Pseudoscience

Scientists are a serious bunch, especially the hyper-analytical ones. “Where is the data to support your argument?” they’ll say in their aggressive, no nonsense, dismissive, don’t-waste-my-time-I-have-bigger-fish-to-fry style. “Where is the data, huh? Get me the damn data.”

Consider then, for a moment, my fascination with homeopathy. A classical economist would call it irrational behavior. Hindi has a colorful phrase for describing my predicament – pet par laath marna – which literally translates to kick someone in the stomach. A google search is quite enlightening, it translates the phrase into English as “take the bread out of mouth” (http://dict.hinkhoj.com, I am not making this up). You perhaps get the drift by now, it means to do things that would threaten one’s livelihood. I work in the pharmaceutical industry, and have been part of research teams that discover new drugs for various diseases – of the allopathic kind. The kind that is regulated by well-respected regulatory watchdogs such as the FDA. The FDA demands data that requires exorbitantly expensive, large-scale clinical trials with well-defined end points.These are responsible for generating “healthy” livelihoods for many a highly trained professional. Included among its ranks are the vaunted statisticians, whose verdict is accepted as the gospel truth. At stake, after all, are human lives and life is serious business.

Espousing homeopathy in the pharma world, therefore, is career suicide. A smart person, you would think, would steer clear of such controversial topics, but not me. It still remains my favorite topic at the lunch table and has most definitely led to a substantial loss of reputation. You see, there is an unwritten rule in the pharma circles, that talking about homeopathy, or other alternative medicine, is taboo. Not unlike discussing one’s political affiliation or religious beliefs in the workplace. Ain’t cool at all.

Homeopathy has long been dismissed as pseudoscience. The rationalists are pretty certain of their position. “Where is the evidence that it works?”, they ask. I would cite examples from my own experience where I claim to have had remarkable recovery from some niggling ailment. But of course, anecdotal evidence is not science. They also are quick to pull out their trump card (no pun intended) – the placebo effect. How else do you explain getting cured by popping sugar pills? “Show me statistical significance in a double blind clinical trial and I’ll be more than happy to agree with you” they say with condescension. “Never going to happen”, I argue, “sugar pills don’t make business sense. They don’t generate jobs and wealth on the scale that pharma companies do.” And round and round we go in circles. I never learn.

So why do I keep at it? Deep down, I think what rankles me is that air of know-it-all certainty. How can one be so sure? Isn’t it a scientist’s job to constantly question her/his own assumptions? If your goal is to pursue the truth, shouldn’t you test all the possible solutions for yourself before passing the verdict? There is yet another possibility to consider, and that is, perhaps, I just love to argue. “The most savage controversies,” said Bertrand Russell,  “are about those matters as to which there is no good evidence either way”. Homeopathy, one might say, could safely be tucked into that basket of topics with “no good evidence either way”.

Corporate life has its benefits, most importantly in the form of a comforting predictable bump to your balance-sheet tally at the end of every month. There is also the warm-fuzzy camaraderie of being in the company of career nerds. Lunch time is particularly notable. Once you get past the initial polite getting to know each other conversation, you then graduate to the how-was-your-weekend banter. Soon, all you hear is “blah blah blah”, even as you are rudely awakened to the monotony of the lunch menu at the company cafeteria. As you drift in and out of awareness of your surroundings whilst fiddling distractedly with your unimaginative lunch, your hear someone say, “my allergies are back again”, and just like that things brighten up again. “Um, have you considered homeopathy?”

 

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Kitchen Love

I love my kitchen. I love to see it sparkle. I relish the sensation of warm water from the faucet caressing my fingers as it flows down into the spotless sink. I revel in the radiance of the silverware as it adorns the pearly racks. I marvel at the vast array of ingredients and spices of the Indian kitchen, carefully lined in neat rows on squeaky-clean white shelves. Perfection. I love perfection.

Over the years, I have optimized my lifestyle in pursuit of that ideal in my kitchen. It turns out, the best way to accomplish it is to use the kitchen as sparingly as possible. When I mention this in cocktail parties, people often puzzle over it, eyebrows arched incredulously. “Do you guys eat? Everyone has to eat, right?”

A very valid point. Not eating, after all, violates the laws of physics. Fundamentally, we are machines, and machines are powered by energy. At play, are the inviolable laws of thermodynamics. Can’t argue with that.

“So?”, those quizzical faces stare back at me, demanding an explanation, cutting short my reverie into the world of physics. This topic, it appears, is of great interest to many of my brethren. For, who in their right minds, wouldn’t want food to just appear on their plates, while maintaining that delicate equilibrium of perfection in their kitchens?  My description of my kitchen may seem to some as though I have achieved that state of nirvana. Or so I would like to think. As it turns out, even though seemingly improbable, it is achievable. Bear with me as I spell out how I managed to pull this rabbit out of my hat.

Let me start with the simplest course – lunch. We eat lunch at the canteen at work. This part, I admit, may be construed as cheating. However, considering that it would hold true for a majority of my audience consisting of corporate stooges, I will hazard that it is allowable. With regard to dinner, we eat a meal made mostly of raw ingredients – a fruit smoothie, which when spiked with a little whey protein is surprisingly filling. Incredibly healthy too, eh? Eh? And, great for weight loss. Any additional hunger is taken care of through leftovers from breakfast. Or dosa, or noodles. Who knows? That’s how much thought we put into dinner anyway. Breakfast is similarly simple. Our son too, has adjusted to this very well.

This blasé attitude towards food, it seems, has other benefits. Food somehow just lands on our plates. Or so it seems, now that I am forced to think about it. In any case, it just seems to be an non-issue – in our household, anyway. In time, we realized that dinner is not an important meal after all. The turning point, psychologically, for me anyway, arrived when my spiritual guru endorsed our food choices. He suggested that humanity is poisoning itself through overeating, and that two meals a day are plenty for adults over twenty-five years of age. He also suggested consuming more uncooked food. The fruit smoothie suddenly achieved a lot of credibility.

While I have my audience riveted with my legerdemain, Murali usually ambles in with his impeccable sense of timing, to steal my thunder. “Oh, Chinni’s forgotten her way to the kitchen!” he would say insultingly, to some cheap laughs. “She needs google directions to find her way there now”, he would add, encouraged by the reaction. An obvious below-the-belt shot to portray it all as good, old-fashioned shirking of the responsibilities in the kitchen. Fortunately for him, his wife is incredibly good-natured, for what husband would dare to say such a thing without fear of repercussions? That lucky soul, must have inherited good karma from his past births to deserve such an angel of a wife. Good for him.

One of my friends, a homemaker and a maestro of the culinary arts, but nonetheless fed-up with the daily drudgery, took to the smoothie-for-dinner idea. One evening, under auspicious circumstances, she delicately brought up the smoothie as a dinner alternative with her husband, while expounding its health benefits. He immediately endorsed it, unable to argue it’s obvious healthfulness. “Sure, should we have it before, or after dinner?” he asked, rather innocently.

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Parenting

Soon after we got married, Murali and I were fortunate to have both found jobs as post doctoral associates at the University of Minnesota. Despite what they say about the life of postdocs, we thought that the pay wasn’t bad and life was less stressful compared to graduate school. So we spent all our vacation travelling all over the country, camping here and trekking there. We explored every corner of Minneapolis by car, on foot and on our bicycles. We enjoyed the remarkable theater scene the city had to offer. We made every weekend count. For a couple of years we were a self-sufficient duo, partners in braving a new world. Eventually, we decided that we needed to expand our social circle.

Very soon we discovered other desperate postdocs looking for company. And every Friday evening, right after work, we all went straight to the bar. We were an awkward bunch, the whole lot of us. For my part, I usually gulped down alcohol as quickly as possible, hoping it would provide some social grease. By 9 pm we were completely sloshed and stumbled into the 9:30 pm bus, which was our last ride home. This state of affairs continued for while, until we started to feel sick in the gut about the pathetic state of our social life. So, when Murali and I decided to have a child, we were desperate for change. We were also very naïve about our expectation of what was to come. Neither of us had had any significant interaction with anyone below eighteen years of age for the past decade or so that we were at the University. At that time we had idealistic notions of parenting – of nurture and vain ideas of molding someone in our image. To say that we were clueless, therefore, was an understatement.

The pregnancy sucked. Although, the technical details of the changes that were happening to my body did appeal to the geek in me. It had never occurred to me until then that I was really a dormant baby-making machine. And the fact that my highly toned abdomen muscles (ha, ha!) would part to make space for the baby also caught my fancy. The actual experience of it, however, was nine endless months of discomfort. I now realize though, that the pregnancy was a very gentle prelude to what was to come.

The first few months after Neel’s birth were a shock. The endless cycle of feeding and changing diapers had turned me into a zombie automaton. My IQ dropped to under fifty points, and my vocabulary was down to two words, “coo” and “gaa”.  I had also completely lost the ability to have any real conversation with adults. “Why hadn’t anyone warned me?”, I thought. My mom even encouraged me to have a kid, can she be sane?

I have now come to think of those first few months after Neel was born as a warp in the space-time continuum. My space and my time had shrunk to invisible proportions. Occasionally, due to some generous twist of fate, I would find a few hours alone for myself. On such days, my mind would get into a frenzied whir from the pressure of having to make the most of that bonus time. I figured the only reasonable thing to do was to indulge in something utterly pointless and vain. Being self-centered was never so delicious. After the first few months, I realized the true purpose of parenthood. It was actually a test of survival – get through it without tufts of grey hair and your sanity intact, and, I believed, that you get a special prize in the end. So, when Neel was six months old I decided it was time for me to get back to work.

Murali and I take the role of parenting quite seriously, and over time we have developed synergies that have made the process a little more enjoyable. For instance, when it comes to physical energy levels, most of it seems to have gone to Murali’s side of the family. Murali and my mother-in-law indulge Neel in every way possible. They are always on their toes, catering to his every whim and fancy. I, for my part, feel responsible for incorporating balance in his upbringing. My usual reaction, therefore, to most of his demands is usually a firm “No”. In more generous moments, I might say, “How about later today?”. My approach is not one of laziness, but rather driven by the need to inculcate in him valuable life-lessons such as patience and delayed gratification. In his child-like wisdom, I think Neel understands that everything I do is in his best interests. For he shows his approval of my parenting style by following me around everywhere faithfully – he is indubitably mama’s boy.

When it comes to buying toys for Neel, we believe that his interest in them will be directly proportional to our willingness to engage him in playing with them. So usually, we pick whatever appeals to us most. Murali, for instance, bought a remote controlled car for Neel when he was eight months old. Neel allowed Murali to tinker with it for a little while, and then decided that the antenna was unnecessary and broke it. And recently, for his third birthday, a friend of ours gifted Neel a 3D-jigsaw puzzle of the statue of liberty. It was the most awesome thing. So while I tried to solve it, I assigned Neel a lot of exercises with modeling clay to ensure that he would not interfere with my puzzle solving.

Our little Einstein is very curious about the world around him. Some days he asks us a lot of questions, which is tiresome after a long day at work. So, Murali came up with this brilliant plan – a lollipop, which I enthusiastically endorsed.  It keeps his mouth engaged more productively, while we breathe a little easier. A less evolved person might suggest that it is mean, but Murali and I think it is simply ingenious.

When the time came to find a school for him, we did extensive research. We decided that we should do our homework and have a questionnaire ready for the school. I always asked the same question, “Will he have homework?” We enrolled him in the first school that assured us that there would none for a year or two. For who are we kidding, at his age, his homework would be homework for us. Our first priority was to postpone it for as long as possible.

Somewhere around his third birthday, Neel developed a love for reading books. Every day, he would walk up to the bookshelf, pull out all his favorite books and ask us to read them for him. Over time we decided that his books were too primitive for anyone to read, let alone a three year old. So these days we concoct bizarre stories for him, usually peppered with wry humor, to keep ourselves awake through the process. He too has a highly evolved sense of humor. For very often, he rewards us for our efforts with a knowing goofy smile, as though we were co-conspirators in some sinister crime. In such moments, I forget that he is just three years old.

Murali and I never shy away from passing judgments about the poor parenting we see around us everywhere. Why did they have kids if they do not feel inclined to take care of them, we wondered?  I think people notice the ease and grace with which we conduct ourselves as parents, because everyone seems to think that we should have another kid. My natural reaction to that suggestion, usually, is to laugh hysterically. But , really, jokes apart, I know that Neel has the most awesome mommy ever. How do I know that? Ask me how I sleep at night. That’s right, I sleep like a baby.

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Delusion

The mysteries of the human mind have always had a certain primal allure for me. Over the past few years several engagingly written books on the subject have appeared in book stores, and I diligently devoured as many of those as I could lay my hands on. Some useful information emerged from my reading. For instance, there were practical suggestions on decision making, such as when it is best to rely on the rational brain, and in what situations one may be better served by deferring to the instinctive emotional brain. Those suggestions have helped me greatly. Buying toothpaste and soap is a simpler affair these days, as I no longer agonize about which brand to buy. I now allow Murali to make those decisions for me.

I also learnt something else about the human brain that totally messed me up.  It appears that we have a built-in psychological immune system, analogous to the biological immune system, which protects us from psychological distress. And, more often than not, our brain shamelessly resorts to delusion to keep us happy. What is eventually presented to us, neuroscientists suggest, is a highly rose-tinted version of reality. Direct exposure to the cold hard truth about ourselves, it seems, is a recipe for insanity. Or, to put it simply, we most likely have highly inflated opinions of ourselves.

“All truth,” said Arthur Schopenhauer, “passes through three stages: First, it is ridiculed; Second, it is violently opposed; Third, it is accepted as self-evident.” My own reaction to this crafty aspect of the human mind followed a similar three-stage trajectory – denial, reluctant acceptance and finally, embrace.

I consider myself to be intelligent, articulate and funny. The intelligent part was easy to confirm. There are several websites on the internet that offer IQ tests. I tried them all, one after another, until I found one that convinced me that I had an IQ close to that of Einstein’s. That I am articulate is a well acknowledged fact. The hard part however, was reconciling myself with my self-professed funniness. I turned to Murali. “Am I funny?”, I asked him directly. He laughed and said, “You are a geek”. That is ridiculous, I thought. Besides, what sort of an answer is that to my question, is geek the opposite of funny? I am no geek.

But what Murali said seemed to ring true with my subconscious mind. I do love Star trek and Isaac Asimov. My favorite magazine is Technology Review. My heroes are Elon Musk and Ray Kurzweil. I do believe that the singularity is near. I am excited about the availability of the first commercial light-field camera. I find the quote, “A stitch in time would have confused Einstein”, attributed to an anonymous contributor, to be hilarious. Oh, God, I am a geek. My friends in high school always told me I was different, and I thought it was a complement! I went back to Murali a week later and asked him if he really thought I was a geek. I think he sensed that I was a little disturbed, and this time, he said more gently, “You are just differently abled”. He hadn’t lost that sensitivity he was so famous for while he was courting me, which seems to have become dormant since our marriage. But this time, I wasn’t consoled.

Slowly, I also realized that I wasn’t too much of a charmer either. I remember telling one of my colleagues in graduate school that I found awkward pauses in conversation really funny. They made me laugh. What that meant, I realize now, is that my laughs were always poorly timed. They only intensified the awkwardness. This realization, by all counts, should have been devastating. However, it did not feel like such a big deal. It seems that my psychological immune system had kicked in. The Gaussian ‘bell’ curve came to my rescue. I imagined that being a geek put me on the tail end of the curve, outside of two-, or maybe three standard deviations from the mean. It really meant that I was unique and special, not average.

But then, I did have to do something about my lack of social skills. So, from then on I decided to learn from my friends and acquaintances. I closely observed the people I interacted with everyday, trying to understand what made some smoother operators than others. One good friend from high school knew how to connect with people of all ages, right from newborns to octogenarians. I tried to understand her technique. Her conversation usually involved complaints about some aspect of her life, but they were lively accounts that had a disarming charm. Another friend, a true socialite, was always impeccably dressed and perpetually armed with a charismatic smile. She was also a natural at multitasking. She had her eyes everywhere and knew how to keep a million people happy at the same time. And, comfortingly, there was a vast majority that resembled me from my past. They loved the sound of their own voices, convinced that what they had to say was all important.

The conscious switch that I had made from being a talker to the observer, slowly transformed my social equation. In time, I had developed the reputation of being a good listener. No, seriously, people often tell me as much. Although, it occurred to me that they may have said so in a desperate attempt to make small talk with me; hard pressed to find common ground for conversation with a geek. I, however, am an eternal optimist and chose to focus on the positives. Now, wasn’t being a good listener very high up on the list of leadership skills? It is a reputation I can live with. So that is where I am these days, comfortably perched at the intersection of geek and good listener. All is well in my universe again.

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My encounter with a tiger

Well, all right, it wasn’t really an encounter. It happened at the safari, at Bannerghatta National Park. And, at the risk of sounding a tad dramatic, it was a defining moment in my life.

Murali and I love the zoo. Our son too loves animals. He also has obsessive-compulsive disorder, or maybe, he is just a normal three-year old. One fine day, he declares that he wants to go to the zoo. Within forty-eight hours of his declaration, he is consumed with his obsession of visiting the zoo. Usually, he has episodes of sitting up in the middle of the night, mumbling something about tigers eating grass and squirrels. Come weekend, therefore, we drop all our plans and rush to the zoo – to prevent lasting psychological damage to him, and of course, to ourselves.

The trick to enjoying the safari is getting there early. There is a cool breeze and all the animals, their breakfast taken care of by friendly zoo-keepers, prefer to use late mornings to lounge around. Waiting for the safari buses to arrive, I would imagine. The safari route goes along a rugged road winding through beautiful forest, passing by cheetal, sambar, nilgai, blackbuck and gaur. Soon enough you reach an enclosure with double doors, reminiscent of Jurassic park, and a sign welcoming you to the black bear safari. The black bears seem to enjoy rubbing their noses against the cold metal of the bus. They have scary claws and big paws. Once, we saw a bear digging the soil frantically. He is looking for ants, my son announced, completely convinced. The next set of double doors leads to lions. They are truly social animals, and you often get to see the male with its pride. But what always takes our breath away, even after multiple trips to the safari, are the tigers. They are truly magnificent animals. With measured tread and fiery eyes, they never fail to inspire awe.

The tigers at Bannerghatta are accustomed to humans. Several trips to the zoo later, I imagine that they have developed a certain degree of showmanship. How else would you explain this tiger we saw at our last visit, laying on its back with its head tilted backward at an enticing angle, while it stared vacantly into space? Almost like those models on glossy magazines. Or this other tiger that pretended to peck at some leaves on a tree and then strutted towards us in a calculated wide arc, ensuring that everyone in the bus got a good look at him.

The encounter I spoke of earlier happened during our third visit. A handsome male stood about a meter away from our bus. As I looked at him admiringly, he stared right back at me, for what seemed like an eternity. And I knew I was in divine presence. I was now part of an elite club, whose members could boast of having made eye-contact with a tiger.

My encounter with the tiger is now part of family lore. Every time we have someone visiting us, and the idea of going to the zoo gets tossed around, the conversation invariably gravitates towards my moment with the tiger. Unfortunately, it is always Murali that tells the story. And, as you can imagine, in his version, he mercilessly mocks me, while everyone else thinks it is side-splittingly funny. I have to admit it, Murali can be hilarious sometimes, especially if it involves poking fun at me. However, in this instance, I can see his humor for what it really is – poorly veiled jealousy. And I tell him, rather patronizingly, “Don’t worry, Murali. We always spot tigers at Bannerghatta. You too will have your moment one day.”

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Driving on the roads of Bangalore

When I returned to India after ten years in the United States, the idea of driving on the roads of Bangalore gave me nightmares. Silly, I know, considering I was born and raised in India. No wonder then, that it took me two years to get behind the wheel again, in spite of having eight years of driving experience. It has been six months since I started driving, and I must say that the chaos of Bangalore’s roads is growing on me. I might even go so far as to say that I am beginning to enjoy my twenty five kilometer commute to work. The truth is, there is never a dull moment.

Sharing and caring: Driving in India means sharing the roads with a lot of odd characters – rabid mongrels, two-wheelers that drive like rabid mongrels, nonchalant cows, distracted pedestrians, frustrated auto-drivers, buses that stop wherever they please, trucks of all sizes driving at all kinds of speeds, vehicles driving on the wrong side of the road, cars parked in the middle of busy traffic, peddlers at traffic lights, wedding processions, and the occasional donkeys and camels.

The truth about autos: Imagine you are a software programmer and your aging computer crashes on you twice a day. Or, you are a cook, and your kitchen is frustrating small and stuffy. Such is the life of auto drivers. The other day, I had to cross the road. About a meter away was an auto with two passengers, driving uphill on this rather steep road. I had two options – wait for it to cross, or just go ahead. I decided to go ahead. There was even enough time for me to cross the road again if I wished to, before the auto would get past me. He had such poor pick-up, that for a moment I thought he was moving backwards. Now imagine you were an auto-driver. You spent most of your day on the roads, driving. And, even a bicyclist could pass you with just a little bit of effort. What would it do to you? The attitude you get from them, therefore, is totally justified. My suggestion – get rid of autos. They are breeding a generation of eternally frustrated men.

If you ever get into a scrape with an auto-driver your safest bet is to drive the hell out of there. If that does not work, yell at him at the top of your lungs before his mafia gathers around. Give him all the cash you have in your wallet and then drive the hell out of there. Remember, whatever your course of action, you have only one advantage – the superior pick-up of your vehicle against his.

Pedestrians: Insects have mosaic vision. It means that they can detect motion better than they can discern outlines of objects. Ditto with the pedestrians of Bangalore. The only way to get their attention is to drive like a maniac, at the risk of mowing them down. Or, you wait patiently and give them way, while some other motor vehicle decides to mow them down in the meantime. Tough choices like these are a daily reality on Indian roads. The pedestrians, meanwhile, are an enlightened lot. They live in the moment, unafraid of death.

Bus drivers: Once I saw a bus driver navigate a really difficult turn, while autos, two-wheelers and everything else on the road was dangerously closing in on him from all directions. In my frustration, I imagined an interminable traffic jam, wondering if I was going to make it to work that day. Amazingly, there was no jam. In what seemed like a violation of the laws of physics, he cleared the intersection in record time. What extraordinary skill. My driving instructor told me that according to Indian law, a bus driver, if responsible for a fatality, can resume driving after a month. However, if the accident results merely in injuries, it is a nuisance for the driver as he cannot drive again until the case against him is cleared in court. True or not, the message is clear – stay out of their way!

The divider straddlers: There is this breed of car drivers that stubbornly drive on the dividers between the lanes. Do they think that it is there for them to drive on? Or perhaps, they are just indecisive. “Should I go on the rightmost lane or the middle one? Maybe I will drive on both”. They are also completely oblivious to the traffic on the road. So there you are, desperately honking, hoping to get past, but no!

To honk or not to honk: Two-wheeler drivers use their horn as a proxy for the brake, especially when they have to go around corners in residential areas. Their driving philosophy runs like this: why slow down and unnecessarily wear down our brake-pads when a nice honk will do the job? It also extends to these other miscellaneous points – never bother to look before changing lanes; if you are a car driver, then hanging around in your blind-spot for several minutes at a time is our birthright; your left turn and right turn signals are of no concern to us, we just ignore them. And finally, before you pointless argue with us – Yes! We are completely suicidal.

Good offense is your best defense: When I started driving, I was a nervous wreck. The toughest part was anticipating the actions of erratic two-wheeler drivers. I cursed and I plodded along. Slowly, I learnt a few tricks. And these days, the morning commute is an adrenaline rush. I arrive at work awake and alert, ready to take on the day. So what is my secret to enjoying driving in Bangalore? If you are brainwashed with western ideas of defensive driving, here is what I have to say – ha, ha, good one. Enjoy watching people drive past you. Drive aggressively instead, and watch driving lanes magically open up for you. So, here is the mantra – drive aggressive and drive safe. Until, of course, the traffic policeman decides to slap fines on you.

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