Saturday, May 25, 2013

If Childhood Could Not Influence You

I am going to take you through a very unfamiliar ride. You will have to trust me completely and prepare to be thrown around. The idea I'm about to give is going to shake your fundamental beliefs and core values. And that is invariable owing to the nature of it. So, if you have your seat belts on.

Let's start with a complicated question.
How much of her skin can a woman expose?

You might have an answer to that question. But that is irrelevant to me. I'm asking you to think of how many answers that question can have.

Men and women will have different answers. Those answers will vary from country to country, region to region, culture to culture. And within men or women, the young and the old will have different answers.

No, we are not here to resolve human morality. We are here to observe. Why do different people have radically different ideas about something as simple as clothing?

[Think for a minute]

I am going to propose an answer very soon. Before that, let's explore one more question.

What do you eat? Fruits and vegetables? And milk? And eggs? And meat?
Why do people have preference for different food based on where we get it from?

[Think for another minute]

Here is the answer.

Your childhood.

Not as ground-breaking as you thought? Think again.
All your biases, all the unconscious decisions you make, your intuition, and emotion -  everything is a learned response. Your brain which was more or less like dough when you were born has been getting remodelled and shaped ever since.

And anything that you do, is only an output of all the existing logic gates the stimulus has to pass through.

You have now begun to question. You are now claiming that all your decisions are built upon carefully weighed out reason.

Ah, now you realised the folly of that argument too. Even the way you reason depends upon how you have learned to reason, when a child.

Any statement that you make now is a product of the neurobiological circuits already in place in your brain. There is no way you can escape the clutches of your past.

Or, wait, is there?

Is there a way by which you can get rid of all the unconscious influences on you and think with purest reason?

There is, albeit a difficult one. All you have to do is revisit all the assumptions that you have made in your life. Go back and recheck each and every "fact" that has been thrust upon you when your guards were down. Meet the defences of your own mind with the spearhead of question. Persevere in eliminating all those contaminant ideas that have occupied your brain/mind without a reason. Challenge all existing presumptions. Keep questioning the integrity of every single thought that comes to your mind.

"Have I thought about the validity of this thought, or is it seeming naturally true for me?"

If the answer is the latter, you need to think, examine, dissect that thought. Make it answerable to all the assumptions it thrives on. Do not let it survive if it does not have strong pillars of undeniable logic supporting it.

Keep doing this for a while.

"Why do I feel my country is better than any other?"
"Why do I feel my culture is better than any other?"
"Why do I feel passionate about this particular job?"
"Why do I have faith in this?"

Keep questioning.

Slowly, you'll evolve into a fully grown man.

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Wednesday, May 22, 2013

A Lot Can Happen Over Coffee

Yesterday, I met two scientists. One is a neuroscientist about to join Yale, the other, her husband, an immunologist in NY.

And they changed my perception about how I should pursue my higher studies after MBBS.

No, the meeting wasn't a coincidence. I'd never be in CCD on any given day unless someone invited me over there. But the events that led to it, was undoubtedly a long chain of logical but random choices (even involving a confessions page in facebook).

So, what was so earth-shattering about this meeting that my career plan has to undergo a complete overhaul?


Here's a slightly modified transcript of the conversation:
(KI = the neuroscientist, AG = the immunologist, ASD = me, SSB = my friend)

KI: So, how are you liking MMC?

ASD: To answer that, I'd have to go back in history. Till about the end of grade 10, I was going to be a Professor of Mathematics. Because back then, I liked and understood the subject really well. But at the end of grade 10, I decided that I had to do something relevant and of importance to the world (not that Mathematics is pointless). I decided I'd do MBBS. And after MBBS, I'd choose IAS and enter social service; or do DM in Neurology, so that I'd be doing some research in brain and cognitive sciences later on.

And then, at the end of grade 12, I had a real chance to pursue Computer Science and Mathematics. But then I stick to my ill-logic of practical importance, and choose to satisfy my curiosities in CS and math as a hobby while I become a doctor.

And what makes me confident about this all encompassing polymath style approach, is the over-confidence that my study technique lends me. I believe that even in a fact-oriented subject like Medicine, when you go deeper with your understanding of the concepts (sometimes hypothesising on things) you'll have made facts intuitive, thus avoiding the need to memorize them, and at the same time making you very good at the subject. That's why I started and I'm just waiting for the results.

So, in short, it doesn't matter to me, the college. I like it, because I'm in it.

AG: So, you thinking of developing a brain-machine interface, or the like? You know what, the research on all those is going full swing right now, and probably by the time you reach there, it'd all be over. They're mapping out all the connections in the brain, and the US government has given nod to a $300 mn bill already for the 'connectome' project.

ASD: Okay! But that's so going to fail.

AG & KI: If you look at it, it's much like the human genome project. They're just trying to figure out the connections as perfectly as possible, and once we have it, possibly we'll end up with a whole lot of applications of it. You know how the CNS pharmacology is not based on our knowledge of the brain, but on pure luck.

ASD: Okay! I meant it wasn't going to solve consciousness or intelligence or anything. For health, of course, yeah. So, tell me your stories.

KI: I did my MBBS starting in 1999, while AG started in 1996. Towards the end of it, I realized that writing an entrance examination after graduating, and then getting into post graduation rate race, was so not going to happen for me. But, I also knew that to get into research positions abroad or in India, I needed to have something in my c.v. So, I went to the National Centre for Biological Sciences in Bangalore during my internship and stayed there for 3 months, doing their work, closely learning how the entire system works. And I convinced the director there of my commitment to do science, that they wrote a recommendation letter for me.

And with that I could join a neuroscience research team. In essence, when you apply to universities, they ask you what you have already done, because they need some way to separate the grain from the chaff. They need to find out who is really committed to doing this, who is capable of doing this, and who knows what they're going to do.

But that's not an excuse to neglecting your academic performance in college. They really aren't waiting for a guy who took 5 years longer to finish medical school just because he was interested in doing much cooler things. They want someone who is good at whatever he does.

And, you gotta compartmentalize your academic studies from the things that you learn for your research interest. Because they could well be at odds with each other.

And then +swathi sb comes in after finding her lost scooter key.

SSB: Sorry I'm late. I know you're talking about career. I wanted to do something in public health, for the poor who are suffering. So, does this all apply for me?

AG: Well, we aren't pretty confident about that sector, and there are people who're better qualified to answer that. But still, there are a lot of ways you could help the community. You needn't necessarily be working at a rural setting, because that'd only make you a practising doctor in rural areas. You could gain experience while working as the doctor for NGOs that operate in rural areas. That'd fetch you insights into how things work or doesn't work there. Then maybe you can use it to do some work from the cities.

SSB: Okay. Forget about me, continue your story?

KI: Ha, so I did some work on astrocytes, the glial cells. Now, to do my post-doctoral work I'm joining Yale Medical School.

ASD: Wow! The Yale?

AG: Yes, the Yale. Like I'm joining Sinai for getting some clinical practice.

ASD: Okay, you haven't told us your story.

AG: Ah, I finished MBBS, like she already told you and then I went to Bombay to stay with my mother. While doing MBBS, I had done some studies in P&SM, and with only that experience I went to the nearby Tata Hospital. And I didn't know whom to meet there. So, I went to the Director directly, and told him "Sir, I'm a medical graduate. I am interested in doing research." And he was amused. He talked with me for a while. And then he wrote a note.

I took that note to the lady it was addressed to. And she was an immunologist. They were working on genetics and stem cell therapy. And I worked with them. And I was among the team which discovered a therapy for ADA deficiency, which was also first of its kind.

ASD: That is the example for stem cell therapy in biochemistry.

AG: Yeah, so you know how important that was. And then I was thinking of doing some stuff, when I stumbled upon the much cooler stuff that one of my colleagues were doing there. He was trying to make changes in dendritic cells that'd enable them to better identify cancer cells. And then the T-cells would be able to identify them and kill them naturally. So, I'm working on it, now.

ASD: So, what progress are you making on it?

AG: In research, you usually do not make any perceivable progress in a short term. That's, maybe, one disadvantage of it. But you shouldn't really get bogged down by that. You will build on someone's work, and then someone else will build on your work, and maybe credit you. That's how progress is made.
And if you ask us whether we've made the right choices, we are not old enough to say so, but so far so good.


Thinking of it, my idea of doing a DM in Neurology is stupid, when all that I want to do was research on the brain. The most natural thing for me to do is, after MBBS, to join some institute where they do some actual research on the brain.

And so is it going to be.

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Monday, May 13, 2013

Two Ways to Go Crazy

Yesterday was a Sunday entirely different from the hundred before it. I did two things.

8 hours of questions and answers (and excellent guesses) with my partner - Shruti parimoo
General Quiz #1: At NIE, Mysore. We reached about an hour early and talked about neuroplasticity, and the like. Then, the first round started. There were about 14 teams and about 24 questions. Some of them:

What does the following cartoon represent? (Of course it wasn't this easy in the actual event)

feet-to-meters cartoon no. 1

Whose old logo is this?
Cricket question.
"I would say the difference between the two side is the fielding. England are an all-round good fielding side. I do believe that India have few...3 or 4 very good fielders and ... X"
Fill X.

Which phrase in English owes its origin to the fact that density of water at 0 degree Celsius is 0.93 g/cu cm and that of water at 4 degree Celsius is 1 g/cu cm?

And, we didn't get selected for the second round.
But we watched it along with very active others.

Dry round - a lot of questions based on "pounce and bounce" format (That is, after the question is read out, every team has a chance to write the answer and "pounce" on it, getting +10 for correct and -5 for wrong; and then teams who haven't pounced will get the questions in infinite bounce format)
List it - to list all the 13 individual olympic medal winners of India, all the 9 movies of Ranbir Kapoor, and all the Shiva temples based on 5 elements.
Short Visual Connect - A set of images on the screen, find what connects them.
Long Visual Connect - A long set of images coming one by one, find what connects them at the earliest. This one was about Raghu Ram

Having been only to quizzes where the quizmaster rein and the participants open their mouth only to answer or "pass" this first quiz in two years was mind-blowing, not blowing, mind-expanding for me. I'd never thought quizzes could be fun too (and not just exciting)

And then General Quiz #2 at SJCE Mysore
Here's where I got really surprised. Not just that all the teams who participated in the previous quiz was here, one of the QMs at the previous quiz was a participant, and one of the participants there was the QM here.
For now, this is the longest (5 hours) and the most interesting (unlimited fun) quiz I've ever been to.

Questions have all been uploaded to slideshare here.
The preliminary round was much easier (in terms of the number of questions we could answer). My personal favourite would be:

What is this? :D (See how the big circles are linked)

And all the 9 teams participated in the second round (which turned out to be a wise decision, because the teams left out would have to watch from outside the rest of the quiz)
In the second part, I started with a -5 for pouncing. I said "simple majority" where it should have been "The common parlance for the minimum number of members of a deliberative assembly (a body that uses parliamentary procedure, such as a legislature) necessary to conduct the business of that group and its requirement is protection against totally unrepresentative action in the name of the body by an unduly small number of persons"

And a lot of questions later, including one that looked very similar to this tricky graph question I found from Quora, the Sheldon Cooper round started.
We had to give the Latin phrases for the descriptions. And Shruti absolutely rocked.
So did she in the round about books, and also the Southpark round.
The LVC about Cricket stumped us, but those about buildings were easily solvable.

And then it was late night, they had already began singing songs at Jayciana outside. So it was time to find out the winner, and as there was a tie between KP's team and the other awesome team. It couldn't be resolved even after a few questions, so everyone left in a jovial mood.

But here is a way to conduct quizzes that I've never experienced before. Find excellent questions. Pose them. And let everyone have fun. Get up from the seat. Argue with the QM. Argue with other teams. Go touch the projected image, just to see if the texture gives any clue. Look for clues in all the words spoken by each member in the hall. And successfully spend a lot of time into something that's well worth it.

And, Rock Music
If I had returned to hostel straight away, it would have been an above average Sunday, but not an exceptional one.
There was some kind of musical show to be expected later in the night. So I stayed back to join my friends. And after the fashion show, beauty pageant, results of previous events, etcetera, it started. A sexy male voice attracting crowd like shit does to flies. +Akshaya Fadnis and I climbed inside the VIP section with the first song. And within minutes we were right next to the stage. And the crowd was going crazy. The music would awaken even the comatose. Hands would not agree to stay down. And the rhythm shook the whole body.

After being completely lost in that experience, I spoke: "Buddha calls it meditation, we call it rock music"

Now, that tranquillity was thanks to Underground Authority.

And that was a Sunday truly worth its name - Sunday. :P

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Sunday, May 12, 2013

Things You SHOULD Learn from M K Gandhi

I woke up today morning reading this on Quora: What are the biggest mistakes of Mahatma Gandhi?

The answer tells that the British were comfortable with Gandhi heading India, and that complete non-violence was probably a big mistake. Two things.

  1. Non-violence works in international affairs. Especially after the second world war.
    This must be self evident. Today's wars cannot be won with weapons. It is won only through diplomacy.
  2. Non-violence works even better in interpersonal affairs.
    This goes without saying. Getting angry and not cooperating with nasty people is how we've learned to do it. But that is violent. A better way to do it would be by helping the nasty earnestly, and sternly but politely making them a request to stop being nasty.
But that's not what surprised me. When someone pointed out in the comments that Gandhi had also told that non-violence is better than cowardice, the answerer said: "Well this shows that he was totally confused".

People, it's not just fine to change your convictions with time, it is sometimes necessary to do so.

That is one great lesson from Gandhi that not many have heard of or practise. He conducts experiments with his life. And he corrects himself when he's proven wrong. Like his U turn on milk, he just needs plenty of reasons.

We form most of our convictions in childhood. The same childhood when we are not even eligible to vote. And amusingly, we carry these convictions to our adult life, unquestioned. Think of it. Would it be clever to make the same choices in food, clothing, dreams, hobbies, and lifestyle as those you made when you were much younger and more stupid?

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