Tuesday, December 30, 2008


I was having some very spicy food - So spicy that it was unblocking my sinuses [1]. I remembered that technically, 'spicy' is not a taste at all. The tongue has taste receptors for four basic tastes - Bitterness, Saltiness, Sourness and Sweetness [2] There is no specific taste receptor for Spicyness. [or hotness]

To repeat, the tongue has taste receptors which 'sense' the taste and pass on the information to our brain. But, there is no taste receptor for spiceness/hotness. The pain/temperature nerve-endings are used to transmit the spicy taste to our brain. This is what I meant when I said 'spiciness' is not technically a taste. 

Basically, some cells of the tongue literally burst when they enter into contact with spicy food. This pain is interpreted as spicy taste by the brain. In extreme cases, the tongue may even bleed while extremely spicy food is taken. When nature rebuilds these cells, it builds it even more stronger - So, it is tough to crack these cells again [3]. That's why, people get 'used' to spicy food. The food that was once very spicy doesnt seem that spicy after a couple of weeks. 

But, how do we measure spiciness of food? 

To measure spiciness of food, a special scale called 'Scoville scale' is used. This scale is based on the amount of 'capsaicin' which causes the spicy taste. This compound, is found in varied levels in different foods that we take. By measuring the amount of capsaicin, we can determine how spicy a food is. The unit of spiciness is 'Scoville units' 

The Habanero pepper of Latin America was considered the most spicy of all natural foods for a very long time. Recently, Naga Jolokia (or Bhoot Naga) pepper found in Assam and few other states of North-East India now holds the crown for the spiciest of all chillis (or peppers as they call it in the west) - The green chillis that we take are about 50,000 - 100,000 Scoville units spicy. Compare it with the spiciest Naga pepper which is about a million (1,000,000) Scoville Units spicy!!!! Recently, I read in a newspaper article that farmers found that Bhoot (Bhut) Jolokia peppers drive wild elephants away from crops.

According to Ayurveda, spicy foods have a pleasant 'after-taste' i.e, they leave a good feeling after having it.  So, go ahead and have some spicy food! 

Btw, if you hurt yourself with very spicy food, don't reach for that glass of water or a teaspoon of sugar! It will not help! Since capsaicin is a oil, you need something fatty to emulsify (break it down) - Do it with some cold milk / sugar, or even better - icecream! [Who said reading my blog may not be useful for practical purposes (he he)]

Btw, I wish all readers a very happy new year - 2009! I was travelling a lot over the past few days. I owe a travelogue - That is in works. You'll be seeing it shortly!


[1] I dont have a sinus problem per se. Suffering from a bad bout of cold - Damn the virus!

[2] There is a new fifth taste identified as Umami. Indian system (also Japanese and Chinese) identify 6 basic tastes. 

[3] This is the same priciple behind weight training / resistance training while exercising. By lifting weights, the muscles undergo micro-tear. This is the cause of the mild pain / strain after exercise. After this micro-tear, the body builds it back stronger. So, after few weeks of exercise, you have stronger muscles. 

Monday, December 15, 2008

Limit of Perception

No experience is as humbling for me as sitting alone in front of the sea in a beach. I usually filter out the background noise and visuals and focus on the mighty ocean - I have been to a few beaches around the world, but nothing beats the local Chennai's Marina Beach. I usually have a lot of fun (also Bajji, Sundal) with my cousins, lose my car key etc. (and hope some friendly cousin would retrieve it in a zero probability act)

But, when I do go alone, I spend some time gazing at the mighty ocean. That's the time I let go of my bloated ego. I suddenly feel very small. It is more humbling to realize that the earth that has this mighty ocean is indeed a very small part of the solar system. For e.g., Jupiter is 1o times bigger (in diameter) and Sun 100 times (in diameter). All this Solar System is a tiny speck in the Milky Way. Btw, Milky Way is one of the many galaxies. So, the first thing I search after thinking about this is my ego. 

"How do we perceive this Universe?" is the grand question that came to my mind. Perception is a function of our senses. 

To get excited by the depth and size of the sea, I rely on my eyesight. The sea is much bigger than say, me. [1] I perceive the sea because of light. For e.g., if I went to see the sea only when it was pitch dark, I would not notice its grandness at all. And, our eyes are capable of perceiving only some wavelengths. For e.g., eyes cannot see Infra Red and Ultra Violet rays. 

What if our eyes could perceive these wavelengths reflect from the sea too? You might be able to sense the temperatures at different locations. That would give you an extra dimension of perception. For e.g, just by looking at a coffee tumbler, you might be able to say how hot it is. So, you'll agree that by just widening the range of the eyes, your perception of the Universe got a little wider.

I realized this strangely, in S. Korea. I was in Suwon, S. Korea for more time than I would have liked :-) - I had added problems of being a vegetarian, which definitely did not help. I used to see a lot of neon boards throughout Korea. When I say a lot, I mean a LOT of them.

These boards never made any sense, and never made it to my cognitive mind. Then, all of a sudden, I started learning Korean.  [2]

As soon as I started learning Korean, all the boards started screaming to me! All those that would remain silent and be filtered, suddenly started making sense to me! Each board was speaking to my mind. So, by learning Korean, my perception widened. 

Then in a similar manner like we argued for light, we can argue for sound too. The sounds human can hear are in the range of 20 Hz to 20,000 Hz. [3] - May be we can hear finer sounds, and a wider variety of sound if we increase the range of our hearing. [4]

So far, we talked about the senses we perceive - But what if there are senses that *NONE* of the humans can perceive? Are there any senses like that? Are we missing some splendid dimension of perception? Do we miss anything great, just like we feel that someone blind is missing out on great views? How would we know? 

Is the Universe much Grander than we perceive? 

The act of communication is based on predefined common grounds. For e.g., if you don't know what the word (or sound) 'One' means, you'll not understand if I say 'One' to you. [5]. If there is no common ground, there is no way to communicate. So, is this the reason why great Saints who were One with God, couldn't put it in words what the experience would be. One thing that I find common among a lot of relegions is that once they try to define God, they try to negate what He is not - Most probably, it would be like "Formless, Attributeless...." - The Vedic way of finding God is negating all that He is not by saying Not This, Not This (Neti, Neti) - Can this be the reason why we cannot define the Grandness of the God Concept? May be the Yogis and Saints have a much wider sense of Perception that we cannot even imagine? 

The picture is from http://www.intelligentuniverse.org

[1] Some people may claim it is not much bigger - grrr

[2] Some people may find it co-incidental that I made friends with one lovely lady in a Sandwich shop around the same time. She could speak only Korean. 

[3] I am reminded of a tamil dialog - "Ungalukku Kaathu Konjam Kaekkatha? Illai Konjam Kooda Kaekkatha?" by Koundamani, I guess. 

[4] If the frequency is sufficiently high, we can let go of radio stations and tune to different stations by our ear! Or may be we can move around with our eyes closed, just like bats. 

[5] You may know other languages and may relate - Ondru in Tamil (Onnu in slang) could sound similar to 'One' in English - Why does English sound so close to Tamil/Sanskrit :-)
One     - Ondru / Onnu [Tamil]
Two     - Dwi 
Three  - Thra
Four    - Chathur / Naalu[Tamil]
Six       - Shash
Seven  - Sapta
Eight   - Ettu (Tamil) / Ashta
Nine    - Nava
Ten     - Dasha

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Being 'Good' is not tough!

I was thinking that being good is not tough at all! When I mean good, I mean being good at things. But, being great is very tough. 

For e.g., some one can be good in singing. He may be able sing significantly better than a large percentage of the population. May be he is better than 90% of the world population. But, he may not even dream of competing with someone like Sanjay Subrahmanyam or G.N.B [1]. This is what I mean by it being good is not tough, but being great is. To reach to the top 0.01% takes significantly large effort than reaching the top 10%. When I say significantly large, I mean the effort is in order of 100s or 1000s.

Then there are people who are insanely great - The Genius stuff. They simply blow me away. Almost their entire persona is resonating with the frequency of what they want to achieve. Though they appear to exist in this world, they don't. They may jump up suddenly with a sudden glimpse of something extraordinary. They have solved a problem that many couldn't. 

I don't want you to mistake the problems these insanely great people solve. These problems cannot be solved by a crowd - Adding more people to solve these genre of problems doesn't help. You'll need the help of a crack genius to solve whacky problems. A group of million regular people in thought cannot have the breakthroughs Einstein had to establish Special and General theory of relativity. 

I remember a Bond movie, Golden Eye, I think, where one of the bad guys asks another bad guy - 'Why did you get this guy to build this gun? This guy is insane' - The other bad guy replies - 'Sane people don't build such machines'

The Genius domain has always puzzled me. I always wish, hope and pray that I could have a glimpse of the domain, however brief it may be. 

In a talk You and your Research, Hamming talks about how these Genius people work, and even how to get there! Please check it out when you have time. You'll thank me for it. The key is to work harder and harder. When I had just joined Philips, I worked with an excellent Architect, who used to tell me - 'Sriram, the key is to work very hard. You have to keep churning, however hard it might be. You have to persevere. At the end, the Amrit (Elixir of Life) has to come' [He was talking about the mythology where a milk ocean (Ksheera Sagara) had to be churned to get Amrit that would bestow immortality to people who would drink it]

Einstein said 'Genius is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration' - This may be true. But I have seen few genius guys crack some serious stuff with zero effort. May be it is the result of hardwork they put in earlier. I'll never know. But, it is truly possible to be insanely great by hardwork alone. The key is to avoid distractions and have focus. [I'll talk about focus and how I learnt its importance from one person I greatly admire and respect in a future post.]

In the end, it is one's choice to be bad, good or great. All I wanted to do was to prod people in the 'good' category to try and move to the 'great' or 'insanely great' category. Satisfaction is not a virtue sometimes :-)

The picture in the beginning is a photo of Einstein's Black Board (http://www.mhs.ox.ac.uk/blackboard/images/einstein-l.jpg)

[1] My knowledge is limited to Carnatic Music (Indian). Please replace the names by Stalwarts and Genius in the genre of music you like. 

Friday, December 05, 2008


I was riding by the new Airport Road (Bangalore, just before Hebbal flyover)- I saw an old couple trying to cross the road. I was deeply pained to see callous attitude of drivers who seem to whizz past by and not stop for the old couple. I was furious with the planning authorities for their abject lack of vision. Inarguably, India is the WORST place for pedestrians. They are the pariahs on the road - Least respected and cared. It only gets worse in Bangalore. I realized it even in my first week here (about 8 years ago). I was crossing the road by a turn and a car was approaching. I thought the driver would slow down and kept walking in my pace. In a moment I realized that the car driver had no idea to slowdown, and I had to literally jump off the path of the car to avoid getting injured. I thank God that I was physically fitter that time - I would have mutely submitted to the will of the driver and God now :-) 

As I was thinking of the plight of pedestrians in Bangalore and India in general, I realized that the word 'pedestrian' is a very interesting word. 

The word pedestrian means, 'of the foot' (ped / pes -> Latin for foot) - One who travels by foot. [One who travels by horse is equestrian where eques means horse]

This is the noun form of the word pedestrian. There is also an adjective form of the same word. Here 'pedestrian' means unimaginative or very ordinary. 

For e.g. 'The furniture on the display was pedestrian'

I was wondering if the adjective form of the word is also being applied the noun form, where status of pedestrians in India is pedestrian! [1] 

The root 'ped' is widely used - For e.g., we are called bipeds,  those who walk on two legs, assuming quadriped aliens are not  reading my blog. 

Centipede is an insect which works on 100 (centi) legs. I haven't counted, but 100 used to be a large number for ancients - So, an insect with lots of legs could be called a centipede. In India lots of ancient scriptures use the number thousand to indicate a huge number or something too large to count. For e.g., in Purusha Suktam, God is supposed to have 1000 eyes and 1000 feet [2] 

The root 'ped' also comes in millipede,  impede etc. Pedal is one that you press with your leg. Moped is one which uses a 'Motor' to assist you 'Pedal'

The word expedite means 'to prepare'  or 'to make things faster' - It is derived from to remove chain from the leg. Military 'expedition' means 'to cover areas faster by military'. 

So, next time when you see a 'ped' in an English word, you know how to take a good guess at the meaning :-)  

End Notes:
[1] I know it is an exceptionally bad use of the adjective form, but I am just trying to be imaginative

[2] Sahasra-aksha sahasra-pad [Sahasram -> Thousand, Aksha - Eyes, Pad -> Feet]