Our Hidden Prejudices

Our Hidden Prejudices

Just finished reading Malcolm Gladwell's Blink. His previous book, the Tipping Point, was fantastic. It was about change, rather epidemic change. Like it,
Blink has descriptions of a lot of interesting experiments and anecdotes on how this 'brain-reflex' occurs and how useful it is. We have a primitive, adaptive computing machinery in our brain that rapidly calculates and judges; of which we are rarely conscious of. This speed helped our ancestors survive in a hostile environment. Intuition - by which we rapidly judge whether we like or dislike something - which can be hard to explain to others in terms of words or reasons - can be a huge help in making snap decisions. We use it all the time; often we are not even aware of it.
But what is gained in speed is lost in objectivity. For optimization, this machinery creates stereotypes and hidden prejudices, because in times of urgency you don't want to rationalize and think through the various options - you want to act! Given enough time, we would never endorse some of these literally deep-seated prejudices, but they are stored in our primitive, unconscious and show up under stress and also on this very interesting Harvard Implicit Association Test (IAT). - I would be very interested in knowing what the Harvard president got on his Gender-Science IAT - for the rest of us, our frontal neocortex saves us from such embarrassment.

History: Fact or Fiction?

The original post appeared in February, 2005 here.
Upon hearing people's comments, I felt a need to add a new section which has been appended below.

History: Fact or Fiction?
A few months ago, I read the controversial book by James Laine - Shivaji, Hindu King in Islamic India. A few weeks ago, I was reminded of this post, long overdue, upon reading Joe Rothstein's column in the NYT on controversial scholar - Wendy Doniger (Link to abstract).
I had wanted read the book for a couple of reasons. It is a short book (around hundred pages) but became rather controversial. It resulted in an attack on the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute (BORI) by the Sambhaji brigade. Why protest months after the book was published? After the attack the book was banned by the NCP government. We love to ban books thinking it will also ban debate. Just because it was banned, doesn't mean that the book was good. So, I wanted to read it and find out for myself if there were any inconsistencies. Also, coming from Pune, the heart of Shivaji's story and having heard every legend since childhood, I wanted a fresh perspective on the old story.

Deconstructing the story
The book is quite outstanding and should be read by every Punekar. Unfortunately, it is not available anywhere except on amazon.com. It shattered many of my long held beliefs, most which I had not critically examined. Principally, I was impressed with the way he structured the book. He deconstructs the story of Shivaji in different eras and contexts. Then he shows how that the legend of Shivaji got embellished by each successive generation and got twisted to serve the purposes of each writer. It is quite unsettling and startling, because Laine shows the chinks in the narrative with a host of references and quite compelling arguments.
Ramdas was Shivaji's spiritual guru - is something that we all accept. There are too many inconsistencies to support this fact. There is no doubt that Shivaji was a just ruler, but to claim that he was some sort of Hindu champion who stood up to Islamic rulers is more work of history writers than Shivaji himself. I also liked the way he talks about the mix of Islamic customs and Hindu customs and life in the court. How Muslim kings had Hindu vassals and interconnections between them.
He also comments on the writing of history that is responsible for distortion and misleading people. James Laine begins the book by mentioning the Maharashtra State 4th Standard textbook called Shivchhatrapati which I studied and relished when I was in the 4th Standard. He points out how the writers had literally put words in Shivaji's mouth in the textbook. He also comments on Babasaheb Purandare and calls him not a historian but, ' ... the principal purveyor of the Shivaji story in recent times ...'.

The Infamous line
On p.93:
"Maharashtrians tell jokes naughtily suggesting that his guardian Dadaji Konddev was his biological father".
The above line that cast aspersions on Shivaji's lineage is completely unsubstantiated. In all my years, I never heard anything close to that. What happened to Laine to write a line like that? Given the extensive references and bibliography he used to support his other claims, why would he make such a loose comment? It completely baffles me.

The Debate
There was an extensive debate on the Complete Review which makes very interesting reading. The accusations and counter accusations. Some of the arguments by Bhalchandrarao C. Patvardhan & Amodini Bagwe are valid but their ire against the entire book, its title and the author are either unsubstantiated, faith-based and some of them are quite ridiculous.

Rewriting history
Never mind who is right, I do feel that we need to be more open and should welcome reinterpretation of our history and culture. Coming back to Wendy Doniger, a Euro-centric view is not balanced by an Indo-centric view. The aim should be to find the truth. Why are we afraid to dust out all the embellishments, shatter myths and question dogmas, either Western or Indian ones? It is not pleasant to have your pet theories dismissed but we must not be blind to evidence. Perhaps not for his scholarship, but at least for his attempt to enquire, James Laine needs to be commended.
We, in India seem to love the apotheosis of great men. Never mind the message that Gandhi or Shivaji had to give, we simply want to worship them as idols. We forget their human fallibility. It is human fallibility that makes them great men. Then somebody subverts/interprets the message for some political advantage and we have results like these monkeys of the Sambhaji brigade who don't care to know what exactly they are fighting for as long as they are fighting for something.

Beyond mere faith
I am happy to note that all Punekars condemned that violent attack at the BORI by the Sambhaji Brigade. Yet, I feel the content and idea of the book has not been adequately talked about. I see a tendency in Indians to simply have blind faith and a certain unwillingness to re-examine long held beliefs and prejudices. To avoid further controversy and in fear of violence, many Indian scholars who contributed to the book have now disassociated themselves from the work. This is quite a shame. I feel that apart from the unfortunate paragraph, the book was a serious and an honest attempt by James Laine to re-examine: Shivaji, his legacy, and also demonstrate how the hero and achievements has been trivialized by political parties to further their own selfish jingoistic aims. However, I don't want to foist my personal views and I leave it you, the discerning reader to judge the merit of Shivaji:Hindu King in Islamic India . It is quite a shame that the book is still banned in India. The chief purpose of the book has been subverted by controversy, violence and political games in place of - civilized intellectual debate.

Valentine's Day

Ironic Valentine Moment of the Day
Eating chocolate at 12am. This just after having brushed my teeth, cleaned my tongue, flossing(!) and a 1 min fluoride mouthwash.

Person who got most of my time today
My first experimental rat, called DUDE #1 (DUDE is a recursive acronym for DUDE is Unitary event DEtection). Spent the whole day in surgery implanting an electrode. Then all evening baby-sitting him till he woke up after a morphine shot.

Number of emails/calls from Old Flames
Doesn't this suck?

Babe of the Day
Sania Mirza. Any objections?

2014: A Brave New World ?

2014: A Brave New World?

Thanks for the great link Rahul! I thought it was too good a link to be simply lost in the comments and probably deserved a post of its own. At least, in terms of prophecy, this movie is no less prophetic than Orwell's 1984 or Huxley's Brave New World
Please check the links for Google EPIC at broom.org or at Robin Sloan, inventor of the EPIC - the Evolving Personalized Information Construct. An 8 minute capsule of a slightly cheeky-alarmist-humorous conspiracy theory.

Many of us have been quite gung-ho about Google for quite some time, but for how long? Looking at the rate it's gobbling up companies, one wonders if it's going to be the Microsoft of the next decade? I depend on Google for so many essential utilities now; if they took them away I would be quite unsettled. Can I imagine a day without - Google, Google News, Google Images, Gmail and Blogger? Among others that are popular, I have stayed away from the completely foolish exercise called (IMEO - in my exalted/elitist opinion) Orkut, and have not used Picassa at all. Keyhole is cool but not useful on a daily basis.
For quite some time, I was reluctant to read news online because I loved the physical touch of the paper so much. There not many things that can still quite match the pleasure of being the first to read the morning's newspaper and being the first to crush, crease and mess it all up. But that form of reading is clearly on its way out. What can beat hyperlinks? The chief advantage in my opinion is avoiding the tyranny of having read only one paper and its particular viewpoint.
Coming back to the movie clip. I liked the way they tell the story of the next big match-up of the Internet - The Redmond Giants versus the Mountain View Young Bucks . Quite right about TIVO too! So far, Google has not irked the nerds by playing any dirty games. But wasn't it long ago that a slightly nerdy looking guy with glasses slowly took over the world and then refused to share it? Google is quite aware that everyone loves the underdog, but tomorrow when it becomes the top dog? Maybe, I saw Fight Club yesterday and I am ready to believe anything, but the wars of our times are going to be so different. How can you expect to become a Goliath and then still hope for the support that you got as a David?

Maps Google Update

Google Update

Looks like, I have been dozing off lately and haven't kept up. There is an update from Google that I discovered only this afternoon - the new Google Map Service (Thanks to Aditya Mahajan). It kicks ass BIG time! Forget ever using Mapquest or Yahoo maps again. The design is quite revolutionary and it's so easy to use and is a great rethink on how online maps should be organised. It's full of neat features and the best part is that this is still a beta version.

The Map
Ability to pan a map is so much more natural than having images painfully load. Also, everything you need is on one page and you can enter search terms like you would ask a person,'Ann Arbor to Chicago' or 'Good indian restaurants' it won't complain. It does not really have intelligent software to sort the terms 'good' and 'bad' ones. As a matter of fact, 'bad indian restaurants' brings up the same list. That's not the point. The point is that intuitive searches phrases are supported. No need to type stuff in separate boxes for place, city or state. (Quite upset that Mapquest did not even find my home without detailed zip code info when I was comparing the two. So much for Mapquest!). The boxes are also very usefully and simply labeled,
What? and Where? Also it immediately shows an inset for getting directions to and from that point.

Local Search
This is probably where it scores the most points. Want to find the nearest Wal-Mart? Hit 'Walmart'. Another neat feature is that the detailed map shows up as an inset map on the main page and it has address and the website address, so you can directly navigate to the website if you wish.

Liked the little blurbs that they use for the 'start' and 'end'. You can bring up inset maps for every stage of your trip by clicking on the numbers. If you want to reverse directions just hit the the double arrows in the middle.

What really kicks ass!
If you are like me, and hate to even move a few inches to use a mouse you'll love the keyboard shortcuts. They support zooming 'in/out', panning. I am going to suggest that they come up with some more, though for now this is a step in the right direction.

What we still want
It does have features still missing. For example, being able to remember history of your previous searches, create a profile, ability to route through multiple locations (a feature which I feel should be essential to all map engines), multiple options for routes or the ability to select maps through minor roads and not Interstates. Popping up rest areas or gas stations on long trips. But YEAH! This is it!

Million Dollar Question
Is Google taking over the world?

Movie Nights

Movie Nights
Some movies you watch for the story, some for the acting, some for the music. Then there are those that are great just because they were shot well. Thanks to the director and the cinematographer. These past few weeks, I have been able to watch a few of the most visually arresting films.

The first was Zhang Yimou's The House of the Flying Daggers. An action flick with an absolutely banal story with really idiotic twists. The martial art stuff is good, but then after a while the highly overdone CGI daggers and the supernatural nature of the martial arts gets to you. The leads Zhang Ziyi, the Aishwarya Rai of China and Takeshi Kaneshiro are great. It's a movie you have to see for the stunning fall scenes in China and you cannot help but noticing the great colour-work (if there is such a term).
Watch for color and camera only.

A librarian at Cleveland had highly recommended the Korean Film Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter and Spring and refused to give more details, but said that I should watch it because, 'It's beautiful'. And it was. A floating house in the middle of lake and the change of seasons. The Master and his apprentice and the slow painful process of learning or rather self-realization. It is more a Zen koan than a movie. At the end you feel strangely at peace with the world.

A film directly on the opposite side of spectrum in terms of feeling at peaceful and being optimistic about the world is the Brazilian City of God. Felt it was closer in style and feel to Satya and other gansta-movies of late than the Hollywood Mafia movies- Godfather and Goodfellas. They seem to be quite refined in comparison to this visceral and bloody depiction of life in Rio de Janeiro's worst slum. Liked the mix of fast cuts and music for the action. eg: The first shot is a masterpiece with the fast cuts of a chicken, people chasing it with guns and then the chicken running, all with samba music in the background. Finally, it ends with the gang on one side and the police on the other and the hero with his camera in the middle trying to catch the chicken and the camera pans around. It is and is not a linear movie, it flashes back then forwards. It's like someone narrating a story from memory. You sometimes go back and then forwards and then back again. I read later that different kinds of colours for the film were used for the shots of the 60s (more brownish) and more vivid for the shots of the 70s. Very subtle.

Every two weeks the State Theater shows a classic movie at 12am on Saturday. I got there about 10 mins before the show, and was shocked to see that the whole hall was packed. In the States it is really rare to see anything packed more than 25% its capacity. Seems like all the hard-core movie nuts(there are a lot of them in Ann Arbor) had converged to watch Trainspotting. Classic features of a cult movie - a cast of really whacked out characters, especially Spud and Begbie, colorful use of slang and a counter-culture theme. All the close-ups were shot with a wide-angle lens distoring the features of the people and the angles were totally non-conventional, especially the trip scenes. They better be ...

Choose Life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a fucking big television, choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players and electrical tin openers. Choose good health, low cholesterol, and dental insurance. Choose fixed interest mortgage repayments. Choose a starter home. Choose your friends. Choose leisurewear and matching luggage. Choose DIY and wondering who the fuck you are on a Sunday morning. Choose sitting on that couch watching mind-numbing, spirit-crushing game shows, stuffing fucking junk food into your mouth. Choose rotting away at the end of it all, pishing your last in a miserable home, nothing more than an embarrassment to the selfish, fucked up brats you spawned to replace yourself. Choose your future. Choose life... But why would I want to do a thing like that? I chose not to choose life. I chose somethin' else. And the reasons? There are no reasons. Who needs reasons when you've got heroin?

At 2am, after the movie got over, I wondered. What the hell am I doing?. Not a surprising moment of epiphany?

50 Invites!

Everybody is doing it now!

Now everybody can have Gmail. Google has decided to award another 50 invites to regular Gmail users. Leave your email or drop me a line if you want an Gmail ID or anybody you know who wants one. Can't even imagine the amount of mail that is going to be stored forever and ever. Come to think of it, I can now have 50 Gig of webmail space. Should I suggest that instead of that 1 G of E-mail space, people would love to have that much webspace for private pages?



Hitler justified his invasion of European countries on the pretext of wanting more Lebensraum or 'living space' for the German people. I look around my little home acre of 15 by 8 and see a mess of books, CDs, clothes lost in the blanket and wonder if more Lebensraum would simplify things. A whole extra room perhaps? Like Hitler, I don't really need more space. Mom's constant refrain, 'How about arranging your room?', sounds like voice from faraway and seems to get fainter and fainter as the days go by. There are SOME if NO perks of staying away from home. Since she is not here, I can justify and get away with it by saying,
'I can find anything anyways, ... well sort of. Besides, I like it this way.'

I am one of those people Freud would have called 'anal'. I don't delete old email. There is a LOT of space on my UMich account which I have managed to exceed a couple of times. Then we have people like Google providing Gmail with 1 Gig of space. How do you expect me to get out of this bad habit when they indulge me so. I have bills from years ago. The other day my awesome stopwatch ran out of space for the lap times. Something that I did not consider as a possibility (see old post), but I often surprise myself. Using that as a valid excuse (ie. not being able to record time), I ran a mile less than I decided. My laptop has just a 1 Gig left. My I-Pod is already running at max capacity. Should I get rid of the Vladimir Horowitz stuff or ... not?. Brochures from trips. And boy does it all pile up!

I remember getting here with two suitcases and a rucksack. What happened?

To rephrase 'Parkinson's Law',
Mess expands to fill the space available for it.

Bus Conversation

The Fine Art of Bus Conversation

No one talks to anybody on the bus anymore. Cellphones killed 'real' conversation long time ago. You climb onto a bus and once the doors shut, everyone is furiously punching the digits. If someone is quietly sitting in a corner, invariably the phone will ring with some annoying ring tone (another bane of technology) and starts yapping on it.
A few months ago, there were the unlucky ones who didn't get place to sit and had to stand and grab the handrails and couldn't grab the phone. Now after Christmas, everyone has got an I-Pod or some portable player or the other and now if they aren't talking they are plugged in.
A girl revealed to me her complete plan of study and what courses she finds hard. A few seats away, I am tempted to suggest to the guy a particular restaurant for his dinner tonight. I hear a voice in Chinese or Korean talking at supersonic speed, can't make out anything. Perhaps WE couldn't talk. My neighbour is listening to Outkast and is bobbing his head and smiling to HIMSELF.
I look at my fellow passengers disdainfully and lament the death of 'Bus Conversation' and plug into Mark Knopfler on my I-Pod.