# Why do we like to cook?

I could have named this post ‘Why do we like to dance?’, but decided to name it what it is because of my new found hobby, cooking. A more apt name would have been ‘Why do we “zone out” so often?’, but it would have been incomprehensible to those whose lingo is not yet up to the mark.

To begin with, one must differentiate two kinds of cooking — one that is done purely with the motive of fulfilling a goal — ‘eat to live’, ‘pack children’s lunch boxes’, ‘Guests are arriving in an hour!’ and so on; and another whose main motive is not just the above but also something beyond it. What that ‘beyond’ is will be my focus here.

First of all, we must observe one thing about cooking that seems quite strange to people who don’t cook — cooking actually seems relaxing to people who come back tired from work! It involves more than a little mental and physical labour and yet people seem to love doing it. In fact, it is probably the one thing that is as pleasurable (if not more) than eating itself!

To answer this, we must first have a look at what it is that exhausts people nowadays. Leave out those who perform physical labour to earn their bread, who are exhausted by the sheer expenditure of energy: Most of those who will be reading this really don’t fall into that category. What seems to exhaust us is explained by people in two vague-sounding terms — ‘stress’ or ‘strain’.

So, what is it that is being stressed or strained? Surely not our muscles; most of us do not use them outside gyms or jogging tracks. Obviously, it is our senses; more precisely just one or two of them. This is pretty much a modern, white collar phenomenon.

It is remarkable that we can feel exhausted by simply staring at a spreadsheet or computer code for an extended amount of time. It is equally remarkable that the world can run because of people simply staring at spreadsheets or computer code for an extended amount of time. Welcome to the Information Age: all that is need to crank the wheels of civilisation nowadays is a computer.

With the assumption that all that matters is information fed into the thinking part of the brain, the computer and similar technologies like the television and Walkman try to feed in as much information as possible, in as focussed a manner as possible, preferably using only a single sensory system. It seems like there is some problem with this assumption — everyone nowadays complains of stress and strain without moving a muscle!

The problem seems to lie in the fact that humans have evolved to experience the world with all their senses — hearing, touching, smelling, tasting, thinking and feeling (yes, not just the physical senses!), whereas the modern living and work place seems to assume the exact opposite: humans function best when they work free of ‘distractions’, so deprive them of all extraneous sensory inputs and feed all information through one or two sensory systems.

This is the guiding principle behind the construction of most classrooms, laboratories, appliances like the TV, computer, tablet, workplaces (think cubicle!),  supermarkets and pretty much any modern place of production and consumption. People need to be ‘focused’: ensure they are not ‘distracted’ at any cost. Think about it: monochromatic or dichromatic color schemes, ACs to ensure the exact same temperature and humidity, noise absorbing ceilings and carpeting, coffee makers and canteens (no kitchens!) — The modern living and work places resemble the interior of pyramids, fit for the mummified dead, than places where actual living, feeling human beings exist.

Contrast this with a kitchen, and you get the picture why cooking is so much fun. Cooking is probably one of the earliest activities of the non hunter-gatherer human, and has not changed in its basic form for at least 6000 years. What we cook may have changed, but nothing else. It is a feast for the senses unlike any other: A well cooked meal is not just about the taste, it is about how it looks, smells, feels to the touch and feelings of happiness and contentment that it evokes. Here, the human being as a whole, and not just her brain is being stimulated. It is probably the most multi-dimensional of all activities that humans perform (with the performing arts coming in at second).

While cooking, we have to stand, walk, chop, grind, grate, stir, smell, taste, hear, mix, blend, heat, cool, wash and what not. There is simply no other activity that is even remotely close in terms of the sensory palette that offered to us, and we do all this almost unconsciously, so deeply ingrained is the activity of cooking in human civilisation. Living as we do in an artificial environment that has been consicously designed to deprive stimulation to our senses, cooking is our refuge, our hiding place, the one activity that cannot be done any other way if it has to be done right.

Cooking is therefore one of the few activities that makes complete use of all human dimensions, not just the cold, calculating, logical one. It is but a small wonder then that avid cooks find cooking relaxing, meditative and even therapeutic. It is no coincidence that good cooks seem to be ‘bursting with energy’, whereas those who cook because it provides them food are normally weary of cooking and look to eating out whenever possible.

What is more worrying is children growing up in such a sensorially poor world. Children, more than adults even, learn best through the use of all their senses rather than purely by information alone. There is a difference between reading about a sea breeze and experiencing one. There is a difference between learning about electricity and making a bulb glow or experiencing an electric shock. Learning purely by information flowing into the brain is necessarily boring, unidimensional and ‘stressful’. This does not mean we should put up a projector and show ‘educational’ movies. This is more of the same. What it means is that we have to rethink education, learning and living, adapting to the necessities of our age without losing what it means to be human.

# What to preserve?

Here, we will focus on our cultural heritage rather than our natural one, since the latter has been the focus of popular attention in the recent years.

The preservation of certain forms of art, architecture, handicrafts for fear of their being lost in the mists of time has been a matter that has preoccupied many a diligent individual. As is probably well recognised, it is only the form of the cultural artefact (be it art or anything else) that is preserved, not the substance. It is easy to explain the previous sentence with an example. Indians all over celebrate some or the other form of a harvest festival. This makes sense because India has been (and continues to be) a predominantly agricultural nation. Many Indians are no longer farmers and nor do they have any remote connection with farming, and yet they continue to celebrate such festivals in towns, cities and even places outside India. Thus, they continue a tradition that makes sense only in an agricultural setup even when they no longer live within such a setup. Thus, the form of the harvest festival is preserved (with some modifications maybe), but there is no substance backing it. It is similar to Christmas being celebrated in a predominantly secular West.

Most cultural traditions have an inherently multi-faceted nature: they are not purely religious, nor purely economic or purely anything else, but a mixture of all these. When the factors that underpin these traditions change, the traditions themselves must change to adapt, else die out. This is the stage at which preservationists intervene, and try to preserve a snapshot of the dying traditions for posterity.

Most cultural traditions are naturally evolutionary, since socio-economic conditions change over time. To preserve a snapshot means to pull that tradition out of the context that makes it meaningful and ‘museumize’ it. There is also an inherent bias in the preservation of such traditions: those which are aesthetically striking and appealing (like music and dance) have a better chance of being preserved than others (like how to milk a cow or how to make dung cakes).

Without taking sides as to whether it is important or not to preserve certain parts of our cultural heritage, one must still ask as to what end such preservation is directed. Most farming traditions, for example, arose in a context where there were no chemical fertilizers and pesticides or even irrigation. Now, as we realize that chemical farming cannot go on indefinitely, there is definitely value in preserving these traditions. Here, we are not only preserving certain agricultural practices, but also a world-view that appreciates the necessity of maintaining a balance with natural processes. Only within such a world-view will these agricultural practices make sense, and are meaningless otherwise.

A great example of trying to revitalise not only a tradition but also the context is Gandhi’s attempt to revitalise the khadi economy in rural India. This was to be accompanied by socio-economic reform at the village level by ‘constructive workers’ and large scale marketing in the urban areas to make it economically viable. There was also the moral dimension to it in asking the urban rich to relate to their underprivileged brethren by spinning some thread on the charkha. With Gandhi’s death and an intellectual tide that was against his ideals, this attempt was museumized as well into the Khadi and Village Industries Commission (KVIC), and only with the emergence of new organisations like Dastkar and Desi are such traditions looking to re-emerge.

It is only when cultural traditions make sense within a certain world-view can they be innovative and inventive and alive. Otherwise, they have to be kept on ‘life-support’ at a great social and economic cost. The preservationist’s attempt to create an unchanging snapshot of the same will only result in decay and perversion of the traditions, like has been done by various politicians and ‘cultural’ groups looking at gathering power by projecting themselves to be the saviours of ‘the great ancient Indian traditions’. The vitality of a tradition lies in its ability to respond to its present context. This response may lead to strange results, like handloom weavers wearing modern polyester sarees and ‘modern’ urban elites wearing traditional handloom garments, but it shows that a world-view is refusing to die and responding to changing (albeit unfavorable) circumstances.

Humanity has matured to a sufficient extent to understand what is necessary to maintain its continued existence on this planet, though it has not matured enough to act on this knowledge. It is something like learning to dance: understanding how to perform a particular step is much easier than getting your body to execute it. We know with some confidence what is the world-view that will help us live in harmony with the rest of nature. Ensuring we develop and preserve traditions that take us toward this end should serve as a thumb rule in making the decision about what to preserve, and what not to.

# Being useless

First of all, something from XKCD that echoes my sentiments:

The mouse-over text for this panel goes like this: “The only things you HAVE to know are how to make enough of a living to stay alive and how to get your taxes done. All the fun parts of life are optional.” For some reason, this part of life is completely overlooked when trying to describe what makes an ideal human being. We seem to have internalized a fact of dubious validity that if one is useless, then it is a bad thing. Good is equated with useful (to someone/thing) and bad with useless.

It is undoubtedly true that since we live in the company of other humans, and all of us are trying to prop up a gigantic structure called society, that we need to work with each other, and for each other. It is therefore only fair that we are rewarded when we do our part, and are useful to others. Only thieves and politicians seem to think otherwise, and also those who beg and borrow without ever trying to find something useful to do. But somehow, somewhere, the fact “you need to be useful to survive” gets transformed into “you survive to be useful”.

As a personal ethic, to live in the service of others is undoubtedly a very noble thing. But problems arise when everything is judged by its utility to yourself or to society. By this standard, bureaucrats (the earnest ones anyway) are useful and painters useless. Farmers are useful and folk singers useless. If we keep eliminating useless people and things from society, then, like the cartoon says, life would not be very much fun indeed. Also, it is very easy to apply double standards: A sports person who has spent his entire life thinking about himself, his body and his technique becomes a hero if he wins a medal, though his actual contribution to society is similar to that of an orchid to a forest.

Another thing to keep in mind is that the word ‘useful’ itself has different meanings at different points in history. It is socially defined and it defines ‘The Box’ within which society operates. People of science were not only considered useless but even dangerous a few hundred years ago. Nowadays they are worshipped as saviours of humanity. Therefore, some who is very useful and maybe even invaluable at a particular point in history is so because she operates completely within ‘The Box’, and is happy doing so. If everyone thinking outside ‘The Box’  are eliminated, civilisations will stagnate and die out.

It is therefore important that society tolerates useless elements like beggars and philosophers. They may be parasites, but as long as they don’t suck the life-blood out of the society, like politicians, they should be allowed to survive and persist. They may harbour ideas or examples of ways of living that may lead the way for future generations, or their ideas may be eternally useless. But being different, being useless requires conviction and courage (however misplaced), both of which are rare qualities in society.

At a more personal level, being useful implies leading a life that is mainly governed by the needs of others. As experience will inevitably show, the ‘others’ are a mix of deserving and undeserving people, and you have no control over which kind you end up serving. It a very rare set of people who can truthfully say that they serve only deserving people. Also, people and things have values that are not included in their utility: beauty, inspiration, serenity — these are also things that we as a society must value, and seeing how things are progressing, maybe value more that brute utility. Being useless is something that is brainwashed out of us very early on, maybe it is time we re-learn what it feels like!

# Thoughts on Tango

Recently started studying Tango under a most fantastic guru in Bangalore, and have to say that it has been a very interesting learning experience. Having never pursued dance seriously or bothered to understand it well has given me not only something to practise but also something to think about.

Tango originated in Argentina (Eric Hobsbawm takes particular care in mentioning that it emerged from the brothels of Argentina, though it has long since moved away from any such associations.) and is meant to be danced by a couple. Argentine Tango is completely improvised, which means that you cannot really get away by practicing with one partner and also that each dance is a new experience.

Dance differs from music and art in the following manner: while playing music, you think about notes and play notes. While painting, you imagine a scene and try to reproduce that visual. Dance, however, is fundamentally an interpretation — you listen to the music and convert it to a tableau with your body. Moreover, the representation that you are creating is not really visible (or audible) to you, but only to a third person, unlike music or art where the feedback is immediate. The only feedback is your own sense of form, which has to be assembled together by your awareness of what configuration the various parts of your body are in.

As one can imagine, relying on such inputs to create something beautiful while actively interpreting the music you hear cannot be easy (or beautiful!). What dance does reinforce is the recognition that humans are intensely visual and aural creatures, relying mainly on our sense of sight and hearing to help us navigate through the world. Dance uses a very different sense, which is known as proprioception which we use mainly unconsciously. Thus, it is not uncommon to see people who seem to be dancing atrociously without having any idea that they are doing so. It is also why dancers rely heavily on lingual inputs from their teachers and visual inputs from a mirror — they are using their dominant senses to train the others. In other words, you have to learn to ‘listen’ to your body, which is not something you commonly do.

Probably because dancers rely on a less dominant (and mostly unconscious) sense like proprioception, all dances emphasize heavily on form — the shape in which your body is at any given time. Tango is no different and though its formal aspects are not too many they will be repeated over and over in class. Hubert (my guru) calls them the ‘geometry’ of Tango — the structure of the embrace, the angle and distance between partners and how it changes over time, among other things. It is very easy to look terrible dancing Tango since the dance is mainly improvised. A choreographed  dance can be drilled into someone, but that is not the case here.

Since Tango involves two people, communicative aspects invariably enter the picture. How one can (should!) communicate without visual or audible signs is at the core of any dancer’s training. All communication requires a medium, and the Tango embrace provides this medium. It also requires a grammar, which in Tango is not very elaborate, making it possible to ‘express yourself’ quite early in your Tango classes. It also makes it easy to achieve the goal of being able to dance with anyone, anywhere. Of course, this is possible only if both partners know the grammar perfectly, and beginner’s Tango classes are a fascinating aid in trying to imagine a world where there does not exist any language. It would probably be a very angry and frustrated world!

A lot of Tango, especially in the Hollywood movies, emphasizes its spectacular and the erotic aspects out of all proportion. Thus, it will seem to the outsider that Tango has not really moved away from the brothels of Argentina. But anyone who attends a class will know that the focus of the dancer will be more on not kicking or getting kicked by their partner! More seriously, Tango is more of an intimate dance than an erotic one. The intimacy derives from various sources. One, the very fact that you are physically close to your partner (duh!). Two, the fact that you are touching your partner — touch is the most immediate of senses, along with taste. Three, the fact that you are communicating with another person without using sight or sound. It implies that you have to be ‘tuned in’ to your partner to a greater extent than usual, since listening to someone’s touch is not a part of everyday experience. In fact, it is not uncommon for partners to look confused or break out into a smile at the same time, without ever exchanging a word. Four, the fact that you are your partner are listening and trying to interpret the same bit of music. A particularly good interpretation will suddenly increase the ‘zing’ in the dance, for both.

It has been an interesting few classes, and I find Tango to be a particularly good way to learn more about myself, since your partner is like a mirror, showing you what don’t want to see!

# Wilde, Chaplin and being ‘Modern’

Coincidentally, read a book of Oscar Wilde’s plays and viewed Chaplin’s ‘Modern Times’ the same week. Both give an interesting picture of the society in which they lived and how these great artists viewed modernity. Both are criticizing the audiences of their art – Wilde would make lot of allusions to places and situations which only a ‘cultured’ audience would appreciate, Chaplin’s movie was unlikely to have been seen by many of the poor, considering that it was released just after the Great Depression.

It is quite remarkable that both were darlings of a society that they treated with disrespect in their respective arts. They did not get away with it completely, however – Wilde was jailed for being a homosexual and died very young (his leftist leanings would have caught up with him sooner or later anyways), Chaplin was driven out of the USA during the McCarthy Inquisitions for his strong leftist inclinations.

Wilde uses his sharp wit to expose the moral hypocrisy of the elite in Victorian England who loved a scandal, as long as it was not in their homes. The public moralising, commodification of women, gender discrimination (“Women must be pure, unlike men…” kind of moral policing of women by women) are all themes he touches upon many times in his plays. Some of his characters are nervous about the wave of  ‘modern decadence’ in Europe (apparently French novels were banned in England at that time), whereas others embrace modernity. But regardless of their standing in the modern-Victorian divide, Wilde shows that the same hypocrisy persists – some of the characters, whether modern or not are shown to be morally corrupt and reprehensible at the end. In the same way, other characters, modern or not, are shown to be upright and honest. Thus, one can infer that Modernity by itself cannot be playing a crucial role in determining a person’s character, there are values that can withstand the ravages of change in social and personal life. Thus, the Victorian anxiety about the profound change that Modernity promised to bring seems unfounded.

Chaplin’s film, on the other hand, depicts the profound changes that ‘Modern Times’ has wrought upon the poor. The opening scene of the assembly line is to me as good a description of the change in the value of human life in the age of the machine as any. The movie has some remarkable scenes depicting the relation of man and machine, which is probably why it is considered one of Chaplin’s greatest films. It shows how it was impossible for the poor to make a decent living and people trying to satiate their hunger were called thieves, while opulent luxury (very well shown in the department store where Chaplin gets a job as a night watchman) was still available to those who could afford it. Almost a century down the line, USA (along with other countries now!) still does not seem to have learnt its lessons. Communism was not attractive to the poor for its intellectual value, but just that it promised them relief from hunger.

Chaplin shows us how things have changed, and Wilde shows us the more things change, the more they remain the same. There were (are!) many that place hope in the ingenuity of man to eradicate his less desirable creations like poverty and exploitation, when the fact remains that the problem is not material or technological, but mainly moral.This transference of moral problems to technological ones is not very rare: you have automatic light systems because people don’t want to switch them off themselves, police since we are incapable of ruling ourselves, carbon credits to enjoy cars without guilt and taxes to help our fellow human beings.

Coming back to the artists themselves, both delivered strong social messages through their work though art for art’s sake was the mantra to most artists – Wilde himself was a passionate supporter of freedom of art from shackles of morality. This seems to point to the transcendent quality of art – an artist with all her prejudices is capable of creating something that is very little touched by the same prejudice. Literary and artistic pieces, which embedded within their own time, are still appreciated centuries later even though the original context is completely lost. This to me is the true measure of great art.

# Epistemic limits of scientific enquiry

Had attended a talk the other day by Dr. Jayant Haritsa from the CSA department, on using textual representations of Carnatic music (Music written as Sa Ri Ga Ma etc.,) to determine what is the ‘Aarohana’ and ‘Avarohana’ (the equivalent of scale in Western music) of a given Raaga or identifying the raaga itself, given another piece of music, outside the ones used to train the identification system. Among other aims than the ones given above, was to provide a ‘scientific basis’ for the raagas, based on the statistics of usage of notes in various compositions, and maybe, provide a better Arohana/Avarohana for the raaga itself than the one received from tradition.

The talk was itself quite interesting and the system seems to do pretty well. In the Q&A session, a lot of concern was generated as to whether the ‘better’ Arohana/Avarohana proposed by the system would capture the ‘mood’ of the raaga, which seems to be an essential part of each raaga. Haritsa was of the opinion that as scientific researchers, we must not take things for granted and must try to question tradition using tools of science.

The essential issue, which one can generalize to things further than just music and its analysis, is the question of what is knowledge and/or Truth. More specifically in this context, one can ask the question as to what type of knowledge can we obtain using the scientific method, and whether this is the only kind which is ‘reliable’, the rest being ‘subjective’  is useless in a more general context, i.e, whether Truth in all its glory is best sought out using the scientific method.

Upfront, one must understand the fundamental premise of the scientific method, even leaving out its reductionist inclinations — Nature is not random: it follows some logic, some pattern which by large number of observations and/or experiments is discovered and this knowledge (from observation/experimentation) eventually can be called Truth. This is not hard to justify: we can see patterns everywhere in Nature and can build quite accurate models of the same. The reliability of scientific knowledge depends hugely on the concept of measurement – representing natural phenomena as cardinal numbers – numbers we can use to say something about the size of the measured phenomenon. No observation or experiment can be called a success/failure if it does not produce some kind of number. For example, Haritsa’s system produces a number per candidate scale for a raaga — higher the number, more likely it is the correct scale.

Immediately, one can see phenomena that the scientific method cannot be used to investigate : Emotions, ethics, likes, dislikes, etc., etc., Not only are these immeasurable (neuroscientists may disagree!) quantities, but they are also incommensurable: a statement like $2.5\times Happiness \geq 0.5\times Sadness$ makes absolutely no sense. Also, science can give no answers to statements like ‘The world is Maaya’, or ‘What we perceive is not what Is’. These statements belong to the same class of knowledge that the fundamental ‘axiom’ of science belongs to — you cannot prove or disprove them within the logical system that is built upon that axiom.

Now, music is a strange beast. It is highly patterned (scientists like to talk about its ‘mathematical’ structure), but at the same time, its main (probably only) value is in the emotion that it evokes: it is not coincidence that music is an essential part of religious worship, especially of the Bhakti variety. Therefore, no musical education is complete without a good understanding of both the patterns and the emotions (Bhaava) associated with music. Now, scientists are uncomfortable (or dismissive) about things they cannot measure, and musicians are uncomfortable (or dismissive!) of statistical analyses of their art. Therefore, it is not surprising to for each to value one of the two more. Haritsa’s and the audience’s apprehensions merely betrays their respective inclinations.

With the advent of huge computing power, a scientist’s optimism in understanding the universe has understandably increased. It is a common notion that failure of mathematical models is simply due to the ‘exclusion of some variable’ from the model. With more information/data, one can do arbitrarily well. This attitude conveniently ignores the fact that some quantities are not measurable and even if some quantitative representation is possible, they might be incommensurable. This can be seen best in sciences dealing with human tastes and values, like economics, sociology or anthropology. Subjects like econometrics, social psychology seem to be treading a fine line that distinguishes scientific knowledge from gobbledygook. For example, if one surveys 100 students asking them to rate the facilities at the hostel on a scale of 1 to 10, and we conclude that the average score is 8 and so most are satisfied (assume a score greater than 7 implies satisified), we are making two assumptions : we can add the satisfaction of 100 people and divide that number by 100, and that one student’s rating of 7 is the same as another student’s rating of 7. Though there have been arguments justifying such an approach, it is upto the individual to decide how seriously to take such surveys.

The dominant paradigm of our times is that of scientific optimism, and most appeals to emotion or morals are considered ‘woolly’ and ‘unscientific’. But one must realise that unless there is a healthy engagement with both pattern finding and moralising, the Truth can never emerge.

# TGC: Reflections

There was a workshop in IIM-B on Technology, Governance and Citizenship whose description can be read from the former link, rather than reiterating it here. It was, upfront, one of the most varied spectrum of people I have ever come across, ranging from technocrats to art curators and everything in between. A most varied set of people, with a common agenda to understand the dialogues between science, technology and society, and their implications especially in government and governance. The group was very talkative and this resulted in very interesting discussions about how to make politics more scientific and science more political. Since the time I wanted to do interdisciplinary studies in and around science and technology, STS was pointed to as an alternative, and this was a golden opportunity for me to see the whole spectrum of personalities and find at which frequency I resonate. Call it an ethnographic study of sorts, if you like.

One of the main points which kept persistently creeping into discussions was about how STS was not being political enough and why was this and what could be done to resolve this issue. We never managed to find any satisfactory answer to this unfortunately, but I now wonder whether you can find one. One of the organisers lamented that people turn out in numbers to listen to technologists but not to social scientists. Well, people do listen to economists and psychologists, and put their money where their ear is. Sociology and humanities seem to be out of fashion, more likely. But this disconnect is pretty much present and something needs to be done to bridge the gap. It was not always the case that sociologists were apolitical, however. Durkheim, Weber, Russell and Marx are prime examples.( Russell could be called a mathematician, but he was a trenchant critic of society) As any line of thinking matures and becomes a ‘formal’ discipline, such behavior seems to curiously disappear.