Book Recommendation: Pema and the Yak by Siofra O’Donavan

Pema and the Yak by Siofra O'Donavan
Pema and the Yak by Siofra O’Donovan

Pema and the Yak was an accidental, but timely find for me. I was on a very short and hurried trip to McLeod Ganj, the seat of Tibet’s government in exile. It is a tourist place to the core, with a picturesque view of Dhauladhar range, delicious cuisine of every kind in the restaurants run by Tibetans (now mostly India-born) and Indians alike, sufficiently commercialized Tibetan wares in the shops and the exoticism of colorful Buddhist buildings standing out amongst the dingy to okay-ish dwellings available for visitors at reasonable rates.

But guilt set in quickly for me. This tourism is built on the misery, loss and exile of a whole people. It’s fine to enjoy the cuisine and wares and mountains, but one has to stop and think what the exile of two generations has done to these people? The question was gnawing at me, but unfortunately I am not the kind of person who can strike conversations easily and make people open up to me. This book, which I spotted in a bookstore in McLeod Ganj was thus a godsend. It helped that it not only covered what I wanted to understand, but was also well-written.

It is easy to picture heroic, resilient people whose sole aim in life is to get their land and country back,  waiting and struggling till eternity for it. But can that be the reality? Can the day to day concerns and ambitions of people be sacrificed at the altar of this great vision which grows more impossible and blurry with every passing day? Can you really sit in judgement over a youngster who has never seen this promised land and dreams of going even further away – to the US and UK – for a better life? What about the elders who are still fierce, or those who have lost hope and are dying?

There is a human story for each one of those picturesque, cute, exotically dressed people: the lamas, the political exiles, the traditional teachers and doctors. This is a complicated and sometimes perilous history of their relationship with the locals.

Can a society whose structure has changed beyond recognition in the conditions of exile be restored even if their land was recovered? Especially when some of those changes are actually for the better, such as the breakdown of the old feudal theocratic hierarchy.

Yet who is to decide what is a better change and what is worse. Consider these telling quotes from the book about people of nomadic tribes, who have lost their tribe.

Without a herd, a nomad cannot be a nomad. He can only be a wanderer.
Or those who had to “settle” down.
For a nomad it is a trauma to settle, just as it is a trauma for a settled person to take to the roads and live in tents, as so many refugees around the world have to do today.
Despite all the hard-core investigation, the author does have a penchant for the emotional and the mystic. It bothers me when she goes down that road. But those turns are not many and even when they are there, they don’t steal the book out of its real merit. Some of you may actually like that part, unlike me.

Book Description

Below is the book description from the publisher’s website.
Pema and the Yak is the fascinating story of a journey through the Himalaya along the Indo-Tibetan border into the heart of Tibet in Exile. Encounters with oracles, lamas, ex-political prisoners, Tibetan doctors, DJs, nomads, guerilla fighters, painters, poets, missionaries and Himalayan royalty paint a vibrant picture of Tibetans living in exile today.

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Article of the Week: Why can’t the world’s greatest minds solve the mystery of consciousness? by Oliver Burkeman

The article I have selected for the week addresses a curious question. Curious, because depending on which camp you are in, it is either the most important question humanity and sciences face today, or it is not a question at all. We know a lot about how our brains work. We understand how we learn, how memory works and how we perceive things. But despite all the progress in neuroscience and related disciplines, we don’t have an answer to the question of why “should all those complicated brain processes feel like anything from inside”. How does any of it result in Consciousness? The question has come to be known as “the Hard Problem of Consciousness” (the article describes how this phrase came to be).

But does the problem really exist? Is Consciousness really something that needs explanation? Apparently for many people, it doesn’t.

Daniel Dennett, the high-profile atheist and professor at Tufts University outside Boston, argues that consciousness, as we think of it, is an illusion: there just isn’t anything in addition to the spongy stuff of the brain, and that spongy stuff doesn’t actually give rise to something called consciousness. Common sense may tell us there’s a subjective world of inner experience – but then common sense told us that the sun orbits the Earth, and that the world was flat. Consciousness, according to Dennett’s theory, is like a conjuring trick: the normal functioning of the brain just makes it look as if there is something non-physical going on. To look for a real, substantive thing called consciousness, Dennett argues, is as silly as insisting that characters in novels, such as Sherlock Holmes or Harry Potter, must be made up of a peculiar substance named “fictoplasm”; the idea is absurd and unnecessary, since the characters do not exist to begin with.

Some think we are never going to understand consciousness, and some others have the notion that we probably already understand it, although the implications are bizarre.

in the last few years, several scientists and philosophers, Chalmers and Koch among them, have begun to look seriously again at a viewpoint so bizarre that it has been neglected for more than a century, except among followers of eastern spiritual traditions, or in the kookier corners of the new age. This is “panpsychism”, the dizzying notion that everything in the universe might be conscious, or at least potentially conscious, or conscious when put into certain configurations.

It appears difficult to agree on even the question where consciousness is concerned, much less the answer. The views on the question almost seem a matter of faith rather than of understanding. Everyone seems to find their position to be the obvious one and nobody seems to have argument enough to convert people from other camps.

Read the complete article on The Guardian and let us know where you stand on the Hard Problem?

Article of the Week: Slaves of History by Jori Lewis

Let’s play a word association game.

England
Cricket
South Africa
Apartheid
Slavery

Did you follow that with “America”? That’s alright. Most of us do. The narrative around slavery is very US-centric, and not just in the US. That’s why I found Slaves of History by Jori Lewis worth a read and picked it up for article recommendation of the week.

Not all slaves from Africa were taken to the new world. Many remained in Africa and this article talks about their descendants. Unlike in the US, the stigma of slavery continues to hound the descendants of slaves in West Africa, particularly in Senegal from where the writer reports.

Black Americans do not feel shame about slavery; they feel anger or sadness or any number of other emotions. The shame is for others; it is the collective shame of the US. Slavery is our history, but it is not who we are. In Senegal, the stigma of being a descendant of a slave still holds strong. For people of slave origin, their history is an open secret, one that is often difficult to speak out loud.

The hierarchy still exists. And although it is breaking in piecemeal ways, it isn’t quite gone yet.

We know that there is an inequality between us and that they are above me. There is an unwritten code of conduct. I know my limits. I know what I have the right to do and what I do not. And I don’t need anyone to teach me a lesson.

People of slave descent cannot become the village chief or imams in the mosque.

Even running for political office, which is theoretically possible, is a bit off-limits in his mind. ‘Most of the descendants of slaves know their limits and they don’t even try to become candidates for elected office, even if they have the right,’ he said. ‘It’s not possible to stop the sea with just my arms.’

A presidential candidate was called by his opponent to be a ‘descendant of slaves’ and to have ‘come from a family of cannibals’. It was the former comment that caused the real stir. If you are thinking how the ‘chaiwallah’ comment meant to degrade Narendra Modi ended up biting his opponent instead, you will be disappointed in Senegal. The candidate there was insulted by the ‘descendant of slave’ charge and hired a traditional West African storyteller to articulate his lineage proving that he came from a family of respected warriors and not slaves. Turns out, it isn’t politically incorrect to use the term  ‘descendant of slave’ as a derogatory accusation there!

There are other anecdotes from the oral history of slavery, people who managed to change their identities and forget their slave past, those who are still stuck, those who are fighting it, and those who take their station in life as granted.

But we Indians need not get too smug. “Illegal” caste-based discrimination and crimes are as much a part of our present as the “abolished” slavery is of Senegal’s.

Read the complete article on Aeon.

Book Recommendation: The Outcast by William Winwood Reade

The Outcast by Willian Winwood Reade
The Outcast by Willian Winwood Reade

Have you ever been in a situation where your deepest beliefs are proved conclusively wrong? Have you been tortured by the proverbial head vs. heart struggle that ensues? Do you know that feeling when your mind cannot continue to hold on to the old ideas even at gunpoint? But letting those go would create a vacuum that your heart would burst trying to fill. Taking the bullet would seem the easier way out.

There is a cold, rational, philosophical and intellectual aspect to this situation. You are enlightened. There is a tragic, personal, humane aspect to it too. You might be broken.

The book I have selected for this month, The Outcast, by William Winwood Reade explores both these aspects. It is what is called a secularist work and it was included in the Thinker’s library, referred to in an earlier article recommendation.

It is the story of two young men, who lose their faith in the religion they have been taught since childhood. Considering the time in which the novel is set, the consequences are not only personal and emotional, but also social and economical. One becomes insane and commits suicide; the other survives to tell both tales but loses a lot in the process.

The beauty of the book is that it is like a gentle hand stroking your shoulder in assurance as you make that immense leap from theism to atheism, hoping to lose only your irrationality and not your humanity. The author appreciates what it takes to abandon religion. It is not like the threatening, belittling sermons of aggressive atheists who cannot (or  pretend not to) sympathize with why people need religion at all or how much it means to abandon something you have grown up believing in, irrespective of the rational merits of abandonment.

The inevitable, but insoluble question about who/what God is has also been discussed with intellectual rigour and personal sensitivity. The madman’s ravings makes Him out to be demigod whose drama production is called The Earth. It is produced to make an intellectual point to his peers. Too bad if the little animated creatures he made on earth are actually sentient and  subjected to cruel death through wars, diseases and natural disasters! He gets criticized for his cruelty and indifference, but he has already created what he wanted to create.

The sane man discovers an interpretation, which comes from a well-discussed line of philosophical thought. The bigger truth, if any, about God is impossible for the human mind to decipher. We have created the semi-human God. That’s not likely to be right. The concept defies reason all too often. Whatever higher powers are there above us, they cannot be understood in anthropomorphic terms. But this disbelief in the God that religion forces on us doesn’t mean we can’t be good. It reminds me of the final realization Levin has in the legendary novel Anna Karenina, although for him the revelation was more about returning to religion than abandoning it (strange, isn’t it?).

The sane man also discovers what he calls his own religion. Be good without expecting any rewards for it – in this life or in afterlife ( echoes of the Bhagwad Gita?).

No – I haven’t summarized the book for you. The conclusions are nuanced and aren’t even the main point of the book. The point is in the process of losing faith and losing yourself with it, or surviving it.

Despite being 140 years old, this book is immensely readable and relevant today. We struggle with the necessity as well as the terror of the loss of religious faith more today than ever in history.

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Article of the Week: I Fooled Millions Into Thinking Chocolate Helps Weight Loss

The article by John Bohannon that I have chosen for this week can be thought of as a follow up to or even an initiation to the book of the month for May. What is even better here is that it is a first person account of how badly designed scientific experiments get legitimacy and popularity if they only translate into headlines that people want to believe. It is a sting operation of sorts into the functioning of a large section of scientific research and publications and into how science reporting works in popular media, even the more creditable ones.

The Bild story quotes the study’s lead author, Johannes Bohannon, Ph.D., research director of the Institute of Diet and Health: “The best part is you can buy chocolate everywhere.”

I am Johannes Bohannon, Ph.D. Well, actually my name is John, and I’m a journalist. I do have a Ph.D., but it’s in the molecular biology of bacteria, not humans. The Institute of Diet and Health? That’s nothing more than a website.

Other than those fibs, the study was 100 percent authentic.

So, if the study was authentic, how was the public “fooled”?

Here’s a dirty little science secret: If you measure a large number of things about a small number of people, you are almost guaranteed to get a “statistically significant” result. Our study included 18 different measurements—weight, cholesterol, sodium, blood protein levels, sleep quality, well-being, etc.—from 15 people. (One subject was dropped.) That study design is a recipe for false positives.

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With our 18 measurements, we had a 60% chance of getting some“significant” result with p < 0.05. (The measurements weren’t independent, so it could be even higher.) The game was stacked in our favor.

It isn’t a good idea to be on cutting edge in the fields where you lack the time or competence to critically examine every new fad. So most of us would do well to avoid reading diet advice in media (or even science journals).

The key to success in popular media is rather disappointing.

The key is to exploit journalists’ incredible laziness. If you lay out the information just right, you can shape the story that emerges in the media almost like you were writing those stories yourself. In fact, that’s literally what you’re doing, since many reporters just copied and pasted  text.

Then there is more bad news. There isn’t much hope of getting conclusive dietary advice in the near future.

But science will figure it out, right? Now that we’re calling obesity an epidemic, funding will flow to the best scientists and all of this noise will die down, leaving us with clear answers to the causes and treatments.

Or maybe not. Even the well-funded, serious research into weight-loss science is confusing and inconclusive, laments Peter Attia, a surgeon who co-founded a nonprofit called the Nutrition Science Initiative. For example, the Women’s Health Initiative—one of the largest of its kind—yielded few clear insights about diet and health. “The results were just confusing,” says Attia. “They spent $1 billion and couldn’t even prove that a low-fat diet is better or worse.” Attia’s nonprofit is trying to raise $190 million to answer these fundamental questions. But it’s hard to focus attention on the science of obesity, he says. “There’s just so much noise.”

So, there! Just stick to the basics when it comes to lifestyle choices. If it sounds exotic, when it comes to dietary advice, it probably is wrong.

Read the complete article on io9.

Article of the Week: Without immigrants, none of us would be here

Let me accept at the outset, the article by Ian Goldin that I have picked up is weak. It’s call for “Fresh thinking and bold action” is based on diffused reasoning and it doesn’t look like he understands or wants to think about the motivations of the people he is addressing. Even purely on the merits of argument, it isn’t as solid, factual or fool-proof as you would expect from an academician. You might wonder why I picked this article as a recommended read, if it appeals strongly neither to  my logic or emotions.

The reason is the bold (even if carelessly made) assertion in the article that immigration has been made too difficult in present times and it should not be so. Think of it. The Europeans persecuted for religious, political or legal reasons in earlier centuries found refuge in India, the Americas, China, Hong Kong and a bunch of other places across the globe. Today Rohingya Muslims have nowhere to go. We may regard national boundaries as sacrosanct, but is it just? Is there anything natural about it?

Yes – I understand that countries cannot  give up overnight their immigration restrictions. It will bring nothing but chaos. But is making the borders rigid by the day the way to go for the human race? Read the complete article on The Conversation and think about it even if you don’t particularly like the article.

Article of the Week: What Scares the New Atheists

Please ignore the title of the article, while you are reading this post. I will explain the reason at the end.

The article I have chosen for this week is one which critically examines atheism, or at least the version of it that gets practised by the most aggressive, vocal proponents of the idea. It doesn’t get into the usual debate of religion vs. atheism, or what religion/atheists can or cannot explain about our world. Rather it tries to see atheism for what it is – well intentioned, like most religions in their idea forms would be, but with its own set of flaws, inaccuracies and irrational reverence for its current ideologies.

The author starts by reminding us of the early 20th century atheists who denounced religion for all its irrationality, but upheld the racist ideas of their time, not merely in passing, but by elevating them to the exalted status of being scientific.

It is a warning to the “missionary” atheists of today “aiming to convert humankind to a particular version of unbelief.” The particular version of unbelief treats liberal values in the same scientific vein as its predecessor treated the theory of racial superiority.

The attack is not on the liberal values, but the author contends that there is no reliable connection between atheism, science and liberal values. Atheists’ ideologies have often been used by despotic regimes, claimed to be based in science. Can there be a “science of good and evil” as these atheists would like to believe? Can science validate  values such as human equality and personal autonomy? As it happens, these quintessential liberal values have their origin in religion.

Although the focus of the article is on explaining how the fear of religious resurgence is driving atheists to a panicky, extreme response, for me that is not the most important takeaway from it. I don’t, in fact, know if I agree or disagree with this. That’s why I asked you to ignore the title of the article for the time being. What is fascinating for me is putting atheism in its proper historical and current context, which can propel atheists to think about their “obvious” truths and motivations more critically. While they may be good, they aren’t necessarily “scientifically” obvious.

Read the complete article on The Guardian here.

Book Recommendation: Wrong – Why Experts Keep Failing Us… By David H. Freedman

Wrong: Why Experts Keep Failing Us
Wrong: Why Experts Keep Failing Us – And How to Know When Not to Trust Them

The worst aspect of growing up for me has been the realization that a lot of the expert gyaan we receive is ineffective, ridiculous, wrong and many a time outright dangerous.

How dangerous?

Well. All of it – probabilistically speaking, with a very high level of confidence.

I wanted to incite people to burn all the self-help books, go on dharnas to remove advice columns from all publications, and wage a war against the publish or perish culture of research and academia.

Then I came across this book with an obnoxiously long title of Wrong: Why Experts Keep Failing Us – And How to Know When Not to Trust Them written by journalist David H. Freeman. It managed to curb my rather ambitious and violent intentions down to wanting people to just read this book as it says what I wanted to say in a rather cool-headed and polite manner. At times too apologetic to douse my fury, at times trying too hard to prove something that’s obvious, at times going into journalistic diversions that the engineer in me cringes at, and at times using a roundabout way to explain a simple statistical term like ‘confounding variable’, the book does test my patience here and there. But overall it is a book that I could ask people to read instead of  – you know – organizing self-help-book-burning sessions, sitting on dharnas or waging wars.

So, why do I want people to read this book?

Because I am sick of people who want simple, optimistic, pleasant, actionable and universal solutions to their life’s problems. Those who want a clear-cut answer to whether Computer Science in NIT is better than Aerospace Engineering at an IIT, whether they should do an MBA or not, whether marrying an entrepreneur is better than marrying an investment banker, and so on – you get the point. They don’t want the right advice, which will force you to examine many complicated things about yourself and the world. No! They want what the book calls resonant answers. With all the characteristics I mentioned in the first sentence of this paragraph. Do X to achieve Y sort of solutions.

And because people want it, an entire advice-giving industry has been erected to serve their needs, which keeps doling out simple secrets to a wonderful life through best-selling books, TV programmes, speaking engagements and workshops, newspaper reporting, magazine columns, and now through You Tube videos or dime a dozen online publications.

Probably all of us have been skeptical of some of this advice at some point of time, but we are definitely not as skeptical as we should be, given the colossal scale and absurdity of advice being doled out, and SADLY consumed.

Certain kinds of informal experts – the magic-diet creators, the celebrity lifestyle gurus, local experts like mechanics – are usual suspect for potentially being incompetent, ignorant, giving wrong advice and building their careers around dubious offerings.

But business gurus? Those who tirelessly mete out advice based on whatever latest management fad there is or squeeze out banally generic lessons from successful companies have been proven wrong time and again. Yet their popularity does not seem to wane.

Professional life or personal, we seem to have this insatiable appetite for resonant advice. We don’t like to accept that most problems do not have a clear-cut solution. Any good advice, if there is one at all, will come with if’s and but’s and uncertainties and qualifications. It will most likely be difficult to follow through and still not offer a guarantee of success. The best anyone will have to offer will be an explanation of things, which leaves us with nothing concrete or actionable.

Okay! So, all those business gurus and self-styled informal experts are charlatans. But what about scientists and researchers? Aren’t they the paragons of truth-seeking? Don’t they do better?

This is where the last shreds of your faith in the truth-seeking tendencies of human-kind will fall apart. From ignoring confounding variables, to mis-measuring, to plainly doctoring the data to create sensational, publishable results, there is no statistical, operational or ethical crime that our revered scientists have not been guilty of. And no! Those are not exceptions. The much heralded peer review process doesn’t weed out the careless and incorrect studies. Even direct observations of misconducts are not reported or acted upon, and finally even after publications most studies are not replicated or verified. The incentives are so skewed that honesty and diligence don’t pay. Even the self-reported (anonymously, of course) levels of frauds and misconduct in scientific community are staggering. Whenever people have tried to look into scientific studies, the conclusion is that given the kind of system and incentives we have created in academia and research,  scientific findings are just not reliable.

If you think that I am asking you to read a depressing book, I do hope it is not the case. I hope that you find this liberating in the way I found it. That the nagging doubts I had about all the gyaan floating around me were not a figment of my imagination or arrogance. The rot runs real deep and the amount of outward make-up to keep things looking nice and sorted is ugly! At the end of the day, you would be better off being deeply skeptical of things that seem too good to be true. They probably are.

But there is no reason to despair. You have yourself to depend on. After reading this book, the skepticism you will create in yourself will  prevent you from falling  into the expert trap!

Book Description

Below is the book description from the publisher’s website:

Our investments are devastated, obesity is epidemic, test scores are in decline, blue-chip companies circle the drain, and popular medications turn out to be ineffective and even dangerous. What happened? Didn’t we listen to the scientists, economists and other experts who promised us that if we followed their advice all would be well?

Actually, those experts are a big reason we’re in this mess. And, according to acclaimed business and science writer David H. Freedman, such expert counsel usually turns out to be wrong–often wildly so. Wrong reveals the dangerously distorted ways experts come up with their advice, and why the most heavily flawed conclusions end up getting the most attention-all the more so in the online era. But there’s hope: Wrong spells out the means by which every individual and organization can do a better job of unearthing the crucial bits of right within a vast avalanche of misleading pronouncements.

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Article of the Week: Human Behavior in the Face of Disaster and Loss

How do you expect a man to behave when his wife and children are trapped in the debris of his home after a devastating earthquake? What about people whose spouses, children and parents are  dead? Would they like it if camera people were out to capture the dead?

The experience in the field can be chilling. It is a short piece by Manu Joseph based on his experience of covering Bhuj earthquake in 2001. It came to my timeline as a reaction to another devastating earthquake that has hit the humankind in Nepal.

Warning: It can be deeply disturbing.
Request: Don’t judge people. Try to make sense of their plight and coping mechanisms.

Read the complete article on the journalist’s facebook page.

Article of the Week: You’re 16. You’re a Pedophile… by Luke Malone

If I have to summarize the article, it will say something like this:

Pedophilia is an illness before being an offence. If we could treat the illness, ideally before it results in offence, wouldn’t we create a safer society for our children?

Not all pedophiles, that is,

an individual who “over a period of at least six months” has “recurrent, intense sexually arousing fantasies, sexual urges, or behaviors involving sexual activity with a prepubescent child or children.” This person also has to have “acted on these sexual urges, or the sexual urges or fantasies cause marked distress or interpersonal difficulty,” and be “at least age 16 years and at least five years older than the child or children” involved.

abuse children. Not all those who abuse children are pedophiles; many of them are opportunity offenders.

What we have to realize that many pedophiles, that is people who are sexually attracted towards children, often against their better judgement, have nowhere to go. The taboo and legal disclosure requirements are so strong, that most therapists also either do not know how to or cannot handle treating pedophiles. Many pedophiles find themselves in a situation where if they seek help, they might be ostracized or punished even without having hurt anyone.

So, society comes into picture only after an offence has been committed, in the form of viewing child pornography or an actual abuse. And then we have strict laws to punish the offender. Problem? Deed is done. A child has been harmed. In most cases, there have been multiple victims because abuse has gone undetected for years.

We do really need a more proactive approach by helping pedophiles before they become offenders. They need a place to go, they need help in managing their condition!

The article has many stories, of pedophiles who are supporting each other so that they don’t hurt anyone.

An upfront warning – it is deeply disturbing. But let’s not be ostriches. The problem is real.

Read the complete article on Medium.