Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Recreating LFS in CBE

About 10 years ago, some of my schoolmates - Little Flower School (LFS), Jamshedpur - started planning our 25th year reunion and started tracking people down. But try as they might, they couldn't locate me. They finally found out the landline number of my house and gave me a ring. It was then that they found out some details about my stroke. By then there was only a week left for the reunion, I had never travelled so far at the time (2010) after my stroke and I did not attend the reunion.

Earlier this year we were informed that this time the reunion was being held in Coimbatore so that I could attend easily.  This was a pleasant surprise for me since I had thought that the reunion will be in Jamshedpur. The connectivity between Coimbatore and Jamshedpur (call me biased but that is the best city in India, at least as I remember it from over 30 years ago!) is poor and it would have been difficult for me to go there. There was a good chance that I would not have been able to go. With the reunion now scheduled to be held in Coimbatore, to go or not to go was no longer a question that I had to grapple with.

I was shocked when I read this post. It is by a person who  graduated from high school in 1984 (exactly the same year as me) and was being called for his class’s 25th year reunion. He writes about the rough time he had in school, the bullying, physical abuse and social ostracization that he had suffered. He writes that ‘there was not a single person in my graduating class who came close to treating me like a friend. Not one.’ It was the exact opposite of my school experience where being with my school mates was something I looked forward to.

I had spent many pleasant years with my schoolmates both inside and outside school. Within about half an hour of our school-day being over, many of us used to meet again and play cricket for the next 2-3 hours. (On many days, we used to play till it was too dark to continue.) This is is what I think about when I see children these days running from one tuition to another with no time to play. And I am quite sure that the syllabus was more in our time so I don't know what it is all about. I am reminded of a poem called Leisure by W.H. Davies that I had in school.

It was no surprise that my mother expressed a desire to meet my friends. She would be familiar with many of them since the ground we used to play cricket in was next to our house. Many of our parents knew each other since they worked in the same organization and also met on various social occasions. So she had a lot of news to catch up with! My mother and sister accompanied us on two days and my in-laws on the second day of the reunion. Sujit came for a day to attend the reunion. He returned the same night to Chennai.

Sujit in the center of the circle; others clockwise after me - Jaya, my father-in-law, my sister, my mom, my mother-in-law and my classmates Saravan and Manoj. The other person in the photo is Sarvan's wife. 
It was great meeting people I had grown up with, most of whom I was meeting after a gap of over 30 years. Even though Father Time had done his bit in producing grey hairs and generous paunches, I could recognize everybody without much difficulty. I had, like Wordsworth up at Tintern Abbey, “sensations sweet, / Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart; /And passing even into my purer mind  / With tranquil restoration:—feelings too / Of unremembered pleasure: such, perhaps / As have no slight or trivial influence” on my life.

With all my classmates 
Updated on 10/08/2017: I have changed the group photograph because three of my friends were not in it. I have included the old photo at the end.

While identifying the people present did not pose a problem for me, I would have struggled to identify everyone in a group photograph having everyone in all 3 sections of our class. (Jaya will tell you that this is not surprising as I once failed to identify myself in a photograph!) I was astonished at the rapidity with which many had been able to identify everyone in that photograph. Age had not dimmed their memories at all.

There was a session where people related various funny incidents that they recalled from schooldays. I was often surprised by the clarity with which people recalled various incidents, many of which had remained with me as what Wordsworth called”gleams of half-extinguished thought”. I am often told that I have a sharp memory which was belied by the stories that I was hearing. I suppose, like it is said in obituaries where a person is said to be the best, the kindest, the most loving person who ever lived, I get to hear wonderful things about me that nobody told me about in my better days.

I was asked to relate an incident from my school days but I declined the invitation. One of the advantages of suffering a stroke is that I can delegate to Jaya the  nightmarish task of speaking in front of a mike. (This is a characteristic that I share with Gussie Fink-Nottle, the newt lover with a face like a dead fish.) The one time I managed to do the impossible, people were so surprised by the event that some seemed to remember something about it. But this was not the only reason why I kept quiet.

I generally avoid saying anything substantial when a lot of people are present and prefer to keep my responses as short as possible or say nothing at all. The reason is that my method of communication is so slow that it keeps others waiting for long and also prevents Jaya from interacting with people for quite a while. Also, unless she is writing my responses, some distortions will inevitably creep into the retelling. That is why I prefer blogging: I can take my time to write what I want in the way that I want. So I will write about a cricket match that Thapa (Ravinder Kumar) had talked about.

He talked about the final of a cricket tournament that we had won in which he was the captain. I had injured my finger the previous day and did not expect to play but Thapa insisted that I play. Fortunately we won the toss, batted first and Thapa played a brilliant innings. (The fortunate part was about winning the  toss not Thapa’s brilliant innings which was along expected lines.) At the lunch break he showed my injured finger to the umpires, said that I had got hurt while batting and asked for a substitute fielder to which the umpires agreed.  The substitute fielder was Anuj Kathuria who was a very good fielder and took a couple of excellent catches that helped us win the match. I was a lousy fielder and would have dropped them for sure. This was the ideal match for me and the team – I batted and did not field!

With Thapa,  the canny captain - he knew when to keep me in the pavilion much to the relief of the team and me!
The surprise for me at the reunion was Rocky's (Rajesh Sharma) singing. I had no idea about his talent when I was in the school.  With such a great voice, he can make a career out of singing. He later recorded a song and posted it here. Listen and be amazed.

Rocky singing at the reunion. With him is Chandrashekar, who organised the reunion
I am reliably informed that we are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep. If that be so, I was pretty well stocked up for the dreams when I returned from the reunion, like Wordsworth from Tintern Abbey, “not only with the sense / Of present pleasure, but with pleasing thoughts / That in this moment there is life and food / For future years.”

Until next meeting!

Monday, July 31, 2017

Nurses and TV

'Water of India' is act that magicians in India use in most shows. A large bowl full of water is shown, then emptied completely into a bucket. The bowl is then set down for a short time, but whenever the magician desires, water again pours out and he can repeat this many times during his show. Nurses are my equivalent of the magicians' 'water of India' trick - they keep giving me incidents to write about.

After I am shifted to the wheelchair, I sit in such a way that the TV is behind me so I can't see it. Once an MGR song was being shown on the TV. I was familiar with the song and enjoyed listening to it. Noticing this, the nurse jumped to the conclusion that I was an MGR  fan and knew all his movies and songs which is not true. When another old song came and she asked me to identify the actor, I decided to take a chance and guess 'MGR' again because she was not giving me the option 'don't know'.  It turned out to be right.

After that, I guessed 'MGR' for every old Tamil song she asked me about. It would always be correct and she would be impressed. Then she asked me about another old song but this time my regular guess was wrong and I didn't have any idea who the actor was. She cottoned on to my ruse and asked me about 3-4 more songs and in all of them, my guess was wrong. She said, ' You don't know anything except reading books!' Sometimes she used to tell me, 'why don't you enjoy?' by which she seemed to mean, 'Why don't you watch TV?' She didn't seem to realise that this alternative would have bored me.

Among the TV channels that  I watch frequently are the nature channels like National Geographic and Animal Planet. Most nurses also like these channels because they see animals that they never knew existed.  But one day a nurse said that she was having nightmares about the predator-prey struggles that she had seen earlier in the day. From that day, I decided not to see the nature channels as long as this nurse remained with us. I didn't want her sleep spoiled because of my TV viewing habits. 

Most nurses know a lot of tidbits about films and film stars and think that I am also an authority on these matters. For instance, a nurse pointed at an actor and asked me, 'Isn't that Bhiman Raghu?' I had never heard the name before and stared blankly. I then discovered that she was referring to an actor I had seen in several movies  but whose name I did not know. In this way, I have picked up the names of several actors with familiar faces who are not in lead roles.

Many nurses are also avid watchers of TV serials, something that I keep well away from. The serial makers seem to have taken to Oscar Wilde's observation, 'Nothing succeeds like excess' so when several nurses have changed, many serials remain the same. One nurse said to me, 'When I keep Tamil, you look away.' This was not true. She didn't seem to have noticed that when she kept serials, I will stare at the ceiling (if I am lying on the bed; I rarely watch TV when I am sitting on the wheelchair) but when she kept movies or songs, I was watching.

Once a nurse told me, 'These two are divorced.' I looked at the TV and saw two people who I didn't know at all and wondered why I should know that they are divorced. Then I suddenly realised that it was the trailer for a forthcoming episode of a serial and it was about the story in the serial! This nurse used to say that she did not like serials but she will ask others about the story so far in different serials. And every once in a while, she will watch a serial with rapt attention.

The favourite sports program of one nurse was WWF. While changing channels, if she came across a program of WWF, she will exclaim ‘kusti!’ (fight) and stare at the action unblinkingly.

PS: The most puny, weak and thin people seem to be fascinated by WWF. Perhaps we are all schizophrenics and mentally live out what we see on screen and can't do. For eg., I love watching Govinda movies. I would never have been able to do what he does: perform crazy dances in a quiet Singapore street dressed in a blue pant, yellow shirt and red tie (with white polka dots) with passersby wondering which mental asylum to send him to.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Degradation of nature - II

Creeping normality is the way a major change can be accepted as the normal situation if it happens gradually. If the same change took place in a single step or short period, it would cause a lot of hue and cry. In Collapse, Jared Diamond discusses how societies have slowly destroyed themselves without noticing the harm they were doing until it was too late because the affects happened very gradually. An example that Diamond uses is people and societies slowly using up all their resources. Success may hide impending disaster as it might have done to Easter Islanders.

A question often asked is,  ‘Why bother about little critters? Human lives are more important.’ This argument ignores various ecosystem services that different organisms provide for free – nitrogen fixation, pollination, seed dispersal, etc. Some of these services can be replaced by human agency but they will prove expensive and some of these services will never be known till long after the damage has been done and it is too late to do anything about it. As an example of inter-relationships in nature that may not be immediately apparent, Charles Darwin writes in On the Origin of Species:
I have very little doubt, that if the whole genus of humble-bees became extinct or very rare in England, the heartsease and red clover would become very rare, or wholly disappear. The number of humble-bees in any district depends in a great degree on the number of field-mice, which destroy their combs and nests; and Mr. H. Newman, who has long attended to the habits of humble-bees, believes that "more than two thirds of them are thus destroyed all over England." Now the number of mice is largely dependent, as every one knows, on the number of cats; and Mr. Newman says, "Near villages and small towns I have found the nests of humble-bees more numerous than elsewhere, which I attribute to the number of cats that destroy the mice." Hence it is quite credible that the presence of a feline animal in large numbers in a district might determine, through the intervention first of mice and then of bees, the frequency of certain flowers in that district!
Environmental issues belong to a class called 'wicked problems' which are difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements. They are very different from relatively "tame", soluble problems in mathematics or chess. Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, but good or bad and a purely scientific-engineering approach cannot be applied because of the lack of a clear problem definition and differing perspectives of stakeholders. Their solution requires a great number of people to change their mindsets and behavior. These problems have a lot of ambiguity and the consequences are difficult to imagine.

Most wicked problems are connected to other problems. Complex interdependency among various components means that trying to  solve one aspect of a wicked problem may reveal or create other problems. You cannot talk about 'optimal solutions' to these problems because there are ideological, cultural, political and economic constraints which keep changing over time. In Collapse, after identifying 12 sets of environmental problems like soil erosion, loss of biodiversity, issues due to alien species, etc., Jared Diamond writes:
People often ask, 'What is the single most important environmental/population problem facing the world today?' A flip answer would be, 'The single most important problem is our misguided focus on identifying the single most important problem!' That flip answer is essentially correct, because any of the dozen problems if left unsolved would do us grave harm, and because they all interact with each other, if we solved 11 of the problems, but not the 12th, we would still be in trouble, whichever was the problem that remained unsolved. We have to solve them all.
Global climate change has been called a 'super wicked problem' because it has the following additional characteristics: time for addressing it is running out,  it has no central authority and those seeking to solve the problem are also causing it. Don't Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change by George Marshall explores several psychological issues that come in the way when addressing the issue of climate change. For eg. it has no clearly identifiable enemy, has dispersed responsibility and diffused impacts making it very difficult to motivate and mobilize people around it.

When meddling with nature, it is better to err on the side of caution. From large dams to smart cities to the proposal to interlink rivers, such large multi-crore projects have always been favorites of politicians, technocrats and contractors. In Bonfire of Creeds, Ashis Nandy explains why these large projects are attractive no matter how much empirical data about their harm is provided:
It is often a major source of distributing patronage through contracts, political financing, building new networks of political obligations, generating politically powerful blue- and white- collar specialist jobs. It is also often a technology of electoral mobilization and a means through which an impression of grand political performance can be created. Such a project gradually becomes an end in itself and cultivates a certain forgetfulness about its effects on the life-support systems of a community.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Degradation of nature - I

'Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually slaves of some defunct economist', said John Maynard Keynes. One of these defunct ideas is the environmental Kuznets curve which assumes that environmental degradation tends to get worse as economic growth occurs until average income reaches a certain point after which further development will lead to improvement of the environment. Most of the decision-makers seem to be hostage to this idea.

In this blog post, George Monbiot writes about a group called economodernists in UK whose ideas seem very similar to what is very often propounded by many in India – modernization, development, technology, urbanization, emphasize manufacturing, etc., displaying a simple minded view of the environment and not considering for a moment the possibility that poverty may be an iatrogenic outcome of their proposals.  Economists seem to be the perfect examples of what Peter Drucker said, 'Far too many people — especially those with great expertise in one area — are contemptuous of knowledge in other areas, or believe that being bright is a substitute for knowledge.'

They remind me of a line from an old Hindi song - naam bade aur darsan chote (famous names with short-term outlook). As Nassim Nicholas Taleb says in Antifragile, 'Where simplifications fail, causing the most damage, is when something nonlinear is simplified with the linear as a  substitute.' And relationships in the environment are full of non-linearities. Economists are unaware of Orgel's second rule - "Evolution is cleverer than you are." (It does not imply that evolution has conscious motives or method but that the process of natural selection, though itself not intelligent, clever or purposeful, produces results that are ingenious.)

In Antifragile, Nassim Nicholas Taleb says that the worst problem of modernity is that one person gets the upside and a different person gets the downside 'with such transfer facilitated by the growing wedge between the ethical and the legal'. The decision-making elite living in cities are themselves not going to suffer from the terrible ill-effects of environmental devastation that the poor suffer from. This makes them contemptuous of environmental safeguards and makes them think that a concern for the environment is detrimental to economic growth. In an article by Ramachandra Guha, there was an extract from a book by John Kenneth Galbraith followed by comments by a Berkely geographer Carl Sauer:
if we are concerned about our great appetite for materials, it is plausible to seek to increase the supply, or decrease waste, to make better use of the stocks that are available, and to develop substitutes. But what of the appetite itself? Surely this is the ultimate source of the problem. If it continues its geometric course, will it not one day have to be restrained? Yet in the literature of the resource problem this is the forbidden question. Over it hangs a nearly total silence. It is as though, in the discussion of the chance for avoiding automobile accidents, we agree not to make any mention of speed! 
A cultural explanation for this silence had been previously provided by the great Berkeley geographer Carl Sauer. Writing in 1938, Sauer remarked that ‘the doctrine of a passing frontier of nature replaced by a permanent and sufficiently expanding frontier of technology is a contemporary and characteristic expression of occidental culture, itself a historical-geographical product.’ This frontier attitude, he went on, ‘has the recklessness of an optimism that has become habitual, but which is residual from the brave days when north-European freebooters overran the world and put it under tribute.’ Warning that the surge of growth at the expense of nature would not last indefinitely, Sauer — speaking for his fellow Americans — noted wistfully that ‘we have not yet learned the difference between yield and loot. We do not like to be economic realists’.

When discussing nature, economists tend to think that what is unknown is non-existent. The  myriad relationships between the entities in nature are to economists what flies are to wanton boys, to be killed – or ignored – for their sport, without considering them important enough to complicate matters. Development which is grounded in the idea that humans can gain absolute control over nature is short-sighted. People keep talking about economic growth but seem blind to the fact that India has 18%of the world’s population and 4% of the world’s water which should be an alarming statistic.

Environmental abuse has various harmful effects like  air pollution, forest and pasture loss, degradation of crop lands, and poor sanitation and water supply. This results in various costs to society like ill health, lost income, and increased economic vulnerability. It has been estimated that the cavalier treatment of the environment is costing India over 5% of GDP annually. In an article, Denial of Catastrophic Risks, Martin Rees says:
I believe these "existential risks" deserve more serious study. Those fortunate enough to live in the developed world fret too much about minor hazards of everyday life: improbable air crashes, possible carcinogens in food, low radiation doses, and so forth. But we should be more concerned about events that have not yet happened but which, if they occurred even once, could cause worldwide devastation.  
The main threats to sustained human existence now come from people, not from nature. Ecological shocks that irreversibly degrade the biosphere could be triggered by the unsustainable demands of a growing world population. Fast-spreading pandemics would cause havoc in the mega cities of the developing world. And political tensions will probably stem from scarcity of resources, aggravated by climate change.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

The emotional tail wagging the rational dog - VI

You know that teenagers are rebellious and think that they know everything there is to know. You think that it would be better to leave them alone till they have a change of heart like Mark Twain: 'When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.' (The quote is probably apocryphal. It  is like a Yogi Berra quote, 'I really didn't say everything I said. [...] Then again, I might have said 'em, but you never know.')

I once heard Naseeruddin Shah say that children should be left alone to find their own way since they won't listen to you anyway. Then he added sheepishly that inspite of knowing this he keeps advising his children, saying that one is not able to help it. It sounds a familiar situation. It is said that you spend the first half of your life being ashamed of your parents and the second half of your life being ashamed  of  your children.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    
Gandhi said that an important lesson he learnt in life was that reason has its limits. Reason can take us up to a point beyond which, it doesn’t work. He wrote in Young India in Nov. 1931, 'Nobody has probably drawn up more petitions or espoused more forlorn causes than I, and I have come to this fundamental conclusion that, if you want something really important to be done, you must not merely satisfy the reason, you must move the heart also.'

Reason can only appeal to the head and you must find ways of reaching somebody’s heart, conscience, his moral universe, only then a rational discourse can begin to proceed. As Prof. Bhikhu Parekh says in Gandhi in the 21st Century (transcript of a lecture)
Reason has its limits and Gandhi says sometimes you can find a strong rationalist becoming a strong advocate for violence. For example: if I am unable to persuade someone then the rationalist would say: “these guys are morally obtuse, no use talking to them, they are not being reasonable, they are not human” – and therefore it is found rationally legitimate to engage in violence against them. And Gandhi’s argument was that the relation between reason and violence is much closer than we realize.             
Most people have some irrational behavior or the other which they often indulge in especially when under some sort of pressure. It will be like the story of Neils Bohr. A visitor to his house was surprised to find a horseshoe above the front doorway. Tradition asserts that a horseshoe brings luck when placed over a door.  He expressed incredulity that a man of science could possibly be swayed by a simple-minded folk belief. The physicist replied: 'Of course I don’t believe in it, but I understand it brings you luck, whether you believe in it or not.'

I first read about economics when I was in IIMA and when I read about the rational actor model, I thought it made sense. But one discipline’s trivia is another discipline’s focus and when I started reading a bit more about psychology I started realizing that the simple conclusion about human behaviour is simplistic. The abstract reasoning favored by economists ignores the realities of how human beings think and act. People are not mechanical robots. Many of their decisions are influenced by psychological factors like regret, love, hate, ambition, conformity, herd behaviour, etc.

Some market forces like advertising can interfere with enlightened decision-making.The problem of social  norms being replaced by market norms has to be considered in each situation instead of a knee-jerk shift to cash incentives. Conflicts of interest and skewed incentive structures do bias decisions. I saw a quote in Predictably Irrational by an economist who lived 200 years ago, John Maurice Clark (it has been an eye-opener for me to see that many people who lived a long time ago had a better idea of human nature than most decision-makers today):
The economist may attempt to ignore psychology, but it is sheer impossibility for him to ignore human nature ... If the economist borrows his conception of man from the psychologist, his constructive work may have some chance of being purely economic in character. But if he does not, he will not thereby avoid psychology. Rather, he will force himself to make his own, and it will be bad psychology.
Blindly following the rationality advocated by scientists and what Ashis Nandy dismissively calls 'the witchcraft called economics' has social costs. Trying to separate ideas from emotions and thinking that pursuing ideas unburdened by emotions is a good thing can have harmful consequences. This might end up creating a society of psychopaths (or economists; some might think that there is not much difference between the two) which is not the ideal situation. They lack the realization that knowledge without ethics is inferior knowledge. I saw this quote by Erich Fromm in Bonfire of Creeds warning about the divorce between  reason and feeling caused by the increasing objectification of people in the modern world:
Logical thought is not rational if it is merely logical...(Paranoid thinking is characterized by the fact that it can be completely logical...Logic does not exclude madness.) On the other hand, not only thinking but also emotion can be rational... 
Reason flows from the blending of rational thought and feeling. If the two functions are torn apart, thinking deteriorates into schizoid intellectual activity, and feeling deteriorates into neurotic life-damaging passions.
The split between thought and affect leads to a sickness, to a low-grade schizophrenia from which the new man of the technocratic age begins to suffer...There are low-grade forms of psychosis which can be shared by millions of people.
Demonetization, Aadhaar, 'truth machine', destructive weapons, etc. are dreamt up by the kind of psychopath described above. It took me a long time to realize that  the pathology of rationality is more problematic than the pathology of irrationality. It promotes the man whose beast within triumphs. (I had thought that I was well educated before my stroke but, strangely enough, a substantial part of my education happened after my stroke.)  It is reported that when someone told Gandhi that the wildlife in India was rapidly disappearing, he said that 'wildlife is decreasing in forests but it is increasing in cities'. As T.S. Eliot said:
And the end of all our exploring
          Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time. 

Saturday, June 17, 2017

The emotional tail wagging the rational dog - V

Many nations and ethnic groups demand apologies for wrongs committed in the distant past. Germany has paid the equivalent of billions of dollars as reparations for the Holocaust. Japan has shown reluctance to apologize for its wartime atrocities in the face of growing international pressure. Debate has raged in Australia over the government's obligation to aborigines over past wrongs. Sashi Tharoor's speech about British colonial rule in India earned him fans even among his political opponents.

Should nations apologize for historical wrongs? There are worries about inflaming old animosities, hardening historic enmities, etc. There is the argument that people in the present generation should not apologize for the wrongs committed by a past generation. This rests on the notion that we are responsible only for our own actions and not for the actions of someone else.But are humans unencumbered beings entirely free to take decisions without outside influences?

If we think of ourselves as unbound by moral ties that we haven't chosen ourselves, we can't make sense of many things like family loyalty, patriotism, religious faith, etc. In Justice, Michael Sandel says that we are storytelling beings who are born in the middle of a continuing narrative. My decisions are influenced by larger life stories of which my life is a part. He quotes from Alasdair MacIntyre's book After Virtue:
We all approach our own circumstances as bearers of a particular social identity. I am someone's son or daughter, someone's cousin or uncle; I am a citizen of this or that city, a member of this or that guild or profession; I belong to this clan, that tribe, this nation. Hence what is good for me has to be the good for one who inhabits these roles. As such, I inherit from the past of my family, my city, my tribe, my nation, a variety of debts, inheritances, rightful expectations and obligations. These constitute the given of my life, my moral starting point. This is in part what gives my own life its moral particularity.
...the story of my life is always embedded in the story of those communities from which I derive my identity. I am born with a past, and to try to cut myself from that past, in the individualist mode, is to deform my present relationships.
To illustrate this narrative account of a person bound by moral ties that he has not chosen, Sandel gives an example of a communal obligation. During WW II, members of the French resistance conducted bombing raids over Nazi occupied France. Although factories and military installations were targeted, civilian causalities were inevitable. One day a bomber pilot found that his assigned target was his home village. He asked to be excused from the mission because he felt that even in a just cause, he couldn't kill some of his fellow villagers. Sandel writes:
What do you make of the pilot's stance? Do you admire it or consider it a form of weakness? Put aside the broader question of how many civilian causalities are justified in the cause of liberating France.The pilot was not questioning the necessity of the mission or the number of lives that would be lost. His point was that he could not be the one to take these particular lives. Is the pilot's reluctance mere squeamishness, or does it reflect something of moral importance? If we admire the pilot, it is because we see in his stance a recognition of his encumbered identity as a member of his village, and we admire the character that his reluctance reflects.
I saw later this transcript of a speech by Bhikhu Parekh where his explanation of Gandhi's views about the interconnectedness of humans was similar to MactIntyre's quoted above (the entire explanation is in one paragraph but I have split it into three paragraphs for ease of reading):
Gandhi saw more clearly than most other writers both the interdependence of human beings and the ways in which systems of domination were built up and sustained. He argued that all systems of domination rested on a profound misunderstanding of human nature, and wrongly assumed that it was possible for one man or group of men to harm another without also harming themselves. Human beings were necessarily interdependent and formed an organic whole.

An individual owed his existence to his parents without whose countless sacrifices he would neither survive nor grow into a sane human being. He grew and realized his potential in a stable and peaceful society, made possible by the efforts and sacrifices of thousands of anonymous men and women. He became a rational, reflective and moral human being only within a rich civilization created by scores of sages, saints, savants and scientists. In short, every human being owned his humanity to others, and benefited from a world to the creation of which he contributed nothing. As Gandhi put it, every man was 'born a debtor', a beneficiary of others' gifts, and his inherited debts were too vast to be repaid.

Even a whole lifetime was not enough to pay back what a man owned to his parents, let alone all others. Furthermore the creditors were by their very nature unspecifiable. Most of them were dead or remained anonymous, and those alive were so numerous and their contributions so varied and complex that it was impossible to decide what one owed to whom. To talk about repaying the debts did not therefore make sense except as a clumsy and metaphorical way of describing one's response to unsolicited but indispensable gifts.
There is a school of thought which says that history is a field of knowledge which is a source of conflicts because it reminds people about episodes in the distant past which are best forgotten. An example is the Ramjanambhoomi movement where constant attempts to historicize a figure who had resided peacefully in myths for centuries unleashed atavistic tendencies in many people which had unfortunate consequences. Gandhi once said, ‘Happy is the country that has no history.'

Thursday, June 8, 2017

The emotional tail wagging the rational dog - IV

 Our perception of risk is dominated by the emotional part of our brain.  Threats that bring to mind strong images or which are related to us in vivid stories have more influence on our decision making than we imagine. Theories, graphs,  diagrams and data speak to the rational part of our brain but do not spur us to action. Paul Slovic, an expert on the social amplification of risk identifies two drivers of risk perception: 1)a sense of powerlessness and 2) an anxiety that comes from new and unforeseeable dangers. Terrorism involves both criteria. Economists appeal to the rational rider but the emotional elephant often has its way.

In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman writes about the time when he had gone to Israel when there were frequent incidents of suicide bombings in buses. Even then, the probability that any particular person will die in a terrorist incident is small but that is not how the public used to react. They used to avoid buses as much as they could and when in buses they used to look anxiously at packages or bulky clothes. Kahneman was ashamed to find that despite knowing the probabilities, his behaviour had also been affected. He found that he did not like to stop his car next to a bus at red lights and he moved away more quickly than usual when the light changed. His rational knowledge had no effect on his behaviour. He writes:
The emotion is not only disproportionate to probability, it is also insensitive to the exact level of probability. Suppose that two cities have been warned about the presence of suicide bombers. Residents of one city are told that two bombers are ready to strike. Residents of another city are told of a single bomber. Their risk is lower by half, but do they feel much safer?
Kahneman gives an example where some Americans were offered insurance against their own death in a terrorist attack while on a trip to Europe, while another group were offered insurance that would cover death of any kind on the trip. Even though "death of any kind" includes "death in a terrorist attack", the former group were willing to pay more than the latter. If you imagine a Venn diagram, the subset here is being valued more than the super set. Fear of terrorism for these subjects was stronger than a general fear of dying on a foreign trip. Kahneman suggests that the attribute of fear is being substituted for a calculation of the total risks of travel.

In 2014, the year for  which I heard the data, more people died in the US of gun related violence than in terrorist attacks worldwide. In India, the number of people who die in terrorist attacks is minuscule compared to the number of people who die in road accidents. Yet, people in both counties are more concerned about terrorist attacks. People are more afraid of flying than driving although people are far more likely to die in road accidents.

This anomaly has to do with the availability heuristic which has to do with what people instinctively do when they estimate the frequency of a category. If people can quickly recall instances of a category, that category will be judged to be large. Dramatic events like plane crashes and terrorist attacks are shown again and again on TV making us feel that they occur more frequently than they actually do.

The idea of availability helps explain how people react to various disasters. In the immediate aftermath of a disaster, people will be very concerned and buy various insurance policies and take various preventive and mitigation measures. But as memories of the disaster grow dim over time, the worry and diligence shown earlier melt away. In fact, this cycle of problem, concern and growing complacency seems to happen every year in India regarding monsoons.