Thank you for your kindness people


Kindness is like a good piece of music; it spreads.


I love to travel but security checks at the airports are the worst. Some of the rudest people I have met have been the people doing the security checks at the airport immigration. One particular rude one was in Brussels; however, this story is not about him. This morning I woke up feeling good and thankful for the things that I have received from this world; especially the things that were unexpected and for the ones that I did not have to put any efforts. My story is about one such act of simple kindness where I was only a recipient.

I do not remember the date but it was an afternoon of early September in the year 2010. I had to leave my quarters at 9 o’clock in the morning to catch an early afternoon flight from Vishakhapatnam to Mumbai. It had rained during the night; however, the sky had cleared up and the Sun was all up and bright, making it a hot and humid day. Because of sweat, I had already had bathed twice by 9 o’clock. I was happy to be leaving the irritating weather of Vishakhapatnam and was waiting for my taxi to arrive which was now late by 45 minutes. This delay on a very irritating weather had already started to test my nerves. I also knew that airport was on the far end of the city and it would take time to reach there, and yes I was right – I got stuck in a very bad traffic jam. On reaching the airport, I hurriedly got into the gates and headed straight to the security check-in counters. I know it is their job but I really don’t like being patted and asked to open my bags for inspection – I pack my bags meticulously and opening them at airports makes it tough to arrange things back in order.

I passed through the metal detectors without any problems but the security personnel with X-ray scanners detected a short metallic rod in my bag. I knew it was the handle of my shaver, so I opened my bag and showed them that it was nothing. However, it was their protocol to register the description of any item that raised an alarm. I was taken to a corner by a security officer and he asked my name. As soon as I told him my surname he looked at me with a smile and asked me if I was from Himachal Pradesh. I told him that I was born and raised up in Himachal. The officer was so glad to hear it. He shook my hands and told me how happy he was to meet me. I was confused. The officer told me that he was once posted in Himachal Pradesh which was the best time of his job. I didn’t have to ask him for an explanation because most people like Himachal for its natural beauty and weather. But his reason was different. He told me how much he and his wife missed the people of Himachal. He went on and on about their polite nature. He told me that he was an ‘outsider’ there but was never cheated or disrespected. He also told me how his wife and neighbours cried when he had to leave Himachal because of his job transfer. Just because some people from Himachal were nice to this man, I was being treated with respect and politeness. The officer introduced me to his colleague as if I was a famous personality that they should know about and later offered to buy me a cup of tea. I would have loved to but I had a plane to catch shortly so I declined.

Strangely, the irritation from the weather, traffic, and delay at the security counter was gone. Later, after the passengers boarded the plane, we discovered that the airconditioning in the plane wasn’t working. Everyone was cursing the flight crew but not me – I had been reminded of how politeness can create a ripple effect. It was because of politeness of someone else to the security officer that I was treated with respect. Airconditioning was fixed in about half an hour and the plane took off. You see, repairing the air conditioners would have taken half an hour even if nobody had insulted the crew of the aircraft.

 

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India’s banking system is failing the common you and me


India lost the finals of ICC Champion’s trophy; a cricket tournament that many believe is a mini World Cup. I don’t care much about India losing this tournament anymore. I loved cricket once. I loved it to such an extent that I would rather watch Sachin, Ganguly, and Dravid bat than study for my exams. However, later in my life I fell in love with fisheries sciences and began spending more time reading books, and gave less importance to sports that others played. The same education took me from shore-to-shore and I got to see a whole new world with my own eyes. In the year 2012, I received an international scholarship from Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) for a Ph.D. programme in Canada. I was excited. However, there was a catch – to obtain the scholarship I had to furnish a bank guarantee of U.S. $10,000 in favour of ICAR. This meant that I was required to deposit U.S. $10,000 in a bank, and sign a legal bond saying that if I failed to finish my Ph.D. the entire sum would be transferred from my account to ICAR. My father had just switched his business from electronics repair to selling bags, and we did not have that much money. I also needed money to obtain passport, VISA, study permit, English language proficiency certificate, warm clothes, and even more money to pay for my room rent and tuition fees because I would be receiving money from ICAR only after one month after reaching Canada (I also had to eat, so needed money to buy groceries). I was worried about losing the opportunity but my parents felt guilty of not being able to provide me enough for my education. I could have probably lived without a foreign degree but my father would have never. I decided to go from bank to bank and ask them for loan against whatever we had. My mother was ready to sell her gold but we did not even have enough of that either. We owned a house on a large patch of land that was clearly worth more than ten times the money we needed.

I took all the documents to show to the banks that we owned the house and we were willing to obtain a loan of only $10,000 against it. Every bank refused. It was the month of June – peak summers – and I walked, to every bank, far and near, begging for money. Even though we owned the house, I was made to feel as if I was begging like a peasant from a Premchand’s novel. Most banks thought it was too risky to put our house against the loan and they did not want the hassle of auctioning it in the event of my failure to meet the necessary requirements of the bond. Every bank wanted a 100% cash deposit that I did not have. A bank officer even said that there is no guarantee that I would finish my PhD degree, and that I might just fail one of the exams. I showed him all the gold medals I had received for being University topper in my bachelor’s and master’s degree to which he said, “what if happens to you (he meant I died), and not finish the degree”. I cried within. I really did not want my parents to be thrown out of their home. That would be too much for them to tolerate if I were to die.

After being turned away by all the banks, my father did what he would have never done – he asked his elder brother to loan us the money. My father knew that by doing this his brother would never miss an opportunity to make us realise that he ‘owned’ us and we were worthless. But he was ready to do that for my sake. Within a day the money was transferred to my account by my uncle. Now, all the banks were more than happy to prepare a bank guarantee for me. Some banks even wanted me to open a foreign currency account with them. I receive calls from such bank even now but I still have a plain savings bank account. I save a lot from my scholarship and when I look back I realise that had the banks allowed us a loan, I would have paid it back to them with interest in 18 months. But, the banks would have not wanted that. They want, in all the cases, to earn money. Pure bloodsuckers. Today I hate to even look at the banks.

So, when India was playing the ICC Champion’s trophy I was still not watching the game; however, I was intrigued by the presence of Vijay Mallya in the cricket stadium in England. Vijay had taken millions of dollars as loan from banks, defaulted on all of them, and fled India to escape being incarcerated. On one hand I am amused to see how people admire Vijay Mallya for fooling the banks, on the other hand I am angered to see that banks trusted a businessman, and lent him millions but each of those banks refused to loan me just $10,000 against a collateral that was far more valuable. As I said before, I am not interested in cricket but I have still not forgotten the humiliation I received from the banks.

Are we documenting our lives better than our ancestors?


Never ever have humans recorded their life the way they do it today. One falls sick, there is a status update on Facebook. Whether it is first birthday or inconsequential 26th, celebrations are shared with everyone over social media. If it is a new guitar or just a bad haircut, there is a record of it somewhere as pictures. When photography was invented, it was a great tool to immortalize an event, art or a person’s achievement. Today, with advent of camera phones, everyone is saving innumerable events every year. However, a pertinent question is – why are we immortalizing ourselves duck-faced? But the more important question is if we are actually immortalizing our moments? Are we really going to preserve the snapshots of our lives? Do you even remember where are the pictures that you took three months ago?

When I was doing my bachelor’s degree, I owned a Canon point-and-shoot camera. I loved taking picture with it and saved them all in DVDs. By the time I finished my degree, I probably had 5 DVDs. I did not print of any of those because all the moments were dear to me and I simply did not have enough money to document them in tangible form. Today, 5 years later, I miss those moments but cannot find the DVDs. I think I lost them or they broke. I clearly remember that 2 DVDs would just not work because they got scratched. When I moved to Canada from India three years ago, I copied all the photos to my computer so that I could see them when I missed my old days. But three days ago my hard disk crashed and I lost everything that I had saved on my computer. More interestingly, I was not even bothered about those pictures when my computer died; I was more worried about the data from my PhD research and all the references that I had collected over the years. Moreover, just because I considered that research data was important, I had it saved it on cloud and was able to retrieve it as soon as I fixed my computer. Why did I not backup my images? It is because I had so many of them that it would have cost me a lot to buy cloud space. Also, I don’t even remember the pictures that I had taken with my smart phone and where I saved them. Although I do remember buying my current phone because of its great camera and ability to take good photos even in low light. But now I wonder if my phone’s camera quality actually mattered to me when I have lost all the pictures that I had taken? In fact, 90% of the pictures that I take with my phone end up being deleted because those moments do not seem to matter much after few hours.

Our ancestors immortalized their moments, tales, events, and stories through tangible and durable records such as monuments, statues, cave paintings, terracotta art etc. In contrast, we are trying to encode our life in magnetic fields and binary numbers. I am forced to think that when the future civilizations will discover silicon and plastic debris, what will they think of us? If our civilization is wiped off and the future humans have to develop everything again, will they be able to develop devices fast enough to see how I celebrated my 30th birthday before my silicon records are decomposed? Finally, are we really documenting our lives better than our ancestors?

Biologists are usually good cooks


 

Few weeks back in my department we organised an event called “The Great Curry Cook Off”. For this people had to sign up to prepare curries that others paid to eat and at the end of the event people who had paid to eat would vote for the top 2 preparations. I decided to make chick peas. About a year and a half ago I didn’t even know how to boil rice and here I was cooking for a competition. Though I did not win, I knew that my curry was great. One big lesson was that biologists working in lab can be great cooks.

Why?

Let me explain.

If you are a biologist and work in a research lab then you definitely follow protocols that require long lists of ingredients. Some ingredients have to be prepared fresh while you are working on some other step of the protocol –  multitasking is important here. Few chemicals have to be protected from light and shock, and a lot of them have strict thermal requirements. Your time management skills are very important so that you add each ingredient at the perfect time to continue your reactions in a way that you want. I cannot emphasise the importance of your patience which a lot of us run out of. In short, as a biologist, you deal with a very complex cooking recipe which has to be served to a large number of audience in the form of peer reviewed journals and you better be good else the reviewers are always trying their best to kick your bu** hard.

Now, just like cooking a dish, where does a biologist get the recipe for experiments? They probably get it from senior lab mates or researchers (mothers and grandmothers in case of cooking). Lot of biologists take protocols from peer reviewed research papers (cookery books in case of cooking). In an ideal world, which a PhD student wished (s)he lived in, all these protocols and cooking recipe should work in the very first shot and give the desired results with no error bars; after all these protocols have worked for the rest of the world. However, we all are hit hard by the reality – protocols suck. Another reason why a biologist could be a better cook is that when they follow a protocol in lab they make sure that the function and importance of each step and ingredient is known – what if an external examiner decides to ask you a question on the importance of annealing temperature in a PCR reaction. Similarly, when a biologist is in kitchen (s)he knows the function and effect of each spice, ingredient and cooking conditions such as heat and stirring which leads to a better cooked dish.  Hence, it’s the intuition, time management skills, and most importantly patience that makes biologist a master chef. A biologist also knows that every time an experiment is repeated the error bars tighten up (Error α  1/n) and the same wisdom is applied in kitchen. Therefore, the skills that  biologists learns in lab helps them to make tastier food provided they are left with enough energy at the end of the day to cook and they supervisor pays them enough to buy proper monthly groceries.

What is apopoetic


My Friends often ask me what does apopoetic even mean. When I started this blog I had named it ‘dreaming biologist’. But I always love to personalize things and make it look more original; which means my blog’s name should also sound original and different. But at that time I could not think of a name that would not only hint at who I am but would also allude to the sort of content that I write. I am an aquatic biologist and this blog is more about my appreciation of things and events around me. I observe events, analyze it philosophically and try to weave them into stories.

Sometime in January 2013, when Canada was all white with snow I wrote a new blog post on love and showed it to a friend. She didn’t comment much on the emotional aspect of the story but was quick to point out that my writings are a bit sciency. I had used some statistical terms and dropped some biological concepts into the story. So, my article was poetic but with a pinch of biology. I am not sure if liked that feedback but I thought I should continue to write in the same style; biology+poetic appreciation of things around me.

I don’t know if you have noticed but I think that most poets are obsessed with love and death. I am not a poet but my thoughts are a bit and even I am not untouched by these two topics. I feel that love is amazing and death is the eternal truth. So, one day while staring at the vast, infinite expanses of snow I was thinking of an amazing cellular process called apoptosis. Every cell in our body has a pre-programmed self destruct function. Any abnormality, internal or external, that goes beyond repair triggers a cascade of suicidal proteins and other molecules which finally cleave the DNA into small bits. DNA gone = game over. So, while thinking on the beauty of this process I stumbled upon this new word that I coined right then. Therfore, the term apopoetic comes from two words; APOPtosis and POETIC. Since this blog is all about musing of life of which death is an integral part and I am a biologist I think the term is apt. I define this term as poetic musings of life.

In one sentence.


Isn’t it amazing, we all may have an idea of what we want to be but don’t have enough strength to frame it in one simple sentence and say it aloud to the world.

Be the Purple Cow

Best selling author Dan Pink talks about an interesting trait of great leadership.

Apparently, a young woman in congress in early 1960s asked President John F Kennedy, what he wanted to do for America in ONE SENTENCE.

Just one sentence.

She said, “Lincoln had one sentence, to save the union of states and free the slaves, Franklin Roosevelt had only one sentence, to save America from Great Depression and to win the world war.”

She went on to say, “Mr President, you don’t have a sentence, you have a model paragraph. You are trying to do a hundred different incoherent things.Thereby, you are doing nothing.”

Kennedy was awestruck. He went back to his desk and within some months came back with his greatest goal as a President.

It sounded a little ambitious then but never mind, he pushed the whole human race forward.

He simple said in 1961, “Before…

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