Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Words that create a mental fog - II

In 1996, Social Text journal published an article by Alan Sokal, Professor of Physics at New York University, entitled "Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity." It was written in the typical style of academic articles, slightly overbearing and verbose, and it had a huge number of footnotes (more footnotes than actual text). In his article, Sokal argued that the traditional concept of gravity was just a capitalist fiction that would be made irrelevant by the socialist/feminist/relativist theory of 'quantum gravity.' Sokal assumed that this argument should have been self-evidently absurd. An excerpt from the article follows:
Here my aim is to carry these deep analyses one step further, by taking account of recent developments in quantum gravity: the emerging branch of physics in which Heisenberg's quantum mechanics and Einstein's general relativity are at once synthesized and superseded. In quantum gravity, as we shall see, the space-time manifold ceases to exist as an objective physical reality; geometry becomes relational and contextual; and the foundational conceptual categories of prior science — among them, existence itself — become problematized and relativized. This conceptual revolution, I will argue, has profound implications for the content of a future postmodern and liberatory science.
But on the day that the Spring issue of Social Text appeared in print, Sokal published a letter in the academic trade publication Lingua Franca revealing his article was actually intended as a parody, a fact which the editorial board of Social Text had failed to recognize. The article was a hoax submitted, according to Sokal, to see "would a leading journal of cultural studies publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if (a) it sounded good and (b) it flattered the editors' ideological preconceptions?"

It did get published much to the chagrin of the editors when they discovered later that it was a hoax. Sokal says that if the editors had been careful and intellectually competent, they would have recognized from the first paragraph of his essay that it was a parody. Above all, however, the Sokal hoax demonstrates how willing we are to be deceived about matters we believe strongly in. We are likely to be more critical of articles which attack our position than we are of those which we think supports it. This tendency to confirmation bias affects physicists or professors in the social sciences or a lay person.

Researchers at the University of Waterloo have identified a certain kind of humbug they call pseudo-profound bullshit – the kind that sounds deep and meaningful at first glance, but upon closer inspection means nothing at all. In Fooled by Randomness, Nassim Nicholas Taleb gives such an example from Hegel:
It is hard to resist discussion of artificial history without comment on the father of all pseudothinkers, Hegel. Hegel writes jargon that is meaningless outside of a chic Left Bank Parisian cafe or the humanities department of some university extremely well insulated from the real world. I suggest this passage from the German 'philosopher' (this passage detected, translated, and reviled by Karl Popper):
Sound is the change in the specific condition of segregation of the material parts, and in the negation of this condition; merely an abstract or an ideal ideality, as it were, of that specification. But this change, accordingly, is itself immediately the negation of the material specific subsistence; which is, therefore, real ideality of specific gravity and cohesion, i.e.--heat. The heating up of the sounding bodies, just as of beaten and or rubbed ones, is the appearance of heat, originating conceptually together with sound.
I won't detain you further. I am sure you want to rush to a good bookstore near you and grab copies of Hegel's books before they go out of stock.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Words that create a mental fog - I

In 1950, computer science pioneer Alan Turing proposed a famous test of computer intelligence: could a program (what we might now call a "chatbot") answer your questions so convincingly that you couldn't tell it apart from a human? A reverse Turing test is a Turing test in which the objective or roles between computers and humans have been reversed

Nassim Nicholas Taleb writes about the reverse Turing test in Fooled by Randomness: a human can be declared unintelligent if his or her writing cannot be told apart from a generated one. The Postmodernism Generator is a computer program that automatically produces imitations of postmodernist writing. It produces random text with correct grammar and makes for hilarious reading of gobbledygook each time you refresh the page. For eg today, I got a treatise on 'Rationalism in the works of Pynchon' by Catherine N. Cameron, Department of Politics, University of Massachusetts, Amherst and Helmut Tilton Department of Semiotics, Carnegie-Mellon University which began as follows:
1. Narratives of meaninglessness
“Society is unattainable,” says Lacan. However, the subject is contextualised into a modern discourse that includes art as a reality. “Consciousness is part of the economy of language,” says Bataille; however, according to d’Erlette[1] , it is not so much consciousness that is part of the economy of language, but rather the collapse, and subsequent fatal flaw, of consciousness. Neocapitalist desituationism implies that reality is responsible for capitalism, but only if sexuality is distinctfrom narrativity. Therefore, any number of discourses concerning the role of the poet as reader exist.
The Chomskybot is another such page which produces imitations of Noam Chomsky writings on linguistics. The creator writes, ‘What I find interesting about it is how it just hovers at the edge of understandability, a sort of semantic mumbling, a fog for the mind's eye.… [It’s] most interesting effects are in the mind of the beholder, especially since its output not infrequently induces a strong feeling of inferiority in the unsuspecting, a sense of "I just don't get it, so I must be dumber than I'd thought."’  Here is an example of the output:
Look On My Words, Ye Mighty, And Despair!
        For one thing, the descriptive power of the base component appears to correlate rather closely with a parasitic gap construction. It may be, then, that any associated supporting element cannot be arbitrary in problems of phonemic and morphological analysis. I suggested that these results would follow from the assumption that this analysis of a formative as a pair of sets of features is not quite equivalent to a corpus of utterance tokens upon which conformity has been defined by the paired utterance test. This suggests that the speaker-hearer's linguistic intuition does not affect the structure of the system of base rules exclusive of the lexicon. Suppose, for instance, that this selectionally introduced contextual feature can be defined in such a way as to impose a general convention regarding the forms of the grammar.
Another such software is the Random Deepak Chopra Quote Generator – Wisdom of Chopra. Every time you refresh the page, you will get some mind numbing words of  Chopra randomly strung together that will stir your soul. In these examples from the generator he doesn't take a long time to make his pointless.
  1. "Transcendence is entangled in the flow of excellence" 
  2. "Your heart constructs a symphony of neural networks" _
  3. "Information shapes formless belonging" _

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Post-traumatic growth

Most people have heard of post traumatic stress. Yet few are aware of post traumatic growth (PTG). The idea of the possibility of finding blessings in bad breaks is said to be present often in the writings of the ancient Greeks, Hebrews, early Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims as also in literature and philosophy. PTG began to be studied in the 1990’s and they indicate that for a substantial number of people, trauma can be a catalyst for positive psychological changes. For eg., people may feel an increased sense of compassion for others, they may have a greater acceptance of their vulnerabilities and limitations, may become less materialistic etc.

While they were not happy about what had happened to them, they felt they had learned valuable lessons from the experience and these lessons eventually changed their lives for the better. They became better parents, better partners, and more compassionate friends. This does not happen immediately or easily, and rarely by itself. The right tools and support are almost always required in order to transform a bad break into a breakthrough. PTG is true not just for life-threatening illness or abuse, but also about everyday traumas such as a divorce, losing a loved one, or a surgery.

This does not mean that trauma is not also distressing. Just because individuals experience growth does not mean that they will not experience struggles. Also, PTG is not universal. It is not uncommon, but that doesn't mean that everybody who faces a traumatic event experiences growth. But there is a view that contrary to popular opinion, experiencing growth after trauma is far more common than PTSD. Richard Tedeschi, Professor and Graduate Coordinator, Department of Psychology, UNC Charlotte, says, 'In the wake of trauma, people become more aware of the futility in life and that unsettles some while it focuses others. This is the paradox of growth: people become more vulnerable, yet stronger.”

An example of PTG  is Dr. Geraat Vermeij, a scientist who I think should be as well-known as Stephen Hawking. He has been blind since the age of 3 but he is an evolutionary biologist, a teacher, was the editor of Evolution, the field's foremost journal, a MacArthur Fellow, an obsessive shell collector, a world- traveled explorer and a field naturalist. Researchers say Dr. Vermeij's findings are among the foundations of the emerging field of paleoecology. He is considered a world authority on the evolution of shells. He has even published on such diverse topics as leaf shape and the evolution of birds. He has the ability to feel differences among shells, quickly identifying them down to the level of subspecies using only his sense of touch.

There are examples  of PTG closer home. We had got a table calendar which featured people from a local NGO called Swarga foundation which performed some services for handicapped people. Jaya rang up the organization to find out if they had some services that I could use. She told the person at the other end about the calendar and enquired about services that they rendered.The other person introduced herself as Swarnalatha and said, ‘I am in March!’ Huh? Jaya was nonplussed for a moment before she realized that the person she was speaking to featured in the March page of the calendar!

I am in March!

Swarnalatha said that they were going to launch a vehicle soon that would help in easier transportation of handicapped people. This service looked attractive for us since shifting me to a car is a difficult task requiring a lot of physical strength. The proposed vehicle was supposed to have a ramp which meant that I could go inside directly seated on my wheelchair. This is the vehicle we now hire when I travel locally, say for going to the hospital, school reunion or for attending a cousin's wedding reception.

Swarnalatha is the Managing Trustee of the organisation. She holds a Diploma in Computer Science and is a post graduate in Hindi and is fluent in 6 languages. She is a Motivational speaker, Social Activist, Singer, Artist (arts & crafts), Puppeteer, Green Crusader, Counsellor, Story writer, Photographer. Also, she is affected with Primary Progressive Multiple Sclerosis since 2009 and is wheelchair-bound. If you look at the other pages of the calendar, you will similarly come across many instances of achievers who have overcome various handicaps viz. a person with Transverse Myelitis who is a Disability rights advocate, Hr consultant and a guest lecturer for management studies or person with Down's Syndrome who is a Bharatanatyam dancer and playschool teaching assistant.