Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Word beasts: a parliament of two

You might remember a moment when in you were choosing what you were going to do with your life in which it all came together or you may not. This may be the mythology of me that I've built myself but one of my markers was reading about the Jeffress' model in Eric Kandel's book, 'Principles of Neuroscience'. I remember thinking, that's cool, if I could do stuff like that I would love it. Somewhere there is the beginning of my love affair with modelling biological systems.

The Jeffress' model is a model of a neural circuit built to detect the direction that a sound is coming from. It's a beautiful and elegant model that has been found to be used by the brains of many different species, including humans. One of the most elegant bodies of work in neuro-ethology showed that this model holds for barn owls and explore many of the nuances of the behaviour.

The work of many people mainly Knudsen and Konishi and Catherine Carr showed that not only is the Jeffress model used to compute the azimuth but it also is used at several frequencies after a sound has been decomposed into different frequency components. This solves the problem of degenerate solutions that you could get from a pure tone sound. Apart from this, in perhaps one of the most 'awww' experiments ever, they showed that the auditory map is tuned to the visual map and this can be tuned and retuned but only when owls are young. It's beautiful work and this piece is in based on it. Imagine trying to sneak up on these owls as they were hunting and imagine that they found you instantly as you rustled through the teasels. They would find you with an accuracy of a single degree!

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Tuesday, November 08, 2011

As many as tell the tale

The Indian right does it again. They dropped A K Ramanujan's essay in their quest for a perfect world with one sangha line way of looking at it.  So I thought I'd link to it. And revive this tale that's apropos.


As many as tell the tale

There was always the attention, the eyes that turned towards us throughout the entire journey and the steady stream of questions. We had tired of telling our stories, spending so much of our life like small change on insistent little children who came running up to us, asking, unbridled yet by convention. Our story was now becoming mere words. Every time I told it, reality seemed to erode a bit. It became my construction and not something that had really happened. It was to end soon; it was our last bus ride home.

I sat facing the window; my body sunk into his shoulder, with his arm around me. As I hunkered down for the long dusty ride, I realized that I had wondered whether we would even make it this far, but we had. He had gamely borne the sun, the scrutiny and enjoyed himself nonetheless. As the bus pulled out of the station and into the stone cobbled lanes of an ancient kingdom I said, “Tell me a story.” He nuzzled my hair and asked, “What kind?” “Old stories, tell me really old stories, they seem appropriate somehow. Tell me what the world is made of, tell me how it was made.”

It never took him long to come up with stories. We had lived worlds apart and our stories were different, we could rely on our old familiars being new to the other. “You remember that beautiful tree in the courtyard?” “Umm hmm, the Frangipani tree.” “It made me think of the Yggdrassil.” “What is that?”, I asked. He mocked something I’d said oftentimes before “You haven’t heard of it?” “I have”, I said smiling and then in my worst pedagogic voice, “but you have to tell me all about it. That’s how you tell stories.”

“Alright, my little Besserwisser”, he said indulgently. “So I’ll tell you how the world is made according to the Icelanders. There are these old, old Norse poems from about the 13th century I think, in these old books called the Eddas. Pretty much all of Norse mythology comes from them. They say that at the centre of the universe, standing in nothingness, there is a massive ash tree, which is the tree of the world, the Yggdrassil. It shelters and links all the nine worlds together. It is the source of all living souls in all the worlds. One of its roots is in the upper world of Asgard, where the gods live, another in Jotunheim in the Midgard, the middle worlds and the last in Niflheim in the Helheim, the nether-worlds, the realms of death. Under the Asgard roots, the Gods assemble everyday to decide on the affairs of the world, the Midgard root dips into Mimir’s well of wisdom and in Niflheim the tree is constantly chewed on by a snake called Niddhog, the eater of corpses, who continuously tries to destroy the Yggdrassil. Life and death and learning are all organised around this tree. But when Ragnarok comes, everything will be destroyed. Niddhog will be destroyed and so will the mighty gods and all the middle worlds and their puny inhabitants, only the Yggdrasil will remain. And from the tree, life will begin again.”

I pouted and teased him, “There they go, your stories, killing my snakes, making villains of them! Eating the tree of life! That’s even worse than the biblical story, which only makes them responsible for the fall of mankind. Only the mere and meager tempters of essentially flawed and weak humans. This is grander evil. Poor buggers, no one loves them at all.”

"Oh yes, little one, pick on that tiny bit of the story!" But then, smoothing down my mock ruffled feathers, he said, "To be honest though, there are positive snakes in all mythologies. For instance, the Ouroboros, the snake grabbing its tail is the gnostic symbol of eternal return, renewal, of the very soul of the world. Plato even called the Ouroboros the perfectly constructed animal because it had no need for anything other than itself and had nothing that was superfluous."

"Hmm, ok, so maybe they don't all make them bad. The renewal and return are quite positive and it also makes me think of Sheshnag. So, Sheshnag is the massive snake upon whose coils Vishnu, the preserving god of the Hindu trinity rests. He is Vishnu's constant companion, born with him on the earth in every one of Vishnu's ten incarnations, the dash avatars, which by the way is where the word comes from." Realising I made constant unnecessary diversions, I impatiently added, "Anyway, more to the point, the word 'Shesha' means what remains. And like the Yggdrassil, when the Universe is destroyed, all that will remain will be the serpent. He is the only truly eternal being, which is where his other name Ananta or the eternal comes from. In the Norse myth, the snake eats the eternal and in the Hindu one, it is the eternal and the Ouroboros is a symbol of eternity. Funny that snakes are so often linked to the forever."

Doubt still niggling away at me, I added "But there's loads of different Ouroboros aren't there? I mean mythic snakes that eat their own tails? And also the Christians don't take such a kindly view of the symbol, they don't see it as a eternity symbol, but one of being trapped in a limited material world."

"Well, the Christians always hated what they saw as pagan beliefs, they just found a way of twisting them into something ugly so people wouldn’t use them anymore. They were also just a bit more scared of fertility symbols, I think. But, off course, there are others, I think Quetzlcoatl is sometimes depicted as an Ouroboros; then there's Jorgmungandr, Loki's son, the world serpent who catches his tail while encircling the world. I can even think a non-mythological one and I bet you can't guess it", he said his eyes twinkling.

I squeezed my eyes tight against the distracting confusion of images that was tumbling through the TV screen of my window and tried to dig other images up. I gave up eventually and said "I'm going to kick myself for not trying harder, amn't I? Alright I'll bite, tell me."

“Aren't you clever?” He quipped while his fingers traced the contours of my ears as he half whispered, “Kekule’s benzene rings!” and waited for my protests.

I laughed rather than protest and said slyly, “And that’s a real story, isn’t it, unlike Newton’s apple apocrypha? Kekule talked about it himself.”

“Umm hmm, Yes he did. But I think some people think he might have confabulated. So it might not be a true story after all.”

“Such a pretty way of saying he lied! But yes, there were loads of different stories that floated around; different stories that he told different people. So it's thought he might have made all of them up. I wonder though, if a story is a true story as long as it is good, veracity be damned. Well, it certainly gets repeated more, and doesn’t what is called enough get called into existence?

Anyway, snakes of sciency legends, huh? Well, the staff of Asclepius has a snake wound around it, doesn’t it? That’s sciency, the symbol for medicine; it sometimes gets botched a bit, has two snakes instead of one, sometimes it’s done right too. The Greeks used to try and cure people of different ills by letting snakes crawl all over them in some of their temples. That’s believed to be the origin of the snakes on the caduceus. I wonder what kind of magic that is, cause it wouldn’t be Frazer's idea of sympathetic magic, would it? Seeing how snakes are associated with venom and all that.”

“Like I keep saying, it depends how you see it. In the epic of Gilgamesh, Gilgamesh at the end of his long and arduous travels, gets this plant from the bottom of the ocean. The plant was supposed to grant him eternal life but a snake eats it while he is sleeping and it becomes immortal instead of Gilgamesh. And that’s why snakes moult, as a symbol of being reborn again and again. So maybe it is sympathetic magic after all, the patients want a bit of that eternal life to rub off on them. I guess that's another bit of the forever that sticks to snakes.

And, the caduceus, there's also another story for it. Asclepius is supposed to have learnt the secret of immortality while he lay dying, by seeing one snake heal another using a plant. He used the same plant and revived himself. It might be this snake on Asclepius’ staff. Asclepius, by the way, was killed by Zeus for having acquired the secret knowledge of immortality. Zeus feared that all humans might become immortal if Asclepius told them about the plant and so he killed him. Some more snakes with forbidden knowledge. But not evil in this case, I guess, not temptors."

We must have gone quiet for a while at this point, because I remember looking up from the window and noticing the expectant faces around us. A half-lit, insulated tube, full of human faces, hurtling through a fading day in the Indian summer. I imagined for a moment that they were listening to our stories. But perhaps they were merely waiting for us to do something unusual. Or even were just surprised with our freeness with each other. They watched and I was amused and the bus carried on, on its dusty, windy way.

“With both her hands she labors at the knots.” He broke my reverie, and asked me, “What were you thinking of little one?” I sighed a little at having been woken up. It was starting to turn dark outside, the sky turning that beautiful inky blue, against which the tungsten lamp-lit streets and faces are so vivid and beautiful. “I was thinking of the sin of making everything human and how it is impossible to tell a story that at its core does not deal with our concerns. They are all stories of rebirth so we may live forever, fertility so we may be productive, so on and on.” “Well, that is true, I guess till snakes tell stories of themselves, there will be no truly snake stories. There will only be reflections of humans in snake skin. But there must be something, a story out there somewhere that is at least told in the voice of a snake. There’s just too many stories for there not to be one.”

Even the last light was now gone, I turned around and faced him, leaning against the window now. Happy to watch his face, exhausted as it was, but unhappy at not being attached to his hip as I had been for so many days now. We were drifting apart just then, exhausted by the traveling and the intensity of it all. The connection had to be reformed; that narrative had to be found again somehow.

“Well I suppose there is one, there is at least one story told by a snake. Krishna, one of Vishnu’s human avatars, performed many miracles when he still just a child, things that amazed even his parents who knew of his divinity, demonstrating he was no mere god. One of them was the taming of Kaliya, a terrible snake that lived in a lake near Krishna’s home. Kaliya was the bane of Krishna's people. He made a precious resource completely unusable. He spewed his venom into the water of the lake and made it undrinkable and no one could swim or bathe in the lake for fear of dying by his bite or the bite of his many wives and children.” “Evil, evil snake…” “That’s the general idea. But Krishna was not afraid of Kaliya and went to the lake and splashed around in it and sure enough Kaliya came along and attacked the little boy. Krishna was not going to be initimidated by some mere reptile and he jumped on top of Kaliya’s many hooded head while evading all his attacks and danced and danced on it. He danced on it till the snake was exhausted and completely subdued. And then he danced some more, he danced and danced until the snake vomited blood and was near death, he danced till Kaliya’s wives begged him for their husband’s life. And then he stopped.”

“So where’s the snake’s story?” “Patience, it isn’t done yet. When Krishna decided to spare Kaliya’s life, Kaliya was very grateful and thanked him profusely and offered Krishna his best hospitality. Krishna was pleased and told him he could continue living in the lake with his family if he pleased, as long as he harmed no one and did not pollute the waters. Then he went to Kaliya’s home with him at the bottom of the lake and lived with his family for a while, enjoying their hospitality, sporting with their maidens as he had done with those in his village. Krishna was a massive flirt, eventually married some ridiculously large number of women, some sixteen thousand of them. Anyway, one of Kaliya’s daughters told him the story of how they came to be at the bottom of that lake and how they became snakes.

She said that her father was a rich merchant who had lived on the banks of the Yamuna, a long long time ago. He had been very prosperous and had made a great deal of money. They had everything they could ask for and never needed to work to increase their riches. The whole family had grown accustomed to a life of profligacy and sloth. They would eat and drink and lie about and do not a thing for days on end. Their servants would carry them everywhere, to their baths and beds each day and even feed them like infants.

One day, they were all lying about in their front room after a huge lunch when a rishi, a sage with great powers, came to their door asking for alms. The servants had only just retired to their meal and no one in the family even stirred at his presence. He had to wait a long time to even be asked into the house. And when he came they did not think to ask his forgiveness, in their indolence they would not even offer him food or a drink of water. No one rose to wash his feet as is customary to do. Enraged at their sloth, he cursed them, he said these arms and legs you no longer use will fall off and you will crawl on your bellies everywhere. You will become ugly to the eye. You will be reviled by everyone around you, as you shun your duties to me, so shall everyone shun you. He cursed them that they would poison everything they touched and people will hate and fear them greatly. And before their very eyes, they all lost their arms and legs and became scaly and slippery and had to crawl on their bellies to get anywhere; in short they became the first ever snakes. The servants around them seemed terrified at the very sight of them and threw things at them attempting to kill them.

Swiftly, for once, gliding between the blows from the servants the family asked for the forgiveness of the rishi. After much pleading and groveling the rishi finally relented. He told them that they must go and live in the lake they now lived in. They would be reviled and feared and no one would come near them. But one day in the future the lord of the universe would come to them as a child and would fight the merchant who had become the biggest ugliest and most fearsome snake of all, Kaliya. Kaliya must fight the lord with all his might and he will come near death in this fight and in this fight he will be purified by the touch of the feet of the lord. And then if his wives succeed in begging for his life, they would be able to live peacefully from then on. They would remain snakes as they were now, but at least they would not poison the world and would not be hated by all. The snake girl told Krishna that they waited for many many eons for his arrival and were much relieved by his blessings. There that is the snake's story.”

Exhausted at the effort, I put my head on his shoulder and closed my eyes. As I started to drift away, I realized he was restless. I don’t know what tipped him off, whether it was the skeptical looks that I imagined our fellow passenger’s faces wore or whether it was that I had told him of the primordial snake before. He said to me as he wound his comforting arm around me again, “That’s a nice story, love, very evolutionary, but I think you might have taken a few liberties. Haven’t you? That isn’t a real version of that story.” I smiled through sleepy eyes, as the bus conductor turned off the lights to let us all sleep for the night leg of the journey, I said “There are, my love, as many as tell the tale.”

PS. Do tell me if you like the stories. Or if you hate them and especially if you think they are so bad I should stop all together. Or best of all, if you know how I can make them better!

In another skin

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Word beasts: teaser

Care to guess?