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.

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.

duracell_bunny

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

heisenberg-say-my-name.gif

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).

chimpanzee_seated_at_typewriter

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)

Screenshot 2019-11-20 at 11.25.06 AMScreenshot 2019-11-20 at 11.25.25 AM

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).

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 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.

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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.

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.

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

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.

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.

 

 

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