What is Design

John McWade says:

Design is about more than whether something “works.” Lots of things “work.” A theater marquee with chipped paint and missing letters “works.” If the local strip mall has what I need, you could say its ugly plastic sign “works.” Each identifies my destination well enough to get there.

What they don’t provide is delight, inspiration, fulfillment. I go there but I don’t love it. I enjoy roaming the galleria as much for its visual and aural ambience as for the products on sale, and it draws me back. I love beauty and seek it out. Great design creates atmosphere, mood, desire, experience — it lifts my spirit, stirs my soul, makes the world a more pleasant place to be.

So yeah, we can follow the sign, sit, eat, move along.

That’s exactly it, well said.

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Writer-Responsible and Reader-Responsible Languages

There are two parties to every conversation, whether verbal or written. Assuming that the very purpose of a communication is to arrive at a common understanding of the issue, whose responsibility is it to ensure that the “common understanding” has been achieved? Turns out, it depends! It depends on culture. And, it depends on the language. Studies say, there are something called a “transmitter/speaker orientation” and “Receiver/listener orientation”.

I first noticed this notion recently when this article from the Language Log was pushed to me by my Feed Aggregator, Feedly.

English is a writer-responsible language.  That means it is the responsibility of the writer to make sure the message is understood. Writing is clear, direct and unambiguous. Schools teach from early on the importance of structure, thesis statement and topic sentences when writing in English.  A good writer assumes no or little background knowledge on the part of the reader.

Korean, Chinese, and Japanese are reader-responsible languages. That means the reader is responsible for deciphering the message, which is often not stated explicitly. For an American who is expecting direct and explicit information, this style can be very confusing.

I was immediately drawn to my experience of finding the product literature from Japan, Taiwan, and Korea as cryptic and tangled. I was intrigued, I thought about it, and filed it in some cranny of my brain.

It’s funny how we start noticing something again and again with alarming frequency once we come to know about it. Later in the week , I was casually reading “OUTLIERS” (for the second or third time!), and suddenly came across the same, or similar, concept being discussed, ready to be put in context. “Outliers: The Story of Success:” is a best seller written by Malcolm Gladwell and I heartily recommend the same. Here’s what it had to say:

To Western ears, it seems strange that the flight engineer would bring up this subject [Added: A dire warning before an impending plane crash] just once. Western communication has what linguists call a “transmitter orientation” that is, it is considered the responsibility of the speaker to communicate ideas clearly and unambiguously. Even in the tragic case of the Air Florida crash, where the first officer never does more than hint about the danger posed by the ice, he still hints four times, phrasing his comments four different ways, in an attempt to make his meaning clear. He may have been constrained by the power distance between himself and the captain, but he was still operating within a Western cultural context, which holds that if there is confusion, it is the fault of the speaker.

But Korea, like many Asian countries, is receiver oriented. It is up to the listener to make sense of what is being said. In the engineer’s mind, he has said a lot.

The context is a conversation just before an air crash.

Finding the same to be tantalisingly interesting, I researched the topic in some detail. Here’s what some other reputable sources have to say about this.

There has been a very reputable study on the topic by Xiukun Qi & Lida Liu from Harbin Institute of Technology, China.

This is what they had to say about this phenomenon.

Following the theory that the reader-responsible language differs in some way from the writer-responsible language, this study finds that the above mentioned phenomena in students’ writing do reflect some differences between the two languages, in that Chinese written discourse is likely to require readers’ background knowledge for understanding, while English written discourse tends to elaborate major propositions; Chinese rhetorical structures are often intuitively organized, while English structures are logically organized; and Chinese discourse appears to be expressive while English tends to informative. From the view of cognitive linguistics, these differences are attributed to the choice of different cognitive patterns such as imagery, metaphor, perspective, salience, selection, and encyclopaedic knowledge. It is the choice of cognitive patterns that opens up a new way for Chinese EFL learners to gain clarity about the pattern of the written discourse of the target language.

Further down…..

Reader and Writer Responsible Languages
The findings of the study can be boiled down to three categories: diffuse discourse organization, which results from the four types of unsmooth discourse organization, effective application of rhetorical devices for discourse production, and logical discourse organization, which is based on the appearance of textual patterns. Further study reveals that diffuse discourse organization actually takes the characteristic of what Hinds (1990, p. 98) calls a “delayed introduction of purpose,” which he often finds in oriental writings. “This delayed introduction of purpose makes the writing appear incoherent to the English-speaking reader” (Connor, 2005, p. 20). In regard to the frequent appearance of rhetorical means, the writers seem to involve much contextual knowledge in discourse production. In fact, the two issues are found to address the “relative reader/writer responsibility” (Ibid). This relative reader/writer responsibility is understood as the responsibility for ensuring successful communication between the writer and the reader. The term of relative responsibility suggests that the writer and the reader assume different degrees of responsibility for their communication. Moreover, this reader/writer responsibility varies across natural languages

(Wang, 2002, p. 315).

In a writer-responsible language, the writer assumes very heavy responsibility, and the presumption of shared knowledge is severely constrained. In this case, the communication via writing starts with the writer’s belief that the reader is equipped with the least background knowledge of the topic as well as the writing convention. In consequence, it is the responsibility of the writer to provide maximum assistance for the reader, which may include excessive guidance to the structure of the text through the use of transitional phrases, patient explanation of many slightly puzzling propositions, and direct and clear organization of the text. In this sense, “the rhetorical form preferred in the West places the expository burden chiefly on the writer” (Connor, 2005, p. 20).

In comparison, Chinese is a typical reader-responsible language. In Chinese, heavy responsibility is placed on the reader to understand what is said, and a very high degree of shared contextual knowledge is assumed. Chinese writers entrust readers with good knowledge of the background of the topic, and therefore much is said without clear explanation in reference to the reader’s potential for comprehension (Wang, 2002), as is reflected in forms of diffuse discourse organization and rhetorical means in the Chinese students’ writings.

 

Here’s an example of a real problem that was covered in a newspaper article that probably stems from the same issues.

 

Going back to the original source, the Language Log article concludes with the observation that while they may be constructs inherent to the language itself which cause the said variation of listener versus transmitter orientation, it may have got something to do with culture.

 

I am tempted to say that, rather than there being reader-responsible languages and writer-responsible languages, there are reader-responsible cultures and writer-responsible cultures. Of course, one of the chief manifestations of culture is language, so a reader-responsible culture would be prone to manifest itself in reader-responsible language and writer-responsible culture would be prone to manifest itself in writer-responsible language. Naturally, however, if someone with a background in reader-responsible language / culture is determined to write in a clear and unambiguous manner, that is possible, and if a person with a background in writer-responsible language / culture wishes to be vague and ambiguous, that too is possible.

 

Speaking as to the truth of the above, the following was aptly noted by Edward T. Hall was an anthropologist who made early discoveries of key cultural factors.

Context

High context

In a high-context culture, there are many contextual elements that help people to understand the rules. As a result, much is taken for granted.

This can be very confusing for person who does not understand the ‘unwritten rules’ of the culture.

Low context

In a low-context culture, very little is taken for granted. Whilst this means that more explanation is needed, it also means there is less chance of misunderstanding particularly when visitors are present.

Contrasting the two

French contracts tend to be short (in physical length, not time duration) as much of the information is available within the high-context French culture. American content, on the other hand, is low-context and so contracts tend to be longer in order to explain the detail.

Highly mobile environments where people come and go need lower-context culture. With a stable population, however, a higher context culture may develop.

 *Factor

 High-context culture

 Low-context culture

Overtness of messages

Many covert and implicit messages, with use of metaphor and reading between the lines.

Many overt and explicit messages that are simple and clear.

 Use of non-verbal communication

 Much nonverbal communication

More focus on verbal communication than body language

* Some rows have been elided for brevity.

 

My opinion is that in order to use and learn a second language, such as all the “English as a second language” writers, we must pay a close attention to the cultural context of the language, and drink in the cultural ethos of the culture of the languages origin. Only then, can we “write/speak” like native speakers.

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Gaussian Curvature

I came across this article on Gaussian curvature recently, which was written excellently. The author has the knack of explaining things as well as anyone.

Here’s the link to the same:

http://www.wired.com/2014/09/curvature-and-strength-empzeal/

Here’s the Money quote.

A surprising consequence of this result is that you can take a surface and bend it any way you like, so long as you don’t stretch, shrink or tear it, and the Gaussian curvature stays the same. That’s because bending doesn’t change any distances on the surface, and so the ant living on the surface would still calculate the same Gaussian curvature as before.

This might sound a little abstract, but it has real-life consequences. Cut an orange in half, eat the insides (yum), then place the dome-shaped peel on the ground and stomp on it. The peel will never flatten out into a circle. Instead, it’ll tear itself apart. That’s because a sphere and a flat surface have different Gaussian curvatures, so there’s no way to flatten a sphere without distorting or tearing it. Ever tried gift wrapping a basketball? Same problem. No matter how you bend a sheet of paper, it’ll always retain a trace of its original flatness, so you end up with a crinkled mess.

What does any of this have to do with pizza? Well, the pizza slice was flat before you picked it up (in math speak, it has zero Gaussian curvature). Gauss’s remarkable theorem assures us that one direction of the slice must always remain flat — no matter how you bend it, the pizza must retain a trace of its original flatness. When the slice flops over, the flat direction (shown in red below) is pointed sideways, which isn’t helpful for eating it. But by folding the pizza slice sideways, you’re forcing it to become flat in the other direction – the one that points towards your mouth. Theorema egregium, indeed.

 Must read. Highly recommended.

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Internet Search vs. the Truth

Not everything is rosy with unfettered and unfiltered access to information for everyone.

In today’s day and age, any information, is just a Google search away; and while it is empowering-no doubt; it is also a debilitating burden for researchers and educators. Little knowledge is dangerous. It is like handing a monkey a scalpel, and ask him to supervise (or influence) a neurosurgery. An internet search does not, and can not judge your capacity to digest information of a certain level. See my past article on “Knowledge vs. Information“. While information may be available, it does not translate into knowledge without a framework. And, all this assumes that the information is correct! Most people are poor judges of that. At least, in pre internet days, books underwent “some” editorial scrutiny. Not anyone with a Modem and a computer is an author, or a scientist, or a researcher.

As a hypothetical example (hypothetical because the real ones will rub some people the wrong way), let me concoct a cock and bull story, and blog about it somewhere, and post it to as many social networks as I can. This is the possible scenario that will unfold. Someone will stumble upon it on, say, Twitter and Google it. He will find my bog post, and –being untrained in the arcane art of scientific enquiry, verification of sources and corroborative evidence examination—take it as a proof of correctness and spread it. Lather, rinse and repeat! Before you know it, this fact is plastered over the internet.

As they say, an untruth, repeated again and again amounts to a truth. There’s an XKCD for that (there’s an XKCD for everything!!)

Title text: I just read a pop-science book by a respected author. One chapter, and much of the thesis, was based around wildly inaccurate data which traced back to… Wikipedia. To encourage people to be on their toes, I’m not going to say what book or author.

On the flip side, a skeptic, when faced with a truth that does not jive well with the known and accepted facts, will find it extremely difficult to get at the truth The truth will be , for want of a better word, unsexy, and hence not popular, and buried in the search results.

The key takeaway from this diatribe is

  1. Google search is not an authenticity check.
  2. Facts that are too fascinating to be true are often “not true”.
  3. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, –cures for leukaemia, UFO sightings, 9-11 conspiracy, fake moon landings, on and on.
  4. Be a skeptic.

A Skeptic subscribes to a number of tenets:

  • Respect for the evidence. The application of reason to evidence is the best method we have to obtain reliable knowledge.
  • Respect for methods, conclusions and the consensus of science. Science is a particular way of obtaining information that is designed to reduce the chances of coming to an incorrect conclusion.
  • Preference for natural, not supernatural, explanation. Natural laws give us rational boundaries in our quest to determine explanations. Miracles are an example of using a supernatural agent (a god, saint or angel who operates outside of natural laws) as part of the explanation. A Skeptic will look for a natural explanation that does not call for a supernatural, unproven (and possibly unprovable) entity to be included.
  • Promotion of reason and critical thinking. Many Skeptics are good at identifying mistakes in arguments and reasoning.
  • Awareness of how we are fooled. People routinely fool themselves and are fooled by others.
  • Skeptics are wary of eyewitness testimony because observation is fallible and memory is malleable. Stories of events, even from trustworthy people, make for very poor evidence on their own. Even collectively, anecdotes don’t tell us much about the validity of the claim. Skeptics also understand that people tend to look for, remember and favour the evidence that supports their preferred conclusion.
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Why we believe in Gods

“Why We Believe in God(s): A Concise Guide to the Science of Faith” by J. Anderson Thomson and Clare Aukofer is a scientific take on the Science of our belief in God. This is a volume in the long line of books on this area, probably starting with Sigmund Freud’s books on Religion and its origin. Freud regards God as an illusion, based on the infantile need for a powerful father figure.

The book has earned rave reviews in the Skeptic press. Here’s a review at http://fractalheretic.blogspot.in/2013/09/review-why-we-believe-in-gods.html which is being reproduced verbatim.

Why do we believe in Gods? Is the human mind inherently theistic? In his lecture “Why We Believe In Gods” Andy Thomson provides a compelling and scientifically supported argument that our minds are hard wired to believe in Gods because of the way we evolved. I’m going to comment on a few of the highlights and try not to butcher it too much with my layman’s understanding, but I strongly recommend watching the video if you have the time. Better yet, check out his book.

Andy Thomson explains that religion is a “by-product of cognitive mechanisms designed for other purposes.” In other words, we evolved to think in certain ways that helped us survive, but then there were side effects. As you’ll see, these “cognitive mechanisms” can combine to create religion.

Decoupled cognition: The ability to have an imaginary conversation with someone who is either absent or nonexistent. We can replay past conversations, rehearse future conversations, or even imagine what we would say to Elvis Presley and how he might respond. It’s not much of a stretch to use this ability to talk to an imaginary agent, such as God. Sprinkle in a little magical thinking, and the imaginary conversation becomes an actual conversation. Some Christians might even imagine what God would say in response and misapprehend the imagined response as the actual voice of God.

Thomson says “It’s natural to think of disembodied minds” because there may have been an evolutionary advantage to being able to think about someone’s intentions or goals without them present. He talks about an experiment that was done where children were shown a puppet show of an alligator eating a mouse. The children were then asked a series of questions about the mouse.

“Does the mouse still need to eat or drink?” No.

“Is the mouse still moving around?” No.

“Does the mouse still think and want certain things?” Yes.

So apparently we’re born thinking about minds and bodies as if they are separate things. This is evident even in adults when we ask “where do we go when we die?” This kind of thinking not only stimulates belief in souls, the afterlife, and ghosts, but also enables us to imagine a great disembodied mind in the sky.

Hyperactive agency detection: The tendency to assume that intelligent agents are behind every unknown. Think of this as a kind of abstract pareidolia. Similar to the way we unconsciously scan for faces in the clouds, we also look for other patterns that might indicate an agent.

We look at nature and think an intelligent designer must have made it. We experience a strange coincidence and think someone caused it to happen for a reason. We look back at our lives and think someone had a hand in the way things played out. Everywhere we look, we assume agents are behind everything.

Machines break down: gremlins did it.
Mushrooms appear in a circle: fairies did it.

Strange sounds in the night: ghosts did it.
Tide goes in and out: God did it.
The sound of a twig breaking nearby: a saber tooth tiger did it.

That last one might have something to do with why we think this way. There is an evolutionary advantage to being paranoid and constantly on the lookout for agents. Eons later, we no longer have to worry about that darn tiger, but we still have this sloppy detection mechanism built in, and we can’t turn it off.

Attachment Mechanism: The tendency to turn to a caretaker when in distress. As children, we instinctively cry out for help whenever we’re hurt or we need something. Prayer is when we continue that behavior into adulthood, instead of growing up and learning to be self-reliant. A lot of prayer is just childish crying for a celestial parent to make everything better.

Childhood credulity: The evolutionary advantage of being gullible. This is something Dawkins talks about as well. If a parent tells a child: don’t play with snakes, don’t swim with crocodiles, or don’t eat a particular kind of berry, the child is more likely to survive if they don’t try to be a skeptic and test those things. Unfortunately, this gullibility is still in effect when the parent tells the child what they need to do or believe in order to avoid the wrath of God.

These are just a few of the cognitive mechanisms that make the human mind a fertile petri dish for the memetic virus of religion. It’s often said that everyone is born an atheist, but if Thomson is right, we’re also born with a whole toolkit of evolutionary leftovers in our heads that make us naturally religious. This helps explain why theism has spontaneously and independently arisen in so many cultures around the world, a fact that many theists offer as evidence of faith.

I also strongly recommend Daniel Dennett’s lecture “Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon“. If you haven’t seen that one, it will blow your mind. You will never see religion the same way again. Dennett explains how a religion evolves as a memetic virus, a virus made of words and ideas instead of physical stuff.

While I still think Dennett’s memetic theory about the evolution of religion explains a lot, Thomson’s ideas are better at explaining the “abiogenesis” of religion. In fact, I think Thomson’s and Dennett’s theories mesh perfectly. A virus, even a memetic one, works by exploiting the weaknesses of a system, and the cognitive mechanisms Thomson has studied are the weaknesses that allow religion to take hold of a mind.

Unfortunately, religion has had a long time to evolve, and it has become exceedingly efficient at exploiting the human mind. If atheists want to make a difference, we need to understand how religion works to be able to fight it effectively.

Highly recommended.

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Nehru on Religion

Another excerpt from The Discovery of India…….

Religion, as I saw it practised, and accepted even by thinking minds, whether it was Hinduism or Islam or Buddhism or Christianity, did not attract me. It seemed to be closely associated with superstitious practices and dogmatic beliefs, and behind it lay a method of approach to life’s problems which was certainly not that of science. There was an element of magic about it, an uncritical credulousness, a reliance on the supernatural.

Yet it was obvious that religion had supplied some deeply felt inner need of human nature, and that the vast majority of people all over the world could not do without some form of religious belief. It had produced many fine types of men and women, as well as bigoted, narrow-minded, cruel tyrants. It had given a set of values to human life, and though some of these values had no application to-day, or were even harmful, others were still the foundation of morality and ethics.

In the wider sense of the word, religion dealt with the uncharted regions of human experience, uncharted, that is, by the scientific positive knowledge of the day. In a sense it might be considered an extension of the known and charted region, though the methods of science and religion were utterly unlike each other, and to a large extent they had to deal with different kinds of media. It was obvious that there was a vast unknown region all around us, and science, with its magnificent achievements, knew little enough about it, though it was making tentative approaches in that direction. Probably also, the normal methods of science, its dealings with the visible world and the processes of life, were not wholly adapted to the physical, the artistic, the spiritual, and other elements of the invisible world. Life does not consist entirely of what we see and hear and feel, the visible world which is undergoing change in time and space; it is continually touching an invisible world of other, and possibly more stable or equally changeable elements, and no thinking person can ignore this invisible world.

Science does not tell us much, or for the matter of that anything about the purpose of life. It is now widening its boundaries and it may invade the so-called invisible world before long and help us to understand this purpose of life in its widest sense, or at least give us some glimpses which illumine the problem of h u m a n existence. The old controversy between science and religion takes a new form—the application of the scientific method to emotional and religious experiences.

Religion merges into mysticism and metaphysics and philosophy. There have been great mystics, attractive figures, who cannot easily be disposed of as self-deluded fools. Yet mysticism (in the narrow sense of the word) irritates me; it appears to be vague and soft and flabby, not a rigorous discipline of the mind but a surrender of mental faculties and a living in a sea of emotional experience. The experience may lead occasionally to some insight into inner and less obvious processes, but it is also likely to lead to self-delusion.

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Nehru on Time (Past, Present and Future)

An excerpt from The Discovery of India………..

Time seems to change its nature in prison. T h e present hardly exists, for there is an absence of feeling and sensation which might separate it from the dead past. Even news of the active, living and dying world outside has a certain dream-like unreality, an immobility and an unchangeableness as of the past. T h e outer objective time ceases to be, the inner and subjective sense remains, but at a lower level, except when thought pulls it out of the present and experiences a kind of reality in the past or in the future. We live, as Auguste Comte said, dead men’s lives, encased in our pasts, but this is especially so in prison where we try to find some sustenance for our starved and locked up emotions in memory of the past or fancies of the future. There is a stillness and everlastingness about the past; it changes not and has a touch of eternity, like a painted picture or a statue in bronze or marble. Unaffected by the storms and upheavals of the present, it maintains its dignity and repose and tempts the troubled spirit and the tortured mind to seek shelter in its vaulted catacombs. There is peace there and security, and one may even sense a spiritual quality.

But it is not life, unless we can find the vital links between it and the present with all its conflicts and problems. It is a kind of art for art’s sake, without the passion and the urge to action which are the very stuff of life. Without that passion and urge, there is a gradual oozing out of hope and vitality, a settling down on lower levels of existence, a slow merging into non-existence. We become prisoners of the past and some part of its immobility sticks to us.

This passage of the mind is all the easier in prison where action is denied and we become slaves to the routine of jail-life. Yet the past is ever with us and all that we are and that we have comes from the past. We are its products and we live immersed in it. Not to understand it and feel it as something living within us is not to understand the present. To combine it with the present and extend it to the future, to break from it where it cannot be so united, to make of all this the pulsating and vibrating material for thought and action—that is life. Any vital action springs from the depths of the being. All the long past of the individual and even of the race has prepared the background for that psychological moment of action. All the racial memories, influences of heredity and environment and training, subconscious urges, thoughts and dreams and actions from infancy and childhood onwards, in their curious and tremendous mix-up, inevitably drive to that new action, which again becomes yet another factor influencing the future. Influencing the future, partly determining it, possibly even largely determining it, and yet, surely, it is not all determinism. Aurobindo Ghose writes somewhere of the present as ‘the pure and virgin moment,’ that razor’s edge of time and existence which divides the past from the future, and is, and yet, instantaneously is not. T h e phrase is attractive and yet what does it mean?

The virgin moment emerging from the veil of the future in all its naked purity, coming into contact with us, and immediately becoming the soiled and stale past. Is it we that soil it and violate it? Or is the moment not so virgin after all, for it is bound up with all the harlotry of the past?

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