Saturday, June 06, 2015

An Approximate Life

Be approximately right rather than exactly wrong.

John W Tukey, a chemist, turned topologist turned statistician, absolutely hit the nail on the head when he said that. Which is kind of funny , because he was exactly right.

We, of the world's approximately oldest civilization, initiators of the exact concept of zero,  and  some time learners of a context sensitive ancient Panini Sanskrit Grammar so perfectly algebraic  for relating to computer programming structures, have unknowingly accepted approximations as a huge part of our lives.

Go on  road trip anywhere, and stop to ask directions. Many times, road signs are a one time effort performed by fatigued municipal office, and updating is ignored.   Regardless of the actual distance, with a fine disregard for the metric system  which actually took over in 1957, someone will always say ,"Oh, just 5 furlongs further down ."  After 5 furlongs, when nothing appears, and you check with someone , you get a similar answer, possibly qualified by sighting things like schools, cisterns and taking a left or right .

You get a notification from the income tax authorities mentioning your latest return, and it mentions an approximate general reason(s) you should see them immediately. There is nothing exactly mentioned regarding specifically you.  You take leave from work, and travel 40 kilometres to their office, out of respect for national laws which are exact. On reaching there, you move through a maze of folks who point you somewhere else approximately. The final person tells you , your return is fine, and the letters were sent to approximately 1 lakh  people including you, who fell into some category, as an exercise in random checking.

You go to your bank, to wire some money abroad as registration fee for a conference.  You would think the rules exist in black and white. But no.  I mean the rules exist, you specify the extra charges should be recovered from your normal savings account,  but the understanding is approximate, and so every head office en route on the wire gets its pound of flesh before the fee reaches the destination ,  reduced in value . You protest,  someone checks and apologizes, and something is returned to you.  This from a major bank that should know its procedures eyes closed. But there is a comfort level in being approximate, and a bit of a nose-turn-up in being called a service organization.      

The agency that really excels at approximation is the Weather Bureau or Meteorological Office as we call it.   The first approximation is about when the Monsoon will hit Kerala. Sometimes it does not keep appointments, and various reasons are given about winds, and depressions and so on. Which develop over a period of observable time, and nothing is instantly changing. Indications exist,  but we we are still approximate.  The 26th July cloudburst over Mumbai was never predicted. Rain clouds in mid February , are unusual, do not appear in an instant, movements can be followed, but someone thinks the clouds may approximately move on, and hey, who wants to make a wrong prediction ? (For that matter, a right prediction ? :-)  )

Law and Order issues being approximate is puzzling.  The approximation being done is by the authorities.  You get pulled up because you followed the traffic flow and turned left, when the signal was red.  You get pulled up when you obstinately wait for a signal to change color, and block all kinds of errant honking traffic behind you. The cop is approximately trying to figure out  what he should charge you under, as hundreds of bikers without helmets zip through disobeying an exact rule. You ask him about this, and he approximately deems you dangerous and lets you go.

Medicine is an exact science.  However , our Food and Drug authorities allow medicines , like Nimesulide , which are banned in other countries.  I mean, either something is beneficial to the body,  or it is harmful.  Dosages are specified . But we are beset with an approximate attitude.   We seem to follow a "maybe" system . Lead in Maggie noodles (where these noodles are not a life requirement, per se) is avidly investigated, retests ordered, but millions of fly-by-night ayurevdic manufacturers ignore proper procedures of preparing medications as specified, and market medications with unchecked harmful levels of lead.   The "Maybe" is intricately linked with a mindset that says, science may be exact, so what; but we deal in things approximately.

So many things that work like clockwork in other countries simply become "approximate" in India .  Cell phone service providers who must follow stringent service-to-consumers rules elsewhere , simply go approximately haywire in India. Like Vodafone.  ( I have personal experience).  Airlines which must provide certain facilities (else face penalties/actions) in other countries, quietly ignore things in India, and point to local airlines when you question them about things like wheelchairs. (Again I have personal  experience). Even food. They try and approximately do what they are supposed to , and it doesn't matter if  the consumer suffers.

Sometimes I think our flora today also live approximate lives, not knowing what the soils contain, thanks to indiscriminate landfills , putrefying stuff and increase in methane concentrations, and lack of water. Global warming is a nice approximate reason to publicize.

Many years ago, Germans were famous for perfection.  They still may be.  I haven't been there since 1991 when I lived there , with the kids , for a year.  There used to be  Herr Schmidt in our apartment  complex, who  always did the garden up keep, and became great friends with my daughter , who  then  5, liked to tag along with him, clearing weeds, raking soil, and watering , once the winter cold season got over. I would chat with him whenever I went to pick up my daughter, or thought she was being more of a nuisance than a help, and he once mentioned, that spring officially began on April 1, and so now was the time in late March, to do all this work in the garden.

My approximation laden mind was in a shocked tizzy over his statement about Spring beginning on April 1.  I mean, there were things you could be exact about, and there were things beyond your control.  Spring was not an aunt who called and said she was arriving by a certain train , and so on. 

You will not believe this, but right on the dot on April 1, I noticed buds  on the plants, some blooming, some just born,  on the garden border.  After a severe snowy winter , you could not miss this event when it happened.

Sometimes, I guess nature too learns  , where it must be exact , and where it cannot  be approximate....        


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