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.
[SNIP]
...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.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

The emotional tail wagging the rational dog - III

When people are confronted with an overwhelming danger, they can adopt many different behaviours to reduce their fear. These may include denial, playing down the threat, fatalism, etc. These reactions are called maladaptations because they are responses that do nothing to reduce the level of risk. If something arouses a painful emotion, people may subconsciously suppress or deny it in order to avoid the unbearable pain, even though the practical consequences may be disastrous. There is an example of such a maladaptation in Collapse by Jared Diamond:
There is a high dam above a narrow river valley which is in danger of bursting.  When attitude pollsters ask people downstream of the dam how concerned they are about the dam’s bursting, the fear is lower far away from the dam and increases as one approaches closer to the dam. Nothing surprising there. The surprising finding is that, after you get within a few miles of the dam, where the concern is found to be the highest, the concern falls off to zero as one approaches closer to the dam! Thus the people who are most certain to be drowned profess unconcern. It would seem that the only way to preserve one’s sanity in the face of such danger is to deny its existence.
Sentences that are mathematically equivalent may not be psychologically so. How a statement is framed profoundly affects how a person views it. Two choices that are formally equivalent may have different emotional content and in their experiments, Kahneman and Tversky found that people consistently chose on the basis of their emotions. For example, they asked people the following two questions that are logically identical but framed differently: The first group of participants was presented with a choice between programs: In a group of 600 people,
Program A: "200 people will be saved"
Program B: "there is a 1/3 probability that 600 people will be saved, and a 2/3 probability that no people will be saved"
72 percent of participants preferred program A (the remainder, 28%, opting for program B). The second group of participants was presented with the choice between the following: In a group of 600 people,
Program C: "400 people will die"
Program D: "there is a 1/3 probability that nobody will die, and a 2/3 probability that 600 people will die"
In this decision frame, 78% preferred program D, with the remaining 22% opting for program C. It was found that when things were stated in terms of death (second question), people prefer treatment D but when things are in terms of life, treatment A was preferred. When thinking about life, people seemed to prefer certainty, but when thinking about death, they seemed to prefer odds, probably because people seemed to think that they might overcome the odds.

In The Trouble with Testosterone, Robert Sapolsky wonders about applying Kahneman and Tversky's scheme to how firing squads are organized. In ancient times one shot may not kill a person. So there could be two alternative scenarios which are formally equivalent: either one man could fire five times or five people could fire once each. Sapolsky thinks that the second method was chosen because of the logical distortion it allowed: at some irrational level, it was easier for people to emotionally convince themselves that they had killed only one-fifth of a man. He writes:
Why do I think the firing squad was an accommodation to guilt, to the perception of guilt, and to guilty consciences? Because of an even more intriguing refinement in the art of killing people. By the middle of the nineteenth century, when a firing squad assembled, it was often the case that one man would randomly be given a blank bullet. Whether each member of the firing squad would tell if he had the blank or not - by the presence or absence of a recoil at that time of the shooting – was irrelevant. Each man would go home that night with the certainty that he would never be accused for sure, of having played a role in the killing.

Monday, May 22, 2017

 The emotional tail wagging the rational dog - II

In The Emotional Brain, the neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux shows that the emotional part of the brain is tightly integrated with the rational part and has dominance in decision making because of its ability to respond quickly to threats, which is crucial to an organism's survival. He says that emotions can easily displace routine events out of awareness but non-emotional events do not so easily displace emotions from the mental spotlight. He writes:
...emotions are things that happen to us rather than things we will to occur...We have little direct control over our emotional reactions. Anyone who has tried to fake an emotion, or who has been the recipient of a faked one, knows all to well the futility of the attempt. While conscious control over emotions is weak, emotions can flood consciousness. This is so because the wiring of the brain at this point in our evolutionary history is such that connections from the emotional systems to the cognitive systems are stronger than connections from the cognitive systems to the emotional systems.
I came across an experiment in The Emotional Brain involving split-brain patients. In such patients, the nerve connections between the two hemispheres of the brain are cut to try to prevent very severe epilepsy and thereby, the two sides can no longer communicate with each other. Thus, since language centres of the brain are in the left side, the person can only talk about what the left side knows. If a stimulus is presented in such a way that only the right hemisphere sees it, the split-brain patient is unable to verbally describe the stimulus. In these patients, information provided to one side of the brain remains trapped on that side and is unavailable to the other side.

A split-brain patient called P.S. was presented with a stimulus having emotional content. When the emotional stimulus was presented to the left hemisphere, P.S. could describe the stimulus and tell whether it signified something good or bad. But when the same stimulus was presented to the right hemisphere, the speaking left hemisphere could not describe the stimulus. But it could correctly judge whether the stimulus seen by the right hemisphere was good or bad.

For example, when the right hemisphere saw the word 'mom', the left hemisphere rated it as 'good', and when the right side saw the word 'devil', the left rated it as 'bad'. Such correct rating by the left hemisphere happened consistently even though it had no idea what the stimuli were, the emotional significance of the stimulus seeming to 'leak' across the brain. Joseph LeDoux writes, 'The patient's conscious emotions, as experienced by his left hemisphere, were, in effect, being pushed this way and that by stimuli that he claimed to have never seen.'

A psychologist at New York University, Jonathan Haidt, describes the two systems with the image of a rider and elephant. The rational rider tries his damnedest to make the emotional elephant go in the direction he wants but ultimately the huge elephant will have its way. I came across a passage in Somerset Maugham's novel, Of Human Bondage, which struck a chord in me:
It amused him sometimes to consider that his friends, because he had a face which did not express his feelings very vividly and a rather slow way of moving, looked upon him as strong-minded, deliberate, and cool. They thought him reasonable and praised his common sense; but he knew that his placid expression was no more than a mask, assumed unconsciously, which acted like the protective colouring of butterflies; and himself was astonished at the weakness of his will. It seemed to him that he was swayed by every light emotion, as though he were a leaf in the wind, and when passion seized him he was powerless. He had no self-control. He merely seemed to possess it because he was indifferent to many of the things which moved other people.
He considered with some irony the philosophy which he had developed for himself, for it had not been of much use to him in the conjuncture he had passed through; and he wondered whether thought really helped a man in any of the critical affairs of life: it seemed to him rather that he was swayed by some power alien to and yet within himself, which urged him like that great wind of Hell which drove Paolo and Francesca ceaselessly on. He thought of what he was going to do and, when the time came to act, he was powerless in the grasp of instincts, emotions, he knew not what. He acted as though he were a machine driven by the two forces of his environment and his personality; his reason was someone looking on, observing the facts but powerless to interfere: it was like those gods of Epicurus, who saw the doings of men from their empyrean heights and had no might to alter one smallest particle of what occurred.
Sometimes, I will feel that I have some solid grounds to let off a bit of steam. But I will keep telling myself, 'Relax. No need to get so agitated, it is not such a big deal.' But all these attempts at self-control will be utterly useless and I will show my usual signs of being irritated like the stiffening of my muscles.  I will realize that the task of trying to control my emotions was a daunting one and my Inner Voice will tell me to  abandon the project. I will later find that Jaya had already attended to whatever had been agitating me and I had been fretting unnecessarily.

I will be like the batsman who shapes to play a hook shot but pulls out of the shot at the last moment and ducks hastily after realizing that the bouncer is a little quicker and a little higher than what he had initially anticipated. What often helps preserve a facade of calmness instead of giving a stupid speech are two factors:

Firstly, I am indifferent to many things like new models of cars, mobile phones etc. that excite many people. (In the present age, mobile phones provide the starkest reminders of Gandhi's warning - 'Machines should be man's slave, man should not be machine's slave.) Secondly, the tediousness of my communication process means that I am unable to deliver my fiery speech.

Friday, May 12, 2017

The emotional tail wagging the rational dog - I

The only questions worth asking today are whether humans are going to have any emotions tomorrow, and what the quality of life will be if the answer is no. - Lester Bangs, rock critic

“An Indian born economist once explained his personal theory of reincarnation to his graduate economics class,” Paul Krugman writes in the opening paragraph of his Preface to Peddling Prosperity. “If you are a good economist, a virtuous economist,’ he said, ‘you are reborn as a physicist. But if you are an evil, wicked economist, you are reborn as a sociologist.” The evil economist is closer to reality but many economists want to emulate the virtuous economist and achieve the precision of physics.

Adam Smith recognized that humans are not always guided by reason. His Theory of Moral Sentiments begins, 'How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.' But many later economists try to subsume human behaviour into their imposing theories and complex calculations involving the rational maximiser whose resemblance to reality is highly questionable.

Commenting on the new methods of reproduction like IVF and surrogacy, one professor of business administration at Harvard said that this 'unbundling the supply chain' has prompted 'growth in the surrogacy market' since people who participated in this market 'essentially needed to purchase a single package of egg-bundled-with-womb. 'This description instrumentalises women's bodies and treats babies as tradeable commodities. Philip Ball writes in  Critical Mass about Gary Becker's analysis of the economics of  the family (which helped him win a Nobel Prize in 1992):
'Participants in marriage markets', argues Becker, face a difficult choice because they 'have limited information about the utility they can expect with potential mates.' People are compelled to marry across boundaries of race, religion and class when 'they do not expect to do better by further search and waiting'. Let us be thankful that Shakespeare did not have Romeo and Juliet put it that way. 
In this TEDx talk,Gerd Gigerenzer talks about this idea of economists of marrying by maximizing expected rational utility. When he asks economists how many married this way, no one says he did so. Finally, one economist admitted that he calculated the maximum utilities of his girlfriends and married the one who had the highest score. Not surprisingly, when they met a few years later, the economist was divorced.

In Antifragile, Nassim Nicholas Taleb (no admirer of economists; he often calls them charlatans and advocates throwing out everything in economics that has an equation)  relates a hilarious story. It is about a highly cited academic in the field of decision theory who helped develop "something grand and useless called 'rational decision making' loaded with grand and useless axioms... and grand and even more useless probabilities".

When at Columbia university, he struggled over a decision to move to Harvard. A colleague suggested that he use some of his greatly honoured and discussed techniques which "included something like like 'maximum expected utility'". He angrily responded, 'Come on, this is serious!' (Taleb is not sure whether the story is apocryphal or not but thinks it true to type.) As Yogi Berra said, 'In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is.'

Economists often come up with such cartoon models of human behavior because they are conducive to deriving simple equations and getting exact solutions. But modeling human behaviour without any role for emotions is unrealistic. It is like the drunk who was searching for his keys under a streetlight. When a passerby asked him where he had lost his keys, he replied that he had lost it in the next street. Then why search here? The drunk said, 'Because this is where the the light is present.' Similarly economists use only reason in their models because that is where light is present. In The Black Swan, Nassim Nicholas Taleb gives an idea of why economists make bizarre models:
Economics is the most insular of fields; it is one that quotes least from outside itself. Economics is perhaps the subject that currently has the highest number of philistine scholars - scholarship without erudition and natural curiosity can close your mind and lead to the fragmentation of disciplines.
Humans have generally thought that reason is better than passion, thoughts are better than feelings. Plato thought that emotions are like wild horses which have to be controlled by the intellect which he thought of as the charioteer. I came across some sample sentences in  Metaphors we Live by that show humans regarding reason as better than emotions - The discussion 'fell to the emotional' level, but I 'raised' it back 'up to the rational' plane. We put our 'feelings' aside and had a 'high-level intellectual' discussion of the matter. He couldn't 'rise above' his 'emotions'.

But researchers are finding that reason and emotion work together. The evolutionary journey has equipped us with two distinct information processing systems. Researchers such as Daniel Kahneman have classified these systems as System 1 which can be called the emotional brain and System 2 which can be called the rational brain. These systems are in constant communication with each other.  The attentive System 2 is who we think we are but it is not a paragon of rationality and is often derailed by the automatic System 1.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Sharing knowledge - II

The Tamil folktale about the importance of telling your stories that Ramanujan relates goes as follows. A poor widow lived with her two sons and two daughters-in-law who always ill treated her. Since there was no one to whom she could unburden herself, she kept putting on weight and her sons and daughters-in-law mocked her bulk and told her to eat less. Once she wandered away and came to an old, deserted house where she decided to blurt out her miseries.

She told her grievance against her first son to the wall in front of her which collapsed under the weight of her woes and she felt herself becoming lighter. She similarly told of her grievances about each of the other persons to each wall in turn. All of them came down and she felt lighter each time. Standing amidst the rubble, she felt lighter not only in body but also in mood.

While reading folktales, you should suspend logic for some time and not ask questions like 'Won't the roof fall on her head if the walls collapse?' Otherwise you will miss the main point of the tale which is that telling stories has a cathartic effect on the teller even if nobody else is listening. Ramanujan writes that wealth, knowledge, etc must circulate , 'there are danas, or gifts, that, in their nature, must be given.'

Whenever I feel like stopping the blog, I will remember this story and tell myself that I  will end up being the loser if I do it. It gives me something to do and keeps me from irritating others in the house. Of course the unintended consequence is that you will have to bear the brunt of my prolixity, what with me frequently expounding on various weighty matters with, what Gandhi once said regarding himself, ‘…a cocksureness worthy only of a man who knows not that he knows not’. The motivation is similar to what Wodehouse says in the preface to Very Good, Jeeves:
It is some fourteen summers since, an eager lad in my early thirties, I started to write Jeeves stories: and many people think this nuisance should now cease. Carpers say that enough is enough. Cavillers say the same. They look down the vista of the years and see these chronicles multiplying like rabbits, and the prospect appalls them. But against this must be set the fact that writing  Jeeves gives me a great deal of pleasure and keeps me out of the public houses.
 (The poet and satirist Edward Young didn't spare the  likes of Gandhi and Wodehouse and other such cunning foxes in whose pack I find myself: The love of praise, howe'er concealed by art,/ Reigns more or less supreme in every heart;/ The Proud to gain it, toils on toils endure;/ The modest shun it, but to make it sure!)

So there is some uncertainty about when you can finally give a sigh of relief and exclaim, 'All is well that ends.' As Yogi Berra said, 'If you ask me a question I don't know, I'm not going to answer.' One option you have is to wait for the dialogue from Sholay to play itself out, 'Agar Gabbar se koi tumhe bacha sakta hai toh khud Gabbar.'(If anyone can save you from gabbar, it is gabbar himself.) The easier option is to use the mouse aggressively and escape to less taxing parts of the blogosphere.

Actually I will tell a couple of stories now itself instead of waiting for a future post. What was it that Laurence Sterne said? Digression is “the sunshine of narrative”. I love this quote - it gives me the freedom to write pretty much what I like without bothering about unity, order, coherence, and completeness and other such inconvenient factors.

The first story is about the Dalai Lama's impish sense of humour that I  saw in this post by Ramachandra Guha where he mentions an incident during a commemoration ceremony for the Dalai Lama. One of his table-mates went over to the Dalai Lama and said loudly, ‘Your Holiness! How are you!! You remember we met in Calcutta!’. The Dalai Lama did not recognize him at all so the person continued, ‘We met in Calcutta! With Mother Teresa!’. The older man now took off his glasses, wiped his face, and softly said: ‘I am sorry I don’t remember you, but I do remember Mother Teresa’.

The second story is about Gandhi who thought it a sin to waste a moment of one's life and kept a punishing schedule. He would get up at 3 a.m., say his morning prayers and start replying to letters that he has received and writing articles for his newspapers. He would even dictate letters and articles to his secretaries while walking which used to be an average of 10 km a day.  After one disagreement, one of his devoted, long-time secretaries, Mahadev Desai, wrote in exasperation:

To live with the saints in heaven is a bliss and a glory,
But to live with a saint on earth is a differnt story!

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Sharing knowledge - I

A poor widow lived with her two sons and two daughters-in-law who always ill treated her...oh, I suppose that you haven't the foggiest notion of what this is all about. Bertie Wooster says in The Mating Season:
It so often pans out that way when you begin a story. You whiz off the mark all pep and ginger, like a mettlesome charger going into its routine, and the next thing you know, the customers are up on their hind legs, yelling for footnotes.
Since there are a couple of detours before I get to the nub of the matter, I might as well get started. Nassim Nicholas Taleb made most of his money through a couple of bets that came off and this gave him complete independence. In Antifragile, he writes that he calls  this kind of sum 'f*** you money' - 'a sum large enough to get most, if not all, of the advantages of wealth (the most important one being independence and the ability to only occupy your mind with matters that interest you) but not its side effects' like having to listen to boring conversations because 'the worst side effect of wealth is the social associations it forces on its victims'.

You can say that my stroke was the physical equivalent of Taleb's  f*** you money which forced me to suddenly drop out of the rat-race without a by-your-leave. Although I am still heavily dependant, the dependence is on family and friends which, you will no doubt agree, is about a million times better than being dependant on the government or on corporates. We all know about the Kafkaesque machinations of governments. I was also saved from boring corporate talks of the kind you  hear from corporate honchos on CNBC. In Fooled by Randomness, Taleb gives examples of such phrases that will be stitched together in various combinations to make impressive sounding sentences:

We look after our customer’s interests / the road ahead / our assets are our people / creation of shareholder value /our vision / our expertise lies in / we provide interactive solutions / we position ourselves in this market / how to serve our customers better / short-term pain for long-term gain / we will be rewarded in the long run (remember the last two terms from the demonetization days? - Suresh) / we play from our strength and improve our weaknesses / courage and determination will prevail / we are committed to innovation and technology /  a happy employee is a productive employee / commitment to excellence / strategic plan / our work ethics


After a couple of years of aimless TV watching when I was getting used to the new mental landscape I found myself in, I came across a couple of books that caught my interest. Odysseus voluntarily tied himself to the mast of a ship in order to escape the lure of the Sirens. I found myself involuntarily tied to a wheelchair and I realized over a period of time that reading books was something I could do with almost complete freedom. And almost all the books that caught my interest were ones that had nothing to do with what I had studied in college.

This calls for a digression. (Laurence Sterne called digression “the sunshine of narrative”.) In his essays, A.K. Ramanujan says that folklores are autotelic, i.e. they travel by themselves without any actual movement of populations.  Thus neighbouring languages and regions will have similar folklore that have similar structure but have cultural and contextual differences. To make his point, Ramanujan tells a folktale that is sometimes attributed to Aristotle and sometimes to an Indian philosopher.

The philosopher asks a village carpenter who has a beautiful old knife, 'How long have you had this knife?' The carpenter replies, 'Oh, this knife has been in our family for generations. We have changed the handle a few times and the blade a few times, but it is the same knife.' In my case similarly, MBA subjects are a distant memory, Engineering subjects are an even more distant memory but it is the same Suresh.

A few years after the stroke , I started writing this blog which I had planned to be only about my life after the stroke. But then I started getting bored writing about myself and started writing about many other matters triggered by what I was reading (although it might make you agree with Alexander Pope - 'The bookful blockhead, ignorantly read, / With loads of learned lumber in his head..."). I would often feel like quitting but then I came across a folktale by Ramanujan about the importance of sharing stories and other knowledge. To know more about it, you will have to wait till the next post. (This sounds like one of those unending TV serials which say at the end of an episode 'to be contd....' and like those serials, you may find the next instalment underwhelming.)

Talking about TV serials calls for yet another digression about a serial  of yore. I remember watching a serial called Mr. Yogi when I was in NIT, Trichy. It is a story of a USA settled Indian boy, Yogesh Ishwarlal Patel, aka Y.I. Patel, aka Mr. Yogi, trying to arrange his marriage in India. He meets 12 girls and tries to select one of them as his bride. When he goes to one house, he shakes hands with the person who opens the door and introduces himself, 'Y.I. Patel.' The other person says, 'How do I know why you are Patel?'