281 at Eden Gardens, Calcutta. As Yogi Berra said, 'I knew the record would stand until it was broken.'

Although I would rate Gavaskar and Tendulkar at par as far as their actual achievements in Test cricket are concerned, it cannot be denied that Tendulkar had more pure natural talent. I saw him in the flesh only once in a Test match against the West Indies at the Wankede stadium in the mid 1990s. At that time Walsh was quick and the wicketkeeper, who was standing half-way to the boundary line, was collecting the ball above waist height. All batsmen were playing him with hasty, jerky movements but Tendulkar picked the line and length of the ball early, was forward or back in a flash and seemed to be waiting for the ball to come to him. (I was a great fan of Azhar and when he walked out to bat, I sat back to enjoy a strokeful partnership between him and Tendulkar. You can of course guess what happened next – Azhar was dismissed for a duck.)

Although Gavaskar and Tendulkar have been hugely influential players, both have regrettably been establishment men who have quietly toed the BCCI line at all times. They have never used their prestige to speak out about malpractices in the BCCI. Whenever there is any corruption allegation in IPL, you can bet that they will make some bland statement. Tendulkar is also conspicuous by his absence from the Rajya Sabha although he has the time to go to Rio. It shows again that celebrities are often very limited outside their narrow band of excellence, a fact obscured by the halo effect.

In this post, Ramachandra Guha writes about Dravid's advice regarding sticking to one's knitting. He once noticed on TV Dravid fielding at mid-off to advice the bowlers and wrote to him that he should field in the slips so that so many catches don't go down. Dravid wrote back saying that he was reading a book by Guha and agreed with the view that Indian history seemed to stop at Gandhi's assassination; that they should meet sometime and discuss this and other issues. There was not a word about the cricketing advice that had been given. Guha writes:

My email was unsolicited, unprompted, even impertinent — akin in cricketing terms to a bouncer from a bowler of military medium pace, it was dispatched to the boundary with a flick of the wrists. The put-down was decisive; and yet so delicately worded. I was told, in the kindest possible manner, to shut up about strategy in cricket and go back to writing history books. And so I have.