Monday, April 30, 2012

I can type!

Some months back, a classmate of mine at IIMA, Rashmi Bansal had visited us. She asked Jaya  to contact Prof. Prabhat Ranjan from Dhirubhai Ambani Institute of Information and Communication Technology (DAIICT) who she said may be able to help me. (Rashmi has the whole story here.) Accordingly, Jaya contacted Prof.Ranjan, told him  about my difficulties and also gave him the address of my blog so that he got more pointers about my needs. He thought that I would benefit by using a brain-computer-interface. (There was a story in ToI regarding this. And yes, the Karat guy is me.)

He then sent a couple of his  engineers, Ajay Roshania and Hiren Shah, to help train me in using the device. They were accompanied by a s/w engineer from a Coimbatore based company, Mr. Vickneswaran. Since the initial training, they  have been immensely helpful in sorting out various small issues that kept cropping up from time to time as I learnt various nuances about how to use the device. One particularly helpful feature has been increasing the size of the keys on the on-screen key board. This has ensured that a certain amount of shake  can be tolerated. Before using this device, I had not realised that my head shook so  much.  (It is as if my head rests on a moderately stiff spring.)

The s/w could be installed only on the laptop. For some reason, it could not be installed on the desktop. This proved advantageous for me because I could use the battery back-up in the laptop to type when there was no current.(The load-shedding here is about - hold your breath - 8 hours.) An inverter has been fitted for the computers so this no longer is a problem. I now have the problem of deciding whether and when to switch off the computer to read a book. Believe me, you can always find a reason to crib if you try hard enough. (From the day the inverter was installed, load shedding has reduced. Just saying.)

I had fun showing off  my magic skills to visitors - the cursor moving around on the  monitor of its own accord, letters  appearing out of nowhere...I was like a kid showing off his new bicycle to his mother - 'Look ma,  no hands!' Fortunately, there have been only 2-3  visitors at a  time. (If  you recall, I am not at my best in front of large audiences.)

Even small audiences are a problem. This is because, when people are around, I tend to get excited and laugh which makes the cursor go all over the screen. If I am alone, I concentrate only on the screen, there is no distraction from any quarter and my typing speed increases considerably.  So there is a paradox -if people are around, my typing is laborious;  if I am alone, my typing is much better. In other words, if you watch me typing, you will get tired.

Another reason why I prefer using the device when I am alone is that I use eye blinks for all communication. When I blink in response to someone's queries, the computer might register my blinks and click whichever icon the mouse-pointer happens to be in. When I turn back to the monitor, something would have happened that I wouldn't have wanted. There are other options in the s/w  for mouse-clicks like smile, clench teeth etc. I can use only blinks because I don't have voluntary control over the other expressions.

Some days I type well. On some days, my head seems to shake a bit more, I get a bit more cough or my blinks don't seem to work properly. I notice them when I use the headset, otherwise I would have not been aware of them.

I only use the device when Jaya is at home because there is a 15-20 min procedure in the beginning before I get control of the mouse.I have also to call her occasionally to get me out of some mess that I had created.  The physiotherapist comes in the evening when generally most guests also come, thus the preferable time for using the device is in the mornings.  I generally don't use the device when Sujit comes back from school because he will be more interested in what I am doing than on his studies. (This is not a factor for another month or so because it is his vacations.) I now sometimes sit in the afternoons also even though Jaya will be asleep because Sujit will be able to pull me out of any hole I find myself in. He rarely sleeps in the afternoons. (That only happens when he has an exam the next day.)

When using the headset I am mercifully free of the tyranny of mobile phones. They may have their uses but I hate them. Whenever I want to  type something in the computer, the nurse will get a phone call and for the next 10 minutes, I will be admiring the screen saver and thinking of some song.It is amazing how often Jaya or the nurse gets one of those interminable phone  calls. It is a wonder that I have not burst a blood vessel yet.

Another advantage of the device is that I am now occupied when the nurse is on leave. Previously during these times, since Jaya will have a hundred different things to do, I try to avoid asking her to be my typist also. Now, she just has to spend a few minutes in the beginning to activate the device and leave me alone for the next couple of hours. I can work for only a couple of hours at a stretch before my neck muscles get tired because of constant movement and my blinks become a bit erratic.

I have told you about two  methods that I use to type my posts. Now I also have this device.  My typing speed has been increasing with practice. I suppose it will be optimum when I lose my initial excitement at being able to type and the device  becomes like just another pair of reading glasses. Of course, no device will be able to reach the speed with which I dictate  to Jaya. This is because, when dictating to Jaya, I often resort to the Adrian Boult principle. In The Extended Phenotype, Richard Dawkins explains the principle:
Once,in rehearsal, Sir Adrian turned to the violas and told them to play out more.‘But Sir Adrian’, protested the principal viola, ‘you were indicating less and less with your baton’. ‘The idea’, retorted the maestro, ‘is that I should do less and less, and you should do more and more!’
For eg., I might dictate a couple of letters and Jaya might guess the whole word or she might guess a large part of the next sentence depending on the context.   Sometimes  I may indicate a word by moving the head or by looking in some direction. Jaya will be able to guess the word because of years of practice interpreting my dumb charades. Humans are good at using theory of mind which machines cannot, at least not to the same extent.

I am sometimes asked why I don't indulge in other activities like travelling or participating in various fora.  The answer is simple - it is a question of opportunity cost. Whatever method of communication I use, it will be slower than what any normal person can manage. Thus any time I spend on other activities means that I get a correspondingly less time for reading and blogging which I enjoy. When my interest in blogging starts waning, I will move on to something else.

So I now have 3 methods by which I can keep wasting your time. I will be using a mix of the methods to type the posts depending on the convenience at any point of time. I have thought of some splendid things to write about in the next few weeks. (Really! I am not joking!) So now, apart from Jaya and the nurse, you also have Rashmi and Prof. Prabhat Ranjan to crib about. Good luck!

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Interesting passtimes

I heard that when Ricard Feynman was learning to paint, he used to visit a topless bar. (Presumably the building had a roof.) While there, unlike other people who drew the girls, he drew the the faces of the men watching the girls. He must have got some interesting portraits!

Taking a cue from this, I often amuse myself during conversations that  don't grip me by looking at the faces of the people who are listening rather than the people who are talking. I will think about how interested a person is in a conversation, whether he is just being polite, whether his mind is elsewhere etc. I can do this because after the initial flurry following my entry into the room, I generally become part of the decoration and no one will observe what I do. I guess my cover is blown now! I will sometimes listen with interest to tales of my exploits in ancient times that I was hearing for the first time. (I once heard that I was a Hindi pundit. I used to barely pass in the subject.)

If someone similarly tried to read my expressions, it would be an exercise in futility due to some stroke related quirks. Once a family friend, while taking my leave, told me that he will try to come the next day. He then hastily said that he will definitely come the next day. I wondered why he had suddenly changed his mind. Jaya told me that he had thought that I was about to cry while I had thought that I was giving a polite smile! Someone said that every communication is an act of interpretation. My communication is often misinterpreted.Interpreting the expressions of even normal people is tricky business and in my case it is even more difficult.

I use the 'Feynman manoevre' even while watching songs and other programs  on T.V. It is fun to watch the extras with funny expressions trying their best to keep up with the lead pair, the vague dance, the crowds assembled for the song gawking at the stars... This is a song in which there are a lot of extras who don't have anything much to do except smile, nod and clap occasionally.

I also like watching the biases that people commonly display. For eg., confirmation bias plays a major role in the reinforcement of religious ideas. People having similar ways of thinking keep exchanging similar stories  with each other and the superstitious beliefs of that particular tribe thrives in this echo chamber.  In Stumbling on Happiness,  Daniel Gilbert writes:
Our tendency to expose ourselves to information that supports our favoured conclusions is especially powerful when it comes to choosing the company we keep. You’ve probably noticed that with the exception of Wilt Chamberlian, nobody picks friends and lovers by random sampling.  On the contrary, we spend countless hours and countless dollars carefully arranging our lives to ensure that we are surrounded by people who like us, and people who are like us.
Once a person said that he did not believe in various superstitions that people had. (It is obligatory to first say that you don't believe in something before you say how you believe it.) Once he had to have an injection for some illness. When he saw the size of the needle he became nervous and prayed fervently, 'O Krishna! And you won't believe but I did not feel any pain.' There were nods of approval and 'I told you so' expressions from different quarters.

It is interesting to watch the easy familiarity that quickly develops among people who know the correct superstitious shibboleths. Even if you don’t know the members of a group, if you know the right passwords, establishing a rapport with them is easy.

Monday, April 16, 2012

3rd blogiversary

We have completed 3 years of blogging and we are pleased that we have managed to be a bit more prolific than this blog. A guy once told me that he thinks so deeply about what he writes that he has written only one post in two years. In contrast, I am a shallow thinker with more output. Guess you can't have the best of both worlds simultaneously.

At first, I used to write only about my stroke related experiences but then I started mentioning interesting bits from books I read. Most people get blog fodder from their travels, conversations with people, office experiences etc. A large part of my input comes from the books and blogs that I read.

This time, instead of indulging in my usual Sesquipedalian Obscurantism I thought I will just ask a simple riddle. I had second thoughts about this but then I thought that may be you can have some fun with kids so here goes :
Three Indian women are sitting side by side. The first, sitting on a goatskin, has a son who weighs 170 pounds. The second, sitting on a deerskin, has a son who weighs 130 pounds. The third, seated on a hippopotamus hide, weighs 300 pounds. What famous theorem does this illustrate? (Riddle from The Game of Words by Willard Espy.)
On the off chance that a couple of you may be a bit off colour, I have given the answer below. Just scroll down a bit.
Naturally, the answer is that the squaw on the hippopotamus is equal to the sons of the squaws on the other two hides. I told you it was simple!

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Extended Phenotype

I have read most of the science books by Richard Dawkins but I had not plucked up the courage to read The Extended Phenotype: The Long Reach of the Gene which he had stated often as the book that he was most proud of. This is because he has also said that the book is targeted at advanced readers which ruled me out. But now having read evolutionary biology for 5-6 years, I thought that I will take a chance. The preface began on a forbidding note:
The readers for whom I am mainly writing are my professional colleagues, evolutionary biologists, ethologists and sociobiologists, ecologists, and philosophers and humanists interested in evolutionary science, including, of course, graduate and undergraduate students in all these disciplines. Therefore, although this book is in some ways the sequel to my previous book, The Selfish Gene, it assumes that the reader has professional knowledge of evolutionary biology and its technical terms.
I have read The Selfish Gene and enjoyed it. But professional knowledge? Technical terms? This was not looking too good. The next few sentences were more encouraging.
On the other hand it is possible to enjoy a professional book as a spectator, even if not a participant in the profession. Some lay people who read this book in draft have been kind enough, or polite enough, to claim to have liked it. It would give me great satisfaction to believe them, and I have added a glossary of technical terms which I hope may help. I have also tried to make the book as near as possible to being enjoyable to read. The resulting tone may possibly irritate some serious professionals.
This was not an easy read but not too dense, certainly not as disastrous as my doomed attempt to learn some cosmology. But if I had read it 6 years ago, it would have looked like Greek written backwards.Of course there were passages that I found tough going, eg. those dealing with linkage disequilibrium or with segregation distorters. (I am sure you will be rushing out to buy a copy today.) But there were enough passages that I could follow so that I did not lose interest.

If you have come this far in this post, you will be wondering why I struggle with such books instead of reading Tintin comics. (BTW, I do enjoy reading Tintin. 'Billions of bilious blue blistering barnacles in ten thousand thundering typhoons' is what you must be thinking.) In Does He Know A Mother's Heart?, Arun Shourie writes about his son who has cerebral palsy:
My mother-in-law would teach him – from news, to stories, to rhyming games, to poems, to arithmetic. ‘But why arithmetic, Mummy?’ I would remonstrate. ‘Why make him do sums? Why make him learn tables? He is never going to use them.’ ‘But just see his sense of achievement when he gets the answer right,’ she would teach me.
It is fun to learn about things that I didn't know earlier. But the matter has to be in the Goldilocks zone: just right -neither too easy nor too tough. If it is too easy, I will get bored. If it is too tough. I will give up in a daze (even if it is in words of four letters or less).

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Moral dilemmas

Is it ok to kill one person to save five? Are there any situations when cannibalism can be justified? If a woman signs an agreement giving her consent to being a surrogate mother and later refuses to part with the child, should the agreement be enforced in a court of law? These and other such moral dilemmas are discussed by Prof. Michael Sandel in a course on justice at Harvard University, all the lectures of which are available here. This is the first course that Harvard has made available for free online viewing.