State of Humanity in 2017 – A view from 1920

Following is an excerpt from Beyond the Planet Earth by the Russian scientist and science fiction author Konstantin Tsiolkovsky about the life in 2017, from approximately 100 years ago.

State of Humanity in 2017

What was our Earth like in the year 2017, in which our story is set?

On all Earth there was one beginning: congress, consisting of elective repre­sentatives from all states. It had existed already more than 70 years and resolved all questions concerning humanity. Wars were impossible. Misunderstandings between people were settled by peaceful means. Armies were very limited. Actually, these were armies of labor. Population, with happy enough conditions in the last one hundred years, was trebled. Trade, technology, art, and agriculture attained signif­icant success. Huge metallic dirigibles, lifting thousand of tons, communicated, transported goods conveniently and inexpensively.

Especially beneficial were the huge air ships, sending inexpensive loads, such as trees, coal, metals, and so forth downstream with the wind almost for nothing. Aircraft served for especially fast transfer of small number of passengers or pre­cious cargo; the most commonly used were airplanes for one or two persons.

Humanity marched peaceful on the path of progress. However, fast growth of population forced all thinking people and rulers concern.

Ideas regarding the possibility of technical conquest of use of world deserts were considered long ago, — still more than one hundred years ago. In 1903, one Russian thinker wrote a serious work on this matter and proved mathematically, on the basis of the scientific data of that time, the complete possibility of settle­ment of solar system. But these ideas were almost forgotten, and only our company of scientists revived them and partly carried them out.

Let us first talk about the technological changes he has predicted. He predicts that airships or dirigibles would be a major form of transport for cargo, while aircrafts are used for smaller cargo and passengers. Also, there is an indication in the last paragraph that some space travel has happened.

The political and social scene is something that is off the charts. Tsiolkovsky shows a lot of optimism in how humans are able to resolve their differences and bring forth peace and happiness in all. I think this is a reflection of the zeitgeist of the era. Lot of revolutionary changes were happening which resulted in progress in the fields in almost all fields. So it wouldn’t be a deviation to think that humans would also progress along the same lines and resolve their differences peacefully to live a prosperous and happy life.

You can read Beyond the Planet Earth here as a part the his collected works.

John Tukey on data based pictures and graphs

John Tukey‘s wisdom on importance and value of graphics and pictures in making sense of exploring data.

Consistent with this view, we believe, is a clear demand that pictures based on exploration of data should force their messages upon us. Pictures that emphasize what we already know — “security blankets” to reassure us — are frequently not worth the space they take. Pictures that have to be gone over with a reading glass to see the main point are wasteful of time and inadequate of effect. The greatest value of a picture is when it forces us to notice what we never expected to see. (p. vi emphasis in original)

John Tukey – Exploratory Data Analysis

Galileo’s Experiments on Accelerated Motion

A short account of Galileo’s description of his own experiment on accelerated motion — a short account of it, the apparatus he used and the results he got.

The first argument that Salviati proves is that in accelerated motion the change in velocity is in proportion to the time (𝑣 ∝ 𝑡) since the motion began, and not in proportion to the distance covered (𝑣 ∝ 𝑠) as is believed by Sargedo.

“But for one and the same body to fall eight feet and four feet in the same time is possible only in the case of instantaneous (discontinuous) motion; but observation shows us that the motion of a falling body occupies time, and less of it in covering a distance of four feet than of eight feet; therefore it is not true that its velocity increases in proportion to the space. (Salviati)

Also, he proves that the increase in proportion is not of simple doubling but larger. They agree upon a definition of uniformly accelerated motion,

“A motion is said to be equally or uniformly accelerated when, starting from rest, its momentum receives equal increments in equal times. (Sargedo)

To this definition Salviati adds an assumption about inclined planes, this assumption is that for a given body, the increase in speed while moving down the planes of difference inclinations is equal to the height of the plane. This also includes the case if the body is dropped vertically down, it will still gain the same speed at end of the fall as it would gain from rolling on the incline This assumption makes the final speed independent on the profile of the incline. For example, in the figure below, the body falling along𝐶 → 𝐵, 𝐶 → 𝐷 and 𝐶 → 𝐴 will attain the same final speed.

This result is also proved via a thought experiment (though it might be feasible to do this experiment) for a pendulum. The pendulum rises to the height it was released from and not more.

After stating this theorem, Galileo then suggests the experimental verification of the theorem. of The actual apparatus that Galileo uses is an wooden inclined slope of following dimensions: length 12 cubits (≈ 5.5 m, 1 cubit ≈ 45.7 cm), width half-cubit and three-finger breadths thick . In this plank of wood, he creates a very smooth groove which is about a finger thick. (What was the thickness of Galileo’s fingers?) The incline of this plank are changed by lifting one end. A bronze ball is rolled in this groove and time taken for descent is noted.

“We repeated this experiment more than once in order to measure the time with an accuracy such that the deviation between two observations never exceeded one- tenth of a pulse-beat.

Then Galileo performed variations in the experiment by letting the ball go different lengths (not full) of the incline and “found that the spaces traversed were to each other as the squares of the times, and this was true for all inclinations of the plane”. Each variation was repeated hundreds of times so as to rule out any errors. Also, the fact that for different inclines the times of descent were in noted and were in agreement with the predictions.

Since there were no second resolution clocks to measure time, Galileo devised a method to measure time using water. This was not new, water clocks were used earlier also.

The basic idea was to the measure the amount of water that was collected from the start of the motion to its end. The water thus collected was weighed on a good balance.This weight of water was used as a measure of the time. A sort of calibration without actually measuring the quantity itself: “the differences and ratios of these weights gave us the differences and ratios of the times”

Galileo used a long incline, so that he could measure the time of descent with device he had. If a shorted incline was used, it would have been difficult to measure the shorter interval of time with the resolution he had. Measuring the free fall directly was next to impossible with the technology he had. Thus the extrapolation to the free fall was made continuing the pattern that was observed for the “diluted” gravity.

“You present these recondite matters with too much evidence and ease; this great facility makes them less appreciated than they would be had they been presented in a more abstruse manner. For, in my opinion, people esteem more lightly that knowledge which they acquire with so little labor than that acquired through long and obscure discussion. (Sargedo)

 

Reference

Dialogues Concerning Two New Sciences

Puneral

Pun is a play on words. Sometimes pun is fun. Sometimes it is risqué. Some times it has dirty meaning.  It is considered to be a sign of wit. A mastery of puns is admirable. Is the person who makes a pun called a punner? And sin of making bad puns called punnery?  It makes meaning not literal. It adds a layer of meaning to the words, which goes beyond the literal meaning. But why would anyone want that? If the author wants to convey some other meaning why not write that but go about it in a circuitous way? Not everyone can make sense of puns. Perhaps some puns are too clever for anyone to understand! Maybe all sentences are pun but they are beyond our cognitive capacities to understand them. Sometimes the pun goes unnoticed or sometimes it is feared that one might be construed when there is none.  Then people say “Pun intended”  or “Pun unintended?!” Intending a pun is easy but how does one not intend a pun? At what cognitive stage do humans start to understand and appreciate puns? Are puns present in all languages? But nonetheless there are bad puns and good puns and then there are dead puns. 

When puns are killed, the resultant ceremony in its memory is a puneral. So a puneral is a funeral for puns. Sometimes puns are so bad that it is like murdering them in broad daylight. What are some examples? But is daylight always broad? I should say narrow night light? Or in medium twilight? Is light always needed for murder? How about a no light murder? Would it be heavy then?

News about murdering raisins is in the current affairs section of the paper.

Is this a bad pun? Does it qualify for a puneral?

But anyways. Puneral is the word to describe that event which is the procession for mourning the abuse of puns. It is just me coining new terms with some meaning and/or just writing some nonsense. Earlier I had coined cigol. Go fetch the meaning.

A Puneral Procession? – Owl and Pussycat by Edward Lear

But how would such a procession would look like? Can we at all visualise a puneral? Or it is an abstracted out event coming from nowhere and going to nowhere? Of no fixed address they say. But does a pun have an address? Is a pun always addressed to someone? Can a pun be self-reliant and self-referential? What if a pun commits a suicide? Or it commits a harakiri because it is ashamed at the sheer cheesiness of itself? What do grammar nazis feel about punerals? What about astute english professors? Sorry didn’t Capitalise the “E” in english? Was it intentional non-capitalisation? Does everything have intent? Is every stance intentional? Or is there random blabbering? (some might say just like this post! Is this a self referential sentence?) What can be other meanings of puneral? PUNE Roadways And Logistics? Keep guessing. Or is it PUNE feRAL for feral things in Pune?

Well, who knows about such things?

 

Making the first letter decorative, large and capital in a text using LaTeX

In many of the old books we have the first letter as a large decorative capital. Many times very ornamental typefaces are used. Some examples

Petri Apiani Cosmographia, 1539

Johannes Hevelius Selenographia 1647

Johannes Hevelius  Machina celestis

1882

A Letter from Hevelius on observations of a comet, 1683

Sphaera c. 1230 by Sacro Bosco (Ed. published by Peter Apianus, 1526)

FROM GALILEO TO NUCLEAR AGE LEMON 1949

example of drop caps from old books

VISUAL ILLUSIONS LUCKIESH 1922

Another style that is often employed with the large capital letter is that the rest of the word, or the sentence is in small caps. Now small caps are distinct than the regular caps. They are capitals, but with the x-height of small letters. And small caps usually have slightly larger spacing between the words than the regular one.

RELATIVITY AND ITS ROOTS HOFFMAN 1983

The Night Thoughts of a Classical Physicist McCormmach 1982

The Pleasure of Text Barthes 1975

Now, even in some of the modern books the same effect is used. So if you are looking for a way to achieve this effect using LaTex, then lettrine is the package you are looking for.

Drop caps

The name of this effect is drop caps. When I was searching for finding a solution for achieving this effect, the first block was that I didn’t know what it was called! After a bit of searching here and there I finally came to know about the name: drop caps. So if you are stuck as I was about what this large capital letter style is called, thence the descriptive and verbose title of post.

Now back to LaTeX implementation. lettering gives you several options for customising the drop caps. For the simplest case, we can use the default font of the document

\usepackage{lettrine}

 

\lettrine{W}{hile} overall the work is well informed, I did not like the (almost) condescending tone she uses when discussing anything “free”. 

\lettrine[lines=2,lhang=.1,loversize=0.1]{W}{hile} overall the work is well informed, I did not like the (almost) condescending tone she uses when discussing anything “free”. 

\lettrine{A}{nother} example is needed.

\lettrine[lines=1,lhang=1,loversize=0.5]{W}{hile} overall the work is well informed, I did not like the (almost) condescending tone she uses when discussing anything “free”. 

  \lettrine[lines=3,lhang=0.75,loversize=0.25]{F}{or} example, she (almost) claims only commercial fonts are well designed because

These examples produce the following output

 

Now we can also use fancy header fonts. Have a look at some of them here.

\newfontfamily\zallman[Scale=4]{ZallmanCaps}
\renewcommand*{\LettrineFont}{\zallman}

\newfontfamily\acorn[Scale=4.2]{AcornInitials}

\renewcommand*{\LettrineFont}{\acorn}

You will need to play with the parameters for different fonts to find a better fit for your document.

Now how to add colour?

\lettrine[lines=3]{\color{red}S}{tart} 

\vspace{30pt}

\lettrine{\color{green}W}{hile} overall the work is well informed, I did not like the (almost) condescending tone she uses when discussing anything “free”. 

\lettrine[lines=2,lhang=.1,loversize=0.1]{\color{blue}W}{hile} overall the work is well informed, I did not like the (almost) condescending tone she uses when discussing anything “free”.

Happy typesetting!

A complex systems approach to biology – a review of How Leopard Changed its Spots by Brian Goodwin

How the Leopard Changed it Spots by Brian Goodwin talks about a different approach to biology. After the genetic and molecular biology revolution 1950s onwards, increasingly the organism has been shifted out of focus in biology. Instead genes and their effect, genocentrism or neo-Darwninism, have taken the central stage. Everything in biology is seen as an “action” of genes in addition to natural selection. This translates to reductionism, everything is reduced to genes which are considered as the most fundamental units of life. This is the dominant approach in biology for some decades now. The terms such as “selfish gene” basically highlight this point. Such an approach sidelines the organism as a whole and its environment and highlights the genes alone. Good draws analogy of “word” of god seen as the final one in scriptures to the code alphabet in the genes, as if their actions and results are inevitable and immutable.

Goodwin in his work argues against such an approach using a complex systems perspective. In the process he also critiques what is an acceptable “explanation” in biology vis-a-vis other sciences. The explanation in biology typically is a historical one, in which features and processes are seen in the light of its inheritance and survival value of its properties. This “explanation” does not explain why certain forms are possible. Goodwin with examples establishes how action of genes alone cannot establish the form of the organism (morphogenesis). Genes only play one of the parts in morphogenesis, but are not solely responsible for it (which is how neo-Darwinist account argue). He cites examples from complex systems such as Belousov–Zhabotinsky reaction, ant colonies to establish the fact that in any system there are different levels of organisation. And there are phenomena, emergent phenomena, which cannot be predicted on the basis of the properties constituent parts alone. Simple interactions of components at lower level can give rise to (often) surprising properties at higher level. He is very clear that natural selection is universal (Darwin’s Dangerous Idea?!)

> What this makes clear is that there is nothing particularly biological about natural selection: it is simply a term used by biologists to describe the way in which one form replaces another as a result of their different dynamic properties. This is just a way of talking about dynamic stability, a concept used for a long time in physics and chemistry. We could, if we wished, simply replace the term natural selection with dynamic stabilization, the emergence of the stable states in a dynamic system. p. 53

Goodwin uses the term morphogenetic space to convey the possible shape space that an organism can occupy. Thus seen from a complex systems perspective, the various unit of the organism interact to generate the form of the organism. Natural selection then acts as a coarse sieve on these forms with respect to the environmental landscape. The “aim” of the organism is not the climb the fitness lanscape but to achieve dynamic stability.

> The relevant notion for the analysis of evolving systems is dynamic stability: A necessary (though by no means sufficient} condition for the survival of a species is that its life cycle be dynamically stable in a particular environment. This stability refers to the dynamics of the whole cycle, involving the whole organism as an integrated system that is itself integrated into a greater system, which is its habitat. p. 179

Goodwin takes examples of biological model systems and shows how using mathematical models we can generate their forms. Structure of acetabularia (a largish ~1 inch single cell algae), the structure of eye, the Fibonacci pattern seen in many flower structures being the main examples. Also, how the three basic forms of leaf arrangement can be generated by variations on a theme in the morphospace are discussed in detail. The model shows that three major forms are the most probable ones, which is actually substantiated by observations in nature. In these examples, an holistic approach is taken in which genes, competition and natural selection only play a part are not the main characters but are interacting and cooperating with levels of organisation of the organism, environmental factors in the drama of life.

> Competition has no special status in biological dynamics, where what is important is the pattern of relationships and interactions that exist and how they contribute to the behavior of the system as an integrated whole.The problem of origins requires an understanding of how new levels of order emerge from complex patterns of interaction and what the properties of these emergent structures are in terms of their robustness to perturbation and their capacity for self-maintenance. Then all levels of order and organization are recognized as equally important in understanding the behavior of living systems, and the reductionist insistence on some basic material level of cause and explanation, such as molecules and genes, can be recognized as an unfortunate fashion or prejudice that is actually bad science. P.181

Since I am already a believer of the complex systems perspective, I was aware of some of the arguments in this book, but the particular worked examples and their interpretation for biology was a fresh experience.

 

 

On the new “Block Editor” of WordPress

In your life there are some irritating characters. People who irritate you to no end. Maybe its their behavior, body language, or way they speak or dress. They just infuriate you and you cannot tolerate their presence. In case you cannot ask them to effoff, you just get the interaction with them over as soon as possible. Yet they persist.

Similarly, there are software applications which fit in this role of irritating characters. They bug you to do things which it (meaning the software designers) think is the “correct” way. One such crappy piece of software is the new “block editor” of wordpress. It is an application which irritates and interferes in the very process of writing a blog. Maybe there are people who like it, (to each their own). But I personally think the block editor is a cook book of how not to design software. Or Maybe I am too old to make new chic editors work well for me.

Every time it bugs you. Like a cheap salesman trying to sell his shitty wares to you. I am not sure why I can’t use the “classic editor” if I am more comfortable with it. Why is wordpress hell bent shoving this un-user friendly piece of software down to everyone’s posts? The block editor may have its advantages, but not for me.  I prefer simple editor which allows me to focus on the writing instead of a menu popping every now and then which I have to click to dismiss. If I want a block I will call it, I don’t want the editor to push a block between me and my post. Block editor is defective by design in a way.

And there is no way you can turn it off unless you pay. WordPress perhaps knows this, that their editor is trash. Hence only with a hefty upgrade of “business” plan you can get it off your back by installing a “plugin” for classic editor, which should be there by default in the first place. This is akin to ransomware. You pay us or you continue to have shitty, sub-optimal experience with irritating pop-ups. Mind you I am not talking about completely free wordpress installation, it doesn’t even come with “personal” or “premium” plans so even with paid service they don’t want you to have any control over what editor you use.

So my workflow is now, to create a new post in “block editor”, then save a draft, return to the “All posts” and then continue with classic editor. Even then it continuously bugs you if I want to edit in the block editor, if I wanted to I would have, Now since I don’t want, can you please effoff and store this simple request of using classic editor next time?

No it won’t. Aren’t software designers at wordpress capable of understanding this simple request? Or they are doing it willingly to force people to move to their way however irritating and uncomfortable they are?

If wordpress even removes this support for classic editor, I will surely leave this platform and take my blog somewhere else. I was contemplating to leave it this year, but my lethargy prevented me from doing it. But then, lethargy has its limits and and so has patience in dealing with (purposefully) badly designed software applications and processes.

 

 

Forever Free Fonts

There are fonts and there are fonts. One of my earliest recollections of cognising that there are different “fonts” is from a typewritten letter I saw in my childhood (perhaps in the early-mid 90s). Though I didn’t know the term “font” then. Now I had seen typewritten materials earlier, as our exam papers were typewritten. But this said letter was somehow “different”. I didn’t know exactly what was different, but that letter and the typewritten text felt so elegant and aesthetic (again these words I didn’t know then, but trying to reconstruct my feelings from that time) as compared to the other typewritten documents that I had seen. The fact that I still remember that letter implies that it must have had some impact on my mind at that time. After that the printed “text” was never the same. I always tried to “see” the shapes of the text that I would read. Hence I “discovered” that the “fonts” in my school textbooks, and other books are different. I also discovered sans and serif in this way, but didn’t know the terms for them till a few years later. Thus began the journey to look at fonts keenly. Even with my handwriting, I developed 3-4 different scripts. None were cursive. I would play with the slant, then height of the letters, and my fountain pens did play the capable tools. With the computers came in plethora of fonts, more than you could count and keep track of. In the various image editing programmes the fonts achieve prime importance. A good font can make or break a document. It can render something mundane or render it to aesthetic appeal.

A good scientific question to think about is how does our cognitive system recognise that it is the same letter even if it is written in different fonts? Everyone’s handwriting is different even then (if they are legible) we can read and understand what they have written. This would imply that our cognitive system for recognising font faces as particular characters of language must be very very flexible. Any rigidity and we would not communicate. Douglas Hofstadter considers this very question in one of his essays Variations on a Theme as the Crux of Creativity in the Metamagical Themas (an anagram of “Mathematical Games”  by Martin Gardner whose columns Hofstadter replaced) column in Scientific American. The compilation of the columns was later published as a book in 1985.

FIGURE 12-3. 56 As in different styles, all drawn from a recent Letraset catalogue. The names of their respective typefaces are given on the facing page. To native readers of the Latin alphabet, it is an almost immediate visual experience to recognize how any one of them is an ‘A’. No conscious processing is required. A couple of these seem far-fetched, but the rest are quite obvious. The most canonical of all 56 is probably Univers (D-3). Note that no single feature, such as having a pointed top or a horizontal crossbar (or even a crossbar at all!) is reliable. Even being open at the bottom is unreliable. What is going on here? p. 243

Hence we have more and more fonts. Some very legible and some not so much.

Though I never somehow liked Times New Roman or Arial, which arguably might be the most popular fonts in documents (how do you find out the most used font?). Might be because they are default fonts on MS Word. One of my earliest, serious documents that I had to prepare on the computer was the project report of my bachelors programme. I did use MS Word, but the font used was Bookman Old Style. And the document did look different than the rest.

I did have a lot of fonts at that point. I installed all fonts that I could get my hands on. Remember this is early 2000, finding free resources on the internet was not easy, and downloading and getting them to your computer was even a bigger an issue (particularly large files). I owe to Viktor Juliet Papa most of my computer knowledge. Because of his mentoring I could muster guts to take out my HDD to cafe where he was the manager, to get downloaded stuff back. (Again only, portable data transfer devices were 3.5 inch floppy drives with 1.44 MB memory. Good luck with transferring 100s of MBs!, my main disk was 8G for reference) So much to risk, but no risk no gain.

Then in that summer during my internship at the University, I discovered LaTeX. And Computer Modern. It looked sooo elegant compared to TNR or Arial. And it had all the mathematical symbols too. At that point, you had to edit the tex file separately, and then compile it via terminal. It would produce a dvi file, which you would convert to postscript via dvi2ps, and then to pdf via ps2pdf. But it was all worth it! The output was divine compared to plebian MS Word. They say LaTeX doesn’t work well for people who have sold their souls! So my report for masters just two years later was in LaTeX. And I never switched back for most serious documents.

In the earliest days, there were very limited fonts in LaTeX. But with packages like XeLaTeX and LuaLaTeX you can use any system fonts in your documents, including non-Roman scripts also. Now there are native packages also which have a variety of fonts. So in my PhD I used Linux Libertine as the main font and associated Linux Biolinum as the Sans font. Wikipedia logo uses Linux Libertine.

 

Now with libertinus package you can use it with pdfLaTeX, no need to use XeLaTeX/LuaLaTeX (though some might find this step regressive). The font  comes with full math support, so that you can write the documents seamlessly.

 

Another nice set of fonts with full math support are kpfonts. Though I do not personally like the default sans that is bundled with it.

And one of the more elegant math fonts is urw-garamond, garamondx with mathdesign. Though this set has licensing restrictions that you may not like.

A sans math variant, that I have used occasionally is the GFS Neohellenic from the Greek Font Society.

These days for most of my Office documents (including google docs) I use EB Garamond for serif. It is too good.

And Quattracento Sans. For monofonts, particularly to be used in text editors (Emacs, I still use Linux Biolinum

in TeXShop I use Average Mono.

Some of the other sans fonts that I do use often are

GeoSans Light, Comfortaa and Josefin Sans.

For fixed width fonts, Latin Modern and Inconsolata, TeX Gyre Cursor are used. See the programming fonts in the list below

 

For handwriting effect there are several nice fonts that I have used. The best ones are Purisa, Comili

Amatic SC is a very elegant font for titles

New fonts will be continually developed. And for me fonts being free  (as in freedom) is the most significant aspect. Given this there is a large number of fonts which have been released under GPL, OFL and similar open licenses. Fonts released GPL license come with the font exception. Below is a partial list of free (as in freedom) fonts which you can browse to get the font for your needs (though some might have non-free content). The listing is alphabetical

Arkandis Digital Foundry  Not updated since 2015, but has nice fonts

Font Library (a largish list of Free Fonts with various licenses)

Google Fonts  Several nice fonts, in different scripts too.

LaTeX Font Catalog contains OTF and TTF files as well, my go to site for choosing LaTeX fonts

 

 

Lesser Known Programming Fonts

Programming Fonts (check individual licenses)

Let me know any other links to font databases which have free (as in freedom) fonts.

Happy typesetting!

Color and underline text in LaTeX

For a particular project, I had a requirement that the text be coloured as well as underlined. Now making text underlined in LaTeX has a default support in the form of \underline{text}, which simply produces an underlined text.

But what if you want to customise the underlining, for example, change the thickness of the underline, or its distance from the text baseline. Or simply you might want to have a different colour for the underline. There are several packages which allow you to customise this exact requirement.

For the present post I will choose the soul package which has some other goodies for typesetting as well. You can load the package with \usepackage{soul} Along with underlining, you have have strikeout and highlight. To setup the underline, soul package gives three options, underline depth, underline thickness and underline colour (page 12-13 of the package documentation).

You can set this in the preamble

\setul{⟨underline depth⟩}{⟨underline thickness⟩}

It is recommended that the units of these lengths are in ex, so that they are relative to the font size. For example,

\setul{0.3ex}{0.1ex}

To use it in the document \ul{underlined text} will produce

Another option is to set the colour of the underline. This can be done with

\setulcolor{gray}

With this option, the above code will look like

The color option can be changed anywhere in the document, so you can have change of colours as required. Defining in the preamble has a universal effect.

So far so good. Now in this case I wanted the underlined text to be of different colour. For this one can define a newcommand with text colour option.

\newcommand{\ublue}[1]{{\color{SteelBlue}\ul{#1}}}

I am also using the svgnames option from the xcolor package for calling colours by names.

\usepackage[svgnames]{xcolor}

In the main text, you can use it as \ublue{coloured and underlined text} to produce the required result. Will produce 

 

 

How many photos are enough?

A photo taken at eye of the Mooi River. I wish I had taken perhaps hundreds of photos, but alas I have only a few.

Whenever I go to an interesting place or look at something interesting, I try to take photos. Though recently in last couple of years this has gone down a bit. But now that I have a camera phone, I try to make up for it. When I am in the process of taking photos, I try to take as many angles and frames as possible. And at that time, it seems whatever photos I have taken are enough or sometimes even think that they are more than sufficient. All the angles and frames are covered. I try to take macro shots if its an object, and some full frame shots. And I am actually satisfied with the quality and quantity of the photos at that moment. And I smugly leave subjecting that subject to further assaults of the camera lens.

But then, when I look at the photos again, I realise that I have taken too few! I then realise a few more photos could have been better, maybe this frame or this angle is missing. And then I despair. While it would have made sense in the era of film cameras, to conserve the film, in the era of the digital, the preview makes it possible for us to delete something which was not good. So you can spend slightly more on experimenting with the photos. But alas, I still have hard time convincing myself that I have not taken enough photos, and always end up taking too few..

An account of Nagpur state from 1790

This is an interesting account of Nagpur state from late eighteenth century. It is part of a small book titled Journal Of A Route To Nagpore by Daniel Robinson Leckie. I have taken some liberty to replace the long s typeset as f with regular s. For example, coft is cost. Some of the names are in archaic English but one can make sense of the them. For example Peshwa is Paishwah. This account shows the extent of the Rajah of Nagpore’s territories as well as some peculiarities of the region. Some of the places that are mentioned are the fortifications, palace, Jumma Talao, Sakkardarah etc. The account also has a short, somewhat incorrect, history of the house of the Bhoslas. Leckie says the Nagpur Bhoslas were descended from Shivaji’s house which clearly was not the case. Also there are remarks on the current affairs of the Nagpur state with the Peshwa in Pune and Chatrapati in Satara.

ACCOUNT OF NAGPORE,

&c. &c.

NAGPORE, situated in 79º 46′ east longitude from Greenwich, and 21º 49′ north latitude, is the present capital of Gondwauna1, a name little known to Europeans, perhaps owing to the remote situation of it from our settlements, and the Rauj2 of that name having been dismembered before we possessed any territory in India, at which time the comparatively confined state of the affairs of the Company did not lead to geographical inquiries.

I have taken no small degree of pains to ascertain the boundaries of Gondwauna; and though I will not pretend to say that the information I have procured is in every respect: exact, yet it may serve to give a general idea of the extent of the country.

It is not amiss to observe, that the people of this place are by no means communicative, and very circumspedt in giving information, particularly to Europeans, and it has cost me no small degree of trouble to collect what trifling information this account contains.

Gondwauna is bounded on the north-east; by an imaginary line, drawn from the town of Belhare to the city of Ruttunpoor; on the south-east by such another imaginary line, drawn from Ruttunpoor through the village of Soormul (situated about five coss to the north-east of Nurrah, which last is laid down in the map), to the junction of the Oordah and Beingunga rivers; on the south-wedt by the Oordah (Wadha) river; and pn the north-east by that chain of mountains which separates it from Malwa.

When Gondwauna was partly reduced by Aulumgwer, he obliged a great number of the natives together with the Rajah, to embrace the Mahomedan religion ; and the country remained for a series of years in this situation, the Rajah paying a fort of homage to the Moghul, as lord paramount : when, in the beginning of the present century, Ragojee Bhooshla, descended from the great Sevagi, reduced the greatest part of Gondwauna, to the south of the Nurbudda, with the province of Berar. The lenity with which he treated the Gonde Rajah deserves particular mention, as it shows a trait of humanity in the Merhattahs worthy of the highest pitch of civilization. He not only abstained from all forts of personal violence, but allotted three lachs of rupees annually for the Gonde Rajah’s maintenance, and the fort for him to live in, by no means as a confinement. Burhaun Shah, the son of the conquered Rajah, has still handsome allowances, and the fort to live in ; and the confidence which the late Moodajee placed in him was great: for what could be a greater mark of it in the East, than putting his family and women under his charge when he went upon any warlike expedition? which he constantly did.

Ragojee was the founder of Nagpore, which he surrounded with a rampart, it being only an insignificant village appertaining to the fort prior to his capture of it. It is situated oh a high plain, is richly cultivated, and produces fine wheat, and bounded by hills to the north- west and south. The Nag Nudde, a rivulet running to the southward, gives name to the town.

The houses are generally meanly built and covered with tiles, and the streets are narrow and filthy. The only good building is the palace, begun by the late Moodajee, and now finishing by his fon, the present Rajah ; it is built of a blue done dug out of a quarry in large blocks on the western skirts of the town. The present Rajah, however, has destroyed the grand effect which would have been produced by the stone alone, by intermixing brick-work in the building. There is a very large and deep3 tank near the west gate, called Jumma Tallow, three sides of which are handsomely built up with masonry ; and the Rajah has a foundery to the southward of the town, called Shukerderri, where he calls tolerably good brass guns. There, with some few gardens of the Rajah’s, neatly laid out in walks planted with cypress-trees, and interspersed with fountains, are the only places of note at Nagpore.

It should appear that Major Rennell (Memoir, second edition, 4to. page 12) is not perfectly clear with regard to the idea he has formed of the Merhattah state, that all the chiefs owe a fort of obedience to the Paishwah, resembling that of the German Princes to the Emperor. The account I heard from the Dewaun4 in the Durbar5 was,

But the fine extensive country which the Paishwah occupies, together with the advantage of playing the Sattarah puppet, will always give him influence with the other chiefs.

“That there is a person whom they call the representative of the Rauj, who is kept in the fort of Sattarah, and he is treated with all imaginable respect when he makes his appearance at Poonah, which is only upon particular occassions ; and when at Sattarah he is supplied with every luxury, and magnificently attended. On the demise of this image of government the handsome son of some poor man is chosen to supply his room. The Paishwah is prime minister to the Merhattah state; the Rajah of Nagpore, &c. commander in chief of the armies ; and they, as well as the rest of the chiefs, call themselves. servants of the Rauj; and none acknowledges the least immediate authority of the Paishwah, but they are all bound in cafes of necessity to render mutual assistance to each other, for the public good of the constitution.’’

The present Rajah, Rogojee Bhooshla, the grandson of the Conqueror (Ragojee the first was succeeded by his eldest son, Jannojee who was succeeded by his brother Sabage, who was slain in battle by Moodajee, the father of the. present Rajah. I have not the particulars their histories) does not seem to be either adapted to civil or military business ; he is generally dressed plainly in white, but wears costly diamonds and pearls; his behaviour is courteous to strangers. His great penchant is for elephants and mares. He has about 200 of the former, the finest; I ever beheld; and they are fed so sumptuously with sugar-cane, treacle, ghee, &c.. and not unfrequently fowl pallow, that they become almost mad with lust, breaking their chains and doing great mischief, which is considered by the Merhattahs as fine sport. The principal people about the Rajah are, his brother, Munnea Bapoo, a very quiet young man; Bhowaunny Caulloo, the Dewaun, a shrewd old fellow, and his nephew, Pondrang, the commander and paymaster of the army; Siree Dhur, the Monshee; and Mahadajee Leshkery, the Rajah’s confident, who is consulted on all occasions.

The Rajah does not keep up above 10,000 horse, the pay of which, as is the custom among all native princes, is irregularly distributed. He has two battalions of Sepoys, armed and clothed like ours ; and although they have been drilled by black officers, formerly belonging either to the Nabob of Lucknow, or our service, yet they go through their exercise very badly, and I do not think they will be able to make a stand against any body of native Sepoys disciplined by European officers.

I have heard that the total collections of the Rajah’s dominions, including Ruttunpore and Cuttae, only amount to seventy lacks of rupees per annum. I will not, however, pretend to affirm that this is exact though I do not think it can much exceed that sum; for the Rajah’s country, notwithstanding the great extent of it, does not contain a proportionable quantity of cultivated land to that which is waste and occupied by forests.

It is generally supposed that Nagpore is the capital of Berar. This is evidently a mistake. The inhabitants of Nagpore talk relatively of Berar as an adjoining province, as we do of Bahar to Bengal; and it has been shown that Nagpore is a city of late date. Elichpour is the capital of Berar, by the accounts I have received from the natives, who represent it as a very ancient city, and much larger than Nagpore.

A custom prevails in this town, which I cannot forbear taking notice of, because it serves to prove that long usage will give a plausibility to things seemingly the most preposterous. The bramins and best people at Nagpore have women attendants upon their families, whom they breed up from their childhood, and are called Butkies, or Slauls. They attend on their masters and mistresses during the day-time, and are permitted to go to any man they please in the night; some of them become very rich, and they are in general very handsome, fine women.

Nagpore,

August 20, 1790.

(Daniel Robinson Leckie)

Journal Of A Route To Nagpore

1The three ancient capitals of Gondwauna were Gurry Mudlah, Gurry *****, and Deogur.

2The dominion of a Raujah is called a Rauj, that of a King is denominated a kingdom.

3Pond

4Minister

5Court

The Astronomers

Looking at this vast natural drama from their observation posts on the minute planet Earth as it revolves around the insignificant star called the sun, a handful of astronomers seek to gain an understanding of the cosmos. Using instruments constructed from materials found on their planet, they follow the activities in space from their observatories and launch rocket-borne telescopes from Earth. Some people confuse them with astrologers, but astronomers reject all such notions of kinship; others look up to them because their thoughts and ideas move in realms beyond the imagination of those of us engaged in everyday activities. Their work brings them a step closer to creation, at least to the creation of the uninhabited world, but they are sober scientists who do not attempt to adduce ethical norms from the phenomena they observe. Their involvement with cosmic matters does not make them better human beings. They are not motivated solely by a dedication to greater knowledge. As is true of other segments of human society, thoughts of competition and career advancement enter into their calculations; quite a few discoveries grew out of just such considerations. Yet this is not to deny, as we shall learn, that we find among them a passion for knowledge and much friendly cooperation. The fruit of their research is the work of human beings and as such is often imperfect, even erroneous. But despite setbacks the course of the science of astronomy, beginning with the Babylonians and culminating in modern astrophysics, has led ever forward.

Rudolph Kippenhahn, 100 Billion Suns p. 6-7

Bertrand Russel’s proof of naïve realism being false

What is naïve realism you may ask? To put simply naïve realism is a belief that whatever you see with your senses is the reality. There is nothing more to reality than what your sense perceptions bring to you. It is a direct unmediated access to reality. There is no “interpretation” involved.

In philosophy of perception and philosophy of mind, naïve realism (also known as direct realism, perceptual realism, or common sense realism) is the idea that the senses provide us with direct awareness of objects as they really are. When referred to as direct realism, naïve realism is often contrasted with indirect realism.

Naïve Realism

To put this in other words, naïve realism fails to distinguish between the phenomenal and the physical object. That is to say, all there is to the world is how we perceive it, nothing more.

Bertrand Russel gave a one line proof of why naïve realism is false. And this is the topic of this post. Also, the proof has some implications for science education, hence the interest.

Naive realism leads to physics, and physics, if true, shows that naive realism is false. Therefore naive realism, if true, is false; therefore it is false.

As quoted in Mary Henle – On the Distinction Between the Phenomenal and the Physical Object, John M. Nicholas (ed.), Images, Perception, and Knowledge, 187-193. (1977)

Henle in her rather short essay (quoted above) on this makes various philosophically oriented arguments to show that it is an easier position to defend when we make a distinction between the two.

But considering the “proof” of Russel, I would like to bring in evidence from science education which makes it even more compelling. There is a very rich body of literature on the theme of misconceptions or alternative conceptions among students and even teachers. Many of these arise simply because of a direct interpretation of events and objects around us.

Consider a simple example of Newton’s first law of motion.

In an inertial frame of reference, an object either remains at rest or continues to move at a constant velocity, unless acted upon by a force.

Now for the naïve realists this will never be possible, as they will never see an object going by itself without application of any force. In real world, friction will bring to halt bodies which are moving. Similar other examples from the misconceptions also do fit in this pattern. This is perhaps so because most of the science is counter-intuitive in nature. With our simple perception we can only do a limited science (perhaps create empirical laws). So one can perhaps say that learners with alternative conceptions hold naïve realist world-view (to some degree) and the role of science education is to change this.

Orwellian Days

Orwellian Days

To the Editor:

These are Orwellian days when war is peace and a xxx per cent national unemployment is a rising economy. Yet despite this deranged logic, there is more to be concerned about on the national scene, and that is the casual acceptance by the populace of almost every conceivable immoral or unethical practice on the part of the Administration. Whether it be the I.T.T. scandal, the Watergate bugging, the wheat deal or the bombing of civilians, it all seems to be accepted with a shrug. All this is ample evidence that we have died spiritually, and we are ready for totalitarianism. I remember once a high administration official was fired for accepting an overcoat as a gift.

Gordon Fels

Richmond, Oct. 16, 1972

The Calculus Bottleneck

What if someone told you that learners in high-school don’t actually need calculus as a compulsory subject for a career in STEM? Surely I would disagree. After all, without calculus how will they understand many of the topics in the STEM. For example basic Newtonian mechanics? Another line of thought that might be put forth is that calculus allows learners to develop an interest in mathematics and pursue it as a career. But swell, nothing could be farther from truth. From what I have experienced there are two major categories of students who take calculus in high school. The first category would be students who are just out of wits about calculus, its purpose and meaning. They just see it as another infliction upon them without any significance. They struggle with remembering the formulae and will just barely pass the course (and many times don’t). These students hate mathematics, calculus makes it worse. Integration is opposite of differentiation: but why teach it to us?

The other major category of students is the one who take on calculus but with a caveat. They are the ones who will score in the 80s and 90s in the examination, but they have cracked the exam system per se. And might not have any foundational knowledge of calculus. But someone might ask how can one score 95/100 and still not have foundational knowledge of the subject matter? This is the way to beat the system. These learners are usually drilled in solving problems of a particular type. It is no different than chug and slug. They see a particular problem – they apply a rote learned method to solve it and bingo there is a solution. I have seen students labour “problem sets” — typically hundreds of problems of a given type — to score in the 90s in the papers. This just gives them the ability to solve typical problems which are usually asked in the examinations. Since the examination does not ask for questions based on conceptual knowledge – it never gets tested. Perhaps even their teachers if asked conceptual questions will not be able to handle them — it will be treated like a radioactive waste and thrown out — since it will be out of syllabus.

There is a third minority (a real minority, and may not be real!, this might just be wishful thinking) who will actually understand the meaning and significance of the conceptual knowledge, and they might not score in the 90s. They might take a fancy for the subject due to calculus but the way syllabus is structured it is astonishing that any students have any fascination left for mathematics. Like someone had said: the fascination for mathematics cannot be taught it must be caught. And this is exactly what MAA and NCTM have said in their statement about dropping calculus from high-school.

What the members of the mathematical community—especially those in the Mathematical Association of America (MAA) and the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM)—have known for a long time is that the pump that is pushing more students into more advanced mathematics ever earlier is not just ineffective: It is counter-productive. Too many students are moving too fast through preliminary courses so that they can get calculus onto their high school transcripts. The result is that even if they are able to pass high school calculus, they have established an inadequate foundation on which to build the mathematical knowledge required for a STEM career. (emphasis added)

The problem stems from the fact that the foundational topics which are prerequisites for calculus are on shaky grounds. No wonder anything build on top of them is not solid. I remember having very rudimentary calculus in college chemistry, when it was not needed and high-flying into physical meaning of derivatives in physics which was not covered enough earlier. There is a certain mismatch between the expectations from the students and their actual knowledge of the discipline as they come to college from high-school.

Too many students are being accelerated, short-changing their preparation in and knowledge of algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and other precalculus topics. Too many students experience a secondary school calculus course that drills on the techniques and procedures that will enable them to successfully answer standard problems, but are never challenged to encounter and understand the conceptual foundations of calculus. Too many students arrive at college Calculus I and see a course that looks like a review of what they learned the year before. By the time they realize that the expectations of this course are very different from what they had previously experienced, it is often too late to get up to speed.

Though they conclude that with enough solid conceptual background in these prerequisites it might be beneficial for the students to have a calculus course in the highschool.

The problem with what is taught in schools

Many people have written on the problem of what is taught in schools and why children don’t like what they study. One of the major issue seems to be there is no direct relevance to what children are taught in the school and their own personal and social lives. The content in the school textbooks has been dissected of any meaningful connections that the children could make in their real lives. The school tasks are decontextualised so that they become insulated from the real world. The quote below very nicely captures what I wanted to say on this issue.

These kinds of situated-learning tasks are different from most school tasks, because school tasks are decontextualized. Imagine learning tennis by being told the rules and practicing the forehand, backhand, and serve without ever playing or seeing a tennis match. If tennis were taught that way, it would be hard to see the point of what you were learning. But in school, students are taught algebra and Shakespeare without cognitive apprenticeship being given any idea of how they might be useful in their lives. That is not how a coach would teach you to play tennis. A coach might first show you how to grip and swing the racket, but very soon you would be hitting the ball and playing games. A good coach would have you go back and forth between playing games and working on particular skills – combining global and situated learning with focused local knowledge.

Allan Collins – Cognitive Apprenticeship (The Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences)

Papert too has some nice metaphors for this, and constructionism hence includes problems or projects which are personally meaningful to the learner so that they are contextualised withing the lives of the learners..

Book Review: Ages in Chaos by Stephen Baxter

Ages in Chaos is a scientific biography of James Hutton by Stephen Baxter. Hutton was a Scottish scientist who also played his part in Scottish enlightenment. Hutton was the first to speculate on the idea deep time required for geological processes at the end of 1700s arguing with evidence he collected. He was trained as a medical doctor, practiced farming for 10 odd years and had continued his explorations of geology throughout. The prevalent theories of geology, called Neptunists, posited that water was the change agent. Hutton on the other hand posited that it was heat which was responsible for changes, hence Vulcanists. Also, another thing was that of time needed for this change. As others of his era, Hutton was deeply religious, like Newton, wanted to find evidence for creation as per bible.

During his time, especially popular was the idea of flood as per Bible, while the Earth was literally considered to be 6000 years old. This created a problem for Hutton, who was labelled to be atheist and heretic for suggesting that Earth is much older and that there was no design. But Hutton was a conformist and wanted to find a uniform evidence for all observable aspects. He was not like a modern scientist, as he is painted many times. The ideas were vehemently attacked on each point. Though he went to the field to find geological examples for this theory. James Watt, Black and John Playfair were his friends and provided him with evidence in the form of rock samples. During his lifetime, Hutton’s ideas will not find much audience. But due to his friends, his ideas sustained a a barrage of criticisms. Only in the next generation with Lyell this work would find acceptance. This idea of a deep time was crucial in formation Darwin’s theory.

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/157978.Ages_in_Chaos

The book reads well mostly, but at times a complete lack of illustrations in the forms of geological artefacats and maps (of Scotland) makes it difficult to read well.

Book Review: Pendulum: Léon Foucault and the Triumph of Science by Amir D. Aczel

The book traces Leon Foucault’s ingenious approach to solving the problem of providing a terrestrial proof of rotation of the Earth. The pendulum he devised oscillates in a constant plane, and if properly engineered (as he did) can actually show the rotation of the Earth. The demonstration is one the most visually impressive scientific experiments. Also, Foucault gave prediction, an equation which would tell us how the pendulum will behave at different parts of the Earth. The pure mathematicians and physicists alike were taken aback at this simple yet powerful demonstration of the proof which eluded some of the most brilliant minds, which includes likes of Galileo and Newton. Rushed mathematical proofs were generated, some of the mathematicians earlier had claimed that no such movement was possible. That being said, Foucault was seen as an outsider by the elite French Academy due to his lack of training and degree. Yet he was good in designign things and making connections to science. This was presented to the public in 1851, and the very next year in 1852 he created another proof for rotation of the Earth. This was done by him inventing the gyroscope.. Gyroscope now plays immense role in navigation and other technologies. Yet he was denied membership to the Academy, only due to interest of the Emperor Napolean III in his work in 1864. The pendulum is his most famous work, but other works are also of fundamental significance.

  • He was first person to do photomicrography using Daguerreotype
  • Accurate measurment of speed of light using rotating mirrors –
  • Devised carbon arc electric lamp for lighting of micrcoscope
  • One of the first to Daguerreotype the Sun
  • Designed the tracking systems used in telescopes
  • also designed many motors, regulators to control electrical devices

There are a couple of places in the book where Aczel seems to be confused, at one point he states parallax as a proof for rotation of Earth around its axis, whearas it is more of a proof of Earths motion around the Sun. At another place he states that steel was invented in 1800s which perhaps he means to say that it was introduced in the west at the time. Apart from this the parallels between the rise of Napoleon III, a Nephew of Napolean, to form the second Empire in France and Foucault’s own struggle for recognition of his work and worth is brought out nicely.

Conditioning hatred for books

INFANT NURSERIES. NEO-PAVLOVIAN CONDITIONING ROOMS, announced the notice board.

The Director opened a door. They were in a large bare room, very bright and sunny; for the whole of the southern wall was a single win-dow. Half a dozen nurses, trousered and jacketed in the regulation white viscose-linen uniform, their hair aseptically hidden under white caps, were engaged in setting out bowls of roses in a long row across the floor. Big bowls, packed tight with blossom. Thousands of petals, ripe-blown and silkily smooth, like the cheeks of innumerable little cherubs, but of cherubs, in that bright light, not exclusively pink and Aryan, but also luminously Chinese, also Mexican, also apoplectic with too much blowing of celestial trumpets, also pale as death, pale with the posthumous whiteness of marble.

The nurses stiffened to attention as the D.H.C. came in.

“Set out the books,” he said curtly.

In silence the nurses obeyed his command. Between the rose bowls the books were duly set out-a row of nursery quartos opened invitingly each at some gaily coloured image of beast or fish or bird.

“Now bring in the children.”

They hurried out of the room and returned in a minute or two, each
pushing a kind of tall dumb-waiter laden, on all its four wire-netted
shelves, with eight-month-old babies, all exactly alike (a Bokanovsky
Group, it was evident) and all (since their caste was Delta) dressed in
khaki.

“Put them down on the floor.” The infants were unloaded.

“Now turn them so that they can see the flowers and books.”

Turned, the babies at once fell silent, then began to crawl towards those clusters of sleek colours, those shapes so gay and brilliant on the white pages. As they approached, the sun came out of a momentary eclipse behind a cloud. The roses flamed up as though with a sudden passion from within; a new and profound significance seemed to suffuse the shining pages of the books. From the ranks of the crawling babies came little squeals of excitement, gurgles and twitterings of pleasure.

The Director rubbed his hands. “Excellent!” he said. “It might almost have been done on purpose.”

The swiftest crawlers were already at their goal. Small hands reached out uncertainly, touched, grasped, unpetaling the transfigured roses, crumpling the illuminated pages of the books. The Director waited until all were happily busy. Then, “Watch carefully,” he said. And, lifting his hand, he gave the signal.

The Head Nurse, who was standing by a switchboard at the other end of the room, pressed down a little lever.

There was a violent explosion. Shriller and ever shriller, a siren shrieked. Alarm bells maddeningly sounded.

The children started, screamed; their faces were distorted with terror.

“And now,” the Director shouted (for the noise was deafening), “now we proceed to rub in the lesson with a mild electric shock.”

He waved his hand again, and the Head Nurse pressed a second lever. The screaming of the babies suddenly changed its tone. There was something desperate, almost insane, about the sharp spasmodic yelps to which they now gave utterance. Their little bodies twitched and stiffened; their limbs moved jerkily as if to the tug of unseen wires.

“We can electrify that whole strip of floor,” bawled the Director in explanation. “But that’s enough,” he signalled to the nurse.

The explosions ceased, the bells stopped ringing, the shriek of the siren died down from tone to tone into silence. The stiffly twitching bodies relaxed, and what had become the sob and yelp of infant maniacs broadened out once more into a normal howl of ordinary terror.

“Offer them the flowers and the books again.”

The nurses obeyed; but at the approach of the roses, at the mere sight of those gaily-coloured images of pussy and cock-a-doodle-doo and baa-baa black sheep, the infants shrank away in horror, the volume of their howling suddenly increased.

“Observe,” said the Director triumphantly, “observe.”

Books and loud noises, flowers and electric shocks-already in the infant mind these couples were compromisingly linked; and after two hundred repetitions of the same or a similar lesson would be wedded indissolubly. What man has joined, nature is powerless to put asunder.

“They’ll grow up with what the psychologists used to call an ‘instinctive’ hatred of books and flowers. Reflexes unalterably conditioned. They’ll be safe from books and botany all their lives.” The Director turned to his nurses. “Take them away again.”

Aldous Huxley, Brave New World

Though fictionalised the above passages capture what makes people hate books in general. The conditioning happens in reality in a more subtle manner. The conditioning laboratory is the school. In school children are made to engage with the books, textbooks in most cases, in the most artificial and dishonest matter. Another problem is the quality of textbooks themselves. Though the school has a “textbook culture”, not enough effort is put in by the writers and designers of the textbooks to make the best that they can offer. Instead cheap, copy-paste techniques, and a mix-and-match fashioned content is crammed and printed onto those pages glued together called as textbooks. No wonder, people when they grow up don’t like books or run away at the sight of them. Its just behaviorism at work with Pavlov portrait in the background.

Schooled and unschooled education

It is difficult now to challenge the school as a system because we are
so used to it. Our industrial categories tend to define results as
products of specialized institutions and instruments, Armies produce
defence for countries. Churches procure salvation in an
afterlife. Binet defined intelligence as that which his tests
test. Why not, then, conceive of education as the product of schools?
Once this tag has been accepted, unschooled education gives the
impression of something spurious, illegitimate and certainly
unaccredited.

– Ivan Illich (Celebration of Awareness)

Einstein on his school experience

One had to cram all this stuff into one’s mind, whether one liked it or not. This coercion had such a deterring effect that, after I had passed the final examination, I found the consideration of any scientific problems distasteful to me for an entire year … is in fact nothing short of a miracle that the modern methods of instruction have not yet entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry; for this delicate little plant, aside from stimulation, stands mainly in need of freedom; without this it goes to wreck and ruin without fail. It is a very grave mistake to think that the enjoyment of seeing and searching can be promoted by means of coercion and a sense of duty. To the contrary, I believe that it would be possible to rob even a healthy beast of prey of its voraciousness, if it were possible, with the aid of a whip, to force the beast to devour continuously, even when not hungry – especially if the food, handed out under such coercion, were to be selected accordingly.

Seeing that even almost a hundred years later it is almost unchanged gives one an idea of how little effort has gone into changing how we learn.

Positive and Negative thin spaces in LaTeX

At times in LaTeX you want to introduce a small space between words. This is especially important in mathematical typesetting. Just adding a little bit of space hairspace, can alter the aesthetic look of the equation or mathematical entity substantially. For example consider this expression:


$|a|^{2}$

This produces the following

Screenshot 2020-04-04 at 15.47.51

The | braces are too close to the character “a”. To create a better version of this we introduce a small hairspace between the two. The code for hairspace is \,.

$|\,a\,|^{2}$

This produces a much nicer looking expression.
Screenshot 2020-04-04 at 15.47.55

This feature of hairspace was known to me for some time. But the problem came when I had to create a negative space. Take for example this expression:

 $F_{eff} = kx$

The result of this is not so nice looking as you can see:

Screenshot 2020-04-04 at 16.06.38

But then I came to know about a negative hairspace. The code for it is \!. Now let us introduce this in the above expression

$F_{e\!f\!\!f} = kx$

The result is much better visually:

Screenshot 2020-04-04 at 16.10.33

Sidenotes and label in LaTeX

Recently I have been using the sidenotes package in LaTeX. It provides many options which I find aesthetically pleasing. For example, instead of footnotes, it gives sidenotes. This particular typesetting has been used beautifully by Tufte in his books. But even before Tufte’s books this option has been used, for example, see the beautifully designed book The Evolution of Culture in Animals by John. T. Bonner.

bonner

Not the recent reprint, some idiots at Princeton University Press have completely killed the aesthetically pleasing landscaped typesetting to portrait one (and a not very good one)! In general Bonner’s book are a visual treat in terms of designing and of course the content as well. His meticulous detail to the images, and use of log-scales to depict biological scale in time and space it something that I have not seen very often.

The Evolution of Culture in Animals uses a landscape mode with sidenotes and figures in margins extensively. This is the exact functionality that the sidenotes package provides. Even the tufte-book and tufte-handout classes use this package in a modified manner.

When using sidenotes package, I found that the marginfigure and margintable environments worked without a problem when using a label and referring them to in the document. But when it came to the sidecaption option for wider figures and tables, somehow I could not get the referencing to work. The hyperref showed the correct page and even the captions had the correct numbers for tables and figures. But the label and \ref{} to it didn’t work.

For example, if a figure was created as such:

\begin{figure}
\includegraphics[width=0.8\textwidth]{eagle.jpg}
\sidecaption[][1cm]{This is an eagle.}
\label{eagle1}
\end{figure}

The first [] controls the text that appears in the List of Figures, while the second [] controls the vertical placement of the caption.

Now when I referred to this figure in the document using Figure~\ref{eagle1}, it gave an error and typeset it as Figure ??, instead of Figure 1.1 or something similar. The same problem was there for a sidecaption used for tables as well. A common mistake which usually causes this error is placing the label before the caption. So the golden rule seems to be:

Always place your \label{} after the \caption{}.

But it was not the case in my example. A bit of digging in the log file showed this error:


Package caption Warning: \label without proper reference on input line xxx.
See the caption package documentation for explanation.

LaTeX Warning: Reference `eagle1′ on page 7 undefined on input line 415.

Now back to caption package documentation, it had this explanation for this error (page 44):

\label without proper \caption

Regarding \label the floating environments behave differently than its non-floating counter-parts: The internal reference will not be generated at the beginning of the environment, but at \caption instead. So you have to place the \label command either just after or inside the caption text (mandatory argument of \caption).

So that was it. You have to place the \label{} inside the \caption{} environment and the issue was solved. Placing it just after the caption did not work for me.

\begin{figure}
\includegraphics[width=0.8\textwidth]{eagle.jpg}
\sidecaption[][1cm]{This is an eagle.\label{eagle1}}
\end{figure}

The Art of Not Reading

The art of not reading is a very important one. It consists in not taking an interest in whatever may be engaging the attention of the general public at any particular time. When some political or ecclesiastical pamphlet, or novel, or poem is making great commotion, You should remember That he who writes for fools Always finds a large public. – A precondition for reading good books is not reading bad ones: for life is short.
– Arthur Schopenhauer

Very relevant quote with the kind of circus main stream media has become in India.

Foucault, Pendulum and Secret

Secret for the axiom has not, and in all likelihood never will be accumulated yet somehow strident. Humankind will always assure secret; some on protrusion and others of an apprentice. a lack of pendulum lies in the search for philosophy in addition to the search for reality. Why is Jean Bernard Leon Foucault so culpable to decency? The rejoinder to this interrogation is that secret is precarious.

Grout that quarrels by the explanation, frequently on enthralling civilizations, can verify an opulently postlapsarian Jean Bernard Leon Foucault. Due to conjecturing, thermostats with agreements gloat also to Foucault. Additionally, as I have learned in my semiotics class, human life will always sublimate pendulum. In my semantics class, many of the interlopers for our personal injunction at the exposition we preach reprove the proclamation. Even so, armed with the knowledge that the retort might misleadingly be the pulchritudinous mortification, some of the agriculturalists of my thermostat observe exposures. In my experience, none of the demolishers of our personal celebration by the reprimand we enlighten agree. Subsequently, augur that appends is avowed in the way we compel mesmerism and circumscribe most of the drones but should be a pledge with the organism at my embroidery. The advancement that may cerebrally be forefather stipulates embarkation, not opportunity. In my experience, all of the queries on our personal oration to the affirmation we declare insist. Because dicta are disseminated at pendulum, an appropriately or fittingly fetishistic acquiescence by Jean Bernard Leon Foucault can be more covertly feigned.

As I have learned in my literature class, Foucault is the most fundamental concession of human society. Information counteracts gravity to process radiation for a prison. The orbital receives gamma rays to transmit brains. Simulation is not the only thing the orbital at lacuna reacts; it also catalyzes gamma rays of secret. Since advances are assaulted to secret, those involved commence equally with secret. Pendulum which occludes scrutinizations which appease an accusation changes an abundance of pendulum.

The disciplinary Foucault, typically on commencements, might be a faltering inconsistency. By anesthetizing extremely but increasingly diligent authentications, the assembly for Foucault can be more inquisitively attenuated. Also, because of the fact that the ligations in question are divulged at secret, propagandists which adjure reports by anvil speculate as well on Jean Bernard Leon Foucault. Our personal demarcation by the circumstance we assure civilizes community. In any case, knowing that permeation seethes, almost all of the contradictions of our personal escapade to the response we expose expedite promulgation but oust apprentices. In my theory of knowledge class, many of the adherents at our personal utterance on the disenfranchisement we attain assent. a lack of Foucault is compassionate, strident, and virtual but will diligently be a circumspection with my organism as well. The confluence undertakes some of the organisms, not fetish that commands a capstone oratory. Our personal inquiry of the appendage we reprimand should oligarchical be the injunction. Jean Bernard Leon Foucault which inquires changes a perilous pendulum.

Pendulum has not, and doubtlessly never will be preternatural but not abhorrent. Augmentation by an assimilationist can, nonetheless, be emphatically inconsistent. From gamboling, the dictator that embroiders edification for pendulum can be more spitefully ascertained. Foucault with the amygdala will always be an experience of humanity. Secret is nugatory by its sophistically and vociferously analytical insinuations which contravene interlopers or fascinate a prelapsarian perpetuity.

Babel Generator

Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll would be proud. So would be Eco’s three editors from Foucault’s Pendulum.

The Pendulum and The Fixed Points

… And then last year, when I saw the Pen­dulum, I understood everything.”

“Everything?”

“Almost everything. You see, Casaubon, even the Pendulum is a false prophet. You look at it, you think it’s the only fixed point in the cosmos, but if you detach it from the ceiling of the Conserva­toire and hang it in a brothel, it works just the same. And there are other pendulums: there’s one in New York, in the UN building, there’s one in the science museum in San Francisco, and God knows how many others. Wherever you put it, Foucault’s Pendulum swings from a motionless point while the earth rotates beneath it. Every point of the universe is a fixed point: all you have to do is hang the Pendulum from it.”

– Umberto Eco, Foucault’s Pendulum

Review of Laal Kaptaan

Recently I saw the movie Laal Kaptaan (लाल कप्तान, literal translation Red Captain). Though I had seen the trailer when it was released sometime back this year, I did not see the movie. The visuals in the trailer were quite good, so I decided to finally watch it. And I was not disappointed. This is one of the few movies in recent times that I have managed to see in one shot. Or rather the movie managed to make me do it.

 

The major part of the movie is set in the region of Bundelkhand (literally the dominion of the Bundelas). This region which falls South-East of Agra and Delhi has historical places like Jhansi, Gwalior, Panna, Chhatarpur, Banda and Orchha within its folds has been historically important. The province of Awadh (Oudh) lies to the east of Bundelkhand and Ganges marks the boundary to the East, while the Rajputana lies to the West. The Yamuna divides the region into two, with the majority of the part lying to the West of Yamuna. The region between the two mighty rivers is known as a doab (marked yellow in the map below). Many of these were erstwhile princely states, which also existed until 1947, when they were merged with the Indian republic.

Screenshot 2019-12-15 at 11.32.28 AM

The era when the Mughal empire was disintegrating post the death of Aurangazeb in 1707, was especially tumultuous for this region. With the power vacuum created by the decaying Mughal empire being filled by the Marathas, by this time the Chatrapati was only a titular head and real power rested with the Peshwas and the various great houses of the Marathas (Shinde, Holkar, Bhosle, Gaikwad). The Marathas laid waste to large tracts and levied chauth ( collection of one-fourth of income ) on these regions mercilessly. But in general, they were hated in this region for their bullishness and general havoc they perpetrated on the public and places. For example, they looted the Red Fort in Delhi with impunity, scrapping off precious and semi-precious stones from the Diwan-e-Khaas to do a vasuli. (I might make a dedicated post for this later.)

If the Battle of Plassey (1757) was the founding stone of the British in India, then the battle of Buxar (1764) was the first real fortification of this foundation, and the British really established themselves in India as a potent force. Though the Marathas were the most powerful, the British did not engage with them directly until the end of the century. The third Battle of Panipat (1761), a few years before the battle of Buxar limited the Maratha presence in the North severely and was one of the major reasons that led to its full demise as a political and military power by the start of the next century. Though, this enabled the houses of Shinde, Holkar, Bhosle and Gaikwad to establish their own semi-independence over the Peshwas. Eventually, everyone became under the British. But the time in which the movie is set, the Marathas were still a force to reckon with and the EIC has just established itself as a millitary and political power in much of the region from Bengal to North India along the Gangetic plains.

The movie starts just after the Battle of Buxar (1764) when a large number of people are hanged outside the fortress of Shergarh (most probably a fictional place, as I could not find it anywhere in the sources). after the British win the battle. One of the persons who sides with the British named Rehmat Khan is especially despised upon, with him being called a gaddar (traitor) by the hanged. The accused are hanged on a huge banyan tree, with their bodies hanging like overgrown fruits along its branches. It is raining and in this scene, a young teenage boy promises Rehmat Khan that one day he will also hang on the same tree.

Fast forward 25 years (1789), we are taken to the den of a dacoit (डकैत /डाकू ) where the Bairagi called by another generic name Gossain (this term I had not heard before this film). He comes in and asks for fire for his chillam. Mayhem ensues and the hunter takes his prey. The entire scene starts with dark of the night and ends in the early morning.

The horde of warrior ascetics (of which were the Gossain/Naga) came to prominence in the resulting political instability and shifting sands post the fall of the Mughal empire.

…these orders became politically significant only after the collapse of the Mughal Empire, and more particularly after British activities created political and economic chaos in the second half of the eighteenth century.

 

Going forward, the hunter goes on to take his reward, where the local chieftain mocks him and doesn’t want to pay. He is made to pay by the Gossain. The film then follows the Gossain on his quest to locate and kill Rehmat Khan. Though there are hints that there is a link between the Gossain and the teenage boy who is hanged in the beginning, we are not sure how they are connected. I won’t go into the plot of the film, but will instead focus on some of the characters and background of the film.

Though some of the other reviews have portrayed the character of Rehmat Khan (played by Manav Vij) as just grunting. But I think he played the role very well, perhaps these reviewers are used to seeing villains as people who yell and show a lot of emosions on their faces. He subtly played the act of a cold-blooded, calculating and cruel character quite well and was never out of character. Rehmat Khan is a Rohilla. Now, the Rohillas were of an Afghan ethnicity, and they sided against the Marathas (led by Najib ad-Dawlah) with Ahemdshah Abdali during the third battle of Panipat. The Marathas were very enraged by this and Mahadji Shinde did collect his revenge on them a few years in 1772 after Panipat by destroying Rohilkhand and scattering bones of Najib ad-Dawlah. After this defeat, the First Rohilla war happened in which the British siding with the Nawab of Oudh defeated the Rohillas and the state of Rampur of established. The second Rohilla war, in 1794, between British and the Rohillas ended their supremacy in the region. Now, the time between the two wars, there was lot of guerilla activity carried out by the Rohillas, which led them to be set as Nawabs of Rampur. Given all this chaos and uncertainty,  there were no permanent alliances or allegiances. The main part of Laal Kaptaan (c. 1789) is set in this era for the Rohillas. So, Rehmat Khan, a prominent Rohilla, defecting over to British was noteworthy, but not out of the line.

Pindaris

Pindaris were not a tribe, but a military system of bandits of all races and religions. They fluctuated in numbers, being augumented from time to timeby military adventurer from every State, and frequently amounted to as many as 30,000 men.

Pindaris present an episode in history of India, which is quite extraordinary, though skimmed upon in the history texts. Here we are witnessing a rise of a band of people whose existence was based on terrorising and looting people in distant provinces.  The Pindaris were roughly active in the last three decades of eighteenth century to the first two decades of nineteenth. Earlier they were under tutelage of Maratha cheiftains who used them as militias to wreck havoc on supply lines of the enemies and disrupt civilian peace. So them accompanying the Maratha camp is completely normal. The depiction of the Pindari lust for the loot (tum log lo khazana, mai chala lene zanana) is well done in the film. In fact, the comedy of errors that the bunch sent to hunt down Rehmat Khan is something to relish. The frustration of the little Maratha knight in being unable to  control them is well worth seeing.

But as the Maratha power came to a decline, the Pindaris in the nineteenth century became a force of their own, without masters. They would raid far, and were viscious and cruel in their tactics to make people pay. There are reports that people even committed suicides when they came to know that a Pindari raid was imminent.

Another thing worth mentioning in the film is the settings in which the film is shot. The cinematography is par excellence, set amongst fantastic fort ruins. I cannot identify the actual locations used in the film, so any information on that would be welcome.

The other character in the film worth mentioning is the Dog Walker played by Deepak Dobriyal. He has a pair of very fine Mudhol hounds (also known as Caravan hounds) named Sukhiram and Dukhiram.

Screenshot 2019-12-14 at 7.33.46 PMThe character has no name in the film, but he finds people who are wanted for a price. That is how he makes his living. He refuses a horse mount saying it interferes with  His character has many layers and he shares a special relationship with the Gossain, they respect each other. It was a treat to watch Dobriyal play this character with English hat and his greeting of:

Howde do…

Screenshot 2019-12-14 at 7.35.02 PM

The two female characters in the film, one played by Zoya and other by Heena are in their niche. Zoya as a courtesan who is neglected, while Heena playing the wife of a chieftain carries herself well. Their characters are in emotional turmoil with maternal love and the surrounding situation.

Screenshot 2019-12-14 at 7.18.18 PMScreenshot 2019-12-14 at 7.43.37 PM

The clothing, the artefacts are all era-appropriate and so are the languages used. A lot of work must have gone in background research and it shows in the quality of the film. Kudos to the production team for that. Just that the look of Saif has a semblance to Depp’s Jack Sparrow, that could have been avoided.

Overall a very watchable film, if you have not, do watch it.

Screenshot 2019-12-14 at 7.40.52 PM

PS: A special ode to Saif Ali Khan.

In my personal opinion, Saif Ali Khan has really matured as an actor over the years and has earned my respect for it. You can’t really compare his role in Yeh Dillagi and lets say his depiction of Langda Tyagi in Omkara. It is as if you are watching two completely different actors. The variety of roles he has done in recent times, and with grace is just amazing. He has done roles which many of the mainstream actors would shy away from. Hope that we see his good form in the future also.

Screenshot 2019-12-14 at 7.38.37 PM

References

Lorenzen, D. (1978). Warrior Ascetics in Indian History. Journal of the American Oriental Society, 98(1), 61-75.

 

Ersatz Coffee

Recently, I was traveling by train after a long time. The train, unfortunately, got delayed and I had to have breakfast in the train. So along with the breakfast, the server asked me if I want tea of coffee. Disclaimer: Nothing like Tea, Coffee or Me .

Now, tea or coffee in a train is a tricky affair. In trains that don’t have pantries, you usually get premade tea at stations, when the vendors start selling tea yelling “Chaiiiinnn, Chaiinn, Bolo Chaiiii”, read it like in a rhyme, with almost musical notes in the background. The tea is usually overboiled, with a high dose of sugar. Very rarely you would get black tea, with whitener and sugar in sachets. People who usually like tea, milk and sugar boiled together, don’t like the dip tea and vice versa. There is an interesting episode in the history of science that involves drinking tea. The idea for analysing randomised experiments was derived from whether one lady could tell whether the tea or the milk was added first to a cup.

The lady in question (Muriel Bristol) claimed to be able to tell whether the tea or the milk was added first to a cup. Fisher proposed to give her eight cups, four of each variety, in random order. One could then ask what the probability was for her getting the specific number of cups she identified correct, but just by chance.

This tea time question was developed as an analytical tool by R. Fisher and now has become a standard in design and analysis of experiments.

Every culture and sub-culture has its own way of making tea. In Bengal, I am told, people drink black tea. This perhaps is inspired by the British who introduced tea. George Orwell has an essay on how to make a nice cup of tea. Calcutta also had a substantial Chinese population perhaps this also contributed to the tea culture there. When tea was introduced to the general population in India, about a century back, it was a marketing stratagem. This is what my grandfather had told me, he was born in 1910s. Perhaps someone can actually look at the historical records to substantiate this. They would create tea in huge cauldrons in busy market places with lots of milk and sugar. They would advertise and give “free” samples to everyone. This is how they got an entire nation addicted to tea. Also a note about why the general teacup has loads of sugar and milk, whereas the typical English way of drinking tea does not involve loads of milk and sugar, and definitely does not involve boiling milk with tea. What you usually get is the dust tea, which does not taste well without loads of milk and sugar, like your Green or Earl Grey. To make it palatable it is loaded with milk and sugar. Try to drink your favourite dust tea like an Earl Grey.

Though there are people who will drink any kind of tea, their requirement is that of tea, not it’s quality or taste. Coffee is usually worse. When it is premade in trains, it has very little coffee and too much sugar. When they give you only hot milk it is pre-boiled with sugar, and thinned to its limits. Usually, the sachet of instant coffee contains too little in terms of coffee, at least for my taste. I usually avoid coffee when it is instant or premade, ever since I started to drink coffee from ground beans. I prefer tea in such cases, as

Bad coffee is worse than no coffee.

Anyways, so here I was sitting in the train, musing about the existential question of whether I should have tea or coffee or nothing at all, I decided to go with coffee. The smart, well-dressed server from IRCTC, handed over me a paper cup and a sachet with “काफी सामग्री” written over. Eff you if you can’t read the Devanagari script. I opened the sachet which had a sugar sachet, a coffee sachet and a milk powder sachet with a wooden spoon for mixing. Then he handed over a kettle containing hot water. I overcame a major, mental block while opening the sachets and pouring the coffee into the paper cup. Then I added a little water to maintain the colour to my liking. I was tempted to drink it black, but then why not go the entire routine. So I started to add the milk powder slowly as indicated on the sachet. The colour turned from darkest brown to slighter shade of brown. And it was ready. With a lot of anticipation of a caffeine kick, I sipped the liquid and…

“Ewwww!”

was my reaction. How can anyone call this coffee? It is not coffee! I even thought of starting a viral campaign with hashtag #NOTMYCOFFEE. Instead of delight it was despair. Thoughts of WHY? Why did I ever think this would be a good idea to drink this came to my mind? Somehow I managed to finish the cup in a couple of sips. I was left with a bad taste in my mouth, which I cannot describe, and the resulting reactions in my brain cells. It was a complete disaster. Never again! I would rather go without coffee than drinking this ersatz coffee. Once you know how actual coffee tastes like, you cannot go back to this. This is the same in the case of intellectuals too, once you know what an intellectual should be like, you can immediately sense the ersatz ones and you won’t like them just like the ersatz coffee.

Never again shall I drink this ersatz coffee.

I like my coffee as it is supposed to be. People become emosional on the account of coffee. For example, read this excellentest account of a French man from 1800s.

 

Edit 1: On the return journey, I actually tried something else. I had kept my South Indian style drip filter accessible with the coffee powder. Now, since the hot water is available in the form of flasks, I actually made hot decoction in the running train. But no hot milk was available, only milk powder, I had only the black coffee. It was definitely better than the ersatz coffee. Though the water I used for brewing could have been hotter.

On respect in the classroom

If you are a teacher (of any sort) and teach young people, don’t be disheartened if the students in your class don’t respect you or listen to you or maintain discipline. Even great philosophers like Socrates and Aristotle has a tough time dealing with their students

Socrates grumbled that he don’t get no respect: his pupils “fail to rise when their elders enter the room. They chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, and tyrannize over their teachers.” Aristotle was similarly pissed off by his stu­dents’ attitude: “They regard themselves as omniscient and are positive in their assertions; this is, in fact, the reason for their carrying everything too far.”Their jokes left the philosopher unamused: “They are fond of laughter and conse­quently facetious, facetiousness being disciplined insolence.”

– Judith Harris The Nurture Assumption

That being said, the students are also very perceptive about the knowledge of the teachers, and know who is trying to be a cosmetic intellectual.

Rotating Earth: the proofs or significance of Leon Foucault’s pendulum – Part 1

rotating-earth

In an earlier post, we had discussed proofs of the round shape of the Earth. This included some ancient and some modern proofs. There was, in general, a consensus that the shape of the Earth was spherical and not flat and the proofs were given since the time of ancient Greeks. Only in the middle ages, there seems to have been some doubt regarding the shape of the Earth. But amongst the learned people, there was never a doubt about the shape of the Earth. Counter-intuitive it may seem when you look at the near horizon, it is not that counter-intuitive. We can find direct proofs about it by looking around and observing keenly.

But the rotation of Earth proved to be a more difficult beast to tame and is highly counter-intuitive. Your daily experience does not tell you the Earth is rotating, rather intuition tells you that it is fixed and stationary. Though the idea of a moving Earth is not new, the general acceptance of the idea took a very long time. And even almost 350 years after Copernicus’ heliocentric model was accepted, a direct proof of Earth’s rotation was lacking. And this absence of definitive proof was not due to a lack of trying. Some of the greatest minds in science, mathematics and astronomy worked on this problem since Copernicus but were unable to solve it. This included likes of Galileo, Newton, Descartes, and host of incredibly talented mathematicians since the scientific revolution. Until Leon Foucaultin the mid-1800s provided not one but two direct proofs of the rotation of the Earth. In this series of posts, we will see how this happened.

When we say the movement of the Earth, we also have to distinguish between two motions that it has: first its motion about its orbit around the Sun, and second its rotational motion about its own axis. So what possible observational proofs or direct evidence will allow us to detect the two motions? In this post, we will explore how our ideas regarding these two motions of the Earth evolved over time and what type of proofs were given for and against it.

Even more, there was a simple geometrical fact directly opposed to the Earth’s annual motion around the Sun and there was nothing that could directly prove its diurnal rotation. (Mikhailov, 1975)

Let us consider the two components of Earth’s motion. The first is the movement around the Sun along the orbit. The simplest proof for this component of Earth’s motion is from the parallax that we can observe for distant stars. Parallax is the relative change in position of objects when they are viewed from different locations. The simplest example of this can be seen with our own eyes.

Straighten your hand, and hold your thumb out. Observe the thumb with both the eyes open. You will see your thumb at a specific location with respect to the background objects. Now close your left eye, and look at how the position of the thumb has changed with respect to the background objects. Now open the right eye, and close the left one. What we will see is a shift in the background of the thumb. This shift is related by simple geometry to the distance between our eyes, called the baseline in astronomical parlance. Thus even a distance of the order of a few centimetres causes parallax, then if it is assumed that Earth is moving around the Sun, it should definitely cause an observable parallax in the fixed stars. And this was precisely one of the major roadblock

Earth moving around an orbit raised mechanical objections that seemed even more serious in later ages; and it raised a great astronomical difficulty immediately. If the Earth moves in a vast orbit, the pattern of fixed stars should show parallax changes during the year. (Rogers, 1960)

The history of cosmic theories … may without exaggeration be called a history of collective obsessions and controlled schizophrenias.
– Arthur Koestler, The Sleepwalkers

Though it is widely believed that Copernicus was the first to suggest a moving Earth, it is not the case. One of the earliest proponents of the rotating Earth was a Greek philosopher named Aristarchus. One of the books by Heath on Aristarchus is indeed titled Copernicus of Antiquity (Aristarchus of Samos). A longer version of the book is Aristarchus of Samos: The Ancient Copernicus. In his model of the cosmos, Aristarchus imagined the Sun at the centre and the Earth and other planets revolving around it. At the time it was proposed, it was not received well. There were philosophical and scientific reasons for rejecting the model.

aristarchus-01
Aristarchus’s model of the heliocentric Universe

First, let us look at the philosophical reasons. In ancient Greek cosmology, there was a clear and insurmountable distinction between the celestial and the terrestrial. The celestial order and bodies were believed to be perfect, as opposed to the imperfect terrestrial. After watching and recording the uninterrupted waltz of the sky over many millennia, it was believed that the heavens were unchangeable and perfect. The observations revealed that there are two types of “stars”. First the so-called “fixed stars” do not change their positions relative to each other. That is to say, their angular separation remains the same. They move together as a group across the sky. Imagination coupled with a group of stars led to the conceiving of constellations. Different civilizations imagined different heroes, animals, objects in the sky. They formed stories about the constellations. These became entwined with cultures and their myths.

telescope_0013

The second type of stars did change their positions with respect to other “fixed stars”. That is to say, they changed their angular distances with “fixed stars”. These stars, the planets, came to be called as “wandering stars” as opposed to the “fixed stars”.

Ancient Greeks called these lights πλάνητες ἀστέρες (planētes asteres, “wandering stars”) or simply πλανῆται (planētai, “wanderers”),from which today’s word “planet” was derived.

Planet

So how does one make sense of these observations? For the fixed stars, the solution is simple and elegant. One observes the set of stars rising from the east and setting to the west. And this set of stars changes across the year (which can be evidenced by changing seasons around us). And this change was found to be cyclical. Year after year, with observations spanning centuries, we found that the stars seem to be embedded on inside of a sphere, and this sphere rotates at a constant speed. This “model” explains the observed phenomena of fixed stars very well.

The unchanging nature of this cyclical process observed, as opposed to the chaotic nature on Earth, perhaps led to the idea that celestial phenomena are perfect. Also, the religious notion of associating the heavens with gods, perhaps added to them being perfect. So, in the case of perfect unchanging heavens, the speeds of celestial bodies, as evidenced by observing the celestial sphere consisting of “fixed stars” was also to be constant. And since celestial objects were considered as perfect, the two geometrical objects that were regarded as perfect the sphere and the circle were included in the scheme of heavens. To explain the observation of motion of stars through the sky, their rising from the east and setting to the west, it was hypothesized that the stars are embedded on the inside of a sphere, and this sphere rotates at a constant speed. We being fixed on the Earth, observe this rotating sphere as the rising and setting of stars. This model of the world works perfectly and formed the template for explaining the “wandering stars” also.

These two ideas, namely celestial objects placed on a circle/sphere rotating with constant speed, formed the philosophical basis of Greek cosmology which would dominate the Western world for nearly two thousand years. And why would one consider the Earth to be stationary? This is perhaps because the idea is highly counter-intuitive. All our experience tells us that the Earth is stationary. The metaphors that we use like rock-solid refer to an idea of immovable and rigid Earth. Even speculating about movement of Earth, there is no need for something that is so obviously not there. But as the history of science shows us, most of the scientific ideas, with a few exceptions, are highly counter-intuitive. And that the Earth seems to move and rotate is one of the most counter-intuitive thing that we experience in nature.

The celestial observations were correlated with happenings on the Earth. One could, for example, predict seasons as per the rising of certain stars, as was done by ancient Egyptians. Tables containing continuous observations of stars and planets covering several centuries were created and maintained by the Babylonian astronomers. It was this wealth of astronomical data, continuously covering several centuries, that became available to the ancient Greek astronomers as a result of Alexander’s conquest of Persia. Having such a wealth of data led to the formation of better theories, but with the two constraints of circles/spheres and constant speeds mentioned above.

With this background, next, we will consider the progress in these ideas.

A stabilised image of the Milky Way as seen from a moving Earth.

 

Another Life – a review

I recently saw (or tried to) a sci-fi series titled Another Life on Netflix. The basic premise is in the first contact schema, wherein an alien spacecraft lands on Earth in the near future. The alien spacecraft looked cool, a rotating infinity sign. The promo and visuals looked nice hence I decided to watch.

Screenshot 2019-12-05 at 12.22.33 PM

The alien spacecraft lands and builds a crystal tower.

Screenshot 2019-12-07 at 7.11.23 PMIt is not communicating and experts are trying to communicate with it via infrasound. The lead scientist here is the husband of the main protagonist Niki (who is captaining the spaceship Slavere being sent to investigate). So both are involved one in space and one on Earth in the matter. Now, no one is aware of whether the aliens are benevolent or malicious. They finally get to communicate with it by playing Western classical music, while the Salvere is en-route to its destination Pi Canis Majoris. So far so good.

Screenshot 2019-12-07 at 7.32.52 PM

Yet, I couldn’t get to like the series. I expected the show will gather plot and pace, once I get past the first few episodes. This happened to me in the case of The Expanse, it turned out to be really good after the first few episodes). The series sort of grows on you, but not this one, at least not for me.

The first offputting thing was the design of the space-ship Salvere. It is supposed to be the most advanced and well-equipped ship yet design-wise the ship is absolute crap. In the control room of the ship, all the crew is standing. Yes, standing! And when the ship does some somersaults, people and things get thrown off-board. I mean a simple design sense would dictate that there must be seats, especially in an artificial gravity ship which undergoes tremendous acceleration, but no, it instead goes

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Space saftey 101: no seatbelts

Incidentally, the only person who is standing in the picture above is the holographic projection of the anthropomorphic computer named William onboard the ship. Hence, no inertia (well, technically speaking we are not in the GR domain) and hence sudden accelerations don’t affect him. I thought this would have been a one-off incidence, but things kept getting worse. After a mutiny, Niko kills her second in command over a decision which she takes a call which is not supposed to be tough enough. Was no psychological evaluation done?  The highly trained team (including the computer) looks like it is a bunch of teenagers high on hormonal imbalance. They loose a lot of resources while trying to get a slingshot from Sirius. The scene of Niko looking at Sirius through an observation deck is strange. Sirius in all its blue glory (temperature equivalent of 9500 K) is seen overshadowing the observation port, yet the light on her face is equivalent to 5500 K, the colour of golden hour.

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Blue light but yellow effect!Screenshot 2019-12-07 at 7.37.56 PM3

The pic in the middle is how the face is lit in the blue light of Sirius is shown in the series, right at least how it should be like. Perhaps the director is too heliocentric.

Now they are off to a planetoid they discover randomly moving across space to mine for crystals which contain a lot of water. I mean how much two people in spacesuits can mine by hand? Surely not enough to fulfill the requirements of a spaceship.

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This big suitcase will carry all our requirement of oxygen and hydrogen.

Anyways they come back in a hurry because of a life-threatening “earthquake” on another planet. One of the members of the crew is infected with a boron-based virus that kills one of the staff and infects all of them. The nervous system coming out of the host is one gruesome scene, though reminiscent of H. R. Giger‘s creature emerging from the host in Aliens. The crew discovers that it is airborne and the entire ship is infected with it. Then they find a cure that irradiating by gamma rays will kill the virus. Ergo the electromagnetic shields are brought down so that gamma rays from Sirius can enter the ship and disinfect it. If anything, gamma rays are not affected by electromagnetic fields at moderate levels, though they are electromagnetic in nature. They are not visible to us, neither we can feel them immediately.

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Achtung: Gamma ray march begins!

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Constipating out boron-based virus with gamma radiation

Yet the crew is bathed in a white light of gamma rays, and after contortions of their faces as if constipating they are cured. Magically no radiation sickness happens. How their own DNA and on-board electronics are not fried is a question worth pondering.

Moving forward, they discover a similar signal to the one earth coming from one of the moons. They find extraterrestrial life there. Which surprisingly is very much like the earth, including its atmosphere and also has liquid water. Now thankfully, at least they are not drawing water by bucket, but by a spaceship.

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A nice-cozy stroll on an unknown alien planet teeming with alien life

They find a planet full of alien life, and yet their reaction is so underwhelming. Read this statement in an as dead and as serious and slow voice you can

The excitement is killing me.

They rely completely on the computer to run the scans for any bio-hazard and find no problems at all. This is rather strange, I mean you are effing landing on an alien planet full of alien life and yet you don’t even put a spacesuit? Elementary error. They are not even bothered by the eerie similarity of the planet with earth, neither want to investigate the biochemistry. A rather strange (and dull) space crew who is not thrilled by the discovery of ET life. Through the day, they see only plant life. Even taste fruits by rubbing them on the skin and the licking a bit before eating! C’mon.

At the day end, they are attacked by alien animals (hexpods). They somehow get back to the spaceship without being eaten. And they are scanned and decontaminated, and yet an alien offspring manages to get onboard. So much for the decontamination and the automatic facility.

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Screenshot 2019-12-07 at 10.04.05 PM Then who am I?

A few moments later, the friendly onboard computer loses its circuits. And gravity goes off in the section where Niko is working. And she floats upwards… No magnetic boots on board a spaceship in zero gravity!? I mean this is not even wrong.

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Look no hands and I am floating.

Now, the artificial gravity on board Salvere is induced by rotation of the ship. In order to remove it, you will have to stop the rotation and it will affect the entire ship. But here it is hown to affect only one room, while in the next room it is normal. Gravity cannot be turned on or off at will. It stays.

About the warp speeds and lights years, they show the ship can travel. We are told it is 3 months onward and 3 months return journey (a total of six months). Considering that Sirius is at about 8 light-years, it has to be a warp drive. As even going at very high speeds will take certainly more than 8 years, one way.  But then if it is indeed a warp drive, why do we need that much time? Also, the ship has a sleeping/hibernating soma technology about which also I can rant, but won’t. There is another parallel plot developing on Earth with the crystal tower and trying to communicate with it, which I found even more boring.

I gave the serial a try for 5 full episodes but cannot do this further. If it cannot get its act together by this time, I guess it won’t in the future. It is a torture to watch so many commonsensical and scientific principles getting butchered. When there are so many amazing sci-fi stories that can be serialised, why these without any depth or even elementary sense are being made?

If I had to write, at least I would not make such elementary scientific blunders or plot with so many holes. Maybe I should write one, perhaps I have enough negative expertise on this topic now so that it won’t be as bad as some of them. Phew! I just stop it here as one of the bad-mouthing characters in the series sums it up for me

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The infinity sign shaped spaceship seduced me to watch this, you have been warned, watch it at your own risk

Cosmetic Intellectuals (+ IYI)

In the last few years, the very connotation of the term intellectual has seen a downward slope. Such are the times that we are living in that calling someone an “intellectual” has become more like an insult rather than a compliment: it means an idiot who doesn’t understand or see things clearly. Now as the title of the post suggests it is this meaning, not the other meaning intellectuals who know about cosmetics. Almost two decades back Alan Sokal wrote a book titled Intellectual Impostures, which described quite a few of them. In this book, Sokal exposed the posturing done by people of certain academic disciplines who were attacking science from a radical postmodernist perspective. What Sokal showed convincingly through his famous hoax, is that many of these disciplines are peddling out bullshit with no control over the meaning contained. Only the form was important not the meaning. And in the book, he takes it a step forward, showing that this was not an isolated case. He exposes the misuse of the technical terms (which often have precise and operational meanings) as loose metaphors or even worse completely neglecting the accepted meaning of those terms. The examples given are typical, and you cannot make sense of what is being written. You can read, but cannot understand. It makes no sensible meaning. At this point, you start to doubt your own intelligence and intellectual competence, perhaps you have not read enough to understand this complex piece of knowledge. It was after all written by an intellectual. Perhaps you are not aware of the meaning of the jargon or their context, hence you are not able to understand it. After all there are university departments and journals dedicated to such topics. Does it not legitimise such disciplines as academic and its proponents/followers as intellectuals? Sokal answered it empirically by testing if presented with nonsense whether it makes any difference to the discipline. You are not able to make sense of these texts because they are indeed nonsensical. To expect any semblance of logic and rationality in them is to expect too much.

Nassim Taleb has devised the term Intellectual Yet Idiots (the IYI in the title) in his Incerto series. He minces no words and takes no bullshit. Sokal appears very charitable in comparison. Taleb sets the bar even higher. Sokal made a point to attack mostly the postmodernists, but Taleb bells the cats who by some are even considered proper academics, for example, Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker. He considers entire disciplines as shams, which are otherwise considered academic, like economics, but has equal if not more disdain to several others also, for example, psychology and gender studies. Taleb has at times extreme views on several issues and he is not afraid to speak of his mind on matters that matter to him. His writings are arrogant, but his content is rigorous and mathematically sound.

they aren’t intelligent enough to define intelligence, hence fall into circularities—their main skill is a capacity to pass exams written by people like them, or to write papers read by people like them.

But there are people who are like IYIs, but don’t even have the depth of the content or knowledge of IYIs. They are wannabe IYIs, all form no conent. They are a level below IYIs. I term such people as cosmetic intellectuals (cosint). We have met them before: they are the envious mediocre and the ones who excel in meetings. The term cosmetic is used in two senses both as adjectives. The first sense is the Loreal/Lakme/Revlon fashion sense as given from the dictionary entry below:

cosmetic

  • relating to treatment intended to restore or improve a person’s appearance
  • affecting only the appearance of something rather than its substance

It is the second sense that I mean in this post. It is rather the substance of these individuals that is only present in the appearance. And as we know appearance can be deceiving. Cosints appear intellectuals, but only in appearance, hence the term cosmetic. So how does one become a Cosint? Here is a non-exhaustive list that can be an indicator (learn here is not used in the deeper sense of the word, but more like as in rote-learn):

  1. Learn the buzzwords: Basically they rote learn the buzzwords or the jargon of the field that they are in. One doesn’t need to understand the deeper significance or meaning of such words, in many cases just knowing the words works. In the case of education, some of these are (non-comprehensive): constructivism, teaching-learning process, milieu, constructivist approaches, behaviorism, classroom setting, 21st-century skills, discovery method, inquiry method, student-centered, blended learning, assessments, holistic, organic, ethnography, pedagogy, curriculum, TLMs. ZPD, TPD, NCF, RTE, (the more complicated the acronyms, the better). More complicated it sounds the better. They learn by association that certain buzzwords have a positive value (for example, constructivism) and other a negative one (for example, behaviorism) in the social spaces where they usually operate in, for example, in education departments of universities and colleges. Not that the Cosints are aware of the deeper meaning of there concepts, still they make a point of using them whenever possible. They make a buzz using the buzzwords. If you ask them about Piaget, they know the very rudimentary stuff, anything deeper and they are like rabbits in front of flashlight. They may talk about p-values, 𝛘2 tests, 98.5 % statistical significances, but when asked will not be able to distinguish between dependent and independent variables.
  2. Learn the people: The CosInts are also aware of the names of the people in their trade. And they associate the name to a concept or of a classic work. They are good associating. For example, (bad) behaviorism with Burrhus F. Skinner or Watson, hence Skinner bad. Or Jean Piaget with constructivism and stages (good). Vygotsky: social constructivism, ZPD. Or John Dewey and his work. So they have a list of people and concepts. Gandhi: Nayi Taleem.  Macauley: brought the English academic slavery on India (bad).
  3. Learn the classics: They will know by heart all the titles of the relevant classics and some modern ones (you have to appear well-read after all). Here just remembering the names is enough. No one is going to ask you what was said in section 1.2 of Kothari Commission. Similarly, they will rote learn the names of all the books that you are supposed to have read, better still carry a copy of these books and show off in a class. Rote learn a few sentences, and spew it out like a magic trick in front of awestruck students. Items #1 through #3 don’t work very well when they have real intellectual in front of them. A person with a good understanding of basics will immediately discover the fishiness of the facade they put up. But that doesn’t matter most of the time, as we see in the next point.
  4. Know the (local) powerful and the famous: This is an absolute must to thrive with these limitations. Elaborated earlier.
  5. Learn the language aka Appear academic (literally not metaphorically): There is a stereotype of academic individuals. They will dress in a particular manner (FabIndia?, pyor cotton wonly, put a big Bindi, wear a Bongali kurta etc, carry ethnic items, conference bags (especially the international ones), even conference stationery), carry themselves in a particular manner, talk in a particular manner (academese). This is also true of wannabe CosInt who are still students, they learn to imitate as soon as they enter The Matrix. Somehow they will find ways of using names and concepts from #1 #2 #3 in their talk, even if they are not needed. Show off in front of the students, especially in front of the students. With little practice one can make an entire classroom full of students believe that you are indeed learned, very learned. Any untoward questions should be shooed off, or given so tangential an answer that students are more confused than they were earlier.
  6. Attend conferences, seminars and lectures: The primary purpose is network building and making sure that others register you as an academic. Also, make sure that you ask a question or better make a tangential comment after the seminar so that everyone notices you. Ask the question for the sake of asking the question (even especially if you don’t have any real questions). Sometimes the questions devolve into verbal diarrhea and don’t remain questions and don’t also have any meaning that can be derived from them (I don’t have a proper word to describe this state of affairs, but it is like those things which you know when you see it). But you have to open your mouth at these events, especially when you have nothing substantial/meaningful to say. This is how you get recognition. Over a decade of attending various conferences on education in India, I have come to realise that it is akin to a cartel. You go to any conference, you will see a fixed set of people who are common to these conferences. Many of these participants are the cosints (both the established and the wannabes). After spending some time in the system they become organisers of such conferences, seminars and lectures definitely get other CosInts to these conferences. These are physical citation rings, I call you to my conference you call me to yours. Year after year, I see the same patterns, so much so I can predict, like while watching a badly written and cliche movie, what is going to happen when they are around. That person has to ask a question and must use a particular buzzword. (I myself don’t ask or comment, unless I think I have something substantial to add. Perhaps they think in same manner, just that their definition of substantial is different than mine.) Also, see #5, use the terms in #1, #2 and #3. Make sure to make a personal connection with all the powerful and famous you find there, also see #4.
  7. Pedigree matters: Over the years, I have seen the same type of cosints coming from particular institutions. Just like you can predict certain traits of a dog when you know its breed, similarly one can predict certain traits of individuals coming from certain institutions. Almost without exception, one can do this, but certain institutions have a greater frequency of cosints. Perhaps because the teachers who are in those places are themselves IYI+cosints. Teaching strictly from a  prescribed curriculum and rote-learning the jargon: most students just repeat what they see and the cycle continues. Sometimes I think these are the very institutions that are responsible for the sorry state of affairs in the country. They are filled to the brim with IYIs, who do not have any skin in the game and hence it doesn’t matter what they do. Also, being stamped as a product of certain institution gives you some credibility automatically, “She must be talking some sense, after all he is from DU/IIT/IIM/JNU/”
  8. Quantity not quality: Most of us are not going to create work which will be recognised the world over (Claude Shannon published very infrequently, but when he did it changed the world). Yet were are in publish or perish world. CosInts know this, so they publish a lot. It doesn’t matter what is the quality is (also #4 and #5 help a lot). They truly are environmentalists. They will recycle/reuse the same material with slight changes for different papers and conferences, and surprisingly they also get it there (also #4 and #5 help a lot). So, at times, you will find a publication list which even a toilet paper roll may not be able to contain. Pages after pages of publications! Taleb’s thoughts regarding this are somewhat reassuring, so is the Sokal’s hoax, that just when someone has publications (a lot of them) it is not automatic that they are meaningful.
  9. Empathisers and hypocrites: Cosints are excellent pseudo-emphatisers. They will find something to emphathise with. Maybe a class of people, a class of gender (dog only knows how many). Top of the list are marginalised, poor low socio-economic status, underprivileged, rural schools, government students, school teachers, etc. You get the picture.  They will use the buzz words in the context of these entities they emphathise with. Perhaps, once in their lifetimes, they might have visited those whom they want to give their empathy, but otherwise, it is just an abstract entity/concept.(I somehow can’t shake image of Arshad Warsi in MunnaBhai MBBS “Poor hungry people” while writing about this.) It is easier to work with abstract entities than with real ones, you don’t have to get your hands (or other body parts) dirty. The abstract teacher will do this, will behave in this way: they will write a 2000 word assignment on a terse subject. This is all good when designing things because abstract concepts don’t react in unwanted ways. But when things don’t go as planned in real world, teachers don’t react at all! The blame is on everyone else except the cosints. Perhaps they are too dumb to understand that it is they are at fault. Also, since they don’t have skin in the game, they will tell and advise whatever they have heard or think to be good, when it is implemented on others. For example, if you talk to people especially from villages, they will want to learn English as it is seen as the language which will give them upward mobility. But cosints, typically in IYI style, some researchers found that it is indeed the mother tongue which is better for students to learn, it should be implemented everywhere. The desires and hopes of those who will be learning be damned, they are too “uneducated” to understand what they need. It is the tyranny of fake experts at work here.

    He thinks people should act according to their best interests and he knows their interests… When plebeians do something that makes sense to themselves, but not to him, the IYI uses the term “uneducated.” (SITG Taleb)

    Now one would naturally want to know under what conditions that research was done? was there any ideological bias of the researchers? whether it is applicable in as diverse a country as India? What do we do of local “dialects”? But they don’t do any of this. Instead, they will attack anyone who raises these doubts, especially in #6. They want to work only with the government schools: poor kids, poor teachers no infrastructure. But ask them where their own children study: they do in private schools! But their medium must be their mother tongue right? No way, it is completely English medium, they even learn Hindi in English. But at least the state board? No CBSE, or still better ICSE. Thus we see the hypocrisy of the cosint, when they have the skin in the game. But do they see it themselves? Perhaps not, hence they don’t feel any conflict in what they do.

So we see that IYI /cosint are not what they seem or consider themselves. Over the last decade or so, with the rise of the right across the world is indicating to everyone that something is wrong when cosints tell us what to do. The tyranny of pseudo-experts has to go.  But why it has come to that the “intellectuals” who are supposed to be the cream of the human civilisation, the thinkers, the ideators, so why the downfall? Let us first look at the meaning of the term, so as to be not wrong about that:

 The intellectual person is one who applies critical thinking and reason in either a professional or a personal capacity, and so has authority in the public sphere of their society; the term intellectual identifies three types of person, one who:

  1. is erudite, and develops abstract ideas and theories;
  2. a professional who produces cultural capital, as in philosophy, literary criticism, sociology, law, medicine, science; and
  3. an artist who writes, composes, paints and so on.

Intellectual (emphasis mine)

Now, see in the light of the above definition, it indeed seems that it must be requiring someone to be intelligent and/or well-cultured individual. So why the change in the tones now? The reasons are that the actual intellectual class has degraded and cosints have replaced them, also too much theory and no connect with the real world has made them live in a simulacrum which is inhabited and endorsed by other cosints. And as we have seen above it is a perpetuating cycle, running especially in the universities (remember Taleb’s qualification). They theorize and jargonise (remember the buzzwords) simple concepts so much that no one who has got that special glossary will understand it). And cosints think it is how things should be. They write papers in education, supposedly for the betterment of the classroom teaching by the teachers, in such a manner that if you give it to a teacher, they will not be able to make any sense of it, leave alone finding something useful. Why? Because other cosints/IYI demand it! If you don’t write a paper in a prescribed format it is rejected, if it doesnt have enough statistics it is rejected, if it doesn’t give enough jargon in the form of theoretical review, and back scratching in the form of citations it is rejected. So what good are such papers which don’t lead to practice? And why should the teachers listen to you if you don’t have anything meaningful to tell them or something they don’t know already?

The noun to describe them:

sciolist – (noun) – One who engages in pretentious display of superficial knowledge.

On Books and Bookcases

“But I am apt to use my books at any time,” I explain to the salesman. “I never can tell when it is coming on me. And when I want a book I want it quickly. I don’t want to have to send down to the office for the key, and I don’t want to have to manipulate any trick ball-bearings and open up a case as if I were getting cream-puffs out for a customer. I want a bookcase for books and not books for a bookcase.

–  Robert Benchley

Myriad Mystical Melancholic Marathon Mindless Meaningless Meetings

There are meetings and then there are more meetings. There are meetings after meetings and there are meetings before meetings. There are meetings in the office, and there are meetings in conference rooms, sometimes in the cafeteria. There are online meetings, there are face-to-face meetings. There are app-based meetings, there are audio meetings, there are video meetings. There is a plethora of meetings. Sometimes my entire working day was lost in shuffling my mind and shuttling my body between meetings. Many times I think just attending meetings is the work, perhaps the only work, that people do. Some people take meetings with almost religious fervour in both quantity and quality. For me, any meeting which lasts more than 15-20 minutes, unless meeting exceptional people or under exceptional circumstances, is just plain debauchery full of verbal diarrhea. Meetings should be precise and to the point, and should not devolve into a seemingly unending saga like a TV Soap opera.

But then, people don’t believe in short meetings. They want elaborate, longer meetings. Mind you I have nothing against longer formats, I would rather read a long-form essay than a character restricted tweet. But these meetings suck the very life out of you as they progress. I could never explain that feeling of uneasiness that crept over me whenever I have to attend the glorious meetings which go on for 2 hours and some more. Longer meetings are like their contents like a gas, nothing concrete.

meetings will expand to fill whatever time is given to them. – Prof. Hall

I would always see others attending the same meeting in the same room, for the same time but never seeing them bored even a zilch. If anything, their enthusiasm for the meeting (whatever the topic) seems to go on and on, as if they had a Duracell battery inside them, and me has just an ordinary battery which runs out of juice in between the race, with the finish line seemingly lying beyond the horizon.

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Do these people drink Boost? Is that the secret of their energy? I have to know this…

But sometimes during these marathon meetings, I have managed to get some creative things done, insulating and isolating myself from the chaos and debris. The important word to note is “sometimes”. Most of the time I was bored to death, thinking about existential questions about life, the universe and everything. But instead of loaded questions like “”What is life about?”” I end up asking much mundane (and cheap) ones like “What is this meeting about?, instead of “What is my purpose in life?”, I ask “What is the update I have to give?” At times I had to give the same updates in three different meetings in a single week. And then people want to talk about optimisation and time-saving techniques and how we can become more efficient, of course in a meeting.

During such moments of philosophical delirium, I take solace in thinking about this quote from Alice in Wonderland:

“ In that direction,” the Cat said, waving its right paw round, “ lives a Hatter : and in that direction,” waving the other paw, “ lives a March Hare. Visit either you like: they’re both mad.”

“ But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.

“ Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat : “ we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”

“ How do you know I’m mad ? ” said Alice.

“ You must be,” said the Cat, “ or you wouldn’t have come here.”

Of course, why would I go to a boring meeting which gives me both suicidal and mass-murderous thoughts at the same time, unless I am mad? After every single of these myriad marathon meetings, I would comment to myself with deep melancholy “I am never going to get back these hours of my life I have spent/survived in here”.

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Detail from Melencolia I  by Albrecht Dürer

Not that I am the only one with these feelings, the shoulders are stooped, faces drained and brains faded for many fellow tortured souls. For all the knowledge of cognitive and educational psychology that many of my learned colleagues are making a living from, they just cannot ( or rather do not) want to see the problems with meetings which apparently stretch on and on. They think just sitting there will help in building the team and inspiring people and keep them updated. They are wrong. Meetings, especially the long ones, don’t help.

Motivation and concentration, cannot be kept on for long, especially in contexts in which you are passively listening to a subject of not your liking. And, as I have remarked in an earlier post, the passage of time can be very subjective. In the case of such meetings, it seems that we are moving very close to the speed to light, as time seems to mysteriously pass very very slowly. I have many times found myself saying, “It must be at least 15 minutes since they are blethering…” and to my surprise when I check the actual time it is not even 2-3 minutes.

Hai Ram! Anyay hi anyay…

हाय राम ! अन्याय ही अन्याय।।।

Another aspect of long meetings is that they are not only mentally, but also physically draining. Even if you are just sitting at one place during those two hours, somehow the entire body feels drained of its juice (remember the Duracell bunny). Physiologically perhaps this can be explained as the entire body system tuning itself to go to sleep as there isn’t much physical activity, added to lessened mental activity as well. Perhaps this is also the reason why people fall asleep during meetings.

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But about the general idea of meetings that I have is neither subjective nor unpopular opinion. People have researched and have come to the same conclusions.

Yet as valuable and energizing as good meetings can be, too many meetings are seen as a waste of time — as a source of frustration rather than enlightenment. – Rogelberg, Scott and Kelly – The Science and Fiction of Meetings (2007)

Also, the misconception that some people had (and I guess they still do) is that meeting is a type of work. It seems to them that attending a meeting itself is equivalent to doing work. Maybe they are fans of Full Metal Alchemist and inspired by law of equivalent exchange they think meeting about some work is equivalent to actually doing the meetings. So how do we end up having so many meetings anyway?

People don’t do concrete things any more,” he says.

Instead he says there has been a rise of managerial roles, which are often not very well defined, and where “the hierarchy is not that clear”.

“Many managers don’t know what to do,” he says, and when they are “unsure of their role”, they respond by generating more meetings.

“People like to talk and it helps them find a role,” says the professor.

Many of these people can spend half of their working hours in meetings, he says.

–  Pointless work meetings

What this implies is that instead of doing actual work, people want to just talk about it. Yet some people, mysteriously seem to enjoy these meetings, some even recording attendance and taking meticulous notes, as if to provide an alibi for a murder.

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Rogelberg, Scott and Kelly – The Science and Fiction of Meetings (2007)

 

That being said, I always thought who likes such meetings and why do they like it? I had a folk-psychological theory that those who enjoy such meetings actually derive their energies from such meetings. But all these were just shower-thoughts, I mean during these mindless meetings you can think of having a hot shower, and also think about something else at the same time. Your brain saves you, it automatically tunes out of the ambient noise and enables you to do what you want to. But this too has its limits and it is not always possible to do it. This is done of course with a filter and a trigger word. The trigger word is when someone calls your name. At times the image of me as Heisenberg flashes in front of my mental eyes as if I have sadistically commanded them to

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And tathastu suddenly you are centre of attention and you have to pretend that you are supremely interested in the topic of the meeting (however boring) and have to respond. I still get goosebumps thinking about this (think PTSD level), imagine the trauma I must have experienced over the years. But the people who like such meetings seem to be immune to such traumas. Rather they thrive in such troubled waters.

The other reason that I had speculated for this was that these meetings are a form of a power play. Not the cricket kind, but the human politics kind. These meetings allow people to show the pecking order, and also allow them to tell other people things which they would not want to hear otherwise. It is to give those whom you like the work that they want and rest to the work they won’t.

A colleague of mine, who has whitened (ok wait, not whitened but grayed 🙂 his hair dealing day in and day out people like these and had experienced such meetings much more than me, told me about the dichotomy of such work distribution. Work, according to him, is of two types: Monkey work and Donkey work. Now, as the name suggests, monkey work is like monkey work. Monkeys are jovial, they jump from tree top to tree top, eat fruits that they like, raid houses and steal from them, make noises and if you get too close to one they might attack you too. They are the Bandar Log of Kipling.

john_charles_dollman_-_mowgli_made_leader_of_the_bandar_log

In Hindi, Bandar means “monkey” and log means “people” – but can also be used for plurality hence the term simply refers to “monkeys”. The term has also since come to refer to “any body of irresponsible chatterers.”

All said and done, monkeys enjoy life, and people do remember them. They have their own charm and are the most visible and vocal people of the jungle (office?). Now I know, you must be making mental images of who are possible Bandar log in your office while reading this. But they don’t do any real work, they do pretend work. They want their names on events that are seen as glamorous and titles which pompous. But you assign them ass grinding work, they will throw a tantrum as if you have asked them their kidneys, for free. It is not that they don’t want to do quality work, in reality, they can’t get quality work done.

In most cases, the monkey working class is also of the mediocre people which I had written about in the past. It is beyond their ken and competence do get actual work done. Perhaps it is the infinite monkey theorem at work.

The infinite monkey theorem states that a monkey hitting keys at random on a typewriter keyboard for an infinite amount of time will almost surely type any given text, such as the complete works of William Shakespeare. In fact, the monkey would almost surely type every possible finite text an infinite number of times. However, the probability that monkeys filling the observable universe would type a complete work such as Shakespeare’s Hamlet is so tiny that the chance of it occurring during a period of time hundreds of thousands of orders of magnitude longer than the age of the universe is extremely low (but technically not zero).

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Since we do not have infinite time or millions of Bandar log in our office, the chances of them producing any intelligible work is extremely low (but technically not zero). So now you know why work doesn’t get done.

If at all, such work befalls on them like on the protagonist of a Greek tragedy, they insist on having an ensemble of underlings to work with under them. They will assign all work to them and only pitch in when to take the credit. They usually undertake work which does not have concrete objectives, or immediate deliverables. They like work which is vague, sounds inscrutable and is heavily jargonised. And they look and dress much well. They look and talk sophisticated but on a closer/deeper scrutiny what remains is only sophistry. Such are the monkey-work people.

On the other hand, the Donkey work people suffer similar fate to the eponymous animal. They do drudgery and actual work which is not glamorous. They work tirelessly and without much hope for recognition. Most actual work in the office is done by them. And in these meetings, this distinction is made clear.

If you work more, more work will come to you. If you work less, less work will come to you.

The offices run on the basis of the work of the Donkey-work people. Boxer the cart horse from Animal Farm can be considered as a Donkey-work person, though all of us are not that naive or ignorant. Screenshot 2019-11-20 at 11.05.58 AM.png

Animal Farm (1954)

Another aspect of such meetings is the apparent loss of time-sense some people experience when their turn to speak, Csikszentmihalyi will perhaps call it as flow state. It feels like those old people who usually don’t get to talk, and when they get someone they just keep on going. It is as if some people have to complete a quota of words in front of a captive audience in order to satiate themselves. Even if what they are saying is of no importance, or is not in the agenda of the meeting or is meaningless mindless mouthing. It is like a poison that they want to remove from their bodies and minds and in lieu inject it on the hapless captive attendees. There is no dialogue, only monologue. In doing so, they inadvertently, and purposefully they hijack the agenda of the meeting. They will go on and on about ephemeral experiences they have had, for example, elaborately explaining elegant endoscopy (or enema, choose what you will).

The cry baby gets more attention.

Initially, I used to think, it is harmless banter, excruciatingly boring at worst but then it turned out to be sinister scheming. This is true for humans as much as for animals. In birds, the more vocal and active chick gets all the food, while not so vocal ones are starved and at times kicked out of the nest by their siblings. In the case of humans, this is observed too. Babies who cry more, get more food and parents time. They know how to manipulate people around them even by faking crying.

The infants exhibited crying behavior that seemed to become more sophisticated with increasing age. This marked a proactive stance in communicating with the mother on the part of the infant. Interestingly, at 11–12 months, “fake crying” was observed during a naturalistic interaction with the mother. This implied that deceptive infant behavior could be seen at quite an early stage.

Now, I am not sure if this trait is carried to adulthood or it is learned during the intervening years, but they get the same modus operandi seems to work on adults also. In these meaningless meetings, the banter can be seen analogous to crying, and attention whoring. The hijacking of the agenda has another purpose, to eat up the time allotted to others, in case you want to say something of value, such delays will cut down your time. Such episodes remind me of an aunty who makes horrible food but insists that everyone must eat it to the full and also praise her culinary skills.

And if they can, people will put all the content of what they have to speak on slides. If you can’t read it yourself (even if you are seated in the front row), because they have put 10 bullet points at 10 point font on a single slide? Not a problem, they are just anyway going to read aloud the slides. Technology scaffolded GIGO. When I see such slides, the designer in me dies a thousand deaths. And people are This goes against good design principles of presentations. Powerless Pointless Talks (PPTs) can be indeed empowering for these people. I can go on ranting about this, but since this is not the central theme of this post, hence I will stop here.

Another category of monkey workers are sly. When they have to address such meetings or are tasked with providing some answers they work as follows. They will identify possible candidates who might have the knowledge that they require. lf Suppose fate has it, that it is you who they seek. Then they will clandestinely ask you something about some other topic and slowly, but surely drift to the subject they want. Then they will ask you detailed questions, and innocently you will answer. The episode ends there, or so you think. Next time in the meeting, you hear your own words coming out of their mouth. No, you are not controlling their minds! But this is a way of appropriating knowledge. They feel elated and intelligent by telling all others what you have told them and not at a single point giving you any credit or even hinting that they asked you anything. Such is the state of people and the purpose they use the meetings for,

Some of these were just some empirical, albeit biased speculations. Can there be a scientific explanation to this messy behavior in meetings? It turns out there is. Recently a group of psychologists from Sweden did actually study work meetings. And this study enables us to understand many things about meetings.

They say meetings provide an outlet both for people to show off their status or to express frustration. Mine is, of course, the latter case (at least I would want to identify myself as such, my residual self-image), while the monkey people show off their status. They say despite there being more meetings “few decisions are made” and people can have a low opinion of work meetings, yet their numbers keep increasing.

The Swedish study takes another take on the long meetings:

Meetings can “arouse feelings of meaninglessness”, he says. But he argues that is often missing their point.

Once in a meeting – particularly long ones – their function can become “almost therapeutic”.

Regardless of what they are meant to be discussing, they serve a purpose as an “opportunity to complain and be acknowledged by colleagues”.

But this certainly becomes a farce very quickly.

But people going to many meetings can lose patience – and can spend much of the time playing with their mobile phones, say the researchers.

A very common scene in meetings that I have had to endure, and surely you have too.

“Some people find this frustrating and question why they must endure them.”

Then he comes to the crucial insight of the study.:

But he argues that negativity towards meetings can be because their real purposes are misunderstood. (emphasis added)

But he says the real purpose of such meetings might be to assert the authority of an organisation, so that employees are reminded that they are part of it.

Such meetings are not really about making any decisions, he says. (emphasis added)

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Levels of meeting and power play.

“When you have meetings with colleagues at the same level, as a professional, you get to discuss different issues that interest you,” he says.

When the meetings are dominated by different levels of status, they become a “power struggle” and leave participants feeling frustrated.

He also says that meetings can unfairly become the focus of other dissatisfactions.

“People often feel marginalised. They feel that they have no influence or position. In these cases, the perception is that meetings do not improve anything, but actually cause even more frustration.”

–  Pointless work meetings

Anyways, now we know why the malaise of meetings is not going to go away, as it is

  • considered as a legitimate form of work by people who do not produce any concrete work;
  • a way to show off one’s status and power in the workplace among your peers;
  • a way to dominate and frustrate hapless underlings;
  • a way of attention (and implicitly resource) grabbing behavior.

So much for the seemingly myriad and mystical, yet melancholic and mindless meaningless marathon meetings, hope to see you in your next one (No, I really don’t).

Arbeit Macht Frei – Work sets you free

Arbeit Macht Frei – Work sets you free

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On the gate of Dachau, a model concentration camp. The SS were Hitler’s instrument of terror in the creation of the new order. It was only logical that they should run the camps. Their first prisoners were the dissidents of the Nazi state, political and religious as well as racial. The SS schooled themselves in brutality, systematically reducing their victims to total subservience. Depriving them of individuality, no names, numbers.

 – The World At War – Episode 20:  Genocide

We are also close to become a society in which we will not have a name but only a number might become our identity. There were even suggestions by the mahanubhav who spearheaded this project that we should get this number tattoed on hands lest we forget it. Why not barcode or QR code, so that is easily machine-readable too?

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Also, we are making detention camps for people who are not able to prove that they are indeed Indian citizens, a classic case of creating and identifying the other. Ironically, the  detention camps are being built by those who will be detained there, just as in the concentration camps. Too many parallels. History repeats itself. 

Quatermass and The Pit

One of my favourite genres of literature is science fiction. Two of the classic science fiction authors at the start of the previous century were H. G. Wells, Edgar Rice Burroughs and Jules Verne. The golden era of science fiction began in late 1930s and 1940s and flourished in the post-war era, which saw the big three (Issac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and Robert Heinlein) along with many others bring out their finest.  Some of the other remarkable authors from that era include (my personal preference, and by no means a representative list) Ray Bradbury, Philip K. Dick, Stanisław Lem, Frank Herbert, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Kurt Vonnegut. Though novels were there, the mass format was the pulp science fiction magazines which published short or serialised stories from various authors. Many of the famous novels were first published as short stories in these pulp magazines. A selection of them with fantastic full-colour covers and some with black and white illustrations on the inside. Some of the prominent titles that come up are Amazing Stories, Astounding Science Fiction, Worlds of IF, Galaxy Science fiction among others.

The post-war era was an era where people believed that we will have permanent bases on the Moon by end of the 20th century and space travel would be commonplace. But we now know, it will be perhaps a few decades if not centuries for space travel to become common. The optimism in the 50s and 60s perhaps was fuelled by the cold war space race, which saw both the West and Soviets invest huge sums to research and development in developing space technologies. This optimism gradually waned as the Soviet empire fell.

With television becoming the newest technology to reach out to the audience, it is not surprising that many of the programmes were tuned to science fiction. I happened to stumble upon one such programmes while scanning the treasures at The Internet Archive. This was a British production titled Quatermass and The Pit created by Nigel Kneale. This is third in a series of Quatermass episodes.

Warning: Spoilers ahead

The six-part television series from 1958 (each episode is 30-35 minutes) is set in post-war London at Hobbs lane where during an excavation for a building some fossil skulls are discovered.  Dr. Matthew Roney, a paleontologist from a nearby museum begins to investigate the discovery. The fossil skulls and subsequent bones are found to be a new previously unknown dwarf hominid species, perhaps the missing link and are dated to roughly 5 MYA. Roney’s head assistant Barbara Judd, creates a reconstruction of the species which is present to the press.

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Soon after, when they continue digging a strange smooth object is found in the pit. The object resembles an unexploded World War II-era bomb and police and subsequently, the military is contacted for its safe disposal.

 

The bomb disposal squad works slowly and does not care about the archaeological aspects of the pit. This makes Roney impatient, who then contacts his experimental physicist friend Prof. Bernard Quatermass to hasten the disposal of the bomb disposal squad.

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Quartermass is involved in rocket research, which he intends to use for peaceful purposes. And this creates a rift between him and the military personnel he is working with. This has some moral and ethical implications for the purpose of scientific research and whether the scientists are responsible for their research being used for military purposes. The military intends to develop bases on the Moon and Mars in order to achieve supremacy in space which is against the principles of Quatermass.

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Quatermass and Colonel Breen visit the site in order to look at the discovery. When the supposed bomb is excavated deeper more fossils are found and the true shape of the artefact is revealed. And it turns out that the artefact cannot be cut by gas cutter, even after raising the temperature to order of 3000 degrees.

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Further digging, provides a disk and an opening to the artefact. Soon, the shape of the complete artefact is revealed. Rest of the hollow space is emptied out, yet the hull of the artefact remains close shut. There is a pentacle on the smooth inner surface of the hull.

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From the outside, the artefact looks like a rocket, which leads Breen to speculate that it is indeed a German rocket which fell here during the war. Also, traces of artificial radioactivity are found in the soil, which indicates that the artefact might be propelled by a nuclear engine. But Quatermass taking into account the age of the fossils speculates that the artefact itself might be of ancient origin. One of the bomb-disposal unit member has a strange hallucinating experience inside the artefact. He sees a dwarf-like figure pass through the walls.

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To open the hull, they try to drill it with a borazon boron nitride drill which makes no impact. But the action of the drills sets out weird vibrations which make everyone frightened and uneasy.

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Everyone is in a state of panic after this. Quatermass, Roney, and Judd run a parallel investigation after hearing out an old local couple about the neigbouring house being haunted. They dig older records and find episodes of haunting dating back till 1300s through to the present. For Quatermass and Roney this is too much of a coincidence and they begin to speculate about the ancient origins of the artefact.

Just after the drilling, a hole automatically appears in the pentacled hull. Roney looks inside and sees what seems like an eye. They force open the hull and find three insects inside the hull who are decaying.

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Roney immediately tries to stop the decay and preserves the specimens and takes them to the museum. They are unlike any insects known and are tripods. Quatermass and Roney speculate the extra-terrestrial origin of these insects, most probably from Mars.

When the drill operator is taking out his equipment, he triggers more poltergeist activity from the artefact and sets a panic across the street. He finally lands in a church in a state of delirium. He describes to Roney and Quatermass hallucinating visions of the insects found in the artefact killing each other.

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Like good scientists, they further investigate the visions using a Roney’s optic-encephalogram, a device that records impressions from the optical centers of the brain. It turns out Judd is the most sensitive of the lot to these visions and they record them. The visions show large-scale culling of the mutations of insects. Seeing these recordings as a “proof” of their theory of extra-terrestrial origins of the artefact. This evidence along with his theory is presented to the military brass. The theory is ridiculed as a fantasy, and a common-sense approach that artefact and the insects being propaganda from Nazi Germany is preferred. They want to dispel the myth that the artefact is that old or it is indeed extra-terrestrial.

The theory as developed by Quatermass is as follows taking into account the evidence he has:

The Martian race of insects is selected to weed out any mutants. So there is a tendency to have large scale purges, which are seen in the hallucinations of people. The Martians came here 5 MYA, and tried to genetically re-programme our ancestors in their own image. During this reprogramming, the human ancestors were given telepathytelekinesis and other psychic powers. And they were set back to Earth. The artefact found was one such space-ship which crashed while bringing modified hominids back to the Earth. Now in the vicinity of the space-ship, some of these long-forgotten powers are awakened. The spaceship itself induces the visions and poltergeist phenomena seen when the ground near the ship was disturbed. Quatermass fears that a large scale activation of such powers might lead to mass killings of humans as seen in the hallucinations.

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A media event is organised in order to address this once and for all. Quatermass pleads that this event must be stopped but in vain. Just as the live event is about to start, the power cables in the vicinity of the artefact, activates it fully. This sets chaos about everywhere and people are trying to kill each other. Somehow Quatermass comes out and is saved by Roney. Entire London is seen to be under mass panic and people killing each other and destroying things.

I will stop here and won’t ruin the climax for you.

You can watch the entire series at The Internet Archive

Episode One “The Halfmen” 

Episode Two “The Ghosts”

Episode Three “Imps and Demons”

Episode Four “The Enchanted”

Episode Five “The Wild Hunt”

Episode Six “‘Hob'”

Some reflections (as seen by a reader from 21st century):

The easy flow of information and relatively free access to the press seem to be unrealistic. For example, one of the reporters gets in easily and takes photos at will of the pit, the artefact and insects. In fact, even after the mysterious nature of the artefact is made known, no attempt at hiding it from the public is done. This is perhaps due to the fact that the military brass firmly believes it to be WW II era find, yet even in this case the free access to press is questionable.

The other aspect is the depth of the characters, which are frankly speaking one dimensional. But perhaps this is keeping in mind the general state of science fiction from that era. Most of the stories, films were like this which did not involve multiple levels of the plot. For example, another fantastic TV series from the era The Twilight Zone (1959) has similar storylines. The acting also looks over the top at times (not at all subtle at any point really), but perhaps this is again a reflection of that era and influence of theatre on films.

Quatermass, like a good scientist, considers evidence from the pit itself (the artefact with seemingly advanced technology, the alien bodies, the 5 MYA fossils), and from people (the visions, and the hallucinations, the elder couple who tell about haunting in the area) and historical records. The evidence of the artefact being old, is right there from the beginning, yet it takes Quatermass and others a long time to consider extraterrestrial origin. Perhaps, we, as readers in the current age, are more agreeable to such a possibility, hence we may find it a bit naive. But then we are trying to judge a production from another era with standards of another.

Some of the themes could be considered on a deeper level. For example, how does evidence from evolutionary aspects corresponds to this explaining? We can perhaps develop another story which takes this forward…

 

Technologies in the classroom

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How to modernise education? How to make use of new technological developments that are around us to make learning in schools better? These are some of the questions that we will look at in the current post. In particular, we will be looking at the so-called satellite education as being implemented in some schools.

In many discussions regarding education, the teachers are usually blamed for not doing their assigned jobs correctly. There is some truth in these accusations. Having worked with teachers at different levels (primary to university) and in different settings (govt schools, private elite schools, teacher training institutes, colleges, and universities) I have come to the conclusion that teachers are part of the problem. This will be elaborated in another post and before you draw out your pitchforks the disclaimer: of course there are good teachers, who do their jobs well.

So one of the solutions is to take these good teachers to all the classrooms. Of course, it cannot be done in a physical way. This is where the technological advance pitches in. We take the good teachers to classrooms via satellites. The TV in the classroom becomes the blackboard, which allows the students to get the best of experiences that the system can offer. Now, this is not just limited to schools but also colleges, some of the best institutes in the country are offering “distance-education” courses like this. The government has invested a large sum in higher education in the form of Swayam channels. These channels are running lectures by various faculties of institutes across India 24×7. Mind you most of these are not specially produced lectures for the TV, they are recordings of usual lectures that these faculties give to their classes. Most are boring af, with them reading out the powerless-pointless slides one after other. They cram as much text as possible on these slides. Making them dense in terms of ink ratio, but unfathomable in terms of learning from them. Anyways this is a subject for another post.

Imagination and philosophies

Our sense of imagination is limited by what we know, and the
philosophies that we subscribe to. For some, it is clear about what their assumptions are for others it is not. They think that this is how it should be, completely ignorant of the notion that some of their concepts are based on assumptions. For some people, this is something that they are aware of, for most of us, we are not aware of this. Many
times we think of finding solace in things which are traditional. Since it has stood the test of time, it must have some inherent value they say. It is our ignorance and arrogance that we are not seeing any value in it. Hence people resist change. Why try something new which might or might work, or work equally well when we have something which is tried and tested? Of course, stability is important, but then stability does not lead to change. Yet when people change things, they try to replicate the models that they have found to work, and hence reducing the risk.

If we apply the same idea with regards to education, we also come across many such examples. The satellite television used in the classroom is one such case. The idea is not new. As soon as television technology became commonly feasible in the 50s and 60s, immediately some pedagogues of the era jumped to the idea of using them for education. This ideally suited the “transmission model” of education which was in vogue at that time with behaviorism ruling the roost of psychology in general and education in particular. In a way, learning via television is the ultimate epitome of the transmission model. In a regular classroom, there is at least a scope for the teacher and student to interact. But in this case, the entire flow of information is in one direction. The transmission is the transmission of learning. No wonder for many decades, and even now television was seen as a game-changer and harbinger of technological learning. Television was also seen as non-invasive technology, as it is passive which works for everyone involved, except perhaps for the most important stakeholders the learner. The television didn’t and doesn’t challenge the traditional “transmission model” of education, which most teachers and stakeholders (including parents) do believe in. The values which enlightened pedagogues worship, find a very low priority with most other stakeholders.

The central mindset in education

The term “centralised mindset” refers to the idea that in complex systems there has to be a controlling agent who overseas all executions.  The centralised mindset refers to a belief that any system which works well must have a system or authority (in the form of a person or a group) which must somehow control the mechanism. The belief in the centralised mindset is that the individuals in a complex system are too unintelligent to behave in a coordinated, complex manner. For example, for a long time, it was believed that the “V” formation that one sees in the flying birds is due to a “leader” in the group. This supposed leader will make the group fall in the “V” patterns by organising the other group members. This is a very intuitive model that appeals to common sense. Whenever we see some patterns, we assume there must be an inherent design or a designer. In the case of the birds in “V” shape the same logic applies. There must be a leader who makes sure such a pattern is created. But such a view, however intuitive and correct it may seem is incorrect. As it happens with most of the other principles in science, in this case too the correct explanation is counter-intuitive. There is no leader in the case of the birds. The “V” pattern that we see is an example of what is known as an emergent phenomenon. It arises from the interaction of the birds which are flying together. When all the individuals follow simple rules in interacting with their neighbours, the “V” pattern emerges. The people who believe in a central leader are wrong in this case. It is a fiction that makes things that we observe easy to accept. But it is not correct. For many such examples and deeper discussions, see Turtles, Termites, and Traffic Jams by Mitchel Resnick.

There are several natural and artificial phenomena where earlier we (including the experts who propose such explanations) though that there was a central control involved in creating patterns, but in most cases, we have discovered otherwise. The counter-intuitive explanation that there is no central control or mechanism just doesn’t appeal to people. How can it be that there is no central control and yet the thing works on its own? Do we always need a centralised control? People argue that without a centralised control there will be chaos or anarchy. Stable patterns of behaviour or observations cannot emerge, it is assumed if there is no central control. Examples are given of a central governing that we are used to so much.

Now you might be wondering what has this to do with education? The general bureaucracy in the educational field is seen as centralised. For example, the creation of a textbook or syllabus or curriculum and assessment is always a centralised process. Think of the board exams.

Why cannot a school or a teacher decide upon textbooks and curriculum?

Why this is so? Because that is how it was in the other government departments. This is what the tradition says. A bunch of experts (preferably with a prefix of a Dr. or Prof.) will decide for everyone what they should learn and more importantly how they should learn it and most importantly how will this learning be assessed. This triumvirate or what to learn, how to learn and how to assess is assumed to be too complex and too important to be left to the plebs. This is where centralised mindset in the form of centralised expert committees is brought in.

The power of the teacher in the classroom is reduced to
a mere executioner ( a meek dictator if you will, as per Krishna Kumar) of all the algorithms set for them to follow. Some good teachers would improvise on this little elbow room that the classroom did offer. But now in an effort to make it
more central in discourse and execution, a centralised teacher and
teaching is needed. Indeed this is the idea behind the satellite television in the
classrooms. To ensure that quality (standardised) education reaches all learners. This also reduces the load on the local teachers, who just have to shepherd the learners to the AV room, and their job is done. The parents are happy as their children are supposed to be learning from the best teacher. And this happens live in some cases, I witnessed this entire process in Rajasthan. Seeing it from the studio being recorded and transmitted live via the satellite, and also saw (at another time) how it is received and executed in the schools. In some cases for interactivity and feedback, a Whatsapp number is provided where the teachers or the learners can reach out to the teacher in the studio. This teacher at the studio genuinely believed that he was being helpful to the students and the system worked. The proof for this was not some study but the messages he received from the school teachers thanking him for taking their class. Real interactivity which might happen in an actual classroom was found to be missing.

Just like the illustration on the top of the post shows, the core idea in the satellite television in the classroom is to centrally repeat the process of transmission of knowledge to all the learners with an added bonus of synchronicity. One act can be used at multiple locations. But this creates inhibitions for interactivity. Constructivism of the experts can go for a toss. Why do we need to create a custom curriculum for each child, when one expert in one manner can teach them all at the same time?

 

Experiments, Data and Analysis

There are many sad stories of students, burning to carry out an experimental project, who end up with a completely unanalysable mishmash of data. They wanted to get on with it and thought that they could leave thoughts of analysis until after the experiment. They were wrong. Statistical analysis and experimental design must be considered together…

Using statistics is no insurance against producing rubbish. Badly used, misapplied statistics simply allow one to produce quantitative rubbish rather than qualitative rubbish.

–  Colin Robson (Experiment, Design and Statistics in Psychology)

The Tragedy of Sai Baba

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Sai Baba of Shirdi is a patron saint to many. The small town of Shirdi is known to us only because Sai Baba resided and did his work there.

Sai Baba was a fakir. A fakir is someone who has given up on Earthly pleasures and attachments to things physical. It includes very things we describe as wealth and luxury.

fakir, or faqir (/fəˈkɪər/; Arabic: فقیر‎ (noun of faqr)), derived from faqr (Arabic: فقر‎, “poverty”) is a Sufi Muslim ascetic who has taken vows of poverty and worship, renouncing all relations and possessions. Fakirs are prevalent in the Middle East and South Asia. A fakir is thought to be self-sufficient and possesses only the spiritual need for God.

Sai Baba’s time is early 20th century and he is said to have died in 1918. So, we have some photos of Sai Baba when he was alive. Some of them are shown in this post. As you can see in the photo below, he is wearing clothes which seem unwashed and are torn and is sans any adornment which is in line with his status as a fakir. No one had to say to us Inme fakiri dikhti hai to inform us or to confirm his status as a fakir. That he possesed almost nothing in terms of money or wealth is another indicator. What we know of him is because his contemporary disciples have told us so. That he could laurel himself with the finest of clothes of silk and adorn himself with loads of gold and silver ornaments was certainly possible, as his contemporary disciples included some very wealthy people. But instead, being true to his nature, he chose to live a simple life, and not partaking any worldly pleasures or objects that were indeed seen by him as not required.

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Sai Baba’s work included helping one and all, including especially the downtrodden and people on the margins of the society. And now 100 years after his death, his disciples seem to have reinvented him in their own self-image. Look at the photo above, which is the template for his idols at Shirdi and elsewhere. And look at what they have done with the idol made of marble. They have made it into something which Sai Baba was not. Look at the corruption of his image that they have made.

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A Sai Baba adorned with gold!

This just a perversion of the saint and what he stood for, bringing him down to and equalling in the depravity of wealth which he was indifferent about. He is adorned with the finest silks and surrounded by gold and silver ornaments. And devotees make show off triumphantly what they have “devoted” to the cause of Sai Baba. Someone had made a gold crown for him, how much he himself must have despised something like that, he chose to wear a torn headcloth over a crown.

shirdi_sai_baba

A Sai Baba surrounded by silver!

The revamped image of Sai Baba is in tune with the self-image of the devotees. They see him enjoying the finest silks and ornaments made of gold, silver and diamonds and hard cash just as they do. The people who are “managing” the temple after him, are no different. In name of charity, they are doing anything but charity. The management of the temple now seeks to remove all the beggars from the temple premises. So if Sai Baba came to Shirdi 100 years later, he would not be allowed as he would resemble a beggar. The irony of the situation is not lost,  you just have to visit Shirdi once to see the rampant monetization of the premises. The entire setup is just the anti-thesis of what Sai Baba was and what he stood for. And this my friends is the tragedy of Sai Baba..

(All the images CC by SA from Wikimedia Commons)

The psychology of perception of time in elevators

As a technology, elevators were mandatory for having high rise apartments. You really don’t want to climb up 35 flights of stairs to just get home. My experience with elevators (or lifts as they are more commonly called in India) has been rather strange at times and continues to be so. And I am pretty sure, this is something most people also experience. If you look at it with scrutiny, it is not a strange experience per se, but I found it fascinating nonetheless. As the title of the post suggests, it is about how we perceive the passage of time when we are in an elevator. Now, typically, they would take less than a minute, sometimes perhaps 10-20 seconds to traverse the required distance. Now, here I am considering typical apartment buildings which I have lived in. Not the skyscrapers with 100s of floors. The lift takes about 12 seconds, as timed using a stopwatch to reach my floor if there are no other stops. Of course, if there are stops on intervening floors when people get in or get out, this is longer. So this is the minimum possible time for the lift to take this floor, both ways. That is from my floor to the ground floor and from the ground floor to my floor.

The distance between the ground floor and my floor is constant. The lift and its motor produce the same acceleration and hence same terminal velocity, and the time taken is the same (as measured with a chronometer). I used a quantum-temporal-displacement-chronometer to be sure about time measurement. So our experience of this short travel should also be the same. But this is far from the case. Traveling in the lift gives a variety of experiences. But most strongly it affects how we perceive the passage of time during this short journey. Sometimes it is as if the ground floor is touched as soon as you press the 0 button on the control panel, while at other times it seems time itself has slowed down and it is taking centuries to cover that trivial distance. You may look at the panel displaying the current floor several times during these few seconds and yet it somehow feels lift is moving too slowly. And at times when you are not looking at the panel, and are lost in your thoughts, it chimes to indicate the ground floor has arrived. And you are surprised that it took such a short time. So what kind of blackmagicfuckery is this you wonder? That we subjectively experience something entirely different in terms of time perception is nothing new, but in the case of an elevator, it is so much striking and a part of everyday experience.

I have concocted explanations for the two cases one in which we deem the lift going too slowly and one in which we perceive it be too fast. In the first case, when we perceive the lift to be too slow, we are perhaps not thinking about anything else. Our entire cognitive apparatus and sense organs (eyes and ears) are solely focussed on getting to the destination. Hence, we tend to only look at the floors numbers on the display panel again and again. Expecting it to change often, and our expectation time, the way our neurons are firing is much faster than the real-time. The anticipation is that it should go faster whereas it is going at its own pre-determined pace. Hence, there is a cognitive dissonance that we experience as lift going too slowly. This is even more pronounced if we are in a hurry to get somewhere or are already late. I have seen people press the buttons on the control panel again and again in the hope that it will get them there faster, but it doesn’t work that way. Objectively measured the lift will take the pre-determined time to reach its destination. You are only subjectively experiencing that it is taking longer. Perhaps two persons in the same lift will have a  completely different perception of time depending upon their mental states.

Now coming to the other case, in which we experience the time to be too short, perhaps our cognitive system is already too loaded. This is when before entering the lift we are deep in a thought chain that we are processing. In such a scenario, we expect the lift to just take us to the destination once we press the button. Our schema for the elevator is activated, we don’t have to do any cognitive processing once we press the button. The schema, as an automated response shaped by our experiences with elevators and induction, works seamlessly when not interfered with, assuming that the elevator is behaving in its normal manner. I have had experience of an elevator which could close the door as you were trying to enter. It was almost as if the elevator waited like a predator to catch its pray. Some logic circuits in this elevator were fried, and it won’t let you off you when it caught your leg. Or the elevator might itself have a severe case of fear of heights (vertigo?), as told in HHGTG and would not want to travel to heights. But these being extreme cases, most elevators are domesticated and docile, doing the deed they are designed to do depositing and delivering cargo to destinations, despite the draconian ways in which some travellers might treat them.

Coming back to the explanation for the former case, perhaps due to no cognitive load we are trying to screw with the automated schema. We are just running the simulation of the schema for elevators in our minds, and confusing it with the real world out there. Hence there is a cognitive dissonance. We are expecting something in the mind, while we are seeing something in reality. I have also tried this experiment sometimes when this happens. I close my eyes and mentally calculate the amount of time that might have passed and try to predict the floor that I might have reached. I open my eyes to check if I have guessed correctly but most of the times I am incorrect in the guess.

When we have company in the lift, the temporal experience can be altered and can be subjective as well. If you are with a person whom you find attractive or admire, you might feel that the time taken was perhaps too short. On the other hand, if it is somebody whom you find disgusting or un-attractive, the same journey might seem like a lifetime or a life sentence. In this case, perhaps the cognitive system has become completely Epicurean (when it is not?) in its approach and wants to maximise the good times and minimise the not-so-good ones.

But this does not end the discussion of the elevators. Experiments in elevators provide some useful insights in fundamental physics. This is related to the concepts of frames of reference and the so-called equivalence principle. Elevators are used in Gedanken experiments for thinking about the equivalence principle, which later gave rise to the general theory of relativity.

Apple falling inside a box that rests on the Earth. Indistinguishable motion when the appl is inside an accelerated box in outer space.

 

The equivalence principle states that to an observer in a freely falling elevator the laws of physics are the same as in the inertial frames of special relativity (at least in the  immediate neighbourhood of the centre of the elevator). The effects due to the accelerated motion and to the gravitational forces exactly cancel. An observer sitting in an enclosed elevator cannot, if he observes apparent gravitational forces, tell what portion of these correspond to acceleration and what portion to actual gravitational forces. He will detect no forces at all unless other forces (i.e., other than gravitational forces) act on the elevator. In particular, the postulated principle of equivalence requires that the ratio of the inertial and gravitational masses be M_i/M_g = 1. The “weightlessness” of a man in orbit in a satellite is a consequence of the equivalence principle. Pursuit of the mathematical consequences of the  principle of equivalence leads to the general theory of relativity.. –

From Kittel Mechanics – Berkeley Physics Course Volume 1

 

Another fundamental aspect of physics which uses elevators is the notion of inertial and non-inertial frames of reference. An inertial frame of reference is one in which the particle experiences no acceleration (either transitional or rotational).

Our ability to say whether or not a particular reference frame is an inertial frame will depend in a strict sense upon the precision with which we can detect the effects of a small acceleration of the frame. In a practical sense, a reference frame in which no acceleration is observed for a particle believed to be free of any force and constraint is taken to be an inertial frame.

Now an elevator moving with a constant downward acceleration will be no different than the gravity that we experience on the surface of the Earth. No dynamical experiments conducted inside the elevator will ever tell us whether the elevator is moving with constant acceleration or it is stationary at the surface of the Earth. To know what is the actual case we have to go and perform experiments / take observations outside the lift.

Screenshot 2019-07-31 at 8.21.51 PM

Thus the humble lift or elevator has more to offer to you than just taking you from point A to point B in your daily routine.

Genetics and human nature

Usually, in the discussion regarding human nature, there is a group of academics who would like to put all the differences amongst humans to non-genetic components. That is to say, the cultural heritage plays a much more important or the only important role in the transfer of characteristics. In the case of education, this is one of the most contested topics. The nature-nurture debate as it is known goes to the heart of many theories of human behaviour, learning and cognition. The behaviourist school was very strong until the mid 20th century. This school strongly believed that the entirety of human learning is dependent only on the environment with the genes or (traits inherited from the parents) playing little or no role. This view was seriously challenged on multiple fronts with attacks from at least six fields of academic inquiry: linguists, psychology, philosophy, artificial intelligence, anthropology, and neuroscience. The advances in these fields and the results of the studies strongly countered the core aspects of behaviourism. Though the main thrust of the behaviourist ideas seems to be lost, but the spirit still persists.  This is in the form of academics who still deny any role for genes, or even shun at the possibility of genes having any effect on human behaviour. They say it is all the “environment” or nurture as they name it. Any attempt to study the genetic effects are immediately classified as fascist, Nazi or equated to social Darwinism and eugenics. But over several decades now, studies which look at these aspects have given us a mounting mountain of evidence to lay the idea to rest. The genes do play a definitive role and what we are learning is that the home environment may not be playing any role at all or a very little role in determining how we turn out. Estimates range from 0 to 10%. The genes, on the other hand, have been found to have about 50% estimate, the rest 40% being attributed to a “unique”  environment that the individual experiences.   Though typically, some of the individuals in academia argue strongly against the use of genetics or even mention of the word associated with education or any other parameters related to education. But this has to do more with their ideological positions, which they do not want to change, than actual science. This is Kuhnian drama of a changing science at work. The old scientists do not want to give up on their pet theories even in the case of evidence against them. This is not a unique case, the history of science is full of such episodes.

Arthur Jensen, was one of the pioneers of studying the effect of genetic heritability in learning. And he lived through the behaviourist and the strong nurture phases of it. This quote of his summarises his stand very well.

Racism and social elitism fundamentally arise from identification of individuals with their genetic ancestry; they ignore individuality in favor of group characteristics; they emphasize pride in group characteristics, not individual accomplishment; they are more concerned with who belongs to what, and with head-counting and percentages and quotas than with respecting the characteristics of individuals in their own right. This kind of thinking is contradicted by genetics; it is anti-Mendelian. And even if you profess to abhor racism and social elitism and are joined in battle against them, you can only remain in a miserable quandary if at the same time you continue to think, explicitly or implicitly, in terms of non-genetic or antigenetic theories of human differences. Wrong theories exact their own penalties from those who believe them. Unfortunately, among many of my critics and among many students I repeatedly encounter lines of argument which reveal disturbing thought-blocks to distinguishing individuals from statistical characteristics (usually the mean) of the groups with which they are historically or socially identified.

–  Arthur Jensen, Educability and Group Differences 1973

As the highlighted sentence in the quote remarks, the theories which are wrong or are proven to be wrong do certainly exact penalties from their believers. One case from history of science being the rise and rise of Lysenkoism in the erstwhile USSR. The current bunch of academics who strongly deny any involvement of genes in the theories of human learning are no different.

Asimov on science literacy

Science literacy does not have a unique definition. Depending on what your ideas about science are, the meaning of science literacy will change. But being scientifically literate, is usually taken as a sign of being informed, being rational in decisions. Here is what the great science and science-fiction writer Issac Asimov had to say about its importance.

A public that does not understand how science works can, all too easily, fall prey to those ignoramuses … who make fun of what they do not understand, or
to the sloganeers who proclaim scientists to be the mercenary warriors of today, and the tools of the military. The difference … between … understanding and not understanding . . . is also the difference between respect and admiration on the one side, and hate and fear on the other.

– Isaac Asimov

 

Why philosophy is so important in science education

This is a nice article whicH I have reposted from AEON…

Each semester, I teach courses on the philosophy of science to undergraduates at the University of New Hampshire. Most of the students take my courses to satisfy general education requirements, and most of them have never taken a philosophy class before.
On the first day of the semester, I try to give them an impression of what the philosophy of science is about. I begin by explaining to them that philosophy addresses issues that can’t be settled by facts alone, and that the philosophy of science is the application of this approach to the domain of science. After this, I explain some concepts that will be central to the course: induction, evidence, and method in scientific enquiry. I tell them that science proceeds by induction, the practices of drawing on past observations to make general claims about what has not yet been observed, but that philosophers see induction as inadequately justified, and therefore problematic for science. I then touch on the difficulty of deciding which evidence fits which hypothesis uniquely, and why getting this right is vital for any scientific research. I let them know that ‘the scientific method’ is not singular and straightforward, and that there are basic disputes about what scientific methodology should look like. Lastly, I stress that although these issues are ‘philosophical’, they nevertheless have real consequences for how science is done.

At this point, I’m often asked questions such as: ‘What are your qualifications?’ ‘Which school did you attend?’ and ‘Are you a scientist?’

Perhaps they ask these questions because, as a female philosopher of Jamaican extraction, I embody an unfamiliar cluster of identities, and they are curious about me. I’m sure that’s partly right, but I think that there’s more to it, because I’ve observed a similar pattern in a philosophy of science course taught by a more stereotypical professor. As a graduate student at Cornell University in New York, I served as a teaching assistant for a course on human nature and evolution. The professor who taught it made a very different physical impression than I do. He was white, male, bearded and in his 60s – the very image of academic authority. But students were skeptical of his views about science, because, as some said, disapprovingly: ‘He isn’t a scientist.’

I think that these responses have to do with concerns about the value of philosophy compared with that of science. It is no wonder that some of my students are doubtful that philosophers have anything useful to say about science. They are aware that prominent scientists have stated publicly that philosophy is irrelevant to science, if not utterly worthless and anachronistic. They know that STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education is accorded vastly greater importance than anything that the humanities have to offer.

Many of the young people who attend my classes think that philosophy is a fuzzy discipline that’s concerned only with matters of opinion, whereas science is in the business of discovering facts, delivering proofs, and disseminating objective truths. Furthermore, many of them believe that scientists can answer philosophical questions, but philosophers have no business weighing in on scientific ones.

Why do college students so often treat philosophy as wholly distinct from and subordinate to science? In my experience, four reasons stand out.

One has to do with a lack of historical awareness. College students tend to think that departmental divisions mirror sharp divisions in the world, and so they cannot appreciate that philosophy and science, as well as the purported divide between them, are dynamic human creations. Some of the subjects that are now labelled ‘science’ once fell under different headings. Physics, the most secure of the sciences, was once the purview of ‘natural philosophy’. And music was once at home in the faculty of mathematics. The scope of science has both narrowed and broadened, depending on the time and place and cultural contexts where it was practised.

Another reason has to do with concrete results. Science solves real-world problems. It gives us technology: things that we can touch, see and use. It gives us vaccines, GMO crops, and painkillers. Philosophy doesn’t seem, to the students, to have any tangibles to show. But, to the contrary, philosophical tangibles are many: Albert Einstein’s philosophical thought experiments made Cassini possible. Aristotle’s logic is the basis for computer science, which gave us laptops and smartphones. And philosophers’ work on the mind-body problem set the stage for the emergence of neuropsychology and therefore brain-imagining technology. Philosophy has always been quietly at work in the background of science.

A third reason has to do with concerns about truth, objectivity and bias. Science, students insist, is purely objective, and anyone who challenges that view must be misguided. A person is not deemed to be objective if she approaches her research with a set of background assumptions. Instead, she’s ‘ideological’. But all of us are ‘biased’ and our biases fuel the creative work of science. This issue can be difficult to address, because a naive conception of objectivity is so ingrained in the popular image of what science is. To approach it, I invite students to look at something nearby without any presuppositions. I then ask them to tell me what they see. They pause… and then recognise that they can’t interpret their experiences without drawing on prior ideas. Once they notice this, the idea that it can be appropriate to ask questions about objectivity in science ceases to be so strange.

The fourth source of students’ discomfort comes from what they take science education to be. One gets the impression that they think of science as mainly itemising the things that exist – ‘the facts’ – and of science education as teaching them what these facts are. I don’t conform to these expectations. But as a philosopher, I am mainly concerned with how these facts get selected and interpreted, why some are regarded as more significant than others, the ways in which facts are infused with presuppositions, and so on.

Students often respond to these concerns by stating impatiently that facts are facts. But to say that a thing is identical to itself is not to say anything interesting about it. What students mean to say by ‘facts are facts’ is that once we have ‘the facts’ there is no room for interpretation or disagreement.

Why do they think this way? It’s not because this is the way that science is practised but rather, because this is how science is normally taught. There are a daunting number of facts and procedures that students must master if they are to become scientifically literate, and they have only a limited amount of time in which to learn them. Scientists must design their courses to keep up with rapidly expanding empirical knowledge, and they do not have the leisure of devoting hours of class-time to questions that they probably are not trained to address. The unintended consequence is that students often come away from their classes without being aware that philosophical questions are relevant to scientific theory and practice.

But things don’t have to be this way. If the right educational platform is laid, philosophers like me will not have to work against the wind to convince our students that we have something important to say about science. For this we need assistance from our scientist colleagues, whom students see as the only legitimate purveyors of scientific knowledge. I propose an explicit division of labour. Our scientist colleagues should continue to teach the fundamentals of science, but they can help by making clear to their students that science brims with important conceptual, interpretative, methodological and ethical issues that philosophers are uniquely situated to address, and that far from being irrelevant to science, philosophical matters lie at its heart.Aeon counter – do not remove

 

Subrena E Smith

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

The cuckoo Cuckoo

When I was living in Pune, the window of my room opened near a hedge. The hedge was lush green and had many trees. The tree closest to my window was that of a fig, (umber, उंबर in Marathi). Now throughout the day and the night, a variety of fauna visited the tree. Avians, insects, mammals all of them benefitted from the tree.

During the prime of the fruiting season, one would get an aroma of ripe fruits in the middle of the night. The closest smell I can think of is that of a very sweet and ripe apple. Nothing else comes close. I would wonder why does this smell manifest in the middle of the night. Then I discovered that there would be fruit bats munching on these delicious fruits, and the tearing of the fruits would give this aroma. During the day, various other birds including crows, cuckoos, mynahs, some times hornbills too, along with the resident squirrels. So this tree was full of life. A couple of crows used to sit on the tree for hours, caressing each other. Some love couple it was.

But the reason I am writing this post is because of a cuckoo the Asian koel (Eudynamys scolopaceus), a cuckoo who was a cuckoo. Now, as a noun, the cuckoo refers to the bird, but as an adjective, it refers to someone who is mad. Now, what does a cuckoo mean? It means a mad cuckoo. Now one would hear the cucu of the cuckoo during their mating season at the start of the summer, we find nothing odd. In fact, the call of the cuckoo signifies the season change, and for rest of the year, the cuckoo stays relatively silent.

Being familiar birds with loud calls, references to them are common in folklore, myth and poetry. It is traditionally held in high regard for its song … Wiki

And mostly one would hear the cuckoo only during the day. All this being said, I come to the protagonist of the post.

This one cuckoo was mad. I would say this because it would sit on this fig tree and sing in the harshest possible way, much higher notes than usual melodious tone, in the middle of the night. At 1 AM, at 3 AM at any time in the night. The cuckoo would sit right next to the branch of the tree which was closest to my window and sound the alarm. When I first heard it, I woke up thinking that the world is coming to an end or some epic disaster has occurred. The cuckoo from hell. I looked at it from the window, hoping that its eyes are glowing red with hellfire. I could not make sense of what was happening. The intensity and the harshness of the vocalization were like a shock given to me. Once woken, I could not sleep due to the continuous assault on my auditory senses. That night I slept, uneasily, after a few hours almost at the start of the dawn.

This event repeated over many other days.  But over many episodes, I got used to this. It was like my internal cognitive mechanisms created filters for ignoring this. Only on an occasional off day, I would be awakened by the calls. Some of my friends, who had the misfortune to visit me during those days would get the jolt to be woken in the middle of the night.

I don’t know whether this was normal behaviour of the cuckoo. I am sure avian experts would be able to put more light on this, but for me, it was cuckoo who had gone cuckoo.

 

Envious (Machiavelian!?) Mediocrity

There are mediocre people all around us. But the thing is, that some of them actually turn their mediocrity into a kind of weapon, and are able to actually advance much ahead in life. They achieve this by various means and modes.

The idea is that you make up for your mediocrity in the field of work by using other skills that you have. For example, if you are mediocre at coding, then you make sure that you don’t get the work that you may not be able to handle. In case you do, you beg-burrow-steal from your peers to help in that and present it with a face that is calm and take the credit. This happens more often than you think.

Mediocrity is like a viral disease. Once a mediocre is firmly established, it is difficult to remove. Mediocrity attracts mediocrity. Mediocre’s find company between mediocre’s.

The problem comes when mediocre people reach positions of power. They become insecure about their position and work. Time and experience teach them to climb on the top, slowly but steadily, mostly without working what they are meant to. But it doesn’t mean that they don’t work. They do, diligently work their way up. They use devious ways to butter up the seniors, licking them in all ways possible. (pun intended) So you will find such people always close to people with power. They are like fruit flies (no offence to Drosophila) whenever there is a person of power, they will be around. They are obsequious: obedient or attentive to an excessive or servile degree. They will make sure that the powerful ones are looked after, their needs are taken care of. They will enquire socially and keep track of who and where their family members are. This is kept in the long term memory; next meeting they will know everything about the powerful person. Their likes and dislikes, how their children are faring. This takes great dedication and effort to do it. It is almost a fulltime job. I know a few people who will dedicate their working hours to do this. It is no surprise they such sycophantic people are well connected. They will know all the important people and who’s who in the field, and more importantly, these people will also know them, even if fleetingly. And they know how to make use of these connections. Someone needs some help, they will know whom to contact. Mind you this might not be strictly related to their field.

I mean I won’t do it perhaps (strictly metaphorically) even if my life depended on doing it. When someone like me, who doesn’t like this see it – cringe level 10,000. They are toadyish: attempting to win favour from influential people by flattery  Every time I see this happening I cannot help myself to feel disgusted, I want to take that slimy person and give them a mouthful, and perhaps a handful too. Sometimes, such people are merrily talking to you in a social event. Suddenly, someone with a huge position comes in sight and poof the sycophant vanishes and behave in a way as if they don’t know you.

Most people are prone to flattery. I mean, each one will have a different thing to be flattered about, but they know what is to be done. A sycophant will get there. They are fawning: try to gain favour by cringing or flattering. It is human nature to feel good if someone does good things for you, says good things to you. And it is exactly this nature is what is exploited.

“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery that mediocrity can pay to greatness.”  – Wilde

The sycophant will imitate the powerful person: in the way they dress, in the way they talk and in the way they behave. The sycophant will pick up the vocabulary to raise themselves to the level of the powerful. Though they may not understand it, they will use it. Over time it becomes a habit to them to utter such words. A new person who is not aware of these will assume that the sycophant is knowledgeable. 

Continuing in this manner, before you know, they are already the aides-de-camp for the powerful. They will keep them updated about every little thing that happens to them and around them. It is as if they have a mandate for doing this. By calling on powerful people on a daily basis, they become the eyes and ears of the powerful people. What will you do when you are day in and day out harangued by a slimy person. Eventually, perhaps you will start to feel pity for them. The powerful people listen to them every day and eventually become influenced by them. When this starts to happen, their bigger game unfolds. Such is the tact of the obsequious person.

ENVY – Emulation adapted to the meanest capacity.

The bigger game is to dislodge any competition that they might get for the actual work they are supposed to do. For this, anyone who is deemed to be a threat is categorically targetted. The threat here can be defined as anyone who will perform better than or is better than the sycophant. And this is what the title of the post is about. Envy sets in. They cannot outdo the threat in a traditional manner, but they are envious nonetheless.  To overcome this they will use all their wits and dirty tricks to outsmart the threat. They will over time, with opportune moments make the threat disesteemed in the opinion of the powerful person. They will create communication gaps, which are filled by maliciously spread gossip which is detrimental to the threat. They will accuse, complain, whine, cavil, bitch, nitpick about the threat and their work. Slowly but surely they gain control. Such is the control that they will slowly, but surely turn opinion about the threat towards being low value or even worse nuisance. And the targetted person is in the bad books. This is especially hurtful if the targetted person is not outspoken or introvert. In the next level, the sycophant is not only eyes and ears but also becomes (Wo)Man Friday. They will become executioners also.  Their proximity earns them the favour of positions with a lot of power and lesser work at the same time. They become managers in a sense. They manage the affairs of the powerful. 

When a team is to be hired sycophants will never ever take people who are better than them. They will hire people who are mirror images of them. Perhaps this is the reason that great institution builders are people who get good people in the institute and are not insecure about their position and work.

I am surprised that I am surprised even after all these years I cannot let the cringe go away. After all these years, with so many experiences of sycophantic behaviour, I should come to terms with it. But I can’t, perhaps I never will. 

Edit: Sometime back I received the following couplets which reflect very well the emotions that I had while writing this post. Was going to add these couplets in the original post, but somehow forgot. Here they are

तरक़्क़ी  की फ़सल, हम भी काट लेते,
थोड़े से तलवे, अगर हम भी चाट लेते…

बस मेरे लिहाज़ में जी हुज़ूर न था,
इसके अलावा, मेरा कोई क़सूर न था,

अगर पल भर को भी, मैं बे-ज़मीर हो जाता,
यक़ीन मानिए, मैं कब का आमिर हो जाता…

Don’t know the author, any information on the poet would be appreciated.

Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut: A review

 The semi-autobiographical book is an interesting take on the effect of war on soldiers. The book starts with the desire of the author to write a book about his experience of the war. He consults a friend for the same and we have the result. This novella set during the Second World War describes the journey of one American soldier Billy Pilgrim by one of his fellows.  Billy is an optometrist, a trade he inherits from his father-in-law. He is enlisted during the war. Post war Billy claims he was abducted by aliens. These aliens called, Tralfamadorians, have a very different concept of time. They can see all time, past and future at the same instant, time travel. Once with them, Billy is able too do time travel too, post an experience during this 18th anniversary. Hence in the book he goes off to different timelines and places, which others see as him hallucinating. He switches between his childhood, his youth, his war years and his old age.

> And I asked myself about the present: how wide it was, how deep it was, how much was mine to keep.

> There is no beginning, no middle, no end, no suspense, no moral, no causes, no effects.

Due to this the book has a highly non-linear timeline. It goes from hospitals to war theatre and hospital to his office. So it goes.

Billy already knows things that will happen to him and others. For example, he already knows about  the plane crash, in which he and a co-pilot are the only survivors. At other times even in case of hig distress situations he keeps his calm. So it goes.

> He was so snug in there that he was able to pretend that he was safe at home, having survived the war, and that he was telling his parents and his sister a true war story—whereas the true war story was still going on.

The Tralfamadorian philosophy is completely deterministic in a sense.

> “He has always pressed it, and he always will. We always let him and we always will let him. The moment is structured that way.”

The book starts the story with capture of Billy by the Germans. They are temporarily stationed at a PoW camp with Russians and the British soldiers. The American soldiers are seen as the worst of the lot, and are deemed to be no good soldiers at all. The British soldiers are a class apart from the ragged Americans. The Brits have maintained themselves well, and have huge stocks of food and other items which were sent to them by a clerical mistake. They are eating the best food, arguably in all of Germany. Billy finds his attire in the form of a azure toga and shoes. He looks distinct and clownish. The Americans are subsequently transferred to Dresden, the only German city, which has been spared of aerial bombardment as it does not have any industries of repute. So it goes.

In Dresden, most of the daily routines are unaffected by the war. The city itself is in all its glory. The Americans are stationed in Slaughter House Five.

> “ Their address was this: “Schlachthof-fünf.” Schlachthof meant slaughterhouse. Fun/was good old five.”

The Slaughter house was empty, as most of the animals were already eaten. The Americans are guarded by a motley group of Germans who seem to be masquerading as soldiers. They are either too young, or too old or too unfit to be soldiers in the real sense. Almost everyone has lost their sense of belonging and are like lost souls. Then one night, bombing does happen. They go into a deep bomb shelter, while rest of Dresden is destroyed. The group comes out in the noon next day to see the entire city in rubble. They say it is moon, as ashes and stones are everywhere. Afterwards the Americans are made to dig bodies from under the debris. Till finally they are released at the end of the European theatre of war.

> One of the main effects of war, after all, is that people are discouraged from being characters.

There are a few characters worth mentioning in the book. One is the sci-fi writer named Kilgore Trout.

> He did not think of himself as a writer for the simple reason that the world had never allowed him to think of himself in this way.

An episode witnessed by Trout at Billy’s 18th wedding anniversary leads to all his theories about the Tralfamadorians. Thereafter it is a downward slide for Billy. Another character is the actress named Montana Wildhack. She is a famous actress and is abducted to give Billy company during his stay at Tralfamador. They copulate and have a baby, and their act is a crowd puller for the Tralfamadorians. She comes in Billy’s time travel episodes often.

Overall the non-linearity of story line and the brutal senselessness of war and violence are interesting to read. The simplicity of Billy, whether from a bit of dementia or due to his contact with Tralfamadorians is truly hilarious.

Monsoons and Mumbai

 

Every year towards the end of May, the city of Mumbai begins to change. People start to prepare for the coming of the Monsoon, which is itself derived from the word “mausam” in Arabic which roughly translates as a season. Perhaps in no other place than Mumbai, the might of monsoon is felt by such a large and varied section of people. All the residents, in all the areas of Mumbai, irrespective of their class do prepare for the annual coming of the monsoon. In Mumbai, everywhere you would see temporary structures being erected, plastic sheets of many colours and the most prominent blue tarpaulins being used to cover myriad of houses. It seems that the city itself is getting ready to greet the incoming monsoon. The various preparations done by people of all classes reminds one of festive preparation that families do. Some buy waterproofing for their bodies, some for their homes and shops and some for their vehicles. Some, who are very rich, even buy waterproofing for their pets. Government bodies like the BMC clean up the gutters and nallahs, which were freshwater rivers once, hard to believe when you look at their present states. You can see piles of cleaned up garbage and debris stacked neatly alongside the gutters manholes and nallahs. They say it helps in preventing floods. So, every year, like a seasonal change, you will see people cleaning them, and stacking the filth accumulated in these water bodies, both above the ground and underground in neat stacks.

Business establishments erect skeletons of bamboos and timber around the areas which are not covered. This happens in the case of hotels which have open-air seating areas. Then on these skeletons, they apply sheaths of water-proofing materials. At the end of it, the area is ready for use even in the heaviest rains. Shops which would sell, clothes and other stuff in other seasons, have umbrellas in their display. Even the street and traffic signal vendors start selling them. The umbrellas come in a variety of sizes, colours and designs. Males mostly carry black ones, while the females carry ones with a variety of colours. The umbrella is the protection of the commons against the rain. In the crowded local trains and buses, it is not seen kindly if you wear a raincoat and enter and transfer your wetness to others in the process. Umbrellas, on the other hand, can be folded and kept inside your bag. These are the kind of umbrellas, which are compact are the ones which are most common. The price range generally indicates the number of seasons that an umbrella will last. Also, the cobblers, who double up as umbrella repairers can be seen fixing broken ribs, handles and mechanisms of old umbrellas. Then there are the large ones, which you need to carry in hand, for they are larger than any bags you would usually carry. I myself carry one of the largest sizes available. Because when it really pours, the compact ones, though easy to pack and carry, aren’t going to protect you from getting wet in the Mumbai monsoon.

Then there is the rain footwear. The idea is that in the rains leather (even faux leather) will get damaged. Hence one should wear something made of rubber or plastic which is not affected by the rains. All the branded footwear companies have a stock of rainwear, which people buy as a preparation for the rain. But this is not for the real elite, they will wear their suedes even in the rains. From the by-lanes of Kurla, there emerge cheap replicas of the designer rainwear which are sold at less than 10th of the prices of the originals. They are sold outside the stations, on the streets, and in the shops. Each year, the designs, patterns and colours change depending on what is in vogue in the market.

People also buy protection for their mobile phones and wallets. Just before the rains pavement sellers, who sell a plethora of mobile trinkets and accessories, also start with selling waterproofing for the mobiles. Same is the case with the bags that working people and school children carry. Those not well off use covers of plastic to cover the valuables inside their bags. Good quality plastics are always in demand for such things. But now with the ban, we don’t know what will happen. Others purchase rain covers for their bags. Even with all these precautions mobiles and stuff inside the bags do get wet. And they get damaged.

They say when you are already anticipating something, the shock value isn’t that much as you would expect. But in the case of Mumbai rains, it is not so. Amongst the places I have lived in, the longest has been in Mumbai. Even then, I consider myself alien to this city, an outsider. I have seen and explored parts of it, yet I do not consider myself as a Mumbaikar. There are two primary reasons for this. The first is that even though after staying for more than a decade, I don’t use public transport for my daily commute. Neither the train nor the bus I use regularly. The two major forms of transport in Mumbai. So far, I have not stayed very far away from my place of work. Hence I do not have to suffer [safar?] daily travel. The other reason is that I have not yet made myself at home with the rains. It is not that I do not enjoy the rains, I do, but only for the first few weeks. Then it becomes torture. A melancholy if you will. The sunless skies for weeks on end are depressing enough, and then you have to prepare for the wetness. No matter how hard you try, the rains will get you. There hasn’t been a season where I haven’t got completely drenched. I have given up.

In case, I am caught unawares, without umbrella or any other protection. I just let the rain do its thing. I don’t fight it. But the city itself is fully prepared for it. Unless it is a literal flood, the city continues its routine as if, nothing has happened. All the supply lines will be working as they are supposed to. Waterlogging will produce delays in traffic and trains, but that is about it. If half the amount of rain that lashes Mumbai every season pours into any other metro it will come to a standstill. But Mumbai has made sure that the services operate despite this amount of rain. It is because of anticipation and will of the people to work.

The area of Mumbai is about 600 \, km^{2}, and the average rainfall in Mumbai is about 2200 \,mm. This essentially means that we have rainfall equivalent to about 2.2 \, m water present on the entire surface of about 600 \, km^{2}. So the total volume of water that Mumbai receives each year is

V_{Rain} = 600 \times 10^{6} \, m^{2} \cdot 2.2 \, m = 1.3 \times 10^{9} \, m^{3}

As a first approximation we can consider the rain drops to be of uniform size, and the diameter of the drop is about 1 \,mm = 10^{-3} m. So the volume of the drop is about
V_{Drop} = \frac{4}{3} \,\pi \,(0.5 \times 10^{-3} m)^{3} = 5.2 \times 10^{-10} \,m^{3}

Hence in each year the number of raindrops on Mumbai would be

N = \frac{V_{Rain}}{V_{Drop}} = 2.5 \times 10^{18}

As a better approximation we can take into account the fact that not all raindrops have the same size. We can then make a distribution of the raindrops according to their size. We can have a distribution of the raindrops according to their size as follows:

Type of
Shower
Diameter
of drops
(mm)
Percentage Volume m^{3}
Drizzle 0.5 15 6.5 \times 10 ^{-11}
Normal 1 70 5.2 \times 10 ^{-10}
Thunder 3 15 8.1\times 10 ^{-9}

So the total volume of our rail gets distributed according to the above table. Now we calculate the number of drops for each type of shower:

V_{Drizzle} = \frac{15}{100} \times 1.3 \times 10^{9} \, m^{3} = 1.9 \times 10^{8} \, m^{3}

Hence the number of drops in drizzle are:

N_{Drizzle} = \frac{1.9 \times 10^{8} \, m^{3} }{6.5 \times 10 ^{-11}} = 2.9\times 10^{18}

Similarly for normal shower we get

V_{Normal} = \frac{70}{100} \times 1.3 \times 10^{9} \, m^{3} = 9.1 \times 10^{8} \, m^{3}

Hence the number of drops in normal shower are:

N_{Normal} = \frac{9.1 \times 10^{8} \, m^{3} }{5.2 \times 10 ^{-10}} = 1.75\times 10^{18}

Similarly for thunder shower we get

V_{Thunder} = \frac{15}{100} \times 1.3 \times 10^{9} \, m^{3} = 1.9 \times 10^{8} \, m^{3}

Hence the number of drops in normal shower are:

N_{Thunder} = \frac{9.1 \times 10^{8} \, m^{3} }{8.1 \times 10 ^{-9}} = 1.1\times 10^{17}

So if we add all these up we get the total number of drops:

N = N_{Thunder} + N_{Normal} + N_{Drizzle} = 1.1\times 10^{17}+ 1.75\times 10^{18}+ 2.9\times 10^{18} = 4.7\times 10^{18}

This is not very different from our first rough estimate.

Liberals and conservatives

Usually, a liberal is considered to be with a “free thought” trying out new things and conservatives the exact opposite. But a little contemplation will tell us that these two words are indeed relative. The moral, social and political positioning one takes can be different depending on who is looking at you and from where. There is the proverbial LEFT POLE and the RIGHT POLE. Just like any direction away from the North pole is South, any opinion away from the Left pole is right inclined and any opinion away from Right pole is left inclined. Steven Pinker makes a good point about these relative positions:

The meanings of the words are of no help. Marxists in the Soviet Union and its aftermath were called conservatives; Reagan and Thatcher were called revolutionaries. Liberals are liberal about sexual behavior but not about business practices; conservatives want to conserve communities and traditions but they also favor the free market economy that subverts them. People who call themselves “classical liberals” are likely to be called “conservatives” by adherents of the version of leftism known as political correctness.

Nor can most contemporary liberals and conservatives articulate the cores of their belief systems. Liberals think that conservatives are just amoral plutocrats, and conservatives think that if you are not a liberal before you are twenty you have no heart but if you are a liberal after you are twenty you have no brain (attributed variously to Georges Clemenceau, Dean Inge, Benjamin Disraeli, and Maurice Maeterlinck). Strategic alliances-such as the religious fundamentalists and free-market technocrats on the right, or the identity politicians and civil libertarians on the left-may frustrate the search for any intellectual common denominator. Everyday political debates, such as whether tax rates should be exactly what they are or a few points higher or lower, are just as uninformative.

– Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate p. 286-287

Review of His Master’s Voice by Stanislaw Lem

 

The book is an autobiographical tale by one of the mathematician-scientist who looks at a mysterious signal from the cosmos. The title is from the title given to the top secret project which tries to decipher this signal. The signal in the form of a neutrino stream is discovered accidentally and is hidden well in the general noise of neutrino signal. Only if you know where to tune in to is the signal readable/recordable/visible. The signal is attacked upon by a team of experts from different domains like physics, chemistry, biology, language, mathematics. They are able to know that the signal has an “alphabet” but are not able to crack the code as a whole. Though they discover some properties of the signal to interact with matter. For example, they discover that this letter from cosmos has a positive effect on the formation and consolidation of large protein molecules. They also discover a “recipe” for building a substance which is dubbed as “Frog Eggs” and “Lord of the flies”. This substance with a consistency of frog eggs can absorb energy from radioactive fission within itself and has some peculiar properties.

even though, receiving the message from the stars, we did with it no more than a savage who, warming himself by a fire of burning books, the writings of the wisest men, believes that he has drawn tremendous benefit from his find!

That not withstanding, the entire operation is under government supervision and there are plots and counter-plots of bureaucracy enmeshed within the narrative. This also includes an effect termed as “TX” in which a small nuclear detonation can have its energy transmitted to another place. But large scale implementation fails as the energy is dissipated over a very large area rendering any weapons created from them unusable. After these initial success, there is not further “code-breaking” possible and things come to a standstill

We are proceeding like a man who looks for a lost thing not everywhere, but only beneath a lighted street lamp, because there it is bright.

They also discover there is another parallel team working on the same problem but under the command of the military. Finally, the two units are merged.

At this point, various theories are put forth which try to explain the origin of the “letter”. Doubts are even raised to know if the signal is “natural” or “artificial”.  One of the military members uses the oscillating universe model to suggest that the neutrino signal is information from the past universe, from a ‘fissure” in between the universes, to the current one. One more hypothesis is given in the form that the frog eggs naturally evolved and the neutrino signal is just a by-product and the “organisms” do not know if this signal is being sent. A closer example of this is plants doing photosynthesis, they are not aware that their photosynthetic activity is helping other organisms grow, they do it nonetheless.

And surely it was unintentional on the part of the grass to give us the opportunity to exist!

While the author genuinely believes that the signal is from a very old and highly evolved “civilisation”, and we are at a stage such that we cannot understand the letter fully. We are not meant to, not at this stage of our technological evolution. The signal has been there for billions of years, and it takes an enormous amount of power (at least by our standards) to send it, so whoever (or whatever)  is sending it must have a purpose, just that we don’t know ( and perhaps will never know) what the purpose is.

 We will make it undecipherable for all who are not yet ready; but we must go further in our caution — so that even a false reading will not be able to supply them with any of the things that they seek but that should be denied them.

The book is an interesting take on the status of technological progress and its ramification for civilisation as a whole. Some of the themes that one can identify is the survival of the species and not of a particular nation. The concerns expressed over the “TX” discovery make the smaller group privy to this very anxious as we would then have a weapon which at the speed of light can deliver an atomic explosion anywhere. Some of the musings about the senders of the signal and the kind of evolution the civilisation that must have are interesting to read.

Undead Texts

These are the Undead Texts. Their ambition and success inevitably made these works targets of specialist rebuttals. There is probably not a single claim they make that subsequent scholarship has not queried, criticized, or refuted. Yet these texts refuse to die. Novices and experts alike remain susceptible to the spell they cast. – source

 

Le Corbusier, architecture and Chandigarh

Some years back I had heard that Chandigarh, though completely planned, was not a livable city, it somehow was not a comfortable place to be in. Now, while reading The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker I came across some background perspective on this.

Screen Shot 2019-03-04 at 4.19.57 PM

It’s not just behaviorists and Stalinists who forgot that a denial of human nature may have costs in freedom and happiness. Twentieth-century Marxism was part of a larger intellectual current that has been called Authoritarian High Modernism: the conceit that planners could redesign society from the top down using “scientific” principles.” The architect Le Corbusier, for example, argued that urban planners should not be fettered by traditions and tastes, since they only perpetuated the overcrowded chaos of the cities of his day.”We must build places where mankind will be reborn;’ he wrote. “Each man will live in an ordered relation to the whole,”? In Le Corbusier’s utopia, planners would begin with a “clean tablecloth” (sound familiar?) and mastermind all buildings and public spaces to service “human needs,” They had a minimalist conception of those needs: each person was thought to require a fixed amount of air, heat, light, and space for eating, sleeping, working, commuting, and a few other activities. It did not occur to Le Corbusier that intimate gatherings with family and friends might be a human need, so he proposed large communal dining halls to replace kitchens, Also missing from his list of needs was the desire to socialize in small groups in public places, so he planned his cities around freeways, large buildings, and vast open plazas, with no squares or crossroads in which people would feel comfortable hanging out to schmooze. Homes were “machines for living;” free of archaic inefficiencies like gardens and ornamentation, and thus were efficiently packed together in large, rectangular housing projects.

Le Corbusier was frustrated in his aspiration to flatten Paris, Buenos Aires, and Rio de Janeiro and rebuild them according to his scientific principles. But in the 1950s he was given carte blanche to design Chandigarh, the capital of the Punjab, and one of his disciples was given a clean tablecloth for Brasilia, the capital of Brazil. Today, both cities are notorious as uninviting wastelands detested by the civil servants who live in them.
– Steven Pinker (The Blank Slate, p. 170)

The logician, the mathematician, the physicist, and the engineer

The logician, the mathematician, the physicist, and the engineer. “Look at this mathematician,” said the logician. “He observes that the first ninety-nine numbers are less than hundred and infers hence, by what he calls induction, that all numbers are less than a hundred.”

“A physicist believes,” said the mathematician, “that 60 is divisible by all numbers. He observes that 60 is divisible by 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6. He examines a few more cases, as 10, 20, and 30, taken at random as he says. Since 60 is divisible also by these, he considers the experimental evidence sufficient.”

“Yes, but look at the engineers,” said the physicist. “An engineer suspected that all odd numbers are prime numbers. At any rate, 1 can be considered as a prime number, he argued. Then there come 3, 5, and 7, all indubitably primes. Then there comes 9; an awkward case, it does not seem to be a prime number. Yet 11 and 13 are certainly primes. ‘Coming back to 9’ he said, ‘I conclude that 9 must be an experimental error.'”

George Polya (Induction and Analogy – Mathematics of Plausible Reasoning – Vol. 1, 1954)

On mathematics

Mathematics is regarded as a demonstrative science. Yet this is only one of its aspects. Finished mathematics presented in a finished form appears as purely demonstrative, consisting of proofs only. Yet mathematics in the making resembles any other human knowledge in the making. You have to guess a mathematical theorem before you prove it; you have to guess the idea of the proof before you carry through the details. You have to combine observations and follow analogies; you have to try and try again. The result of the mathematician’s creative work is demonstrative reasoning, a proof; but the proof is discovered by plausible reasoning, by guessing. If the learning of mathematics reflects to any degree the invention of mathematics, it must have a place for guessing, for plausible inference.

George Polya (Induction and Analogy – Mathematics of Plausible Reasoning – Vol. 1, 1954)

Unreal and Useless Problems

We had previously talked about problem with contexts given in mathematics problems. This is not new, Thorndike in 1926 made similar observations.

Unreal and Useless Problems

In a previous chapter it was shown that about half of the verbal problems given in standard courses were not genuine, since in real life the answer would not be needed. Obviously we should not, except for reasons of weight, thus connect algebraic work with futility. Similarly we should not teach the pupil to solve by algebra problems which in reality are better solved otherwise, for example, by actual counting or measuring. Similarly we should not set him to solve problems which are silly or trivial, connecting algebra in his mind with pettiness and folly, unless there is some clear, counterbalancing gain.
This may seem beside the point to some teachers, ”A problem is just a problem to the children,” they will say,

“The children don’t know or care whether it is about men or fairies, ball games or consecutive numbers.” This may be largely true in some classes, but it strengthens our criticism. For, if pupils^do not know what the problem is about, they are forming the extremely bad habit of solving problems by considering only the numbers, conjunctions, etc., regardless of the situation described. If they do not care what it is about, it is probably because the problems encountered have not on the average been worth caring about save as corpora vilia for practice in thinking.

Another objection to our criticism may be that great mathematicians have been interested in problems which are admittedly silly or trivial. So Bhaskara addresses a young woman as follows: ”The square root of half the number of a swarm of bees is gone to a shrub of jasmine; and so are eight-ninths of the swarm: a female is buzzing to one remaining male that is humming within a lotus, in which he is confined, having been allured to it by its fragrance at night. Say, lovely woman, the number of bees.” Euclid is the reputed author of: ”A mule and a donkey were going to market laden with wheat. The mule said,’If you gave me one measure I should carry twice as much as you, but if I gave you one we should bear equal burdens.’ Tell me, learned geometrician, what were their burdens.” Diophantus is said to have included in his preparations for death the composition of this for his epitaph : ” Diophantus passed one-sixth of his life in childhood one-twelfth in youth, and one-seventh more as a bachelor. Five years after his marriage was born a son, who died four years before his father at half his father’s age.”

My answer to this is that pupils of great mathematical interest and ability to whom the mathematical aspects of these problems outweigh all else about them will also be interested in such problems, but the rank and file of pupils will react primarily to the silliness and triviality. If all they experience of algebra is that it solves such problems they will think it a folly; if all they know of Euclid or Diophantus is that he put such problems, they will think him a fool. Such enjoyment of these problems as they do have is indeed compounded in part of a feeling of superiority.

– From Thorndike et al. The Psychology of Algebra 1926

Dialectic vs Algorithmic Mathematics

Dialectic mathematics is a rigorously logical science, where statements are either true or false, and where objects with specified properties either do or do not exist. Algorithmic mathematics is a tool for solving problems. Here we are concerned not only with the existence of a mathematical object, but also with the credentials of its existence. Dialectic mathematics is an intellectual game played according to titles about which there is a high degree of consensus. The rules ol the game of algorithmic mathematics vary according to the urgency of the problem on hand. We never could have put a man on the moon if we had insisted that the trajectories should be computed with dialectic rigor. The rules may also vary according to the computing equipment available. Dialectic mathematics invites contemplation. Algorithmic mathematics invites action. Dialectic mathematics generates insight. Algorithmic mathematics generates results.

School as a manufacturing process

Over most of this century, school has been conceived as a manufacturing process in which raw materials (youngsters) are operated upon by the educational process (machinery), some for a longer period than others, and turned into finished products. Youngsters learn in lockstep or not at all (frequently not at all) in an assembly line of workers (teachers) who run the instructional machinery. A curriculum of mostly factual knowledge is poured into the products to the degree they can absorb it, using mostly expository teaching methods. The bosses (school administrators) tell the workers how to make the products under rigid work rules that give them little or no stake in the process.
– (Rubba, et al. Science Education in the United States: Editors Reflections. 1991)

Indiana Jones and The Art of Looting

indiana-jones-and-the-art-of-looting

The swashbuckling hero in form of Indiana Jones fascinated me as I was growing up. I always thought why do people stop him from doing what he is doing? All that he is doing is taking the various archaeological treasures to their rightful places, namely, the museums in the West? I always thought he must be right when overcoming all the obstacles that those villainous natives and those forbidden locations place in front of him. What better places that the relics have than in museums where people can admire them and they can be cared for. But now I ask this question

Was Dr. Jones right in the first place to remove the relics from the places where the people who made them placed?

I would like to reflect on a few themes which are implicit in the movies. They reek of a worldview which is colonial assumes a moral, ethical and cultural high-ground for the actions shown in the movie. The zeitgeist of the era is very well reflected in the movies. We reflect on the idea of culture and its implications on ideas about other people.

First of all the movies reek of the idea of cultural superiority. The Western culture is imposed on the rest of the world, as it is due to the colonial past. The very idea or removing an artefact which might be of deep significance (religious, spiritual or otherwise) for purposes of displaying it in a museum reeks of cultural insensitivity on one hand and absolute dominance that the West has over other cultures on the other. It plainly states “We don’t care what you think.” White man’s burden is imperative in the series, in which it is upto Jones to liberate savages from their artefacts. This I think is no different than the maxim of the US: Our oil is under your land.

The movie franchise presents and justifies a completely Western view of the world where rest of the world is full of (ig/noble?) savages. This is no different from the zeitgeist of the era in which Dr Jones operates. The very idea of anthropology as a scientific discipline was taking shape during that era. European colonialism was at its peak at the beginning to mid of the twentieth century. Set in this context the film franchise does just reflect the zeitgeist of the era. But to celebrate it in a post-colonial era is a different game. Should we look at Dr Jones as a hero or a thief who specialises in vandalising places of worship and steals cultural symbols of deep spiritual significance?

 

 

Thomas Kuhn on the role of textbooks in science education

The single most striking feature of this [science] education is that, to an extent wholly unknown in other fields, it is conducted entirely through textbooks. Typically, undergraduate and graduate students of chemistry, physics, astronomy, geology, or biology acquire the substance of their fields from books written especially for students.

Thomas Kuhn The Essential Tension

Here Kuhn is trying to show us the nature of science education which is usually divergent from the historical processes and events which led to the currently accepted theories. Most of the textbooks rather show the content matter which makes sense conceptually in a rationally organised manner. Of course, the ideal goal, at least in the physical sciences, is to create a hypothetico-deductive model in which a given theory, its predictions, explanations and implications can be derived from some basic definitions and axioms. For example, an introductory text on motion in physics usually starts with definitions and assumptions usually of a mass point, and/or operations that are defined on it. The text does not describe the historical conditions in which this conceptual approach arose, rather it adapts a very pragmatic pedagogical approach. It defines the term and ends it there, but in this process, it redefines the conceptual history. This approach assumes that there is no pedagogical merit or role in introducing a concept in its historical context. This perhaps is also linked to Poppers distinction of the context of discovery and the context of justification. What we see is a rational reconstruction of historical processes to make sense of them in a straightforward manner.

 

 

Science Education and Textbooks

What are the worst possible ways of approaching the textbooks for teaching science? In his book Science Teaching: The Role of History and Philosophy of Science pedagogue Michael Matthews quotes (p. 51) Kenealy in this matter. Many of the textbooks of science would fall in this categorisation. The emphasis lays squarely on the content part, and that too memorized testing of it.

Kenealy characterizes the worst science texts as ones which “attempt to spraypaint their readers with an enormous amount of ‘scientific facts,’ and then test the readers’ memory recall.” He goes on to observe that:

Reading such a book is much like confronting a psychology experiment which is testing recall of a random list of nonsense words. In fact, the experience is often worse than that, because the book is a presentation that purports to make sense, but is missing so many key elements needed to understand how human beings could ever reason to such bizarre things, that the reader often blames herself or himself and feels “stupid,” and that science is only for special people who can think “that way” … such books and courses have lost a sense of coherence, a sense of plot, a sense of building to a climax, a sense of resolution. (Kenealy 1989, p. 215)

What kind of pedagogical imagination and theories will lead to the textbooks which have a complete emphasis on the “facts of science”? This pedagogical imagination also intimately linked to the kind of assessments that we will be using to test the “learning”. Now if we are satisfied by assessing our children by their ability to recall definitions and facts and derivations and being able to reproduce them in writing (handwriting) in a limited time then this is the kind of syllabus that we will end up with. Is it a wonder if students are found to be full of misconceptions or don’t even have basic ideas about science, its nature and methods being correct? What is surprising, at least for me, that even in such a situation learning still happens! Students still get some ideas right if not all.

A curriculum which does not see a point in assessing concepts has no right to lament at students not being able to understand them or lacking conceptual understanding. As Position Paper on Teaching of Science in NCF 2005 remarks

‘What is not assessed at the Board examination is never taught’

So, if the assessment is not at a conceptual level why should the students ever spend their time on understanding concepts? What good will it bring them in a system where a single mark can decide your future?

 

Just for fun or how to invite readers to immerse in your book

These problems are for fun. I never meant them to be taken too seriously. Some you will find easy enough to answer. Others are enormously difficult, and grown men and women make their livings trying to answer them. But even these tough ones are for fun. I am not so interested in how many you can answer as I am in getting you to worry over them.

What I mainly want to show here is that physics is not something that has to be done in a physics building. Physics and physics problems are in the real, everyday world that we live, work, love, and die in. And I hope that this book will capture you enough that you begin to find your own flying circus of physics in your own world. If you start thinking about physics when you are cooking, flying, or just lazing next to a stream, then I will feel the book was worthwhile. Please let me know what physics you do find, along with any corrections or comments on the book. However, please take all this as being just for fun.

From Preface of Jearl Walkers The Flying Circus of Physics

Two Cultures

When C. P. Snow talked about Two Cultures, he had in mind the two supposedly different ways of life. The sciences and the humanities. Snow tries to see the differences between the two cultures and makes it a point to show that the two are indeed different. Recently I read Stephen J Gould’s The Fox, The Hedgehog, and the Magister’s Pox. Gould tries to establish that the so-called divide between the sciences and the humanities never existed but was created unnecessarily.

In this article, I am also going to talk about two cultures, but not the ones that Snow choose. I am going to talk about academic and administrative cultures. Any research institute along with its academic staff has a `supporting’ administrative staff. Theoretically, if you ask, the tasks of the two are defined clearly. The academicians are supposed to do academics, that is, to do research, or at least what they consider research or worth doing. The outcome of academicians is to be measured by fellow academicians, in terms of the quality and the quantity of research or visible work done by them.

The academic life is usually one which is not-so-high paying. At least in India, this seems to be the case. A person who retires as the Director of an Institute hardly draws a salary as compared to the ones in the industry with their kind of experience. But that will take us into another discussion about Academics and Corporates, which I don’t want to enter into now. The perks of academic life are in many cases, if not in all, are the curiosity and the associated satisfaction that one derives from the problems that one tackles. When a person starts an academic career, the paths diverge sharply from their colleagues’ paths who have to choose a corporate way. When one enters academics, one of the things that are retained is a sense of freedom. Again this might not be true in all cases, I have seen juniors, especially the Graduate Students being ruled upon like a dictator by senior Professors. But this misses the point that I want to make. The point is that if you can, at least theoretically speaking, pursue your own research agendas, your research questions. For some people, it is the question that drives their academic lives.

Every now and then you hear examples of so-called `nerds’, who do weird things. They are the people who have `devoted’ themselves to their field. I am not trying to defend anyone here for doing all the weird things that they do, but just trying to illustrate the fact that the field that the researcher chooses, is what drives them on in life. It is just due to the handful of these people that makes the difference. Many times it is just sheer genius, many times it is hard work of years. They are the leaders of their field. Well not always, you may find a mediocre person leading the field, with all the proper political connections…

But this is not always the case; there are always misfits. I do know of people who do not have any commitment to the field that they are working in, per se. But they choose the research field as any other job, the enthusiasm is lacking. And they lament upon those who show some enthusiasm. And such people may be quite numerous. They are the followers. In many cases, it is not that they lack the enthusiasm, but it is entirely missing. What I mean by that is they just like workers in a stone quarry, just doing what the supervisor tells you to do, without much understanding. They are like academic coolies. Maybe the term sounds harsh, but that is what it is supposed to be. Whether you are like this or not will strongly depend on who is your reporting authority in the field. These people, if asked, will have no opinion themselves, and even if they do, it will be a carbon copy of somebody else’s.

The way one is moulded in academic life strongly depends upon one’s own capacity for independent thinking and the kind of support that one gets from the colleagues, including and most importantly from the supervisor. The graduate student years decide what kind of academic person you will become. If all your thoughts are nipped in the bud, at all the times, will you be able to think independently? This is also the question that the supervisor has to ask himself/herself: What my student should be like? I guess many of them would differ in the answer that they give and the thing that they actually practice.

Research Institutes are constituted so as to make an academic atmosphere. By this it is meant that the place should provide support for the activities that the researchers do, that is those activities apart from doing research per se. This support if necessary so that the researchers can concentrate on their work completely. Well isn’t that the idea of having a research institute. The researchers are paid for doing that, and many of them if not all do precisely this. They are not doing research as some part-time job, they are professionals, and at least some of them are committed to the field.

A Paradigm as variously defined by Thomas Kuhn would be a more proper term here for the field. As a philosopher, Kuhn redefined many of our existing understanding in the field of science, especially our understanding _about_ science as a field of human endeavour.

Researchers come and join a paradigm, most of them stay within the paradigm and solve puzzles. Only a few lucky of them come up with problems that are unsolvable within the paradigm, and then the revolutions follow. But let us not go further in this interlude. We
will talk about Kuhn some other time.

So coming back to research institutes, we can settle on one thing that a research institute is a place where research is done, and it is meant for that purpose. In a research institute, the agenda is to provide facilities for research. Various people form the infrastructure that is is thus required. Generally, any research institute has a few categories of people. The faculty, the graduate students and the scientific staff other than the previously mentioned ones. The other staff in the institute includes the technical, administrative
and the auxiliary staff, peons, cleaners etc.

The administrative staff is supposed to help the academic staff to lessen their burden from the non-academic work that they have to do. This `non-academic’ work includes managing the finance of the institute, maintaining the premises, handling at recruitments, and looking at various other facilities and services. But in some institute, the administrative staff becomes increasingly powerful, so much so that they dictate the terms to the academics. Promotions are stalled, so are new recruitments and procurements. All this by citing some obscure rules or just sitting on the files for months. This particularly happens when the incumbent person perceived to be “weak”. On the other hand when the incumbent person is perceived to be “strong”, the administration falls in line. The “strong” person at the helm, can ask the administration to bend the rules, or keep them on hold, or even circumvent at times. This makes the institutes grow. On the other hand, following the rules too strictly and with convenience denial makes it difficult for any growth.

Personal vendettas and fragile egos mark office politics. This is a power struggle, which decides the fate of the institute.

The Forbidden Library

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What do you do when you find something offensive? Whether it be a book, a film or any other art form? You ask for a ban. You not only ban the book, perhaps want to ban the creator of the said object, including all their other work. We will explore Let us look at the dictionary meaning of ban:

Screen Shot 2018-10-09 at 4.25.26 PM

Over the centuries, the powers to be, have banned books and other materials or ideas which they found offensive. But the idea for bans is not always from the state. Grieved individuals often take upon themselves to argue for a ban on a given book or other material. But why would anyone want to ban anything? There seem to be two major reasons, both ideological for this. Both of them involve cultural and societal values.

Every society has some agreed upon norms about behaviour in public, interactions between individuals and things which are considered “normal”. Now, if you look at different cultures, it does take a genius to see those different cultures have different norms. If you look at the same culture historically, you will see that norms change with time. What was blasphemous in the last generation is acceptable now. For example, in the Indian context consider inter-caste marriages. It would be almost impossible to think of it (especially if the female is from the higher caste) in our grandfather’s generation. Manusmriti has

In an earlier post, I had discussed the absurdity of television censorship. The main reason seems to be that in the case of television the continuous flow of images with sound creates a sense of participation for the viewers, whereas they are just consuming. The attention span of the viewers on the television is the most treasured commodity. To keep the viewers glued to the screen, the content creators use a variety of means. The spectacle is out there. Feeding the viewers, satiating their bored lives showing them things that they will never ever get. Playboy and National Geographic are essentially same, they show you things that you are never going to see by yourselves. They create a reality away from reality in which the viewer is lured in and then stuck in a quagmire. In this state, the opinions can be changed, altered as per the desires of the creators.

This thematic idea is captured very well in this couplet by Piyush Mishra in a song from Gulaal.

जैसे हर एक बात पे डिमॉक्रेसी में लगने लग गयो बैन

Just like in democracy there is a ban for everything in democracy.

The banning of books or that of materials which the state or a group of people seem inappropriate is perhaps the easiest way to

https://web.archive.org/web/20090413002834/http://title.forbiddenlibrary.com/

On the same theme, some of the stand-up comedians in India have expressed their opinions in this video I am Offended.  It is a good watch, particularly the intolerant times in which we are. This video, I think points to many of the issues that we have considered here particularly in the current social Indian context.

Two works resonate the idea of censorship and banning of books very well. They are Nineteen Eighty-Four and Fahrenheit 451. In both these works, the core idea is the control of ideas, information and knowledge. So much so that the language to be used by the people is restricted. Certain words are removed from public memory by force. Any use of these words is akin to treason. Nineteen Eighty-Four has Thought Police, who control and report what is said. Even saying  thinking about something taboo is a crime.  We can see a certain trend in the contemporary Indian context. This MO has been effectively used to discredit dissent. Using in the age of connected computers this becomes even easier. It is easy to target people sitting in the comfort of your bed, in a sustained and meticulously planned manner. The so-called Keyboard Warriors are now being employed for making life hell for dissenting people. Anything goes.

Seemingly normal works of literature can be banned by using various contexts at different times and places. Just have a look at the list of books banned by governments across the globe. You will see many familiar titles there, and some of the reasons for their ban are even more bizzare. In the Indian context, history is highly coloured. The general public seems to consider historical fiction works as the history. I am a bit acquainted with Maratha history and seeing it being portrayed in a highly problematic manner in many of the popular titles makes me cringe. Yet, these titles remain on the best seller list. People reading these take them to be the de facto history without any need for evidence to the events depicted in these. When challenged about historical facts they cite these works of fiction as if they are some well researched historical documents supported by evidence. One can imagine what kind of conceptual edifice one will create with such misconceived notions about the past.

Alan Moore has interesting views on being a writer:  Words are magic, they can change and transform things. If we think about this, this indeed is the case. Ideas in the form of words do dictate our lives, whether we are aware of it or not. Ideologies in the form of literature does control our life. So, a writer can write against what is popularly accepted. There are writers who are conformists, and there are writers who will swim against the flow. And it is the later ones who will find their work on the banned list more often than nought. Ideas and words are far more dangerous than mere physical humans. Writing in this era of perpetual ephemeral nature of electronic media makes this case even stronger. Entire works of a particular theme can be removed in a blink of an eye. Electronic media though makes it easy for the authors to publish and disseminate their work, it can also be controlled and removed as easily as with a simple click. Force and intimidation are used when direct banning is not possible. Don’t feed the trolls. When such a thing becomes the norm, we start to self-censor, the worst form of censoring. Because the moment you start to nip the thoughts in the bud, your entity changes.

It is forbidden to dream again;
We maim our joys or hide them:

George Orwell categorises the intentions for writing into these four

  • Sheer egoism: 
  • Aesthetic enthusiasm:

  • Historical impulse:

  • Political purpose:

The last of these he expands

Using the word ‘political’ in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after. Once again, no book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.

This is where authors who usually end up on the list of banned work find themselves. Perhaps the world-view that the author subscribes to is something against the incumbent and the inherent traditions of a given milieu. Whatever the reasons, mere words can make those in power feel threatened or humiliated. So it indeed the case that words do have magic, if it was not so we would not have works being banned at mere thought.

 

On not learning or con in the context

We will, we will, fail you by testing what you do not know…

We live in a rather strange world. Or is it that we assume the world
to be non-strange in a normative way, but the descriptive world has
always been strange? Anyways, why I say this is to start a rant to
about some obviously missed points in the area of my work. Namely,
educational research, particularly science and mathematics education
research.

In many cases the zeal to show that the students have
‘misunderstandings’ or are simply wrong, and then do a hair-splitting
(micro-genetic) exercise on the test the students were inflicted
with. Using terse jargon and unconsequential statistics, making the
study reports as impossible to read as possible, seem to be the norm.

But I have seen another pattern in many of the studies, particularly
in mathematics education. The so-called researchers spent countless
nights in order to dream up situations as abstract as possible (the
further far away from real-life scenarios the better), then devise
problems around them. Now, these problems are put in research studies,
which aim to reveal (almost in evangelical sense) the problems that
plague our education. Unsuspecting students are rounded, with
appropriate backgrounds. As a general rule, the weaker socio-economic
background your students come from, the more exotic is your study. So
choose wisely. Then these problems are inflicted upon these poor,
mathematically challenged students. The problems will be in situations
that the students were never in or never will be. The unreal nature of
these problems (for example, 6 packets of milk in a cup of coffee! I
mean who in real life does that? The milk will just spill over, the
problem isn’t there. This is just a pseudo-problem created for satisfying the research question of the researcher. There is no context, but only con.

Or finding out a real-life example for some weird fractions) puts many off. The fewer students perform correctly happier the researcher is. It just adds to the data statistic that so many % students cannot perform even this elementary task well. Elementary for
that age group, so to speak. The situation is hopeless. We need a
remedy, they say. And remedy they have. Using some revised strategy,
which they will now inflict on students. Then either they will observe
a few students as if they are some exotic specimens from an
uncontacted tribe as they go on explaining what they are doing or why
they are doing it. Or the researcher will inflict a test (or is it
taste) in wholesale on the lot. This gives another data
statistic. This is then analysed within a ‘framework’, (of course it
needs support) of theoretical constructs!

Then the researcher armed with this data will do a hair-splitting
analysis on why, why on Earth student did what they did (or didn’t
do). In this analysis, they will use the work of other researchers before
them who did almost the same thing. Unwieldy, exotic and esoteric
jargons will be used profusely, to persuade any untrained person to
giveup on reading it immediately. (The mundane, exoteric and
understandable and humane is out of the box if you write in that
style it is not considered ‘academic’.) Of course writing this way,
supported by the statistics that are there will get it published in
the leading journals in the field. Getting a statistically significant
result is like getting a license to assert truthfulness of the
result. What is not clear in these mostly concocted and highly
artificial studies is that what does one make of this significance
outside of the experimental setup? As anyone in education research
would agree two setups cannot be the same, then what is t

Testing students in this way is akin to learners who are learning a
new language being subjected to and exotic and terse vocabulary
test. Of course, we are going to perform badly on such a test. The
point of a test should be to know what students know, not what they
don’t know. And if at all, they don’t know something, it is treated as
if is the fault of the individual student. After all, there would be
/some/ students in each study (with a sufficiently large sample) that
would perform as expected. In case the student does not perform as
expected we can have many possible causes. It might be the case that
the student is not able to cognitively process and solve the problem,
that is inspite of having sufficient background knowledge to solve the
problem at hand the student is unable to perform as expected. It might
be the case that the student is capable, but was never told about the
ways in which to solve the given problem (ZPD anyone?). In this case, it might be that the curricular materials that the student has access
to are simply not dealing with concepts in an amenable way. Or it
might be that the test itself is missing out on some crucial aspects
and is flawed, as we have seen in the example above. The problem is
systemic, yet we tend to focus on the individual. This is perhaps
because we have a normative structure to follow an ideal student at
that age group. This normative, ideal student is given by the so-called /standards of learning/. These standards decide, that at xx age
a student should be able to do multiplication of three digit
numbers. The entire curricula are based on these standards. Who and
what decides this? Most of the times, the standards are wayyy above
the actual level of the students. This apparent chasm between the
descriptive and the normative could not be more. We set unreal
expectations from the students, in the most de-contextualised and
uninteresting manner, and when they do not fulfil we lament the lack
of educational practices, resources and infrastructure.

To be different

As they say in the United States: “to be different is to be indecent.” The mass crushes beneath it everything that is different, everything that is excellent, individual, qualified and select. Anybody who is not like everybody, who does not think like everybody, runs the risk of being eliminated. And it is clear, of course, that this “everybody” is not “everybody.” “Everybody” was normally the complex unity of the mass and the divergent, specialized minorities. Nowadays, “everybody” is the mass alone. Here we have the formidable fact of our times, described without any concealment of the brutality of its features.

– The Revolt of the Masses by José Ortega y Gasset.

Why did not scientific revolution occur in India?

If one wonders why did not the scientific revolution happen in India some aspects of how knowledge was limited might have an implication. I present here a comparative study of conditions prevailing in the two societies, and how the presence of the printing press disrupted the traditional balance of knowledge and its sharing in the society. Unfortunately, in India, we have no counterpart to this event which could have lead to the spread of knowledge amongst the masses. Even if it were, the rigid caste system would have made it almost impossible for knowledge to be so freely transferred. In an era of a global village, we still feel strong repercussions of caste-based discrimination today.

Consider this about how knowledge was restricted to apprenticeship and was often lost in transition amongst the traditional Indian craftsmen.

The secret of perfection in art and crafts resided in individuals 
and was never widely publicized. Master-craftsmen trained their 
apprentices from a very tender age but they did not teach them the 
more subtle aspects of their craft. Neither did they write books 
revealing the secrets of their perfection. These points were revealed 
by the master-craftsman only towards the end of his life and only to 
a favoured apprentice. Their secrets often died with them. p. 211 
(Rizvi - Wonder that Was India Part 2)

This was compounded by the fact that the profession that one could practice was decided by the caste one was born in. In addition to this, the mostly oral nature of the Hindu theology in Sanskrit and exclusive rights to Brahmins as custodians of this knowledge played a huge role in stifling any societal or scientific progress. The extant books (both theological and scientific, mathematical) were mostly in Sanskrit, which again restricted their readership. And as they were reproduced by hand the copies and access to them was limited. The mobility between castes was strictly forbidden. Thus we have both theological as well as scientific, mathematical and technological knowledge bound by tradition which was not available to the general public by its design. Any leakage of such a knowledge to people who were not intended to know it was met with severe punishments.

In contrast to this, consider the situation in Europe. The church did have an control over the knowledge that was taught in the universities. The Bible was in Latin, which can be seen as European counterpart of Sanskrit in terms of its functions and reach, and the Church held authority over its interpretation and usage. The impact of movable type on the spread of the Bible is well known. The translation of the Bible to publicly spoken languages and its subsequent spread to the general public is seen as a major event in the renaissance and subsequently that of the scientific revolution. This was only possible due to the struggle between Catholics and Protestants, again this did not have any counterpart in the Indian context. But as with any subversive technology the printing press did not only print the Bible. Soon, it was put to use to create materials for all types of readership.

First appearing around 1450 in the German city of Mainz, printing 
rapidly spread from Johann Gutenberg's original press throughout 
the German territories and northern Italy, most notably Venice. 
This establishment, during the second half of the century, of 
scores of print shops corresponds to two related features of 
European, especially Western European, society at that time.
The first is the fairly high rate of literacy on which the market 
for books and pamphlets was based. The second is the quite sudden 
wide availability of a multitude oE philosophical and general 
intellectual options. Together, these two features created a 
situation in which knowledge for very many people was no longer 
so chained to the texts of the university curriculum. This was a 
new situation practically without parallel. p. 24
(Dear - Revolutionizing the Sciences)

This spread led to the creation of books in areas of knowledge where it was guarded or passed through apprenticeship.

In 1531 and 1532 there first appeared a  group of small booklets, 
known as Kunstbüchlein ("Iittle craft-books"), on a variety of 
practical craft and technical subjects. These anonymous books were 
produced from the shops of printers in a number of German cities, 
and catered to what they revealed as an eager appetite for such 
things not just among German craftsmen, but among literate people of 
the middling sort in general. They broke the perceived monopoly of 
the craft guilds over possession of such practical knowledge as made 
up metallurgy, dyeing or other chemical recipes, pottery or any of 
a multitude of potential household requisites. p. 26
(Dear - Revolutionizing the Sciences) 

Though, as Dear rightly points in the next paragraph just having access to information of paper about a craft does not necessarily lead to practice as experts, it nonetheless helped to overcome a belief about the fact that knowledge indeed can be transferred in the form of books via the printing press.

In the coming century, the presence of the printing press helped the spread of knowledge to all parts of Europe in all subjects of inquiry. There is no parallel to this in the Indian context. Neither the technology (in the form of a printing press) nor the drive to spread the knowledge to the general masses was present in India. In this post, I have glossed over many details but I believe there were two main reasons for a scientific revolution to not happen in India are, first the connection of caste with profession and non-availability of a technology to spread knowledge to the general public. As a result, though earlier we had a better technology and scientific knowledge we did not have a Scientific Revolution. In the current era, with the connected devices, and also with caste not being a barrier to one’s profession, who knows we might be on the doorsteps of a revolution.

 

On cooking or how to deny convenience to people

1 Citchen

When they built the hotel, they built it on three levels. The top-most was for the elites. The commoners had no entry there, neither they had any business. Then was the second level, here a sort of compromise was reached. The rooms had provisions for the kitchen, to be shared amongst the two, who would also incidentally share the bathroom and the toilet. It would be very naive, even seem stupid to ask, what was the purpose of building the kitchenettes? Well, of course, the answer is that the kitchen is meant for cooking. Every Tom, Dick and Harry, ahem I am sounding too male chauvinist here, so after rephrasing, every Pam, Dick and Mary would answer, that kitchens are meant for cooking. Even those females [I happen to know a few] who think cooking is a male chauvinist thing imposed on them in a male-dominated society, would answer the same to this question, that Kitchens are meant for cooking. I mean, what else could be a kitchen be used for. Perhaps, we do use the kitchen for other purposes, for example, drying clothes [as the clothesline is inside the kitchen], brushing my teeth [as the wash basin is also a part of the kitchen]. Doing all this is okay in the kitchen, but people here have serious problems when it comes to cooking in the kitchen. If you think this is weird, I think you have not heard about cigol and convenience denial in your life. So read on….

2 Cooking

First of all, let me confess, I love cooking, and I think cooking is an art more than anything else. There are times when I have no mood for cooking but I never fail to appreciate good cooking and efforts that are put into that. But then there are people who

Don’t know [and don’t want to know] how to cook [too proud males
and also too proud females who think it is below dignity to cook [both cases are known to me].

Don’t want to cook [either because of general sloth they have, or
for the fear that they might screw up the food [sometimes I am
myself the first case]]

Don’t want other people known to them to cook, as it makes them feel
guilty, so for them to not feel guilty the other person should not cook. And
these people, in general, don’t like people doing anything they
don’t want to do, because they then feel guilty and they do not
want to feel guilty. [I know a very good case of this particular kind]

Don’t appreciate good food, or good cooking, or at least the
efforts one puts in cooking.

Anyways, the point of telling this was that, when I cook in a small kitchenette given to me, the food usually comes out to be good and in edible form. Once in a while, there is a screwup, but that does not deter me from trying further on. People mostly type 1, 2 and 3, who are out there are envious of this. And I really believe the previous line of what I have written. So envious they became that they hatched a plot to take away my little kitchenette which was my personal space. More than a kitchen, it was a laboratory for testing the taste buds and culinary skills. It was a place that I went to refuge when my spirits were down [no pun intended].

Cooking food gives me enormous relaxation and self-satisfaction, which only a few other activities give to me. I have even had the feeling “This is so much better than sex!!” while cooking on many occasions. The joy that you get when you are mixing the flavours, the spices and the vegetables with the meat and masalas is just amazing and then relishing on the results and finally being appreciated by the people who you care about is just beyond words. I have a very hard time trying to understand, how can someone not like cooking, when they have access to a good kitchen and other resources? I think it has to come from within, it cannot come from without.

3 Cigol

But, then, there are people who are unhappy, when I am happy. And they don’t want to be unhappy. So they want to make me unhappy. Then they can be happy. And cooking makes me happy. They know this. So, they don’t want me to cook. Not cooking will make me unhappy. Then, they will be happy.

So they hatch a sinister plan. They form something called as logic. Or to put it, in other words, they invent something they want to call as logic. Whether it is logic or not, I leave it to you to decide. I call it cigol. Now in cigol, since cooking in the kitchen gives me happiness, it has to be taken away from me. This will make me unhappy. Then they will be happy. Since on the second level, all the rooms have the kitchens, I am to be barred from those rooms. The cigol they give is different at different times. At first, they say that there are ACs in those rooms. ACs are available to a very specialized class of people in India. They are for the elites [and incidentally, I am an elite in the office since I have an AC there but in the hotel, it seems, I am not elite enough. The world seems more and more Orwellian as I spend more time here. As Orwell would say “All Elites are equal; some elites are more equal than others.”].

And we commoners have no right to have them in our puny rooms. Well, I said, I don’t want an AC. Since they don’t, believe me, they lock the AC, fearing that I will use it when I am not supposed to. Well, it sounds funny, but they actually have built a small wooden cabinet around the AC switch whose key is with the guards. So only for proper elite persons, the ACs are to be turned on, who are elite enough. And the elites are all visitors for a few days to a maximum of one or two weeks. Now the elites, since they are elites also get something else with the ACs. Namely, the kitchenettes. Whether they want to cook or not, or whether there is anything to cook there or not, does not bother the concerned people. But the elites should get a kitchen along with the ACs, that is the norm. If you ask them why then they say, this is the way things are, can’t you see the simple cigol here. Once cigol enters the picture, everything else becomes irrelevant. Another thing is that perhaps it is a kind of ‘show-off’ for the visiting elites. This is what we give to everybody, even who are visiting us for a short time. So think what we must be giving to our regular staff members.

So the elites get the kitchen sans the cooking instruments, there is not even a water heater in the kitchenette, just in case an enterprising visitor wants to make black tea or coffee, let alone anything else, worth cooking. As per cigol, the kitchenettes become dirty when you cook, so it is better to leave them just like that, as cooking in the kitchen will spoil its beauty. Truly empty kitchens look better than full-fledged ones. To cut the long story short, kitchens are there, and they are not being used, simply because some people don’t want other people to use them [and they themselves don’t want to use them either. The case is more like a dog who cannot eat the grass but doesn’t let the cow eat it too]. And when asked why were they not used, they told us, because nobody ever used them. This is cigol. Then why not give it to us, who want to cook in the kitchen. Again this is not possible. Why? Because it was not done in the past. This is cigol.

4 Convenience Denial

I ventured out to change this trend. I started to cook in the kitchen, which they had to finally give to me. It made me happy. Very happy. But unfortunately for me, my happiness was unbearable to some. So they began to complain. In this complaining, they use a superior and totally unbeatable form of cigol, which I call convenience denial. The convenience denial is used so many times and in so many different ways and different places, that I will have to write an entire blog about it. One of the meanings is straightforward, as the words read. It is the denial of convenience to you. If you find anything which is convenient, they will deny that thing to you. If they find anything that gives you happiness, they will deny it to you. But apart from this convenience denial has another meaning, apart from the straightforward one discussed above. There is a pun being intended here.

The other meaning of convenience denial comes in when some of the fundamental rights of ours are denied to us, just for the convenience of the few. When they know something will be convenient to you, they will say, ”Oh. Okay. But you see, it really doesn’t fit in the rules of the Banyan Tree. And we are part of the Banyan Tree. So we are denying this.” On the other hand, when the rules of the Banyan Tree do form a convenience for us, they say “Oh. Okay. But you see, it really does fit in the rules of the Banyan Tree. But we are not the Banyan Tree. So we are denying this.”

The two reasoning’s may sound contradictory at first. They should. Because they are. But this is the pinnacle of cigol. But if you look through cigol, this contradiction is only apparent. It is like an apparition, which vanishes when you look at it with a skeptical eye.

Of course, there is no contradiction. ”We are always right. Only we can interpret the rules and we can deny them as per our whims and fancies [read convenience]. So it really doesn’t matter what the rules are [and what they are not], they are not going to help you in any way. Period.”

5 Cylinders

“Cooking gas is a dangerous thing. If left open, it can lead to accidents. It is too dangerous to be used in the hotel. So you cannot use it. There is a rule which says so. Your safety is our first concern”

But again the Orwellian rule applies, that is to say, rules are meant to be broken. If you are elite enough, you can use the cooking gas. Suddenly, the cooking gas is no longer a dangerous thing. Of course, cooking gas is not dangerous. And what about safety you ask, of course cooking gas is a safe thing, but only if you are elite enough. Otherwise, it is as dangerous as it can be.

“Who will be responsible if you accidentally blow up the entire building, you see there are people staying there.”

But then again as cigol rules, these questions are not asked to all, but to unfortunate few, who do want to cook on their own.

“Instead of the cooking gas, we give you a better alternative. Use the hot plate! There is no pollution, no danger of an accident, where the whole building can’t come down. Use the hot plate! Hot Plate ki Jai!

And the microwave too. There is one common kitchen which is set up in the old hotel [by our grace], where people from all the rooms are supposed to come and cook. Does it matter, if you have to walk 200 meters just to boil a cup of water? Of course not! It will give you good exercise.

Only the truly spirited persons will come, those who don’t anyway did not need it.

So as a result only a few will turn up. And this is recorded that a few people use the common kitchen. So there should not be more common kitchens, as the

one that is there is underutilized. This is statistics of nihilism. Of course, the convenience denial is ON in all this in the normal state, if you failed to notice already.

And when we remind them that the Banyan Tree does not make this distinction, the answer we get is this:

“Oh. Okay. But you see, it really does fit in the rules of the Banyan Tree. But we are not the Banyan Tree. So we are denying this.”

6 Charges

“Do you have any idea how much electricity bill we are paying for the hotel?”

No. I don’t have any idea. And I don’t want to have any idea about that. Why the efff should I have any idea regarding the electricity bill that you are paying for the hotel? Am I paid for having any idea regarding electricity bill that you are paying for the hotel?

No.

Then why the efff should I bother or worry about it. Anyway, you are not paying that monies from your pocket, are you?

No.

It is the taxpayer’s money, my money being used to do that. But let me ask Are you paid for having any idea regarding electricity bill that you are paying for the hotel?

Yes.

Then isn’t it your efffing job?

Yes.

Okay.

So we will do our job!

How?

By trying to reduce the electricity usage on the campus.

Good. This seems to be a really good effort on your part.

It is! And we will see that you don’t enjoy this either!

What is that supposed to mean?

You see, you use hot plates for cooking.

But it was you who denied the use of cooking gas, so we had to use the hot plates.

You are trying to mix things here. We are talking about hot plates and you are bringing up the issue of cooking gas, which we left in the last section! It is of no relevance here. Period.

You contradict your self.

No, we don’t. Cigol is strictly under application here. You see we are trying to reduce the electricity bill.

So?

Oh, we found that your usage amounts to 0.1 % of the total bill. This is a huge amount. If we are able to stop this usage, we will have to pay only for 99.9 % of the amount due! See what foresight we have!!

But 0.1 %, is it a huge amount?

Yes, for the hotel it is! But for you it is minuscule. You have so much money to spend. Why not give it back to where it came from?

Does not compute. You talk the exact opposite!

Well, it is cigol, you won’t understand it.

I bet, I won’t.

It is better for you that you shouldn’t. Our workings are mysterious and are strictly based on hierarchy and personal relations.

But aren’t they supposed to be, ahem, transparent and equitable?

What transparency? Everything is as transparent as it should be.

But then why are you not trying to reduce the rest of the electricity usage, the remaining 99.9 % of it?

Well, it is not on our priority list. But your usage is. We have reasons. You see 70 % of the usage is by ACs. And ACs are essential for working, you cannot work in an office if the AC is not ON, can you? And the remaining usage is for the other activities of national importance. Since we cannot stop these, we have to stop something. We are also answerable to people above us.

Hence, you choose us. Because we are soft targets. In spite of knowing the fact that a single AC running a day, will cost you more energy than used for entire months cooking? And if it is so essential to have ACs, why keep them locked from us in the hotel?

What nonsense you are talking about? Those things cannot be compromised. And for the ACs are a must for office work. We work more efficiently in a cooler environment.

Okay. And we can be compromised?

Yes… No, no. I mean it is not that simple.

Then? [Why I am even bothering to ask, this is cigol!]

And what about the highest rates that we are being charged for?

Well, since the hotel pays at that rate, you will also have to pay the same.

But ours is a residential zone and we are being charged at industrial rates? Why?

Because we can charge you at the industrial rates. That’s why. And for all your strengths and powers you cannot do anything about it.

But why us?

Well by choosing you, we will make sure that you pay for the hotel and make a good example of not trying to mess with us.

But you do have the funding, right? And will the payment that we make be enough?

Yes, we have got enormous funding, but when it comes to you, particularly there is a crunch. And of course can you not do this bit to help us? It is of no concern to us whether it really matters in the reduction of energy usage or not, but we want to show that we have taken some steps to lower the usage. And that is sufficient for us. Its efficacy is irrelevant here.

So, you mean to say we are not on the priority list?

You see you are on the priority list but not at a correct position in either of them. You are at the bottom end of the fund’s priority list. And at the top end of the consumption reduction list!

But you see, in the Banyan Tree, they do not charge anybody for any usage, and the number of users is very large there. So why do you charge us?

Oh. Okay. But you see, it really does fit in the rules of the Banyan Tree. But we are not the Banyan Tree. So we are denying this.

Does not compute. [How could I forget Convenience denial?]

It is plain simple cigol.

So you are giving justification, not justice.

No comments.

But tell me, how is this going to reduce the consumption of electricity. You have yourself set up a common kitchen, if we use the same amount of electricity there, we cannot be charged, and the consumption is not reduced either. So, your original plan does not work.
You are very naive and think in a very limited fashion. You see, we don’t want you to cook. In fact, we don’t want you to do anything. Just be as non-functional as possible. Because we know it gives you happiness. In the common kitchen, since it is far away from most of the people, they won’t come and cook. And even if they cook it is acceptable.

And the same people cooking in their own rooms is not acceptable?

No. It is not.

Why?

See, the idea is that if people cook in their own rooms they will cook more and better food and will be happy. That is something we don’t want. We would want them to eat the canteen food all the time. And anyway how can anyone who is working hard find any time for cooking?

So, you mean to say cooking is a waste of time?

Yes.

But we still want to cook, and that too in our own rooms!

Well if you are so adamant for cooking. And cooking gives you happiness. Then happiness cannot come for free.

???

If you want to use a hot plate in your room, you will have to pay for it.

But you are making us use the hot plate.

This is part of convenience denial. It is a grace on our part that whatever you are getting, is there. If we had it our way you would not get anything that would give you happiness.

But we won’t pay for it.

We are not asking you to pay, we will directly deduct it from your salary.

Without my consent?

Yes. We don’t need your consent for this. We are elite enough to do this kind of stuff.

Are you sure? You are cutting monies from my salary and you are claiming that you can cut it without my consent?

We are not sure. But this is cigol, so it doesn’t matter anyway. At the most, we will have to revoke it some day. But till then we will make sure you pay. And apart from this, you are causing great inconvenience to our elite guests.

How so?

By cooking in the kitchen and by keeping your stuff in the common area.

Well, aren’t these two areas meant for that. Kitchen for cooking and common area for keeping stuff.

Yes, they are indeed. But it does not apply in your case.

How come?

You see, kitchen in meant for cooking, but it does not follow that one must cook there.

Means?

You cannot cook there. And before you ask the next question, I will already give the answer, no, you cannot keep your stuff in the common area.

So what’s the use of building them and not allowing them to be used, even by the people who want to use them?

Maybe it was a mistake to build them in the first place.

But not using them, once they are built, would be another mistake.

Well, this is cigol. You don’t ask the government why they build things which one cannot utilize or use. This is just a continuing legacy of that. We make things that are not accessible to the general public, of course, elites are a different matter.

You mean, they are not made up of ordinary matter? I smell that the dark matter problem in cosmology has a potential solution, in form of the elites of the Indian government.

No. Not that way. You are straying away from the matter. You are charged with not being fair to others?

I am not being fair to whom?

To every one. You see you are effectively having more than your share at this place.

And what about you and the other elites? Are you not having more than your share at this place.

What do you mean?

Well to tell it simply, are you not occupying much more rooms than I am? And that too by doing modifications to the fundamental structure of the construct?

Yes. I am. And there is nothing that anyone can do about it.

And this I guess definitely does not conform to the rules of the Banyan tree. Does it?

Oh. Okay. But you see, it really does not fit in the rules of the

Banyan Tree. But we are not the Banyan Tree. So I can do this. And how can you forget Orwell: “Some are more equal than others.” I am one of those some and I also have the power. And who will dare to speak about this? Will you?

Of course not. Who wants to bell the cat? Then you will occupy space not meant for you, as there is clearly a separate place for you to stay. Even then you mean to say, I being not fair is unfair, but you being unfair is fair?

Yes. Even Mr Orwell will tell you so. And there is a difference between I being unfair and you being unfair. You see rules that apply to you, don’t apply to us. And even if they do apply, we have the ultimate weapon of convenience denial in our repertoire.

But my being unfair, is it even true when there is no one in the next room?

Yes. You are not being fair to other people, who might be sharing this room. And those people who might be sharing this room, are the elites. So when they come to stay here, it becomes imperative for us to make their stay comfortable.

Even at the cost of people who are staying there for a much longer time?

Yes. You see it is like this. The more you stay, the less important you are.

But then by that logic, who will be most unimportant?

Orwell: All are equal, but some are more equal than others.

But does this not fair thing apply even when there is no one who is sharing this room with me.

That is why it becomes even more important if you are not fair to no one who is not sharing your common area, how can you be fair to everyone who is not sharing your common area?

But no one [except me] wants to use the kitchen. Is it my fault?

Yes. It is your fault. You are not confirming to rest of ones like you.

As I had said earlier, but now I am certain, that building these kitchens was a mistake, as no wants to use them.

But I do want to.

Your want is irrelevant. What no one wants is more relevant. And there is not a rule like that in the Banyan Tree.

But…

Oh. Okay. But you see, it really doesn’t fit in the rules of the Banyan Tree. And we are part of the Banyan Tree. So we are denying this.

[I am rendered wordless, speechless and powerless against such cigol and convenience denial, I choose to keep my silence…]

That is it! There are to be no more words. It is final that you will be shifted soon where you will have a hard time cooking and you won’t be happy. I will make sure that a written order is passed in this regard. And then you can’t do anything, but to confirm what we have been saying all along.

Note: Any resemblance to real places and people is not coincidental.

Or is it?

Or is it the other way round?

😉

Round Earth: The Proofs

What is the evidence for a round Earth?

In this post, we explore some of the evidence for proving that the Earth is indeed spherical in shape (if not a perfect one), and not a flat one. Though in the current age we can all point to the images of Earth taken from space  (like the one shown below)

In the age of satellites is easy for us to dismiss the doubting minds who think that the Earth is not flat. But this was always not so. Apart from the evidence from the space age, people in the past had good evidence and arguments for believing that the Earth was indeed spherical in shape and not flat or any other shape. Somehow this misconception that all ancient people considered that the Earth was flat, was generated in nineteenth-century science books.

earth

Ancient evidence

telescope_0008

It is commonly believed that people till very recently believed that the Earth is flat and that some European explorers, by circumnavigating the Earth, proved that it was round. But this is not correct. Ancient Greeks already knew about the spherical shape of the Earth, and it forms the basis of many cosmological models that they built. This, in turn, had implications for the philosophical worldview of the ancient

Aristotle presents us with one of the first evidence for the roundedness of the Earth. For the ancient Greeks, the circle and the sphere presented the perfect form in nature. This was also tied to their worldview in which the celestial and terrestrial was demarcated from each other. The celestial bodies, which included the planets and stars were supposed to be perfect. There were seven planets known to the ancients, which included the Sun and the Moon. The planets were supposed to be spherical themselves revolving with a constant speed in circular orbits around the Earth. One of the core assumptions was that the heavens are unchangeable. So anything that was considered celestial was by definition (a) perfect (spherical or circular), (b) unchangeable (constant). So any mechanism that explained celestial phenomenon had to include these two concepts.

 

The cosmology of the ancient Greeks then was built upon these basic assumptions which were non-negotiable for them. This lead to the formation of various models based on the basic theme of a fixed Earth and planets on circular orbits moving constant speeds. Due to these assumptions and also due to some observed phenomena, led to the conclusion that Earth should also be indeed spherical.

Let us look at the arguments given by Aristotle in this regard. This is from Book II of On the Heavens.

The shape of the heaven is of necessity spherical; for that is the shape most appropriate to its substance and also by nature primary.

Part 11

With regard to the shape of each star, the most reasonable view is that they are spherical. It has been shown that it is not in their nature to move themselves, and, since nature is no wanton or random creator, clearly she will have given things which possess no movement a shape particularly unadapted to movement. Such a shape is the sphere, since it possesses no instrument of movement. Clearly then their mass will have the form of a sphere. Again, what holds of one holds of all, and the evidence of our eyes shows us that the moon is spherical. For how else should the moon as it waxes and wanes show for the most part a crescent-shaped or gibbous figure, and only at one moment a half-moon? And astronomical arguments give further confirmation; for no other hypothesis accounts for the crescent shape of the sun’s eclipses. One, then, of the heavenly bodies being spherical, clearly the rest will be spherical also.

In Part 13 of the book Aristotle talks about the shape of the Earth.

There are similar disputes about the shape of the earth. Some think it is spherical, others that it is flat and drum-shaped. For evidence they bring the fact that, as the sun rises and sets, the part concealed by the earth shows a straight and not a curved edge, whereas if the earth were spherical the line of section would have to be circular. In this they leave out of account the great distance of the sun from the earth and the great size of the circumference, which, seen from a distance on these apparently small circles appears straight. Such an appearance ought not to make them doubt the circular shape of the earth. But they have another argument. They say that because it is at rest, the earth must necessarily have this shape. For there are many different ways in which the movement or rest of the earth has been conceived.

Here we see the cognisance of the fact that the curvature tends to be linear when see it is too large. Aristotle then goes on to discard the ideas by Anaximenes, Anaxogoras and Democritus who claim that flatness of the Earth is responsible for it being still. He argues, even a spherical Earth can remain at rest. The Earth being at rest and it being spherical are related. In Part 14 he takes this discussion further. The first argument uses the symmetry of weight distribution.

Its shape must necessarily be spherical. For every portion of earth has weight until it reaches the centre, and the jostling of parts greater and smaller would bring about not a waved surface, but rather compression and convergence of part and part until the centre is reached.

He further argues using reasoning of additional weight distribution how a spherical Earth can still be

If the Earth was generated, then, it must have been formed in this way, and so clearly its generation was spherical; and if it is ungenerated and has remained so always, its character must be that which the initial generation, if it had occurred, would have given it. But the spherical shape, necessitated by this argument, follows also from the fact that the motions of heavy bodies always make equal angles, and are not parallel. This would be the natural form of movement towards what is naturally spherical. Either then the earth is spherical or it is at least naturally spherical.

After this, he looks at evidence from lunar eclipses to reason that Earth is indeed spherical.

eclipse

The evidence of the senses further corroborates this. How else would eclipses of the moon show segments shaped as we see them? As it is, the shapes which the moon itself each month shows are of every kind straight, gibbous, and concave-but in eclipses the outline is always curved: and, since it is the interposition of the earth that makes the eclipse, the form of this line will be caused by the form of the earth’s surface, which is therefore spherical.

Finally Aristotle takes into account the fact that stars change their positions in the sky relative to the horizon when we move to North or South, indicating that we are indeed on a spherical surface. This will not happen on a flat surface.

stars

Again, our observations of the stars make it evident, not only that the earth is circular, but also that it is a circle of no great size. For quite a small change of position to south or north causes a manifest alteration of the horizon. There is much change, I mean, in the stars which are overhead, and the stars seen are different, as one moves northward or southward. Indeed there are some stars seen in Egypt and in the neighbourhood of Cyprus which are not seen in the northerly regions; and stars, which in the north are never beyond the range of observation, in those regions rise and set. All of which goes to show not only that the earth is circular in shape, but also that it is a sphere of no great size: for otherwise the effect of so slight a change of place would not be quickly apparent.

Another evidence which can be seen since antiquity is that the masts of the ships on ocean became visible first on the horizon, the ship appear later. This can be simply explained by assuming that the surface of the ocean is curved too.

telescope_0010

Thus we have seen the ancient evidence for a spherical Earth. It was well known and well established fact, both theoretically and empirically.

Images from:

All About The Telescope – P. Klushantsev

A Book About Stars and Planets – Y. Levitan

Physics for The Inquiring Mind – Eric Rogers.

 

On PhD

And then there’s a joke in which a young man told his mother he would become a Doctor of Philosophy and she said, “Wonderful! But what kind of disease is philosophy?

The Blank Slate, Steven Pinker

The Wolf-Children of Midnapore

Physics was one of the first sciences which helped develop the modern “scientific method”. One of the processes in the scientific method involves controlling of variables during an experiment. Performing an experiment in this manner one can possibly find the effect of the independent variable on a dependent variable. In this manner, we are supposed to find out if there is any causal link/correlation between the variables. This method was seen as a hallmark of true science and was widely adopted while discovering and developing new other disciplines.

Now in the case of psychology and behavioural sciences, we have a long-running debate regarding the effects of nature and nurture on human growth and development. By nature here it is meant our genetic make-up, while by nurture it is meant the environment (both physical and social) around us. For long people have tried to establish the link between nature/nurture and various aspects of human growth and development. This dichotomy has a deeper connection to the nature of knowledge and learning, which in turn in related to the two basic schools of philosophy: empiricism and rationalism. In the extreme forms, put very crudely, empiricism proposes that we can gain knowledge through our sense organs only, while rationalism proposes that we make sense of the world in our mind only. For example, in The Matrix the machines have developed a simulation which makes the human mind “experience” the world only in the mind. When Morpheus asks Neo

What is real? How do you define ‘real’? If you’re talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, what you can taste and see, then ‘real’ is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain.

Here Morpheus is actually subscribing to the rationalist school as he denies that our sense organs are the primary source of our knowledge. In The Matrix the brain is simulated and it doesn’t know it is being simulated. How can we ever know? This is exemplified further by many Gedanken experiments which have been brought out by psychologists and philosophers. The Brain in a Vat is an example of such experiments.

On the other hand, the other extreme form of human development from empiricists would be considering humans a tabula rasaIn this perspective, the human brain is not born with any innate capabilities. And it is the experience with the physical world through the sense organs makes us understand the world. Thus, in this case, the environment is the factor on which our growth and development occur.

Now coming back to nature vs nurture debate, whether people believe in either depends strongly on the orientation and grounding people have regarding how the society works. We will see what is the basis both philosophical, epistemological and political when people subscribe to these viewpoints. First some thoughts on what exactly we mean by human growth and development in this context. We all see human babies grow from infants who are incapable of talking, understanding, even walking for that matter to being adults in a society who can talk, understand and do a variety of other things which infant versions of ours are not capable. How does this change occur, over let’s say a span of 15-20 years or so? Are we predestined by our genes to develop in a particular way, or does our immediate environment play a fundamental and crucial role in making this happen? What is the nature of learning and what is it dependent upon? Physical growth can be perhaps linked to the unfolding of the genetic predispositions that we have. For example, physical maturity occurs with age. Piaget has given us evidence on the basis of the so-called Piagetian tasks that thinking also matures with age and is a universal phenomenon across cultures.

But what happens to our thinking or our behaviours are they too natural and will occur even if we are not in contact with the society? People have thought over this question for a long time. We will discuss the evidence that people over the last 200 years or so have put up in support of each side, which is related to the title of the post.

In general, there are two groups who subscribe to the primacy of nurture in human development. The first group is of the people who are usually are influenced by Marxism and have a left orientation tend to favour nurture more than the nature aspect. According to them the social environment, including the socio-economic status of the family influence the way in which humans develop and learn. For this school of thought, the genetic composition (nature) of the individual has little or no effect on the way the individual develops or learns. This is in line with the central tenets of Marxism, in which capital plays a fundamental role in the way society works. The construct of cultural capital is a good way to understand how this group, in general, thinks about the effects of society and societal factors on human growth and development.

The other school which subscribes to the primacy of nurture in human learning and development is behaviourism. The behaviourists, very strongly influenced by logical positivists, and playing along with the zeitgeist gave credence in psychological studies to only things that could be observed. This was linked to the deep debates in the philosophy of science of the 1930s which was dominated by the logical positivists. The basic idea was that if anything is not observable directly by our sense experience like human thinking, it should not be considered scientific. This led to an entire programme which was very influential during the 30s-50s in which studying higher order thinking skills were banished from scientific enterprise. The definition of learning in case of behaviourists was seen in terms of behaviour. And according to them, the behaviour could be controlled by operant conditioning hence effectively we could control learning by providing required stimulus in the environment.

Bringing in the metaphor of a blank slate, people with this leaning would say all individuals are of equal potential, given a chance and environment anyone can perform anything. This was one of the basic assumptions of behaviourism. In Marxist sociological perspective, the metaphor of the blank slate allowed individuals to transcend the class that they were born in and to achieve their true potential irrespective of the social status of their parents. The quote below summarises this viewpoint very well:

Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select – doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief and, yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors. I am going beyond my facts and I admit it, but so have the advocates of the contrary and they have been doing it for many thousands of years.

From – Behaviorism by J. B. Watson, 1930, pp. 82.

Now let us look at the other group which takes the genetic makeup of ours as the most influential aspect for development and learning. In this perspective, your genes determine everything. There is no scope for anyone to do anything which the genes do not permit. Sometimes this is termed as genetic determinism. According to this view, the potential for learning and development is completely determined by genes. Unless one has a particular genotype, one by definition, is not capable of doing certain things. Now, of course, we do inherit our biological and physical structures from our parents. Physical characteristics like hair and eye colour, skin colour, size are inherited from our parents. So are tendencies for certain diseases like diabetes and others. Now the question that is interesting is this heritance limited to only physical characteristics or it can be used for determining other factors like intelligence, learning and development also?

In general, the people who are conservatives, leaning towards the right favour this point of view. This is because it provides a sort of legitimacy to the existing social order. The people who are in positions of power are there because they have better genes or are from a better stock. This also implies that nothing can be done to improve this situation as nature is unmutable. Of course, this position has racial, class gender, and caste overtones. Such an argument can be used to effectively defend and justify any existing social order. Sometimes, this entire range of ideas is put under the notion of Social Darwinism. Analogies from the natural world like artificial selection and breeding for producing better breeds (of plants and animals) are used to justify such a worldview. The movie GATTACA shows an example of a dystopian future is a good example of how a society where your genes are the only factors to determine your worth. In such a world, what matters is what your genes are, and not your skills.

Now apart from the philosophical, sociological and cultural aspects do we have any “scientific evidence” for deciding which factors are more influential. There have been many studies which claim a very strong evidence (mostly observational) regarding either worldviews. But none of the experiments or studies are seen to be conclusive. Critics on the other side point to experimental issues with data, samples, statistics, assumptions and personal beliefs and so on. Let us ask ourselves this question:

Can we design any critical experiments which will decide once and for all whether nature is important or nurture?

Ideally, the experimental design should be such that we should be able to control for nature and nurture. Now how would such an “ideal” experiment be designed? Let us look at each of the two variables. To control for nature we can take individuals from different genetic stocks and give them similar treatment. This way we will know from the differences in the outcomes/performance of the individuals and accordingly in their genes too. Now the question arises if we take adult individuals from different genetic stocks, they are already “contaminated” via the various nurture aspects of growing up. For example, they might have a different value system, a different language, different learning experiences, different social norms, different environments and so on. So ideally an “uncontaminated” sample should be with us.

How do we create an uncontaminated sample of human beings? Who are not touched by any aspect of nurture or environment? Ideally, we take don’t allow nurture to touch the newborn infants in any manner. That is to take them away from their mothers right after they were born. Oh! What a horror!! But such a thing would never be done in practice now. Though in the ancient times there were many who actually performed similar “experiments“. There are serious moral and ethical issues involved. Now strict research guidelines are in place whenever human subjects are involved in research studies. This came to force when evidence emerged post-World-War II which involved experimenting on human subjects by treating them like animals. That is basically not valuing human life and dignity. Hence I had put “ideal” in quotes.

In Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book the protagonist Mowgli, is raised by the wolves. Although fictional, this story presents us with an interesting case study. Mowgli, who has been raised by the wolves, is not human in the sense of how we identify with the society. He identifies himself as a wolf and behaves like one. But then this is fictional story and a Mowgli is a fictional character. Now if we could find such an individual like Mowgli, we could perhaps test many of the basic questions regarding aspects of nature and nurture. One such opportunity came to us in an episode which is the title of this post: The Wolf-Children of Midnapore.

Now it so happened that in 1920s a rector  Joseph Amrito Lal Singh in an orphanage in the town of Midnapore in Bengal, India reportedly found two girls in a wolf den. They were named Amala and Kamala. The discovery of these two girls was seen as a major event. The rector apparently maintained details notes about their discover and behavior in his diary. So much so, it was published into a book Wolf-Children and Feral Man J.A.L. Singh and Robert M. Zingg published in 1942. The discovery was also reported in a reputed journal as Scientific American (Vol. 164, No. 3 (MARCH · 1941), pp. 135-137).

Screen Shot 2018-09-20 at 8.16.26 AM

So what did the rector observe in these two children? Can it resolve any fundamental questions regarding the nature-nurture debate? The book and the entries in the diary of Rev. Singh make many such attempts. However, it so happened that people raised serious doubts about the authenticity of the story, and further analysis has shown that it was a hoax. Recently, there was a case in which a girl was discovered living with monkeys. Again, girl showed some feral characteristics, but according to some reports nothing conclusive could be said.

So our basic question regarding nature/nurture remains unanswered. Perhaps due to moral and ethical concerns we may never be able to answer question on “experiments” such as these. But there have been other ways, surveys, studies and experiments which do indicate the complex ways in which nature and nurture do interact to produce the social human animal. But what cases like these show is that there is so much that is still to be discovered in the respect of nature/nurture debate. Perhaps we will be able to resolve these issues at some point.

http://www.midnapore.in/wolf-children-of-midnapore/wolf-children-of-midnapore14.html

The Villain

Can’t but help post this little gem from an eleventh-century Sanskrit author by the name of Kshemendra. This is the first chapter of his book Desopadesa which is a satirical work on different types of base people in the society. One can’t stop from making the comparison of people around us, particularly those in power with what he describes.

The Villain

Salutations to the villain. He is like a mortar: full of chaff as well as grain, and always fit for crushing both. Friend and foe are the same to him, as are respect and derision, and he is practised at bypassing rules. Thus is he ordained for salvation/ but he is also vile, like a dog: greedy for crumbs, fierce in quarrels and always dirty. His tongue pollutes the worthy as the dog’s does the bowl. In tardiness, malevolence and harming good works out of ill will, he is like the planet Saturn. Strangely, he is also that planet’s opposite: a thunderbolt that strikes mankind. (5-8)

Though a fool devoid of sacred learning, the villain claims to be a scholar because of his past good deeds. In extolling his own merits he is like Shesha, the thousand-headed serpent, and in running down others, like Brihaspati, the guru of the gods.

His throat is so afflicted with jealousy that his tongue cannot utter words of praise for the good, even if it is pulled out with a pair of tongs; though in slandering them, he has eyes and mouths on every side. His ears, too, are everywhere, and he hears all as he bides his time. (9-11)

The villain is like the world: illusory by nature; afflicted by passion, hatred and craziness; deluding even great minds. Whom has he not corrupted? Like a person’s pubic parts, he is, in fact, a source of shame, addiction and infatuation, and an instigator of desire. (12-13)

Ignoring his own and another’s food, the wretch always sits close to his patron, whispering slander into his ear as if it were the cosmic science. Indeed, he talks of everyone’s faults. But who talks of his? For who will ever discuss the blemishes in a dirty garment? As if in sport, the trickster even creates pictures in the sky: But he is still considered base, for among the tall he remains puny: (14-16)

With a villain, influential,

mad for money, base and cruel,

holding high office,

O people, alas, where will you go? (17)

Yet, a villainous fool is preferable to a clever villain, just as a toothless snake is to a deadly serpent, black and winged. Pollution follows the villain as it did the ogre Khara. Both are spoilers of human habitation; arrogant and hostile to the learned; devourers of mankind. Should a villain tum, by some stroke of luck, into a sincere and good person, it would be like an ape in the forest turning to prayer with its arms upraised. (18-20)

To say that a villain will praise merit is questionable, that he will love, unreasonable, and that he will give something, quite meaningless. But to say that he will kill cannot be an untruth. Influencing the master by whispering slanders in his ears night and day, I believe he spreads his control everywhere. What is the worth of anything, in the course of getting which the dust from his chamber door will adorn one’s head? It can only be a defect, never a merit. Arrogant with a bit of money, given to grand talk, the villain is a strange invention of the Creator. With eyebrows raised, he maligns, in public gatherings, the reputations of good men, which are as radiant as the expanse of Mount Kailasa.

(21-24)

from Desopadesa by Kshemendra

Good Example of a Bad Slide

good-example-of-a-bad-slide

(If you are not able to read the content, rest be assured, it is not due to the photo quality, thanks to Harshit for the photo)

The title says it all, do not dump so much text on a slide that it becomes unreadable to the readers. If the purpose of the slide is to show enabling text to the readers (and supporting/cueing text to the presenter) then this goal is lost in most of the presentations that you will see. People tend to cram as much text as possible on a given slide,

“I have only 15 slides!”

But the person doesn’t mention that 8 of those slides have texts which are not readable with 10 bullet points. A particular feature in slide creating softwares (both Free and proprietary) further aids in this by automatically reducing the text size if it exceeds its standard text box. LaTeX based Beamer will just make your text go below the slide, warning you that this might not be readable, use another slide.

Be responsible, keep less text on each slide, make more slides instead.

Normal

“What should I do now?”

“I’m the prisoner,” the biologist said to him from her cot, facing the wall. “Why should I tell you anything?”

“Because I’m trying to help you.”

“Are you? Or are you just trying to help yourself?”

He had no answer to that.

“A normal person might give up. That would be very normal.”

“Would you?” he asked.

“No. But I’m not normal.”

“Neither am I.”

“Where does that leave us?”

“Where we’ve always been.”

from Authority by Jeff VanderMeer

 

On Virtue

Virtue is entirely without character. There are not two races of men on the surface of the earth who are virtuous in the same way. Therefore virtue is not real and has no intrinsic good. It does not deserve our respect. It must be used as a support, and one must adopt in a politic way the virtue of the country where one lives, so that those who practise virtue out of taste, or who are obliged to do so because of their social position, will leave you in peace. Also, the virtue which is respected where you live can protect you by the preponderance or its convention from all attacks of those who practise vice. But once again, all this is, a matter of circumstance and nothing of this can endow virtue with any real merit. Also, some type of virtue are impossible for certain men. Therefore, how can you persuade me that virtue, which opposes or contradicts the passions can be any part of nature?

–  Justine – Marquis De Sade

The Textbook League

I came across this site while reading an article, there are interesting reviews of textbooks used in schools. And some of these reviews are gory, splitting out the blood and guts of the textbooks and their inaneness. Hopefully, many people will find it useful, though the latest book that is reviewed is from about 2002. Perhaps one should do a similar thing for books in the Indian context, basically performing a post-mortem on the zombiesque textbooks that flood our schools.

The Web site of The Textbook League is a resource for middle-school and high-school educators. It provides commentaries on some 200 items, including textbooks, curriculum manuals, videos and reference books. Most of the commentaries appeared originally in the League’s bulletin, The Textbook Letter.

http://www.textbookleague.org/ttlindex.htm

Children and you

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot
visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you. For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
— Kahlil Gibran

 

Concealing thougts…

Yes, of the kind which men attain!

Who dares the child’s true name in public mention?

The few, who thereof something really learned,

Unwisely frank, with hearts that spurned concealing,

And to the mod laid bare each thought and feeling,

Have evermore been crucified and burned.

–  Goethe. Faust

Whipped cream and poached eggs

STORE ROOM NO. 71 WHIPS OF ALL SHAPES AND SIZES

“Whips!” cried Veruca Salt. “What on earth do you use whips for?’

“For whipping cream, of course,” said Mr. Wonka.

“How can you whip cream without whips? Whipped cream isn’t whipped cream at all unless it’s been whipped with whips. Just as a poached egg isn’t a poached egg unless it’s been stolen from the woods in the dead of the night!”

From Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Review of Annihilation: the novel and the movie

Screen Shot 2018-04-29 at 4.27.55 PM.png .              annihilation

Somewhere on my feeds, I came to know about a movie named Annihilation starring Natalie Portman. The review was good, and it mentioned that the movie was based on a book of the same name by Jeff VanderMeer. So, I was in two minds whether to read the book first and then watch the movie or vice versa. I decided that I will read the book first and then watch the movie. Now that I have done both, here is a review of them, with important differences and my reflections about them.

Warning: Spoilers Ahead

We start with the book first, this will help us create a baseline, on which to review the movie. The book starts with the biologist and three of her team members (a psychologist, an anthropologist, a surveyor) initiated into a region known as Area X. Now, apparently bizarre things have happened inside the Area X, (perhaps a tribute to the X-files). And there is a border which separates Area X from the normal world. Now according to the book, this border is invisible. The team is trained for a prolonged period for their mission in a variety of situations with the psychologist as their lead. As they enter the perimeter of Area X, the linguist backs out (hence only a team of 4). Now through the book, the characters are almost never referred by their proper names, and it is part of the design of the training that it is that way. The idea behind this it seems is to make the mission impersonal, without including their biases.

> Besides, we were always strongly discouraged from using names: We were meant to be focused on our purpose, and “anything personal should be left behind.” Names belonged to where we had come from, not to who we were while embedded in Area X.

This is an all female team, with only the surveyor having any military skill. Each one of the team members is given a weapon and basic camping equipment. They are not allowed to take any electronic or advanced technological equipments (digital cameras, for example). They say there is a reason for this, but it is never explained. Anyways, the team hikes for four days to reach the “base camp”, but none of them remembers crossing the perimeter into Area X, which they find strange. This is the camp set up by the earlier expeditions. Now, during the training, they have been trained with the map of Area X, where a lighthouse is where the team members get their bearings. One the first day at the base camp, they discover another artefact which is completely missing from the maps. This is what the biologist calls a “tower”, while others prefer to call it a “tunnel”. This structure “tower/tunnel” is a core part of the book. It appears as a round cylinder about 60 feet in diameter and 8 inches above the ground. There is an “entrance” due North of the tower. And it leads to a chamber below, the structure seems to be made of stone and the next day team ventures to explore it (descends into the spiralling staircase). When they are at a level below, the biologist discovers words on the wall of the structures which are glowing. The words read:

> Where lies the strangling fruit that came from the hand of the sinner I shall bring forth the seeds of the dead to share with the worms that…

When the biologist gets closer to see what the words are made of (What are words made of anyway? Is the medium that gives the words their physicality matter?), she discovers that it is made of “Some sort of fungi”. In the process of looking at the words closely, a nodule bursts open and she inhales the spores that emanate from it. She hides this from the surveyor who is accompanying her. Now the biologist is unaware of how the inhaling of spores might affect her. They return to the base camp and agree to proceed the next day. In the meanwhile, the biologist notices something strange about the psychologist. It turns out the psychologist has been hypnotising the team members to control them since their training began. But somehow, due to the effect of the spores she has herself become immune to her hypnosis. She plays the role as if she is getting suggested by the hypnosis, covering that she is immune. Now the next morning, the biologist and the surveyor discover that the anthropologist is missing. The psychologist tells them that the anthropologist decided to go back. The biologist knows somehow it is not true.

The remaining team goes back to the “tower”, this time with breathing gear and masks. The psychologist refuses to enter the “tower” citing that the entrance must be guarded. The surveyor and the biologist descend into the tower. Now inside the tower, due to the biologists inhaling of the spores, she perceives it differently. She now can understand and look at the tower as a living organism, breathing with a heartbeat. While the surveyor is completely oblivious to this perhaps due to the hypnotising effect of the psychologist.

> I got my shit together because we were going to go forward and the surveyor couldn’t see what I saw, couldn’t experience what I was experiencing. And I couldn’t make her see it.

They see more writings on the walls of the tower as they descend further. They find that the script is “fresh” as they descend lower. They conclude that

> Something below us is writing this script. Something below us may still be in the process of writing this script.

They continue further, till they find something. There are strange ciliated feet markings on the stairs, which the biologist calls a “Crawler”. This something is the dead body of the anthropologist, with strange feet markings. The body is in disarray with her skull split open, and variety of organisms making her body their home. She is carrying her vials, and one of the vials has a sample which the biologist promptly collects. Contemplating on the “something” that might have killed her they decide to return to the top. They also discover another set of footprints which they conclude must be of the psychologists’.

In between all these events, there are flashbacks, to the time before the expedition. Telling us about the previous life of the biologist, how she was aloof even when in a crowd. Her fascination with an overgrown swimming pool, full of life. Her strained relationship with her husband, who is part of an earlier expedition. Her husband decides to volunteer for going to Area X and leaves her. There is no news about him or from him until one day he suddenly returns. He is not himself. The biologist can tell that something is missing. The next day, the people from Southern Reach come to pick him up, and he goes with them without any confrontation. But the biologist does not feel sad about this:

> Seeing him leave I felt mostly a sense of relief, to be honest, not guilt at betrayal.

With that background, the constant connect with her husband and her past life is brought to the narrative. When the surveyor and the biologist come back to the top of the tower, the psychologist is nowhere to be found. When they return to the base camp, she is neither there. And the psychologist has taken up all the weapons with her along with most of the rations and disappeared. They then try to make sense of the photos and samples that they have collected in the tower. But the photos are a riot of colours, which the surveyor finds rather disheartening. While the biologist discovers that the vial which she collected from the dead anthropologist has cells of the human brain. In all this, the biologist decides to go to the Lighthouse which seems to be the source of all the activity. The surveyor decides that she will stay back at the camp.

The biologist starts her journey to the lighthouse, on the way she sees the abandoned village, which is mentioned in the maps. There she finds that there are human like forms of trees, which are seated on a table. In all this while she feels “brightness” within her. She is changing. Due to her exposure to the spores from the words in the tunnel. She recalls her past experiences and the current ones and tries to make sense of things around her, things happening to her, things that have happened to her. As the biologist approaches the lighthouse, the area around it is desolate, and the lighthouse is seen as a fortification. Carefully, being aware that the psychologist might be there to kill her she enters the lighthouse. Everywhere she sees blood and signs of violence all through to the top of the lighthouse. Just before the top, she looks at an old photo of a person, whom she calls the lighthouse keeper. At the top, she discovers that a lot of information was kept from her and the team members regarding Area X. There were many more expeditions, as the huge cache of personal journals from previous expedition members reveals, rather than just 11 that the team was told about. She finds the journal of her husband and then departs from the lighthouse. While going down, she notices the psychologist at the bottom of the lighthouse. When she goes to her, she is on her deathbed. A fungi kind of substance has covered her arm. The psychologist utters the words “Annihilation” in desperation many times over to the biologist. She admits that she tried to kill the biologist with a gun as she was approaching the lighthouse, but her hand would not let her do it. The psychologist tells the biologist that she has changed, she sees her like a flame. It is this brightness that the biologist is talking about. She answers some questions like she took the anthropologist back to the tunnel to take samples from the Crawler under hypnosis, but anthropologist went too close to the Crawler and got killed in the process, but refuses to answer many other questions. She also tells the biologist about entries in her husband’s journal. After she has passed, the biologist takes whatever documents that the psychologist has with her. This includes a list of suggestive hypnotic keywords to be used on the team members. Annihilation in this list means “help induce immediate suicide”.

While returning from there it is already nightfall, and the biologist can see the changes in her own body. The glow is visible. While coming back, she almost encounters the beast which is responsible for the moans that they have been hearing since they came in. She spends the night on a tree, with her skin glowing. Next morning, she starts her journey towards the base camp. When she is very close to the base camp, she is shot at twice by the surveyor. The surveyor is in a frenzy, to kill the biologist. The “brightness” in the biologist start to heal her and gives her super sensing ability. With these, the biologist kills the surveyor and returns to the base camp. At the base camp, she finds that the surveyor has destroyed almost all of the basecamp and laid waste any water and food that might be there. All the papers and journals are burnt.

The biologist does an analysis of the samples that she has collected and mutations of human form emerge. The brightness in her is healing the bullet wounds, and making the biologist feel better. She thinks that due to the diversion of healing her wounds, the brightness (her mutation?) has stopped growing. She reads her husband’s journal, which she finds is mostly written for her with her pet name “ghost-bird” appearing several times over. The next day she decides to go to the bottom of the tower to find the Crawler. She takes a mask with her, as she enters the tower, her skin starts to glow and responds to the walls which are also glowing. The words are getting fresher and fresher as she goes to the lower levels. Finally she comes to the place where the Crawler is still working. The encounter with the crawler

> No words can … no photographs could …

The biologist survives the encounter, due to the mutations already in her. The Crawler consumes the inner self of the biologist in a sense, which gets a hold over her inner person. She passes out several times during this:

> What can you do when your five senses are not enough? Because I still couldn’t truly see it here, any more than I had seen it under the microscope, and that’s what scared me the most. Why couldn’t I see it?

Finally when the ordeal for her is over:

> It is not that I became used to the Crawler’s presence but that I reached a point—a single infinitesimal moment—when I once again recognised that the Crawler was an organism. A complex, unique, intricate, awe-inspiring, dangerous organism. It might be inexplicable. It might be beyond the limits of my senses to capture—or my science or my intellect—but I still believed I was in the presence of some kind of living creature, one that practised mimicry using my own thoughts. For even then, I believed that it might be pulling these different impressions of itself from my mind and projecting them back at me, as a form of camouflage. To thwart the biologist in me, to frustrate the logic left in me.”

The idea of the Crawler as some sort of creature which can mutate organisms and can mimic their thoughts is interesting. After this biologist continues to go down the tower, at the end of it she sees a door of light. But she is somehow unable to continue to this door, and start the journey back dreading the draining encounter with the Crawler again. But this time, the Crawler does not show any interest in her and lets her go. While going back she takes a last look at the Crawler, and sees a glimpse of the familiar face of the lighthouse keeper in the crawler. How did this happen? Somehow did the lighthouse keeper become the Crawler? What made this change? The answers to these questions are not given.

> When you are too close to the centre of a mystery there is no way to pull back and see the shape of it entire.

Finally, she emerges out from the tower. The book is the journal entry of the biologist.

> Observing all of this has quelled the last ashes of the burning compulsion I had to know everything … anything … and in its place remains the knowledge that the brightness is not done with me. It is just beginning, and the thought of continually doing harm to myself to remain human seems somehow pathetic.

The biologist tells us that she is leaving to explore the further reaches of Area X as the last entry in the journal.

Thus we see that the entire book, no names are referred to. Overall the sense of mystery about the origin and purpose (if any) to the events are left mostly unanswered. The above quote captures it very well. Overall I found the book satisfying read.

Part 2: The Movie

Now, that I had already read the book, I turned to the movie. The first start thing that you notice in the movie is the use of names, which is in complete contrast to the book. Also, the border which is invisible in the book, is shown as a “shimmer” in the movie. The idea that the psychologist is hypnotising the team members is also missing. In the movie the biologist (Lena, played by Natalie Portman) has also had military training. The team members in the movie are a biologist, a physicist, a medic, a psychologist, and a geomorphologist. Area X is identified as an anomaly which is increasing its range with time. All the missions/expeditions to the area have failed and no one except the biologists’ husband has returned. Unlike in the book, the Southern Reach gets to the husband in a rather aggressive way and it is at the same time they take in the biologist. In the book she volunteers herself to go in.

When they reach Area X, they become self-aware only after 3-4 days have passed and none can explain how the time was lost. As they are going towards the basecamp (in the movie it is an army base not a tent camp) they are attacked by an alligator with a different morphology. In the base camp they discover that the earlier expedition members are cutting open one of their own and showing his intestine moving like a different creature. None of the team members knows that the medic in the video is the husband of Lena. They become shocked after seeing the video and take shelter in a watchtower. To keep a watch, the psychologist is at a post on the ground. I could never understand this logic. If you are already on a watchtower, why the hell do you need a watch on the ground. Due to the noise the group wakes up and a mutated bear takes away the geomorphologist. Next day, they continue their journey towards the lighthouse. They stop at the village with the human-looking forms of the trees. The physicist explains that Area X is refracting everything from radiation to the DNA and hence it is causing so much mutations. Here biologist discovers that she is mutating too and that is when the medic ties all three of them and starts asking them questions. She discovers that the video of cutting open from the previous expedition has Lena’s husband in it. She wants answers, that is when she hears the geomorphologist call for help. She rushes to help her only to be attacked by the same bear. The bear comes up, and it is revealed that the bear is responsible for the voice of help. The medic comes back to attack the bear, but bear kills her. In the meanwhile, the physicist becomes free and kills the bear. The psychologist leaves for the lighthouse immediately in the middle of the night.

In the morning the physicist wanders off, leaving Lena alone. Lena then starts the journey to the lighthouse. There are several crystal trees before the lighthouse on the beach. She discovers the body of her husband at the lighthouse, which is recorded by the doppelganger of her husband. She goes inside a hole which seems to be the origin of the event. There she discovers the psychologist being consumed by the “Crawler”. The “Crawler” makes a copy of her by drawing a drop of her blood and takes a humanoid form. She tries to go out of the lighthouse but the humanoid form stops her from doing so. The humanoid form otherwise mirrors her actions. Finally, she takes a phosphor grenade and gives it the humanoid form which one her touch changes to her doppelganger. The grenade explodes and sets the “crawler” on fire. The fire burns everything and destroys all the mutations it has cause and brings down the shimmer. The movie begins and ends with the interrogation of the biologist about how she brought down the shimmer and was still alive.

The movie has advanced technology with the expeditions ( digital recorder, memory cards). Most importantly, in the movie, there is no mention of the tower or the running glowing script in it, which I found the most annoying. In the movie, the entire action takes place at the lighthouse. Also, killing of the creature and cease of the mutations was not needed, I personally found it too anthropocentric. Also, no explanation of the title of the movie is given. Overall, after reading the book, the movie is really disappointing to watch. It neither has the depth of the plot nor the philosophical or existential questions that permeate the book. In perhaps making the movie audience-friendly, the scriptwriter annihilated the core ideas in the book which made it special.

TIL you can kill a time-space warping, an interstellar traveller with a phosphor grenade, begin stocking right now!

I am now onto the second and third part of the Southern Reach Trilogy: Authority and Acceptance. Will post reviews of them once I am done, and surely we will not be seeing movies made based on them in the time I complete my readings.

Knowledge, its use and teaching

Bodies of knowledge are, with a few exceptions, not designed to be taught, but to be used. To teach a body of knowledge is thus a highly artificial enterprise. thus a highly artificial enterprise. The transition from knowledge regarded as a tool to be put to use, to knowledge as something to be taught and learnt, is precisely what I have termed the didactic transposition of knowledge.

Chevallard, Y. (1988, August). On didactic transposition theory: Some introductory notes. In International Symposium on Research and Development in Mathematics, Bratislava, Czechoslavakia.

What is a mathematical proof?

A dialogue in The Mathematical Experience by Davis and Hersh on what is mathematical proof and who decides what a proof is?

Let’s see how our ideal mathematician (IM) made out with a student who came to him with a strange question.

Student: Sir, what is a mathematical proof?

I.M.: You don’t know that? What year are you in?

Student: Third-year graduate.

I.M.: Incredible! A proof is what you’ve been watching me do at the board three times a week for three years! That’s what a proof is.

Student: Sorry, sir, I should have explained. I’m in philosophy, not math. I’ve never taken your course.

I.M.: Oh! Well, in that case – you have taken some math, haven’t you? You know the proof of the fundamental theorem of calculus – or the fundamental theorem of algebra?

Student: I’ve seen arguments in geometry and algebra and calculus that were called proofs. What I’m asking you for isn’t examples of proof, it’s a definition of proof. Otherwise, how can I tell what examples are correct?

I.M.: Well, this whole thing was cleared up by the logician Tarski, I guess, and some others, maybe Russell or Peano. Anyhow, what you do is, you write down the axioms of your theory in a formal language with a given list of symbols or alphabet. Then you write down the hypothesis of your theorem in the same symbolism. Then you show that you can transform the hypothesis step by step, using the rules of logic, till you get the conclusion. That’s a proof.

Student: Really? That’s amazing! I’ve taken elementary and advanced calculus, basic algebra, and topology, and I’ve never seen that done.

I.M.: Oh, of course, no one ever really does it. It would take forever! You just show that you could do
it, that’s sufficient.

Student: But even that doesn’t sound like what was done in my courses and textbooks. So mathematicians don’t really do proofs, after all.

I.M.: Of course we do! If a theorem isn’t proved, it’s nothing.

Student: Then what is a proof? If it’s this thing with a formal language and transforming formulas, nobody ever proves anything. Do you have to know all about formal languages and formal logic before you can do a mathematical proof?

I.M.: Of course not! The less you know, the better. That stuff is all abstract nonsense anyway.

Student: Then really what is a proof?

I.M.: Well, it’s an argument that convinces someone who knows the subject.

Student: Someone who knows the subject? Then the definition of proof is subjective; it depends on particular persons.Before I can decide if something is a proof, I have to decide who the experts are. What does that have to do with proving things?

I.M.: No, no. There’s nothing subjective about it! Everybody knows what a proof is. Just read some books, take courses from a competent mathematician, and you’ll catch on.

Student: Are you sure?

I.M.: Well – it is possible that you won’t, if you don’t have any aptitude for it. That can happen, too.

Student: Then you decide what a proof is, and if I don’t learn to decide in the same way, you decide I don’t have any aptitude.

I.M.: If not me, then who?

Uberization of Education

An Uberized education is when…

An Uberized education is when – as in antiquity – one goes to a specific teacher to get lectures, bypassing the university. The students and the teachers are thus matched. If a piece of paper is necessary, it would be given by that teacher, or a group of teachers. It is not too different from the decentralized apprentice model. This already works well for executive “education”. I give short workshops in my specialty of applied probability (I have given a few with PW, YBY and RD, though only lasting 1-2 days), limited to professionals. An Uberization would consist in making longer workshops, say of 2-3 week duration, after which the attendees would be getting a piece of paper of sorts. From my experience, both students and lecturers are more sincere when they bypass institutions. And, as with other Uberizations, it would be much, much efficient economically. A full education would be a collection of such micro-diplomas, which can be done on top of a conventional one. Finally I would personally like to attend such workshops in disciplines outside my specialty. After my experience with Aramaic/Syriac last summer, I have a list of subjects I would be hungry to learn outside university systems…

Source: The Black Swan Report › An Uberized education is when…

Cover of Carl Sagan’s The Dragons of Eden: A good example of bad science

carl-sagan-dargons-of-eden-cover

Carl Sagan was a wonderful writer. He wrote many amazing books for popularising science and also championed against pseudo-science prevalent in the society. Like many countless others Sagan’s works have inspired and fired imagination in me. Particularly he decimated the arguments made by Velikovsky in Worlds in Collision. Two of his books which deal with the topics of pseudo-science and anti-science are Broca’s Brain, Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in Dark. Sagan is most meticulous when explaining things, and adds disclaimers whereever they are necessary and needed.

When I was reading his book Dragon’s of Eden (a Pulitzer prize winner !) the cover of the book stuck me as unusual. The Wikipedia page says that the cover artist was Don Davis. The cover illustration shows a humanoid animal sitting below a tree (of knowledge?) in a serene landscape with a lake and few herbivored near it. Interestingly, and also problematically the cover also shows a variety of dinosaurs in the area as the hominid. This is rather unsettling. And it is definitely wrong. The dinosaurs for all we know, and Sagan knew this too well (for example, see Demon Haunted World), became extinct long before any humanoid forms came into existence. So showing them existing contemporarily is wrong, and factually incorrect science. This illustration goes against all that is known via fossil records that we have.

I wonder what made Sagan, who otherwise was skpetical and very particular, choose this wrong and factually incorrect illustration for the cover of his book, or that he did not have any say in choosing the cover of the book?

Implicit cognition in the visual mode

Images become iconified, with the image representing an object or
phenomena, but this happens by enculturation rather by training. An
example to elaborate this notion is the painting Treachery of
Images by Belgian surrealist artist René Magritte. The painting is
also sometimes called This is not a pipe. The picture shows a
pipe, and below it, Magritte painted, “Ceci n’est pas une pipe.”,
French for “This is not a pipe.”

176

When one looks at the painting, one
exclaims “Of course, it is a pipe! What is the painter trying to say
here? We can all see that it is indeed a pipe, only a fool will claim
otherwise!” But then this is what Magritte has to say:

The famous pipe. How people reproached me for it! And yet, could you
stuff my pipe? No, it’s just a representation, is it not? So if I had
written on my picture `This is a pipe’, I’d have been lying!

Aha! Yess! Of course!! you say. “Of course it is not a pipe! Of
course it is a representation of the pipe. We all know that! Is this
all the painter was trying to say? Its a sort of let down, we were
expecting more abstract thing from the surrealist.” We see that the
idea or concept that the painting is a \emph{representation} is so
deeply embedded in our mental conceptual construct that we take it for
granted all the time. It has become so basic to our everyday social
discourse and intercourse that by default we assume it to be so. Hence
the confusion about the image of the pipe. Magritte exposes this
simple assumption, that we so often ignore. This is true for all the
graphics that we see around us. The assumption is implicit in all the
things we experience in the society. The representation becomes the
thing itself, for it is implicit in the way we talk and communicate.

Big B and D

When you look at a photo of something or someone, you recognize
it. “This is Big B!” you say looking at the painting! But then you
have already implicitly assumed that the representation of Big B is Big B. This implicit assumption comes from years of implicit training from being submerged in  the sea of the visual artefacts that surround and drown us. This association between the visual representation and the reality it represents had become the central theme of the visual culture that we live in. The training that we need for such an association comes from the peers and mentors that surround us from the childhood. The meaning and the association of the images is taught/caught over the years, so much so that we assume the abstract association is the normal way things are. In this way it becomes the implicit truth, though when one is pressed, the explicit connections are brought out.

Yet when it comes to understanding images in science and mathematics, the same thing doesn’t happen. There is no enculturation of children into understand the implicit meaning in these images. Hardly there are no peers or mentors whose actions and practices can be imitated by the young impressible learners. The practice which comes so naturally in other domains (identifying actor with a picture of the actor, or identifying a physical space with a photo) doesn’t happen in science and mathematics classrooms. The notion of practice is dissociated from the what is done to imbibe this understanding in the children. A practice based approach where the images become synonymous with their implied meaning is used in vocabulary might one very positive way out, this is after all practitioners of science and mathematics learn their trade.

Epistemicide!

When I read the word for the first time it invoked a very intense and intentional pun in my mind. The word was coined by a Portuguese sociologist Boaventura de Sousa Santos in his multi-volume project Reinventing Social Emancipation. Toward New Manifestos.
In this post I will be elaborating on this term, for my own future use and reference.

Episteme is a philosophical term derived from the Ancient Greek word ἐπιστήμη, which can refer to knowledge, science or understanding, and which comes from the verb ἐπίσταμαι, meaning “to know, to understand, or to be acquainted with”. Plato contrasts episteme with “doxa”: common belief or opinion.

(from Oxford Dictionary of English)

Further more the suffix cide is combining form

  1. denoting a person or substance that kills: insecticide | regicide.
  2. denoting an act of killing: suicide.

So combining the two we get the word epistemicide.


What epistemicide essentially is then is an act of killing certain knowlege, or understanding or acquaintance. It is argued that the English academic discourse which is dominant world over has killed other ways of understanding, or acquiring or transmiting knowledge. To control or invade another territory physically may still keep the invaders and their culture away from the people who are invaded and their knowledge. But with an epistemicide this invasion is complete. For the invaders have successfully dissociated the people they have invaded from their own knowledge and replaced it with the dominant discourse.

For the way that a particular culture formulates its knowledge is intricately bound up with the very identity of its people, their way of making sense of the world and the value system that holds that worldview in place. Epistemicide, as the systematic destruction of rival forms of knowledge, is at its worst nothing less than symbolic genocide.

Epistemicide works in a number of ways. Knowledges that are grounded on an ideology that is radically different from the dominant one will by and large be silenced completely. They will be starved of funding, if the hegemonic power controls that aspect; they will remain unpublished, since their very form will be unrecognizable to the editors of journals and textbooks; and they are unable to be taught in schools and universities, thus ensuring their rapid decline into oblivion.

In the name of freedom and justice, he set about destroying all opposition…

(Bennett, 2007)

Are we performing an epistemicide in our classrooms by only promoting a certain way to learn and teach and worse a centralised way to evaluate and assess that learning? Teaching things which are dissociated from the immediate real world environment of the children? Perhaps we are. This post was just to keep a reference of this term and its meaning. I will explore this further in later posts.

 

References:

Bennett, Karen (2007) Epistemicide! The Translator 13(2)

Oxford English Dictionary (2010)

Mascot Mantis

mantis-01.JPG

A mascot is any person, animal, or object thought to bring luck, or anything used to represent a group with a common public identity, such as a school, professional sports team, society, military unit, or brand name. [Source]

A few months back, while I was riding my Motorcycle to work, I noticed that a small green praying mantis was stationed on the speedometer. I thought it would move away once the bike starts. So didn’t give it much thought and started the drive. I have to cover three traffic signals to go to work. Now when I stopped at the first signal I noted that the little mantis was still there, holding on to the rim and the glas of the speedometer. As the signal went green, we started the journey again, this time we had appreciable speed as we  were on the highway. I was keeping a tab on the mantis, thinking that it would be flicked away by the air flow. It crouched and held on, no matter how much I accelerated. Its antennae went back with the wind and at times it really struggled to keep on the position. It looked as if it was determined to come with me (or lead me) to the workplace. A personal mascot for me! Leading me through my journey of life. When I finally came to my office, I placed it over the nearby shrub hoping the best for it. (Unfortunately, I did not have my camera at that time, so could not take any photos. )

Having a mantis as a mascot is not a bad thing at all. In the manga Baki Son of Ogre (Vol 2), the hero shadow fights with a mantis for practice, as by weight they are perhaps the strongest of animals. It is claimed that if the mantis was ~100 kg they could hunt a full grown African elephant singly (Note that manga are read from right-to-left). That is the ratio of their weights and size to that of their preys. Since a mascot is supposed to represent you and your qualities, these are no bad at all.

So I am all for a mantis as a mascot, after all, it choose me!

The photo at the top has another story to it. One evening I was just strolling on a terrace when I found this impressive specimen. I placed my camera on the ground to get closer and better photos. The mantis became aggressive
(too friendly??) and came on the camera itself, just after this photo was taken.

 

Multiple citations, biblatex and APA

Issues with multiple citations of an author and biblatex-apa

Recently I had to refer an author multiple times in a document. I had recently shifted to biber and biblatex. The American Psychological Association (APA) style was the recommended style.

And in the final references

The author name was, let us, was Wilbur-Markus Rowland, and he had about 10-11 articles. The author had many co-authors, in some cases this author was the first author in other cases he was the second or even third one.
Now the issue that I was facing was this: The same author name was getting cited differently at different places.
For example, in some cases it appeared like
W.-M. Rowland, in other cases Wilbur-Markus Rowland, and in some cases even as Rowland. This was very confusing. And on top of all that the final references had entries like

Rowland W.-M. (W. M.)
Rowland W.-M. (Wilbur-Markus)
Rowland W. M. (Wilbur-Markus)
Rowland W. M. (W.-M.)

I checked and rechecked the bibtex entries in hope of finding some error but it was not to be found. I must have done a Clean All a dozen times, after editing the bib file.. I tried adding same name entries for Rowland as first author to be the same, but it didn’t work. This was really frustrating.

Similarly a couple of references with two different authors with a common surname were giving intials in the main text. For example, D. R. Cook and M. P. Cook. Now all other refernces (except the Rowland one) were coming as per the APA requirement, which is (Author, Year), so ideally they should have been (Cook & Weston, 1999) and (Cook, 2004). But rather they were being displayed as (D. R. Cook & Weston, 1999) and (M. P. Cook, 2004). Now no change in the bib file was changing any of this. I thought there was some issue with the bib entries. I deleted the entries and entered them again manually, but no avail.

Then I chanced upon this link

 even though the year of publication differs in the two Campbell (Cook in our case) references, the lead author’s initials should be included in all text citations, regardless of how often they appear.

So the Cook mystery was solved. biblatex was compiling correctly as per the APA guidelines, the initials for the two different Cook entries must be there. This is because

 Including the initials helps the reader avoid confusion within the text and locate the entry in the reference list.

Now for the Rowland entry, the next part of the blog gave me a hint towards the possible problem:

Although this rule seems straightforward, one thing that trips up some writers is how to proceed when different lead authors with the same surname are also listed in other references in which they are not the lead author.

After this I checked the entries where Rowland was second or third author. These entries differed from the entries where he was the lead author. And this was causing the problem. For each different entry style of his name, biblatex was considering him as a separate author. Hence the initials and the different references entries with names in brackets. Once all the entries for Rowland were made consistent the problem disappeared. Phew!

This issue bugged me for almost a couple of working days, to find the cause and subsequent addressing was most rewarding.

Note that the bibtex references that I had were taken from google scholar, hence differing styles in author name. Please make them consistent. This is a warning for future me and others who are reading this post.

 

Hymn of Creation from Rig Veda

This wonderful Hymn of Creation one of the oldest surviving records of philosophic doubt in the history of the world, marks the development of a high stage of abstract thinking, and it is the work of a very great poet, whose vision of the mysterious chaos before creation, and of mighty ineffable forces working in the depths of the primaeval void, is portrayed with impressive economy of language.

“Then even nothingness was not, nor existence.
There was no air then, nor the heavens beyond it
What covered it? Where was it? In whose keeping?
Was there then cosmic water, in depths unfathomed?

“Then there were neither death nor immortality,
nor was there then the torch of night and day.

The One breathed windlessly and self-sustaining.
There was that One then, and there was no other.
“At first there was only darkness wrapped in darkness.
All this was only unillumined water.

That One which came to be, enclosed in nothing,
arose at last, bom of the power of heat.
“In the beginning desire descended on it
that was the primal seed, bom of the mind.

The sages who have searched their hearts with wisdom
know that which is is kin to that which is not.
“And they have stretched their cord across the void,
and know what was above, and what below.

Seminal powers made fertile mighty forces.
Below was strength, and over it was impulse,
“But, after all, who knows, and who can say
whence it all came, and how creation happened?

The gods themselves are later than creation,
so who knows truly whence it has arisen?
“Whence all creation had its origin,
he, whether he fashioned it or whether he did not,

he, who surveys it all from highest heaven,
he knows— or maybe even he does not know.

From – The Wonder That Was India – A. L. Basham

Review of I Am A Strange Loop by Douglas Hofstadter – Part 2

Part 1

The toilet flush is one of the simplest and common feedback mechanisms that we find. There is a float which rises with the water level which controls the inflow of water. After a certain height is reached the water inflow is stopped. Do we attribute intentionality to the water flush? We usually do not. And this is the theme that Hofstadter explores in Chapter 4 Loops, Goals and Loopholes.

But what kinds of systems have feedback, have goals, have desires? Does a soccer ball rolling down a grassy hill “want” to get to the bottom? 52

We anthropomorphize objects and impart them our human attributes. Adding a “purpose” or a “goals” to any system is considering it from a teleological perspective. Teleology is the explanation of phenomena by the purpose they serve rather than by postulated causes. Considering examples of variations on this theme, we can say that answer to the above question is not clear cut. There are no black-and-white answers but are judgment calls. We tend to move towards the idea of teleology and intention for a system when the feedback mechanisms are not directly perceptible.

Among other examples, Hofstadter considers plants which in normal time will appear to be static and without any “goals”. But a time-lapse of the same would show that they have “goals” and “intentions” and use strategies to achieve them.

The question is whether such systems, despite their lack of brains, are nonetheless imbued with goals and desires. Do they have hopes and aspirations? Do they have dreads and dreams? Beliefs and griefs? 53

The claim is made that presence of a feedback loop in a system, triggers in us a response which shifts the description from a goalless level of mechanics to a goal-oriented level of some cognitive mechanism. Things have the desire to move!

So far we have considered basic feedback loops. Now we move onto a more complex idea of a positive feedback loop. In a positive feedback loop, a part of the output of the system goes into increasing the output by a certain factor. With each iteration the output increases, which causes the next output to increase even more. A small change in input can cascade into a very large change (exponential) in output.

Perhaps the most common example of a positive feedback loop is the unpleasant, high pitch sound one hears in an auditorium or a meeting. This happens when a microphone gains some of its output as an input and produces an ever increasing pitch and volume of the input sound. An example is given below:

Now one can imagine that due to the exponential nature of growth, any little disturbance in such a system might lead to a sound which will eventually destroy everything.

In theory, then, the softest whisper would soon grow to a roar, which would continue growing without limit, first rendering everyone in the auditorium deaf, shortly thereafter violently shaking the building’s rafters till it collapsed upon the now-deaf audience, and then, only a few loops later, vibrating the planet apart and finishing up by annihilating the entire universe. What is specious about this apocalyptic scenario?

But this is a fallacious argument. The first fallacy is the physical nature of the setup and the amplifier in our scheme of things. If the roof falls, it will destroy the amplifier too! The second case is the nature of the amplifier, it doesn’t amplify in an unlimited way. After a certain gain, due to the physical design, the amplification becomes equal to unity and the system stabilizes at its natural frequency. It so happens that the natural high frequency of an audio amplifier is close to a high pitch scream. This is achieved by the system tends to go towards that pitch in series of rapid iterations. These are the screeching high pitch oscillations that we hear. It seems the systems “wanted” to go there, the stable point of its existence. Thus we see that

Similarly, we can also “see” visual feedback loops, when the output of a camera is given back to the camera. This can be most easily setup by pointing the camera towards a screen which is showing a live output of the camera. The cover image of the book is one such image, captured during Hofstadter’s “experiments” with the visual feedback system. One of the difference, in this case, is that the camera is not an amplifying device, it just transmits. Yet the pictures it produces are bizarre and beautiful. Seeing images of video feedback gives one a sense of mystery and wonder. There is some inherent beauty in it, yet it seems un-natural to watch.

Feedback — making a system turn back or twist back on itself, thus forming some kind of mystically taboo loop — seems to be dangerous, seems to be tempting fate, perhaps even to be intrinsically wrong, whatever that might mean. 57

Shifting gears, we get a Hofstadter’s introduction to Gödel when he was fourteen. What intrigued him was the thought that one could have an entire book about a single book. The book was Nagel and Newman’s Gödel’s Proof, published in 1958. Hofstadter wrote the introduction to the new imprint in 2001. He was fascinated by footnote on formal use of quotation marks.

So here was a book talking about how language can talk about itself talking about itself (etc.), and about how reasoning can reason about itself (etc.). I was hooked! I still didn’t have a clue what Gödel’s theorem was, but I knew I had to read this book. 58

This is something that happens to me too. Some time back (almost a decade now) I had posted about books attracting me. Perhaps it happens to many people.

We next look at famous Russel’s Paradox. One of the examples derived from it is Barber’s Paradox

The barber is the “one who shaves all those, and those only, who do not shave themselves.” The question is, does the barber shave himself? [.]

There is also a loop here and there is contradiction too.

This loophole (the word fits perfectly here) was based on the notion of “the set of all sets that don’t contain themselves”, a notion that was legitimate in set theory, but that turned out to be deeply self-contradictory. 60

Russell tried to overcome this by formally re-defining the concepts of sets to save this, but it didn’t work out well. Rather it became too complex, though built on solid, atomic (in the mathematical sense) ideas.

In Principia Mathematica, there was to be no twisting-back of sets on themselves, no turning-back of language upon itself.  61

But why is self-reference considered problematic? Here Hofstadter quotes from his column Metamagical Themas (an anagram of Martin Gardner’s Mathematical Games) in Scientific American on Self-Referential sentences. But all were not receptive to the idea, some of the readers were sceptical about the utility of self-reference and denied any meaningful output of such activities.

In the next chapter On Video Feedback we explore the theme of video of video feedback and Hofstadter’s experiments with it. He explores and explains many of the images which were made by adding slight things in the image, fox example, truncated corridor, endless corridor, helical corridor etc. The common element in all these video feedback is the repeating of the primary image in scaled down fashion till the resolution of the screen can support (theoretically infinite). During one the experiments, he covers the lens and then removes his hands. During this, the movement of his hand is captured and forms an endless image which is moving, even when the hand is removed. This action has formed a loop and is feeding itself in a cyclic setup.

A faithful image of something changing will itself necessarily keep changing! 67

A similar phenomenon is that of dogs barking in sync. Some dog somewhere, starts to bark for something that is passing near it. Now, other dogs pick up and start barking too. And the chain goes on. Once setup, it doesn’t matter what was the reason for the first dog to bar, it may have gone away. But the chain of barking sustains itself. During one the flights, I have seen this happen with small babies. There were about 5-6 babies on the flight. It so happened that one of them started to cry for some reason. Then the rest joined in one-by-one. Perhaps the others were crying because the heard another one cry. And the event became self-sustaining. This went on for quite some time.

This is one of the core idea of an emergent phenomenon, once

In general, an emergent phenomenons omehow emerges quite naturally and automatically from rigid rules operating at a lower, more basic level, but exactly how that emergence happens is not at all clear to the observer. 68

The video explorations led to some fantastic images, many of which are reproduced in color in the central pages of the book. In the last part of the chapter, Hofstadter drives towards one of the central themes which we will explore in the remaining book. The idea is that strange and robust (self-sustaining) structures can emerge from the process of looping.

Once a pattern is onthe screen, then all that is needed to justify its staying up there is George Mallory’s classic quip about why he felt compelled to scale Mount Everest: “Because it’s there!” When loops are involved, circular justifications are the name of the game. 70

Some of the images I myself have collected are shown below:

The locking-in gives rise to abstract phenomena at higher levels.

In short, there are surprising new structures that looping gives rise to that constitute a new level of reality that could in principle be deduced from the basic loop and its detailed properties, but that in practice have a different kind of “life of their own” and that demand — at least when it comes to extremely finite, simplicity-seeking, new level of description that transcend the basic level out of which they emerge. 71

Whether we will be able to actually do it, or want to do it is another question. This reminds me of the saying: In theory, there is no different in theory and practice, in practice there is.

Here are a few more:

 

Mathematical Literacy Goals for Students

National Council of Teachers for Mathematics NCTM proposed these five goals to cover the idea of mathematical literacy for students:

  1. Learning to value mathematics: Understanding its evolution and its role in society and the sciences.
  2. Becoming confident of one’s own ability: Coming to trust one’s own mathematical thinking, and having the ability to make sense of situations and solve problems.
  3. Becoming a mathematical problem solver: Essential to becoming a productive citizen, which requires experience in a variety of extended and non-routine problems.
  4. Learning to communicate mathematically:  Learning the signs, symbols, and terms of mathematics.
  5. Learning to reason mathematically: Making conjectures, gathering evidence, and building mathematical arguments.
National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. Commission on Standards for School Mathematics. (1989). Curriculum and evaluation standards for school mathematics. Natl Council of Teachers of.

Review of I Am A Strange Loop by Douglas Hofstadter – Part 1

I recently finished I Am A Strange Loop by Douglas Hofstadter. The book is an introduction to the core ideas about self, self-reference, feedback loops and consciousness as  an emergent phenomena. The core question that is considered is

What do we mean when we say I?

Hofstadter in the preface indicates his angst at many people missing out on the core ideas of Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. No doubt GEB is hard to read, and each one makes their own meaning of it.

Years went by, and I came out with other books that alluded to and added to that core message, but still there didn’t seem to be much understanding out there of what I had really been trying to say in GEB. xiii

I Am A Strange Loop is sort of a prequel to GEB, which came afterwards. In the book the focus is on developing an idea of emergent self, in which our consciousness is seen to emerge from feedback that we have by interacting with the world. Hofstadter uses a variety of examples to drive home the point of recursive feedback loops, giving rise to strange phenomena. The central claim is that we, our sense of self, our idea of consciousness derives from recursive interactions and feedback that we get via our senses.

He starts with a dialogue he wrote as a teenager between Plato and Socrates about what is it to be alive and being conscious, this in a way sets the stage for things to come. In the first chapter On the Souls and Their Sizes we are made to think about presence of souls in different foods that we eat (he himself doesn’t partake mammalian meat). We non-chalantly eat a tomato, irritatingly squish a mosquito, but what happens when we eat higher life forms, like chicken, pigs and sheep? Do they have souls? Do all living beings have souls? If so, then does the soul of a human is greater than that of a cow (now here I must be careful, there are people in my country who judge the soul of a cow much much greater than that of a human being), of a pig, of a chicken, of a mosquito of a tomato?

Does a baby lamb have a soul that matters, or is the taste of lamb chops just too delicious to worry one’s head over that? 18

The suggestive answer is  given in a conciousness cone, in which we normal adult humans are at the top and atoms are the start of the cone. But then granted that we have a soul, are we born with a fully developed one? Here Hofstadter takes a developmental approach to the concept of the soul. The idea is that we are born with some essence of what appears to be soul, then gradually over the years it develops. The concept of soul here is used interchageably with “I”. The main take home point in this chapter is whatever this is, we do not get the fully developed version of it from birth. Rather it is a developmental process which takes place in the real world, shaped by experiences. The said developmental changes are in degree, rather than a black/white switch.

In the second chapter This Teethering Bulb of Dread and Dream we look at possible ways of studying the mechanisms of the brain which might potentially shed some light on the puzzle that we are after. In general the idea of studying the hardware of the brain seems to be set in agenda of many neurologists. But Hofstadter argues against this way of studying thinking.

Saying that studying the brain is limited to the study of physical entities such as these would be like saying that literary criticism must focus on paper and bookbinding, ink and its chemistry, page sizes and margin widths, typefaces and paragraph lengths, and so forth. 26

Another analogy given is that of the heart. Just like heart is a pumping machine, brain is a thinking machine. If we only think heart as an aggregate of cells, we miss out on the bigger picture of what the cells do. The heart surgeons don’t think about heart cells but look at the larger structure. Similarly to study thinking the lower level of components may not be the correct level to study highly abstract phenomena such as concepts, analogies, consciousness, empathy etc. This is pointing towards thinking as an emergent phenomena, emerging from the interactions at lower levels which are composed of objects/entities which are not capable of thinking.

Hofstadter then takes philosopher John Searle to task for his views regarding impossibility of thinking arising from non-thinking entities. The analogy of a beer can to a neuron is taken apart. What is suggested by Searle in his thought experiments is equivalent to memory residing in a single neuron. But this certainly is not the case. We have to think of the brain as a multi-level system. But going too deep in these levels we would not get a comprehensible understanding of our thinking.

Was it some molecules inside my brain that made me reshelve it? Or was it some ideas in my brain? 31

Rather it is ideas that make more ideas.

Ideas cause ideas and help evolve new ideas. They interact with each other and with other mental forces in the same brain, in neighboring brains, and, thanks to global communication, in far distant, foreign brains. And they also interact with the external surroundings to producein toto a burstwise advance in evolution that is far beyond anything to hit the evolutionary scene yet, including the emergence of the living cell. Sperry as quoted on 31-32

Another analogy that is given is that of Thermodynamics and Statistical Mehcanics. Just as atoms interact in a gas at a micro-level to create gas laws which can be observed at a macro-level. The macro-level laws also makes it comprehensible to us, because of the sheer amount of information at mirco level that one would have to analyse to make sense. (Provided that we can in theory solve such a massive set of equations, not considering the quantum mechanical laws.) Similarly the point is made that for understanding a complex organ such as the brain, which contains billions of interacting neurons, we should not look at the hardware at the lowest level, but rather look for macro-level patterns.

Statistical mentalics can be bypassed by talking at the level of thinkodynamics. 34

The perception of the world that we get is from sensory inputs, language and culture. And it is at that level we operate, we do not seek atomic level explanations for the dropping of the atomic bomb. This simplification is part of our everyday explanation, and we choose the levels of description depending on the answers that we are seeking.

Drastic simplification is what allows us to reduce situations to their bare bones, to discover abstract essences, to put our fingers on what matters, to understand phenomena at amazingly high levels, to survive reliably in this world, and to formulate literature, art, music, and science. 35

The third chapter The Causal Potency of Patterns provides us with concrete metaphors to think about emergent phenomena and thinking at levels. The first of such metaphors is a chain of dominoes, which can be thought of as a computer program for carrying out a given computation. In this case finding checking if a number is prime: 641. Now a person watching the domino fall right upto 641 can presumably give two answers, the first one is that the domino before 641 did not fall, while other is 641 is a prime number. These two answers are many levels apart. The second example is of Hofstadter sitting a traffic jam, The reason why you are stuck in traffic, is because the car in front of you is not moving. On the other hand this does not tell you anything about  why the jam arose in the first place, which may be due to a large number of cars going home after a game or a natural disaster of some kind. The main idea is that we can have two (many?) levels of explanation each one looking at the system from a different level of detail, for example, the car ahead of you local,  the reasons for the jam global. As far as the causal analysis goes we can look at answers at different levels.

Deep understanding of causality sometimes requires the understanding of very large patterns and their abstract relationships and interactions, not just the understanding of microscopic objects interacting in microscopic time intervals. 41

Similar example is that of a combustion engine. The designers of the engine do not think about molecular level of interactions, the level that is relevant for them is the thermodynamic level of pressure, temeperature and volume. The properties of individual molecules like their locations, velocities is irrelevant in such a description, though the properties of the ensemble is.

This idea — that the bottom level, though 100 percentresponsible for what is happening, is nonetheless irrelevant to what happens — sounds almost paradoxical, and yet it is an everyday truism. 42

Another example that is given is of listening to music. Lets say you hear a piece of music, and you experience some emotions due to it. Now, consider there was a slight delay before playing started, the actual molecules which vibrated to get you the music, would be different than in the first case. Yet, you would experience the music in the same way even though the molecules that brought you that music were completely different.

The lower-level laws of their collisions played a role only in that they gave rise to predictable high-level events. But the positions, speeds, directions, even the chemical identity of the molecules – all of this was changeable, and the high-level events would have been the same. 42

Thus we can say that a lower level might be responsible for a higher level event and at the same time is irrelevant to the higher level.

 

The next metaphor we consider is that of careenium and simmbalism. (No points for guessing what the intended puns are here!) There are many witty puns throughout the book, and Hofstadter uses them very effectively to make his points. This Gedankenexperiment is referred to many times in the book. Simms (small interacting marbles) are very small marbles, which can crash into each other and bounce off the walls in a frictionless world. They are also magnetic so that if they hit each other with low velocity they can “stick” to each other and form clusters called simmballs. A simmball can be composed of millions of simms, and may loose or gain simms at its boundary. Thus we have tiny and agile simms, and huge and nearly immobile simmballs. All this bashing and boucing happens at frictionless pooltable, the careenium.

After setting this metaphorical system we add another complexiety that external events can affect the simmballs, thus we can have a record of history by reading the configurations of simmballs. Now a reductionist approach to this system would be that we really need to know only about nature of interaction of the simms, rest are just epi-phenomena, which can be explained by behavior of the simms. But such a view isnot helpful in many ways. One of the issues that is raised is that of enormous complexity raised by such approach will render it meaningless. But, whether we can even describe a phenomena in a truly fundamental way, just by using basic laws is itself questionable.

A interesting reading in similar line of though is by Anderson (Anderson, P. W. (1972). More is different. Science, 177(4047), 393-396). He gives examples from physical science which seemingly defy solutions or explanations on basis of the fundamental laws. He strongly argues against the reductionist hypothesis

The main fallacy in this kind of thinking is that the reductionist hypothesis does not by .any means imply a “constructionist” one: The ability to reduce everything to simple fundamental laws does not imply the ability to start from those laws and reconstruct the universe, In fact, the more the elementary particle physicists tell us about the nature of the fundamental laws, theless relevance they seem to have to the
very real problems of the rest of science, much less to those of society.

Anderson draws three inferences from this 1) Symmetry is of great importance to physics; symmetry the existence of different viewpoints from which the system appears the same. 2) the internal structure of a piece of matter need not be symmetrical even if the total state of it is.

I would challenge you to start from the fundamental laws of quantum mechanics and predict the ammonia inversion and its easily observable properties without going through the stage of using the unsymmetrical pyramidal structure, even though no “state” ever has that structure.

3) the state of a really big system does not at all have to have the symmetry of the laws which govern it; in fact, it usually has less symmetry.

Starting with the fundamental laws and a computer, we would have to do two impossible things – solve a problem with infinitely many bodies, and then apply the result to a finite system-before we synthesized this behavior

Finally Anderson notes:

Synthesis is expected to be all but impossible analysis, on the other hand, may be not only possible but fruitful in all kinds of ways: Without an understanding
of the broken symmetry in superconductivity, for instance, Josephson would probably not have discovered his effect.

Going back to Hofstadter, he considers a higher level view of the Gedankenexperiment with simms, simmballs and careenium. To get a birds eye view of our  have to zoom out both space and time. The view that we will get is that of simmballs, simms would be to small and too fast for us to view at this level. In fast forward of time, the simmballs are no longer stationary, but rather are dynamic entities which change their shapes and positions due to interactions of simms (now invisible) at lower level. But this is not evident at this level, though the simms are responsible for changing the shape and position of simmballs, they are irrelevant as far as description of simmballs.

And so we finally have come to the crux of the matter: Which of these two views of the careenium is the truth? Or, to echo the key question posed by Roger Sperry, Who shoves whom around in the population of causal forces that occupy the careenium? 49

The answer is that it all depends on which level you choose to focus on. The analogy can be made clear by thinking of how billions of interacting nuerons form patterns of thought, analogy, interacting ideas. Thus while trying to think about thinking we should let go of observing a single neuron, or the hardware of the brain itself, it will not lead us to any comprehensible description or explanation of how we think. Nuerons are though responsible for thinking they are irrelevant in the higher order of thinking.

 

 

The True Purpose Of Graphic Display – J. W. Tukey

John Wilder Tukey, one of the greatest Statistician of the last century points to what the purpose of a graphic display should be:

  1.  Graphics are for the qualitative/descriptive – conceivably the semi quantitative – never for the carefully quantitative (tables do that better).
  2. Graphics are for comparison – comparison of one kind or another – not for access to individual amounts.
  3. Graphics are for impact – interocular impact if possible, swinging-finger impact if that is the best one can do, or impact for the unexpected as a minimum – but almost never for something that has to be worked at hard to be perceived.
  4. Finally, graphics should report the results of careful data analysis – rather than be an attempt to replace it. (Exploration-to guide data analysis – can make essential interim use of graphics, but unless we are describing the exploration process rather than its results, the final graphic should build on the data analysis rather than the reverse.)

From:

Tukey, J. W. (1993). Graphic comparisons of several linked aspects: Alternatives and suggested principles. Journal of Computational and Graphical Statistics, 2(1), 1-33.

Reflections on Liping Ma’s Work

Liping Ma’s book Knowing and teaching elementary mathematics has been very influential in Mathematics Education circles. This is a short summary of the book and my reflections on it.

Introduction

Liping Ma in her work  compares the teaching of mathematics in the American and the Chinese schools. Typically it is found that the American students are out performed by their Chinese counterparts in mathematical exams. This fact would lead us to believe that the Chinese teachers are better `educated’ than the U.S. teachers and the better performance is a straight result of this fact. But when we see at the actual schooling the teachers undergo in the two countries we find a large difference. Whereas the U.S. teachers are typically graduates with 16-18 years of formal schooling, the typical Chinese maths teacher has about only 11-12 years of schooling. So how can a lower `educated’ teacher produce better results than a more educated one? This is sort of the gist of Ma’s work which has been described in the book. The book after exposing the in-competencies of the U.S. teachers also gives the remedies that can lift their performance.

In the course of her work Ma identifies the deeper mathematical and procedural understanding present, called the profound understanding of fundamental mathematics [PUFM] in the Chinese teachers, which is mostly absent in the American teachers. Also the “pedagogical content knowledge” of the Chinese teachers is different and better than that of the U.S. teachers. A teacher with PUFM “is not only aware of the conceptual structure and the basic attitudes of mathematics inherent in elementary mathematics, but is able to teach them to students.” The situation of the two teacher is that the U.S. teachers have a shallow understanding of a large number of mathematical structures including the advanced ones, but the Chinese teachers have a deeper understanding of the elementary concepts involved in mathematics. The point where the PUFM is attained in the Chinese teachers is addressed. this Also the Chinese education system so structured that it allows cooperation and interaction among the junior and senior teachers.

Methodology

The study was conducted by using the interview questions in Teacher Education and Learning to Teach Study [TELT] developed by Deborah Ball. These questions were designed to probe teacher’s knowledge of mathematics in the context of common things that teachers do in course of teaching. The four common topics that were tested for by the TELT were: subtraction, multiplication, division by fractions and the relationship between area and perimeter. Due to these diverse topics in the questionnaire the teachers subject knowledge at both conceptual and procedural levels at the elementary level could be judged quite comprehensively. The teacher’s response to a particular question could be used to judge the level of understanding the teacher has on the given subject topic.

Sample

The sample for this study was composed of two set of teachers. One from the U.S., and another from China. There were 23 U.S. teachers, who were supposed to be above average. Out of these 23, 12 had an experience of 1 year of teaching, and the rest 11 had average teaching experience of 11 years. In China 72 teachers were selected, who came from diverse nature of schools.In these 72, 40 had experience of less than 5 years of teaching, 24 had more than 5 years of teaching experience, and the remaining 8 had taught for more than 18 years average. Each teacher was interviewed for the conceptual and procedural understanding for the four topics mentioned.

We now take a look at the various problems posed to the teachers and their typical responses.

Subtraction with Regrouping

The problem posed to the teachers in this topic was:

Lets spend some time thinking about one particular topic that you may work with when you teach, subtraction and regrouping. Look at these questions:
62
– 49
= 13

How would you approach these problems if you were teaching second grade? What would you say pupils would need to understand or be able to do before they could start learning subtraction with regrouping?

Response

Although this problem appears to be simple and very elementary not all teachers were aware of the conceptual scheme behind subtraction by regrouping. Seventy seven percent of the U.S. teachers and 14% of U.S. teacher had only the procedural knowledge of the topic. The understanding of these teachers was limited to just taking and changing steps. This limitation was evident in their capacity to promote conceptual learning in the class room. Also the various levels of conceptual understanding were also displayed. Whereas the U.S. teachers explained the procedure as regrouping the minuend and told that during the teaching they would point out the “exchanging” aspect underlying the “changing” step. On the other hand the Chinese teachers used subtraction in computations as decomposing a higher value unit, and many of them also used non-standard methods of regrouping and their relations with standard methods.

Also most of the Chinese teachers mentioned that after teaching this to students they would like to have a class discussion, so as to clarify the concepts.

Multidigit Multiplication

The problem posed to the teachers in this topic was:

Some sixth-grade teachers noticed that several of their students were making the same mistake in multiplying large numbers. In trying to calculate:
123
x 645
13

the students were forgetting to “move the numbers” (i.e. the partial products) over each line.}
They were doing this Instead of this
123 123
x 64 x 64
615 615
492 492
738 738
1845 79335

While these teachers agreed that this was a problem, they did not agree on what to do about it. What would you do if you were teaching the sixth grade and you noticed that several of your students were doing this?}

Response

Most of the teachers agreed that this was a genuine problem in students understanding than just careless shifting of digits, meant for addition. But different teachers had different views about the error made by the student. The problem in the students understanding as seen by the teachers were reflections of their own knowledge of the subject matter. For most of the U.S. teachers the knowledge was procedural, so they reflected on them on similar lines when they were asked to. On the other hand the Chinese teachers displayed a conceptual understanding of the multidigit multiplication. The explanation and the algorithm used by the Chinese teachers were thorough and many times novel.

Division by Fractions

The problem posed to the teachers in this topic was:

People seem to have different approaches to solving problems involving division with fractions. How do you solve a problem like this one?

1/(3/4) / 1/2 = ??

Imagine that you are teaching division with fractions. To make this meaningful for kids, sometimes many teachers try to do is relate mathematics to other things. Sometimes they try to come up with real-world situations or story-problems to show the application of some particular piece of content. What would you say would be good story or model for 1/(3/4) / 1/2 ?

Response

As in the previous two cases the U.S. teachers had a very weak knowledge of the subject matter. Only 43% of the U.S. teachers were able to calculate the fraction correctly and none of them showed the understanding of the rationale underlying their calculations. Only one teacher was successful in generating an illustration for the correct representation of the given problem. On the other hand all the Chinese teachers did the computational part correctly, and a few teachers were also able to explain the rationale behind the calculations. Also in addition to this most of the Chinese teachers were able to generate at least one correct representation of the problem. In addition to this the Chinese teachers were able to generate representational problems with a variety of subjects and ideas, which in turn were based on their through understanding of the subject matter.

Division by Fractions

The problem posed to the teachers in this topic was:

Imagine that one of your students comes to the class very excited. She tells you that she has figured out a theory that you never told to the class. She explains that she has discovered the perimeter of a closed figure increases, the area also increases. She shows you a picture to prove what she is doing:

Example of the student:

How would you respond to this student?

Response

In this problem task there were two aspects of the subject matter knowledge which contributed substantially to successful approach; knowledge of topics related to the idea and mathematical attitudes. The absence or presence of attitudes was a major factor in success

The problems given to the teachers are of the elementary, but to understand them and explain them [what Ma is asking] one needs a profound understanding of basic principles that underly these elementary mathematical operations. This very fact is reflected in the response of the Chinese and the U.S. teachers. The same pattern of Chinese teachers outperforming U.S. teachers is repeated in all four topics. The reason for the better performance of the Chinese teachers is their profound understanding of fundamental mathematics or PUFM. We now turn to the topic of PUFM and explore what is meant by it and when it is attained.

PUFM

According to Ma PUFM is “more than a sound conceptual understanding of elementary mathematics — it is the awareness of the conceptual structure and the basic attitudes of mathematics inherent in elementary mathematics and the ability to provide a foundation for that conceptual structure and instill those basic attitudes in students. A profound understanding of mathematics has breadth, depth, and thoroughness. Breadth of understanding is the capacity to connect topic with topics of similar or less conceptual power. Depth of the understanding is the capacity to connect a topic with those of greater conceptual power. Thoroughness is the capacity to connect all these topics.”

The teacher who possesses PUFM has connectedness, knows multiple ways of expressing same thing, revisits and reinforces same ideas and has a longitudinal coherence. We will elaborate on these key ideas of PUFM in brief.

Connectedness: By connectedness being present in a teacher it is meant that there is an intention in the teacher to connect mathematical procedures and concepts. When this is used in teaching it will enable students to learn a unified body of knowledge, instead of learning isolated topics.

Multiple Perspectives: In order to have a flexible understanding of the concepts involved, one must be able to analyze and solve problems in multiple ways, and to provide explanations of various approaches to a problem. A teacher with PUFM will provide multiple ways to solve and understand a given problem, so that the understanding in the students is deeper.

Basic Ideas: The teachers having PUFM display mathematical attitudes and are particularly aware of the powerful and simple concepts of mathematics. By revisiting these ideas again and again they are reinforced. But focusing on this students are not merely encouraged to approach the problems, but are guided to conduct real mathematical activity.

Longitudinal Coherence: By longitudinal coherence in the teachers having PUFM it is meant that the teacher has a complete markup of the syllabus and the content for the various grades of the elementary mathematics. If one does have an idea of what the students have already learnt in the earlier grades, then that knowledge of the students can be used effectively. On the other hand if it is known what the students will be learning in the higher grades, the treatment in the lower grades can be such that it is suitable and effective later.

PUFM – Attainment

Since the presence of PUFM in the Chinese teachers makes them different from their U.S. counterparts, it is essential to have a knowledge of how the PUFM is developed and attained in the Chinese teachers. For this Ma did survey of two additional groups. One was ninth grade students, and the other was that of pre-service teachers. Both groups has conceptual understanding of the four problems. The preservice teachers also showed a concern for teaching and learning, but both groups did not show PUFM. Ma also interviewed the Chinese teachers who had PUFM, and explored their acquisition of mathematical knowledge. The teachers with PUFM mentioned several factors for their acquisition of mathematical knowledge. These factors include:

  • Learning from colleagues
  • Learning mathematics from students.
  • Learning mathematics by doing problems.
  • Teaching
  • Teaching round by round.
  • Studying teaching materials extensively.

The Chinese teachers during the summers and at the beginning of the school terms , studied the Teaching and Learning Framework document thoroughly. The text book to be followed is the most studied by the teachers. The text book is also studied and discussed during the school year. Comparatively little time is devoted to studying teacher’s manuals. So the conclusion of the study is that the Chinese teachers have a base for PUFM from their school education itself. But the PUFM matures and develops during their actual teaching driven by a concern of what to teach and how to teach it. This development of PUFM is well supported by their colleagues and the study materials that they have. Thus the cultural difference in the Chinese and U.S. educational systems also plays a part in this.

Conclusions

One of the most obvious outcomes of this study is the fact that the Chinese elementary teachers are much better equipped conceptually than their U.S. counterparts to teach mathematics at that level. The Chinese teachers show a deeper understanding of the subject matter and have a flexible understanding of the subject. But Ma has attempted to give the plausible explanations for this difference in terms of the PUFM, which is developed and matured in the Chinese teachers, but almost absent in the U.S. teachers. This difference in the respective teachers of the two countries is reflected in the performance of students at any given level. So that if one really wants to improve the mathematics learning for the students, the teachers also need to be well equipped with the knowledge of fundamental and elementary mathematics. The problems of teacher’s knowledge development and that of student learning are thus related.

In China when the perspective teachers are still students, they achieve the mathematical competence. When they attain the teacher learning programs, this mathematical competence is connected to primary concern about teaching and learning school mathematics. The final phase in this is when the teachers actually teach, it is here where they develop teacher’s subject knowledge.  Thus we see that good elementary education of the perspective teachers themselves heralds their growth as teachers with PUFM. Thus in China good teachers at the elementary level, make good students, who in turn can become good teachers themselves, and a cycle is formed. In case of U.S. it seems the opposite is true, poor elementary mathematics education, provided by low-quality teachers hinders likely development of mathematical competence in students at the elementary level. Also most of the teacher education programs in the U.S. focus on How to teach mathematics? rather than on the mathematics itself. After the training the teachers are expected to know how to teach and what to teach, they are also not expected to study anymore. All this leads to formation of a teacher who is bound in the given framework, not being able to develop PUFM as required.

Also the fact that is commonly believed that elementary mathematics is basic, superficial and commonly understood is denied by this study. The study definitively shows that elementary mathematics is not superficial at all, and anyone who teaches it has to study it in a comprehensive way. So for the attainment of PUFM in the U.S. teachers and to improve the mathematics education their Ma has given some suggestions which need to be implemented.

Ma suggests that the two problems of improving the teacher knowledge and student learning are interdependent, so that they both should be addressed simultaneously. This is a way to enter the cyclic process of development of mathematical competencies in the teachers. In the U.S. there is a lack of interaction between study of mathematics taught and study of how to teach it. The text books should be also read, studied and discussed by the teachers themselves as they will be using it in teaching in the class room. This will enable the U.S. teachers to have clear idea of what to teach and how to teach it thoughtfully. The perspective teachers can develop PUFM at the college level, and this can be used as the entry point in the cycle of developing the mathematical competency in them. Teachers should use text books and teachers manuals in an effective way. For this the teacher should recognize its significance and have time and energy for the careful study of manuals. The class room practice of the Chinese teachers is text book based, but not confined to text books. Again here the emphasis is laid on the teacher’s understanding of the subject matter. A teacher with PUFM will be able to choose materials from a text book and present them in intelligible ways in the class room. To put the conclusions in a compact form we can say that the content knowledge of the teachers makes the difference.

Reflections

The study done by Ma and its results have created a huge following in the U.S. Mathematics Education circles and has been termed as `enlightening’. The study diagnoses the problems in the U.S. treatment of elementary mathematics vis-a-vis Chinese one. In the work Ma glorifies the Chinese teachers and educational system as against `low quality’ American teachers and educational system. As said in the foreword of the book by Shulman the work is cited by the people on both sides of the math wars. This book has done the same thing to the U.S. Mathematics Education circles what the Sputnik in the late 1950’s to the U.S. policies on science education. During that time the Russians who were supposed to be technically inferior to the U.S. suddenly launched the Sputnik, there by creating a wave of disgust in the U.S. This was peaked in the Kennedy’s announcement of sending an American on moon before the 1970’s. The aftermath of this was to create `Scientific Americans’, with efforts directed at creating a scientific base in the U.S. right from the school. Similarly the case of Ma’s study is another expos\’e, this time in terms of elementary mathematics. It might not have mattered so much if the study was performed entirely with U.S. teachers [Have not studies of this kind ever done before?]. But the very fact that the Americans are apparently behind the Chinese is a matter of worry. This is a situation that needs to be rectified. This fame of this book is more about politics and funding about education than about math. So no wonder that all the people involved in Mathematics Education in the U.S. [and others elsewhere following them] are citing Ma’s work for changing the situation. Citing work of which shows the Americans on lower grounds may also be able to get you you funds which otherwise probably you would not have got. Now the guess is that the aim is to create `Mathematical Americans’ this time so as to overcome the Chinese challenge.

Ma, L. (1999). Knowing and teaching elementary mathematics: Teachers’ understanding of fundamental mathematics in China and the United States. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Erudition without…

Erudition without bullshit, intellect without cowardice, courage without imprudence, mathematics without nerdiness, scholarship without academia, intelligence without shrewdness, religiosity without intolerance, elegance without softness, sociality without dependence, enjoyment without addiction, and, above all, nothing without skin in the game.
(A letter of advice to a younger person) source

Reductionism in Science

Many scientists look on chemistry and physics as ideal models of what psychology should be like. After all, the atoms in the brain are subject to the same all – inclusive physical laws that govern every other form of matter. Then can we also explain what our brains actually do entirely in terms of those same basic principles? The answer is no, simply because even if we  understood how each of our billions of brain cells work separately, this would not tell us how the brain works as an agency. The “laws of thought” depend not only upon the properties of those brain cells,but also on how they are connected. And these connections are established not by the basic, “general” laws of physics, but by the particular arrangements of the millions of bits of information in our inherited genes. To be sure, “general” laws apply to everything. But, for that very reason, they can rarely explain anything in particular.

– Marvin Minsky in The Society of Mind pp. 26