Thursday, December 27, 2012

Travelling to another dot

(The world did not end on 21st December as widely expected so you are condemned to read more of my posts. My commiserations. But don't lose hope.)

In the Wodehouse novel 'Mike and Psmith', while  explaining the benefits of not getting up early in the morning, Psmith tells Mike:
"One of the Georges," said Psmith, "I forget which, once said that a certain number of hours' sleep a day - I cannot recall for the moment how many - made a man something, which for the time being  has slipped my memory. However, there you are. I've given you the main idea of the thing.
I find myself in the Psmith situation. I had read an article (I don't think it was by a George but then, it could have been one.) which had been about some people who had lived for some days (or weeks or months) in isolation, having no contact with the rest of the world during that period, and the psychological problems this produced. There you are. I've given you the main idea of the thing. I was reminded of this article when I read Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void by Mary Roach which is about the technological, political and psychological challenges involved in sending a manned mission to Mars. Mary Roach writes:
To the rocket scientist, you are a problem.  You are the most irritating piece of machinery he or she will ever have to deal with. You and your fluctuating metabolism, your puny memory, your frame that comes in a million different configurations. You are unpredictable. You're inconstant. You take weeks to fix.  The engineer must worry about the water and oxygen and food you'll need in space, about how much extra fuel it will take to launch your shrimp cocktail and irradiated beef tacos.  A solar cell or a thruster nozzle is stable and undemanding. It does not excrete or panic or fall in love with the mission commander. It has no ego.  Its structural elements don't start to break down without gravity, and it works just fine without sleep.
People have been fascinated by Mars (including Mohammad Ali) for a long time but space travel is not the fun adventure that it is portrayed as in PR videos. There are plans to send 80,000 people to Mars but that is easier said than done. Apart from the various psychological problems, you have to deal with things like motion sickness, vomiting in helmets, excess gravity, low gravity, worry about the impact tolerance of the human body, deal with body odour and how to carry out many mundane activities.

Food for space has to be light and compact - every extra pound costs thousands of dollars to launch. It should not be crumbly because in anti-gravity, crumbs clog the controls or may get into some one's eyes. Astronauts have to drink recycled urine. They have to be specially toilet trained. If not careful, faeces may float around the spacecraft which is not a pleasant experience.Even the simple act of urination can, in the absence of gravity, become a medical emergency. And then there is religion:
Religious observations are even tougher in a real spacecraft.  Launch weight limitations forced Buzz Aldrin to pack a "tiny Host" and thimble-sized wine chalice for his DIY Communion on the moon.  Zero gravity and a ninety minute orbital day created so many questions for Muslim astronauts that a "Guideline of Performing Ibadah at the International Space Station" was drafted. Rather than require Muslim astronauts to pray five times during each ninety minute orbit of Earth, the guidelines allowed them to go by the twenty-four-hour cycle of the launch location.  Wipes ("not less than 3 pieces") could be used for preprayer cleansing. And since the orbiting Muslim who began his prayer while facing Mecca was likely, by prayer's end, to be mooning Mecca, provisions were made allowing him to simply face the Earth or "wherever." Lastly, instead of lowering the face to the ground, a trying manoeuvre in zero gravity, prostrating oneself could be approximated by "bringing down the chin closer to the knee," "using the eye lid as an indicator of the changing of posture" or - in the vein of "wherever" - simply "imagining" the sequence of movements.
The most interesting part of the book for me was a chapter describing an experiment where NASA observes volunteers who were asked to spend 3 months 24*7 lying on a bed. This was because during a trip to Mars, astronauts would have to spend about 6 months in a cramped space without much movement. For a couple of years after my stroke, I used to lie most of the time on the bed watching TV. I was aware that prolonged periods of inactivity causes some deterioration in bones and muscles but I didn't know that it could be so bad.

In 2 years, a paraplegic person could lose 1/3 to 1/2 the bone mass in the lower limbs,about the same amount that an astronaut could expect to lose on a 2 year mission to Mars. There is a very real danger that the bones of the astronaut may snap on returning to Earth's gravity. The best method for preventing bone loss is weight bearing exercise. In spite of the various ideas that have been tried over the years for dealing with bone and muscle loss, the best methods remain those that were available 40 years ago.

In spite of the perils, some astronauts are willing to go on a one-way trip to Mars with no possibility of return.These folks have incredible guts. The very thought of living in a cramped space for months on end far away from the earth gives me the heebie jeebies. (Does it have something to do with the DRD4-7R gene?) There have been suggestions of trying to see if humans can hibernate (like the folks of 'B'Ark) but the idea has never been pursued seriously because of ethical issues.

Finally, should so much resources be spent on sending a manned mission to Mars? Many reasons have been given in favour of space exploration. Neil deGrasse Tyson puts costs in perspective. As Mary Roach says:
The nobility of the human spirit grows harder for me to believe in.  War, zealotry, greed, malls, narcissism.  I see a backhanded nobility in excessive, impractical outlays of cash prompted by nothing loftier than a species joining hands and saying "I bet we can do this. "Yes, the money could be better spent on Earth.  But would it? Since when has money saved by government red-lining been spent on education and cancer research? It is always squandered.  Let's squander some on Mars.  Let's go out and play. 
Here is Mary Roach talking about her book at Google.

PS: A documentary on the case for Mars.

PPS: Bizarre space cases

Monday, December 17, 2012

The dark side of superstition

This is about a time about an year after my stroke. At that time I used to lie on the bed most of the day watching T.V.  I was not reading any books and there was no computer at home.I had no idea what I could do. I was thinking more along the lines of an Amitabh Bachchan quip in this song - 'Arre yeh jeena bhi koi jeena hai, lallu?' (This is immediately followed by one of my favourite songs which conveys a very different mood.)

There is a Malayalam movie on Asianet every afternoon which  I used to keep.This was not because I was particularly keen on watching it but I knew that the nurse would be interested in watching it. This would keep her awake so I would not have to strain too much to call her if I wanted to pass urine. Cunning devil, no?

One afternoon there was a movie starring the Malayalam super star Mammooty. I was not paying much attention to the movie initially. After some time I started becoming interested in the plot and started watching more earnestly. The story was as follows:

The Mammooty character (let us call him Kumar) was a respected school teacher in a typical Kerala village. He lived a normal life in a joint family and had a wife and 2 kids. The family had some hereditary disease like Huntington's Chorea. The family belief was that some goddess had put a curse on them which meant that 1 member of the family in every generation will go mad.

In this generation, it was the turn of an elderly uncle to go mad. He was kept in chains in a separate room. One day he suddenly died. After the cremation, the family waited and wondered who the goddess would choose as her next victim.

One night, Kumar had a bad dream and screamed in his sleep. Everyone rushed to his room to find out what the matter was. He assured them that he just had a bad dream and he was all right. Everyone looked at him suspiciously. They suspected that he had been chosen by the goddess to go mad. By the next morning the news had spread through the grapevine to the whole village. Kumar was blissfully unaware of all these developments as he made his way to the school the next day.

He was puzzled when the owner of a tea-stall where he used to stop regularly seemed to be in a hurry to get rid of him. The people he used to regularly chat with seemed to be keen to avoid him. In school, the students passed mocking remarks which he could not understand and his colleagues were avoiding eye contact. This strange behaviour went on for some days and Kumar began to suspect what the problem was.

His father-in-law heard the stories, decided that he cannot let his daughter and grand kids stay with a mad man and took them away in spite of his protests that there was nothing wrong with him. This broke him completely and he stopped caring about anything. He stopped talking to anybody and just stared silently when anybody asked him anything. He looked dishevelled and roamed around like a zombie. Eventually, he was kept in chains in a separate room like the uncle who had died. After many days, his mother took pity on him, mixed poison in his food and killed him.

I could picture myself in the shoes  of the Mammooty character. Jaya has been an indefatigable gatekeeper keeping out many superstitious beliefs which she knows irritates me, as also the suggestions of those who read nothing but know everything. I live among liberal believers and my heretical views don't provoke the kind of ostracizing seen in the Bible belt of the US. Jaya has also been able to ignore the various emotional blackmails that came her way.

I kept a watch out for the movie in various channels because I wanted to check if I remembered the facts right before writing this post but I never saw the movie again. I still don't know its title.

PS: It is not just about superstitions, it could be about something as simple as signing a piece of paper. Once, an Ayurvedic doctor gave some powder and said that a little bit of it should be mixed with milk and given to me everyday. He said that it contained silver and proceeded to extoll the virtues of silver as a curative agent for various neurological problems. Jaya asked him to write the prescription on his letterhead with his signature on it. He brushed this off as unimportant so his suggestion was ignored.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

What they conceal is vital - II

In this list of Carl Sagan quotes, I saw the following quote:
"I'm often asked the question, "Do you think there is extraterrestrial intelligence?" I give the standard arguments -- there are a lot of places out there, and use the word *billions*, and so on. And then I say it would be astonishing to me if there weren't extraterrestrial intelligence, but of course there is as yet no compelling evidence for it. And then I'm asked, "Yeah, but what do you really think?" I say, "I just told you what I really think." "Yeah, but what's your gut feeling?" But I try not to think with my gut. Really, it's okay to reserve judgment until the evidence is in.
But people often rely on gut feel for making decisions. When news reports have a lot of numbers, eyes typically glaze over so people in power get away with saying anything.What Steven Pinker calls 'failure of statistical thinking' has made it difficult for Facts to survive. In this video, Daniel Kahneman distinguishes two types of thinking: System 1 and System 2.System 1 represents what we call intuition. It tirelessly provides us with quick impressions, intentions and feelings. System 2, on the other hand, represents reason, self-control and considered decision making.

System  1 is fast and does not require much effort. System 2 is slow and requires effort. We rely most of the time on System 1 for our regular activities and it does fine.Occasionally, this causes problems. There are times when some statistical thinking using System 2 would have been beneficial but we often skip it since it requires time and effort. Advertising, political, nationalistic and religious messages target System 1 which is why they are so effective.

Some years back, I had read a book called How to Lie with Statistics by  Darrell Huff, the most widely read statistics book in the history of the world.  You can read it online here, Written almost 60 years ago, it gives many ways in which people present statistics in order to favour their biases. He says that the book sounds like a how-to manual for crooks for which his justification is - "the crooks already know these tricks; honest men must learn them in self-defence." Some of the techniques that he discusses are:
  1. Using a sample with built-in bias. Examples are TV and Internet polls.
  2. Using any of mean, median or mode as the 'average' depending on which one best represents your bias. Since most people won't know the difference between them ,you will generally be safe. For example, to depict the average income of the inhabitants of a country, the median is more informative than the mean. There is a joke that when Bill Gates visits an old age home, all inhabitants are millionaires on average.
  3. Failing to mention some numbers like sample size, confidence intervals etc. This is especially a problem on TV  because the screen changes so fast that you don't have time to read everything and only the shape of the image stays  in your mind.
  4. Misleading graphs - An example
  5. Misleading  figures - An example.
  6. Comparing  wrong percentages - An example
  7. Correlation is not causation - An example
  8. Post hoc ergo propter hoc
  9. Using impressively precise figures - Saying that the monthly expenditure of an average family is Rs. 12436 sounds more authoritative than saying it is around Rs. 12,000.
  10. Beware of extrapolations.
Darrell Huff says that there are 5 questions that one must ask when one sees any statistic:
  1. Who Says So?
  2. How Does He Know?
  3. What's Missing?
  4. Did Somebody Change the Subject?
  5. Does It Make Sense? 
Whenever one political party levels an accusation against a member of  another party, the latter responds by saying something like, 'People will not believe such wild allegations. They know better.' Want to bet? Initial reports tend to persist and myths are remarkably easy to spread because we use System  1 much more than System 2. This makes us us more enamoured of superficial things as depicted in Chekhov's short story, The First-Class Passenger. This is a difficult trap to avoid.

PS: There are many examples of statical machinations dissected at Ben  Goldacre's blog.

Friday, November 30, 2012

What they conceal is vital - I

I don't read the newspaper and I am not a mathematician.  John Allen Paulos is a mathematician and reads plenty of newspapers so he is ideally suited to write A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper. His general reaction  can be summed up by a quote by John Lennon that he gives at the beginning of the book: "I read the news today. Oh boy."(Though he is  not as dismissive as Jim Hacker.)

But he admits that newspapers are still much better than T.V. news which are much more superficial. (An instance of bias in T.V. news that I remember is that if I had watched  only NDTV, I would never have known about the massive floods in Pakistan a couple of years ago which was the main news in the international channels. But I would have known about the fashion show in Delhi 'that everyone is talking about'.)

Apart from reviewing some of the mathematical errors that colour news reports, some psychological factors like availability and anchoring that affect the reportage are also discussed. Paulos cautions against believing the results of polls since those results can easily be skewed by the questions that are asked as demonstrated by Humphrey Appleby in an episode of 'Yes Prime Minister'. He also mentions some advertising shenanigans like giving erroneous graphs and figures. ( How would you like some 'Splenda'?)

There are many advertisements for superficial products like face creams, hair gels, fashion accessories, etc. with dazzling and irrelevant visuals and dialogues that exaggerate the attributes of the products.Then there are the fashion pages. Paolos comments wryly about clothes that seem unwearable by anyone but a model - 'Always risible are the claims of the "top designers" that these glitzy, outlandish concoctions are for the busy working woman.' 'These glitzy ads featuring glamorous models gushing over diamond jewellery and mouthing obviously untrue bromides like 'It doesn't matter where you are born' remind me of what Bassanio said before choosing the lead casket in The Merchant of Venice:
So may the outward shows be least themselves:
The world is still deceived with ornament.
In law, what plea so tainted and corrupt,
But, being seasoned with a gracious voice,
Obscures the show of evil? In religion,
What damned error, but some sober brow
Will bless it and approve it with a text,
Hiding the grossness with fair ornament?
There is no vice so simple but assumes
Some mark of virtue on his outward parts:
How many cowards, whose hearts are all as false
As stairs of sand, wear yet upon their chins
The beards of Hercules and frowning Mars;
Who, inward search'd, have livers white as milk;
And these assume but valour's excrement
To render them redoubted! Look on beauty,
And you shall see 'tis purchased by the weight;
Which therein works a miracle in nature,
Making them lightest that wear most of it:
So are those crisped snaky golden locks
Which make such wanton gambols with the wind,
Upon supposed fairness, often known
To be the dowry of a second head,
The skull that bred them in the sepulchre.
Thus ornament is but the guiled shore
To a most dangerous sea; the beauteous scarf
Veiling an Indian beauty; in a word,
The seeming truth which cunning times put on
To entrap the wisest.
Non-linear systems are very sensitive to initial conditions, often called the Butterfly effect. Sociological phenomena are non-linear phenomena with many interacting variables that have positive and negative feedback loops and are hazardous to predict. Paulos writes:
You should observe that the accuracy of social forecasts and predictions is vastly greater if the predictions are short-term rather than long-term; if they deal with simple rather than complex phenomena; with pairs of closely associated variables rather than many subtly interacting ones; if they're hazy anticipations rather than precise assertions; and if they are not colored by the participants' intentions. Note how few political and economic predictions meet the conditions of these "ifs" - those are the ones to take seriously.
In a long-term study Phillip Tetlock found that the confident predictions made by charismatic experts are often false. He describes his study in this talk. Another relevant talk is by Nassim Nicholas Taleb about Black Swan events.

PS: There is a BBC program that investigates the numbers in the news.

PPS: The 11 Ways That Consumers Are Hopeless at Math

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Debugging gone awry

My previous post reminded me of another incident involving computers that I was involved in. It is not with pleasure that I look back at the changed computer, the floppy disk, the sleepless night, the copying disaster, the note on the door, the woebegone expression of Sisyphus...I see that you are fogged so I will start at the beginning which, I never tire of reminding you, was also told by the king of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland to Alice during her adventures in Wonderland.

During a computer course at IIMA, we  had to write some program. Different groups had different projects. We had completed writing most of the program and only the  tiresome debugging process was left. It was at this time that Fate and I had an entanglement which is, as Salman Rushdie says in Midnight's Children, ' the best of times a dangerous sort of involvement'. In Leave it to Psmith, P.G. Wodehouse writes:
The fact that many writers in their time have commented at some length on the mysterious manner in which Fate is apt to perform its work must not deter us now from a brief survey of this latest manifestation of its ingenious methods.
In the normal course of events, there would have been an uneventful few hours in the computer room where we were working. But as luck would have it, the computer room where we were working developed some problem and we had to shift to another computer room in a neighbouring building to complete the project.

This meant that we had to copy the incomplete program to a floppy disk, copy it back from the floppy disk to the hard disk of the new computer and finally copy the completed program back onto the floppy disk. (Those of less ancient vintage will have to visit The Museum of Endangered Sounds to hear 'the strained buzzing of a floppy disk drive'.) At that time we had to type in DOS commands to achieve these tasks. Typing 'copy c: a:' meant 'copy from hard disk to floppy disk' and typing 'copy a: c:' meant 'copy from floppy disk to hard disk'. (I hope I remember the commands right.This whole post is because of getting the command wrong.)

We got the first two activities right and the incomplete program was in the hard disk of the new computer by about 11 p.m. Over the next 5 hours or so. we were hard at work dotting the i's and crossing the t's of the code. Sometime after 4 a.m., we decided that the program was functioning reasonably well and that we couldn't improve it further. All that was left  was to copy  the completed program onto the floppy. You would have thought that a couple of MBAs-to-be from WIMWI would be able to manage that, right? (In the management cases that we were given at IIMA, the protagonist was often a graduate of WIMWI - Well-known Institute of Management in Western India.)

Blame it on lack of sleep, blame it on over confidence, blame it on what you will, but we muffed it up big time. We quickly typed in 'copy a: c:' and pressed ENTER. (Note the diplomatic 'we'.) The result was obvious: the partially completed program on the floppy disk was copied onto the hard disk and the completed program on the hard disk disappeared into the ether. We didn't know about this disaster at the time and congratulated each other on a job well done.

I returned to the hostel to catch up on some sleep before classes for the day began.Something attempted, something done had earned a night's repose. Actually it was almost morning and the early birds were getting ready to hassle the hapless worms. (The old saw about the early bird just goes to show that the worm should have stayed in bed. - Heinlein) My friend had some other work and said that he will return to the hostel later.

When I woke up after a couple of hours sleep, I saw a Post-it note attached to the door with a message from my friend asking me if I could please come to his room ASAP. (Since this is a family blog, I have refrained from mentioning the friendly salutations that preceded this request which seemed to indicate that he was a trifle agitated.) I sauntered across to his room harbouring nothing more than mild curiosity.

He wasted no time in telling me the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth - our efforts of the night had gone waste. I think he had tried to show the program to someone and found to his horror that it was a total mess. He put two and two together and guessed that we had been prized chumps. I was like the cartoon character who runs past the edge of a cliff at full speed, keeps running for some time, suddenly looks down, finds that there is nothing beneath him and falls straight down. In the Wodehouse novel Mike and Psmith, there is a description of the teacher Mr. Downing when he is overwrought:
In all times of storm and tribulation there comes a breaking point, a point where the spirit definitely refuses to battle any longer against the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Mr.Dowing could not bear up against this crowning blow.  He went down beneath it.  In the language of the ring, he took the count. It was the knockout.
I similarly took the count. There followed a period of silence of the type that I have often seen writers describe as being pregnant. Then, as such disasters are usually the fault of the other guy, we appraised each other of our perception of the other's intellectual capabilities, the sort of discussion that is known in diplomatic circles as 'a frank exchange of views'.

After thus venting our frustrations, we took the only decision that was on the table: do the damn thing again. As I returned to my room,I had the expression that Sisyphus must have had when he sat at the bottom of the mountain glaring sourly at that accursed rock that he had to roll back up the slopes.

We headed back to the computer lab in the afternoon after classes. Sometime before midnight, we finished fixing the program and the moment of reckoning arrived. We carefully typed 'copy c: a:' and asked folks around to have a look. After we received the all clear, we pressed the ENTER key as if it was the proverbial nuclear button. Then we checked the floppy disk. Everything seemed to be all right. And what sighs of relief there were my countrymen!

Oscar Wilde said, "Experience is simply the name we give our mistakes." I gained so much experience writing the program that I never wrote one again. It sounds amusing now but at the time, it was anything but funny.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Selling 'solutions'

Sometime back, I tuned in to CNBC after many years. There were familiar and new faces talking about dimly familiar things like volatility of beta stocks and open interest positions, things which are now outside my complexity horizon. One of the last times I had listened to it, there were huge celebrations about the Sensex having crossed 20,000  and there were breathless discussions about how long it will take for the Sensex to reach 30,000 or maybe even 40,000. So it went to 10,000.

It was reminiscent of the title of a book that I have not read and prompts me to make a Hirohito comment: The expectations were a trifle optimistic! (When announcing Japan’s  surrender in 1945, Emperor Hirohito famously explained his decision as follows: “The war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan’s advantage". I got that from a post  in Paul Krugman's blog.)

I wondered how much they really knew about what they were talking. Perhaps they were groping in the dark like I was when I was trying to sell computers. During the campus interview at IIMA, I got a job in sales in Wipro Infotech. My knowledge of the innards of a computer was not much more than that of the boss in Dilbert comics. (In one Dilbert comic strip, the boss was giving specifications about a computer to be purchased for his office. When he was asked, 'What about the RAM?', he replied, 'Make it red.' In How the Mind Works, Steven Pinker writes:                                        
And then along came computers: fairy-free, fully exorcised hunks of metal that  could not be explained without the full lexicon of mentalistic taboo words. "Why isn't my computer printing?" Because the program doesn't know you replaced your dot-matrix printer with a laser printer. It still thinks it is talking to the dot-matrix printer and is trying to print the document by asking the printer to acknowledge its message.  But the printer doesn't understand the message; it's ignoring it because it expects its input to begin with '%!' The program refuses to give up control while it polls the printer, so you have to get the attention of the monitor so that it can wrest control back from the program. Once the programme learns what printer is connected to it, they can communicate ." The more complex the system and the more expert the users, the more their technical conversation sounds like the plot of a soap opera.
I was assured that all these problems will be sorted out during a training session in Bangalore. During training, I listened to the speeches of the great and the good, learned some useful trade lingo (eg. 'we sell solutions not boxes') and grappled with disk striping, RAID technology , handshaking protocols, superpiplining and other fearsome beasts. After this ego restructuring exercise, I was let loose on an unsuspecting Mumbai market. The man who has a quote for all occasions (a woman who knew nothing about Shakespeare went to see a production of Hamlet and came out at the interval saying, 'It is full of  quotations!') explains my predicament via Portia in The Merchant of Venice:
 If to do were as easy as to know what were good
 to do, chapels had been churches and poor men's
 cottages princes' palaces.
In The Periodic Table, Primo Levi writes of the the time when he had to do the work of Customers' Service (CS):
... When it falls to me to work in CS, at the office or traveling, I do it unwillingly, with hesitation, compunction, and little human warmth.  Worse: I tend to be brusque and impatient with customers who are impatient and brusque, and to be mild and yielding with suppliers who, being in their turn CSs, prove to be just that, yielding and mild.  In short, I am not a good CS, and I fear that by now it is too late for me to become one.
I was similarly like a fish out of water in the matter of conning (oops, convincing) people that I was selling them a fantastic product. (I also had to be careful not to be as convincing as Amitabh Bachchan.) Mark Twain said, 'All you need in this life is ignorance and confidence, and then success is sure.' I had the ignorance all right but I was lacking a bit in the confidence department.

I reached out to hard-nosed EDP managers and tried to convince them  that Wipro products were a bargain buy. I read various computer magazines and  vomited out the stuff in them. I used liberally the technical terms in them to, as George Orwell wrote, ' give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.' My sales talk would have been described by one of  my school teachers as 'a diarrhoea of words and a constipation of thoughts'. (I have conveniently forgotten whether the compliment was for my essay or someone else's.)

I was surprised that my attempts to imitate Gratiano of The Merchant of Venice in speaking 'an infinite deal of nothing' went largely unchallenged. This  was the time when it really sunk in that an IIMA degree has  significant social cachet. I  could rely on the halo effect to shield me from awkward questions. This was also the time when I had frequent episodes of the Imposter Syndrome. (I would have been more relaxed if I had known at that time that Darwin also had similar periods.)

It wasn't a surprise when I quit my job some months later and joined the financial services sector. This job was more up my alley - sitting in  an A/C room and manipulating numbers in an Excel spreadsheet. (I was not a Quant so the world economy was not in any danger.)

PS: Here is another type of quant. I suppose this is the kind of guy known as a datasexual.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Religious superstitions: to criticize or not to criticize? That is the question

“It’s really interesting that wherever religion is on the front foot, it bears down in a very impressive [way] on people. Look at the Taliban. Wherever they’re on the back foot, they suddenly become very friendly, very concessive and very tolerant. And that’s where they should be, very firmly on the back foot.” - A.C. Grayling

As far as I know, all cultures that have been discovered so far have had some form of religion. Many people find comfort from their religious beliefs especially in times of great personal tragedies. I know many people who were able to deal with the misfortunes that befell them only because of their faith. Only some privileged people have the time to ponder over questions about god. Most people are too busy trying to make ends meet to bother about such questions. In this episode of Point of Inquiry about cheating, Dan Ariely points out some surprising benefits that religion may be providing.

Maybe there is a human need for rituals and ceremonies.Witness the elaborate ceremonies around the Olympic flame. I tend to get bored with the opening and closing ceremonies of sporting events but I am obviously a mutant. Most people seem to enjoy these events. Graduation ceremonies will lose something if students did not wear those funny hats and coats. We are all irrational at various times. Actually the world would be quite a boring place if everyone was rational all the time. (Here is an interesting lecture by Robert Sapolsky on the evolution of religious rituals.)

The relationship between religiosity and intelligence is confusing. Einstein thought that religion was a psychological 'prop'. But take Francs Collins. You can't get much more smart than him but he has weird views about religion. Or consider the case of the Hitchens brothers - two very smart people with opposite views about god. Christopher Hitchens was as strident as they come in criticizing religion while his brother Peter Hitchens is a believing Christian who abhors his brother's views. Or take the case  of religious experiences of astronauts. (But there are doubts about how spontaneous some of these experiences were.)

It is fallacious to think that reason can always trump belief. Religion makes emotional appeals to fear, hope, tradition, etc. and talking about the double helix or the Big Bang often doesn't produce results. Man is a social animal and it  is indisputable that religion provides plenty of opportunities for like-minded people to meet and interact with each other. Most people are content being what Kierkegaard called an 'automatic cultural man' who is described in The Denial of Death by Earnst Becker (a typical example is depicted in Nissim Ezekiel's poem The Professor): as confined by culture, a slave to it, who imagines that he has an identity if he pays his insurance premium, that he has control of his life if he guns his sports car or works his electric toothbrush....For Kierkegaard "philistinism" was triviality, man lulled by the daily routines of his society, content with the satisfactions that it offers him: in today's world the car, the shopping center, the two-week summer vacation.  Man is protected by the secure and limited alternatives his society offers him, and if he does not look up from his path he can live out his life with a certain dull security:
Devoid of imagination, as the Philistine always is, he lives in a certain trivial province of experience as to how  things go, what is possible, what usually occurs..... Philistinism tranquilizes itself in the trivial...
Does all this mean that we should close our eyes when we encounter religious superstitions and treat them with respectful silence since the majority of them seem to be harmless? Is it nobler in the mind to suffer them with a patient shrug or by opposing them reduce their virulence? Carl Sagan ponders this question in The Demon-Haunted World:
Clearly there are limits to the uses of skepticism.  There is some cost-benefit analysis which must be applied, and if the comfort, consolation and hope delivered by mysticism and superstition is high, and the dangers of belief comparatively low, should we not keep our mis-givings to ourselves? But the issue is tricky.  Imagine that you enter a big-city taxicab and the moment you get settled in, the driver begins a harangue about the supposed iniquities and inferiorities of another ethnic group.  Is your best course to keep quiet, bearing in mind that silence conveys assent? Or is it your moral responsibility to argue with him, to express outrage, even to leave the cab - because you know that every silent assent will encourage him next time, and every vigorous dissent will cause him next time to think twice? Likewise, if we offer too much silent assent about mysticism and superstition - even when it seems to be doing a little good - we abet a general climate in which skepticism is considered impolite, science tiresome, and rigorous thinking somehow stuffy and inappropriate. Figuring out a prudent balance takes wisdom.
Meera Nanda also makes several good points. It is not my contention that everybody should become a Dawkins or a Hitchens.It may be the case that just like there needs to be a balance between risk takers and followers, there perhaps needs to be a balance between those who believe in god and those who don't in order to organise masses of people to achieve a common goal. (I may be wrong here. The Scandinavian countries have some of the lowest rates of religious belief in the world but they consistently top the Human Development Index.)

It would be disingenuous to suggest that Dawkins and Co. are not aware of what Sam Harris calls 'The Fireplace Delusion'.  Dawkins has often said that even when he is debating in front of believers, he is not trying to  convince them. He is hoping that his message that religion does not deserve special privileges is heard by people who are sitting on the fence, people 'who didn't even know there was a fence to sit on' as he put it in the BBC series The Life Scientific. As Eric Macdonald says, '...while it may be true that Dawkins, in Spufford’s words, knows “sod-all about religion,”* it is also true that most religious believers know even less.' And that is because believers accept unquestioningly what their religious leaders say.

Why does the 'best culture' in the world consistently have such an abysmal rank in the Human Development Index? (Years of good economic growth have not had much impact on these figures. Something is rotten in the State of Denmark. I am sick of listening to gasbags going ga-ga over hot air.) What role does religion play in perpetuating inequality? Is religion a cause or an effect of poverty? Can religion be confined to the private realm or is its very nature such that it will intrude into the public sphere? These are questions that are worth discussing instead of always tiptoeing  carefully around the elephant in the room.

Atheists are not wasting their time. Somebody needs to ask the uncomfortable questions and push the envelop. Believers dislike the New Atheists because they are gadflies who keep pushing them out of their comfort zone and face the fact that the Emperor has no clothes. They don't parrot 'what everybody knows' which often has to be treated cautiously. They have helped shift the Overton Window. Converts' Corner is evidence that their arguments are having an impact.

Perennial deference to the prevailing zeitgeist doesn't produce change. As Salman Rushdie said in this interview with CNN-IBN, I am tired of religion constantly asking for privileges. Anything goes under the garb of 'right to religion' and firm voices need to be raised against pious thuggery instead of pusillanimous capitulation which is generally the case.Ayaan Hirsi Ali puts it bluntly, " At the heart of that alternative are the ideals of the rule of law and freedom of thought, worship, and expression. For these values there can and should be no apologies, no groveling, no hesitation."  If you wear the right religious uniform you can get away with anything  and this bluff needs to be called.

Sunday, October 21, 2012


Sometime back, I read Trilobite: Eyewitness to Evolution by Richard Fortey and I was wondering whether I should write anything about it. I had almost decided to skip it when I remembered this quote by Charles Darwin:

"doing what little one can to increase the general stock of knowledge is as respectable an object of life, as one can in any likelihood pursue"

If the man said it. then there must be something to it. In this profile, Richard Dawkins quotes Carl Sagan to make a similar point. That is two more guys I can't ignore so I decided to write something about it. You don't have any luck, do you? It is not my fault - blame it on Darwin!

Trilobites were marine arthropods that  lived for about 300 million years and died out before the advent of dinosaurs. I first heard about them (as far as I can remember) when I read  A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson., The word seemed familiar but I had no idea what it was.As I read on, I realised that I knew very little about the history of life on earth and it seemed an interesting way to spend the time. It turned out to be more interesting than whatever I had studied earlier. Another of Fortey's books, Life: A Natural History of the First Four Billion Years of Life on Earth, was a useful tool in this endeavour.With books like these, it is easy to be an autodidact.

Returning to Fortey's trilobites book, it is  his attempt to make us 'see the world through the eyes of trilobites'..So you will learn about shells, legs, eyes, behavioural habits, etc. of trilobites with tongue twisters as names. You can see a bit about trilobites in the 2nd part of First Life. If you are desperately disappointed that I have not written more about these magnificent creatures, you can listen to Fortey holding forth on his favourite fossils. (Talking of fossils, you wouldn't want to be stuck like these poor creatures.) Fortey writes:
A puzzled fellow commuter on the train once asked me how I could go to the office day after day to study a trilobite.  I think he believed that there was only one trilobite, rather like the Mona Lisa, and that my day was spent contemplating it and making up new theories about its enigmatic smile.  I had to explain that my work was more like attending to an almost infinite system of galleries hung with Mona Lisas, and that often all we had was the smile.  And every time the end of one gallery was reached, there was another gallery beyond still to explore, and further again another... and hardly ever the legs.
Along the way, he discusses the lives of some lesser known scientists and how science gets done. He also discusses the importance of taxonomy which he says is more than merely stamp collecting. Here is a video of Richard Fortey and David Attenborough discussing taxonomy.

While describing exploration of Australia, Fortey writes:
The Fierce Snake lives in these wastes, the most poisonous snake in the world, a creature so spectacularly venomous that one of its bites can kill hundreds of laboratory mice. It obviously needs to be an effective predator in this terrain of thin rations - but why so outrageously lethal? After all, snakes do not eat kangaroos. Surely this is the most literal example of 'overkill' in nature.  
I immediately remembered a story I had read about an evolutionary arms race between the rough-skinned newt, 'the most ridiculously poisonous  animal in Anmerica', and the garter snake. My uninformed guess is that the Fierce Snake is also in some sort of evolutionary arms race. It is improbable that evolution will equip a creature with a feature so far in excess of its needs.

I know that mercy droppeth as the gentle rain upon the place beneath. I am told that it is twice blessed, blessing him that gives and him that receives. There was something about it becoming the throned monarch better than his crown. That being the case, I will end your torture here.

PS: If you want a massive dose of inferiority complex, look at this blog.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Change in attitude towards religion - IV

I don't have the evidence to prove that God doesn't exist, but I so strongly suspect he doesn't that I don't want to waste my time. -- Isaac Asimov

It was not the religious fundamentalists who made me an atheist. (I would more accurately be called an agnostic atheist; or rather a naturalist but not a Hindu atheist. I would have been one from a young age going by Dan Dennett's criteria but I never thought about it. I would now have difficulty filling official forms.) Anyone would be repelled by their ghoulish ideology. Rather, it was the nice, moderate religious people who I have much in common with who increased my distaste for religion. If they had let me alone to waste my time in my own way, I would not have given a second thought to religion.

But no, they had to preach to  me about the wonders of their  pet gods and assure me that some tribal rituals will solve everything. I was tired of listening to sophisticated blather how ancient books tell everything of importance, comforting lies about how some powder can suspend the laws of nature (it is strange that the regularity of the universe and miracles, which are local suspensions of that regularity are both taken as evidence for the existence of god.), about being told that prostrating to god is the best thing that one can do, listening to how credulity is  wonderful...

My time to give up god had come. I was not accused of being religious to begin with. It was easier to take the small step towards godlessness than make the giant leap towards belief. Unlike Bertrand Russel. I did not decide this after considering all the philosophical arguments for the existence of god. It just makes life simpler.  Maybe a god is responsible for all our actions, nobody can disprove it but the assumption seems otiose. I would probably merit a 6.5 on the Dawkins belief scale.

In the words of Robert Frost, 'Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—/ I took the one less traveled by,/  And that has made all the difference.'  And as Bhagat Singh said, 'Reader and friends, is it vanity? If it is, I stand for it.'  (Before my stroke, I would not have so readily nailed my colours to the mast.) Bertrand Russsell's conclusion in this essay appealed to me:
My conclusion is that there is no reason to believe any of the dogmas of traditional theology and, further, that there is no reason to wish that they were true. Man, in so far as he is not subject to natural forces, is free to work out his own destiny. The responsibility is his, and so is the opportunity.
I feel puzzled when I read about the fierce internal struggles that many people go through in the process of giving up belief. Perhaps it is very difficult to give up something around which you have based your whole life and rejecting what Hitchens called a 'poison chalice' is a struggle.. I don't know since I have never been in that territory. Perhaps it is psychologically healthier for believers beyond a certain age not to jettison their beliefs and suddenly feel that they have wasted their lives on a delusion. (But this sentiment does not happen in reverse.)

There are many ways to create meaning in our lives without leaning on the crutch of religion.  My outlook is best summarised by Stephen Jay Gould in Ever Since Darwin - "I will rejoice in the multifariousness of nature and leave the chimera of certainty to politicians and preachers". And who better to follow in this endeavour  than David Attenborough? I would not have liked to be like the prisoners in Plato's The Allegory of the Cave. I saw a quote by Richard Dawkins which was relevant to me:
“After sleeping through a hundred million centuries we have finally opened our eyes on a sumptuous planet, sparkling with color, bountiful with life. Within decades we must close our eyes again. Isn’t it a noble, an enlightened way of spending our brief time in the sun, to work at understanding the universe and how we have come to wake up in it? This is how I answer when I am asked—as I am surprisingly often—why I bother to get up in the mornings.”
Of course, I can think along these lines because of the incredible social support network I have which means that I keep being pampered. I have never been in a situation where I felt lamenting like Pran. As the song in  'The Sound of Music' goes, 'Somewhere in my youth or childhood, I must have done something good...'.

 Believers will say that I have made a Faustian bargain but since I have to worry about it only after my death, I thought I will risk it.  The burden of proof lies with the person making the positive claim. And what if I am wrong? I will let Dawkins answer that question. (And I do get religious experiences.)

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Change in attitude towards religion - III

Man is the Religious Animal. He is the only Religious Animal. He is the only animal that has the True Religion-- several of them. --  Mark Twain

Some theologians and some folks who themselves are not religious but think that religion is a necessary illusion for lesser mortals contend that the characterisation of religion by the New Atheists is a caricature and takes aim at only the low hanging fruit. Well, they should come down from their ivory tower and mix with actual believers a bit more.The majority of people I know seem to think that god is a magic guy who fiddles around with the laws of nature for your benefit if you pester him long enough.  In this debate, one side describes a concept of god that I encounter regularly. The other side describes a concept that would be alien to most people I meet. In The Demon-Haunted World, Carl Sagan writes:
We are much better off if we know the best available approximation to the truth - and if we keep before us a keen apprehension of the errors our interest group or belief system has committed in the past.  In every case the imagined dire consequences of the truth being generally known are exaggerated.
Often  Bertrand Russell and Carl Sagan are referred to as atheists who spoke about religion with calmness and respect unlike those loud New Atheists. But they don't seem to have shown all that much respect.  They must have received as much opprobrium from believers during their lifetime. Now that they are safely dead  and can't answer for themselves, they are being co-opted into the category of 'nuanced' atheists.

And what about Dawkins? He has the patience of a saint. He keeps answering the same inane questions and quotations mistakenly attributed to him without losing his cool. People say exactly the opposite of what he has actually said. As he said in another context in The Extended Phenotype - 'There is a wanton eagerness to misunderstand.' People seem to be surprised that he doesn't actually possess fangs. If he had written far more polemical works on any other field of human endeavour say, economics or politics, he would have passed under the radar of most people but speaking about religion in less than deferential terms is beyond the pale.

The famed 'religious tolerance' is on display in this video where Dawkins reads some of the hate mails he receives. It is always a matter of preaching what one does not practice. And why behold you the mote that is in your brother’s eye, but consider not the beam that is in your own eye?  Even mild criticism in measured tones comes as a slap in the face for many believers. Hitchens' observation in this interview rings true:
“I learned that very often the most intolerant and narrow-minded people are the ones who congratulate themselves on their tolerance and open-mindedness. Amazing.”
I can understand Hitchens' exhortation to Dawkins to be more strident. People who don't know a shit about evolution make silly statements because of their religious beliefs. It is is not hard to guess where I stand on accomodationism.

I sometimes see an article or debate where some believers will extol the virtues of their faith. It all seems so infantile that I soon move on to something else.  One can only think, 'Okay. Now what?' The only interest is in seeing how words can be strung together to form grammatically correct sentences that don't mean anything. The competition of superstitions and the hair-splitting discussions about picayune details in their holy books makes one wonder if Homo is really sapiens. They all remind me of a story about George Bernard Shaw that I saw in this post:
I remember the story (probably apocryphal) attributed to George Bernard Shaw.  He supposedly asked a woman at a party if she’d sleep with him for a million pounds.  She responded, “Well, I’d have to think about that.”  Shaw then asked, “Well, would you sleep with me for one pound?” The woman answered indignantly, “Certainly not! What kind of woman do you think I am?”  Shaw answered coolly: “Madam, we’ve already established that.  Now we’re just haggling over the price.” 
Similarly the various religions seemed to be just haggling over the price. They all have superstitious beliefs (of course, there are fundamental differences between beliefs) of some kind that boggles the mind. Believers are quick to see the absurdities in other religions but their own religion is a different matter. It was wearying trying to read the minutiae of various company policies. They are all experts in obfuscation, circumlocution, mystification, self-righteousness etc. which give you the impression that you are trying to catch gas. It is simpler to look up this table.  It is hard to disagree with Sam Harris or the other religion baiters. As Julian Baggini writes:
Too often I find that faith is mysterious only selectively. Believers constantly attribute all sorts of qualities to their gods and have a list of doctrines as long as your arm. It is only when the questions get tough that, suddenly, their God disappears in a puff of mystery. Ineffability becomes a kind of invisibility cloak, only worn when there is a need to get out of a bit of philosophical bother. 
(I don't agree with his gratuitous comment about Dawkins in the beginning of the article. It seems a fashion among some sections of the intelligentsia to establish their 'nuanced atheist' credentials by first dissing Dawkins.)

Secular morality keeps changing over time due to advances in human knowledge and religion is brought kicking and screaming into line. Only when it comes to Buddhism does a religious leader say something different from what most religious people say. In The Demon-Haunted World, Carl Sagan writes:
In theological discussion with religious leaders, I often ask what their response would be if a central tenet of their faith were disproved by science.  When I put this question to the current, Fourteenth, Dalai Lama, he unhesitatingly replied as no conservative or fundamentalist religious leaders do: In such a case, he said, Tibetan Buddhism would have to change.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Change in attitude towards religion - II

Men rarely (if ever) managed to dream up a god superior to themselves. Most gods have the manners and morals of a spoiled child. -Robert A. Heinlein, science-fiction author (1907-1988)

I will sometimes read an an article about very religious people having views opposite to what they normally preach. They tend to favour military action,  are against gun control, tend to be against universal health care, tend to be more tolerant of inequality etc. Sometimes Jaya will tell me about a flaming row between some people who I have never heard of and people who they consider beneath their station like the watchman or the driver. I will flippantly remark that they must be very religious. I used to be surprised at how often this turned out to be true. 'Religious tolerance' has become my favourite oxymoron. I also read about the many common arguments given by believers.

Many standard statements that people say for form's sake started sounding silly. For eg., while commentating during a cricket match soon after Raj Singh Dungarpur's death, Ravi Shastri said, 'I know you are watching, Rajbhai.' I know? How? There is the typical reaction after accidents which I began to find jarring. Lying for religion is often excused. The popular notion that god is required to guide our action seemed increasingly untenable.

I used to be puzzled by how religions make women feel privileged about being treated as second class citizens.All religions subjugate women in some way. The most religious men seem to have the most conservative views on women's issues.They seem to be insecure that women are becoming more independent. I increasingly found myself agreeing with Don Prothero's observations in Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters:
Psychologists have long shown that humans are very good at self - deception and trying to convince themselves of anything that they fervently want to believe in.  Given a strong belief system, humans can convince themselves that black is white or to ignore obvious evidence and focus only on what they want to see, and miss the forest for the trees.  As Gorge Orwell put it, "We are all capable of believing things which we know to be untrue, and then, when we are finally proved wrong, impudently twisting the facts as to show that we were right.  Intellectually, it is possible to carry on this process for an indefinite time; the only check on it is that sooner or later a false belief bumps up against a solid reality."
I used be struck by the fact that people spoke admiringly of mythological characters who seemed to be a lot less likable than they themselves were. In Does He Know A Mother's Heart?, Arun Shourie writes:
In the myths, just as many tragedies and catastrophes have resulted from curses hurled by evil persons as by saintly ones. It is of course ironic that rishis who, after all, have mastered their senses through long and severe austerities, fly off the handle at the slightest provocation or an even slighter mistake of someone, even some dear to them.
I didn't know much about the Bible (which can be said about my knowledge of any religious text) except for Biblical phrases that are commonly used in English and some random stories (is it a coincidence that I knew only the good stories?) so I was surprised to hear Julia Sweeney's account of how she lost her faith. Dan Dennett's suggestion that every child ought to be educated about the facts of all the major world religions has merit. Somebody rightly said that it is a blessing that most people are better than god. I can vouch for it from personal experience. For eg., I studied in a Catholic school (Little Flower School, Jamshedpur) and I have great respect for the nuns who administered my school and taught me. It is an example of the good effects of faith which is the only aspect that gets airtime.

The medieval laws in existence in many places to protect religion decrease the position of religion in my eyes. People get into a frenzy over stories. Is this a sign of confidence? Or do they have something to hide? Judging by the only book that I have read that has mainly to do with religion, they have plenty to hide. If you have some confidence in your beliefs, you won't mind criticism. In my experience, the most insecure show the maximum eagerness to proscribe any criticism. I've had about enough with religious zealots becoming apoplectic and screaming murder every time someone says 'boo' to them. Respect is commanded not demanded.  As Richard Dawkins said at the Jaipur Literature festival, 'Our whole society is soft on religion.'The tolerance of intolerance encourages intolerance, a point that Hitchens emphasises in this debate with Sashi Tharoor.  Having an invisible Super Boss creates problems.

One scene I remember clearly was of Manu Sharma (the killer of Jessica Lal) rushing off to some temple where he would no doubt have been blessed by some saffron-robed paragon of piety. The gods have a curious sense of humour. You often see politicians, royalty, film stars and businessmen getting special treatment at various temples with cameras in attendance. I don't know how devoted these people actually are but in a god-crazed country it doesn't hurt to display some piety.

If you can’t be any of those personages,  be an auditor in a Public Sector bank to gain easy access to the sanctum sanctorum without having to waste time in queues.This is because temple authorities know that nothing persuades believers to go easy on tough questions as giving them easy access to the sanctum sanctorum. Since most auditors will be believers, this is a useful strategy to avoid tricky questions.

Believers come up with Orwellian statements like atheists are arrogant and intolerant, science is also faith, doubt is part of faith, atheists are closed minded, science lacks imagination, scientists are dogmatic etc. The first thing that comes to my mind is what John McEnroe would have said, "You cannot be serious." In my readings and experience, it was all exactly opposite. They make hypocrisy look bad. I suppose it is a case of psychological projection. In Coming of Age in the Milky Way Timothy Ferris writes:
It is the grand, mystical systems of thought, couched in terminologies too vague to be wrong, that explain everything and seldom err and do not grow.
If there is a god, I think it is the height of arrogance to think that he or she will be bothered about what I do. Considering the scales of things in the universe, the god that believers describe is too boring for words. Being too religious primes you to accept simplistic explanations. (Of course my examples are the lowest of low hanging fruits.) Neil degrasse Tyson explains the problem with this line of thinking.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Change in attitude towards religion - I

Some people have views of God that are so broad and flexible that it is inevitable that they will find God wherever they look for him. One hears it said that 'God is the ultimate' or 'God is our better nature' or 'God is the universe.' Of course, like any other word, the word 'God' can be given any meaning we like. If you want to say that 'God is energy,' then you can find God in a lump of coal. - Steven Weinberg

 People find many purposes in life, most of them religious. Many people keep analysing religious belief and coming to various conclusions. I had never thought about these issues before my stroke. Religious belief is a complicated phenomenon that I luckily escaped from. I was a latitudinarian in the Jefferson mould -  "it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg". I still am like that but my views about religion being a benign force that can always be given a pass has undergone a change.The Internet has helped.

I have given some reasons in earlier posts. I will give some more in the next few  posts. Obviously it feels awkward criticizing the cherished views of good people. Bear in mind that many of the people I like the most are religious. But I felt that some harsh words cannot be left unsaid. I sometimes felt like deleting some of those sentences after meeting those nice believers because they were not the ones I had in mind while writing them but I ultimately decided to retain them. As Johan Hari said, 'All people deserve respect but not all ideas do.' And generally, when I say religion, I mean organised religion not religion as a place-holder term for human rights, charity, love, etc.

It is often seen that in difficult times people become more religious. It was thus thought that after the stroke, I would shed my earlier  indifference to religion and become more spiritually inclined. Many people seem to have the idea that their god has the same mindset as one of Richard Nixon's advisers who had a poster in his room with the slogan "When you've got 'em by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow." But I don't recall having any interest in religion following my stroke. It was years later, after becoming more aware of and irritated by the tyranny of organized religion, I began to read a bit more about it.

A typical instance of the situations I began to dislike was when some people came home, corralled Jaya in one corner of the room and told her in breathless tones how various miracles had had happened at some temple when certain rituals were performed there. They then turned their attention to me at which point they were told that I was not religiously inclined. They seemed to be somewhat nonplussed that someone could live peacefully without god (many people do) especially one who had slipped on life's banana skin (as Wodehouse would have put it). Inevitably, they finally said, ' He will find god someday.' I had visions of the climax scene in Deewar when Amitabh Bachachan staggers into a temple and pants, 'mein aa gaya hoon maa.' I would have liked to say what Jeeves told BertieWooster on some occasion, 'The contingency, sir, is a remote one.'

On one occasion, some  strange guy came home, made me sit in front of the of some gods, stuck flowers on one of my earlobes, lit an incense stick and kept circling around me muttering something. I resented having to sit like a dumb doll and subject myself to these strange rituals being conducted by a strange guy strutting around with an expression of 'wisdom, gravity, profound conceit'. I felt particularly riled by the fact that these guys blithely assumed that I would have no objection to being the focus of such rituals. They ignore Julia Sweeney's version of the Golden Rule:' Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, but ask them first if it’s okay.' (Such 'faith pimping' also seems to be common in the US.)

I finally came to the conclusion there is some truth to the statement that if u don’t protest u lose by default. The meek don’t inherit anything.The superstitious beliefs that I  have mentioned in various posts were given by people out of solicitousness and force of habit rather than because of any malicious intent but the prospect of politely agreeing to their suggestions forever was not appealing. I informed Jaya that I didn't like being put in such situations and I didn't mind if she managed to wriggle out of them in any way she saw fit.Of course, I knew that there will be times when she will have no choice but to accede to the requests. In 'The Code of the Woosters' when Jeeves puts Bertie in a sticky spot, the latter muses:
I don’t know if you were ever told as a kid that story about the fellow whose dog chewed up the priceless manuscript of the book he was writing. The blow – out, if you remember, was that he gave the animal a pained look and said: ‘Oh, Diamond, Diamond, you – or it may have been thou – little know – or possibly knowest – what you – or thou - has – or hast – done.’ I heard it in the nursery, and it has always lingered in my mind.  And why I bring it up now is that this was how I looked at Jeeves as I  passed from the room. I didn’t actually speak the gag, but I fancy he knew what I was thinking.
I knew that there will be times when I will have to be satisfied with giving the Bertie look. But over time, word spread that I was one of those crazy chaps like Oscar Wilde who thought that "The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.” The zeal to make me enthralled by the rites and symbols of religion gradually withered away not fully but in great measure.

It is often noticed that god is said to be close to people with various disabilities and ailments. I once asked the nurse to do some channel surfing when I saw a program entitled 'God's children'. I need not have guessed the general theme of the program - it was about a genetic disease that made teenagers look like seventy (Progeria, the disease that the character played by Amitabh Bachchan in the movie  'Paa' suffered from.) God's children indeed!

So it was not surprising that I was sometimes told 'God loves you' or 'You are touched by God'. This god character has a bizarre sense of humour. Religions have a huge support structure that ensures that the same pablum get repeated unquestioningly ad infinitum. George Carlin mocked it in typically caustic fashion.Believers seem to suspend their critical faculties when echoing what their religious leaders tell them thus spreading memes like the just world hypothesis.

It is astonishing how sheep-like some people become when in front of their favourite saffron robed chap.They seem to be primed to get dazzled by deepities (see this Deepak Chopra random quote generator) or by promises of a Spiritual Disneyland or do silly things. Their leaders would like them to lead an unconsidered life and be satisfied with what Kierkegaard called 'tranquilizing itself with the trivial'. Many would probably end up singing, 'Ghungroo ki tarah...'.

Monday, September 3, 2012

The coelacanth

My favourite fish is the coelacanth. (Whaaat? Fish? FISH? You mean the one with scales? And it is not even named Gussie Fink-Nottle! There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.) The coelacanth is what is known as a living fossil. (There are disputes over whether there is such a thing as a living fossil.) I read about the coelacanth in some book when I was in school and I have been fascinated by it ever since.

I recently read a book about it called A Fish Caught in Time. To write a whole book about a fish and keep the reader interested throughout is a tremendous achievement by the author. (You will no doubt be thinking that it also depends on how weird the reader is.) The story of the coelacanth has been called the greatest fish story ever told.(It is more dramatic than Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea.)

Let us go to the beginning. (According to the King of Alice in Wonderland, that is generally a  good place to start.)  Not all the way back to 400 million years ago when coelacanths first start appearing in the fossil record. (That reminds me about a joke about the problem of being too exact with large numbers. An attendant in a museum told a visitor that a particular fossil was 65 million and 3 years old. When asked how he knew the age so exactly, he replied that when he joined the museum 3 years ago, he was told that the fossil was 65 million years old.) We will just go back to Dec. 1938 when it was found to be alive when it was thought to have been extinct for about 70 million years.

Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer, a curator at the East London museum went down to the docks to inspect some fishes that had been been brought for her. She found the pile uninteresting but then found a blue fin sticking out of the pile. When she removed the slime, what was revealed was 'the most beautiful  fish I had ever seen' but she didn't know what it was. She preserved the fish with formalin and wrote a letter with an accompanying diagram to Prof. J.L.B.Smith, a chemistry lecturer at Rhodes University and amateur ichthyologist. J.L.B. (as he seems to have been known; to the best of  my knowledge, he did not consider changing his name to Tyrannosaurus rex). was an obsessive workaholic with incredible mental powers. The author notes:
There are numerous examples of J.L.B.'s extraordinary mental powers. He had a photographic memory, and could read sixteen languages and speak eight. When he went to Mozambique for the first time, he learned Portuguese in three and a half weeks, and then proceeded to give an hour-and-a-half lecture without notes. During the war, when he was not fulfilling his teaching responsibilities or hunting for new fish, he managed to produce three chemistry textbooks, which went into numerous editions and were translated into several foreign languages....Another time J.L.B. recognized, from a distance of fifty yards, a man he had never met, the son of a fellow classmate he had not seen for fifty years.  The shape of his skull, apparently, had been a dead giveaway.
He saw the letter 11 days after it was sent because he was away on Christmas vacation. When he saw the diagram, he thought it resembled the fossil of a fish that he had seen which was thought to have gone extinct 70 million years ago.
It was a remarkable feat of mental agility.  Smith had apparently taken a rough sketch by someone who was not a skilled artist, of a five-foot fish, found in the Indian Ocean off southern Africa, and connected it with a fossil, a little over twelve inches long and 200 million years old; which had been discovered in freshwater in Greenland, and which he had read about in a scientific journal.
If he was right, it would be the greatest zoological discovery of the century. But if he announced it and it later turned out to be wrong, he would become a laughing stock. The only way he could be certain was to see the fish for himself. It was almost 2 months before he could make it to East London by  which time the soft parts of the fish were lost. The author quotes J.L.B.'s reaction on seeing the fish:
Smith was ushered into the inner room where he saw the fish for the first time, sitting on Marjorie's large mounting table: "Although I had come prepared, that first sight hit me like a white-hot blast and made me feel shaky and queer, my body tingled.  I stood as if stricken to stone. Yes, there was not a shadow of doubt, scale by scale, bone by bone, fin by fin, it was a true Coelacanth.
That is the sort of impact a coelacanth has on adults. (It helps if you are an ichthyologist.) The announcement of the discovery was followed by a media frenzy. J.L.B. then determined to catch a second coelacanth to examine its soft parts which were destroyed in the first specimen because of his delay in getting to it. He distributed leaflets all along the East African coast promising a reward of 100 pounds for the finders of the first two coelacanths. But he had to wait for 14 years to get another one. He got a cable from a friend  that a coelacanth had been caught in Dzaoudzi. He had no idea where the place was.

He found that it was an island of the Comoro archipelago. No commercial flight flew there and a boat would take too long. He was desperate to get there as quickly as possible but as before, it was Christmas holidays - either he couldn't get the person on the line or they couldn't help and he said in frustration, 'Why on earth did Coelacanths want to turn up just before Christmas?'

Finally, an air force plane was arranged at the behest of the South African PM to transport him to the Comoros. The crew was not sure if they had got all the diplomatic clearances or even if there was a landing strip at their destination. J.L.B. remarked to the bemused Commandant, 'I bet when you joined the South African Air Force you never expected to command a plane sent to fetch a dead fish.'

When he finally managed to see the fish, JLB had the same reaction that he had the first time. When he finally managed to bring the fish back, South African Broadcasting Corporation interrupted its  regular schedule of programs for a live broadcast by an exhausted JLB:
The broadcast began, and Smith's confidence grew. His delivery was typically measured, but he could not disguise his emotions as he started to relive the experience. When he told of weeping at the sight of the fish, tears started to fall again. When he finished, he was completely spent. The program was later described as one of the most emotionally charged pieces of broadcasting ever to have been aired on South African radio.
When the find was announced to the world, it created a sensation.  The French were astounded by the reaction. They were miffed that a Frenchman had not hogged the limelight. (The Comoros was under French jurisdiction at the time.) The displeasure of the French almost led to a diplomatic row. They then banned foreign scientists from hunting for the fish in their territorial waters. From then on, for over 2 decades, the coelacanth became a 'French fish'.

Right. So why this kolaveri over a fish? Granted it is big, blue and was thought to be extinct for millions of years. What else? The  coelacanth belongs to a group of fishes known as the Sarcopterigians one lineage of which eventually evolved into humans. The coelacanth is thought to be a close cousin of that lineage. At  one time, it was thought to be a direct ancestor of humans but now this theory is discredited. (BTW, who was the first man?)

Another colony of these fish belonging to a different species was discovered in Indonesia in 1997. (Coelacanth is a name given to a whole Order of fishes. The extant species belong to the genus Latimeria - named after Marjorie Courtney-Latimer -  which is not found in the fossil record.) There are tantalising clues they may be found in other places. It may be better for their long term survival if they are never found.

This post has  some curious facts about the fish.  Here is a documentary about it. (Some statements in the program about evolution eg.saying that animals anticipate requirements in a future environment, are misleading.) Here is another documentary about the hunt for the pre-historic fish. If you have not had enough of this magnificent fish (which of course is the case), you can get more information from this site.

The coelacanth has achieved such worldwide fame that when a German magazine asked, 'Why is it worthwhile living this week?' a schoolchild replied, '...coelacanths still exist.' By now, either you are a fan of the coelacanth or are not a fan of the coelacanth. Inspired by this TED talk, I will summarise this post in 6 words - 'I salute thee, good Old Fourlegs'.And with that, dear readers, we come to the end of this piscatorial post.