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Oh My God!

the_force

I recently watched a Star Wars anthology series, called Rogue One. Thoughts can come from anywhere, and here’s one that sprung up during the movie, when a blind Force-believer dies, and his atheist (for want of a non-existent word for people who don’t believe in the Force) aide now starts believing in the Force suddenly. Pause.

Translating that to our wretched world, with a very long prologue first – I’m agnostic. But I want to believe that there is no such thing as a supreme power or a God. I think hope is a lie, that keeps the weak-minded from giving up. But hey! Now I’m certain that was the reason this God character was created in the first place. Because the world is such a surprisingly disastrous place, and is full of shocks and calamities and sorrow at times. And well, people were getting into trouble, and a few heads got together to make up a nice story so they can live in hope for a while. It was all a lie, but hopeless people hung on to it. They cherished the idea, they gave divinity to coincidences, and hence Man gave birth to God! What happened after, is all well-known history. Humans have the tendency to over-utilize everything – fossil fuels, their brains, and of course the hollow theory of God. That happened. Investors and businessmen (that’s not a modern job description, that’s a state of mind) rubbed their hands in glee, and started feeding on the foolish hopeless layman. Now, multiple Gods came up, just like we have Samsung and Apple and LG making the exact same phones with different operating systems, and fighting over the market. They didn’t like each other, made people fight, and kill. This concept of religion, was at first responsible for unifying human populations. It gave people a rule-book to live by. Chanakya in the 4th century wrote a truckload of theories on how he thought a kingdom must be run. And that is exactly what the king followed, and that is exactly what the citizens had to follow!! I wonder of any of my readers have read Chanakya’s Arthashastra. If you have, you would know why my sentence has such an appalling tone to it. It was written by a human being (however wise), who thought what he saw fit must be the law. Sounds familiar?

Religion was once the basis of bringing people together, to unify them, give them an identity, and help them become part of a race. I think this idea was perfect, to start with. Sans religion, each individual person, in my opinion, would have developed an identity crisis and would have become a disaster in the making, considering what out neural networks can do. But alas, now we don’t have that concept anymore. We are left with the remains of what was once a brilliant idea, but is now only a pain in the neck (much like grad school for many).

Getting back to my Rogue One thought, this movie was set at a time when nobody believed in the Force anymore. They thought it was a farce, that Jedis don’t exist anymore, and the world was a place of darkness and fear and destruction under the realm of Lord Vader. But, there was one man who still believed that the Force existed and was constantly urging others around him to follow. The interesting part is that his aide, a complete non-believer sees something miraculous happen to him, and his faith in the Force is resurrected. He now completely believed in it. And well, we all know the Force exists because we know the Jedi clan is still alive and Obi-Wan is in hiding, so we smile in glee as people start to accept the Force.

But wait. I call this phenomenon on Star Wars an emotional beauty, but when the same thing happened during the birth of multiple religions on Earth – when one believer instilled that faith in a million others – I call it a total fail? Why? Because the Force is not an entity. It does not have a face, it does not have multiple arms, it does not walk on water, it does not have a symbol, it does not teach to preach or to fall prey. It teaches to live in peace. It teaches to live in harmony and to protect. It is a way of life, like all other religions we humans have, only it is a feeling, not an identity. It protects and enlightens Humans and Ewoks and Wookies alike, it is like the Sun.

God, in most people’s opinions must be like Schrödinger’s God I presume. If people open their minds to investigate the existence, and find that there is technically no God there…oops! Now they killed the concept of God for themselves. If only they had never opened it! Then there is the other type who are such staunch believers, they think that if they refuse, they can be certain they will be punished for their disloyalty (much like Lord Voldermort). I think it is unfair to strip people of the hope that they find comfort in, but I think it is not only fair, but absolutely necessary to strip ourselves of that irrational, unnecessary, insecure cloak that we call religion, that clouds our view and muffles our hearing, and chokes our airways. A complete revamp of the way people see and conform to religion is what we need.

Like Dr. House says, “You can tell me you put your faith in God to put you through the day, but when it comes time to cross the road, I know you look both ways”.

May The Force Be With You!

The Importance of What We Don’t Know

This, being my first ever blog post, is a concept close to my heart. Something I regularly observe. A perspective of how our intellectual standing is left to the society for determination, and about how we have been conditioned to overlook the role played by unawareness.

Knowledge, information, understanding, are all almost everyday keywords if you are a grad student or a researcher (actually “data” tops all these, but more on that later). We are all constantly moving towards gaining more knowledge, more information, more awareness.

How do we do it? Books, teachers, parents? Yes, all of these to an extent. But these are finite, and these are the means of gaining more information, not the reasons.

What actually teaches us is unawareness. Not deliberate ignorance, but unfamiliarity. The concept of “not knowing” is always underestimated. It is ridiculed, it is something we are asked to move away from, and it is frowned upon. You feel left out in a coffee-time conversation about the Superbowl, you are made to feel uncomfortable in a research lab meeting if you cannot understand or contribute to a concept. But that is not the problem – the problem is what you feel after the coffee or the meeting, what the effect of determining your unawareness is. We often walk out feeling mediocre and ordinary. We fear the judgement of our peers, of our superiors.

Let’s for a moment troubleshoot this scenario. Society has never taught us to feel “okay” about not knowing. Take school – the more information you cram into your head the more points you score on a test. And hence, they decide that you are more knowledgeable than your classmates. Education stops after an assessment. In my opinion, that is where it should start. After being assessed for what we “know”, we should be urged to know what we don’t. But instead, we are left to mull over lost points trying to figure out where we went wrong. “Not knowing” is not wrong, it is a gateway to knowing more.

The lab meeting, the coffee-time talk, the test, were all determinants of the fact that you lack some knowledge. Cherish that outcome. Be positively cognizant of the fact that you do not understand an experiment, or a sport, or a mathematical derivation. Use that as a force to propel you toward knowing more. Be glad that you are fortunate enough to be in possession of an organ that can gather information endlessly.

Another important element of one’s unawareness is those stares and scoffs and frowns we are all so familiar with – we either get them or give them. We have grown culturally to be a judgmental society. We judge nervous classmates, and know-it-all classmates, we judge colored hair and bald heads, we judge alcoholics and teetotalers. Bringing about a societal change is next to impossible, however much it is encouraged. Let’s try it at a personal level, a selfish level – let’s accept this judgmental society, and move on to be better by our own standards, not by the society’s.

To give this another perspective, one huge effect of this societal judgment is withdrawal. We tend to only surround ourselves with people we are familiar and comfortable with. People who will not mock or snigger at us for not knowing. Having said that unawareness is the root of learning, let’s look at this society as a method of determining our obliviousness, and in turn a way of empowering us intellectually. Stepping out from familiar circles, and interacting with the smirking society, can actually be turned around to be helpful instead of denigrating.

Almost every single day in the past five years, I have been going to my biology lab, and performing tons of experiments. All the successful experiments have made me happy. I hum a gay tune while drinking some coffee. And all the unsuccessful experiments have made me a better scientist. I tend to not thank my failed experiments enough for what I am today, and often thank my coffee instead, but this is my chance, to acknowledge and dedicate my first blog post to them. For after all, they made me drink more coffee in the first place.

The GMO Melee

This is for all of you who care about the food you eat, are worried about where it comes from, and are concerned about the people who grow them. I currently live in Northeast USA, and recently, grocery shopping has me perplexed. A lot of food products in the common grocery stores I buy from have the “Non-GMO Project” labels. I do not look for these labels, I just pick what I want and get out of the store, generally. But when I unpack my bag back at home, I notice that on an average 3/5 products I purchase have the label on them.

Writing about GMOs, the concerns, and the myths, has been in the charts for a long time, and so here goes.

The (very) basics:

Living organisms have genes. These genes produce proteins, which help form the various characteristics, or traits of the organism. Same applies for plants (obviously). Certain characteristics of plants are disadvantageous to farmers who grow them in abundance, for example, their susceptibility to chemical additives – crops die when fertilizers, pesticides, insecticides, weedicides, etc. are used on/near them. It is a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation for farmers.

One of the most common and earliest examples of genetically modified crops is the soybean – it was done to protect the crop from weedicides, back in 1988.

gmo

Transgenic crops, biotech crops, modified crops, all include similar modifications have been done on a myriad of other plants, a lot of which are used for human consumption.

Let’s get to the point now…

Recombinant DNA technology has been around for many decades now, grandfathered in by Darwin and Mendel, and its use in modern agriculture has seen increase in productivity like never before. It is to be noted that the current molecular genetics offer a much more controlled way of making modifications to plants that the ancient methods. This has helped increase yield and productivity of crops, improved pest and disease resistance, and a substantial increase in tolerance to environmental stress. Modified corn, canola, potato, maize, etc. have been studied for decades after introduction (more details here and here).

This ISAAA report gives a comprehensive description of the biotech crops, their implications and effects, in various countries over many decades. Developing countries currently have approximately 100 million hectares of agricultural land under biotech crop cultivation, and this was almost 0 just two decades back. This has proved to be a great step in the global impact in agriculture, and the impact it has on the environment.

Greenhouse gas emission from cultivated areas has reduced significantly, and is said to be analogous to removing 8.6 million cars from the roads – this is due to the development of genetically modified herbicide tolerant (GM HT) crops (like the soybean example above), which led to no-till farming, and reduced seed-bed preparation to get rid of weed. In 2010, 1,715 million kg of CO2 was saved, because of reduced fuel usage of about 642.2 million liters. This is just the tip of the iceberg – detailed information can be found in this peer-reviewed research paper, and many more in the Journal of Developing Areas, The Lancet, etc., for those who care to read – and I encourage all readers to, I will explain why in a bit.

Assessment of Risk:

Now comes the question most of us average consumers are unable to answer – and I refuse to believe you if you think you know for sure that GM foods are harmful – there is no way you can know that – how do we know that biotech crops are risk-free?

I am going to break this down so walk (or scroll) with me.

  1. Quantifying the risks posed by food items can only be done with complete credibility on a case-by-case basis. We literally cannot compare apples to oranges here. There is no food that is completely safe, and there is no technology that is entirely safe.
  2. Purely from a technical perspective, the only potential risk is from crossbreeding of genetically modified plants to wild-type native plants, which is a negligible risk, especially since care is taken to segregate the edited plants completely by breeders. This also complies with the soil fertility maintenance cycles by farmers.
  3. There are claims all over the internet of “widespread, unpredictable” changes that might occur upon consumption of GMOs. These catchwords are often referenced to blog posts and opinion pieces. Allergies are a common effect of GMO consumption according to many anti-GMO sources on the web (I do not find the need to reference anything here, as these comprise the first page hits on any GMO-related search on Google). Allergies, are biologically subjective, especially with respect to food consumption. Peanuts, lactose, are just a few examples of person-specific intolerance to food.

Regulations, Paparazzi, and Consumers:

The FDA, USDA, NIH, NAS, EPA – all of these bodies regulate the production of GMOs, and have repeatedly confirmed one important fact – that modified plants do not pose any new or uncommon risk when compared with non-GMO plants. Nevertheless, there still exist these elaborate rules and regulations and quality assessments – because anti-GMO NGOs are a huge phenomenon, and because capitalists investing in GMOs needed Government approval, which would lead to long-standing patents, which would lead to money, and eventually market monopoly. Even the term “GMO” has always been used as a phrase of negativity, picked up by activists, propagated by the media. Though men in agriculture have been genetically modifying plants for eons, the term only applied to recent advances in transgenic technology, and now produces a wave of fear among consumers. Media coverage has been extremely biased (duh!) and negative while handling GM crops issues. Economists have shown that food manufacturing industries and even retailers egg these anti-GMO groups on, since it eventually helps them sell more expensive GMO-free products. Surveys are biased too – since the media, and easy-to-read spiteful blog posts have already defined GMOs in consumers’ heads, when asked “do you think GMOs?”, we know what an average consumer would say.

Labeling and GMO-testing:

Coming back to my tryst with grocery shopping for a second – I decided to go to this Non-GMO Project page and see what they have to say. A few of their mission statements stood out:

  • “Everyone deserves an informed choice about whether or not to consume genetically modified organisms”
    • An organization called “Non-GMO Project” is not helping anyone make an “informed” choice on anything. Diluting down and beautifying mission statements does not cover up the underlying intentions.
  • “…. supporting the right of farmers to save and plant their own seeds and grow varieties of their own choice”
    • The advent of GMOs has not even remotely messed with farmers rights to grow their own strain of crops, nor has it intervened in varieties. This is a dig at corporations, which I will get to in a moment.
  • “A verified non-GMO system supports organic agriculture by reducing contamination pressure and protecting the supply of non-GMO seed”
    • Point to be noted (and will be explained further) – the farmers who want to grow GMOs are as bothered as their organic farmer neighbors who are worried about GMO pollen invading and polluting their crops.

Labeling food products in the name of “educating” consumers and upholding their “right to choose” is only adding tons of approval costs, not only to the GMO foods, but also to the GMO-free ones. The product has to be tested at each and every level thoroughly, and this costs an average of $10 million. This Nature research article talks more about the barriers this poses to new cropping technologies, and how we end up losing time, resources, and money, on quality assurance that will buy a consumer absolutely no additional food safety.

Where is all this anti-GMO coming from?

Anti-corporate. Industries like Monsanto have help monopoly in the GM seeds field. This campaign is against them, and rightly so. It is just like the fight against any big pharma for drug prices. But the result of this campaign is targeted to the wrong object. Socialist mindset has always been to go to science for answers, and now they are turning against this science to prove their anti-capitalist stance.

There is an example – from India.
Activists, and anti-GMO campaigners have blamed the advent of Bt-Cotton on farmer suicides across India. Environmental activist Dr. Vandana Shiva calls them “suicide seeds”. Bt-Cotton, a pest-resistant strain of cotton was approved in India in 2002, and has been adopted by more than 90% of Indian farmers. It has been shown to have boosted cotton yields, reduced pesticide use, and literally alleviated poverty. But there have been tweets, FB posts, memes, news tidbits, media coverage, rallies against Monsanto pertaining to these suicides linked to the cotton seeds.

Here is what happened – farmers with small lands who rely on irregular rains faced debts after buying the Monsanto cotton seeds. The 5 states where farmer suicide is most common for the past few decades, are not even the largest growers of cotton. Yet again, anger is directed poorly by well-intentioned activists. Farmers are not well informed about their seeds, the corporates are as much to blame as the government, the banking policies in India, farmers’ reliance on loans leading them to bankruptcy – all of these (more reading here and here) are responsible. But the people now know GMOs to be responsible.

Here is my conclusion, easily accessible media easily changes people’s minds. I am certain no one cares enough to read long research articles to inform themselves enough to make credible decisions. And I repeat, this is for those who care about the food they eat, and about those who grow them.

Title image source: https://www.greenprophet.com/2013/09/israels-genetically-modified-superplants/

 

The Senseless Seven

An object will be in a state of uniform motion until something external affects it, said Newton. If you open the box, you might have killed the cat, said Schrodinger. But then Murphy came along and said “Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong”. If nothing messes with the normal proceedings of your daily routine, you will not be disturbed. If no one opens your box, you will not be killed. But since both of these are possible, they will certainly happen, and you will be disturbed, and also might be killed. Now, moving away from the morbidity of this revelation, I tried to make a list of all those inherently awkward things that we hope do not happen, but they always end up happening, handing Murphy the trophy. The tiny insignificant things that make your day irregular and make you sigh and give up – insignificant maybe, but certainly there!

Junk Song Syndrome: Those ridiculous lyrics, that cacophony, the ultimate test of your song-skipping reflexes. Where blood pressure and ear infection are directly proportional to the frequency and volume of song. But it pops up in your head at the most unexpected of times, one bit of the song playing over and over again, and God forbid you accidentally hum it in front of those judgmental humans! These are the times I wish I could Disapparate or at least Obliviate muggles with the same reflexes I would normally use to skip that song.

I was almost in tears when the movie “Inside Out” so beautifully captured this process!

Brain-to-Mouth Wiring Fault: This phenomenon embarrasses the best of social butterflies and the most cautious of us. Some are subtle, like when you don’t know how to respond to sudden compliments and do the grin-haha-thank routine. Others are plain horrendous – those times when you just can’t believe yourself for what you just “ejaculated”! That’s my favorite expression (courtesy PG Wodehouse) for going out of control and blurting out things that I never thought my brain was capable of thinking. The split-second reaction which I did not see coming. Sometimes foolish (can be rectified with a foolish-er grin), sometimes unacceptable (this is where you lose friends).

Spam-Clearing Compulsion: It could just be harmless inclination of having a clean email, or could eat into your everyday routine and paralyze your neurons if not done. If the “Hooray! No spam here!” message calms your nerves and clears your bronchoalveolar tract and lightens you up, you might have a slight problem, especially when you know you can do better with your time. There are some that are on auto-pilot and can vacuum-clean the spam folder within seconds with their eyes closed, and some others who would scan the messages before doing that – this is the type of entertainment that makes or breaks someone’s day(s), much like the decision to go bar-crawling on a Friday night – you either have the time of your life, or you black out and spend the weekend recovering.

Bipolar Laughter: This is most impossible to figure out, personally. The entirety of your social life depends on politely smiling at not-at-all-funny jokes people crack. But what I cannot fathom is when truly funny wisecracks barely make your lips curl, but the lamest of jokes makes you holler, at which point you can clearly hear others judging you. Why can’t we have laughter control in our heads?

Self-Improvement Initiatives: I go to bed almost every single day planning the whole of next day, starting at 7 in the morning, even set alarms. But when my first alarm goes off, I obviously want to believe it’s just a bad dream that will stop ringing. It isn’t as bad when someone else makes the plans for you – like a class, or a meeting that you must attend. It’s the self-inflicted “I-can-do-it” “I-should-be-responsible” plans that hurt the most. Especially if someone else is involved. To add to the angst of it all, if you fall back on your pillow after turning off your alarm, well, you might as well just die in your sleep than explain to your manager why you were an hour late to a meeting you scheduled.

The Final-Second Memory Impairment: The phenomenon when you clearly remember everything you have to do until the very second of action arrives. You have drawn a flowchart in your head – walk down the hall, pick up the notebook on your way, and carry on. But you just walk down the hall and… carry on. Low fuel – drive down this lane, take a left (taking a right will lead to 15 min detour before you get to a gas station), fill gas, then go to work. But you just drive down the lane… did you guess right? Of course. Right.

The Borborygmous: When your insides want to be heard. It’s like farting – only more embarrassing because this is the sound sans the stench and it can actually be traced to a person. There are certain times when it goes unnoticed – when people are talking loudly, while watching TV. And other times when I want to go back to Disapparating – in the pregnant silence after a fight, when you are presenting, when you are in a serious, quiet meeting (if it’s after lunchtime you can’t help but cry to your stomach about how unfairly it treats you)