u Notes from the Underground: December 2008

Motion koan

Monday, December 29, 2008

The world is still
Motion is in the mind
If you don't believe me
Ask Julian Barbour

Why Apocalypto is awesome

Saturday, December 20, 2008

I just finished watching Mel Gibson's Apocalypto, one of my all time favourites, for the second time. The movie is set in a Mayan village of hunter gatherers in the 16th century. The jungle that surrounds the village forms a beautiful backdrop to the movie throughout, and it is almost as if the jungle were a character itself. The dialogue is entirely in Yucatec Mayan, and adds to the authenticity (this tough choice not to have the characters speak English shouldn't come as a surprise, once you realize that it was a Mel Gibson movie - his earlier Passion of the Christ after all, was also entirely in Semitic languages. For all of Mel Gibson's wackiness, you still gotta hand it to the guy for being an awesome, tenacious filmmaker.) In other words, the movie is a period piece. But it's also a superb action movie, with almost the entire second half of the movie consisting of an adrenaline-pumping extended chase scene. Except for some cliches - like the little girl who foretells the future in portentous tones, and the important
plot element that is lifted almost verbatim from a Tintin story - the plot twists and turns realistically. And although I would have prefered the visuals and background score to have been a bit subtler, they on the whole definitely add to the movie's experience.

But wait, this is not all there is to this movie. Apocalytpo also beautifully illustrates a couple of ideas that my other topic of this post - Jared Diamond's first book The Third Chimpanzee - makes quite emphatically. And those ideas are:

1. Genocide is a human universal: As kids, we learn how our rise to modernity has been scarred by various horrors - the genocides committed by the Nazis, the British imperalists, Stalin etc. are learned from early on enough that they are now cliches. However, there is always this seeming impulse to set these incidents out as somehow being aberrations; as being worthy of remembrance because of their perceived extreme deviance from the norm in the history of our species. At the very least, the idea that genocide has been a universal feature of humans through time and space, is something that is never said in our history books, and it is something I attained a dim realization of only after watching this movie, and a better understanding was to come only after reading The Third Chimpanzee. Humans throughout the ages, be they hunter-gatherers or European colonizers, have been unhesitant to methodically kill humans en masse if it suits their purpose, and they didn't need special evil in their hearts to do that. There was no golden age of innocence for humanity when genocide was not common. Now, this point may either seem melodramatic or obvious to you, but this movie brought it home to me for the first time.

2. How hunter-gatherers were gradually vanquished, and how that has been bad for humanity: One of the revelations when I was reading The Third Chimpanzee was that farming was not, as is commonly presumed, an unambiguously progressive step for humanity. Jared Diamond, in an essay for the Discover magazine that would eventually be incorporated into the book, calls the turn from hunting gathering to agriculture "the worst mistake in the history of the human race". Why so? For starters, the groups of humans who retained their hunting-gathering ways were in fact much healthier than those groups that opted for agriculture:
Skeletons from Greece and Turkey show that the average height of hunter-gatherers toward the end of the ice ages was a generous 5'9" for men, 5'5" for women. With the adoption of agriculture, height crashed, and by 3000 B.C. had reached a low of 5'3" for men ,5' for women. By classical times heights were very slowly on the rise again, but modern Greeks and Turks have still not regained the average height of their distant ancestors. (link)
The reason was that turning to agriculture deprived our diet of the diversity that hunting-gathering provided it with, and turned it into a diet excessively dependent on a few carbohydrate-rich cereals. Besides, diseases was rife in the dense populations that became possible only with the advent of farming.

But this was not the only, or even the main cost of turning to agriculture. That was to be the creation of gross social inequalities :
Hunter-gatherers have little or no stored food, and no concentrated food sources like orchards or herds of cows. Instead, they live off the wild plants and animals that they obtain each day. Everybody except for infants, the sick, and the old join in the search for food. Thus there can be no kings, no full-time professionals, no class of social parasites who grow fat on food seized from others.

Only in a farming population could contrasts between the disease-ridden masses and a healthy, non-producing elite develop. (from the book, no online link)
This is not to say that there would have been no conception of social status at all among hunter-gatherers. For sure, the more skilled hunters in a hunter-gatherer group would have got more respect, but the scale of inequality would have been nowhere near that between a pharoah and a Jewish slave in ancient Egypt - to take an example from a society made possible only by agriculture.

And Apocalypto illustrates this idea beautifully - the contrast between the egalitarianism and the health of the hunter-gatherers, versus the emaciation and social inequality of the kingdom (a kingdom that could only have been built on the basis of agriculture) they are abducted to, couldn't be greater.

So why did humans turn to agriculture at all?
One answer boils down to the adage "Might makes right." Farming could support
many more people than hunting, albeit with a poorer quality of life. (Population densities of hunter gatherers are rarely over one person per ten square miles, while farmers average 100 time that.) [..]

As population densities of hunter-gatherers slowly rose at the end of the ice ages,
bands had to choose between feeding more mouths by taking the first steps toward
agriculture, or else finding ways to limit growth. Some bands chose the former solution, unable to anticipate the evils of farming, and seduced by the transient abundance they enjoyed until population growth caught up with increased food production. Such bands outbred and then drove off or killed the bands that chose to remain hunter-gatherers, because a hundred malnourished farmers can still outfight one healthy hunter. (link)
And so the process has continued, so that we now live in a world with hardly any communities that practise hunting gathering.


Anyway, so that was a long post. If you have not seen Apocalypto yet, I fear I may have filled your mind with interpretations that you may well not see in the movie. And I shall return to post about The Third Chimpanzee again - it's a really fascinating, fundae-packed book.

Explaining the enthu of first-year college students

Friday, December 12, 2008

(Enthu is slang for enthusiasm.)

It is customary for graduating (final year) students in my undergrad college to make an "year video" or a "batch video" - something that was meant to capture various aspects of the graduating batch's 4 years in college. In the batch video of one of the batches senior to us, I remember there was a joke on the naivete of students in their first year. The scene shows a first year guy with his shirt tucked in, hair neatly combed, wearing shoes and carrying a bag (ostensibly full of books) leaving from his hostel room after the day's classes were over. His room-mate asks him where he is going, and our hero replies, in all sincerity: "Library yaar, sessional pandrah din main hai!" (Library dude, the midterms are in fifteen days!). The scene would provoke much laughter among the gathered 3rd years or final years watching this video, not only because to study for a midterm from 15 days before is ridiculous, but also because they realise that many of them were in fact like that back in the first year.

Anyway, the point of this story was to illustrate the fact that in Engineering colleges, first year students have way more enthu than more senior students. For me, and for many of my friends (studying in colleges other than mine as well), plotting the aggregates across the 8 semesters showed a nice monotonically decreasing function. My first semester aggregate was in the mid 80's I think, and by my last semester it was in the late 60s. Heh. First years are also the major takers of most of the "general aptis" and "C aptis" (apti is short for aptitude test) and various mutants of these two general forms that were informally organized in our college.

So why are first year college students so much more hard working? (Throughout this post, I'll be talking about the average student. There'll always be exceptions - people who retain their enthu through all 4 years or people whose enthu actually increases over time.) Or to put it another way, why does enthu drop so much with years in college? The straightforward explanations are that first year students are "naive"; that people get jaded with time in college; that people get sidetracked with other obsessions (gaming, movies, drinking etc.). W.r.t the last explanation - I think it's likely the students get sidetracked only because they have already decided that studies aren't worth their time and are looking for other things to pursue.The explanation that students become jaded with time is also a bit circular - it is just another way of saying that they lose enthu, which is the phenomenon we are trying to explain here. Another explanation that someone from my college might come up with is that seniors restrict the lives of first year students as a part of ragging - preventing them from going out of campus, drinking etc. But this fails to explain why the pattern of declining enthu holds even in colleges without much ragging or even a hostel.

As you might have guessed by now, I have a different explanation, but I have to digress a bit first to introduce it.

It is well known that when a brood of chickens is first assembled, they fight for the first few days until a status hierarchy or "pecking order" gets established. This is the pattern not just in chickens, but other animals including monkeys as well. Researchers who want to artificially induce stress in a group of monkeys (in order to see what effect stress has on their health, say) introduce a new monkey into the group every now and then, so that there will be renewed fighting to figure out where the newcomer fits into the hierarchy. The point of the status hierarchy is actually to prevent future conflicts - once hen B knows that it is weaker than hen A it won't mess with hen A anymore and both A and B will save themselves the costs of fighting in the future.

I think something slightly similar may be happening when students first enter engineering colleges - the main difference being that the considerations according to which humans accord status are subtle and culture/peer-group dependent. When students first enter college, they don't know the abilities and skill levels of the others - they don't know who among them is the smartest, who is good at speaking English, who is good at sports, who is witty etc etc. This is an unstable situation - people want to know what their status in various spheres so that they can save energy by not taking part in status games where they are likely to lose. But this situation also provides a great opportunity for first year students - may be you are better than most others in your batch at something or the other! Students who get admitted into elite colleges will be particularly susceptible to overestimating their chance at being better than their new batchmates - for these students would have been at the top of their respective heaps before joining the college. Hence the "naive" enthu of batch after batch of first year students - besides studying hard for their coursework, they take part in aptis, quizzes and any other crazy-ass competition evil clubs invent to make money.

This also explains why students lose enthu over time. Once it is relatively clear who are the winners in the various status games, others know better than to waste their time competing. If you've determined that you are only mediocre in your class (even if you were a topper before coming to college), there is no longer much point to studying hard (even though what you are studying now - in your third year - is actually much more important to your job prospects as well as your general competence as an engineer). You might as well save yourself the energy.

There are probably other factors - such as social proof (which basically says people will do things that they see others doing,) - that amplify this phenomenon. And there's always noise that may either amplify or weaken the phenomenon for short periods - e.g., the enthu among students in the month before recruitment season (when everyone is busy mugging English word lists and C programming fundae) is way higher than what the long-term trend alone would predict.

Review of "Slumdog Millionaire" (Short version: It rocks!)

Friday, December 05, 2008

I wasn't too sure of how Slumdog Millionaire would turn out. It got rave reviews, won awards, but the premise of the movie seemed a little cheesy to me. But then again, it was a movie by Danny Boyle - the same Danny Boyle who made Trainspotting, the genre-bending classic of the 90s. But then again, the movie is wholly set in Bombay, and who knows if Danny Boyle won't make a few blunders in his portrayal of India? I was looking forward to seeing the movie, but I was also preparing myself for a letdown.

I needn't have feared. "Slumdog Millionaire" is a zesty, fast-paced movie with some brilliant acting, especially by Dev Patel, who plays the protagonist Jamal Malik. (I won't summarize the plot here, go to IMDB for that.) The writing always has a light, humorous touch - as kids Jamal and his brother Salim go through some very grim (the word Dickensian comes to mind) experiences, but there is never a portentous air to the narration. Nor is there ever a hint of a cliche, despite the fact that there are enough common elements in the story from previous Bollywood movies. Jamal and Salim feel like real kids to you, with their ability to produce an unexpected kind of humour at unexpected times. By the time Jamal and Salim grow up, you as audience have bought into the characters enough that it doesn't matter that the plot from then on is simply concerned with (the time-honoured) aim of bringing Jamal and the love of his life together.

The movie has definite parallels to Trainspotting in that the narration does not give too many hints to the tragic elements in the story, what with the spontaneous humour and outward cheeriness and fast background scores. (Oh, and A. R. Rahman composed the music btw.) I do wish the whole of the movie was in Hindi though - the characters converse in Hindi as kids, but speak in English with suspiciously good accents once they are around 12. Except for this bit, there is little to complain in the movie on the ever-prickly topic of authenticity (the credits mysteriously list Loveleen Tandan as "co-director (India)", so I am sure that helped).

On the whole, the movie has lived up to the hype. Watch it if you can.