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Thursday, January 17, 2008

On Celebrity Break-Ups

Celebrity marriages are celebrity marriages. But this is special: Eddie Murphy & Tracey Edmonds who tied the knot on a island just two weeks back are busy untying it. Two weeks is by any standards a honeymoon phase. You can't even have gotten over your sexual appetite before you say 'enough' (Well, its Murphy's fifth, so I guess he's seen enough). What I find amusing about these break-ups are the sugar sprinkled words they use: 'irreconcilable differences', 'decided to remain friends', 'with admiration for one another'. To suppress bitterness & to ooze magnanimity, you need PR guys.

Monday, January 14, 2008

On Jallikattu

Jallikattu, a festival that coincides with Tamil new year (today), which involves taming a bull that runs wild through the narrow streets of villages filled with men who've satiated themselves with cheap liquor has been temporarily suspended by the supreme court citing safety (and other pragmatic reasons) and the state government with all its intentions of being the vanguard of a supreme culture (and in the banner of continuing the tradition) has filed a petition to review the situation.

There was a time, when the young woman of the house didn't have much say as to her choice of partner, and the father would deem a young man capable of taming a wild bull fit for his daughter. This is not a far fetched idea as there weren't many other means of evaluating the life-earning skills of a man. It wasn't just brute force (to discipline the animal), but the process also involved timing (when to get hold of the bull, when to let go of it), positioning (attack from a vantage point), sense of safety (how well/less bruised he is once done), reflex (avoid those sharp horns & U-turns) and maturity (an crude analysis of the bull's thought process and how best it can be contained in the running field). So, if someone is successful at getting the animal to its knees, by a very rough estimate, he is considered capable of wading his family through tough times - a mark of physical & mental strength.

But what does all of this have to do today? In an age of tractors, fertilizers and electric pumps and in a time when grooms are chosen based on their bank balances, why bother running after an intoxicated bull whose tail has been adorned with fire crackers? Oh yes! Its called 'our mighty culture & tradition'. I saw this guy on TV who has shaved his head as a mark of protest for not allowing him to display his valour. He said that if the supreme court doesn't give a favorable response, he'll shave his head again. Now, in all probability, he'll remain a healthy bachelor!

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Dreaming of a Painless Future

V.S.Ramachandran in his lucid and accessible book 'Phantoms in the Brain' writes:
As with most nature/nurture debates, asking which is the more important variable is meaningless - despite extravagant claims to the contrary in the IQ literature. (Indeed, the question is no more meaningful than asking whether the wetness of water results mainly from the hydrogen molecules or from the oxygen molecules that constitute H2O!). But the good news is that by doing the right kinds of experiments, you can begin to tease them apart, investigate how they interact and eventually help develop new treatments for phantom pain. It seems extraordinary even to contemplate the possibility that you could use a visual illusion to eliminate pain, but bear in mind that pain itself is an illusion - constructed entirely in your brain like any other sensory experience. Using one illusion to erase another doesn't seem very surprising after all.
Phantom limbs, for those who don't know what it is, are imaginary limbs that continue to exist in the mind in spite of a specific limb being amputated. Strangely, some of those who have phantom limbs feel extra-ordinary physical pain in those limbs. Sounds crazy from a common sense perspective to realize that someone who doesn't have an arm is boggled down by unimaginable pain in that arm. As neuroscience has put the spotlight on, the pain is very real and V.S.Ramachandran, a leading neuroscientist has developed a gimmick of a solution which involves a mirror through which the patient can see his/her phantom limb to get rid of it and eventually the pain born out of it.

I didn't know until I read this book that physical pain is an illusion constructed in the brain. I've read before that there are no pain receptors in the brain (which is why those who contemplate suicide try to shoot themselves in their brains). But this fact makes sense from an evolutionary vantage point - pain is the brain's way of instructing the animal: guard your body & keep it safe so that you remain fit enough to pass on your genes. Just for a crazy split-second, I thought: if the wiring in your brain is screwed up where you don't feel pain anymore, wouldn't that be cool?

The author mentions that in some cultures women don't experience any pain during labour. With these women as inspiration, you rewire your circuit such that the pain receptors are out of the brain's normal functioning (I don't think the medical technology is yet there, but let me just hypothesize). You're a cop operating on a risky route; you bust gang and in the process you get shot on your shoulders. You don't feel any pain but you can see blood gushing out of you. With a cool head, you wrap a piece of cloth or get whatever first-aid possible. Call an ambulance, explain your situation and give them your location. Of course, there's a lot of exaggeration involved in that scenario, but I hope the point is clear.

And then I got back from my reverie. My knowledge of physiology, brain's response to a biological crisis & human immunity is just damn flimsy. But wishful thinking never hurt anyone.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

You, I & Bad Journalism

From a fine piece by a Samanth Subramanian for The New Republic
The truth, of course, is that in India, and in every other large nation in the world, there can be found many shades of gray between the black of one statement and the white of its exact opposite. The grays aren't hard to find, but spotting them might involve the terrific discomfort of occasionally taking off those designer sunglasses and squinting, for a while, into the sun.
Every day a reporter talks rapidly on a very pressing issue as if it might change the economic/political/social landscape of the country immediately. Once the fake storm dies, there is no follow-up. As the writer points out, there are pieces daily that flood our news papers and magazines that fail to offer a shred of insight. But blaming the media doesn't take us anywhere. They are just treading a time-tested model: like the movies, give them something hot for now. When the news cools down, jump on to the next hot thing. Journalism in India, like in most other places has become a act of throwing bone to the dog. Is the dog really hungry? Is it selective in its intake? Does it avoid junk food?

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Fair & Hard

1) One of the letters to the 'The Hindu' states that Bucknor should have been awarded the man of the match as he played better than players from both the teams. Funny & sad. But isn't it already late when it comes to reaping the fruits of technology to ensure fairness in a game? How long does the ICC plan to burden the shoulders of umpires? Occasional errors are acceptable; but match-swinging series of decisions result in frustration & loss of morale for a team.

2) No doubt that the Australian team is better than the second best team by miles. By the end of the fifth day of the second test match, they lost something invaluable which the West Indies team of the late 70s still enjoy - respect. It's understandable when a batsman holds his ground in case of a negligible deflection. Michael Clarke CUT the ball towards slips and he stood there for the umpire's decision. Again, Clarke would have been 100% damn confident when he took that half-volley catch to dismiss Ganguly. To put the spotlight on a player like Michael Clarke, you need some one like Steve Waugh. Instead by defending him, Ponting has sunk low.

3) Walking. I believe that a batsman is not morally compelled to walk towards pavilion if he knows that he's out. Because there are a number of times when an umpire wrongfully adjudges and the batsman anyway has to walk out and I perceive this as a sort of 'moral compensation'. When Symonds decided to stay, his team was in doldrums and it was in good spirit that he hanged on to bail out his team. Obviously, this can't be a gentleman's game anymore and though we were colonized by the English people, the only thing that's English about today's cricket is 'Tea Break' at the end of second session.

4) Racism is a subjective issue. How does calling one a monkey inferior and hurting that abusing him or his family with as many unprintable four-letter words? Symonds being an aboriginal of Australia with his thick lips and wheatish complexion can take the remarks to be accusatory of his race. But was it Harbhajan's intention? Did Harbhajan actually try to insult Symond's race or was he trying to rebut remarks from another Australian player? Was it a planned verbal assualt or a mere spur-of-the-moment retaliation? Of course, in a different world, the word 'monkey' may have emotionally destabilized Symonds and make him perform lesser than his abilities.

5) I very strongly feel that batsmen should be allowed to express their disapproval when they're wrongfully given out. They're human beings and when umpires are allowed to make incorrect decisions, the human being on the other side should be allowed to vent his disappointment. Umpires are not gods and the ICC is still wallowing in a 19th century reverence imparted on these guys. With the increasing applications of technology, we can have one umpire to call no-balls and the rest can be taken care by the third umpire. And the next generation will replace him with a robot.

6) In a world crying for more 20-20, this test match proves how wonderful it is to watch a finely carved test century. If we're to lose this format, the oncoming generations will never know the taste of gourmet only fast-food.