Monday, April 28, 2008

A Pox of Chickens

The year was 1993. I was newly-married and jetlagged, just having braved the 24 hour long journey from India to the US. We were staying for a few months in a large light-filled apartment with an old couch, a kitchen table set, a mattress, a TV and not much else.

One morning, I woke up to find what looked like a large blister near my collarbone, and another on the stomach. What pesky insect might have bitten me on the flight, I wondered. They felt faintly itchy, but I resisted the temptation to scratch them.

A couple of days later, the rash-like blisters had spread all over and to my face, for good measure. My husband was becoming a little alarmed and asked me to try and get an appointment to see a doctor. For a first time user of the US health care system, the experience was baffling.

Me: Can I have an appointment to see the doctor today?

Receptionist: (After taking down long list of details of insurance coverage,etc.) The first available appointment we have is on [Date two months from today].

Me: But this is an emergency. I need to see the doctor today or tomorrow.

Receptionist: Then go to the emergency room.

Which is just what we did. We sat in the emergency room and waited and waited and waited...
Finally just short of two hours later, I sat in the examination room with a wide-eyed resident who mumbled something about 'immuno-deficient syndrome lesions' and refused to prescribe anything more than an over-the-counter antihistamine to relieve the itching. A few minutes later, the nurse who popped by to get a few more details for their forms took a casual glance at me and said "Looks like chicken pox to me!"

It was a Light-bulb moment,at last, a possible diagnosis for my condition.

Armed with the record of the emergency visit, I bullied my way into an immediate appointment the next day with an internal medicine physician. He took one look at me and rushed out in a hurry. 'Not again', I thought. But what happened next was the stuff of comedy gold.

In rushed a veritable horde of white-coated interns and their head honcho, evidently a very senior physician from the snow-white hair thick on his head.

"Now that you have seen the patient's lesions, would any of you like to venture a possible diagnosis?"
One hand went up. Dr.Reddy ventured an opinion softly: "It looks like a case of adult chicken pox to me."
The senior doctor beamed. "Excellent! And what do you suggest for the treatment?"
"Plenty of fluids, rest, oatmeal baths to relieve itching, much the same protocol as one would follow for treating juveniles."
"Ah, there I disagree. I would suggest ____ to combat the viral load, and _______ ointment to heal the secondary infections."
So, I got my diagnosis, a prescription and textbook immortality of sorts, as they asked me for permission to photograph my lesions for educational purposes. Anything, I figured, that would keep them from taking so long to identify a simple case of adult chicken pox.

Origins of the term 'chicken pox' from Wikipedia:
  • Samuel Johnson suggested that the disease was "less dangerous", thus a "chicken" version of the pox;
  • the specks that appear looked as though the skin was pecked by chickens;
  • the disease was named after chick peas, from a supposed similarity in size of the seed to the lesions;
  • the term reflects a corruption of the Old English word giccin, which meant itching.

As "pox" also means curse, in medieval times some believed it was a plague brought on to curse children by the use of black magic.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The Tag Stops Here

Since Jen decided to pass on the meme from her friend Dead Rooster aka Le Coq Mort aka Gallo Muerto, I'm honor-bound to treat it with the appropriate reverence. Note to Jen: It always helps to threaten a severe consequence like breaking out in boils all over or ill luck for the next seven years to keep the meme going.

I am to come up with eight random facts about myself, and tag eight fellow bloggers whom I know (Do I know eight bloggers ? I don't even have 8 on my blog roll!)

1. Each player starts with 8 random facts/habits about themselves.
2. People who are tagged, write a blog post about their own 8 random things, and post these rules.
3. At the end of your post you need to tag 8 people and include their names.
4. Don’t forget to leave them a comment on their blog and tell them they have been tagged, and to come back and read your blog for the whole story.

Random Facts:

1.I like to chase squirrels and grackles away from the bird feeder. I jump out at them through the sliding door to our deck and wave my arms around like a silly windmill, just to watch them scurry away in alarm. (Alas, a couple of the offenders seem to have caught on to my bluff and merely wait a few feet away till I retire into the family room again.)

2.I polished off singlehandedly ( over a period of a week), 16 boxes (out of 24) of chocolate covered Sarris pretzel pairs that were supposed to have been part of a fundraiser reselling them. Heck, I paid for 'em, I might as well eat 'em. (M and S got about 4 boxes each). No, I did not gain 10 pounds in weight. I have good genes!

3. Languages known: English (best of all), Tamil (really well, but unfortunately I never did learn any swear words in it, even though it's my mother tongue), Hindi (enough to sing along with Bollywood songs and understand the dialog), Malayalam (enough to pass for a Tamilian speaking Malayalam badly), Sanskrit (enough to be dangerous trying to figure out when the priest at the local temple has bumbled in his rendition), French (Parisien accent, rolled 'rr's and all...) Plus, I can read Cyrillic and Urdu scripts, though I am rather rusty with the lack of practice. I'm aiming to learn Telugu, Bengali, Arabic and Chinese as well, if I can get hold of enough online material.

4.I've gone shampoo-free, and discovered the joys of shikakai and henna. Surprisingly, my hair and scalp have been behaving much better than when they were shampooed. Maybe, I can put my Hair-raising tales to an end after all and grow some more follicles before I hit menopause.

5.I'm an ambitious but untalented gardener with a brown-green thumb. Taking advantage of the early jump into summery heat, I've planted my garden early: snow peas, tomatoes, red peppers, spinach, radish, cucumbers, zucchini, bush beans and okra. (Crossing my fingers and hoping that a pesky frost doesn't derail my plans!)

6.I am an indifferent cook- meaning that I cook to live, not live to cook. Very, very, very rarely, one of my dishes will rise to the realm of greatness- most of it is humdrum South Indian fare (at least till the local Indian grocery doesn't run out of ingredients and rice.) I would rather be blogging and reading, anyway ;)

7.I like to sing Carnatic music while doing the dishes. This also guarantees that the kids keep out of the kitchen and snack cupboards, and allows me a 'moment of zen' while I splash around in the soap bubbles and running water.

8.I love creepy-crawlies and spend an inordinate amount of time trying to save spiders, centipedes and the like from the attacks of the 'Bug Squad' ( M & S armed with fly-swatters and bug vacuums).

-----THE TAG Stops here!------------------------------------

I'm also the dead end in all sorts of email chains, so will end up being the dead end in this blog tag as well. Sorry, Jen!

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Coconut Tree Climber

Jonny stood by the gate, tapping the latch to gain attention, his red-shot watery eyes blinking in the late morning sun. Mother stepped out on the veranda.
"Ah, finally, you have come. Why did it take so long? The palm leaves have been in danger of falling on the heads of passers-by for more than a week now."
"I was sick and couldn't make it," Jonny mumbled, scratching the wispy grey hair peeking out of his uncovered pate, wrapped with a dingy cotton towel around the crown. He still reeked faintly of the liquor he had spent his night imbibing after a day of toil.
"Never mind. Get to work on the front tree first and then finish up in the yard."
Nodding his head, Jonny nimbly hefted himself and balanced on the wall near our front coconut tree, the wall having been built split on either side of the trunk. It would never do to cut down a bearing coconut tree, especially one, the priest performing the house pooja had assured us, that was planted over the remains of a scion of the local aristocratic landlords who had sold the land to our residential co-op.
Tying a strong rope around his ankles bent around the trunk, he bent forward in the pose honed over the years, gripping the trunk with his forearms as he locked his wrists. He started his journey up, inch by precious inch, reaching the top in a matter of minutes and whipping out the sharp cleaver tucked in the belt around his rucked-up lungi.
"The leaves on the other side. No... not that one, the one to the right has the browning leaves."
Passers-by paused in their tracks as Jonny let out a warning shout. The fronds came down with a crash. Our servant stood ready to pull them away from the road to the side, and would soon drag them to her home to convert into thatch, or strip the leaflets on the fronds to get graceful long twigs for a broom.
Next was the turn of the ripened coconuts. Jonny had a fairly keen judgement of which these were and called out in warning when a bunch dropped to the ground as he whacked at their stems. It was my job to help the servant with running after errant coconuts that rolled down the slope of the road. Who knew, there might be a pilferer or two lurking to grab whatever came their way!
By the time Jonny came round to the veranda, there would be a tidy pile of fresh husked coconuts in the work room behind the kitchen, with one or two de-husked coconuts sitting on the grinding stone next to the sink. Then the negotiations would start.
"10 rupees per tree is all that I can give." -Mother would insist.
"Amma, I can't survive on that. Please make it 20 rupees per tree."
And so it would go on back and forth, till we arrived at the princely sum of 15 rupees per tree with a bunch of five coconuts as a bonus. Jonny would lope off morosely with his wages, till the next time we needed him and sent word out through the servant maid.
The last year when I visited, I noticed more browning fronds on the trees and unpicked coconuts.
"What happened, doesn't Jonny come any more?"
"He died last year. Nowadays, it is next to impossible to find a coconut tree climber around here. Jonny's son doesn't climb, he does other things. "

R.I.P. Jonny.


Jonny was one of the last of a truly dying breed, the coconut tree climbers of Kerala. The children of these climbers have moved into other trades, less hazardous and physically demanding, and better paying than coconut tree climbing. The demise of coconut climbing as a hereditary occupation has led to recent inventions designed to make it safe for unskilled workers to climb trees, such as this contraption. The coconut growers are trying bring in new workers into the ranks of the coconut tree climbers, using this invention.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Duck, you're being shot at and other silly musings

So Hillary Clinton announced in a meeting that as a little girl she had learned to shoot and gone hunting ducks with her dad.

"As I told you, my dad taught me how to shoot behind our cottage,” she said. “I have gone hunting. I am not a hunter. But I have gone hunting."

Clinton said she has hunted ducks.
Take that all you namby-pamby elitist urban liberals who have zero experience with gun powder. Bang, bang, bang! You're dead.

Ah, but has she handled wriggling earth worms, semi-live cockroaches and frogs? Has she gently transported beetles and spiders to the safety of the great outdoors from their unsafe locations indoors? These are examples of questions to be asked of a future president- not whether they learned to point and shoot guns at farm-raised quail ,ducks, deer or lawyers' faces.

Press reporter: Eek, there's a rat running about the room.
All (except candidates at podiums) : [screaming, jumping up on the chairs... pandemonium.]
Hillary: Get a rattrap...No...Get me a gun. I'll take it out.
McCain: [waking up from his snooze] What the h__'s going on here? [nods off again]
Obama: Uh..I need to make this point. Let's have the judgement to locate the rat first before jumping up on chairs and shooting at random feet.


Extending the courtesy to those who refused to enter the presidential sweepstakes and those who dropped out.
Gore: The scientific consensus is that this rat's a climate refugee. Global warming has caused the climate change that is driving the rat from its natural habitat into crowded press conferences. We are morally bound to try and reverse this state of affairs.
Kucinich: [Buddha-like expression, bends down] Here, Ratty, ratty! Let me get you out of this noisy place to a nice garden.
Edwards: As I've mentioned, my father was a mill-worker and had to deal with many a rat in the house when he was young. I have the experience and passion you need in a president to deal with rats in press conference rooms.
Biden: McCain will sleep on the job. I won't.

Huckabee: [Waves a sharpened pencil around] Heck, where I come from, we use pencils to skewer 'em. Rat meatballs make an excellent addition to soup.
Giuliani: A rat in the room: we need to go after it like we hunted down the perpetrators of 9/11. I'm the only one in the room with experience dealing with terrorists like this rat.
Romney: [looks miffed with all the attention the rat has been getting, but not a hair is out of place] McCain supported the rat in his speech that he gave last time. Now he is contradicting himself. [smiles the plastic smile to show off his perfect teeth]

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

A Fish-eyed View

Yesterday, I got into a discussion(or should this be pseudo-argument) about vestigial fish eyes and holes in Darwinism with my husband.
A few weeks ago, he had talked about 'Mutations cannot be random, they have to help the organism adapt to its surroundings better', while my understanding was that, mutations were random, and the ones that enabled the animal to survive its environment better were the ones that would be propagated down the generations. But arguing with S is somewhat like waving a red flag at a bull. So I held my peace.

Yesterday, he brought it up again, this time adopting my original contention as his baseline, and trying to cast me as opposing it.
He said: "I've been reading about Darwin's theory on a very good website. I've a better understanding of it now."
Me: "Which website?" ( Hoping it was not some creationist leaning site)
Him: "Stanford University, I think" (Me: inner sigh of relief)
Him: "I have a problem with some holes in Darwin's theory though. Why would fishes lose their eyes in a dark cave, when it isn't an adaptation that benefits them directly? The presence or absence of eyes shouldn't really matter in such a situation, so why should they 'lose' the eyes they may have had originally?
Me: Maybe the loss of eyes was tied to some other change that improved their chances of survival, that we don't know of yet.
Him: That doesn't make sense.

Yadda...yadda...yadda for the next half hour.

And so it continued today over Skype chat.

Me: Why Do Good Eyes Go Bad?

Cave-dwelling tetra fish (Astyanax mexicanus) are blind; they have small vestigial eyes that do not work. Then why have them at all? Biologists have long struggled to explain how natural selection could fully account for such degenerations, and recently they have found another possible answer: genetic mutations that hamper eye development also may increase the number of taste buds. Thus, mutations that happened to give the fish an advantage in tasting and smelling—a huge benefit in a dark environment—might also have inadvertently, and harmlessly, caused the degeneration of their eyes.

Him: Man, that sounds fantastic "genetic mutations that hamper eye development also may increase the number of taste buds"!!
Me: Some tradeoff. But does this answer your question?
Him: No, it is too fantastic.
Me: You didn't seem to believe my argument yesterday.
Him: Not this either.
Me: Contrary is always difficult to believe... You can say bats have poor eyes so the species that devised sound to navigate had a better chance to survive... that is believable.
(Er...isn't that what the last line of the paragraph(highlighted in green) saying?)
Him: But [the] contrary is hard to digest... [i.e] better sound sensitivity hampered eyesight (like in this case developing better taste bud hampered eyesight)
Me: What I mean is that this line of argument: that some other unexplained factor that conferred greater advantage but led to vestigial eyes, won the day. You were dismissing that offhand. Maybe these biologists haven't found the right thing yet, but the possibility cannot be ruled out.
Him:I am not ruling out... hard to accept that explanation is "scientific"
Me: Why?
It's still a hypothesis that could explain, provided they are able to prove it holds through observation.
Him: I accept it as hypothesis but not as proof or even a "substantiated" theory.
Me(and I really need to get my blogging done) : That's good. At least you accept it's a valid if unproven hypothesis.
Him: Yes.
Me: Let me put it this way: it's not implausible that improved sense of taste and smell that resulted due to a random mutation, but also rendered the eyes less usable, was a trait that improved the fish's ability to survive and reproduce in the dark cave.
So some several generations later, we have the vestigial eyed fish in the dark cave, and normal 'control' species they were derived from in a lighted environment above the dark cave.
Me ( now in must-have-last-word mode): Regarding vestigial features as interpreted by Darwin.
Him: I have a call now.

From the link I last sent him, I found the explanation for his interpretation of what 'vestigial' means.

Those who question the existence of vestigiality usually claim a different definition for vestigial, giving a strict interpretation that an organ must be utterly useless to qualify.[19] This is a definition often used in dictionaries[20] and children's encyclopedias.[21] Biology textbooks[22][23] and scientific encyclopedias[2] usually describe an organ as vestigial if it does not serve the same function in the modern animal as the cognate organ served in an ancestor, even if the modern organ serves a completely different use (preadaptation).

Those who consider the true meaning of vestigial to be "completely without use" tend to claim that the meaning has been changed over time as structures thought to be vestigial were found to have other uses.[24] However, documentation indicates that from the theory's beginnings in the 19th century, vestigial structures have invariably been understood to "sometimes retain their potentiality"[6], becoming either "wholly or in part functionless".[25] It was thought that "not infrequently the degenerating organ can be turned to account in some other way".[26]