Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The Perils of Mental Obesity

There is our environment. There is  information . And then there is us, with our brains, trying to interpret and make sense of it all.

Back in 1844, prior to the US Presidential elections, the Democrats picked a Senator Wright as their Vice Presidential nominee, and used the telegraph to inform and ask his consent. He instantly declined. (Today, they hide behind the stage, and emerge smiling to accept the nomination).  No one believed then in instant telegraphic communication, and the Democrats sent an entire committee down by train to confirm the Senator's response, which was exactly the same as before.  Naturally, and impressed with this instant  response, medical and scientific people then started wondering about whether this telegraph model might be applied to how our nerves function.

Folks like Helmholtz did very basic experiments to ascertain the speed of our thoughts; that is, something happening and a human being responding by sensing it. And found that responses happened in like a quarter of a second. Other folks got different results. Till better diagnostic technology arrived and it turned out that our nerves operate at many different speeds. It is about the complexity of wiring all the different parts of our bodies together. 

And unlike the telegraph, which might transmit the vilest of abuse with the same speed as the most adulatory message,  scientists discovered that our nerve cells also do a bit of learning if they are bombarded by repeated visuals, and actually reduce perception time. Despite the fact that messages must reach the concerned part of the brain, which must respond, before we see a result .  So along with smart nerve cells, it is also about wide roads through which impulse info  may travel.

In 1854,   William Thomson showed that the wider a telegraph wire, the faster its signal and the farther the signal could travel.

That also applies  to human nerves. The fattest nerve paths in the brain, are 200 times thicker than the thinnest ones.  And given the quarter of a million miles of nerve wiring in our brains, such a widening of paths, might lead , according to a Princeton Neuroscientist, Sam Wang,  to a head so big, you wouldnt fit it in a doorway, and it would consume a huge amount of energy.

So why do I go on about human information pathways ?

It has occurred to me that over the last half of the 20th century and well into this one (defining the period of my existence) , there has been a order of magnitude change ,  in the amount of extraneous information that we receive for processing, and the rate at which it has changed over the years. Our entire physical wellbeing must be related to having an optimum designed system to handle that.

Long time ago, our sources of information were books, radio, meeting people, cinema, performing arts , music , cultural events. There was time to observe , learn, and act.

End of last century, was  like an avalanche or flood of information systems, whether they came through the Net, the phones, the numerous TV channels or the proliferating tabloid newspapers  with hardly any self censoring.  This coincided with huge migrations into cities, unorganized  lifestyles, and dwindling resources. Clearly, our brains and nerve pathways have tried to evolve in all this onslaught.

And so it is reasonable to assume that we are now a people, who are bombarded with information , good and bad,  and each one's ability, to sift through this, learn and process it,  decides how we respond. 

Those who perceive this info as a massive onslaught, will virtually try and force it all in, trying to, as if,  widen the neuronal pathways, in a brain with limited space and a different style of instrinsic information management.

Those whose brains have done the learning over a large period of time, have had time to sift, accept and discard learnings.

But for those who have faced a flood and tried to assimilate it all in a hurry, following the rule of use it or lose it,  the effort would possibly result in an " atrophy of thought "  causing  what , one might possibly call,  Mental Obesity.  An uncontrolled stuffing  of information  in an area meant for less, resluting in overflows, tearing and item destruction.  A virtual  massive widening of wire paths in the brain leading to impaired information processing.

 Just like a glutton stuffing himself year after year, till the heart, the lungs, the liver, the stomach the intestines and pancreas  insist on early retirement in the face of the avalanche of food intake.

Is this what is happening today  amidst folks who exhibit impaired thinking processes and  knee jerk reactions instead of thoughts, and take lives of others ?  Don't like someone's response, throw acid on her face ;  if someone belongs to the wrong gender,  abuse , and even kill;  something not agreeable,  choose extremes  like suicide;  attracted by something, acquire it by hook or by crook, and to hell with everyone and everything else;  get insulted by someone honking from behind, get out of the car and shoot ......   Why do we hear so frequently about women throwing themselves from multistoreyed buildings, sometimes along with children ; what extreme thinking makes them act so ?

There is a school of thought that says all this was happening before. And that we are hearing these things today because of television and real time reporting.

To some extent, yes.  We are not a nation of Saints.  There will always be imbalances, causing crimes in society.   What has changed is the timing.  Something that is disturbing the processing of thought,  caused by the information tornado happening in a brain, not used to handling it all.  It has caused a blurring of the borders between good and evil, with loss of all clarity of thought.

Can we evolve to handle all this avalanche of information ?  I don't know.  The brain prides itself on its property of neural plasticity; the ability of each of our senses to try and fill in for the other, to some extent, when required in dire circumstances, achieving this by self-training the nerve cells and pathways.

But what can one expect when the pathways are strewn with potholes of misdirected information arriving in uncontrolled torrents ? 

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Review of "Never Mind Yaar" by K. Mathur

I received this book for review under the Blogadda Bookreviews program. Published by Southpac Publishers, Wellington, New Zealand, in 2012,  by K Mathur, the Mumbai born author, who lives there.

A  fairly quick read of 220 pages , this edition of the book, omits a section of Indian/Mumbai  phrases (with meanings),  which would ordinarily enlighten the foreign reader.

The story revolves around  college life in Mumbai, and the experiences of 3 girls, Shalini, Binaifer, and Louella who have just joined college. The three belong to very different backgrounds. Bianifer is a Parsi who lives in Grant Road, a southern suburb of Mumbai. Louella, a Christian , whose parents moved to Mumbai from Goa lives in Bandra , a very popular western suburb. Shalini, belongs to a typical class of folks, who are oblivious of public transport, and move around in chauffeured splendor.  It is also the story of their very idealistic classmate called Bhagu, who is attracted equally, by Shalini, and public service.  Dotted across the narrative are typical vignettes of college life in India; hanging out at the Canteen, debating clubs, old respected profs, and so on.

The narrative flows beautifully , describing the friendship of the 3 girls, with some special sections outlining the history of Parsis and Christians  and their arrival in Mumbai . Shalini belongs to a very well off, rich family from Rajasthan , where the matriarch grandma still rules by remote control, while the parents are professionals trained and working in Mumbai .  How Bhagu and Shalini get involved, their individual ambitions and interests causing  occasional separations, and their individual ways of handling these. How Shalini must straddle the two different worlds  at home and at college, and Bhagu's trial by fire as he takes on the Canteen mafia in the initial stages.  A story about families that have several servants and retainers, and how, sometimes,  they take security for granted, when it isn't.

 But as someone , who went to college in Mumbai, and whose children also did the same, I had some queries.  Binaifer Desai is supposed to live in a 2 bedroom "cottage" in Grant Road.  Perhaps this is just literary licence, since one doesn't see those in Grant Road.  It isn't clear where the college is situated, but talk of isolated lanes behind the college (in the evenings at 7 ) etc tend to point to something similar to St Xaviers.  With such a detailed profiling of the girls,  it puzzles me as to why Bhagu manages to traipse through the narrative without a last name.

The reference to a new popular peoples' party which Bhagu  joins does bring to mind actual political happenings in 2012 in India.  So does the reference to the Mumbai bomb blasts and the riots and these are expertly woven into the narrative.

What I find missing is a sense of Maharashtrian ethos, which is so much a part of Mumbai. So many Marathi speaking kids attend colleges in Mumbai, including the very hi-fi ones. So many college canteens have traditional local food which is greatly patronized by the students. There is an entire life that happens in suburban trains and public transport, where students  mix seamlessly and make friends .   If the idea was to give an impression of college life in Mumbai, there is something clearly missing. 

Although, this is a work of fiction,  the author does provide a background of various communities and their history in Mumbai. It would have been useful, if there was reference to Mumbai's problem of massive immigration from internal regions, seeking of jobs, the inability to handle a differently standardized life, the demonic living conditions, the helplessness , the formation of slums and gundas, and the conditions that make an erstwhile chauffeur suddenly give in to his baser instincts when it all becomes too much to mentally handle.

An expertly woven story, well written,  but sometimes, it is not the Mumbai I know.  

Having said that,  it is a story you enjoy, particularly the ending. Which one shall not reveal.

A  3.5/5 ....

This review is a part of the biggest Book Review Program for Indian Bloggers. Participate now to get free books!

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Mars Chalo !

Somewhere in August, one read about 8000 Indians registering to go to Mars in 2023. Then on September 10, India became the second ranking country, in the list of top ten, with 12,000 extra folks signing up.

And while it boggles the mind as to why this sudden urge to flee the motherland, the nation tends to celebrate the fact  that with a total signup of 20,000 , we beat   China (13,176), Brazil (10,289), Britain (8,497), Canada (8,241), Russia (8,197), Mexico (7,464), Philippines (4,365) and Spain (3,722) while getting there.

Turns out, that  by 2015, they will select six to ten teams of four people each, for a seven year intensive training, before becoming the first folks to step on to Mars, in 2023.

Word is out, that a  committee appointed by the Indian powers that be , will sift through the Indian applicants , and shortlist folks for the final selection by the Mars One organization that is planning the whole thing.

Reliable sources indicate an internal tussle happening  in the capital, between various entities, to place their people on the selection committee. Three retired supreme court judges, the leaders of the two main parties in Parliament, Chairman, minorities commission, Chairperson, National Commission for Women,  Minister for Coal and Mining, Minister for Telecommunications (7G), Minister for Science, Technology and IT,  Minister for Sports,  have been appointed.

It is learnt that the BCCI is pushing for its own representative there , (in place of Minister of Sports) , since it has plans for the Inter Galactic (IG) Cricket League, to be played on Olympus Mons on Mars.  (80 kilometres across  , with a 3 kilometre drop at the periphery.  Being dropped from the team may take on a new meaning on Mars.) The BCCI , characteristically, is calling it the Indira Gandhi (IG) Cricket League, which makes it an entirely new ballgame on a significantly fixed pitch.

Water has been discovered under the Martian soil, being 5 % by weight at the Martian Equator and 60% by weight at the Arctic poles. It seems iron oxide and silicon oxide are also plentiful in Martian soil, pointing to a future where glass may be manufactured on Mars, and agriculture may be possible. Our unimpeachable sources indicate that there are several dummy candidates put up by leading mining companies, to get licences to mine on mars. Monsanto, which was hitherto lying low after the hue and cry on BT Brinjals and cotton, has again renewed its presence where it counts, realizing that once water is available on Mars, they need to be there to harvest BT crops.

The Martian atmosphere has absolutely no or very little ozone, since it is suspected to have disappeared into space,  making it very difficult for those with an obsession for fair skin  to win vis-a-vis the dangerous UV rays. We can now confirm that certain companies  have renewed their efforts to make an SPF 200 cream, to be used by ladies who have been given a Fair Chance on Mars. Whether they turn out to be Lovely and Beautiful remains to be seen. Fashion designers have withdrawn in a huff after finding out that a great weather day at the Martian equator was like a cold day in Norway, and their complicated outfits with high cuts, deep cuts  and displays of skin would not find any models .

Since there will be special vehicles to be used on Mars, the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM)  has unilaterally decided NOT to repair its numerous potholes, and has offered the roads as practice areas to the Mars One Company selected candidates when they start training. The ruling party leader in the MCGM, was reported to have said it was better to aim for Mars than Shanghai, since we have so many similarities, like bad atmosphere, potholed surfaces, and a water distribution problem.   

Our sources have discovered a list of folks whose applications were rejected .

Guys wearing tiger tees , and brandishing flags, who wanted to install statues on Mars.

Folks who insist of creating concrete elephants all over the place and call them parks.

Various folks who started marketing special "Mangal Dabbas" suitable for lugging Fafdas, Theplas , Sev etc on the long trip to Mars. (Buy two dabbas, chutney  dabba and 100 gms chhundo free)

Then there were folks who had expertise in changing zoning rules and wanted to create a special VIP housing enclave on the Olympus Mons. They also had great expertise in creating hill stations by taking over land belonging to others, and planned to create one on the Olympus Mons.

A special delegation of film stars, that wanted a Film City on Mars, to save the expense of stunts, by using one of Mars's moons, where whacking a person could despatch him to the next planet.

A bunch or party faithfuls, who wanted to name the landing pad at Mars, after various Gandhis, but were told that they, the party faithfuls needed some other skill before they could even apply.

Meanwhile,  some TV folks interviewed the common man on the road, to ask who he thought should go to  or be sent to Mars.

By popular demand, it turned out to be our MP's. As the neighborhood household bai said to the bhajiwalla, "if all you have to do to earn a pension after 5 years, is shout, run to the middle of the room, defy the teacher, and then walk out if you don't like it, it is time someone else gets a chance, and these guys need to be sent away to Mars."

Ministers came a close second. It was felt that their obsession with red beacons and throwing weight around, was more suited to the Red planet, where they would also be able to do away with their Z-plus security.

There was also a suggestion to include those who pretended to play God ( eg "as a Ram")  while simultaneously greatly sinning in secret.

Kusumtai, plagued  with astrological problems regarding her daughter of marriageable age, and her Manglik horoscope,  suggested that those making a stink about her daughter's horoscope, should be at the front of the line , amidst those going to Mars.

But the final word comes from one of our leaders who gave grass-routes a new meaning, so to speak.  Interviewed by BNN-ICN, as he sat barechested, sunning  himself in the front lawns of his Lutyen's bungalow in Delhi;  he chewed with great relish, spat into an area to his left, and said, "I am waiting for the time when they will allow cows and fodder on Mars; till then, I am doing fine with secular Alu samosas..."
Breaking News :  

As per latest reports, Bulgarian  hackers have been reported to have hacked the entire list of Indian and Chinese folks in the Mars One list, and Parliament is in an uproar.  

Expectedly, an adjournment is imminent ....

They say, that Mars is now retrograde .  And Venus is having the last laugh....