Thursday, July 30, 2015

Two illiterate nurses - II

Soon after the previous nurse I had written about, I got another nurse who had never gone to school. Apparently, girls in  her village (near Trichy in Tamil Nadu) were never sent to school. (This was some decades ago. Things have changed now - her daughter is in college now.)

She was a bit better at telling the time as compared to the previous nurse so giving feeding and medicines on time was not a major concern. This nurse was a Tamilian but she could also manage some broken Hindi and broken Malayalam, having picked up these languages while working in the houses of various patients. For some reason, she concluded that I did not understand Tamil inspite of numerous pieces of evidence  to the contrary. She persisted for over 20 days speaking to me in half-baked Hindi and Malayalam and I couldn't understand half the things she said.

She seemed to love the sound of her own voice. She would keep talking even if no one was paying attention. She would sometimes talk to herself in the same loud voice which would often make me think that she was talking to someone. Because of her constant chatter, I couldn't hear a word on TV when I was listening to the news but her conversation was fun to listen to so it was ok.

She had a peculiar habit of  speaking in the first person. Her name was Kamakshi, so she will say, 'Today Kamakshi is not feeling well.' Or, 'Kamakshi has a headache.' Or, 'Kamakshi is not feeling hungry now.'

At most times she talked to me with the realisation that I understood what she said. But sometimes she lapsed into thinking that I didn't understand anything. Once she told me, 'I am going to the terrace to bring back your cloths'. I blinked 'ok'. She said, 'I had hung them out to dry., I blinked 'ok'.  She said, ' They would have dried by now, I'll get them.' I blinked 'ok'. She said, 'If I don't get them, you will not have cloths to wear tomorrow.' I blinked hard - 'OK dammit'. I breathed a sigh of relief when she finally went to the terrace.

An interesting incident happened once when I was watching TV. There was a cartoon of Narendra Modi who she didn't appear to recognise. She just said, 'Isn't that person looking scary!' I asked Jaya to find out if she knew who the PM was. She didn't seem to know. She just knew that during elections, there was one party led by Jayalalithaa and another one led by Karunanidhi.

I was surprised by a comment that she made. She said that she would not mind having to do things like sponging, washing clothes, etc. the whole day but what she found difficult was having to turn the pages of books! I had thought that it was the other way around.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Two illiterate nurses - I

So far, the agencies had been sending me nurses who had gone to school but had dropped out before completing Std. X. This time, they sent me a nurse who had never been to school and didn't know how to read and write although she could speak two languages ( her native tongue which was Malayalam and Tamil.). It was fascinating to watch her methods to negotiate a world which requires some literacy at various times.

She didn't know how to tell the time by looking at a clock. She could tell the hour from the clock (eg, one o' clock) but she couldn't tell the in-between times (eg. 1 : 15). But she was the most punctual of all the nurses, getting up at exactly six in the morning without ever glancing at the clock. She woke up half an hour early couple of times but the darkness must have told her the time  was not quite right. She looked carefully at the clock for a few minutes, thought that something about the positions of the needles didn't look ok and went back to sleep. She got up half an hour later and knew without looking at the clock and knew it was the right time.

Since the nurse could not read, she could not identify the names that were stored on her mobile phone. She could only redial the last number that she had dialed. If she had to call someone else or a new number had to be stored, she had to tell somebody to  do it. If she wanted to call her daughter early in the morning, she would tell Jaya the previous night to pick out the correct  number so that she just has to press it in the morning.

She was confident of travelling anywhere within Kerala and Tamil Nadu since she knew the local languages. You just had to make her board the correct bus. Before boarding the bus, she will ask Jaya to select in her mobile the number of the person who is waiting for her. After that she was only in contact with that person. It was too risky to ask a stranger to change the number since she couldn't be sure that it was the right number.

Once there was a minor dispute about a date. She said that she  had joined duty on 5th January with which we agreed.  But she insisted that it was a Tuesday and we said that it was a Monday . Jaya began to show her the calender but then realised that it was useless since she couldn't read. There didn't seem to be a way to show her what day it was so we had no option but to accept her statement.

When she had to keep a book in the bookstand for me to read, she would not be sure whether the book was upside down or which was its front cover. She would take a minute or two to determine the correct orientation from the pictures on the  front and back covers.

Her major passtime was watching TV serials. She was not interested in watching anything else, not even movies. She used to be downcast on weekends because serials are telecast only on weekdays. She would watch a particular Malayalam channel for most of the day which would include repeat telecasts of serials which she had already watched. Even if she was watching the same episode for the third time during the day she would watch it with wide-eyed interest. It used to remind me of a Wodehouse description in A Damsel in Distress:
These all belonged to the class which will gather round and watch silently while a motorist mends a tyre.  They are not impatient.  They do not call for rapid and continuous action. A mere hole in the ground, which of all sights is perhaps the least vivid and dramatic, is enough to grip their attention for hours at a time.  
(Come to think of it, I may not be too different. My favorite movie is Sholay which I would have watched  dozens of times. I still watch it every time it comes on TV with the same level of interest that I had when I first saw it almost 40 years ago. There is no accounting for human tastes.)

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Mentioning institute affiliations is not enough - IV

The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible .- Oscar Wilde

In his piece, Sanjeev fails to differentiate between levels of analysis. For example he asks, 'which particular cell or atom or subatomic particle feels it all?' This is like asking, 'When you stretch a rubber band, which atoms undergo the maximum stretch? 'Chemists will talk of interactions between atoms and molecules. A car mechanic will talk of larger aggregates of matter like cylinders and spark plugs. As Richard Dawkins says in The Extended Phenotype, 'At every level the units interact with each other following laws appropriate to that level, laws which are not conveniently reducible  to laws at lower levels.'

You cannot analyse the lowest level using the laws used at the highest  level. If a chemist thinks in terms of spark plugs or a mechanic thinks in terms of atoms both will become dysfunctional. The building blocks used at one level (say, sense organs) are analysed in detail at another level (say, the cells that make up those sense organs). Each provides some information that adds to the overall picture but none of the levels can be fully understood if they are studied in isolation without any reference to other levels.

Sanjeev also does not distinguish between proximate and ultimate causes. A proximate cause is an event which is closest to, or immediately responsible for causing, some observed result. It explains biological function in terms of immediate physiological or environmental factors. The ultimate cause is one which is usually thought of as the "real" reason something occurred. In biology, ultimate causation explains traits in terms of evolutionary forces acting on them. For e.g., take the case of a cheetah chasing a gazelle.

You can say that the cheetah's visual system registers the gazelle, its hunger pangs cause its brain to secrete some hormones which cause the relevant muscles to contract. You could step back a bit and talk about the genes that made the proteins that make up the hormones and muscles, about the effect of a mutation on one of those genes, etc. You could step further back and look at the evolutionary history and say that cheetahs that could run a bit faster than others in the population caught more gazelles when they were hungry, so they survived better and produced more offspring on average and over many generations their genes came to dominate the population. Most of the energy for the evolutionary process is obtained from sunlight.

Now if you omit all the intermediate processes and just say that the cheetah chases the gazelle because the sun shines, it sounds strange. Sanjeev does a similar thing when he says that thoughts and emotions are caused by chemical reactions.Such blurring of the dichotomy between the immediate short-term explanation and the underlying long-term explanation of the same behavior is done by Indian gurus. IIT graduates are expected to to do better.

If not his IIM connection, Sanjeev's IIT connection should have given him a better appreciation of the methods of science. But as the Salem hypothesis - It holds that people who claim science expertise, whilst advocating creationism, tend to be formally trained as engineers - shows, engineers seem to have difficulty with biology. As for me, having studied engineering, I find biology, especially evolutionary biology, more interesting. Jerry Coyne says in Why Evolution is True:
Among the wonders that  science has uncovered about the universe in which we dwell, no subject has caused more fascination and fury than evolution. That is probably because no majestic galaxy or fleeting neutrino has implications that are so personal. Learning about evolution can transform us in a deep way. It shows us our place in the whole splendid panoply of life. It unites us with every living thing on earth today and with myriads of creatures long dead. Evolution gives us the true account of our origins, replacing the myths that satisfied us for thousands of years. Some find this deeply frightening, others ineffably thrilling.
No points for guessing which group I belong to. I find the idea that I am related to a cabbage fascinating rather than disturbing. Sanjeev seems to be uncomfortable about scientists saying that life is chemistry. Whether he likes it or not, it is true but life is more than 'just' chemistry just as football is more than 'just' physics.

Analysing the chemical composition of chocolate doesn't mean you lose the ability to taste chocolate. Regarding a flower as a lure sculpted by evolution over millenia to attract pollinating agents does not mean that one can't appreciate the beauty of a flower. Regarding a bird as a small dinosaur does not mean one can't appreciate its splendor (or indeed, a poem about it; one of my favourite poems is  Shelley's To a Skylark). As Richard Feynman said, scientific knowledge adds to the beauty of nature; it doesn't subtract.

(I wanted to write a bit more but felt that these posts were becoming too long and decided to stop. Ever since I got the neuro-headset, I have flouted the fundamental idea of the Elizabeth Taylor school of blogging. And if you are wondering what that is, she is supposed to have told a husband of hers, 'I shan't keep you for long.' In other words, I have not erred on the side of brevity and conciseness for quite a while.)