Thursday, November 20, 2014

Abstraction and expression

We often "speak" to ourselves in a soliloquy, And it is often believed that the characteristics of such "self talk" like the language we use and the way we speak to ourselves, help us understand who we are.

However, I would like to argue that to understand ourselves, the "wordy", conversational "self talk" doesn't tell us much. For instance, the language in which we speak to ourselves is simply the language that we most commonly use to converse with the outside world. And it does not have to be our mother tongue. I remember when living in Germany, at a time when most of my interactions were with Germans and in German, a lot of my "self talk" also started using German words.

To be able to understand ourselves, we need to look deeper -- specifically into two forms of "wordless" self talk -- namely, abstraction and expression.

Abstraction is our objective characterization or the mental model, representing the essential elements of something that we are thinking about. This characterization is not bound by any specific form, and we implicitly understand this characterization.

Expression is our subjective emotions that we associate with such a characterization.

Our characterization in terms of abstraction and expression, tell us who we are. Abstraction tells us what according to us, are the essential elements of something in question, and expression tells us how do we feel about this prospect.

When we communicate something externally, we communicate a mix of abstraction and expression. For instance, the choice of words and other linguistic, mnemonic or other communication constructs that we use to describe something (say some event) not only reveals what we think are the essential characteristics of that event, but also how do we feel about that prospect of this event having those essential characteristics.

Let me take an example. Consider this (in)famous characterization in the New York Times about India's recently successful Mars mission:
This is both a combination of what the cartoonist thought were the essential characteristics that were significant about the Mars mission and also how he felt about it.

Of course, only the cartoonist in question can be really sure what he was thinking. And after the controversy it has created, it is only likely that if asked now, he would re-interpret this cartoon in a way that defines what he was thinking in politically correct terms. So, we may never know what he was really thinking at that time.

Nevertheless, according to the cartoonist, an "essential" element of India's Mars mission involves a purported "elite" space club that India wants to join or has joined or whatever. Other facts about the mission like for example, the orbits that it took around earth, the overall cost of the mission, the solid fuel rocket that was used, etc. are considered inessential to the central element of this story.

The characterization about the essential element regarding the "elite club" also reveals the subjective expression profile of the cartoonist -- what he felt about the abstraction.

Again we will never know what the cartoonist really felt. And if we ask him now, we are only likely to get a re-fabricated, politically-correct response.

However, specific elements of the characterization -- like the bored look on the cow, the overly eager look on the Indian man, and the well-fed, white, male composition of the "elite" club, give us some clue about what this subjective characterization might be.


Abstraction and expression are fundamental cognitive constructs. They are independent of the language of our thought. The same abstraction or expression can be conveyed in words or as a picture, as some expressive action like charades and so on.

Who we are is defined by what is our most common abstraction or expression profile. For instance, I have noticed that when thinking about computational problems, I find it far more easy to think in terms of graphs rather than vectors. My abstractions are more likely to be in terms of graphs and networks, rather than points and transformations.

Similarly, the nature of emotions that I associate with different experiences give me an understanding of my emotional profile. For instance, I've seen that I associate a sense of intense outrage when my abstraction tells me that there is some form of injustice happening. This subjective expression profile has made me put myself in jeopardy more than once.

The above profiles are independent of the language in which I think to myself.  

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?

Monday, October 06, 2014

Managing misplaced moral indignation

This post is about an emotion called "moral indignation" -- not about morality itself. Morality pertains to the integrity of inter-personal interactions. When this integrity is violated, the emotion that is induced is moral indignation, sometimes coupled with moral rage, which is a more intense form of moral indignation.

While emotions are usually triggered by what happens in reality, it need not always be so. For instance, our emotional response to danger is fear. However, fear can be induced even when there is no danger. One could get into a fearful state by a perception of danger, or even by conscious attempt. Acting schools these days teach people to "internalize" the emotions of their characters. Which means, to actually feel the emotions that their characters would be feeling in that situation. So we can actually train ourselves to feel fear whenever required, whether or not there is real danger.

Moral indignation too can be triggered from a variety of factors in addition to actual moral misconduct. To understand this, it helps to first understand the emotion itself.

Moral indignation is a negative emotion -- which means that it primes our body to defend itself. At a fundamental level, our body reacts to negative circumstances with the following behavioral traits: flight, fight, freeze or acquiesce (give up).

Moral indignation is a combination of fight and freeze. Primarily, it comprises of the following responses: passivity (freeze), anger (fight) and non-cooperation (fight).

If moral indignation is induced subconsciously (without the person being aware of it), it usually means that they believe that either they or someone else is being victimized by an immoral act that violates fundamental tenets of inter-personal interaction.

However, it is often possible to see people responding with moral indignation at issues that have no moral dilemma at all. For instance, people express moral indignation about the kind of clothes others should wear, the type of food they should eat, the language they should speak, etc.

I've seen moral indignation appear in conversations involving (for instance) whether we should drink tea or coffee on a daily basis, whether we should use the Indian commode or the Western commode in our homes, whether we should wear shoes to work or chappals are enough, and so on. Hilarious as they may sound, the people involved in these confrontations genuinely experience indignant emotions. A quick look at the usual saas-bahu serials on TV would show the saas (mother-in-law) perennially sporting a morally indignant look, making us wonder how can anyone survive for so long by being in an indignant state all the time...

So how do we explain these reactions? Well, the thing with moral indignation is that, it is much more than a response to some immoral activity: it can also be a potent weapon of persuasion or a cry of desperation.

As individuals, we have an innate need for maintaining the integrity of our self-image. No matter who we are, we need to have a "positive" self-image in order to survive. A positive self-image means that we truly believe that we are good as a person, we are doing good for the world and people will remember us for our good deeds. This is true, even for people who perpetrate evil deeds -- they genuinely believe that they are doing good and some "pain is necessary" for goodness to prevail.

Moral indignation directly aims at this self-image of ourselves and tries to implant an element of suspicion about ourselves. If the person is indeed evil, perhaps implanting this self-doubt will do good. Even if one is not evil, a certain amount of self-doubt is healthy. But beyond a point, self-doubt can be devastating. When faced with an indignant adversary, we start suspecting ourselves, our intentions, our values and principles. We start toying with thoughts that maybe there is some deep rooted evil inside us, maybe we are not good as a person after all.. Being clobbered with indignation can break our self-image to the extent that it becomes difficult to even convince ourselves to live.

This is the reason why we routinely see stories of under-trial prisoners committing suicide, even when it is clear that they have not committed the crime and their arrest was only based on suspicion. The indignation of being called a criminal when one has done no criminal act, can be so devastating on their self image, that they lose their will to live.

In more routine organizational settings, moral indignation can seriously bring down morale and productivity. No one likes working among colleagues whose morality may be suspect. Misplaced moral indignation can similarly break families, increase distrust and make the society as a whole, weaker.

Moral indignation can also make people vulnerable to nefarious elements. Usually, it is the outcasts of a society that become easy targets for crime and extremism. Outcasts are those people who have been subject to moral indignation by the society and have their self-image seriously dented or broken. They don't trust themselves. And they are the ones who are the most vulnerable to adopting radical ideas.

With today's mass media and the Internet, misplaced moral indignation can travel far and wide and have far reaching collateral damage. If some Facebook post or tweet has made you defensive and messed up your mood for the entire day, you have already been a victim of someone's moral indignation. The indignation may may be genuine and may not be directed at you, but it was powerful enough to affect your self image, just the same.

So how do we manage misplaced moral indignation directed at us? (Please note the emphasis on misplaced.. and don't direct misplaced moral indignation in response to this post. I am not saying that it is wrong to be indignant -- but that indignance can cause collateral damage.)

Ideally, problems should be approached with a balanced state of mind, as our analytic and problem-solving abilities would be severely compromised if we approached problems with an emotionally charged state of mind. However, emotional responses are natural and they have to be managed. Trying to subdue or curtail our emotions will only make things worse.

Even though we train ourselves to be emotionally neutral when faced with a problem, we may have to face others' emotions directed at us. With moral indignation, it is difficult to even reason with them. Someone in a state of moral indignation believe that they have been wronged by our actions or values. And trying to reason with them appears like we are trying to justify the wrong that they have been subject to. No matter what we say, it appears like we are doing more wrong.

Given this, the best way to manage moral indignation is to argue publicly and calmly, stating your point of view and basing your arguments on facts and sound logic. Usually, arguing publicly is considered to be in bad taste, because argumentation (debate) is often seen as a fight, and fights are supposed to be held behind closed doors. However, when the other party is indignant, arguing privately only makes it worse. Not only will it appear like we are trying to cut a deal with them, it also gives them ammunition to cast more suspicion on us. They may not be doing these with malicious intent, and may be actually feeling the emotions they are expressing, but the damage is done nevertheless.

It also helps to understand why the other person is feeling indignant. Something that the indignant person is witnessing is shaking the very foundations of who they are as a person or what they believe a person should be, and they have nothing else to hold on to -- making them passive, angry and uncooperative.

Our visceral response towards moral indignation is to become defensive ourselves. However, once we understand that the indignant person is actually witnessing a potential collapse of his/her self image, it makes more sense to shed our defenses and approach them with compassion (not pity). We need to give them the space so that they can (re-)discover themselves and encourage them to express in words why are they feeling indignant. It also helps to take them on a path of discovery, exploring the roots of their beliefs and the reasons why they were instilled as immutable axioms in their minds. Talking about our own human failings and showing how fragile we ourselves are, may (or may not) help.

Link: Difference between pity and compassion 

Friday, September 12, 2014

Think before you read..

Here is a piece of advice that I often give my research students:

Augment thinking with reading, rather than reading with thinking.. 

The idea here is that research has to be fundamentally driven by meaningful questions that we personally care about and that we are curious about and that we have understood from first principles; rather than something that is induced by what others are saying. As researchers, we should be exploring questions that we can relate to, rather than whatever is "hot" in the marketplace (because by the time we finish the thesis, the hot would have become cold anyway).

I think the above applies equally as a life skill, rather than just a research skill.

Our thinking is fundamentally driven by who we are as a person -- our desires, our hopes, our delusions, our fears, etc. The more we think the more we understand the depths of who we are. Augmenting our thinking with reading helps us relate who we are with the rest of the world. We can apply ourselves passionately to some larger thought shaping the world.

But generally, I see that we are taught to read first and think next. Our thinking is mostly an augmentation to what we read. There are all kinds of intellectual posturing games that people play based on what we read, rather than what we think.

It is strange that we define an "intellectual" as someone who reads a lot. Well, an intellectual is someone who thinks a lot. I've seen intellectual activity like conceptualizing, argument building, strategizing, empathizing, etc. coming from even illiterate people who don't even know how to read. And I've also seen copious dearth of intellectual activity coming from research labs and "think tanks" who revel in just citing stuff or quoting people or in sporting a permanently disinterested expression like, "Oh you won't understand me anyway, why bother arguing with you.." rather than building a sound argument.

When I state the above, I've heard people conclude that I'm advocating not reading at all. Really? Far from it. Rather than advocating against reading, I'm advocating for thinking. It is our thinking that defines who we are and shapes our destiny, and our reading augments and strengthens us in this process.

My advisor used to give an analogy, which I'll paraphrase here. Reading a lot is like putting a lot of zeros in a sequence. If they are augmenting thinking, which is a '1' then they will collectively form a big number -- 1 followed by a lot of zeros. On the other hand, if the thinking follows the reading, then it would just be a lot of zeros followed by 1 -- a much smaller number.

It is also easy to detect from one's writing, whether the author puts thinking first or reading first. Someone who puts thinking first would write in an "abstractive" fashion. This means that the writing strives to bring out the essence of some idea that the author wishes to convey.

On the other hand, someone who puts reading before thinking tends to write in a "transcriptive" fashion. Such writing aims to report something from somewhere that the author found interesting. The writing itself would be in the form of a transcription of whatever the author had read, rather than trying to make a point about something.