Category Archives: information

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.

Generation ‘W’

Shiva had to find Kailasa, Jesus had to spend 40 days without food or water in the desert, Shankaracharya had to climb Kodachadri without a jeep. The things Gods and men have done to find a peaceful place (and then, find themselves) has been quite remarkable. The basic premise of the ascetic way of life is that reduction of sensory inputs helps us focus on ‘inner reality’,  and help us to ‘realise’ ourselves.

But if any of the above mentioned are looking down at today’s world, they would feel somewhat short-changed at the options they had to isolate themselves from the rest of the universe. Our extremely innovative generation has revolutionised the concept of asceticism by turning its basic premise on its head. The Generation of the Walkman (or Generation ‘W’ in my terminology) has completely rethought the way to isolation by realising that an overload of sensory inputs helps us break away from the world, rather than the other way round.

For most of human existence, sound and light have been media for communication between individuals: language, smoke signals, and so on. It seems that using sound and light to achieve the complete opposite — a breakdown of communication — is quite a recent achievement. If one must attribute this to any one artefact, it must be the Walkman. Leisure and entertainment had until then been largely a non-individual activity: you could not play a tape/radio without everyone else listening, and TV time was also a family affair. The earliest form of personal entertainment was probably the boom box:

not very personal, and not very convenient either. Sound and light still played the role evolution had anointed them to play — bringing like minded people together.

With the advent of the enormously successful Walkman and other portable devices like small TVs and ‘transistors’, all this changed. Leisure and entertainment has now become a highly personalised activity. However, Generation ‘W’ has truly matured only in the past half a decade or so. The near universal penetration of the mobile phone and the near universal conversion of mobile phones into miniature boom boxes of the sort above has created a profusion of sound everywhere you go: those who spoke about cacophony and the Tower of Babel ten years ago had no idea what they were talking about. Travel by a night bus or train or sit in a movie theatre, and you will see what a profusion of light means: the advent of super-bright LCD displays has obviated the need to install lighting in most places Gen W frequents.

The sensory load due to listening to four songs and five heated conversations in six languages and the glare from your neighbour’s gigantic LCD display is simply too much for our primitive minds to bear, and they promptly start blocking everything and trying to focus on something inward. And voila, instant nirvana! Whether you want it or not, you will be as disconnected from the rest of the people as they are from you. Of course, then you have the more refined members of Gen W who keep everyone out by using superbly crafted earphones. It removes the necessity of wearing a ‘Don’t disturb’ sign around your neck (or wearing a stern look on your face) while serving the same purpose and informing you about the latest Bollywood hits. And you still have your fingers and eyes to play Angry Birds! The possibility of any sort of conversation with co-travellers who cannot SMS you is gone, and you are in a world of your own. Take that, ascetics who had to struggle in forests without Lays and popcorn!

The most innovative use of this sensory overload, however, is to use them to create virtual islands within larger public spaces. The idea is simple: In the days before the Walkman, if you wanted to have a discreet conversation, you needed to speak into someone’e ear or signal using a predefined code or use Pig Latin. Now, each boom box creates a radius beyond which you are not heard (or so you think), and there seems to be no need to be discreet anymore. You will see this everywhere: Go into the nearest Coffee Day and people seem to be speaking as freely as they would at their homes and, wonder of wonders, you cannot hear a thing. The back seats in a bus are occupied by students who play loud music (how long do their batteries last, really!) and hold even louder conversations, while whispering sweet nothings via SMS to their girlfriends sitting in the front of the same bus. This creation of private spaces amidst increasingly overcrowded public spaces seems to be a very interesting achievement of today’s technology.

The technology of today not only serves the purpose of ‘Disconnecting People’  from each other, but also from the social and natural environment they are a part of. With generous phone makers deciding to throw in a camera along with a phone (and a music player and a video game console and a …), and cameras which make it possible for complete ignoramuses (like yours truly) to take fantastic pictures, nature is no longer something to be savored and enjoyed but something to be pursued and captured in a JPG file. We seem to be taking every small pleasure in our lives and converting them to neuroses. This, of course, perfectly suits those selling these items of desire, but what does it say about us as a society and a culture?

Social Science Research and Categories

Humans, by nature, seem to have an urge to explain what goes on around them. It is this urge that lead to questions in metaphysics, which eventually turned to natural philosophy and then fragemented to its present day avatars of the various natural and social sciences and the humanities.

Some parts of our experience have turned out to be not very hard to explain — physics was thought finished until Einstein came along, and anyways most of relativity and quantum mechanics are not part of our everyday experience. Chemistry also seems quite well established. Biology is where we start feeling uncomfortable, since evolution by its very nature ensures that we can never know all the facts ever. Even understanding the physics of cells in their entirety has proved to be a challenge to this day. Maybe eventually we’ll get there, but it does not seem it will be as easy or the theory will be as clean as classical mechanics or thermodynamics.

The place we get even more uncomfortable is when we start studying human beings. One of the problems is that if we consider the human being as a box, the things external to the box cannot be left out during analysis. An electron will work in the same way here or in Mars, but humans (indeed, most living beings) are relational entities, and our behavior is dependent on things related to us, human and non-human, material and non-material (like emotions). Due to the fact that we have a memory and try to predict the future, some relations are with entities not even present at this very moment. Thus, it is not simply about data, but the context surrounding the data which matters when studying people or life in general. This is what we mean when we say that we lead meaningful lives.

The normal road that any human explanatory endeavour takes is to observe something, make a hypothesis about what the underlying phenomenon could be, see if it explains observations and the iterate this process. So, if I take a one kg stone and throw it many times and see how fast travels, maybe I can come up with F = ma. Maybe from this somehow I can figure out Newton’s laws as being sufficient to describe it. Newton’s laws don’t exist outside your head — they are simply how you explain what is happening. To paraphrase my professor, the stone does not follow any laws, you laws explain well enough to you what is happening to the stone.

Mathematically, one can think of this as an inversion problem — you are given certain obervables y = f(x), and you have to figure out what x is. All inversion problems have two issues — you do not have sufficient y's observed to make any conclusions, which is easily rectified, or the functionf is not one-one and onto, i.e, there does not exist a unique inverse. Thus we come to a situation where f^{-1}(y) = x_1 = x_2. Very often in the social sciences, this will be the case — any behavior that you observe can have a large variety of possible explanations. The way you would solve this problem if it was mathematically posed was to put constraints on the behavior of f(.) — it cannot do this, it cannot go there, etc., and gradually eliminate the possibilities. The way this is done in the social sciences is to invoke a ‘framework’. For example, an economist believes that we are homo economicus, and suddenly greed is the only motivator for most human actions. Similarly, a Marxist historian believes that all history is the war between classes (which comes from Hegel) and classes are formed mainly due to economic processes (which was Marx’s contribution). Again, a lot of alternative explanations are rubbished, and a smooth (if somewhat long and tedious) explanation comes out.

The way any framework develops in social science is not straightforward — normally critics of one framework write books or theses criticising it. It develops within a particular historical, cultural and social context, and explains best what happens within this context. So, one can probably understand more about 19th century Vienna from Freud’s theories than about human nature — definitely not a place I would like to be in! Similarly, the outrage against Marxist interpretations of Indian history is not because Marxist historians are perverting the truth, it is just that we are not used to seeing ourselves from a economic/classist lens. Unfortunately, Marxists don’t seem to think anything else exists, and that makes the problem even worse.

Any science, by virtue of its attempt at uncovering universal truths, will try and extrapolate from local experience to global analysis. This extrapolation necessarily worries only about what is common to all, and not the particularities. When one civilisation tries to study another, especially one as maddeningly complex as the Indian one, it becomes hard to know what it is exactly that one has learned. To take a trivial example, Europeans were probably the only civilisation that used benches and stools and tables to sit and to eat. Thus, travellers to other civilisations looked upon the practice of sitting on the floor as ‘animal like’. Similarly, change was more the norm in Europe from a very long time, and this makes more conservative civilisations like our own to look upon them as ‘rootless’.

It is because of these problems that any attempt to understand a people must be from their own terms. The end product of such a study must first and foremost be comprehensible to the people that are being studied, else the most important maxim of any science — to explain what humans experience, as opposed to explaining away what we experience — is violated. M. N. Srinivas is someone who comes readily to mind when I bring up this point. Though he attempted to understand all rituals and traditions in terms of their function in holding the social structure aloft (which need not be the case), i.e, from a social anthropology perspective, his analytical categories are very much Indian, and that is what has made his work all the more valuable as a mirror to ourselves.

Information and Energy, and Entropy!

What follows is quite incomprehensible if you do not have some idea of maths/physics, but read on anyways :)The question that I have been asking for quite some time is : “What is information?”, from an abstract point of view. Would have hardly expected a physicist to answer this, but they did. Looks like there is a connection between the energy of a system and the information it contains. More precisely, the number of states that a system can take is directly proportional to the information it contains. This was put forward by Boltzmann, who is rightly well known for his huge contributions to physics. Take for example two people, A who sits on a chair the whole day and B who keeps running around the whole day. If someone tells you A is sitting on the chair, you would already know it, so it is nothing new to you. However, news about B’s whereabouts will always be new information to you. Therefore, an energetic system tends to contain more information than a static one.

One could also understand this by looking at a storage cell, which can contain n bits. As n increases, amount of information stored increases, so does amount of energy it contains (Not to be confused with present day memories like RAM, where most power is consumed by resistance and (silicon) crystal imperfections.) Boltzmann stated that if a system can have M mutually distinguishable states, then the amount of entropy is given by \log{M} . Entropy can be called a measure of the randomness in a system, that part of the system’s energy that is unavailable for useful work.

Claude Shannon, founder of practically everything we know (if we exaggerate a bit), generalized Boltzmann’s hypothesis to a case where we have some idea of the probability of a state of the system occuring, i.e, we have a probability distribution of the states of the system. In Boltzmann’s view, the distribution was uniform, and hence there was the \log{M} result. In a probabilistic system, one can only talk of the expected information, and that is what we get: Information entropy is given by I = -\Sigma_x p_x \log{p_x} . Note that this reduces to the previous form if p_x = \frac{1}{x} . Here, since the system behaves in ways we understand, the total entropy has been reduced by a factor I . If the base of the logarithm being taken is 2, the unit of the value is called bit. If natural logarithms are used, it is called a nat. Nat, interestingly,  corresponds to the Boltzmann constant when used to in an entropy context. Thus, we see the beginning of a link between entropy and information. We reduce the entropy of a system by gaining more information about the states in which it can be present. If we know exactly what state it is in, the amount of entropy is effectively zero.

How do we find the distribution of states ? we have to measure. Therefore, what is being implied is that measurement reduces the entropy of a system, or that measurement reduces the uncertainty we have about a system, which seems intuitively correct. If system A measures system B, B’s entropy reduces, whereas the entropy of the system consisting of both A and B does not (from the viewpoint of a system C which has not measured either A or B). The information got via measurement must be stored (and/or erased) somewhere, and this requires energy. This could be seen as the solution for the famous Maxwell’s Demon paradox, which claimed to violate the second law of thermodynamics.

These views have importance in the theory of computation, especially in the lower limits of energy required for computation. Say, I have a system that takes in 2 bits and gives out 1 bit (like an OR gate), then the amount of energy expended must be atleast equal to the difference in information entropy, which is 1 bit. Similarly, if information entropy increases, the system must take in energy. You can read all this and more (especially qualifications) in this paper.