Thursday, August 24, 2006

A Thought

I feel that:
We are powerless creatures toiling under subconscious influences formed when we were very young, say before twelve years of age. Whatever we do is under the compulsions of those influences and eduaction only helps achieve those notions.

Rather vague. Let me elaborate. All of us have ideas of achievement, happiness, fulfilment, personal satisfaction and so on. We labour all our lives to achieve these. However, the seeds of these notions are laid at a time when we cannot even understand them, let alone regulate them.

To give a bad analogy but one that will serve the purpose nevertheless, it is like we are on a journey to oprimize some objective function, say happiness, success and so on. Education helps one achieve that maximum but the answer to the question of why different individuals have different objective functions lie in the environmental infleunces when they were say, less than ten years old.

Let me give two cases. Say, an individual went through financial difficulties in the first ten-fifteen years of his life, he/she will most probably conclude that money is God and nothing else matters in this world and devote himself to that pursuit.
Another individual growing up in an environment where the Mathematican uncle is the most admired person in the family would most likely want to end up as a mathematician.
Perhaps, both may have equal intelligence and both may get what they want, but the reason for these two individuals to chose these diverse paths will most strongly be influenced by those factors.

These are examples, and they are for illustration purposes only. I am not using them as arguments.

The first objection will come in the question of genius. Aren't geniuses in a sense independent of their environment? The few cases I can think of, it seems to be the case. So leaving individuals who are later pronounced as geniuses, I believe for the rest of us it is a matter of influences only.

If anyone is sufficiently provoked by this statement and/or jobless enough to retort, comments will be highly appreciated!

A Night at The Underground

Victor examined himself again in the mirror. He was wearing his favourite black suit, the one that he had purchased, at considerable expense in Singapore. This matched perfectly with his black patent leather shoes. He looked at his shoes approvingly. Victor had a feminine love for footwear. He would agonize endlessly over the purchase of a pair of shoes and was willing to pay anything for the right one. This latest acquisition had been his pride. It was one of those patent leather slip-ons, which had a rather marked rectangular shape in the front. Then the length gradually contracted towards the heel to make that perfect, snug fit. When walking on granite floors, the kind found in the lobby of five star hotels, it made that perfectly rhythmic “tak tak” sound. While walking he felt an extra confidence, almost as if he wore the King of the Shoes” which commanded the less manlier shoes, especially those ugly laced ones, to step out of the way. As he caressed his silk tie, Victor gave one more look at the mirror and smiled, satisfied.

He hurried to The Underground, the most fashionable place in town. All the beautiful single (and the not-so-single, as well) ladies congregated here. The guy who owned the place was only known as Dr.G, the most powerful and influential boss in the city. After having made his money, he aspired for respectability and expected everyone to address him as Dr.G. It was not all without substance though. He was easily the most educated among all the criminal bosses, for he had graduated from college and that fact alone was enough to make his minions pronounce the title with awe.

The Underground was part of the city’s lore and in fact, it’s pride. Surprisingly, considering its popularity, or maybe, to emphasize it, The Underground had no sign. First time visitors went into the Italian restaurant nearby, called Il Azurri, only to see a sign on the door that read, “This is not the Underground. The entrance to the U is to the right”. The proprietor of Il Azurri was a tired Italian who grunted in reply to anything. He hated the Underground. Ever since it had opened, he had had at least fifteen visitors stepping in by mistake everyday and walking out. To minimize the damage to business he simply decided to put a sign up.

If the visitor looked right, he saw a small door with a lamp on top. The lamp’s light was obscured by the neon sign of the Il Azurri and as such, served no purpose. But there was a long line queuing up to enter the door. For the “door” was actually the door of an elevator which took visitors to the main club. This gave an “other-worldly” feel to the whole place. The Lift, as it was called, acted like a portal to a surreal, parallel universe and visitors felt a transformation even as they were in the lift. A lot of neat tricks were there to create the “wow” effect. When the lift arrived a sign flashed saying “Open Sesame”. The door itself had the word “Underground” placed in between the symbol for a Metro station. The interior of the lift was covered with mirrors, even the door. It had very little lighting except for a set of white circular orbs placed at the ceiling. Of course, to get into the Lift, one had to pay an obscenely high cover charge before the bouncer called up the lift. But that was part of “The Underground” experience. The Underground was not for every Tom. DICK or Harry as Dr.G was fond of saying.

The Lift took you to the first floor of the basement complex. As far as the visitor was concerned that was all he/she had access to. Below that were their offices, security section and other administrative departments. Dr.G ran a tight ship and everyone admired him for that. His office was the Basement 5th floor and it was the lowermost floor in the complex. Dr.G had almost not built the Underground due to financial difficulties. He had however persisted and the bet had paid off. The Underground was now the most happening place in the city and many influential people owed him favours on account of this place.

The floor which constituted “The Underground” was divided into two broad sections. A club called the “The Grinning Gringo” and a Casino. Though it had not been intended, over the years the club had fragmented itself into many sections depending on people’s preferences and regular visitors just knew the corners and headed there. The dancing floor was THE BIG ATTRACTION and something was always going on there. The seating consisted of plush leather chairs, all meant for two, and one felt a pleasant sinking feeling when seated on it. There were many junior bartenders who mixed the regular cocktails. They were scattered across the floor and once, Victor had counted at least ten such “mini-bars”. But there were some “Underground Specials” which were mixed at The Hub – a large circular table with neon lights. There the legendary bartenders held fort to connoisseurs and screaming girls, dispensing philosophy as well as alcohol. Other restaurants often advertised the availability of Underground Specials in theirs!

Victor got down near the back entrance and paid his taxi. He was an old-timer here and The Lift was just hype as far as he was concerned. He would do it if he had been with some chick from out of town, and that too, only if she had absolutely insisted on it. For some reason, the girls thought that the lift was cool and became all giggly and touchy once inside it.

He met Desmond at the entrance. Desmond was the Floor Manager here, one of the most powerful guys on the floor. Des was quite a character. A Nigerian who had immigrated here as a twelve year old he had started at the lowest of the criminal food chain, drug pushing and had gradually grown up to become one of Dr.G’s trusted lieutenants. However, one day he had just decided that he wanted an easy and respectable lifestyle and so, became the Floor Manager. For a Nigerian, he curiously spoke like an American black. Must be all the MTV, thought Victor. Des adored Dr.G and was constantly lamenting his own lack of education. “You know Vic, Dr. G went to yuniversity man. He read injineering, can you buhlieve that. All those ekwations man. Look at this place, this is going down in history as an injineering marvel baby”, he told Vic frequently. He was also immensely religious, wore a Rosemary bead and quoted the Bible after kicking a fellow out. To improve his education, he read ten words from the Advanced Oxford Dictionary daily. He also adored Tarantino and perhaps, that was the reason for the Bible quoting. Besides that he made it a point to go to the latest exhibitions and plays and read about them.

But Victor admired him for another reason. He was great with women and had introduced the former to some of the city’s gorgeous women. What they saw in him, Victor never understood. He was swarthy, head shaven, his white teeth shone against his face when he smiled. He told pretty ordinary jokes and laughed before the punch lines. In fact, often the joke was Des himself. Even the Floor Manager was a euphemism, for he was nothing more than a bouncer. But there it was, he was considered quite a Casanova by the girls. Anyway, fortuitously Des had taken a liking to him and Victor had grown in confidence after meeting him.

Des let him through the back door and teasingly asked, “You are alone? Well shoot me down, but is Victor Stephen Banks alone. Naaaw. Losing your touch brother!”
Victor laughed and said, ”Hmm… the fair maidens of our city do require my attention from time to time. How is the crowd today?”
“Good maan! But the girls are dying for their saviour. They only have Old Steve to swoon over. Godspeed Vic and deliver them from undeserved punishment”.
“Surely”, guffawed Victor as he stepped in through the kitchen.
“Good to see you Vicky”, said Roger the head chef. Victor nodded back.
“Mr. V, Alone? Am I dreaming?” ribbed Tom the waiter. Victor chuckled. It was good to be here. “Tom, I’ll be at the O.D. The usual, please”.

Victor went and settled into a relatively secluded corner of the club. He called it the “Observation Desk” for it gave the best view of the floor. The usual visitors were there.
As Victor sat there sipping the Gin and Tonic, he noticed Ol’ Steve. Ol’ Steve was not old at all. In fact, he was a recently retired star swimmer. He dressed dashingly, if a bit gaudily, and always sat three in the seat for two. He had a square jaw and a striking nose and was handsome. But he was quite a bore and his laugh sounded like the neigh of a horse. Every incident found a resonance in the swimming pool for him and some of his metaphors were torturous. But he was an agreeable bloke as long as he didn’t speak.

Suddenly, a smile caught his eye. He smiled back heartily realizing it was Natasha Robinson, the wife of the Mayor. She was easily Victor’s favourite woman. She had beautiful, expressive eyes and dimples appeared whenever she smiled. Despite leading a high profile life she possessed an air of charming innocence. Even at that age, the area around her dimples turned pink if she heard a lewd joke. Her gestures were extremely delicate, feminine and graceful. She had full red lips and flawless, smooth skin. She wore little or no make up but beat all the made up dolls hands down. Even on that day, she had simply tied her brunette hair into a bun and was wearing a long, flowing cream gown with pink hibiscuses on it. She was entertaining some friends and was quite immersed in her conversation.

Sipping his whiskey, Victor realized that they were playing the latest bubblegum pop hit. Irritated, he noted that this must be brought to Des’ notice. Hardly, the music for men, he grunted to himself. Then Victor caught sight of a lady fidgeting constantly on a barstool. She was talking to Briggs, the owner of the biggest bookie house in the country. Briggs was a curious man. He had no neck. He looked as if God had blown two balloons, one small, one large and stuck them together to create him. But there was always a look of merriment in his eyes and he was quite popular with the girls. However, the genial exterior masked an inner ruthlessness. In fact, he was as powerful and feared in his trade as Dr.G was in his.

The lady was constantly wiggling in the stool. Victor noted approvingly that she had an ample derriere. The stool was quite small and tall for her and her legs didn’t quite reach up to the floor. To balance herself she had to carefully place her heeled footwear on the ledge of the stool. It must have been quite a task, chuckled Victor to himself, but she was too much into The Game of Seduction to care. She was wearing an orange sleeveless shirt and tight black pants that accentuated her figure. Victor couldn’t catch her eyes but he was interested. He saw her smiling and flirting with Briggs. There was something familiar about her profile, the suggestive bending of the shoulder and the seductive smile. Victor saw that Briggs was really trying hard and had taken out a Cuban cigar. Briggs was a notorious miser and this showed how desperate he was and that she was a master player to have brought him to this level. Continuing the game, Briggs pushed her hair back with his ugly, chubby fingers and caressed her ears. She seemed to blush but Victor realized it was too perfect to be real. Then he noticed a mole right at the center of her left cheek. He got up with a start and gasped.

Could it possibly be Alexandra?

(to be continued…)

(The concluding part can be found here)

Monday, August 21, 2006

Scientific Thought vs. Unscientific Thought

(This is an article I wrote for a campus magazine. Was inspired by the book "The Fox and the Hedgehog" by Stephen Gould. The motivation is my concern that it is quite easy to become intolerant simply because one is comfortable with a certain point of view.)

A topic which has been pre-occupying me for the past few days is how logical is what we have been taught as logic? Is our approach to life strictly logical? Does anything like a strictly approach to life exits? Even if something like pure logic were to exist would it be in our interest to pursue it.

My contention is that we have been conditioned to regard certain approaches as “Scientific” and “Unscientific”. Human thought and its progress has been highly zig-zag. Reading the lives of many thinkers, I feel that there is a trend in the growth of “great ideas”. That is, the seeds of the most revolutionary ideas germinate many many decades before they see the light of the day. If the idea strikes at the hitherto accepted fundamentals of the subjects, then it does not catch the fancy immediately. Often, a charismatic intellectual is required to support and elaborate on the idea. Gradually, an acceptance emerges. In the meantime, some other development undermines/ supports this idea. If there is a development which necessitates the idea, then it explodes and the rest as they say is history. If not, it remains in the bylanes of scientific thought until another charismatic genius comes and re-interprets the idea. Often, the original context and concept of the idea may be very different from its final state. Therein lies a subtlety. Any work of thought has to be re-interpreted before making it fit for mass instruction. In the process, many “transmission losses” occur. One very subtle intellectual problem arises out of the common practice of giving examples. In my opinion, analogies are excellent tools in teaching but often create many, many misconceptions. Why does a teacher have to resort to give examples? There is clearly a communication problem somewhere. Either it is with the listener or the speaker. To get around the problem, an example is given. Therefore, we have only got around the communication problem and we have NOT solved it. Being aware of this limitation, I think students should take examples with a pich of salt, as a very restrictive illustration of a concept, borne out of the desperation for communication.

I have digressed. In the process of interpretation many inconsistencies which the original thinker did not intend creep in. Also, the original historical context is lost and the result is carried forward. Nothing wrong for this is the practical thing to do. But, the realization that knowledge is seamless is lost and in some cases this leads to needless pedantism.

Stephen Gould has written an interesting book titled “The Fox and the Hedgehog”. The title of the book is got from a Greek fable. The fox is portrayed as a cunning animal which has a number of strategies and can flexibly shift from strategy to strategy to achieve its goal. When pursued by enemies, the fox resorts to a combination of strategies to “outfox” the opponents. The Hedgehog on the other hand, curls up into a ball which has a hide of spines. The enemies come look at the ball, wait for it to uncoil. After some time they decide it would be worthier to walk away and find some other prey. The Hedgehog uncoils and walks away.

This brings to light two broad strategic approaches. One is that of the fox: Flexible, combination of many. The other is that of the hedgehog: steadfast, determined and proceeding on its path irrespective of its opponents approach.

The beauty is that we need a combination of both approaches to maximize our payoffs. Being too shallow across many fields does not pay but neither does pedantic steadfastness. There have been great minds like Von Neumann who forayed into a number of fields, setting the foundations for many while there were others like Schroedinger, Dirac who achieved great things in one field only. The contributions of both approaches are equally important.

A classic example is the debate over astrology. Astrology is dismissed immediately as a pseudoscience. What is the basis for doing so? Here we have to resort to a “definition of science”. Is repeatability the test of a science? By that argument many of the experiments we perform in the lab, never give the literature result. Does it render those experiments unscientific? Not at all. Repeatability is a feature of science not the test. Coming back to the case of astrology, what is its status with regards to science?

Now, the fundamental supposition of astrology viz. planets affect our lives, seems ridiculous. But that per se does not render astrology unscientific as commonly thought. For a theory, you can start of with any axiom, it is the results derivable from that which matter. The real problem with astrology is this: Given that a prediction is wrong there is no way to know which part of the “theory of astrology” failed. In other words, where was the conceptual flaw which rendered it to fail? The reason for this is that astrology has a number of empirical thumb rules as opposed to a well constructed theory.

But the same applies to psychology and some of the social sciences as well. Just because something does not conform to our definition of a science doesn’t render it less relevant and consequently we have many fields which are strictly not scientific but I think that indicates our inability to develop models to understand the world.

The kind of science we do is very effective when we can develop a qualitative relationship between the various variables which got making up a phenomenon. But there are many cases when that may not be possible. In such cases, one must not dismiss the problem as non-scientific but rather understand that our mathematical tools are inadequate. In such cases using heuristics and thumb rules is perfectly admissible and in fact that may be the “scientific approach”.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Put Intro

Ah, the mandatory intro!

(The Scene: A fresher stands at the gate to the mystical blog world. His hands are sweaty as he completes the formailities to get inducted. But one formidable obstacle remains-The meeting with the gatekeeper. As the fresher stumbles to find him amidst the smoke, he bumps into someone.)

Me, the uncertain fresher
The Reader (TR) - a wizened old man with tired eyes, who looks at me with an "Oh-no-not-another-one" expression. He is the gate keeper to the blog world.

(TR): Who are you?

(Me):(Cough Cough) Don't you think the smoke is a bit too strong here. Actually smells like Scissors Navy Cut. Can't you turn it down a bit old chappie.

(TR): Who are you? How dare you talk to ME like that?

(Me): Oh! (Realizing that it must be the gatekeeper) I am K.N.Venkateswaran, a fourth year student of chemical engineering at IIT Madras. I did my schooling at PSBB Main/Nungambakkam, Chennai. Hobbies include reading, (trying to) swim and (a bit of) quizzing. My favorite hobby is theorizing. Have dabbled in many things so far but have never quite stuck on to anything. I like to fancy myself as one who likes to pursue something for the pursuit rather than the result ;-)

(TR): So you are just another idle fellow desperate to show to the world that you think of other things than women and alcohol. What else is new? You like to the theorize? Bah, that is what 90% of all blogs do and fail miserably at!

Tell me, which species do you belong to? - the literati, the chatterati, the dramarati or the quizzerati.

(Me): Pah! Should one necessarily conform to a group just in order to gain an identity? I just like to write. Oh and by the way, adding an 'ati' to every noun you can think of is not necessarily an intelligent thing.

(TR): Shut Up, minion! You still have not answered my question.

(Me): Well for one, I think I have my own way of theorizing and in addition, I plan to try my hand in some serious writing as well.

(TR): Bah! Humbug! You would probably write some personal experience in third person and call it fiction! Tell me this: Who do you write for?

(Me):(hesitantly) Myself... I guess

(TR): In that case why don't you just write something and look at it everyday and be happy. Why publish on blogspot?

(Me): See, that's the point. I like to write in a certain way, perhaps there are others who like that. Besides, it sounds good to hear the word 'publish'. Everytime I click that publish button I get a feeling of power!

(TR): So?

(Me):(impatiently) So, it is a bit of both... The root cause of problems is the tendency to look at the world in terms of dualities. The solution is often a combination of two seemingly opposite ideas, the accomodation of divergent views.

(TR):(chuckling) This, I gather, would be the reason for your blog's title as well.

(Me):(Grinning Sheepishly) Actually, it is a nickname but it kind of sums up my attitude quite well.

(TR): Okay, you may step in. Let the semantic diarrhoea begin!