Saturday, August 22, 2015

Your emotional disposition is more than just who you are...

For a couple of years now, I have been practicing a technique called "mindfulness" -- a term, which is used in several senses by different people, so let me define it here.

It is a technique by which we try to understand our emotional disposition or emotional profile, by observing our emotions over a long period of time.

Emotional disposition is different from our emotional "state" -- the latter simply refers to how we are feeling right now. Emotional states are transient, and in fact, just asking someone how are they feeling, may make them feel different.

Our emotional disposition is our strategic tendency to be in certain areas of the emotional state space, than certain others. It is how we tend to feel and what we tend to pursue when we are under no external pressure.

In that sense, our emotional disposition is "who we are" as a person.

But, it is more than just about who we are.

If we find out things about ourselves -- things that we intensely desire, or intensely despise, and cannot attribute it to any childhood experience, then it is likely to be a characteristic property of our emotional disposition. But where did that characteristic property come from?

The only place it could have come from is our genes. And my conjecture was that forces of evolution encodes emotionally intense experiences of a parent generation, into the genetic code of the next generation.

A recent paper in the Biological Psychiatry journal addresses the same issue and confirms the conjecture. This article in the Guardian, explains more about this phenomenon called epigenetic inheritance.

This is nature's way of recording history. There is an "official" version of history that we are taught in schools and then there is this "personal" version of history that affects us directly.

Wednesday, August 05, 2015

Patriarchy and feminism

Many times, those who proclaim themselves to be feminists, are basically practicing what may be called "reverse patriarchy."

An example is this panelist who was a self-proclaimed feminist on a TV news-hour debate some weeks ago discussing the "arrogance of our netas (leaders)." Her argument was that the netas should not act like Maharajas, they should act like our sewaks (servants).

So, basically she does not want them to be Maharajas, because she wanted to be the Maharaja. Clearly, if we have to abolish Maharajas from our lexicon, we cannot do so without abolishing sewaks.

In my understanding, she was not a feminist, but a reverse-patriarch. And my understanding of patriarchy and feminism is detailed below.

The cornerstone of the patriarchal mindset is the use of dominance and control to bring order in society. Power is revered and discipline is seen as something that needs to be imposed in order for social peace.

In contrast, a feminist worldview is one that espouses values like synergy and interpersonal harmony as cornerstones for social peace and order. In a feminist worldview, power needs to be as distributed as possible, discipline has to be innate rather than imposed and the underlying axioms about power is that "power corrupts" and "power attracts the corruptible."

In patriarchy, the ends justify the means. Hence, supporting a dictator, empowering drug dealers are all fine, if they lead finally to upholding democracy. In the feminist worldview, means are more important than ends. In this worldview, it does not matter if one does not achieve anything of significance in one's life, but it is extremely important for one to live a life of high personal integrity.

Surveillance as a means of social security is characteristic of a patriarchal mindset. The feminist mindset wants vigilance, not surveillance. Vigilance is a bottom-up construct leading to a harmonious society, while surveillance is a top-down construct leading to a law-abiding society.

The "good" patriarch is "God fearing" and washes away his/her sins accumulated in their power dynamics, in front of God by resorting to symbolism and rituals. The feminist in contrast, is "God loving" and often gets into long-winded dialogue with one's personal deity and treats the deity as a confidante and friend.

The patriarch believes in a "code of conduct" while the feminist believes in a "bill of rights."

When confronted with injustice, the virtuous response for a patriarch is to "fight back" and the virtuous response for a feminist is "non-cooperation". Because the feminist believes that injustice happens due to tacit cooperation by the victim and that "No one can make you a victim without your consent."

While stereotypically, patriarchy is associated with men and feminism with women, these two mindsets have nothing to do with gender. Gandhi was a feminist, while a cursory look at our tele-serials seem to suggest that the average mother-in-law is generally a patriarch.

As with any mindset, both patriarchy and feminism are practiced in "unawakened" and "awakened" forms.

The unawakened patriarch uses crude strategies to pursue power and dominance, including for instance, glorifying slavery. The crude rationale for slavery is that weak persons have two choices, either die in a fight for survival or survive by becoming the slave of a strong person.

The unawakened patriarch glorifies competition and considers honour, prestige and social status as reflections of one's worth. The unawakened patriarch believes that competition brings out the best in people.

In contrast, the unawakened feminist resorts to crude strategies to avoid conflict at all costs and prefers to live in denial or abstinence, rather than confront uncomfortable situations that may cause discomfort. The unawakened feminist tends to confuse comfort for harmony. Because solving the harmony problem over a large population is complex, the unawakened feminist would favour solving the harmony problem for oneself or for one's own family and friends -- often using a flawed logic that if everyone harmonizes for their own lives, the overall system is also automatically harmonized. The unawakened feminist is often not familiar with situations like the Prisoners' Dilemma and the dynamics of entrenchment and ghettos.

The awakened mind on the other hand, realizes that things are not as simple as they look. For starters, the awakened mind at least acknowledges the legitimacy of the other paradigm. The awakened patriarch does not view awakened feminism as a threat or morally reprehensible, and vice versa.

The awakened mind accommodates the other paradigm within a larger framework that is still rooted in their base paradigm.

For instance, Akio Morita, the founder of Sony, famously observed in his book "Made in Japan," the differences between the American and the Japanese approach to corporate profit as follows: The Americans believe that it is important to nurture harmony and employee happiness for bringing profits for the company; while the Japanese believe that profits for the company is important to achieve employee happiness and harmony.

Also, as I see it, the Ramayana was written with the mindset of an awakened patriarch, while the Mahabharata was written in the mindset of an awakened feminist.

The industrial revolution, which culminated in the 20th century was the epitome of glorification of patriarchy. Formation of nation states, games and competitions and the world wars, were all, at some level driven by a need to control and dominate over one's environment to achieve stability. Almost all technology till the 20th century were about power, control and dominance.

The 21st century however, promises to be fundamentally different. The Internet and the World Wide Web, are nothing less than nightmares and a pandora's box for someone who prefers order and control. The Web seems to connect anything with anything else, without any sense of status, respect, decency, honour, etc.

In my view, the Web is the fundamental building block for the resurgence of the feminist worldview in the new century. The Web cannot be controlled without causing widespread damage -- it can only be harmonized. The Web functions best when its power is decentralized and as Sir Tim Berners-Lee recently proposed, a "Bill of Rights" for online citizens is sorely essential to keep the spirit of the Web alive.

As for myself, I am an unabashed feminist according to its definition detailed above. I'm also hopefully "awakened" and do not view patriarchy as illegitimate, and realize the need for discipline and control over our own lives. Certain critical sections of the society like say, the military, police and emergency personnel need to operate in a strictly regulated framework. But the society as a whole needs to pursue (distributed) harmony rather than (centralized) control. 

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

The wretched duty-bound life

Some time ago we lost an elderly member of the family. The extended family members came by to pay their last respects and there was grief everywhere. Everyone consoled the elderly wife of the person who was left behind. She was grieving and in shock, but given that he was ailing for a long time, this eventuality was not completely unexpected.

She received the usual statements of consolation from everyone. But I noticed something different, something unexpected.

She was actually displaying an emotion of relief! Even in her grief, one of the first things she said to me is, "Now I can come with you wherever you want to take me."

In the days following this event, we were suggested by other members of the family to take this elderly lady outside "to some temple" so that her mind remains occupied.

Which we did. But more than the "some temple" we visited in slightly far away places, I noticed something different. She ate with us in a restaurant, she tried new foods (chaats, which she had never had), asked a lot of things about our car, sat in the front seat next to the driver, and so on.

She was living her life now for the first time, at the age of 83!!

It reminded me of another elderly lady from our neighborhood, who was waiting to go to the US ostensibly to visit her son, but actually, to fulfill her desire to wear shirts and trousers, rather than the boring saree she was supposed to wear everyday.

It became clear to me that up until now, she was performing her duties as determined by the social norms around her. She was a wife, a mother, a grand-mother, a care-giver, blah, blah, blah.

Everyone seems to know exactly what one ought to do at some point in their lives. It is as though, we just live our lives according to a script. Individual autonomy, desires and needs are irrelevant. We are conditioned to feel ashamed about our emotions and our desires. We should only do what we are supposed to be doing -- which is invariably determined by someone else.

Whether it is on social media or home or in governance, people in positions of power never miss an opportunity to preach down and make indignant noises on just about everything. People seriously believe that it is desirable and recommended to shame others to get them to comply (according to how they think things should be done.)

People are emotionally violated all the time by making them feel illegitimate as a person, for getting trivial things done.

We have perfected the art of using moral indignation as a tool for social manipulation to pursue our self interest. We have also perfected the art of moralizing our self interest to make it appear like what we are pursuing is for greater common good, while what they (who we are moralizing against) are pursuing is for their own narrow interests.

We only focus on duties and never on individual identity.

And in this process we are silently killing ourselves.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Deterministic imprecision

Farmers in south India know that the monsoon arrives sometime in June-July. Crops have to be planted such that when the monsoon arrives they are neither too nascent, nor too old.

If for instance, there is heavy rain right after the seeds are sown, then they get washed away. On the other hand, if there is no rain for weeks after the seeds are sown, the crop becomes malnourished.

So, timing of the crop is critical.

Only problem is that, while the phenomenon of monsoon itself is deterministic, it is "imprecise". We don't know when exactly it will arrive and on what exact date will we get our first big rain.

This "deterministic imprecision" results in a number of collaborative and strategic activities among the farmers. They hedge crops so minimize risk, they cooperate with one another to reduce costs, and so on.

Deterministic imprecision is a characteristic property of nature. We can predict natural phenomenon at a coarse level. But we cannot predict specifics. In the colder regions of the world, we know that it snows in the winter, but we do not know when exactly and how much. We know for instance, a major earthquake is due in the Himalayas. But we don't know when.

There is perhaps a message in this deterministic imprecision. Deterministic imprecision is what motivates us to understand phenomena at a deeper level than at superficial levels. We need to build models of the weather. We need to understand risk. We need to understand costs. We need to understand needs. We need to prioritize. And so on.

In artificial systems, we seem to equate precision with quality. Specifications that are precise, are said to foster better quality work than specifications that are imprecise.

But usually what happens is that precision tends to foster "overfitting" to the specifics than towards meeting the spirit behind the activity.

Consider for instance, conference deadlines. Conferences put up deadlines in precise terms like 12 May, 23:59:59 PST. And what usually happens is that most of the submissions happen at the last moment. Web traffic peaks at this time and often results in disruptions and frazzled nerves.

The same thing is true with assignment submissions in classrooms. If the deadline for an assignment is set to precise terms like "Tuesday 1700hrs" then most of the students begin working on Monday night or Tuesday morning and submit the assignment very close to 1700hrs.

Such last minute work is primarily driven by a sense of compliance with rules, rather than adhering to the spirit of the activity (learning something through the assignment.)

Recently I've started to practice deterministic imprecision. I specify that the deadline is on (say) Tuesday without specifying the time. It is my prerogative to close the submission site on any time on Tuesday. If someone assumed that it was Tuesday 23:59:59 or something, well too bad. The rain has come and gone before you could till the soil..

Saturday, May 23, 2015

The "per capita" fallacy

Most policy-making models are based on estimating demand and production in terms of "per capita" units, where an individual is the unit of resource consumption or production.

This foundation is used to make major strategic decisions, like say how much water will a town or city use, how much garbage will it generate, and so on.

However, it is easy to see that in reality, the unit of consumption is rarely the individual. Consumption and production are primarily driven by systems of individuals like families, companies and other forms of organizations. Let me use the generic term "organization" to refer to all of these.

In a small place that is (say) primarily driven by agriculture managed by families, the relationship between the number of individuals and the number of families (which are the elements that drive major consumption) remain fairly static.

However, as the population grows, the relationship between individuals and organizations is not static. Individual affiliation to organizations are fluid, and the proclivity of new organizations being formed are also high.

A large city will attract the formation of more restaurants, clubs, theaters, malls, etc. and affiliation to individuals to these organizations are not tightly defined as with families.

So, for a city of N people, how many different organizations can be formed? This is like asking, how many subsets can be formed from a set of N elements. This comes to 2N-N-1 or asymptotically, this is called as "exponential growth".  The number of ways in which people organize themselves grows much more rapidly as the population keeps increasing.

To make matters worse, the presence of organizations sends out a message that there are opportunities for careers and livelihood. This ends up attracting more people to the city and increasing the N even further, making the consumption accelerate even more.

And ironically, when we say that a city gets enough rainfall to cater to per-capita water needs and promote "eco-friendly" measures like Rain Water Harvesting (RWH), it sends out a false sense of security, as though, the water problem is solved. Thus reducing the reluctance for people to enter or dwell in the city.

Note that I am not saying that RWH is bad. Nor am I saying that we should not invest in RWH. But the way it is portrayed as a solution to water related woes, is only going to make matters worse. It is no systemic solution. It is more in the nature of a pain balm, rather than a life saving drug.

The same thing is true of garbage production. By trying to reduce garbage production by individuals and families, we are barking up the wrong tree. The amount of garbage that is produced is exponentially proportional to the number of people in the city.

There is a dire need to invest in large mechanized facilities to handle the garbage production.

And no, the presence of mechanized facilities will not drive more consumption -- any more than having a functioning kidney will make us eat more.

More consumption is driven by the presence of opportunities, or more specifically, the relative presence of opportunities in a place compared to other places. To prevent overcrowding of a city, the way to go about is to promote alternate growth centers.

Development in pairs, which I'd written about earlier, might be an interesting strategy to consider. 

Friday, May 22, 2015

The city and pretentious pricks

Some years ago, near a busy shopping area, we tried parking our car in one of the bylanes as all the parking spaces on the main roads were taken. The owner of the house in front of which we were trying to park our car objected furiously and made some indignant noises about our "type" of people.

The irony of the matter was that, not only we were parking on the road (which is a public property, which had no parking prohibition) outside the house and not blocking any of its entrances, the house had also encroached the footpath and built a garden outside their compound wall!

So much for our "type" of people..!

We could not believe the sense of entitlement and ownership displayed by these folks. Not only the house belongs to them, the footpath is their personal garden and the road outside their house is considered their personal space as well.

When several such pretentious pricks get together with their bloated sense of entitlement, things get even worse.

There are gated colonies for instance that occupy huge tracts of land and fortify themselves from the rest of the city.

It is a common sight around Varathur and Kundalahalli to see the main roads choking in traffic and ambulances wailing away, while the communities on either side of the main roads sit smugly in their gated colonies.

Sure, the colony may maintain the roads within, but roads are meant to be public property for a reason. Without roads, the city does not exist. They are the lifeline for the people to eke out their livelihood.

Maintaining of what is essentially a public property does not entitle residents to complete ownership over the public property. They may for instance, apply for tax rebates in return for maintaining public property. But they may not control who uses the road and who does not.

And then there are those who complain about the traffic noise and want to shut off their roads to traffic.

It reminds me of a Kannada poem by Akkamahadevi which can be translated as: "If you make a house for yourself in the forest and complain about wild animals, what can I say?" I'm also reminded of this movie "Mili" where the lead actor is an artist living in an apartment and complains to the apartment manager about the noise made by children playing outside. He only gets a pair of ear-plugs in response.

Sure, you may be irritated by the city and its noises which may keep you away from your lofty cerebral pursuits. But do spare a thought to the city which is trying hard to make ends meet and to have a semblance of a life, and has to put up with pretentious pricks like you.

And don't even get me started about Residents' Associations which start dictating lifestyles.

Residents' Associations are meant to cater to livelihood issues of people living in a colony. They are not meant to impose a separate lifestyle on their members.

There are associations that permit only people of a specific religion or caste to live in the colony. There are associations that put restrictions of what their members can eat. And so on.

Bye laws of any private association cannot contradict fundamental rights granted by the constitution. Any citizen of this country can profess any religion they want and live anywhere they want, in the country. Bye laws that go against these fundamental rights are actually illegal. 

Saturday, April 04, 2015

On the causes of depression and suicides in south India

South Indian states are known to have the highest levels of suicides in the world, which is starkly different from north Indian states. Suicide is the culminating state of an intensely depressed mind.

I have been to hell and back myself, including attempts to take my life during my school days back in the '80s. Since then, I have tried hard to understand and model what is happening around us. And what I have learned is if anything, even more depressing. The roots of our depression problem go deep.

Worldwide, there is a stigma around depression and other mental illnesses. There are several well-intentioned initiatives to address this stigma by calling depression as just an illness. Like this video for example, which basically repeats several oft-heard statements about depression, like women suffer are more likely to suffer from depression than men, and it is an illness that can be treated.

But look at the statistics from the NIH study linked earlier, in south India, men are almost twice as likely to be driven to suicide (44.7/10,000) than women (26.8/10,000).  To put these numbers is perspective, the worldwide average for suicides is less than 3 per 10,000.

And if I've understood our dynamics well, calling depression an ``illness,'' is not likely to reduce the stigma -- it is only going to make things worse.

Studies and theories on clinical depression that are considered authoritative have been predominantly developed in the Western world, studying for example, the high incidence of depression in Scandinavia.

However, the causes of depression in south India are characteristically different from that of Scandinavia. According to the NIH study, the main causes of depression induced suicides in India are: "individual, family, and societal level factors." While in Scandinavia, depression is a result of vast changes in the physical climate and weather. This is also called Seasonal Affective Disorders (SAD).

Physical factors lead to neurological causes for depression like degeneration of cells, stunted growth, etc. On the other hand, depression triggered by social factors are caused by having forced into an intense emotional state like frustration or submission or helplessness for long periods of time. 

Imagine someone getting locked up in a cell for several years for no fault of theirs. They go on to become depressed. This depression is not due to the physical surroundings, but due to the intense emotional state of desperation they stay in for a long time. The paucity of light inside their cell is no more a cause of depression, than the intense emotional state of having been confined to a cell for no reason.

An emotional state results in the release of specific sets of hormones, And staying in an intense emotional state for a long time results in a hormonal imbalance. This is characteristically different from depression caused by physical factors leading to neural or other forms of cellular degeneration.

So why did our society become so deadly unto itself? 

The main social factor leading to depression is our cultural emphasis on deindividuation. Our culture is based on instilling a sense of social membership in the individual and encouraging them to work towards collective good. This has several desirable outcomes. Our society is characterized by its strong dynamics around religion and spirituality, sensitivity towards other living beings including the environment and emphasis on harmonizing with the environment, rather than taking charge or control. 


However, over the last several decades, with increasing education, awareness, technological advancement and connectivity with the rest of the world, our society has seen a lot of changes taking us away from these collective ideals. To counter this, and to maintain homeostasis of our earlier social state, these collective ideals are pursued with renewed intensity and vigour.

Beyond a certain point, emphasis on the collective starts to de-emphasize the importance of the individual and the individual autonomy. "Selflessness", deindividuation and self-deprecation become virtues. Right from a young age it is common to see people being shamed or morally admonished into compliance to the collective. 

Moral admonishment like shaming is the cognitive equivalent of throwing acid on someone's face. The damage it does is basically irreversible. For some reason, we have not understood how potent a weapon it is, and tend to bring the moral lens into everything. 

A sense of individual identity is very important to face challenges of life and to keep one's body, mind and spirit together. Without a sense of one's individual it is very hard to just convince oneself to keep breathing and be alive. 

In south India at least, deindividuation afflicts both men and women. Statistically men, are more likely to be driven to suicide, as any attempts by them to portray their problem will only subject them to even more moral admonishment.

Calling this form of depression as an "illness" makes things even worse. An illness carries no less a stigma in our society. 

Besides, an "illness" is something that can be "cured" by treatment. But a hormonal imbalance created by social pressure, cannot be "cured" by restoring the hormonal balance. It is not some form of a deficiency created by the physical environment, that can be replenished by medicine. 

To really counter the problem of depression and suicides in south India, we need to comprehensively infuse ideas in the society that respect the individual. We need to help the society understand why people pursuing their individuality does not necessarily result in collective misfortune. In fact, if the collective ideals are so good that people voluntarily associate themselves with the collective, then it only makes the collective stronger, not weaker.