Wednesday, December 20, 2006

War poems.

While thinking of war, a poem by Wilfred Owen always comes to my mind . The one titled "The Strange Meeting". 

The poem ends with the following lines :

'I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
I knew you in this dark: for so you frowned
Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.
I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.
Let us sleep now....'

Also comes to mind the story of the Christmas Truce, a brief, rare event that took place in between Germans and the English during WW I . During Christmas, a brief cease-fire was ordered. During this time, soldiers from both sides got out of the trenches, into the No-man's land and celebrated Christmas together, shared cigarettes, showed each other their photographs, sang together. In fact a letter from a young English soldier to his family reads -

'.. the most amazing Christmas I ever had. Just before dinner I had the pleasure of shaking hands with several Germans: a party of them came half way over to us; so several of us went out to them. I exchanged one of my balaclavas for a hat. I've also got a button off one of their tunics. We also exchanged smokes etc. and had a decent chat. They say they won't fire tomorrow if we don't so I suppose we shall get a bit of a holiday - perhaps. After exchanging autographs and them wishing us a Happy New Year we departed and came back and had our dinner.

We can hardly believe that we've been firing at them for the last week or two - it all seems so strange. At present its freezing hard and everything is covered with ice...

There are plenty of huge shell holes in front of our trenches, also pieces of shrapnel to be found. I never expected to shake hands with Germans between the firing lines on Christmas Day and I don't suppose you thought of us doing so"

These hard-hitting lines bring forward the wretchedness of war.

The English Patient

Finished this amazing book called "The English Patient" by Micheal Ondaatje, yesterday. The book revolves around four people - Hana, a young nurse, who's is nursing her last patient, a burns victim; Caravaggio, an Italian thief, whose thumbs were cut-off when he was caught; Kip, a young Sikh sapper, involved in mine-defusing; and at the centre lies the English patient, burnt beyond recognition, without a face or a name, with just his Herodotus with him, being tended to by the nurse. In the background, the world war-II is raging. The book describes war, through the eyes of these people staying together at the Villa San Girolamo at Pisa. Each of the four people is a victim of the war. Hana - forced to grow up suddenly in the war, tending to soldiers on the verge of death; the Sapper, with his high-risk job of dismantling bombs, his life a daily joust with death; each of them seeing death everywhere, familiar faces disappearing in the clutches of death, hardening, building a shell around themselves, becoming extremely business-like about their occupation, learning not to feel, going like an automaton through the steps - be it nursing or bomb disposal.

Now with the war moving on ahead, the return to normal life is impossible. Each of them is still fighting a war - within themselves. Each finding a reason to live - Hana, who obsessively refuses to abandon the burnt man, tending to him with a fetish, giving him morphine, the sole reliever of his pain, reading to him , listening to his ramblings - filled with history of the world, interspersed with his own life story , narrated in the third person. [ "Death means you are in the third person"] ; Caravaggio - coming back for his friend's daughter and also, trying to determine the identity of the English patient, surviving with his shots of Morphine; Kip - with his disciplined life and with his complete involvement - though detached- in his work; and the English patient, with his History.

The English patient's narrative is filled with anecdotes of ancient history and the geographical descriptions of the desert. Infact, his life is very much like the desert he loves - impossible to decipher completely, shifting shapes, diverse, arid, with brief moments of immense pleasure like an Oasis .

The book also tells of the love between the English patient and Katherine, which lead to his present state, talks of feelings of surrender and possession; also, of Kip and Hana, Hana - losing her father, Kip - losing his mentor, his father-figure; two people drawn together by their loss, an unspoken understanding of what the other has undergone.

Ondaatje's style of writing is melancholic and haunting. The book is like a box being slowly unraveled in front of our eyes. As the story progresses, we feel ourselves being drawn into it, learning bit by bit about the characters and their multi-layered personalities, as you would slowly know a person in real life. Till, you are in the villa, seeing it all happen. You can feel their despair, their brief moments of joy, the utter hopelessness of the war, the havoc it wrecks - on the land, on the soldiers and civilians; the beauty of deserts as seen through the English patient's eyes; the love, the hate , the hope and the wretchedness of it all.

A great read! Deserves the Booker that it has got :)

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Fate and Folding

My friend commented upon the previous post on "folding and philosophy", and so did Akka . Both felt that if the end was already predetermined, then, all our efforts are in vain, coz, no matter what we did, we would just get what was ordained. The end must be , at least partly, the consequence of our actions.

This got me thinking on this subject again. What they said seemed logical. So, lets go back to the folding funnel.

As you can see, there are several local minima, having lower free energy values. At the bottom of the funnel, there are several states having nearly equal free energy. Maybe, based on the path we take, we reach one of the states. If the path is not the ordained one, we may get into one of the local minima. We might or might not get out of the local minima, and begin our downhill roll again. If we do, we may take any of the final low energy states, each of which is equally good. So, perhaps, fate has a couple of things- equally good- planned out for us. Unless we do something very drastic, which locks us up in one of those local minima states, we will end up in any of the 'good' states. A round about way of saying, in the end, everything happens for the good :D

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Alan G. MacDiarmid

Happened to read the autobiography of Alan G. MacDiarmid today. [] He , along with two others, won the Chemistry Nobel in 2000, for the discovery and development of conducting polymers [Fascinating stuff! :)] . Felt truly humbled. He came from a poor family in New Zealand, with not enough to eat, let alone spend on books and other study material; worked throughout his school days - as a milk delivery boy, paper boy , and later, as a helper in the labs - to earn money for his education. Now, he's achieved the pinnacle of success - the Nobel. This may seem similar to the story of several other achievers. But what I really appreciated - was his interest in Science. Even while working as a helper in the lab, instead of cribbing [ which is what I might have done :D], he used the opportunity to explore his interest in chemistry. He first chanced upon the orange crystals of S4N4 during this period, and his interest in them held till the days of his MSc when he specifically requested his Prof and worked on these crystals. To his luck, his colleague, Heeger, [@ U.Penn] discovered conductance in an SxNx polymer , when MacDiarmid remebered his earlier work on S4N4. Together they were able to characterise conductance of SxNx polymers and with Shirakawa, they also worked on conductance of polyacetylene. Moving away from technical details , I want to reproduce some of his statements from his autobiography :
  1. "I am a very lucky person and the harder I work the luckier I seem to be"!
  2. " 'A's grade in a class is not a sign of success." Success is knowing that you have done your best and have exploited your God-given or gene-given abilities to the next maximum extent. More than this, no one can do.
He ends his writing with the following story , which I have reproduced here :

Seeking the Great White Bird of Absolute Truth

The dependency of any one person's research on the labors of scores of earlier scientific pioneers is illustrated very beautifully by a few sentences of this variation from a book by Olive Schreiner, written at the turn of the century, entitled, "The Story of an African Farm." I would like to share with you this adapted portion.

The story concerns a young hunter who, in his youth, heard about the great white bird of "absolute truth" which lived at the very top of a high mountain far in the east. He had spent all his life seeking it without success - and now he was growing old.

The old thin hands cut the stone ill and jaggedly, for the fingers were stiff and bent. The beauty and strength of the man were gone.

At last, an old, wizened, shrunken face looked out above the rocks. He saw the eternal mountains still rising to the white clouds high above him.

The old hunter folded his tired hands and lay down by the precipice where he had worked away his life.

I have sought," he said, "for long years I have labored; but I have not found her. By the rough and twisted path hewn by countless others before me, I have slowly and laboriously climbed. I have not rested. I have not repined. And I have not seen her; now my strength is gone. Where I lie down, worn out, other men will stand, young and fresh. By the steps that I, and those before me, have cut, they will climb; by the stairs that we have built, they will mount. They will never know those who made them, their names are forgotten in the mists of time. At the clumsy work they will laugh; when the stones roll, they will curse us; but they will mount, and on our work they will climb, and by our stair! They will find her, and through us!"

The tears rolled from beneath the shriveled eyelids. If truth had appeared above him in the clouds now, he could not have seen her, the mist of death was in his eyes.

... Then slowly from the white sky above, through the still air, came something falling ... falling ... falling. Softly it fluttered down and dropped on to the breast of the dying man. He felt it with his hands -

- it was -

- a feather.

Saturday, December 9, 2006

Folding and Philosophy.

Continuing along the lines of the previous post:

Protein folding, truly, holds the key to understanding the process of Life. In a lecture I attended, the folding funnel was described beautifully in the following way. Imagine a blindfolded golfer. On a horizontal course, the ball he hits may go in any direction, aimlessly. But imagine a sloping course, shaped like a funnel, with the hole at the bottom of the conical greens. The blindfolded golfer hits the ball from his position on the rim. No matter which path the ball takes, it eventually rolls down the course and goes into the hole.

So is our life. Maybe Fate has already decided what the hole or our Goal is and has placed us on the edge of the funnel. We, too, are like the blindfolded golfer, unable to see ahead, worrying about what will happen with each stroke. What we have within our control is just the path chosen. Based on the path, we accumulate different experiences. Same paths may be bumpy, some maybe extremely smooth [the minimal free energy path?], but we reach the goal eventually.


Just wanted to pen down some of the things I learnt from Prati :

  1. Growth can either be in width, or in depth. It may be derived from new experiences, or from complete immersion into whatever we are doing. Both are equal. At the end of the day, a carpenter totally involved in his work would have gained knowledge similar to that of a scientist or a traveller who has gone round the World.
  2. What is knowledge? It is not the amassing of facts, it is not information. Knowledge transforms people, it makes one grow.
  3. Nothing is wrong, nothing is right, in an absolute sense. It is the circumstance which makes something right and something wrong. In the end, everything comes round in a full circle.
  4. Your goal is pre-destined. So, instead of writhing in mental turmoil, as to what One should do, it is better to completely involve oneself, in whichever path life leads him, and seek knowledge.

But this, then, brings the question.. Are we so completely helpless? Do we not have anything in our hands? Mere puppets in the hands of that Supreme being or Fate or whatever? Then again, believing in Fate makes life much more easier. One doesn’t feel the burden of decision making weighing down upon the shoulders. Maybe it is an inter-play between the two. Something like genetics, where both the genotype and the environment decide what the final phenotype of the individual is. The environment selects which genes should express and which shouldn’t, and, in turn, decide the characteristics of the final individual. Maybe what decisions we take are like the Genotype, and Fate is the environment, and what we become finally, is decided by both.

Thursday, December 7, 2006

Driving me crazy!

I first asked for my own vehicle when I was in class 9th. The Family initially seemed reluctant, but finally got me my scooty when I just finished I PU. I was mighty proud of my Black Beauty (still am!) After the initial month or two of hesitant and vary driving, I, one day, woke up to the realization that I just loved driving!! It was a manifestation of my independent spirit. No more waiting for the BMTC, no more bickering with the auto drivers. I was free, I was a bird, taking off whenever I pleased, on whichever route I chose, under the control of no one’s will but mine. I enjoyed driving not only on good clear roads, but also in the traffic, jostling with hundreds of other motorists. It was a jungle out there, Darwinism come alive, with only the fittest surviving. The unfit could be seen, sticking as close to the left as possible, driving with looks of absolute terror on their faces, at a pace such that a snail could overtake them! These creatures would, then, disappear into oblivion, maybe sell their vehicles, and drown themselves among the masses that travel in the bulging BMTCs, cursing the chaotic traffic of Bangalore with their co-passengers. The winners were those who survived the battle for existence long enough to discover an order amidst the chaos. These were the Chosen Ones who understood the Law of the Jungle and lived by it.

Driving was one of the things I really missed upon shifting to the Insti. I would satisfy my urge sometimes by beg-borrow-stealing CR’s or Twin’s cycle, but the thrill of driving 60 kmph, with the wind in your hair [figuratively, since I mostly wear a helmet :D] is something that a cycle cant ever give you.

The moment I came home this December, my hands were itching to get a grip on that accelerator and zoom off. But Providence had it that my first outing was in a threesome [which translates into an auto being the vehicle of choice!] As a backseat driver, I looked at The Bangalore Traffic with a whole new perspective. These people dint believe in traffic rules. The left-right turn indicators were vestigial organs of the vehicle, buttons that were added to fill up empty spaces on the handle bar. The only button that was important was the Horn, which they used to the maximum possible extent. The white bars on the road, marking the lanes, could have as well been graffiti made by street urchins, and no one looked twice (literally) before switching lanes. Signboards about School zones or Speed limits made just as much sense as Holmer’s Odyssey in pure Greek, unabridged! I kept dishing out this Gyan and lot more, about how Mumbai’s traffic though voluminous, was less chaotic, about how rash that auto wala was going, that a particular mo-bike driver dint have an ounce of brain in his head, and so on, to my poor sis and Sume [who probably put up with this commentary for the sole reason that I had returned home after 6 long months :D].

Thus, I took out my bike on the next day, with all virtuous thoughts about sticking to traffic rules and so on, and set off, with Nelly Furtado’s “I’m like a bird” going through my head. My bird soon had a bumpy landing when cyclists began to overtake me, with a smirk on their faces. I forced myself to remain cool, lecturing myself about good driving habits and what not, when an auto driver, who was steadily driving to my left, suddenly cut into my lane, forcing me to brake sharply. All virtuous thoughts were immediately banished, fours years of traffic-training kicked into action, accelerator turned and my engine roared [well, as much as a 60 cc one can!!] ! I was determined to show the auto driver a thing or two about driving. From then on, it was War. Along the entire stretch of road, lasting about 3 kms, it was a one-on-one battle between the two of us. I had the eternal advantage of a bike rider – the ability to squeeze between bigger vehicles - and used this to the hilt at all possible signals and halts. While he had the possession of an engine much more powerful than my poor 60 cc cylinder. At times he had the lead, and sometimes I could give him the Thenga. Finally, at a point, we parted ways, not sure who was the victor, but both having thoroughly enjoyed the Struggle for Supremacy. Grinning happily, I drove away, and while doing so, I caught sight of myself in my rearview mirror. I had fangs and horns.. I was a creature of the Jungle again, a Warrior, and “Home returned the Warrior, Alive” !! :D