Sunday, April 12, 2009

Born on a Blue Day - autobiography of Daniel Tammet

I was born on 31 january 1979 - a wednesday. I know it was a wednesday because the date is blue in my mind and wednesdays are always blue.

This is how Daniel Paul Tammet starts his autobiographical story. He suffers from a rare condition known as high-functioning autistic savant, like the character portrayed by Dustin Hoffman in the film Rain Man. Tammet has synasesthesia and Asperger Syndrom and had suffered epilepsy seizures as a child. The result is that he has an extraordinary talent for numbers and languages.

He says, ¨Numbers are my friends and they are always around me. Nembers are my first language, one I often think and feel in. Each one is unique and has its own personality. The number 11 is friendly, 5 is loud, 4 is shy, 333 is beautiful, 25 is energetic, 37 is lumpy like porridge, 89 is like falling snow and 289 is ugly. This kind of visual and emotional experience of numbers is called as Synasesthesia. He feels excited and happy with certain numbers and is uncomfortable with other numbers such as 99. Whenever he is stressed, he calms himself by counting numbers. In his mind, he says, each integer up to 10,000 has its own unique shape, colour, texture and feel. He can intuitively "see" results of calculations as synasesthetic landscapes without using conscious mental effort, and can "sense" whether a number is prime or composite.

Tammet set a European record on March 14th 2004 when he recited the famous mathematical constant Pi (3.141...) to 22,514 decimal places from memory in a time of 5 hours, 9 minutes.

After this fantastic feat, he was asked why learn such a long, tedious and complicated number pi to so many decimals. His answer, ¨pi is for me an extremely beautiful and utterly unique thing , like the Mona Lisa or a Mozart symphony, pi is its own reason for loving it.¨

Tammet not only verbally describes these visions, but has also created artwork: including a watercolour painting of Pi. He has written a poem on Pi

Three, One, Four, One, Five, and On
The numbers recount their endless tale.
Three - Barefoot green, a silent voice.
White as hunger, One is twiceBright like babies’ eyes.
Four is timid, envious of E.
Five, Punctuation or a pregnant sigh
Precedes proud Nine, colour of falling night.
Two, an unfastened knot,
A wayward wind, the hollow of Six resounding.
Nearby, Eight, a cloud of fireflies above a lake
Over which I skim Sevens
Remembering that Zero is nothing but a circle.

Tammet says he speaks eleven languages including English, French, Finnish, German, Spanish, Lithuanian, Romanian, Estonian, Icelandic, Welsh, and Esperanto.He particularly likes Estonian, because it is rich in vowels.
Tammet can learn new languages very quickly. To prove this for a Channel Four documentary, Tammet was challenged to learn Icelandic in one week. Seven days later he appeared on Icelandic television conversing in Icelandic fluently.
Tammet is creating a new language called Mänti, which in Finnish means pine tree. Mänti has many features related to Finnish and Estonian, both of which are Finno-Ugric languages.

He perceives words also as colours. To him, Richard is red, John is yellow and Henry is white.

He describes his meeting with Kim Peek, upon whom Rain Man was based, as one of the happiest moments of his life. They connected when they asked each other date calculations based on their birth dates, and got the answers correct instantly. Kim has read more than 9000 books and can recall all their content.

Tammet was the first of nine children born to working-class parents in London. He and his family had a tough time because of his disability. He completed schooling but found the other children as objects to cope and contend with, to navigate around, rather than as individuals to get to know and to play with. Tammet is gay and lives with his partner.

Tammet has his own website , writes blogs and gives online courses for learning languages.

He has written another book, 'Embracing the Wide Sky: A Tour Across the Horizons of the Mind'. This book is about his personal and scientific exploration of how the brain works and the differences and similarities between savant and non-savant minds.

It is said that there are about 50 people in the world at present similiar to Tammet. But most of them suffer from a disability. They cannot communicate, connect or have feeling for others. They are unable to live independent lives. They cannot understand jokes and take everything literaly. For example if you tell them ¨take a seat ¨they will not understand that it means sit down. Tammet is lucky that he has the capacity to connect to the world, which he has also developed consciously by controlling and training himself. He is able to express himself as he has done clearly and eloquently in his book.

Tammet helps charities which work for people suffering from epilepsay and autism and has an inspiring message ¨My main message is that difference need not be disabling, that it's ok to be different and that everyone is unique in some way and should feel it possible to live out that uniqueness. When we do that, autistic or not, we give ourselves the chance of happiness.

His book is not just for curiosity. He has a point for people like us, who consider ourselves as normal. He does not see ordinary and extraordinary as totally different and unconnected. He sees a link. His own evolving life is proof of such connection. He, the extraordinary, is training himself to become ordinary. The reverse is also possible. Every one of us is unique and we may have talents, hidden inside ourselves. We can unlock them by conscious efforts in the same way as he has trained himself to be emotional and friendly to others. So, we the ordinary mortals, can look for and connect to the extraordinary things within ourselves and make our lives richer and happier for ourselves and others.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Imagining India - book by Nandan Nilekani

Nandan, who is self-effacing, in the typical Indian tradition, calls himself as an Accidental Enterpreneur. But I see him as one of the best example and role model of the New Age Business of India. He could have written , like many retired celebrities, his memoirs. Instead, he has chosen to write about the story of India in which he succeeded and the new India he is imagining. He has made very little reference to himself and his company in the book. He has a new approach to the growth story of india by talking about ideas.

He has categorised ideas into four kinds;
-ideas already arrived
These have already been accepted by consensus and have helped India to become what it is now,
-ideas in progress
There is consensus on these but implementation is slow and half-hearted
- ideas in battle
These still being hotly debated till the end of the world by the Argumentative Indians
- ideas to anticipate
These are needed to realise the promise and potential of India but still not in the agenda.

The ideas that have already arrived and shaped India are: demographic dividend, enterpreneurship, English language, Information Technology,urbanisation,democracy and role in globalisation.

In the past, there was a perception of horror about the immense and growing population of India. But today, the same issue of population is looked at positively as human capital and demographic dividend. India, with its young population, is going to benefit in the next four-five decades in which the developed world will be filled with more pensioners than young skilled and innovative people. What was seen earlier as a liability has now become an asset. India can leverage this demographic dividend to become a creative power and a centre for new knowledge and innovation.
The second paradigm shift is the Indian attitude to business. Earlier, the socialistic india looked at businessmen as greedy profit-seekers without social conscience. Now the enterpreneurs are recognised and admired as creators of jobs and wealth not only for themselves but for the society and the country.
The third fundamental change is the attitude to English. The newly idependent India was seeking to assert its identity through its native langauage and wanted to get rid of the colonial English. But now there is consensus that English is the key to unlock the opportuniies arising from globalisation and so even the poor people use their hard-earned savings to send their kids to private english medium schools.
Information Technology, which was feared as man-eaters in the eighties has now been accepted as an essential tool for business, jobs and development.

The ideas in progress are: school education, urban planning, infrastructure development and unified single market of India. On these issues, there is consensus on the urgent need for reforms and investment but the implementation is slow and ineffective.

Ideas in battle are in the fields of education and labour laws. On these issues the partisan and ideological debate goes on without end. Nandan says it is time we get out of the old mindset and act pragmatically. Here he quotes the example of Brazilian President Lula, who handles issues like a violin; He holds voters in his left hand and plays the government and business with his right hand. India is, however, stuck with its constituitional label of a socialistic republic and the consequent ideological trap. Election politics overrides reforms and long term policies. On education and employment, the governemnt policies and politics have got bogged down in quotas and divisions rather than creating more avenues.

Ideas to anticipate are in the areas of environment, energy, health and social security. According to Nandan, India has the advantage of starting now as a latecomer. We can study the experience of developed countries and learn from their mistakes and formulate better policies to suit our requirements.

Nandan has taken on the ambitious task of analysing the whole gamutof the issues of politics, economy and development and trying to suggest solutions to them. It is a formidable task. But Nandan admits that he is just an IIT nerd, having lived in a relatively privileged atmosphere and succeeded surfing on the wave of IT boom. To make up for his inadequate knowledge, understanding and experience,he has chosen to take the ideas of experts by interviewing sociologists, economists, politicians, civil servants and specialists in each field.

Nandan is objective, clinical and candid in his analysis and comments. But his exercise and intent are not academic or intellectual, but are practical and pragmatic. With his optimistic and positive approach, he has explored the possible and the doable, within the context of the realities and constraints of India.

Nandan is a posterboy of the success of India´s economic reforms and liberalisation.He is also the role model for future enterpreneurs of india, as a creator of wealth, jobs and opportunities for thousands of Indians. His company Infosys has set a benchmark for corporate culture and ethics. The Infosyians don’t believe in the greasy and greedy old world business practices of India. They will forego contracts rather than trying to get it through under the table means.

Nandan calls his generation as the ¨bridging generation¨connecting the old India with the emerging new one and that which straddles the divides and the ideas that separate the two.

He sees growth and prosperity for India through creation and facilitation of access to resources and opportunities. He see the problems and issues like a computer programmer and a business management expert. One cannot but agree with his analysis of the inherited and created obstacles for India´s progress. But the conclusion of Nandan is that India and the Indians have reached a stage when they don’t have to continue their ingrained habit of shrugging and stepping around potholes, without trying to repair it. He is convinced that Indians have arrived at a new stage with confidenc, competence, tools and ambience to solve problems in this life itself rather than wait for seven incarnations or letting things drift as karma.

In the democratic system of India, Nandan´s ideas need to be accepted by the political leaders who play the critical role in development. What was the reaction of a political leader to Nandan´s ideas. He simply dismissed Nandan saying ¨people like you are neither good for votes or notes ( money). This is the reality. Hold on..there is hope behind this reality. The politician will get kicked out of power if he does not align himself with the aspirations of the people who are now getting increasingly empowered through the Information and Communication revolutions brought about by Nandan and company.

I recommend this book especially for the younger generation who have a historic opportunity to realise the dreams of Nandan Nilekani and the bridging generation which includes me too.