Monday, June 20, 2016

More episodes regarding nurses - I

When they first arrive, most nurses will be intimidated by the sight of my condition and will wonder whether they will be able to do the job. They will be relieved to know that Jaya will be with them at every step till I feel confident that the nurse can do the job on her own. After a week of learning the various procedures and getting to know my communication methods, the nurses start becoming more confident. The problem is that many then quickly traverse to the other end of the spectrum and become over-confident.

They take longer to call Jaya and try to find out what my dumb charades could mean. But their guesses would naturally be confined to what I had indicated in the week or two since the nurse had come while this will be a new issue.. So they will rarely be able to guess the problem and finally they will have no option but to call Jaya to whom I will dictate what needed to be done.


Many nurses think that all movements are voluntary whereas most of my movements are involuntary, This sometimes causes misunderstanding. For instance, my hands will keep bending at the elbow in response to cough, itch, pain, laughter, etc. The nurse will straighten them and in a few minutes they will again become bent. When this happens a few times, the nurse will say in exasperation, 'I am listening to you so why can't you listen to me? You are becoming stubborn! Keep your hands straight like this.' Of course, the advise will be in vain. I will feel like saying, 'It is my hands that are disobedient, not me!'


Many nurses, once they get used to me, seem touchy when I call Jaya. They think I am complaining to her about them. Actually, I will just be telling Jaya to show the nurse an easier way of doing something (which they will eventually ignore but I will try telling them anyway) or it may be to tell them to avoid some movement that was causing me some pain. In most such instances, I will have no option but to convey such instruction via Jaya.

Perhaps they have no other word to express this and they will sometimes ask me, 'Any complaints to Jaya?' After we realised this problem, we started using another tactic. I will wait for Jaya to come into my room when the nurse is not present and tell her the problem. She will tell the nurse later in some roundabout way about it without letting on that I had told her about it. But in the case of some pain, I will call Jaya immediately.

Many times when I ask a nurse to call Jaya, she will say, 'Why call her? You can tell me what you want.' I will start getting irritated and rail silently, 'It should be obvious to you that I am not able to convey it to you which is why I want you to call Jaya. This does not require rocket science, does it?' It is a bit unfair but it is said that in anger, you will make the best speech that you will regret. I escape this fate since I can't make that speech. Sometimes  the reason for calling Jaya might have nothing to do with the nurse - maybe I just want to remind Jaya about a bill that has to be paid, which I will obviously not be able to tell the nurse.

For a while, I will maintain a forced smile and try to indicate with vigorous movements of my head that there is no option but to call Jaya. Some nurses are stubborn and will persist in telling me that I should tell them the reason. I will start getting impatient and this makes clonus set in after which things are outside my control. My muscles will start stiffening and it will look as if I am having fits. The beneficial aspect of developing clonus is that the nurse will call Jaya immediately without waiting.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Strength in simplicity

This is the time of bluff and bombast - A 'path breaking' budget that will 'transform' India, a policy is a 'game changer', an agreement is 'historic', a product will 'revolutionise' communication', some product will 'change the world' (Steve Jobs said that about all his products), something will be a 'landmark' decision...I heard an anchor in a Malayalam channel called Kappa TV, which most people wouldn't have heard of, say, "When we were conceptualising this remix, we didn't know the impact it will have on 'the whole nation'".

Every state will have a much-hyped investor summit where huge investment promises will be made but one will never hear about the actuals. The prevailing wisdom seems to be that one has to shout and make tall claims in order to be successful. There is an emphasis on bright-siding everything irrespective of what the reality indicates. I was thinking about this culture of what Arun Shourie called, 'Jo hyperbole so nihal' while reading Gandhi before India by Ramachandra Guha.

In 1909, Gandhi spoke to a mixed gathering of Indians in London where he shared a platform with Savarkar. At that time, the Indian freedom movement was divided into two camps: moderates and extremists. Moderates believed in incremental, constitutional change while extremists wanted rapid change with violence if necessary. Savarkar was in the extremist camp and Gandhi was in the moderate camp. Ramachandra Guha describes how a student remembered the meeting 40 years later:
Savarkar was 'by far the most arresting personality' at the meeting; for 'around him had been built a flaming galaxy of violent revolutionism'. Gandhi, on the other hand, seemed shy and diffident; the students had to 'bend their heads forward to hear the great Mr. Gandhi speak'. His voice and speech were of a piece with his manner - 'calm, unemotional, simple, and devoid of rhetoric'.
A friend of Gandhi said that in  Johannesberg itself, there were 'several of his countrymen whose elocution, natural and unaffected, is far superior to his', that he spoke in a monotonous voice, he 'never waves his arms' and 'seldom moves a finger'. A shy, soft-spoken man who was an indifferent public speaker with speech devoid of rhetoric could move more millions than any other person in India's political history without the aid of arms or an army backing him. I think there is a lesson in it somewhere. (Watch this talk by Dr. Apoorvanand Jha - explaining the relevance of Gandhi's strong anti-majoritarian stand in his final days. The talk is in Hindi.)

Gandhi's philosophy of non-violent resistance to unjust laws made him ' a strategist of slow reforms, of protesting by stages, of systematically preparing himself and his colleagues rather than spontaneously  (or, as he would have it, haphazardly) rushing into confrontation.' This is in sharp contrast to what is popular today: a person who is aggressive, has a no-nonsense attitude, takes quick decisions...In other words, in order to be successful, one is supposed to be a pain in the neck.

Another friend says that while a student in London, Gandhi learnt that 'by quiet persistence he could do far more to change men's minds than by any oratory or loud trumpeting'. He was one of those rare individuals who was reflective as well as firm when he finally took a decision. And importantly, he had high moral standards. His followers were sure that he would be the the first to do what he asked others to do. Guha quotes an admirer, the Chinese Nobel Laureate, Liu Xiabao:
Compared to people in other nations that have lived under the dreary pull of Communism, we resistors in China have not measured up very well. Even after so many years of tremendous tragedies, we still don't have a moral leader like Vaclav Havel. It seems ironic that in order to win the right of ordinary people to persue self-interest, a society needs a moral giant to make a selfless sacrifice. In order to secure 'passive freedom' - freedom from state oppression - there needs to be a will to do active resistance. History is not fated. The appearance of a single martyr can fundamentally turn the spirit of a nation and strengthen its moral fibre. Gandhi was such a figure.
PS: During his first visit to the US, Modi made a big splash. Listening to the audience reactions after one of his 'rock star-like' appearances, I heard a gushing NRI say, 'It was like listening to Gandhi.' I almost had a heart attack.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Luck - VI

In The Shiva Trilogy by Amish Tripathi, there were some statements that I disagreed with, one of which was that 'nothing is random; everything has a cause'. (Of course earthquakes, for example, have reasons but those reasons have nothing to do with us.) Humans have evolved to notice patterns and ascribe significance to them. English philosopher and scientist Francis Bacon said that humanity has a proclivity to “suppose the existence of more order and regularity in the world than it finds.” Zodiac signs, Roscharch test and paredolia are examples of the human tendency to find patterns where none exist.

Human beings make up stories that sound convincing to them. There is an experiment by the psychologist Richard Nisbet which shows this.They placed several stockings on the table. Many women were then allowed to examine the stockings and choose the one they liked best. The women gave all sorts of reasons for their choice but actually the stockings were identical. People are often mistaken about their feelings and give reasons from social conventions, from how things normally work or plain guesses. You can see this habit of trying to spot patterns in randomness in the stock market.  Phil Rosenzweig writes in The Halo Effect:
...take the stock market, whose fluctuation , edging higher one day and a bit lower the next, resemble Brownian motion, the jittery movement of pollen particles in water or gas molecules bouncing off one another. It's not very satisfying to say that today's stock market movement is explained by random forces. Tune in to CNBC and listen to the pundits as they watch the ticker, and you'll  hear them explain, "The Dow is up slightly as investors gain confidence from rising factory orders,"or, "The Dow is off by a percentage point as investors take profits,"or, "The Dow is a bit higher as investors shrug off worries about the Fed's next move on interest rates." They have to say something. Maria Bartiromo can't exactly look into the camera and say that the Dow is down half a percent today because of random Brownian motion.
In Fooled by Randomness, Nassim Taleb gives an example of how a perfectly random process can produce a result that mimics what happens in the real world. Suppose there are 10,000 fictional investment managers who play a perfectly fair game: each has a 50% chance of winning $10,000 at the end of the year and a 50% chance of losing $10,000. Once a manager loses money, he is thrown out of the sample.Thus, each year half the managers lose their job.

At the end of the first year, we can expect 5000 managers to survive, after two years, 2500 will have won 2 years in a row and so on. At the end of the fifth year, there will be 313 managers who would have won money five years in a row in a game akin to a coin toss. The number of survivors depends only on the initial number who play the game. If one of these survivors is in the real world, what will the reactions be? Taleb writes:
...we would get very interesting and helpful comments on his remarkable style, his incisive mind, and the influences that helped him achieve such success. Some analysts may attribute his achievement to precise elements among his childhood experiences. His biographer will dwell on the wonderful role models provided by his parents; we would be supplied with black and white pictures in the middle of the book of a great mind in the making. And the following year, should he stop outperforming (recall that his odds of having a good year have stayed at 50%) they would stat laying blame, finding fault with the relaxation in his work ethics, or his dissipated lifestyle. They will find something he did before when he was successful that he has subsequently stopped doing, and attribute his failure to that. The truth will be, however, that he simply ran out of luck.
To understand successes, the study of traits in failure need to be present. For instance, some traits that seem to explain millionaires, like appetite for risk, only appear because one does not study business failures. If one includes bankrupt people in the sample, then risk-taking would not appear to be a valid factor explaining success. The Halo Effect also contributes to making a coherent story by making our view of all the attributes of an individual match our judgment of one attribute that stands out. As Philip, the protagonist in Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage muses:
 He did not know that he had ever done anything but what seemed best to do, and what a cropper he had come! Other men, with no more advantages than he, succeeded, and others again, with many more, failed. It seemed pure chance. The rain fell alike upon the just and upon the unjust, and for nothing was there a why and a wherefore.
Or as it says in Ecclesiastes: 'I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.' In this speech, Michael Lewis describes how luck played the key role in putting him in the right place at the right time.