Monday, November 16, 2009

A Blow to Pride

Have you ever wondered about the number of ‘intelligent’ people you see in the world around you? There are the stratospheric achievers everyone's heard of – world changing scientists, canny politicians, mega rich CEOs. Then you have the smart ones in the classroom you see everyday. There are the inevitable people by the roadside stalls that offer scientific opinion on everything from cricket to extramarital affairs. After a tiring day, you decide to relax with a cup of coffee and a pinch of Youtube, only to run into more of humanity’s finest on the comment pages. If you give a thought to the stunning number of apparently knowledgeable, smart and witty people you e-meet on forums/discussion boards/anonymous chats, you will inevitably ask - How many of these people are there?

As a true computer enthusiast, I decided to go number crunching. There are 6.7 billion people in the world today. Suppose, for the sake of mathematical argument, we pick IQ as the measuring standard for intelligence. Mensa International, widely acknowledged as the finest collection of bigheads on the planet, sets a cut-off percentile of 98 for membership. You may be a member, and you may feel proud that you are a unique and gifted person, being among the top two percent of the human race. You may even have resorted to the odd instance of snobbery.

But what is two percent of the world population in cold, hard numerals? About 135 million. That’s a whole lot of ‘intelligent’ people running around! If the numbers don’t impress you, here’s a comparison. The population of Karnataka is about 53 million. If you add to that the population of Andhra, which is about 76 million, you get near about 130. That means that if you packed all the intelligent people you could find into Karnataka and Andhra, you could give Pride (and his first cousin Ego) a hell of a blow.

In such a world, you wouldn’t even have to look beyond your next door neighbours to find someone smarter than you. You could of course pass this off as a statistical anomaly. A walk down the road to the grocer’s, and the sight of the assistant using cubic equations to track finances would soon remedy that little blip. Your likely next step would be to pick up a scruffy looking passerby and challenge him/her to a verbal duel on the ethical implications of the Iraq invasion. I suspect that a rebuttal replete with references to all the popular war forums on the Internet would be a bit of a dampener. With your unique intellectual perspective on politics suddenly worthless, you might attempt to turn to sport (an analysis of the physics behind Roger Federer’s success, perhaps?), computers (twenty reasons why you think Twitter will end up becoming a part of Facebook) or women (sigh, they just don’t deserve you). The results won’t be significantly different. Changing tack, you might then try,

‘Have you heard of xkcd?’

The other person might enthusiastically engage you on the topic of Stallman jokes and the Number 42, at which point, Pride would choose to hibernate for the rest of the summer. This wouldn’t work for too long, as Pride is well known for being, well, proud, and would wake up to ask,

‘Surely there can’t be two statesful?’

A long hike from the West Coast to the East Coast would ensue. Despite repeated repudiation (about every two miles perhaps) of your conviction, you would march on, your thoughts going back to the unaccounted five million (oh yes, you are too smart to miss out on the fact 135 minus 130 is indeed equal to 5). You would reach the East Coast, swim off it and exult in joy on seeing a young woman calmly drowning on a leaky boat. It just cannot be possible that that woman is doing something smart, right? Then you’d realize that the young lady was merely exploring the exciting blogging possibilities offered by a sinking boat. Pride would go into a self-inflicted coma, taking Ego along for the ride.

There is a point to all that humorizing. The overrated nature of ‘raw’ intelligence, and all the associated yardsticks cannot be emphasized enough. But they are merely overrated, not wrong by themselves. The same, however, cannot be said about the people who hold these results to be gospel and use them to judge people. I think such people would find this article on working memory, and its implications for the concept of ‘raw’ intelligence eye opening. The second point to all this is, 'It's never bad to make fun of yourself, right?'

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Heightitis

If there’s one thing that afflicts humans universally, transcending petty boundaries of religion, skin colour and deodorant choice, what would be it to be? Before someone points out that it could be ‘music’, and before I bash that person’s skull in, I would like to point out that music is not likely to be an affliction. It is of course that vexing question of height. As someone who isn’t particularly tall, but also not particularly short either, I have not been too concerned about my height. But this isn’t true for most people. I’ve noticed that people who consider themselves short adopt several strategies to fight this conclusion. One trick that is rather popular among the celebritocracy employs creative use of footwear. A careful examination of the likes of Tom Cruise will reveal that they are rather under rated stilt walkers. Platform shoes are somewhat exotic however, and I think that most normal people will settle for really big sports shoes.

Another popular trick is the stare-into-infinity-at-about-three-feet-above-your-normal-eye-level trick. The strange thing about this trick is that most people who use this do not seem to be aware of it, with the funny end result that they believe themselves to be speaking eye-to-eye with six footers. If you consider this little charade the ‘active’ version of height combat, the passive version is just as funny – there are people who shrink themselves in the company of taller people, leaning against the wall ever so slightly, just enough to give the impression that if they deign to straighten up they would tower over you. In reality however they would barely have dropped a couple of inches. Some people shun the physical aspects of height combat, and embrace the psychological. A sample conversation would go something like this –

Short Guy:
‘How tall are you?’
Tall Guy: (a bit too honestly)
‘Dunno. Maybe about 5’ 9’’?’
Short Guy: (an expression of complete shock on his face)
‘No way, man. You might not have measured yourself since third grade or something. Because I’m 5’9’’, and you’re a bit taller than me.'

Tall people play a similar game with slightly different rules. They just cannot get the issue of height out of their heads, and believe that looking gawky is the ultimate sign of superiority. How many times have we all been in superb form in debates, a word or two away from the piece de resistance, only to be interrupted by an inconsequential comment about height? You don’t need to go as far as debates to experience this. Even an ordinary conversation about a just finished exam can be rudely interrupted by a statement like,

‘Dude, I can look over your head!’

There is a good side to all that worrying about height. Good posture. As someone who, by the time he started worrying about posture, was biologically too deformed to do anything about it, I can vouch for its importance. While I cannot be sure of this, I think the fretting over height is a bit less pronounced for girls. Weight, on the other hand, is an entirely different matter.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Wikipedia

The only possible conclusion I can draw after scanning through hundreds thousands of pages on Wikipedia is this:

Any article that has been edited enough to satisfy all the experts will, by definition, be completely incomprehensible to everyone else who's not one.


Post Script :-
Of course there are several other conclusions that can be drawn from the same act, but as they go along the lines of 'Dude, you can't possibly be that jobless!', have been discounted as being too injurious to self-esteem.