Category Archives: IISc

Life at 8 kmph – A Walker’s Manifesto

Whether on four limbs or two, we and our ancestors have been walking for millenia. It is in our DNA, and we still rely on it from time to time when our cars break down, just like our ancestors relied on it when their donkeys suddenly died. In fact, we have been walking for longer than we have been thinking, which explains why the average human walks far better the she can think – If everybody walked as well as they thought, the world would be a very dizzy place for most of us.

Here, no attempt is made to outline the physical importance of walking – This every IT professional or MBA knows and no farmer or street vendor needs to know – this is an attempt to delineate the cosmology of the walker. Also, it is an attempt to understand how man’s relationship with his walk changed after cataclysms like the invention of the wheel and the iPod. However, technical questions like how much to walk, at what intensity, with whom, how can one associate a real number with a certain kind of walk and other publishable questions are left to future theoreticians from some Institutes of Science.

A walker is a peaceful animal. She knows that she cannot walk faster than some 10 kmph regardless of what happens, therefore is content with her lot. Running is possible, but not for long distances – walking is the only way to ensure that one can transport oneself daily from point A to B without dying at a very early age. A walker is also a very careful animal. He is at his most vulnerable when not protected by his home and family. Thorns, predators, snakes, stones, pretty much everything in his path is potentially fatal. For example, if people only knew how to walk, then people would not have such a problem with night traffic being banned in Bandipur. Instead, they would request that such a ban be enforced in the interest of the walking public. For the walker, time is not composed of discrete intervals determined by some cesium atom. One does not have to reach some place at some time, one reaches a place when one reaches the place (preferably before sunset, when we are even more vulnerable).

A walker is learning and playing all the time, unlike those who need specialized locations for both. Learning about what to eat, where to stop, how much to talk are all part of the curriculum. At the same time, listening to the wind rustling through the leaves, the robin announcing the arrival of spring with interesting lectures from the tree tops, watching the trees burst into bloom and the grass drying out are all part of the small pleasures that come by the walker’s way. A walker can stand and stare for as long as she wants, an ability that is slowly dying out. Staring is a very important part of both the intellectual and aesthetic development of the walker, though nowadays she would be accused of sexual harassment or mental illness for doing the same.

A walker does not go visit point B alone, but an infinite number of places along the way. People coming to Mysore complain that they only have around 10 places to visit, boring place. Maybe a walk around will change their mind. Thus, for a walker space is not composed of finite points connected by finite curves, but a continuum of points from here to everywhere. It is therefore not surprising that walkers know more about a place than anyone else. Nothing is boring because nothing is static, space in a walker’s view is always fluid, just like time, and both are in consonance – more the space in front of you, the more the time you will have.

And then comes the wheel. Nowadays, everybody wants their own wheels, depending on what they can afford. Thus, an American rides a Harley, an Indian rides a Hero Honda and an IIScian rides a cycle. For some strange reasons not well understood, from where they come (point A) and where they go (point B) suddenly are given undue importance. Another strange concept called ‘saving time’ also gets introduced, which justifies riding wheels that rotate faster than ever. Time cannot be stored for a rainy day, nor does it need saving from anything, thus this saving business seems to be mere wordplay rather than a concrete concept. Space and time are now quantities that are opposed to each other – farther means you ‘save less time’. The harmony between space and time is destroyed in this process.

Now everybody has ‘saved’ time, and therefore has plenty of time to ‘spare’. Since it cannot be lent to others, it must be used by its owner in the best manner possible – parties, philosophy, defence policy, business expansion and the like. Unfortunately, as was noted before, man does not think as well as he walks. Thus, it is not surprising that most of the problems in the world today are caused by the ‘savers’ – animals with too much time and too little brains. If they only had less time to plot jihads or search for cheap labor markets, we might have been better off. Simply put, walking naturally leads to world peace!

Earplugs which deliver music right to your eardrum is another invention that is killing the pleasure of walking. Like all good earplugs, they cutoff the walker from his surroundings, surrounding him with badly composed notes which are not even infinite like the ones he is cutoff from. Thus, his concept of space and time are completely dictated by another person (sometimes rightly called the ‘conductor’). Since the walker no longer pays attention to his surroundings, all the dangers that he faces are thus to be paved over by roads, killed or put into National Parks. Thus, not only does he affect himself, but everything around him as well.

These and other pernicious inventions have relegated the walker from being the centre of her universe to a small, sometimes irritating, part of someone else’s universe. It is high time we discover the walker in ourselves, before we evolve to a stage where we do not know what to do when our donkey dies.

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.

Education from the bottom up

Just finished Ela Bhatt’s book ‘We are poor but so many’, which is quite a strong reminder as to how radically different the outlook, needs, tastes of the invisible 70% of our country is when compared to our own.

Benchmark for the entire planet!!
Benchmark for the entire planet!!

Bhatt recounts her experiences with women of various trades in and around Ahmedabad and around Gujarat, notably ragpickers, vegetable sellers, rural embroiderers who see that their strength against exploitation by the middlemen serving people like us is in their collective bargaining power, in their numbers. SEWA is an trade union of, for and by women in the lowest strata of society.

Bhatt tries to make the reader understand the various dangers and difficulties a poor woman has to face and how things change when their confidence (almost synonymous with financial independence) rises. As a source of both information and inspiration, this book is very useful.

In the same vein, one can envision of an education that suits the needs of those that recieve it, rather than a one-size-fits-all package shoved down children’s throats nowadays.

There have been many people who have thought hard about children’s education, but probably none could put it in stronger terms than Ivan Illich in ‘Deschooling Society‘:

Many students, especially those who are poor, intuitively know what the schools do for them. They school them to confuse process and substance. Once these become blurred, a new logic is assumed: the more treatment there is, the better are the results; or, escalation leads to success. The pupil is thereby “schooled” to confuse teaching with learning, grade advancement with education, a diploma with competence, and fluency with the ability to say something new.

Another interesting person is Krishna Kumar, whom I have already written about. Both, albeit in very different tones, make the same basic point – Education no longer helps children to relate to and understand their surroundings, but rather encourages them to insulate themselves from it, preferably by getting onto the middle class bandwagon. This strategy worked spectacularly for the British, who managed to create a small group in India who admired European civilization as much as they despised their own. This group helped the British administer India, and is nowadays known as the Indian Administrative Service. The middle class in present day India (you and I) have also taken excellent advantage of such an education to insulate themselves from vagaries of nature and the economy.

However well this may work for a small part of India, it is almost irrelevant to someone who does not earn more than, say, 3-4000 rupees a month. They cannot insulate themselves from nature or Chidambaram, and therefore cannot afford not to understand the environment in which they live – their survival depends on their understanding of their environment. This can easily be substantiated – Those who die of swine flu have never travelled outside their city, those who die in communal riots are not the ones who instigate it, those who have access to money will not die during a drought, if you cannot differentiate between edible and poisonous plants  or between potable and unpotable water there is no way you can survive. For those with access to money, however, all these details are taken care of by the Consumer Affairs or Health or Home Ministry.

The reason why this point is being made is that there is tremendous interest being generated in the field of education, with innumerable well-meaning volunteers from comfortable backgrounds spending time with kids in slums and villages. Times of India has a huge program, someone wants to start something called Reach and Teach in IISc for the kids of employees here, and almost every corporate has some fancy corporate social responsibilty program attending to such a need. However, the road to hell is paved with good intentions – hard facts and insight into the magnitude of the task of teaching children from a milieu fundamentally different from your own is normally missing.

Since school is of no use other than to provide midday meals and the company of other children, all the required life-skills are learnt through informal channels or worse, from vested interests. Being street-smart is necessary for survival, but it also perpetuates certain modes of thinking and behavior which keep the poor away from the mainstream. The case of poor Muslims in India makes this very clear. Ela Bhatt and SEWA Bank also sought to bring certain skills into women’s lives like financial planning and spending on consumption versus production, which helped them make better decisions for themselves. Ultimately, it is their life to lead – education must help in making people autonomous and confident about their own decisions. This kind of education, especially to children just beginning to observe and understand their environment (6th – 12th grades, maybe), is crucial in my opinion. For children younger than this, it is probably more important to ensure they play a lot and generally have a good time.

So, what is the responsibility that rests on the teacher ? It certainly is non-trivial – it would atleast require a basic understanding of the background of the children, learning from their observations and interpretation, a strong sense of history and ethics and huge number of interesting stories. Nobody can learn all of this at one shot – the teacher must approach the children she is supposed to teach with humility and a desire to learn rather than teach. Reading books like the one mentioned above will not hurt either. Then the background required will slowly evolve within oneself and will benefit all involved (probably the teacher benefits more!). It also brings about a new respect for the modes of behavior and thinking of a people completely different from oneself. Indians like to travel the world to meet new people and learn about new cultures. All you need to do is step into your neighborhood slum.

IISc – first impressions

Nice trees. Very nice trees. That is the first thing you notice when you come to IISc. It is an island of green in a sea of gray concrete, beautiful and soothing at the same time.

The second thing you notice is relaxed the place is. Nothing of the ‘publish or perish’ problems that seem to plague friends studying in US universities. Consequently, the number of papers that IISc outputs in a year is not very high and I frankly think nobody should give a damn about it.

Another thing one notices is the number of people from Karnataka here, which is close to despairingly low. But our lunch table has enough interesting people, so not really too much of an issue from my perspective. The profs are really good, atleast in our department, students are quite capable with some exceptions.

The high point of the last month has been two talks, one by Ramaswamy Iyer and another by Uzramma, both questioning what is defined as ‘development’ today – the former in the context of big dams and the latter on the cotton cloth industry. IISc and its neighbors are able to get some really good people for talks, which is an advantage of being a famous institution and all that. However, one thing that immediately comes into focus is that the world of the people in IISc is completely cut-off from the real world, with people living in their own private wonderlands. Thus, Uzramma was given suggestions to do HRD, improve efficiency using solar power and such things when her talk focused mainly on generating a livelihood, which was being denied to many in India today. Iyer’s call for academic institutions to focus on water science will probably be lost on professors and students intent on keeping up with the latest topics in vogue in the West.

There is no dearth of a feeling that IISc is doing the country a great favor by its existence, though such a notion can be very easily questioned. The main contribution of  IISc seems to be the material enrichment of its alumni, all getting huge salaries by virtue of their ‘brand name’. And absorbing lot of CO2 and dust, thank you very much. It does not seem too interested in the material basis of its own existence, with lights and computers running 24/7 and not a single building that I have noticed implementing rain water harvesting, and all this with a Centre for Sustainable Technologies (CST) on campus!!

There are places which are supposed to do interesting work, like the Divecha Centre for Climate Change and CiSTUP, but the imperative for the scientists here to deliver information and insight that empowers society as a whole seems to be missing. Science appropriate to our local context seems to have taken a back seat to cutting edge science which has no relevance to the hawker on the street. Is it possible to create science which is both cutting edge and socially relevant ? yes. One does not start out trying to be socially relevant, since that restricts the mindset of the scientist, but a complete lack of knowledge of problems facing our society which could lead to interesting science does not seem to faze the people here.

Not that the people lack awareness – there are amateur theoreticians and activists in every field here, be it politics, culture or linguistics. In that sense, IISc is a typical intellectual institution – people supporting Hindutva and Marxism and every other ism exist side by side, staying away from each other and looking down at everyone else who obviously have an ideology inferior to the one they hold dear. There are grand theoretical discussions and debates, but obviously none of that matters to the kid who had to leave school to work in the xerox centre, copying books he cannot even hope to understand. The fact that students and faculty of a centrally funded institution have a strong social obligation seems lost here. There may be people justifying that their social obligation is to produce original reasearch, i.e, publish papers, but Amulya Reddy might beg to disagree.

Like someone said, the poor have only the truth to fight with. Scientists, as seekers of the same truth must use their skills to help the cause of those who do not have anyone to look upto for help. Whether each student of IISc is doing her bit to work towards this end, is upto her and her conscience.

Location shift

As a compensation for writing ridiculously bad exams like GATE, will be moving to the Centre for Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences (ominously called CAOS!) in the Indian Institute of  Science, Bangalore. One hopes Bangalore is far more tolerable inside one of its greenest areas. The next couple of months will be spent preparing for another interview in the same department for another program, so expect fundas from fluid mechanics and miscellaneous boring things to dominate this space.