There is This Young Lady I Know

She is quite the remarkable young woman.  She gives of herself selflessly to the needy, indeed she has dedicated herself to their lives by getting a medical degree and finding a way to practice in their neighborhood in the inner city.  She lives among the poor in their neighborhood and thinks it is the best place to be, even committing herself for the longer term with a purchase of a place to stay among them.  She loves her place.  She lives a simple life and cares little for the material things in life that some of us crave for.  She is always cheerful when I see her.

She loves the people.  She will go out to the neighborhood hangout and play music with the local musicians.  She gets to know people at the coffee shop where she gets her morning cup of java.  She greets the people in the streets and they respond to her.  Indeed the locals know her and love her.  Her patients, the locals who are for the most part are the truly needy, appreciate her.  She has made the connection.

Her parents are proud of her, but they are also worried about her, and indeed a little exasperated with her, and her life choices.  She has a mind of her own and she is stubborn.  She is an independent lady.  She comes from a family of many siblings, all of whom display similar traits of selflessness.

We worry about her.  My wife says that the locals in the place where she lives will protect because she is loved, but there is always the concern about safety.

Her birthday was the day before yesterday. It was late in the evening when she was returning home from a celebration with friends at a local eatery.  Across the street she saw a local whom she knew. She hailed him.  He responded to the greeting and she told him that it was her birthday. He walked across the street to talk to her, wished her, and  asked her why she had not told him about it.  He would have gotten something for her for the occasion.  He said he still had something for her.  He opened up the bag in which he kept the trinkets that he sold at the local coffee shop and asked her to pick one as a birthday present. She gratefully accepted the present.  I will see you tomorrow, he said.  She replied that she would not see him for a few weeks because she was going to have a medical procedure the next day.  He wished her the best, and it must have been from the heart.

The next day was pretty tough for her, with a very long and rough medical procedure with long-term implications.  You think to yourself that people like her are most capable of handling these kinds of situations, but should be the last people who ought to be subjected to these kind of things.  They are the good of this earth.  They are remarkable. We should cherish them, and we should take care of them and protect them.  I wish her all the best.

Come On, Get Up…

We have to finish this race!

I think many of you will recognize these words spoken by Abbey D’Agostino of the United States when she stopped to help another runner, Nikki Hamblin of New Zealand, who had also fallen during the 5000 meters heats at the Olympics.  They were strangers to each other.  And then Nikki returned the favor by helping Abbey towards the finish line when she was struggling at the end.  Very dramatic and touching!

But how many of us will get beyond the visuals of the drama that was being played out on a television screen and consider how these circumstances relevant in our own lives.

I think it is difficult to get beyond the constraints of ones own selfishness and think truly in terms of the human family.  Even if we are simply not thinking about our own well-being and protection, and perhaps even glory, we are most likely thinking about others only the context of their relationship to us as family or friend (or enemy), or maybe even in the context of community and country.    We care more about the well-being of those we know and those we can identify with rather than that of the stranger, right?  There are times that I have wondered why we pray only for the soldiers in our own armed forces at church?  Do we think of the soldiers on the other side as being less human, of not having the same problems that ours have, of not going through the same thoughts and struggles that ours do?  I am sometimes haunted by the number of times I have walked away from something bad that was happening to a stranger without offering a hand in help.  It was none of my business, and I could always find a way to try to push the guilt into the recesses of the mind, and to memory cells that would hopefully not be reawakened.

We can tell ourselves that it is a natural state of mind for humans to care more about the people you know and love and can identify with.  But this is also a selfishness in some form.  Unless we can find a way to truly expand our love and care to the family of all humanity we will continue to be mired in the destructive ways of the world.   I know that this is fantasy that is not going to happen, and that I am being naive in even bringing up this topic, but the incident at the Olympics reminded me that there is a spark that in present in some people, even if the number of such people is a minuscule minority on this planet earth.  Surely such people have the instinct and ability to do what is right in other circumstances also, not just in the glare of an extravagant sporting event.

Are we able and willing to help the strangers among us?

Dreaming of a Bowl of Cereal (6/19/2014)

I opened the door to the pantry with a little more anticipation than usual this morning.  This was the morning after our return from India, and images of the first breakfast that I would consume at home had been playing in my head towards the end of the trip.  I was looking forward to my first bowl of cereal!  I felt a sense to relief when I looked up at the top shelf in the pantry and saw the nine different boxes of cereals neatly lined up, just as I had left it before we departed for India.  This was going to be a good morning!  Perhaps the breakfast of my favorite cereals would help me to get back into the swing of things in Gaithersburg after having been away for more than three weeks.

Truth be told, this trip to India has been somewhat  unusual, with a few life events experienced, both planned and unplanned, both happy and sad, and with enough changes and adjustments to plans and schedules to keep things more uncertain than usual.  One managed to keep up with the flow, and the good thing is that with the current circumstances of ones life the mechanics of making such adjustments to the travel plans were the least of the problems to be tackled.  I have to thank all those who facilitated all of the last-minute changes in schedules in various ways without hesitation and without asking questions.  You all know who you are.   Thanks also to everybody, family and friends, for their extreme hospitality in spite of the disruption that one caused.   I have to mention the one “planned” trip I made to a facility to meet up with an old school friend of mine for the first time in nearly forty years. It was a great gift to me that he recognized me the moment we met.  But the circumstances were difficult.  The extremely destructive mental disease that my friend suffered from had aged him well beyond his years.   The intelligent and handsome young boy I had gone to with school appeared to have been destroyed by his illness.  Life can be cruel, and some of us are more fortunate than others.

But back to the present.  The cereal boxes await me in the pantry and the routine of breakfast at home is going to help me get back on track.  Perhaps you wonder at the number of cereals in question.  Each one of them is a unique, and need I say a “healthy”, mix of grain, dried fruit and nuts.  So what does Kuria do with all of this?  He puts a little bit of each cereal that meets his fancy on any particular morning into his cereal bowl and creates his own yummy mix.  This is what it looked like this morning.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnd then it is time to add some fruit,OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAand then some milk,OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAand down it goesOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAuntil the bowl is empty!OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASo, while I did relish the idlis, dosas, vadas, upma and other great stuff that I ate for breakfast while in India, this was what I was looking forward to and enjoying this morning.  Let’s see where the rest of the day takes me.

Submitted for the Weekly Photo Challenge with the theme Morning!

CRISPR

How many of you have heard of CRISPR?   I gather from the Wikipedia article that it somehow holds the key to a gene editing technology that is relatively simple to implement compared to  older methods in this field.  Pioneers in this area of science include Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier.   This is mind-blowing stuff with many practical applications.   You can develop approaches to tackling diseases by modifying the DNA itself.  (Think of approaches to attacking cancer in the most efficient manner without having any of the current side-effects of such treatment.) You can easily modify the DNA of pests such as mosquitoes that spread diseases as a form of pest control.  You can easily modify the DNA of plants so that they are more useful to humans. You can easily modify the properties of microorganisms so that they are less dangerous to humans, and perhaps even do useful things for them.  The possibilities are endless, and therein lies the problem.

It is a fact that we human beings have played a very significant part in determining the nature of the lifeforms that exist on this planet today.  As a process of evolution, human beings have changed over the centuries, and we have also managed to impact a lot of the things around us that we find in “nature”.  If you think that all the meats and the fruits and vegetables that we buy in the grocery store are all “natural”, think again.  They have all taken the form they are today only because we as humans have managed to affect changes to the lifeforms that are the basis of our foods in a certain way to our benefit.  We have dominated the environment of our planet in this context.  In addition to the evolutionary changes that we have caused (sped up through the process of efficient “farming”), we have also been affecting faster and more deliberate genetic changes through science in the last century or so.  While we may not have looked at what we were doing with that perspective, we have always been playing God.  And while all of this is happening, there is this moment every once in a while when we momentarily pause to consider the ethical impact of what we are doing.

The pace is now about to pick up significantly!  With simpler technology for gene editing, we have the capability to move forward much faster.  Not only that, we have the ability to open up newer frontiers in science, and with that raise a bunch of new ethical questions.

Medicine has always been about trying to take care of the problems of human beings at all stages of life and very often regardless of the costs involved.  We have been successful in extending human life significantly (for what reason, one is not always sure).  We are all about trying to make sure that people are healthy and that we overcome any health issue with all the resources available.  With the new gene repair technology, having access to all of this can become only a matter of cost.  There are of course always ethical questions involved when cost enters the picture.

But the more intriguing ethical dilemma to me will be about the process of creating a life.  It seems that not only will will be able to fix problems after birth, but we may even be able to address them before we are born.  Wow!  For example, if there is a risk of Down’s syndrome in a baby, perhaps we can now do something about it very easily before the baby is born!  Now, we are really playing God.

I suspect that some people are going to be appalled by the ethical questions that are raised, as if we are crossing some barrier that must not be breached.  But truth we told, we have always been playing God, and we have always been willing to accept any science and technology that we feel is to our benefit.  Only now the pace of “progress” increases, and this progress continues relentlessly.  It is all a continuum and the barriers that are only in our minds will be hurdled over before too long.   Where we are headed, nobody really knows.  This process started a long time ago.

The really crazy thing about all of this is even as science and technology leads us fearlessly across new frontiers, we are still unable to address some other basic requirements for humanity to thrive.  We still have inequality in the world. We still have poverty and hunger.  Crazy!

Apple and Privacy

Privacy is something that none of us who live in the digital connected world really have.  While we would like to believe that we are safe from prying eyes by using the tools provided by the different vendors who design security solutions that incorporate into our systems, I think that this ship has sailed.  The moment you decided to be a part of the Internet, be it on the social media, or be it for simple browsing, or e-mail, or chatting, you created a door into your device, and a means for your information to become available to the snoops, and also for folks who want to misuse your device. The security solutions I mentioned before can barely keep up with the hacking world in this regard. And it only takes one mistake to open the backdoor into your system! The best you can do is try to limit the damage.

There are all kinds of snoops.  There are the ones trying to get at your confidential information to do something bad to you. There are those who are trying to misuse your personal information for other illicit purposes. There are those who are trying to legally or illegally gain some commercial advantage, trying to sell things to you by learning more about you from your computer.  And then there is the government that might suspect you of doing something illegal on your computer.

Why has it been so easy for people to get into our private systems?  For one thing, most of the systems that we work with have fundamental software design flaws that can be exploited.   Next, whenever you are connected into the Internet, you have an address at which you can be reached.  Then, for reasons of convenience, and for supporting required functionalities, systems also include means for others to get access to your working environment for legitimate purposes.  (For example, remote login capability exists for debugging purposes.)

Once you have an identity on the network, there are ways for people to try to access your system for both legitimate and nefarious purposes.  Every time you visit a website you are executing code from the website on your computer.  Websites leave cookies on your computer regularly when you browse them.  And sometimes you give outsiders access inadvertently by going to a website that interacts with your computer in a malicious manner.  Once you have have hit the wrong button on the browser screen, or in an e-mail, or even opened a malicious application file that you downloaded, you could be at the mercy of the entity on the the other side of the communication link established.

And then there are many of us who are willing to give up our privacy willingly in return for something  that we want.  It happens all the time when you give your information to companies like Facebook, or Google, or LinkedIn or Microsoft, to name a few.  It happens when you make a purchase at any online shopping  site like Amazon or even an Expedia.  And then the systems that these organizations use for storing all this information are not foolproof.  Personal information for millions of people have been stolen from the records of more than one government agency.

Your digital communications are themselves not safe from snooping.  Communications from your smart phone can be intercepted by fake cell towers, and communications through an ISP can be snooped upon directly.  Both the bad guys and the good guys take advantage of this approach.

There are rules and regulations meant to address many of the above scenarios to try to protect your privacy, but in many cases rules cannot keep up with either the technologies nor the human ingenuity when it comes to creating problems and creating chaos. Then there are the human tendencies that make us disregard the speed-bumps in the  processes that are meant to make us slow down and think for a minute.  We make mistakes that allow our privacy to be compromised. When was the last time one read a EULA?   When was the last time one read and reacted to the privacy statement (mandated by law) they received from their financial organization?  Do we accept and store all cookies offered up when browsing a website?

Tim Cook at Apple has decided that the privacy of the owner of a device must be protected at all costs.  In this case, he is talking about access to the contents of a device by a third party that has your device in their hands and wants to look into its contents without asking you.  They want to make it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to do something like this. Recently Apple introduced the concept of having all the contents of the device encrypted, and limiting access to the decryption key to the the owner of the device (i.e., even Apple does not know what it is).  In order to be able to use the key, the user has to first get access to his or her device with a password.  If somebody tries to hack the password too many times, the device stops working completely.  The system is “bricked“.  The only way to break the system is to guess the password without too many attempts.  Apple does not have a back door in its current software that lets it bypass this security.

This is where government access to a device becomes the topic of discussion.  What the FBI has asked Apple to do is to hack into their own system so that they can read the contents of another person’s smartphone.  Apple is refusing in spite of being under a court order.  They are in a difficult place. If they attempt to break their own system and are successful, it could indicate that others could also find a way to hack into their supposedly super-secure system.  They designed the system to work this way for a reason!

Is Apple justified in refusing to cooperate with the FBI?  Under ideal conditions I would say that they are not, since once you become a part of a society and its systems and use it to your benefit, you have some responsibilities to the system also.  But we also know that the system is not infallible, and can easily be manipulated and misused (as shown by Edward Snowden).   And the tendency for misuse is somehow inbuilt into the system because of human nature and can perhaps never be fixed.

Where should the line be drawn with regards to trying to protect privacy under these circumstances? It is certainly a dilemma…