What work do you really do?

The title is a literal translation of what my 90 year old grandmother asked me (in Tamil) a while back. It sounds a lot more ironic and dry in Tamil than it does in English.

Background. My grandmother is a remarkable woman who could have been a university professor if she hadnt been married off at the age of 13. She is an imaginative, ever curious, hyperactive, liberal and remarkable story teller who can bring the Mahabharatha to life better than Doordarshan ever did. She lived most of her active life in a small village in Tirunelveli that even detailed roadmaps dont bother listing.

She asked me the question in the title.

I offered “Software”..”Computer programming”

Not good enough. What is software? What is programming?

Ok. This requires a bit of imagination. Software programming is “teaching a computer to do useful things”.

Oh. A little better. But not entirely clear yet. So you guys are “computer repair people” ?

No No No. Those are different people. Computers are not smart. We teach them to be useful to banks, factories, offices etc.

So why cant the “computer repair people” do what you are doing? Why are they paying you so much? Do “computer repair people” get that much? Anyway, how do you “teach” a computer? Isnt it a machine? How can it listen to you?

No. It doesnt listen. It has a something like a slate and it only understands one language. We know that language and we write it on the slate. So it understands.

So what do you teach it. Give me an example.

Hm. Lets see. We teach computers to open bank accounts. We also teach it to find bank accounts very fast. Faster than a person can find it on a file cabinet.

Ok.Ok. But I still dont understand why they pay you so much for writing on a slate. Teachers dont get paid that much. And kids are harder to teach. And dei, the other day, we heard Karthik (my geeky younger brother) speak on the computer (Skype). How does that work?

Oh. That. His computer converts his voice to electricity and it travels through the wire and then it changes itself to radio and it travels through the air, and then the satellite catches the radio and sends it to chennai and it becomes electricity again. Our computer catches it and it converts it into voice and we hear him.

Oh. I know electricity lights bulbs and rotates fans. How does it carry voice?

And so it goes.

Everytime I talk to her, her curiosity exposes my ignorance more than anything else.

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  1. Oh. That. His computer converts his voice to electricity and it travels through the wire and then it changes itself to radio and it travels through the air, and then the satellite catches the radio and sends it to chennai and it becomes electricity again. Our computer catches it and it converts it into voice and we hear him.

    WOW!!!

    One nit: Do you actually use Satellite links for the net.

  2. Satellites are way to expensive for anything less than military or research purposes.

    It’s all mostly fat cables under the sea. We have one from Chennai to Singapore.

  3. Simple back ofthe envelope:

    If light takes > .5 seconds to pass through the atmosphere, satellite communication will add at least a second’s delay for all packets.

    Now RTT (measure using simple ping) across the globe takes less than 300ms.

    So, clearly satellites are not used in any internet communication, especially voice.

  4. Simple googling says geostationary satellites are placed at 3.6*10^7 m above sea-level –> light takes 0.3 seconds. Again the number is not 1s but .6 seconds of delay. Argument holds.

  5. Ah, nostalgia!

    It’s 1989. All relatives – cousins, aunts, uncles – coming home want to see something new called “computer” that I’ve got…

    From where does it get all these things?
    It has a “memory storage” called “hard disk”, that can store thousands and thousands of pages.

    Really?

    Fast forward to 2005.

    What’s that?
    It’s an “iPod”
    What’s it for?
    It stores and plays thousands and thousands of songs.
    Really?

    And it goes on, and on.

    You’ve a cool grandma btw!

  6. My Great grandma(bless her soul she is no more) wanted to know how FAX worked. When my dad put the paper in she was astonished and asked him if the paper traveled through the wires! 😀

  7. My grandma is eternally surprised by SMS and email and wonders how words travel through wires without getting garbled on the way… I think she imagines them forming a queue and walking down the wire.. lol!!

  8. I remember once my land lady, who must be in her 70’s, asking me the same question. When i explained something similar to your initial answers to your grand mom, she perceived something totally rummy. She said:

    “Kitne computer bante hain tumhari factory mein? Tumhara maalik chutti deta hai kya? “

  9. Some of the questions on the salary and the speed and method in which information (data, voice and video) travels across the world so fast are very relevant. In fact, when we are not able to answer such questions, it shows our ignorance!! Our generation has been given so much that (due to our ancestors hard work) that we do not appreciate what we have today. If Charles Babbage built an calculator using mechanical parts only (yeah, there was no electronics back then), we are forced to wonder what mastery he might have had on the mechanical parts needed to build a calculator !! Today’s youth (us) lack mastery in any field – and they are aptly reminded as much by their Grand parents.

    Dilli kku raja naalum patti sollai thatathe… 🙂

    Destination Infinity

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