Oh my. Apparently, people don’t take kindly to pictures of Ganesha with his…

I’ve had a surprising amount of pushback about my posting a link to this The Onion article, and about my surprise that Facebook would censor a post with this link because somebody reported it as, I don’t know–obscene, offensive, blasphemous, take your pick. Which brings me back to: oh my. People really don’t take kindly to pictures in which “the Hebrew prophet Moses high-fives Jesus Christ as both are having their erect penises vigorously masturbated by Ganesha, all while the Hindu deity anally penetrates Buddha with his fist.”

[Edit: Picture removed. It was an editorial decision.]

I’ve made a list of people’s complaints. If you’ve been following along on Facebook, this isn’t new.

Here’s Saikishan:

I actually think it is not inappropriate to curtail free speech till people get open minded. A riot /people getting killed/ inciting violence/ increasing communal tensions is too big a price to pay for someone being able to post random stuff online or write a controversial novel or make a outrageous movie. While we should work towards tolerance and liberty in every sense, that has to be gradual & systematic.. creating awareness and open-mindedness over time without offending people… and people who argue for freedom to expression should behave with more maturity. With great power / liberty should come great responsibility.

And a random-dude:

It got blocked because it shows penises, pubic hair and arseholes. Free speech curbing does not enter into it. Be responsible and post such links on 18+ forums if you must.

fb Statement of Rights and Responsibilities(section 3.7): You will not post content that: is hate speech, threatening, or pornographic; incites violence; or contains nudity or graphic or gratuitous violence.

Random dude’s supporter:

The link you posted was just obscene… and maybe deep down they had a motive to avoid any probable reaction to your link (which might happen, even when you are only “advising” that it should not happen etcetera)… However you just gave them a legitimate reason by posting a link that violated the section [random dude] has mentioned above…

and btw… don’t you think “purpose is to point out that people should learn that in a free world, people have no right against being offended” is an oxymoron in itself..??

And the guy who got the post censored:

Croor – I have the right to TELL you NOT to call me an idiot… or protest against it to the moderators of a forum like facebook ( Which btw i did to prove a point to you ) you of course have the right to continue to ignore my request, till you can’t, like in this case, or find a way to express your views elsewhere.

Facebook did nothing on its own account anyhow. It just listened to the requests of other individuals converging on the nature of your article.

My point is that this was still a democratic removal of your article. There is a difference between this and China removing pictures of Tiananmen Square. People rated your post, and it fell below the troll line. This is moderation in ‘good faith’.

And btw, you were asked to fill in security information because facebook was polite enough to assume that maybe it wasn’t you and your account was hacked. How do i know this ? It asks me before reporting if i thought your account was hacked. Again.. ‘good faith’, not Mamata Banarjee

I leave as an exercise to you the reader to deal with random dude and his supporter. The other two made one or two points worth addressing.

Free speech is a line-drawing exercise, sure. The line is usually drawn at anything that poses a ‘clear and present danger’. Like yelling ‘fire!’ in a crowded theatre. Or Advani or Uma Bharathi telling an assembled mob that god wants them to break down the mosque. “Increasing communal tension”, whatever that means, should not be covered. It isn’t ‘clear and present danger’. It happens over time. Which means people have time and brains to think about what was said, how much it offended them, and most importantly how they don’t have the right to ask somebody else not to offend them.

Comparing a post at The Onion (or indeed on my Facebook) to Tienanmen Square is a bit much, no? Can anybody say Godwin? More importantly: free speech trumps “democracy”. Especially if we’re talking about MY facebook wall, where democracy doesn’t apply at all.

You don’t like what’s on my wall? Don’t read it. Nobody is making you.

The straw that broke the irony-meter

Has Mamata Banerjee taken over facebook’s content filters?

The right to free speech is in the news again: because people face threats of jail for pointing out that sewage water is not holy; because Mamata Banerjee really cannot help herself; because cartoonists in this country can now be arrested for speaking their minds; because the State in our country has no qualms about snooping on its own citizens.

And now because a badly made internet movie called “Innocence of Muslims” has caused another round of orchestrated outrage in the Arab world, leading to American embassies in Egypt and Libya getting ransacked.

The Onion have an article that sums up all this better than anybody else can. I posted a link to this on my facebook in response to a friend’s comments about Obama’s speech to the UN General Assembly where he denounced religious intolerance but refused to budge on free speech. That this is itself ironic is true, coming from the president of the country that has the Patriot Act for a law and ‘free-speech zones’ for, well, free speech.

But what broke my irony meter is that a day after I posted the link to the The Onion article, I was locked out of my facebook account, having to go through a security check (“Pick out which friend of yours is in these pictures.”) in order to get back in. I found this:

We removed content you posted
We removed the following content you posted or were the admin of because it violates Facebook’s Statement of Rights and Responsibilities:
Sayash Kumar, Obama should’ve simply linked to this in his speech. Much better than waking up Jefferson and company from their graves.

Violence is not an answer to offence–real or manufactured. Censorship of an article whose only purpose is to point out that people should learn that in a free world, people have no right against being offended–now that’s irony.

This makes me wonder if Mamata Banerjee has taken over control of Facebook’s content filters.

[Edit: 28/9/2012, late at night:] A fellow on my facebook list says he reported the post and that was why Facebook took the post down. And he says that this was to prove a point. I’m still murky on what the point was, but that may just be me. More comments and responses in the next post.

Nuclear safety and the people of Koodankulam

Edited 12/9/2012 after being first posted.

Events at Koodankulam in Tamil Nadu have reached a crisis. The people of Koodankulam want the nuclear reactor gone. The government wants the nuclear reactor commissioned. And India’s police forces remain brutish, using teargas and firing at people protesting the nuclear power plant.

The protests at Koodankulam are happening because India’s track record at protecting the safety of its citizens is abysmal. To stick to nuclear waste, we would do well to remember that radioactive waste from the Uranium mines of Jadugoda has affected more than 50,000 people. These are government-owned mines.

The safety situation at the mines is equally dismaying. The company dumps waste from the mines in open fields and transports uranium ore in uncovered dumpers. Just about a decade ago, say villagers, the playgrounds for children and grazing areas were near the three tailing ponds. The company even supplied mine tailings as construction material to the villagers . In December 2006, a pipe burst spilling radioactive waste. There was no warning system in place. The authorities took about nine hours to respond. People recall several similar incidents.

The protests are led by the People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy(PMANE). Their supporters include people like Medha Patkar and Arundhati Roy, who says

“I stand in complete solidarity with the villagers of Idinthakarai who are resisting the fuel loading of the Koodankulam nuclear reactor. I happened to be in Japan in March 2011 when the earthquake damaged the Fukushima reactor. After the disaster, almost every country that uses nuclear energy declared that it would change its policy. Every country, except India. Our Government has shown itself incapable of even being able to dispose day to day garbage, leave alone industrial effluent or urban sewage. How does it dare to say that it knows how to deal with nuclear waste? And that nuclear reactors in India are safe? We know how the Government has colluded with Union Carbide (now Dow Chemicals) to ensure that the victims of the Bhopal Gas Leak will never get justice. But no amount of compensation can ever right a nuclear disaster. I do believe that what is being done in Koodankulam in the name of Development is a crime.”

— Arundhati Roy

The people at Dianuke have a list of problems with the Koodankulam nuclear plant:

4)      More specifically, the NPCIL does not have adequate water backup, in the event that emergency cooling of the reactor or spent fuel pool is required. It has simply “promised” to construct one, but there is no clear time frame or accountability on this promise.

5)      The NPCIL does not have adequate power backup in the event of a station blackout. It has again “promised” to procure a mobile Diesel Generator set, but only in the “long run.”

9)      Dummies Guide to Safety: Leaving aside these technical issues, there is simple “dummy” guide to safety. The Government has signed a secret “liability” agreement with Russia completely indemnifying the Russian company in the event of an accident. The Government has refused to disclose the clauses of this agreement, in response to RTI requests, court petitions, and parliamentary questions. If the reactor is so safe, and there is no chance of a disaster, why is such great care required to protect the interests of the Russian company in the event of an accident? And if an accident is indeed possible, then why is the Government willing to privilege a foreign company over its own people?

As I understand it, what is being said above is that the Russian company that is going to build the nuclear plant — not operate it, but build it — is not going to be held liable for a nuclear accident at the plant. The operator of the nuclear plant, of course, is the Nuclear Power Corporation of India, a government-run agency.  Internationally accepted practice is that the nuclear suppliers and the builders of the plant are not held accountable; the operator is. The nuclear liability act in India says something similar. Except that the nuclear operator in our case is the government itself via the NPCIL.

With their lives at stake except for the feeble guarantees of the government that the nuclear plant is safe (something the government still says about Jaduguda’s Uranium mines), and with the track record of the Indian state and its protection of citizens, can we really be surprised that the people of Koodankulam want no part of the nuclear power plant?

The main argument for nuclear power is that it is cleaner and more sustainable than conventional sources of electricity. That is if one ignores all the risks people are worried about. Is nuclear power necessary in order to meet India’s energy demands? Germany, one of the countries that gave up nuclear power after the Fukushima disaster, has an immense solar-power programme. They were able to show that a third to a fourth of their country could be run on solar power alone. India has its own heroes. Gram Power, an organisation working in rural Rajasthan has electrified an entire village that no longer depends on the government for electricity. This electricity is entirely provided by solar banks, but the founders of Gram Power say that they are capable of using any alternative energy source.

Cartoons, corruption, sedition

What the cartoons are is representative of the Indian middle-class, such as it is, and whatever anger the middle-class has against politicians, and bureaucrats, and ‘corruption’. This is the definition of political satire. And the state locking the cartoonist up for the crime of satirising the people running the state is the definition of totalitarianism.

You may have read about Aseem Trivedi, a cartoonist from Kanpur, was the latest victim of India’s ban-fetish. Trivedi, to boot, faces life in jail for sedition under a British era law whose existence, more than anything he did, calls into question India’s democratic credentials.

Trivedi is also the founder of ‘Save your Voice‘, a movement for freedom against internet censorship.

His website was blocked last year for hosting ‘objectionable content’ — a term so vague and vacuous that only the Indian government can use it without flinching. He moved all his cartoons to the Blogspot blog after this.

Below are two of the cartoons he has been arrested for. There’s more of the kind on his blog.

Now, the cartoons may not be to your taste. They may not be respectful of the powers that are. I don’t even think they are particularly good. (Or all that subtle.) They paint the black and white picture of corruption that Anna Hazare and company are so fond of. What the cartoons are is representative of the Indian middle-class, such as it is, and whatever anger the middle-class has against politicians, and bureaucrats, and ‘corruption’. This is the definition of political satire. And the state locking the cartoonist up for the crime of satirising the people running the state is the definition of totalitarianism.

Oh God

Yes, they laughed at Socrates; they laughed at Galileo; they also laughed at Bozo the clown. I laugh at BM Hegde. Join me, won’t you?

Harish Dixit pointed some of us to the latest pile of drivel from BM Hegde.

If you are (or used to be) a regular watcher of TED talks, you may remember a talk by a woman called Jill Taylor. She had a stroke, which led to a massive right-brain seizure. This resulted in her going through the weirdest morning of her life before she was taken to the hospital and the clot in her head was removed. After eight years recovering brain and bodily function, Jill Taylor now spends her time talking about that morning and the experience of, for lack of another word, bliss.

You can probably guess where this is going. You’re right, but wait for it!

I wanted to quote some bits of the article and say something about them. The article is so horrible, however, that I ended up copying it entire.

“Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras, Socrates, Jesus, Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton were all misunderstood… To be great is to be misunderstood.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

Yes, they laughed at Socrates; they laughed at Galileo; they also laughed at Bozo the clown. I laugh at BM Hegde for opening with this self-serving quote. Join me, won’t you?

Jill Bolte Taylor is a brain scientist at the neuropsychiatry department of Harvard University. She learnt her first lesson in true brain function when, at the age of 38, she came down with an intense headache one morning. The pain was so unbearable and soon made her lose all her left brain functions like speech, comprehension, use of the right half of the body and self-consciousness. But what she discovered that morning was so profound which no one could ever have found, which the world needs to know. Jill had the unique opportunity to learn the brain functions inside out. She was acutely aware of the two distinct brain parts, the right and the left connected only by millions of axons through the corpus callosum.

Try this, for comparison: “I ran five kilometres that day. As I stopped, exhausted, I was acutely aware of my two lungs — the right and the left — connected only by my wind-pipe. There is something profound here that the world needs to know.”

The right brain is a parallel processor, while the left brain is a serial processor, if you like. While the left brain thinks linearly, the right thinks holistically. The left brain understands the present, past and the future, the reason why we all feel miserable. The right brain, on the contrary, connects us with this whole universe as a speck in the omnipotent universal consciousness. That morning, Jill felt real “nirvana” in her own words. However, now and then her dying left brain would kick her back to the mad world, reminding her “Hey Jill, you have a problem, you need help!” Soon she will fall back into that blissful satchitananda of the disconnected right brain that connects her only to her maker, the universal consciousness.

So, basically, god and the assorted accompaniments are manifestations of epilepsy. That clears up so much, no?

Doctors at the Mass General Hospital removed a large blood clot in her left brain caused by a vessel bursting open. It took her eight years to get back her normal functions, to go back to work again on the human brain. She goes round the world telling people how she felt that fateful morning which transformed her whole life and gave her a new perspective. She has learnt to forget those two most dangerous days of the year — yesterday and tomorrow. God presented her with a present — “today” to enjoy.

Yesterday has been a dream and no force on earth can undo that: tomorrow is only a mirage which no one could predict. Why then worry about those two days and make life miserable? One could live blissfully in the present trying to help others live well too. Happiness comes in search of you when you help make another person happy. Thena thyakthena bhoonjithaaha — “rejoice in giving” is the advice of the Ishopasnishad.

I don’t need the epileptic seizure that is god to realise that worrying too much about the past or the future may not be the best thing for the present. BM Hegde must have seen this objection coming, because he continues:

One need not get brain haemorrhage to realise God. We could do that by stimulating our right brain functions through praanaayaama regularly. David Schanoff Khalsa, a neuro-psychiatrist in San Diego University, had been working on the benefits of left nostril breathing (Kriya Yoga) in treating mental ailments such as depression, epilepsy, obsessive compulsive neurosis and other anxiety disorders. Human mind is intangible but is a wonderful wonder. Mind is not an organ in the conventional sense; it is not situated in the brain or any other organ. Brain is a computer coordinating all the body functions. Mind is only energy at the subatomic level of every single human cell of which there are one hundred thousand billions in all.

The human mind is a wonderful wonder, wouldn’t you know! The mind is also energy at the subatomic level of every cell. Seriously, shut up. David Schannahoff-Khalsa (this is how the name is spelt, by the way) is an alternative-medicine kook. If this tells you something about Hegde’s penchant for name-dropping, the next paragraph will exemplify it:

Matter and energy are the two sides of the same coin; they are not two distinct entities at the subtlest level, opines a great physicist, Hans-Peter Duerr, Emeritus President of the Max Planck Institute in Munich, who succeeded Albert Einstein and Werner Heisenberg. Trying to look at matter at its subtlest level for the last 55 years, Hans-Peter recently realised that there is no matter distinct from energy at that level. That vast omnipotent energy is the universal consciousness (or God) and we humans are but a tiny bit of that consciousness, the individual consciousness.

Has Hegde never heard of E=MC^2? It is only the best-known formula in physics. Matter and energy are equivalent. You don’t have to go to the ‘subtlest’ level, whatever the hell that means. Also, that last sentence is just bull. Hegde seems to be saying that we’re all made up of matter, as is the universe. Big whoop. Why does this pass for wisdom?

One need not go in search of God in all temples, churches and mosques, while our own God resides within all of us as universal compassion and friendship. Why not try and develop that God who is attainable to each and everyone of us? One need not even be literate to do that, one has to be educated though, to know that God resides inside each of us. We need to transform ourselves from the manliness of “getting and forgetting to the godliness of giving and forgiving.” One could attain godhood easily by mediation and praanaayaamaa not overnight but by constant practice.

…or, once we’ve failed at that, write awful nonsense for the papers and make a living that way.

The Colour of Memory

Memory reconsolidation offers an explanation for the plasticity of memory and hope for people suffering from such conditions as PTSD.

This is an essay I wrote for Fingerprints, JNC’s literary magazine. They’ve asked, for their 2012 issue, for interpretations of the theme “The Colour of Memory”. Nice, no? It’s wonderfully vague. As a nerd, this is my interpretation. [I put up the first full draft I had here. I’ve edited it since, for better continuity and structure.]

“Where were you on the night of the 26th of November, 2008, when a handful of teenagers from Pakistan terrorised the city of Bombay and killed dozens of people?”

For anybody with a personal connection to the events of that night, that question is likely to evoke, or provoke, a lot of thought and produce answers that strike one for their detail. Given the nature of the memories associated with the event in question, you would think these are memories etched deeply in the subject’s mind. Unalterably, permanently. After all, how could one forget something that shakes one up like this?

ResearchBlogging.orgHowever, recent findings about memory show that long-term memory isn’t a perfect replication of actual events. Our brains have a tendency to rewrite history, as it were.

Memories can be short-term – a phone number you remember just long enough to jot it down – or long-term – your birthday, when India got independence, or what have you. Short-term memories exist as a result of several neurons firing simultaneously and have to be maintained by constant repetition; failing which they cease to exist, or at least exist with any accuracy. Short-term memory is converted to long-term memory in a few hours. Several hormones and brain organs – notably the amygdala and the hippocampus – are involved in this process.

The conversion from short-term to long-term memory involves the creation of neural synapses. Synapses are essentially wires that connect two neurons together. You can imagine that two neurons that are wired together are easier to excite together. Hebbian learning, a theory loosely summarised as ‘neurons that fire together wire together’ tells us which neurons grow synapses between each other. This model has been experimentally verified and is a cornerstone of the modern theory of mind.

Memory, however, is more complicated than this. The memory-as-synapse explanation leaves no room for change. Memories once created are unalterable; the only way to change a memory is to destroy it, as happens with some pathologies. But doctors and psychologists know that people suffering from, say, post-traumatic stress disorder(PTSD) do get better with time and therapy. We are only now beginning to understand this seeming contradiction of the plasticity of memory.

Plasticity of memory – the ability to be modified without getting annihilated – in long-term memory is essential. If a memory once formed could never be altered except by destruction, learning would become impossible. Before I can say anything about how we think plasticity is achieved, however, we need to understand what goes into the formation of long-term memories in the first place.

The amygdala and the hippocampus — parts involved in the consolidation of short-term memory into long-term memory — are also part of the emotional circuit of the brain. They are involved in, for instance, the fear-response of the body – ‘fight or flight’. The body shuts down ‘unnecessary’ functions – growth, for example – and focuses its resources on fighting or running away. There is a surge of adrenaline that opens up the vascular system, increasing blood flow and energy production. The problem with the fear-response is that frequent triggering leads to chronic stress – the body is always on edge, always waiting for a surge of activity even when none is forthcoming. Patients with chronic stress are known to have hippocampi that are 10-15% smaller than usual.

This involvement of the emotional circuit in matters memory-related is a pointer to the complicated nature of memory. Memories with great emotional context are known to be longer-lasting and immutable. However, this only applies to the central details. Peripheral details are either not remembered at all, or are open to suggestion. This means, for example, that while you are likely to remember Ajmal’s face, you aren’t likely to remember whether you had tea or coffee as you watched the events unfold on TV.

The mystery is that whether you remember drinking coffee or tea may be open to suggestion. In fact, this suggestibility is deeper than a simple switch of beverages. Advertisers use this suggestibility to reinforce, or sometimes even change, people’s opinions of products. Called memory morphing, this sort of after-the-fact suggestion makes consumers enthusiastically recommend products that they may not even have liked.

This suggestibility of memory arises because of a process called reconsolidation. Short-term memory has to be consolidated into long-term memory by the formation of new synapses. Karim Nader and colleagues at New York University and elsewhere have now discovered that when an event from the past is recalled, the memory becomes destabilised. The destabilised memory, which is to say the neurons and synapses that make up the memory, has to undergo a process that is similar to the consolidation of short-term memory into long-term memory; it has to be ‘re-consolidated’. It is during this process of reconsolidation of a destabilised memory that the memory can be altered.

Carlos Rodriguez-Ortiz and Federico Bermudez-Rattoni from  write:

Reconsolidation appears to be an updating consolidation intended to modify retrieved memory by a process that integrates updated experience into long-term memory. Previously consolidated memory is partially destabilized and by the infusion of disrupting agents it appears as if the process is intended to consolidate memory again.

The destabilisation of recalled memories also explains the plasticity of memory. New details can be incorporated into existing memories without the existing memory having to be destroyed, by ‘partially rehearsing the older memories’. Which details can be incorporated into existing memories depends on what kind of details they are. The stronger the cue for the memory, the older the memory, the harder it is to destabilise or morph.

These details of memory reconsolidation have been worked out by Akinobu Suzuki from Tokyo University and co-workers. They find that memories recalled for less than a minute don’t get destabilised at all, and don’t have to be reconsolidated. Memories recalled for about a minute undergo destabilisation, and any disruption of the process of reconsolidation tends to destroy the memory. Memories recalled for much longer than a minute are on their way to automatic extinction.

This last fact is well-known; psychiatric therapy works on the premise that talking about traumatic memories can help people deal with them. By recalling memories as they talk about it, patients destabilise their memories. These destabilised memories are rewired with the added environmental cues of a comfortable chair and a doctor’s office. Eventually, the trauma associated with the memories simply fades away. The patient is able to remember what happened without having to re-live it. Pharmaceutical intervention in the reconsolidation process is also possible, now that more details of the reconsolidation process are becoming known.

Suzuki A, Josselyn SA, Frankland PW, Masushige S, Silva AJ, & Kida S (2004). Memory reconsolidation and extinction have distinct temporal and biochemical signatures. The Journal of neuroscience : the official journal of the Society for Neuroscience, 24 (20), 4787-95 PMID: 15152039

Rodriguez-Ortiz CJ, Bermúdez-Rattoni F. Memory Reconsolidation or Updating Consolidation? In: Bermúdez-Rattoni F, editor. Neural Plasticity and Memory: From Genes to Brain Imaging. Boca Raton (FL): CRC Press; 2007. Chapter 11. Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK3905/