Sound the bugle

The 9:18 to NYC

Posted in genetics, Mas despacio, por favor, science by justescaped on April 12, 2010

A submission to NPR’s Three Minute Fiction Contest. Immense fun.

“But it was more than just a trick”, the old man muttered to nobody in particular. He had been at it since he’d entered the vestibule and planted himself on my berth.

“You see, young Harry Wiggins used the transcoder rays on the metabolic enzymes of mice and just like that they…they could live for days without food. Moreover, they seemed to hate eating!”

I nodded vaguely. I tried to keep up with his long sentences, but my AVpad informed me they were at Flesch grade level of five. Way above the recommended casual conversation levels. Instead of correcting his level however (as I was clearly within my rights to do), I just phased him out. He did look like a quaint professor, just like from the old visuals. Only two more stops till Manhattan…

“The transcoder was a radical technology for those times. It used frequencies that could  shift the chemical bonds on DNA molecules that were exposed to the rays. We could rewire any organism to modify their proteins….oh, such wonders ensued! Anorexic mice, fluorescent worms, flowers with synthetic essences, bacteria that made tobacco”.

I phased off.

“But then shit really hit the fan”, he startled me back into the current reality by grabbing my shoulder. Vofga, my virtual social interpreter, rolled her eyes and feinted puking on the AVpad. I LOLLed internally. I suppose he wasn’t actually referring to human excrement being hurled at wind simulators. I set her involvement level to minimum to avoid embarrassing the professor.

“One day, Wiggins walks in and announces that he could transcode the telomerase and other maintenance enzymes to protect DNA for longer number of replications. Much longer. Before we could utter a word, he produces a small vial and says ‘Meet Tiresias, my friend, born this day exactly two months ago’. Inside the small glass bottle, a fruit fly buzzed about. No one needed to be told the math. If a fly could live that long, and if we can build a big enough scanner…”

I wondered how it would be like to work with non-humanisms in the old days. Most of my acquaints would be repulsed by the thought, but I’d seen a few uncontrolled canines and marsupials in the woods where I grew up.

“Soon enough we had a unit large enough to scan cats and foxes. Not the best choices, mind you, back then no one scanned these animals for rabies. But big units need larger power grids, and soon enough, there were rumors and loose talk in the town.  Though things would’ve been alright if not for that damn accident. One kid gets some leaked radiation from the prototype model and all hell breaks loose. The big boys in Washington became decidedly curious about our work. We could see what was coming a mile away”

The train rumbled; a voice blared “We are now approaching the final stretch to the Manhattan. Please prepare for arrival by pressing the green button on your armrest”.

“…guess we all did what we had to. The prototype was sitting right there, all ready and the plug was about to be pulled”

The engine roar drowned him out. This part of the journey is not my favorite.

“Soon after that, I enlisted for my first tour to Samarra in the war”

Something prompted me to scan the Ubinet. As we jumped into the Atlantic airspace towards New York, I imapaged to my acquaints: “Met a woozy on aerotrain; thinks he is over three hundred years old. Hoping dementia is not contagious. Haha (Laughicon)”.

Tagged with:

Don’t change my cough syrup!

Posted in Mas despacio, por favor by justescaped on March 13, 2010
Rant alert
Growing up on a large dose of Hindi films, one couldn’t escape the feeling of familiarity that came with watching any new movie. The film could be really well-made, feature some excellent acting and (less unrealistically) good songs. It could keep us watching till the end without too much forwarding. We would very well mutter “That wasn’t bad at all” or “So and So did a good job, Miss. So and So looked hot as always”. The one thing that you will never hear spoken is “Whoa, I didn’t see that coming!”. For going to the movies is like drinking your mom’s (or doctor’s) daily dose of traditional cough syrup. You know before opening the bottle what it’s going to taste like. First there is that strong whiff of doom, and the first taste hacks at your nerves without too much subtlety. But as the infernal thing makes its way down your larynx, your mind convinces itself that the worst is over and the end effect is a comfortingly pleasant feeling. There are many variations on the theme of course- acrid smells, tongue-scorchers or sweet, extra-syrupy syrups- but you bear familiarity with the process as a result of limitless amounts of conditioning. That is probably the same kind of familiarity that I possess with watching the offerings of our esteemed directors. The stories, the songs, the plot twists, the fight scenes, the hero’s obligations, the heroine’s limits…one learns to swallow the pungent whiff of emotional drama with tranquility knowing that the sweet relief of romantic songs is just a gulp away. The result of three hours of this controlled emotional exercise, and possibly the reason I still watch movies, is the pleasant comfortable numbness of the aforementioned medicine. And it is legal and apparently safe to do so.
But I color these words with shades of concern. In recent years, there has been a disturbing disavowal of these principles (the stories, songs, fight scenes etc.) in movies in favor of well, something else. That something else is vague, disinterested and listless.  There has been a systematic abdication of process in Hindi movies replaced by plug and play plot lines, cliches and memes. In the twitter generation, movies are seemingly being made 140 characters at a time, not risking to test the attention span or even patience of the audience beyond that. Earlier (pre-2002 I guess, the date of my exodus), though you could sense the plot changes in a movie in advance (and sometimes, shockingly, you didn’t), there was an elegance and manner and even depth in which the transitions were handled. Emotional stuff, bland though it may be, still had enough vim to scratch and gnaw. The happier (=soppier) stuff tested the cardiac melting temperatures of most. When Shahrukh Khan stood up to Amrish Puri in the classic pop film DDLJ, we all stood up with him (though most in my age group would deny associating with this). When Anil Kapoor (pre-24) bandied around with the kids in the tragi-comic “Mr. India”, we enjoyed a full bandwidth of entertainment. You get the idea. The story writers, directors and the actors did not miss a trick. Their cough syrup was the real deal. (An aside, watching a really good movie would be like drinking scotch; the flavors all come out slowly).
But all that has been surgically replaced with packaged blandness, like sugar being replaced with low calorie sweeteners or a stiff tonic substituted with diet coke. Social issues were once the mainstay of movies (to the point of irritation), but now they are at most convenient (and callous) place-markers or absent altogether. Now a hot-bed, complex issue like international terrorism can be treated almost with unbelievable naiveté to tell a farce of a story (Kurbaan). Unlike in ‘Roja’- a superb romance oriented story based in a clime of terrorism, wherein Pankaj Kapoor plays a menacing Kashmiri militant, the terrorists in ‘Kurbaan’ live in neighboring million-dollar houses in subarban Philadelphia and teach lectures in Universities, even after blowing up an airline! In ‘Tum Mile’ the horrific Mumbai floods of 2007 were used as a minor plot point (devoid of context) for the coincidental re-union of an estranged couple. There have been movies made about dance competitions, FM radio shows, IT companies, call centers, cricket etc. You know that things are not going well when movies start mimicking pop culture, and not the other way round which was true for decades in India. The scripted jokes are now merely borrowed from the internet, movie plots now borrowed from uncredited Indian authors no less (having run out of western ‘inspirations’), the cliches are well, ‘extra-cliched’, the actors merely connect the dots (where is the flamboyance, the hamming, the patented twirls and shakes, the booming rejoinders to evil folks?), and the emotional detachment of the audience (sample size of one i.e. me) could not get much worse.
One can see how Bollywood, given its current trend, may remain extremely popular but may no longer remain relevant.  A loose analogy may be made between the state of Bollywood and that of the great Indian religion, cricket, not too many years ago. Cricket was a dying a slow death due to a thousand stabs due to incessant and increasingly tedious one-day matches. It ran the same risk of losing relevance. But magically, it pulled itself out of the funk improbably with the invention of an even-shorter version of the game. Hindi cinema might, at least to me, need some such savior.

The Discovery

Posted in Mas despacio, por favor, science by justescaped on December 30, 2009

The Discovery lays dormant, waiting to reach its rightful place in the world; to perhaps be known as a Law. It waits patiently, for not many humans seek it. But there is one young graduate student, and hope kindles.Will it be today?

The seeker runs the gel and stares at the bands. The glow of cosmos permeates through the image of those perfectly aligned small horizontal bars on Kodak paper. Jubilant, the seeker runs to the senior post-doc, an ex-seeker who had led many dashing expeditions for the Discovery when blood still ran through his veins, but whose heart had since been turned to ice by numerous crushing disappointments.

The Discovery waits with canine expectancy. It’s cousin, Relativity, adds dramatic effect by seeming to pause Time. The ex-seeker stares long and hard at the picture. Slowly, his callused hands begin to tremble and something stirs inside his flotsam mind. Could it be…now?

The seeker bristles with energy only a sophomore scientist can muster. The Discovery fights back emotions it had long forgotten or perhaps didn’t know existed.

Just then, the ex-seeker’s observation skills, long unused, kick in to spot a fatal anomaly. The results are too perfect; young seeker has mislabeled the samples. His cynicism intact, the post-doc burrows back into his hole. The Discovery sighs, folds its arms and slinks out of the room. It awaits another day.

Ah, retirement.

Posted in Mas despacio, por favor by justescaped on August 9, 2009



Languorous as a spent bulldozer, speedy as a bullet late for work, nimble as a two-toed ballerina. He takes life one deep contemplative sigh at a time. He is the most interesting dog in the world.

Tagged with:

I get Evolution

Posted in Mas despacio, por favor by justescaped on July 11, 2009

but I still can’t shake off the morbid fear, that whatever’s growing on the bread right now won’t bite me in a month or two.