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.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Why institutionalized education is important

There are a number of serious problems that still persist in our education system. There is no denying that at all.

However, it alarms me just as much when, every so often, I encounter someone or the other, seriously considering removing their child from school, employing a home tutor and making the real world their playground.

Let me argue why.

Granted that there are major issues in the way we went through our primary education. It was more of a training in conformance and submissiveness. Critical-thinking, problem-solving and creation skills were never taught. When students in other parts of the world were conceptualizing things, we were instead mugging up multiplication tables without even understanding the concept of multiplication.

Symbol manipulation was called as "abstract thinking"; computation was presented as "mathematics"; scientific principles were taught like dogma; masochism (self-harm) was advocated as "discipline"; submissiveness was glorified as "humility"; abusive, dominating behaviour was glorified as rigour.

We were not taught objectivity and instead were made to feel personally responsible and experience shame when things failed.

People like me who really wanted to study, who was really interested in the content of the books, often felt seriously depressed, had very low self-esteem and developed an intense sense of distrust in everything.

I remember after graduating from engineering, subconsciously I had come to believe that nobody in this world really understands anything, and technology is something meant to cater to our sense of vanity and indulgence. Ironic thoughts to have on the verge of getting an engineering degree. 

One could go on and on about what is wrong.


I would still say, get a formal education, for reasons noted below.

While I had gathered a lot of avidya (non-education) in my formal education, ironically, it is the formal education system that helped me realize this and re-educate myself.

I often tell my students that my real education happened when I decided to come back to academia from my job, for a research degree. I came back to academia for routine, worldly reasons. But what it did to me was totally unexpected.

Of course, there are terrible, horror stories about the research world as well. Even today, we still hear of research students treated shabbily by their professors and often made to do their household chores like a servant in the name of developing "humility" that is supposed to be so important for education.

I was terribly lucky to have joined a research group that valued curiosity, objectivity and rigour over misguided notions of humility. We were encouraged to separate the idea from the person, respect the individual but not the idea, ask questions, question our assumptions, subject every idea to falsification, distinguish between language and meaning, and never accept an idea unless it has been thoroughly examined.

This phase of learning was so transformative, that it has changed me fundamentally. I have re-learnt so many things that all I really want now is to keep learning, exploring and understanding a bit more of this awesome universe that we dwell in.

To think that when I was growing up, there were several instances when I felt that my biggest crime was to have been born. And that I'm illegitimate as a person.

Today, despite still being unable to clearly understand myself, I feel grateful and lucky to have been born and to be alive. And, I'm willing to fight my way through, if that is what it takes to retain my ability to keep exploring this wonderful universe.

I also have some idea of the extent of my avidya. The only enemy that I'm willing to fight against is this avidya or illusion of knowledge or ignorance of our ignorance.

The important thing to note here is that, this transformation also happened within the confines of a formal institutional framework. I don't think I would have realized any of these had I been an independent, street-smart entrepreneur (not that there is anything wrong with being an entrepreneur).

I would have probably learnt a lot of tricks and skills and some amount of insight into commerce and human insecurities. But this generic, topic-agnostic insight that I'm talking about, is of a very different kind.

In fact, since most of the rest of the population are educated in a schooling framework meant to create compliant, clerical workers, in most probability, if I had ventured out on my own, I would have had to interact with much more of the same mindset that I was trying to get away from. And having no idea of what I'm missing, I would have eventually caved in to these memes.

Like with governance, the remedy for "bad education" is "good education" -- not "no education."

From my understanding over the years, despite the serious problems with the general educational framework, culturally, we are still on very solid ground. After my experience with my research lab, I see today several more people who are just as profound and dedicated towards real education.

It is just that diamonds and broken glass pieces are both mixed up in the same bag. To give another analogy, our society is somewhat like a tree that has been battered and bruised and axed and chopped, and yet whose roots still have life left in them.

So despite the several problems with the formal educational framework, let's not give up on it. Because, once the roots start to die, there is really no hope left.

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.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

On our academic value system

Whenever a new batch of students join our lab, and whenever we are consolidating our activities and planning forward, we revisit the underlying value system on which our lab runs. I thought it would be a good idea to put these into writing for easy reference and revision. So here is an exposition of the value system on which our lab runs.

There are primarily three goals that we pursue as part of our academic and research activity. They are:
  1. Quality
  2. Quality
  3. Quality
Quality of our academic and research pursuits is our ticket for survival. We remain relevant only as long as our academics and research are relevant and insightful. Quality is not the icing -- it is the core element around which everything else runs.

So, how do we foster academic and research quality? For this, we turn to the following elements:

Objectivity and Rigor 

Objectivity essentially means that we need to separate ideas that are being pursued (object) from the person who is pursuing it (subject). To develop an idea, it will be subject to enormous amounts of scrutiny and criticism. Given this, it is important to keep the focus of our criticisms on the idea and not on the person.

At a personal level, everyone should be respected. But this does not mean that the ideas espoused by them will be accepted without scrutiny. We have to accept an idea only when we are convinced about the objective merit of the idea, and not by the credentials of the person who is advocating it.

Similarly, every idea should be subject to rigor. We may never be able to tie down a complex phenomena into a precise and rigorous mathematical model, and a model may never be able to completely explain the reality. However, attempting to do so will expose hidden complexities behind the issue at hand, and give us critical insights.

So, how do we practice rigor? Here is a saying (paraphrased from a quote from Leslie Lamport):

Writing shows how sloppy our thinking is..
A diagram shows how sloppy our writing is.. and
Mathematics shows how sloppy our diagrams are.

When trying to conceptualize an idea, put your thought into words. That forces an element of rigor into the thought process. Subsequently, when you've written enough and the ideas are getting too wordy, try capturing its essence in a diagram. And finally, when you have a reasonable grasp of what you have developed, tie it down with a mathematical model.

You'll notice that each step above will bring to the fore, hidden complexities that you had never thought of.

Practice rigor in each and every element of the lab activities, not just in your research work. For instance, log all your activities whenever you achieve a milestone, however small it may be. These logs will come in handy every time you feel lost and need to look back on what you have been pursuing. And of course, they come in handy, when arguing for better grades.. :-)


The second element of a good academic environment is shared ownership. It is important to note that as a student, you are not working for the faculty member running the lab -- you are working for the lab. The faculty member is also working for the lab. Both of you are just playing different roles with different expectations. 

Every success of the lab is also your success, and every failure of the lab is also your failure. 

Ownership is not just about privileges, it is about associating a small part of our identity with what we own. Just like we take pride and initiative in caring for what we own (like our cars or homes), we have to take the same pride and initiative to proactively see that the lab is functioning smoothly. 

Note that it does not necessarily mean that every initiative you propose will be implemented. The faculty member may refuse to pursue a research agenda that you propose for the lab. But that does mean that your ownership of the lab has reduced. The responsibility of setting the research agenda for the lab rests with the faculty member, and there are several considerations that go into formulating an agenda, because of which your proposal may get rejected. A rejection of your proposal for implementation, does not necessarily imply rejection of the merit of the idea that is proposed.


The third element of a good academic environment is maintaining a connect with the underlying meaning behind our activities. Your research work has to go way beyond just earning you a degree. It has to be relevant to issues that are bigger than yourself and that you can associate with.

Meaningfulness is important if we have to take initiative on our own. It is easier to take proactive interest in things that are relevant to us or to a larger cause that subsumes us.

To quote former President Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam (and this is a real quote, not an Internet troll): A dream is not something that you see when you are sleeping. A dream is something that does not let you sleep.

When we study something without understanding the meaningfulness of the study, we have to fight against elements like lethargy, ennui, distractions and so on. But when we understand the relevance behind what we are studying, it becomes hard to fall asleep and hard to get distracted.

Another way of enhancing meaningfulness is this quote that we often use in the lab: augment thinking with reading, not reading with thinking. I've explained this maxim in more detail in another post.

Think of it this way, reading provides you with data, information and knowledge, but it is thinking that creates insight, wisdom and establishes relevance. If the former is analogous to fuel, the latter is analogous to an engine. So basically what the above means is: put fuel into engine, not engine into fuel.

Elements like competition are not central to building an environment of meaningfulness. Competition deflects the focus towards social elements like glory and victory and not towards unraveling the underlying meaning.

To quote the tennis champion Martina Navratilova: The moment of victory is too short-lived to live only for that and nothing else.

Victory and glory are all fine, but they are certainly not our drivers. Routine and ordinary activity are as important, if not more, than the glamorous showcasing of research results. Behind every moment of victory, there are long years of rigorous and objective pursuits, which is what is our primary source of gratification and meaning.

A meaningful academic environment needs to be perpetually vigilant against enticing and provocative social traps. As we always say: never underestimate stupidity. It grows inside us and takes over our minds when we can least afford it.


Last, but certainly not the least, a quality academic environment should invest actively in promoting a culture of enthusiasm, compassion and a high morale. Academic and research activity are inherently demotivating endeavors. We usually have to spend years on end, just following a hunch and recuperating from failures after failures.

It is natural in such cases for people to be demotivated, depressed, frustrated, etc.

When you spent 3 years on your idea and wrote a paper, just to see it shredded to pieces by the journal reviewer, trust me, we know exactly how it feels. And do civilians (non-academics) think you are pathetic, nerdy, arrogant, depressive, etc.? We've been there.

It is important to proactively practice compassion and empathy and treat your colleagues as your friends (and not as your competitors).

And this is not as simple as it sounds. When someone is depressed or frustrated, trying to cheer them up may actually end up making them feel belittled.

The practice of "mindfulness" is important to understand in this regard. Mindfulness is a practice that is steadily gaining inroads into mainstream scientific environments to help build such a culture of positivity. Oxford University for instance, has an entire center dedicated to the study of mindfulness, and there is an ever increasing amount of scholarly literature on mindfulness.