Monday, December 19, 2016

Still more nursing episodes - II

The nurses who come here are from Kerala and Tamil Nadu both of which have hot climates. (It is said that Chennai has 3 climates - hot, hotter and hottest.) They start shivering at a dip in temperature  at a time when I will be sweating. This will put me in a dilemma. I will want to continue putting the fan at full speed or consider switching on the A/c but this would make the nurse uncomfortable.

If I keep sweating, the bedsheets on which I am sleeping will get damp and I am afraid that it could eventually lead to my developing bed sores. I have heard that they are quite painful and this thought prevents me from humoring the nurses.


Sometimes, a physiotherapist who is not familiar with the intricacies of communicating with me will ask me something like, 'In which movie is this song?' and wait. Then the nurse will say' 'How can he tell you the answer? You have to tell the names of various movies and he will blink for the correct answer if he knows it.' A few days later  the same nurse will get frustrated trying to understand something that I had indicated. Finally she will exclaim,  'Why don't you say clearly so that I can understand?' She would seem to have forgotten what she had told the physiotherapist.

Some  nurses will tell guests, 'Even if he has some pain, he will say that he has no pain.' This is not strictly true. My response will depend on who is asking me the question. If it is Jaya, then I will specify where exactly the pain is, its intensity, etc. and discuss how to remedy it. With others, I will generally say that there is no pain. This is because I will not be able to tell them anything about the location or intensity of the pain. This might prompt them to investigate a bit which may make  matters worse.

The nurse would also be prompted to make this observation due to my responses during physiotherapy. Some pain is to be expected during some of the exercises because of the stretching of certain muscles. If such pain is not there, it would mean that the exercise is not being effective. When physiotherapists ask me about pain, they would mean whether I was feeling any pain other than the normal stretch pain in which case they have to find out why the new pain has come. The nurses find it strange that I often say that there I don't feel any pain when it would be obvious from my expressions that there is some pain. I would  actually be indicating to the physiotherapist that I am not feeling any abnormal pain.


Sometimes  a nurse will try to do something that I don't want to be done. For example, she may try to adjust the pillow under my head which would be in the correct position. I will keep blinking several times and also keep nodding my head  to indicate that it is fine. But the nurse will continue to adjust the pillow and keep asking me about other things. Finally I will use a pre-set signal to indicate that she should call Jaya.

When Jaya comes, I will explain to her what the problem was. She will tell the nurse that I was indicating to her that the pillow was in correct position and that she need not do anything. The nurse will say, 'That's all? You should have told me. You could have blinked!' But that is what I had been doing! A strained grimace is the best that I will be able to manage in such circumstances.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Still more nursing episodes - I

Some nurses had the strange habit of complaining to me about things that I had nothing to do with. For eg., if there was too much or too little spice in some dish or perhaps they wanted a different type of glove , they used to crib to me about it. The first few times, I called Jaya and told her to ask the nurse what the problem was. At these times the nurse would say that she didn't have any issues and everything was perfectly fine.When this happened a few times, I started ignoring their cribs to me.


One nurse was briefed by the agency about the patient she had to look after before she came here, as per their usual practise. She was told that she had to look after a male patient who was bed ridden and couldn't speak. She assumed that her patient was an old man who was on his death-bed. She had looked after many such patients and assumed that she will have a short stay before she moved on. When she came home, my father-in-law opened the door and she was nonplussed - here was the bed-ridden old man she had assumed was her patient welcoming her in!

She didn't know what to say. She came to my room where Jaya introduced her to me. So this was the patient - but he was much younger and didn't look like croaking in a few days! She kept quiet, went to the balcony and then to the kitchen and stood for a few minutes. From her demeanour, it seemed to Jaya and me that she will not stay for long. But as it has turned out, she is still here after 10 months. Her plan of an early exit has not worked out.


In a previous post, I had written about the strangeness of failing to notice the nurse giving me feeding. This sort of thing happens frequently. For instance, I was recently watching a film starring the Malayalam superstar Mohanlal (my favourite actor among the older stars). I was so absorbed in watching the fiery dialogue that I didn't notice the time.I suddenly realized that it was well past the feeding time and reminded the nurse about it. She told me that she had already given it and I didn't have a clue!

Nowadays, I am often reluctant to remind the nurse about feeding if I suddenly remember it. I will not be able to make up my mind about whether the nurse has forgotten the time or whether I failed to notice feeding being given. Knowing that I missed noticing the gorilla, I am prepared to accept the latter explanation.


Some nurses are impatient especially when it comes to my passing urine. A few seconds after keeping the can, they will ask me if I have passed urine. There is some connection between emotions and the bladder muscles because when I feel some psychological pressure from the nurse, I will not be able to pass urine even if I feel pressure in the bladder. This also happens when my attention is diverted  by the nurse when she asks me some question or when I pay attention to something on TV. After the urine flow has started, if the nurse asks me whether I have finished passing urine or if there is slight movement of the can, the flow immediately stops.

This situation is similar to that of a baby. If you disturb a baby even slightly when it is passing urine, the flow immediately stops. This reflex diminishes as the baby grows older and gains more control over the functioning of its bladder. Following my stroke, my bladder control seems to have reverted to the situation of a baby. When an impatient nurse comes, I wait till the last possible moment before calling the nurse. I will hope that this will ensure that the urine flow will begin as soon as she keeps the can but sometimes, even then the urine flow will take some time to start because I will feel the psychological pressure.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Cannon fodder

Asura by Anand Neelakantan is a novel based on the Ramayana from Ravana's point of view. In it, Ravana has an illegitimate son called Athikaya who he dislikes and with whom he has a testy relationship. But Athikaya strikes up a good friendship with Ravana's favourite son, Meghnada (also called Indrajit). Athikaya had been brought up by a poor man called Bhadra who turns up off and on in Ravana's life. In the final war with Rama's army, both Meghanada and Athikaya are killed by Lakshmana through deceit.

The war dead were placed on chariots and were drawn through the street towards the palace. Ravana sat tearfully with Meghanada's head on his lap. Everybody was crying for Prince Meghanada. Bhadra thought, 'My son is dead and these people were turning this into a spectacle.' He couldn't spot his adopted son's body anywhere. He finally saw the palace gates closing and two pyres being prepared one having Meghanada and the other having the unmistakable bulk of Athikaya.

He managed to push his way into the palace and begged Ravana to give him his son's body. Ravana refused but his wife Mandodari made him relent and  finally he snapped at Bhadra, 'Take him. Had he not been my Meghanada's friend, not even a dog would have cared about his death.' Hearing this, Bhadra thought:
Yes,I know, my king, not even a dog cares for the death of young men like my son, who died for you.The round medals you give away, the petty jobs you offer to the kin of those who die for you, the paltry compensations which you throw from your brimming coffers, are nothing but bones, to entice more dogs to die for you. Let me take my little dog from you. He has served his purpose. You showed young men how glorious it was to die for such abstract causes as the motherland and racial pride. You honoured him, and fooled the public, in arranging such a big procession for the dead. Everyone is happy that our country has not forgotten the young who laid down lives for their motherland. Everyone who has been a martyr will be remembered - until the next meal.  Great show, my king. Now more young men will come to die, enticed by your bones, two minutes of glory and a stone memorial by the street corner which real dogs will piss on. My son has served your purpose, now let me take him to his mother.  
I did not say any of this. If I had had the courage, then many like me would have had the courage to echo it, and there would not have been any Ravanas and Ramas left.
I get a similar feeling when I see live telecasts of honouring military causalities or of impassioned pleas for building war memorials. This obsession with war matters (present mainly in the educated middle classes) seems to have grown in recent years. You will sometimes hear concerns being expressed about the budget deficit, how costs should be 'rationalised', better targeting of subsidies, reduction of the budgets for various departments etc.

What you can be quite sure of is that the expenditure on defense will not be reduced. On the contrary, whatever increase is there will be deemed unsatisfactory.  Imagine the defense budget being reduced - there will be howls of protest. Sacrilege! Anti-national! How can you ask the defenders of the nation to make monetary sacrifices? As Ashis Nandy says in Bonfire of Creeds, one has to be ‘skeptical of state-sponsored anxieties about national security , especially when this concept of security is invoked to demand sacrifices from social sectors least able to make them’. He writes in another essay in the same book:
The ranks of the army and the police in all countries come from the relatively poor, powerless or low status sectors of society. Almost invariably, imperfect societies arrive at a system under which the lower rungs of the army and police are some of the few channels of mobility open to the plebians. That is, the prize of a better life is dangled before the deprived socio-economic groups to encourage them to willingly socialize themselves into a violent, empty lifestyle. In the process, a machine of oppression is built; it not only has its open targets but also its dehumanized cogs. These cogs only seemingly opt for what Herbert Marcuse calls 'voluntary servitude': mostly they have no escape.
He says that in America, in the case of the Vietnam war, the highly placed were able to dodge the draft thus ensuring that the men who went to fight were the socially underprivileged, people who were already being abused by the system. Many of them developed a pathological over-concern with avenging the suffering of their colleagues by stereotyping the Vietnamese or by becoming aggressive nationalists. So the war was effectively 'a story of one set of victims setting upon another, on behalf of a reified, impersonal system of violence'. In an analysis of the Gulf war of 1991, George Lakoff writes:
When President Bush argues that going to war would "serve our vital national interests", he is using a metaphor that hides exactly whose interests would be served and whose would not. For example, poor people, especially blacks, are represented in the military in disproportionately large numbers, and in a war the lower classes and those ethnic groups will suffer proportionally more casualties and have their lives disrupted more. Thus war is less in the interest of ethnic minorities and the lower classes than the white upper classes.
Also hidden are the interests of the military itself. It is against the military's interest to have its budget cut, or to diminish its own influence in any way. War justifies the military's importance and its budgetary needs. 
Those most wedded to folk theories of a strong nation-state seem to be the most insecure and keep seeing conspiracies everywhere. The JNU incident illustrates this condition: some people shouted anti-India slogans and one was given the impression that something serious had happened that threatened the country's peace and security. These people have their counterparts in Pakistan as shown by the arrest in Pakistan of a person who had hoisted an Indian flag because he was a fan of Kohli. As Ashis Nandy said in another context in Bonfire of Creeds, it is like 'the manner in which village lunatics are pursued by stone throwing teenagers while greater lunatics are allowed to become national leaders or war heroes'.

The US is not the epitome of virtue in all spheres but it showed more maturity in handling the case of a footballer when he chose to kneel rather than stand during the national anthem, saying, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,”  He said that he will continue his protest until there is “significant change”. Obama observed that the footballer “cares about some real, legitimate issues”

“Sometimes [protest is] messy and controversial and it gets people angry and frustrated,” Obama said. “But I’d rather have young people that are engaged with the argument and trying to think through how they can be part of our democratic process than people that are just sitting on the sidelines and not paying attention at all.” Prof. Apoorv Anand makes a similar point in the beginning of this talk in Hindi.

PS: Not all army officers are obsessed with the idea of a strong nation-state as shown by this talk by Former Navy Chief Admiral Ramdas. (The talk is a mix of Hindi and English.)

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Deadly metaphors - II

The most common discourse form in the West where there is combat to settle moral accounts is the classic fairy tale. When people are replaced by states in such a fairy tale, what results is the most common scenario for a just war. Lakoff sketches the plot of such a fairy tale of the Just War whose cast of characters include a villain, a victim, and a hero. The victim and the hero may be the same person.
The scenario: A crime is committed by the villain against an innocent victim (typically an assault, theft, or kidnapping). The offense occurs due to an imbalance of power and creates a moral imbalance. The hero either gathers helpers or decides to go it alone. The hero makes sacrifices; he undergoes difficulties, typically making an arduous heroic journey, sometimes across the sea to a treacherous terrain. The villain is inherently evil, perhaps even a monster, and thus reasoning with him is out of the question. The hero is left with no choice but to engage the villain in battle. The hero defeats the villain and rescues the victim. The moral balance is restored. Victory is achieved. The hero, who always acts honorably, has proved his manhood and achieved glory. The sacrifice was worthwhile. The hero receives acclaim, along with the gratitude of the victim and the community.
The fairy tale has an asymmetry built into it. The hero is moral and courageous, while the villain is amoral and vicious. The hero is rational, but though the villain may be cunning and calculating, he cannot be reasoned with. Heroes thus cannot negotiate with villains; they must defeat them. The enemy-as-demon metaphor arises as a consequence of the fact that we understand what a just war is in terms of this fairy tale.
The metaphor of ‘state as a person’ and the fairy tale help structure the over-all metaphor of ‘war is politics pursued by other means’ which implies the metaphor ‘politics is business’ i.e. political management  is no different from business management. There is the favorite metaphor of economists and strategic relations experts of a ‘Rational actor’ who always acts in self-interest. Mathematics  of gambling with dice is used i.e probability theory, game theory, decision theory. Such metaphors are common and decision-makers often forget that they are just about simple dice games.

The Ludic fallacy - the use of the statistics of simple dice games to compute risk in complex social domains - was coined by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in The Black Swan. According to Taleb, statistics is applicable only in some domains, for instance casinos in which the odds are visible and defined. Using this, many social scientists gravitate towards mathematical purity and fail to take various aspects into account like the impossibility of being in possession of the entirety of available information. They apply flawless statistical models to situations where they actually don’t apply.  This can result in the over-confidence in probability theory. Lakoff writes that viewed in this way, a war:
...requires a calculation of the "costs" and the "gains" of going to war. What, exactly, goes into that calculation and what does not? Certainly American casualties, loss of equipment, and dollars spent on the operation count as costs. But Vietnam taught us that there are social costs: trauma to families and communities, disruption of lives, psychological effects on veterans, long-term health problems, in addition to the cost of spending our money on war instead of on vital social needs at home, as well as the vast cost of continuing to develop and maintain a huge war machine.
Barely discussed is the moral cost that comes from killing and maiming as a way to settle disputes. And there is the moral cost of using a "cost" metaphor at all. When we do so, we quantify the effects of war and thus hide from ourselves the qualitative reality of pain and death. 
The rational actor uses the mathematics of gambles to minimize risks and losses and maximize gains. Dead bodies of your own soldiers are among the losses and bodies of enemy soldiers are among the gains.Here the rational actor doing cost- benefit  analysis is the State. Then there is a metonymy where the ruler stands for the state, eg. ‘We have to get Saddam out of Kuwait’. This allows a country to be seen as a single person rather as an amorphous state.

The metaphor system used to justify war may sound scientific and rational. What is missed is the moral dimension of war. When you remove all the fancy verbiage, you get the reality of war which would be considered serious crime in any other situation. The metaphor system promotes what psychologists call isolation: the dissociation of actions and feelings which allows actions to be pursued without being burdened by feelings. There is a dichotomy in the use of this metaphor system: it is used only to describe the enemy; when it comes to one's own side, the real horror is described. Lakof writes:
Reality exists. So does the unconscious system of metaphors that we use without awareness to comprehend reality. What metaphor does is limit what we notice, highlight what we do see, and provide part of the inferential structure that we reason with. Because of the pervasiveness of metaphor in thought, we cannot always stick to discussions of reality in purely literal terms.
There is no way to avoid metaphorical thought, especially in complex matters like foreign policy. I am therefore not objecting to the use of metaphor in itself in foreign policy discourse. My objections are, first, to the ignorance of the presence of metaphor in foreign policy deliberations, second, to the failure to look systematically at what our metaphors hide, and third, to the failure to think imaginatively about what new metaphors might be more benign.
As Ashis Nandy says in The Intimate Enemy, modern oppression "is a battle between dehumanized self and objectified enemy, the technologised bureaucrat and his  reified victim, pseudo-rulers and their fearsome other selves projected on to their ‘subjects’”.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Deadly metaphors - I

We usually think of metaphors as something imaginative poets come up with, a word play that expresses a thought by drawing surprising analogies, eg. 'Taj Mahal is a tear-drop on the cheek of time'. But it is a regular feature of our everyday lives. George Lakoff writes in Metaphors We Live By, 'If we are right in suggesting that our conceptual system is largely metaphorical, then the way we think, what we experience, and what we do everyday is very much a matter of metaphor.'

Lakoff presented a paper in 1991 in the midst of the Gulf War called Metaphor and War: The Metaphor System Used to Justify War in the Gulf which discusses the metaphor systems used to justify the war.  The first of these is the 'State-as-Person System'.
A state is conceptualized as a person, engaging in social relations within a world community. Its land-mass is its home. It lives in a neighborhood, and has neighbors, friends and enemies. States are seen as having inherent dispositions: they can be peaceful or aggressive, responsible or irresponsible, industrious or lazy. 
Well-being is wealth. The general well-being of a state is understood in economic terms: its economic health. A serious threat to economic health can thus be seen as a death threat. To the extent that a nation's economy depends on foreign oil, that oil supply becomes a 'lifeline' (reinforced by the image of an oil pipeline).
Strength for a state is military strength. Maturity for the person-state is industrialization. Unindustrialized nations are '`underdeveloped', with industrialization as a natural state to be reached. Third-world nations are thus immature children, to be taught how to develop properly or disciplined if they get out of line. Nations that fail to industrialize at a rate considered normal are seen as akin to retarded children and judged as "backward" nations. Rationality is the maximization of self-interest.
There is an implicit logic to the use of these metaphors: Since it is in the interest of every person to be as strong and healthy as possible, a rational state seeks to maximize wealth and military might.
Violence can further self-interest. It can be stopped in three ways: Either a balance of power, so that no one in a neighborhood is strong enough to threaten anyone else. Or the use of collective persuasion by the community to make violence counter to self-interest. Or a cop strong enough to deter violence or punish it. The cop should act morally, in the community's interest, and with the sanction of the community as a whole.
Morality is a matter of accounting, of keeping the moral books balanced. A wrongdoer incurs a debt, and he must be made to pay. The moral books can be balanced by a return to the situation prior to the wrongdoing, by giving back what has been taken, by recompense, or by punishment. Justice is the balancing of the moral books.
War in this metaphor is a fight between two people, a form of hand-to-hand combat. Thus, the US sought to "push Iraq back out of Kuwait" or "deal the enemy a heavy blow," or "deliver a knockout punch." A just war is thus a form of combat for the purpose of settling moral accounts.
This metaphor hides the class structure, ethnic composition, religious rivalry, political parties, the ecology, and the influence of the military and of corporations (especially multi-national corporations). The ‘national interest’ is defined by politicians and policy makers and portrayed commonly in terms of economic health and military strength. As Lakoff writes, ‘But what is in the "national interest" may or may not be in the interest of many ordinary citizens, groups, or institutions, who may become poorer as the GNP rises and weaker as the military gets stronger.’

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

'The people have spoken,'

I saw a satirical report about the US presidential election of 2000 that had been printed in the satirical magazine The Onion given in Critical Mass:
In one of the narrowest presidential votes in US history, either George W. Bush or Al Gore was elected the 43rd president of the United States Tuesday, proclaiming the win 'a victory for the American people and the dawn of a bold new era in this great nation.'
'My fellow Americans,' a triumphant Bush or Gore told throngs of jubilant, flag-waving supporters at his campaign headquarters, 'tonight, we as a nation stand on the brink of many new challenges. And I stand here before you to say that I am ready to meet those challenges.'
'The people have spoken,' Bush or Gore continued, 'and with their vote they have sent the message, loud and clear, that we are the true party of the people.'
With these words, the crowd of Republicans or Democrats erupted.
The presidential elections may not be so close this time but what are the odds that you will not hear a similar speech in a few days time?

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Animal violence

In the second book of The Shiva Trilogy by Amish Tripathi,  The Secret Of The Nagas , it is stated that animals kill for only two reasons - hunger and self-defence. This is a belief that many people seem to believe but it is not true. Here are a few instances where non-human animals (I presume that's what the novel is referring to)  kill for reasons other than hunger and self-defense.
  1. Lions kill cheetah cubs left and right. Studies from Serengeti indicate that lions may be responsible for up to 57% of cheetah cub mortality! And  they don't eat them. It is shown a number of times on the nature channels.
  2. Infanticide is a powerful tool in ensuring the survival of a species, researchers are increasingly finding. For many animal infants, the greatest threat to their survival is from their own kind. It has been recorded in a number of species including mammals such as rodents and primates, and fish, insects and amphibians. Among lions, male interlopers attempt to overthrow the fathers of the cubs in a pride. If they succeed, by hurting, chasing off or even killing the dominant male, and taking over the leadership of their group, then infants are suddenly placed at great risk. The mothers will come into heat only if the cubs are dead and if the males wait, they may be overthrown by other males which will mean that their genes will not be passed on.
  3. About 20 percent of younger blue-footed booby siblings die because of their elders’ attentions. The nearby brown boobies kill their younger siblings every time. Being born a second child in a brown booby household is nearly a death sentence (unless the elder dies of a disease or something). Probably the only reason the parents have two chicks is to have an insurance in case the elder one doesn't survive.
  4. Some species of birds thrive not by carefully rearing their own young, but by pawning that task off on adults of other species. The European Cuckoo is the bird in which this habit has been most thoroughly studied. Female European Cuckoos lay their eggs only in the nests of other species of birds. A cuckoo egg usually closely mimics the eggs of the host (one of whose eggs is often removed by the cuckoo). The host incubates and hatches the cuckoo egg. Shortly after hatching, the young European Cuckoo instinctively shoves over the edge of the nest any solid object that it contacts. With the disappearance of their eggs and rightful young, the foster parents are free to devote all of their care to the young cuckoo. The cuckoo chick often grows much larger than the host adults long before it can care for itself but the host doesn't seem to notice it. Here is a video of what is called brood parasitism.
  5. I saw a program (narrated by David Attenborough) in which a group of killer whales chase a gray whale and its calf across a vast expanse of ocean. The long chase made the calf tired and the killer whales managed to isolate it from the mother. They then tore the calf to shreds and swam away without eating anything. The killing had been for fun.
Note: When language suggesting intentionality is used like 'the animals try to ensure the survival of the species by...', it shouldn't be take to mean that the animals know what they are doing. What actually happens is that because of the variation of individuals in a population, some individuals will have certain characters (morphological, anatomical, physiological or behavioral) that will give them an advantage over individuals that don't have them.Thus more of these individuals will survive and reproduce on average and leave copies of their genes to future generations. By this process, that particular character becomes more common in that species over many generations. Instead of saying all this every time, biologists use the language of intentionality as a short cut.

Saturday, October 1, 2016


In the first book of The Shiva Trilogy by Amish Tripathi, The immortals of Meluha, a reason was given for the greatness of Meluha. Apparently, the greatest legacy of Lord Ram to the Meluhans was a system he created to make sure only merit determines a person's position and it has made Meluha the greatest nation in history. All children that are born in Meluha are compulsorily adopted by the empire. To ensure that this is done methodically, all pregnant women have to go to a great hospital city for delivery unaccompanied by anyone. Once the child is born, it is left behind and the mother travels back. The children are given common education and a comprehensive examination at 15 determines their trade. The children never learn the identity of their parents. Shiva says, 'The efficiency and fairness of this system is astounding.'

John Carey said, 'The aim of all utopias, to a greater or lesser extent, is to eliminate real people' and this 'astounding' system is another one in which humans don't figure.I will just look at one element of this 'greatest legacy of Lord Ram' - adoption of children by the empire. Is it a good idea to separate children from their parents? I read about a pediatric disease called hospitalism in Monkeyluv by Robert Sapolsky. It is now mostly a disease of the past but illustrates the problem involved in separating children from their parents.

In some parts of the US in the early part of the 20th century, a typical child hospitalized for more than 2 weeks would start to show signs of hospitalism which involved a listless wasting away despite adequate food intake. There was a weakening of muscles and loss of reflexes, and greatly increased risk of gastro-intestinal and lung infections. With the onset of hospitalism, mortality rates had gone up almost tenfold.

The guess was that with kids crammed in pediatric wards, something infectious would be contracted. But this explanation was at odds with a strange pattern in the statistics: kids seemed to be less likely to succumb to hospitalism in the poorer hospitals, the ones that couldn't afford the state-of-the-art mechanical isolation wards for the supposedly infected kids.

By 1942, enough research had been done on developmental psychology for the correct explanation to emerge. A New York University physician deemed it to have been caused by 'emotional deprivation'. It was caused by two ideas prevalent at the time - the belief that sterile, aseptic conditions have to be maintained at all costs and the belief among pediatricians that touching, holding and nurturing infants was sentimental maternal nonsense.

Parental guides at the time used to warn parents of the adverse effects of using a cradle, picking up a child that cried or handling the baby too often. If parents were being advised like this, one can imagine how a nurse or attendant will interact with a child in a ward full of them. By today's standards, this sort of child rearing would be considered cold and austere.

Sapolsky mentions some animal studies that have been done in this regard. When an infant rat is licked and groomed by its mother, the pup secretes growth hormones, which triggers cell division - mother's touch is essential for growth. Experiments have shown that when a mother rat does a lot of licking and grooming, many changes happen in the developing brain of the pup which have lifelong effects - fewer stress hormones secreted as an adult, better learning under duress, etc. He writes:
Similar themes have emerged from primate studies, beginning with the classic work of Harry Harlow, who showed that infant monkeys understood development better than did the average pediatrician battling hospitalism - given a choice, the monkeys preferred maternal touch to maternal nutrition. And it was not sheer tactile stimulation that was essential. Harlow dared to inject into the modern scientific literature the word love when discussing normal primate development and what was essential. And in humans, a disorder of dramatically, even fatally disrupted development due to emotional deprivation can be found in every endocrine textbook on growth. It is called psychosocial dwarfism.
During the first couple of years of life, that part of a baby's brain develops which allows it to maintain human relationships and regulate its emotions. These circuits are constantly reinforced by regular interaction with the mother. Children need to have these interactions many hundreds of times in their growing years for these areas to develop properly. In The Brain That Changes Itself, Norman Doidge writes:
During World War II, Rene Spitz studied infants reared by their own mothers in prison, comparing them with those reared in a foundling house, where one nurse was responsible for  seven infants. The foundling infants stopped developing intellectually, were unable to control their emotions, and instead rocked back and forth, or made strange hand movements. They also entered 'turned-off' states and were indifferent to the world, unresponsive to people who tried to hold and comfort them. 

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

The romanticization of war - II

The Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar links the presumed lack of respect for the Indian Army to it not having fought a war for 40-50 years. As evidence, he cited the relatively less attention 'an IAS or any other authority' accords to a letter from a military commanding officer than before. It is not the soldier on the ground (who is close to the horrors of war) but the backroom strategist (for whom war is a video game) who itches for war. Evidently,  an IIT degree is not an inoculation against this disease.

Parrikar doesn't seem to realize (or perhaps realizes but doesn't agonize over it since he won't suffer) that War is no picnic – it kills and maims soldiers, deprives families of those they love, magnifying their tragedy in case the dead was also their bread-winner. It strains the nation's resources and throws the normal life of the nation into chaos. Once I was told that there was a report in some magazine that India had the resources to destroy the whole of Pakistan while Pakistan had the resources to destroy 'only' half of India so in the event of a full fledged conflict India's victory was assured. It doesn't seem to occur to war-mongers that it would be a Pyrrhic victory.

War-mongers don't think about the fact that the consequences of war don’t end at the trumpeting of victory or ceasefire, but continue to unfold many years thereafter. In The Palace of Illusions, which is the story of the Mahabharata from Draupadi's point of view, a dying Duryodana tells Yudhishtira, 'I am going to heaven to enjoy all its pleasures with my friends. You'll rule a kingdom peopled with widows and orphans and wake each morning to the grief of loss. Who's the real winner, then, and who the loser?'

In Arms and the Man by George Bernard Shaw, Sergius is the epitome of what every romantic hero should be: He is dashing, handsome, idealistic, wealthy, aristocratic, brave, and the acclaimed hero of a recent crushing victory in a cavalry raid which he led. He is possessed of only the loftiest and most noble ideals concerning war, romance, and chivalry, and he represents the quintessence of what a noble Bulgarian aristocrat should be.

Captain Bluntschli is a realist who sees through the absurd romanticism of war. Unlike the aristocratic volunteers who are untrained, amateurish idealists, Captain Bluntschli is a professional soldier, trained in waging a war in a highly efficient, businesslike manner. At one point, he tells Sergius. 'I'm a professional soldier. I fight when I have to, and am very glad to get out of it when I haven't to. You're only an amateur: you think fighting's an amusement.'

Justice by Michael Sandel gives an idea of the class composition of the American army. Young people from middle-income neighbourhoods are disproportionately represented in the army. The least represented are the most affluent 20% and the poorest 10% (who may lack the necessary education). Politicians also have a poor representation. I am reasonably sure that a similar class composition exists in the the Indian army also. If the decision makers had more of their relatives in the army they would be less eager for war. Those who most urge others to make sacrifices have to sacrifice the least in case of war. Sandel writes about the historian David M Kennedy's views:
He argues that "the US armed forces today have many of the attributes of a mercenary army," by which he means a paid  professional army that is separated to a significant degree from the society on whose behalf it fights.He doesn't mean to disparage the motives of those who enlist. His worry is that hiring a relatively small number of our fellow citizens to fight our wars lets the rest of us off the hook. It severs the link between the majority of democratic citizens and the soldiers who fight in their name.
Kennedy observes that, 'proportionate to the population, today's active-duty military establishment is about 4 percent of the size of the force that won World War II." This makes it relatively easy for policy-makers to commit the country to war without having to secure the broad and deep consent of the society as a whole. "History's most powerful military force can now be sent into battle in the name of a society that scarcely breaks a sweat when it does so." The volunteer army absolves most Americans of the responsibility to fight and die for their country. While some see this as an advantage, this exemption from shared sacrifice comes at the price of eroding political accountability:
A hugely preponderant majority of Americans with no risk whatsoever of exposure to military service have, in effect, hired some of the least advantaged of their fellow countrymen to do some of their most dangerous business while the majority goes on with their own affairs unbloodied and undistracted.
Quite often, the spin is given that the nation functions because there are soldiers on the border which is unfair on other members of the society. The nation functions as much because of farmers, labourers, doctors, engineers, etc., as soldiers.  No one section is more important than the other. If push comes to shove and I have to choose one section, I guess it has to be farmers: one has to eat before doing other things. (Retd.) Colonel L Misra says, 'Even army cannot march on an empty stomach.'

In different parts of the world, the war memorials and the elaborate rituals attending the war dead/military casualities (which are often telecast live) or the breathless display of destructive toys during military parades are reminiscent of how religions inspire awe among the masses through elaborate rituals and magnificent places of worship. In the respect of the worship of modern methods of destruction, North Korea and the countries not on the 'axis of evil' differ only in degrees. Susan Sontag writes in her essay Aids and its Metaphors:
Abuse of the military metaphor may be inevitable in a capitalist society, a society that increasingly restricts the scope and credibility of appeals to ethical principle, in which it is thought foolish not to subject one's actions to the calculus of self-interest and profitability. War-making is one of the few activities that people are not supposed to view 'realistically'; that is, with an eye to expense and practical outcome.In all-out war, expenditure is all-out, unprudent - war being defined as an emergency in which no sacrifice is excessive.

Friday, September 2, 2016

The romanticization of war - I

Aristotle wrote, 'Metaphor consists in giving the thing a name that belongs to something else.' People in power get to impose their metaphors on us - political, business and religious leaders, media, advertisers, etc. War metaphors are in common use with everything conceived as a battle, as a zero-sum game with winners and losers. We talk of various things in terms of a war because we conceive of them that way, and we act according to how we conceive of things. And as George Lakoff wrote in his paper 'Metaphor and War , '...metaphors backed up by bombs can kill.'

You can see war metaphors used often in cricket. After the chest beating talk at beginning of a cricket series, it will be said that 'the battle lines have been drawn', the star player in the side will be called the 'lone warrior' or 'the hit-man'; there will be 'attack' index, twitter 'battle', 'clash' of titans, 'final frontier', 'revenge' series, 'seek vengeance'. A West Indies-SA cricket series was advertised as - 'a war cry resounds as the Caribbean crew lands on the hostile African shores'; a cricket match between India and Australia is called 'a battle without guns' (aggression on the cricket field is not about cricketing skills but about how boorish you can be); there will be 'General Kohli leads his soldiers through fielding drills'; Sehwag 'blitzkrieg' flattens England, 'Do or die' game for India, Sachin's 'blasters' vs Warne's 'warriors'.

In politics, there will be battleground states, war room,  prestige battle, a ministerial communication is called 'twitter battle', 'battle bugle' for Bihar has been sounded, an election speech is described as 'a war cry', 'battle lines' are drawn, there is 'a war of words' between the candidates, the PM 'led the charge' during the campaign, Sushma makes 'frontal attack' on Congress, Rahul leads Congress 'counter attack', we won the 'land-bill battle', battle for Bihar, prestige battle, bitter battle.  The preparations are on a 'war-footing'; it is a straight 'fight' between Modi and Nitish Kumar in Bihar; sentences like 'X attacks Y' or 'X hits back at Y' are common, Congress 'guns' for Sushma, Kejriwal alleges 'pre-emptive strike' by BJP to save Jaitly.

In Metaphors we live by, George Lakoff gives some examples of the 'love is war' metaphor: He 'fled from' her 'advances'. She 'persued' him 'relentlessly'. He 'won' her hand in marriage. She is 'beseiged' by suitors. He 'made an ally' of her mother.He also gives examples of the 'arguement is war' metaphor used in everyday language: Your claims are 'indefensible'.I 'demolised' his argument. He 'shot down' all of my arguments. His criticisms were 'right on target'. He writes:
It is important to see that we don't just talk about arguments in terms of war. We can actually win or lose arguments.We see the person we are arguing with as an opponent. We attack his positions and defend our own. We gain or lose ground. We plan and use strategies. If we find a position indefensible, we can abandon it and take a new line of attack. Many of the things we do in arguing are partially structured by the concept of war.Though there is no physical battle, there is a verbal battle, and the structure of an argument  - attack, defence, counterattack, etc. - reflects this.
The war metaphor is used in many other contexts: the court room became a 'battleground'; he was 'under fire' from the experts; the president was 'bombarded' with questions from the press; the organization works at the 'front lines' of the war on poverty; she didn't want to get caught in the 'crossfire' of her parent's divorce; there was an economic 'blockade' of Manipur; the model is a 'Blonde Bombshell'; the new policy is considered a political 'time bomb' for the government; ethical hackers are described as 'cyber warriors', He is an 'eco-warrior'.

Other high-profile examples include the War on Poverty, War on Cancer, War on Drugs, . The body is often viewed as a 'fortress' which protects us from 'invasion' by disease causing organisms. The immune system 'mobilises' antigens...Civilian causalities during military campaigns is called by the anaesthetic phrase 'collateral damage'. It conceals from people what is actually going on. It is an abstract euphemism which ensures that people don't get a sense of repulsion from what is essentially murder. The use of metaphor can be pernicious when it hides painful realities. These metaphors hide aspects of violence that would normally be seen as major crimes.  George Orwell shows this in an essay written in the 1940s, Politics and the English Language:
In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them. Consider for instance some comfortable English professor defending Russian totalitarianism. He cannot say outright, "I believe in killing off your opponents when you can get good results by doing so." Probably, therefore, he will say something like this:
"While freely conceding that the Soviet regime exhibits certain features which the humanitarian may be inclined to deplore, we must, I think, agree that a certain curtailment of the right to political opposition is an unavoidable concomitant of transitional periods, and that the rigors which the Russian people have been called upon to undergo have been amply justified in the sphere of concrete achievement."
James Childress describes the use of war as a metaphor as a dilemma: "In debating social policy through the language of war, we often forget the moral reality of war." Their widespread use dulls the realisation that the brutality of war dehumanises us all. Childress observes, ' We are tempted by seedy realism, with its doctrine that might makes right, or we are tempted by an equally dangerous mentality of crusade or holy war, with its doctrine that right makes might of any kind acceptable.' 

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

The problems of conformity

In The Invisible Gorilla, there is an analysis of why the tiny nation of Georgia provoked a war with its big neighbor Russia over two provinces whose rebels were being helped by Russia. Georgia's leaders actually believed that they would quickly defeat the second largest army in the world. In the conflict that followed, they were overwhelmed by Russia in one week of fighting. How did they get this overconfidence?

Mikhail Sakashvili was elected president of Georgia in 2004 when he was only 36. He stocked the government with his loyalists who were also in their thirties and lacked military experience but agreed with him about containing Russian activities in the rebel provinces. Thus many like-minded people could 'take a set of opinions that none of them held with great confidence individually and aggregate them, by deliberating among themselves and reinforcing one another's public statements, into a high-confidence conclusion'.

The authors describe an experiment which shows confidence in groups. They gave 700 people true/false trivia tests.As usual, people thought they knew more than they did, having an average of 70% confidence in their answers while they actually averaged only 54% correct answers. Then 3 different types of 2-person groups were formed - groups with 2 high-confidence members, groups with 2 low-confidence members and groups with  1 high- and 1 low- confidence member.

You will think that groups will be more accurate and suffer less from the illusion of confidence. But the results showed that groups had similar results as individuals but they had become more confident. Confidence had increased most for groups with two low confidence people. This experiment showed how in the case of Georgia, though the decision-makers may not have been individually confident, when in a group 'their confidence could have inflated to the point where what were actually risky, uncertain actions seemed highly likely to succeed.'

One of the authors once asked a US government official about how they made group decisions. The agent said that the members went around the room, each giving his or her opinion, in descending order of seniority.The authors write:
Imagine the false sense of consensus and confidence that cascades through a group when one person after another confirms the boss's original guess...The very process of putting individuals together to deliberate before they reach a conclusion almost guarantees that the group's decision will not be the product of independent opinions and contributions. Instead, it will be influenced by group dynamics, personality conflicts, and other social factors that have little to do with who knows what, and why they know it.
Till some years back, I had tended to agree with the conventional view that it is good to have a strong, stable government at the centre with a comfortable majority. But now I think a coalition government with its pulls and pressures, threats and sulks is better, especially in a diverse country like India. It may look chaotic but prevents build-up of pressure for long periods. Like in a pressure cooker, it is better to let off steam at regular intervals.

There was an attempted coup recently in Turkey which was thankfully put down by the civilian government. But then, quite predictably, the more dangerous course has been adopted. There have been large-scale purges and like-minded people have been appointed in various positions. But, as Karl Popper points out in The Poverty of Historicism, '...this attempt to exercise power over minds must destroy the last possibility of finding out what people really think.' So one shouldn't be surprised if something unexpected crops up somewhere down the line.

There is a story about Socrates where he is told that he is the wisest man in Athens to which he responds that it is not true because he doesn’t know many things. He then goes around the city interviewing people and finds that he is indeed the wisest man – he at least knew that he didn’t know many things; the others didn’t even know this.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Is a 'strong' leader desirable? - III

 “Conformity is the jailer of freedom and the enemy of growth.”  -  John F. Kennedy

I came across an account of another experiment in Nudge in which the task was a bit more difficult than in Asch's experiment. Here people were kept in a dark room and a pinpoint of light was placed some way in front of them. The light was actually stationary but appeared to move because of an effect called the autokinetic effect. The people were then asked to estimate the distance the light has moved.

When asked individually, the answers varied significantly, which was not surprising since the light was stationary and the answers were random guesses. But when people were formed into groups and asked to give their answers in public, there were big conformity effects. The individual estimates converged to a group norm and over time this norm proved sticky and the individuals in a group were strongly committed to their group norm.

In some experiments, a confederate was planted unbeknownst to the other members of the group. This confederate could nudge the group estimate if he spoke confidently and firmly. If the confederate's assessment was much higher than the group norm, the group estimate was inflated and if the confederate's estimate was very low, the group's estimate would fall. Thus consistent and unwavering people, whether in the public or private sector, can move people in their preferred direction.

What is even more interesting is that the group's judgments became thoroughly internalized so that people would stick to them even when they were reporting on their own or when participating in other groups that gave different judgments. The initial judgement also had effects across 'generations'.Even when the group members changed and the person who was originally responsible for the decision was long gone, the judgement tended to stick. Different types of experiments have been conducted to determine conformity effects. The authors write:
Consider the following finding. People were asked, 'Which one of the following do you feel is the most important problem facing our country today?' Five alternatives were offered: economic recession, educational facilities, subversive activities, mental health and crime and corruption. Asked privately, a mere 12 percent chose subversive activities. But when exposed to an apparent group consensus unanimously selecting that option, 48 percent of people made the same choice!
In a similar finding, people were asked to consider this statement: 'Free speech being a privilege rather than a right, it is proper for a society to suspend free speech when it feels threatened.'Asked this question individually, only 19 percent of the control group agreed, but confronted with the shared opinion of only four others, 58 percent of people agreed. The results are closely connected with one of Asch's underlying interests, which was to understand how Nazism had been possible. Asch believed that 'conformity could produce a very persistent nudge, ultimately generating behaviour...that might seem unthinkable'.

As a species, we seem to be predisposed towards believing that the most confident are also the most knowledgeable.Decisive, aggressive, confident, assertive, strong, etc are adjectives to be viewed with caution when used to describe political leaders. A political candidate who 'looks Presidential' or 'looks Prime-Ministerial' will get votes irrespective of his level of knowledge.

Election time is about making tall promises and bringing large crowds who will cheer at the proper prompts. Colourless, boring politicians are safer than flamboyant ones. (See talk by Prof Apurvanand on 3Ds: Demagogues, Demigods and Democracy.The talk is in Hindi.) As Nassim Nicholas Taleb says in The Black Swan:
Alas, one cannot assert authority by accepting one's own fallibility. Simply, people need to be blinded by knowledge - we are made to follow leaders who can gather people together because the advantages of being in groups  trump the disadvantages of being alone.  It has been more profitable for us to bind together in the wrong direction than to be alone in the right one.  Those who have followed the assertive idiot rather than the introspective wise person have passed us some of their genes.  This is apparent from a social pathology: psychopaths rally followers.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Is a 'strong' leader desirable? - II

Unthinking respect for authority is the greatest enemy of truth - Einstein

In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell writes about Hofstede's Dimensions devised by the Dutch psychologist Geert Hofstede. The most interesting of these dimensions is 'Power Distance Index' (PDI). PDI was a measure of a society's attitude towards hierarchy and authority. It was measured by questions like: 'Are employees afraid to express disagreement with their managers?' and 'Are power holders entitled to special privileges?' There is a quote from Hofstede's text Culture's Consequences about low PDI countries:
Power is something of which power holders are almost ashamed and they will try to underplay. I once heard a Swedish (low PDI) university official state that in order to exercise power he tried not to look powerful. Leaders may enhance their informal status by renouncing formal symbols. In (low PDI) Austria, Prime Minister Buno Kriesky was known to sometimes  take the streetcar to work. In 1974, I actually saw the Dutch (low PDI) prime Minister,Joop den Uyl, on vacation with his motor home at a camping site in Portugal. Such behaviour of the powerful would be very unlikely in high PDI Belgium or France.
You can generally divide power distance into high power distance and low power distance. If you belong to a culture displaying high power distance, you will tend to view power as a reality of life and believe everyone has a specific place in the hierarchy of power. You will expect that power will be distributed unequally. You will more easily accept autocratic and paternalistic power relations. If you are a subordinate, you simply acknowledge the power of your superior based merely upon his relative position in the hierarchy of authority.

It doesn't take much thinking to conclude that India is a high PDI country. You won't find the behaviours described above in India even if there was no security risk. The 'lal batti'  culture is widespread and leaders love to announce their arrival with a lot of noise. Their power will be indicated by the number of cars in their fleet. Getting Z plus category security is regarded as a status symbol. Prostrating before political leaders or greeting them with huge garlands is a common sight.

In a group decision making process, the members are thrown together to deliberate and reach a conclusion. The thought is that each member will give an independent, unbiased opinion. In a high PDI culture, group dynamics will guarantee that this will not happen. The authors of The Invisible Gorilla note that 'group processes can inspire a feeling akin to "safety in numbers" among the most hesitant members, decreasing realism and increasing certainty'.

The authors describe an experiment to determine how group processes work. What was found was that the people who assumed leadership roles were not more competent than others. They just had more dominant personalities and thus spoke first. And in 94% of the problems (It was a math test), the group's final answer was the first answer that anyone suggested. The first answer will be given by the most dominant personality. The authors write:
So in this experiment, group leadership was determined largely by confidence. People with dominant personalities tend to exhibit greater self-confidence, and due to the illusion of confidence, others tend to trust and follow people who speak with confidence. If you offer your opinion early and often, people will take your confidence as an indicator of your ability, even if you are actually no better than your peers.The illusion of confidence keeps the cream blended in. 
In The Poverty of Historicism, Karl Popper quotes Lord Acton's Law of corruption: 'You cannot give a man power over other men without tempting him to misuse it - a temptation which roughly increases with the amount of power wielded, and which very few are capable of resisting.' This is especially true in high PDI societies. We should be careful about what we wish for. We might get it.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Is a 'strong' leader desirable? - I

 'When people are free to do as they please, they usually imitate each other.' - Eric Hoffer

Thanks to the education system, I knew nothing about the findings in social psychology till some years after my stroke. (It takes time to detox oneself from some myths of an MBA education). And after a while, the assumption of economists that humans are rational agents started sounding like fiction. But I came across some economists like Robert Frank who says that decision making is often not rational. He says (quoted in The Emotional Brain): 'Many actions, purposely taken with full knowledge of their consequences, are irrational'. He likens many behaviours to Borges' description of the battle over Falkland Islands between Britain and Argentina - 'two bald men fighting over a comb.'

One of the powerful influences on human behavior is social conformity. We think that we make independent decisions that are not skewed by the opinions of others but that is a vain assumption. Advertisers will say that everyone is buying  their product. Politicians will say that everyone is supporting their party. They know that conformity  is a powerful instinct in humans. Politicians and advertisers have a better idea of human behaviour than economists do. The power of social influences varies in different situations.  The authors of Nudge describe its power in one such situation:
In the American judicial system, federal judges in three-judge benches are affected by the votes of their colleagues. The typical Republican appointee shows pretty liberal voting patterns when sitting with two Democratic appointees,and the typical Democratic appointee shows pretty conservative voting patterns when sitting with two Republican appointees. Both sets of appointees show far more moderate voting patterns when they are sitting with at least one judge appointed by a president of the opposing political party.
In Chronicles of our Time, Andre Beteille mentions Alexis de Tocqueville, a great 19th century writer on democracy, who viewed heroes in a democracy with misgivings. He said that there was no proper place in a democracy for heroes because when they arose, they would sooner or later turn into despots. Strong and charismatic leaders secure instant and unquestioned devotion among his or her followers and sooner or later start expecting similar devotion from everyone. Hence Ambedkar's warning in his final speech to the Constituent Assembly:
The second thing we must do is to observe the caution which John Stuart Mill has given to all who are interested in the maintenance of democracy, namely, not "to lay their liberties at the feet of even a great man, or to trust him with power which enable him to subvert their institutions". There is nothing wrong in being grateful to great men who have rendered life-long services to the country. But there are limits to gratefulness. As has been well said by the Irish Patriot Daniel O'Connel, no man can be grateful at the cost of his honour, no woman can be grateful at the cost of her chastity and no nation can be grateful at the cost of its liberty. This caution is far more necessary in the case of India than in the case of any other country. For in India, Bhakti or what may be called the path of devotion or hero-worship, plays a part in its politics unequalled in magnitude by the part it plays in the politics of any other country in the world. Bhakti in religion may be a road to the salvation of the soul. But in politics, Bhakti or hero-worship is a sure road to degradation and to eventual dictatorship.
In the 1950s a social psychologist Solomon Asch conducted experiments to get an idea about the level of conformity in people. He was trying to understand why so many good,  law abiding Germans unquestioningly followed Hitler's murderous policies. In the test people were asked to match the length of a line with three comparison lines as shown in the figure below:

When people were asked to make a decision on their own, they invariably gave the correct answer since it was an easy test.But when in a group, the answer was often influenced by what others said. When everyone gave an incorrect answer, people erred more than one-third of the time. This conformity effect was present even when the other people present were strangers and there was no particular reason to please them. One-third may sound like a small number till you realize that the winning party in Indian elections often gets only one-third of the votes.

Such conformity experiments have been conducted in many countries and the results have been similar. The authors of Nudge write, 'Unanimous groups are able to provide the strongest nudges - even when the question is an easy one, and people ought to know that everyone else is wrong.' Elections often give surprising results because people vote individually in seclusion and in this situation, their decision often differs from what they say in a group.

In this connection, also see Milgram's experiment and Stanford prison experiment.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

More episodes regarding nurses - II

The people in the world can be broadly divided into 2 classes - those who keep spectates in a safe place and those who don't. (Immediately Jaya reminded me about the famous dialogue in the movie 'HUM'.) Unfortunately for me, nurses belong to the latter category. Since I am heavily dependent on sight  I am very particular about where my glasses are kept. In the beginning, the nurses will be careless about where they keep my glasses. This would be so even if a table is right next to them where they can conveniently keep the glasses.

They may,  for example, remove my glasses for wiping my face and keep the glasses on the chair or on the bed on which I am lying. These are horror choices as far as I am concerned. Someone might sit on the chair without realizing that glasses were kept on it. I might cough suddenly and knock the glasses off the bed. Once, when sitting on the wheelchair, a nurse kept the glasses on my hand of all places while wiping my face. I was afraid that I might cough and the glasses might fall to the ground. I was trying to sit as quietly as possible with my blood pressure rising all the while.There are times when Fate is best left alone.

At such times, I keep signalling to the nurse to call Jaya (not when the glasses are on my hands!). When Jaya comes, I tell her what happened. She will explain to the nurse where to keep the glasses and that I will not let them do anything till I see that the glasses are kept safely. The nurses are told about this when they initially come home but they never take it seriously till I finally throw a tantrum.


A new nurse came at around 6 p.m. As usual, the agency said that she was an experienced nurse who had looked after many bed-ridden patients. She asked about my paralysis and Jaya gave a quick overview of what had happened. Jaya then asked her to have tea but she said she didn't want anything. She didn't eat anything for dinner either saying she was feeling overwhelmed after seeing my condition and didn't feel like eating anything. The claim that she was an 'experienced nurse' was beginning to ring hollow.

But she slept soundly and there was no sign of her waking up the next morning. Jaya gave my feeding, then decided to do my sponging herself. She finished at around 8 but there was still no sign of the nurse getting up. By this time we were getting worried since she had been lying motionless. Then she turned over to the other side and went back to sleep which was some relief for us: she seemed to be ok.

She finally got up at around nine and headed straight for the bathroom and from the sounds she appeared to be taking a bath. At that time, Jaya called the nurse's office and informed them about the happenings. They were also surprised that she had got up so late and said that they would speak to her. After some time she received a phone-call presumably from her office after which she went out of my room which I thought was for having her breakfast.

After a while Jaya came and told me that the nurse had left. I was surprised because nurses always say goodbye to me before leaving so I was not expecting it. Jaya filled me in on the missing details. Apparently, she was going with her airbag without telling anybody. My father-in-law asked her where she was going but she kept quiet. He called Jaya to whom the nurse said that she was leaving. In spite of Jaya's repeated queries she refused to say anything else. Finally, Jaya asked her if she wanted to be dropped at the bus-stand to which she replied no and left.  Throughout the time she had been here she did not have anything to eat or drink.

Monday, June 20, 2016

More episodes regarding nurses - I

When they first arrive, most nurses will be intimidated by the sight of my condition and will wonder whether they will be able to do the job. They will be relieved to know that Jaya will be with them at every step till I feel confident that the nurse can do the job on her own. After a week of learning the various procedures and getting to know my communication methods, the nurses start becoming more confident. The problem is that many then quickly traverse to the other end of the spectrum and become over-confident.

They take longer to call Jaya and try to find out what my dumb charades could mean. But their guesses would naturally be confined to what I had indicated in the week or two since the nurse had come while this will be a new issue.. So they will rarely be able to guess the problem and finally they will have no option but to call Jaya to whom I will dictate what needed to be done.


Many nurses think that all movements are voluntary whereas most of my movements are involuntary, This sometimes causes misunderstanding. For instance, my hands will keep bending at the elbow in response to cough, itch, pain, laughter, etc. The nurse will straighten them and in a few minutes they will again become bent. When this happens a few times, the nurse will say in exasperation, 'I am listening to you so why can't you listen to me? You are becoming stubborn! Keep your hands straight like this.' Of course, the advise will be in vain. I will feel like saying, 'It is my hands that are disobedient, not me!'


Many nurses, once they get used to me, seem touchy when I call Jaya. They think I am complaining to her about them. Actually, I will just be telling Jaya to show the nurse an easier way of doing something (which they will eventually ignore but I will try telling them anyway) or it may be to tell them to avoid some movement that was causing me some pain. In most such instances, I will have no option but to convey such instruction via Jaya.

Perhaps they have no other word to express this and they will sometimes ask me, 'Any complaints to Jaya?' After we realised this problem, we started using another tactic. I will wait for Jaya to come into my room when the nurse is not present and tell her the problem. She will tell the nurse later in some roundabout way about it without letting on that I had told her about it. But in the case of some pain, I will call Jaya immediately.

Many times when I ask a nurse to call Jaya, she will say, 'Why call her? You can tell me what you want.' I will start getting irritated and rail silently, 'It should be obvious to you that I am not able to convey it to you which is why I want you to call Jaya. This does not require rocket science, does it?' It is a bit unfair but it is said that in anger, you will make the best speech that you will regret. I escape this fate since I can't make that speech. Sometimes  the reason for calling Jaya might have nothing to do with the nurse - maybe I just want to remind Jaya about a bill that has to be paid, which I will obviously not be able to tell the nurse.

For a while, I will maintain a forced smile and try to indicate with vigorous movements of my head that there is no option but to call Jaya. Some nurses are stubborn and will persist in telling me that I should tell them the reason. I will start getting impatient and this makes clonus set in after which things are outside my control. My muscles will start stiffening and it will look as if I am having fits. The beneficial aspect of developing clonus is that the nurse will call Jaya immediately without waiting.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Strength in simplicity

This is the time of bluff and bombast - A 'path breaking' budget that will 'transform' India, a policy is a 'game changer', an agreement is 'historic', a product will 'revolutionise' communication', some product will 'change the world' (Steve Jobs said that about all his products), something will be a 'landmark' decision...I heard an anchor in a Malayalam channel called Kappa TV, which most people wouldn't have heard of, say, "When we were conceptualising this remix, we didn't know the impact it will have on 'the whole nation'".

Every state will have a much-hyped investor summit where huge investment promises will be made but one will never hear about the actuals. The prevailing wisdom seems to be that one has to shout and make tall claims in order to be successful. There is an emphasis on bright-siding everything irrespective of what the reality indicates. I was thinking about this culture of what Arun Shourie called, 'Jo hyperbole so nihal' while reading Gandhi before India by Ramachandra Guha.

In 1909, Gandhi spoke to a mixed gathering of Indians in London where he shared a platform with Savarkar. At that time, the Indian freedom movement was divided into two camps: moderates and extremists. Moderates believed in incremental, constitutional change while extremists wanted rapid change with violence if necessary. Savarkar was in the extremist camp and Gandhi was in the moderate camp. Ramachandra Guha describes how a student remembered the meeting 40 years later:
Savarkar was 'by far the most arresting personality' at the meeting; for 'around him had been built a flaming galaxy of violent revolutionism'. Gandhi, on the other hand, seemed shy and diffident; the students had to 'bend their heads forward to hear the great Mr. Gandhi speak'. His voice and speech were of a piece with his manner - 'calm, unemotional, simple, and devoid of rhetoric'.
A friend of Gandhi said that in  Johannesberg itself, there were 'several of his countrymen whose elocution, natural and unaffected, is far superior to his', that he spoke in a monotonous voice, he 'never waves his arms' and 'seldom moves a finger'. A shy, soft-spoken man who was an indifferent public speaker with speech devoid of rhetoric could move more millions than any other person in India's political history without the aid of arms or an army backing him. I think there is a lesson in it somewhere. (Watch this talk by Dr. Apoorvanand Jha - explaining the relevance of Gandhi's strong anti-majoritarian stand in his final days. The talk is in Hindi.)

Gandhi's philosophy of non-violent resistance to unjust laws made him ' a strategist of slow reforms, of protesting by stages, of systematically preparing himself and his colleagues rather than spontaneously  (or, as he would have it, haphazardly) rushing into confrontation.' This is in sharp contrast to what is popular today: a person who is aggressive, has a no-nonsense attitude, takes quick decisions...In other words, in order to be successful, one is supposed to be a pain in the neck.

Another friend says that while a student in London, Gandhi learnt that 'by quiet persistence he could do far more to change men's minds than by any oratory or loud trumpeting'. He was one of those rare individuals who was reflective as well as firm when he finally took a decision. And importantly, he had high moral standards. His followers were sure that he would be the the first to do what he asked others to do. Guha quotes an admirer, the Chinese Nobel Laureate, Liu Xiabao:
Compared to people in other nations that have lived under the dreary pull of Communism, we resistors in China have not measured up very well. Even after so many years of tremendous tragedies, we still don't have a moral leader like Vaclav Havel. It seems ironic that in order to win the right of ordinary people to persue self-interest, a society needs a moral giant to make a selfless sacrifice. In order to secure 'passive freedom' - freedom from state oppression - there needs to be a will to do active resistance. History is not fated. The appearance of a single martyr can fundamentally turn the spirit of a nation and strengthen its moral fibre. Gandhi was such a figure.
PS: During his first visit to the US, Modi made a big splash. Listening to the audience reactions after one of his 'rock star-like' appearances, I heard a gushing NRI say, 'It was like listening to Gandhi.' I almost had a heart attack.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Luck - VI

In The Shiva Trilogy by Amish Tripathi, there were some statements that I disagreed with, one of which was that 'nothing is random; everything has a cause'. (Of course earthquakes, for example, have reasons but those reasons have nothing to do with us.) Humans have evolved to notice patterns and ascribe significance to them. English philosopher and scientist Francis Bacon said that humanity has a proclivity to “suppose the existence of more order and regularity in the world than it finds.” Zodiac signs, Roscharch test and paredolia are examples of the human tendency to find patterns where none exist.

Human beings make up stories that sound convincing to them. There is an experiment by the psychologist Richard Nisbet which shows this.They placed several stockings on the table. Many women were then allowed to examine the stockings and choose the one they liked best. The women gave all sorts of reasons for their choice but actually the stockings were identical. People are often mistaken about their feelings and give reasons from social conventions, from how things normally work or plain guesses. You can see this habit of trying to spot patterns in randomness in the stock market.  Phil Rosenzweig writes in The Halo Effect:
...take the stock market, whose fluctuation , edging higher one day and a bit lower the next, resemble Brownian motion, the jittery movement of pollen particles in water or gas molecules bouncing off one another. It's not very satisfying to say that today's stock market movement is explained by random forces. Tune in to CNBC and listen to the pundits as they watch the ticker, and you'll  hear them explain, "The Dow is up slightly as investors gain confidence from rising factory orders,"or, "The Dow is off by a percentage point as investors take profits,"or, "The Dow is a bit higher as investors shrug off worries about the Fed's next move on interest rates." They have to say something. Maria Bartiromo can't exactly look into the camera and say that the Dow is down half a percent today because of random Brownian motion.
In Fooled by Randomness, Nassim Taleb gives an example of how a perfectly random process can produce a result that mimics what happens in the real world. Suppose there are 10,000 fictional investment managers who play a perfectly fair game: each has a 50% chance of winning $10,000 at the end of the year and a 50% chance of losing $10,000. Once a manager loses money, he is thrown out of the sample.Thus, each year half the managers lose their job.

At the end of the first year, we can expect 5000 managers to survive, after two years, 2500 will have won 2 years in a row and so on. At the end of the fifth year, there will be 313 managers who would have won money five years in a row in a game akin to a coin toss. The number of survivors depends only on the initial number who play the game. If one of these survivors is in the real world, what will the reactions be? Taleb writes:
...we would get very interesting and helpful comments on his remarkable style, his incisive mind, and the influences that helped him achieve such success. Some analysts may attribute his achievement to precise elements among his childhood experiences. His biographer will dwell on the wonderful role models provided by his parents; we would be supplied with black and white pictures in the middle of the book of a great mind in the making. And the following year, should he stop outperforming (recall that his odds of having a good year have stayed at 50%) they would stat laying blame, finding fault with the relaxation in his work ethics, or his dissipated lifestyle. They will find something he did before when he was successful that he has subsequently stopped doing, and attribute his failure to that. The truth will be, however, that he simply ran out of luck.
To understand successes, the study of traits in failure need to be present. For instance, some traits that seem to explain millionaires, like appetite for risk, only appear because one does not study business failures. If one includes bankrupt people in the sample, then risk-taking would not appear to be a valid factor explaining success. The Halo Effect also contributes to making a coherent story by making our view of all the attributes of an individual match our judgment of one attribute that stands out. As Philip, the protagonist in Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage muses:
 He did not know that he had ever done anything but what seemed best to do, and what a cropper he had come! Other men, with no more advantages than he, succeeded, and others again, with many more, failed. It seemed pure chance. The rain fell alike upon the just and upon the unjust, and for nothing was there a why and a wherefore.
Or as it says in Ecclesiastes: 'I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.' In this speech, Michael Lewis describes how luck played the key role in putting him in the right place at the right time.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Luck - V

You can say that successful people are intelligent, hardworking, persevering and driven but the reverse is not true - all intelligent, hardworking, persevering and driven people are not successful. The difference between the smaller set of successful people and the larger set of people with similar qualities to those associated with successful people is luck or what is commonly called 'being in the right place at the right time'.

The reason why only successful people attract attention is because of the survivorship bias - you tend to look at only the survivors of a process, not at the failures. A statement by Walt Disney seems to be popular - 'if you can dream it, you can do it'. Well, the number of people who dreamt something and didn't do it is far greater than those who did. You can't tell the difference between the two groups till you study both groups. But those who failed didn't write autobiographies. As Amitabh Bachchan says in the film Deewar, 'sapne samundar ki lahron ke tarah hoti  hain, woh hakikat ki chattanon se takarah kar toot jati hain.' (Dreams are like the waves on the ocean; they  hit the rocks of reality and break up.)

In the 1982 book In Search of Excellence (more than three million copies sold), Tom Peters and Robert Waterman identified eight common attributes of 43 “excellent” companies. Since then, of the 35 companies with publicly traded stocks, 20 have done worse than the market average. People are reluctant to acknowledge that the world is more messy than their models suggest. It is tempting to think that successful people have the controls in their hands and can tame Lady Luck. Success looks neat and tidy in hindsight.

The evaluation of the strategies and qualities of companies and individuals depends on the perception of their outcomes. As Phil Rosenzweig says in The Halo Effect: . . . and the Eight Other Business Delusions That Deceive Managers (highly recommended), 'if a diversification strategy succeeds,  it will be described as 'deftly maneuvering into new areas'; if it fails, it will be described as ' drifting' or 'straying from its core'. (Perhaps the failure was  due to 'causal ambiguity'. Maybe it was caused by ''idiosymcratic contingency'. The above-mentioned book says that it is the way PhDs say 'I don't know'.)

In The Black Swan, Nassim Taleb tells a story to illustrate survivorship bias, a story that had been related by the Roman orator, Cicero. One Diagoras was shown painted tablets bearing the portraits of some worshippers who prayed, then survived a subsequent shipwreck. The implication was that prayer protects you from drowning. Diagoras asked, “Where are the pictures of those who prayed, then drowned?” Those drowned believers are ignored in the analysis. Taleb writes:
Consider the thousands of writers now completely vanished from consciousness: their record does not enter analysis. We do not see the tons of rejected manuscripts because these writers have never been published...Consider the number of actors who have never passed an audition but would have done very well had they had that lucky break in life.
There is a graph called Socio-economic status (SES) gradient. The poorer you are the greater your chances of suffering from respiratory disorders, ulcers, psychiatric diseases etc.There are obvious possibilities like lack of health-care access, dangerous working conditions, lack of education etc. But the main reason seems to be due to the stress of poverty caused by psychological factors. It is also caused by  being made to feel poor.

The survivorship bias can make people feel poor. Consider a group of millionaires. They will compare themselves to over 99% of the people and feel pleased with themselves. Now put a few billionaires among them. They will start comparing themselves to the minuscule group of survivors and stop feeling so pleased. Your happiness seems to depend on your neighbour's wealth.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Luck - IV

Nassim Taleb makes a distinction between two types of occupations. Non-scalable occupations are like those of a dentist, baker,cook, etc.  where you need to invest additional time and effort for each unit of production. Scalable occupations are like those of an author, movie star, equity trader etc. where the the amount of work required doesn't increase with production. A writer, for example, has to put in the same amount of work to gain one or a million readers.

In a non-scalable occupation, the element of skill is more easily discernible. A scalable occupation is more dependant on luck and produces huge inequalities where a few can earn a lot leaving others with the crumbs even though there may not be such a wide difference between the two groups. In any individual case, it will be more difficult to decide how much of luck and how much of skill contributed to the success.

Every year, the literary agent John Brockman asks several public intellectuals to answer some question or another, and posts it on the Internet to provoke discussion. One year he asked many scientists to give their favorite equation. Daniel Kahneman gave the following:
success = talent +luck
great success = a little more talent + lot of luck
I will just add that even the skill that one possesses is a matter of luck - it depends on the combination of genes that you are born with and the environment you are born into, both of which you cannot control.

There is also the contingency that  the society that you are born into values the talents that you process.For eg. if Tendulkar had been born in Mali with the same talent for hitting with a wooden implement a leather missile thrown at speed, he would not have become a star. He would also not have become as good as he did because he would not have had the motivation to improve his skills.He worked hard because he knew that the skills that he possessed were honoured and rewarded in the society in which he lived. (A school student said that he needs to study only till Std. X and he will become a crorepati. Why? Tendulkar studied only till Std X! This is is another type of delusion similar to thinking that if you drop out of college and have a garage, you will become a billionaire!)
Michael Sandel writes in Justice:
The successful often overlook this contingent aspect of their success. Many of us are fortunate to process, at least in some measure, the qualities that our society happens to prize. In a capitalist society, it helps to have entrepreneurial drive. In a bureaucratic society, it helps to get on easily and smoothly with superiors. In a mass democratic society, it helps to look good on television, and to speak in short, superficial sound bites. In a litigious society, it helps to go to law school, and to have the logical and reasoning skills that will allow you to score well on the LSATs.
So, while we are entitled to the benefits that the rules of the game promise for the exercise of our talents, it is a mistake and  a conceit to suppose that we deserve in the first place a society that values the qualities we have in abundance.
You may say that life is unfair, that nature distributes talents unequally and the luck of social circumstances cannot be helped. Well, nature is neither fair nor unfair; it just is. In the words of the poet A.E. Housman, it 'neither  knows nor cares'. As the philosopher John Rawls said, 'What is just and unjust is the way that institutions deal with these facts.' You cannot derive values from facts. Making this error is called naturalistic fallacy.

The philosopher John Rawls considered what formal principles of justice rational and mutually disinterested persons would choose in the original position of equality behind the veil of ignorance unaware of the talents and status they will inherit at birth. If you didn't know your own place in society, there is always the chance that once the veil is removed, you might find yourself among the least advantaged economically and/or a persecuted minority.

According to Rawls, two principles of justice would emerge from such a thought experiment. The first would be that the person would choose a society which would provide equal basic liberties for all which would take priority over considerations of social utility and general welfare. The second choice, knowing that you could be dealt a lousy hand, would be to be born in a society where the most disadvantaged are cared for.

Rawls is not suggesting a levelling equality of the type parodied in Harrison Bergerson, a short story by Kurt Vonnegut.The sociologist Andre Beteille makes a distinction between equality and universality. Universality is the idea of providing primary education and health care to all citizens irrespective of merit. It is concerned with providing the basic necessities and not with everything that human beings may desire at any point of time.

All this does not mean that hard-work, determination, punctuality, etc are not important.  What it indicates is that these qualities are not sufficient attributes for ensuring success. Many successful people have an attribution bias - they attribute their success to their skill and their failures to randomness. It is a wonder that many people seem to  be  convinced of the absurd notion that success is a simple function of individual effort. In The Blank Slate, Stephen Pinker writes about the trade-off between freedom and material equity:
The major political philosophies can be defined by how they deal with the trade-off.  The Social Darwinist right places no values on equality; the totalitarian left places no value on freedom. The Rawlsian left sacrifices some freedom for equality; the libertarian right sacrifices some equality for freedom.  While reasonable people may disagree about the best trade-off, it is unreasonable to pretend there is no trade-off.