Candles in the Dark

I remember talking to a man who was our van driver in the Yucatan peninsula. His theories were astounding, and he seemed to have scoured the internet for the plausible and marvelous, completely ruling out the possibilities of evolution and what science proved to us. He was obviously a man whose love for the marvelous made him an interesting story-teller, and was probably well-received  at parties.

Here is a clip from his conversation:
’Ah! Evolution. I don’t believe in evolution as a theory. I have a theory’, said the van driver. ‘My theory is that aliens are responsible for life on earth. I think that the aliens had tried to see if life can flourish on Earth with dinosaurs.’
Four second pause.
‘And then they found them too big. The dinosaurs were too big, you know? I think that the asteroid that hit the Earth was nothing but a nuclear bomb sent by aliens. You see it all the time, don’t you?’

‘Eh… What do I see all the time?’ I asked. I have to come clean and admit that I don’t see dinosaurs all the time. Or aliens if you come to think of it, and definitely hope not to see nuclear bombs sent by the unseen aliens to hit the now extinct dinosaurs. I like a quiet life.

aliens_theory

I felt sorry for the man. His mind was after all curious, and he was obviously in awe of the marvelous. He wanted to know what happened to the dinosaurs, he wanted to know how we came to be. A Science education, half-heartedly imparted in the faraway days of his youth were hardly enough for him to find and keep the wonder in Science. Moreover, Science was a demanding master. Every hypothesis required proofs, validation by peers. It all proved too much for the man. He was happy enough believing that an alien race came and bombarded Earth with their nuclear missiles when they felt dinosaurs were of no use to them. We could do the same to another planet, couldn’t we?

I am currently reading Science as a Candle in the Dark – In a Demon Haunted World by Carl Sagan.

In his usual manner Carl Sagan had hit the problem on its head:
We have arranged a global civilization in which most crucial elements – transportation, communications, and all other industries; agriculture, medicine, education, entertainment, protecting the environment; and even the key democratic institution of voting – profoundly  depend on science and technology. We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster.  ”

I found myself nodding along as I read: One the one hand, while we know about Machine Learning and how it is used to change our ways  of life, we do not always understand all the variables involved and how each value affects the outcomes. We do not really know the chemistry behind the medicines we take and why they work  on our biological systems, and so much more.

On the other hand, somebody had shared yet another spurious discourse given by a religious figure. This time, the man spoke glibly – his half baked theories about the nature of the Universe had his audience enthralled. The man spluttered forth a jumble of high-sounding words, and the audience cheered and applauded.

Again, the audience was looking for nothing more than understanding a complex world. A world made more complex everyday with our technologies and applications.

The truth is the world is a complicated place. Grants determine research, enabling rich businesses and corporations to drive and set the tone for research (Remember the studies where the Sugar industry completely misguided the population by funding research related to Fats instead? ) Big money corporations also have the ability to have their own research facilities, and they are not always going to watch out for the common man. (Privacy concerns by Ethicist Tristan Harris – the  former employee at Google)

More than ever, we need to find a way to incorporate Science as a way of life, and equip ourselves with Baloney Detection Kits as Carl Sagan named them. We need to enlighten ourselves – maybe light ourselves a candle in the dark.

Books: Science  as a Candle in the Dark – Demon Haunted  World – By  Carl Sagan

 

The Dream Weavers Web

It had been a few years since we had taken the magical pill. When the daughter was younger, she was enamored with Disney movies, was obsessed with unicorns and mermaids (the mermaids still hold sway), but the general euphoria with Disney has come down somewhat, or so we thought. It turns out, magic may be dormant, but thankfully not absent. When those Mickey ears came on, so did the smiles, the magic, the ridiculous mixed with the plausible, the tales with long tails, the myths and legends, everything came bubbling up in one hot cauldron full of fun and adventure.

I must say I was thrilled too. The day to day living tends to routinely pound magic out of us unless we make a concerted effort to keep it. The schools manage to do so for the children. There are Dr Seuss weeks, there are Read-a-thons, crazy hair days and crazed sock days to keep it all intact. But as the business of earning a living and adult hood takes on, there is a brush working in the background to make us more even keel, more predictable and less whimsical.

Reading children’s books keeps it for us in some ways.

I had expected to have a good time at Disneyland. I manage to put my whimsies on with a delight, and get the children going too. So far so good. But there are serendipitous surprises lurking even in the most magical of places. The Disney World in Florida was even better than I had expected. There was Animal Kingdom, in which I expected plastic hippos and lions made to scale. Consider my surprise then when we went on the Kilimanjaro safari to be taken into the hinterlands with animals in relatively free reign. It is marvelous to see a bloat of hippos, a tower of giraffes, a something of warthogs, and a blush of pelicans roaming freely. When a white horned rhino waddled across our path, we simply waited for it to move quietly. Even the children, though looking awed, did not utter a sound. There is majesty in nature.

One of the best surprises for me was the onus on conservation of our beautiful planet for the years to come. There were green houses showing us the marvels and possibilities of vertical farming. It was apparent to those of us floating in the boats by the lazy river taking us through these green houses, that many of us had never seen plants of many vegetables and fruits before. One excited child pointed to an eggplant plant, and squealed – “Look the eggplants are hanging from them!” I could see it was a beautiful revelation for the child who had simply assumed you picked it up in the grocery aisles of the supermarket, while making a passionate case for a Hot Wheels toy car at the billing counter.

Saturated with the magic of life on this beautiful planet, we spent a day amidst the shots to space. Kennedy Space Center. The past merged with the magic of fairy-tales, the present beautifully thrumming with possibilities for conservation and conversation, and the future hits among the stars. Looking for possible planets for us to expand into.

It is marvelous to see we are on the cusp of a decade that holds so much promise. For among the young I saw in the parks, there will be quite a few starting their careers in the coming decade.

IMG-6125

The whole time, I was absorbing the atmosphere around me, little words were forming themselves into sentences. I was making my journey on the river of time and I was grateful for so many things. Some good sentences disappeared because I had not written them down, but I didn’t fret. It is often like this – playing with the words to relive my experiences.

Imagine how I felt then, when I read Ursula Le Guin’s essay on Writing. I felt the sage author’s words like balm, and nodded along. Writers are creators, but unlike potters and weavers, our products are less tangible. Our dreams are webs weaved in the magical recesses of the brain, and not all of it worth reading or sharing.

“Writing is a risky business. No guarantees. You have to take the chance. I’m happy to take it. I love taking it. So, my stuff gets misread, misunderstood, misinterpreted, – so what? If its the real stuff, it will survive almost any other abuse other than being ignored, disappeared, not read.”

When I read this piece in the essay though, I was grateful. I have written 800 posts over the past 14 years, and I would never have done that if not for the encouragement I have received from my dear friends and readers. It is magical. Encouragement like Love, is so fuzzy a thing to try to describe. For both the forces have the power to gently nurture, nudge, and poise for acceptance.

Thank you for all of that. Let the magical dreams weave on in the coming decade as well. Happy New Year and Happy New Decade – May the River of Time course on gently.

Tick-Tock Tick-Tock

“October 29th, 1969 is the day the internet was born did you know that?” said the husband. I have seen pups don that look when out and about in sunny meadows with a new bone to boot.

“Google icon huh?!”

I suppose life has taught him to take in his leaping enthusiasm with our barely noticeable uh-huh with equanimity. “Hey! Let’s try again. Today is the birthday of the internet!”

“No….just fun fact. Oct 29th, 1969 – The first-ever computer-to-computer link is established on ARPANET, the precursor to the Internet. And then in 1974, the first protocol for communicating over the Internet was conceptualized. T-C-P – tada! Finally, in November 1977, the internet was functional as the ARPANET for the Defense.

“It wasn’t until the late 1980’s and 1990’s even that the internet was functional the way we know it!”, he said awe dripping from him. “I suppose in a way we were the perfect generation to see the wave take off.”

“So you guys are as old as the internet?! Oh my gosh – that is so old!” quipped the little fellow, mentally slotting us with the dinosaurs. “How did you guys live without the internet? ” , said he puzzled. He has taken to asking Google Home all sorts of things during the day:

“Okay Google – what is the atomic number of Boron?”
“Okay Google -what is the time right now?”
“Okay Google – tell me a Halloween joke.”

“Well – we lived quite well I suppose.” said I, throwing in a bit of philosophy about the simple life needing few things other than sustenance for the body and the mind. “We did not need the internet to entertain ourselves. We played outside, made forts out of mud, ran around, and had fun all the same. No battles on that game of yours – Clash Royale is it?!  We battled it out with sticks and stones.” I said, and the more I talked about our lives pre-internet, the more I realized that humanity had truly passed a technological milestone. It was like the power of electricity – it changed our lives forever, and though life is possible without electricity, it has become so much harder to sustain without it. Looking at the children born after the age of the internet, I realized that connectivity is much the same for these children.

 

tangled_web

“You want to know what I did with the Internet today?” asked the teenage daughter.

“I’ll show you!” she said in her effusive tones. There was then a rather jerky video of her popping into her mobile phone’s camera from various angles – one upside down and by the sounds of it rather clumsily, for we heard a dull thud followed by an “oww”.

“Not my best video – but how about this one? ” She then went on to show us another jumpy jerky video with some sort of a meme thrown in for good measure. I groaned.

“What is this?! Does anyone even see stuff like this? Tick tock is it?” I looked appallingly at her, and said, “Oh goodness child! You don’t tell me you actually posted this!”

I feel it is worth noting here that the App is called TikTok, not Tick-Tock as I thought up until a minute ago when I went looking for the wikipedia entry – sigh! I am as old as the Internet I suppose!

“For your information Amma, tons of people see this stuff. It is original see? This is the one that is going viral now. Already 30,000 likes and 100,000 views.”, she said, proud of herself.

My jaws dropped. “For this?!”

“Supportive. Mother. Supportive – remember?”

“But I’ve seen plenty of videos – even your own that are much better than this – even the one you showed us before where you banged yourself on the floor by the sound of that dull thud had a comical quality to it. ” I said, and she laughed hard, agreeing wholeheartedly.

“Fame doesn’t need merit Mother.”

“Fame is a fickle friend Harry!” said I in a brilliant imitation of Professor Lockhardt from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.

“Fame is as fame does!” said she, and we all laughed.

“Just goes to prove that all our inventions and resources take on a life of their own, and that is what will keep us busy as a race I suppose.” I said.

“All the brilliant protocols developed and conceptualized for dumb Tick-Tocks like this to go viral. What is the world coming to?” said the husband.

“What a tangled web we weave when we choose to connect?” I said paraphrasing not Shakespeare as it turns out, but William Scott in the poem Marmion, and looking around proudly for acknowledgement. Completely lost on the group of course. I sighed and continued – there are times when you explain your jokes and times you don’t. Not when something viral is competing for attention.

“Poor appa! Let’s throw him a bone and listen to him about the philosophy of the internet dears. ” said I, and we listened to him as he explained – his own fascination overtaking him, about how the internet developed and (d)evolved into what it is today.

Here is an interesting video with all the leading websites over time.

More videos here : Data is Beautiful

How we will continue to evolve is anybody’s guess, which leads me to a wonderful essay I read by Ursula Le Guin on the different types of fantasy. (coming up next)

Of Dinosaurs, Genes & Aliens

The thing about travel is it lets you indulge in conversations that you otherwise may not have: With car drivers (White Tiger, Driver Shiva or Murugan and Driver KillerMan ) for instance.

We were returning from a trip to Chichen Itza by van. The drive is a good three hours, and the husband was chatting amiably with the van driver, while we pulled out our books to read. I settled down with ‘The Gene’, By Siddhartha Mukherjee. The book is one that requires concentration, especially for one who made stout Biology teachers quail. The book is held tight by a web weaving historical context, scientific detail and personal insights. It is a fascinating read, if somewhat heavy going in places.

Screen Shot 2017-05-05 at 10.30.25 AM

Genetics as a discipline had a number of misdirections and key researches almost lost to mankind, like Mendel’s experiment with pea plants, but for a lucky discovery of his article over 50 years after his death. The book touches upon many such instances. It talks about the supposed brilliance of scientists, how scientists are after all human and how their personalities can sometimes thwart and stifle growth. I particularly enjoyed the little quotations at the beginning of every chapter.

Every now and then, I stopped to take in the rustic scenery outside in the Yucatan province. Up in the front, the conversation was flourishing, if in a somewhat one-sided fashion. The van driver liked his audience and his theories grew wilder, and his tales more grandiose.

The man said he was originally from Canada, then moved to US before settling in Mexico. His tales, at any rate, portrayed a colorful life – a trucker, a pop-star, construction, sound recording. We had niggling doubts as to why his life had followed the pattern it had, but did not dig too closely. (He had the power of the van remember?)

‘How is Gene?’ asked the husband turning his head wife-ward. I had gotten past the horrifying section on Eugenics thankfully and said a thing or two about what all mankind is answerable for. Evolution, I said, better have a good reason for cruelty.

’Ah! Evolution. I don’t believe in evolution as a theory. I have a theory’, said the van driver, perking up since he hadn’t spoken for all of three minutes. He bore the look of a man doing a grand flick off some sad sop’s tale from the internet, ‘My theory is that aliens are responsible for life on earth. I think that the aliens had tried to see if life can flourish on Earth with dinosaurs.’
Four second pause.
‘And then they found them too big. The dinosaurs were too big, you know? I think that the asteroid that hit the Earth was nothing but a nuclear bomb sent by aliens. You see it all the time, don’t you?’

‘Eh… What do I see all the time?’ I asked. I have to come clean and admit that I don’t see dinosaurs all the time. Or aliens if you come to think of it, and definitely hope not to see nuclear bombs sent by the unseen aliens to hit the now extinct dinosaurs. I like a quiet life.

Aliens_theory

‘I mean, look at the size of those computers earlier on, and look at them now.’ He stopped here for dramatic effect, like one coming with the argument that clinches all.’ The aliens then got a much better model with humans and current life forms and decided to drop a nuclear bomb on Earth to get rid of the dinosaurs.They were just too big for them.’

The husband and I exchanged significant glances in our minds without once looking at each other. “I will take it that you just consider it a theory.”, said the husband, a man who would have obviously done well in the diplomatic services.

“Well…evolution is a theory no doubt,” said the driver, as though conceding a poorly paid chess move by dim witted opponents. “But aliens is a better concept. You know the supposed asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs fell right here? Yes – right here in the Yucatan desert.” , he said opening his arms wide, and the van jerked alarmingly. I implored him to hold the steering wheel, to which he laughed, ‘Of course, it was a nuclear bomb sent by aliens, and it is funny that centuries later, we are talking about it, and trying to fit in theories like evolution.”

crater
The Chicxulub crater in the Yucatán Peninsula, the site of the impact that decimated the dinosaurs.(Illustration: Detlev van Ravenswaay / National Geographic)

I set out to explain the experiments with pea plants, how the evidence set up the basis for genetics etc, but the man was bored, and said I must open my mind a little and consider the aliens theory. I bridled. I love a tall tale as much as the next one, but… The husband seem to sense my state, and shot me a warning look.

I had to concede that here was a fellow who had obviously educated himself on the Internet, and was proud of it. The Science teachers in his school days had done their best, and I too must learn to accept that he liked his erudition because he understood complex theories like aliens implanting life on earth.

By the end of the trip I needed some time to reflect, and when I did, I realized that travel had once again made sure I met a person so different in ideologies than myself. I hope he thought a little bit about things that could be proven vs things that could not be, when he reflected later on.

I, for my part, was able to understand why it is easy to believe compulsively written theories on the Internet.

http://theoatmeal.com/comics/believe?utm_source=nextdraft&utm_medium=email

Science lessons seem so far off tucked away in the recesses of the childhood brain. What time is left after earning one’s livelihood can easily be spent in the entertainment industry’s efforts to keep us glued: An industry that thrives on blurring the lines between fact and fiction.

As Lisa Randall says in Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs:
The beauty of the scientific method is that it allows us to think about crazy-seeming concepts, but with an eye to identifying the small, logical consequences with which to test them.

https://www.brainpickings.org/2015/11/28/dark-matter-and-the-dinosaurs-lisa-randall/

What we need is to be able to travel more, so we get to see another’s view point every now and then, even if we do not agree. Especially if we do not agree.

After all, we are nothing but star dust.

https://www.brainpickings.org/2017/02/01/we-are-all-stardust-steven-weinberg-interview/

If Mimosa Pudica Met Humpty Dumpty

The children ask me interesting stories about my childhood every now and then. They seem to think I lived in a fairy tale and maybe I did. I find my reminiscences are often seen through the endearing lens of time ignoring the trials and strife of living in a wet, rainy, cold place. My stories often feature panthers, wild boars, and tigers. Occasionally, just to spice things up, I tell them about the different berries, clovers and exotic plants that were native to the Nilgiri Hills and they marvel at the wonders in this world and how on earth I am alive and kicking today when I seem to have used such loose food control mechanisms as picking berries to plop into my mouth. Today, when I attempt to pluck a wild berry and put it in my mouth, I am met with aghast looks and stopped with pleas appealing to my remaining sanity.

I remember being enamored over touch-me-nots too. Have you played with touch-me-not plants? If not, I suggest taking the term and tucking it firmly in the back of your brain and keep looking out for the curious species. The scientific name is Mimosa Pudica.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mimosa_pudica

The fascinating little plants react to external threats by closing up their leaves as if in tune to a rhythmic heartbeat. There is something deeply soothing about watching them close their leaves to one’s touch and then open them again. To the immense delight of the children, we found clusters of touch-me-nots on our last trip to the Nilgiris and they spent an entire morning playing with them.

In the Hidden Life of Trees, Peter Wohlleben cites a piece of research showing that plants learn and indeed have memories. What the researchers did was take the shy mimosa plant into the laboratory. The mimosa plant closes itself up on external stimuli. So, to see whether the plant can learn, researchers set up the plant under a steady trickle of water.

Quote:

Dr Monica Gagliano designed an experiment where individual drops of water fell on the plants’ foliage at regular intervals. At first, the anxious leaves closed immediately but after a while, the little plants learned there was no danger of damage from the water droplets. After that, the leaves remained open despite the drops. Even more surprising was the fact that the mimosas could remember and apply their lesson weeks later.

Screen Shot 2017-03-14 at 8.59.19 AM

It is a good lesson for us to learn in these times of constant interruptions, distractions, news and fake news. These are steady drips and we the mimosas can learn and adapt.

Like the mimosa plant, it may be a worthwhile skill to find methods to rise and react when required rather than when Mr Donald Trump wants to divert attention onto something other than what he wants us looking at.

http://nextdraft.com/archives/n20170320/tweet-grinder/

The last time President Trump faced an uncomfortable moment, he tweeted the Obama-phone-hack claim, and all the kings horses and all kings men went chasing after the latest tweet leaving the egg he wanted to crash to do so unattended.

mimosa_humpty

If Mimosa plants met Humpty Dumpty regularly, what would they do? It is a great philosophical question to ask oneself.

Can A Bark Spark The Media River?

How many of you have barked in your lives? If you haven’t ever. Try it now. Bow Wow. Good.

Now imagine one time you came off sounding (to a dog) like you need to get your act together, for you sounded like a sheep trying to talk pig. Not just that, the word spread in the dog community that bark they heard from you on that day was a menace to dogs in general, and decided to hunt you down. Relentlessly. They get all the stray dogs in town, get the domesticated ones to break their leash and come after you. All because that day when you barked, it sounded like a sheep-ish pig snorting.

You could try to leave, but world over, canines are incensed that a person who barked like a pig is allowed to live at all. There are dogs in every part of the world, and no matter where you turn, you are besieged by angry dogs.

They do not know whether you are a person who loves dogs in general or not so much. They have no idea whether you are for or against animal cruelty, or if you care about the environment, whether you are friendly, loyal, caring or warm. From that moment on, there is a canine war against you – for you have been singled out.

You try telling them that you really do things well in life. You run, mew, walk, sing, read, say “Down boy!” with aplomb, walk-like-a-penguin, spend time with your friends, family and other animals, are loyal, forgiving, funny, easy, curious; but that bark that insulted dogs removed every other aspect of your personality.

This to me, is what the mutating self-righteous internet-user base has become. We all watched with horror about how the world went after the dentist who killed Cecil the Lion, we know what happened to Foy.

Was this how the world always was, or have your tolerance levels waned, I asked myself as I sat quietly with a notepad in my hand admiring the view of the lake before me and idly jotting down bits and pieces of conversation I heard as people ran, jogged or walked around the lake. There were so many seemingly innocuous statements I overheard that could cause a storm when taken out of context. Like this one for instance:
It all comes down to what your mother has fed you over the years.

This simple sentence could go viral within minutes in a hundred different dimensions.
Feminist groups going: Why should moms be held responsible for the feeding?
Indignant moms going: The mother always knows best!
Disgruntled fathers going: Hey! We know a thing or two about nutrition too!
Young folks going: Please! Stop. We know how to feed ourselves.

can a bark spark the media river?
can a bark spark the media river?

But what this misses is context, tone of voice, reaction of those involved, an explanation. This is what I overheard from a family of three walking together briskly. That sentence could have been advice doled to the teenaged-son on good nutrition and exercise, or an offhand compliment to the mother in that family, or the father’s own story about how he associated certain memories with what he ate at his mother’s kitchen, or the line from the latest Hindi movie they watched.

It was not always like this. Somehow, with shorter message contents competing for our attention, our attention spans seem to be becoming directly proportional to our tolerance and our ability to assume the best in people.

Maybe next time we stop and make an effort to think that maybe not all is as bad as it sounds. (Well….except in Donald Trump’s case in which case, you may quack before you bark.)