Sunday, 30 January 2011

death of a eulogy

today marks the auspicious,
passing of blood and bone;
believe you not in the superstitious,
but black cats die alone.

tongues of flame,
kerosene-drenched hides;
dream molten steel,
and infamous bona fides.

i still cannot believe,
we birth not from hearths,
instead of fahrenheit,
we are from the earth.

revel in difference,
maturity of form;
to death we part sense,
from fortune's belong.

*modified from something i wrote in the summer of '04. it's not something i would be happy with publishing today, but i only have a couple of weeks of strolling down memory lane before reality starts pissing on my parade again!

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

the concept of causality

there's been a death, in the opposite house,
as lately as today,
i know it, by the numb look
such houses have always.

this is the first paragraph of emily dickinson's famous poem relating to death and dealing with a death in the family. i write such as an introduction because it is the root of what has brought me to the following conversation - a mourning period in the family - and also as a tribute to a great person whom i had not known much of until the twilight of his years.

in any case, this post does not revolve around such incident, but instead is about various other things; from the scientific approach to causality to evidence and, interestingly enough, death.

let me set the premise, and how i will argue for and against the point - something that a lot of my medic friends will find familiar (and even slightly laughable) - 'smoking causes cancer'. now, this was brought up by my cousin, jo jackson, and my continual exposure to colleagues and friends based in the medical and biological sciences fields has given me a very biased take on the issue from the start. indeed, we have discussed this issue to the proverbial death so much, that nowadays i write with assumed knowledge that it is true. however, ask your local cigarette tender and he will beg to differ, and it is this take on the subject that prompts such an analytical approach today. again, let me state, though, that i may be biased academically, i am not at all socially - i believe it is one's right to smoke should one want as long as it does not infringe upon the health and convenience of any other (and this may lead upon an entirely different and tangential discussion, so we shall leave that for another day).

now, i structure my argument based on the spectrum of arguments that may lead us to believe that smoking does indeed cause cancer - this ranging from the very molecular basis to a near-purely statistical claim of causality. this is not a comprehensive list, but the very ends of a spectrum should, if anything, lead a reader to fill in the gaps himself, should he be inclined.

for those familiar with cigarettes, nicotine is the first drug that comes to mind - and here we first ask: what is nicotine? i'm sure you can click that wikipedia link and warrant your own discussion about what it is, but for our intent and purpose here today, the points i'm trying to get across are:

1. nicotine is an addictive substance.
2. nicotine in itself does not cause cancer.
3. nicotine's primary action is as a psychoactive drug, and mimics the action of acetylcholine (ach) at neural synapses. this point is more important to the more molecularly-inclined people, so for those who think this is over their heads, just understand that it works like a drug.
4. nicotine is found naturally in some plants, and the significance in drug addiction and adverse effects lies in its dosage (much like many other things).

so, nicotine in itself isn't a horrible thing (which is a common misconception in the 'cigarettes cause cancer' debate). however, cigarettes aren't made of pure nicotine. there's a plethora of chemical substances in cigarettes which you can google up yourself (yay for using google as a verb!), and you can narrow down their actions to a few major mechanisms:

1. polyaromatic carcinogens. aromatic compounds are organic molecules which have the benzene ring structure, though most of them are not directly benzene-derivatives. the mechanism of action here is complex and well beyond the scope of our discussion today, but there's more than compelling evidence that aromatic compounds can (and do) cause cancer. they accumulate in the cell nucleus and have complex interactions with dna (amongst other things), leading to programmed and unintended cell death. the whole crux of the matter is, a lot of the chemicals in cigarettes, some of which are yet uncategorised) accumulate in smokers' cells and cause them to mutate. a small proportion of these cells go on to mutate in a very particular way that leads to disregulation of the cell cycle, leading to mutagenesis and cell death.

2. reactive oxygen species (ros). interestingly enough, this point was not brought up in our conversation by yours truly, but by jo jackson himself! and, yes, it is a very prominent factor in the causation of cell cancers. for the chemically-inclined, these are radicals which have an unpaired electron, which is very unstable and tends to react with other chemicals. this is particularly devastating in cells undergoing division, and in cell mitochondria, where ros are carefully regulated to create energy for our everyday use. again, the pathways are complex and numerous, well beyond the grasp of my description today, but in a nutshell: excess ros, which are created in a smoking environment (externally, in the lungs and on the cellular level), directly causes carcinogenesis. bad news for everyone.

3. heavy metals and radioactive elements. now, i'm quite the fan of very loud music, but this is, unfortunately, not what we're talking about here. also, when i say radioactive elements, i'm not talking about some material that, upon ingestion or inhalation will give you spider-senses or an adverse reaction to kryptonite. nay, we are all at the mercy of modern science, and i guess this would be a good place to introduce the concept of radioactivity. radioactive substances are unstable isotopes of most day-to-day elements (and sometimes compounds), which will decay to their stable isotopes, and in the process, emit various forms of energy. cigarettes contain the radioactive isotopes of Po, Cu, Pb, and various other 2-letter words that you can probably come up with yourself and be right. in any case, they decay and emit gamma rays, which is kind of like having a continuous x-ray machine going off in your lungs. needless to say, that's cancer just waiting to happen (as i'm sure your doctor has told you the risks of being x-rayed continually, and in high doses).

4. direct gene regulation. ok, so i admit that this is a relatively new area for me, and i won't go on about it too much. a lot of chemicals (again, those found in cigarettes) have been shown to directly interact with genetic material and regulate their expression. what this means for smokers is that there is a complex modulation of your cells and what they do upon inhaling cigarette smoke. this could mean one (or more) of a thousand things, from reduced cellular respiration to increased cell division to creation of rainbow unicorns. only God knows what the hell is going on here but as any master chef can tell you, putting unlabelled ingredients into the wok is a recipe for disaster. yes, i've degraded to talking in analogies, so it's time we move on.

on the other end of the spectrum, which we are dealing with now, is the statistical correlation between smoking and cancer. it is important here, to distinguish between correlation and confounding. a confounding factor is one that effects both your exposing factor and outcome, while not necessarily having a modulating effect on the relationship between exposure and outcome. what the what what? wait, it's not that confusing, let us use an example:

let's say i did a study about drinking coffee and developing cancer. let's say i just took the raw numbers of what proportion of people drink coffee, and what weightage of these people go on to develop cancer. assuming i haven't corrected for any other factors, i find that drinking coffee predisposes a person to developing cancer by 10-fold... now this would be horrible news for starbucks. but, as with any illustrative example, this is not the case. i may have forgotten to take into consideration that people who drink coffee also have a tendency to smoke cigarettes (obviously, just for example). and that, it is not the coffee that causes cancer, but the cigarettes. so, in this case, cigarette-smoking is a confounder and has messed up my data set :(

okay, on to the statistical argument. the point here is that simply having a statistical relationship between the two (cigarette smoking and developing cancer) is insufficient. and, this is exactly the fall-back argument that big cigarette conglomerates will use to get out of a sticky situation (tar puns aside). that and the fact that smoking is a choice activity (keep in mind we're talking about a behaviour-modifying and addictive substance here, which i find to be counter-intuitive, or at the very least controversial).

anyway, how much statistical correlation will we need to prove an indisputable relationship between exposure and outcome? apparently there is no magic number, or even a sufficient one. as long as there are people out there fighting the cause that cigarette smoking does not cause cancer, there will always be a shadow of a doubt, rendering statistical correlation insufficient (though it may still be significant). let us not talk about p-values or how social acceptance modifies this, but instead, let me just put forward that, after reading countless papers on the issue, i think that it lies beyond any reasonable doubt that the statistical evidence is just there. however, much like any tenet and belief, if one believes something with such passion, there is no convincing otherwise.

anyway, i think i have ranted more than my fair share for today. i guess this isn't really what i set out to write - i was hoping for a more impartial argument on the topic but i fear that i have portrayed myself as an anti-smoking person (which i am, but that is besides the point). am i trying to preach to people out there the fallacies and dangers of smoking? no, i am not that holier than thou. am i trying to warn people from an addictive substance from which they may have no return? no, i believe people are more determined than that, and can bend their wills as they wish. am i trying to lay out the facts as they verily are? yes, but apparently i have not done a well enough job. am i trying to pique your interest such that you do your own unbiased research and come up with your own conclusions to be used for yourself (as opposed to trying to justify a pre-conception)? yeah, let's go with that one.

Saturday, 22 January 2011

stupidly good

i was a bit skeptical when my family wanted to sit down and watch an indian movie, three idiots. now, don't get me wrong, i have nothing against movies from outside hollywood. in fact, i quite enjoy a lot of foreign and sometimes, independent films (i think my personal favourite is amelie). however, bollywood movies have a shady track record with me, and i wasn't inclined to watch it over some other highly rated movies i had in mind. that being said, i am not at home much, so i didn't complain, and those 'highly-rated' movies have been quite a letdown - especially recently where i find hollywood movies are lacking that originality and panache that usually draws me to them.

in any case, three idiots was actually a pretty immersing film! i thoroughly enjoyed it and i would recommend it to any reader inclined to give it a go. it's not particularly mind-blowing, but i think the script is original (for what a language foreign to me can be), cinematography is up there, and you get all the classic bits of a bollywood piece (yeah, all the dancing, vibrant colours, sing-along-songs, etc etc).

i don't really want to comment on the movie as a whole. instead, there were a few particular points that really caught me and i'd like to touch on that:

1. academia as a business. now, for those who know me, you'd know my particularly utopian views on academia. how pristine and independent it should be; how holistic and thought-provoking it should hold itself. and for obvious reasons, i criticise heavily the holy motherland's ethics and practices, but that's for another day. in any case, the act of the dean churning out 1st classes or a's instead of thinking students is pretty much exemplary of how things shouldn't be done.

2. learn with passion, and everything else will follow. this is kind of the main character's dogma - he argues that one should be passionate about what one is learning, and the grades will follow. i am a big believer of this, such that it should follow that teaching institutions should design with this concept in mind to encourage self-teaching and exploration. discovery is the essence of tertiary education, and those pieces of paper known as degrees should not be currency for finding jobs, instead should be certificates of pride and adoration.

however, i thoroughly disagree with the main character's not practicing what he preaches. slacking off just because he is gifted is exactly what is wrong with many students nowadays (and i say this not because i am one or against that, but because it is true). additionally, encouraging behaviour that lead to his two best friends' failure to even pass (or barely pass)? yeah, questionable friendship etiquette right there.

3. true love, instead of settling. well, a bit of yes and no here. i like the whole concept of fated love. destiny and all that jazz. and the whole 'being able to be casual' around someone else is a definite thumbs up. but the movie obviously overly-dramaticises the concept. to the extent that it makes me facepalm. there's way too much going on for this guy that it makes me sick. kinda. well. a bit green there but you know what i mean. come on, no matter how much of a fatalist you are, there's no way a pretty lady is going to wait on you hand and foot for 10-odd years. and drop from her own wedding, ditching the rich bridegroom. then have a dream revelation come to life where she enacts the guy's very fantasy? yeah... that's pushing it. just no.

4. don't stop believing. ok so positive energy is a good thing. but portraying that everyone could get what they wanted in life is an old and tiring cliche. i would expect this from a hollywood feel-good movie, but seeing it here, time and again... especially in the context where even if you slack off in life, you can get where you always wanted. and then shove it in the face of the man. that's pushing it. still would like to believe, though.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

the remedy

the remedy for a broken heart, as prescribed by the ancient greeks (lies):

1. lots of chocolate
2. excess sleep
3. a good book, and
4. the company of a best friend

p/s: a best friend may be substituted for a prostitute or boy toy, if applicable.

Tuesday, 11 January 2011


as some may know, one of my favourite webcomics is xkcd, and the major theme(s) in the comic are, as self-decribed; math, love and sarcasm. today i'd like to try my own hand at a combination of these three, centring around the very basic mathematical and logic concepts of proof: induction vs. deduction. and of course, a minor take on love. with some sarcasm in the mix.


1. we assume f(n) is a function of love or loving, and that f(n) = true for a given day n.

2. i have loved her from the first day i set eyes on her. that magical smile, that coy laugh, that pristine moment of epiphanous realisation of such outward feelings. i have loved her from day one, and so f(n) = true for n = 1.

3. i have learned to love her even more with every passing day, with never a dwindle, even in its slightest. hence, f(n) is true for today, as it was for yesterday, and will be true tomorrow as it is today. f(n) = true for n = n+1.

in fact, with the growth of such affection, it is even more true with each coming day, and if a numerical value were assigned to the function, f(n) < f(n+1) < f(n+2) < ...

4. f(n) is true for all values of n, where n > 0 (and is an integer, but never you mind that), and i will love her 'til the end (or at least until the set of n approaches infinity.

5. <3


1. i love the way she smiles.
2. i love the way she laughs.
3. i love the way she she walks for miles.
4. i love when cross paths.

5. i love it when she cries (but only in my arms).
6. i love the way she shies away from my lack of charms.
7. i love how she brights my days, though how i do not know.
8. i love in so many different ways, the way she says 'hello'.

9. i love the way she dresses.
10. i love to hear her talk.
11. i love how she's such a good cook.
12. i love the swagger in her walk.

13. i love the way she likes the dark.
14. i love how she likes kids (even those who throw a fit).
15. question mark ??? question mark ???
16. profit.


it's not a complete list, but that's why i love her for every new thing i learn each and every day.

conclusion: i love her for who she is.

Sunday, 2 January 2011

anally illogical

a long time ago, i wrote (and preferred to write) in analogies, especially when it comes to real life situations concerning myself. this has the same reasoning i write in pseudo-anonimity - namely because i find baring myself emotionally is like walking down the street naked. that and the government may be out to get me.

though i have parted ways with this method, at least in the extreme version that i thought i would be writing till today, i have not forgotten it as a favourite modus operandi. and today, i revisit this little niche of mine, and though i do not in the slightest hope any potential readers will empathise or even understand, i do hope one would appreciate the attempt at exposing some little bits of personal tremblings in such a wide and scrutinisable medium. so here goes...

the good: it is interesting to think that our lives are slices in time of a finite state automaton, where each state is the result of interactions of a previous (or many previous) state(s). consider the following: if every condition we are in - every decision, every thought, every action, every reaction - is all pre-determined by previous states, then there goes human will, whoosh, out the window. and, as i have so easily elaborated upon before in this blog, with the loss of will comes the loss of authority and responsibility. which is an enticing prospect to me.

one can choose to make this very mathematical, very cold, hard and logic. or one can make of this something very spiritual - fatalism is, of course, the product of philosophy and theology, propagated by the human instinct to be aloof and irresponsible.

but this is not a very situational analogy.

the bad
: think of a product on the shelf of a shopping isle. it is packaged badly, let's say in a drab, gray tin can. let's also give it a ridiculously high price, but place the price tag at a very hard-to-reach part of the shelf (and let's also say it's non-existent on the can). the product itself is quite bad - maybe if it were a foodstuff item, it is bland and tasteless, possibly even horrendous to some, though a very select few would use the term 'acquired taste' but to no avail. like brussel sprouts. horrible things.

for some reason you have the unfortunate luck of picking up such a can, and peruse it for some time. it is nothing compared to the normal brands you would buy, and let's say this is a particularly unlucky day for the can, which has been manhandled during shipping and is dented or even rusty at the edges. maybe some signs if the contents going bad, though you can't really tell.

just a look up a couple of shelves shows you better products which you can testify for, so why would you even buy this piece of crap? why is it even on display? why are the manufacturers still in business, and why the hell are you being bombarded with so many questions at once? demand great justice. for the sake of users everywhere. know your rights.

the ugly
: that's a me-a!

the reality
: think of a village idiot. what he can do in promise, he can only promise to do in reality. what he can do today, he cannot actually do tomorrow, and since he promises to do everything tomorrow (as he is obviously busy today), that leaves him with the (in)ability to do anything at all.

though i use the image of a certain someone here, rest assured this is a personal analogy at the end of the day, and i can only think it befittingly sarcastic (and quite the poetic piece of justice) that this will come around to yours truly eventually.

now let us commission the village idiot with a task of building an empire from ruins, and supply him with a tight budget, though we never scrutinise this and leave him to his own doings. promise him a home of his own choice in this utopian empire, where he has nothing to fear of, and everything to gain. and in him, we trust the future of our children and their children's children. what do you suppose can come of such an arrangement? surely not something the village idiot can fathom even for himself.

i leave you today, with this, and promise you never to make a similar post (lies), at least for the immediate future! toodles.