A return to Umberto Eco

Umberto Eco. Credit: Sud Foto/Sergio Siano, CC BY 2.0
Umberto Eco. Credit: Sud Foto/Sergio Siano, CC BY 2.0

Why he was my favourite and why I think he’s irreplaceable

The first time I read Umberto Eco, I thought to myself – How could one guy know so much? It’s obscene, the amount of detail in his books. First there was Foucault’s Pendulum, with more than its share of Latin American mysticism and continental conspiracy theories, and then The Name of the Rose, with page after page of the history of the Catholic Church and its various schisms (in the order of my reading). If Eco had been in his twenties or thirties today, he’d have been on Adderall all day and on the Internet all day to have been able to write either of the books – or any of his other works of fiction, for that matter, only a few of which I’ve been able to finish. Barely.

But I loved him. Despite the fevered ‘ramblings’ he’d sometimes launch into in his stories, the things he wrote – which I’ve only ever been able to call his “imaginary astronomies” (a term he coined) – fit together. There was an unbroken coherence carried through the books, an undisputed convergence of thought. Three things about the way he constructed his narrative, across hundreds of pages, is what I also tell people to keep in mind when they ask me if they should write a book: 1) be able to describe the entire premise in one not-too-long sentence, 2) know from the get-go what it is that you’re writing about, and 3) bloody well stick to it no matter how much you think your readers will enjoy your indulgences.

This is why Eco is a difficult read, not a bad read – not a bad read by far. The unwavering intensity of his writing, and of his commitment to seem to be chronicling something (that could have happened in the past or in the future, notwithstanding the use of pseudoscience*) as opposed to be vainly conjecturing something, is what made his fiction worth committing to. This is why his ramblings weren’t ramblings in a real sense of the word; they formed a necessary part of the overall context in which his plots were situated. (And I believe The Name of the Rose was as big a success as it was because it had all these things going on and a Perry Mason-esque murder mystery.)

And this is why I was really saddened to hear of his passing. To me, he was the master and (once*) sole practitioner of a style that brought an immense, unbridled existential multiplicity – as a personal sense of ourselves can often be – together with great writing. And if he’s gone, so is this style diminished.

On the role of silence in communication

His far-ranging interests stemmed from what he was essentially interested in: the use of not-necessarily self-contained systems of signs to convey meaning, and their points of failure (obviously vastly simplified). This could be in the form of investigating the role of a language in shaping a culture, the culturally agnostic and psychologically cognisant placement of signages in public transportation, the anatomy and function of television advertisements to engender demand, even tracking on generational scales the rejection of various hypotheses in the natural sciences.

At a lecture Eco delivered at the Italian Association of Semiotics in 2009, titled ‘Censorship and Silence’, he touched upon something very relevant to incidents playing out in India at the moment.

The error made by La Repubblica in its campaign against [Silvio] Berlusconi was to give too much coverage to a relevant story (the party at Noemi’s house). If, instead, it had reporter something like this – “Berlusconi went into Piazza Navona yesterday morning, met his cousin, and they had a beer together … how curious” – it would have triggered such a series of insinuations, suspicions, and embarrassments that the premier would have resigned long ago. In short, a fact that is too relevant can be challenged, whereas an accusation that is not an accusation cannot be challenged.

The authoritarianism of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party government has resulted in a strong polarisation of the national political scene as well as of India’s mainstream media. It’s impossible to write something without being forced to take sides – and should you still remain defiant, a side is cast for you as being the right fit. And in this acerbic environment, debate is exceedingly impossible: your suggestions are already insinuations, you already owe someone an apology. In place of Berlusconi seen getting a beer with his cousin at the Piazza Navona, there’s a student named Umar Khalid studying at the Jawaharlal Nehru University and who may have been involved in a debate about whether Afzal Guru was a martyr (even if he had been engaged in one, it shouldn’t matter).

In fact, the extent to which the false equation of Islam with terrorism has been entrenched was demonstrated by Khalid’s language, specifically in a statement he issued when he ‘emerged from hiding’. He said, “My name is Umar Khalid but I am not a terrorist.” (Emphasis added.) Saying ‘and’ in the place of ‘but’ would’ve strengthened the assertion (that being Muslim has nothing to do with being a terrorist) while using ‘but’ allows for the interpretation that Khalid is an exception.

… as a result of noise, we have a deliberate censorship – this is what is happening in the world of television, in creating political scandals, and so forth – and we have an involuntary but fatal censorship whereby, for reasons that are entirely legitimate in themselves (such as advertising revenue, product sales, and so forth), an excess of information is transformed into noise. This (and here I am moving from communications to ethics) has also created a psychology and morality of noise. … This great need for noise is like a drug; it is a way to avoid focusing on what is really important. Redi in interiorem hominem: yes, in the end, the example of Saint Augustine could still provide a good ideal for the world of politics and television.

(Redi in interiorem hominem is Latin for ‘return to the inner man’.)

One of the most fascinating things I learnt when working at The Hindu, Chennai, was of an entity called the filler. Before joining the The Hindu, and having been an avid reader of the once-vaunted newspaper for many years before my employment, the distinction between more important and less important articles was made only in terms of how much space they occupied and what graphic elements accompanied them. But looking at the newspaper from within the organisation, I found that some of the smaller articles, the fillers spanning about 150-300 words, were sometimes used to fill the odd gaps but otherwise contained nothing of substance.

Television channels do this, too – plugging moments of what would otherwise have been filled with silence with stories-that-aren’t-stories. These usually take the form of wild speculations, claims backed by little evidence, extrapolating data so it seems to suggest a conspiracy, or simply letting a news anchor with scant regard for the gravity of her/his position rant on live TV. Eco closes his essay with an invitation to examine the “semiotics of silence in political debate – in other words, the long pause, silence as creation of suspense, silence as threat, silence as agreement**, silence as denial**, silence in music.” (Emphasis added.) I’m anxious that the more we move away from being comfortable with silence, the more we’ll cede control of a powerful instrument of discourse to the Authority. Even now, we rally to raise our voices and register ourselves in the face of an outrage at JNU, perpetrated in full by a political hegemon adept at deflecting criticisms with claims that are not claims and with accusations that are not accusations. With noise.

*I say ‘once’ because of the rise of Steven Erikson, but then I also say the style honed by Eco is diminished by his passing because epic fantasy fiction, which Erikson writes, is yet to receive mainstream literary recognition.

**Both of which Prime Minister Narendra Modi has signalled by not uttering a word of condemnation against recent and flagrant cases of (physical and mental) violence incited by members of his party.

Roundup of missed stories – February 14, 2016

Previous editions here.

1. Zika virus and the 2016 Olympics, Umrah and Hajj – “These mass gatherings provide an additional opportunity to undertake research on the transmission and prevention of Zika virus. Preparedness has been the key to success of recent Hajj mass gatherings held amid known risks, such as pandemic influenza A H1N1, MERS, and Ebola outbreaks. Lessons from Saudi Arabia’s success with hosting Hajj during declared pandemics can be helpful to Brazil and the Olympics organisers. The next 4 months will be a crucial period for both Brazilian and Saudi authorities to review emerging research findings on the natural history of Zika virus through expert consultations. International stakeholders can facilitate the needed advocacy and support.”

2. The incredible story of LIGO – “Dicke, a master at cutting through thorny mechanical dilemmas, also instilled in Weiss the value of solid experimental design. Returning to MIT as a professor, Weiss embraced the teachings of his mentors and became one of the world’s leading experts in high-precision measurements of gravity. The capstone of Weiss’s career is LIGO. Weiss developed the notion of using a special technique called laser interferometry to track minute movements of matter due to gravitational waves. Interferometry involves focused beams of light with well-defined frequencies (i.e., laser beams), traveling along separate paths, then coming together again. The pattern created when the beams reunite provides precise information about the difference in path length.”

3. LIGO’s detection of gravitational waves was predicated on already knowing what to look for – even though we’re finding it for the first time

3a. Cornell theorists affirm gravitational wave detection – ““You need big computers because the equations are so complicated,” explained Larry Kidder, senior research associate and a co-leader of the SXS collaboration. One calculation – with varying masses and spin rates – takes a supercomputer a full week to solve, running 24 hours a day. With different parameters, some calculations take months. SXS created a theoretical catalog of what the different possible gravitational waves would look like. Teukolsky said that the new LIGO paper shows the measured waves with an SXS wave superposed on top and in excellent agreement with the measurements. “That’s a very strong confirmation that these are gravitational waves that come from black holes – and that Einstein’s general theory of relativity is correct,” he said.”

3b. Gravitational waves found, black-hole models led the way – “”Even though the modeling and observations of these gravitational wave sources is difficult, requiring detailed, multi-physics models, the potential to study new realms of physics and understand new astrophysical transients is tremendous. Los Alamos is well-poised to solve these problems,” Fryer said. “Our program studying merger progenitors argued that the most-likely system would be a binary black hole system,” stated Fryer, “and it is gratifying to see that this first detection is exactly such a system. As aLIGO detects more of these mergers we will be able to probe aspects of stellar evolution.””

3c. The scale of the universe is amazing – but more astonishing still is the science that lets us understand it – “That men and women can, in a few short years, take tiny smidges of data from often ill-behaved instruments around the world and judiciously combine them with a wide range of physical theory – including the demanding mathematical subtleties of general relativity – to form an account of something not only unimagined but unimaginable to anyone without the new mental equipment this joint endeavour provided: that seems to me a source of wonder greater than the vastest of astronomical numbers.”

4. ICCR conference to explore ‘Indian origins’ of Romany people such as Elvis Presley, Pablo Picasso – “”These names such as Charlie Chaplin or Elvis Presley are not being arbitrarily thrown up but have come to be associated here with a lot of research. Prima facie, these artists are from the Roma community which have traces in India,” he said. “They migrated from here to Europe 2,500 years ago but till today they have preserved many of social and cultural traditions. We are attempting to bring out that commonality, and express our affinity towards the community.”

5. The case of the sinister buttocks – “One more observation, about definition: This case teaches us that defining plagiarism in terms of lifting someone else’s sequence of words is far too restrictive. If you will forgive me some technical notation, a sentence with words w1 … wk may also be reasonably suspected of being plagiarized if there is an unacknowledged source sentence x1 … xk such that, for most i between 1 and k, either (a) wi = xi or (b) wi is in the set of words presented in some thesaurus or synonym-dictionary as alternatives for xi or (c) wi and xi are both in the set of words presented in the entry for some third word (recall service and liturgy).”

6. High stakes as Japanese space observatory launches – “The major existing X-ray satellites are NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and ESA’s XMM-Newton, which both launched in 1999. These can analyse the constituent wavelengths of X-rays — the spectra — emitted by point-like objects such as stars. But ASTRO-H will be the first to provide high-resolution spectra for much more spread-out X-ray sources such as galaxy clusters, says Norbert Schartel, project scientist for XMM-Newton at ESA’s European Space Astronomy Centre outside Madrid, who is also a member of ASTRO-H’s ESA team.”

7. Hail, Clooney! – “… everyone was resigned to the fact that this was more or less a Clooney show. The actor was asked if he’d make a sequel to Syriana, the Oscar-winning film on petroleum politics that he produced. He said, “There is a lot wrong with the world, as we all know. But we are in a political period in our country today, and we’re not talking enough about the world. As filmmakers, we react to events. We don’t lead the way. The film happens years after the news story breaks. And you need a good story, good characters.” He spoke of his humanitarian work in Darfur (“it’s very close to me”) and how he’d like to make a film around the conflict. “But we haven’t found the proper script yet.” He said he was meeting Angela Merkel the next day.”

8. Measurements of the gravitational constant continue to fail to converge – “Who needs a more accurate numerical value of G (the current recommended value6 is 6.67408 ± 0.00031 × 10−11 kg−1 m3 s−2)? The short answer is, nobody, for the moment, but being apparently unable to converge on a value for G undermines our confidence in the metrology of small forces. Although it is true that the orbits of the planets depend on the product of G and the mass of the Sun — the structures of all astrophysical objects are determined by the balance of gravity and other forces produced by, for example, gas, photon or degeneracy pressure — ab initio models of the Sun are still an order of magnitude away from predicting a value of G at a level comparable with laboratory determinations. We do not need a value of G to test for departures from the inverse square law or the equivalence principle. There is as yet no prospect of a theory of quantum gravity that would predict a value for G that could be tested by experiment. Could these unresolved discrepancies in G hide some new physics?”

9. Retraction Watch interviews Jeffrey Drazen, coauthor of controversial NEJM editorial – “We knew this is a sensitive area, and the editorial brought into the open what had been simmering under the surface. What we now have is an opportunity to have an open and frank discussion about data sharing. This is all about the patients. This is all about disease. We can’t let it be about anything else.”

10. Extending an alternative to Feynman diagrams – “The problem with effective field theories that the authors address is that higher-dimension terms give rise to contributions that cannot be determined by factorization. In some effective field theories, however, these higher-dimension terms are connected to lower-dimension ones by symmetries. This is the case, for example, for nonlinear sigma models, which describe pion interactions at low energies. In this case, and in others, the symmetries are reflected in the behavior of the scattering amplitudes: they approach zero more rapidly as we take some of the external momenta to zero. Cheung et al. take advantage of this behavior to extend the applicability of Cauchy’s theorem to cases where the infinite-momentum condition fails to hold. Their work allows us to extend the idea of defining quantum field theories via physical principles, instead of via a Lagrangian, to an important class of effective field theories.”

11. Cosmologist Janna Levin on the vitalising power of obsessiveness, from Newton to Einstein – “The history of innovation offers plenty of testaments — most of the people we celebrate as geniuses, whose breakthroughs forever changed our understanding of the world and our experience of life, labored under David Foster Wallace’s definition of true heroism — “minutes, hours, weeks, year upon year of the quiet, precise, judicious exercise of probity and care — with no one there to see or cheer.” Marie Curie toiled in her lab until excessive exposure to radiation begot the finitude of her flesh, wholly unprotected by her two Nobel Prizes. Trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell made herself “ill with fatigue” as she peered into the cosmos with her two-inch telescope well into the night, night after night. Thomas Edison tried material after material while looking for a stable filament for the first incandescent bulb, proclaiming: “I have not failed. I’ve just found ten thousand ways that won’t work.” And then there was light.”

12. Stephen Hawking v. Paul Rudd for the fate of humanity

13. India needs home-grown GM food to stop starvation – “India should stop trying to build the Taj Mahal with borrowed bricks. We need a concerted effort at home to discover and manipulate relevant genes in indigenous organisms and crops (such as chickpea and rice). Indian microbial institutes should take up projects in this direction, because most of the currently used genes for transgenic generation are of microbial origin. That requires a change in direction from an Indian GM-food strategy that has traditionally aimed at quick product development instead of careful assessment of the underlying science. Such home-grown GM crops would also reduce reliance on transgenic technology produced by multinational companies, which is expensive and rarely optimized for the conditions of specific regions. Some GM crops designed abroad need more water than is usually available in some parts of India, for example, putting great stress on farmers. Indian scientists need better training in IP issues, especially when our researchers join foreign collaborations to examine and exploit the molecular biology of our natural resources. Otherwise, Indian researchers may get the scientific credit for discoveries but fail to claim the right to commercialize the products developed.”

14. Watch the destruction of Pompeii by Mt. Vesuvius, recreated with computer animation – “The ash-preserved ruins of Pompeii, more than any other source, have provided historians with a window into just what life in that time and place was like. A Day in Pompeii, an exhibition held at the Melbourne Museum in 2009, gave its more than 330,000 visitors a chance to experience Pompeii’s life even more vividly. The exhibition included a 3D theater installation that featured the animation above. Watch it, and you can see Pompeii brought back to life with computer-generated imagery — and then, in snapshots over the course of 48 hours, entombed by Vesuvius again.”

15. ‘I’ll take the radiant, radioactive half-life of love over half-love’ – “The span of a woman’s twenties—not just in urban India, but elsewhere too—is a period in which she can go from being an ingénue playing at power with older men to becoming, herself, a station of strength. “It is astonishing how strong you become, when you’ve spent a lot of time being other people’s weaknesses,” I write in one story, ‘Corvus’. A weakness—a flaw, a temptation, a mistake. Strength takes shape, invariably, through failure, including the failures of others. It happens, ultimately, through unrequited love, love at the wrong time, love afraid of the sound of its own name. And so, left to yourself in the absence of other scaffolding, you teach yourself how to build an Ark that you fill one by one by one by one with memory that petrifies into treasure, risk that alchemises into beauty, rupture that raptures into meaning. And then, by yourself, you pull its door closed.”

16. A gradual decline of nuclear power is in the offing – “… energy demand is growing rapidly, leading to construction of just about every form of electricity generation known. The two most populous of these economies — China and India — have great ambitions for nuclear power, and everything else. During 2014, China brought online 5.3 GW of nuclear power, 20.3 GW of wind turbine power, 21.8 GW of hydropower and 53.3 GW of power from thermal plants (mostly coal). Between September 2014 and September 2015, India commissioned a 1 GW nuclear reactor, coal plants generating 16 GW and wind and solar plants generating nearly 5 GW. In recent years, these two, and several other countries, have generated more energy from non-hydro renewables than nuclear energy25. In short, China, India and other developing countries are following an all-of-the-above strategy. As a result, although the overall capacity of nuclear energy might grow, globally the share of nuclear power in electricity generation will continue to drop (Fig. 4). Although costs may currently take a back seat to meeting demand, in the long run the same economic forces shaping the nuclear future in the developed world will limit nuclear growth in the developing world too.”

Roundup of missed stories – February 8, 2016

Previous editions of such roundups are here and here. Basically, the following are developments I’d have liked to cover but haven’t been able to for lack of time. You’re free to dig into them.

1. Cross-cultural studies of toddler self-awareness have been using an unfair test – “There’s a simple and fun way to test a toddler’s self-awareness. You make a red mark (or place a red sticker) on their forehead discreetly, and then you see what happens when they look in a mirror. If they have a sense of self – that is, if they recognise themselves as a distinct entity in the world – then they will see that there is a strange red mark on their face and attempt to touch it or remove it. This is called the “mirror self-recognition test” and by age two most kids “pass” the test, at least in Western countries. Several studies have suggested that the ability to pass the test is delayed, sometimes by years, in non-Western cultures, such as rural India and Cameroon, Fiji and Peru. But now a study in Developmental Science says this may be because the mirror test is culturally biased.”

2. Quantum Physics came from the Vedas: Schrödinger, Einstein and Tesla were all Vedantists – If you know me, you know I always suspect such explorations: “In the 1920’s quantum mechanics was created by the three great minds mentioned above: Heisenberg, Bohr and Schrödinger, who all read from and greatly respected the Vedas. They elaborated upon these ancient books of wisdom in their own language and with modern mathematical formulas in order to try to understand the ideas that are to be found throughout the Vedas, referred to in the ancient Sanskrit as “Brahman,” “Paramatma,” “Akasha” and “Atman.” As Schrödinger said, “some blood transfusion from the East to the West to save Western science from spiritual anemia.””

3. Evaluation of the global impacts of mitigation on persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic pollutants in marine fish – “The lack of standardized monitoring approaches, coupled with the globalization of seafood imports and exports, makes estimating the likely exposure to individual consumers based on market choices challenging. However, this analysis reveals the widespread and pervasive nature of persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic chemicals in seafood and the need to tackle these challenges. In terms of human health, standards are developed in a singular fashion, evaluating risks for only one pollutant at a time. In reality, fish often contain multiple classes of PBTs simultaneously. Understanding additive effects of multiple exposures to PBTs is the next step in determining the “real” exposure risk to consumers, in all kinds of food.”

4a. Universal decoherence due to gravitational time dilation – “Here we consider low-energy quantum mechanics in the presence of gravitational time dilation and show that the latter leads to the decoherence of quantum superpositions. Time dilation induces a universal coupling between the internal degrees of freedom and the centre of mass of a composite particle. The resulting correlations lead to decoherence in the particle position, even without any external environment.”

4b. Questioning universal decoherence due to gravitational time dilation – “A striking example in this regard is provided by the work of Pikovski et al., in which it is claimed that gravitational effects generically produce a novel form of decoherence for systems with internal degrees of freedom, which would account for the emergence of classicality. The effect is supposed to arise from the different gravitational redshifts suffered by such systems when placed in superpositions of positions along the direction of the gravitational field. There are, however, serious issues with the arguments of the paper.”

5. Fractality à la carte: a general particle aggregation model – “In nature, fractal structures emerge in a wide variety of systems as a local optimization of entropic and energetic distributions. The fractality of these systems determines many of their physical, chemical and/or biological properties. … Here, we propose a simple and versatile model of particle aggregation that is, on the one hand, able to reveal the specific entropic and energetic contributions to the clusters’ fractality and morphology, and, on the other, capable to generate an ample assortment of rich natural-looking aggregates with any prescribed fractal dimension.”

6. In retrospect: Dawkins’s ideas on evolution – “Books about science tend to fall into two categories: those that explain it to lay people in the hope of cultivating a wide readership, and those that try to persuade fellow scientists to support a new theory, usually with equations. Books that achieve both — changing science and reaching the public — are rare. Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859) was one. The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins is another. From the moment of its publication 40 years ago, it has been a sparkling best-seller and a scientific game-changer.”

7. New insights into the properties of an atomic nucleus using 48Ca – “Writing in Nature Physics, Gaute Hagen and colleagues push the limits of ab initio calculations to reach a benchmark medium-heavy nucleus, 48Ca. This is an important advance because it takes ab initio calculations into the mass region where meaningful comparison with other theories, such as nuclear density-functional theory, are thought to be appropriate. Furthermore, ab initio calculations of a neutron-rich nucleus such as 48Ca, having 20 protons and 28 neutrons, gives access to nuclear properties that are, at present, poorly established.” (Also, do we know everything about anything at all? Seems not.)

8. An audit of scientific research? – “When it comes to enforcing compliance, there is an established method that any taxpayer or corporate accountant has a healthy fear of: the audit. We propose a systematic and independent audit of research manuscripts before they are reviewed by a journal’s panel of referees and editors. Here we outline an approach that draws on the arms of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and corporate auditing methods, adapting the concept for the unique needs of scientific research.”

9. Beall took a dig at The Scholarly Kitchen. The Kitchen’s Joe Esposito interviewed him to understand why. – “Esposito: I want to be sure I understand you on this point. To an earlier question you replied that although you focus on identifying OA publishers of little or no merit, you believed that there are useful OA venues. But your response just now seems to suggest that all Gold OA is a bad thing. Can you clarify your position?

Beall: I stand by both statements. I know some would love to catch me in a contradiction and declare victory, but some things are ambiguous, and at universities we specialize in dealing with ambiguities and uncertainties.

You brought up the concept of self-contradiction, so I am reminded that in late 2013 you authored a mean and hurtful blog post in The Scholarly Kitchen entitled Parting Company with Jeffrey Beall. Why are you communicating with me now after so firmly declaring an intention to end contact with me?”

'Don't Move Away'

I listen to a lot of music but can’t pretend to have a deeper appreciation beyond how each track makes me feel. A day that begins with Maharajapuram Santhanam’s rendition of Endaro Mahanubhavulu in the morning could transition to Machine Gun by Noisia by late afternoon and on to Een Geldersch Lied by Heidevolk after dinner. But for the last few days, this wayward procession has been hijacked by Thalli Pogathey (Don’t Move Away), a single released from the upcoming Tamil film Achcham Enbadhu Madamaiyada. It’s been composed by A.R. Rahman with lyrics by Thamarai, and I think they’ve both surpassed themselves. Here’s the track followed by some of my favourite lines from the lyrics (0:33-1:17):

Kannellaam neeye thaan nirkindrai / கண்ணெல்லாம் நீயே தான் நிற்கின்றாய்
Vizhiyin mael naan kobam kondaen / விழியன் மேல் நான் கோபம் கொன்டேன்
Imai moodidu endraen / இமை மூடிடு என்றேன்
Nagarum nodigal kasaiyadi pole / நகரும் நொடிகள் கசையடி போலே
Mudhugin mele vizhuvadhunaale / முதுகின் மேலே விழுவதுனாலே

Your image fills my eyes
I’m angered by my visions
I ask myself to close my eyes
Seconds pass, like a whiplash
They fall on my back

Vari vari kavidhai / வரி வரி கவிதை
Ezhudhum valigal, ezhudhaa mozhigal / எழுதும் வலிகள், எழுதா மொழிகள்
Enathu kadal pola peridhaaga / எனது கடல் போலே பெரிதாக
Nee nindraai, siruvan naan / நீ நின்றால் சிறுவன் நான்
Siru alai mattum dhaan / சிறு அலை மட்டும் தான்
Paarkiraen paarkiraen / பார்கிறேன் பார்கிறேன்

Like lines and lines of poetry
Painfully written, in unwritten languages
Vast like my ocean
You stood and me, a little boy,
Witnessed only the ripples

One thing I’ve noticed in the work of good writers and scientists (the people I often interact with) is that the littlest possible bits of information are often strung together to become a wellspring of ideas and perspectives. For all his musical genius, Rahman’s songs are a wellspring of emotions for me – sometimes they click, sometimes they don’t, but they’re all achieved with an economy of sounds. He seldom tries too hard (a surprising exception was Oru Koodai Sunlight from Shivaji), which I’ve come to believe is a desperation safer in the hands of those who have nothing to lose. In fact, Rahman is masterful at combining lyrical traditions with those forms of music in which they’ve seldom existed (as with Adiye from Kadal), and achieves that seamless weave with subtle, well-crafted interventions (best heard in Margazhi Poove from May Maadham) instead of just throwing them together (which may have succeeded with Melam Moge from Billa Ranga but didn’t with Yennai Arindhaal‘s title track).

And Thalli Pogathey is simply more of that mastery at work.

UCL cancels homeopathy event by Indian docs

An India-based homeopathic organisation caused ripples in academic circles in the UK over the last few days after announcing it would conduct a conference on treating cancer at the University College London (UCL) premises – an appointment that has since been cancelled by UCL.

Although homeopathy has been widely drubbed as possessing zero curative potential, it continues to have an existence ranging from undemonstrative to unrestrained in many countries. In the UK, its practice is restricted by law; further compounding the issue is that the scheduled conference plans to discuss ways to manage cancer with homeopathy, the kind of advertising that’s barely legal in the country (see: Section 4, Cancer Act, 1939).

The website built for the event says that the Dr. Prasanta Banerji Homeopathic Research Foundation, based in Kolkata, will conduct the conference at the UCL Institute of Neurology, with an entry fee of £180. The two-day event will discuss the so-called Banerji Protocols, a set of methods developed by doctors Prasanta and Pratip Banerji to manage various ailments using only homeopathy and arrive at diagnoses quickly. However, their claims appear insufficiently backed up – a list of publications on the foundation’s page doesn’t contain any peer-reviewed studies or reports from randomised clinical trials.

Once the event’s details were publicised, the furore was centred on the Banerjis’ using UCL premises to promote their methods. As Andy Lewis wrote in The Quackometer, “[UCL’s] premises are being used to bring respectability to a thoroughly disturbing business.” However, after complaints lodged by multiple activists, researchers and others, UCL cancelled the event on February 1 and said, according to blogger David Colquhoun, that the booking was made by a “junior [secretary] unaware of issues”, that it had learnt its lesson, and that a process had been set up to prevent similar issues from recurring in the future.

The UCL clarification came close on the heels of the UK’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Authority approving five homeopathic combinations to make therapeutic claims. All combinations are made by a company named Helios and assure palliative and curative effects, including for hay fever. Edzard Ernst, noted for his vehement opposition to homeopathy, wrote in response on his blog, “If you look critically at the evidence, you are inevitably going to arrive at entirely different verdicts about the effectiveness of these remedies: they actually do nothing!”

It’s notable that the marketing practices that the Banerjis are following closely mimic those generally adopted by people selling dubitable products, services or ideas:

  • Advertising methods through case studies instead of scientific details – Three items on the conference agenda read: “Evidence based management of cancer, renal failure and other serious illnesses with case presentations including radiology and histopathology images” and “Live case studies to demonstrate case taking for difficult conditions”
  • Conflating invitation from institutes with invitation from governments (the latter hardly ever happens) – From banerjiprotocols.in: “Under invitation from Spain, Portugal, Royal Academy of Japan, USA, Roswell park cancer centre at Buffalo, New York, Italy, Netherlands, Germany we have done workshops and teaching seminars and we received standing ovations in all the places.”
  • Citing alleged accreditation by prestigious institutions but of which no official record exists – Also from banerjiprotocols.in: “Our protocol for Brain cancer & Breast Cancer has been experimented by the scientist of the MD Anderson Cancer Centre, Houston, USA and found in vitro experiment that these medicines selectively kills cancer cells but not the normal cells. Joint paper by us and scientist, professor of cell biology and genetics has been published in International Journal of Oncology. Our work with National Cancer Institute, USA has been published in journal of Oncology Reports.” – The papers are not to be found.

Others include referring to essays and books of their own authorship; presenting their publication as validation of their methods; not participating in any collaborative work, especially with accredited research institutions; and often labouring unto not insubstantial commercial gains.

Despite a World Health Organisation directive in 2009 cautioning against the use of homeopathy to cure serious illnesses like malaria, it is officially counted among India’s national systems of medicine. Its research and practice receives support from the Department of Ayurveda, Yoga and Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homeopathy (AYUSH) under the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare. From 1980 to 2010, the number of homeopathic doctors in the country doubled while the number of dispensaries increased four-fold.

The Wire
February 2, 2016