Friday, November 27, 2009

The perils of binary communication

'There are two kinds of people in this world - those who divide everything into two and those who don't', said Robert Benchley. The latter category of people will have a tough time getting some information out of me.

There are two broad strategies to get an answer from me:
  1. Divide the universe of possible answers into two groups and ask me to choose one. Divide the chosen group into two and ask me to choose one and so on till you reach the correct answer.
  2. For all the possible alternatives, ask me a question with a yes/no answer and I will blink yes for the correct alternative.
But what happens if I am not given all the alternatives? For instance, someone once asked me how many wickets India had lost that day. He then gave me the choices: 1,2,3....10. I did not blink for anything so he became confused. The problem was that India had not lost wickets that day. How was I to indicate it if I was not given the alternative 'zero'? Hamstrung by Jaya's absence, I had no option but to wait patiently and hope that the person realised that he had missed something.

There may be some occasions when somebody will be adventurous enough to try to find out my answer by dictating the letters. But most probably, he will be unaware of all the intricacies involved in communicating with me and will soon encounter some roadblock. He will be successful only 'so far as his labors extended' as Dupin said in The Purloined Letter.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

For want of quotation marks the meaning was lost

In The Game of Words, Willard R. Espy writes :

Misplaced commas have resulted in curious misunderstandings. It is said that an ancient Greek, consulting the oracle at Delphi as to whether he should go a-warring, was told:

Thou shalt go thou shalt return
never by war shalt thou perish.

Optimistically adding commas after 'go' and 'return', the Greek took up arms, and was promptly slain. He should have put that second comma after 'never'.

Punctuation errors have not caused me such an existential crisis but there have been occasions when my dictation has caused raised eyebrows. For instance, Jaya wrote the title for my first post and looked at me with the quizzical expression that I had when I first saw a report from a management consultancy firm having the legend 'This page is intentionally left blank'. I looked at what she had written - 'Why I do?' I told her that 'I do' is within quotation marks. Now I didn't look so illiterate.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

More communication snafus

At first I used to dictate long sentences which used to lead to some problems. There will be some interruptions and by the time we resumed Jaya would have forgotten what I had dictated earlier and I would have to start again. Sometimes just as I had finished a sentence and was telling myself 'mission accomplished', I will realise like George Bush that I had counted my chickens too early. A misplaced comma or a word with multiple meanings would have caused Jaya to misinterpret the sentence.

Nowadays before starting the dictation I try to think if I can break the sentence into smaller bits. I also try to iron out any thinkos which might mislead Jaya. It is different for this blog because Jaya writes what I dictate so even if there is some interruption, I can continue later from where we had stopped.

Some people are confident of interpreting my blinks correctly so they will recite the letters of the alphabet in order to find out something from me. But the problem will be that they will not know the division of the alphabet into four rows. This meant that each time they started from 'a' which meant that I had to stare unblinkingly till they reached the correct letter. This was often difficult for letters towards the end of the alphabet and the problem was exacerbated by the fact that many people said the letters slowly. For example, if I wanted to dictate 'w' and the person starts from 'a', I might be forced to blink by the time he reaches 's' which will create a lot of confusion.

Saturday, November 7, 2009


Dictating alphanumeric characters was a problem. For instance, I will dictate 'fone' and Jaya will look at me in bewilderment. After we developed the convention for spacebar, I started saying
'f one' which was easy to interpret as F1. In most cases Jaya will guess from the context that I mean the car race and not the key on the keyboard.

It is now easy to dictate something like H5N1. Of course, this is only when dictating to Jaya. People less schooled in the subtleties of communicating with me will write 'hfivenone' (assuming they get this far), which will lead to a lot of hair tugging in vain attempts to solve the conundrum before they throw in the towel with a 'let Jaya come'.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Enhancing the communication process

The serendipitous discovery of the method of communication was the key event that prevented my relegation to the realm of the undead. (I must qualify it by saying that the discovery was 'almost serendipitous' because talk of some means of communicating with me was 'in the air'. Jaya and the doctors were discussing various methods of eliciting my thoughts.) Although the basic structure has remained the same over the years, there were some roadblocks which necessitated a few additions.

Initially, I used to be stymied by the problem of how to indicate to Jaya that I wanted to dictate something. I would stare at a table nearby on which a book was kept and eventually Jaya guessed that I wanted to say something. But that was in the hospital. When I was discharged and came back home, I did not know where to look in order to give Jaya the same indication. I stared in the same direction in which I remembered the table position in the hospital room. After some trials and errors Jaya finally managed to guess what I meant. When this happened a few times, we developed a convention - if I opened and closed my mouth like a fish, it meant I wanted to convey something.

In order to avoid 'on epi' type errors (of course that was a different type of error- a space was inserted where there was none) we had to develop something for spacebar.I took to shaking my head from side to side to indicate a space. By this Jaya understood that the next letter was the beginning of the next word. I did not have to do this everytime because in many instances the word will be apparent after I dictate a few letters.

Another problem was that of punctuations. There were a few instances when the meaning of the sentence was changed because of the lack of punctuation. I started nodding up and down after dictating a letter. Jaya will guess that there is some punctuation mark there and will start guessing - full stop, comma, brackets, single quotes, double quotes, semicolon etc and I will blink for the correct alternative. This was much better than dictating 'sonapostrophes' for "son's" which would have been a mess.

For pronunciations I relied on rhyming words. For instances, if Sujit, wanted to know the pronunciation of 'coelom' I will say that the first half is pronounced as 'see' and the second half rhymes with 'come'. Of course, if I was sitting I will take the easy option of checking the audio link of an online dictionary.

For diagrams I will give a verbal description and hope that Jaya will understand how to draw it. As Sujit goes to higher classes and the drawings become more complicated, I don't know how successful I will be.

With experience, we are much quicker than suggested by the description. Still it is tedious and I am always glad when Jaya or someone else guesses a word after I have dictated a few letters.