Friday, January 02, 2015

Why academic projects?

Often times I have seen a strange mental block against teachers working on large academic projects. Somehow projects are considered "unacademic" and only classroom teaching set to a syllabus, assignments and exams are considered "academic" activity.

Here I would like to address several such myths about academic projects:

Myth 1: Classroom teaching focuses on abstract concepts which is true education, while projects are just skill building and craft

Well yes, abstract concepts are better disseminated in classrooms, while practical skills are best learned by doing. But disseminating abstract concepts is hardly any more "truer" than imparting skills when it comes to academic activity. Imparting skills are just as true academic activity.

Moreover, much of what happens in classrooms are not abstract conceptualization, but symbolic manipulation. The difference between the two is somewhat similar to the difference between mathematics and computation. We often equate our ability to perform slick and fast computation with mathematical expertise. We also equate manipulation of symbols to abstract thinking.

They are not the same.

Abstraction is about extracting and representing the essence of something. And that something is typically an important element affecting our lives. Like for example, an abstract model of a hurricane; or an abstract model of a suspension bridge or an abstract model of an airplane or an abstract model of a computational cloud.

True abstraction is possible only when it can relate to experiential elements of our lives. Without a proper "grounding" in practice, a symbolic representation can have several interpretations -- not all of which are semantically meaningful.

I remember this episode when we were first taught matrices in high school. Our teacher told us that a matrix is a set of values "written in a box." My first internal reaction was.. "what? what box?" And when she wrote a matrix on the board, somewhat looking like this:

And I started to think, "why a box? why not a circle or a rhombus?"

Internally, I'd told myself that "writing in a box" means performing parallel computation. And this interpretation remained consistent when we were taught how to add and subtract matrices -- we just add and subtract the corresponding elements.

Parallel computation. Yes, that was what a matrix was about...

But next we were taught matrix multiplication and it made absolutely no sense given the "parallel computation" interpretation for a matrix!

So again, abstraction is not the same as symbolic manipulation. We were taught the symbolism of matrix arithmetic without being taught what exactly does a matrix represent. Which only ended up making our learning largely "bookish" (just memorize rules for matrix multiplication, determinants, matrix inversion, rank determination, etc. etc. and blindly apply them to the given problem).

Abstraction is only possible when we have some common experience between the teacher and the students that the teacher can refer to, while building the abstract model. And what better way to build this common experience, than to actually do something together?

Myth 2: Projects are a way of employing cheap/free labour to get things done

Academic projects are characteristically different from industry projects. The latter are projects meant to be deployed in the real world for routine operation. There is usually a "customer" who is paying a huge sum of money for the deployment. If an employee is paid x amount for a project, the customer is usually billed 10x of that amount.

In contrast, academic projects are meant to help in testing and demonstrating a concept (typically developed from research activities) and/or to learn some skill. Here, learning and demonstrating are the end goals -- not deployment and operation.

Students working on academic projects are not employees, they are still students. Unlike employees working on industrial projects, nobody will sue the students if their project fails to perform up to quality standards. There is no customer putting their money on these projects and neither are there QoS guarantees and SLAs required by the developers.

But a large-scale academic project still requires the student to learn several practical skills like (in the case of software projects) version control, configuration management, deployment methods, technical communication, project management and coordination, etc.

The other day I was telling students about the kind of "exams" that they may face in their professional lives, which is what they have to prepare for. These exams don't have question papers with marks distribution. They are usually in the form of a legal notice, a midnight knock on the door, pink slips, Arnab Goswami, and such stuff. When employees take home handsome salaries for their projects, they are also signing themselves up to be accountable for such eventualities.

Gain and risk go hand in hand. Academic projects are not about such considerations at all.

Myth 3: Projects are a means of earning easy grades, while earning good grades in courses are much harder

Firstly, course work and exams are so fine grained, I do not know how to interpret the meaning of some student obtaining 99% in a subject while another student having obtained "only" 95%? So, does it mean that the first student knows 99% of all there is to know about the subject? Does it mean that the first student has 4% more knowledge than the second student?

Much of the hair-splitting that goes on regarding scores in conventional course work and exams have no credible interpretation about the concerned student's skills or competence in the subject.

In fact, I have found that the top scorers in exams usually become mediocre professionals. They would have optimized their thinking for "scoring" and not for doing something. They would have become ultra-competitive, while the professional world values cooperation and teamwork.

There was a case when I was teaching some topic in distributed computing comparing different models of distributed systems, when one of the "top" students sitting in the front row was visibly disturbed. When I asked him what was wrong, he replies, "But kind of questions can you ask from these topics?"

So yeah, scoring in courses may be "harder" -- but students have optimized their thinking towards "scoring" and not "learning."

Secondly, is it that the primary objective of teaching should be to make grading as difficult as possible? Even if it is true that scoring is easier in projects than coursework, that makes it no reason why projects are not important or are somehow less important.

The two learning objectives are different and both are important. 

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Conflict and dimensionality

Whenever there is a conflict in a social space, our first reaction is to jump into the conflict, take sides or pass a judgment about who is right and who is wrong. But here is a completely different perspective on the issue of social conflicts.

A conflict in any system comprising of autonomous, self-interested agents is an indication of insufficient "dimensionality" of the system.

Let me explain with an example.

Consider an intersection between two major roads. As traffic on these roads increase, conflicts at this intersection also go up. Conflict is the result of two or more agents sharing the same state (the intersection) but pursuing different goals (wanting to go in different directions).

We can of course, "manage" this conflict by installing traffic lights, policemen, CCTV cameras, etc. etc. But as the traffic keeps increasing, all of these coordination efforts will eventually saturate. (And of course, the manager -- the traffic policeman deployed at that intersection -- will have to bear the brunt of the conflict.)

But if we change the intersection from a 2D space to a 3D space, by installing grade separators, conflict at the intersection will reduce greatly. The conflict may shift to some other low-dimensionality bottleneck before or after the grade separators, but the intersection in question has now resolved its conflict by increasing its dimensionality.

Similarly, suppose that I have to travel from Bengaluru to Madikeri. What are the different travel dimensions (modalities) do I have? Well, let's see. We can go by road... and that's it. No trains or planes or boats to take us to Madikeri from Bengaluru.

Of course, one can argue that we can go by train to Mysuru or by plane to Mangaluru and go from there to Madikeri. But then, in a travel chain, the weakest link is the link with lowest dimensionality.

Suppose we collect data about people travelling from a given source to a given destination in the state, and connect the source and destination with an edge whose weight is the lowest dimensionality of travel connection between the two places. We can now determine the expected dimensionality of travel within the state, by computing a weighted average (weighted by the proportion of people travelling) of these edge weights.

I suspect that this number will be very close to 1, perhaps a minuscule value above 1.

If we can adopt strategies to increase this expected dimensionality of travel, it will result in an order of magnitude reduction in travel-related woes.

(On an aside, when will we start using major irrigation canals for inland water transport?)

We seldom, if ever, see policy-makers thinking along these lines. Be it the question of safety of cab travel or of religious conversions or any other burning issue, we only think in terms of who is "right" and who is "wrong". We don't see anyone asking what is the dimensionality of this problem space, and how do we increase the dimensionality of the space.

We also equate the term "to regulate" with "to control and restrict". For instance, "Internet-based cabs have to be regulated" means that businesses running Internet-based cabs should be subject to controls and restrictions.

Well yes, regulation needs to have some controls and restrictions; but regulation is as much about enabling and empowerment of legal activities as it is about controlling and restricting illegal activities.

And a lot of the "illegal" activities are due to low dimensionality rather than malicious intent to cause harm -- life wanting to live, but getting stifled.

There was one more news recently about how a family was caught conducting an "illegal" birthday party in Cubbon Park, the other day. Sure yes, using a public place for a private party is not a nice thing to do and definitely undesirable. And they may have broken some law in doing so too.

But look at it this way -- here is a family that wants to do something that is routinely expected from life -- celebrate birthdays. But they find it stifling to conduct such parties in their homes or anywhere else in the city and crave for some fresh air while having the party. What if we increased dimensionality and created publicly funded open, green spaces available for such parties with its own regulatory framework -- like, pick up your own litter, no smoking/drinking and pay a fee for use? The government would earn some more money by way of such use and the public would also get to celebrate with some fresh air without getting stifled.

We are much too eager to "punish wrongdoers" than to "facilitate life to live."

Friday, December 19, 2014

Mindfulness about second-order emotions

Situations -- both real and hypothetical -- often create an emotional response in our minds, which we express in a variety of ways.

The general belief is that emotional responses are "irrational" and need to be replaced with stoic and dispassionate reasoning.

But emotions are what makes us human and embody the essence of life. Emotions are our naturally endowed physiological responses to stimuli -- it is our "firmware" in computer science parlance. This firmware logic is encoded in our genes and essentially embodies the essence of what our genetic ancestors experienced.

Our emotional reactions are hence an important repository to understand our history -- basically the unwritten and experiential part of our personal history that we won't find in history textbooks.

Emotional turmoil and mental trauma results not from these emotional responses, but from our "second-order" emotional responses.

Next time, observe how you feel about things. But more importantly, observe how you feel about how you feel about things.

It is these "second-order" emotions that are the root cause of most of our emotional turmoil.

Do you enjoy ice-cream? Do you feel guilty about enjoying ice-cream when you should be watching what you eat?

Does something make you frustrated? Are you depressed that that something makes you frustrated?

Does something cause outrage in you? Do you feel helpless about this sense of outrage, knowing at the back of your mind that you cannot control it and it may end up complicating things?

Do you feel indignation when you witness any form of injustice? Do you feel proud that you feel moral indignation in response to injustice? (That's problematic too!)

Emotions are like a child's reaction to something. A second-order emotion is like someone with a child's maturity, managing a child. It is a sure recipe for disaster. If our response to an emotional reaction is another emotional reaction, it is like an ineffective parent who just screams back at their children when they disapprove, or flatters and pampers them when they approve. The children will only learn how to manipulate around these emotional outbursts from the elders.

The stoic and dispassionate reasoning is relevant here. Replace second-order emotions and not your primary emotions with a stoic abstraction, that is built on axioms that are prudent and humane and represents your mature understanding of the situation. Let this stoic mental model interact with your primary emotions like a good parent -- reasoning with it logically, patiently and with empathy, without trivializing the emotions.

See how things change.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Teachers, not tyrants

Recently there was a case of alleged malpractice in one of the undergrad classes. The TA brought the student to my office when I was in the midst of a research meeting with some other research students. The student was distraught and was vehemently denying any wrongdoing and there was high drama. Not only did this incident interrupt an important meeting, it was not possible for me to arrive at any conclusion even after questioning him for a while.

So, I did what is expected in such cases: prudence. I gave him the benefit of doubt and asked him to formally submit a statement giving his side of the story that can be filed along with his exam papers.

Unfortunately, I did sense in some circles that my decision seems to have been interpreted as "going soft" and "compromising" -- which is alarming to say the least.

So, here is what I'd like to say and provide as guidelines to my teaching assistants on dealing with students.

First, treat them as students, not as suspects or criminals. Our primary duty towards them is teaching, not testing or certifying, Those are secondary goals. As teachers, we have to care for their development and show that we care. Even when we catch them doing something wrong, we have to deal with it not like policemen pursuing criminals, but like parents correcting their children.

Second, do not make certification (grading) dependent on one or a small number of tests administered in sanitized settings. They give us no insight about how the student is likely to perform in the noisy and chaotic professional world, where challenges are hardly in the form of sanitized tests with a predetermined syllabus. Our certification process (grading) should be based on several data points, each of which observe a different kind of activity pertinent to the course. It is difficult, if not impossible for someone to cheat and get ahead in every form of activity.

Third, don't ever forget prudence -- people are innocent unless proven guilty. Assuming that students will indulge in some mischief if they are not under surveillance, is the worst possible and most damaging strategy towards teaching. We have to develop an environment where students look up to us for our profundity and are driven by curiosity.

Believe me, most of the students -- even the so-called back-benchers -- genuinely want to learn. Even those who want to game the system are basically indulging in such behaviours because of deep-rooted distrust about the system. Which in turn was developed because they were treated and accused unfairly by the system.

Remember the movie, Do Aankhen, Barah Haath? Even criminals are people, most of whom deserve to be reformed, rather than just punished. And we are talking about students here who are looking up to us for our purported wisdom.

And as the saying goes -- when you think you know nothing, you get a PhD. Doubting our decisions and not enforcing rules with an iron fist is the hallmark of wisdom, not of a compromise.

None of the above mean that it is okay to compromise on integrity. If malpractice is established -- and only after it is established, we have to take suitable reformative (not just punitive) action. But in the process of establishing the malpractice, we have to be mindful of the intimidation we may be creating, and the damage it may be causing on one's sense of personal integrity. We should always remember that our primary duty is to teach and reform, not pass judgements or administer punishments.

It is always good to remember that there is a knowledge imbalance between us and the students. They don't know what they don't know -- just like us. They may not even know that they don't know what they don't know. And hopefully that is where we are better off, as long as we are aware of our own ignorance.

They do not understand our concerns because they have never been in our shoes. They will interpret our actions according to their mental framework, not according to our intended framework.

If we do something that unfairly violates an individual's sense of personal integrity, we have basically damaged them and their sense of self worth. Which can have long reaching negative consequences. And the thing is, with undergrads who are just fresh off school with no experience to harden them up, violating their sense of integrity happens very easily.

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Ownership as identity

There are some characteristic differences between the (20th century forms of the) West and the East in the basic approach to interacting with the external world.

The Western worldview places emphasis on taking charge and being in control of our lives by suitably modifying the environment around us, if necessary. The ultimate objective of being in charge of life is self-actualization -- or emancipation of our free will, to express itself.

In contrast, the Eastern worldview, places emphasis on harmony between us and the environment. It advocates a "hands-off" approach towards the environment urging us to not meddle or interfere with anything in the environment unless absolutely necessary to do so for restoring a sense of balance and harmony. The ultimate objective here is the collective harmony that results from prudent interactions between free-willed individuals and the environment.

These differences result in some curious disparities about our understanding of certain normative concepts. One such concept is that of "ownership."

The Western concept of ownership, historically referred to absolute privileges to impose our free will over something that is owned. For instance, kings were overlords of their kingdoms and enjoyed paramount privileges over everything in their kingdom.

Later on, such absolute privileges were diluted at different levels and the ownership itself was set inside a larger framework in which it is deemed valid. In more recent times, ownership (like that of software) is increasingly taking the form of "licenses" that provides certain limited privileges over the property, bounded by a contractual framework.

Despite all these changes, ownership is still about privileges. Owning property is considered a virtue because it provides us the platform for our free will to express itself.

In contrast, we who have been brought up to value a sense of harmony with the environment, have developed a slightly different definition of the concept of ownership.

In this worldview, rather than self-actualization, the collective synergy resulting from several free-willed individuals interacting harmoniously with one another and with the environment, is the final objective. Emancipation of one's free will per se, is not the goal. People are expected to restrain their free-will if necessary, for achieving a larger harmony.

This is not as bad as it sounds. By restraining our free will, we are actually in a disharmonious state ourselves, which in turn contributes to overall disharmony. If everyone were to live in a restrained fashion, there will be no collective harmony either. So, even though the culture emphasizes on collective interest, individual and collective interests are not necessarily at loggerheads with one another.

Only in specific cases where they conflict, an individual is expected to think of the collective interest first and of one's own interest next.

In such a system, the concept of ownership (as privileges) is somewhat sloppy -- on purpose.

In fact, conventionally it is considered distasteful and arrogant to assert one's exclusive rights on one's property. In movies as recent as the 1990s, the villains usually were depicted with an extremely calculating and hair-splitting personality, while the heroes were depicted with a magnanimous personality.

Indeed, possessing something for the sole purpose of imposing one's free will over it, is not called "ownership" at all -- it is called "indulgence." This thinking permeates even today among the young and old alike -- where technology and gadgets are seen not as tools that make us efficient, but as elements of indulgence that promotes laziness and decadence.

There is however, another definition of "ownership" in this worldview that comes with positive connotations. This basically equates ownership to a sense of identity.

If we "own" something, it means that we associate ourselves with it. What we consider as our own, defines who we are.

We "buy" houses but "own" our homes -- because our sense of identity extends beyond us to our homes. Till the time we don't associate our identity with our house, it is just a place where we live, and not a home. In this sense, ownership is not a formal construct, but an emotional construct.

This kind of emotional ownership is evident when we see how celebrities are treated. Often times we see people demanding certain things from celebrities. More than one celebrity have found themselves in the line of fire from their fans, simply because they voiced their opinion on something that was not the popular opinion on the issue. One of them had famously said that in our country, if you are a celebrity, you need to know the "right" answer to every question on every subject, regardless of what you are famous for. Tennis stars should know what is the correct answer when asked about marriage values. Software czars should know what is the right answer to say when asked about a controversy over river water sharing. And so on..

So what makes people make such demands from celebrities whom they actually idolize? In their minds, people actually "own" the celebrities they idolize, because they associate their own sense of identity with the celebrity.

Some time ago, I was seeing this movie where a poor student is supported by a rich joint family who gives him a room to stay and provides him food. As the story proceeds, the family members fight and the family splits. Seeing the grandmother of the family distraught and crying, the student who is staying at the house goes to console her and says, "I've always thought of this as my own home.." and succeeds eventually in pacifying the grandmother.

Of course, the boy does not mean that he was eyeing privileges over the property, which is what it would mean in the legal definition of considering oneself as owning the home.. :)

What he meant was that his sense of identity extended to the family that supported him. Which in turn means that, he would rejoice in their happiness and would feel sad at their sadness. He considers the family's problems as his problems too. Because they are part of his identity, their ups and downs are his own ups and downs too.

Monday, October 20, 2014

How ceremonies kept us sane..

The culture in which I was born in, is full of ceremonies. There are ceremonies for everything. Ceremonies begin even before one is born, and continue well after they are dead and gone. In between, there is a ceremony for just about any event -- happy or sad, and for any day.

Ceremonies are rife with symbolic interpretations and these often get into huge complications. Many times in the past, when I had been stressed out by some thing like an exam or a paper deadline and had not participated in a ceremony in the intended fashion, it had usually let to a lot of hurt feelings and complications in social equations.

I've often been vocal about my criticism about such "meaningless symbolism" and such superstition that has kept us locked in a state of fear.

But then, this post is about another side of this story.

I've often wondered how did our society become so ceremonial in the first place. Ordinarily, individuals I encounter around me are immensely smart, talented and kind-hearted. So, why did we develop such levels of collective mediocrity? Why were we not able to translate our individual intelligence into collective intelligence?

A little peek into history tells us a very different story. We did in fact have high levels of collective intelligence several centuries ago. We had one of the first and the largest set of universities in the world. We developed some of the best number systems that made modern mathematics possible. Our astronomical calculations, even though based on a geo-centric model, were quite precise. Our languages reflected principles of "universal grammar" and had developed sophisticated methods of phonetic representation (without a need for spellings and spelling rules). We knew how to build ships and had established huge trade zones. Three of the five major Asian religions were born here. And so on..

There is no dearth of evidence for collective intelligence.

So how and why did our society become ceremonial and superstitious? Here is my theory.

Rather than representing collective mediocrity, ceremonies were pretty much the only thing that preserved our sanity over several centuries.

For the last several centuries much of our society lived in a subjugated fashion. Which meant that there were always limits beyond which our worlds were driven by arbitrariness of someone's whims and fancies. Much of pre-independence codified law for example, was based on the principle of "paramountcy" of the colonial rulers. Which meant that notwithstanding whatever the law said about anything, they could do whatever they want, however they want, without assigning any reasons whatsoever.

At a psychological level, the human mind has a pressing need for a consistent and predictable worldview. Some seminal work on prospect theory by Kahneman and Tversky show several instances where our minds seek closure and consistency in what we experience and observe. Cognitive consistency theory is a related theory on this issue. Without consistency, we stand the risk of falling apart mentally and entering into a sub-human state.

And this is where rituals and ceremonies played a central role. Ceremonies created hypothetical logical structures that were consistent and complete to the extent that they were positively elegant (but not necessarily rooted in reality). For an individual, who had to put up with nonsense on a daily basis, the elegance of a ceremonial life was not only a soothing factor, but also perhaps the only recourse to maintain some semblance of sanity.

It is also one of the reasons why people still advocate ceremonial activity in response to discontinuities in one's life, like the loss of a close family member or the breakdown of a marriage. The idea is that the mental dissonance created by the event can be soothed by artificially bringing a semblance of closure and parity by performing symbolic activities. However, this is true only if the discontinuity is creating a sense of semantic dissonance in our minds.

Ceremonies also helped to bring people together in times of adversity. While each one suffered subjugation in different ways, they connected with one another through the common language of ceremonies.

Ceremonies also helped in keeping alive some echoes of past glory and gave some faint ideas into how life must have been in those days.

Therefore, far from collective mediocrity, a ceremonial lifestyle was in fact a manifestation of collective intelligence. It was the "best response" function by the society, given the realities of its subjugated existence and hostility and arbitrariness from the top.

However, in today's changed reality, the ceremonial lifestyle is no longer the best response to our collective challenges. We still approach collective challenges as though they were all manifested by a powerful and hostile adversary. We still attach ourselves emotionally to symbolic interpretations that are not rooted in reality. We have serious problems with conceptual modeling, argumentation and critical thinking.

We know how to build symbolic structures, but we have trouble in appreciating the fact that these symbolic structures have to be rooted in reality, and that that in itself is a very non-trivial problem. As the saying goes: You cannot reach truth by logic -- you can only communicate truth using logic. This is precisely the difference between a ceremonial and a formal activity. A formal activity is structured and grounded in reality, while a ceremonial activity is merely structured (and grounded in hypothetical or symbolic interpretations). Grounding the logic in truth is where much of the pain and complexity lies.

While old problems like arbitrariness and subjugation have reduced tremendously (even though they continue to vaguely persist in some form or the other), we are now faced with new kinds of challenges. We are suddenly faced with a large, young, angry and hungry population who are only exposed to symbolic ceremonialism, and lack required abilities in scientific thinking and problem-solving.

Our "best response" functions from the past will not be enough to address problems of the future. So while we understand and appreciate the ceremonial nature of our past, we still should spare no effort in figuring out what should be our strategic best response to future challenges.

Monday, October 13, 2014

The "lever" to unleash our potential

I've often wondered what would be a "lever" that would unleash the creative potential latent in our society. And here is the answer I've arrived at:

People in this society, for most of their lives, live inside a "social bubble." Their thinking is rooted in axioms that are based on social considerations. A social consideration is any assertion that involves interaction between two or more people. If we "re-root" these axioms in the physical world, we will unleash a creative potential at a level that perhaps the world has never seen since the dawn of the Age of Reason in medieval Europe.

Here is an example.

Recently I was delivering a talk on how the web is shaping our world, and to make my point, I used some inputs from social sciences. One of the members in the audience pointed to me that I am missing out on the most "fundamental element" of social interaction -- power. Apparently, all social interactions are fundamentally about power. Whatever question we are pursuing about society -- be it about governance, economics, education, justice, labour, etc. we should first understand the dynamics of social power to be able to make any headway. Indeed, the axiom of power is taken even to the level of an individual. An individual either dominates his/her environment, or is dominated by the environment.

Well yes, understanding power dynamics is very important, but is that really the axiomatic basis for all social interactions? I beg to differ on that.

Social power becomes relevant only when there is more than one person in the picture, contending for a limited resource that all of them are interested in. When there is only one person in the picture, or there is no contention over a resource, social dynamics are not really driven by a sense of power.

As humans, we are rooted in the physical world and are driven by physical needs at different levels -- exemplified by Maslow's hierarchy for example. From physical survival to self-actualization, we are driven by this innate need. This driving force is rooted in the evolutionary forces that have shaped us. Foraging, creating, socializing, dominating, submitting, implementing, and all of the stuff we do in the social world can be fundamentally traced down to the evolutionary forces that are driving us.

Power dynamics is just one manifestation of the social interplay driven by these evolutionary forces. Rather than being the axiomatic basis for all kinds of social interactions, power dynamics are seen only in pretty limited settings. There are ample examples of other social dynamics, like people going on a picnic, or sharing photos on Pinterest, or forwarding jokes on Whatsapp, or meeting up with old friends, etc. that are not necessarily driven by power considerations.

Social axioms lead us to rather superficial theories and inferences and often fail to capture the deeper underlying spirit behind a phenomenon.

For instance, we often see huge debates on questions about how men feel about working for a woman boss (while there are enough examples of women working for a male boss) and so on.

The problem with the above question again is the "social assumption" -- that people work for other people. Well no. People (should) work for the organization -- which is a conceptual entity, an abstraction -- and not for other people. Bosses are meant to do a job of managing activities of others so that the interests of the organization are upheld. The boss could well be a transgender person, a cyborg or a robot in the future. And it is irrelevant.

Social assumptions like that are everywhere. Students make decisions about taking up a PhD depending on who their adviser is, and not based on what they are curious about. People vote for political parties based on who the leader is, not what is the party's stance on different pressing issues. And so on..

From what I have seen, in our society there is no dearth of ability to think and reason -- the problem is where we ground our axioms.

Building our lives on social assumptions is analogous to growing a vegetable plant in a pot on the kitchen window sill. It may give some results, but plants are really meant to be grown on the earth directly.

If we can somehow take these roots that are floating around in these social pots and plant them in the physical world, we will leapfrog into the future with our capacity to create, reason and solve problems. The question of course is, who and how will we bell this axiomatic cat?