Wednesday, October 15, 2008

NMR's claim to fame.

“Uyire train completes 100 years of operation”. That’s the headline that TOI chose today for a news item on the centenary of the Nilgiris Mountain Railway. That's like describing TOI as the "paper read by Aishwarya Rai", disregarding its 150-year history.

While including the NMR as a World Heritage site, UNESCO report had mentioned:

The construction of the Nilgiri Mountain Railway, a 46-km long metre-gauge single-track railway in Tamil Nadu State was first proposed in 1854, but due to the difficulty of the mountainous location the work only started in 1891 and was completed in 1908. This railway, scaling an elevation of 326 m to 2,203 m, represented the latest technology of the time.

It is a sign of our collective idiocy that a train which has such a rich history, which traverses such a picturesque route, which holds such memories for travellers over several generations and which can boast of a few engineering firsts should come to be better remembered as the “Chaiya Chaiya” train on which some actors were filmed shaking bottoms of assorted shapes and sizes.

If you took a guided tour of Ooty today, chance are that you would be shown several spots where different scenes from different movies were shot, complete with description of the actors who were involved. As if the mountains and the sceneries that have existed for several eons, could finally derive legitimacy only through their appearance in some movie or other.

What explains this madness? Watching a movie takes us on a fantasy trip for a mere couple of hours. But the extended activities such as idolising actors, worshipping sites that the scenes were shot on, forming fan clubs, etc can keep us engaged full time, and help us escape into alternate realities of our choice on a 24 x 7 basis. In earlier eras, mythology served this purpose. Now, movies provide that escape route. Everybody has to help in this process and fan the flame. Even TOI.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

On coaches, laptops and video footages.

When seasoned campaigners such as Tendulkar, Dravid and Laxman struggled against the wily bowling of Mendis, Sehwag and Dhoni could play him with relative ease. The first three, perhaps, suffered from paralysis-by-analysis (watching all those video footages on the coach’s laptop), while the last two simply relied on their instincts.

A few years back, commenting on the decline of West Indian cricket, Greg Chappell wondered ‘if the Caribbean cricketers were in danger of having their natural abilities stifled by an unbalanced focus on biomechanics .He felt West Indians were attempting to emulate the highly technical and often confusing programmes originating from Australia and England instead of developing a curriculum and youth coaching method suited to the natural attitudes and instincts of the West Indian.’ (source).

Jonah Lehrer makes a similar point, in the context of football and in response to a decision of N.F.L to screen draftees for skills in logic and maths, the underlying assumption being that quarterbacks who were better at algebra will make better (and faster) decisions on where to throw the ball.

Unfortunately, this assumption's all is wrong. If quarterbacks were forced to consciously contemplate their passing decisions - if they treated the game like a question on the Wonderlic-- they'd get sacked every time, a classic case of paralysis-by-analysis. The fact is, the velocity of the game makes thought impossible. What recent research in neuroscience suggests is that quarterbacks choose where to throw the ball by relying on their unconscious brain. Just as a baseball player will decide to swing at a pitch for reasons he can't explain (he' is acting on subliminal cues from the hand of the pitcher), an experienced quarterback picks up defensive details he's not even aware of. Although he doesn't consciously perceive the lurking cornerback, or the blitzing linebacker, the quarterback's unconscious is still able to monitor the movement of these players. And then, when he glances at his receivers, his brain automatically converts these details into a set of fast emotional signals, so that a receiver in tight coverage gets associated with a twinge of fear, while an open man triggers a burst of positive feeling. It's these inarticulate emotions, and not some elaborate set of calculations, that tell the best quarterbacks when to let the ball fly. The pocket, it turns out, is too dangerous a place to think.

Similarly, the cricket pitch is a wrong place to think. Just go there, trust your instinct and heuristics and whack the ball. That approach has a better chance of succeeding than when you try to slice the bowler’s action into 64 different elements and then aggregate them together again.

Sack all those coaches. And, dump all those laptops.