Saturday, November 30, 2013

There comes a point when you don't want to know

There comes a point when you don't want to know.
After reading that final sentence of the short story, "Roadkill," in the latest issue of the New Yorker, it felt most appropriate for me to put that magazine down, turn the lights out, and go to sleep.  There was a lot for the mind to process.

In so many different contexts, I have wondered about that same sentiment that perhaps I didn't want to know anymore about whatever it was that I was interested in.  Every bit of knowing something seems to take away that much more from the otherwise possible blissful state.

The short story experience was after I had read this essay, in that same issue, about the growing discontent in China over pollution.  It was a narrative that was simple and direct.  An accidental environmentalist, Wang Jun, says:
G.D.P. ... doesn't mean anything if you don't have life.
You can see why I noted that my mind had a lot to process before drifting off to sleep.

The older I get, the more I am bothered by challenges like pollution and war and, the big picture of the human condition.  What is it exactly that we are trying to do?  As one of my graduate school professors often asked us, "what are you trying to maximize?"

I wish I could simply say I don't want to know.

For a few years now, I have always tried to make students in my classes think about whether it is worth all that to have China as the world's factory and, thus, have all the inexpensive stuff, when there is widespread pollution of unheard of proportions, which then ultimately is about the human condition there.

We are, by now, familiar with the level of pollution in Beijing or Shanghai.  And slowly we are also getting to learn about how much "environmental damage is much worse in smaller industrial cities."  Like at Handan, "which is two hundred and fifty miles to the southwest of Beijing."
Handan's average PM2.5 for the first half of this year was 130.5.  By comparison, Beijing's was 101.3 and Manhattan's was 8.3.  The W.H.O.'s guidelines say that any particulate matter is harmful, but it sets a PM2.5 target of 10.  In other words, the concentration in Handan was thirteen times worse than W.H.O.'s target.
There comes a point when you don't want to know.

I am, of course, not the only one to make jokes about whatever awful situation that I am in.  As much as I make fun of my hassles such as the solitary state, the people in Handan have their own ways of trying to laugh through this misery:
There's a joke that a Handan person went to Switzerland and the air was so good that he began to feel sick from all the oxygen ... So they quickly hooked up a tube to a car's exhaust pipe and he sucked on that for a while until he felt better.
Can't laugh though, can you?

As I tell students, as if I have to do full disclosures even though I am not required to, I am not even an environmental nutcase and even I am deeply troubled by all these.  It is not any drive within me to retain everything in its pristine condition and I understand that there will have to be tradeoffs.  But, we certainly seem to be giving up way too much in order to make sure that we can have the cheapest possible iPhone.

Earlier this morning, before beginning to blog about these, I read the interview with Romesh Gunasekara, the author of "Roadkill."  He notes there:
Art is forever trying to capture the fleeting moment, but this moment—post-war Sri Lanka—has an urgency that will not wait much longer. The past, the future, and even the present are unclear, but soon there will be a dominant narrative of these times, which will make it more difficult to remember those uncertainties.
In my classes, too, I try to help students make sense of the fleeting moment.  I suspect that most do not pay any attention to me, which is the norm anyway.  Perhaps they are already practicing the idea that there comes a point when you don't want to know?  Maybe they are wiser than me.

Caption at the New Yorker:
A newly built residential development in Handan on a typical morning, shrouded in thick smog

Friday, November 29, 2013

The truth is out there ...

There is no faith in science.

Because, one does not need faith in science.  The scientific method in the pursuit of explanations should convince anybody that the truth is out there, and that the truth cannot be hidden for long either.  There is no concept of only a few divinely chosen few having access to the truth.

Well, that is what a rational mind would think.  But then there are the nutcases, at the extreme right wing as well as the extreme left side, who think that they know better.

And they even go one step beyond that when they claim that scientists are cooking up some conspiracy together.  Here in the US of A--not in some caricatured traditional society!

A Distinguished Research Professor of Marine Chemistry at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego writes about the exchanges he has had with climate change deniers, and concludes there:
 In “The Inquisition of Climate Change” (2011), James Powell wrote, “I have come to believe that in the denial of global warming, we are witnessing the most vicious, and so far most successful, attack on science in history.”
I now have a firsthand appreciation of this entrenched hostility to science, especially that related to global climate change and future warming. What I do not understand is the reason for this hostility. 
It is one heck of a bizarre society in which I live, with all kinds of lunatics waging wars against reason, convinced about their faith in whatever narrative it is that suits them.

What the deniers don't understand is this: yes, scientists might get something wrong.  But, it is the same scientific method to pursue the explanations that also then uncovers the mistakes.  Like in this case, in which a study claimed that "rats fed Monsanto's GM corn had suffered tumours and multiple organ failure."
The publisher of a controversial and much-criticised study suggesting genetically modified corn caused tumours in rats has withdrawn the paper after a year-long investigation found it did not meet scientific standards.
Tada!  The truth is out there!

A friend sent me a link to this note from the American Meteorological Society, in the context of the misleading ways in which a climate change denying group had gone about a survey:
Rather than take someone else’s interpretation of the survey results, read the paper yourself and draw your own conclusions.  It is freely available here as an Early Online Release.
A difference between the AMS and some organizations is the transparency and scientific integrity with which we operate.  This survey was conducted to satisfy scientific curiosity on an important topic and the results are published for all to see.  This is the way science is meant to work.
If only corporations and government, too, were as transparent in their processes as the scientific method is!  Oh, but should we wish for such transparency?

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Should we start blaming ... Janet Yellen?

Sometime tomorrow, before the football games begin, at least some of the students in my classes will start thinking about the final papers and readings and assignments.  I hoped they thanked me for all that!  Hey, a man can wish for that, can't he? ;)

It also means that I have to prepare for the flood of assignments and papers and final exams.  Students never fail to point out that I can easily make lives easier for all of us, including me, if I didn't have all those readings and require all that work.  We ought to thank the stars for the humor that we have, which greases the otherwise ever present friction that threatens to stop us from moving forward.

But, of course, every once in a while even the best prepared will not turn in the work on time.  In the old, old days, the joke was that the dog ate the homework.  But, we live in a modern era.  So, the last few years, we blamed it all on ...


I wonder whether every morning the last few years Ben Bernanke woke up feeling awesome that he has the best job in the world.  If Bernanke didn't do his work, I wonder whom he blamed!

Soon, his turn will be over.  We will have to update ourselves and start blaming Janet Yellen for the homework that students don't complete.

Source

As long as I am not blamed ... ;)

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The world doesn't stop because it is Thanksgiving in the US

Our views of the world depends on where we view it from.  A couple of years ago, I asked students in one of my classes whether they had thought about how Native Americans might view Thanksgiving.  It didn't surprise me that they hadn't, and nor did I find them to be at fault.  In our daily lives, we usually look at the world only from where we are.

A celebration for one might not all that a great achievement for another.  It is simply impossible that all of us will be in a celebratory mood even on any given day.  That is life.

Here in the US, on a day like Thanksgiving, it is not that the grim reaper will take the day off in order to spend time with his family to say thanks.  Deaths will happen.  It also means then that to those families and friends, every Thanksgiving in the future will become a day to remember that death too.  Or, consider the families whose near and dear ones are waging their own medical battles in order to live or die.  For them, this Thanksgiving will not be all celebratory either.

And then there is that vast world outside the US.  Do I need to even expand on my point here?

So, why such a depressing post?

All because I read Dilbert's Scott Adam's note at his blog (ht.)  Adams writes about his father who was dying and about the painful death.
My father, age 86, is on the final approach to the long dirt nap (to use his own phrase). His mind is 98% gone, and all he has left is hours or possibly months of hideous unpleasantness in a hospital bed. I'll spare you the details, but it's as close to a living Hell as you can get.
If my dad were a cat, we would have put him to sleep long ago. And not once would we have looked back and thought too soon.

Because it's not too soon. It's far too late. His smallish estate pays about $8,000 per month to keep him in this state of perpetual suffering. Rarely has money been so poorly spent.

I'd like to proactively end his suffering and let him go out with some dignity. But my government says I can't make that decision. Neither can his doctors. So, for all practical purposes, the government is torturing my father until he dies.
As one who has never stopped thinking about this issue, and given that only a few days ago I filed a copy of my "advanced directives" at my doctor's office, well, of course, I am in agreement with what Adams writes there.

Adams expresses his raw emotions:
If you have acted, or plan to act, in a way that keeps doctor-assisted suicide illegal, I see you as an accomplice in torturing my father, and perhaps me as well someday. I want you to die a painful death, and soon. And I'd be happy to tell you the same thing to your face.
A tough issue, which will only get tougher as we live very long lives and as medical advancements prolong the agony of dying that would have otherwise ended without the advancements.  At least, I live in Oregon where I can legally preempt such situations in my own life.

Adams includes an update that his father died a few hours after he had posted that.  In deaths like that, I would think that the family and friends are always immensely thankful that the pain and suffering for that person has come to an end.  It is simply horrendous to watch a person suffer--perhaps even tougher for the friends and family who have to face life after that kind of a traumatic experience?

Here is to looking forward to less suffering as we continue to move forward.  And may we have more rational and humane debates on this important social issue.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Recycling for Thanksgiving

Recycling as in using materials from some of my older posts at the blog!

With Thanksgiving round the corner, I reviewed some of my posts, and came across the following two:

First, from 2009, in which I noted that my life is way less complicated compared with this::
This will be my first Thanksgiving as a vegetarian—excuse me—as a black vegetarian from the Southern United States. As in Texas. As in raised on meat as much as milk. My dad barbecued every weekend. Sunday dinners revolved around collards and green beans with turkey chunks in every forkful, salads and baked potatoes were always sprinkled with bacon. Thanksgiving always included fried turkeys
This year, I’ll be bringing the Tofurky. 
A wonderful short essay.  Read it here


The best line there is this one though:
Vegetarianism is the dietary equivalent of Republicanism in the black community
And, given the phenomenal overeating that happens, well, this one from the same year (the image is from the Economist):



Gobble, gobble, gobble ;)

Sunday, November 24, 2013

From this turn, walk by ...

During a class discussion a few years ago, a student remarked something that quickly led to a tangential response from another student.  One of the charms of teaching a class in the real world and not in cyberspace.  Anyway, that tangential remark was about how she suffered from the "middle child syndrome."

Naturally, it got my curiosity--I, too, am a middle child, with an elder sister and a younger brother.

The student's point was that her parents were excited about their first child, the third one was the pet, but she, like the typical middle child, always got lost in the shuffle.

I told the class that might very well explain my favorite Rodney Dangerfield complaint, which is the story of my life: I don't get no respect.  We chuckled.

Back when we were kids, my sister used to listen to Hindi film songs--which is how I got hooked on to the old songs, and then I kept going back in time in my tastes!  Ameen Sayani's "Binaca Geetmala" was a favorite of hers.

Once, during the high school years, she and her friend, "M," decided to practice singing a song together, for the fun of it.  Years later--almost forty years later--she does not remember what song it was.  And, even worse, she has no memory whatsoever of this insane singing session that she and her friend had at home.

A couple of years ago, I asked my brother about it.  He recalled his contribution--to stop, or rewind, or fast forward the tape that was the "lesson" that the girls were practicing.  He immediately hummed a tune, which, according to him, was the one we were tortured with.  Old as I am, I promptly forgot which song it was.  But, I am tempted to put my money on this one as the culprit:



So, why the title of this post?

In addition to that being a statement on life--that there are bends and turns along the path of life, well, it is also from an old Hindi song:



Life is full of twists and turns.  But, hey, it turns out that having been a middle child was not a bad deal, after all--I wouldn't have these stories if I hadn't had a sibling ahead of me and another always chasing my heels ;)

Within you. Without you.

After what seemed like a long, long time, I visited with my friend.  The Willamette River, that is.

It is not that the weather was particularly awful for me to have shunned my friend.  There were quite a few walk-friendly days.  But I didn't go.

Not that the river yelled and screamed at me for me to be pissed off at the waters.  The cosmos doesn't care.  It is. That's it.

Good days and bad days are less a function of the weather and more dependent on the state of one's mind.  I am willing to bet that there are people who are depressed in Tahiti and there are quite a few happy campers in Moldova too.

So, well, a man's got to do what a man has got to do.  I, pretending to be a man, went for a walk for by the river.

It didn't take me long to figure out that there was a world outside my mind's world.  A world in which the sun shines, the river flows with a noise over the boulders, the grass is green, and trees are proudly nude.  A world made for you and me, it seems.

Very few were out on the path.  There was a good reason--the local football team was playing, which was being telecast, and the maniacal couch potatoes couldn't be bothered, I suppose.  If only they had known how awful the game would turn out for their Ducks, well, they, too, would have enjoyed the walk by the river under a bright sun on a cool fall afternoon.  The loss was theirs, a double one at that!

A man with a backpack was carrying a pink scooter on one hand.  And then I saw a kid walking ahead of him with her helmet in her hand.  With her were two other kids--one on a bike and another on a scooter.  No wonder the man, perhaps the father of all the three, was walking with a backpack full of whatever supplies the kids need--and the pink scooter, of course.

Fathers and mothers do the strangest tasks, all to make their children's lives happy.  The girl had no worries about the scooter--after all, there was dad to carry it.  If she felt tired, I bet she knew that her father would carry her too.

I am not sure whether they will grow up to appreciate the father for the small and big things he does.  Mos of us do not.  When we were kids, we took our parents for granted.  Perhaps we even found fault with them for not doing something, rather than thank them for doing everything they did.

The father was walking at the kids' pace and I soon passed him and drew even with the kids.  The boy was wearing a pair of shorts.  Young blood is much warmer, I thought to myself.

He apparently read my mind.  "I am gettin' cold" he remarked to the two girls.

"My fingers went numb a few minutes ago" responded the girl on the scooter.

Could she have meant the "minutes"?  Wasn't she way too young to know about hours and minutes?  Is it true that kids these days are smarter than the kids of the past--just like how my grandmothers used to comment about us kids?

I was soon way ahead of them, and was lost in my own thoughts.  I remembered reading somewhere that normally we are able to have a conversation within ourselves and we know it is all in our head.  But, for some, the struggle among the neurons is a chaos, which is why they can't seem to figure out that the internal thoughts are not some spooks telling them stuff.  I thanked the cosmos for whatever sanity I think I have.

I saw a large group of friends and families heading to the river, and it was quite a sight.  Well, not humans, but:


Naturally, I gave them the space and time and then followed them.

It looked like a bulletin had gone out and all the birds were meeting that the place!



To think that I might have missed all these if I hadn't stepped out to visit with my old friend!

Tomorrow's another day!

Saturday, November 23, 2013

I will speak what you like ... if you say nice things about Afghanistan

It all began when I listened to this beautiful song from the old country.  Even with my rudimentary Hindi, I could piece together the meaning of the lyrics, but scanned the web for a translation just to make sure.  "I will speak what you like" in the title for this blog post is the opening line and theme of that song expressing love.

No, this post is not about those emotions of the heart.  Even better!

About Afghanistan.

Yes, about Afghanistan.

How does one go from that old Bollywood song to Afghanistan?  Simple.  Thanks to the actor who lip-syncs through that melody--Feroz Khan.

Feroz Khan was born to a Pashtun (Pathan) from Ghazni--well, the father had immigrated to India with the British departing, and his mother was of Persian descent.  He was born in Bangalore.  What a story of globalization, eh!

Time and again, I am impressed with how the old country has always been a melting pot, way before that phrase was attached to the new country.  People came from all over.  Conquerors came. They brought along ideas. Art, music, food, science, you name it.  When they left, whether they were fully aware of it or not, a great deal of India went with them to wherever they went.

If I often comment about India as being in the international crossroads, well, so was Afghanistan, with with all the stories of invaders from Central Asia coming through there and the Khyber Pass.  Of course, Alexander, too from the other side of the world.

That is pretty much the same sentiment expressed in the context of food by Raghavan Iyer, an Indian-American who is now the president of the International Association of Culinary Professionals:
What Indians are masterful at is with every foreign invasion, with every influence from colleagues that came and settled in India, whether it be traders or rulers, they all brought with them a certain technique.
They all brought with them ingredients. We took that and we embraced it and we made it part of our own. So it has constantly emerged.
With that kind of a long history of globalization, well, we thus had Feroz Khan the Pathan (Pashtun) in India. In Hindi movies. A star in his heyday.

Yes, he even made a movie set in Afghanistan.  Yes, he did.  How fascinating!  A movie was apparently shot in Afghanistan.  Imagine that!

Of course, the movie was shot before the civil war--though not necessarily termed that way--which then brought the Soviets in a couple of years later.  The young me, a geopolitical junkie even then, read the news reports in the Hindu every single day, but could never understand why Afghanistan had to be such a battleground.  Nor do I understand it even as a middle-aged guy counting down his existence.

It does immensely sadden me when I hear talking heads make comments, and read the pundits' opinions, that do not recognize Afghanistan's glorious past.  I am not even from that country!

Consider, for instance, the Ghazni where Feroz Khan's people came from.  In history classes, and even in casual conversations, back in my childhood days, often there were references to Mahmud of Ghazni.  Not merely because of his conquests, but more importantly as an inspiration to never, ever, give up.  He was the figure that parents and teachers pointed out as example of one who tried and tried until he won.

We humans are messed up.  Instead of singing and dancing and eating and laughing, we manage to find reasons to screw up the lives of many others.

At least we have the gorgeous songs, like this one, made possible by Feroz Khan's movies.

Thanks, Feroz Khan. 

Thanks, Afghanistan; I hope things settle down, soon. Maybe, some day, I will even go to Ghazni, eh!

Friday, November 22, 2013

Poem for a cold November night. Cold day too!

Frosty has arrived on the rooftops and on the grass.  Two consecutive mornings of feeling blasted by the cold air when I ventured out to the front porch to get the newspaper.

The car's thermometer display said 27 degrees (not in Celsius!) when I left home yesterday for work.  This morning, it feels that the overnight temperature might have been down to 20 or even the high teens.  Way, way below the normal for this time of the year.  I suppose old man winter is poking his head early through the couple of leaves left on the trees.

It is this cold because it has not rained for a while.  The sky is clear--plenty of sunlight during the day, and moonlight streams in through the windows in the night.  Makes me fondly miss the grey, overcast, and rainy conditions because if we had those rains, the temperature would never dip this low.

Back in India, in high school physics, we learnt about how cloudy nights are warmer.  That was one of the many "theoretical" ideas that made me wonder why we didn't have more local, contextual examples to work with.  I recall another situation too, which was also about heat.  In that word problem, a guy orders coffee for himself and his friend, who is expected to join him in five minutes.  He adds cream to his cup of coffee, while the friend's coffee is black.  The question asked us to think about which cup would be the warmer of the two when the friend arrives after five minutes.

I had no problems working out the physics of cooling.  But, I could not understand why they made coffee that way--after all, I was only used to the traditional பில்ட்டர் காபி, which is something like the latte we drink here.  Perhaps it was me and my limited imagination, but back then I thought the whole coffee by itself was pretty darn stupid.  Even more confusing was the "cream" part; what the heck was that!

All because the book used examples from a cultural context that was alien to me.  Alien then.  Not strange anymore.  Now, I routinely drink black coffee, and buy cream or milk only if I have to take care of a visiting friend.

Back as a kid, "the weather outside is freezing" was also nothing but a theoretical understanding.  Now, I experience it, a lot more than I would like to.  It is almost as if I came here to this part of the world to do the practicals, as we referred to the lab work then, in order to understand the theory.


I scanned the web for poems that would tell the story of a cold night in November. I lucked out; here is one:
November Night
by Adelaide Crapsey
Listen. . .
With faint dry sound,
Like steps of passing ghosts,
The leaves, frost-crisp'd, break from the trees
And fall.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

A lot to be thankful for

"How are you?" she asked with a big smile.

"Doing well. Thanks" I said.

After a long time, I was at her checkout counter.  "How is your grandson doing?"

"He is good.  Thanks for asking."

To me, there is small talk, and then there is small talk.  The small talk at a regular joint is something like a serialized short story, which has a "to be continued" at the end of the talk.  So, of course, I remembered to inquire about her grandson.

"Today he starts his physical therapy ... right now he has a gangster kind of dragging, limping walk" and she demonstrated it.

When we walk around, we have no idea how lucky we are to walk around.  How effortless that is.  How we take that for granted.  If we were to stub a toe against the furniture, we momentarily appreciate what we had thanks to the misfortune, but then very quickly life returns to normalcy.  A fracture that immobilizes us for a few days makes us frustrated about the hassles.  If only we realized that every knock--big or small--is nothing but an opportunity for us to be thankful for what we have.  We don't because, well, we are human.

"Do you guys--sorry, do you--do Thanksgiving?"

The more multicultural the interactions, the more we have to consciously, and conscientiously, inquire about customs and practices.  Over the years, I have come to realize that effortless interactions across cultures even requires an understanding of the cultures. I bet she also knows that, which is why she quickly changed the "guys" to "you" to avoid the potential implications: the "guys" could mean people like me from India; "guys" could potentially make it uncomfortable for a single person like me.

"Oh, I think Thanksgiving ought to be a universal thing" I told her.  I was tempted to tell her about the op-ed piece I wrote on this a few years ago.  But then who cares for my stories!

"But, if your question was about the whole turkey thing, well, no ... "

Small talk is no different from any conversation.  It was now my turn to ask her.  "So, you getting ready for the turkey day?  I suppose you folks will be very thankful with the grandson's health ..."

"Yes ... am doing the cooking.  As long as we can all maintain the peace for 24 hours ..." and she smiled.

As I walked back to the car, I knew that more than anything, I was thankful that the terrible, terrible, terrible headache that had been bugging me for more than a day was gone.  Small thing, yes, but what a difference a day makes!

To be continued ...

Synthetic life. Biochemistry. Genomics. And my ignorance of it all!

"Life's like a box of chocolates, you never know what you're gonna get" said the philosopher Forrest Gump.  Well, I never know what I will get on the television.

I flicked to ABC.  It was the last quarter of the USC-Stanford game.  With the Cardinal's football ranking competing with the university's academic status, and the Trojans still reeling from the NCAA sanctions, it was a surprise that the game was tied at 17.  Every once in a while, a match is that way--it still has to be played out for the win, and the higher ranked player or team is not guaranteed a victory.  For a while, it appeared that neither team was able to breakthrough, until USC played for it all with a gamble on a fourth down. The rest, as they say, now belongs to the fabled Trojan history.

Oh, did I mention that I earned my graduate degrees at USC? ;)

After pottering around for a while, I returned to my favorite weekend channel: BookTV.  One of the best channels ever in the lineup.  The number of hours that I have logged in front of BookTV!

It was Craig Venter talking about his research work.  I watched it as if I was a registered student in a course that Venter was teaching.  I made mental notes to myself. I learnt a lot.  I thought about them.  And then went to the BookTV website and even extracted a 15-minute video clip and tweeted about it.  I was that pumped up!
It was only thanks to Venter's lecture that I understood how urea, and synthesizing it--back in 1828--was itself an important and revolutionary step.  In the slide that Venter put up was this sentence:
The Wohler synthesis is of historical significance because for the first time an organic compound was produced from inorganic reactants.  
I am confident that we never got to know this from high school chemistry, when we spent those couple of months on organic chemistry.  What is worse is this: we lived in a town where a fertilizer factory produced urea; how could they have missed out on conveying to us the significance of urea synthesis from such a perspective too!

Venter and his team of researchers, and other scientists all over the world, have now come a long, long way from that first step of organic chemistry.  His talk was mostly about the key steps over the years, which finally led to the publication of their research in Science, on "providing proof of principle for the production of cells from digitized sequence information," which was the cover story as well in July 2010:

Source

When Venter got into talking about the applications, it felt like it was science fiction.  But, some are already underway.  Some are already happening--like creating vaccines from the digitized sequence information.  Essentially to cook up the vaccine based on a recipe.  No need to wait for months for the egg-based vaccine production process that we now have!

The futuristic scenarios were impressive, and a tad scary as well.

Similar to how in 3D printing we can send the details as electronic ones and zeros and then print the object wherever, Venter offers the possibility of vaccine production labs spread all across the world, which will produce the vaccine from the digital information that will be delivered to them.

Even better was his description of the possibility (though it might be highly regulated) of us sitting at home by our computers and medical dispensing machines--like how we have printers now--and prescriptions like insulin or vaccines will then be sent over to the machine, which will then create them for us at our homes.  (Check out this video clip from his talk)

Or how it might be possible for something like a Curiosity Rover to digitize a life form on Mars (should it find one there) send across the sequence to the ground-station here on Earth and we then assemble it--a biological teleportation!

Even more reasons for me to wonder what it means to be human.

Those were all over the weekend.  This morning, I read this in the news:
Frederick Sanger, the British biochemist who twice won the Nobel Prize, has died at the age of 95.
My first thought was this: there was a British scientist who was awarded the Nobel twice?  In the same field? How come he is not a highly celebrated figure?  Why isn't he a household name?  Ballplayers get venerated as gods, and this scientist was condemned to obscurity among the public?

Turns out that his work is intimately connected to the Venter research stories; what a coincidence!
The first came in 1958 for developing techniques to work out the precise chemical structure of proteins.
Proteins are made up of amino-acids. Dr Sanger was able to determine which amino-acids and in what order were used to build the hormone insulin.
He then turned to DNA and its building blocks, bases.
Dr Sanger's group produced the first whole genome sequence, made up of more than 5,000 pairs of bases, in a virus.
He was awarded his second Nobel Prize in 1980 for developing "Sanger sequencing" - a technique which is still used today. 
How fascinating!

But, even more impressive was this:
"He remains the only person to have won two Nobel Prizes in Chemistry - recognising his unique contribution to the modern world.
"Yet he was a disarmingly modest man, who once said: 'I was just a chap who messed about in his lab'.
What an old-fashioned virtue--modesty!

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Will college students understand the humor here?

source

And solve the murder puzzle as well?

Need help?

Yet another reason why students should take science courses and, more importantly, retain that knowledge, right?  After all, would you really want to miss out on such thoughtful entertainment?  haha!

Maybe I should think about final exams for students that will be based on such humor. ...  Nah, I want to continue to earn a paycheck for a few more years ;)

BTW, can this murder mystery compete against the fabled shortest short story?

Monday, November 18, 2013

A sesquipedalian I am not. A dilettante?

A few years ago, when I was reviewing applications from students for the Honors Program, I had to pause and re-read a word in one of the applications.  Sesquipedalian.

Sesqui... what?

I had to refer to a dictionary and understand that word.  The story of my life, actually!

Even a few months ago, when a friend commented that I was a raconteur, I referred to a dictionary to find out what he meant.  Relieved I was after finding out it was a compliment!  I then emailed him about the dictionary experience and he thought I was playing him for the fool. And, I proudly wore that badge!  I tell ya, some day soon people will realize that I mean it when I say I don't know a damn thing and that is when I will be fired.  Until then, I will keep collecting my paycheck; thank you very much! ;)

Throughout my formative years, I was very happy with the rather limited vocabulary I had.  It didn't bother me one bit that I didn't have a wide range of fancy words to choose from.  Whenever my father quoted something from Shakespeare, well, there were times I wondered whether that was a foreign language he was speaking.

The five-cent words served my purpose well.  Perhaps that is also why I so much loved, and love, the works by Hemingway and Bradbury, for instance.  Simple story telling, while the stories themselves are far from simple and are profound.

But then came the GRE requirement to apply to graduate schools in the US.  Those GRE words are something else!  I had no choice but to add at least a few more to my database.

Which is when I came across a word that caught my attention: dilettante.

If curiosity killed the proverbial cat, well, curiosity is why I am stuck where I am!  Anyway, the curious me looked up that word in the primitive dictionary I had in those pre-internet days.

I was shocked with the meaning.  I felt it was directed at me.  I was a dilettante.  No, I am a dilettante.

I worried that, given my limited abilities, I will come across, at best, as a dilettante after an undergrad in engineering and graduate studies in a completely different field.  While I have no recollection of what I found from that primitive dictionary, here is Google's explanation of the word:
a person who cultivates an area of interest, such as the arts, without real commitment or knowledge.
You see why I was worried then, and why I am concerned even now?

It is one thing to be a polymath, but very few of us can be that versatile.  Most of us struggle to do even one thing well.  A polymath wannabe like me then risks being nothing more than a dilettante?

Maybe it is best to not know anything anymore.  Ignorance can be blissful, as my life experiences tell me.

Wait, maybe I should search for a fancy GRE word for ignorance, eh!

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Give a man free fish ... soon he will be bored and will choose to pay for them!

With the exception of people like my super-wealthy gazillionaire friend (haha!) or people like me who, according to my neighbor, never works for a living, most dread the weekdays and look forward to weekends and holidays.

We are a strange species.  We bring all the trouble of work on ourselves and then dream about not having to work.  We chain ourselves, put a lock on it and throw the key away, and then dream of being free at least every two days of the week.

Some of the most free people that I have met in my life were in the villages like Pattamadai and Sengottai.  Seemingly in sync with the hot temperature conditions, where even a brisk walk can tire a person, there was a whole lot of doing nothing.  We folks from urban and industrial areas, having been used to working in order to earn the privilege of sitting around twice a week, found that kind of a rustic life to be dull and boring and even labeled them as lazy for not doing anything.

The older I get, the less clear I am on who is really free.

We dream of a future, made possible by science and technology, when we won't have to work at all.  Robots that clean the homes. Ready-to-consume nutritious food in full and plenty (even if it will be in unrecognizable forms to us in the present.)  A future in which even firefighters won't have any work because nothing synthetic will ever crash or burn thanks to advancements in science and technology.   In that future, we will have all the free time in the world.  Or, at least, more weekends than weekdays.

When students complain about income inequality and unemployment--about which I have been worried for a long time, evidenced by the number of blog posts on those issues--sometimes I have thrown at them a different scenario to think about.  What if those profiting from automation and outsourcing agreed to guarantee every American an income that will be at higher-than-poverty level, and they can work and earn more if they chose to?  The possibility of a permanent vacation. Every day will be a weekend. A Sengottai/Pattamadai life of minimal work.

Almost always, students do not like that idea.  Sitting around, or even standing around in a museum, doing nothing can become a bore.  Fishing is fun when you do it once in a while, but not day in day out.  Or, given the Puritanical streak, some see the virtue in working as a means of not merely earning a livelihood but about feeling good about oneself and the path to god and heaven.

Of course, that guaranteed minimum income is only a thought experiment.  But, I am not the only one who has been thinking like that--I am merely an insignificant person to think about it ;)
A simple idea for eliminating poverty is garnering greater attention in recent weeks: automatically have the government give every adult a basic income.
The Atlantic's Matt Bruenig and Elizabeth Stoker brought up the idea a few weeks ago when they contemplated cutting poverty in half, and Annie Lowrey revisited it in today's issue of the New York Times Magazine.
See, there are quite a few of us loons out there!

Why are we even constructing such thought experiments?  Because it makes things simpler at one level:
a minimum income would also allow us to eliminate every government benefit as well. Get rid of SNAP, TANF, housing vouchers, the Earned Income tax credit and many others. Get rid of them all. A 2012 Congressional Research Service report found that the federal government spends approximately $750 billion each year on benefits for low-income Americans and that rises to a clean trillion when you factor in state programs. Eliminate all of those and the net figure comes out to $1.2 trillion needed to pay for a universal basic income, still a hefty sum.
Interesting, right?  I tell ya, this thinking business is a whole lot of entertainment that no amount of sports and movies can equal ;)

Of course, with a Congress that can't even figure out what color toilet paper to use, such radical approaches will forever remain only as thought experiments.  It does not mean that there are no attempts--they are not here in the US though!
Switzerland’s citizens will soon vote on a referendum to give each working-age adult in Switzerland a basic income of $2,800 (2,500 francs) per month.
We are living in some interesting times.

A couple of miles outside Sengottai

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Who am I?

"Are you an organ donor?" she asked as a part of the intake processing at the doctor's office.

"Yes, of course."

But then I could not let go of that softball that was simply asking for trouble.

"Wait, did you say 'organ donor' or 'Oregon donor'?"

Haha!

Indeed, I have identified myself as an organ donor for quite some years now.  Well, as in they can harvest whatever they want when I am dying, or after my death. Not now, please!

As much as I am at ease with organ donation, I have never been sure how that fits into an overall understanding of what it is to be human.  I am not a mere sum total of my organs. We are all more than the mere sum of the parts.  If organs and even blood are treated nearly like how parts are replaced in a car, then are we really ok with such a conceptualization of humans with interchangeable components?

What if there are others who differ from such a take on organs and blood?  What if their understanding of what it is to be human means, for instance, even refusing blood transfusion?

While I have always been convinced about my atheistic framework and the carbon and nitrogen and hydrogen and oxygen and everything else that wonderfully come together to create a human body, there remains that emotional side of me that feels such a description to be prosaic.

Yes, intellectually I get it that there is a great deal of poetry in this.  The aesthetics of it all that Richard Feynman so clearly and beautifully presented:
I can appreciate the beauty of a flower. At the same time, I see much more about the flower than he sees. I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside, which also have a beauty. I mean it’s not just beauty at this dimension, at one centimeter; there’s also beauty at smaller dimensions, the inner structure, also the processes. The fact that the colors in the flower evolved in order to attract insects to pollinate it is interesting; it means that insects can see the color. It adds a question: does this aesthetic sense also exist in the lower forms? Why is it aesthetic? All kinds of interesting questions which the science knowledge only adds to the excitement, the mystery and the awe of a flower. It only adds. I don’t understand how it subtracts.
The flower is also a metaphor here--Feynman's thoughts on the flower can equally be applied to the human.  There are organs and cells and the complicated actions and a beauty.  Intellectually, I get it.  I don't have any problems with that formulation at all.  But, ...

In many contexts, without getting onto any soapbox, I routinely tell students that as we move forward, it will become more and more important to develop an understanding of what it means to be human.  I remind them that it is all the more important to take courses in the humanities and the social sciences.  But then they, too, are consistent with others who find life to be better if they did not pay any attention to what I have to say!

I have always had enormous sympathies for those who protest abortion, or stem cell research, or fertility treatments.  While the protesters might not always phrase their concerns as their struggles with what it means to be human, that is essentially what they are fighting about.  Of course, it is farcical when the protests become delusional about the scientific understanding.  But, deep down, it is a struggle about articulating an understanding of what it is to be human.  I suspect that most of us have our own concerns and worries on this issue, and I so wish that we could talk about our respective formulations without becoming unhinged and, even worse, resorting to attacking the person.

The story of humans on this planet has also been one of constantly modifying the narratives we have had on what it means to be human.  I wonder what our ancestors in Africa thought about about this soon after they invented language to think and communicate.  Whatever their version was, well, we have a completely different take on that question.  Our answers will continue to change into the future as we struggle to discover the answer.

My only disappointment is that I will never get to know the answer.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Have a little faith. This shot won't kill ya!

I do not hate going to the doctor's office.  But, I hate the part when I have to strip down to nothing for the examination.  I can't wait for the day when medical technology will have developed so much that I can stay fully clothed, in a gazillion layers!

"Continue doing whatever you are doing" the young doctor said at the end of it all.  "Everything looks very healthy."

But, of course, and now I can worry even more about living way past 100 until 120!

"Would you like a flu shot today?  I strongly recommend it."

In all these years, I have never had a flu shot.  My defenses, er, clothes were down and I was in a gown that seemed to open up at the wrong places all the time.  Feeling cornered, I said ok.

It is not that I am one of those paranoid about shots and vaccines.  Far from that.  I have all the faith in the scientific method.  Which is the very reason why I was at the doctor's office in the first place.

This faith in the scientific method is not the same as "faith" writes Jerry Coyne:
the “faith” we have in science is completely different from the faith believers have in God and the dogmas of their creed. To see this, consider the following four statements:
“I have faith that, because I accept Jesus as my personal savior, I will join my friends and family in Heaven.”
“My faith tells me that the Messiah has not yet come, but will someday.”
“I have strep throat, but I have faith that this penicillin will clear it up.”
“I have faith that when I martyr myself for Allah, I will receive 72 virgins in Paradise.”
I bet you can already see where he is going with this, right?
the third statement relies on evidence: penicillin almost invariably kills streptococcus bacteria. In such cases the word faith doesn’t mean “belief without good evidence,” but “confidence derived from scientific tests and repeated, documented experience.”
You have faith (i.e., confidence) that the sun will rise tomorrow because it always has, and there’s no evidence that the Earth has stopped rotating or the sun has burnt out. You have faith in your doctor because, presumably, she has treated you and others successfully, and you know that what she prescribes is tested scientifically.
A few years ago, my mother asked me why in the news experts suggest doing one thing and then change their stance later on.  She was referring to, if I remember correctly, studies on coffee's effects on health.  She was almost leaning towards "this is why I don't believe all these experts."  I told her that is how science works--we are constantly testing not only new ideas but even the old ideas.

To some extent, we can say that we don't have faith in the finding itself--all we know is that the scientific method leads us towards clarity.
One can dispel the “science as faith” canard in a single paragraph, and I’ll let Richard Dawkins have the honor:
There is a very, very important difference between feeling strongly, even passionately, about something because we have thought about and examined the evidence for it on the one hand, and feeling strongly about something because it has been internally revealed to us, or internally revealed to somebody else in history and subsequently hallowed by tradition. There's all the difference in the world between a belief that one is prepared to defend by quoting evidence and logic and a belief that is supported by nothing more than tradition, authority, or revelation.
So the next time you hear someone described as a “person of faith,” remember that although it’s meant as praise, it’s really an insult.
When my doctor suggested the flu shot, it was not based on blind faith.  He has the backing of the scientific method and all the evidence.  As a reasonably well-informed curious fellow, I, too, am aware of the benefits of a flu shot.  So, why then did I not get a flu shot all these years?  Blame it on the arrogance of youth, when we feel nothing can harm us.  Today, I was caught with my pants down, literally!

Oh well.  I decided to celebrate the clean bill of health by cooking something special ... and I loaded it up with butter and cheese too.  After all, the data suggests that I will live for a lot longer, and I have faith in that evidence ;)



Thursday, November 14, 2013

Memory for whatever number, Alex!

"I have never jotted down birthdays in any calendar, and have always operated from memory .... but, I suppose getting older means that some of the particulars fade away ... now, all I can remember is that your birthday is sometime about now"

That's how I began the birthday greetings to my old high school friend.

It is amazing how much my brain does not want to deal with fine detail anymore.  There once was a time, not too long ago, when I was actually, seriously, interested in the specifics.  Now, it is almost like I have a different brain altogether.  The other day, when I turned the television on, there was a movie. I recognized the actor. An old actor. A male actor. Also a director. Made some real good movies. And he has made plenty of appearances on television shows too.

The old me, er, the younger me that is, would not even have thought about this. Almost as a reflex, I would have remarked, "oh, Sydney Pollack."

Not the same anymore.  However, this does not bother me one bit.  Because, I am convinced that it is not short-term or long-term memory issue but changing priorities.  The name Sydney Pollack itself is not important anymore.  Life is not a game of Jeopardy!  As simple as that.

Similarly, it does not bother me that that I could not recall my old friend's date of birth.  I am way more delighted with the old memories.  Of friendship. Of the growing up angst.  Of the nerdy and stupid things we talked about way back when as we biked around town.

Growing older is wonderful that way--it is like sifting life through a sieve and the brain then figures out what is important enough to retain.  Instant recall is no longer an urgency.  The stories are what matter.  Good stories. Bad ones. Tough ones. Hilarious ones. Tragic ones.  Stories nonetheless.

The focus on the story and the sifting away of finer details like names or numbers means that slowly the stories morph in the retellings.  When I was younger, it was fun for us kids to even point out the inconsistencies in my grandmother's stories, to which her response often was தப்ப பிடிச்சு வாயில போடு (literally translating to "catch the mistakes and put them in my mouth" to imply that we kids had nothing better to do than do something that silly.)

I wonder how my own stories will morph as I get old and tell them again for the hundredth time.  One such story is about the number of gulab jamuns that I had in one sitting, during my undergraduate days.  I had, count 'em, twenty-two.  And it was after an all-you-can-eat lunch at our favorite Gujarati restaurant.  I can imagine that as I get older, the city name changing from Coimbatore to Calcutta; from my undergrad days to when I started working, from twenty-two to twenty-seven, and even gulab jamuns becoming rasagollas.  But, dammit, I will have stories. And they will be mine.

And, to make things easy, maybe I will begin to wish people happy birthday on the first of every January.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

An act of the great tamasha comes to an end. Thankfully!

"How come they are playing only two tests this time?" my mother asked me about the two match series between India and the West Indies.  "It is a Sachin special" I told her.  "To make his retirement happen."

Sachin Tendulka finally getting off the stage is consistent with the tamasha in all aspects of life in India--the principal actors just never quit!

Tamasha is a wonderfully unique word.  At one level it means entertainment. But, it is also more than entertainment.  It is a grand show. It is a spectacle. It is commotion.  It is noise.  It is tamasha.

During my growing up years in India, the awesome tamasha in politics was wonderful entertainment for me.  Of course, it was nothing but heartache when I started identifying with any single actor.  But, I learnt to set aside any affinity for any individual and enjoy the spectacle, the entertainment, the commotion, the noise, the grand show.  It was the best possible theatre from across the street--literally--to what I could get from the radio and newspaper and the magazines and from the grownups' arguments.

Cricket was a lot more sober and sedate those days.  It became a tamasha only after I lost interest in the game, and certainly only in the last few years.  I was, thankfully, spared all that.

My mother, on the other hand, is thankful that cricket became a tamasha.  When I was a kid and passionately followed cricket, she had no choice but to listen to the commentary and report the scores to me when I returned from school.  And even send updates along with the lunch that the maid brought to school during our much younger days.

But, she found the five days of test playing to be a bore.  The tamasha that cricket is now she is very excited about.  "In the tests, they play a lot of 'dokku'" she complained once.  This tamasha engages her way more than movies or television shows do.

My guess is that my mother is not alone in this.  Ashis Nandy famously commented that cricket is an Indian game that was accidentally invented in England, and combine this with the Indian tamasha and you have hundreds of millions addicted to this cricket tamasha which is beyond the fascination for any other tamashas.  Compared to this, even the fabulous epics of Mahabharata and Ramayana are as slow and boring as War and Peace can be!

Of course, I am borrowing the tamasha description for cricket--from James Astill's The Great Tamasha.  In an interview with NPR, he commented:
When the IPL, the Indian Premier League, India's most popular domestic cricket tournament — it's worth several billion dollars, it's estimated — when that tournament runs for seven weeks in April and May each year, Bollywood stops releasing movies, because Indians just don't go to the cinema. They stay at home and they watch cricket on television.
When Bollywood stops being a tamasha, well, does one need a better metric!

In successful Indian tamashas the best actors hang on for a long time.  At Bollywood, everywhere you look, there is Amitabh Bhachchan, wearing his 1970s-style toupee.  You change the settings, and it is Rajinikanth.

In politics too.  One of the best in the tamasha business is Karunanidhi, whose gifted way of speaking was wonderful entertainment for the young me.  The fact that he is pushing 90 does not seem to affect the tamasha even one bit--in fact, it seems to make it all the more exciting!

It is against such a backdrop of tamasha and the actors hanging on for a very long time comes the retirement of Sachin.



 My mother, along with hundreds of millions of Indians, will watch this test match, however boring they might think the format is, only because one small aspect of the tamasha is coming to an end.  But, they know that the tamasha itself will continue on for a very, very long time to come.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The market for boobs. The market is for boobs.

The first time I read about the Tulip mania, I simply could not believe that people could have bid up on Tulips. I mean, Tulips! A flower!

If people could have bid up on Tulip bulbs, well, I figured that people are capable of bidding on any damn thing.  As long as people feel that the price is right and that they are coming out ahead.  It is one heck of a strange economic system that I will never truly, emotionally understand, though I can pretend to intellectually grasp the idea.

It is one thing to put a price tag on goods in the market.  But, do we really want to find out what the best price is that will work as incentives for mothers of newborns to breastfeed?  The longer I live, the less I will understand anything, I fear!
New mothers are to be offered up to £200 in shopping vouchers to encourage them to breastfeed their babies.
Seriously?  British mothers don't understand that concept on their own?  I am willing to bet all the tulips that new mothers have a whole range of reasons, perfectly rational reasons, for why well-informed new mothers choose not to breastfeed even when they biologically can.

Btw, how did they arrive at 200 pounds?  Why not 100?  Or 2,000?  Aaaaah, I should stayed back in engineering and earned my millions and retired like how my super-wealthy friend is in retirement now!

How will this incentive scheme be implemented?
Midwives and health visitors will be asked to verify whether the women are breastfeeding.
Sounds like this is from the Onion, right?  If only it were a joke!

XX Factor's take appeals to me:
What is almost never discussed in these exhortations to breast-feed is how hard it can be on mothers, particularly without social support. At the beginning, you are waking up several times a night to feed, and you’re exhausted and drained. If you don’t have a lot of help with your children—perhaps you are a single mother—and you have to go back to work, you might want those extra hours of rest more than you want £200. You might be able to be a better parent to your other kids with that extra sleep and energy, or you know, just a happier person.
...
I just don’t see how breast-feeding is so important we should consider spending government money to bribe women to do it.
As if this is not enough to make me wonder about incentives and price, I am reminded of the news from a few days ago about breast milk bought online here in the US having salmonella and E.Coli.  Which raises a whole number of questions: buy and sell breast milk? And online at that?
Three quarters of the purchased human milk was contaminated with gram-negative bacteria that can pose serious health risks in babies, the researchers found. Three of the samples were contaminated with salmonella. E. Coli was also detected in some samples, an indicator of fecal contamination. 
I certainly would not have imagined "fecal contamination" and "breast milk" in the same sentence.  I tell ya, it is one heck of a brave new world!
As of now, the sale of human milk via the Internet is almost entirely unregulated. Based on the postings on the milk-sharing sites, the sellers are mostly mothers who have a freezer full of expressed milk and aren't sure what to do with it, Keim said. The buyers are mostly women who have had trouble producing enough milk -- or any milk -- and were determined to feed their babies breast milk.
So, will we develop regulations on this?  Will there develop a black-market for breast milk?  Dark alley transactions?

Source

Maybe I am simply getting old.  Maybe this is how my grandmothers felt when they faced the changes during their times.  As much as I wonder how all these are also part of "progress," I am sure the generations that went before us had their own pangs over "progress."

The intellectual me understands these developments. The emotional me, on the other hand, finds all these just bizarre.

The world was way simpler, and fun-filled, when I was a single-digit-aged kid in PK Master's maths class!

Monday, November 11, 2013

What's the deal with the Philippines?

It wasn't until I came to the US for graduate school did I know that I was not using "the" when I had to, and was overusing it when I didn't need to.  It simply ain't easy to learn English as a second language!

It goes back to the Tamil language that was, as we used to say in the old country, my mother tongue.  Even with that usage, I recall this hilarious incident from my elementary school days.  Our math teacher--the maths master, as we said then--was a quirky, funny, old man.  Well, he seemed old to us when we were kids and, for all I know, perhaps he was the age I am now!  "PK Master" was how we referred to him.

PK Master would suddenly ask a student something interesting while seemingly looking at another.  And, at the same time tap yet another on the head with a long ruler that he always seemed to have in his hand.  We knew that we always had to be on the alert in his class.  Every once in a while, he would intentionally make a mistake in the problem he would have worked out on the blackboard in order to check whether we were merely copying things down or if we were thinking for ourselves.

One of our old classroom buildings, during a visit in 2002

Where was I?  Yes, the mother tongue. So, one rainy day he was walking around while we were trying to solve the problems he had assigned when he asked one of the girls, Madhulika, what her mother tongue was.  I bet she was petrified as much as any of us were whenever PK Master asked us anything; she blurted out, "it is pink."

It is funny now.  But, if you had been in PK Master's class, you would have blurted out even worse things, I tell ya!

Anyway, English is a funny language to learn, with its rules that make no sense.  One of the rules that apparently I hadn't mastered was about "the."  When to use it and how to use it.

For instance, if one were to think in Tamil a statement "நான் லைப்ரரிக்கு போறேன் " and then translate that into English, the translation would be "I am going to library."  We have to systematically learn to add "the" and say in English "I am going to the library."  Once we pick up such bad habits, well, it takes a lot of effort to unlearn the incorrect ways and learn the correct ones.  For me, the "the" lessons were not until graduate school.  I wonder why the English teachers back in my school never pointed this out to me; can't blame them when there were forty kids in the class, eh!

As I started re-learning the English language, I spotted this craziness in all kinds of casual contexts too, not merely in grad school work.  One of the instances in which the "the" issue came up was about the Philippines.  My apartment-mate's father was working in the Philippines at that time--with the Asian Development Bank.  He was also a Tamil.  I noticed that the country was "the Philippines" when a bunch of us Tamil folks spoke in English. But, it was "Philippines" if we spoke in Tamil--there was no "the" there.

So, what is "the" deal with the Philippines?  Here is Wikipedia to "the" rescue:
The name of the Philippines (Filipino/Tagalog: Pilipinas [pɪlɪˈpinɐs], Spanish: Filipinas) is a truncated form of The Philippine Islands, derived from the King Philip II of Spain in the 16th century. During his expedition to the Islands, Spanish explorer Ruy López de Villalobos used the name Las Islas Filipinas in honour of the then-Prince of Asturias
It is not because of the bizarre grammar rules in English, but all because of Spain!

Oh well ... it does not matter if you refer to it as Philippines or the Philippines, as long as you contribute to the relief operations to help the typhoon victims there.  My preferred route is always the Red Cross.

Source

A professor's hairy questions on life!

It has been a few months since I last met with my cousin.  No surprise, therefore, that the first words out of her mouth, after she said hi, were "your hair is fully gray now."

If she has inherited the genes from our grandmother, as I did via my mother, then it is only a matter of time before the black on her head transforms into grey.  Haha, the joke's on her ;)

The first gray hair on my head appeared even before I had experienced the agony over the first pimple!  But, the grey hair's appearance did not bother me at all.  I had grown up with quite a few gray-haired adults around me and I thought it was normal for some to have grey hair.

The process to fully grey, of course, was one that took decades.   When I started growing a beard, I was a graduate student, and the hair on top and on the face was mostly black, with occasional gray.



Now, the little bit of hair I have seems to be all grey, and so is the beard.

The beard though wants to grow uncontrollably fast compared to the hair on top, and if it were not for the beard trimmer that I use every few days, I will pretty much be a real-world example of the caricature in the following cartoon :)


As you can see, I don't look that different from the cartoon image .... muahahaha


Why does the hair turn gray anyway?
Gray hair, then, is simply hair with less melanin, and white hair has no melanin at all. Genes control this lack of deposition of melanin, too. In some families, many members' hair turns white in their 20s.
Btw, is is white hair or grey hair?  More importantly, is it grey or gray?
Gray and grey are different spellings of the same word, and both are used throughout the English-speaking world. But gray is more common in American English, while grey is more common in all the other main varieties of English. In the U.K., for instance, grey appears about twenty times for every instance of gray. In the U.S. the ratio is reversed.
So, given that we are part of the ape family, one has to wonder: do male chimps go bald?  do orangutans go grey?

Don't be a bag of lazybones and expect me to answer everything--find out for youself before you grey and more ;)

Sunday, November 10, 2013

I saw a beautiful woman during a painful train ride

"It has probably been 20 or 25 years since I watched any "Indian" movie" I replied to the visitor's question as we walked across the campus.

It is not that I was exaggerating--I had plainly forgotten the two movies that I watched in India during the sabbatical.  I suppose that by itself says a lot about how much those movies (this and this) made an impression on me!

Over the decades that I have been in the US, I have, of course, watched quite a few movies set in India.  The first of those was when I was in graduate school--Salaam Bombay. A long list of them, all the way to The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.  But then, these are not "Indian" movies.

Three (or more?) weeks ago when Netflix listed Chennai Express in its list of new additions, I was tempted.  Not because I wanted to watch an Indian movie, but because a while ago, when the sun's rays were warm here in Oregon, via Twitter I had read this scathing review of the movie. And then my friend was all gooey about it.  So, when I spotted it on Netflix, I decided to watch Chennai Express.



I had forgotten how incredibly long Indian movies are.  If a story is told in three acts, in the case of Chennai Express, I started fast-forwarding even a few minutes into the first act itself.  

I simply could not continue watching--it was  insanely formulaic and sophomoric.  The good thing about Netflix--I knew I could always continue at a later date from where I had hit pause.  If not for the beautiful woman that the lead female actor, Deepika Padukone, is, I would have even abandoned the movie!

A few days ago, when in Seattle, when the context came up, I shared with them my experience with Chennai Express.  I was glad that there was at least one other fellow-traveler in this atrocious train ride.  Unlike me, she had even paid five dollars to watch the movie, as if to confirm PT Barnum's acute observation ;)

Saturday night, with nothing else to do, I decided to continue with the movie.  There was no worry that I would have forgotten about the fine details of the story--there were no details to keep track anyway.  Thus, armed with the remote to fast-forward, I clicked on the resume option.

The movie reached the second act just about when a typical Hollywood movie would start tying up the loose ends of the story in the third act.


Yep, I watched the movie with the subtitles on.  As the sarcastic review noted, I don't speak "yindi" and without the subtitles it was just a whole bunch of gobbledygook!  Even stranger was how hard to understand it was when the characters spoke Tamil.  Not because I have lost my fluency in the language, but because of the horrible pronunciation by the lead female actor who was playing the role of a Tamil woman.  Well, at least she is one good looking woman--no Mallika, however!

Even with all the fast-forwarding, it seemed like a never ending movie with all the old Bollywood formula elements--a designated bad guy, the villain, who was out to claim the woman; fight scenes that were awfully choreographed; and comedic lines that were as painful as I remember them from years ago.  But, hot damn, the female actor is one beautiful woman! ;)

A lot more fast-forwarding and finally the scene when the man and the woman profess their love for each other.  All is well that ends well.

I was about to shut it off when I spotted what seemed like outtakes along with the credits.  I am glad I saw that.  Though they were not outtakes, what I watched when the credits rolled by was perhaps the best part of the movie--a song and dance routine that was a hilarious take on the superstar who is equally famous in Japan--"Thalaiva" Rajanikanth--and the Jai Ho sequence from Slumdog Millionaire:




It is beyond my imagination as to why such movies continue to be made and, more than that, how they rake in those huge amounts at the box offices around the world.

Oh well ...  Jai Ho!