Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Free Speech

"Comrades, our dear leader has decreed that now is indeed the time to offer us the gift of free speech. From Monday, if anyone wishes to say anything at all - even wicked lies critical of the state, they may do so by visiting one of the free speech-booths set up all around the country. You may enter these sound-proof constructions and say whatever you want! No more can people complain about the lack of free speech! Lies uttered outside the booths will continue to be punished severely. Long live the revolution and our leader!" (Original Source: Free Speech, by Alan Haworth)

A real satire isn't it? The inherent irony of defining free speech is akin to defining what "human rights" mean. Most textbooks on Ethics and Morality define two types of rights - absolute rights and context-dependent rights. Free Speech is often put into the category of context-dependent rights, although there are many vociferous debates on how something as fundamental as speech ought to be an absolute unquestionable right to us humans. Most of us are familiar with this debate and the positions adopted by a democratic government to balance this debate. However trite this topic maybe, I have never previously thought or written my thoughts on this, so here I go.

Any kind of freedom goes hand-in-hand with its equivalent responsibility. When one is given the right to free speech, s/he carries with it the obligation to be responsible for the consequences of that right. If the freedom is used to malign, slander, abuse, or falsely accuse, then such a "freedom" leads to a collective sweep of negative consequences within a community and threatens to disturb the balance of harmony. Are we humans wise enough to be trusted with such an absolute freedom?

Well, here's an account of a recent video I watched on road rage. Driver A cuts in front of Driver B. Driver B gets pissed off and uses the F word on Driver A. Driver A reciprocates with more swear words. Driver B shouts out more profanities, all the while racing Driver A at a ridiculously high speed. As the drivers race, Driver B thinks Driver A was aiming a pistol at him, and hence to defend himself, Driver B takes his gun and shoots at Driver A 16 times and kills the passenger. At prison, when Driver B is asked what he would have done differently, now that he has learnt his lesson, the response was, "I don't think I would have done anything differently. If I don't have the basic right to swear a few profanities to someone who is not a good driver, and to defend and express myself by showing my anger, what sort of a free country are we living in?"

Clearly right to free speech cannot be made absolute till people like the above exist, who can't be responsible enough for their consequences. The above example also leads us to the topic of freedom of expression. It's much easier to categorize freedom of expression as being context-dependent, else like the above scenario, murder would also become an absolute right. While contrasting this with speech, right to free speech appears more innocous. Speech does not constitute any physical action to lead to any physical damage- so why should it be taken so seriously. Isn't it easier to ignore words, and not let a series of vocal noise disturb or affect us? Many great peace advocates reiterate on this - "someone can abuse you with words only if you choose to take it". So why can't the right to free speech be absolute? But isn't the pen mightier than the sword? Speech enfolds ideas and thoughts. It does something more dangerous than murder - it can crawl into our minds and reprogram our thinking. It's like making our computers open to any sort of program. And often, thoughts influence actions, just as a virus can crash multitudes of servers.

Unfortunately, no one can come up with a code that describes acceptable and unacceptable speech as we can objectively distinguish between safe and viral programs. The question of good versus bad is a fundamental question, and the quest for its answer plagues every one of us. Till then, to me, right to free speech is much safer being context-dependent.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Reflections: The Samurai's Garden

With the onset of the Second World War, Stephen, a young Chinese man afflicted with Tuberculosis is quarantined to an ancestral beach house in the quaint and small village of Tarumi, in Japan; this was at a time when the Japanese Imperialist Army was gradually taking over China. With his mixed emotions on setting into the land of the "enemy", Stephen faces loneliness in the simple village where he seems to be the only young man not to have been drafted off to fight the war. With a concerted effort, he starts forming bonds of friendship - first with his caretaker and loyal servant of the beach house, Matsu. The book recounts Stephen's emotional journey and growth, as the friendships he forms at Tarumi turn out to be more stronger than most bonds he has ever known.

Tsukiyama has crafted an evocative tale that can be peeled into different layers - a man coping with loneliness in a foreign land, the price people pay because of society's shallow prejudices, the courage required to rebuild one's life, the value of friendships, the meaning of love, betrayal and much more. Through Stephen's stay in Tarumi, Tsukiyama recreates the essence of what a small-town Japanese culture holds. Her writing distinctly brings out the flavors of the dishes cooked, the wafting aromas of the cedar and burning incense, the blissfully elegant gardens and their flowers, the pungent smell of salty fish, the vivid beauty of the simplistic homes with their neatly lined tatoma-mats and shoji windows, the peace that fills the temples, the quiet dignity of the people, their furious dedication to honor their families... and much more. Matsu, the care-taker, represents a Japanese Samurai - large framed, yet gentle, Matsu has a depth of goodness and wisdom in him, and an endless pool of inner strength. Although aloof, and a man of very few words, Matsu's life revolves around channelling his goodness to those in need of it and in spending his energy in creating life and beauty around him through his exquisite gardens. Sensing Stephen's loneliness, Matsu takes him to the withdrawn mountain-village of Yamaguchi, where resides Sachi, the woman who anchors Matsu to Tarumi.

Yamaguchi is a leper colony - the colony comprises of people who were unfortunate enough to contract the disease, and were courageous enough to live their lives, despite being ostracized by their families and society. Sachi, a once beautiful woman, rebuilds her life in Yamaguchi with Matsu's help, after her family and fiance couldn't bear to be dishonored by her and wished that she rather ended her life. Sachi's personal struggle and courage to bury her past, her quest to find inner strength and peace to live alone in the mountains, away from the society that shunned her, are very inspiring and poignant. Matsu's devotion to Sachi exemplifies the meaning of true love. Sachi's tale and Tsukiyama's dignified prose in exploring such a topic, were my most favorite aspects of the book. Tsukiyama discusses the undue focus on external appearance and beauty in our society, and how such vanity is not just shallow, but also cruel. True beauty lives within - it radiates through human virtues such as compassion, empathy, courage and determination.

In addition to Sachi and Matsu, Stephen meets many more interesting personalities in Tarumi and Yamaguchi. He also starts to both repair and reestablish his bond with his father. With the war escalating and Japan striding closer to Hong-Kong, Stephen struggles to face the inevitability of leaving Japan soon. Oddly, his best friends were now Japanese. The book thus captures how the war affected even simple people in a remote beach town in Japan, who were ready to look beyond differences in race and nationality to forge indelible bonds.

The only aspect that lacked realistic depth to this novel was how Stephen's illness was handled. While Tsukiyama does a wonderful job with detailed attention to how debilitating leprosy can be, she somehow barely paid any attention to the fact that Stephen was afflicted with a severe illness himself - Tuberculosis. Barring spurious mentions of Stephen's cough and constriction in the lungs, for the most part his character was shaped as if he just had a slight cough and was otherwise quite healthy, active and normal. The fact that Tuberculosis is contagious and air-borne was hardly considered as the tale progressed. I was disappointed at this glaring neglect.

Aside the lack of research and detail on Tuberculosis, Tsukiyama's writing has a tranquilizing clarity. Every time she described the gardens, I was completely absorbed in serenity. My love for gardens, especially Japanese gardens with their fragrant blossoms, Cedar and Koi pond, has been drastically heightened. The different layers of themes handled in this book, make it refreshingly unique.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Reflections: Genome

The Human Genome - the internal code and recipe that has been opening scientific gates to unravel the secrets behind our creation and existence, is undoubtedly a breakthrough in Genetics. In this wonderful book, Matt Ridley takes us on an enlightening scientific tour on the myths, the revelations, the controversies and the future of the study of Genetics. Since the human genome comes packaged in 23 separate pairs of chromosomes, the book is organized into 22 chapters, with each chapter focusing on a certain chromosome (the X and Y chromosomes have been paired as one chapter). In each chapter, Ridley discusses a certain theme that corroborates with an important gene (or a sequence of it) present on the particular chromosome that forms the chapter.

Before discussing about the content, the first thing that I need to rave about is Ridley's writing. When I first glanced through the book, I was frankly intimidated, for I'm not a biologist and I found more than 300 pages to be covered with walls and walls of small-lettered text. But despite such a daunting appearance, Ridley's laudable writing was not in the least bit didactic or dense. There was never a paragraph when I felt the writing was droning, nor did I zone off - which speaks a lot about the deft writing. In contrast, the book was very entertaining and extremely engaging! Ridley also infuses some characteristic British satire and humour, which I very much appreciated! Yes, this book is targeted for "lay men" and non-biologists, and yes, the content must appear a little watered-down to a student of Genetics, but for me it contained the right amounts of technical detail and Ridley managed to coherently convey the science and arguments with fluid eloquence.

In each chapter Ridley discusses some scientific history concerning the gene/chromosome/disease, and presents some very interesting studies in evolutionary biology and other fields such as neuroscience, and evolutionary psychology to buttress the findings in genetics and to steer clear the misconceptions. Some of the chapters and experimental findings were familiar to me, but nonetheless, the exact scientific reasoning behind them was very enlightening. For example, it's almost hearsay that psychological stress results in a higher probability of illness and coronary diseases. But previously I didn't know that certain gene sequences induced the brain to release the chemical cortisol, which in turn brought down the immune system, making us more susceptible to contract an illness. The other aspect that I really appreciated was the stimulating discussions on nurture versus nature's role in our behavior and biological response. Ridley maintains a balanced outlook, neither promoting genetic determinism, nor trivializing the effects of nurture (or social determinism, as he calls it), and individual psychological dispositions. In the chapter dealing with stress, Ridley brings out the concept of dualism (which is the belief in an entity called the mind, interacting with the body). A person who psychologically responds to his environmental stimuli by creating more stress for himself, makes the brain secrete more cortisol, which in turn reduces his immune system's potential to fight diseases. Contrary to the reductionists' stance that biological determinism alone determined our behavior and health, in this case, psychological behavior and our individualistic response to our environment, result in influencing our biological activity. I appreciated such balanced discussions, despite the book's core dealing with a heavily reductionist-approach to science.

The other chapters that really enthralled me were those on X and Y chromosomes, Eugenics and Free Will. Never before did I learn that there was sexual antagonism between the X and the Y chromosomes! It appears to be such a paradox to all that we have heard about natural selection and survival! Procreation and survival have been deemed to be Nature's biggest concern, but it appears that the X chromosome that statistically outnumbers the Y chromosome, attempts to destroy the Y chromosome through mutations that might generate a protein sequence, which would destroy the Y chromosome! (gross oversimplification on my part in explaining this, but bear with me). It's like a hacker having found the password to an enemy's account, creating a virus to destroy the account! But some mutations of the Y chromosome escapes the destroy sequence and hence the male species gets saved. This hypothesis is alluded as a sweep in evolution every once in a million years, wherein through a new mutation of the Y chromosome, a slightly different variation of the species comes into existence! And, I didn't know that the Y chromosome is responsible for the formation of the placenta in the embryo, to act as a parasite on the mother and ensure the progeny is being taken care of! Have you EVER fathomed such mother-child antagonism and distrust from the male chromosome! There are some very interesting hypotheses on homosexuality surrounding this antagonism between the X and Y chromosomes. Similarly, peacocks apparently didn't have such exquisite plumes a few hundred generations back. Females seem to be progressively resisting the "seduction" of the males, due to which the male peacock needs to produce more and more beautiful and convincing techniques to attract the female, thereby growing more beautiful plumes. If this resistance to males keeps increasing, there may be a point when the species would obliterate themselves. This theory has been incredibly astonishing to me! Hopefully I didn't misunderstand his writing, for it still seems such an antithesis to the fundamental characteristics of Nature.

The chapter on Eugenics was quite thought-provoking as well. The historical significances, such as many western countries, including the U.S., having passed laws to sterilise more than 100,000 "mentally defective" and "feeble-minded" people to prevent them from having defective children, who would bring down the overall quality of the human race appalled me. I had heard of the Nazi's atrocities but never did I know that many other western countries participated in such pro-eugenic revolutions. Churchill's famous quote has been, "the multiplication of the feeble minded is a very terrible danger to the race". Apparently even writers such as Bernard Shaw and H.G Wells were pro-eugenic. It brings out the age old debate between Utilitarian principles of morality towards the bigger society, versus the individuals' rights. While I can understand the concern of those in support of Eugenics, I can't digest the idea of the state, or the government deciding and dictating on how we should "breed". It really brings to light the dangers of our obsession with ensuring "perfect human beings". Starting from Down's Syndrome and schizophrenia, the definition of "mental health" can turn as subjective as "feeble minded", or "low IQ". I commend the fact that Ridley did not shy away from such discussions concerning the uglier side of Genetics, and the dangerous possibilities that the future holds.

The last chapter on Free Will was a very fitting end to the book. Ridley argues that social determinism, parental influence and environmental determinism, all play as much a role in deciding our "internal program", than mere genetic determinism. Despite such mechanisms of determinism acting on us, the concept of Free Will, however trivial it may appear, does exist. I liked his line of thought that, acting random is not necessarily exercising freedom. We human beings do follow a determined predictable path - it's deterministic that we eat and sleep everyday, yet the nitty-gritties such as when and how still rely on us. Just because we are not random, doesn't mean our deterministic life is fatalistic. Yes, in the end "Free Will" does seem to be reduced to a tiny subset of actions, yet as Ridley puts it, "Freedom lies in expressing your own determinism. If freedom is what we prefer, then it is preferable to be determined by forces that originate in ourselves and not in others." This statement has been very convincing to me.

Having raved so much, I have one tiny quibble. While initially, the organization of the chapters really helped me wrap my head around the concepts, it broke down towards the end. Ridley just picked a theme and in a convoluted manner tried to relate it to a part of a gene sequence, after which he focused primarily on the theme, rather than on the chromosome or the gene. For example, I found the disconnected discussions on Cancer a little confusing and jarring; oncogenes and tumor-suppressants were discussed in a different chapter, while telomerase had it's own chapter. Their interactions were not discussed. Instead, a dedicated chapter on Cancer would have worked better. Obviously there is no single gene present on a chromosome that can explain concepts such as Cancer or Intelligence, so I can understand the complexity and difficulty, yet I think it would have worked better if he had picked relevant themes and organized the book in terms of those, rather than sequence them based on chromosomes.

Despite my nit-picking on the organization (which probably stemmed only because of my vested interest to learn about cancer), the book is extremely educative, engaging and stimulating. It opened new lines of thought that I had never previously considered and it has changed my perspective on evolutionary biology. And Matt Ridley now ranks as one of my favorite scientific writers!

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Mice Hunt

A lazy saturday night. A prolonged dinner with lots of chit-chat. In the midst of a dreamy conversation, I noticed something moving fast, thanks to my peripheral vision. And thanks to my coordinated judgment I deduced it was heading right towards my feet. And it had a tail. Reflexive shriek (make it shrieks), plates in the air, mindless leaping and I landed next to N and climbed on top of a chair. My worst fear was - what if it was a lizard... or some other American reptile, just bigger and nastier. I was prepared to even leave the country.
"What is it?" I demanded. "It's a mouse!" was the reply.

Hearts pounded and both of us looked violated. How dare it?!! Well, first question. How did it come in?!! And where is it now?! The space beneath the oven? The living room? My room?!!! You may call it paranoia to assume that a house mouse might instantly scurry into my room, of all places. Well, mice (and their ilk) have an affinity towards me, my room, my shelf (in that order). I have my facts verified, for there was one chubby mouse that dedicatedly clambered up three floors worth of water pipe, to get into the living room and then run for it's life through the dining room, through the corridor, to unfailingly scamper into my room and then hop into my shelf, of all the shelves there were. This was back home in India. After my living on the dining table for two nights, and after futile attempts to catch the little creature via a trap (rather a box) with masal-vada, there was a ravaged search conducted by our maid and watchman, with the use of broomsticks and other handy devices and the mean fellow was captured and let loose a street away. That very evening, our faithful friend found his way back to me, my room, my shelf. Suffice to say I never let people open the living room windows again. Or for that matter any window, for weeks together.

Given this history, my natural reaction was to turn a little hysteric, when standing atop the chair and wondering where mouse1 went, there we saw another flurry of brown fur and tail, disappearing into the crack next to the dishwasher. This was mouse2. Our worlds were turned upside down. N seemed positive that mouse1 looked smaller than mouse2, which could mean that there was one mama and plenty of tots. Mice tots unfortunately have plenty of siblings. I don't know why a chair which was a measly foot off the ground, gave me so much security against these furry creatures, much smaller than me, and probably far more pissed off and terrified at my shrieks, than I was of them. Still I decided to stay there and called for help. A knight in shining armor of sorts, rudely awakened from sleep was made to roam the streets to find an open store that sold mouse traps. Till his return, N and I faithfully stood (and then sat) rooted to the spot, peeling our eyes to update the mouse-counter, and their appearance and disappearance sites. None came by. My mind was playing the movie, "Mouse Hunt" several times, wherein the mouse plays a Tarzan-like trick and jumps from the chandelier, while N made sure to point out that they might have already nibbled on many things, and they might bite us in our sleep, thus passing on Rabies. Sleep? Me? In this house? Ha... I could see myself being wide awake with my feet tucked up, and keeping watch all night till the mice were out of the house. I was focusing on cleaning measures, disappointed that our kitchen could attract such pests. Time to change the disinfectant? Wait... when was the last time I used disinfectant on the floor? Wet Swiffer does not equal disinfectant! I was horrified at myself, deeply regretful of our ignorance. As I was cursing my hygiene routine, N gasped suddenly and concluded thusly, "If there are mice here, then there will be snakes to eat them, and if the mice presumably came in through some broken vent, the snakes can come too!" I HATE worst-case analysis. "There are no poisonous snakes in this area....", I muttered. "Maybe we should get a cat", N continued, "but problem is how do we potty-train it..." Hmmmm....

Thankfully the mouse traps arrived shortly afterward. I wasn't relieved yet... mice don't just fall into traps. It takes time. As N was loading the trap with peanuts, I asked "Wait, this looks like the ones used in Tom and jerry. How can we release the mouse?"... and then I read the back of the cover, "It kills them!!!" I was stuck between the devil and the deep blue sea. I didn't want to kill the mice! For one, it's inhumane, tragic and there could be mouse-babies, and the other reason is, well, it's just gory and messy and stinky! Knight-in-armor was not inclined to hear me whine and plead for a humane trap. This was it, else I could spend the night with mice partying around, and look for a humane trap in the morning. N continued to load the trap with extra peanuts and started leaving trails of peanuts from the cracks near the oven and the dishwasher. "We're saving ourselves from Rabies", was the answer. The decision was made. The kitchen door closed, lights shut, I made my way to my room, wary of furry things with a tail as I walked. I couldn't get myself to sleep - I wanted to tune my ears to the sound of the menacing traps snapping, and yet I tried not to. I looked under each crevice and nook in my room and after being relatively satisfied that there was none around, I contemplated stuffing the crack near the door with a cloth, to block unwelcome visitors.

I kept myself occupied with reading and browsing, not letting myself fall asleep lest my toes be nibbled on. My mind drifted to the scene that awaited in the morning. If they were dead, how would I face them? Worse yet, if their tail gets stuck like Jerry's and they are tied down to the trap, albeit alive, what would we do then? Did the mice really have a little family? Like Ratatouille? Like Despereaux? What will the babies do? I was reminded of Phoebe from Friends, living with rat babies - for all my talk on vegetarianism and equality to animals, I have sunk low. "Another selfish hypocrite. In the end, I was atop the food chain and I flexed rules to suit me. My pretentious analysis on morality has changed nothing - I am territorial to the extent of not letting any creature into my house, my space. Not even house flies. I live in a bubble and make empty noise. Evolution has changed nothing. What if I do let a mouse live with me, what would I name it? Brownie... wow, it's been a while since I had a brownie, as a matter of fact even chocolate. I ate MnMs today though.. I like the blue ones. I guess it's because I like the color blue, even my blanket is blue. Its a little chilly... it's Fall, what to do. Hope it doesn't get too cold this year.... " and I drifted off to sleep.

The harsh sun jolted me out of sleep and I was instantly up on my feet, scanning my vicinity for shredded blankets and furry things with tail. I contemplated whether I was bold enough to go downstairs. No, I decided. N came in a couple of minutes later, announcing, "They are dead...both of them". "Oh! Is there blood?", was my concern. "No, they were suffocated that's all. Will you come help me dispose them?" Oh GOD! "ME?! I am too scared!", "They are dead!", N stressed. So I finally went, although all I did was stand petrified staring at the sprawled brown bodies with tail. N cleared them muttering, "C3H trace of mice. They are wild mice". N's expertise on dealing with white lab mice for genetics research. For my part, I disinfected the area and went up to complain and whine to people. I killed mice! Boohoo.

Then I googled. After an extensive research on humane traps, I found that Amazon sells a couple of products, this and this, among others. There is this person who has invented and patented his humane trap. And of course there are other smart people having devised simple traps like this one and this successful video demo. To be frank, so many solutions to humane traps saddened me. It would have been better to console myself if google had returned no results. With potential mice babies around, and after having massacred the mama and papa? (mouse 1 and mouse 2 seemed to be of the same size in the morning), we fear more. Rather than ramble and make such a big fuss, it seems like a wise idea to order one from Amazon.

Friday, September 04, 2009

The Farewell-Blooms

It's that time of the year again - time to say goodbye to all the colors and cheer as I frown at the greens turning yellow, orange and a dusty brown. The flora having had their party want to retire and I hate the foreboding gloom threatening to set in. Soon I'll wake up to shedding trees and listen to my heart sink. I'll walk on the colored crumple and wish I could stick each one back on the branches and cast a spell to make them turn the merriest of green. But, nature waits for none. She has her cycle and I'm a tiny speck of indignation, to be ignored as a buzzing fly. And so, all I have are the last traces of color and vitality to feast my eyes and spirits on before the morbid Ice Queen shows up. And what better boost can I get than seeing my planted seeds and bulbs spring up to dance their finale and bid goodbye?

Marigolds - the most simplest, and probably most abundantly common flower known to us. Yet the dainty clumps of yellows and oranges are one of the most happiest little flowers. So easy to grow, I have learned my lesson to plant LOTS of them ( a thicket full), earlier in spring to enjoy the blooms for a good 4 months.

And this is the first time I've ever happened to see a green flower... sure I have seen tender jasmines with green streaks on their pristine white, but never have I seen or heard of a flower that is completely green so as to match it's stalk. Well, imagine my surprise and "pride" when a couple of gladioli bulbs that I planted are now churning out green flowers! Despite playing such a minimal role in both the nature and nurture aspect of this creation, I know I'm coming across as - er, a braggart. But oh well. Also, there are plenty of red ones next to them, making quite a contrast. I couldn't be happier!

These are my farewell-blooms, the last of the lot to show up and spread some merry light, before they wilt and hibernate. But with a few successful batches of plants this year,(yielding a total of 42 flowers - meticulously counted by yours truly- the nerdiest of nerds), I have a whole list of projects for next spring and summer and I eagerly wait for the months to speed by. Sure, Fall is beautiful too with pretty leaves, and snow is - well, nice and pretty to look at, snowmen are fun and there will be holidays. So there are things to look forward to...

It's silly how these plants gave a lot of "meaning" to my summer. I always had something to look forward to, and like a doting parent I've been proudly showing them off to anyone who passes by them, and terribly miss them when they have wilted. Hmm... that makes me sound like I was a totally jobless person this summer! Well, enough of rambling... enjoy your farewell-blooms and verdant lawns as much as you can, for Fall is creeping in fast! Happy Fall :)