The Lure of NorEaWesSou

I picked up a light hearted book that outlined how journalism was done 100 years ago: Scoop By Evelyn Waugh. Written in the 1930’s, the book deals with how newspapers made do with telegrams from remote locations to fill newspaper columns: How they decided ahead of time on the stance to take, the line to pitch. Journalism was and is a series of Scoops. Which nugget gets scooped by whom?

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The book is based on William Boot, a thoroughly good-natured hedgehog type of fellow, who writes the nature column about life in the English countryside. One week his column writes of the country mouse, and the next week about thriving lobelias. Up in high brow London, he is mistaken for a dashing up-and-coming novelist, also Boot, and asked to go to Ishmaelia, a fictional country in Africa to cover the news. Given no choice, he embarks on the journey, and learns a thing or two about journalism from his journalist pals.

Corker looked at him sadly. “You know, you’ve got a lot to learn about journalism. Look at it this way. News is what a chap who doesn’t care much about anything wants to read, and its only news until he’s read it. After that, its dead. We’re afraid to supply news. If someone else  has sent a story before us, our story isn’t news.”

William Boot is not only ignorant of the scoop business, but distinctly inept at keeping his bosses in the know. His telegrams read like stories; and lack buzz and content. When asked by his head office to send regular updates, Boot replies, that nothing much is going on, and that the weather continues to be fine.

The sort of missive that drives his editor mad. “How am I to fill a column based on the weather being fine?

The dilemma is real. Nobody wants to know when things are going well, and the weather is fine. The populace wants sensational news, and if there isn’t any, they have no qualms about creating some.

Purely by accident, William Boot uncovers a plot to overthrow the powers in the country. When he is composing the telegram with his first real piece of news, he receives the sack from the head office.

Telegram by William Boot:

Nothing much has happened except to the president who has been imprisoned in his own palace by revolutionary junta …. but governess says most unusual lovely spring weather …. bubonic plague raging.

He got so far when he was interrupted. Frau Dressler brought him a cable: your contract terminated stop accept this stipulated months notice and acknowledge stop beast.

William added to this message, Sack received safely thought I might as well send this all the same.

The book is not as engaging and funny as its critics claim, but the premise of the book makes for a charming plot. It is amusing to see how little things have changed since the days of the Telegram: our telegrams arrive almost instantly via tweets, but the essence is the same.

In the current era of news, and fake news, how does one discern truth, and in which cases does one have to bother to do so?

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I remember being about a decade old, traveling in South India, when I saw the headlines from a local daily: “Prime Minister resigns”. I gasped, and tugged at my father’s arm, and showed him the headline. Apparently, he had resigned from the milking committee of a farm or some such thing.

That is my earliest recollection of questioning the sanctity of print. Up until then, I read anything printed with a wholesome innocence assuming purity of thought and intent. The father noticed my shocked expression, and we went on discuss the nature of the Scoop, and the thrill of Sensationalism. Television had not yet entered into every home, and one waited every morning for the newspaper to bring us news of the wide world. A whole day in which to ruminate on what one read.

Aristotle apparently wrote, It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it. 

Did he really say that? We don’t know.

Sensationalism and Scoop-ism have steadily chipped away at the hallmark of ruminating and discerning narratives having a semblance of truth.

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President Squid

I get the feeling that the Universe potters around jotting down whether things are going the way they are supposed to and so on, and then stops and sees me having a good time, and says to itself. ‘That half-wit there seems to be enjoying herself. Catch her, and put her up for a Leadership course or something. Do something with her! Something!” So, in my unguarded moments, I have been bunged into courses on Leadership.  Barely do I totter out of one, when another beams at me touting the title, ‘Effective Leadership’, and the moment I finish that up, ‘Most Effective & Beneficial Leadership’ (Beneficial to whom?)

I have no problem with these blokes whose job it is to tell you to polish your pencils and sharpen your brain and what-not, but I find the whole thing irksome and tedious. So much better to take my Leadership course. My course is fun. Titled, Butter Battle Course, it is being substantially boosted up with these gems.

Skip several tomes on Leadership, and read up: Hope this helps the squids, squirrels and sheep too.

President Squid – a witty book that enthralls and amuses.

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Giant Squid has a very important realization. No giant squid has ever been a president before. He looks for qualities to be a President and surprise of surprise – he already has them all.

Qualities of a President:

  • He wears Ties
  • He has a large house (The Titanic!)
  • He is famous
  • He does ALL the talking
  • Big & bossy

 

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President Squid is as loud and rambunctious as ever. He is convinced that he the Best President Ever!

One day as a President, he unwittingly does some work, and then being a President doesn’t seem like fun anymore.

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President Squid: Book by Aaron Reynolds

The book also provides a solution for those unfortunate Presidents who became Presidents and then realized it is not all as gassy as a cup of beans.

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President Squid: By Aaron Reynolds

Complement this with the equally endearing and hilarious books on leadership:

King Hugo’s Huge Ego : By Chris Van Dusen

Loius I, King of the Sheep – By Oliver Tallec

Who was it who said that there is nothing that cannot be learnt from good children’s books? I heartily agree.

Children are actually the best (and worst) audience for literature because they have no patience with pretence.Orson Scott Card

Homo Incredulitatis

For the past few years, we have not watched any of the Harry Potter movies in the home because we did not want to ruin the Harry Potter stories for the little sponge in the household. So, we waited patiently till he read Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone. He read some of it, had some of it read to him, and he discussed the whole of it with his Harry Potter wise sister. (Please check out the latest edition with illustrations by Jim Kay. His illustrations are beautiful as if he lived and breathed in the story himself.)

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He only had the last chapter left, and savored the thought like the last piece of cake. The pair of us snuggled up one day with the rain pattering the windows and read. I read in the low rumbling voice of Albus Dumbledore:
‘As for the Stone, it has been destroyed.’
‘Destroyed?’ said Harry blankly. ‘But your friend – Nicolas Flamel – ‘

Dumbledore smiled at the look of amazement on Harry’s face.
‘To one as young as you, I’m sure it seems incredible, but to Nicolas and Perenelle, it really is like going to bed after a very, very long day. After all, to the well organized mind, death is but the next adventure. You know, the Stone was really not such a wonderful thing. As much money and life as you could want! The two things most human beings would choose above all – the trouble is, humans do have a knack of choosing precisely those things which are worst for them.”

I could not agree more. Fresh from my readings of Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, I was already uneasy with our hideous choices for progress:
An economy built on everlasting growth needs endless projects – just like the quests for immortality, bliss and divinity.

The husband had spent the afternoon watching a movie with some very interesting sound effects. A sci-fi crime thriller of one who had moved his consciousness into the ether and could possess bodies at will. “Something like Voldemort, only he could find one horcrux at a time and keep going.” said the husband.

Living for ever, resurrecting species back from the dead?

Why? A few years ago, we played a game in the car with the children where we asked the children which animal they would bring back from extinction, to great hilarity (Dodo, Dragon, Dinosaur Dis-apparitions) . This had such an impossible Sci-Fi feel to it, and that contributed to the thrill of the game. I mean you cannot bring back Dodos can you?

In less than two years, I read a book titled ‘Woolly: Bringing the Mammoth Back to Life’ by Ben Mezrich. I only read the book now, but work on that front has been going ever since we learnt to sequence a genome, and cloned a sheep. If pressed on the benefit of this move, I suppose mankind would say, “This will help reduce global warming by ensuring the Tundra permafrost is packed in with the stomping of large beasts.”

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I am not so sure. If anything, we use our considerable creativity to find grand purposes.

I was intrigued by the husband’s movie discussion on immortality in the form of storing one’s thoughts elsewhere. I have been looking at my thoughts ever since this discussion, and I got to tell you: There isn’t much going on up there. No future generation in the 25th century will benefit from my great wisdom. In fact, the number of times I resist eating chocolate, and then meekly give in, might be the greatest wisdom there is.

Projecting the future is a crummy business. An excerpt from the book, Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari:
While some experts are familiar with developments in one field, such as AI, nanotechnology, big data or genetics, no one is an expert on everything. No one is capable of connecting all the dots and seeing the full picture. Different fields influence one another in such intricate ways that even the best minds cannot fathom how breakthroughs in artificial intelligence might impact nanotechnology or vice versa. Nobody can absorb all the latest scientific discoveries, nobody can predict how the global economy will look in 10 years, and nobody has a clue where we are heading in such a rush.

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Why does the unknown scare us? If that is the case, isn’t tinkering with immortality even more of an unknown than death?

Our tales and myths are full of warnings against this very wish. From Bhasmasura, Ravana and Hiranyakashipu to Grindelwald, and Voldemort, we have read and ingested that immortality is not such a sweet bunch of grapes as it is made out to be.

Homo Sapiens seem to have forgotten that Happiness is only important when we have unhappiness to compare it against. Life is only good because we know it is finite, and we strive to make it a full, worthwhile one. Would I cherish every moment and live in the present and all that lark, if the present is all there ever is? It was a sobering thought.

Really Homo Sapiens are Homo Incredulitatis!

Books: 
   Harry Potter & The Sorcerer’s Stone: J K Rowling 
   Homo Deus: Yuval Noah Harari
   Woolly: Ben Mezrich
Movie: Mayavan
Myths: Bhasmasura, Ravana, Hiranyakisapu

Can Mammoths Stop Thawing Arctic Permafrost?

“Let’s not watch this – it is depressing, and some of that stuff makes my blood curl.”, I said as the daughter suggested some gothic fiction. It was the week-end before Halloween, and we were picking our Friday evening entertainment. Never an easy task.

“Fine! What do you want to watch?”

Cosmos” I said without flipping a heart beat. (Watch the you-tube video introducing Cosmos here)

To her eye-roll, I said “No really! You see, there are so many things in there that I wanted to understand as a student.  I plodded along to the library and I got to admit, the Physics books in there. “ I gave a shudder here, and I fully meant it. “I suggest you curl up with one of those tomes in our library looking jaundiced, pale, and excellent cures to Insomnia. I thought some of them needed vitamins, sunshine and exercise to regain what Doctors call a healthy glow. “

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So, we sat together and watched a Cosmos episode by Neil deGrasse Tyson on global warming. In his slow, sure voice, he rumbled like the volcanoes on Venus that set the poor planet into an irreversible green house cycle.

The World Set Free (Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey)

http://channel.nationalgeographic.com/cosmos-a-spacetime-odyssey/episodes/the-world-set-free/

We have twenty years at the current rate to stop us from going into an irreversible state like Venus.

The daughter gave me a significant look .I gave her a more sig. look, and we sat there looking like stuffed frogs with s. looks etched on our faces digesting the info. “How could you think this was okay to watch, but that movie was too scary. This is the scariest thing I have ever seen. How do you think it will all end?” said the daughter sounding worried, and deeply stirred.

 

A few days later, I read out a passage from the book I was reading. Woolly: The True Story of the Quest to Revive One of History’s Most Iconic Extinct Creatures. (Related post: Mankind trying to resurrect the woolly mammoth by impregnating Asian elephants with mammoth genes.)

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Pleistocene park  – Using 160 square kilometers of Siberian Tundra given to him by the Russian government, Zimov’s goal was repopulating the area with modern equivalents of prehistoric animals that had adapted to Arctic conditions (moose, Yakutian horses, Finnish reindeer and even North American bison.) … To re-create the effects of the Woolly Mammoths on the land, he’d bought in a World War II tank …. Punching holes in the snow, … , using the tank treads to mimic the continual stomps of Mammoth feet, he’d worked the land, year after year. And along the way, he’d accumulated data that were staggering in their implications.

Within his 16- square kilometers refuge, he had lowered the permafrost temperature by an average of fifteen degrees. 

We change the world just be being. I remember watching a video by National Geographic in which they chronicle how 41 wolves introduced in the Yellowstone park, changed the ecology and even the physical structure of the park.

Introducing Wolves in YellowStone National Park – National Geographic Video

If that was the case with 41 wolves, what would introducing Mammoths do? Would it save us from the brink of extinction or introduce problems of the kind we hardly envisioned?

We never know the ramifications of our creations. I mean we are a species who has unintended consequences from a ‘Like’ button on Social Media.

Teapot Spirituality

Sheesh kababs! What is with Amma – is she tired and cleaning again?” said the daughter, when I acted like a teapot sliding off my tea spout.

I whistled my protest with as much dignity as a teapot sliding off the tea-sp. could when caught in the act. “There is nothing wrong with me. Merely that a lot of work needs to be done, and I cannot come and play a game of Life now. I have Life to deal with now.” The queenly dignity sounded overdone like these actresses who act for 10 dollars when paid 3. I waved my hands impressively at the surrounding environs.

It was true, at least in my mind. Pots and pans needed washing, the floors needed scrubbing, the ….

“You said you are tired at the end of the week, and it has been a tough week. You just said we escaped a fire, and we should just be thankful for Life huh? Get it. Get it? Come on now.”

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I could not argue, and after a flimsy protest, waved down by the children who helped me get the kitchen to a state of relative cleanliness, we sat around playing the game of Life. There was a serendipitous beauty to it. The evening had made me nervous and jumpy, more conscious of the gift of Life, and as usual the children had led me to the calm instead of the frenzy, with their customary élan.

Northern California had been reeling from the effect of wild fires. After an unnaturally hot summer, calamity struck too close to home for comfort. This time, it was people we had lunches with, people we holler out to when we catch a glimpse of them in crowded places. People who will slowly extend that quizzical look into a slow, wide smile as they recognize you, these were the folks asked to evacuate.

Luckily the fires had been contained, and I felt like we could look forward to a quieting down. I had spoken too soon.  That evening, flames leaped higher than trees behind our home, and smoke billowed from nearby. The bags were packed in the car: documents, some cash, a change of clothes, laptops, water bottles, snack bars, and a few pictures. When it comes to it, that is all there is, isn’t there?  Nothing else matters.

That night, everything felt keener. The comfort of putting away the dishes, the joy of playing a board game, the delight of being ordinary, the familiarity of the mundane, the contentment of a bedtime story, the gratitude for the simple act of breathing.

“I just got twins Amma.” said the son after rolling his dice.

“There goes your quiet retirement!” said the daughter, and the children went into peels of laughter, and I joined in noticing how much better it felt to laugh with abandon. I felt the 17 facial muscles work as the laughter gripped me. I observed the act of laughing together as if I was perched atop the roof, looking at us having a good time. Is this what consciousness is?

I finished the piece on resurrecting the Woolly Mammoth using genetic samples obtained from the pristine Arctic Tundra, and impregnating an Asian elephant with the questions on consciousness, and whether or not there is a Soul. I love it when a work of fiction explores the questions posed by futuristic Science, and I finished the post by tying it up with Never Let Me Go, By Kazuo Ishiguro.

Everyone knows, teapots are far from spiritual, and my understanding could make a teapot sing. If you were to explain the concept of consciousness, conscience and soul, how would you do it?

 

The Concept of Conscious Conscience

“Appa got me the Cheetos”, said the daughter sounding gleeful over dinner.

Cheetos, I had explained to her that morning, was full of food coloring, and therefore not a good idea.

“You went and asked him for that after everything I explained to you this morning? Carcinogens. You know what? I think you should look up Mammoth DNA sequences and compare and contrast it with the genome of an Asian elephant.”

“That is the world’s worst punishment ever!” she said pulling an impressive teenage affront with ease. “I don’t think anyone has been given that.”

“Well..there are several reasons you are being given that, “, I said. “One: I am reading the book that is all about resurrecting the woolly mammoth by impregnating an Asian elephant with mammoth genes. Two: Did you know that the elephant, that large an animal as it is, does not suffer from cancer? Maybe there is something in it’s genetic makeup that prevents malfunctions during cell reproduction.” I said giving her my Idiot’s Guide to Genetics lecture.

It’s true. I had just finished reading the book called “Woolly – Bringing a woolly mammoth back to life” by Ben Mersich. For someone who does not know the first thing about genetics and genome sequencing and such, this is a good book to read. It is written like a fast paced novel, moving between the lives of reclusive scientists, Sergey and Nikita Zimov in the Russian Tundra and Jy Minh’s work in Hwang Woo-Suk’s Sooam Laboratories in South Korea to George Church’s lab work in Harvard. All these efforts are working towards resurrecting the woolly mammoth using DNA samples obtained from mammoths preserved in pristine conditions in the Arctic Tundra.

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If that feels like Jurassic Park, it is, though the book explains why it is not exactly like Jurassic park, but sort of. It is Pleistocene Park – a concept that beat Jurassic Park by 2 years in conception.

If you are looking for a scientific explanation of techniques, and theory, this isn’t the book. The book is to be made into a movie, and is written as such: I can imagine the scenes leaping off the pages. Following the Russian scientists on a quest to resurrect life in the Arctic life makes a thrilling tale. Combining that with the race by Korean scientists to engineer and reverse engineer life, and scenes from a research laboratory down in Harvard makes for brilliant movie scenes. Only as the book assures you, it is not fictional. It is true. You will pause and think of ramifications, of the evil that can be wrought when powers like this fall into wrong hands, of political leaders with no qualifications dictating the genome factory.

Life from life, Minh thought, as he moved past the implantation table. Still, he couldn’t shake the chills he felt as he thought of those 3 dogs, lying supine, tongues hanging to the side around the breathing tubes, as the surgeons did their work. He chided himself for his own backward thinking: of course, futuristic science always seemed unnatural – until it became routine.

The discussion that evening over supper bleated over to the world’s most famous sheep, Dolly, who had been cloned in 1995. Sheep, Mammoths and Dogs make good cloning subjects for they do not yet touch the uncomfortable topic of human cloning.

http://www.businessinsider.com/sooam-biotechs-is-bringing-back-the-mammoth-2015-9

Human cloning, however, is a topic you can rely on authors to explore.

The thought provoking work by Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go is worth a read in this context. The book talks of a future in which clones are generated from a master copy, and are raised separate from mainstream society, just so that they can function as ‘givers’ and ‘carers’ – a euphemism for organ donations. It is a heart rending read, as it centers around three young people, who have the same feelings of love, jealousy and friendship that ‘mainstream’ people do. Their art work is collected by a lady, who is trying to petition the state against this barbaric practice as Art shows the soul, and clearly the ‘spares’ have souls.

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By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15168925

Human beings are tinkerers – we always have been. What have we in store this time?

  • Is there a concept of the Soul that is separate from the engineered parts of cells, muscle, tissue and genes?
  • Is Consciousness something that can be engineered?
  • What role does our conscience play while tinkering consciously?

Related read: Of Dinosaurs, Genes & Aliens

Sailing The Solar Winds

“So, you are saying that we have no method of seeing the images on the CD now?”

“Not without a Windows machine. We have an external CD drive that we can mount, but if you do not have a Windows machine, you cannot install the software to load those particular images – yes.”

The husband looked sheepish. He is the tech enthusiast between the pair of us – a mellow one compared to some of our friends, I will grant him that. But I felt sorry for the fellow as he said we will not be able to install and retrieve the images on the disk. He is the one who feels elated when a new breakthrough happens that will disrupt storage as we know it, and all that lark.

I was holding a CD that contained some images that could be retrieved by the software also on the CD. I had been given the disc in 2017, and I was attempting to see the images in 2017. I could not. I live in a home spotted freely with software engineers. We trip over cables, hunt for laptops and so on.

I looked at the CD disc in my hand, and burst out laughing.

To think that we sent the Arecibo message to a star cluster some 25,000 light years away hoping that extra terrestrial life will receive and interpret it. Carl Sagan and an impressive set of folks came up with a message that showed humans, a double helix, numbers, elements and so much more. Read all about it here:

Arecibo Message

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Image attribution: By Arne Nordmann (norro) – Own drawing, 2005, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=365130

How confident we are that if intelligent beings do receive some radio messages, they will have the technology to extract it in the format we sent it to them in forty years ago. Just for fun, I’d like to see what would happen if that dratted message were to flop back onto Earth because of a series of mis-bumps along the way. We would first drive ourselves into a tizzy that beings of another planet reached out to us, and then I am not sure we would be able extract our own message.

I was reading an article recently about human beings sending a probe to our nearest galactic neighbor, Alpha Centauri.

$100-Million Plan Will Send Probes to the Nearest Star

The article talks about using “light sails” to ride those beams to other stars. I quote:

Although they have no mass, the photons in a sunbeam do carry momentum. In sufficient numbers they can push objects around in the vacuum of space. Bounce enough photons off a large reflective spacecraft and light alone can continuously accelerate it without the need for any onboard fuel, much like a sailboat catching a ride on the wind. Such spacecraft are called “solar sails.” This elegant idea goes back more than 400 years, to the German astronomer Johannes Kepler, who noted that a wind seemed to blow comet tails away from the sun, and that it might someday be harnessed to push a celestial vessel through the “heavenly air.”

The explanation makes my head swim somewhat. They plan to send the probe that will zoom past Alpha Centauri in 20 years time, and hope to see images of an earth-like planet orbiting the star.

But hopefully we catch something worth catching, since as Stephen Hawking so elegantly put it:

Stephen Hawking explained his support for the project as less about science and more about survival. “Earth is a wonderful place, but it might not last forever,” Hawking says. “Sooner or later, we must look to the stars. Breakthrough Starshot is a very exciting first step on that journey.”

Now what took me on this interstellar, intergalactic quest you ask me. This is where you see me scratching my head, looking goofy, and mumbling something about googling on how to see images in a CD that I hold in my hand.

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