Of Water Heaters

Water heaters are useful things at times of inclement weather. But in a place like Chennai, where inclement weather almost always means heat that can suck you dry, they’re about as useful as George Bush Jr. was to the world. They’re power-hungry and completely moronic, and completely useless for about ten months of the year. So, to the guy who switches on the geyser every single day in the fourth wing bathroom on the far side from the Saras hostel office, could you please not? Thanks a bunch.

And we’re surprised that they take up arms?

The people of Kashmir and large parts of the north-east have for decades been subject to the rule of a power they consider alien. That this power should be the government of India is particularly disheartening – the people of India know what it means to have no freedom in their own homes and backyards; at least, one would think that we should.

Why should the Kashmiri people forgo their right to self-determination? Is it because they happen to be stuck in the wrong place at the wrong time, all the time? Is it because we are only protecting them from what we know to be a threat to them (but they don’t)? Didn’t the missionaries who wanted to civilize us heathen have a similar reasoning? Or is it perhaps because the politicians on either side of the Kashmiris are jerks who cannot keep their dicks in their pants? (I mean no offence to the women on either side intent on screwing the Kashmiri people over, of course; the dicks referred to are only proverbial. Even otherwise, evidence seems to suggest that they would be too small to matter, or politicians in India and Pakistan would be using them, instead of their mouths).

The politicians of 21st century India who rail against the colonial attitude of the west and the ‘moral and cultural depravity of the west’ are also the same politicians who adopt the ”Kashmir is an integral part of India, and anybody who says otherwise is an enemy of the state” line. One would have hoped for a few sensible people in India’s parliament of 543 who would voice a more reasoned, reasonable argument, but one learns to live with disappointment in a country like India. A country where we seem to have made peace with the idea that democracy is the rule of the few powerful over the vast majority of the powerless, with the only choice in the matter being whether the people choose the devil or the deep blue sea.

Among the more abominable gifts of the people of power in India to the Indian polity is the alienation of large sections of the aboriginal people of the subcontinent, the adivasis, from their right to liberty, their right to the land of their forefathers, their right to life. When these people do manage to raise their starved voices, they are branded Maoists or Naxalites, locked up, without legal recourse, for years on end thanks to the draconian AFSP Act. Forget illegal searches and seizures; forget probable cause and the assumption of good faith; the act allows police and army officers to basically shoot at whim – officers of the state can shoot people they ‘suspect’ of being naxalites first, and not be asked too many questions later. Which is all right, I guess, because law-enforcement in this country has a stellar record of respecting human rights and civil liberties. Or Not. There is a reason the average Indian mistrusts the police and would do almost anything before they have to visit a police station.

Why do the adivasis have to give up their land for the sake of progress which gets measured by how much money the richest man in India has, rather than by how many millions of India’s poor die of starvation? Or lack the most basic facilities of sanitation? Or lack education and employment? Why should the people of Singur give up their land so that Tata can build a factory and make a fortune? A fortune, it must be noted, no part of which would go to the displaced people themselves. Why do the people of the Narmada valley be displaced from their lands, and have their fields submerged, so that the people of Ahmedabad and Gandhinagar can have water at the turn of a tap? Why should the adivasis of Orissa or Chattisgarh let themselves be forced off their forests which have sheltered them, which they have sheltered? Why should they give up their hills, the gods that they worship so that Vedanta can mine the hills down to the ground? Why?

And, when all these things are done without their voices being heard, how do we blame them if they take up arms?

The Shaastra 2010 Mensa-IQ Debacle

I don’t know the people who put the Shaastra 2010 Mensa IP, or whether they meant what their poster said. For the record, the poster called for volunteers for the Mensa event; volunteers who could be guys with IQ or girls with F(ace)Q. This prompted an almighty crackdown from the overlords of the executive wing, with the coords asked to tender written apologies and being thrown off the Shaastra 2010 team. The executive wing has also very helpfully assured the student body that all further notices and posters will effectively be censored for content before being released. Because what was needed more than anything else at IITM was for every IP to get the Dean’s nod before being put up.

While the matter does leave a bad taste in the mouth, the incident is by no means singular (think IPs mincing no words in asking for female volunteers), nor is it only the students at IITM who are culpable of this sort of thing. The OAA has a ‘Student Patentable Invention’ award, which will get any final year student with a patent application recognition from IITM. The poster and announcement for the award has four Caucasian people smiling at us from it. What was the point of the picture? Are white men with spiked hair and white women with highlights representative of the average IIT student who may be expected to get a patent? Is it ‘If you try really hard, you could be like them too’? Or is it perhaps that the OAA thinks putting white people on their posters makes the poster more attractive somehow?

I agree, with the exception of the promise of increased censorship, with the action itself that was taken against the (former) Mensa Coordinators. However, I can’t help thinking that this may have been unusual punishment in that most people who do something like this get away without ever being told (also, I’m guessing, without even realizing) that they are being discriminatory. If this is what happens at IITM, it is small wonder that Harbhajan Singh calls Andrew Symonds a monkey or that a black woman who wanted to cheerlead in one of the IPL’s matches was told she was too dark -complexioned for the job.

Ravichandran S

Dept. of Aerospace Engineering

NOTE: I sent the  above to students@iitm.ac.in and to oaa@iitm.ac.in. I’d like to see if it gets posted publicly.

UPDATE: What happened to the co-ordinators in question? Here.

Pat Condell says something about Islam. Again.

You know it is going to be good!

Pat Condell’s latest video on youtube. His venom is particularly directed at radical Islam (deservedly, I must add), but I think what he says applies to most of today’s religions. The problem, as I see it, isn’t religion, but fundamentalism. The thing is, though, that once you take away dogma from religion, what’s left bears very little resemblance to religion as we’ve come to know it.

Science and Morality: Sam Harris at TED 2010

… and all hell breaks loose on the internet

Sam Harris, in his recent TED talk boldly (and I attach no specific connotation to the word here) took the step even a publicist of science as formidable as Richard Dawkins has carefully avoided taking. Harris has said that science can help decide moral questions (cue wails and cries and chest-beating and…)

In what followed, Harris was roundly criticized (by Sean Carroll) for making as elementary a blunder as to try to derive ‘OUGHT’ from ‘IS’; Harris bitterly defended himself and his position. Dawkins weighed in, saying that he thought Harris’ present book will be, unlike his previous books which could’ve been written by any of the New Atheists, something original and unique to Harris. PZ Myers of Pharyngula says, in unrelated circumstances,

Science cannot provide a morality to change the world. Science merely describes what is, not what should be, and it also takes a rather universal view: science as science takes no sides on matters relevant to a particular species, and would not say that an ape is more important than a mouse is more important than a rock. Don’t ask science to tell you what to do when making some fine-grained moral decision, because that is not what science is good at.

In the course of many rambling, incoherent, rhetoric-heavy, somewhat-ad-hominem, not to mention loud discussions with Nair – Sam-Harris-basher-extraordinaire, I think I’ve managed to pick up both sides of the argument. I agree with a fair few points that Harris makes, although I don’t particularly care for the verbal gymnastics that he (perhaps because he has to) employs.

I think Sam Harris’ contribution here is to have collected and collated, as it were, many arguments which by themselves have been accepted, and made a case for the use of science in deciding moral questions. For example, the argument that morality is the minimization of suffering or maximization of wellbeing is common, even if precise definitions for suffering or wellbeing are hard to come by. In turn, he argues that suffering or wellbeing has to be the suffering or wellbeing of conscious beings, for how else could they be ‘felt’ or ‘experienced’? And if it isn’t experienced, what’s suffering?

Having come up with a definition for suffering, and argued that morality is the minimization of suffering, Harris concludes that, in effect, all one needs now is a convenient calculus to do the math of minimization, and one has effectively derived morality from an axiom that assumes nothing more than that one wants to alleviate suffering. [I have glossed over large tracts of verbal gymnastics here, but I do believe I have the gist right.]

And… Evisceration! Worshippers of Hume and his Is-Ought guillotine, people who think absolute morality cannot exist – for how would one respect the bounds of cultural relativism, otherwise? – went for Harris’ head, and his scalp, and his liver and kidneys. (Check out, in particular, the above-mentioned article on his blog at Discover-Blogs by Sean Carroll, and Harris’ reply to the article, and Carroll’s reply to the reply…)

I think Harris may have painted too rosy a picture of how simple deriving morality from science is. I think one can come up with quite a few situations where a position one way or another is hard, perhaps impossible, to get to using logic alone – would you or would you not kill one man to save the rest of the dozen you happen to be trekking with? If you would/not, why/not? – Science (I include logic and reason under the umbrella-term ‘science’, prudent or not) cannot decide this question for you. A Utilitarian approach might actually suggest that one has no option but to kill the one to save the dozen, although most people who are asked this question, or variants of it – I believe a fat man and a speeding train are involved in one popular version – would not kill the one to save the others. Having stipulated that Harris is, from where I stand, taking too simplistic a view of morality, I will proceed to say the following.

This is at this point in the argument that some people – I’m looking at Nair, here – go off the reservation with their unwillingness to come off the strict-definition-or-bust high horse. It is true that some areas of morality are unquestionably grey (I would even be prepared to state that large areas of morality are grey) in the sense of being arbitrary; I argue that there are also certain questions which have definite answers (and Nair, predictably, stands on one foot looking the other way and hmmph-ing his refusal to accept my argument). If I said for example that child-rape is unambiguously wrong (I’d look at a picture of Ratzinger, if only I could stand to look at his face and his funny hat and his bling and that sceptre – what’s up with the scepter, Ratzi? – but I digress, without becoming nauseated), I would bet all the money in my pockets that I’d get most people to agree with me (those who don’t have gone off the reservation and aren’t in a position to answer, not that we don’t know their answer anyway, at this point).

My contention, and I think Harris’ too, is that in the cases where a moral definite exists, logic can tell you whether or not somebody’s actions are moral. Also, given that morality is the minimization of suffering, this is a rough guide to tell one what actions one might take. For example, then –

–          Priest rapes child who was left in his care – (definitely, gravely) immoral

–          Pope protecting rapist priest – (definitely, gravely) immoral.

–          Liquefaction(HT, amod) Liquidation of the Church’s (huge stockpile of) resources to pay for therapy and compensation for the affected children, and imprisonment/counseling for the perpetrators – reasonably moral [?]

And therefore, which is what should logically have followed the first instance of a report of clerical abuse . (Instead of, just to finish my point, a massive criminal cover-up and threats of excommunication and oaths and signed documents of secrecy).