Friday, 28 December 2012

Scenes we'd like to see!

The title for this post is lifted from a hilarious series of cartoons that used to be carried by (the erstwhile?) MAD magazine, which carried funny but sometimes sadistic, possibly even gross,  depictions of scenes such, for instance, as a fat lady pinching and saying kichy-koo to a baby in a pram and having the baby throw up all over her hand.

The scene I'd like to see was a result of a Christmas lunch I had gone  to, a few days ago,  with an old mathematician friend of mine (whom I first met almost 35 years ago in Santa Barbara) who was visiting Chennai from Toronto. So I had reserved a table for three in a restaurant at one of the better class of hotels. And I had told them in advance, when I reserved the table, that I would be needing a wheel-chair, which they had said they would be glad to provide. All went well till we entered the restaurant, most of which was at an elevated level which necessitated climbing a step or two; providentially, a few tables were at `ground level'. And they only had a buffet and no a la carte options, with all the food spread out on tables at the ground level. So unless we could be found a table at `ground zero', that would mean my getting in and out of the wheelchair to climb up or down a step or two some four or six times by the time I paid what promised to be an over-priced and inflated bill. The manager was obviously not too pleased with having to re-do his earlier arrangement of tables. My wife tried to avoid a scene by suggesting at least three times that `it is only one step' but I was adamant and the final rearrangement that needed to be done turned out to be quite trivially implementable. The reason for my truculence: while  I may be able to take one or two steps off the wheelchair, what about the very large number of people who simply cannot get out of the wheelchair by themselves? Should their existence not be recognisedd?

That got me thinking of this `delightfully attractive' scenario of an almost  Asimov-esque  genre of science fiction. I would love to see these managers with their `only one step' glibness to wake up one day in a world where the analogue of disability was ignorance of mathematics. Thus, when he tried to enter his house, he would be confronted, not by a few steps leading up to his door, but instead by an automated electronic screen which would say: in order to open the door, please state the area of the trapezium enclosed by the four lines described by the equations x=0,  y=0, x=1 and 2x+3y=7; and `normal' people like me would stand by the side with encouraging noises like this is a problem that school children encounter in early exposure to geometry.

And when he wanted to use the rest-room, he would be politely asked to `only' compute the derivative of cosh(2 sin(x)) and four other functions of an equally elementary nature (eg., exp(3x/tanh x) before he could get to the urgent task at hand. 

Just very occasionally, the odd thoughtful hotel would have ensured the existence of one room/toilet, in an entire hotel sprawling over several thousand square feet, which did not make such non-inclusive demands on a potential user who was a mathematical ignoramus. In all the others, you will have to define a Cauchy sequence in a metric space in order to access the wash-basin in a toilet - but, fortunately, this is something everybody picks up in the very first analysis course.

(I should thank the creative irreverence of my student Madhushree Basu for her vivid transformation of the sentiment of my article into the above cartoon in next to no time.)

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