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Superbrains!

I’ve been taking a course in neuroethology (study of the neural basis of behavior) this semester, and one fascinating aspect is the kind of questions we get in out problem sets. The first one required me to discuss the possible evolution of the nervous system (of any species), discussing the possible future selective pressures (like an ice age) and the effect this will have on neurophysiology and neuroanatomy. I found the exercise fascinating, and thought I’d put up my take on this here to see if others I know outside the class had any ideas to share.

Some basics first, though, since the overwhelming percentage of the readership of this blog (such as it is) has no background in neuroscience:

The nervous system isn’t exactly a necessity for life to exist. Bacteria, algae, etc. live just fine without one. A complex nervous system is even less necessary, and if you read up on the nervous systems of some worms and insects, you’ll be amazed how just a few clumps of neurons allow for some very complex behavior.

If you look at evolution, the complex mammalian brain is really recent, and human brains are so advanced relative to, say a squid’s that the difference between a MacBook Pro and a watch calculator seem semantic by comparison. Its really amazing how “brains” have changed over millions of years. The reason these changes have happened are what are called “selective pressures”. Something in the environment of an organism changes, prompting it to attempt changes in itself to cope with the new stuff. Those that make successful alterations tend to survive, leaving behind the “traditionalists”.

All that said, here’s what I could come up with:

I must admit to being somewhat stumped by this question. The moment I saw it, I immediately thought about possible ways for the human brain to evolve (I plead guilty to unabashed speciesism). I thought about the ice age (naturally, since the question mentioned it), and immediately realized this is unlikely to pressure the human nervous system to evolve. With a minutes thought, I could envisage well heated, artificially lighted super-domes where humans live, and maintain the diverse flora and fauna of today in reaction to the insane cold on the outside. The collective intellectual ability of humanity can definitely come up with better, thus removing the need for the species to evolve. The implication of this is that the human brain is already capable of far more than is required by current environmental pressures. There was no selective pressure to make humans capable of building computers (for example), yet we already have built these machines that can help us predict the onset of an ice age, disseminate information about it, and compute ways to survive! It was tempting to assume that the evolutionary race to develop the CNS is done, and the gold medalist resides in all our skulls.But evolution doesn’t care! If we are able to make computers despite the absence of any “need” for us to do so, why should their existence, and the existence of human science, in any way cause evolution to say, “My job here is done”? The only change is the kind of selective pressure the human species experiences. We can overcome natural disasters, but what of the inevitable sociological changes that science and industry will cause in humanity?

The first one that comes to mind is increased urbanization. In evolutionary timescales, a Trantor(1) like ecumenopolis isn’t really far away, which means resources like space, water, etc. will become harder to come by. I think the human species will react by favoring longer life spans and later (and lesser) reproduction. While science itself will obviously contribute to this, I suspect the real game changer will be evolution. And since living past eighty as a vegetable is nobody’s dream, this will be accompanied by slower rates of neuro-degeneration. Second, I believe that someday science will reach a point where current human abilities with language, math and logic will be insufficient. I think end goals like the Grand Unified Theory in Physics and a complete understanding of human consciousness will someday become of sufficient importance to the propagation and survival of the human species, thus resulting in enlargements of brain areas like the angular gyrus, Wernicke’s area, Broca’s area, the inferior frontal gyrus, etc. I also think there might be a concurrent increase in human brain size, and more specialized regions dealing with language and mathematics may arise.

What do you guys think? Is a superbrain a possibility?

(1) In case anyone hasn’t read Isaac Asimov, Trantor is the capital planet of the Galactic Empire in the Foundation series. It is 130% of Earth’s land area with a population of 45 billion, and the whole planet is one continuous city.smile

Somewhere between Five Point Someone and One Night at the Call Center, my opinion on Chetan Bhagat morphed from “entertaining author” to “yet another hack”.

Imagine my surprise when I found that he has yet another forum to spew his nonsense. While I do not know if this is his first foray into the news media (apart from interviews and statements on how his work has been misused… another discussion), but Bhagat writes in the Times of India : Only in India: The curious case of Ash-envy, linked here:

http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/home/sunday-toi/all-that-matters/Only-in-India-The-curious-case-of-Ash-envy/articleshow/6096367.cms

For those who want to spare themselves, the essence of his argument is that we (the Indian people and the Indian media) are treating Aishwarya Rai in particular, and “outsiders” who become success stories in general, unfairly. Not only is it a great crime that Ash is called out on her sometimes poor dress sense and ever-present plastic smile, it is, in fact, a crime motivated by Indian society’s feudal nature, and its deplorable adherence to caste and class.

B.U.L.L.S.H.I.T.

That said, I’m at an impasse on how to proceed. Should I just write my own essay and conclusively prove that Mr. Bhagat is talking through his ass? Or should I comment upon those statements of his that I find particularly ridiculous?

The latter appeals to me enormously, so that’s how its going to be…

CB: Heartbreaking though it may be for filmmakers and actors, but the finality of audience verdict is a brutal aspect of show business.

Me: While the sentiment is accurate enough, I object to the use of “though” and “but” in the same sentence. The least of my problems with his article, and here just so someone who objects to my views can vent their temper by legitimately calling me a grammar Nazi! I will leave out my objections to “venom spewing out in barrels” and other such confused sentences. Who cares, right? 😛

CB: Throughout her career, the media has painted Aishwarya as ‘plastic’, an ‘ice-maiden’, ‘wooden’, ‘artificial’ and a ‘non-actress’. This, despite the fact that she has acted in more than 40 films in Hindi, English, Tamil, Telugu and Bengali. She entered the industry as an outsider, without a godfather. Today her face is more recognized globally than any other Indian actor. If she is on TV, people don’t seem able to change channel. To top it all, she has transitioned into marriage with her fame largely untouched.

Me: There were a lot of mental gymnastics involved before I got what Bhagat was trying to say here. To begin with, the first two sentences seemed totally disconnected to me till I realized that Bhagat genuinely thinks that a person can be called an “actress”, “expressive”, “warm and bubbly” , etc. if they act in many movies in many languages. I suppose it makes sense. Bhagat would like to be called a great author because he wrote four books. To hell with quality. Similarly, Ash is a charming, warm actress cause she acted in 40 movies.

However, the sheer amount of contradiction in this paragraph is even more baffling. (1)Ash is deliberately vilified by the media. (2)She is a globally recognized celebrity. (3)People keep watching her on TV, unable to stop. (4)Post marriage, her fame has remained intact.

How (2), (3) and (4) are possible if the media is conspiring to damage her is hard to figure out. For example, her marriage only made her more famous, and the media was definitely involved in that. The Ash-Abhi wedding displaced far more critical news, with the media crooning over the birth of a new “power couple”. “Plastic smiles” and other criticisms not withstanding, her marriage occupied a revered position in the popular imagination. This was Cinderella marrying her prince, not one of the evil Stepsisters.

CB: And yet, you will rarely find people accepting, let alone recognizing her success.

I quote Chetan Bhagat: If she is on TV, people don’t seem able to change channel.

I can only read on in awe…

CB: Something about Shashi Tharoor…

Me: Huh?

CB: Her (Ash’s) rise is rapid and more important, atypical of the Indian way. In India, only children of the rich, famous and powerful become rich, famous and powerful. […] In the US, Britney Spears became a household name in her teens despite her modest background. She became famous because of her talent for popular music. Something like this would almost never happen in India (unless she is the daughter of someone famous). We can’t accept, reward or frankly, deal with talent.

Me: Britney Spears? That’s who you bring up as the American parallel of Ash?

And exactly how is Ash atypical? Good looking city girl becomes model. Wins vapid and pointless international beauty contest. Starts acting in movies. Becomes successful actress.

Save the extent of her celebrity, Ash’s rise is no different from that of tons of other Indian actresses.

And Indian’s from a humble background do not come from middle class families in Mumbai whose kids go to Jaihind College. Let us examine another Indian celebrity with international fame who came from a humbler background. A.R. Rahman certainly qualifies CB’s requirements in that there was no industry Godfather who gave him a leg up. He is, if anything, even more successful than Ash, and in the international arena, has actually been recognized for his talent and contribution to music.

Yet, for all this, the same Indian society and media that CB asserts is in a caste hangover has only shown respect and adoration for this Muslim-by-choice musician. Most Indians take pride at his achievements, and his Oscars made them nod their heads with an “I-told-you-so” look in their eyes.

Having rubbished CB’s premise, I don’t care to address his “solution”. Instead, I’ll propose a no doubt outrageous (to him) argument that Aishwarya Rai is given grief in the media for her fake mannerisms and bad dress sense because she does indeed have fake mannerisms and a bad fashion sense. I mock her stupid laugh because it’s so artificial it is alarming. I think she is far from a great actress because she has an immobile face in most movies and barely seems to put effort into her work.

There’s frankly enough wrong with our society that needs to be changed without fanboys pointing to non-existent conspiracies. Indians love the “underdog beats them all and lives happily ever after” trope. Let’s not pretend otherwise.

Raavan- Ramayana Remixed.

So, Ravi and Bhargav finally made it to Urbana. Needless to say, it was the highlight of the past few months. Drinking bickering drinking traveling talking talking drinking eating… need I say more?

One thing I was looking forward to (and I’m sure Bhargav was too) was watching Raavan in Chicago. Especially the post-movie in depth critique session I knew would happen (and it did). I read reviews of the movie before entering the cinema and after, and while I can get where the superlative negativity is coming from, I enjoyed the movie, and surprise of surprised, RAVI enjoyed it.

So here’s a review from me, now that I’ve digested what I saw.

To begin, I must say this was, overall, one of the most visually awe-inspiring movie I’ve ever seen. That’s right, I said ever. Sure, there were issues with the editing, so some scenes ended abruptly, but for the rest, so great was the cinematography that even I started wondering about stuff like camera angles. How the heck did they get a side view of Vikram and Ash surrounded by mirrors…?

The lack of obvious CGI was a huge plus, and the anticipation of one more breath-taking sequence was enough to keep me engaged in the movie.

The acting ranged from pedestrian to pretty good, with Aishwarya Rai being the biggest surprise. For once, her eyes were alive, and her face mobile in conveying a mix of expressions even with the camera closing in on her face. And she looked stunning, which was a huge plus, of course.

Abhishek tried, and I think he’s being singled out a little unfairly. He wasn’t bad at all, just not at his best. The character of Beera, of course, represented all the problems of the movie, so I’ll leave it for later.

The most disappointing act was from Vikram. The character of Dev had no natural progression. He wasn’t a gray character at all, since at one point he behaved like the idiot villain, while at another time he behaves like a typical hero. There was no nuance to these parts of him, which made it tough to believe these were the two faces of the same man. I’m more eager to see Vikram’s version of Beera.

The secondary characters were okay. Govinda, I felt, was not a bad choice at all. Though it was painful to see the extremely obvious parallels drawn to Hanuman, Govinda’s humor as, I think, crucial for my interest in the movie. Others, like Nikhil Dwivedi were quite good.

As for the plot itself… many holes, though the saving grace of the movie is that they’re well spaced out, so you can carry on watching it without having to continuously roll your eyes (and thus miss the visuals). While the central premise of Sita appreciating the good side of Ravana was interesting and quite well done (unlike many, I think the Abhi-Ash dynamic in the movie was good. The transformation of Raagini’s view of her kidnapper was handled well, and worked because of their performances), as was the open ending, I find myself agreeing with my sister and Bhargav (I think?) that it was the small details that took away from my appreciation of the plot. And, of course, the typical Bollywood moments like Ash screaming “Beeeeeeeeeeeerrrrrrrrrrrraaaaaaaaaaa” at the end. The presence of such instances is inexplicable, since I’ve found previous Mani Ratnam movies to be great precisely because of the absence of such melodrama.

Reading back what I wrote, I think if these were the only problems in the movie, it would have been a great success. These are nitpicks that are only possible in a movie that gets the major things right.

What then is the reason for the movie being panned so widely?

I notice that many Western critics appreciated the movie. And I was at my most skeptical when the dialogue and the story tried too hard to evoke the Ramayana. Could it be that the viewer unfamiliar with the Ramayana enjoyed the movie more because he missed the clumsy “hints” that tied the story to the Ramayana?

I think so. The constant references to “Das Sar Vale”, the ham-handed reminders that Raagini was a captive for 14 days (NOT 14 minutes, NOT 14 hours, just in case you heard wrong), “Sanjeevani” hopping trees… all these were insults to the viewer. There was no subtlety or class in the handling of these parallels. The only surprise was that they did not bold and underline these lines in the subtitle track.

Had Mani Ratnam not tried to make this “a modern day Ramayana” and publicize the movie as such, had he chosen to avoid the clumsy connections to the Epic, then I think the movie would have been better appreciated. People would have seen the similarities to the Ramayana themselves, and appreciated the movie better for it.

Nonetheless, I think Raavan is worth a watch.

No Food for Thought?

“I will not have sex until…”

“I will not pee until…”

“I will not earn money until…”

Recent revelations on how Statehood is granted in India has made me wonder… What is it about the denial of gustatory pleasure that makes Indians shit in their pants (and feel as hungry as the protester)? Why does hunger Tug at our heart-strings more than self imposed impotence, constipation and frugality?

Now, as an eternal lover of food, I’m all for this reverence to the noble art of eating. Perhaps this placement of starvation on a pedestal as the Greatest of Sacrifices indicates that the majority of India, like me, lives to eat.

But I’m forced to banish that happy thought. Too many people eat too little, or look at food as just part of life.

Why then do people not threaten to live without sex for a few days? That’s easy enough. An Indian man not having sex looks no different from an Indian man romping in the bed. We’re too conservative to admit that we have sex, so admitting that we don’t is an even bigger no-no.

What of refusing to pee then? You must admit, the image of a powerful leader holding his crotch and hopping around in heroic defiance of the Great Urge, grimacing in denial of release, evokes a poignancy to rival Gandhi saying He Ram with his last breath! Why not try this then?

And refusing to earn? Come on! A man in tattered rags, sitting under a tinfoil roof, exposed to the elements, scrounging for food in the garbage… what act can make the cameras go more crazy? Whole documentaries can be made with the footage the media will get. The act will remain stamped in the memory of the nation for a long time. But no!

It is hunger that steals the show. Why?

Chip in with your ideas!

People in democracies instinctively know that politicians are actors first. They also know them to be liars, advertisers, and sometimes, grizzly monsters from legend who feast on the common man.

People in democracies also have an instinctive desire to trust their leaders. We want to be gulled, because it is easier to live thinking that the people watching over you are good and competent than to admit that they are more often deceitful criminals than good human beings.

Like a mother clings to the belief that her boy is a good boy, and to hell with Mrs. Next-door! It’s not like her son wasn’t caught smoking yesterday. Kids these days did so much worse, and anyway, people complain only because they’re envious.

We rationalize, we ignore, we blind ourselves. It wouldn’t be a surprise if we starting baa-ing aloud, staring with mindless trust as our leaders goad us into chaos, disaster and death.

Why the diatribe? Turns out one of the few politicians who I had respect for was nothing but a good politician. Confused? Read:

http://beta.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/article62165.ece

Not very comprehensive, but it’s a good summary of what you can find if you dig a little beneath the veneer of the “good human being”.

As a thirteen year old who used to love reading the papers to see articles that confirmed that India was moving ahead, I was comforted by the belief that there was a sensible man at the helm. My instinctive dislike for the BJP and its moronic ideas on how Indian society should be shaped was tempered with my respect for its leader. A man of moderation and sense. The sole voice of reason in a cabal of dangerous idiots, trying to lead them in the right direction… GAH!

But the myth is shattered. No more will I think that the pro-Hundutva, pro-Babri demolition statements were a necessary evil to placate the right-wing foundation of the BJP’s power. Pragmatism and necessary evil can serve as rationalization only so far.

I appreciate Vajpayee now only as a good politician. One who realized that image mattered more to popularity than actual deeds, and acted upon it. He did some good stuff, but he was no different from any of the others. He gives more credence to the idea that the more honest a politician seems, the more the skeletons in his closet.

Trumpets blare out a resounding fanfare. Drums beat, keeping time with two (and sometimes more) fingers dancing intricately on the keyboard. Doors open in a hurry and paths begin weaving through plains valleys hills, all uniquely amazing, of course. The horizon,  smirking with the soft, velvety glow of the unseen sun, alluringly beckons, tugs at feet to start running. Like the mysteriously beautiful woman seen at a party, the very sight of that horizon whispers of an exciting newness, of secrets, of joy…

A sudden wish to pick my nose, and optimism would recede. The discomfort of wet sand clogging my toes, the stupid enter key that never works, the odd note in a tune… the insipid gruel of everyday nearly always makes the far future nothing but a distant dream, for me at least. Unsurprising, perhaps, but the irritating cause of an atrociously long writers block. A month ago I’d have agonized over these few words for hours, lost heart, and closed the computer.

Yesterday, the lab I chose to do my thesis in accepted me, and suddenly I’m floating above the sand, a strong breeze invigorating me, and fucking hell I can write! As purple as the prose is, spewed by a rusty brain, the flow from thought to keyboard to screen… its like being woken up after a long night of sleep with a breakfast of buttery hot aloo parathas, chilled apple juice and spicy french toast made to be pounced on. It’s a heady feeling, and I want to jabber on for ever!

And so, I will write. I will take sign up for a course where I can have fun (creative writing? theater? literature?). I’ll arrange my stuff on my new desk with a precision that only my mother can match, so that I have a fond memory of it when it has devolved into the World’s Greatest Messâ„¢. I will make other happy resolutions, most of which I will probably never keep, because, you know, while optimism may be a transient thing, that is reason to enjoy it while you can, not moan about the time when it will be gone.