Tuesday, 15 April 2014

The Best Time of Year to Visit India


What do you feel like doing or seeing in India? 

All the best beaches, across Gujarat, Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka & Kerala are in the south, with a decent night life, temples, hill stations and historical towns thrown in. The best time to visit the south is December-February.

This is also the best time to visit central India, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh, to see some of the World Heritage sites. It's either hot or rainy in these places during the rest of the year, though these places do contain the best national parks in the country and the best time of year to see these (and tigers) is April-May because this is the only time of year that your view of animals isn't obstructed by tall grass, it being the dry season, and the animals all tend to gather at watering holes, making them easier to spot.

If you feel like medieval palaces, Mughal architecture, the Taj mahal, sand dunes, forts, etc, you will need to go north i.e Delhi, Rajasthan & Punjab, and again the best time to see these is either Nov, before it gets too cold and hazy, or Feb. Best to avoid Dec and Jan.

This holds true for the N.E as well. It's a great place to visit for hiking, root bridges, caving, food and national parks, and the best time is either Nov or February-Mar. Avoid Dec-Jan because of the long holiday season where everything is shut, and because of the cold. 

If you feel like visiting the Himalayas or some of the other northern mountain ranges for the views or to go hiking, you'll want to visit Ladakh, Himachal and Uttrakhand, which are best visited in the warmer months, May-Jun.

So there you have it. May-Jun for the mountains and national parks. Nov-Feb for the rest of the country.


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Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Working with Data Survival Toolkit


It's important to know certain fundamental things about data to be a good manager or researcher. Here's a brief list. These are the basic ideas that make up a survival toolkit for data collection and interpretation, be it in business, marketing, psychology or anthropology. Become an expert at these concepts and you will be better placed to interpret reports, work with data or design a study, than most people on the planet.

Data Collection


Treatment and control groups.
Variables - numerical (continuous, discrete, ratio, interval) and categorical (nominal, ordinal, binary).
Independent and dependent variables.
Correlation does not imply causation.
Anecdotal evidence.
Populations and samples.
Observational (correlational) and experimental methods.
Sampling strategies.
Controlling, randomisation, replication, blocking.
Double-blind.
Placebos.
Measurement error.
Reliability and validity.
Confounding variables.
Between and within groups.
Variation.

Data Analysis

Data matrices.
Frequency distribution.
Graphs and plots.
Scatterplots, histograms.
Mean, median, mode.
Skew.
Standard deviation.
Box plots.
Quartiles.
Outliers.
Row and column properties.
Bar plots.
Pie charts.
Hypothesis testing.
Confidence intervals.
Standard error.
Effect sizes.
Power.
Correlation.
Regression.
Analysis of variance.

And how do you become good at these concepts? Pick up a good book, join a course, and practice what you learn. Or call me, I do workshops :-)


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Tuesday, 1 April 2014

My Thoughts On 'Frozen'


So the film begins with some guys singing about cutting ice. I know the film's not about them but I love the theme setting going on. Like the intro during 'The Prince of Egypt'. It tells you what the film is going to be about. 

And then moves to these two girls - Elsa and Anna - playing. Elsa can use magic, and then Anna gets hurt. These trolls save them, but remove Anna's memories. Not sure why? But it kind of fits in with the whole isolation theme that follows. The parents decide to separate the girls, thereby ensuring a fearful Elsa, which is exactly what the trolls warn them against (*sigh*). The following exposition through song sequence sets a sad mood. OK, so the girls grow up apart. Anna wants her sister back. And Elsa is living in fear. The parents really screwed things up, with help from the trolls. Tragic. But wait, were the girls separated completely during all these years? How does that affect their relationship? The film gives us nothing.

Then we see Anna today. There's a party. She's excitable. And wants more from life, including true love. Nothing about her relationship with her sister, which is weird. And wait, was Anna shut up in the castle as well? Why? She doesn't have any powers. What did all these years of isolation do to her? Where are they going with this true love thing? What's the real story here? Anna meets Hans. Elsa continues to be nervous. We get a scene with the sisters talking (at last!) and it's delightful (Elsa reaches out to Anna, who reciprocates, and they share a few laughs) but is quick and doesn't touch on the past, so we still have questions about their isolation and current relationship (did the girls really not see each other all these years? Is this the first time they're meeting since they were children? We need more context). Then Elsa shuts Anna out again, and we know Anna's unhappy and wants more, but what does Elsa feel? Then a song with Hans. More 'true love'. Where is this going? Then there's the argument, which I just love. Finally some conflict to sink your teeth into. So the love angle is a cue for the argument? So the story is really about the sisters?

Elsa reveals her powers and flees, freezing the kingdom. Anna follows out of concern, leaving Hans in charge (lol wut?). OK so the story is definitely about the sisters, but what's going through Anna's mind right now? She's just seen her sister's powers for the 'first time'. She must realise this is why she was shut out but we're never shown her realisation of this or what this now means to her relationship. Apparently it doesn't make a difference to her wanting her sister back. OK. Not much of a conflict build up there. The story feels incomplete.

Then there's the big beautiful song where Elsa comes into her own. It begins with sadness as she realises she's failed to hide or control her powers, and failed to be what 'they' wanted her to be. And with her secret out, there's nothing she can do now but flaunt it? She lets her magic lose, first tentatively, then with relief and confidence, creating a new home. She's happy. And it's more than happiness. It's self-realisation, finding her spot in the world. Embracing who she is, with honesty, something she couldn't do earlier. She's free. As beautiful as this moment it, this is a part I don't get completely. Why is this transformation happening? Why is she using her powers, and why the happiness? Who exactly is Elsa? A daughter, sister, queen, ice queen? 

Till now, we've seen Elsa as an obedient daughter, reluctant monarch, distant sister, an individual trying to be responsible, shutting people out, hiding her powers and trying to control them so as not to hurt people. But now that her secret's out and she has fled in fear, and she's far away from people, why does she use her powers anyway? How do they help her? Here's where we realise that her powers have been tied in to her identity more than we thought. Her powers are not an accessory or means of pleasure. She is her powers. Elsa was not merely afraid of an extra ability or a minor talent. She was afraid of a core part of who she is, she was afraid of herself.

By using her powers now, she's not doing anything unusual, she's simply being herself for the first time in her life since she was a child. Right, I get this, but the film could have given us some context for this switch. Like I said, we've only seen Elsa use her powers as a child, when she considered it little more than a play thing. We're not given to understand that she thought of her power as anything more, or that this changed over the years. And now we simply have to assume that that was exactly the case all along, that her powers were tied to her identity. Sloppy character change.

Also, why is Elsa so happy? Granted her earlier self was part facade, but not all of it. She still has a kingdom, a sister. She's still leaving them behind out of fear, not out of self-realisation. Shouldn't that reflect in the film? Nope. We just see happiness. Apparently being happy at her newfound freedom overrides the loss of family. Weird. Does this mean Elsa's previous life didn't mean all that much to her? The film has no answer. Inconsistent character change.

Nevertheless, this is the first we get to see of Elsa as an independent character, and not a character portrayed solely in the context of her sister. Also, this is the first real character development we get to see in her. Till now it's only been about Anna pining for her sister and then being excited at the party and pining for love. And here's where you really realise how much you like Elsa. At this moment, you're happy that she's finally getting her moment of happiness after years of tragedy, sadness and fear. You're rooting for her, you want to see her happy, you're enjoying the transformation, you're emotionally invested in it, in her, even if it makes little sense. Also, this is a huge (and risky) transformation in a character that has played second fiddle till now. Hopefully, the story knows where it's going.

And we're back to Anna, who's extremely good natured about the whole thing about her sister running away, and keeps playing the one-dimensional selfless sister, even blaming herself for Elsa freaking out. She teams up with Kristoff (one more likeable character and a divergent storyline) and meets Olaf (who's funny but has a pointless song), and then finds her sister. 

Anna is just a selfless lover who's determined to find Elsa and doesn't want her to be alone, and claims that she is not in the least bit afraid of her sisterWhich is strange given that the sisters have had a strained relationship and we don't know how close they are exactly. We simply have to take Anna's claim at face value, and assume that the fact that she wants her sister back and isn't afraid of her even after she's grown apart from her and discovered her powers, means that the events of the past night haven't really had much of an impact on her.  Again, there's on conflict build-up with Anna where there should be. No character building. The viewers are told exactly how she feels. The gap in her development seems to be growing wider. How is this gap going to be reconciled with Elsa's change?

We finally see Elsa again (it has been over 20 minutes since we last saw the film's most interesting character). Her fear is still present, despite her transformation. A fear of letting people close because she might hurt them. Anna, despite seeing her new transformed sister, blindly and happily accepts Elsa's change and even apologises for setting it off (seriously?).

I expected a lot more conflict during this meeting. I was hoping the sisters would discuss the past, Elsa talking about who she really is, the years of repression, having a go at Anna, sharing her side of the story she's been hiding all these years, letting Anna know how much more difficult the isolation was for her. And probably have Anna get angry at Elsa's lack of trust in her despite her unconditional love, all the unnecessary secrecy, and having to bury their parents alone. But no. We get nothing. Anna's character arc remains the same. The only change we see is in Elsa, where despite her freedom, she's not truly happy and is still living in fear. 

OK, that's something. But it seems we're back to square one. Anna is still selfless (but wants her sister back) and Elsa is still afraid. Pretty much the same thing we've been seeing for the whole film. So there still seems to be a gap w.r.t Anna (or her character arc is really too simple), and Elsa's major initial transformation wasn't really that major. Kind of an anticlimactic let down after 'Let it Go'. Would the film have worked better without it?

Anyway, Elsa throws Anna out of her castle when she refuses to leave, accidentally fatally injuring her. This would have been a perfect time to let the viewers know what the point of the film is. We know by now that Anna is uni-dimensional, so the rest of the plot has to be about Elsa learning to control her powers, and Anna's journey continuing till her goal is reached and she gets her sister back. But the story pointlessly diverges from this point onwards.

Anna meets the trolls, who tell her how to get cured. There's an irritating unnecessary song. Neither the trolls nor Kristoff tell Anna about her past and her memories being wiped, which is weird as that would let Anna know why her sister wants to be alone, and maybe make their eventual reunion tougher to achieve. And the focus now shifts away from her relationship with her sister to her love triangle (this story is jinxed). In the meantime, Elsa is captured and brought back home, but she's still scared and wants to run away (surprise!).

There's this sudden plot twist with Hans, which I'd normally love given that we get so few animated films with sociopathic characters who mirror others for their own benefit. But in this case it just seems to further muddle the plot. So what if Hans is evil? I don't really see a point to it, except to teach Anna a lesson about love, which seems to be more of a minor plot point. We know that the real story is Anna-Elsa (roughly), and Anna is one-dimensional, so the Hans romance angle was always going to be an unnecessary distraction whether he was evil or not. Anna learning a lesson about love isn't going to change the equation she has with her sister.

Then Anna realises it's Kristoff who loves her and is going to save her, which is by far the most pointless arc in this film. The film can't expect an audience to buy in to true love happening between Anna and Kristoff in the one and a half days that they've been together as friends, when the film has already mocked the true love between Anna and Hans happening in the less than one day that they've been together.

Anyway, Elsa has run away again (yup) and we finally hear some concern for her sister. In the process of finding Kristoff, Anna sees Elsa in danger, wherein she sacrifices herself for Elsa, thereby saving her own life as well. I get the 'self sacrifice as the ultimate act of true love' part, I just don't know why they had to create a love triangle to make it happen. Surely there could have been less confusing ways?

Elsa is so grateful and relieved to have her sister back, she doesn't seem to be afraid of hurting her anymore, but is still not sure how to fix things, until she realises it was 'love' all along. And that allows her to manipulate snow into disappearing and return summer to her kingdom. Then she's suddenly comfortable using her powers in public again. And the film ends. A quick emotionally unsatisfying cop out ending.


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This is one of the few films I've seen that have left me disturbed and emotionally unfulfilled. Usually when I see a poor or mediocre film, I just move on, but this one is different. And I'm not sure why. The first thing I felt after watching the film was that I had to hear 'Let it Go' again, and then I thought about what an incredible character Elsa is, and how the film needs more of her, particularly towards the end.

Elsa's power ballad is simply a work of art, something I keep going back to. The best bit of the song is at the start when her other glove comes off, and her loneliness gives way to her initial joy. It's even better than her full transformation towards the end of the song because there's just so much realisation on her part at that initial point that she can be free. And this is the first time since her childhood that we see her happy with her powers. A powerful moment. Sure the song placement is wrong. Anyone who flees in fear after years of isolation isn't going to celebrate a new type of loneliness, but Elsa's coming-out song is gorgeous and worth using in the film. 

Elsa might not be repressed anymore alone in her ice castle, but she's still afraid. Physically, she's free, but in her mind, she's still in a cage. So the best part of Elsa in the film is actually one of her worst parts, where she's still living in fear. But this isn't a bad thing as long as what follows in the film manages to do better than the song. The funny thing is, nothing does. Nothing following 'Let it Go' comes close to matching it in entertainment value. This was the high point of the film, and everything else is downhill from here. This wasn't even the end of Elsa's character arc. So you would expect the actual end to be better. Which it isn't. I'll get to that later. But this is one of the reasons the film doesn't work for me.

This film has a great character in Elsa, who unfortunately seems to be ignored for most of the film. She's this beautiful, interesting, powerful, troubled, vulnerable, tragic character, someone you can't help falling in love with, but Anna gets most of the screen time, which is sad. I'm not sure why I love Elsa so much. Maybe it's because of the qualities above, or that she could have worked so well in the story, or maybe it's because she's the refined counter to Anna's  clumsy self. She's the older sister, she has all these responsibilities as a monarch, and is living in fear. She has issues. She's damaged. She changes the most, whereas Anna remains more or less the same.

The film ends with Elsa not being scared anymore, and learning to use her powers. She's filled with happiness and relief after her sister comes back to life. We presume that this feeling replaces or overrides her fear of hurting her sister, as she's not afraid to touch her anymore. Additionally, her knowledge of love thawing what's frozen allows her to reverse her manipulate her powers to remove winter somehow, and presumably, with her fear of hurting her sister replaced, she can now wield snow and ice without fear of hurting anyone anymore, and is fine using her magic again. 

I just don't get this transformation. How exactly is she different now compared to at the beginning of the film? She isn't. She's back to square one. Both girls are. Anna has her sister back. And Elsa not only has her sister back can also use her magic again without fear.

Here's when you infer that the real villain in the film was fear all along, and Elsa never needed to be fearful. She never needed to control her powers by suppressing them. She simply needed to use them normally, which she was never given a chance to do because of the accident that made her parents make her suppress her powers in the mistaken hope that this would control them. The accident was just a one off event, but her parents made her fear it, made her believe that that was a sign that her powers were out of control and needed to be controlled and suppressed, which was wrong. She has been doing the wrong thing for 13 years. Living in unnecessary fear for 13 years because of her parents. A horrific thought. These points lead to some problems I have with Elsa's portrayal in the film.

First, that you have to infer all of the above in hindsight, that Elsa has not really learnt to control her powers but simply realised that she never needed to control them at all, just her fear. A pretty complex inference to be made in a really short time.

SecondElsa has gone 13 years without being able to control her powers and then learns to control them in a second with 'love'. This quick transformation isn't explained. Elsa's fear disappearing doesn't feel explained. Is this only a temporary phase? How do you undo 13 years of fear? What if Elsa accidentally hurts someone again? Will she be afraid again? It's not like she has the power to heal people. 

All we get to see is "Oh, love will thaw" and then Elsa is not scared anymore and the film ends. I think it's all too convenient. We're supposed to take Elsa's final change for granted. There doesn't seem to be a lot of closure for the audience. Elsa's ending is simply incomplete. A little more explanation would have been great instead of making the audience infer or guess at what might have happened in her mind. 

It's been said elsewhere, but Elsa's story is more interesting, because her conflict is internal - coping with fear. Anna's conflict is mostly external - her relationship with Elsa - which is less interesting. Sure Anna resolves her conflict, but she doesn't have to change to do so, so it's less interesting. Cued by Anna's resolve, Elsa's change is more interesting and major, but we don't get to see much of that. She seems more of a plot device rather than the complex protagonist that 'Let it Go' and the rest of the film try to make her out to be. 

Third, Elsa's final transformation isn't as impressive as 'Let it Go', leaving the film imbalanced.

Fourth, Elsa's realisation of this transformation, of her change, and of the implications, her parents were wrong, the guilt, all those years of unnecessarily shutting people out and living in fear, find no mention at the end of the film. Also, there must be a lot of stuff she needs to talk about with her sister. Apologise. Tell her about her wiped memories maybe. 

As a kid, Anna loses a sister. But Elsa not only loses a sister but also knows why, and has to keep this a secret for 13 years. I imagine this is even more frustrating and tragic. The only people who share her secret are her parents, and they're really her only emotional support for 10 years. When they die, we get to see Anna sing about being alone, but we have to infer that Elsa's situation is now even more difficult, lonely and tragic, because she's lost her only crutch. Which is what makes her transformation in 'Let it Go' so satisfying to watch. It's been Anna's journey till now, but we finally get to see a bit of who Elsa is. And when that transformation doesn't work either, and when Elsa finally learns not to be afraid after all the running away and shutting people out, imagine the kind of emotional baggage she has left over. We really need some of that to be portrayed.

Fifth, the sister's reunion seems incomplete and one-sided. We're shown Anna's longing for her sister. That's her want. That's one part of Anna's journey. To get her sister back. The journey is her need. This is clear. But we're never explicitly shown a first person account of Elsa's longing for her sister. Elsa doesn't talk to anyone about this, her situation during the initial exposition through song is more about sadness at living in fear than reuniting with her sister, and her situation during and after 'Let It Go' is about being free and embracing her inner self than reuniting with her sister. She's never shown to desire a normal relationship with her sister, the viewer has to infer that she does. Which is a long shot.

We can infer that Elsa wants to not be afraid, but we aren't shown her need i.e. how that might happen, so when Anna's arc crosses over with Elsa's, and Anna 'heals' Elsa, we're just supposed to accept it, without having anticipated it. This works for Anna's story arc (in retrospect we understand that Anna's only power is love, and that this was the answer to Elsa's question to her at the ice palace - 'what power do you have to stop me?') but it doesn't work for Elsa's arc, because we have no idea if this is what she needs. We're just shown that it works.

Which is why the film's end i.e. Elsa being reunited with her sister, is incomplete, because we can't appreciate her happiness at being reunited with her sister because we haven't been shown any of her frustration at being separated from her sister. We're constantly shown Elsa being afraid and running away, we aren't really shown what she wants, what her desires or motivations are that might lead to a resolution. Sure, Elsa needed love, but we only see that in hindsight. There was no context, no foreshadowing indicating that this is what she needed all along. So when she's finally happy, what does that really mean for the viewers? More of a blank face than an 'aha' moment.

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I understand that the director Jennifer Lee wanted the film to told through Anna's journey. She called it Shawshaky at one point. Where Elsa and Anna are both protagonists but you're watching Elsa's story through Anna's journey. Or that Elsa is the one driving the protagonists's (Anna's) actions. Now this isn't a problem if it's done well. But Anna doesn't seem to have much of a character arc, even though she's extremely adorable and likeable. And that's OK too. 

But Jennifer Lee says at one point, "Yeah and we knew her journey, we knew that Anna was an ordinary girl that’s got love as her only “superpower”, really. And that her journey is going to go from not understanding love (because like all of us at eighteen, growing up, we don’t), to mature love and the ultimate kind of understanding which is, you know, the sacrifice you’re willing to do for love."

Which is a lot to expect from Anna's arc. OK, so we see Anna changing from A to B (though this is a minor point), but we don't see B to C, at least not directly. In the ballroom, Elsa asks Anna what she knows of true love? In the ice palace she asks her what power she has over her? These are fantastic clues telling us how Anna's journey will end (Anna herself doesn't know the answers to these questions but her eventual actions reflect an understanding or a beginning of an understanding of true love), but they seem to get lost in the muddled plot. 

Even if this is part of Anna's journey, it's not exactly a part of her personal growth. There's nothing in the film that indicates that Anna wouldn't sacrifice herself for her sister if her other love options were non-existent. Indeed, Anna seems constantly selfless. So the love triangle seems like more of a plot of convenience to falsely show Anna maturing by moving from A to B and then C.

But this character arc, though unnecessary, is fine if it's Elsa who's visibly undergoing the main change. This formula has been done successfully in films like The Iron Giant and E.T. The second protagonist changes in context of the first protagonist, who doesn't change at all. But here it's simply inadequate because we're never really shown much about how Elsa changes. We're not even sure she is the protagonist. Despite what the director says, Elsa comes across as more of a non-villian antagonist, but so poorly presented that she ends up being more of a plot contrivance for Anna.

Elsa does nothing remarkable in the film w.r.t self healing. All she does is propel Anna's journey forward, which isn't even all that interesting given Anna doesn't change, and her only goal seems to be reuniting with her sister, a concept whose meaning the audience has had very little idea about since it's not really dealt with in the film.

We're shown part of Elsa's change about 1/3rd into the film during 'Let it Go', at which point you empathise most with her, but everything from then on is mostly Anna's love triangle with Elsa relegated to the background. This misdirection was done to make the sisterly true love bit a surprise, but this twist only works if you give the sisters' relationship more depth to begin with. So it doesn't work.

This is where the film fails most. In not creating a simple straightforward plot. The big epiphany of Anna's sacrifice doesn't feel earned. We're supposed to assume the girls love for each other hasn't changed in 13 years, without being shown this at any point of time in the film. We're shown Anna's want w.r.t this, but not Elsa's. When the payoff/resolution happens, we feel nothing, no emotions, except on introspection and repetitive viewing, so the resolution feels a bit superficial and alien. You see that the sisters are happy, but you don't feel happy, because the whole relationship seems to be underdeveloped and one-sided.

So essentially the film's final resolution involves one protagonist taking a decision that more or less doesn't reflect much growth, cueing a change in the second protagonist, who isn't really a protagonist, after a lot of misdirection, and this change in her (her loss of fear), though internal, is not because she wanted or expected it, and no one knew that's what would help her anyway. It just happens that way. And the audience is pretty much once step behind during this final resolution and are left underwhelmed.

Now there are films where stories and character arcs without much development work. Like 'Wall-E'. The movie had no character development. No personal growth. It was mostly about a goal, and the conflict-filled journey the lead character goes through to reach that goal. Frozen doesn't get the same pass because the film specifically introduces conflict that requires internal change from at least one character. We just don't get to see that happening to our satisfaction. 

Disney just didn't manage to pull it off. Almost, but not quite. They created a complex character and then decided to tell a story about her less interesting sister instead. It's a film about sisters without any actual relationship building between the two sisters, leaving you with an incomplete story, making it a mediocre product overall. 

The characters are extremely likeable. Anna is adorable. Elsa is captivating. The animation with snow and ice is beautiful. The humorous sidekick is good, despite a misleading trailer. The music is fun. But the plot just doesn't work. The viewers are always one step behind. The story is just lazy and meanders. There's at least one unnecessary song. You don't really know why things are happening with these characters you love, specially at the end of the second act and most of the third act up to the final resolution. And the payoff doesn't feel earned. When the sisters finally find happiness, you're not sure what to feel. They should have just made Elsa less interesting, or broaden her character arc, giving her more context. I can forgive everything else, the trolls, the misdirection, everything, for just a little more Elsa in the film.

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Which brings me back to my initial question. Why think and write so much about a film that is mediocre? Why not just forget about it and move on like I do with all the other films I see. Well, here's the thing. Frozen may be a mediocre film technically. It fails as a film. But emotionally, it plays with mature themes and extremely likeable characters that hook you, reel you in, and leave you wanting for more. 

Most people, me included, don't mind watching a film with not much character development as long as we get likeable characters and resolution. We just love sinking our teeth into a character as the film takes them on this torturous journey. We love this kind of emotional fulfilment. This is exactly what most action movies do. Think back to all the Arnie or Marvel movies you've seen. Characters don't really develop. They simply blow stuff up and achieve a resolution. Heck, even Frozen has more character development than that, though it's rushed and irrelevant. 

My point is, irrespective of what Frozen lacks (coherent plot, character development, proper final resolution), it captures and transfixes us with these incredible themes, characters, moments, music and silences, to the extent that we don't really care about the story or flaws anymore. They seem minuscule compared to this new world we are now a part of. And that's why it's such a successful film.

Right from background score during the opening credits (setting the mood for the film), the opening song, the scene with the girls playing (notice the silence), the trolls, the narration over events as the king speaks, the sad exposition by song, the initial conflict, Let it Go, Kristen Bell and Josh Gad's extremely likeable voice overs, Olaf's tender conversation about love with Anna, the powerful self-sacrifice scene on the frozen fjord, and again the use of silence throughout the film, all these elements simply work at an emotional level and work together to do something very few animated films do -  they make you feel. Feel for characters so much that you forget the film doesn't have much of a plot, and leave you wanting more. One could say Frozen is not so much a film as a collection of beautiful powerful moving moments with a plot loosely thrown in to connect them.

In fact, it might actually be the flaws that make this film so successful. Thinking back to a more flawless film (in terms of plot/story) like 'Tangled', or a better written film like 'Wreck-it-Ralph', these are compelling emotionally fulfilling perfectly crafted stories about liable characters. But Frozen is a compelling emotionally unfulfilling incomplete story about likeable characters, leaving you wanting more. That makes Frozen a worse film, but also makes you a bigger fan of it. Thoughts?


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Thursday, 13 March 2014

On Work, Digital Media and Distractions


I get distracted easily. I want to. For me, working on something means immersing myself in it. Taking an idea or principle apart, trying to destroy it, understand it. And I can't do this for an extended period of time. I need my breaks. My distractions. The problem I encounter at this point is how to limit my distractions so I don't end up ruining my productivity.

This is one of the reasons I don't follow or unfollowed a lot of people on Twitter. A lot of these people are incredibly smart, funny, interesting people who share loads of cool links. And that's the problem. I use Twitter as a quick temporary distraction. And I can't get any work done if I follow these people. I end up reading everything they post, and it kills my productivity.

When you're working a full time job that doesn't require a lot of thinking or intellectual output, Twitter with its interesting personalities & constant stream of thoughts poses a welcome diversion, especially if a lot of these people are friends of yours and you keep bumping into them. When your life is more or less set, and follows a fixed route, with an easygoing job and loads of free time, you enjoy being part of  an expanding virtual circle of peers.

The fact that the circle consists of its own roles and norms, and can be petty, childish & irritating is all part of the fun, as you really don't have anything better to do. You get caught up in the discussions, the fights, the feuds, the peer pressure, the groupism, the collective group behaviour, the flash online mobs, the social pressure to say something about something everyone else is saying something about just to remain relevant within the circle. To justify your existence to these people. Your lack of a more interesting life with any higher goals limits you to framing your identity within this circle. Being a valued member of the circle becomes a personal need.

However, a sudden change in direction and the formation of a new set of goals suddenly renders a lot of this irrelevant. You don't need the group anymore. You have new needs. New things that concern you. New ideas by which you identify and motivate yourself. Ones that require your time. Time that you previously spent on your group. A conflict arises. A decision needs to be made.


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Tuesday, 11 March 2014

On Bad Science and False Premises



Many scientists do bad science by hiding behind empiricism. 

Empiricism is when you do things using the scientific method i.e you observe something, investigate it by building a hypothesis based on what you know, look at the existing literature, create a hypothesis, conduct a study, experiment, collect evidence and build a theory. 

Here's the thing. Your hypothesis has to be based on evidence. You cannot simply make stuff up to explain what you see, and then justify your assumptions by claiming that you're testing your hypothesis. You can't do that. 

If you create a hypothesis based on baseless assumptions, and then test it and find data that supports your hypothesis, it might only be correlational, or coincidental, or due to confounding variables. The data itself would not indicate cause and effect, or the truth of your hypothesis. This is because your original theory was made up to begin with. A false premise. 

The data collected in support of a baseless hypothesis might be good, but since it has been collected based on a preconceived notion of its role in the hypothesis, it is meaningless.

"I think men like playing first person shooter video games because of their hunter gatherer tendencies. Let me conduct an experiment to see if I can indicate this to be true. Yup, there's an association between the two variables. Men play more first person shooter video games than other types of games, and they play these more than women do. These games simulate hunting, and in the past men hunted more than women. Therefore, my hypothesis is supported."

Of course, the only reason this supports your hypothesis is because you made up the conclusion to begin with. The data might be sound, and the association might be real (and due to any number of other factors), but the inference is false, because you're merely fitting the data into a preconceived role or conclusion in your mind, and in your silly hypothesis. You've decided your conclusion in advance, and then you're letting your results justify your conclusion, even though they might indicate any number of other things that haven't been hypothesised yet. 

"If A exists, then so must B. I found A, therefore B exists." 

Unfortunately, the former is an assumption. Therefore, the implication in the latter is not always true. Bad researchers don't get this.

You cannot use the fact that you're testing your hypothesis to excuse the fact that your hypothesis is based on no originating data, and merely something you dreamed up. Your starting point must always be evidence. Without evidence, you have no starting point, and no hypothesis. You cannot indulge in guesswork as a replacement for evidence. You cannot assume that a complex facet of human behaviour exhibited by people today has an evolutionary basis originating in a behavioural trend exhibited by people 500K years ago.

This is where evolutionary psychology gets it wrong. Researchers make a guess, a 'just so' story that feeds into our existing status quo of how we imagine the world should work (it sounds true therefore it is probably true). When confronted with the fact that they have no evidence to support their theory, they defer to helplessness and empiricism - 

"No one can prove evolution. No one was around to record behaviour 500K years ago, so my hypothesis could be wrong, but at least I can test it. So my approach is scientific. At least I'm better than a religious person. At least I'm willing to test my theory by creating and testing hypotheses and admit I could be wrong." 

What. A. Crock.

It is extremely important to be consciously aware of your underlying assumptions and implicit biases when formulating a theory. Do researchers do this? Nope. They allow their biases and assumptions to dictate their research questions, their hypotheses. Whether their hypotheses are true or not is irrelevant. Once a hypothesis is created and tested, it becomes part of the scientific narrative. Your students, peers and other researchers will spend the rest of their lives creating hypotheses that match your theory, hoping to reject null hypotheses in favour of ones that support your theory, all founded on nothing, everyone wasting their time and energy.

If someone thought their desk was a dragon, we'd call them crazy. However, if they spent their lives trying to test the animatedness of their desk, believing it were alive, would you still take them seriously? Of course not. But people around the world everyday do the same with bad hypotheses. Hypotheses with no basis. Hypotheses created based on someone's assumptions. Hypotheses created because they 'feel right'. Hypotheses created because their creator lets them reflect his or her own biases about how the world functions.

Your ability to create and falsify hypotheses does not justify your creation of theories with no underlying bases i.e making bad assumptions. It is important not to confuse science with empiricism. You might be a brilliant empiricist, but you'd still be a bad scientist if the assumptions inherent in your empiricism had no basis. It's easy to hide poor assumptions and reasoning behind good empiricism. Don't do this.


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Saturday, 8 March 2014

On Music and Memories


What if I scanned the brains of 200 people for activity patters while they listened to various types of music? What if I also got them to create lists of their music preferences, to find correlations between music preferences and brain activity. What if I then worked backwards to connect these patterns to Affect states resulting from other experiences?

Here's what I'm getting at - What if musical preferences are merely side products of neural plasticity and neural responses to other auditory stimuli? You're exposed to certain auditory stimuli as an infant. These stimuli are positively or negatively reinforced through cultural context. What if our music preferences are not merely learned, but conditioned? We are machines after all. I'm talking neural plasticity. The basis of learning. Neural networks strengthen synaptic connections or form new ones over time. They're never static.

And here's where we face the problem with connecting models of learning with models of neuroscience. Nerve cells fire at the rate of milliseconds. Overt learning behaviour models deal with seconds, minutes, hours. But I argue that there must be reinforcement involved in music preferences. You not merely like a piece of music, you learn to like it. If you like Metallica or even beer, we know that it's because your nerve cells that processed that type of sensory input have strengthened their connections over time. My arguement is that it could be because these same nerve cells were responsible for processing other stimuli, that were strengthened for some reason. So these neural networks are either growing more connections, or firing quicker. Or both.

Why would they strengthen their connections? Who knows? Maybe because the semantic feedback associated with these other stimuli led to chemical changes in your body that were favuorable to you. In other words, they made you feel good. Or then again, maybe there is a genetic element. Maybe a group of genes, on being environmentally activated, help reinforce the strengthening of certain connections that favour certain stimuli, or inhibit connections that would have made you despise certain other stimuli.


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Friday, 7 March 2014

On Education and Expectations


If you want a career with a top organisation, a good start would be to go to a top university.

The UN, IMF, World Bank, RBI, economic advisor to the PM, the Fortune500, etc. aren't known for hiring University of Mumbai grads. The point I'm making is, the opportunities that you are presented with are a direct function of where you study. You need your own academic lineage to enter the 'big league' employers.

For example, someone with degrees like IIT + IIM + PhD at Harvard, etc. are more likely to be offered a prestigious high paying job than someone with not so hallowed credentials. And it's not necessarily because the better universities offer better academics. It's just because they have better reputations because they have better selection criteria because of a continuously evolving relationship with selected employers.

Now, most people shouldn't be bothered about these criteria. But it turns out most people in india have a 'family lineage' to protect. Which is why you see a correlation between what your dads do for a living and where you study. The more important your dad is, the more he expects of you. Privilege begets privilege, and status begets status. Most guys occupying the top roles in India today come from privileged backgrounds, with pedigreed degrees. Their dads were IAS/IFS, law, politics guys from some of the best universities around, and they want the same for their kids. And so their kids have to go to top universities too. Sure these kids are smart and work hard, but they also have expectations to live up to.

Money plays a role too. And so does culture. Rich people, people with their own large businesses, or people climbing the corporate ladder, want the best for their kids, because it ensures that their kids have access to the best opportunities in the world. Can you imagine some Tam Brahm guy in India studying psychology if his dad works in senior management in a top company?

It's important to note that I'm not referring to getting to go to a better university because you're rich. I'm not focussing on being unable to access the same options as richer folk. That is a serious problem, especially in other countries. But in India, barring extreme economic hardship, I'd say the educational opportunities favour equality. IIT + IIM fees aren't that high.

There are exceptions though. You might be middle class, and still decide to go to a lower ranked university because you need quick employment, which is where how affluent you are comes into play. Perhaps an element of regret sets in, when you realise where you got your degree matters a lot.

However, what I am focussing on is more of a selection bias in where you study, brought about by family pressure and social standing. For the Indian middle class, it's enough that you're studying engineering. For families higher on the social ladder, it must be IIT. And if you can't make it into IIT, that's where the huge bank balance works in your favour - Harvard/Wharton come into play. A relative once told me it's pointless getting a MBA unless it's on the 'ET MBA top 100' list. I've realised it's the same for other Bachelor and PhD programs too.

The better the university, the better your prospects. It's better to get a psychology degree from Cambridge University than Glasgow Caledonian, if you want to do world class research someday. But most people don't want to do world class research & hobnob with people like Dawkins or Baron Cohen, so they don't mind going to Glasgow Caledonian. I'd say where you study depends on your own motivation and what you want, which depends on what your family is like and how successful they are, and the pressure you experience from the expectations they have of you.

The best we can do at this point in our lives is accumulate enough resources to make it easier for our own kids to go to good universities, without ruining their lives in the process, and making good education more widely available to as many people as possible, and trying to weaken the existing system of a strong selection bias favouring recruitment from a few select universities.


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Thursday, 6 March 2014

On Crime and Punishment


You don't fight crime by increasing the magnitude of deterrents i.e the magnitude of punishment. Evidence shows that this just doesn't work. Changing the punishment from 5 years jail time to 20 years jail time, or from life imprisonment to capital punishment just doesn't work. You can however reduce crime by increasing the magnitude of what people value in life (which translates to an increase in what perpetrators can expect to lose if they commit a crime).

Deterrents only work if they're mapped to what people value.
 People with more to lose commit fewer crimes. This reflects the changing context of the cost-benefits-risks equation. Getting caught & going to jail means something different to a slum dwelling high school drop out than it does to a middle class Indian, because a middle class Indian has more to lose by going to jail (his freedom, status, job, money, friends, etc.) than a slum dwelling high school drop out (who will end up losing less since he has less of these to begin with and so places a lower value on their loss and is therefore more risk seeking). Governments can use this principle to decrease sexual predation by increasing the risk factors for offenders, thus changing their decision thresholds w.r.t offences.

And how exactly do you do this? By increasing economic development and inculcating moral values in a population. Because most things people value are either material or perceived mental states. And an increase in these things will mean a lower crime rate, since people now have more to lose. And so people who value society's perception of themselves and have more material wealth, status, empathy, etc. will be more risk-averse when it comes to committing a crime, since they now have more to lose, in terms of both material comfort and the way they feel society views and judges them.


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On the Nature of Genius


I've been reading up on genius lately. What makes a genius. Who can be considered a genius.

There seems to be little distinction between literary, scientific, and musical genius. It doesn't seem to be what you change, but how you change it. It's more about what you create, and how much of a difference this makes to the world. Genius involves thinking outside the box. Most scientists, artists and creators don't do that. They simply work within a slightly enlarged box, enlarging it from the inside, standing on the shoulders of others. 

A true genius finds a way to look anew at what everyone else sees, and see things no one else does. A new way of thought, a new pattern, a new philosophy, a new logic to how the world works. A game changer. A new type of art, a new type of mathematics, a new way to connect the dots. Creativity and originality. Education helps. you need to know how the existing status quo works before you reject it and establish a new one.

It seems to me that what truly separates a genius from the rest are not their abilities themselves, but associating their abilities with a leap of progress. Newton was smart. So were/are the last 50 Nobel prize winners. That doesn't make all of them geniuses. They all played a part in progress, but only one of them revolutionised the field of mathematics. 


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Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Studying in the UK: What I Really Learnt


"If you could study/specialize in any subject of your choice in the UK, what would it be, where and why?"

How about some context before I answer this question?

As a young professional working in Mumbai, I wasn't doing too badly. I had a decent job with decent pay. I'd been doing more or less the same thing for a few years, with a slight increase in skills over the years. The next logical step would have been to get a MBA degree, which would have enabled a my transition into a management role, with better job prospects and pay.

But before dong so, I took a good look at my life thus far, my current situation, and what I expected of myself in the future. A MBA would get me better pay, but how long till I felt stagnation in my new role too? Would the only thing keeping me motivated at my new job be the promise of a promotion every few years, with even greater responsibilities and pay? Could I really see myself doing this over the next 25 years of my life, inching my way up the corporate ladder in the pursuit of happiness without ever finding it, until I retired? What was happiness? Is it getting what you want even though you know you're going to be bored with it in two years?

I looked at my other options. Was there something I could do that would keep me reasonably motivated about my work without having to resort to daydreaming about the future to satiate my job satisfaction needs? So I looked towards academia and Psychology, a subject I've been dabbling in on and off since college. Getting a Masters would allow me to continue my studies in the field and prepare me for further research or help me return to the corporate word if that's what I chose. So I left for the UK for a year of study.

My experiences? Well, it was my first time in Europe. Everything clicked for me right from the start. The view from the plane as it descended into London on a clear day. Waking around London. Taking a train to Scotland, also on a clear day. Studying at a university with thousands of students from around the World. Making new friends, sharing a house with 40 interesting people, sharing a classroom with bright people, learning so much from your teachers and fellow students. Learning about different cultures, learning about local cultures. Living alone, cooking, cooking for friends, new food, drinks at the pub, playing in the snow, working at three part time jobs over the course of a year, applying for over a dozen jobs just to get one (I even applied to be a room surveyor at one point). Hiking, exploring the countryside, practising photography in a new environment. Learning about history. Volunteering. Late night discussions about ideas. Long lunches discussing ideas. Taking extra classes just because they were fun. Joining different clubs. Trying new things. Exploring new cities, walking around, talking, laughing, learning, taking it all in.

But here's the thing. I expected to have these experiences. As much as I enjoyed them, I knew they were coming. It's what I didn't see coming that really left it's mark on me.

Experiencing absolute quiet everyday. Like nothing back in Mumbai, with its constant drum of ceiling fans & ACs, traffic and other people. A quiet room, a quiet walk to uni, quiet corridors, quiet car parks, quiet surroundings, quiet environments. Learning that nothing is perfect. That academia can be as convoluted, petty and dirty as the corporate world. Learning to see yourself through this new World. That nothing is really exactly as what you thought it would be. That you can't know what you can't know. Discovering that you need to work twice as hard as your classmates just to catch up with them because they've got Bachelors degrees at universities with a higher standard of education than the one you went to and have taken courses you did not (like Evolutionary Psych, Animal Behaviour and Advanced Stats) and so have skills and domain knowledge you don't, along with practical research and writing experience that you don't have either. Attending seminars about things you've never heard of before. Learning more in 2 months than you did in 2 years back home. Thinking of concepts you never thought of before. Questioning your underlying assumptions about everything. Being exposed to new fields of thought, new sciences, new topics, new interests you never knew you had. Exercising new skills you never knew you had an aptitude for. Developing your own research interests. Becoming so good at something that you start helping other people out. Travelling all the way to a foreign country to study Comparative Psychology only to discover you are also interested in machine learning, consciousness, artificial intelligence, economics and advanced probability.

So to get back to the original question, if I could specialise in any one subject, it would be one of the above, a PhD this time, and again, it would be at a university that would truly challenge me with respect to everything I know.


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This post was written in response to the http://knowledgeisgreat.in/ contest on http://www.indiblogger.in

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