Saturday, December 31, 2011

Poem of the week - "Things"

I swear this is the last Borges poem for a while. I am going back to St. Louis on Monday and should start reading some other poetry pretty soon.


The docile lock and the belated
Notes my few days left will grant
No time to read, the cards, the table,
A book, in its pages, that pressed
Violet, the leavings of an afternoon
Doubtless unforgettable, forgotten,
The reddened mirror facing to the west
Where burns illusory dawn. Many things,
Files, sills, atlases, wine-glasses, nails,
Which serve us, like unspeaking slaves,
So blind and so mysteriously secret!
They’ll long outlast our oblivion;
And never know that we are gone.

The phrase "unspeaking slaves" is eye-catching. Simple and lucid poem. Made me pause and think for a few moments at the end. 

End of the year stuff

Oh hey it's the end of yet another calender year. Time to do some retrospective type stuff. This was a big, nay, a giant year for me. Graduated from college, moved to a new state, started first year of medical school - pretty happening year. Events prior to my graduation in June appear way more distant than they actually are. Even though it has been only (!) six months since I graduated, it seems like an eternity ago. Everything before that is now shrouded in a sepia-tinted haze.

Enough reminiscing, however. Every newspaper, magazine and TV show does a Top 10 list right around this time. I am nowhere as significant as these luminaries of our mainstream media, so I will do a Top 4 list instead. I have given slightly more weight to books because reading is my preferred form of entertainment. Right then, here we go:

Top books that I read in 2011
(These are books I read, not ones that were published this year)

4. More Money Than God by Sebastian Mallaby: about the secretive hedge-fund industry, whose titans rake in eye-popping billions most years on intricate trades. For instance, one guy bought all the Palladium in Russia as part of a trade.

3. Chaos by James Gleick: "butterfly effect", fractals, Mandelbrot sets, colorful personalities and whimsical brainiacs make up this engrossing read about a fascinating field that can only be described as a hybrid of math and physics.

2. Patel: A Life by Rajmohan Gandhi: a superb biography about Sardar Patel, one of India's foremost political leaders who was instrumental in the country's fight for independence. He was a close associate of Mahatma Gandhi and played a crucial role in the early days of the nascent Democracy.

1. Rocket Boys by Homer Hickam: rockets, adversity, feel-good story. Hickam has a knack for making readers feel closer to characters. Boy growing up in the heart of coal country in the 50's dreams of working for NASA. Moving descriptions of a decaying town and a decaying industry and the perennial tussle between unions and bosses.

Top 4 movies I saw in 2011:

4. Crazy, Stupid, Love: good, goofy, light.

3. Muppets: surprisingly fresh, self-aware and incredibly clever.

2.  Captain America: makes a worn out genre look compelling. self-deprecation, wit, sap all in the right amounts.

1. Moneyball: I don't even care about baseball, but this movie made baseball seem infinitely exciting. Quite an achievement. Brad Pitt gets a special mention for his acting.

Top 4 TV shows I followed in 2011:

4. Parks and Recreation: not as funny as the third season, but still miles ahead of its competitors

3. Justified: a trigger-happy US Marshal reluctantly returns to his native Kentucky to a whole host of professional and personal problems. Tremendous acting by the whole cast. Shout out to Timothy Olyphant for playing lead Raylan Givens.

2. The League: a bunch of douchebags obsessed with fantasy football and their antics each week. Extremely funny and original.

1. The Wire: Finally got around to finishing this epic that depicts life in a troubled Baltimore, and aspires to capture a snapshot of America in the process.  A lot of internet space has been devoted by people far more accomplished about the virtues of this masterpiece. One of the best (if not the best) things ever made on TV. Everything about this show is perfect.

By the way, this was the 100th post for the year 2011. 

Friday, December 30, 2011

The magic of sports radio

For nearly two months in the summer of 2010 I commuted 65 miles from my home to LA daily for internship and research. I got into a set rhythm: I woke up at 5:15, was in the car and on the road by 5:45 armed with a tall mug of coffee. I would be in LA by 7:30 or 7:45 at the latest. I tried playing some of my music during this mind-numbing drive to entertain myself but soon ran out of good songs to play. That is when I walked down the dark murky path to sports talk radio.

710 ESPN is LA's self-professed sports leader and the official home of the much revered Lakers. In a couple days I knew the entire lineup: Mike and Mike in the morning followed by the irascible Colin Cowherd. Andrew Siciliano and former Laker Mychal (yes that is not a typo) Thompson took over till the afternoon. Steve Mason and John Ireland came on air from 3-6 and A Martinez (I never found out his true first name) and Brian Long wrapped up the evening.

I had a fun time listening to these guys banter and make awkward jokes. Andrew and Mychal were the funniest of them all, in my opinion. (sadly I found out about ten months ago that this show was replaced by the Max and Marcellus show) They squabbled like old married couple. Colin Cowherd was downright crazy and was never afraid to hide it.

Sports radio has a stigma attached to it. Print sports journalists malign it for sensationalizing sports and making a big deal out of non events. Radio hosts are blamed for playing the same audio clips over and over and for fawning over the people they interview or the teams their stations represent.

Now all of this definitely true. But that is the very nature of the beast. These guys have to be on air for hours. Unlike TV people, they don't have the added advantage of using visuals to capture the viewers' attentions. There are no fancy graphics or interactive animations. So what do they do? They talk in a highly animated voice. They produce exaggerated laughs. They make dramatic pauses. They take a non-incident and stretch it across shows - horse beaten to death by M&M at 6 am would be resurrected by Mason and Ireland at 5:30 pm without any shame. A big part of these shows was taking calls from listeners. You'd have Randy from Burbank calling in to wax poetic about his brand of run-defense for the new-look Washington Redskins. Or Robert from Chatsworth expressing his fears over "Paulina" Gasol and "Andrea" Bynum (this was a real call, BTW - not making it up). If a guy blabbered too much, the hosts would swiftly cut his call. You can't cede control to armchair offensive coordinators, after all.

And that was the fun of it. A nice little ecosystem built entirely around sports its primary food source. They made my otherwise excruciating commute bearable. I was still pretty freaking exhausted every time I came home in the evening, but at least I didn't want to bash my head in.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Poem of the week: "Remorse" by Borges

It's time for another edition of Poem of the Week. I have been reading some more poems by Borges, and have realized two things:

1. The man writes about very somber, depressing stuff
2. He's a damn fine poet
Here's "Remorse":

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Review - Sherlock Holmes: A game of shadows

I went to watch Sherlock Holmes 2 with some degree of enthusiasm. The inevitable "sequel letdown" phenomenon notwithstanding (Godfather 2 and the Star Wars sequels are some rare exceptions to this phenomenon), I was expecting a good performance by RDJ, whose portrayal of Holmes in the first film I thoroughly enjoyed.

However, I was disappointed by the movie, not because it is bad (in fact, it is an entertaining flick on the whole) but because it bills itself as something it is not. It purports to be a Sherlock Holmes movie, but apart from character names and very loose plot points, it does not resemble or faithfully represent any element of the original stories. The Holmes I grew up to enjoy and worship is a Holmes who solves cases by thinking. He listens to his clients and shuts himself up in his room, emerging only to use Watson as a sounding board. He does not like to leave his apartment and detests most forms of human contact, and engages in both of these activities only when absolutely necessary. Although an accomplished fighter, he never fights and I vaguely recall only two (maybe three) stories where he chases someone. To be fair, the first movie did away with a lot of these character traits mostly because of pragmatic and commercial concerns (a movie showing RDJ brooding on a divan playing shitty violin wouldn't be as fun, nor would it rake in half a billion dollars), and I understand that. When you make a movie, your primary goal is to broaden the audience for the story you are basing the movie on and make money.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Poem of the week

I may have mentioned somewhere on the blog that I don't read much poetry. I will read the occasional good poem I happen to stumble upon, but I don't systematically sit down with a collection of poems and blaze through them.

I am making a conscious effort to alter my reading habits and include more poetry. In the past, the barrier was always finding good poets. Recently I found out that one of my classmates here is an avid poetry reader, and a big fan of T.S. Eliot. I struck up a conversation with him and he recommended a few good collections. In fact, he lent me a copy of a collection of sonnets by Borges.

So here's the plan: as I go through these poems (and hopefully more in the future), I will copy one poem a week, and maybe say a few things about that poem.

Here's this week's poem:


Just like that, first semester of med school is almost over. Only histology stands in the way of unbridled bliss. This past week was a very typical exam week: dazed looks on people's faces as the clock raced toward midnight and beyond, the alarmingly nocturnal lifestyle most of us adopted, gleeful food runs to the cafeteria where we out competed one another in choosing the least healthy foods.

I really didn't study with other people in undergraduate, so I never got to experience the communal studying environment until now. And I like it a lot. It helps that all of us are taking the same classes and are going through the same sorts of problems in trying to learn/retain the material.

That's all I have to say for now. I need to go clean up the apartment and pack my bags for my trip back home for the break. No post about academics is complete without the cliched "I can't believe how fast time flies" sentiment. So there you have it: I can't believe I am done with first semester. Pretty crazy. 

Monday, December 5, 2011

Vladimir Putin is a man of many talents

Russian Prime Minister (and soon to be President again) Vladimir Putin is a man of many talents. A super master spy, martial arts expert, political manipulator, Siberian tiger hunter and so on. Add pianist and singer to that list. I spotted this youtube a while ago. Putin and other glitterati were attending a charity concert when he was invited to sing on stage. Epicness ensued:

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Sunday saxophone

I am a huge fan of the saxophone (wish I could play it). It has a very soulful, evocative tone that stirs deep emotions and induces a blissful reverie. I could spend hours listening to the great John Coltrane on the sax.

Although the guitar doesn't usually match up to the sax in terms of depth (with a few exceptions - see Hotel California), the combination of these two wonderful instruments in famous rock songs has produced some very legendary tunes.

The first one is Pink Floyd's "Money". Apparently it is the only song with a 7/8 time, whatever the hell that means (I am ignorant when it comes to the theory of music). The guitar work is impressive, but it's the brief sax interlude that steals the thunder. Absolutely mesmerizing:

The Rolling Stones abused their fair share of guitars during their heyday to produce some classic tunes, and they also produced this kickass track with a very characteristic sax part. The sax in "Brown Sugar" is irreverent and flamboyant, much like the Stones themselves.

Finally, here is Bill Clinton playing a surprisingly good rendition of Elvis Presley's "Heartbreak Hotel" in 1992. Clinton, the young, charismatic governor of Arkansas, was running for the presidency and made an appearance on the Arsenio Hall show to woo the youth of the day. Look at him rock those stunner shades:

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Updates from under the pile

My last post was more than a month and bucketfuls of optimism ago. Back then I believed I would be able to keep up with this on a very regular basis, both because it is relaxing to post stuff on this blog and because I thought I would have time to think of new and creative things to talk about. Like many times before, I was wrong.

I got buried under a pile of schoolwork. Anatomy (as I indicated in my previous posts) took up the most time. But of course I can't abandon this blog. So here are a few rapid fire updates of my non-spectacular life over the last month or so:

  • One of the coolest things I learned in anatomy was the organization, function and innervation of muscles in the upper and lower limbs. While I knew the basic outline of the major muscles (biceps, triceps etc.), it was very neat to learn about the muscles that move the hand (wrist, thumbs, fingers). There are about 50 muscles in the upper limb, and an astonishing 28 of them work to move some part of the hand. Finer movements of the hand are very important to our day to day life and allow us to perform many amazing feats that other animals cannot (think about Hendrix plucking the string of a guitar or van Gogh painting one of his many masterpieces) These are movements you are not even conscious of performing. Like for instance, just now, I typed out a sentence of the laptop without even realizing I used, among others,(I am gonna show off a bit now) the lumbricals, abductor pollicis longus, opponens pollicis, and a whole bunch of flexors and extensors. 
  •  I have taken up cubing. If you are going "huh?", cubing is a sport (any activity that has a word organization to regulate it is a sport) that involves solving the Rubik's cube (allegedly the best selling puzzle of all time, and the lazy film writer's prop of choice to depict nerddom).I was a bit into those cubes about 5-6 years ago and was able to solve them by following algorithms, but never really bothered to memorize them. Now I am determined to memorize the algorithms. Solving the cube is not that hard, really. The simplest method probably involves memorizing just about 6 algorithms. That's it. You could probably solve it in about 3 minutes with the simplest method. To get fast at it, now that's a whole different game. That takes amazing pattern recognition skills, very nimble fingers (there's those pesky muscles again!) and superhuman spatial skills. The world record currently is 5.66 seconds. People who can solve the cube in less than 25 seconds typically memorize about 60-80 algorithms. I am currently working on an intermediate method that involves only 15 algs. Will gradually progress to more advanced methods to improve my time. 
  • A year ago, the Niners were the laughingstock. In a otherwise shitty NFC West, they were the champions of shit. They unceremoniously sacked their coach mid-season, (one of) their quarterbacks had a spectacular meltdown on the sidelines, and they looked like a cause very much lost. And look at them now. 8-1 and sitting at the top of the freakin' world. On the flip side, the Eagles were supposed to be legit superbowl contenders this season: a string of high-profile off-season acquisitions, an explosive quarterback aided by eager receivers, they had it all. They are 3-6 now, and will be incredibly lucky even to win a wild card spot. 

Finally, a word about this blog. I seriously intend to keep it going, and while I can't promise daily updates, I can promise this: I will post something substantial at least twice a week. Look out for at least one more post later this week.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

A few thoughts on anatomy

In my last post providing an overview of med school and classes and such, I promised a separate post just for anatomy because I like it so much. So here we go.

Anatomy more or less dominates our first block of classes. We have three lectures a week, each followed by a marathon session in the dissection lab. There are four students per body, meaning there is plenty of work cut out for everyone. A dedicated brigade of professors (some of whom are reportedly renowned experts in their fields) and TAs roams around to provide assistance to floundering groups or to regale the idle ones with grand stories about exciting discoveries in the field of anatomy. The lab is akin to a bazaar, full of boisterousness and healthy chaos.

Tomas Transtromer and his exciting poetry

Although I like poetry, I don't dabble in it (or feel as confident about) like I do in literature. Good poetry is harder to find than good fiction because every person with the slightest bit of angst and the teeniest degree of creativity jumps recklessly into the realm of the verse. Whereas bad fiction merely annoys, bad poetry provokes. I feel like hurling the book against the wall whenever I encounter a bad poem. With bad fiction, I merely shrug, grit my teeth a little bit and put the book away.

Poetry is a medium that achieves (or at least aims to achieve) a lot more with the very few. Whenever you try to express yourself among the confines of meter and rhyme while trying to construct a lyrical backbone (not that any of these are needed for poetry - they just happen to be the most common features), you run the risk of sounding either too shallow or just plain shitty.

Fiction offers the comfortable cushion of unlimited words and offers complete freedom. The whole wide green pastures are yours. The cushion of words masks mediocre fiction much more easily, and that is why I don't feel as much pain while reading bad fiction.

So it is natural that I get terribly excited when I meet a particularly good piece of poetry. Case in point: Mr. Tomas Transtromer, the newly minted Nobel laureate in literature.

Friday, October 7, 2011

The humdrum and the minutiae

We've been in school for one and a half months now, and have settled into a good routine involving classes, social events and studying. Our school year is divided into three blocks and we are currently in the middle of our first block. Second block starts after Christmas break and third block after spring break. Pretty much like the quarter system, except first block is longer by more than a month (instead of starting late September, like most quarter system schools do, we started mid August).

First block consists of the following five classes: Anatomy, Histology, Physiology, Molecular Foundations of Medicine and Practice of Medicine.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Boast of quietness

Since I have so much free time on my hands these days, I spend it on the treadmill. When I am not wasting my time watching Anthony Bourdain spout gibberish ("This bread is France and France is bread") on the gym TVs, I listed to audiobooks while running.

One of the recent books I was (and still am) listening to is Kiran Desai's Inheritance of Loss. It won a Booker prize and Desai has some pedigree - her mother Anita Desai is a famous novelist - so I decided to check it out. The book is meant to represent class struggle and the aspirations of the poor, both through the perspective of a retired judge clashing with local goons in India and an illegal immigrant trying to make it big in America.

Although the book has been a bit overly melodramatic and slightly clunky so far, a verse in the preface struck me deeply. I was running along when the narrator began speaking the following lines:

My homeland is the rythym of a guitar, a few portraits, an old sword,
the willow grove's visible prayer as evening falls.
Time is living me.
More silent than my shadow, I pass through the loftily covetous multitude.
They are indispensible, singular, worthy of tomorrow.
My name is someone and anyone.
I walk slowly, like one who comes from so far away
he doesn't expect to arrive.
I was so impressed by the tenderness and the heaviness of these words that I nearly fell off the treadmill (no joke). I was truly impressed by Desai's writing (And this is only the preface! Lots more to come! I thought to myself), when the narrator finished reading and intoned, "Jorge Luis Borges."

I felt like smacking my head. Of course. Desai is good, but definitely not that good.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

A month's worth of newness

Well it’s been more than month since I have posted anything here and it’s damn well about time I changed that. I have been incredibly busy and have been totally absorbed by medical school and all the burdens that go with moving to a totally new place and getting adjusted to living there. But now I have begun to settle down into a fairly convenient routine and can give a good retrospect of the month that just passed.

On August 8, I boarded a painfully early morning flight from Los Angeles to St. Louis to start medical school at Washington University. The founders of my school must have been fond of misunderstandings, since its name provokes a lot of confusion.

“Is it in Washington?”

“Is it in Washington, D.C.?”

These are the two most common follow-up questions I get whenever I talk to someone not in the medical community. No wonder that in 1976, the Regents of the university finally sneaked in the qualifier “in St. Louis” to the school’s name to make it “Washington University in St. Louis.”
Usually its shortened to either WashU or WUStL. 

BTW if you haven’t got it by now, the school was named after our first president.

Orientation was from August 9-12. I was at a slight advantage at meeting a lot of my new classmates because more than half of the class had arrived in St. Louis early to do a week-long community health program. First day went by fairly briskly, and I spent an awful lot of time shaking hands and smiling and introducing myself. The two most common questions following introductions – “Where are you from?” and “Where did you do your undergrad?”

If time permitted, these were usually followed by “Where are you living right now?”

That evening, the school rented out the entire City Museum from 6-9 and threw a lavish reception party, replete with an open bar and a generous dinner. This was the type of affair with waiters circulating in and out of crowds, carrying trays laden with delicious appetizers and some kind of wine. The entire top brass showed up, and the Dean of admissions was seated at my table. I was awestruck. This man was literally directly responsible for my admission to the school. He was my interviewer way back in November of last year, and he was the one I wrote to express my interest after being waitlist. And he was the one who called me the next day to announce the happy news.

There were four other students at the table, and the talk turned to California. My class has a lot of Californians. The Dean made a joke about it: “When the creator made the world, he/she took the whole North American landmass and shook it thoroughly, and all the nuts fell down to California.” 


The rest of the orientation days were, sadly, neither as eventful nor as exciting. We were bombarded with lectures and protocols and forms. Orientation culminated in what has now become a standard practice among medical schools, the white coat ceremony. It is a fairly recent tradition (Wikipedia tells me it was first introduced in late 1980’s) that marks the initiation of new medical students into the medical community. Each student is given a white coat and the class as a whole recites an oath to uphold the principles of medicine.

WashU makes us construct our own oath, partly because the Hippocratic oath is terribly outdated (it includes clauses like "to live in common with him[i.e. teacher] and, if necessary, to share my goods with him; To look upon his children as my own brothers, to teach them this art." ) and partly because the school acknowledges that while the main tenets of medicine may not change, each new generation of physicians-to-be brings its own set of ideals. 

For that purpose, we were split into small groups. Each group, under the guidance of a faculty mentor, spent two hours brainstorming various ideas worthy of including in the oath. Two representatives were appointed from each group, and all the representatives met again to write the final product. If anyone is interested, here is the oath in full: Oath.

Now normally, I am faintly leery of such displays of solemnity because I think people take them for granted, thus diluting the significance of these events. However, I was very impressed with the gravitas and authenticity of the whole ceremony. Granted, we are all at a very young stage in our careers, but the boisterious idealism on display at the white coat ceremony is necessary to sustain the tough years ahead. Plus, everyone’s parents had a nice reason to feel happy and overwhelmed, which is always good. This post has grown too long already, and I will talk about classes, daily life etc. in my next post.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

On the Road - 11: Viva Las Vegas

On a sweltering July 27, I set off for a mini-vacation to Las Vegas. With me in the car were two friends, M. and R., both of whom I have known for more than fifteen years. We packed our car wisely: a half-eaten box of Pappa John's finest, two mountainous crates of bottled water ("buy one get one free" at Rite-Aid), a dazzling array of beverages thoughtfully buried in chips of ice in a giant cooler, and two ipods filled with road trip-appropriate music.

This was R's first time to Vegas so he was very excited. He kept asking all sorts of questions, most pertinent, others not so much. Pretty soon we were out on the Interstate 15, going a leisurely 80 miles and admiring the scenery. The land out there is so bleak and so vast that it naturally inspires awe and a deep sense of isolation. The mountains that crop up alarmingly close to the roadside are stark and stern, studded with harsh rocks and nothing else.

While I was busy driving, M. snapped pictures from the passenger seat.
3.5 hours and multiple iterations of "Hotel California" later, the Vegas skyline emerged triumphantly from the desert. I have been to Vegas before, but each time I go I feel the same feeling of contentment at the first sight of the skyline. Vegas has a rejuvenating quality to it. The city itself is nothing short of a miracle, prospering (although not so much in the recent years) in the middle of the desert and being an evergreen hope-refueling station for millions for decades. During day it looks surprisingly ordinary. At night, with all the lights turned on in their full glory, it transforms into an astonishing world, one that is self-contained and endless at the same time. It is earnest without being too ironic. Which is why it is able to pull off showy gimmicks without seeming kitschy. Where else would you be able to visit a replica of the Eiffel Tower or see a miniature Statue of Liberty or a giant-ass Sphinx without lapsing into peals of derisive laughter? Vegas takes itself seriously, and that compels you to do the same. True, its unabashedly consumerist and capitalist nature turns many away, but the beauty of the strip is it offers something for everybody. You can manage to have a terrific time without once having to gamble. Or drink. Just walking around and seeing the charged crowds gliding on the hot concrete is enough to get the adrenaline going. I have walked many many miles on UCLA's campus over the last four years, but none of them can beat the walks I have taken on the illuminated strip at midnight.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Reader's Log Part II: The Man and the Premise

Welcome back everyone! Today I’m going to give a brief (Brief!) introduction to Rousseau and the central premise his 1762 piece, “The Social Contract.”

Rousseau was a philosopher, political theorist, and writer who graced the European arena from 1712 to 1778. He was a Calvinist-turned-Catholic generally regarded as something of a heretic. Rousseau lived a tumultuous and messy law, a portion of it on the run from censors. His achievements include founding the autobiographical genre, shaping the development of the modern novel, and inspiring almost every detail of the French Revolution.

Rousseau believes in the Republic. He envisions a system in which the people are the state. Each individual citizen gives himself and all his resources over to the state, and is henceforth both a member and a trustee of the collective good. The state itself is governed by the “general will,” which is the net sum of its citizens’ individual wills.

Why this particular system? What would a Republic of this nature give Rousseau that a constitutional monarchy, perhaps with a Bill of Rights, would not?

Rousseau believes that nothing can resist brute force. John Locke had, in the late 17th century, proposed a system of rights and limits that would intervene between the government and the people. Rousseau apparently does not think these safeguards are strong enough. Rousseau believes that the only way to protect people from the government is if the people are the government. Because the resources of the state are the resources of the people, the majority will would be backed up by the majority of force in the state. It is an elegant solution, but notoriously difficult to implement in practice.

In the coming weeks, I’ll attempt to tackle key elements of Rousseau’s theory. Please note that these are the musings of a mere student, one without much formal training and who is working outside the scope of his own department. I earnestly invite anyone interested or educated in these matters to please, please chime in and comment on these logs!

Next time: Was Rousseau a Socialist?

Monday, August 1, 2011

Happy first birthday UG!!!

We here at UG are very proud and happy to announce that today is this little guy's very first birthday! In a year, we published more than 150 posts and got more than 14000 visits. Now these are obviously not blogger of the year numbers, but they are fairly heartening for us since we didn't do much other than write our idle thoughts and opinions.

This auspicious day calls for a celebration so will you please put your hands together for the lovely Marilyn Monroe singing "Happy Birthday":

In addition, I have dug up four posts from our archives for you to enjoy.

  • The "On the Road" series has been the most popular reading material on this blog, with over ten installments. Initially, I conceived it as a travelogue of sorts as I traveled around the country for medical school interviews. Next week, I am leaving for St. Louis to start medical school at the Washington University. Here are my thoughts about my interview day visit to the city: On the Road-8
  • Our third blogger, Your Faithful Servant, has been largely silent over the past year but she was very vital in redecorating our site (all that fancy artwork that adorns the banner was designed by her). She seems to have preferred quality over quantity because her post about cooking a spectacular meal was, how do I say it, very filling: An America Saturday
Hope you keep coming back to our little corner of the vast internet!

Strange encounters - 2: The story of Jean-Paul Sartre and the free swipe to Late Night

Ten days ago, I wrote about how I was rudely interrupted at lunch by a girl (a complete stranger) who foisted her phone number - unsolicited - on my sudoku-deprived soul.

Writing about that encounter inspired me to write about a few more. Whereas the lunch incident was just plain bizarre, the one described in this post was pleasantly out of the norm. Coincidentally, this one happened in De Neve dining hall as well.

For years one of the major attractions of De Neve has been the availability of delicious fast food after hours i.e. from 9-midnight. This service, called late night, is enormously popular among starving (and not-so starving) UCLA students who flock there like moths to a light source, especially during finals week. Even apartment dwellers congregate here owing to the general cheapness of food.

One fine night my roommate and good friend JP and I walked up the hill from our apartment to avail ourselves of some burgers and curly fries with parmesan and a giant container of sprite. As we waited in line, I ignited a complicated philosophical debate. Around that time I was suffering through my "Sartre phase". Jean-Paul Sartre was a French post-WWII philosopher, public intellectual, litterateur, and an all-around badass who is arguably France's greatest gift to the thinking world. He provided a major boost to the philosophical movement of existentialism through his now seminal lecture "Existentialism is a humanism", and later through his numerous plays and novels and a largely unreadable opus "Being and nothingness."

In those days, I was valiantly wading through his book of collected essays and was naturally itching to discuss some of the stuff with someone. My closest target being JP (BTW I just realized my roommate and Sartre share initials, sort of), I took my aim.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Reader's Log Part I: Why the Enlightenment?

Hello everyone! So, I have a quick personal story to relate: Last week, I happened to attend Mass at the University Catholic Center of my alma mater, and caught one of the final homilies there by Father Ivan, a wonderful priest who always seems to nail down simple but elusive truths. His topic was passion, and his premise was that, regardless of what we are passionate about, nurturing that fire and developing one’s gifts would ultimately help us do God’s will.

I’m passionate about the Enlightenment, so dammit, I’m gonna run with it and hope it makes itself relevant!

I’ve been re-reading Rousseau’s “The Social Contract,” and have decided to start a reading log. The problems with this approach is that, as you proceeds in a book on political theory, the questions you have tend to answer themselves, and the impressions you get are modified by new information. So, I’m tackling the book in chunks, and am trying my best to stay focused on the larger picture.

In my next post, I’ll focus on the first book of “The Social Contract,” particularly Rousseau’s opinions on property. In the meantime, I’m going to force you to endure a few sentences explaining my personal interest in the Enlightenment. I expect you will find them incredibly dull.

For those unfamiliar with “The Enlightenment,” it was an intellectual movement from the late 1600’s until 1800 that emphasized the application of reason to every human problem. It is the movement of that birthed both the USA and the French Revolution.

So, let’s start off with a question: Why the Enlightenment? Why study political and philosophical thought devoted to solving the particular questions of the eighteenth century, especially when the answers it provided were embodied in the dysfunctional government of Revolutionary France? The great thinkers have moved on in the last 200 years; why haven’t I?

I think the appeal of the Enlightenment is best expressed by Enlightenment thinker Emmanuel Kant:

“Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed nonage. Nonage is the inability to use one’s own understanding without another’s guidance. This nonage is self-imposed if its cause lies not in lack of understanding but in indecision and lack of courage to use one’s own mind without another’s guidance. Dare to know! “Have the courage to use your own understanding,” is therefore the motto of the enlightenment.”

In other words, the Enlightenment is about faith: faith in reason. Enlightenment thinkers had a faith that reason could solve every problem, and (perhaps more importantly), that with proper understanding, and a dash of courage, every person is capable of rational thought. This faith is fundamental to belief in free will, and is the foundation of my own worldview. It is a faith that has been under attack in the 200 years since the Enlightenment.

I lack the philosophical muscle to prove or disprove the existence of rational free will. But, I can put it to the test, and see what conclusions it yields. So, I’m studying Rousseau to understand the logic that underpins the American and French Republics,  and to see where that logic leads.

Rousseau was the last and greatest of the Enlightenment thinkers. To a point, all subsequent human thought could be considered a particular interpretation or reaction to Rousseau.  I want to gauge whether this giant of the Enlightenment was capable of cutting through the most difficult philosophical knots, or whether he simply leaves our thoughts as tangled as ever.

Stay tuned.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Thoughts on the conclusion of the Harry Potter phenomenon

The last Harry Potter movie hit theaters with the impact of an artillery shell last week. Millions of rabid fans dressed up as their favorite characters and lined up hours before showtime to celebrate the end of the thrilling saga of "the boy who lived".

I was airborne when the movie arrived, squiggling around in a miserable economy class seat, itching to get off at Los Angeles. I obviously didn't get to see it on opening day, and since most of my friends had already seen it, couldn't find anybody to come with me until today. I saw Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 in a 70% empty theater in Anaheim Hills. And I thought it was the best out of all eight.

Now plenty of reviewers and internet pundits have done some extensive analysis on the movie and expounded upon its many themes, prominently highlighting the end of childhood aspect of it. I won't do much of that anymore because, frankly, it's boring at this point. I just wanted to offer some of my personal thoughts on it.

I am huge huge HP fan since I was 11. That's when my parents bought me the four-book set (the fifth one hadn't come out yet). I think I finished them off in a span of a month. I was so sorely disappointed that the fifth part wasn't going to be out for a long time that I spent hours conjuring up storylines for it. I have a rule that I don't read the same book twice, but I made a grudging exception for HP. In later years (after all seven were out), I would randomly pick up one of them and flip right to my favorite parts. I remember spending an obscene amount of time on this one website, called, reading up on every little detail and reveling in the eclectic essays posted by crazed fanboys. (BTW, last I heard the owner of hp-lexicon got sued by Rowling over plans of writing an encyclopedia and lost)

The world crafted by Rowling is incredibly imaginative and very complete. Her attention to details is admirable (minor plot points initiated in, say, the second book find resolution in the sixth). Her humor (or humour, I guess, in her honor) is like Diddy Riese cookies: thoroughly delicious and always fresh. Sure she kept readers waiting for answers in the early books - what is up with the diary? Why can Harry talk to snakes? - but the payoff was worth the long waits.

I grew up with the books and it was one hell of a decade living with more books or movies to look forward to. But I guess it must all end at some point. Hope the actors find other good work down the line, and more importantly, Rowling overcomes her firm insistence on not writing anything Harry related. Would love to experience that thrill, that anticipation all over again. 

Friday, July 22, 2011

Pleasure of taking pleasure in the misfortune of others

Germans are known for their efficiency. German engineering is known for its precision and innovation, and its spacious roads lauded and emulated all around. It is hardly surprising that the language follows the dictum of efficiency as well. Then again I suppose if your language is liberally peppered with (and I kid you not) 38 and 39 letter words you are uniquely equipped to be judicious with your words. Why hello, rechtsschutzversicherungsgesellschaften. It's a pleasure to meet you.

I have a friend who is very fluent in German and would probably find a lot of faults with my analysis below, but I don't think he reads this blog. So for the purposes of this post, I am your resident expert on German words.

Since English is a Germanic language (linguist wonks classify extant languages in "language families" and under that system, English falls under the Germanic family, which itself is a sub-division of the Indo-European language family), we have borrowed plenty German words over the years. Did you, for instance, ever experience angst at having to eat sauerkraut when you were in kindergarten?

But there are some German words that are so awe-inspiring for their frugality and precision, we have borrowed them without any modifications and with apparent gusto. Meet schadenfreude. Sham-what? Exactly. Schadenfreude. 

The word schadenfreude means "taking pleasure in the misfortune of others." Now why would you want to use seven words to describe something when just one awesome German word would suffice? Plus it makes you sound oh-so bourgeois.

Schadenfreude's precision is clearly admirable. It is not quite jealousy. Nor is it meanness or malice. It is somehow a combination of all of the above and some more. It perfectly captures a complex feeling in one succinct word - something that English fails to do in this case. Let me demonstrate: 

Close encounters of the third kind in De Neve

What do you do when a complete stranger walks up to you and gives her number - unsolicited - in the dining hall, of all places?

Answer: You push the incident to the attic of your mind for nearly a year until rummaging through old text messages revives the memory, and blog about it.

This, dear readers, is a thrilling tale of one man and his quest to finish his sudoku and how he was so strangely interrupted.

There I was, on a pleasant September afternoon, minding my own business and having a quiet lunch at UCLA's famed De Neve residential dining hall. The new academic year had just begun and one could still sense the excitement in the air. I don't recall what I had for lunch that day but for the sake of completeness, let us pretend I had a bowl of pasta, a plate of cheese pizza, a plate of garlic bread, a banana, a bowl of pudding (I always get dessert first before ravenous hordes of over enthusiastic freshmen and battle hardened upperclassmen raid the stores) and a glass of water sitting on my tray. A well-used copy of the day's Daily Bruin, the school's esteemed student newspaper, sat clumsily folded in front of me. I was knee-deep in the sudoku puzzle, ominously marked "fiendish." Since I had already completed the crossword, I was forced to confront this fiend. I nibbled at the bread now and then, but my attention was mostly on the empty grids. I was about to enter sudoku nirvana when...

"Excuse me, where did you get the paper from?"

The speaker was female. I looked up to see her smiling at me. I had a strong urge to blurt out the first thought that crossed my head, which was the paper is all over freaking campus;are you blind? Politeness and restraint prevailed, however, and I replied, "I got it right by bruinwalk. There is a stack of them outside De Neve too."

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Medici, McClellan and Star Wars?!

I am currently reading a book called "The House of Medici: Its rise and fall" by Christopher Hibbert. The Medicis were a political dynasty who "ruled" Florence for 200+ years. I put ruled between bunny ears because technically Florence was a republic - by their standards, not ours.

They were bankers first and foremost, but under the watchful tutelage of three generations of very capable Medicis, they seamlessly branched out into politics, art patronage and even the clergy. And Italian politics of the age was pretty freaking nasty. It was like playing a boisterous game of Risk. Elusive alliances, ruthless backstabbing, mind-bending diplomatic overtures - the whole package. I think it is fair to say the Medicis birthed the renaissance. Look at the list of painters, artists and sculptors they discovered and supported lavishly: Donatello, Michelangelo, da Vinci, Brunelleschi. Man that thing reads like the Louvre's guidebook (up top!).

Two of the Medicis went on to become popes. Did you read that? Two! Giovanni di Lorenzo de Medici became Pope Leo X in 1513. His cousin Guilio de Medici became pope in 1523. Both were related to the family's greatest member, Lorenzo de Medici (also called Lorenzo the Magnificent or, for you Italian fetishists, Il Magnifico) - Giovanni was his son and Guilio was his nephew whom he later adopted.

In short, the Medicis were Kennedys, Rockefellers, Vanderbilts and Carnegies all rolled into one. And their names are just so awesome you can't help but savor them like Bazooka Joe bubble gum: Cosimo, Giovanni, Guiliano, Lorenzo, Piero.

I was always interested in finding out more about the Medicis and their rise to power. So when my friend JP gave this book as a birthday present I was quite elated. It has been a pretty interesting read so far - I am about half done - and I want to share a few interesting passages from the book.

Ready? Here we go:

-"Lorenzo was now twenty, virile, clever and inexhaustibly energetic...he was was quite strikingly ugly". This is how Hibbert introduces the greatest Medici to the readers. Way to put someone down, dude. Pretty hilarious, though. His pic doesn't look that bad. Judge for yourselves:

Lorenzo deep in thoughts about discovering the next budding artist. Or pwning the next fiefdom.

-"When urged by the Florentines to move his [Florentine army general] men more quickly, he ridiculed such exhortation from 'mere mechanics who knew nothing of war'". When I read this line I thought, "Hmm. Where have I seen this tactic of belittling your leaders at the time of war before?" And then it struck me. General McClellan, the commander of all Union troops at one point in the Civil war, had nothing but contempt for Lincoln and the cabinet. In letters to his wife, he called Lincoln well-meaning baboon. Wow.

From left to right: man and baboon.

-To avert a pan-Italian crisis that would have consumed Florence Lorenzo took a peace mission trip down to Naples. Florentines were suspicious of the King of Naples. Why? Apparently, "King Ferrante [of Naples] was reported to preserve bodies of his enemies embalmed in a private museum".

Doesn't this sound a lot like a scene in a certain sci-fi classic made by a gentleman by the name of George Lucas? Maybe this picture of Han Solo frozen in Carbonite by King Ferrante Jabba the Hutt will refresh your memory:

This could have been Lorenzo instead of Harrison 

Fortunately for Lorenzo and the Florentines (that could be a great band name, BTW), the King wasn't that bad and let Lorenzo come and leave in peace. Literally. They signed a peace treaty in about ten weeks.

Finally let me leave you with a quote by the quintessential renaissance man Leonard da Vinci to give you a glimpse of the power of the Medicis.

"The Medici made me and the Medici destroyed me"

Monday, July 11, 2011

The multiple mini-interview: miracle drug or meh?

Multiple mini-interviews are all the rage these days among U.S. medical schools. Most Canadian schools already follow it, and last year UCLA, Stanford, UC Davis and a couple other places followed suit.

The concept is simple: there are 8-10 interview stations, each with a different question designated to it. Applicants are typically given 2 minutes to read the question at the station and then give a well though out answer for about 8 minutes to the interviewer at that station. After time's up, they rotate to the next station. The entire thing lasts about two hours. Questions mostly deal with ethical and moral quandaries one is expected to face as a physician.

The traditional interview format consists of one-on-one sit down interviews with faculty and/or current medical students (most schools do a combination of both).

Proponents think MMI is better because of two reasons:

1. It eliminates the subjectivity of the personal interview. At the end of each MMI session, each interviewer gives a score to each applicant. Since there are 8-10 stations, you now have that many scores for each applicant. These scores can now be compiled to create a list of the best applicants. Since multiple people are evaluating the applicant (as opposed to just one interviewer in the traditional format), subjectivity can be reduced.

2. The spontaneity cultivated by MMI will help "reveal" the true applicant and thus will help schools weed out poor applicants or posers. Each applicant at these interviews is made to sign a confidentiality form agreeing not to reveal any question to other applicants. In theory, this can prevent people from rehearsing questions beforehand. But just to be on the safe side, most schools also have two (or more) sets of slightly different questions they use each time.

The New York Times, in its curious, undying quest to define and implement the concept of the perfect doctor, latched onto this concept and did a lengthy article espousing its benefits. You can read the whole article here (provided you haven't run out of your 20 free articles a month quota or your subscription hasn't expired), but I will be quoting extensively in this post regardless.

First, let's let the good Times define what's at stake:

"Doctors save lives, but they can sometimes be insufferable know-it-alls who bully nurses and do not listen to patients."

Fair enough, but somehow the Times got this from the above:

"Even more dangerous is when poor communication becomes so endemic that the wrong operations are performed. A 2002 study published in The Annals of Internal Medicine of one such incident found that the patient, doctors and nurses went along with the mistaken treatment because they were used to being kept in the dark about medical procedures. A survey by the Joint Commission, a hospital accreditation group, found communication woes to be among the leading causes of medical errors, which cause as many as 98,000 deaths each year."

Whoa whoa whoa. I read the actual survey, and it cites "Communication" as a problem. Now that's a pretty broad term and it could include a lot of things, and I don't think the MMI alone is going to solve this problem.

But leave it up to the Times to tout this as the wunderdrug:

"The new process has enormous consequences not only for the lives of the applicants but, its backers hope, also for the entire health care system."

Look, let's not get ahead of ourselves, okay? I did two of these interviews last year, and I really really liked the format. It is very refreshing and unique. It definitely has its advantages over the traditional system. The pressure of coming up with a coherent response in a span of two minutes was very invigorating and it certainly helped polish my conversational skills. But to brand this format as the cure for all ills is a massive exaggeration at the very least, and a criminal lie at the worst.

For one, this system is not as fool-proof as the proponents make it out to be. It's kinda easy to fake being personable and all mushy-wushy when you have to do that for only 8 minutes. Furthermore, who is to say that personable people right now won't devolve into jackasses seven years from now, when they are attendings?

At a more fundamental level, I don't think bedside manner is as big of a handicap that can't be overcome . The Times has a new trend where it likes to create a straw man - arrogant doctor with no social skills and all the technical skills - and bash this to the ground. In reality, this is never the case (unless you are on TV and your name is Gregory House). Not everyone is outgoing and has the same level of rapport with everyone. But it is relatively easy to develop patient interaction skills through medical school. Of course, sociopaths must be weeded out but to predict someone's bedside mien seven years down the line based on a two-hour interview session as a pre-medical student is a gross mistake.

Just so you guys don't think I am all against this format, let me say that the spontaneity inherent in MMI is definitely worth it. The questions are thought-provoking and address real issues that physicians face once in practice.

Bottom line: It's a cute new format (at least for the U.S.), and I wouldn't mind if all schools adopted it. Use it to select students, but don't let it be known as the solution to communication and management woes down the line. Those issues are grave and likely have their own complex causes that are unlikely to be solved by a two-hour ethics-spouting session.

Is it the new penicillin? A big fat no from me. It's just a good interview format that probably has two or three advantages over traditional interviews.