Friday, December 24, 2010

'You won't understand'

'A genius ...Elusive, delicate but lasting. He created such a credible world that, sadly, I suppose, never really existed but what a delight it always is to enter it and the temptation to linger there is sometimes almost overwhelming'- Alan Ayckbourn about P.G.Wodehouse

Once during physiotherapy, I suddenly started laughing. The physiotherapist thought that it was about something to do with the exercises so she asked me what it was about. I wondered what to say. This was because at the time I had been reading 'The Code of the Woosters' and had suddenly remembered a funny scene in it. Bertie Wooster had gone to Stiffy Byng's room to pinch an incriminating notebook but was set upon by her dog which made him jump quickly onto a chest of drawers. Sitting on this uncomfortable perch and gazing down sourly at the dog who was sitting on the floor and glaring at him, Bertie muses:
I remember Freddie Widgeon, who was once chased onto the top of a wardrobe by an Alsatian during a country house visit, telling me that what he had disliked most about the thing was the indignity of it all - the blow to the proud spirit, if you know what I mean - the feeling, in fine, that he, the Heir of the Ages, as you might say, was camping out on a wardrobe at the whim of a bally dog.

It was the same with me. One doesn't want to make a song and dance about one's ancient lineage, of course, but after all the Woosters did come over with the Conqueror and were extremely pally with him: and a fat lot of good it is coming over with Conquerors, if you're simply going to wind up by being given the elbow by Aberdeen terriers.
Trying to to explain this to someone who is not already familiar with the story and the writing style of Wodehouse would have been an impossible task. Wodehouse fans know that nothing much happens in his novels and the fun lies in the way he plays with words in order to describe the absurd situations that his characters find themselves in. If I had tried explaining it, it would have taken an hour and the effort would have fallen flat. So I chose the easy option and dictated to Jaya,'You won't understand'.

Since then whenever I laughed for no discernible reason, the physiotherapist will look at Jaya, smile knowingly and say,'You won't understand'.

Friday, December 17, 2010

It only adds

Some people think that unweaving the rainbow reduces the charm of the rainbow. I belong to the opposite camp. Before becoming interested in reading about evolution, I would have had only a vague understanding of what Richard Feynman was talking about in the beginning of the video in the previous link. Now I have a better idea of how the co-evolutionary relationship between flowers and their pollinators give rise to complex adaptations. In Unweaving the Rainbow, Richard Dawkins writes:
There is an anaesthetic of familiarity, a sedative of ordinariness, which dulls the senses and hides the wonder of existence. For those of us not gifted in poetry, it is at least worthwhile from time to time making an effort to shake off the anaesthetic. What is the best way of countering the sluggish habituation brought about by our gradual crawl from babyhood? We can't actually fly to another planet. But we can recapture that sense of having just tumbled out to life on a new world by looking at our own world in unfamiliar ways.
In Climbing Mount Improbable, Richard Dawkins writes:
The genes of an elephant or a human, like the genes of a virus, can be seen as a Duplicate Me computer program. Virus genes are coded instructions that say (if they happen to be parasitizing an elephant): 'Elephant cells, duplicate me.' Elephant genes say: 'Elephant cells, work together to make a new elephant, which must be programmed in its turn to grow and make more elephants, all programmed to duplicate me.' The principle is the same. It is just that some Duplicate Me programs are more indirect and longwinded than others.
To put it another way, as Samuel Butler said, “A hen is only an egg's way of making another egg.” I loved this new way of looking at living creatures which I was not familiar with earlier. It was like suddenly being able to see the second view of the Necker Cube. Reading about evolution and astronomy gave me some idea of Blake's words:
To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.
But Blake was a mystic and would have written his lines to mean the opposite of what I thought they meant. It is ironical that when I can't physically move an inch of my own volition, my mind delights in traversing vast expanses of time and space. The late George Carlin seems to have been a man after my own heart. (But my interest doesn't extend to a desire to own celestial bodies.) This is the type of conversation that would have me all ears even though some of it is beyond my level of incompetence because, as Feynman says in the video in the first link of this post, there is a 'difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something.' (Note: The discussion has nothing to do with what the good professors at IIMA slogged to drill into my head.)

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

What is it like to be 'locked-in'?

There is a well known philosophical paper called What is it like to be a bat? It is not so much about bats as about the impossibility of knowing fully some state unless you are yourself in that state. You may know all about echolocation but you will not be able to experience the world like a bat unless you are yourself a bat. I won't be able to understand exactly the thought processes of writers who are slowly losing their mind. And I won't be able to understand the experience of someone who has had a stroke in a different part of the brain. (For example, see this TED talk.) The same goes for being 'locked-in'. There is something ineffable that you will never be able to get.

Take for instance the first time I sat upright after my stroke. I felt as if all my internal organs were hanging down limply as if they were attached to the body wall by sheets of muscles that were limp like the membrane of a pricked balloon. I don't know how else to explain it. The feeling lasted only for a few seconds and has never happened again. You will not be able to simulate the feeling because I suppose the relevant muscles are involuntary.

In The Language Instinct, Steven Pinker writes:
The main lesson of thirty-five years of AI research is that the hard problems are easy and the easy problems are hard. The mental abilities of a four year-old that we take for granted - recognizing a face, lifting a pencil, walking across a room, answering a question - in fact solve some of the hardest engineering problems ever conceived ... As the new generation of intelligent devices appears, it will be the stock analysts and petrochemical engineers and parole board members who are in danger of being replaced by machines. The gardeners, receptionists, and cooks are secure in their jobs for decades to come.
The same is the case with being 'locked-in'. Reading or blogging don't drive me up the wall. That is reserved for the ant in the pant or the mosquito in the middle of the night. You will not be able to understand why time appears to pass slowly when someone removes the railings from my bed and no one stands nearby. (It does not happen every time.) You will have only a vague understanding of my reluctance to travel.

Whenever someone tells me that I should do this instead of that, I am reminded of an incident that I had once heard. The wife was sound asleep when her one year old son gave her a good bite. The wife awoke in a daze and in pain and gave the child a whack. Hearing the commotion, the husband came into the room, heard the whole story and admonished the wife - 'You should know some child psychology. How will a small child know that its actions are causing pain? He was only being playful.' The wife listened quietly. A few days later the boot was on the other foot.The husband was sound asleep when the child gave him a good bite. He awoke in a daze and in pain and gave the child a whack. Hearing the commotion, the wife came into the room, heard the whole story and asked him,'What happened to your child psychology stuff?'