Curious Bends – Indian Luddites, an academic career, the great forgetting and more

1. Say with pride that we’re Luddites

Science is often confused with technology in India. The consequences range in flavour from amusing to dire – for example, we celebrate rockets, not rocket scientists. So we fund rockets, not rocket scientists. This piece explores the history of this perception with interesting and insightful episodes from the past. Beware, though: some of them have evolved many grey areas. (8 min read)

2. India’s hopes for development rely on its public health strategies

That India is neither a middling nor a superpower nation comes down to how good access to health, water, sanitation and education in it are. Health, in particular, needs special attention because of two reasons. First: India shares a disproportionate fraction of the world’s disease burden — especially among non-communicable diseases. Second: the skill and capital needed to resolve the problem is controlled by private interests operating only at state-wide levels. (10 min read)

3. Forgoing a fat pay cheque is totally worth it to become an academic

“The placement season is just starting for the 2015 graduates. And newspapers are already talking about crore+ salaries this year. That it would be for a very small number of graduates is lost on most people. And in this race to get the biggest package, one career that is often forgotten is that of an academic.” (6 min read)

+ The author, Dheeraj Sanghi, is a professor of computer science at the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur.

4. China’s JUNO launches international collaboration while India’s INO looks on

The Jiangmen Underground Neutrino Observatory is expected to be completed by 2020, and will search for answers to unsolved problems in neutrino physics. More importantly, it will be China’s second big neutrino experiment and second also to feature an international collaboration of scientists and institutions. The India-based Neutrino Observatory, also foreseeing completion by 2020, is yet to find similar interest. As has frustratingly been the case, it’s the scientists who lose out. (3 min read)

5. Indian universities ban dissections

A campaign led by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has borne its fruits: a central body that sets standards for university education in India has banned dissections in zoology and life sciences courses. This move solves some legitimate problems but exacerbates some silly others. For one, removing endangered animals from the table doesn’t mean non-endangered ones can’t be put there. For another, assuming “most zoology students do not use the knowledge gained from dissections after they graduate” excludes those who do, and education is for everybody. (3 min read)

Featured longread: What happened to each one of us before the age of seven?

“… if the memory was a very emotional one, children were three times more likely to retain it two years later. Dense memories – if they understood the who, what, when, where and why – were five times more likely to be retained than disconnected fragments. Still, oddball and inconsequential memories such as the bounty of cookies will hang on, frustrating the person who wants a more penetrating look at their early past.” (18 min read)

Chart of the week

Gone are the days when Britain built most of the world’s ships and ruled the seas. By the end of the Second World War, the US was producing 90% of all the world’s ships by weight. By the 1990s, though, Japan and South Korea had in turns acquired the title. Now this decisive distinction could belong to China. Today, it produces around 35% of the world’s ships. The Economist has more.

My worst days as a kid gave me the most valuable productivity hack

Radiolab, one of my favourite things on the internet, ran an episode on morality a few years ago. The main question they asked was whether our sense of morality is something we are born with or something we learn. If it is the latter, then how? The one-hour story is worth your time, but there is one aspect of the three-part story that I want to discuss.

In the first part, they observed chimps to find that even among our primate cousins there exists a rudimentary system of morality. Their example comes from how these chimps share the food that is given to a group. Some neuroscientists and philosophers argue that each one of us has this rudimentary level of morality that we have inherited through millions of years of evolution—this is the “inner chimp” hypothesis as one scientist puts it.

In humans this inner chimp starts acting when we are two or three years old. And then we refine it as we go through the experience of life. Most of this refinement, not surprisingly, happens when we are kids, as we see in the second part in the episode, which involved an example from the school life of Amy O’Leary, now a New York Times reporter.

In grade four, one of Amy’s teacher got the kids to play a game that would help them learn some history. The game was called Homestead and it was something like Monopoly where each student received certain resources and had to play by simple rules to win. The main rule of the game was: “Do what you think is right.”

Amy cheated. She looted some of her classmates who wanted to be part of an in-group and even flooded the market with fake money. The teacher who ran the game realised what was happening and called a meeting of those who were involved. He asked Amy, who had become a leader by now, “What are you going to do?”

When she said “nothing”, the teacher used it as one of those “teachable” moments and showed his disappointment in her without directly intervening in the game. That look on her teacher’s face has stuck with Amy for all her life.

Just as she finished telling the story, I was flooded with memories of the many guilty moments that have left such moral lessons in my life.

These moments are painful. Most of them involve a scene at the end where my mum is tired of reprimanding me, or my dad is about to get angry, which happened on rare occasions and terrified the hell out of me. Some are absolutely clear, as if the expressions on people’s faces were recorded on a photographic plate in my head. Others are vague, with the characteristic fog that blurs the details leaving only a strong sense of shame.

This I’m sure has happened to many of us. I asked a few of my friends and all seemed to share anecdotes of times they remember when they did something wrong, but only realised that it in hindsight. A painful lesson was learnt and they carried it for all their life.

One such lesson that I have etched into me has helped me tremendously. It involves mischief and feedback.

Beat me to it

As a naughty child I may have done wrong things, but mostly I did annoying things. Of course, in my head, I was only having fun and that was no crime. But people around me seemed to have low tolerance, and I was told off too many times. I hated it. Mostly because I wasn’t given a proper reason for why my actions were annoying. Of course, if I didn’t know why what I did was wrong, I wasn’t going to learn to do the right thing.

That is why the annual school open day was the worst day of the year. It gave the teachers an opportunity to complain to my parents and get the guilt off their chest. They did this in a polite manner, which I always thought was wrong. Wouldn’t it have been better to talk to me in a polite manner in the first place?

All that admonishment left scars. It might have taught me something about morality, but more importantly it gave me a really useful hack.

In hindsight, I realise that I didn’t understand the reason for stopping me because my natural empathy levels were low. I had that realisation partly because even as an adult I sometimes struggle with it. And to counter my lack of empathy, I developed a system of wanting a constant stream of feedback. I want to know as often and as early as possible if I’m going wrong somewhere.

But I also needed to develop a thick skin. When you are open to feedback, some would be constructive and much hurtful. This is the reason, as the thinker Seth Godin puts it, adults don’t seek feedback as often as they should.

When you can get this system to work, however, it’s absolutely fantastic. It is the best productivity hack I know for becoming better at something quickly: ride the cycle of practice and feedback. It has been a painful but useful lesson.

Image credit: Zen