A short list of known unknowns

Jul 31, 2018, 07:31 IST | C Y Gopinath

What if the few numbers you know and take for granted are terribly wrong?

A short list of known unknowns
You cannot prove exactly how many notes you have in that wad you just got from the bank. Representation Pic

C Y GopinathIN THAILAND, MY COIN CHANGE SITS in a glass bowl. It contains Thai baht coins in denominations of 1, 2, 5, and 10, and innumerable smaller coins called satangs, in their own sub-denominations. 100 satangs make 1 baht, like 100 naya paise once made a rupee.

I frequently wonder exactly how much I have in that bowl. Also, I really hate those satangs, which can buy you nothing at all but take up such inordinate space. Plus they look so much like 1 baht coins that you can easily miscount and give away less - or more - than you need to. India no longer has those irritating naya paisas, but after demonetisation I'm bewildered by the strange notes and coins that keep getting introduced and withdrawn. A rupee coin looks pretty similar to the 2-rupee coin, so good luck with counting your money.

All this to say that I've given up on knowing exactly how much loose change I have with me at any point, whether in Thai or Indian currency. In fact, I'm willing to bet you cannot prove beyond any doubt exactly how many notes you have in that wad you just got from the bank.

This is actually a deceptively lethal line of thinking, as I plan to prove now. I'm going to go out on a limb and say certain numbers are existentially unknowable, no matter how good you are at counting or how advanced your technology. Those are: the number of notes in a wad of notes; your blood pressure at a given moment; your cholesterol count; the time of your birth; and when exactly the sun will set this evening. Let me demolish each by turn.

NOTES IN A WAD: If a mistake is made while counting, the one who made it - whether machine or man - would by definition not know it, or else it would not be a mistake. A counting error can happen at any point, including during recounts, and the only way to check would be another recount - which in turn could also be erroneous. Human beings, being human beings, usually settle for the best of three. Who has the time?

BLOOD PRESSURE: It is scientifically established that the sight of a doctor in a white coat coming to check your blood pressure itself pushes up your blood pressure, a phenomenon called 'white coat hypertension'. In fact, the exertion of the small walk from the reception to the blood pressure machine itself raises your BP. The current advice is to sit still for 1-3 minutes before taking a reading, and then take it twice. But which nurse has the time with a crowded waiting room behind her? Even if you sat still, just worrying whether your BP will turn out high will jack up the reading. Live with it - you'll never know what your BP was before you sat down to measure it.

CHOLESTEROL: Unless you haven't eaten anything for 9-12 hours preceding a blood cholesterol test, your levels of LDL (low density lipoprotein) and HDL (high-density) will reflect your last meal. If it was rogan josh and ghee paratha, you might well find yourself on a statin regimen forthwith. Your LDL and HDL levels fluctuate throughout the day.

TIME OF BIRTH: I'm a skeptical astrologer, meaning I make birth charts with a frown on my face, and I often wonder what exactly the time of birth is: when the head emerges? When the entire baby is out? When she emits her first cry? What about Caesarean births? Who was standing by with a watch? Who cared? What if you don't have a birth certificate and your time of birth is a complete fiction? Maybe even your date of birth? Maybe you weren't born. Call this a life anyway?

SUNSET: Is it when the lower rim goes below the horizon or the upper rim? The Met Office says it is "the instant in the evening under ideal meteorological conditions, with standard refraction of the Sun's rays, when the upper edge of the sun's disk is coincident with an ideal horizon". Since this world is anything but ideal, with Hindu lynch mobs and Donald Trumps, how does the Met Office figure out when the sun sets?

TO GO BACK TO SQUARE ONE, let's say you're settling a Rs 1,00,000 debt. According to me, you can never know whether you overpaid or underpaid him. Right?
Wait, maybe not. There is a trick I devised, based on the fact that no one likes being underpaid. Carefully count out 100 notes, multiple times, then remove one note, making it 99. Now wait for the error to be pointed out.

Pretend surprise and ask for a recount. If it's still 99, smile, apologise and hand over the note. Works like a charm.

Here, viewed from there. C Y Gopinath, in Bangkok, throws unique light and shadows on Mumbai, the city that raised him. You can reach him at cygopi@gmail.com Send your feedback to mailbag@mid-day.com

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