Two Cultures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Privacy…

Privacy protects us from abuses by those in power, even if we’re doing nothing wrong at the time of surveillance.

Too many wrongly characterize the debate as “security versus privacy.” The real choice is liberty versus control. Tyranny, whether it arises under threat of foreign physical attack or under constant domestic authoritative scrutiny, is still tyranny. Liberty requires security without intrusion, security plus privacy. Widespread police surveillance is the very definition of a police state. And that’s why we should champion privacy even when we have nothing to hide.

via The Eternal Value of Privacy.

Free Press and Democracy

A free press is an essential part of a democratic system. In a society like ours, with its stark inequalities, only a media free of government and corporate pressures can ensure that the voiceless are heard. What we are seeing currently is not just blatant collusion between the media and big business but also a deliberate obliteration of much of what happens to the millions who live on the margins.

via Economic and Political Weekly

This is what Media Lens has to say about the BBC which is supposed to be in public interest and impartial.

Instead of providing responsible, public-service journalism, the BBC acts as a conduit for government propaganda. It is particularly noxious that the organisation relentlessly channels the state’s supposedly benign intentions abroad. This is the diet of daily bias and distortion we are all fed. When will BBC heads roll for that?

But isn’t this true of the media in India also? Or elsewhere in the world for that matter. Tehelka reports that many of the barons of power also control the local media in newly formed state of Chattisgad. And what is the use of controlling media when they are not used for gains. When the so called free media becomes a part of the political parties we cannot be sure of what they report.

If the Congress has Naveen Jindal, the BJP has Ajay Sancheti. If the Congress has the Lokmat, the BJP has the Hari Bhoomi. Barring coal, in which both the Centre and the states had their hands in the till, in the case of other mineral resources, the real corruption lies in the states.

It is not that people do not use media for their own gain, media is used for spreading ideology, there are many mouthpiece outlets for political parties and others which propagate the ideas. But what is worst is that the masquerade that many media houses put on themselves claiming to be honest and working in public interest, and people at large believe them, being obliviousto the fact that these very media houses are the ones who are power brokers and very much in the filth as corporates and politicians. A recent example of this was the Radia tapes.

The complete blackout of the Niira Radia tapes by the entire broadcast media and most of the major English newspapers paints a truer picture of corruption in the country than the talk shows in the various news channels and the breast-beating in all the newspapers about the 2G, CWG, Adarsh, and other scams.

via|G. Sampath – DNA

It was not until the non-main-stream media began to show up too much, there was some coverage given. But the very fact that the accused are in complete denial of what happened is what is disturbing. We usually held names like Barkha Dutt, Vir Sanghvi well but these tapes just show how much they are in the filth of what they pretend to expose. From then on, I have given up on NDTV as a reliable source, which earlier I thought it was. But then what do you trust?

At the same time, it is worth noting that neither Barkha nor any of the other journalists whose names have come up have denied that those conversations took place. So why not let the reader or TV viewer read or listen to the transcripts and decide whether Dutt and Sanghvi’s conversations with Radia are a part of “normal journalistic duties” or amount to pimping for politicians and business houses? Or perhaps they were doing social service for the Congress? Play the tapes on your show, na, Ms Dutt, instead of tweeting about them? Why not let ‘We, The People’ decide, instead of you deciding for us all?

via|G. Sampath – DNA

The media blackout of particular events is what I find disturbing. What it shows the kind of camaraderie that exists between different media houses and their corporate and political cronies. That basically means that the news, sorry the Breaking News that you see is like a managed play, with directors and writers deciding what people see, hear and think. In Marathi novel (Ithink it was Swami (स्वामी) by Ranjit Desai) I had read a sentence which fits these situations well, it reads:

मी मारल्या सारखे करतो, तु रडल्या सारखे कर.

( I will feign to hit, you feign to cry.)

This creates an illusion about real problems. Most of the News channels that are beamed in India follow this line. Put all the focus on some non-issues, or twist them from certain angles so that why all this happens remains oblivious to the viewers. If our media was after all serious about the issues that they present, they would have seen to it that things are done.

Many a times what I have also found reading reports on various different news services is that they are same. I mean many a times they are word to word same, as if the reports have been written at one place and distributed. I do not have links right now, but will update this post when I do. This again creates a picture that what news we see is heavily filtered, and sometimes flavours are added to create sensationalism. And the icing is that we all think this is genuine, with “Free Press in A Democracy”. Orwell had a foresight about this as well:

Of course, print will continue to be used, and it is interesting to speculate what kinds of reading matter would survive in a rigidly totalitarian society. Newspapers will presumably continue until television technique reaches a higher level, but apart from newspapers it is doubtful even now whether the great mass of people in the industrialized countries feel the need for any kind of literature. They are unwilling, at any rate, to spend anywhere near as much on reading matter as they spend on several other recreations. Probably novels and stories will be completely superseded by film and radio productions. Or perhaps some kind of low grade sensational fiction will survive, produced by a sort of conveyor-belt process that reduces human initiative to the minimum.

via The Prevention of Literature | George Orwell

The only reason I see that India is feudal and corrupt is that the so called Free Press was never able to take up the challenge to the nexus, and ultimately now has become a part of it.

In our age, the idea of intellectual liberty is under attack from two directions. On the one side are its theoretical enemies, the apologists of totalitarianism, and on the other its immediate, practical enemies, monopoly and bureaucracy.

via The Prevention of Literature | George Orwell

Though there are dissidents here and there, this now has become global phenomena, with the Indian media people just following the suit. And if this is the case, what difference does it make whether you are living in a democracy or a totalitarian state?

And Orwell wraps it up thus:

A totalitarian society which succeeded in perpetuating itself would probably set up a schizophrenic system of thought, in which the laws of common sense held good in everyday life and in certain exact sciences, but could be disregarded by the politician, the historian, and the sociologist. Already there are countless people who would think it scandalous to falsify a scientific textbook, but would see nothing wrong in falsifying an historical fact. It is at the point where literature and politics cross that totalitarianism exerts its greatest pressure on the intellectual.

via The Prevention of Literature | George Orwell

 

Gadkari Newspeak

“It’s not important how much money has been earned. It’s important how it has been put to use, whether it has been put to good use or not.”

via Indian Express.

Nitin Gadkari , the incumbent BJP president, is in news for all wrong reasons these days. Apart from the allegations that his business interests have shadyness by IAC activist Arvind Kejriwal, he is also making blunders in quoting and is also facing some rebellion from within his own party. But the quote above comes in his (or his acts?) defence from the RSS camp. And it is amusing too, as at times RSS distances itself from the BJP, saying that it is their internal matter, but at other times also gives self-proclaimed clean-chits to BJP members. It is interesting to note how the very concept and meaning of corruption is being twisted by RSS cheif Mohan Bhagwat in the quote above The act itself is set aside as to whether it is good or bad, while the motive with which the result of the act (the black money) will be utilised determines the morality of the act. Now that being the case how do we decide whether the money is “put to good use or not”? This is an entirely subjective view. Something that is good for a person or a community may be bad for others. For example if someone makes a lot of money and invests it in something else to make more money, then for that person the use is definitely good use, but for others it is not. And there is nothing like free money, corruption happens only when money meant for something else goes to the corrupt person. With this cigol even murders may be justified. Trying to justify the act of corruption by making statements like this one, is making classic Orwellian Newspeak. This just makes the point that the BJP is just another Congress, which comes with a remote control too.

Reading in e-book era

Reading without surveillance, publishing without after-the-fact censorship, owning books without having to account for your ongoing use of them: these are rights that are older than copyright. They predate publishing. They are fundamentals that every bookseller, every publisher, every distributor, every reader, should desire. They are foundational to a free press and to a free society. If you sell an ebook reader is designed to allow Kafkaesque repossessions, you are a fool if you expect anything but Kafkaesque repossessions in their future. We’ve been fighting over book-bans since the time of Martin Luther and before. There is no excuse for being surprised when your attractive nuisance attracts nuisances.

via Boing Boing.

I agree completely.Though cases like these are going to become more common, unless we switch to a technology which we can see that is Free as in Freedom. Governments and corporates are going to use this technology against the people who are using it. It will create profiles of “dangerous” people who are reading revolutionary material, for example. It will go unchecked if we just are using the technology without questioning it.

Also see RMS’s view on this topic.

What Wikipedia is not… then what it is?

Although anyone can be an editor, there are community processes and standards that make Wikipedia neither an anarchy, democracy, nor bureaucracy.

via What Wikipedia is Not

Disclaimer: Let me make some things clear, I am not against Wikipedia, or its policies. I am (great) admirer and (very heavy) user, and (very little) contributor to the wonderful platform, which aims to provide free knowledge to everyone. In this post I am just trying to collect thoughts that I have about the Wikipedia’s social system and its relation to the society at large.

Then what is wikipedia? Is it a feudal system, which they do not mention in the list above? Although there are people who are called bureaucrats, they say it is not a bureaucracy, I think they mean it in the traditional sense of the wor(l)d (pun intended).

But for a new person, who is trying to edit the first article, there is too much of bureaucracy (read rules), involved, and it may not be a pleasant experience at all, especially for the so called technologically-challenged people. To describe in one word it is intimidating. The trouble is only there till, actually you become used to it, and become part of the system. This is more like the adaptation to smell, after a while in a stinking place, you don’t feel the stink anymore (just an analogy, I do not mean that Wikipedia stinks!). The rules become a part of your editing skills, which you do want to see in other editors. But how many people are able to get over this first major hurdle is not known to me, but I guess (which can be completely wrong) this number can be significant. This will in general reduce the number of producers and just tend to increase the number of consumers in the commercial sense of the word.

Another thing that the above quote says it is not a democracy. Again here I think, Wikipedia is not a democracy in the sense of common usage of the term. In a democracy, by definition the popular aspirations get through, and they may not be even the best for a society, as we many times see in the Indian context. But then it mostly the people who are editing the Wikipedia who decide by consensus that certain thing should be done. Is it not like majority win? So there is in fact a strong democratic element in Wikipedia.

Do we also want a society that is same as above “neither an anarchy, democracy, nor bureaucracy”? What kind of society would you like to live in?

 

In Denial of Fukushima

The arrogance and jingoism exhibited by the Nuclear lobby in India is well known. Even in face of disaster
Fukushima, the people in DAE remain adamant that there is no option to Nuclear Energy and also that it is safe from accidents, and even if an accidents happens at all they will be ready to control. The optimism that they have regarding issues of safety in case of radioactive materials and nuclear reactors is something a person with a good understanding of science would not share. Too much reliance on the idea that “nothing can go wrong” is what will lead to the horrible consequences of not understanding the Golem. And the statements by the DAE junta does exactly this. The very idea that the reactors are completely safe; are different than what was present in Japan, we can contain the damage, are what are needed to be questioned.

A nice article in Tehelka makes the point more clearer. Here are some lines from the same:

Fukushima also demonstrated unambiguously that communities living near nuclear facilities would be the worst affected in the event of an accident, a lesson that hasn’t been lost on the local populations in Koodankulam and Jaitapur. At the other end of the spectrum was the reaction of the people associated with nuclear establishments, who vociferously argued that it was essential to persist with nuclear power — not surprising, since it conforms to their self-interest.

Whatever the experts at DAE maybe saying, the images that the people at large are seeing are that of desolate landscapes, ruined buildings, poisoned farmlands, and inaccessible homes. The very idea that Nuclear Power can solve all the issue of power in India is questionable. Lets say even if we construct 10 such more plants, where will be the power used? Who will get the priority over the power? The villages near which the power plants are present, or the metro cities whose demands for power and its abuse are ever increasing. Just think about how many electrical appliances  you have, and how many you could do without?

On 15 March 2011, NPCIL Chairman SK Jain trivialised what was going on in Japan saying, “There is no nuclear accident or incident in Fukushima… It is a well-planned emergency preparedness programme… (that) the nuclear operators of the Tokyo Electric Power Company are carrying out to contain the residual heat after the plants had an automatic shutdown following a major earthquake.” Such denial would be laughable but when the person thus opining is in charge of India’s power reactor fleet, it ceases to be amusing.

In September 2011, for example, the DAE Secretary claimed: “We are prepared to handle an event like Fukushima.” This assertion is belied by the Secretary, Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, who testified to the Parliamentary Standing Committee in 2010 that it was “nowhere (near) meeting an eventuality that may arise out of nuclear and radiological emergencies”.

On more than one occasion, the DAE Secretary has made assertions that the probability of a nuclear accident in India is zero. In November 2011, for example, he stated that the probability was “one in infinity”. The public image sought to be created is one of great confidence in safety. Is such confidence justified?

The first point to note is that the very statement that the likelihood of an accident is zero is scientifically untenable; every nuclear reactor has a finite, albeit small, probability of undergoing a catastrophic failure.

A second question: is the confidence on the part of officials about the zero probability of accidents good for safety? This is not a question about technology but about organisations. … Safety scholar James Reason once noted: “If an organisation is convinced that it has achieved a safe culture, it almost certainly has not.” The DAE and its attendant institutions appear to be convinced not just that they have a safe culture, but that the hazardous technologies they operate are incapable of undergoing accidents. This is not conducive to safety.

What the Koodankulam protest tells us is that these populations are not consenting to be subject to this risk. They deserve to be listened to, not dismissed as stooges of foreign funding. That is an insult to the intellects and minds of millions of people and to democracy itself.