Saturday 30 June 2018

There’s no such thing as free will

But we’re better off believing in it anyway. Our ability to choose our fate is not free, but depends on our biological inheritance. 

For centuries, philosophers and theologians have almost unanimously held that civilization as we know it depends on a widespread belief in free will—and that losing this belief could be calamitous. Our codes of ethics, for example, assume that we can freely choose between right and wrong. In the Christian tradition, this is known as “moral liberty”—the capacity to discern and pursue the good, instead of merely being compelled by appetites and desires. The great Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant reaffirmed this link between freedom and goodness. If we are not free to choose, he argued, then it would make no sense to say we ought to choose the path of righteousness.

Today, the assumption of free will runs through every aspect of American politics, from welfare provision to criminal law. It permeates the popular culture and underpins the American dream—the belief that anyone can make something of themselves no matter what their start in life. As Barack Obama wrote in The Audacity of Hope, American “values are rooted in a basic optimism about life and a faith in free will.”

So what happens if this faith erodes?

The sciences have grown steadily bolder in their claim that all human behavior can be explained through the clockwork laws of cause and effect. This shift in perception is the continuation of an intellectual revolution that began about 150 years ago, when Charles Darwin first published On the Origin of Species. Shortly after Darwin put forth his theory of evolution, his cousin Sir Francis Galton began to draw out the implications: If we have evolved, then mental faculties like intelligence must be hereditary. But we use those faculties—which some people have to a greater degree than others—to make decisions. So our ability to choose our fate is not free, but depends on our biological inheritance.

Galton launched a debate that raged throughout the 20th century over nature versus nurture. Are our actions the unfolding effect of our genetics? Or the outcome of what has been imprinted on us by the environment? Impressive evidence accumulated for the importance of each factor. Whether scientists supported one, the other, or a mix of both, they increasingly assumed that our deeds must be determined by something.

In recent decades, research on the inner workings of the brain has helped to resolve the nature-nurture debate—and has dealt a further blow to the idea of free will. Brain scanners have enabled us to peer inside a living person’s skull, revealing intricate networks of neurons and allowing scientists to reach broad agreement that these networks are shaped by both genes and environment. But there is also agreement in the scientific community that the firing of neurons determines not just some or most but all of our thoughts, hopes, memories, and dreams.

We know that changes to brain chemistry can alter behavior—otherwise neither alcohol nor antipsychotics would have their desired effects. The same holds true for brain structure: Cases of ordinary adults becoming murderers or pedophiles after developing a brain tumor demonstrate how dependent we are on the physical properties of our gray stuff.

Many scientists say that the American physiologist Benjamin Libet demonstrated in the 1980s that we have no free will. It was already known that electrical activity builds up in a person’s brain before she, for example, moves her hand; Libet showed that this buildup occurs before the person consciously makes a decision to move. The conscious experience of deciding to act, which we usually associate with free will, appears to be an add-on, a post hoc reconstruction of events that occurs after the brain has already set the act in motion.

The 20th-century nature-nurture debate prepared us to think of ourselves as shaped by influences beyond our control. But it left some room, at least in the popular imagination, for the possibility that we could overcome our circumstances or our genes to become the author of our own destiny. The challenge posed by neuroscience is more radical: It describes the brain as a physical system like any other, and suggests that we no more will it to operate in a particular way than we will our heart to beat. The contemporary scientific image of human behavior is one of neurons firing, causing other neurons to fire, causing our thoughts and deeds, in an unbroken chain that stretches back to our birth and beyond. In principle, we are therefore completely predictable. If we could understand any individual’s brain architecture and chemistry well enough, we could, in theory, predict that individual’s response to any given stimulus with 100 percent accuracy.

This research and its implications are not new. What is new, though, is the spread of free-will skepticism beyond the laboratories and into the mainstream. The number of court cases, for example, that use evidence from neuroscience has more than doubled in the past decade—mostly in the context of defendants arguing that their brain made them do it. And many people are absorbing this message in other contexts, too, at least judging by the number of books and articles purporting to explain “your brain on” everything from music to magic. Determinism, to one degree or another, is gaining popular currency. The skeptics are in ascendance.

This development raises uncomfortable—and increasingly nontheoretical—questions: If moral responsibility depends on faith in our own agency, then as belief in determinism spreads, will we become morally irresponsible? And if we increasingly see belief in free will as a delusion, what will happen to all those institutions that are based on it?

In 2002, two psychologists had a simple but brilliant idea: Instead of speculating about what might happen if people lost belief in their capacity to choose, they could run an experiment to find out. Kathleen Vohs, then at the University of Utah, and Jonathan Schooler, of the University of Pittsburgh, asked one group of participants to read a passage arguing that free will was an illusion, and another group to read a passage that was neutral on the topic. Then they subjected the members of each group to a variety of temptations and observed their behavior. Would differences in abstract philosophical beliefs influence people’s decisions?

Yes, indeed. When asked to take a math test, with cheating made easy, the group primed to see free will as illusory proved more likely to take an illicit peek at the answers. When given an opportunity to steal—to take more money than they were due from an envelope of $1 coins—those whose belief in free will had been undermined pilfered more. On a range of measures, Vohs told me, she and Schooler found that “people who are induced to believe less in free will are more likely to behave immorally.”

It seems that when people stop believing they are free agents, they stop seeing themselves as blameworthy for their actions. Consequently, they act less responsibly and give in to their baser instincts. Vohs emphasized that this result is not limited to the contrived conditions of a lab experiment. “You see the same effects with people who naturally believe more or less in free will,” she said.

In another study, for instance, Vohs and colleagues measured the extent to which a group of day laborers believed in free will, then examined their performance on the job by looking at their supervisor’s ratings. Those who believed more strongly that they were in control of their own actions showed up on time for work more frequently and were rated by supervisors as more capable. In fact, belief in free will turned out to be a better predictor of job performance than established measures such as self-professed work ethic.

Another pioneer of research into the psychology of free will, Roy Baumeister of Florida State University, has extended these findings. For example, he and colleagues found that students with a weaker belief in free will were less likely to volunteer their time to help a classmate than were those whose belief in free will was stronger. Likewise, those primed to hold a deterministic view by reading statements like “Science has demonstrated that free will is an illusion” were less likely to give money to a homeless person or lend someone a cellphone.

Further studies by Baumeister and colleagues have linked a diminished belief in free will to stress, unhappiness, and a lesser commitment to relationships. They found that when subjects were induced to believe that “all human actions follow from prior events and ultimately can be understood in terms of the movement of molecules,” those subjects came away with a lower sense of life’s meaningfulness. Early this year, other researchers published a study showing that a weaker belief in free will correlates with poor academic performance.

The list goes on: Believing that free will is an illusion has been shown to make people less creative, more likely to conform, less willing to learn from their mistakes, and less grateful toward one another. In every regard, it seems, when we embrace determinism, we indulge our dark side.

Few scholars are comfortable suggesting that people ought to believe an outright lie. Advocating the perpetuation of untruths would breach their integrity and violate a principle that philosophers have long held dear: the Platonic hope that the true and the good go hand in hand. Saul Smilansky, a philosophy professor at the University of Haifa, in Israel, has wrestled with this dilemma throughout his career and come to a painful conclusion: “We cannot afford for people to internalize the truth” about free will.

Smilansky is convinced that free will does not exist in the traditional sense—and that it would be very bad if most people realized this. “Imagine,” he told me, “that I’m deliberating whether to do my duty, such as to parachute into enemy territory, or something more mundane like to risk my job by reporting on some wrongdoing. If everyone accepts that there is no free will, then I’ll know that people will say, ‘Whatever he did, he had no choice—we can’t blame him.’ So I know I’m not going to be condemned for taking the selfish option.” This, he believes, is very dangerous for society, and “the more people accept the determinist picture, the worse things will get.”

Determinism not only undermines blame, Smilansky argues; it also undermines praise. Imagine I do risk my life by jumping into enemy territory to perform a daring mission. Afterward, people will say that I had no choice, that my feats were merely, in Smilansky’s phrase, “an unfolding of the given,” and therefore hardly praiseworthy. And just as undermining blame would remove an obstacle to acting wickedly, so undermining praise would remove an incentive to do good. Our heroes would seem less inspiring, he argues, our achievements less noteworthy, and soon we would sink into decadence and despondency.

Smilansky advocates a view he calls illusionism—the belief that free will is indeed an illusion, but one that society must defend. The idea of determinism, and the facts supporting it, must be kept confined within the ivory tower. Only the initiated, behind those walls, should dare to, as he put it to me, “look the dark truth in the face.” Smilansky says he realizes that there is something drastic, even terrible, about this idea—but if the choice is between the true and the good, then for the sake of society, the true must go.

When people stop believing they are free agents, they stop seeing themselves as blameworthy for their actions.
Smilansky’s arguments may sound odd at first, given his contention that the world is devoid of free will: If we are not really deciding anything, who cares what information is let loose? But new information, of course, is a sensory input like any other; it can change our behavior, even if we are not the conscious agents of that change. In the language of cause and effect, a belief in free will may not inspire us to make the best of ourselves, but it does stimulate us to do so.

Illusionism is a minority position among academic philosophers, most of whom still hope that the good and the true can be reconciled. But it represents an ancient strand of thought among intellectual elites. Nietzsche called free will “a theologians’ artifice” that permits us to “judge and punish.” And many thinkers have believed, as Smilansky does, that institutions of judgment and punishment are necessary if we are to avoid a fall into barbarism.

Smilansky is not advocating policies of Orwellian thought control. Luckily, he argues, we don’t need them. Belief in free will comes naturally to us. Scientists and commentators merely need to exercise some self-restraint, instead of gleefully disabusing people of the illusions that undergird all they hold dear. Most scientists “don’t realize what effect these ideas can have,” Smilansky told me. “Promoting determinism is complacent and dangerous.”

Yet not all scholars who argue publicly against free will are blind to the social and psychological consequences. Some simply don’t agree that these consequences might include the collapse of civilization. One of the most prominent is the neuroscientist and writer Sam Harris, who, in his 2012 book, Free Will, set out to bring down the fantasy of conscious choice. Like Smilansky, he believes that there is no such thing as free will. But Harris thinks we are better off without the whole notion of it.

“We need our beliefs to track what is true,” Harris told me. Illusions, no matter how well intentioned, will always hold us back. For example, we currently use the threat of imprisonment as a crude tool to persuade people not to do bad things. But if we instead accept that “human behavior arises from neurophysiology,” he argued, then we can better understand what is really causing people to do bad things despite this threat of punishment—and how to stop them. “We need,” Harris told me, “to know what are the levers we can pull as a society to encourage people to be the best version of themselves they can be.”

According to Harris, we should acknowledge that even the worst criminals—murderous psychopaths, for example—are in a sense unlucky. “They didn’t pick their genes. They didn’t pick their parents. They didn’t make their brains, yet their brains are the source of their intentions and actions.” In a deep sense, their crimes are not their fault. Recognizing this, we can dispassionately consider how to manage offenders in order to rehabilitate them, protect society, and reduce future offending. Harris thinks that, in time, “it might be possible to cure something like psychopathy,” but only if we accept that the brain, and not some airy-fairy free will, is the source of the deviancy.

Accepting this would also free us from hatred. Holding people responsible for their actions might sound like a keystone of civilized life, but we pay a high price for it: Blaming people makes us angry and vengeful, and that clouds our judgment.

“Compare the response to Hurricane Katrina,” Harris suggested, with “the response to the 9/11 act of terrorism.” For many Americans, the men who hijacked those planes are the embodiment of criminals who freely choose to do evil. But if we give up our notion of free will, then their behavior must be viewed like any other natural phenomenon—and this, Harris believes, would make us much more rational in our response.

Although the scale of the two catastrophes was similar, the reactions were wildly different. Nobody was striving to exact revenge on tropical storms or declare a War on Weather, so responses to Katrina could simply focus on rebuilding and preventing future disasters. The response to 9/11, Harris argues, was clouded by outrage and the desire for vengeance, and has led to the unnecessary loss of countless more lives. Harris is not saying that we shouldn’t have reacted at all to 9/11, only that a coolheaded response would have looked very different and likely been much less wasteful. “Hatred is toxic,” he told me, “and can destabilize individual lives and whole societies. Losing belief in free will undercuts the rationale for ever hating anyone.”

Whereas the evidence from Kathleen Vohs and her colleagues suggests that social problems may arise from seeing our own actions as determined by forces beyond our control—weakening our morals, our motivation, and our sense of the meaningfulness of life—Harris thinks that social benefits will result from seeing other people’s behavior in the very same light. From that vantage point, the moral implications of determinism look very different, and quite a lot better.

What’s more, Harris argues, as ordinary people come to better understand how their brains work, many of the problems documented by Vohs and others will dissipate. Determinism, he writes in his book, does not mean “that conscious awareness and deliberative thinking serve no purpose.” Certain kinds of action require us to become conscious of a choice—to weigh arguments and appraise evidence. True, if we were put in exactly the same situation again, then 100 times out of 100 we would make the same decision, “just like rewinding a movie and playing it again.” But the act of deliberation—the wrestling with facts and emotions that we feel is essential to our nature—is nonetheless real.

The big problem, in Harris’s view, is that people often confuse determinism with fatalism. Determinism is the belief that our decisions are part of an unbreakable chain of cause and effect. Fatalism, on the other hand, is the belief that our decisions don’t really matter, because whatever is destined to happen will happen—like Oedipus’s marriage to his mother, despite his efforts to avoid that fate.

Most scientists “don’t realize what effect these ideas can have,” Smilansky told me. It is “complacent and dangerous” to air them.
When people hear there is no free will, they wrongly become fatalistic; they think their efforts will make no difference. But this is a mistake. People are not moving toward an inevitable destiny; given a different stimulus (like a different idea about free will), they will behave differently and so have different lives. If people better understood these fine distinctions, Harris believes, the consequences of losing faith in free will would be much less negative than Vohs’s and Baumeister’s experiments suggest.

Can one go further still? Is there a way forward that preserves both the inspiring power of belief in free will and the compassionate understanding that comes with determinism?

Philosophers and theologians are used to talking about free will as if it is either on or off; as if our consciousness floats, like a ghost, entirely above the causal chain, or as if we roll through life like a rock down a hill. But there might be another way of looking at human agency.

Some scholars argue that we should think about freedom of choice in terms of our very real and sophisticated abilities to map out multiple potential responses to a particular situation. One of these is Bruce Waller, a philosophy professor at Youngstown State University. In his new book, Restorative Free Will, he writes that we should focus on our ability, in any given setting, to generate a wide range of options for ourselves, and to decide among them without external constraint.

For Waller, it simply doesn’t matter that these processes are underpinned by a causal chain of firing neurons. In his view, free will and determinism are not the opposites they are often taken to be; they simply describe our behavior at different levels.

Waller believes his account fits with a scientific understanding of how we evolved: Foraging animals—humans, but also mice, or bears, or crows—need to be able to generate options for themselves and make decisions in a complex and changing environment. Humans, with our massive brains, are much better at thinking up and weighing options than other animals are. Our range of options is much wider, and we are, in a meaningful way, freer as a result.

Waller’s definition of free will is in keeping with how a lot of ordinary people see it. One 2010 study found that people mostly thought of free will in terms of following their desires, free of coercion (such as someone holding a gun to your head). As long as we continue to believe in this kind of practical free will, that should be enough to preserve the sorts of ideals and ethical standards examined by Vohs and Baumeister.

Yet Waller’s account of free will still leads to a very different view of justice and responsibility than most people hold today. No one has caused himself: No one chose his genes or the environment into which he was born. Therefore no one bears ultimate responsibility for who he is and what he does. Waller told me he supported the sentiment of Barack Obama’s 2012 “You didn’t build that” speech, in which the president called attention to the external factors that help bring about success. He was also not surprised that it drew such a sharp reaction from those who want to believe that they were the sole architects of their achievements. But he argues that we must accept that life outcomes are determined by disparities in nature and nurture, “so we can take practical measures to remedy misfortune and help everyone to fulfill their potential.”

Understanding how will be the work of decades, as we slowly unravel the nature of our own minds. In many areas, that work will likely yield more compassion: offering more (and more precise) help to those who find themselves in a bad place. And when the threat of punishment is necessary as a deterrent, it will in many cases be balanced with efforts to strengthen, rather than undermine, the capacities for autonomy that are essential for anyone to lead a decent life. The kind of will that leads to success—seeing positive options for oneself, making good decisions and sticking to them—can be cultivated, and those at the bottom of society are most in need of that cultivation.

To some people, this may sound like a gratuitous attempt to have one’s cake and eat it too. And in a way it is. It is an attempt to retain the best parts of the free-will belief system while ditching the worst. President Obama—who has both defended “a faith in free will” and argued that we are not the sole architects of our fortune—has had to learn what a fine line this is to tread. Yet it might be what we need to rescue the American dream—and indeed, many of our ideas about civilization, the world over—in the scientific age.

(Source: The Atlantic)

A 101-year-old biochemist tells us what life at IISc used to be like

Violet Bajaj is 101 years old. She sits in her room before dinner, with the Gerald Seymour thriller she is currently reading on the table before her. Reading is her favourite hobby, and a low cupboard near her desk has a few books neatly arranged on it, ranging from novels by Agatha Christie to Naguib Mahfouz. Detective novels are her favourite things to read, she says, and it comes as no surprise that she should love a good whodunit. Asking questions, as it turns out, is something of a way of life for Bajaj, whose search for knowledge even as a young woman took her from Ranchi to Lucknow, Bangalore, Pune and Delhi. Around six years of her life were spent studying biochemistry at IISc, where in her twenties she lived through incredible times – World War II and India’s struggle for independence – and she was a part of one of the earliest generations of women in India to study at a modern science institution. Whether it was studying the RNA and DNA of a fungus and questioning societal conventions in her youth, or maintaining a keen interest in current affairs now, at over a century old, it is hard not to see Violet as someone with queries always at the tip of her tongue.

Meet Violet Bajaj, a kickass biochemist and former IISc scientist. Picture Courtesy: Deepika S
Today, Violet lives with her daughter Sheela Bajaj and son-in-law Sudhir Sahi, in Sheela’s flat a quiet south Delhi neighbourhood. She was born on 21 January 1917, in a Goan family that lived in Agra. When Violet was three, her family moved to Jhansi, where she grew up.

Violet studied at St Francis Convent in Jhansi, where she finished her Senior Cambridge examination (the equivalent of matriculation). She says that no science subjects were taught at her all-girls’ school – she had only studied English, Geography, History and Maths. But she wanted to study medicine like her older sister Blanche, and since there was no college in Jhansi, she joined Isabella Thoburn College in Lucknow for a four-year BSc. For the first time, she was studying Physics, Chemistry, and Biology, which she found tough. After completing her BSc, she joined Lucknow University for an MSc in Chemistry. By then, her parents had moved to Bangalore, where some of their relatives were, and lived in a bungalow on Rest House Crescent. “One of my professors at Lucknow said, ‘If you’re going to Bangalore, why not apply to the Institute?’ So I did. [Until then] I had never heard of it. Initially I joined the Department of Chemistry to study Organic Chemistry, which I did not like. So I shifted to Fermentation Technology.”

The Fermentation Technology Section, as it was known at the time, was set up in 1942 under the Department of Pure and Applied Chemistry. In 1951, it was transferred to the Department of Biochemistry, and in 1953, it became an independent entity as the Fermentation Technology Laboratory under M Sreenivasaya, who had been Violet’s teacher (as well as Kamala Sohonie’s). In 1988, it became part of the Department of Microbiology and Cell Biology.

Violet at IISc around 1945 (Photo: APC, IISc)
“I loved the practical aspect of science very much,” Violet says, adding, “I loved the experimental side of chemistry. And biochemistry was a subject I really took to. It was a new science, just coming up.” What she found most fascinating about fermentation technology was its application of chemistry to living organisms. She studied Aspergillus niger, a fungus that causes black mould in some vegetables and fruits for her PhD thesis. She also co-authored four papers (in the Archives of Biochemistry and Biophysics) between 1953 and 1957, while working towards a PhD under PS Krishnan at the National Chemical Laboratory, Pune.

For the few years that Violet studied at IISc, she lived with her parents. “There were students from all over India, but mainly South Indians,” she says. Outside the classroom, men and women mixed freely, forming music clubs, playing bridge, and going on picnics to Nandi Hills. “At that time, there were people like Homi Bhabha and Vikram Sarabhai visiting the Institute. It was an exciting place because eminent scientists would visit and give talks. It was a momentous time. The freedom movement was in full swing, and students were keen on freedom from British rule.”

The hidden figures of IISc: Rajeswari Chatterjee, Roshan Irani, M Prema, Miriam George and Violet D’Souza. Picture Courtesy: APC, IISc
But Violet also remembers IISc of the 1940s as being a “caste-ridden” place. “There was a separate Iyer mess and a separate Iyengar mess, and never the twain would meet. Can you imagine, they wouldn’t even eat together?” she asks, laughing. She almost giggles as she recounts how her teacher, Sreenivasaya – “a very orthodox Kannadiga Brahmin” – had to travel abroad and would have to purify himself through elaborate rituals on his return (according to Hindu Vedic texts, sea voyages cause one to lose one’s caste, and hence was once considered taboo). “We used to have terrific arguments about it,” she says, adding that they also “got on wonderfully well. In the end because I always stood up to him, he respected me.” And perhaps it was her influence that brought about a softening of his stand on caste and ritual purity: “Later, he even came to stay at my house and ate my food,” says Violet.

Even as a young woman, Violet had strong opinions. She describes herself as “very much a Commie” during her early days at Lucknow University, influenced by the activism of Ali Jafri and Aruna Asaf Ali, though she says she grew out of it in her late twenties. As a college student, at 18, once she was introduced to Darwin’s theory of evolution, she stopped going to church and became an atheist, which she remains to this day. While studying at Lucknow, she had met a young Punjabi army officer named Vidyaprakash Bajaj through friends. He was later posted in Bangalore, and midway through her time at IISc, she married Bajaj in a simple civil wedding. Her family took the news of her relationship “very badly” at the time, she says with a grin, and none of them attended her wedding.

After she was married, her husband was posted in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), and as her parents had moved away from Bangalore, she moved into the Ladies’ hostel at IISc. She says there was “no question” of the caste divisions on campus applying inside the women’s hostel, which had very few students in it – the students had to run the hostel themselves, and organise their own food. It was simple vegetarian fare, says Violet, and everyone ate together. “We were all always in and out of each other’s rooms all the time,” she says, adding that there were none of the restrictions that women in hostels face today. “Isn’t it crazy?” she says of the curfews and unfair rules for women that have spurred protests across the country in recent years.

Hostel life helped Violet become more involved in activities at IISc, and brought her closer to her fellow students, with whom she would go on to make lasting friendships. Roshan Irani, Nagamani Kulkarni (née Rao), Indira Bhat (née Gajjar) and Anna Mani were her friends at the time. Nagamani, who studied in the Department of Inorganic and Physical Chemistry, would marry a fellow student at IISc and move to Hyderabad, where she taught Chemistry at a women’s college. Violet says that it was through Nagamani’s family (she would visit them when in Bangalore) that she learned to appreciate South Indian music and dance, and remembers that Nagamani had a sister with a beautiful voice who used to sing Carnatic music on All India Radio. And although she was never close friends with Rajeswari Chatterjee, she remembers her as being a “very nice person”.

Like Nagamani, Indira, who Violet describes as her “dearest friend along with Anna,” married a fellow student at IISc. She had studied biochemistry, and was Reader in Biochemistry at Maulana Azad Medical College in Delhi when Violet worked there for two years as a Research Fellow on a Lady Tata scholarship. (After IISc, Violet had spent a few years moving with her husband to wherever he was posted, including Pune, where she did her PhD before moving to Delhi to be at Maulana Azad.)

Anna Mani, one of Violet’s closest friends. Picture Courtesy: RRI Digital Repository
Although it was Indira who had been closer to Anna while in college, it was while Violet lived in Pune that she reconnected with Anna and two became best friends later on. Violet remembers Anna from her IISc days as being“still a conservative Malayali” who didn’t socialise much with men. She also remembers that one of the reasons for it might have been the looming shadow of CV Raman, in whose lab Anna worked on the spectroscopy of diamonds and rubies. “CV Raman was inimical to all women who went around with men,” says Violet, who describes him as a “deeply conservative man” who couldn’t stand to see students of different genders mixing.

Violet and Anna met again when Anna was posted to the Department of Meteorology in Pune, and Violet’s husband had been posted to Pune too. “I can’t recall who contacted whom,” she says, but describes the Anna she knew in later years as being “one of the most intelligent people she had ever met,” someone who was “extremely well-read” and had friends all over the world.

Of Anna, Violet says, “She didn’t suffer fools gladly. If she didn’t like your company, she made no bones about it.” Her daughter Sheela describes “Auntie Anna” as someone who “wasn’t an easy person, socially”. But Violet also talks about how Anna could be modest and unassuming, and never spoke about herself or what she did. Anna could be generous to her friends, colleagues and domestic help. “To me, she was more than generous,” says Violet, “whenever she had to travel she would always invite me along.” The two made several trips together, such as to Nainital and the Andaman Islands. But Violet laughs as she says the one trip on which she refused to accompany Anna was to China. “She said, ‘Do you want to come?’ I said, ‘Are you mad? Who wants to pay that horrendous airfare?’”

Anna would retire in 1976 as Deputy Director General of the Department of Meteorology, and later set up a private company in Bangalore that made weather instruments, which Violet said she hardly spoke about to other people – Violet herself only knew about it, and Anna’s other activities, much later. “All her charitable works we learned about only after she died” says Violet, who declines to mention what those charitable works were, saying that Anna herself (who died in 2001) wouldn’t have wanted it known.

Violet had a career of her own. She worked at Biochemicals Unit, set up under CSIR, from the 1950s until her retirement. Picture Courtesy: Deepika S
Violet had a career of her own – she worked at Biochemicals Unit, set up under CSIR, from the 1950s until her retirement. The company’s field was medical biochemical research, and Violet was in charge of quality control of all their products: “I’m good at that,” she says sardonically – “criticising people and rejecting samples.”But she is strangely disingenuous when asked about what she considers her greatest achievement. “Nothing – zero – no achievements,” she says with a shrug. “I’m quite satisfied that I was able to work through my life. And meet my old friends from the Institute through work and renew those friendships.”

Violet admits she was one of few women in the small company. It’s impossible to avoid questions about “women in science”, given that women are still deeply under-represented in several science streams today. Talking about her friends from IISc and their careers, sitting at the desk in her room on the day of our last interview, I ask, did they never feel that they were pioneers, entering fields not considered common for women to be in at the time?

Did it not feel like they were doing something important and wonderful, that was of historical significance? “No,” she says simply, with a shrug, uncomfortable with the idea of being seen as special. One night over dinner at her house, Violet also said there had never been any discrimination towards women at IISc, barring the example of CV Raman. But on the last day of our interviews, she had more to say about bias against women.

“Definitely there is discrimination,” she says firmly. “They think women are not capable enough to take responsibility. There’s a blatant prejudice against women. They say, the man has his family, so he is more deserving than a woman. It shouldn’t make a difference if she is married or not, if she has children or not. What if you don’t have children, but have elderly parents to look after?” she asks, echoing some of the questions that have been raised often by those protesting against the reasons that force women to drop out of science. Violet is quick to clarify that she has never been discriminated against herself (not unlike Anna Mani, who according to Abha Sur didn’t seem upset that she had been denied a PhD herself after her years of work at IISc, but was angry on her friend Sunanda Bai’s behalf), but that what she says refers to “a general attitude, an institutional attitude”. “If you have men and a few women in a department in an institution, the man will get the preference for any job promotion, don’t you think so?”

When I tell Violet that IISc these days has daycares for children on campus, she says jokingly, “I’m in need of a daycare centre.” Later, she says, “It’s not pleasant to live to be 101 and have to depend on others. I like my independence, I like doing things my way. I’m a difficult person to please.” Until two years ago, she was far more active and mobile, even checking and responding regularly to emails, until a bout of chikungunya took its toll.

Her daughter Sheela describes her a “toughie”, saying, “they don’t make women like that anymore.” She remembers the years in her childhood when her mother couldn’t work because her father was transferred often. “She would turn the kitchen into her laboratory – if she couldn’t do science outside, she would do it at home, telling us about the chemicals responsible for keeping a soufflé stiff…she was an excellent cook,” she says. Violet insists that she hated cooking. Sheela, a retired professor of economics, recalls that when she got married, her mother warned her to never let her in-laws know that she knew how to make chapatis, and advised her not to “clutter her life with children”. When talking about society’s expectations in terms of adhering to religion, caste, and gender roles, Violet says, “Imagine living your whole life being loaded with all those customs! I’m so free!”

“Interesting life I’ve led,” Violet says that night in her room after an evening of reminiscing, both with wonder and satisfaction. Later, over dinner, when Violet asks Sheela questions about mundane household matters with the same solemnity with which she asks about current affairs, Sheela shakes her head at me, as if to say, “I told you so.” “Mummy and her friends were argumentative, tough, opinionated, difficult women,” she says in mock exasperation, but the admiration in her voice is clear. “They stood by their principles. And they were eccentric. Mummy, would you describe your group as eccentric?” she asks, turning to Violet.

“No,” says Violet quickly, looking almost offended. “We were perfectly normal.”

(Source: The Ladies Finger)

Three Identical Strangers: The bizarre tale of triplets separated at birth

The director of one of the year’s most shocking documentaries talks about his extraordinary subjects, the film-making process, and the age-old question: nature or nurture?

“Ideas are my bread and butter,” says film-maker Tim Wardle. “But it’s hard to find ideas that make you want to get out of bed at 3am and go film somewhere.”

That, however, was not the case when a producer at Raw, the London-based production company where Wardle works, brought to his attention the story of Bobby Shafran, Eddy Galland and David Kellman, a set of identical triplets who knew nothing of one another until they were reunited by happenstance at age 19. That alone would make for a compelling documentary, but their story doesn’t end there.

Eddy Galland, David Kellman and Robert Shafran, the triplets of Three Identical Strangers. Photograph: Newsday
Bobby, Eddy and David are the subjects of Wardle’s new film Three Identical Strangers, an extraordinary documentary that starts as a feelgood human interest story and, by the end, has you questioning the nature of existence. As far as documentary subjects go, this one is nonpareil, a fact that was heavy on Wardle’s mind as he set out to tell the brothers’ story on film. “There’s huge pressure not to fuck up the story,” he admits. “I wasn’t worried about money or anything like that. I was just like, ‘I can’t blow this.’”

Three Identical Strangers begins in 1980, as a 19-year-old Bobby Shafran attends his first day of university only to find unfamiliar classmates greeting him as Eddy. While it’s only the first in a series of fortuitous revelations, most of which are better seen than read about here, Wardle is smart to tell the first half of the documentary through narration and recreated scenes, a tactic that allows the viewer to get a sense of how uncanny it must be to move into your dorm room and find you’re already an on-campus celebrity. Eventually, Bobby and Eddy meet and are contacted by David, whose adoptive mother noticed a pair of twins in the newspaper who looked exactly like her son, down to their shared pudgy hands.

Those alive in the early 80s might remember what followed, a period of pre-internet virality that took the triplets from the Phil Donahue Show to a cameo alongside Madonna in Desperately Seeking Susan. As they made the rounds, audiences lapped up the brothers’ likeness: they finished each other’s sentences, smoked the same brand of cigarettes, even had the same taste in women. When one brother crossed his legs, the others followed. So, in the ensuing decade, they made good on the frenzy by opening a steakhouse in Soho, New York, called Triplets, which thrived until things between them went sour.

To Wardle, the honeymoon period served as wish-fulfillment for the brothers and the media. “There’s been an obsession with identicals going back to Romulus and Remus,” he says. “And the siblings wanted to believe that they were similar, too. It’s that thing where you fall in love with someone for the first time, you try and find everything you have in common. ‘Oh my God, we like the same music!’ But you sort of tone down the differences.”

The brothers, as they discovered on account of their own detective skills, were separated by a ritzy New York City adoption agency called Louise Wise Services, which declined to tell their adoptive parents they were a set of three. It’s at this juncture that the documentary turns – tonally, structurally, thematically – and embraces a very au courant style of leather-shoe reporting in Wardle’s efforts to uncover the bizarre and nefarious reasons for the brothers’ 19-year estrangement. But convincing producers he’d get there wasn’t easy.

“They kept saying, ‘What’s the third act? What’s the third act?’ And I’m like, it’s a documentary, you don’t always know!” recalls Wardle, who was accustomed to inconclusive, even plotless projects after making a documentary about prisoners serving life-sentences. Too many documentaries, he believes, explore “weighty”, ethically fraught issues without a human element to provide connective tissue. But since he had that in the first act, Wardle was confident he’d end up with a finished product whether or not his own sleuthing yielded results.

Eddy Galland, David Kellman and Robert Shafran of Three Identical Strangers. Photograph: Neon
The question at the center of Three Identical Strangers essentially concerns nature versus nurture, which led Wardle to California, where he interviewed Natasha Josefowitz, the 90-year-old research assistant who contributed to psychoanalyst Peter Neubauer’s study of siblings separated at birth.

For Wardle and Lawrence Wright, the Pulitzer-prize winning journalist who is featured in the film, the idea that nature is more determinative than nurture is an unsettling one, especially as articulated in Josefowitz’s frank, unsparing style.

“She would talk to me about how much of what I’ve done in my life was a function of biology and genes, how little agency I had, which was kind of mind-blowing,” says Wardle, who gives equal weight in the film to both theses while endorsing neither. “A lot of liberal ideology is based on the idea that nurture is really, really important. So when you start down the nature perspective you end up in quite a politically and scientifically dark place, a kind of eugenicist paradise where, ‘Why bother trying to help people?’ It’s all determined by biology anyway.”

Or is it? As Three Identical Strangers proceeds, you find yourself seduced by both prospects, the relative liberty afforded by nurture and the ice cold-comfort of nature. Mostly, though, it’s the brothers who keep the film grounded in reality, which turned out far different than it looked when they got their first taste of fame on the talkshow circuit.

When Wardle recently showed them the film, they were surprised to find he delivered as he’d promised. “I realized at that point how much they’d been disappointed and let down in their lives,” he says. “Documentaries are only as good as the contributors and what they give you. And they gave me pretty much everything.”

(Source: The Guardian)

Maryland shooting: Five victims of Capital Gazette shooting named as employees of the newspaper

Four of the victims were members of the editorial staff, and one worked on the sales team for the paper

Police with the Anne Arundel County Police Department have named the five victims of the shooting at the Capital Gazette newspaper offices in Annapolis, Maryland, where a gunman opened fire on Thursday afternoon.

William Krampf, the acting police chief with the department, read the names aloud during a press conference Thursday night, breaking from previous statements that he would not hold another press conference until Friday morning.

Pointedly refusing to name the shooting suspect — even though several news outlets had reported his name online — Mr Krampf said that he and his investigators have an obligation to the victims and their family as they push forward with the investigation. A later tweet from the Anne Arundel Police Department noted that they had not released the suspect's name for investigative reasons, and said that the suspect had not been booked, and that no booking photo was available.

"We have an obligation and a responsibility to these victims that we get it right," he said, "and we only get the chance to do that once".

The five victims all worked in the Capital Gazette offices ( Getty )
The victims are as follows:

Wendi Waters has been described as a prolific writer, focused and engaged with chronicling her community. One colleague, Adam Zielonka, said on Twitter that "Wendi would smile and say hi to me whenever I walked by her desk, starting before we were really introduced. I regret every time I did not return the smile and greeting. A truly friendly and genuine woman". Her work for the paper can be read here.

Rebecca Smith was identified online as a sales assistant at the newspaper, and her Facebook profile says she started at the company in November. She described herself in that profile as follows: "Dog mom. Softball fiance. Bonus Mom to the best kid ever".  Her profile shows her alongside her finacé and their child.

Robert Hiaasen was an assistant editor at the newspaper, and his Facebook profile shows that he and his wife of 33 years and celebrated their anniversary less than a week ago. His Facebook profile showed that he taught classes for young journalists, and brought in Baltimore area reporters and writers for guest speeches to help cultivate the young minds. His work for the paper can be read here.

John Mcnamara was a published author who The Baltimore Sun — which owns Capital Gazette — reports was an avid movie-goer fan of rock and folk music, and a man who got his dream job reporting on sports. His work for the paper can be read here.

Gerald Fischman has been described as a writer who was quiet and withdrawn in a way that masked a "brilliant mind, wry wit and 'wicked pen' that his colleagues would treasure", according to The Sun. His work for the paper can be read here.

(Source: The Independent)

Insulin pill instead of shot: How close are we for diabetes patients?

Daily insulin shots for the management of Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes could become a thing of the past, and insulin pills could someday be another option for diabetes patients.

In people with Type 1 diabetes, the pancreas does not make insulin -- a hormone that helps glucose get into your cells to give them energy -- which is why they take insulin. In people with Type 2 diabetes, the body does not make or use insulin well, and so insulin therapy may be needed.

Insulin can be administered using a needle and syringe, a pen injection, a pump through a needle, an inhaler, an injection port or what's called a jet injection, which sends a spray of insulin into the skin at high pressure.

Yet there have been several research efforts around the world to develop pills as another way to take insulin. These efforts are ongoing, but if any are found to be safe and effective, they could change the daily well-being of the more than 400 million people living with diabetes worldwide. About 40% of them rely on insulin injections.

"Insulin is currently given primarily by injections, which is a challenge for Type 1 diabetics and a deterrent for Type 2 diabetic patients to switch to insulin. An oral pill for insulin will make it easier for the patients to take insulin," said Samir Mitragotri, a professor of bioengineering and biologically inspired engineering at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

Developing insulin that patients can ingest remains a scientific challenge because insulin can be degraded in the stomach by acids and enzymes before it's used in the body, Mitragotri said.

In other words, insulin has to survive the hostile environment of your digestive system.

"Even if some insulin makes it into the intestine, it cannot cross the intestinal wall, since the wall is designed to prevent the transport of proteins," Mitragotri said.

"The mucus layer present on the wall of the intestine also makes transport of insulin from the intestine into the blood stream very challenging," he said. "Collectively, these hurdles make oral delivery of insulin very difficult."

The science behind insulin you can swallow
Mitragotri was senior author of a study published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that described how a new liquid formulation of insulin inside an enterically coated capsule was capable of lowering blood glucose levels in rats.

Enterically coated means the coating can be dissolved only in the body's small intestine.

For the study, researchers gave six nondiabetic male rats an oral insulin capsule and three nondiabetic male rats traditional injections of insulin.

The researchers found that blood glucose levels rapidly dropped 38% in the rats given capsules within two hours and slowly but steadily continued to fall, dropping 45% by 10 hours.

In comparison, blood glucose levels sharply dropped 49% within one hour in the rats given injections. Levels then rose, which is a typical response in nondiabetic rats, before continuing to decrease in a typical pattern.

"Oral delivery of insulin has been challenging. The study demonstrates a new technology to overcome these challenges," Mitragotri said.

"The next step is to perform longer-term safety studies and efficacy testing in larger animals," he said.

"These studies will provide the necessary information to support human clinical testing, which we hope will begin in three to five years."

That study was just the latest to experiment with creating an insulin pill; many others do involve testing in humans.

Last month, Oramed Pharmaceuticals launched its largest and most advanced clinical trial of its own oral insulin pill, under the direction of the US Food and Drug Administration. The trial involves 240 patients with Type 2 diabetes.

"A year from now we will better know the potential of our drug to control and maintain blood glucose levels and will have further proof of the longer-term benefits of taking an oral pill versus an injection," Oramed CEO Nadav Kidron said in a news release in May.

Other experimental oral insulin pills are Capsulin by the company Diabetology and HDV-Insulin by the company Diasome, which was the first oral insulin approved for phase three testing by the FDA, according to the company's website.

Insulin you can swallow also has been studied as a possible way to either hold off or prevent the development of Type 1 diabetes, but this approach has been found to be ineffective in human clinical studies.

In a separate study published in the journal JAMA in November, researchers examined whether a type of oral insulin capsule can delay or prevent the development of Type 1 diabetes in the relatives of patients with the disease, who are therefore themselves at a higher risk of developing it, over a 2.7-year period.

That study involved 560 people, some of whom were given an insulin capsule and others who were were given a placebo pill.

Though some participants given the insulin capsule had a longer time before being diagnosed with diabetes, overall, "these findings do not support oral insulin as used in this study for diabetes prevention," the researchers wrote.

Many questions remain
The future of insulin therapy is among the research topics on the agenda at the annual scientific conference of the American Diabetes Association this week in Florida.

Research on the oral administration of insulin dates back decades.

One study published in the journal Diabetes in 1988 involved administering nanocapsules of insulin to rats. It found that the capsules preserved the therapeutic effect of insulin when administered.

Still, more research is needed to better understand the possible risks that could come with insulin pills. In general, insulin therapy causes changes in blood sugar, so symptoms of low and high blood sugar could emerge, as seen with insulin injections.

Some studies suggest that use of insulin might be linked with increased risk of cancer, but of course more research is also needed to determine whether such a relationship could emerge with the use of insulin pills.

These pills are far from proven, but they are staking a claim as a possible new avenue for diabetes care.

(Source: CNN)

How ready are you for Japan’s next big earthquake?

Emergency kits are a must-have in earthquake-prone Japan, but a survey by The Japan Times has found that a number of people did not use theirs when a deadly quake rocked Osaka Prefecture and its vicinity last week.

The June 18 quake, which affected 30 percent of the approximately 250 people who provided valid responses to the online questionnaire conducted in its wake, prompted many to re-examine their preparations amid fears of a possible follow-on temblor, it found.

And while 42 percent of respondents said they have emergency kits both at home and at work, several revealed the need to better plan for earthquakes and other disasters.

A burst water pipe caused a sinkhole in Takatsuki, Osaka Prefecture, after a powerful earthquake hit the prefecture and its vicinity on June 18. | KYODO
A 32-year-old British woman who declined to give her name said her family of five — including her husband and three children — had “an iron-clad emergency plan and an awesome kit” in the event of a disaster. However, she hadn’t considered the prospect that a big quake would hit when she was neither at home nor at work.

“I was on a train to work, far from my home,” said the woman who lives in Osaka and works in Kobe. While the rest of her family was at home, she was stranded in a crowded train car for about two hours before passengers were led on a roughly 30-minute walk to the nearest station.

“I’ve been vigilant about keeping earthquake bags, but I realize they are important but limited in their role,” she said. “If you’re not at home or work, they serve little meaning at all. I naively didn’t consider that a big earthquake would hit on a Monday rush hour morning.”

A natural disaster can indeed strike at any time of day. The Osaka quake jolted Kansai at 7:58 a.m., just as commuters were heading to their offices, schools and elsewhere. The 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake — which at a magnitude 9 was the largest-ever recorded in Japan — came at midday on a Friday.

The Great Hanshin Earthquake in 1995 hit Kobe and the surrounding areas before most people were awake, at 5:46 a.m. on a Tuesday. And the two major quakes that struck Kumamoto Prefecture in April two years ago both occurred at nighttime.

The unpredictable nature of natural disasters is all the more reason to make sure you’re fully prepared, and officials say an emergency kit with basic necessities such as drinking water and emergency provisions that can feed a family for at least three days is just one of the many ways to get ready.

Parker Rom, a 26-year-old English teacher from the U.S., said the Osaka quake made him realize how unprepared he was for a major disaster.

“I’ve had to completely reconsider how to deal with an earthquake,” said Rom, who lives in Hirakata, one of the hardest-hit cities in Osaka Prefecture. “I started to put together an emergency kit and looked up where the nearest emergency shelter is. I plan to research more what to do when an earthquake strikes in different situations. I also have to think about where to store things around my apartment so that if something glass breaks, it won’t be in the way of my front door if I have to leave quickly.”

While none of his large items fell and nothing broke, he said the quake left his apartment “a mess.”

“Many trinkets flew off my shelves, many papers and books spilled out of my cabinets, food and toiletries fell into my sinks, and my washing machine and TV stand both moved forward a few inches,” he said.

Authorities recommend that residents take measures in their homes to avoid being hurt by falling furniture and broken glass, including pinning down large pieces of furniture and appliances using screws or nonpermanent methods such as tension rods and placing mats that prevent slipping in cupboards and shelves.

In the survey, 27 percent of respondents said they had taken some kind of measure to quakeproof their home.

Alison Kinoshita, who lives in the city of Osaka with her husband and three children, said she saw “things falling off walls and out of cupboards” as she and her son took cover underneath their dining table.

Afterward, the 51-year-old Australian who has lived in Japan for 25 years removed objects from the top of her furniture, fixed cabinets to the walls with screws and prepared thick-soled slippers in case of glass or debris on the floor.

“As the chances of a large quake in this region are higher now, I think I’ve prepared better than in the past,” she said, admitting that she was not ready “at all” for the 1995 Hanshin quake — her first earthquake experience.

Kinoshita was among 57 percent of respondents who said they know the location of the closest evacuation center to their residence.

Recommended list of items to include in emergency kits

  • bottled water
  • food
  • first-aid kit
  • helmets/disaster prevention hoods
  • valuables (cash, bank book, health insurance card, etc.)
  • face masks
  • portable toilets
  • thick gloves
  • flashlight
  • portable radio
  • batteries
  • mobile phone charger
  • blankets
  • towels
  • lighter
  • candles
  • knife
  • can/bottle opener
  • paper plates/cups
  • plastic forks/spoons, chopsticks
A closer look at the shindo seismic scale

The Japan Meteorological Agency has a unique seismic scale called shindo that measures the degree of shaking in the event of an earthquake. This set of numbers, ranging from 0 to 7, is different from an earthquake’s magnitude, which is a numerical value reflecting the size or energy of the temblor at its source.

The shaking and effects become greater as the number increases, with shindo 5 and 6 further divided into lower and upper levels. At maximum 7, people cannot stay standing and may be thrown into the air, while unsecured pieces of furniture are likely to topple over or be tossed up in the air and reinforced concrete walls may collapse.

The June 18 quake that struck the Kansai region had a magnitude of 6.1, while the intensity varied depending on how strong the effects of seismic movement was.

The areas nearest to the epicenter — the cities of Takatsuki, Hirakata, Ibaraki and Minoh and Osaka’s Kita Ward — registered a lower 6, which the agency describes as a level where people find it difficult to remain standing, unsecured furniture will likely fall and wall tiles will sustain damage.

Seismic intensity of upper five — where people find it difficult to move and dishes could fall out from cupboards — was recorded in some other areas of northern Osaka Prefecture and parts of Kyoto Prefecture and lower five — which may cause hanging objects to swing violently — at some locations in Osaka, Kyoto, Shiga, Hyogo and Nara prefectures.

The agency defines level 4 as felt by most people even if they are walking and likely to awake people who are sleeping and cause hanging objects to swing significantly, and 3 as felt by most people who are staying still and likely to make plates in cupboards rattle.

Many people who are not moving around can feel shindo 2 quakes, which will make hanging objects swing slightly, while only some people staying put may feel slight movement in level 1. Zero intensity is detected by seismometers but not perceptible to people. 

(Source: JT)

Friday 29 June 2018

Thai officials warn time running out in search for missing teen soccer players

Senior Thai government officials warned Wednesday that time is running out to rescue teenage boys and their soccer coach, believed trapped in a flooded cave complex in northern Thailand for days, and that the search to find other entry points into the cave system has taken on a new urgency.

"We will try to find other ways apart from underwater rescue because the clock is ticking," Thai Interior Minister Anupong Paochinda said. "The boys (have) been in there for over 72 hours."

Rescue teams are working on access to the Tham Luang Nang Non caves from other locations above and have used new maps from the Thai Department of Mineral Resources to narrow the search area.
Heavy rains have halted helicopter sorties to find possible alternative entrances into the caves, and there has been no drone activity either.

But the interior minister said he was confident that the missing boys and their coach were likely alive, as they have food, and, as athletes, are physically strong. He added they had visited the caves before, giving them an advantage.

Photos emerge
Photos of the missing boys have emerged as the efforts ramp up to locate them.

The photos, from the Facebook page of the soccer team's 25-year-old coach, show the older man standing with the smiling teen and preteen boys.

The 12 boys range in age from 11 to 16, according to a list of names collected from families waiting at the cave entrance and distributed by officials. The group is suspected to have disappeared from that area Saturday.

The soccer team lines up in a photo posted on the coach's Facebook page.
No new evidence of the boys' location or condition has been found, other than bags and shoes discovered earlier this week, army Maj. Gen. Chalongchai Chaiyakum told journalists Wednesday.

A joint force of about 1,000 army, navy, local administrative workers and volunteers are at the site, he said. The US government is sending experts to assist in the rescue effort, according to the army official. They were expected to land in northern Thailand on Wednesday in hopes of starting work Thursday, he said.

Chiang Rai Gov. Narongsak Osotthanakorn had earlier told families that teams are "working around the clock" to find the boys and their coach, and that rescuers are focusing on draining water to allow access to the flooded cave complex.

The interior minister said that officials are continuing to bring supplies to the site, including first aid kits.

Missing since Saturday
The group is from the city of Chiang Rai, near the caves where the boys are suspected of being trapped.

They have been missing since at least early Saturday afternoon when a park officer spotted bicycles parked idly by the entrance to the cave complex despite it being off-limits.

Those bikes have been gathered and grouped together as the boys' families await news.

The boys and their coach are believed to have crawled into the large series of caves through a narrow, 15-meter-long (50-foot) channel. A sign at the entrance to the cave -- a popular tourist attraction -- warns of danger during the rainy season, which is just getting underway.

Thai King Maha Vajiralongkorn expressed his concerns over the missing group. In a statement from the Thai palace, the King said he "wished the rescue team early success" and conveyed his moral support.
Anxious wait
Relatives started gathering at the cave entrance Saturday evening, and now around 60 people sit in a makeshift tent camp set up by the local government as they anxiously await updates from officials.

Drawing on traditional Thai rituals for strength, they've offered flowers and food to the spirits in the hopes they will guide their children out of the caves to safety.

Parents of the missing boys have left food as an offering to spirits to keep their sons safe.
"Come to mama ... come to daddy," some of them cry.

One mother, whose nickname is Nan, has barely moved from her chair since arriving five days ago, occasionally slipping into a fitful half-sleep.

Relatives pray at the entrance of the Tham Luang Nang Non caves while rescuers search for the boys.
Another, who goes by the nickname So, is from a hill tribe and barely speaks Thai, hampering her efforts to understand what has happened to her son. Her brother said she has barely uttered a word for days.

The website of the Mae Sai Prasitsart school, which half of the boys attend, had a message for the missing students and their families: "Cheer up. ... Be Safe."

Constant rain
Heavy rains initially flooded the cave complex and have not let up -- a steady drizzle that occasionally erupts into stronger bursts. The rainfall is hampering attempts to pump water out of the cave system, making it even more difficult for the dive teams of Royal Thai Navy SEALs, police and professional divers as they search for the boys and coach.

A post on the SEALs' Facebook page said that pumps working overnight weren't powerful enough to reduce the water level and that heavy rain had caused further flooding, forcing rescuers to move back. The water level had risen about 6 inches per hour, the post said.

Almost 50 pumps have been brought to the cave complex, from both the Royal Irrigation Department and the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration.

At the main entrance of the cave, more pumps and hoses have been trucked in to speed up the drainage process, and rescuers are now also able to pump 24 hours a day without pause.

Kamolchai Kotcha, an official with Thailand's national parks authority, said that on Tuesday "we spotted a hole and we (dropped) a pack of food into it. But there is no response from that spot."

Still hope remains strong.

Sudsakorn Sutham, the father of one of the missing boys, Prachak, said he is certain the authorities will bring the boys home.

"I feel (the situation) is getting better and better. I am confident that my son will come back. There's so much help here."

He said he believes his son's athleticism will help him survive in the caves. "I'm so confident, 1 million percent. Because my son is strong. ... He is an athlete. He is a footballer."

Families can also take heart from news that others have survived for days after getting stuck in the caves.

For now, though, those waiting for news can do little but hope.

(Source: CNN)

Hoax 'devil coins' found in Bath Abbey

Fake currency was used in elaborate satanic hoax in Scandinavia in 1970s

Two “devil coins” that were hidden in Scandinavian churches as part of an elaborate hoax in the 1970s have been discovered in the unlikely setting of Bath Abbey.

Dusty odds and ends, including an order of service from 1902, were found in the abbey when stalls were removed for restoration work.

The most intriguing discovery, however, was two coins bearing a picture of Satan and the legend Civitas Diaboli on one side and 13 Maj Anholt 1973 on the other.

Experts figured out the coins were linked to the story of a Danish eccentric who perpetrated an elaborate 40-year hoax that was only discovered almost a decade after his death.

The date on the coins refers to an episode that took place on the island of Anholt, between Denmark and Sweden, in May 1973.

 The ‘devil coins’ were found when stalls were removed for restoration work in the abbey. Photograph: Wessex Archaeology
Thirteen “ritual sites” were discovered by residents that prompted an investigation by police from the Danish mainland.

Police puzzled over the meaning of the sites, where items included strange masks, weird stone formations, bones wrapped in string, black candles and a (fake) shrunken head on a stake. The story was picked up by the Danish national media and salacious stories of satanic cults on Anholt abounded.

Coins like those found at Bath Abbey began to be discovered in churches and museums across Denmark. Some were accompanied by letters claiming to be from a satanic high priestess named Alice Mandragora.

In 2013, the Danish newspaper Politiken ran a six-part investigation into the coin phenomenon, revealing that the Anholt mystery was a hoax perpetrated by Knud Langkow, an office clerk at the National Gallery of Denmark who died in 2004, aged 73.

His niece Lene Langkow Saaek told the newspaper he was not a satanist and the hoax was just his sense of humour. “I think normality annoyed him,” she said. ‘He did not like ordinary.”

Some coins may have been minted by Langkow but others are thought to have been created by independent experts who were in on the joke.

Bath’s Anholt coins are in the care of Wessex Archaeology and will be included in the final site archive, alongside artefacts dating from the Roman through to the modern period.

Bruce Eaton, the project manager, said historians and archeologists were used to written artefacts telling an untrue story, but not physical ones.

“As archaeologists we set great store by the integrity of the physical objects we recover. To discover finds that are a fabrication, designed to mislead, is both fascinating and a timely reminder that we should always view any discovery with a critical eye.”

(Source: The Guardian)

Why liberal arts and the humanities are as important as engineering

An engineering degree is very valuable, but the sense of empathy that comes from music, arts, literature and psychology provides a big advantage in design, writes Vivek Wadhwa, a Distinguished Fellow at Harvard Law School and Carnegie Mellon University at Silicon Valley, and the author of 'Your Happiness Was Hacked', in HT. Read on: 

Doctor, engineer, or businessman were the three choices my parents told me I had for a career when I was growing up, with the third being at the bottom of the list. Even today, Indian parents dread the thought of their children becoming musicians or artists; engineering has become the most respected profession.

Because of the success of startups such as Flipkart and Paytm, parents don’t freak out as much when they hear that their child is starting a company any more. But engineering is still considered a prerequisite for success in the technology industry and this is what parents insist that their children study.

Some of Silicon Valley’s brightest stars aren’t engineers, they are Liberal Arts and Humanities majors. LinkedIn’s founder, Reid Hoffman, has a masters in philosophy; YouTube’s CEO, Susan Wojcicki, majored in history and literature; Slack’s founder, Stewart Butterfield, in English; Airbnb’s founder, Brian Chesky, in the fine arts. Even in China, Alibaba’s CEO, Jack Ma, graduated with a B.A. in English.

My research at Duke and Harvard documented that US technology company founders tend to be highly educated, 92% holding bachelor’s degrees and 47% holding higher degrees. But just 37% have degrees in engineering or computer technology, and two percent in mathematics. Their degrees are in fields as diverse as business, accounting, health care, and arts and the humanities.

Steve Jobs gave credit for the success of the Mac to a calligraphy course that he attended. He also highlighted the importance of art and design at the unveiling of the iPad 2, when he said, “It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough — it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our heart sing, and nowhere is that more true than in these post-PC devices.” With this focus, he built the most valuable company in the world and set new standards for the technology industry.

Logitech’s CEO, Bracken Darrell, has a B.A. in English. When I asked him, recently, how he caused Logitech’s stock price to increase by an astonishing 450% over five years, he said that it was through relentlessly focusing on design in every product the company built; that though engineering is important, what makes a technology product most successful is its design.

Steve Jobs gave credit for the success of the Mac to a calligraphy course that he attended. He also highlighted the importance of art and design at the unveiling of the iPad 2, when he said “It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough — it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our heart sing, and nowhere is that more true than in these post-PC devices”.(AFP)
Now, a technological shift is in progress that will change the rules of innovation. A broad range of technologies, such as computing, artificial intelligence, digital medicine, robotics and synthetic biology, are advancing exponentially and converging, making amazing things possible.

With the convergence of medicine, artificial intelligence, and sensors, we can create digital doctors that monitor our health and help us prevent disease; with the advances in genomics and gene editing, we have the ability to create plants that are drought-resistant and that feed the planet; with robots powered by artificial intelligence, we can build digital companions for the elderly. Nanomaterial advances are enabling a new generation of solar and storage technologies that will make energy affordable and available to all.

Creating solutions such as these requires a knowledge of fields like biology, education, health sciences, and human behaviour. Tackling today’s biggest social and technological challenges requires the ability to think critically about their human context, which is something that humanities graduates happen to be best trained to do.

An engineering degree is valuable, but the sense of empathy that comes from music, arts, literature, and psychology provides a big advantage in design. A history major who has studied the Enlightenment or the rise and fall of the Roman Empire gains an insight into the human elements of technology and the importance of its usability. A psychologist is more likely to know how to motivate people and to understand what users want than is an engineer who has worked only in the technology trenches. A musician or artist is king in a world in which you can 3D-print anything that you can imagine.

When parents ask me now what careers their children should pursue and whether it is best to steer them into the science, engineering and technology fields, I tell them that it is best to let them make their own choices. They shouldn’t, I tell them, do what our parents did, telling us what to study and causing us to treat education as a chore; instead, they should encourage their children to pursue their passions and to love learning.

To create the amazing future that technology is enabling, India needs it musicians and artists working hand in hand with its engineers. It isn’t exclusively one or the other; it needs both engineering and the humanities.

Buddha tattoos and e-cigs: Things that get you arrested abroad

Smoking e-cigarettes, showing a Buddha tattoo or wearing camouflage clothing - these are all things which could land you in trouble abroad.

The government's Foreign and Commonwealth Office is warning people about strict laws and customs when on holiday.

It says trips to Sri Lanka and the UAE are on the rise, with more of us being inspired by celebrities.

People are being urged to read up on advice before leaving the UK.

It may not come as a surprise that indecent behaviour won't be tolerated in Greece, or that causing a forest fire could get you into trouble in Spain, but there are other laws and customs which many Brits are unaware of when travelling abroad.

The Government says that hardly any of us are reading up on advice before holidaying in places with different customs to the UK.

It also says that we're increasingly travelling further afield than Europe, because we're being inspired by celebrities.

Scroll down for the top tips on what to avoid and where.

The Kardashian sisters recently visited Japan and shared the photos with their millions of Instagram followers.

But Japan has strict rules about what medicines you can take into the country.

The Foreign Office says A-listers often have concierge support when travelling abroad, but other tourists are travelling without the right information.

British tourist Naomi Coleman was arrested in Sri Lanka for having a Buddha tattoo
Visits to Sri Lanka are up more than a fifth and trips to the UAE are up more than a sixth.

Dubai has become a popular spot for many celebrities, including the stars of The Only Way is Essex.

Here are some of the top tips:

Swearing in the UAE
A bad idea, along with rude gestures - even online. You could be jailed or deported.

E-cigarettes in Thailand
You can't bring vaporisers into the country. They're likely to be confiscated but you could also be fined or sent to prison for up to 10 years if convicted.

Buddha and Sri Lanka
In Sri Lanka the mistreatment of Buddhist images is a serious offence. People are also advised not to pose for pictures in front of a statue of Buddha.

British tourist Naomi Coleman was arrested there in 2014 for having a tattoo of Buddha. After appearing before a magistrate she was deported and described it as a "hellish" experience.

Inhalers and Japan
You have to be careful taking some medicines into Japan. Vicks inhalers and painkillers containing Codeine are banned. You could end up being detained or deported.

Camouflage in the Caribbean
Countries like Barbados and St. Lucia ban the wearing of camouflage clothing, even for children.

Wherever you're going, the advice is to check before you travel.

(Source: BBC)

Japanese Princess Ayako to marry shipping employee, leave royal family

Japan's Princess Ayako has become the second Japanese princess in two years to announce she's marrying a commoner, a move that will force her to renounce her royal status.

Japan's Imperial Household Agency announced Tuesday that the third, and youngest, daughter of the late Prince Takamodo, cousin of Emperor Akihito, is set to marry Kei Moriya, a 32-year-old employee of shipping firm NYK Line.

The two met less than a year ago, will officially mark their engagement on August 12, and wed at Tokyo's Meiji Jingu shrine on October 29.

Princess Ayako, who has a master's degree in social welfare, was originally introduced to Moriya by her mother, Princess Takamodo, last December, according to the Imperial Household.

Princess Takamodo knew Kei's parents from her outreach work at a local NGO, and made the introduction in the hope that her daughter would be inspired by global welfare activities. However, the pair discovered that they have a lot more in common than a passion for global welfare. They both enjoy skiing, books and travel.

Under Japanese imperial law, the princess will be required to leave the family once she exchanges vows with Moriya. However, she will receive a bonus payment expected to be around a million dollars.

Ayako is not the first princess in her generation who plans to leave the royal family. Last May, her second cousin and eldest grandchild to the Emperor, Princess Mako, announced plans to marry paralegal Kei Komoro. However, the couple postponed their marriage this February, stating that they were not yet ready for marriage.

Members of the royal family are seen fulfilling their public duties during the Autumn Garden Party at the Akasaka Imperial Garden in Tokyo, Japan.
Ayako is not a direct descendent of Emperor Akihito, who plans to abdicate in 2019, so doesn't attract the same level of attention as Princess Mako. However, her engagement will raise questions over the future of the world's oldest hereditary monarchy.

Despite debate to introduce legislation to allow women to ascend the throne, the birth of Prince Hisahito in 2006 -- the first male heir born to the Imperial family in 40 years -- put an end to that discussion.

If Princesses Mako and Ayako both marry commoners, the number of imperial family members will drop to 17, increasing the burden of royal duties on the remaining members.

A resolution added to the Emperor's abdication bill last June called for the government to begin deliberating succession issues, including the option of princesses establishing new branches of the family after they marry a commoner, allowing new members to take on the duties of the imperial family.

The princess' engagement could accelerate calls for that deliberation.

(Source: CNN)