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Meaning of My Birthday and The Philosophy of Death

I was thinking really hard about the signficance of my birthday this year.

What is the significance of my birthday anyway? Is it something that is worth it for me to celebrate or even remind me of my birth and how old am I getting? Is it worth it?

In order to find a reasonable explanation to this, first, I need to analyse my experiences so far in my life and the lessons I have learned. So let me just provide a brief summary about my life experiences.

I can only speak about myself and my experiences and I acknowledge the fact that we all have our unique experiences and challeges in our life.

Like everyone, I had a good share of ups and downs in my life. Fortunately, I was able to enjoy good times and I consider myself lucky at least to find a way to survive during my “ordeals” and try to decorate my face with a reasonably but not awkward smile (again, I feel lucky to inherit some good genes for my good looking smile). More testing times to come as long as I live, for sure, and that is a part and parcel of any kind of life on the face of this universe. So bring it on, I say, I am ready for it!

From my challenges, I am beginning to think that a solution to a problem is also packed within the problem. The trick is to look at the other angle of the problem to understand how to circumvent the problem and you will find the solution. I think it is the correct “hacking” practice or method of the problem. It is not complicated and sometimes you may even discover an unexpected opportunity.

Let me be very clear, generally speaking whatever problems or difficulty we may experiences in our life is not a bad thing. It helps us to guide, survive and thrive and most importantly help us to understand who we are.

Imagine if we do not have any problems to deal with, life will be boring and as human beings we will not advance and there won’t be any innovation to improve the quality of our lifestyle and our life will be much harder because we will not have the benefits of mordern innovations.

If we closely analyse our day-to-day life, we spend most of our valuable time working towards solving an issue one way or other. Even if you think you are wasting time doing something or not doing it at all, maybe you are doing something that you are comfortable with; however, it may not be the ideal solution to a problem or you haven’t appropriately figured out your problem(s) yet.

Correctly executing the solution is very important.

To be very honest, I am smart to find a solution for a problem; however, I am terrible at solution execution and eventually creating additional painful unwanted issues. Yes, if you do not focus on appropriate solution execution, you end up creating more pain for yourself.  

Ideally, the best practice is identifying the problem before it happens and deploying the appropriate solution in place before a problem happens in real time.  This requires disciplining yourself with a laser focused mind.

Unfortunately, I do not have the discipline or a laser focused mind. I am pretty much “screwed” up on those two most essential qualities.  

Therefore, I have one choice: Face the “damn problem” straight up and hack the “shit” out of it.

Conclusion

My birthday reminds me of my challenges and the way I dealt with my challenges in the past year. I believe my birthday is the annual report of my life for me to review what I did wrong and what I did right. That's it!

Then I thought about death.

Philosophy of death

Philosophy of death is very simple: If there is a birth of life, then death is certain of that life at some point.

Death follows like a shadow of a life. It is a good thing that we do not think about death very often.

The truth is that I am one more year closer to my death!

Once a wise man said, “Death is an invention because death helps to recycle a life!"

If death is an invention, how about birth, is that an invention too? No, birth is an evolution. Many things have to happen to form a life and everything is a mystery about birth. The biology of birth is easy to understand.

However, when it comes to...

  • Which soul binds with the birth of a life?

  • How the soul selection process works for a specific birth of a life?

  • Is the soul selection process debated by some higher authority?

It is a mystery.

That is why a life is very precious, especially human life, because we also have something known as “consciousness.”

  • Where does the consciousness comes from?

  • Who the fuck am I?

Only God knows. Why should I care? Or why should anybody care?

Once upon a time, a saint decided to visit his old friend without any notice. His intention was to visit his old friend and just say, hello, and get back. That's it.

Saints find entertainment just going out of their caves sometimes for several days and they find lots of funny reasons to do so.

So this saint made up a reason to set out to meet his old friend and the saint started walking from his mountain cave.

A few months later, the saint finally arrived at his old friend’s house. Unfortunately, his old friend and his family were mourning and grieving due to the loss of his beloved son. The old friend welcomed the saint to his home with tears flowing from both of his eyes and weeping uncontrollably.

The saint was saddened to see his friend’s suffering and he asked his old friend, What is going on? Why are you crying?

His old friend told him about the demise of his beloved son and that he came to visit him at the wrong time.

Upon hearing the reason for his old friend’s sadness and grieving, the saint started laughing, dancing, and hugging the family members of his old friend and jumping up and down with an abundance of joy.

This weird reaction of the saint made his old friend confused, angry, and he thought the saint was completely out of line and had gone insane.

The old friend angrily confronted the saint and started scolding him.

God damn you, I lost my only son and what are you doing by laughing and jumping and hugging my family? Are you insane? You came here to see me after all these years to insult me and my family like this?

The saint calmly replied, My dear friend, a soul does not have a birth or a death. In your son’s case, his “karmic” effects ended in this life. More so your son did a lot of good things in his life within a very short span of time and he even remembered his spiritual teaching at the very last moment of his death, which is a very rare thing to achieve and by doing so your son successfully escaped the endless cycle of birth and death.

For all these years, I have been observing meditation and discipline in that damn secluded cave without any worldly contacts or food or drink just to achieve that.  

The saint continued, Dear friend, your grieving is pointless. Instead you should celebrate and feel honored to be a father figure of a beautiful and enlightened soul. His old friend immediately fell at the feet of the saint and begged the saint to stay longer in his home and bless him and his family and provide spiritual guidance.

After very attentively listening to his friend’s request, the saint said, My dear friend, everyone is created equal. However, the quality of our actions based on our consciousness determine our destiny in this life or next. The quality and pure intention of our actions makes us more equal or less equal and God lives inside every one of us.

The saint gave his blessing to his old friend and his family and immediately started walking back to his cave.

The great Greek mathematicians and philosophers like Euclid (B.C 300) and Pythagoras (B.C 500) also believed the soul is immortal.

Euclid's discovery of there being infinitely many primes, also led him to believe that solving the mystery of infinite prime numbers might enable the key to unlock the secrets of nature.

Interesting so far. It is an interesting hypothesis that the soul is immortal. But wait, if soul is immortal and death helps to recycle a life, why can’t I recycle my life?

HELL NO.

Death is only allowed to perform naturally when a physical body of life is completely dysfunctional; otherwise, it is considered as destruction of a beautiful creation. An act of destruction or termination of any creation is only allowed if one can recreate what he or she destroyed with better quality or exact form.

Finally...

Practicing constructive and creative actions and thoughts day in and day out help us to be more equal and overcome our struggles. Practicing kindness and compassion gives us true happiness.   

 

Science Seeks to Unlock Marijuana’s Secrets

There’s nothing new about cannabis, of course. It’s been around humankind pretty much forever.

In Siberia charred seeds have been found inside burial mounds dating back to 3000 B.C. The Chinese were using cannabis as a medicine thousands of years ago. Marijuana is deeply American too—as American as George Washington, who grew hemp at Mount Vernon. For most of the country’s history, cannabis was legal, commonly found in tinctures and extracts.

Then came Reefer Madness. Marijuana, the Assassin of Youth. The Killer Weed. The Gateway Drug. For nearly 70 years the plant went into hiding, and medical research largely stopped. In 1970 the federal government made it even harder to study marijuana, classifying it as a Schedule I drug—a dangerous substance with no valid medical purpose and a high potential for abuse, in the same category as heroin. In America most people expanding knowledge about cannabis were by definition criminals.

But now, as more and more people are turning to the drug to treat ailments, the science of cannabis is experiencing a rebirth. We’re finding surprises, and possibly miracles, concealed inside this once forbidden plant. Although marijuana is still classified as a Schedule I drug, Vivek Murthy, the U.S. surgeon general, recently expressed interest in what science will learn about marijuana, noting that preliminary data show that “for certain medical conditions and symptoms” it can be “helpful.”

In 23 states and the District of Columbia cannabis is legal for some medical uses, and a majority of Americans favor legalization for recreational use. Other countries are rethinking their relationship to pot too. Uruguay has voted to legalize it. Portugal has decriminalized it. Israel, Canada, and the Netherlands have medical marijuana programs, and in recent years numerous countries have liberalized possession laws.

Ganja is simply around us more, its unmistakable but increasingly unremarkable smell hanging in the air. Yes, smoking it may lead to temporary laughing sickness, intense shoe-gazing, amnesia about what happened two seconds ago, and a ravenous yearning for Cheez Doodles. Though there’s never been a death reported from an overdose, marijuana—especially today’s stout iterations—is also a powerful and in some circumstances harmful drug.

Still, for many, cannabis has become a tonic to dull pain, aid sleep, stimulate appetite, buffer life’s thumps and shocks. Pot’s champions say it peels back layers of stress. It’s also thought to be useful as, among other things, an analgesic, an antiemetic, a bronchodilator, and an anti-inflammatory. It’s even been found to help cure a bad case of the hiccups. Compounds in the plant, some scientists contend, may help the body regulate vital functions—such as protecting the brain against trauma, boosting the immune system, and aiding in “memory extinction” after catastrophic events.

In the apparent rush to accept weed into the mainstream, to tax and regulate it, to legitimize and commodify it, important questions arise. What’s going on inside this plant? How does marijuana really affect our bodies and our brains? What might the chemicals in it tell us about how our neurological systems function? Could those chemicals lead us to beneficial new pharmaceuticals?

If cannabis has something to tell us, what’s it saying?

Photograph by Lynn Johnson

Phillip Hague, the chief horticulturist at a Denver cannabis company called Mindful, sniffs the roots of a plant to check on their health. He’s grown cannabis most of his life and has traveled the world researching its many varieties. He’s interested in developing new strains with higher concentrations of marijuana’s lesser known compounds that appear to have medical uses. “Cannabis speaks to me,” he says.

 

Photograph by Lynn Johnson

Lily Rowland receives a dose of an oil derived mainly from cannabidiol (CBD), a nonpsychoactive substance in marijuana. She used to suffer hundreds of seizures with violent convulsions every day. Her family moved to Colorado, which voted to legalize marijuana in 2012, so that she could begin a daily regimen.

Even into the middle of the 20th century, science still didn’t understand the first thing about marijuana. What was inside it and how it worked remained a mystery. Because of its illegality and tainted image, few serious scientists wanted to besmirch their reputations by studying it.

Then one day in 1963 a young organic chemist in Israel named Raphael Mechoulam, working at the Weizmann Institute of Science outside Tel Aviv, decided to peer into the plant’s chemical composition. It struck him as odd that even though morphine had been teased from opium in 1805 and cocaine from coca leaves in 1855, scientists had no idea what the principal psychoactive ingredient was in marijuana. “It was just a plant,” says Mechoulam, now 84. “It was a mess, a mélange of unidentified compounds.”

So Mechoulam called the Israeli national police and scored five kilos of confiscated Lebanese hashish. He and his research group isolated—and in some cases also synthesized—an array of substances, which he injected separately into rhesus monkeys. Only one had any observable effect. “Normally the rhesus monkey is quite an aggressive individual,” he says. But when injected with this compound, the monkeys became emphatically calm. “Sedated, I would say,” he recalls with a chuckle.

Further testing found what the world now knows: This compound is the plant’s principal active ingredient, its mind-altering essence—the stuff that makes you high. Mechoulam, along with a colleague, had discovered tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). He and his team also elucidated the chemical structure of cannabidiol (CBD), another key ingredient in marijuana, one that has many potential medical uses but no psychoactive effect on humans.

For these breakthroughs and many others, Mechoulam is widely known as the patriarch of cannabis science. Born in Bulgaria, he is a decorous man with wispy white hair and watery eyes who wears natty tweeds, silk scarves, and crisp dress slacks. He’s a respected member of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities and an emeritus professor at Hebrew University’s Hadassah Medical School, where he still runs a lab. The author of more than 400 scientific papers and the holder of about 25 patents, this kindly grandfather has spent a lifetime studying cannabis, which he calls a “medicinal treasure trove waiting to be discovered.” His work has spawned a subculture of cannabis research around the globe. Though he says he’s never smoked the stuff, he’s a celebrity in the pot world and receives prodigious amounts of fan mail.

“It’s all your fault,” I say to him when we meet in his book-lined, award-crammed office to discuss the explosion of interest in the science of marijuana.

“Mea culpa!” he replies with a smile.

Israel has one of the world’s most advanced medical marijuana programs. Mechoulam played an active role in setting it up, and he’s proud of the results. More than 20,000 patients have a license to use cannabis to treat such conditions as glaucoma, Crohn’s disease, inflammation, appetite loss, Tourette’s syndrome, and asthma.

Despite that, he’s not particularly in favor of legalizing cannabis for recreational use. He doesn’t think anyone should go to jail for possessing it, but he insists that marijuana is “not an innocuous substance”—especially for young people. He cites studies showing that the prolonged use of high-THC strains of marijuana can change the way the developing brain grows. He notes that in some people cannabis can provoke serious and debilitating anxiety attacks. And he points to studies that suggest cannabis may trigger the onset of schizophrenia among those who have a genetic predisposition to the disease.

If he had his way, what Mechoulam regards as the often irresponsible silliness of recreational pot culture would give way to an earnest and enthusiastic embrace of cannabis—but only as a medical substance to be strictly regulated and relentlessly researched. “Right now,” he complains, “people don’t know what they’re getting. For it to work in the medical world, it has to be quantitative. If you can’t count it, it’s not science.”

In 1992 Mechoulam’s quest for quantification led him from the plant itself to the inner recesses of the human brain. That year he and several colleagues made an extraordinary discovery. They isolated the chemical made by the human body that binds to the same receptor in the brain that THC does. Mechoulam named it anandamide—from the Sanskrit for “supreme joy.” (When asked why he didn’t give it a Hebrew name, he replies, “Because in Hebrew there are not so many words for happiness. Jews don’t like being happy.”)

Since then several other so-called endocannabinoids and their receptors have been discovered. Scientists have come to recognize that endocannabinoids interact with a specific neurological network—much the way that endorphins, serotonin, and dopamine do. Exercise, Mechoulam notes, has been shown to elevate endocannabinoid levels in the brain, and “this probably accounts for what jogging enthusiasts call runner’s high.” These compounds, he explains, apparently play an important role in such basic functions as memory, balance, movement, immune health, and neuroprotection.

Typically, pharmaceutical companies making cannabis-based medicines have sought to isolate individual compounds from the plant. But Mechoulam strongly suspects that in some cases those chemicals would work much better in concert with other compounds found in marijuana. He calls this the entourage effect, and it’s just one of the many cannabis mysteries that he says require further study.

“We have just scratched the surface,” he says, “and I greatly regret that I don’t have another lifetime to devote to this field, for we may well discover that cannabinoids are involved in some way in all human diseases.”

THE BOTANIST
Into the Light

The 44,000-square-foot building hulks across from a police station in an industrial part of Denver, along a gritty stretch of converted warehouses that’s come to be known as the Green Mile. There’s nothing to indicate the nature of the enterprise. The door buzzes open, and I’m met by the chief horticulturist of Mindful, one of the largest cannabis companies in the world. A druidlike 38-year-old with keen blue eyes, Phillip Hague wears fatigues, hiking boots, and the incredulous grin of someone who—through a confluence of events he never imagined possible—has found his exact life’s calling.

Hague is a self-described plantsman, a dirty-thumbed gardener since he was eight and a devotee of the great agricultural scientist Luther Burbank. For years Hague grew poinsettias, caladiums, chrysanthemums, and other plants at his family’s nursery in Texas. But now his attentions are lavished on much more lucrative buds.

He leads me through Mindful’s bustling front offices and into its interior corridors. In freezers Mindful stores seeds from all over—Asia, India, North Africa, the Caribbean. A world traveler who’s become something of a Johnny Appleseed for marijuana, Hague is extremely interested in the plant’s historical biodiversity, and his seed bank of rare, wild, and ancient strains is a significant part of Mindful’s intellectual property. “We have to recognize that humans evolved with it practically since the dawn of time,” he says. “It’s older than writing. Cannabis use is part of us, and it always has been. It spread from Central Asia after the last ice age and went out across the planet with man.”

Hague joined Colorado’s green revolution nearly at the beginning. When the U.S. Justice Department announced in 2009 that it would not focus on prosecuting people who complied with state medical marijuana laws, he looked at his wife and said, “We’re moving to Denver.” Now he runs one of the world’s most prominent “grows,” where more than 20,000 cannabis plants thrive.

We file past the curing rooms and down a hallway pulsating with pumps, fans, filters, generators, trimming machines. A forklift trundles by. Surveillance cameras capture everything, as young workers in medical scrubs scurry about, their faces lit with the pressure and promise of an unorthodox business that’s boomed beyond comprehension. Mindful has big plans to expand, building similar facilities in other states. “Pot is hot!” Hague says with a laugh that conveys amazement and exhaustion. “I’m blown away by what’s happening here every single day.”

He throws open an industrial door, and my eyeballs are scalded by a halo of plasma bulbs. We step into an immense, warm room that smells like a hundred Yes concerts. Once my eyes adjust, I can see the crop in all its rippling glory—close to a thousand female plants standing six feet tall, their roots bathed in a soup of nutrients, their spiky leaves nodding in the breeze of the oscillating fans. Here in a sweep of the eye is more than a half million dollars’ worth of artisanal pot.

I lean over to sniff one of the powdery, tightly clustered flower buds, purple-brown and coursing with white wisps. These tiny trichomes fairly ooze with cannabinoid-rich resin. This strain is called Highway Man, after a Willie Nelson song. Hybridized by Hague, it’s a variety loaded with THC. The best parts will be trimmed by hand, dried, cured, and packaged for sale at one of Mindful’s dispensaries. “This whole room will be ready for harvest in just a few days,” Hague notes with the subtle smirk of a competitive breeder who’s won international awards for his strains.

But Hague has something else he wants to show me. He leads me into a moist propagation room, where a young crop is taking root in near darkness. These babies, tagged with yellow labels, are being grown strictly for medical purposes. They’re all clones, cuttings from a mother plant. Hague is proud of this variety, which contains almost no THC but is rich in CBD and other compounds that have shown at least anecdotal promise in treating such diseases and disorders as multiple sclerosis, psoriasis, post-traumatic stress disorder, dementia, schizophrenia, osteoporosis, and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease).

“It’s these low-THC strains that really keep me up at night, dreaming about what they can do,” Hague says, noting that marijuana contains numerous substances—cannabinoids, flavonoids, terpenes—that have never been investigated in depth.

“It sounds hokey,” he says as he caresses one of the cuttings like a gloating father, “but I believe cannabis has a consciousness. It’s tired of being persecuted. It’s ready to step out into the light.”

Photograph by Lynn Johnson

At Denver’s LivWell, which has an enormous indoor growing operation, workers remove marijuana leaves before the buds are trimmed, keeping the plants destined for medical use separate from those for recreational use. After Colorado legalized marijuana, thousands of young people from all over the world flocked to the state to participate in the multimillion-dollar business phenomenon that’s been called the Green Rush.

 

 

Photograph by Lynn Johnson

Cash is the norm for many cannabis businesses, even in Colorado, because banks are reluctant to handle money from marijuana-related sales. Jayson “Giddy Up” Emo, who runs a Denver firm that makes machines for extracting chemicals from cannabis, protects his proceeds the old-fashioned way—with firepower.

 

THE BIOCHEMIST
Miracle Cure?

By now nearly everyone has heard that cannabis can play a palliative role for cancer sufferers, especially in alleviating some of the nasty side effects of chemotherapy. There’s no question that pot can stave off nausea, improve appetite, and help with pain and sleep. But could it cure cancer? Troll the Internet and you’ll see hundreds, if not thousands, of such claims. A gullible Googler could easily believe we’re on the brink of a miracle cure.

The majority of these claims are anecdotal at best and fraudulent at worst. But there are also mentions of laboratory evidence pointing to cannabinoids as possible anticancer agents, and many of these reports lead to a lab in Spain run by a thoughtful, circumspect man named Manuel Guzmán.

Guzmán is a biochemist who’s studied cannabis for about 20 years. I visit him in his office at the Complutense University of Madrid, in a golden, graffiti-splotched building on a tree-lined boulevard. A handsome guy in his early 50s with blue eyes and shaggy brown hair tinged with gray, he speaks rapidly in a soft voice that makes a listener lean forward. “When the headline of a newspaper screams, ‘Brain Cancer Is Beaten With Cannabis!’ it is not true,” he says. “There are many claims on the Internet, but they are very, very weak.”

He blinks thoughtfully, then turns to his computer. “However, let me show you something.” On his screen flash two MRIs of a rat’s brain. The animal has a large mass lodged in the right hemisphere, caused by human brain tumor cells Guzmán’s researchers injected. He zooms in. The mass bulges hideously. The rat, I think, is a goner. “This particular animal was treated with THC for one week,” Guzmán continues. “And this is what happened afterward.” The two images that now fill his screen are normal. The mass has not only shrunk—it’s disappeared. “As you can see, no tumor at all.”

In this study Guzmán and his colleagues, who’ve been treating cancer-riddled animals with cannabis compounds for 15 years, found that the tumors in a third of the rats were eradicated and in another third, reduced.

This is the kind of finding that gets the world excited, and Guzmán constantly worries that his breakthrough research may give cancer sufferers false hope—and fuel specious Internet claims. “The problem is,” he says, “mice are not humans. We do not know if this can be extrapolated to humans at all.”

Guzmán leads me around his cramped lab—centrifuges, microscopes, beakers, petri dishes, a postdoc researcher in a white smock extracting tissue from a mouse corpse pinned under bright lights. It’s your typical bioresearch lab, except that everything is devoted to the effects of cannabis on the body and brain. The lab focuses not just on cancer but also on neurodegenerative diseases and on how cannabinoids affect early brain development. On this last topic the Guzmán group’s research is unequivocal: Mice born of mothers regularly given high doses of THC during pregnancy show pronounced problems. They’re uncoordinated, have difficulty with social interactions, and have a low anxiety threshold—they’re often paralyzed with fear at stimuli, such as a cat puppet placed near their cage, that don’t upset other juvenile mice.

The lab also has studied how the chemicals in cannabis, as well as cannabinoids like the anandamide produced by our bodies, protect our brains against various types of insults, such as physical and emotional trauma. “Our brain needs to remember things, of course,” says Guzmán, “but it also needs to forget things—horrific things, unnecessary things. It’s much like the memory in your computer—you have to forget what is not necessary, just like you need to periodically delete old files. And you have to forget what is not good for your mental health—a war, a trauma, an aversive memory of some kind. The cannabinoid system is crucial in helping us push bad memories away.”

But it’s Guzmán’s brain tumor research that has captured headlines—and the interest of pharmaceutical companies. Through his years of research he has ascertained that a combination of THC, CBD, and temozolomide (a moderately successful conventional drug) works best in treating brain tumors in mice. A cocktail composed of these three compounds appears to attack brain cancer cells in multiple ways, preventing their spread but also triggering them, in effect, to commit suicide.

Now a groundbreaking clinical trial based on Guzmán’s work is under way at St. James’s University Hospital, in Leeds, England. Neuro-oncologists are treating patients who have aggressive brain tumors with temozolomide and Sativex, a THC-CBD oral spray developed by GW Pharmaceuticals.

Guzmán cautions against overoptimism but welcomes the beginning of human studies. “We have to be objective,” he says. “At least the mind-set is opening around the world, and funding agencies now know that cannabis, as a drug, is scientifically serious, therapeutically promising, and clinically relevant.”

Will cannabis help fight cancer? “I have a gut feeling,” he says, “that this is real.”

Photograph by Lynn Johnson

Orrin Devinsky, a neurologist at New York University, is more skeptical. He’s leading a clinical trial to test CBD against a placebo in treating forms of epilepsy. “There’s real potential,” he says, “but we urgently need valid data.”

THE CAREGIVER
Medical Migrants

The seizures started in May 2013 when she was six months old. Infantile spasms, they were called. It looked like a startle reflex—her arms rigid at her side, her face a frozen mask of fear, her eyes fluttering from side to side. Addelyn Patrick’s little brain raced and surged, as though an electromagnetic storm were sweeping through it. “It’s your worst possible nightmare,” her mother, Meagan, says. “Just awful, awful, awful to watch your child in pain, in fear, and there’s nothing you can do to stop it.”

From their small town in southwestern Maine, Meagan and her husband, Ken, took Addy to Boston to consult with neurologists. These epileptic seizures, they concluded, were the result of a congenital brain malformation called schizencephaly. One of the hemispheres of Addy’s brain had not developed fully in utero, leaving an abnormal cleft. She also had a related condition called optic nerve hypoplasia, which caused her eyes to wander—and which, further tests revealed, made her all but blind. By summer Addy was having 20 to 30 seizures a day. Then 100 a day. Then 300. “Everything was misfiring all at once,” says Meagan. “We were afraid we were going to lose her.”

The Patricks followed the advice they’d been given and heavily medicated Addy with anticonvulsants. The powerful meds reduced her seizures, but they also put her to sleep for almost the entire day. “Addy was gone,” Meagan says. “She just lay there, sleeping all the time. Like a rag doll.”

Meagan quit her job as a third-grade teacher to care for her daughter. Over nine months Addy was hospitalized 20 times.

When Meagan’s in-laws suggested they look into medical marijuana, she recoiled. “This is a federally illegal drug we are talking about,” she recalls thinking. But she did her own research. A good deal of anecdotal evidence shows that high-CBD strains of cannabis can have a strong antiseizure effect. The medical literature, though scant, goes back surprisingly far. In 1843 a British doctor named William O’Shaughnessy published an article detailing how cannabis oil had arrested an infant’s relentless convulsions.

In September 2013 the Patricks met with Elizabeth Thiele, a pediatric neurologist at Boston’s Massachusetts General Hospital who’s helping lead a study of CBD in treating refractory childhood epilepsy. Legally, Thiele could not prescribe cannabis to Addy or even recommend it. But she strongly advised the Patricks to consider all medical options.

Encouraged, Meagan went to Colorado and met with parents whose epileptic children were taking a strain of cannabis called Charlotte’s Web, named for a little girl, Charlotte Figi, who’d responded astonishingly well to the low-THC, high-CBD oil produced near Colorado Springs.

Photograph by Lynn Johnson

Kim Clark’s younger son, Caden, 11, suffers from severe epilepsy. Despite having brain surgery twice, he’d never had a seizure-free day until he started taking CBD oil.

What Meagan saw in Colorado impressed her—the growing knowledge base of cannabis producers, the kinship of parents coping with similar ordeals, the quality of the dispensaries, and the expertise of the test labs in ensuring consistent cannabis-oil formulations. Colorado Springs had become a mecca for a remarkable medical migration. More than a hundred families with children who had life-threatening medical conditions had uprooted themselves and moved. These families, many of them associated with a nonprofit organization called the Realm of Caring, consider themselves “medical refugees.” Most couldn’t medicate their children with cannabis in their home states without risking arrest for trafficking or even child abuse.

Meagan experimented with high-CBD oil. The seizures all but stopped. She weaned Addy off some of her other meds, and it was as though she’d come back from a coma. “It sounds like a small thing,” says Meagan. “But if you have a child who smiles for the first time in many, many months, well, your whole world changes.”

By early last year the Patricks had made up their minds. They would move to Colorado to join the movement. “It was a no-brainer,” Meagan says. “If they were growing something on Mars that might help Addy, I’d be in my backyard building a spaceship.”

When I meet the Patricks in late 2014, they’ve settled into their new home on the north side of Colorado Springs. Pikes Peak looms in their living room window. Addy is thriving. Since first taking CBD oil, she hasn’t been hospitalized. She still has occasional seizures—one or two a day—but they’re less intense. Her eyes wander less. She listens more. She laughs. She’s learned how to hug and has discovered the power of her vocal cords.

Critics contend that the Realm of Caring parents are using their kids as guinea pigs, that not enough studies have been done, that many, if not most, of the claims can be dismissed as the result of the placebo effect. “It’s true, we don’t know the long-term effects of CBD, and we should study it,” Meagan says. “But I can tell you this. Without it, our Addy would be a sack of potatoes.” No one asks, she notes, about the long-term effects of a widely used pharmaceutical that has been routinely prescribed for her two-year-old. “Our insurance pays for it, no questions asked,” she says. “But it’s highly addictive, highly toxic, turns you into a zombie, and can actually kill you. And yet it’s perfectly legal.”

Thiele says early results of the CBD study are extremely encouraging. “CBD is not a silver bullet—it doesn’t work for everybody,” she cautions. “But I’m impressed. It clearly can be a very effective treatment for many people. I have several kids in the study who’ve been completely seizure free for over a year.”

Reports like these only deepen Meagan’s frustrations with what she has come to regard as the imbecility of federal marijuana laws that put her at risk of arrest for transporting a drug that “wouldn’t get a mouse high” across state lines. “It’s unacceptable,” she says, “that we’re allowing our citizens to suffer like this.”

But the Patricks are in a good place now—happier than they’ve been in years. “We have Addy back again,” Meagan says. “If I wasn’t living through this, I don’t know that I’d believe it myself. I don’t feel like cannabis is a miracle cure. But I feel like it should be a tool in every neurologist’s toolbox, all around the country.”

Photograph by Lynn Johnson

At Noho’s Finest, a medical marijuana dispensary in the Los Angeles area, Damaris Diaz checks the scent and stickiness of her products. Crossbreeding has yielded powerful new hybrid strains that are much higher in psychoactive THC than those in decades past—a source of concern for health officials, who cite evidence that the prolonged smoking of high-THC varieties can adversely affect the developing brain.

THE GENETICIST
Building the Map

“It’s such an interesting plant, such a valuable plant,” says Nolan Kane, who specializes in evolutionary biology. “It’s been around for millions of years, and it’s one of man’s oldest crops. And yet there are so many basic problems that need to be answered. Where did it come from? How and why did it evolve? Why does it make all these suites of compounds? We don’t even know how many species there are.”

We’re standing in a laboratory greenhouse on the campus of the University of Colorado Boulder looking at ten hemp plants that Kane recently procured for research purposes. They’re spindly, stalky little things, like gangling teenagers, a far cry from the lascivious crop that Hague had shown me. These plants, like nearly all hemp varieties, carry extremely low levels of THC.

They may not look threatening, but their very presence here, in the confines of a major university lab, represents years of wrangling to win federal and university approval. Right now, Kane’s allowed to grow only hemp strains. The rest of his research material is cannabis DNA, which is supplied by Colorado growers who extract it using methods he’s taught them.

Kane fingers one of his innocuous-looking plants, expressing mild bemusement at the U.S. ban on commercial hemp cultivation. “Hemp produces fibers of unparalleled quality,” he notes. “It’s a tremendously high biomass crop that replenishes the soil and doesn’t require much in terms of inputs. We import tons and tons of hemp each year from China and even Canada, yet as a matter of federal policy, we can’t legally grow it. There are places where farmers in the U.S. can literally look across the Canadian border and see fields that are yielding huge profits.”

A geneticist, Kane studies cannabis from a unique perspective—he probes its DNA. He’s an affable, outdoorsy guy with a bright face and eyes that wander and dart inquisitively when he talks. He has studied chocolate and for many years the sunflower, eventually mapping its genome, a sequence of more than three and a half billion nucleotides. Now he’s moved on to marijuana. Though its sequence is much shorter, roughly 800 million nucleotides, he considers it a far more intriguing plant.

A sketchy outline of the cannabis genome already exists, but it’s highly fragmented, scattered into about 60,000 pieces. Kane’s ambitious goal, which will take many years to achieve, is to assemble those fragments in the right order. “The analogy I use is, we have 60,000 pages of what promises to be an excellent book, but they’re strewn all over the floor,” he says. “We have no idea yet how those pages fit together to make a good story.”

Many people are more than a little eager to learn how Kane’s story will play out. “There’s a certain pressure,” he says, “because this work will have huge implications, and anything we do in this lab will be under a lot of scrutiny. You can feel it. People are just wanting this to happen.”

Once the map is complete, enterprising geneticists will be able to use it in myriad ways, such as breeding strains that contain much higher levels of one of the plant’s rare compounds with medically important properties. “It’s like discovering some hidden motif deep in a piece of music,” Kane says. “Through remixing, you can accentuate it and turn it up so that it becomes a prominent feature of the song.”

As Kane leads me around his lab, I see the excitement on his face and on the faces of his young staff. The place feels almost like a start-up company. “So much of science is incremental,” he says, “but with this cannabis work, the science will not be incremental. It will be transformative. Transformative not just in our understanding of the plant but also of ourselves—our brains, our neurology, our psychology. Transformative in terms of the biochemistry of its compounds. Transformative in terms of its impact across several different industries, including medicine, agriculture, and biofuels. It may even transform part of our diet—hemp seed is known to be a ready source of a very healthy, protein-rich oil.”

Cannabis, Kane says, “is an embarrassment of riches.”

 

 

Lee Kuan Yew, the Man Who Remade Asia

When I arrived in Singapore one sultry summer evening in 1962 as a 22-year-old student, the Union Jack still fluttered over the British colony. Coolies unloaded wooden boats on the docks, per capita income was languishing under $500 and the young independence leader Lee Kuan Yew was still in his 30s. It was a far cry from today’s well-ordered cityscape of manicured parks, gleaming office towers, high-rise apartment blocks filled with middle-class families and glittering malls swarming with wealthy consumers.

 

Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew is hoisted by supporters after leading his People’s Action Party to a landslide victory in the country’s elections on Sept. 21, 1963. PHOTO: ASSOCIATED PRESS

What distinguished Singapore back then was its colonial torpor, a total absence of natural resources (not even its own supply of drinking water) and little industry. It was a small, backward Third World outpost. Besides a few iconic British buildings, the city consisted mostly of low arcaded “shop houses,” flimsy street stalls that made up its outdoor markets and a chaotic infinity of dilapidated shacks that formed the slums where most of Singapore’s poor Chinese, Malay and Tamil immigrants made their homes.

As Europe’s colonial era in Asia drew to a close, this ragtag, polyglot populace had turned for leadership to a fiery young anti-colonialist organizer called Harry Lee (as Lee Kuan Yew was then known). By the time he died last week at the age of 91, after serving his country for well over a half-century, not just Singapore but much of Asia had come under his thrall.

Upon returning from legal studies at the University of Cambridge, Harry Lee had plunged with single-minded determination into the task of first organizing his People’s Action Party to liberate his city from colonialism and then building a new kind of micro-country. After Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai snidely described him as “like a banana—yellow of skin, but white underneath,” he soon dropped the Anglicized “Harry” and become, simply, Lee Kuan Yew.

In the early 1960s, his real problem was not his name but that Singapore was ethnically fractured, under attack by Indonesia in its bizarre policy of “konfrontasi,” reviled by Beijing as “a running dog of U.S. and British imperialism,” and then in 1965 expelled unceremoniously from an ill-fated union with Malaysia. In announcing this devastating rupture on television, Lee became so distraught by the apparent hopelessness of his country’s situation that he ended up weeping.

Lee came from the diaspora of simple, poor emigrants who had been driven from the South China Coast by penury. Stripped of anything but folk culture and an abiding belief in the importance of their families, education and diligence, they had heaved onto the alien shores of this unlikely colonialized city-state. As Lee ruefully observed in trying to imagine his small country’s future, “City-states do not have good survival records.”

Prime Minister Kuan Yew Lee, left, talking to children while visiting a housing project. PHOTO: LARRY BURROWS/THE LIFE PICTURE COLLECTION/GETTY IMAGES

Left with no other allies, he turned to Singapore’s own people, who were immigrants like himself. Because they were so divided by what he called “the most hideous collection of dialects and languages,” he quickly concluded that, if full democracy were implemented, everyone would simply vote for their own ethnic group and overlook the common interests of the country. Anyway, despite his British schooling and fluency in English, he never accepted the idea that Western liberal democracy was the only suitable political model for Singapore, or even that Western political principles were universal, much less superior.

One finds expressions of this divided loyalty between East and West again and again in his writings. “We felt a sense of loss at being educated in a stepmother tongue, not completely accepting the values of a culture not our own,” he would say of his British education. “My world of textbooks and teachers was totally unrelated to the world I lived in.” He was, he lamented, “lost between two cultures.”

Though cut off from his Chinese roots, Lee was a proud Chinese, and that may very well be how history remembers his astonishing career. Impressed by the economic growth enjoyed by Asian countries such as Japan, Korea, Taiwan and finally China, Lee began wondering if their common Confucian heritage was not the foundation of their success.  He was soon propounding the Confucian virtues that came to be known as “Asian values”—family, diligence, filial piety, education and obedience to authority. He viewed these values as binding agents for developing countries that needed to find a way to maintain order during times of rapid change.

“In the East, the main object is to have a well-ordered society so that everyone can have maximum enjoyment of their freedoms,” Lee declared, suggesting that the curtailment of one freedom sometimes best assures the advancement of others. In his view, economic success and social order fully justified whatever state controls were necessary, even if a leader sometimes had to act in an arbitrary, even dictatorial, manner. “We have to lock up people without trial whether they are communists, whether they are language chauvinists, whether they are religious extremists,” he bluntly said in 1986. “If you don’t do that, the country would be in ruins.”

Sometimes what Lee said and did outraged Western liberals, but he took a certain delight in being independent-minded and provocative. “Between being loved and being feared, I have always believed Machiavelli was right,” he proclaimed. “If nobody is afraid of me, I’m meaningless!” And his record on civil liberties and political pluralism was checkered indeed: Many of his critics ended up in exile, jail or bankrupted by long, costly libel suits.

But there was an irony in Lee’s latter-day conversion to Chinese traditionalism and Asian authoritarianism, especially in his insistence that they could serve as agents of modernization. After all, it was only a few decades earlier that reform-minded Chinese intellectuals (including Communists like Mao Zedong) had identified such Confucian “Asian values” as the very cause of their country’s backwardness and weakness, and then sought to extirpate them from Chinese thinking. After the Cultural Revolution, when Red Guards drove a final stake through the heart of traditional Chinese culture by savagely attacking it as retrograde and “feudal,” hardly anyone expected to see a self-conscious revival soon.

Then, just as Lee was extolling his notion of “Asian values” abroad, something unexpected happened in China. Faced with social upheaval brought about by Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms, leaders in Beijing began groping for new ways to maintain order themselves. Intrigued by what Lee had been doing in Singapore, they too began reviving aspects of their old cultural edifice as a stabilizing force. The cultural vacuums in Singapore and China may have had different origins, but some version of “Asian values” suddenly felt like a comfortable remedy for both.

Lee Kuan Yew, left, welcomes Chinese Vice Premier Deng Xiaoping in Singapore in 1978. PHOTO: ZHANG GUIYU/XINHUA/ASSOCIATED PRESS

By then, Lee’s earlier anticommunism had morphed into an ideologically more neutral pragmatism. He found himself becoming not only a fan of China’s new Confucianism Lite but an enthusiastic booster of Deng’s reform-minded leadership. In fact, to demonstrate his fraternity with China, only a year after the 1989 massacre in Tiananmen Square, when most countries still spurned China, Lee fully normalized diplomatic relations.

“I consider Deng a greater leader who changed the destiny of China and the world,” he said. He was deeply gratified by the way that Deng had brought wealth, power, order and pride back to China—still his racial homeland—as well as to all Chinese.

Deng’s admiration of Lee was just as deep. He appreciated Lee’s pragmatism and friendship, especially his refusal to criticize China for its undemocratic form of statecraft, even after the infamy of 1989. And, because “the Singapore model” proved that a country could modernize without surrendering to “wholesale Westernization,” Deng (and all subsequent leaders in Beijing) celebrated it. “If I had only Shanghai, I too might be able to change Shanghai as quickly,” he once wistfully lamented of his success. “But I have the whole of China!”

Lee’s own support for Deng grew to the point where he started admonishing the U.S. for being too critical of China and too sanctimonious about the virtues of liberal democracy. “It is my business to tell people not to foist their [political] system indiscriminately on societies in which it will not work,” he chided. In the West, he continued, “the idea of the inviolability of the individual has been turned into dogma.”

For Lee, the Chinese aphorism that best captured the uniquely Asian/Confucian view of the individual’s role in society was: Xiushen, qijia, zhiguo, pingtianxia: “Bringing peace under heaven first requires cultivating oneself, then taking care of one’s family, and finally looking after one’s country.”

Various people have described today’s supremely well-ordered Singapore as “a think tank state,” “a paradise designed by McKinsey” or “Disneyland with the death penalty.”  Call it what you will: Lee’s nation-building experiment succeeded spectacularly well.

Modern Singapore boasts the world’s second-busiest port, its most celebrated airline and an airport that hosts 15 million visitors a year. With an annual average growth rate of almost 7% since 1976, it now has a per capita income of well over $50,000, making it the wealthiest country in Asia. And it has the second most entrepreneurs per capita in the world, trailing only the U.S.

But quite apart from Lee’s acumen as a leader or the fact that he became the longest-serving prime minister in world history, we are still left to wonder: Where did his enormous commitment and energy come from? How was he able to create such an unusual success story from virtually nothing?

Lee was a very different leader from his confreres in Beijing, but he shared something important with them: a mutual sense that, despite the long, painful and humiliating history of the Chinese people’s modern weakness, it was their destiny to make something of themselves. Where Lee seemed to connect most deeply with Deng and other Chinese leaders was in this common yearning to win back a measure of the prosperity, greatness and respect that they, as “a people,” had once known but had lost to the West and Japan over the last bitter century of defeat.

Lee once described the Chinese as burdened by “a sense of frustration that they were down for so long” and as “enormously ambitious to catch up.” As this rebirth finally began in the 1990s, it allowed Lee to proudly proclaim that China’s “reawakened sense of destiny is an overpowering force.” In making such utterances, he seemed to be speaking as a Chinese who identified as much with his race as with his nation. True, Lee was a Singapore nationalist, but like many overseas Chinese, he often seemed to view the destiny of his own small country as inextricably connected to the larger enterprise of Greater China.

At the same time, his sympathy for China’s rise never eclipsed his respect for the U.S., as well as his firm conviction that the rule of law was important for Singapore and that its interests would be best served by refusing to take sides in big-power competitions. “We will not choose sides between America and China,” he told Charlie Rose, “or between China and India.”

When Lee’s ancestors joined the great Chinese diaspora, they were stripped of their culture and national identities. This defoliating process created, in them and later generations of overseas Chinese, a strange kind of hunger for advancement, and in Singapore, Lee could begin to satisfy that longing for progress uninhibited by the conservative traditions that have so often clashed with modernizing impulses around the world. His new country may have been an almost synthetic nation, without a coherent cultural core, but this relative vacuum ended up being a blessing in disguise when it came to the challenges of creating a completely new state from the bottom up.

 

China faced a similar situation in the wake of its own tectonic revolutionary upheavals. Mao Zedong once spoke of his people as possessing “two remarkable peculiarities.” They were, he said, “first poor and secondly blank,” which meant that they were inclined to “want revolution.” As he observed, “a clean sheet of paper has no blotches, and so the newest and most beautiful pictures can be painted on it.”

Mao’s savage Cultural Revolution destroyed even more of his country’s cultural legacy. But he was fond of reminding his followers that, “Without destruction there can be no reconstruction.” By the time Deng came to power in the late 1970s, his own reforms met with little resistance from those traditional forces that had so obstructed change earlier in the century. Like Lee in Singapore, Deng was aided by the fact that traditional culture had already been demolished.

Lee was no Maoist, but when he came into Singapore’s narrative more than a half-century ago, just before I first landed there, his city-state did evince a certain “poorness and blankness.” Aided by a powerful patriotic yearning to put an end to the long period of imperial domination in Asia, Lee managed to kindle a miracle of development that was distinctly un-Western. As a spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing eulogized Lee after his death, “He was a uniquely Asian statesman and a strategist boasting both Eastern values and international vision.”

Fighting back tears, Lee Hsien Loong, Singapore’s current prime minister, memorialized his father by saying: “He fought for our independence, built a nation where there was none, and made us proud to be Singaporeans. We won’t see another man like him.”

Lee Kuan Yew not only made Singaporeans proud; he also made Chinese and other Asians proud. He was a master builder, a sophisticated Asian nationalist dedicated not only to the success of his own small nation but to bequeathing the world a new model of governance. Instead of trying to impose Western political models on Asian realities, he sought to make autocracy respectable by leavening it with meritocracy, the rule of law and a strict intolerance for corruption to make it deliver growth.

Though his country was minuscule, Lee was a larger-than-life figure with a grandness of vision. He saw “Asian values” as a source of legitimacy for the idea that authoritarian leadership, constrained by certain Western legal and administrative checks, offered an effective “Asian” alternative to the messiness of liberal democracy. Because his thinking proved so agreeable to the Chinese Communist Party, he became the darling of Beijing. And because China has now become the political keystone of the modern Asian arch, Beijing’s imprimatur helped him and his ideas to gain a pan-Asian stature that Singapore alone could not have provided.

As countries such as Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Sri Lanka and even China continue to search for new models of development and governance that do not bear the stigma of their former Western colonizers, Lee Kuan Yew’s example is a tempting option. Even though he is now gone, the Venice-like republic he founded will continue to be extolled as a hopeful experiment, and the man himself, the progenitor of what has come to be known as the “Singapore model,” will doubtless remain an influential political evangelist.

By 

ORVILLE SCHELL

Mr. Schell is Arthur Ross Director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society and co-author, with John Delury, of “Wealth and Power: China’s Long March to the 21st Century.”

 

 

 

Gigantic Black Hole Discovered From the Dawn of Time

Astronomers have identified a mammoth black hole weighing as much as 12 billion suns.

A giant black hole weighing as much as 12 billion suns was found inside a quasar, a bright astronomical body like the one illustrated here with a black hole at its center.

It's not the biggest black hole ever found, but it's astonishingly young. The giant appears to have swelled to its enormous size only 875 million years after the big bang, when the universe was just 6 percent of its current age. That's a surprise, astronomers report Wednesday in the journal Nature, because giant black holes are thought to grow relatively slowly by vacuuming up gas and even stars that venture too close.

"How do you build such a big black hole in such a short time?" asks Xue-Bing Wu of China's Peking University, lead author of the study.

Bright Beast

Wu and his colleagues didn't see the black hole directly, since by definition it has such powerful gravity that nothing, including light, can escape from it. Instead, using telescopes in China, Hawaii, Arizona, and Chile, the team spotted a quasar, a powerful object lit by a brilliant glow of gas that heats up as it tries to squeeze itself into the black hole itself.

"This is the biggest monster we've ever detected in terms of luminosity," says Avi Loeb, chair of the Harvard astronomy department, who was not involved in the research. It's about 40,000 times as bright as the entire Milky Way, Loeb says.

All major galaxies, including the Milky Way, have massive black holes at their cores, but not all of these are surrounded by superheated gas. The ones that are are known as quasars. And here, too, the newly discovered object, known as SDSS J010013.021280225.8, is extreme.

Like all quasars, the new object looks like an ordinary star. It's just a pinpoint of light, even through the most powerful telescopes. Only when astronomers analyzed the light in detail did they realize how fast it's moving away from Earth, and thus how far away it is (in an expanding universe, the most distant objects fly apart from each other the fastest). That told them how long the light from the quasar has been en route to Earth: about 12 billion years.

The quasar's extraordinary brightness tells the astronomers just how powerfully gas is being heated, which in turn tells them how astonishingly massive the underlying black hole is. "We've seen other quasars from this period," says Wu, "but none of them has a mass of more than three billion times that of the sun."

How to Build a Black Hole

Theorists believe the relatively modest giant formed when the first stars in the universe burned through their nuclear fuel and collapsed to form black holes, perhaps a hundred million years after the big bang. Those first stars were probably giants themselves, weighing in at a hundred times the mass of the sun. At that time, says Loeb, "galaxies were up to a thousand times denser than they are today," so their tightly packed cores would have provided a lot of gas to feed the black holes, allowing them to swell.

But that scenario doesn't work for the newly discovered black hole: It's just too huge. "It must have been accreting gas at close to the maximum rate for most of its existence," writes Bram Venemans of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg, Germany, in an accompanying commentary in Nature. That's considered implausible because the blast of light from a brilliant quasar tends to drive off nearby gas that would otherwise fall in.

Another idea is that two or more galaxies merged together early on, their black holes coalescing into one. That would only work, though, if both black holes had the same mass. Otherwise, says Loeb, the imbalance would throw the new, single black hole aside.

Loeb offers another idea, however. It's possible that at least some of the first stars had not a hundred solar masses, or even a thousand, but as much as a million suns packed into one. "There's no fundamental limit on the maximum mass a star can reach," he says.

If just a few such stars formed in the very early universe, then collapsed, Loeb explains, "they could jump-start the formation of very large black holes." Add to that the fact that black holes may be able to swallow gas at a faster rate than theorists have long believed, Loeb says, and the existence of an object like the newfound black hole may not be so shocking after all.

The only problem with the jump-start scenario is that astronomers don't know for sure that million-solar-mass stars ever existed. "We've never seen one," Loeb admits. "But with the James Webb Space Telescope," he says, which is scheduled to go into orbit in 2018, "we just might."

Visions of Earth

Photograph by Irina Werning

Argentina—For “Pelo Largo Querido,” a personal project featuring Argentines with exceptionally long locks, the photographer asked local women in Neuquén, Patagonia, to let their hair down.

 Photograph by Guy Martin, Panos

Turkey—A plastic curtain printed with a cityscape of Istanbul serves, when stretched taut, as a backdrop for a Turkish television show. TV dramas have become an important export for Turkey and are sent all over the Middle East.

 Photograph by Uriel Sinai, Getty Images

Israel—Children frolic in the fountains at Jerusalem’s Teddy Park, named in memory of the city’s longtime mayor Teddy Kollek. The dancing jets of recycled water are coordinated with lights and music.

 

Photograph by Kersti Kalberg

Estonia—In the village of Kurtna, a pony named Rainbow basks in the winter sun. The four-year-old gelding is part Estonian native horse, part Shetland pony two breeds known for their hardiness and versatility.

Photograph (panorama composed of multiple images) by JR

United States—Seen from above, a seamless sheet of white paper—folded into the shape of an eye—holds and beholds 81 dancers from the New York City Ballet. This 6,500-square-foot composite image was a collaboration with the French artist JR.

Photograph by Joel Sartore

United States—In a lab at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, hibernating arctic ground squirrels pose medical mysteries. The species can lower its body temperature below freezing and avoid serious head injuries while in hibernation, which lasts seven months.

Photograph by Ingo Arndt

Costa Rica—Waking up on a tree branch near Guayacán de Siquirres, a red-eyed tree frog peers through a gold-striped, semitransparent eyelid. The scarlet eyes on this toxic, three-inch-long amphibian might be an example of startle coloration a defense strategy some animals use to ward off predators.

Photograph by Sean Gallup, Getty Images

Bulgaria—Fatme Inus wears face paint, tinsel, and many-hued sequins on her wedding day in Ribnovo. The colorful tradition, which symbolizes status change, is called gelina. It’s practiced by Bulgarian-speaking Muslims—also known as Pomaks whose wedding celebrations span two days and involve hundreds of villagers.

Photograph by ImagineChina/Corbis

China—Seen from a flowering hillside, the Honghe Hani Rice Terraces are a mosaic of color: green shrubs, red duckweed, and blue sky reflected in the irrigated fields. The Hani people have farmed these 41,000 acres—now a World Heritage site on the slopes of the Ailao Mountains for 13 centuries.

A quest for reversing aging, the theory of calorie restriction, interesting findings of French paradox and the benefit of drinking red wine

Throughout history, kings and warlords had the power to command entire empires, but there was no thing that was forever beyond their control: aging. Hence, the search for immortality has been one of the oldest quests in human history.

In the Bible, God banishes Adam and Even from the Garden of Eden for disobeying his orders concerning the apple of knowledge. God’s fear was that Adam and Eve might use this knowledge to unlock the secret of immortality and become gods themselves. In Genesis 3:22, the Bible reads…

“Behold the man in become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever.”

Besides the Bible, one of the oldest and greatest tales in human civilization, dating back to the twenty-seventh century BC, is… The Epic of Gilgamesh, about the great warrior of Mesopotamia. When his lifelong, loyal companion suddenly died, Gilgamesh decided to embark upon a journey to find the secret of immortality.  He heard rumors that a wise man and his wife had been granted the gift of immortality by the gods, and was, in fact, the only ones in their land to have survived the Great Flood. After an epic quest, Gilgamesh finally found the secret of immortality, only to see a serpent snatch it away at the last minute.

Because The Epic of Gilgamesh is one of the oldest pieces of literature, historians believe that this search for immortality was the inspiration for the Greek writer Homer to write the Odyssey, and also the Noah’s flood mentioned in the Bible.

For decades, most scientists believed that life span was fixed and immutable, beyond the reach of science. Within the last few years, this view has crumbled under the onslaught of a stunning series of experimental results that have revolutionized the field. Gerontology, once sleepy, backwater area of science, has now become one of the hottest fields, attracting hundreds of millions of dollars in research funds and even raising the possibility of commercial development.

The secrets of the aging process are now being unraveled, and genetics will play a vital role in the process. Looking at the animal kingdom, we see a vast variety of life spans. For example, our DNA differs from that of our nearest genetic relative, the chimpanzee, by only 1.5 percent, yet we live 50 percent longer. By analyzing the handful of genes separating us from the chimpanzees, we may be able to determine why we live so much longer that our genetic relative.

This, in turn has given us a “unified theory of aging” that brings the various strands of research into a single, coherent tapestry. Scientists now know what aging is…

“Aging is the accumulation of errors at the genetic and cellular level. These errors can build up in various ways. For example, metabolism creates free radicals and oxidation, which damage the delicate molecular machinery of our cells, causing them to age; errors can build up in the form of “junk” molecular debris accumulating inside and outside the cells.”

The buildup of these genetic errors is a by-product of the second law of thermodynamics: total entropy (that is, chaos) always increases. That is why rusting, rotting, decaying, etc., are universal features of life. The second law is inescapable. Everything, from the flowers in the field to our bodies and even the universe itself is doomed to wither and die.

But there is a small but important loophole in the second law that states total entropy always increases. This means that you can actually reduce entropy in one place and reverse aging, as long as you increase entropy somewhere else. So it’s possible to get younger, at the expense of wreaking havoc elsewhere. 

(This was alluded to in Oscar Wilde’s famous novel The Picture of Dorian Gray.  Mr. Gray was mysteriously eternally young. But his secret was the painting of himself that aged horribly. So the total amount of aging still increased.)

As Nobel laureate Richard Feynman once said, “There is nothing in biology yet found that indicates the inevitability of death. This suggests to me that it is not at all inevitable and that it is only a matter of time before biologists discover what it is that is causing us the trouble and that this terrible universal disease or temporariness of the human’s body will be cured.”

The second law can also be seen by the action of the female sex hormone estrogen, which keeps women young and vibrant until they hit menopause, when aging accelerates and the death rate increases. Estrogen is like putting high-octane fuel into a sports car. The car performs beautifully but at the price of causing more wear and tear on the engine. For women, this cellular wear and tear might be manifested in breast cancer. In fact, injections of estrogen are known to accelerate the growth of breast cancer. So the price women pay for youth and vigor before menopause is possibly an increase in total entropy, in this case, breast cancer. 

There have been scores of theories proposed to explain the recent rise in breast cancer rates, which are still quite controversial. One theory says that this is in part related to the total number of menstrual cycles a woman has. Throughout ancient history, after puberty women were more or less constantly pregnant until they hit menopause, and then they died soon afterwards. This meant they had few menstrual cycles, low levels of estrogen, and hence, possibly, a relatively low level of breast cancer. Today, young girls reach puberty earlier, have many menstrual cycles, bear an average of only 1.5 children, live past menopause, and hence have considerably more exposure to estrogen, leading to a possible rise in the occurrence of breast cancer. 

The Theory of Calorie Restriction

This theory may also explain the strange fact that calorie restriction (that is, lowering the calories we eat by 30 percent or more) increases the life span by 30 percent. Every organism studied so far- from yeast cells, spiders, and insects to rabbits, dogs and now monkeys exhibits this strange phenomenon. Animals given this restricted diet have fewer tumors, less heart disease, a lower incidence of diabetes, and fewer diseases related to aging. In fact, calorie restriction is the only known mechanism guaranteed to increase the life span that has been tested repeatedly, over almost the entire animal kingdom, and it works every time.  Until recently, the only major species that still eluded researchers of calorie restriction were primates, of which humans are a member, because they live so long.

The University of Wisconsin study showed that, after twenty years of caloric restriction, monkeys on the restricted diet suffered less disease across the board: less diabetes, cancer, heart disease. In general these monkeys were in better health than their cousins who were fed a normal diet.

There is a theory that might explain this: Nature gives animals two “choices” concerning how they use their energy. During times of plenty, energy is used to reproduce. During times of famine, the body shuts down reproduction, converse energy, and tries to ride out the famine. In the animal kingdom, the state of near starvation is a common one, and hence animals frequently make the “choice” of shutting down reproduction, slowing metabolism, living longer, and hoping for better days in the future. 

The Holy Grail of aging research is to somehow preserve the benefits of caloric restriction without the downside (starving your-self). The natural tendency of humans apparently is to gain weight, not lose it. In fact, living on a calorically restricted diet is no fun; you are fed a diet that would make a hermit gag. Also animals fed a particularly severe, restricted diet become lethargic, sluggish, and lose of interest in sex. What motives scientists is the search for a gene that controls this mechanism, whereby, we can reap the benefits of caloric restriction without the downside.

An important clue to this was found in 1991 by MIT researcher Leonard P. Guarente and others, who were looking for a gene that might lengthen the life span of yeast cells. Guarente, David Sinclair of Harvard, and coworkers discovered the gene SIR2, which is involved in bringing on the effects of caloric restriction. This gene is responsible for detecting the energy reserves of a cell. When the energy reserves are low, as during a famine, the gene is activated. This is precisely what you might expect in a gene that controls the effects of caloric restriction. They also found that the SIR2 gene, which produce proteins called sirtuins. They then looked for chemicals that activate the sirtuins, and found the chemical resveratrol. 

This was intriguing, because scientists also believe that resveratrol may be responsible for the benefits of red wine and may explain the “French Paradox”. French cooking is famous for its rich sauces, which are high in fats and oils, yet the French seem to have a normal life span. Perhaps this mystery can be explained because the French consume so much red wine, which contains resveratrol. 

Scientists have found that sirtuin activators can protect mice from an impressive variety of diseases, including lung and colon cancer, melanoma, lymphoma, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and Alzheimer’s disease, according to Sinclair. If even a fraction of these diseases can be treated in humans via sirtuins, it would revolutionize all medicine.

Recently, a theory has been proposed to explain all the remarkable properties of resveratrol. According to Sinclair, the main purpose of sirtuin is to prevent certain genes from being activated. A single cell’s chromosomes, for example, if fully stretched, would extend 6 feet, making an astronomically long molecule. At any time, only a portion of the genes along this 6 feet of chromosomes are necessary; all the rest must be inactive. The cell gags most of the genes when they are not needed by wrapping the chromosome tightly with chromatin, which is maintained by sirtuin.

Sometimes, however, there are catastrophic disruptions of these delicate chromosomes, like a total break in one of the strands. Then the sirtuins spring into action, helping to repair the broken chromosome. But when the sirtuins temporarily leave their posts to come to the rescue, they must abandon their primary job of silencing the genes. Hence, genes get activated, causing genetic chaos. This breakdown, Sinclair proposes, is one of the chief mechanisms for aging.

If this is true, then perhaps sirtuins can not only halt the advance of aging but also reserve it. DNA damage to our cells is difficult to repair and reverse. But Sinclair believes that much of our aging is caused by sirtuins that have been diverted from their primary task, allowing cells to degenerate. The diversion of these sirtuins can be easily reversed, he claims.

On Ebola's Trail... Real Moments of Life and Death...

Photograph by Pete Muller, Prime for National Geographic

Health care workers at Sierra Leone's Hastings Ebola Treatment Center help a man suffering from the disease. Ebola often causes delirium, and the man had tried to escape the treatment center. He died about 12 hours later.

 Photograph by Pete Muller, Prime for National Geographic

Molai Kamara, thought to be about 12, recovered from Ebola but still suffers ulcers and has difficulty walking. His entire family succumbed to the disease. He sat alone after a discharge ceremony at Sierra Leone's Hastings treatment center.

Photograph by Pete Muller, Prime for National Geographic

A family grieves as the body of their day-old daughter is removed from their home in Freetown, Sierra Leone, by a member of a safe burial team. The government mandated that all deaths in Ebola-infested districts be treated as potential Ebola cases and buried in accordance with safety procedures.

 Photograph by Pete Muller, PRime for National Geographic

Friends and family pray over the body of a 27-year-old man after a safe burial team removed the potential Ebola victim from his residence. Burial teams often interrupted their work to allow brief ceremonies by relatives who wanted to pay their respects.

Photograph by Pete Muller, Prime for National Geographic

Grave diggers rest after a day of work in King Tom cemetery in Freetown, Sierra Leone, during the Ebola epidemic. In December, about 50 bodies a day were buried; by January, it was about 35 a day.

 

Mahatma Gandhi In Memoriam

"He was in the true sense the father of the nation, and madman has slain him. Millions and millions are mourning because the light has gone out.... The light that shone in this land was no ordinary light. For a thousand years that light will be seen in this country, and the world will see it."

So spoke the Prime Minister of India shortly after Mahatma Gandhi had been assassinated in New Delhi on January 30, 1948.

Five months earlier, India had peacefully achieved her national independence. The work of the 78-year-old Gandhi was done; he realized that his hour was nigh. "Ava bring me all the important papers," he said to his granddaughter on the morning of the tragedy. "I must replay today. Tomorrow may never be." In numerous passages of his writings Gandhi revealed his intimations of final destiny.

As the dying Mahatma sank slowly to the ground, three bullets in his frail and fast-worn body, he lifted his hands in the traditional Hindu gesture of greetings (pronam), silently bestowing his forgiveness. Innocent artist as he was in all the ways of his life, Gandhi became a supreme artist in the moment of his death. All the sacrifices of his selfless life had made possible that final loving gesture.

"Generations to come, it may be," Albert Einstein wrote in a tribute to the Mahatma, "will scarce believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon the earth." A dispatch from the Vatican in Rome said: "The assassination caused great sorrow here. Gandhi is mourned as an apostle of Christinan virtues."

Fraught with symbolic meaning are the lives of all great ones who come to earth for the accomplishment of a specific righteousness. Gandhi's dramatic death in the cause of Indian unity has highlighted his message to a world torn in every continent with disunity. That message he has stated in prophetic words:

"Nonviolence has come among men and it will live. It is the harbinger of the peace of the world"

 From Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramhansa Yogananda

Memoirs of two legends

I was wandering inside the Safeway store and trying to make up my mind, what kind of fruits I should buy?  I thought to myself, what the hell, I am not in a mood to eat anything and what am I doing here for the first place? I looked around and I see plenty of fabulously looking apples, oranges, bananas, grapes, strawberries and several other kinds of fruits which I don’t even know their names. In fact, I know for sure from my earlier experience about some of these good looking fruits... They might not taste good as their looks. As my grandmother used to say...

“Dear boy, never judge anything with their outer looks”.

Now I am thinking with regards to some of these fruits, she is right and I said to myself, Thank you granny for your appropriate advice where ever you are… 

Then I noticed beautifully ripped mangos, and all of a sudden I felt craving for mangos. Walking towards those ripe mangos, fresh memories of my childhood came rushing all over my mind’s neuron network.  Those nonstop monsoon rain, sound of fresh water hitting on the mud, the beautiful ponds, river, beautiful green paddy fields, coconut trees, lovely beautiful hibiscus and jasmine flowers and its exotic smell felt right on my nostrils. The playful summer time and those fully blossomed mango trees with full of mangos in all different sizes and shapes. It has been more than two decades now, I left my home (in Kerala the southern state of India).

Kerala is also known as god's own country for several reasons. Blessed with her natural beauty decorated with lovely back waters, rivers, coconut farms, and the green paddy fields. Sadly the landscape of my hometown completely changed now. Last time, when I visited my parents, my hometown is completely changed with unplanned buildings and shopping malls and their waste is flowing to the once fertile paddy fields. Luckily Kerala still gets the long natural monsoon season and it seems to me, the nature itself trying hard to protect its creation even though unprecedented consumption land by growing human population and demand of resources of morden life sytle of the people.

 

While growing up, I used love those nonstop heavy rains, with lightening which gives an indication of upcoming showdown of heavy thunders with frightening sound. I used to sit for hours and carefully hear the rain droops hitting on the wet ground. The wind made the rain drops hit on the ground in an organized pattern and turned into a melodious music especially at night. Thunders made it so dramatic and I always used to wait in anticipation for that scary thunder sounds very carefully at those dark nights. It always felt like a opera classical music with some sudden heavy metal rock beats packed in between them. It really is a spectacular display of greatest artist the nature himself and its amazing show of beauty and power. Sometime in the midnight for hours I used listen them and eventually fall asleep. Those are my best memories of my child hood.

I started thinking about the beautiful people I used to know and my childhood friends, where are they now? I was wondering… Then I recall few years back, once my mom told me about the death of, one of my dearest child hood friend. His name is Unni Krishnan (named after lord Krishna) we lovingly calls him "Unnikuttan". I started remembering about those innocent childhood time I spend with Unnikuttan, and it deeply saddens me to realize Unnikuttan no longer lives in this world. 

During the summer vocation in my child hood days, I usually visit my Aunt’s home. Those days, I always look forward to meeting and playing with Unnikuttan. The chubby little smart kid lived near my Aunt’s neighborhood. Unnikuttan was exactly my age, and I remember once, overhearing his mother telling my mom that Unnikuttan is few months older than me. I used to love hanging out with Unnikuttan, and he knew lot of tricks and he is a master of all pranks and I am no innocent either ;).

Unnikuttan used to take me to the big Mango Tree near the town’s beautiful temple, and we used to meet several other kids of the same age group around the neighborhood under that big mango tree. Those days, that big Mango Tree had full of sweet honey mangoes in the summer.

The big Mango Tree witnessed several annual festivals, provided shades to several people who wanted to escape from the scorching summer sun and nonstop monsoon rain. Served as the bus waiting station of the town. The Mango Tree provided secret place for lovers to exchange their notes and witnessed several love affairs of generations. Above all, every year without any interruptions the Mango Tree served its delicious mango fruits to several hungry kids like us, women and men of that town. 

We kids used to hurl stones at that big Mango Tree to get mangoes. Sometimes we used to get lucky with perfectly ripe sweet honey mangoes. The smell of those ripe mangos... oh boy, was just beyond this world and that is what I am missing so dearly… 

Anyway getting back to my story here, most of the time, we ended up in getting unripe mangoes, and we kids used to crack those mangoes on the floor or using some old man’s knife cut it and then eat the mango pieces with sea salt. Oh boy, the taste of those mango pieces with sea salt.... Till this day it still hides somewhere in my tongue.  

After the mango feast, we kids divide two teams and play a game of Cricket. During those days we used to carve the coconut tree leaf branch to make our Cricket bats and one of the kids always brought a tennis ball for our game of street Cricket. Unnikuttan had a special talent to carve the Cricket bats from the coconut tree leaf and I always wondered about those bats which Unnikuttan made. Unnikuttan had special skills in carving coconut tree leaf branch. Those days, I felt like those bats are almost as good as the real Cricket bats, which we used to see in the hands of the international Cricket players on TV.

Unnikuttan was a very talented Cricket player in those days and he always captained one team. For some reason I was always Unnikuttan’s first choice, as the player in his team. Very rarely we used to loss those “street Cricket” games. There were always 11+ players on each team and Unnikuttan always get to bat and bowl first. He always had a knack to manipulate and knows his ways to get in front and gets what he wants. Even today, I admire Unnkuttan’s skill to convince and to be an effective leader in that very young age.

After the game we kids run into the river which flowed around that town.... Get butt nacked and jump into the river and that was the end of our eventful day... It was the best time we had...

Days passed, month passed and years passed and sometime in between we entered in our teen years. I often met Unnikuttan during my summer school vocation at my Aunt’s home town. In those days, not just the game of Cricket was our entertainment. We used to sit under the mango tree and check out on the girls who passed by after our game of cricket. Furthermore, in the evening lot of elders used to come and watch our game of Cricket. I remember one of the old man used to tell hilarious stories of the town. He used to make up several romantic stories of his days, and those stories made us laugh, and sometimes we were so excited about hearing the adventures he says he has done in his youth. God blesses that old man where ever he is…

I used to remember, Unnikuttan was bold and never hesitate or shy to talk to anyone. He was a charmer and also he was very popular with girls so they always stop by when he says hello...

Again years passed and I moved out of my parent’s home, for my higher studies. Subsequently, my visit to my Aunt’s home during my summer school holidays came to an end.

Several years later, I ran into Unnikuttan accidentally, during a marriage function of one my Aunt’s relative. At first I couldn’t realize, it was Unnikuttan. This time he was tall, lean and muscular in his appearance. His voice also changed and he was talking to someone, when I fist saw him. Suddently he saw me and ran to me and grabbed me with his usual charm. Interestingly, I was attending the wedding from the bride’s side, and he was attending the wedding from groom’s side. Always wedding in Kerala is a busy affair. It was such a great surprise for both of us meeting each other after a long time. We had great time at the marriage function and we sat together for the lunch. I did notice then, Unnikuttan was grown up. He also told me then, he was planning to start a new business and there was something about him. At that time, I just finished my school and was plan to head to New Delhi (Capital city of India) with the prospect of finding a job. After the wedding at around evening that day, Unnikuttan took me to a bar in the city, and we had few drinks. I had to leave early that day to take care few personal things. Therefore, I wanted to leave early that evening. Unnikuttan insisted for few more drinks. Finally, by Unnikuttan's persistence and the temptation of youth, I had few more drinks that day with Unnikuttan. 

Between our drinks and coversation, Unnikuttan told me about the fall of big Mango Tree few years ago. It was happened on a night of a strange and eventful day. Morning of that day, it was pouring with nonstop rain and a temple Elephant named “Vishnu” suddenly turned violent and ended up killing the animal’s two mahouts and damaged the building of temple management. Luckily there were no further causalities. Unnikuttan told me, early that year, one old man hanged himself on the Mango Tree and committed suicide. No one know or saw that old man before. That year the Mango Tree didn’t blossom and not even a single mango was produced by the Mango Tree. it was the talk of the town at that time. The night when the Mango Tree fell, there was heavy winds. Few hours after midnight there was a huge sound and most of the town heard the noice for miles and no one knew what was going on... 

Early morning the preacher of the temple was the first man who saw the fall of the big Mango Tree and entire town mourns on the fall of Mango Tree. After hearing the fall of the big Mango Tree, I felt sad. I said to Unnikuttan, it is very sad indeed to think about the fall of big Mango Tree, we lost our sole witness of our child hood pranks. He hugged me with few tears in his eyes and shook his head in agreement... 

Later night that day, we said bye to each other, and we went our separate ways. I still remember that day, and we cracked lot of jokes, and we had a great time. That was the last time I saw Unnikuttan.

Few months later, I went to New Delhi and got a job there. Few years later to London and came to San Francisco in January 1999. It has been long, long time.

I came to know later that, Unnikuttan died because of the heavy drinking. Everyone says Unnikuttan was addicted to alcohol. None of his close relatives were never know about Unnikuttan’s addiction problems. Honestly I do not know what happend with Unnikuttan...

Unnikuttan had a successful business when he started his enterprise and he was always away from his home. At the end Unnikuttan’s business hit the rock bottom. Some links with Unnkuttan’s addiction to alcohol was the major cause of his business failure.

Personally, to me Unnikuttan’s death is a big loss. To think about it now, my child hood memories and friends are very dear to me. More than that, I think our friends and people whom we know are the references of our existence on certain time, of what we have done or lived in certain place or knowledge about certain situation of our life.

With Unnikuttan’s sudden death and the fall of that great Mango Tree, I lost my one of a kind childhood friend and a land mark of my child hood days pranks. What I have left, is several good memories about Unnikuttan and the unforgotten taste of the mangos of that great Mango Tree.  

I am sure Unnikuttan touched several others during the course of his lifetime, because he has such sweet personality. I always remember Unnikuttan for his outstanding qualities as a friend, and for his humor sense, and for his good heart. I always will have few tears in my eyes rest of my life whenever I think about Unnikuttan.

 I am so sorry I couldn’t keep in touch with you my dear friend and with your sudden departure and fall of the great Mango Tree, I lost my reference of our innocent times with you dear friend…

The End