Challenges to learning new things


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.


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.


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.


 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:

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 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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