A white man’s burden

Review of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird

Even though it’s less than 100 years ago, the 1930s was a very different time from today. Racial discrimination was rife in America even though it had been sometime since slavery had been banned. To Kill a Mocking Bird is a story narrated by an 8-year old of that period as she learns her way of life in Maycomb, a (fictional) sleepy town in Alabama.

From simple struggles of learning to settle in school, of not having a mother, of trying to be a girl to that of dealing with a father who fights against racial discrimination, Harper Lee does a great job of describing Jean Louis Finch’s story. Lee’s vivid story-telling endears the reader to Jean Louis’s every up and down.

Atticus Finch, Jean Louis’s father, is the central character. Although the society around him blames him for many faults, one that he definitely does not deserve is that of being a bad parent. He has a laid back attitude with his son and daughter, but one that helps them each to flourish in their own ways. He hides little from his kids and respects each of their quirks.

In an incestuous town of white folks, Atticus is made to defend a black guy who is convicted of raping a white woman. A situation in which the weaknesses of being human and the ideal goals of a justice system come head-to-head. Through the trial and Jean Louis’s everyday life, the reader meets characters of every kind. There is a brother to look up to, an over-bearing aunty, a family whose kid never leaves home, a wise old lady, nasty cousins, a motherly black woman, among others. Each of their personality has something to offer.

But there is a discomforting feeling to read how this intelligent 8-year old is able to describe and explain very complex social phenomena, but is still a naive girl who is trying to fit in society. This disconnect is more apparent to me having just read The Curious Incident of a Dog at the Night-time, where the narrator is a kid with Asperger’s syndrome and the reader sees the world “exactly” through his eyes.

Lee’s book has its slow spells, but a reader who endeavours is rewarded. As with all good books, Lee is elegant at creating strands of stories that run parallel to the main one. Though sometimes I wished that some strands were given less space than they deserved.

While it is a great story, and arguably a better piece of literature, I wouldn’t go so far as to call this book one of the greatest I’ve ever read (as many of my friends seem to suggest).

The price of gaining an accurate theory has been the erosion of our common sense

Review of Richard Feynman’s QED: The strange theory of light and matter

The title of the post is a quote from Feynman’s book. Written by a Nobel laureate and one of the most beloved scientists, it is perhaps the best explainers of a theory that flips everything we know about physical phenomena on its head. It explains quantum electrodynamics (QED), a theory that explains 99% of all phenomena that involve photons and electrons.

But to be able to understand it one must, as Feynman puts it:”accept some very bizarre behaviour: a single beam of light reflecting from all parts of a mirror, light travelling in paths other than a straight line, photons going faster or slower than the speed of light, electrons going backwards in time, photons disintegrating into a positron-electron pair, and so on.”

This book is a series of four lectures that Feynman gave in 1983 at the University of California in Los Angeles. It is a short and entertaining, but intense read. Feynman goes into quite a lot of detail about how QED can be explained by the use of arrows drawn on a sheet of paper (!). But as Feynman claims, more than a few times in the book, what you get from the book is the spirit of the theory. To be able to use it accurately students regularly study it for several years. (Here’s an example of how I used QED to explain a new type of flat lens).

There is enough packed into the last few pages of the book as is in the remainder. In them Feynman, who says “Being a professor means having the habit of not being able to stop talking at the right time”, tries to explain the rest of physics apart from QED. His aim is to show that physicists’ search for elegance in nature through theories of physics is necessary, mostly because of the complexity of understanding how nature works. Perhaps we are being too naive, perhaps not. We won’t know till we make theories and test them. QED has stood 70 years of rigorous testing.

The role of religion

Ever since I took the time to explore my own religious views, I’ve been rewarded with more and more questions about life. One that haunted me for quite sometime was: how to explain (concisely) the role of religion in our society?

So I tried. This is what I came up with: some people find it too hard to find meaning in life. Religion gives them one. And then they find meaning may be from scriptures, idols, stories, community or something else that being religious provides.

This is perhaps too simplistic an explanation. While I came to this conclusion on my own, I am not the first one to do so. Here’s Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in Flow:

As people move through life, passing from the hopeful ignorance of youth into sobering adulthood, they sooner or later face an increasingly nagging question: “Is this all there is?” ……Traditionally, the problem of existence has been most directly confronted through religion, and an increasing number of the disillusioned are turning back to it, choosing either one of the standard creeds or a more esoteric Eastern variety.

The key to happiness is…

…being in control of our life.

Of all the hundreds of claims made about how to be happy, this is the one that I can agree to the most. Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi finds that:

Such individuals lead vigorous lives, are open to a variety of experiences, keep on learning until the day they die, and have strong ties and commitments to other people and to the environment in which they live. They enjoy whatever they do, even if tedious or difficult; they are hardly ever bored, and they can take in stride anything that comes their way. Perhaps their greatest strength is that they are in control of their lives.

Eugenics

Eugenics was a serious academic discipline, and not just in Facist countries. By 1930s it was being studied in universities in Switzerland, Sweden, Russia, Germany, America and Norway. Its founder, Sir Francis Galton, a British anthropologist, even became a fellow of the Royal Society. Galton felt that the average citizen was “too base for the everyday work of modern civilization”.

It took Adolf Hitler and his henchmen to expose the moral bankruptcy of these ideas.

From Frans de Waal’s The Bonobo and the Atheist

You become what you do, not what you think

According to psychologist Timothy Wilson:

People draw inferences about who they are by observing their own behavior. 

Self-perception theory turns common wisdom on its head. Two powerful ideas follow from it. The first is that we are strangers to ourselves. After all, if we knew our own minds, why would we need to guess what our preferences are from our behavior? If our minds were an open book, we would know exactly how honest we are and how much we like lattes. Instead, we often need to look to our behavior to figure out who we are. Self-perception theory thus anticipated the revolution in psychology in the study of human consciousness, a revolution that revealed the limits of introspection.

But it turns out that we don’t just use our behavior to reveal our dispositions—we infer dispositions that weren’t there before. Often, our behavior is shaped by subtle pressures around us, but we fail to recognize those pressures. As a result, we mistakenly believe that our behavior emanated from some inner disposition.

The art and science of remembering things

Review of Joshua Foer’s Moonwalking with Einstein, as part of my #100bookschallenge.

Moonwalking with Einstein is the story of a journalist who went to cover the 2005 US Memory Championship as an assignment for an article, and then went on to win the 2006 event. He got so obsessed with the people and their achievements that he decided to try it out himself. In that one year he with trained by men which by normal standards would be called freaks of nature. They could memorise the order of a deck of cards in under 30 seconds or 800 random digits in 15 minutes (full list of records).

Foer interspaces his year with the history and science of memorising. He walks the reader through the time when poets committed to memory the works of other poets so that it could be passed down the generations. There is a record Socrates’s outrage on the use of writing and the amount of stress that was given on memory training during the time before the printing press. But Gutenberg’s invention was the final nail in the coffin for those memorisers, because common people could then start to rely on books as an external form of memory.

memory palaceSince Gutenberg there were some attempts at renewing this lost art, but it wasn’t until the likes of Tony Buzan in the late 20th century that it finally happened. Buzan built an industry around the tools and methods of increasing one’s memory, and even founded the World Memory Championship. He sold improving memory as being akin to increasing intelligence.

And although IQ scores do not depend on the use of one’s memory, there is still a good case to be made for putting in the effort to expand it. After all, new ideas are only mashed up versions of old ones. However much easy it has become to store our memories in external devices, without internalising them once again they are useless.

There is now a large community of people who use these age-old techniques (and comes up with new ones) like that of filling memory castles with outrageous images to help them commit to memory things like lists, random numbers, binary digit sequences, decks of cards, poems etc.

This is what Foer trained himself to be able to achieve, and eventually won the US competition for it. What Foer convincingly demonstrates through the book, based on scientific research and his own experience, is that expanding one’s memory is only a matter of deliberate practice.

What Foer achieved is no mean feat. But, at the end, despite being a great story, Foer’s increased memory does him little good in his daily life where paper, computers and cell phones can often handle the task better. Sure he can memorise many phone numbers, lists and even complete poems with relative ease, but he still carries with him his dictaphone and notebook. And although he doesn’t say this explicitly, it seems his memory expansion was only for things that are well-defined, clearly laid and can be written down in lists.

Image from here.