Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Mukesh Ambani's "peacock's tail"?

Some days ago I saw a news report about Mukesh Ambani's 27 floor house with, among other amenities, a 50 seat theatre where, I suppose he will enjoy watching Slumdog Millionaire. What makes a person build a house so far in excess of his needs?

One of the interesting questions in biology is: Why does a peacock have such a heavy, gaudy tail? It costs energy to make - energy that can be used elsewhere, attracts predators and makes it difficult to escape from them. William Hamilton proposed a theory that is widely accepted: the peacock's tail is a signal of genetic fitness.

So is "Antilla" the name of Mukesh Ambani's version of the peacock's tail, a potlatch-style display of "I can"? Another peacock's tail (this one not belonging to any particular individual but was the brainchild of a group of of movers and shakers) was the recent Commonwealth Games.

In a podcast, P.Sainath, the rural affairs editor of The Hindu newspaper, talked about a grand party thrown by Emperor Nero for the creme de la creme of Rome, as narrated by Tacitus. A problem was that the light was not enough. Nero solved it in typical fashion: he had criminals brought from the dungeons and burned at the stake to provide the lighting. What bothered Sainath was not the cruelty involved but the question: who were Nero's guests? What sort of mindset is required to silently eat the best foods and quaff the finest wines in the midst of all that cruelty? I also have a similar thought: what sort of mindset is required in order to build a billion dollar house at spitting distance from some of the largest slums in Asia?

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

You get used to it

If you are suddenly struck by what finance types call a Black Swan event, you become helpless, confused, angry and begin to lament like the Duke of Gloucester, "As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods; / They kill us for their sport."But when Time, The Great Healer, has done enough work you find ways to deal with the new reality and eventually you get used to it.

Sometimes, when I will be sitting on my wheelchair and browsing or reading a book with great interest, I will suddenly feel like passing motion so I will have to be shifted quickly to the bed. Occasionally, by the time the nurse makes the bed ready and Jaya comes to the room to shift me, my metabolic wastes would have made their presence felt.My muscles will stiffen automatically in disgust. (I know it is made of rare stuff but...) This stiffening makes it difficult for the nurse to manoeuvre me around the bed for cleaning the mess thus delaying the whole horrible process.

I found that the quickest way to relax my muscles is to let my mind wander thereby putting me in a state of suspended animation. I will start thinking about some topic that I had read recently for example, the trouble with intuition or inequality aversion or how language shapes thought or how news is made now. While my mind is busy thinking about these issues, I am only dimly aware of my surroundings. My muscles will become relaxed and the nurse will be able to complete her unenviable task quicker. A wandering mind has uses.

Sometimes, when a few visitors will be waiting in the front hall to meet me and I will be about to make my grand entrance, I will feel like passing motion and will quickly have to be shifted to the bed. The protagonist of Five Point Someone, when he finds himself in an embarrassing situation, wishes that dinosaurs were not extinct so that one would come along and gobble him up and put him out of his misery. (Evolutionary biologists will say that dinosaurs are not extinct because birds are dinosaurs but we will let that technical issue pass for the moment.) I also have a similar wish on such occasions especially when the nurse is on leave and Jaya has to perform the duties of a nurse.

Isak Dinesen put things in perspective, “What is man, when you come to think upon him, but a minutely set, ingenious machine for turning, with infinite artfulness, the red wine of Shiraz into urine?” The roof and crown of things? Tennyson must have been joking.

At times I am so lost in my thoughts that I fail to notice the nurse giving me feeds through the feeding tube. When Jaya asks me about the feeding I stare blankly at her and she has to get the details from the nurse. Even I am surprised that I did not notice something so obvious. I suppose the default network of my brain must be active at these times.

I have realised the wisdom in Duke Ellington's words, "There are two kinds of worries - those you can do something about and those you can't. Don't spend any time on the latter." Most people eventually get adjusted to the whips and scorns of time. Even if it means lying on shit. It is not easy. It doesn't happen overnight . But it happens. In Stumbling on Happiness, Daniel Gilbert writes:
For at least a century, psychologists have assumed that terrible events- such as having a loved one die or becoming the victim of a violent crime- must have a powerful, devastating, and enduring impact on those who experience them. This assumption has been so deeply embedded in our conventional wisdom that people who don't have dire reactions to events such as these are sometimes diagnosed as having a pathological condition known as "absent grief". But recent research suggests that the conventional wisdom is wrong, that the absence of grief is quite normal, and that rather than being the fragile flowers that a century of psychologists have made us out to be, most people are surprisingly resilient in the face of trauma.
Learning from the Heart is a book written by Daniel Gottlieb who suffered a spinal cord injury that left him quadriplegic at the age of thirty-three. He writes:
I got insight into the process of becoming more dependent when I was reading Tuesdays with Morrie, by Mitch Alborn. When Morrie, the author's mentor, was first being affected by ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease), he turned to Mitch and said, "Oh my God, one day somebody will have to wipe my ass."

When I read that quote my immediate thought was, "You'll get over it, Morrie. I did." Having a catheter and needing someone else to bathe and dress me used to be a horrible indignity. Now all those things are simply regular parts of my life, just as anyone who needs to wear reading glasses or bifocals makes a habit of putting them on and taking them off. Whatever you need today that you didn't need yesterday simply becomes a part of your life.
Later, he writes:
No wonder there is a little comedian inside of me who finds great humor when people unthinkingly say to me, "Sometimes when I think about my life, I just feel paralyzed." I just look up and say, "Sometimes I feel that way, too!"

Sunday, October 10, 2010

There is grandeur in this view of life

Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution. - Theodosius Dobzhansky

One disconcerting feature of studying in IIMA was that (apart from being occasionally sucked into a vicious cycle), everybody seemed to know everything better than me. I then worked in the financial sector which again is full of super brains (at least I thought so till a couple of years ago). So I was always under pressure to keep up with various alphabet soup products so that I don't feel left out of a conversation. This pressure was no longer there after my stroke. My eyes used to glaze over when I used to read some article on finance and I switched to reading something else.

At this time I came across an article on Evolution vs Creationism. I had never heard of creationism and wondered what it was. I found that all it seemed to be saying was 'evolution can't do this or that, hence creationism' which did not make sense. Evidence against one theory is not the same as evidence for another theory. But I couldn't follow their arguments because I didn't know much about evolution so I started reading about it. I soon realised that whatever little I thought I knew about evolution was wrong. As Jacques Monod said, " [A] curious aspect of the theory of evolution is that everybody thinks he understands it."

When the penny finally dropped, I could see why T.H.Huxley exclaimed on reading the Origin of Species: "How stupid of me not to have thought of that." After I managed to overcome the semantic gap, I could understand better the various strands of evidence for evolution. Reading about Deep Time, when different creatures were abundant and when they became extinct was cool. Richard Dawkins writes in The Ancestor's Tale:
The human imagination is cowed by antiquity, and the magnitude of geological time is so far beyond the ken of poets and archaeologists it can be frightening. But geological time is large not only in comparison to the to the familiar timescales of human life and human history. It is large on the timescale of evolution itself.
The nature programs on T.V., which were becoming boring, took on a new meaning, When I saw some program about predators and prey, I thought about evolutionary arms races. When I saw a program about bats, I thought about reciprocal altruism. I had not heard of these terms before. Reading about evolution of complex parts or communication in slime moulds was far more interesting than reading about naked shorts or covered puts. As Keats said, "in spite of all,/Some shape of beauty moves away the pall/From our dark spirits" and I looked forward to reading something new about evolution everyday. And I was glad to know that I am not another data point for the Salem Hypothesis.

The Theory of Evolution is beautifully complicated - it is complicated enough to keep me interested but not so complicated that I will give up in a daze. On the other hand if I had started reading about string theory, I wouldn't know what hit me. I remember reading that it dealt with 11 dimensions. I can barely handle three.

I soon stopped reading about creationism because it was so boring. They keep making silly statements like 'nobody saw it' or using weasel tactics. Perhaps they should be answered like this. I loved this email exchange between an evolutionary biologist, Richard Lenski and a creationist. Lenski's second letter was brilliant. Like the author Terry Pratchett, I concluded that 'I would rather be a rising ape than a fallen angel'. There is a (probably apocryphal) exchange between T.H.Huxley and Bishop Wilberforce that took place in 1860. The incident is described in Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea:
When Wilberforece ended his speech, he looked to Huxley. He asked him, half-jokingly, whether it was on his grandfather's or grandmother's side that he descended from an ape.

Later Huxley would tell Darwin and others that at that moment he turned to a friend seated next to him, struck his hand to his knee, and said, "The Lord hath delivered him into mine hands." He stood and lashed back at Wilberforce. He declared that nothing that the bishop had said was at all new, except his question about Huxley's ancestry. "If then, said I, the question is put to me would I rather have a miserable ape for a grandfather or a man highly endowed by nature and possessed of great means and influence and yet who employs these faculties and that influence for the mere purpose of introducing ridicule into a grave scientific discussion I unhesitatingly affirm my preference for the ape."
Apocryphal or not, it is a good story.