THE JOURNEY OF SURVIVORS

70,000-year history of Indian sub-continent

REDISCOVERING INDIA

Unraveling the mystery of our roots to understand the present and predict the future.

WOMEN, SEX AND PREJUDICE

Do we have it in us to give the fairer sex the place they deserve?.

CURRENT AFFAIRS

Change of world order. Religious Terrorism. Where are we heading?.

INCREDIBLE INDIA

Wanderlust Hodophiles.

Welcome to KHOJ: The search to know our roots and understand the meaning of our existence.

Prejudice is the biggest problem in the society. It can be it in terms of religion, cast, sex, skin-colour, status etc. Prejudice can also be in form of the feeling that human beings are the greatest creation, or even patriotism about artificially created borders. The motto of KHOJ is to gain knowledge and break that prejudice. But there is a word of caution for the readers. To break the prejudice KHOJ might throw upon you the concepts it believes in. If the reader believes on KHOJ’s perception without question, then KHOJ itself might incept a prejudice in the readers mind thus failing in it own motto. KHOJ is trying to break its own world of prejudice, but at times that prejudice might get reflected in its writing. Please do challenge them.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Decoding of Happiness

Search the internet and you will find thousand advices that are suppose to make you happy, from buying a cat to donating an organ. Obviously, happiness is something that is damn important to all of us. But, like the “Holy Grail”, the search for eternal happiness has eluded us. Web defines happiness as “state of well-being characterised by emotions ranging from contentment to intense joy”. I know this definition is open to a debate, let’s just pretend it is true. But the real questions are - why is happiness so important to us and what make us happy!


In no other era in the history of mankind did we have so many reasons to be happy than the one we are living in. Recent statistics, including the one by Steven Pinker, shows that violence is at an all time low. There is dramatic reduction in war deaths, domestic violence, racism, rape and murder globally (Figure 1). For the first time ever more people kills themselves then getting killed by others. World energy consumption, an indicator of our lifestyle, is also increasing exponentially (Figure 2). Energy consumption increased six times since 1960, while the population grew just 2.2 times. The middle class now has more luxury than a Medieval king. With all the reasons we have to be happy, are we any happier?





Figure 1: Decrease in deaths due to conflicts. 


Figure 2: World Energy Consumption by Source, Based on Vaclav Smil estimates from Energy Transitions: History, Requirements and Prospects together with BP Statistical Data for 1965 and subsequent years. [http://www.doomsteaddiner.net]


Figure 3: GDP vs per capita power consumption. [http://www.ourenergypolicy.org]

While there is a direct correlation between GDP and per capita energy consumption (Figure 3), the relation between Human Development Index (HDI) and per capita energy consumption is a bit tricky (Figure 4). HDI is calculated from various factors including life expectancy at birth, years of schooling, and per capita gross national income. Overall the HDI gets better with per capita energy consumption. However, there is a lot of scatter at the lower energy consumption area, and above a particular amount of energy consumption it does not improve the HDI. While poverty does indeed make us unhappy, wealth does not necessarily make us happy.


Figure 4: HDI vs per capita power consumption. [http://www.ourenergypolicy.org]

Surveys done over time in developed countries have shown that, despite increase in income, people are not getting happier. Once the basic needs are fulfilled, money doesn’t really make you happy. People are in fact getting lonelier and depressed. As a result, suicide rates are increasing at an alarming pace (Figure 5). Self harm is the leading cause of death in today’s world (Figure 6). India has one of the highest suicide rates in the world (Figure 7) and it is going to get worse unless something is done. Despite the luxuries, why is happiness eluding us?




Figure 5: Increase in global suicide rate (https://www.vitamindwiki.com/)


Figure 6: How we die.

Figure 7: Suicide problem of India.

In her paper ‘Money Giveth, Money Taketh Away- The Dual Effect of Wealth on Happiness’ published in 2010, Quoidbach et al. demonstrates that ‘having access to the best things in life may actually undercut people’s ability to reap enjoyment from life’s small pleasures’. She came to that conclusion after two different experiments. In the first experiment she found out that wealthy people savoured chocolate less than the less wealthy ones. In the second experiment one set of people were primed by showing them pictures of money, while the other was not. Despite similar economic background, those who saw pictures of money before tasting chocolates savoured the chocolates less than those who were not shown pictures of money. Despite some odd possibility of alternate explanations, like people lost apatite for chocolates after seeing money and thinking of germs, I believe her results were right. It was not just her experiments, but the results of a survey done in US (Figure 8) and some other countries have shown that increase in income is not making people happy. The results are not surprising if one understands what happiness is. 


Figure 8: Consumption and happiness in US.

A bacteria in the soil in your backyard can actually make you happy (read get you high). The culprit here is a bacterium named Mycobacterium vaccae. This was discovered quite accidentally in 2004 by an oncologist at the Royal Marsden Hospital named Mary O’Brien. She was injecting lung cancer patient with serum from Mycobacterium vaccae because the bacterium was thought to have immune boosting response on patients. While it failed to heal the cancer, instead it made the patients happier and improved their lifestyle. It has been found that bacteria and bacterial products can have effect on brain and the neural pathways in a way that it affects human behaviour. That is how our emotions work. It is controlled not by the external situation you are in, but by your internal biochemistry. 

Chemicals inside you effect your emotions, external factors can only activate those chemicals. Nicole Lazzaro explains that there are four different chemicals released by the brain (neurotransmitters) that can make you happy - dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, endorphins. Dopamine is released on anticipation of happy event or stress. It controls human emotions, including desires, achievements, pleasures, mood, sleep and happiness. Oxytocin, also known as the “love hormone”, is released by the pituitary gland, especially when one come in close proximity to another person. It sometimes has the affect of falling in love and is also called as the “cuddle hormone”. It helps in relationships and bonding and the resulting feeling of happiness caused by oxytocin secretion is different from the happiness due to pleasure or achievement created by dopamine. Serotonin’s affect on happiness is debatable, however it has been proven that this hormone helps us in learning. Some people claim that it affects mood, and lack of it can make one feel low. Endorphins are known to mask pain and discomfort. They can be released during vigorous exercise and lead to an effect termed as “runners high”. There must be several other chemicals that affect our mood than the four described by Lazzaro. The secretion of these chemicals may or may not be caused by external situations. It can be artificially triggered by drugs or meditation. And, more importantly, it does not depend on the amount of energy you consume, or how luxurious life you live. Instead, it depends on your expectations - the deviation of what you get from what you expect. Unfortunately, when a person gets richer, his or her desires and expectations also rise. Thus, soon the difference between expectations and happiness reaches the base level. Psychologists call it “hedonic treadmill” affect.

Happiness is not external, but internal. It is a result of trials and errors of millions of years of evolution, just like the ones that made giraffe’s neck long. Professors Meike Bartels and Philipp Koellinge have found in 2016 the genes that might be responsible for happiness after studying DNA samples from 298,000 people from around the globe. They found that prevalence of FAAH gene, which makes a protein that affects feelings of pleasure and pain, correlates fairly well with “happiness” of different countries (Figure 9). Some research even claims that happiness is 50% genetic. If evolution indeed favoured happiness, the question is why?


Figure 9: Correlation between FAAH gene and happiness (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-3559114/Is-happiness-DNA-Study-finds-genes-affect-mood-prone-depression-neuroticism.html#ixzz4tEq7nVhd )

According to evolutionary psychologists like Robert Cummins of Deakin University of Melbourne happiness, just like the negative emotions of fear, anger and disgust, evolved because it gave us adaptive advantage. Negative emotions are stronger because it keeps us alive. Fear helps run away from predator, anger helps us beat our opponents and disgust helps us avoid poisonous food. Experiments done by psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky demonstrated that ‘pain is more urgent than pleasure’. Once we are safe, however, happiness increases our want to survive. Fredrickson’s “broaden and build” theory propose that happiness helps us build resource and store for the future. If we were not happy eaters we would have starved to death, if we were not happy ‘maters’ we would have died long before killing the beautiful dodo birds. We are not going to survive for long if we become equally happy to see our enemies as we are when we see our friends. Positive feelings like happiness change the way our brain works and helps us gather more information. Happy people are also healthier. In short, happiness helps us survive.

While small wonders like a child’s smile, pleasant weather, a birds song, the snow capped peak, the green forest, the blue sky, food, beer and sex, can make us happy, we somehow end up confusing ourselves asking the question, ‘what makes us happy?’. Even the religions that guarantee happiness have no unique solution. The ancient philosophies of Asia declared renouncing materialism makes one happy. The idea being to reduce expectations, and thus increase the gap between what you want and what you get. Thus one would be happier. Try poverty when you have hungry mouths to feed. The medieval philosophy of West and ‘Middle-West’ (I prefer it to the term Middle-East) goes one step further and proclaims that our life is a result of sin. Death is the only way to happiness. That idea is definitely not for me. After the Renaissance people started to reject the idea of being controlled by an invisible force and started to believe in free-will. Individualistic happiness gained importance. As economies of countries grew stronger, materialistic happiness ruled the mind. The new model for strong economy was to spend more. So you had loans and credit cards along with the luring malls to make you happy. It does make you happy, but only for a very short time. All it does, is raise your expectations. We now know what rising expectations does to happiness. 

In this growing materialistic world, how do we become happy? Maslow would say self actualisation, a priest would say salvation, Buddha would say renunciation. Most of them would be about reducing expectations. There are other things that has been proven to make a lot of people happy. It is listed in Figure 10.

Figure 10: What makes us happy.

Science has finally found the pill that fills your life with happiness. The secret pill they called ‘Love’. As if we are supposed to be surprised. People who are in a stable+happy+long relationship are the people who are happy. Love can even erase unhappy childhood memories. And sometimes, experiments showed, replace unhappy memories them with happy ones. Altered reality makes you unknowingly lie about your past. But then lying isn’t a bad thing when it makes you happy without harming anyone. People in love also live longer and healthier. The best way to be happy ,then, would be to love as many people as you can, but do not expect much in return.



Thursday, August 31, 2017

The Seat Thief

How often have it happened that you met an idiot who turned your usual bad day into a horrible one? How often have you argued with someone who countered your perfect logic with absolute bullshit? The other person just don’t get your point of view because they are too rigid about their own view and no matter how good your argument is, they just don’t get it. If you happen to be from this world, then you must have been in such a situation. Unless, of-course, you are Kim Jong-un. Then nobody argues with you. That day was one such day.


It was a rainy morning, not quite the day I was looking forward to. I had to catch the morning Shatabdi to Bhopal and the rain made the Delhi roads choke. Being used to the capital of India, I started two hours early; which also meant that I did not get my full quota of sleep. Thank goodness I did so. Just after I boarded the train, even before I could reach my seat, the train started. Things here happen on time whenever you least want it to.

Half wet, I struggled through the narrow compartment to reach my window seat, only to find it occupied by a young man. The young man, in his mid-twenties, looked at me bluntly, happy to steal my seat and with it the view. After a failed attempt at logic with him, and his equally adamant father, I resigned to my fate and chose peace in the aisle seat.

As if sitting on my allotted seat was not enough, it seemed like the guy derived some sort of pervert pleasure by irritating me. He kept staring at me and smiled, without uttering a single word. When the food was served, he stared at his food, and mine, in a way as if he was seeing food for the first time. Everything seemed to make him happier than it would to a normal person. His smile was so out of sync with my horrible day that my jealousy about his happiness seemed to make me even angrier.

As the rain stopped and the sun shined through the broken clouds, the view of the outside became clearer. The guy on my seat called his father and said, ‘Look Dad! The sun is chasing us and the trees are moving backwards!’ That is when I realised that there was something ‘wrong’ with him; something more than the usual ‘wrong’ within most of us. I quietly asked his dad if everything was all right. What he said made me feel bad, not about him, but about myself. There was nothing 'wrong' with him. If at all, there was something wrong with me. My seat thief was not a mentally unstable person, but a perfectly normal young man. Until just few days back he was blind. He was returning home today after a successful eye operation. It was indeed the first time he could relate to all that he felt throughout his life with the new found visual pleasure. Who can blame him for taking my damn seat!


How often have we failed to look at the world through the perspective of someone else? How often have we blamed others for our bad day? How often have we failed to see the truth, blinded by our prejudice? In an argument when one thinks that the opponent is completely wrong, he automatically assumes that he himself is absolutely right. He assumes that he knows everything about the topic of the argument, and there is nothing more that he needs to know. Needless to say, such egoistic feelings are often wrong. When we keep arguing, thinking that the other person is not getting our point of view, we often ignore the fact that we are also not getting his either. There is always more to learn. The want to know more is what prevents science from becoming religion. It is OK to be not right at times.

Based on a heard story.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Seeing is believing! Or is it?

Seeing is believing? Right?

We tend to believe in what we see. 

Which is alright, as long as we remember that what we see is just an interpretation of our brain based on the information it receives. It is not, and I repeat, it is NOT the information that we see. We see the interpretation. You might think that you are seeing me, but in truth you are seeing your interpretation of me.

To understand it better I played a simple game with my fellow colleagues. I  asked them few easy questions. I will ask the same to you. Do not think too much to answer them. Just answer what you feel. These are not brain twisters or puzzles…just simple questions that has simple answers.

Question 1: What do you see?


Question 2: How many colours are there in a rainbow? 


Question 3: This is a world map. Which side is up?




And finally Question 4, this is the most difficult one: What are the two colours you see in this dress?


OK. Good. Now let us go back to the questions and try to find out how our brain works.


Question 1: When I asked my colleagues this question, I took a printout of the picture above. 80% of them answered - black circle or dot. Which is correct.
But I also showed them a piece of paper. And that piece of paper is filled with a white background. The white takes more space than the black. Just because it is white it is not nothing. As a matter of fact, you do not really see the circle. The circle is black, and hence no light is being emitted. How can you see without light?

What information you receive is that of the white background. But what most of us "see" is just the circle. Why? Because our brains are particularly good at finding anomalies. Anomalies could be threats and identifying them in advance helps us survive. Our brain does not always interpret all the things we see. It ignores the routine background. It focuses on interpreting anomalies. Seeing isn’t always the complete truth. That is why first impressions are mostly wrong.

Question 2: I asked how many colours are there in a rainbow. Almost unanimously everyone said seven. Again it is not wrong. Technically it is a correct answer. But have we ever asked ourselves why seven?

In truth it is a continuous electromagnetic spectrum, and not discrete seven bands.

Why seven then? Because we were told so.

Indians and Greeks have been fascinated by the number 7. When you get obsessed with something you see it everywhere. We are biased towards things we hold close. We were so biased that we made seven oceans, seven continents, seven heavens, seven days, seven sins, seven ‘classical’ planets and seven wonders. We can as well make 6 or 20 oceans. We can club Europe and Asia into one continent. Why make Australia a new continent and leave our Greenland? Why seven wonders? A lot of our faiths are actually priming. The truths on which we stand is often a slippery ground.

Question 3: Again unanimously the top one came out as the right answer.

When a lie is repeated over and over again it becomes truth. It is called anchoring.

This map has been shown to us like this since our child hood, and now we cannot think of an alternate possibility. Earth is a sphere. Both this and this map is incorrect as it is correct. Firstly, it is a projection of a sphere in a plain paper and hence it is distorted. leaving that apart, both maps are correct. Just because Europeans who made this maps for the first time were from the Northern hemisphere, this version became a norm. If we overturn the map, then also it is equally correct. In fact Up is a direction opposite to gravity. We stand on earth perpendicular to the ground. So the real up is this direction, away from the map. It is very local and the universe does not have an up direction. The penguins of Antarctica being on the top of the world is also a right version Happy Feet!


Question 4: This one is the most interesting. Most of us has seen this picture before and it became viral globally. While half of the crowd answered white and golden, others said blue and black. Our brain has this uncanny ability to look beyond and interpret the colours not as we see, but as it thinks it should be. Remember ‘Interpretation’ not ‘information. 

Let me show you what happens.


The shaded area (one blue shade and other yellow shade) has the same colour, even though our brain shows it as different. 

Our brain does not show us the actual colours. It tries to interpret what it thinks is the true colour. So, it tries to remove filters, it removes the effect of sunlight and shadow, and other things that might affect the picture. It does a wonderful job. But this time it had a problem. A yellow filter on blue and blue filter on yellow shows the same colour. There are two different solutions to the same problem, but our brain can have only one solution. So, it interprets it one way for one person, and other way for another. 


Our brain is very powerful organ that can easily get biased. It makes sense of the world by comparing with memories that we already have. It identifies anomalies and ignores the background, it can be easily primed, it is anchored to the information we already have, and it interprets things it’s own way. Like i said, we see "interpretation" and not "information".

We need to keep asking ourselves questions…we need to keep challenging our faith…because seeing is believing,  but our beliefs are not always correct. 


Don’t be a cynic, but be a skeptic, because skepticism is the only path towards truth.

The moment you stop asking questions, you stop to learn.




Thursday, May 18, 2017

Split Personalities that we all have


https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dissociative_identity_disorder.jpg

Three Faces of Eve is a Joanne Woodward starring film released in 1957. It was a first of it’s kind movie based on the true story of Eve White. Eve suffered from multiple personality disorder (MPD). MPD has been a topic of debate for ages. While it was widely accepted in America, MPD got it’s share of resistance from Britain. With time, however, MPD became widely accepted with reports of one particular case claiming 4000 alter egos (1). Someone definitely have personality issues.

When I think of it, I believe we all have at least two different personalities, one being instinctive and the other being acquired. Instinctive personality (IP) are the genetic traits that we were born with. Our basic instincts are part of IP and are often ‘wrongly’ called as controlled by heart. (Heart, however, do have neutrons that can learn, remember and take decisions. Heart and brain are intricately connected and both responds to each other. How romantic is that! 2) The acquired personality (AP) develops as we grow. AP is not just what we perceive ourselves as, but also what we want others to perceive us as. It is a mental perception and is governed by our mind. Those who have suffered mental/physical abuse as a child might develop multiple APs. Comparing it to Sigmund Freud's structural model of the psyche, IP is comparable to id and AP to superego. Freud thinks we live our life trying to balance between the two with help of our ego.

Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow (3) introduces us to the two systems in the mind: System 1 and System 2. According to his definition:
System 1 operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control.
System 2 allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations. The operations of System 2 are often associated with the subjective experience of agency, choice, and concentration.

Kahneman demonstrates the presence of the two systems with help of a simple maths problem-

The total price of a bat and a ball is 1$ 10 cents.  If the bat costs 1$ more than the ball, what is the price of the ball? 

The instinctive answer that most people give is 10 cents. System 1 is answering for you if that’s your answer. After doing careful calculations one finds out that the actual price of the ball is 5 cents. Those who curbed their instinct (System 1) to think about the correct answer were governed by System 2. System 1 is controlled dominantly by IP, while System 2 is controlled dominantly by AP. 

Most of the stresses in our life arise from the conflict between AP and IP, between our heart and mind if you want to put it that way. It is important for us to understand these two personalities that exists within us so that we can make a healthy balance between the two.

 Dan Ariely, in his book Predictably Irrational (4), mentions about an experiment done by asking questions to a group of men while they were having orgasm. They were asked the same questions when they were not in an aroused state. The conclusion of the experiment was stunning. In aroused state the preference of these men for odd sexual activities, including having sex with animals, were twice as high. They were 20% more likely not to have safe sex and five times more likely to slip a women a drug to increase their chance of having sex when in aroused sex then when they were normal. These people, who are just like you and me, were two entirely different personalities at two different levels of emotional state.

Why does morality takes a back seat when one is in aroused state? In aroused state IP takes over AP. The moral values that you acquired over the ages are forgotten. The act of murder or rape is most likely to be controlled by IP than AP. ‘Thinking from your heart’ is not always the morally correct decision. However, without the emotional part of your brain you probably would not be able to make any decision. Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio’s research on people whose emotional part of the brain have been damaged showed that these otherwise perfectly normal people were not able to take simple decisions (5). It is IP that decides whether to fight or flight, it is IP that makes you fall in love without reason and it is IP that tells you to be in the present and enjoy your life. IP is neither your guardian angel nor a devil. It is the way you want it to be.

AP is something one learns over the years. It is influenced by your family, school and the environment that you grow up in. It teaches you not to cheat, not to hurt others, and not to look at your neighbor's wife. Remember the Ten Commandments? AP can be either governed by social norms or market norms. The warm and fuzzy social norms gives you a sense of community, and is important between friends and family. Market norms govern the decisions you take professionally and generally involves money or something of value. As long as you do not mix the two, like expecting monetary gains in return of your love or love in return of your professional work, you are doing good. These learning are essential part of our society. If you let your system 2 take the decision, more often than not it will be a wise decision.

Depending on our social conditions we create a mental image of ourselves. This perceived self is a myth that helps us become part of a society. We develop this concept of ourselves right at the childhood and it influences the choices we make in our life right till the very end. AP gives us an identity and it is not a bad thing as long as we understand that it is nothing but an 'essential' myth. Religion, nationalism, casteism etc are all part of our AP. The moment we become too rigid about our identity we loose our minds, like the religious fanatics. Thinking too much isn't always a good thing, especially when the thought is about yourself. This is because most of the time when you over-think you start to create fictitious situations and unnecessarily worry about your future. Sometimes it is a good idea to just be, let IP take over (as long as you do not harm anyone).


When we realize that we have two different personas and understand the strength and weakness of both we can learn to control them. We can use them the way we want and reduce the conflicts. It is important to mention here that these two personalities are not entirely split. They are interconnected and influence each other just like the heart and the brain. Peace is when both AP and IP dance in the same rhythm.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Post-Truth Era and how to spot a FAKE?



The Middle Ages have often been termed as the Dark Age. It was a time when religion reached its peak of obscenity. Ruthless battles were common sight of the era (though there were places in the big world where peace still prevailed). Then came the age of enlightenment. Technology grew exponentially and science trumped over prejudice, or so we thought. The darkness never dies. Pride and prejudice are the lifeline of darkness, and they will live as long as humanity does. At the heart of pride and prejudice lies ignorance. 'What’s wrong with being ignorant?' you might ask. The irony of being ignorant is that most of the time you don’t know it.

"The irony of being ignorant is that most of the time you don’t know it."

Majority of American’s think that 33% of their population are immigrants. The real number is just 14%. Many Indians believe that the Muslim population in India is over 30%, The real number is only 14.2%. Wrong statistics with hidden agenda are floating around in Facebook and WhatsApp. If you tell the people who believe in these mythical numbers that they are wrong, the reply is either the government cooked up the numbers or they don’t care because they are right (http://www.economist.com/news/finance-and-economics/21699455-dealing-problem-public-misperceptions-ignorance-isnt-bliss). Ignorance gives rise to conspiracy theories. And there in lies the problem. Ignorance isn’t always a bliss.

‘Post-truth’ is Oxford dictionaries word of the year for 2016. It is an adjective meaning, "Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”. Politicians funded news channel, rise of social media and internet, insecurity resulting from declining economy and rising terrorism and polarisation of political ideologies are few of the many reasons for the birth of post-truth era. In this era the once good words like being ‘intelligent’ or ‘liberal’ suddenly became a curse, and are now preceded by the word ‘pseudo’. These words are commonly used to describe people whose logic you do not agree with, but you are unable to prove that he/she is wrong. Why do we behave this way?

"It is a normal human tendency to only verify information that does not fit our prejudice. When it perfectly fits the bill, we tend not to check the facts."

Greylag goose brings back her displaced eggs to the nest by rolling it with her beak and neck. Now, if you keep a spherical object similar to her eggs, like a ball, nearby she would roll it into her nest too. She cannot help it. Human beings too have their eggs of faith. When someone puts another object, no matter how fake, that fits your faith near you, you are going to roll it into your nest. We just cannot help it. It is a normal human tendency to only verify information that does not fit our prejudice. When it perfectly fits the bill, we tend not to check the facts. That's when we tend to believe a lie. And when a lie is fed over and over again it becomes a truth. Post-truth politics has played its role in Brexit referendum and US presidential election. Westerners believed when Tony Blair said Iraq has an advance chemical weapon programme meant to destroy them. US and Russia are probably killing more innocents in Syria than ISIS, but many are fed to think that the war is justified. Anti-intellectualism and populism are on the rise in Poland as conspiracy theories exponentially grow. Back in India character assassination posts using morphed images of Gandhi and Nehru has gone viral. It is easy to fall for misinformations.

Misinformations are used to trigger riots and wars. Misinformations feeds racism and creates an industry like ‘fair and lovely' out of it. Misinformation creates intolerance, ISIS being a live example of that. But ISIS is not the only example. Marshal Khan was tortured, shot at, and even after he died his dead body was beaten to a pulp by his fellow students in Abdul Wali Khan University. His guilt? He was secular and liberal and thus, according to the murderous mob, blasphemous. 28 years old Nazimuddin Samad, an atheist blogger, was hacked to death in Bangladesh because he wrote what he felt was right. Srinivas Kuchibhotla, a 30 year old Indian, was shot in Kansas USA because he was not an American working in America. Pehlu Khan, a 55 year old man from Haryana was murdered by ‘gau-rakshak’ (cow protector) mob in Rajasthan just because the mob suspected him and his friends of illegally transporting cows. Ignorance has taken more life than any weapon in history of human civilisation, how can it be a bliss?

"Ignorance has taken more life than any weapon in history of human civilisation, how can it be a bliss?"

Is it possible to get rid of ignorance completely? The capacity of our human brain is limited.  Large Hadron Collider can churn out 30 times more data in a year then the total storage capacity of our brain. There is only so much we can store. In this age of information we need to depend on the knowledge of others to believe in something. Neither do we have money and time nor the skills required to verify each and every information that comes our way. If you question everything then you have nothing to begin with. We believe in evolution, plate tectonics and big bang because we believe in the word of someone else. These are not even facts, but theories that we have never personally tested. When an orthodox Christian tells that evolution is fake because he/she believes in the word of someone else who wrote the bible, how do we say the he/she is wrong? 6000 years ago some pretty reliable persons said earth was flat. We ‘saw’ it and believed it. But they were wrong. Newton, a pretty reliable physicist in my opinion, told us how gravity works and we believed him. But he was wrong. It is never an easy thing to separate facts from fiction. There will always be things we can never verify. It is a slippery ground. But that does not mean you will let others exploit your ignorance. Luckily, there are few things you can do. Question the authenticity of the source, especially before you plan to share an information with others and potentially spread a lie (very well knowing that even a reliable source like Newton can be wrong). The next thing would be to question the motive behind the information you received (REF#How to tell truth from lies, O’Callaghan 2017). Is it trying to spread hatred? Is it politically motivated? Spent some energy thinking before you act.

"In this age of information we need to depend on the knowledge of others to believe in something. Neither do we have money and time nor the skills required to verify each and every information that comes our way. If you question everything then you have nothing to begin with."

While it is not always possible to verify facts, there are times when we also need a bit of fiction to understand the bigger truth. While interpreting seismic data to find oil we Geologist have many interpretations. All interpretations are wrong, only some are more useful than the others. In science we often use simplifications that deviate from truth, we call them assumptions, to deduct a bigger truth. If we do not use assumptions and try to put in all complex ‘true’ variables, we will never come to an answer. These fictitious falsehoods are important as they help us dig out the truth. There is no light with out darkness…and no darkness without light. One cannot live a life holding on tightly to the truth. One needs to be flexible. A wise person understands when wrong is really WRONG. The trick is to have an open mind and challenge the prejudice. Ask yourself if you believe in something just because you were told by people close to you, or you actually spent some time thinking about it. It is OK to be a skeptic, but never be a cynic...because ignorance is a bliss only if you know you are ignorant.


"It is OK to be a skeptic, but never be a cynic...because ignorance is a bliss only if you know you are ignorant."


Saturday, April 8, 2017

Let’s Embrace Death

Toastmaster's speech for Area Level 'International Speech Contest' 
Date: 8th April 2017
Title: Let’s Embrace Death
Time: 7 min

Death is one of our biggest fears. Each and every moment we are struggling not to die, we are forgetting how to live. Once we transcend the fear of death, we can live our life the way we want. So, how to get over this fear? How do we make friendship with Yamraj? And how, fellow toastmasters, guests and session chair, do we embrace death?

Before we get into the topic of death, let us understand the thing that dies. ‘We’ die. But who are we?
We are many things – a code, a form and a perception.

First: The code, our genes.
Scientists like Richard Dawkins believe that the true us is our selfish genes. Our body is just its means of survival. These codes literally make us from the dust. They decide whether I will be an unholy human or a holy cow. It is the same code that decides if I can get dowry after marriage or get killed before birth. The sole purpose of the codes is to survive. We receive it from our parents and transfer them to our kids. Our body dies a million deaths, but we as codes evolve and continue our battle of survival.
So what dies?

Second: Form…our body
Some of us associate our self with our body. It is made of cells. Your cells are dying as I speak, and are being replaced by new ones. The body you were born with is long dead. The cells that you are made of now, are new ones. If you are your body then you have already died many times. We do not shed tears for our cells because it keeps us healthy. Death is nature’s way of keeping itself healthy.

When you go back home, I want you to find the biggest mirror. Stand in front of it and look at yourself very carefully. You are looking at yourself, yourself that is made of cells, and cells that are made up of atoms. Look at yourself and remember this. The atoms that make you were once part of a distant star. They were ones part of dinosaurs. You can research it if you do not believe me, but a part of you definitely belonged to Buddha, Genghis Khan and even Shakespeare. You are a reincarnation of these great legends… and more. Every inch of you is immortal.
Then what dies?

The perception of you.
Some say, ‘You are what you think’. The truth is, ‘You are what you remember’. Suppose I knew magic and was able to erase all your memories. Abracadabra …. Woshh… You maam? Your religion means nothing to you now. You sir? You country means nothing to you now. Even you family means nothing to you. The ‘code’ you is here, the ‘form’ you is here. But the ‘perceived’ you is dead. 

Memories are just electro-chemical patterns stored in the brain. Scientists like Ramirez and Liu have been able to not just to copy these patterns, but transfer memories of one rat to another. In the future it would be possible to store human memory in memory banks. Say I store my memory when I am 40 years old. I die when I am 70. A couple of decades later my memory is restored into a person who has lost all his memories. So this guy wakes up….hold on….actually I wake up in a new body, still 40 years old, half a century later. Think about it for a bit. Let the idea sink. The ‘code’ me is transferred to my kids… the ‘form’ me is recycled and is now part of something else… but the ‘perceived’ me is still alive. The thing that we call as ourself is really that perception, that electrochemical pattern. Gita is right when it says nothing dies….because a pattern is not even a thing.

The perceived us is like waves in the ocean. They form, roll, and crush into the shore and die. But, the ‘true you’ us not the wave but the water that makes it. After crushing into the shore the water returns and starts the cycle again. The moment we break ourselves from that ego, that pattern, that wave… death ceases to exist … death becomes meaningless.

Maybe that thought is for the saints. What is in it for the ordinary mortals like us? We just need to remember how insignificant the ‘perceived’ us is. If the 4.5 billion years of earth history was compressed in a single day, our civilisation only last few seconds, and ‘your’ life…insignificant. If the whole universe were this room, your galaxy would be smaller than an atom. And you in that? Insignificant. Death is as insignificant as our life as an individual. When you realise how insignificant the perceived you is, you realise that your life is a joke. The trick is to laugh at it. Let’s be happy in that insignificant instant when we are just ‘us’. Let’s embrace life and let’s embrace death, until the time we realise that we are one with eternity.


Over to you session chair.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

What is Wrong With the World

Srinivas, just 30 years old, five years younger than me, was shot dead by an American in Kansas. Before shooting, the American yelled, ‘Get out of my country’. The irony is that it is a country that is made up of immigrants who almost wiped out the locals.


A Muslim women was attacked and bitten by a man in Vienna for wearing hijab. How could a Muslim wear more cloths than a Christian?
 A Tanzanian man was beaten up brutally in Delhi because he had more melanin than Indians. Aren't we the most racist country?
And then there is Syria.
What is wrong with the world?

To understand the problems of modern day let us take a look at the past.

In all the glamour and extravaganza of being at the top of the food chain we forgot a simple truth, we are just animals. We are coded to survive, not just as individuals, but as species. There are two ways of doing that. Spread your genes, and/or stop your competitors from spreading theirs.

50,000 years ago our species was slowly rising to the top of the food chain. There were less people and thus less meeting with strangers. Those rare occasions when two different tribes met, there was bloodshed. Life, however, was dangerous. Mortality rate was high. The only way the tribe could survive was reproduce in numbers that outdid the deaths. And, quite convincingly, the favoured deity of the time was the fertility mother goddess.

"In the beginning there was no consciousness. With consciousness was born fear and hope. From those two primordial ingredients - fear of extinction and the hope of survival- god was created.


Hope is a very strong emotion, especially hope about the distant future that does not exist. It comes out of intelligence, a gift of evolution that allows our species to project information into the future. It helps us plan ahead. It is a weapon of mass destruction. It is a weapon that allowed us to defeat much stronger enemies and climb right at the top of the food chain.


10,000 years ago human beings settled down into agricultural societies. The settlements mostly happened around the fertile rivers, like Yellow River, Nile River and Indus River. As population grew, fights between different settlements became common. People had no connection to their land, but were proud of their tribes. However, now they had a bigger enemy. Fertility was no more the biggest issue. The biggest danger now came from natural calamities. Individual settlements were not strong enough to fight the mighty rivers that flooded unpredictably. Again, quite conveniently, new gods were created. These gods were the gods of nature like wind, river, fire, lightening, etc.
Fighting with each other was not helping the ultimate goal of our species - survival. Spreading one’s genes was more important that stopping the spread of the genes of one’s competitors. Human intelligence thus helped programme a new formula to fulfil the goal – collaboration. The smaller tribes collaborated to form civilisations. Together they could tame the nature. Stronger houses helped them weather the storm, while canals controlled the floods. Chinese civilisation, Egyptian civilisation and Indus Valley civilisation sprang up. An idea of community was established and a common culture evolved. The less the group moved, the more they got attached to the land where they settled.
Civilisation looked very stable, but they were doomed to fail in the long run. As population kept growing the different civilisations came in conflict with one another. And bloody battles followed. It was quite predictable. It was human nature. That is how they are programmed – stop the spreading of the genes of the competitors. The problem of survival was not coming from nature anymore.
"Big civilisations also required loyalty to one Supreme Being. This new world needed new gods, and it got one. Monotheism was born. There was one god, who was all powerful and omnipresent, but could not be seen.

The clash of civilisations could not last forever. Intelligence came up with a formula once more– bigger collaboration. Thus was born empires, big empires - Persian Empire, Greek Empire, Chinese Empire, Mayurian Empire, Mughal Empires and the British Empire.

1000 years ago the big civilisations were fighting with each other. There were crusades, wars and a lot of violence around the globe. Stability did come, but not before few more sacrifices. The ultimate sacrifice came during the World Wars. Once more a new formula was made – even bigger collaboration… Nationalism. Boundaries were drawn and nations were created. Boundaries worked fine and world became more peaceful than it ever was. Instead of cultures or states or tribes, people’s ownership changed to artificially drawn borders. Nationalism worked.
"For the first time in the history of the world, more people died of suicide than killed by others. The number of armed conflicts has reduced significantly in the past few decades. Believe it or not, no matter what the media likes you to believe, we are living in a very peaceful world. 
It has been proven statistically by Steven Pinker. Since the advent of civilisation, the world was never this peaceful.


Modern world brought new challenges. Human population grew exponentially and filled up the surface of the earth. In palaeontology there is a term called index fossils. These are species that had wide geographic extent but existed for a very short duration. Their fossils, thus, act as time markers. The presence of these fossils helps us identify the age of the rocks that contain them. Our species have already fulfilled the first criteria of index fossils- wide geographic extent. The challenge we have now is to stop ourselves from fulfil the second criteria. Thus, a new formula was created – The biggest collaboration of all … Globalisation.
"Science and technology brought the world closer. The rising world economy created more hope than fear. The relevance of god was reduced. Nationalism started to fade…but not for long.
The economic bubble did burst in early 21st century. Globalisation works when economy rises and there is enough hope to fuel it. When economy declines, people loose job. Fear gets the better of hope, and god returns alongside terrorism. So does nationalism. That’s when we stop looking at the future and try to hold on to the past. Let’s bring back the great Islamic Empire, let’s make America great again, let’s kill those who eat beef! That is what is wrong with the world. Actually there is nothing wrong. We are just being humans. Remember the goal – spread your genes as fast as you can, and/or reduce that of your competitors.
There was a time when your ownership to your family was more important than your community. There was a time when you ownership to your king, region, regional god was more important than a non-existent nation.  Now we live in an era where we think those who say that their state is bigger than the nation is a fool. We claim that those who think their religion is more important than their nation are wrong and misled. Nation comes first, and those who say anything different must be punished. Our perception of what’s right change with time. Where will we be in the future? Is there a solution?

Future has to be different from the present, it always has been. Our biggest problems today are global – global warming, global economic slowdown, robots, technologies and AI taking over jobs globally. The question is no more about the survival of a country, but it is about our survival as a species. Nationalism is not going to help us. We need global citizens.


Gurmehar Kaur made a statement, ‘Pakistan did not kill my dad, war killed him’. The statement is irrelevant in today’s world. Nationalism still plays a big part in our lives. It is irrelevant as long as people from Pakistan kills people on this side of the border, and vice versa.  However, if majority of people from both sides of the border says the same thing, then suddenly the statement starts making sense. Then it becomes a powerful tool to stop the war. Her statement is irrelevant in today’s context, but not a wrong statement by any means that people can ridicule. Pakistan is just a piece of land that contains our pride heritage sites of Harappa, Mohenjo-Daro and Taxila. Pakistan is just a piece of land that contains the birth place of Guru Nanak. Pakistan is a piece of land where few Pakistanis made sure that the minority Hindus could celebrate Mahashivratri in peace. Pakistan did not kill her dad. It is the war fought by few Pakistanis, and instigated by few more, that killed her father. Her statement is not wrong. But it is irrelevant as long as we don’t have enough global citizens on either side of the border to make the borders irrelevant.

If we do to take the next step in our cultural progress and manage to find a way to make borders irrelevant, then just imagine - all the huge sums of money wasted globally to protect the artificial boundaries we call nation, or in building walls, could be used instead for the betterment of humanity. We could save ourselves long enough to find a new planet to consume. And maybe, just maybe, we won’t end up as time markers for a future species.




Monday, January 16, 2017

How MS Excel can change the way you look at life

Toastmaster Speech CC#09
Title: Excel of Life
Duration:7min

Thank you Mr Toastmaster and fellow toastmasters. I am Subhrashis Adhikari, and today I am going to deliver my ninth speech. At the end of the speech I am going to convince you not how to excel in life...but to prepare the Excel of your life. The excel software is probably the best thing Microsoft has created. Few days back I was playing with this miracle software and ended up creating something that shocked me. It made me look at life in a different way. So I thought, why not share it with all of you in my next speech. That is what this speech is about – The Excel of Life.


One of my school teacher once took me aside and told me that what he was about to say will change my life. He went on to say: 'A man without an ambition is like a ship without a rudder. To be successful you need to have an ambition...focus on it so hard that all the obstacles between you and your ambition fades away.'

No wonder he chose me to shower his wisdom on. I was the person who was most clueless about what to do with his life. In fact I still am.

I asked him innocently, ' if you don't look at the obstacles you can bump into one of it and injure yourself'. He had no answer. He looked at me disappointed,...and went away. He knew I was a lost cause.


How do you measure success at the end of your life? 
Money? 
Status? 
Nah! 
It is all about how many red dots you have in your excel. I will explain that in a minute.


To me there is only one criterion of success- Happiness. 

Happiness is made of happy memories. By focusing too much on ambition you make just two memories. One where you set the target, and another where you achieve it. Just two memories are not going to make you a happy person. You need more happy memories.



More than the target it is the journey that is important. If you look at the obstacles closely you will see that each on of them has a gift. There is something to learn from each obstacle.
A rudder guides a ship to know destinations. To discover new places you need to throw away the rudder. Columbus would have never found America if he was not lost. My teacher was right...I am lost....and happily so...


Now let me come back to the Excel.




This is what I made. A 45*24 martix.
Ideally you should make a 90*12 matrix. 
Every year has 12 months and the assumption is that you live till 90. 
So every month of your life is a square in that excel. 
90*12 is same as 45*24, just easier to handle.


When I looked at that I said ... boy it is not that big! One month passes at the blink of an eye. All my month fits in just one screen! 

The first thing I said is ...I don’t have much time left. 
The more I looked at it the more it got worse. 
I have already spent 35 *12 boxes. 
I retire at 58. 
The last decade or two, if I survive that long, I am going to be really old. 
The message is clearly out there...there aren’t many box left!




Now mark all your happy memories in the excel as red dot. The number of red boxes in there is the actual measure of your success.

I request all of you to make this excel. Put all the important events of your life in it, that has happened or will happen. If you have wishes ...decide a date and put them there. Then check how many red boxes you have...and how many you have planned for.


We are all born with a terminal disease call ageing. We will eventually run out of life. Make the most of it now, when you can. 

Most of us tend to plan a lot for the future. We try and save a lot for the future. If your plan is to save now and enjoy after retirement, think again...how many boxes will you actually have. 

Believe me, no matter how young you are; there isn’t a lot of future left.

I do not want to sound negative. Take the right message out of this. Let this excel trigger you to enjoy your life. Make your excel as red as you can, as fast as you can. Life is like ice-cream, enjoy before it melts. 

How many red dots do you have?