On using slides for a lecture

Last evening I attended Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s New India Foundation lecture on the role of religion in politics in Modern India. It was a rather complex topic, with a lot of philosophical underpinnings, and as it happened, I soon lost track, and consequently interest, and so I ended up writing this blogpost as I sat in the audience.

Later, I was wondering what PBM could have done to communicate better and make his lecture more easily understood.┬áLet’s assume here that PBM is an academic and so the last thing he would want to do is to “dumb down” the lecture (also my hypothesis is that he perhaps upped the academic quotient since the venue for the lecture was IISc but that’s just speculation and we’ll keep it aside). There is a certain way he is comfortable speaking in, weaving academic arguments, and let us assume that he is best talking that way, and it is not ideal to change that.

Imposing the above and any other reasonable constraints on what PBM would not change about the lecture, the question remains as to how he could have made it easier for the audience to follow him. And thinking about it in hindsight, the answer is rather obvious – visual aids such as slides (or even a blackboard).

The problem with the lecture was that given its complexity there were several threads of thought that the audience member had to keep track of as PBM built his argument. The flipside of this is that if you happened to miss a line of what PBM said, one important thread in the web would get lost, after which it would be extremely difficult to follow the rest of the lecture (This is perhaps what happened to me because of which I started blogging). To put it another way, the lecture as it happened required a high degree of concentration as well as maintenance of a reasonably sized cache in the minds of each audience member, which meant that the mental energy required to follow was really high.

In an unrelated conversation after the lecture, someone was talking about how the ancient Greeks reacted to the invention of writing with horror, saying that the human mind was perfectly capable of storing and transmitting information, and that writing would lead to a diminishing of human mental powers. As it turned out, writing helped free up memory space in human minds and that allowed for more complex thinking and a lot of subsequent scientific development. Of course cultures such as India’s which continued to insist on learning the scriptures by rote lost out a bit because considerable mental capacity continued to be used as a means of storage rather than for processing power.

So the idea is that when you have a complex talk that involves a complex web of thought, considerable mental energies of the audience goes into just maintaining a cache of all that you’ve said, and the arguments that you’ve constructed. And on top of that they need to continue to listen to you with concentration as you continue to weave the web. The rate of dropoff can be rather high. So the least you can do to help the audience ingest your lecture better is to help free up their cache, and putting out all the arguments spoken thus far on a screen, which means that their mental power can go into ingesting and digesting your new information rather than simply maintaining the cache. And that will improve your throughput!

So to generalise, use of visual aids (slides are preferable to blackboards since you don’t waste time writing, but if there isn’t much to be written blackboards will do, too, since slides might constrain) is a necessary condition to ensure high throughput when your talk involves a rather complex web of argument. It simply makes it easier for the audience to follow you and you can communicate better!

Of course if you are of the persuasion that there is a certain way you communicate which you’re unwilling to change and it is the audience which needs to make an effort to catch your pearls of wisdom, none of the above applies to you.

On age and experience and respecting elders

A lot of commentary about the financial crisis of 2008 spoke about there not being anyone around who had experienced the Great Depression of the 1930s. The American Economy was largely stable till the end of the 1970s, they had argued, because the memory of the Depression was fresh in the minds of most policy-makers, and they made sure not to repeat similar mistakes. With that cohort retiring, and dying, however, in the 1990s and 2000s there emerged a bunch of policy makers with absolutely no recollection of the depression (in the 1990s, most policy makers would have been born in the 1940s or later). And so they did not hedge themselves and the economy against the kind of risks that had brought America down to its knees in the 1930s.

Now, think back to a society which was far less networked than ours is, and there was little writing (“no writing” would take us too far back in time, but think of a time when it was fairly expensive to write and store written material). This meant, that there were no books, and little to understand and experience apart from what one directly experienced. For example, one would never know what a storm is if one had never directly experienced it. One wouldn’t know how to light a fire if one had never seen a fire being lit. You get the drift. Back in those days when societies were hardly networked and there wasn’t much writing, there was only one way in which one could have learnt things – by having experienced it.

I suspect that this whole concept of elders having to be unconditionally respected had its advent in one such age. Back then, the older you were, the more you had experienced (naturally!), and hence the more you knew! There was no other way in which one could accumulate knowledge or understanding. In places like India, even education didn’t help, for “education” back in those days consisted of little more than learning the scriptures by rote, and didn’t teach much in terms of real knowledge. So taking the advice of elders naturally meant taking the advice of someone who knew more. It is natural to assume that these people who knew more than the ones around were respected.

With the advent of books, and later (post Gutenburg) the advent of cheap books, all this began to change. It became possible for people to know without having experienced. It became possible for people to get more networked, and the direct impact of both of these was that it became possible to know more without having really experienced it. In this day of highly networked societies and wikipedia, it is even possible to know everything about something without even pretending to have experienced it (attend some high school seminars and you’ll know what I’m talking about). There is no connection at all now between age and how much you know.

Culture, however, doesn’t adapt itself so quickly. It didn’t help that “elders”, whose position as the “most knowledgeable” was being threatened thanks to writing and networking, were also the people in power. In any case, the real reason of respect for elders had probably been lost, so it was easier for them to extend their reign. And so it continues to extend.

Older people nowadays fail to recognize that younger people might know more than them, and get offended if the younger people tend to argue with them. Yes, experience is still a great teacher, but the correlation between experience and knowledge has long since been broken. As the pupils sang at the beginning of the Vishnuvardhan starrer Guru Shishyaru (the teacher and the pupils), “doDDavarellaa jaaNaralla, chikkavarellaa kONaralla, gurugaLu hELida maatugaLantoo endoo nijavallaa” (elders are not wise, youngsters are not buffaloes, what the teacher says is never true).

PS: As I was writing this, it struck me that this whole “respect for elders” paradigm is more prevalent in societies (such as India) where education was largely religious. Societies where education was more secular don’t seem to have this paradigm.

The Film Game

So today I was introduced to this “hangout game” called Film Aata (the Film Game). The rules of this game are fairly simple. Through a slightly complicated process, you pick a random letter in the alphabet. Everyone is given a certain amount of time (we played with five minutes), and in that time you need to write down as many films as possible whose names start with that letter.

It’s a fairly simple and fun (though can’t be played for too long or too often given that the number of letters in the alphabet) but what makes it interesting is the scoring system. You get points for each UNIQUE movie whose name that you have written. So basically if you’ve written down the name of a movie which at least one other person has written down, you get no points for it. So apart from knowing the names of lots of movies you need to know movies that others don’t know (and it’s useful to have a resource such as IMDB handy).

So basically correlation matters! If there is one other player in the group who has similar tastes as yours, you are bound to get screwed. For example, the two people with whom I was playing this game today are sisters, so there was a major overlap in the names of the movies that they knew, which meant that on a relative scale I performed better than I would have considering the length of my total list.

I found the game extremely interesting! Now, here is a modification that would make the game more interesting. Put a cap on the total number of movie names that a player can write, all other rules staying the same. Currently, with no limits, you will end up writing names of all movies that you can think of. There is no strategy per se involved in the game. It’s more a test of memory.

However, once we put a cap, that brings in an element of strategy to the game. Now you will need to pick and choose the movies whose names you want to put down – to choose the movies that you know other people won’t know. And in case the cap is really low, then to pick and choose the movies whose names you know others won’t write. Insane game theory scope are there!

This also makes the game more repeatable – you can play it more often with different sets of people, and each time you’ll be trying to read the minds of different people and that will make things fun. With the same set of people, you can play with different caps, giving a new strategy each time.

It’s a simple game. A kids’ game. Something that might appear to be all too simplistic on the face of it, but this simplicity allows easy innovation, and that can make the game extremely fun!