Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Why Study Animals?

Why do people study animals (and other creatures)? Here are some answers -  

1. To improve animal welfare - Humans use animals for food, sport, labour, entertainment, etc. We need to ensure that these animals are treated well. That is, until we eat them (in the case of animals in the food industry). therefore, we research their living conditions in these working environments. Are they treated well before being processed, or while being used on farms or as livestock, or while being bred for shows or for races?

2. Conservation - Some creatures like insects are essential for ecosystem maintenance. We need to conduct studies to find out if their populations are changing and what factors affect this, in order to maintain optimum numbers to help us maintain our ecosystems to suit our personal economic and aesthetic interests. Studying physical differences between species and correlating these with our knowledge of genetics, geography, geology, etc. adds to our knowledge of physical evolution and the selection pressures involved, which in turn adds to our knowledge of biological processes, genetics and human and animal welfare and conservation.

3. Disease prevention - Many creatures are responsible for spreading disease. We need to study these to find out how we might control their numbers. Other creatures help us find cures for diseases by being test subjects in disease research, or by providing us with biochemical materials that help us lead safer and more comfortable lives.

4. To improve human welfare, by adding to our knowledge of our minds and evolutionary history - We need to study apes, dogs and other creatures to find out more about differences in behaviour patterns between them and us. This adds to our knowledge of how and why we might have evolved certain behaviours, based on our knowledge of how distantly related these animals are to us. Studying differences in individuals within a species also tells us about how personality differences and other mental abilities develop in different species. We can then determine causes and make predictions, which helps us figure out how mental processes work, and compare these with our own, to make studying our own species easier, and add to our knowledge of neuroscience, to make it easier to detect, predict and prevent abnormalities in human behaviour. 


Thursday, 1 August 2013

2006 Trip Redux

I remember writing most of this years ago but not posting it. Not sure why. This was back in the monsoon of 2006, when I did an overnight trip to Vikramgad and Jawhar with a group of friends from my first job (while I was on my second job). That was my first trip with them (I only did two, the second one being Peth/Kotligad/kothaligad fort, 2007, undocumented so far). So here goes:

The trip. We 're supposed to meet at Borivli, drive to Vikramgad, visit the palace, Dabossa falls and Bilya mountain. The driver (a friend and former co-worker) from Mira Rd meets PrV and I at I.C in his Omni early on a weekday morning. We pick up two Thane guys at Borivli Stn (they've woken up really early to travel from thane to IC, poor guys). We then learn that the 6th member of our group, JS from Santa Cruz, has done a double shift at work the previous night and has only just returned home. So we drive all the way to Santa Cruz, pick him up, stop so he can buy sandals along the way, and then drive north once more. A total waste of time, especially for the Thane guys, who are too polite or tired to grumble. I would have left him behind, but the others are softies.

Two points run through my mind at this time, apart from the helplessness at time being thrown away before my eyes. One, I'm not really sure I want to be there. I'm not sure if this is a common feeling for others , but sometimes, when waking up early or getting ready to leave on a trip that's been organised by someone else, I just get this weird sick feeling in my stomach, like this shouldn't be happening. I'm not sure why I get it, but except for one time, I've always ignored it.

The second and more pressing point running through my mind is more work related. My two day leave hasn't really been approved. In fact, I haven't even notified anyone about it. But I'm more or less the only one at the office, there isn't a lot of work to do, things will go on without me, I haven't been on a trip in a long time and I need this bad, like someone needs a drug. Still, the benefits of going on the trip vs the seemingly disastrous consequences to follow weigh heavily on my mind for the entire journey to Santa Cruz and back. I went through all the options. Call the guy I was reporting to, to let him know I'd be away, or not say anything at all and come back early enough the next day to make it to work in time on day 2. I finally make the difficult call. The guy doesn't like it but there isn't much he can do. That takes a load off my mind.

We pass by Borivli, two hours after we were supposed to have left it, and drive north along the highway. We make it to Vikramgad, driving north and stopping at a waterfall. We check into a hotel in town, and drive to Dabossa falls first. The falls are huge, brown and loud (it has been raining). The view from the viewing platform is excellent, and my friends climb down to the base of the falls. We make it back to town and while our man from Santa Cruz, JS, crashes out in one of our rooms upstairs, we sit in the bar cum restaurant, drinking and talking.

I share a whisky with a colleague who has left the company a year after I did. I don't remember what the others drink but PrV, being a non alcoholic, asks for chocolate milk. They only had milk, so he goes out looking for a packet of chocolate milk powder, which he manages to find (I do something along the same lines when I go searching for juice to add to my drink in Karjat after my Rajmachi trek in July '09), brings it back to the restaurant cum bar, gives it to the waiter, and asks them to make his chocolate milk. He seems to savour that drink.

And as the night wears on, we talk about many things - David Blaine, God and evolution being chief topics. The driver finds it difficult to believe that Blaine's tricks aren't real magic. I try convincing him otherwise. Dinner was Biryani, but I have had a lot to drink, and skip it altogether, crashing alongside JS in the bed upstairs. The weather has been perfect the entire day, with intermittent light rain.

The next morning, after a breakfast of many many Vada Pavs, we go to the palace nearby and then go looking for Tiger caves. We decide to visit Tiger caves because no one knows where Bilya mountain is and someone else recommends Tiger caves to us. We can't find Tiger caves either and end up driving deeper into the country. We stop outside a straw hut on the side of a road to ask for directions for the umpteenth time. This is beautiful country. Middle of the monsoon. Green trees and hills all around, along with outcroppings of black rock that tell us we're in the Sahyadris. PrV goes into the hut to ask for directions (his Marathi is better than ours). The driver decides to play a prank on him and drive off. We return a moment later to see PrV looking really content. He gets into the Omni and tells us there was an old man on a cot in the hut who told him the exact location of Bilya mountain.

We find Bilya mountain, and begin climbing it. This is typical leopard territory. Just boulders and rocks. Gorgeous. It keeps going on and on. We can see rain clouds in the distance. they're coming our way. Rain falls. The rocks soak it up. They're absorbent, like sponges. Really hard sponges. There are beautiful little red spiders everywhere. One of the Thane guys probably sits on a clump of them while we're sheltering from the rain at one point. He doesn't care. No one does anymore. We're that exhausted.

Eventually, we turn back. Drive home. We stop for an ice cream lunch. It has been fun.


Tuesday, 30 July 2013

On Education Systems

I've been wondering about education systems, and which ones are best. Different countries have different systems at the university level, in terms of how long the courses are. Is this length an indicator of quality?

In India, they have 3 year Bachelor degrees. The quality of these aren't top notch. The academic content is poorer by 50% compared to foreign universities because they concentrate on theory formation and not application. One reason for this is the lack of funding. And there are cultural differences. Universities abroad don't treat you like they're doing you a favour by letting you enrol. You're paying them to be there. You're a client. They need to treat you like one. Indian educational institutes don't get this. Indian colleges work on the assumption that they can push you around, that your fees enable them to act as your personal moral guardian. In short, Indian colleges treat you like a child, foreign ones treat you like an adult. But they're cheap (which is why I attended an Indian University; my kids won't). In the US, Bachelor or undergrad degrees are 4 years long. The same with Canada. 

A sucky thing about universities is that if you study a science subject like biology, they force you to study other science subjects like physics and chemistry during your first year, even though you aren't interested in these. Duh! You wouldn't have chosen biology at the university level if you wanted to study physics. I can understand an educational system pulling a stunt like this in high school, where they bombard you with as many different subjects as possible to give you a taste of everything so you can decide what you like and hate. Whether they do this to very good effect is another matter, but the philosophy behind the idea is sound (even if some schools screw it up by focussing only on the theoretical aspects of a subject or science and don't expose you to what daily work in that field is going to be like in terms of competencies you will need to develop over time, or the amount of time you will need to spend on different tasks and responsibilities).

To side track a little more, I think the first year of most foreign universities concentrates on the same thing Indian high schools do in their final year - cramming info about as many different subjects into a person's brain. My guess is that this sometimes leads to the false belief that Indian schools and universities are tougher than foreign ones. Which is not entirely true. You need to see this in terms of timelines. Indian high schools have 'streams' at the senior level (the last two years). If you pick the science stream, you go through two years of mental bootcamp. So yeah, the last two years of high school might be tougher than foreign ones (Canadian, American, British, Australian, New Zealand) in terms of amount of information assimilated, assuming you choose the science stream (the commerce and arts streams are relatively easier) but more information doesn't mean better education. I'd rather be taught critical reasoning skills than a bunch of assumptions disguised as facts which I can't recognise are assumptions because I haven't been taught any critical reasoning skills. I think that's where foreign high schools have an edge over Indian ones. 

Now let's move to the University level. True, Indian kids might have a slight advantage from the curriculum point of view given that they've covered more subject matter in high school. But I think that that difference is cancelled out in the first year of university. Because that's all the time that foreign kids need to catch up. And then they spend the next three years doing way more advanced stuff. Which gives them an edge over Indian kids. Indian kids who move to the US or UK for college will have an advantage over the locals kids for the first year at most. After that, it's a level playing field.

Moving back to comparing different university systems, the UK has a three year Bachelor's degree with an option to do a fourth 'honours' year, which is basically fewer modules and a large research project. So comparing all these systems, I'd say the US Bachelors system is the best, apart from the costs. And especially given the profile of a lot of their universities. The UK comes close, but the only British universities that can compare to the top 20 American ones in terms of quality are Cambridge, Oxford and St Andrews. The US simply has more money going into more institutions and more scientists doing a greater amount of good research, which students have a greater opportunity to experience.

Now looking at how Masters programmes are run, most countries have a two-year option. India does. But again, the quality of education in India isn't the best. The US has a two year option. But not all American universities run masters programmes. Most of them just run 5 year Phd programmes. Which is not always the same as a Masters followed by a PhD. Still, this might be the best system given the alternatives. 

It's different in the UK, where Masters degrees are one year long and PhDs are 3 years long. Also, PhDs in the UK are usually self funded, which makes people enrol in them part time (6 years). The only funded PhD programmes in the UK are ones where you're employed to work on someone else's already well defined project. Unless this matches your own research interests, plan on funding your own PhD. A lot of students don't mind working on someone else's project. A lot of them are not sure what they want to do anyway, and don't mind doing research on a subject that's somewhat related to what they're interested in as long as it's fully funded. The large number of universities in the UK mean that there are lots of opportunities for EU residents to choose between. The rest either have deep pockets, or do it part-time. 

But coming back to the UK Masters programme, one year can be pretty intense. And there's a lot of variation between universities. Getting a Masters at Edinburgh University is not the same as getting a Masters at Edinburgh Napier University. In Sweden, Masters programmes contain about the same number of modules, but these are spread over a period of two years, giving students a longer time to rationalise and think about what they've learned, which I think is important. 

Masters education in the UK in contrast seems more like a business. You have so many classes and so little time to think about them. You start in September or October. You have 2.5 months of classes, then exams, including a one-week mid semester break. You have a 1-2 month winter break, then about 2.5 months of classes from February to April, including another one-week mid-semester break. The rest (May to July/August) is spent on a research project. This is quite intense. A better option would be to extend everything. Extend the research project to 4-6 months. Double the number of classes. Include two internships. This would require extending the course to 1.5-2 years. Which I think would be better, personally. 

As it stands, I think a UK Masters equips people to tackle a UK PhD specific to their Masters research interests, but it isn't flexible enough to allow you to attempt somewhat different PhD programmes. Which makes the UK Masters a great well marketed package aimed at getting people where they know they want to go in a short time i.e. equipping them with a short amount of essential skills that the uni thinks they need, over teaching students everything they could over a longer period of time. It's a tradeoff - skills vs. time. 

For those with the time and money, go to the US. As for PhDs, again I'd say the US is best. The UK is great if you've got a specific project in mind, and funding. And it's quick (three years). But if you want more flexibility, more funding, and better opportunities, go to the US.


Sunday, 28 July 2013

Business Ethics

A recent discussion with an Indian businessman on a study break here in the UK left me thinking about business ethics, judgement, moral reasoning, and lastly, the quality of educational discourse on these subjects.

This mature student used to help out with the family business based out of a town in India, and plans to return home and continue doing so once his course ends. I don't remember how we ended up talking about ethics. I think we started off discussing what excited him, his business and how it worked. I guess the question of corruption came up soon after, and he mentioned having to pay a bunch of people in various sectors to get stuff done. He said he didn't like it, but the alternative, bankrupting his company, was unthinkable. He mentioned that he didn't like doing this, but it was necessary. He also mentioned spying on his competitors using unethical means, and again said that it was not something he wanted to do, but something he had to do, or watch his business fail. 

We then spoke about the ethics component of his course. I was curious how someone who reluctantly compromised on his personal ethics, would find a course on business ethics. He said that he had had a number of arguements with his professor about ethics (big surprise!). Apparently, his professor sees ethics as an absolute, with no space for compromise. The businessman student obviously disagrees. 

Here's my take. I'm actually not too surprised by the businessman student's behaviour. I'm sure I would do the same were I in his place. If you're handed the reins of your family business by your dad while your dad, brother and entire family watch, you don't want to be the one to ruin it. You have big plans for the company. You expand. You need things from the government. More electricity. They tell you it's going to take three months unless you pay 'extra to get it in two weeks. You need it in two weeks. Three months would bankrupt your company. You have no choice. You don't want to hand over your hard earned money to some government thief, but the alternative is unthinkable. So you do it. You know it's wrong, but you do it. It's the same with your competitors. They're going to find out how much you charge your clients one way or another, probably the same way you do. Unethically. But the alternative would be too harsh.

The thing is, I get this. I get that you can't be judgemental about about these things beacuse this isn't a straightforward black and white case. That's not how ethics works. Ethics is complex. You can be a good person and still commit unethical acts. I should know. I'm a Psychology student. If anyone should know about ethics, we should. We study and research ethics, and design our experiments according to ethical guidelines. Now, I have to say that business ethics and moral reasoning isn't a subject I know much about. But from the psychological perspective, there's Lawrence kohlberg's stages of moral development which offers us one way to view moral development. 

(I need to say at this point that I view categorisation as a double edged sword, in general. Because I think of everything as falling on a scale. To me, all phenomena are scaled variables. Grouping these into distinct categories has its uses in terms of helping us understand how the world works, but we need to be aware that creating and using these categories to build models to explain how the world works only provides us with one way to look at the world, an imperfect approximation of the 'truth'. A step forward maybe, compared to no model, but we should be careful not to confuse models, including psychological ones, as absolute truths, and end up creating self-fulfiling prophecies and indulging in circular reasoning.)

That being said, I am a huge fan of Kolberg's Heinz dilemma, which incorporates post-conventional moral reasoning in a realistic example. Imagine you wife is dying from a disease, and that there's only one person, a druggist, who has a cure. The problem is, this druggist is charging more money than you have, for the cure. So you break into the man's store to steal the cure. Were you wrong to do so? There are many ways to tackle this question, my favourites being the more complex ones. But that's not what I'm really interested in right now. You see, I get that life is complex, that life sucks, that morality is hazy, and that you need to make compromises. After all, context determines behaviour.

What troubles me is how this is being communicated in a module on business ethics. We aren't children. We don't pay 15 lakh rupees or 17K pounds on a year on foriegn education only to be told the difference between right and wrong, something we learned in school anyway. As Kohlberg illustrated with the Heinz dilemna, morality is complex, and requires a complex discourse. It's not a black vs white scenario. It's a world with an infinite number of possible scenariois, all requiring responses dependent on a number of different variables, which we call context. All discussion on morality should inculde discussions on context. Anything less is a disservice to students.


Friday, 29 March 2013

Moral behaviour in animals

Frans de waal on moral behaviour in animals.

The argument here is that animals also display cooperative behaviour and empathy, just like humans. first off, this argument is invalid as cooperative behaviour as we know it is a very human concept. To study animal behaviour in terms of a human context is a form of anthropomorphism, and is asking the wrong question (a question loaded with incorrect assumptions).

Irrespective of this argument, there are problems with the talk. Most of the animals in the video that show cooperative behaviour or empathy have been trained to perform those behaviours. They aren't spontaneous. A breakup of the video is discussed below.


The presentation begins by showing chimps and bonobos who display reconciliation behaviour. Isn't reconciliatory behaviour in these species mostly linked to dominance? Yes, it is. Which means we can't really see it as a form of cooperation in line with human cooperation. But how different is this to reconciliatory behaviour in humans, you say? Maybe not very different. But a difference still exists. Our different culture and cognition means we need to view reconciliation differently. In any case, dominance should have been mentioned in the talk. And if not, De Waal should have at least mentioned that cooperation in chimps differs from cooperation in humans.

Chimps then cooperate to pull a reward. The chimps have probably been been trained to do this. The partner who helps out could be motivated by fear. This could be linked to dominance. We need more information before assuming cooperation.

Elephants cooperating to pull a reward. Again, the elephants are trained to use the apparatus. This does not reflect instinctive cooperative behaviour. Rather, it means that one elephant is smart enough to learn that he doesn't need to do any work on his part to get a reward. I can just imagine that elephant doing that trial over and over again till he realises he will still get a reward if he just places his foot on the rope. And the fact that the partner does not get any reward also needs to be remembered. How long would the partner keep this up if it wasn't being instructed to by a mahout? This isn't really cooperation as we know it.


This section begins with contagious yawning in chimps. Firstly, can we really connect yawning with empathy? If so, what part does dominance and gender play in this experiment?

Children empathising with adults. You can't compare children and adults because of dominance again. Would children show similar empathy towards other children? These limitations need to be mentioned.

Prosocial choices by chimps. Again, no control for dominance and gender? A chimp might be prosocial because of dominance, not empathy. Yes, this could be considered one interpretation of what constitutes empathy to begin with, but it must be stressed that this is very different from human empathy, where we put ourselves in someone's else's place and see things from their perspective. Do animals do this? Or is their empathy more basic, if they have any at all?

Capuchins reject unequal pay. This is more about a sense of fairness. Not really empathy. And that monkey that's getting agitated in the video could be more dominant, which would explain its agitation.

I realise I've mentioned dominance a lot here, but this is a social mechanism that explains behaviour in different species, and we need to see behaviour in other species in this context. We also need to view human cooperation in various contexts to understand exactly what 'cooperation' and 'empathy' mean and to accurately compare these traits in humans and and other animals.

I have no doubt that many animals have a sense of empathy, but their empathy tends to differ from that of humans. Empathy, like many other things, is a continuum & we seem to be on a different part of this continuum than animals.

If we could devise a series of experiments to show that this complex empathy of ours is really no more than a cover for a more basic reaction with adaptationary value, then I'm wrong, but this hasn't been indicated yet.


Saturday, 16 February 2013

Breaking Bio

In case you guys haven't heard about it yet, there's this cool biology podcast series that's happening at http://breakingbio.com

Here are some useful PhD tips I've gleaned off the first few episodes:

1. Be prepared to explain your work to other people. Prepare your elevator speech.
2. Some people have parental support and inspiration. It's tougher for those who don't.
3. It's tough to find jobs after a Phd. You need to relate your degree to stuff that's relevant.
4. you need to find a balance between your work and social media.
5. Online journals can be better than real life meetings and clubs.
6. sometimes, Masters degrees are essential stepping stones to a PhD. It might not be a good idea to phase them out.
7. Don't do a PhD unless you really like the science and have funding.