Friday, December 31, 2010

Reflections: The People of The Mist

After a series of misfortunes that leaves Leonard Outram and his brother penniless and swindled of their fortune, the brothers launch on an adventure of a life-time in search of gold in Central Africa, with the dream that they will soon return home to claim back their ancestral property. In Africa, Leonard loses his brother to sickness. He befriends some locals whom he hires to serve him through his expeditions. One such faithful man was a curious African dwarf, by the name, Otter. Otter is an extremely brave, strong, loyal and resourceful servant. One day, they chance upon a middle-aged lady weeping at losing her beloved white-mistress, Juanna, to slave-traders. Soa, the mysterious woman, lures Leonard to rescue her mistress,with the pledge that she will help him find an exquisite treasure of rubies and sapphires from the land of the people of the mist. Leonard agrees and sets on a dangerous adventure where he and his team encounter the strange and savage tribe of the People of the Mist, who are one of the most superstitious, blood-thirsty clans in Africa. With a liberal dose of adrenaline-rushing adventure and romance, the story is an addictive page-turner.

If you have read King Solomon’s Mines in middle-school (or any other time), then you must be familiar with the author, H. Rider Haggard. His stories are centered around ancient tribes and civilizations and the early European treasure-seekers who risk their lives for the sake of adventure and treasure. In addition to the twists and turns of the plot and the nail-biting action, the stories focus on exploring the customs and curious traditions of archaic societies. The barbarism and brutality is contrasted with the basic threads of human emotions that connect the civilized and the “savage”. His stories subtly extol the virtues of nobility, although it’s an irony that the “hero” usually invades these old communities to satisfy his greed for wealth, regardless of the havoc he wreaks upon the people.

But the book is entertaining nonetheless. And the immaculate prose makes the story feel like a classy adaption of Indiana Jones :)

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Reflections: Man's Search for Meaning

Almost every other day, I find myself feeling bad at my ignorance of truly brilliant books, and alternately feeling overwhelmed and almost desolate at the thought that I can in no way read even half of all the wonderful books available in my lifetime. I am not sure how I got by all these years without coming across Man’s Search for Meaning.

Victor Frankl was a psychiatrist who put forth the theory of Logotherapy, based on the core existential philosophy that man’s fight for survival, even in the most grim and tragic circumstances is because of his ability to attribute meaning and purpose to his life. This might seem  very simplistic and almost intuitive (or counter-intuitive), but the depth of this theory comes to light as Frankl assesses it during his three years at the Nazi concentration camps. This is an extremely inspiring, practical and realistic book, which holds a very special place in my shelf.

One would think that the repeated mentions, memoirs and stories surrounding the World War II and the concentration/death camps would eventually make one turn a little numb at the horrors and extent of dehumanization. But no matter how many versions you hear, see enacted, or read, the horrors intensify and haunt you even more. I can’t imagine how there were human beings who survived through so much damage to the body, mind and spirit. I am one of those who wouldn’t even survive if I were asked to imagine it all for a day. Frankl’s recounts at the concentration camps touched me so deeply, almost flipping my heart inside out, because of his approach at narrating his experiences, the tone he takes, and the analytic angle he deftly uses to dissect the prisoners’ (and the guards’) psychology - the stages of their mental states, the reasons for them, and the ways by which he and some others manage to rise above it all.

Frankl started working on Logotherapy as a potential psycho-therapeutic technique to help people combat depression, and thoughts of suicide. At the concentration camps, he could use his personal experiences, as well his objective observations of his fellow prisoners to validate his speculations and theories. His book therefore has a fine balance between realism, philosophical speculation and psychological validation.

I agree with his underlying assertion that human beings abandon their will to survive and get bogged down in depression if they lose their anchoring to find a meaning, a cause, a purpose, or any goal in their life (i.e., if they sink into an  existential vacuum). Doesn’t matter if life probably is indeed meaningless, random and arbitrary (as the Nihilists believe), or if the innate purpose of our existence is merely the procreation of our genes (as the natural-selectionsists assert). At times of intense tragedy and absurd circumstances, it doesn’t help to be reminded that Life is random and meaningless; such a belief is likely to crush the spirit, and worse, bring out the animalistic tendencies of survival. It’s much more practical and utilitarian to orient ourselves to a goal, a meaning or a purpose to develop and refine our most humane tendencies and mature the spirit. It’s by far the most constructive technique of growth and acceptance.

Frankl regards human-beings to have the potential to face the worst, and emerge unbroken in spirit. He views them to be much more than “brain-machines”, a humane departure from most other scientists and psychiatrists. He therefore rejects the notion that human-beings can be reduced to their biological determinants. I strongly favor this approach, although I keep my mind open to every possible theory. I realize that it’s good to be in a state of equilibrium with regards to such theories and speculations on the human mind/spirit, for it helps one stay objective. But in dire situations, I concede that it’s natural and even necessary to adopt a tragic optimism (in Frankl’s words) to remain strong in spirit and continue working towards something constructive.

I reached a kind of epiphany with Frankl’s assertion that, suffering needs to be attributed to a cause or a purpose for it to be bearable. How true! That’s all the mind needs to know to reconcile with pain and misery. And that’s precisely the reason why Religion tries to associate meaning, even if they be myths, to every suffering possible (more wonderfully argued by Jopseh Campbell, in The Power of Myth). And Spirituality teaches techniques to reach a state of equanimity wherein we view suffering as means to our growth. I appreciate the fact that all of these techniques and preachings eventually lead us to take responsibility of our Life, and remind us that we are in control of the attitude we adopt to deal with the circumstances. The Nihilists may just regard this as a boost to the Human-Ego, which it probably is, because of the pedestal on which we place the human spirit and its ability to elevate, but it’s a wonderfully practical tonic! Doesn’t matter if we live through an illusion of sacrifice and a lofty ideal, if it helps us embrace the unimaginable.

I strongly believe that techniques of Logotherapy are one of the most practical approaches towards psychotherapy. It deals with providing people who are struggling with misery, a meaning and goal to work towards. The existential purpose need not be arbitrary or even idealistic. Even the basic responsibilities - such as being responsible for our family, is a valuable goal. It urges us to take responsibility of our life, and reminds us that our life is something unique and irreplaceable. Neitzche’s words are quite apt -  “He who has a Why to live for, can bear almost any How”.

This is a book that I’m sure to resort to multiple times to gain inspiration.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Reflections: Emma

Emma Woodhouse is a charming young lady in Highbury. She is a smart, genteel woman, observing all the manners and views of the Victorian “high-bred” society. She believes she has an innate talent to be a match-maker and prides herself on successfully matching couples, until she makes multiple mistakes with her new and innocent friend, Harriet. Emma is generally headstrong, spoilt and a little pretentious in holding onto prejudices of class and status. Multiple characters get introduced, all of whom fall under Emma’s radar as potential mates for Harriet or for herself, resulting in a romantic imbroglio of sorts, not knowing who is truly interested in whom, until Austen slowly unwraps the convoluted romantic jumble.

This work is hailed as one of Austen’s most popular works. One of my friends, who is a trusted literary enthusiast, has often told me that I had to read Emma, for she considered it one of Austen’s most charming books. I went by her words, but I failed to feel her appreciation for the book. Perhaps I have outgrown Jane Austen. The language is no doubt eloquent and beautiful, gently and intelligently drawing the characters’ personalities. But I didn’t see much of a story, or a plot. It was more of a satire to me, on how genteel ladies of that time idled their time on frivolities, prejudices and gossip. But contrary to how much I love and adore Wodehouse’s similar satire on the aristocrats and pompous British, I found this particular story to be meandering and boring.

But if Austen’s intention was to make a statement about the need for a change in society so that women were occupied with more constructive things than indulge in trivialities, and marriage was not seen as a social ambition or financial security for women, then, I truly applaud her for thinking ahead of her times.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Reflections: Matters of Faith

Marshall has been struggling with questions on belief, faith and religion. He is a vulnerable and precocious teenager who explores several forms of faith to forget and make peace with the trauma of watching his close friend die before his eyes. He seems to have found the perfect girl-friend; a staunch fundamentalist who promises to help him realize the miracles of Faith. Marshall couldn’t have been more proud as he brings his questionable girl-friend Ada, to meet his family during Spring-break. Marshall’s dad seems to abhor religion and its rudimentary aspects and views Marshall’s ways with concern and skepticism. His mom tries to be the open-minded scholar, who lets her son explore options as part of an intellectual pursuit. His sister Megan is an easily swayed girl, who is severely allergy-prone and is on the cusp of being a teenager. Ada, the vegetarian, the organic-whole-food-eating, medical-intervention-hating, God-loving girl, convinces Megan to eat a cookie with a few wisps of peanuts to strengthen her immunity. She regards this as a test of faith, believing God to cure Megan of her ailment. As Marshall watches with fear, faith and horror, Megan plummets into a dangerous coma, shaking the foundations of his family and making the question of what exactly is Faith loom large.

Just a few snippets of the book’s synopsis were enough to make me hunt this book down. The angst of understanding what is Faith, and if it can exist independent of Religion, frames the story of my life, as I’m sure it does most lives. I thought the plot had all the setting - a confused boy wondering which faith to resort to even before realizing what he is searching for, an open-minded, all embracing mother, a skeptical father, a fanatic girl practising almost-barbaric things in the name of Faith, a strict Christian grandmother who believes God talks to her, and a young girl whose life depends on faith; the question is, which form of faith. To some extent, the story and the writing did analyze the different forms of faith and concludes with a reasonable explanation of what forms the core of Faith and Hope. But for the most part, I felt there wasn’t enough content with a more rigorous and thoughtful analysis on the subject - especially with the characters and the story screaming with so much potential. It could also just be due to my over-critical nature on this subject. After so many years of mulling this in my head and discussing with people, I have seen every perspective possible (or so I believe), but I just haven’t figured out what sense to make of it all. And perhaps expecting a book of fiction to wrap it all up for me is unrealistic!

The writing was quite mellow and touches on the most elusive parts of our emotions. But I also thought it meandered a bit, wallowing into details that didn’t contribute to the story. Faith wasn’t explicitly discussed except at the beginning and the end. The meat of the book was on the turmoil the family goes through and how they pull together the reins of their careening lives to reach some semblance of sanity and stability. Perhaps this ability to reach acceptance and stability has to do with the innate strength we have, to continue hoping for the best and having faith in ourselves and our attempts. Religion and prayers help to outwardly gain and manifest this strength and comfort. Rituals are guiding steps to those who fumble with finding this well of reserve within themselves. But misconstrue the rituals and take them too far from the realm of rationality and even humanity, and everything tumbles down. It’s a fine line to walk between faith and fanaticism. As discussed multiple times before, faith needs to rest on some modicum of rationality.

In all, it was a contemplative book that muffles the weight of the subject with its delicate prose.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Reflections: The Phantom of the Opera

I’ve only been to two musicals in all my life. There are several I wish to see someday, and The Phantom of the Opera is surely one of them. I was never curious to read the book until I chanced upon it and I decided to read it on a whim. After all, a popular musical would be well worth reading as a book, right? Absolutely, yes. I can perfectly understand how this can be a powerful and mesmerizing musical, and I can’t wait to see it someday.

The story is about the mysterious Opera ghost who seems to haunt the walls of the Paris Opera House, wreaking havoc among the managers, the audience and the opera performers with his supposed witch-crafts and threats. The disruptive activities of the phantom come to the glaring spotlight when the alluring singer, Christine Dae gets entangled in his tentacles. The phantom calls himself the Angel of Music, and helps Christine with her singing lessons. Surely, the phantom is ingeniously talented in music and has the rapturous voice of an angel. But the rest of him is shrouded in a dark, deathly shadow. The story is about dissecting who the phantom is, if he really does exist, and how the poor, innocent singer is rescued from his grips.

The book has a lot of elements running through it - mystery, suspense, romance, and a Gothic flavor that heightens the tension and tragedy. I have realized that books which capture all of these elements leave the most impact on me. Plus, books that deal with an interesting plot surrounding an intense character keep me totally consumed and engrossed. I love intense, over-the-edge kind of plots based on the human psyche - it both fascinates and horrifies me. It’s perfect to sink into the story and analyze one single character who portrays the most devious and brilliant mind.

It’s a pity I can’t ramble on about anything else, for I will be spilling the mystery and spoil the book for those who want to read and learn things by themselves. But the book touched me. I thought it was brilliant that the author came up with such a haunting psychological thriller surrounding a conventional Opera house. It leaves you wondering who the real victims in the book are, and indeed how shallow our perceptions of physical appearances really are.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Places I Never Meant To Be

With  the new year fast approaching, I thought it would be fun to look back and see how much I have detoured from my expected life-course.  So I decided to be a copy cat and make a list of places I never meant to be, inspired from my friend’s post :). And wait, she says she’s tagged me, so all the merrier!

More than physical places, figuratively speaking, there are many many places in my life that I sorely wish I didn’t have to be. I have tripped into many sour soups and pickles and burnt myself nicely.  I never imagined that I would be plunged into such dreaded places where I had to make the most excruciatingly difficult and painful decisions of my life and live with the searing guilt and bruises for the rest of my life. But, hopefully I don’t have to walk back and forth through the gates of Hell again. Universe, are you listening? ;)

Anyway, having got that (temporarily) off my chest, let me slip into a lighter mood :)

1. A couple of years back, my father asked me in his characteristic sarcastic tone, “So, you’re sure you want to go and live inside a freezer?” Ah. (chilly silence) . Then, I bit the bullet and nodded an affirmation. And here I am, never even having dreamt that I would live in a frigid place, where several inches of snow and ice are quite commonplace. But I have no complaints. Except for the dangerous driving conditions, it’s beautiful to wake up to the silent fall of snow, gaze at blankets (and towers) of whiteness, and build snowmen without suffering a frost-bite (Er, I’m still working on it).

2. I melted into a puddle of tears the evening I returned from a horrific bus journey, where I had to stand cramped in a crowded college bus for hours, with hooligan “senior” boys heckling us in the name of ragging. I never meant to go to such a place, in such a bus, amid such deplorable company. But a few months later, after I spotted a super brainy, IIT-hugging, humble friend joke around in the canteen, I “wizened”. If he could study there and be a sport, I should too. I decided to grit my teeth and make the best use of my time. And I think, I almost did, staying all the while in the first bench.

3. Due to my (lack of) keen sense of spatial orientation, I often drive and end up in places I never meant to be. I also will steadfastly set out to walk to the library and will  suddenly end up in a totally different building, which will cause me to make a clumsy 360 degree turn on my heels as my body’s way of trying to figure out the current location. Some people advise that I shouldn’t be letting my thoughts drift as I walk.

4. In a hardware store, hunting for plumbing equipment to fix a running and clogged toilet.  And then returning home to stare and prod at a place where I never imagined I would spend the better half of an hour.

5. At a Casino. And that too, losing money. I thought a prudish nerd would be a total misfit there. And for the record, I still don’t understand how the slot machines work. I numbly stare at the colorful, jingling symbols and when they stop and announce I haven’t hit the jackpot yet, I whack a button that best appeals to me at the moment and hope to win as the symbols jingle-jangle. Chimps would do better.  

6. On a dance floor. Silly college farewells. I can’t move my limbs suitably to even feign dancing, but I was happily flailing about without a care in the world.

7. My family is on very friendly terms with plenty of head temple-priests in the remotest parts of Tamil Nadu. My mom or father-in-law has to just whip out their phone and punch a few numbers, and within minutes we’ll be treated as VIPs and be whisked through secret corridors and tunnels, bypassing pesky lines and will be seated right next to the Idol and the temple cockroach and handed plenty of Prasad. It’s a very disconcerting feeling. In addition, we’ll be taken to the priest’s humble and quaint home, which will quite stir and sadden me. The old wells, the crumbling roofs, the peeling wall paint, the cows in the backyard, the kitchen with a teeny wood burning stove, the girl my age standing morose in a modest saree and holding three kids, make me feel eerily transported to a different era, and I often wonder how I ended up there and how all of this can still be part of the world I live.

Well, I can’t think of anymore “cool” or extraordinary places that I managed to get myself in without meaning to. If you think this is an interesting exercise, type away your “places” in your space!

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Second Chances

This whole term, I have been gripped with the same angst as the person in here suffers.

There was a time, long long ago when I considered being a teacher. I loved the notion of being able to impart some form of “knowledge”, and of presenting myself as an empathetic counselor, who would rise above and beyond repeating words from a textbook and be a “reformer”, a “mentor” of some kind. The whole concept of understanding the psychology of students and guiding them before they take a wrong turn seemed to appeal to me. I always start with lofty ideas and idealistic dreams.

I reformed this ambition over the years - scratching off ideas, introducing revisions, reinventing career paths, putting down “inter-disciplines”, diverging into roads-less-traveled, and well, continuing to pave the roads that somehow lead me to the vicinity of what I initially planned on accomplishing. While I try to frustratedly explain this to confused people, who ask me, “So, what exactly are you doing? And what does it mean”, I have to admit, there are days when I do feel grateful that my destiny swung off course and saved me from becoming a teacher.

In all these years of graduate student life, I’ve had the “privilege” of being a Teaching Assistant and Full Time Instructor, for about 6 courses. Barring a couple of instances when I actually felt a surge of satisfaction at the end of the semester and swelled with the feeling that I really did make a ripple of a difference in somebody’s life, I’ve been left utterly exasperated and disappointed. I try to make light of it by reminding myself of the gang of buffoons and baboons that I was part of in my undergraduate days. But in a way, those callous and unprofessional professors seemed to deserve the hooligans. All those bright minds that never even tried to glance at assignments and projects and blatantly copied from the nerdy first-benchers, are now in respectable positions, doing great for themselves. And I don’t suspect that they have dilapidated moral foundations either. They seemed to know when and where to draw the line.

But somebody has to come along and push me to the edge. As a graduate student, I don’t demand “respect” in the classes I help teach. My enthusiasm corroded after a few courses. Now I do my duty and leave the rest to the students, without fretting or trying too hard to inspire. I have other pressing things to focus on than go out of my way and try to inspire kids who would just sneer at my earnest attempts, or so I tell myself. I choose to ignore people who yawn, sleep, update their Facebook profile, track football scores, give wise-ass retorts, or just stare at the wall disinterestedly. It’s their prerogative. In labs, I spell out the formula and will even help them plug it all into Excel, if they choose to ask me. I hover around computers, relentlessly spilling out “hints”. I mark in big bold red markers the concept that they have to apply for the assignment staring right in front of them. And yet, it appalls me, that some would still hand in a shoddy report. Fine. So, I grade by searching for a few words that convey the concept, give partial credits for even “thinking partially”, organize extra study sessions, and what do some people still resort to? Copying, cheating and proxy signing. And to put the bitter cherry on the icing, it happens to be an Indian who hopes to get away with all of the above.

I hate stereotyping, but this is quite typical of an Indian teenager who finishes his high-school in India and walks into a class here, thinking, “Chalta hai, like this girl is even going to notice all this.” He has better things to do, like skip lab, have someone proxy sign for him, skip classes, giggle at facebook profiles, complain about how “difficult” and “irrelevant” this course is, demand more points for an utterly wrong answer, quiz about class averages, and suggest that we curve the grades. He has the nerve to turn in one of the most easiest, middle-school-level assignments, by copy-pasting his friend’s graph that quite clearly doesn’t correspond to his results. Is a TA that dumb to not notice that the numbers don’t correspond on a bar graph? Sure enough, I dig out a suspected accomplice’s paper,  another Indian, and lo! there’s his graph.  Academic dishonesty in the US is taken very very seriously - the punishments are so severe and will cast a black-mark on the transcript and is sure to haunt for the rest of one’s life.

But I hate to be the person to bring him down. As my rage boiled over, I couldn’t ignore the thought of dozens of guys I know who engaged in such acts in their under-grad days. And I still hold them in good regards. This little graph seemed harmless in a bigger perspective, especially given the fact that he had completed the other parts, and just decided to be lazy to merely plug his results into Excel. He couldn’t spare those 5 minutes and lifted his friend’s graph. However, he had met the Lab’s objectives; the graph itself was just a superfluous extension. Proxy-signing, I brushed off and marked him absent. In the grand scheme of his grades, these two things would count less than 2% of his grade. And he carelessly, idiotically decided to take the risk when the benefits were so insignificant.

I rationalized and rationalized, and eventually decided to take off points that he did not deserve and confronted him with these issues over an email. I decided not to take this up with my professor, but warned him, and “berated” him for assuming that such things go unnoticed.

At home, I relate this to the husband and he fumes at my “innocence” and “benevolence”. No one cares that you give them a second-chance, he rails. People like him don’t learn through forgiveness, he says. He then issues this warning - the more you give in, the more you forgive, the more you will be taken for a ride and treated as a doormat by such people. In effect, he lectures that I’m not being a smart, intelligent woman in a cut-throat world.

We both come from our own episodes of hurt. He tries to shake me out of the compulsion to endlessly give people multiple chances, rationalizing their flaws and forgiving their mistakes with the hope that they will one day change. I know his rant towards me goes deeper than just this episode. But I struggle to change. 

This morning, the student apologizes and asks if he can still get partial credit if he redid the work. Before I was swayed to say yes, I typed out no. No matter how long a rope you give such people, they always push the envelope and ask for more. I would love to listen to what his moral conscience, if any, is saying. However, I try to remember this book, and tell myself what a small issue this is, and how much more effectively I could have handled it to help change his ways. I guess it's indeed better that I am not a teacher.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Reflections: The Dragons of Eden

Any book on the human brain/mind is sure to light up my... well, figurative antennae. To top it, an award winning book on the evolution of human intelligence, written by a renowned scientist, was simply screeching to be read. Carl Sagan has carefully arranged his thoughts and his speculations on the evolution of the human brain, trying to pin-point the turn when intelligence made its entry and propelled Homosapiens to the the top of the food chain.

Not sure if I’m hovering on the brink of a “Writer’s-block”, or some form of lapse in the Broca’s region of my brain, but lately I have been struggling to pull out words from vague puffs of thoughts. I take longer than usual to speak, and wrestle with my mind to put down intelligent (or even sensible) sounding words on paper. So, my thoughts on this book are going to sound quite inadequate. And honestly, I’m quite surprised that I am not practically oozing with things to discuss and reflect on after reading such a book.

One of the things I was disappointed with the book was that, Sagan dwells on the evolution of the human brain - the physical mass itself, while I pointedly wanted to read about the progression of intelligence. I guess it goes back to the philosophical implication - there is no mind without the brain. And yes, I understand that it’s not easy to define intelligence without discussing the numerous cognitive regions of the brain. But, since I was quite familiar with the regions of the brain, the localized and non-localized cognitive functions, the extremely cool experiments with people and monkeys concerning language, the mind-blowing experiments with “split-brained” people, the significance of the corpus-callosum and the interaction between the left and right hemispheres etc.... the book didn’t hold enough insights or surprises for me. I was looking for a few missing pieces in my puzzle, and it sadly didn’t hand me those. Nevertheless, it’s an intelligent and engaging read. And for an astrophysicist to gather so much research evidence and glean wonderful and precise insights into the complexities of the human brain is testament to Sagan’s mind-blowing intelligence.

However, I am not omniscient. I did learn quite a few things. It was quite fascinating to learn that our brain-mass as well as our body to brain mass ratio, have been rapidly increasing, relative to other animals on the planet. So bigger brains do, in a sense, mean more intelligence! In a nut-shell, intelligence or higher-order reasoning abilities are attributed to the development of the neocortex, the part of the brain specific to mammals. I was impressed with the archaeological and anthropological evidences of the progression of the brain and the development of the temporal and frontal lobes, all of which are also associated with intelligence. Haven’t we heard our grand-moms say, a  broader forehead marks intelligence? And ahem, that is Sagan’s hypothesis on why human childbirth is so painful - our pelvic bones haven’t evolved at the rate at which the human head has “grown” or changed in shape (wish I could paste pictures of the skulls of Neanderthals versus homo-sapiens). Besides, given the structure of our bodies, apparently the pelvic bones cannot become wider without damaging our gait and balance. So well, all the science-fiction movies about babies with gigantic heads with brain tentacles waving about as they traumatize their moms don’t seem too unrealistic in the future ;)

Sagan also has an interesting take on the abortion issue. He defines the beginning of human life to the start of neocortical development. For, according to him, that’s what sets us humans apart, and if we are to value human life, the neocortical development seems to be a reasonable cut-off point for him. I don’t really agree. What if one’s neocortex is poorly developed, or gets damaged? Does the person lose their human label, and all the dignities that go with it? Besides, as the book reiterates, intelligence arises from numerous complex cognitive activities, spanning several regions of the brain. The issue of the start of life is far too ambiguous and philosophical still. But I enjoyed reading such extrapolations on the topic, including the future that awaits us, Artificial Intelligence, and the intelligent aliens we might have to encounter at some point.

The title of the book might intrigue a few - why dragons, and why Eden? The R-complex of the brain, the deeply buried repressed Unconscious (as Freud might say) harbors our primordial fears, desires and instincts. It’s called the reptilian part of the brain - the one that still instills fear and loathing of reptiles, our early deadly predators. Our brain seems to have evolved to combat the predators - for example, the reason why we sleep at nights and dream of dinosaurs and dragons. So in a convoluted way, our brain’s growth is due to the fear of reptiles (or, by natural selection, the brains that could survive such predators have sustained). It has given rise to various cultural beliefs and myths surrounding reptiles and snakes (such as in India). Even in the genesis, it’s because of a reptile, mankind gets thrown into a world of sins. But we progressed because of our well developing neocortex and seamless interaction between the left and right hemispheres (one pattern matches to form rudimentary hypotheses about the world, and the other critically and rationally weeds out the illogical hypotheses). Sadly, even in this state of evolution, many left hemispheres don’t work as rationally, and myths still abound. Sagan goes on to talk about the importance of rationality in our civilization.

And there are many more interesting cultural beliefs that tie with all this. Ever wondered why every human civilization insists on training the right hand? I won’t spoil this for you, if you really are contemplating on reading this book. How wondrous - your brain will seek out to learn more about itself.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Reflections: Rainbow Valley

Rainbow Valley is the seventh book in the Anne of Green Gables series. Just mentioning this should be suffice to acknowledge that the book is a sweet children’s classic delivered in Montgomery’s exquisite prose. In this book, Anne Shirley is married to Gilbert Blythe and is the mother of six lovely children. Hard to imagine Anne as a mother of six kids, right? But Anne doesn’t feature much in the book. The story revolves around her children, the new neighbor’s neglected children (the Merediths, whose father is a widowed  minister), and an orphaned waif, Mary Vance. Befitting a children’s story, the children get into mischief due to a few comedies of errors, and end up getting chided by the adults. So they decide to teach themselves to be in good conduct. Of course, they need to first figure out what “good conduct” really means. What is good, what is bad, what is heaven, what is hell, what is moral, what is a sin? Ooh, a whole lot of  heavy questions for kids to decipher. Montgomery shows the perplexities faced by a child when the world ceases to be black and white, even if one lives in a seemingly perfect and peaceful community such as Avonlea.

Avonlea, much like most communities in the early 20th century, was a conservative society honoring Victorian virtues. Social etiquette, decorous behavior, religious fervor, and codes of moral propriety were strictly defined. Without the discipline of a mother, and enough concern from the father, the Meredith children lacked fine grooming. They were frowned upon for not knowing the “right” things to say, or how to conduct themselves in social gatherings and in church, much to their father’s humiliation. But, although they were free-spirited kids who didn’t mind waving their arms in glee than sit still in church, they had good, kind hearts. They took pity on Mary Vance, a girl who ran away from a tormenting employer, gave her a place to stay, food to eat, and above all kindness and friendship. When these kids were constantly rebuked for their frivolous behavior, they set out to punish themselves to redeem and reform their ways to be socially and morally acceptable. The innocence and earnestness tugs your heart. I really liked the fact that Montgomery explores a heavy subject from the simple perspective of children. There’s an instance where Mary and Una try to sort out the moral predicament of lying. Would telling lies always get you down to Hell? Mary innocently states that she had to tell multiple lies to save herself from getting beaten by her unfair and mean employer, while Una wonders if God would be so unkind to banish such girls who lied, to Hell. God was surely much more fair and merciful in his judgments, right? It reminded me of the time I had such a mini-revelation and wondered how God would decide whom to punish. And to this day, I continue to ponder, along with several other intelligent adults.

Underneath all the merriment and innocence of childhood, is the question of what constitutes as mere social propriety and what truly is morality. Of course, Montgomery doesn’t delve deep, but gives a nice enough introduction to the beginning of the end of childhood.

With a happy ending, a little contemplation and the naivety of childhood suffusing the book, which child wouldn’t like this book?

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Reflections: Mozart's Sister

I came across this book as I was feverishly browsing through thousands of Kindle freebies and mindlessly downloading every other book that managed to spark even an inkling of interest in me. I like Mozart’s compositions. I think his style of music is quite accessible even to those with just a passing curiosity in classical music. And I absolutely love the deep and majestic sounds of the piano and ardently wish every year to start learning to play the instrument. So far, with my sub-par motor skills and extreme lack of dexterity, my dream just sinks a little lower and lower. Anyway, I’m shooting off on a tangent. This book seemed interesting because it looks into the life of Mozart’s sister, Nannerl, who was supposedly as talented as her brother, but was resigned to her fate of being a woman who couldn’t hope to travel the world and have a career. The world hadn’t embraced feminism in the 18th century. I was curious to read the interpretation of a woman’s thoughts as her brother rose to fame and glory while she had to live through the rusting of her musical talents. Intertwined with the chronicles of the musical genius, Wolfgang Mozart, the book breathes life into a neglected member of the talented Mozart family.

I love biographies of my favorite personalities. But I don’t necessarily like to read a historian’s dry account of a person’s life. Historical fiction comes to my rescue in such cases. Nancy Somer’s sensitive writing has crafted a realistic world of the Mozart family. I appreciate her characterization of Nannerl. She shows a righteously envious girl, who craves for her father’s approval and attention, when he was steeped in his efforts to promote Wolfgang’s talents, and to make a name for him. But despite the tension of jealousy in any sibling rivalry, the undercurrent of kinship and familial bonding never ebbs. The bond shared between brother and sister was quite strong despite how far apart they drifted. Nannerl’s love for her dad clashes with her innermost desire to rebel and seek freedom, but Somer has beautifully shown how she mellows into acceptance of her family and her life, and chooses the course of her life with pragmatism. In these aspects, Nannerl’s personality seems to mirror mine. I could relate to the character and her decisions with empathy and frustration. I quite liked the book for Somer’s meticulous and apt characterization of Nannerl.... no parts of the fact and fiction contradicted or seemed discordant with each other. Some characters such as the mother, might have been a little stereotyped, but the characterization gelled with the story and the time period.

Other than the story of the Mozart family, most of the book is filled with the family’s travel around Europe, the constant haunt of illness threatening to kill them, the pressure of financial stability, the treacherous politics of the nobility and the monarchs, and how all of these played their part in stifling Nannerl and extorting Mozart to slave and constantly churn out operas and compositions, so that he be recognized and awarded. I have had this notion that geniuses don’t really have to work hard. They say talent literally spews out of them uncontrollably and involuntary. If so, they are so blessed to just express their abilities and enjoy doing it. It didn’t seem like too much work to me. That shows my appalling ignorance.Stories like this shed light on the hard work that needs to go in to promote oneself, network with the right people, appease the powerful ones and be acknowledged. It’s the same old story - I thought these things weren’t as necessary two hundred years back. Besides, creativity cannot be forced or be channeled to deliver under specifications. Mozart’s life was such an example, and Moser conveys it well.

This book is therefore as much about Mozart and his domineering father, as it is about his sister. Although I didn’t enjoy learning about Mozart’s travels and constant shuffling, I liked how his sister was given the attention and recognition she never received when she lived.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Reflections: The Diving Bell And The Butterfly

In December 1995, due to a very rare and unfortunate accident, Jean-Dominique Bauby was thrown into a complete body paralysis. His brain stem, which acts as a conduit between the brain and the spinal chord, severed, resulting in “locked-in-syndrome”. By a stroke of ironical “luck”, Bauby retained control of his left eye and lid. Through blinks of his left-eye Bauby managed to communicate with his friends, family and caregivers. He could externalize his thoughts through painstaking blinks to form individual alphabets, words, sentences and paragraphs. And thus came about his immensely moving memoir. Almost like a tragic, poetic ending, he died after two days of the memoir’s release.

Bauby was the chief editor of the popular French magazine, Elle. He led a glamorous and busy life in the romantic city of Paris. A man who was used to constant hubbub and acclaim for his work was suddenly pushed down fate’s tricky stairs. On regaining consciousness from his dangerously long coma, he had to come to terms with so many challenges and blows to his ego and dignity. But he didn’t lose much time wallowing in his angst and sorrow. He decided to keep himself busy, by not letting his thoughts rust. His mind tuned itself to be even more alert and imaginative and it flew through the world like a dazzling butterfly. He craved to interact with people and communicate his thoughts, and resented the common misconception of some of his acquaintances, that just because his body was reduced to a near “vegetative” state, he had become intellectually incompetent. This book is one of his attempts to dispel such a thoughtless conclusion about people with physical disabilities.

His memoir is a collection of his thoughts that flit from varied time periods and scenarios in his life, like a butterfly hopping from one flower to another. But he mainly focuses on his journey in his paralytic state. I honestly cannot imagine how sharp one’s mind has to be to construct exquisitely beautiful sentences and paragraphs conveying such poignant thoughts and emotions, without the luxury of a word processor, or even a piece of paper to edit and rearrange words. And while such complex processing was taking place in his mind, he had to simultaneously select each alphabet through blinks of his eye. Such perseverance and drive is incredibly inspiring. Tragedy and pain seem to bring out the best in some people. 

Books like these reiterate the significance of being able to express ourselves. Locked in his useless body was a brilliant mind and Bauby's sense of self, both of which came bursting forth through a tiny outlet permitted by his body. It's impossible not to be touched by this book. And it's a pity I can't read his book in French.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Reflections: Finding Nouf

Nouf, a sixteen year old girl hailing from a wealthy family in Saudi Arabia, mysteriously disappears three days before her wedding. Clues suggest that the girl was either kidnapped or she ran away to the desert. The family banks on Nayir, their trustworthy desert guide to find Nouf. Nayir combs the desert with his search and rescue team for two weeks, but to no avail. It is impossible for anyone to survive in the desert for this long a time, especially so for a young, wealthy girl, who’s been cocooned from the harsh realities of the world. When Nouf’s body is found, Nayir’s obsession with the mysteries surrounding Nouf’s case deepens. In a land where women are veiled mysteries, and families regard their honor to be higher than the truth, Nayir wades his way through uncomfortable revelations about his beliefs and tradition as he pieces together the truth about Nouf.

Zoe Ferraris has woven an engaging mystery in the heart of one of the most mystic lands. Through the detective plot, she brings alive the culture and traditions of wealthy Arabian families. I thought it was quite creative of her to employ a prudish, conventionally strict musilm man, Nayir, as the detective who discovers that he needs to understand the secretive world of Arab women, if he wants to crack Nouf’s case. Through Nayir, she shows the reader the perspective of a muslim man, the reasons for his prejudices, and the lens through which he views women. Through the course of the novel, as Nayir gets closer to the truth about Nouf, he also leaps closer to understanding why Nouf’s life had to take such a course. In other words, he transforms from an ignorant man to one who understands the world of women; their feelings, their thoughts, their ambitions, and their silent sufferings. His revelations make him reflect on his beliefs and traditions, which, contrary to his supposition, seemed to sometimes cause suffering and moral depravity. Ferraris manages to cleverly balance the wisdom contained in the Quran and the havoc it wreaks when misinterpreted with a cloistered perspective in the modern era. I appreciated the fact that she didn’t go overboard in criticizing the culture - as a matter of fact, she doesn’t really criticize. She merely presents the honest repercussions and suggests embracing rules and traditions, without losing sight of their deeper underlying principles. And it’s brilliant that she conveys all of this through the thoughts of the stringent Muslim man, Nayir.

I laud this book for its creative attempt at ensconcing such deeper discussions on the Arabian culture and traditions within an engrossing mystery. The more the mystery gets unraveled, the more we grasp the complexity of the culture. On a certain level, the mystery is just secondary to the story, and I even had some quibbles with it, but it establishes a deeper connection with the reader to young girls like Nouf. Nayir’s gradual widening of his mind and heart is also realistically portrayed.

In terms of writing, many reviews have generously praised Ferraris’s prose, but it didn’t really sweep me off my feet. It was crisp and vivid, and packages the story well.

If you’re looking for a book that is both engaging and thought provoking, this book will fit the bill perfectly.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Reflections: Anatomy of a Rose

To someone who loves flowers and can’t seem to get enough of them - their colors, their scent, and their delicate cheer, this book has the effect of leaping off the stands and beckoning. Sharman Russell, a botanist (there goes another potential career of mine!), shares my passion, but hers is elevated supremely by tying in science to adoration. She loves flowers to the extent that she has dedicated her life’s goals towards studying them and exploring their role in our living world. In this book, she lyrically describes the delicate and intelligent system of flowers, whose every form has a function, even their spell-binding beauty. Her book is a beautiful ode on flowers.

Sharman Russell primarily discusses the structure of flowers and their complex and significant role in the ecosystem, touching upon their deceivingly ornate, yet simple features that have meticulously evolved with natural selection’s uncanny and persistent design. But just as we begin to fear if the idealism behind flowers is going to be ripped apart only to leave exposed their selfish motive towards pollination, and well, reproduction, Russell’s mellifluous prose soothingly quells us, as she crafts a scientific poetry that awes us. Flowers change into a beautiful and intelligent kind - one that is resilient to the environment and knows how to adapt its form, color, texture, scent and even pollinators, to survive. Russell also weaves in the causal scheme of cooperation and competition by which plants operate; two mutually contradictory, yet essential components of survival. Without the mutual symbiosis between flowers and insects, both species suffer. Yet without competition between flowers and their neighbors, the fittest isn’t going to procreate. It was fascinating to read about flowers that time their blooming periods to ensure that they are not overshadowed by their flashy neighboring plants! And how aggressive the flowers are in their shapes, colors and scents to outshine their competitors.

One of the things I loved about this narration was its focus on the pollinators - the bees, the wasps, the humming birds, birds and many other little creatures, and their drama of seduction with the flowers. Contrary to human being’s presumption, the colors and scents are not really meant for our senses, but are geared for the little agents. It is to lure them into their core, and provide nectar in exchange for disseminating their precious pollen. This, we all learned in middle-school, yes. But did you know why the majority of flowers are in bright yellows, and oranges? That a bee’s spectrum of visibility is slightly different from ours? That their yellows, oranges, whites and violets are different from our perception of those colors? I can’t bear to stand the fact that there are creatures who can see colors that I cannot even visualize! And with this, we are just grazing the tip of the iceberg of the mysteries surrounding all of nature, and human limitations in trying to solve them. As one botanist ponders - How does the bee experience the flower? How does the flower experience the bee? So many fundamental questions bordering on the elusive philosophical realm.

Flowers that imitate other flowers and plants, flowers that bloom a certain time, flowers painted with colors to attract a certain pollinator, flowers with scents to beguile the unassuming pollinator, flowers that have deadly traps to punish selfish and greedy pollinators, flowers with defenses to protect their pollens and safeguard against self-pollination, flowers that help thrive our ecosystem.... and flowers that are now sitting in our homes, blooming and shedding their petals which were engineered to be of a certain color and to withstand temperatures asynchronous to the seasons. Humans enter the scene. I have never found a rose to carry a scintillating smell, and have often wondered why it was so celebrated for its scent. Well of course, artificially bred roses have discarded the need to produce scent... why work so hard to produce scent when there is no pressure to lure bees? Sigh... the very essence of nature now sits smiling at us with its hybridized unnatural-sized petals, and no scent. In the future, roses can be made to smell like lemons, they can be blue, and can be made to last for a long long time. Would it still be a rose to me? Would it still captivate me? And would the bees, the butterflies and our ecosystem be much the same?

Tough questions, uneasy answers. We don’t know how to define the line between natural and unnatural. On the one hand it is exciting and on the other hand it is ominous. It’s an addition to the growing food for thought on preserving nature.

Having rambled quite a bit, I must say that the one disappointing thing about the book was the lack of photographs or colored pictures of flowers to feast our eyes on, as we delve into their elegant design.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Reflections: Under the Lilacs

Bab and Betty are busy setting up a doll-party under the shade of the lilacs. Their mom even prepared a yummy cake for the party. But little did the girls know what a pleasant surprise was awaiting them and a new set of friends they were going to win at the end of the party. They meet an adorable poodle quite dexterous in the multiple impressive feats he could perform, and Ben his master. Ben is a lost young boy, who ran away from the circus to escape his mean old boss, Mr. Smithers. Moved by the boy’s state Mrs. Moss (the girl’s mom) takes him in and helps him find a job. Having lived in the circus, Ben knows his way around animals, and possesses the expert skill of intuitively understanding them. Soon, the lovely Miss. Celia engages him under her employment to take care of her horse and give company to her pompous brother. The young children form a wonderful bond of friendship as they help each other out of scrapes and help Ben make a home in their quaint town.

It goes without saying that a children’s book by Louisa May Alcott has to be endearing. The characters and their little adventures evoke wonderful childhood emotions. Wrapped in the story, children can find many a little lesson on friendship, trust, kindness and humanness. It is a world painted with innocence and purity that one would wistfully wish all grown-ups in the real world would be as sensible and kind as in the story. It’s almost a mini-utopia. Stories set almost a century back show the value of a close-knit community, and the symbiotic relationship that prevailed among the people. Everyone knew each other, and were almost one big dependable family. Of course, the skeptical part of me was on the verge of being tired of the over-the-top sweetness of the story, but in the end, my love for such warm and cozy tales won over.

The writing is beautiful - any adult can read this book just for the good writing, even if they don’t care much for a children’s story. This is yet another book that young children (or young adults) would delight in reading.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Reflections: Design Meets Disability

This is one of the most enjoyable, out-of-the-box, unique books I’ve read for my academics. I couldn’t wait to share my thoughts on it, and yet, when the moment has arrived, I find myself at a loss for the right words and sentences to describe and do justice to this book! Anyone with a passing interest in design, engineering, interaction design, disability, art or even fashion would benefit from reading this book, or at least parts of it. It puts a completely different perspective into you, that you will start finding innovative approaches to intermingling disciplines that you thought should never ever be put together! I mean, engineering plus fashion?! Art plus disability?! Of course, the underlying thread here is that the reader should be able to empathize with (if not be impassioned about) helping to remove the stigma associated with the physically (and cognitively) challenged people in our society.

To start with, our notions of what constitutes as disability is very skewed. The World Health Organization has put forth that people cannot be categorically segmented into disabled and “abled”. Disability is a continuum like most variables and factors in our life. And almost all of us have varying levels of disability - in terms of our vision, hearing, and other bodily functions. We have our own medications and aids to resort to, our own difficulties and nagging complaints.

Put in such a light, it seems unfair that a person who has lost one limb, should be segregated from the rest with a stringent stamp of disability - right from the clothes they can wear, to the prosthesis they are given, with the attitude - “make the best use of what is given to you, and don’t expect more, for your condition cannot be ameliorated”. We don’t see that kind of culture prevailing in clinics and “shops” that give us a plethora of options to select the design, the color, the look and feel of the frames for our spectacles (now called as eye-wear), when wearing corrective lenses is one form of an augmentation similar to prostheses? I remember years before when wearing glasses to correct one’s vision was a stigma by itself!! Back in the day, the stigma was only further perpetuated through the glasses people had to wear. Glasses were only available in gargantuan, awkward square-shaped, thick black frames that hid half the face. The psychological scarring from this cannot be trivialized! Many women had to even compromise on who they could marry because of this stigma. Slowly, the infusion of a little bit of fashion, art and thoughtful design have resulted in sleeker frames, that complement people’s faces! Some people still choose to wear glasses over wearing contact-lenses. The point in case is that - people have options and have choices, respecting their preferences, and allowing them to express themselves. Eye-wear has become almost a fashion accessory. This has completely erased the stigma, the wearer’s lack of confidence, and the cultural and social issues surrounding it. It doesn’t seem ludicrous to aim for such a change in the culture of design of hearing aids, wheel-chairs, communication aids, speech-synthesizers, crutches and prosthesis, does it?

Medical and rehabilitation engineers often fail to factor in the cultural and social implications of giving people prostheses that are rigidly functional, but not aesthetically pleasing. Moreover, there is no choice in what they get. Engineers are prone to say - Why on earth should a prosthetic limb be aesthetic? Isn’t it a waste of time? Wrong. This dismissal that everything related to aesthetics, and look and feel is just too superfluous and cosmetic, is a very narrow perspective. It might help if we stretched our boundaries and considered aesthetics, design and fashion with a tolerant attitude. It’s not always shallow - our body is essential in defining our identity. What we wear and how we present ourselves, is a projection of our self-expression and identity. Besides, it is highly emotional. This thought might be derided by spiritualists and philosophers, but if you are a realist, you would realize the psychological necessities for being comfortable in your body and in what you choose to wear. In our perfectionist society, I agree that an obsession with the perfect body and looks, seeps into materialism and consumerism, and is definitely not healthy. But, there are limits to the austerity that we can advocate. People with physical challenges already face an immense psychological trauma of grappling with the changes in their life - if their challenges are exacerbated through “assisitive” augmentations that just widen the gulf between them and their social and cultural identities, it is extremely emotionally damaging. As one designer put it - if we can invest research and time into designing so many variants and flavors of toothpaste and toothbrushes to please a wide audience, shouldn’t we attempt to provide at least half as many choices in the design of assistive products that directly impact lives?

Graham Pullin powerfully makes the case for considering the social and cultural aspects of disability, rather than stereotyping and homogenizing an entire population’s “needs”. Designers and engineers must acknowledge that there is bound to be a diversity of needs and preferences. And the part of the book that I liked the best was Pullin’s suggestion to designers to look for commonality of needs across people. Regardless of whether one has hearing aids, wears glasses, or wears a prosthetic leg, there are bound to be some needs that overlap across the boundaries. Tap on these “resonant needs” to design products that are both accessible, aesthetic and functional to the majority of the population - so there is no label that Watch X is worn by the visually impaired versus Watch Y is worn by the hearing impaired etc... This is the sort of concept behind “Universal Design”, but Pullin takes it up by a notch through his examples that adopt a minimalistic and aesthetic approach, instead of trying to clutter the product with features and functionality  to accommodate a wide group of people. As Google and Apple have demonstrated - good design is simplicity personified in elegance and functionality. The design examples in the book are awe-inspiring (at least to someone from within the field!), and really broadens our thinking horizons.

Pullin encourages an inter-disciplinary approach towards designing products, technology and assistive devices for the physically and cognitively challenged. Engineers are rigorously trained to view everything as a problem that needs to be solved. The human elements are often lost in the solutions. Sometimes what is required is not a solution - but merely a different perspective, attuning oneself to a novel idea. Why not playfully explore solutions, or seek to redesign with the attitude of that of an eccentric fashion-designer or a furniture designer who think beyond norms to innovate a skirt or a chair? Put engineers, designers and people from fashion and art together in the same room - wouldn’t the outcomes be phenomenally creative, functional and aesthetic? Each discipline has something valuable to learn from the other and contribute to each others' way of thinking. While it might seem impossible to work together, the common cause should carry enough momentum to deliver sensitive, elegant and intelligent designs.

The book teems with inspirational design ideas that put a spin on one’s imagination and creativity. True to Pullin’s repeated assertion - his ideas really do make design for disability turn on its head. A brilliant read.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Reflections: The Power of Darkness

The Power of Darkness is one of Tolstoy’s plays. As the name suggests, the plot deals with the complete moral disintegration of a Russian man, his lover and his mother. The play was instantly banned in Russia when it was fist published. And even to this day, some scenes are enacted slightly differently to attempt to shield audiences from its morbidity.

Nikita is a philanderer, infamous for the number of maidens he has despoiled. He engages in a stint of romance with a rich farm-owner’s wife, starting a string of misdeeds. The farmer’s wife is infatuated with Nikita, and bemoans her miserable life with the grumpy old farmer. Along with Nikita’s mom as accomplice, she poisons her husband and weds Nikita, who turns into a wealthy farm owner. When life should have been blissful after the sin of murder, it sadly does not. Nikita can’t stop his old habits, and he indulges in drinking, debauchery and indolence. As his mother and wife try to erase and cover up his sins by committing even more atrocious sins, Nikita’s conscience eventually awakens and he struggles to redeem what is left of his life.

The play is definitely disturbing as it illuminates the extents of moral degeneration mankind is capable of, to achieve petty selfish gains. I am sure such a theme would have appalled the Victorian society. It’s a surprise this play has sustained stiff criticism and opposition to be available in print today. However, most classic books of that era dealt with such drastic themes exploring the flip side of morality and virtuous living. They all seem to show that despite being pushed to the limits of darkness and being steeped in vices, something in us will cry out after a certain point. That voice inside of us can be attributed to our conscience, basic humanity (the "voice" of God), etc, but it acts as a safety net to guard us against total moral/ethical dystrophy, or at the very least from losing our humanity.

It’s therefore a “silver-lining” that the play ends on a note that shows hope for humanity, even if we are to fall prey to our darker instincts.