There is a spring in my step

“Hope springs eternal in the human breast;
Man never Is, but always To be blest.
The soul, uneasy, and confin’d from home,
Rests and expatiates in a life to come.”

-Alexander Pope

The triumph of the human thought, that has brought us so much progress over the millennia, gets a new shot in the arm every Spring Season. Spring heralds new beginnings, the rejuvenation of the spirit that seeks to conquer new heights of achievement and glory and to shed the baggage of failed promises and missed opportunities.
Let us all bask in the glory of this Spring season. Let us celebrate the bonds that bind us, and strive towards the synergies that are distinctly individual- but at the same time decidedly targeted towards a common goal. Let us connect and contribute to our common causes and efforts in our own individual way and seek to attain the goal in sight.

 

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Book Review- The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand

There are—a few times in your life— experiences that shape your psyche and leave an indelible mark on your world-view. Reading Ayn Rand’s masterpieces ‘The Fountainhead’ and ‘Atlas Shrugged’ was one of those experiences for me.

I have never been too fond of fiction and novels, with non-fiction having a place of pride in my set of preferences. The Fountainhead was on my radar for a very long time (think years!), but I could never get around to it. In a discussion we were having with some like-minded colleagues, someone brought the topic up and I picked up the book in curiosity. Boy, what a ride!

Ayn Rand weaves the motifs of the triumph of the human spirit, with intrigues of love and sex to politics in the corridors of power effortlessly and in a cohesive whole. Her philosophy of ‘Objectivism’ and ‘individualism’ are recurring themes that are evident throughout the novel. The book in notoriously difficult to begin and taxes your patience in the first few pages. However, if you endure the arduous climb atop the cliff, the view is exhilarating.

Rand has an unmatched ability to make her characters so life-like that they almost dance in front of your eyes. The protagonist ‘Howard Raork’ in particular is someone who is an outlier and hence is scorned and shunned by the society. The overarching theme is that the collective wisdom of the society thrives on averages and those beyond those averages are given a hard time by the society. It is also true that these outliers that struggle their way through to the top of the world are the ones that shape society and move the average ahead. As it is often said, an idea progresses from preposterous, to acceptable to obvious in due course, if the one proposing the ‘preposterous’ idea perseveres.

Man cannot survive except through his mind. He comes on earth unarmed. His brain is his only weapon. Animals obtain food by force. man had no claws, no fangs, no horns, no great strength of muscle. He must plant his food or hunt it. To plant, he needs a process of thought. To hunt, he needs weapons, and to make weapons – a process of thought. From this simplest necessity to the highest religious abstraction, from the wheel to the skyscraper, everything we are and we have comes from a single attribute of man -the function of his reasoning mind.

What is defining about this book is the unique perspective each character brings to the table. Roark ignores the world, Dominique mocks it, Wynand is out to destroy it. Toohey, the antagonist, is a parasite who loves playing games to thwart greatness and Keating is a bumbling fool who thrives on his mediocrity and is destroyed by it.

When you sit and read this book, you are giving a gift to yourself. The gift of your own life, that is yours to live and enjoy, the one where you can and do what you think is the best for your own happiness. Of course, if you happen to agree with the book 100%, you have not understood it. The author wants you to be an individual and form your own opinion and be superlatively selfish in the quest. As she herself says:

The Fountainhead’s is a confirmation of the spirit of youth, proclaiming man’s glory, showing how much is possible. It does not matter that only a few in each generation will grasp and achieve the full reality of man’s proper stature–and that the rest will betray it. It is those few that move the world and give life its meaning–and it is those few that I have always sought to address. The rest are no concern of mine; it is not me or The Fountainhead that they will betray: it is their own souls.

Though best read in context, here are some of the defining quotes from the novel:

——–

On being followers of ideas rather than their proponents:

“Listen to what is being preached today. Look at everyone around us. You’ve wondered why they suffer, why they seek happiness and never find it. If any man stopped and asked himself whether he’s ever held a truly personal desire, he’d find the answer. He’d see that all his wishes, his efforts, his dreams, his ambitions are motivated by other men. He’s not really struggling even for material wealth, but for the second-hander’s delusion – prestige. A stamp of approval, not his own. He can find no joy in the struggle and no joy when he has succeeded. He can’t say about a single thing: ‘This is what I wanted because I wanted it, not because it made my neighbors gape at me’. Then he wonders why he’s unhappy.”

———-

On selfishness being a virtue and competence being the only thing worthy of worship

“It’s easy to run to others. It’s so hard to stand on one’s own record. You can fake virtue for an audience. You can’t fake it in your own eyes. Your ego is your strictest judge. They run from it. They spend their lives running. It’s easier to donate a few thousand to charity and think oneself noble than to base self-respect on personal standards of personal achievement. It’s simple to seek substitutes for competence–such easy substitutes: love, charm, kindness, charity. But there is no substitute for competence.”

———-

On being true to your convictions in the face of adversity, a trait personified by the protagonist – Howard Roark

“Integrity is the ability to stand by an idea.”

“Self-sacrifice? But it is precisely the self that cannot and must not be sacrificed.”

———–

On being pioneers of an idea; on persevering in the face of mockery, indifference and scorn; and on being the ones that moved the world.

“Throughout the centuries there were men who took first steps down new roads armed with nothing but their own vision. Their goals differed, but they all had this in common: that the step was first, the road new, the vision unborrowed, and the response they received — hatred. The great creators — the thinkers, the artists, the scientists, the inventors — stood alone against the men of their time. Every great new thought was opposed. Every great new invention was denounced. The first motor was considered foolish. The airplane was considered impossible. The power loom was considered vicious. Anesthesia was considered sinful. But the men of unborrowed vision went ahead. They fought, they suffered and they paid. But they won.”

————

On being charitable to the undeserving; on the urge of the society to attune itself to the unworthy.

“Is it advisable to spread out all the conveniences of culture before people to whom a few steps up a stair to a library is a sufficient deterrent from reading?”

This is a great piece of art that must be worshipped. You may or may not agree with the entirety of the philosophy of the book, but it sure spurs some deep introspection and appraisal of the social moorings of the society.

Highly recommended.

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2015 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2015 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 660 times in 2015. If it were a cable car, it would take about 11 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

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Challenges to learning new things

Learning

What is the first thing that pops into your head when you see the picture? I hope the title did not already prime you towards the answer.

To me, the first thing that jumps at me is – as soon as the girl pulls out the book, the whole stack above the book is about to fall on her head, and she is gonna be inundated with books. And, is that a huge stack!! But then, as you realize the metaphorical reference with books being proxies for pieces of knowledge, the allegorical significance may stun you with its relevance and familiarity.

A lot of us need to learn and deal with new pieces of information very often and often take recourse in libraries and, increasingly, web based resources. When you are faced with an authoritative text on an unfamiliar subject, there would often be alien concepts and terminology that is a pre-requisite to understand and appreciate it. This conundrum leads us to seek out explanations to those alien concepts and terminology, which in turn may need another set of unfamiliar concepts to appreciate fully, ad infinitum. This leads us down a rabbit hole, and then we finally have a hang of something that we have a full appreciation of. But, alas, what we understood is many levels removed from what we started out intending to understand. Then we try and roll the understanding back up, and piece together the nuggets of information, to the point when –hopefully—we finally understand some part of the original problem. This rapid, tree-like, exponential explosion that is required to fully understand any given isolated topic of concern is what jumped out at me when I looked at the picture in the post.

As content creators, can we do something to ease the pain of our readers?

I quote an excellent response to a related question from one of the Q&A sites I frequent(Slightly Paraphrased).

I find that the choice of how much explanation to give is generally a three-way negotiation between three factors:

Your estimate of the audience: different communities will need radically different levels of explanation for the same concept.

  • Adjustment based on the opinions of the reviewers about what needs more or less details
  • Any length constraints on the paper.
  • Of this #1 is really the important thing: you really need to understand your audience in order to decide how in-depth to go with your concepts.

For example, I recently published a paper which spent several pages explaining a mathematical formulation in depth for its target cross-disciplinary audience. The reviewers requested further expansion of the mathematical explanation (which I was happy to provide). Were I writing for the community from which the mathematics came, however, I would instead spend several pages explaining the context of the problem, but then the math itself would be covered in just a few sentences.

The answer points to three things, the most important is of which is— “knowing your audience”. We, as content creators must strive to make the piece of writing as self-contained as possible, with at least basic introductions to all concepts that your readers might have a difficulty with. Although, this flies against the conventional SEO wisdom of backlinks and forward links and what-not; but-in my experience; good and understandable content always does well irrespective of what the snake oil salesmen of SEO consultancy firms might want to sell you. Some of the most sane voices in the business have now said so.

The flip side to this quandary is that innovation often comes when you assimilate ideas from other fields into your own. The assumptions that an author makes regarding the prerequisites and their familiarity thereof are no longer true if the reader is from a different field. I guess, that’s why innovation is not a very common thing. Also, our education system does not make us ready for cross functional exposure, and leaves us with a lopsided understanding of the symphonies of nature and the universe, to which we cannot, therefore, tune our mental radios to.

Keep learning.

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The search for Meaning – A look at motivation and what drives it

What motivates you to perform well in the workplace? The irony of the possible responses to this question point to the gulf that exists between what science and experiments indicate and what business does! For example, if your answer is bonuses, cash rewards and pay raise, the research presented below can surprise you.

An experiment (Ariely, Gneezy, Loewenstein, & Mazar, 2009), on the impact of contingent –If you do this, then you get that– rewards on performance, clearly indicated that as soon as the assigned task involved even “rudimentary cognitive skills”, the performance fell as the rewards rose.

clip_image002This is a recurrent theme in multiple experiments that are captured in books such as (Ariely, Predictably Irrational) and (Pink, Drive). To put it simply, if someone you know is undergoing a critical surgery, and the surgeon is offered a large sum of money to get it right—you’d rather wish the surgeon is concentrating on the procedure and not on the new car that he’d buy using the reward. As the quoted paper puts it:

Most upper-management and sales force personnel, as well as workers in many other jobs, are paid based on performance, which is widely perceived as motivating effort and enhancing productivity relative to non-contingent pay schemes. However, psychological research suggests that excessive rewards can in some cases produce supra-optimal motivation, resulting in a decline in performance. With some important exceptions, we observed that high reward levels can have detrimental effects on performance.

So what is it that motivates us and leads to a better performance? Not money, as indicated above! It is suggested that the triad of Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose (Pink) is what is key to motivating people whose work involves cognitive and reasoning capability. Let me talk about the sense of purpose and the search for meaning in this writing.

Let’s start with an anecdote:

Someone, call him Amit, was given a task by his boss, Shikhar, to create a presentation for an upcoming event. Amit gave it his all and made a lot of effort. When he showed his excellently made presentation to Shikhar, Shikhar informed him that the event has been cancelled. Amit went into a depression and was foul tempered for a large part of the next few days.

Does the above incident seem realistic? Why was Amit depressed when he got paid to do something and he did? It was probably because the purpose of his effort was cruelly snatched from him. The sense of pride and meaning was no longer there! There have been multiple experiments to quantitatively express the same thought.

In a study conducted at Harvard University, Ariely asked participants to build characters from using Lego bricks. In one condition-called the meaningful condition, participants were paid decreasing amounts for each subsequent model: $3 for the first one, $2.70 for the next one, and so on. The creations were stored under the table, to be disassembled at the end of the experiment. In the other condition- called the Sisyphus Condition, the creations were disassembled as soon as they’d been built. This was an endless cycle of them building and the experimenters destroying them in front of their eyes.

The results were surprising. The first group made 11 models, on average, while the second group made only seven before they quit.

No of Models(Bionicles) created in Meaningful and Sisyphus Conditions
clip_image004 clip_image006

The Upshot is Even though there wasn’t huge meaning at stake, and even though the first group knew their work would be destroyed at the end of the experiment, seeing the results of their labour for even a short time was enough to dramatically improve performance.

In another part of the same experimental setup, it was found that participants who were interested in Lego Models made more models (naturally!), but only in the meaningful condition. There was no correlation between the number of models created and the Interest level in the Sisyphus condition. This clearly indicates that as soon as the sense of purpose – no matter how trivial – is snatched from the participants, even the intrinsic affinity to the task at hand does not improve performance. If the organisation has great hiring practices and selects only the best people, and pays them well; the lack of alignment to the purpose of the task at hand can severely hamper performance.

Bibliography

Ariely, D. (n.d.). Predictably Irrational.

Ariely, D., Gneezy, U., Loewenstein, G., & Mazar, N. (2009). Large Stakes and Big Mistakes. Review of Economic Studies, 451-469.Pink, D. (n.d.).

Drive, The Surprising truth about what motivates us.

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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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