Orwellian Days

Orwellian Days

To the Editor:

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

Gordon Fels

Richmond, Oct. 16, 1972

The problem with what is taught in schools

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

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

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

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

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.

Einstein on his school experience

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

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

The Art of Not Reading

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

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

The Pendulum and The Fixed Points

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

“Everything?”

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

– Umberto Eco, Foucault’s Pendulum

On Books and Bookcases

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

–  Robert Benchley

Myriad Mystical Melancholic Marathon Mindless Meaningless Meetings

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

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

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

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

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”.

Screenshot 2019-10-27 at 2.04.12 PM.png

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.

1book25.jpg

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.

Screenshot 2019-11-19 at 11.23.11 PM.png

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).

Asimov on science literacy

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

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

– Isaac Asimov

 

Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut: A review

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Tralfamadorian philosophy is completely deterministic in a sense.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Liberals and conservatives

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Preface of Jearl Walkers The Flying Circus of Physics

To be different

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

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

On PhD

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

The Blank Slate, Steven Pinker

Normal

“What should I do now?”

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

“Because I’m trying to help you.”

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

He had no answer to that.

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

“Would you?” he asked.

“No. But I’m not normal.”

“Neither am I.”

“Where does that leave us?”

“Where we’ve always been.”

from Authority by Jeff VanderMeer

 

On Virtue

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

–  Justine – Marquis De Sade

Whipped cream and poached eggs

STORE ROOM NO. 71 WHIPS OF ALL SHAPES AND SIZES

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

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

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

From Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Erudition without…

Erudition without bullshit, intellect without cowardice, courage without imprudence, mathematics without nerdiness, scholarship without academia, intelligence without shrewdness, religiosity without intolerance, elegance without softness, sociality without dependence, enjoyment without addiction, and, above all, nothing without skin in the game.
(A letter of advice to a younger person) source

Known knowns, Unknown unknowns

Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know

Rumsfeld

Gandhi on Textbooks

M. K. Gandhi

Harijan Vol VII, No. 31 pg. 1, 9 September 1939

Text Books

The craze for ever-changing text books is hardly a healthy sign from
the educational standpoint. If text books are treated as a vehicle for
education, the living word of the teacher has very little value. A
teacher who teaches from text books does not impart originality to his
pupils. He himself becomes a slave of the text books and has no
opportunity or occasion to be original. It therefore seems that the
less text books there are the better it is for the teacher and his
pupils. Text books seem to have become an article of commerce. Authors
and publishers who make writing and publishing a means of making money
are interested in frequent change of text books. In many cases
teachers and examiners are themselves authors of text books. It is
naturally to their interest to have their books sold. The selection
board is again naturally composed of such people. And so the vicious
circle becomes complete. And it becomes very difficult for parents to
find money for new books every year. It is a pathetic sight to see
boys and girls going to school loaded with books which they are ill
able to carry. The whole system requires to be thoroughly
examined. The commercial spirit needs to be entirely eliminated and
the question approached in the interest of the scholars. It will then
probably be found that 75 per cent of the text books will have to be
consigned to scrap-heap. If I had it my way, I would have books
largely as aids to teachers rather than for the scholars. Such
textbooks as are found to be absolutely necessary for the scholars
should circulate among them for a number of years os that the cost can
be easily borne by middle class families. The first step in this
direction is perhaps for the State to won and organize the printing
and publishing of text books. This will act as an automatic check on
their unnecessary multiplication.

From or with?

My place was not with the heroes, but with the rablle, with the men who had been pressed into the ranks by force of arms, or force of hunger, with nothing to fight or work for and little to gain; whose function in the epics was to be slaughtered by the heroes; whose role, according to the historians, was to provide a mere background for the deeds of great men. The heroes of a money-making society rose from the people, at the expense of the people; I could rise only with the common people.

D. D. Kosambi | The Kanpur Road | Exasperating Essays