Sunday, April 23, 2017

Sharing knowledge - I

A poor widow lived with her two sons and two daughters-in-law who always ill treated her...oh, I suppose that you haven't the foggiest notion of what this is all about. Bertie Wooster says in The Mating Season:
It so often pans out that way when you begin a story. You whiz off the mark all pep and ginger, like a mettlesome charger going into its routine, and the next thing you know, the customers are up on their hind legs, yelling for footnotes.
Since there are a couple of detours before I get to the nub of the matter, I might as well get started. Nassim Nicholas Taleb made most of his money through a couple of bets that came off and this gave him complete independence. In Antifragile, he writes that he calls  this kind of sum 'f*** you money' - 'a sum large enough to get most, if not all, of the advantages of wealth (the most important one being independence and the ability to only occupy your mind with matters that interest you) but not its side effects' like having to listen to boring conversations because 'the worst side effect of wealth is the social associations it forces on its victims'.

You can say that my stroke was the physical equivalent of Taleb's  f*** you money which forced me to suddenly drop out of the rat-race without a by-your-leave. Although I am still heavily dependant, the dependence is on family and friends which, you will no doubt agree, is about a million times better than being dependant on the government or on corporates. We all know about the Kafkaesque machinations of governments. I was also saved from boring corporate talks of the kind you  hear from corporate honchos on CNBC. In Fooled by Randomness, Taleb gives examples of such phrases that will be stitched together in various combinations to make impressive sounding sentences:

We look after our customer’s interests / the road ahead / our assets are our people / creation of shareholder value /our vision / our expertise lies in / we provide interactive solutions / we position ourselves in this market / how to serve our customers better / short-term pain for long-term gain / we will be rewarded in the long run (remember the last two terms from the demonetization days? - Suresh) / we play from our strength and improve our weaknesses / courage and determination will prevail / we are committed to innovation and technology /  a happy employee is a productive employee / commitment to excellence / strategic plan / our work ethics

After a couple of years of aimless TV watching when I was getting used to the new mental landscape I found myself in, I came across a couple of books that caught my interest. Odysseus voluntarily tied himself to the mast of a ship in order to escape the lure of the Sirens. I found myself involuntarily tied to a wheelchair and I realized over a period of time that reading books was something I could do with almost complete freedom. And almost all the books that caught my interest were ones that had nothing to do with what I had studied in college.

This calls for a digression. (Laurence Sterne called digression “the sunshine of narrative”.) In his essays, A.K. Ramanujan says that folklores are autotelic, i.e. they travel by themselves without any actual movement of populations.  Thus neighbouring languages and regions will have similar folklore that have similar structure but have cultural and contextual differences. To make his point, Ramanujan tells a folktale that is sometimes attributed to Aristotle and sometimes to an Indian philosopher.

The philosopher asks a village carpenter who has a beautiful old knife, 'How long have you had this knife?' The carpenter replies, 'Oh, this knife has been in our family for generations. We have changed the handle a few times and the blade a few times, but it is the same knife.' In my case similarly, MBA subjects are a distant memory, Engineering subjects are an even more distant memory but it is the same Suresh.

A few years after the stroke , I started writing this blog which I had planned to be only about my life after the stroke. But then I started getting bored writing about myself and started writing about many other matters triggered by what I was reading (although it might make you agree with Alexander Pope - 'The bookful blockhead, ignorantly read, / With loads of learned lumber in his head..."). I would often feel like quitting but then I came across a folktale by Ramanujan about the importance of sharing stories and other knowledge. To know more about it, you will have to wait till the next post. (This sounds like one of those unending TV serials which say at the end of an episode 'to be contd....' and like those serials, you may find the next instalment underwhelming.)

Talking about TV serials calls for yet another digression about a serial  of yore. I remember watching a serial called Mr. Yogi when I was in NIT, Trichy. It is a story of a USA settled Indian boy, Yogesh Ishwarlal Patel, aka Y.I. Patel, aka Mr. Yogi, trying to arrange his marriage in India. He meets 12 girls and tries to select one of them as his bride. When he goes to one house, he shakes hands with the person who opens the door and introduces himself, 'Y.I. Patel.' The other person says, 'How do I know why you are Patel?'

Sunday, April 9, 2017

'The brain as a computer' - II

With the invention of the electronic computer, it became the norm to think of the brain as a similar information processing device. A computer is just a metaphor for the functioning of the brain and like all metaphors, it should not be carried too far. Here is a post that tells the differences between a brain and a computer. Thinking of the brain as a cognitive computer ignores emotions which do not function independently of the body.

In Geek Nation, Sunny Joseph, who works on the truth machine,  tells Angela Saini, 'Experiences can't be planted in the mind by police officers or lawyers...information will be stored in the brain only if we undergo an experience.' This sort of thought comes if we think of the brain as a computer and memory is like the hard-disk, which is erroneous. Memory is a self-justifying historian that resorts to confabulation, distortion and plain forgetting to preserve our core self-images. (Slate had an 8 part series on memory manipulation.) Angela Saini writes:
But I am skeptical. Not only is every human brain different, but criminals in particular are more likely to have aberrant mental states. Psychopaths and pathological killers, for example, often show signs of brain damage. Memories also change and fade over time.
It is estimated that a piece of the brain the size of a grain of sand would contain one hundred thousand neurons, two million axons and one billion synapses, all communicating with each other. It has been calculated that the number of possible brain states - the number of permutations and combinations of activity that are theoretically possible — exceeds the number of elementary particles in the universe.

V.S. Ramachandran, one of leading lights of brain research, said that we began researching the brain 300 years ago and he sometimes feels that we are still at the same place. In Phantoms in the Brain, he writes, 'The Cambridge physiologist Horace Barlow recently pointed out at a scientific meeting that we have spent five decades studying the cerebral cortex in excruciating detail, but we still don't have the foggiest idea of how it works or what it does.'

Granted that the book was written a couple of decades ago but it is improbable that in this time we have learnt everything about how the brain does what it does. And here were people who were confident of determining a person's guilt based on a few electrical signals from the brain. What is scary is that they have the ear of the authorities.

In the second book of The Shiva Trilogy by Amish Tripathi, he mentions Lord Ram's law - No innocent person should be punished and no criminal should escape This situation is like the concept of a frictionless surface - an idealization that does not exist in practice. In practice, two types of errors are possible - type 1 error or false positive (an innocent person is found to be guilty) and type 2 error or false negative (allowing a person who is actually guilty to escape).

You cannot eliminate both types of errors simultaneously. If you try to reduce the number of false positives, the number of false negatives will increase and vice versa. A British judge once said that it is better to let ten guilty persons escape than to let one innocent person suffer. This principle is broadly accepted by all humane societies. Reliance on the truth machine risks creating a horror society where it is considered ok to let innocents suffer so long as all the guilty are caught.

Beware of simple solutions to complex problems. As Nassim Nicholas Taleb says about the difference between a cat and a washing machine: living systems are complex; man-made objects are merely complicated. We seem to be bombarded with the idea that it is easy to do many things - pop a pill and your memory will improve by leaps and bounds, read a particular book and you can speak English fluently in a month, can identify criminals easily by some electrical signals from the brain.