Monday, November 30, 2009

Three Kinds of Fools

A "thought" provoking piece (at-least for me) by Michael Dirda fueled me to ponder more about pondering on which I have been pondering a lot lately.

"Everyone knows that to be wise means to be old, with lots of wrinkles around kindly eyes that have seen much and forgiven much and are full of pity for the fools that mortals be. But that, in short, is the trouble with wisdom. It implies a superiority to or withdrawal from the hurly-burly of life. While most of us are surrendering to what Joseph Conrad called “the destructive element,” and probably drowning in it, the wise guy is there on the shore warm and dry in his old flannel dressing gown and his new fluffy bunny slippers, and he’s probably murmuring something like, “Grasshopper, only a fool would go into the water on a day like this.” Shaking his head, he will soon pad on back to his snug little burrow and a nice cup of chamomile tea.
This is living? Wisdom plays it safe, avoids occasions of sin, sits home on Saturday night with an improving book. Elvis used to croon that “Wise men say, ‘Only fools rush in.’” But like the king he was, he knew that a brokenhearted clown understood more about the heart than any cautious Polonius. What would love be without impetuousness? Who can love and then be wise? “The heart has reasons that the reason doesn’t know.” No proverb says that love should be the end product of careful calculation, that it’s the smart move. This is why computerized dating seems repulsive to so many people; you just know the machine would be happier working on a spreadsheet. Besides, who would trust his emotional life to a program written by some Caltech brainiac who’s spent his entire geeky existence playing Halo and Warcraft? To quote Mr. T, “I pity the fool.As every truly wise man or woman knows, love is just one of those crazy things, and there’s no logic to what attracts us to one person and not another. You can tot up the pluses and minuses of a relationship all you want, meditate on the possible outcomes of commitment, consult past experience, but you’d do just as well, or better, to listen to a lot of country and western music. You want an explanation for falling in love? “Maybe it was Memphis.” Montaigne, whose Socratic motto was “What do I know?” accounted for his love for his friend Etienne de la Boetie perfectly: “Because he was he and I was I.”
In other words, when it comes to falling in love, who can explain it? Who can tell me why? Well, the goddess Folly can. In Erasmus’s The Praise of Folly she proclaims that she oversees love, that folly embodies the intuitive and passionate side of life and is far more fundamental to our human well-being than propriety or reason. ”

Ok, that was harsh. Honestly, I am not that bad. I have lived the other side, it gets mundane even when everything about it looks flamboyant.

"In truth, there are essentially three kinds of fools: Real Fools, Professional Fools, and Unsuspecting Fools. Real Fools are the innocents, the simpletons, the idiot savants and “naturals” who react to situations and people with an Aspergian lack of restraint or decorum. They speak their unmediated minds, and great truths sometimes emerge, as “out of the mouths of babes.” Any of them might have blurted, “The emperor has no clothes.” Forrest Gump is our great modern examplar of this kind of fool. Heaven looks out for such as these.
Professional Fools include court jesters, clowns, toadies, con artists, and a whole range of yes-men. By pretending to be stupid or servile, the Professional Fool coolly aims to reinforce his client’s conviction of his own obvious superiority. In fact, these performance artistes always quip and caper with a purpose: a salary, behind-the-throne power, a scam. In literature one of the most memorable of these professional fools is Rameau’s Nephew, who in Diderot’s famous dialogue of that name toadies to the rich and powerful in return for a snug berth and regular meals. In the film The Usual Suspects, Kevin Spacey is a more complex example: Hunched and crippled (as were many professional court jesters), he’s slightly pitied by the tough and obviously much smarter people all around him. But Verbal Kint is far more than the “talkative child” that his name suggests.
As for Unsuspecting Fools, they are essentially everyone else in the world, starting with you and me. Everybody plays the fool sometimes; there’s no exception to the rule. More particularly, the Unsuspecting Fool is the supposedly wise figure — a sovereign, a pedantic scholar, a pillar of the establishment — who is blind to his own vanity and self-importance, ignorant of what’s really going on, puffed up with hubris. Pride goeth before a fall. In tragic vein, Oedipus and Lear are Unsuspecting Fools.
If you want to understand the power of Real Foolishness, read fairy tales. If there’s one thing that such stories teach us, it’s to trust animals. The simpleton who befriends the local forest creatures will find the treasure and win the princess. Every time. Not the clever older brothers with some Mission: Impossible plan. The guy who takes the thorn out of the lion’s paw, who doesn’t trample on the ants, who is careful not to crush the wildflowers will be rewarded."

There is immense truth in above lines. So far, no book or person has taught me so much as Max did. Nothing equates practical knowledge, but what books teach us is not to do the same mistakes which have already been done and learnt in the past. Wisdom in that sense helps us steer wheels of future away from the obvious obstacles and learn to adapt to the unexpected one. Without wisdom, we all might be living "groundhog centuries" and even "groundhog decades".

"The English author Walter Pater suggested that we should seek experience itself, rather than the fruit of experience, i.e., wisdom. Of course, he was an aesthete with an ornate style, so it’s easy to dismiss what he said. It’s important for human beings to make mistakes, to do stupid things, to go overboard, to be foolish — even if it’s painful — and not to judge themselves too harshly when they’ve been burnt. As Zorba the Greek used to proclaim, “Life is trouble!”
Let me bring this foolishness to an end by repeating the advice from the closing lines of The Praise of Folly: “Clap your hands, live well, and drink!” In other words, meine Damen und Herren, life is a cabaret. What is the use of sitting alone in your room? Come hear the music play! And, then, if you’re really wise — or do I mean foolish? — you might as well dance. "

It's no secret, Max and I are very social creatures, yet abstaining from socializing much by choice (it would have been a different story if it had been Max's choice),  calling it a hiatus from perpetual homosapien compromises. Sugar coating the abstinence is vanity since the aura encompassing us when accidental socializing crosses our path reveals everything. Not sure, when and how but there is a need to pull the curtains down on this hiatus. 

Sunday, November 29, 2009

What I've been reading

After watching Judith Horstman's talk, I bought her book A Day in the life of your brain. It's a fantastic book sketching the "neural representations" of ... well everything that makes "us". I cannot summarize the book but I am slowly trying to assimilate the factual information of what's happening in my brain (and others) as and when they happen. I am not sure how successful I will be at this but since "I know me" (I hope), this is something I would throughly enjoy doing.(Rita Carter's book, for the long haul)

This is my first foray into the nuances of neuroscience, its been very interesting. Why am I trying go insane with reading all the technical details, may be because I couldn't find single reason for not doing so.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

IVF Meat

I have been hearing about IVF meat for few years now but technology is still lagging (alas, only if they can skip one Moore's Law iteration). Coming of age of IVF meat will be the second coming of the Green Revolution.  New Harvest (here, here, here, here and here) is the pioneer in research in this field.

This new test tube delicacy is not going to fill up our local groceries for ... 3 to 10 years. Thats a huge time range, which on the brighter side says they are working hard to get it "right", because if the IVF meat gets the wrong "taste", the news is going to spread like an epidemic and there wouldn't be enough scarcity of machoness to join the bandwagon (but no one questions what high fructose corn syrup is doing in white bread?). We grossly underestimate the lack of morality of humans against other species, let me put this in another way, the only reason we are co-existing to live with other cultures is because its illegal not to/politically incorrect/follow the herd and not because of our complete understanding of other cultures, which we still look down or smirk silently inside (make no qualms about our over dependence on Amygdala and the under utilized Prefrontal Cortex).  Also, compassion without understanding is just thin line which can be swayed easily by mundane rationalization. In the mean time to keep the dream alive, here is the list of on how IVF meat will change "our" (still selfish... Adam Smith was.. nevermind) lives:

"1. Bye-Bye Ranches.When In-Vitro Meat (IVM) is cheaper than meat-on-the-hoof-or-claw, no one will buy the undercut opponent. Slow-grown red meat & poultry will vanish from the marketplace, similar to whale oil's flame out when kerosene outshone it in the 1870's. Predictors believe that IVM will sell for half the cost of its murdered rivals. This will grind the $2 trillion global live-meat industry to a halt (500 billion pounds of meat are gobbled annually; this is expected to double by 2050). Bloody sentimentality will keep the slaughterhouses briefly busy as ranchers quick-kill their inventory before it becomes worthless, but soon Wall Street will be awash in unwanted pork bellies.

Special Note: IVM sales will be aided by continued outbreaks of filthy over-crowded farm animal diseases like swine flu, Mad Cow, avian flu, tuberculosis, brucellosis, and other animal-to-human plagues. Public hysteria will demand pre-emptive annihilation of the enormous herds and flocks where deadly pathogens form, after safe IVM protein is available.
2. Urban Cowboys.Today's gentle drift into urbanization will suddenly accelerate as unemployed livestock workers relocate and retrain for city occupations. Rural real estate values will plummet as vast tracts of ranch land are abandoned and sold for a pittance (70% of arable land in the world is currently used for livestock, 26% of the total land surface, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization). New use for ex-ranch land? Inexpensive vacation homes; reforested parks; fields of green products like hemp or bamboo. Hot new city job? Techies and designers for In-Vitro Meat factories.
3. Healthier Humans.In-Vitro Meat will be 100% muscle. It will eliminate the artery-clogging saturated fat that kills us. Instead, heart-healthy Omega-3 (salmon oil) will be added. IVM will also contain no hormones, salmonella, e. coli, campylobacter, mercury, dioxin, or antibiotics that infect primitive meat. I've noted above that IVM will reduce influenza, brucellosis, TB, and Mad Cow Disease. Starvation and kwashiokor (protein deficiency) will be conquered when compact IVM kits are delivered to famine-plagued nations. The globe's water crises will be partially alleviated, due to our inheritance of the 8% of the H2O supply that was previously gulped down by livestock and their food crops. We won't even choke to death because IVM contains no malicious bones or gristle. (Although Hall of Fame slugger Jimmy Foxx choked to death on a chicken bone, about 90% of meat victims are murdered by steak).
4. Healthier Planet.Today's meat industry is a brutal fart in the face of Gaia. A recent Worldwatch Institute report ("Livestock and Climate Change") accuses the world's 1.5 billion livestock of responsibility for 51% of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions. Statistics are truly shitty: cattle crap 130 times more volume than a human, creating 64 million tons of sewage in the United States that's often flushed down the Mississippi River to kill fish and coral in the Gulf of Mexico. Pigs are equally putrid. There's a hog farm in Utah that oozes a bigger turd total than the entire city of Los Angeles. Livestock burps and farts are equally odious and ozone-destroying. 68% of the ammonia in the world is caused by livestock (creating acid rain), 65% of the nitrous oxide, 37% of the methane, 9% of the CO2, plus 100 other polluting gases. Big meat animals waste valuable land -- 80% of Amazon deforestation is for beef ranching, clear-cutting a Belgium-sized patch every year. Water is prodigiously gulped -- 15,000 liters of H20 produces just one kilogram of beef. 40% of the world's cereals are devoured by livestock. This scenario is clearly unsustainable, and In-Vitro Meat is the sensible alternative. (Although skeptics warn that IVM factories will produce their own emissions, research indicates that pollution will be reduced by at least 80%.) Once we get over the fact that IVM is oddly disembodied, we'll be thankful that it doesn't shit, burp, fart, eat, over graze, drink, bleed, or scream in pain.
5. Economic Upheaval.The switch to In-Vitro Meat will pummel the finances of nations that survive on live animal industries. Many of the world leaders in massacred meat (USA, China, Brazil) have diversified incomes, but Argentina will bellow when its delicious beef is defeated. New Zealand will bleat when its lamb sales are shorn. And ocean-harvesting Vietnam and Iceland will have to fish for new vocations. Industries peripherally dependent on meat sales, like leather, dairy and wool, will also be slaughtered. Hide and leather-exporting nations like Pakistan and Kenya will be whipped, but South Korea will profit on its sales of "Koskin" and other synthetic leathers. Huge plantations of livestock crops (soybeans & corn) in Brazil, USA, Argentina, and China can be replaced with wool substitutes like sisal. Smaller nations that excel in food processing will thrive because they'll export IVM instead of importing tonnage of frozen meat. Look for economic upticks in The Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark, France, and especially Japan, who's currently one of the globe's largest importers of beef.
6: Exotic & Kinky Cuisine.In-Vitro Meat will be fashioned from any creature, not just domestics that were affordable to farm. Yes, ANY ANIMAL, even rare beasts like snow leopard, or Komodo Dragon. We will want to taste them all. Some researchers believe we will also be able to create IVM using the DNA of extinct beasts -- obviously, "DinoBurgers" will be served at every six-year-old boy's birthday party.
Humans are animals, so every hipster will try Cannibalism. Perhaps we'll just eat people we don't like, as author Iain M. Banks predicted in his short story, "The State of the Art" with diners feasting on "Stewed Idi Amin." But I imagine passionate lovers literally eating each other, growing sausages from their co-mingled tissues overnight in tabletop appliances similar to bread-making machines. And of course, masturbatory gourmands will simply gobble their own meat.
7: FarmScrapers.The convenience of buying In-Vitro Meat fresh from the neighborhood factory will inspire urbanites to demand local vegetables and fruits. This will be accomplished with "vertical farming" -- building gigantic urban multi-level greenhouses that utilize hydroponics and interior grow-lights to create bug-free, dirt-free, quick-growing super veggies and fruit (from dwarf trees), delicious side dishes with IVM. No longer will old food arrive via long polluting transports from the hinterlands. Every metro dweller will purchase fresh meat and crispy plants within walking distance. The success of FarmScrapers will cripple rural agriculture and enhance urbanization.
8. We Stop the Shame.In-Vitro Meat will squelch the subliminal guilt that sensitive people feel when they sit down for a carnivorous meal. Forty billion animals are killed per year in the United States alone; one million chickens per hour. I list this last even though it's the top priority for vegetarians, because they represent only 1-2% of the population, but still... IVM is a huge step forward in "Abolitionism" -- the elimination of suffering in all sentient creatures. Peter Singer, founding father of Animal Liberation, supports IVM. So does every European veggie group I contacted: VEBU (Vegetarian Federation of Germany), EVA (Ethical Vegetarian Alternative of Belgium), and the Dutch Vegetarian Society. And PETA, mentioned earlier, offers $1 million to anyone who can market a competitive IVM product by 2012."

A recent article (and research) exposes the "short comings" of Wine Critics, basically they failed miserably to differentiate between red and white wine in blind taste, leave alone the difference expensive and cheap wines.

"There is a rich history of scientific research questioning whether wine experts can really make the fine taste distinctions they claim. For example, a 1996 study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology showed that even flavor-trained professionals cannot reliably identify more than three or four components in a mixture, although wine critics regularly report tasting six or more. There are eight in this description, from The Wine News, as quoted on, of a Silverado Limited Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 that sells for more than $100 a bottle: "Dusty, chalky scents followed by mint, plum, tobacco and leather. Tasty cherry with smoky oak accents…" Another publication, The Wine Advocate, describes a wine as having "promising aromas of lavender, roasted herbs, blueberries, and black currants." What is striking about this pair of descriptions is that, although they are very different, they are descriptions of the same Cabernet. One taster lists eight flavors and scents, the other four, and not one of them coincide."

So what makes us think IVF meat will not reach the same fate when unlike the wine critics, the IVF meat critics are going to be ubiquitous. The best thing that can happen to IVF meat for starters  is ... IT SHOULD NOT BE A LIBERAL AGENDA. THIS IS NOT A POLITICAL ISSUE. (Did I happen to mention that I am still a dreamer?)

Friday, November 27, 2009

An Epiphany

Today morning it dawned on me, writing this blog regularly, was an unconscious (not anymore) way of creating a "physical" Synesthesia (and here) via these virtual words. Someday these words can act as a catalyst to take me back in time and live the life with Max even if some posts had nothing to do with him. It's a fascinating way how our Hippocampus stores and retrieves episodic memories.

"Memory is a way of holding onto the things you love, the things you are, the things you never want to lose." - From the television show The Wonder Years

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Reprograming Predators

I couldn't stop giggling as I started reading this essay - Reprogramming Predators (Blueprint for a cruelty free world) by David Pearce. Such thoughts were bound to cross every concerned mind and its one of the main reasons which sparked my interest in neuroscience, bio-tech et al. David Pearce has a grand vision and I love it. But fixing the humans who still have lingering evolutionary "impulses" just by watching a polarized idiot on idiot box screaming should probably one of the primary tasks.

Two primary questions which everyone think they know but most get it wrong are:
1. Who coined the term "survival of the fittest"?(Answer)
2. What does "fittest" stands for ? Is it most intelligent or strongest or something else?(Answer)

Always an utopian dream should permeable with caution and prudence:

"What has always made the state a hell on earth has been precisely that man has tried to make it his heaven." - F. Hoelderlin"

Caution doesn't mean we should refuse to move forward in morality as a civilization and if we don't , the civilization will take us back. There never was and never will be a constant idle civilization.

I was watching Joel Salatin (he was the farmer featured in the book, Omnivorous Dilemma) talk on TED Mid-Atlantic and these words by him says it all.

"A culture which views it animals and plants from 'that' type of manipulative, arrogant, disrespectful attitude will also soon its citizens the same way and other cultures the same way."

Pleasures of Eating by Wendell Berry

Michael Pollan in his book Omnivorous Dilemma, quotes this wonderful 1989 essay, Pleasures of Eating by Wendell Berry. These words still has such a soothing effect, I keep these few of lines from the essay in my wallet.

"Eating with the fullest pleasure-pleasure, that is, that does not depend on ignorance-is perhaps the profoundest enactment of our connection with the world. In this pleasure we experience and celebrate our dependence and our gratitude, for we are living from mystery, from creatures we did not make and powers we cannot comprehend."

This quite thanksgiving night sans a grandiose meal, these lines still delivers me a high dose of Seratonin.

It's a pleasant coincidence that I am watching the movie Ratatouille now.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Max Sundaresan | A Dog Named Christmas

Vote for Max !!

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Teaching Love of Reading

Steven W. Simpson, Ph.D. writes about this immensely pragmatic and fun "trick" to embed the love for reading in children.

"B.F. Skinner was a Harvard psychology professor and author of the book Walden II, a novel about a community run by his behaviorist principles. He argued that "We shouldn't teach great books; we should teach a love reading."

I think it is possible to do both, but the idea expressed in Skinner's quote is a good one. Teach kids to love reading first. Teach everything else after that. Let me give you an example of my version of this idea.

I had a meeting one afternoon with two very, very serious parents. Their son, a freshman, had poor reading skills. They intended for their son to go to college, and wanted to know if I could recommend a good grammar workbook series or software product. I asked them if their objective was to help their son become a better reader, and they assured me it was.
I told them I knew several good products they could buy, but asked if they might be interested in something a little less orthodox. I told them I had an idea I used with my own children that worked pretty well. They looked uncomfortable, but were willing to listen.

Take your son to a book store and go to the magazine area. Take the money you were going to spend on the workbooks and hand it to your son. $50 should be about right. Tell him to spend the money on any magazines he likes. The only rule is that he must spend all of the money. Do not comment on what he buys. It does not matter.

You take him home and put the magazines in his room. "That's it?" they asked. "That's it" I answered. Here is how it works. He will most likely buy a bunch of junk, but you should not really care. He will look through the magazines, reading headlines and captions. Sometimes he will read whole articles. Give him a week or two and then ask him which of the ten or so magazines he likes best. Buy him a subscription to the three he likes best. Don't discuss it with him. Just subscribe to the magazines in his name. When they show up, just put them on his bed. Eventually he will read them, most likely when you are gone or not looking.

What this does is teach him that reading gives pleasure. Once that has been experienced, the whole concept of reading changes for him. If he starts reading for pleasure, magazines, newspapers, anything, he will get better at it. It will give more pleasure and he will do it more. In the end, he will start finding books to read. His language skills will improve and life will be good.

I have suggested that idea many times because the process seems to work. I like teaching language skills by helping students find out that using language feels good. It reminds me of Peter Elbow's method of teaching writing. Let them create without editing. Then edit what has been created. It feels good to write freely and it feels good to edit and fool around with what you have created.

In fact, I liked the magazine idea so much that I figured out a variation of the same idea using books. In the alternative school where I teach I get a lot of kids with really serious problems. They often hate school and teachers and anything academic because in the past they have not been successful in that environment. The trick, I decided, was to find a way for them to experience small, quick success and feel pleasure rather than pain.

Now, when I begin working with a new student, I talk with him or her long enough to get a rough idea about their attitude, skill level, likes and dislikes, interests. Then I pick a book and hand it to them. I tell them that they only need to read 25 pages, long enough to give the author time to get something going with the plot and characters. If they like it, go ahead and read it. If they don't like it, we will trade it in on something else.

If they read one book, no matter what it is, you have a good chance of helping the student transcend past failures. The student has completed a book, felt pleasure, and most importantly, made a connection with you as a teacher. I find a second book as close to what the first one was as possible and give that to the student. I don't ask for any writing for discussion. If the student starts talking about the book, great. We have a discussion. Otherwise, right on to the second book.

If they read that, you have a wide open door into your student's heart and mind. You have introduced someone to the wonder of literature, even if what you gave them to read was formula fiction.

That quote is right. First help them find pleasure in reading. Then
discuss ideas, do some writing, nurture that spark. They may ask you for suggestions or explore on their own; but either way, they will find and read those great books."

There is a phenomenon called Mattew Effect, which applies to reading as well. More we read, the easier reading becomes and less we read, the harder reading becomes (duh!!).

Can Thanksgiving be "happy" without slaughter?

I am still trying to get into the right "mid-set" to read Jonathan Safran Foer's new book, Eating Animals. It's a sincere, melancholic account of his journey to self-realization and in the process getting rid of his dissonance. It's important for me to read this book at the right time since it hits right at my cognitive dissonance. Eating a modicum of "just and only" chicken once a week still glorifies my dissonance and I am still looking for the right D-Day. I cannot forever ameliorate this dissonance under an Aristotelian "Excess of Moderation" philosophy. Nonetheless my Grey Matter still would find thousand other ways to ameliorate but a deep reflection on "Categorical Imperative" will eventually flush down this dissonance forever.
In the mean time, this excellent review by Elizabeth Kolbert  is a fodder for a slaughter-less thanksgiving (since turkey had nothing to do with thanksgiving, until after WWII).

"Americans also love to eat animals. This year, they will cook roughly twenty-seven billion pounds of beef, sliced from some thirty-five million cows. Additionally, they will consume roughly twenty-three billion pounds of pork, or the bodies of more than a hundred and fifteen million pigs, and thirty-eight billion pounds of poultry, some nine billion birds. Most of these creatures have been raised under conditions that are, as Americans know—or, at least, by this point have no excuse not to know—barbaric. Broiler chickens, also known, depending on size, as fryers or roasters, typically spend their lives in windowless sheds, packed in with upward of thirty thousand other birds and generations of accumulated waste. The ammonia fumes thrown off by their rotting excrement lead to breast blisters, leg sores, and respiratory disease. Bred to produce the maximum amount of meat in the minimum amount of time, fryers often become so top-heavy that they can’t support their own weight. At slaughtering time, they are shackled by their feet, hung from a conveyor belt, and dipped into an electrified bath known as “the stunner.”
For pigs, conditions are little better. Shortly after birth, piglets have their tails chopped off; this discourages the bored and frustrated animals from gnawing one another’s rumps. Male piglets also have their testicles removed, a procedure performed without anesthetic. Before being butchered, hogs are typically incapacitated with a tonglike instrument designed to induce cardiac arrest. Sometimes their muscles contract so violently that they end up not just dead but with a broken back.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

What I've been reading

After watching Micheal Sandel's phenomenal lecture, I had to read his book, Justice : What's the Right Thing to do? It covers everything that's in the online lecture plus lot more. Given the size of the book, the depth it covers is phenomenal. Yes, its biased on Sandel's view of the world but it will make us think, the values and beliefs we "assume" we know and the things we are polarized about. Reading this book will either change our views or built a soild foundation to syllogise our morales and the best part it will help us realize the importance of understanding the beliefs and perspectives of others without premature polarization. I cannot imagine reading Crtique of Pure Reason easily without the Kantian synopsis I got from this book. Now I have tons of materials to read on philosphers like Jeremey Bentham, John Stuart Mill, Immanuel Kant, John Locke, John Rawls and Aristotle, thanks to Sandel.

I wrote
earlier on the lack of advice, in similar terms Sandel points out that an open debate with a good understanding of the other side sans the politically correct culture is healthy for a democracy. We spend too much time supressing our views,  drowning in a quagmire of "white lies".These lies aren't healthy and its a ticking time bomb. Only way to defuse it is to understand the morality of others and build consensus based on mutual respect.

Gandhi once said "Happiness is when what you say, what you do and what you think are in harmony". Same holds true for mutual respect.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Growing curiosity on Synethesia

I read few things about Synethesia and may be prematurely inferred olfactory bulb as the "queen of synaethesia" earlier. Synethesia is and will be opening up some new fascinating research. It's time to follow them as they unfold and luckily I found this study on the most important "omnipresent" time-space synethesia.(for me I think music has been one of the main synethestic agent for time-space)
"Two new studies now provide some insight into time-space synaesthesia, the least researched of all the forms of this fascinating condition. One is a case study of an individual whose time-space synaesthesia has an apparently unique characteristic. The second demonstrates that time-space synaesthetes are superior to non-synaesthetes in some cognitive abilities, and suggests that time-space synaesthesia may underly the savant-like abilities of people with hyperthymestic (or "super-memory") syndrome.
Time-space synaesthesia is a form of visuo-spatial synaesthesia in which individuals experience units of time - such as hours, days, or months - as occupying specific locations in space relative to their own body. These associations are highly specific and are experienced consistently. For example, one synaesthete described her experience as follows: "When someone mentions a year, I see the oval with myself at the very bottom, Christmas day to be precise. As soon as a month is given, I see exactly where that month is on the oval. As I move through the year, I am very aware of my place on the oval at the current time, and the direction I am moving in."
Michelle Jarick of the Synaesthesia Research Group at the University of Waterloo in Ontario and her colleagues describe the case of an individual whose time-space synaesthesia has a previously undescribed feature. Like other time-space synaesthetes, the 21-year-old individual, known as L, experiences the time of day and the months of the year as being represented in the space around her body. She experiences the hours of the day in the form of a large "clock face", and her mental calender consists of a giant number "7", which extends for approximately 1 meter around her waist, and on which the months of the year are arranged.  
Uniquely though, L's mental vantage point changes depending on whether she sees or hears the time unit. When presented visually with the name of a month, she reports seeing the giant 7 as if she was standing in its crux, with the month of April directly in front of her. From this perspective, she experiences January, February and March to her left, May and June to her right, and the rest of the months of the year, which form the tail of the 7, running along her right side and behind her.
time space synaesthesia.JPG
When she hears or thinks about the name of a month, L still experiences the months as being arranged in the same way, but perceives them from a different vantage point, as if she had walked around the arm of the 7. From this perspective, January, February and March are to her right, while May and June are to her left, and the remaining months extend forward on her left. She also reports similar changes in vantage point when she sees or hears the hours of the day. (The diagram on the right shows a "bird's eye view" of the vantage points associated with vision (V) and hearing (A).)
To verify L's reported experiences objectively, the researchers used a spatial cueing paradigm, in which a visual month cue was presented to the centre of her field of vision, followed by a target square presented to the left or right of the cue. They predicted that the visual cues would trigger shifts in her spatial attention that affect the time she takes to detect and respond to the target squares. For example, if presented with a visual cue for the month of January, this should orient her attention to the left, making her detect targets presented to the left quicker than those presented to the right. By contrast, an auditory cue for the same month should shift her attention to the right.
L's performance on this task was compared with that of ten non-synaesthetic controls. The visual month cues were presented on a computer monitor for 600 milliseconds each, followed by a target square. The participants were asked to press a button as soon as they detected the presence of the target. As predicted, following visual cues of the first three months, L detected targets presented to the left significantly quicker than those presented to the right. Similarly, cues presented to the right were detected more quickly following visual presentations of the later months. For cues presented aurally, the opposite cueing pattern was observed. However, none of these effects was observed in the non-synaesthetic participants.   
L's calender is a purely mental space, generated by her brain. Yet, as this study shows, there is a strong correspondence between this imagined space and spaces in the real world. One can explore real external spaces from multiple vantage points, and these characteristics seem to apply also to L's mentally generated calender. The study also shows that time-space synaesthesia can bias visual perception and affect behaviour accordingly - L could not process the time units without biasing her visual attention towards the corresponding location in the space around her. As a result, her reaction times to the targets presented in the appropriate region of external space became quicker. 
Julia Simner of the University of Edinburgh and her colleagues provide further evidence that the visual, spatial and temporal abilities of time-space synaesthetes are superior to those of non-synaesthetes. They recruited ten time-space synaesthetes, and compared their performance on eight different tasks to those of non-synaesthetic controls. The synaesthetes were able to recall the dates of autobiographical, cultural and world political events more accurately than the non-synaesthetic controls. They also out-performed the controls in tasks involving the manipulation of objects in three-dimensional space, the recognition of 3D objects from 2D silhouette representations, non-verbal visual short-term memory, and mental rotation of 2D drawings of 3D objects.
The authors argue that time-space synaesthesia may underly hyperthymestic syndrome. Individuals with this syndrome have an exceptional autobiographical memory, and can recall life events, as well as other events which coincided with them, in remarkable detail. These recollections are, according to one hyperthymestic, "non-stop, uncontrollable and automatic". The first documented case of hyperthymestic syndrome, a woman referred to in the literature as A.J., reported that her prodigious memory was at least partly due to an ability to mentally map time in space. Her super memory therefore appears to be closely linked to what Simner's group assume to be time-space synaesthesia
Two of the synaesthetes studied by Simner and her colleagues spontaneously reported having exceptional memories for dates and events. This suggests that there are parallels between time-space synaesthesia and hyperthymestic syndrome. It also raises the possibility that all time-space synaesthetes have hyperthymestic syndrome, but this is not the case. Time-space synaesthesia may necessary, but not sufficient, for hyperthymesia, and could possibly lie at the heart of the condition." 
This is something that's extremely personalized and researchers have to create a new model for each study. It sound like the brain is trying to build a "referrentialy integrity" to its memory database for easy retrieval. An excellent presentation here.

Interview with Charles Darwin !!

New scientist took some of Darwin's quotes and retrofitted to "assemble" this great interview.

"What was it like, coming up with the idea that changed the world?
The emotional and physical struggle you went through must have taken its toll.
I have suffered from almost incessant vomiting for nine months, & that has so weakened my brain, that any excitement brings on whizzing & fainting feelings.
You would clearly rather I didn't excite you further, but I must say that when I grasped your idea that life has been changing, evolving, for billions of years, I was captivated.
You cannot imagine how pleased I am that the notion of Natural Selection has acted as a purgative on your bowels of immutability. Whenever naturalists can look at species changing as certain, what a magnificent field will be open.
Quite so. Now I must put to you the question that authors are inevitably asked: how did you get your ideas?
It seemed to me probable that allied species were descended from a common parent. But for some years I could not conceive how each form became so excellently adapted to its habits of life. I then began systematically to study domestic productions, & after a time saw clearly that man's selective power was the most important agent. I was prepared from having studied the habits of animals to appreciate the struggle for existence, & my work in geology gave me some idea of the lapse of past time. Therefore when I happened to read "Malthus on population" the idea of Natural selection flashed on me.
The "greatest idea anyone has ever had" just flashed on you! Your modesty and rigorous experimental approach are an inspiration to us all. But what would you say to young scientists starting out now?
When I joined the "Beagle" as Naturalist I knew extremely little about Natural History, but I worked hard.
You have been one of the most influential scientists of all time, yet your work continues to generate controversy, especially among those of a religious persuasion. You famously said there was grandeur in evolution, but does an atheist outlook help you get through the day?
It has always appeared to me more satisfactory to look at the immense amount of pain & suffering in this world, as the inevitable result of the natural sequence of events, i.e. general laws, rather than from the direct intervention of God.
Would you describe yourself as an atheist?
In my most extreme fluctuations I have never been an atheist in the sense of denying the existence of a God. – I think that generally (& more and more so as I grow older) but not always, that an agnostic would be the most correct description of my state of mind.
What about the perceived conflict between religious beliefs and your theories?
It seems to me absurd to doubt that a man may be an ardent Theist & an evolutionist.
Some of your bulldogs would deny that. They are sometimes accused of overdoing the fight against those who deny evolution.
I feel sure that our good friend Huxley, though he has much influence, would have had far more if he had been more moderate & less frequent in his attacks.
Your daughter Annie died when she was 10 years old, and this tragic event is said to have influenced you greatly. Can you explain your feelings about this?
Thank God she suffered hardly at all, & expired as tranquilly as a little angel. – Our only consolation is, that she passed a short, though joyous life. – She was my favourite child; her cordiality, openness, buoyant joyousness & strong affection made her most loveable. Poor dear little soul. Well it is all over.
You are sometimes accused - unfairly, it seems to me - of racism. What are your views on slavery, which was still very widespread when you were on the Beagle?
I have seen enough of Slavery & the dispositions of the negros, to be thoroughly disgusted with the lies and nonsense one hears on the subject in England... Great God how I shd like to see that greatest curse on Earth Slavery abolished.
Have these views had an effect on your politics?
I would not be a Tory, if it was merely on account of their cold hearts about that scandal to Christian Nations, Slavery.
Thanks so much for agreeing to talk to us.
I daresay you will say that I am an odious plague.
Not at all. It has been an honour."

Sunday, November 22, 2009

p53 gene and cancer

A classic simple, biology for dummies post explaining the significance and the ongoing research on p53. It's something to watch out for and might have a profound impact on future cancer treatments and more.

"We all have p53 inside us.  We all have a p53 gene and this p53 gene makes p53 protein.  Normally your p53 levels are low but if your DNA gets damaged your p53 increases, damaged cells can be allowed to repair or if the damage is severe they can be killed off by apoptosis.  You have so many cells that it doesn’t matter if a few badly damaged ones die off.  It is far better to lose a damaged cell than have it grow and develop into a cancerous tumour.
So just what does p53 protein do? p53 protein is a “transcription factor” which means it binds to genes. This can turn genes on “activate” them or it can turn genes off and “repress” them.  p53 can do both, it can turn some genes on and some genes off.
A recent paper in the August 25 edition of the  journal PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America) explains how scientists have discovered a specific genetic sequence that will bind p53 and turn off a gene. I’m pleased to say the paper is open access so anyone can read it, it is called “
Redefining the p53 response element” and the research was carried out in Singapore.
If you didn’t do biology at school, this table might help you understand the details:

What is it?
deoxyribonucleic acid
A code you inherit from your parents
a short bit of DNA that codes for proteins
e.g. insulin,adrenaline, oestrogen, p53
gene sequence
4 chemicals ATCG in a specific order that code for a protein
Protein sequence
20 chemicals that make up protein
alanine, serine, tryptophan, leucine

So what if you know an off sequence? Well the human genome has been sequenced (you can look at it here, click on the chromosomes on the right hand side if your are interested).  We know the sequence of  the 30,000 odd genes needed to make a human, we can now look through that list and find out which genes are turned off by p53.  In the PNAS paper the authors describe 162 different genes that are controlled by p53.  123 of these genes are turned on by p53 and 39 of these genes are turned off by p53, the scientists can predict what will happen by looking at the sequence of any gene.
What did the scientists do? In a lab they made two bits of DNA (”constructs”).  One was a gene called p21 that we know is turned on by p53 and one was a gene called Lasp1 that is turned off by p53.  They then changed the DNA, one bit at a time to see what happened. This is many years worth of research, it sounds simple but it takes a long time to do in the lab.
They discovered that a DNA sequence with AT, AA or  TT  meant that the gene would be turned on by p53 and that the DNA sequence CG, TG, CC, GC and CA meant the gene would be turned off by p53.
Why is this important?p53 does not work properly in over half of all human tumours. Lots of charities and drug companies are trying to develop new drugs either to restore damaged p53 or to activate the p53 pathway in cancer cells and cause them to die.  To learn more about this watch this emedtv video with David Lane, one of the first scientists to discover p53 30 years ago.
What is so difficult about this research?Trying to find things that are turned off is a lot harder than trying to find things that are turned on!  For example, if I was to send you into a dark room and ask you to find 4 lights, all of which were turned on, it would be an easy thing to do.  If, however, I was to send you into a pitch dark room and ask you to find 4 lights (all of which were turned off) you’d find it a lot harder. It’s the same with genes, it’s easier to find things that are turned on than things that are turned off. This research paper is important because it give us a way of finding more genes that are turned off by p53 and this will help us to understand what goes wrong when p53 doesn’t work.
I have cancer now, does this research help me?This research was carried out in cells in a laboratory, grown in a dish and the findings don’t alter any of the standard cancer treatments like chemo, radiotherapy or surgery. However,  this research give us a better understanding of how p53 works which will hopefully lead to better treatments in the future.
Where can I find out more?
Cancer Research UK Press Release - Singapore team shed light on tumour suppressor gene
Science News – 
Widely sought molecular key to understanding p53
Singapore Immunology Network – 
SiGN – REN Ee Chee"