Talking to the Devil. Or N.S. Narayanaswamy, Warden, Tapti Hostel

I hinted at the end of the previous post at the possible dangers of reading (and reading into) private conversations of other people without bothering about context. Like I added in the update to the post, however, I sent my blogpost to one of the people involved and asked him if I had got anything wrong, if there was context I was missing. I must have been the only one to do this, because in the hour between my sending him the email and returning from lunch, he had sent me two replies on email, and had then actually tracked down my phone number and called me. We talked for slightly longer than half an hour then and a few times after.

Narayanaswamy, or Nari as he prefers to be called, is the warden of Tapti hostel. He isn’t one to shirk away from debate – you may remember that the last time I asked him for an explanation about some rule he made at Tapti, he copied the emails to the student council at Tapti. I commented at the time that he seemed to me to be genuinely interested in the welfare of his students, if a bit paternalistic. I was surprised, therefore, that he seemed to be proposing the most stringent of regulations to be imposed on hostelers.

First, and this is apparently the complaint brought up most often in the meeting with the Director at CLT: ‘Why are you telling students when to wake up? Do you really think everybody has to wake up every day at 6 am?’

“It was a small thing to be done once a week – somebody would knock on your door and clean your room”, Nari laughs. “I am surprised that this is what students have the biggest problem with. I grew up in a lower-middle-class family where I had to wake up at 3 am on most days because that was when water was supplied in my locality. 6 am to me is like the middle of the day… In any case, this was discussed in the hostel. Most freshers were happy with it; about 75% of second years and about 50% of third years were fine with it. The final-years kicked me out of their wing when I tried explaining myself to them, which was fine too…”

“I have a nephew who asks me to buzz off if I try and tell him that waking up early is good”, he adds.

So does he agree that values change with time, that trying to impose one generation’s morality – falling at elders’ feet, let’s say – on the next one is silly?

“All the mails are exhorting ourselves to put a system in place where students can live in peace, and we can administer the hostels, in a reliable way.  Most arguments were headed in the moral direction, and I showed them an analogy in that mail that this is a generation whose value system is different compared to, for example, mine. Such a basic difference of what is inculcated to kids since childhood. I wasn’t judging or moralizing.”

What about privacy? The emails paint a sinister picture of what he would do to students’ right to privacy. Does he really want even the notion of privacy to be abolished? He did say ‘the demand for privacy is a shocker’.

“Of course not… privacy is shocker, because we discussed this with HAS etc. and people were ignoring this point”, he says. “Forget everything else. Isn’t this battle for privacy in a public space ‘How much privacy can students – adolescents, let’s say – be given while still letting the guardian – the parent, the warden – know enough to know if the student is in trouble and needs help?’ I am not recommending surveillance, just open windows with a curtain. I am surprised that the student community has not protested proxy authentication.”

Why the open windows? What could they possibly achieve?

“…my suggestion is not [to] see what you are doing, it is a definite deterrent against putting up a noose at 12noon.”

It is a wonderful metaphor, ‘an open window with curtains’, but how exactly will they prevent a suicide? At this point, I feel like he is grasping for straws:

“[You] can imagine rigging a noose with semi-open windows. You need to start by closing the windows”.

I don’t really think IITM is going to bulldoze every window from every hostel room at the suggestion of one warden. But it is an interesting thought.

What he wants to achieve, he says, and has been working at for two years is to help students live their lives outside their rooms instead of being cooped up in front of a computer. He sent me to his blog, where he isn’t bound by the same constraints of brevity that email forces upon one. The nicest thing about what he says about setting up an ideal hostel is the nuance. Yes, he ultimately has to take a concrete stand and propose a solution which you may or may not agree with, but that doesn’t stop him from recognising the issues involved.

Well, if the aim is to ensure that people live social lives, aren’t the rules the institute has made barring women from men’s hostels after 9pm counter-productive? If the aim is to ensure that men learn to treat women like people first, shouldn’t the administration try and ensure that there is as much as possible of men and women talking to each other, and not say things like ‘prevention is better than cure’? If men learn to treat women as people first, wouldn’t that automatically solve the problem of violence against, and harassment of, women?

“I agree that the rules about women not being allowed in men’s hostels after 9pm are silly. Nobody should be told who their friends can be, or who they should spend time with or when or where. I am still trying to learn more about this, but unfortunately, it seems to me like nobody bothered to bring this issue up when they had a chance to talk to the Diro. The students were all too hung up about having to wake up at 6 am…”

At this point, he tells me he has to take my leave because the Director of IITM has summoned him to ask him why he is making people wake up at 6am.

This is actually not all of what Nari and I talked about. Ask me what Nari thinks about the council of wardens. Ask me what he thinks has to happen for the system as a whole to become more liberal. Ask me why he thinks IIT Madras is in danger of becoming irrelevant. In fact, go ahead and ask him. I am sure he would welcome open minded criticism – which is more than I can say for the rest of IITM’s administration.

Postscript: I also asked him what on Earth he has against bunjee-jumping. Well, he went and wrote about it after I asked him. Go read. He’s also written about privacy.

Disclaimer: Large chunks of the conversation above were written down from memory of phone conversations. I may have ended up putting words in Nari’s mouth, for better or worse. Everything here is only my impression of what Nari is like. I will obviously stick by my impression of him until proven wrong, but that’s no reason for you not to talk to him yourself and make up your own mind.

Of irrationality and compartmentalisation

Forgive the sesquipedalian title. A surprising email-debate erupted in the EMU recently. This mail-a-thon started with something RR shared about the ‘you will get 72 virgins in heaven if you follow the quran‘ belief of Islam, from wikiislam – the online resource on Islam (yes, such a thing apparently exists).

Which led to some of us arguing that this stupidity of Islam is only symptomatic of what is wrong with religion in general. I commented that even somebody as seemingly moderate in his religion as Gandhi believed in the power of semen. This observation, which I naively assumed would clinch the argument, was only confirmed when RR volunteered that he believed in the power of semen too, and commented that I shouldn’t simply oppose the idea for the sake of opposition. RR also volunteered that he believed that people could survive without food, and that he personally knew somebody who has done it.

Lots of sarcasm and satire followed.

Which was all fun until ‘I-am-a-professional-centrist’ SS came along and started to defend the idea that human beings can live without food as being plausible. He even brought along references from medical literature. (Oh, never fret: while the research is perfectly fine, even the authors themselves dismiss the idea of human hibernation… right in the abstract. More about this research article here. [Update(12/4/2012): link added])

Now, both RR and SS are entirely sensible people… most of the time. But, in this case, they both took positions which – to put it gently – required serious mental gymnastics on their part.

Which brings me to the title. It has been my experience that otherwise competent and intelligent people can be irrational when it comes to some ideas. This cognitive dissonance requires that people compartmentalise – keep our rational minds from analysing some ideas we’ve invested in, and we do it very well indeed. This accounts for why, even among scientists, a significant majority are theists (this statistic changes if you ask only scientists from the very top of their fields, but never mind that).

Cue Jesus and Mo!

What we do this for is a complicated question to answer. It seems to me that social pressures are a factor. The ideas which one wants to keep out of reach of rationality are a function of one’s social milieu. The renowned biologist Ken Miller is known to believe in the literal trans-substantiation of bread and wine into the flesh and blood of Christ. Why could this be? It isn’t a stretch to argue that this is precisely because Miller was brought up Catholic. Francis Collins, the director of the human genome project, is known to be a kook when it comes to the positions he will take (on when in the process of evolution human beings attained the ‘image of god’, for example). It isn’t hard to see that this is because his faith in the belief that ‘man is made in the image of god’ is important to him.

I would even argue that people can defend a position even when it is patently irrational, simply because others in their peer-group hold the position. There are experiments which show that people ‘fell in line’ with an obviously wrong answer because other people (who were planted in the experiment by the experimenters) before them gave that wrong answer. But I think this phenomenon can be even more subtle. It seems to me that putting up a defence of one’s friends is important to people. Some of us do it overtly, some not so overtly. It seems to me to be important to us that our friends are right.

I’d like to end with a caveat. They say the worst thing you can do in a debate is to psycho-analyse your opponent, which seems to me a reasonable thing to keep in mind. Also, it is important to me that one doesn’t have to be on guard about what they say among friends – people deserve friends who will try and not judge everything that is said. So, if you don’t already know who RR and SS are, their identities are none of your business.

[Update (April 9, 12pm): The last two sentences in the last paragraph strike me as being hypocritical, given what this post is about. By all means, discount them. Lesson learnt.]

Correspondence with the Warden, Tapti Hostel.

I’ve been asked if I would put up the emails I exchanged with Prof. Nari, by Nari himself, and also by TFE, the campus magazine who want to write something about this but won’t really be allowed to say anything even mildly provocative.

I must say, before you go on and read the emails, that I had no idea who the warden of Tapti was when I first wrote to him (the text of which email is in the original post). I still don’t know Nari personally, although he seems like somebody I would want to know, if for nothing else than his willingness to allow people to ask questions of him.

All of which is to say that I could have had no possible fodder for ad hominem attacks when I wrote these emails. If, in spite of this, you find something you think is a personal attack, please point it out, and I will gladly take it back. Nari has shown commendable promptness in forwarding our correspondence to the people who are directly affected by this issue – the students of Tapti. This, for me, is reason to believe that his motives were entirely honourable.

Below are the emails – unedited except for formatting, and in chronological order although I’ve omitted the headers and so forth:

Continue reading “Correspondence with the Warden, Tapti Hostel.”

No posts today…

I’ve started work as a Project Assistant at JNC yesterday. And JNC is at the other end of the city from where I live (Uttarahalli, FYI). Which means that until I go get myself a place to stay somewhere closer, (which should happen today), I can’t write anything new on the blog (apart from this, but you know what I mean).

Till I get this sorted out, though, might I persuade you to read some older stuff from the blog? You might like the category titled Inanity, with random rants about random inane people and stuff.

Regular programming will resume tomorrow, though! Please do come back then. I have something I meant to get across as funny, but I’ll have to see whether people actually take it that way [It’s here]. Tomorrow!

Chit-chat in the lab: The fourth wall

Me: Dude, I need something to write about.

Nair: That just doesn’t sound right to me. You write when you have something to write about, not the other way around.

Me: It’s just that I want my blog-hits graph to look a certain way. I need about 40 more hits for that.

Nair: So write about that. Write that you want to make some graph look a certain way.

Me: That would be breaking the fourth wall.

Nair: I don’t get the reference. Fourth wall?

Me: Yeah… the fourth wall. In a traditional theatre* there are three walls around the actors, and the ‘fourth wall’ separates the actors from the audience. That is, the actors are supposed to behave as if all four directions around them are bounded. That’s why you’ll never see a proper actor look directly into the camera. This is also why when Tina Fey winks at the camera on 30 Rock, it actually is funny; it’s also why when one of the ‘-kanths’ of Tam cinema give out proclamations that are cleverly (or not) inserted into their dialogue, it sucks so bad, but I digress. I’ve never written as if I have an audience; it’s never felt right to me to say something to somebody I have to assume will be reading my blog sometime in the future. I can’t break the fourth wall. Mine’s made of reinforced concrete or something.

Nair: You’re going to write about this now, aren’t you?

*There are also Theatres In The Round, where the stage is at the centre, and the audience is all around, a la a boxing ring (except that WWE athletes, e.g., routinely talk to their audience)

Chit-chat in the lab: Caffeine Addiction

Me: Nair, did you read about this? Coffee may not really be a stimulant.

Nair: Oh?

Me: Neuroscientists studying caffeine addiction have shown that regular coffee drinkers who think coffee acts as a stimulant may be mistaken. The researchers conclude from their study that regular coffee drinkers develop a sort of tolerance to coffee, and ingesting caffeine doesn’t really make them more alert so much as it relieves them from their symptoms of caffeine withdrawal.

Nair: So, you aren’t really going from zero to +10 so much as you are going from -10 to 0?*

Me: Yeah. It’s not all that surprising, actually. We’ve known for some time now that caffeine-addiction is real. This is, actually, what happens with addiction in general. As far as I’ve understood it, the body produces serotonin which is sort of a super-hormone; it controls hunger and wakefulness and this and that. When somebody ingests an opiate, for example, the drug becomes an artificial source of serotonin. If repeated often, the neural pathways that control normal serotonin production shut down, they’re just not needed. And when people are weaned off the drug, the serotonin pathways which should’ve produced serotonin can’t, now, because they’ve, like, forgotten how to. And what results are called withdrawal effects. People feel tense, agitated, and restless; they sweat, and crave for more of the drug, and hence serotonin.

Nair: And caffeine behaves the same way?*

Me: Yeah… that’s what the study says.

… (30 seconds)

Me: Dude, coffee?

* I’m just being polite here… I actually said this as well!

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).